Archive for the ‘Vegatables’ Category

Mutiny on the Bounty

Suburban bounty

Suburban bounty

I am convinced that the compulsion to plant a garden and grow things is hard wired into us. Is this a good thing? You tell me. Growing things requires an array of talents. For some the talent lies in acquiring the needed real estate. For some the talent lies in understanding what plant life needs so that it is properly nurtured. It is a wonderful thing to be able to walk outside of one’s door, snip a few things, and feed soul and family.

You’d think Mother Nature could have made it a little easier. I know that gardening as represented by Ina Garten on TV—that brand of gardening where you grab a shiny little pair of clippers, sweep through a pair of French doors into your garden (“Isn’t it faaabulous?”) and end up with pesto –is a fiction drawn by the video editor’s magic wand.

Real gardening is that little patch of dirt you cleared away in the back yard. That little three-by-three square next to the fence where you got the dirt under your fingernails, sprinkled in the seeds from their skinny paper envelope, that sandy oasis in a desert of concrete that you checked on and fussed over each day for weeks, practically willing the first shoots to peek through the dirt. My Aunt Sarah had a garden like that, and the bounty was celebrated and boasted about and washed and eaten with relish…or as relish.

I do not make this statement from first-hand knowledge. I am a city dweller and as such my horticultural endeavors do not extend far beyond a small juniper tree that sits in my kitchen window. Mr. Juniper Tree, whose specialty seems to be looking pretty, will not be brewed for homemade gin, and is resolutely not staying for dinner.

Still, there comes a day early in the August of each year when the bounty of my non-city dwelling friends’ gardens appear on my kitchen counter. I am blessed. I am also compelled to ask, “How many damn tomatoes can I eat?”

I take comfort in knowing that the tomatoes in their tattered ShopRite bags appear before me because the people who grew them asked that same question. I am therefore, the beneficiary of bounty overrun. The tomato equivalent of the bargain book aisle at Barnes and Noble. I am the vine-ripened “Mikey likes it!” The average suburban tomato vine is seemingly so abundantly fecund, that I often feel people who want to plant a garden should get the same warning as the little kid who keeps asking Mom and Dad for a puppy: “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for every day.”

If I were a member of a previous generation I would likely be readying canning jars and the related equipment needed to “put up” the tomatoes for winter. Back in the day that was how you ate tomatoes in the dead of winter. But I am a child of the space age: I can get anything I want, any time I want it. So the question is: what do I do with all these tomatoes now? Tomatoes look grand on my kitchen counter for a couple of days, but beyond that I’ll need to write place cards for the fruit flies that will start feasting on them. I have to act now. Or as my Aunt Sarah would have said, “RIGHT now.”

(Aunt Sarah, who is no longer around to defend herself, would nevertheless agree that she was successful at growing tomatoes not because of a green thumb but because the vines were intimidated by her.)

One of the reasons people grow their own tomatoes is that they usually do taste better than the ones you buy in the supermarket. This is mostly true, so for the first few days I eat sliced tomatoes with a few crackles of sea salt, and herb and garlic goat cheese—my preference because I find mozzarella a bit bland and goat cheese is easier on my stomach.

After I’ve had enough of sliced tomato salad, I make sauce—or gravy, as my Italian friends call it. This requires a bit of refined technique and the proper ingredients. Feel free to use this technique when cooking anything Italian. It starts with a generous dose of garlic, really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fresh oregano, a piquant, crumbly, Parmesan cheese, and, the most important item of all (and this is indispensible): Sergio Franchi. If listening to him sing “Volare” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” doesn’t put me in the right mood, doesn’t make me feel Italian, then I skip the project and have Chinese food. What can I say? The man was a god.

After I have made sauce—uh, sorry, gravy—I move on to a savory Tomato Tart. This is humble, farmhouse-style convenience food: make it Sunday, and you can eat it cold from the fridge for the rest of the week.

If I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of cherry or grape tomatoes, then this confirmed old teetotaler reaches for the vodka bottle. I don’t know what it is about them, but I seem to sleep very well after eating cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in vodka. This was a party hors d’oeuvre standby about twenty years ago.

But for pure versatility Tomato Cobbler or Tomato Crisp is, I think, the best way of finishing off the tomato bounty. Of the two the cobbler is the more labor intensive, but, for your trouble, is also more satisfying. This is really just a bigger version of grilled, breadcrumb-topped tomatoes. I bake this in a soufflé dish. Toss four or five quartered tomatoes with some minced garlic, a bit too much grated Parmesan cheese, a few snips of fresh oregano, and salt and pepper into the dish. Top with some biscuit dough for a cobbler. To make it a crisp, omit the biscuit dough and substitute a generous handful or three of cracker crumbles mixed with just enough softened butter so the crumbles hold together in loose clumps. Bake in a hot oven until the top is browned and everything is bubbly. Easy, yes?

The fun there is experimenting with different kinds of crackers, although if you are a hopeless snacker (like me) you’ll end up eating the crust and realize that you are losing interest in the tomatoes.

And after all those tomatoes, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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“Tweet a mio per favore”

If Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche Call It Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza. Ties are optional.

Thank goodness for modern technology: It has created a whole new gift category. Back in my Father’s time, dads got golf equipment, fishing tackle, cologne, and the dreaded new tie. My Mom used to try to buy my Pop sweaters, but I’m not sure any of them ended up escaping Filenes’ returns department.

Dads still want golf and fishing stuff, but they no longer have to worry about questionable sweater choices. Modern technology means you can give Dad a little electronic device that he can take to the beach and get caught up on his reading or even watch baseball. Try that with a sweater. Amazon now sells more e-books than paper and cardboard books. Every Tom, Dick, and Harriet on the subway is reading the latest best seller on a Kindle. Yeah, but what’s in their sweater drawer?

Father’s Day also doesn’t seem to have the same sense of ceremony as Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day you slap an orchid on Mom’s shoulder and take her out for a frilly salad. Father’s Day honorees would rather go fishing—or like my brother, golfing—and come home to a nap and a good steak. I’m painting with a very broad brush, yes, but that’s okay. Let’s make dad a good breakfast and send him on his way to spend the day the way he wants.

