Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Shaken And Stirred - Easy Skillet Spinach Mushroom Frittata with Chevre






One of the many unique features of living in San Francisco that makes it seem like an earthly paradise is its dramatic and  visually stunning topography. Every tourist who has ever snapped a picture with her iPhone goes home with glorious shots which Ansel Adams would have proudly displayed; though, of course, they would have done it with devices & techniques that would have his light meter spinning in its grave: like... sticking a cellphone out of the rental car's sunroof while driving down the coastal highway and blindly snapping away.
Don't scoff, you know you've done it too.

Why can these untutored, landlocked philistines from the center of the continent take such amazing photos? Because the S.F. Bay Area is just that beautiful! No photographic artistry is required. I won't subject you to long descriptive passages of its majestic hills and sparkling bay views; the wispy finger-like projections of mist that slowly enshroud the unsuspecting city in a veil of fog and mystery on a warm summer day or the rows of houses, standing like lines of colorful dominoes, impossibly perched on top of the steepest slopes. No, I won't try. I couldn't do it justice. But Nature must have its little jokes and all of this topographical splendor comes at a price: earthquakes.

The few times a native New Yorker (like me ) thinks about the earth moving she (or he) associates it with incredible lovemaking. As the lyric in the Roberta Flack song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" suggests: "...the first time ever I lay with you, I felt the earth move in my head ...", the earth moving should be thought of metaphorically in association with that beautiful feeling of romantic euphoria and sexual ecstasy. Not so when you leave the terra firma of the northeast and head out to the wild west where the ground bucks like a bad-tempered bronco at a rodeo. When people say they felt the earth move in the bay area, they are being anything but poetic.

Of course, after years of living in earthquake country, I am now a grizzled old veteran of non-erotically induced earth movements. I've felt the occasional jolt over the years but I never immediately recognized it as an earthquake. After each one, it has always taken me some time to actually attribute the tremors to its source because each event was so brief and unassuming that I never became alarmed. In my poor prosaic mind, so firmly grounded (pardon the pun) in east coast sensibilities, you should reflexively register fear any time the ground beneath your feet moves and you're not on a treadmill at the gym. It's an autonomic, visceral reaction to real danger, right? But as I said, I faced these aforementioned earth tremors blithely; and even thought of them as an exciting part of SF living: it gives you something to talk about with your hairdresser that day other than your split ends. Until today......

At 4:42 am this morning, I was startled into wakefulness by my bed doing its best imitation of a wine cork being tossed around in the Pacific Ocean. As I clutched the bedcovers and rode the wave for 7 or 8 seconds (though it seemed a lot longer), I heard the pocket door that partitions my bedroom from the rest of the master suite rattle like skeletons in a presidential candidate's closet. Needless to say, I instantly recognized this experience for what it really was: an honest-to-goodness, make-no-mistake-about-it, bone-rattling earthquake. Although for half of a mad second (my denial machine running full-throttle), I did think it could be the harbinger of the demonic possession of my soul. After all, I am a fanciful, somewhat neurotic, former catholic schoolgirl turned atheist who being all alone in the house and, it being a week before Easter, rented the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" where the heroine's unfortunate dilemma began in precisely the same bed-shaking manner. Enough said.

The point, which I have finally gotten around to, is that I was scared out of my wits (hence the demonic possession delusion), hobbled out of bed with my bad right knee (don't ask) and did what every modern, enlightened, concerned citizen does in the wake of such an incident... turned on the local news station so some talking head in a bad suit could confirm the obvious. Silly, isn't it? But it has become a reflexive response to all disasters, real or perceived.
Did I try to take cover under a doorway or heavy piece of furniture? Check the boiler room or stove for leaks? Survey all or any damage? No, instead I sat quietly trembling in my dressing room and watched some poor KRON anchor-schnook (with Walter Konchrite aspirations who would be lucky to anchor the evening news for some NBC affiliate in Peoria) tell me what I already knew: an earthquake had hit the SF bay area. Of course, he informed me that it registered as a minor 4.2 quake on the Hayward Fault with its epicenter somewhere east of the bay; something I myself could not possibly confirm having lost my Richter scale during the move into our new home.

Feeling accomplished and secure in the knowledge that this thing that jolted me out of my bed was not the arrival of Armageddon , I had a brief look around. When I was satisfied that nothing was damaged (in fact, surprisingly, nothing had even been disturbed), I hobbled back to my bed, put on my blinders and earplugs and passed out until mid-morning.

Somehow when I finally arose later that morning to a bright sunny day, instead of booking the next flight out of town, I awoke hungry and felt inspired to create a mini-quake of my own for breakfast. (Welcome to the left-coast where reality is just an alternate universe and everything always seems better in the light of a beautiful dawn. Must be something in the water.)

What better way to commemorate my first true ground-shaking San Francisco experience than with a post-earthquake repast that combines the bounty of the bay area's summer produce with a cooking technique that celebrates the spirit of that quintessentially Californian force of nature that makes us shake, rattle and roll: the Hayward Fault? Can you guess what I wanted for breakfast?.... Scrambled eggs, of course! As an ode to my scrambled brains. But in true San Francisco fashion, we will gussy the eggs up a bit with seasonal local produce to give them some gourmet cache while still keeping them humble and accessible to all who can wield a cast-iron skillet with a nod to France who offers grand cuisine with liberteegalite and fraternite (and many earth movements of the more carnal variety), I offer you: 


A spinach, shiitake mushroom, shallots and truffled chevre 4 egg frittata to be exact.





Uber-easy to make and also relatively cost efficient. Can feed four people. I myself only ate 1/4 of this and shall enjoy it for breakfast tomorrow, too. Frittatas reheat magnificently in the microwave without becoming rubbery. The frittata is the less precious cousin of the French omelette. In fact, a frittata is heartier, healthier and more satisfying than its famous cousin. As a cook, you have more margin for error. I actually prefer frittatas, I can load them up more, they are the lazy woman's open-face omelette... Eggs qua eggs have never been my favorite protein. I have never fried an egg, nor eaten a fried egg. I have only just learned to eat boiled eggs (in Nicoise salads drowning in aioli), yet I do enjoy eggs scrambled or baked as custards, something about the integrated whole of the egg appeals to me.. its transcendence from embryo to luscious meal is alchemical. Making true omelettes is an active meditation. To keep the omelette thin and crepe-like is a science more than an art. You have the heat low, keep the curds stirring slowly, evenly and constantly until the heat slowly denatures and coagulates the protein. It takes a while. Too high a heat without enough motion and the skin will wrinkle and brown.. If you like fluffier more American-style omelets, you can start out with a higher heat, stir faster to incorporate more air, then lower the heat to avoid scorching. A scorched omelette has gotten many a budding apprentice cook hit with a hot frying pan in ye olde French restaurants of yore... probably still does.

Frittatas, on the other hand, are more forgiving, less exacting. The word “frittata,” derives from the Italian verb “friggere,” or “to fry,” connoting the simplicity and pleasures of cucina povera—the “humble cuisine” that most of us innately embrace. Egg is the base. With its high protein and mineral content, easy availability and low cost, eggs are an essential part of the diet almost everywhere in the world. From China and Southeast Asia to to Japan to India and Iran, up to the Maghreb, Spain, France, and Italy some kind of frittata-like dish is prepared. Surprisingly, in Italy, it’s rare to find a restaurant that offers frittata on its menu; it’s the quintessential home food. I never found one... in fact, when I traveled through the country from Alba all the way down to Capri and back again, breakfast was invariably coffee and pastries, little bit of fruit. Our super-sized omelettes may have served as dinner or lunch but never breakfast.

