Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apricot Love

It’s apricot season once again. It seems to me it came early this year but I’m not complaining. I saw them for the first time last week at the farmers market and restrained myself from buying, since when fruit like that is first available it isn’t always the best. I try to wait at least another week to confirm that the availability is not an aberration but in fact signals the onset of the season.

I do so love apricots when they are in season. They are beautiful in color, sexy in form and deliciously and naturally sweet. For me they are also full of memories, reminding me as they do of my mother and the apricot tree in her backyard. I wrote this poem some years ago; her presence is always with me but especially at these times.

My Mothers Apricots

Lately I had time to ponder life and everything
I ask what it all means and then suppose
maybe it all comes down to my mothers apricots
Sometime in June, on my weekly visit she would say to me
The apricots are ripe, come look at the tree
So out the kitchen door in back we’d go
All the way to the corner of the dusty yard
Where the apricot tree lived and we’d walk around it
Admiring the large, overgrown, heavy branches
Drooping with apricots so ripe some had already hit the ground
With some smashed or laid open and bees buzzing around
I could ignore those, there were so many others
Mom batted at the low branches, all she could reach
I’d try for the topmost ones kissed by the sun
Sometimes climbing up ladders or leafy dark branches
In search of elusive perfect apricots
That soft, round honey-fragrant beautiful orange happiness
Which I would take home at the end of the day
Some to have now and some to have later

A week or two would go by and another visit
And another trip to the tree but this time no apricots
Their bright and abundant cycle already concluded
depriving me of that joy and flavor

Time passed, life changed and now
apricots come every spring to my farmers market
Easily obtained, no tree climbing needed
They are orange in color and softly rounded
and frequently fragrant and often beautiful,
Ever optimistic I dig into my wallet to buy a few
My heart ready to receive that essence and joy
living in memory, only to be again reminded
that these are not my mother’s apricots

My mother’s apricots were of the Blenheim or Royal variety. Alas, they’re hard to find these days since they are not as hardy as some of the newer varieties. Once in a while it’s possible to find them, but not usually. The Blenheim are The Royalty of apricots so if you find them, buy them –they are the most flavorful. That said, all the rest are pretty darn good and I don’t hold back because they’re not the Blenheim. And there are more uses to them than providing memories. Another perfect way to enjoy them (other than just splitting and eating of course) is this galette.

A galette is a free form tart with all the elements of a pie like pastry and sugar but less structured and more casual feeling. I think it’s perfect for warm weather and the fleeting season of ripe apricots. I know it’s possible to purchase apricots flown in from afar practically year round, but they will never measure up to the ones picked yesterday that you find in your local farmer’s market or farm stand. Or if you’re lucky, from your mother’s tree. I make this luscious dessert at least once during the season. It epitomizes summer to me.

Apricot Galette

Galette dough
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugan
¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 /12 sticks)
Unsalted butter, chilled, cut
7 tablespoons ice water

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut tablespoons of the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender , mixing until the dough resembles coarse cornmeal. Cut in the remaining 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of butter with the pastry blender, just until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of large peas – or a little larger. (These bigger pieces of butter in the dough make it flaky).
Dribble the ice water into the flour mixture in several stages, tossing and mixing between additions until the dough just holds together. Keep tossing the mixture until it starts to pull together; it will look rather ropy with some dry patches. Add a little more water if there are more dry patches than ropy parts tossing the mixture until it comes together.
(I have worked out my own shortcut to this by combining all of the ingredients except for the water into a food processor, pulsing until it resembles the coarse cornmeal, and adding the cold water through the top opening until the dough starts pulling away from the sides.
I use a spatula to make sure all the ingredients are combining properly.)
Then continue with the processes.
Divide the dough in half, firmly press each half into a ball and wrap tightly in plastic wrap, pressing down to flatten each ball into a disk. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. (The dough will keep in the freezer for a few weeks. You can use one and keep one for later.)
When you are ready to roll out the dough take one disk from the refrigerator at a time. Let it soften slightly so it is malleable but still cold. Unwrap the dough and press the edges of the disk so there are no cracks. On a lightly floured surface roll out the the disc into a 14” circle about 1/8” thick. Brush off the excess flour from both sides and transfer the dough to a parchment lined baking sheet and refrigerate at least ½ hour before using.

Makes 20 ounces of dough or enough for 2 open galettes or tarts or one covered tart.

