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Far Breton Cake
Aunt Jeanette’s “Far from Breton” Cake
It is winter, and we live in Vermont. That means some good cooking, a little experimenting, and a lot of time to let things simmer while sipping tea. It is also a time to dust off old recipes, and our family’s variation on Far Breton is a recent retrieve from the recipe box.
This is a variation (including name) on my Aunt Jeanette’s recipe and the classic French “Far Breton,” a custardy flan traditionally from Brittany. Is it a cake? Is it a tart? A flan? A smooth custard pie? A little of all the above, perhaps. My Aunt called it a cake, so I’ll stick to that. It is rich, and creamy and silky, and with a unique flavor and texture. My Aunt made it with prunes only. My own touch to the recipe was to use half apricots and half prunes. I noticed the kids picked out the prunes and wanted just the apricots, and I agreed they tasted better. So our newly modified family recipe uses just the apricots!
9 ounces dried unsulfured apricots, sliced once the long way (about 1½ cups)
½ cup brandy or Grand Marnier
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 tsp. salt
1 cup flour
½ stick unsalted butter, browned
To make the Far Breton, place apricots in a small saucepan and cover with the brandy. Heat to boiling, reduce the heat and cook for a few minutes. Remove from heat and set aside until you need it.
In your blender, combine the milk, vanilla, sugar, eggs, salt, and flour. Blend until well combined.
In a small saucepan, place butter and heat until melted. Continue to heat until the butter bubbles, swirling the pan. When the bubbles start to subside, keep an eye on it. As soon as it starts to brown and you start to smell a nutty aroma, remove from heat and add slowly to the rest of the liquid mixture, while blending.
Set the batter aside in the refrigerator for several hours, as you would a crepe batter. You can do this in the morning to make the cake for dinner, or do this mixing step the night before.
Once the batter has rested, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Retrieve the batter and let come to room temperature. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan with deep sides (mine is 2 ½ inches). Line with waxed paper or parchment, and butter and flour that as well. Or you can use a 9-inch round casserole dish, and you’ll serve the cake directly from this, no fuss.
Drain the fruit, and add a couple of tablespoons of the liquid to the batter. Arrange the dried fruit in the bottom of the prepared pan in an even layer. Add the batter to the pan. It will be thin.
Place the cake in the oven, turn the heat down to 375, and set your timer for 50 minutes. It might take another ten minutes, but every oven is different so you want to keep a lookout. When ready, the cake will be browned, nicely puffed, and will smell like it is done! To reinforce your instincts, check to see if a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
If you have baked the Far Breton in a regular tin and want it presented on a serving plate, you will have to flip it out once it is cooled. It sounds scary, but it is pretty easy:
Loosen the cake from the pan after it has rested for ten minutes or so. Cover the top with a large plate, take a deep breath, and flip it over. Remove the waxed paper, place a pretty cake plate on the top (which is really the bottom) and flip it again to its presentation plate, pretty side up. Dust with confectioner’s sugar.
New England Spider Cake!
New England Spider Cake is everything from a side dish to dessert! Get out your cast-iron frying pan, your cornmeal, your roasted corn, and treat your family and friends.
New England Spider Cake
When my kids were little they loved hearing we were going to have “spider cake” for dinner. With a little drizzle of maple syrup on top, it could easily stand in for dessert.
This is an old New England technique, a cross between luscious, creamy corn pudding and traditional corn bread cooked in a cast-iron skillet with either cream or milk poured directly into the center just before baking. The cream sinks into the cake and makes a lovely custard-like layer just under the crisp top. The “spider” was a cast iron Dutch oven with little legs that could be placed directly in the coals for baking or long braising. I’ve made this camping, and it works great if you have a nice fire going.
My variation on this recipe is the fresh roasted corn! It adds a nice dimension to the dish. Also, my mother’s recipe called for souring two cups of milk with a few tablespoons of white vinegar. I found myself with only cider or balsamic vinegar in the house one day, and so I acidified the milk with a half cup of sour cream instead. It was even more delicious, so that is the way I make it now (unless, of course, I want to make it and I have no sour cream but plenty of white vinegar on hand…).
