Giving thanks

The house feels empty.  Wednesday through Saturday, my family visited for Thanksgiving.  This morning, with them on the road home, fog hovering sticky in the sky, the cheery burgundy tablecloth in the washing machine, and a stack of lingering dishes I’m trying to ignore proclaiming themselves from the sink, our little home was stark and cold.  I could say that the memories of the holiday will keep me warm, but that would only be true in a metaphorical sense.  What I really want is another baked apple.

90. Baked Apples: Combine chopped pecans and chopped dried fruit (raisins, dates, figs, cranberries all work) and toss with maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg or all three. Fill the cavities of cored apples with the fruits and nuts, dot each with butter, put into a baking dish and roast about 30 minutes, until tender. Better with vanilla ice cream.”

We had a few small apples from our local Farmers’ Market waiting for attention in the fruit bowl, so I set about collecting partners for them to make a dessert for two.

2 small apples

¼ cup chopped pecans

¼ tsp pumpkin pie spice (I agree with Joy the Baker that we should probably just make our own, but if you, like me, purchased some in a moment of confused weakness, this seems a harmless way to put it to use)

1-2 TB each:

chopped dried figs (I used black Mission, my current favorite)

craisins

golden raisins

3 TB maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Core the apples, keeping the bottoms intact if you can.  If you can’t, just wrap the bottom quarter or so in aluminum foil and set them in a baking dish.  This will keep the filling from escaping.

In a small bowl, combine the nuts, fruit, and spice(s).  Drizzle in the maple syrup and stir gently to combine – you want even stickiness throughout.

Using a small spoon, or your fingers, insert as much filling as you can into the cored apples.  You will notice that this quantity makes about twice as much as you need for 2 small apples.  That’s okay.  The leftovers are a fantastic topping for oatmeal the next morning.

Once full, stow your apples in the oven for 30 minutes, or until they are tender when pierced with a knife.  Liberate, evacuate to a dessert plate, and pair with vanilla ice cream.

These were a lovely dessert.  They felt light, because they were primarily fruit, but were still sweet enough to satisfy that after-dinner craving.  The apples still had some resistance, but were warmed through and starting to collapse into themselves.  The ice cream was a perfect accompaniment – I wouldn’t want this dessert without it.  I might ideally have chosen an apple with more tartness to contrast against the sweetness of the syrup and dried fruit, but in such a case, especially if the apple were on the large size, I would advocate a longer baking time.  If the fruit and nuts protruding from the top of the apple start to brown too much, give them a tinfoil hat to hide beneath.

 

“84. Sage Crackers: Pulse 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ cup Parmesan and 4 tablespoons cold butter in a food processor. Add ¼ cup cream and 1 tablespoon finely chopped sage.  When just combined, roll as thinly as possible, score into squares, sprinkle with salt and bake at 400 degrees until golden.  Let cool, then break into pieces.”

I’ve always liked a nice cheese-and-crackers platter as an appetizer option, and these seemed like a good option to lead into the big Thanksgiving meal: relatively easy to make, but impressive – who wouldn’t be staggered by the effort of making homemade crackers even with a homemade feast to produce as well?

Bittman’s directions and quantities here are pretty specific, so I just followed his directions.  I omitted the salt, because Parmesan carries so much of its own tangy hit, and my parents are not big salt eaters.  It should also be noted that pulsing this mixture until just combined does not create a rollable dough, unless my idea of “just combined” is different from Bittman’s.  However, turning out the just-clinging crumbs onto a floured board and kneading for only a minute or two does produce a nice textured ball of dough that can be rolled out with minimal sticking.

I’d recommend aiming for a shape as close to a rectangle as possible.  Further, roll that rectangle to the size of your biggest cookie sheet.  That way you can carefully transport onto the greased or parchment-lined sheet tray by draping the dough loosely over the rolling pin.  Score it very gently into rectangles or squares of your chosen size (cut halfway through the dough with a knife, not all the way through), and into the oven with it!

When I checked these 20 minutes later, they were a little more golden than I wanted.  They were, in fact, heading toward a burnished bronze (is that not the kindest way ever of saying they were all-but-burned?).

