Monday, September 27, 2010

TWD: Apple Tarte Fine

I made this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, a slender apple tart with puff pastry, and it was oh so good.

But the real story belongs to the humble apples that went into the tart, and where they came from.
My friends, I went apple-pickin' this week! Brace yourselves for a plethora (a gaggle? a herd? a murder?) of apple-pickin' pictures, and please do say that to yourselves in a country accent in your heads. If you're not the apple-pickin' type, there is more tart deliciousness at the end of the post, so scroll on down. I won't mind too much.

My very favorite sous-chef, my ma (of Tuesdays with Mommie fame One, Two, and Three) was in town visiting. What better field trip than to drive an hour outside of Pasadena, into the mountains of San Bernadino, and visit Oak Glen, an apple-pickin' paradise?

Our first stop was Riley's Farm, which offers U-Pick apples, pears, and raspberries. We were wildly optimistic and decided we needed a half bushel of apples, and I foolishly opted for the raspberries too. Did you guys know raspberry bushes have wicked thorns? Truth.

We know a thing or two about fruit trees, but we still felt like city slickers in the midst of the apple groves, wandering around trying to figure out which varieties they were, and if they were really ripe. Most of the apples were fairly small and many seemed quite green, even when they pulled from the tree easily. When it seemed like all the good apples were high up in the branches, my mom took matters into her own hands and employed THE CLAW to pick the tree tops.

Jason disproved the common wisdom that "white men can't jump" and eschewed the wooden claw in favor of his own hands and impressive vertical leap:

By the end we had a box overflowing with freshly picked apples and pears, still warm from the summer sun.
Next stop was Snow-Line Orchard. We already had more apples than we knew what to do with, so why a second apple farm stop?

I'll give you a hint:

Snow-Line is famous for their apple cider doughnuts. To look at them they don't seem so special. They're small, maybe 2 inches across, and rolled in a light coating of cinnamon and sugar. They're sold by the dozen, and not to flaunt our piggishness, but we easily polished off 2 dozen between the 3 of us.

They didn't have a strong apple flavor, but the cider did lend a deeper sweetness that was marvelous with the cinnamon-sugar on the outside. I honestly don't know what made them so good, but they were light, and crispy, perfectly fried and still soft on the inside. Our visit to Snow-Line consisted mostly of moaning and making these faces:

Once we got home and faced the mountain of apples, we knew we had to act fast. Fortunately, the Tuesdays with Dorie recipe this week called for apples (but, um, I'll need to make this tart 25 more times before I use up my stash).

I love the simplicity and elegance of this tart, but just like with the Parisian Apple Tart before it, I always make some modifications when baking apples in puff pastry, and I thought I'd share my tips to getting the perfect tart.

First suggestion: if you want clean lines around the tart, make a border. I prefer an even crust all along the outside, so after the tart is rolled out, I use a pizza cutter to cut thin (less than 1" strips) from the length and width of the rectangle. Brush the edges of the tart with a little egg wash, then press the strips along the outer edges of the tart. When it bakes up, you'll have a nice square shape, instead of lumpy edges with apples poking into them.

Second suggestion: cook the apples. I know, I know, the beauty of this tart is that it's so simple, and cooking the apples beforehand adds more time and complication. But honestly, every time I use this method I end up with apples that have dried out due to high heat and extended baking times. I prefer to take a little more time to make luscious apples that taste great, even after a long bake.

And really, sauteeing apples is pretty low-stress. I don't even measure, I just eyeball things. I put a good-sized chunk of butter (3 tbsp?) in an iron skillet and let it melt until it's foamy. Add a cup (or two!) of sugar, and slowly let it dissolve, stirring as little as possible. Squeeze some lemon juice on top to prevent crystallization. Let the sugar get to be a nice dark brown color, then add the apples. The caramel will seize--not to worry. As the apples cook, it'll liquify once again, and soon your apples will be swimming in a delicious caramel soup. You can add other things at this point--I added the seeds from a vanilla pod and a little cinnamon. Simmer until the apples are soft and have taken on some color, then remove them with a slotted spoon and let them cool. Once cool, you can arrange them on your pastry and you're good to go. They have an awesome flavor and stay nice and soft in the oven.

Bonus: keep the saucepan on the stove, add some cream, and cook it down. You now have a delicious apple-caramel sauce to put on your tart! It pairs wonderfully with vanilla ice cream and this warm apple tart:

We pretty much destroyed this tart in the space of one afternoon. I have no regrets. I'd do it all again. And with the mountain of apples staring me down, I just might!


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Tarts

Lately I've been making a lot of Monets.

No, I haven't taken up impressionist painting. I mean "Monets" in the Clueless sense of the word. Desserts that look amazing, but upon closer inspection--or tasting--leave something to be desired. This is tragic for a number of reasons--wasted hours and ingredients, for instance--but the biggest disappointment is that I'm left with pictures that I love, and a lackluster recipe to go with it. I couldn't possibly post the duds, right?

But then I thought, wait. Why should delicious desserts have all the fun? Shouldn't there be a place in our blogging world for the runners-up, the wannabes, the mediocre Monets? Of course!

