Thursday, April 15, 2010

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

OFF ON VACATION


How much time has it been, how many years, since JP and I took off together on a getaway? Too long! We have had a long five years or so, spending our free time (and not so free time) taking care of others, of loved ones, parents, siblings, sons, instead of taking care of ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, it has all been worth the trouble and effort, family first, but now it is time to take a little time for us. Just the two of us. Yes, we will be flying off to family, JP, Clem and I, to Florida this summer where we will meet up with Simon at my mom’s and we will enjoy our first real family vacation together since, well, since I can remember. But this weekend and for a week, it will be just the two of us.

We are the perfect traveling companions, the Yin and the Yang of partners: he pulls me out into the fresh air, walking shoes on, binoculars or camera around his neck, for nature treks or museum visits, discovering towns and byways, recounting historical tales of wars and religion, of kings and queens and warriors and artists, I keep him calm and relaxed making sure that he understands that vacations are for rest and tranquility, more fun and less work. He leads me to markets, open-air and covered, to hidden bistros or snack bars known only to the locals or elegant restaurants enjoyed by the rich and famous; I pull him into bakeries and pastry shops, Aladdin dens of spices or elegantly-appointed boutiques heady with the scent of chocolate. Together we pack picnic lunches with fresh fruits and cheeses chosen at local market stalls, stopping off at the town’s best bakery for a fresh loaf of bread, all to be savored in some lovely open field, the grass gently waving in the breeze, lying in the warm sun and drinking wine straight from the bottle.


We love traveling together, love exploring together, wandering through cities and towns unknown, meandering up and down quiet side streets, along bustling thoroughfares, discovering wonderful food shops and local specialties, buying unusual spices or pastries or treating ourselves to an exciting kitchen utensil or two. Other than the fabulous cities we’ve lived in, we’ve explored New England from Pennsylvania up through Vermont to Montreal, Rome and Budapest among other enchanting, magical places. We’ve sat in the jewel box of an Opera House in Budapest and listened, enraptured, to Cosi Fan Tutte, and nibbled on cherry tart and Dobos Torte in glamorous, gilded, Old World tea salons; we’ve driven through the Adirondacks on our way north, both mesmerized and stunned by the beauty and grandeur of nature, climbed the blue-green mountains above Manchester, Vermont in the chilly New England summer air; we’ve strolled hand in hand through the Roman Forum, his storytelling bringing the old rocks and stone sculptures to life then followed by the most memorable meal ever at Piperno in the Old Jewish Ghetto, insalata di puntarelle, fritto misto, crostata di amarena. He’s known the best tapas bar in San Sebastian, the best restaurant in Bilbao, he bought me red rubber boots in Rome and brought me to see Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, not once but twice. We’ve swam in clear, blue water off the coast of Cyprus, bartered in a language that wasn’t our own for coffee cups in a bar full of fishermen and local workers and eaten souvlaki, tzatziki dribbling down our chins, under grape vine entwined terraces and we’ve seen ancient mosaics and chatted with old men in small town squares, offering us sips of whatever they were drinking.


Maps and restaurant guides in hand, this time we are off to Lyon and Annecy starting with a 3-day stop in the mountains of the Salers region to rest in a mountain hotel. 3 days of fresh air and romance punctuated by elegant meals and visits to the spa. Ah, yes, how we deserve this. Bring along good walking shoes to go with the picnic lunch and a good book to get sleepy over while our feet are up, poolside. Lyon, well, Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, isn’t it? So must you really ask what we’ll be doing there? Bouchons et chocolatiers, patisseries et restaurants. Quoi d’autre? Annecy, oh Annecy, quite possibly the most beautiful, most romantic town in France, the Venice of the Alps, a town of rivers and lake and flowers, cool mountain breezes and gorgeous monuments, architecture and red rooftops. I’ll wind through the streets, map in one hand, camera in the other and discover this jewel all on my own, popping into shops to try this pastry or that and trying very hard not to fall in love with this most wonderful, gentle of lovers.


