A Stand Innovation

The star of this year’s spring-forward brunch made an encore appearance a week ago Sunday, 15 years after its debut at the same event. Transparent, simple, and requiring a bit of coaxing to stand on center stage, it’s one of my most prized possessions because I designed it: a seven-tier tart stand to accommodate and vertically display quiches or tarts ranging from smallest (4 3/4-inch) to largest (12 1/2-inch), enough to serve 36 people.

The 18 1/4-inch  stand assembles from the bottom up and disassembles for storage, an essential feature for any kitchen where real estate is in short supply. Six identical clear plastic washers evenly separate seven precisely laser-cut disks twisted down a skeletal rod, a process accomplished with some finesse. But considering its modest origin as a series of doodles, dimensions, and measurements, it’s still a functional and practical vessel to serve delicately portioned, pre-sliced savories and sweets at room temperature. And thanks to the proximity and speedy turnaround of a now-defunct plastic store on Canal Street, bringing the doodles to life was a piece of cake.

disassembled translucent seven-tier tart stand

disassembled translucent seven-tier tart stand

The assembled stand vertically displays 7 tarts from smallest (4 3/4-inch) to largest (12 1/2-inch)

The assembled stand vertically displays 7 tarts from smallest (4 3/4-inch) to largest (12 1/2-inch)

For spring-forward, I served two kinds of quiche, alternating a display of the classic Quiche Lorraine, rich and bacony, with a vegetarian option, Roasted Red Pepper and Poblano. I based my shallow tart versions on Ruth Levy Beranbaum’s inspirational The Pie and Pastry Bible, an indispensable recipe collection and resource on the science of baking pastries.

Seven tiers of two different quiches served at spring-forward brunch 2013

Seven tiers of two different quiches served at spring-forward brunch 2013

Beranbaum’s recipes call for 9 1/2-inch prebaked crusts, but I easily converted recipes for smaller and larger tart pans, listed below, by multiply the ingredient quantities (in grams and milliliters) for both crust and fillings by the factor indicated in parentheses below (a simple calculation of relative volume). Frequent bakers will find that it’s well worth investing in a digital scale such as the one I happen to own.

I recommend these nonstick fluted tart pans (one-inch deep)  to make quiche in the following sizes:

4 3/4-inch (.25)
5 1/2-inch (.34)
7 3/4-inch (.67)
9 1/2-inch (1)
10-inch (1.11)
11-inch (1.34)
12-inch (1.73)

Sweets, and Savories, to Celebrate the Snake

In lieu of contributing to the ubiquitous stream of edible year-end holiday gifts, this year I baked and sent goodies to key Keith Barraclough Photography clients for the Chinese New Year, which began February 10: the year of the snake.

Packaged in a Chinese takeout container (I’ve featured this edible-gift packaging idea before in a summer post on red-wine ice cream), the sampler of six sweets and one savory snack met my criteria of shippability and offering a little something for every palate.

Belgian almond cookie
Bourbon pecans
Chocolate chip cookie
Oatmeal lace cookie
Peanut butter sandwich cookie
Sour lemon squares
Turtle brownies

individually gift-wrapped cookies and Bourbon pecans: client gift for year of the snake

From top (clockwise): turtle brownies, Bourbon pecans, sour lemon squares, chocolate chip cookie, Belgian almond cookie,  peanut butter sandwich cookie. Center: oatmeal lace cookie.

Individually wrapped cookies and nuts packaged in 64-oz Chinese takeout container.

Truffle boxes, plastic cookie sleeves, and baking twist ties and twine available at Broadway Panhandler (in-store only) 

Blog, Interrupted

Post hurricane and holidays, I’m back in the blogging saddle.

After I ruefully detailed the collateral damage from Hurricane Sandy, a fellow electricity-deprived downtowner and friend of mine wittily retorted, “Better to toss your tartlets than to toss your cookies!” I needed that laugh. In late October, I had grand plans for new blog posts about brunch-ifying some favorite comfort foods to serve at what would have been my 14th annual fall-back brunch, and I’d spent a marathon week prepping and freezing 450 mini pot pies and mini tartlets to serve 50 friends at fall-back on November 4.

When the lights flickered off late that Monday night, my thoughts immediately turned to my perishable handiwork in the freezer. One electricity-less night morphed into five days spent plotting how and where to pilfer electricity to charge devices, eek out a cellphone signal, and eat a hot meal or two in our new, post-Sandy civilization where electricity reigned above W. 27 street. Once reality set in—that I’d have to cancel fall-back and toss my tartlets—I was too demoralized to write up my copious recipe-testing notes, even though writing is a form of satisfaction and productivity that’s hurricane proof and electricity independent.

