asparagus, thyme & parmesan bread pudding

This dish could be served for a spring brunch with sausages as an accompaniment.  I prepared this for a book club dinner potluck and it went over well.  I ended up having to revise the method that Joanne Chang, of Flour Bakery in Bostonm suggests because I simply didn’t read nor understand the instructions properly.  All worked out well and the bonus was that it cut back on preparation time.

adapted from Best of the Best Cookbook recipes published by Food & Wine.

asparagus, thyme & parmesan bread pudding

2 large eggs

6 large egg yolks

1/4 cup AP flour

1 quart half & half

1 tspn chopped fresh thyme

1 cup feshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Kosher slt, freshly ground pepper

12 oz. baguette, torn into 1/2″ bits (about 6 cups)

1 pound asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F.

Place asparagus in the 9″ x 13″ dish you’ll be baking the bread pudding in.  Pour olive oil over stems and toss together so that it is more or less distributed evenly. Sprinkle a bit of salt and peper over asparagus.  Roast for 10 minutes. Let cool in pan. When cool cut into 1 1/2″ pieces. Set aside. Do not remove oil from pan.

Reduce oven temperature to 250F.  Place torn bread pieces on a cookie sheet.  Place in oven for about 8-10 minutes.  You want the bread pieces to be almost like croutons but not that dry.  You shouldn’t be able to squish them–they should hold their form but feel a bit of density. Remove from oven. Let cool. Place bread in a large bowl.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, egg yolks, flour, half-and-half, thyme, 3/4 cup of Parmiginao-Reggiano, 1 1/2 teaspoons of slat and /2 teaspoon of pepper.  Pour mixed liquid over the bread bits.  Let sit a bit, then toss with a wooden spoon to ensure all the bread is wet.

Let sit for 1 hour.

The liquid should be more or less absorbed by the bread, if there’s a bit left that’s ok.  Place all of this into the baking pan.  Let sit for 20 minutes so the remaining bit of liquid is absorbed.  Distribute asparagus over the top of the bread pudding along with the remaining cheese.

Bake for 35 minutes, so that pudding rises and sets.

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Irish Blue Cheeses

Jane and Louis Grubb started their farmstead cheese making in 1984 at the family farm in Beechmount, near the old episcopal town of Cashel, in county Tipperary. The dairy farm long produced butter (Irish butter!) and spotted cream Originally experimenting with an old cooper brewer’s vat , Jane eventually settled on a signature blue cheese, as their first cheese, Cashel Blue. This pasteurized cow’s milk blue is a classic. Made from a “closed” herd of Friesian cows it can stand with the other blues such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort and Stilton yet has it’s on flavor personality. When it is young, (3-4 weeks),it is sweet and delicate with just the slightest tang from salt at the tip of the tongue. Its texture is thick and creamy with a buttery color. Cashel ages well (up to 12 weeks), becoming more creamy and pronounced with earthy tones while remaining balanced. It is sweet and carries a spicy note to its creaminess.

Now, fast forward to 1993, Jane is training Geurt van den Dikkenberg a well versed Gouda maker, on how to make Cashel. Over the hill her nephew has started to raise milking sheep, a rarity in Ireland. A number of circumstances related to these two happenings led to the happy re-interpretation as Crozier Blue, Ireland’s only sheep’s milk blue cheese:

A Crozier (or Crook) refers to the hooked staff either carried by a bishop as of pastoral office or by a shepard. The name Crozier Blue is a play on the fact that Crozier Blue is a sheep’s milk cheese and that it is in Cashel that St. Patrick converted the Irish. In fact, St Patrick’s “crozier” can be seen today in the Rock of Cashel.”

It’s profile carries a lot of taste but is sweet making it very approachable for newcomers to blue cheeses. Crozier carries notes of fresh cream, nuts and hay in the finish.

Pairing: West Coast style IPA |North Coast Brewing Acme IPA (hop hop tastic!); Chimay Blue or Connemara Whiskey

The Craft of Making (Cashel) Cheese

On the Cheese Slate | Kerrygold Irish Dubliner

“The classic flavor combination brings out the sweet, nutty, rich flavor of Dubliner and swirls and tumbles it together with the malty, caramel, bitter flavor of a perfect ping of Irish Stout.”

Yes, it does indeed do all that.

Cows roam freely on emerald pastures allowing for rich milk for cheese (and of course my house butter, Kerrygold). Like all other Kerrygold cheeses, Dubliner is made with summer milk from grass-fed cows, using traditional methods. Aging for at least a year, the cheese develops the elements of a mature Cheddar, the sweet nuttiness of a Swiss and the piquant bite of aged Parmesan. It’s a little cheddary a little smooth–all with a rounded flavor and a bit of sweetness. With a pint of your favorite microbrew or cider it is simply lovely for a plougman’s lunch on a rainy Sunday by the fire.

