Tarte au Citron au David Lebovitz

Now with photos!

As I mentioned way back in August, while in France this summer N. fell head-over-heels-silly in love with tarte au citron. This is far from shocking; as far as I’ve been able to determine – and I’ve been feeding him for some time now – his two favorite flavoring agents are lemon and plain old black pepper.

Of course I intended to make him one – well, us; I can’t say I don’t also love what is essentially lemon curd in pie form – but somehow months passed and I never got around to it. And this weekend, facing down the disappointment of a wonderful green salsa I intended to share with you until it almost caused an electrical fire and may have destroyed my blender, at which point I stopped paying attention to quantities and photography, I had to square off against the equally important truths that it’s been almost a month since I last published anything here, and that I just didn’t feel like engaging in recipe development to try and make something innovative when the existing reality is basically perfection already.

So I’m trying something new. I’m allowing myself an option I shouldn’t think of as “lazy,” but as informative. I’m reporting on a recipe I used. Here, I’ve made David Lebovitz’s tarte au citron, employing an unusual method for tart dough he learned from a friend, and a filling that was exactly what I needed to make loving use of two lemon-filled bags I received recently from friends (thanks, M. and A!). Those contributions not used here went into a big pitcher of pisco sours I, regrettably, didn’t think to photograph until they were half gone. What kind of blogger even am I?

The method for the dough reminded me of the base for pate a choux, which you’d use for cream puffs, eclairs, or churros: the butter is melted and the flour gets stirred into it; no obsession with cold fat here. I found the quantity of dough just a touch less than I comfortably wanted to press into my tart pan, and in fact a few cracks did develop as it baked, but the genius idea of saving a piece of raw dough “about the size of a raspberry” to patch cracks prevented any filling leakage.

I do think I cooked the filling a little longer than I should have, as it took a while to strain and there were some suspiciously eggy looking bits left in my sieve. But hey, less time in the oven?

N. made “mmm” noises a lot while he ate his slice, so I think it passed muster, though the edges of the crust were uneven and we weren’t sitting at a table outside a restaurant in a cobbled alley in the south of France. The tart shell here is buttery and crisp, though I wonder if cooking the butter a touch longer would offer the extra luxury of brown butter flavor. Many of Lebovitz’s commenters said it was flaky; I found it more like shortbread, but was pleased with the texture. The curd inside is rich and silky and not overly sweet; tasting it made me salivate a little in a way I appreciate from tart desserts.

My “original” addition here is limited to adding some blackberries before serving. While it’s certainly not particularly innovative to add fruit to a dessert, they were a nice textural change and flavor pairing for the lemon. And they were on sale. If you’re going to do the same, you might even toss them lightly in some sugar before placing and serving (though if you’re going to try this, you’ll need to slice and eat fast, because sugaring the berries will make them bleed juice into the pristine sunshiny surface of your tart).

Tart Dough recipe here

Lemon filling and assembly recipe here

 

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.

 

Lemon Blueberry Scones

Well, that whole “feeling promising” thing really panned out, didn’t it? I could give you a whole list of reasons I didn’t post last week, ranging from puppy to visiting relatives to bad weather, but the simplest and most truthful explanation is lack of inspiration. It happens every now and then: in spite of my dozens of cookbooks and long lists of dish ideas, sometimes I just don’t get excited about making anything. I used to fret about this, but anymore I try to give myself a break. Some weeks I don’t come up with anything I want to cook for dinner, much less anything worthy of posting here; some weeks I have four ideas for the next week ten minutes after I come home from the grocery store.

To get myself back on track I think I’m in need of a little structure. I did so well back in the days of Twelve Loaves because I had loose guidelines to follow and a set deadline (not to mention I was only working part time…). Yes, last year I had my Chopped Challenge project, but I ended up getting stymied on an entrée challenge N. set me because his inclusion of pretzel rolls put me in sandwich blinders. I just couldn’t see a creative approach, and that led to ignoring the prospect completely. That was, perhaps, too strict a guideline. A touch more flexibility is in order for this year.