Naturally, the tastiest frittate are made with the best eggs—farm fresh with luscious, orange yolks. City-living doesn't allow for it, sadly. But, of course, eggs are just the beginning; the most distinctive aspect of the Italian frittata compared to similar preparations is the creative and imaginative use of all kinds of ingredients.  The ingredients of an omelette are gently placed into the beaten eggs as they are cooking in the pan. In a frittata, the eggs and ingredients are mixed together, then cooked more slowly. Also, the final shapes are different; an omelette is usually thinner, carefully folded around its ingredients; where a frittata is thicker. filled to the bursting  with goodies like a broken pinata.  There’s an Italian expression: “hai fatto una frittata,”which loosely translated means: you’ve made quite a mess—or a sequence of mistakes.  That expression no doubt comes from the fact that it often happens that a frittata is made on the spur of the moment: a last-minute decision made when you don’t have the time to go grocery shopping and the refrigerator seems bare. But all those odds and ends and leftovers in your fridge can make for a great frittata. In fact, in Italy, sometimes before serving lunch or dinner, a small portion of the meal is purposely put aside for a frittata the next day making delicious frittate with leftover pasta or rice (with or without sauce or seasoning). Also, a frittata is a perfect way to entice children into eating vegetables or conversely teach people like me who are not overly fond of eggs to eat eggs... To me, eggs are merely the vehicle for the luscious filling. It can be tastier hours later, eaten at room temperature, or enjoyed the next day, with a side of arugula. When stored in the fridge, be sure to wrap your frittata in plastic wrap and then put your frittata in an airtight plastic container, as water and humidity can ruin the taste. Remember: any greens or veggies you add into the frittata must first be sautéed, in order to eliminate most of their water. As for whether to use butter or extra-virgin olive oil—I use both - besides just personal preference, you should also consider which of those tastes marries best with the other ingredients you’re using in the dish. I used what I had on hand, but if I had my druthers, I would have added lovely red peppers to this dish as another aromatic. This will serve four people admirably, especially with a simply dressed tossed salad of arugula. You can easily double the ingredients, however, and use the same pan.


Easy Skillet Spinach Mushroom Frittata with Chevre







Note: 
This recipe requires 1 well-seasoned 9" or 10" cast-iron skillet for the eggs, a pre-heated oven, 35 minutes of cooking time and, ideally, room temperature ingredients.  If you don't have a high quality cast-iron skillet, run out to your nearest William Sonoma (another S.F. classic) and buy one. Le Creuset is my favorite. They last a lifetime, come in the sweetest colors, and are indispensable to the home cook.

Don't try to substitute the cast-iron skillet with a stainless steel or aluminum saute pan. Their bottoms and sides are not thick enough to form the desired texture of the crust. Instead, try using a well-oiled (or buttered) 9" round glass or ceramic baking dish. The spinach mixture will still need to be sauteed in a pan and then placed in your baking dish with the egg custard mixture before baking. 




Ingredients



For the custard:

  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten, but white and yolk fully incorporated
  • 1/2 cup half & half or heavy cream
  • 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 4 leaves of fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
  • 2 sprigs of fresh Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
  • 4 oz. of chevre (mine was truffled) or  lovely ricotta, or freshly grated aged cheddar, gruyere or fontina (use a good melting cheese)
  • salt and  pepper to taste
For the spinach mixture:
  • 6 oz. of baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 shallots, finely sliced
  • 1/4 lb of shiitake mushrooms (substitute any mushroom you like)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter (preferably a european-style butter with a higher fat content. I like Kerrygold brand - it's an Irish butter made from grass-fed cows)
  • salt and pepper to taste
For the crust:
  • 1 La Brea Rosemary Olive Oil boule , brushed lightly with extra-virgin olive oil
    ( La Brea is a bakery in Los Angeles whose breads are shipped unbaked to a few select Bay Area markets like Whole Foods and then freshly baked on site before being sold. Thanks to my friend, Nicole, for introducing me to their boule. Our local Acme Bread's Levain Walnut or Rosemary Foccaccia is also a fab substitute. You can use any other brand or flavor of dense, crusty bread.)


Directions:


Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Heat skillet on medium high heat, when hot, add 2 Tbs. olive oil & 1 tsp. of butter. When butter melts, lower heat to medium then add a couple of grinds of salt( or 1/8 tsp.) followed by the mushrooms. Saute until mushrooms soften, they will absorb the oil, but add more as needed, when mushrooms soften add shallots until shallots are translucent. Add spinach to mixture, stirring well to incorporate the spinach with the aromatics,  feel free to add a little extra butter or even a bit of stock, if the spinach mixture appears dry before it fully wilts. Cook spinach until completely wilted, all the moisture has just evaporated out of the mixture. Turn heat to very low; season lightly with salt and pepper, tasting to insure proper flavor. If the mixture still appears watery after the spinach is wilted, blot out any excess liquid with a paper towel.

Combine the ingredients (except the cheese & herbs) for the custard in a large stainless steel bowl with a wire whisk, incorporating one element at a time. Whip the egg mixture up vigorously until the mixture appears light & foamy then gently fold the cheese, basil and parsley into the custard with a spatula, careful not to deflate the foam.

Add the remaining butter to the spinach mixture in the skillet; swirling it in to ensure that the entire pan is completely buttered. Now add the custard to the warm spinach mixture, stirring very lightly to evenly distribute it in the pan. Place skillet in the center rack of the preheated oven, turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees. Bake the eggs for 25-30 minutes until puffy and golden. The center should still be slightly quivering when ready. When done, remove eggs from oven, let stand for 5 minutes.

When eggs have 5-7 minutes remaining for cooking time, quickly place bread directly on rack in oven and heat until eggs are done and bread is hot & crusty.

While frittata is resting, heat 4 plates in the microwave for 1 minute.

While plates are heating, slice bread in half at its equator (horizontally) if you are using a boule. Remove some of the bread from the center of the loaf, leaving the edges intact,  cut each half vertically into half again. Place a slice of bread on each warm plate. Cut the quiche into four wedges; carefully nestle each wedge into the warm bread, garnish with extra basil. Or if you don't have a boule, just toast up nice thick slices of bread. 

Serve the frittata with a side of sliced seasonal fruit for breakfast, or a green salad for lunch.

Serves four normal civilians or two hungry earthquake survivors.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Jug of Wine, A Conger of the Rising Sun & Thou: Dali Does Food Porn



Need a few novel ideas for your Valentine Day's feast to impress your beloved's discriminating palate? Have a hedonist you'd like to wine and dine? I've got just the tome for you - a voluptuary's guide to culinary delight; replete with recipes and paintings from the man who turned lobsters into telephone receivers, pomegranates into mauling dreamtigers ravishing sleeping naked ladies, and bread into a paraphilia (explaining the use of bread in his paintings thusly: "Bread has always been one of the oldest subjects of fetishism and obsession in my work, the first and the one to which I have remained the most faithful. I painted the same subject 19 years ago. By making a very careful comparison of the two pictures, everyone can study all the history of painting right there, from the linear charm of primitivism to stereoscopic hyper-aestheticism." ).
Crack open the cover of Les Diners De Gala, Taschen's rerelease of Salvador Dali's 1973 cookbook, and the first thing you will read on the inside flap of the jacket, as you are greeted by his Basket of Bread (painted in 1945), is Dali's declaration: "At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since. "

Fortunately for us, six decades after his 6th birthday, he decided to indulge his inner gastronomist. This reprint features 136 recipes over 12 chapters, all specially illustrated with erotic etchings and paintings by Dalí. Food and surrealism make for scintillating pillowtalk and the food porn in this book abounds. The opulent dinner parties thrown by Salvador Dalí and his wife and muse, Gala, were the stuff of legend. I watched a snippet of one on Youtube. The hostess is dressed as a unicorn, reclining on a red velvet bed. She's bottle-feeding a lion cub. The host is wearing ear flaps, life-size paper replicas of his head serve as ear muffs. Monkeys dangle from the ballroom's coffered ceilings. It is a benefit for refugee artists. Attended by Hollywood elite stars like Bob Hope, in 1941. Guests are served fish plated inside satin slippers,  an engraved cloche is lifted  by Bob Hope to reveal a silver platter swarming with live frogs, springing into action. Les Diners de Gala shares some of the delicacies that adorned the tables of these notorious gatherings. It is very much a magic carpet ride to the glamorous past that the Dalis inhabited. Not all the recipes are personal ones, some were contributed by the great chefs of the day. Taschen only just published its handsome facsimile edition this fall.  I myself received a copy of the new edition via Santa this past Christmas. Named for Dali's wife, also a legendary gourmande, it must be one of the most esoteric cookbooks ever created, certainly the most esoteric one I've ever seen - a bit like Escoffier on acid. Signed copies of the original recently fetched as much as $25,000.  Let me attempt to describe what you'll encounter within its covers:

