Apricot tart, juicy and impromptu

My baking is often quite unorthodox. I start with a recipe, then change course mid-way, hoping it will work out. This time I had a basket full of beautiful, super-ripe apricots from a local orchard sitting on the counter. The apricots were so juicy that I feared the crust would turn soggy if I placed the apricots directly on the dough. So I turned the recipe upside down. I sprinkled the dough with the sugar-almond mix that was supposed to go on top, and made another batch of the almond-sugar mix for the topping. In fact the apricots were so juicy that as an additional precaution, I placed a jelly roll pan on the rack underneath to catch any drippings, and I am glad I did.

I took notes just in case the apricot tart would turn out fine. It did! Here is the recipe:

Apricot Tart:

Crust:

1 1/3 cups flour

1 stick chilled unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of salt

1 egg yolk

Topping:

1/3 cup whole unpeeled almonds

1/3 cup sugar

4 tablespoons apricot preserves

1.5 pound ripe apricots

1. Place the flour and the butter in the food processor and process to a crumbly consistency. Add the sugar, salt and egg yolk and process until the dough forms a ball. Put the dough in a container with a lid or in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 20 minutes.

2. Toast the almonds in an ungreased pan. Cool, then grind in the food processor with 1/3 cup sugar.

3. Butter a 9-inch tart pan (I used one with a removable bottom) and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the almond mix.

4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

5. Roll out the dough between two pieces of wax paper to a 11-inch circle. Fit the dough into the tart pan with the dough coming up the sides. Trim extra dough with a knife or gently even it out by pinching it together with your fingertips. Sprinkle with half of the remaining almond mix.

6. Wash the apricots and dry well. Cut in half and remove the pits. Place the apricots on the dough cut-side down; they should fit snugly.

7. Warm the apricot preserves and strain them through a fine sieve and brush the apricots with it. Sprinkle with the remaining almond mix and bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Let cool on a wire rack.

Bunny wars (cont.)

I did not do my homework, or I was naïve, or both, thinking that the rabbits would leave my new strawberry patch alone. They are systematically eating their way through the rows. I should have known better – pet rabbits are given strawberry leaves as a treat. Fencing in the strawberry patch is out of the question because to really keep the bunnies out, the fence needs to be galvanized hardwire cloth, buried 6 inches in the ground and at least 3 feet high, like my vegetable garden. Even a stubborn gardener like me must admit that this is not economical for a strawberry patch, and very labor-intensive.

But I wasn’t ready to give up just as yet so as a last attempt (all products I have tried in the past did not work), I bought Plantskydd, an organic rabbit repellent from Sweden that is supposed to do miracles. With one leaf left on a plant, so I learned, the strawberries might survive the onslaught. If in a week or so, the new leaves are not chewed off, the stuff works. Until then, I am not getting my hopes up too high.

Fortunately, our neighbor, a part-time farmer, grows strawberries. He has supplied us with super-ripe strawberries twice this week. This strawberry cake was an impromptu operation so I used what I had on hand. For the lining of the crust, I made a small batch of strawberry jam of the ripest strawberries. Unless it’s top-quality or homemade, I find most strawberry jams nothing but sugary so this was more than a solution borne out of necessity.Strawberry Cake with Vanilla Custard

Crust:

¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) all-purpose flour

2½ level teaspoons baking powder

½ cup (100 g) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

3 tablespoons lemon agrumato olive oil (or lemon-infused olive oil)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 pinch salt

Filling:

1¼  to 1½ pounds washed and hulled strawberries

Strawberry jam for brushing

1 batch homemade vanilla pudding (recipe is on my other blog, Spoonfuls of Germany)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees Celsius). Line a 10-inch (25 cm) cake pan or springform pan with baking parchment and grease the sides.

2. Add all ingredients for the crust to a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until combined, then beat at high speed for 1 minute. Pour into the prepared pan.

3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until firm and golden. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly then unmold onto a cake rack and let cool completely.

4. Brush the cake with jam.

5. Prepare vanilla pudding following recipe. Spread on cake while still lukewarm, leaving about ½ inch (1.25 cm) free all around to give the custard room to spread without dripping down the sides.

