Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Apple-quince galette -- a good idea poorly executed

To celebrate apple season, I like to bake the apple galette in Rose Levy Bernabaum's Pie and Pastry Bible. I first discovered the recipe in the Washington Post when it accompanied a review of the newly published book (1998). Since then, I've made it many times with great success.

The crust is always crisp and flaky, and tastes great. Three elements of the recipe separate it from others: 1) the dough contains almost as much cream cheese as butter, 2) the dough contains a small amount of apple cider vinegar. The acid in the vinegar weakens the gluten in the dough, making it easier to roll. It also minimizes shrinkage during baking. 3) It is baked it on a cookie sheet (or pizza pan) that is placed on a pizza stone. This helps crisp the bottom of the crust. (You can find the recipe for the apple galette in the New York Times archive.)

Normally I make the galette with apples only. This time, though, destiny added another ingredient.

The first brush with destiny was a spontaneous visit to Sens (where Shuna is pastry chef) a week ago. One of the desserts I sampled had a delicious quince puree (the dessert is described here; my plate also had a lemon verbena caramel that tasted like a sunbeam -- bright and piercing).

The second brush with destiny came a few days later on one of those Saturday mornings when my farmers market shopping list has two items ("apples" and "almonds") and I end up buying ten things. Quince were for sale (a rare occurrence in my recollection), so I bought a few.

I seemed to remember that special treatment was required for one reason or another (tannins? sourness? bitterness?), so I opened my trusty Chez Panisse Desserts and found a recipe for poached quince. Pretty simple: peel and core the quince, then gently cook it in a sugar syrup for a long time (they recommend 2 1/2 hours, I couldn't wait longer than 1 1/2 hours). Amazingly, the fruit turned from an appley-white to a beautiful deep red as it cooked.

The poached quince has a floral aroma, a lovely flavor, and a texture somewhat like pear but more gelatinous (the fruit is high in pectin). (David Lebovitz recommends using whole, uncooked quince as an air freshener for your car. I tried this last year and it really works!)

I added the pieces of poached quince to the galette in a rather haphazard way, merely scattering them across the top of the apples. I poured the cooking syrup over the galette before baking.

The result was great, but could be improved. Next time I will try thinly slicing the quince before poaching, then layering it with the apples to integrate the two fruits. And I'll save the syrup for after the galette comes out of the oven to prevent it from soaking into the crust.

Random link from the archive: Yeasted Chocolate Cupcakes

Technorati tags: Baking : vegetarian : Food

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ubuntu: a well-reviewed vegetarian restaurant in Napa, California

Update, 3/9/2010: In late February, news broke that executive chef Jeremy Fox and pastry Deanie Fox had left Ubuntu. The official word, via Eater SF, is that it was an "amicable separation." No news yet on Jeremy Fox's plans, but Deanie Fox has started working at Manresa in the South Bay, a place where she has worked before (coverage at Eater SF). Aaron London, who was in the kitchen when Ubuntu opened, is taking over for Fox. I suspect that we will be seeing new reviews of the restaurant in the near future from local newspapers and magazines.

Annoyance is my typical emotion when I open the SF Chronicle Sunday magazine to see yet another review from Michael Bauer of a restaurant in the wine country (e.g., Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, Healdsburg, Calistoga, etc.). It seems to me that over one-half of his Sunday reviews are restaurants in Napa and Sonoma County, counties which hold well less than one half of the Bay Area's population or restaurants. Don't San Francisco, the East Bay or Peninsula have anything worth reviewing?

But this week gets a pass for another Napa review. The reason: he reveals a vegetarian gem called Ubuntu in the city of Napa. Bauer's review overflows with praise:

It's surprising that with all the amazing produce at our back door there aren't more vegetarian restaurants that meticulously respect that bounty. Too many places end up taking great products and diminishing them.

But the newly opened Ubuntu in Napa, which calls itself a vegetable restaurant rather than a vegetarian one , seems to get the idea. It may sound like merely nomenclature, but it makes a difference.

