Monday, August 28, 2017

Graham Cracker Custard Pie

The last time 'the person who shall remain nameless' tasted a beloved Graham Cracker Custard Pie was almost 50 years ago. It was a pie only his maternal grandmother had made. Growing up. his family would regularly go to his grandparents house for Sunday dinner. As soon as he came in the door his grandmother would pull him aside and whisper in his ear 'I made two Graham Cracker Pies, one just for you.' But after his grandmother passed, no one could ever seem to get the beloved pie right. So for decades, the pie became a cherished childhood memory. Then last week, the recipe for the pie he so loved eating during his youth resurfaced in the box of recipes kept by his mother. And like many family recipes, the handwritten recipe card listed only the ingredients, no directions.

Favorite foods, especially ones with powerful memories, can often be a source of comfort during times of grief. This last week brought the unexpected passing of his father. By some kind of divine intervention, work and life had brought 'the person who shall remain nameless' the thousand miles to his father's home. Giving him the chance to spend time with his father during the last week of his life. This small, yet profoundly moving consolation of being able to say goodbye in person could only have been orchestrated by a higher power. There is no other logical explanation. 

Sometimes words cannot fully express one's sympathies when a friend or family member experiences the loss of a loved one. So rather than try to find the right words, I thought I would help ease the overwhelming sense of sadness caused by such a significant loss by making the Graham Cracker Custard Pie. Hoping memories of love and happiness would help soothe a hurting heart.

However, if I could not find directions for this Graham Cracker Custard Pie, all I would have would be my good intentions (and we all know there is a world of difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it). Having never heard of a Graham Cracker Custard Pie before, I realized I would need to jump into the proverbial recipe search rabbit hole. Crossing my fingers the directions for this pie were out there somewhere. The good news: they were. The bad news: there were conflicting directions on how to make it. I could tell you I used custard making logic in deciding which set of directions made the most sense. But that wouldn't be telling the complete truth. I went with a part logic, part luck, and a part 'hoping someone was watching out for me' decision.

In the process of looking for the directions, I learned this graham cracker pie, filled with a slightly decadent creamy custard, and usually topped with a meringue was one made by grandmothers and mothers in the 1950s. Definitely falling into the category of 'old, cherished and treasured' recipes. Some claimed the 'original' recipe was printed on the box of graham crackers. Although, due to the number of variations in ingredient amounts as well as in directions, I wondered what the 'original' recipe actually might have been. If I stayed down this rabbit hole, I might have found it. But I didn't. Here in the states it was called Graham Cracker Pie, while in Canada it was called Prairie Flapper Pie. Could different graham cracker package labeling been responsible for creating two different names for essentially the same pie? Maybe.

Like all of the cooks, past and present, making this Graham Cracker Custard Pie, I too couldn't leave anything alone. The list of ingredients for the graham cracker crust on the recipe card listed only three ingredients: graham crackers, butter and sugar. The crust for this pie was made with: graham crackers, sugar, butter, kosher salt, vanilla, and cinnamon. In the making of this pie, I stayed true to crushing whole graham crackers to make the crumbs.

The only part of this pie actually baked is the crust. It only takes 10 minutes in a pre-heated 325 degree (F) oven. The crust needs to made first as it needs to cool to room temperature before the custard is added.

I kept all of the ingredients for the custard the same, except the sugar. I increased it from 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup. Mostly because I could not find another recipe using 1/4 cup of sugar with similar ingredient proportions. But more so because I didn't think 1/4 cup wasn't going to give the custard the right amount of sweetness. As luck would have it, this decision turned out to be a good one as after one taste of the custard the person who shall remain nameless had only three words to say: 'you nailed it'.

If you have made a pudding or a custard before, you know it's important to take steps to ensure the egg yolks don't curdle. After the scalded milk is added to the sugar/cornstarch/salt and mixture is slightly thickened, a half cup of the hot mixture is whisked into a bowl of the blended egg yolks. For good measure, I always whisk in a second half cup of the hot mixture into the eggs before returning it all to the pan. By adding a small amount of the hot mixture to the eggs and whisking rapidly, you prevent any curdling from happening to the finished custard. Once this 'egg mixture' is returned to the pan, your custard will have just the right consistency in approximately 2-3 minutes. Note: Whisking constantly throughout the entire custard making process will help assure you end up with the creamiest, smoothest custard possible.