An index is presented alongside an unctuously melting clock being sliced by a cheese knife. The index boasts twelve chapters divided by course with titles promising everything from autumnal cannibalism (eggs, seafood) to Lilliputian malaise (first courses) to sodomies (meats) to atavistic desoxyribonucleics (veggies) to a chapter entitled "I eat Gala"  devoted to aphrodisiacs,  full of all manner of enticements because all good cooks should be dab hands at searing sex as well as scallops.
Dali's Les Diners De Gala's Index
The index is followed by what the book asserts is Dalinian Gastro Aesthetics "From the Positive Materialism of the 'Physiology of taste of Brillat-Savarin' to the Spirito-Mystic-Monarchic, Catholic, Apostolic, Romanism of a Gastronomical Theology.
It is Epicureanism elevated to a religion, worshipping the God of the palate.  Whilst I am not entirely sure Epicurus would fully embrace his Dionysian excess, Dalí peppers his recipes with wily aphorisms that the great philosopher might espouse like “The jaw is our best tool to grasp philosophical knowledge. Disgust is the ever present watchman of my table, sternly overseeing my meals, obliging me to choose my food with caution"

Because...

" I am exalted by all that is edible. Everything begins in the mouth before going elsewhere; with the nerves I hold visceral impulses to be the supreme indicator. My enlightenment is born and propagated through my guts. The jaws of my mind are in perpetual motion."
And who are we to doubt his wisdom of all things roasted, braised, boiled , masticated and digested? Food like aesthetics is imbued with morality and philosophy here: "I only like to eat what has a clear and intelligible form. If I hate that detestable degrading vegetable called spinach it is because it is shapeless, like Liberty.“The opposite of shapeless spinach is armour. I love eating suits of arms, in fact, I love all shellfish ...I love eating all shellfish," Dalí declares, because "only a battle to peel makes it vulnerable to the conquest of our palate." Woodcock flambéed in strong alcohol, and "served in its own excrements," as prepared in fine Parisian restaurants, "will always remain for me ... the most delicate symbol of true civilization." Take that Marcus Aurelius!
After the introduction to Dalinetics, a warning is issued,
“Les diners de Gala is uniquely devoted to the pleasures of taste … If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive, and far too impertinent for you.”—Salvador Dalí





His disclaimer doesn't exaggerate. This book is not for everybody - only the sexy people: equal opportunity omnivores who enjoy wrapping exoticism with decadence in layers of audacity, cream, and puff pastry. Vegans and ascetics need not apply. All of it composed with a spicy tongue en croute planted firmly in your cheek.

For example, in the introduction to the eggs and seafood section, forbiddingly titled "les cannibalismes de la-automne" Dali informs us, "The Crayfish of Paracelus has to be served along with the heads or torsos of small hot-blooded martyrs , as a gesture of homage to Gilles de Rais (Giles of Retz) whose most delightful ejaculations were brought about by gazing at the faces of his smooth-cheeked and innocent beheaded little ones, the virginal purity of whom could only have been compared to that of his former comrade-at-arms, the Maid of Orleans." Appetizing, no?

Or his intro to the first course which he cheekily titles "les supremes de malaise lilliputiens" where he warns, "Here is the supergelatinous, the flabby, the supersoft, the viscous, the dish desrving a persistent memory, and which is capable of getting hypocritically at your imperialistic stomach the way a real Chinese would do."

In the foreword to the meats chapter (les entre-plats sodomises), Dalí writes, "Take a walk among the fossil meats of the Diplodocus," referring to the long-necked dinosaur. "You will not be permitted to eat rocks, however, I will let you devour—on certain Sundays—some 'icebergs.'"






These recipes should inspire avid homecooks to rally round with tongs and pans in their hot frenzied little hands; although some dishes may prove challenging to the average cook's skills, and a well-stocked pantry is a must. This is old school Continental cuisine, whose disciples were raised in temples with Larousse Gastronomique as Holy Scripture. Many dishes were contributed and served by Michelin-starred French chefs from such stellar Paris restaurants of yesteryear as Lasserre, La Tour d’Argent, Maxim’s, and Le Train Bleu. They remain on select Parisian menus. Good taste, however voluptuous, has no expiration date. In making this rare book available to a wide audience, TASCHEN introduces a masterful artwork and a practical cookbook combining  to form a polymorphously sensual adventure for the daring modern producer of comestibles. But even if you have no interest in jellying a codfish or dishing up "A Bush Of Crayfish In Viking Herbs", it makes for a magnificent display on your living room coffeetable.
For Salvador Dalí, food was an endless buffet of symbols and double entendre, a visceral metaphor for pleasure and pain, sex, and politics. “Beauty will be edible,” he once said. “Or will not be at all.” From his famous Lobster Telephone (1936) to his Self-portrait with Grilled Bacon (1941) and Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops in Equilibrium upon Her Shoulder (1934), food featured prominently in much of Dalí’s art, even if not always in its most appetizing light.





As an artist, Dalí's dietary fetishes - lobsters, eggs, sea urchins- were incorporated into many of his Surrealist paintings. Dali was so obsessed with the symbolic value of the intrauterine that once he built a house and gaily festooned its roof with huge, white eggs as balustrades. Even the melting clock faces in his The Persistence of Memory (1931) were modeled on an oozing wheel of Camembert cheese. Bread, above all, stuffed the artist's imagination. Baguettes promenaded in his paintings along with Pan Catalan and “sodomized” Portuguese bread crumbs. In Paris, he befriended the famed Parisian boulanger Lionel Poilâne and commissioned a birdcage, a chandelier, eventually an entire set of bedroom furniture baked out of bread. “What man cannot do,” goes another Dalí koan, “bread can.”
Forever a foodie and science junkie, he even found inspiration in the humble cauliflower. Dalí once filled up a white Rolls Royce Phantom II with over 1000 lbs. of cauliflower to study it and drove it from Spain to Paris in December 1955. He later told an audience of 2,000, that he felt compelled to do it because “everything ends up in the cauliflower!" and how fascinated he was by their "logarithmic curve”. 


Flip through the pages of Les Diner de Gala and prepare to be mesmerized. Crayfish towers are topped with the torso of Joan of Arc, her amputated arms gushing blood, she trods upon the decapitated heads and bodies of her fellow martyrs. Chickens are trussed with barbed wire. A swan, its head studded with human teeth, is served on a pastry dish. Dalí is there, too, pictured at the swank Parisian restaurant Maxim's, wearing a cranberry crush of a velvet dinner jacket, holding a golden scepter, very much the Roman emperor surrounded by a Rabelaisian feast of his own devising. The twirl of his mustache defying every known law of gravity.






The recipes themselves, along with their illustrations, are designed to delight, amuse, confound and even repulse: recipes for lamb's brains, tequila and minced almonds mushed into avocado rye toast; tuna, caviar, and lamb shoulder slathered in béchamel, ox snouts sniffing and simmering in puffed pastry shells;  a prawn parfait with a crustacean draped atop a frozen custardy confection staring menacingly at the diner; illustrations include  a disembodied head with biscuits for hair and a fringe made of a jar of jam sits on a platter alongside a large cube of blue cheese - the sides of which show rabble-rousers in front of a mountain; a desert scene in which a telephone receiver is suspended on a twig over a melting plate holding two fried eggs and a razor blade; a man balancing a peanut (or is it a peach slice? ) on his enormous engorged member whilst tiptoeing atop the snout of an understandably irate crocodile.

Dalí's Surrealist cuisine is a bit like his Surrealist art: a baroque devotee's wet dream. In a recipe for Steamed and Boiled Larks, Dalí with great elan and more than a touch of whimsy advises the cook to let the pot of artichoke hearts, marrow-bones and songbirds "boil joyfully." But the outlandish presentations and self-parodying instructions conceal tremendous technique standing firm on a solid foundation of a culinary artistic prowess. That's evident in Dalí's more accessible recipe - Cytherean meatballs, tomato pie, beet salad (composed "according to Alexandre Dumas"), roast duckling, champagne sorbet, celery au gratin or even his straightforward lamb roast and many more truly classic fish, fowl, mollusk, meat and viand dishes—which are full of anachronistic charm but are fairly easy to pull off. These are all first and foremost comestibles - the exotic main ingredients and erotic illustrations, notwithstanding.





