Culinary Tour with Bret’s Table, Spring 2017

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It’s early spring in Provence.  I drive past the Super U and around the roundabout with the Édith Piaf sign. Just ahead I whiz past the home where Paul and Julia Child lived. They were neighbors of Simone (Simca) Beck and her second husband Jean. I recognize the horse stables and the golf course. I know it’s not far to where we’ll be spending another glorious week in the Provençal countryside.

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Xavier and Robby have opened their B & B for us a week ahead of their usual schedule. The leaves on the grape vines are just beginning to unfurl and the buds pop on the fruit trees. Some of the olive trees on the property are hundreds of, as in 500 years old. Xavier mentioned that when you plant an olive tree you plant it for your grandchildren.

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There’s also a mill nearby where he takes his olives to be pressed and bottled. That is, if the fruit is not decimated by a nasty fly; as it was last autumn. Sometimes nature wins when you follow organic practices.

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It wasn’t too long after we arrived  when we were greeted with Xavier pouring us a glass of his vin de masion; his homemade bitter orange wine more aply called an apéritif. He bottles enough to sell for only 10€ a bottle. Having made my own vin de masion, that’s a steal!  This was my drink of choice each evening when we gathered with our hosts and the other guests who arrived later in the week.

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We woke up to this view every morning, hearing only bird songs.

IMG_8794 (1)Each room or suite has it’s own little terrace to relax, read, or as we did one evening enjoy a bottle of wine and goodies we brought back from Cannes.

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It’s Sunday evening in the village square of Valbonne. After our apéritif we head to the village for dinner.  Who cares that you left the Midwest at 5:00pm the day before and if your lucky got a few winks on the flight. You are in Provence and it’s best to get acclimated to the local time anyway, right?

IMG_8789During our post dinner stroll, we came upon yet another restaurant. We’ll have to put this one on our list for next time. And…this is only the end of just our first day. It will be an amazing week of great food, delicious wines, market tours, and cooking classes in the Côte d’Azur. If you’re on this side of the pond you may hear it referred to English as the French Riviera.

 

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Asparagus Vichyssoise

IMG_1411It’s a sure sign of spring when asparagus begins showing up in the market stateside as well as in France. During a recent culinary tour, I discovered that in France, green asparagus is seen as exotic and the white as ordinary. It makes me wonder how the French are growing the lily white variety that would deem it ordinary.I believe another trip is needed to resolve this question.

In the meantime, seeing these emerald spears spurred me to think about vichyssoise, but that sounded very familiar. A quick search on my blog and sure enough I posted a recipe in 2012.

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This recipe uses less milk and cream than the previous version and uses the blanching liquid instead of chicken stock. In the end it’s just a variation on a theme.

kosher salt
2 bunches green asparagus, washed
2 medium potatoes, such as Yukon Gold
2 large shallots, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 – 3 gratings of whole nutmeg (a whole nutmeg and a small microplane does the trick)
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
blanching liquid
1/4 cup whole milk
1/3 – 1/2 cup heavy cream

In a 4 quart saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil.  Add a pinch of salt. While the water is coming to a boil, wash and trim the asparagus snapping off the tough ends. Cut off and reserve the tips; then cut stems into 2-inch pieces reserving those as well.

After the water comes to a boil add the asparagus stems and cook until a couple can easily be pierced with the tip of a paring knife (3 – 5 minutes). Using a slotted spoon remove the stems to an ice bath. Repeat with the asparagus tips and blanch for about 3 minutes. Remove the tips to a separate ice bath.

Repeat the blanching once more with the potatoes and cook until tender. Remove the potatoes from the blanching liquid and shock in an ice bath (either their own or the one with the stems). Reserve the blanching liquid.

Place a sauté pan on medium heat and add butter. Once butter is sizzling add the shallots and cook until just softened, but not browned. Add the carrots and continue to cook, adding about 1/2 cup or so of blanching liquid to allow the carrots to cook in the liquid until softened; adding more liquid as necessary. Stir in the herbes de Provence and a couple of gratings of nutmeg. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a heavy-duty blender, add the blanched asparagus stems, potatoes, shallot/carrot mixture, and a cup of the blanching liquid. Blend until puréed. If it is too thick, add more blanching liquid until the consistency of soup is achieved. Pour into a clean bowl.  Pour about 1/2 cup of milk over the surface of the purée and refrigerate until cold.

When ready to serve, stir in the cup heavy cream and taste for seasonings. Serve in chilled bowls or like I did and served it in champagne coupes as a first course.

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Saffron – Orange Semolina Cake with Blood Oranges

A friend and colleague brought a variation of this cake to work one morning. It didn’t take long to devour it.  I then immediately started pondering  how I could improve not only the taste but write a method that is easier to follow. (Let me know if I accomplished either.) This version is a compilation of a myriad of recipes that I researched both from print and the inter-webs.

