Sunday, July 14, 2013

Curing your own ham – and then smoking it: a match made in heaven

My red-haired bride: beautiful Vicki
Today is a very special day in my life – as well as in my wife’s (that’s Vicki I’m speaking of). Forty years ago today, we got married.

It was not your typical marriage ceremony.

We were living in Montreal, attending university. We’d also been living together for two years (that’s living together as in “living in sin”, which was not cool in those days. In 1973, we’d been in love for three years and talk of marriage had certainly come up a few times before. Problem was, I was getting a bit of support money from the US government because my dad was deceased, and we really needed it to get by because we weren’t allowed to work in Canada. If we’d gotten married, it seemed the government thought I wouldn’t need the support anymore, so it was an easy (though unpopular) decision to not get married.

In June of 1973, though, I graduated from McGill and that was when Vicki and I seriously discussed “making an honest woman of her”, as we joked. Marriage in Quebec at that time did not appeal to us, so we decided to cross the border into New York State. One trip was to Plattsburg to get blood tests for our marriage license (why could you possibly need a license to get hitched?), and to make our trip second shorter, we found a justice of the peace in Champlain, NY, just over the border from Lacolle, QC. So one day, my best friend since 6th grade, Ray MacDonald (sorely missed), and his wife Mary Ann came up from Vermont, and together with our next door neighbour Yusuf Emed (official photographer) and his then girlfriend Marcia Segal, we piled into our panel van and headed south.

Turns out our JP of choice, Romeo Filion was more Quebecois than American, way more nervous than us since he was as much a newbie to this marriage gig as we were. His English was also not great, but Vicki (in French) assured him we’d all do fine.

Partially smoked. Looks great, doesn’t it?
His office was part of the storeroom of his small store (complete with old-fashioned soda fountain), and we got married surrounded by jars of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Romeo was so nervous he read the entire ceremony, and I mean the entire ceremony – including our responses. Neither Vicki nor I said anything about promising to do this or that. (Perhaps this explains why she’s never been good at obeying me.) At the end, though, we each signed the marriage license and we were officially hitched.

There was lots more to our adventures that day. At our “wedding picnic”, we had a shotgun pulled on us as we sat under some trees overlooking Lake Champlain. Seems we were trespassing and the farmer’s wife took exception to that. Yusuf, being Turkish and knowing what would make it all better, went over to her. A quiet conversation ensued, some money changed hands, and we were then welcome to use our picnic spot for the rest of the afternoon. So you can say Vicki and I had a shotgun wedding, can’t you?

So now you have the background. Today, we’re having a garden party in our backyard to celebrate our 40 years. The weather is going to be lovely and Vicki has the gardens looking magnificent. Everyone invited is bringing something for the meal. We’re supplying the meat: 2 smoked chickens and a home-cured and smoked ham. And that’s what I’m writing about today: how easy and delicious a home-cured ham is.

Since I didn’t ask Nick Gasparro, our butcher, early enough, we had to buy part of a pork shoulder for this enterprise instead of part of a leg. It’s 9 pounds, has a bit of fat on one side and is a primo piece of pork.

Ready to be sliced and served. Boy, that was easy!
Curing it was simplicity itself. I made the brine, cooled it down and in went the pork for about 80 hours in the fridge. What came out was a beautiful, firm ham. At this point, it only needed to be heated to around 150° and it would be ready to eat. Of course, that wouldn’t do, so yesterday Karel and I hot-smoked it yesterday. I had used star anise, whole allspice, lemon, and red peppercorns to flavor the brine and they added their distinctive and lovely fragrances to the finished ham. Around the middle of the smoking, I glazed it all over with a mixture of dark brown sugar and Dijon mustard.

Tired of store bought salty and flabby ham (since they inject the brine solution into the hams to speed up curing, but equally importantly to increase the weight)? Go to your butcher, get a prime piece of pork from the leg or shoulder and make your own. No chemicals you don’t want, not overly salty and far more lovely-tasting. You will be shocked how easy it is.

