Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Magic of Madeira & Beef

Like an alchemist revealing the secret of making gold… I’m going to share a cooking secret with you. Let’s talk about Madeira.

Eric Asimov got the ball rolling a few weeks ago in the New York Times with a piece declaring his newly found love of Madeira. He had just discovered it wasn’t just a dessert wine and that it was brilliant with savory dishes. This was preaching to the choir for me… I love Madeira and have been cooking with it for many years. Without knowing, I had discovered it as a child, poking around my grandfather’s cellar. I found a set of bottles with unreadable labels particularly tempting. I pulled a cork and took a whiff and then a swallow of sweet wine. It wasn’t until this year that I found out what I had liked was Madeira…very, very old Madeira. This is the stuff that dreams are made on.

I found that out via another New York Times article about Mannie Berk and his remarkable Rare Wine Company. Thanks to him I got a taste of a 1912 gave me a Eureka, “this is it” moment. The beautiful scent of age was there with a flavor that is deep and complicated and full of grace This is the wine of the old Ashley Wilkes’ South.
I had made a note of him and his company thanks to that article in 2007, and waited for the right moment to put it to use. This blog seemed a good place to start sharing my fascination with Madeira and using fine quality wines for cooking. You may say that a bottle of supermarket variety will do you just fine… but please believe me, you are wrong! Great older Madeira will make your dish remarkable. Would you use a drugstore chocolate bar in your favorite mousse? Would you use a gray tomato for your famous BLT? No!!!!
In the NYT article, Asimov said: “… in so many ways Madeira turns conventional notions of wine upside down. It wasn’t precisely brown. At the center it was a sort of honeyed amber. Extending to the edges it brightened into a reddish-orange, like a fantasy sunset. Maybe I just imagined these shades, just as after I took a sip I thought I heard music, and saw skyrockets and rainbows as the flavors rose through my mouth.”
Mannie Berk is a Madeira fanatic. He began Rare Wine Co. in 1989 with an incredible haul of 400 cases of great old Madeira from Hedges & Butler’s London cellar in 1986. By 1998 he was blending his own Madeiras using 15% of 50-60 year old wine as part of the blend and issuing 3 styles: Charleston Sercial is the driest, New York Malmsey the sweetest and Boston Bual somewhere in between. I have tried them all and they are superb. At around $50 a bottle they are great for drinking and cooking (before you roll your eyes at the expense, just remember you use so little in a recipe!). For the extraordinary, go to the website and take a gander at the ancient Madeiras . I can tell you wow wow wow!!! Of course the wine is brilliant to drink.

However, with these magnificent specimens you can take your cuisine up into the stratosphere. I used some of the 1912 D'Oliveira Verdelho in my sauce for this Beef Wellington and my guests all agreed The fortified wine Madeira was popular with the American colonies thanks to a 1665 British policy that banned importation of European products unless they were shipped on British vessels from British ports. Fortunately, Madeira is not part of Europe. Although a Portuguese colony, the island of Madeira is off the coast of Morocco so it escaped the onerous shipping regulations and it’s product went straight to America. Its flavor owes a lot to shipping practices as well… it was discovered that the casks did best when shipped through the tropics. The heating (called estufagem) created the velvety texture that Madeira is known for and heating is part of the aging techniques employed today.
Madeira is so much a part of American history, it was used for the toast at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, probably using glasses like these:

photo courtesy Mannie Berk

Whether for drinking or using to add amazing depth to your food, Madeira is a new delight waiting to be discovered and once opened, it lasts forever! I used it to make my Beef Wellington. You should too!

