Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lemon Curd Almond Shortbread

Cookies. Kids love them, right?  Well I didn't. That is until shortbread found its way into my young life via Nabisco. How was I ever to know that those usually crunchy, hard things could melt in your mouth? And when they did, I was hooked. Could that childhood memory lead to a newer, improved version sans the assistance of a multinternational conglomerate? Bien sûr!

One aspect of living in France that speaks to me is the ease with which one can find ground nuts, especially almond and chestnut, which usually are stocked in regular supermarkets. These 'flours' are added to tortes, tart crust, crêpes, and sablés (French shortbread); their contribution of flavour, texture, and nutrition is significant. It just happens that there is some homemade lemon curd in the house, and as its pairing with shortbread is nothing short of sublime, who am I to keep those two from each other?

makes sixteen 7.5 cm rounds

  • Lemon curd, about 16 heaping teaspoons, recipe here, ample enough for these shortbreads
  • Sugar, icing/powdered/confectioners, 90 grams
  • Flour, plain, 185 grams
  • Cornflour/starch, 60 grams
  • Almonds, ground, 30 grams
  • Butter, 250 grams, cut into small pieces
  • Vanilla extract, a scant 1/8 teaspoon
  • Extra icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Sift together into a medium-sized mixing bowl the icing sugar, flour, cornflour, and ground almonds. Add the vanilla extract and the butter, working the mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse sand (it took me about five minutes). Press the mass to see if it mostly comes together.

Then turn out onto a floured surface and lightly knead a couple of times to get a smooth ball. First divide it into two roughly equal pieces, and then keep halving each resulting division into two until there are sixteen in total. Form into small balls. Gently press one into each cup.  The dough should fill about one third of the tin. As the pieces won't be identical in size, you could pinch a bit off the more heftier ones to boost the size of the smaller ones which will encourage more even baking.

I used a full twelve-cup muffin pan and a six-cup one though there were two empty places! Depending on what you have available, you may need to bake in batches, making sure that the pan to be reused has cooled off before placing dough in it.

Bake for fifteen to eighteen minutes until golden. Wait a minute and then make a well in each shortbread using your thumb or a couple of fingers, protecting them with a tiny piece of paper towel. Wait a few minutes more until there is a slight pulling away from the sides of the muffin tins. Carefully upturn the pans and while gently tapping each cup, remove all the shortbreads.

There's the bit of paper towel I used in the left upper corner! 

Let cool on a rack (I used one from the oven).

Lightly dust them with icing sugar. You may want to test one to see if that extra sweetness is a little too much. It sure looks pretty though! Then put a heaping teaspoon of curd into each depression. Though I wouldn't refuse a packaged shortbread, I certainly prefer homemade. These were fun to make and beyond delicious to eat.

The weather is still remarkably warm which has encouraged some irises to put out an autumnal blooming.

Crimson mums in the left background and  two, makeshift bird baths to the right of them

Comme d'habitude, I didn't deadhead the hydrangeas, as their dusty violet and silver tracery is one of the joys of the autumn/winter garden.

We now know why Dirac the kitten bites onto a hacky sack for about five minutes straight. He is going through pronounced teething and has cleverly chosen his own teething ring!

Thank goodness we have a ton of these cloth 'pucks'!

À la prochaine!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Roasted Sweet Red Pepper and Garlic Spread/Dip

Our pepper patch surprisingly put out yet more crimson beauties. Being somewhat familiar with Balkan/Turkish cuisine via burek and gözleme, I looked to Lyutenitsa/Ajvar for inspiration. Because that spread is made with a specific variety of pepperthe roga of broad shoulders tapering to a pointand often served with feta, already the departure from the original is so steep since I will have to make do with our potager's piments des Landes and sweet red bell peppers. Therefore I have jumped off the culinary cliff by adding cheese directly to the mixture. Said cheese is not even feta, but cream cheese. Daring is my middle name, bien sûr!

Fennel fresh from our potager is often my go-to herb

If only I ate this as a tiny kid, I would have been able to respond I want to make sweet red pepper spread when asked what I want to do when I grow up. I am tempted to ask Dirac the kitten what he would like to be when he grows up, but I afraid his reply will be, I want to be a paper shredder, so I refrain.

makes about 8 fluid ounces/240 ml
  • Peppers, red, sweet, large, roasted, 4 or the equivalent if using ones much smaller than bell peppers
  • Garlic, roasted, heads, 4 (about 4 T of mashed garlic)
  • Olive oil, 2 T
  • Lemon juice, 6 tsp
  • Fennel, fresh, finely minced, 2 tsp
  • Cream cheese, 10 T
Detailed instructions for roasting peppers are here

...and for roasting garlic, here.

Roasting more heads than required for this recipe makes sense because any surplus can be frozen.

Not a chestnut!

