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Rose Carrarini's Tomato-Ricotta Tart

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I thought you might like to know that traps have been set and I am spending the day avoiding my apartment. Hoping that by the time I go home (after seeing yet more apartments, heavens above) and meet Ben (back, finally, from his trip so he can attend to his mouse-corpse-removal duties), there will be something for him to pick up gingerly and discard while I prance blithely about in the background, making pretend that life is nothing but a string of bowl-full-of-cherry days and that our greatest worry is whether we'll be eating lobster rolls at Pearl's or Ed's tonight. (For my birthday. Yes, the one that happened 6 months ago.)

Though, admittedly, the exterminator removed all sense of guilt that I had over the offing of this little creature by turning to me at some point this morning while he was shoving poison packs under my cabinets, and I was wringing my hands, and barking out of the corner of his scornfully pursed lips:

"Ya'd rather get the hantavirus? That stuff's incurable, ya know."

Um, well, nothankyouverymuch. And with that I am ending all discussion of mouse talk and the vile diseases they spread, because, ugh, I can barely even see straight anymore for all the grossness and I can't handle another dead faint, not when I've left my smelling salts at home.

Besides, in far more interesting news, I've got to tell you that homemade butter, the kind that isn't cultured and therefore still mostly tastes like Land O'Lakes sans the nasty supermarket flavor bloom, makes for excellent tart crusts.

Really, they're total perfection. At first, after the butter, flour and salt had whirred about in the food processor, I thought the dough looked too smooth and uniform, not pebbly enough. But chilled and rolled and pricked and parbaked and filled and baked again, the dough turned into this meltingly tender, delicious crust that held together well and melted in our mouths.

Though I suppose I should also tell you that that tasty crust would have been nothing without a lining of grated farmhouse cheddar and a filling of roasted tomatoes suspended in a savory ricotta custard, infused with oregano leaves. The tart was airy and creamy and the silky tomatoes packed a wallop of concentrated flavor.

I served this along with grill-blistered hot dogs and nicely charred hamburgers on Independence Day, before the rain came out and crowded us indoors, where we lined the walls of my narrow apartment, drinking beer, soothing babies, and discussing real estate (is there anything else we can talk about?). The tart disappeared long before the hot dogs did, which is saying something, since it seems that the Fourth of July is hardly even a holiday if there aren't hot dogs to be had. Wouldn't you say?

So, yeah. Are you busy right now? Don't you think you should get yourself home to make this? I think you should, I really do.

Tomato-Ricotta Tart
Servings: 9 to 12

Tart shell
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, plus extra for greasing
1 beaten egg yolk, divided (use half for the tart shell and reserve half for the filling)

1. In a food processor, process the flour, salt and butter for about 5 to 8 seconds, so that some pieces of butter are left. Combine half of the egg yolk (saving the other half for the filling; set aside in the refrigerator) with one-fourth cup cold water and drizzle through the tube of the food processor while pulsing. Pulse until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides.

2. Alternatively, the dough can be mixed by hand. Put the flour and salt in a bowl, cut the butter into pieces and work it into the flour with your fingertips. Make a well in the middle of the flour and butter mixture and add the half egg yolk and one-quarter cup ice water. Stir quickly with a fork to start bringing the dry and wet ingredients together. When the fork can't do any more, use your hands just to bring the dough together. Don't knead or press — all you have to do is gather up the dry parts as quickly as possible. If your hands get too warm, put them under cold water for a few minutes.

3. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or up to 8 hours.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough, lifting and turning it all the time so that it does not stick to the surface. Roll the dough out into a square about one-eighth-inch thick. Roll the dough around the rolling pin and gently lift it into the tart pan, gently pressing the dough into the bottom of the pan and up against the sides. Trim the edges. Chill again for about 30 minutes.

5. Line the tart shell with parchment or foil and fill it with pie weights or beans and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment or foil and prick the crust with a fork. Continue baking an additional 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Cool the tart shell on a rack.

Cream mixture, filling and assembly
6 plum tomatoes (such as Roma), halved
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
1 cup half and half
2 eggs
1/2 egg yolk (reserved from making the tart shell)
Pinch grated nutmeg
1 tart shell
1 cup packed grated farmhouse cheddar cheese
3/4 cup ricotta cheese (I only used 1/2 cup, and I blended it in with the cream mixture)
1/2 cup tender sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil, place a rack in the baking sheet and roast the tomatoes skin-side up for about 2 hours, until the liquid has gone and the skins can be removed easily. Season the skinned tomatoes generously with salt and pepper and drizzle a little oil over them. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. In a mixing bowl, beat the half and half, eggs, egg yolk, one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper and nutmeg until they are well mixed.

3. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet and scatter the cheddar cheese over the base of the tart. Place the tomatoes on top of this and spoonfuls of ricotta in between the tomatoes.

4. Pour in as much of the cream mixture as you can without it spilling over the top; you may have some cream mixture left over. Sprinkle with the thyme.

5. Transfer carefully to the oven and bake for about 30 to 40 minutes until the filling has set and is lightly golden. Allow to cool slightly before serving.


David Pasternack's Tuna Meatballs

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These past few days have been my favorite kind of New York days. The air is crisp, odd for July, and the sun never gets too hot. The sky is a kind of piercing blue that we usually don't see until September and the puffy clouds floating across the heavens are as light and airy as marshmallows. At night, it's cool enough to pull a thin cardigan around my shoulders.

The city empties out around holidays, which is always a treat. It's not that I don't like having my fellow New Yorkers around, but the calm that descends upon the city on a holiday is something that I'm loathe to share. The steady rumble from the streets dies down, the buzz of construction sites and the hum of air conditioners cease, and you can hear birds in Manhattan again.

There's something kind of special about this other New York, the one that only those without summer shares and highway dreams have. When I pass the few people on my street who have stuck around as well, we smile at each other and nod. Usually, we don't even acknowledge each other's presence. But we're special now, we're in a club together - at home, in this city, on a holiday when everyone else has fled for clogged roads and beaches. The check-out girl at the supermarket where I've just bought five pounds of ground beef ignores me on most days, but today we're both having people over for a celebration, so she decides to share her mother's burger method with me and we share a conspiratorial smile.

I don't care about fireworks and I'm doing my best to ignore the threat of a terror spectacular. This slowing down, this different pace, this is what the Fourth of July is all about for me. Trying not to break my rickety grill as we load it up with hot dogs and burgers, sipping a chilled beer with friends who've come from uptown, downtown, crosstown and Queens, (hoping that the mouse doesn't choose this particular moment to come out and play), introducing a little monkey named Charlotte to the pleasure of afternoon barbecue - this is how we'll be celebrating.

As for the meatballs I'd so much looked forward to making, they were nothing more than just fine. Surprising, right? After all, you'd think that garlic oil and pancetta and red pepper flakes would have done quite a good job of perking up this rather pedestrian concept of a dish. Not to mention the tuna! But the meatballs were nothing special. You couldn't taste the pancetta (which never gets browned), the garlic was almost too faint to be noticed, and parsley was entirely the wrong herb to use alone here. The tomato sauce helped a good deal towards pepping them up, but I won't be making these again, not when there's Jamie Oliver's recipe for tuna meatballs that sounds like it will be far more satisfying.

Wouldn't you agree? Happy Independence Day, everyone.

Tuna Meatballs
Serves 4

3/4 cup bread cubes from stale baguette
1/2 cup whole milk
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds tuna, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced (1/4 cup)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups mild tomato sauce
1 pound spaghetti

1. Soak bread in milk in small bowl for 30 minutes. Place work bowl and blade of food processor in freezer.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in medium pan over medium heat. Add garlic and stir occasionally until translucent, about 3 minutes. Set pan aside to cool.

3. Squeeze bread to remove excess milk, put in chilled food processor bowl with tuna and pancetta. Pulse until just coarsely ground and combined. Refrigerate briefly. Add garlic and its oil, 2 tablespoons water, egg, parsley and red-pepper flakes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper. Lightly but thoroughly mix with hands.

4. Make a small meatball and sauté in a bit of oil over medium-high heat to taste for seasoning. Adjusting seasonings if necessary.

5. Heat sauce in a 6-quart pot over low heat.

6. With moistened hands, form 20 meatballs, each about 1 3/4 inch in diameter (about 1 1/2 ounces). Heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in pan on medium high until hot but not smoking. Cook meatballs in batches until well browned all around, 6 to 8 minutes. When done, transfer to sauce with slotted spoon. When all the meatballs are in sauce, partially cover pot and gently simmer for 1 hour, stirring carefully occasionally.

