Foodie Tuesday: Figs and Fika

Despite the present day craze for all things piggy when it comes to meats, bacon inserted into every imaginable recipe—and some not even possible to get my brain wrapped around at all—and the undeniable fabulousness of a grand Black Forest classic, a clove-studded Virginia ham, a spiral-cut, home glazed ham, or the umami-loaded and thus much-lauded and wildly expensive jamón ibérico, what I grew up with at home, as I recall, was that differently seasoned and prepared, smooth textured, Danish ham (as my family knew it then, whether that characterization was entirely accurate or not), and I loved it. It’s on the sweet side, generally, and usually subtler than the more intensely flavored aforementioned hams. Truthfully, I love them all, as long as they’re not those tinny, watery, pallid objects of pseudo-meat that have been processed to the point of looking and tasting like cartoon food.

I also, as you well know, am fond to an obsessive degree of salty-and-sweet combination treats, and hams are very compatible with sweet foods, whether in the form of a glorious, uncomplicated afternoon bite of perfect prosciutto wrapped around a melon slice or as a bone-in beauty bathed in fruit compote for the spring table.

Danish ham isn’t my only foodly fanaticism derived from Scandinavian roots. Here’s another thing I’ve learned from that region to love when it comes to food: the Swedish tradition of fika. Not so different in origins, perhaps, from the Italian treat Tiramisu, wherein a tradition of stopping for coffee and a sweet was the perfect pick-me-up in an afternoon or way to meet with a friend for a bit of refreshment, and eventually the practice became the name of the treat itself—the Italian Tiramisu translating roughly as, yes, “pick-me-up” and the Swedish fika deriving, ostensibly, from a syllabic reversal of “kaffe” (coffee). Not that it matters hugely to me, but I do always love an excuse to sit down at the table not only for a full meal but for the more relaxed atmosphere of a break for, say, a bite and a drink, some appetizers and a cocktail, or tea and dessert.

For a recent casual evening with friends, I got the urge for a ham-and-sweetness starter that would be extremely quick and easy to fix but bring out the simple flavors of the ingredients pretty smartly. I think I did well enough with it, because between the five of us we polished off all but a couple of small corner pieces from a whole cookie sheet’s worth, along with the actual roast beef dinner and dessert; but you can be the judge, if you like. It couldn’t be simpler to make, so there’s no excuse not to join in the testing.

Four ingredients: puff pastry dough, ham, fig jam, and Parmesan cheese. One pan. One swift browning in the oven. Slice. Eat.

I wanted to make this with fresh figs, but couldn’t find any at the moment that were in nice enough shape, so I used a small jar of store-bought fig jam that worked quite nicely. Had I used fresh figs, I would have chopped them roughly and mixed them with some honey, maple syrup, or ginger syrup as the delicious glue for the hors-d’oeuvre topping, but jam had that binder handily built right in, so if you’re unable to find fresh fruit, jam is clearly a convenient and equally tasty alternative. I did buy one package of frozen, pre-made puff pastry dough (lazy me) and about a half pound of thinly sliced ham (I chose the deli’s maple glazed version on this occasion). I had shredded Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator. The process was easy-peasy.Photo: Ham & Cheese with Figs

Ham & Cheese Bites with Fig Jam

Set the oven to heat at 400°F. Lay out all of the puff pastry dough needed to cover it (with a single layer) on a large cookie sheet pan with edges. This could get sticky if you don’t contain the food! You should have a little dough left over: I had about an eighth of the dough remaining and set it aside.

Mix equal amounts of chopped sliced ham—mine, when the thin slices were cut into about 1/2 inch (1 cm) squares, amounted to around a cupful of loose ham pieces—and shredded cheese with gently heated and liquefied jam (the jam I used took between a quarter and a half cup to blend the ham and cheese. Glued together like this, the ham, cheese, and jam mixture was probably about a scant two cups’ worth of topping and was easily distributed and spread evenly by spoonfuls over the whole pastry base. I cut the remaining pastry dough into 1/2 inch by 1-1/2 inch rectangles and I twisted each once to make a little bow and stuck those around on top of the jammy mixture. The whole sticky delight went into the oven for perhaps 14 minutes or so, and once it was golden, was ready to be cut into small rectangles that could be easily handled for eating.