Frog Pasties


  • 2 tbsp of butter
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch parsley sprigs 
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  •  36 small frogs legs 
  • 4 tbsp of flour 
  • 2 egg yolks 
  • 1 egg white 
  • 255 g cream cheese shortening 
  • 255 ml yogurt 
  • 1 container heavy cream 
  • 1 bunch chives, chopped 
  • 1 tbsp pepper (unground) 
  • salt 



 In the butter, sauté the finely chopped shallot and parsley for five minutes. Then add the frogs legs as well as the garlic. Add salt and pepper, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Prepare a sauce by whipping the heavy cream and mixing into the yogurt, chopped chives, the pepper and salt. Set aside and chill. 


 In a salad bowl, mix flour with egg yolks and cream cheese. Add the boned frogs legs. Since they are now cold, you just have to seize them with your fingers, and pull along the bones to get the flesh sliding down. Mix everything very well, add salt and pepper. 


 Beat up the white of an egg into a very firm snow before adding it to the mixture, mixing with a wooden spoon not turning too vigorously. Into the hot shortening, spoon out the mixture. As soon as the pasties get golden, take them out with a skimmer. Serve very hot. Serve at the same time the heavy cream that you have whipped up and mixed with the yogurt, the chopped chives, the pepper and the salt. This sauce must be served chilled.




*****



Conger of the Rising Sun


  • 6 slices of conger eel
  • 6 slices of fatty bacon
  • 1 caul (casing which will be stuffed)
  • 12 small lettuce leaves
  • 12 oz raw soya beans (or canned soya)
  • 6 teaspoons of heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 tablespoon of flour
  • 1 teaspoon of curry powder Cayenne pepper


First of all, let us prepare the slices of conger eel by removing the skin and the central bone, one by one. Then place the pieces on a strip of bacon (cut to match the size of the piece of eel) and each of these on to a much larger piece of the caul. Add salt and pepper, then, on each piece of the eel, put a leaf of lettuce, on top of which you add 2 oz of soya beans (raw soya is the best, but canned soya will do). Sprinkle then with curry powder, salt, pepper. Pour a teaspoon of heavy cream over it, cover with a second leaf of lettuce and tuck in the caul on the four sides to wrap up all the ingredients of this recipe.

Using a very large skillet cook the fish slices on top of the range, simmering slowly, in a tablespoon of butter for 40 minutes. Be sure to go about it gently. Remove the slices and keep them warm; in the skillet, add the flour. Do not let it get brown; combine with the heavy cream and curry, taste for seasoning. Let it all boil for a little while and pour over the slices of the conger eel.



*****




Top Round “Eros”
  • 1 tablespoon shortening
  • 1 Toulouse sausage
  • 2 lbs top round
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 4 anchovies
  • 2 onions sliced
  • 6 tomatoes seeded and cut into pieces
  • 2 red peppers
  • 6 stalks celery
  • 3 quarts water

First buy the sausage then hand it over to your butcher so that he can cut a piece of top round that will wrap around it. Fry the sausage in the shortening for about 10 minutes. Brush the one side of the top round with mustard; put the anchovies on top, then the sausage, roll, tie up with string.
In a Dutch oven, brown the meat in shortening. When the meat turns golden, replace it with the onions, and when they are golden, add the tomatoes as well as the garlic and red peppers.
Cover after a while. The tomatoes will produce a juice and start boiling; put the meat back and salt carefully (because of the anchovies).
Simmer gently for 1 ½ hours.
Pare the celery stalks, cut off the green parts and tips of leaves, peel the root.
Cut it in half and wash thoroughly, especially between the leaves.
Bring salted water to a boil and cook the celery for 15 minutes. Cool under running water. After half an hour, place the celery around the top round.
It will cook in the meat juice for one hour.



See? Perfectly clear, concise instructions.


Dalí often spoke of wanting to consume the things he loved—from Antoni Gaudí's architecture to his wife's beautiful face. Perhaps this is why he held gastronomy in such high regard: it is are meant to be ingested, digested, nourishing to body and spirit. “It does not seem enough to devour things with our eyes,” he once wrote. “Our anxiety to join actively and effectively in their existence brings us to want to eat them.”
Sadly, I have not yet attempted to follow one of the recipes. I had originally intended to follow a few recipes to the letter as my due diligence for this column; ill-health has discouraged me from consuming anything much heartier than tom kha gai (Thai chicken coconut soup), so we shall have a second installment which will include a full Gala Dali menu cooked, photo-documented and enjoyed by yours truly... in the interim, here are a few more pages of the book, replete with table of contents and recipes for you to feast your eyes upon. Need a recipe for Peacock a la Imperiale Dressed and Surrounded By Its Court? Eel Pate as a starter?  Maybe add a simple composed salad a la Alexandre Dumas, not unlike a classic Nicoise Salad with its beets, potatoes and canned tuna before you round off the meal and serve a dessert of Toffee and Pinecones?  You're in luck! I created a little video for your viewing pleasure.


Click play to view the complete table of contents,
a few additional recipes, and Dali's accompanying graphics.
For better viewing choose fullscreen mode:




And just for fun... 







Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ossobuco: The Italian Song of Winter





There are few things more comforting on a raw winter day than the preparation of a hearty braised dish: the apartment toasty from hours of slow-cooking, the air redolent with the fragrance of herbs and aromatics being released from the confines of a pot out into the atmosphere. Such savory delight can never be contained to one room, it wafts from the kitchen outward, perfuming every room in your home, reaching further still, until it permeates your pores and baptizes your soul singing the Italian song of winter.

Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, I assure you I am not exaggerating. Nothing immediately relieves our sense of deprivation as the bite of something delectable; the lion of contentment purring like a kitten, especially when we have been anticipating our first taste of that something delectable for several hours. It becomes all the more rewarding when our own hands are the creators of such gustatory satisfaction.

Ossobuco is arguably one of the best known Italian words in the world.  Osso is Italian for bone. Buco means hole. Granted, "Bonehole" doesn't immediately conjure up imagery of an appetizing nature, but once you've tried the dish, you'll have a sense-memory to draw from that will give the word delectable connotations forever afterward.  Ossobuco served with gremolata alla milanese is braised veal shank; more specifically, the middle part of the hind shank, which has lots of tender meat around the marrow bone; the fore shank doesn’t.

Ossobuco emigrated from Italy with migrants, possibly, but not necessarily, with those coming from Lombardy, its origin. The recipe, at least in the 19th century and thereafter, has become well-known and is pan-Italian, so even emigrants from the South of Italy could have brought it with them as they crossed country borders. Its low cost and unfussy preparation made it a popular dish, in and out of restaurants - an ideal dish for families. Served with risotto or polenta, ossobuco made and makes a delicious and satisfying meal.

It was originally a seasonal dish, to be cooked in winter time on charcoal or wood stoves, which in the past, also had the function of warming the household. A notable contribution to the popularity of Ossobuco was the inclusion of its recipe in famous collections published outside Italy. It was featured in France, for example, in the famous Art Culinaire Moderne by Henri-Paul Pellaprat , since its first edition in 1935; as well as in England in Elizabeth David’s book Italian Food at the beginning of the 1950s.

Food historians in Milan claim Ossobuco was born there. Its City Council, in 2007, solemnly declared the oss (or òs) buss, ossobuco in Milanese dialect, as part of the De.Co. (Denominazioni Comunali in Italian, or “community denominations”), which is an official public acknowledgement that a certain dish or product belongs to a certain territory. When one considers that Italy was not a "united" cohesive country until the late-mid 19th Century, one can understand why each region remains a bit touchy about safeguarding its own cuisine. There is no dispute that Ossobuco originated in Lombardy. No one, however, can say exactly when. The use of marrowbones and veal shanks was common in medieval cuisine but there is no evidence of the presence of ossobuco (alla milanese) as a dish, at that time.