As you read this post, I will already be there, miles away, head in the clouds, tummy filled and satisfied. So I offer you this treat, something oh-so American as I am off discovering a France that I still have yet to get to know, yet to fall in love with. Strawberry Shortcake. Yes, it is strawberry time in my region of France, gorgeous, plump and oh-so sweet Gariguette strawberries that veritably beg me to turn them into Strawberry Shortcake. A roll and a knead of the slightly sweet biscuit dough, rolled out thick, cut into circles and baked to rise up fluffy yet dense, crispy on the outside as a shortcake should be, just barely sweet to hint of dessert yet bland enough to highlight the sweetest of berries. Slather on the freshly whipped cream or compliment it with the best of vanilla ice creams and you have the perfect summer treat, a delicacy of old-time, old-fashioned America, of porch swings and lemonade afternoons, of graceful women in lovely gowns and gentlemen in hats and white suits.


And I, my friends, will be back in one week brimming with stories with which to regale you, delicacies to share and adventures to dream on.


I would like to send this to Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice for her Magazine Mondays.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
From a 1989 (I believe) Chocolatier magazine

1 cup (125 g) cake flour (not self-rising)
1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour (I used bread flour type 55)
2 Tbs granulated sugar
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
8 Tbs (1 stick/115 g) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
¾ cup (180 ml) half-and-half or light cream

1 - 2 pints fresh strawberries (you can easily use a combination of fresh summer berries)
Sugar to taste
Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste

1 cup (250 ml) heavy whipping cream
Powdered/confectioner’s sugar to taste
Dash of vanilla extract


- or –

Vanilla ice cream


Rinse and pat dry the strawberries then hull and slice them. Put the slices in a bowl with sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste. Set aside.

Make the Shortcakes:

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).

Stir together the flours, sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt until blended. Add the cubes of butter and, using the tips of your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until there are no more chunks of butter and the mixture resembles sand. Add the cream and stir with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and it begins to gather into a ball.

Turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead quickly, adding a bit more flour if too sticky, until you have a smooth, homogenous ball of dough. Do not overhandle or overknead.

On a lightly-floured work surface, gently (do not press hard, the dough is soft and should remain fluffy) roll out the dough to a thickness of not less than ¾ inch thickness. Using a 3 or 3 1/2 –inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out thick circles of dough – you should have 6 biscuits – and place them on a cookie sheet.

Bake the shortcakes for 12 to 15 minutes until the shortcakes are puffed up and golden brown both on top and underneath.

Cool the cakes on a cooling rack.

Whip the cream, adding sugar a bit at a time, until very thick and peaks hold. Beat in the vanilla. Sweeten to taste.

To serve, carefully split the shortcakes with a sharp knife and place the bottom of each on individual dessert plates. Spoon the prepared strawberries onto the bottom of the shortcakes, spoon either a large spoonful of whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream on top of the strawberries then top with the top halves of the shortcakes. Serve immediately.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

CHOCOLATE MACARONS WITH PINK PRALINE CHOCOLATE FILLING

HOPPING DOWN THE BUNNY TRAIL…

Peter Cottontail
Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping' down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity,
Easter's on its way.

Bringing' every girl and boy Baskets full of Easter joy,
Things to make your Easter bright and gay.
He's got jellybeans for Tommy,
Colored eggs for sister Sue,
There's an orchid for your Mommy
And an Easter bonnet, too.
- Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins Peter Cottontail


I don’t celebrate Easter. Never have, never will. While my school friends were coloring eggs, waking up Easter morning and hopping excitedly out of bed looking for signs that the old Easter Bunny had passed through the yard leaving goodies hidden among the tall grass for them to find, we were preparing the house for Passover, tossing out bread and cookies and replacing them on the kitchen counter with matzoh and macaroons. Not that I didn’t love Passover. I did. I loved the rituals, the meals, even the matzoh. But when I would find myself in the grocery store with mom in the weeks running up to Easter, I would pull her over to the Easter candy display and stare longingly at the luscious treats, marshmallow and chocolate, pink and yellow and pale blue, and beg her to let me buy just one or two. In the end, we would return the day after the holiday and snap up Peeps and Eggs at half price and enjoy our own little holiday.


