Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A savory tart

Growing up, I never ate savory tarts. My mother never made them. She always prepared the traditional Greek pies with thin or rustic phyllo, or even puff pastry, filled with Greek cheeses, spinach or horta, different types of wild greens that grow on Greek mountains.

Tarts were something I discovered in my early teenage years, when I started cooking on my own and wanted to try new things. The first tart I ever made was a French one with chicken, chicken livers and mushrooms, which was a complete disaster. It was tasty but it didn't quite resemble a tart.

Ever since that first attempt, I have made my fair share of savory tarts and it even came to the point where I would be confident enough to proudly present my well-baked and flavorful creations to the Sunday family lunch. However, in all honesty, I have always preferred the traditional Greek pies. I've always considered them a superior kind of pie.

The fact that I'm not a huge fan of savory tarts is quite evident here in this blog of mine. If you have ever browsed through the recipe index, you may have noticed that I don't have a lot of savory tart recipes there. Well, except for one which is actually a recipe for phyllo individual tartlets (which by the way are amazing).

Still, every so often, a recipe for a tart just catches my eye and I can't help but wanting to try it. That is the case with this one; a deserving one, a savory tart that is undoubtedly great; a prosciutto and taleggio tart with a polenta crust.

Prosciutto, taleggio, polenta; even the sound of these three ingredients makes my taste buds tingle with excitement. The crust of this tart is made with butter, parmesan cheese, and polenta—Italian cornmeal—,which gives the crust a pale yellow hue. The filling is made with prosciutto, an Italian dry-cured ham that is salty and delicious, and taleggio cheese, an Italian semi-hard, raw cow's milk cheese.

Taleggio is one of the oldest cheeses of Lombardy, dating as far back as the 9th century when it was first made in the area of Val Taleggio, and it has a spicy, nutty and fresh aroma. It's a rather fatty cheese, with 48% fat, and it has an excellent melting quality, which makes it ideal for risotto and pizza.

The crust is buttery, crispy and rich and when you bite into it, the polenta makes its presence known in between your teeth with its crunchy texture. The taleggio and parmesan give a pleasant saltiness to the tart, that balances perfectly with the meatiness of the prosciutto.

The custard in the filling is light, and the lemon zest on top adds a much needed acidic flavor that cuts through the rich quality of the cheeses. The roasted hazelnuts, that decorate and finish off the tart, add a beautiful nuttiness and crunch to it.

I may not be a lover of all things tart, but this is one I'm recommending you make. Oh yes, please do. You'll thank me later.

Prosciutto and Taleggio Tart with a Polenta and Parmesan Crust
Adapted from Delicious magazine

This is ideal for a brunch or lunch, served with leafy greens or a radicchio salad, but it is also perfect for a dinner party, cut into small pieces and served as a starter.

In keeping with the Italian-ingredients theme, accompany the tart with a robust Italian red wine, such as a Barbaresco or Barolo or, if you want to be a little more adventurous, with a Greek Xinomavro.

Update: After questions on the Greek page of my blog about substituting taleggio cheese (which can be hard to find in some parts of the world), I would like to suggest the following combinations of cheeses for substituting the taleggio: 1) fontina and a little blue cheese, 2) a soft Greek kaseri and a little blue cheese, 3) camembert or brie and a little blue cheese.

Yield: 1 large tart / 8-10 pieces


for the dough
225 g all-purpose flour
75 g polenta (or cornmeal)
½ tsp salt
150 g cold unsalted butter, diced, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 medium-sized egg yolk
25 g grated parmesan

for the filling
150 g prosciutto in slices, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, coarsely chopped
30 ml (2 Tbsp) olive oil
1 red onion (around 80 g), finely chopped
200 g sour cream
2 medium-sized egg yolks
160 g taleggio cheese, rind cut off, sliced

40 g whole hazelnuts, skins removed
Zest of 1 medium-sized lemon
A little freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: large food processor (optional), small food processor, box grater, rolling pin, cling film, fluted tart pan with removable bottom (rectangular 11x34 cm and 3 cm deep or round 26 cm in diameter and 3 cm deep), baking paper, pie weights (like dried rice or beans)


Prepare the dough
• with a food processor
In a large food processor (this is the one I use), add the flour, the polenta and the salt, followed by the cubed cold butter, and let the machine run, until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and grated parmesan, and mix until the dough comes together into a ball. If the mixture is too dry and it doesn't seem to come together, add 1-2 Tbsp ice water and mix again, until you have a smooth, pliable dough.