Place coarsely chopped roasted peppers and roasted garlic paste into a food processor and whirl until mostly smooth if you desire tiny bits of juicy pepper remaining. If you prefer complete smoothness, process until you get the consistency/texture you want. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, fennel, cream cheese and whirl again.

Salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least an hour to firm its texture and deepen its flavour.

Serve with any manner of chips, toast, and crackers. Sourdough rye grilled with olive oil was my preferred choice but as my quiet kitchen world suddenly erupted into various, barely contained disasters such as a beloved appliance going kaput, bells, whistles,  paroxysms going off inside and outside the house, and Persistent Percy, better known as Dirac the kitten, getting himself into scrapes I did not know even existed, I instead gratefully embraced packaged Swedish flatbread drizzled with a little olive oil. Pas trop mal! I am thinking ahead...maybe some mixed into pasta or filling ravioli or smeared on a hot sandwich wrapIt's lovely stuff and it's freezes well also!

À la prochaine!


Sweet red peppers and pasta
Sweet red pepper and white bean soup

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Power of Lemon (Curd)

How powerful are lemons? They can form part of a battery set-up in science experiments. Switching on bulbs, lighting up taste buds, it's all in a day's work for this versatile fruit. One way to harness its culinary jolt is making a gorgeously silky-smooth concoction that lends itself to both desserts and sweet/sour savoury dishes. The name of this deliciousness? Curd. That's right. Curd. Lemons need to hire a new publicity team!

Though not difficult to make, the better known method can result in bits of coagulated egg white swimming about in the otherwise pristine curd necessitating pesky straining. Borrowing the basic butter/sugar creaming technique used for making cakes, Elinor Klivans details this clever approach in her article for Fine Cooking, Issue 26.

makes four fluid ounces, recipe can be doubled/quadrupled

  • Butter, softened, 3 T
  • Egg, large, 1
  • Egg yolk, large, 1
  • Lemon juice, freshly squeezed, 5 1/2 T (around two large lemons)
  • Lemon zest, 1/2 tsp, made from either non-treated lemons or ones that have been scrubbed and dried.
  • Sugar, 8 T

Using a sharp, fine grater, make the zest, being sure to scrape off only the yellow skin. Then halve and squeeze the lemons.

Gather the sugar, juice, zest, butter, and the whole egg and extra yolk (I crack the egg in my palm and let the white drain through my well cleaned fingers).

The additional yolk imparts richness and deepens the colour

Cut the butter into small cubes and put in a mixing bowl. Beat with a wooden spoon until creamy. Add the sugar, mashing it at first into the butter with a fork then switch to beating with a wooden spoon until the mixture is more fluffy than not. The entire procedure took about ten minutes; an electric mixer will take a minute or two.

Add half of the eggs and beat until smooth. Repeat with the remaining eggs.

Pour in the lemon juice which will cause temporary curdling.

Put into a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Over low heat, stir for a few minutes or until the mixture becomes smooth as the butter melts. Raise the heat to medium, carefully simmer (no boiling, please!) for about five minutes while stirring til the curd when coating a wooden spoon stays put after your fingertip does a pass down the centre. If making a larger quantity, it may take longer. Stir in the zest.

Pour into a bowl or jar. Lemon curd is wondrous, splendid, and darn good!

Fresh out of the fridge, it will be much thicker, more like baked custard

Covering the curd's surface with a circle of clingfilm a bit larger than the diameter of the storage jar will prevent a skin from forming. Though it keeps just a week or so in the fridge, when frozen it will maintain its punch up for two months while remaining soft enough to scoop out when needed. Scraped-off curls of frozen curd are plush in texture, close to that of thick caramel, melting sublimely in your mouth. 

OK. You got curd. Providing you haven't scoffed it down immediately. Hey, don't look at me! Here are some suggestions for the more civilised among us:

  • Stir in plain yogurt and top with granola
  • Spread on toast, scones, shortbread, English muffins
  • Make cake/cookie sandwiches
  • Filling for tarts, mini or large
  • Lemon curd bars (When baked, curd deepens in colour and firms in texture)
  • Parfait with vanilla ice cream, top with candied lemon peel, chopped nuts, fruit (blueberries are particularly good)
  • Fold into whipped cream and use as a topping/frosting/mousse
  • Thin with cream for pancake/dessert sauce
  • Add a little to rice along with parsley
  • Chinese Lemon Chicken

In the potager and flower garden, various shades of red are making the rounds: vermilion, crimson, magenta, scarlet.

The very last bell pepper close to becoming completely red

When we first moved here five years ago, we brought a potted mum which happily grew on our Grenoble balcony for ten years.

Since then, not only have countless new plants been made from the original's cuttings, I have finally succumbed to the French custom of not prominently showcasing one of my favourite flowers in the front garden as these plants are reserved mostly for honouring the dead come All Saints' Day.

