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July, 2009:

What Mrs. Dewey Did With the New Jell-O: I Quiver in Fear

cool melon salad

What Mrs. Dewey Did With the New Jell-O is a pamphlet from 1933. It’s quite the marvel. It starts with a hilarious little story about Mrs. Dewey discovering the new Jell-O packages in her grocery delivery, and becoming positively giddy about the possibilities of desserts, salads and loaves. Apparently the big new change was that instead of mixing the powdered Jell-O with boiling water, you could mix it with warm water and thus require less time to chill. The new formula must not have worked out, because the box I bought last week instructed me to dissolve the powder in boiling water, then add cold water.

Of course I ate Jell-O when I was growing up. It was Indiana in the 1970s. I think Jell-O may have been required by state law, along with Libbyland frozen dinners, Hi-C grape drink, and Space Food Sticks. My mother was a really good cook, but you still must work with the products that dominate your culture. So yes, I ate Jell-O, though at least Mom never mixed in vegetables or anything scary like that. I’m not sure she bothered with fruit, or with molding it into fancy shapes. I left the stuff behind pretty quickly once I got to college and began to learn to really cook for myself. And during college I got my hands on a 1960s Jell-O cookbook that started me on the long and winding road to making fun of bad recipes. I think I actually ate Jell-O twice in the years since my adolescence, once after an operation and once in the form of Jell-O shots (which were rather horrible).

So I was really kind of afraid when I had to make my first Jell-O recipe for this project. With three Jell-O cookbooks in the mix I felt I could ease myself into the horror of Jell-O; no suspended cauliflower or lunchmeat for my first effort. I opted for a simple Jell-O and fruit combination, honeydew melon balls in lime Jell-O.

This meant I had to scoop out melon balls, and found that my melon baller was larger than was probably ideal for this recipe. As kitchen disasters go, this is of course right up there with “They only had the second-best caviar” and “Oops, too much chocolate,” but it is one reason that the melon balls look a little weird in the final Jell-O mold. Another issue was that I don’t really have Jell-O molds to speak of, nothing that could give a particularly interesting shape to the dessert; I ended up using small metal bowls to produce freakish little green domes. Most of the melon balls were not perfectly spherical, so in the photo you can see that they kind of look like marshmallows, which is especially weird.

I was least prepared for the smell of the lime Jell-O powder. It was kind of acrid and overpowering and not quite right, and I began to have serious concerns about whether we could actually eat the finished product. But either the smell eased up or I became inured to it, and by the time the Jell-O was chilled and ready to eat it wasn’t making quite the same impression. The Jell-O unmolded easily; it wasn’t as easy to neatly slice the mold into two servings, since the texture of the Jell-O and the texture of the melon were very different. That difference plus the overly large melon balls made it tricky to eat both elements together as well; we would pretty much spoon up either Jell-O or melon.

And the taste? The melon tasted good. The Jell-O…was OK. It had a decent texture — not rubbery like bad, too-old Jell-O can get. The lime flavor was rather artificial, but not actually bad.

Verdict: Meh. It worked, it was edible, it was less scary than feared. I would say I don’t plan to make it again, but there are two more Jell-O cookbooks in the schedule, and I may well have to bring myself to pick a recipe with vegetables. Be very afraid.

500 Tasty Sandwich Recipes: Have Some Sandwich With Your Mayonnaise

chicken and bacon salad, salmon and cucumber, beef

500 Tasty Sandwich Recipes is one of a series of 1940s booklets offering hundreds of recipes for a particular item: salads, sandwiches, and dairy-based dishes have made it into my collection. While writing Recipes of the Damned entries I found hilarious possibilities: molded salads arranged to look like flowerpots, peanut-butter rarebit (yes, really), and perhaps best of all the “treasure sandwich chest,” which requires you to hollow out a loaf of bread and fill it with assembled sandwiches. With hundreds of recipes per booklet, I thought I’d never run out of possibilities.