• without a food processor
In a large bowl, add the flour, the polenta and the salt, and stir with a spatula. Add the cubed cold butter and, using two knives or a pastry cutter (this is the one I use) or even your fingertips, cut it into the flour, until you have a mixture that resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and grated parmesan and mix with your hands, working quickly, until the dough comes together into a ball. If the mixture is too dry and it doesn't seem to come together, add 1-2 Tbsp ice water and knead again slightly, until you have a smooth, pliable dough.

Take the ball of dough and, if you're using a rectangular-shaped tart pan, form the dough into a flattened-rectangular shape. If you're using a round tart pan, form the dough into a flattened-disk shape. Wrap it well with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Rolling out the dough
Take the dough out of the fridge and place it in between two large sheets of cling film. This will ensure that once you have rolled it out, it won't break when you try to move it. Roll it out, using a rolling pin, to a ½ cm-thick rectangle (if using a rectangular pan) or circle (if using a round pan). The size of the rolled-out dough must be larger than that of the tart pan.

Butter the bottom and sides of the tart pan. Remove the cling film that lies on top of the dough, slide your hand underneath the cling film at the bottom of the dough and transfer the dough, inverting it into the pan and being careful not to tear it. Remove the cling film that is now on top of the dough and press the dough gently to fit the pan, still being careful not to tear it. Using the back of a knife, cut the excess dough that's hanging around the edges of the pan and prick the dough all over with a fork. Place the pan in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. This will ensure that the dough will not shrink when baked.

Note: In case you have left-over dough, you can keep it in the freezer, wrapped in cling film or in a ziploc bag, for up to a month. Thaw it and use it to make smaller tarts.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Line the bottom and sides of the dough with a large enough piece of baking paper and fill it with pie weights, dried rice or beans. Place the pan on the bottom rack of the oven and bake the crust for 12 minutes. Take the pan out of the oven, remove the baking paper along with the pie weights and bake for another 8-10 minutes, until the dough is golden-brown and crispy.

Remove the pan from the oven and turn heat down to 180 degrees Celsius.

Prepare the filling
In the meantime, prepare the filling so that it will be ready when the tart crust has finished baking.
In a small food processor (or the same one you used for the dough), add the prosciutto, the garlic and 15 ml (1 Tbsp) of the olive oil. Process, until finely chopped and blended.

In a small frying pan, add the remaining 15 ml (1 Tbsp) of olive oil and heat over medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the finely chopped red onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until it softens. Turn heat off and allow the onion to cool.
Spread the prosciutto mixture on the base of the baked crust and sprinkle with the sautéed red onion.

In a medium-sized bowl, add the 2 egg yolks and beat them lightly with a fork. Add the sour cream and mix well. Pour the mixture over the tart.

Note: You might be tempted to add salt to the egg mixture or the onions but don't! There is enough salt in the prosciutto and cheeses.

Place the sliced taleggio on top and return the pan to the oven, placing it on the middle rack this time. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the filling has just firmed up and set.

In the meantime, place the hazelnuts in a small frying pan and toast them over medium heat, stirring often so they don't catch, until they take on a golden-brown color and start releasing their oils. Then chop them coarsely.

Once the tart is ready, take it out of the oven and allow it to slightly cool on a wire rack. Remove the sides of the pan, add the chopped hazelnuts on top, sprinkle with the lemon zest and add some freshly ground black pepper.

Cut the tart into pieces and serve warm.

You can keep the tart, lightly covered, at room temperature, for a day.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Brownie love

I didn't know what a brownie was until about four years ago. In Greece, they had just become popular, along with cupcakes, but it wasn't until I moved to Holland that I experienced the real brownie, when one of my neighbors who is American, offered me a freshly baked one.