Home-cured Smoked, Glazed Ham
for a 10 to 20-pound ham

(This recipe is from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)

Brine Ingredients
1 gallon of water
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) of kosher salt
2 packed cups (360 grams) dark brown sugar
1-1/2 oz (42 grams) of curing salt (8 teaspoons)
our additions were four star anise, 12 whole allspice, 3 tablespoons red peppercorns, and one lemon
1 10- to 20-pound piece of pork, skin and aitch-bone removed (if it’s a leg)

1. Quarter the lemon then mix the water, salts and brown sugar in a large, non-reactive pot (stainless steel) or crock, stirring until everything is dissolved. Squeeze each lemon quarter into the brine and throw in the rinds. (I heated the brine up a bit so the spices and lemon rinds would release their flavors a bit better. If you do this, you have to cool down, then chill the brine before you put the pork into it.)

2. Add the pork to the brine, weight it down so it’s completely submerged and soak it for 12 hours to the pound (my clarification). We like our pork a bit on the unsalty side so we brined it for 10 hours to the pound. Also, it was very hot this week, so to be on the safe side, I refrigerated everything.

3. When the brining is done, remove the pork and rinse it in cool water, then pat it dry. Place it on a rack for circulation all-round and chill it in your fridge for at least 12 hours (preferably 24).

4. Hot-smoke the ham using apple or hickory (cherry is nice, as well) for two hours.

5. Now glaze the ham all over with a mixture of 1 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar and 3/4 cup of Dijon mustard. Charcuterie recommends adding 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, but we left that out.

6. Continue smoking until the meat registers 155° at its thickest point.

7. Remove the ham from the smoker and brush on any remaining glaze. Let it cool. Now refrigerate it if you’re not serving it immediately. If you are serving it immediately, make sure to let your ham rest for at least 30 minutes to draw the juices back to the center.

8. If serving later, take the ham from the fridge and place it in a 275° oven until the center is warm (test it with a skewer). Slice and serve.

9. Be amazed at the number of compliments for something so easy!

Oh, and Happy Anniversary to my dear wife, Vicki Ann Woolsey, who has been the best companion imaginable for more years than I feel comfortable acknowledging. She is amazingly beautiful, vibrant, and I still love her dearly.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our Sunday Tradition

Vicki and I fell in love with croissants as students while we were attending McGill University in Montreal. Living in the student ghetto just to the east of campus, we had ready access to La Pâtisserie Belge, which at that time was on Sherbrooke Street, just west of Park Avenue (this was in the days before the PQ came to power so some street names were still in English). Many Sundays, I’d crawl out of bed early and take a run down there to pick up a bag of hot-out-of-the-oven croissants. They were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. The owner made them himself and they were crisp on the outside, tender and buttery on the inside. With a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, we felt like sophisticated Parisiennes as we read the Sunday paper and listened to classical music.

After we moved to Toronto, I kept my eye out for croissants as good as I was used to, and was always disappointed. Memory is seldom accurate. Bad things seem to get worse in our minds as time moves on, and good things get better. I began to suspect this was the case with my croissant memories from university. Then I went to Montreal for a TV appearance, went looking for Belgian Pastry and came upon a furniture store where they’d once been located. I asked a friend, and he told me they had moved up Avenue Parc (as it was now called) and were still open, although the old baker was long gone. His family now ran the place. I went there, bought a croissant and bit into it. It was all right, but when I asked, I found it had been made the day before. With no oven handy, I couldn’t get it heated up, so I couldn’t be certain, but it was sort of close to my university memory of croissants.

In 2008, we went to Paris for nine days to research a novel I was writing (The Fallen One) and I was looking forward to finding really great croissants again. Ultimately, though, I was disappointed. We did have some very good ones, but none could meet the bar which had been set in my memory very high indeed.

You see, a truly perfect croissant has to be very flaky and somewhat crisp on the outside. The “horns” should be more crisp at the ends with a satisfying crunch when you bite into them. The center should be yeasty, flaky and light, with a real buttery taste. Spread with a bit of apricot jam, I am in heaven when I have one.

