26 April 2011

Springtime Tomato Tart with Onions, Basil & Balsamic Syrup (Tomato Tart No. 1)

In old French, I have heard, the tomato was sometimes affectionately called the pomme d'amour - the apple of love.  I totally get it.

Tomatoes are one of the most precious foods in my world.  They are best when they are in-season, vine-ripened, and (preferably) locally grown.

Supermarket tomatoes are terrible.  Do I need to tell you that, or have you watched Food, Inc?  Buy local ones.  Just please do.  Trust me.

Anyway, apparently, some used to believe the pomme d'amour had the powers of an aphrodisiac.  I understand.  They're red and plump and sexy.  And that smell?  Swoon.  Listen up, gentlemen: a basket full of fresh, local, farm-raised tomatoes would straight up knock me off my feet.  In case you were wondering.

If you're lucky enough to have too many tomatoes (is there such a thing?), definitely make this tart.  Or, make it just because you can.  I was inspired by David Lebovitz's lovely recipe here, but because I didn't have any chรจvre, I used a cheddar-y roux, and did not use any honey.  I can't wait to give that version a spin, too! **Update: I did try it, and it's amazing: Tomato Tart No. 2.

Quick Pastry Dough
This tart dough is very forgiving. You can screw it up and no one would ever know.  You could use too little butter.  No one cares about the size of your egg.  It's amazing.  If it's too wet or too dry, don't freak out.  Just add a little more flour or water.

200g flour
80g butter, cold
1/2 tea salt
1 egg
2-3 tablespoons cold water

Whisk together flour and salt.  Shred cold butter on a box grater (large holes) into the flour.  Toss to coat butter in flour mixture, then rub together using hands until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.

In a small bowl, lightly whisk the egg with water, then add to flour mixture using a butter knife.  Finish with hands, adding more cold water if dough does not come together.

Turn out dough onto a floured surface and roll out to about 1/2-cm thickness.  Transfer to tart pan, pressing into sides of pan with fingers.  Dimple bottom with your fingers and trim excess dough from the edges of the pan.

Tomato & Onion Tart Recipe

1 1/2 yellow onions, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
lots of tomatoes
handful fresh basil leaves
olive oil
dijon mustard

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup (240ml) whole milk
sea salt + freshly-cracked pepper
handful grated cheddar cheese

balsamic syrup for serving.

Preheat oven to 220C (400F).

Saute onions on medium-low heat with a little olive oil until soft and transparent.  Add garlic, saute 3 minutes more.  Remove from heat and set aside.

Chop tomatoes in large chunks - here I used small tomatoes, so merely cut them in half.  Place in a small bowl with torn basil leaves. Add salt, pepper and cooled onions.  Toss to combine.

Brush a thin layer of mustard over the bottom of the tart dough, or spread on using the back of a teaspoon.  Add tomato and onion mixture to the tart.

In the pan you cooked the onions in, melt butter.  When the butter is bubbling, add flour to make a paste.  Allow paste to cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute.  Add milk to the pan and whisk to incorporate flour paste into the milk.  Add grated cheese and continue to whisk until melted and incorporated.  Spoon cheese sauce over tomatoes.

Bake tart in oven for about 30 minutes, until top of tart is browned.  Tent with foil if the top browns before the dough and tomatoes are cooked.  Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, then carefully remove from tin and serve.

14 April 2011

Dandelion Bread for a Dandy Spring Weekend!

Holy sunshine, it's springtime in Scotland.

Last weekend was amazing.  The sun, which seems to have been hiding from us for the last 8 months-or-so, made an appearance three days in a row, with nary a cloud to speak of.  This is unprecedented stuff.  My friends and I made the most of it, with daily picnics: one at a castle, one in the hills, and one at the park.  I dug my toes into the grass and blissed-the-hell-out.  It was magic.  I even got a little sunburn (which now just looks like freckles).  The final week of my 20's is definitely shaping up to be something special.

I woke up early on Sunday, hopped on my bike and went foraging for dandelions.  I got some strange looks from passers-by on their morning jog.  Whatever.  I came home and made this bread for my friends.  What could be better for a day in the park than a bread made of flowers?  Did I mention the lemony glaze??  There's a lemony glaze!

Ok, for those of you who've never had dandelion bread before, which included me up until now, it's really tasty!  After pouring the batter in the tin, I feared it might be too bitter, but the baking of it made that bitterness disappear.  It turned out really nice, and I'm quite proud of this.

