Sunday, January 27, 2013

Labneh Tart with Vanilla Cookie Crust

Several weeks ago I went shopping in a local Lebanese grocery.  While there I picked up a container of labne (or labneh) which is a thick yogurt "cheese" somewhere between a cream cheese and greek yogurt.  I had heard my cousin, who lived in Lebanon for a year, talk about eating it for breakfast with jams and other accompaniments.  I purchased it to enjoy with pita, and drizzled with a little olive oil and spices, it served as a delicious spread. 

I had quite a bit of it left and wanted to find a way to use it before the expiration date, so I searched online for various recipes.  An interesting one that popped up several times was a labneh tart.  It looked tasty enough and used just the amount of labneh I had on hand.  The crust in the recipes I found were similar to piecrusts, but I had an unopened container of Trader Joe's Ultimate Vanilla Wafers (purchased for a banana pudding which I never made) in the pantry which needed to be used.  

The resulting tart is similar to a cheesecake but with a lemon-like tang.  If you didn't know exactly what you were eating, you would swear it was some form of lemon pie.  The crust is crushed vanilla wafers held together with butter and confectioners' sugar.  The sweet vanilla flavor of the crust goes perfectly with the tangy filling, and the crumbly texture of the crust is a great counterpoint to the ultra-smooth labneh. 

Several notes about this tart...
  • Make sure you use quality vanilla wafers (they make all the difference).
  • I used a 9 inch springform pan rather than a tart pan because my tart pan was too large.  If your tart pan is around 9 inches, by all means use it instead. 
  • Make sure you whisk the filling until there are no lumps.  You want it super smooth. 
  • The baking time may vary from tart to tart and oven to oven.  Mine took longer than the recipes I looked at online.  Just know that you want it to be only slightly jiggly in the middle, like a cheesecake.  
This the brand of labne (labneh) I purchased. 
Photo credit
Labneh Tart with Vanilla Cookie Crust- serves 8
The filling for this recipe is adapted from Darjeeling Dreams and Tanglewood Baked Goods although the original seems to have come from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert.  The crust is from King Arthur Flour.  Others who have made this filling experienced that it took anywhere from 12 to 19 minutes to cook.  Mine took approximately 25 minutes. Just keep your eye on it so it doesn't overcook. 
2 cups vanilla wafer cookie crumbs (approx. 71 wafers crushed)

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
6 Tbsp butter, melted

3 large eggs
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups labneh

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Combine the crushed vanilla wafers, confectioners' sugar, and butter in a bowl until the crumbs are moistened.  Pat the crumbs into and half-way up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan or tart pan (if using a tart pan, press the crumbs all the way up the sides).  Place the crust into the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until the cookies begin to toast.  Remove the crust from the oven and cool completely.

Lower the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees.  While the crust cools, whisk the eggs, granulated sugar, sea salt, and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.  Add the labneh to the mixture and whisk vigorously until the mixture is smooth with no remaining lumps. 

Pour the filling into the cooled crust.  Bake the tart at 350 degrees for 15-25 minutes until the middle of the tart is almost set and jiggles only slightly in the center.  Be careful not to overbake it as the filling will be dry rather than silky and creamy.  Cool the tart completely and chill before serving.  Serve with a dollop of whipped cream if desired. 

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Moroccan Spiced Chicken with Apricots and Almonds (in the Slow Cooker)

I am an obsessive cookbook reader.  I have often said that my perfect career would be to edit cookbooks because then I could spend my days reading them.  As it is, I spend many evenings that way.  I know many people (certainly not anyone reading this blog, I am sure) would think I am crazy for pouring over recipes when most people would rather be reading a novel or watching TV.  Don't get me wrong.  I love to read other types of material as well, but there is something about a cookbook that has the power to transport a person to the very country or region from which its recipes hail.  I can read a cookbook and suddenly I am in France, Italy, India, or Morocco.  I especially love cookbooks filled with information and stories from around the world.    

For the past few weeks, I have been completely obsessed with the recipes of North Africa and the Middle East.  I have read several cookbooks I already owned on Morocco, and I have visited the library for more interesting finds.  On Saturday I visited a Lebanese grocery where I live, Cedar Land, and in it found many treasures, some of which I had never heard of before.  I came home with spices, tea, marinated olives, preserved lemons (I am currently making my own, but will use these in the meantime), pita, Armenian string cheese coated in spices and chiles, sardines, and labneh (a thick yogurt "cheese"). 

