Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lemon and almond tart

Lois Daish once wrote in a Listener column that when she was running her Brooklyn restaurant, a dessert called a tart was chosen much more often than an identical one called a pie. Somehow pie sounds stodgier, whereas tart sounds lighter and, well, more tart - especially in the case of fruit tarts.
       Needing to take a dessert for a group lunch with our beloved friends visiting from Arizona (that's some of us in the photo), I thought a lemon tart would be a good choice, especially as I now have MY OWN LEMONS.

So I turned to Julia Child. Surprisingly, she doesn't give a recipe for the classic kind of French lemon tart, with its smooth creamy filling. (I have another recipe by Joel Robuchon which produces a magnificent result, but it is very time-consuming.) Instead she offers a somewhat more substantial tart made with lemon and ground almonds, which looks remarkably easy - and it is.
          I've changed the measures to metric where necessary - it's so annoying that the new edition of her book didn't include these as well as the old ones! I've broken up the recipe the way she does, with each set of ingredients, then the instructions for them (though hers sit alongside each other). I've always found this a really helpful way to read a recipe - but you do need to go through all the ingredients first to make sure you've got them. And for the very first time, I found a mistake in Julia's recipe - see below.

Tarte au citron et aux amandes
(from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1)

A precooked sweet pastry shell, made in a tin 23cm across and about 2cm deep
 (If I have plenty of time I make the pastry myself, if not I use bought sweet pastry. Don't let it get too brown when you precook it, as it has to cook again with the filling.)

3 lemons (She never says what size, so I assume medium - that seems to work)
a lemon zester which produces long thin strips, rather than finely grated zest

Take off the yellow skins of the lemons to produce strips. Simmer 10-12 mins in water and drain thoroughly.

(She doesn't say so, but it pays at this point to halve the skinned lemons, put them in a microwave proof bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Squeeze the juice from the lemons, straining it into a small bowl, and set aside. Briefly microwaving lemons makes it far easier to extract the maximum juice from them.)

2 cups granulated white sugar
2/3 cup of water
1 tsp vanilla extract
A small saucepan

Boil the sugar and water to the thread stage (110C). Add the drained lemon peel and vanilla and let it stand for 30 minutes.
(I don't have a candy thermometer and have never quite known how to get to the thread stage. So I just boiled it for a few minutes, stirring, until it formed a syrup, then took it off the heat and put in the lemon skin and vanilla. This seems to work perfectly well.)

Preheat oven to 160C (or use fan bake set to 150C).

2 eggs (again, she never mentions size - size 7 is fine.)
1/2 cup white granulated sugar
large mixing bowl

Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric beater for 4-5 minutes until mixture is thick, pale yellow, and falls back on itself forming a slowly dissolving ribbon. (Isn't that beautiful?)

1 more large or 2 smaller lemon/s
(I have added this as a separate stage)
Zest the skin of the lemon/s, this time producing finely grated rind, and put it in a small bowl.

1 and 1/4 cups (113 grams) ground almonds
This is where the rare mistake came in. Julia says "1/4 cup (4 ounces)". I knew that 4 ounces was much more than 1/4 cup, and assumed the actual measurement was the correct one. I weighed out the ground almonds, then put this into cups. Neatly pushed down slightly, it comes to 1 and 1/4 cups, so that must be what she meant here. But best to weigh it - it needn't be exactly 113 grams.
1/4 tsp almond extract

Beat the almonds, almond extract, finely zested lemon rind, and half the lemon juice from the first 3 lemons into the egg and sugar mixture. Taste it and add a little more juice if you want it slightly sharper. (That's me, not Julia, but it works.)

Pour this lemon and almond cream into the cooked pastry shell. Bake in the middle of the preheated oven for about 25 minutes (it may take a little longer, but check it carefully.) Tart is done when cream has puffed, browned very lightly, and a thin skewer poked into the middle comes out clean. Slide tart onto large rack to cool. (Or if it's still in the tin, as mine was, stand the tin on a rack.)