Allegedly, during The Illuminist Revolution, lemon – in this case the rind used in the gremolata – radically replaced more expensive spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. The dish didn’t originally include tomatoes, which only became widely used at the end of the 18th century. Some historians believe that Ossobuco has a very recent history, since it doesn’t appear in the popular cookbooks of the 19th century, such as La Vera Cucina Lombarda (The True Lombard Cuisine, a sort of Joy of Cooking for Italian housewives) published in 1890 by an unknown author. American food writer Clifford Wright believes that Ossobuco was likely created in some osteria – the small, family-ran eateries catering to neighborhoods in Milan. In 1891, the recipe was included by Pellegrino Artusi in his La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, the first collection of Italian national cuisine ever published, a celebration of both home cooking and well known dishes from all over Italy.



The classic recipe starts off by making a simple soffritto of chopped onion sautéed in butter or butter and oil until translucent. The ossibuchi, lightly floured, are then to be browned adequately on both sides in the same pan with the onion (or without, to avoid the risk of burning it). White wine should be then added and the cooking should continue with the heat lowered and the pan covered.

In other recipes, such as those appearing in Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina and Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, chopped carrot and celery join the onion, to make what is known as the classic “Italian soffritto” and includes a single clove of garlic to be lightly browned in the butter and removed before adding the ossibuchi to the soffritto, which according to some recipes may use prosciutto or pancetta. Flouring the veal, which was a way to tenderize the meat in the past as well as thicken the sauce, appears only in some recipes , but not in Artusi, nor in Hazan. Traditional recipes call for dousing the browned veal with wine and then letting it evaporate. Then the ossobuchi are seasoned with pepper and salt and cooked at low heat in the covered skillet, turning them over from time to time and dousing them with broth as needed. That is the original Italian technique called arrosto morto “dead roasting” or stove-top braising, which in the past few decades has been replaced by a way of cooking very common in French cuisine, after the wine evaporates the ossibuchi are covered with broth and placed in a hot oven to braise. This technique became popularized in Marcela Hazan’s Essentials (1974).

The gremolata (‘gremolada’ or ‘cremolata’), in its basic and traditional version, is prepared out of parsley, garlic and lemon zest finely chopped together. Gremolata comes from the Milanese word “gremolà”, ‘reduce to grains’ and it was used in the past also to season scaloppine and dishes made with rabbit. It is added to ossobuco as a condiment, just prior to serving.

 The veal should braise until the meat falls off the bone and can be eaten with a fork alone.  The veal shank should be from a very young, milk-fed calf. According to the American poet Billy Collins, who wrote a poem named Osso Buco, “something you don't hear much about in poetry
 that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation” the meat should be “soft as the leg of an angel / who has lived a purely airborne existence
”.

Tenderness and juiciness are the key to the best ossobuco. The marrow is a delicacy on its own and is traditionally dug out, in Lombardy, with a small, long-handled spoon called esattore (tax collector).  A brief sidenote about the essatore: roasted bone marrow was considered a great delicacy in the Queen Anne period (1702-1714) , when meat was rare and expensive, to accommodate the extraction of the marrow from the bone centers, silver spoons with a long narrow scoop at one end were used, the earliest on record c1690. These marrow spoons were quickly superseded by marrow scoops, which had a large scoop at one end, and small scoop at the other - suitable to differing widths of bone. Scoops were made only until the late 19th century, though, of course, you can find them in antique shops. I use a knife and then transfer the marrow from knife to fork. It does the job admirably.



Ossobuco is traditionally served surrounded by risotto alla milanese but goes beautifully with mashed potatoes or crusty bread. One thing is sure, after eating it, it should generate a feeling that Collins describes as “the lion of contentment” placing “a warm heavy paw” on the chest of those who have dined on Ossobuco.


Osso Buco By Billy Collins

I love the sound of the bone against the plate

and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence. 

And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and wallowed
down with cold, exhilarating wine. 

 I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,

a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach-- something
you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.  

You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,

small birds searching for berries in winter. 
 But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen to the drums
of woe throbbing in the distance and the sound
of my wife's laughter on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief's favorite son. 

 Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside

on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent 
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.
But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaac Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.
In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other will follow. 
Then we will slip below 
the surface of the night into miles of water,
drifting down and down to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock, beneath the strata
of hunger and pleasure, into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know. 

 From "The Art of Drowning" by Billy Collins






Ossobuco 








A Dutch oven or braiser is essential for this. Cast iron is the best, I use Le Creuset but there are many dependable brands. It is a worthy investment, buy a good one. The ingredients are so basic and I've made it so many times, I  never use a recipe, but I promised a new friend on Facebook I'd sit down to write a proper one out for her, so here we are. I like to dice my mire poix (celery, onions, leeks, carrots, etc) into perfect little cubes, but I was feeling lazy and opted to go more rustic with the cut of the veggies. When you chop it finely, it makes an excellent sauce for pasta. I brown a bit of tomato paste with the vegetables for a deeper color, before adding wine and stock, but I didn't have any on hand, and because this was going to be a chunky braise anyway, I just added lovely canned Strianese San Marzano cherry tomatoes into the braising liquid which I had in the pantry. Fennel bulb is usually value add, too, but I didn't have any. Instead of chopping my herbs finely, I opted for a bouquet garni. Bouquet garni is a French herbal sachet. It consists of a collection of herbs, gathered and tied into a bundle or sachet in cheesecloth, or directly tied together when using fresh herbs. Bouquet garni is used to enhance the flavour of stews, broths, or stocks. I didn't bother tying the sprigs together, I let them float free. Somehow, the dish survived the translation of my improvisations. A classic dish always does. You can serve this with polenta or risotto, if you want to be more traditional. That being said, a mound of freshly mashed potatoes provide a wonderful foil for this dish, better than any other. The earthiness of potatoes, along with their toothsome texture and mild flavor make them the perfect canvas. Any leftover sauce is wonderful over buttered wide flat egg noodles like tagliatelle. 







Ingredients


  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig marjoram
  • 1  bay leaf
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 lbs veal shanks (cut into short lengths)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 TBSP of paprika
  • All purpose flour, for dredging veal
  • 1/2 cup olive oil 
  • 1 small onion, diced into 1/2-inch cubes 
  • 1 small carrot, diced into 1/2-inch cubes 
  • 1 stalk celery, diced into 1/2 inch cubes 
  • 1 large leek, white part only, cut into coins
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 15 oz. can of San Marzano Cherry Tomatoes 
  • 1 cup dry white wine 
  • 3 cups veal or chicken stock 
  • 1 small handful of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped 
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest (optional)




Directions

  1. Place rack in center of oven & preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Pat veal shanks dry with paper towels to remove any excess moisture.
  3. Veal shanks will brown better when they are dry. 
  4. Season each shank with paprika, salt and freshly ground pepper.
  5. Dredge the shanks in flour, shaking off excess. 
  6. In a large Dutch oven pot or braiser, heat vegetable oil over medium high heat
  7. When the oil is shimmering (about 1 minute) add veal shanks to the hot pan
  8. And brown all sides, about 3 minutes per side. 
  9. Remove browned shanks and reserve. 
  10. In the same pot, add the onion, carrot, leek, and celery.
  11. Season with salt at this point to help draw out the moisture from the vegetables.
  12. Saute until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.
  13. Add garlic and saute until it loses its raw look.
  14. Add the tomato paste and mix well. 
  15. Return browned shanks to the pan and add the white wine
  16. Reduce liquid by half, about 5 minutes. 
  17. Add the bouquet garni (the sprigs of herbs & clove), the canned tomatoes and 2 cups of the stock,
  18. making sure the shanks are covered 3/4 of the way up and bring to a boil.
  19. Reduce heat to low, cover pan tightly and place in oven.
  20. Lower heat in oven to 325 degrees
  21. Simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone. 
  22. While it's braising, check every 30 minutes, turning shanks and adding more stock as necessary. The level of cooking liquid should always be about 3/4 the way up the shank. 
  23. Carefully remove the cooked shanks from the pot and place in serving dish.
  24. Remove and discard bouquet garni from the pot.
  25. Ladle sauce from the pot over the shanks.
  26. Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon zest. (optional)








Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Dessert Crowns X-Mas Dinner: Apple-Chestnut Cheesecake Tart & Pear Crostada & Pumpkin Cheesecake Gingersnap Macadamia Nut Crusted Madness... OH MY!