I’m still a kid at heart and Easter candy still thrills me. Garish marshmallow chicks and bunnies in neon green and purple and pink like colors right out of the psychedelic Sixties, chocolate eggs filled with marshmallow cream or candy-coated malt balls in pastels that crack under your teeth and turn your tongue a lovely pale pink or blue, milk chocolate eggs wrapped in delicate shiny foil tucked into colorful cellophane nests or wrapped up in bright crinkly cellophane wrappers and tied with a plump ribbon bow. And the chicks, the tiny fluffy yellow chicks with the tiny red feet, their sharp little toes splayed gaily out in front of them yet refusing to hold them up, I loved those tiny little chicks.


Easter in France is otherworldly and, as in everything, oh so elegant. The French may have adopted the American custom of hiding chocolates in the yard at Grandma’s house, but Easter is formal and sophisticated. No marshmallow treats for giddy children, no pockets stuffed with brightly-colored treats. No dizzyingly high displays of garish, gaudy eggs nestled in baskets at the supermarkets. Pass in front of any candy shop window and you’ll be offered a romantic vision of graceful chocolate sculptures, eggs and bells and chickens in dark chocolate, glamorous concoctions delicately wrapped in cellophane and bows, lined up like obedient school children waiting to be carried home carefully like the oeuvres d’art they are and handed to friends and lovers and children alike to be gazed at, cherished, guarded over jealously until finally, one day, when one cannot wait any longer, the treasure is gently unwrapped, the chocolate caressed and the egg cracked open and all the tiny chocolate eggs tumble out to be greedily snatched up and eaten one after the other joyously.


The French are the kings of praline. They love dark chocolate enclosing a creamy smooth milk chocolate center studded with nutty, caramel-infused, crispy praline. Walk into any fine chocolatier and request the specialty of the house, or select a mixed box, pull off the elegant ribbon, pull back the cover and choose one. Invariably you will find yourself savoring a rich chocolate-coated praline filling. And whether a gorgeous box or a kid-sized treat, Easter means praline-filled chocolates shaped like eggs (the symbol of life, eggs are forbidden during Lent in France so they have become an Easter treat), bells (church bells are silenced beginning the Thursday before Easter up until Easter Monday. In France, it is the church bells who fly off to Rome and carry the chocolate eggs back to the little French children), fish or chickens.


April’s Mac Attack challenged us all to be inspired by an April holiday, festival or special day. Mathilde, my macaron assistant and fellow enthusiast, came up with the idea for our April Mactweets project: Easter in France. Yes, I know, I don’t celebrate Easter, but I am always intrigued by the differences in cultures around holiday times, and Easter is no exception. Nothing says Easter in France more than creamy praline-studded milk chocolate filled dark chocolate eggs offered to loved ones, adult and children alike, nestling in pretty little beribboned baskets or elegantly wrapped up in clear cellophane. And as Mathilde is still learning her way around macarons, tip-toeing ever so gently, I used my tried and true favorite recipe for chocolate macaron shells so she could participate and learn. I had an old jar of whites in the refrigerator and, after having sifted the powdered sugar, almond meal and cocoa powder, we began to whip the whites into meringue. But we knew something was wrong with the whites right away. They were a strange shade of yellow tinged with greenish brown and murky. And once whipped no fluffy white froth of meringue welcomed us. No. Rather a spongy mass of icky yellow mush. So down the drain they went followed by the rest of the jar. Back to the drawing board.

Out came the carton of fresh eggs, 3 were cracked into a bowl sitting atop my new and improved digital scale and, as one white slithered into the bowl after the other I realized that 3 large egg whites did not 90 grams make! Nope! We had closer to 112 or so grams. Well, I heaved a sigh of “what next?!” and simply decided to use the full 3 whites. After all, I had been making perfect macs until I started weighing my whites, so, after a trail of less-than-perfect shells I decided to see if more whites was the secret to the perfect ones. And indeed….

We then made 2 different fillings, a luxurious caramel-scented milk chocolate ganache and a simple chocolate buttercream. To both we folded in finely crushed pink pralines, a gift from Pam The Cooking Ninja.

I must say that these were my best macarons yet. Maybe not as fabulously intriguing as the Blueberry Hibiscus macarons, but these had a much more satisfying texture, dense and chewy like macarons made with Italian meringue. I loved the deep chocolate flavor and the nuttiness of the praline. The praline also gave the filling a wonderful crunch.


