Rain Check

Do you think a major rain check is a flood check? A monsoon check? A climate change check?

I’m taking one of those.

Once again, I don’t have a post for you. And I won’t next week either. Or the week after that. But I do have a reason for this.

That’s right. We’re going to Europe. France and Italy, to be exact. And there are so many things we want to see and do, but to be honest with you, because I always try to be honest with you, I think eating tops my list. It’s true; eating is usually right up there, but France? Italy? The pastries. The bread. The cheese. The wine. The pasta. The pastries (oh, did I say that already? Yeah…).

So I obviously won’t be posting (or cooking) while we’re away, but I hope to come back brimming with ideas. If you’d like to follow along on our adventures a little closer to real time, come on over to Instagram: my username there is blackberryeating and I suspect I’ll be recording a lot of what we see and do. And eat.

So au revoir for now, and arrivederci! See you in August.

#zucchinidaysofsummer

Afraid I don’t have a recipe for you today – between returning from one trip, prepping for another, and the general distressing state of The News, I haven’t produced anything I felt confident sharing with you. You can see from my hashtag title here, though, what I’ve been up to. If you follow me on Instagram (or if you’ve checked out the little Igram photo further down the page recently), you’ll have seen that I’m aiding and abetting perhaps the most prolific zucchini plant I’ve ever encountered. From its rooted stem to the tips of its highest leaves it probably stands four and a half feet tall, and the dark green, curved baseball bats I’ve been snapping off the thing are both awe inspiring and distressing, since I’m running out of ideas to use them up. These aren’t zucchini anymore; they’re proper marrows. Look out neighbors… I’m almost to the point of leaving “gifts” on your doorsteps in the dead of night.

Since I don’t have a real post to share with you, I thought instead I’d tell you a few of the ways I’ve been working through my harvest. In addition to last week’s zucchini bread, I’ve dabbled in a goat cheese and zucchini tart, a triumphant ratatouille adapted from Thomas Keller’s confit byaldi, and a shower of thin slivers added to fajita vegetables. Tonight I’m planning what I hope will be a triumphant stuffed endeavor: ground lamb studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, preserved lemon, plenty of dill, and some feta. Maybe a few garbanzo beans. Certainly an avalanche of bread crumbs to keep N. happy. I’ll hollow the central line of seeds out from one of the larger specimens and fill with my mixture, then roast until the crumbs are golden and the squash itself has softened.

Future ideas include breaded and fried slices, either crunched as an extravagant appetizer or stacked a la eggplant parmesan, replacements for lasagna noodles in a lighter, summery version of the baked pasta, and the ever popular “zoodles” with the spiralizer tool I keep forgetting I own. A friend is tracking down her mother’s old recipe for zucchini pickles, and I’m considering adding shreds to bread pudding, since the shelves of my freezer not weighed down with loaves of zucchini bread are filling up with sourdough crusts from our everyday loaves.

In the midst of all this, I have a tricky Chopped Challenge entree “basket” to deal with, which I hope I’ll have developments to report on soon…

What do you like to do with zucchini? What else should I try with my massive harvest? Leave me a comment, if you’re so inclined, and help me devour these monsters.

Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Chopped challenge #5: Tiramisu Trifles

Course: dessert

Ingredients: chocolate wafer cookies, cream cheese, espresso powder, balsamic vinegar

When I quizzed her about this set of ingredients, my mom (it’s her birthday today; happy birthday, Mommy!) immediately said cheesecake, and as I think about it, that makes a lot of sense. The wafers and espresso get pulverized into a caffeinated crust, the balsamic becomes some sort of glaze or syrup for drizzling, and the cream cheese is allow to stay pristine and tangy in the center.

But as soon as I heard the espresso powder component of this quartet, my mind went to tiramisu, that famous Italian dessert of soaked ladyfingers piled with rich custard. The best tiramisu I’ve ever had was in a lovely little restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, now sadly defunct. Our server, overwhelmed by the busyness of the evening, brought us a free slice in an effort, I’ve always thought, to get us to stay a little longer so she wouldn’t immediately be hit with another new table of guests. It was so good – the custard silky and thick, the cookies melting after their marsala and coffee bath, and just the right dusting of completely unsweetened cocoa powder across the top to contrast the sweetness of the dessert and enhance the coffee flavors.