“The dessert crowns the dinner. To create a fine dessert, one has to combine the skills of a confectioner, a decorator, a painter, an architect, an ice-cream manufacturer, a sculptor, and a florist. The splendour of such creations appeals above all to the eye - the real gourmand admires them without touching them! The magnificence of the dessert should not allow one to forget the cheese. Cheese complements a good dinner and supplements a bad one.”
~Eugene Briffault (1799-1854)


Apple-Chestnut Cheesecake Tart, just prior to being baked. The fragrances wafting out of the oven through the apartment would make even the most ascetic heavenly angel salivate like Pavlov's dogs. 

Some wisenheimer was once said to have sagely advised, "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Well, truth be told, I prefer to drink my dessert. (Not a wise thing to do on an empty stomach, trust me. Sorry, Ernestine Ulmer.) As a rule, I'm not a dessert eater but tis the season to be indulging... it's yet again what those songs, jangling incessantly in malls all across the country since mid-November, remind us is the most wonderful time of the year, and I've got visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. Almost. It's a bit early still for me to be thinking and feeling Christmasy, but I'm trying to put the bloom on my mistletoe and get all my gingerbread men in a row to regale you, dear reader, with the joys of Noel.

Although, honestly, I don't even buy a tree until the 20th of December or so. The frantic search for a perfectly fresh Noble Fir amidst a nearly empty lot containing vagabond trees that even Charlie Brown would look askance at has become an annual tradition for me. Once my young, blonde, bonhomous, well-muscled South African delivery man drives me and my tree home,  and we squeeze it into our apartment's narrow doorway, I  wait until Christmas Eve to decorate it while the esposo and I have Vince Guaraldi, George Winston and Paul Winter playing in the background. Then after the tree lighting ceremony where O Tannenbaum is sung, we cozy up and watch our favorite Christmas videos with champagne, foie gras pate, a cheese plate with olives, honeycomb & spiced nuts, ahi poke, smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, a wee bit of caviar. Charlie Brown, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Scrooge - the 1950s version with Alastair Sim all keep us company on Christmas Eve. It's intimate, it's quiet, and pine scented... Gosh, I love the scent of pine... Christmas Day dinner these days in Casa Gomez is usually an orange-scented garlicky pork roast, truffly smashed potatoes, choucroute... pretty simple, straightforward stuff. A nod to my husband's Germanic heritage. I will make something sweet for breakfast but that varies year to year. Tradition dictates these matters, and I become its willing slave. There is certain comfort in the rituals of these celebrations of culture whether one is religious or not. Atheist though I may be, I become a devout worshipper of Christ during the winter solstice, my limbic brain is parochial school green plaid skirt clad this time of year as I search for the holy brioche. Me... pounding the pavement, scaling mountains of concrete, descending into the hell of bread lines, but persevering... striving... and surviving the madness and mayhem of holiday grocery shopping with pain de mie and hawkwing mushrooms for all...
Growing up in my little East Harlem public housing apartment, we always had a fresh bowl of nuts in the house, a broken nutcracker, pernil asado, arroz con gandules, and pasteles - a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas food, very much like a Mexican tamale except the masa is made from grated green bananas (occasionally and unintentionally flecked with the skin and blood of those like yours truly assembled and assigned to grate the damned things). Pastele's interior yields a savory stewed pork, wrapped in plantain leaves and paper and tied with string for a festive, Christmas-gift look. My stoic abuelita is said to have made the best, sadly I wouldn't know. I refused to taste them - I suppose the loss of my knuckle skin might have contributed to my distaste for them. As an adult, I learned to adore them on the rare occasion someone's mother or grandmother offered me some and now ironically can't find them anywhere in San Francisco. I try to take the philosophical view about this. It's a form of poetic justice. For 15 years I rejected untasted what the bookmakers in the neighborhood wagered were the finest pasteles in East Harlem. A veritable paragon of pastel-hood were lovingly wrought by my abuelita's hands. I'd make my own but my abuelita's recipes died with her. I don't have the heart to try to recreate her magic. I don't deserve pasteles. I'll eat tamales instead.



Pasteles Filling Before Being Wrapped & Boiled 
Desserts at 421 East 102nd Street Apt. 1-A, NY NY 10029 included an assortment of cookies, puddings and pastries. Store-bought Entenmann's pumpkin and coconut custard pies graced our table (as an interesting aside, William Entenmann was an immigrant from Stuttgart, Germany who arrived on the Brooklyn shoreline in the late 1880, opened a small bakery there and quickly gained notoriety serving prestigious customers... everyone from the Vanderbilts to Frank Sinatra; in the early 50's, William died but his  family created an empire of goodies that still sell well until this day. His is the quintessential American success story). Then there were the more traditional Boricua homemade sweets whipped up by my grandmother, such as: 

Tembleque - a Puerto Rican blancmange made by cooking coconut milk, milk, salt, cornstarch, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, vanilla, and nutmeg or extra flavoring such as rum, orange blossom water and cream of coconut, garnished with mint, cinnamon, almonds, fruit, flavored syrup or chocolate shavings. So silky smooth.  

Arroz con Coco - another humble dessert of rice, coconut milk and spices traditionally made in Puerto Rican households throughout the Christmas season. 

Arroz con Leche - less exotic, more like American rice pudding with raisins, cinnamon and milk; batches of it are made, poured into plates, sprinkled with cinnamon and then shared with neighbors as well as our family. It was too much of a glutinous mess for my delicate palate, though everyone in my family scarfed it up, leaving more tembleque for me.



Tembleque


There was also Budin de Pan (a dense brick-like Puerto Rican Bread Pudding), Dutch butter cookies, Italian Stella D'oro brand amaretti as well as their assortment of cookies with star and flower-shaped pretty pink frosting and a rainbow of sprinkles known as Lady Stella; Guava paste; Turron de Navidad - a traditional Spanish candy consisting of only three ingredients: almonds, honey and egg white, and Dulce de Leche which I could never get enough of... it was a crumbly delicate thing that instantly melted as it felt the heat of your tongue... more like Mexican cajeta, a chalky caramel fudge, than the caramel sauce most non-Puerto Ricans associate with it... Quesitos de Guayaba (sweetened cream cheese and guava Pastries bought from the bakery on 103rd street and Lexington right next to the #6 IRT Subway Station). Of course, even we had the obligatory and ubiquitous Christmas fruitcake of dubious European descent. Every civilized household must.  We had the same tin of fruitcake that we took out annually like all the other Christmas decorations for the first 15 years of my life. We never once considered eating it. Nobody ever opened it! I bet bats or snakes would have flown out if they did. I can't vouch for what happened to it after I left home at that tender age. It may be hidden in the bowels of the old coat closet still waiting for some intrepid explorer to open its tin and immerse himself into a darker knowing.
Beverages flowed and included Egg Nog (which I hated), Coquito (Puerto Rican Egg nog with coconut which I loved), Maví, a tree bark-based beverage grown and widely consumed throughout the Caribbean, it's a certain species in the Colubrina genus including Colubrina elliptica (also called behuco indio) and Colubrina arborescens, a small tree native to the northern Caribbean and south Florida. Mavi is laced with spices, colored with achiote (aniseed). We'd buy it from neighbors who made batches of it with the mavi tree bark, fresh ginger, whole cinnamon, water, sugar & dark brown sugar. More acidic and mouth-puckering than ginger or root beer, it is an acquired taste, but was as indispensable a part of the holiday tradition as the Christmas tree. Malta (which is a sort of yeasty non-alcoholic dark beer which I quaffed instead of soda for years, the brand we used was La Malta Dukesa which had a catchy jingle that I still sing on occasion) was also available for kiddie consumption.


