Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Baking, not my strength

I (kinda) love to bake. But baking does not love me. I am wondering if it could be that I don't enjoy the process as much as cooking, possibly because my sense of smell is not put into action until the aromas come pouring out of the oven, and I so in turn do not put as much love into what I am doing. Maybe it's because I know I can only eat a small portion of what I am making, not a full plate of it as when I am preparing dinner. But nevertheless, I do try hard not to buy much prepackaged, as I can not get past those long lists of ingredients, with words I would need to google to ever understand.
However, today my fridge is horribly empty and I am trying to hold out on grocery shopping until the weekend. So I pulled myself together and made Cinnamon Buns - not something for the every day, but certainly something I enjoy the end result of! I tried a different recipe, but it didn't bring the best results. I am quite sure this is due to my baking talents, not the recipe, as it is by Williams-Sonoma.
What I wanted to write about today is that I have discovered something that could enhance special breakfasts, such as Christmas, New Years or perhaps a birthday. You may know this already, but I had no clue: The day before a big breakfast, make up your sweet dough for the buns, then - after the dough has risen, punch it down, load it up with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, then roll up and slice into individual cinnamon buns. Place them in your baking pan, then double wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 - 24 hours. Now doesn't that open up possibilities! Just place at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking, and there you have it, fresh, warm cinnamon buns perfectly timed for that special day!

ALSO, for an extra kick of shine and a gorgeous golden hue, brush the cinnamon buns immediately before and after baking with a little milk or half-and-half. You may not even feel the need for icing after this..

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mom, this dinner is SO good, we forgot to pray!

Lalalala! Music to a mama's ears.
Lately I've been trying out appetizers, and using them as entrees, since there simply aren't enough parties in a year I would ever need them for. I absolutely adore appetizers and I would like to learn to prepare an abundance of these... Sunday lunch consisted of Tomato Bruscetta (I finally found my go-to recipe) and Spinach Artichoke Dip with crackers. Today I made Gnudi. I had planned these for a dinner with friends, which unfortunately ended up being canceled, but my pantry was now prepared to make a stunning starter! Instead of attempting it the first time for visitors, I made them for a family dinner. Which I am really, really happy about. The salad I had planned for my visitors I made a few days prior to tonight, and am now ever so grateful we decided to postpone, as the salad was a total flop. I am finally fully convinced we should only prepare what we know for our guests. Forget the guinea pig thing, I have made a decision to leave that job title to my family. I have no intention to ever make that salad again, but these Gnudi were, in the end, quite stunning in texture and flavor, although I didn't figure out the proper technique until the very end. But, now I KNOW and am ready for some entertaining. I served the Gnudi with one of my favorite new-to-us meats - pork tenderloin - with caramelized red onions plus a quick Caesar salad.

Try these, I am sure you will love them, too. Shape the Gnudi by using two soup spoons: scoop a dollop of batter from spoon to spoon until you have an even looking dumpling, about 3 or 4 times.

Ricotta Gnudi with Brown Butter

Serves 6

3 eggs
(1) 425g tub Ricotta cheese
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter

In a large bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Add ricotta, then flour, Parmesan and salt. Combine thoroughly. Chill batter in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer. Using two soup spoons, form about a scallop size amount of dough into a rough ball. Drop into the simmering water. Form about 8 Gnudi, and allow to simmer for about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the water and place on a large plate. Drop another 8 Gnudi into the pot. Repeat until all the batter has been used up.
Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Cook for about 5 minutes or until butter has browned.
Add Gnudi. Cook for 5 minutes, tossing or gently flipping them in the pan until heated through.
Plate and garnish with additional Parmesan and black pepper, if desired.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chinese Dumpling Adventure

Chinese Dumplings. I know now why there is such a thing as a master dumpling maker. And why people pay big bucks for these. I have to be honest, I wasn't convinced I should talk about my little adventure in the kitchen today. What I will say is that making dumplings has tired me right out! Making these is worlds apart from Italian cooking, which is a thing of feel and your very own quanto basta. Attempting perfection is a must even the first time around when it comes to perfect pasta pillows. I have a feeling it is something I may not perfect by reading about it, but instead is one of those arts that is passed on from one generation to the next. Is there such a thing as culinary personal ads? Married female, 30, looking for Chinese Dumpling Master. Serious contacts only!