One of my friends and former colleagues (hi H!) does a weekly baking project that she photographs and posts about on Facebook. This, with its similarity to Twelve Loaves and the reminder that baking was my first love in the kitchen, sparked a glimmer for me. I can’t always come up with a beautiful, delicious, post-able dish, but I can almost always think of something to bake. So we’ll try that for a bit and see if it feels, to quote myself again from a fresh few weeks ago, “promising.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be baking something every week, but it’ll be a bit of a safety net for me to rely on. I’m sure my coworkers and our office staff won’t mind either, since they are usually the ones responsible for preventing N. and me from eating the whole batch.

I learned early in our relocation to southern California that winter is citrus season. That being the case, lemon feels right for January: it’s sour but bright, and its color promises spring to come. Zest and some of the sparkling-sharp juice fit well in so many applications. I love blueberries with lemon, and since they were unexpectedly on sale at my grocery store, that was enough of an inspiration for me. I decided on scones, those not-quite-a-biscuit pastries beloved of a British tea spread. This rendition replaces the usual cream with buttermilk to capitalize on the tang of the lemon zest – the sugar in the dough balances out their combined sourness, and if you still want more sweetness, I’d suggest a glaze of powdered sugar and a dribble of lemon juice to spread or drizzle over the top. You can also add some finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger, if you want sweetness with extra zing. I’ve included suggestions for both in the instructions below.

Holly, my new kitchen helper!

Key to scones is not overworking the sticky mixture. One, continuing to work it makes for tougher scones, as you’ll start to activate the gluten in the flour. Two, the more you mix, the stickier the dough becomes. You want it to just come together, and then make use of a well-floured surface to pat or roll out the dough before quickly slicing and relocating the unbaked scones to a cookie sheet. Don’t worry about perfect shapes; they will be delicious regardless.

N. and I shared one of these while they were still a touch warm, and then immediately shared another one. The outside was just crisp, the interior moist and barely flaky, and the blueberries and lemon play well together. N’s favorite thing about them, though, was the occasional crunch of salt – I used Morton kosher salt rather than everyday table salt, and though these are definitely not salty, once in a while your teeth hit a crystal that didn’t fully dissolve in the oven and it’s a lovely little punch that somehow enhances the flavors of the fruit.

Although scones are best on the first day, just like their biscuit brethren, I found these reheat remarkably well in the toaster oven, regaining a bit of crispness. Then, it’s a simple task to split them in half and spread with butter or clotted cream and some jam, or munch alongside a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit, or just pop straight into your mouth as is.

Lemon Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Makes 16 scones
35-45 minutes
½ cup granulated sugar
zest of two lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (12 tablespoons or 1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6-8 slices for easier integration
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup fresh blueberries, roughly chopped (this was about 6 ounces for me)
optional: ¼ cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and lightly grease or line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest into the sugar between your thumb and fingers. Supposedly this releases essential oils from the zest, so its lemon flavor is enhanced. But more practically, it also makes the zest easier to integrate into the mixture (thus helping to prevent overmixing), so don’t skip this part!
  • Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda with the sugar and zest in the large bowl. Dump in the chunks of butter and use a pastry blender or your fingertips to combine – you are looking for a texture between pea-sized chunks of butter and “coarse meal.”
  • Add in the chopped blueberries, the ginger if using, and the buttermilk, and bring together with a rubber spatula or a fork. The dough might at first feel too dry, but in a minute or two as the buttermilk hydrates the flour it will become sticky and “shaggy.” Knead it by hand two or three times right in the bowl to ensure any dry chunks at the bottom are mixed in.
  • Transfer the ball of dough to a well-floured board, and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to divide it in half. Roll or pat one half into a ¾ inch thick round. With a sharp knife, cut it into 8 wedges. Using a bench scraper or a thin spatula, quickly and confidently move these to one of your prepared cookie sheets, leaving space in between each scone and its neighbors. Repeat with the second half of dough.
  • Bake in your preheated 400F oven for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the scones are beginning to brown and the exterior is set. The moment you remove them they will look underdone. Let them cool a minute or two on the cookie sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. As they cool, they will firm up.
  • Once scones are completely cool, either eat them immediately, or if you wish, whisk together about 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few dribbles of lemon juice to form a thick glaze. You can then spread or drizzle this over the tops of the scones, or dip each scone in for smoother coverage. Let them sit until the glaze hardens, and then get on with your snacking.

 

The Adele – limoncello spritzer

Hi friends. Remember me? I promise I haven’t forgotten about us. I’ve just been… busy.