Coquito 

There truly was abundance at this time of year in my home. Three generations of us were there together and all the adults pooled their meager paychecks, welfare checks and pensions to make it a wonderful celebration. I had no inkling we were "poor". We were well-nourished by my grandmother which is another way of saying we were well-loved. Promises and pie crusts are made to be broken, but the people who give you food give you their heart, because love is a delicious dish served warm. She put her entire being into cooking our meals and treats. I suppose that was another reason I never felt loved by my own mother, it wasn't so much her physical and emotional abuse, I think it's that she never once cooked for us.
Of course, our little apartment was crammed with people and the chaos level was high, invariably fights would break out. I remember one Christmas when my grandfather had cashed his pension check and hidden his cache in the angel tree topper but forgot! He accused all and sundry of stealing it, it was like Jericho in there, he brought all the walls down, but I straightened him out before the police arrived - that was my job as a child... the lunatic whisperer. I was actually proud that I could help. I never considered it anything but normal. 
Christmas brings the hibernating child out in so many of us. Holiday traditions abound worldwide as revelers celebrate Solstice, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwaanza or Festivus. When I polled my friends this year to glean further insight into the hows and whats of Christmas desserts, they spoke with anticipatory gustatory relish about sweet treats as varied as Calabrese Christmas Cake (an Italian delicacy that may go back before Christian times, originally made to celebrate a Roman snake goddess with her coils constricted and laced in butter, raisins & cinnamon)... to the lovely delicately powdered, fruit-studded German stollen and its distant cousin Italian Panettone (part cake, part bread); to sturdy sweetmeat nutted and sugar spiked minced pies, so favored from that great island nation of Britain... to Divinity: the nougaty & sublimely named powdery white confection of the American South; to Buche de Noel, the French derived dense ganache-covered Christmas cake rolled with whipped cream, decorated with confectioners' sugar to resemble snow on a Yule log. There is no end to the innovation of the pastry-minded. I, however, intend to offer the homecook three simple variations of a theme - all of them easily adaptable and interchangeable with substituted ingredients, though I have chosen to showcase seasonal fruits: a pumpkin cheesecake with macadamia nut gingersnap crust, a pear and almond crostada, and an apple-chestnut cheesecake tart. Think of them as my Three Magi bearing the gift of Christmas dessert.

A Primer On Pie Crusts ( Pâte Brisée)  

Gingersnap Macadamia Nut Crust


Store-bought pre-made pie doughs and prepared crusts can be substituted for my homemade pie dough, if you need to save time, but it is so easy to make crusts at home it should be your first option. You can also make the dough for the crusts months ahead of time and freeze them. They store perfectly well there as long as you have them wrapped in plastic and slip them in a Ziploc bag and press as much air as you can out of the bags before zipping them. The crust for the crostada and the tart are essentially the same, they are just formed differently. I use a 12' fluted tart pan for the apple-chestnut cheesecake tart, and nothing but a cookie sheet for the crostada. The gingersnap-macadamia nut crust is a snap to make: cookies & nuts pulverized in the food processor with a little additional sugar and melted butter, then the dough is pressed into the bottom of a buttered springform cake pan.

The trick with pie dough made with flour is that it requires time to chill after preparing, ideally for two hours.  You may ask,

"Why do I have to chill my pie dough before I roll it out. After I chill it, it’s too hard to work with?”

 Yes, like many things we kitchen warriors do, it seems unreasonable.  I understand waiting an hour for pie dough to chill feels like you fell into a wormhole, especially since you have to wait 10 minutes after the chilling process to make it pliable enough to roll out again! Well, believe it or not, there is reason to chill the dough, and the reasons are important for maintaining that flaky crust we all look forward to eating. It all has to do with gluten and moisture. By chilling the dough before rolling it out, we allow the present gluten strands time to settle down and relax. This actually makes your pastry dough easier to roll out and cuts down on any shrinking during the baking process. Chilling also lets the available moisture find its way back into all parts of the dough. Something that is hard to achieve while you are mixing the dough together. Chilling the dough also helps the fats in the dough re-solidify, which prevents the gluten from sticking together in one big clump. Rather (if you use the right mixture of fats) you’ll get flat sheets of fat (that make layers and thus flakes) and little balls of fat (that make melt sooner and coat the grains of flour, tender).

Remember, the harder you mix dough the more likely you are to make gluten, which is tough and elastic. That’s great for chewy bread, but bad for tender/flaky pie crust. Making pâte brisée in a food processor sounds easy, doesn't it? Albeit untraditional, you can achieve great results by letting the machine do some of the work. However, it may work too well, so be careful. Using a food processor helps keep the ingredients cooler since you are not subjecting it to the warmth of your hands,  and makes the steps of cutting the butter into the flour and mixing in the water go faster — two major factors when producing a flaky pie crust. But because it does come together so quickly, it can be easy to mix too much and overwork the dough. Pulse the dough and turn out onto your work surface just as the water is incorporated to avoid overworking.

The more the dough is mixed, rolled, and handled, the more the gluten develops. An overworked dough makes it difficult to work with and makes the finished pie crust tough. The crust may also shrink during baking which you can partly prevent by pressing aluminum foil or parchment paper over the crust, then using pie weights, dried beans or poking little vents in the crust with a fork to weight it down and then blind baking it. Blind baking a crust is pre-baking it before adding a filling. Very important when you are using wet ingredients as filling. Another way to keep the crust from shrinking is in the actual mixing process: try not to over-blend the butter when cutting it into the flour. And then, during mixing, only add in enough water as needed to bring the dough together, and only mix until the flour is moistened. It should roll into a ball in the food processor as soon as it is perfectly mixed. Overworked dough typically needs more water to bind everything together, emphasizing the problem even more. Is your dough getting sticky? Toss it into the fridge for a bit instead of adding more flour to overcompensate.


The tart shell, rolled out and chilling in the fridge with pie weights; when it's chilled it is then blind-baked with the pie weights to keep the dough from shrinking. 


 Overall, letting the dough rest in the fridge for at least one hour before rolling it out is a win-win situation with a purpose. Give your dough the time it needs. There's plenty to be done during that time in or out of the kitchen.

Now the doughs I am making here are shortbread crusts which are a bit sturdier and more forgiving. The additional sugar and butter makes them taste like butter cookies, they are the perfect crust for fruit tarts and cheesecakes because they can withstand the moisture of the fillings. For the apple-chestnut cheesecake tart I also added a TBS of sour cream in with the water. As an aside,  the history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland. Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes. The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening. Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

 Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.



Pear Crostada






Out of the three, the pear crostada is the quickest and easiest to make. The crostada is a looser construction than its tart sister, she is something of a hippy: it's  basically just rolled out into a rough 12 inch circle, the center of which is then filled with ground almonds & fruit with a large enough border around it to allow you to fold the dough around it. I cut the butter into small dice and then put it in the freezer to keep it as cold as possible.  Don’t worry about rolling, folding and pleating the crust perfectly—its free-form nature is one of its many charms. Serve with softly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 


Essentially, I sliced three Bartlett pears, put them in a bowl, added a squeeze of lemon, a handful of brown sugar, a generous dusting of cinnamon, a pinch of ginger & some freshly ground almonds (I used the coffee grinder to grind them to meal, but not paste). 1-1/4 cup of flour, a stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (10 tablespoons), I also added 2 TBS of sugar and a 1/4 cup of almond meal to the pate brisee dough because I like my pastry dough a little sweet... that adds humectants to the dough which means I used less than a 1/4 cup of iced water, I actually made the dough in the food processor and cooled it in the freezer for 15 minutes after rolling it into a ball and flattening it into a disc...





Ingredients


 Pastry: 




  • 1  cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1/4 cup of freshly ground unsalted almonds
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (10 TBS total), chilled and cut in small pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons sour cream 
  • 3 to 4 Tablespoons ice water 


Filling:



  • 4 firm-ripe Bosc or Bartlett pears (about 1 1/2 pounds) halved, cored and quartered, each quarter cut in 3 slices 
  • 1/2 cup freshly ground almonds
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice 
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar 
  • 2 tablespoons flour or cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1 pinch freshly ground nutmeg 
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1Tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 Tablespoon of milk or cream


 Instructions 


For the pastry: 


Combine flour, sugar and salt in a food processor bowl

Cut butter in until the dry dough resembles cornmeal.
Quickly pulse in sour cream and up 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water—adding 1 Tablespoon at a time, just enough so mixture barely begins to hold together, and rolls into a ball
Remove from food processor
Pat into a disc, cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 2 hours.