6. Wash and hull strawberries and arrange in an overlapping shingle pattern. Refrigerate and serve within a day.

Makes 1 cake 

Long shortcut


I had wanted to make the Deep-Dish Rhubarb Pie from Sarah Leah Chase’s Open-House Cookbook for a long time. Yesterday I finally did it – it took several years for my two rhubarb plants to be strong enough to harvest at once the amount of rhubarb the recipe requires.

Chase’s cookbook is from 1987 and yet another proof that good cookbooks do not need stylish food photography, in fact, there is not a single photo except for the author’s, with an unmistakably 1980’s sweater and hairdo. The book came to me through my husband’s trousseau (he doesn’t cook).  It was one of the cookbooks his mother must have given to all of her children because I have spotted it on the cookbook shelves of my husband’s siblings.

This rhubarb pie is an adaptation of the recipe.

For the lattice crust, I decided to take a shortcut. Or so I thought, because I am not really good at making lattice crust, and I wanted to avoid lengthy fiddling with strips of dough while there is so much weeding, planting and pruning to do right now. Instead I cut out small cookies and placed them on top. This might have taken just as long as producing a lattice! At least I could be sure of a decent result.

Rhubarb can make a runny pie so depending on the freshness and thus moisture content of your rhubarb, you need to increase the amount of cornstarch in the filling. My pie was a bit on the runny side but I thought the filling is yummy as is, so I wouldn’t want to cut back on the amount of cassis, and rather adjust the amount of thickener next time.

Rhubarb Pie with Cassis

Filling:

2¼ pounds diced rhubarb (about 8 cups)

¾ cup Crème de cassis (black currant liqueur)

Grated zest of 2 organic oranges

A little less than 1½ cups (10 ounces) sugar

¼ cup (1 ounce) cornstarch, more as needed

Crust:

2½ cups flour

6 tablespoons cold butter

1/3 cup (2¼ ounces) shortening

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

Pinch of salt

About 4 tablespoons ice water, as needed

1. The night before mix the rhubarb with the cassis and the orange zest in a non-corrosive container. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Cut the butter in chunks and put it in the food processor with the shortening, sugar, ginger and salt. Process until the mixture is crumbly and pebbly, then gradually add tablespoons of ice water and pulse until the dough forms a ball. Place the ball in an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

3. Drain rhubarb and pour the liquid in a saucepan. Set the rhubarb aside. Whisk the sugar and the cornstarch into the liquid and slowing bring to a bowl, whisking constantly. Cook until it turns clear and thickens. Add more cornstarch, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a very thick consistency. Cook to turn clear after each addition, and only then add more cornstarch.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

5. Roll out half of the dough to a 12-inch circle to fit a 10-inch cake pan. Lightly spray the pan with baking spray and fit the dough into the pan, trimming the edges.

6. Mix the rhubarb with the thickened liquid and pour it into the pan.

7. Roll out the remaining dough and cut out small cookies of your fancy. Place them closely together on top the filling.

8. Bake the pie in the preheated oven for 55 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool completely before cutting.

Makes 12 servings

Blueberry haven

Because we have a berry farm in the area where you can pick your own, I don’t bother growing blueberries. The place is perfectly organized: on peak days, such as around July 4th, one family member greets you with a walky-talky alerting a second person, who leads you to your assigned spot. This way you don’t have to pace up and down the rows looking for ripe blueberries. One year, I spent 1.5 hours picking from a couple of bushes and came home with almost 20 pounds of blueberries. After we all have our fill, most of the blueberries go right into the freezer.

Today I used the last bag of those blueberries for a Blueberry Corn Coffee Cake. The recipe is adapted from Deborah Madison’s Sweet Corn Coffee Cake with Berries in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Her recipe is based on an 8-inch springform pan but this one is for a 9-inch cake, therefore the amounts are a bit odd. If you use frozen blueberries like I did, bake the cake a few minutes longer, and if it browns too much on top, cover with a sheet of aluminum foil. Just make sure no ice crystals are clinging to the frozen berries, which might make the cake soggy.