So you can imagine my surprise when I did a recipe count during the cataloging of my collection, and found that none of these books actually has as many recipes as advertised. Sandwiches? Only 351, and that’s counting every possible filling variation plus all the recipes for breads. Salads? A mere 447, well under the booklet’s promise of 500. Dairy recipes? Just 259, not the 300 promised by that title, though the closest to its promise of the three.

Truth in advertising aside, I decided that sandwiches would be great for supper on a warm summer evening. I thought that variety might be pleasing, and also that while I might well pick one dud I could surely not pick three, and so I settled on chicken and bacon salad, salmon and cucumber, and beef.

Preparation of the chicken and bacon salad is fairly simple: one cup of chopped cooked chicken, half a cup of diced bacon, half a cup of diced tomatoes and half a cup of mayonnaise. And if you think that sounds like a lot of mayonnaise, well, you’re right. I had determined to follow the instructions for all these untried recipes, but I had misgivings when I measured out the mayonnaise. I went ahead, and found myself with a rather creamy mixture. It tasted good, which I think is partly because the bacon and the tomatoes were very high quality, but if I were to make this again I would use a lot less mayonnaise.

I mixed up the salmon and cucumber salad next, and was far more skeptical about the mayonnaise this time. Overdoing the mayo seems especially wrong when you’re dealing with salmon, whose flavor deserves to be accentuated, not smothered. I mixed up cooked salmon and chopped cucumber and far less mayonnaise than recommended, for a still very spreadable, even mayonnaise-rich, filling. I can’t imagine how goopy it would have been with the full amount.

Finally I turned to the beef filling, which was blissfully free of mayonnaise. Cold roast beef is combined with salt, chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce and melted butter. I am not sure what the author meant by “chili sauce” in 1949; I seriously doubt she meant the kind that you get at Asian markets, in the plastic bottle with the strutting rooster, glittering with pepper seeds, but that’s what I had on hand and that’s what I used, and it turned out to be really tasty. Peppy, zingy, but not so strong as to overpower the beef or Worcestershire sauce.

I spread the sandwich fillings on toast and added lettuce to the chicken and salmon, and served them up with potato salad. I did not go the extra step of cutting off the crusts; I may be nuts but even I have my limits. The sandwiches were all delicious, even with an excess of mayonnaise.

Verdict: Success. I’d make them again, with adaptations, and they did make for a nice cool supper on a warm, humid night.

And that brings us nearly to the end of July’s book list; only Jell-O remains. (Cue dramatic music.) More details on that tomorrow.

Metropolitan Cook Book: Helpful Recipes From a Life Insurance Company

potato salad

Metropolitan Cook Book is my second Recipes of the Damned effort in this project, and while the small booklet has a lot more recipes than Tempting Low-Cost Meals for 2 or 4 or 6, I found it just as challenging when it came to finding recipes I was actually willing to cook. While I was cataloging my collection I made a vow that I would not make any recipe that forced overcooking of vegetables, as noted by instructions such as “add the tender [asparagus] tips [to boiling water] the last 15 minutes” (which is approximately 14 minutes 30 seconds too long to be boiling asparagus) or “boil Brussels sprouts 15 to 20 minutes.” Unfortunately, for the Metropolitan Cook Book this ruled out nearly anything involving non-starchy vegetables. The meat recipes all seemed rather heavy, more suited to cold weather; the pastry recipes were tempting but I thought I should try not to make cake all the time. So potato salad won the draw.

I’ve never been terribly enthusiastic about potato salad, having had some pretty dull specimens over the years. I didn’t have high expectations for this recipe. It’s quite simple: cooked potato cubes, salt, pepper, onion juice (obtained by cutting off a chunk of an onion and squeezing), parsley, olive oil and vinegar. It’s so simple it’s virtually foolproof, which is a good thing since the instructions seem to take a lot for granted. The ingredients list “2 cups freshly boiled potatoes,” and the first instruction is “Cut potatoes into 3/4 inch cubes.” So does one boil the potatoes whole and then cut them up while hot? Cube them before boiling? How long to boil? I threw caution to the wind and peeled and cubed the potatoes before boiling them for about 15-20 minutes, paying less attention to the clock than to their texture when poked with a fork; when they were tender but not mushy I drained them off and proceeded with the seasonings. When I had mixed it all together I covered the bowl and refrigerated it.