A week or two ago N. and I were talking about explanations our students give for their absences, or for requesting extensions, or for missed work, and it led into a discussion of the difference between reasons and excuses (which dovetailed into me raging against one of the judges on the Food Network show Chopped for calling a contestant’s explanation that the plate she wanted to use had been taken by someone else an “excuse” he didn’t want to hear). We decided it was, in some senses, a matter of semantics, and that in many cases it was too bad that “excuse” has taken on such a negative connotation. In thinking about how I’ve effectively abandoned you here, I do have some reasons for my absence, but I’m now approaching the point where they are fast becoming excuses, in all the negative ways we usually think of the word. I moved. (True, but we unpacked the kitchen and the computer with my photo editing software almost two weeks ago.) It’s hot. (Yeah, but it wasn’t last weekend or the weekend before that.) I’m tired. (Not so tired that I can’t teach, and grade, and whip up dinner, but tired enough that staging ingredients and capturing the right angles feels like a pretty steep mountain to scale around 4:30 in the afternoon.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because what’s important is getting back to it and making an appearance, right? So here’s mine. In the steaming slick of the weekend, peeking around the ragged corners of my own laziness reluctance summer schedule, I figured I could manage a cocktail.

This drink is in honor of my now former neighbor, the “now former” part of which saddens me greatly. Before the move, we were in the habit of having monthly happy hours with one set of neighbors, taking turns hosting an evening of snacks and drinks and music and conversation. It was a lovely way to end the week, and a great excuse reason to resupply the cheese drawer. A former bartender, A. always impressed me with her imaginative cocktail ideas (and got me hooked on vodka tonics – how did it take me until my mid-thirties to discover this dangerously refreshing option every single bartender in the country knows how to make?). It was always a different drink, always something slightly unusual (amaretto and almond milk, anyone?), and she always had the ingredients for it chilled and waiting. For our final happy hour as neighbors, despite not having a great deal of time to plan (packing – you know how it goes), I wanted to have something special to offer her, and it turned out to be this, a drink she liked so much I decided to make it again, and again, and name it after her.

Apart from our neighbors, the other thing I’m going to miss about the house we no longer live in is the lemon tree in the backyard. It wasn’t a standard Eureka or Lisbon lemon (the varieties most common in the standard U.S. grocery store displays), but it wasn’t quite a Meyer lemon either – the skin and pith were sturdy and thick, and they grew to larger sizes than the grocery store offerings (and man were they full of seeds, a feature I’m currently taking advantage of by sprouting and growing a few of my own). The first winter we lived there, I used the tree’s bounty to make limoncello, a lovely bottle I forgot about in the back of a cupboard and allowed to steep much longer than suggested, producing something tooth-achingly sweet and far too strong to be sipped. Over the five years we lived in the house, I slowly worked on that one bottle, adding it to desserts and drinks when a boozy kick of lemon seemed right. As moving day approached, I had only a few shots left in the bottle. To enjoy the sunshine of those lemons as long as possible, the day before we left I stripped the tree of every ripe lemon I could reach (don’t worry, there were still plenty for the new tenants… assuming they have a ladder…). To my dismay, this recipe uses the very last of these.

This is no great revelation, I’m afraid (after I made you wait for it for a full page to finally find out what’s in it!), but it is a perfect, and perfectly easy, cocktail for the season. It uses the very last drops of my limoncello, the very last slices of the last lemon I brought from the old house, and a simple fizz of seltzer water to top it up. And as I sipped it this weekend in my hot, still backyard, still scattered with the detritus of the week’s airborne celebrations (fireworks leave a lot of garbage behind!), it remained a lovely way to close out the week: fresh, bright, not too sweet, just the right subtle tickle, as we plow full swing into summer.

The Adele
Makes one (but so easily multiplied)
These are my quantities of preference – you can, of course, adjust to your own tastes, making the drink stronger or weaker, more or less citrusy, as you prefer.
3-4 ice cubes
1 ounce limoncello
1-2 lemon slices or wedges
5-6 ounces seltzer water (don’t use club soda – it contains sodium)

 

  • Place the ice cubes in a red wine glass (with a big bowl and a tall stem)
  • Pour in the limoncello and add the lemon wedge or slice(s), squeezing to release juice if desired
  • Top up with seltzer water, stir gently, and enjoy.

