Thursday, December 24, 2009

Almonds, Butter, Pears

A partidge in a pear tree ... the first gift in the classic Christmas song involves one of my favorite fruits, and this is the time of year to enjoy ditching diets, so what better holiday treat than a buttery pear and almond tart?

The pear and almond cream combination has been a favorite of mine since I passed my time sampling patisseries, er-hem, I mean studying, during my semester in France, and this particular tart, which I have been making for close to 15 years based on a couple Bon Appetit recipes is a keeper.

The crust unfailingly bakes up buttery, crisp and crumbly, and the rich almond cream is the perfect complement to the delicate flavor of the pears.

It's easy enough to make (especially if you prep the crust and filling a day ahead), and looks like something you'd pay a lot for at a bakery.

Pear Almond Tart

Crust (dough can be made the day before baking)

1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds (30 g.)
1/2 cup powdered sugar or 1/4 cup superfine granulated sugar (50 g.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature (112 g.)
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour (170 g.)

Almond filling

2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds (65 g.)
1 tablespoon all purpose flour (10 g.)
5 tablespoons sugar (65 g.)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature (85 g.)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract plus 1/2 tsp. almond extract)

For the top
2 to 3 pears (a pound to a pound and a half)

about 1/4 cup apricot jam, melted (to glaze the pears after the tart is baked)

1) Prepare crust:
Process the almonds, sugar and salt in a food processor until the almonds are finely ground. Add butter, processing until smooth (scrape down sides of bowl when needed), then blend in egg yolk. Add flour and pulse until dough clumps together.
Press the dough into a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom, and dock with a fork.
Wrap well with plastic and let dough chill and rest three hours. You can make it up to this point and bake it in the next day or two.
Note: You don't have to wash out the processor before using it to make the filling now.

2) Prepare filling:
In the processor, finely grind the almonds, together with the tablespoon flour.
Add in 5 tablespoons sugar, pulsing until it's well blended, then mix in butter, and then egg and vanilla.
Put the frangipane into a bowl or container and chill, covered. You can also prep the filling a day or two in advance.

3) Bake crust:
Preheat oven to 375° F and freeze crust 10 minutes.

Set bowl of filling on counter to soften (for easier spreading).

Line crust with buttered aluminum foil, pressing the buttered side down, then fill with pie weights or dried beans.
Bake 10-20 minutes (depending on your oven) to set the sides. Remove foil and weights, if using them, and continue baking until the bottom is set, about 10 more minutes.

I often have to cover the sides with a pie protector to keep them from overly browning. Also, the bottom sometimes balloons up. When that happens, lightly pierce crust bottom with the tines of a fork to release the steam and press it back down with the back of the fork.

Cool crust in pan on a rack, and lower oven to 350° F.

4) Assemble:
Spread frangipane in cooled crust, then slice pears and arrange slices on top of the filling.

Bake tart until filling is set and crust is golden, about 50 to 55 minutes. You can use a toothpick to test the filling. If the crust is browning too quickly, cover it with a pie crust protector or aluminum foil.

6) Glaze:
Place tart on rack to cool, and brush melted apricot jam over the pears.


* Sometimes I slice pear halves crosswise and then fan the slices from the middle outward or vice versa. Sometimes I slice them lengthwise and arrange them in whatever pattern pleases me.

* Some recipes for this tart, which I've seen called tarte Bourdaloue, call for poaching the pears first. When the pears are already juicy and ripe (poaching would make them disintegrate), I simply slice them and put them atop the tart without pre-poaching. I've also seen recipes for this that call for using canned pear in a pinch.

* I've used whole almonds, with or without the skin, for both the crust and the filling when I didn't have blanched almonds.

* A scale is invaluable for accurate and consistent baking results. When measuring flour, for instance, depending on the texture of the batch of flour, the amount of air in the product and the ambient humidity, the true amount measured at different times can vary considerably, even for a single cook using the same cup measures.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I love Paris

A little more than a month before my husband and I got engaged, we took a trip to Paris, which I think is my favorite city in the world after New York. He loves good food and had taken a weeklong course in French cooking at Peter Kumpf's New York Cooking School (which is now the Institute for Culinary Education, in Manhattan). Still, he had never gotten around to visiting a country that geographically is so small but is a giant when it comes to good LIVING (like Italy, Spain, etc. Something to do with the Romans? I couldn't say).