Mine would obviously be a little different. The chocolate wafers, in all their Styrofoam-textured glory, would clearly take the place of the ladyfingers (confession: I love these terrible cookies. I love their waffled surface design and their overly sweet filling and their fake, near tasteless exteriors. We had to hide the package while I planned this recipe out because I was going through them at least two at a time every time I walked past them). They would be soaked in espresso, and the cream cheese would be folded into the custard as a replacement for some of the traditional mascarpone.

The sticking point was the balsamic vinegar. After some consideration, I determined I would add some to the espresso to soak the cookies (and spent an entertaining few minutes tasting the wafers with some vinegar dribbled on and deeming them “weird but not terrible” – this is what I do for you). That didn’t seem like quite enough, though, until I thought about strawberries as a bridge: they are great with chocolate, they go well with cream cheese, and they pair beautifully with balsamic vinegar. Clearly what I needed to do was top the dessert with slices of strawberries, then boil down some of the balsamic into a syrup to drizzle over the fruit.

This was sounding further and further from the beautiful slice of tiramisu that we fought over in Ashland, which was served simply in a square portion with a little powdered sugar on the plate. The combination of cookie, custard, and fruit made me think of a trifle, and I determined I would serve these not as plated slices cut from a large cake, but in pretty cocktail glasses, with layers of each component to add visual appeal.

The result was terrifically rich, and while I’m not sure espresso, balsamic vinegar, and chocolate wafer cookies truly belong together, we did enjoy them. The real stand-out to the dessert, though, was the custard. At my first few spoonfuls, I was bowled over by a tartness I thought was the balsamic vinegar. The next day, though, when I allowed myself another serving, I realized the tanginess I was tasting came from the cream cheese. Mascarpone, the traditional thickener for the custard component, lacks this slight sourness (especially prominent in the Philadelphia brand); it is much more mild, almost like overwhipped cream just before it becomes butter. But the tangy flavor in the custard was reminiscent of cheesecake, which in my book is never a bad thing, and it kept the whole dessert from being overly sweet.

One note: you do have to watch the balsamic vinegar closely as it reduces, if you decide to go with the syrup option. In the space of about ten seconds, it goes from a lovely thick drizzle to an over-reduced sludge that hardens into a sticky caramel my fillings are still quivering about. Pull it off the heat a little before it seems reduced enough; it will continue to thicken as it cools.

These looked fantastic in my cocktail glasses, as you can see, but they were tremendously large and we ended up sharing just one to avoid overload. Smaller glasses, or even little jars, would be good for more, and less gluttonous, servings.

Tiramisu Trifles with Balsamic Drizzle
Makes 2 enormous or 4 small trifles, with custard left over
Minimum of about 3 hours, including chilling time (though chilling overnight is even better)
3 egg yolks
⅜ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
⅜ cups whole milk
4 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon espresso powder
½ cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons rum, brandy, or marsala, optional
~ 12 chocolate wafer cookies, chopped or crumbled
4-6 fresh strawberries, sliced

 

  • Fill a large bowl about halfway with ice cubes and water. Use another small bowl and small pot to create a double boiler: bring a cup or two of water to a simmer in the pot, then set the small bowl atop it, being sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Add the egg yolks and ⅜ cups of sugar to the bowl, then whisk until the sugar dissolves – you will no longer feel rough sugar granules against the whisk and the bowl.
  • Whisk in the ⅜ cups milk and then cook, whisking slowly and constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 170F. This should take 10-15 minutes; look for the custard to become light and foamy, and thicken slightly.
  • Once the mixture hits its target temperature, remove the small bowl from the heat and place it gently into the larger bowl of ice water. Whisk for at least a minute until the mixture cools, taking care not to allow any ice water to slop into the custard.
  • In a medium bowl, use a spatula to firmly mix together the room temperature mascarpone and cream cheese. Then fold in the cooled custard just until fully incorporated and smooth. Top the bowl with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until the other components are ready.
  • Now, add the espresso powder, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and the 2 tablespoons alcohol, if using, to the boiling water in a small pot or bowl. Stir to combine, then set aside to cool (I got impatient and shoved mine into the freezer for a few minutes).
  • When the espresso mixture has cooled, you are ready to assemble. First, soak the chopped or crumbled chocolate wafers in the espresso liquid for a few seconds. You want the liquid to permeate but you don’t want the cookie to sog into nothing. In cocktail glasses or dessert goblets, carefully add a layer of soaked cookie pieces. Top that with a layer of the cooled custard – it will still be fairly thin – then repeat: another layer of cookies, another layer of custard. You want at least two layers of each.
  • If it’s possible without disturbing the dessert layers, top each glass with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge again for at least 2 hours, but ideally longer – overnight is best.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready for dessert, slice the strawberries. In a small pot, combine the remaining ½ cup of balsamic vinegar with the final 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar and sugar bubble down into a syrup; aim for the thickness of maple syrup, which will cool into something more like molasses. This will probably take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on your stove and your pot.
  • Rescue your trifles from the fridge and for each, place a layer of strawberry slices in some artful design over the top. Drizzle on a few teaspoons of the balsamic syrup just before serving.

