Saturday, December 31, 2016

Crustacean Crush and Happy New Year!

Don't tell my husband, although I'm sure he already knows, that I have a major crush on crustaceans; specifically, crab legs! Anyone who's eaten crab legs with me knows that I can plow through them with efficient velocity! (Maybe that's why I prefer to enjoy these babies at home.) King crab is the obvious choice, but I would never turn my nose up to snow crab either. With their sweet, briny flavor and meaty texture, they are an excellent choice for any celebration, like New Year's Eve! However, I'm sure that I am not alone in buying crab legs at the last minute, frozen and without the time to let them thaw overnight. This is the kind of spontaneous purchase you make and then dread when you're not sure what to do with them. Well, I think I can help you out!

(The spoils of my most recent conquest!)

How to Buy, Reheat, and Serve Crab Legs

Purchase at least 1 pound per person.

It is recommended that crab legs be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. If you don't have time, thaw them under cold running water, which is usually what I do.

Unless you buy a live crab, the legs are already cooked. The main goal is to reheat the meat without overcooking or drying it out. Some people like to reheat them in the oven, boil them, or even reheat them in the microwave. My preference is to steam them. 

To steam them, fill a large pot big enough to hold the legs with enough water to come up about 1 1/2" from the bottom. Add half a lemon, one bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and 1/2 cup white wine. Insert a steam basket, like the cheap folding kind available at almost any grocer. If you don't have a steam basket, you can wad up some aluminum foil to hold the crab legs above the water. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat, then add the crab legs and cover. The crab legs should be done shortly after you begin to smell them, about 5-9 minutes total. Remove the legs with tongs and place on a serving platter. Serve immediately with necessary utensils (kitchen shears or shellfish scissors, seafood or lobster crackers, and seafood or lobster forks), clarified butter for dipping, and lemon wedges.

Clarified butter is also called drawn butter. Clarified butter is melted butter in which the milk solids have been removed. To serve 4-6 people, melt 1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks) in a small saucepan over low heat. Allow the butter to come to a boil. As it begins to "sputter," it will separate into three layers: foam on top, clear liquid in the middle (this is the clarified butter part you want), and milk solids on the bottom. When the top foam subsides, remove the pan from the heat and skim off the top foam with a spoon. Pour the butter into a measuring cup and allow it to continue to cool. When cool, gently pour the butter through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into another measuring cup, stopping short of the very bottom of the butter where the milk solids lie. You can store the clarified butter in the refrigerator until ready to reheat. Reheat in a small saucepan over low heat until returned to liquid state. (Note: I do not recommend reheating in a microwave. I have had it explode numerous times, even when set under 10 seconds. It's makes a terrible mess and you'll have to start all over.)

What to serve alongside? Take your pick: buttered new potatoes, corn on the cob, green salad, toasted bread, etc. Although, if you are a true crustacean aficionado, the answer is always, "More crab!"

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Burn Your Buche and Eat It Too!

Christmas is my favorite holiday! After all, it's the only day of the year that I can splurge with such scrumptious holiday faire such as Boeuf en Croute, Gratin Dauphinois, Chocolate Truffles au Naturel, Seven Layer Jello, and the iconic French Christmas cake "Buche de Noel!" So, why do the French celebrate Christmas with a cake that looks like a log? It actually began as a pagan tradition where the largest log possible (perhaps bearing roots and all) was wrangled inside to provide warmth and blessings on the winter solstice (the longest night of the year). As it burned, the log was pushed deeper and deeper into the hearth to hopefully burn for 12 hours. When the log was finished burning, the ashes were collected for use all through the year. At the time there were strong beliefs that the ashes were magical! Some of the ashes were saved to spread over the fields to ensure a generous harvest, some were used to protect the house from lightning during strong storms, and some were kept to ward off evil!
Booze and fire! What could go wrong?
When Christianity emerged, the Yule log ritual was merged with Christmas and the custom shifted to Christmas Eve. It is rumored that it was Napoleon who spurred the invention of the cake, by outlawing open chimneys in the winter, which he believed was causing disease. Or, perhaps it was the increasing use of small coal stoves as a heat source, which began as a result of wood shortages. Another theory is that it was virtually impossible to drag logs up urban Parisian stairways, if they even had a fireplace. Whichever theory you choose to believe, The Buche de Noel's popularity began in 19th century France and remains an essential Christmas tradition to this day.

