Nosh: Roasted Spiced Beet Tatin

I’m not sure why, but I woke up yesterday with a hankering for beets, and a desire to putter around in the kitchen. Sometimes, good things happen when I start to putter. Mmmm, beets. Sweet, earthy, dense, jewel-colored, beautiful. Beets!

A few days ago a friend of mine posted a link to a beet tarte tatin, which is basically beets made like an upside down cake, topped with puff pastry. Savory beets + buttery pastry? I’m in! But here’s the thing: every single recipe for a beet tarte tatin that I found online involved drowning roasted beets in butter and sugar, before baking them inside pastry that is inherently butter-gorged. It’s a delicious idea in principle, but this? Is totally unnecessary. Beets are the candy of the vegetable world. They’re grown FOR their sugar. Adding sugar to them is overkill. And how much butter do you really need to eat at dinner? Save your butter intake for the shortbreads you’re sure to encounter this holiday season.

So what’s a girl to do? We improvise.

Here’s the basic principle of a tarte tatin: arrange edibles in a pleasing design in the bottom of a cake pan, cover with puff pastry, bake, invert, eat. Got it. Now let’s get to it! REMEMBER: This is a dish made for a day you have time to putter; it will probably take about an hour and a half (maybe even closer to two hours) from start to finish, between the prep-work and the cook time. And so, with no further ado…

  • 3 good-sized beets, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into quarters, then roasted according to this recipe (so you’ll also need thyme/rosemary/cinnamon/red pepper flakes, red wine and balsamic vinegars, salt & pepper, see recipe link for specifics)
  • 1 large red onion
  •  1 smallish handful (1/4 cup, maybe?) pine nuts; walnuts (chopped) would also be nice here if you didn’t have pine nuts on hand
  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • 1/2 cup grated horseradish cheese or Swiss cheese (optional)
  • olive oil

Take the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter to defrost. Don’t leave it in the fridge to defrost; I’ve found out the hard way that it won’t defrost in there as much as you would like. Just set it on a plate on your counter top and forget about it for the next 50 minutes or so.  I’m assuming you’re using frozen puff pastry, because… No reason. Just because. Look, I make a lot of stuff from scratch. But delicate pastries like this? I’ll buy it pre-packaged, thank you very much.  Preheat the oven to 400°, because the first thing you’ll want to do is peel and roast the beets. Bear in mind that you want them to look pretty post-roast, so when you prep them for roasting, cut them into uniform-looking quarters. 

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

The fatter ends of the beets are pretty dense, so give these about 40-45 minutes to roast. Toss with herbs, spices, vinegars, salt and pepper, and oil, and put it in the oven. Turn once about halfway through. When they’re done, set them aside, but you’ll be using them fairly soon after they’re out of the oven so don’t worry about letting them cool completely. Drop the oven temperature to 350°.

While the beets are roasting, thinly slice the red onion into nice, big rounds, sprinkle them with some salt, toss them with oil, and get them in a pan over medium-low heat. These are going to caramelize, and that takes…oh, about 40-45 minutes. Once they start to soften and turn gold, then brown, you will need to pay a little attention to them. You don’t want them to get crisp, just soft and sweet, so stir them fairly often. If you notice them starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, you can do one of two things to loosen them. You can 1) add more oil, which I don’t favor, because I feel like it just fattens up the works, or 2) toss in a little veggie broth or water, which I do favor. It also helps steam them into softness, and is that much less oil you need to worry about. Eventually, the onions will turn rich and brown and soft and super-sweet, and you’ll remember that the world is indeed a beautiful place, that you can extract such gorgeous flavor from a sulfuric root vegetable.

Almost too good to be true.

Almost too good to be true.

Once the beets are cooked and the onions are caramelized, take an 8-inch cake pan and grease it with a little bit of olive oil (meaning: pour a little dime-sized spot of olive oil in the cake pan and rub it around the bottom and sides with a bit of paper towel). Start to arrange your beets in a pretty pattern. Pay attention to this detail because it will figure into the presentation later. When you invert the tatin to serve it, you’ll want the beets to be the stars of the show. Try and imagine how they’ll look, upside down and backwards. :)

It's worth it. Trust me.

It’s worth it. Trust me.

Nice, evenly-spaced circles look great and require practically no skill to arrange. That’s what I went for.

Top this with caramelized onions, and then top the onions with a sprinkling of pine nuts.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

The beets and the onions are both seasoned with salt and/or pepper, so I wouldn’t opt to add any more seasoning at this stage. Just let the foods as they’ve been cooked come together. Top the beets and onions with the sheet of puff pastry. You may need to roll the puff pastry out to get it to cover the entirety of the pan, but that’s easy to do. Just lay it on a flat surface and make a few passes over it with a rolling pin. It should readily stretch. Then you just lay it out on top of your cake pan, trim off any crazy excess corners, and tuck the pastry all around the edges of the pan.

See? Easy-peasy.

See? Easy-peasy.

Note the holes. This dough is docked, which means I poked a bunch of holes in it with a fork. Now it won’t bake up to be super-puffy, just kind of puffy, yet still totally delicious. Put it in the oven for 30 minutes, turning once half-way through. When you take it out, it should be toasted and beautiful.

Golden perfection!

Golden, slightly puffy perfection!

