Saturday, December 27, 2008


Cherry Pie

The cherry season properly begins in December in New Zealand. As such, and most being red, cherries are associated with the festivities of Christmas. A Christmas gift this year, from my good friend the sassy Sauciere Queen Lily, is 2 kilograms/4 pounds of Dawson cherries, which were flown up from Cromwell (in the South Island, where cherry trees do particularly well). 2 kilograms is rather a large quantity, and given that cherries do not store well, unlike apples, one has to put them to good use almost immediately.

When presented with such a quantity, it is no wonder that people often turn their hands to making a jam; this is a practical way of handling a glut of cherries. Partial as I am to jam, I have never preserved fruit and will not do so on my own (too scared of doing a poor job and creating an environment for nasty bacteria - perhaps making jam will be my new year's resolution, given that cherries and berries are plentiful for a good while). Other than enjoying them in their natural state, I have a few ideas on what to do with them.

In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, I decided to promptly make an American cherry pie. Actually, good old-fashioned cherry pies typically use canned sour cherries, so I am deviating a little, but not so much as to do away with the original intention and purpose of the cherry pie - to use a substantial amount of them in one fell swoop and to highlight the unusual flavour of the cherry.

The typical filling for cherry pies is made with a large amount of sugar, and the pie itself is typically served à la mode, which is to say with vanilla ice cream. This is probably because sour (tart) cherries are often used and the sweetness of the sugar and ice cream temper the cherries. It seems practical to use sweet cherries in the first instance, as they are generally the most available in New Zealand, and they also require less sugar in the filling. Of course, one does not have to serve ice cream with cherry pie at all; crème fraîche would do the opposite of vanilla ice cream with a naturally sweet cherry pie, for it would act as a mildly tangy foil against the cherries. Dawson cherries can have a slight puckering effect, so I have gone completely middle of the road - a little sugar in the filling and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Cherry Pie

For the pie crust (a sugar crust):

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
113g/4oz unsalted butter, diced
5 tablespoons ice cold water

1) Mix flour and sugar together very well.
2) Mix butter into flour mixture with tips of your fingers until incorporated in sand-like granules.
3) Add water, one tablespoon at a time, until dough coheres. A smooth ball should result.
4) Halve the dough, wrap each half in cling-film, flatten dough out to a disc shape, then place in the refrigerator for at least 30 mintues.
5) Roll out one half of the dough on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin.
6) Place into a greased (lightly coated with butter and flour) tart shell or shallow pie dish of 22-25cm/9-10" and allow for some overhang.
7) Put in the refrigerator until you are ready to fill it.
8) When the pie is ready to be filled, roll out the other half of the dough and cut into strips, approximately 2cm/just under 1" wide. You can then use the strips to weave into a lattice or twist to cover the filling. Of course, you could just roll out the dough as normal, place over pie, then crimp the overhang and chop off the excess. If you do this, cut slits in the pie top to allow steam to escape. You can also brush with egg wash for colouring.

For the filling:

Lemon juice from 1/4 medium-sized lemon
4 cups cherries, stoned (or halved then stoned, if you do not have a cherry stoner)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornflour/cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1) Put lemon juice and cherries into a bowl. The lemon juice prevents cherries from browning.
2) Add sugar, cornflour, brandy and vanilla extract. Stir well to combine. The cornflour prevents liquid from seeping into the pastry and helpd hold the contents of the pie together when it is cooked.

To complete:

1) Pre-heat oven to 200 C /400 F. Put a lined baking sheet on the middle rack.
2) Remove pie dish/tart shell with dough in it from refrigerator and line it with pie filling, as close to one layer as possible.
3) Cover pie with preferred topping per Step 8 of Pie Crust instructions. You will see that I twisted my strips and simply lay them over the filling. I then used a rolling pin to simultaneously join the strips at the overhang and to remove the excess.
4) Place tart shell/pie dish in oven on baking sheet.
5) After 20 minutes, turn temperature down to 180 C/350 F.
6) Bake for further 40-50 minutes until pie crust is bronzed and filling is bubbling away. For good measure, loosely place foil over the pie after 30 mintues to prevent charred-like appearance.
7) Allow to cool slightly before serving.

The pie crust is perfectly crisp and not at all damp (presumably on account of the sugar). The cherries are inherently slightly tart, but cooking them releases the juices, which gently bubble and amalgamate with the brandy, making for a mouth-filling sensation. Of course, if you prefer a slightly bitter edge, use kirsch instead of brandy - of course, you do not have to use any alcohol at all. A bitter edge can also be achieved by adding ground cherry stones to the flour. The bronzed crust and sparkling pie filling are cheerful, making a gorgeous addition to any Christmas table.

Ahead for us Kiwis (and those visiting New Zealand) is the ripening of many cherry varieties that will become available until early February. My particular favourites are the pale, sweet Rainier and dark, juicy Lapins, which are within reach around my birthday.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Tarte aux Figues

The final installment of That Cookbook Thing II, a community review of various recipes in Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One, brings us to desserts. The French are perhaps the most renowned for their desserts, particularly those involving pastry. Our final group sampling comes from the essential chapter Desserts and Cakes, in which one is introduced to fundamental baking techniques as well as what goes into making quintessentially French tarts.

