Monday, February 22, 2010

The Pleasures and Dangers of Caramel

Now that chefs are the culinary equivalent of rock stars, many have the requisite tattoos to match the status. Michael Symon's punctuation-less "Got Pork" is not my style. But Hugh Acheson's radish is nice. My all-time favorite chef tattoo (sort of a tattoo; scarification, actually) is Gabrielle Hamilton's. She has an asparagus spear carved into her upper arm. It's pretty badass.

I don't have any tattoos. I prefer more traditional kitchen markings like scars and burns. I got a new one, a good one, last week. I've been showing it off since. Of course, the kitchen is full of things that might cut or burn you, but this particular permanent branding comes from the famous (and dangerous) kitchen tattoo/scarification artist called Caramel, which if at the correct stage is around 340°F. It happened when I flipped an upside-down apple tart right side-up. A tablespoon of the liquified burnt sugar spilled out of the pan, landed on and oozed down my forearm, burning all the way, like a lava flow. It was all I could do not to drop the dessert.

Yup, that's gonna leave a mark.

If you eat dinner at my table anytime between October and early March there's a good chance your dessert will be my version of a tart tatin. It's by-and-large one of my favorite desserts to make and eat. It's simple, flavorful, and really lets those apples take top billing.

And I have an affinity for apples.

There are two ancient apple trees that grow on the farm. One is something like a Golden Delicious, which is the traditional apple used in the French dessert. The other apple tree, however, is similar to a McIntosh, but tart like a Granny Smith, and is the fruit flavor I prefer in my apple desserts. Of course, there aren't enough Knauer farm apples for you to use, too, so the closest commercially available variety is Winesap. If you can't find those, use Gala.

Most importantly, unless you're addicted to pain (or want desperately to be one of the cool kids), please, take care when flipping over the skillet.

Here's the recipe:

Fresh Ginger Tart Tatin

If you find yourself strapped for time, or energy, use bought, frozen puff pastry instead of the pastry dough.

Serves 6 to 8

For pastry dough:

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1 tsp brown sugar

2 to 3 Tbsp cold water

For filling:

11/2 cups sugar

2 Tbsp water

1 stick unsalted butter

1 tsp lemon zest

2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

5 Winesap or Gala apples

Kosher salt

Accompaniment: whipped cream

Work together the flour, butter, sugar, and ½ tsp salt with your hands until mostly combined with some small lumps of butter remaining. Stir in 2 Tbsp water with a fork. Press a small handful of dough together, if it looks powdery and does not come together, stir in the additional 1 Tbsp water. Transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap. Using the edge of plastic, fold dough over on itself, pressing until it comes together. Form the dough into a disk, wrapped completely in the plastic and chill for 1 hour.

While dough chills, heat 1 cup of the sugar with the water in a 10-to 12-inch well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and bubbling. Cook the caramel, swirling the skillet occasionally, until the sugar is a dark amber caramel. Remove skillet from heat and add the butter, carefully swirling the skillet to incorporate the butter into the caramel. Let the skillet (with the caramel) cool at room temperature.

Whisk together the remaining ½ cup sugar, zest, juice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ¼ tsp salt in a large bowl. Peel and core the apples, then halve them and toss with the sugar mixture.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Roll out the pastry dough on a well-floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 13-inch round. Place the apples, cut sides up over the caramel in the skillet, then drizzle with any remaining sugar mixture. Top the apples with the dough tucking the edges of dough down around the apples. Cut 6 to 8 steam vents in the dough.

Bake the tart until the crust is golden, the filling is bubbling. This will take about 45 minutes.

Let the tart cool until warm in the skillet. Invert a serving plate over the skillet, then carefully reinvert tart onto the serving plate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Word About A Man And A Sandwich

My teenage summers were spent primarily in the company of my grandfather, my father's father, Daniel. It was a smart move on the part of my elders. Looking back, I realize the reasoning was likely to keep from trouble; it's a proclivity I still possess a penchant for. Instead of spray-painting or skateboarding or jumping over bonfires, I mowed lawns and tended beehives under the close, strict, but loving watch of Daniel. After many summers, we grew close, and the time we spent together then is a part of my life that I remember with deep fondness.

Above, my grandfather and me, meeting for the first time. (I think I might have been asleep for it.)

During the summer of my 16th year, I took a month off from my farm chores to travel to Germany as part of an exchange program. There, I was able to gain a basic understanding of the language and catch up on some of the trouble I'd been missing out on. I succeeded on both accounts. But part of me missed my grandfather. I remember feeling worried that I'd lose the old man, that he might prematurely kick the bucket while I selfishly drank beer and ate wurst. I remember the flight home from Europe. I stared out the window of the airplane and above the cloud cover, I cried. In German, there is a word for that feeling of sadness. The word is trauigkeit. It translates directly into English. It was how I felt. I was sad, and unnecessarily so. He was fine.

The morning after my arrival stateside, I was yanked from sleep by jetlag. I went directly to visit Daniel and by noon was almost finished mowing his four-acre lawn. By then it was hot, and I was hungry. So, he decided to teach me a lesson.

My grandfather, like most men of his day, never cooked. He never even set foot inside the kitchen. So it was to my great surprise when he called me from the lawn with a brisk wave of his arm. He'd made a sandwich for my lunch; an act that to this day, if only due to its rarity, still symbolizes his love for me. It was the only time he ever made me anything to eat. And I believed then, as I believe now, that he made me lunch that day as a way to tell me that he had missed me, too. It is a sandwich I will never forget, and not just because of the tenuity of his making it. It was also delicious.

Salted butter, summer-kitchen soft, was thickly spread over white bread, then layered generously with sweet Lebanon Bologna -a sweetened, cured meat popular only in Pennsylvania Dutch country- and then topped with refrigerator-cold, crisp iceberg lettuce. I can still taste the salty-sweet play between butter and bologna. I can still hear the loud cooling crunch of the lettuce. I can still imagine the gummy squish of the white bread. I can still feel the warmth of the summer sun and the warmth of his smile as he watched me devour the lunch he'd carefully, lovingly made for me.

Lebanon Bologna can be found at supermarkets in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Almost exactly 16 years after that day, I thought of my grandfather and that bologna sandwich again. It happened just last week, as I sat, staring out the window of another airplane, looking over the cloud cover.

This time I wasn't crying. This time I was returning home from Brazil with a basic understanding of the language and a slight case of dysentery. I was flying home for Daniel's funeral and all I could think about was that sandwich.

Portuguese, unlike German, is a beautiful language. There are words with meanings so complex that they can only be translated into English using full sentences. I learned one of those words recently. The word is saudade. It describes a missing -a longing for a person- but not in a sad way, in a fond way. An appropriate translation would be along the lines of: "a fond remembrance for a loved one that produces the complex, combined, and desirable feelings of happiness, fulfillment, longing, and love while looking toward the future." One definition I found describes the word this way, “… the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again.” Now that is a word.

I have saudade for my grandfather. He lived a full and happy life and the many lessons, memories, and skills that I have learned from him have helped me live a full and happy life, too. One of those lessons was a bologna sandwich. It is so important to tell those whom we love and miss, no matter how we say it. Love and missing and saudade are such powerful feelings that even when their expression takes a benign form, like a sandwich, they are life changing. I made the sandwich for lunch this week and shared it with my family. It was a deeply satisfying meal, once again. It always will be. May we all make such meaningful and delicious sandwiches for the people we love.

A sandwich, like the man who invented it, that is larger than life.