Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Far Breton

I don't know when or why prunes became the designated whipping boy of the dried fruit kingdom. From what I can tell, it seems to be a particularly American prejudice. Somewhere along the line, in what I consider one of the great missteps of our national agenda, we stripped the pleasure away from prunes and made them merely an instrument of dietary upkeep. Let’s be quite clear: while this may sound un-American or borderline geriatric, I think prunes are absolutely delicious.

Which brings me to the Far Breton. The Far Breton is brilliant for many reasons: the delicate flan-meets-pancake consistency (think clafoutis, but better), the deliciously eggy batter, the mandatory sprinkling of powdered sugar; but it’s the prunes—deep purple, juicy prunes pregnant with Armagnac—that make this dish.

Far Breton
Adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

Okay I lied—what I love most about the Far Breton may not be the prunes; it’s the fact that it is practically (and by my standards definitely) acceptable breakfast fare. This is what the pancake dreams of becoming. The Far Breton is perfect the day it is made, but delicious after a night in the refrigerator, too.

3 large eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for pan
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup good-quality pitted prunes (for instance, pruneaux d'Agen)
1/4 cup Armagnac plus 1/4 cup water or 1 cup hot Earl Grey tea
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

In a blender, combine the milk, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt and blend for 1 minute. Add the flour and pulse until just incorporated, scraping down the sides of the blender jar. Chill in the jar for at least three hours and up to one day.

For Armagnac-soaked prunes, combine the fruit and water in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until the fruit is softened and water is almost evaporated, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and pour the brandy evenly over the fruit. Stand back and ignite the alcohol with a long match. Once the flame dies out, transfer the fruit and syrup to a bowl. Allow to come to room temperature, cover and set aside. For tea-soaked prunes, place the fruit in a heatproof bowl and add the hot tea. Allow to come to room temperature, cover and set aside. Steep prunes overnight.

Position rack in the center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line bottom of the pan with parchment or waxed paper, butter the paper then dust the pan with flour, tapping out excess.

Blend the batter again until smooth, about 5 seconds. Pour into the prepared cake pan. Drop the prunes evenly into batter. Place cake pan on a baking sheet and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until sides are browned and puffy and knife inserted into center comes out clean.

Cool cake completely on a cooling rack. Loosen cake from the pan by running a knife around the sides. Carefully invert pan onto a piece of wax or parchment paper, remove the pan and peel off parchment round. Place serving plate over cake and invert again. Dust cake with powdered sugar and serve.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Grind's the Thing (guest post)

Every year, I have the good fortune of attending a dinner at the home of a generous Bordeaux collector. The deal: I cook a meal for eight people, she opens eight bottles of great vintage wine. This year’s dinner, scheduled for mid-May, was the Fifth Annual. For the first four years, I had prepared menus that were decidedly old-wine-friendly—simply prepared neo-classical meat-and-potatoes meals that would not overshadow the wines, many of which were upwards of 40 years old, brickish in color, and transient in the strength of their flavor.

The problem was, in an effort to make the food second fiddle to the wine, I’d also made it, well, boring.

For the Fifth Annual dinner I called an eating audible and cooked a meal that seemed about as Bordeaux-worthy as Chinese takeout (perhaps that’s a bad example; I think Chinese takeout goes well with everything)--hamburgers and onion rings. Here was my logic: 1) I happened to know this to be the favorite food of the hostess; 2) the theme of this year’s dinner was a vertical of 1975 Bordeaux (including First Growth Chateaux Haut-Brion and Margaux), a controversial vintage, but one that might yield some full-flavored wines, even 35 years later; and 3) the problem with making the meal fancy was that it made everyone feel a bit on ceremony--and I figured some food you eat with your hands would make short work of that.

The dilemma: what kind of burger to make that would still feel special, and that would turn out as well in an urban kitchen as it would on a country grill. As usual, Mock Turtle came to the rescue with a recipe from Nancy Silverton (Mozza), published in the LA Times. It called for having the butcher grind a quirky blend of beef (mostly prime chuck, plus some sirloin fat—not meat, fat) on a coarse setting.