Let this sit for 10 minutes to give the tatin a chance to set. Now is the time to decide what to do: do you want to serve it as-is? Or do you intend to top it with cheese and broil it for a few minutes? Because…

If you want to serve it as-is, put the serving dish you plan to present it on, on top of the cake pan. If you want to top it with cheese and put it in the broiler, put a cookie sheet on top of the cake pan. Then: FLIP!

YES!

YES!

I told you that my anal-retentive attention to detail would pay off. 

Wait, let’s get another food-porn look at this, shall we?

Well, hello, beautiful.

Well, hello, beautiful.

I did choose to top this with horseradish cheese, because I think almost everything is better with horseradish cheese. But for real, it is perfectly heavenly right now. You could go cheeseless and be fine. But me?  I cheesed it up and stuck it under the broiler for a few more minutes.

Now I'm sad I don't have any more leftovers.

Now I’m sad I don’t have any more leftovers.

We ate this with a simple tossed salad with arugula, and a roasted pear and pumpkin soup (recipe coming). It was a table full of warm, wintery comfort. It wasn’t a speedy dish to put together, it was absolutely a “Sunday in the kitchen” sort of meal, but it’s surprisingly easy and oh, so, so satisfying. Enjoy! I know I did.

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Nosh: Zaalouk al Qarnabit (Cauliflower Dip)

I was looking at a friend’s photos of the lovely Thanksgiving event they attended, when I noticed a sign for something called “zaalouk al qarnabit”. Hmmm, I thought. Food I don’t know about? Zaalouk whaaa…? I am so intrigued! What on Earth could that be?

Turns out, as exotic as this sounds, it’s a cauliflower dip. If you must know, it translates as “mashed cauliflower”, which sounds like something far less shrouded in dusky mystery, but it is delicious all the same. Zaalouk al qarnabit is almost, kind of but not really, like a Moroccan-style cauliflower salsa that could be modified for any variety of things. It’s delicious as a dip, scooped up on a nice, crisp crostini, but I could also imagine it on top of some cous cous, or on top of a piece of grilled chicken (or fish, I suppose, but I’m not really a seafood fan). I need to make it again because I keep on imagining it with cinnamon added to the spice mix, but that’s for a future blog. The recipe, as written below, is the one I used.

A word to potential zaalouk al qarnabit eaters: if you do not like garlic, this dish is not for you.

  •  1 large head cauliflower
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1 heaping teaspoon tomato paste, if necessary
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup (I generally think of fresh parsley in terms of handsful, so if you would prefer to think of it this way, take one large handful) chopped parsley, divided in half
  • 4 teaspoons paprika — or a combination of 2 tsp sweet/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon or more urfa biber
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 of a preserved lemon, cut into small dice
  • Olive oil

Urfa biber is ground Turkish pepper, that is incredibly complex. It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, almost raisin-y/licorice-y/vanilla-y. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even here in central PA it’s not terribly hard to get your hands on, but if you don’t have any, toss in a little additional black pepper and maybe some healthy pinches of red pepper flakes/smoked paprika/ground fennel, if you’re feeling creative. It still won’t be quite the same, but you know. Close enough.

As for preserved lemons, what can I say? Buy some. They’ll last forever in your fridge. If you’ve got a few weeks you can make them; they’re apparently not hard to make, but they need time to sit. (FUTURE PROJECT! Stay tuned; I’ll let you know how it goes.) Apparently, if you absolutely don’t have access to preserved lemons you can peel them and saute the rind (pith and all) in some oil with salt and a touch of sugar, which will mellow the lemony bite, but the salty briny bite of preserved lemon is pretty distinct and difficult to approximate. Seriously. Buy some.

Put a nice big pot of water on the stove to boil, big enough to boil an entire head of cauliflower in. You’ll add salt to the water for the cauliflower, but let it come to a boil first. Take your tomatoes in hand. Put little X’s in the bottoms of the tomatoes and, when the unsalted water comes to a boil, dunk the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 seconds or so to loosen their skins and make them easier to peel.

Just peel along the X.

Just peel along the X. I was making a double-batch of zaalouk al qarnabit, which is why I have a ton of tomatoes in this photo.

Set them aside to cool, so they’re ready to peel, seed, and chop later. Using the same pot of water, add salt, and keep it hot for cauliflower.

One of the nice things about this dish–besides its being delicious and relatively easy to make–is that it uses nearly every part of the cauliflower. Leaves, stem, florets, everything can go in except for any gnarly bits you may trim off, so there’s virtually no waste. I found the cauliflower trimming to be the most taxing part of this zaalouk process, so take care of that first. Cut stems and florets into chunks that are roughly the same size. You want them to be a comparable consistency when you mash them, but don’t make yourself crazy. Keep leaves, stems, and florets in distinct piles.

Really. This was the hardest part.

Really. This was the hardest part.

Put the sturdy stems of the cauliflower into the boiling water first and let them soften for two or three minutes before adding the florets; they’re tougher and need a little more time in the water. Next, add the florets and let them boil until everything is nice and soft to the tooth, another 7 or 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, and chop as much garlic as you think you can stand.

Vampire-free food, right here.

Vampire-free food, right here.

