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Creme de la custard

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The custard is deep and luxurious, ivory colored and liberally studded with bits of filling -- pale leeks, tawny mushrooms or bright green spinach. Maybe a curling ribbon of ham. The top is a mottled mixture of gold and brown. The crust is crisp and a little flaky, just sturdy enough to contain it all. You cut it with a fork and the custard quivers, seemingly on the verge of returning to cream. The crust shatters against the plate.

I'd forgotten how memorable a great quiche could be. But I've been working hard at getting reacquainted. Over the last several weeks, there has always been at least one in my refrigerator.

Quiches make elegant appetizers for a dinner party, and they're perfect for everyday eating. They are good hot, at room temperature or cold. If I bake a quiche on Sunday, I've got a couple of the week's meals lined up -- a satisfying dinner (with a green salad, a glass of Riesling and a Laker game), a sack lunch my daughter can pack to work, and a great snack for me to nibble straight from the fridge.

For something that seems so fragile, a quiche is surprisingly durable. Once it's baked, it can be stored in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for up to a week. Whack off a piece, plop it on a cookie sheet and bake it until it's heated through -- 10 or 15 minutes. You'd never guess it wasn't freshly made.

I have Thomas Keller to thank for my reintroduction. While looking through his new "Bouchon" cookbook over the holidays, I noticed that there was an entire section devoted to the dish. America's greatest chef in love with the quiche? Who'da thunk it?

Keller, who serves quiche regularly at his Bouchon bistros in Yountville and Las Vegas, practically lights up when he talks about the dish. "I still remember the first time I had a real quiche. Just understanding that that was the way a quiche should be, suddenly it all made sense. It was one of those moments of sheer pleasure.

"When I see a well-made quiche, it gives me a sense of comfort, a sense of grounding," he says. "Good food is not about fashion; it's about quality of product and execution. A dish that is good lasts forever."

Keller is far from alone in his affection for the dish. Here in Southern California, Josie LeBalch has attracted a cult following for the mushroom quiche she serves as a complimentary appetizer at her Santa Monica restaurant Josie. What began as an emergency fill-in has now turned into an 80-pie-a-week habit.

LeBalch's quiche is a twist on one her father served at his '70s Valley bistro Chef Gregoire. She started making it because in the rush to open Josie, she didn't have time to think of anything else.

"At first we were planning on serving it just until we got caught up with everything, but then the quiche caught on and now we can't take it off the menu," LeBalch says.

In addition to the sliver of mushroom quiche that goes out to every diner in the restaurant, LeBalch also offers others as occasional specials.

One of her favorites is another twist on the traditional Lorraine, this one made with diced potatoes and Morbier. The ham is in a single sheet, pinched into a ruffled little bow so that the browned ends poke through the puffed brown cheese on top.

Variations on a theme

It is interesting comparing Keller and LeBalch's quiches. The differences show just how flexible the dish is. Keller's crust is flaky; LeBalch's is more like a cookie. Keller's filling focuses on the custard; LeBalch's is all about the cheese. Still, they are both delicious.

That says a lot about the eternal appeal of the quiche, despite whatever has been done to it in the past. And as any diner can tell you, in the wrong hands a quiche is not a pretty thing. Too often, careless cooks have turned it into a kind of dumping ground for tired ingredients -- a curdled casserole in a soggy crust.

And then there was that whole reputation thing.

"The quiche just got a bad rap," says LeBalch. "It was too frou-frou or whatever. 'Real men don't eat quiche.' Ha! I'll tell you what: All my men love my quiche, are you kidding me?"

The most basic quiche is the original from the French-German province of Lorraine. In its simplest form, it is merely a savory custard baked in a pastry crust (though the "Larousse Gastronomique" reports an even earlier version baked in bread dough). The more familiar version of quiche Lorraine adds thin slices of blanched bacon and Gruyere cheese.

Today, there is all manner of quiches containing different kinds and combinations of vegetables and even seafood. In "Bouchon," Keller includes fillings made with spinach, leeks and Roquefort, mushrooms, and ham and long-cooked onions.