For one apricot galette
Makes one 12 inch tart.
Serves 8

1 ½ lbs of ripe apricots
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
10 ounces of galette dough, rolled into a 14-inch circle and chilled
Remove the prerolled dough from the refrigerator or freezer and place on a buttered or parchment lined baking sheet. Cut the apricots in half (or quarters if they are large) removing the pits. Arrange the fruit, skin side down in concentric circles on the dough, making a single layer of snugly touching apricot pieces and leaving the border bare. Evenly sprinkle ¼ cup sugar over the fruit.
While rotating the tart, fold the border of exposed dough up and over itself at regular intervals, crimping and pushing it up against the outer circle of fruit, creating a containing rim that resembles a length of rope. Pinch off any excess dough. This rim must act as a dam, preventing juices from escaping while cooking, so make sure there are no folds or wrinkles that permit such a breach. Brush the border gently with melted butter and sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake in the lower third of the over for 45 – 50 minutes until the crust is well browned and its edges are slightly caramelized. As soon as the galette is out of the oven, use a large metal spatula to slide it off the baking sheet or parchment paper and onto a cooling rack. This keeps it from steaming and getting soggy. Let cool for 20 minutes.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream if you like, although I never do since the tart in itself is so spectacular and delicious.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I like Bread

Last weekend we went north to celebrate Nicole’s graduation from Mills College in Oakland. She now has a Masters degree in Public Policy and I have no doubt she will be one of the new “masters” of the universe. She's an exceptional young woman with a bright future ahead. We’re very proud of her.

Of course, as always, visiting an area is an opportunity to either revisit favorite bakeries, in this case Arizmendi’s, or try/discover new places. We had a lovely celebratory dinner out at Flora, a cool new place in downtown Oakland chosen by Bonnie, Jeff and Nicole. The atmosphere was fun and the food was great. But I have to save my accolades for the breakfast place we went to on Sunday morning before leaving town. The Brown Sugar Kitchen, also in Oakland kind of tucked away in an industrial part of town. Who knew? Well, the locals know of course.

There are many things to like about the place but I can only concentrate on one major thing because, well, I like bread. The bread/bakery products were amazing and any descriptions I give here will not do justice to them. I will single out the ones I either personally ordered or shared. Beignets. I have had them before and they tend to be round and deep-fried. In the best instances they are light and airy and very wonderful. These were wonderful and nothing like what I had previously enjoyed. They were plainer and lighter and flatter. Served with what seemed like homemade berry jam, they were perfect and combined with a good cappuccino or latte would have been enough for me. But there was more! Buttermilk biscuits, flaky and flavorful and though the one I had was the plain one I saw they also had a bacon/cheddar version.. Steve had a waffle that was the most light waffle I have ever seen which they managed to achieve while still making it full of flavor. There were other really good things of course (cheesy grits, sweet potato pie) but for me the bread type products were the best and most amazing because they’re always my favorites. If I lived there I would probably pop in regularly and take some of those bakery items to go because I like bread.

When I think back it seems like my first exposure to food was through bakeries. Oh yeah, of course I had other food contact before then, but not like that, not with any real awareness. I think I found out how much good stuff was out there through bakeries. Do I have to explain? If so, you may not be a bakery lover. Anyway, ever since that childhood revelation - no surprise – bakeries are top on my list as good places to visit. I say visit because sometimes it’s enough to just wander through them and enjoy the sights and smells. A good bakery should smell like something, buttery pastry, cinnamon, chocolate, or something savory like a baguette. Otherwise, how can you trust it?

I take away (sometimes literally) something from every bakery I have been in. my first exposure to croissants, for example, was at the Renaissance Bakery in Laguna Beach. This must have been in the 70’s and croissants were not common here in Orange County, or maybe in most of the US. Now of course, you can get them at Albertsons and in bulk at Costco. The Renaissance was a coffee house way pre-Starbucks but what I believe they and other chains have been modeled after. A place with comfortable seating, a cozy feel, people sitting around enjoying espresso, tea or pastries while reading the newspaper or talking intently with friends. Sadly, Laguna no longer has the Renaissance, but it does have a couple of Starbucks, wouldn’t you know?

There’s a place in Santa Barbara that has apricot bars the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else. And Lord knows I’ve tried a few. I’ve looked at some recipe versions and they are nothing like these which are lighter and less sweet than the typical ones around. I recently decided that I am going to request their recipe next time I’m in town. The bakery is Our Daily Bread, in case anyone is listening. They also have something called a spicy roll which is a round sourdough type roll filled with spicy tomato and cheese. Steve requires at least one to take home or even eat in the car on the way home every time we pass through Santa Barbara.