When the cauliflower is soft, reserve about a half a cup of the salted water, then drain off the water. Let the cauliflower sit in the sink to drain as much as possible. Get some olive oil going in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes and garlic. Since these tomatoes are off-season and not terribly…tomato-y…I added a healthy teaspoon of tomato paste to the pan, so this food had a really solid flavor base to build on. Once the tomatoes start to break down and convert into a sauce, add the pepper and/or urfa biber, paprika(s), and cumin. Don’t add any salt yet; see if you want or need it at the end. The cauliflower is salted, and preserved lemons are really salty, so you might not need any more. Wait and see.

Cook the tomatoes and spices all together, until they’re heady and fragrant and brown and the pan looks almost dry.

Rich, brown, delicious flavors happening here.

Rich, brown, delicious flavors happening here.

While this is cooking, chop half the parsley, the preserved lemon (I picked out the seeds and used all the rest of it) and the cauliflower leaves. Chop the preserved lemons very small! They’re quite powerful. You don’t want to blast someone with a large chunk of lemon. Toss in some of that reserved cauliflower water in the bottom of the pan, just enough to make it easy to pull up the browned and luscious bits from the bottom, and give the parsley, etc., something to hang out in.

Yep. Just like that.

Yep. Just like that.

Give them a few minutes to cook together, then add the drained cauliflower and mash. And mash. And mash. Keep the heat on low, as you’re trying to cook out any remaining water. Who wants a watery dip that oozes all over everyone? Not this girl. You could probably throw everything into a food processor, but 1) the cauliflower is super-soft, so if this takes you any longer than five minutes to mash, something isn’t right, 2) you’d lose the benefit of cooking out the excess water and 3) it’s supposed to be a little textured, rather than smooth and pasty. When the cauliflower is fully integrated with the tomato/spice mixture, and it’s the consistency you want, and it’s not watery, you’re ready. Now give it a taste, and add salt if you think it’s necessary.

You can make this a day ahead of time, if necessary. Overnight in the fridge won’t hurt it at all. In fact, the flavors get to mingle that way. I liked it even more once it sat for a night.

Chop the remainder of the fresh parsley, and garnish. Sprinkle some additional paprika on top if you’re so inspired. You can also garnish with slivers of olives, or some more preserved lemon peel. Serve with crostini, or pita, or crackers. And feast.

Snack time!

Snack time!

Delicious. Vegan. Healthy. Gorgeous. Interesting. And you can pretty much rest assured that if you bring zaalouk al qarnabit to a party, you won’t have anyone else’s version of this dish to compete with. Dazzle your friends! And–more importantly–dazzle yourself. Enjoy!

EAT ME: The Food Photo Series

Hey, folks! All the photos, and all the food, I’ve worked on in relation to this blog have paid off! I just got back from hanging my pictures at Cherry Alley Cafe, a local coffee shop, as their artist of the month. Check it out!

eat me jpg

If you’re anywhere in the area, please feel free to drop on by. The food is delicious, the coffee is excellent, and it’s a totally relaxed place to spend some time. Reading. Chilling. Bring your computer and have your way with their wi-fi. It’s all good.

If you’re nowhere near the area and are reading this, chances are you’ve already seen most of the images I selected because they’re all food, mostly culled from the very blog in front of you. But nevertheless…here’s a sneak peek.

breskvice being placed

The joy of cookies. I need to start planning my Christmas baking soon.

Or there’s this one…

olives 8x10

When I say “A quarter-cup of olives”, I mean it.

But that’s it! I said good day! And go check it out if you get the chance. 

Thank you, friends, for reading. And thank you, good people of Cherry Alley Cafe, for asking me if I wanted to hang some photos. It’s an honor and a thrill.

Carrot Tops Are…Edible! And Make Great Pesto.

Did you know that? Did you? Did you huh?

I'm EDIBLE? --he seemed to say. Photo from rottentomatoes.com

I’m EDIBLE? –he seemed to say.
Photo from rottentomatoes.com

No. Not that kind of Carrot Top. (Not without a nice, long braise, anyway, and who has that kind of time?)

Thaaaat's more like it.

Thaaaat’s more like it.

This kind of carrot top. Yes way! I know, right? What I had always sort of considered a kind of…curious produce by-product is, in its own right, an overlooked potential addition to the dinner table. We got our CSA delivery this week, brimming with all sorts of vegetal goodness, and great fluffy frondy carrots.  Hmmm, I said to myself. It would be a shame if this went to waste. I wonder…. To the internets!

Totally edible. Not poisonous. The stems are a little woody, so they require a bit of work, but in general? Delicious. Kind of carroty and sweet and bright, with a little bit of a parsley bouquet that you almost taste in your nose. I came across a few recipes for pesto, but they served as inspiration more than an actual recipe, so I’m going to claim full ownership of this one.  :) Take:

  • One bunch farmer’s market/CSA carrot greens from your delicious carrot bunch, which you’ll use for dinner (if you have a smallish bunch, like mine, have some additional spinach or baby arugula on hand)
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 handful (about a half a cup) walnuts, toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 handful parsley
  • 3 slices cotija (or some other crumbly, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste. If you use cotija cheese, DO NOT USE SALT until the very end, if you need it. The cheese is very salty.
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey, for balance
  • Olive oil, as needed

First things first: Toss walnuts in a dry pan and toast them for five minutes, or until they’re fragrant and their flavors have deepened, but they’re not burnt. If you make more than you need, you’ll have extra to snack on, so don’t worry about fastidiously measuring them. Set aside to cool.