Then, of course, we ate them. Whenever I make them again, I will try pre-baking the puff pastry and simply adding the jam blend for a final, melting warm-up just before serving. Crispier results, I should think. But even with a slightly chewier texture…we ate them all.

Foodie Tuesday: Let Me Call You Sweetheart

When you’re good enough, you don’t have to be trendy to have staying power. The classics never go away; a fabulous patisserie is forever in fashion, because well-crafted sweets have endless appeal. They may have waves of popularity over time, like the current euphoria over macarons that belies their long history or the delight of the general public on discovering in latter years that chocolate is not entirely a naughty indulgence. But what is truly tasty will never entirely fade from view, especially in the kitchens or patisseries where the expert practitioners of their making reside.
Digitally painted photo: The Cupcake Trend

My sweet tooth knows few bounds. I love fat in most of its terribly delicious forms. When those two attributes of sweetness and fat combine so fortuitously as they can in desserts and baked goods, in little snacks or large displays of ostentatious celebratory food, I am unlikely to resist, unless I’m having an unusual fit of good manners when there’s not quite enough to go around or my calorie-conscience is working overtime to knit me a hair shirt that squeezes my increasingly well-rounded form.
Digitally painted photo: Patisserie

As a visual artist and prettiness-addict, the moment when my resistance is most likely guaranteed to ebb and to fail is when I am standing, rapt, in front of a pastry case at the bakery. If I had any real moral strength in this regard, I would at least be inclined to pardon the beauties beckoning therein from my ravages for the sake of preserving their great visual appeal as long as possible. But I have none, so it’s more than likely I will excuse myself by reminding any fellow admirers that the visual attractions of food are limited by their shelf life, which is briefer indeed than my own. Even if I have eaten more darling pastries than is remotely good for me.

Farewell for now, sweet readers. If you should grow any sweeter, you might be in danger of being bit by me on a dessert rampage. For now, I’ll choose to take the precaution of stuffing my mouth full of marsipan bløtkake [a favorite, Norwegian marzipan-covered cream cake], if only for your safety.

Foodie Tuesday: I’m a Fool for April Fool’s Fools & Other Foolishness

The first day of April, while some may reserve it for pranks and tricks, is to me the perfect day for celebrating the arrival (best if it’s truly imminent) of springtime, and so rather than be a traditionalist about April Fool’s Day and pull stunts on anybody, I prefer to simply enjoy the Tuesday-ness of it this year and think happy food thoughts. My fetish for custards, mousses and creams of all sorts leads me to think that the ideal food for this occasion, since it is the first of April, would naturally be a Fool. You know, sweet fruity stuff folded into whipped cream. Actually, this is pretty much my idea of the ideal food for practically any occasion, and that’s no joke.

Given my predilection for eating too much of too many things, sweets perhaps foremost among them, this comes as no surprise to anyone living.

I know I am not alone in my obsession with dessert-like objects, either. Even my esteemed spouse is not immune to the charms of a classic like a frosty mug of root beer, with or without ice cream floating dreamily in it. One might, for example, find him taking me out to Mr. Frosty for such a treat on the first sunny day when we get a free half-hour, and our sipping in blissed-out ecstasy under the diner’s front canopy while birds flit overhead.photo

But no amount of root beer is quite enough to negate my need for a good Fool, so for this April Fool’s Day I bethought myself of just such a dish, and off to work I went.

Then, of course, the reality of the day intervened. While I thought I was heading to the kitchen to froth up some sweet heavy cream with vanilla and cardamom to layer with black raspberry jam and pieces of canned pears—a marvelous thought indeed—I opened the refrigerator and saw a container of odd ends of Gouda and Brie cheeses that I knew had been patiently waiting for my attention a little bit longer than they ought to have done, and off I went on a highly tangential path. That, of course, is life’s continuous April Fool’s prank on me: every time I think I am headed in one direction, I get sent off in quite another.

