Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thin Apple Tart (Tarte Fine aux Pommes) - My Go-to Dessert

Everybody loves an apple tart, and there are many approaches to this classic. One, which I learned nearly 35 years ago in Paris, is the tarte fine aux pommes, or thin apple tart.

There are two versions: simple and simpler.

Simple version: Roll out pâte brisée to whatever shape you want, including a tart pan, but without high sides. Array apple slices in the most attractive manner you can. Sprinkle sugar on top. Bake at 400-425 degrees until done, usually about 30-40 minutes. The apples should have beautiful color. Brush with apricot jam and let cool. Serve as is or with crème fraîche or ice cream.

Last night I brought two of these on half-sheet pans to a party given by friends in honor of a Japanese ceramic artist. They were very well received.

Tarte fine aux pommes: the simple version, made with pâte brisée
Simpler version: Exactly the same as the simple version, but use store-bought puff pastry (Dufour's all-butter is far and away the best), thawed overnight in the refrigerator. Make sure you leave a 1/2 inch border, which will rise majestically above the rest of the tart. For a slight prettier version, brush the exposed crust with an egg wash made with a yolk plus a tablespoon or so of water.

Trick for either version: I forgot where I got this trick, but it is nice to sprinkle a lot of thyme (really!) under the apples. This imparts a subtle but noticeable herbal taste/scent to the tart that is worth the few seconds it takes to do. You can see a piece or two coming through in the photo above.

For either version, you need to slice apples. If you want super-thin slices, you can use a mandolin. In this case, you need to roll the tart dough very thin so it will become crispy in the time it takes the apples to cook.

If you want slightly thicker ones, which I generally use, you can cut the apples by hand, but the most efficient way is to use an apple peeler/corer/slicer, like the one I described in my post of December 8, 2008. This device gives you perfect slices in about 10 seconds per apple, and I find that the approximately 1/8 inch thickness is fine for this type of apple tart.

No matter what you do, it is hard to screw up an apple tart, and your guests will love whatever version you make.

Bobby Jay

Monday, November 11, 2013

Japan 2013 - Eating with Ceramic Artists

As a postscript to my posts on my wife J's 2013 ceramics tour of Japan, I thought I would discuss some of the foods that the host artists served to our tour members.

In Japan, when you visit someone in his or her home or studio, it is customary (indeed obligatory) for the visitee to provide tea and/or coffee and something to eat, generally sweets. Likewise, it is nearly obligatory for the visitor to eat what is presented, no matter how much bean paste confections may not hit the spot an hour after breakfast or lunch (or ever for untrained western palates).

Still, these offerings are generally served on little plates made by the artist, and that is nice. And occasionally the artist or his wife or assistant takes the trouble to prepare a lovely little plate, such as the one below.

Chestnut on a plate by Ichino Masahiko
On this tour we also had several full meals at the potters' homes. The most spectacular of these, at the home of Tsujimura Shiro, was described in my post of November 5,  But we also had a lovely lunch at the home of Kohyama Yasuhisa, served in bento boxes prepared by Nakamoto Wakae, his partner and a ceramic artist in her own right . . .

Bento boxes by Nakamoto-san
Inside Awae-san's bento boxes

. . . and a marvelous dinner at the home of superstar artist Kondo Takahiro and his lovely wife, Hitomi, a dealer in wearable art by many fine young jewelry designers. Hitomi puts out a wonderful spread, but the best part for me is that she lets me help made takoyaki, balls of dough with morsels of grilled octopus inside. Takoyaki is a very popular family dish in Kyoto, although they are a bit of an acquired tasste for westerners. [Note: for a YouTube video of Hitomi and me making takoyaki, where you can see how they come together, follow this link.]
Hitomi making takoyaki

Takoyaki in takoyaki maker

These intimate encounters with ceramic artists in their homes are a special joy, and one of the added benefits of a well-designed tour.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Japan 2013 - Benesse House Museum/Hotel

We ended the tour with an overnight stay at Benesse House, on the island of Naoshima, not far from Okayama. The typhoon left the area just two hours before we boarded our small boat, proving once again the efficacy of the blessing we had received at Nikko. (See post of November 2, 2013). We arrived in time for a quick visit to the Chichu Museum (just seven works of art in a magnificent mostly underground space designed by Tadao Ando), we arrived in time for a beautiful sunset.