I present A Tale of Two Tarts.

First up: Fresh Fig Tart with Rosemary Cornmeal Crust and Lemon Mascarpone Cream

As Dickens so eloquently wrote, it was the best of tarts, it was the worst of tarts. It was the tastiest of toppings, it was the grossest of crusts and fillings. A true literary and culinary genius, that Chuck Dickens.

I was gifted with a bounty of fresh figs, and after eating about a pound of them straight from the bag, decided to turn them into a tart. I don't always love the pulpy texture of cooked figs, so I decided to make a tart that used fresh figs instead. This recipe seemed perfect. The unique crust recipe called for fresh rosemary and cornmeal, and the filling was a mix of mascarpone cream, sour cream, and lemon zest. Fresh figs were sliced on top and finished with a light glaze.

I don't want to totally pan this recipe because I think it has potential. The crust was way too savory for me. I felt like I should scrape out the cream and serve it with chili. I think the idea of adding rosemary is good, but next time I would add some chopped rosemary to a traditional pate sucree recipe, to get the flavor without sacrificing a tender pastry. The cream was also a problem. I used homemade mascarpone, which was a bit stiffer than store-bought, so I had to work it to loosen it and it ended up breaking. Completely my fault, but it still wasn't so appetizing to have curdled cream inside a taco shell-esque crust, topped by fresh figs. Uh, yum?

Tart the second: David Lebovitz's Chez Panisse Almond Tart

My very first pastry job was at a bakery where we made a very similar almond tart, so I had all sorts of warm snuggly nostalgic feelings as I was making this tart. There's something comforting about the simplicity of a buttery crust, crunchy almonds, and chewy, creamy caramel holding it all together. What could go wrong?

Well, you could overbake the tart, for one thing. Make sure you forget to set the timer and lose track of how long it's been in the oven. Then grow paranoid that it's underbaked and you'll be serving raw tart to your guests (yes, you've invited guests to "enjoy" this tart) so bake it an extra 10 minutes, for good luck.

Then serve the tart with honey-vanilla ice cream, preferably on top of each slice, so the cold ice cream can make the caramel harden and become impossible to cut or bite through. Now sit back and watch your guests try their hardest to gracefully eat their slices.

Neither one of these recipes was a true disaster, and I do think that I'll make them again. I'm older, wiser, and know not to follow the cornmeal crust recipe, or overwork my mascarpone, or lose track of the time the almond tart has been in the oven. I mean, tarts this beautiful deserve to taste as good as they look, right?

Coming up next: mini tarts that are total Baldwins.*

*I fear the Clueless lexicon is perhaps not entirely appropriate for food writing.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TWD: Summer Peach Upside-Downer

The house I grew up in had a wonderful backyard full of fruit trees, including two peach trees that produced pounds and pounds of peaches during the summer months. I took this for granted, in the way that children do, and didn't appreciate the blessing of having so much fresh, delicious, free fruit growing at my fingertips. If I thought about it at all, it would be to complain about having to pick up the rotting fruit from the ground--which truly is a horrible chore--or the long, sticky days of canning peach slices and making peach jam.

Now I am older. Wiser. A buyer of my own produce, and a pincher of my own pennies. And a green-eyed monster when I hear others casually talk about their fruit trees, or berry bushes, or tomato plants. Now that I buy all of my produce at the farmers market, I wish I could have my childhood over again--I would spent whole afternoons just devouring the peaches, or the plums, or the strawberries that were so available and so unappreciated. The market yields good fruit, yes--bless sunny southern California--but I can only buy so many $12 bags of fuzzy peaches before the food budget is shot. Sometimes at the end of a particularly expensive farmers market trip, I feel like Scarlett O'Hara. I stand by my car, clutch my bulging bags of overpriced tomatoes, and shake my fists towards the sky: "As God is my witness, I will one day grow my own fruits and vegetables!"

Alas, dramatic pronouncements have so far failed to get me any closer to having a yard of my own, so for this week's cake I again relied on farmer's market peaches, the same ones I used to make grilled peaches and poundcake. The original recipe was for cranberry upside-down cake, which looked--and sounded--delicious. But with temperatures still in the 80s, it feels much more like summer still than fall, and I wanted to spend a little more time with summer fruits before the fall pumpkin and apple-palooza.

The verdict: aaaaaalright. It was missing something--maybe the crunch of nuts, or a more robust flavor from cranberries. The peaches were nice, but once baked, they had the unmistakable texture of those summer-packed canned peaches of my childhood, and the mild, slightly spiced cake underneath just didn't bring enough flavor for me. I love the idea of the cranberry-upside down cake, so once it really starts to feel like fall around here, I'm going to try it again.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

Things I Have Been Doing Instead of Blogging Here

I have to tell you a secret, but you have to promise to not get mad. The truth is, I make a lot of things that I never get around to blogging about. I know, shocking. It's not that they're not good, or that the photos didn't turn out, it's just that the act of baking and photographing is so much easier for me to fit into my day than the work of blog writing. I suspect this is a problem many of us have. It is something I'm working on--or, more realistically, something I'm hoping to plan on intending to work on--but in the meantime, I wanted to share some other fun things I've been doing around these here internets that haven't made it onto Cake or Death.

