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6.27.2011

This one's coming with me

On a Sunday night in June, you are required, by cosmic law, to make strawberry shortcake. I don’t know if you knew that. I just found out. There’s apparently a similar law for July, only it governs tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. You’ve been warned.

Last week, we had two friends visiting from Scotland. Whenever we have visitors, I tend to want to take them to lots of restaurants, because that seems like the best way to show them our city, but when jet lag is involved, it feels mean to force anyone to sit upright or speak in complete sentences after approximately mid-afternoon. So on Sunday night, after a morning visit to the farmer’s market and a long walk down to Golden Gardens, past a cluster of plastic flamingos and a creepy guy digging for sand worms and back up the hill again, we decided to stay home. Our friends shelled peas and opened a bottle of wine, and I washed arugula, put on a pot of water for pasta, and got some sauce going.

While the pots were warming, I started thinking about the strawberries we had bought that morning, the first ones to show up this summer. Seattle is always slow to get its local summer fruits and vegetables, but this year has felt especially late – like, trains-in-Italy late. Now that we’ve actually got strawberries, I wanted to do right by them. I wanted to do something special, something celebratory, but I didn’t want it to be too special, to get in the way of tasting the fruit. And that, I think, is a pretty good way to describe shortcake.




When I was a kid, in Oklahoma, most people bought their shortcakes: the packaged kind from the grocery store, sealed in noisy plastic wrappers, yellow and spongy, shaped like large, concave hockey pucks – or maybe they were more like saucers? Deep saucers? Shallow ashtrays? Anyway, my mother refused to buy them. Instead, she baked her shortcakes from scratch, shoulder to shoulder in a 9”-x-13” pan, cooled and cut apart and sandwiched with whipped cream and strawberries macerated with sugar. But that was years ago, and when I asked her what recipe she used, she said she doesn’t remember. She said it was probably something from Martha Stewart, but she didn’t sound confident about it. We’ll never know. I was on my own.

The version I was after would not be spongy, but more like my mother’s, more like a biscuit. I like my shortcakes very tender, crumbly, and flaky – but more crumbly than flaky, ideally. I like the crumb very short and slightly sweet, and the top should be riddled with crags and lumps. The thin, outermost crust should be a little crisp at the edges, and when you stick a fork in, the crumb should yield with a quiet whoosh. That’s important.

So, Sunday night, I scoured my shelves, and I wound up settling on a recipe from Dorie Greenspan, my longtime hero when it comes to sweets, and her book Baking. She calls the recipe “Tender Shortcakes,” and that about nails it. I knew right away that I wanted to tell you about them.

There’s nothing inventive or even terribly blog-worthy about a classic strawberry shortcake, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every day. This blog is the place where I record my best stuff, and Dorie’s is the best shortcake I’ve ever had. Not only would I happily eat it on its own – on its own and, hell, maybe even a week stale! That’s true love – but it uses very basic ingredients, the kind I always have around: flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, butter, and cream. It also comes together like lightning, with no need for floured countertops, rolling pins, or cookie cutters. As nice desserts go, it’s pretty close to instant. This one’s coming with me into July.


Dorie Greenspan’s Tender Shortcakes
From Baking: From My Home to Yours

You could serve these shortcakes with any kind of berry, and I’ll bet sliced nectarines or peaches would also be outstanding. You’ll want about ½ cup fruit per serving. I like to keep it simple and toss the fruit only with sugar – a small amount, to taste – and whatever you do, be sure to let the sugared fruit sit for about 15 minutes before serving, so that it gets nice and juicy and some syrup pools at the bottom of the bowl. That’s the stuff. Serve with unsweetened, softly whipped cream.

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. sugar
1 ½ sticks (12 Tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 ½ cups cold heavy cream

Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and, using your fingers, toss to coat with flour. Quickly, working with your fingertips, pinch and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly. Some pieces of butter will be about the size of peas, while other will be more like flakes of oatmeal.

Pour the cream over the dry ingredients, and toss and gently turn the ingredients with a fork until you’ve got a very soft dough. You’ll probably still have some flour at the bottom of the bowl, so reach in and use your hand to mix and gently knead the dough until it’s evenly blended. But don’t get overzealous: it’s better to have a few dry spots than an overworked dough. The dough should be soft and sticky.

Cut the dough into 10 roughly equal portions (each will be about 1/3 cup), and put 5 or 6 of them on the baking sheet, leaving about 3 inches of space between them. Pat each portion down until it’s about 1 inch high. [The shortcakes can be made to this point, wrapped in plastic wrap, and stashed in the freezer. Bake without defrosting – just add 5+ minutes to the baking time.]

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the sheet from front to back midway through, until the shortcakes are puffed and give just a little when poked with a fingertip. Pull the pan from the oven, and carefully transfer the shortcakes to a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining dough, cooling the baking sheet first.

Serve the shortcakes slightly warm or at room temperature. To serve, use a serrated knife to gently cut each cake in half horizontally. (They’re fragile, so go easy.) Put the bottom halves on plates, top with berries and whipped cream, and then cap with the top halves.

Yield: 10 servings

6.16.2011

Such is the power

Let the record show that, I, Molly Wizenberg, have, in this lifetime, made some ugly deviled eggs.




Maybe this picture is the better approach.




