Lighting candles, whipping up croquettes

December 8th, 2010

Festival of Lights

While this uniformly gray December day draws toward dusk, the vagabond lights an Advent candle and begins to stir up a batch of croquettes.  My many friends of the Jewish faith are probably doing the same in observance of their last night of Hanukkah.  It is almost sundown on the eighth night of Hanukkah, and within half an hour, the last Menorah candle will be lighted in Jewish homes around the world.  A puffy or crispy fried food is always on the menu, with Latkes, crunchy galettes of shredded potatoes, the most common.  Interpretations of “fried” have expanded to include all sorts of savory fritters, croquettes and beignets to commemorate Hebrew history when the Macabees’ miraculous eight days of oil was supplied from a small flask that would normally last just one day.  In Portuguese Jewish homes, salt cod croquetas might be served, while on Italian Hanukkah tables a diamond shaped sweet Frittelle di Hanukkah will be studded with raisins and anise seeds.  My fascination with food traditions of many faiths led me to stir up a variation on croquettes, but rather than deep fried, I found that a moist vegetable croquette was better lightly browned in oil (to qualify on a Hanukkah menu), then baked to finish. This variation on sweet potatoes might suit your Holiday of Lights as a side dish – or even as a nibble with apéros.

Crispy sweet potato croquettes

This recipe for Croquettes de patate douce was tested with baked rather than boiled sweet potatoes, and the baked potato needed a tablespoon or two of boiling water to be mashed, as they dried slightly while baking. They can be made several hours ahead, then finish the baking & crisping before serving. But it is a very moist interior – the baking step is necessary. Shaped with two tablespoons they make an oval, relatively uniform shape and will serve four as a vegetable or beside the starter, while lots of small round ones will be enough to serve eight with cocktails.

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, rinsed and cut up (300ml/1 1/3 cup mashed)

100 g/3/4 cup + 1Tablespoons plain flour; 1/4 tsp salt, white pepper , nutmeg

50 g/1/2 cup +2 Tablespoons ground almonds

50 g/1/2 cup + 3 Tablespoons freshly grated parmesan or grana pradano cheese

1 egg

flaked almonds, toasted as a finishing garnish + sea salt

oil for frying

Cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes in boiling water, drain and mash them or put into a food processor.  Stir in the egg and mix well, then the flour, seasonings, ground almonds & cheese. Mix all together (if you like the odd chunk of sweet potato , don’t blend it too smooth). Set the oven at 180°c/350°f; line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Heat the oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or deep fry pan. Have a plate lined with absorbent paper towels for the fried croquettes, with a skimmer or slotted spoon ready. Using 2 tablespoons, shape the croquettes and plunge them (no more than 5 or 6 at a time) into the hot oil, turning with a spoon or tongs as each side browns – which will be quickly; they burn easily. Turn gently til all are browned and ready to bake.  Transfer the hot croquettes to the baking sheet and bake for ten to twenty minutes (depending on size), shift them into a basket for appetizers or onto a platter with your main dish….lovely with duck or brisket of beef.

Versatile croquettes - with duck breast and seared peppers

Whether your candles are lit for Hanukkah, for Advent or for the Winter Solstice, the vagabond wishes you warm and wonderful holidays!

Third Thursday – it’s all about Reds

November 19th, 2010

Primeurs are ready to sip with roasted chestnuts

Nouveau!  Signs scrawled on bistro black boards and in grocery windows across southern France proclaim their arrival:  the new, fruity wines are here! November’s third Thursday, the official release date for barrels, bottles and boxes of Beaujolais nouveau is cause for celebration – not only of a fresh batch of Beaujolais, but of many other regional reds.  Several of these primeurs were displayed in a cart in our village grocery this week; the vagabond couldn’t resist one of her favorite appellations, a primeur from Gaillac in the Tarn.  The grape for these young wines is the thin skinned, low tannin Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, the same used in Beaujolais wines, which lends itself to carbonic maceration for reds ready to sip in less than three months.  So, why not celebrate the first red wines of 2010 with a touch of red on our plates as well as in the glasses?