It’s delicious with just the soaking syrup, but if you want to gild the lily add the whipped mascarpone and/or the lemon curd. Or, you could just whip some cream and serve with fresh berries. As you know berry season will soon be upon us.

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Serves 12

For soaking syrup and oranges:
2 bay leaves
1/3 cup (2 1/4 oz / 67 g) granulated sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup water
2 – 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided

For the cake:
butter for pan
3/4 cup (6 oz) whole milk, divided
Large pinch saffron threads, crushed
3/4 cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup (7 oz / 200 g) granulated sugar
zest from 3 medium blood or navel oranges (preferably organic)
1½ cups (9 oz / 255 g) coarse-grind semolina flour (such as Bob’s Red Mill)
2 teaspoons (1/4 oz / 5 g) baking powder
1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (8 oz / 230 g) plain whole-milk Greek yogurt

For the filling:
1 cup (8 oz / 230 g) mascarpone
1/4 cup (2 oz / 56 ml) heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup (8 oz / 230 g) lemon curd
Powdered sugar for decoration

Make the syrup:
In a small saucepan add bay leaves, sugar, salt, and ½ cup water. Bring to a simmer and stir occasionally to dissolve sugar, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9″- diameter cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and butter paper. Set aside.

Make the Cake:
In a small saucepan warm 1/4 cup milk, add crushed saffron threads and stir until dissolved.  Add butter to milk mixture and heat until butter is melted.  Set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl measure out sugar, add the orange zest and using your fingers evenly incorporate the zest into the sugar. Whisk the semolina, baking powder, cardamom, and salt into the sugar mixture.

In a large bowl whisk together yogurt and remaining milk. Using a spatula or wooden spoon mix the dry ingredients into the yogurt mixture. Stir in the cooled (still liquid) butter mixture and then scrape batter into prepared pan.

Bake cake until golden brown and firm to the touch, 50–60 minutes. It is done when a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer pan to a wire rack and allow cake cool in pan 10 minutes. Turn a 10″ rimmed plate or platter over top of pan and invert cake. Using a cake tester or toothpick, poke holes all over cake.

Reserve 1/4 cup of the bay leaf syrup in a medium bowl.  Gradually pour remaining syrup over cake allowing it to soak in. Let sit at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the remaining peel and white pith from oranges. Slice into ¼”-thick rounds; remove seeds and add to reserved bay leaf syrup. Gently toss the oranges on occasion and allow to macerate at least 30 minutes. Taste and add lemon juice as needed.

Make the Filling:
Whisk the mascarpone and heavy cream until soft peaks form.  Whisk in vanilla extract.

Assemble the Cake:
Split cake horizontally. Using the bottom of a removable tart pan as a spatula carefully lift off the top half of the cake and set aside. Spread the mascarpone evenly over the bottom cake layer to within about an inch from the outside rim of the cake. Top with a layer of lemon curd again leaving about an inch from the edge. Set the reserved layer on top of the filling. (When placed, the top layer will press the filling to the edge of the cake.) Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Do Ahead: Cake can be baked 2 days ahead and stored tightly wrapped at room temperature before filling with the mascarpone and/or lemon curd.

Serve cake with oranges in syrup.

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Chestnut Crème Brûlée

IMG_0022 (1)When the chill in the air arrives in Paris, street vendors seem to pop up on every corner roasting chestnuts. Sitting on a park bench is the perfect place to peel off their warm outer shell and enjoy their earthy, smoky flavor while watching the world go by.

I was pondering what flavors invoke the holidays when my friend Pierre suggested that I make a version of this “burnt cream” with chestnut purée. The idea immediately took to me the aromas of these nuts roasting around Paris this time of year.

Many recipes suggest “burning” the cream under a broiler. However, I find that using a blow torch gives you more control and greater efficiency. I also discovered that the crème can be brûléed several hours prior to serving.  After you have brunt the sugar simply place them back in the refrigerator (uncovered) until ready to serve.

Makes 8 – six ounce ramekins

24 ounces (3 cups) heavy whipping cream
8 ounces (1 cup) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise, seeds scrapped
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch kosher salt
3 1/2 ounces (½ cup) granulated sugar
8 large egg yolks
4 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup  + 1 tablespoon or 120 g) chestnut purée, room temperature
8 tablespoons Turbinado sugar (divided)

Preheat oven to 300°F.

In a saucepan set over medium heat, combine cream, milk, vanilla bean, plus the scraped seeds, cinnamon stick, and salt. Bring to a simmer Remove from heat, cover and let stand at least 1/2 hour. Whisk in chestnut purée.

In a medium bowl whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. Temper the eggs with the hot cream mixture. Pour mixture through a sieve into a pitcher pushing any chestnut purée through with a rubber spatula.  Discard vanilla bean and cinnamon stick.

