Sunday, January 25, 2015

such a comfort: James Beard's braised onion sauce on pizza

Often in these doldrums I’d just as soon pull on a pair of wool socks and another sweater and make a bowl of polenta (or rice or ferro) laced with cream and maple sugar and a hint of cinnamon and sprawl on the couch to catch up on the last season of Mad Men. That childish meal would take precedence even over a slightly more sophisticated bowl of the same stuff condimented with olive oil and garlic and parmesan – if you’re going to be twelve, be twelve! In that light, forget the maple syrup – make it brown sugar, and be sure to put a lump of good butter in the bottom of the bowl before you pour in the hot cereal.

But those days are gone forever. At seventy, one needs to dredge up at least a modicum of dignity and put to work the things one knows are good to do for oneself and one’s ones. But sometimes good intentions fail when 8° Fahrenheit is a heat wave and you just want something comforting but not too pointedly childish.
And, sometimes the more you know the ‘less’ you need to do to get away with very little. Recently I heard reference to James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce from his book, Beard on Pasta, one that I don’t own, but was able to look up online. The recipe is simplicity itself and, though it is meant to go on pasta, I thought I would use it as a pizza topping.
Most of us can recognize the desirability of braising onions long and slow until they turn golden and soft and very very sweet. Nowadays food writers can get a little pretentious about it and call for a certain kind of sweet onion. And yes, it is possible that the reason James Beard called for plain ole yellow onions is not because of choice but because of the lack of it: When he wrote, there were two kinds of onions readily available – yellow and white – and yellow were preferable for this recipe.
I’m sure he knew of the sweet cipollini or Maui or Vidalia but I like to think that even if they were available he would still have preferred to cook down strong sharp flavorful onions to discover their hidden sweetness rather than to accentuate the already sweet and often insipid ones. I would, anyway. Of course he does call for the addition of a tablespoon of sugar to the onions and that can be omitted or at least halved, as the finished sauce was quite sweet and in my opinion the sugar detracted from the natural sweet flavor of them.
He calls for 1 ½ pounds of onions and ½ pound of butter! That – 2 sticks, or 16 tablespoons – is too much butter, if such a thing can be said of butter. I used ten tablespoons, which is a stick plus 2 tablespoons and next time I would cut it down to one stick. (Actually, thinking this over, the amount of butter may not be too much for pasta because it makes up the sauce. It IS too much for a pizza topping.)
So the idea is that you slice up about 3 large onions, put them in the pan with the butter and a bit of salt, turn the heat to low and let them just sweat in the butter and their own juices for about an hour until they are golden and even puddeny. When they have become that thick, unctuous, caramelly sauce, you add some Madeira – or sherry, as I did, lacking Madeira – and then you throw them over some substantial pasta and shave a bit of parmesan over them and voila::: Comfort Food!!!
This idea caught me early in the day so I started braising the onions, thinking that – for lack of an appropriate pasta – I would use it on a pizza. So that’s what I did, and here’s that little recipe:

James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce
(for pasta or pizza, annotated, of course, by me)
  • 10 to 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (I used 10 tablespoons and the pizza was ringed in melted butter. I’d use 8 the next time)
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (for me, this is optional – I would leave it out next time)
  • Salt (about a teaspoon for the cooking, and a sprinkling of coarsely ground at the end)
  • 1/4 cup Madeira (lacking this, I used sherry)
  • 3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used a pizza crust)
  • Grated Parmesan, for serving
  1. In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent.
  2. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions slowly for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Patience is key! When they're done, they should be golden, caramelized, and borderline jammy.
  3. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a few more minutes
  4. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan, and using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce OR
  5. simply spread the onion sauce over the pizza crust, shave parmesan over the top, pop it into a 450° oven for about 15 minutes or until golden and bubbly and that will be that.
We loved this for dinner and I cut the leftovers into little squares and served them as a snack when friends came over the next day.
It was very popular, arguably a bit healthier than the sugary hot porridge, but still Such a Comfort!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

