Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tea Time

The pace is starting to pick up again. After a nice, calm, rather slow January, it's time for the madness to begin once again.

I am not talking about basketball. The group of restaurants that I run the pastry programs for, is set to open their fifth location this March. Not only is it a very large restaurant, it is smack dab in the middle of the tourist strip downtown Chicago. The dessert menu has been set, hiring has begun, and change is coming. I have a feeling there is going to be a bit of shell shock that comes along with this opening. Going from a 200 seat beer-centric gastropub in old town, to a 600-seat restaurant on Michigan Avenue, open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, is going to be a bit of an adjustment.

It's time to buckle down, get organized, and let this tornado do with me what it will. Last year at restaurant opening time, I was completely green, never having working in a restaurant kitchen before. I was basically like a deer in headlights, with an apron and a spatula. Within the span of about two weeks, I went from being hired, to helping design the dessert menu, to cranking out my sweets for the masses. What a whirlwind it was.

Thankfully, this year is a bit different. I have had time to think, and carefully plan the menu. No near-nervous breakdowns, no all-nighters, no second-guessing my decision to accept a job as a pastry chef a few months out of school.

The main difference this time around is that I have experience in my back pocket. It may only be a year, but I have learned so much about production, cost, and more importantly, the clientele. I know a little bit more about what sells, and what kinds of things will make people buy dessert, and what makes them choose one menu item over another. I am so much more confident in the menu this year, and am so excited to get started. I can tell you there is bacon and lots of booze on the dessert list, and that can't be a bad thing.

So, while I am patiently waiting for things to kick up a notch, I am taking some time to just relax a bit. I have to drink in the moments of stillness, that by April, will feel like a distant memory. Here we go again.

Here in the midst of winter, citrus fruits are at their finest, and what better way to preserve their glory than turning them into curds. Forget lemon curd, that's boring, how about blood orange, meyer lemon, or even better, grapefruit? Pair the tangy, tart curd with some delicate almond financiers, and you will have a great excuse to put on a pot of tea, kick back and take a few minutes out of your busy day to just relax.

Almond Financiers with Grapefruit Curd 
adapted from Bon Apetit and Ina Garten

Almond cakes:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup almond meal
1 2/3 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup egg whites
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Using the 2 tablespoons of melted butter, lightly grease your financier tins, or miniature bundt cake pan. Place pan in freezer to let butter solidify.

In a large bowl, mix together the almond meal, sugar, flour, and salt. Add the egg whites and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Add the melted butter, and mix to combine. Spoon the batter into molds, filling 3/4 the way full.

Bake the cakes for about 5 minutes (if using a miniature bundt pan, about 7 minutes if using traditional financier molds). Turn oven temperature down to 400, and bake for an additional 5 minutes (7 minutes for financier molds). Turn oven off completely and let the pan sit in the oven for another 5 minutes (7 for finanicers). Remove cakes from oven, and let cool completely before unmolding.

Grapefruit Curd:

zest of 1 grapefruit
zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs
6 tbl grapefruit juice
2 tbl lemon juice
pinch of salt

In a medium sized sauce pan, off heat, whisk together the sugar, zest and softened butter until it creates a paste. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, then add the juices and salt. Place saucepan over medium-low heat and whisk constantly until mixture reaches 170 degrees.

Transfer to a bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the curd to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight to firm up.

To Finish:

Using a apple corer or large pastry tip poke a hole in the bottom of each financier. Remove the 'core', reserving. Remove a bit of cake from each core to make room for more curd. Pipe a small amount of curd into the financier, and replace the core back into the bottom.  This process is similar to filling cupcakes, just upside down. Serve immediately, or freeze for future use.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Brussels Sprout Panzanella

If these pictures are conjuring thoughts of summer, I don't blame you. It was almost 60 degrees today here in Chicago. In the middle of January. 60 degrees. In January. In Chicago. Ugh.

As I stood outside in my t-shirt taking pictures, I almost convinced myself that I was enjoying the warm streak of days we've been having. Unfortunately cold reality hit me as soon as I went back inside and was confronted with the sight of my sad, shriveled up christmas tree. Don't worry I finally took it down today, and at only the 12th of january, I think its a new record. Last year I put it off until almost february. Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that.

I quickly remembered that I have a deep-rooted bitterness that instead of bundling up to go cross country skiing, or cozying up in a dark bar while the snowflakes fall outside, I am outside without a damn coat on (or sleeves for that matter). You can take the girl out of Minnesota...well you know the rest.

While panzanella may be a summer staple for anyone who loves a good tomato, its just not the same in the winter when tomatoes have a tendency to taste like cardboard. With a few twists, a hot pan, and some juicy cherry tomatoes, you can have a bright and healthful panzanella salad even in the dark, mind-numbingly cold month of January. Ha. I wish. 

This tomato and bread salad is winterized with roasted brussels sprouts, done Dad's way. If you have never added anchovy (or fish sauce) and red pepper flakes to your veggies before roasting, stop everything you are doing and try it now. It is that good.

Winter Brussels Sprouts Panzanella
serves 6 as a small starter salad, 4 as a larger side or main dish. You can bulk it up for a main meal with some diced chicken, or a fried egg.

4 cups brussels sprouts, trimmed, outer leaves discarded, then quartered (I started with about 4-5 cups, after they were trimmed and roasted, I had a little less than 3 cups, exact measurements in this recipe are not necessary)
20 cherry tomatoes
4 cups crusty bread, cut into bite sized cubes (I used a ciabatta bread, but french bread or sourdough would work just as well)
6 tbl extra virgin olive oil
2 tbl balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 oz (approximately) shaved parmigiano reggiano for garnish
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Mix together 2 tbl olive oil, fish sauce, and red pepper flakes, and toss with brussels sprouts to coat evenly. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet (I line mine with my silpat) and season liberally with salt and fresh ground pepper. Roast in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on how big your sprouts are, until tender in the middle, and crispy on the outside. Remove from oven and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat another two tablespoons of olive oil (or enough to just cover the bottom of your pan) over high heat. Add the cubed bread, and toss quickly to coat in the olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook over high heat, tossing frequently just until bread begins to brown and gets a bit crispy, about 4-5 minutes. Remove bread from pan and set aside.

Return pan to medium-high heat, and add a few more tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes, just until garlic becomes fragrant. Add the tomatoes and saute for 4-5 minutes, shaking pan frequently to move tomatoes around, until the skin starts to blister and burst. Add balsamic vinegar and cook for another minute, tossing with the tomatoes.

In a large bowl, combine the brussels sprouts, bread, and tomatoes (save any tomato/balsamic juice that is in your skillet to drizzle on top later). Add any more salt and pepper if needed, and divide salad among your plates. Top with shaved cheese, and a few spoonfuls of the leftover pan jus.

Easy as that. Serve room temperature, or with the tomatoes hot, it is delicious either way. 

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