Not that this means that Mom has to bear the burden of cooking a complicated breakfast. Quiche might be a good choice. Mom can make it the day before and then gently reheat it the next morning.

I can’t bake or eat Quiche without thinking of that ‘80’s spoof on masculinity, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” I wonder what fifty million Frenchmen thought when that book was published? I am also a huge fan of Hitchcock movies, so any mention of Quiche also causes my mind to stray to the scene in “To Catch A Thief” (the most glamorous movie ever made) where Cary Grant’s character offers a guest Quiche Lorraine, and explains that while his housekeeper’s hands have an especially tender touch with pastry dough, she also used them to silently strangle a Nazi general when she was in La Résistance (this is, after all, Hitchcock.)

Alas, in 2011, I‘d be willing to bet that the only real men out there who would take exception to eating Quiche are members of the Lipitor club. Maybe we can find something in the cupboard that even the Lipitor club can enjoy. For Father’s Day, why not borrow the concept of quiche, and literally change course—as in, breakfast is served, Pops!

Granted Quiche has an aura of expertise and advanced skill, but peel away the aura and what have you got? Egg pie. C’mon: you can handle that! Even better: for my version, no special equipment is required; all you need is a big bowl, a fork, a couple of knives (dull is fine), and a couple of hands (yours or someone else’s). I am not talking about some “back-of-the-Bisquik-box-recipe-cheesy-egg-bake.” No sir. This is Breakfast Pizza. Dad will like this, and the good news is that the kids help make it.

Breakfast Biscuit sandwiches are big business nowadays—with good reason: people like them. Truth be told this version of breakfast pizza owes a great deal to the biscuit sandwich. While quiche has a delicate pâte brisée crust, and pizza uses yeast dough, Breakfast Pizza uses a simple baking powder biscuit dough. Instead of rolling and cutting the dough, after an easy hand mix, you dump it into the cooking vessel—a skillet—and press it into the bottom with your hands. Tricky folks can feel free to use the bottom of a measuring cup.

Toppings—besides the egg—are free choice. I stuck with items that are typically pizza in theme: peppers, tomatoes, cheese, and mushrooms. I even placed a few dabs of tomato sauce on top. Let what is fresh in your local market be your guide.

If Dad is a breakfast fiend, then make him happy by topping the pizza with some good organic turkey sausage, some diced potatoes, and mix a bit of thawed, frozen spinach in with the eggs (breakfast pizza is a great way of getting vegetables into the family tummy.)

The one I made in the photo above used four eggs—and serves four or five people. Even the most egg-shy folks can indulge. I made mine in a skillet, but that was only for looks. Feel free to use a pie plate, or any other pan you think will make an attractive presentation.

Happy Day, Dad!

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Click here for my recipe for “Breakfast Pizza

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Go ahead: tweet this posting. You must…

Mikey the Pig (“Oink!”)

It isn't soup yet...

It isn't soup yet...

The thing I always forget about the New Year is that so many people are relieved that the holidays are over. Those would be the folks who ask, “So, did you survive the holidays?” No judgment here. My mom spent the bulk of her working years in retail. Although she has long since retired, she still greets the holiday season with the attitude of a soldier gearing up for a rough patrol.

For others the end of the holiday season is a huge letdown. Understandable: all the goodies have been put away. Here in Manhattan, not long after Halloween we begin to get accustomed to a twinkly, idealized version of our city which disappears seemingly overnight after New Year’s Eve. The first Monday after New Year’s Eve can be a bit of a letdown in that respect. Last week we had a big snowstorm, and just a few days on, to roughly quote Stephen Sondheim, “…even the snow looks used.”

The third group rolls up its (collective) sleeves and gets down to work. “Happy Holidays. Let’s GO!” Healthy, well-balanced folk, that group.

Me? This year finds me in all three groups depending on the day / the hour / the minute. The little kid in me loves Christmastime. The food blogger in me knows that I can’t write about holiday food every week so is happy to move on.

I’ll miss the music though.

As is the habit every January I (and millions of others) vow (but not resolve) to lose weight: “Hack the Holiday Heft” is my program for 2011. My track record isn’t bad—some years I do better than other years—but I find the constant is to keep myself entertained with the cooking process. If I can keep playing in the kitchen I somehow feel less deprived. My game plan is to find meals that I can fuss over in the kitchen thereby distracting myself from the absence of cookies in my life. The tough part is chocolate; there simply is no substitute. Ah well, what is life without a little sacrifice, right?

Now, not to get all “Forrest Gump” on you, but I find that making chicken soup is a lot like planning the year ahead. (Stay with me on this…) The basic recipe is constant. It’s what you put into it that makes it yours and makes it special. Okay, I’ll grant you that this is not world-changing philosophy, but I’m standing by my statement, and I promise to not belabor it.

Making Chicken Soup is literally as easy as boiling water yet the end result is so soothing, and, depending on the “extras” you add, also a hearty, healthy meal ideal for hacking the holiday heft.

You wouldn’t think that something as basic and ages-old as Chicken Soup would be a subject for debate, but lately there seems to be a divergence of opinion about the chicken itself: after cooking the soup do you save the chicken or not? As debates go this is right up there with whether the toilet tissue should hang over or under—a debate I will not go near: soup isn’t the only thing chicken here.

Some folks insist that the chicken has been boiled away and should be discarded, some folks insist that it is still perfectly good. To resolve this weighty problem I consulted two experts: my Mother, a certified Grandmother, and the original New York Times Cookbook (circa 1960) which serves as my de facto ol’ Auntie when it comes to food.

Both assured me that I can happily retain the chicken meat. I want it shredded into chunks and returned to the soup, but my Mom insisted, “We always made Chicken Salad with it.” (When I explained that I wanted to use it in the soup, in true Jewish mother fashion she replied, “You don’t like Chicken Salad???” Emphasis: hers.)

