Crouton Cook-off

The problem with spending your whole Sunday thinking it’s Saturday is that you arrive to Monday morning out of breath and without a post to share! Good thing it’s still summer for this absent-minded professor.

This week, instead of a complicated recipe, I thought I’d do a little experiment. Since I can’t make bread pudding all the time (fitting into my summer wardrobe is nice), and I refuse to toss the crusts from my weekly sourdough loaves* but I do still need room in the freezer for other things, I’ve been playing a lot with seasonings and cooking methods for croutons. My favorite way to flavor them, besides good old salt and pepper is, curiously enough, a healthy shake of poultry seasoning. The mix of herbs adds depth, and it’s nice to use that little canister more often than just on Thanksgiving Day. To lighten them up, lemon zest is also a frequent addition.

As for cooking method, I vacillate between baking the seasoned cubes and frying them in a skillet. Since in between salads I forget which I prefer, I decided to conduct a cook-off experiment, seasoning the whole batch exactly the same and then baking half the cubes and pan-frying the other half.

Ultimately, although the oven version came out a fraction crunchier, we determined the main difference between cooking method lies not in end result, but in investment of effort. The oven batch had merely to be tossed onto a cookie sheet and stowed in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes. The stovetop version had to be stirred frequently for about the same amount of time; leaving it unsupervised resulted in quickly burned bread. So we wind up with a win some, lose some set of options. On one hand, preheating and baking probably heats up your house more, but produces a slightly crisper end result with less effort from you. The stovetop method probably doesn’t warm up the room as much, and it doesn’t require as long to preheat, but if you aren’t willing to babysit the croutons, there’s less margin of error for achieving an even crunch without burning any edges. So… for perfect crisp croutons and very little effort on your part, bake your seasoned bread cubes. If it’s summer and you don’t have or want to use air conditioning, bake them in the morning, cool completely, and store in something airtight until the rest of the salad is made.

* If you still have more crusts than you know what to do with, I recently learned stale bread can be composted; see here for a short how-to.

Crouton Cook-off
Enough for 3-4 salads
zest of 2 small or 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
generous ¼ cup olive oil
2 cups bread, torn or cut in cubes of your desired size
  • If you are baking your croutons, first preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Whisk all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl.
  • Add bread cubes and toss well for even coating.
  • To bake, spread seasoned cubes on a cookie sheet and stow in the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your end product. 15 minutes preserves some give in the middle; 20-25 minutes results in fully crunchy cubes.
  • If you are pan-frying rather than baking, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seasoned cubes. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring and flipping frequently for even browning.
  • For both cooking methods, set croutons aside to cool before serving. They will crisp just slightly more as they cool down, but not significantly.

BBQ Tofu Salad

I’m back! At least for the moment…

At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)

But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.

Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.

Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.

As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.

As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.

Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.

BBQ Tofu Salad

Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original

Serves 4-6

2 ears corn on the cob

1 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry

1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)

6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only

¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped

1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco

2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips

vegetable oil to fry

additional salt to season tortilla strips

~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing

Additional BBQ sauce, if desired

Optional: lime wedges to serve

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
  • When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
  • For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
  • To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree

There’s not much of a story here, only an observation my sister made that it seems like I’m into fancy food lately. I attribute this to spring break, when I made the dishes in my last three posts, because I had some time on my hands and I wanted to play. This recipe, and the deviled eggs crostini from last month, came from a list I keep on my laptop of food ideas, which oddly enough doesn’t often get used – I write down delicious-sounding concepts, and then I forget about them.

Not so with this one anymore. Very loosely imagined after a dish N. had years and years ago on the Oregon coast that just wasn’t as good as it should have been, I decided to top salmon filets with an herby crab salad, then wrap the whole thing in wafer-thin slices of potato and serve it over a velvety smooth puree of peas and arugula. Very spring.

The finished dish was good, and the flavor was delicious. It was not, however, as perfectly beautiful as it could have been, largely because I think to make this dish as gorgeous as it deserves to be, you really need a mandolin or a v-slicer, which is equipment I don’t have (largely because my kitchen storage situation leaves a bit to be desired). I made do with a potato peeler, as can you, in a pinch, but the results were only passable, not stellar.

