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July 11th, 2009:

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.

Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces: Bliss in a Bowl

blue cheese and broccoli sauce

Pasta with blue cheese and broccoli sauce

The premise of Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces is that you can make a tasty pasta meal with minimal time and cooking; most of the recipes require you to chop together fresh ingredients in a pasta bowl or other broad serving dish while the water is boiling to cook the noodles.

I love this book, and I’ve been in the habit of thinking that I know it very well, but in fact I have about four go-to recipes that I can prepare from memory. No-Cook Pasta Sauces contains 75 recipes. I have, as the educational set might say, not been working to potential.

We had invited friends to dinner, one of whom is a vegetarian, so of the July collection this book seemed the most promising. Because the only thing that gets significant heat in this book is the pasta water, the ability to use meat is limited.

Blue cheese for pasta sauce

Some recipes do call for it in the form of rotisserie chicken, cured or pre-cooked sausage, or shrimp that can be tossed into the noodle pot during the last few minutes of cooking. But mostly we’re dealing with fresh raw foods here, which is ideal for a summer evening.

The recipe for broccoli and blue cheese sauce caught my eye because my initial reaction was to be intimidated: would it be too strong, too overwhelming?

Warming blue cheese mixture for pasta

I decided that it would be better to ask Marianne and Colleen if they liked blue cheese than to chicken out, and fortunately they are both big fans, so I set out to get the ingredients. Garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil, butter, blue cheese (I chose a Danish blue, whose chief point of differentiation was that it cost less than $10 a pound), parmesan, and broccoli. Even if I had gone for one of the more pricey cheeses (did you know some of the artisan varieties can run $30+ a pound?) it would not have been a very expensive meal.

Preparation is easy. You crumble the blue cheese into a pasta bowl, mince the garlic, grate the parmesan, cut the butter into small chunks, and add the oil and red pepper, along with a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper.

Melted mixture of blue cheese and butter (and more)

Set the bowl over the pot in which you are bringing the pasta water to boil; this will soften the cheese and butter so you can mix the sauce well. Or, if you are inattentive, will melt them entirely, which is OK too. When the water is boiling remove the bowl (if you haven’t already) and pour in the dry pasta, plus some salt if that’s how you like it; while it cooks, cut the broccoli into florets. When the pasta is about 2 minutes from being done, add the broccoli to the water so it can cook; then drain and add the pasta and broccoli to the sauce, and stir well to coat.

I served it with a sliced loaf of sourdough, plus butter and beer (not to be applied in exactly the same ways);

Broccoli florets

I brought out the parmesan hunk and the microplaner so we could add a little extra to our bowls. This dish was very well-received. And for good reason: It smelled and tasted fabulous. This is the kind of recipe I love for entertaining: It looks, as my husband puts it, gourmet-y, but it’s incredibly easy to make. We had the cold leftovers for dinner the next night,  along with leftover bread and some wine, and it was delicious that way as well.

The finished dish

Verdict: Success. I will definitely make this recipe again, and I will be sure to mine this book for more dishes to try. Promising candidates include cherry tomato sauce with mint, sesame sauce with roasted red peppers, lemon and mascarpone sauce, and asparagus with orange and basil sauce.