Monday, June 26, 2006

Strawberry shortcake

There are dessert that every American palate is familiar with. Desserts like apple and pumpkin pie, s'mores, chocolate chip cookies, and my favorite, strawberry shortcake. Through holiday tradition, public schools, shared cultural history, community potlucks, backyard picnic's, boy/girl scouts, etc... a familiarity with these treats has been ingrained in every Americans memories. Have you never tasted these desserts, invariably you will still recognize them, understand them, and be able to describe them. This gives them an incredible power over the American diner. The power of Nostalgia.

I have, along with others, written enough on the emotional trigger nostalgia has on a diner, and the joy and depth it brings to a dish, that I will spare you the philosophical rant. Rather, this post was meant to describe the joys of my favorite dish of nostalgia, Strawberry Shortcake.

At it's worst, this dish is a store-bought cake of some sort, a indented disk of sticky sponge, a rough scone bordering on hard tack, or perhaps a biscuit that originated in a cardboard tube in the cold isle, smothered with whipping cream squirted from a can, or scooped from a tub of cool-whip, and topped with frozen berries in syrup. No doubt we have all tasted version, and still found it palatable. Which means that when this dessert is made at it's best, it can be immensely delightful.

At it's best, this dessert is made from berries just hours out of the field. The cake or biscuits, the shortcake so to speak, should be tender and soft, and flavorfull enough to be eaten unadorned. The cream should be fresh, real cream, sweetened as you like it, perhaps with a hint of vanilla. When I make variations on the shortcake, sometimes I use different fruit, as I did recently with a warm rhubarb compote, and I often replace the cream with ice cream, or as I am currently doing, a seductive lemon cream.

The shortcake on my menu currently reads, "Local Strawberries with warm buttermilk biscuits and lemon cream".

Armed with a buttermilk biscuit recipe from Thomas Keller, I begin the shortcake. The biscuits are served just warm, and are very tender and flaky. They are broken in half, and filled with Pierre Herme's lemon cream, rather than whipping cream. Here my labor ends. I choose fragrant ripe strawberries who's flavor is unparalleled by anything I could humanly produce. They are sliced in half and dusted with granulated sugar for a glossy coat. Scattered across the top of the biscuits, the bright red berries sit in beautiful contrast to the buttery yellow of the lemon cream and the pale biscuit.

While this dish has enough flavor to be memorable on it's own, it's the nostalgic power that makes me smile when I eat this. I am transported back to summer days picking berries with my grandma Eva. A child with a stained face, my grandma teased that they should weigh me before and after I entered the U-Pick field and charge us for the pounds I consumed on the job. Once home, we processed massive amounts of berries into a years supply of jam, and rewarded our hard work with bowls of strawberry shortcake.

Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from Thomas Keller

Preheat the oven to 500

3 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 stick cold butter, cut in 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/4 cup buttermilk

1. Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Use a whisk to mix or "sift" the ingredients evenly.

2. Toss the cubes of cold butter into the flour, and begin breaking them up by pinching the butter between your thumb and fingers. I use a motion that creates petals of butter. With my palms up, the butter is pressed into the tips of my fingers with my thumb, pressing in a forward motion from my ring finger towards my index finger. Continue to do this until the butter is broken up well, and the mixture becomes coarse. Much like cutting butter into flour for a pie crust.

3. Create a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the buttermilk. With one hand, working swiftly, stir the flour and buttermilk together. The mixture should become a moist shaggy mess, not a solid clump of sticky dough. If the dough is too wet, toss in a bit of flour. Like wise, if the dough is dry, add a tsp of buttermilk.

4. Turn the shaggy mess out onto a lightly floured surface. Gather up the mass, and press it together. Kneed this mass 5 times, folding the dough over itself like a book each time.

5. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes. I use the same bowl I mixed it in, flouring the bottom, and flattening the dough about 3 inches thick. The surface is lightly floured and covered with plastic wrap to discourage the dough from drying.

6. Roll or press the dough to a thickness of 1 and a half inches, and cut with a 2 inch round biscuit cutter. Arrange them on a parchment lined sheet pan and bake for 8 minutes. They should be barely colored on the top, and just baked in the middle. If you are unsure, break one open. Bake for another 2 minutes if they seem undercooked, but not much longer.

If you cut the biscuits any larger than the suggested 2 inches, try lowering the heat to 450. They will need a longer baking time to cook the centers, and I have found the bottoms will burn from prolonged exposure to the 500 degree sheetpan. You can also bake them on two sheetpans stacked on top of eachother (double-panning) if you have an extra one lying around.