This decadent recipe for Buche de Noel is from the brilliant Jean-Christophe Novelli, former personal chef to the Rothschild family and owner of the world renowned Novelli Academy. Who better than a Frenchman to provide an authentic recipe! Don't let this cake scare you. It really is just a simple sponge roulade, filled and covered with buttercream frosting. The recipe calls for chestnut puree, which can be difficult to find in American grocers. You can just omit the chestnut puree, or you can adjust the flavors to your desire, e.g., coffee and Kahlua, almond and Amaretto, cherries and Kirsch, etc. In addition, meringue mushrooms and a snowy dusting of powdered sugar and cocoa make a spectacular presentation!


Buche de Noel

*Get out your kitchen scale! (See Gadgets.)

Ingredients:
For the Cake:
7 ounces/200 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 eggs, separated
8 ounces/225 grams castor/granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I omit.)
6 tablespoons castor/granulated sugar (for dusting tea towel)

For the Filling/Frosting:
1 lb, 5 ounces/600 grams 70% bitter chocolate (or the best quality you can find)
9 ounces/250 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 ounces/140 grams icing/powdered/confectioners sugar
2 ounces/60 grams sweetened chestnut puree (You can omit completely, or alter to your preference, see above.)
5 tablespoons whisky (or whatever you choose)

Directions:
For the Cake:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and line a 17x11x1-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cocoa, and salt together in a bowl, set aside.

In a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks and half (4 ounces) of the sugar with a whisk until doubled in volume. Add the dry ingredients and fold in. Add the vanilla and cinnamon (if using). The mixture will be very stiff. (I transfer the mixture to the largest bowl I have, so I can use my mixer for beating the egg whites.)

In a stand mixer, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Add the remaining (4 ounces) sugar and whisk until the egg whites (meringue) form stiff peaks.

Stir 1/3rd of the meringue mixture into the egg yolk/cocoa mixture to soften it. Then gently fold the rest of the meringue mixture in two stages, carefully so as to retain as much air as possible.

Spread the mixture into the lined pan and bake for 8-15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Dust a tea towel with the 6 tablespoons sugar and turn the cooked sponge onto it. Carefully remove the parchment paper and quickly roll (long side to long side) the cake up into a log. Although it will seem like a lot of sugar, it makes a lovely crust on the cake. Don't worry if the cake cracks a bit as it rolls up, it will all be covered by the frosting. Set aside to cool before filling and frosting.

For the Filling/Frosting:
Melt the chocolate in double boiler. (If you don't have one, set a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. See Gadgets.)

In a stand mixer, beat the butter and 5 ounces icing sugar together. Add the chestnut puree (if using) and continue to mix to a  smooth, spreadable paste. Gradually incorporate the melted chocolate and allow to cool to room temperature.

Finishing the Cake:
When the sponge has cooled, unroll it carefully. (Again, any cracks don't matter.) Brush with half the whisky (or whatever you desire).

Spread some of the filling evenly over the sponge to within about 2 cm from each edge. Using the tea towel to assist, roll the sponge back up and brush liberally with the rest of the whisky and allow to soak in.

Trim the ends and use these to form branches by placing back onto the log. (You can use some of the buttercream to help "glue" them on.)

Use the remaining filling to generously coat the cake all over. Use the tines of a fork to give a bark effect.

Dust with powdered sugar and cocoa and decorate with meringue mushrooms. Proudly serve with a smile!

Joyeux Noel!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What's in a Name?

