There are many things to love about Basque country: gorgeous beaches, cream-filled pastries, warm days and cool nights, men in berets. But my favorite thing, I think, is the ubiquitous pintxo (think of it as Basque tapas, held on a slice of bread with a toothpick). You can build a meal out of these bite-sized snacks, hopping from bar to bar, or you can use them as a bridge between late-afternoon cocktails and a proper dinner, to which you should not sit down until 10 pm at the earliest.
In early September, I spent a week in Spain, and tried pintxos in Barcelona and in San Sebastian (and so now consider myself a kind of expert). Typically, you can walk into a pintxos bar, ask for a plate, and load it up with any of the many treats spread out along the bar, as was the case with Euskal Etxea (pictured), in the Barri Gotic in Barcelona. Hang onto those toothpicks–the bartender counts them up to charge you for the total eaten. To stay true to the Basque theme, you should accompany the snacks with a Basque beverage, such a sidra, an alcoholic cider drink, or txakokis, which is a sparkling white wine. That said, cava is never a bad idea.
However, in certain places, you should point to what you want, and the staff will prepare it for you (I learned this the hard way, via a sea-urchin specimen, at the must-visit Alona Berri in San Sebastian). Astelena, also in San Sebastian, was my favorite pintxos bar, and besides having a wealth of ready-to-eat bites, also specializes in dishes ”a la plancha,” including seared foie gras, which they serve on a slab, accessorized with a tiny baked apple.
A major component of many pintxos is the anchovy; my favorite, and one of the most common, is a toothpick spearing a stack of tiny green peppers (pickled? they were very tangy), an anchovy, and an olive. Perfectly salty and sour.
A word to the wise: if you plan to spend a few days in Basque country, save the pintxos bars for the weeknights. It was my experience that, on the weekends, the beach towns fill up with backpackers and other weekend-trippers, and the bars become overwhelmingly packed. There is also amazing haute-cuisine-level eating in the area, which would be a more civilized choice for weekend evenings.
Euskal Extea – Placeta Montcada 1-3, Barcelona
Alona Berri – Bermingham 24, San Sebastian
Bar Astelena – Calle de Inigo, San Sebastian]]>
Although I like to focus my baking efforts on end-of-summer plums and other seasonal fruits this time of year, these coconut macaroons are too good not to write about. I love the contrast of a perfectly-baked macaroon’s golden, crispy bottom and soft interior, and if you make these using unsweetened shredded coconut they deliver a lot of coconut flavor with just a little sweetness. I omitted the coconut extract in the Great Cookies recipe, using vanilla instead for a more subtle flavor.A (the?) secret to a well-crafted macaroon is cooking time. You have to make a uniformly-shaped batch (about 1.5 tablespoons of dough per cookie, and molded into a dome shape) and then remove them from the oven just at the 20 minute mark. If you can catch them at the proper moment, the white interior and golden brown crags of the exterior will leave you with a dessert that is both handsome and delicious.
Coconut Macaroons, adapted from Carol Walter’s Great Cookies
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with a silicone baking mat.
Break apart almond paste and place in bowl of a standing mixer, and add both granulated and confectioner’s sugar. Mix them all using the paddle attachment, on medium-low speed for about 5 minute. The process will be complete when the almond paste is in very small pieces. Mix in the flour.
Combine the egg whites and salt in a separate bowl, using a whisk or fork to break up the whites. Add the mixture to the almond paste and mix on low for a few seconds, until blended. Remove the bowl and fold in the coconut and extract. Let this mixture stand for 10 minutes to set.
Using a two spoons, put the mixture on your cookie sheet into macaroon-sized balls, about 2-inches apart. Bake sheets by themselves, for 20 minutes, until tops are golden and bottoms are becoming crisp. Let cool on cookie sheet for five minutes, then remove to a cooling rack until they are room temperature.
(This recipe is easily halved.)]]>
At the peak of summer, when the green markets and grocery stores are full of stone fruits, I love to make desserts with plums. This recipe is based on a berry cobbler I found in August’s Martha Stewart Living, and is really easy. The original recipe calls for berries, rather than plums, but it could serve as a template for any sort of fruit cobbler. I also added lemon zest and juice, for a little extra brightness.