Yes Mom, I love Chicken Salad, but I want Chicken Soup. And perfectly good protein goes where it belongs: back into the soup.

My aromatics – the other ingredients I add to the soup as it cooks– are fairly traditional except that I have a big bunch of Parsley and some left-over Rosemary which I’ll be using instead of celery. (Mom: “No celery???”) I’ll tie them into a bouquet with some butcher’s twine. A few parsnips, and carrots, a head of garlic (thank you Ina Garten), and a dusting of Bells Seasoning (left over from Thanksgiving) and I should have a richly flavored broth. (I’ll strain the finished soup through a mesh strainer, lest you think my finished product will look like some freaky, cloudy tea.)

As I am an impatient skimmer (skimming the fat from hot soup is like herding cats), I‘ll refrigerate the soup just after I strain it. The fat will congeal, float to the top, and be easily peeled away like pulling lily pads from a lake. Anyway, the soup tastes better after it has been allowed to sit for a while.

I’ll add salt just before I eat, and only to the portion of the soup I am heating. (Another debatable point. Some insist you must season as you go.) When dinner time rolls around I’ll break up a few sheets of No-Boil Lasagna noodles into the re-heating broth. These will approximate papardelle, and are lighter than the egg noodles my Grandmother would have added. I like to sprinkle in some diced red bell pepper, but that’s more for looks than anything else. A little fresh chopped parsley looks good too.

Crackers? Only if I’m in the mood to make my Cornmeal Saltines, and even then, just a few. My cookie mascot “Mikey the Pig” (on the blog’s masthead) isn’t the only one saying, “Oink” right now: I have holiday heft to hack!

“Happy Holidays. Let’s GO!”

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Mild Thanksgiving

Smell the turkey?

Smell the turkey?

Life has become so contentious. Turn on the TV or read a newspaper and it seems like someone is always butting heads with an opponent. I feel like I am constantly being asked to choose sides. We just got through another election, and I don’t care which side of the aisle you’re on, if you’re like me I’m sure at one point during those endless strings of campaign commercials you stood in front of your TV and yelled, “Enough!”

I thought that when I became an adult (yes, a debatable fact) that I would be released from the “Nyah-nyah!” childhood playground dynamic. It just lacked subtlety.

That’s why I like Thanksgiving so much. Thanksgiving’s biggest debate is whether to cook the stuffing inside the bird or outside the bird. I’m not ashamed to say that I am an “outie”, but am sincerely delighted if you are an “innie.” Really! The fact is: I just don’t care. Happily, this is a debate right up there with whether the toilet paper should hang under or over the roll. (Don’t go there. We’re having a happy holiday, remember?)

Thanksgiving reminds me of my Nana: she always referred to herself as “mild.” It occurs to me that we don’t have enough “mild” in our lives anymore. What’s the best way to explain mild? You know how we had that little dustup between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno? Think back to Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Ever see them fight? No. They were mild. That is why this year I am wishing you a Mild Thanksgiving –and meaning it as the best wish you could ever get. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Put away your BlackBerry. Take a moment alone with your thoughts. (Sounds very “Zen”, yes?)

I know, I know: there’s a lot of pressure on people around the holidays, but at least Thanksgiving spares us the whole gift “thing.” This year, if Thursday’s holiday meal finds us lucky enough to be seated in front of a plate of hot food then we can count ourselves lucky indeed.

Okay, you’ve taken your deep breath. You’ve slowed down. You’ve even put away your BlackBerry—or at least put it down— but now you’re alone with the thought, “What was that malarkey about cooking the stuffing outside the bird? Is he crazy?”

Clearly you haven’t relaxed yet.

That’s okay. Yes, I cook my stuffing outside the bird because I like it crunchy. That is my only reason. I’m not concerned with cooking temperatures or health. I just like the crunchy part. I understand that I am missing out on all the turkey drippings marinating the stuffing. I understand that it is called stuffing and should be used as such. (Well, I’m usually stuffed after the meal. That doesn’t count.) Of course there’s a happy compromise: cook some stuffing in the bird and some outside. Phew. Negotiations are exhausting.

On to the stuffing itself. It is safe to say that there are as many kinds of stuffing as there are birds on Thanksgiving. A good stuffing doesn’t require much skill, and is easily made to suit individual tastes. Texture is easily controlled by the choice of bread (crusty or not, whole grain or not, cornbread or not) and the size of the cubes you cut. I’m a loose texture, crusty, big cube guy. What do you like?

I grew up in New England, and have eaten many Thanksgiving dinners at a country Inn. It is usually simple, traditional Thanksgiving fare. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the hearty, old fashioned Yankee stuffing can be savory or savory with a touch of sweet.

With that in mind I proudly present the 2010 Butter Flour Eggs savory, slightly sweet, Yankee Thanksgiving Stuffing for “outies”. I use the label Yankee very loosely because I don’t think the Pilgrims used Ciabatta bread to stuff their turkey. But this is a question of style over substance. As with any cooking, I made a list of my preferences, and chose the ingredients from there. So my Yankee Stuffing contains Italian-style bread, dried figs from Greece, and chestnuts from China. The end result is very Yankee: a little starchy, only faintly sweet (except for the sweet snap crackle pop of the bits of dried fig), and almost florid in its traditional poultry herbs like sage, thyme, oregano, and rosemary. A little bit of diced pear is sautéed along with the celery and onion to add a bit of mellow sugar that helps the onions to caramelize. And “innies” shouldn’t worry: you can still stuff the bird with this stuffing.

Chefs, I’m sure would take great exception to the source of the herbs in my stuffing: Bells Seasoning. These little yellow boxes (produced in East Weymouth, Mass.) are ubiquitous in the supermarket at this time of year. Actually, you’ll find this venerable product handy all through the year whenever you cook poultry. (Pearl of wisdom: Mix it with a little kosher salt and butter or margarine and slip it under the skin of your chicken or turkey.) Yes, Chefs, I know it is not the same as using fresh herbs, but Bells adds a wonderful fragrance to poultry and stuffing that is traditional and welcoming. It is kind of like the poultry version of apple pie spice, and in its own way makes your house smell just as good (although I doubt there will ever be a Butter Flour Eggs Bells Seasoning scented candle.)

