Thursday, September 11, 2008

Almond Ricotta Tart

What do you do when you have an exorbitant amount of fresh ricotta piled high in the fridge like fluffy snow? You get resourceful - the ricotta so fresh you resort to baking late at night in order to capture its perfection in a confection. Unless eaten bashfully naked, piled high in scoops and spoonfuls, creamy fresh ricotta must be baked into something equally perfect, worthy of its lusciousness.

I was recently given a whopping two pounds of fresh, farmstead ricotta and although I barely put a dent in the stash, I was able to transform at least a sliver of the cheese into something supremely sweet, bountifully buttery and yet, decadently delicate.

For a richly custardy tart, only a flaky cream cheese crust will do. Baked until golden brown, the crust stands on its own. Perfecting flaky crust has been the subject of dispute for years, but I find that using a simple cream cheese pastry crust exalts any pie or tart, although the baker must act hastily- overworking dough that utilizes cold butter and cream cheese will yield a sticky mess.

This tart is ad-lib pastry, an amalgamation of beloved flavors and textures, thrown together on a whim. The filling, a little bit Italian, a little bit French, makes use of ricotta and toasted almonds, baked until eggy, nutty and aromatic. Toasting the almonds yields a marzipan-like flavor and a crunchy texture, excellent contrast to the springy custard. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of resplendent French almond croissants, best when served alongside morning coffee and dusted with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

Almond Ricotta Tart
For the crust:
1 cup all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 ounces cream cheese
1 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

For the filling:
3 eggs
4 tablespoon butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup almond slivers, toasted until brown

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt and cream cheese. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 8 seconds. Add the cold butter and process in short bursts until the mixture resembles small peas, about 3 seconds. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead lightly, just until the dough holds together.

Between 2 sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap, roll out the dough into a large round, 1/8 - 1/4 inch thick. Cut out a 12 inch circle. Dust the pastry lightly with flour and fold in quarters. Place it in a 9 1/2 or 10-inch tart pan or pie pan. Open up the pastry dough and fit into the pan, folding down the excess to reinforce the sides. Press the pastry against the side of the pan, trimming off any excess dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. To maintain the best shape, freeze for at least 15 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 425°. Line the pastry with foil and fill with dried beans, making sure they are pushed up well against the sides. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until the dough is almost dry. Remove the foil and beans, prick with a fork and continue baking for about 5 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool for a bit while you make the filling.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks until lighter in color and fluffy. With the mixer still running, add the egg whites and continue whipping until bubbly. Add the softened butter and beat until well blended; add the sugar, vanilla and ricotta and continue to whip until, being careful not to overmix. Using a large spatula, fold in the almonds with a spatula. Spoon the ricotta custard mixture into the crust and cover the exposed edges of the crust with foil. Bake in the oven until browned and firm to the touch, about 35 minutes.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Meyer Lemon Gnocchi with Butter Poached Lobster

August has reared its head and then hastily ducked out of sight. Already the sunlight is noticeably absent from the late evening horizon. Even the air takes on a different texture and scent. Fall is just around the corner.

But before we pack up our grills and prepare to exhume our deeply buried wool sweaters, take in your surroundings, inhale a deep breath of summer air and savor the opportunity to enjoy the fading notes of summer’s iconic foods.

To me, nothing speaks of summer more than lobster- the crack of the shell, the squirt of the juice, the ceremonial dipping in drawn butter, the smell of sea-like air wafting from a giant salted pot of water. It invokes images of the rolling surf, majestic sand dunes and late-night salmon colored sunsets.

A well cooked lobster, tender and soft rather than rubbery, is the king of foods. It speaks of elegance to some and to others it suggests a relaxed backyard feast. Either way, there’s no denying the pleasure of sinking your teeth into the succulent, sweet and seductive meat of a perfectly cooked lobster.

On the other hand, gnocchi is a food I associate more with winter. Making homemade gnocchi is a labor of love and not necessarily an undertaking I crave on a warm summer’s day. It is time consuming to hand sculpt the little pillows, each with their own quirky shape and character yet uniformly light and fluffy. Tender gnocchi require respect, patience and a gentle touch and beckon one to spend quality time at the kitchen counter, rolling and cutting the dough simply to keep warm on a cold day. A little tip: if you don’t have a potato ricer, an ordinary food mill is an infallible alternative for ricing potatoes.

I love Chef Steve Corry’s Meyer lemon gnocchi. Adding the essence of fragrant Meyer lemons to the potato dumplings unequivocally gives the gnocchi a fresh, summer appeal. After boiling his pasta dumplings, he saut├ęs them in a light butter bath to crisp them up. This adds an enticing texture dimension and provides a nice contrast between the soft center and the crispy exterior. When tossed with a rich lemon butter broth and topped off with butter poached lobster, you get a hearty, comforting and luxurious dish that’s flirty, zesty and a consummate use of summer’s finest and most symbolic ingredients.

For poached lobster:
2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pound each
1 pound butter for poaching lobster
Salt for boiling lobsters

For gnocchi:
1 pound baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
3 large egg yolks
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons, preferably Meyer lemons
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Snipped chives, for garnish

To remove the lobsters from their shells, flash boiling the lobsters for 1 to 2 minutes in heavily salted water with a dash of vinegar. Remove lobster from the water and twist its tail off in one motion. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut from the belly towards the head and down each claw. Cut down the belly-side of the tail and spread back the shell. Pull the meat out, keeping pieces as intact as possible. Set aside in refrigerator while you make the gnocchi.

In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately high heat until the potatoes are tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pan; shake over moderately high heat until dry.

Working over a large rimmed baking sheet, rice the hot potatoes in an even layer. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the lemon zest, 1 teaspoon of olive oil and the salt and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle the flour over the potatoes and stir gently just until a dough forms.

Gently roll the dough into four 1/2-inch-thick ropes. Using a sharp knife, cut each rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece against the tines of a fork to make ridges. Transfer the gnocchi to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

In a small saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a simmer. Remove from the heat and whisk in the 1 stick of butter, a few pieces at a time, until the sauce is creamy. Warm the sauce on low heat if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt.

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the gnocchi until they rise to the surface, then cook them for 1 minute longer. Gently drain the gnocchi, toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and transfer to a baking sheet until cool.

To clarify the butter, slowly melt 1 pound of butter and remove the foam that appears with a ladle. Discard foam and reserve remaining clarified butter.

Cook lobster tail and claws in clarified butter for 4 minutes over medium heat. The butter should barely be simmering. Remove from butter and break up the lobster meat with your fingers.

In a large nonstick skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter reserved for the gnocchi. Add half of the gnocchi and cook in a single layer over high heat until browned on the bottom, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and gnocchi.

Reheat the sauce; pour it over the gnocchi and fold gently with a rubber spatula until they are evenly coated. Transfer to a platter and garnish with the chives and the lobster meat.

Makes 8 first course servings or 4 main course servings.