Region: Ireland

Milk: Cow

Age: 12 months

Pairing: Stout (beer)

Images: Kerrygold.com

Additional ideas:

Ploughman's sandwich2

PLOUGHMAN’S SANDWICH (via Kerrygold)

On the Slate | Valdeón

I love blue cheese. Personality, complexity and subtleties. What’s not to enjoy when paired with a bold red or a porter or stout beer?

In Spain, Cabrales is the cheese everyone references as the Spanish blue.  It is assertive. I love blues but this one is over the top and not in a favorable way. Let’s say it’s an acquired taste. Produced in the same region as Cabrales, the Picos de Europa region, is Valdeón. Although it stands in its shadow it is not weak.  Surely not as bold it is still no wallflower. It is salty, sharp and certainly rich and creamy–full-flavored as a blue tends to be. If you are familiar with this category of cheeses you will find it stronger than Stilton (England) but less intense than Cabrales (thankfully).

 Wheels of Valdeón are wrapped in sycamore maple leaves, lending to its distinctive appearance and complex flavor.  It is perfect paired with cured meats, dried fruit or as a sauce on top of a steak. Produced with cow and goat’s milk,  that has been pasteurized or sometimes it is raw. The former is aged two months while the pasteurized receives at least a month and a half.

Cheese educator, Janet Fletcher, who led a recent Spanish cheese tasting suggested that in cheese shops Valdeón and Cabrales  are confused. She shared that retailers sometimes label Valdeon as Cabrales, possibly out of ignorance, or maybe because they think it will sell better under the more familiar name. One proof point on what you’re buying is that you want to check for the maple leaves as Cabrales is always wrapped in foil.

Smoked Paprika-Rubbed Steaks with Valdeon Butter

Serrano Ham, Peas, Haircot Vert Salad with Valdeon 

Region: Spain

Milk: Cow and Goat

Age: 2 months

Pairing: IPA Beer, Sauternes, medium bodied red such as Gamay

What is Organic Maple Syrup?

Pancake

Maple syrup at first glance seems to be a pretty “natural” product as many of us see it as an unprocessed food. Contributing to this perception is that many labels often carry the word ‘pure’ inferrng no preservatives, additives or colorings. So in researching this series I began to wonder about organic maple syrup.

We all have many reasons for seeking out organic food whether it’s for health, environmental, nutritional or to support small family farms. Understanding the value and the how behind organic maple syrup requires you to think about inputs, the steps taken in the preproduction stage of harvesting and producing this liquid sugar. Organic maple syrup falls under the “wild-crop harvesting” section of the National Organic Standards, which partly states that “a wild crop must be harvested in a manner that ensures that such harvesting or gathering will not be destructive to the environment. In an organic sugar bush, as in any organic system, additives are strictly regulated and synthetic chemicals are generally not allowed.

Organic certifiers ask producers how they control rodents, whether they spray pesticides on trees, and whether chemicals are used to keep tap holes open. The most concerning one is the use of formaldehyde. Large producers use this chemical to keep bacteria at bay while allowing the tap hole to say open and the sap running leading to a higher grade and lighter quality syrup. Yes, it’s illegal but recent reports have found an alarming presence of it. This may be the only reason you need to seek out the organic version.

Maple syrup is gathered by ‘tapping” or drilling small holes into maple trees adhering to best practices call for organic producers to refrain from over-tapping or overburdening trees. The hole is usually as big as a man’s thumb. One effort made by producers is to tap trees 50 years or older and only of a specific diameter or greater. Before I get a flood of emails, as I was concerned too, these holes only last about a month and should only be tap once per season otherwise it harms the trees. According to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, “Proper tapping does not harm the tree, and the amount of sap taken from the tree is a mere fraction of the volume of sap in the tree on any given day. Trees must be about a foot in diameter before they can be tapped, and most trees can have one or two taps {holes} per season. Larger trees may have more. Many of the big maple trees in New England have been tapped yearly for well over 100 years.”

Another input as sap transforms into syrup over many, many hours in a boiling, foaming evaporator, organic producers, are prohibited from using certain chemicals to reduce the foaming that occurs during this stage. Vegans, take note here, many use allowable, traditional de-foaming agents instead such as butter or oil.

We all need to make our choices. What we can’t see in the way of production and inputs is an important consideration. Buying from a producer who is taking the time to produce a quality product while serving as a steward of the land and the environment is another evaluation point; if it says organic that’s the pure gold for me.

Read previous posts in this series:

The Culture Around Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup Production Process

Sticky Gold (part two)

 Mapletap

Although there are about 150 species in the maple tree family throughout the world it is only in North America, specifically in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, that all the right elements of climate and geography come together to provide enough sap to support a syrup industry. Maple syrup is produced from sap from black and sugar maple trees. These trees are the most preferred due to their high sugar content and can be found in sugar bushes or maple-syrup producing farms. A sugar bush is a forested area that contains mostly maple trees.