I’ll never know if they tasted as good as they looked.

mini vegetable pot pies

assembling mini vegetable pot pies

mini vegetable pot pies assembly

a tiny dab of sauce tops the vegetables

Kate preparing chicken pot pies for the 2012 Fall Back Brunch.

Pre-Sandy, the menu I’d planned was just the kind of cooking-marathon and logistical challenge I can’t seem to get enough of. Through a post-Sandy lens, however, it seems a lot more frivolous to suggest that anyone else invest such time to make these pot pies so I never did write up the recipe. And by now, those notes look indecipherable. If I ever have a change of heart and get around to retesting it and writing it up, I’ll be sure to post it.

Recharged for 2013 and in the resolution spirit, I’ve come up with an eclectic list, in no particular order, of 13 foods I’ve never made before but plan to this year:

  1. croissants ( A brazen choice, given the fact that I live down the street and 5 minutes away from Balthazar and Ceci Cela, home of arguably the best croissant in the city
  2. bi bim bop (my favorite Korean dish)
  3. Ding Dongs (my favorite childhood snack)
  4. French bread
  5. fried chicken
  6. sushi
  7. bread and butter pickles (I’d love to recreate my favorite ones from the farmstand in Reading, Vermont)
  8. Thomas Keller’s chicken and dumplings recipe (the reason I bought his Ad Hoc cookbook, humorously reviewed here:
  9. bouillabaisse (Pearl Oyster Bar’s divine broth sets a high bar for this dish.)
  10. pad thai (A lot of NYC restaurants put ketchup in their pad thai – why not learn to make it authentically?)
  11. Yorkshire pudding (a great excuse to throw a “Downton Abbey” viewing party)
  12. butterscotch pudding
  13. macarons

My first 2013 home-cooked meal met none of these goals but honored my alma mater, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the Badgers made their third consecutive appearance in The Rose Bowl: beer-braised and broiled brats topped with slaw on a homemade pretzel bun slathered with homemade sweet German mustard. Thanks to my September bagel-making phase, I had non-diastatic malt powder on hand to pinch hit for food-grade lye, which requires wearing gloves to handle safely. I drew the authenticity line there, and it seemed to do the trick, producing a shiny, golden, pretzel crust.

beer-braised and broiled brat in pretzel bun slathered with homemade sweet German mustard

I don’t recall the brats at the Wisconsin Union being garnished and served with the same flair (mostly I remember the mushy Wonder bread-like bun, back in the good old days when there was no such thing as “gluten free” in everyday vernacular and you could eat those kinds of buns without a whit of guilt), but I sure felt nostalgic as I ate my fancy schmancy SoHo version and new year’s good-luck black eyed peas and watched my team fight valiantly but lose.

Happy New Year!

Variety May Be the Spice of Life, But Too Much Spice Isn’t a Good Thing

When in doubt, I buy more spices. Unfortunately, that’s how I’ve ended up with several lifetimes’ supply of paprika in all its forms—sweet, Hungarian, smoked—despite the fact that I rarely cook with any of it. Mustard seeds, dried mint leaves, and paquin chiles tie as runners-up in my spice excesses.

This past weekend, I finally confronted my spice issue and created a labeling and organizing system comprising color-coded labels and stackable tins that make it impossible to overlook my existing inventory (and would make Martha Stewart proud). My newly organized spices finally deserve to live in the amazing custom-designed spice pantry built into one end of the custom-designed kitchen island my uncle Otis built for me.

These handy tins, purchased online from Specialty Bottle, come in various sizes, but when it comes to spice storage, the smaller the better. Spices don’t have an indefinite shelf  life: don’t follow my paprika example, and only buy what you can use up within six months. I used to frequent Penzey’s Spices at Grand Central Market, but now that it’s gone, my go-to spice source is Kalustyan’s.

I don’t think Avery had spice tins in mind for their “removable” organization labels; I ended up having to reinforce the rebellious edges with double-sided scotch tape, but in theory, each label is transferable to bigger or smaller tins as necessary over time. My color-coded system makes it easier to hone in on what I’m looking for: brown, for spices with “seed” in the name; green, for dried herbs; red, for hot or spicy spices; dark blue, for all other savory spices; and aqua, for spices used for baking.

What’s next on my organizing list? Excavating my stand-alone freezer. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got leftover chocolate Dean & Deluca birthday cake from February somewhere in there, waiting to reward me.

