Wednesday, January 21, 2015

T Is For Tarts

A tart shell is a blank slate, an empty canvas waiting for color and cream and crunch, an opportunity for a few fantastic forkfuls of heaven to end a meal or to get you through the afternoon or to destroy your however-many-weeks of carb avoiding ridiculousness.  

A tart shell is a delicate little open box.  It can hold the simple, the complex, the exotic, the rare, the common, the few, just enough, or too many.  It sits there on the counter silently waiting to be filled with the next best thing, whatever that may be.  Waiting, available, blank.  

And that's the thrill and that's the problem.  That's the thrill and the problem with all opportunities for potential greatness.  The tart shell, like other blank slates, offers no clues, contains no hidden hints as to what would best fill it, what would take it from being just that thin fragile circle of crust to spin it into something memorable, exquisite, or sublime (or at least just really really good).  It doesn't tell you.  It sits there, empty, quiet, ready, and waiting.  Waiting for you to make the next move.  

A tart shell, a blank page, a sketchpad, a vacant lot, a long stretch of empty road.  They all offer the same tight-lipped promise.  And that excites me and drives me crazy at the same time.  The blank slates of the world are everywhere.  They are the potential that gives us that eager-anxious quiver in our stomachs before we start a new adventure.  They are the trigger for creativity.  

You feel it, that inner urge to make something good, something new, something interesting, and it nags you and pushes you and teases you.  It's standing on a precipice, and that first step, that first word, that first idea, which so often feels like a leap, takes you out over the beach and the waves, on the wind, in the sky, and you are soaring and writing and drawing and moving and nothing can stop you and it's exactly as good as you were afraid to admit that you thought it would be, and you can't stop, won't stop, until you do, but it's okay because you started and the page is no longer empty, you already broke trump, and picking up where you left off, even if it's tomorrow or the next day, is easier than starting over or starting from scratch.

It's going from nothing to something that is difficult.  The blank page carries with it a sense of responsibility, to do it right, to do it justice, to make it honest.  Maybe it is that weight that so often presses on the brake, that blocks the flow, when facing the empty page.

How many times have I opened the laptop and stared at the grey-white emptiness on the screen, fingers poised above the keyboard, frozen.  How many nicely bound journals and notebooks have I purchased to hold my ideas and sentences, only to pile them in the drawer, unfilled, unused, waiting.  How many maps have we bought without taking the trip.  How many seed packets lay on the shelf, unopened, unplanted.  

The toga-clad Romans thought that we entered the world as blank slates, tabula rasa, ready and primed for life and experience to become etched onto our minds, to create who we would become.   But in that model we are passive, breathing and watching and absorbing the world around us, waiting for our selves to emerge.  Creativity is not passive; it is generative; it is transitive, it is hard.  Some composers claim to be merely conduits for their music, and that may be true, music may be different, but in the world of words that has not been my experience.  We are not the shell.  We are the filling.

Beginning a project, discovering the story, the meaning, the what and the why, that is Step One, and Step One is hard.  Discovery is hard, it isn't scary, but it is hard.  But it is also satisfying, every step of it.  A new phrase, even if it is pretentious and will later be deleted, can make my day.  So too can watching egg whites grow as they are sweetened and whipped into clouds of meringue.  Stirring hot cream into chocolate to make a ganache filling, few things make me happier.  

The page isn't the goal, the canvas isn't the product.  A poem can be written on the back of a receipt and still bring you to tears.  Masterworks have been painted on cardboard. Not so the tart shell.  Even though the crust isn't the treat, it has to be tasty, it has to be good.   Pie dough sounds homey and rough, and I love it.  But a tart is different.  It is finer, more fussy, or at least that's how it seems.  Mix it, chill it, roll it, bake it, fill it, that's the process, those are the steps.  But the finest moment of the tart is the final bite, when a few small crumbs of almond-flecked crust adhere to a juicy blackberry, or a nickel-sized piece of the shell adds just the right crunch to that last swirl of chocolate and cream.  

I hold my breath when I'm looking at empty Page One.  When words are flowing and ideas won't stop I am not at all aware of my breathing.  Rereading and editing and rehearsal is exciting and my heart is racing, and I need to stop and make myself breathe to get a clearer picture, to see it in focus.  And at the end, after the final change has been made, the final word and the final period are in place, that is the best moment of all.  My favorite moment when making a cake is when it is delivered, and I'm driving away, and it is no longer in my hands.  The page is full.  That's when I take the deepest breath.  

