Friday, November 25, 2011

White and Green Asparagus Gratin

I love asparagus. Steamed. Sauteed with a little butter. Simmered in a cream sauce. However one makes it, I am not opposed to eating it. Just recently, I happened to find some white asparagus at my local market, and it was on sale for the same price as the green stuff! Needless to say, I couldn't pass it up... I had never worked with the stuff before, but I had seen it around (for, usually, a pretty penny) at the stores more than once or twice. Being that it was always more expensive than the green variety, as is the purple variety, I hadn't been able to justify splurging on something that I wasn't sure about. But, since I now found it for the same price, I couldn't very well walk on by!
White asparagus is actually the same species as green, but it's usually kept covered under soil or mulch so that it won't be exposed to the sun, thereby maintaining it's white color. Blah blah blah, chlorophyll borophyll... While doing my research, I did read that the white asparagus is supposed to be more woody than the green and so you are supposed to peel the very outside before preparing it. When I made this recipe, I used it peeled and unpeeled, just because I was curious if it really made a difference, and I didn't notice anything different in the texture. I think that if you let it sit around for a long period of time, then it would start to become woody and tough, much like the green stuff, but if you use it right away it's just fine.
When looking for recipes to use the white asparagus in, there didn't seem to be very many... Or, at least, not many that were truly unique. I've had gratins on the brain for a while now, though, since I insisted on having 6 new gratin dishes! (In my defense, they're not all the exact same! Two of them are black with white polka dots - LOVE!!, two of them are dark blue, and two of them are light blue! :-) You may remember the lighter blue ones from my post about the Chocolate Cherry Crisps...) I had originally considered using a recipe by one of my favorite fellow bloggers, Kevin from Closet Cooking, but decided, in the end, to go with a different one that I had found via the New York Times Diner's Journal blog, written by Elaine Louie. The version that she blogged about was much more grand than mine, but I really wanted to asparagus to be the one and only star of the dish. I used the recipe she posted as a guideline, and then just made it what I really wanted it to be. The sauce part was really what I was most interested in, and it was AMAZING!! I'm not sure if I didn't reduce it as much as I was supposed to, but the sauce wasn't very thick at all... That is really of little consequence, though, as we just dipped pieces of fresh, yummy bread into it to soak it all up. Who doesn't like that?!
I made two batches of this recipe, one the day before and one the day I made it, and they came out with equal results. So, if you're planning to make this for a holiday dinner, it's definitely easy to prepare ahead of time! I left mine sit out at room temperature so that it would have a similar cooking time as the ones I made the same day, but I mixed everything and arranged it in the gratin dishes ahead of time. You could also easily make this in a larger baking dish, making sure to check the asparagus for doneness and all of that, but it may take some extra time. But, I'm sure you could certainly find a way to justify buying a couple of gratin dishes of your very own, too... ;-)

Printable Recipe

1 c. heavy cream
2 shallots, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme, bundled together
¼ c. dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ bunch green asparagus; trimmed and cut diagonally into ½-inch slices
½ bunch white asparagus; trimmed, peeled, and cut diagonally into ½-inch slices
1⅛ c. grated Parmesan cheese
¼ c. panko bread crumbs
2 Tbsp. melted butter

Preheat the oven to 400°. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, shallots, thyme, and wine; place over medium heat and simmer until reduced by half, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the thyme bundle and season the cream mixture with salt and pepper.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the asparagus, reduced cream, and 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese; mix well and place in two individual (approximately 16 ounce) gratin dishes, or other equal-sized ovenproof baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the tops of the asparagus. In a small mixing bowl, combine the panko bread crumbs and melted butter; sprinkle the bread crumbs on top of the dishes. Place the gratin dishes on a baking sheet, set in the oven, and bake until the asparagus are tender, the sauce is bubbling, and the bread crumbs are golden brown, 6 to 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Traditional Italian Tiramisu

Oh, Tiramisu… How I love thee!