There is no finer roast than Beef Wellington, or is it Boeuf en Croute? This lavish dish consists of a whole beef tenderloin fillet slathered with a sublime mixture of minced mushrooms, shallots, and herbs, (and sometimes pate), a mixture known as "duxelles" in French culinary lingo, then wrapped in puff pastry and baked. It makes an impressive presentation which tastes ever better than it looks! Lucky for me it graced my Christmas table!

The origins of Beef Wellington fall somewhere between fact and fiction. It is standard lore that this elegant entree was named after Arthur Wellesley, who became 1st Duke of Wellington, after defeating Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. It is said that Wellesley had a love of "a dish of beef, truffles, mushrooms, Madeira wine, and pate cooked in pastry." Perhaps that would be something he had eaten while in France,... perhaps Boeuf en Croute? After all, duxelles were reportedly created in 17th-century France by chef Francois Pierre La Varenne and named after his employer, the Marquis d'Uxelles. In addition, wrapping an expensive piece of beef with indulgent ingredients sounds rather French to me. In fact, if Wellesley did create the rage for Boeuf en Croute, of course England would banish the French name and opt for one featuring their national hero.

Another theory is that Beef Wellington originated in Ireland, known as Steig Wellington. Steig meaning steak in Irish, and coincidentally was Wellesley's birth place. New Zealand also gets into the mix, apparently claiming to have created the dish for a civic reception. The funny thing is, there are no recipes for this dish until the 20th-century...and they appeared in America in the 1940s! In the 1960s, Beef Wellington became quite fashionable at American dinner parties thanks to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which included a recipe for Beef Wellington, not Boeuf en Croute. Hmmm?

Anyway, Beef Wellington may cost a fortune and appear time-consuming, but it is actually quite easy to make! I've made several different recipes over the years, and I've taken all the best components to create what I think is the best version. First, buy the best piece of beef fillet you can find. After all, it is the big ticket item and the star ingredient. In addition, save your money by not using wild or dried mushrooms, use standard cultivated button mushrooms instead. I recommend making the duxelles a day or two in advance, as I think the flavors deepen with time. Then comes the alcohol question. In my mind, it comes down to two, Cognac or Madeira? I choose Madeira. I also embrace the modern addition of a layer of prosciutto to help encase the whole shebang. Easily purchased puff pastry is the final component to create this succulent masterpiece. And finally, with a dish this extravagant, the sides should not be distracting. I serve it simply with pureed potatoes (aka., mashed potatoes) and buttered peas. It is elegant, sumptuous and guaranteed to please!


Beef Wellington (aka., Boeuf en Croute)

Serves 6

Ingredients:

For the Beef
1 center cut beef tenderloin, about 2 pounds
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more to rub on beef
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Kitchen twine

For the Duxelles
1 1/2 pound button mushrooms
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots
Leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup Madeira
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the "en Croute"
12 paper thin slices prosciutto
1 pound puff pastry, thawed
Flour, for rolling out pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten with a tablespoon of water, for egg wash

Directions:
For the Duxelles
Place the mushrooms and shallots in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the butter to a large saute pan over medium heat. When melted, add the mushroom/shallot mixture, thyme leaves, and bay leaf, and saute until very tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 8-10 minutes. Pour in the Madeira, bring to a boil, and cook until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the cream and cook a few minutes more. Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Beef
Tie the tenderloin in 4 places to help hold its shape while searing. Drizzle the tenderloin with olive oil and season very generously with salt and pepper on all sides. Heat the 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, sear the beef on all sides. Set aside to cool. When cool, remove the kitchen twine and rub all over with the Dijon mustard. Set aside.

For the "en Croute"
Lay out a long piece of plastic wrap (big enough to encase the beef) on a work surface. Lay out the prosciutto pieces, slightly overlapping, forming a rectangle big enough to encase the tenderloin.


Using a rubber spatula, cover the prosciutto evenly with the duxelles. Season the duxelles with additional salt and pepper.


Lay the tenderloin in the center of the prosciutto/duxelle rectangle.