I must admit, I was a little skeptical as I insisted to the butcher that he go against normal protocol. He took a beautiful prime chuck roast (3.5 pounds) from the meat case and said, “Are you sure you want me to add fat to this? There’s already a lot on here.” I was sure. He took a whole side of sirloin from the walk-in and began to slice strips of pure fat from it. I was starting to become less sure, but figured I’d come this far. The butcher shook his head a little while changing the disc on the grinder from the small-holed standard to a dauntingly large-holed one; the resulting ground meat looked like ultra-wide bucatini as opposed to the more spaghetti-like ribbons I’m used to. I’m not going to lie; it looked gross.

Fast forward three hours: the guests and I are in the kitchen, snacking on 24-month-aged prosciutto, drinking Chateau Gruaud Larose (a second-growth from St. Julien that was surprisingly lively; a good omen for the evening), letting the cast iron double-burner grill pan that I’d lugged from home get really hot on high flame. I nervously formed loose patties, dusted them with kosher salt, and waited another few minutes. The recipe claimed that the burgers, despite their high fat content (about 25%) would not be greasy, and indeed my hands felt pretty clean after patty-making.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, in part because I was spending most of the burgers’ cooking time furiously removing liquid fat from the shallow moat around the edge of the pan (I used a turkey baster, but it was hard to keep up with the amount of fat coming off the burgers). Grease was splattering everywhere—the pan was unbelievably hot—and smoke was being sucked up by the range’s hood at a near-smoke-alarming rate.

But when the dust—er, grease—settled, I was left with an absolutely exceptional specimen of a hamburger. Crusted with a salty char on both sides, the burgers looked overcooked at best, hockey pucks at worst. But then, once we’d fixed them with toppings—cheese (aged cheddar; in my frenzy I’d forgotten to add it on the cooking burgers for those who had requested it), avocado (another Mock Turtle tip that changed my life), ketchup, mayo, mustard, onion rings (delicious, by the way; here’s the recipe), even some of the leftover prosciutto—we each bit in to discover a beautiful red, juicy (without being runny), flavorful patty. You could taste the difference—and I’m convinced it was all about the coarse grind.

I wish I had photos of the cooking process and the resulting crispy-but-juicy burgers (one guest at the dinner quoted a famed chef’s New Yorkerism that cooking is often about “taking something flabby and making it crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside”). Alas, there was no camera on hand.

However, two weeks later I tried to recreate the miracle burgers, this time adhering even closer to the recipe by grilling them outside. While I was not able to match the originals’ char (cast iron crisps better than a grill, I suspect because it’s an even, flat surface) or interior texture (the upstate butcher’s grind was not nearly so coarse), there was the element of “grill flavor” (not to be underestimated) and I did have a camera to capture some of it.

A word to the wise for those attempting these fatty (but again, somehow light and ungreasy) burgers: beware of grease spills/fires (cast iron) and major flare-ups (grill), and maybe keep a fire extinguisher and camera handy.

Nancy’s Burgers
Adapted from Nancy Silverton in the Los Angeles Times

Note from Nancy Silverton: Silverton says burgers are the perfect party food because the toppings can be done in advance, then guests use them to personalize their burgers. Though she offers three cheeses, she says that from experience, most takers are for Gruyere, 25% might take cheddar and one of a group will want blue. Crumble out enough blue to look pretty in a bowl, 2 to 3 ounces, and know it may go into salad dressing for the next meal. Ditto cheddar, but this may fill an omelet. The cheeses should be good-quality, such as Point Reyes Blue, aged Gruyere and Grafton cheddar from Vermont or Fiscalini or Straus cheddar from California. The buns should be good-quality soft sesame or poppy seed hamburger buns. For the beef, ask the butcher to grind 2 3/4 pounds of prime chuck (10% to 15% fat) with 4 to 6 ounces of prime sirloin fat (the combination should have 20% to 28% fat total).

Note from Le Snarf: I used Arnold supermarket buns and they were delicious. I skipped the tomatoes (never liked them on burgers), bacon, and blue cheese, and I don’t think they were missed--the burger has so much flavor, bacon (dare I say this?) isn’t even warranted.