I served the potato salad with a cold supper of sandwiches (see the upcoming entry on 500 Tasty Sandwich Recipes for details), and was pleasantly surprised. The potato flavor was pleasant and not overpowered by seasonings, and the texture was a nice complement to the lettuce on which I served it.

Verdict: Success. I would make the potato salad again. But I still refuse to boil asparagus to death.

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Overcoming My Fear of Frying

fried chicken

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School is one of my big, thick comprehensives. It’s organized by kind of food and technique; for example, the chapter on stocks and soups is divided into types such as white stock, brown stock, dashi and consomme; the chapter on meat, fish and poultry treats roasting, grilling, braising, steaming, and frying rather than being organized into beef, chicken, and fish. Detailed steps and the kind of stunning photographs for which Martha Stewart is known make it easy to see what to do at every stage of the process.

With over 250 recipes to choose from, why did I pick fried chicken? Because it scared me. I don’t fry much. It’s not that I’m concerned about eating fried food (although I probably should be); it’s the mess. Spattering oil, cleaning up the pan, cleaning up the stove. I’m also a little bit afraid of burning and smoke, so I thought that Martha Stewart’s instructions might be the ones to use to make sure I’d accounted for everything and prevented any problems.

You could start with a pre-cut-up chicken, but I chose to follow Stewart’s instructions to cut up a whole chicken, including cutting the breast piece into two for more even cooking. I’m not very good at cutting up a chicken, though I’m getting better with practice. It helps to flex the bird at the joints so you can get a clearer idea of where the sockets are and cut more easily between the bones; that makes for neater pieces. I did fairly well with this one, though when I cut the breast pieces in two I did a messier job with one; instead of a neat sort of triangular piece, I had a kind of raggedy piece. It definitely helps to have a good sharp chef’s knife, which is very good for cutting through the breastbone and any other tougher areas. You want to end up with 10 pieces: two each of wing, thigh, drumstick, upper breast half and lower breast half. The back will be left over; I froze it for making stock later this year.

The chicken pieces are marinated in the fridge for at least three hours in buttermilk seasoned with mustard powder, Old Bay seasoning, cayenne, salt and pepper; I let mine marinate overnight. About an hour before it’s time to start frying, you take the chicken out of the fridge and lay the pieces on a rack over a baking sheet; this allows the chicken to come closer to room temperature, the excess marinade to drip off, and the remaining marinade to get a bit tacky so it will hold the coating better.

While the chicken rests, you whisk together some flour, yellow cornmeal, cayenne, salt and pepper. Stewart’s instructions recommend starting with only half the dredging mixture; I mixed the full amount but put only half into a shallow bowl for dredging, and held the rest aside in case I needed more. That half turned out to be plenty to coat the chicken, so I was able to save the remainder for another use knowing it hadn’t been in contact with raw chicken.

I used my cast-iron skillet; you have to get the oil very hot, about 375 degrees, so I wouldn’t have wanted to use a cheap or flimsy pan. I poured in only about half an inch — after all, you’re not immersing the full piece of chicken but cooking each side and turning partway through. While the oil heated, I dredged the chicken. Then, borrowing a technique from an episode of “Good Eats,” I used one set of tongs to handle the not-yet-cooked pieces and to turn them partway through, and another set of tongs to remove the finished pieces from the pan, to avoid any risk of contamination. (I won’t go into my rant about why it’s insane that food industry practices are such that individual consumers are now instructed to handle raw meat as if it’s radioactive waste.)

This recipe calls for heating the oil to 375 and cooking the pieces for 5 minutes per side. I thought that sounded awfully fast, but clearly it was ample time. The recipe also says to put as many pieces into the skillet as will fit without touching; I didn’t think I could fit in all 10 pieces without crowding, so I chose to do five pieces at a time, one of each variety, so that both batches would be the same. With a slightly larger skillet or a slightly smaller bird I might have been able to do it in one batch.

