Monday, June 30, 2008

cooking demo on tuesday

Come down to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market on Tues., July 1 between noon and 1pm, and see the PQ make her infamous, moan-inducing pomegranate figs, with peach and pluot variations. Yes, I'll be spreading the word about pomegranate molasses, my favorite condiment, and will even be making my own by boiling down Twin Girls Farm's fresh pomegranate juice. At the outdoor kitchen under the arcade, three demos at 12, 12:30pm, and 1pm. More info on the market here. If I can get some proscuitto from Boccalone in which to wrap the figs, life will be complete.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

apricot jam!

Homemade jam on homemade bread...such is the satisfaction of this early-summer morning in June. A day without the chocolate mines! Yes, I've given up my retail gig, so no more hour-long bus jaunts up to the Marina, hurrah. Instead, I'll be teaching down at Stanford as part of their Continuing Studies program, writing for various magazines, and doing some marketing copy for various places, including...Frog Hollow Farm! Yes, the source of some of the best peaches & nectarines in the Bay Area.

And to prove it, I got my hands on a bunch of their much-touted (well, that would be touted by me in particular, in the July issue of San Francisco magazine) Golden Sweet apricots, a beautiful red-blushed, truly golden variety that's juicy without being mushy, sweet and silky with none of that pasty quality that afflicts so many lesser apricots. I meant to buy a scale and carefully, carefully measure the weight of the fruit, the weight of the sugar, etc., but alas, I didn't.

What I did was pit and chop the fruit, probably into rough eighths, dump on what looked like the right amount of sugar--enough to dust heavily and begin to bury at least the top of the mound, plus a little more--mixed it up, covered the bowl (ceramic or glass, not metal) and let it sit at room temp for most of the day. Before going to bed, I scraped the softened, pulpy fruit and now-dissolved sugar into a wide pot, added the juice of a lemon, and brought it up to a foaming, frothy boil, stirring frequently, for 5 or 6 minutes. Then, the whole mess back into the bowl, covered with a towel and left on the counter again.

In the morning, it looked close to jam already.

Got my jars sterilized by boiling them for 10 minutes in a big deep pot. One of these days, I'm going to get me one of those fabulous little jar-lid lifters, just a magnet on the end of a stick that lets you pick up the flat lids one by one out of the hot water they're standing in. Seems like you wouldn't need a specialized tool for that, but the jar lids like to stick together and the water's hot, and it becomes an annoying matter of poking around with slippery tongs, a butter knife (to separate the stuck-together lids) and burnt fingers. Again, it's also very useful to have a wide-mouth funnel (for filling jars), a clean gardening-type glove (for holding hot jars, since potholders are too bulky), and jar-lifting tongs (which are convex-shaped, to hold the hot jars firmly when you're putting them in and pulling them out of the hot water).

So, I poured the now-almost-jammy apricot goo into a pot and brought it up to a simmer again. Stirred frequently to keep it from "catching", or sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan. Unless you're using heavy-duty copper--the best material for jam-making--or high-quality enameled cast iron (like Le Creuset), your pot will probably have a hot spot or two where sugary things will like to stick and burn. Stir, stir, stir, with your favorite wooden spoon.

I like to keep one cutting board and one wooden spoon just for sweet things, just because I worry about some latent garlic-and-cumin flavor getting transfered from the depths of a spoon usually used for making tomato sauce or black-bean chili, or from a oniony cutting board.

So, it doesn't take long til the jam looks like jam. The apricot chunks break down and get translucent, so you can see the veining in the fruit. When you tip a spoonful horizontally and let the mixture run off the side of the spoon, the last few drops gather in a couple of sticky clumps that run together. They're supposed to run off together in a sheet--this is called "sheeting" or the "sheeting test"--but mine has never done this. If two drops more-or-less come together and fall off looking sticky and jamlike, I'm content.

Basically, it's jam when it looks like jam. Apricots have a reasonable amount of natural pectin, so they'll thicken easily. I do like a soft, spoonable jam, though, that's nowhere near as set and bouncable as commercial products. So maybe 10-15 minutes for the final simmer, not more. You want to keep that fresh-fruit taste, not boil it to death.

Turn off the heat, take your jars out of the water and put them on a clean towel on the stovetop, and fill to within 1/4 inch of the top. Wipe the rims with a paper towel or clean dish towel dipped in hot water. Add lids and screwbands, and return to the big pot of hot water (you may have to scoop out some excess water). Bring back to a simmer and let the jars bump along for 8 minutes or so. Take out the jars, place them back on a clean towel on the stovetop or counter, and let them get stone-cold undisturbed. You'll hear the reassuring sucking sound--a kind of slurp-pop--of the vacuum seal setting as the jars cool.