Divide chestnut mixture evenly between 8 (6-ounce) ramekins. Place ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet pan, and fill pan with hot water about halfway up the ramekins.

Bake until the parameter of each custard is set but the center still jiggles a little, about 45 – 50 minutes. Carefully remove from oven, let them cool to room temperature in the water bath; then remove from the water bath, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the custards overnight.

To brulée the custards position an oven rack 6 inches from broiler. Preheat oven to broil. Top each custard evenly with 1 tablespoon sugar. Broil in groups of 4 until sugar is melted and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Or as I have suggested in the head-notes, use a blowtorch to individually brulée each of them.

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Fig and Sour Cherry Tart with Hazelnut Crust

This recipe was inspired by one that started with a pistachio crust. However, I didn’t have pistachios but did have hazelnuts in the freezer. And this time, as luck would have it, the hazelnuts were already blanched.  All of a sudden this tart became reminiscent of a Linzer Torte.

When I tasted the fig filling, as it was cooking, it seemed a little too sweet even for my taste. I thought, what could I add that would cut some of the sweetness? Then I remembered moving a bag of dried sour cherries when I was hunting for the hazelnuts.

Adding about a half a cup of the cherries to the filling, as it was cooking, did the trick. The tartness of the cherries balanced the sweetness of the figs.  With or without a dollop of vanilla bean crème fraîche, this is a perfect dessert to end an autumn dinner.

img_0648CRUST
2 cups (10 oz) blanched hazelnut flour*
2 tablespoons (1 oz) granulated sugar
2 cups (9 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 oz) cake flour (not self-rising)
1 cup (4 oz) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 lemon, preferably organic, finely zested without pith
16 tablespoons (8 ounces) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup vanilla bean crème fraîche*, optional

FILLING
1 pound dried Black Mission figs, stemmed
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Salt
1/2 cup (2 oz) dried sour cherries

FOR THE DOUGH:  In a food processor using the metal “S” blade, pulse hazelnuts with granulated sugar just until finely ground. (Be careful not to process for too long otherwise you will end up with sweetened hazelnut butter.) Add the flours, powdered sugar, baking powder and lemon zest and pulse to combine.

Scatter the butter on top of the flour mixture and pulse until the mixture is the size of peas. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, beat the whole egg, egg yolks and vanilla. Pour of the flour mixture around the insider parameter of the bowl and pulse until almost combined.

Pour out onto a smooth counter-top and with the heal of your hand, smear the dough away from you and fold it back over on top of itself with a bench knife. Continue until the dough comes together.

Separate the dough into two disks, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap both pieces in plastic and refrigerate until chilled, at least two hours or preferably overnight.

FOR THE FILLING:  In a medium saucepan, combine the figs with the water, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, lemon juice and zest and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer the figs over moderately low heat for about 20 minutes. Add the cherries and continue cooking until the figs and cherries are tender and the liquid has reduced and become syrupy; about another 20 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and again using the metal “S” blade pulse until the fruit has become evenly small pieces. Let cool.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly spray an 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom with vegetable oil cooking spray. Press the larger disk of dough into the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan to form an even 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick crust. Trim off any excess. Spread the fig filling over the crust. Roll out the smaller disk between 2 sheets of parchment paper to a 11 1/2-inch round about 1/4 inch thick. Remove 1 sheet of the parchment paper and invert the top crust over the filling. Press the edges together to seal and trim off any excess. Using a end of a small knife add a few steam vents to the top crust. Chill the tart for 15 minutes.

Bake the tart in the center of the oven for 50 minutes, or until golden, covering the top with foil if the edge becomes too brown. Let the tart cool for 30 minutes, then carefully remove the fluted ring. Let the tart cool completely before serving.

*To make the vanilla bean crème fraîche, add about 1 tablespoon (or to taste) of vanilla sugar to a cup of crème fraîche.  Stir to combine and then refrigerate until firm. Add a dollop just before serving — plain crème fraîche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream would be delicious too!

MAKE AHEAD
The tart can kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

*MAKING HAZELNUT FLOUR: It is possible to find blanched hazelnut flour, but if you can’t you can make it yourself. For many years I followed the conventional wisdom of roasting the nuts, allowing them to cool and then rubbing them in a lint-free towel. I generally used a brown towel as that would be that color anyway after I was through.

Then, while assisting at a cooking class the chef blanched the nuts in boiling water to which baking soda was added. That day conventional wisdom was thrown out the winder and I have been boiling hazelnuts ever since That is, if I can’t find them already blanched.

4 cups water
10 ounces skin-on hazelnuts
4 tablespoons baking soda

Preheat oven to 350°F. Have ready a half sheet baking pan or similar pan and a large colander placed in the sink.

In a large saucepan, bring water to a rolling boil. Once the water is boiling add the baking soda and quickly add the hazelnuts. Note that the water will bubble up profusely.