Anniversary Rings Without the Bling

Authentic bagels, characterized by a thick, chewy crust and dense crumb, are a rare commodity outside of New York, and they’re surprisingly difficult to come by even in New York City. As with many things in life, looks can be awfully deceiving, but when it comes to bagels it only takes one bite to discern an imposter from the real deal: All too often, I’ve bitten into unmemorable donut-shaped dinner rolls in disguise.

Named for their ring shape (“beygal” in Yiddish, derived from a German root meaning “ring”), bagels have not been part of my baking repertoire until last weekend, while I was visiting my parents in Woodstock, Vermont, for one last stretch of outdoor summer recreation, leisure and rejuvenation before jumping on the fall treadmill of city life.

Faced with the perfect storm of spare time, easy access to King Arthur Flour (home of every baking supply imaginable), and a commemorative occasion for a ceremony symbolized by rings–my parents’ anniversary–I set out to make some celebratory whole wheat bagels that would exceed my expectations, expecting to be humbled in the process.

It turns out that the process really isn’t as cumbersome or as nuanced as I’d expected, but nevertheless, I’ve gained a newfound respect for bagel making; for a first effort, mine turned out pretty well but could stand improvement. It’s safer to squelch any improvisational instincts the first time, stick to the recipe, and don’t take any shortcuts. The two-minute water bath serves two purposes: it creates a chewy, thick crust and it allows the interior of the bagel to develop.

My ten-pound investment in flour, which I hauled with me back to the city, means I’ve made a commitment to the homemade variety. Next time, I’ll experiment with the ratio of bread flour to white whole wheat flour and other techniques I’ve read about. Will adding a tablespoon of brown sugar (or, the harder-to-come-by bread baker’s secret weapon: diastatic malt powder) to the bagel bath create an even chewier, browner crust that defies scooping? After all, a love of crust is the main reason to eat bagels.

whole wheat bagels, shaped and allowed to rise 12 hours

When Life Hands You Avocados, Make Guacamole

Reliably ripe but firm avocados are hard to find here in local SoHo supermarkets. All too often, what starts out promising to the touch in the store ends in overripe, blackened, unusable disappointment in my kitchen.

So I was more than a little skeptical after I got a little click-happy and threw the “ripe now” avocados, sold in pairs, into the mix of my Fresh Direct order, which I usually restrict to household staples that are especially awkward, heavy, or difficult to carry through the streets of SoHo while navigating lollygagging tourists.

Many satisfactory avocados later, I’m a regular customer. Fresh Direct can be quirky though; sometimes it’ll throw in a suggested substitute when the requested inventory is unavailable. Other times, there are surprises for no apparent reason: last Friday, in place of lemonade, I received beets, snow peas, and an extra pair of avocados. Hours later, the doorbell rang: it was Fresh Direct again, delivering the missing lemonade and more avocados. It was as if the service knew we had a houseguest, a California transplant and avocado aficionado with whom to share our bounty.

I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate beets and snowpeas together—let alone with our unexpected avocado bonanza—but here’s what I made:

Avocado, Orange, and Grapefruit Salad

Diced avocado,
Grapefruit and orange sections,
Watercress? Your choice.

Smattering of chives,
Splash honey mustard dressing,
Sprinkle with pine nuts.

Grapefruit, Orange and Avocado SaladGuacamole

Leftover guacamole can be stored in an airtight food container for a day or two in the fridge. To minimize browning caused by oxidation, keep the pits in the mixture and smooth the entire surface area with plastic wrap before storing.

Yield: about 4 cups

3 ripe avocados
2 jalapeños, ribbed, seeded and finely minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced
½ Vidalia onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 – 1½ tablespoons lime juice, from 2 limes
1 large heirloom tomato, diced (about 2 cups)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Split each avocado, tracing around the pit with the knife. Twist apart the halves with your hands, reserving the pits. Into a medium bowl, scoop out the flesh with a spoon, reserving the pits. Mash the avocado flesh with a fork, leaving it somewhat chunky. Mix in jalapeños, cilantro, Vidalia onion, and tomatoes. Gradually add the lime juice, salt and pepper to taste.

uacamole Ingredients: Cilantro, Tomato, Jalapeno, Avocado


A Menu and a Lesson, Inspired By Julia

Admired and remembered as much for her wonderful writing, wit, and charm as for her passion for cooking, eating, and teaching Americans the art of French cuisine, Julia Child wrote in her memoir, My Life In France,  “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”

I learned this lesson last Saturday during a small three-course dinner party we hosted.
Paying early homage to what would have been Julia Child’s centennial birthday today, I’d decided on a French theme: mini cheese soufflés, followed by poisson en papillote (snapper steamed in a parchment pouch that’s been sealed airtight with egg whites) and the grand finale, a tribute to the French flag (but not a French dessert): a seasonal red, white, and blue cobbler of raspberries, white peaches, and blueberries topped with a brown-butter biscuit.