Tart Dough (Pate Sucree)
All-Purpose Flour                2 cups
Powdered Sugar                 1/4 cup
                                           3/4 cup
Almond Meal                      1/2 cup
Butter, unsalted                8 oz, room temp
Egg                                     1
Vanilla                               1 tsp extract OR
                                           seeds from 1 vanilla bean

  1. Beat the butter in a stand mixer for several minutes, until it is creamy.
  2. Add the 1/4 cup powdered sugar and beat until combined.  (Add the vanilla seeds now if you are using them)
  3. Sift together the flour, remaining powdered sugar, and the almond meal.  
  4. Add the dry ingredients in two parts, mixing briefly between additions, scraping the bowl as necessary.
  5. Add the egg and the vanilla extract (if using).  Mix on low until the wet ingredients are combined and the dough holds together.
  6. Dump the dough onto the counter and, using the heel of your hand, press forward into the dough.  
  7. Fold the dough over once with a dough scraper and repeat the maneuver.  The dough should look smooth.
  8. Form into a disk, wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When ready to bake the tart shells:
  1. Roll the dough to approximately 1/8-1/4 inch thick and place in tart rings, pressing gently into the corner.
  2. Trim the top and chill until firm.  
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  4. This dough need not have pie weights or beans in them during baking, but you can if you are worried about shrinkage or an uneven bottom crust.  
  5. Bake 25 minutes, until golden brown.  (If you have filled with dry beans, remove the parchment and beans after 25 minutes, and continue to bake another 5-7 minutes until the bottom crust is browned.
  6. Let cool fully before filling.
Suggestions for Filling:

Place a layer of caramel in the tart shell and chill until cold.  Top with chocolate ganache.

Berries And Cream:
Place a layer of pastry cream in the bottom of the tart shell.  Top with berries.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

S Is For Sweet And Salty

sip's been awhile.  

And how strangely appropriate that I should resume the ABCs of Baking with the fertile letter S. And, my goodness, fertile it is.  Just think about it...(no, nevermind, you don't need to think about it, I've already thought about it, this is the stuff that I sit and think about, so just keep reading)...sugar, spice, sweet, savory, salty, sour, sourdough, scones, strudel, streusel, sauces, shortbread, spelt, strawberries, and sprinkles.  You get the idea.  The S's of baking are many.  
So why, with the options so plentiful, have I not contributed the products of my oven and my left temporal lobe to the Wonderful And Wacky World of the World Wide Web since October 2011?  The list of possible reasons for this lapse is equally long, but they don't all begin with S, just some of the biggies do.  Suffice it to say that life and its many permutations can, at times, provide a perfect opportunity for creativity and imagination.   And for years the gooey fecund amalgam in the bottom of the petri dish of my life (pardon the somewhat disgusting metaphor) sprouted ideas, pearls, and gluten nearly nonstop.  

But fertilizer is really just shit.  The balance of events that makes life interesting and productive can quickly and easily tip to the bad side.  And just as Salt can kill yeast, two other Upper Case S Words...Stress and Sadness ...are potent creativity suckers.  Even just typing that sentence can stop the flow of ideas.  Don't freak out and stop reading because this is getting serious.  I am not going to go into detail that you don't want to read and that don't want to regurgitate, but neither do I want to be the mysterious and intriguing emo-man who disappears for a few years, then returns, drops a few bombs and moves on with a shrug and a smile.   Upper Case S words exist; they are a reality.  So learn how to deal with them, right?  It may take years, it has taken years, but it is possible to get the Upper and lower case words back in balance again.   Let us put a baking spin on this...sometimes cakes fall, sometimes bread dough doesn't rise.  Get over it, mix another batch, and move on.  Eventually, hopefully, the Salt of Life seasons instead of destroys.  