CHOCOLATE MACARONS
For detailed step by step instructions and photographs link here or here)

7.2 oz (200 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar
4 oz (115 g ) ground blanched almonds
3 large egg whites (about 3.8 – 4 oz/ 110 – 112 g)
1 oz (30 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs (15 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 – inch diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip (Ateco #807 or #809).

Sift the powdered sugar, the ground almonds and the cocoa powder together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy. Gradually add the granulated sugar as you continue to whip the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue and all of the sugar has been beaten in. The meringue will be very stiff (turn the bowl upside down over your head and they shouldn’t move) and be dense like marshmallow.

Gently but firmly fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds/cocoa, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds and test again.

You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.

Fill your pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!

You can dust some of the shells with crushed praline to decorate.

Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).

Allow the macarons to sit out for 30 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched). Bake the shells for 15 – 20 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.) I turn the trays back to front halfway through the baking.

Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a metal cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.


CHOCOLATE PINK PRALINE FILLING 2 ways

Finely crushed pralines (caramel-covered hazelnuts), not quite a powder. To taste.
Simple Chocolate Buttercream:
5.5 oz (150 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar or more to taste
3 1/2 Tbs (50 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 Tbs (25 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbs very hot water

Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar together. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy. If the buttercream is a bit too loose to spread, chill in the refrigerator until piping/spreading consistency.


Caramel Milk Chocolate Ganache:
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
4 1/3 oz (125 g) milk chocolate (I used Nestlé Dessert Caramel Milk Chocolate)

We doubled this recipe to fill all of the macarons.

Chop the chocolate and put in an appropriately-sized pyrex (heatproof) bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan gently until it comes just to the boil. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and luxurious. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. It should thicken to a spreading/piping consistency. If you need to, speed up the process by placing in the refrigerator until desired spreading/piping consistency, stirring occasionally.

Whichever chocolate cream filling you use, stir in a few tablespoons or more of finely crushed praline or praline powder (preferably pink if you can find it) to taste. It is nice to feel the crunch and extra texture by using finely crushed but not powdery praline.

Any leftover ganache makes wonderful truffles!

Finish the macarons:

When the macaron shells are cool, pair the shells up evenly, each with a partner. Pipe a dollop, about a teaspoon, of buttercream or ganache filling onto half of the shells, the bottom shell in each pair. Carefully sandwich the shells together with the buttercream. If you didn’t sprinkle the top shells with crushed praline, then shower a bit of cocoa powder over the macarons to decorate if you like.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

RHUBARB BERRY CRUMBLE

A DAY IN THE SWAMPS


There we were, 2 couples, old friends, feet stuffed into mud-caked rubber boots, slogging through the swamp grass, scooting under jerry-rigged barbed wire fences on the seats of our mud-spattered jeans off for a Sunday picnic, a tradition whenever we get together. Bundled up in thick, padded coats against the cold, what hair wasn’t tucked up inside a cap or hat whipped around our heads, into our eyes by the wild wind. Marty ear-deep in reeds bouncing up and down more out of the desire to lift his frozen little paws out of the inches of chilly water than the excitement engendered by finding himself on his first outdoor adventure since last Autumn. The picnic merely an excuse to come out and see the stork families who nest in these swamplands outside of Nantes.


Nature-lovers like my husband, we’ve spent 22 years of get-togethers exploring, trekking, picnicking, days spent standing on wind-whipped beaches, the sand in our eyes, watching the crashing waves and tossing sticks to the dog or picking through the stones and rocks for treasures. Or canoeing off the coast of Brest, see-sawing up and down among the ocean waves, on our way to explore abandoned islands, inhabited only by what Mother Nature decreed, the birds playing among the rocks, the tall grass blown gently by the breeze. Or watching the children (when they were children) building innumerable forts with branches, stones, palm fronds and their imaginations, pirates setting seaward on seafaring Viking adventures, their voices raised in excitement, the dog always first mate or quite possibly the evil enemy, but always part of the game. Or cowboys and Indians, taking refuge in their Alamo, armed with make-believe bows and arrows, storming the enemy camp. Taking to the outdoors in their happy-go-lucky, children-of-the-earth way, always thrilled to be running along the beach, climbing on rocks, hearing their laughter coming back to them on the wind, digging up bugs and breathing in the fragrant fresh air.