Years ago Belmont Shore’s Naples Peninsula had a little spot called Café con Leche. The folks that owned it tried different food selections but always had some sort of lovely pastries to offer, to have with your café con leche (coffee with milk) or other coffees or, if you chose, Mexican hot chocolate. Their search for the right combination of pastries and food was doomed from the start, alas. Not because of the quality, which was excellent, but because of the location which was way down almost at the foot of the peninsula, tucked away off the beaten track. I personally loved that about it, but no place can survive with only a few local fans, no matter how dedicated. Before their demise though, Lionel, one of the owners, invented a recipe for a three-berry scone. Not an original concept, I know. The secret though is in the details. This particular version combines an oatmeal cookie-like buttery texture with lots of juicy berries in the center. Tastes great and I even convince myself that it’s good for me, what with the oatmeal and all. Eventually they gave up on the location but by then the scones had developed a following and Lionel was delivering them to a handful of small coffee places in Long Beach. I loved those scones. Well, imagine my surprise and delight to come across Lionel some years later at a Famers Market, selling not only those scones, but granola and cookies under the name of The Scone Age. I don’t know how far-flung the empire is but I wouldn’t be surprised if you find a vendor at your local FM. If you do, try a scone, you’ll be hooked.

Bakeries come and go but one that has stayed in business for the last 30 odd years, fortunately for me is a place named C’est Si Bon. And it is, good that is. C’est Si Bon is located in Newport Beach just off west Coast Highway, so not an immediately obvious location. I don’t remember how I found them but after I did I became a daily customer. They were right on my way so my habit was to pick up a cappuccino and pastry or muffin and take it into the office every morning. The guys that started the place were so committed to the French concept that all the counter employees spoke French. Not were French, just spoke it being, I assumed, students who liked polishing the language. That added to the fun of being there but really wasn’t the main act. The best thing is they were one of the few places that had, and still have, a daily supply of brioche, along with some of the best croissants outside of France. Now, years later, they no longer all speak French, but the good stuff remains. They still have brioches and croissants, along with fantastic scones,desserts and some of the best sandwiches around.

It’s probably obvious I could go on and on but instead of waxing eloquent on each and every place I will give a quick list titled

Bakeries I Have Loved.

Provence Boulangerie in Belmont Shore, Ca. I have to admit initially it was primarily for Olivier, the then-owner who epitomized the Gallic style. He had a large noble nose, long flowing hair, a beautiful French accent and the lovely style to match- he was gorgeous! Okay, the croissants and pastries were great too. Around 1989 he introduced us to what was still a new concept to us and in general – Panini-style sandwiches. His were made with a chunk of fresh baguette, some good cheese like Brie, prosciutto, fresh farmer’s market tomatoes and basil. I can almost taste it now. Stopping at the Boulangerie on my way to work for a double cap was my daily ritual for several years.

The French Corner Bakery in Cambria, Ca. for their really good bread of all kinds. One time they had great bollilos – a Mexican version of baguette – but theirs were a bit sweeter and so good with a little butter and a good cappuccino, which they also had. Both surprised and gratified me since the area, for the most part, seems to be popular with tourists that like barbecue.

D’Angelos Bakery in Santa Barbara, Ca. also has great bread (sage and onion) along with marvelous pastries like raisin rolls and lovely desserts. They also serve a very nice breakfast and have a good patio.

Arizmendi's Bakery in Emeryville, Ca which is related to The Cheese Board in Berkeley. Don’t be fooled by the name, they have some of the most original pastries around but my favorite at both spots are the brioche knots for which I might consider relocating. Fortunately since my daughter lives in the area I can get my fix by visiting from time to time.

Pearl Bakery, Portland, Or
I’ve been to Portland only once and during those 4 days observed that it has a lot to offer. The Pearl Bakery is only one of those things of course but it was enough for me. I particularly remember their – again! – brioche. They had really good chunky cookies and a sandwich that set the sandwich standard for me. It consisted of rich multi-grain walnut bread which held sliced pears, gorgonzola and arugula. Wow! That was years ago and I’m sure that they have added other equally good things but for me that would be enough.

And last but not least, my neighborhood Pain du Monde which has three locations within my immediate area in Newport Beach. They have really great strong coffee and pastries too numerous to list but I will mention the berry scones and raisin/walnut buns which I particularly like. Fortunately for me one of their locations is only blocks from my house so I can easily incorporate them into my morning routine. Like all the places I have mentioned, it is locally owned, which I prefer. The young women who work there are cheery, personable and friendly, something that is always desirable with your morning coffee.