I was only able to find one (one!) recipe for a dandelion quick bread on the interwebs, made by a handful of bloggers all using the same recipe.  I adapted it, and now there are two!  I used a mixture of wholemeal flour and AP flour to start, and my friends seemed to think it was a perfect move, as it added a bit of heartiness and an earthy quality to the loaf.  I also replaced the honey with golden syrup -- but if you live in America, it is probably difficult to find this ingredient, so honey would be a perfect re-substitution.  Also I think buttermilk is amazing for almost everything, so I added some just because I could.  Aaaand I added the glaze.  You should, too.

Dandelion Bread
Pick your dandelions in the morning before the flowers have opened; this makes removing the petals easier.  Grab the petals with the fingers of one hand, hold the base of the flower with the other hand, and twist to remove petals.  If the flowers aren't closed, it's no big deal - just tug out the petals, and be careful to watch for little bugs between the petals.  Make sure to use petals only and pick out all the greenery.

25g dandelion petals, about 1 cup's worth (from about 40 flowers)
120g (1 cup) AP flour
120g (1 cup) wholemeal flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
60ml (1/4 cup) sunflower oil
60ml (1/4 cup) golden syrup
1 egg
230 ml (just under 1 cup) milk
120 ml (1/2 cup) buttermilk

juice of 1 lemon
150g icing sugar (confectioner's sugar)

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.  Line a normal-sized loaf tin with baking paper, and grease or butter exposed sides (the short ends).

Combine dandelion petals, flours, salt and baking powder in a small bowl.

In separate larger bowl, whisk together sunflower oil, golden syrup, egg, milk & buttermilk.  Add dry ingredients using a spoon (a mixer won't be helpful here because of the petals) until just incorporated.  Pour into loaf tin and bake until a toothpick comes out clean - it may take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes or onward, depending on your oven.

Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then remove from tin to cool completely.

Whisk together lemon juice and icing sugar until smooth.  Brush liberally onto top of loaf - and get the sides, too, for maximum prettiness.  I had extra glaze left over, which my picnic-in-the-park friends found perfect for dipping bits of their sliced loaf into.

09 April 2011

Birthday Cupcakes. And holy smokes, I'm turning 30!!

Hi guys, it's almost my birthday!  It's going to be a big one.  I've managed to live (read as: not die) for 30 whole years.  If you knew about all the stupid things I did in my 20's, you'd realise this was no small feat.  Celebrations abound!

Honestly though, why do people freak out over turning 30? This is amazing!

My 20's were an adventure. I had about a million different jobs - including spin class instructor, bartender, and music-business intern. I lived in 5 different cities in 3 different countries. I've made friends and lost them. I'm on my 3rd career. I partied like a rock star (and sometimes with them). I got a tattoo. I figured myself out. I loved like mad, my heart was broken a few times, and I grew up. It was hard. It was amazing. And I am so very glad it's over with. I definitely don't want to extend my 20's; I don't want to be forever turning 29. I want more birthdays. I want more life to sink my teeth into.

I am currently happier than I've ever been in my life.  I'm doing science, I'm working on my PhD, and I moved to the UK to do it: possibly the most far-fetched goal I could have dreamt up for myself.  Every day greets me with a sense of accomplishment when I realise where I live and what I do on a daily basis.  I've got my shit together.  I have great friends.  It's not all gravy, but I can deal.  Life is better than it's ever been.  It's enough to make a formerly too-cool-to-be-happy version of myself (o hai, 22-year-old-me) positively disgusted.

Who's freaking out about 30?  Not me, no sir.  

I lived, and it was ridiculously awesome.  Who says it has to end at 30?  I mean, I've got all the crap out of the way, now I can sit back and enjoy myself.  So, what'cha got for me, 30?  I'll take all you can dish.

Because it's now officially my birthday week, I am sharing cupcakes with you.  Buttery, fluffy, perfect cupcakes, with icing that tastes like marshmallows.  (Did you know that real marshmallows aren't vegetarian? It's a total bummer.)  So, tuck in, enjoy, and thanks for stopping by!  Maybe you don't care about my sickening happiness.  Consider this my peace offering.

Perfect Birthday Cupcakes
While I fundamentally disagree with the concept of cupcakes for one's birthday (cakes should be big and layered, guys!), I'll make an exception here.  This is actually a cake recipe, after all, which I just poured into cupcake tins instead.  Original recipe found at Smitten Kitchen.

