Anytime Bagel

This really isn’t a recipe, it’s more a prompt for designing a Breakfast Bagel & Lox.  In its simplest form, you begin with a toasted bagel and smear it with a topping such as cream cheese, ricotta, even hummus; it’s crowned with a healthy portion of thin sliced smoked salmon—plus any other touches, such as capers, onion, & dill.

People have their preferences on smoked salmon. If you are from the east coast it’s probably Nova Scotian or Scandinavian cold smoked salmon. On the west coast, we are all over the board, with even hot smoked a consideration.  As far as I’m concerned it is all good, but I do love pristine Nova.

Creating your masterpiece, you could go two-sided and build up both bagel halves. I’m happy enjoying a really good onion bagel with the focus only on one side. That’s plenty, because I like adding an egg.

For the egg(s), lately I’ve taken to using an egg ring and either poaching or scrambling the egg. It’s good to butter the ring and the pan surface before dropping in the egg. Once it begins to set, add water to pan, cover with a lid, and steam until the white is set and yolk is pink and cooked to taste.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool bagel lover, you know this is not just morning food. Rather, it falls into the breakfast-all-day category. It’s good anytime.

Breakfast Bagel & Lox

Ingredients
1 bagel, sliced in half
2 Tbsp or more cream cheese or fresh ricotta
1 sliced tomato
1-2 eggs, poached*, scrambled, or fried
1-2 ounces thin sliced smoked salmon
capers, red onion, fresh dill or other herbs, ground pepper, sliced tomato, radishes, fresh lemon

Instructions
Toast the bagel and spread both sides with cream cheese or ricotta.  Layer on slices of tomato and top with prepared egg*.
Drape with smoked salmon and add capers, red onions, fresh dill and sliced lemon. Serves 1 or more.
*For poached egg using egg ring, heat skillet to medium. Butter ring interior and pan surface. Drop egg into ring in pan and let it set briefly. Drizzle pan with a few tablespoons of water to create steam, cover with a lid 2-3 minutes, until white is set and yolk is pink, or cooked to taste.

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

(Dirty-Little-Secret)

I spend a lot of my free time reading cookbooks and checking out online recipes. It’s my form of relaxation. But there are times when all I really want is a familiar, well-tested recipe; one that delivers what I expect.

When I’m thinking ‘casual cake’, here’s a contender. Not only is it always good, it is basic and highly adaptable. I especially like tinkering with this one because it  easily changes with the season—and it loves fresh fruit, too.

At its heart is a well constructed European-style cake that rises high and fills the pan. It uses 3 eggs, which I consider generous, but they are core to its success: they add structure and don’t fade into the background. To control the fat quotient, I tend to use plain yogurt for tenderness and moisture and then fold in a little olive oil on the finish.

While this cake benefits from a good beating to get the eggs and sugar fully integrated, I have taken to forgoing a mixer in lieu of a whisk. You could call it a dump cake, because the dry ingredients are quickly added to the wet. Olive oil is gently folded into the batter and it’s quickly popped into a moderate oven.

That’s it.  Since any additions and flavorings incorporated will become quite apparent, I tend to use a mild olive oil because a bold extra virgin oil can overly dominate. Which brings us to what prompted this cake…

At my market they have been actively promoting beautiful blueberries from Chile.  Of course, I would pause and stare. I’d mentally note that it’s a long way to go for something that grows like crazy in Oregon, and then I would move on.  It’s wrong—on so many levels…

That argument blew up today. They reduced the price of the blueberries, and I buckled. (My dirty-little-secret.) So, today’s cake features two of my favorite things:  blueberries and polenta.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

I’ve gone with a simple upside-down cake that features sweetened blueberries topside and includes a bit of fine polenta in the batter for taste and texture. These two are true partners in crime, and what a color combination!

Since blueberries have an affinity for lemon and nutmeg, they flavor the cake beautifully and bring it all together.  Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream would be worth considering, too.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

Ingredients
Berry Layer
1 tsp butter
1½ cups fresh or frozen blueberries, picked and rinsed
⅓ cup granulated sugar
Dry Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
Wet Ingredients
3 eggs, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup plain yogurt, room temperature
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ cup mild olive oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter a 9″ cake pan and spread the blueberries evenly in the bottom of the pan; sprinkle with sugar and set aside.  On wax paper, blend the flour through nutmeg and set aside.
  3. In mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and gradually beat in the sugar.
  4. Add the yogurt, lemon zest, vanilla, and mix.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate. Fold in the oil; don’t over mix.  Scrape bowl down and spread the batter evenly over the berries.
  5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating to brown evenly, until center springs back when touched.
  6. Cool on rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of pan to loosen the cake, cover with a serving plate, quickly flip to invert cake onto it and cool.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. Serves 8-10.

The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Just a Bite

Quail eggs aren’t something I have thought much about. Yes, they are cute, but so very small. In the past when debating such an idea I’ve moved on, figuring they were more trouble than they were worth.

