Grow Local: Got Stone Fruit?

June 19, 2014 § 5 Comments

The recent hot, hot days have kicked off the ripening process for stone fruit trees here in the 650. The 75-year-old apricot tree in my backyard is heavy with pale-orange, blush-kissed fruit. Every morning for the past week, I’ve stood under that tree, looking up and pondering which small treasures to pick for the day. Which will be fragrant and ripe, and which should stay put for a few more days?

Apricots on the tree

Which beauty to pick now?

And if that weren’t happiness enough, my neighbor’s front-yard plum tree is dropping warm, juicy red-purple fruit right onto the sidewalk. Other neighbors stop by late in the day to pick up a few with their kids or while taking the evening constitutional with their dogs. The calendar might say that it’s still spring, but it feels like midsummer already.

Santa Rosa plums, ripe on the tree

Santa Rosa plums in the 650

Why do a couple of old fruit trees give me such a thrill? Maybe it’s the history — the fact that these trees have been part of the neighborhood since, well, since the houses were built 75 years ago. It’s nice to see a little of the peninsula’s past still in place here and there. I’m not exactly the tree-hugging type, but I can’t help but be impressed by the hardiness of these trees, whose branches are laden with fruit every year! They thrive without much more help from us than an annual pruning and some water. (Or in my case, almost no water, as the drip system in my yard is on the fritz.) Local and organic? Oh yeah.

I think, more than anything, it’s the sensory experience of summer fruit that I love. The colors are so beautiful and vibrant! Apricots range from yellow with pale green (unripe) to orange-pink, some with a freckling or blush of red (ripe).

Beautiful apricots from my backyard

Beautiful apricots from my backyard

Plums are deep red when less ripe, becoming red-purple with a bloom of blue when ripe.

Santa Rosa Plums

Plums: reds aren’t quite ripe, while the purples are just about ready

Then there’s the scent of ripe fruit, which is like perfume: honeyed, floral, complex. (Smelling the stem end of an apricot or plum with get your mouth watering, if the fruit is ripe.) And the flavor is equally complex — sweet and slightly tart at the same time.

Apricots and plums have a short season, which is another reason that they’re so special. Unlike berries, which we’re seeing almost year-round, apricots and plums are best in summer when they’re sun-ripened and ready for harvest. If you have the good fortune to have an apricot or plum tree in your yard, then you know that these fruits are best when harvested fresh from the tree and eaten, canned, or frozen within a couple of days. Unripe fruit can be kept at room temperature and will soften, but won’t get sweeter (it needs heat and sun for that). I don’t recommend storing apricots or plums in the refrigerator, as they tend to get “mealy.” My best advice for tree-ripened apricots and plums: use ’em or lose ’em.

Need some ideas?

  • Slice apricots or plums into salads: Fresh greens, local goat cheese, and toasted almonds for a tasty lunch; add grilled chicken or tofu if you need a protein
  • Add a teaspoon or two of simple syrup infused with lemon verbena to one cup of diced apricots for a quick dessert or snack
  • Mix two teaspoons of simple syrup with 1 cup of sliced plums, and serve with vanilla ice cream or almond-milk sherbet for a simple, elegant dessert

One of my favorite summer desserts is fruit crisp; it’s a homey and not-fancy-at-all dish that I can eat for days. (What’s a fruit crisp? It’s a dessert of baked fruit with a crispy topping made from flour, butter, and sugar. Topping variations can include oatmeal and/or nuts.) It’s also oh-so-simple to make! About a dozen years ago, Fine Cooking magazine published their “formula” for fruit crisps. I’ve hung on to that issue (#51); it’s provided me with inspiration for creative summer-fruit crisps, year after year.

I don’t typically make crisps with fall fruit; fruit crisps are mostly a summer dessert in my house. The first crisp of the summer is kind of a thing around here — it’s the kick off to summer dessert making. My first crisp of the summer this year is an Apricot-Pluot Crisp with Almond Topping. (Yep, plums would have been fabulous in this crisp, but pluots arrived in my CSA box last week, and, well, I needed to use ’em or … you know.)