Clean the carrots and carrot tops. Chop the carrot stalks into bite-size-ish pieces.

They're so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

They’re so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

If you have mostly stalks (like I had) rather than the airy fronds, you may want to blanch the stalks for a minute or two in a pot of boiling water, just to soften them up and make them more pliable. Drain them, then assemble your goods.

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

A word about cotija cheese: Cotija is a dry, crumbly Mexican cow’s milk cheese used like parmesan. It’s crumbly. It doesn’t melt. It’s salty-salty. It’s DELICIOUS if you crumble it on top of things. And it’s got a brisk, clean taste. I chose it partly because I have it in my fridge, but I also have parmesan and pecorino romano. I wanted cotija for its clean, yet salty, taste. For the purposes of this recipe, if you don’t have cotija, use pecorino romano rather than parmesan. Parmesan’s a little too nutty. Moving on.

Zest the lemon, then juice it. Toss the zest, carrot tops, spinach or arugula if you need it, garlic, cheese, honey, half the toasted walnuts (to start), about half the parsley, and a couple of glugs of olive oil into a food processor, and grind in as much black pepper as you can stand. If you want, you can also put in a couple of shakes of crushed red pepper and some fresh-grated nutmeg. Because I did. And yum.

Let's get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Let’s get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Give that a whirl, then taste it for flavor and make requisite adjustments; is it tart vs. peppery vs. oily vs. texturally correct? What do you need?  Does it need a little more oomph because it’s too pasty, or not punchy enough? Toss in some lemon juice. Is it not rich enough? Toss in some oil. Is it too sharp? Add some more walnuts. Does it need to be “green”-er?  Parsley!  And so on. If you pay careful attention to what you want a pesto to taste like, and what’s in front of you, you can tinker until it becomes one harmonious mix of carrot greens and all other good things.

Pestolicious!

Pestolicious!

OK. So you’ve got your pesto. Now what?

Slice an onion into half-moons and caramelize the whole thing. You probably won’t eat all of the onions today, but you’ll thank me tomorrow when you’re looking for something to perk up your salad at lunch.

Cut the carrots into thin slices. We also had a small handful of baby beets from our CSA; I took the stems and leaves and separated them to cook with some kale (recipe coming soon) for a lovely side dish. As for the beautifully sweet baby beet globes, I washed and peeled them and cut them thinly, roughly as thick as the carrots.

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

Then toss them in a pan with some oil, ground fennel, and salt and pepper. Saute them for…oh…however long it takes. Fifteen minutes?  They’re both hard root vegetables, so they do take a while to saute, but they’re also tender baby versions, so exercise judgment. Taste as you see fit. Let them go for at least ten minutes, giving the pan an occasional shake. When they’re almost cooked and ready to eat, take some white balsamic vinegar and pour it in a slow drizzle once or twice around the pan. Let that cook down for another two or three minutes to create a light glaze.

Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!

Toast some bread. Put down a layer of pesto, add some beets and carrots, and top with caramelized onions, a dash more fresh parsley and another grind or two of cracked pepper and voila! You’ve got a great, summery, no-oven, open-faced sandwich that is as close to nose-to-tail cooking with vegetables as you can get.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch. Note the beet greens and kale in the background. Don’t worry, I’ll get that recipe out to you.

Served with a green salad and the braised kale and beet greens, this dinner was insanely satisfying. Each bite of the open-faced sandwich ran a wonderful gamut of flavors, from peppery and savory to sweet and brisk and cheesy-rich. Served with a side dish of bitter greens laced with an obscene amount of garlic, this is the sort of dinner that covers all the bases. Relatively easy to make, no oven, barely any refuse to clean up, delicious. What are you waiting for?

Nosh: Croatian Breskvice — Jammy Peach Cookies

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You know when you read about some recipe in a magazine and think, oh my word, what an interesting thing! And then for the life of you, you can’t remember what the name was of the thing you read, until–just a few days later, and by a few I mean maybe two–your professional baker friend posts a picture of her very own version of the thing you were just reading about? And out of the goodness of her heart sends you her very own recipe?

So. All that happened.

I forget where I first read about breskvice (BRESK-vee-tsye), the traditional Croatian cookie that looks like a boozy ersatz peach, but I was immediately smitten by the idea. Puffy, pretty, at first glance they totally resemble peaches (especially when they’re really glammed up with a clove “stem” and mint leaf…uh…”leaf”) but then when you bite into them…they still taste like peaches! Schnappsy peaches. With rum. Which is, basically, winning all around. The recipe I used was provided to me (with permission given to blog) by the equally insanely lovely and talented Diane of Cake Diane Custom Cake Studio near Dallas, and Texas people, what are you waiting for? Go make this woman a cake star.

Breskvice–not gonna lie–are kind of time consuming. Even more time-consuming: they may need to sit and dry for a day or two, so make them ahead of time. They’re occasion desserts, served at events like weddings and birthdays and holidays, where you want to let the recipients know they’re worth the effort. And you know? They really are worth the effort. Here’s the full recipe in .pdf format (which you’ll need the Adobe Acrobat reader to see, and if you don’t have this on your computer by now go here for the free download, and seriously? Welcome to the year 1996). First we’ll talk about how to make the cookies. You’ll need:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350°, and line at least two (I used three) baking sheets with baker’s parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bust out your handy-dandy stand mixer (or a hand mixer, but once you add the flour prepare for an upper-body workout) and put eggs and sugar into the mixing bowl. Beat at a reasonably medium-working-it speed for about three minutes; your objective is to incorporate air into the eggs to build a fluffy, puffy cookie. Once the eggs and sugar look airy and have turned pale yellow, stream the vegetable oil in to incorporate, then mix that all together until it’s creamy.