And then it was time to bite into one.

I was speechless. Not even my kids said much. Other than, "I want chop sticks, too"! I am still not sure what to say.

But, oh, they were tender, so very very tender.

Which can be a problem when you have the habit of eating too fast to begin with. I think it took me ten minutes to gobble up about 15 dumplings. The seasoning in the filling carried the meat into perfect harmony with the pasta, without overpowering it. I am suddenly in the mood for a dumpling party... getting everyone involved in the process and figuring out how to pleat the darn things... having 4 skillets on the go at once to make enough to keep eating well into the night... some days it really is a shame that we get full.

Here's proof as to why I need many, many more practice runs:

Doesn't look much like what it's supposed to, now does it?
The photos I posted above show the only TWO out of 48 dumplings I got somewhat right. The others fell apart and stuck together when I took them out of the saute pan. My guess is I overcrowded them and made the dough to thin before filling.

Party, anyone?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In between...

It might sound strange, but I quite enjoy menu planning every week. Perhaps a lack of social activity is to blame, but I think I genuinely enjoy the process. It can take me a good hour, as a lot of thought goes into variety, nutritional balance, budget and even color arrangement on the dinner plate. During my teens I spent a summer volunteering at a kids camp, in the kitchen of course, and I had the privilege of planning and executing the menu for about 200 kids. If a teenager gets kicks out of such an activity, it must be programmed into my existence. I purposely only plan for about 4, sometimes 5, dinner options per week. This gives me two or three days to use up leftovers, or create "in between" meals, which allow me to get inventive and create something out of pretty much nothing. This, again, is oddly exciting to me, probably because it's hugely satisfying when the meal is a thing of beauty and taste. These meals are usually very simple, for example this week I made a huge pot of cabbage soup, with cabbage that has been sitting in my crisper for a couple of weeks. There is just something so comforting about cabbage that has simmered away for a good hour. Last night I spoiled my girls with Apple Pizza, and let them think they were having dessert for dinner. I thought it was a good alternative to Breakfast for Dinner, something we like to do once in a while. It's all in the name of research, anyway: pizza dough research! I have covered three bases by now, first - dough made in the bread machine and used right away, second - a sponge dough which in a way has similarities to making a sourdough starter, and thirdly - preparing a basic dough and fermenting it in the fridge rather than room temperature, for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days. Personally I prefer the sponge dough, as the flavors of the yeast are developed nicely and the crumb is perfectly moistened. But I have to give credit to the fridge dough. Not only is it super convenient, as I can stock my fridge and even my freezer with dough for those in between days, and it does taste quite nice.

And it's so easy to do, even my 5 year old could make a batch before going to school. Think pizza, calzones, fritters, fried dough...

Basic Pizza Dough
makes (2) 10 inch pizzas

3 1/2 cups or 454 g bread flour, more as needed
2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp table salt (or 2 1/2 kosher)
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
11 fl. oz (1 1/4 cups) warm water

Dissolve the yeast in about 4 ounces of the water. (About 10 minutes.)
Meanwhile, put the flour in a large bowl, make a well in the center and add remaining ingredients, including the leftover 7 ounces of water.
When the yeast has foamed, add it to the dough, and mix by hand for about 8 minutes. Add more flour or water as needed to produce a ball that is smooth and tacky, but not sticky. It should not stick to the sides of the mixing bowl.
In a clean bowl, large enough for the dough to double in size, drizzle about one teaspoon of vegetable oil. Take your rounded dough and roll it in the oil to lightly coat.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and no more than 3 days.
If the plastic bulges, release the carbon dioxide by opening the plastic wrap for a few seconds. Reseal.
Use the dough or divide into 4 portions and wrap in freezer bags. The dough can be frozen for up to three months. To thaw, place it in the fridge overnight or at room temperature for 2 hours.
To use refrigerated dough, set at room temperature for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. This allows it to warm up and relax.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Versatile to the max.

