Sunday, January 28, 2007

Valentine's Day Linzer Cookies

For an easy yet elegant Valentine’s Day dessert try these traditional Linzer cookies. The thin, almond-packed, slightly sweet cookie perfectly balances the tart raspberry jam filling, and a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar surrounding a brilliant red interior looks striking on a plate. Bake the cookies days in advance and assemble at the last minute for a simply delicious Valentine's Day treat.

Linzer Cookies
Yield=2 Dozen

2/3 cup finely ground almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour*
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
raspberry or strawberry jam as needed
*another ½ cup of very finely ground almonds or ½ cup of all-purpose flour can be used in place of the almond flour

In a large bowl, whisk together ground almonds, flours, baking powder, kosher salt and cinnamon. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until combined and smooth. Add vanilla and beat till smooth. With the machine on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the bowl and beat only until just combined. Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and pat into two disks. Wrap each with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F and put oven rack in middle position.

On a lightly-floured work surface roll one of the disks to approximately 1/8 – inch thick. Cut out as many heart shaped cookies as possible and transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet spaced about 1 – inch apart. Place in the oven for approximately 10-15 minutes, or until lightly brown around the edges and golden on top (closer to 15 minutes). Remove from the oven then transfer cookies to cooling racks to cool completely.

Combine all scrap dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and chill while rolling out the next batch. For this batch, cut out the same number of large heart-shaped cookies but cut out the center of each with a smaller heart. Transfer the cookies to another ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, watching more closely as these cook more quickly.

I like to bake off the little heart-shaped centers as well, but if you prefer to make more Linzer cookies, combine the centers with the scraps, chill and reroll as many as you are able. Experts might advise to only reroll the dough once because rerolling could cause the cookies to become tough. This may be true, but I find Linzer cookies to be very forgiving in regard to this issue—I reroll until I’m completely out of dough. Note: If I am rolling and cutting cookies and transferring to cookie sheets, I place filled cookie sheets in the freezer or refrigerator until the oven is free.

When the cookies have cooled completely, spread jam onto center of each solid heart-shaped cookie. Don’t spread all the way to the edge—when the cookies are topped the jam will be forced out. Using a fine meshed strainer filled with ¼ cup of confectioners’ sugar (to start), lightly dust the open-centered cookies. Add more sugar to the strainer as necessary.

Carefully sandwich the cookies together (they are very fragile and will crack if pressed too hard) and serve immediately. The cookies can be made days in advance and stored in an airtight container. The assembled cookies can also be made a day in advance but the presentation will not be as beautiful: the confectioners’ sugar gets absorbed and smudged and it is hard to re-dust without disassembling the cookies. They are still delicious, however. Enjoy!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Two Heart Tarts for Two

Frog Commissary Strawberry Heart Tart
Since purchasing my copy of The Frog Commissary Cookbook, a popular Philadelphia cookbook based on two legendary restaurants, I have been meaning to make its prized Strawberry Heart Tart for Valentine's Day. At the height of The Commissary's popularity, the restaurant allegedly sold 150 of these tarts daily and over 400 on Valentine's Day. Indeed, the tart's ingredients combine to make a truly perfect Valentine's Day dessert: a hidden semi-sweet chocolate lining very nicely complements a Grand Marnier cream cheese filling, and beautiful whole strawberries make a dramatic presentation in a flaky heart-shaped shell. (Truthfully, the whole strawberries are difficult to eat—I would just as soon cut them).

Rhubarb Heart Tart with Vanilla Syrup
If I had to pick between these two desserts on Valentine's Day, however, I'd chose the rhubarb heart tart. Poached in a vanilla bean syrup, the rhubarb tastes deliciously sweet and tart, against the strongly-spiked creamy base. The rhubarb’s shiny pink surface, speckled with vanilla seeds, set atop the brilliant white filling, makes a natural and striking presentation. And with "forced rhubarb"—rhubarb that is ultimately grown in heated sheds in complete darkness—currently in season, the opportunities to enjoy its distinctive and delicate flavor are numbered. The Commissary tart can always be saved for a romantic summer evening, perhaps at the peak of strawberry season?

Each of these recipes yields enough for two heart tarts, and the pastry yields enough for six tarts. Freeze the extra portioned dough and thaw as needed. Enjoy!

Flaky Pastry Dough
Yield=Six Heart Tarts

1¼ cups (6¼ oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed

1 heart-shaped crème brûlée dish (or as many as you care to purchase)

Process flour, salt and sugar together in food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Using a paring knife, quickly cut butter into small pieces directly into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse about 10 times until the butter is the size of large peas.
In a small bowl, whisk sour cream and ice water in small bowl until combined. Add half of this mixture to the food processor and pulse 3 times. Add remaining sour cream mixture and pulse 3 more seconds. Pinch dough with fingers, and if the dough is floury and dry, add more ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing and testing again after each addition. (Note: the dough might not appear moist enough, so pinching is important. The dough should not be wet enough so that it balls all around the blade; it should still appear crumbly)
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pat into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the dough from refrigerator. Divide into 6 equal portions, each weighing approximately 2¼ oz each. On a lightly floured work surface roll each portion into a circle, as thinly as possible. Layer the rolled portions, separating each layer with parchment paper. Drape one circle over the back of the heart-shaped dish. Chill the remaining dough. Trim off any excess dough and prick the molded dough several times with a fork. Set the dish in the oven, dough side up and bake 20-25 minutes, until lightly golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool completely while still on the mold. Once cooled, repeat with remaining dough, making as many as desired, or freezing the additional dough.

