Apricot Cherry Tart with Pistachio Frangipane

DSC03108

When I was little, there were many bakeries in our city where one could get bread and other essentials but there were only a few confectionaries (patisseries) that specialized in sweet things, like cakes and cookies. One of those was Hurricane. It’s probably the oldest confectionary still in existence in the city. It’s tucked away in the old part of town, a veritable hole in the wall, with enough room for five or six small tables that surround an ancient wood-and-glass case (the same one since I was a kid) that has always contained cookies for sale.DSC03089

Back then, Hurricane was considered fancy and it was rather expensive. Before I was even born, this was a place where ladies of high society would go for tea and cookies, served in real china by the family that owned it. For me, Hurricane has always been a bundle of memories. There was the smell of sugar and butter that reached out to the street and around the corner, driving me crazy with desire. There were the butter cookies with their tips dipped in chocolate sprinkles. There were the kok, a traditional dessert of thick pastry cream sandwiched between two cake-like cookies, with the top cookie covered in vanilla or chocolate glaze.DSC03090

But above all, I remember the varkoulles, or little boats. They consisted of a cookie shell in the shape of a small boat, filled with a frangipane filling. They tasted intensely of almonds and the shell gave a satisfying crunch when bit into, only to give way to the soft, almost creamy filling. They were my absolute favorites and they filled me with joy when my parents would buy them for us. It was probably with them that my love affair with frangipane started.

DSC03087

What’s there not to like? A mixture of nuts, sugar, flour, butter and eggs, at just the right ratio, bakes into a filling that is incredibly satisfying no matter what surrounds it. It’s what makes the French galette de rois, a traditional New Year’s pie made of puff pastry filled with frangipane, such a delightful treat. And it’s what makes this apricot cherry tart irresistible. And the fact that it is a single (food processor) bowl recipe makes it even better. If you don’t have apricots or cherries at hand, switch it up. Plums, apples, pears, or any fruit that’s not too juicy will do fine. If you don’t have pistachios, you can use almonds, which is the more traditional version of frangipane.DSC03117
Apricot Cherry Tart with Pistachio Frangipane – Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

Crust
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 115 grams) cold unsalted butter

Filling
3/4 cup (a scant 4 ounces or 110 grams) shelled unsalted pistachios
1 tablespoon (10 grams) all purpose flour
Few pinches of sea salt
6 tablespoons (75 grams) sugar
5 tablespoons (70 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, 2 teaspoons brandy or another flavoring of your choice (optional)
8 firm-ripe apricots, pitted and cut in half
8 sweet cherries, pitted and cut in half
To finish
Powdered sugar or 1/4 cup apricot jam

Directions:

Heat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the crust: Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine continuously (don’t pulse) until the mixture forms large clumps. It might take 30 seconds to 1 minute for it to come together. Transfer the dough clumps to a 9 inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom and press it evenly across the bottom and up the sides. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes to allow the dough to rest (this will reduce shrinkage when you bake it). Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. Let crust cool.

Make the filling: In the same food processor bowl (no need to clean it between these steps), grind your pistachios, sugar, flour and salt together until the nuts are powdery. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the machine. Run the machine until no buttery bits are visible. Add any flavorings and egg, blending until just combined.

Spread filling over cooled crust. Place apricots and cherries cut side down onto the pistachio filing. Bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the pistachio portion comes out batter-free. Let cool completely in pan.

To finish, you can make a shiny glaze for your tart by warming apricot jam in a small saucepan until it thins, and brushing this mixture over the top of the cooled tart. Or, you can dust it with powdered sugar.

Strawberry Lemon Pie

DSC04078

I’m not a fan of bitter things.When my tongue encounters bitter, my brain says “danger! inedible!” When people get excited about a salad of bitter greens, I don’t really understand it. It’s why I never accept the offer of “freshly ground black pepper” at restaurants. It’s why I rarely enjoy beer, and when I do, it’s wheat beer that’s ice cold on a blistering hot day, and even better, with some ginger ale or 7-Up added to it.