Did my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I'm going to petition the internets for a Kitchen-Aid.

Dig my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I’m going to petition the internets for a shiny new Kitchen-Aid.

While the eggs are aerating and mixing and creaming with the oil, combine flour, salt and baking powder in another bowl. Yes, six cups of flour. Yes, it’s a lot of cookie. But you know…go big or go home. You don’t have to sift the flour but you should whisk your dry ingredients together so they’re well combined. Keep them off to the side for a minute.  Add milk, schnapps and vanilla to the eggs and give that a minute to combine. Then add your dry ingredient mix.

REMEMBER! If you keep your stand mixer running while you add the flour, drop the speed, and only add a little bit of flour at a time. Otherwise physics will go to work and the momentum will throw the flour back out of the bowl and all over you and your countertops. Incorporate the flour using your mixer for as long as feasibly possible, but at some point you’ll probably have to finish the mix by hand. My tell-tale signs that I need to make the mix-switch are when the mixer’s blades begin pushing the dough to the top of the bowl and adding more would create dough spillage, and also when I smell the motor of my mixer start to burn (seriously, I need a new stand mixer). When you’re finished, you will find yourself holding a bowl of the stickiest, thickest dough you’ve ever faced in your life.

Glob glob glob.

It’s like quicksand. Only yummier.

The recipe advises you to lightly coat your hands in oil before rolling these into balls and putting them on your parchment-lined baking sheets. That will work if you don’t mind having your hands covered in sticky oil. It didn’t work for me. I quickly realized I needed another plan; I took two spoons and rolled the dough between them like they’re quenelles. Here’s George hand-modeling it for you.

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

The tops of the cookies are uneven, but that’s OK. Just take a small spatula or knife, dip that in some oil, and smooth out the tops of the cookies.

It's like magic or something.

It’s like magic or something.

And then? Bake! They should take 15-20 (ish) minutes total, so check them after 8 minutes or so and rotate the pans. They should be nice and puffy on top, and lightly golden on the bottom.

Yep. That's it.

Yep. That’s it.

Set aside to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, you can start to assemble the filling. For that you’ll need:

  • 1-1/2 cups ground (not chopped) walnuts
  • 2 tsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp dark rum
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 12-oz jar peach or apricot jam*
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • reserved cookie crumbs

Grind walnuts in a food processor until they’re small crumbly walnut bits, but don’t grind them into a fine meal. You still want some nubbly texture from them. Set aside.

Combine cocoa, dark rum, peach schnapps, and jam. *Here is where I deviate wildly from the printed recipe. The first time I made this I followed the recipe to a T and thought the filling was a bit too soupy, plus I had a ton of it left over that I had no use for. The second time I made them, I used a 12-oz jar of jam (as noted above), and pulled ½ cup of the jam to use as “glue” between the cookies, after it was mixed with the liquors and cocoa. The resulting final filling held together more to my liking and was exactly as much as I needed. Play around with the recipe, see what you like best. It’s your kitchen!

Anyway. Back to it.

Dig out a peach-pit sized hole in the bottom of your cookie, being careful not to poke through the outside. Reserve the crumbs.

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Reserve ½ cup jam mixture, if you’re doing this my way, and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. If you’re following the printed recipe, take the entire jam mixture and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. You’ll end up with a setup that looks a little like this:

It's like the happiest assembly line, ever.

It’s like the happiest assembly line, ever.

Fill all the cookie middles, then coat one half of your cookie sandwich with jam-glue.

Yes, just like this.

Yes, just like this.

And then sandwich the halves together. Do this again and again until you have row after row of jam-filled sandwich sugar cookies. And when you think it can’t possibly get any better?

Hold on.

Take two utility bowls and add some peach schnapps to each of them (I’d start with ½ cup in each bowl, and work from there).  Add a few drops of red food coloring to one bowl, and a few drops of yellow to the other. In a third bowl (one large enough to roll the sandwich cookies in), add a pile of super-fine (a/k/a caster) sugar. Have a large roll of paper towels nearby. Take a cookie and dip it in the yellow dye, blot with paper towels to dry. Then dip the other sort of side/third/ish in the red dye, and blot again.

Time to play!

Time to play! Sooo, maybe your fingers get a little dye-ish. Wear gloves if that worries you.

You’re supposed to be imitating the look of a peach, so be creative and allow for color gradations and the nice round red butt of a ripe peach. Once they’re blotted dry, roll them in caster sugar to create “peach fuzz” and place them on your cooling rack to dry.

The trickiest part to this recipe is not letting them get too soggy in the coloring process, but the good news is, they’ll dry. And BONUS: they even taste better after sitting for a few days, so if you do get the soggies, put them on a cooling rack, loosely covered with wax paper, in your fridge. In a day or two all will be well, and you’ll have this:

HOLY MOTHER OF ALL PEACH GOODNESS!