The fruit filling for the crisp is a combination of:

  • 2 pounds of sliced fruit
  • 4 tablespoons of sugar
  • The seeds of 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch combined with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice to thicken the fruit juices as the crisp bakes
Fruit filling for 650 Apricot-Pluot Crisp

Fruit filling for 650 Apricot-Pluot Crisp: Fruit, sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch, and vanilla bean seeds

The crisp topping is the “marzipan” from Apricot and Marzipan Tart in Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz. The topping mixture combines almond paste, flour, brown sugar, and sliced almonds.

Almond crisp topping

Almond crisp topping added to fruit. This baby is ready for the oven!

Per Fine Cooking‘s tip for keeping the crisp, er, crispy, I sprinkle half of the crisp topping over the fruit and bake for 20 minutes, then add the remaining half and bake for another 15-20 minutes — et voila!

Apricot-Pluot Almond Crisp just out of the oven

Freshly baked fruit crisp, just out of the oven

Crisps are great for dinner parties, barbeques, even brunches. Serve the crisp warm or at room temperature with ice cream, whipped cream, or non-dairy frozen dessert flavored with almond or vanilla (think: sherbet or sorbet made with a plant-based milk). Should you happen to have leftover crisp, stash some for breakfast. Trust me on this one; you can thank me later. Eat it cold with a dollop of greek yogurt — although it’s really tasty just plain, too. Want to reheat your crisp? Do it in a 325ºF oven for about 10 minutes. Reheating in the microwave makes the topping soggy — you don’t want that.

Apricot-Pluot Crisp with Almond Topping: It's what for breakfast

Apricot-Pluot Crisp with Almond Topping: It’s what for breakfast

My favorite way to eat fresh fruit crisp? With a spoon, right out of the baking dish, of course! Have you made fruit crisps? What’s your go-to summer fruit dessert?

All I need is a spoon...

All I need is a spoon…

Hit the Road!

June 5, 2014 § 3 Comments

It’s been one of those weeks: delays, fixes, and do-overs. Nail in the tire of my car (amazingly, same time as last year’s nail in the tire — what’s up with that?!). Clogged drain. Leaking shower. Browser that keeps screeching to a halt, forcing reboots. You get the idea: one step forward, two steps back. If you subscribe to theories about the state of the Universe and all that, Mercury retrograde is already in effect. Yeah, it’s been a bit of a rocky road this week — especially with the nail in my tire. So, in the spirit of re-visits, re-do’s, and fixes, I’m fulfilling a reader request for the recipe for my Easter Rocky Road.

Easter Rocky Road: Passion fruit marshmallow pieces, dried sour cherries, roasted almonds, and 66% dark chocolate

Easter Rocky Road: Passion fruit marshmallow pieces, dried sour cherries, roasted almonds, and 66% dark chocolate

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, if you’ve got tempered chocolate, marshmallows, and roasted nuts on hand, you’re good to go. I like to add a little dried fruit to the mix for flavor and texture. You can buy or make the marshmallows, all you need to do is cut them into smaller pieces. You can also buy already-roasted nuts, or roast them yourself. The only real prep work you need for rocky road is to temper the chocolate. If you’ve tempered chocolate before and are comfortable with the process, then feel free to skip ahead to the recipe. If not, you can follow the tempering instructions on food writer Aleta Watson’s blog (adapted from a class I taught at Gamble Garden House).

The process of tempering chocolate could take up a post all unto itself (which is why I’ve referred you to Aleta’s), but if you’re new to tempering chocolate, have no fear! It’s something that you can easily learn to do with practice and patience. What is this thing called “tempering chocolate?” you might ask. In short, it’s the process of heating and melting chocolate to a specific temperature, then cooling it to a specific temperature while stirring, so that you can mold it or coat other ingredients with it. That’s it! You’re basically using time and temperature to change the structure of the chocolate so that you can shape it the way you want. (You gotta break it down to build it back up.)