There are however a few exceptions. I like gin and tonics, for example. Their bitterness is somehow balanced by the bubbly effervescence, the acid of the lime, and the floral notes of the gin. Or this recipe for strawberry lemon pie, where I find the addition of a slight bitterness intriguing. Strawberry is traditionally paired with rhubarb for the added acidity that cuts through the berry sweetness. But this recipe swaps rhubarb for lemons, sliced very thin (rind, pith and all). The result is perhaps the most complex strawberry pie I’ve ever tried. There’s sweetness from the strawberries, acid from the lemon flesh and zest, bitterness from the pith, and fat from the buttery crust. The pie feels…adult, somehow.
DSC04060

It’s also a great metaphor for being American (this being July 4th weekend and all). One of the (many) things I love about this country is its simultaneous love of and constant experimentation with tradition. Being a relatively young country and one that has been built over the years by waves of immigrants, the U.S. manages to constantly reinvent itself by holding on to the essence of what makes one American: the acceptance and embrace of change. Yes, there are plenty of Americans who consider themselves conservative and talk about how they don’t accept change, but over time, most of them also get carried forward by the forces of transformation, progress, and change.

So, make this strawberry lemon pie, traditional (it’s still a pie after all), but also different and new, and have a great fourth of July.
DSC04072Strawberry Lemon Pie – From Bon Appétit

Note: The recipe provides directions for making a lattice pie (see photo above). But you can make any kind of double-crust pie you want.

Ingredients:

Double Pie Crust
All-purpose flour (for surface)
1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
Pinch of kosher salt
2 pounds strawberries, hulled, quartered
2 small lemons, very thinly sliced, seeds removed
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon water
2 tablespoons demerara or turbinado sugar

Directions:

Roll out a disk of dough on a lightly floured surface to a 13″ round. Transfer round to a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill while you roll out remaining disk of dough to a 13″ round (about ¼” thick). Cut second round into 4 strips, about 2 ¼” wide. Stack strips on top of first round of dough, separating with a sheet of parchment. Chill while you prepare filling.

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine granulated sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large bowl. Add strawberries, lemon slices, and vinegar. Toss to coat fruit evenly in sugar mixture, separating lemon slices that stick together.

Beat egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl just to blend. Lift parchment with strips of dough onto work surface. Using your hands, or wrapping dough around a floured rolling pin if your nervous, carefully transfer round of dough to a 9″ pie dish. Lift up edges and allow dough to slump down into dish. Trim edges of dough with kitchen shears to even out, leaving at least a 2″ overhang (or, you can leave untrimmed if you want a rustic look); brush edge with half of egg wash. Scrape in strawberry filling along with any accumulated juices in bowl.

Lay 2 strips lengthwise over pie filling, then arrange remaining 2 strips crosswise across pie, working alternately over and under lengthwise strips to create a lattice pattern. Fold edge of bottom round up and over strips and press to seal. Brush dough with remaining egg wash; sprinkle with demerara sugar.

Place pie pan on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet (juices may bubble over—this is what the foil is for). Bake until crust is deep golden brown on top and bottom and juices are bubbling, about 1 ½ hours. Transfer pie to a wire rack and let sit at least 4 hours before slicing.

Do Ahead: Pie can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.

 

Plum Ice Cream

DSC03207

It was a spring evening in 1997. There I was, with my boyfriend at the time and four of our friends, all gay men, sitting around a TV in a suburban living room, somewhere in northern New Jersey, waiting for the world to change. We knew this was coming. Everyone knew. But it didn’t make it any less monumental for us.

