October 31, 2005

tricker treat

Pumpkin tart(elette) with a little bit of tricks. Tricks will be revealed in an update to follow sometime soon. Although I can't be on your doorstep to do trick-or-treats, and I might be a bit too old for that anyways, I wish everyone a happy Halloween. To those of you that, like myself, don't really do all that Halloween stuff, well, have a wonderful week.

***Updated Nov 12*** Ahem, it's not that the "tricks" were so special I had to keep them unknown forever. It's just my typical sporadic blogging habits. Thanks anyone who still remember this blog.

Okay, pumpkin tarts. It involved slighlty more complicated procedures than needed for what I'd normally make, but it was merely a matter of making tart shells.

I prepared a tart dough a night before I planned to make the tarts, and on the day I baked the shells, whipped up the filling, filled the tart shells, and re-baked the whole thing, which then went into the fridge to cool.

I used Japanese kabocha pumpkins, which I think are the best of the kind. I love them in both cooking and baking, but when it's used for sweet stuff like pudding or cheesecake, recipes tend to tell you to use the flesh only, which leaves you with the bright green skin unused. But with this recipe, once you've cooked the kabocha, remove skin from the flesh, and chop it up to combine with nuts to fill the bottom of the tart shells. This not only allows to use up the kabocha skin (which I love) but adds a nice crunchy texture to the tarts with creamy and smooth filling. I combined the skin chunks with toasted walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and a bit of spices.

And the little "trick" part; these tartelettes were dairy- and sugar-free. Tart shells and filling, everything. Well, I have to say it was ALMOST sugar-free, as the home-made apricot jam I used to graze the bottom of the shell and the top of the filling did have a bit of white sugar. Otherwise, the tarts were sweetened with maple syrup and honey, and a bit of maple sugar, which is basically the same as maple syrup. The filling gained the cheesecake-like consistency from tofu along with ground almonds, soy milk, corn starch, and - believe ir or not - a tiny spoonful of miso.

Doesn't sound too appetizing, you might wonder, but the tarts tasted fine - I'd even say they were yummy. They had some aftertaste of tofu at room temperature, but after sitting in the fridge for hours or overnights and completely chilled, there was no trace of tofu or any of soy taste, and the filling tasted really like cheesecake, true to its namesake, as the recipe (in Japanese) calls it Pumpkin Tofu-Cheese Tart. With the tart shells light and crumbly and the filling rich and sweet, the tartelettes were just as good as any pumpkin tarts that I have ever had.

October 22, 2005

a sweet affair with figs

I seem to have a passion for figs. It is an acquired love, and the acquisition occurred to me relatively recently; figs were one of the few fruits that I disliked as a kid, and it wasn't until I when grew up to my early twenties that I discovered the beauties of this ancient fruit. And once it happened, I have grown to love figs more and more, to the point where I'd buy a whole lot of fresh ones and try ten different recipes within one season. Here follows the list.

In my limited experience, I didn't see fresh figs very often in store in the US - well, at least not in my town on the Big Island of Hawaii. I remember I had Black Mission with a purple skin, and probably Brown Turkey with a brown skin. Other than that, I did see green Kadota and yellowish Calimyrna, but didn't try them myself. Here in Japan - at least in Tokyo area which I know of -, figs are ubiquitous from late August through early October, although there seems to be only one kind available here; one that looks very much like Brown Turkey. And they aren't exactly cheap even at the height of the season.

Anyways, I bought my first basket of the season towards the end of August and made some into roasted fruit galettes along with several other fruits. The next thing I laid my hand on was tart.

Or should I call them tartelettes, since I made several small tarts? Either way, I already knew I was going to love it when I first saw the recipe of Fresh Fig Tart with Rosemary Cornmeal Crust and Lemon Mascarpone Cream, and so did I, as it turned out; when I love figs, I love rosemary, I love lemon and mascarpone, how could I have possibly gone wrong?

Made on light tart shells filled with airy cream and loaded with sweet fresh figs, these were truly a standout, a perfect light dessert. I made honey graze using Balsamic vinegar instead of red currant jelly, and it worked quite well. We all loved them.

I can't keep track of what I made in chronological order, but the next thing probably was this one: Figs on Toast with Cheese.

This was based on something I learned from my friend Mariko and would make a lot for breakfast - toast with cheese and fig jam. Originally, Mariko got this recipe for hot-pressed sandwich, but I didn't - and still don't - have a sandwich iron, so just made toast.

This time I used fresh fig wedges and mozzarella cheese, and a rosemary twig on top to add the scent. With a slice of French bread with nuts and fruits, this made lovely breakfast bites within minutes.