A perk of this process: the aroma of roasted peppers

It all began at noon, when I roasted red peppers and eggplant in the oven to make a sauce for supper.  There are still local peppers and aubergines in the market stalls to inspire me, to suggest a special touch to a simply sautéed turkey steak with onions. This recipe* is one of those country traditions that doesn’t get very specific in quantities, so it is a little different every time I whip it up. The aromas of roasting peppers brings back flavor memories of Catalonian lunches beginning with Escalivada - a starter of roasted pepper strips and slabs of grilled eggplant. Although my original thoughts were to dilute the sauce with stock for colorful cups of soup, all that changed when  I tasted it:  don’t change anything, even the spices.  Be sure the veg are very fresh for this smooth  Red Sauce:

2 1/2 large or 3 medium sized clean red peppers/poivron (not piments)

1 medium to large eggplant/aubergine, washed and dried

2 cloves peeled and chopped garlic

4 anchovy fillets, oil or salt-packed – rinsed and dried, chopped

1 T. capers, drained

4 to 5 T. olive oil

Line a cake-roll (with edges) pan with aluminum foil to catch juices. Place the whole veg so that no sides touch.  Roast the peppers and aubergine in a hot oven, 230°c (fan)/450°f.  for about 20 minutes; turn them halfway through to allow all sides to blister or scorch a little. Remove with tongs onto a soup plate (they will give off more juices) and slip it into a paper bag, pinch closed and set aside to cool. Reserve any collected juices to add flavor to a soup later.  Meanwhile, chop the garlic and anchovies. Take the plate of veg out of the sack and slip off/ separate from skins and seeds, chop up the flesh (the eggplant need not be seeded, just skinned) coarsely. Put this in a blender with the garlic and anchovies, whizz it all together to make a thick sauce, stir down the sides with a spatula, then whizz and drizzle the olive oil in a thin stream. Taste for seasoning – it may want a drop of tabasco but no salt,  pour into a serving bowl; or keep in a jar in the fridge, where it improves within a few hours.  Serve as a color note on or beside poultry, fish or pork – hot or cold.  Finish your meal on a traditional note with roasted chestnuts to best  savor the last drops of primeur.  Packed in sterile jars, tied with a ribbon, this sauce makes a colorful holiday gift for someone who prefers savories to sweets…

Red sauce - when you are hungry for color

*Recipe for roasted pepper sauce adapted from the magazine, Country Living (UK) August 2007.

Next up: Nuts – walnuts, chestnuts and pricey pignola

French choco-concentrated cakes…and brownies

October 25th, 2010

Gâteau by the slice

In anticipation of the Salon du Chocolat* and its attendant media blitz, it seems the right moment to set aside seasonal vegetables and fruit for a minute to focus on le chocolat.  And how the French love their chocolate !  It’s hard to imagine a classic éclair, a profiterole or poire belle hélène without a dark drizzle of chocolate.  So it’s not surprising that the sweet, dark and fudgy American brownie has been enthusiastically embraced by French pâtissiers and star chefs over the last ten years.  The basic brownie, a sweet butter-chocolate-sugar concoction, can vary with whims and what is available.  A handful of hazel nuts? A touch of chili pepper, candied ginger, orange peel or glazed chestnuts? Toss in whatever you fancy, but not all at once! And although the fragile crust is part of a brownie’s charm, why not spread a glossy glaze/glaçage of white or milk chocolate over all, to simply gild the lily?

Crispy top, fudgy interior...

It was more than ten years ago that the vagabond baked her first French chocolate cake, à la Julia Child, a sinfully rich Reine de Saba/Queen of Sheba cake.  No leavening (like a brownie), dense and yet moist in the center (like a brownie), it opened my eyes to the special character of European cakes using ground almonds instead of flour.  Last week, I tried a recipe from l’Express magazine for “Brownies” and found it altogether too gooey in the center, not a brownie success story.  Remembering the Queen of Sheba, I incorporated almond flour instead of white flour and separated the egg yolks – the second batch of brownies turned out better with the help of whisked egg whites.  The characteristic crisp, tan top and dark interior were true to brownie tradition.  Although the l’Express recipe called for 42% bittersweet chocolate, I used 70 % chocolate for an extra edge, and incorporated a tablespoon or two of strong coffee for a Moka version.  If you have no square baking pans, a pie tin (27 cm/11″) works just as well and brownies can be cut in sliver-wedges.  Serve this with a buttermilk panna cotta, crème fraïche ice cream or a dollop of smetana to soften the chocolate’s bittersweet edge.  It goes together easily in an hour, start to finish. Let cool before cutting…

Heat oven to 160°c/325°f. and set the oven rack just below mid-oven. Butter a 9″ square pan or 11″ pie tin (smaller pan =  thicker brownies, but allow a few more minutes baking time); bring a saucepan of water to simmer under a bowl to melt the butter and chocolate.