The amount of apricots I had--and alas, I have no idea of the weight, although I'm guessing maybe 3 or 4 lbs--made 2 1/2 pints. That's the thing about making jam without a lot of sugar--you get a small yield of gorgeous, intensely flavored product, since you're not extending the fruit with loads of sweetener. I put the two sealed jars in the pantry, and then stashed the half-filled jar in the fridge for me.

And then today at breakfast I spread a spoonful on a slice of whole-wheat oatmeal bread, baked last night, and it was heaven. A heaven I won't be able to exactly reproduce, since I didn't measure anything, but a heaven nonetheless. Obviously, what's more important than exact measurements is the technique. Lots of sitting around, and minimal cooking, seems to be the ticket. Basically:

1. Wash, pit and cut up fruit.
2. Put in a glass or ceramic bowl, add sugar, stir well and cover.
3. Let sit 6 to 8 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. Stir well, add juice of a lemon, bring to a boil for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Into a bowl, cover, let sit 6 to 8 hours.
6. Simmer until fruit is translucent and mixture is thick and jammy.
7. Pour into sterilized jars, process in water bath, let cool.

That's it. No pectin, no thermometer, no worries.

High-acid products, like fruit jams and jellies, are not hospitable to serious bacteria, so you can't give anyone botulism from your homemade jam. As long as you keep everything tidy and clean as you go--sterilize your canning jars, use clean towels and clean spoons, no double-dipping--you'll have a product that can be safely stored, unopened, in the pantry for several months. If you don't have made-for-the-purpose canning jars, you can use clean, repurposed jam or mayonnaise jars. Just note that they won't vacuum-seal, so you should fill them, let them cool to room temp, and then store them in the fridge. Low-sugar jams are more perishable once opened, so use them within a month.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

opera & bake sales

OK, the pie! It's great! Maybe I overdid it with the tapioca--it's a little jellylike, not gooey-juicy the way I really like. But the fruit tastes great, and the lattice crust is cute as a button, even without the little $5 pinking-wheel roller that cuts your pastry into neat serrated strips. This is a state-fair pie, no doubt about it. Going over to Jen's for tea and pie later, and pix will follow.

[2 hours later....Ooops. Well, there was tea, and Jen's daughter was there, and before you know it, most of the pie was gone. So no pictures, alas, but maybe I'll make another one for the O.O.O. (see below)on Saturday...]

What else can you do this weekend, besides bake pie? (Yes, Hooverville Orchards will have more sour cherries at the Alemany Market. I bought about 2 lbs, which seemed just right for my pie pan.) You can come up to Bernal on Sat. morning for the Obernal Obakesale Obama, Move's little sweet-treat fest, starting at 10am. Sign up here if you wanna bake or work; otherwise, just come and buy. I'll probably be there, forcing people to choose (again!) between brownies and blondies.

Go out to AT&T Park (yes, the baseball stadium) and see a live simulcast of SF Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor, on Friday evening. A mad scene, at third base! Opera and hot dogs! Actually, Peter Meehan, who does the $25 and Under column for the NY Times, recently got the prime gig of visiting dozens of ballparks to eat their food. Our fair city got top billing, thanks to a super Dungeness-crab panini, eaten by Meehan's ladyfriend with a split of champagne. He, having guyness to uphold, had an Anchor Steam, and the other half of her sandwich.

Or, just eat cherries!

State Fair Cherry Pie
You don't need a cherry pitter for this pie, since sour cherries are soft and squishy enough so that you can just pop the pits out between your thumb and forefinger. You do, however, need real sour pie cherries, a completely different animal than sweet cherries. In general, sour cherries are small and juicy, with a clear pale red skin and a yellow-to-translucent flesh. If you've ever had cherry pie, even diner pie, you know what they taste like. The advantage of making your own pie is, of course, that you can keep the sugar and gel to a minimum, so that you actually taste real fruit, not just goo. Perfect with vanilla ice cream. Also, I've reduced the amount of tapioca from the original 1/4 cup I used, so this should be just right.