Our conversation stopped as soon as the show started. We watched with the cautious anticipation of those whose hopes had been dashed too many times before. But there she was on the screen, leaning over a podium microphone and pronouncing those words “I’m gay,” accidentally broadcasting them over an entire airport. We laughed nervously, not quite ready to feel relief. She had done it. Ellen had come out on TV. The first time a main character on a hit TV show came out as gay (along with the actress who portrayed it).
DSC03193

It’s been eighteen years since that night. We knew then that Ellen’s coming out was just another brick in the house we were all building. A seemingly small one (it was, after all just one character in one show that ended up being cancelled after one more season). But it turned out to be much bigger than we had thought. It was the beginning of us being seen and heard, in TV shows and books, in songs and movies, and eventually, in towns and neighborhoods where we had been all but invisible. It was the start of a movement that said: here we are, we are people, who live and love and die like you, who stress over who will take the kids to soccer practice or agonize over what to wear on that first date, who want to reach out and wipe with our thumb the drop of plum ice cream that’s stubbornly stuck to our lover’s lower lip but we are afraid to do so in public. We are like you.

Eighteen years ago, six gay mean watching TV in New Jersey could not have predicted (and they did not) that one day relatively soon, they would be witnesses to the Supreme Court (or at least most of it) saying yes, your love matters as much as anyone else’s. That they, some of them by now married with kids, would finally see the roof finished over that house they and those that had come before them had been building for decades. There are still things left undone, without a doubt, and there are others who still vow to tear that house down, but for now, that roof has finally made that house a home. 

DSC03200Plum Ice Cream – From The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments

Ingredients:

1 lb (450 g) plums
1/3 cup (80 ml) water
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (180g) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon kirsch

Directions:

Slice the plums in half and remove the pits. Cut the plums into eighths and put them in a medium saucepan with the water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

In a blender, purée cooled plums with cream and kirsch until smooth.

Chill mixture in refrigerator until very cold and freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars

DSC03975

When I was a kid, strawberries were really exotic. They’d appear briefly in late spring, early summer and they were very expensive. So when my parents would buy some, we’d cherish them, eating them slowly and savoring every juicy bite. Before we knew it, they were gone until the next season. This scarcity of strawberries must still be in the back of my mind because strawberries are the first fruit I gravitate to in a breakfast bar or salad bar. And right after chocolate desserts, strawberry ones always catch my eye on a restaurant menu.

So, when I saw the picture of these strawberry rhubarb crisp bars on the excellent food blog Smitten Kitchen, I was immediately, well, smitten. I’ll admit, rhubarb is still a bit of a mystery to me. Sometimes it really works, adding a grassy acidity and a mildly fibrous texture to desserts. But most of the time I just don’t know what to do with it. Here it works well. It cuts through the richness of the crust and as always, pairs perfectly with the strawberries.DSC03965Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars – Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

1 cup (80 grams) rolled oats
3/4 cup (95 grams) plus up to 2 tablespoons (15 grams) extra all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (95 grams) light brown sugar
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional, but helps firm up the filling)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) lemon juice
1 tablespoon (15 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1 cup (125 grams) small-diced rhubarb (from about 1 1/2 medium stalks)
1 cup (155 grams) small-diced strawberries

Directions:

Heat oven to 375 degrees F if using metal pan (350 degrees if using glass pan). For easy removal, line bottom of 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper leaving overhang on two sides.

Place oats, 3/4 cup flour, brown sugar and salt medium bowl and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add the remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons flour. Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture. Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan.

Spread half the fruit over the crust. Sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch (I use a tea strainer to do this), then lemon juice, and 1/2 tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread remaining fruit over this, and top with second 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit and bake bars for about 40 minutes, until fruit is bubbly and crisp portion is golden.

Let cool in pan. Remove using parchment paper and cut into squares. Alternatively, you can place them in fridge to chill and crisp up, before cutting. These are best eaten the day made. Store leftovers in fridge.

Blueberry Lemon Frozen Yogurt

DSC03078

Once in a while, I stumble upon a book that burrows into my brain and lays a bunch of little eggs that hatch at random times, sometimes long after I’ve finished reading it, bringing back scenes and words. There was “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” by Andrew Sean Greer, with its achingly beautiful sadness. And “Embassytown,” by China Mieville, that still makes me think about the complexities of language, humor, and sentience. I’ll never forget the three main characters or the idiosyncratic language of “Plays Well with Others,” by Allan Gurganus, its eggs still hatching in my brain, years after I finished reading it for the third time.