I am proud and thankful that you spent a few minutes with me during this busy holiday week. I hope you and your family have a happy—mild—and delicious Thanksgiving.

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Click here for the recipe for Yankee Thanksgiving Stuffing.

Need some Thanksgiving inspiration? Read my previous Thanksgiving recipe ideas:

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie

Anadama Bread

Apple Pan Dowdy with “Baked Indian Pudding” Crust

Roasted Corn Soufflé

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Thanksgiving Abracadabra

Roasted Corn Soufflé

Roasted Corn Soufflé

I just went through the box of Thanksgiving props we store here in the Butter Flour Eggs prop warehouse. As I was unfolding the big cardboard turkey with the waffle-cut tissue paper tail, I thought back a few years to a conversation with friend who was living in London at the time.

She informed me—with a great deal of panicked surprise—that they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving over there. (Hmmm…what was it about the whole pilgrim “thing” that eluded her?) Worse, I think, was that the panic in her voice was actually centered on the fact that she couldn’t find the Durkee French Fried Onions she needed for her green bean casserole. (She had them shipped from home, a/k/a “The Year That DHL Saved Thanksgiving.”)

You can’t pick up a newspaper (or pick up an iPad to read a newspaper) without reading about the twenty-first century global economy. Yet, it seems that nothing has remained as truly American as our Thanksgiving holiday. When it comes to food “truly American” means “anything goes” – the culinary equivalent of a global economy.

Last year I wrote about the pleasure my family (of Eastern European descent) takes in eating our turkey at an old Yankee country Inn on Thanksgiving. But I know a woman, an American citizen born in China, who cannot fathom why Turkey is the anointed bird-of-the-day. “Too stringy!” says she, and truly, depending upon who does the cooking, she may have a point. Her family Thanksgiving meal is a big juicy duck. Another woman I know whose childhood was split between the Caribbean and the UK cannot imagine anything but ham on Thanksgiving, for without ham there would be no ham-on-homemade-biscuit sandwiches the next day. (Funny: throw in the homemade biscuits and her logic seems perfectly sound to me. I’m easily swayed by a good biscuit.)

I have no doubt that the real reflection of our global diversity is in the food we serve alongside our Thanksgiving main course. I am referring to the sub-group of food we lovingly call the “sides.” As iconic images go, the big roast Turkey is straight out of Norman Rockwell, but for me Thanksgiving is all about the sides. And the good news is that you’d be hard pressed to find sides I don’t like.

A couple of days after Thanksgiving we sometimes have a very informal family dinner—you could call it “Thanksgiving, the Sequel.” This is a small, very low pressure affair. Sometimes there’s a turkey, or sometimes there’s a chicken. It is more an excuse for yours truly to road test his favorite sides, and whatever turkey or chicken is there is due to my being self conscious about making a dinner comprised solely of sides –which I could very easily do if it were just me eating.

So, in the tradition of “anything goes” being typically American, I proudly present my favorite side (this year): Roasted Corn Soufflé. On paper a soufflé seems typically French, and mysteriously difficult to prepare. In practice? Not so much.

I’ll tackle its supposed French identity first. Yes it’s French, but really not so far afield from our American Spoon Bread, which is also a supple pudding and is often served as a Thanksgiving side.

More important is the reputation soufflés have for requiring advanced technique, pinpoint timing, and / or that they must be rushed from oven to table. It’s just not true. Yes, they deflate a bit if allowed to sit, but frankly soufflés sweet or savory taste better when not eaten burning hot straight from the oven. You can even reheat leftovers (if there are any) the next day. My only prerequisite for making soufflé is a Kitchen Aid (or similar) stand mixer—and that’s only because I am too lazy to whip egg whites any other way. (Go ahead, call this “lazy man’s soufflé”; I don’t care, I’ll be too busy eating the soufflé.)

By the way, just because soufflés are easy doesn’t make them seem any less magical to the folks waiting at your table. The best magicians know that magic takes a little technique, a little planning, and a whole lot of show biz. I once worked with a sleight-of-hand artist. He was so amazing that my reaction was always, “How’d you do that?” to which he would always answer, “It’s magic.” So it’s your choice whether you want to tell folks the technique behind the soufflé magic.

Roasted corn lends itself beautifully to soufflé: the roasting makes the kernels a little chewy, breaking up the flabby airiness of the soufflé.  What represents the harvest and the Indians helping the pilgrims better than roasted corn on Thanksgiving? While most sides fall into the categories of vegetable or starch, soufflé is really neither or both. It’s an egg dish with a little bit of flour added.

Soufflé ingredients are cheap kitchen basics: butter, flour, eggs, milk. For this recipe you should make sure to buy the best parmesan cheese you can find, which admittedly may bump up the price a bit.

The Butter Flour Eggs technique is that you don’t have to make a soufflé all at once, or even the same day you plan to serve it. First, you make the (lightly) labor-intense part of the recipe, then turn out the lights, go to sleep, wake up Thanksgiving morning, fire up the Kitchen Aid to whip a few egg whites and you’ve got soufflé…and yes, it’s real soufflé, not a shortcut version. (PS: this technique will serve you well next Valentine’s Day when you present your sweetheart with Chocolate Soufflé hot from the oven.)

If you decide to make the soufflé a couple of suggestions will serve you well. First, read the entire recipe all the way through beforehand, twice. Second, have all ingredients measured and all equipment ready before you start. This will help you with suggestion number three: have confidence. Soufflés smell fear. (You’ll smell cheese and corn.)

And if folks “”Oooo!” and “Ahhh!” over your big, puffy Roasted Corn Soufflé, shrug your shoulders and say, “You think this is cool? Wait until I saw my mother-in-law in half…”

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Click here for the recipe for Roasted Corn Soufflé.

