p2: Fig Tart

The Sweet

fig tartThe use of Figs in French dessert has never been that mysterious, its origins being as simple as figuring out when the fruit originally moved into the country and/or, if indigenous, when people started eating them. As such I’ve found that the real story of the Fig Tart is not the story of the fig, oh no, but the story of the Baked Almond Cream, known as Frangipane, sitting beneath them.

Today, frangipane is a paste, typically made from ground almonds, butter, and sugar, very similar to the candy Marzipan (France really is well known for their almond candies… think I’m gonna be making one in the future), differentiating from it solely by its inclusion of eggs and, most importantly, the fact that it is used solely to fill pastries and tarts that are then baked. It wasn’t always like this, however; it’s spun from an interesting origin.

The base origin of the name is said to come from Italy in the 1500’s (or 1700’s, sources are debated) under the nobleman and perfumier (to King Louis XIII supposedly) Marquis Muzio Frangipani, who at the time had introduced and sold almond-scented gloves. This handwear was so popular that, and so delightful to the nose, that pastry chefs all around tried to capture the scent in various fillings for desserts, naming it thus frangipani.

By the mid 1700’s, France was using the term themselves to describe a very creamy, custard tart thus scented with almonds or pistachios. This became the set recipe for frangipane in the country until tastes and habits turned to a denser, stronger almond paste, likely around the time marzipan really came into popularity.

Whether the evolution was really this simple and sole-purposed is unclear; another explanation states it originally comes from Franchipane, meaning ‘coagulated milk’ and likely twisted slightly to offer its name to an 1844 French dictionary recipe/definition of Frangipan, an artificial milk made by mixing evaporated skimmed milk with sugar and almonds.

Taken separately, mixing together, or however these two supposed origins did it, they nonetheless lead to the baking almond paste as it is today. Used in the center of King’s Cake and tarts of Fig and stone fruit alike, these desserts revel in the beautifully fragrant, nutty flavors that is the almond.

Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner

20140830_231545This session’s tart shell is one that I’ve wanted to try for a while, and will likely attempt again in the future for fun. The recipe is quite interesting, and practically the opposite of every pie dough one can imagine; instead of taking cold, cold chunks of butter and cutting it into the flour, one bakes the fat until bubbling (and lightly browned) and dumps the flour in. The process, especially the point about stirring until it pulls from the sides, almost reminds me of pate-a-choux (can’t wait to make those again btw). What’s extra nice is it doesn’t need rolling out, just pressed directly into one’s pan of choice and baked, yielding a product that seems to caramelize and crunch nicely when finished properly.

Speaking of pans, if one is able to, I almost require the use of an actual French tart pan; less so because it’s ‘proper’, but one needs that low, sharp lip that pie pans just don’t have, and especially since we need to be able to take the whole tart OUT of the pan once it’s cooled. This is why many a proper tart pan’s circular bottom is separate from the sides, allowing one to push up and remove the metal from around your baked masterpiece. Oh, and I’m sure those curvy-flowery-edges help the dough get crispier from more surface area or something.

IF you don’t have one, however, much like myself, I do believe there’s one good substitution: Cheesecake. Or, as they’re mainly known, Springform Pans, which can lock and detach their round sides from the bottom quite snugly. Sides go straight up too, everything is completely non-stick, so they make for a great near-perfect switch-out. The only think I’d say, other than maybe the metal doesn’t conduct as well as a classic tart pan would, is that you’ll want to wrap some foil around the bottom during cooking; some really thin liquids WILL still leak out (my figs started juicing the bottom of the oven while baking! Oops).

20140831_181942As for the figs themselves, not sure about you but I’ve found it’s always been a bitch to get some good ones here in the Midwest, and unless you live in a state much closer to their production I’m guessing it’ll be the same to you. We still get a lot of them in the right season, have walked in on figs in my co-op plenty of times, but finding a basket where almost none have brown spots, cuts, blemishes, big soft spots, etc… it’s rare when I find one. Thus one can see why I jumped at the chance to make the tart this weekend, luckily finding an ideal basket on a random store trip, and with friends in town!

Oh, which before I forget and get too wrapped up in my fig-bitching, Colored figs are the most ideal for this dish. Any purple, or ideally those ones that are purple on the lower half but sort of green on top (think it’s a French species), are what you wanna go for. ‘White’ and striped green figs taste beautiful and fresh, thus why I plated my Suzette with them, but they’re too delicate for baking purposes; why would you even want to? As for the Brown Turkish, that’s your call.