DSC03066

Right now, it’s “Preparation for the Next Life,” by Atticus Lish, that’s filling me with wonder. Its plot is minimal. Two people, an illegal Chinese immigrant and a damaged Iraq war vet, meet and fall in love in a contemporary New York city that many of us never see, away from Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn.

Not much happens in this book. But it’s the words. The language is so deceptively simple and unadorned. The sentences are mostly short and direct, with the occasional small flourish. Put together, they convey places and feelings like a punch in the gut, sudden and jarring. The words are like water, flowing around distractions, coming together into a stream of experiences. The simplest things, describing a dinner at McDonald’s or working out at the gym, become compelling in this book.

I want to be able to write like that. Even if it’s about something as simple as a bowl of blueberries, blended with sugar, yogurt and lemon, to make frozen yogurt. So, for now, I’ll just keep writing.

DSC03073Blueberry Lemon Frozen Yogurt – Slightly adapted from The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments

Ingredients:

1½ cups (360 g) plain yogurt (whole milk)
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
3 cups (340 g) blueberries
2 teaspoons kirsch
3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
finely grated zest of half a lemon

Directions:

In a blender or food processor, blend yogurt, sugar, blueberries, and zest. Stir in the kirsch and lemon juice. Chill for 1 hour.

If it solidifies, give it a good stir with a spoon. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

DSC03779

Spring is (sort of) finally here! Temperatures are above freezing and we have actual continuous periods of sunshine. Sure, it’s raining today, but I don’t care. Because Steve and I are taking off for a weeklong trip to Cyprus with three of our friends. We’ll visit my family and drive around the island in search of poppy covered mountainsides, turquoise blue seas, orange blossom scented villages, and lots and lots of good food. DSC03763

No two ingredients say “Meditteranean!” better than olive oil and lemons. They are at the very core of the soul of the people that have lived for millennia around this beautiful sea, with its temperate climate (though not always as warm or friendly as most people think) and plentiful fish (which are currently endangered from overfishing and pollution).

So, in honor of our Mediterranean adventure, I give you my favorite version of a lemon olive oil cake. You gotta love a cake that has a total of five ingredients. All things you probably have at home right now. With these humble ingredients you can have a cake that is not overly sweet and incredibly tender, making it an equally good option for afternoon tea or breakfast. Top it off with a dollop of lemon curd or sweetened whipped cream and you have a great dessert. This is a cake that in every bite, you can taste what it’s made of: the taste of eggs is right there, cut through by the acidity of the lemons, while everything is smoothed out by the mild grassiness of the olive oil.DSC03775Lemon Olive Oil Cake – Slightly adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients:

3/4 cup olive oil (extra-virgin if desired), plus additional for greasing pan
1 lemon (preferably organic/unsprayed)
1 cup cake flour (not self-rising) (see here for instructions on how to make your own cake flour)
5 large eggs, separated, reserving 1 white for another use
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

Directions:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch (24-cm) springform pan with some oil, then line bottom with a round of parchment paper. Oil parchment.

Finely grate enough all the lemon zest and whisk it together with flour. Halve lemon, then squeeze and reserve 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.

Beat together yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add olive oil (3/4 cup) and reserved lemon juice, beating until just combined (mixture may appear separated). Using a wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture (do not beat) until just combined.

Beat egg whites (from 4 eggs) with 1/2 teaspoon salt in another large bowl with cleaned beaters at medium-high speed until foamy, then add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating, and continue to beat until egg whites just hold soft peaks, about 3 minutes.

Gently fold one third of whites into yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Transfer batter to springform pan and gently rap against work surface once or twice to release any air bubbles. Sprinkle top evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until puffed and golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around edge of pan and remove side of pan. Cool cake to room temperature, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove bottom of pan and peel off parchment, then transfer cake to a serving plate.