Strawberry Heart Tart
Yield=2 Heart Tarts

Cream Cheese Filling:
4 oz softened cream cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons Grand Marnier
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

In the bowl of a stand mixer cream all ingredients until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

Simple Syrup:
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar

Heat together in small sauté pan and gently simmer until thick and syrupy. Set aside to cool.

1 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 pint of strawberries

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over simmering water. Set the two heart tart shells upright and divide the chocolate between the two, spreading to make a thin layer across the bottom.
Stem the strawberries and trim the edge to create a flat surface.
Remove the cream cheese filling and divide between the two tarts. Top with the strawberries and drizzle with the syrup. A light dusting of confectioner’s sugar is a nice touch but unnecessary. Enjoy!

Rhubarb Heart Tart:
Yield=2 Heart Tarts

For the rhubarb:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
1 lb 10 oz rhubarb, approximately (1½ lbs once trimmed of dead ends)

Place sugar, water and vanilla bean and seeds in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, trim ends off rhubarb stalks and cut stalks into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl.
As soon as syrup boils, pour over rhubarb, cover bowl with a plate and let sit for 1 hour. After the one hour, taste a piece. If the rhubarb is still too crunchy and tart, strain the poaching liquid back into the saucepan, bring to a boil, and pour over the rhubarb again, this time leaving the bowl uncovered.
Test again, after 1 hour. This should be sufficient. Strain the rhubarb reserving the poaching liquid. Chill until ready to serve or keep at room temperature if serving within a few hours.

For the filling:
2 oz cream cheese, softened
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until slightly lightened. Add the cream, sugar and Grand Marnier and beat until nicely mixed and slightly thickened. Do not overbeat. Store in refrigerator until ready to assemble.

For vanilla-bean syrup:
6 tablespoons of reserved poaching liquid

Place liquid in small sauté pan and reduce by half or until thick and syrupy. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

To assemble:
Set the two heart tart shells upright and divide the filling evenly between the two shells. Top with the poached rhubarb. Drizzle with the vanilla bean syrup and enjoy!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffles

Truffles, while not difficult to make, do take planning. With Valentine's Day now two and a half weeks away, there is ample time to make these delicious, perfectly boozy bites of chocolate. This basic recipe can be adapted to satisfy all likings: toasted coconut, chopped nuts or confectioners' sugar can replace the cocoa powder, as can any type of alcohol replace the Grand Marnier. Personally I find the classic cocoa-covered truffles to be the most satisfying. Paired with some fresh strawberries these bittersweet chocolate truffles are a truly delectable, if clichéd, Valentine’s Day treat.

Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffles
Yield 35

10 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup Grand Marnier
12 oz candy-making chocolate disks (dark), Merckens brand works well (*see note in directions below)
½ cup Dutch process cocoa powder

Place the bittersweet chocolate and the butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 30-60 seconds, stirring after the first 30 seconds. Alternatively, melt chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over (not touching) gently simmering water.
In a small sauté pan or saucepan, heat cream, corn syrup and salt until simmering. Pour over melted chocolate mixture and let stand 1-2 minutes. With a spatula gently stir mixture until evenly blended. Pour the alcohol, about a tablespoon at a time, into the chocolate mixture, stirring well after each addition. Pour mixture into an 8x8 inch baking dish, preferably glass or Pyrex. (Glass or Pyrex is best because eventually you'll be scraping the bottom of the pan with your truffle scoop, and these two materials won't be harmed.) Let chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a truffle scoop (also called a #100 scoop) or a melon baller, gently drag the balled end across the surface of the chocolate. Release the ball of chocolate onto the cookie sheet and repeat until all of the chocolate has been scooped. These balls should not look perfect—don't worry if they look irregularly-shaped, and don't try to reshape them into perfect balls—in fact, they should appear slightly misshapen. Let chill in the refrigerator for at least another hour.

