Sweet Dreams

We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.

Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau.  Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain.  It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?

People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends.  Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.

I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard.  In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.”  Sweet.

The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking.  Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice.  His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.

I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard.  He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake.  Simple enough.

Basque Gateau

I decided to give it a try.  Here are a couple of notes:  I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk.  It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy.  I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant.  However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

So, there you have it.  I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!)  The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.

I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart

Ingredients
Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional

Instructions

1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes.  Mix in flour.  Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling.  Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead.  You should have enough for 2 cakes.

2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.

3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick.  Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge.  Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Release cake from pan and slice into wedges.  For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving.  Cover and chill for storage.   Serves 6-8

Curds the Word

It was my buddy Keith’s birthday this past Sunday (also Groundhog’s Day & Super Bowl Sunday), so there were plenty of reasons to celebrate. For my part, I made my first batch of homemade cheese curds the day before… and oh, were they good!

Fresh cheese curds

I won’t bore you with the tedious details. Suffice to say, it was a marathon 8-hour procedure which I further complicated by throwing in a sous vide for temperature control, but well worth it. If you happen to be a curd lover, you might want to check out the thorough directions at New England Cheese Making Supply Co.

Mild cheese curds are at their best when eaten fresh, while their prized squeakiness is at its peak (within a day or so of making). Keith got his lovely curds on time and I had enough left for a very tasty riff on a pizza Margherita. I realize I am past due for a [Friday] pizza blog, so here we go!

I was curious to see what the curds would do on the pizza. Would they melt or turn rubbery? I would keep ingredients on the tame side as to not overwhelm the curds. All that was left was to assemble a few ingredients and give it a quick bake in a hot oven.

I started with a pre-baked crust made earlier in the day. To get my quota of garlic in, I opt for a gentle smear of garlic confit. I like to keep a jar of it in the fridge for occasions such as this, as it gives a mellow garlic flavor that blends well but does not dominate. For a substitute, see the recipe for easy alternative.

Pizza with Curds and Tomatoes

In rapid succession, it’s layered with sliced onion and spicy pasilla pepper; then a bit of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary and thyme. Our featured sliced tomatoes and cheese curds get dotted about; if you don’t have curds, use any fresh cheese, such as mozzarella. It’s finished with a light dusting of Asiago or Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, and popped into a hot oven until the top is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Once baked, fresh basil is scattered across the top and it’s served.

Final curd outcome: the curds melt slightly, brown on top, and become creamy. Once cooled, they firm up and go back to their original texture, albeit a tad drier. Pretty much what you would expect. No rubbery cheese here!

Pizza with Cheese Curds and Tomatoes

Ingredients
½ recipe pizza dough, or medium purchased
1 Tbsp garlic confit, or 1 Tbsp olive oil heated with 2 cloves garlic, smash
½ onion, slice
½ pasilla or other pepper, slice
salt and pepper
1 tsp fresh rosemary and/or thyme
3 Roma tomatoes, slice
1 cup fresh cheese curds, cut bite-size
½ cup Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grate
2 tsp olive oil
5-6 fresh basil leaves, tear smaller if large

Instructions

  1. Prepare one 9-10” crust. Preheat oven to 425-450°F.
  2. On fresh or pre-baked crust, evenly spread garlic confit over the surface, coating edges.
  3. Add a layer of sliced onion and pepper. Season lightly with salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh herbs.
  4. Top with sliced tomatoes and dot with fresh cheese curds. Sprinkle with aged Asiago or Parmesan cheese and drizzle the top with olive oil.
  5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until bubbly on top and crust is golden brown. Scatter with fresh basil leaves. Makes 1 medium pizza.

Go Ducks Gumbo

Today the Oregon Ducks are back at the Rose Bowl playing the Wisconsin Badgers. Since it is also New Year’s we are feasting on bowls of Gumbo with Black-eyed Peas (here). The gumbo is rich and hearty with sausage and/or ham. To liven it up, I’m including an insane topping, Brussels Sprout Leaves with Bacon Vinaigrette.

Black-eyed Peas Gumbo topped with Brussels Sprout Leaves & Bacon Vinaigrette

I stumbled upon both ideas in The Nimble Cook, a resourceful book by Ronna Welsh. Her beautiful cookbook is packed with clever solutions for transforming little used or often ignored food into treasured ingredients. It doesn’t take long before her perspective becomes infectious and you begin to view excess and waste far differently.