Not since Greens opened in 1979 has a restaurant like this held so much promise. And, thanks to the talents of Jeremy Fox, the food is so good that even die-hard carnivores won't miss meat. Fox was chef de cuisine at the four-star Manresa for four years before taking over this new venture that's both a restaurant and yoga studio.


Flavors of the 16 dishes on the daily-changing menu are combined so meticulously that each element makes the other ones even better. Whether simple or complex, Fox hits a nearly perfect note each time.


what Fox is creating at Ubuntu is truly extraordinary. He's taking vegetable-based cuisine to a new level.

I'm quite excited to read about a restaurant that elevates vegetables and other products of the earth to the wonders that they are, instead of as a garnish to a yet another risotto.

Vegetarian (or vegetable loving) readers in the Bay Area or those planning a visit to the wine country, put Ubuntu on your "to dine" list. It's definitely on mine.

Random link from the archive: A Tale of Morel-ity

Technorati tags: Restaurants : vegetarian : Food

Friday, October 19, 2007

A new pizza dough

Photo collage of two pizzas on baking stonesThe Baseline
I have been baking pretty good pizza at home for years using a set of recipes and techniques that have come from many sources.

My crust recipe is from the May/June 1995 issue of Cook's Illustrated ("Professional Pizza at Home"). Now and then I tweak the recipe a bit -- perhaps replacing some of the water with milk for extra richness or adding cornmeal for a different texture -- but in the last few years I have used it verbatim.

The toppings have been improvised, with inspiration from books like The Greens Cookbook, Fields of Greens and various restaurants. Two non-standard favorites are feta, caramelized onion, black olives and roasted red pepper; and roasted thinly-sliced potato, gruyere cheese and sauteed leeks.

Until recently, my baking technique was simple and straightforward: turn the oven up all the way, let it preheat for about one hour and bake the pizza directly on ceramic tiles (with a piece of parchment paper separating the pizza and tiles -- the paper makes it a lot easier to get off of the peel). Recently, however, I have been following the baking instructions in The Cheese Board Collective Works cookbook. It's a three-step process: 1) bake the pizza on a cookie sheet for a few minutes to allow the dough to set, 2) move the pizza from the cookie sheet to a bare rack to dry out the bottom of the crust and cook the toppings, and 3) finish the pizza with a few minutes on a baking stone to give the crust a distinct crispy base. I prefer the crust that this method produces to the 100% on the stone method. It also allows two pizzas to be in the oven at one time.

A New Dough
Despite my relative home pizza stability, I was intrigued by an article by San Francisco Chronicle Wine section editor Jon Bonné about his search for the perfect home pizza recipe. His target was the ultra-thin, Neapolitan style (like the pies at A16 in San Francisco).

Mr. Bonné's recipe is very different from the one in Cook's Illustrated -- you can make it without working about the clock. In the Cook's recipe, a timer is always running: the dough rises for a certain period, the shaped crust rises for a little while, but not too long, or else all hell will break loose. Bonné's recipe is not like that at all. You mix the dough, give it a quick knead (just a few minutes, no need to pull out the stand mixer), then let it rise at room temperature all day or overnight, basically exhausting the yeast. And bringing more flavor to the dough (a cardinal rule of bread making: flavor is proportional to the time spent rising).

Although I was a bit apprehensive about letting dough go for so long, it was certainly easy to fit into my schedule.

Rolling, Topping and Baking
The recipe calls for the dough to be formed into three 12" diameter discs. With enough flour, the dough was malleable enough for that task to be easily accomplished. But then moving the thin, flexible round onto the peel was quite a task -- my beautiful circles were mangled into strange geometries that would baffle all but the most skilled geometry expert.