This next step is the only tricky part. Chocolate seizes very easily. This means that if a drop of water happens to get into the chocolate mixture, the chocolate will form into a grainy mass precluding it from being able to coat the balls. So regulating the temperature of the chocolate is important: it needs to be warm enough to easily coat the balls, but it also cannot be overheated.
*Note: 12 oz of chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate can be used in place of the candy-making chocolate disks, but I find the candy-making chocolate disks to be more forgiving in regard to seizing and they also give a crisper coating than regular semisweet or bittersweet chocolate.
Follow these steps carefully:
Place the coating chocolate in a large stainless-steel bowl (larger than you think necessary for the amount of chocolate.) Fill a pot large enough to accomodate the bowl with a few inches of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very gentle simmer and place the bowl with chocolate over the pot being sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water. After a a few minutes stir the chocolate with a heat-proof spatula, not a wooden spoon (supposedly wooden spoons can carry moisture). Place the cocoa powder in a shallow vessel—a small rectangular-shaped Tupperware works well. Have a clean Tupperware ready for the finished truffles.
When the chocolate is smooth and melted, remove the bowl from the heat. Remove the chocolate balls from the refrigerator. Place a large stainless-steel spoon (not a dinner spoon but a large cooking spoon) in the bowl and using the spatula push chocolate into the spoon to fill. Working one at a time, place one ball into the chocolate-filled spoon. Quickly coat the ball using the spatula, then remove using a small stainless-steel "dinner" spoon, and transfer to the cocoa powder. Gently shake the vessel back and forth until the truffle is coated, and let sit while you move to the next one. Repeat with two more before removing the first finished truffle. After 3 or 4 of the truffles have been coated, remove the first completed truffle to the clean vessel. Eventually you will work out your own system, but the truffles do need to rest for about 15 seconds before they are transferred to the clean vessel—the chocolate coating needs to set briefly. Towards the end of this coating process, you may need to place the bowl back over the water to gently warm the chocolate again so it more easily coats the chocolates. Just follow the same procedure as above—the key is to melt the chocolate slowly and to keep moisture out of the inside of the bowl. Keep the un-dipped chocolates cool in the refrigerator while you reheat the chocolate.
Once all of the truffles are coated, store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If you prefer to eat them at room temperature, remove them from the refrigerator one hour prior to serving.
Note: After the chocolates have chilled in the refrigerator for a few hours and are firm, taste one. If the cocoa-powder coating is too strong, try this: set a cooling rack over a sheet tray and working with a few truffles at a time, shake them back and forth with your hands to remove excess cocoa powder. Return to the refrigerator in a clean Tupperware.
Note: You may have left over cocoa powder and coating chocolate. You can store the remaining coating chocolate in the refrigerator and use for another project or use in a recipe for chocolate sauce or hot cocoa. The remaining cocoa powder can also be saved for hot cocoa.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Stir-Fried Quail with Balsamic Caramel, Basil & Wilted Frisée

I could eat this balsamic caramel with anything: fresh strawberries, vanilla ice cream, sliced tomatoes, or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. I recently spotted the recipe in my new Sally Schneider cookbook, "The Improvisational Cook," and lamented not having discovered it a few weeks ago when I was attempting to recreate the "Alta" Brussels sprouts—this formula resembles that of the restaurant's much more closely. Schneider's version, just as simple to prepare, tastes like the thick, aged, artisan balsamics available in specialty stores for fifty dollars a bottle. I've now enjoyed this molasses-textured glaze drizzled over pan-seared duck breasts and grilled skirt steak. When the balsamic caramel is paired with basil, however, as in this stir-fried quail dish, the combination is especially delicious. Here I’ve used sturdy frisée as the base for this salad, which loses much of its bitterness when wilted under the heat of the quail. Once in the pan, the quail takes no more than five minutes to cook making this elegant salad of wilted greens, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and orange segments simple and easy to prepare. Enjoy!

Stir-Fried Quail with Balsamic Caramel and Wilted Frisée
Serves 2

Balsamic caramel:
½ cup Rainwater Madeira
1 cup commercial balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar

Balsamic Vinaigrette:
2 tsp. honey
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette
6 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 package semi-boneless quails (or 4 each)
kosher salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 large bunch fresh basil, roughly chopped

1 head frisée, (enough for 2 people)
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 orange, peeled and sectioned, preferably removed from its pith

To make the caramel, place Madeira in a small saucepan and simmer over medium heat until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Add the balsamic vinegar and boil until the vinegar has reduced to about ¼ cup and is very syrupy and big shiny bubbles are forming at the surface. Watch the mixture very closely at this point—it will burn very easily. If it appears too thin, be assured that it will thicken upon cooling. Remove from the heat and stir in the brown sugar until dissolved. Pour into a clean jar and cool before using.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the honey, salt, pepper, garlic and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking constantly. Taste, adjust with more salt, pepper or oil if necessary. Store until ready to use.

Remove quail from package and cut each into four sections: remove each leg from the body then split the breast down the middle into two pieces. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a large non-stick skillet over high heat melt the butter till hot and bubbly. When it is about to turn brown, add the quail pieces, skin side down first. Let the quail cook undisturbed for 1-2 minutes. Flip and cook for about 2 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, place frisée, goat cheese, pine nuts and orange segments in a bowl. Toss lightly with some of the vinaigrette, err on the side of under-dressing—the frisée will release moisture when wilted and the salad will ultimately be flavored with the balsamic caramel as well.

Arrange frisée mix on a large platter, or keep in the bowl (the platter is only for presentation purposes). When the quail is finished cooking, drizzle 2 tablespoons of the balsamic caramel into the pan then throw in all of the chopped basil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and transfer the quail to the frisée platter, arranging the pieces on top of the greens, so that it wilts nicely. Serve immediately with a crusty baguette.