28 December 2015

Tart Shells are Round; or, The Kind of Circular Thinking In Which Nothing Is New

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, we were invited out to dinner. I offered to make a dessert, and planned to make the lemon tart from Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking, because every time I have made it, it's been perfect. And I love a lemon dessert. That tart calls for a pâte sablée crust, which is kind of like a sugar cookie and a great foil for the quite tart lemon custard filling. Alas, that day, the crust failed, epically. It cracked all over the place, and wouldn't even come out of the pan. I switched gears and made something else, but I still don't know why that pâte sablée didn't work.

For Thanksgiving dinner, I decided to make the cranberry curd tart that had been in the Times food section in a Thanksgiving round up. That recipe uses a hazelnut crust - a loose mix of ground hazelnuts pressed into the tart pan like you would a graham cracker crust. It was okay - the hazelnut crust was nice by itself, but we thought it competed indecorously with the cranberry filling.

Not being able to leave behind the failed pâte sablée, I did a bunch of googling. Butter in visible chunks? Butter thoroughly amalgamated with the flour? Somehow, I stumbled on a tart shell recipe on David Lebovitz's blog that blew all of that away - it was a 2009 recipe that started with a lump of butter and a splash of water and a spoonful of sugar, all dumped in a bowl and put in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Boiled butter! Then you add the flour. Intrigued, I had to try it. We'd been invited to a Boxing Day party so I thought I'd re-engineer the cranberry curd tart by putting it in Lebovitz's shell.

The crust is fascinating. It comes together almost like a roux, a wet looking ball of flour & butter, which you smush into a tart shell, gingerly because it's fiercely hot. It gets baked, while you make the curd, then both cool to room temperature. Then, you spoon the curd in the tart shell and bake it together for another 10 minutes. [Naturally, I wonder why everything has to be cooled down before that final run through the oven, but that's an experiment for another day.]

The boiled butter crust was delightful with the cranberry curd. A keeper, if you will. I decided that David Lebovitz was onto something.

Last night, I climbed into bed with a Christmas present: a copy of Food52 Genius Recipes. I wasn't reading it straight through, but jumping around looking for things that I need to make right now. You read cookbooks in bed, right? It's a compilation cookbook - 100 recipes from 100 sources - all alleged to be "the best". The reason I wanted the book is because there were enough recipes that I knew already, and knew to be good - the bar nuts from the Union Square Cafe, Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread, Kim Boyce's Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, that butter & onion tomato sauce from Marcella Hazan, Marion Cunningham's Raised Waffles. I figured with that kind of track record, there were probably other great recipes. I turned to page 236, curious about the "eggless lemon curd", because it sounds like a non-sequitur, eggs being pretty essential to curd, in my experience. [It uses agar, in case you're wondering.] But what to my wondering eyes turns up in the book, on page 235, as a vehicle for the lemon curd? "Brown Butter Tart Crust, from Paule Caillat" - in other words, the Lebovitz boiled butter crust. I confess to being both dumbfounded and even happier to have the cookbook in the first place.

There really is nothing new under the sun, is there?

25 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

Half way through its decoration, the tree fell down. We wept, and swept up the broken ornaments. But their beauty cried out, so we spread them on a sheet and took a picture of the shattered yet ineffably lovely shards - honoring them in our remembrance.

All best wishes for a happy 2016, and may you too stop to note a moment of unexpected grace.

11 December 2015

Perma Hedge, the cousin of fake Christmas trees

Do you know that there's a product out there called Perma Hedge? It's the green fuzzy plastic stuff that's supposed to make a chain link fence look like a perfect trimmed up evergreen hedge.

I don't know why I even know that, but whenever I drive by one, I need to sing out Perma Hedge.

I digress. I read a wonderful book recently, called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry. It's comic, anarchic, tragic, fantastic, eccentric, and wildly imaginative with a truly compelling voice. And, circling back to Perma Hedge, there's a wonderful passage about Christmas trees:

Mum, of course, was very angry at Granny about the whole plastic tree thing, because she likes the smell of a real spruce tree and always said that the plastic tree was something Granny had duped Elsa about. Because it was Granny who had told Elsa about the Christmas tree dance in Miamas, and no one who's heard that story wants to have a spruce tree that someone has amputated and sold into slavery. In Miamas, spruce trees are living, thinking creatures with--considering that they're coniferous trees--an unaccountably strong interest in home design.

They don't live in the forest but in the southern districts of Miamas, which have become quite trendy in recent years, and they often work in the advertising industry and wear scarves indoors. And once every year, soon after the first snow has fallen, all the spruce trees gather in the big square below the castle and compete for the right to stay in someone's house over Christmas. The spruce trees choose the houses, not the other way round, and the choice is decided by a dance competition. In the olden days they used to have duels about it, but spruce trees are generally such bad shots that it used to take forever. So now they do spruce dancing, which looks a bit unusual, because spruce trees don't have feet. And if a non-spruce tree wants to imitate a dancing spruce tree, they just jump up and down. It's quite handy, particularly on a crowded dance floor.

Doesn't that make you wonder about the sentient quality of your Fraser fir, your blue spruce, your Scotch pine? Mine's been standing in the corner of the living room since Sunday, dark and naked, because I've not mustered the time or energy to drag the boxes of lights and ornaments out of the cellar. I imagine that the tree is feeling morose; it's contributing nothing to home design, and has been completely neglected since we winched it into its stand, not to mention the fact that it was brutally cut down and hauled miles away from its friends and neighbors.

If I keep this up, I'm going to be morose.

Here's to Christmas trees, decorated with abandon, redolent of pine, lit with love and little white lights.

01 December 2015

See The Forest For The Trees

Back in 1988, I had a job at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was living in Manhattan, with my then boyfriend/now husband, and more often than not, I commuted back and forth to Brooklyn by car, because the BAM staff could park as cheaply as subway fare and my car lived on the street and was going to have to be moved for alternate side of the street parking anyway. And then there were those late nights when, in 1988, one did not want to take the subway home alone anyway, and cabs were expensive (but cheaper if you made the driver go over the Manhattan Bridge and up First Avenue, please, which they never wanted to do because the other way was both faster and longer and therefore more lucrative).

One of the productions in 1988 NEXT WAVE FESTIVAL was a Robert Wilson/David Byrne shebang called The Forest - which was apparently based on the Epic of Gilgamesh but I can't remember a thing about it, although somewhere at home I have a hard bound program complete with a synopsis and photos and essays and (I think) a CD of some of the music. It matters not that I can't remember the show. What I remember very clearly is that the opening night performance was followed by a party on the Opera House stage.

The decor for the opening night was butt simple. It was December and Christmas trees had sprouted on every street corner in the city. Someone bought 25 big, skinny, fat, little Christmas trees, a stagehand nailed two pieces of 2x4 to the bottoms, and lo, a forest grew on the stage. We danced, we drank, we gloried in the performance. And at 2 in the morning, intrepid souls shouldered trees and took them home, the ultimate centerpiece.

I drove a little white Ford Fiesta then, a tiny hatchback. Someone helped me get my tree into the car - into, not on top - and I drove home from Brooklyn to Manhattan, perhaps less sober than I should have been. Happily, I found a parking space right near my apartment, and I muscled the tree out of the car, into the building, up the elevator, and into my apartment. My then boyfriend/now husband was duly startled when he stumbled out of bed the next morning and found a Christmas tree in the kitchen.

Origami tree at the American Museum of Natural History

Nowadays, we drive to the tree sale at the church in the next town, and tip the kid who helps tie the tree to the roof of the car. But somehow, the tree that stood on the opera house stage holds a sweet spot in my heart.