Monday, April 22, 2013

A spring tart

Every year, when the first berries of the season make their appearance at the market, I go overboard. I can’t help but buying more than S and I can eat.

I’m dazzled by their color and aroma, and enjoying them just as they are, in all their freshness, dripping with sweet juices, is the ideal for me. Getting the full flavor of each one, flavors that I have missed for so long, is a pleasurable experience and it marks the official arrival of spring.

These past couple of weeks, I made a tart with raspberries and blackberry tiny cakes. I also made my favorite blueberry muffins and then, after my last trip to the market when I came home with a bagful of berries, I decided to go all out and make a fresh berry puff pastry tart.

I thawed the homemade puff pastry I had sitting in the freezer, sprinkled it with caster sugar and baked it until it was all golden and puffed up. I whipped up some mascarpone with vanilla seeds and slathered it on top of the crispy pastry. I gathered my fruits, arranged them neatly over the cream and finally, I sprinkled the whole lot with icing sugar.

It was a delight. Buttery, fresh, indulgent yet clean, juicy and creamy all at the same time. Buttery crispiness from the puff pastry, creamy aromatic mascarpone, supple fresh fruits with textures and colors filling my mouth.

Sweet but not overly so, with the sweet and tart flavor of the fruits; strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, redcurrants. All glistening and oh so tempting.

But I didn’t stop there, I had some extra puff pastry and raspberries, and thought of making some cute little tartlets, no more than three-bites each. I topped the small puff pastry circles with mascarpone, raspberries and some finely chopped pistachios—what a combination—and that added crunchy texture of the nuts was simply wonderful.

Spring is finally here!

Fresh Berry Tart with Puff Pastry

I used homemade French puff pastry but you can certainly use store-bought, just make sure it’s made with butter. Whichever kind of puff pastry you use, make sure to thaw it properly. Remove it from the freezer and place it in the fridge 24 hours before using it.

Yield: 6 servings

350 g homemade puff pastry or 1 sheet of ready-made puff pastry
1 small egg, lightly beaten with a fork
2 Tbsp caster sugar

for the mascarpone cream
300 g mascarpone
2 Tbsp caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise and deseeded or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Strawberries, halved lengthwise

Icing sugar, for dusting the tart

Special equipment: rolling pin (to roll out homemade puff pastry), baking paper, baking sheet, plastic wrap, pastry brush, hand-held mixer

If you’re using homemade puff pastry, dust a clean work surface and the top of the dough with a little flour and using a rolling pin, roll it out into an approximately 25 x 30 cm rectangle with a thickness of 0.3-0.4 cm. The thickness of the puff pastry is important because it determines the baking time. Trim off the edges of the dough and prick it all over with a fork. This will prevent it from rising too much. Place the rolled out dough onto a piece of baking paper and onto your baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator.

Preheat your oven 185-190 degrees Celsius / 365-375 Fahrenheit.

Take the baking sheet out of the fridge, brush the dough with some of the beaten egg and sprinkle it with 2 Tbsp caster sugar. Place the baking sheet straight in the preheated oven, on the low rack, and bake the puff pastry for 10 minutes. Then transfer it to the middle rack and bake for 15-20 minutes, until it has puffed and taken on a golden-brown color. Be careful not to burn it.

In the meantime, in a medium-sized bowl, add the mascarpone, scraped vanilla seeds or paste and 2 Tbsp caster sugar and beat with a hand-held mixer until you have a creamy and smooth mixture.

Remove the puff pastry from the oven and allow it to cool.

Rinse the berries and dry them with paper towels.

Once the puff pastry has cooled, cover it with the vanilla mascarpone, using a small offset spatula. Cover with the berries and sprinkle with icing sugar.

Serve your tart immediately, cut into pieces.

Variation: Puff Pastry Tartlets with Raspberries and Pistachios

If you have some left-over puff pastry, mascarpone and berries, make these little tartlets.

Roll out your puff pastry to a thickness of 0.3-0.4 cm and using a round cookie cutter (7.5 cm in diameter), cut circles of dough. Prick them all over with a fork so they don’t puff up a lot during baking.

