Thursday, August 30, 2012

Corn Chowder! Something to do with fresh corn...

Of course the best way to eat fresh sweet corn is to pick it, boil or roast it, slather it with butter and some salt, then eat it. Messily. With butter dripping down your chin. I grew up in southern lower Michigan, where a lot of farmers grow corn. Mainly dent corn, I presume, but sweet corn as well. There used to be a farm stand near my house when I was a kid (the same space now hosts a McDonalds and a strip mall) and the sweet corn was fresh and wonderful when it was in season. I've now lived in Oklahoma for 18 (!) years, and finding really good sweet corn around here can be a challenge. It's not really corn-growing country. If you're looking for okra, jalapeños, melons or tomatoes, we've got you covered. But sweet corn? Not so much.

So, with the corn in the grocery store looking anemic, possibly due to the drought in the corn belt, I thought I'd buy some and make some corn chowder. There's probably dozens and dozens of recipes out there (a quick internet search verified that), but really the basics come down to: corn, bacon, potatoes, onions, and milk. You can add flour as a thickener, or purée some of the chowder and add it back in. You can add celery, red or green peppers, chicken or vegetable broth. You can season with thyme, tarragon, basil, or just salt and pepper. You can use russets, or Yukon golds, or plain white potatoes. You can make it thick or thin. You can toss cheese or bacon bits on top of your bowl of chowder. I don't typically use a recipe when I make it (the same is true of a lot of soups), but I tried to keep track of what I did so that I could record it here.

I find that I often don't use a recipe when I cook. When I bake, yes, I tend to follow a recipe (although I often modify it as I go along), but when I cook I only tend to use a recipe when I make something completely new to me. I presume a lot of people who like to cook are like that, but I don't know. How about you?

Here's some corn chowder for a warm dinner.

Corn Chowder

5 ears sweet corn
2 large russet potatoes (or whatever you prefer)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 oz (about 5 slices) bacon, cut into small pieces
2 heaping tablespoons of flour
1 teaspoon thyme (I like thyme, but it is fine to add less)
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons salt (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon ground pepper

   Cut the corn off the cobs. I used to do this by holding the cob upright and cutting down until I saw a Sara Moulton cooking show where a visiting chef left the corn longways on the cutting board and just slicing off the corn that way. Less messy, I think. But you can get the corn off the cob any way you'd like. I prepared the rest of the ingredients before beginning to cook.
   Use a largish pot. Fry the bacon over moderate heat until crisp. Remove bacon bits from the pot and set aside. Cook the onion until translucent (softened). Add the garlic and sauté a few minutes. Add the flour and cook until the fat is absorbed by the flour. I like my chowder on the thin side, so the 2 tablespoons of flour will only provide minimal thickening for that much liquid. If you like your chowder thicker, you can add more flour, but you will need to add more fat as well--about 1 tablespoon flour per tablespoon of butter or oil. Alternatively, you can take about 1/2 of the completed soup and purée in a blender, then pour back into the pot. The corn and potatoes which have been puréed will thicken the soup.
Everything chopped and ready to go!
Frying the bacon (mmmmm... bacon....)

Adding flour to the onions, garlic and bacon fat
(mmmmmm... bacon... oh wait, I already said that)

Cooking the raw ingredients in the chicken broth

   When the flour has absorbed the fat, slowly begin to add the chicken broth, stirring constantly until the flour paste is fully dissolved into the liquid. Add the corn, potatoes and thyme, then cook for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are the consistency you prefer. Add the milk, cream salt and pepper then heat through. Don't let the soup come to a hard boil after adding the cream--that messes up the consistency of the soup. Finally, add the cooked bacon back in OR save to sprinkle on top of your bowl of soup. Chives are also a nice touch if you have them.

Ready to eat! I should have had some saltines ready...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Stout Bread with Spinach, Onions & Gouda

Time to bake some bread! I realize that I have been posting quite a number of sweet dishes, so I decided to give a go at something more savory.