Drain the strips of lemon peel from the sugar syrup and strew them over the tart.
(I love that word "strew" - it sounds so carefree - but usually it means "very carefully distribute so they'll be more or less evenly spread.")

Julia then says to "boil the syrup down until it is a glaze (last drops are sticky when they fall from a spoon) and spoon a thin coating over the top of the tart." But I thought this would make it too sweet, so instead I kept the syrup to use with other fruit later.

As I had to transport the tart, I left the shell in the tin I had baked it in, filled it and baked it again, then took the whole thing with me. I did try to take it out of the tin, but stopped because this was making the filling shrink back a bit from the sides, which were in any case a little too brown. So I took care of all that by putting a ring of whipped cream round the top once I got there - it needs whipped cream with it anyway. And I didn't use as much lemon rind as she specifies, since the lemons had marked skins. I cunningly used the strips I had to hide the cracked bit in the middle, caused by baking it for a little too long and poking it too enthusiastically to test it.
       But apart from these real-life imperfections, it tasted really, really good, and I think it was better because it was still a little warm when we ate it - Julia does say you can serve it warm rather than cold, and I always prefer that with any kind of pastry. I'll be making this again.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Kitchen whizz!

I spent most of this morning in the kitchen, getting food made and semi-prepared ahead of time so that everything would work well tonight and tomorrow night. Tonight I was having my neighbour, Frances, in for one of our regular dinners.  Tomorrow my visiting Arizona friend is coming home with me after we've had a day out and about together. She's a vegetarian, whereas Frances emphatically is not.

So today I gathered up from the fridge some mushrooms, bacon and the chicken thighs I bought yesterday. I turned all this, along with garlic, onion, herbs, vermouth and stock, into a nice little chicken casserole, which was going to become a pie later - because I had some leftover flaky pastry too, so that just needed rolling out and putting back in the fridge to chill.

While the casserole was in the oven I halved two big orange and red peppers and set them near the bottom to semi-cook, ready to be stuffed with rice, cheese and herbs tomorrow and baked a bit longer. Then I laid out rows of heart-shaped sliced strawberries on baking paper, sprinkled them with sugar and put them in to cook at a low temperature once everything else was done. There were enough for dessert tonight and tomorrow. (You can see the recipe here.)

While they were cooking, I made guacamole - again, enough to do double duty as an hors d'oeuvre for tonight and tomorrow.

I'm lucky that I now have the luxury of being able to do such things in the daytime. If I was still going out to work, I wouldn't be embarking on mid-week dinners like this. It's taken me years of experience to know how to come up with menus that are manageable in terms of time and effort, don't cost heaps because they make use of what I already have, and still look and taste really good and work well as a whole. I enjoy doing it, and I'm pretty sure my friends really like eating it all - I know I do.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gingerbread time again

Some of you will have already had an email from me, or a message from Marsden Books, or seen the notice on my Facebook page, about Tuesday evening, 11 November (which happens to be Armistice Day, and also Sonja Davies' birthday). Marsden Books is hosting an evening for me and Helena Brow - two local Karori memoirists - at 7 pm, and I promised to make gingerbread for it. So today I got it done.

I last posted about gingerbread, and gave the recipe, in December 2010. In the second to last chapter of my book, I explained why I made it back then, and why I remember it so well:

"In November I made the Christmas pudding but not a Christmas cake – unlike most men, Harvey didn’t care for it and I wasn’t bothered. I’d taken to making a really good gingerbread in December instead, giving us something we both liked and that kept well to serve visitors. By the Wednesday before Christmas we had had so many visitors there wasn’t much left in the tin. I cut it up carefully and put it out for that afternoon’s arrivals, then went out to finish the shopping, knowing Harvey was well looked after. When I came home there were three small pieces left – his visitors had enjoyed it, but he hadn’t had any. I sat down with him for a late cup of tea and he asked for a piece, then the second and the third. I watched him eat with astonished delight. It was almost the last thing he ate at home."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

By Grand Central Station I sat down and - ate oyster stew

I spent a good part of the morning touring Grand Central Station with a lovely guide who sounded exactly like Garrison Keillor (of Lake Wobegon fame). In the 1970s the owners wanted to pull it down. It took 10 years to fight them through the courts, but the city won and it's now a restored marvel.

