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Quiche, the savory side of winter

Let’s consider the savory side of winter — as in gooey mounds of cheese, golden caramelized onions and smokey bacon cloaked in creamy custard.

That’s right, quiche.

I learned at an early age how appreciative people are of a home-cooked meal. In fact, in the world of LOVE, food must be the primary language (OK, secondary!).

Part of it is the time factor. Folks realize that cooking takes time. And giving up even a little of such a precious commodity always turns heads.

Of course, some things require more time than others. Like the first quiche I ever made for the family. It was at the ripe old age of 12. This particular recipe was a spin-off from the traditional Quiche Lorraine in Julia Child's "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," and the part that piqued my interest had to do with the onions. In my limited experience at that time, onions were typically relegated to supporting cast status, worthy of little fuss. But in Julia's recipe, there was a full paragraph devoted to exactly how long and at what temperature the huge mountain of thinly sliced yellow onions sitting on my cutting board should be cooked. The directions were specific: "Cook the onions in a very heavy skillet with the oil and butter over very low heat, stirring occasionally until they are extremely tender and a golden yellow. This will take about an hour."

Imagine that! Devoting so much burner time to plain old onions. What effect could time and temperature possibly have on such a pungent vegetable? In spite of my skepticism, I managed to stick with the directions long enough to be rewarded with the answer. How amazing that this stalwart companion of beer batter and sinus-stompin’ chili mellowed under the right conditions to a smooth sweetness, with a sublime depth of flavor I had never before experienced. It was magical.

The following recipe, which I've adapted from "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," is a close match to the one I made all those years ago.

Onion, Cheese and Bacon Quiche

1 9-inch quiche, or 2 individual tart-sized quiches

It’s hard to beat this classic rendition. But certainly it stands up to substitutions. So if you’d prefer ham instead of bacon, or cheddar instead of Swiss cheese, for instance, that’s perfectly OK. And if you want to make two or more individual tarts, that’s OK too. You will simply adjust the baking time, because smaller quiches won’t take as long.

2 pounds chopped yellow onions

3 tablespoons butter

1½ tablespoons flour

3 eggs

2/3 cup light cream (half-and-half)

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch of nutmeg

4 slices bacon, cooked to very crisp state, and crumbled

About ¾ cup grated Swiss cheese (3 ounces)

An 9-inch partially cooked pastry shell (recipe follows)

Saute the onions in a heavy skillet with the butter over very low heat, stirring occasionally until they are extremely tender and a golden yellow. This will take about an hour. Sprinkle with the flour, mix well, and continue to cook slowly for another 3 minutes or so. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Whisk together the eggs and cream in a bowl. Blend in the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Arrange the onions in the bottom of the pastry shell, then sprinkle on the bacon pieces. Pour the egg custard over the onions and sprinkle on the cheese. Bake in the upper third of a preheated 375-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the quiche has puffed and browned.

— Adapted from "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.

Quiche Pastry

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into small pieces

About 4½ tablespoons ice water

Place the flour, salt, butter and shortening in a large bowl. Rub the flour and fat together rapidly between the tips of your fingers until the fat is broken into pieces the size of oatmeal flakes. Don't over-blend. Using a pastry knife or 2 forks, add the ice water, a little at a time, mixing until it just starts to hold together. Press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable, but not damp and sticky. Knead it briefly into a fairly smooth ball, then sprinkle lightly with flour and wrap in a sheet of waxed paper. Chill by either placing in the freezing compartment for a short time, or for about 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator (it could even be left overnight).

When ready to roll out the pastry, sprinkle your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll the pastry out into a circle 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. It should be about 15 inches in diameter.

Butter a 9-inch pie tin (or two individual tart pans). Place the crust in the pan(s) and press gently to line the inside. Lift the edges of the overhanging dough and work it gently down the inside edges of the shell, which will make the shell a little thicker and sturdier. Now pinch and crimp the top to create a decorative edge.

To partially bake the shell, first line the pastry with buttered, lightweight foil. Fill the center with dry beans or rice. The weight of the beans will hold the pastry against the side of the pan during baking. Bake in the middle level of a preheated 400-degree oven for about 8 or 9 minutes, or until the pastry seems set. Remove the foil and beans, prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork to keep bubbles from forming. Return to the oven for 2 or 3 minutes, and as soon as the shell begins to color and shrink from the sides, remove from oven.

Leek and Ham Quiche

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large leeks (white and pale green portions), thinly sliced, to measure 2½ cups

½ cup finely chopped fine-quality ham, such as Black Forest

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1½ cups coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese

1 9-inch quiche crust, partially baked (your own recipe or the previous recipe for “Quiche Pastry”)

4 eggs

¾ cup half-and-half

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon white pepper

Preheat the oven to 370 degrees.

In a medium-size frying pan, heat the oil and saute the leeks until soft. Add the ham and dry sherry and saute for another few minutes to combine; set aside.

Sprinkle the cheese on the bottom of the cooked and cooled pie shell, then add the leek mixture. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, salt and white pepper and pour over the leeks. Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake until the center of the pie barely wiggles when gently bumped, about 40 minutes.

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at janrd@proaxis.com, or see her blog at www.janrd.com.