Nectarine-custard tart

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Houses stacked on top of each other, walls touching, vines wrapped around balconies as if to protect the inhabitants from the streets, which are invariably delicately smudged with dirt and garbage and fallen fruits from the trees above. Buses are packed full of businessmen and women, middle-school children who giggle obnoxiously loudly and 30something men who casually sit in the back and make you distinctly uncomfortable with just one look. This, in my eyes, is a city. Here, I see people at three times of the day, 8:50 a.m., lunchtime, and 5 p.m. During those times, the pristine metro is packed, the streets bustle with people in a rush to get to their destination — which alternates between the office, the restaurants, and home — and for a brief moment, I am reminded of home. During the other times, I am shocked by the empty streets, surrounded by 6 story buildings with glass walls, housing cubicles, and, if you’re lucky, large personal offices. Washington D.C. seems to me a city made to be a city but not much else. Maybe I am just shocked by a city government that actually keeps the sidewalks clean and the streets drivable, but there is so much vapid, empty space here and it makes me uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I took the metro up to Friendship Heights after work. I wanted new baking pans from Williams Sonoma so that I could finally bake in shapes other than a 9-inch circle and a brownie pan. I picked up a long, rectangular tart pan, a couple mini tartlet molds and a set of four 5-inch spring-form cake pans, which are super adorable. Then I decided that since I was on Wisconsin Ave. anyway, I might as well walk home. I had no idea how far it was until I was halfway home (I checked on the metro maps at all the bus stops, yet somehow did not get on a bus) and I had already been walking for 40 minutes. When I finally got home, I decided a run was unnecessary and went right to breaking in one of the new pans.

I was really excited to use my new rectangular tart pan. At home, the Boulangerie Bay Bread makes all their tarts as rectangles and sells them by the slice. I used to love their thick slices of flan after school. Nothing other than a traditional tart would do to christen my new pan. I made a traditional flaky crust with just a smidgen of sugar, layered a bit of almond flour at the bottom, then topped it with a creamy vanilla custard. As soon as the custard was mostly set in the oven, I topped the tart with a layer of fresh nectarines, gently dusted with cinnamon sugar and turned the broiler on. The sweet custard, juicy, tart nectarines, and crackled, golden, sugar topping made this tart a true winner.

I wish I could post better pictures of the tart. Unfortunately, blogging from this house is becoming incredibly difficult. Often, I get home around 8 p.m., spend about an hour deliberating over what to make and crossing out recipes for which I don’t have half of the ingredients. When I finally get something out of the oven, it is too dark to get a reasonable picture. The biggest hurdle is getting through the night; there has been many a time when I wake up the next morning, intending to get a good picture in the daylight, only to find that whatever it was I left out on the counter has been devoured by my housemates. When there is a tiny sliver left to photograph, I run into camera problems. My own camera is still chilling somewhere next to the IRAs race course in Camden, NJ or (equally likely) being enjoyed by the clever person who managed to steal it at the regatta.

Flaky Tart Dough
Adapted from Tartine

1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup very cold water
3 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup + 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

In a small bowl, add the salt to the water and keep in fridge until ready to use.
Add the flour to the work bowl. Cut butter into 1″ chunks and scatter across the top of the flour. Pulse briefly until you have large crumbs. (I don’t use a food processor and instead do this with my hands) Add the cold water/salt mixture and pulse until the dough begins to come together in a ball but is not completely smooth. You should still see chunks of butter (about pea size).
On a floured surface, divide the dough into two balls, shape into disks 1″ thick (work the dough as little as possible). Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

To make the custard:
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups milk

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt until smooth and frothy. In a saucepan, warm the milk until just before boiling. Add the milk to the bowl and whisk until combined. Pour the custard mixture into the tart pan.

Assembling the tart:
Take the tart shell out of the refrigerator. Sprinkle a generous layer of almond meal over the inside bottom of the shell; this will help absorb the moisture from the custard and prevent a soggy crust. Pour the custard mixture into the shell and brush the side of the tart with an egg white. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the middle of the tart is set. Remove the tart from the oven, layer with thin slices of nectarine and sprinkle (sparingly) with cinnamon sugar. Put the tart back into the oven under the broiler on HI for a couple minutes or until the top is just starting to brown.