I used too much flour to keep the dough from sticking to the peel (my peel is made of metal, perhaps that makes a difference), resulting in an unappealing layer of flour on the bottom of the crust. A better approach could be to place the dough on a piece of parchment paper near the end of the rolling process, using the paper to prevent the pizza from sticking to the peel. (detailed notes on this are in a section below)

I used three toppings on this batch of pizza:
  1. Cooked tomato sauce, Spring Hill Portuguese-style cheese, and Parmesan cheese.
  2. Ricotta cheese (seasoned with salt and pepper), braised broccoli raab (a.k.a. rapini).
  3. Pesto, fresh tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.
The baking didn't go so well because of a mistake I made before even turning on the oven. I use four quarry tiles that are 6" on each edge as a baking surface. Since I have about 10 of them, I made two layers thinking that I would get "more brick" from that arrangement. Two is better than one, right? Wrong. The air gap between the bricks acted like an insulator, preventing the top layer of bricks from heating up.

Despite the above missteps, the pizzas were pretty good. Even though the bottom of the crust wasn't properly crisped, the very thin crust had enough integrity to support the toppings without sagging. The long rising time (8 hours in this case) imparted the dough with a deep flavor not normally found in my pizza dough.

I'm looking forward to trying the recipe again, the next time without the foolish double-stacked baking tiles.

Possible improvements
Brushing the outside crust with olive oil would give it a better texture and color.

Using parchment paper instead of a generous dusting of flour (or cornstarch, which I really do not like) to prevent the dough from sticking to the peel could be a big improvement. Here's a complicated (and unnecessary?) way to put the paper between the dough and the peel:
  1. Roll out the dough on a floured cookie sheet.
  2. Brush off excess flour.
  3. Put a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough circle.
  4. Place the peel on top and then flip over the entire assembly so that the cookie sheet is on top.
  5. Roll or stretch the dough so it is the right size.
  6. Brush off excess flour.
  7. From the edge of the crust and add toppings.

Making my oven more like a brick oven by placing oven racks in the highest and lowest positions, then placing one layer of bricks on each one to apply brick heat to both the bottom and the top of the pizza.

Random link from the archive: Preserving Summer with Plum Jam

Technorati tags: Pizza : Baking : vegetarian : Food

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Alice Medrich appearance in Berkeley

Dessert lovers of the Bay Area: Alice Medrich is visiting Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore on Berkeley's College Avenue this Saturday, October 20 at 4 PM. She is promoting her new book "Pure Dessert," a book that has received quite a bit of acclaim. And if it is like her reading at Cody's a few years ago, she'll come prepared with goodies from the book.

I owe a debt to Alice Medrich; she was critical to my culinary education. It was her book Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts that taught me how to make chocolate tortes, buttercream, genoise, and other delectable desserts; and how to make gorgeous decorations on cakes.

Mrs. Dalloway's has a few other food-related authors in the next two months, like Janet Fletcher talking about cheese and wine and Georgeanne Brennan talking about the south of France. Both are on the bookstore's events calendar.

(Note: I have no financial connection with this bookstore; I simply like small, independent bookshops, especially ones I can walk to.)

Random link from the archive: Pumpkin with Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa

Technorati tags: Baking : Food

Sunday, October 14, 2007

An out of this world movie: In the Shadow of the Moon

I don't often write about movies here, but now and then something extraordinary breaks through the mass of dreck produced by the money obsessed Hollywood system.

The film is In the Shadow of the Moon, an amazing look back at the Apollo missions that took humans to the moon for the first and only time. What sets this film apart is that most of the commentary is provided by the eight of the twelve astronauts who have walked on the moon, plus the astronaut who piloted the command module during the first moon walk. Their recollections are refreshingly human, relatively devoid of technical speak. They tell us how it felt to be on the missions, what they thought as they saw the tiny earth floating in endless darkness, the difference between fear and worry, and much more.

Along with the interesting words from the astronauts is some incredible archival footage from the earth, space, and the moon. The footage from the moon is especially amazing: everything is gray or black, completely lacking color. The surface of the moon is only gray. The sky is pitch black. The only color is on NASA's equipment -- gold insulating foil on an instrument, the American flag on an astronaut's arm -- or the earth in the background.