The two inspirations for this bread are "Spinach Cheese Boule with Whole Wheat" from the blog "The Fresh Loaf" by  Dolf Starreveld. You can find that recipe here: The other inspiration, which I followed enough to say that this recipe is adapted from, is "Dark Sour Bread" from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads (1987, Simon and Schuster). Bernard Clayton first published The Complete Book of Breads in 1973, and the recipes in his book really were written before the artisanal bread movement began in the late 1980s. These are standard make-in-one-day loaves with fairly soft crusts which aren't baked on a baking stone or started with a poolish (overnight starter). As such the recipes are tasty, but one should not expect the crust that one gets with artisanal bread or no-knead bread.

Stout Bread with Spinach, Onions & Gouda
5 oz organic baby spinach, roughly chopped
1 small onion, in a small dice
1 T olive oil
4 oz (1/4 lb.) Double Cream Gouda, cut into 1/2" cubes

1 bottle (12 oz) stout
3/4 cup water
2/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
2 T butter
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup molasses
4 1/2 tsp dry yeast (2 packets)
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour, up to 1/2 cup more for kneading, depending on wetness of dough.

Sauté the onions in the olive oil until softened and beginning to brown. Add spinach, and cook until the spinach has completely wilted. Set aside to cool.

In a saucepan bring the stout and water to a simmer. Take off heat, then stir in cornmeal, butter, salt and molasses. When cooled to warm but not hot, add the yeast and 2 cups of whole wheat flour. Stir until blended. Add about 1 1/2 cups of the bread flour, and stir until you have a thick, shaggy mass. Turn out  onto countertop and begin to knead, adding in the last 1/2 cup of flour. Sprinkle more flour as you knead for about 10 minutes, The dough will be heavy and fairly wet. After about 10 minutes, gradually knead in the spinach and onion mixture, then the gouda. Kneading this together can be a little tricky, but you can add as much bread flour as needed to make the dough workable--or you can squeeze the spinach mixture after wrapping in a cheesecloth to get rid of as much moisture as possible.

Once the spinach, onions and cheese are thoroughly incorporated, form the dough into a ball. Place into an oiled or buttered large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until double, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Once dough has risen, punch down and divide in two. Form each half into an elongated loaf and place in oiled bread pans; cover with plastic wrap. Let rise again until double, about 1 hour. About 20 minutes before the bread will go in the oven, preheat the oven to 375. Bake the loaves for 40 minutes, or until done. Turn out of pans immediately and let cool.
The bread has a moist crumb, and some nice flavor. I find the bread to taste slightly sweet, and the onions are a nice complement. If I were to do the recipe again, I would probably try a no-knead method  and a higher temperature (and no loaf pans) for a better crust.

As a point of reference, here's some documentation of the process.
The onions after browning
And in goes the chopped spinach...
Which gets cooked down to this.
Here's the yummy double-cream gouda!
The wet stuff after cooking, but before adding the flour.
The little dots are the stone-ground cornmeal.
Here's the dough all kneaded and ready for the first rise.
After 1 1/2 hours, the dough has doubled in volume.
The dough after being divided and allowed to rise in the loaf pans
ready for the oven!
The finished bread! Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes until you
try to cut into it, otherwise you'll end up with odd bread mush.

Friday, August 17, 2012

All Afternoon Apple Cream Tart

So, after a rather long hiatus during which I waited for the daytime highs to get below 100 then coped with prepping for the new semester, I decided to try something a little more ambitious than usual for today's post. I didn't, however, anticipate that it would take all afternoon! Hence the title of today's blog entry.

The recipe comes from a marvelous memoir/biography/cookbook called When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir with Over 250 Recipes by Madeleine Kamman. Kamman is roughly contemporary with Julia Child, and was a child in France during WWII. She is probably best known for her cookbook The Making of a Cook. This book essentially recounts her own experience with a number of French women before, during, and after WWII. She has chosen women from different regions of France and then gives recipes from each women. Many of the recipes are from the 1930s and 40s, and may stretch into the 19th century. It's a beautifully written book as interesting for the history as it is for the recipes.

