Reason to Celebrate

We have a real glut of apples happening at my local market―a most certain nod that the winds of fall are fast approaching. Meanwhile, leaves begin to display golden shades and shadows stretch longer in the afternoon sun, it’s as if nature is taking one long breath.  I have mixed feelings about this change of seasons:  I’m both sad that summer is all but gone, yet excited for the approaching harvest.

Living closer to the land again, I’m regaining my awareness and connection with the natural life cycle. Peaches and nectarines replace summer berries now, while apple varieties like Jonathon, honey crisp, gala, and Fuji steadily gain prominence.  Absolutely nothing compares to eating produce at its peak. Freshly picked for consumption means it hasn’t been sitting in a cooler for months making its way to my grocery store.

Fuji apples

Fuji apples

I recently bought a few early Fuji apples to make a nice dessert for friends, and my favorite French Apple Torte came to mind.  I have been making it for so long that I have lost the original documentation. There’s nothing terribly unique about it―your normal baking staples and a few sweet, crisp apples wrapped in a moist custard-like batter. Just know that it is all about the apples.

The batter only requires a few stirs with a whisk or large spoon. The apples are added and it is unceremoniously dumped into a baking dish.  While in the oven, a simple topping is quickly put together and poured over the semi-baked torte. It continues to bake until fully set and the edges of the apples caramelize.Apple Torte

This little beauty hits all the right notes.  It’s bursting with bright nuances from fresh sweet apples and further enhanced by the rich egginess of the crazy-custard-like batter that binds it all together. The caramel topping’s buttery sweetness and texture becomes the perfect counterpoint to the clean apple flavors.

Apple Torte Slice (1)Elegant in taste and appearance, it is a dessert suitable for just about any occasion.  Consider it as the finish to a special dinner, an impromptu treat for drop-in company, or perhaps the best reason of all, to celebrate the apple harvest.  Do enjoy it warm from the oven with ice cream or a custard sauce.

French Apple Torte

Ingredients
1/2     cup all-purpose flour
1/3     cup sugar
1        Tbsp baking powder
1/8     tsp salt
1/2     tsp vanilla extract
2        eggs, lightly beaten
2        Tbsp olive oil
1/3     cup milk
4        baking apples such Braeburn, Rome, Fuji, etc, peel, core, thick slices (about 2 pounds)
Topping
3      Tbsp butter, melted
1/3   cup sugar
1       egg, lightly beaten
 
Method

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9″ springform pan or ovenproof quiche dish and set aside.
  2. In large bowl combine flour through salt and blend well.
  3. In small bowl combine vanilla through milk and blend well.  Add liquid to dry and stir until well blended.  Add the apples and stir to thoroughly coat with batter.  Spoon into pan and bake until firm and golden, about 25 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile prepare topping by combining butter, sugar and egg in small bowl.  Stir to blend, and set aside.
  5. Remove torte from oven and pour the topping mixture over it.  Return to the oven and bake until top is deep golden brown and quite firm when pressed, about 10 minutes.
  6. Remove to rack and cool from 10 minutes.  Run knife around edge and remove sides or serve from dish at room temperature or warmed served with vanilla ice cream or custard sauce.  Serves 6 to 8.

Crazy about Canelés

For anyone fond of custard creations like crème brûlée or flan, you are hereby forewarned about canelés.  On first glance, they don’t look like much.  Not known for perfect shape or artful finish, the crisp little cakes may appear more like pâtisserie rejects—some malformed, with exteriors ranging from extremely dark to downright burnt.

Cute as a bug's ear

Cute as a bug’s ear

But, if there is heaven in a bite, this would surely be it.  Beware:  it takes only one to set off a profound physical and/or spiritual reaction.  It may also make your eyes bug out and simultaneously cause you to swoon.

Canelés are not new; they have been around France for centuries—and could be one of their better kept secrets.  These charmers have a fascinating pedigree.  Hailing from the Bordeaux region, the crepe-like batter was originally baked in tin-lined copper molds, brushed with bees wax.  Turns out the bees wax provides a natural non-stick coating, along with a lovely hint of honey flavoring.

It was discovered that baking them in a very hot oven caramelizes the exteriors to resemble something like the tops of crème brûlée.  Meanwhile, their interiors develop an enchanting cake-like custard filling.  It is this contrast in textures and flavors that yields a package in a class of its own.  Without competition.Caneles

canele moldOnce on the canelé trail, I was thrilled to discover that there are alternatives to the horrifically expensive copper molds.  Silicone molds are also available; they are affordable, easy to work with and provide surprisingly good results.  As far as baking with beeswax, that is still to come; I buckled and added a bit of honey to my batter as a tasty alternative. Food grade quality beeswax is available on line at a number of websites.

