It is horrid outside. "We need the rain in California," I say out loud to Eat Beast who stares towards the garden where the sky is apparently falling. Californians say this phrase to themselves and each other when it gets bad. I tell it to myself every Spring when it starts to come down so hard that the rivers threaten to wash out the many poorly conceived suburban sprawls incongruously built in the many flood plains here in Sacramento.
Listening to the peal of the rain striking the apartment I can’t help but go to the window and join the cat and look outside. The rain is blowing nearly horizontal and I’m worried about all the plants I just put into the ground. I’m praying they don’t get uprooted, broken, or drowned in all this. I fight the urge to check on them. Right now going outside for any reason is not only unappealing but insane It's true that we do need the rain. However, no one said anything about being happy about it.
A large crack sounds and a tree branch the size of a Harley from the nearby Eucalyptus suddenly crashes with a thunderous thud on top of the metal corrugated roof of the parking spots behind my fence. I stare at the branch and am relieved that it didn’t land in my yard on the baby tomatoes plants. Eat Beast's hackles are raised and a moment later he takes off to hide in the closet. And, with that, I decide that it’s time to dice up a stick of butter.
Pâte brisée, a fancy word for very buttery pie dough, is something I’ve become rather skilled at making. I learned how to make it from my friend, Elise, and with it gained from her some good advice about it. One particularly important tip is that at the first inkling I have of wanting to make a pie or galette you chop up some butter and toss it in the freezer. (Cold butter is key to flakey pie dough.)
I now whip out sticks of butter for dough at the slightest whim. Pining for an asparagus galette for dinner? I’m on it. Desiring some comfort food because your girlfriend dumped you for some ass with an emo haircut and a tribal band tattoo? Give me an hour and we’ll have pecan pie. Bored on a Friday night? Come to my house. We can whip together a fig and nut tart and do tequila and Serrano ham shots off the neighbor's stomach, and, yes, this is a thing that I did once in college.
Regardless of the situation, just let me butcher and freeze this butter and we'll be golden. Still, more often than not it's the chilling rain and winds that spur me to get down the food processor and get a bowl of ice water ready. I feel that pâte brisée, especially when baking and at its most fragrant, is the fatty, flaky antithesis of late Winter and early Spring storms. Shitty weather puts me in the mood for comfort food and right now something hearty and filling surrounded by crusty, golden, almost regrettably packed with too much butter crust sounds perfect.
I take a stick of butter and chop it up into ½-inch cubes before dropping them in the bowl and cram them in the freezer, teetering on a carton of ice cream between a vacuum-sealed duck and an opened bag of ice.
After about an hour of teasing the cat with his toys (the both of us feel this to be an hour well spent) I toss the butter along with some flour and salt into the food processor and pulse it a few times. This time I’m smart enough to cover with my hand that one spot on the processor where the top and base don’t quite meet. Forgetting to do that means a tall dusty plume of flour will shoot directly into my face like an old vaudeville gag. Usually - naturally - I only seem to forget when I have company or am wearing black. Its always humorous to everyone but me. I usually mutter out four or five f-bombs in a single sentence and change shirts.
Once the butter has broken down to the size of peas a few tablespoons of ice water are dropped in and pulsed until the whole thing resembles a coarse meal that easily pinches together. It all gets loosely kneaded into a ball and wrapped up in plastic. The whole process take about 2 minutes. Wham, bam, thank-you-Sam for we have crust.
It chills out in the fridge while I chill out on the couch with the now tired Eat Beast who only occassioanally lifts his head in response to the wind taking down another tree branch. I read a book, he naps on my lap, the dough sets.
The rain continues to beat down on the windows and sounds of wind echo out the fireplace as if some disoriented Jabberwocky lost itself inside and was howling for assistance. Eat Beast tries not to show it but a flick of his ears in the direction of the threatening moan and the sharp pain of his nails gripping my leg tell me he's alarmed. It is tempting to investigate the sound a bit more but a good book and 15 pounds of cat keep me in place.
A little bit later I kick the fat puss off and I start digging through the pantry and fridge looking for whatever ingredients will make for a whatever-but-satisfying filling. As long as the final product tastes good and chases the gloomy overcast of the weather out of the apartment I really don’t care. I uncover a yellow onion, a red potato, some mustard, and some fresh thyme. The scraps from a wedge of Gruyere and some Maytag blue cheese also make the cut. Fine fillings for a savory galette.
The onion gets thinly sliced and tossed into a skillet with some olive oil and ground pepper. While it sweetens and becomes golden in color like slivers of topaz I start slicing up the potato and shredding the cheeses. BF picks up the thyme and asks if he can help but I take it out of his hands and shoo him away. Stripping thyme is one of my favorite tasks in the kitchen. I enjoy how its aroma wraps around my head and makes me giddy, and I love how it lingers on my fingers for hours after. It reminds me that I was at least somewhat productive in my day. The dough gets rolled out, the fillings layered and tucked in, and I kick the oven door closed.
I slump back down on the couch and willfully ignore the responsibilities I know I should be attending too. The past few weeks have been overkill for me. Project after project, assignment after assignment, let alone the attempts to constantly resuscitate a social life and keep a healthy and active relationship with another human being and three cats have kept me busy.
Today’s depressing weather and that snap of the tree was enough to finish me off. I decided to play hookey from my life that day. I was going to read online comics while a galette bakes in the oven. My chores and have-to’s and To-Do lists would all be there tomorrow, but for now I plan to whip the beasts into their cages and lock the gates. They’ll be just fine left unattended for the day.
The galette finished and it smells like everything old fashioned cooking, warm, golden, and crinkled. It feels like the old fashioned type of cooking you always hear your grandparents wax on about. I imagine that if you could distill their frayed and ancient cookbooks into a flavor it would taste like this. Hot and crunchy, packed with herbs and with just the right tang from the cheeses.
I don’t know if this is French food, but it feels so rustic French countryside. It looks it at least. I imagine it tastes like some part of France I’ve never been to I’m proud of myself as French food isn’t my forte and imagine that Dorie Greenspan and Julia Child would both be quite proud of me.
Potato & Onion Galette Makes 1 Galette galette dough adapted from Simply Recipes
1 1/3 cup of all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, cut into cubes and frozen
1/4 cup of chilled water (plus a little more)
1 large red potato
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
2 ounces blue cheese
3 ounces Gruyere
salt and pepper
1. Put the flour, salt, and sugar into a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse 9 times until the butter is in the size of peas. Slowly add the water while pulsing until the dough begins to form clumps and looks a bit like corn meal that pinches together easily. Empty the dough onto a clean surface, form into a ball with minimum handling. Pat down into a disc shape. Chill for at least an hour before rolling out.
2. Slice up the potato into 1/8-1/4-inch slices and set aside. Thinly slice the onion and toss in a saute pan with the olive oil, thyme, and some salt and pepper. Sauté until soft and lightly colored. Set aside to cool. Shred the Gruyere and crumble the blue cheese. Toss the potatoes, onion, and cheeses together and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 375F. Roll out the dough out to 14-inches in diameter and of even thickness. Move to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Spread with a layer of mustard. Layer on the potato and onion mixture, leaving a 2 inch border. Fold in the 2-inch bordered edge over the filling and pleat the edges.
4. Bake for for 45-50 minutes or until crust is golden and the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Serve.