Many of the recipes are promising, and today I decided to try one that had captured my attention--La Pommée D'Henriette, or Apple Cream Tart from Normandy. Here's the recipe, as written, and can be found on page 130. Hang on, it's a long one!

[Apple Cream Tart]

Servings: 8-12 Cost: reasonable Execution: semi-difficult
Total Preparation Time: 1 hour for the pastry, 1 hour for the filling. Spread the work over two days.
Remarks on Ingredients: Use Grannie Smith, July-September; Gravenstein, July-September; Greening, October-February; Winesap, January-May
Best Season: Follow the apples. No other pie apples resemble the Normandy apples enough to be used.

1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (175g)
3/4 cup butter (175 g)
3/4 tsp. salt (7 1/2 g)
4-5 TB water (1/2 dl)
1 tsp. sugar

1 cup heavy cream (225 g or 2 1/4 dl)
1 1/2 cups applesauce (3 1/2 dl)
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. lemon rind, grated fine
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup apple cider (1 generous dl)
1 envelope gelatin
6 TB Calvados or Apple Jack (1 small dl)
3 TB unsalted butter (35 g)
8 peeled apples, cut into 8 slices each
1 TB sugar (10 g)

   Put the flour on the counter and make a well. Cut the butter into 1 1/2-tablespoon chunks and add. Add the salt. With the fingertips, squeeze the butter and flour together to obtain pieces if butter no smaller than 1/3 of a tablespoon. Sprinkle the water over the mixture gradually and mix with the fingertips until the pastry holds together. Let rest on a plate for 30 minutes. Refrigerate. Roll out into a strip 15 inches by 6 inches by 1/2 inch. Fold in three. Turn the package of dough so it looks like a book ready to be opened. Flatten it out again into the same size strip. Fold in three. Refrigerate 15 minutes. Repeat the same operation a second time; refrigerate 15 minutes. Repeat the same operation a third time; refrigerate 15 more minutes. By now you will have given 6 turns altogether. Between the turns keep the dough in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator and not on one of the shelves; the butter will be flattened and absorbed more readily this way.
   Roll the pastry out into an 11inch circle, 1/8 inch thick. Fit it into a 9-inch circular buttered cake pan. Cut away any excess pastry by rolling the pin over the edges of the cake mold. Crimp the edge of the pastry with a fork, prick its bottom, and fit a piece of aluminum into the unbaked pastry. Fill with dried beans or aluminum nuggets, and bake 15 minutes at 425. Remove the beans or nuggets and foil. Sprinkle the bottom of the pie with 1 teaspoon of sugar and continue baking for another five minutes. Gently unfold to cool on a cake rack.

   Whip the heavy cream until almost mounding. Keep refrigerated. Put the applesauce into a pan with cinnamon and lemon rind; add a tiny pinch of salt and reduce to 1/2 cup. Put the cider in a measuring cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over it and melt it in a hot water bath. Mix with the applesauce. Liquify the mixture in the blender. Pour into a bowl fitted over another, larger bowl containing ice and water. Add 2 tablespoons of the Calvados. Stir until the mixture starts to thicken. Fold in the heavy cream and pour into the prepared pie shell.
   Heat the 3 tablespoons of butter in a 10-inch frying pan. Sauté the apple slices over high heat to color them well. Reduce the heat, sprinkle with the sugar, and let the apples soften and glaze. Flambé them with the remaining Calvados or Apple Jack. Let cool. Arrange the apples in concentric circles on top of the cream filling.

Ok, here was my experience with the recipe. First of all those two one-hour segments on top? Pure lies. It took me a good four hours or more, start to finish. I tried to follow the recipe as best I could, but sometimes had to/wanted to make some changes.