The custard should cool slightly before being poured into the baked graham cracker crust. After 30 minutes, with some regular stirring to prevent a skin from forming on top, my custard was cool enough. 

At this point in the making of the beloved Graham Cracker Custard Pie, it was how the 'person who shall remain nameless' remembered it. His grandmother did not finish it with a meringue topping. I asked 'what did she do with the egg whites?'. But after asking that question, I realized a 12 year old boy might not have known to even ask that question. Instead, I asked 'Would you mind if I added the meringue to the pie?'. The easy was answer was 'no'. Because when you wait 50 years for this pie, all you really care about is re-tasting the custard from your childhood memory.

I could have made a traditional meringue topping, but no. I wanted this one to be finished with something different than a French style meringue. So I decided to try my hand at making a Swiss Meringue. If it didn't turn out, well then the Graham Cracker Custard Pie would be same as the one written on the recipe card. But if it did turn out, well, then it would be one made this time around with even more love.

Instead of first beating egg whites until they are light, airy and having soft peaks and then adding the sugar to stabilize and increase the meringue's volume, a Swiss meringue involves cooking a bowl of egg whites and sugar over hot steaming water. When the mixture reaches 175 degrees (F), the bowl is transferred to a standing mixture and beaten until smooth, silky, and marshmallowy in volume. Swiss meringue is denser and slightly more flavorful than a French meringue. Additionally, it's texture is perfect for piping onto a pie or cake. For a slightly more dramatic finish, I browned Swiss Meringue with a kitchen torch.  Go big or go home, right? Note: Wait until the pie has completely chilled before finishing with the Swiss meringue.

This Graham Cracker Custard Pie lasted less than 24 hours. And with the exception of the teeny, tiny sliver I took, there was only one person eating it. Because when you wait 50 years for a pie, you are given a pass from exercising any form of self-control. Had the creamy custard combined with the slightly decadent Swiss meringue topping not been so rich, it wouldn't have even lasted that long.

In spite of making some slight changes to his grandmother's recipe, it accomplished everything I had hoped it would. Not only is this slightly modified recipe now preserved so it can be made again (this time with directions), the Graham Cracker Custard Pie turned out to be exactly the kind of comfort a grieving heart deserved.
Graham Cracker Custard Pie (Custard recipe based on a treasured family recipe; Swiss Meringue recipe, slightly altered, from Serious Eats)
Serves 8

2 cups (220 g) graham cracker crumbs, preferably made by crushing graham crackers
1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional, but recommended)

1/3 cup (67g) granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups whole milk
3 large egg yolks (reserve egg whites for meringue)

Swiss Meringue
2/3 cup (170 g) egg whites, from 5-6 large eggs (use the egg whites from the custard, plus whites from 2-3 additional large eggs)
1 1/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon (255 g) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
2 teaspoons vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (F).
2. In a medium sized bowl, combine the crumbs, sugar, melted butter, salt, vanilla, and cinnamon until well blended. 
3. Press firmly into the bottom and up the sides (about 3/4") of a 9" tart pan.
4. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

1. Combine cornstarch, sugar and salt in a medium sized saucepan. Mix together. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Set aside.
3. Scald milk on the stovetop. Milk will have tiny bubbles along the edge but will not be boiling.
4. Over medium-low flame, slowly add 1 cup of the scalded milk to the cornstarch/sugar/salt mixture whisking constantly. As the mixture begins to thicken, add the second cup of the scalded milk, stirring constantly until mixture begins to thicken. Note: Cooking time will be somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes.
5. Remove pan from heat. Remove about 1/2 cup of the mixture and whisk into the beaten eggs. Add a second 1/2 cup of the mixture, whisk, and immediately return mixture back into the pot. Return pot to medium-low flame and continue to stir constantly.
6. Cook custard for an additional 2-3 minutes or until it reaches pudding consistency and just begins to boil. Remove pan from heat.
7. Stir in vanilla.
8. Allow custard to cool for at least 30 minutes. Note: Stir custard occasionally while cooling in order to prevent a skin from forming on top.
9. Pour cooled custard into the graham cracker shell. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Swiss Meringue
1. Fill a wide deep pan with at least 1 1/2" of water. Make a thick ring of crumpled tinfoil placed inside to act as a 'booster seat'. Over high heat, bring water to a steaming hot level. Then adjust to maintain a gentle simmer.
2. Combine egg whites, sugar, salt, cream of tartar, and vanilla in the metal bowl of a standing mixer. Set on top of the 'booster seat' over the steaming water. 
3. Stirring and scraping continuously using a flexible spatula, bring mixture to 175 degrees (F). Approximately 8-12 minutes.
4. Transfer bowl to a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and whip at high speed until meringue is glossy and beginning to ball up inside the whisk (approximately 5 minutes). 
5. Transfer mixture to a pastry bag fitted with tip of choice. Decorate top of chilled pie. Alternately drop dollops of the meringue on top of the pie and finish by making a swirl pattern using the back of a large spoon.
6. Brown the meringue until desired 'brownness' using a kitchen torch.
7. Serve Graham Cracker Custard Pie. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator.