Notes below about crab and puree options: jumbo lump is, of course, the premium choice, but lately I’ve found a mixture of jumbo or regular lump and claw meat is just fine. As for the puree, as I note below, you can choose your texture to please your palate (and your partner’s); I went with something pesto-like, but processing or blending further would offer a smoother sauce, and passing through a strainer, though somewhat time consuming, would produce a silky bright green sauce. Proceed as desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree
About 45 minutes
Serves 2 (with leftover crab salad)
For the crab salad:
Zest of one lime
Zest of one lemon
3 TB finely minced dill + a few extra sprigs to garnish if desired
1 TB finely minced chives
2 TB finely minced celery and/or radish
10 ounces crab meat, carefully picked through for cartilage pieces
about 3 TB mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste
For the salmon:
2 6 ounce boneless, skinless salmon filets
3-4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 TB butter
1 TB olive oil
For the pea and arugula puree:
4 ounces defrosted frozen peas
2 TB butter
2 ounces baby arugula
1 TB lemon juice or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: blanched pencil asparagus

 

  • First, make the crab salad: combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. You can use whatever sort of crab you want; I like a mixture of lump, for the sweetness, and regular or crab and claw meat, for the affordability. Start with the recommended 3 TB mayonnaise, but you can add more if desired. You are looking for just enough that the mixture starts to hold together. Set the finished crab salad aside until it is time to assemble.
  • For the salmon, preheat the oven to 375F. Do a quick but thorough check of the filets to ensure there are no bones. Salt and pepper the fish on both sides, then set aside until the potatoes are ready.
  • The easiest way to proceed is to make very thin vertical slices of the potatoes on the wider side using a mandolin slicer, so you end up with long, wide strips. If you are using a mandolin, you will probably only need 2 potatoes worth of wide strips. Use the third potato to make round slices, like potato chips, by cutting horizontally across the small ends. If you don’t have a mandolin, you can do a passable job with a y-shaped potato peeler. Again, try for the longest, widest slices you can manage. You’ll probably need all 4 potatoes if you are using a peeler, because at a certain point you won’t be able to carve out clean slices anymore. Use 3 of the potatoes to make the long, wide strips, then use the fourth one to make the round, potato chip shaped slices.
  • To assemble, on a cutting board, lay out a row of long, wide potato strips, slightly overlapping, about an inch longer on each side than the filet. Add a second row just above it, again overlapping, so you have a kind of carpet of potato slices, as in the photo below.
  • Set the filet in the center of the potato slices, flesh side up (that is, the side where the skin used to be should rest on the potato layer). Using a spoon, top the filet with a few tablespoons of the crab salad, spreading it evenly across the surface.
  • Now the hard part: working quickly, begin wrapping the potato slices around the salmon. As you bring the overlapping layers up to the top, shingle on a layer of the round slices to hold the long pieces up and together. Check out the photo below to see what I mean.
  • Okay, now the other hard part: heat the butter and olive oil together in a medium skillet over medium high heat. When the fat is quite hot, use a spatula and your hand to carefully but quickly add the wrapped filets to the skillet, trying to get the shingled top side into the butter and oil mixture first. Sear without disturbing for 4 minutes, then carefully flip and place the whole skillet into your preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes.
  • While the fish is in the oven, make the pea and arugula pesto: in a small pot, cook the peas with the 2 TB butter just until they are hot. Add them to a food processor with the arugula, the lemon zest, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Process until fairly smooth, then taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
  • If you want to be fancy, you can strain the puree until a thin, smooth sauce. I decided to leave it more like a pesto texture, though, for ease.
  • If you are making the asparagus, now is a good time to blanch it and toss it with a tiny bit of butter, lemon, and salt.
  • To serve, place a scoop of the puree in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use the back of a spoon to spread it into a circle. Alternatively, if you strained the mixture into a sauce, just pour some into the bottom of the vessel you’ve chosen. Place the potato-wrapped fish carefully just to the side of the center, so you can see some of the bright green circle underneath. If you made the pencil asparagus, you can nestle this between the fish and the edge of your plate or bowl, as in the photo earlier in the post.

Triple Play Deviled Eggs Crostini

When I planned out this post, I had big dreams: I was on spring break, and I was going to do research and offer you a big history lesson into the tradition of “deviled” foods (short version: in savory items this indicates something heavily spiced, i.e. the mustard or paprika of a deviled egg or the hot sauce of deviled ham). I did a thoroughly scientific examination of which kind of fat – unsalted butter [below, left], mayonnaise {below, right], or olive oil [below, center] – would be best for the crostini (short version: I liked mayonnaise the best. It toasted evenly, it had a mild flavor, and it was easiest since I was going to use it anyway for the egg filling. The butter had a pleasant toasty flavor from the browned solids, and the olive oil not only had the most assertive flavor, which I deemed potentially distracting from the egg, but took the longest to toast). I came up with three filling options to tickle your fancy and your taste buds, and decided I didn’t have to choose – we would talk about them all: how the classic is simple and perfect, but then I thought about tuna salad as inspiration for the vegetable-forward version, and an herby, punchy latke spread for the one with horseradish…

But then I stepped into my “outdoor photo studio” the day of and got so excited about the photography part of this self-imposed assignment that I must confess I ran out of steam a bit. Instead of overloading you with information, I’ll invite you to sink deeply into the Alice in Wonderland garden setting and indulge me my fussy fanciness (though you must admit: these would be lovely as an Easter brunch item, or a bridal or baby shower, or some other spring… thing…).

