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.

Sandy beaches are nice…

As much as I love winter soups and stews, this week I reached my limit.

It wasn’t all that evident until I dashed out of the rain and into the market for a few staples, wrapped in a fleece jacket and wool scarf. Straight ahead in the produce section, I came to a screeching stop in front of a large display of fresh mangoes.

I was not prepared for this.

My imagination immediately transformed this sight into a sandy beach lined with palm trees. I felt a warm tropical breeze envelope me… and there was a colorful bowl of fresh mango salsa.

mango salsa

No, this was not hot flashes…

Before I knew it, my cart not only held mangoes, there were limes, peppers, onions and cilantro. Down the aisle at the meat counter, they were featuring pork tenderloins. I’ll have that, thank you. Into the cart it went. This would need a quick and easy marinade; I’d go with a basic sesame-soy blend. Whatever else I needed, was immaterial. I was done.

Back at home, the pork was marinating in no time. I dusted off my old tropical salsa recipe and quickly pulled it together. Although mango is my favorite, I’ve made this with all sorts of fruit, including papaya and peach. Fresh pineapple is a good addition if the fruit is not real ripe.

This refreshing salsa goes with just about anything (I was even considering cereal at one point), from grilled fish to pork or chicken—and any sort of fried food.

The marinade is one I had been working on for Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches, so that will likely still happen. It has a bit of sweetness to help with the caramelization process. I dropped the marinated pork into a hot pan for a quick sear and finished it in a medium hot oven.

The tenderloin barely made it out of the oven before I was wolfing it down with the lovely mango salsa. Ah yes, I was back on that sandy beach with tropical breezes wafting through the palm trees. So nice…

Tropical Salsa

Ingredients
2 large ripe mangoes, peel 1/2″ dice
½ red pepper, seed and dice
½ jalapeno, seed and dice
¼ cup green onions, chop
¼ cup red onion, dice
juice of ½ lime
2 Tbsp cilantro or 1/2 tsp thyme, mince
pinch salt and sugar, to taste

Instructions
Combine all and chill 2 hours or up to a day ahead. Adjust to taste with lime juice or sugar. Makes about 2 cups

meatloaf magic

Who doesn’t like meatloaf?  Besides, you just might get lucky and have some left behind for the next day.

Since I prefer the leftovers, I like to begin there. I cook the meatloaf on a baking sheet with sides exposed to the heat, thus ensuring flavors are sealed in and the loaf does not simmer in its own juices.

Coppa topped meatloaf

This rustic treatment produces a solid loaf that slices thin the next day and brings an interior dotted with sautéed green leeks and cremini mushrooms for color, flavor, and texture.  If you prefer, the ground beef could be any combination including part turkey, chicken, and/or pork.

For a quick mix of ingredients I like to get my hands into the action… there’s also an egg for moisture, a dash of Worcestershire, and a handful of either dried or fresh breadcrumbs for binder.  That’s it.

The meat mixture is shaped into an oval on a parchment lined baking sheet and topped with a few slices of coppa ham or prosciutto for interest – rather than ketchup.  It’s the ideal time to throw a few vegetables  onto the pan for roasting without any extra effort.  Here, young carrots, sliced onion, and small red potatoes are tossed with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper and tucked around the loaf.

sheet pan meatloaf

While the meatloaf bakes, give the vegetables an occasional turn for even cooking. Soon the homey scents of meatloaf will fill the air…