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You can go all out and put in a clove “stem” and mint leaf “leaf”, but you’re not eating them so…why bother?  And yes, once they’re completely dry and ready to eat, you can also freeze any leftovers you might have. I know, I’ve tried it. Wrap each one in plastic and then store them in a plastic bag for extra protection, in the freezer. Just give them a couple of hours to thaw once you take them out.

When you cut the cookie in half, the walnut filling will look sort of like a peach pit. They’re unbearably cute and delicious. While they are outstanding all on their own, I have found that the best way to enjoy them is with friends, after dinner, over a robust and hearty conversation and a nicely chilled bottle of sparkling dry rosé.

This was a very good night.

This was a very good night.

Enjoy!  Happy eating!

Nosh: Chocolate Panna Cotta with Pepita Brittle

This dessert is like a dream come true for me. Chocolate pudding? Plus candy? And it goes well with red wine? Wheeeeeee!  I love panna cotta (which translates as “cooked cream”, because…well…that’s what it is) in all its incarnations, though the following recipe basically lets you mainline chocolate so it’s got my entirely unrepentant bias. Plus it’s yummy. Here’s the recipe I’ve taken this from, and the ingredient list:

  • 2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 2 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • Vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup salted roasted pepitas
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

This is one of those dishes that goes best if all of your preparatory side work is done ahead of time. Before you get started, find your strainer, butter your ramekins, set up your parchment or silicone mat for cooling off the brittle, measure your ingredients, bust out the double-boiler to melt the chocolate. If you’re going to use the double-boiler (which I recommend, and more on that in a minute), get the water in the bottom of the pot boiling so you can start working on your chocolate.

Pot o' water + metal mixing bowl = instant double boiler.

Pot o’ water + metal mixing bowl = instant double boiler.

The recipe says to melt the chocolate in a microwave, which I think is a terrible idea. I know, I know, the microwave oven was invented when a magnetron melted a candy bar in a man’s pocket from five feet away. It should be a natural choice for melting chocolate, right?  But. But there’s a difference between putting an item directly into the path of a microwave’s magnetron and having it succumb to ambient waves. I’ve put chocolate in the microwave just a liiiiittle too long and had it seize up, going from smooth chocolately goodness to weird crumbly nightmare. It was maybe a 10-second mistake, which is so easy to make. And that? Won’t happen when you use a double-boiler. Since melted chocolate is a primary ingredient, and panna cotta is a dish that’s dependent on texture for success, why put the chocolate in the microwave where it can get gnarly? Use a double-boiler. Bonus: once the chocolate is melted it can stay on the boiler over low heat until you need it, and you won’t have to worry about re-heating…and re-heating…and re-heating.

Also, set up a cup to bloom your gelatin right away.

When you bloom gelatin, you rehydrate the gelatin granules and they swell. Use cold liquid to bloom your gelatin; the grains will absorb cold water more evenly and thus will swell more thoroughly. Hot liquids penetrate the outer coating of the gelatin grain quickly and cause it to get waterlogged, so nothing gets through to the middle of the grain. Sprinkle gelatin into the hydrating liquid– don’t dump–so the grains disperse evenly in the liquid and can evenly hydrate. Hot water and one-lump dumping are both shortcuts to getting a grainy dessert, which, you know. Boo. Who wants that? Nobody wants that. You want smooth. So pour off ¼ cup of (cold) milk into a waiting bowl and sprinkle evenly with two teaspoons of gelatin. And then let it sit for at least five minutes.

Ooh...evenly distributed and hydrate-y.

Ooh…evenly distributed and hydrate-y.

Heat the remaining 2½ cups of milk with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt, just to a simmer. If it boils you could scald the milk, which will alter the taste of your panna cotta, which you don’t want. Gently…gently…let the milk simmer. Love your desserts and treat them with tenderness, and they will love you. Once the milk mixture is simmering, add the gelatin and whisk until it’s completely incorporated with the milk. Then spread the love even further and whisk the milk mix into the melted chocolate. This is, of course, conveniently sitting in the mixing bowl you’ve used as the top part of the double-boiler and you are, of course, fusing together all the good feelings in the world into a harmonious blend of thickened hot milk and chocolate.

It's not the greatest picture, maybe. But it gets the point across.

It’s not the greatest picture, maybe. But it gets the point across.

Once the milk and chocolate are blended, strain the mixture through a sieve into another bowl, preferably one you can tidily pour out of. Yes, straining is necessary. There will in all likelihood be solids, largely from the chocolate. They’re not harmful to eat but they’re total texture killers, and I can’t stress enough that this dessert should be satiny. Pour your future panna cotta into ready, waiting, pre-greased ramekins. The recipe says to use vegetable oil. I used butter. Because butter, that’s why.

All efforts are bending toward one perfect dessert.

All efforts are bending toward one perfect dessert.

Then cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight. Until you’re ready to eat.

Next, get started on the pepita brittle. Pepitas. You know…pumpkin seeds. They are one and the same thing. I had roasted, unsalted pepitas, which I prefer because that means I control the salt, and we all know what a control freak I am. Measure out ¾ cup pepitas, then mix with cinnamon and nutmeg. I couldn’t help myself; I added a healthy shot of fresh-ground black pepper as well (no more than ¼ teaspoon) (ehhh…maybe it was ½ teaspoon…). Add salt to taste. I’m sure this would be sublime with a shot of cayenne pepper, but the people I was making this for don’t care for spicy heat so I exercised restraint in front of the fiery spices. For once.