These made a delicious, extravagant lunch. In addition to being “highly spiced,” I think a good deviled egg needs some acidic component, and these did not disappoint. Despite my love for my “classic” recipe, I found I liked the “Herbaceous” version the best, with its subtle but peppery horseradish tang.

Just a few things before I let you get on to the rest of the exhibit and the recipe itself: one key to making lovely, heaping deviled eggs is to boil one egg more than you want to serve. One of the whites gets discarded, so you wind up with the equivalent of one extra yolk to pile high. Here, I have offered quantities for one crostini of each type, which means you need 4 eggs, but you could easily double or triple the amounts in each individual variety, and you could certainly serve them as traditional deviled eggs, which would entail just halving the whites instead of slicing them. You also certainly don’t have to provide all the intricate little garnishes; I went a touch overboard because I had time and wanted to play. Any of these would be fine without the little toppers. Now on with the show…

Triple Play Deviled Egg Crostini
Makes 4 eggs; enough for 3 crostini (one of each type)
About 30 minutes
For all:
4 eggs
1½ tablespoons mayonnaise
Seeded bread, thinly spread with fat of your choice, broiled until golden
1.) The Classic
½ teaspoon whole grain mustard + additional, to garnish
¼ teaspoon cider vinegar
dash Worcestershire
salt and pepper to taste
2.) Crunchy Vegetable
1 heaping teaspoon finely minced celery
1 heaping teaspoon finely minced radish
6-8 thinly cut radish spears, to garnish (cut a thin slice into thin sticks, as in the photos)
1 scant teaspoon finely minced pickled onion + extra to garnish
salt and pepper to taste
assorted celery leaves to garnish, if desired
3.) Herbaceous
¼ teaspoon horseradish
1 teaspoon finely minced dill + additional sprigs, to garnish
1 teaspoon finely minced chives + additional longer spears, to garnish
¼ teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste

 

  • First, hard boil the eggs: bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, then use a spoon to carefully place each egg into the water one at a time, allowing them to roll off the spoon gently onto the bottom of the pot (that is, don’t just drop them in from the top of the water; they will break). When all eggs are added, start the timer for exactly 12 minutes. As soon as the timer sounds, remove the eggs to a small bowl or plate and set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. You can put them in the refrigerator or freezer to hasten this process.
  • When the eggs are cool enough to handle, tap their shells gently all over on a flat, hard surface, peel and rinse to be sure you’ve removed all shell fragments. With a very sharp knife, cut the hard-boiled eggs into slices; I did 4-5 slices per egg. Remove the yolk pieces carefully and put them into a small bowl. Keep the empty whites.
  • To make the deviled egg base, use a fork to mash up the yolks into a fluffy texture. Add the 1½ tablespoons mayonnaise and mash again with the fork until the mixture is smooth. You don’t want any big remaining pieces of yolk.
  • If you are making only one of these options, multiply ingredient amounts by 3 and proceed, adding them to the yolk and mayonnaise mixture and mixing well. If you are making all three, divide the yolk and mayonnaise mixture evenly between three ramekins or other small bowls, and add the quantities specified above.
  • To make the crostini, spread slices of seeded bread with your choice of butter, mayonnaise, or olive oil, place on a broiler pan or wire rack over a baking sheet, and broil until golden brown and crisp on top. In my broiler on high with mayonnaise, this took about three minutes. When toasted, set the bread aside to cool slightly.
  • To serve, arrange 3-4 slices of egg white atop each crostini. Use either a spoon or a piping bag (the easiest is a zip-top bag with one small corner cut off) to pile the deviled filling into each egg white circle.
  • For fancy garnish, top each “The Classic” yolk filling with a few grains of the whole grain mustard. Top each “Crunchy Vegetable” yolk filling with two crossed radish spears and a small piece of pickled onion – mine are the very central slices. If desired, add a few celery leaves to the bread itself, tucked in and around the whites. Top each “Herbaceous” with a sprig of dill. If desired, add a few longer chives and/or chive blossoms to the bread itself, tucked in and around the whites.
  • Serve at room temperature.

Raspberry Lemon Bars

Continuing my current fascination with layers and my own tendency toward unnecessary complication, this week I decided to fix what ain’t broken. I love the combination of raspberry and lemon (incidentally, these are the only two flavors that I allow to come in contact with cheesecake, which is saying something), so I wondered how the classic lemon bar would fare if I required it to carry a layer of tart ruby compote between the crust and the curd.