Crème Caramel

DSC03850During most of my childhood, my dad kept a chicken coop in the empty lot next to our house where he raised chickens and pigeons. The chickens were for fresh eggs (and the occasional chicken for dinner) and the pigeons were for eating. I know that to city dwellers, the idea of eating pigeons, a.k.a. flying rats, sounds pretty unappetizing, but these were not the kinds of pigeons you find in a city. They were fed a clean diet of grains and kept in a large coop. My dad slaughtered young pigeons and cooked them over hot coals. They were reserved for a special meal and I always loved eating them. They had a sweet, almost caramelized taste, and they were incredibly tender.
DSC03807

But back to the chickens. When I was really little I was too scared to walk inside the chicken coop (it was big enough to hold several adults standing up) and collect the eggs. The chickens flapped around too much and seemed really menacing to me. But I remember that one time, my mom asked me if I felt ok going to get her two eggs. I must have been six or seven years old by then and in a rare moment of bravery I said yes. “Hold them carefully, ok?” she said. “Don’t drop them or they’ll break.”

I had my mission. I approached the coop and slowly opened the door. I was in luck. One of the hens was eating peacefully in the corner and she had left her two freshly laid eggs undefended.The other hens seemed quiet, sitting over their own eggs. Gingerly, I stepped forward with both eyes on the hen. I reached and took one egg in each hand and backed my way out of the coop, never losing sight of that hen. As soon as the door closed behind me, I knew I had done it. I had procured the eggs and conquered the chickens.DSC03798

Feeling relieved and elated I started to walk back to our house to triumphantly give the eggs to my mom. I’d show her how I was a big boy now, brave and helpful to her. I was ready to start running to the house when I remembered my mom’s words: Hold them carefully, ok? I realized I hadn’t been careful enough. So I held on to those two eggs tighter. I took only one more step before both eggs burst in my palms, egg whites and yolk dripping onto the ground. I looked at my hands and burst into tears, loud enough for my mom to hear me and come out. Between sobs I told her I was sorry and that I was trying to hold them tight so they wouldn’t drop and this is what happened. She smiled, took me inside and cleaned my hands, and explained to me that eggs are fragile and that it was ok, that next time I would know not to hold them too tight.

She went back to the coop herself and got two eggs from another hen. She needed them to make crème caramel, that wonderful desert that so many cuisines have riffed on. Hers was the classic French kind. Deep amber caramel and a quivering custard made with milk, eggs, and vanilla. By the time she finished making it and it chilled enough for me to eat, several hours later, I had forgotten all about the broken eggs.

DSC03824Crème Caramel – Translated and adapted from Meilleur du Chef

Note: When I was researching recipes for créme caramel online, I was pretty horrified at what I found. Recipes that use heavy cream, cornstarch, crème fraîche, and all kinds of other nonsense. So I looked for a recipe where I knew I could find an authentic one: the French. This is how créme caramel should be: just milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Nothing else.

Ingredients:

For caramel:
200 g sugar
3 tablespoons water

For crème:
1 liter whole milk
7 large eggs
250 g sugar
1 vanilla bean
pinch of salt

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Let the sugar dissolve. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil until the caramel turns light golden brown, about 10 minutes (it happens quickly towards the end; don’t let the caramel get too dark). Remove from the heat immediately and carefully divide the hot caramel among 8 ramekins, quickly swirling to cover the entire bottom of each ramekin. Let cool on the countertop. The caramel should harden. Arrange the ramekins in a deep baking pan (at least 2″ deep).

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, vanilla bean seeds, and the whole bean. Heat the milk to just below boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, add the eggs and sugar and whisk together until combined thoroughly. When milk is hot, pour about 1/3 cup slowly in eggs while whisking continuously. Repeat with 1/3 cup of hot milk at a time until you have incorporated all the milk with the eggs (discard the vanilla bean). Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Pour into the 8 ramekins. Pour boiling water into the pan holding the ramekins until the water level reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes until the custard is just set. Remove from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Remove from the water bath and let cool to room temperature on a cooling rack. Cover ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.

To serve, run a knife around the edges of each ramekin and invert the custards onto serving plates.