Monday, January 7, 2008

Worth the extra work

Well, Portland has certainly welcomed us back in what I understand is true Northwest style: rain everyday since we returned on New Year's Day. We saw the sun for the first time since our vacation today. Not to sound ungrateful - it's lovely to be back. I missed our cats and our tiny, overheated apartment and the low, grey skies - the light in New Mexico is so terribly bright, so very clear. I've gotten used to the mellower richness of colours here, and gotten used to the greenery. I expect trees, now, and am no longer surprised by them. Albuquerque was so much flatter, and so much browner than I remembered it being.

That said, we sure managed to eat well while Matt and I were in town.

We had a host of places to visit, and even managed to fit in an extra visit to our beloved old
Frontier Restaurant (and reminisce about snow days and post-concert late night sweet rolls and breakfast burritos).

But I'm not here to rub green chile in anyone's face. I'm here to talk about some of the food we managed to turn out in my parents' kitchen: specifically New Year's Eve Dinner, here rather dramatically lit:

I'm afraid that the vast majority of our photos turned out this way - I could never be bothered to turn on any lights in the dining room to take proper shots. Now I'm paying for it.

The menu was largely from the
Zuni Cafe Cookbook (a most welcome Christmas present - Judy Rodgers is my new hero), with a dessert inspired by a recipe of Alice Medrich's. Remember those chocolate cookies awhile back? Same creator.

But dinner was as follows:
Mock Porchetta (or Tuscan Roast Pork) with roasted vegetables (fennel, onion, celeriac, parsnip, whathaveyou)
Savoury Apple Charlotte
Cream Puffs with Chocolate Grand Marnier Custard and Candied Violets

Altogether, the meal was three days in the making, and it was so utterly worth it. The pork and vegetables were lovely - delightful, in fact - an excellent roast. But the real scene-stealers were the Apple Charlotte and the Cream Puffs, which was in some ways quite gratifying, as they were, respectively, the most difficult and the easiest components. (Frustrating because now I know I'm going to have to make that Charlotte at least once a year, and god is it a nightmare. Such a tasty nightmare though, and so pretty on the plate.)

It begins, as many things do here at Itadakimasu, with apples.

Specifically, four pounds of braeburn apples, that my mother and I peeled, cored and sliced, draped with slivers of butter and roasted until they were tender and caramelized, and the mashed into a rough apple sauce.

The next day, we cut out templates from pieces of paper, sliced bread into half-width slices and a multitude of shapes to create bread linings in 6-ounce ramekins. Think a jigsaw puzzle, with crumbly cracked-wheat and walnut breads. I was tearing my hair by the end of it.

We then filled them with the apple sauce, buttered them further, and baked them until they were crisp and golden on the outside.

And then we ate them, which was probably a bad idea - because the combination of the crisp, buttery bread and the warm, sweet-but-not-too-sweet applesauce made the entire process seem very worthwhile, and entirely doable.

If you have the time and inclination to try this, you will not be disappointed. Honestly, these could go with a much simpler meat - they somewhat overshadowed the roast. More honestly, I would eat them on their own and be a very happy camper.

Roasted Applesauce & Savoury Apple Charlotte
from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers

For about 3 cups of applesauce:

3 1/2 - 4 pounds apples (use eating apples - Braeburns were fine, I would have preferred Pippins, because they're one of my favourites, but we were working with what we could find)
Pinch of salt
Up to 2 teaspoons sugar, as needed (I didn't use any - the apples were quite sweet on their own)
About 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A splash of cider vinegar (highly recommended!)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Peel, core and quarter the apples. Toss with a little salt and, unless they are very sweet, a bit of sugar to taste. Spread in a shallow baking dish that crowds the apples in a single layer. Drape with slivers of butter, cover tightly and bake until the apples start to soften, 15 to 30 minutes.

Uncover, raise the heat to 500 degrees, and return the pan to the oven. Leave the apples to dry out and colour slighly, about 10 minutes. (A confession - we neglected to raise the temperature, so our apples got a much longer, slower roast - and were lovely, nonetheless. They were in the oven for nearer an hour, if I remember correctly.)

When the tips of the apples have become golden and the fruit is tender, scrape them into a bowl and stir into a chunky mash. Season with salt and sugar to taste, then consider a splash of apple cider vinegar to brighten the taste. (Yes!)

For the Charlotte, 4 servings:

4 six-ounce ramekins or custard cups

A chunk of day-old, chewy, peasant-style bread (make sure you have plenty of extra to get the right shapes!)
About 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (err on the side of 3-4 tablespoons)
About 1 1/3 cups Roasted Applesauce (again, err on the side of more)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the bread 1/8 inch thick. Avoiding the crust, cut 8 circles sized to fit the bottom of your ramekins, then cut 4 long rectangles to line the sides.(Judy Rodgers suggested partially freezing it, and I second this! Also, don't worry if you can't get whole pieces to create the shell of the charlotte - they piece together quite nicely.)

Brush the bread evenly, on one side only, with the melted butter. Line the ramekins with the bread, pressing the buttered  faces against the dishes. Set the 4 extra circles aside. Fill each ramekin with the roasted applesauce. Set the remaining bread circles, buttered side up, on top and press down lightly.

Bake until golden brown on top, about 30 minutes. To serve, slide a knife around the edge of each charlotte, then turn out onto warm plates. If the bottom circles stick to the dish, retrieve them by sliding a fork under the edges. (This wasn't an issue at all - yay for butter!)

Eat, and savour, knowing that you probably won't have these again for quite awhile, because you have to forget all about the paper templates and the partially-frozen bread before you could possibly convince yourself to go through it all again.

And don't worry, I won't make you wait too long for those cream puffs.

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