Summary of the geeky, science version? When you melt chocolate, you change its crystalline structure and its physical properties. It becomes “unstable,” losing firmness, shine, and snap. Tempering is the process of re-establishing a stable crystalline structure that returns those properties of shelf-stable chocolate: crispness, shine, and snap. Want more details about the science of chocolate? Check out this article by my favorite food scientist, Shirley Corriher.

Ok, enough about tempering chocolate. Let’s hit the road!

Recipe: Easter Rocky Road
Yield: 16 pieces (2″ square) or 64 pieces (1″ square)

What you need:

Parchment paper
8 x 8 baking pan
Instant-read thermometer
Rubber spatula

Ingredients:
Note: When it comes to working with chocolate, I really recommend using a kitchen scale to weigh your ingredients, rather than relying on volume measurements.

1¼ pounds of dark chocolate, 61 – 70% cacao
4.5 ounces (about 2 cups) dried sour cherries
4 ounces (about 1 cup) roasted almonds
4 ounces (about 2 cups) ½-inch marshmallow pieces (vanilla or passion fruit)

How to:

  1. Roughly chop the cherries and almonds. Cut the marshmallows into approximately ½-inch pieces.
    You’re not going for perfection here, just aim for ½-inch pieces or slightly smaller. Marshmallow pieces sticking together? Dip them in potato starch or corn starch, then shake off the excess powder in a sifter or sieve.

    Roasted almonds, dried sour cherries, passion fruit marshmallows

    Roasted almonds, dried sour cherries, passion fruit marshmallows

  2. Cut two (2) pieces of parchment paper: 8 inches wide by 12 inches long.
  3. Fit one piece of paper into the baking pan so that two sides are evenly covered.

    Pan lined with one piece of parchment paper

    Pan lined with one piece of parchment paper

  4. Turn the pan 90 degrees and fit the second piece of parchment paper into the baking pan, making sure that the sides are evenly covered.

    Pan lined with second piece of parchment paper (all sides are covered)

    Pan lined with second piece of parchment paper (all sides are covered)

  5. Temper the chocolate.
    Use your instant-read thermometer to make sure that your chocolate is at the correct working temperature (generally, 89-91ºF). If you need to, test that your chocolate is in temper by wiping a bit of liquid chocolate from the tip of your spatula onto a piece of parchment paper. The chocolate should set up firmly, with shine, within 3-5 minutes.

    Tempered chocolate at working temperature

    Tempered chocolate at working temperature, ready for the nuts, cherries, and marshmallow pieces

  6. Fold the nuts, dried fruit, and marshmallows into the chocolate with a rubber spatula, until combined.
    Keep in mind that the temperature of your ingredients — cherries, almonds, and marshmallow pieces — will be colder than the tempered chocolate. Once you add these ingredients to the chocolate, the chocolate’s temperature will drop, which means it will start to set up. Work somewhat quickly, but don’t rush. You need to combine the ingredients and transfer everything to your pan before the chocolate gets too fudgy, or you won’t be able to spread it evenly in the pan.
  7. Transfer rocky road mix to the prepared pan.
    You can see in the photo below that my mix is already starting to get fudgy along the edges — that’s the chocolate setting up (cooling and becoming firm).