I became aware of their importance in the American food culture when I started this blog and discovered fellow bloggers from the United States who posted brownie recipes one after the other, raving about their fudginess. chewiness. awesomeness. I had to find out more; plus, chocolate was involved, so how could I not?

For any of you who don't know exactly what a brownie is, like I didn't some years ago, allow me to explain. Brownies are like cake but denser and heavier, and are usually made without a leavening agent. They consist of only a few basic ingredients and are generally made in one bowl. They're served in cut squares or bars and are often accompanied by milk (my favorite combination) or coffee.

There are three basic types of brownies, depending on their texture: a) fudgy brownies, that are dense, b) cake-like brownies, that resemble the texture of cake, and c) chewy brownies, a cross between fudgy and cakey. The ones I'm sharing with you, fall into the third category. There is also a fourth type of brownie, called a blondie, made without chocolate but with the addition of brown sugar.
The texture of brownies largely depends on the ratio of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and chocolate in the batter, as well as the method of mixing those ingredients together.
Brownies can also be made with a variety of nuts, chocolate chips, fruits and other ingredients.

The first time I made brownies myself, was a couple of years ago, when Deb of smitten kitchen—a fantastic cook, baker and food blogger—posted her cocoa brownies, that she had adapted from a recipe by Alice Medrich. It was lust at first bite, and that brownie promptly became my favorite kind of cocoa treat. But after a while, I became antsy, as it oftentimes happens with me, and I wanted to find something else. There were a lot of promising recipes which I did follow; recipes for fudgy brownies, recipes for cakey brownies, for chewy brownies. Some of them were flops, some of them were "blah", others delightful. Most of them contained too much sugar or too little chocolate, while others were too cake-like, too sticky, too chewy.

Last summer, I thought I've found the one; the best chocolate brownie ever. I had been meaning to share it with you ever since, but a few days ago, everything changed, as I ran into this recipe by Ruth Reichl in Gilt Taste. Ms. Reichl's chocolate brownie recipe is a vamped up one, as her goal is to make a better brownie, one that uses quality ingredients to boost up its flavor and texture and essentially, make the regular brownie extraordinary.

I was hooked and luckily, as I read through the recipe, I realized I had everything at hand to make the brownies. The verdict? They were the best brownies I have ever made, or better yet, sampled. They were chewy and fudgy, but not too fudgy that they stick to your teeth, the chocolate flavor was present but not overpowering, they were dense yet they retained that elusive lightness, they were soft and moist in the middle and crackly and crispy on top, they were, in a nutshell, the perfect brownie. S, who is famously anti-brownie, said to me, and I quote, "These are the best brownies I have ever tasted".

However, I have to mention the fact that they were slightly too sweet for my liking, that is why I used less sugar the second time I made them. Furthermore, Ruth Reichl suggests that you beat the eggs and sugar very well in a stand mixer, having as a result a taller brownie but instead, I opted for a wire whisk. I wanted my brownies to not be quite that tall and to be a little more chewy and dense.

If you are like S and me, and chocolate is your thing, but you don't want to make a huge fuss over Valentine's (for us especially this year, with all that's been happening back home in Greece these past few days), then make some brownies. Cut out some fondant little hearts to decorate the squares, and give them to your loved one.
They will love you forever. Or, at least, until they have the last bite of this brownie.

Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Ruth Reichl

As I mentioned above, I used a wire whisk to beat the batter. You need some muscle to do this so if you are finding it difficult to beat by hand, switch to using a hand-held mixer. Make sure though to not overbeat the ingredients, in order to achieve a chewy and moist texture.

The important thing with these brownies is baking time. You want them to be cooked but not all the way through, as to retain some moisture and fudginess. You definitely don't want them to be dried out and cakey.

Please don't skip on dusting the Dutch-processed cocoa powder on the bottom of the pan. It adds some welcomed bitterness to the sweet brownies and a nice cocoa flavor. I also love the dark color it imparts. Notice in the photographs how different the bottom and top of the brownies look.