It had not occurred to me to separate the leaves from the sprouts’ core, but it makes total sense when you are merely removing the larger top layer for a fast 1-minute sear. That’s it. The rest of the brussels sprouts can be cut up and included or saved for another meal. Since I was looking for a small amount for lively garnish, this suited my needs. Besides, I love the idea of the fresh sprout leaves and bright bacon vinaigrette mingling with the black-eyed peas.

Ronna likes to work with concepts that keep her ideas simple and frequently don’t require recipes. The bacon vinaigrette is so simple it hardly needs a recipe. I ended up searing about 3 cups of cut-up leaves, for 1 minute in a drizzle of hot bacon fat. I added a spoonful of the vinaigrette to the skillet to heat and coat the leaves and that was it.

The leaves remain bright green for several hours. Here’s my version of Ronna’s brilliant ideas.

Brussels Sprout Leaves with Bacon Vinaigrette

Inspired by The Nimble Cook by Ronna Welsh

Ingredients
3 slices thick smoked bacon, or ⅓ cup crisp bacon, 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp bacon fat
1 clove garlic, peel, flatten
3 cups brussels sprout leaves, cut and torn bite size, from @ 12 individual brussels sprouts
Bacon Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp whole-grain mustard
2 Tbsp olive oil
pinch salt
1 Tbsp bacon fat

Instructions

  1. Cut up the bacon and cook until crisp, separately reserve the bacon bits and fat.
  2. To make the vinaigrette: combine the vinegar and mustard, whisk in olive oil and salt until thick. Whisk in the warm bacon fat until well combined and thick. Set aside
  3. In a wide skillet over medium, heat 1 tsp bacon fat. Add the garlic clove and increase heat to high. Toss the garlic, when aromatic remove it.
  4. Add the leaves, toss to coat and sear for 1 minute. Add a spoonful of vinaigrette and remove pan from heat. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Will remain green for several hours. Combine the crisp bacon with the leaves and serve. Makes 1 generous cup.

Embarrassment of Riches

I’m embarrassed to admit I have sorrel growing in my garden that I have barely touched. I planted it early in the year, and I’ve been reluctant to harvest much.  It is so utterly beautiful, I’ve been content to gaze on their bright green, red-etched leaves rather than eat them.

Turns out sorrel is a perennial herb that grows well in the Pacific Northwest. It is related to rhubarb (of course) and buckwheat (brilliant!). Sorrel is well known for its sour qualities and apparently, my particular red-veined variety is regarded as milder than most (indeed!).

Even though my tiny garden is pretty much done for the season, sorrel’s hearty leaves continue to grow like crazy. Armed with increased incentive, I have taken to clipping the leaves for salad.  Apparently, they can become tough, but I’ve yet to experience that issue. Thus far, the leaves are crisper than spinach with a pleasing tartness.

Fall Sorrel Salad

Here’s a rundown on a recent salad featuring the beauteous sorrel with other seasonal greens. I began with a juicy Honey Crisp apple thinking its residual sweetness would offset any lurking bitterness. To complement the apple I went with trusty Oregon Blue cheese—its robust, creaminess was an awesome match.

I brought it all together with a bold sweet-tart Balsamic-Vanilla Dressing laced with nutmeg, and finished  it with a sprinkling of caramelized walnuts. Oh, yes, let’s not forget freshly ground mixed peppercorns, the  crowning touch.

Fall Sorrel Salad

Ingredients
8 – 10 ounces, combination of sorrel and seasonal greens
1 fresh apple such as Honey Crisp
½ cup crumbled Oregon blue cheese, Danish blue, or Maytag
½ cup caramelized nuts
freshly ground mixed peppercorns
Balsamic Vanilla Dressing
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
salt and plenty of fresh ground pepper
¾ cup oil blend, (such as ¼ cup olive oil, ¼ cup vegetable oil, and ¼ cup walnut oil)

Instructions

  1. For dressing: place all through salt and pepper in cruet or jar and shake; add oil and shake well. Adjust seasoning.
  2. To prepare apple ahead: wash and dry, quarter and remove core, and leave skin on. Cut into 1/4″ width slices. Dip in 1 tsp lemon juice and 1 cup water, drain and cover with paper toweling.
  3. Wash, dry and trim greens, place in bowl and chill.
  4. To serve, toss the greens lightly with dressing, scatter with remaining items and serve. Pass additional dressing.    Serves 2-4

A Bevy of Bowls

I’m still enjoying Chicken Tikka Masala from the last blog. Since it isn’t excessively hot I like to kick-up my portion­­—but not everyone else agrees. I figure you can always add more spice but it’s not so easy to take it out.

