Friday, June 24, 2011

Strawberry Mascarpone Bars . . . and a Treasure from Far Away

You know that saying about money burning a hole in your pocket? When you're dying to spend it because, well, it's there? That's how I felt about a particularly precious jar of strawberry-champagne jam that I received recently for review from the East India Company. I could hardly wait to try it. Yes, I'm referring essentially to that East India Company--the one chartered in England over 400 years ago by Queen Elizabeth I, made defunct through British nationalization in 1874, and miraculously reborn  in quintessential 21st-century form in 2010.

To be perfectly honest, before being contacted by them via email I had no clue that the company was currently in existence in any form, or that the very idea of the East India Company still had anything but enduring historic value. In fact, I did a double-take when I saw their email message and thought to myself, "It can't be real . . . can it?" After all, I'm sure I first learned of the massive trading company in an elementary school history lesson.

I can vaguely recall reading in class about those legendary royalty-sponsored ocean voyages--the ones designed to expand international trade through the discovery of new and exotic spices, fabrics, timber, teas, cocoas, and thus enrich the sponsoring country. I can almost see the old textbook illustrations of foreign landscapes, with sailing ships charging through churning waves. (I'll bet merchant sailors had to have a lot of moxie in those days.) That's the kind of image that comes to my mind, in sumptuous color, when I even hear the words "East India."

Anyway, a few weeks after that email exchange, a snug little box appeared on my doorstep. Well-cushioned for its journey, this was clearly a treasure from far away. I unearthed the jar from its padding, admired the refined elegance of its label, and tucked it safely away until the right moment, as I didn't want to waste the precious stuff on a mediocre recipe. Finally, today, the moment was ripe.

After that long wait, it was with anxious anticipation that I twisted the cap off the jar. I held it up to the light, gave it a close look, and sniffed . . . mmmm, nice aroma. I inspected the texture of the jam . . . not too thick or remotely gelatinous. Both positive signs. The consistency reminded me quite a bit of homemade strawberry jam in that respect. Then I spooned out a dab and tasted . . . fine flavor, not too delicate nor at all harsh, and just the right amount of sweetness. So far so good. For a couple of seconds as I contemplated the flavor I thought, "That's lovely all in all . . . but what about the champagne?" And it was just then that the presence of champagne arrived on the back of my tongue.  First a subtle tingle, and then that distinctive sparkle . . . "Ahhh, there's the champagne!"

I smiled.

Strawberries and bubbly, married in a jam. What a charming and quintessentially English combo.  Thank you, East India Company, for sending me a jar of jam that lives up to your illustrious name.

About this recipe . . . 

I adapted this from a recipe by chef Scott Peacock that appeared in the May 2011 print issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Peacock's version is made with fresh raspberries and raspberry jam, along with cream cheese and goat cheese. My version differs in that I used fresh strawberries, the strawberry-champagne jam, mostly mascarpone cheese along with some cream cheese, and no goat cheese at all.

I also dramatically dialed down the lemony factor in the crust, upped the vanilla there (I have a kid who detests lemon in any form within baked goods, and I tend to take pity on him in this regard), and reworded the instructions to reflect exactly what I did. This is a moist and creamy cookie-bar, with a tender shortbread crust, that's open to interpretation. I think it would be interesting made with any bright summer fruit.

Strawberry Mascarpone Bars

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, in 1" chunks
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
About 1 Tbsp. of softened butter, to brush onto sides of foil
3/4 cup high-quality strawberry jam
1 and 1/2 cups hulled ripe strawberries, chopped into small chunks
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, at cool room temperature
4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 or 3 tablespoons powdered sugar to dust on the baked, cooled bars

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9"x13" metal baking pan with a long sheet of foil, extending it up over the short ends of the pan.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, slightly soften the butter by blending on medium speed for just about 30 seconds. Into that, add the brown sugar and kosher salt, mixing on low speed for no more than 1 minute.

Turn the mixer off and pour in the 2 cups of flour, then beat on low speed just until it's incorporated. Raise the speed to medium and beat until a cohesive, even dough forms; the dough should not be crumbly. Break the dough into small clumps and press it down evenly into your foil-lined pan.

Bake this for about 20 minutes, or just until the dough starts to set and look slightly puffy. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on, and cool this on a rack for 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Brush the softened butter lightly onto the exposed sides of foil, above the crust, all around the pan. This will help the bars release from the foil when they're ready to be lifted out of the pan and sliced.

Evenly spread all of the jam over the cooled crust. Sprinkle the strawberry chunks atop that.

In the large bowl of your mixer, again with the paddle attachment, beat together the mascarpone cheese and cream cheese on medium/high speed for only about 30 seconds. Then add in the granulated sugar, still at the same speed, along with the 1 Tbsp. of flour, just until blended. Add in the egg, egg yolk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. Beat the mixture until it looks smooth, stopping to scrape the bowl and beaters as needed.

Pour the creamy mixture evenly over the strawberry layer and tip the pan back and forth slightly to help distribute it evenly.

Bake the bars at 350 for about 30 minutes, until just set.

Cool on a rack for one hour, then cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. When you're ready to cut the bars, firmly grasp the overhanging foil and lift up; if they stay flat and don't buckle then they're cold enough to cut. Peel the foil back from the sides once they're out of the pan, and slice them with a very sharp knife. 

If you like, sprinkle powdered sugar on top of the bars before or after slicing, using a fine mesh sieve held at least a foot or more above the bars (helps avoid the appearance of big drifts of powdered sugar).

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