Who am I to resist the guidance of the random refrigerator finding?

I put into my trusty cheapo food processor a heap of dried potato flakes, “instant mashed potatoes” that, while I think them quite specious as a substitute for the substantive real thing of a good coarse potato mash, do make great toasty buttered crumbs for toppings, a very fine thickener for sauces and soups and gravies, and as here, good flour for cheesy flat- or short-bread. Along with the potato flakes and cheeses, I put a little butter, a good dose of whole yogurt labne, a little salt, and seasonings: smoked paprika, powdered mustard seed, white pepper and just a dash of mace. I processed it all into a shortbread-like dough, pressed it into a large flat ovenproof skillet, and baked it at about 300ºF/150ºC until it was very light golden brown (about 25 minutes), let it cool in place as the oven itself cooled, and finally turned out the ‘pancake’ to cut into manageable wedges. They’re simple and plain on their own, slightly chewy and very cheesy, but spread with a little additional labne and topped with a couple of cucumber slices and a sprinkle of za’atar, or perhaps just dipped into some good guacamole and/or salsa, they’ll be quite delightful.photo

For now, I’m just munching them plain and marveling at the vicissitudes of that perennial prankster, Life. Happy 1st of April, everyone!

Foodie Tuesday: Half Baked Ideas

photoAlthough I know that sometimes it’s nicer to avoid stuff that we like but can’t have, when I’m not able or supposed to have something either for a period of time or ever but I really enjoy it, I can find comfort in fixing it for others. So, under a directive to avoid both flours and most sugars and yet invited to a potluck, what did I want to bring? Cookies. I didn’t really want to just show up with an armful of nothing but store-bought treats, because it wouldn’t involve any hands-on fun or creativity, but it was as usual too hot to want to stand around the oven’s radiant dragon-breath all through the midday.

Solution: fill and fiddle with ready-made cookies.

So for the UNT Collegium Singers’ choir party I bought a batch of sugar cookies, some also-ready-made filling and icing and decorating goodies, and grabbed a few things around the kitchen and got going.

photoOne bunch of the cookies I treated as traditional iced sugar cookies. Thankfully, as I’m anything but a pastry chef, I’m utterly skill- and experience-free in creating traditionally iced sugar cookies, so mine are distinctly individualistic, though perhaps far from artful. Hey, they’re decorated with love. University of North Texas green and white love.photoAnother number of the cookies were made into salted vanilla creme sandwich cookies. The scraggly would-be letters on top of those were brushed on using and ‘ink’ of just vanilla bean paste mixed with food glitter and food coloring. The filling is just another ready-made cookie filling, sprinkled with a tiny pinch, in each sandwich, of crunchy Maldon sea salt.

photoThe other sandwich style cookies were filled with a spread of–you guessed it–ready-made lemon curd, with a dose of ginger juice stirred into it. I used the remainder of the lemon-ginger curd, mixed with more edible glitter and food coloring and a quantity of powdered confectioners’ sugar and piped it into some free-form treble clefs to top those cookies.

Opportunity to have vicarious dessert meets low-maintenance approach. Works for me!

Foodie Tuesday: Fork It Over

photoThe stick-up artist and the greedy eater alike may demand that someone should ‘fork it over‘ or relinquish the object (monetary or comestible) of affection, and that, at speed. But besides cramming edibles into one’s mouth, the fork can serve a number of other useful purposes in the kitchen and at table. Not least of these commendable actions is the release of air. I shall leave it to your imaginations to determine whether some excessively greedy fressers mightn’t do well to have the fork impale them directly and thereby release some of the pent-up methane or other dangerous-to-diners gases, but there are some ways to use a fork for more benign and neighborly expulsions of atmospheric pressure.