In conjunction with figs, Oranges will play an integral role in your final Tart. Tasting well together, and with almonds, I’ve found quite a few recipes, old and new, that have added a tablespoon of zest or a bit of juice into their frangipane or shell. This leads me to conclude that not only would it be alright to include the aromatic citrus in a classic rendition, it’d be almost a crime NOT to use it if one attempts making a properly traditional, French Fig Frangipane Tart (kept in small amounts of course).

20140831_091212When it comes to making the frangipane, one of the most essential things is the combining and integration of the butter and almond meal. This is done, very simply and easily, with a nicely powered food processor. Which immediately means I’m screwed, because the only one I have is tiny, and really doesn’t cut things up THAT well anyways. Great for small amounts, but I have to work with a lot of this stuff at the same time. So I have to stick with my electric mixer; because of that, I need to make sure my almond meal is as fine as I can make it, and hope things work. To do this, I have to toast and grind the almonds myself, using my coffee(which it’s never used for)/spice grinder, always a handy tool if you have one like it; only need to blitz it quickly before it tries to make Almond Butter. On that note, one could also just go to one of those Whole Foods or co-ops where you grind your own almond butter and just use THAT as your fine-meal substitution, if  you don’t mind the extra deeply cooked nutty flavors. But that’s just an idea, and again I always like making my own stuff purely from scratch if I can.

Almost forgot. The finer the sugar grains the better; had to use a bigger grain since it was the only thing I had other than powdered sugar (THAT is a no-no), attributed a bit of graininess though flavor was good.

My Thoughts

Normally I save this part until near the end, but the fact of the matter is that, as far as I am concerned, I ended up ‘failing’ with my attempt at this dish. The tart dough ended up notably drier than I wanted, despite my absolute following of the recipe I am convinced that they’ve included too much flour (or not enough butter) to reproduce the dough that the original article so researched/interviewed to get (I noticed pictures another post that had the same recipe looked similar to my much stiffer, not-so-tender clump of butter-flour). As such I’ve readjusted it below to suit what should create a more successful attempt.

Secondly, and most important, I over roasted my almonds. Well, that’s not to say I burned them, but when I read that the almonds should be toasted, I cooked them to the level that I always toast them. With that nice, even color of light brown throughout, getting a tasty and deep nutty flavor reminiscent of the candied nut bags one finds at the market. Alas, I have come to realize this particular predilection is a more American assumption, for to toast almonds in France (at least for marz/frangipane) must mean to do it to the absolute minimum, with no color change. My little paste thus ended up deep, deep brown in color, with a flavor not unlike Almond Butter (peanut butter’s cousin), and much denser than I assume the texture should be after baking.

20140831_191841I still went through with the whole thing, and all-together it made for a very delicious baked tart nonetheless; crumbly pie shell, rich nuttiness and baked fruit that when combined tasted like a refined PBnJ, with a delightfully sticky and tart glaze/sauce on top. But nonetheless, the end result is much different than it should have been.

Hopefully, I can attempt this again sometime in the future. And if ever I do, I’ll make sure to post the picture and results here to thus fix my error.

‘French’ Fig Tart
Pre-baked Tart Shell (recipe follows)
1 ½ cups or more (depending on preference) Frangipane (recipe follows)
1 dozen Purple Figs
Desired Glaze or Jam

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Pipe or spoon Frangipane into Tart Shell, spreading the surface out with spatula to create a smooth, even layer.20140831_182920
  3. Halve or quarter figs, as desired, and arrange on top in close-nit, attractive pattern, with seeds facing upwards. Press down to better nestle into the almond paste.
  4. Bake in oven, with aluminum foil under pan if using springform, around 30-40 minutes, until frangipane is set and figs have softened. Depending on desired finish, one may want to increase heat to 425 during last 10 minutes so as to bake and caramelize figs more thoroughly.20140831_191627
  5. Remove, moving to a cooling rack, carefully releasing the sides of the pan after a few minutes to leave bare.
  6. While this cools, head your Glaze/Jam in pan or microwave until thin, brushing an even, shiny coat over the top of your tart.20140831_194134
  7. Slice when reached the preferred temperature (hot or cold is still good), serve with any fresh fruit or ice cream.