Yield: 16 large brownie squares

150 g good quality dark 55% chocolate, chopped
140 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes plus extra for buttering the pan
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
350 g caster sugar
4 large eggs
½ tsp sea salt
140 g all-purpose flour
Dutch-processed cocoa powder, for dusting the pan

White rolled fondant, for decorating the brownies (optional)

Special equipment: large wire whisk, fine sieve, 20x20 cm square baking pan, baking paper, little heart cookie cutter (optional)

Butter the bottom and sides of the square pan. Line the bottom with a piece of baking paper and butter it. Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with some cocoa powder and tap the excess out.

Place the chocolate and the butter in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water and melt, stirring often. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the mixture is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan and stir in the vanilla extract. Set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

In a large bowl, add the eggs and the salt and beat well with a whisk for 1 minute, until they foam up. Add the sugar and beat with more vigor for about 3 minutes, until the mixture becomes a little fluffy.
Add the melted chocolate and butter mixture to the bowl and beat for ½ minute, until the ingredients have just combined.
Finally, sieve the flour over the bowl and mix it in using the whisk, folding the flour in the batter instead of beating it in, until just combined and there are no visible patches of flour.

Empty the batter in the prepared pan, place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and immediately turn the temperature of the oven down to 175 degrees Celsius. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the middle, comes out with some moist crumbs attached.

Take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool slightly. Remove the brownies from the pan by inverting it onto the wire rack. Remove and discard the baking paper and allow the brownies to cool completely. Invert the brownies onto a cutting board and cut them into 16 large squares, or if you wish, 32 smaller ones.

If you want to make these for Valentine's Day, you can cut out little fondant hearts and press them on top of each brownie.

Keep the brownies covered, at room temperature, for 3-4 days.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Spetzofai

Ideally, I would prefer to use in my cooking fruits and vegetables that are in season and that don't come from thousands of kilometers away or from another continent but from the country I live in. That, I believe, is something every one of us should be doing anyway.

Eating foods that are in season, not only reduces your carbon footprint but it's a way to actively support your local farmers and save money. When produce is in season locally and it's in abundance, it is usually less expensive and you can get more for your money. Let's face it, if you want to buy strawberries in the middle of winter, you're going to have to pay thrice as much for half the amount. Is it really worth it?

Not to mention the health benefits of eating fresh, organic, unprocessed foods, and of course one other factor, the taste; nothing beats the vibrant, highly fragrant and juicy quality of in-season fruits and vegetables that are packed with flavor and nutrients.

Having said all that, I am one of those people who get uncontrollable craves from time to time and do succumb to the allure of the odd aubergine (to make papoutsakia) or asparagus in winter and I have to admit, even though reluctantly, that I eat courgettes all year round.

There are times when I simply can't help myself. When a glistening and perfectly round greenhouse tomato smiles at me in the produce isle of the super market when all I have been craving that day was a Greek horiatiki salad, well, it's too much of a pressure not to put that tomato in my basket. And when relatives from Greece have sent me a boxful of goodies, including horiatika loukanika (Greek, country/peasant sausages) so spicy and aromatic that they beg of me to make spetzofai with them, what can I do? I have to buy peppers, even though they are not in season.

The traditional Greek dish of Spetzofai (or Spetsofai) has always been among my favorite dishes from a very young age. It is a rustic spicy dish of peppers and thick country sausages in a rich tomato sauce, and it is a specialty of the Mount Pelion and Volos regions of Thessaly in Central Greece. These regions produce the most robust-flavored and delicious, fiery sausages made from goat, sheep, beef and pork meat, that are generally used in dishes like the spetzofai.

Even though spetzofai is a classic Greek dish, its name is derived from the Italian word 'spezzatino' (meaning a dish containing small pieces of meat / from the verb spezzare = to break something into pieces). The word spetzofai is a composite word (spetzo- and -fai); the first part, 'spetzo', is derived from spezzatino and the second part 'fai', is the Greek word for food.