photoThe first is to pierce pastry before baking, so that heated air inside or underneath a pastry layer can escape during the process without tearing or exploding the baked goods and their contents throughout the oven or, more excitingly yet, onto unwary bakers lifting said goodies out of the oven. My mother, famous for making what I still believe is arguably the best pie crust in the universe–always exquisitely flaky and golden and crisp and fragile, never soggy or tough–blind baked crusts without ever using pie weights, and only pierced them thoroughly with a fork before the baking. Crust made this way will indeed rise up like an egotist’s inflated chest, but only before those little vents disperse the steam and let the pie crust relax back into the pan just as it should. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the added benefit of this approach is that when a filling is added that will bake further in the crust, it leaks into the piercings a little and caramelizes there, both stabilizing the crust and adding a little candy crunch to the pie. In the same way, venting the closed top crust of the pie with a fork before baking it keeps the dough from ballooning explosively (oh, the joy of spurting jammy fruit juices around like candy lasers!), and again, from holding in unwanted moisture that can defeat attempts to have a splendidly juicy pie interior without compromising the extravagant crispness of its crust.

photoBut enough about pie for the moment, I’ll get back to that soon enough, as you’d guess. I always tend to come back to desserts, don’t I.

photoMeanwhile, piercing other foods for pressure-control purposes is pretty effective too. If you happen to like baked or roasted squashes, root vegetables and tubers, I hope you’ve been informed in good time that pricking the skin sides of them before exposing them to high heat is a helpful way to avoid reenacting the demise of the Hindenburg. One of these many dreamy dishes made with the help of the humble fork: Baba Ghannouj.

This venerable meal-starter dip or spread is not much beyond roasted eggplant, crushed or pureed and well seasoned. But, like many classic dishes from around the world, that is an egregious oversimplification of the subtlety, complexity and variability of the concoction. What remains true is that it’s mighty tasty. My personal combo for it would be less garlicky or oniony than some, mainly because of how my kitchen palette has changed since my life became linked with Mr Spouse’s, but also because my personal palate followed suit and, further, because I think heavier, more intense flavors like those, if overused, can mask more subtle and delicate ones. I submit to you a version of it.

photoBaby Baba Ghannouj

Eggplant (1 large), tahini (4 tablespoons), preserved lemon (1/2, diced), fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons), lemon zest (grated peel of 1 whole lemon), cumin (1 teaspoon or more), olive oil (4 tablespoons) and roasted garlic (1 heaping teaspoon).

If you can, blacken and blister the eggplant’s skin over open flame and then roast it to softness in the oven. For this, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. If you haven’t flame roasted the eggplant, cut it eggplant in half, lay it on a baking sheet or pan greased with olive oil or lined with a silicone sheet, and pierce its skin all over with a fork before roasting it. Roast until it’s well softened, about 20 to 30 minutes (check with gentle pressure occasionally; you can use the back of the fork for that), and finish by blackening the skin under the broiler.
When the eggplant’s soft, rub off its skin. Needn’t be perfect; bits of blackened skin will heighten the smoky flavor of the Baba Ghannouj. Put the flesh in a bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients, and mash it all up together with the famed fork. Serve garnished with a further drizzle of olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of thyme, or a toss of za’atar.

Foodie Tuesday: More Sugary Bits

Sweets needn’t be hard to prepare. They’re so easy to eat, it’s only fair that they should also be easy to fix or you’ll undoubtedly end up feeling a little desperate between times. Why risk it?

Especially nice if the treats can require no baking or be super-simple to mix and prep before popping into the oven–like these two:photoChocolate Handy Candy

Combine an assortment of the following ingredients into a dense dough, roll into golf ball shapes or squeeze into similar sized blobs, and chill. Before serving, coat in powdered sugar or cocoa powder; mix in some ground spice if you like.

Melted chocolate (I like to use dark chocolate that I buy in bars)

Coconut oil and/or butter, melted

Pinch of salt (crunchy is usually my favorite)

Flavorings (try ginger with black pepper, mint and dried apple pieces, toasted coconut and rosewater, or toasted sesame seeds and almond bits and a pinch of cloves)

Chopped candied peel or crushed freeze-dried fruit

Crushed potato chips or pretzels or chopped nuts (toasted and salted or spiced/candied)

Once you’ve formed these, refrigerate them, and serve them cold. Easy to make and just as easy to like.