Notes: (1) Pie can be served without a Swiss Meringue topping or without a traditional meringue. (2) If you have never made Swiss meringue before, recommend watching the Serious Eats video(3) Pie can be made in either a glass/ceramic pie plate or tart pan with removable bottom. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Strawberry Jam Tart

"In solitude there is healing. Speak to your soul. Listen to your heart. Sometimes in the absence of noise we find the answers." At some point I realized baking was more than a creative outlet for me. It had therapeutic value. Unlike cooking, baking is a little more precise and requires a higher degree of attention to detail. Focusing all of my attention and energies on ensuring dough has the right feel; caramels reach just the right temperature; custard achieves the right consistency; or, ingredients are assembled in the right amounts, momentarily suspends and silences all of life's white noise. The physical and mental energies expended during baking process give my constantly racing mind a different kind of rest. I treasure those brief periods of time when I can get lost in attending to the details of a recipe. Cooking can be a communal process, but baking is more of a personal, private experience. At least it is for me. Which is why you won't find me participating in a holiday cooking baking/exchange day. For all of those seemingly selfish, but not always understood reasons, I savor the time I can bake all alone in my kitchen, soothing my spirit while creating gifts to share with those I love. 

I had been wanting to make this Strawberry Jam Tart for weeks but kept putting it off for a variety of reasons. However, a series of life events in the last week created a sense of baking urgency. With the level of white noise at an almost deafening level, I hoped this tart would provide relief, comfort, and a little joy I so badly wanted. Spoiler Alert: It delivered on all fronts.

The inspiration for this recipe came from Renee Erickson's cookbook 'A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus'. Having made several of her recipes before, my level of trust in the 'deliciousness' of the yet unmade Strawberry Jam Tart was high. However, I still felt the need to do my usual search to see what other Strawberry Jam Tarts were out there or who else had made this particular recipe before. It turned out, I discovered David Lebovitz published a very similar recipe, one he called an Easy Jam Tart in 2008 (it subsequently was published in his book 'Ready for Dessert'). I also discovered there was one other person claiming to have made Renee's tart before, however, they did and they didn't. After comparing the two recipes, I decided to use the ingredient amounts recommended by Renee but changed the oven baking temperature to somewhere between her recommended 350 degrees (F) and David's recommendation of approximately 375 degrees (F). I settled on 360 degrees (F). 

There were two other significant differences between the recipes. The first had to do with the tart dough. One said the dough could be rolled out, the other suggested it be pressed into the tart pan. (It rolled out beautifully after being chilled for 90 minutes.) The second difference dealt with dividing the dough for the base and top of the tart. One said to divide it equally in half, the other said to make a 2/3 and 1/3 division. (The 2/3-1/3 recommendation intuitively seemed to make the most sense, but photos of the tarts were equally convincing.)

The dough for the tart is essentially a shortbread, however, this one is made with both all-purpose flour and medium ground polenta/cornmeal. The addition of the polenta added flavor and enhanced the texture. I absolutely loved the taste of the baked tart dough.

