29 April 2012

I'm sold already

What have we got here? Let's see...First on the list: brownies (oh priorities!).

A mistake, as we all know it, is something that one hasn't done correctly. Nearly all mistakes don't serve a kitchen’s interests, mistakes like, you know, burnt meat, unrisen cakes, curdled creams, and other improbable things. Luckily, though, there remains that scarce percentage of things done to food incorrectly that elevate the final result to greatness, or, modesty forbidding, close to it. Case in point: the resident brownies at Gebroeders Niemeijer, they would not have seen the light of the day and thronged the local hungry if an error hadn't crept in -- and stayed.

A couple years ago I was put in charge of improving a brownie recipe that would warrant a sweet that, upon the first bite, would have to do nothing lesser than turn haters (of brownies) into lovers (of brownies), or, at the very least, be something to write home about. Now, we live in the world full of brownies. There are the ones that squarely sit in the well-behaved, composed cake department, and others that find themselves on the opposite end of the trail, in the fudge field, and yet some others that tie the two worlds together and are at once like a moist cake and a luscious chocolate pudding or a mousse. I fancied our brownie to be that bridge, and so I set about figuring out what measures to take to this end. The only catch was that the recipe I'd been given to tweak -- it was trying to make brownies more cake-y than anything -- already called for the whole pound of premium dark chocolate (a must in any case), engulfed in a good amount of butter and eggs, which made me feel that simply upping the numbers wouldn't really meet the goal.

You know what did? A memory lapse. Re-trying the recipe over a few days led me to think I'd remembered the correct quantities alright, and so I gave myself a permission to make it by heart one fine morning. I melted this much butter and blended it with that much chocolate; whisked this many eggs with that much sugar; and sieved that much flour. All mentioned parties were combined and assigned to the oven, having later produced thin melt-in-your-mouth brownies, rich and creamy, holding their luxurious selves together just so, just barely enough. Many a taster was impressed -- and so was I. But my amusement was also stemming from the fact that I didn't have a clue what I'd done differently this time. Only hours further down the road, my brains going in reverse trying to re-live the past day, it finally dawned on me...the flour. I unknowingly decreased its amount from three digits to two, thus having used four times less flour than usual! Reader, I've never before relayed all this to anybody at work, except for my ex-colleague, a French guy, Arnaud, whom this cheeky brownie converted into a ferocious brownie eater, which, as he said, he didn't expect of himself, I normally don't like browniez. So I let him in on the mystery. Other than that, until now nobody knew of the little mistake/trick.

Unfortunately, I can't post the said recipe here. I'm contractually bound to keep my lips zipped, you see. But!  All that hullabaloo is not at all for no reason. Which is that I recently came across a very, very similar recipe in Alice Medrich's Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. This woman and her New Bittersweet Brownies (such is the name), they are after my own heart. It transpires to be a norm now, in comparison to the decades of the past, to use more chocolate and less flour, as Medrich reveals. Holy egg, I incidentally tapped into some modern cosmic brownie spirit! I didn't expect that of myself.

In other developments, tomorrow I'm flying to Russia for two weeks to visit my family. I haven't seen them -- weekly Skype sessions don't count -- for two and a half years. First the dishwasher and then the apprentice wages, all served to delay my trip for, well, a long while. But not just that. Having completed my Master's, I stumbled in some sort of after-graduation depression. My studies were giving me cover from all these worrying questions parents are sometimes so prone to throw at you, such as What's now?, When are you going to look for a real job?, What, do you want to write? What does that mean?, and so forth. So naturally once I was done with my thesis I felt very unprotected. And so I got to eat my discomfort. Which made me put on weight. Which made me want to avoid letting my parents see me. A vicious circle good and proper. But I'm doing better now. I'm looking forward to finally seeing my parents in person again. I'm ready to face their questions; they mean no harm. I'm also looking forward to sitting down at my grandmother's kitchen table and enjoying her stew of river fish with onions, potatoes and tomatoes, chatting the time away.

I may not have all the answers yet, but I might make it up for that with these brownies, not too greasy, not too sweet, cake-y around the edges, with a glossy thin-paper crust and a heart of a soufflé. I'm sold already.