Lemon Cream
Pierre Herme

1 cup sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
4 eggs
¾ cup lemon juice (about 6 large lemons)
10 oz butter

1. Prepare a large stainless steel bowl to fit over a pot of simmering water as a doubleboiler. Cutt the butter up into cubes, and set aside to soften to room temperature.

2. Break up the lemon zest by mixing it with the sugar until even.

3. In the large bowl, whisk the lemon sugar into eggs and add lemon juice. Whisk this mixture aggressively over the simmering double boiler until frothy, thick, and the temperature reaches 180, as you would a sabayon. The mixture will begin to leave tracks, and the texture will become tighter. This takes up to 5 minutes. If this stage isn'’t cooked long enough, your end product will be runny. (yet delicious). You will know it'’s cooked if a ribbon of the mixture dripped back into the bowl holds a tiny mound for a second rather than dissapearing.

4. Strain the lemon sabayon into a blender cup and let cool to about 140, stirring occasionally. This takes about 5 minutes if the room is cold, 10 of the room is hot.

5. Turn on the blender and begin adding the butter 1 piece at a time, allowing 3 seconds between additions.Blend for 5 minutes, and transfer to a storage container. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for 4 hours, until cold and set.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tis the Season

A year ago today, I was sitting on a airplane delivering my home from England. Returning from the greatest adventure of my life, I was preparing to take my first job as a pastry chef. I started work on a Tuesday, jet lagged and disoriented. Upon arrival to the restaurant the next day, I was introduced to a cornucopia of fruits, waiting for me to begin. Blame it on this disorientation, but I made the mistake of thinking the abundance of fruit I stumbled into at Eva was normal. Far from the truth, I was being spoiled.

This year, as April rolled around, I was getting desperate. I longed for something fresh, ANYTHING fresh. Memories of last years boxes, bursting at the seams with ripe, fragrant fruit was tormenting me. Finally, local Rhubarb came around. It held me over until the first little strawberries blushed red this month.

As I began my work day yesterday, I smiled ear to ear when I saw a huge crate spilling over with Yakima cherries. After all that waiting, all that anticipation, it was finally here. The short 3 months when we have so much fruit it's hard to keep up.

Racheal and Peter, a local couple that picks strawberries on a friends property in Carnation made their first visit last week. The berries she picks are always perfect, sweet with musky ripeness, and strikingly petite. These little darling berries are participating in 3 desserts this week.

First they rest atop tender flaky buttermilk biscuits, that have been filled with lemon cream. Next they are seen dressed in black pepper scattered across a frozen wildflower honey mousse with streaks of balsamic drizzled over. Finally, they are pureed and folded with whipped cream and creme fraiche, my take on a Strawberry Fool. This mousse like pud' is served in a tiny bowl next to both a warm chocolate mousse and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, thus adapting the delightful flavor combination of Neapolitan ice cream.

The Cherries made their first appearance this weekend as a clafoutie, baked under a light batter and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Rhubarb is lingering, a soup made from rhubarb and fresh orange surrounds a light vanilla bean bavarian crowned with crisp tart half moons of the stalk, candied in syrup.

The true challenge comes when cases of apricots, peaches, nectarines, and plums begin to arrive, stacking up aside flats of strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries all begging to be used promptly. Just the situation I stumbled into last year, blind to my good fortune. Nothing is to be taken for granted this year, fruit will be preserved for scarcer days, and I will relish these few months when I am spoiled rotten with fruit.

My Strawberry Fool

1 1/4 cup strawberry puree, sweetened to taste- kept cold
1/4 tsp kirsch or raspberry liquor
1 cup creme fraiche
1 cup cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar

1. Combine the creme fraiche and cream in a large bowl. Sprinkle the granulated sugar over the top and whisk slowly until semi-stiff, glossy peaks form. I accomplish this by whisking the creams by hand. The slower introduction of air into the cream makes a denser, tighter whipped product. If you are using a kitchen aid, chill the bowl and whisk, and do not turn the mixer up past speed 6.

2. Using a whisk, fold half of the chilled puree into the cream. When the puree is just incorporated, add the second half and the kirsch or raspberry liquor. Fold until the mixture is of even color.

3. Spoon into individual serving dishes and chill for 4 hours before serving. Garnish with more strawberry puree, or sliced berries.

Notes: It is very important that all your ingredients are properly chilled.

If you sprinkle sugar over your whole berries and let them sit for an hour before you puree them, you will achieve a brighter red puree