A fun alternative is to set out small bowls of chutney, yogurt, hot pepper flakes, cilantro, and such.  It gives everyone creative license to dress up their own dish according to personal taste.

Since I mentioned Raita in the previous post I’m including it here as an all-in-one alternative to a bevy of bowls.

Beyond a cooling sauce, raita is a versatile dip with vegetables or crackers and breads such as Naan.

For a Greek Tzatziki variation, substitute dill for cilantro and season with garlic and red pepper; cucumber is optional. Perk it up with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.

Raita

Ingredients 
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp green onion, mince
1 Tbsp cilantro, mince
½ small seedless cucumber, small chop
¼ tsp salt
Spice blend
1 tsp each cumin seed and coriander seed, or ¾ tsp each ground
½ hot dried red pepper, seeded, or ¼ tsp red pepper flakes

Instructions
Combine the yogurt, green onion, cilantro and cucumber.
Crush the spices in mortar pestle, add the blend to the yogurt mixture and season with salt. Chill well and serve with cilantro garnish.  Makes 1½ cups

Variation
For Greek Tzatziki: replace the cilantro with dill; season with 1 clove garlic mash & minced, and red pepper. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle olive oil. Makes 1½ cups

Happiness is…

I’ve been practicing with the new mortar and pestle making spice blends and ended up spending time tinkering with Indian garlic/ginger pastes and blends. Which lead me back to my old favorite Tandoori Chicken.

But that is not where I ended up. My focus was on Chicken Tikka Masala, which begins with chicken pieces marinated in a spicy yogurt blend. They are frequently skewered for easy searing in the famed tandoori oven. These morsels are then added to a creamy curried tomato sauce.

It seemed to me that the old Tandoori Chicken yogurt marinade would suffice nicely.   I wanted to keep this simple, seriously.  I would eliminate the grilling portion and pan sear the chicken pieces, since there is so much going on here.

I’d been thinking about this for several days. Yesterday I prepped boneless skinless thighs and cut them into large bite-size strips for fast cooking. The yogurt marinade is straight forward.  Many recipes include yellow and red food dye which just doesn’t work for me. I sometimes opt for turmeric and red chilies, but mostly there is plenty of garlic and ginger supported by cumin, coriander and such.

On this occasion, Happiness is… bashing a garlic and ginger spice blend in the mortar and pestle in the blink of an eye.

Today I pulled out the Instant Pot and got going.  First I knocked out a batch of basmati rice, which only takes 6 minutes.  Then, another Happiness Experience: more garlic and ginger bashed with spices for the Masala Sauce.

Turns out, the marinated chicken sautés up nicely when the Instant Pot is cranked up as hot as it will go. The yogurt firms up and all the spices help in the browning process. This all needs to be done in small batches for successful searing… then set aside for the Masala sauce.

In the same pot, an onion sauté starts things off, its moisture releases the browned bits in the pan. The spice paste is added next and stirred until aromatic. So fresh is this past, it literally blooms in the pan. The tomato base is then added and it simmers briefly to bring the flavors together. After 10 minutes I pull out the immersion blender to puree any odd chunks but keep a little texture.

A cream layer is added to round out the sauce and tame it just a bit. Finally, the tandoori  chicken pieces are dropped in for a brief simmer—only long enough to finish cooking them—but still retain their unique tandoori flavor and not lose it to the sauce.

Served over basmati rice, this makes one heck of a dish. A little homemade cranberry ginger chutney spooned on the side sends it right over the top.

Today, Happiness is… two recipes: Chicken Tandoori (not previously posted, clearly an oversight) and Chicken Tikka Masala (incomplete without it).