Place pastry circles onto a baking paper-lined baking sheet and bake them on the middle rack of a preheated oven at 180 degrees Celsius / 360 Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet midway through to ensure even cooking, until they have taken on a golden-brown color and have puffed up.

Take the pan out of the oven and allow the puff pastry to cool.

Chop some pistachios.

Once the puff pastry circles have cooled, cover them with vanilla mascarpone cream, using a small offset spatula. Cover with 2-3 raspberries or any other berries you have on hand and add the chopped pistachios on top.

Serve your tartlets immediately.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Homemade chèvre

If someone put a gun to my head and told me to pick between savory and sweet, I would definitely go for savory. No second thoughts. There are so many options with savory food, you can make anything your heart desires, from fish and meat to pasta and every kind of salad imaginable. You can be freer, you can improvise, cook on a whim, not worry about grams and egg sizes and baking pan dimensions.

I could never live without my favorite savory dishes but I can live without sweets, well, at least for a day or two. There is something you can make though, that with the right combination, can offer you the best of both worlds. Something that can be used both in savory and sweet dishes. That is of course chèvre aka goat’s cheese. [Chèvre means goat in French]

The tart flavor of goat milk is what makes this cheese unique and the tang is what makes it pair so well with spinach and beef but also with honey and fruits.

Soft, crumbly, moist goat’s cheese is so easy to make at home that it’s crazy not to try it. The freshness, the aroma, especially when still warm, is incomparable to the mass-produced goat’s cheeses that you find at your local supermarket.

In my humble opinion, chèvre is far better tasting than ricotta or similar soft cow’s milk cheeses as it is more complex, creamy and rich due to the fact that goat’s milk has more fat than cow’s milk. And when you are lucky enough to find goat’s buttermilk and add it to the mix, it gives the cheese even more depth of flavor.

I have made chèvre many times and it always disappears from the fridge in a matter of hours. We like to smear it onto freshly toasted baguette slices or homemade barley bread drizzled with Greek extra virgin olive oil. It’s a snack that can only be surpassed by juicy tomatoes on sourdough but let’s not go there yet.

As I stated in the beginning of this post, this cheese is versatile in every sense of the word. You can add it to spanakopita or tyropita along with some good Greek feta, to this tartine, or perhaps this smoked trout and lentil salad. Crumbling it on top of pizza is an excellent idea, but so is adding it in a sweet tart with pistachios and honey. You can add some herbs like rosemary or thyme to your freshly made, supple cheese and serve it alongside crostini or grissini, or add it to an omelette which will most probably equal to the simplest, tastiest lunch you’ve had in months.

It’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for the whey to drip out, waiting for the cheese to dry. You will have to be patient, but in the end you will be rewarded with the clean, tangy taste of fresh, homemade chèvre.

Homemade Chèvre - Goat’s Cheese

The process of making this cheese is very easy but you will need a thermometer. It really helps and, if you cook a lot, it’s a good idea to buy one.

If you can’t find goat’s buttermilk which luckily I did, use cow’s buttermilk.

If you want a creamy consistency then I would advise you to let the cheese drain for 1 hour. After 2 hours it will be semi-soft and after 4 hours it will be very crumbly. Experiment, and if you end up with a more dry cheese than you’d prefer, add the whey back to the cheese, about ½ tsp at a time, folding it in until you reach the desired consistency.

Yield: about 300 g

750 ml fresh goat’s milk
500 ml fresh goat’s (or cow's if you can't find it) buttermilk
Juice of 1 lemon (about 60 ml)
½ tsp fine sea salt

Special equipment: candy/deep-frying thermometer, large cheesecloth or muslin cloth, fine sieve or colander

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the milk and buttermilk and attach the thermometer to the pan. Heat over medium-high heat and bring the milk to a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius / 175 Fahrenheit. It will take about 10 minutes to reach that temperature and at this point, the milk should bubble and start to curdle. If not, leave it on the heat until it does but don’t allow it to come to the boil.

Take it off the heat and add the lemon juice. Lightly stir with a spatula and you’ll clearly see it curdling. Don’t stir anymore and allow the temperature to drop to 55-60 degrees Celsius / 130-140 Fahrenheit. It will take about ½ hour and the curds will thicken as the temperature drops.

