Tom’s Cherry Trifle

For this recipe I leave you in the capable hands of Tom, a man of many talents who has served St. John’s well, in and out of the kitchen!

The individual recipe components should ideally be made the day before the pudding is to be served.  Also, this trifle doesn’t really work when done as one large bowlful because, unlike my mother’s, the fruit isn’t set in a jelly but in a thick compote and so remains a little runny.

This update is a long one, but before I get into the details, here is an amazing video of April Bloomfield demonstrating how to break down a whole pig.  Thanks to David Shaw for the heads up!

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I was incredibly lucky to have Trish, a co-worker and friend staying at my house to help me with this recipe.  She and her boyfriend Jared decided to check out Austin on their short vacation, and we were more than happy to let them stay with us as they explored the city.  In return, Trish’s volunteered baking abilities helped shore up my lackluster skills for this recipe.  With the needed ingredients on hand, we started.

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First, we needed to make the custard part of the recipe.  Milk, heavy cream, and the scrapings from this vanilla bean were placed in a pot and brought up to a boil.  Not wanting to waste any of the amazing flavor housed inside the bean, I placed the two empty halves into the pot as well.

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Meanwhile, Trish started working on seperating some eggs for their yolks…

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…and whisked them together with some caster sugar until we had a smooth mixture.

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When the vanilla bean infused dairy finally reached a boil, we poured it over the eggs and began whisking furiously to keep the eggs from scrambling.  After a few minutes, we had a perfectly blended custard.

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Back into the pot, we let the custard sit over a low heat, stirring constantly.  I was looking for the back of my spoon to be coated with the custard when it hit me: we had just made a crème anglaise!  Reading every post on Mr. Rhulman’s blog sure helps me identify techniques and methods that aren’t mentioned in, “The Cookbook”, and this was just another example.  As a matter of fact, here’s a link to Rhulman’s post on how to make your own crème anglaise, which you really should read.  I’ll explain why later.

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While I watched the “custard” thicken, Trish had moved on to making the trifle sponges.  Half a dozen egg yolks were placed in a mixing bowl with more caster sugar and beat until the eggs were light and fluffy.

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The leftover whites were handed over to my standing mixer, who whipped them into soft peaks. Slowly, I added caster sugar until the mixer had incorporated all of it.

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All the while, I kept my eyes on the crème anglaise to make sure that it didn’t curdle. As soon as it was able to coat the back of a spoon, I removed it from the burner and set it aside to cool.

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With the yolks taken care of and the whites at the mercy of the mixer, Trish moved on to the dry part of the sponges by sifting together some all purpose flour and cornstarch. Due to my lack of baking knowledge, I’m not sure why cornstarch was called for. I know to use it as a thickener for sauces and stews in a pinch (I prefer arrowroot, actually), but that’s it. If any experienced baker would care to enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.

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Finally, we were ready to combine everything. By folding the ingredients carefully while forming the dough for the sponge cake, we ensured that the egg white foam didn’t lose its structure.

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Carefully, we spread the mixture out on a silpat laden half sheet pan…

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…and dusted it with confectioners sugar.

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The pan went into a medium hot oven for a while to rise and set. That gave us a chance to start work on the cherry compote.

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These cherries were frozen, which is okay in my book. Sure, I’d like to work with nothing but the freshest and highest of quality for everything, but fruits and veggies that are bought frozen are usually processed and flash-frozen close to the time of harvest, so they retain their nutrients and flavor quite well. Sometimes better than fresh! A quick defrost under cold running water, and they were ready to use.

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In another pot I started a simple syrup, heating it until the soft ball stage of candy making was reached. The soft ball stage is a dense, uncolored syrup where large bubbles can sustain themselves for a little while. A fourth of the dark cherries were added to the syrup, along with a little lemon juice. I dropped the heat, and let the cherries stew a while to get nice and soft.

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Once the cherries were finished, they and the syrup went into the blender to be purèed. The purèe joined its whole brothers to steep and cool down.

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By this time, the sponge cake had finished baking. You can see here that it cracked a little after we removed it from the oven, but it didn’t matter too much, as the sponge was going to be covered in the final dish.

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The crème anglaise had cooled enough as well, so I quickly ran it through a strainer to ensure that no stray little curdles found their way into the dessert.

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Finally! With all of the component completed, we could assemble the trifle. Again, I’d like to point out how grateful I was to have Trish in the kitchen with me. I’d have probably spread making this dessert out over two or three days, but together we were able to tackle it in just one night. Many hands, light work.