I decided to let myself off the hook on these in terms of recipe development – there are so many excellent lemon bar recipes out there that I saw no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, if my objective was just to add some fancy rims. I went with Deb’s whole lemon bars from her first cookbook, a riff on this tart. I like that they use the whole lemon (less waste! more flavor!), I love that they use a food processor for both components, and I’ve been pleased enough with the result on previous baking missions that this time I only adjusted her filling requirements by jamming in yet more citrus.

Speaking of jam, if you wanted to make your life easier for the raspberry component you could probably just empty a few tablespoons of preserves over the parbaked crust and wind up with something completely satisfactory. I opted instead for a defrosted bag of frozen berries – it’s winter and grocery store selections are less than desirable for a number of reasons – and cooked them down with a few tablespoons of sugar. You could go fresh too if you wanted; I include estimates below.

We found these delightful. And we keep on finding them to be so. In fact, every time I go back to the cutting board where I left them, I find fewer there. At first I thought the raspberries overpowered the lemon, but after my … well… we’ll call it my nth sample, I’ve decided there’s a nice harmony between the different sources of tartness. I do think the lemon takes a slight backseat, so I’m also including measurements here for a version I think you’ll find less raspberry-forward.

One note: to get that gorgeous, traditional, snowy-topped powdered sugar garnish, you must wait for these bars to cool completely. If you sprinkle it on when the bars are even slightly warm, the powdered sugar melts frustratingly into the lemon layer and all but disappears.

Raspberry Lemon Bars
Adapted very lightly from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Makes 16 squares of about 1½ inches
A little over an hour, plus cooling time of at least 30-40 minutes
For crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
For raspberry compote:
12 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for a raspberry-forward layer
6 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for more subtle raspberry presence
1-2 tablespoons sugar
For lemon filling:
2 medium lemons
1⅓ cups sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, to finish

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the middle. Cut two pieces of parchment paper slightly larger than an 8-inch baking dish and arrange them perpendicular to one another across the bottom and up the sides. You’ll use these as a sling to remove the bars from the pan later. Lightly grease for extra insurance.
  • Add the raspberries and 1-2 tablespoons sugar to a small pot. Cook over medium to medium-low heat until they have expelled some juice and thickened slightly. Alternatively, if you are using fresh raspberries and want them less processed, toss them with the sugar, crush them very gently with the tines of a fork, and set them aside for a few minutes.
  • While the raspberries cook, make the crust: blend the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor by pulsing 3-4 times for 1-second intervals. Add the butter and continue this 1-second pulsing routine until the crust just starts to come together – it will still be powdery, but hold its shape if pinched between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Dump the crust crumbs into the prepared baking dish and use your fingers or the bottom of a cup measure to press them firmly across the bottom and about ½ inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then stow in the preheated 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until it is lightly browned. If any bubbles appear, gently prick them with a fork. Leave the oven on.
  • While the crust bakes, make the lemon filling: cut the lemons in half and assess the pith (the white layer below the skin). If it is more than about ¼ inch thick, remove the skin and pith from one of the lemons, leaving only the flesh. If it is less than ¼ inch thick, keep it all. Cut the lemons into slices and remove any seeds. Then, add the lemon slices – skin and all! – and the sugar into the same food processor bowl you used for the crust (you don’t even need to wash it out), and process on high until the lemon is thoroughly pureed – about 2 minutes.
  • Add the butter chunks to the pureed lemon and process again until the butter is well integrated. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and salt and pulse in 1-second intervals until the mixture is well combined. Don’t forget to scrape the sides of the processor bowl down once or twice with a spatula to ensure an even mixture.
  • To assemble, pour and scrape the raspberry puree over the parbaked crust, using a spatula or the back of a large spoon to spread it evenly across the hot crust. Next, pour and scrape the lemon filling over the raspberry puree. I was worried about the fillings bleeding into each other, but found the lemon stayed on top just fine provided I was pouring from a very low height.
  • Bake the bars for 35-40 minutes, until the filling is set and the top is lightly browned; you are looking for only a slight jiggle when you move the pan. The top may look a touch browner than you wanted – don’t worry. Powdered sugar covers that right up.
  • Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool completely, either on a rack or in the refrigerator.* Gently use the parchment sling to remove the entire square to a cutting board. Trim off the edges, if desired (I like this for neatness and consistency), then slice into 16 squares. If the knife is pulling at the top layer, clean it in between slices by dipping it into a glass of very hot water and then wipe away the residue. Sprinkle gratuitously with powdered sugar, then serve.

* Cooling completely is important: if you add the powdered sugar garnish when the bars are even a tiny bit warm, it will melt frustratingly into the lemon filling layer and disappear.

 

Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.