Serves 6

12 strips applewood-smoked bacon, fried crisp
2 ripe avocados, sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice to avoid discoloration
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large, ripe heirloom tomato
1/2 red onion
3 ounces blue cheese
3 ounces cheddar
3 ounces Gruyere
6 iceberg lettuce leaves, each about 5 inches wide
Heinz ketchup
Best Foods mayonnaise (or Hellman's east of the Rockies)
Dijon mustard, smooth and coarse-grained

Burgers and assembly:
6 large sesame or poppy seed hamburger buns
Extra virgin olive oil
About 3 pounds ground beef (see note)
3 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Brush the cut side of each bun with olive oil and set aside. Light an outdoor grill or place a seasoned cast-iron skillet over high heat.

2. Being careful not to overwork the meat, shape it into 6 patties, about 2 inches thick and 4 inches in diameter. Sprinkle each side of each patty with about one-fourth teaspoon of kosher salt and 4 to 6 grindings of freshly ground black pepper.

3. Place the burgers on the hot grill or in the hot cast-iron skillet. Sear them until they can be turned without sticking, then turn them. For rare, cook about 4 minutes, then flip and cook another 4 minutes (for medium-rare, 5 minutes on each side; for medium, 6 minutes).

4. As the burgers are cooking, toast the buns, cut side on grill or pan, for a minute or two. Just before the burgers are done cooking, garnish with a little good-quality sea salt, then top with cheese and let it melt. Have guests place lettuce, onion, tomato, bacon and avocado on the bottom half of their toasted bun. Place the burger on top, then the top of the bun. Serve ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard with burgers.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Orange-Scented Olive Oil Cake with Fleur de Sel

Of all the First Family perks that Sasha and Malia enjoy—twenty-four Christmas trees, two private jets, daily harvests from the new White House garden—I think private pastry chef is probably the one I most envy. Even Bo the Portuguese Water dog can't compete with Bill Yosses, at least when the latter is on-call to cater to one's every dessert craving.

My sweet tooth has had a serious crush on Yosses for some time now—I think it started when I tasted a version of his lemon pound cake (it puts other lemon pound cakes to shame), or perhaps with his recipe for hazelnut-paste-infused chocolate chip cookies. And, while I don't expect an invitation to the White House anytime soon, thanks to Yosses's new cookbook, The Perfect Finish (to my mind, he's earned the superlative), I can at least achieve part of my Obama family fantasy.

This recipe for a Sicilian-inspired orange cake immediately jumped out at me—for the technique (Yosses maximizes citrus flavor by simmering and then pureeing the entire fruit), the Mediterranean sensibility (read: olive oil), and—of course—the fleur de sel.

As promised, the cake filled our kitchen with a bright orange aroma. And, while the texture was a little inconsistent (at times a little too spongy, at times overly moist—my fault?), it tasted vibrant, with a delicious finishing crunch of flaky fleur de sel. I added a swipe of dark chocolate ganache to the plate (which may upset the Sicilian grandmothers among you, but I’d do all over again) and some whipped cream (because most desserts just seem empty without it).

Orange-Scented Olive Oil Cake with Fleur de Sel

Adapted from The Perfect Finish, by Bill Yosses

2 navel oranges
2 1/3 cups sugar
Unsalted butter, for greasing
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fleur de sel, or to taste

In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Slice the tops and bottoms off the oranges and quarter lengthwise; add to the pot. Bring water back to a boil; drain. Repeat boiling process twice more with fresh water. (This removes the bitterness from the rind.)

Combine oranges with 1 cup sugar and 4 cups water in a pot over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring often, until sugar dissolves and orange rind can be easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch cake pan with butter and dust with flour.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.

Remove orange quarters from syrup, remove and discard any seeds, and put oranges into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until oranges form a chunky purée, 10 to 12 pulses. Add remaining sugar, reserved flour mixture, vanilla, and eggs and process until incorporated, about 2 minutes. Add olive oil; process until combined.

Pour batter into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove onto a wire rack. The cake should cool for at least 30 minutes more before serving.

Sprinkle fleur de sel over the cake just before serving, and garnish with whipped cream or chocolate ganache as desired.