480g (4 cups plus 2 tablespoons) cake flour (AP works just fine, too)
2 teaspoons baking powder (bicarb)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
225g (2 sticks or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
450g (2 cups) sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
475 ml (2 cups) buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 175°C/350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, or fill lined cupcake tins about 2/3 full.  Rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes for cake, 12-15 minutes for cupcakes (depending on your oven.. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove from pan to cool completely.

7-Minute Icing
A word of warning: cakes should be iced within a couple hours of serving -- if left much longer than that, the icing will begin to harden.  I left one out overnight like a dummy and woke up to a rock-hard mass atop a (still-yummy) cupcake.  Original recipe is by Paula Deen.

3670g (3 cups) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar or 2 tablespoons white corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
160ml (2/3 cup) water
4 egg whites
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Place sugar, cream of tartar or corn syrup, salt, water, and egg whites in the top of a double boiler. Beat with a handheld electric mixer for 1 minute. Place pan over boiling water, being sure that boiling water does not touch the bottom of the top pan. (If this happens, it could cause your frosting to become grainy). Beat constantly on high speed with electric mixer for 7 minutes. Beat in vanilla and remove from heat; leave to cool (this will happen faster than you think it will).

Pipe onto cupcakes with a large star tip, if you want them to look like mine do. :)

01 April 2011

Spinach & Herb Gnocchi with Browned Butter, Feta & Roasted Pistachios

I am not Italian.

I don't have grandkids.

I'm blonde.  I'm fair.  I'm single and young-ish.  But I totally made gnocchi.  It popped into my head earlier today, and as I do when confronted with most challenges, my first response was, "Yeah, sure, why not!?"

I may or may not ever want to look at gnocchi again.

If you do go to all the trouble to make your own gnocchi, make sure you do something interesting with it.  Like adding spinach and herbs to the dough, or tossing it in browned butter, crumbled feta and chopped, roasted pistachios. Or uh, both.

If you spend hours making your own gnocchi and then put a jar of pasta sauce on it... who are you??  Do we need to have a talk?

Spinach & Herb Gnocchi with Browned Butter, Feta & Roasted Pistachios
adapted generously from here

for gnocchi:
30g chopped, cooked spinach (weight after squeezed dry)
470g cooked potato - use a floury potato instead of a waxy variety
some fresh herbs -- I used tarragon and lemon thyme, as that's what I had on hand.
lots of flour

for serving:
browned butter (how-to below)
feta cheese, crumbled
chopped roasted pistachio nuts
sea salt
cracked black pepper

Peel and boil potatoes until cooked, then mash with fork while still hot (so they steam) or use a potato ricer.  Allow them to steam cool, then place in a bowl with the cooked and squeezed-out spinach and finely chopped herbs.

At this point, I took my immersion blender and had a go at the mixture.  It wasn't fun or pretty.... but it worked.  The potatoes became strangely glue-like.  It was ok.

Then I added 100g flour and fine sea salt.  I put the mixture on a floured countertop and gently kneaded in more and more and more flour, until the mixture wasn't sticky anymore.  From my research, I'm told this can vary based on many factors, including how humid the air is.  In Scotland, it's super-humid.  I used a lot of flour.  I knew I was done adding flour when the stickiness subsided, and then I started testing pieces, boiling one at a time.  If the cooked gnocchi is gummy in consistency -- you need more flour.

So, once you're done adding flour, take the dough bit-by-bit and roll it out into little snakes about the width of your thumb.  Then cut them into bits, and roll each little piece individually, adding flour when necessary to avoid sticking.  This recipe makes a ton, so I set enough fresh aside to have a nice dinner, and put the rest in plastic containers in the freezer for a rainy day.  Also, I found that the dough worked better cold, so I stuck my snakes in the freezer for a little while to get them to more of a workable consistency.  If you don't care about them being perfectly-formed... let the snakes freeze almost entirely, then cut slices off with a very sharp knife. This makes life easier, especially if they're going into the freezer anyway -- which happened to about 3/4 of this batch.

To make the browned butter (an absolute MUST for this) - melt some butter in a saucepan over low-medium heat, and allow to foam.  Keep the heat on until little flecks in the butter have turned brown and it starts to smell nutty.  Remove from heat.

Cook gnocchi in rapidly-boiling salted water for 3 minutes.  They'll float to the top of the water when they're fully cooked.  Then, toss in browned butter and add feta and pistachios.  Finish with a little sea salt and cracked pepper.  The end.