New Bittersweet Brownies
Source: Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies, by Alice Medrich
Yield: 16 smaller or 12 larger brownies

225 g (8 ounces) premium bittersweet chocolate (70 % cacao), coarsely chopped
90 g (3 ounces) butter, cut into several pieces
3 eggs
200 g (7 ounces) sugar
Scant 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
50 g (1.75 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1       1. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line a 20-cm (8-inch) square baking pan across the bottom and all the way up two opposite sides with parchment paper.

2       2. Put the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl position directly in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until the mixture is melted; it should be smooth and quite warm. Set aside. In a separate medium bowl, with an electric mixer on high speed, beat the eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla until the eggs and thick and light colored, about 2 minutes. Whisk the warm chocolate into the egg mixture. With a spatula, carefully fold in the flour.

3      3. Scrape the batter into the lined pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out free of raw mixture stuck to it. If you want these brownies really gooey, bake them for 20 minutes instead. Leave to cool in the pan on a rack for at least an hour. Lift the edges of the parchment liner and remove to a cutting board. Use a long sharp knife to cut into 16 squares. Keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days. 

5 April 2012

But wait just a minute

Oh boy -- have I missed out on posting a single word in March! How did this happen? Who is to blame? There was no conspiracy plotted by the Russian government to interrupt my blogging -- I didn't have to transmit any information to Vladimir in exchange for the freedom to write about cakes and other deliciousness; nobody twisted my arms; I wasn't abducted by aliens. Nothing, really nothing prevented me from showing up duly with a new story, except only-God-knows-what. But wait just a minute...I'm not being quite truthful here.

Stay with me; I need to circle around to first tell you that I turned into a troubled sleeper lately, quite a novelty for me, for I considered myself something of a slumber natural. Tellingly, I’m not good at all to deal with insomnia calmly. When it rolls in, I swiftly get into a state and ventilate about a pending sleep deprivation, a subsequent slow performance at work, a possible bout of gut-wrenching depression that, in my book, always goes hand-in-hand with a substandard diet of candy (M&M’s), and so on, and so forth. All that makes me even more wound up to peacefully depart to bed, except, I discovered, if I watch TV. So staring into yet another wakeful night I felt free to subject my groggy eyes to the viewing of The Colbert Report programmed by the TV geniuses on repeat the whole night through, seeing me off into the next day’s wee hours. The gentle observer would dub the phenomenon as dumbness, but let me just tell I consider that time well spent, if only for one reason alone: through the Colbert Report I learnt about Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a book that I would give my every free waking hour for days that followed. And not just once, for after reaching the end I would turn to the first pages and start again. I’ve downed it three times, in a row.

I love reading. All those stories, fictional or non-, unfolding behind the freshly crisp or time-battered pages; the way the pages rustle, if new, and whisper, if old, under the gentle nudge of my fingers; the graceful prose stretching from word to word; the characters, real or imaginative, leaving a trace, however subtle or palpable, of themselves in my mind well after a book has been devoured.

There are dozens of cherished tomes on my book shelves, but there are very few that have gripped me, literally and beyond, the way Katherine Boo’s did. Hers, in large brush strokes, is a true account of the life in a Mumbai slum, the life, as it transpires, that is full of hope, of search for opportunity in the poignantly unequal urban India, as much as it is the life full of demise, physical, moral and emotional. For three years Boo followed the slum dwellers about their daily routines, documenting, patiently, non-judgementally, the tender and heart-breaking truths behind the walls of the Mumbai international airport, the walls that separate a slum from the luxurious hotels and the lives of the rich.

Irrespective of some parts that were too overwhelming to read, so much so that I had to put the book down for a while, it is not a grim story of the grisly reality. Showing the abject poverty, the festering hunger, the ambient corruption, all personalized, let’s just say it’s bound to quietly put many a thing into perspective for the reader, at least it did for me.

I think of Abdul, a scaredy-cat sixteen-years-old, squatting in front of his family hut, sorting out garbage that young, fearless ribby scavengers like Sunil had brought in from their charges along the Sahar Airport Road. He assigns plastic to one pile, aluminium scraps to another, getting ready to schlep it all to recyclers, providing therefore an income for his family of eleven. I think of Meena, a fifteen-year-old, living in, or rather, beaten into domestic submission, contemplating suicide. I think of young but late boys Kalu and Sanjay, and what had possibly gone through their minds before they died. I want to forget none of them; I won’t. I also think how often I forget what I’ve been blessed with – health, home, food, job – and how this book, how these youths, remind me not to.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers -- a must-read. Which is what I’ve been up the last three or so weeks. But wait just a minute...that’s not the single thing I repeatedly did back then. I also got to make -- huk! -- whole lemon tart.