Line a fine sieve (or colander) with cheese or muslin cloth and set it over a large bowl to catch the whey. Slowly pour the curds into the cloth and drain the whey into the bowl. You can either save the whey for another use or throw it away. It would be good to throw it away after your cheese is ready in case it turns out too dry. By adding whey back into it, it will become creamy. Tie the top of the cheesecloth with baker’s twine, as close to the cheese and as tight as possible, and hang it somewhere in your kitchen over a bowl to catch the drippings.

Leave it for about 2 hours to have a proper chèvre consistency. (Or read notes above the ingredients list for alternatives).
Untie the twine, open the cloth and remove the cheese carefully. At this point, you can add your herbs and salt stirring them into the cheese or if you don’t want to mess with the nice ball of cheese, simply sprinkle salt over the top.

You can keep it in the fridge, inside a plate and covered with plastic wrap, for up to 1 week but if you’re anything like us, it will not last more than a day or two. Having said that, the flavor of the cheese will intensify after a couple of days in the fridge so perhaps the second time you make it, it would be worth it to leave it there to see the difference in taste.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The simple things

Sometimes I need to be reminded of the simple things; to stop and let the sun shine on my face, be alert, not let any chance pass me by, be in the moment, not think too much, enjoy the successes and not sweat the failures, taste food that is simple and unadorned and so flavorful it almost hurts.

I was planning on posting something else today. I almost hit ‘publish’ when I suddenly got so hungry I jumped up from my desk and landed in my kitchen, in front of the stove, heating up water to poach eggs. Me, eggs. I rarely eat eggs yet today I found myself craving them. The simple things…

Not a lot in my fridge, haven’t had the chance to go grocery shopping but felt like I didn’t need a lot anyway. Bread—two days old but still perfect for toasting—and butter would be enough to accompany my eggs that were now swirling around in the hot water all naked and exposed. Careful…

Salt, black pepper. Lunch.

The simple things...

I’ll be back soon. ‘Til then, let the sun shine on your face.

Poached Eggs on Buttered Toast

Yield: lunch for 1

2 eggs (I used small but go large if you prefer)
2 slices of whole wheat bread (or any other type of bread you like)
Black pepper, freshly ground

Read here on how to poach eggs.

Toast the bread, generously butter the slices and place the poached eggs on top. Season with salt and pepper. Eat. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Poffertjes – Dutch mini pancakes

Holland is not famous for its culinary heritage and the Dutch will attest to that themselves. Their influences are so varied that everything is kind of intertwined. Flavors from Indonesia and Surinam (former Dutch colonies), from Morocco and Turkey, the Caribbean and the Middle East are all evident in Dutch cooking. The use of spices is prominent, they were the kings of the spice trade after all, and there is a strong influence from the French and German cuisines as well.

When people ask me to describe Dutch cuisine for them, I never know what to say exactly. The traditional Dutch food is based on mash and meat, soups and stews that are not at all appealing to my Mediterranean palate. I find them bland, boring and uninteresting. There are exceptions of course like their heavenly and famous cheeses, the bitterballen (meat-based fried snack) and other meaty and cheesy snacks, but where the Dutch really shine, is in their sweets. There the Dutch have something special going on for them.

It all started with the stroopwafel (thin waffle filled with caramel syrup), the first ever Dutch sweet I had in Holland; I swooned when I ate that. Then came the olieballen, large doughnut fritters filled with apples and cinnamon drenched in icing sugar, then came the bosche bollen, a riff on the French profiteroles but bigger, lighter and with more chocolate and cream, then the Dutch panenkoeken (large thin crepes) that are the best, and finally the little poffertjes.

Poffertjes are small pancakes made in a traditional poffertjesplaat, a special pan that has indentations which give the poffertjes their characteristic puffed up appearance on both sides. Poffertjes date back to the 17th century when Dutch monks used to offer them as hosts. During the French revolution, there was a shortage in wheat-flour so the monks started making the batter with buckwheat flour; the end result was a thicker and tastier host. Today, poffertjes are commonly made with a combination of wheat and buckwheat flour.