To make the tart dough, you can use a standing mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand held mixer (you can even use a food processor). The hand held mixer worked so well, I am not sure I would use a standing mixer next time. Both recipes called for the use of almond extract (but only 1/8 of a teaspoon). However, I used vanilla extract instead (increasing the amount to 1/2 teaspoon). If you decide to use almond extract, use only 1/8 teaspoon or you will overwhelm the flavor of the dough.

The tart dough comes together very easily. Once made it is divided, shaped into disks, wrapped in plastic wrap, and refrigerated. Chilling the dough for 90 minutes was long enough for it to be rolled out on a lightly floured surface. If you chill the dough for only 60 minutes, more than likely you will have to press the dough evenly onto the bottom and sides of the pan. Note: Use a 9" tart pan with removal bottom or a 9" inch springform pan for this tart.

After transferring the rolled out dough into the 9" tart pan, press the edges of the dough into the sides of the tart pan. Then put the tart pan in the refrigerator to re-chill and stabilize the dough. You can chill it for up to 30 minutes or for as long as it takes you to roll and cut out shapes for the top of the tart. If your dough cut-outs get soft, transfer them to a piece of parchment paper and chill in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes or put in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Spread the strawberry jam evenly over the base of the chilled tart dough. Note: Do not spread jam on tart shell before chilling. Arrange your dough cut outs over the top, brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with a coarse sparkling or sanding sugar. The sugar adds a bit of sweetness and crunch to the tart. 

For some reason I thought my carefully cut diamond dough cut outs would retain their shape in the baking process. They didn't. But I wasn't exactly unhappy or disappointed with the results. S instead of making diamond cut outs, you could cut out circles, overlapping them to completely cover the top of the tart or only slightly overlapping them so some of the jam remains exposed. Or you can try it this way. Or for a rustic finish, you can drop pieces of dough over the top. Or you can create your own design. The finishing options are endless.

The tart bakes in a pre-heated 360 degree (F) oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is a beautiful golden brown. Note: My baking time was closer to the 30 minute mark. 

Renee recommended serving the Strawberry Jam Tart warm with some heavy cream poured over it. I served it room temperature without any cream, ice cream, freshly whipped cream, or confectionary sugar. It is so good on its' own it really didn't need anything else. But now you have warm and room temperature serving options. And, oh, that ratio of crust to jam? It is pure tart perfection.

You could serve this Strawberry Jam Tart for breakfast, for dessert, or as a snack. It doesn't just have to be a 'Strawberry' Jam Tart. You could use raspberry jam/preserves, mixed berry jam/preserves, blackberry jam/preserves, or apricot jam/preserves instead. I happen to be partial to Strawberry so it might be awhile before I think of switching out jams in this tart. If you aren't using your own homemade jam/preserves for this tart (lucky you), use a good quality jarred one.

So you might be wondering, did I feel better after spending several hours of solitude in the kitchen making this Strawberry Jam Tart? I did. But I felt even better after serving it to my friends as there wasn't a crumb left behind on their plates! 

Strawberry Jam Tart (slight adaptation to Renee Erickson's Strawberry Jam Tart recipe as shared in her cookbook 'A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus' and influenced by David Lebovitz's Easy Jam Tart recipe from 'Ready for Dessert')
Serves 8

10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, divided
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (or 1/8 teaspoon almond extract)
1 1/2 cups (192 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 cup (70 g) medium stone-ground polenta or cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
16 ounces (1 3/4 cups) strawberry preserves or strawberry jam (See notes)
2 Tablespoons sanding or sparkling sugar, demerara sugar, or turbinado sugar

1. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy (approximately 1 minute).
2. Add 1 of the eggs and the egg yolk and vanilla. Blend again on medium speed until combined. Scrape down sides of bowl with a spatula as needed.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and polenta/cornmeal. With mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in 2-3 separate additions, mixing just until incorporated.
4. Divide dough in 2/3 and 1/3 portions. Notes: Use a scale to the weigh portions, if possible. 
5. Shape dough into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 90 minutes. Note: If chilled longer, allow to sit our for up to 10 minutes before rolling out.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger piece of dough to a 10-11 inch circle, approximately 1/4 inch thick. Transfer the dough to a 9" tart pan with removable bottom (or 9" springform pan). Press the dough into the sides of the pan with your fingers. Put tart pan in the refrigerator while rolling out smaller disk of dough. Note: If using a springform pan, push dough up about 3/4" up the sides of the pan. 
7. Roll out smaller disk of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut into desired shapes (diamonds, circles, etc.) 
8. Preheat oven to 360 degrees (F).
9. Remove tart shell from the refrigerator. Spread the strawberry jam in an even layer.
10. Arrange dough cut outs on top in desired pattern. Dough will spread during baking so complicated designs may not work well.
11. Whisk remaining egg with 1 Tablespoon of water. Brush on top and sides of crust. Sprinkle with the sparkling sugar.
12. Bake the tart on the middle rack in the oven until the pastry is golden brown (approximately 25-30 minutes).
13. Remove from oven and place tart pan on cooling rack.
14. Remove tart from pan and transfer to a platter or cake stand when ready to serve. Note: The Strawberry Jam Tart can be served warm or at room temperature.

Notes: (1) Instead of strawberry jam/preserves, I am certain raspberry, blackberry, or mixed berry jam/preserves would work equally well. Although I am particularly fond of strawberry. (2) For a more rustic look to the top of the tart, simply break of small pieces of dough instead of rolling out and cutting into shapes. (3) Tart is best on day made, however, it keeps well if covered and placed in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving. (4) If using a springform pan, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to make the tart's removal easier.  (5) I weighed all of my ingredients on a scale in the making of this tart.

Cape Neddick "Nubble" Light, the iconic lighthouse Cape Neddick, York, Maine 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Stovetop Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots

Like most everyone else, I too got a little caught up in the whole 'first total solar eclipse in 99 years' frenzy. Considering how much attention THIS eclipse has been getting in the media, it was sort of hard not to want to experience firsthand one of those 'do you remember where you were on the day of' historic moments. Not even the slightly cloudy skies could dampen my eclipse excitement. In a national tallgrass prairie, looking up at the sun wearing my special glasses, I was standing in the path of totality.  Feeling connected to the sun, moon, stars, and the millions of others across the country equally obsessed with the eclipse was magical.

If the recipe for this Stovetop Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots got as much attention as the eclipse, everyone would be making it. Yet unlike the total solar eclipse, this version of comfort food would be making regular, repeat appearances on dinner tables across the country.

Admittedly I am always skeptical when I come across a three ingredient recipe. Especially for a dish I happen to love and have labored over making. However, Melissa Clark's version of a stovetop mac and cheese made me believe in three ingredient possibility. I could easily see myself making it at least once weekly using the excuse one should always eat carbohydrates the day before a long run. But you don't need to be a runner to make this mac and cheese with the kind of frequency I anticipate will be happening around here. Loving and craving comfort food is reason enough.

I added caramelized shallots to it, so technically it's five ingredients. Although with or without the shallots, this may be the creamiest, most delicious, most addictive stovetop mac and cheese I have ever tasted. Topping the Mac and Cheese with caramelized shallots or onions adds a depth of flavor not found in the microwave or boxed stovetop versions of this classic comfort food. Thinly sliced shallots, sautéed in butter over low-medium heat until golden and crispy, takes only 15-20 minutes. 

Elbow macaroni may be considered the more traditional 'noodle' choice, but any small tubular or shell shaped pasta will work. One of the keys to this version of Mac and Cheese is cooking the pasta al dente. It will have additional cooking time when it is added to the sauce.

Speaking of sauce, be sure to reserve at least a quarter cup of the pasta water. More on why this is important this later.

Whether you choose a white or yellow cheddar or a mild, sharp or extra-sharp cheddar, choose a really good cheese to use. A good cheese, like a good bottle of wine, will make or break your dinner. 

All you need is five ounces of a coarsely grated cheddar. I could tell you this equates to 1 1/2 cups of grated cheese. However, depending on how you measure it out, you may end up with significantly less or significantly less than five ounces. So I will temporarily jump on the 'everyone should own a kitchen scale' bandwagon for a brief moment. Don't think of a kitchen scale as a luxury, think of it as a necessity. Okay, my time limit on the bandwagon is up.