Wash plums and slice into wedges (6 to 8 wedges per plum); put into a large bowl. Whisk together the cinnamon, sugars, cornstarch, and lemon zest, and pour over plums; toss to coat, squeeze lemon juice over, and toss again. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add butter pieces and cut in with a pastry cutter until the mixture is sandy, with a few larger, pea-sized pieces. Stream in the heavy cream or thinned yogurt and stir together the mixture with a wooden spoon until it comes together in a ball, adding a bit more liquid if necessary. Divide dough into 9 pieces and form each into a ball, flattening slightly.
Pour fruit mixture, and any accumulated juice, into an 8×8 baking dish, and top with the dough balls, spacing them out evenly. Brush dough balls with extra heavy cream and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until the biscuit topping is nicely browned. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving.
*I should mention that the people at Stonyfield Farms were kind enough to send me a few coupons for their Greek-style yogurt, Oikos.]]>
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a few days in Monterosso, one of the hilltop Cinque Terre towns in Italy’s Liguria region and home to possibly the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been on. At one of the town’s shops I spotted a barrel of gorgeous, rustic, locally-grown lemons, with leaves still attached, and I knew what my souvenir would be. So, after I spent a few days admiring them, still-life-like in a bowl on my kitchen counter, I obliterated them in the blender to create this whole lemon tart.
I borrowed this recipe from the Babbo baking book, but omitted the limoncello because I didn’t have it, and the 1/3 cup lemon juice because I was afraid it would make the filling too bitter, without the sweetness of the limoncello for balance. These lemons were ideal for this recipe because they were not covered with a thick layer of wax, like so many supermarket varieties; because this recipe uses the entire lemon (except for the seeds), skin and all, try to find some without that wax covering.
The end result is a sweet, citrus-flavored crust and a tart filling, studded with chewy bits of lemon rind that creates an interesting texture and a taste that reminds me of a lemon Starburst. NB: this recipe must be started one day in advance, as stated in the recipe below.
All-Of-The-Lemon Tart (adapted from Gina dePalma’s Dolce Italiano)
The day before making the tart, wash and dry the two lemons, and slice them as thinly as possible. Remove the seeds and toss the lemon slices with the sugar in a bowl; cover and refrigerate overnight.
On a floured board, roll out the crust dough into a round 11 inches wide, and fit into a 10-inch fluted tart pan, trimming off excess edges. Refrigerate while you make the filling.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Put the entire contents of the lemon slice bowl into a blender, and blend until the mixture is pureed (a few larger bits are okay).
In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, egg yoks, heavy cream, vanilla, and salt. Add the pureed lemon mixture to the egg mixture, and whisk until well-combined. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and place on a baking sheet; pour the filling into the shell, and bake for 50 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees, rotating halfway through baking time and removing when the top of the tart is lightly browned (filling will not be completely set). Let cool completely, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, before serving.
Sweet Tart Crust
Place dry ingredients and zest in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the cubed butter and pulse until mixture is sandy, with no large lumps of butter remaining.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla, and heavy cream; add to butter mixture and pulse until the dough comes together in a ball. Remove from processor, shape into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until ready to use.]]>
Wash leeks in a bowl of cold water; drain well in a sieve.
Put lentils in 2-quart saucepan, cover with 2 inches of water, and bring to a simmer; simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook bacon in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp; remove from skillet to a paper-towel lined plate. Add leeks, celery, and carrots to fat remaining in skillet and cook just until tender, about 5 minutes, and scrape up brown bits in skillet with a wooden spoon. Add vinegar and boil until evaporated, then remove pan from heat. Stir in tarragon, bacon, and salt and pepper. Drain lentils and stir into vegetable mixture, then stir in spinach; set aside and cover to keep warm.
Wipe out skillet and add olive oil, heating over medium until hot (but not smoking). Crack four eggs into skillet, and fry to desired doneness; remove to a covered plate and season with salt and pepper. Cook remaining four eggs.
Divide lentil mixture among four plates, and top with two eggs each.]]>
Meringues are so French to me; one of my favorite things about Paris is looking into the windows of pastry shops and seeing huge meringues piled on top of each other in the display cases. I had never tried making them because they seem so high-maintenance–you can’t make them on a humid day, they take a long time to bake, and you have to beat the egg whites very thoroughly. However, these are really easy, and a good way to use up extra egg whites.