After the cracker sheet had cooled for a few minutes, I broke it along the scored lines into neat (mostly) rectangles and we passed around a few samples.  The outside edges, which were thinner, had a slightly over-toasted flavor we didn’t love.  The inside rectangles, though, were crisp and flavorful, with a flaky – almost chalky – texture reminiscent at once of pie crust and shortbread.  My dad in particular, who enjoys this texture, thought they were great.

And now the confession: my final Bittman for this week is a bit of a cheat.  But I’m okay with that, because I also think it was a bit of a cheat for him, though in the best and most useful way.

“101. Buy some cheese. Unwrap it and put it on a plate with some walnuts and fruit; let come to room temperature. Serve with good bread.”

This is the final numerical entry of the list, and that means it’s in the dessert category.  While I accept that some people prefer a cheese course to dessert, I’m not sure I consider this an acceptable option for Thanksgiving.  It is, however, acceptable as an appetizer idea, as I mentioned above.  So that’s what I did.  In addition to the sage parmesan crackers above, I made my favorite craisin rosemary biscotti-style crackers with white bean and almond dip, and set them all out with some creamy Stilton, a nice rich chevre, and a wedge of Manchego obtained from a stand at the Farmers’ Market where we finally decided we’d had too many samples to feel right about not purchasing.  Surrounding these, I added dried apple rings, black Mission figs, and a fresh Granny Smith cut into slim slices.  The walnuts, which I was ready to add as well after a brief toasting, were subjected instead to accidental scorching, and had to be sacrificed.  We will speak of them no further.

What can you say about a cheese platter, besides that it was delicious?  We adored the Manchego, and soft crumbles of Stilton paired well with the fresh apples.  I tried fig and goat cheese together, and now I think chevre-stuffed-figs sounds like an amazing experiment.  We decimated the platter in little over ten minutes, but thankfully were not too stuffed to take full advantage of the turkey dinner that followed.

With Thanksgiving handled, that leaves only five weeks of 2012, and only twelve Bittman selections to go!  New Year’s Eve is on a Monday, but that still counts as this year if I need to jam in a few final selections, right?

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

Emptying the fridge: Annotated Almond White Bean Dip

Yes, I know I’ve already moved.  Yes, I know I’m now in a pattern of filling the fridge, not emptying it.  But moving, like writing, is a process, and I have to catch you up.  And that means talking about what I’ve done before I get into what I’m doing…

This recipe fruited during a hummus drought.  I had evicted all garbanzos from my pantry – not from lack of desire, but from too much desire: hummus-hummus-all-the-time.  And at first, facing the multiple cans of cannellini beans in the cupboard, I thought I might just whip up some hummus-with-white-beans.  But beans, like chilis, seem to call for applications appropriate to their specific qualities.  No one makes poblano salsa, for example.  Jalapenos are needed.  Tabasco sauce, to no surprise, can only truly be made with tabascos.  So white beans, as adequately as they might suit, are just not destined for hummus.  And really, when you’ve been scarfing down a batch a week, it might be time to try something different anyway.

So I faced off against the white beans and thought about accompaniments.  Like most dips – hummus, pesto, artichoke (maybe?) – it would need a few players with whom to harmonize and energize.  Acid.  Herbs.  Salt, of course.  Maybe some spice.  Maybe, given the circumstances, whatever I had lying around…

Out of rosemary, which seemed like a natural pairing (check the web: white beans and rosemary are easy, well established lovers), I did have some toasted, salted, rosemary-infused marcona almonds begging to be consumed.  Almonds in bean dip?  Why not?  Pesto couldn’t operate without pine nuts, and walnuts whir excellently together with roasted red pepper.  Lemon seemed too stringent, but an aging orange called me from the fruit basket.  Like adding colors to an outfit, each ingredient meant slowly ruling out and pulling in other things.  Orange and garlic don’t fit together well, at least not across my palate.  So some other sharpness was needed, and I opted for cayenne pepper.  Almonds and beans could be a bland marriage.  Couples therapy recommends adding some spice.