Need some Thanksgiving inspiration? Read my previous Thanksgiving recipe ideas:

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie

Anadama Bread

Apple Pan Dowdy with “Baked Indian Pudding” Crust

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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“…and she asked for refills.”

Caesar Salad

Still life with croutons

Have I mentioned that during a previous century I worked for a time as a waiter? There is something profound about the experience of waiting on others. Some people believe that this kind of work prepares you well for life and the workplace as a whole, and that everyone should do it for a while. A debatable point, yes, yet I think I tend to drift to the side of those who think everyone should do it for a while. Lindsay Lohan would sober up in record time if you slapped a visor on her head and put her in charge of a McDonald’s fryolator.

Lest you think I am slighting McDonald’s, I hasten to add that a former boss of mine outside of the restaurant business spent several of his teenage years working in a McDonald’s, and he was a fine boss indeed. I’ve always wondered how many of the qualities that made him such a good boss were the result of his time slapping patties on the grill.

Waiters bear witness as otherwise intelligent, educated, seemingly mature adults revert to bratty, child-like behavior (and that’s before cocktails). It can be a rueful revelation about the human condition. But there’s more to it than that. The bratty, immature behavior of those folks who have been celebrated due to their supposed culinary skills is perhaps even more of an eye opener.

In other words: your waiter is getting it from both sides. If the customers are at times unpleasant, some chefs are truly Nasty to the point of being abusive (the capital “N” is not a mistake). There’s something life altering about being yelled at by someone who looks like they showed up for work in grease-stained pajamas. Exaggerating? I think not.

One of the fine establishments at which I worked (I will withhold names to protect all parties involved) was famous for its elaborate selection of cheese, and one of the waiters found himself elevated into the role of the cheese steward. This role was similar to that of a sommelier. Sounds good in theory, although in practice this poor guy often became the chef’s whipping boy, a performance often repeated loudly and within clear earshot of the customers. It wasn’t directed at me, yet it still made my skin crawl.

Then there are the squeezes.

Waiters often find themselves squeezed firmly in the no man’s land between what chefs are willing to do for their customers and what the customers want, a/k/a, “No substitutions.” All parties blame the waiter.

There’s also bad management: seating an entire restaurant at the same time results in all orders being sent to the kitchen at the same time, which results in very slow service as the kitchen struggles to keep up. All parties blame the waiter.

Excuse me, but I thought time healed all wounds? It has been many years, and yes, I think I still sound a little bitter. Ah well, don’t cry for me; I am all smiles. You may have deduced from this harrowing tale that I bend over backwards to treat waiters well when I eat out. I do, although I am keenly attuned to poor service, and my practiced eye knows when it is the waiter’s fault, versus when it is the kitchen’s fault. I know enough to be a danger to my own enjoyment of the meal. My dirty little secret? I am not an enthusiastic eater-outer.  And I now have bad feet.

I was a crummy waiter (pardon the pun); my mind was often elsewhere, so take what I say with a grain of salt. In the meantime, here’s a funny story (ya got a minute?):

I was working a lunch shift the day after Broadway’s TONY awards.  This was a casual restaurant that attracted a surprising number of celebrities. You name ‘em, they ate there. Who should I find at one of my tables but two of the talented, celebrated actresses who had lost the previous evening? Perhaps a planned victory lunch gone awry?

I greeted them by asking, “But it was an honor just to be nominated, right?”

My props to them for restraining themselves from pummeling me about my person. Yes, sometimes it is the waiter’s fault.

One of my favorite tasks as a waiter was table side service. The reasons for this were twofold. First, the customers were hungry, happy I was there, and often engaged me in polite conversation. Second, I enjoyed making Caesar Salad, especially when I could leave a tiny bit for myself. Some nights I must have reeked of garlic. Caesar said it best, “Veni, Vidi, I ate the salad.”

And yes, one skill I took away from my waiter years is the ability to make a good Caesar Salad–at least I think they’re good, although I’ll be the first to admit that I belong to the school of “the more garlicky and parmesan-y the better.”

Caesar Salad seems to have supplanted the old wedge of iceberg with blue cheese I remember from my childhood as the salad that must be on every menu. The trouble is that the bottled, gloppy, mayonnaise-based dressing that is used is often not very good. REAL Caesar Salad–made to order from fresh ingredients–has freshness, lightness, and a bit of zing that the kind made with pre-made dressings can’t match.

Since you rarely—if ever—see the tableside version anymore in restaurants, may I recommend it as a make-at-home treat? No special tools are required, in fact, I, Mr. Kitchen Aid Devotee, discourage their use when making Caesar Salad. Two forks and a little technique are all you need. Mashing all the ingredients in a bowl with the two forks actually does a better job than a food processor or blender.

Let me address two things that may give you pause: anchovies and raw egg. Anchovies? Buy the quality kind in the glass jar. They’re not “hairy” and are much less salty than the cheap canned kind. (Mine came with a little fork to pull them out of the jar. Who doesn’t like a free utensil?) Raw egg remains a reasonable concern what with the recent problem with salmonella. If you can find pasteurized eggs, use those. Even easier is to use Egg Beaters. I know purists may take offense at this, but Egg Beaters are made from eggs, are pasteurized, and will lend a glossy richness to the emulsion similar to real eggs.

Finally keep in mind that this is an easy recipe, yes, but one that lives or dies on the quality of all the ingredients. Use good Parmesan cheese, not the deservedly maligned kind in the green shaker bottle. Buy the plainest croutons you can find, or even better, toast your own in the oven. The overly seasoned kind will overwhelm REAL Caesar Salad. (Yeah I know–sounds like Martha Stewart. But heck, I’m not asking you to bake the bread from scratch.)

Here’s a bit of celebrity gossip you won’t find on Page Six, in the Enquirer, Star, or at Perez Hilton. You’ll only get this kind of info here gang, so buckle your seat belts:

Barbra Streisand likes ginger ale with her lobster.

