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Posts Tagged ‘custard’

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Today I told my Facebook tribe that when my friend Rachel made me the gift of a tart pan, my very first, I flipped out. It’s because for as long as I can remember an Alsatian apple tart has danced in my head where sugarplums ought to. Now I could finally make one. Last night I did.

Only one venerable restaurant in my area made this dessert, a place I visited a few times growing up. It was so lovely that I think I ordered it every time. And now I’m glad I did, because the restaurant—I’m still in shock—recently closed.* I might be the only one in my area now who makes this tart.

Letting that thought wash over me.

I confess I don’t remember where I got the recipe. But Google can help you if you’re tempted to be a part of the Alsatian Apple Tart workforce. Join me, and let us rise above the frozen $11 apple hucksters of the land!

Here’s what I did.

1) Zipped up the pâte brisée (that’s the pie dough) in my Cuisinart. Chilled the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes, then pressed it into the pan. You can do the same if you’re as lazy as I was last night**, or you can roll it out. Those stalwart cooks who roll it out can probably boast a more consistent thickness, as opposed to me, who had to coax the finished product from the removable base this morning with all ten fingers, like a surgeon who’d lost his subway fare inside an appendicitis patient.

This is the dough in my happy new pan, after docking (when you prick it all over with a fork so it doesn’t bubble up in the oven).

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2) I covered the dough with tin foil and poured dried beans into it. This also keeps the bubbles down while the crust bakes. Pie weights, widely available at cooking specialty stores***, are an expensive frill. Set the tart on a rimmed cookie sheet. This is always a good idea, because pies like to leak. This went into the oven for 12 minutes.

The last time I was at my favorite organic farm I bought up their last bushel of apples, which they procured from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. I think they’re Honey Crisps. The recipe called for Golden Delicious, but you can use whatever you want (except don’t use McIntoshes. They’re too soft, and are best for eating out of hand or for applesauce. You want an apple that will keep its structure even after a hit with a 375-degree oven).

3) I cut up, cored, and peeled three apples per the recipe, but I needed another small one. Tossed the slices in a bit of granulated sugar, and made a pretty flower that ended up oddly off center. 15 more minutes in the oven.

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4) I made a custard of sugar, milk (you can use milk and cream), and eggs and whisked it up. Using a measuring jug is the ticket here because you need to pour the custard on top of the tart. For some reason there was only room for half of the custard before it started overflowing, which is another solid reason why the crust was as irretrievably stuck to the base as it was (see ‘subway fare’ above). I poured the rest into two 1-cup ramekins, plunked them into a Pyrex pan, and filled the pan with water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (This is a bain-marie, which gently cooks custard desserts. If I was to put the custard ramekins in the oven straight up, they would have scorched.)

When the tart came out, it looked like this. Well, in the morning it did. I shot the earlier shots last night by my unfortunate overhead kitchen light. Note the change in light from lurid to pleasantly natural!

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And when I cut it, it looked like this…

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And this was my breakfast. I put in on a dish with an apple on it. You can kind of see it peeking out the right side. IMG_7517

Here’s what I liked about this tart: The crust was wonderfully tender and the custard delicate. And I had a surprise: I really enjoyed the experience of eating an apple dish that didn’t call for cinnamon. Until I made this, it hadn’t occurred to me how cinnamon always seemed to show up whenever there was an apple around. It’s great, of course. But it’s become predictable. Eating just apples with no other spices was clean and pure.

Here’s what I didn’t like: Nothing.

And I have one more custard to eat.

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*The Fromagerie, in Rumson, NJ. It had changed owners and all and wasn’t the same. But I’m still reeling.

**Like I don’t do this every single time I make pie.

***I love you, Williams-Sonoma, and my condolences on the loss of Chuck. But I doubt his mother or grandmother used fabricated pie weights for their crusts, either. They used beans.

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It was a dark and stormy n—well, actually, it was pretty nice out. And it was Friday, I’d had a great day, but then, as it happens, the night suddenly took a turn.

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The culprit.

I’ll spare you any more details than this: I scratched my esophagus on my first bite of dinner*. A few years back I had an esophageal ulcer, and I’m guessing that spot in my food pipe is a touch sensitive. It felt as though there was a musket ball jammed in there. In the morning, after a scary and utterly unpleasant night, my ultra-kind, checks-her-voicemail-on-weekends doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory and told me what I could eat (mush) and what I couldn’t eat (anything with texture, spiciness, or Things That Are Hot and Cold; namely, everything else).