    Rocky road mix in the pan

    Rocky road mix in the pan

  8. Holding both sides of the pan, bang the pan on your work surface to even out the mixture and release air bubbles.
    Seriously, pick up the pan and with a bit of force, tap the bottom of it on your work surface a couple of times, while holding onto the pan. Don’t drop it from four feet up, à la Emeril. Don’t get all medieval on its ass. Just hit it hard enough to help distribute the rocky road mixture evenly and remove any air bubbles.
  9. Put the pan in the refrigerator (top shelf) for about five minutes.
    You’re helping the chocolate set up to a point where it’s less liquid and more fudgy because you still need to cut the rocky road before it hardens.
  10. After about five minutes, remove the pan from your refrigerator.
    The rocky road should be firming up around the edges and fudgy in the middle.
  11. Using a sharp knife, cut the rocky road into either 16 pieces (4 x 4, or 2 inches square) or 64 pieces (8 x 8, or 1 inch square).
    The chocolate will continue to harden as you work, just keep that in mind as you cut, so don’t dawdle. Again, no need for perfection. Also, if you need to wipe down your knife in between cuts, make sure the blade is dry before making additional cuts. Getting water (even a small amount) in your chocolate can cause your chocolate to seize. You don’t want that.

    Cutting 2-inch squares of rocky road in the pan

    Cutting 2-inch squares of rocky road in the pan

  12. Once the chocolate seems firm (but not hard) in the center, remove the rocky road from the pan.
    Hold the sides of the parchment paper and pull the rocky road up and out of the pan. It should come out in one piece. out-of-pan-1
  13. Again, using a sharp knife, go over your cuts, making sure that the knife goes all the way through, and that you can separate the pieces.

    Almost finished and ready to eat!

    Almost finished and ready to eat!

  14. If your kitchen is on the warm side, put the pieces on a sheet pan (cookie sheet) and return the rocky road to the top shelf of the refrigerator for five minutes to help the chocolate finish hardening.
    Otherwise, let them continue to harden on your work surface. Or, you know, start enjoying them now. Just know that the chocolate will continue to harden.
  15. Store in a covered container at room temperature for up to four weeks.

 

Marshmallows and Chocolate, Oh My!

April 20, 2014 § 3 Comments

I was feeling a bit nostalgic for Easter treats this week and decided to pull something from the Gâteau et Ganache archives: passion fruit daisy marshmallows. For years I made a spring trio of fruit marshmallows — strawberry, passion fruit, and lemon — cut into daisy shapes and finished with a button of dark chocolate in the center. They’re super-cute, easy to make, and one of my favorite treats for Easter. (Plus, they make nice gifts!)

Passion fruit marshmallows with a dark chocolate button

Passion fruit marshmallows with a dark chocolate button

Unfortunately, cutting those fun shapes leaves a lot of marshmallow “waste.” What to do with the leftover marshmallow bits — the pieces in between the daisy cutouts — not to mention the extra pound of chocolate I’d tempered? Oh sure, you could eat them, but I wanted a creative food-waste solution. And then it came to me: Rocky Road! I’ve always thought of Rocky Road as a classic American confection, but according to Wikipedia, it was created in Australia. Who knew?! (Hey, necessity is the mother of invention.) I know, Rocky Road isn’t exactly a typical Easter confection, but it does have the key elements: Chocolate and Marshmallows.

While not much in the baking and confection world can be done on the fly (one of the things I love about the sweet kitchen: precision matters, generally), Rocky Road is one treat that doesn’t really need a hard-and-fast recipe. If you’ve got tempered chocolate, marshmallows, and roasted nuts on hand, you’re good to go. By the way, tempering chocolate at home is absolutely do-able, and there are plenty of instructions out there on the internet. Need a place to start? Try food writer Aleta Watson’s Skillet Chronicles blog, in which she adapts my tempering instructions from a chocolate class I taught. (Thanks Aleta! 🙂 )

Ta-dah! My Easter Rocky Road made with 61% dark chocolate, passion fruit marshmallows, dried sour cherries, and roasted, salted almonds. The result is a treat that combines textures and flavors: soft, sweet, fruity, tart, salty, crunchy, nutty, and of course, chocolatey. Yep — all that in just a couple of bites (not to mention a solution for those marshmallow leftovers)!