I spent the weekend trying out several recipes, some of which I had eated in restaurants, and some from cookbooks I have owned and never got around to using.  This particular recipe comes from The French Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone, and while this recipe is not necessarily authentic, it does contain the flavors I was craving.  A sauce made savory with paprika, ginger, and cumin and sweetened with dried apricots bathes a piece of boneless, skinless chicken breast as it cooks in the crock pot for several hours.  It was perfect for a busy Saturday afternoon and could just as easily be done on a weekday.  It could also be made with bone in chicken breasts if you are at work and need to cook it for a longer period of time. 

Serve this chicken topped with toasted almonds, chopped cilantro, and with a side of couscous seasoned with mint. 

Moroccan Spiced Chicken with Apricots and Almonds- serves 4
adapted from The French Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp flour
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 cup dried apricot halves, quartered
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp sliced almonds, toasted
1 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until translucent and tender, 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more.  Add the flour, paprika, ginger, and cumin and cook 1 minute until fragrant.  Whisk the broth, lemon juice, and honey into the spice mixture being careful to eliminate any lumps.  Simmer until slightly thickened, 3-5 minutes.  Stir in the apricots, and remove the sauce from the heat. 

Season the chicken breast halves with salt and pepper.  Pour 1/2 the sauce into the bottom of a slow cooker.  Lay the chicken breast halves on top of the sauce, overlapping a little if necessary.  Pour the remaining sauce over the top of the chicken.  Place the lid on the slow cooker and cook on low for approximately 3 hours until the chicken is tender and cooked through. 

Serve the chicken topped with toasted almonds and chopped cilantro. 

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

No-Fail Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

Like many people in the South, I grew up eating a lot of biscuits.  My grandma made the best ones I have ever eaten.  They were thin, crisp, buttery, and hand-patted (never cut).  I have tried over the years to create a biscuits like hers, but like many things that you grow up eating, the ones you make never taste as good as the ones you remember.  My aunt has come as close as anyone to recreating those biscuits, and while hers are also delicious, I still have not mastered it.  I will keep trying.  

In the meantime, when I want homemade biscuits, these are most often the ones I turn to.  They rise beautifully, are slightly crusty on top, fluffy within, and have the unmistakable tang of buttermilk.  The original recipe ran in the October/November 2010 issue of Cook's Country magazine under the name "Light and Fluffy Biscuits".  As an off-shoot of Cook's Illustrated, their test kitchens tried various ways to make biscuits that would rise evenly, and in this cook's opinion, they succeeded wonderfully.  These biscuits never fail to be fluffy, even, and beautiful which is why I am electing to rename them "No-Fail Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits".   

So, until I master my grandma's version, these are the ones I will be baking. 

No-Fail Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits- makes 12 biscuits
Recipe slightly adapted from Cook's Country

While this recipe uses vegetable shortening as a portion of the fat, I have also used lard with good results.  Go with what you have on hand. 

8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 Tbsp vegetable shortening
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Cut the butter and shortening into 1/2 inch pieces and chill until very cold. 

Heat the oven to 450 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  In a food processor, pulse the dry ingredients until combined.  Add the fat, and pulse until it resembles coarse crumbs.  This step can also be done by hand using a pastry blender. 

Place the flour mixture into a large bowl, and make a well in the center.  Pour the buttermilk into the center, and pull the flour mixture into the buttermilk using a wooden spoon until the two are combined.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead 10 times.  Form the dough into a smooth ball, and roll the dough into a 9 inch circle (3/4 inch thick).

Using a floured 2 1/2 inch round cutter (other sizes may be used but it will alter baking time), cut rounds of dough and place them upside down on the baking sheet.  Placing the dough upside down is very important as it ensures an even rise.  Roll the scraps of dough into a 3/4 inch thick circle, and cut the remaining biscuits. 

Bake the biscuits until they begin to rise, 5 minutes.  Then rotate the pan, reduce heat to 400 degrees, and continue baking 10-12 minutes.  Serve the biscuits hot with melted butter, jam, or other spread of choice. 

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