170 g./3/4  cup  sweet butter, cut into bits

90 g/1 tablet minus 1 square of bittersweet (Bio/organic)French chocolate

3 eggs, (62 to 66 g. each), separated

120 g./1/2 cup + 2 T light brown sugar

120 g/1/2 cup + 2 T. sugar

40 g./1/3 cup ground almonds + 1 tsp. grated nutmeg

10 g./ 1 T. cocoa (Dutch process)

1 T. strong coffee

2 T. chopped almonds

In a metal bowl set over (not touching) simmering water, melt the chocolate & butter, stirring often.  Set aside when almost all melted; stir, let cool.  Separate the eggs and using electric beaters, beat the yolks, add gradually the brown then white sugar, until thick and glossy. Stir in the chocolate mixture, cocoa & coffee; fold in the ground almonds (and any chopped nuts or peel if using) – at this point add another spoonful of almonds if the batter seems thin. Whisk the egg whites to soft, firm peaks and fold this carefully into the batter. Pour into the greased pan, scatter chopped almonds over the top and bake for 20 minutes (for gooey center) or 30 minutes (for more cake-like center), but test at 20 minutes to see if toothpick comes out gooey or dry.  Let cool on a rack, cut and serve at room temperature with something creamy alongside….and sprinkle with cinnamon.

*From October 28th to November 1st, the Salon du Chocolate fills the Porte de Versailles in Paris 15th arrondissement with professionals and chocolate fans. See:  No time to travel to Paris?  Go to New York’s Chocolate extravaganza at the Metropolitan Pavilion, November 11th to 14th.  See the above site for these and many other salons.

Versailles pastry shop window, chocolate inside and out...

Note: Watch for November’s chocolate feature: a butterless chocolate cake.

Soup for supper, #1 golden

October 19th, 2010

Squash for soup...

Nightly temperatures hover around freezing, chilly enough to shock broad  leaves that have hidden pumpkins and squash in fields across the southwest.  From the car or the train window, I watch for these beams of orange and yellow piercing the morning fog, a signal:  wake up, new season! I am prompted to make additions to the market list, a potiron for soup-fixings, along with branches of celery, firm golden onions and new carrots.  This week in the market, I see familiar members  of the squash family, the thick-skinned butternut, hubbard and ribbed acorn that I grew up with on the other side of the Atlantic.  In this large famille, the bulky, round citrouille – the pumpkins once used only as animal fodder – ranging from pale orange to faded brassy grey-green in color, are usually pre-cut into wedges for shoppers.  Potirons are bright orange, with a sweet flavor but smaller than the potimarron – a close cousin with a hint of  chestnut (marron).  Besides the color and thickening potential of squash in soup, the potiron’s flavor easily works with other vegetable components in your soup pot.  So, take your cues from whatever you find interesting! This week’s soup for four took about an hour to chop and cook, and went something like this:  In a heavy-bottomed soup pan or pot, cook/add the vegetables in this order….

1 1/2/250 g.  golden onion, peeled and chopped

1 or 2 Tablespoons duck fat or cooking oil

1 tsp. cumin (jeera) seeds (optional)

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, trimmed and minced

1 squash/potiron, 600 g., a little over a pound, quartered & peeled & seeded, then chopped

1 bay leaf & 3 sprigs thyme, tied together

1 tsp. turmeric, a grating of nutmeg & small red pepper (if you go for piquant)

your choice of other vegetables:  2 peeled & chopped carrots, 1 peeled & chopped sweet potato, 1/2 a large zucchini or marrow squash, the core of a cauliflower or broccoli (no flowers, please), even a cup of freshly shelled chestnuts can add an energy-boosting element.