As the week comes to an end, and the fridge is getting ready for a new fill, I discovered a full pack of unused fresh basil awaiting it's culinary purpose. Now with a slight brown hue, but still brimming with that fresh basil aroma that just screams, well, fresh, I hit the books and did a little research in order to avoid having to toss it. This turned into one of this "a-ha!" moments we love so much. Basil Butter! How versatile! Spread it on sliced baguette and give a twist to garlic bread, bake some potatoes and serve with a spoonful, slather it on corn on the cob, use it on grilled meat of any kind, or add interest to basic steamed veg. I am sure there are many, many more ways to use this Basil Butter.

Start with 1 cup of room temperature butter. Give a bunch of basil (about 15 leaves) and 4 cloves of garlic a super fine chop. If you have a food processor, just throw them in there and wizz away. Now stir the basil, garlic along side 1/2 tsp of black pepper and 1/2 - 1 tsp of salt (if using unsalted butter only) into the butter. And you're done! Don't be intimidated by whipping up an entire cup of butter - just freeze it in small portions and have it ready at a moments notice.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Finocchio al Forno

My husband and I can get into mini battles of the words over vegetables vs. meat. I think, secretly, he is scared I will turn our family into a plant eating, meat substituting kind of family. His fears are not without validation, as I have spent a few years of my life without animal products, and could do it again in a heart beat. The look on his face as I attempt to reassure a meaty future is not overly convincing, so I am going to put it out there for the world to read - a written guarantee of steak, barbecue chicken, and even sausages - however never without an accompanying vegetable! (I did win a little portion of this argument though, listen up all you who need to convince your other halves to finish the 'green stuffs' on their plates: We could live on vegetables and grains alone, and be super healthy, but give us meat only, we may lose a few pounds, sure, but we probably will suffer some sort of heart failure amongst many other organ problems.) So there you have it. It's all about balance - which seems to be the way my husband and I often conclude with agreeing to disagree.

If you are anything like me, which you probably aren't but bare with me, you may get kicks out of putting a new vegetable on the dinner table once in a while. If it wasn't for this, carrots and broccoli could easily be the end of it in my home, mostly because I seem to be the only advocate! I personally am still working on turnips and brussel sprouts, but am excited to discover how wonderful they are when roasted in small bite sizes along with a medley of other options (thanks, Aunt Jean!). This past weekend I bought fennel. Mmm fennel. It's something I ate once in a while growing up in Europe, and fennel tea is what toddlers drink instead of juice over there. Fennel is quite mild in flavor and texture, which really does make it an ideal option for kids. It has a natural sweetness to it as well, with a slight licorice taste - what's not to love? And to top it off, fennel also aids digestion, which can be helpful for so many of us grown ups.

Finocchio al Forno (Caramelized Fennel)
serves 4

2 large fennel bulbs
6 tbsp (90 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Rinse the fennel. Cut off and discard the long stalks.
Cut the bulbs into eighths.
Preheat oven to 450 F (230 C).
Drop the fennel into a pot of boiling salted water and cook for about 5 minutes or until just fork tender. (This simply gives it a head start to cut down on roasting time.) Drain and dry completely with a clean kitchen towel.
Spread in a roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil (don't be shy now!), then top with grated Parmigiano, salt and pepper, then bread crumbs.
Roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until caramelized and a nice golden color.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mamma Mia!

I am thrilled to finally be working with my new cook book, David Rocco's Dolce Vita. (I happen to have a pet dog named after this guy...) This does leave me a bit distracted from my pro books, but when is there a better time in the year than the dead of winter to eat healthy comfort food, which is even doable on the weekend?! This menu makes me want to get in the kitchen and COOK, but it's after bed time right now so it will have to wait, at least until tomorrow afternoon. Many of the recipes in this book simply list ingredients - no amounts, hardly any directions. Instead a little blurb explains the desired result, the aura of the dish if you will. And then it's all by feel, by knowing what you want out of your food. Here's what we'll be enjoying this week:

Risotto Spinaci di Orsala (Spinach Risotto)
with Pork Sausages and Salsa di Porcini (Porcini Sauce)

Salsa Bolognese with Spaghetti (Meat Bolognese)
Finocchio al Forno (Caramelized Fennel)