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
14 tbsp (1 stick + 6 tb, or 7 oz) butter, chilled
5-7 tbsp ice water

2 lbs sour cherries (the weight is before they're pitted)
2/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp granulated or instant tapioca (like Minute brand, in the red box--look for in the baking aisle, or next to the Jell-O)
1/2 tsp almond extract or 1 tbsp Amaretto
pinch of cinnamon

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Cut in butter, rubbing bits between your thumb and fingertips until you have lots of flat nickel-sized bits. Keep tossing the flour as you rub to keep the whole mix nice and light. Remember, light touch=light pastry. Once it looks like dry oatmeal flakes, drizzle in the water. Lightly stir with a fork or a chopstick, adding more as needed, until you can squeeze together a handful. Pat into two rounds, wrap in plastic or pop into a ziploc bag and chill for at least an hour.

Pit your cherries and mix with tapioca, sugar, almond extract and cinnamon. Set aside (a nice 10 minute soak will help the tapioca to start dissolving.)
Roll out your pie crust, line the pan (a 9" pan works well), and pop the pan back into the fridge while you roll out the second crust. Cut second round into even strips.

Preheat oven to 425F. Take your bottom crust out of the fridge, pour the cherry mixture (including juice) into the crust. Now, the fun part! Just like peanut-butter cookies must have that criss-cross fork pattern on top, cherry pie must have a lattice. (Makes sense, since cherries are juicy and the lattice helps with the evaporation so you have pie, not soup.)

Lay the longest strips in a cross over the middle of the pie. Now take another strip and lay it next to the first one, lifting the crossing strip so that it's the opposite--either under or over, depending. Keep doing this, lifting strips as necessary, so that you get a "weave" effect--one strip over, one strip under, etc. Now press the edges together around the outside and flute nicely. OK, I promise I'll do explanatory pix on the next go-round, since it's MUCH easier to show than tell. Brush with egg wash (1 egg mixed with 2 tsp water) if you want to get shiny and fancy.

Pop in the oven for 10-15 minutes, then turn down heat to 375F. Bake another 25-30 minutes, until crust is golden brown and juices are thick and bubbly (good to put a baking sheet underneath,to prevent smoking juices on the oven floor.). Cool on a rack for several hours so that pie juices can congeal properly. But do eat the day it's baked for optimum crust-crispness.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

can you bake a cherry pie? damn skippy you can

All you cherry pie bakers, get thee down to the Alemany Farmers' Market (down near Alemany Blvd, by Crescent and Peralta at the southeastern base of Bernal Hill)RIGHT NOW. Hooverville Orchards has fresh Montemorency cherries, aka sour cherries, aka pie cherries, for sale at $4.50/lb. Also some damn fine lookin' Bings for a buck less. I've got 2 lbs in my fridge right now, which means tomorrow, I'll be living up to my Jersey-diner heritage and baking cherry pie. Pix and recipe to follow!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

cherry season!

You really haven't lived til you've heard War's Low Rider pounded out on a cowbell, a violin, and a washtub bass. That was last night, downstairs in the secret garden behind Bernal's Wild Side West bar, where impromptu jams can break out at any minute. I had just come home to change out of my new coral-colored sundress--because even a June afternoon is too windy for sundresses up here on the hill--when my roommate called to say music was happening at the Wild Side. Put on jeans and the trusty red leather coat and scooted on down there, for $5 wine and a group of friendly folks noodling away on guitars and slide whistles. Much fun had by all, and this seems to happen all the time, especially on sunny Sunday afternoons.

So, what are you doing with your cherries? I've been hunkered down, waiting for the Brooks (which were selling for an astounding $9.99/lb at the Real [-ly expensive] Foods near the chocolate mines in the Marina last week. Organic, from Frog Hollow, sure, but still, $10! For Brooks! Damn!) to be replaced by Bings. The dark, sweet fatties are just starting to come on, and promise to be heavenly, as always. Looking forward to scoring a few bags of cherry goodness at the Alemeny Market this Saturday. And if anyone has real sour cherries, well, a cherry pie will certainly be forthcoming. Yum!

It's Shifra's belated 40th b-day party this weekend, so another round of the eggless-spelt carrot cake (mashed bananas, the secret ingredient) may be in order. I'm also curious about barley flour, a paen to which was posted by the soon-to-be-in-California Bakerina recently. Buying avocados on Mission St the other day, I found bags of Peruvian barley flour, which I may have to experiment with, if only because of how delicious it smells while baking, according to the very trustworthy Bakerina.

Now, back to writing, as I'm on the very, very home stretch of a sassy new cookbook, coming out this fall from Manic D Press. 5 more recipes to go...