Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Small-town, 19th century France

I’m fantastic at procrastinating. Really, I’m one of the best. Like right now, I’m supposed to have my head buried deep inside Evelina, reading about seductive eighteenth century London, but instead I’m here, writing to you. I could also be reading about Dominican border frontiers, but that is beside the point.

The point is, that in the midst of putting things off, I was on track to missing apple season entirely. And that would have been a grave, grave mistake; summer may have all of the tomatoes, and the blueberries, and, well, all of the best produce – but fall has the apples, which aren’t to be missed. Luckily for me, in a battle of apples and scholarly history articles, apples always win, especially if they’re in tart form.

I felt like some sort of Alsatian housewife, save for the flowery-wallpapered kitchen and frilly apron while I made this, organizing my paper-thin apples in concentric circles over a layer of apricot preserves. All very small-town 19th century France, if you ask me. But daydreaming about being a boulanger on sunny Monday afternoons while baking apple galettes is actually quite a nice reprieve from books and papers and tests.

I was intimidated, I will admit, about the crust part of this endeavor. Crust making has always seemed to me a finicky, high maintenance sort of thing – wholly dependent on precision – like a chemistry experiment, but with flour and butter instead of Borax and Elmer’s glue. Plus, people can be downright picky about their crusts.

I once had a table at the restaurant order our apple tart for dessert, and after loving each previous course, pull me aside after they had finished most of the thing, to tell me each one of its shortcomings. It was a major disappointment, they told me, the crust was just all wrong. Now, aside from wondering where most of the tart had gone if it was really that bad, I wondered if they knew we had a French chef making the pastry back there in the kitchen, using his French pastry expertise, which includes being not at all shy with butter. In my mind, if you’re from France, you automatically have a way with pastry, probably by means of genetic predisposition.

Needless to say, if someone could complain about a frenchman’s pastry, I felt I had a very small shot at success. But since the pressures of my kitchen are much less than that of a four-star restaurant’s, and since someone figured out that all we baking-haters really need for good pastry is a food processor, I gave it a go.

Turns out, an apple galette is actually much simpler than you’d think. It certainly looks impressive, but that’s all a front: all it really takes is a food processor, a rolling pin, and a little patience with layering apples. And well, a frilly apron if you’re into that.

I’m not sure if mine would satisfy snobby restaurant patrons, but judging by how fast it got devoured in my house, I’d say I did pretty well. The crust was surprisingly flaky and buttery, and the apples turned a caramel brown while getting perfectly melty from their long, slow stint under the oven’s heat. Make this soon, before all the good apples are gone. Now that I have, I need to get back to Evelina.

Apple Galette
(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1 1/2 pounds orchard apples (the more tart the better), peeled, cored, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
1/4 cup apricot preserves
Whole milk

If you want to feel super authentic, do this part with your hands. If, however, you’re like me, and crusts scare you, go with the food processor: blend flour and salt in processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water and blend just until dough begins to clump together, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 1 hour.

Roll out dough between sheets of parchment paper until it is about 1/8in. thick. Don’t be too fussy – it doesn’t have to be a perfect circle, the thickness just has to be even. Rustic is good, too. Peel off the top sheet of parchment. Using bottom sheet as aid, transfer dough on parchment to large unrimmed baking sheet. Chill 15 minutes.

While it’s chilling, preheat your oven to 450°F, and slice your apples. I used a mandoline for this part. Combine apple slices, 2 tablespoons sugar, and lemon peel in medium bowl; toss to blend, being careful not to break the fragile apples. Spread preserves over crust, leaving 1 1/2-inch plain border. Arrange apple slices in concentric circles atop preserves, overlapping slightly. Using parchment as aid, fold plain crust border up over apples, pinching any cracks in crust. Brush crust with milk. Sprinkle crust edges and apples with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake for 20 minutes, and then reduce oven temperature to 375°F and continue baking until crust is golden, about 25 minutes longer. When you take it out, slide a long thin knife between parchment and galette to make sure it won’t stick later on. Let cool a bit, and then cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dream world

I guess I’m finally ready to talk about it.

It’s been a week of pure denial around here, a full-on textbook display of grief’s notorious first stage. And while I could certainly forge on in my denial-ridden dream world – the one in which, some day, I am a Gourmet contributor, I feel it’s probably best for my mental health that I face this thing head on.

Gourmet is gone. Well, almost. It has one issue left, and then it’s no more. After 68 years. Sixty. Eight.

Gourmet’s tragic demise has been talked about endlessly; people all over the internet are speculating about why it fell, and even having little rivalries over it. Which, to me, all feels kind of like a tease, because there is really no point.

It did make me think, though, of that meeting I had this summer with an editor from Bon Appetit (lucky, lucky Bon Appetit). Remember the sensational magazine editor I mentioned meeting? She was Pat Brown, a former Bon Appetit and Cuisine editor who is perhaps the most inspiring, firecracker-of-a-woman I have ever met. We talked about her personal relationships with Julia Child and Ruth Reichl, among others, but mostly, we talked about how I wanted to do what she did one day, and how I should get there.