Sheet Pan Meatloaf with Roasted Vegetables

Ingredients
Meatloaf
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ leek or onion, slice
½ cup cremini mushrooms, quarter
1 tsp fresh thyme
1½ lean ground beef
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
½ tsp each salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
½ cup breadcrumbs, approximate
4-6 slices coppa or prosciutto ham, to cover top
Vegetables
4-5 red potatoes, halve or quarter
4-6 young whole carrots, scraped
½ onion, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fresh rosemary
salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  2. For meatloaf, sauté the leek and mushrooms in olive oil to soften and release mushroom moisture adding salt, pepper and thyme.  Cool.
  3. To assemble meatloaf, in mixing bowl break up the ground beef. Using hands, mix in the sautéed vegetables, Worcestershire, salt, pepper, and beaten egg.  Add enough breadcrumbs to absorb and bind all.  Shape and mold the mixture on baking sheet into an oval loaf.  Cover top with coppa or prosciutto.
  4. Toss the potatoes, onion, and carrots with olive oil, salt, pepper and part of rosemary.  Arrange around the meatloaf and sprinkle with remaining rosemary.
  5. Bake at 375°F for 1½ hours, turn the vegetables occasionally to cook evenly.  Serves 3-4

fast, fresh, homemade

I needed ricotta cheese for Thanksgiving and decided to make my own in the Instant Pot. It’s not complicated, and you can certainly make ricotta in a pot on the stove. But if you have an Instant Pot, you simply set the Yogurt button and let the pot do the rest. In about 30 minutes the milk reaches a boil at a controlled pace, thus reducing the risk of scorching the bottom of the pot.

In another 30 minutes you have fresh, homemade ricotta.

fresh ricotta

If you make lasagna or other ricotta-based dishes, then you can appreciate a flavorful well-constructed ricotta—it makes a difference. That’s why I’ve come around to using whole milk ricotta. For the same reasons, it’s wise to look for milk that is not ultra-pasteurized.

Ricotta curds are made by adding acid to the milk, either lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid. In my opinion, vinegar is a bit harsh and its flavor may be detectable in the cheese. Citric acid is reliable, but harder to find. I prefer lemon juice because it is convenient, mild, and the curds seem less chewy.

Once the milk has reached between 180° and 185°F the lemon juice is added to the pot and gently stirred to assimilate into the milk. Curds will begin to form; when the milk has visibly separated, let the curds set 15 to 20 minutes. Then, it’s time to drain them. I use a slotted spoon to transfer the curds to a colander lined with cheesecloth or coffee filters. Let them drain 15 to 20 minutes and then move the curds to a bowl to use right away or into a storage container to chill up to 5 days.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese

Ingredients
6 cups whole milk, not ultra-pasteurized
1 tsp salt (optional)
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
supplies: digital thermometer, spatula, slotted spoon, colander with bowl, cheesecloth

Instructions

  1. Set multi-cooker or Instant Pot to Yogurt; press Adjust and select Boil. Pour in milk, add salt and stir with a flat spatula to keep from scorching on bottom. Bring to simmering boil (180-185°F), about 30 minutes. If more time is needed, reset pot to Sauté Hi to reach temperature.
  2. Remove from heat, add the lemon juice, and gently stir to combine and form curds. Cover, and let stand undisturbed to set curds, 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile line a colander with 2 layers or fine cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and set it over a bowl. Once curds have rested, skim all the curds into the colander, leaving the whey behind for other purposes (it’s highly nutritious). Let the curds drain 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how dry you prefer it.
  4. The ricotta is ready to use or transfer it to a covered container and store refrigerated up to 5 days. Makes 2 cups.

Brussels Sprouts, the easy way

Once again, yesterday I was reminded why I like brussels sprouts, especially on a day like Thanksgiving. As a fall vegetable they really work, they have lots of flavor and I love their green addition, but I’m disappointed when they turn out bitter and either undercooked and hard, or overcooked and mushy.

Bacon is always a solution, its smokiness can mask some of that off flavor, and roasting sprouts is an interesting compromise. That is, until the oven is taken over by turkey and other sides and sprouts get shifted down in priority.

So, here’s my solution. I’ve discovered that brussels sprouts cook in a flash in the microwave, and when an everyday balsamic vinegar is pulled into the equation, things really shift. The sweet-sour action tends to balance out any potential bitterness, and used judiciously, balsamic vinegar adds dimension and is hardly detectable.