It was a steamy, soupy August Saturday in New York City, but that didn’t stop me from serving three dishes that required having the oven on, full blast. Unlike most people I know, I love the challenge and the excuse to experiment with new recipes when I entertain. I’ve successfully served this fish countless times for dinner, but never as part of a multicourse dinner party with more complicated logistics (My hubris and complacency would be my downfall.) Pouffy was the theme of the night, the science of steam working its magic in the dramatic flair of the soufflé and the parchment pouches inflated to nearly bursting.

I had assembled and sealed the fish and vegetables in parchment several hours ahead of time and placed the pouches in the fridge. Basking in the glow of a successful soufflé and in hostess mode, I’d forgotten my mental checklist and made two critical errors: Placed straight from the fridge into the oven, the pouches required extra baking time to compensate for their contents’ super-refrigerated states. And I should have ripped open one portion to check doneness (snapper should be opaque and flaky) before serving.

It wasn’t until everyone was seated at the table digging into their unwrapped meals that I realized, to my dismay, that the fish was undercooked. Despite insistence from my guests that the fish, purchased from Whole Foods, was surely sushi-grade and safely edible at any degree of doneness, back into the oven everything went, an inelegant, communal mix of plated dishes.

There’s nothing like an excellent rosé—and good company—to smooth over a cooking debacle and an unscheduled intermission between appetizer and entrée courses. Bryn and Louis had brought a wonderful bottle of 2011 Clos Beylesse from Provence, which we happily sipped while we waited.

The standout of the meal was this cheese soufflé recipe published in The Wall Street Journal. It’s airy, savory, and flawlessly designed (I followed the recipe exactly, ending up with four extra soufflés to enjoy as leftovers. (You can reheat soufflé; it will puff up again when reheated—just not as dramatically the second time around.)

Overall, it turned out to be a well-conceived and executable menu; each course had just the right balance of prep-ahead and last-minute elements. Thanks to the laid-back nature and good humor of my guests, it was a successful meal and evening. Heed Julia’s advice, and embrace cooking’s curveballs. Bon appetit!

How to Cook Fish in Parchment (below recipe serves 4 people).

Feel free to use these measurements as a rough guideline –in my experience it is not critical to use exact proportions of ingredients for the mushroom and tomato fillings. You may prefer to serve more or less of each vegetable per portion, and the size of fish filets can be easily modified to accommodate smaller or bigger appetites. Just bear in mind that differently sized fish portions and thicknesses will cook at different rates, so make a note of the bigger/ thicker portion and test it for doneness before unveiling and serving the rest. If serving the fish as part of a multicourse meal (particularly if you’re serving a first course that contains something filling like cheese), I’d advise reducing the portions of fish and vegetables.

Fish and Garnish:
4 4-ounce filets (snapper, striped bass, or substitute any other firm-fleshed fish)
4 sprigs of thyme
White wine (enough for 4 splashes, at least ¼ cup in total)
Parchment paper
1 egg white, beaten

Optional garnish:
1 small carrot, julienne
½ stalk celery, julienne
Fresh chives, cut into same length as carrot and celery above

Technically speaking, julienne is thin strips cut no larger than 2mm x 7 cm, but in my experience, most guests are delighted by any garnishing effort put forth, so don’t fuss too much about perfection.

Mushroom “Duxelles” (a dry mushroom stuffing used in French cooking):
12 ounces white button mushrooms, cleaned and minced finely by hand (Alternatively, you can pulse in a food processor, but avoid pureeing them.)
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Tomato Stuffing (my modified version of what in traditional French cooking is called “concassée”):
4 medium ripe tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 pinch of sugar (if tomatoes are underripe)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Adjust the rack to the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Prepare mushrooms:
a. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan or sauté pan. Over moderate heat, sauté the minced shallots until they soften and become translucent.
b. Add the chopped mushrooms and lemon juice to the shallots over low heat, stirring occasionally, until there is no liquid left in the pan. When liquid is completely evaporated, adjust seasoning. While mushrooms are cooking, proceed with the tomato prep instructions below.