The view from our room at Benesse House
Benesse House is located, in part, in the Benesse Museum, which is part of the multi-site Benessse Art Site on Naoshima. It is a pretty thrilling place to stay, surrounded by first-rate 20th century (mostly Western) art in a building designed by Tadao Ando. We stayed in the oval, with its spectacular reflecting pool, reached by a tiny funicular from the main museum building.

Reflecting pool at sunset
Reflecting pool in morning

We had our end-of-tour celebration at the western-style restaurant in a different building: very nice Frenchish fusion. Breakfast was served in the museum restaurant, overlooking the water with a view of several coastline photos by Sugimoto Hiroshi (yes, they are kept outside).

View from breakfast room at Benesse Museum
The view was not all; it was a really excellent Japanese breakfast.

Japanese breakfast at Benesse House
Breakfast vegetable
Breakfast steamed mélange

Thus the tour ended, and people returned home, either directly or after spending a few more days in Kyoto or Tokyo. A wonderful experience, artistically of course but also gastronomically, as the previous posts illustrate. J and I returned to Tokyo the next day, and were a rewarded with a goodbye kiss from Japan, a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji from the train.

Mount Fuji from the train to Tokyo

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 8, 2013

Japan 2013 - Something for the Road

As one travels around Japan, one cannot help being struck by how many people are on the move, especially by train. And this mobile people needs to be fed.

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, and they are well used. For the most part they sell teas of all types, sodas, juices and various types of coffee, hot and cold. Before the advent of convenience stores, which are far more ubiquitous than in the US, you could buy food, beer and even hard liquor in vending machines, but that is rare these days. Here is a typical selection.

Vending machines
One item caught my eye at Nasu station, north of Tokyo: hot corn soup. I shook it and tasted a can, but found the soup to be thin and devoid of corn taste or texture. Another member of the tour was enjoying his can, and urged me to shake harder; this released the sweet, starchy kernels of corn and it turned out to be . . . well, not bad.

Nasu station vending machine hot corn soup
Japan's train stations are full of takeout food stores and kiosks, and many styles of bento boxes, or ekiben, may be found, some of which can be quite elaborate. The better ones vary with the region and the season. We largely traveled by bus, and were provided bento boxes or sandwiches by our guide. Here's the best one we had, on the bus between Kyoto and Tamba, an old ceramics center about an hour away, rather precariously balanced on my lap.

Bento on the bus to Tamba

Although fast food chains have made great gains in Japan, you can still find interesting pre-prepared food all over. This adds an interesting dimension to the experience of traveling around the country.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Japan 2013 - Kyoto's Fabulous Nishiki Street Market

We had some free time in Kyoto and, with two couples from the tour, I returned to one of my favorite places in Kyoto, the Nishiki Street food market. This is one of the most interesting and attractive food markets in the world, with many of the best artisanal products available in Kyoto on display, including pickles of all kind; rice crackers; tofu and yuba (tofu skin);  fu (wheat gluten); dried fish; fresh meat, fish, poultry nad vegetables; tea sweets; spices and fresh roasted tea. Many stores offer free samples, which we downed with pleasure.

Before we hit the food stores, we stopped at Aritsugu, the famous knife and kitchen ware store that has been in business for more than 400 years, where one of our tour members bought two knives. New knives are sharpened before they are packed and, if the purchaser desires, engraved, as seen below.

Santoku being engraved at Aritsugu
That mission having been accomplished, we entered into the heart of the market. Here are some of the most photogenic displays we encountered.

Tea roaster
Rice crackers with soybeans, black beans and peanuts
Miso pickled eggplant
Baum küchen - layer cake made on a spit
Yuba and rice crackers
Gift package of fu
Pickled radishes
Nori (seaweed) concentrate
Dried baby fish
Young woman pounding mochi
And on and on . . .