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Lemon Vanilla Pound Cake with Apricots and Whipped Ricotta

2016 Food Blog June-1030This world in the last few weeks has been a place of heartbreak and confusion and frustration and terror. I was bewildered, and angry, and I grieved, and I wrote and deleted various posts on various platforms that felt too tidy, and too ineffectual.

2016 Food Blog June-0981But amidst the heartbreak, and the anger, and the mistakes, there were these moments of strength and of recovery and of determination: one of my students, wearing a t-shirt that said “Caution: educated student of color.” I wanted to hug him. I wanted to say “great shirt.” I wanted to tell him to keep wearing it so proudly and to use that power and that dangerous-in-a-good way truth about himself to help change happen. I just smiled as he sat down at his desk. A sold-out message on every single one of the shirts bearing an excerpt from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award acceptance sonnet, which were being sold to raise funds for victims of the Orlando shooting. As a friend of a friend commented, agree with their objective or not, and whether their actions and their words were successful or not, the filibuster in the Senate and the sit-in in the House were pretty inspirational. Determination. Strength. Flashes of brightness and connection in an increasingly isolating world.

2016 Food Blog June-09832016 Food Blog June-09862016 Food Blog June-0991At first, because there was too much of the world in my brain with all of this going on, I couldn’t think of anything to make. As always, food seemed too trivial to worry about, and perhaps it is. But it is a comfort. Stumbling all unwilling into the kitchen was a chore, until I picked up a knife, and a whisk, and the familiar enfolded me. Perhaps because it was the first kind of cooking I learned to do, standing beside my mom, scooping or mixing or poking at cookies, baking seemed like the right way in. Then, inspired both by N’s recent snack preferences at a certain coffee corporation, and a gorgeous picture on King Arthur Flour’s instagram feed, I knew the answer was pound cake. In a way, it works with my tangled feelings: it’s a dense cake, weighty and substantial and thick, but shot through with lemon zest and topped with a drizzle that becomes crunchy and tart as it bakes it has those flashes of brightness I’m looking for and lifted by. KAF’s version incorporates some cream cheese along with all that butter, which I like for the barely discernible tang it promises.

2016 Food Blog June-1021You don’t need a lot to pair with pound cake; in fact, its very title suggests you need nothing, but I couldn’t resist a bit of excess. Bright, meaty, fuzz laden apricots, pitted and sliced into wedges, and a heaping dollop of barely sweetened whipped ricotta, lightened with cream, make the utilitarian slice a rich-but-not-too-heavy dessert.

2016 Food Blog June-10272016 Food Blog June-1029I wish you some comfort this week, and I hope you have something safe and solid in your life, and some flashes of brightness to turn your face toward.

2016 Food Blog June-1043Lemon vanilla pound cake with apricots and whipped ricotta
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 1 9×5 inch cake and approx. 1½ cups ricotta cream
2-2½ hours, including cooling time
For cake:
¾ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature (1½ sticks)
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon zest from 1-2 lemons
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoons salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1¾ cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I know it’s a weird amount; remember “pound” cake is based on weight measurements)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
For toppings:
4-5 fresh apricots, rinsed
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, cold
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
additional lemon zest, optional