In the bottom of four bowls we placed the cherry compote mixture, and covered it with a layer of diced sponge that had been soaked in Marsala wine. After letting the wine soak in for a few minutes, we pressed the sponge down and poured some of the crème anglaise on top. The bowls were covered and placed in the fridge overnight.

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30 minutes before serving, the bowls were taken out of the fridge to warm up slightly. That’s when I found out that I had forgotten to slam the bowls on the counter to remove any air trapped by the custard. There were lots of unsightly little bubbles formed on the skin of the dessert. As I started to berate myself, I realized that I could just slightly massage the crème anglaise to remove the bubbles. One minute later, and no bubbles remained.

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At the end of the recipe, they suggest that we spoon a little crème fraîche on top and sprinkle some toasted almond slivers if we wanted to be utterly sinful. As the picture can attest, we were bad. Really, really bad.

I had wanted to take a picture of a spoonful of the finished product, but there is no good way to make trifle attractive to the camera. It’s just too messy. What I can do is tell you about how it tasted.

There have been two things I’ve eaten in my life that later on, I dreamed about while asleep. The first was a dish my wife ordered at Incanto a few years back, corzetti with trotters, foie gras, dates, and breadcrumbs. Everything we had that night was excellent, but that dish still haunts my dreams. Now it has a a friend.

Firstly, the crème anglaise was just a slap in the face. Why haven’t I had this before? Hell, why haven’t I made this before? Rich, vanillaie (is that a word?), and not overly sweet, I can understand why people are so passionate about the proper method to make crème anglaise. It’s awesome, awesome, awesome. If you didn’t go check out the link I had above to Mr. Rhulman’s thoughts on this dessert powerhouse, please go check it out when you get the chance. It’s not something you’d want to eat every day because it’s little more than fat and sugar, but I’m going to go out of my way to introduce it to as many people as I can. I’m on a crusade.

Now that we’re past the custard, the sponge had a lovely cherry and Marsala flavor, and it gave the dessert structure that it really needed. The cherries were perfectly sour and acidic, evening out the richness and sweetness of the crème anglaise. Also of note were the toasted almonds. Rather than be a suggestion, I’d say that they were paramount to the success of this dessert. They added a necessary crunchy texture, the slivers breaking into shards which slightly poked you in the mouth as you chewed.

A lot of work went into making this recipe, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t worth it. Tom, thank you very, very much.  Trish, thank you again for helping me make something so wonderful.

One down, fifty six to go.

Saddle of Rabbit

From a good butcher you should be able to obtain just the saddles of rabbit; if not, you can always use the legs for something else (try confit, page 98).  You will need a tame rabbit or a particularly happy wild rabbit for this dish.  Take the fillets off the bone (2 per portion if tame, 3 if wild) with a thin, sharp knife, following the backbone and ribs, or ask your butcher.  Remove the kidneys and save them.

For the past two years, I’ve made rabbit recipes from “The Cookbook” on Easter for my family.  Sure, it’s been done tongue-in-cheek, but spring is actually an excellent time for serving rabbit.  The meat is tender and juicy when not overcooked, and pairs well with various spring vegetables.  But what really made me fall in love with this recipe the most is the inclusion of caul fat, which I’d been looking forward to working with for a long time.

My amazing and loving wife was kind enough to swing by Central Market to pick up rabbit for me.  She even had their butchers remove the fillets and reserve the livers and kidneys.  The livers were saved for later, but the kidneys were up to bat this go around.  These rich little gems needed to be roughly chopped…

…like so.

The rabbit saddles were then placed on the cutting board with the thin muscle stretched out and laid flat.

On top of the rabbit meat went the kidneys along with a generous dose of salt and pepper…

…and the saddles were rolled up, kidneys on the inside.

From there, streaky bacon and caul fat (woohoo!) were wrapped around the rolled up saddles to form compact, cigar-like shapes.  Both were needed to keep the rabbit properly secure during cooking.

When it was time to start working on dinner, I removed the rabbit saddles from the refrigerator and let them warm up to room temperature before placing them in a super hot cast iron pan.  Mr Henderson instructs to get these rolls brown all over, and stresses that if the caul fat isn’t completely crisp, the outside of the saddle will be stringy, chewy and fatty.  Those are not qualities I’m terribly fond of, so I made darn sure to get each one a toasty brown.

Like so!  Hrm, looks like the one of the far left could have been a little more brown there on the end.  Next time I’ll make sure to check all angles before moving on the next step.

