Saturday, August 29, 2015

Signature Dish*: Mock Apple Pie

Crackers were used in earlier centuries to make "apple" pies when apples were either scarce, super expensive or nonexistent.

In fact, in 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, crackers were used in lots of desserts. They were the basis for numerous baked puddings and were even used as a thickener instead of eggs in pumpkin pie.

Then along came the Ritz cracker in 1934. What set the Ritz cracker apart at the time was that it was round and buttery instead of square and austere. Three years after its introduction, it was the largest selling cracker in the world. (Wish we could still buy them at 1935 prices: 19 cents for a 1-pound box.)

Because using crackers in desserts was an American tradition of long standing, Nabisco began putting a recipe for a cracker pie on the Ritz cracker box, and this century's version of a mock apple pie was born.

Now, here's the thing. I tested the official mock apple pie recipe three times, and each time I got a filling that was gelatinous and solid and didn't look at all like apple slices. It finally dawned on me that perhaps I needed to increase the number of crackers in proportion to the sugar-lemon syrup that softens them. Perhaps the size of Ritz crackers had changed over the years and the original recipe had never been adjusted. I tested it with more crackers and finally got something that both tasted and looked like apple pie.

Several phone calls to Nabisco to ask them if their cracker size had changed since the 1930s were fruitless (get it?), because they insisted that the cracker size is the same and the recipe still works. I would say if you have any interest in the experiment, you can run down the original recipe from the Ritz cracker box. However, if you don't want to waste ingredients, I would try my version.

Mock Apple Pie
If you're concerned about the calorie count of a pie made with crackers, consider this: A serving of bread pudding (similar concept) has about 475 calories, and a slice of frosted cake (the same fundamental ingredients) can top 600 calories; a slice of this mock apple pie, however, has under 250.

3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter, cut into bits
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pastry for two 9-inch crusts, store-bought or homemade
45 Ritz Crackers (5 ounces), broken in half

1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and cream of tartar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce to a high simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and butter, stirring until the butter is melted. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and stir well. Let cool to warm (about 30 minutes).
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F. Roll out the bottom crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate.
3. Place the crackers in the crust and pour the warm lemon syrup over them (make sure they are all well doused because you want all the crackers to absorb the syrup). Roll out the top crust and place over the pie. Trim the edges and seal. Put three or four slits in the top of the crust to let steam escape.
4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
Makes 10 servings
*Signature Dish was the title of an ongoing feature I wrote for Hallmark magazine. Each issue I focused on a recipe that was the hallmark (no pun intended) of an era, a place, or a person.

4 good reasons to own a potato ricer

A potato ricer works like a giant garlic press. In go the cooked potatoes, out come long strands of "riced" potatoes. This particular model comes from OXO and costs $20 from Amazon.

Mashed potatoes: There is nothing like the light, fluffy texture you get from mashed potatoes made with a ricer. Riced potatoes are also the foundation for gnocchi and a Norwegian bread called lefse.

Spätzle: These are tiny little German egg noodles made by pressing dough through the small holes of a specialized tool directly into boiling water. A potato ricer can also be used for this purpose although it makes thinner noodles than those made with a real spätzle maker.

Mont Blanc: This is a grand French dessert. It's a sweetened chestnut puree that gets extruded through a ricer into a mound that is meant to represent a mountain. The top of the mountain is covered with something white—crème fraîche, whipped cream or confectioners' sugar—to resemble the snow on top of Mont Blanc.

Spaghettieis: I love this German dessert. It's vanilla ice cream pushed through a ricer to look like spaghetti, topped with a red berry puree for the tomato sauce and dusted with something white (coconut, white chocolate, ground almonds) to be the Parmesan.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bee all that you can bee

Napoleon liked bees. Do you know why? When Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor, he and his inner circle needed to choose appropriate emblems of his sovereignty. There was much discussion. Some wanted a lion, some an elephant, some an eagle, some an oak tree, some the honey bee. There were two winners: the eagle and the bee.

The eagle because of its association with military victory (and the days of Roman emperors). The bee because it had been the symbol* of France's earliest rulers, the Merovingians (credited with founding France in 457). The Napoleonic advisers thought it wise to ally the Corsican upstart with France's true origins.

Both the Napoleonic and Merovingian connections are why you find lots of stuff from France with the bee as a design motif.

For example, there's the bee glassware from a glassworks in Passavant-la-Rochère, Haute-Saône, in eastern France. The glassworks has been in almost continuous operation since its founding in 1475. The pink La Rochère Bee Tumbler at left holds 8 ounces, is 5-1/2 inches high, and is $10 from A French Addiction. The La Rochère Bee Bowl (photo way above) is 5-1/2 inches in diameter, and is $12 from Terrain. (La Rochère makes tons of other Napoleonic bee glasses and serving pieces. I just picked two of my favorites.)

More bees: There is a town in the South of France called Laguiole. It is known for beautiful hand-forged knives, and a cheese. Unlike the cheese, which can only be called Laguiole if it really comes from that region, any knife can be called Laguiole if it has been made in the general style of Laguiole. The classic Laguiole knife has a bee emblem at the joint where the handle meets the blade.
P.S. There are those who insist that it's a housefly and not a bee, but I'm going with bee.

Laguiole knives (and forks and spoons) can be quite costly, especially if they're made with exotic woods or horn. Just in case you have some extra bucks you don't know what to do with, check out the Laguiole website. The set of 6 ebony-handled forks at left is $364.

