Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Nesting Instinct

These little potato nests have become my current favorite finger food or appetizer to serve with drinks. They're easy to make, provided you budget a few minutes to assemble them before serving. They're delicious, and a great combination of flavors and textures: crunchy potato nest, aromatic sour cream, smoky salmon, fresh greens.

The recipe comes from a very appetizing blog containing many recipes in French and English, and I'll reprint the recipe here with [my comments in brackets].

Recipe: Potato Salmon Nests
Source: La Tartine Gourmande

Nids de pomme de terre au saumon fumé - Smoked Salmon Potato Nests

You need:

- 200 g grated potatoes
[About 4 small to medium potatoes if I remember correctly. Even when I double the recipe I grate them quickly by hand, too much of a bother to get my food processor out for this small a job.]
- A few slices of smoked salmon
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
[Sour cream]
- 1 tbsp chopped dill
[I used chives once by mistake, which was good, but dill is better]
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
[It's not entirely clear from the recipe whether the lemon juice is meant for the potatoes or the crème fraîche]
- A bunch of alfafa sprouts (type watercress, larger green leaves)
[I can't seem to find these here, I used "mache" or roquette]
- 1 egg
- 30 g melted butter
- Salt and pepper
- Dash of paprika
- Fleur de sel


Preheat your oven at 400 F (200 C).
Peel the potatoes and grate them.
Squeeze the juice out.

[On squeezing out the juice of the potatoes: I haven't yet figured out how thorough I should be at this stage. I hand-squeezed the grated potatoes on two occasions, which isn't much fun, and tried wringing them with my salad drier another time, after letting them soak in salty water for 15 min., as I remember reading once that soaking potatoes makes french fries crispier. Every time, once I mix the egg and condiments in with the potatoes, I get a lot of liquid separating out from the potatoes. But when I push the potatoes away from the liquid and try to avoid putting liquid in the muffin molds they come out fine. Though perhaps not as uniformly brown and crispy as they seem to be on the original recipe.]

Mix one egg and add 1 tbsp lemon juice

[This is where I get confused: the lemon in the potatoes? Then what about the crème fraîche? To be safe I use a bit in both.]

Add salt and pepper.
Take a mini muffin pan (I used a silicone one, all molds are 1.5 inch or 4 cm) and grease it.

[I used the same apparently, though I didn't measure it]

Place a small amount of the grated potatoes at the bottom of each mold, as if to make a nest.
Melt the butter and place 1/2 tsp in each.

[This is almost too much butter, it works with 1/4 tspn too, and I believe I once forgot the butter entirely and still got crisp nests. Maybe make some tests before believing that though.]

Place in the oven for 20 mns, or until brown. Remove and cool down.

[I usually had to bake them for longer and in a hotter oven to get brown nests. Perhaps I don't squeeze out enough water from my potatoes.]

Mix together the crème fraîche with the chopped dill, and the lemon juice

[Don't put too much lemon juice or the cream will get runny].

Add salt and pepper.
In each potato nest, place a few alfalfa leaves, some cream, a dash of paprika and a slice of smoked salmon.
Sprinkle with fleur de sel.

[Careful my first attempt was a bit too salty.]

How and when to assemble them
I've tried to serve them so that the potato nest is still warm under the cold cream, but I never seem to be fast enough. It doesn't matter, they're good cold. If you bake them a few hours earlier, perhaps warm them up in the oven to make sure they're crisp before filling them. I haven't tried assembling them too far ahead of time as I don't want the nest to get soggy, but it's perhaps worth a try as you don't really want to be assembling them in the kitchen while your company is having interesting conversations in the living room (I hate to miss out on that beginning of the evening catching up on everybody's news moment)...

Here you see the nests at various stages of their assembly:

From left to right the empty nest, with the addition of the mache leaves, add the cream, the paprika and finally the salmon.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Never invite pregnant women or parents of small children. The other day two couples of friends were to come for dinner and both had to cancel. One friend was exhausted from juggling work, a child, and her near-term pregnancy, and the other couple couldn't leave their feverish child.

Oh all right, I forgive them. After all, I've been pregnant too, and have small children myself. But as a result my husband and I had quite a lot of eating to do.

This was going to be a meal to be eaten in front of the TV (France-Italy, qualification game before the Euro. I promise I'll soon stop going on about football, but this game was important for us to come to terms with our loss of the World Cup. The 3-1 score did us a world of good, thank you very much. Have I just lost any Italian readers I might have had?).

I planned little potato and salmon baskets (see recipe here, they're wonderful), tomato soup (Donna Hay recipe), and a chocolate ganache dacquoise (post to come). I kept the main courses light to leave room for dessert.

Given the circumstances, patriotism forbade me from making my usual focaccia to serve with the tomato soup, so instead I made a French recipe, gougères. These are like unfilled profiterole puffs made with cheese, and are a specialty of Burgundy. I've had them served to me in particular during a wine tasting session.