I dribble on a dash of balsamic when precooking the halved brussels sprouts for 2 to 3 minutes in the microwave—before all the madness begins. Then, it’s a simple matter of quickly reheating them with the precooked smoky bacon and perhaps a bit of onion, plus another dribble of balsamic for re-enforcement. Give it a taste before serving and add another dribble, if so inclined.

It’s that easy and so tasty.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Balsamic

Ingredients
1-pound brussels sprouts, trim and cut in half lengthwise
3 slices pepper bacon, cut into strips
½ small red onion, peel and slice
1 Tbsp olive oil, divided
½ tsp each salt and pepper
2-3 tsp balsamic vinegar, to taste

Instructions

  1. Ahead, cook bacon in microwave between toweling until crisp, about 2 minutes total. In microwaveable bowl, toss onion with 1 tsp oil and heat in microwave until it softens and begins to color, 2 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Toss the brussels sprouts with remaining olive oil, salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon balsamic. Microwave 2-3 minutes uncovered. Set aside until needed.
  3. To finish, reheat the sprouts with 1 additional teaspoon balsamic, the bacon and onion on top in microwave, 1-2 minutes. Drizzle lightly with balsamic vinegar to taste, toss and serve. Serves 4.

Penchant for Pumpkin

There is little doubt that fall is underway in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  As much as I have held out hope for more warm weather, temperatures this morning dropped to 45 degrees and there is talk that it will get close to freezing overnight.

On the bright side, fall weather gives me ample reason to get a jump on pumpkin season.  Earlier, I dashed to the store to stock up on cans of pumpkin pulp, should the mood strike.  And of course, it did.

I was not happy with my latest tapioca pudding made in the multicooker. As much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, the tapioca had turned unpleasantly gooey.  When you prefer a light creamy tapioca, this is not going to happen when it boils unmercifully under pressure.  Excessive heat breaks down the tapioca and turns it rubbery.

Thus, goaded on by my penchant for pumpkin, I was further compelled to launch into a deeper Tapioca Inquiry.  Armed with pumpkin and an abundance of small tapioca pearls, I was enthusiastically prepared to get to the bottom of this.

I revisited basic tapioca preparation and began by soaking it for 30 minutes to soften. This cuts overall cooking time, too. With that in mind, it doesn’t take long to prepare old-fashioned tapioca on the stove.  The main point is to not let it boil—but allow it to thicken and let the pearls swell.

A couple of eggs helps here.  Early on, the yolks are combined with milk to form a custard base and thicken with the tapioca. The pumpkin pulp and spices are added, and finally, the two egg whites are whipped until thick and folded into the pumpkin tapioca to further lighten it.  The pumpkin tapioca happens in less than a half hour.

It is good warm, cool, or chilled.  Sweet.

Pumpkin-Spiced Tapioca

Ingredients
⅓ cup small pearl tapioca (not quick tapioca)
¾ cup water
2 eggs, room temperature, divided
2¼ cups 2% milk, room temperature, divided
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin pulp
1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger,  ¼ tsp each salt, nutmeg, and allspice
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. In advance: soak pearl tapioca in ¾ cup water in 2½ quart pan or larger for 30 minutes to soften.
  2. In a 1 cup measure beat the egg yolks, whisk in the brown sugar until thick and dissolved, then whisk in ¼ cup milk.
  3. Place the pot over medium heat. With a spatula stir egg mixture into the soaking tapioca, then add 2 cups milk.
  4. Bring it to a simmer stirring to keep from sticking on bottom. Once steamy with bubbles beginning to form, reduce heat to low and cook gently for 5 minutes until it thickens and pearls swell.
  5. Combine the pumpkin, spices, salt and stir into the pot. Cook 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally with spatula. Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl beat the egg whites until foamy, slowly add the granulated sugar until thick and peaks form.
  6. Gently stir ½ cup of hot tapioca into the whipped whites to temper, then fold whites into the tapioca. Cook over low heat, folding and stirring with spatula to thoroughly combine the tapioca until it is hot and steamy, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.  Serve warm or cool.  Cover and chill in refrigerator 3 hours and up to 3 days.  Serves 4 -6