I seem to have come down with some sort of virus, the kind of thing that feels totally out of place in the month of June, that keeps you in your bathrobe, eating mostly toast and canned peaches, for the better part of five days. To be perfectly honest, I can’t say that I feel like eating a deviled egg right now. But I did manage to eat a bowl of cereal this morning, and that is a great improvement. I even felt well enough for a cup of coffee! Maybe, by the time you read this, I will be wearing something other than my bathrobe. It’s halfway over, but I intend to do this month right. I have a deviled egg quota to meet.

I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while, because every time I make it, someone asks for it. It’s one of those recipes. Most recently, I made it for Brandi’s birthday party, and that night, I think there were actually three people who asked for the recipe. THREE! That made me particularly happy, I remember, because I had gotten a slow start in cooking that evening and had felt anything but love for these eggs as I stood in the kitchen, peeling them over the sink, already late for the party and still unshowered. But such is the power of the deviled egg, that even after making me swear and pout and show up at a party with my hair looking like I’m in Van Halen, still, still, I want to make them again. (Of course, I do have a certain fondness for David Lee Roth.)

In any case, this recipe was inspired by a deviled egg served to me by Olaiya, so I can’t take credit for it. Three summers ago, she had just moved into a house with a terrific backyard, and she threw a barbecue. She made deviled eggs and salmon burgers and a giant tomato salad and corn on the cob, and our friend Ben had just moved to town, and it was a famous night. Afterward, I wrote about it here and posted the recipe for a basil aioli that we ate on almost everything. And I started working on recreating the deviled eggs: classic ones, creamy with mayonnaise and mustard and lemon, but with a very small spoonful of basil aioli on top and, balancing on top of that, a couple of crispy fried capers.




(Olaiya’s looked much nicer than mine do. Lest you should forget, there was a lot of swearing and hurrying going on.)

As a general category, I love deviled eggs. We even served them at our wedding. But of all deviled eggs, all types and all recipes, I think these are my favorite. The yolk filling is fairly standard, but when you add that basil aioli, which smells and tastes like June itself, this month that we have waited all stinking winter for, you get something entirely new. And with the briny crunch of capers, each one exploded in hot oil so that they look like strange, delicate flowers and dissolve on your tongue, yes, I really do think these are my favorite. Just be sure to buy your eggs a week or two ahead of time, because old eggs usually peel more easily than fresh ones. Actually, you know, if you buy now, you’ll be all set for the Fourth of July.



Deviled Eggs with Basil Aioli and Capers
Inspired by Olaiya Land

The multiple steps in this recipe can feel daunting, but it’s actually pretty quick to make. I usually make the aioli while the eggs are cooking, and while they cool, I fry the capers. And if you’re feeling really short on time, just skip the frying and use drained, rinsed capers. No sweat.

12 large eggs
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. jarred capers, drained, rinsed, and dried well
6 Tbsp. mayonnaise (I use Best Foods), or more to taste
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1 recipe Shortcut Basil Aioli, below

Hard-boil the eggs. I'm sure you have a favorite way to boil yours, but just in case, here's mine. Put them in a large pot, so that they can sit in a single layer. (That’s important.) Add cold water to cover by an inch or two, and place the pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil; then immediately cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Let sit exactly 12 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water.

Warm the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot and runs easily around the pan, add the capers. They should sizzle. Fry, shaking the skillet occasionally, until they split open and start to crisp, about 3 minutes. They should not brown. Fish them out of the skillet, leaving the oil behind, and drain them on a paper towel.

When the eggs are fully cool, cut them in half crosswise. (I think this looks prettier - and is easier to eat - than cutting them in half lengthwise.) Carefully remove the yolks and put them in a medium bowl. Trim a tiny sliver off the rounded end of the whites, so that they will sit upright when you serve them; then set them aside. Using a fork, mash the crap out of the yolks. Add the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, and salt. Mash and mix until smooth. Taste, and adjust as necessary.

Just before serving, spoon the filling into a pastry bag, and pipe the filling into the egg white halves. If you don’t have a pastry bag, spoon the filling instead. Top the filled eggs with a small dollop of basil aioli. (You will have aioli left over.) Finish with a few fried capers.

Yield: 24 deviled eggs


***


Shortcut Basil Aioli

Homemade mayonnaise is terrific, but if I’m making deviled eggs, it’s usually summer, which means that it’s hot outside and I want to limit my exertion in the kitchen. So I generally use Best Foods – also sold as Hellmann’s – mayonnaise for this recipe.

A note on the first step: when I make this aioli, the basil mixture sometimes gets wonderfully smooth, like pesto. Other times, though, it doesn’t seem to want to get that smooth, and instead looks more like a mess of chopped basil. I’m not sure what goes wrong, but I think it has to do with the age and texture of the basil leaves: when they’re bigger and hardier, they don’t process as easily. Either way, though, the aioli will taste fine.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup packed basil leaves
½ tsp. lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, pressed
Pinch of salt
½ cup mayonnaise

In the jar of a blender (or a small food processor), combine the olive oil, basil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Process until the mixture is smooth, pausing every now and then to scrape down the side of the blender jar with a small spatula or spoon.

Put the mayonnaise in a small bowl. Add the basil mixture, and stir well to mix.

Serve as a dip for raw vegetables, spread onto sandwiches, folded into chicken salad, or dolloped on top of deviled eggs.

Yield: a little more than ½ cup