My absence from the blahggity-blah-blogosphere does not mean that the oven has stayed cold lo these past few years.  Not by any means.  I have continued to bake...a few wedding cakes, layer upon layer of layer cakes, and many trays of morning baked goods to keep my nurse friends happy. But the last couple of  years the oven on Hawthorne Street has produced rich, fudgy brownies more than anything else.  Dozens of brownies.  Dozens of dozens of brownies, in fact.  It began with a plate of plain brownies for my coworkers...I am not afraid to resort to kitchen-based bribery to make and keep friends.  That tray of brownies led to a few orders, which prompted some brownie R & D, so I tried Spicy Brownies, which people started asking for (and paying for) specifically...who knew?  In a judgment that falls into the Going for Broke, Gilding the Lily, More Is More category of decisions, I introduced the current bestseller into the brownie lineup...the Salty Caramel Brownie, which I am sure has more fat and rich chocolatey goodness per square inch than anything else I have ever made.  At this point I must give full credit to Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, of the Baked bakeries and cookbooks.  They are the reigning brownie kings, my brownie idols, and the creator of this brownie recipe.  I humbly bow before them.

It starts with caramel.  Of course it does.  Here's how you make caramel:

Nearly Burn The Sugar
Add Fat
Add Salt

Ok, I can't help myself.  I just can't.  Caramel is the reason that I chose this recipe for the re-emergence of this blog.  What a friggin' perfect culinary metaphor for coming out of the ugly tunnel of the past few years.  It just takes a little patience and a little practice.  And don't be afraid  or timid when things get a little hot.  Fine, I will stop now with the symbolism and the figurative language, but you get the idea, right?  Now...on to the brownies.

Make the caramel first, because it has to cool before you put it in the brownies.

White Sugar           1 cup
Light Corn Syrup    2 Tbl
Heavy Cream         1/2 cup
Sea Salt                 1 tsp
Sour Cream            1/4 cup

  1. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium saucepan.  
  2. Stop stirring once the mixture is combined.
  3. Cook over medium heat until it begins to turn a medium brown.  
  4. Remove from the heat.  Add the heavy cream and the salt.  (Be careful: it will steam, hiss, and bubble up).
  5. Whisk in the sour cream.
  6. Let cool.

How can you not love making caramel?   It seems like cooking on the edge of disaster, or on the edge of a volcano, what with all that hissing molten magma, but it really isn't.  Yes, you can take the sugar too far, and it will blacken and burn, but other than that (and the potential for ugly burns from steam and spattering 350 degree sticky stuff), it is really very easy to make.  
All-Purpose Flour                          1 1/4 cup
Salt                                              1 tsp
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder          2 Tbl
Dark Chocolate, chopped              11 ounces
Unsalted Butter                             8 ounces
White Sugar                                  1 1/2 cup
Dark Brown Sugar                          1/2 cup
Eggs                                              5 large
Vanilla Extract                               2 tsp

  1. Heat the oven to 350.
  2. Butter a 9x13 baking pan.
  3. Melt the chopped chocolate and butter over a double boiler. 
  4. Remove the melted mixture from the heat and whisk the sugars into it.
  5. Let cool to room temperature.
  6. Whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder.
  7. Lightly beat the eggs.
  8. When the melted mixture is at room temp, whisk in the eggs in two parts.  Do not overmix.
  9. Fold in the dry ingredients.
  10. Pour half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly.
  11. Drizzle the battter with approx 3/4 of the caramel.  Avoid the edges of the batter.  You don't want the caramel to burn against the edge of the pan.
  12. Cover with the remaining brownie batter and smooth the top with an offset spatula.
  13. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and fleur de sel.
  14. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  (When poked with a cake tester, it will have some moist crumbs but it will not be wet with batter.)
  15. Let cool before cutting.  I refrigerate them overnight before cutting them - the cuts are cleaner that way.
The added benefit of this recipe (thank you Baked boys!) is that it makes just a little more caramel than you need for the brownies.  And it is too good to throw it out (as if) grab a spoon, or a bowl of vanilla ice cream, or a few slices of Granny Smith apple and wipe that bowl clean.   

Spiced Brownies:
  1. Omit the caramel (What?! I know, but this is just a suggestion of what I do.  It's your kitchen; you can do whatever you want.)
  2. Add 1 Tbl ancho or guajillo chile powder, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground ginger to the dry ingredients.
Spicy Brownies:
  1. Omit the caramel.
  2. Add 1 1/2 tsp chipotle chile powder, 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper to the dry ingredients.
Malt Brownies: 
  1. Omit the caramel.
  2. Add 3 Tablespoons barley malt syrup to the chocolate/butter mixture as it is melting.
  3. And/Or fold 1 cup crushed malted milk balls into the batter before pouring it into the pan.  
For a little bit of crunchy texture, coat the bottom and sides of the buttered baking dish with turbinado sugar before pouring the batter into it.