The saddles were placed in a roasting pan along with the rendered fat, and the whole thing went into a hot oven for about ten minutes.  I kept checking every two minutes after that to ensure that the rabbit meat wasn’t overcooking and drying out.  Mr. Henderson says to catch the flesh right after it turns opaque for perfectly juicy meat.

As the meat rested, my wife and I constructed a salad that captured the spirit of spring.  Green onions, boiled baby carrots and peas, radishes, arugula, chopped parsley and the odd caper were all tossed together with a vinaigrette and plated.  By the time we were done with the salad, the meat had rested enough.  Each roll was cut into inch thick slices and placed on top of the salad and immediately served to our waiting family.

I’m particularly proud of my plating for this recipe.  I’m a rank amateur at best, but this presentation looks like it might come from a restaurant.  That what I’ve come to expect from myself-restaurant quality food, plating, everything.  I’ve got to keep pushing myself to get better every time I pick up a knife.  I look at people like Carol, like Hank and I just sigh.  They’re both supremely talented, and I’m… not.  However, this dish is the first I’ve made that I feel I could serve to either of them and be confident.  Heck, I’d serve this to Mr. Henderson himself given the chance.

The rabbit meat was fantastically tender and moist thanks to the protection provided by the bacon and caul fat.  The chopped kidneys added richness and flavor to an otherwise subtle protein.  Comments from my parents and my wife’s relatives were rather complimentary. “A feast for the eye, as well as the palate.” “Delicious.” “This dish looks like Spring to me.”

I’m just waiting for an excuse to make this recipe again.

One down, fifty seven to go.

Crackers

Excellent crackers to eat with cheese.

Sorry about taking last week off.  Life decided to get all wacky on me, which I’m sure you’ve experienced first hand.  Before I start talking about the simple pleasure of making crackers, there are a few neat things I’d like to share.

Firstly, Hank Shaw of the always amazing Hunter Gardner Angler Cook was nominated FOR ANOTHER JAMES BEARD AWARD!  It warms my heart knowing that such an awesome site as Hank’s is getting the nod again for its excellent content.  I’m pulling for you to bring the award home Hank!

Prolific commenter E. Nassar has a post up over at his website Oven-Dried Tomatoes titled, “The Fat Duck: Beef Royal (1723), Course 2” from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.  Here’s a picture that should set your tongue a-waggin:

Go take a look!

Did you see Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations show on Techniques? No?  Go here, quickly.

Okay, on to crackers.

I wasn’t crazy about making crackers at first, I’ve got to admit.  Even now, I’m more likely to pick up a box of fancy crackers at the supermarket rather than bake my own.  And yet, there is a soothing simplicity to these tasty cheese transports.

The recipe starts off with a lot of all purpose flour.  More than six cups, actually.  Mr. Henderson does say that, “these quantities will make plenty” and he’s not joking around.  Into the flour went some of  the baking powder, and here’s where I made a mistake.  One of my puppies needed to go outside, and I completely lost track of how much baking powder I had added.  It was seriously a Dirty Harry moment.  I could hear the flour taunting me.

“I know what you’re thinking. Did you put one tablespoon of baking powder in, or two? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a bowl full of all purpose flour, the most versatile flour in the world , and you would hate to have to buy another bag right now, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Not feeling too lucky at all, I added another half teaspoon and crossed my fingers.

Into the flour went all three of the seeds above: poppy, dill, and caraway.  The seeds and a little salt add a lot of extra flavor to the otherwise bland crackers.

Extra-virgin olive oil was then carefully mixed into the flour along with a little cold water to form a non-sticky soft dough…

…like so.  It took a little while to knead that much dough, but I think I did a decent job.  A baker, I am not.

To prove that I’m not a baker, I didn’t own a rolling pin at the time. I do now thankfully, but a cleaned wine bottle was my instrument of choice.

It did a pretty decent job of flattening out the dough, but I wasn’t sure about the thickness.  Mr. Henderson asks for a quarter of an inch thick dough, but that seems a little thick to me.

Forging ahead, I started cutting out crackers from the dough with a shot glass.  It was the perfect size for making crackers.

On to a sheet pan went the cut crackers…

…which went into a medium hot oven for about 10 minutes or so.  Mr. Henderson stresses that one should keep your eyes on the crackers, as they tend to burn.  Not on my watch!

Here are the completed crackers with an assortment of lovely cheeses.  I wish I could regale you with lots of  neat info about these crackers, about how they are easily superior to store crackers, but I can’t.  They’re very good crackers.  I had fun making them, and will make them again in the future, but a four dollar box of crackers at the supermarket will usually suffice just fine for most occasions.

One down, fifty eight to go.