1814 Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The dish was named after Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington who won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was quite indifferent to food, so much so that his cooks often gave notice, despairing of using their culinary talents in his household. It is probably apocryphal then that he had anything to do with naming this fillet of beef, wrapped in puff pasty. Perhaps it was so called because in its larger version the finished product looks like a highly polished riding or Wellington boot.
For my version I have combined elements of many recipes from Martha, Cooks Illustrated and others to come up with one I liked. Everything was from scratch save the puff pastry( I used Dufour brand and it worked out splendidly) and pâté (I used Les Trois Petite Cochon’s Mousse du Perigord). If you would like to make the puff pastry from scratch, make a pound of puff pastry).

Beef Wellington
3-4 Lbs Beef tenderloin (I used grass-fed from Grazin Angus Acres). Place uncovered on a wire rack in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking to dry-age the beef, flip it once. Tie the beef with butcher’s string so it is a like a log if that hasn’t already been done.
2 Tb Olive oil
salt and pepper rubbed over the surface of the meat (around 2 t. of each)
8 oz pâté de foie gras ( smooth not coarse)
1 package Dufour puff pastry *or make your own puff pastry
1 egg
1 recipe for duxelle*
1 cup of beef glace de viande*
1/3 c Madeira (I used 1912 D'Oliveira Verdelho, But Charleston Sercial would be lovely)
4 T butter
Saute´ the beef in the oil in a searingly-hot cast iron skillet… letting it heat 4 minutes or so. Do 1 minute per side till the beef is thoroughly brown but not cooked.
Allow to cool completely, then remove the string and cover in pate´.
Roll out the pastry to a 12 X 15” piece (or do 2 of them and divide the pastry accordingly--2 will be easier to handle). Place on parchment paper. Cut off a little pastry to use as decoration. Place the duxelle over the pastry. Lay the meat on this and fold to cover. Brush with egg-wash on top and on the seam. Press to enclose. Dress the pastry with reserved dough cut in decorative shapes and adhere with the egg and brush the egg on the decorations as well.
Chill for 20 minutes or so before putting in the 400º oven for 20 minutes for rare. Turn in the oven every 10 minutes so the meat cooks properly. Let it rest 20 minutes before serving.
Warm the Glace de viande. Add the Madeira and the butter to melt and serve with the beef.

1 pound Portobello, shitake, mushroom mix
2 T unsalted butter
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1/4 cup heavy cream (Milk Thistle Farm)
3 T Madeira (I used Boston Bual)
2 T finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp. coarsely chopped fresh thyme
2 tsp. marjoram
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Trim ends of mushrooms. Break stems and caps into small pieces. Finely chop the mushrooms in a food processor. Squeeze dry in a clean kitchen towel. Melt unsalted butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add shallot; cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove from heat. Stir in heavy cream, Madeira, parsley, and fresh thyme; season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Let cool. Spread out to 8x10” on a piece of parchment paper, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate (this can be done the day before).

Glace de Viande

2 lbs oxtails
2 lbs beef bones
1 carrot
1 onion
1 T tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove
handful of parsley
2 c homemade chicken stock
1 C red wine
Roast bones, meat and vegetables for 50 minutes @ 450º. Deglaze with chicken broth, wine and add 2 quarts of water. Simmer for 5-6 hours. Cool and strain, discarding the solids. Chill and remove the fat. Simmer till reduced to 1 cup. You could buy 2 quarts of beef stock and reduce it yourself… just make sure it is salt-free if you do.

*Duck Fat Puff Pastry

Butter layer

1 lb + 3 ½ T (510g) cold unsalted butter
2 t (10 ml) Lemon juice
1 c (130g) bread flour
pinch of salt


3 c (400 g) bread flour (freeze it)
3 ½ T (55g) duck fat, frozen)
2 t Salt
1 c cold water (start with 3/4 and add as needed, you may not need a whole cup)

Mix the butter and the flour and lemon and salt into a paste, make a 6” square and chill on wax paper till firm

Knead very sparingly and refrigerate.