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch bread pan. KAF is very specific about the measurements of the pan; otherwise you might get batter overflow.
  • In a mixing bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat together the butter and cream cheese until well combined with no obvious lumps. Room temperature fats here will incorporate more quickly.
  • Rub together the lemon zest and 1½ cups of the sugar with your fingertips. This evenly distributes the zest and encourages it to release its oils, which are what give it that heady, perfumed flavor. Add the zest and sugar to the butter and cream cheese mixture and cream on medium-low or medium speed for about 1 minute, or until the mixture is pale and fluffy.
  • Add the baking powder, salt, and vanilla to the creamed butter and sugar and beat briefly to combine. Then, with the mixer running on low, begin to add the eggs one at time, mixing well between each addition. When the eggs are all integrated, add the milk and beat on high speed for 2-3 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. KAF notes the mixture may look curdled or grainy as you add the eggs; mine didn’t, though it did look a little grainy after I mixed the milk in. Either way, it’s nothing to worry about.
  • Now, sprinkle the flour gradually over the batter with the mixer running, and mix on low speed just until combined. Pour and scrape into the prepared pan, using a spatula to smooth the top.
  • Set the cake on a baking sheet for easy handling and in case of overflow, and stow in the preheated oven for 55 minutes.
  • While the cake bakes, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the 2 teaspoons lemon juice in a small bowl, stirring until it reluctantly comes together into a thick syrup. After the cake has cooked for 55 minutes, remove it from the oven on its pan and brush or drizzle the sugar and lemon juice mixture over the top (you may need to re-stir the lemon juice and sugar mixture just before using it). Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, or an instant-read thermometer inserted deep into the center reads 200-205F (as KAF notes, there may still be a touch of gooiness to the very top crown where the cake has split; don’t worry about this).
  • Cool the cake on a rack in its pan for at least five minutes, then turn out of the pan and rest on the rack until it is completely cooled.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready to serve the cake, place a metal bowl and beaters or whisk attachment into the freezer. This helps the cream whip up faster. While they cool, pit the apricots and cut them into thick wedges. Once the bowl and beaters are cold, add the heavy cream and ricotta to the bowl and begin to mix on low speed. Sprinkle in the sugar and, as you see the mixture thicken, raise the speed to medium. Whip at medium speed until the ricotta cream has thickened to your desired consistency; probably 2-3 minutes if you started with cold equipment.
  • To serve, cut the cake into thick slices, and serve one slice topped with a few wedges of apricot, a dollop of whipped ricotta cream, and a few strands of lemon zest, if desired.

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Lemony Leek Meatballs

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for this post. I’ve made you yearn for it for half the month already! But I didn’t want to announce my intent without something to show for it, and now I finally have a triumphant opening act. Can I get a drumroll? The project I’ve decided on for 2015 is…. meatballs.

Food Blog January 2015-0230Meatballs appear in almost every culture. Albondigas find their way into soup in Hispanic cooking. Chinese meatballs are often steamed or boiled. Keftedes are Greek, kofta or kufteh appear in Middle Eastern dishes. A Swedish version coats very small rounds with a sumptuous gravy and serves them with potatoes and lingonberry jam. The classic American meatball, which is in fact of Italian origin, nestles amidst a mound of well-sauced pasta.

But they aren’t just, as the name suggests, balls of meat. Many meatball recipes combine different types of ground meat to maximize flavor but also adjust fat content. Very lean ground meats, like veal, which some meatball preparations use for its flavor, are often combined with something like pork or fattier beef to ensure tenderness and structural integrity. Bread in some form, whether dry and powdered or fresh, springy crumbs, is a frequent ingredient in a meatball. Though this could be to stretch the meat content (think bread crumbs as “filler” in a crab cake), it also absorbs fat and creates a lighter final product – “light” meatballs are often texturally prized above the dense thickness of a meatloaf, for example.

Food Blog January 2015-0222Most meatball recipes also incorporate some sort of aromatics, and sometimes eggs, to the mixture. This isn’t a mere unflattened hamburger; it’s a creation unto itself, and it needs some backup singers to really make the performance impressive. Onions or garlic, sweated or sautéed before incorporating, are common additions. Herbs, parsley perhaps the most common, are also frequent meatball interlopers.

Food Blog January 2015-0220In deciding on meatballs as my project for the year, I am challenging myself with ratios and with flavor combinations. Ratio-wise, the quantities of meat to bread crumbs to eggs to seasoning must be considered; I want a meatball with good structural integrity – it can’t fall apart during cooking – but I also want something light and springy, not tough and dense. Thus quantities, but also mixing and cooking techniques, must be mastered. As for flavor combinations, this isn’t a dish where you can taste a little at a time. It’s not a slice of roast pork that you can eat with or without the vegetable side. Everything in that little sphere must mingle well. Every ingredient must belong, with nothing extra and nothing missing.

Food Blog January 2015-0221I must admit that I am not a huge fan of the most common meatball incarnation in this country. The planet-sized spheres that arrive, drowning in marinara, balanced uneasily atop a plate of spaghetti, have never thrilled me. But outside that standard, pasta-draped option, I love a good meatball. I hope you do too.

So here’s the challenge: once a month, I will present you a meatball recipe. I have some ideas already, but I’m starting myself out gently with a few recipe adaptations before I strike out into unpracticed territory. And if you have any meatball ideas you’d like to see actualized, let me know in the comments or send me an email! I’ll happily cook something up.