Using the plastic wrap, pull each long side up and over the tenderloin, then close the ends.


You may have to wrap the whole package with a second piece of plastic to make sure it is secure. Place the whole package on a platter or baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes or so to ensure it maintains its shape.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out one piece of puff pastry to a rectangle about 1/4" thick. Place the puff pastry rectangle on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet. Remove the beef from the refrigerator, carefully remove the plastic and place in the center of the puff pastry rectangle.


Roll out the second piece of puff pastry, making sure it is big enough to encase the entire tenderloin generously. Brush the bottom margins of the bottom pastry sheet with the egg wash, then drape the second pastry sheet over, pressing the edges to seal well.


Trim the edges to make a 1" border. Crimp the edges with your fingers.


Refrigerate until ready to bake.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the entire surface of the pastry with egg wash and make a couple slits in the top with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape. Bake for approximately 35-40 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the beef reaches an internal temperature of 125 degrees. Remove from the oven and rest at least 10 minutes before serving in slices.

(Perfect! This dish is supposed to be rare!)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Fungus Among Us

What's the best thing about the holidays? My adorable "Meringue Mushrooms." They are super easy and only require four ingredients: egg whites, sugar, chocolate, and cocoa powder! You use plastic sandwich bags to pipe the mushroom caps and stems, which takes a little practice, but you just get better and better as you go. The mushrooms are dusted with cocoa powder at the end, so that diminishes any imperfections. These make excellent gifts, packaged in recycled mushroom containers or in glass jars, and are the perfect companion to Buche de Noel. These go so fast, I usual make several batches throughout the holidays. They are so cute, you have to try it!


Meringue Mushrooms

Makes about 50

Ingredients:

2 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate, chopped or chips
Cocoa powder, for dusting

Directions:

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. 

In a stand mixer, beat the egg whites and sugar until smooth and glossy, and soft peaks start to form, about 6-8 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fill a sandwich bag with about 1/2 cup of the meringue. Press the air out of the bag and seal shut. Cut one tip off the bottom of the bag and coax the meringue to that corner. Twist the bag to help hold the meringue in place. With the cut tip close to the parchment, gently squeeze out the meringue to form the mushroom cap. (Don't lift the bag up until the cap spreads out, then lift.) 


To make the stems, gently squeeze and lift, to make a sort of "kiss" shape. Make as many stems as you have caps. Dip your finger into some water, dab any excess water onto a towel, and then smooth out the tops of the caps with a gentle patting motion.  


When your baking sheet is full, place in the oven, and bake until completely dry and easily releases from the parchment. This can take anywhere from 2-3 hours, depending on the oven and humidity. If they start to brown, turn the oven temperature down. To check if they are done, try to lift one of the less attractive caps, if it releases easily, then press the bottom of the cap. If it smooshes easily, it's not done. If it's firm, it's done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet.

Now, holding one mushroom cap, gently twist the tip of a small sharp knife into the bottom of the cap. Keep twisting until you have a hole in the bottom, like drilling. Don't press too hard, or you will crack the cap. Repeat with the remaining caps.

In another sandwich bag, place the chocolate inside, do not seal the bag, and microwave 15 seconds at a time, smooshing the chocolate after each interval with your fingers, until the chocolate is smooth and melted. Allow to cool slightly. You don't want it runny. Seal the bag, cut one of the bottom tips, and squeeze a little chocolate into one of the cap holes. Insert one of the stems, point side first, into the cap. Set aside to dry. Repeat with the remaining caps and stems.

Finally, using a fine sieve, dust the tops of the mushrooms with cocoa powder. Admire how cute they are and pop one in your mouth. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise"

No Retro Christmas would be complete without Jello! Jello was invented by Pearle Wait in 1897 in Le Roy, New York. Wait, who was experimenting with combining a cough remedy, a laxative tea, and gelatin, came up with a fruit flavored dessert which his wife, May, named "Jell-O." Lacking the capital and expertise to market his creation, Wait sold his formula to Orator Frank Woodward, a successful medicinal manufacturer and proprietor, for $450 in 1899. After sales were slow and disheartening, Woodward sold the "blankety-blank business" for $35 to Sam Nico. In 1900, The Genesee Pure Food Company launched a very successful marketing campaign that resulted in $250,000 sales in 1902. In 1904, the Jell-O "best seller" recipes rolled off the presses with 15 million booklets distributed, and the rest is history!