I haven't made pâte à choux in about fifteen years, when I used to have problems shaping neat mounds of dough and it never seemed to rise properly. This time I followed the Cooks Illustrated recipe to a t, and found the gougères puffed up well enough (a bit more puff would have been welcome, but perhaps I'm being too demanding.) But the crust on them was somewhat hard, and all the drying in the oven made them really, really crisp. I like them a bit more tender.

Nevertheless, they were very tasty. And I was able to make them ahead and freeze them before baking. Which freed me from last-minute work so that I could concentrate on... my guests. Ahem. (If they are reading this I hope they don't feel bad. I'm just using them to give a spin to this post!)

Update February 2007: I've since tried another choux pastry recipe with better results, see here.

Recipe: Gougères (Cheese Puffs)
Source: Cooks Illustrated
This is a recipe which can be accessed with a paid subscription. I hope I'm not committing a copyright infringement by posting part of it here. If someone complains, I'll be happy to remove it.
[My comments in brackets]

Make one 12-inch ring or sixteen 3-inch puffs

Cream Puff Pastry
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg white
[I might just use 3 whole eggs, no additional egg white, next time. The extra yolk might add tenderness, and anyway it will be less wasteful]
- 5 tablespoons [71g] unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
- 1 ounce whole [28g] milk (2 tablespoons)
- 3 ounces [85g] water (6 tablespoons)
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 2 1/2 ounces [70g] unbleached all-purpose flour (1/2 cup), sifted

- 3 ounces [84g] shredded Gruyère cheese (about 3/4 cup)
- Pinch cayenne pepper [I didn't have any, I used regular pepper]

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees [220°C]. Spray large (12-by 18-inch) baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper; set aside. Beat eggs and egg white in measuring cup or small bowl; you should have 1/2 cup (discard excess). Set aside.

2. Bring butter, milk, water, and salt to boil in small saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice. When mixture reaches full boil (butter should be fully melted), immediately remove saucepan from heat and stir in flour with heatproof spatula or wooden spoon until combined and mixture clears sides of pan. Return saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using smearing motion, for 3 minutes, until mixture is slightly shiny with wet-sand appearance and tiny beads of fat appear on bottom of saucepan (temperature of paste should register 175 to 180 degrees on instant-read thermometer)

[I found it registered this temperature well before the 3 minutes, so I chose to follow the 3 minutes instruction rather than the temperature intstruction. Maybe I dried my dough out too long, which would explain the hard crust?].

3. Immediately transfer mixture to food processor [I transferred to a mixing bowl and used my hand-held mixer with the whisk attachments] and process with feed tube open for 10 seconds to cool slightly. With machine running, gradually add eggs in steady stream. When all eggs have been added, add the cheese and cayenne pepper and scrape down sides of bowl, then process for 30 seconds until smooth, thick, sticky paste forms.
(If not using immediately, transfer paste to medium bowl, cover surface flush with sheet of plastic wrap sprayed lightly with nonstick cooking spray, and store at room temperature for up to 2 hours.)

4. Fold down top 3 or 4 inches of 14- or 16-inch pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch plain tip to form a cuff. Hold bag open with one hand in cuff and fill bag with paste. Unfold cuff, lay bag on work surface ["Lay bag on work surface!" What good advice. I'm pretty new to piping and always get frustrated as the contents of the piping bag slip out of the tip while I try to push the dough together to chase out air pockets], and, using hands or bench scraper, push paste into lower portion of pastry bag. Twist top of bag and pipe paste into sixteen 2-inch mounds arranged in a ring [I didn't make a ring, just individual puffs.] with the sides of the puffs just touching each other.
Use the back of a teaspoon dipped in a bowl of cold water to even out the shape and smooth the surface of the piped mounds. [In this photo you see one of the mounds before I flattened it with a wet teaspoon]

[Some recipes say you can freeze the dough inside a plastic pastry bag, thaw it over several hours in the fridge then pipe and bake as directed. I actually piped all the puffs, flash-froze some them on a cookie sheet, then once they were hard I put them in a plastic bag and returned them to the freezer. I then put them on a cookie sheet to defrost in the fridge before baking them. I didn't notice any major differences between the ones I baked fresh as a test and those that had been frozen as described.]

5. Bake 15 minutes (do not open oven door), then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees [190°C] and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm (the ring should not be soft and squishy), 12 to 14 minutes longer. (The puffs will have baked into each other but will still remain distinct). [I know the smaller puffs neeed less baking time than the ring, but maybe I didn't make enough of an adjustment.] Remove baking sheet from oven. With paring knife, cut 3/4-inch slit into side of each puff to release steam; [this was not necessary for me as the puffs were quite hard] return the ring to oven, turn off oven, and prop oven door open with handle of wooden spoon. Dry the ring in turned-off oven until centers are just moist (not wet) and puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes [again, not necessary for me]. Transfer ring to wire rack until warm. Serve warm. (The ring can be cooled completely and stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours or frozen in zipper-lock plastic bag for up to 1 month. Before serving, crisp room temperature ring in 300-degree [150°C] oven 5 to 8 minutes, crisp frozen ring 8 to 10 minutes.)