Tart Shell
120 grams Butter
1 Tb Vegetable Oil
3 Tb Water
Tb Sugar
Tsp Salt
140 grams Flour

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 410F
  2. Place Butter, Oil, Water, Sugar and Salt in oven-proof bowl and ‘bake’ for around 20 minutes, until butter is bubbling and has started to brown on the sides20140830_234213
  3. Quickly remove and dump in your Flour, stirring until it’s incorporated and pulls from the side of the pan.20140830_234755
  4. Plop into the center of your pan, pressing with spatula to start spreading it out.20140830_234946
  5. When it’s cool enough to handle easily, press dough with palm and knuckles to cover the bottom and sides of the pan in a thin, even layer.20140831_000833
  6. Prick thoroughly with fork and transfer to oven. Bake around 10-12 minutes, until dough is golden brown (as evenly as one can get it without any burning).20140831_001956
  7. Remove and leave on counter to cool. Cover with plastic, reserving on side until ready to use.

Almond Frangipane
325 grams Whole Almonds, Raw
125 grams Butter, softened
150 grams Sugar
1 Tb Flour
2 Eggs
Tsp Salt
1-2 tsp Orange Zest
1-2 Tb Grand Marnier

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 400F20140830_231531
  2. Spread Almond on baking sheet and Lightly Toast in oven, 5-8 minutes at most
  3. Remove, let cool20140831_091431
  4. Pulse in food processor, or in spice grinder in small batches, until almonds are turned into a fine meal or, ideally,  powder20140831_104519
  5. Seperately, cream Butter and Sugar and Salt in processor or in bowl with electric mixer until fluffy.20140831_104602
  6. Slowly add in the almond meal and Flour, a bit at a time, mixing on high speed to full blend and break the two substances together into a smoth paste.20140831_104816
  7. Mix in eggs.
  8. Fold in Orange Zest and/or Grand Marnier once paste is fully homogenized.20140831_105719
  9. Transfer to bag or other container, leave in fridge until half an hour or so before use, letting it come to room temperature to handle.

Possible Pairings

20140831_193916Before I get into general matches, I actually happen to own a bottle of an Italian Biscotti-flavored Liqueur which ended up absolutely delicious with figs and almonds; even better since the heavy toasted-nut notes of MY creation mirrored the biscuitty-flavors of the cookie drink. Bits of orange flavor as well go along with the same orange aromas mixed into the almonds, and hints of fennel/aniseed and other spices used to recreate the typical biscotti flavors perfume beautifully alongside the delicate figs. It also ended up as a fun tie-in to the notable Italian origins. Great to chill and drink right next to it, or pour it on top of the slice.

Following the liqueur train of thought, Amarretto is an obvious choice to gently lift and undertone the crunchy tart. Whereas an orange-based liqueur, preferably something bright and fresh like Orangecellos, or Honey Liqueur can bring out the fresh figgy flavors out more.

A simple thought to finish this up quickly: Sherry, say a Manzanilla (lighter variety) if made properly, or an Amontillado (darker, oxidized variety) if encountering overcooked almonds like thus. The pleasantly strong nut aromatics blend into the food well, the dish is nicely refreshing, and the dry salty components could be a fun contrast with the sweetness, keeping it away from a too-sweet finish like a liqueur might do.sherry

p2: Coconut Blancmange

20140419_183610The Sweet

The first time I ever heard of “blancmange” was in watching a British “mini-series” following super-chef Heston Blumenthal and these special “Feasts” he did (if you’ve never heard of him, look him up and some of the shows he’s done, it’s amazing!). The particular dish in question was a “frog blancmange,” served as an early course in a Middle-Ages-themed dinner as a pseudo-dessert, Englanders at the time often eating puddings and other savory versions of sweet dishes as “appetizers.” Soon as I saw it I wanted to make it, doing some brief research to try and figure out what it was and what the little “tricks” were to making it… well, “it.” Suffice to say my recipe and history digging back then wasn’t quite as thorough (well, that words makes it sound like I’m not lazy, and I still am… “refined” maybe?) as it is now.

Dishes of similar name are found throughout the European continent, all of them translating similarly to “white food” or “white mush.” Which country was first to offer the original version is currently up in the air, though it’s said it started through the introduction of rice and almonds via Turkish or other Arab travelers. Grimod de La Reyniere said it originated in Languedoc, a likely candidate due to its closeness towards Mediterranean trading routes.