1 liter/4  3/8 c. water, coarse sea salt to taste

As garnish:  croutons or triangles of freshly crisped tortilla, yogurt or lemon juice (or even slices of peeled golden tomato to float on top).

Heat the fat, toast the cumin seeds if using, then add the onion & garlic and cook until transparent (do not let it brown), add the celery, etc. and stir for 5 minutes, add remaining ingredients & herbs, then pour the water over all. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning (at this point you can add a bouillon cube if you wish – I didn’t), let it cook longer.  Remove the herbs, mix with an immersion blending wand and prepare to serve in heated soup plates. Garnish can be a drizzle of yogurt, a scattering of croutons or just-toasted tortilla points; a dash of lemon juice if you wish. The adaptable squash not only thickens the soup (some might add potatoes to this, or cream – your choice), but brings autumn colors to the table.

à  la soupe!

Next week’s soup, #2: Red

Heads up, pickle fans !

October 6th, 2010

Beets, onion slices and spices...

If you *love* pickles and happen to be in New York this month, devote a day to all manner of brined veg: The International Pickle Festival brings connoisseurs of condiments together on a busy intersection in the Lower East Side. Before I get to the pickle recipe, here are the details: Sunday, October 17th is the day to circle, from 11 to 4:30 (don’t dilly-dally, or it will all be over), between Orchard and Ludlow – extending onto Broome Street, follow your nose. Besides garlic infused Polish dill pickles, you’ll sample pickles from Asia (kimchi salsa anyone?) to savory French and Italian brined specialties. Chopped, sliced, in chunks or pickles on a stick – this is the place to explore the realm of pickles, a culinary subculture unto itself. Bring a bag, buy a few bottles to spice up chilly autumn week ends. Not just for fun, but (as you will learn there) pickles are good for you – after all, it seems that Cleopatra believed in pickles as one of her beauty secrets. Artisans such as Brooklyn Brine bring their best, and watch for Wong’s Thunder Pickles. This, the 10th annual Pickle Day, is sponsored by the New York Food Museum (visit their Pickle Wing sometime), Umani Food, and New York City Greenmarkets. Bring the kids for a day of tastings, music, demonstrations and book signings on the Lower East Side – a culinary crossroads of the world (of pickles).

For more, check:

Recipe #1, an old favorite:  Beet Pickles

Pickling is about conserving flavor in times of plenty, when we all know less plentiful times lie just around the corner. That goes for color as well, so begin with ruby red beets.  Boil the beets until just tender*, peel and quarter them and pack in hot jars. You will need:

1 quart beets, cooked peeled and quartered or cut in slices (no not overcook or use pre-cooked beets: result will be flabby pickles)

3/4 cup light brown sugar + 1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup cider vinegar + 1/2 cup spring water

1 tsp. toasted  cumin seeds + 12 cloves + cinnamon stick + 6 whole allspice (optional)

Bring the liquids, sugar and spices to a boil, pour over the beets in hot jars and seal with sterilized lids. Great with a winter lunch of cold roast pork or poached fish – and a must with pork sausages.

Recipe #2: Mixed vegetable pickles – two ways

Cauliflorets, onions and peppers...

There are more ways to pickle a cucumber (or most any vegetable) than I imagined:  raw in a brine, raw in hot jars with hot vinegar, cooked for a few minutes in vinegar or soaked in vodka. To pickle in brine, I checked Michael Ruhlman’s essential guide, Ratio, for advice. This is the classic tried and true crock method, soaking (all parts submerged) vegetables in a brine of 2  1/2 cups/20 oz. spring water with 2 tablespoons/1 oz. coarse salt. Dissolve the salt in the water in a non-reactive pan over high heat, stir it, turn off the heat and let it cool. This basic brine, poured over a jar or crock of sliced carrots, onions, peppers, wax beans, cucumbers (and dill heads) or a mix of whatever is heaped in the market, will produce crisp and tangy pickles in a week or two. Use compatible herbs, such as tarragon or dill and garlic if you wish.  Be sure to put a plate (with a stone or brick) to weigh it down and cover the top with cling-film. Then they are ready for the table or to be bottled.

