Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Daring Baker Bakes A Bakewell Tart...Well?

Father's Day In Desertville

8:15 am:
And the adventure begins! It's coming close to the end of the month and I haven't yet made this month's Daring Baker Challenge. This challenge comes from Jolly Olde England, with the following secret password:

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

The sugared berries

And, so, my kitchen is starting to bubble and whir with activity. A Bakewell Tart (and I'm sticking with that story, no pudding spoons will accompany dessert tonight) is a sweet pastry crust smeared with jam and topped with frangipane, which is somewhere between an almond custard and an almond cake. They are delicious and I've never made one before. This morning's preparations include grinding almonds (check!) and making pan jam sensu Jasmine's creation. The jam is just starting to bubble away now.

Thanks to this challenge and the ongoing, and therefore, top secret Daring Cooks challenge, I found myself justifying the purchase of a kitchen scale. I'm using the very last not-quite-500-grams of my Alaska berries. I've already mourned the last of the blueberries and cranberries, but now the last of my mixed blueberries/cranberries/bear berries are in a pan with 100 grams of sugar on their way to becoming the jam layer. It's more sugar to berries than Jasmine suggests, but bear berries and slightly under-ripe cranberries? Not so sweet.

8:47 am: But wait -- my worst nightmare has come true: I am Out Of Butter. There are two or three tablespoons in the butter dish, but a search of both freezers demonstrates a complete and utter lack of back-up. How did I let this happen?? It puts a serious crimp in making the crust. And the frangipane.

(Now, truthfully, being Out Of Butter is not my worst nightmare. I have a toddler, after all. She is very capable of inspiring much, much worse nightmares. But being Out Of Butter ranks right up there in my culinary nightmare situations. I love butter.)

And so what to do? If I was certain that the gas station carried butter, I'd drive the 16 miles each way to get some, but I'm not. They only carry single-serve milk and we've learned that they don't really stock bread, so staples are not their specialty.

This is where the isolated part of the blog title really comes into play. Bleah.

The cranky crust

2:43 pm:
Back on track after a 70 mile round-trip drive to get butter. I justified that sojourn on the basis of needing gas for our car that does not go to town. It relies on a gas can that has been very much empty since before vacation. Husband fears the car won't get him home from work tomorrow if it doesn't get a gas infusion, so the gas was necessary. I thought that the second-closest gas station (where gas is close to a dollar cheaper than at the closest, price-gouging station) would have butter, but it didn't. Luckily, it is located in a "company town" with a very- well-hidden company store that welcomes non-company customers. They had butter.

So now Little Girl is napping, my crust is formed into a disk and resting in the refrigerator, the butter for the frangipane is softening in a mixing bowl, and I am going to have a belated lunch.

The not-so-cranky trimmed and crimped crust

5:21 pm:
Once again, my trusty rolling jar was dragged out to do the honors. I think that might have been the ugliest rolled crust I've ever made, but once it was in the pie plate and trimmed, it looked pretty good. I know y'all are getting tired of this, but -- surprise! -- my tart pan is in storage. So the tart's in just a plain, old pie plate.

The deep purple jam layer -- thanks, Alaska!

I spread a goodly quantity of jam without measuring and then topped it up with the frangipane mixture. I set the timer for 25 minutes so I could toss the almond slivers on before it was done, but something made me check it at 20 minutes and it was already a deep brown. I got my slivers on and gave it another five minutes until I thought the center seemed more or less set. It looks good as it cools on the counter and I've got dinner almost made, too!

The finished tart, fresh from the oven

I'm making the tart as a Father's Day treat, so I sure hope the resident father likes it. Husband's a bit unpredictable on sweets, so I've hedged my bets by planning tamales and a black bean salsa/salad for dinner. That is a sure thing. I'm not convinced that the two courses will go together, but we'll live with it. Husband does not do flan (it's another texture thing), so he won't be expecting that particular Mexican classic.

A perfect slice

8:08 pm: A success! The tart was well-received by its intended audience. It sliced beautifully and tasted just as it should: fruity and almond-y and delicious.

My dough was probably a little thinner than it should have been and I had lots of trimmings, so if I hadn't been so ham-fisted with the rolling, it might have been perfect. I would have preferred a thicker jam layer, but when I voiced that thought, Husband was very quick to squash that idea, citing his dislike of "jammy textures". It is a well-established dislike.

So, many thanks to Jasmine and Annemarie for providing the inspiration for a successful Father's Day dessert!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vegan Sorbet? Ice Cream?

My BIL and SIL are coming to visit today and they're vegan, so I always try to pull out my vegan skills and brush them off before they arrive. Dinner tonight is going to be various breads and crackers with a big green salad, hummus, and sliced grilled and raw veggies. I forgot to buy tofu, but if they bring some as vaguely requested, we'll have some pan fried tofu (dredged first in a combination of flour and nutritional yeast).

But my big experiment today is the dessert. My SIL, last I knew, was trying to avoid most processed sugars. I like to provide dessert, though, so I started thinking last night about something I could make from ingredients in the house. I settled on a sorbet. Or ice cream. Or sherbert. Something in that family, anyway.