It was the Europeans’ use of these ingredients that brought up the road to today’s blancmange, and its Caribbean Coconuty version. The first iterations simmered milk with the rice, almonds, and shredded chicken or other such white meats, often flavored with just a bit of anise and caraway (a separate legacy of the Turks). Despite the use of proteins, these “meat jellies” would still be served as sweet dishes, though other puddings based on honey, milk and almonds also emerged to influence blancmange’s history.

Coconut_Flan_1Sooner or later the rice pudding refined itself, taking away the particular starch in place of other thickening substances such as powdered stag’s horn or concentrated, jellied stock. These were mixed with thoroughly ground and steeped almonds (aka almond milk), dairy, and any very subtle flavorings and sweeteners desired. Once set, they yielded a delicately tender, subtle flavored jelly fit for French royalty, at early times being referred to as “blandmange” not as an insult but a testament to its beautifully light flavors.

And as the French took over Martinique and Guadeloupe, as mentioned with my post on Cod Accras, the dish followed, mixing and intermingling with the culture for them to twist into their own version. A Coconut milk heavy dish, thickened with what’s popular at the time (nowadays we just used gelatin) and served alongside tropical fruits. Thus is the long but seemingly quick and simple evolution of this dish from the Middle-Aged-Arab pudding to today’s Coconut Jelly.

Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner

Picking a recipe for this, I found I had to take quite a few things into consideration. First and foremost being the base which I was to later thicken and gelatinize. Intriguingly, there are quite a few recipes which, along with their coconut milk flavoring, also add milk, cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated, etc. At first it made me quite anxious in picking the “right” combination, only to quickly turn around as I remembered “Hey, they didn’t use some of this crap back in the day.” You gotta keep it simple if you wanna stay traditional, that and maximize coconut flavor. As such, my ‘favorite’ recipe was the one that was almost all coconut milk with a little addition that allowed for other milk products. With a nod towards blancmange’s origins and usual non-coconut composition, I used Almond Milk for this particular mix percentage (sadly, not homemade… too much work if it’s not the main player).

Second consideration was the Gelatin. As it was, quite old recipes, if they wanted to turn this into that particular jelly/pudding, would either cook the lactic mixture down with rice (that was before refinement), or later on mix it with a very concentrated stock (as stocks made from bones often contain a large amounts of collagen, they can become quite gelatinized when cooked down a certain amount) or the powdered stag’s horn thingy, which I’m just not doing, sorry. Though this stock method may work quite well, and be something I’d very much like to do to get the proper and traditional texture and flavor of a regular blancmange, the delicate and sweet coconut version probably won’t wanna taste that good with fish or chicken flavoring.

So what do we do? The main methods nowadays for the simple cook-at-home revolve around the use of gelatin (either powdered or sheet) or cooking with cornstarch and possibly eggs. However, this latter actually involves, again, cooking the mixture on high heat, risking a broken ‘custard,’ plus the texture afterwards looks like it’s somewhat odd. Furthermore, I’ve found most of the recipes that use the technique are “Brazilian” coconut blancmange. Thus, we stick with gelatin, which is the closest thing to the natural pectin medium as we can find anyhow. I suggest using sheet, but powdered is all I had on hand, and is usually the easiest for most people to get, so no shame in using it.20140417_155115

There are a couple things needed to know, though, if one is using powdered gelatin, especially if this is your first time (jello doesn’t count, we’re getting the base unflavored version). We can’t just add it in, first we need to “bloom” the gelatin in the liquid of choice, COLD (believe me, it won’t happen if the liquid is hot, I’ve tried). It should be sprinkled into the liquid slowly, gently from high up, bit by bit… much like trying to thicken a sauce with flour, one doesn’t just dump it in. It needs to be carefully added in so nothing bunches up. If you’re adding a high proportion of gelatin-to-liquid, much like in this recipe, it helps to mix and swirl the setting top in every now and then. Once everything is added and the grains thicken and bloom up, we transfer to heat and it melts fast.