Okay, so the holiday technically started last night, but it's not too late to make honey cake! This one is moist and really flavorful, with lots of spices. I put together this recipe for the Oh Nuts blog, and you can find it on their site with lots of step-by-step pictures.

Deep-Fried Candy Bars Video

I've started making lots of video tutorials for, and these are one of my favorites. You can practically smell the oil frying when you watch it. I did deep-fried candy bars and deep-fried Oreos on the same day, but in my opinion, the candy bars are waaaay better. I still have to try Twinkies, though! Anyone here done those yet?

Candy Sushi Video

Another video recipe for About. The trickiest thing about this, no lie, is finding green fruit roll-ups. I'm beginning to think the market's fixed, because every grocery store I visited was full of tie-dyed and rainbow and stamped roll-ups, but finding plain colored ones was ridiculously difficult. As soon as I get my personal blogging sorted out, I'm going to write an expose blowing the lid off the fruit roll-up industry.

Banana Split Truffles Tutorial

No video recipe here, just a good old-fashioned photo tutorial showing how to make these adorable banana split truffles. The filling is a banana-white chocolate ganache, and then the dipped truffles are decorated to look like the world's cutest army of mini ice cream sundaes. This decorating technique is also perfect for banana cupcakes: just use an ice cream scoop to top them with a scoop of buttercream, and drizzle them with chocolate ganache and all the fixin's.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

TWD: Peanut Buter Crisscrosses

The last time I made peanut butter cookies, I was less than impressed with the results. In fact, I got a little sassy and called the sorry flavorless cookies downright "wussy." (And I won't take it back!) So I was definitely ready to try a different peanut butter cookie recipe for this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe.

Plus, this time, I had a secret weapon!

Have you guys seen/tried peanut flour yet? I started reading about it on blogs this year, and then about a month ago my local Trader Joe's started carrying it. I immediately bought a bag, got it home, realized I didn't know WHAT to do with it, and stuck it in the back of the cupboard, where it languished until this past week. (One day I hope to be cured of my impulsive grocery-buying ways. Except not really.)

I'd read of people using it to flavor their smoothies and oatmeal--it packs a lot of protein and peanut flavor, with much less fat and calories than actual peanut butter. I hadn't read about people using it for baking, but someone's got to be the first, right?

Since I'd never baked with peanut flour before, I stayed conservative. I made a half batch, which called for 1.25 cups of flour, so I used 1 cup of AP and 1/4 cup of peanut flour. I also added teensy chocolate chips in addition to the chopped salted peanuts. I would have tried the cocoa powder variation, but I wanted to see how the batter worked with the peanut flour before adding any other variations to the mix.

Now of course, the problem with this experiment is that I didn't have a control group of cookies--ones baked without the peanut flour. (I never claimed to be a scientist!) So I can't really say how much the peanut flour changed the texture or flavor of these cookies. I can say that their texture didn't seem negatively affected at all--they were still soft in the middle with a crisp outside edge.

The flavor, too, was good. They didn't hit you over the head with their peanutty-ness, which is either good or bad depending on your tastes. I would have expected maybe a stronger peanut flavor, but maybe I have dull taste buds, or maybe it would have been even fainter without the peanut flour. I am curious to try it again and substitute even more peanut flour and see what happens. I can also see it being awesome in brownies or chocolate cookies, to give them a bit of a Reese's taste.

Q: Any other peanut flour users here? What recipes should I use it in?


Wednesday, September 01, 2010

TWD: Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookies

Shortbreads aren't the kind of cookies I usually crave. I guess they have their place at the side of a coffee cup, but given the choice, I'll always opt for good old chocolate chip cookies. So as I was dutifully making these cookies, I was already scheming about who I could gift them to--what unsuspecting friend or coworker would be the "beneficiary" of my "generosity" while unknowingly supporting both my overuse of mental quotation marks and my bake-but-don't-partake habit?

Well--spoiler alert!--I did give most of these away, but it was a bittersweet parting, because I ended up loving these humble little shortbread tiles.

The original recipe was for an Espresso-Chocolate shortbread cookie, but I'm not an espresso sort of girl, so already half the cookie's raison d'être was eliminated. I instead decided to add some warm fall spices to the dough. It started with cinnamon but soon I found myself shaking in big dashes of ginger, allspice, and cloves. In the finished product the spices were pretty subtle, just a little hint of interest that lingered and made you take another bite, and then another, trying to figure out what was tickling your tongue.

For the chocolate I kept it simple: small shards of 70% dark scattered throughout the dough. After an overnight chill in the refrigerator these baked up beautifully sandy and crisp, with small hidden pockets of melted bittersweet chocolate. Were I a coffee drinker I would drink an extra cup after dinner, just to have an excuse to eat more of these perfectly sized tea cookies.

In the end these cookies were perfect little bites that were just as satisfying as the biggest chocolate chip cookie, but in their own quiet way. Donna has the recipe on her aptly name blog, Life's Too Short Not to Eat Dessert First.