This deliciously luscious dish is made in Greece all year round and it is generally eaten as a main dish. It is also offered as a mezes, served in a small plate and accompanying other small savory treats, along with lots of tsipouro or wine.

There are many variations of spetzofai all around Greece; the one from Pelio contains aubergines, while in other areas they prepare it with just green bell peppers and elsewhere, multicolored peppers as well as hot and piquant ones are added to the dish.

Greek kefalotyri cheese, cubed

My spetzofai is made with a variety of peppers, Greek spicy country sausages, fresh tomatoes and red wine, and it has an intensely deep and earthy flavor. It is one of those dishes that once you get a taste of it, you simply can't stop eating it. Paired with feta or kefalotyri cheese, lots of crusty bread* to soak up all that thick red sauce, and some booze, it is guaranteed to warm you up during the dark and snowy days of winter—like the ones we've been having.

* or, you can just combine cheese and bread into one, and pair the spetzofai with another Mount Pelion specialty, the tyropsomo—the Greek feta-filled bread.

Greek Spetzofai (Peppers and Spicy Country Sausages in a Rich Tomato Sauce)

If you use sausages that are very piquant and spicy, you may want to tone it down with the peppers, using only mild-flavored ones like bell peppers. If your sausages are not that spicy, then go all out with the peppers and use the most fiery ones you can handle.

I used long sweet red peppers from Florina and long light-green mild peppers (bull's horn peppers), called 'kerato' in Greece. If you can't find these where you live, you can use what's available in your country.

If you can find them, use Greek country spicy sausages from Pelio or Volos, otherwise any kind of thick spicy sausage will do. The flavor of the sausages is prominent, as the peppers are fried in the rendered sausage fat, so make sure you use good quality sausages.

Read here on how to handle hot chili peppers.

Yield: 4 main servings

4 spicy thick country sausages (pork or beef / I prefer pork), sliced thickly (about 4 cm-thick slices)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large green bell peppers, deseeded and cut into large pieces
4 long sweet red peppers, deseeded and cut into large strips
2 red long chili peppers, deseeded and cut in half lengthwise
1 green long chili pepper, deseeded and cut in half lengthwise
5 long light-green mild peppers, deseeded and cut into large strips
3 medium-sized tomatoes (not skinned), puréed in a processor, or 450-500 g canned puréed tomatoes
1 ½ tsp tomato paste
60 ml (¼ cup) dry red wine, Greek Agiorgitiko or Cabernet Sauvignon
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: food processor (optional), a large, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan or skillet with lid

In a large, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan or skillet, add 1 Tbsp of the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the sausage slices and fry them until they release some of their fat and take on a golden brown color, for about 5 minutes. Remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and place them in a large bowl.
Add the green bell peppers to the pan and sauté them well on both sides, until they soften a bit. Remove them from the pan and into the large bowl with the sausages.
Add the long red peppers and both green and red chili peppers to the pan. Sauté them well on both sides, until they slightly soften, remove them from the pan and place them in the bowl.
Add the long green peppers, sauté them well on both sides, until they soften, remove them from the pan and place them in the bowl.

Then add the puréed tomatoes and cook over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan as you do, to get all those burnt up bits that are oh-so-flavorful. Cook the puréed tomatoes until they start to thicken and add the tomato paste. Stir it around to dissolve and add the rest of the olive oil (1 Tbsp) and the wine. Stir everything around and when the alcohol from the wine has evaporated and you can't smell it anymore, allow the sauce to simmer for 3 minutes.
Then, return the sausages and peppers to the pan, stir everything around, mixing all the ingredients well, and allow to come to the boil. Put on the lid, turn heat down to low and allow to simmer gently for about 20 minutes, until the sausages are cooked through and the peppers have softened.
Have a taste and check for seasoning. If the sausages you're using are too spicy or salty, you'll probably won't need to add any salt or pepper.

Serve with lots of crusty bread, with feta or kefalotyri and don't forget the tsipouro or red wine.

The spetzofai is even tastier the following day, as the flavors have had time to develop and deepen.