You can and should use the same pot for the entire dish (excluding the caramelized shallots of course). After draining the macaroni (remember to remove at least a 1/4 cup of the water first), the heavy whipping cream is poured into the already hot pan. In less than two minutes, the cream will come to a boil, thicken and slightly reduce. Add the grated cheese and continue stirring until all of the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Return the drained al dente macaroni to the pan, seaons with some salt, and continue cooking for a minute or two. Long enough for the macaroni become coated in the deliciously rich cheese sauce. If by chance your sauce doesn't have the creamy texture you had hoped for, add in some of the reserved pasta water. One tablespoon at a time until it reaches the consistency you desire. Note: I added about two tablespoons of the reserved pasta water.

Transfer the mixture to a serving dish and top with the caramelized shallots and some freshly cracked pepper. 

Honestly, this Stovetop Mac and Cheese with Caramelized Shallots is a bazillion times better than the boxed versions we may have all grown up with. Seriously, it's really, really, really delicious. Real cheese and real whipping cream create a cheese sauce for the mac and cheese to rival anything found in instant or frozen versions of mac and cheese. And it's definitely easier than the roux based, baked versions many of us have made. 

At the moment, I wonder if I will ever go back to making a baked version of mac and cheese. Okay, I probably will, but for the moment I am deeply, madly over the moon in love with this incredibly flavorful, satisfying stovetop version. It is everything and more comfort food should be. For those of you with a secret affinity or strong allegiance to the boxed or frozen versions of mac and cheese, make this Stovetop Mac and Cheese with (or without) Caramelized Shallots. I am willing to bet after one bite you will be converted to this real, homemade version of comfort food. And who knows, you might have everyone in your family asking if macaroni, cheddar cheese and whipping cream is on your grocery list every time you go shopping.

Stovetop Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots (inspired by Melissa Clark's Stovetop Mac and Cheese recipe as shared in her cookbook 'Dinner: Changing the Game')
Serves 2-3 as a main course, 4-5 as a side

2-3 large shallots, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces elbow macaroni or tubular pasta
5 ounces cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (I love the flavor of Cabot's Extra Sharp Cheddar)
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt/Pepper to taste

1. In small saucepan, melt butter. Add sliced shallots and cook over low low/medium heat until caramelized (approximately 15-20 minutes). Note: Stir frequently to prevent sticking or burning.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the macaroni/pasta and cook until al dente (about 1 minute less than package directions. Before draining, reserve about 1/4 cup of the the pasta water. Set drained macaroni/pasta aside.
3. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add cream and cook until thick, bubbling and reduced by half (approximately 2 minutes). 
4. Stir in grated cheese, whisking until completely melted.
5. Add pasta and cook until well combined. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water to enhance the creaminess. Season with salt.
6. Transfer to a serving dish. Top with caramelized shallots. Finish with some freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately

Notes: (1) If using cheddar cheese, consider using a good quality sharp or extra-sharp cheddar. (2) Instead of caramelized shallots, could top the Stovetop Mac and Cheese with caramelized onions. (3) If there are any leftovers, this reheats well in the microwave.

Prairie flowers in bloom on the day of the historic solar eclipse (August 21, 2017)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Peach, Tomato and Burrata Caprese Salad with Basil Drizzle

One of my friends recently asked if I thought burrata was the new kale as it seems to be showing up everywhere these days. Being one who has yet to jump on the kale bandwagon (am very late to this party), I said maybe it's the new goat cheese as burrata also changes the deliciousness factor of just about everything it's paired with. And in a salad composed of sweet, ripe tomatoes and peaches, toasted pine nuts, a basil drizzle and a light sprinkling of sea salt, the burrata takes center stage. Becoming one of the game changers in this salad. If there was ever a salad to make you wish summer could go on endlessly, this Peach, Tomato and Burrata Caprese Salad with Basil Drizzle might be the one.

Unlike the classic caprese salad, this one uses peaches in addition to the tomatoes; a basil drizzle instead of balsamic vinegar; and, burrata instead of mozzarella. The combination of these ingredients takes the caprese salad to a completely new level.

Judging this strikingly beautiful salad on looks alone, it would score a 10. If competing in a taste test, it would be deemed blue ribbon worthy.  In both taste and presentation, this salad is a hands down win-win. Served as either a stand alone entrée or as an accompaniment to some grilled chicken, it is an incredibly sumptuous, satisfying dish.