*The assumption that the bee was the symbol of France's earliest rulers is based on the discovery of 300 gold-and-garnet bees (see below) in the tomb of Childéric I, the first of the Merovingian kings. Though commonly accepted as bees, they are more likely golden effigies of the cicada, which was a symbol of resurrection--perhaps because the cicada nymph lives underground for years (up to 17 years, depending on the species) before emerging as an adult. It would certainly look as though they were rising from the dead, if you ask me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spicy Cherry Vinegar

It's so ridiculously easy to make flavored vinegar that it makes me wonder why people pay big bucks to buy it. Anyway, got me some cherries the other day, since it's just the very beginning of cherry season, and decided to donate some of them to the cause by using them to make cherry vinegar.

The cherries colored the vinegar in only a couple of hours, but I left them there for a full day to let the cherry juices exchange with the vinegar. I took the cheap way out and used distilled white vinegar, but I imagine the vinegar would taste even better if you started with a good white wine vinegar. In fact this would be perfectly tasty made with red wine vinegar, but you won't get the dramatic effect of the vinegar changing color.

Spicy Cherry Vinegar

2 cups quartered sweet (Bing) cherries
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a large nonmetal container, combine all of the ingredients. Let stand 24 hours. Strain and put the vinegar in a clean bottle.

Makes 3 cups

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mega-Recipe: Ricotta Torte

May is Bone Health Month. (Who decides these things, anyway?) So in honor of that, and in honor of mothers—who as a class definitely need strong bones—this week's recipe is for a calcium-rich cheese torte.

The torte is what I call a Mega-Recipe. What this means is that, in order to get a meaningful amount of a certain nutrient in a serving, I load the recipe up on ingredients high in that nutrient.

In the case of the torte, I went for the obvious sources of calcium: dairy products. But by choosing lower-fat versions of them I could get more calcium (too hard and boring to explain, but true). Then I also added nondairy sources of calcium, including almonds and broccoli. Broccoli has the distinction of being high in calcium and relatively low in vitamin K, which inhibits the body's ability to use the calcium in the vegetable.

Too much nutrition blah-blah, here's the recipe:

Ricotta Torte with Broccoli & Basil

My plan was to come up with a single serving that had significant calcium in it. I used skim milk to cook the rice and chose part-skim ricotta over full-fat. I used 1% cottage cheese, but since cottage cheese is not as good a source of calcium as other dairy products, I chose one of the brands that has added calcium. The other good sources in this torte are the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes (?!), eggs, almonds, scallions and basil. When it all gets added up, a single serving has just about 500mg of calcium, which is 50% of the DV.

2 cups skim milk
3/4 cup brown-wild rice blend
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted and very finely chopped
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, slivered (2.5 ounces)
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, chopped
2 cups (packed) finely chopped broccoli (6 ounces)
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 container (15 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese (1-3/4 cups)
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese (with calcium)
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1. In a medium saucepan (preferably nonstick), combine the milk, rice blend and 1 teaspoon of the oil. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Cover tightly, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender, 45 to 50 minutes. (Make sure it doesn't foam over.) Transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a 9- to 10-inch springform pan. Sprinkle the almonds and Parmesan evenly over the bottom of the springform. In a small heatproof bowl, cover the sun-dried tomatoes with boiling water and let sit to soften while the rice cooks. Drain and coarsely chop.
3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and scallions, and cook for 30 seconds, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the broccoli, water, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Cover and cook until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and set aside.
4. In a food processor, combine the ricotta, cottage cheese, whole eggs, egg whites, basil and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and pulse just to combine. Stir into the cooled rice mixture.
5. Spoon one-third of the cheese-rice mixture into the springform. Top with the broccoli mixture and spoon the remaining cheese-rice mixture on top, making sure the broccoli is completely covered. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and a knife comes out clean. Cool completely to room temperature before serving.

Makes 6 servings

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Maple syrup: 3 facts

It's sugaring-off time.
The spiles are in the sugarbushes.
The sugar shacks are going full tilt.

Translation: In the spring, when their sap rises, sugar maple trees are tapped to gather the stored sugary liquid. Buckets of sap are taken to the sugar shack to be boiled down (in huge open kettles) to a syrup.

Three more facts:

1. A researcher at the University of Rhode Island has identified 20 potentially health-giving compounds in maple syrup, among them phenolics--a class of compounds known for their antioxidant powers (also found in berries, tea, and wine). The researcher is guessing that the tree may have produced the phenolics as a defense against having a metal tap driven through its bark. (Now don't go all anthropomorphic on me. I'm sure the tree is OK. Maybe the tree really likes it, like a dairy cow being milked.)

2. If you live in a cold climate (required for the trees to store up sugar in their roots over the winter) and happen to have Sugar, Black, Red, or Silver Maple trees, then you can make your own maple syrup. A website called Tap My Trees gives full instructions and sells the equipment you need. The starter kit ($140) includes three 16-quart buckets, lids, spiles (taps), and hooks. It also includes the 7/16" drill bit you need for the spiles and an instruction book on identifying trees and making maple syrup.

3. If you can't or don't want to make your own maple syrup, see if you can find maple syrup from Mount Cabot, a tiny producer in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The two guys (Biff and Carl) who own Mount Cabot make organic, "single-source, unblended" maple syrup. It is really delicious and has flavor nuances way beyond your everyday maple syrup. Read more about it here.