Nature adventures, spring, summer or autumn, good weather or bad, come hell or high water, it would be unthinkable to spend a weekend together shut up inside, inconceivable to spend a holiday together without stuffing backpacks, grabbing boots, maps and guidebooks and heading off for that ramble in the woods or hike to the seaside, that bird-watching expedition, that trip out into the country. Binoculars always in hand, the three of them, our two friends and my husband, searching out birds or animals, always knowing their names, plant life and trees, pointing out insects or flowers, discussing ecosystems, migratory patterns, life cycles, ecology-related laws. No simple picnic in the park for these avid adventurers! And I trudge behind them, invariably tugging my hat down further over my ears as the wind chill factor rises and the wind notches it up one, popping a chocolate in my mouth from my certain secret stash to stave off my mounting hunger until the only moment of this nature walk that really truly interests me finally drags around: picnic time.


This time around, they were on our home turf, Nantes, rather than chilly Brest, that city surrounded by rocky coastline and wild seas. JP had promised a sighting of the famed storks who come to nest in the swampland around our delightful city. A sight to behold, these tall, elegant birds could be seen perched high atop slender poles, standing proudly and protectively over their young snuggled deeply in a tuft of hay and grass. What had promised to be a gorgeous, warm sunny day overnight has turned into the tail end of the harsh winter we thought had passed. Plans were made the day before in the glow of a warm sun beating onto the kitchen floor through the French window. Temperatures had risen to springtime and Mother Nature beckoned us to join her for a picnic. So the men were packed off to the market to fill their basket with picnic fare: cold meats and cheeses, fresh bread and fruit. A bottle of white was pushed into the freezer to cool down quickly, tablecloths chosen and folded and tucked alongside the plastic plates and forks, the pocket knives lined up and counted, a bowl for Marty dug up from places of vacations past. But the once beautiful sky was now tinted gray and the men blew in from their market excursion with red-tipped noses and news from the great outdoors: it may be just a tad chillier today than yesterday but sunny enough for that picnic nonetheless! So off we went.


Wind-blown as we were, rambling joyously through the water-logged fields, excitedly pointing binoculars in the direction of the graceful storks, Mother Nature offering us the additional gift of flocks of beautiful, unusual black and white ibises and dainty egrets, it did indeed turn out to be a wonderful day. The sun was ours, shining on our upturned faces, and though the air was brisk, closer to winter than spring, we still succeeded in pinning down the picnic cloth, spreading out the food and enjoying every mouthful, chatting and laughing like old friends do. The wine had been forgotten a bit too long in the freezer and was one chunk of ice so we all stuck to water, but we were tipsy on friendship and memories of times together over the long years.

That evening, cozy in the warm apartment again, fresh from our naps, JP poached a wild sea bass in lemon juice, white wine, parsley and garlic in our new fish poacher (that should have been an ice cream machine), a delicacy to savor, tender and moist, served simply with buttered parsley potatoes. And the now-defrosted white wine. And for dessert, I served warm Rhubarb-Berry Crumble with fresh whipped cream. Heavenly. This is what friends are for, the moments to savor.


The recipe for this delightful, fantastic, flavorful crumble, jam-packed with fruit sweet and tangy nestled under a perfect crumb topping, is from my good friend, a delight herself, Kerrin of My Kugelhopf. Kerrin, a talented cook, baker and writer, a sister separated at birth (we have too much in common not to be!), a wonderful friend shared this recipe on her blog recently and it looked too delicious for me not to try it out myself. And a success it was. I used frozen rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries along with some fresh Gariguette strawberries, as she suggested, and it was perfect! Knowing that this crumble was this good using frozen fruit means that it can be made in the blink of an eye all year round. But with summer quickly upon us, I cannot wait to try this using all fresh fruit.


Kerrin will be joining Jeanne of Cooksister! and me this June at Food Blogger Connect in London to speak about Finding Your Voice and Writing Style, lessons for the food blogger. A panel of talented, beautiful Chicas (if I may say so myself) worth coming to listen to!