By now you might have noticed that I have a soft spot for the particular combination of figs and rosemary. I do, I do! I could have put rosemary in all these fig things, seriously, but I resisted for the sake of variations. Well, I didn't with this one - Fig & Rosemary Yogurt Cake.

Yogurt cake, or g√Ęteau au yaourt, is a traditional French home-baker-friendly cake that is really easy to make. To be authentic, you are supposed to use a small container or two of yogurt for one batch, then use an emptied container to measure all other ingredients. Sounds like a bit of fun!

I wasn't exactly authentic in that regard, but it was fun to make nevertheless. I added some finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves to the batter and baked with chunks of figs inside and slices on top. It was a breeze to make and easy to love, a simply good nosh.

I like baked or roasted figs, but wine-poached ones are also a classic. While they'd typically be poached in red or white wine, here I used sweet white wine made from muscat, called Beaumes-de-Venise, using this recipe for Figs Poached in Spiced Sweet Wine.

Other than the unconventinoal use of sweet wine, what caught my attention with this recipe was the wide variety of spices and herbs put into the wine. Cinnamon, anise, and bay leaves may be common, but how about ginger, cardamom, black peppercorns and thyme? Sounds gorgeous, doesn't it - and it really was! And I don't even like star anise - actually, I positively hate anything anise-y, but here I brought myself to use not one but two of them, hoping that it would fuse together with other spices and help create a nuanced taste. It did.

I cut the amount of sugar to add and instead used a little honey in the wine mixture. Probably because I peeled figs before putting them into the liquid, the whole thing got tinted with pink after sitting overnight in the fridge. I simply served fig halves with plain mascarpone cheese with a few fresh grinds of black pepper, and it made indeed a sublime dessert. By the way, I poached pear wedges in the same pan, and they turned out lovely, too.

Now I was left with some leftover wine syrup after the fruit compotes, and wouldn't dare to waste any bit of it - it was a concentration of good sweet wine and spices! So I decided to recycle the syrup in other desserts, including this Fig Cake with Olive Oil and Sweet White Wine.

I chose to try this recipe because it uses both fresh figs and sweet white wine, but it also calls for olive oil for the batter. Come to think of it, when I've made olive oil and sweet wine cake before - I wonder if it is common to pair these two?

For this one, I put chunks of fresh figs in the batter, much like the yogurt cake above, but the this one turned out quite different from the other. Contrary to the moist yogurt cake, this one was crunchy on the surface and light, almost buttery, and resembled quatre quarts, a French version of pound cake, as one reviewer commented. But I didn't taste very much of sweet wine - not a surprise though, considering the small amount of it called for in this recipe.

So I still had quite a lot of the wine mixture left, and I used some more in another thing - using figs again, but here both fresh and dried ones.

It was called something like gateau deux figues, or Double Fig Cake, but I am not sure, as I only took a mental note of the recipe when I was flipping through a recent issue of ELLE a Table magazine at a bookstore. This one isn't using olive oil like the other one but regular butter, so it was pretty ordinary cake batter except it uses sweet wine. Oh I omitted anise liquor though; the wine mixture already had some of it, so it was enough for me. I used pine nuts in place of almonds like the recipe says, by the way.

Again, I couldn't trace the flavor of spiced sweet wine with this one. I couldn't taste fresh figs much, either - I might have used overripe figs and they might have gotten blended into the batter, perhaps. The cake was decent - nothing really special.

Okay, we're almost done with the fig thing now. Almost. Here I wanted to give mention to one little thing on a final note...

I've had the pleasure of working for a project by the government of Fukuoka Prefecture, a province located in the Southwest Japan with the nation's 9th largest population out of 49. As part of the promotion of their agricultural produce, they've been promoting figs for exporting, and have been making promotional materials including this little leaflet (currently in English and Japanese, and possibly in Chinese and/or other languages in the future). I was asked to provide some recipes using fresh figs with pictures, as well as to help design the brochure - and the first contact was through my little Japanese blog! I was absolutely thrilled, and it was a whole lot of fun, even with some challenges, which would always come along with any business in a certain way.

For this brochure I made five fig recipes from simple and classic Figs with Prosciutto to a little more time-consuming but all-worthy Roast Pork with Figs. I cooked and fed myself a lot of figs for this - for business! This wasn't my first time writing recipes, cooking dishes and shooting pictures on business, but it certainly was for Japanese media. I'd like to thank people who have taken a look at my blogs and offered me a job of any kind, and those who have in any way supported me in doing this - blogging, in English and in Japanese - including you, who are now reading this. Thanks!

So, this was my sweet affair with figs in season. While I've also made fresh fig jams a few times (such as the one included in this post), I enjoyed my last few figs of the season plain. Admitted, I love figs baked, roasted, or poached, but fresh ones have got their own unique beauties.