A pot of mums on the back patio just beginning to flower

The bougainvillea's bracts are still hanging on.

Dirac the kitten has graduated from batting around garlic cloves to the more demanding athletics of bouncing a ping pong ball into our house's deepest crannies. Those are very late season tomatoes, my dear Dirac, not red ping pong balls!

A colleague of The Calm One lives in a nearby village called Dirac. It's surrounded by countryside, farms, and forests.

Citizen Watch!

Not that the foliage colours in southwest France come close to the visual delight I often witnessed in New England, but it is still too early for any show to start. Instead a burnished green sits waiting.

À la prochaine!


How to cream together butter and sugar, either by hand or by electric mixer

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Roasted Sweet Red Pepper & White Bean Soup With Grilled Cheese Croutons

A simple soup of few ingredients becomes outstanding if grilling is used as a preparatory technique, garnishing is done with a flourish, and the flavour is brightened with a dash of sherry vinegar.

Pureed white beans gives body and creaminess to the soup

Sunny, hot weather in the last week has brought our potager's remaining green bell and Landes peppers into the gloriously mellow realm of red.

makes enough for a meal for two or four smaller servings
Peppers, red, sweet, large, 4
Onion, yellow, medium, peeled, diced
Garlic cloves, large, 3, smashed and skin removed
Beans, white, canned or cooked dried, 12 fluid ounces
Stock, chicken, 32 fluid ounces
Olive oil, 3 T
Vinegar, sherry, 1/2 tsp or to taste
Bay leaf, large, 1
Salt and freshly ground black peppercorns to taste
Pepper, green, a few strips for garnishing

for each grilled cheese sandwich (I made four)
Cheese, grated (I used a mix of cheddar and Parmesan), 2 heaping T
Bread, slices, 2 (I used sour dough rye)
Butter, room temperature, 1 heaping T

Preheat the oven grill. Rinse and dry the peppers. Place about six inches under the hot grill, turning them on all sides until blackened which takes about from ten to fifteen minutes depending on size and type.

Peppers while being grilled ooze goo so lining the pan with foil makes cleaning a cinch

Wrinkling of the skin is a good tell that they will be easily skinned.

Pop them into a sturdy ziploc bag suitable for freezing hot food where they will steam on the counter or table for about ten minutes. If they are a bit recalcitrant than put them back in the bag until they behave.

The skin should easily be pulled off the meaty flesh.

The peeled peppers may look unappetising, but once simmered and pureed, they will impart to the soup a velvety depth of flavour. Chop them coarsely.

Saute the onions and garlic in the hot olive oil for several minutes. Add the red peppers and the rinsed beans. Cook for another minute or so while stirring.

Stir in chicken stock and bay leaf.

I used two small leaves instead of a large one

Cover and simmer for about a half hour. Meanwhile make the grilled cheese croutons. Spread butter on one side of a slice and place buttered side down in a skillet. Cover with cheese. Butter one side of another slice and place it plain side down. Over medium heat, cook til browned and crusty which should take several minutes. Flip it over.

While the other side is getting grilled, press the sandwich with a potato masher, a small plate, or a flexible metal spatula. Pressing only on the grilled sides will prevent the spatula sticking to butter and pulling out bread chunks. 

Cut into small squares.

Grilled cheese croutons are darling.

Remove the bay leaf. Puree the soup with a stick mixer or in a blender. Reheat if necessary and season to taste with sherry vinegar, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Garnished with  julienne of green pepper, this soup is a lovely bowl of warm deliciousness. 

Along with mums, dahlias rule in the flower garden.

When fully opened, this variety has a diameter the size of a luncheon plate

Early fall is a good time to harvest bay leaves when they are at their most flavourful and mature. The foot-high seedling of five years ago is now nearly six feet. Prunings serves two purposes: leaves for culinary use and shoots for rooting to get more of these hardy, beautiful, evergreen, fragrant bushes.

Letting a few leaves remain on top of the cutting, remove the rest. The bush-to-be can be trimmed to a length of about four to five inches, dipped in rooting hormone, and tucked into a pot filled with a light, non-soil mix. Water it thoroughly and cover with a plastic bag which will act as a moisture-retaining tent. Keep it outside sheltered from winds and direct sunlight throughout the winter to encourage root growth and for it to be ready for spring transplanting.

The Calm One in his quest to use our oven more efficiently bought a four-tiered stand that was supposed to cook that many pizzas at the same time. The soggy results became the mother of invention as I now use it to dry herbs, and at present, specifically bay leaves which need to be crackly dry in order to eliminate any trace of toxicity. Rinse and dry them, spreading a single layer in a wicker basket or a plate and leaving them be for about two weeks until they are completely dessicated. Store in a lidded jar.

Dirac the kitten when concerned that I may be developing eyestrain, lovingly sits on the book I am reading to give me a break.

À la prochaine!