I know that there are some (crazy) people out there who do not share my love of this heavenly “pick me up” breakfast snack dessert, but anyone who’s ever had a good tiramisu knows exactly how I feel. I don’t even like coffee unless there is enough sugar and creamer mixed in so that it doesn’t even taste like coffee anymore! But I looooove tiramisu…
I found this recipe in a copy of Cook’s Illustrated Italian Favorites magazine, which I came across at one of my local grocery stores, and was immediately entranced. You can also find the recipe on their website, but you need to be a paying member to access most of their content. I would highly recommend checking them out, especially if you are newer to cooking, as they do offer a lot of good advice and information about many cooking subjects. One of the important things they covered was how to properly dip the ladyfingers in the espresso and rum mixture so that you don’t end up with a soggy dessert – rolling the ladyfingers across the surface of the espresso mixture rather than submerging them in it.
The only thing that I changed about their recipe was the mixture of strong coffee and instant espresso powder, as I don’t think it’s much of an inconvenience anymore for people to find some brewed espresso. There are so many coffee shops that will make the amount you need for the recipe, and at a rather decent price, so there’s really no need to spend a lot of money on the fairly expensive instant espresso. Or, if you own a French coffee press, you can buy regular espresso and brew it in that, which is what I did for this recipe… I have a French press travel mug that I bought for making tea, which also worked out really well for brewing the espresso. My travel mug has two fine strainers which did a pretty good job of keeping the ground espresso in the mug, but you could easily remedy any issues you might have by running it through a coffee filter. Another option is just letting it sit after brewing until it reaches room temperature, and then any particles will settle to the bottom and can be easily discarded. If you don’t want to mess around with any of that, you can also ask them to grind your espresso a little more coarse than normal, which will ensure the grounds stay trapped under the strainer. It’s entirely up to you!
When it comes to the mascarpone, you definitely do not want to try substituting anything else. Cream cheese is NOT the same thing, and will yield different results… It is also important to know that when you’re working with mascarpone it doesn’t behave the same as cream cheese. Mascarpone is much more delicate and requires a little bit more attention and care – if you forget about it and leave it out at room temperature, there’s a very good chance it will break and be un-useable in most recipes. Therefore, you should leave the mascarpone in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it and return it to the refrigerator if you’re going to be completing other tasks.
I made this tiramisu for my family’s Thanksgiving get-together, as my mama will be in Italy over the holiday, and everyone loved it! Mama may be a little bit biased, siding with me and all, but she said this was the best tiramisu she’s ever had. Even better than what she’s had in Italy! Who am I to disagree with her?! We’ll not say anything about partiality and a mother’s love… ;-)

Printable Recipe

2½ c. prepared espresso, room temperature
9 Tbsp. dark rum
6 large egg yolks
⅔ c. sugar
¼ tsp. table salt
1½ lb. mascarpone cheese
¾ c. cold heavy whipping cream
14 oz. ladyfingers
3½ Tbsp. natural cocoa
¼ c. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, grated

Stir the espresso and 5 tablespoons of the rum in a wide bowl or baking dish; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks at low speed until just combined. Add the sugar and salt and beat at medium-high speed until pale yellow, 1½ to 2 minutes, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula once or twice. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of rum and beat at medium speed until just combined, 20 to 30 seconds; scrape bowl. Add the mascarpone and beat at medium speed until no lumps remain, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping down bowl once or twice. Transfer mixture to large bowl and set in the refrigerator to keep cool.
In the now-empty mixer bowl (no need to clean bowl), beat the cream at medium speed until frothy, 1 to 1½ minutes. Increase speed to high and continue to beat until cream holds stiff peaks, 1 to 1½ minutes longer. Using a rubber spatula, fold one-third of the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture to lighten, then gently fold in remaining whipped cream until no white streaks remain. Set mascarpone mixture in the refrigerator again to keep cool.
Working one at a time, drop half of the ladyfingers into the coffee mixture, roll, remove, and transfer to 13 by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. (Do not submerge ladyfingers in coffee mixture; entire process should take no longer than 2 to 3 seconds for each cookie.) Arrange soaked cookies in single layer in baking dish, breaking or trimming ladyfingers as needed to fit neatly into dish.
Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers; use rubber spatula to spread mixture to sides and into corners of dish and smooth surface. Place 2 tablespoons of cocoa in a fine-mesh strainer and dust cocoa over mascarpone.
Repeat the dipping and arrangement of ladyfingers; spread remaining mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers and dust with remaining 1½ tablespoons of cocoa. Wipe the edges of the dish with a dry paper towel, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 6 to 24 hours. Sprinkle with grated chocolate, if using; cut into pieces and serve chilled.