Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tangerine Dreams (a project completed)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my attempt to candy whole clementines. It did take a little over two weeks but the result is beautiful and delicious. In the process, some of them collapsed so I teased out the seeds, chopped the peel and flesh to make an ingredient or topping for (almost) anything; from pancakes to cheesecake.

I can just imagine these enrobed with dark chocolate! This year, the prettiest ones made unique gifts.

(Preserving fruit in sugar syrup (honey or palm syrups) has been done for thousands of years. The technique was refined in Semitic cultures and brought to Europe during Moorish expansion North.)  

From A Tangerine Tree

To a Christmas Tree



Monday, December 23, 2013

Cookies Allowed

I certainly wouldn't want to say anything myself, but my friends say that I bake a mean cookie. Aaah, the cookie, is anything better?


We all have favorite flavors, textures and styles: chocolate chip or macaroons, biscotti or benne wafers, crisp or soft, balanced or very sweet, rolled or dropped, egg whites or butter, plain or frosted, giant or dainty bites. Normally, I am not too sweet but crisp, buttery and nut-centric. However, I never met a cookie that I didn't want, to paraphrase Will Rogers (I can hear the callow ones now...Who the hell is Will Rogers?)

{Full disclosure: I love store-boughts; my favorites  are Vienna Fingers, Mallomars, Nutter Butters, Oreos and those cheap, by-the-pound gingersnaps.}

The same few ingredients can produce a variety of results. More flour and less sugar gives a cakey texture. Wetter doughs or batters yield crispness. Chewy textures can come from particular temperature and time balances. Overbaked cookies can be unpleasantly hard. Lots of sugar produces the lacy cookies that almost no one makes any more.

Macaroons are a good case in point. They are very simple preparations, nut meals or coconut and sweetener bound with egg whites. Often a particular macaroon calls for baking at such a low temperature that they become dried rather than baked. Some are not baked at all.

Since they are generally made without flour or dairy they were adopted for Passover to meet the strict dietary requirements. One Spring I made hundreds for the Jewish Community Center. My year of running a kosher kitchen.

crunchy coconut macaroons
The whole category of cookie is Italian (naturally) and from the ninth century. Macaroon derives from a word for pounding almonds into a paste. The paste was sweetened with honey and mixed with egg white. The egg both loosens the stiff almond paste and then binds it when baked. You can make your own almond paste by pounding blanched nuts with sugar. For the DIYers: You probably need to live in the California central valley where you can raise your own almonds, sugar cane and chickens. Truly house macaroons.

I've made many varieties including the very fussy, contemporary (developed about 1930) French "Macaron". They are beautiful but way too sweet for my taste.

this style was invented in 1930 at Ladurée's 

My favorite, though is the Italian style, like the cherry stuffed Mareschi pictured above (and below.) I love the intense almond flavor with a crisp skin and a moist interior. I think of them as a particularly harmonious Christmas treat.

The ones I've just made are my version of the traditional form, just a bit less complicated. I grated a pound and a third of almond paste added three egg whites and mixed it thoroughly in my stand mixer. I found the dough too wet and so added a third of a pound of almond flour. There is enough sugar in almond paste already. I formed each piece into a ball and poked a dried Montmorency cherry in the middle. Finally they get neatened into a rough drum shape and dusted them with powdered sugar. 

300 Fahrenheit for 25 minutes (on parchment) and they're done. 

Brigid Burns                                                                                                
Happy holidays and, as always,


Thursday, December 12, 2013

It isn't Christmas without pickled herring

They always had Brandy Alexanders as we opened gifts. The velvet smell of the nutmeg, cream, chocolate and cognac is my Christmas essential oil. Later there was a magnificent standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. There were special treats my sister and I both expected in our stockings. Herring in sour cream and cocktail onions. I realize it's odd and we must have developed the taste from wandering the house on mornings after epic cocktail parties.

Our family celebrated Christmas in so many places the holiday never had a sense of place and people. Outside of the four of us, the cast was always different and never included other family. My father didn't get along with his only brother, at all. Mother's brother was pretty stiff. I never met my father's parents and my other grandfather, a clergyman, died when I was 5 or 6. I only remember rimless glasses and pipe tobacco.

Our grandmother, Martha, was a distant part of the holiday. The Alexanders were always brought out on a tole tray she had painted with foliage and a two line poem:

“No sound on earth quite surpasses
The clink of ice in crystal glasses”

It is now lost but I loved it. It looked a bit like this one but instead of flowers there were grape vines and those wonderful words painted in an antique gold.

She also sent blanched and roasted almonds and a small box of candied grapefruit peel, dipped in chocolate. It seemed very special because she had made these gifts herself. The bitter back-beat of the sweetened peel was a promise of intriguing flavors that only adults could have (coffee, whiskey, cigarettes...Brandy Alexanders.)

I should also say that, even though we were a small family with no permanent home, we were enough. We all loved Christmas and did it up well. Trust me, it was no hardship to have Christmas in Hawaii.

The inspiration of my grandmother's treats is strong. For a while I was afraid that gifts that I made in the kitchen were somehow less than a shopped thing. But I enjoy the whole process. As I've gotten more skilled in the kitchen people seem less and less likely to "go to the trouble" to blanch almonds themselves. But Martha did more, she lived where there were almond groves and found good ones. And then she roasted them to the perfect, light caramel brown when the flavor is just...almost exotic, and the crunch is a perfect link to their essence.

I fried these in olive oil

The holidays also give me a chance to play in the kitchen and make gifts for friends. These have included: garlic confit (I have been asked never to poach a gallon of peeled garlic cloves indoors again...this is very good advice), Dukkah, an Egyptian seed and spice mix, preserved lemons, panforte, as well as various cookies some of which are apparently required by certain revelers.