Blueberry Corn Coffee Cake

7¼ ounces flour

3½ ounces yellow cornmeal

5 ounces sugar

2¼ teaspoons baking powder

1 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

6 ounces buttermilk

3½ ounces sour cream (reduced fat)

Finely grated zest of 1 untreated lemon

2¼ teaspoons vanilla extract

2 large eggs

2¾ ounces corn oil

2 cups blueberries

Light brown sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

2. Mix the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk buttermilk, sour cream, lemon zest, vanilla extract, eggs, and corn oil.

4. Mix the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients until well combined. I find that a silicone spatula works best, as you can scrape over the bottom and pick up any lumps.

5. Fill the dough into the prepared pan. Distribute the blueberries on top and gently press them into the dough. Sprinkle with brown sugar and bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

6. Run a knife around the edge to loosen the cake from the pan and remove the rim. Cool completely on a wire rack.

The spirit is willing but…

It’s true, I just recently made the resolution not to buy any more kitchen tools. Easier said than done – when I was in an overstuffed kitchen supply store in New York this week, I succumbed to the temptation. No matter how much my friend teased me, saying I did not need this ludicrous “beginner’s tool”, I bought an egg separator ($1.91 including tax, so money-wise it was a modest impulse purchase). And, I must say it came very handy for the eight eggs that went into the almond-orange cake for a Passover Seder.

I started out with Claudia Roden’s recipe for Almond Cake in Orange Syrup from The Book of Jewish Food but ended up combining and tweaking several of her recipes. Because the cake had to travel several hours to its destination, I assembled it on site. Next time I will definitely use a springform pan, which is higher than the cake pan I used. My cake baked over the rim and crumbled, but since it is sitting in syrup anyway, the imperfection could be disguised by flipping the “ugly” side to the bottom.

Almond Cake with Oranges

Oranges in syrup:

4 large oranges, at least two of them organic

3 cups sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

Cake:

7 ounces unpeeled raw almonds

8 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 cups orange juice (can be store-bought, but use a good quality)

2 tablespoons orange liqueur (Cointreau)

1. For the oranges in syrup, scrub the two organic oranges with a brush under running water. Dry and zest them thinly. Peel the other two oranges. Thoroughly remove the white pith from all the oranges.

2. Cut the oranges into even 1-inch slices and remove any seeds and pith from the middle.

3. Bring 4 cups water, the sugar and lemon juice to a boil in a large skillet. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

4. Carefully place the orange slices in the skillet, if possible in a single layer. Put an inverted dinner place on top to fully immerse the slices in the liquid. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.

5. Remove the oranges from the liquid with a slotted spoon. Spread them in one layer on a large plate.

6. Boil down the syrup at high heat to about half. Let cool.

7. Place the almonds in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes, then drain and fill the bowl with cold water. Slip the almonds out of their skins and spread them on paper towels to dry.

8. Grind half of the almonds finely in the food processor. Chop the other half of the almonds to a coarser but not chunky consistency, using the pulse function.

9. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan.

Chop the orange zest very finely.

10. Separate the eggs. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the batter.

11. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated oven for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. If the cake browns too much but is not done yet, cover it loosely with aluminum foil.

12. Let cool slightly, then carefully remove from the pan and cool completely on a cake rack.

13. Boil the orange juice down to about half. Let cool and stir in the Cointreau.

14. A couple of hours before serving, place the cake on a deep cake plate. Pierce the cake several times with a fork. Drizzle with half of the reduced orange juice.  Arrange the orange slices on top and brush them with a bit of the syrup for a glaze. Pour the rest of the reduced orange juice all around the cake and chill until serving.

Spring cleanup’s sweet side effects

This weekend, I did a big spring cleaning of the kitchen. There were two surprises. I was not aware how much I have accumulated since I moved to the Pennsylvania mountaintop ten years ago (if I had not been into cooking already, I would have certainly started here, as the local restaurant scene is dire, especially if you come straight from New York City). Not that I don’t use all those tools and equipment. Everything is put to use some time, even if only once a year, like the cherry pitter. Yet I promised myself that I will try to stick mainly to replacements.

