Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Strawberry Upside Down Passion

I woke with the birds Easter Sunday, threw down Bach’s St. John Passion, fired-up the oven and had my own mojo mass in the kitchen. I’d somehow - in a Spring welcoming fervor - amassed tons of strawberries. And, as I'd been making far too many cool custard tarts and ice creams, was fishing about for an alt. slant to dessert with friends that evening. A huge tub of sadly neglected almond paste sucking shelf space in my teensy kitchen helped direct my meanderings.

My favorite almond paste anything is an almond torte which comes courtesy of Lindsey Shere, so I pinched it outright as the underpinning for my holy experiment. Strawberry Shortcake was the obvious tack, with sugared strawberries prettifying a nutty-moist shortcake impostor, yet it all finally seemed too done. And, while I adore fresh fruit, and viscerally get that there is nothing more perfect (in my perfectly trained nocal way), some insane permutation happens when you cook fruit, especially stuff from the ambrosial berry world: its perfume blossoms exponentially. Have you ever stood in a room as a raspberry butter tart is plucked straight from the oven? I rest my case.

Strawberry-Almond Upside Down Torte

For the top/(bottom)

3 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup loosely packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

4-ish cups (about 2 pint baskets) strawberries, washed and topped

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon sugar

Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper (8 or 10- inch works too, just adjust cooking times for a thicker or thinner cake). Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the sugar and salt and whisk a few minutes until sugar is smooth and melted. Spread evenly over the parchment paper. Cut strawberries in half or quarters, depending on their size, and spread over the sugar/butter mixture in concentric circles cut side up. Mix the flour and sugar and sprinkle over the strawberries. Make the torte batter.

For the Torte

1-1/4 cups sugar

8 oz (about 1 cup) almond paste

9 oz softened unsalted butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract

6 eggs, room temperature

1 cup flour

1-1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 325. Pulverize the sugar and almond paste in a food processor. Cream the butter in a mixer with a paddle attachment for a few minutes until fluffy. Add the sugar-paste mixture and beat until smooth. Beat in eggs, one by one, scraping down the sides in between additions - until well incorporated. Add vanilla. Sift dries and add. Turn this out over the strawberries and gently spread with a spatula to cover fruit.

Bake for 1-1/2 hours or more, checking occasionally, until the center feels springy and a poker comes out clean. Cover the pan lightly with foil if the top starts to darken too quickly. Cool for about an hour, until the cake is just warm. Dust the top well with powdered sugar, cut around the edges, cover with a plate and gently turn over. This cake is tender. . . if the sides slide a bit, just gently coax back towards the cake with a spatula. And the berries - which look slightly anemic at first - will darken as the cake sits and begin to look more glazed. Serve warm.

You can also have your strawberries both ways - the raw and the cooked: garnish with fresh sugared strawberries alongside whipped cream or crème fraîche...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

FROM THE MENU: Spring Pea, Chilie, Mint & Cured Pork Soup

Yet another example of my current obsession with a new holy trinity: thick red onions, loads of garlic and intrepid chiles de arbol. I mean, what wouldn’t be exalted in this audacious foundation? Spring pea soups are mostly done in the cheerful bright creamy mode, and I’ve dallied in these myself. But more and more I feel abidingly loyal to the thing/things I’m working with themselves. I don’t want to manhandle them. So this soup has true texture; isn’t a technicolor blitz. The green in it mellows with cooking, as green things do - and its usual sweetness is deepened with the savor of alliums and the smoke and pepper of chiles and cured meat. Even elegant mint gets to parade its brute side.

Spring Pea, Chile, Mint & Cured Pork Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 oz. pancetta, smoked bacon, guanciale or prosciutto, whatever you prefer or have around, cut into 1/4-inch thick lardons

2 red onions, cut in half lengthwise and sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips

6 to 8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 to 4 medium chiles de arbol, depending on your heat obsession, seeded and crumbled

3 # fresh peas, shelled

1/2 # snap peas, cut lengthwise on the diagonal

1/2 # waxy fingerling potatoes, skin on, cut into 1/4-inch rounds

1 small bunch mint, picked and cut roughly into chiffonade

4 cups of chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sugar, optional

Virgin olive oil to finish

In a large, lined pot big enough to hold the soup heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add your pork of choice and sauté until rendered and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add onions and a good pinch of salt and pepper and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, chiles and cook until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the peas, snap peas, potatoes and 1/3 cup of the mint and cook another 5 minutes. Cover with stock by about 1-inch (add water if necessary), and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer about 20 minutes until the potatoes are just tender. Scoop out about 1-1/2 cups of the soup’s vegetables and meat along with a bit of the broth and carefully blitz in a blender or food processor to a rough purée. Add a little more of the soup’s broth if necessary. Stir this back into the soup. Taste for seasoning. Some peas are less sweet than others, so add a pinch or two of sugar if needed. Serve in warm soup bowls with a drizzle of virgin oil and some of the chopped mint.