Sweet and Sour

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been listening to this song by Paul Kalkbrenner on repeat for a bit now. Walking down Valencia Street, under the first sun San Francisco has seen all summer, sitting in my room post-yoga wondering how to tackle the day, then late at night when sadness, nervousness, excitement and anticipation all hit me at once, this song seems to capture all the emotions flooding in. We built up castles in the sky and the sand. As I’m packing boxes for my final year at university, sending emails that document, and formalize, my thesis project, and finally facing the full force of not quite knowing what I want to do with my future, which is now becoming not so distant, the castle on which my life is built suddenly seems as stable as sand. I can just picture a huge wave coming in and washing it all away, leaving just the foundations behind. And then, when I’m talking to people close to me — and some strangers too, people I meet at coffee shops and new friends from down the street — I’m reminded that there’s a castle in the sky too, that I can design my world the way I’d like it.

The hardest part is not quite knowing what I want. I know what is comforting and what is thrilling, but not what is feasible. Every time I sit down at a computer now, I’m reminded of the need to be serious, to finally start living a grown-up life, or something that resembles one. And then I get out on the streets and into the onslaught of bright flavors, summer colors, new vintage clothing shops and cafés filled with chatter, and the real world seems so much less scary than when it’s written in a word document, though perhaps a bit less orderly. The song seems to float in the background of the bustle, the subdued but steady beat and the comforting, slightly raspy voice reassuring that there’s someone by your side, ensuring that you shine.

And then, on a more lighthearted note, there’s my summer tart spree, bright colors, bright flavors. Plump, juicy blackberries that stain the fingers and mouth deep purple, cloyingly sweet. Mouth-puckering lemon curd eaten on a spoon, or spread over a simple tart shell. Thick custard, speckled with vanilla bean. Flowers on the street corners, in every color of the rainbow. It’s summer here. Let’s not let it end too soon.

Lemon Curd, Tarts and Berries

You can find my go-to lemon curd recipe here, and then a solid tart dough (pasta frolla) here. One recipe makes enough for two tarts. Pick the very best berries you can find, it’s totally worth it.

Pastry Cream
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 1998

1 3/4 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter, chopped

Heat milk to a simmer on the stovetop. In a medium bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks. Add vanilla, then gradually beat in the flour. Gradually stir in the warm milk. Transfer the mixture back to the stovetop and heat until the pastry cream comes to a boil and is very thick. Immediately transfer the pastry cream to a large, clean bowl. Whisk in the butter, until it is entirely melted. Continue to whisk occasionally under the pastry cream is cooled. Spread over a pre-baked tart shell, serve with berries, or eat it chilled, by the spoonful.

Pasta Frolla meets my lemon tart

November 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

I recently read this article on grandmothers and knitting and immediately emailed it to my own grandmother, who knows much more about knitting than I do. In fact, I think almost every woman in my family is skilled at crocheting dish clothes and knitting baby sweaters. In our attic is a collection of baby sweaters in various whites and blues (depending on whether or not the family was informed in advance of the baby’s gender), a tradition which unfortunately will probably end quite soon as I am totally incompetent at knitting. Every so often, when I go up north to visit my grandparents, I get it into my head that I will learn to excel at knitting — I go with Granny to pick out yarn and spend a day or two on the couch knitting a couple inches, calling out for help every ten minutes when I drop a stitch and don’t know how to fix it. After about two inches, I give up until my next visit. So I’m afraid there won’t be any new pink sweaters for my grandchildren, they’ll have to make do with the ones in the attic. Sorry.