For a recent batch of cooked cauliflower pickles, a basic ratio of 2 cups sugar to 1 quart vinegar got me started on a series of pickle-packing sessions. First, while the cauliflower and onions refresh in an ice bath for 2 hours, get out the pans, bottles, tongs and heat the vinegar mixture. This works well for a mix of golden peppers, carrots, and red onions – whatever you have in quantity. Heat water in a large soup pot and when boiling, submerge jars – wait to scald the lids until just before sealing the jars. You will need tongs, a long-handled ladle and a large soup spoon, and a cloth placed on the countertop next to the stove or cook-top.

1 quart/900 ml. white wine vinegar

2 cups/225 g.  sugar

1/4 cup/43 g. coarse (Kosher) salt

2  T. whole mustard seeds

1 T. whole celery seed + 1 tsp. ground turmeric

Heat the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, then add the following vegetables (cut them up smaller for smaller jars, chunky for larger jars):

1 large head cauliflower, broken into small florets (refreshed in an ice bath for 2 hours)

1 large yellow bell pepper, trimmed & cut in strips

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced in vertical strips

3 medium carrots/270 g. peeled and sliced into thick coins

slivers of hot chili pepper, 1 or 2 for each pot (if desired)

Drain the iced vegetables well and plunge them into the bubbling vinegar mixture, lower heat to a simmer to cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to minimum as you scoop the pickled veg into sterile jars.  Wipe the rims of each jar before putting a hot cap on, twist tightly and set on the kitchen towel to cool; place another towel over all jars as they cool overnight. This makes about 5 pints or 6 large jam jars. When cool, store in a dark, chilly place.  If concerned about keeping the pickles for many months, after capping, plunge them back into the pot of hot water to process for about 10 minutes.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe on CDkitchen.

Variation by color: Keep the carrot coins separate, pickle the cauliflower mix first, then cook the carrots & 1 more red onion for 6 minutes in the remaining vinegar bath before bottling (add a few allspice berries or cloves to each jar).

Note: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman (published in 2009 by Scribner) is an essential resource when puzzled about a process or basic proportion of ingredients.  Good for advice on anything from cream puffs to, well….pickles.

Juicy onion marmalade – and other condimentary notes

June 26th, 2010

Ready for a zesty marmalade?

Juicy onions, valencia oranges, and plump, clean lemons are the basics for a tangy marmalade to accompany summer fare.  In this season of condiments to enjoy with sandwiches or chicken wraps, or to accent grilled fish or pork, a savory marmalade offers a new set of textures.  Add it to the regular line-up of relish, picalilli and salsas, even lime pickles, or mybe….garum?  This is not in the regular line-up, of course, but the fermented salty fish mash called garum was a staple condiment on ancient Roman tables.  The Latin source of condiment, condire, means to season, spice, preserve or pickle.  Old French and Middle English references to these savory sides have been traced back to the early fifteenth century:  clearly, condiments have complimented the food on our plates for some time.

When the new, sweet onions rolled into the market, I initially thought about just chopping them up to accent spicy merguez sausages.  Then it seemed better to cook some with a dash of lemon to keep for another meal.  One gesture leads to another:  the plot thickened as I poured more than a dash of local Bergerac sauvignon into the mix.  Each batch of marmalade has its own twist: to accent the lemon, add a little Greek Seasoning (from Penzey’s spices – more on this resource in July), to bring out the sweet onion notes, add nutmeg, and to make the orange element sing, grate a little ginger into the mix. Be sure to use new crop onions, not winter’s left-overs that are beginning to sprout.  Stir it up in the cool hours of the morning and if there is more than today’s meals call for, ladle it into hot, sterile jars for another season – and do save one for a friend who shares your fascination with condiments.  Step one, blanching the peel is quick and essential to avoid a bitter aftertaste.

Add the blanched strips of zest to the pot last

Ingredients: 2 lemons, peel shaved off with a vegetable peeler.  Remove      white pith and slice lemons very thinly, slice peel into slivers;                 reserve  2 Tablespoons juice.

2 large navel oranges, shaved as above, pith removed, sliced thinly & peel sliced into thin sliver/strips.