Cook the hazelnuts for 3 to 4 minutes. Check at 3 1/2 minutes to see if the nuts can be de-skinned. Do this by removing one with a slotted spoon, run it under cold water and try slipping off the skin using two fingers.  If it doesn’t easily come off, boil the remaining for another 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Once the skin easily slips off remove the saucepan from the heat and strain the nuts in the colander. Rinse nuts well under cold running water then slip off the skins using your fingers. After the skins are removed, dry completely with a kitchen towel or paper towels and transfer to a baking sheet.

Toast blanched hazelnuts in preheated oven, stirring often, until light golden brown and fragrant, about 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to another pan to stop the cooking and cool before using.

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Spicy Cukes

A friend of mine introduced me a Japanese restaurant last week on Eat Street (Minneapolis) called KungFu Noodle.  They served a pile of these cucumbers as a starter on a lovely black lacquered tray.

Lucky for me, my dinner companion knew exactly how they were made. It doesn’t get much easier to recreate them. These spicy green spears were followed by a delicious ramen bowl in which mine included two strips of crispy chicken.

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It seems overkill to list the ingredients in a “traditional” format as it’s so easy.  So here goes. Cut some cucumbers (about 4″ in length) in quarters  lengthwise and then in half across. Cut some radishes in half (an addition I made). I got both the cukes and the radishes at the farmer’s market.

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Drizzle in some toasted sesame oil, Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese spice blend) along with some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Toss to blend. Add more of whatever is needed to suit your taste buds.

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Ice Cream with the Flavors of Provence

I enjoyed a black olive ice cream with a black olive caramel recently at HeyDay in Minneapolis. Of course, this got me to thinking about olives, which then led to my day dreaming about Provence. I then remembered the saying, “what grows together, goes together.”

Given that adage, and the fact that olives, lemons, rosemary, and thyme all grow in abundance throughout the Côte d’Azur and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, it was further inspiration for this delicious ice cream.

I served it with poached peaches and a Bretonne biscuit.   The Bretonne biscuit recipe will be coming a little later as I still have to test it again. In the meantime, bake the Scottish Shortbread recipe that’s on my blog.

Zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic
1 cup (175 g) granulated sugar
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves removed and stems saved
10 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed and stems saved
6 large (1/2 cup/108 g) egg yolks
1 tablespoon karo syrup
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
A pinch of salt
1/4 cup (3/4 oz) chopped dried black olives*

In a medium saucepan mix together the zest, sugar, and leaves of the rosemary and thyme using your fingers to massage the ingredients into the sugar. Set aside for about an hour to allow the essential oils to infuse the sugar.

When ready to make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice water. Set a strainer on top of the smaller bowl.

Remove the large herb stems and reserve. Whisk the egg yolks into the sugar mixture. Stir the Karo syrup, milk, heavy cream, and salt into the sugar/egg mixture. Toss in the rosemary and thyme stems.

With a heat-resistant spatula or wooden spoon, cook, stirring constantly, over low heat until the custard thickens and coats the back of the stirring utensil.

Strain the custard into the bowl that is set over the ice bath. Discard the solids. Stir the custard until cool and then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably overnight.

Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. At the end of the churning process add the chopped olives and allow the dasher to incorporate the fruit. Transfer the ice cream to a container, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until ready to serve.

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Champagne poached peaches

Every recipe that I have come across reads to blanch the peaches in boiling water until the skin begins to pull away. Then plunge into ice water, peel and then add to the poaching liquid. I thought, why not just skip the blanching part and cook the peaches in the poaching liquid until you are able to peel them.  That’s exactly what I have done and it works just fine for me.

Makes 8 half peach servings

4 large ripe peaches, washed
750 ml champagne, sec or demi-sec, or more or less as needed
1/4 cup granulated sugar, or to taste
1 vanilla pod, split

Using a paring knife, cut about a 1/2-inch “X” in the bottom of each peach (end opposite the stem). Place the peaches in a saucepan that is just big enough to hold them. Pour enough champagne to cover. Add sugar and vanilla pod. If you’re short on champagne pour in cold water to just cover (or open another bottle and you’re have some to enjoy).

Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes or until the skin just begins to pull away at the “X”. Turn off heat, remove peaches from the liquid and allow them to cool until they can be handled. Peel the peaches and return them to the poaching liquid. Return the pan to medium heat and gently simmer, turning 3 or 4 times until they can be pierced with the point of a paring knife; about 10 – 15 minutes depending on the ripeness of the fruit.

Remove the peaches to a large bowl. Boil the syrup until it has reduced to a syrup (this will take about 10 minutes). Allow to cool and then pour over the peaches. When ready to serve cut the peaches in half, remove the pit and serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

The peaches will keep for up to 2 days, covered and in the fridge. Bring the peaches to room temperature, warm the syrup separately if desired and serve.

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