As soon as I started to add chicken to the oil, the moisture caused bubbling and a bit of spattering. You have to be very careful at this stage; you don’t want to drop chicken pieces into the oil, and you want to make sure there isn’t any extraneous moisture on the chicken or your tongs that could pop and spray hot oil at you. That would be bad. I got a little bit spattered when I added the first batch of chicken pieces — nothing serious, and a quick rinse under cold water put me right. The recipe also says to cover the pan to prevent spattering and ensure even heating, but I didn’t have a lid that was large enough, or a splatter guard. A splatter guard might have made the after-dinner stovetop cleaning a bit easier, but I think a lid would have trapped steam as well as oil, which I don’t think could be good.

So the cooking itself is very simple: add pieces skin side down, cook for five minutes, turn, cook another five minutes, then remove to a rack to drain off excess oil. Stewart suggests holding cooked pieces in the oven if you’re doing more than one batch, but I didn’t bother. For one thing, fried chicken is good at any temperature; for another, it was hot enough in my kitchen without turning on the oven as well; and for yet another, I didn’t think the first batch would cool enough in 10 minutes to make a real difference.

Verdict: Success. The chicken was delicious, with moist, juicy meat and a crispy, satisfying crust. Of course, the whole process was rather messy, and I had a fair bit of oil to dispose of when it had cooled down. (I don’t plan to fry again soon, so thought that if I filtered and saved the oil for re-use it would be very likely to go bad before I could use it.) I think it might make sense to do this for a large gathering, or at least it would be for someone whose friends aren’t mostly vegetarians. But I’m pretty unlikely to try it again before the weather cools down.

Super Smoothies: Break Out the Blender

minty fresh

I don’t know why I have the books Smoothies and Super Smoothies, but I do. I might have picked them up at Powell’s, or gotten them through the cookbook club. They’re slim paperback volumes, each containing 50 recipes for drinkable fruity concoctions. Which means, yes, I have 100 recipes for smoothies in my possession. And I’m pretty sure I’d never used either book until today.

The books are very prettily designed. Really, really designed, with gorgeous color photography, though the designer got a bit enthusiastic with the typography and use of color too, and some of the pages are not that easy to read. It’s lucky my eyesight isn’t any worse than it is, or I’d need a magnifying glass and a floodlight to deal with the minimal contrast on some of the pages. I lean toward pragmatism in design — a book should be not just pretty but functional.

Of course, if I regularly made more of the smoothies listed, maybe my eyesight would improve. The Super Smoothies volume focuses on “recipes for health and energy,” and includes offerings such as “fountain of youth” (cherries, cranberries and blueberries for Vitamin C and antioxidants), “cold flash” (dried apricots, tofu and peaches for the relief of menopausal symptoms — I’ll be looking that up in about 10 years), and “cholesterol cleanser” (red wine, cherries and blackberries for vascular health).

For today I opted for “minty fresh,” which offers hydration and fresh breath. Preparation is simple. Put 1 1/2 cups of diced honeydew melon and 1/2 cup of low-fat lemon yogurt into a blender, then add a tablespoon of chopped fresh mint leaves and a cup of frozen green grapes. Blend, pour and drink. Serves two (or one very thirsty person with very bad breath, I suppose).

Verdict: Success. The smoothie tasted great and was a refreshing part of a summer morning breakfast. I’ll have to start making more of these, at least while the weather is warm. Given my nearsightedness, I should probably start with the “14-carrot” (does not actually require 14 carrots).