Really, you could add anything you'd like to your pepitas. It's your kitchen.

Really, you could add anything you’d like to your pepitas. It’s your kitchen.

Set this aside and then get ready to pay attention. You’re about to make hard caramel, and you all surely know by now how I feel about working with hot sugar (click here and scroll just a bit and you can even see where I included a short video of boiling sugar, yikes). My attitude is, give hot sugar all the love and attention it needs, and don’t ever touch it with your naked skin.

Got it?

Great. So. Have your silicone mat ready as a landing pad for your hot brittle?

Ready! Bonus points if you also have an offset spatula that you've pre-rubbed with butter to help the smoothing process. But you can just use a knife. If that's what you use, just mind your knuckles.

Ready! Bonus points if you have an offset spatula, pre-rubbed with butter to help the brittle-smoothing process. But you can just use a knife. If that’s what you use, please mind your knuckles.

Yes, ready? OK. Need to take a bathroom break? Let the cat out? Get baby some water? Do it, and get back to me. Go. Sugar doesn’t wait, so once you start cooking it you need to stay there to see it through. It won’t take very long, but it’s awfully needy in that short time.

In a heavy-bottomed stainless steel sauce pan, add ¾ cup sugar and ¼ cup water, and cook it together over medium-high (maybe a touch closer to high) heat, gently swirling the pan to move the mix around. it will start to bubble, and eventually turn a lovely dark brown. Don’t. Leave. The. Room. The sugar cooking thought process will go something like this:

Hmmm. Still kind of white-ish clear. *swirl swirl*

Boy, it’s barely changed any hint of color. *swirl swirl*.

…hmmmm…

Am I doing this right? *checks recipe* *swirl*

…puts the pan down and scans through the fifteen text messages that rolled in at exactly the wrong moment…

What’s that smell? No, GOD! I only looked away for, like, thirty seconds! *ruined* *starts over* *smell of burnt sugar stays in the house for at least three more days*

End scene.

So please. Keep an eye on the sugar. And remember, it will continue to cook in your hot pan even off the heat, so add the spiced pepitas when the caramel turns, roughly, this shade of golden brown:

A pleasant medium-brown, no?

A pleasant, golden medium-brown, no?

Be forewarned: adding pepitas will make the sugar angry, so to fully incorporate them into the brittle, use a spoon with a nice long handle. Keep stirring. By the time you walk across your modest, by no means large kitchen to pour the brittle mix out onto the waiting mat, it will have turned this rich, dark brown.

See? It's like three shades darker.

See? It’s like three shades darker.

Leave it alone for at the very least 20 minutes, and longer if possible. At 20 minutes the brittle will be manageable, but still hot in places. It’s better to let it cool completely (give it 45 minutes) before cracking it into shards.

*Cleanup tip: if you can’t figure out how to get residual sugar off the sides of your saucepan without scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing…relax. Fill the pan with hot water, and let the water dissolve the sugar, like water does. Suddenly, cleanup becomes easier by a factor of a million. Full-on science-ing!

And so. You have nicely chilled ramekins. You have pepita brittle, cooled and broken into shards. Now what?

Take the panna cotta out of the fridge and let it warm up for not very long at all. Two minutes? Three? No more than five; what you’re trying to do is loosen the butter that lines the ramekins, not bring the pudding up to room temperature. Slide a knife around the edge of the panna cotta, then cover the ramekin with the dessert plate you’ll be serving it on. Flip! A beautifully silky chocolate pudding should be on the plate, ready to eat. Garnish it with a dramatic shard of pepita brittle and baby, you’ve got dessert.

Et voila!

Et voila!

Panna cotta isn’t hard, but it is kind of science-y, and you have to be ready for it. The payoff at the end, though, is entirely worth it. Silky, creamy, soft and soothing, with a contrasting bit of candy fun. And pure chocolate! This dessert officially has it all. Enjoy!

And speaking of science…SCIENCE!

Nosh: Potato Tatin

Lest I run the risk of sounding like I am a corporate shill for a publishing house or for a high-end celebrity chef, I’m only going to say this once: if you want to find new ways to fall in love with vegetables, buy anything ever written by Yotam Ottolenghi. He’s not a vegetarian but he cooks veggies like a superstar, and should I ever find myself in front of him I would fall to the ground and kiss the hem of his robe. Chef’s apron (so long as it was the beginning of his shift). Whatever. He is that good.

This recipe is taken from his book Plentywhich is easily one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever bought and is sort of a gateway drug. After buying it (family, please do take note), his other books have ended up on my Amazon wish list and you all know how I feel about the items on my Amazon wish list: Shop early, shop often. All contributions to my cookery appreciated.