I froze the dinner I hadn’t finished along with everything in my refrigerator that wasn’t a condiment. Then I went out to eat. I stuck to mush for more than a week, and here’s what I learned. Come on along.

  1. Ripe avocados sliced and tossed with chunks of fresh mozzarella and a little salt does not look at all pretty, but it is wonderful.
  2. Ditto for Green & Black white chocolate. (Wait, this is pretty.) And especially appreciated by those of us who are Day 4 dark-chocolate fiends, and want treats on Days 1, 2, and 3.
  3. Store-made macaroni and cheese, even at fancy places, tastes like warm, delicately flavored glue.
  4. My local health-food store makes a very filling and oddly appealing peanut butter and jelly smoothie. It’s like slurping a sandwich.
  5. Most of the canned soups in the organic aisle that I tried don’t have much flavor.
  6. Yogurt is truly a comrade-in-arms.
  7. I goofed around with my favorite custard recipe and some of the quinces I picked, and made this for breakfast for a few days.
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Maple-bourbon custards topped with quinces poached in cinnamon. I felt better. Go figure.

*Which was such insult to injury. Here I was starving, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

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There comes a time in every woman’s life when she feels utterly compelled to make a pie. Okay, sweeping generalization, but it is the case for me.

Whenever life gets overwhelming—as it recently has been for me—I don’t say things to myself like, ‘I need a drink’ or ‘I need an escape to the Maldives.’* No, in the midst of the whirling chaos on the outside and on the inside, I say to myself, ‘I really need to make a pie.’ Sometimes I say it to myself a few times. Who can explain these things? Hopefully me.

This past week, I winged an apple custard pie.

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Making a pie is soothing. Presetting all of the components, chopping the apples, stirring the custard—it’s a personal choreography that I can fall into without a thought. I can let the pattern and rhythm carry me for a while. I could do it in my sleep…and when I can’t sleep, it’s the next best thing.

Making a pie is a concrete accomplishment. How many times in our lives do we feel as though we’re just pushing paper, spending the day (or weeks, or months, or, God help us, years) feeling like a hamster on a wheel? If you sat down and really assessed what you did today, from soup to nuts, would it be a head scratcher?

Pie-making has a clear beginning, middle, and end. And when you get to the end, and take it out of the oven smelling like all of the layers of heaven plus whatever corner of Eden stayed intact after the Fall, you can say to yourself (probably quite as God is reputed to have said), ‘This is done. This is good. I can be proud of this.’

Eating a pie you made….well, this goes without saying.

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Vanilla custard topped with local, organic apples, sauteed in cardamom and Saigon cinnamon. Breakfast, lunch, whenever.

*Not that a Baileys on the rocks doesn’t go down mighty smooth. And if someone offered me plane tickets to those islands, I wouldn’t fight him off with a big stick.

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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Very Big Fat Greek Wedding. And they had two twirling around. One might have been a goat. Hard to tell for sure at this stage.

I park my car in the school lot and jump into a van with an 8 1/2 x 11 paper Greek flag on the dashboard. And I’m the sole passenger, which means I can ask the driver lots of questions about the Greek festival at his church without irritating everyone in the backseat, not that that would have stopped me.

I don’t know from Greek food. Well, I mean I know Greeks love their lemon and thyme and mint, and their lamb and seafood. But I haven’t eaten a lot of Greek food. Baklava, I guess. Feta cheese. The very nice guy said there would be plenty to eat, and that it was all cooked by the parishioners. That last bit was the magic part. When you see a church festival flyer on the hair salon window downtown and they promise great food, you really hope they don’t have it catered. Even if the caterers were good—even if they were spectacular—I would much, much rather have someone’s Ya-Ya make the moussaka. And Greek food aside, this ideology has never gotten me disappointed. When regular people who care about heritage cook, it’s the real bloody deal. It’s authentic flavors and quality and experience. And it’s getting more and more rare these days, so I run toward it whenever I find it. A Greek Orthodox Church festival? Sold.

We pull in and I hop out. I pay the 2 bucks to get in, and a chipper woman hands me a program, raffle card and an ‘Opa*!’ sticker to wear. I read that the church property was designed to emulate a Greek village, with a courtyard and outlying buildings, and the church at its center. Pure white tents are scattered here and there, and underneath are dozens of parishioners in equally pure white slacks and blue polos, manning grills and cash registers. I take a lap to get the lay of the land, food-wise, and settle on a souvlaki. It’s served by a young guy who sees my eyes pop out when it arrives (it’s massive) and assures me, ‘It’s good for you! That’s why Greeks live so long.’ I do like a guy who doesn’t see a meal fit for three Marines who skipped breakfast. He sees it as healthy.