Central to the art of baking are the various binding requirements of eggs, sugar and cream or milk required for pastries and pastry cream. The latter is more intricate for all it takes is a difference of temperature, quantity or inclusion of one or two different ingredients to go from a creme anglaise to a frangipane pastry cream. While short on theory, Child et al. provide enough information in order for you to succeed in baking heavenly tarts. The idea is to get you into the kitchen, not to weigh you down to the point of inertia.

Dessert tarts typically comprise of three elements: pastry shell, pastry cream and fruit. Of course, there are various pastries and creams from which to choose in order highlight one's chosen fruit(s), and this is where the French truly transcend the expectations of a simple dessert.

The tart that we were supposed to make is a flambeed cherry tart. While the cherry season has just begun in New Zealand, I was not able to find any. So, I decided on dried figs, which were still plump and responded well to reconstituting in red wine. Besides, figs are just as much a part of French life as cherries. The tart, finally, took a detour, ending up with more of southern flavour than a south-western one. Never mind. It is still a fruit tart, and you know I love tarts (Samantha Jones of Sex and the City included).

In making the tart, Child et al. suggest two possible tart shells and pastry creams. There is no discussion on which works best; therefore, the reader is empowered to create an instant repertoire - keep your fruit the same, and just change out the shell and cream. The pastry shell options are sweet short crust and sugar crust. I opted for the sugar crust, as it provides a firmer finish (depending on the amount of sugar used). As for the pastry cream, the options are a custard filling or an almond custart. I have an absolute adoration of almond custard (aka frangipane), so there was no debate. In combination with the figs, I was salivating from the first beating of the whisk - this is fruit tart ne plus ultra.

The tart fits a 25cm/10" tart pan. Overall, I used considerably less sugar than recommended.

Tarte aux Figues
(Largely based on Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck's first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

For the sugar crust pastry shell:

1 3/4 cups flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
7 tablespoons butter, diced
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1) Mix together flour, sugar and baking powder in a medium bowl.
2) Rub butter into the flour mixture with the tips of your fingertips until sand-like granules are formed. Touch as lightly and deftly as possible. (Believe me, you will get that hang of it if you make pastry tarts enough times.)
3) Mix in the beaten egg and vanilla and bring entire mixture together.
4) On a lightly floured surface, knead the mixture into a ball.
5) To fully blend the mixture, use the heel of your hand to press small sections of pastry in a quick smear of approximately 15cm/6"(this process is known as fraisage).
6) Form into a disc and wrap in clingfilm for approximately 30 mintues.
7) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
8) Roll out disc on a lightly-floured surface.
9) Place pastry into a prepared (lightly filmed with butter and flour) tart mold. Cover with foil and baking beans, then bake for 6 minutes.
10) Remove foil and baking beans, prick base of the tart base, bake for a further 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on the rim of the shell, for it might blacken (due to sugar content). It is wise to place foil around the rim, as I have done in the past but neglected to do on this occasion.
11) Remove from oven and from mold, and let cool on a rack, during which time it will also harden.

For the figs:

1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons sugar
3 cups dried figs, halved if large

1) Boil red wine, lemon juice and sugar.
2) Add the figs.
3) Simmer for 5-6 minutes, then off the heat and let figs steep in liquid for approximately twenty minutes.
4) Drain figs (no need to reserve liquid).

For the frangipane (almond custard):

1 egg and 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup boiling milk
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup almond flour (pulverised almonds)
2 tablespoons cognac (or kirsch or brandy)

1) In a bowl, beat egg and egg yolk, gradually adding sugar.
2) When the mixture is pale yellow and forms ribbons, beat in the flour.
3) Add milk in a very thin stream.
4) Over medium heat, pour contents back into pot in which milk heated (to save on dishes, you understand), stir slowly, whipping all the time.
5) When the mixture becomes lumpy, beat vigorously until a paste is formed, all the while over the heat to cook the flour. Be careful not to burn the mixture on the bottom of the pot.
6) Off the heat, add butter, vanilla and almond extracts, almond flour and cognac. If you are not using it immediately, clean the sides and dot top with butter to prevent a film from forming over the frangipane.

To assemble the tart:

1) Fold drained figs into the frangipane.
2) Spread figs into sugar crust tart shell.
3) Preheat broiler/grill in oven.
4) Sprinke 1 tablespoon sugar over surface.
5) Place under broiler for 2-3 minutes to caramelise the sugar.
6) Optional: Throw 1/4 cup cognac, kirsh or brandy over surface of tart, alight and present to table.

This truly is a heady and wonderful combination, a complete success. The tart shell is sturdy and sweet, the figs heady and plump, the almond custard and booze rounding our the flavours of the tart with interest. While there are a few steps to building this tart, not one of them is difficult - and only the last optional step is potentially dangerous. I found that this tasted just as good the next day with a perfectly hot cup of strong black coffee, but I have a love of sweet goods late in the afternoon (I must be Central European at heart).

That Cookbook Thing II has been a wonderful experience for me to get to know a classic cookery text. Whilst I have not proceeded to engage in it to the nth degree as Julie Powell of the famous Julie/Julia Project, I have made a connection to Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's masterful text. This is a great text for the home cook, for its sole purpose is to really train the reader to produce quality meals at home. The tips are insightful and the organisation of the great selection of recipes is practically unparallelled. This is a user-friendly guide for those of us who love French cooking.

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