RHUBARB-BERRY CRUMBLE
(very slightly altered from Kerrin’s version)

Fruit filling:
3 cups frozen (or fresh) rhubarb chunks, sliced into bite-sized pieces if too large
1 cup frozen (or fresh) raspberries
1 cup frozen (or fresh) blueberries
6 – 8 medium to large ripe strawberries, hulled and cut into 2 or 4 pieces depending on the size of the berries
4 Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs freshly squeezed orange juice


Crumble topping:
1 cup (130 g) flour
2 big pinches fleur de sel
Big pinch (1/4 – ½ tsp) ground cinnamon
½ tsp baking powder
¼ cup (50 g) granulated white sugar
¼ cup (55 g) packed light brown sugar
½ cup (115 g) cold butter, cubed


Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Place 6 individual ramekins on a baking sheet and set aside.

Prepare the fruit filling:
Place all your fruit in a large mixing bowl – frozen fruit does NOT need to be defrosted first! Sprinkle the fruit with the cornstarch and then add the orange juice. Toss everything together until all of the ingredients are well distributed and the cornstarch lightly covers all the fruit. I found that the easiest method was simply pushing up my sleeves and using my hands. Spoon the prepared fruit into the waiting ramekins making sure that it is evenly divided and there are fresh strawberries in every cup.

Prepare the crumble topping:
Combine all of the ingredients except for the butter in a large mixing bowl. Toss until well combined. Add the cubes of cold butter and, using your fingertips, rub or work the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is evenly distributed, there are no more chunks of butter and the mixture resembles rough sand or crumbs.

Divide the crumble mixture evenly between the ramekins, spooning it generously on top of the fruit. Make sure that none of the fruit is exposed. Gently press the crumble topping down onto the fruit.

Bake the ramekins on the baking sheet for 35 – 40 minutes until the crumble puffs up and turns a deep golden color and the fruit bubbles up around the edges of the crumble. It may even begin to dribble down the sides of the ramekins but all the prettier!


Remove the crumbles from the oven and allow to cool a bit before serving. The crumbles are fabulous served hot (though WATCH OUT for boiling fruit! It will burn!), warm or room temperature. Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.


If you don’t serve them right away (and keep them in the refrigerator), simply preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and reheat the crumbles for 5 – 10 minutes. They can also be popped into the microwave on full heat for 30 seconds right before serving.


Or you can simply grab one straight from the fridge and enjoy it cold!


Friday, April 9, 2010

STRAWBERRY-ORANGE QUARK TIRAMISU (FAT FREE!)

COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER : SECONDS


And the countdown goes on. I looked out the window yesterday morning and wondered what had happened. Just the day before Spring was tapping at the pane, beckoning me with long, slender fingers of sunshine to come out and play. A promise of warmth and gentle winds and a hint of summer to come. How I yearned to walk outside and feel the midday sun wash over me, be enveloped in the mild breeze and be carried along, mind empty of all winter woes and just bask in the cheerful expectation of the coming springtime, but those hopes were soon dashed to the ground. The following morning, just one day later, we woke to drab skies and the threat of rain and a grumpy dog roaming from room to room looking for that bright spot of sunshine on the carpet. And on top of it all, I had missed my chance to enjoy our one beautiful day: there I was, lying sick in bed, covers pulled up to my chin, groaning for no one to hear. And feeling very sorry for myself. As I cracked open one eye and looked out the window onto that dreary day, a chill in the air, I wondered if Ms. Spring was crying for me as I lay in bed sick, not able to go out and play.

Oh, to be this elegant when sick....

The weather teases, coaxes me into believing that one more winter is done and over, slate-colored skies will turn blue, steel gray, heavy clouds will stomp off leaving fluffy, cotton clouds, airy and light, in their place. Yet here it is playing games, hide and seek, making promises like a coquette, promises she doesn’t mean to keep, flashing her brilliant smile, baring one delicate shoulder, whispering your name, then disappearing as you reach out for her, leaving nothing in your grasp except for the echo of her mocking laugh. Ah, that is April for you, in like a lion, out like a lamb yet in between the two nothing but deception, hope and waiting.

But here it is, another day come and gone and as I stretch and yawn and realize that Mr. Bug has also come and gone leaving me feeling just a little bit brighter, a little closer to normal, I see the sun is back, shining through the shutters and inviting me to downshift one more time into springtime mode.

Springtime should be like this every day...

I detest being sick. I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to eat, and that, my friends, is truly tragic! And when sick I barely make it from one end of the apartment to the other much less outside to shop, so poor JP ended up eating boiled potatoes for dinner. He found them hiding somewhere in their little brown paper bag, boiled them up and ate them with a bit of old bread and a spot of cheese. Poor man. But I was saving all of my own pity for myself so I had little to spare. No, I can’t say that, can I? I felt horrid! Forcing my poor man who works so hard all day long to eat boiled potatoes for dinner? So the following morning I forced myself out of bed, drank a hot cup of coffee and some toast and jam and swore that I would get over this bug. Pronto!

And now it’s done and off I run to market! I love the coming of spring with the occasional sighting of a berry here or an asparagus there, the local fruits and vegetables waving their little arms, calling my name. As the oranges and grapefruit dwindle to the last few golden orbs, as the passion fruit elbow their way in front of the pears, as the local apples give way to their tiny red friends, it’s starting to feel a lot like summer! And that, my friends, is enough to cheer anyone up!


The first local gariguette strawberries from just outside Nantes have finally shown their lovely red faces this week. Nestled in their tiny cartons, they puff out their little strawberry chests and gloat: perfect, plump berries with their thatch of green crowning something so luscious, France’s most famous, beloved strawberries, bright and sugary sweet, juicy and tender, the perfect berry to eat one after the next, fingers staining a gorgeous ruby red, or dusted with sugar that cracks in between your teeth as you scoop up a few slices of the dusted berries and bite down. Or smothered under barely sweetened Chantilly, adding a froth of feminine luxuriousness to something already so sexy as that perfect red jewel-like fruit.


Already at the height of her sweetness, the gariguette calls me over to the market stall and mesmerizes me with her fragrance and perfect little body. I have visions of wrapping her in cream, thick and luscious, pairing her with the last of the season’s oranges, tart and tangy, a kiss of warmth, winter’s brilliant, golden depth against summer’s light sweetness. Add to that a soft bite of ladyfinger, delicate yet dense, drenched in a rich caramel with a kick of orange and a splash of red fruit syrup, snuggling deep in the snowy white cream redolent of vanilla and nutty Amaretto. Mmmmmm. Luxurious, voluptuous, what more could you ask for in a dessert? How about low fat? Ok, you’ve got it! Slide a spoonful between your lips, into your mouth, onto your tongue, taste buds titillated they glide through flavor after flavor, the richness of the cream, the sweet, juicy berries, the glow of the orange, the earthiness of the Amaretto and it is hard to believe that this dessert is low fat. Believe it! So cool and refreshing, you can indulge all summer long! Indulge and enjoy!


Oh happy days! I won my first writing contest! Thank you Matilda and Kendra of Women’s Memoirs, for choosing my piece Remembering Childhood as the winner (tied for first place with Joellyn Simpson Avery) for March’s Food Memoir Contest. I am thrilled and honored! Matilda and Kendra have created a special place for women to gather and share their memories and concentrate on their writing, learning and improving.

STRAWBERRY-ORANGE FAT-FREE QUARK “TIRAMISU”
Makes 4 individual Tiramisu *

*for more, simply increase everything! Easily done!

I played this completely by ear, basing it on a traditional Tiramisu (here and here). Ladyfingers soaked in orange caramel syrup with a couple of tablespoons of a red fruit syrup to taste which can be replaced with a simple blend of freshly squeezed orange juice, a tablespoon or two of Amaretto and any red fruit drink or juice, preferably sugar-free, to taste. Layer it with whatever summery fruit you like, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or even the last of the season’s ripe, sweet pears or oranges.