Of course, Keller being Keller, he has some pretty specific ideas about how a quiche should be made. First of all, it should be thicker than most people make it. Most tart shells are one inch deep. Keller insists that a quiche has to be two inches deep before you get the true custard texture that is his favorite part of the dish. He uses a ring mold; a removable bottom tart pan works well.

Be forewarned that the pastry recipe is a little tricky; it tends to leak if you don't follow the instructions carefully. Be sure to leave the pastry thicker than you normally might. The dough handles so easily and is such a pleasure to roll out that you might be tempted to just keep going past the thickness Keller calls for (precisely three-sixteenths of an inch, though one-quarter inch is just fine).

Rolling too thin is a mistake that will result in a thoroughly leaky crust, I learned to my dismay, as I watched my golden lab-pit bull mutt lap delightedly at the floor below the oven after my first try. (I also was reminded it's always a good idea to bake quiche on a jellyroll pan to catch any spills.)

Add the custard batter and the filling ingredients to the pie crust while all of them are still hot. This lets the custard thicken quickly, helping to avoid leakage.

Keller waits to trim away the excess pastry dough until the quiche has already been baked. Instead, he presses it to the outside of the pan to help prevent the shell from shrinking. He also advises keeping pastry scraps around for patching any cracks or holes that might develop during forming, chilling or the initial baking of the crust. Moisten them slightly before pressing them into place.

Also, the crust must be well baked before the filling ingredients go in because the custard will prevent it from browning any further.

The custard filling must be blended until it is quite light and foamy -- it's those bubbles that will suspend the cooked ingredients throughout the custard instead of allowing them to settle down to the bottom. If your blender is small, divide the custard in half in order to get the texture as frothy as possible. Adding the custard and filling in two portions helps get a better distribution of ingredients too.

Keller likes to chill the baked quiche thoroughly before serving it. This serves two purposes: It sets the custard so it can be sliced cleanly, and it allows the flavors to mellow and combine. For the less perfectionist (or patient) among us, quiche can be eaten straight out of the oven if you allow a 15-minute rest to cool and set.

Once you've got the basics down, whether you're using Keller's crust or LeBalch's -- or your own -- you can change the filling to fit your taste. There is no set ratio of cooked ingredients to custard and crust, because different fillings will vary in flavor intensity -- you would add much less ham, for example, than you would mushrooms.

And it's most important that all the filling ingredients be cooked to rid them of as much moisture as possible. Meat and fish can be sauteed; vegetables should be blanched first. Everything should be patted dry to remove any liquid remaining on the surface.

In general, plan on about three-quarters of a cup grated Gruyere per quiche, but don't be afraid to play around a little.

Keller even includes quiches on the menu at the French Laundry and Per Se from time to time. Of course, these are individual serving size and they tend to come with interesting twists.

One of his favorites he calls the Caesar salad quiche. He makes the custard from milk that's been infused with a Parmesan rind. "See, the cheese portion of the salad is the custard and the crouton portion is the crust -- you know how convoluted we get," he says, laughing. "We serve it with romaine lettuce dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette. And, of course, it's baby romaine."

Basic quiche batter

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Adapted from "Bouchon" by Thomas Keller. Depending on the size of your blender, you may need to divide this into two batches.

2 cups milk

2cups heavy cream

6 eggs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

6 gratings fresh nutmeg

1. Combine the milk and cream in a large saucepan and heat over medium heat until scalded (meaning a skin begins to form on the surface). Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Put the eggs, the milk mixture, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a blender and blend on low speed about 5 seconds to mix thoroughly, then increase the speed to high and blend until the batter is light and foamy, about 30 seconds. Immediately pour into the hot quiche shell and bake.

Basic quiche shell

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus at least 1 hour, 20 minutes chilling time

Servings: Makes 1 (9-inch) tart shell or a (9-inch) deep-dish pie pan

Note: Adapted from "Bouchon" by Thomas Keller

2 cups flour, divided, plus a little more for rolling

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 -inch pieces

1/4 cup ice water

2 tablespoons canola oil

1. Place 1 cup of the flour and the salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the butter a small handful at a time.

2. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium and mix until the butter is completely blended with the flour. Reduce the speed, add the remaining flour and mix just to combine.

3. Add the water a little at a time and mix until the dough gathers around the paddle and pulls cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. It should feel smooth, not sticky.

4. Remove the dough from the mixer and check to be certain that there are no visible pieces of butter remaining; if necessary, return the dough to the mixer and mix briefly again. Pat the dough into a 7- to 8-inch disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to a day. (If the dough does not rest, it will shrink as it bakes.)

5. Lightly brush the inside of a 9-by-2-inch removable-bottom tart pan with canola oil and place it on a jelly roll pan. Place the dough on a floured work surface and rub on all sides with flour. Flatten it into a larger circle using a rolling pin or the heel of your hand. Roll the rolling pin back and forth across the dough a few times, then turn it 90 degrees and roll again. Continue to turn and roll until the dough is one-fourth inch thick and about 14 inches in diameter. (If the kitchen is hot and the dough has become very soft, move it to a baking sheet and refrigerate for a few minutes.)

6. To lift the dough into the tart pan, place the rolling pin across the dough about one-quarter of the way up from the bottom edge, fold the bottom edge of the dough up and over the pin, and roll the dough up on the rolling pin. Lift the dough on the pin and hold it over the pan, centering it. Carefully lower the dough into the pan, pressing it gently against the sides and into the bottom. Trim any dough that extends more than an inch over the sides of the pan and reserve the scraps. Fold the excess dough over against the outside of the ring. (Preparing the quiche shell this way will prevent it from shrinking down the sides as it bakes. The excess dough will be removed after the quiche is baked.) Carefully check for any cracks or holes in the dough, and patch with the reserved dough as necessary. Place in the refrigerator or freezer for at least 20 minutes to resolidify the butter. Reserve the remaining dough scraps.

7. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the quiche shell with a 15-inch round of parchment paper. Fill the shell with pie weights or dried beans, gently guiding the weights into the corners of the shell and filling the shell completely. Bake the shell until the edges of the dough are lightly browned but the bottom is still light in color, 35 to 45 minutes.

8. Carefully remove the parchment and weights. Check the dough for any new cracks or holes and patch with thin pieces of the reserved dough if necessary. Return the shell to the oven until the bottom is a rich golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the shell to cool completely on the jellyroll pan. Once again, check the dough for any cracks or holes, and patch if necessary before filling with the quiche batter.

Ham and potato quiche

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes plus 2 hours, 30 minutes chilling time

Servings: 6

Note: From Josie LeBalch, who serves this quiche with a salad of wild arugula lightly dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette.

Tart dough

2 egg yolks

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 3/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

1. Whisk together the yolks and cream in a bowl and set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar and salt on low speed.

2. Add the cold butter and mix until dry and mealy with no large butter pieces, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the cream mixture and mix just until dough comes together.

3. Pat the dough into a flat disk, wrap in plastic and chill 2 hours.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out the tart dough about one-eighth inch thick and line 6 (4-by-1 1/4 -inch) individual tart pans with removable bottoms with dough. (You may substitute a 9-inch pie plate if tart pans are not available.) Trim the excess dough. (Reserve extra dough for another use.) Chill in the refrigerator or freezer at least 30 minutes.

5. Remove the tart shells from the refrigerator. Check for any holes and patch them with leftover dough. Line each tart shell (or the pie shell) with parchment paper and baking beans and bake the tart shells until the rims have begun to color, 10 to 12 minutes (15 minutes for a pie shell). Remove the beans and parchment paper and again patch any holes that might have appeared. Bake until the bottom of the crust is a light golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes (about 15 minutes for the pie shell).

Tart filling

1 (6-ounce) baking potato

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup finely diced onion

1/2 cup creme fraiche (or 1/2 cup sour cream mixed with

1 tablespoon heavy cream)

2/3 cup diced Morbier or Fontina cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

3 eggs

3/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

6 paper-thin slices Black Forest ham (as thin as possible while staying in one piece)

1. Peel the potato and trim the ends and sides to make a rectangular block. Cut the potato into small dice.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Measure one-half cup of the potato cubes and add them to the water. When the water returns to the boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook until the potato is cooked through but firm, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain and reserve.

