Sunday, July 21, 2013

Give quiche a chance.

Quiche with spinach and feta. © Ryan Schierling
We crave what we crave, and oh, how I have missed my favorite spinach and feta quiche.

Believe it or not, back in the day this was one of my preferred quick, late-morning meals with a nice hot latte. There was a delightful neighborhood coffee shop that sold this delicious pie by the slice. It was a thick, custardy piece with the bright tang of feta and a generous amount of chopped spinach perfectly suspended throughout. It was just the right thing to get me through a busy afternoon on those days when I needed a little bit of protein, instead of something starchy or sweet.

It's no easy thing to find a quiche that is truly a custard; delicate and flavorful without being heavy and essentially a baked-egg casserole, as they are so often prepared. Many also suffer from the addition of abundant oily cheese, or vacuous vegetables that are neither enhanced by or serve to elevate such creamy custard. Some "quiches" are unabashedly filling-centric, where the "custard" is reduced in proportion to merely an egg-based binder instead of shining as the real star. 

It took a bit of research to find a recipe offering guidelines for the right proportions of egg and cream and milk to meet my criteria. But, fortunately for my cravings, this quiche base magnificently hits the mark. While it may seem that anything containing eggs and milk baked inside a pie shell qualifies as a quiche in the wide world of recipes online, we all know that the French are a little more particular about these things. Fact is, I almost feel bad that my favorite variety is so very Florentine. Or maybe even Greek – with the feta included, it's a little like spanakopita meets classic French cuisine – but, in the best possible way.

This isn't a same-day, right-out-of-the-oven preparation. It requires making some pastry dough in advance. And, yes, you'll have to make your own pie dough for this one because it needs to be rolled out a little thicker than you might get away with for a typical pie. After baking, it also needs a good eight hours to "set" in the refrigerator. But it is SO very worth it.

Key to this preparation is making it luciousIy deep dish and engineering the filling in order to suspend the bits of spinach and feta evenly. None of this "floating to the top" or "settling to the bottom" business, thank you very much. A 9-inch diameter ring mold or springform pan will give you that ideal minimum 2" depth. I use an 8-inch springform pan only because I don't currently have a 9-inch size. It's definitely on the deeper side at 2-1/2", but it works perfectly, and with this recipe I use all the filling and all the dough.

A few notes about the sources I've used here. This quiche is adapted from Michael Ruhlman's Quiche Lorraine. His posts on the topic date back to 2009 when the book Ratio was being promoted, but the most recent iteration on his site includes a full recipe instead of simply a link to the NPR story and I would consider it highly-recommend reading for anyone planning to prepare a proper quiche.

For the pie dough, I love that Ruhlman's recipe is built using a bona fide ratio and intend to try it as instructed at some point. However, I have, of late, tended to use something closer to the "food processor method with vodka" that was popularized in recent years by Cooks Illustrated. Below, I have included my own bastardized version which I currently use with a satisfying degree of success for someone who was at one time fearfully anxious at the very thought of making pie dough. If you have been prone to suffering from pie dough intimidation, go watch the two-minute video over at The Italian Dish – it is sure to comfort you just seeing it being made so simply in real time. The same basic process can be used with the Cooks Illustrated recipe. Though, do remember to add half the butter/shortening, pulse several times, and then add the rest. There's some science behind that bit. If you are interested, there is more great info about the chemistry of making good pie dough, and some of the finer points regarding coarse versus fine fat particles and the function of vodka, which can be found in a terrific article by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at The Food Lab, as well.

When it comes to getting the spinach suspended evenly in the custard, the technique of frothing and layering can work a little too well. The spinach is light enough that if you start pouring the custard over it, the flow of liquid likes to stream under the spinach and feta lifting the spinach to the top of the pie. I've found that it is best to carefully ladle the custard over each layer, being as gentle as possible not to disturb the ingredients. My goal is always to get the spinach distributed in as small pieces as possible so that it is finely apportioned throughout. With well-squeezed spinach it can be a challenge to get it to break up evenly. I just use a fork to fluff it a little and then do the best I can to scatter bits of it uniformly with my fingers. Instead of just two layers, as Ruhlman's recipe recommends, I like to do it in about three or four layers of spinach and feta. Notably, my pan makes a 2-1/2 inch deep pie instead of the recommended 2-inch. Whatever feels right for you, work quickly with each layer to minimize the time the frothy custard mixture has to sit from the time it is blended to going in the shell.

