Tea Time

My friend Val just launched a new online magazine, and I agreed to write a guest post for one of her first issues.  Read  about my short-lived love affair with coffee and find the recipe for this tea-steeped cream tart over at Bonbon Break.

I managed to get all the way through college without acquiring a coffee habit.

As a child, when I begged my coffee-chugging mom for sips of her coveted brew, she told me in a horrified tones how drinking coffee  would stunt my growth.  Clearly this made an impression on me (she barely clears 5 feet, so I figured she knew what she was talking about).  Now that I’m a mom, I realize she probably had her hands full without having one of her three kids amped up on caffeine.

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Tea Time

I managed to get all the way through college without acquiring a coffee habit.

As a child, when I begged my coffee-chugging mom for sips of her coveted brew, she told me in a horrified tones how drinking coffee  would stunt my growth.  Clearly this made an impression on me (she barely clears 5 feet, so I figured she knew what she was talking about).  Now that I’m a mom, I realize she probably had her hands full without having one of her three kids amped up on caffeine.

My love-affair with coffee — which began and ended in my early post-college days — was brief.  Getting to work in downtown San Francisco by 9:00 a.m. exhausted me, and I started drinking coffee to make it through the day.  Around this same time, I also started suffering from what I thought were stress-induced stomach cramps.  Looking back, I can’t believe I actually thought 9:00 a.m. was early.

In any case, one morning, converging deadlines prevented me from making coffee.  After juggling several projects and finally completing all of them, I realized that I felt great.   Sure, I was pleased that I’d cleared my desk, but the best part — my stomach cramps had completely disappeared.

After a few coffee-free days, my stomach no longer troubled me, but I decided to have a cup of coffee just to see what would happen.  I did, in fact, enjoy my morning cup lightly sweetened and doused with cream, so I wasn’t going to give it up on a whim.  Like clockwork, my stomach cramped up, and I decided to give up coffee for good.

I already loved tea, so switching over didn’t exactly break my heart.  I’d spent a summer abroad in London during college and had wholeheartedly embraced the tradition of tea in the afternoon.   I simply started drinking tea all day long and never looked back.

I’m surprised it took me so long to try making a tea-infused dessert.  This one incorporates Earl Grey Tea in the tart crust as well as the filling.  It’s sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with vanilla, which complement the subtle tea flavor steeped into the cream.

The addition of fruit on top makes this decidedly unattractive tart presentable, and adds a tart contrast to the sweet, rich filling.

Even if you’re not a tea-lover, I’m guessing the creamy, sweet filling in this tart will win you over.

If you decide to share with your kids, you may want to do it early in the day or just tell them it will stunt their growth.   The last time my daughters ate it, they chattered wide-eyed in their beds until at least 11:00 p.m.

Earl Grey Tart with Fresh Berries

This recipe will fill a 9-or 10-inch fluted tart pan.  I usually steep the tea in the cream before starting on the crust.  That gives the cream plenty of time to cool before proceeding with the filling recipe.

Crust
1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon loose-leaf Earl Grey Tea
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick), plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut in slices
2 tablespoons ice water, strained, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whirl the first four ingredients in the bowl of a food processor until the tea leaves are coarsely ground.   Add about 2 tablespoons butter and process until you no longer see chunks.  Add remaining butter and process briefly, leaving chunks the size of peanuts.

Working quickly, turn on the food processor and pour the ice water and vanilla through the feed tube, stopping before the dough comes together.  Pinch a bit of the dough between your fingers.  If it does not stick together, add a couple of teaspoons more water and whirl briefly.

Turn out the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap.  Use the plastic wrap to help you create a large, flat disk:  fold the edges of the dough toward the center and press down to smooth out the roughness.   Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out dough into a circle to fit a 9-or 10-inch tart pan with about an inch of overhang all the way around the pan.  Transfer dough carefully into the tart pan, and then fold overhanging edge down inside the tart pan, pressing gently to help it adhere.  Prick the bottom of the crust all over with the tines of a fork.

Filling
1 3/4 cups heavy cream, milk or a combination of both, as desired
1 tablespoon loose-leaf Early Grey Tea
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 /2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 to 4 cups fresh berries

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Bring cream to a boil over medium heat.  Remove pan from burner and stir in tea leaves.  Steep for 10 to 15 minutes and then strain.  Set aside and allow to cool.