About 12 ladyfingers (recipe follows) **
1 pint ripe, sweet, juicy strawberries
1 cup of syrup made with freshly-squeezed orange juice and sugar *** + a red fruit syrup or juice or strawberry purée
2 cups (500 ml) 0% fat fromage frais, quark or even Greek yogurt
About 3 Tbs powdered/confectioner’s sugar to taste
½ vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out (you will use the seeds not the pod)
2 – 3 Tbs Amaretto or to taste

Make the ladyfingers if not using store bought. Make the orange syrup and allow to cool to room temperature. This can be done well ahead of time. Before using, take about ½ cup or so of the orange syrup and add any red fruit syrup, nectar or juice to taste. If you like, get some extra ripe strawberries and purée them and stir them into the orange syrup to taste. (I used Le Nantillais Fruits Rouges, a non-alcoholic, sweetened fruit preparation used as a base for cocktails). And don't forget that you can always replace the fat-free fromage frais with mascarpone and make a traditional cream Tiramisu.

Le Nantillais

Blend the fromage frais with powdered sugar, the seeds from the vanilla bean and Amaretto to taste. Whisk until well blended and creamy.


Put about a tablespoon of the fromage frais mixture in the bottom of 4 desserts bowls.


Take a ladyfinger and plunge into the orange syrup allowing it to soak up liquid so it is soaked through but not mushy or falling apart, just a few seconds. Place one in each bowl and press gently into the layer of cream. Slice 4 more ladyfingers and plunge into the syrup a piece at a time and snuggle them either side of the whole ladyfingers already in the bowls to fill in the dish to make a complete layer of soaked fingers.


Divide the rest of the fromage frais, reserving about 4 heaping tablespoons, between the 4 glasses, covering the ladyfingers with the cream. Trim the strawberries and slice placing a layer of sliced strawberries in each bowl on top of the layer of cream.


Add a tablespoon (divide the rest of the fromage frais) on top of the sliced berries then decorate the top with more sliced strawberries.

Cover the “Tiramisu” with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight so the flavors blend and the ladyfingers soften with the juice and cream.

Just before serving, drizzle a bit of the orange syrup over the berries on top then whiz up a final few ladyfingers in a food processor to make large crumbs and sprinkle over the top of each “Tiramisu”. Serve chilled.


** for the Ladyfingers (if you want to see how this looks step by step click here):

3 large eggs, separated
6 Tbs (75 g) sugar
¾ cup (95 g) cake flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla
6 Tbs (50 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar

Separate the eggs. Place the yolks in a large mixing bowl. Place the whites in a medium-sized metal or plastic bowl and add a pinch of salt. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Line 2 large baking or cookie sheets with parchment paper. I “glued” down the corners of the parchment with a dab of softened butter just so the parchment lay flat.

Beat the egg whites on low for 30 seconds then increase the beater speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. Continue beating while sprinkling on about a tablespoon or 2 of the sugar until the whites are stiff.

Beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and the vanilla until thick, pale and the batter forms a ribbon when the beaters are lifted up. Using a spatula, fold the whites into the yolk mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the flour also added in 3 times, until smooth and well blended. Do not overfold.


Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip (or just snip the end off; you could also use a Ziploc bag) and fill with the batter. Pipe the batter into 5" long and 3/4" wide strips (or larger or smaller as needed) leaving about 1" space in between the strips.


Sprinkle half the confectioner's sugar over the ladyfingers and wait for 5 minutes. The sugar will pearl or look wet and glisten.

Now sprinkle the remaining sugar evenly over the ladyfingers. This helps to give the ladyfingers their characteristic crispness.

Bake the ladyfingers for 10 minutes then turn the baking sheets around back to front and continue baking until the fingers are lightly golden, about 5 minutes more depending on your oven.


Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow to cool slightly before removing them with a metal spatula onto cooling racks to cool completely.


** for the Orange Syrup:
½ cup (100 g) sugar
Scant 1 cup (200 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
Red fruit juice

Place the sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat and begin warming it. Once the sugar starts to foam and bubble around the edges, slowly add the orange juice. If the sugar starts to re-solidify, don’t worry, as the juice heats it will re-melt. Stir as needed. As soon as the mixture begins to boil and all of the sugar is melted, lower the heat and allow to simmer until it begins to thicken slightly and turns a deeper golden color. You want a syrup not a caramel.

Allow to cool completely before using. Just before using, add a splash of red fruit juice to taste. Or purée extra strawberries and mix into the syrup.

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