Chicken Tandoori

Ingredients

2 pounds chicken thighs/legs, skin optional
Yogurt Marinade
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
2 Tbsp ginger, grate
1 tsp each turmeric, coriander, cumin, salt
1 Tbsp paprika + ½ tsp cayenne
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp oil for brushing grill and chicken

Instructions

  1. Place chicken in zip lock bag.
  2. Marinade:  Make garlic-ginger paste in mortar and pestle, add the spices and blend well.  Combine blend with the lemon juice and yogurt.  Pour over the chicken, marinate up to 24 hours.
  3. To grill: brush grill and chicken with oil, cook over hot coals, 4 minutes per side, turning as needed until seared and blistered, about 30 minutes. (Internal temperature 160-165°F.)  Makes 4 servings.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Ingredients
1 recipe marinated Tandoori Chicken: boneless pieces cut into strips, room temperature
Masala Sauce
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 onion, chop
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
2 tsp ginger, grate
1 tsp each cumin, coriander, turmeric, red chile flakes, and salt
14 ounces crushed tomatoes
8 ounces tomato sauce
¾-1 cup cream, full-fat coconut milk, or evaporated milk
2 tsp garam masala (optional)

Instructions

  1. Sear chicken: heat large pot to medium high with 2 Tbsp oil (multicooker: Sauté/Hi). Sear chicken 3 minutes per side in batches, don’t overcrowd. Remove to holding plate.
  2. For Sauce: reduce heat to medium-high (multicooker: Saute/Medium). Add onion, sauté to soften while scraping up browned bits in pan.  Make garlic-ginger paste in mortar and pestle, add the spices and blend together.  Stir the blend into the pot until aromatic, 2-3 minutes.
  3. Reduce heat, add tomato products, thin with water if quite thick, simmer 10 minutes. Puree if desired.
  4. Stir in the cream, garam masala, and chicken, simmer 10-15 minutes.  Adjust seasoning and serve with basmati rice, sprinkle with cilantro. Serves 4-6.

Mortar and Mustard

I’m back in the mortar and pestle game again. I once had a large molcajete from Mexico that yielded a few batches of guacamole and shortly thereafter was relegated to decorator status.

I’m trying again. This time I scaled down and went with a smaller version. Since I am short on storage space, I opted for a 1½ cup rounded granite mortar.

There’s a curing process that most mortar and pestles require before using that removes any lingering grit and debris from manufacturing. It is arduous enough that anyone who has gone through it won’t easily forget. Depending on the material and size, seasoning can vary. For many there’s a tedious grinding of rice into a white powder; mine included garlic, salt, and cumin to form a paste. Once that’s done it’s all rinsed with water and air dried. The mortar and pestle are never washed with soap.

Since then, I’ve been grinding everything in sight and it has gained a spot on my counter for quickly mashing garlic or a spicy blend or paste. My proudest achievement thus far is the Stone-Ground Mustard.

Stone-Ground Mustard

Mustard is fascinating, and the art of producing a condiment from it has been going on for centuries. It makes perfect sense to employ the timeless mortar and pestle—since its basic form is nearly as old as man.

Making your own mustard blend is not complicated. If you think about it, Asian mustard is simply dry mustard and water.

I opted for yellow mustard seeds which yield a mildly hot mustard. For a tangier, hotter mustard, brown seeds are the way to go, or some combination of the two. I cut mine with a small portion of dry mustard for added creaminess and body.

The goal is to break open the seeds to access interior oils and such, while leaving some whole for bursts of flavor. Rather than starting with dry mustard seeds which jump and bounce about, soaking the seeds will soften their hard outer layer. Once you’ve got a rhythm going with the pestle, a gentle bashing motion quickly breaks down the seeds.

Continue to grind all ingredients and blend with enough cool water to reach desired thickness.  Cover and store the mustard at room temperature for 3-4 days to mellow. As it rests, the mustard will thicken and flavors will soften. Give it a taste and adjust seasoning, if harsh add a few drops of honey. Store in a sealed glass jar for a month or longer.

Stone Ground Mustard, Small Batch

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 Tbsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 2 tsp shallot or onion, fine chop
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ tsp honey (optional)

Instructions

  1. Briefly crush the mustard seeds to slightly break down. Combine them with the dry mustard and 1/3 cup cold water, let soak 1-3 hours.
  2. Add the salt, allspice, and shallot to the soaked mustard and grind in a mortar and pestle, using a bashing motion to partially break down the seeds and create creaminess.  Add remaining water as needed.
  3. Store in clean glass jar and let mellow 2 or 3 days at room temperature. Adjust seasoning, adding a dash of honey if still harsh. Will hold at room temperature a month or longer.  Makes about ¾ cup