Last night, I combined 6 ounces of slivered raw almonds and a cup or so of water in my blender and let fly. The resulting slurry went in the fridge overnight. This morning, I added a little more water and blended it a little more before passing the slurry through a sieve to make a thick almond milk. Very delicious! I had about a cup and combined that with a pound of frozen berries and cherries with just two tablespoons of sugar.

At that point, I tasted it. A little flat. I added a pinch of salt and a generous sprinkle of coriander, having learned before that coriander goes beautifully with berries. Better, but I probably should have added a squeeze of lemon juice, too.

And now ... it's in the freezer and I'm whisking it every fifteen minutes or so to keep out the big ice crystals. With any luck, it will be just the right thing for after dinner!

It's late. We've eaten all the ice cream and I forgot to take a picture. It was well received by all except LittleGirl, who did not think the bright purple stuff was sufficiently ice cream like. BIL poured maple syrup over his to satisfy his sweet tooth. I had a little on mine to perk up the flavor.

Next time: more almond milk, less fruit.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Promised Shrimp And Grits Picture

There's really no message beyond the post title.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Daring Cook: Potstickers!

I went to graduate school in St. Louis, MO. My parents have lived in New York for a long time now. For several years, I drove between St. Louis and New York for the big-deal holidays. One year, I got in from a long day of driving and my mom had made potstickers, which she has done regularly, if infrequently, most of my life. I ate a big plate-full and then sat there chatting, dipping my spoon into the bowl of dipping sauce until my mother told me to stop drinking the salt.

I love potstickers. I love potsticker dipping sauce. I love making them (like here and here).

So imagine my thrill when Jen from UseRealButter announced that the June challenge was to make potstickers by hand. As in, even the wrappers by hand, something that had, quite honestly, never occurred to me as an actual possibility. But really? It was fun and not that much more work than using pre-made wrappers in the end. Thanks, Jen!

Freedom reigned in choice of filling and I chose two: a shrimp/scallop one that was hurt by mushy scallops and the Chinese-roast-pork-style tofu previously mentioned.

I tried to time most of the prep work to coincide with LittleGirl's nap. It almost worked. I got the fillings and the dough made, and my workspace set up before she slept, but very few wrappers were rolled and filled before the inevitable sounds of waking toddler filled the house. She was excited about watching the process for a short time, but then wandered off to play with her insects. Always fun.

Once again, I pulled out my amazing rolling-jar, but unlike my experience with the strudel dough, which did not respond well to the jar, the potsticker wrappers thought my jar was just the right size. And so did I. The rolling went smoothly and I worked out most of the kinks in the pleating process about half way into the job.

They all looked pretty once they were fried, though! Gorgeous golden bottoms make ugly pleats go away. The char siu style tofu potstickers were very tasty, although they suffered from the same over-sweetness as the tofu on its own. The seafood potstickers needed to have a bit more bite to them, both in terms of flavor and texture. I've made a similar filling before, with larger chunks of shrimp and scallop and they were much, much better.

The best result of this challenge was that I now know that, no matter how isolated this foodie gets, I can always have good potstickers by making my own wrappers! Again, thanks, Jen!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Boiled Shrimp, Shrimp And Grits, Shrimp Galore!

I'm currently on vacation on North Carolina's Outer Banks with a bunch of family. It's a little more humid than my normal desert outpost, but beautiful and green with a beach, so that outweighs most of my issues with the weather.

Almost-local (from just down the coast) shrimp are everywhere and we bought three pounds yesterday and ate about two of them. First, we had cold shrimp boiled with a purchased shrimp boil. Apparently, I haven't eaten fresh (never frozen) shrimp in a really, really long time. It's not surprising as I haven't lived near a shrimp-bearing coast for a really, really long time, if ever. What was surprising was how amazingly different and better the fresh shrimp were. Texture, taste ... they had it all! (Why was this surprising? I don't know. I'd never be surprised that a fresh, local, ripe peach tasted better than a frozen peach, so why so surprised about the shrimp?)

The cold shrimp were just a peel-and-eat snack at the picnic table outside on the deck. A couple hours later, it was time for shrimp and grits, a Carolina coast specialty usually made with bacon, but adjusted for the mostly veg-and-seafood diets in the crowd. Very cheesy, buttery grits -- yum! Lovely sauteed shrimp with onions and garlic -- also yum! Pretty, too, with a layer of steamed chard between them. Unfortunately, the photos for this aren't on this computer right now, so I'll have to post a picture later. The plates at our rental weren't anything fancy, but they happened to be just the right colors for this dish.

I haven't thought about this in a long time, but as I was writing about the plate colors, I suddenly remembered the last time I can remember eating fresh shrimp. I was in Baton Rouge for a week apprenticing in a university lab and one of the professors invited me to her house for dinner. I can't remember exactly what we had, but the main course involved shrimp. (The salad course involved a dressing purchased from the back door of their favorite bar. It was an odd evening.)

This couple collects dishes from a particular pottery in the Czech Republic. They've visited the site and have at least fifty different patterns, all on display on floor-to-ceiling plate rails in the dining room. For most of the patterns, they just have two place settings, but also have a bunch of complete services. And the point of this story? They choose their pattern every night to match the colors of the meal, so we had carefully chosen plates to match the shrimp. Just like we had with our super-fancy Corelle plates!