The other surprise was a jar of canned pears from 2009, the last year we were able to enjoy the pears from our own two pear trees. Usually the other stakeholders to the pears, most likely raccoons or groundhogs, eat the pears before we can. One year when I went out with two large baskets for picking, all the pears were gone. Not a single pear on the tree. It had been loaded with fruit just a couple of days before.

Since I don’t know if and when we will have our own pears again, I wanted to use this last jar for something special. I made my favorite pear cake that my husband says must be eaten with vanilla ice-cream (he had two helpings sitting next to me on the sofa as as I write this, saying that the second was only a test to see if it still tasted as good as the first).

Spiced Chocolate Pear Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 packed cup (10 ounces) light brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup pear nectar (from the canned pears)

¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger

2 ounces finely grated bittersweet chocolate

2 cups canned pear chunks, drained

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Butter and flour a 9-inch-diameter springform pan.

3. Mix flour with baking powder, baking soda, salt and all the spices.

4. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs, vanilla extract and pear nectar.

5. Gradually work in the flour mix until dough is smooth. Add ginger and chocolate. Fold in the pear chunks.

6. Pour mix into the prepared pan and even out with a spatula. Bake 45 to 60 minutes, until toothpick comes out somewhat clean (because of the pears, there will always be some moisture clinging to the tester, but it should not be liquid).

7. Cool cake 10 minutes. Release cake from pan sides with a plastic knife. Cool completely on rack.

Cake on wheels

With the early raspberries almost gone, and just a handful of ripe blackberries, there is not too much to harvest for sweet splurges right now. But I had set my mind on making a cake for my parents-in-law, and I wanted to use at least something from the garden.

So I settled on a lemon pie with blackberries only for garnish. The forgotten half-empty jar of English lemon marmalade in the fridge, for which I had tried to find a use (the parsimony mantra “do not waste food” was fed to me with the baby bottle) came extremely handy – it gave the top a nice shiny finish.

Yet looking at the cake now, I am starting to wonder if and how it will survive the five-hour car ride. At least I have the photo to show if it arrives all mush, and I can always make it again for on-site consumption – if my tasting panel likes it.

Lemon Cake with Blackberries

Crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup shortening, at room temperature

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup + 1 tablespoon cold water (as needed)

Filling:

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 cups milk

1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar

3 egg yolks

Juice of 3 lemons (at least two of them organic)

Grated zest of 2 organic lemons

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Garnish:

24-30 blackberries

½ to 1 cup lemon marmalade

1. Mix flour, shortening and salt thoroughly in a bowl with a pastry blender. Add just enough water to hold the dough together in a firm ball.

2. Roll out the dough between two large pieces of wax paper to fit a 9-inch springform pan plus about a 1-inch edge.

3. Grease the springform pan and fit the dough into the pan. Even out the edge with a knife. Place in the freezer while you prepare the filling.

4. Mix the cornstarch with a bit of the milk to a smooth consistency. Put the rest of the milk with the sugar in a double boiler. Beat the egg yolks and add them to the milk. Whisk the cornstarch mixture into the milk and cook over boiling water until it thickens and coats a spoon, about 10-12 minutes, stirring constantly (you might wonder if that coating ever happens, but you know unmistakably when you’re there).

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

6. Juice the lemons and chop the lemon zest of the two organic lemons very finely.

7. When the mixture thickens, stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla. Pour the mixture into the pie crust and carefully transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the filling is set. If the crust gets dark but the filling is still too liquid, place a sheet of aluminum foil on top and bake a few minutes longer. But note that the filling will set more when it’s cold.

8. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool completely on a rack. Carefully run a knife along the edge and remove the rim of the pan.

9. Heat the lemon marmalade in a small saucepan and strain through a fine sieve. Brush a thin coat of marmalade on the cake.

10. Place the blackberries with their blossom ends down in a circle around the edge of the cake. Coat the blackberries and in-between the blackberries with marmalade. This works best with a small brush. If you have any marmalade left, brush the side of the cake. Refrigerate until serving.