We just had to go. I had been to France several times, including my semester in Aix-en-Provence, and it seemed like such a waste not to use what I had learned of the language and culture. (I’d never be an interpreter at the U.N., so then what exactly had I spent those years studying French for?) We booked a flight and a week at a tiny hotel by the Jardins du Luxembourg in early November.

Our plane descended through gray cloud cover … then we dragged our luggage via the Metro to our hotel’s quartier. When we entered the little lobby (about as big as a lot of walk-in closets in the suburbs), I greeted the woman reading a small book at the front desk, “Bonjour Madame …” But she immediately responded in English, not unfriendly but not terribly friendly either. I continued in French to tell her we had reservations and gave her our names. She insisted she was able to converse in English and told us that our room wouldn't be ready until about 3 or 4 p.m. Ugh, she was sending us out to cool our heels. I told myself, “I don‘t think she likes us very much.”

We were exhausted, D had the beginnings of a cold, but we suddenly had time to kill, so we asked her if she could suggest a place to take lunch.

As we walked toward her recommended spot, I neurotically wondered aloud to D whether the clerk thought my French was bad, or my accent wasn't good enough, or did she think I was the stereotype of the uncouth American? (Overreact much? Hey, I was fried from the trip.) A few blocks away as we approached the dated exterior of the bistro where she had directed us, I thought — out loud this time — “I don‘t think she likes us very much.”

Too tired to roam in search of a more attractive place, I mentally wrote off lunch as an extension of our plane ride — like an airport meal — and we were taken to a dark corner. I ordered a duck leg confit, and D chose fish (when we got it, it looked like a fillet of trout with the skin) served with lentils.

We waited. D sipped his red wine. Minutes passed. We waited a bit more. (Where was that glass of water I'd ordered?) And we waited. Finally, the garcon strode briskly to our table and set our heavy white plates down in front of us. We both took a couple bites. That hotel clerk definitely didn’t like us. She LOVED us.

The duck was as ducky a flavor as you can get, and rich with duck fat. I love that stuff. D's fish was cooked perfectly, moist and succulent with a thin crispy skin, and tapenade of olives lightly dressing it. And underneath was a small bed of well-seasoned lentils, not mushy but tender, each one steadfastly holding its shape.
I still think about that meal a decade ago. The stores here don’t carry fresh seafood or duck, and it’s prohibitively expensive for us to order it. But French lentils (lentilles de Puy) I can get, and they play well with so many other things — chorizo, merguez, small lamb shanks — I could go on.


Lentil Stew With Lamb and Sausage
Serves 4

2 Tbs olive oil
5 slices bacon, cut into half-inch pieces
2 small lamb shanks (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
8 to 12 oz. sausage (merguez, andouille or Palacios chorizo), cut into 2-inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, smashed
3 carrots, cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 onion (or 2 large shallots), chopped
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp dried ground)
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried ground)
1 cup dry red wine
4 cups chicken broth
1 Tbs tomato paste (or more to taste)
1 bay leaf
1 1/5 cups lentils, sorted to remove pebbles, and rinsed
salt* (to taste)
1 tsp pepper

Heat a heavy pot over medium to medium-high heat. Render bacon, then set pieces aside. Add 2 Tbs oil to the bacon fat. Salt and pepper the lamb shanks, brown them, then set aside on a plate. Cover loosely with foil. (If using uncooked sausage, brown it then reserve with shanks, and if using cooked sausage, add it to the pot later with the shanks.)

Saute garlic, carrots, celery and onion until beginning to brown. If using dried herbs, add them to the vegetables and heat less than a minute. (If using fresh herbs, put them in later with the stock.)

Deglaze with the wine, scraping up any fond, or brown bits, from bottom of pot. Stir in lentils, tomato paste, bay leaf and chicken broth. Return shanks with any juices to pot along with bacon and sausage. Bring liquid just to a boil, then lower heat and maintain simmer until lamb shanks are tender, about an hour and half to two hours, depending on the size. If pot needs more liquid, add water.
When cool enough, remove shank bones and discard. Break up meat and stir back into lentils.
Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.

Possible accompaniments: a hunk of fresh baguette; some grated or shaved Parmesan; a dollop of mascarpone.

*I don't necessarily add much salt because many store-bought chicken broths and stocks already are quite salty. If using a homemade or low-salt broth or stock, then add more salt according to taste.

**We usually have extra. Leftover lentils can be stretched with some broth or canned pureed tomato and served with penne or gobbetti (a twisted tube pasta with ridges), which goes well with hearty sauces like this or a red sauce with shredded pork shoulder and sausage.
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