The woman who rings me up says all of the parishioners working under the tents know each other from the parish, but many have never worked together before, and they are making it up as they go. Everyone is calm and friendly. The sense of community—that everyone has something to contribute and that they are a team—sort of spills out of the tent to us goyim**. It feels peaceful.

I intend to eat half of the souvlaki and take half home, but decide to go with efficiency. After all, it’s a warm day. I should let it go bad on the 10-minute drive home? Shameful!

And yum.

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Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, tzatziki (yogurt dressing) and a little bit of sizzling pork peeking up out of a big, chewy, warm pita.

Next I go under one of the pastry tents (there were two) stacked high with something like eight kinds of pastries and half a dozen assorted Ya-Yas behind them.

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Greek pastries are purportedly legend. I wanted something way out of my format of biscotti and sponge cake, and choose galaktobouriko. Never heard of it, let alone tasted it, so bingo. The program describes it as ‘layered filo pastry filled with delicate custard and drenched with homemade syrup.’

I sit down with it and a plastic fork and promptly shovel half into my face before remembering that I should take a picture of it.

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It was prettier before. Had everything else going for it, though.

I taste very fresh sweet egg and milk (I was told ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ in Greek), and the syrup was caramel-like. It was almost nursery food in its perfection; like homemade vanilla pudding, it was simple, unimproveable goodness. And I save the rest for breakfast this morning. Don’t think I’m virtuous or anything. I went back to buy another kind of pastry.

Mid-shovel, the Ya-Ya who sold it to me walks by and says, ‘I see you’re enjoying your galaktobouriko***!’ I offered a helpful ‘Mmmllph,’ and she continued, ‘Be sure to get a lamb shank! Last year we sold out in an hour!’ Another thing to admire about the Greeks: apparently there’s nothing wrong with having your dessert first.

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Here’s how it looked. Mesmerizing, I could almost hear it falling off the bone, but didn’t go for it.

I tell the the lovely lady under the second pastry tent that I am a food writer and don’t have an awful lot of experience with Greek food. She says if I have any questions about the pastries to ask, and she would be happy to answer them. I liked how she pronounced ‘phyllo’ as ‘phylla.’

Chose karidopita, below, because it had such a resume to recommend it: ‘Honey-soaked walnut cake with a hint of Cognac.’ This the lady packed up for me in a bag with the first pastry. I nibbled a piece off the end with my fingers when I got home.

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Okay, so it was more than a nibble.

Karidopita tastes like crumbly gingerbread with a little happy boozy warmth underneath it. Awesomeness. Another breakfast contender.

Then I watched ‘Mamma Mia,’ which was shot on location in Greece. Honest.

*About.com translates this as ‘more than a word–a lifestyle.’ Feeling a little left out. All I had was the food.

**A little Yiddish never hurt anyone.

***I totally copied and pasted that from above. Stand by. I’m about to do it for the second pastry.

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Feather down of a sea gull in early evening light.

I get razzed a lot for being a detail-oriented person, always by friends; and often enough, amusingly enough, by the friends who hire me to be detail-oriented (editing, prop design, you get the picture). I can’t help myself; it’s just that there’s so much to experience in the tiny, unobtrusive stuff.

Good example: I love the seasons, all of them, because each offers both big and infinitesimally small imprints, changes, shifts, gifts, little breaths of the universe that say I was here. It’s all fascinating to me. I want to see it, get into the same space with it. That’s me in the corner, that’s me kneeling in the dirt with my nose up against an inchworm on a strawberry saying coooool.

So.

This is a semi-comprehensive chronicle of my favorite details, late spring into summer. There’s a lot of food, but you expected that.

What’s on your warm-weather list?

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Peanut Butter Moose Tracks cone, Days, Ocean Grove, NJ.

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Sycamore leaf, early evening.

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Fresh Bing cherries in heavy cream.

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Quail eggshell.

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Surfer’s wet and supremely happy mongrel.

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Fresh peach custard pie made with local peaches.

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Bread-and-butter pickles made from a 100+ year-old recipe from a farm wife.

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Turkey burger with homemade hot green-chili harissa.

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Little two-year-old feet in Jellies.

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Bocce ball in intense early evening light.

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A Shirley Temple after a hot day.

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Empty beer mug, lonely and forlorn.

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Fuzzy apricots in more early-evening light. I have a thing with this light, obviously.

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Signs I’m home 🙂 This is what’s on local shelves.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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