The two photos in this post are from the Great Images in NASA library. The top photo was taken during Apollo 8 and is one of the first photos to show the whole earth suspended in the blackness of space. The bottom photo is of Buzz Aldrin setting up some scientific instruments. The photo was taken by Neil Armstrong, who unfortunately does not appear in the film.

New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg has a series of three posts about the film that are well worth reading if this subject is interesting to you or if you appreciate great writing.

The film seems to be flying under the radar, as it were, so if you want to see it, look at your movie listings carefully or use one of the on-line movie finding tools (like Yahoo movies).

Although it might seem like a good movie for kids because it's about space and rockets and so forth, it's probably a bit boring and overly historical. Most of the historical figures and objects -- JFK, JFK's coffin, RFK, Martin Luther King's coffin, Walter Cronkite, and so on -- are not formally introduced, so unless the child knows 1960s history very well, it could be very confusing. In the showing I attended, there was one parent who explained nearly every frame of the movie to his child ("That's President Kennedy." "Look the rocket is on its side." "Another rocket." "They're wearing space suits." "There's Kennedy again."), despite the seemingly forgotten rule about not talking during movies.

If you want to immerse yourself in the moon missions for twelve hours, I also recommend From the Earth to the Moon, a fictionalized series about the people that made the missions possible: the astronauts, engineers, wives, children, bureaucrats, technicians, and thousands more.

Random link from the archive: Favorite Holiday Cookies

Technorati tags: Movies

Thursday, October 04, 2007

File under "why didn't I think of that": free-form lasagna

On a recent Wednesday, L.A. Times food writer Russ Parsons wrote about "free-form lasagna", squares of fresh pasta layered with seasonal ingredients, sauce and cheese, then baked for just a few minutes.

Regardless of the number of Italian grandmothers that Parsons's column angered by calling such a simple thing "lasagna," the concept is brilliant. And fast. And adaptable. And are all about the pasta, unlike lasagnas that are baked so long that the pasta melds with the sauce and filling, essentially disappearing.

I tried it last Sunday night.

First, I made a batch of fresh pasta and rolled it to level six on my machine. (Level seven is the thinnest setting on my pasta machine---I didn't get the one that goes to eleven, which I regret. To understand the importance of eleven, listen to this MP3 from "This is Spinal Tap".) I cut the strips of pasta into squares, tossed each one into salted boiling water for a few seconds until it floated, transferred each square into cool water that had been dosed with a little bit of olive oil, then onto a towel to wait for assembly.

Next, I assembled the fillings. I chose zucchini, a Portuguese-style cheese from Spring Hill Creamery (Petaluma, CA), and slow-roasted Roma tomatoes. To prepare the zucchini, I sliced it on a mandoline and then sauteed the pieces in olive oil until lightly browned on each side. I tossed the cooked pieces with herbs (thyme, basil, marjoram) and seasoned with salt and pepper. To assemble the dish, I layered the elements thusly: pasta, zucchini, pasta, cheese, pasta, tomatoes, with a grating of Parmesan to top it off.

I was very happy with the result. Like Parsons promised in his article, it allowed the fresh pasta to show off its flavors and textures, with the fillings as an accent. The intense slow-roasted tomatoes were perfect with the subtle pasta and humble zucchini.

The free-form technique yielded benefits throughout the week for me. Namely, several lunches at the office. I refrigerated the uneaten portions of the cooked pasta in a sealed container with layers of waxed paper between each piece. At lunch-time, I assembled a free-form lasagna on a plate and popped it in the microwave. It was not as good as if it was baked in the oven, to be sure, but still among the best lunches I have eaten recently.

The technique holds great promise for other seasons. In the winter, one could layer roasted butternut squash and ricotta with sage leaves, then drizzle the assembly with sage-garlic brown butter. Or work with wild mushrooms and a cream sauce. Or any number of combinations.

Read the whole article for more commentary from Russ Parsons, a few pictures and three recipes.

Random link from the archive: My Washoku Introduction

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food