In a small bowl, combine sugars, flour, and salt.  Mix well, breaking up brown sugar lumps as much as possible.

In a mixing bowl, combine cooled, tea-steeped cream with eggs and vanilla;  beat until combined.  Add sugar mixture and mix well.

Pour the filling into prepared tart crust through a strainer.

Bake on the bottom rack of the oven for 15 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350° F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until the filling is set 2 inches from the edge (don’t worry about the wobbly center; it will set up as it cools).  Remove pie from oven and cool completely on a wire rack.

Once cool, top tart with mixed berries.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Corn Meal

My husband’s job as a marine biologist comes with certain geographical requirements.  Fortunately, we love living by the ocean, and we’ve bounced from beach town to beach town.

We’ve grown close to amazing friends in each spot.   Happily, scientist friends we’ve met along the way have similar geographical requirements, and so, not so coincidentally, we often find ourselves together again in a different beach town.

When we lived in Santa Barbara, CA, our friend Carrie and her husband moved there from Pacific Grove, CA, — our former home — after she finished her Ph.D program.   Carrie headed south before her husband and stayed with us while she looked for a place for to live.  The first day she arrived, she offered to make us dinner.

Carrie’s an incredible cook, so while I probably should have offered to make her dinner  — she had, after all, hauled herself down the coast alone — I couldn’t bring myself to to argue.

I’d never made polenta from scratch before, but as I watched her transform cornmeal into a smooth, golden porridge, I knew I would try soon.  She scraped the mixture it into my cast iron skillet, topped it with cherry tomatoes, garlic, basil, Gorgonzola, mozzarella, and pine nuts, and then popped it in the oven.

The smell of roasting tomatoes and garlic took the edge off a long day’s work wrangling coherent prose out of  high school students.   I remember feeling so happy that our friends had ended up on the same stretch of coast as us again.

Years have passed since then, and we’ve long since left Santa Barbara for our next adventure in Friday Harbor, WA.  I’ve made Carrie’s Skillet Polenta many times, and I always think of her when I do.

The other day, when I had a hankering for it, I found myself short on basil and Gorgonzola.  Not to be deterred, I subbed in sage and goat cheese, giving this old favorite a new twist.

I like it just as much as Carrie’s version.  Really, how can you go wrong topping freshly-made polenta with sun-ripened tomatoes, garlic, herbs, pine nuts, and lots of cheese.  Now that I’ve broken the mold, you can bet I’ll try out new combinations.

Carrie had some research to do at Friday Harbor Labs two years ago.  She brought her family to stay for the summer, and we had the chance to play on the beach again and share many meals together.

Visits with good friends always pass too quickly.

Until the marine biologist shuffle lands us — once again — on the same stretch of coast, I’m depending on Carrie’s recipes to help us feel close to her family.

Skillet Polenta with Tomatoes and Goat Cheese

Inspired by Carrie’s recipe (adapted from Epicurious).

2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped and divided
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
4 cups water
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces crumbled goat cheese ( about 1 cup)
4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese ( about 1 cup)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush a 12-inch-diameter ovenproof skillet generously with olive oil.

Toss tomatoes, garlic, 1/4 cup sage, pine nuts, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Combine water, cornmeal, and 1 teaspoon salt in large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Whisk constantly until the mixture begins to boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until polenta is very thick and pulls away from sides of pan, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes.  Whisk in 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 cup sage.  Transfer polenta to prepared skillet, spreading it evenly in the pan.

Top polenta with tomato mixture.  Sprinkle evenly with goat cheese and mozzarella.  Bake until cheese is melted and bubbling, about 20-25 minutes.  Let sit at least 15 minutes before serving. Cut polenta into wedges and serve from skillet.

For Skillet Polenta with Tomatoes and Gorgonzola:  Replace sage with fresh basil and goat cheese with Gorgonzola cheese.

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Cherries on Top

The day before our last camping trip, I found a bag of cherries in the back of my fridge.   Since they were almost past their prime, I decided I to bake with them rather than throw them in the cooler with the rest of the food for our trip.