So. Here is a beautiful potato tatin recipe, adapted from Plenty. Ottolenghi calls it a “surprise” tatin, I suppose because tatins are usually desserty and sweet, and this one’s surprise is its savory goodness. Nevertheless, it works. I’ve made this for us, and for guests, and it hasn’t disappointed yet. Be forewarned: this tatin does take a while, but it’s all easy work–the hardest part comes right at the end. It’s a great recipe for kitchen puttering on those long, slow Sundays. You’ll need:

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 lb unpeeled potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium-to-large onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp butter
  • oregano sprigs/thyme sprigs/rosemary, all to taste and to flavor preference
  • 1 4-oz package of goat cheese, sliced
  • 1 puff pastry sheet, thawed
  • salt/pepper/olive oil, as necessary

Preheat your oven to 275°. Take a sheet of puff pastry out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw. Wash the pint of grape tomatoes and cut them all in half. The tomatoes are going into the oven to slow-roast for 45 minutes, so toss them with some oil, salt and pepper, and arrange them on a baking sheet. Face down, face up, it doesn’t matter, since you need to stir everything about half-way through the roasting time and really, we needn’t be so fussy. Put them in, let the oven do the work for you. You can, if you’re pressed for time, use store-bought sundried tomatoes, but, two things: 1) If you’re pressed for time, don’t make this recipe and 2) When you can work with this…

Who needs the sun when you've got steady, dry oven heat?

Who needs the sun to dry tomatoes when you’ve got steady, dry oven heat?

…why settle for anything less?  Side note: should you discover, when you assemble the tatin, that you have more tomatoes than you want or need, then the worst thing that happens is you have leftover slow-roasted tomatoes. You’ll thank me when you eat them in your salad tomorrow.

Moving on.

While the tomatoes roast, prepare your potatoes and onions. Give the potatoes a good scrub, then cut them and put them in a pot of water so you can boil them. You do want them to be roughly uniform one-inch cubes (but don’t make yourself crazy when some chunks aren’t exactly an inch; it will be fine), and yes, cook them thoroughly, but not to the point of mushiness. Drain them and set aside. Slice the onion in thin slices and toss in a big saute pan with some oil and let them get beautifully soft and golden, stirring as necessary so they don’t stick and overly brown. Set aside.

As far as the timing of this recipe goes, it’s very important that all your ingredients are fully prepped before you move on to the next step. You can park this recipe here for several hours or overnight, if you’re not planning to move forward. If you are, then make sure your potatoes are boiled and drained, the tomatoes are roasted, the onions are golden. If you’re using fresh herbs, make sure they’re washed and dried. If you’re using dried herbs, have them at the ready. Because next you’ll be making the caramel, and it will not wait for you.

Take a 9-inch cake pan and brush the sides and bottom with oil, then cut a piece of baker’s parchment to fit the cake pan. Brush the top of the parchment with oil, too.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Seriously. Have this ready.

Take a small pan and add in the butter and sugar. Let both things start to soften in the heat.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

I swear, I did NOT arrange my pan this way.

And then stir stir stir and keep stirring until you get a beautiful, rich brown caramel, which we will NOT stick our fingers in and taste because we never mess with hot sugar and we want to avoid second-degree burns as much as possible.

Look! But no touch.

Look! But no touch.

Then pour this into your prepared cake pan. Get it to smooth out as evenly as possible, but bear in mind that it won’t be smooth because the caramel will start to seize as soon as it leaves the heat.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Smooth! Meh. We do what we can.

Top with herbs, then start to arrange potatoes so they sit, relatively neatly, in a tight but not necessarily super-tight formation

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Fairly even sizes. See why?

Then layer with the gorgeous roasted tomatoes, kind of sticking them in the crevasses between potatoes.

Like so!

Like so!

And then layer with onions, doing much the same thing.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean.

Laying things out and then jamming them into corners is *kind of* like how I clean. Only this yields happier results.

Add on the layer of goat cheese and then top everything with the puff pastry, rolling it long enough so it’s an even thickness that you can trim and tuck into the sides of the pan.

Nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can't fix.

If it’s slightly long, that’s nothing that a good pair of kitchen shears can’t fix.

A word about puff pastry: to dock, or not to dock? It’s a good question. If you dock it (i.e., poke the dough a bunch of times with a fork so the steam that makes the pastry rise escapes instead), it won’t puff as dramatically, but will still be delicious. If you don’t dock it, you’ll get a super-puffy crust that can be intimidating when you have to finish the tatin. It’s up to you. I’ve made it both ways, and they’re equally beneficial…though docked dough is probably easier, in the end, to work with. It’s your call.

Once the dough is placed and tucked, you can once again park this recipe in the fridge overnight; just take it out about an hour before you’re ready to cook it, so it can warm up to room temperature before it goes in the oven. If you’re ready to finish the tatin, then raise the oven temp to 400° and put it in the oven for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, rotate it in the oven (if yours cooks unevenly, like mine does), then drop the temp to 350° and let it bake for another 10 minutes. The puff pastry should be beautifully golden and (if undocked) quite puffy.

Behold, le pouf!

Behold, le pouf!

Let this settle for a few minutes, then (this is the hardest part) place a large serving plate over the top of the crust and flip the whole thing, inverting the tatin onto the serving place like it’s a great big savory upside-down cake. Pie. Tatin.

Which is really what it is.

Et voila!

Et voila!

We had friends over for dinner, and served this with parmesan roasted acorn squash, a fattoush salad and chocolate panna cotta with pepita brittle (recipe coming soon). For real. It was almost too good.

So you see, nothing in this recipe is hard, though it does take time. The hardest part is the inversion to the serving plate at the end. Work out with some wrist weights if that makes you anxious. Otherwise…enjoy!

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