This year, I am revisiting a failed experiment, determined to succeed this time. A few years ago, I tried to candy whole clementines. My inspiration was Fanny, a charming pâtissière from the south of France (now in London, practicing her art and living with great panache.) Her old blog, Foodbeam included a recipe for Christmas Cake which included a candied clementine. Since we don't have confisseries here in the US I would have to make my own.

I slowly simmered the smallest fruit I could find. Ultimately, the sugar caramelized and darkened too much so I chopped it all up and used it as a marmalade.

Now I have found a technique that is working and they are nearly done. I am expecting jewels. I will find fat little bottles and present them in syrup although they can be dried a bit and rolled in sugar (so they won't be sticky.) Furthermore, as she walked the dog, Brigid found a tree loaded with tiny tangerines that are beautiful and very tart. We were visiting Tracy and Rob in Jacksonville

Photo: Brigid Burns

The method is pretty simple: first you need to be certain the fruit has not been sprayed. Ours came from an abandoned house. I pricked them all over with a sewing needle to admit the syrup and then brought them to a boil with one and a half cups of sugar. That's it. I put them in a big jar and let the syrup soak in. Every two days I pour the syrup back into a pot, add a heaping half cup of sugar, bring it to a boil and pour it back on the fruit which needs to be held below the surface of the syrup. It will take a couple of weeks before the tangerines are candied all the way through. They become translucent, sweet and are probably the only glaceed whole tangerines in North Carolina.

This what they look like now and they're almost done.

Brigid Burns


(by the way, you can catch up with Fanny at her current blog:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Taking Stock

The chill has arrived in Asheville, flowing down from the hills and under our front door. The mountains have lost their haze and we have the crystal distance again. Our Fall is gorgeous and I am feeling renewed. It has been a long year for me. This time last year I was in terrible shape, dependent on machines for survival and in an ICU trance.

I had nothing by mouth for three months. Gods! This is a pure food guy here! As I began to improve I imagined what my first meal would be. I knew that it was cold outside (although the weather never changed in the hospital) and dreamed of stews and braises, chowders, soups, short ribs, beef tea, chicken and bone broths and consommes. For me, these are the most comforting and restorative foods.

Of all the elements of great cooking, the liquids we use are most fundamental: stocks, broths, Court Bouillon, fruit and vegetable juices, beer, wine, tea, herbal tisanes, milks (cow, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, water buffalo, coconut, almond, rice and soy), butters, syrups and oils. Plain water is advanced with aromatics, herbs and redolent vegetables plus heat and time.

Of course you can buy stock: organic, free-range and low sodium if you like. Sadly, the very best of them do not compare with what you can make yourself. One can improve store bought foods and if I am unable to make my own stock I will take two quarts of a clean stock (read the label and eliminate anything you would never find in your kitchen). To these two quarts I might add chunks of celery, carrot and onion with a bay leaf and a few peppercorns and then reduce to one quart. This results in a serviceable cooking stock.

Delicate flavors require delicate liquids, simmered briefly with mild additions. Sole poached gently in lightly salted water with a bit of lemon juice and fresh parsley leaves. But for a warming, nourishing and healing meal I choose braises and stews which (for me) require a deep and rich meat stock. Which takes time...a lot of time. Stock may be reduced very slowly from gallons to quarts, from quarts to pints and further until it becomes nearly solid.

This semi-solid is called demi-glace and begins with roasting meat, bones and vegetables until dark and caramelized. The browned ingredients are added to a pot that is deeper than it is wide, covered in unseasoned water and simmered slowly for 8 hours to extract all of the flavor. The rich stock is strained and de-fatted, then slowly reduced and concentrated (for another 8 to 10 hours) until it forms a thick syrup, dark, dark, dark and powerful.

It's true that I am a bit of a mad man and consider it a pleasure to spend 20 hours to produce something which is, however magical, a single ingredient. Of those 20 hours, only 2 requires your attention. The rest is a murmuring simmer that should not be disturbed until done, It is absolutely worth the time and effort. I use it to push dishes over the top; the last step from wonderful to the sublime. Dishes that I savor with my eye closed.

As it happens, one can also buy a tub of demi-glace. I have tried two different brands and they are remarkably good. I am not sure why I can buy a good demi and not a good stock. Go figure. They are pricey and a bit hard to find (the one I have now came from Amazon!)

It really is a kind of secret weapon. Typically, I only need a spoonful. For example, I might pan roast a steak which leaves a very flavorful skin on the bottom of the pan called the fond. Throw in one or two finely minced shallots or garlic and cook in the fat until browned and then a half glass of red wine to loosen and then incorporate the flavors already there. When the alcohol has burned off and the sauce has slightly thickened stir in a teaspoon of veal or beef demi-glace. Finally a pat of butter. Time to close your eyes and savor.

Back to being comforted and restored: Boeuf aux carottes...beef braised in red wine and carrots. Braise, slowly and tightly sealed in a enameled, iron pot for two and a half to four hours (as long as it takes for the meat to yield to spoon-soft) in a moderate, 350º oven. This seems to me as the ideal French farm house meal. An inexpensive chuck roast cooked with vegetables and a fruity wine. The important thing is to chamber everything, not permitting evaporation.

About an hour before the meat reaches the yielding softness I aim for, I strain the spent carrots and whatever vegetables that have not dissolved and add fresh carrots and a tied bundle of parsley and thyme sprigs. I might add cubes of turnip and some fingerling potatoes. At this point I taste the juice which has begun to thicken and adjust salt and pepper and finally, before I reseal the pot I stir in a spoon of demi-glace (for an excellent approach to this  dish, see the daube recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table

I am working on the next post that includes a recipe and technique for my go-to healing broth.