What came out of the food processor on a tentative spatula dip was a smooth creamy whisper of something amazing.  I’m not exaggerating.  It was warm, it was earthy, it was perfumed and heated and comforting.  As soon as we finished slathering this odd little puree all over crackers, and tortillas, and those amazing raisin rosemary crisps from Trader Joe’s (more on that in a bit…), we wanted more.  So I made it again.  And this time I wrote some things down and made some adjustments.  And some more adjustments.

You may have noticed, if you read this page with any frequency, that with the necessary and understandable exception of buttercream, I am not big on repeating recipes.  Most of what I post I have never made before and never made again.  It’s a shot in the dark.  It’s all experimentation.  Love it or leave it.  Or play with it yourself until it’s right for you.  But guys, I’ve worked on this one.  I’ve a real recipe to share that you can actually follow.  I’ve forced myself to note and follow my own suggested quantities to make sure yours will emerge the same way (well, sometimes my hand slipped a bit, but I’ll have you know I scolded myself resolutely for that and I won’t do it again.  This time).

So here it is, my perhaps overly-annotated almond and white bean dip.  Some of the ingredient quantities are listed in ranges.  I suggest you begin with the smaller quantity and increase as your taste buds request.

½ cup almonds, skinned and toasted.  Marcona almonds are best but most expensive, so choose as your budget permits (this doesn’t mean you have to pay top price for pre-skinned almonds, though.  To easily slip their coverings away, put your almonds in a bowl, pour boiling or near boiling water over them, and let them stew for 3-5 minutes.  Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle, you should be able to pinch them into nudity in moments.  Skinless, they are mild and meaty/fruity and ivory-pale, and you can then quickly toast them in a pan until they begin to brown and exude fragrant oil)

1 15oz. can of white beans (cannellini are creamiest, but great northern and unspecific “white beans”) will do just fine

3 TB fresh rosemary leaves (you can, if you wish, just strip them from their stems and toss them into the food processor.  This may result in larger green snippets and a dip chunkier in texture than you want, so depending upon how obsessed with smoothness you are, you can mince the rosemary finely before adding it in)

2 tsp orange zest from one large orange

¼ – ½ cup juice from the same large orange (you could use orange juice from a container, but I think it just doesn’t taste as fresh or bright)

½ – 1 tsp salt, according to your taste *

Pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste *

A generous ½ cup fruity olive oil (I use extra virgin)

In a food processor, pulse almonds until only small chunks remain (texture should be like very coarse sand, but not yet broken down into butter).

Add all remaining ingredients except olive oil and pulse three or four times, until all ingredients are mixed but large clumps resist blending.

Drizzle in olive oil slowly through your food processor’s top spout.  The mixture should whir together into a creamy and relatively homogenous spread.  Continue to process until it reaches the texture you desire.  Chunky and smooth are both fine by me.  Taste, season if desired, and taste again.  Chill for an hour or two to allow flavors to entwine, and bring to room temperature before serving.

* A note on seasoning: during the hour or two of chilling time, flavors will intensify.  Salt, spice, and sharpness will become more pronounced after allowing the dip to sit.  Therefore, it might be wise to minutely underseason the first time you make this.  If it tastes a touch bland, it might not in a few hours.  If it’s already pretty spicy, be aware it will get spicier as it sits.  This is not a bad thing, but something of which to be aware.

Now you have your dip.  Or spread.  Or puree.  Depends on how long you processed.  But dips – and spreads – all on their own are incomplete.  They need a vehicle.  And in this case, with this dip, it needs just the right vehicle.  It’s not garlic driven, it’s not overwhelmingly pungent.  It hovers on the edge of savory.  It could even, if you were feeling a deep need for warmth and comfort, take a drizzle of honey and still be delicious.  It errs toward the sweeter side.  A tortilla chip just won’t do.  A pita chip leaves something to be desired.

A rosemary raisin crisp from Trader Joe’s makes it sing.  And I was content with that.  But then I looked at the ingredient list for these crisps and saw flax, millet, sunflower seeds… all, oddly, items in my pantry that needed using up.

So another project before perfection, which I will tell you about next week: the cracker soap-box derby.  Recreating the perfect vehicle for my perfect spread.