When chilled, pull out of the fridge, let dough rest at room temperature 5 -10 minutes.

Roll dough out on a sheet of parchment paper to a 12-inch circle, and roughly trim (it needn’t be perfect).

Slide parchment onto a baking sheet and chill 30 minutes in refrigerator.


Preheat oven to 400F.



For the filling: 

Toss pears with lemon juice in a medium bowl. Combine sugar with flour, almonds, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg in a small bowl. Sprinkle over pears; toss gently. Add vanilla; toss again. Arrange pear filling in center of pastry to within 1 1/2 inches of the edges. Working quickly, fold and pleat edges of dough up and over pears. Dot pears with butter, brush top of pastry with milk, and sprinkle remaining 1½ teaspoons sugar over top of pastry and pears. Bake 40 minutes, or until pastry is golden and pears are tender. Let cool 10 minutes before slicing.








Pumpkin Cheesecake w/
Gingersnap Macadamia Nut Crust





I HIGHLY recommend having pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap-macadamia nut crust for breakfast. It is life-altering. Subbing out a cup of sour cream for a cup of cream cheese was HUGE value add... it made it so silky and gave it a tiny bit of bite... so was using molasses in the batter, more depth of flavor than plain granulated sugar, though naturally I was forced to use plain sugar, too. This cheesecake originally called for 4 packages of cream cheese...I used 3-1/2 plus 1 cup sour cream. The recipe also initially called for a graham cracker crust, but that is sooooo boring. I used gingersnap cookies and macadamia nuts instead. I also added ginger, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg to the crumbs after pulverizing them in my food processor. This recipe calls for patience. The assembly of it is a snap, but that two hour time period of resting in the oven after baking with the temperature off is essential to keeping the surface from cracking. I also added a pan of boiling hot water on a lower rack in the oven to keep the oven humid which also prevents the pumpkin custard from cracking while it cooks. Make it the night before you want to serve it. Then you won't feel rushed.




INGREDIENTS FOR THE CRUST

  • 1 1/4 cups ginger snap cookies 
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar 
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 
  • 1/2 cup macadamia nuts
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg


FOR THE FILLING 



  • 3 packages (8 ounces each) bar cream cheese, very soft
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar 
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 15 oz can of pumpkin puree 
  • 1/3 cup of molasses
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature 



DIRECTIONS 


 Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with 1 rack in center. 1 rack in the bottom.

Assemble a 9-inch nonstick springform pan, with the raised side of the bottom part facing up. 


Make the crust


In a food processor, pulse ginger snaps, sugar, and macadamia nuts until crumbly
Add melted butter until moistened; remove from food processor, press firmly into bottom of the buttered pan. Bake until golden around edges, 10 to 12 minutes. 






Make the filling: 


With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, sour cream and sugar on low speed until smooth;

Add pumpkin puree, molasses, pie spice, vanilla, and salt; mix just until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until each is incorporated before adding the next. Mix in flour (do not overmix).

Place springform pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour filling into springform, and gently smooth top. Heat water in a tea kettle, pour into a roasting pan. Transfer both pans to oven; placing the water pan in the lowest rack and the cake pan on the center rack; reduce oven heat to 300 degrees. Bake 45 minutes without opening the oven. Turn off oven; to prevent the top from cracking, let cheesecake stay in oven 2 hours more (without opening). Remove from oven; cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate until firm, at least 4 hours. Unmold before serving.




Apple-Chestnut Cheesecake Tart




Okay, so... I still had apples, half a jar of chestnuts, half a package of cream cheese, Greek yogurt, an egg, and a little creme fraiche leftover from Thanksgiving. I was feeling creative and thrifty and opted to wing an apple-chestnut cheesecake tart with the available ingredients. Tis very much of the season.  This is the most labor intensive of the three desserts, but only because the three part filling must be prepared separately before adding them together. It's a fairly straightforward assembly. The actual technique required is elementary and the lush cheesecake custard perfumed by the aromatic and rich chestnut cream is sublime, add the tart sweetness and texture of the apples and you have the best there is to enjoy of winter's mellow fruitfulness... You can make this all apple, or all pear. I just used what I had, but I absolutely loved the combination.  


Ingredients



Pastry: 



  • 1-1/4  cup all-purpose flour 
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (10 TBS total), chilled and cut in small pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons sour cream 
  • 3 to 4 Tablespoons ice water 
  • 1 fluted 12 inch tart pan 


Filling

Ingredients for the Chestnut Cream:

  • 7 ounces jar roasted, peeled chestnuts 
  • 3/4  cup half and half or heavy cream 
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt 
  • 1 vanilla bean, split or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • a couple of generous splashes of Sweet Marsala


Ingredients for the Cheesecake Batter:


Note: Everything must be brought to room temperature before mixing
  • 4 oz of cream cheese
  • 1/3 cup of creme fraiche
  • 1 cup of Greek Yogurt
  • 2 TBS granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg 


Ingredients for Fruit Topping

  • 3 Gala apples, peeled, cored & sliced 1/4 inch thick 
  • 1 Bosc pear,  peeled, cored & sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 TBS fresh lemon juice ( I used a Meyer lemon, much sweeter)
  • 2 TBS granulated sugar
  • 1 TBS cinnamon
  • 1 TBS cornstarch



    Ingredients for Glaze

  • 1 TBS sugar
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter 
  • 1 teaspoon water


Instructions 

MAKE THE PIE CRUST:

Combine flour, sugar and salt in a food processor bowl
Cut butter in until the dry dough resembles cornmeal.
Quickly pulse in sour cream and up 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water—adding 1 Tablespoon at a time, just enough so mixture barely begins to hold together, and rolls into a ball
Remove from food processor
Pat into a disc, cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 2 hours.

When chilled, pull out of the fridge, let dough rest at room temperature 5 -10 minutes.
Roll dough out on a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap to a 14-inch circle

Place crust parchment/plastic wrap side up into tart pan, firmly pressing dough into the fluted edges and bottom, and chill 30 minutes in refrigerator.


Preheat oven to 400F. Be sure to have a rack in the center. 

When dough is chilled, place a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment paper enough to cover entire surface and sides of pan over dough, cover surface with  pie weights or dried beans and blind bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Remove foil & pie weights. Set aside.


MAKE THE FILLING:


Combine apples, pear, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar and cornstarch. Set aside.

Simmering chestnuts in half and half, sugar, vanilla, marsala, a pinch of sea salt, and cinnamon until they are soft (about 20 minutes), then puree them into a chestnut cream; set aside and let cool...

Meanwhile, make cream cheese batter by processing cream cheese, creme fraiche, and Greek yogurt with sugar until mixture is silky smooth and shimmering, then blend in egg until just combined and add cooled chestnut puree to batter until well mixed.


ASSEMBLE TART:



  1. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  2. Place tart tin on a baking sheet, fill with chestnut cream cheese cake batter.
  3. Smooth batter.
  4. Starting from the outside edge, gently lay the apple-pear slices one at a time slightly overlapping the edges, working your way into concentric circles, until you have completely covered the top of the tart. 
  5. Place pan in the center rack of the oven.
  6. Bake undisturbed for 45 minutes.
  7. While tart is baking making the glaze by combining butter, sugar & water in a small heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Using a heat-proof pastry brush, combine ingredients, bring to a boil, stirring gently but constantly, until butter & sugar become viscous, but not brown.  
  8. After 45 minutes, remove tart from oven to glaze fruit with sugar mixture; using pastry basting brush. Cover surface thoroughly.
  9. When completely glazed, return tart to oven for an additional 15 minutes or until knife inserted into center of tart comes out clean & fruit is golden. 
  10. When tart is done, turn off oven, allow tart to cool undisturbed in oven for an hour or so. Then remove from oven. Chill tart for a minimum of four hours before serving.  





Merry Christmas!

The authoress as a sweet little cherub in the St. Lucy's School Christmas Pageant