Friday, July 26, 2013

Trying out Belinda Leong's Cherry Clafoutis Recipe

Cherry clafoutis is sort of like a tarte tatin or a fruit crumble in that the end result is so much more impressive than the labor that went into producing it seemed to suggest.  (The opposite might be said of the Thomas Keller madeleines recipe that I recently reviewed.)  In fact, Will and I made two cherry clafoutis in the last few weeks.  We don’t normally like to repeat a dessert so soon—or most dishes for that matter—but cherries are in season, and we had just enough extra almond meal we’d ground up for the first clafoutis.

Having made this twice so recently, I think there are some tips that first-time bakers of this recipe might want to keep in mind.  You might want to click on and print Belinda Leong's recipe, from the July 2013 issue of Food&Wine, and follow along.

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the recipe was that it called for 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.  I tend to like salty foods, but I have to think this is a misprint.  Before Will could measure out the salt, I produced 5 other recipes (Williams-Sonoma Baking Book, Barefood Contessa, even other issues from Food&Wine) which all called for either ¼ teaspoon or “a pinch” of salt.  Thankfully, my textual evidence prevented Will from following the recipe.  (He likes to respect the wishes of the chef the first time he uses a recipe.  After all, who are we to say they are wrong?)

Belinda Leong doesn’t specify whether the cherries should be split in half.  Her ingredients list calls for “12 ounces sweet cherries, pitted” (nothing about halved).  But her picture seemed to have split cherries.  We got worried when another recipe—which used whole cherries—reported that French cooks in the countryside don’t even bother pitting cherries because they don’t want the cherries to “bleed” into the custard.  That recipe suggested that, should we follow that route, we caution our guests (that they might break a tooth if they were not careful). 

I found that a little puzzling.  After all, French countryside cooks who didn’t mind the inelegance of asking their guests to spit out mouthfuls of cherry pits didn’t seem to be the same people who would be so fussy about whether or not their cherry juice bled into the custard, right? 

In any case, we pitted the cherries and also halved them because they were very large.  Ultimately, there was practically no “bleeding” into the custard at all (see picture below), and the clafoutis, when sliced, presented a beautiful cream color—studded with dark red cherries on top.

One more thing about the cherries.  This recipe asked that we wait until the custard was already poured in before arranging the cherries on top.  Another recipe wanted us to put the cherries at the bottom of the gratin dish and then pour the custard over.  We did it both ways—the luxury of making the same dish twice!—and discovered that there was absolutely no difference.  At first it seemed that the custard was going to swallow up the cherries during the early part of the cooking when we put down the fruit first, but eventually the two clafoutis were virtually identical in appearance.

Cooking Time
This is where we had the most difficulty.  Belinda Leong said to cook for 35-40 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Both times, we needed to cook for 55 minutes before the clafoutis was “set.”  The difference could be attributed to the fact that maybe some clafoutis are more soft-custard-y.  (And, in fact, I would suggest that those who like their clafoutis to be more like crème brûlée in texture attempt a different recipe.) 

In any case, since our clafoutis looked exactly like the one pictured in the magazine (and in the web version of the recipe), I don’t think difference in texture or style of clafoutis could be a major factor.

I took out a tape measure and ascertained that, in fact, our “10-inch round gratin dish” (called for in the recipe) was 10 inches from the exterior measurements.  The cooking surface was actually only 9.5 inches.  That might account for 5-10 minutes of extra cooking time, but even that seems to be something of a stretch.  So a word to the wise, make sure you have about 55 minutes of cooking time before starting this dish.

Once you navigate through all this, you’ll discover that you are a huge cherry clafoutis fan!  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Midwesterners Can Make Crab Cakes Too

People associate crab cakes with the east--at least I do.  I have visions of tony vacation areas like Nantucket and the Hamptons, and people like Martha Stewart or Ina Garten who live in pristine properties with lush gardens and have clambake parties oceanside. 

I like crab cakes, but I never thought about making them myself.  Who always has crab, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay Seasoning?  Well, it so happened that I had gotten a pound of lump crabmeat and used only half of it.  That meant that I could take The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook calling for half a pound of lump crabmeat in its recipe for crab cakes to be a sign from the culinary stars.  So, I invested in a small container of Old Bay Seasoning (not normally in our pantry) and got to work.

The recipe seemed a bit complicated, using more ingredients than I thought traditionally part of crab cakes—capers, peppers, celery.  And I suspected that there must be much less involved recipes for crab cakes out there (and it turns out there are), but I thought Ina Garten could possibly be trusted to make a decent crab cake.  (Click here to follow with the recipe: The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook Crab Cakes)

So I set out to do some chopping: onion, celery, red pepper, yellow pepper, parsley, capers.  Then I collected the seasonings: Tabasco sauce (or any other hot sauce), Worcestershire sauce (you can skip this if you don’t have it), Old Bay Seasoning (if you skip this one, you need to get celery salt, paprika, etc. etc.), kosher salt, black pepper.  Then I sautéed the whole mixture in butter and olive oil.  It smelled good, but I worried that it looked a bit wet. 