Chocolate Chip Meringues (adapted from smittenkitchen.com)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat egg whites until foamy; add salt and cream of tartar and beat on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks. Continue beating on medium-high and stream in sugar gradually; beat until mixture holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes. Fold in chocolate. Spoon mixture onto a lined baking sheet (you can make them small or very large), and bake at 300 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 250 and bake for another 45 to 50 minutes, or until the bottoms are slightly brown. The outsides will be firm and the insides will be hollow, with a marshmallow-y filling.
Makes 12 2-inch-in-diameter meringues.]]>
I am especially attracted to recipes that bill themselves as “even better the next day”–as a baker who doesn’t always have a crowd to bake for, it helps being able to extend the life of a dessert (and if it is eligible to become breakfast, all the better). So when I found this recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking, I figured it would be practical enough. And healthy (bananas)! And, as much as I like it a day or two old, it is AMAZING right out of the oven. Even though it was 10 pm by the time I finished making this, I kept sneaking back into the kitchen to trim slivers as it was cooling. After a day or two, the texture changes from fluffy–almost bouncy–to dense, closer to pound cake, with a more concentrated, banana-y flavor.
I served this accessorized with slightly-sweetened whipped cream and sliced strawberries, which added a sweet-tart element–really good. You could also dust it with powdered sugar, and I don’t think you would get any complaints if you served it plain.
Classic Banana Bundt Cake (from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9- or 10-inch Bundt pan.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time, for about a minute after each, then mix in vanilla. Reduce mixer speed to low and mix in mashed bananas. Keeping the mixer on low, add half of the flour mixture (batter will likely appear curdled), the sour cream or yogurt, and the rest of the flour mixture, just until flour disappears–do not overmix.
Bake 65 to 75 minutes, or until inserted cake tester coes out clean. Start to check the cake after 30 minutes, and if it is already a dark-gold color, cover the cake with a piece of tented foil to prevent an overly-browned exterior. Cool the cake in its pan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then unmold the cake onto the rack to finish cooling. Store tightly wrapped in plastic.]]>
This New York Times recipe makes the perfect chocolate chip cookie. The downside: it’s pretty fussy. The amount of cookie dough it yields is quite large, and not easily divisible; it uses two types of flours (bread and pastry), neither necessarily a pantry staple; and must rest at least 24 hours, 72 to produce the best results. I rejiggered a recipe for White Chocolate-Butterscotch Cookies, from the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, into fast, easy chocolate chip cookies. These may lack the caramelized and more complex flavor of the NYT recipe, but they are plenty buttery, soft-with-crispy-edges, and delicious. And easier.
Fast and Easy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper.
In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down sides of mixer and beat in egg until well-combined. Reduce mixer speed to low and mix in dry ingredients just until combined; mix in chocolate chips.
Drop rounded tablespoon-fuls of dough 2 inches apart on cookie sheets; bake just until edges turn golden brown, and the middles are slightly underdone (about 9 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes on sheets, then remove to a cooling rack.]]>
A more descriptive name for this could be Cookie Dough Pie. The filling is composed of very basic ingredients (eggs, sugar, a little flour, butter) and accessorized with chocolate chips, walnuts, and whiskey; when it comes out of the oven, it’s not exactly custardy (due to the flour) and not exactly cakey, with the sweetness of pecan pie filling but not the gelatinous texture. It is also surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have pie crusts on standby. The most important part of the process is achieving volume while beating the eggs, dry ingredients, and butter to make the filling; this will ensure a rich, but not-too-dense, end result.
To get clean slices, this pie definitely needs to set for a couple of hours, but try to be patient–it is easily revived by doing as the authors suggest and popping it into the microwave for 15 seconds; the filling gets soft, and the chocolate chips turn warm and melty.
Baked’s Tuscaloosa Tollhouse Pie
On a lightly-floured surface, roll out dough to form a 12-inch round. Press into a pie dish, folding under edges. Freeze crust while you make the filling.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a bowl, whisk together flour and sugars; set aside.
Fit an electric mixer with its whisk attachment, and beat eggs on high speed until foamy, about 3 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment, and mix in flour and sugars on low. Turn mixer to high and beat for 2 minutes; add butter and beat on high until combined. Scrape down sides, add whiskey, and beat on high for another minute, then fold in walnuts and 3/4 cup of chocolate chips.
Pour filling into chilled pie shell, scatter remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips across the top, and bake for 25 minutes. Cover edges of crust with foil and bake for another 25 minutes; remove from oven when inserted knife or pie tester comes out clean. Cool on a cooling rack completely (at least one hour) before serving.]]>