At the tail end of the 19th century, the "domestic science/home economics" movement had taken hold of the Victorians, in which they became obsessed with control. The idea of a tossed salad with mixed greens made them cringe, for it was "messy"! Oh my! Instead, they preferred an "orderly presentation," in which ingredients were painstakingly separated, organized, and presented. Thus molded gelatin (Jell-O) salads were born. They put everything in gelatin, from fruit and nuts to mayonnaise and tuna! It was so prevalent, that Pulitzer Prize winning composer William Bolcom composed the novelty song "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise" for his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Bolcom based the song on his experiences playing the piano for women's clubs in his youth, after being fed absurd and unappetizing concoctions, including jello salads. Be warned: This video may induce dry heaving!



Don't worry, this fabulous recipe, which I nicked from my equally fabulous mother-in-law, for "Seven Layer Jello" is neither absurd nor unappetizing! Not only does it look like a beautiful present on your plate, it tastes light and refreshing, and is a MUST for any retro Christmas! Everyone loves it! Honestly, along with Meringue MushroomsPeppermint Bark, and Lacy Nut Cookies, I make this every year and it just wouldn't be Christmas without it! This recipe does require time to allow each layer to set, so plan accordingly! For a chic adults only gelatin dessert, see Wine Jelly with Grapes!


Seven Layer Jello

Makes one 9"x13" pan.

Ingredients:
4, 3 ounce packages Jell-O (lime, lemon, orange, and cherry)
2 envelopes Knox unflavored gelatin
1 pint sour cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups scalded milk, cooled
1 cup sugar

Directions:
Lightly oil a glass Pyrex 9"x13" pan. Dissolve the lime jello in 1 cup boiling water, stir. When dissolved add 1/2 cup cold water. Carefully pour into the oiled dish, carefully place in the refrigerator to set.

Meanwhile, bring the 2 cups of milk to boiling. Add the 1 cup of sugar and stir until dissolved. 

Dissolve the 2 envelopes of Knox gelatin in 1/2 cup cold water. Let stand 2 minutes. Add the gelatin mixture to the milk/sugar mixture.

Mix the vanilla extract in 1 pint sour cream. Add to the gelatin/milk/sugar mixture. Beat with an electric mixer until well blended. (I actually just whisk it very well until very smooth.) This is your "white" mixture. Allow to cool to room temperature. Do not refrigerate!*

At this point, the lime jello should be set, you will know it is set when it's "sticky" to the touch. Measure 1 1/2 cups of white mixture and carefully spoon or gently ladle over the lime layer. Gently tilt the pan from side to side to spread the mixture evenly over the lime layer. Carefully place in the refrigerator to set.


Next, dissolve the lemon jello in 1 cup boiling water, stir. When dissolved add 1/2 cup cold water. Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. When the first white layer is set, carefully spoon or gently ladle the lemon layer over the white layer. Gently tilt the pan from side to side to spread the mixture evenly over the white layer. Carefully place in the refrigerator to set.

When the lemon layer is set, stir the white mixture, measure 1 1/2 cups white mixture, spoon on lemon layer, tilting as before. Refrigerate to set.

Repeat each layer as directed above, using orange, then the last 1 1/2 cups white mixture, and finally the red mixture.

When done, allow the mold to set overnight. To serve, cut into squares. To store, refrigerate covered with plastic wrap. Keeps fresh for several days.

*If you must refrigerate the white mixture and it sets up, gently reheat in microwave about 10 seconds at a time, stirring each time until smooth. Don't let it get hot or it will melt into the other layers!