Canelés are delicious anytime (from personal experience).  Of course, the French enjoy canelés with a nice glass of wine, but they are equally delicious with coffee, at breakfast, a mid-day sweet, as a fine dessert, or, you name it…

Canelés

Ingredients

2 cups milk
2 Tbsp butter, plus 1 Tbsp butter for molds
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup less 2 Tbsp sugar (variation: ½ cup sugar + 1/3 cup honey. Add honey to milk to equal 2 cups)
¼ tsp salt
3 eggs, room temperature

Special tools:  Small canelé baking molds

Directions

  1. Scald the milk and butter until bubbles form on edge of pan (183 degrees), remove from heat and add the vanilla. Cool to warm.
  2. In medium bowl sift the flour, sugar and salt together and make a well in the center. Lightly beat the eggs with a fork and pour them into the center of the flour.  Add the milk mixture and stir with a spatula to incorporate the wet with the dry. To remove lumps, pour mixture thru a sieve into a holding container.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours, and up to 3 days.
  3. The day of baking, brush silicone molds with butter. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
  4. Gently stir the cold batter to re-combine; it will have separated. Place the molds on a wire rack over a baking sheet and fill the molds with batter about ¾ full.  (Return batter to refrigerator.)
  5. Set molds on rack over baking sheet in oven, close door and reduce heat to 425 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes. If browning unevenly, reverse the molds.  Close the door and reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Bake for an additional 45 to 60 minutes, until very dark brown, almost burnt.  Continue to reverse the molds every 20-30 minutes.
  6. Let canelés cool in their molds (about 10 minutes) on wire rack — this will help them firm up and avoid collapse.  Remove from molds, place canelés on their sides on cooling rack; they will become crisp and more stable as they cool.  Wipe out molds with toweling to remove any baking debris and repeat; it is not necessary to brush the molds with butter for 2nd  Yield:  about 36 canelés.

Canelés are best eaten the same day.  To freshen, reheat in 450 degree oven 5-10 minutes.

For Goodness Sake, Bread Pudding Muffins

I can’t help myself.  Regardless of a return to 80 and 90 degree weather the calendar still reads October— my culinary roots have instinctively shifted to thoughts of autumn, the harvest, and stockpiling heartier foods for approaching winter.

Like a squirrel salting away nuts for a rainy day, I’m busy brining and roasting more turkey wings than I’ll ever eat, and simmering pots of soup and batches of crystallized ginger.  In this same spirit, I have been mulling over an old favorite recipe for bread pudding muffins and decided to give it an update.

Back in the height of the low fat craze, I made a lot of these muffins.  They used only egg whites (sans yolks, the presumed enemy), plenty of cinnamon, and only a sparse amount of butter, so it was easy to splurge when predictable cravings set in.  It was a smart alternative to the real deal.

Let’s face it:  bread pudding is pretty much bread soaked in flavored custard and baked.  Omit the yolks, the heart of the custard, and this richly satisfying, unctuous pudding becomes a soggy, sweet, one-dimensional impostor.  Of course, my renewed respect for the humble egg has caused a major shift in my approach to cooking and eating. Now, those earlier muffins seem like bleak compromise:  low fat watered down imitations, an uneven swap, in lieu of robust flavor and quality.bread pudding glazed
So, the results are in from my challenge to create a moist flavorful muffin with all the attributes of bread pudding, yet remain ever vigilant to realistic alternatives.  In this case, one that is not ridiculously rich, can be picked up as a portable breakfast treat/snack, and  can also be served warmed for a personal sized dessert.

bread pudding few

Yum, yum, yum!

Bread Pudding Muffins with Coconut Drizzle

Good anytime muffin of cubed bread soaked in vanilla custard, enriched with warm spices, raisins, and dried cranberries, then topped off with a light coconut glaze.  For substitutions, try crystallized ginger, dried currants, apricots or blueberries.

Ingredients
4 cups bread cubes, cut into 1/2″ pieces, crusts trimmed (Sally Lund bread or challah are great)
1/3 cup raisins, 1/3 cup dried cranberries (combine with 1 Tbsp orange or other juice and microwave until bubbly, about 1 minute and let stand to soften)
Custard Base:
2 large eggs
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla bean paste or rum extract
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup milk, warmed
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
pinch salt

Coconut Glaze (see below) or confectioners’ sugar

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Use silicone cups or fill 6 muffin cups with liners.

