SULTRY POPPY SEED TORTE

Ah, the humble poppy seed. For many, the mention of them in relation to baking may bring to mind merely a flat-line of emotion; the innocuous bagel garnish or scant afterthought in the ubiquitous lemon-poppy seed muffin (and frankly, if I never set eyes one of those again, I will be none the less for it). But poppy seeds have a whole world of flavor to divulge when used as the main ingredient.

From Czech, Jewish, Indian, and Turkish, and as far back as the Sumerians and Egyptians, we can credit a number of cuisines for elevating this inky little seed to noble status. My poppy seed radar, however, always makes a bee-line toward central Europe. Delve into traditional Austro-Hungarian pastries and you will find poppy seeds cast in the starring role as dark, moist fillings for strudel and mohnstriezel, rich paste swirled through kugelhopf – or as in this cake – unabashedly standing in place of flour as the main ingredient. In the following recipe for mohntorte, they are ground finely, combined with butter, sugar, lemon zest, and spices, to reveal an earthy, intoxicating personality.

A moist slice of Mohntorte.

I rediscovered this classic recipe while leafing through The Art of Viennese Pastry (1969) by the lovely Marcia Colman Morton. I have taken a few small liberties; adding two teaspoons of espresso powder and omitting the fondant icing as I find it a bit overly sweet. I topped the cake instead with apricot preserves and a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Please trust me when I tell you (against the irresistible desire to eat a slice still warm from the oven) that this cake is immeasurably better once it has rested overnight and the flavors given time to marry. The tang of the lemon zest plays off the rich chocolate, smoky notes of the poppy seeds…cinnamon, nutmeg and espresso adding warmth and depth…all combining to create complex layers of flavor. The wait will be torture, I know, but worth it. I promise.

This cake is utter heaven with a cup of espresso. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Come, dear reader, into the sultry world of the unassuming poppy seed…

Poppy Seed Torte – Mohntorte

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 c (2 ounces) butter
  • 3/4 c (6 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1-3/4 c poppy seeds (6 ounces), finely ground
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tsp. Instant espresso powder
  • 1 tsp. Cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • roughly 2 T apricot jam/preserves, strained to remove large pieces
  • sifted confectioner’s sugar to cover cake top

Prep:

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter and flour an 8” springform pan (or a cake pan at least 3” deep, bottom lined with parchment). Grind poppy seeds in a good metal-blade grinder, I find a coffee grinder works well. Break up any lumps and whisk together with lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Set aside. Have egg whites in a separate squeaky-clean bowl, whisk, and granulated sugar (3 ounces) in a small bowl, at the ready.

Directions:

Cream butter and half the sugar (3 ounces) until very fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, keeping mixture fluffy. Beat in poppy seeds, lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Whip egg whites until foamy, drizzle in remaining sugar, whipping until stiff peaks form. Fold in 1/3 of beaten whites to the poppy seed mixture to lighten it. Gently but thoroughly fold in the remainder. Pour batter into buttered and floured pan.

Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Once cake is cool enough to handle (about 20 – 30 minutes) run a knife around the sides to release the cake and remove springform frame (if using a regular cake pan, loosen and turn over onto a parchment lined plate or cardboard, then flip back on a serving plate to rest).

Once cake is at room temperature, let it rest overnight, covered.

The next day with the cake at room temperature, spread a thin layer of apricot preserve over the top and sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. Pour some coffee and enjoy!

Store covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature to serve, sprinkling with additional confectioner’s sugar if needed.

Tip:

Because of the oil content in poppy seeds, they can go rancid easily. To prevent them from losing their fresh flavor, store them in the freezer in an airtight container (doubled freezer bags work also)

To buy fresh, quality poppy seeds in bulk, try these suppliers:

Kalustyan’s in New York City http://www.kalustyans.com/searchcatalog.asp

Otto’s Hungarian Import Store & Deli in Burbank, CA http://www.hungariandeli.com/Mak.htm

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.

CLASSIC FRENCH HOT CHOCOLATE – Chocolat Chaud Classique

I can’t think of a better antidote to a damp and rainy New England afternoon than this classic, French-style hot chocolate. Much richer and darker than its American counterpart, this recipe – derived from Pierre Hermé – uses less sugar and the best dark chocolate and cocoa powder you can get your hands on. Made with more water than milk or cream, it really lets the flavors of the chocolate shine through without being heavy or cloying. Luxurious and delicious…break out your favorite cups, curl up and enjoy!

Chocolat Chaud Classique

Makes 4-four ounce cups or 8-two ounce cups (demi-tasse)

Ingredients:

125 g/ 4-1/2 oz. dark chocolate, 67% or more cocoa solids

450 ml/ 3/4 cup water

50 g/ 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

25 g/ 1/3cup + 1 Tbsp. cocoa powder, sifted

65 ml/ 1/4 cup half & half

Directions:

  1. Chop the chocolate into small pieces and set aside in medium, heat-proof bowl
  2. In a small bowl, whisk the cocoa powder with 125 g/ 1/4 c of the water until a smooth paste forms
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring to a boil the water and sugar
  4. Reduce heat, gradually whisking in the cocoa powder and water mixture
  5. Bring back up to a simmer, whisking briskly until completely smooth
  6. Remove from heat, mix in half and half
  7. Pour a third of the hot mixture over chocolate pieces, whisking from the center. Once chocolate is melted, add remaining liquid
  8. Stir until smooth and glistening, pour and serve!

Some of my favorite additional serving suggestions:

Add a wee tipple of Grand Marnier or cognac

A dollop of whipped cream

A grating of fresh nutmeg

(In the unlikely event you have some left over, store in the fridge, then gently reheat on a low flame, just don’t let it boil.)

All content © Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.

TARTE ALSACIENNE – Alsatian Apple & Custard Tart

You can be certain the first phase of spring has arrived in New England when the day starts out sunny and pleasant and by the time you’re ready for that afternoon cuppa joe…it’s snowing. Yes, you heard right. I know…you’re jealous. I’ll definitely be needing something sweet to go with that coffee. You’re nodding your head, yes? Glad you agree.

I happen to have some heavy cream I need to use up and a few last lovely Vermont Cortland apples begging to be eaten before they’ve lost their tart crispness…now this is my kind of problem. The perfect answer to my quandary is an old and dear friend, a tarte Alsacienne.  Buttery, flaky crust cradling carmelised and flambéed apples, and just the right amount of creamy custard. To my mind, a perfect combination.

Let’s get started, shall we?

First for the crust:

Pate Briseé – makes enough for two 8 or 9 inch tarts

  • 250 grams/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 135 grams/10 tbsps cold butter, cubed
  • 65 milliliters/1/4 cup ice water

After measuring, sift your dry ingredients together. Cut in the cold butter until you’ve got lentil-sized bits, then add the ice water and blend in. Don’t overwork the dough. Divide in two, wrap and place one in the freezer for a future something yummy (always prepared!) and the other in the fridge to rest for a half hour. Tip: you can make this ahead, chilling for several days well wrapped or thaw frozen Pate Briseé overnight in the fridge.

Roll out the rested dough, 1/8” thick, into a circle 2 inches larger in diameter than your tart pan.

Transfer the dough to your (un-greased) tart pan and gently work into the corners and sides, taking care not to stretch the dough as you work and thoroughly mending any little cracks or holes. Chill until firm, about 10 -15 minutes (or overnight if you want to do ahead).

Line the chilled shell with parchment paper, fill with pie weights or dry beans and blind bake until lightly browned. Once no raw spots remain, take out of the oven and remove the parchment and the pie weights or beans, setting the shell aside to cool.

While your shell is blind baking, get started on the apples:

  • 3  tart, firm apples (granny smith or golden delicious work well)
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon armagnac (calvados, cognac or brandy are fine substitutes) pre-measured into a small ramekin or cup

Tip: you can substitute a good apple cider for the liquor if you want to do an alcohol-free tart.

Peel, core, and halve the apples and cut each half into five wedges.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add the apple wedges moving them around here and there until they begin to brown.

Sprinkle the sugar over the apples, moving things around and adjusting the heat so everything is browning evenly. Allow the sugar to caramelize, but not too dark. You will gain colour quickly in the next step.

Are you ready to flambé? Done it before? No problem? If so, then jump right in and flambé the apples with the armagnac and cook for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol and to reduce the liquid. You’re looking for some nice colour and carmelisation, some dark brown tips and edges, but not burnt. Remove the apples from the pan and set aside to cool.

If you haven’t flambé-d before, please read my tips following before completing the step above. Be safe…I don’t want to hear any horrid stories involving fire and whatnot. Okay???

Tips for Safe Flambé-ing: 1) Let others in the vicinity know that you are about to have flames in the kitchen. “Fire in the hole!” usually works well. I’ve taken to saying it even if no one’s in the kitchen but me. It makes me feel rather invincible and cool. 2) Have a metal lid handy just in case you need to snuff any flames that get out of hand quickly. 3) Always move the pan off the flame to pour in the alcohol, returning to light it (or ignite with a stick lighter). Be ready to pull it back off if you have a low stove hood and high flames. 4) No matter how efficient it seems at the time, do not pour your booze directly from the bottle into the hot pan and resist the urge to start slogging the liquor in the pan. For one, you don’t want to set the whole bloody kitchen on fire now do you? I’m serious – this is FIRE we’re talking about here. Also, and probably the worse sin, you don’t want the liquor to overpower the other flavours of the tart. Restraint is a virtue. I don’t care what you learned in your college years.

Awaiting flambé

Now, get yourself a nice cup of java to celebrate your bravery in the face of raw danger and open flames.

While things are cooling, it’s a good time to mix up the custard:

Tip: custard can be made up to 1 day ahead and held covered in the fridge.

  • 1 egg
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup milk
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (use the good stuff)

Whisk together the egg, sugar, milk, cream, and vanilla extract. Strain through a fine strainer.

Arrange the cooled apples in the bottom of the cooled tart shell. Put your pan in the oven first, then pour the custard over the apples. Bake the tart at 250°F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Will keep for 1 day wrapped in the fridge.

It’s great for breakfast too!

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.

TO-DIE-FOR Chocolate Ganache & Macadamia Nut Tart

Chocolaty goodness!

The Mediterranean sea is deep, azure blue just as I’ve heard it would be, the sun warm, and my thoughts are on dark chocolate…rich, glossy, mahogany-colored chocolate… A languid breeze brushes my skin as I finish my cigarette on the crew deck of the cruise ship I’m working on.

It’s late April and I’ve been less than two weeks on board as Pastry Chef and am seriously struggling with the schedule: 7 days a week, 14 – 18 hours a day.

I didn’t smoke before I boarded, but I smoke now.

Sleep deprivation and high stress do not a pretty combination make. Oh glorious weekend, where art thou?

Photo © John Gertz

Combing the back streets of Lisbon.

Today we are sailing somewhere between Malaga, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal. A day at sea means the dining rooms will be at their fullest. I have several desserts to prepare for this evening, one of which is a chocolate macadamia tart. As often happens when you step in to take the helm from another departed chef, you must learn to fly by the seat of your pants to a certain degree. For this dessert there is little description to go by and no recipe to speak of…some interpretation would be in order.

Given that the first word in the dessert title is chocolate, I deduce – as any chocolate lover would – that really good chocolate should feature prominently with macadamia nuts magnanimously offering up a supporting role with their toasty, buttery notes. I decide to use a dark ganache filling (luckily we are able to source Valrhona on the ship) slowly cooked in a ring mold, dotted with toasted macadamia nuts with salted caramel ice cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate garnish to complete the dessert.

The result was a dark silky disc studded with crunchy bits of toasted nut and buttery undertones. Smooth and delicate to eat, every bite rewarding with full flavor and richness. I was pleased to serve it, as was the Executive Chef, and it ran very well – always the bottom line. Compliments came back with the servers; it was a hit.

Show plate on the pass (since this plate must survive the long, hot hours during service, the ice cream quenelle is marzipan and not real ice cream).

Some weeks later, when a veteran pastry chef came on board, I was at last shown the intended execution for this dessert which turned out to be oceans away from what I had done. It did not prominently feature chocolate as an ingredient, the chef adding instead a mere sprinkling of chopped chocolate (the cheapest I am sad to report – yes, even five-star kitchens must succumb to the budget overlord – each chef dealing with it in their own way) to a very sweet, chewy, bar-like mixture cut into rounds. Now this wouldn’t have been my personal choice for the level of clientele we were serving, but out of mutual respect I think it’s always a good idea to keep an open mind as to individual interpretation.

Though our work is done within the confines of the kitchen, as a chef I feel it is vital to always put myself in the diner’s seat with the dessert I’m preparing. Besides the obvious taste and visual components, I must ask “will it be elegant and graceful to eat with no embarrassment potential?” (think poppy seeds or too much gelatin). Blame it on us pastry people being a little obsessive, but just I couldn’t shake the vision of some poor guest dressed in swank evening attire going in to wrest a bite from this tart and the entire dense, sticky disc launching off the plate into a perfect slow-motion arc to ping another guest 2 tables away squarely in the head…or landing in their glass of 89 Lynch Bages – or some other mortifying scenario.

So, call me a rebel if you will, but I’m going to give you the unctuous, silky and oh-so-chocolaty version that I would prefer to eat (and did…several I must tell you). And judging from the guest response, I’m going to venture out on a limb and say you will enjoy this rendition equally well. Break out the best possible chocolate you can get your hands on for this tart. I’m serious. It is the star here. You will thank me later. My choice? Valrhona Caraibe 66%. It’s dark and rich with warm, nutty notes that speak well to the toasted macadamias. But don’t just take my word for it, experiment and try different kinds! Don’t you just love doing R&D?

CHOCOLATE MACADAMIA NUT TART

Macadamia Påte Sucrée (yield = 3 – 8″ tart shells, approx. 1000 g) You’ll get best results if all ingredients are at room temperature:

  • 125 g powdered sugar
  • 250 g butter, unsalted
  • 3 eggs, large
  • 500 g cake flour
  • 100 g finely ground toasted macadamia nuts
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  1. In the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the powdered sugar
    and butter until light and fluffy.
  2. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure the mixture is homogeneous after each addition.
  3. Add the cake flour, baking powder and ground macadamias all at once.
  4. Mix slowly just to combine.
  5. Wrap the dough and refrigerate it until firm.
  6. While that’s chilling, preheat your oven to 180C/350F, make yourself a perfect cup of espresso and start your mis en place for the filling:

Tart Mixture

  • 225 g chocolate, 60% or darker, chopped
  • 215 g heavy cream
  • 65 g eggs, about 3 large
  • 95 g  whole milk
  • 200 g macadamia nuts, toasted and very roughly chopped – 150 g go into the tart, and reserve 50 g for sprinkling on top after baking.

Roll out and line either:

  • 1 – 8″ or 9″ tart pan or
  • 6 – 4” tart pans or
  • 12 – 60mm ring molds (If you are using ring molds, line a 1/2 sheet pan, dock, par bake, then press the rings into the crust while still warm).

Line tart pan(s) with parchment and fill with pie weights or beans. Par bake the sucrée until it just barely starts to take on colour. Remove the crust(s) from the oven, remembering of course to lower the temperature to 85C/185F. Let shell(s) cool while you make the tart mixture.

  1. Make a ganache of chocolate and cream; bring the cream just to a scald and pour over the waiting chocolate pieces. Let sit several minutes then mix from the center gradually incorporating the ingredients until dark, glossy and fully mixed.
  2. Combine eggs and milk, add gradually to the ganache, mixing constantly with a spatula, making sure not to shock the eggs and not to produce bubbles in the mixture.
  3. Mix in 150g of the roughly chopped macadamias. Fill tart shells to a bit below the crust edge or ring molds to about a good finger’s thickness.
  4. Bake in 85C/185F oven – low and slow baby– until just set. No bubbles should appear on the tops of the tarts while baking – this means the temp is too hot. (Should you notice some bubbles forming during baking, lower the oven temperature a little).

Depending on the size of your tart(s) and your oven this could take as little as 30 minutes and up to an hour or more. They are done when the centers are just set and not loosely jiggly anymore. The tops should be still glossy (if not, also too hot).

Remove from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. If you are serving that day, leave the tarts at room temperature. If not, refrigerate but bring out at least one hour before serving.

Sprinkle tops with the remaining 50 g chopped macs and garnish as you wish!

My Wine Pairing Suggestions: Ruby or vintage port, or late growth Cabernet would pair well with the dark chocolate here.

Tip: You can also store the unbaked mixture, well wrapped in the fridge, for up to 3 days.

Additional photo credits:

SALADE NICOISE with Tilapia and Arugula

I recently had the distinct pleasure of spending some time in southern France – my first time – and I can tell you all the filthy rumours are true; the Mediterranean really IS that blue, the quality of light rarified and incredible, the atmosphere intoxicating…and the food? Well, yes, yes…and yes. Fresh, succulent, simply prepared – in a word: delicious!

With the warmth of summer fully upon us, my craving for all kinds of fresh salads has grown exponentially with versions of the classic Nicoise gracing my table most often of late.

Traditionally made with tuna, I decided to try something lighter and fresher tasting and came across some fresh Tilapia fillets at my local seafood purveyor (budget bonus…they usually ring in at about 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of fresh tuna). I tossed in some peppery arugula with the mixed greens to give it an extra flavour component and I have to say it’s become one of my favourite combinations thus far!

Salade Nicoise with Tilapia & Arugula

Ingredients for 2 meal-size salads:

  • 2 fresh Tilapia fillets, salted and peppered on each side
  • Fresh arugula and mixed greens
  • Several small Yukon Gold potatoes, boiled, cooled and quartered, dressed in some of the vinaigrette
  • Hardboiled eggs, cooled, peeled and quartered, 1 per person
  • Tomatoes cut into wedges
  • Haricots verts (thin green beans) steamed until just tender and cooled
  • Red onion, thinly sliced
  • Radishes, thinly sliced
  • Cucumber, thinly sliced
  • Nicoise olives
  • Anchovy slices (splurge for the good stuff)
  • Garlic Balsamic Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

For the Garlic Balsamic Vinaigrette:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil, extra virgin cold pressed
  • 1-2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced
  • Parsley and some fresh herbs to your taste (rosemary/tarragon/thyme/a little mint), finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook up your potatoes, eggs, and green beans up to a day ahead so they have some time to cool. Mix together the vinaigrette and toss in the sliced onion to marinate. Prep the rest of your veggies.

Heat a sauté pan on a medium-high flame, drizzle with some olive oil and pop in your fillets. While they sauté toss the greens with the radishes, cucumbers (and onions which are already in there) reserving some of the vinaigrette for finishing.

Nothin' says lovin' like anchovy and boiled potato.

It should be time to take a sip of wine and turn over your fillets. While they finish portion out the salad between two generous bowls. Arrange the quartered and dressed potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, Nicoise olives and hard-boiled eggs around the top of the tossed greens.

When the Tilapia is just barely done, transfer to the tops of the salads, drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette and finish by draping 2 generous slices of anchovy over the top. Pour the chilled rosé and enjoy!