Then, as instructed, I let the veggie mixture cool while I put together the crabmeat, bread crumbs (I always use panko), mayonnaise (Ina Garten says “good mayonnaise” and she usually means Hellmanns’/Best’s), Dijon mustard, and eggs.  Hmmm.  This mixture was very wet too.  After all, there is ½ cup of mayonnaise and two beaten eggs for just ½ pound of crabmeat and ½ cup of breadcrumbs.  I then combined the cooled veggie mixture with the crab mixture.  Even wetter.  I was relieved that she called for the mixture to sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.  After all, maybe the breadcrumbs will absorb some of the wetness and the chilling will firm up the mixture. 

I gave it a bit longer than the 30 minutes called for, but the mixture was still quite wet when I needed to start frying and it was difficult to handle and "shape into bite-sized pieces."  The simple rescue option I always go for when a something is too wet to fry: Add more dry ingredients.  In this case, I opted to add the dry ingredient on the outside.  I poured a cup of panko crumbs on a plate, spooned large rounded tablespoons of the mixture onto the crumbs (not bite-sized if it's going to be this labor-intensive per each crab cake!), and gently rolled to form an outside layer of crumbs.  That did the trick.  I was left with 12 crab cakes that were just dry enough on the outside that they could be slid onto a wide pan of melted olive oil and butter.

Once they are frying, the wetness of the mixture is less problematic.  We just need to be careful in making the first flip so that they don’t break apart.  Once the turn happens, the frying process forms a nice crust of panko crumbs on the outside to be able to handle the rest of the cooking process.  They turned out perfectly fine after all.  Whew!

Then you make a tartar sauce by combining mayonnaise, mustard, and finely chopped pickles (or cornichons) for your last step.  Will, who loves anything pickled, thinks the sauce is indispensable to the crab cakes.  Serve two crab cakes with a light side salad, and you have a lovely summer dinner.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Many Faces (and Preparations) of Pulpo!

Ola!  Bonjour!

We survived walking 450 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain!  Then (yes, woe is me) we followed that up with two weeks of “recuperating” in Paris.  I might still be a little confused about whether I should order a café con leche or a café crème, but I am excited about sharing some foodie experiences and new discoveries from our time abroad.

Let me start with food that is little-appreciated in the United States.  Sure, grilled octopus has become more mainstream in areas with good Greek restaurants (like Chicago), but octopus on the whole is not something that even a lot of our foodie friends gravitate towards.  Fried calamari—yes.  Octopus—not really.

During the last segment of our Camino walk, we were travelling through Galicia region where they specialized in pulpo—yes, that is octopus.  Restaurants proudly displayed their largest and perhaps rubberiest looking octopus in their front windows, enticing most eaters.  Americans, we noticed, were more repelled by them though, fascinated by their outlandishness rather than their gastronomic attractiveness. 

Antonio, a character from Wings, a long-ago sitcom, once said, “Revenge, like octopus, is a dish best served cold.”  I disagree.  Hot octopus is our favorite.  Grilled is definitely our preferred mode, and octopus is served that way—excellently, I might add—in some Chicago restaurants.  Taxim (on Milwaukee Ave.) comes to mind as having one of the better preparations. 

In Spain too, apparently grilled octopus is becoming quite popular.  But, on the whole, many locals sniff disapprovingly at this new-fangled preparation.  The preferred and traditional mode—as we had it at Melide (the town that is most famous for its pulpo)—is . . . boiled.  I know.  Boiled sounds kind of boring.  But they do make an interesting show of it.  At one of the more popular institutions for pulpo, someone stands at an open window next to a pot of boiling octopus.  Then he takes one out and—with amazing swiftness—cuts tentacles into thick rounds (think ½ inch thick quarters), drizzles a prodigious quantity of olive oil over the pulpo, and sprinkles sea salt and paprika over them.  Then repeat.  We were indeed enticed and did go in to enjoy pulpo á la Gallega. 

If you cannot eat the larger pieces, you can have tiny little baby octopus called chipriones.  The ones (back of the picture below) we had in Molinasaeca, along with some fried sardines (pictured in front) were a lovely change of pace from the traditional menu del dia of fried pork cutlets with fried potatoes.  (More on menu del dias on the Camino in a later post.)

Our favorite pulpo dish, hands down, was pulpo á la Plancha con patate.  After we completed the long walk to Santiago, we took a rental car to Fisterre (from finis-terra), the last Spanish point before the Atlantic.  On our drive to the coast, we stopped at a little and unassuming restaurant that our Santiago hotel recommended.  We ordered the octopus á la plancha and got giddily excited when we were treated to some sizzling sounds from the kitchen.  We were not wrong to anticipate that we might have an excellent meal.  The heady mixture of soft but chewy, salty and crispy, briny and earthy (from the accompanying potatoes).  Is it any wonder that the picture would headline this post?