Rocky Road with passion fruit marshmallows, dried sour cherries, and roasted almonds

Rocky Road with passion fruit marshmallows, dried sour cherries, and roasted almonds

That’s what I’m enjoying for Easter this year. What are your Easter indulgences or nostalgic Easter treats?

Have You Had Your Macaron Today?

March 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find macarons in the Bay Area, let alone in the 650. If you mentioned macarons to most people, they’d think you meant a macaroon — the coconut cookie popular at Passover — or that you were trying to be fancy when what you should have said was “French macaroon.”

Dispay case of macarons at Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Macarons on Display at Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Fortunately, in the past couple of years, this luscious treat with a crispy outside and soft, almost-bonbon-like inside has found its way out of San Francisco and down the Peninsula. Once available only in a few shops in the city or as a mignardise in fine-dining restaurants, macarons have (finally!) gone mainstream. You can find them in bakeries along the Peninsula, from Pamplemousse in Redwood City to Whole Foods in Los Altos. Macarons have even earned their own food holiday: yes, today is Macaron Day!

Macarons are the marriage — or perhaps, more appropriately, menage à trois — of two almond-meringue “cookies” and buttercream, ganache, caramel, or jam filling. I’m reluctant to use the word “cookie” here, because les macarons are nothing like cookies to me. They’re more like a small dessert that layers both flavors and textures: a crispy exterior that cracks as you bite it, exposes a soft almond meringue, leading you into a creamy or jammy filling, and then back through the meringue soft/crispy combination again. And all of this is achieved in a two-bite (three, if you’re dainty) experience.

Flavor combinations, when executed well, incorporate both sweet and bitter or savory. For example, Chantal Guillon’s Strawberry Balsamic macaron brings together the flavor of almond in the meringue, with the sweet-tart flavor of a fresh strawberry-balsmaic vinegar buttercream. Macarons are a sensual experience, so as with a well-made chocolate bonbon, take your time. Linger a moment and savor the experience before taking that next bite.

Macarons from Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Savoring a Strawberry-Balsamic Macaron from Chantal Guillon

My first experience of macarons was during a business trip to Paris, but I didn’t truly appreciate them until I took a professional class in the art of making macarons at L’École Lenôtre in 2004. During the three-day class, our small group learned the recipes for 25 flavors of macarons — from the basic vanilla to the herbal lemon verbena to the earthy chestnut. Here’s an excerpt from my old blog that summarized what I learned during that class:

“So what’s the secret to good macaroons? No secret, but as with most things in pastry it’s about practice, experience, and paying attention to the details. You can’t mix the batter too much or too little; it should be smooth and shiny. You have to pipe the batter to the right size and do so consistently so that the baking is even. You have to have the oven temperature just right and vent the oven at the right time. Plus, your fillings should be flavorful and fresh.”

L'Art des Macarons, L'Ecole Lenotre, 2004

L’Art des Macarons, L’École Lenôtre, 2004

The advice remains the same for home cooks. You can make macarons at home, and they aren’t difficult! In my experience, knowing your oven — temperature and timing — is essential to making a good meringue. Fillings are limited only by your imagination. Looking for a place to start? How about chocolate macarons with chocolate or caramel fillings? This home-recipe version from French master patissier Pierre Herme is one of my favorites; it appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine in 2001. (Interesting side note: it took me awhile to find the link to this article because Bon Appetit titled the recipe “Chocolate Macaroons.”)

If you’re not ready to attempt making macarons on your own, but still want to indulge in Macaron Day, visit Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto for some of the most authentic and delicious macarons on the Peninsula. Their macarons are made in the Hayes Valley location and delivered to the Palo Alto shop daily. The counter staff are happy to help you choose an assortment from the dozen or so classic and seaonsal flavors available. Right now I’m loving the Chocolate-Coconut and the Passion Fruit.Box of macarons

What about you? Have you made macarons at home or found a favorite place to buy macarons? Give a shoutout for your favorite macaron bakers or recipes in the comments.

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