This is not a diet food, so don’t even think about skim milk in this one! My mother made this with whole milk poured on top rather than cream, but the cream is definitely better! She also used bacon fat rather than the butter, it adds another dimension of flavor, so if you happen to have a coffee can filled with this fat, go ahead and use it.
¾ cup cornmeal, fine to medium ground, local if possible
1 cup unbleached white all purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ cup sour cream
About 1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 eggs plus one egg yolk
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup melted butter, cooled a bit
1 cup fresh roasted corn kernels, or frozen corn
1 cup heavy cream or whole milk
Place a 10” cast-iron frying pan in a 450-degree oven. It needs to be smoking hot when you pour the batter in. Alternately, you can use any heavy skillet.
In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, soda, powder, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a two-quart measuring cup, add a large blob of sour cream, about a half cup. Add enough whole milk to come to the two-cup mark. Mix with the eggs, sugar, and 3 tbsp. of the melted butter, blend well, and toss in the corn. Add the liquid all at once to the dry ingredients and gently combine, just until there are no large pockets of flour. Don’t over mix.
Remove the frying pan from the oven and add the last tablespoon of butter, brushing it around the pan. It should be bubbly and sizzling.
Quickly, add the batter. It will sizzle and start to set on the edges immediately.
Here’s the magic. Now, gently pour the cup of cream directly into the center of the batter. You’ll be tempted to pour it all around, but you want it dead center. It will look totally wrong, but will come out deliciously right.
Return to the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or so, depending on your oven, but check at 30. The top will be browned, but not overly so, you don’t want it to go too far and dry out.
Let cool for a few minutes, and cut into eight or ten pie-shaped pieces and enjoy! This needs no assistance from a topping except perhaps a drizzle of dark amber maple syrup.
Variations: Sometimes, I add some sweet red pepper, diced and sautéed, along with the corn, just a 1/3 cup or so, no more. Or, if you like heat, add a bit of crushed red pepper, or some finely minced hot pepper. Freshly snipped chives are really good in this as well, and a cup of shredded Cheddar Cheese is never a mistake either!
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp – Yes, please!
When the rhubarb hits the farm stands, you know the first strawberries will be close behind. The two spring treasures are a perfect balancing act – the berries sweet and vibrant, the rhubarb tart and sour. The good news is that both the strawberries and the rhubarb freeze beautifully, so there is no excuse not to serve local all winter long. This recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp is on the tart side, with minimal sugar. I must take after my mother for this; she liked to eat rhubarb raw, with a little salt sprinkled on top. If you like things sweeter, add an additional quarter cup to the fruits, and a few extra tablespoons to the topping mixture. We often serve this at Readmore as a starter, and no one argues about having dessert first!
For the Filling:
1 quart of sliced rhubarb, ½-inch cuts
1 quart of strawberries, cleaned, sliced
½ cup of white sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
A large pinch of salt
The zest of one lemon
The juice of one large lemon, about ¼ cup
2 tsp. vanilla extract
For the Topping:
1 cup of old fashioned oats
1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
½ cup white sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
A large pinch of salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter a large baking dish, the 8” X 13” Pyrex dish I stole from my mother’s kitchen is perfect (you probably have one).
Place the fruits in the baking dish and add the other filling ingredients. Mix well.
With a wooden spoon, or in the bowl of a mixer with the paddle attachment (easiest), combine the topping ingredients and mix until it becomes a unified mass. Most recipes for toppings for a crisp tell you to just barely mix the topping ingredients with the butter until it looks like coarse meal or peas, and sprinkle over all. But if you do this, the topping won’t get really crispy. You need the butter to marry with all the other ingredients. You want it to look like stiff cookie dough.
Drop by heaping spoonsful on top of the fruit, trying to cover most of it. Bake for about an hour, check at 50 minutes and rotate the pan, front to back, if it is browning unevenly.
Let cool to warm before serving, if you can wait that long. I love Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp as is, but you can top it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if desired.