Make the dough into a rectangle and put the butter in the center in a diamond... fold the dough around it like an old envelope, bringing the 4 outer points to the center of the butter.   If it’s warmed up, chill it. Otherwise roll it to a rectangle and fold it like a brochure and chill ½ an hour. Roll it out and do it again 6 times, resting for ½ an hour to an hour in the fridge each time (if you have a cold kitchen, less time is needed).

I left mine overnight after the 5th turn and made the last turn the next day. I rested it one more hour and rolled it out.  You will have enough for 3-4.  Freeze what you do not use.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Persimmon Pudding with Sour Lemon Sauce

I’ve been making persimmon pudding since I found it in the Martha Stewart Christmas book 20 years ago, but the history of persimmon cooking in America goes way back. The American persimmon, ‘Diospyros virginiana,' was found growing in Virginia by the early American Captain John Smith in 1609, who described the tree and the persimmon fruit in great detail and as tasting like an apricot. 

William Bartram, the famous early American botanist encountered the native American persimmon trees, ‘Diospyros virginiana,' as documented in his book, Travels, of 1773. The native American persimmon was also brought to the attention of early American Presidents and plant collectors, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. 
Native Americans mixed the pulp with corn meal to bake bread. They dried the fruit like we do with grapes and plums. Colonists used the pulp to make bread, puddings, pies, and preserves. Persimmon beer and brandy were served at gatherings.

This pudding is made the old fashioned way as one would an English pudding. It is steamed and served in this case with an addictive sour lemon sauce but it can be served with a hard sauce or applesauce or crème anglaise. I’ve made a few changes from Martha’s recipe, a little less sugar and more lemon. Please be advised… use ripe persimmons… buy them a week in advance if they are hard. Unripe persimmons are loaded with tannin and have a puckerish nature. When ripe, the flesh is luscious and sexy. The skin crinkles a little when you press it. Although you can make the pudding with less than ripe fruit… the result will not be as good.

Persimmon Pudding

3 large very ripe persimmons

1/3 c sugar

4 ½ T vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 ½ tsp vanilla

1 ¾ c flour

¼ c whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

2 tsp ground cinnamon

Oil a 3-quart pudding mold. Peel the persimmons and puree the flesh, removing any seeds. You should have 2 cups of puree.

Beat together the sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until fluffy, then add the persimmon. Sift the flour baking soda salt and cinnamon. Blend with persimmon mixture and pour into mold. Cover with parchment paper tightly with rubber band or string then cover with foil

Put on a rack in a large pot with boiling water ½ way up the mold. Bring water to a boil and then simmer for 2 ½ hours. Pudding should spring back when touched. Let cool one hour and then unmold. Serve with sour lemon sauce.

Sour Lemon Sauce

½ c sugar

1 ¼ T cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 ¼ c hot water

3 ½ T unsalted butter

8 T lemon juice

3 tsp lemon rind

Combine sugar and cornstarch and salt. Add hot water and cook over low flame 3-5 minutes until thick. Add the rest and cool Do not refrigerate or it will become like aspic.

WARNING: This sauce is so good you could drink it… leave some for the pudding!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

17th Century Wassail

Illustrated London News 1850

Although Wassailing today is synonymous with Christmas and 12th Night, its origin is in Anglo-Saxon pagan ritual that has seen many variations in its history. From the Middle Ages onward, peasants have solicited charitable spirit from their feudal lords with the Wassail. It was not begging. This distinction explains the lyric in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing". The Wassailers inform the lord of the house that:

"We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before."

Wassailing ceremonies took place at a number of different times throughout the year including Christmas, January 6th (Twelfth Night) and Shrove Tuesday.

In cider-producing areas of England (in another pagan-inspired tradition), wassailing refers to drinking (and singing) to the health of trees in the hopes that they might thrive in the coming year.

An old rhyme goes: “Wassaile the trees, that they may beare / You many a Plum and many a Peare: / For more or lesse fruits they will bring, / As you do give them Wassailing.”