Stone fruit and herb sangria

Summer is here. All that stands between me and falling deeply, fully, thankfully into it is one class of final essays and a little bit of paperwork. And then! It’s all soaking up sun and aimless wandering on the beach and all the vacation I can stomach. No, wait, that’s someone else’s life. For me it’s gardening and finalizing an article and planning a class and, well, okay, vacationing. But more on that later…

In celebration of the summer hanging just out of reach, I thought a nice little beverage might fit the bill. The inspiration for this one came a couple of Sundays ago, as we had lunch with M., a friend from graduate school who happened to be in town for an extended birthday voyage. We decided the occasion merited drinks with lunch, and I had a sangria that, oddly, is NOT the direct inspiration of this one. Rather, as we clinked forks and glasses, M. told me about her favorite way of making the drink in question, which involved stone fruit and herbs – her preference is sage; here I’ve used thyme as I tend to find sage a mite strong, but you could easily do both. This drink is easy to play with.

Typically sangria involves wine, fruit, and something a touch stronger to fortify it like brandy or liqueur. It gets lightly sweetened, and the fruit is allowed to steep a while to soak up some of the liquid. M. replaces the typical apples and oranges with stone fruit, and rather than the usual simple syrup she uses a spoon or two of apricot preserves, which very cleverly reinforces the stone fruit flavor while sweetening the drink.

Between the preserves and the fruit pieces, which break down a little bit as they sit in the wine, this isn’t a crystal clear brew. But it is crystal clear that it deserves to be drunk. It is bright and light – a perfect aperitif – and would pair well with almost any snack you can think of: flatbread, crostini, savory cheeses, maybe some cold salmon, and definitely the wine-soaked fruit at the bottom of your glass. As my sister noted when I sent her a preview photo, “Looks delightful. A+ Would drink.” Some people like to top up their sangria with sparkling water or lemonade. I do not, but you can if you want to. This is, after all, your summer.

* a note for serving: I used a champagne glass here for presentation purposes and loved the look of it, but once loaded with fruit, it held an unsatisfying quantity of actual drink. I’d suggest a wine glass or even a tumbler. Additionally, while the slices of peach looked very pretty, smaller chunks are a little easier to navigate both while pouring and in the glass itself.

 

Stone Fruit and Herb Sangria
I wouldn’t dare estimate how many people you like to serve out of one bottle of white wine…
At least 2½ hours (mostly time chilling), but could be prepared as much as a day in advance
750ml bottle crisp white wine (I used a vinho verde from Portugal, which was slightly effervescent)
2 tablespoons peach or apricot preserves
3-4 large sprigs of thyme or sage
3 ripe peaches or other stone fruit, pitted but not skinned, cut into thin slices or chunks as you desire
½ a lemon, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
optional: ¼ cup orange liqueur or limoncello
ice plus extra herb sprigs to serve
sparkling water or lemonade to serve, if desired

 

  • In a small pot, combine the preserves with about ¼ cup of the wine and the thyme or sage. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the preserves melt down and emulsify, so to speak, into the wine.
  • While this mixture is simmering, put the peaches and lemons into a large pitcher or punch bowl, then add the hot wine and preserves mixture, including the herb sprigs. Add the remaining wine and the liqueur, if using.
  • Refrigerate until cold; at least two hours is enough, but overnight is even better to let flavors mingle.
  • Serve over ice, being sure to get some of the fruit into your glass. Add an extra sprig of thyme or sage if desired, and top up with sparkling water or lemonade if that’s your thing.