Lemons — Oval Bliss

April 17, 2016

When life gives you lemons, ask what life is suggesting.
~Unknown

Sunshine globes, lemons often peak in May through August.  Along with their cousins limes, lemons munificently have flavonoids, antioxidants, oxalates, folates, and limonoids boasting anti-cancer auras and also are a sublime source of vitamin C and free radicals.  So many tidbits for you.

Plus clamorous flavors — the tartness of lemon curd with a shortbread base, then finished with averse sea salt and sugar.  Something just like Mom used to create, well except for the sea salt (but, little doubt she would adore that touch and savor).

LEMON BARS

Preheat oven to 325 F

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/4  C granulated sugar
3 T confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 t lemon zest
A pinch of sea salt
10 T cold unsalted butter, cold and cubed

1/2 C fresh lemon juice
2 T lemon zest, freshly grated
1/2 C granulated sugar or 1/4 each raw + granulated sugars
2 local, large eggs
3 local, large egg yolks
1 t cornstarch
6 T unsalted butter, cold and cubed

Confectioners’ sugar
Sea salt, coarse

For crust, line 9″ x 9″ heavy baking pan with parchment paper hanging over edges. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse the flour, both sugars, zest and sea salt together. Pulse or use fingers to cut butter into the flour mix until a crumbly dough forms. Press dough into papered pan with fingers and bake around 30-35 minutes, until slightly golden.

For curd, whisk together lemon juice, zest, sugar, eggs, egg yolks and cornstarch in a medium heavy saucepan. Stir in butter over medium heat, whisking frequently, until curd shows marks of whisk and bubble appears on surface, about 6 minutes.

Refrigerate in a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap until chilled.

Remove the crust and pour the curd onto the base. Return the pan to the oven and bake until curd is just set, 10-15 minutes more. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate before cutting into bars.

Lightly sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and coarse sea salt right before serving.

Advertisements

Art + Chemistry = Cheese

April 30, 2011

Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.
~Luis Buñuel

Combine milk, bacteria, rennet, mold…and you have one seductive and addictive vice.

So simple, yet almost magical and surely sublime is this holy craft of transubstantiating milk into cheese. Even though the fond remains fairly steady, cheeses can range from rustic to elegant in character with noses, palates, textures, hues, masses and shapes across the board. It is about art and chemistry.

There is no fixed date, but cheese is rumored to have originated when goats were first domesticated in the fertile crescent region of the ancient Middle East around 8,000 BCE, give or take a millenium or two. Perhaps some imaginative soul noticed that neglected (1) milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yogurt which could then be readily separated into solid curd and liquid whey. While the whey provided a refreshing drink, the fresh curd could be salted to produce a crude cheese. Others have suggested that the process was accidentally discovered by nomads who stored milk in skins made from animals’ stomachs naturally lined with rennet, separating the milk into curd and whey.

A primer may be in order. The cheese artisan first acidifies milk to turn the liquid into a solid by use of a (2) bacteria. There are several hundred thousand strains of starter bacteria which devour sugars, converting lactose into a lactic acid. This creates a viscous yogurt-like mass.

Next, the syrupy mass is coagulated by adding rennet to the mix. Rennet comes from the stomach linings of young ruminants. The active enzyme in (3) rennet acts on casein proteins which occur in milk as clumps known as micelles, held together by a calcium “glue.” When the rennet is added, a web is formed which traps water and fat, further thickening the gel.

The curd is (4) heated in a giant cauldron and salt is often added not only for taste but also to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes and draw out yet more water. The cheese is then (5) molded which proves critical. The shape of the mold, the application of pressure and the proportion of whey removed all affect the texture of the final product.

Finally, the cheeses are (6) aged/ripened, a stage where they are left to rest under controlled conditions and often in special venues, e.g., the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon. This aging period lasts from a few days to several years. The casein proteins and milkfat are broken down and morph into a complex mix of amino acids, amines, and fatty acids. As a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes transform textures and intensify flavors.

Some cheeses even have additional bacteria or molds introduced before or during the aging process. Think brie, camembert, roquefort, stilton.

Other seemingly minor variations can have a dramatic effect on the finished cheese: animal species, breed and diet, terroir, amount and type of bacterial culture and molds, ripening time, aging locale, rennet volume, curd size, heating rate for milk, length of time stirred, how the whey is removed, and so on.

While cheeses are liberally used while cooking here, there is nothing more mold-ambrosial than an array of artisanal cheeses—from mild to wild—gracing the table with a choice wine and a baguette, ciabatta or other artisanal siren. Staff of life stuff. Khayyám’s standby “a loaf of bread, a flask of wine and thou” seems so often apt (loosely translated). A winsome foursome that brings cheeses on board is even better.

BREAD PUDDING WITH CHEESES & ASPARAGUS

1+ lb baguette loaf, cut or roughly torn into 1″ pieces

3/4 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 1″ pieces

6 large, fresh eggs
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 C gruyère or comté cheese, grated
1 C emmental cheese, grated
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1/4 C fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 C fresh thyme leaves, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish

Heat a large saucepan with cold water over high, and when boiling, add salt. Cook asparagus until al dente tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and plunge in an ice bath to cease cooking. Drain well and dry, or the asparagus will become soggy.

Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl.

Place half of bread in baking dish. Sprinkle with half of asparagus, cheese mixture and egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, cheese and egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down to submerge bread pieces.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes or so.