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit. The wassail was poured at the roots of a tree or soaked pieces of toast that were hung in the branches for the robins that represented good spirits. A gun was sometimes fired to scare away the bad spirits (after a few too many turns at the Wassail Bowl?).

Wassail was traditionally served in bowls that were generally made in the shape of goblets. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made a very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver.

Traditional Wassail bowls were made of lignum vitae in the 17th c, a wood that was virtually indestructible and extremely tolerant of alcohol. Fortunately, many beautiful examples remain.

There are surviving examples of "puzzle wassail bowls", with many spouts. As you attempt to drink from one of the spouts, you are drenched from another spout. The drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale and the custom shows the playfulness of the celebration.

As for the drink itself, Robert Herrick, (1591-1674) said:

“Next crowne the bowle full

Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger

With a store of ale too

And this ye must doe

To make a Wassaile a swinger.”

I’ve combined the best of 2 centuries and come up with this traditional wassail drink that you can serve however you wish… a punch bowl or footed wine bucket/wassail bowl or pitcher would work splendidly

Wassail of the 17th-18th Century

1 lb of apples, cored and cooked at 375º for 1 hour in a foil covered baking dish. Remove peel when cool and mash... they should look fluffy like “lambs wool” when you are finished.

1-2 c light brown sugar (this should be to your taste and that of your ale)

6 bottles of ale (a double bock is a good choice)

1 c sherry

1nutmeg, grated

2 tsps ginger

1/8 t cloves

6 beaten eggs, optional

Toasted Bread slices, optional

Dissolve sugar in 1 bottle of the ale over low flame. Add spices and stir. Add rest of ale and sherry and remove from heat and let sit for several hours, covered. Warm and add the apple “wool”. You can add the eggs at this point if you would care to and beat it into a froth. Garnish with thin baked apple slices and the toasted bread if you wish.

Royal Lamb's Wool "Boil three pints of ale; - beat six eggs, the whites and yolks together; set both to the fire in a pewter pot; 
 add roasted apples, sugar, beaten nutmegs, cloves and ginger; 
 and, being well brewed, 
drink it while hot."-Royal Household of 1633

Lamb's Wool

Place a pound of sugar in a large bowl and pour on a bottle of hot ale (A good hand crafted brown ale). Stir well. Grate about 
1/2 of a nutmeg into this. Add 1 cup of sherry and five more bottles of ale. Let stand for several hours, then top off with several lemon slices 
(roasted apple slices are perhaps more traditional) and two slices of toasted bread (the bread is traditionally white- better to absorb than the heavier breads?. -served by Sir Watkin Wynne to the faculty of Jesus College, Oxford University, in 1732:

If you want to change it over from an ale drink to a wine, there is also this alternative:

A recipe from The Book of Days, an 1863 history


2,4,or 6 bottles of port, sherry or Madeira

12 egg yolks, 1 teacupful of water

6 egg whites 1/12 lbs sugar for 4 bottles of wine

12 roasted apples

For each bottle of wine used, take the following whole spices 10 grains mace (1), 46(3) grains cloves, 37(2.5) grains cardamon seeds 28(2) grains cinnamon 12(1) grains nutmeg 48(3) grains ginger 49(3) grains coriander. (I include the numbers in parenthesis to give a sense of proportion… figure a pinch is the closest to a grain… which is .00208 oz.)

Simmer the spices with the water and add to the wines with the sugar, warm and wish yolks and whites of eggs and pour some of the warm wine into the container… when you have a froth, add the roasted apples and serve it.

Wassail Set

A very elaborate wassail set. This example includes not only the bowl and five of the six original cups, but a stand for them. The bowl has a cover with an integral container for spices on top in the form of a smaller bowl. Exhibition of Drinking Vessels Held at Vintner's Hall, London, 1933.

The Rare Wine Company has generously given me some spectacular Madeira to work with. During the next few weeks I'll be sharing some amazing Madeira-enhanced recipes... this is going to be fun! Stay tuned!