November 29, 2009

tarte aux pommes

These days, I've had a major thing for fruit desserts. My main squeeze, chocolate, is slowly being edged out. Same with my man on the side, aka anything with heavy whipping cream. It all started with this sugar plum crumble. And then we made a slew of double crusted pies using Washington State fruit Mark's parents picked and canned just for us. (Are we lucky or what?) And then, last weekend, we made an old favorite: a French apple tart. Tarte aux pommes, if you will. And I will.

You start by making a shortbread crust. It takes a good chunk of time, with the freezing and pre-baking and cooling, but I find this sort of a relaxing way to spend a Sunday morning or afternoon so I'm okay with the time investment. Plus, your house will smell like unadulterated butter and that is just worth it.

Then you'll need to make a simple apple compote by cooking apples, brown sugar, and a dash of vanilla until soft. You spread the compote over the crust, along with a layer of apple slices and a light swipe of apple syrup. Bake. Then, bliss.

This is my favorite apple dessert of all time. Something about the contrast between a very buttery, crumbly crust and the sweet note of apples. Oh, it's good. And it feels fancy, so I like to use our good silver when I'm eating it. But, in reality, it's one of those things that can just as easily be enjoyed standing over the sink before you leave for work (ahem, Mark!). I love it as much as I love the song "Old Man" by Neil Young, which is a lot, like, the type of obsessive love that has been going on since high school, where I listen to the song on repeat, over and over. Tarte aux pommes, I can't quit you.

Apple tart (aka Normandy Apple Tart aka tarte aux pommes)
adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Jonagold are my gold standard for both the compote and the sliced apple topping. They aren't too sweet, they keep their shape, and they have a slight spiciness that greatly appeals to me. However, Dorie Greenspan recommends Empire, Cortland, or McIntosh for the compote and firm apples like Golden Delicious for the topping.

We think pastry flour (i.e. a combination of all purpose flour and cake flour) is best for this crust, but you can also use ALL all-purpose flour, in which case you can substitute 110 grams all-purpose flour and 48 grams cake flour for the 1 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour.

Dorie recommends a glaze using apple jelly and water. Not having apple jelly, this is what I did last time: I threw all the apple peels and cores into a small saucepan, added enough water to cover, and cooked everything down. After 20 minutes or so, I strained out the apple trimmings and returned the liquid to the stove along with a few tablespoons of white sugar. Simmer, thicken and voila: apple syrup.
Finally, instead of making apple compote, you can use a premium quality, store bought apple sauce, as long as it is not too sweet and not too watery. It should be smooth and moderately thick, Dorie says, mounding softly on a spoon.

For the pâte sablée:
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (188 grams) * see note # 2
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar (55 grams)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons or 128 grams) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
Place the flour, confectioner's sugar, and salt into a food processor bowl. Pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in. Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition.
Once the egg has been added, process in long pulses -- about 10 seconds each -- until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. [Just before you reach this stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change.] Turn the dough out onto a work surface and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.

Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan, using all but one little piece of dough, which you should save in the refrigerator to patch any cracks after the crust is baked. Press the crust in so that the edges of the pieces cling to one another but not so hard that the crust loses its crumbly texture. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

To partially bake the crust for the tart: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. (Since you froze the crust you can bake it without weights.) Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Patch the crust if necessary, using the dough you reserved earlier, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack (keeping it in its pan).

For the applesauce:
2 pounds (about 6 medium) apples * see note #1 above
1/4 cup water, or more
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
1-4 tablespoons white sugar (optional)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)

For the topping:
2 medium apples * see note #1 above
1 large egg, beaten with 1/2 teaspoon water, for egg wash

For the glaze:
About 1/3 cup apple jelly * see note 3 above
1 teaspoon water

Peel and core the apples, cut into chunks, and add to a medium saucepan. Stir in the water and brown sugar, cover the pan, and put it over medium-low heat. Stir from time to time to keep the apples from scorching and, if the water is boiling away quickly, add a little more. When the apples are soft enough to be mashed with a spoon - 15 to 20 minutes - remove the pan from the heat and pass the apples through a food mill or press them through a sturdy strainer into a bowl.

If the apple compote seems thin (if liquid accumulates around the edges), return the sauce to the pan and let cook, stirring constantly, for a few more minutes, until the compote is thick enough to sit up on a spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and return the sauce to the bowl. Taste, adding granulated sugar if you think it needs it (traditionally this sauce is not very sweet) and vanilla, if you like. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface and refrigerate until no longer warm. (The apple compote can be made up to 4 days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered.)
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Fill the tart shell almost to the top of the rim with the applesauce and put the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat.