And not long ago I came across another ridiculously simple sweet fix. Nutella cookies. If you don’t already know what Nutella is, you need more help than just an easy recipe to make with the stuff. Possibly a term of Nutella Therapy hospitalization. Ooh, can I have that? I have, thankfully, found some pretty good no-name generic copycat versions of it, so if the real stuff isn’t available in an emergency I needn’t panic. But really, it’d be hard to go wrong with the classic combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.

The recipe in question is so uncomplicated as to be hard to classify as a recipe at all, but I proved it does require a tad of technical specificity, so it’s not quite the throw-and-go ease of the first item here. Still, easy. And oh so sweet. And once again, tweak-worthy. The general gist of this combination is popular, if not prevalent, online, to the degree that it’d be a serious magic trick to track down the original author. If any of you know who developed this I’d be delighted to know!photoImpossibly Possible Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour mix) + 1 cup Nutella (or substitute) + 1 egg = dough. Makes a dense dough that’s not hard to mix quickly with your bare hands. Form the dough into a log (about 2″ or 5 cm in diameter) with flattened ends and slice it into 24 pieces. Arrange on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F (177ºC) for approximately 6 minutes. My usual issue of owning an overactive oven made my first attempt bake too quickly, scorching them slightly.

That, however, gave me the excuse to play with spice and start thinking of a number of other ways I might happily vary the treat. Version 2 was also easy; all I did was make the cookies as prescribed (while lowering the oven temp significantly, thankyouverymuch) and as I placed the slices on the baking sheet, I sprinkled over them a mixture of copper-colored edible glitter for visual interest and sweet-hot curry powder for additional flavor. Went over nicely with guests, and I found it quite enjoyable.photoFor future versions, I’m thinking of a number of possible enhancements to this delightfully easy cookie dream. I know that it’s also possible to substitute peanut butter and sugar for the Nutella and flour, and I assume one could just as easily use other nut butters. But there are a zillion ways I might play with the existing combination too. Roll the log of dough in finely chopped toasted hazelnuts before slicing into cookies. Add a splash of rum or rum flavoring. Add the finely grated zest of a large orange or a couple of small mandarins; add minced candied peel or ginger to the zested dough. Ice the cookies with a glaze made of pure cherry juice and powdered sugar. Skip the flour and egg and stick the big spoon loaded with Nutella directly in your mouth. Okay, that last one’s not exactly a recipe either, unless you want to call it a recipe for disastrous health, but it’s still probably worth a try. Because it’s sweet, and it’s simple. And when I have a crazy hankering for a bit of dessert in a big hurry, that’s a very fine thing.

Foodie Tuesday: Savory, then Sweet

Dinner and then dessert. That’s the way I was raised, and I think a zillion other people had the same, despite the urge most children I know have always had to eat dessert first–and possibly, to stop there. Now that I’m wonderfully old, I can do that, and don’t hesitate to indulge now and then. But along with my well-known love for combining the sweet and savory together, whether it’s merely by adding a bit more salt to desserts or it’s designing a meal to have a wider range and greater balance between the savory and the sweet, there are plenty of times when a semblance of conformity to the old norm is perfectly satisfying to both my empty stomach and my sweet tooth.photoThere is much that I love about the simplest of meals, not only because it pleases me that they’re easy to prepare but because they also allow–nay, invite–the savoring of their few and uncomplicated parts. A chicken-and-noodles dinner, for example, can be barely more than those two ingredients and fill me comfortably and contentedly. Chunks of roasted or baked or fried chicken tossed in with fresh fettuccine that has been cooked in rich chicken broth (this time until the broth was thickened to sauce, but other times, just as a dandy bowl of chicken & noodle soup) need little but a helping of vegetables or two alongside and they become both welcome nourishment and a little trip down memory lane. My hunger is sated and I am reminded of many a happily simple meal gone by.