They are about two centimeters in diameter, they have a light, spongy and fluffy texture with a slightly creamy center and their flavor is somewhat neutral. They’re not sweet, as the batter doesn’t contain any sugar, which is why they are traditionally accompanied by copious amounts of icing sugar and are dotted with salted butter that slowly melts over the warm mini puffed-up disks.

If you ever travel to the Netherlands and visit any type of fair, you will see stalls making and selling these little beauties by the hundreds; the Dutch love them, especially the kids. Below you can see how they make them in Volendam.

You would, with good reason, think this is a breakfast kind of pancake but no, the Dutch don’t eat poffertjes for breakfast. To them, it’s a sweet snack, enjoyed any other time of the day, but you can cheat and have these with a hot cup of coffee in the morning. No one needs to know.

Poffertjes – Dutch Mini Pancakes
Adapted from Janny de Moor

I understand that most of you will not have a poffertjesplaat (pan) to make these but don’t be discouraged because you can certainly make them in a regular non-stick or cast-iron pan. They will not have a two-sided puff but that’s fine, the taste is what matters the most.

If you have a squeeze bottle, it will be easier to fill the indentations of your poffertjes pan or make mini pancakes in a regular pan.

In Holland they may be traditionally served with butter and icing sugar but you can treat them as typical pancakes and douche them in maple syrup, honey or a berry coulis, or serve them with fruits and whipped cream.

Yield: about 100 (I know, it sounds a lot, but trust me, they are very small and if you have people over for brunch, they will disappear in a flash. Also, you can reheat them the next day and have them for breakfast)

4 g instant dried yeast
150 g all-purpose flour, sieved
100 g buckwheat flour, sieved
300 ml lukewarm whole milk
2 large eggs, beaten lightly with a fork
Pinch of salt

100 g unsalted butter, melted, for greasing the pan

Butter, for serving
Lots of icing sugar, for serving

Special equipment: sieve, wire whisk, measuring jug or poffertjes bottle (squeeze bottle), poffertjes pan or regular non-stick pan (or cast-iron pan)

In a large bowl, add the yeast, the sieved flours, half of the milk and the beaten eggs and whisk until you have a stiff dough. Add the rest of the milk followed by the salt and whisk well until you have a smooth batter without any lumps. The batter will be runny.
Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and place at a warm place for about 1 hour to rise. It should look bubbly.
Whisk again lightly and empty the batter which will be slightly runny, in a measuring jug or a poffertjes bottle which is a squeeze bottle.

Using a poffertjes pan
Heat your poffertjes pan over a medium-high heat and when hot, grease the whole pan, not just the holes, with melted butter. Fill all the holes with batter by ¾ and cook for 3-4 minutes on one side. Once you see that they’re dry on top with small holes and the bottom is golden brown, it’s time to turn them over with one or two forks and let them cook on the other side for 2-3 minutes until they are golden brown. (A two-pronged fork is traditionally used to flip over the poffertjes and remove them from the pan). Be careful not to overcook them. You want the centers to be creamy and just set, not dried out.
Remove them from the pan and onto a plate, grease the pan again with melted butter and continue coking the next batch. Continue in the same manner until you have no more batter left.

Using a non-stick (or cast-iron) pan
Heat the pan over medium-high heat and when hot, grease the bottom with melted butter. Add 1-2 tablespoonfuls of batter to create each poffertje. Each one should be around 6 cm in diameter. Space them well apart, otherwise you might end up with one large pancake. Cook for 3-4 minutes on one side. Once you see that they’re dry on top with small holes and the bottom is golden brown, it’s time to turn them over with one or two forks and let them cook on the other side for 2-3 minutes until they are golden brown. Be careful not to overcook them. You want the centers to be creamy and just set, not dried out.
Remove them from the pan and onto a plate, grease the pan again with melted butter and continue coking the next batch. Continue in the same manner until you have no more batter left.

Poffertjes are eaten hot. Serve them, dotted with salted (or unsalted if you wish) butter and a generous sprinkling of icing sugar.

If you have any poffertjes left, you can reheat them in the microwave the next day. They will not be as good as the first day you made them but still, they’ll be enjoyable.