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Click here for the recipe for REAL Caesar Salad.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Summer Blues

Blueberries with Mascarpone

Oh my! We are fancy, aren't we?

The other day I was walking down my street when I spied a woman sitting on her stoop, a dog parked patiently and loyally by her side. This was a scene clipped out of a Ralph Lauren magazine ad: the woman, whippet-thin, prototypically WASP-y in bearing, and her dog, a spotted Springer Spaniel-style elegant creature whose own bone structure gave his mistresses’ a run for its money.

Aside from the fact that this slice of Connecticut Hepburn-style Americana seemed so out of place in my heavily Dominican-influenced neighborhood, what drew my eye was that the woman was sitting eating a peach. Yes, a wise choice of refreshment on a stinky-hot New York City Summer afternoon, but my internal dialogue tut-tutted, “Hmph. She would be eating a peach!”

Why so judgmental? Jealousy. I have never been able to eat a peach out of hand. I find them too mealy — and that’s after I remove the fuzzy skin. I love the flavor, hate the journey. Every summer rolls around finding me determined to “find the Zen” of eating a peach out of hand, and every summer rolls away having found me unable to do so. Could it be that I have never actually had a good peach? That hardly seems likely.

I have tried grilling peaches with a bit of brown sugar, albeit with mixed results: they taste good, but they’re still mealy. (Throw enough caramelized sugar on a baseball glove and it’ll taste good too.)

I do love peach ice cream, but the peaches have been chopped into small pieces, and the mealiness is frozen, so that’s cheating. Ditto Peach Crisp: “Yum-o” to borrow a Rachael Ray-ism.

So, like two other summer activities — sun tanning and riding roller coasters — where lack of success has forced me to redirect my ambitions (a/k/a “Quit”), I think I’ll just have to shelve my peachy ambition too. (The last time I rode a roller coaster I wasn’t “right” for days. Pale, queasy — and now peach-less, that’s me.)

So what does one do when life presents you with mealy peaches? One eats blueberries. (At least that’s what I do.)

What I like about blueberries is that they are so easy going; they will happily follow you down any path. When I was a kid we used to eat them straight off the bush — talk about a fresh and easy snack — but truly, there’s not much that is easier, faster, and more satisfying than cold blueberries in a bowl with a bit of milk and a few grains of sugar.

If, however, you are looking for something with a bit more ceremony, blueberries are just the ticket, no matter what the ticket happens to be. Think of them as the culinary equivalent of the fine worsted wool fabric a bespoke tailor uses to build a suit. (Wha??)

When I was a kid, my Mom always used to find tiny Wild Maine Blueberries. Unfortunately, here in New York I can only find those bagged and frozen. She always cooked them a bit, which only magnified their natural sweetness, making them pair beautifully with the aforementioned milk.

Even better, — for me — would be to drizzle the cooked berries and their juices over a small biscuit with a touch of very softly whipped cream for an instant shortbread.

Big fat New Jersey Blueberries are currently the easiest to find in New York, so I played with those over the weekend. You can see my comic “riff” on fine dining in the picture above. Laugh with me not at me: I painted the plate with a swoop of Blueberry Coulis, carefully placed a couple of quenelles of honey-sweetened Mascarpone cheese over a ladyfinger, arranged the berries so they’d look as if they didn’t care, and then finished the whole thing with a sprinkle of pearl sugar. A ridiculous exercise. The only reason to present food like this at home is to get a laugh, even if it is your own. But it does illustrate blueberries’ innate elegance and that they are versatile enough to stand up to anything. Evidently, they’re up for a laugh every now and then too.

You wouldn’t have laughed if you had tasted my silly, deconstructed, decaffeinated Tiramisu. The gently sweetened Mascarpone didn’t mask the blueberries; rather it added a creamy underscoring that plain whipped cream doesn’t have the chops to play. The coulis added sweetness and a bit of liquid to relax the cheese. Even the pearl sugar played a subtle role by adding a light crunch. I’ll be trying this again, although in a slightly more casual form.

I haven’t forgotten Blueberry Pie, but for me that’s just a happy excuse for ice cream.

I know that Blueberries have become the “vitamin-pill food of the moment” due to their high levels of anti-oxidants, but it seems a shame to obliterate them (as many do) by throwing them into a blender to make a breakfast smoothie. Okay, if that’s what works for you, go for it.

Mentioning blueberries and breakfast together makes me think lovingly of the gigantic, sugar-crusted Blueberry Muffins that used to be sold at the in-store bakeries of the old Jordan Marsh department store chain in Massachusetts. More cake than muffin, you could frost those behemoths, stick a plastic bride and groom on top, and be ready for a wedding.

Hmmmm…Blueberry cake with white frosting…that sounds mighty tasty. I think I owe you a recipe.

Why wait for a wedding?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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No Suffering

Succotash

Succotash with Cheddar Cracker Crust

One of the truly iconic images of late summer is fields of corn, to quote a song lyric, “…as high as an elephant’s eye.” True, it is not late summer yet, but, while shopping this past weekend I had a choice of fresh peaches or early fresh corn, and almost compulsively chose the corn.

(Peaches or corn? Why not both? Hmmmm. I’m not sure.)

Anyway, why my “almost compulsive” choice of corn? I think it has something to do with happy memories of summers gone by. It should come as no surprise to anyone that someone who writes a blog measures nostalgia in meals partaken.

Granted us urban folk don’t glimpse fields of corn from the windows of the subway, but I grew up in suburbia, and in an era before every available square inch had been developed, so there were frequent views of open fields as we drove by in the station wagon.

I also have a Mom who is a daughter of the depression. Like many folks who grew up in the depression she celebrates her removal from that era by practicing a certain kind of food snobbery. When I was a kid she flat out refused to serve anything from a can. Chef Boyardee? Horror. This extended to other food as well: Supermarket bread? Are you kidding? (Except of course for Pepperidge Farm, back in the day when it was a little regional bakery.) (Not that she baked her own, but that’s what the neighborhood bakery was for.) Then there were also certain table manners: the ketchup bottle was never allowed on the table. You poured a bit of ketchup into a dish and that’s what was placed on the table.