This weekend at the Saturday Market I buckled.  So clean and colorful, the tiny eggs beckoned like shiny jewels, pulling me in from their counter top display.  Before I knew it, the friendly vendor had fully captured my attention with talk of cooking Eggs-in-a-Hole (or my favorite Egg-in-a Nest). As she packed up my eggs, she describes the quail’s shell and inner membrane as thicker than chicken eggs, and suggests tapping the shell with a sharp knife to crack it open, rather than wrapping it on a hard surface.

Later online I learn that quail eggs are far more nutritious than chicken eggs. They are packed with vitamins (B1, B2, A), good cholesterol, phosphorous, potassium, and minerals. A quail egg has only 14 calories… so tiny, so powerful.

This morning I revisited my childhood favorite Egg-in-a Nest (here), in its diminutive form. The bread of choice is a personal decision, but size matters. Lately my go-to bread has become the smallish Bake at Home Sourdough Batard which requires a quick bake in the oven to finish it. Rather than bake-off the loaf, I l prefer to cut as needed and toast off slices—also an ideal size for tiny nests. To create a round in the bread for the egg, I cut around the bottom of a toothpick holder, I’ve heard a shot glass will also work.

I cut into the egg shell with a sharp knife from the pointed end. Since there seems to be a larger ratio of yolk to egg, I start far enough down (about ¼ of the full length) to allow the entire yolk to escape the shell. Watch out for particles, since the shell tends to crumble.

It’s easier to spread the bread sides with butter before placing in the pan to toast. Once almost toasted on the first side, add a bit of butter in the center hole and drop in the egg. It will likely cook fully within a minute or two. Turn to the second side and cook about 30 seconds to set; the yolk cooks very quickly.

Tiny Egg in a Nest

The quail egg’s flavor is more robust than a chicken egg. Some call it gamey, which is an overstatement. It tastes the way you wish an egg would taste. Once you get going, it’s easy to whip up a batch of nests pretty fast. I see all sorts of possibilities with these cuties, not only for breakfast, but with salad or as a delightful snack. Not so fiddly after all, they are perfect when you are looking for just a bite.

Tiny Egg-in-a-Nest

Ingredients
per nest:
1 small slice of favorite bread, with the center cut out
1 quail egg
butter, softened
salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Slice the bread ¼” thick and cut a small round from the center with a shot glass or similar form.
  2. To crack quail egg, quickly cut into the shell and membrane with a sharp knife. Empty the yolk and white into a small holding bowl.  Repeat with as many as needed.
  3. Using a small skillet over medium heat, butter the bread and round on both sides and place the two pieces in the skillet.  Move the bread a bit to coat the pan with butter where the egg will sit.  Allow the bread to toast, drop in a quail’s egg and let set.  Turn the bread with a spatula and cook to briefly to set the egg on second side.  Make sure the pan has a coating of butter where the egg will rest. Salt and pepper, and serve. Makes 1 nest.

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

Without a trace

A couple of weeks ago I pulled a dish out of the freezer marked Spinach Torta, 5 pieces, with no date listed.  It was really good; well browned layers of spinach in a creamy base interspersed with pieces of thickly grated cheese.

It’s a mystery. I have found no backup, and I am pretty good at leaving a trail when it comes to recipes.  Even when I’m tinkering, I jot down a note for follow up. Either I was in a huge hurry or thought it wouldn’t matter, the question has remained with me, “How did I make that?”

I keep coming up with possibilities and theories… and here’s my latest bright idea.

Although I suspect I used fresh spinach, I opt for a carton of frozen chopped spinach. Right away, we know it will be different. We know that in working with spinach it’s all about eliminating the inherent moisture.  Once frozen spinach is defrosted, it’s simply a matter of squeezing this mass very well.

I also know that I would not be making a quiche, since I prefer something more solid.  I opt for a base similar to a Greek spinach filling with ricotta, plus a bit of bread crumbs for added moisture control and binder. The custard has more structure; reminiscent of clafoutis, it includes milk, egg, and a bit of flour.

Spinach Torta

So, there you have it.  This baby is not going anywhere, it has plenty of flavor and holds together beautifully.  Don’t be surprised when another version shows here, since that will likely happen again!

Spinach Torta

Ingredients
½ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp salt, divided
½ tsp nutmeg
5 eggs, beaten
⅔ cup milk
10-ounce frozen chopped spinach, thaw, drain, squeeze dry
1 green onion chopped and/or 1 clove garlic, mash & minced
⅔ cup ricotta
3 Tbsp Parmesan, grated
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
½ cup grated cheese, pepper jack, muenster or mozzarella

Instructions

  1. Spread a pie plate or quiche dish with non-stick spray.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, ¼ tsp salt, and nutmeg.  Add the beaten eggs and incorporate the flour into the eggs with a fork. Then, stir in the milk and whisk until smooth. Let stand 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375° F.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine spinach, green onion, ½ tsp salt, ricotta, and Parmesan.
  5. Stir the bread crumbs into spinach mixture. Whisk the batter down and add it to the spinach in thirds, stirring well after each addition. Pour the mixture into the baking dish and bake until it begins to set, rotating once, for about 30 minutes.  Sprinkle with ½ cup grated cheese and bake 10-15 minutes longer until puffed.  Serves 4 or more.