7. Bring large pot of salted water to a boil and cook spaghetti until almost al dente. Drain and serve in bowl with sauce and meatballs spooned over.


Homemade Butter

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Oh, readers. You are just the best. Can I count the ways your comments cheered me up this weekend? I cannot. They made me giggle and shudder and feel a lot less alone in the apartment. Thank you so much for all your help and sympathy - it was far better than the smelling salts I thought I'd have pressed to my nose all weekend in despair. A phone call made to the exterminator (who still hasn't shown up, by the way), watching Ratatouille, and spending a lot of time outside with friends also made me feel far more serene about the fuzzy interloper who knocked me sideways on Friday.

I'll admit, I haven't bought traps just yet (I am a coward, that's all there is to it), because part of me is hoping that the little guy was scared stiff by my scream and is cowering in the walls until we move out in 29 days. Pretty please?

(Oh God, that reminds me. 29 days and we still don't know where we're going. Perhaps a mouse-infested apartment is better than no apartment at all?)

But I digress.

Because, in other, far more important news, I spent the rest of the weekend basking in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. Pourquoi, you might ask? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I made my own butter. And let me tell you, there is absolutely nothing that is more astonishingly satisfying than that. Oh sure, baking your own bread certainly makes you feel all capable and strong and resourceful, even, but churning your own butter? It tops that, I swear.

Daniel Patterson, he of the water-poached scrambled eggs, wrote about the glories of making your own butter in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It all seemed rather serendipitous, because I'd been absolutely itching to make Melissa's cultured butter for days. If you didn't already know it, can I tell you how easy it is? It is so easy. So ridiculously easy.

You take some heavy cream (I used Ronnybrook's), whip it in a bowl for as long as it takes (around 8 minutes) to go from being liquid to whipped to curdled and then to butter. The little bits of butter float in a milky liquid: buttermilk. I always thought buttermilk was just sour and thick (totally delicious, I might add), but as Daniel describes, this stuff is sweet and somewhat watery. (His recipes for using the buttermilk sounded quite good, but I used my buttermilk to soak stale bread for tuna meatballs - finally, yes! The story on those later. This week, though. I promise.)

I drained the buttermilk from the butter, then kneaded the butter in the strainer until it was silky and dense and most of the liquid had been squeezed out of it. I packed the butter in little ramekins and refrigerated it until it was firm but still spreadable.

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Spread thickly on a slice of raisin-oatmeal bread, it was a good afternoon snack. I'll be honest, the fact that I'd made that butter myself was largely why I was so enchanted with it. The butter was very mild, and tasted like the pure, clean version of the American butter widely available in supermarkets everywhere. It didn't have much of a flavor profile. I put a knife-tip of the butter on my tongue and could taste the sweet cream briefly, but the flavor evaporated in seconds. The mouthfeel was lovely - cold and creamy - but this wasn't the kind of butter I'd be excited to eat at a restaurant (or frankly, even for breakfast, because truthfully, I'm not really a butter girl, except when I'm in Berlin and can eat Lurpak on Schwarzbrot to my heart's content, though I did use it in the tomato sauce for the tuna meatballs, Marcella's famous one with butter and onion).

So all of this means that later this week, I'll go back to the kitchen counter armed with another bottle of cream and a dollop of yogurt to try my hand at Melissa's recipe for cultured butter. I'm thinking that, on fire-roasted corn at our Fourth of July barbecue, it should taste pretty good, right?

Homemade Butter
Makes 16 ounces of butter

6 cups organic heavy cream (I used one pint)
Salt to taste (optional)

1. Pour the cream into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk. Tightly cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and start mixer on medium-high speed. The cream will go through the whipped stage, thicken further and then change color from off-white to pale yellow; this will take at least 5 to 8 minutes. When it starts to look pebbly, it’s almost done. After another minute the butter will separate, causing the liquid to splash against the plastic wrap. At this point stop the mixer.

2. Set a strainer over a bowl. Pour the contents of the mixer into the strainer and let the buttermilk drain through. Strain the buttermilk again, this time through a fine-mesh sieve set over a small bowl; set aside.

3. Keeping the butter in the strainer set over the first bowl, knead it to consolidate the remaining liquid and fat and expel the rest of the buttermilk. Knead until the texture is dense and creamy, about 5 minutes. Strain the excess liquid into the buttermilk. Refrigerate the buttermilk.

4. Mix salt into the butter, if you want. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate.