27 May 2011

When it would be crazy not to

I don’t know if it is appropriate to be talking about apple pie as we are rapidly approaching the junction of May and June, the time when apples and pies and apples in pies seem so irrelevant, so unrelated to what is happening right now as we talk: fresh local juicy stubbly deep-red strawberries galore, soon to be followed by the myriad of other berries, so long-awaited, so bright. All right, it is crazy to just think about apple pie at this point of year. Insane, even.

Yet, I made Russian apple pie twice past week, strawberries notwithstanding. I don’t know how to classify it.

I was randomly re-reading parts of A Year of Russian Feasts, by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones, and a chapter on Russian tea ceremony accompanied by a recipe for a yeast dough apple pie (a.k.a. apple pie, Russian style) got me to recall my maternal grandmother’s delicious apple pie that she would make for me as I was staying with her in our river-bank country house for a week at the beginning of each summer as I was a kid, years and years ago. But however tasty the pie was, I also recalled I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I guess for many a kid, to stay in the country side with their beloved grandmother would be nothing less than fun. Not for me, though. I was terrified of it.

My maternal grandmother, Aglaya, is a high blood pressure patient. Every day of the week I had to spend with her in the distant picturesque summer country side was marred by my fearing that she would suddenly expire from a heart attack – please, no! -- in the middle of the night, and I would be left in the scary nocturnal darkness not knowing what I would have to be doing to get help for her, for myself, or whatever (that wasn’t yet an era of mobile telecommunication). Oh, doesn’t it sound dramatic! But hey, I was a sensitive kid, and I guess you can say troubled too!

The first two or three days of that bonding week, as my mother usually thought it be, would almost always go easy, to my relief. My grandmother and I would prune and water the vegetable patches in our garden, go swimming in the river, pay visits to the remote neighbors or the unwatched gardens close by, drink tea with store-bought sweets, watch black and white TV, and play cards. But then on the fourth day – mysteriously, it would always happen on a Thursday -- my grandmother would wake up to a bad headache, high blood pressure starting building up. As the day progressed, the symptoms wouldn’t budge, even despite the large medicine in-take. By midnight, my grandmother wouldn’t stop her I’m dying-s. I felt morbid. (I’m sorry, but at the age of seven, eight, nine and ten I took those proclamations very, very, very literally.) There was one thing, the last frontier, believed to be able to help:
vinegar (a lot of which would be poured onto a small towel that would be applied to feet). I was eager to go and bring a bottle of it from our kitchen downstairs. To get down to the kitchen meant I had to take the outdoor stairs and then go around a corner of the house to reach the arched heavy kitchen door. At night with nature making weird unnatural sounds, a trek of a mere couple dozen steps felt like going down into a deep dungeon. I was ready to do it for my grandmother. I was happy I could help. Often vinegar did the trick lessening the blood pressure. Eventually my grandmother would fall asleep. I would regularly come out from my room to see if she was breathing.

The next day my grandmother would be on her feet again, preparing for my parents’ visit over the weekend. For me, it meant nothing else but joy: I would be going home soon. But besides the approaching weekend and the nearing this-year-I-don’t-have-to-do-it-anymore delirium, there was another thing for me to get pretty darn excited about: apple pie.

My grandmother has a thing with yeast dough. She is a yeast dough whisperer. If I remember rightly, never did I see a scale or at least one measuring cup in her vicinity when she would start the dough. All measurements were intuitive and always (!) worked. Of course, my childhood memories may not be crystal clear by now, but seriously! To see the dough risen and eager to crawl out from under the lid of a dented white pot was kind of arcane – and fun. My favorite part was to punch the dough down imagining I was a ghost buster at task of taming a cute monster. The sour-ish yeasty wisps emanating from it were full of promise of something good and safe and warm and lovely.

While the monster/dough was resting/rising, I’d get busy picking apples (an early summer sort) fallen from our apple tree and now lying idly on the shadowy ground. My grandmother would use them, cooked with sugar until just soft, for the filling. It was a simple apple pie. And it was tasty. Sweet apples, slightly tart at the heart, encased and relaxed between and into the two layers of the fragrant, a touch buttery, dough. Made with gusto, it was also a sign that my grandmother was doing ok again, and that she is a fighter.

I wanted to share my grandmother’s apple pie recipe with you today. I called her to ask for guidance. But she is an intuitive baker, and so it transpired she doesn’t need nor does she have the recipe. It’s why I resort to the one from A Year of Russian Feasts. Having made it twice by now, I’m happy to say the resulting pie is as good as the specimen from years gone, except that no drama and only dry active yeast is required.