But then I succumb, more often than not, to thinking that if this meal is a little like those my mother made, why then it ought to end in dessert as well. And as citrus so complements chicken in nearly any guise, why not make a citrus dessert to follow a chicken dinner? I could certainly opt for the ever-lovely lemon bars that brighten many a table, yet I am not exactly known for coloring inside the lines when it comes to an entire menu, so on the most recent chicken-noodle dinner occasion, I took a slight deviation from that norm. I made what you could callphotoSimply Lime-Coconut Bars

[I took my first cue from a recipe for ‘instant’ lime curd made in a Vitamix so I could skip the slow and attentive cookery most curd recipes require. Our household blender is nothing so sophisticated–or expensive–as a Vitamix and doesn’t reach that machine’s level of heat, but since I was using the curd mostly for these cookie bars where it would subsequently be baked (and because I have no fear of eating raw eggs anyway), I went ahead with the blender I have. Needless to say, besides my alteration of the process I changed the ingredients to the point that you’re now getting my recipe, not that lovely published one I found elsewhere.]

Lime-Coconut Curd (Makes 6 servings.Theoretically.)

In the blender, whiz 3 whole eggs until frothy, adding ½ cup sugar + 1 hefty pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of vanilla as you go; add ½ cup melted, very hot coconut oil in a thin stream, followed by a stream of ½ cup fresh lime juice, and keep blending it until it’s good and smooth or you think your blender and you will both swoon from overheating.

Set the curd in the refrigerator if you’re taking very long to prepare the rest of the cookie bar recipe, but if you’re like me, it’ll already be in the fridge from a couple of days ago when you made a double batch and spooned out a few helpings of the curd, plain, to snack on between times. As one sometimes must do. And I think you do know what I mean. Meanwhile, let us return to our cookie bar recipe.

Lime-Coconut Bar Cookies

[I am told I will be a complete failure as a human being if I don’t add the curd to a warm, just-baked crust layer, so I conform to the Rules at least that far. And I lined the bottom of the 9″ x 13″ pan with a single piece of baking parchment so that I could easily lift out the bars when ready.]

photo

Okay, I can’t resist adding a dash of additional crunchy salt on top some of the time. Whether I eat them in any particular order or together, I do love both the savory and the sweet.

To make the crust, blend 1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour), 3/4 cup coconut flour, 2/3 cup confectioners’ [powdered] sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4-1/2 teaspoon almond extract. Cut 3/4 cup [yes, really! What, you think I’d lie about adding lots of good fat?] of cold salted butter into this dry mix until it becomes a crumbly, sandy blend and then press it evenly into the pan. Refrigerate this for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to your equivalent of 350°F [as you know, my oven has its own ideas about what that means, so I adjust accordingly]. When the crust has chilled, pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes or until it’s beginning to brown lightly. Out of the oven it comes. Reset the oven to 325°F, stir up the curd

, spread the curd over the crust, and pop the pan right back into the oven, for about 20 minutes or until the curd has set when gently touched. Almost done, now. Turn off that oven of yours before you forget, let the pan cool on a rack for about another half hour, and then you can take a quick swipe around the perimeter of the bars with a knife tip to loosen any stuck things before lifting them out in their parchment sling. These, like any citrus curd topped bars, are pretty to serve with a final dusting of powdered sugar on top, but any you’re saving for later should get dusted directly before serving, as it’ll absorb into the bars in the meantime. If, however, you’re going to devour the entire pan in one sitting, who am I to blame you? Powder up, my friends. Life is short and dessert is long-awaited.

photo

Or there could be pomegranate and pistachio, for a change . . .

The second time around, I decided to try the bars with a little north-African influenced twist: substituted salted, roasted pistachios (ground to flour) for the almond flour in the crust, decreasing the added salt to 1/2 teaspoon; made the curd with pure pomegranate juice and butter instead of the lime juice and coconut oil, and because the curd wasn’t quite as bright in either flavor or color as the original recipe, made a little layer of zing from 1/4 cup each of pomegranate juice and ginger preserves, pureeing them together completely and softening a tablespoon of gelatin in them to thicken slightly, and finally topping the bars with whole pistachios and a dusting of powdered sugar and edible glitter for a dash of, well, dash. Messy, yes. Edible? Oh, yes. You people do know how I like my variations on a theme! And if we’re going to have dinner first, then I’m not opposed to two desserts to make up for the waiting . . .