2 white, sweet onions (500g/2 cups) trimmed and sliced lengthwise

4 to 5  fresh bay leaves

83  g./ 1/2 cup sugar

625 ml /2  1/2 cups white wine, such as Sauvignon blanc/Semillon

1T. fresh thyme, chopped fine

2 T. butter (unsalted), cut into pieces

sea salt & freshly ground white pepper

Stir it up: Boil 2 cups water in a large saucepan, add the lemon & orange peels and simmer for 3 minutes to blanch.  Lift out the peels, empty the pan and pour in the wine, sugar, sliced onion, bay, 2 tsp. sea salt, the sliced citrus and last, the peels.  Stir and simmer this to dissolve the sugar, then reduce heat and let cook over a low-moderate heat, uncovered for about an hour (it could even take a little longer on a low simmer), until all liquid is cooked away; the onions become transparent.  Add the thyme, the butter and cook another 15 minutes, stirring so the marmalade doesn’t scorch at the bottom of the pan; adjust seasonings and add the lemon juice. To taste for seasoning, let your spoonful cool to room temperature. Remove the limp bay leaves.  Yield:   3  1/2  cups.

A savoury touch of marmalade compliments cheese

Serve at room temperature with grilled meat or fish…and try it with a wedge of  Cantal or other mountain cheeses.  Credit for the basic proportions in this recipe go to Mathew Card on, an inspiring and informative site.

A Posset Revival

May 9th, 2010

Flipping through the luscious pages of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, I paused at a seductive page of grilled figs with a lemon possetPosset?  Tell me more.  But when I looked into the description, did it help knowing it was like a syllabub?  It seems that today’s chilled creamy dessert posset descended directly from a warm milk drink dating back to the 15th century. In fact, for centuries this was a cure or comforting relief for colds:  milk warmed, curdled with acidic wine or ale and sometimes spiced with cinnamon, mace or nutmeg.  The old French word, posce, is a probable root for possot, poschet and posset, which in its comforting sense has evolved into the idiomatic meaning of posset – to pamper or make someone comfortable. That is the good side of posset.  On the dark side, consider that Lady MacBeth poisoned possets for the guards outside Duncan’s rooms in Act II, scene ii of MacBeth.  I wonder what spices Shakespeare fancied in his possets.

Gariguettes & lemon posset for Sunday lunch

In 18th century England, (I was looking for something savory in all this…) a posset was stirred into a meat sauce as thickening, much as one might use a béchamel sauce today. Eggs were added for nourishment and a richer blend, as this was a noble drink not often made by commoners. But primarily, this is a sweet story:  a posset of cream and whiskey, a Bridal Cog survives as a traditional bridal toast on the Orkney Islands.  Now, to whip up my own version of this English classic, and since figs are not yet in season, I turn to sweet strawberries.  What better foil for a tangy rich posset?  To be ready in a jiffy – then chilled for a few hours – try…

Lemon Posset with May’s first Gariguettes

For 2, heat  200 ml/ 3/4 cup thick cream and 70 g/ 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan, let simmer for 3 minutes. When it comes to a rolling boil remove pan from the heat and stir in the juice of 1/2 lemon, whisk for a few minutes as it begins to thicken. Pour into small cups or glasses, top with curly lemon zest (from the same lemon) and chill for 4 hours or overnight. Serve with the season’s berries, red blue or black.  A crunchy cardamom-flecked almond shortbread is good with this.  So easy, so reviving after a long winter!

Next up this month: more on spices, planting nasturtiums for salad, and flower fairs.  In June: a note on syllabubs, a winery visit and open season for flea markets.

Easter Monday’s Cake

April 5th, 2010

After the spring feast, after preparations for feeding a crowd, what is left…les restes…become the vagabond’s favorite meals.  The duckling bones make a marvelously rich soup, the Crumble aux légumes is even tastier at room temperature, and the Gâteau aux amandes seems to improve every day.  As European habits go, having a second jour de  fête at Easter and Pentecost is a delightful bonus.  Stores and banks are closed, so all can relax.  For many, Easter Monday is a time to see friends after Sunday’s traditional family gathering – and if the weather cooperates, take a long walk together into the hills and along river trails.  A day off to celebrate spring is a respite in a hectic season.  And when we return, the leftovers make quick work of pulling a meal together.  A platter of cold duck, ham or lamb garnished with sun-dried tomatoes in caper oil is on the table in minutes.  If the first green “points” of asperagus are on hand, oop-la: into a hot skillet with sizzling (clarified) butter to sear for a few minutes before a squeeze of  lemon juice – to serve adorned with a simple sprinkling of sea salt.  Sunday’s steamed cauliflower, chilled and tossed with MC’s mustard vinaigrette, a tumbler full of bread sticks, then sliced almond cake served with a dollop of crème fraîche or ice cream and figs or pears in spiced syrup replenish the hikers.  I bake the cake on Saturday, so even the cook can relax outdoors.  This recipe makes a large bundt cake – or two smaller loaf cakes (one for my kind petite voisine/neighbor) – and is open to variations with spices.  My choice is freshly grated nutmeg, but try ground cardamom or golden Spanish saffron.