Well, I've still got a bunch of fresh fig recipes I have bookmarked but have yet to try in this season - for these I've got to wait till next summer, but in the meantime, I will come up with a bunch others using dried figs! (And hopefully, in the future I don't want to have to cram this much thing into one post but will be able to simply blog at shorter intervals....)

October 19, 2005

it's about this time of the year again

... well I might have been a bit late again.

I have been lagging behind in blogging many recent developments, but here I'm making this a note to self; last week I got around to soaking dried fruits in liquors in preparation for making fruit cake for Christmas. Last year I didn't need to do this as I had some leftover mincemeat from the year before, but well, this year, I had nothing, so I made it from scratch.

That said, I decided not to make traditional mincemeat this year. Instead, I just soaked fruits directly in liquors, without adding sugar or fat, which is what I used to do before. This time I had semi-dried black figs, large white figs, prunes, mirabelles (a kind of plum), and pears, all of which are from France. I also had some sultana raisins and candied zest of bitter oranges from Spain, plus candied zest of lemon for which I don't know where it is from.

I chopped up everything (except raisins), threw them altogether into a large jar, and poured some French rum and brandy - from A. Legoll and Cognac Frapin, respectively. I seem to have soaked something like 2.5lb of dried fruits in total in 10-12 oz. of rum and 3 oz. of cognac. This should be a plenty for this year's cakes, and probably for the next year as well.

Now my jar of fruitcake fruits is sitting in the kitchen (not by the windows, though) and getting ready to be used in a month's time or so. Ideally, in order for my fruits cakes to fully develop their flavors, I would have liked to soak my fruits a few months before baking them into cakes and then let sit the cakes for another month or two before they're eaten, but I'll have to live with what I have to live with; I've only got a month for my fruits to get liquor-steeped and another month for the cakes to sit before Christmas this year. Not too bad, as long as I manage to bake cake in time, a month from now. Let's see how it goes...

October 7, 2005

preserves not for preservation

I love all sorts of fruits out there (okay, most of them), but I was never a big fan of them when cooked, especially jams. Other than marmalades, which are the only fruit conserve that I have constantly and positively liked, I would never really be tempted to grab one of those typically large jars of jam on the store shelves, let along making one myself.

Recently, I have been playing around cooking different kinds of fruits (such as roasting them and baking them into cakes) and actually enjoying them a lot. I now even think of making a jam - or something like it. I realize that making a jam is a good solution when you have a bunch of fresh fruits that are becoming overripe and you need to use them up quick. That said, I don't want to give my fruits an overdose of sugar, so my compromise is to make low-sugar or even sugar-free quick jams.

First thing that I made in this recent series of my jam making experiences was a spiced peach jam. I had one large yellow peach that was almost about to be spoiled, and I remembered this one recipe (in Japanese) for spiced peach jam that I had found a long time before.

With this recipe, you cook chunks of peach with a little honey and juice of lemon as well as spices (she uses vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves) only until the cooking juice is reduced and thick. It doesn't call for sugar or long cooking time, and you don't need to sterilze a storage jar, because the jam has to be consumed within a couple of days, anyways. So this is something you should make in a small portion and to enjoy the natural flavor and sweetness of a fruit, rather than for the purpose of preserving it.

For my jam, I spiced it up with a vanilla bean and cardamom pods. I think cardamom added a clean and refreshing feature to the ripe and sweet cooked peach.

As I was happy with my peach jam, I tried on other fruits at hand using the same method (cooking with honey and lemon juice, plus some extra flavors). I took a couple of ripe figs and paired them with rosemary.

The combination of fig and rosemary is something I am so addicted to these days, and it was great in a form of jam, too. It was delicious alone on toast, but I served it with some cheese..

I tried mascarpone and gorgonzola, both of which have been known to go well with figs (actually, figs have a high affinity to many kinds of cheese...). Although I love figs with mascarpone, here I think the blue cheese was a winner of the day; the concentrated sweetness of the fruits needed an equally powerful partner to go, perhaps.

I also tried a mango jam on another occasion, using lime and ginger and served on slices of good cheese croissant and cheddar. Here the saltiness of the cheeses provided a nice contrast to the sweetness of mango, making a nice, light snack.

It is only in the last couple of years or so that I have started looking on the bright side of jams (thanks to some good jams out there, such as ones by Christine Ferber and June Taylor), and being able to enjoy genuine goodness of fruits and/or unusual combinations of fruits with spices/herbs in them. The more new kinds I see, the more I am tempted to try... now, how I wish they are available in a smaller portion so that I can sample more kinds; after all, jams aren't something I would want to eat everyday, and if/when I get a regular-sized jar of jam, I'd find it a bit too much for me to finish all up. I wonder if I am the only one who's saying such a thing?