Spring Arrives in a Vermont Kitchen
Sometimes spring takes its time settling in. We’ll have beautiful sunny days, followed by snow flurries! There is mud everywhere, loosened up by the melted snow and the spring rains. For many, it is a time to stop for a while and think about the season ahead and all its possibilities. Vermont is usually quiet this time of year; there are few tourists around, and many folks take a holiday to warmer climates to get away from grey skies. Just a week away, and we can return to blooming daffodils and some green grass.
Outside, we have a bounty of chives as spring arrives! I pick them and put them on just about every savory thing I make. Other herbs are popping up as well, and soon we’ll be cooking fiddlehead ferns and ramps.
In the kitchen, we are using the last of the winter CSA deliveries – turnips and potatoes, onions and carrots, and the first real crop of the year, irresistibly sweet spring-dug parsnips. They are best simply cut up into coins, steamed, and served with butter, salt, and pepper. They are also delicious roasted, almost like candy! If you are lucky enough to find some, think about making them into a spring soup. Salute and onion, add a few chopped up parsnips and a large diced potato, salt and pepper, a little ground ginger, and vegetable or chicken broth to cover by a few inches. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until everything is nicely soft. Puree and enjoy. You can add some cream if you like.
If you are longing for something fresh and light, scout the co-ops for some blood oranges. They are lovely this time of year, and a simple sorbet made from them is refreshing. For a get-together, fancy it up by serving it in the orange shell!
Blood Orange Sorbet in Caramelized Orange Shell
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup blood orange juice, freshly squeezed
Zest of about six blood oranges
4 large oranges of another variety
Mix the sugar and water together and heat until the sugar dissolves. Let cool. You now have a simple syrup. While the sugar is warming and dissolving, zest the blood oranges, then squeeze them being careful not to leave any little seeds behind. You want about a cup of juice. If you are a little short, add some regular orange juice. When the syrup is cooled, mix with the juice and zest and chill for a couple of hours.
Put the mixture in your ice cream maker and process according to your machine. It will probably take around 20 minutes to thicken. Place in a covered container and put in the freezer to firm up more.
To prepare the dish, cut the top third of the oranges off and scoop out the pulp with a melon baller. Slice a sliver off the bottom if it does not stand straight. Dip the rim of the orange shell in some juice from the orange, then dip in the crystalized sugar, a nice healthy amount.
Place on a cookie sheet and pop under the broiler until the sugar starts to lightly brown. You can also do with your handy blowtorch. Let cool completely in the refrigerator!
When cooled, add a scoop or two of the sorbet, and garnish with a few grates of lemon peel or even a lovely mint leaf.
Blueberry Season in Vermont
It’s Blueberry Season in Vermont, and high summer, and everything is possible.
Blueberry season also means there is a delightful bounty of fruits and vegetables of every sort, and no reason to have anything on your plate not grown locally. Our gardens are filled with blooms, our streams with canoes and kayaks, our country stores with the curious, and our back roads and byways are dotted with painters and photographers.
The shelves at our farm stands creak under their loads of squash and beans, corn and peppers, tomatoes and cabbage. And if you are not careful, your back porch will become the unsuspecting repository for drive-by zucchini drop-offs from well-meaning gardener friends who planted, let’s say, a couple of extra plants “just in case.”
We measure time in Vermont in terms of our own seasons: blueberry season, corn season, tomato season, mud season, leaf peeping season, and, of course, ski season.
Right now, we have blueberries tucked in every corner of the kitchen. We pick them at bountiful best, when they are practically falling off the bushes, and freeze them for use all winter long. Well, at least those that actually make it to the berry pail and not our mouths! One of our favorite starters at Readmore is a simple bowl of freshly picked sweet blueberries, light cream, and the tiniest dusting of fine sugar on top. Our guests seldom complain about this one, and often it sparks childhood memories! And in February, High Summer in Vermont is served up on your plates in the form of blueberry pancakes and muffins!
Here is one of my favorite recipes for Blueberry Muffins: RECIPE.
Supper tonight will be corn, that’s it, just corn, roasted or grilled outside (with or without butter, it’s not necessary at all). What’s left, I’ll take off the cob and use in corn fritters in the morning. The early corn this year is much sweeter than some years, so it will be a treat for my guests.