The only canned vegetables that were allowed in our house were Le Seur Baby Peas – which were so fancy that Sex And The City fans may remember the Samantha character trying to seduce a Monk by donating a can of the peas to his food drive.

My Mother was a regular at what used to be known as a “greengrocer” which was the storefront version of a farm stand. Later on when my parents moved to a slightly deeper slice of suburbia she found and frequently haunted a real farm stand.

I’d hate to think that this all sounds as though I grew up in a stuffy home with a frilly Mother who tinkled a little bell when dinner was served. That was not the case.

On occasions when she would return from the farm stand with a big bag filled with ears of corn, we would all dig in and help shuck the ears. As I was shucking corn this past weekend in my own kitchen I was struck by how easy the task is, the surprise stemming from memories of childhood when – for little seven or eight year old me – shucking corn was hard work. I also remembered all the different ways there are to cook corn on the cob. My favorite was actually learned in adulthood: shucked, smeared lightly with butter, wrapped in foil, and roasted directly on the barbecue coals.

This brings up an important point: corn is hard to ruin, its dirty little secret being that it is actually perfectly edible uncooked. True, you can over-boil it. But in the sauté pan or roasting in the barbecue coals even if you overcook it slightly it is still good, if perhaps a bit toasty.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you how to make corn on the cob. Besides that, I eat my corn “de-cobbed.” (Long story: let’s just say this is due to adventures in orthodontia that would fill a whole other blog.) Anyway, fresh corn off the cob is my ticket to a bit of culinary play time.

Succotash isn’t necessarily as summer dish, but its key player is our summery buddy, corn. Besides, if you cook Succotash, you get to tell people that you cooked Succotash. Say it. Out loud. See what I mean? And if you bring a big casserole of Succotash to a barbecue announcing, “Hey everyone! I brought Succotash!” you may garner a laugh or two. (Past performance is no guarantee of future results.)

The definition of Succotash is really wide open, the only constants being corn and lima beans. I scoured the web and found as many variations as there are kitchens. My favorite finds indicated that a cracker crumb topping was a particularly popular finishing touch. Fresh corn topped with buttered cracker crumbs? I’m at a loss for a worthy adjective. Use a really sturdy unsalted cracker like oyster crackers or Neva Betta crackers for best results. (In a pinch unsalted Saltines will do, although the results may be slightly soggy.)

You’ll see from my “recipe” that there really isn’t a recipe, more like a “how-to” guide, so feel free to adjust this to your own tastes.

Actually I added a little “zetz” to this by changing the buttered cracker crumbs to a Cheddar Cracker Streusel crust by adding a healthy handful of the sharpest English cheddar I could find. This transformed a side dish that is almost an afterthought into a really great summer meal.  Be warned: this cracker crumb crust may find its way—cheddar cheese included – this coming fall on top of apples for a really amazing Apple Brown Betty.

Stay tuned!

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Click here for the recipe for Succotash.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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As Seen On TV!

Tomato Tart

Tomato Tart

Attention infomercial marketers: I am your perfect audience. Well, kind of. Let me explain.

It is frighteningly easy to get me to sit and watch an infomercial. Just the other day I tarried in front of the TV for a screening of Joan Rivers’ latest epic “Great Hair Day”, which consists of a little comb and make up set that allows those stricken with thinning hair to “camouflage” the thin spots. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Cathy Mitchell and the Xpress Redi-Set-Go cooker? Who wouldn’t love to live in a house where the kitchen has a series of what are basically little round waffle irons that will cook you a restaurant-quality steak in minutes, a freshly baked chocolate cake, and a breakfast tortilla – all without ever having to turn on your stove?

The one that truly rings my bell though is the Topsy-Turvy tomato growing “system” (“system” being one of the infomercial marketer’s key buzz words.) This wise invention will allow you to grow tomatoes anywhere, upside down, basically turning a tomato plant into a hanging plant. You water the top of the plant which is now the roots: the fruit are now at the bottom. If I recall correctly, the infomercial even shows the plant hanging on a typically urban fire escape like we have here in the Big Apple.

I just can’t believe that whoever wrote that ever lived in New York City. Even if you are lucky enough to have a building Super or landlord who will look the other way while your tomato plant trots them out of compliance with fire laws, the squirrels will nab your tomatoes before you can say, “vinaigrette.” (New York City squirrels are notoriously smart. It’s just a matter of time before one of them runs for Mayor. Buh-dum-dum.)

Sadly, here’s where I go lacking as an infomercial audience member: I never order anything from these shows. Call me cheap, or discerning, as long as you spell my name correctly. I did once order a set of environmentally-friendly cookware from Home Shopping Network, opened the box, immediately closed the box and sent them back. (Money back guarantee. Need I say more?)

Anyway, living in New York you really don’t need to grow tomatoes on your fire escape, as we have several excellent farmers’ markets. Buying tomatoes at a farmer’s market is my version of the Topsy Turvy, and – to quote many an infomercial – that’s not all: I also get to support folks who are trying to make a living as farmers.

This past weekend I was able to find an ample supply of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are grown from older seed stocks than those that produce the usual perfect round red fruit to which we’ve become accustomed. My purchases included a variety that looked like a variegated red oblong balloon that had been slightly overinflated and a big plump variety whose sunny yellow practically screamed, “Summer!”

I’m usually pretty good at buying only what I think I will eat within a day or two, but enthusiasm – and hunger – must have gotten the better of me. I can only eat so many salads and slices of tomato with mozzarella. I needed to use up my excess.

I decided a Tomato Tart was perfect for this exercise. While Tomato Tart shares DNA with pizza, it is actually closer in temperament to quiche, but really it is just a gratin in a tart crust. Kind of simple and the type of thing you can eat hot from the oven or cool with a salad for a refreshing dinner on a stinky hot summer night.