A day in the park to remember: Lemon-scented pull-apart coffee cake

June 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

There are few things that feel more comfortable than afternoon picnics in your hometown, especially when surrounded by old friends. In fact, picnics are possibility one of my favorite activities and I don’t know why we don’t have them more often. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I snatched up a reunion brunch and decided to skip out on the popular brunch restaurants in San Francisco and hold our own little picnic in Dolores Park. It has been quite awhile since then, as it was the day before I left for New York City, but it was the perfect ending to an extended stay at home. We ate our homemade bagels, muffins, salad and fruit, and this wonderful lemon-scented pull-apart coffee cake on the grass before going to Philz Coffee, which makes every cup of coffee individually, for a full cream, no sugar Mocha Tesora.

You did read correctly that we made our own bagels for the picnic. But more on that later. The black horse of the spread was the lemon bread, which really stole the limelight. It is a yeasted loaf, made by stacking layers of sweet dough with lemon zest, butter and sugar. It billowed up in the oven, creating really pretty layers of sweet bread with a bright, sunny yellow punch. One bite of this and you will never look at ordinary cinnamon coffeecake again.

Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake
Flo Braker, Baking for All Occasions, Chronicle Books, 2008

For the sweet yeast dough
About 2 3/4 cups (12 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (2 1/2 fluid ounces) whole milk
2 ounces unsalted butter
1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces) water
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature


For the lemon paste filling

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted

For the tangy cream cheese icing
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup (1 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Make the sweet yeast dough
Stir together 2 cups (9 ounces) of the flour, the sugar, the yeast, and the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer; set aside. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over low heat just until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, add the water, and set aside until warm (120 to 130°F [49 to 54°C]), about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract.

Pour the milk mixture over the flour-yeast mixture and, using a rubber spatula, mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Attach the bowl to the mixer, and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition just until incorporated. Stop the mixer, add 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) of the remaining flour, and resume mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth, 30 to 45 seconds. Add 2 more tablespoons flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, soft, and slightly sticky, about 45 seconds.

Sprinkle a work surface with 1 tablespoon flour and center the dough on the flour. Knead gently until smooth and no longer sticky, about 1 minute, adding an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons flour only if necessary to lessen the stickiness. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover the bowl securely with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place (about 70°F [21°C]) until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step. While the dough is rising, make the filling.

Make the lemon paste filling
In a small bowl, mix together the sugar and the lemon and orange zests. Set the sandy-wet mixture nearby (the sugar draws out moisture from the zests to create the consistency).

Make the coffee cake

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Or, lightly coat the pan with nonstick spray.

Gently deflate the dough. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle. Using a pastry brush spread the melted butter generously over the dough. Cut the dough crosswise into 5 strips, each about 12 by 4 inches. (A pizza cutter is helpful here.) Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture over one of the buttered rectangles. Top with a second rectangle and sprinkle it with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining dough rectangles and zest-sugar mixture, ending with a stack of 5 rectangles. Work carefully when adding the crumbly zest filling, or it will fall off when you have to lift the stacked pastry later.

Slice the stack crosswise through the 5 layers to create 6 equal strips, each about 4 by 2 inches. Fit these layered strips into the prepared loaf pan, cut edges up and side by side. (While there is plenty of space on either side of the 6 strips widthwise in the pan, fitting the strips lengthwise is tight. But that’s fine because the spaces between the dough and the sides of the pan fill in during baking.) Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place (70 °F [21°C]) until puffy and almost doubled in size, 30 to 50 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for baking.

Bake the coffee cake until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.

Make the tangy cream cheese icing

In a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula, vigorously mix the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the milk and lemon juice until the mixture is creamy and smooth.

To remove the coffee cake from the pan, tilt and rotate the pan while gently tapping it on a counter to release the cake sides. Invert a wire rack on top of the coffee cake, invert the cake onto the rack, and carefully lift off the pan. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack.

Slip a sheet of waxed paper under the rack to catch any drips from the icing. Using a pastry brush, coat the top of the warm cake with the icing to glaze it. (Cover and refrigerate the leftover icing for another use. It will keep for up to 2 days.)

Serve the coffee cake warm or at room temperature. To serve, you can pull apart the layers, or you can cut the cake into 1-inch-thick slices on a slight diagonal with a long, serrated knife. If you decide to cut the cake, don’t attempt to cut it until it is almost completely cool.

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