Food Blog January 2015-0225For the opening act, I looked no further than Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their stellar cookbook Jerusalem. I love this volume. When I bought it for myself last year, I gave up marking recipes I wanted to try with a post-it note because, let’s face it, that’s just not helpful when you are marking almost every page. But the Lemony Leek Meatballs, curiously filed in the vegetable section, stood out. First of all, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi note, they are packed with a staggering quantity of leeks which, despite the beef that makes up the “meat” component, really do emerge as stars in the dish. Secondly, the sauce, chicken broth spiked with a tremendous dose of lemon juice, sounded so bright and aggressive with flavor that I just wanted to drink a mugful.

Food Blog January 2015-0226I wasn’t disappointed. The meatballs sear up golden and aromatic, and as they simmer in the sauce they soak up its acidity and turn it into something outrageous – an intensely savory lemon caramel coating around fragrant pyramids (mine wouldn’t stay round). The leeks and beef are a stellar combination, and the addition of fresh bread crumbs as well as the gently pulverized leeks keep the meatballs light and fresh, probably why they are classified as an appetizer or starter in Jerusalem.

Food Blog January 2015-0228I’ve made a few changes from the original, a dicey business with beloved traditional recipes like many of these, but they are minor. Rather than steaming the leeks, I’ve sautéed them gently in a mixture of butter and olive oil for extra flavor. To keep with my project theme, I’ve maintained the ball shape, rather than flattening them into patties as Ottolenghi and Tamimi direct. Finally, as I’ve noted below, I increased the number of meatballs – rather than 8, as in the original recipe, I’ve done 12, and really you could easily make 16 from the same amount of mixture.

Food Blog January 2015-0236Forewarning: this is a lengthy process. Like, if you are really on top of your game and quick on the prep and ready to multitask, “lengthy” means about two hours. The leeks must be cooked down first, which takes a good 20 minutes, and then cooled. The meat mixture, once it’s formed into balls, must be chilled for a full half hour to ensure that they stay together in the pan. After searing, the meatballs simmer in the rich, tart broth for another half hour, and then must cool a bit, as they taste better just warm or at room temperature than scaldingly hot out of the pan. All this means you are looking at almost two hours of prep and cooking time – not onerous, particularly because half an hour of that is just cooling your heels while your meatballs do the same, but worth noting before you charge in hoping to have dinner on the table in the blink of an eye.

Serving suggestions: tuck them into warm pita or naan with the yogurt and perhaps a few slices of cucumber, or sit them on a bed of fragrant couscous shot through with toasted nuts and green onions, or maybe some finely chopped dried apricots. Add a sprinkle of good, tart feta to the top for some extra zing.

Lemony Leek Meatballs
adapted from Jerusalem
serves 2-3 as an entree, 4-6 as part of an appetizer plate
NOTE! Takes the better part of 2 hours
6 large trimmed leeks, root end and dark green portion removed
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
9 ounces ground beef (just over ½ a pound)
scant 1 cup bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
2 large eggs
1¼ cups chicken stock
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
⅓ cup greek yogurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • Slice the trimmed leeks in half lengthwise to form long half-cylinders. Rinse well, being sure the water gets in between the layers, where dirt can be hidden. Shake off and slice across into ¾ inch slices.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and ½ teaspoon salt, and clamp on the lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until the leeks are completely tender but not browned.
  • Drain leeks in a colander, pushing them against the sides with the flat of a wooden spoon to press out some of the water. Leave to cool, then squeeze out any residual water with a clean kitchen towel.
  • Dump leeks into a food processor and pulse a few times until well chopped, but not mush. Place them in a large bowl with the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and use your fingertips to gently combine the ingredients into a homogenous mix. Try not to overwork. The final mixture will be quite soft.
  • Gently form the mix into 12-16 equal balls and refrigerate 30 minutes (this gives the bread crumbs some time to absorb some of the fat and liquid in the mixture, and helps these delicate, soft meatballs stay together).
  • Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in the same large skillet (wipe it out first if there is leek detritus lingering). Gingerly add the meatballs, being sure they don’t touch, and sear until golden-brown on all sides (2-3 minutes for each side); you can do this in batches if necessary.
  • Now, pour on the chicken stock – it should come about halfway up the sides of the meatballs; maybe a bit higher. Add the lemon juice and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then pop on the lid, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, remove the lid and cook for a few more minutes, if necessary, until almost all the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.
  • Serve the meatballs just warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of the yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.