Soon, it will be my favorite season, blackberry season, so stay tuned!
Strawberry Season in Vermont:
Our Official Beginning of Summer
Strawberry Season! It is one of Vermont’s official seasons, the one that comes after Black Fly Season and Trout Season.
This is the time I wait for all year! First of all, the roses are blooming. A morning stroll in the garden with a steamy cup of coffee, a few quiet moments in the Gazebo at dusk, and the scent of roses fills the air. Life is good. The farm stands are filled with everything from quirky little garlic scapes to vine-ripened tomatoes, and every kind of green imaginable! We can pick a rainbow at the counter, and feel virtuous with every meal.
When strawberries are in season, you know that summer is really here, and now they are coming fast and furious. Blueberries are poised for their debut, and local cherries have already made their way to a large jar of brandy for use next year.
I spent an afternoon this weekend making and canning my conventional strawberry jam recipe, to pull out all winter long. I just follow the basic powdered pectin instructions, and since this year the strawberries are nice and sweet, the jam is terrific. Some years, the strawberries are watery, and I’ve found it is hardly worth the time of putting them up because the flavor will be lacking. Sometimes I add a little orange zest and juice for an extra element, but when the strawberries are as good as this year, that is not necessary.
I also made a quick fresh jam this past weekend, with the addition of a little lavender balsamic vinegar. It was great, and it was done in 20 minutes. I was using up the last of a quart of strawberries, and it this hassle-free version will keep in my refrigerator for about a month (assuming, of course, that it lasts that long…). And it’s not just for toast, I put it on roasted chicken the other night for supper, and it was a hit with all. Here’s the recipe>.
Our guests have feasted on Strawberries Romanoff, Strawberry Soup, Strawberry Smoothies, Strawberries and Cream, and Strawberry Shortcake Waffles.
When we are not wiping strawberry juice off our chins, we are enjoying all the wonderful things Vermont has to offer in the summer: long, long daylight hours, peepers at dusk, fireflies, hiking, boating, swimming, garden tours, chamber music, plays, art and crafts fairs, book sales, antiques, fine dining. You name it, we have it!
Fiddleheads: A New England Delicacy!
Not a moment too soon, the fiddlehead ferns (or just fiddleheads if you prefer) have arrived and I’ve already cooked up a big batch! My sister-in-law has her secret patch by the river all staked out for us, and she has promised more, if I cook them, and indeed I will. Last night’s dish was prepared with a little garlic and a bunch of luscious ramps, which are wild leeks and an enticing early spring green. These are my favorite. Mix the two together, and there is nothing better, especially for sun-deprived northerners who need some fresh green in their diets just about now.
My Uncle Leonard used to forage many things from the forest, a variety of mushrooms, butternuts, ramps, Indian cucumbers, groundnuts, all kinds of delicacies. But he loved the fiddleheads best, perhaps because they were the first harvest of the year. Many of our guests, especially those who are not from New England, have never even heard of fiddleheads. Once they try them, with their delicious asparagus taste and texture, they become fans. I’ve had guest write to me and tell me that since they tried them at Readmore, they now see them everywhere. Of course, they were always there, but now they are on their radar.
As my fiddleheads were soaking, and the rain drizzled outside, the mail arrived and quite by surprise I received a package from Yankee Magazine. Imagine how delighted I was to find that Readmore has been named one of the Best of New England lodging establishments (only six in Vermont, and 40 New England wide) and the editors’ choice for May/june for the “Best B&B for Readers.” They sent a lovely plaque which I’m planning to have framed. I have daffodils and violets and any number of other spring bulbs dancing about. The weeping cherry is blooming, grass actually needs to be cut, and my chives are already giving me great bounty. Spring in Vermont is good! P.S. for the recipe for fiddleheads, and explanation of what they are exactly, click HERE.
Vermont Country Store Rockingham
The Vermont Country Store in Rockingham is just a few minutes from Readmore, and is famous for not only the unique selection of “general store” items, but for the nostalgia they carry as well. The old floors still creek, the scent of apothecary fills the air, and even in the winter, the light that filters in through the windows highlights many a long-forgotten item.
