This month, I tried two recipes from the September issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, a PB&J Tart, and Sweet Potato-Parmesan Fries (you can click on each link to see the recipes on Martha's website). Both recipes were basically successful in my kitchen, but I would not call this my favorite Martha month. Let's start with the tart...
The PB&J Tart caught my eye right away when I first browsed the September issue. I love peanut butter. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches several times a week, even now as an adult (they're cheap, filling and delicious, what's not to love?). I was very eager to try this recipe.
The recipe is simple, maybe a bit deceptively so, actually. You're making a simple shortbread crust with sugar, salt, flour and butter, baking it, then spreading peanut butter and jelly over it and baking again. It seemed easier than it actually was, but I'll get to that. The recipe suggested using grape, strawberry or raspberry jelly (not jam; you need thin, non-chunky jelly for this recipe) and sweetened peanut butter. The jelly was easy; I happen to really love concord grape jelly and it's cheap and easy to find. But I don't keep sweetened peanut butter around and just can't buy it either. Not because I don't like it but because I really like it. I used the natural, non-sweetened peanut butter I always keep in the house.
The dough was simple to make, but I had to modify the directions because you were supposed to make the dough in a food processor. I don't own a food processor (I did once, but I gave it away because I never really used it and it just took up valuable kitchen space), so I used my standing mixer with paddle attachment to mix up the dough ingredients. I think it worked fine, but I also found the dough to be a bit stiff and hard to shape, so maybe using a food processor would have worked better. I don't know. I do know that the dough was supposed to be rolled into a long, narrow rectangular shape and it wasn't going to happen for me. I was also supposed to flute the edges with my fingers, but it was too stiff and dry so I did the best I could without breaking it apart.
The crust is made with an interesting technique that I haven't really seen before. After the raw dough is rolled out and placed on a sheet pan, it's placed in the freezer for 15 minutes. Then, it's baked (un-topped) in two stages, with a pause in between to push down the bubbles forming in the crust with the bottom of a metal measuring cup. After the second stage, the crust is removed from the oven so that the peanut butter and jelly can be spread over the top. I heated the jelly in the microwave to thin it and make it easier to spoon over the peanut butter. The jelly is also swirled through the peanut butter with a wooden skewer before the whole thing goes back in the oven again.
After baking for the final time, the tart is moved to a cooling rack. The jelly was bubbly at first, but it sort of hardened into a thick gel with the peanut butter, becoming a bit dry and pasty. I wondered if the sweetened peanut butter would have done better here. I didn't think the tart looked very nice by this stage (the peanut butter and jelly looked lumpy and forget that crust), but it smelled really delicious.
I cut my tart into 12 squares, instead of the slender wedges shown in the recipe. I was concerned about the integrity of my crust if I cut it that way. Squares worked well, though, and the crust actually turned out to be surprisingly sturdy. The tart was tasty. I liked the crust, which was buttery but not too sweet. The peanut butter did have a pasty texture, which I didn't love, but the jelly was nice and firm and I thought the PB&J flavor came through nicely. I think that if I were to make this again, I might use a basic sugar-cookie dough for the crust; it would boost the flavors of the peanut butter and jelly, and be a little easier to work with. I might not bother swirling the jelly through the peanut butter because I don't think it matters much to the recipe and didn't look as attractive as I'd hoped. All in all, this was an interesting recipe but not one that I'm clamoring to make again right now.
The Sweet Potato-Parmesan Fries came from a spread featuring recipes for french fry-like baked vegetables. I love french fries and I enjoy trying different takes on the idea. Sweet potato fries are one of my favorite variations and I have made them numerous times, but I've always kept it very simple, making them with just olive oil, salt and pepper. This recipe also included grated parmesan cheese, which I'd never tried before. I thought it sounded good.
The fries were simple to make. I used a little less sweet potato than the recipe called for, but that was inadvertent; one of the three potatoes I'd purchased turned out to be bad and I had to throw it away. I was short only a few ounces of potato for the recipe, so it was not a big deal. As much as I enjoy eating sweet potato fries, the slicing process is a little scary for me. Sweet potatoes are difficult to cut because they are so hard. I usually end up using some combination of about three different knives to achieve the slender sticks needed to make fries with them, and I pray the whole time that I'll still have some fingers left when I'm done. The recipe was just the same as I've always done - peel, slice, place sticks in a bowl to be tossed with oil and seasoning - except this time, I added 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese to the bowl.
I baked the fries on a sheet pan, as directed. If I'd used the full amount of potato, I would have followed Martha's suggestion to divide the fries between two pans and rotate them in the oven halfway through cooking. My fries fit just fine on one half-sheet pan, but they took much longer to bake than the recipe suggested. I don't think they were crowded on the pan, which can be a problem for baking. I often find sweet potatoes to be slow to cook, whether they're whole or cut up. I ended up using my oven's "speed bake" feature (basically turning it into a convection oven) for about ten minutes in order to get the fries to cook through and start crisping up. I don't often use the "speed bake" setting because I feel it dries food out too much, but it was necessary here.
We had our fries with Shake N Bake chicken and corn. The fries look pretty good, right? The color is nice and they did get some browning after awhile. Well, they looked better than they tasted. The parmesan made them very salty and kind of greasy. You couldn't really taste the cheese flavors, just salt. I would have cut the added salt or omitted it altogether. I might have used less cheese too, but the cheese turned out to be the best part because it had browned all over the pan and was crispy and delicious. But it was stuck hopelessly to the pan in a lot of places and required hours of soaking and much scrubbing with Brillo to remove. This doesn't happen when I make my ho-hum cheeseless sweet potato fries, which taste really good anyway, so I'll probably just stick with those in the future.
You win some, you lose some! September was not my Martha-est month. Here's to more success in October.