 Trees can be tapped after 50 years of age by boring holes in the trunks. This “opening” of the tree to gather the colorless, almost tasteless “sugar water” occurs in the late winter/early spring. Each mature tree may have as many as four taps. Each opening yields about 10 gallons of sap a year.

 Buckets fill slowly, drop by drop, with a sweetish, watery liquid that is boiled down to make the flavored syrup. The tree sap is boiled in a sugar shack orcabane a sucre. During this heating process the clear sap begins in a watery form that contains about two per cent of sugar, it eventually transforms into a high concentration of sugar suspended in water.  This explains why it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup. It will take anywhere from 6-8 hours until the sugar content is more than 67 per cent it is officially maple syrup.

If the sugarmaker continues the evaporation process, the result is maple honey (a thicker consistency), followed by maple butter (which is thick and spreadable), and, once almost all the water has been evaporated, maple sugar. Maple sugar is about twice as sweet as granulated white sugar. It also browns more quickly, and imparts much more flavor than white sugar.

Making maple syrup requires freezing nights and warm (but preferably not over 50 degree) days. Typically, three or four weeks in early spring, when the nights fall below freezing and the days are beginning to warm up the sap or “sweet water” flows up from the tree roots. Extended periods of either below freezing temperatures or days without freezing nights will stop the sap flow. As a result, sugarhouses often start and stop boiling at different times due to local weather factors. A sugarmaker’s life during tapping season can be unpredictable with 24 hour work days interspersed with two or three days of inactivity until the next sap run. One thing’s for sure, when the trees begin to “bud out” the harvesting of sap is over. On average the sap flows takes place for only ten to 20 days, often with up to a third of the season’s yield in a single day.

Today only weekender or boutique tappers still use tin spigots and white pine buckets. Larger operators use a gravity flow system that brings the sap from the trees to a holding tank where it goes through an osmosis unit to remove impurities and about two-thirds of the water. It’s easier and more efficient for the farmer, and has less of an impact on the trees. It allows for a shorter boiling down time, saves time and fuel costs. The next step in the flow is the evaporator, where it is reduced to a syrup, and takes on its typical rich coffee hue. Large sugarhouses can process as much as 1,700 gallons of sap an hour. The final step is a boiling in a sterile stainless steel tank.

Peter Singhofen/ PennsylvaniaMaple Syrup (photo essay) (click on “Maple Syrup” in left nav bar)

 A Sugarbush Tale 11minute documentary on of sugaring (awesome!)

Read Part One of Series

Sticky Gold (part one)

 

          Cabaneasucre

Today begins a series on maple syrup. Over the next few posts we’ll explore this very American food.*

One of the life’s simplest extravagances is maple syrup. People go crazy for this liquid and very edible form of gold. I have a Canadian friend who when invited to attend a brunch will ask, will there be pancakes? If so, she’ll arrive at the event open her bag and a jug of pure Canadian syrup is placed on the table—later it is tucked back into the bag. I also remember my Dad bringing home a very coveted gallon of maple syrup from a friend newly transplanted to Vermont. Don’t even think of passing the inferior stuff around the breakfast table. New Englanders can’t be fooled.

The production of maple syrup traces back beyond the Colonial period and into Native American culture. The North American Maple Syrup Producers bulletin suggests one legend involving a Native American chief who “supposedly hurled his tomahawk (probably in disgust) at a tree. The tree happened to be a maple, and sap began to flow. The clear liquid that dropped from the wound was collected in a container that happened to be on the ground below. His wife, believing the liquid was water, used it to cook venison. Following cooking, both the meat and the sweet liquid that remained were found to be delicious. Retracing how this occurred revealed that sweet sap from the maple trees was the only difference.” Another bit of New England lore suggests that perhaps the Native Americans discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating “sapsicles,” icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig. As the ice forms, some of the water evaporates, leaving a sweet treat hanging from the tree.

Contrary to public perception, production does not take place in winter. It takes place in late March and early April at a sugar shack, where feasts are held with traditional “cabane à sucre” (sugar shack) foods: pea soup; baked beans; maple-cured ham; oreilles de crisse (fried strips of salt pork), omeletes, and maple-sweetened desserts such as, crepes and grands-pères (dumplings poached in maple syrup). To round it all out at the end of the meal everyone goes outside for the traditional hot maple taffy pull, served on a bed of fresh snow and scooped up with wooden sticks where it hardens and can be twisted, sucked and chewed.

*Note this series, more or less in its original form, was created in early 2006 for my first blog www.worldonaplate.org which is around albeit a bit dusty.