I left Paris somewhat frustrated. If I couldn’t get one here, where could I possibly expect to find The Perfect Croissant?

A bit of a detour here. Let me start with this statement which I’m certain most Frenchmen would argue vociferously with me on: Croissants are not French. They were invented by the other master bakers of Europe, the Viennese (who are also responsible for Danishes, believe it or not). The story goes that when Austria broke the siege of Vienna in 1683, and the Ottoman Turks were routed, Vienna’s bakers stayed up all night making crescent-shaped pastries to celebrate the victory (it was a reference to the crescent on the Turkish flag). These early croissants were called Kipferi. Obviously superb, the recipe quickly spread all over Europe. Whether the story is true or not, it’s lovely and the first baked goods of this type are certainly traceable back to Vienna, regardless.

We were in Vienna twice for novel research (Cemetery of the Nameless), and sadly, I didn’t find what I was looking for there, either.

So for many years, we didn’t eat croissants. Why be disappointed? Almost every supermarket and doughnut shop sells them now, and those a generally truly bad, even when “refreshed” in the oven before serving them.

The first thing is: you can’t make a croissant worth the name by using machinery. All the authorities agree on this. They must be made by hand, layering the dough with sweet creamery butter, rolling it out several times to distribute the butter, then cutting and shaping them by hand. They are best served fresh out of the oven, so our experience of buying a bag on Sunday mornings just after they’d been removed from the oven, was fortuitous and goes a long way to explaining my lust for the best. If you buy ones made by machine, the texture won’t be properly flaky, you probably won’t have real butter in them, and ultimately you’ll find yourself saying, “Why bother?” if you know what a true croissant tastes like

Success in an unexpected place

Toronto has an excellent small bakery, Frangipane, on Dupont Street. The owner makes lovely cakes and pastries, is a superb chocolatier, and also has croissants. We bought some on a whim, put them into a 350° oven for about 8 minutes to crisp them up while the coffee brewed, and wonder of wonders, they were, in a word, perfection. Every time we were in the area for a chiropractic appointment, I’d make sure to stop by to pick some up. Then the owner changed the hours and they were never open when we had an appointment. Horrors!

In talking to her once and saying that we missed having our regular croissant fix, she revealed that she didn’t make them. “Too much work!” She bought them from another Toronto bakery/restaurant, Patachou. They’re located on Yonge Street and were once part of what is affectionately known as “The Five Thieves” (an explanation of that will come some time in the future) just below the Canadian Pacific rail line that bisects Yonge Street south of St. Clair. They’re now a bit further down the road at the corner of Yonge and Macpherson.

Of course, I immediately went over there and bought some fresh from the source. I was in heaven again!

Now, every Saturday, on our way to St. Lawrence Market for our weekly shopping, my son Karel and I stop at Patachou for croissants. I like the plain, he prefers the cheese ones, and they also make ones with almond paste or chocolate (pain aux chocolate which is a square of croissant dough with semi-sweet chocolate on the inside).

On Sunday morning when Vicki finally stirs, I start the coffee maker, turn on the oven to 350° and pop the croissants (stored overnight in a seal plastic bag to keep them fresh) into the oven to reheat and crisp up. Eight minutes later they’re ready when I remove them from the oven sizzling slightly. My favourite apricot jam is made by St. Dalfour in France: Tartinade De Luxe Abricot Extra. I like it because it’s not too sweet, and still tastes wonderfully apricot-y. Most jams have too much sugar, so that’s the first thing you taste. I want to taste fruit! This jam is sweetened with concentrated grape juice, and is perfect in my opinion. It’s also not too hard to find, but probably not in your local supermarket (although it is in our small one across the street, luckily).

If you’re in Toronto and desire the perfect croissant, head on over to Patachou. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Heat them up, though! This is critical if you want to experience croissant perfection.

If you’re not in Toronto, I wish you luck in finding what you seek. Let me know if you have your own source for the perfect croissant where you live.