I remember her story about how she got started at magazines, just a short while after she had moved to New York; “You’re just going to love the city, you know,” she’d keep leaning over to say, in between bites of her French marketplate. While working at a rent-paying job, she was sitting in a diner one morning, and idly chatting with a man, who asked her what she really wanted to do with her life. Bluntly, she told the man that really, she wanted to work at the New Yorker. A little while later, partly by the good graces of connections, she really was.

I don’t doubt that she would have gotten there eventually without the help of this man. (Seriously, meet her, and you’ll know what I mean.) But her story makes me think of being at the right place at the right time. And in a larger sense, it makes me wonder if this generation is really even the right time for print media anymore. I hope, hope, hope it is, but when things like Gourmet happen, it makes everyone a little uneasy. (Or, it makes the food nerds a little uneasy; I suppose I can’t speak for everyone.)

Anyway, this is all just to say that Pat Brown’s reality of how she got started is actually my dream. I want to meet a magazine man in a diner, too. Of course, I’d be just as happy without the serendipity, and just with working my way up. But I can always dream it – and rest assured I always will – but I want it, by the time I’m old enough, to be my reality too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Officially up and running

It seems that I've had my head buried in books too long to notice that fall has officially arrived. All of the sudden, the temperature warrants sweaters and most of the leaves are turning that cozy, familiar mix of orange and yellow. I happen to love fall, with its colorful leaves and its colder weather, partly because summer heat gets tiring, and partly because my overgrown collection of scarves has been abandoned for far too long come October. I also happen to love scarves. I'm glad I realized it's here before it was too late, and I missed out on all of the good things about fall, especially the apples.

But, since I've been nose-deep in piles of books lately, instead of much better things like tarte tatins and hot apple cider laced with cinnamon, I have not made it to an orchard yet. Soon, though, fingers crossed.

Speaking of books, today I wanted to tell you about one of my all time favorites. It was the very first food related gift I ever got, and it was given to me not too long ago. Of course, an Easy Bake oven was the object of my affection for many years and I'm sure made it onto the Christmas list more than once, but much to my chagrin, my parents never thought it would be a worthwhile investment. They gave me a Barbie car instead, in which I rode in style, with my hair blowing as much as hair can blow in 2 mph winds, far away from my culinary aspirations.

As you know, these aspirations returned in full force once I started working at the Still River CafĂ©. Soon after my inner food nerd had begun to develop, Pete gave me Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook for Christmas that year. And although the Easy Bake will always have a special place in my heart, this gift was a few steps up, you could say, from the pink plastic oven of Christmas past. The inscription on the title page began “For my aspiring chef.” Best. Present. Ever. (Besides the pasta maker, and the Wusthof knife, and…)

This book is truly amazing, and if you don't own it yet, I suggest you pick yourself up a copy before I hoard them all to give as presents. It's worth the splurge, I promise. It's as much a piece of art as it is a cookbook; I often pick it back up just to look through all of the photos. For the longest time, I was afraid to put in on the counter. This is the kind of book so pretty that you want to put it in a frame instead of next to a bubbling pot on the stove. But that would be a mistake. A big, big mistake, because there is so much to learn in there, like how to make French-Laundry-perfect pasta.

This is all a very round about way of saying that the pasta maker is officially up and running. I'm sorry, I know, I could have just led with that.

I made the pasta dough a few days ago, mostly as a dry run. I practiced kneading, rolling, and cutting fresh pasta, and I'm quite certain that it might be my new favorite thing to make if I have a whole afternoon to burn, or a paper to procrastinate. And get this: according to Thomas Keller, you can't over-knead pasta dough. I'm not lying. It says in his book, almost verbatim, that when you think you're done kneading, go for another ten minutes. If that doesn't get you excited about making pasta, then I don't know what will.

I made a really quick shrimp scampi with the noodles I had rolled out, and for a first time go, I thought I did a pretty bang-up job. Unfortunately, it didn't make it into a picture, both because I was too hungry and my arms were too tired from all the kneading. But, I can tell you, the pasta was eggy, tender, and right on the verge of still being elastic - exactly what you want to eat on a chilly, fall night while wearing a big, burly sweater. Actually, if that doesn't get you excited about making pasta, then I don't know what will.

Pasta Dough
(Ripped straight, and not adapted, from The French Laundry Cookbook. Because messing with Thomas Keller's recipes would be pretty close to sacrilege, in my religion.)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk

Mound the flour on a clean surface and make a well in the center with edges tall enough to hold the egg mixture without spilling.

Combine all other ingredients and pour into the well. Use your fingers to break up the eggs a bit, and begin to stir the mixture, slowly incorporating the flour from the edges. Be careful not to let the eggs spill from the well, and also be careful to incorporate the flour slowly enough so it won't get lumpy. Occasionally push the flour using your hands, all the while continuing the circular stirring motion with your fingers.

When the dough gets too tight to keep stirring with your fingers, start cutting the remaining flour into the dough. When most of the flour has been incorporated, it will look shaggy but hold together. At this point, begin kneading by pushing it forward with the heels of your hands. Form it back into a ball, and knead again. Repeat this process until dough is no longer shaggy.

Let dough rest while you clean your work surface. Sprinkle some flour down, and begin to knead again, in the same motion, until dough becomes almost silky. When you think you're done, go for another ten minutes. (!) The dough is ready with it passes the pull test: it should want to snap back into place when you pull a section of it. Double-wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.