After the tour there was only one thing to be done - I had to go to the Oyster Bar for lunch. I knew it was what Harvey would have done, only he would have had the raw oysters, whereas I got the oyster stew - really a creamy soup with a modest number of oysters in it, but perfectly delicious, especially with a slightly oily, fragrant glass of Californian sauvignon blanc. Harvey would have been proud of me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Here's one I prepared earlier...

Almost famous! Well, for a few days anyway. I talked to Kathryn Ryan about The Colour of Food last week, and you can listen to it here - with recipes, including one from Albania.

Then on Thursday we had a launch for the print edition at Unity Books. For the first time in my life, I had a queue for book signing.

This coming Wednesday morning I'll be cooking and talking about my book (at the same time!!) on TVOne's Good Morning, at 9 am.

I've been told I have precisely seven minutes, which of course isn't enough time to finish cooking hardly anything. So at the end I'll get to do something I've always wanted to do - whip out the completed dish and say, "Here's one I prepared earlier!"

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Comfort in a bowl of soup

In August my son came for three weeks, on holiday from his teaching job in China. We roamed around Wellington hunting down the best cakes and coffee - in China he can find reasonably acceptable cake, but only in limited varieties, good coffee is extremely hard to come by, and almost never can he get the two together in one place.  And the winners are:
Best Muffin: blueberry and lemon muffin at Karaka Cafe on the waterfront lagoon
Best Lemon Tart:  tarte au citron at Bordeaux.
Best Chocolate Tart: Veronique's tart at Le Marche Francais.
Best Chocolate Cake (well, almost fudge): chocolate nemesis at the Aro Street Cafe.
Runner-up: gluten-free chocolate and orange fondant at Floriditas.
Best Other Kind of Cake We Came Across: tiramisu cake at California Garden Centre cafe in Miramar. (I should have photographed the cut slice to show the wondrous layers.)

When he left, I missed him terribly, and had to quickly set about providing myself with some kind of comfort food that wasn't yet more cake. The answer seemed to be pea and ham soup. Harvey loved it and used to make it quite often, but I don't think I've made it since he died.
         I had a nice little bacon hock in the freezer, so I fished it out and went in search of split peas. I wanted the yellow ones, but couldn't find them in any supermarket. I finally tracked them down at Moore Wilson, a couple of dollars for 500g, so not expensive at all - just another one of those old-fashioned staples that has vanished from most grocery shelves.      

The recipe I used is from my original New Zealand soup bible, Digby Law's Soup Cookbook. The only new thing I did was cook it in the slow cooker. You need to add enough water to cover the contents by about 1cm, and check it after a couple of hours to see if it needs more water - those peas absorb a lot of liquid. Otherwise, this couldn't be simpler or easier to make, and it's the most comforting comfort food you could wish for.

Old Fashioned Pea and Ham Soup
(adapted from Digby Law - I think it serves 8-10, rather than the 12 he suggests)
1 bacon knuckle (hock) or bacon bones
500g yellow split peas (Digby says green, but I prefer yellow)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 sprigs mint
1 or 2 bay leaves

Heat the slow cooker on high while you chop the onion and pick the herbs. (If you haven't got one, cook it in a very large pot over a simmer mat on the lowest heat possible after bringing the water to the boil..)
Put everything into the slow cooker and add enough water to come 1cm above the ingredients.
Cook on high for 2 hours. Check level of liquid and add more water if necessary.
Cook on high for another 2 hours or until peas are mushy. (Depending on your slow cooker, you may need to reduce the heat to low for part of this second stage.)
Remove bay leaves. Remove bacon bone/s and set aside. Let soup cool and check seasoning.
If you have a soup wand, use it to puree the peas and liquid, or just mash them up as much as you can. Remove meat from bacon bones, discard fat, shred bacon into small pieces and return to soup.
Heat the quantity you require and keep the rest in the fridge or freezer for later.