Delicate almond cake - adorn it with fruit or nibble with morning coffee

Finnish Almond Cake

A time-honored recipe adapted from my “Finnish cooking bible”, The Finnish Cookbook by Beatrice Ojakangas, published by Crown in 1964. The texture resembles a pound cake, but without heaps of butter. Set oven at moderate, 350°f/180° c and put rack in middle setting.

4 eggs, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

6 Tablespoons sweet butter, melted

6 Tablespoons full cream

3/4 cup ground almonds

2 cups white flour, sifted with 1  1/2 tsp baking powder + pinch salt

1 tsp pure almond extract (1 tsp. nutmeg or cardamom)

toasted shaved/sliced almonds  for garnish

Whisk the eggs ’til light & frothy, add the sugar gradually, beating until thick. In a small bowl mix together the cream, almonds and butter, blend with the eggs & sugar, then carefully fold in the dry ingredients to blend all.  At this point add almond extract and any spices.  Preheat the oven to 350°f/180°c, grease a bundt or tube cake pan (or *) and dust with flour – tapping out any excess flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, set in the middle of the oven and bake until golden – about 1 hour; sides will begin to pull away from the pan, test it. Let the cake rest on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out onto a serving plate.  * If baking this in 2 pans (such as 8″/20 cm. cake pans), only bake it 35 minutes & test it.  When cool, spread the bottom layer with jam or preserves (quince? apricot?) and set second layer on top.  Frost with a light icing or dust with powdered/icing sugar.  This cake takes on a chocolate icing, or mocha glaze easily….let your imagination take it from there. Top with freshly toasted shaved almonds.  Make it a day ahead – so you can enjoy the season, whether on foot or perched on a bench in the garden.

Pheasant's Eye narcissus, worth waiting for after most daffs are gone

For the apple of my eye…

February 13th, 2010

Apples, always there....for something special

What’s best with Valentine’s Day ever-seductive chocolate dessert? This time, the vagabond stirs up a creamy semifreddo of spiced apples with densely chocolate brownies.  Not a brownie fan?  If you prefer… a chocolate clafoutis, or cocoa-chocolate chip cookies…

Devilish Almond Brownies, a one-pan prep couldn’t be easier:

90 g./3 oz. bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped up

75 g./6 T. sweet butter, chopped up

185 g./3/4 cup sugar

2 large fresh eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract + twist of black pepper

30 g./1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped up

50 g./ 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 c. chopped candied ginger + 3 T. chopped almonds (plus some for top)

Butter an 8 inch baking pan, flour the bottom. Set oven at 177°F/350°f. and put rack in middle of the oven.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter + chopped dark chocolate, stirring ’til smooth – watch that  it doesn’t scorch.  Take the pan off the heat, let cool and whisk in sugar, vanilla, and eggs one by one, whisking as it turns glossy and smooth, then add the 1 oz. of chopped chocolate.

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir in the flour, candied ginger and chopped almonds (reserve 1 T. for topping). Pour into the prepared pan and spread evenly, then sprinkle chopped almonds on top. Bake for about 30 + minutes – until the top has puffed slightly and cracked; test with a BBQ skewer, no crumbs should be sticking to it. Let cool completely. Cut and serve with the creamy apples…

A dessert for Valentines, anniversary, or...?

The semifreddo begins a day in advance, making applesauce  in a heavy saucepan:

1 cup of water + 2/3 cup sugar to dissolve + 1/2 vanilla bean, split

4 – 5 apples, peeled & cored, sliced. Include some quince, if possible.