All you need to do is to mix dry yeast with melted butter and a mix of lukewarm milk and water, add sugar, salt and flour, and knead it until the dough comes together and forms a ball. You then let it rest until it doubles in size, about an hour, give or take. Meanwhile, you cook tart baking-friendly apples with light brown sugar, for a deeper flavor, until they have released their juices. We tend to think that apples and cinnamon is a match, but try apples with fresh vanilla seeds. With them, an apple taste like its quintessential self. Should I be a Granny Smith in my next life, I’d spend it with vanilla seeds, I decided. Anyway, when the dough has puffed up and looks ready, form it into a ball and cut in half. Roll out the first half, place in a pie pan and send in the apples. Roll out the second half, slightly larger than the first, and cover the fruit. Pinch the dough edges together, brush the top with egg wash and bake until the pie is golden.

The pie is down-to-earth, and even basic, yet there is some simple magic going on in there, the moist fruit has bonded together with the dough, vanilla and yeasty aromas merged into one. And the butter, it’s quietly letting you know it’s there but that it’s not going to steal the show. As Cheremeteff Jones describes the pie: “a wonderfully delicate “apple sandwich”. Try it for yourself. If it seems – and it does! – insane to compel strawberries and the likes to wait, bookmark the recipe for the colder months then, when it would be crazy not to make it.

Russian-style apple pie
Adapted from A Year of Russian Feasts by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones
Yield: Serves 6-8

For the apple filling:
900 gr (2 pounds [about 5 large or 6 medium]), tart baking apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, quartered, cored, and diced in big chunks
120 gr (4 oz) light brown sugar
seeds of one vanilla bean

Combine the apples, sugar and vanilla seeds in a large saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft and the apple juices have evaporated, about 10-15 mins. (Drain if the apples are soft but the liquid is still there.) Remove from the fire and let cool. (The filling can be made up to three days in advance; keep covered and refrigerated).

For the yeast dough:
8 gr (0.4 oz) active dry yeast
60 ml (1/4 cup) whole milk
60 ml (1/4 cup) water
30 gr (1 oz) sugar
1 large egg, beaten
120 gr (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
310 gr unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
Egg wash (one more egg, beaten)
Light brown sugar for sprinkling, optional

1. Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl.

2. Heat the milk together with water until lukewarm. Add the milk mixture to the yeast and stir until the yeast has been dissolved. Add the sugar, salt, egg and butter (still warm!) and mix well until combined. Add half of the flour and using a mixer with the dough hook attachment work on low speed until combined. Add the remaining flour and mix until incorporated. Up the speed to medium and continue mixing for the next 4-5 minutes (scrape down the sides of the bowl after 2-minute mark), or until the dough is no longer sticky and forms a ball. If the dough remains sticky after 3 minutes of mixing, add more flour, 1 tablespoon (15 gr) at a time, until the dough comes together (the amount of extra flour needed can be between 1 to 3 tablespoons). Cover the bowl with plastic film and let the dough rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 175 C (350 F) and butter a 22- or 24-cm (9- or 9 ½-inch) pie plate.

4. Lightly flour a work surface. Take the dough and shape it into a ball. Cut the ball in two equal parts. With a rolling pin, roll out one part of the dough into a circle wide enough to fit into the prepared pie plate (if needed, continue to lightly flour the work surface and the dough to prevent sticking). Transfer the dough gently into the pie plate, and using your fingers, create an even 1-cm (1/2 inch) overhang. Place the apple filling evenly over the dough.

5. Flour the work surface again and roll out the second part of the dough into a circle slightly smaller in width than the first one. Carefully place it on top of the filling. Pinch and twist the edges of the dough together to seal them. Make sure to seal the wedges well, otherwise the top will disconnect while baking. Prick the top, cover with a clean dish towel, and let rise for 10 mins. Brush the top lightly with the egg wash. Sprinkle some light brown sugar (about 1 Tbsp or more), if using.

6. Bake for 30 mins, or until the top is golden brown. Let cool before unmolding. Wrapped up in plastic, the pie will keep at room temperature for up to three days.

6 May 2011

Can't help it

Minutes before sitting down and writing this story, it dawned on me that there is one thing I talk about time and again on this blog (and pretty much everywhere else, which makes me feel for those doomed to converse with me). The recurrent theme is: potatoes, a stamp in my Russian culinary ID. Did I tell you that potatoes are no secondary thing for a Russian? Did I tell you that yet? I’m sorry, can’t help it. So here goes again.

It is my grandparents’ custom to buy large quantities of potatoes in mid-fall (before their price would jump up later on) for the family to feed off in winter months. It all begins with multiple visits to local farmers’ markets to first select samples to test taste. A good spud has to meet the following criteria: it should not darken while cooking, and once boiled, it shouldn’t turn rubbery, but it can’t crumble too much under the pressure of a fork either, and most importantly, it has to taste creamy without any assistance of butter or dairy. Once a specimen capable of accomplishing the mission is found, my grandparents would load their white nearly thirty-years-old Soviet four-wheeler with sack after sack of un-scrubbed jacketed tubers.

Every other week for the next four or five months my grandfather would go to his garage basement to pick over the potato lot, or rather what gets left after the family starts to pack it away, for sprouts. Now there being fewer heads to feed – my uncle’s whole family of three moved to Moscow; I’m living abroad – and a new, less sturdier, almost flimsy car to load, the annual potato purchase grew smaller in size, but its importance is, and always will be, high. The household in winter is not complete if there are not enough potatoes in that dark garage basement.