The soup will be beautifully thick and smooth, and Digby Law says to serve it piping hot garnished with mint and with lots of brown bread toast. When it cools, it gets so thick you can almost eat it in chunks (so you'll need to add more water when you reheat it). Left thick, it's a very ancient staple called pease porridge, as in the old children's clapping rhyme (first recorded in 1760):
Pease porridge hot
Pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old
Some like it hot
Some like it cold
Some like it in the pot
Nine days old.
You could very well eat it cold and still enjoy it very much, but I'm not at all sure about nine days old. One day I'll leave a bit out that long and see what happens to it.

By the way - the print edition of my food memoir has arrived at Unity Books in Wellington, so it should be in other shops now or very soon.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A good gratin

This time last Saturday I was feeling nervous. A friend had been given, and had passed on to me, a beautiful piece of sirloin cut into thick steaks. (Actually I wasn't quite sure if they were indeed sirloin steaks, but I took them up to the legendary Gipps St Butcher to make sure.) I was charged with cooking them for him and his partner, two more friends, and me and my son (who is visiting from China).
           I don't deal with meat like this every day. I haven't even tried to take their photo - meat is notoriously hard to show looking good. But I did make a rather good potato gratin to go with them, plus a salad.
            Gratin takes a bit of trouble to make, but it's really good for dinner parties because all the fiddly stuff can be done well in advance. It cooks quietly in the oven and sits there obediently waiting until you've dealt with the steak and salad. It also looks very nice on the table.
             The classic is gratin dauphinois, made with milk, cream and sometimes Gruyere cheese. But I thought its humbler cousin, gratin savoyard, would be better with the steaks. It's made with stock, a little butter and, in my case, a little wine as well.
Gratin savoyard 
(adapted from Richard Ehrlich's recipe in The Lazy Cook)

500g Agria potatoes, preferably even in size, oval-shaped and small enough to go, peeled, through the feed-in tube of the food processor
2 large cloves garlic
250ml good chicken stock (I've taken to using Simon Gault's squeezable plastic sachets of concentrated stock, made up with hot water.)
100ml dry white wine
30g butter

Set oven to 180C.
Peel and crush the garlic. Peel the potatoes and feed them through the slicing disc of a food processor.
(If you haven't got a processor, and don't want to spend a long time trying to get even thin slices, cut them into roughly even chunks about 1cm square.)
Butter a large round or square ceramic oven dish. Spread an even layer of overlapping slices (or a layer of chunks) into the dish. Season very lightly with salt and pepper and scatter over tiny bits of garlic. Repeat until the potatoes and garlic have all been used up and the dish is close to full. It helps to select and keep back a layer of nice even slices for the top. Dot the top with small bits of butter.
Reduce the white wine by half in a small saucepan. Prepare the stock. Mix the two together, tasting to check that it's not too salty.
Pour enough liquid over the potatoes to come a little way up the sides. Reserve any left in case the potatoes start to dry out too much during cooking.
Put a layer of foil over the potatoes, dull side uppermost. Cook for 50 minutes. 
Remove the foil. Check dryness, adding a little more liquid if necessary.

Cook for another 10-20 minutes, until the top is turning a little brown and crisp, and a thin knife or skewer slides easily down through the potatoes to the bottom of the dish.

I turned the oven down to warm and put the gratin on the bottom shelf while I made the salad and prepared the steaks (taken out of the fridge and patted dry when I first put in the potatoes) with a brush of oil, and a light sprinkle of salt. Then I lined them up under the fan grill and cooked them just until they were no longer really soft, but definitely not really firm either. (Sirloin does need a little more cooking than fillet, I think.)
            We didn't need much else - well, just a little antipasto beforehand, with some cheese, a lemon tart and a few chocolates after, courtesy of my guests, not to mention some very fine wine from the steak provider... a Saturday night feast of food and friendship.