But Granny’s baking was something I picked up with ease. She cans cherries and peaches in the summer, makes blueberry pies and crisps and always has oatmeal cookies waiting when I come visit. No raisins, no nuts, no chocolate. Just oatmeal and cinnamon. But one of my very first memories of baking with her is making angel food cakes with lemon pudding filling and whipped cream for Grandpa’s birthdays. I loved hanging the angel food cakes upside down and whipping the cream with an electric mixer (which we didn’t — and still don’t — have at home) and I loved the idea of lemon pudding. There were few things not made from scratch in her household — minus the chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies to which Grandpa holds fast and loyal — and the lemon pudding was one of them; it emerged off the stovetop a pale yellow custard made from yellow powder. I think that was my least favorite part of baking — the disappointment of that first bite of yellow lemon pudding.

But I’ve held fast and loyal to the idea of lemon pudding and when all else seems to go wrong, I turn to lemons to come through for me. So when I trekked across Paris today to the Galleries Lafayette in search of blackstrap molasses and corn syrup in order to make my family’s traditional Thanksgiving pecan squares, and came up empty handed after hours of scouring shelves of sea salts, gourmet pates à tartiner, macarons, imported goods from all over the world, colored sugars shaped in hearts and flowers and everything else you could imagine in gourmet food heaven, I inevitably turned to the lemons sitting on my counter to save the day.

As a food blogger, I have a tendency to not want to make anything twice. I mean, why would I post on the same thing more than once? But then how can I sit here and tell you that this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten when I have no intention of ever eating it again? I am justifying this with, I finally made a tart crust that actually has a recipe and it was fabulous. So make this tart crust…and well you don’t really need to be told again what I think you should fill it with, do you?

I judge every Parisian patisserie by its lemon tart and well, let’s just say the reason I can’t rave about Pierre Hermé macarons like every other person in the world is because I tasted his lemon tart first — and I prefer the ones that come out of my own kitchen. Take that Paris.

The crust for this “crustata” is called pasta frolla, which was the November Daring Bakers’ challenge. The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

Pasta frolla

1/2 c. minus 1 tablespoon [105 ml, 100 g, 3 ½ oz] superfine sugar or a scant 3/4 cup [180ml, 90g, 3 oz] of powdered sugar
1 and 3/4 cup [420 ml, 235 g, 8 1/4 oz.] unbleached all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 stick [8 tablespoons / 4 oz. / 115 g] cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
grated zest of half a lemon (you could also use vanilla sugar as an option, see Note 2)
1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten in a small bowl

Making pasta frolla by hand:
Whisk together sugar, flour and salt in a bowl.
Rub or cut the butter into the flour until the mixture has the consistency of coarse crumbs. You can do this in the bowl or on your work surface, using your fingertips or an implement of choice.
Make a well in the center of the mounded flour and butter mixture and pour the beaten eggs into it (reserve about a teaspoon of the egg mixture for glazing purposes later on – place in the refrigerator, covered, until ready to use).
Add the lemon zest to your flour/butter/egg mixture.
Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, and then use your fingertips.
Knead lightly just until the dough comes together into a ball.
Shape the dough into a flat disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least two hours. You can refrigerate the dough overnight.

Directions to assemble and bake a crostata di frutta fresca:
Preheat the oven to 350ºF [180ºC/gas mark 4].
Roll out a batch of the pasta frolla and cover the base of the tart pan.
Cut a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil large enough to cover the bottom of the crust and extend out a bit over the edges of the pan.
You can use pie weights or dry beans to blind bake. Place whatever weight you’re using directly on the parchment paper or aluminum foil in an even layer.
Place the crostata shell in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the weights and parchment paper and continue baking the crostata shell until the border is light golden, about 5 minutes (watch carefully to avoid over-baking, which results in a hard shell). In the absence of weight, the crust may rise in the middle: if that occurs, gently push it back down with the back of a spoon.
Remove from the oven and let the crostata shell cool completely before proceeding.
If you use a tart pan with removable bottom, release the base from the fluted tart ring, then slide the cooled crostata shell on a serving plate for filling. (Note: If you’ve used a cake pan or pie plate, use a bit of care in taking the shell out of the baking vessel.)
Spread the prepared filling over the cooled shell.

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