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Japan 2013 - A Great Home-cooked Meal

As the tour continued, we paid a visit to Tsujimura Shiro, a ceramic artist who is renowned outside of Japan as well as in his home country for his rustic Shigaraki tea bowls and usable vessels - vases, sake cups and pourers, etc. Tsujimura lives and works in the hills outside of Nara (the eighth-century capital of Japan) in a house that he built with his own hands, but also drives two Porsches and a Harley-Davidson.

Visiting Tsujimura is quite an experience first, for the opportunity to admire his work and second, for the fantastic rustic lunch prepared by his wife, an amazing cook, and laid out on the wood floor of the aforesaid house, where the potter works the in-floor hibachi to grill steak and other items. Tsujimura beams with happiness as his guests enjoy the feast, which ends with matcha (powdered green tea) served in his wonderful bowls.
Lunch at Tsujimura Shiro's. That's him working the grill.
Tsujimura preparing matcha
We left Tsujimura's well-fed and happy. Most of us had no dinner that night.

Bobby Jay

Monday, November 4, 2013

Japan 2013 - Kyoto's Omen Noodles

Not all food in Kyoto is gorgeous kaiseki cuisine. The city has the full range of Japanese food, from sushi to humble noodles, curry rice and burgers.

One of our favorite noodle places is Omen, with its main restaurant near the temples in the eastern part of the city and a branch downtown on Shijo-dori. The flat udon noodles are perfect, clean tasting and just slightly al dente. And the broth, to which customers add their own spices (from a choice of four proprietary blends) and freshly ground sesame seeds, is also excellent. The tour went to the charming main restaurant; after the tour J and I went to the Sanjo-dori branch as well.

Flat udon at Omen
Udon doesn't get much better than this.

[Omen has a highly regarded branch in New York's Soho, but it is a regular Japanese restaurant and the noodles did not capture the magic of the original when I went there, admittedly a number of years ago.]

Bobby Jay

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Japan 2013 - Kyoto's Kanamean Ryokan

Our next stop was Kyoto, the capital of Japan for hundreds of years and the city where the traditions of Japan are best preserved to this day. Kyoto is my favorite tourist destination in the world, a city of magnificent temples and gardens, beautiful streets and areas that look much as they did hundreds of years ago and, not insignificantly, refined and elegant cuisine.

We stayed at the Kanamean Ryokan, a centrally located inn that has been in the same family for 140 years, or five generations. The accommodations are excellent, with old charm but modern conveniences, and the food is sensational. We had a traditional kaiseki dinner, consisting of seasonal dishes beautifully presented on elegant plates by significant artists. The food was authentically Japanese, but the menu was carefully constructed to avoid some of the tastes and textures that would be difficult for Westerners. The only false note was the surprise of gloppy potatoes at the bottom of what otherwise was a beautiful crème brûlée: a bad fusion idea.

I can do not better than to let the most picturesque dishes speak for themselves. I urge you to click on the images to appreciate the details in all their splendor.

Breakfast, too, was a treat, with an array of well-prepared dishes made with ingredients of impeccable quality and presented with Kyoto flair.

I highly recommend this ryokan, which has received a Michelin star for its excellent cuisine.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Japan 2013 - Nikko and the Niki Club

After Kasama, the tour visited two artists and the Ibaraki Ceramics Museum before arriving at the Niki Club, a chic modern spa hotel in the woods designed with elegant simplicity by Terence Conran in the early 1990s.
Niki Club main building
Niki Club villas
The food at the Niki Club is fusion, mostly Western with strong Japanese influence, beautifully presented. Here are a couple of examples.

Dinner at the Niki Club
Our excursion was to Nikko, a beautiful mountain town that is the home of the famous Toshogu Shrine, where we received special blessings, including a blessing of the tour itself, which proved to be very useful as we dodged three typhoons and an earthquake in the course of our itinerary.

Toshogu Shrine
Toshogu - blessing of the tour and its members
It's always good to have the gods on your side.

Bobby Jay