Tempting Low-Cost Meals for 2 or 4 or 6: My First Real Challenge

glazed orange muffins

This is the first of the Recipes of the Damned cookbooks that I’ve used for this project. I have two more slated for the month, What Mrs. Dewey Did With the New Jell-O and Metropolitan Life Cook Book, and I expected the Jell-O book to be my first serious challenge. I am not a Jell-O person. But then I opened Tempting Low-Cost Meals for 2 or 4 or 6, a pamphlet of recipes from 1940 using Pet Milk, and yowza. Turns out that regardless of whether I’m a condensed milk fan, I am decidedly not a fan of creamed dried beef in a molded noodle ring, frankfurter vegetable salad, or “economy drumsticks” (molded ground meat filled with cheese, dredged in corn flake crumbs and fried). I had promised myself that as I got into the scary cookbooks I would rise to challenges, but this one smacked me down instantly. Part of it is seasonal: it’s too hot to do things with cream sauces, especially when the cream sauce is adorning cabbage, or is mixed with deviled ham and poured on toast with peanut butter on it. (Seriously! I kid you not!) So after much thought I settled on the fairly harmless glazed orange muffins.

These might be more accurately dubbed orange-glazed muffins, as the muffin itself is a very simple flour-butter-milk-egg combination. You beat an egg and add about a cup of the condensed milk and a cup of water. In another bowl you combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, then work in shortening or butter. Well, the recipe said shortening, but I don’t have shortening, so I used butter; I’m not sure if that made a difference to the texture but it has to have helped the flavor. When the dry mixture is the consistency of cornmeal, add the liquid and stir just until combined; if you overmix, as I did, you will get a bit of tunneling in the finished muffins and they may not rise quite as much as you wanted them to, but the flavor shouldn’t be affected. (I do know not to overmix, but¬† I was surprised by how quickly the dry ingredients took up the liquid — two stirs too late I realized I was no longer dredging up large amounts of unincorporated flour. Oops.) Pour the batter into muffin tins or papers and bake.

While the muffins bake, make the glaze: about a tablespoon of orange zest, one and a half tablespoons of orange juice, and 6 tablespoons of sugar. After the muffins have baked 15 minutes, pull them from the oven and spread a bit of the glaze on each, then pop them back in for another five minutes.

They tasted good, in a perfectly satisfactory but not dramatic way. They were rather cute, too, which made them a nice part of the presentation for breakfast — an anniversary celebration. (Quite the 107 Cookbooks festivity, this meal, featuring the blueberry jam and the minty fresh smoothie as well.)

Verdict: Success. The muffins were tasty, and I suppose that if you had a good reason to stockpile condensed milk you would be better advised to use it for these than for creamed vegetables or toasted ham fingers. Plus I’ve rediscovered a treasure trove for Recipes of the Damned.

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest: Berry Nice

agar berry jam

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest is loaded with recipes for canning, freezing, drying, pickling and other means of preserving fresh produce. You might think this is part of the recent resurgence of home preserving that’s come in the wake of the locavore and real food movement, but I’ve owned this book for several years and have used it a number of times.

This meant that in keeping with the project rules, I had to choose something I haven’t already made. In principle I embrace this constraint, but as I flipped through the book I gnashed my teeth in frustration at the delights I would have to skip over this time: lemon jelly, spiced peach jam, blueberry and cherry preserves, ginger jam. It occurred to me that most of the pickling chapter was open to me; when making pickles in the past I’ve followed a recipe provided by a friend, sometimes with improvisation (green beans or asparagus instead of cucumbers, additional garlic), and only used this book for general guidance. However, pickling cucumbers still seem to be pretty new in the Greenmarket and were looking rather anemic on Monday, Brussels sprouts aren’t expected until August at soonest, and the cauliflower recipe calls for 10 pounds — more than I felt up to hauling home on the subway, let alone finding consumers for in the next few months. I don’t have a food dryer, and lack enthusiasm for flavored vinegars, so freezing or canning seemed to be my best bets; my pressure cooker seems to have lost its gauge during the move and is now just an extremely large pot with a tight-fitting lid, so hot-water-bath canning is my only heat-processing option.