Yes, as you cruise the aisles of the Vermont Country Store, you’ll find and sample a lovely selection of our famous Vermont cheese, many made right in the Rockingham area from sharp Cheddar to soft bries, and to serve alongside, there are chutneys, mustards, and flavorful dips. There’s Coke in a bottle, Ovaltine, dried beans, wax lips, old-fashioned sour pickles in a barrel, candy by the piece and black licorice whips, homemade fudge, blackberry jam and apple cider jellies, ladies cotton nightgowns, flannel shirts, and rose-scented bath salts. There’s pepper crackers and corn relish, hard-to-find cleaning products, feathered hats, hand-knit sweaters, books, striped linen dish towels, bird-feeding supplies, bag balm and duct tape (don’t forget the various salves, potions, and lotions your grandmother used, still offered in the same tins)! Just to ensure you are on the right track, there are testers of everything so you can douse yourself in the same Evening in Paris perfume you bought your mother for Christmas when you were seven.
Are you looking for a gift for a child? The Vermont Country Store carries a great selection of both hand-made toys and (new) vintage toys you forgot you loved, such as Mr. Potato Head or Operation. A loaded checkerboard invites shoppers to stop for a few minutes for a quick game, while the kids delight in trying out the new finds (from their parents’ childhood) and looking at the assortment of board games that don’t even require a battery!
Another really popular feature of the Vermont Country Store is the sales room on the second floor where many a bargain is to be found, and the famous summer-long tent sales on the front lawn of the Rockingham store, rain or shine, right through the Autumn foliage season. Where else can you find a Princess telephone or typewriter that uses an inked ribbon?
Dorothy’s grandmother offered up French Canadian Meat Pies on the holidays
French Canadian Meat Pie, or Tourtiere is a traditional dish passed down in my family, a treat that was served in our family on Christmas Eve and other special occasion. This is my version as I have substituted the local ground turkey and sausage for the usual beef and pork, but if you eat red meat, you may use it here; there are many options for locally raised, sustainable meats. Of course, when my grandmother made a French Canadian meat pie, she used the most sustainable meat possible, that which was raised on her own farm. I’ve also made it with ground soy protein, and it tastes pretty much the same! In fact, one meat eater grabbing seconds didn’t realize he had served himself from the vegetarian pie!
This makes two bountiful pies, and they freeze well.
Mémé’s Good Times French Canadian Meat Pie “Tourtiere”
recipe for French Canadian Meat Pie
One large luscious onion, diced
1 tbsp. duck fat or olive oil
2 pounds Vermont ground turkey
1 pound fresh Vermont pork sausage, broken up
tbsp. poultry seasoning
1 tsp. dried sage, or 1 tbsp. fresh, minced
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika (my addition!)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large bay leaf
Chicken stock or water to almost cover, about two cups
One sleeve crackers smashed into crumbs
1 cup local, organic diced potatoes, precooked but still a bit firm
2 Double butter crust pastry recipes
Sautee the onion in the fat in a large pan. Add the turkey burger, sausage, spices, and enough stock to just cover with bits poking their heads up. You can also use just plain water here, that’s what my grandmother used. Bring to boil, cover, reduce, and slow cook on low heat, covered, about an hour, stirring now and then. The house will smell like Christmas Eve!
Remove the lid, stir, and remove some of the fat and liquid that has accumulated. Add crackers and potatoes. Stir well, and spoon back a little of the liquid if need be. The mixture should be very soft and moist, but with no visible pools of liquid.
Pour into two prepared bottom crusts and make smooth. Add the top crusts, and always a little pastry decoration. This is, after all, holiday food, so it should look as pretty as it tastes. I like to decorate with little leaves made from the pastry trimmings. Brush all with an egg wash made of an exquisite organic egg and a little cold water.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes. It should be golden brown! Check when the house starts to smell really good.
Let set at least 20 minutes before cutting. Traditionally, this was served with a brown gravy, but I like it much better with a wild foraged hen-of-the woods mushroom gravy on the side.
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