Peel the apples for the topping, cut them in half, and remove the cores. Cut each apple in half lengthwise in half again and, still working lengthwise, cut about 7 slices from each of the quarters (the slices will be very thin). Arrange the slices in slightly overlapping concentric circles on the applesauce, starting at the edge and laying them down so their tips are against the crust. Using a pastry brush, paint the egg wash over the sliced apples.

Bake the tart for about 50 minutes. The apples should be golden, a little burnt on the edges and soft enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.

For the glaze, bring the jelly and the water to a boil (or see note #3 above). When the jelly is liquefied, brush a thin layer of the top of the tart with a pastry brush. Return the pan to the cooling rack and cool until it is just warm or at room temperature.

November 18, 2009

past, present, future. and pasta.

Mark is slowly but surely getting his ducks in a row to finish his grad work and beyond: he has been writing papers nonstop, traveling to conferences, applying for grants, preparing to teach a class next semester, and talking to profs at other schools about postdoc and faculty positions. I have such mixed feelings. On one hand, I'll be sad to move on from this phase of life -- these past few years have been so, so amazing. We have constructed a really nice life for ourselves in Houston, where I have a fun job, good friends, and the happiest memories of our undergrad, our wedding, and everything else. And yet... we're both excited about something new. I'll always have a very special place in my heart for Houston for all the reasons I described above -- but I'm also dying to get away. The idea of having a new place to explore and to make our own just sounds excellent.

I was thinking about all this tonight as I was making dinner. We have so many things we like to make as a direct result of our travels and people we've met. This is one of them, something we fell in love with in Italy and is now one of our absolute favorites. Sugo all'amatriciana is a tomato-based sauce for pasta (traditionally, bucatini, or thick round noodles with a hole through the center). In Rome, they make it with onions, garlic, olive oil, pepperoncini, tomatoes, and guanciale, which is delicious, fatty, cured pork jowl. I use the recipe from the Babbo cookbook, though I totally, and inexcusably, Americanized it: I use good, thick cut bacon in place of the guanciale and I eat it with al dente spaghetti. Still, the whole dish is flat out delicious, I promise, especially if you use Mario Batali's recipe for basic tomato sauce, which is redolent of thyme and slightly sweet from the addition of grated carrot, as the base.


Spaghetti all'amatriciana (adapted from Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo and its eponymous cookbook)
Notes on ingredients:
  • My favorite canned tomatoes are organic whole Muir Glen tomatoes and, recently, Alta Cucina's canned tomatoes. I also like La Valle San Marzano tomatoes, though they are hard to find. I'm picky about canned tomatoes but generic are probably going to be fine. You may need to adjust cooking times/seasonings for watery or bland tasting tomatoes, though, which is not a huge deal.
  • Notes on bacon/guanciale/pancetta: Someone really intent on authenticity would seek out the guanciale. Someone mildly concerned with authenticity would use pancetta. Someone who wants to be able to make really good pasta with what she has on hand would just make it with bacon and be happy. Another thing: 3/4 pound of pork product is kind of a decadent amount. Some nights, when I'm feeling reasonable, I cut that amount in half and it still tastes good.
For the tomato sauce (makes 4 cups):
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 1/2 medium carrot, finely grated/shredded (I use the small holes of a box grater)
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
  • Salt and sugar, to taste
  1. In a 3 quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium to low-medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add the thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is soft and melting into the onion mixture.
  3. Add the hand crushed tomatoes, with their juices, to the pan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal. (Babbo says this should take 30 minutes but this step takes me more like 45 minutes to an hour.)
  4. Season to taste. I add a large pinch of kosher salt (or two). You really have to taste your sauce. For instance, sometimes I find that my tomatoes are really acidic, in which case I will add a teaspoon of sugar.
For the spaghetti all'amatriciana (makes approximately 1 1/2 cups, enough for 4)
  • ¾ pound guanciale, or pancetta, or good bacon
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • half of 1 red onion, sliced ½-inch thick
  • 1 ½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 ½ cups basic tomato sauce
  • 1 pound spaghetti (or bucatini)
  • Flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
  • Pecorino Romano, for grating
1. Being 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.
2. If using guanciale or pancetta, thinly slice. If using bacon, stack a few slices on top of each other and slice in half, length-wise, before cutting into small chunks. Place the guanciale/pancetta/bacon in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat. Turn occasionally. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels and discard half the fat, leaving the remainder in the pan.
3. To the pan, add the garlic, onion slices, and hot pepper flakes. Return the guanciale/pancetta/bacon to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions, garlic and guanciale are light golden brown. Add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
3. Cook the pasta in the boiling water according to the package directions, until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley leaves, increase the heat to high and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among four warmed pasta bowls. Top with freshly grated Pecorino cheese and serve immediately.