The recipe comes from Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, a book of her essays and recipes originally written for her veritable NYT column. Although not entirely unimaginable as such, this whole lemon tart business surprised me quite a bit. You see, the lemon tart we make at Gebr. Niemeijer is the kind made with fresh lemon cream presiding over a toasty sweet pastry shell. Whisk that concoction of sugar, eggs and lemon juice over boiling water non-stop, come what may, for as long as it takes to get to the right temperature without complaining and/or sobbing, and you are not a rooky any more. That you can forego the shoulder strain to make a nice lemon tart did never occur to me before.

All you need to do, except fixing an almond tart shell, which itself is a cinch, is blend a couple peeled and deseeded lemons with sugar, mix that all up with eggs and melted butter, and blissfully send the band in a pre-baked tart shell to be cooked in the oven. No pain, no gain? I don’t think so. What you’ll get is a very fine lemon tart, fresh and tongue tickling, its flavour no lesser zealous than that of the tart with the airy, and punchy, and pompous stovetop lemon cream. The lemon flavour in this version is more subdued, and relaxed, velvety, even -- and with the pastry, rather than on it, if you know what I mean. I like it.

And…looking so sunny and bright, it would make a fitting Easter sweet, this whole lemon tart.

Happy Spring, Reader!

Whole Lemon Tart

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark
Yield: 8-10 servings

There are two things in the original recipe that I did differently. First: I reversed the way the pastry dough is made. Instead of cutting the butter in the flour-egg mixture, I creamed the butter first, adding the rest of the ingredients – confectioners' (powdered) sugar, almonds, egg – one after another, flour being mixed in last, which is, actually, how I learnt to make sweet dough at work. Another reason being I don’t own a food processor to pulse the butter into the flour as Clark does.

Second: since the butter was so immoderately (to my taste) seeping out of the lemon filling, I dialled down the amount of butter in more than a half, and the recipe still worked like a charm.

Last: I like my lemon tart more sour than sweet, which is why I also decreased the amount of sugar here, but just a mite.

For the almond tart shell:

110 g (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
40 g (1/3 cup) confectioners’ sugar
85 g (1/2 cup lightly packed) ground blanched almonds
Freshly grated zest of 1/2 lemon (I used zest of a whole lemon)
Pinch salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
190 g (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

For the lemon filling:

2 large lemons
220 g (1 cup plus 1 1/2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
17 g (2 Tbsp) cornstarch
Pinch salt
45 g (3 Tbsp) butter, melted
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

1. In a medium bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until it starts to soften, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Mix in the ground almonds, salt and lemon zest; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the flour, and using your hands combine it with the rest of the mixture. Don’t knead or squeeze; the motion of your hands should resemble that of the claw in a teddy picker – grip, and release, grip, and release. This way you mix in the flour without working it too much. Stop when the dough – it will be crumbly – just comes together. Press into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight.

2. When ready to bake the tart, roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper into a circle 35-cm (14-inch) in diameter. Line a buttered 24-cm (9-inch) tart pan with the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C (325 F). Line the tart shell with the parchment paper and fill with baking weights/beans/or copper coins. Bake until the tart shell is pale golden, 20-25 minutes. The tart shell can be baked up to 8 hours before filling.

4. To make the filling, grate the lemon zest and place it in the bowl of a blender (or that of a food processor). With a sharp knife, cut the tops and the bottoms off the lemons. Stand each lemon up and remove the white pith by following the curve of the fruit with the knife. (First time I did a clumsy job and left a few bits of the white pith here and there; as a result, the lemon filling tasted slightly bitter.) Cut the fruit into thin rounds and remove the seeds. Put the fruit in the blender and add the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Blend until thoroughly combined. Scrape the mixture into a medium mixing bowl.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the melted butter, egg, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour the egg-butter mixture into the lemon mixture and whisk to incorporate. Pour the lemon filling into the tart shell and bake until the top is bubbly and lightly browned, 30-45 minutes. Cool completely in the pan. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Before serving, dust with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.