1/2 cup thick crème fraîche, a twist of nutmeg, 1 tsp. ginger

1/3 cup heavy cream, whipped to double volume

1 T. lemon juice

When the apples have cooked in the sugar-syrup until they are translucent, let cool and blend with a wand-blender, add the lemon juice and measure this to 2 cups applesauce. (It can be somewhat chunky if you like the texture). Fold in the crème fraîche and whipped cream, pour into a sorbet pan and freeze for 4 hours – then stir it up with a fork to break ice crystals. Freeze overnight. To serve, slice or scoop out onto plates with  squares or triangles of almond brownies.   The Brownies are adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, 1996. Having double-tested this, the vagabond’s village had an electricity cut just after the brownies were baked -  lucky timing.  But more important, even with only candle light, fragrant blossoms in the air…..

Jasmine in bloom - the ultimate mood enhancer...

Soup with a twist

February 9th, 2010

Lemons ready.... for soup

There is a point in winter when my soup répertoire sags a little. What root can be added, what spice and snap can I stir in?  A perk-up for chicken or vegetable soup is in order. When one eats soup every day (in provincial France, still very common), before or as the evening meal, there must be something beyond tourain (a garlic-infused broth with slices of yesterday’s baguette) or soupe au pistou (many vegetables in a savory broth, somewhat like minestrone).  These are basics – along with velouté de potimarron (winter squash purée) and châtaigne (chestnut cream) -  filling soups for workers’ lunches in auberges and restaurants routiers (truck stops) across the southwest. There’s nothing wrong with those if you are chopping wood or building a barn.  Let’s simply say I’m looking to lighten up a first course soup. To do just that I look south to Greece…. and find lemons.

Whether this Mediterranean combination of eggs and lemons is a silky soup or a sauce, Avgolemono wakes up any bored diner’s tastebuds. Whisk eggs and lemon juice, stir into a chicken broth, heat through and serve – what could be easier?  I first tasted avgolemono (stress middle syllable…avgo Le mono) in a Greek Taverna in Chicago – on Halsted Street as I recall,  it seems eons ago – where my papilles (taste buds) were duly impressed.  And it was an introduction to pastina, tiny oval pastas that look like rice.  Most recipes begin with: cook a three pound chicken, etc. , but you could easily base this on last month’s basic soup stock (post of January 22), and add a cupful of chopped chicken or serve salted chicken on the side.  As with any use of fresh eggs, temperatures need to be watched carefully so curdling doesn’t spoil the soup.  Use white rice or pastina - i prefer “langue des oiseaux“, birds tongues pastina available in specialty shops selling Mediterranean products.

To serve 4, once you have  heated 4 cups of broth in a small soup pot, toss in 1/3 cup of pastina or long grain white rice to cook, covered for 20 minutes while you whisk the avgolemono in a bowl:

2 large, fresh eggs, whisked for 3 minutes

juice of 1 or 2 lemons (2 if you like it tart) & thin lemon slices for garnish; 1 lemon yields about 1/4 cup juice

Add the lemon juice to the eggs, beating constantly – then gradually blend in 1 cup of hot stock from the soup pot, continue beating without interruption, and pour this mixture into the soup, stirring (for 5 to 10 minutes) as it thickens slightly. It should be satiny smooth and the pastina or rice translucent at this point. This last-minute trick depends on the cook’s concentration, stirring as the soup warms. Garnish each bowl with a lemon slice or parsley sprig.

Avgolemono as a sauce can be made in a similar way, using a double boiler or dish over (never touching the water) a pan of boiling water.  Myrsini Lambraki* suggests sauce proportions of 1 egg to the juice of 1 lemon, a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup or more of the vegetable stock whisked in to the desired thickness.  Separate the whites and yolks for a frothier sauce, and serve on fish, asparagus, courgettes, broccoli or cauliflower (this is superb).  A Greek friend warns – never serve avgolemono with tomatoes or garlic, but suggests topping each serving with cracked black pepper or minced Greek oregano.  That, or a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint on top will transport you to a taverna table overlooking the Agean.

*Myrsini Lambraki’s useful Cretan Cuisine for Everyone, published by Myrsini Edition in 2005, emphasizes vegetables and explains the principles of the Mediterranean diet pyramid.

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