With both tomatoes and peaches in season, now is the perfect time to make the Peach, Tomato and Burrata Caprese Salad with Basil Drizzle. 

I used yellow peaches, but you could also use white peaches for this salad. Because you are cutting the peaches in wedges, choose semi-firm ripe, still juicy ones. Peaches on the too ripe side will not work in this salad.

To cut the peaches, begin by making a cut along the seam all the way around and through the fruit to the stone. Twist each half of the peach in the opposite direction. Pull the halves apart and remove the peach. If using medium sized peaches, cut each half into 3 or 4 wedges.

The original recipe called for the use of cherry tomatoes. In this version, I used a combination of both cherry tomatoes and tiger tomatoes. I chose ones slightly larger than a cherry tomato, but smaller than the normal garden variety tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes were cut in half, while the tiger tomatoes were cut into either halves or quarters. For added color to this salad, choose a combination of yellow and red tomatoes.

Just as the flavor of most nuts is enhanced when roasted, the flavor of pine nuts undergoes a similar transformation when toasted over medium heat on the stove top. If the heat is too high, or pan to thin, or they are left unattended, you will risk burning them. It takes only 3 to 5 minutes for the pine nuts to become lightly golden. Not only did the toasted pine nuts add another layer of flavor to this salad, they brought some crunch. Pine nuts are a little on the pricey side, however, I urge you not to consider omitting them.

Most balls of burrata come in either a 6 ounce or 8 ounce size. I used the BelGiosioso's 8 ounce burrata. If there was such a thing as a 10 ounce size ball of burrata, I would have bought one. Because one can never have enough burrata.

The basil drizzle is more like a dressing, less like a pesto. If there was one thing I would do differently the next time I make this salad, it would be to double the amount of basil drizzle. Still dressing the salad with half of it, but serving the other half on the side for those who want more.

This is one of those salad best enjoyed as soon as it is assembled.  Because it's such an easy and relatively quick salad to assemble, you won't mind at all it isn't one of those make ahead salads.

After assembling the salad on a platter, finish it with a very light drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt. Definitely serve it with some bread as it would be a terrible waste to let the juices of the salad remain on the platter. 

On your next trip to the Farmer's Market or if lucky enough to pass by a farm stand, buy some ripe tomatoes and peaches. But don't wait to long to make this Peach, Tomato and Burrata Caprese Salad with Basil Drizzle as there may only be a month left of the tomato and peach season. Seriously, don't wait. Because I promise you will want to make this salad more than once. 

Peach, Tomato and Burrata Caprese Salad with Basil Drizzle (inspired by the recipe for Burrata Cheese with Peaches, Tomato and Basil recipe in Melissa Clark's cookbook 'Dinner: Changing the Game')
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side or first course.

8 ounce ball of Burrata cheese
1 pound ripe tomatoes (e.g., cherry tomatoes, baby heirloom tomatoes, Tiger tomatoes), cut in half or quartered depending on size
3-4 medium sized yellow or white peaches, cut into wedges
3 Tablespoons pine nuts
1/3 cup tightly packed basil leaves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Sea salt, plus additional for finishing
Optional: Basil leaves for garnish

1. In small pan, toast the pine nuts, stirring frequently, over medium heat until they are golden (approximately 3-5 minutes). Immediately pour toasted pine nuts in a small bowl and set aside.
2. In a small food processor or blender, combine the basil, lemon juice, sea salt and olive oil. Puree until it reaches a semi-chunky consistency. Note: Be careful to not over process as you want pieces of the basil to remain.
3. On a large platter, place the whole burrata in the center. Arrange the peaches and tomatoes around it. 
4. Spoon the dressing over the cheese and fruit. Lightly drizzle with additional olive oil. Top with the toasted pine nuts and a very light sprinkling of sea salt.

Notes: (1) If using a round platter, one 12"-14" works perfectly. (2) Consider doubling the amount of the basil drizzle, spooning half over the cheese, tomatoes and fruit and serving the remaining half on the side. (3) If using cherry tomatoes, choose red and orange ones to add even more color to the salad. (4) If not using cherry tomatoes, choose smaller sized tomatoes. (5) This is best served immediately after assembled. In the event you refrigerate any leftovers, allow the tomatoes and peaches to come to room temperature.