First, the pastry dough. This seems a rather complicated way of making what is essentially plain old pie dough. I have seen the trifold technique used when making puff pastry from scratch, but this recipe has you incorporate the butter at the beginning. I thought perhaps this would make the crust something of a cross between puff pastry and pie crust, and that was the case, sort of. All that folding, refrigerating and re-rolling did make for a very pliable dough at the end, which was easy to roll out and place in the cake pan.
Sifting the flour
Then making a well and putting in the butter:

The dough:
The recipe at this point says "Let rest on a plate for 30 minutes. Refrigerate." This stumped me. Let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature then refrigerate? Let it rest while it is in the refrigerator? I opted to let it do its resting in the 'fridge, since I know pie dough does need refrigeration. 
Now comes the first strip and trifold:

And after turning it, rolling it, and trifolding it again, I got this:
I went through the rest of the pastry shell process pretty much as written, with the exception of the cake pan. A cake pan is a rather odd shape for what should be a tart. Perhaps tart pans weren't widely available in the U.S. when the book was written? Anyway, I had 8-inch cake pans or a 10-inch pastry pan. I opted for the pastry pan. Here's the crust all rolled out and ready to blind-bake (pre bake).
And here we are, all finished. I used a little more sugar than the recipe called for.

So far, so good. A lot of work for a pastry shell, but what the heck. It certainly did work. On to the filling! Here's the applesauce mixture, before cooking: 
This is where I ran into my first problem. I didn't anticipate how long it would take to cook down by 2/3! In the meanwhile, I had sprinkled the gelatin over the apple cider, and had heated it up to dissolve the gelatin.
Aaaaannnnddd... the applesauce is bubbling anemically, but not reducing much. You can't hold dissolved gelatin at high temps indefinitely (you can see my makeshift hot water bath above). I cranked the heat up on the applesauce. Hey! Applesauce volcano! How exciting! I turned the heat to medium and let it reduce down by 1/3 rather than the requisite 2/3, then called it good. By this time I had been working on the dang applesauce for 25 minutes and needed to move along. Now, I did use a commercial (organic, unsweetened) applesauce rather than homemade. Since homemade tends to be more watery, perhaps the recipe was written with homemade applesauce in mind. Not sure. Did I mention that while I was waiting for the applesauce to cook down, I made the whipped cream? 
So, here again I wasn't sure what beating the cream until it was "almost mounding" meant. I guessed that mounding meant a firm whipped cream, so I made one with soft peaks instead. Finally, after getting sick of waiting around for the applesauce, I buzzed the applesauce and apple juice up in a blender, as per the recipe.
Then put the whole thing in an ice bath and added the Calvados. Calvados is an apple liqueur from Normandy, and I just happen to have some on hand for cooking!
Mmmm... Calvados...
Back to the ice bath. The mixture actually took very little time to cool and begin to thicken. Ice baths are helpful that way.
Finally, I folded in the whipped cream and poured it all into my prebaked tart shell, then stuck it in the fridge for gelling. The "cream" layer is actually something like an apple bavarian, given the gelatin used to help it set.
I would note that as you rearrange the fridge to fit in the tart, don't drop a package of hot dogs into it as I did. Sometimes it sucks being an uncoordinated klutz.
Finally, the apple topping. 8 apples seemed like an awful lot to me, given the size of the Granny Smith's at the grocery store. I opted for 5 apples worth, cut in more than the suggested eight pieces. I cut the slices about 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick. I melted butter and then dumped them into the pan.
The recipe calls for high heat here so they brown. Unfortunately, I don't think my pan got hot enough because the only browning I got came after they cooked for about 8 minutes and some of the juice cooked off. Things might have worked better in a cast-iron skillet over my hottest burner. Oh well. Next came the fun part--flambé! I called in the kids and gave Cian the camera. What I forgot to do is turn out the lights, but I think you can still see the flame here:
The children were duly impressed, even though they opted not to try the tart when it was done. After everything cooled, I arranged the cooked apples on the tart. Looks not too bad, if I do say so myself.

The verdict? The kids weren't interested (they don't like pies). Husband and I ate slices. It was very tasty, but I'm not sure it was tasty enough to warrant all the time that went into it. And the quantity of dishes which needed to be washed at the end (thank you, Kieran!). I have found quite a few other, more modern recipes out there for apple cream tart-- Laura Calder has a good one:
I think something reasonably similar could be made in about half the time using Calder's recipe. Still, it was a good experience at cooking from an old recipe.