This still left a lot of choices in the jams and jellies section; I made a shopping list organized by recipe, to prevent picking up all but one necessary ingredient for anything, and set out to Union Square. Blackberry preserves? No blackberries to be seen. Red raspberry preserves? Maybe, but raspberries seem expensive even by New York standards. (Four years after moving, I am still facing up to the fact that the New York area is just not the berry wonderland that Western Oregon is.) Blueberry marmalade? Excellent! I loaded up on blueberries, and picked up small quantities of some other fruits for freezing and nibbling, and it wasn’t until I got home that I realized that the blueberry marmalade recipe called for liquid pectin. Which perhaps I could have found if I had worked the phones and ventured out to Brooklyn, or found an online vendor a week ago, but I did not plan ahead that well. I could have made my own with several pounds of apples plus a lot of patience and effort; I tend to be good at effort, and I could probably have found organic apples in my neighborhood, but my patience was getting scarce. Frustrated, I decided to table the issue for an hour or so and go get iced coffee, and on my way I spotted the neighborhood’s natural food store, which did not have liquid pectin but did have agar, an ingredient in agar berry jam, for which my blueberries would do nicely. Canning day was saved.

Agar is a vegetable gelatin made from seaweed. Or as the package puts it, “a variety of sea vegetables,” which sounds like a sort of aquatic succotash. (They can’t just be using that phrasing to avoid saying “seaweed,” because the word “seaweed” appears in the next sentence.) It comes in flakes, which you dissolve in hot water and then cool to set. It’s a good thickener for puddings and baked goods, especially for vegetarians (since gelatin is an animal product), and I’ve had it before in desserts at my favorite vegetarian dim sum restaurant. I had never cooked with agar before, but I thought it sounded a lot easier than trying to make my own liquid pectin from fresh apples.

Before you start to work with the fruit, you will want to prepare your jars. Agar berry jam is not pressure-sealed in a hot-water bath, but it is still packed into jam jars, four half-pints per recipe. Wash the jars well and then sterilize them in boiling water; also wash the canning lids and rings, and warm them in hot (not boiling) water. It’s also helpful to have a jar lifter, to help you remove the jars from the sterilizing bath, and a canning funnel, for filling the jars without mess.

To make agar berry jam you chop up a couple of quarts of the berries of your choice, with an end goal of three cups of fruit. I wasn’t sure if blueberries would take to chopping with a knife — I had visions of berries ricocheting through the kitchen in a sort of sugary slapstick — but a few minutes with a potato masher convinced me that the knife was worth trying, and chopping with it turned out to be surprisingly easy. To the three cups of fruit you add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Then you pour a cup of water into a small saucepan, add two tablespoons of agar flakes, and bring the water to a simmer without stirring. Once it’s simmering, stir the liquid until the flakes dissolve, which takes about five minutes. Of constant stirring. Seriously. Once all the flakes have dissolved, give thanks, then pour in a quarter-cup of honey and stir thoroughly; then pour the agar mixture into the berries (not vice versa; you do not actually cook the berries) and mix it all well.

Now your jam is ready to can. Pour it into your jars, leaving about half an inch of headspace (I was pleased to see the jam fit nicely into the number of jars specified, with no half-filled jars or leftovers), then add the lids and secure them with the rings. Put the jars into the refrigerator to cool for at least 12 hours; after that you can label and freeze the jars. Or just start eating from them.

A few hours after I’d put the jars to chill, I opened one and found that the jam had set nicely. Because agar is clear, the color of the berries comes through beautifully. And rest assured, the taste was lovely: very fresh and fruity, with just the right amount of sweetness from the honey.

Verdict: Success. The recipe was easy to follow, and the descriptions used give you good guidance to make sure you’re doing things right as you work. The jam was delicious. Because it’s not pressure-sealed I won’t be able to mail it as gifts, but I should be able to give frozen jars to local friends and have it keep well until they can get it home. Assuming we don’t just eat it all ourselves. As for pickling, I’ll be tackling that during a vacation week in August, but it won’t count toward the project.

Preview post

I got back to town early Saturday, though later than scheduled. (I took a red-eye with connection; the second leg left Salt Lake City late and then had to divert to Minneapolis for a medical emergency–fingers crossed that the passenger came out OK, since I have no way of knowing.) I’ve been in real-life catch-up mode ever since, but am working feverishly to get back on track with the 107 Cookbooks Project. And here is a preview of tomorrow’s fun:

Updates as things develop.