marshmallows from mastadons

hands of mom and dotter make easy work. photo by Isobel Gabel Nimtz
Yea, it was Christmas Eve day and all through the house there were presents to be wrapped, rugs to be vacuumed and, if I ever got my rear in gear, cookies to make. But then, who would eat them, all crunchy and sugary? And who should? Certainly not me!
So what did I do with this holiday crescendo hanging over my head? I decided to make marshmallows, than which there is not, of course, a healthier snack nor one more emblematic of the holidays. Which holiday? Well, maybe Easter or the 4th of July.
Nevertheless I persevered, tempted by a photo of a plateful of them online somewhere. We would have marshmallows for Christmas.
Or, rather, we probably wouldn’t. How many times had I attempted my grandmother’s divinity in this season, beating a sugar syrup into egg whites until light as clouds and dropping mounds of it filled with black walnuts onto a sheet of waxed paper. Hers remained mounds, and she portioned them out to all the men in her life; mine became lakes. I always blamed my failure on damp Christmas air.
This Christmas Eve it rained all day but I nevertheless determined to make a sugar syrup and add it to gelatin, and whip it into light and airy marshmallows. It had no more chance of success than my divinity efforts, but for some reason I followed this strange compulsion.
Was I insane? I believe I was suffering from at least a temporary form of holiday insanity.
I checked for supplies: Yes, the last of the 40 year old gelatin was in the spice cupboard, assuming it was still viable. (Do hydrolyzed beef bones go bad? I wonder if we could make marshmallows out of mastodon bones?) And yes, I had about a cup of corn syrup (not high-fructose) left in the bottle – how old was that? I’d used up my lifetime can of  PAM in about 1987, if I remember correctly, and that did seem to be an integral part of this process – PAM to spray the pan, the parchment paper, the spatula, the knife, lots and lots of PAM.
Not the healthiest thing I’d done this year but shut up about that. Please. You can not reason with the insane.
Okay, PAM. It was Christmas Eve, remember, and I was NOT about to go to Hannafords or Price Chopper or anywhere near Rutland, which would be a mob scene. Lowell!, I thought, and called her. “Which kind of PAM would you like? she asked. “I have coconut oil, olive oil lite, canola oil...” I told her, anything with some lecithin in it, which I believe is the ingredient that gives it its legendary properties of non-stickness.
Back home again! I needed 2.5 tablespoons of gelatin. I may have overestimated the amount in each of those little packets – they felt fat. I measured out the last two of them and came up with about 2 tablespoons. There was an opened packet, partially full, and without measuring I dumped that in, too. I was taking no chances on being a trifle short, just BAM, there we go. Okay.
But then I measured out the cup of corn syrup and I was a good quarter cup short. Damn. I knew Lowell wouldn’t have it because she doesn’t bake. The little store had none, but they suggested the family dollar. I’d forgotten we had a family dollar so I drove there. They had no corn syrup but they did have PAM, so I bought a can of it and will probably never run out of it again.
So then I stopped back at Lowell’s and sure enough she had no corn syrup but called Cassie, who did. After I sat around and chatted with Lowell and Dave, who was finishing up the holiday cards, I drove over to Cassie’s and chatted with her and her mother while Cassie rolled out pie crust.
This day was turning out to be the most Christmassy and relaxing and pleasant thing I’d done all holiday season. I wondered who I could visit next, and thought I’d have to when Cassie pulled out her bottle of corn syrup::: It was, Get this, LITE corn syrup! Lower in sugar. What the hell?!!! You’re not going to drink corn syrup all that often, but when you DO find occasion to use it you don’t want them to’ve cut down on the sugar. Sugar’s the whole point! 
But enough was enough. I took my Lite Corn Syrup home and proceeded to make the marshmallows.
I think what caught my eye in the first place was the idea of combining the honey and sugar and corn syrup and water and heating it until the sugar dissolved and then bringing it “to a full boil for 30 seconds”. None of those hard or soft ball stages – just blast it for 30 seconds, which you can count, you know – and then if it didn’t come out it wasn’t your fault. You’d done your part!
I Pammed the pan, lined it with parchment paper and Pammed that. Then I Pammed the spatula and scooped all that luscious froth into it, smoothed it out, and set it aside. Then I looked at the floor, which had been Pammed, too. We could’ve skated on it.
Next afternoon I Pammed a sharp knife, cut those suckers into cubes, Dotter rolled them in (yet more) (powdered) sugar and pronounced them – not divinity – but divine! Nobody even missed Christmas cookies. Some purists wanted to age them like Peeps and eat them for Easter. Fat chance they were going to last that long.
So just in case you want to follow up and make some of these lovelies, here’s the recipe. it’s one I found with the help of one of my favorite pages, Improvised life, and those ladies reprinted it from a blog called Kitchen Repertoire. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water (this will be divided into ½ cup + 1 tablespoon and ¼ cup*)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup (this is light as in color, not lite as in less sugar)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • food coloring, sprinkles and flavoring of choice (I used rum/vanilla for flavoring, and next time would definitely use some sprinkles or something for color)
  • Confectioners sugar, for dusting
In a bowl sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water.  Let stand to soften.  Meanwhile combine sugar, corn syrup, honey, salt and remaining 1/4 cup  water in a large heavy pot. (*I believe I forgot to add in that last quarter cup of water...Jest sayin’) Cook over medium heat for a few minutes until combined.  Increase heat and bring to a full boil for about 30 seconds, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat and stir in gelatin, 1 tablespoon of whatever flavoring you wish and stir for a 30 more seconds until all the gelatin has dissolved.  Transfer the mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer, add a drop or two of food coloring if using,  and whisk until thick and fluffy and very stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes at a high speed (I whipped it until it could stand up and walk away – about 10 minutes).
Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with Pam - lots and lots of Pam.  Line pan with parchment and spray the parchment.  Spray a rubber spatula with more Pam and transfer marshmallow goo into the pan.  Flatten top - using sprayed spatula.  Let cool, wrap in plastic and allow to stand overnight.  
Turn out marshmallows.  Spray a knife with Pam.  Cut into squares of any size, toss with sifted confectioners sugar, shaking off excess.  If decorating with sprinkles - dip ends into sprinkles instead of using confectioners sugar so that the sprinkles stick. 
Happy (early) Easter!