Fin

Bridge Street Is Back Baby!

It’s nearly ten months since Hurricane Irene barreled through Vermont. While there will be a degree of re-building to do for some time, overall the Green Mountain State has bounced back admirably, due in no small part to the amazing sense of community here.

Clean-up the morning after the flood started bright and early with lots of eager volunteers.

For those of you who have followed the fate of the Blue Building, situated on historic Bridge Street in the center of town and the former home of The Green Cup Café where I was pastry chef, she is coming back strong at long last.

Raging water of the Mad River on 28 August 2011

After a long, arduous winter of foundation work on the building, there is now new life buzzing in the spaces. The Green Closet (a chic, resale shop), The Sweet Spot (amazing sweets and house-made ice cream), the new restaurant “Peasant” (rustic Italian fare) coming in August and also, as serendipity would have it, soon to be the new home of Design Bistro!

The Blue Building just a few weeks ago – great volunteers come out to help install new clapboards. Photo from the Mad River-Irene Facebook page.

Along with the sprouting of new life around us in the woods, fields and gardens, it seems our wee treasure of a town is  bursting forth with renewed energy as well! It is very heartening to see, indeed.

Here is a link to a recent article in a local paper with more details on what’s in store:

Bridge to Tomorrow | Seven Days.

Also, one of the new businesses in the building, The Sweet Spot, has a Kickstarter page to help them get out of the gate. Check it out!

Monday Colour + Design Bistro

Okay, keep this to yourself, (I have my reputation to think about for chrissakes) but I’ve been hammering out the plan for my new business and actually enjoying it. I’m having fun. Why do I feel like I should be whispering? The word on the street was this would be horribly gruelling, but instead I am like a six-year-old with a new toy…basically…obsessed. Um, you know, in a good way. But more about that in a moment…

Happy idea from the Little Bit Funky blog!

I know it’s Monday and all, yet I am going to parade on your rain mercilessly by sharing this colourful and cheery little kitchen tip I ran across on the ever-nifty LittleBitFunky blog (via French By Design). You know that drawer in your kitchen with all those random wooden spoons and utensils? Now don’t give me that blank look…you know what I’m talking about. Yes, I thought so. Well open that drawer – be brave – and pull out everything with a plain wooden handle and line them up neatly, like this:

Awaiting cheer and whimsy…

Then paint them all sorts of wonderful colours that you absolutely love. Colours that make you smile all the way from your toes. This is absolutely crucial. No cheating. Because later, when you grab these previously-drab-but-now-cheerful tools to stir your oatmeal or taste your spaghetti sauce, or whack the lid of the applesauce jar so it will open, you’re going to smile. That little knowing smile that only your best friends know…the one where the corners of your mouth turn up and your eyes get that twinkle? Yes, that’s the one.

Once they’re done, keep them out where they can be seen. Where kitchen visitors can marvel at your craftiness. Visible so they can work their cheerful magic.

Even on a Monday.

You’re welcome.🙂

Oh, and that business plan? Well, as I mentioned to you a while ago, my creative leanings have led me back into the visual arts –  graphic design to be specific. Of course, I had to weave food into it all somehow, which is why my fledgling business is called Design Bistro. Bistro – as in quality, friendly, well-made, with a classic sensibility. I can hardly believe it, but I am nearly ready to launch this puppy. You will be the first to know, don’t you worry. In the meantime, have a gander at my new logo. I did it myself! And guess what? Every time I look at it? I get that little smile:)…yes, that’s the one!

Now go make it a great week!

Top of My Wishlist: Hand-Forged Knives by NYCutlery

Top of My Wishlist: Hand-Forged Knives by NYCutlery

As an avid cook and kitchen professional, I can be kind of, well, obsessive ((cough, cough)) about my food preparation tools, knives topping the list. To work with a sub-standard knife is not only ineffective and dangerous, it’s just plain … Continue reading