Don’t need any fancy molds either. I ended up using a small round Tupperware for a big personal serving and a funnel cake pan for a fun centerpiece; the jelly comes out pretty easily from any mold one chooses, though the cake pan needed just a bit of “persuasion” beforehand. Oh, and I decided to add a bit of lime zest to the original recipe for an added flavor, sorta like using vanilla in most French pastry such, but for the Caribbean!20140417_161347

Coconut Blancmange
400ml (1.7 cups) Coconut Milk
100ml (.42 cups) Almond or other Milk
2/3 cups Sugar
Zest of 1 Lime
2 Tb/Packets Gelatin Powder
1 tsp Vanilla

Directions20140417_154931

  1. Mix Half of the Coconut and Almond Milk with Sugar and Lime in a pot. Heat on Medium-Low, stirring often, until sugar dissolves.20140417_160808
  2. While this is happening, gently sprinkle Gelatin over remaining, COLD milks, allowing it to “bloom” and thicken.20140417_161502
  3. Transfer bloomed milk into the pot with the rest, stirring together until the gentle warmth melts/dissolves the gelatin.20140417_162341
  4. Remove from stove, stirring in the Vanilla, and strain liquid into the prepared “moulds.”20140417_162539
  5. Cover and move to fridge or other cold area, leaving to set for a couple hours or more.20140419_183240
  6. Carefully unmold, running a rubber spatula around the edge, or if needed heating up the bottom in a warm water bath (or, you know, maybe a blowtorch…).20140419_183427
  7. Portion and serve with desired fruit garnish, such as Mango Coulis, Rum-soaked Mango Cubes, and Pan-fried Banana Bread.20140419_184438

My Thoughts

Tasty, a fun dessert to use as a flavor base and build a palette through various garnishes, especially if you’re just coming off wisdom teeth surgery! (that was an interesting weekend)

When eating it as-is, though, there are a couple things I think I’d like to change for the next batch. Firstly, the coconut aspect isn’t quite AS strong as I’d like when cold; when warm it comes out, but cold I feel the almond milk flavors become more forefront despite its minimal use. Thus I would suggest pulling the amount of it back and replacing it, and some of the other coconut milk, with coconut CREAM, which should give a nicely thicker consistency and more flavor. Speaking of consistency, also am I not too satisfied about how firm it was; it really did feel like Jello, a little too much “bite.” If I were to properly keep this to the idea of blancmange I have in my head, I’d like it a little looser, tender and svelt. Thus, maybe I’ll try 1.5 Tb (well, I did a double batch myself, so 3 packets instead of 4) of gelatin. I’m curious about trying the use of those condensed and evaporated milks too, so those might help!

Finally, didn’t get the entire lime flavor I wanted, so either up the anty, let them steep longer, or no straining them out.

That said, I still really liked this fun Caribbean version of a French dessert, it tasted delicious at the end of the meal (especially with all the garnishes), and have grown quite the interest towards the art and idea of “blancmange.” I hope to be able to play with the recipes at some other point, maybe even make my own almond milk from scratch!

20140419_185402Possible Pairings

Much like the Cod Accras, it’s the Caribbean, so Rum Cocktails galore! Maybe a creamy, coconut-heavy Pina Colada, or just some straight shots of Coconut flavored Rum. Not much more to say there.

It’s hard for me to figure what other drink I’d want to enjoy with this besides the rum, but I’ll give it a shot. Certain Fruit Wines could do well, so long as they still have a bit of sweetness, are well balanced, and compliment the chosen fruit garnish. We have quite a few wineries here in Minnesota that still maintain a strong focus on this non-grape alcohol, and I find it can be fun to get into.

Thinking of islands, my mind also wanders towards Madeira and Marsala, two very historical Fortified wines based on islands off of Italy and Africa. They’re sadly not as appreciated today as they were in the far past; most places only sell the cheap cooking versions, even the decent wine shops can only get what are the more “basic” of styles, the upper crust of what used to be a set of very deep and intricate layers. With their foray out of the limelight, navigating even these simple bottle selections can be somewhat daunting. So the ones I would suggest buying, which should be light enough in power and flavor concentration while still containing some sugar, are as such.

For Madeira_WineMadeira: Rainwater, anything with Sercial or, even better, Verdlho on the labels.

For Marsala: The decent ones usually have multiple things on the label (like going through German wines, though thankfully not as insane). Good keywords are Secco or Semisecco, Ambra or Oro (preferred), and Fine.

Other Island pairings could be fun too. There are plenty of Italian islands that make tasty regular and fortified sweet wines with moscato; they’ll usually have Muscat on the label/regional name somewhere, so they’re easy to spot in the dessert section.

Oh, and Grappa might not do too badly either; same with Kirschwasser and other distilled fruit brandies (again, so long as they match any fruit pairings used).Minchilli_grappa_5-6_post