Okay, homework out of the way... here's the only recipe you'll ever need for straight-up spinach-feta quiche.

Spinach-feta quiche unleashed. © Ryan Schierling
Spinach-feta Quiche (Adapted from Michael Ruhlman's Quiche Lorraine)

2 cups whole milk
1 cup cream
6 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
Up to 1/8 teaspoon freshly-ground nutmeg
1 pound fresh spinach, chopped
6-8 ounces fresh feta cheese (the type that comes in brine, not the "dry crumbles" kind)
One recipe single pastry dough (see recipe below)

Remove pastry dough from refrigerator. Trace the bottom of an 8-inch or 9-inch springform pan on a piece of parchment paper and cut out circle just inside of the tracing lines. Place this parchment circle on the bottom of the springform pan, using a small dab of butter or shortening in several places to "stick" it in place.

Roll out pastry dough from center to a thickness of approximately 1/4" with a diameter that will cover both the bottom and sides of the pan. Prioritize maintaining the 1/4" thickness for the bottom area, as the sides will naturally become thicker as the dough gathers up the edge. Lightly oil the inside and top edges of the the springform pan and lay the dough in the pan. Let the dough overhang the edges all the way around. (This extra overhang of dough will ensure a clean top edge even as it contracts in baking and will later be trimmed off prior to service.) Reserve a small piece of dough to patch any holes prior to filling and the final baking of the quiche. Chill for about 15 minutes in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350º F and bake the dough for 25 minutes using parchment lining and pie weights (or dry beans) and then for another 20 minutes without the parchment and pie weights. Allow to cool prior to adding the filling.

While the dough is baking, chop the spinach into roughly 1/2" pieces or strips. In a large lidded sauté pan, allow spinach to steam, then drain and reduce as it wilts down. (No water or oil are necessary if you keep your heat gentle through this process.) Drain any water off of spinach and squeeze out any excess water either by pressing with a spatula in a fine mesh strainer, or by squeezing between paper towels.

For the custard, add the milk, cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the 6 eggs a medium mixing bowl and blend using an immersion blender. Add an ounce or so of crumbled feta cheese to the mixture and blend until foamy.

Reduce the oven heat to 325º F. Set the springform pan on a tray or jelly roll pan. Assemble the quiche by layering spinach, then feta, and ladling the custard mixture over it. Repeat. When you are very near the top, you may want to assemble the last layer with the pan already on the oven rack to avoid spilling the custard as it should come right up to the top of the pastry.

Bake at 325º F for 1-1/2 hours. Then check every 5 to 10 minutes for doneness. When it is done, the center should still have a little jiggle when moved and a knife inserted one inch from the inside of the shell should come out clean.

Allow the quiche to cool and then refrigerate overnight. (Eight hours is the minimum recommended.) When ready to serve, remove from fridge and trim the excess pastry from the top edge of the springform pan using a sharp knife. Gently unclasp the springform pan and slide the ring off the quiche. Slice and serve cold, or warm in oven.

Single pastry dough (My mishmash of recipes from The Italian Dish and Cooks Illustrated

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar (use more only if using this recipe for a dessert application)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
4 tablespoons non-hydrogenated palm shortening, chilled (measure and then chill)
3 teaspoons vodka
1/4 cup ice water (slightly more if needed)

In food processor add flour, sugar and salt. Pulse. Add the shortening and a couple small pieces of butter. Pulse several times. Add the rest of the butter and pulse a few more times. In a small pouring cup, mix the vodka and ice water. With the food processor on, or pulsing, pour the water mixture slowly into the food processor until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Only use as much of the ice water/vodka mixture as needed to get the dough to come together and clean the sides.

Form ball into a 1-inch thick disc dusted with flour, cover in plastic wrap and chill for at least half an hour. When ready to roll out, just open up the plastic wrap and roll out directly onto the wrap, keeping a little flour on hand to dust the cutting board where the pastry may get rolled out beyond the edges of the wrap.

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