I asked Eliza if she felt like helping with a project as I waved our cherry pitter like a magic wand.  In seconds, she hopped into the kitchen asking, “Cherry Pie?”

I actually had my heart set on making a Cherry Upside-Down Cake, but this two-word question from my pie-obsessed daughter nearly changed my mind.   While I waffled, I remembered that we needed to transport our dessert–and everything else– to the campsite in our prodigiously packed Prius.

On a previous trip, I discovered an easy way to transport cake;  I simply slipped plastic-wrapped cooled layers into clean baking pans and squeezed them into the car with the rest of our gear.

Fortunately, Eliza agreed that cake seemed a better idea;  besides, she knows the mere suggestion of pie-baking quickly turns to reality in our house.   Almost certainly, a cherry pie will emerge from our oven in the near future.

This cake involves several steps, which makes it a perfect project for two.  Pitting cherries kept Eliza busy while I melted sugar on the stove for the caramel topping.  After the caramel cooled slightly in our baking pan, Eliza arranged the cherries in perfect rows as I mixed the rich lemon cake batter.  We managed to get the cake in the oven before Tessa woke up from her nap.

As the juicy, moist cake emerged emerged from pan, I wondered if I’d made a tactical error. Rich, caramel-infused cherry juice drizzled enticingly down the cake’s sides;  it looked like a dessert best enjoyed warm from pan.  It smelled delicious, and as I tasted the thick juices lingering in the pan, I worried the cake might not last the night, especially since I feared that wrapping and transporting this syrupy, cherry-topped treat would transform it into a soggy mess.

cherry upside down cake  (1 of 5)

Only sheer will power allowed the cake to remain intact.   Once cool, I wrapped it tightly in plastic and then slipped it cherry-side-up in the baking pan.

At the campsite, I unpeeled the wrappings to reveal still-perfect parallel lines of cherries.   As friends dug in, I warned them to watch out for pits.  Eliza felt sure she’d pitted each cherry, but sometimes it’s hard –even for me– to know for sure if I’ve gotten all of them.  Nearly everyone who had a piece tossed a few pits aside and went back for a second or third slice.  The fruit’s thick juices had soaked into the cake, making it super-moist and providing a sweet contrast to the tangy lemon flavor in the cake.

Meanwhile, around the fire, other campers made S’mores.  Chocolate squares melted into golden-toasted marshmallows at a rapid pace.  When my husband offered Eliza a piece of cake, she looked longingly at the marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers.

“Has Mommy written about this for her blog yet?” she wanted to know.

When he said, “No,” she replied, “Oh, good.  That means we”ll make it again soon.  Can I have another S’more?”

upside-down cherry cake  (1 of 1)

Cherry Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts.  Serves 10 to 12

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
2 lemons, zested and juiced, divided
4 cups sweet cherries, pitted
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Generously butter a 9-inch-square baking pan.

To prepare the caramel topping, melt 1/4 cup butter in a small pan over medium heat.  Stir in 3/4 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice with a silicone spatula.   Increase heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil.  Resist the temptation to stir once it starts to boil;  swirl the pan gently if it seems to be cooking unevenly.  As it boils, the mixture will become foamy and change color from beige to amber brown.  Remove it from the heat once it turns amber.  Immediately pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Set aside to cool for about 8 to 10 minutes.

Place the cherries in a single layer on top of the caramel with the pitted sides facing up.

For the cake, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a small bowl.   In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form.  Transfer the egg whites to a clean bowl and set aside.  Into the now empty mixer bowl, add 3/4 cup butter, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, and lemon zest.   Beat on medium-high with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally, and then mix in the remaining lemon juice and the vanilla.

Stir in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream, and beginning and ending with the flour.  The batter will be thick.  Gently fold half of the whites into the batter, incorporating them fully before adding the second half.

Scrape the batter into the pan and gently spread  it in an even layer over the cherries.  Bake for 60 to 65 minutes, or until the top of the cake is firm and the center springs back when lightly touched.  The cake will be very brown.  Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 45 minutes.

To flip the cake out of its pan, run a knife around the edges, place a flat plate or serving platter face down over the top of the pan, and then quickly invert the cake onto the platter in one fell swoop.

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