Lenticchie con Pancetta (Sauteed Lentils with Pancetta)
Baby Greens with simple Vinaigrette
Tomato and Basil Bruschetta

Crocchette di Patate (Sesame Crusted Potato Croquettes)
Baby Greens with Mustard Vinaigrette

I am also making a semi-hard Doughnut out of flour, sugar, olive oil, white wine and aniseed, called Ciambelle. A doughnut that just might be good for you...! European desserts in general are a lot less sweet than they are here. In Italy they like to dunk their cookies in coffee or wine, rather than smother them with frosting. Either way, dessert is dessert, it is meant to be an indulgence, and we like what we like.

Monday, January 4, 2010

It's all for them in the end, anyway!

The kids are back at school, and even though I was dreading it, I am enjoying a little quiet this morning here at my desk, with my new super comfy chair. A chair I myself paid for, not my husband, but ME with a little cash I earned over the holidays, and that is what makes this chair all the comfier. (A note for the non-stay-at-home-mothers - this is a really, really big deal.) My husband did spoil me with some stylish new legs for an old table top and I now have my own little spot in the house to come to and write. However the number one reason I feel spoiled is due to a shiny new island sitting in my kitchen, which gives me SPACE and allows me to chop, peel and dice without a backache and also brings the kids into my little world of sugar and spice. As you can see in the photo above, they didn't waste any time, and I so very much love this creation of bread ends and yogurt, with lime splashed and honey drenched nuts. I reluctantly tasted these nuggets, but I did it with love because they, too, have tasted some odd things I have come up with. I must make some sort of impression on my girls, though, because this is not a bad start. Not a bad start at all!

I am not certain, but this weekend just might have included some of my favorite days of cooking since I began my journey. I don't often do a lot of cooking on the weekends, but rely instead on leftovers and pasta. What thrills me is that I made some killer meals with very minimal effort, and even though I do enjoy the effort part of cooking, I know life can get in the way and that is how we end up with lack luster food or frozen lasagnas thrown in the oven. On New Years day, however, I roughly chopped up two red onions, as well as a few cloves of garlic, tossed that into a bit (OK, a generous amount) of olive oil in a large saucepan, added stewing beef cubes and allowed this to saute for a few minutes. Next I put in an entire bottle of Merlot (minus a few sips for the cook), some salt and pepper and let that simmer on low heat for a couple of hours while I went about my day. My day happened to include home made bread, and although this is not usually the case on a day when the entire family is home, it was a quiet kind of a day, so bread was made. After about 2 1/2 hours of simmering, stirring once in a while and sticking my head into the pot to inhale the wonderful aromas filling my home, we enjoyed truly delicious tender braised beef over some mashed potatoes and a simple salad. Again, I felt so spoiled! It's a good thing I made a lot of this, as left overs the next day were a treat. I did spruce it up just a little, by adding an appetizer of mushrooms over crostini, which was yet another simple but succulent part of my day: I sliced a bunch of button mushrooms, as well as some garlic and I chopped some fresh flat leaf parsley. I then heated olive oil in a pan, added the garlic, after 30 seconds added the mushrooms, browned them for about 5 minutes, seasoned with salt and pepper and threw in a hand full of herbs and a little splash of heavy cream... I pan toasted slices of baguette and topped these with the mushroom sauce. YUM. Simple, fast yum.

To finish off the weekend, I made French Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Really it was out of pure laziness that I came up with this - I thought I could nix spreading butter on both sides of every piece of bread, as well as making eggs of some sort for the side. The perfect short cut was combining the two into one! I even had shredded Marble and Parmesan cheeses leftover in the fridge, from previous cooking. After the bread was sliced, all I did was sprinkle a combination of the two cheeses in between two slices of bread(when I say sprinkle, I mean cover!), then dunked the whole thing in lightly beaten egg to which I had added a splash of heavy cream. I used my homemade Herb and Parmesan cheese bread, which kicks the flavor of the finished product up a little bit, too. After coating the sandwiches in the egg mixture, I fried them in a little butter until golden. Seriously, my kids thought I was superwoman. (We enjoyed freshly sliced apples with this, it's a winning duo.)