Because I can’t resist fiddling with what is likely already good enough I decided to channel a collaboration between my (imaginary) ex-hippie Italian Grandmother, and Alice Waters. (Imaginary) Grandma created a semolina pastry crust (the semolina again adding a bit of sunny color to the proceedings) and Alice Waters added a bit of locally-produced Goat Cheese to the white sauce that serves as a glue holding the tomatoes in the crust.

Because the heat has made me a little lazy (or unmotivated?) I made a crust that didn’t need to be rolled. The semolina crust is by nature sandier than a normal crust, so I just dumped it from the mixing bowl into the tart tin and pressed it evenly around with my fingers and the flat bottom of a measuring cup.

If calling it a Tomato Tart seems too “frou-frou” for your tastes, feel free to call it a Tomato Pie. I baked mine in a French tart tin, but you can use a rectangular baker or Pyrex lasagna dish and get the same result.

Don’t be afraid of salt with the tart: tomatoes and salt are well known for collaborating happily. Use a softer salt like sea salt: mine has a liberal sprinkle of flaky sea salt, and a snowy drift of good grated Parmesan on top before baking (or reheating) will add a bit of brine too.

Now, will someone explain to me how “HD Sunglasses” work? (Just saw them on TV.)

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Click here for the recipe for Tomato Tart.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Sic Semper Chocolate Cookies

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

A trainer at my gym related an experience he had a few nights ago. Just to set the scene, this guy is in tip-top condition; not an ounce of body fat. A seemingly virtuous paragon of discipline and self control.

Until the cookies called his name.

He reported that he woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep because a package of chocolate cookies was calling his name. He ate the entire package before returning to sleep.

Some of you reading this may think, “Well, if he has such discipline, one slip like that isn’t going to kill him.”

My reaction veers more toward relief: Relief that my struggle with will power is not as abnormal as I think. Relief that even those among us who seem to be paragons of self-control have their own “moments.”

And, relief that I am not the only one on a first name basis with his cookies.

Of course, it is my own darn fault. Nobody puts a gun to my head and orders me to bake cookies.

With that swirling in my mind, a friend called and invited me to a barbecue this weekend. Would I mind bringing dessert? (Is the Pope…?)

Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the usual onslaught of news stories about how this is the “unofficial first weekend of summer.” For some folks this may mean that it is time to head over to Kmart for a new inflatable pool, but for me it means (and yes, I can tell you’re way ahead of me here) the official first weekend of summer eating.

Everyone loves the warm weather (except for pale, sweaty me.) But, I think there’s an unacknowledged caveat here: in the warm weather we have less material with which we can camouflage our various bodily flaws. So yes, everyone loves the summer, but everyone is self-conscious about this bump or that bulge (or both, in my case.)

Under the circumstances, I feel guilty foisting my usual parade of sweets upon a sun-baked, half naked, will power-compromised audience.  I sympathize: if I eat enough of my own desserts, it’ll be hard to distinguish me from the pool float, so light and easy does it.

A trip to the market answered all doubts about my ability to provide something summery, sweet, and light (ish), but still hit the proverbial “dessert spot.” (I can’t stand getting home from a party and feeling like I need to root through my fridge for a little something, so I want to make sure the other barbecuees will be equally sweet tooth sated. I take the request, “Will you bring dessert?” as a job description, not a social nicety.)

This week, California blackberries and strawberries are in abundance and cheap at the market. There’s the backbone of my Memorial Day dessert right there, yes, but the question remains: what to do with them?

The berries are very sweet and juicy, so it would be a shame to bake them into a pie or crisp. Nevertheless, dumping them in a bowl, even with whipped cream seems anticlimactic. What if I made a pie – deconstructed? Perhaps I’ve been watching too much of the last half hour of “Iron Chef” (the only part of the show I like; that’s when they eat) but here’s an example of what I mean: You and I both know what an Ice Cream Sandwich is, right? But as seen through the lens of a pastry chef, an Ice Cream Sandwich is really just ice cream and cookies. You could serve them in any order and still call it an ice cream sandwich, granted, at times what a pastry chef serves may be stretching the name of the item to the limit.

(Some years back we had a happy family meal with our 90-plus year old aunt at one of “superstar” chef Bradley Ogden’s restaurants. Auntie reveled in the whole thing, giggling like a schoolgirl as the waiter described the ranch from which her Veal Chop was sourced. Dessert time rolled around and the chef presented us with an extra dessert, Fresh Citrus Agar. As we dug in, we all had the same reaction: “Oh! Lemon Jello!” Yes, we are a sophisticated bunch.)

But I digress from my digression. The point is that I can do whatever I darn well please with my berries and crust, and still call it a pie or tart.

I checked my freezer and found some Pâte Sucré waiting for an assignment. (Doesn’t everyone?)

(Pâte Sucré is the slightly sweeter version of pie crust.)

When I was a waiter, I used to see the old cliché berry tarts all the time: fluted crust, frangipane filling, and berries glazed to within an inch of their lives. Delicious, yes. Berries in their natural state? No. For Memorial Day I’m stripping away some of the varnish.

I started by rolling the thawed Pâte Sucré to ¼” thick, and cutting 3” diameter round disks. Before baking I washed them with egg and sanded them with granulated sugar. As they baked briefly in the hot oven, they puffed slightly. The result is like a dryer version of puff pastry, the dryness being desirable because I’m not a fan of puff pastry, which always seems tasteless and greasy to me.

I dabbed a bit of Crème Fraiche on the cooled rounds, and plopped a few chilled blackberries on top. Other rounds got Chambord-spiked whipped cream and sliced strawberries, the latter being too plump whole to fit on the pastry. An ample sprinkling of Demerara sugar added sweetness, a bit of amber twinkle, and a soft crackle in the mouth. Three or four of these little pastries on a plate swiped with very, very soft chocolate ganache should keep everyone happy.

Now the important question: do I really have to wait an hour after eating before jumping into the inflatable pool?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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