We had the spuds simply boiled, pan-fried with onions, roasted with chicken; stewed with tomatoes and river fish; as a main or a side; for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner; left over from a yesterday’s meal and freshly cooked. If I got sick and developed a bad cough, I didn’t have a chance to get away from having to stand over a pot with just cooked tubers and inhale the coming-out steam, my head covered with a towel to prevent the heat from escaping. The potato is believed to have particles with anti-inflammatory qualities and the steam to bear them in transit, was what my mother told me.

So I’ve had it a lot with potatoes, except that I didn’t have them cooked with sherry. Entirely by the way, I didn't have anything cooked with sherry. For one: there was no sherry around me in my formative years. The first libation "from the West" made its way to new Russia in early nineties and, if my memory serves me right, it was called brandy liquor. It came in dark-glass stubby bottles with a sail ship on the blue-sea label. I was uninterested to taste it then (and I'm not sure I would be now). My parents say it would never fail to give them a terrible headache, the best of possible bodily reactions to the drink.

Second of all, I think sherry falls into that category of fine drinks that one grows to appreciate with age. Also, I had to be old enough to stop believing that a sweet alcoholic substance such as the one in question should be reserved for an after-meal glass and not a pan of potatoes. But then again, it’s not your plain Jane pan of potatoes. In it, artichokes make an appearance as well. And the potatoes are those small springtime tubers that turn eminently fragrant in salted boiling water and whose thin skin crackles just so under your teeth giving way to the young creamy flesh underneath it.

The idea comes from the MORO East cookbook, a beautiful compilation of Eastern Mediterranean recipes by the owners of the acclaimed MORO restaurant in London, Sam and Sam Clark. Originally, the sampling in question goes by the name “artichokes and potatoes with oloroso sherry”. But I think the artichokes, though no lesser important to the accumulative taste of the ensemble, should, instead, come second in the title, for in my view the potatoes are the name of the game here. Hence what follows is "potatoes and artichokes with oloroso", the change is minor but imperative.

The actual substitute in the original is my use of marinated artichoke hearts in place of fresh ones, for which there are two reasons. One, artichokes in the Netherlands is not a local thistle. Which means I have to be prepared to live with a new dent in my wallet for months at hand if I wish to enjoy them fresh, imported, as is usually the case, from Italy. I don’t want to go down that road again. Two, I discovered that the sourness of the marinated artichokes is a perfect foil to the sweetness that comes with sherry. An additional bonus: a shorter cooking time.

You start by browning some onions. Once those are halfway to their color destination, you add the marinated artichokes, and let the duo cook together until the onions are golden and the artichokes develop a mild blush. Next goes a tiny bit of garlic, followed after a minute by sherry and water and fresh basil (MORO East uses mint, but I find basil mingles more successfully with the rest of the given ingredients). Finally, you nudge the cooked potatoes in the skillet, cover with a lid and let it all bubble for a while allowing the heat to leverage the unity between the subtle vegetables and the intense oloroso sherry. A few squirts of olive oil and more fresh basil at the end and you are ready for a delicious cheer on a plate. The caramelized onions and soft artichokes intermingle and soak up all that deep caramel flavor of the sherry, winding up to be sweet and sour all at once, making perfect companions for the mellowed plump spuds that got infused with the basil’s peppery herbal notes and nutty sherry, that same sherry. Oh, potatoes can get so lucky!

Potatoes and Artichokes with Oloroso Sherry

Adapted from MORO East, by Samantha and Samuel Clark
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side dish

This dish is an "all-year-rounder", considering you use the marinated artichokes. When new harvest tubers go off season, normal potatoes would be a bet just as good.

A word on sherry: while S. and S. Clark suggest medium oloroso sherry (“oloroso” means scented in Spanish) for this dish, I had delicious results with a dry oloroso variety as well. The bottom line is that regardless of what oloroso you get to use – it varies in types from dry to sweet – it should be good enough to be sipped on its own, as goes with any alcohol in cooking, you know.

500 gr (16.5 oz) new potatoes, scrubbed
4 good-quality (canned) marinated artichoke hearts, quartered
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
150 ml (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp) oloroso sherry
100 ml (1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp) water
2 Tbsp roughly chopped fresh basil

1. Boil the potatoes in slightly salted water until tender; drain. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut the large ones in half or in quarter.

2. Over medium fire, heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, stir in the onion and a pinch of salt, cut the heat back to medium-low and fry for 5-7 minutes, or until the onion is soft and starting to color.

3. Add the artichokes, and stirring occasionally, fry for another 3-5 minutes, or until the onion is golden and the artichokes take on golden hue.

4. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Pour in the sherry and water; add half the basil. Place the potatoes on top and sauté, uncovered, for the next 2-3 minutes. Stir, cover with a lid and continue cooking for another 4-5 minutes more.

5. Squirt with the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle on with the rest of the basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.