3. Prepare tomatoes.
a. In a medium pot or dutch oven, bring to boil enough water to bathe the tomatoes.
b. Using a paring knife, cut a small “x” into the skin of each tomato.
c. Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then immerse them in an ice water bath or under cold running water in a colander. The shock of the cold water will make the skin pucker, and the skin will peel off easily with a paring knife.
d. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds.
e. In a medium saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the crushed garlic cloves.
f. Coarsely chop the tomatoes, and add them to the butter-garlic mixture.
g. Stew the tomatoes over low heat until all liquid has evaporated. If using underripe tomatoes, add the pinch of sugar.
h. Remove the garlic cloves and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. If using garnish: sauté julienne of carrots and celery in 1 teaspoon of butter over low heat for just a few minutes until slightly softened.

5. Tear off or cut four pieces of parchment (at least 11 x 17 inches) and fold in half lengthwise (resulting in four folded pieces with dimensions 11 x 8 ½ inches, the 11-inch side formed by the crease. Optional: with scissors, round the open edges of the parchment to create an oval.

6. Open all four pieces of parchment, like a book, with the point of the crease upside-down and facing the counter. Spoon mushroom duxelles in a neat pile toward the center of each inner fold but allowing room to place a tomato-sauce pile alongside it, dividing the mixture evenly between all four parchment papers. Repeat this process with the tomato sauce, placing a scoopful right next to each mushroom pile. Place a fish filet on top of each mushroom-tomato bed. Arrange the optional sautéed julienned carrots, celery and chives decoratively on top of the fish. Top each with a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine.

7. Using a pastry brush, paint the edges of the parchment paper with the egg white to form a seal (like an envelope). Join the corresponding egg white–painted edges so that the parchment pouch fully envelopes the fish and vegetables in an airtight package. Repeat the process, painting the newly-joined edges with a 1-inch border of egg white and fold the previously sealed edges over the egg white border. This is to ensure that the pouch is sealed airtight.

8. Place the pouches on a cookie sheet and into the preheated oven. The fish is usually cooked in 10-12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Don’t forget to check doneness of one fish portion before removing the rest of the pouches from the oven.

Raspberry, White Peach and Blueberry Cobbler with Cornmeal Brown Butter Biscuits (slightly adapted from Mustards Grill cookbook by Cindy Pawlcyn)

For the dinner party, I divided the fruit and baked it in 6 individual portions (in ovenproof 8-ounce fluted pie dishes) rather than making one large cobbler. I followed the recipe’s original instructions for a 2 ½-inch biscuit, but my personal preference is a greater ratio of fruit to biscuit (I think a 1 ½-inch or 2-inch diameter biscuit would be perfect.) Leftover scraps of biscuit dough can be rerolled, frozen and baked for future desserts (this biscuit is great with vanilla ice cream alone.) Or, if you prefer a smaller biscuit but don’t want to have leftover dough, simply halve the biscuit recipe.

Cornmeal Biscuits:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks

2 large white (or yellow) peaches, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup sugar
½ fresh blueberries
1 egg, scrambled (for the egg wash)
1 teaspoon water
Granulated sugar for sprinkling on biscuits

Vanilla ice cream for serving

1. To make the biscuits, in a small sauté pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until brown and very fragrant. Transfer the butter to a heatproof container and freeze for about 45 minutes, until hard.

2. In the meantime, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl or in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

3. When the butter is hard, cut it into cubes and add it to the dry ingredients (to loosen the butter, dip the container into hot water.) With a pastry cutter, a fork, or the mixer on low speed, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

4. Using a fork, stir together the cream, vanilla, and yolks together in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing only until a rough dough forms.

5. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead it gently six to eight folds (in thirds, like a letter). Do not overwork the dough or the biscuits will be tough. Roll out the dough ½-inch thick.

6. Using a 1 ½-inch, 2-inch, or 2 ½-inch biscuit cutter, cut out six biscuits. Reroll scraps as necessary and freeze any extra biscuit rounds for future baking.

7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. To make the filling toss together the peaches, raspberries, lemon juice, cornstarch, and ½ cup of sugar in a large mixing bowl. To assemble the cobbler, spread the mixed fruit evenly in a 9x9x2- inch baking pan (or if using individual pie dishes, divide the fruit evenly among these.) Scatter the blueberries on top. Arrange the biscuits on top, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar.

8. Bake the cobbler for about 35 minutes if in a 9 x 9 x 2 -inch pan (about 20 minutes in individual portions), or until fruit is bubbly and the biscuits are golden brown and toothpick tender (smaller fruit portions and smaller biscuits will bake faster, so keep an early eye on baking progress.)

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.