I continue to check out great bakeries wherever I go, and always, always try something. Some people explore wine, or museums, or great monuments, I like bread.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In and out of the Kitchen

There are lots of things going on these days, politically, economically and sociologically. Many things are changing, and we will find out soon enough if it’s for better or for worse, I suppose. All points of view are available in various media and I have nothing to add to that.
I do have an opinion on a recent phenomenon that can’t change fast enough for me. The “bigger is better” concept. Not just the super-sized fast food and drinks, which are written about and discussed extensively, but a lot of other things too. For instance, in the US, the average home size was 2,330 square feet in 2004, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970. What do we do with so much space? Well, one of the things I have noticed particularly are the luxury kitchens. Never mind that no one seems to stay home and cook in them since at any given moment restaurants are always full. At least it seems that way at the ones I go to, bad economy and all. Nonetheless, these new kitchens are loaded with the latest in kitchen design and technology; beautiful cabinets and islands, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and oversized beautiful stoves that rival their restaurant cousins.

It could be that I’m just jealous. I have always been a bit partial to great stoves. Stove culture – kinda like car culture that guys have, only domesticated. I know, I know – saying that just perpetuates gender stereotypes. But I have to admit I do love the power and possibility encased in all that metal and chrome that is a stove, even if it can’t physically take me anywhere. Viking stoves, Wolf Stoves, Aga, so much food and history!

I haven’t always felt this way about stoves. It’s possible my romance with stoves started when we, Steve and I, acquired a free one some years ago. Not just any old stove, but what I consider a classic, once the crème de la crème of stoves, an O’Keefe and Merritt.

The day we acquired the stove started typically enough. It was a warm summer Saturday and Steve and I were on our way to the beach. The duplex we were living in at the time was about 6 blocks away from our favorite beach spot, which was beside the bay in Belmont Shore. We rode our bikes there in order to be able to carry our beach chairs, towels and snacks more easily.
As we rode down our neighborhood streets we looked around, as always to see what was going on. At one particular corner there was a lot of activity and apparently what was going on there was remodeling because there was a stove, just sitting at the curb. Even from a distance it looked pretty interesting so we stopped to check it out. It was the old style traditional white with 4 burners and a griddle in the middle, one baking and one broiling/grilling oven with something called a "Grill-a-vator". As we explored it we also noted it had a neat bifold top that converted to a shelf, salt and pepper shakers and a clock with timer.

This was a fabulous piece of furniture, more than a mere stove! We wondered aloud why it was out there and if it was a discard. As we were standing there the homeowner came out and we chatted a bit and found out they were in fact remodeling their kitchen. They were going for all new and nifty, no room for the old stuff including said stove. Well, we loved the stove. And, we did have an old 1920’s style kitchen that it would look great in. So Steve asked what they wanted for it, assuming they just wanted to get rid of it, which did turn out to be the case. The guys struck a deal, one case of (good) beer and, we had to haul it away.

They shook on it and off we continued to the beach. As we lay in the sun we discussed how we would get it home. Our duplex unit was upstairs in a Spanish style building with an outside staircase. Since we lived just blocks from where the stove was it seemed wasteful, given our limited financial resources, to rent a trailer to pick it up. And those stoves are really heavy, so lifting it into a truck bed, should be able to borrow one, would be really tricky. We had a couple of hours of sun time and then left the beach for home. After dropping off our bikes and other gear, we went back to the stove, hoping to come up with a logical answer on how to transport it by staring at it. The ex-owner came up with a unique idea, he would lend us a large dolly to put under the stove, and cable to tie around it, and we could pull it home. Since we lived only a few blocks from there it seemed like a good solution. After securing it as much as was possible, off we went, Steve yoked at the front, providing the strength and pulling it, and I at the back, holding onto the stove, making sure it didn’t slide off the dolly and sort of steering it.

Belmont Shore is a small community of narrow neighborhood streets and so negotiating our way slowly down the street wasn’t as big a problem as it might be in a busier place. All went well for several blocks with any cars that we encountered making their way around us gingerly, but graciously. What we had forgotten until we got there was that one of the streets we needed to cross was a major business thoroughfare, Second Street. But we were already on our way and there was no getting around it so we just pulled and pushed onward. When we got to the street we looked both ways and started out, I taking the lead and holding out up my hand like a traffic cop while Steve pulled his awkward load across.

It must have been quite a sight; a guy dressed in shorts and flip-flops pulling a rope with a bulky white appliance on wheels at the end of it. We got a lot of surprised looks from motorists, along with a few friendly waves, horn honks and some words of encouragement.

After that adventure, once we got it home, the question of how to get it up the stairs paled by comparison; all that took was good neighbor Jim to help provide the muscle. And when the stove was in place, it was well worth it, it looked great - And surprisingly, worked great. This was the stove that Steve learned to cook pasta on, and that we both sharpened our culinary interests with. It comes as no surprise to me twenty years later that those forties-era stoves are considered classics and are highly prized. I wouldn’t mind having one again myself, although as splendid as it was at the time,I think now I would be more likely to obtain one in a more conventional way.
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