  1. Before preparing the custard, trim bread of excessively heavy crust, cut into ½” cubes, and place in a large mixing bowl. Separately, soak the dried fruit; melt the butter; and warm the milk.
  2. Prepare the custard:  In a medium bowl using a hand mixer, beat the eggs until frothy and slowly beat in the sugar; continue beating at medium high until thick.  Mix in the vanilla or rum; stir in the melted butter; then add the warm milk and combine well.
  3. Pour the custard over the bread cubes and stir with a large spoon to moisten evenly. Allow the bread to soak about 10 minutes.
  4. In a small bowl combine the cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. With a tablespoon, remove one spoonful of warm liquid from the soaking bread and add this to the the cornstarch mixture, stirring to create a smooth slurry.
  5. Stir the spice slurry evenly into the bread and custard and add the macerated fruit.
  6. Mound the bread mixture into muffin cups and bake about 30 minutes, until set and lightly browned. Let cool on rack and drizzle with Coconut Glaze, or sift lightly with confectioners’ sugar.  Yield:  6 servings.

Coconut Glaze:  Combine ¾ cup confectioners’ sugar, 1 tsp coconut oil or ½ tsp coconut extract, and slowly beat in 1 – 2 Tbsp hot water, enough to form a cohesive, thin paste.  Drizzle with a fork over the tops of the muffins.

Recipe can be doubled.  

Dessert Not Easily Forgotten

Even the names are enchanting: œufs à la neige (eggs in snow) and ȋle flottante (floating island). Picture pristinely shaped ovals nested in snowy cream, or billowy meringues adrift in a sea of custard. Pure fantasy.Ala Neige in glass

Although the French names suggest culinary ownership many countries claim their own unique versions. For the most part they are all about tender clouds of sweetened egg whites briefly poached and combined in some fashion with custard of eggs, milk and sugar.

For years I was captivated by the name and wanted to give Eggs in Snow a try, but only paused, blinked, and moved on. It seemed daunting; a lot of work for something that appeared simplistic and inconsequentially light.

But I was wrong. This is a complex dessert with both great style and whimsy; a sweet with such wide appeal that it would play equally well to adults and children as well as the healthy and the infirm.

Perhaps I have had a major culinary shift. These days I am in awe of all the well-constructed basics that incorporate eggs: i.e., meringues and custards. In this case, I was pleased to combine two of my favorite things and carry it a step further.

a la neige poaching

 

I was fascinated by the process of poaching meringues in simmering liquid. I watched as the beaten egg whites swelled into moist, firm puffs of air; the most perfect ‘marshmallow fluff’ imaginable.

 

 

 

a la neige custard

 

Of course, anything that includes custard has long been a friend of mine. In this case, crème Anglaise thriftily transforms the residual yolks into a thin, regal custard—the sea upon which the islands of meringue rest.

 

 

 

Ah, those lovely Floating Islands. I spooned the custard sauce into individual glasses and perched a couple of the meringue clouds atop. For contrast, I sprinkled on a few crunchy candied almonds. You would not think one of these elegant beauties would be enough—so light and ethereal, yet I was amazed and completely satisfied.

a la neige dosAs with some île flottantes, perhaps the addition a cookie or bit of cake is in order. It’s your call. Whatever you call it, it is not a dessert easily forgotten.

Eggs in Snow and Floating Islands

Ingredients

Meringue
4 egg whites
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Pinch salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Poaching Liquid
2 cups milk, water or a combination of both
2 Tbsp granulated sugar

Crème Anglaise Custard
2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Garnish: ½ cup candied almonds, raspberries or other fresh fruit

Directions
Prepare the Poaching Liquid
In a wide pot over medium high, heat milk and sugar to dissolve the sugar. Keep warm while preparing the meringue.
For the Meringue
1. With electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy and add the cream of tartar. Continue beating the whites until a firm foam forms. Add the salt and then very slowly add in the sugar, beating until whites are glossy and thick with soft peaks. Add the vanilla and beat until stiff peaks begin to form.
To Poach the Meringues
1. Using 2 serving spoons shape the meringues into attractive ovals and gently lower the spoonfuls into the simmering milk.
2. Poach the meringues about 2 minutes per side; turn when set and cook on the other side. Remove with slotted spoon and set on toweling to drain; and repeat.
For the Crème Anglaise
1. Strain the poaching liquid and add enough milk to equal 2 cups. Heat the milk in a small pot until it is hot but not boiling.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, with a hand held mixer, beat the egg yolks until frothy and slowly whisk in the sugar; continue beating until it is thick and light in color. Slowly stir in about 2/3 cup of the hot milk to temper.
3. Lightly whisk the custard back into the pot of warm milk. Over low heat stir constantly until it is hot and coats the back of a spoon and when a line drawn through it does not run. It should reach about 170 degrees: a few bubbles may appear along edges but it does not boil. Add the vanilla and strain into a clean bowl to cool. If refrigerating, cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid skin forming on surface.

To Assemble: Spoon the custard into a low serving bowl, individual wide bowls or serving glasses; float the poached meringues on top and sprinkle with candied nuts or fresh fruit. Serves 4.