Brief hiatus–back early next week

I’m afraid I have to travel for business for about a week, and will not be able to cook–thus, no progress on the project. It’s very possible I won’t even have time to make a meta-post. But watch this space: I should be back in action after Saturday.

Desserts, Martha Stewart: Simple but Elegant

summer fruit tart

Let me make this clear. I love Martha Stewart. I’ve loved her for years, even before the insider trading scandal and her prison term; I love her now that she’s softened her edges a bit as a result of her time in prison. I understand why people make fun of her. The magazine spreads are sometimes too perfect or elegant, and there are things like Christmas decorations that have you hot-gluing grapes to Styrofoam forms, or articles about hardwood floor care that include lines like “Once a week I get out the electric floor buffer.” (Only once a week, you say? Well, some of us have standards.) But a lot — a lot — of what she offers is simple, practical and good, even for a credit-challenged slacker like me who tries not to iron more than twice a year.

This dessert cookbook is a case in point. Some of the desserts are a bit work-intensive or elaborate. Miniature meringue puffs each topped with a single cherry, tiramisu wedding cake, berry gelatin sandwiched between meringue disks; all are beautiful but a challenge to my attention span. But the majority of the recipes are simple in their elegance. Uncomplicated layer cakes, chocolate-macadamia tart, a simple combination of pears and pecorino cheese. The central tenet of the book is that if you work with good ingredients, you need only do so much to create a stunning and delicious dessert.

I had originally wanted to make the black-and-white peanut bar, which is a simple layering of chocolate and vanilla ice creams with sugar wafer cookies, topped with semisweet chocolate and peanuts—a kind of fancy variation on the Nutty Buddy ice cream cone. But I had limited time to canvass grocery stores and I couldn’t find the sugar wafer cookies, so rather than try to substitute I opted to prepare a different recipe, the summer fruit tart. This turned out to be a great choice; the fruit was a better complement to the pasta with blue cheese and broccoli than the chocolate and nut mixture would have been, and the summer timing meant the peaches and berries I found were top quality.

The tart is fairly simple. You make a pastry dough of flour, salt, sugar and butter; because you do not over-process the mixture the butter is in fairly large chunks. You pat the somewhat unruly dough into a disk and chill it for at least an hour (or overnight, in my case). When you’re ready to bake, slice up some peaches and add a quart or two of blueberries, tossing them with some sugar and flour. Take the chilled dough and roll it out to be about 4 inches larger than the intended size of the tart; lay the crust in your pan, top it with the fruit mixture, and fold the edges in toward the center so you have a mostly open tart with about a three-inch pastry border. Brush the dough with milk and sprinkle with sugar, and bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.

I admit I was kind of worried as I prepared the dough. The recipe says “dough will be full of butter chunks,” and it was, but I wasn’t sure if I had struck the right balance between blending in the butter just a little more and overworking the dough to make it tough. Then I rolled it out, and found myself a bit constrained by the size of my counter; when I got the crust to the appropriate size, it still seemed awfully thick. I was beginning to think I needed a bigger pan. Even with the edges folded in to the appropriate extent, the tart mostly filled a cookie sheet. The recipe calls for a very generous amount of fruit. And not long after I put the tart in the oven,  I spotted a bit of smoke: Some of that excess butter had dripped onto the oven floor, so I had to hastily wipe it away so that I could bake rather than smoke the pastry. I was afraid that I would continue to get drips and burning, but apparently only one edge of crust had strayed beyond the bounds of the cookie sheet, and the rest of the baking time was uneventful.

So when the timer went off I nervously opened the oven door, and found that my tart was now beautiful. I wasn’t the only one to think so, either.  The thick crust turned out to be perfect for the heavy load of fruit and the baking time. I had managed to mix it right—the pastry was flaky and delicious, not tough, and the butteriness was just right. I served the tart with butter pecan ice cream, sending us all into a major food coma.

Verdict: Success. The actual prep time was minimal and the result was spectacularly delicious. I might try to prepare it in my cast-iron skillet next time; the high sides should prevent butter from dripping and burning.