3. Heat the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until clear and soft, about 5 minutes.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the creme fraiche, potato, Morbier and Parmesan, being careful not to break up the potato cubes. Set aside to cool 10 minutes.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and heavy cream and gently stir into the potato and cheese mixture. Add the salt and pepper.

6. Spoon about one-fourth cup of the mixture into each pre-baked tart shell, enough to cover the bottom by one-half inch (or spoon half the mixture into the pie shell).

7. Place a slice of ham on the work surface and pinch the slice in the middle to make a bow-tie shape. Place the bow in the center of each tart, allowing the ham edges to hang off the side (or arrange 6 bow-tie slices around the pie). Spoon the remaining filling on and around the ham; you don't want to cover the slices completely.

8. Cover tarts loosely with aluminum foil (do not cover if using a pie shell) and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the filling is just set and the top is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes (longer if necessary for a pie shell). If the ends of the ham begin to brown too much, cover them loosely with thin strips of foil. When the tart is cooked, parts of the ham should appear through the melted cheese. To serve, remove the quiches from the tart pans by placing a slightly cooled pan on top of a bottle and pushing down. Remove the rim and bottom of the pan and place each quiche on a plate.

Each serving: 876 calories; 20 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 66 grams fat; 39 grams saturated fat; 489 mg. cholesterol; 601 mg. sodium.

Roquefort and leek quiche

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus at least 1 day chilling

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Adapted from Thomas Keller's "Bouchon." You will need a 9-inch removable-bottom 2-inch deep tart pan or a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate.

3 pounds leeks (about 5)

6 ounces Roquefort cheese, crumbled (about 1 1/3 cups)

Basic quiche shell

Basic quiche batter

1. Cut off the dark green leaves from the leeks and discard. Cut off and discard the root end and bottom 1 inch of each leek. Cut the leeks lengthwise in half and wash well under cold running water. Place cut side down on a cutting board and slice crosswise into 1/4 -inch-thick slices. (You should have 4 to 5 cups packed leeks.)

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the leeks and cook for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Drain the leeks and spread them on a baking sheet to cool. Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees.

3. Squeeze the cooled leeks to remove excess water and dry on paper towels. Scatter half the chopped leeks and half the Roquefort evenly into the hot quiche shell (still on the jelly roll pan).

4. Blend the quiche batter again to aerate it, then pour in enough of the batter to cover the ingredients and fill the quiche shell approximately halfway. Top the batter with the remaining leeks and cheese. Blend the remaining batter once more and fill the quiche shell all the way to the top (if you don't have a very steady hand, you might spill some of the batter on the way to the oven; fill the shell most of the way, then pour the final amount of batter on top once the quiche is on the oven rack). You may have some batter left over. Bake for 5 minutes. The filling level will drop. Pour in the remaining batter to fill to the top; there may be a little left over.

5. Bake for 1 hour, 15 minutes, until the top of the quiche is browned and the custard is set when the pan is jiggled. Remove the quiche from the oven and let stand 15 minutes before serving, or cool, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 day, or up to 3 days.

6. Once the quiche is thoroughly chilled, using a metal bench scraper or a sharp knife, scrape away the excess crust from the top edge. Place a large bowl upside down on a work surface and place the quiche pan on top of that. Gently remove the outside ring, working it free in spots with a small knife if necessary. Return to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

7. To serve, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper. Using a long serrated knife, and supporting the sides of the crust with your opposite hand, carefully cut through the edge of the crust in a sawing motion. Switch to a long slicing knife and cut through the custard and bottom crust. Repeat, cutting the quiche into 8 to 10 pieces. Place the pieces on the baking sheet and reheat for 15 minutes or until hot throughout. To check, insert a metal skewer into the quiche for several seconds and then touch the skewer to your lip to test the temperature of the quiche.

Each serving: 614 calories; 14 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 49 grams fat; 28 grams saturated fat; 260 mg. cholesterol; 862 mg. sodium.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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