12.21.2013

Striped Italian Cookies, This is Christmas


I’d like to make a confession.  I did not buy a Christmas tree this year.  There.  I said it.

Since I moved to Boston nearly a decade ago, I’ve only missed this one other time.  And it was because I was in a deep, dark drift in a year-long residency on my way to becoming a registered dietitian.  At the time, I was pretty much living in a hospital basement.  Never seeing daylight.  And spending time alongside instant read thermometers, a temperamental chef, and very large kitchen kettles.

Don’t be fooled. This was not romantic.

This year, I just feel tired.  Like an it feels hard to hold my bones up kind of tired.  So I decided to take a one-year evergreen hiatus.  It feels good to type this.

This is not to say I’ve gone Grinchy on you.  I was still able to enjoy the annual Christmas cookie conclave (years one and two here).  The event is my gustatory equivalent of caroling, except that it involves breaking champagne flutes, eating raw cookie dough, and Harry Connick Jr.

My friend, Justin, went so far as to claim this year “the year of the nut.”  And there were four of them.  Baking a clatter of non-traditional, very un-heteronormative Christmas cookies. Nary a gingerbread man in sight.

We baked molasses cookies.  Dark chocolate bark with pistachios, rose petals, and a smidge too much sea salt.  Chocolate shortbreads studded with (more) pistachios. 

Peanut butter kisses made with bourbon—instead of milk—because my friend Theresa didn’t have milk.  (Now bourbon, bourbon she had in spades.) Chai almond wedding cookies. 

Plus those Italian rainbow cookies made with almond paste, but colored pink and blue (which turned a grayish purple in the oven).  Because I am clinging to Christmas postmodernism in light of my tree laziness this year.

Let’s talk about these rainbow numbers (which I am rebranding as “striped” here and now). They are the kind of cookie that’s—quite frankly—a huge pain in the ass to make.  They require three square baking pans (or “pans” fashioned out of foil, if you don’t fully read through the recipe instructions).  And the washing of ample bowls.

But they get better and better the longer they sit.  Which, in my book, is a huge win.  They also come in thick, rich, and gloriously chewy.  And they’re slicked with the slightly bitter, gutsy chocolate from local hero, Taza

The recipe is from one of my most favorite restaurants, Torrisi Italian Specialties.  These boys do know their way around an Italian specialty or two.

The cookies are also easily tinted to your whims.  Yes, Christmas is Wednesday.  But color the stripes whatever shade you damn well please. 

Striped Italian Cookies
bon appétit via Torrisi Italian Specialties

Ingredients:

2 cups unsalted butter, softened and cubed (plus more for buttering the pan)
6 eggs, separated
1-1/3 cups sugar, divided
12 ounces almond paste, very roughly chopped
½ tsp kosher salt
2¾ cups plus 1 tbsp flour, sifted
2 colors of food coloring
¾ cups marmalade
4 to 5 ounces dark chocolate (preferably Taza chocolate Mexican disks, if available)

Instructions:

Set the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter generously and line three 13 x 9 x 2 baking pans with foil, leaving overhang.  (Don’t have three same-sized pans?  The batter is pretty thick and you can fashion “baking pans” out of foil.) 

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the egg whites and whisk until soft peaks form.  Slowly add 1/3 cup of sugar and whisk until stiff peaks form; transfer to a medium bowl, cover, and chill until needed.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste and remaining 1 cup sugar on medium low until well incorporated (this will take a few minutes); increase the speed slightly and gradually add the 2 cups butter; beat until fluffy.  On medium low, beat in egg yolks, salt, and then the flour a third at a time. Fold in the egg whites in two additions.

Divide the batter into equal quantities among three bowls.  Color two of the mixtures using food coloring (one color per bowl; you’ll need to use at least a tsp of coloring for each). Leave the third bowl plain.  Spread each batter into its own prepared pan; smooth the tops and bake, rotating the pans half way through, until just set (about 10 to 15 minutes).  Let cool in pans.

When ready to assemble, warm the marmalade so that it easily spreads.  (If there’s a lot of thick orange peel chunks, you’ll want to strain them, but I did not need to do this with the brand I used.) On the cake layer that you will eventually want on top, spread half of the marmalade with a pastry brush.  Grabbing the sides of the foil, lift the layer that you want in the middle of the cookie, invert it, and place it on top of the layer brushed with marmalade (making sure to line up the sides as best as you can.)  Gently peel off the foil and then cover the middle layer with the remaining marmalade.  Grabbing the sides of the foil of the third layer, gently lift it out of the pan, invert it, and place over the middle layer.

Cover the top completely with foil, top with a baking pan of similar size, and place a few canned goods in the pan to compress the layers. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (or up to 1 day). 

When ready to finish, remove the cans and pan and foil, and invert the cake onto a piece of parchment paper.  Gently warm the chocolate.  Spread half of the just melted chocolate on the top layer of the cake.  Place in the freezer for 10 minutes. 

Cover the chocolate layer with parchment paper and flip the cake; uncover and glaze with remaining chocolate (rewarm it slightly if the chocolate has started to thicken).  Freeze for 10 more minutes.  Then trim the edges so they are even and cut into 1½ inch squares.  Store in an airtight container.

Makes roughly 50 cookies

Notes:
-I provided a range for the chocolate because we needed just a little bit more to fully cover the cake.  I wasn’t exact with the pan sizing though.

-I didn’t use a double boiler for the chocolate.  I just warmed it in a saucepan on low and then let the remaining bits of chocolate melt off the heat.  Feel free to make your life a little easier with this one.

-The plate shown features many of the aforementioned cookies.  I couldn’t be trusted with them at home any longer, as my note indicates.

12.12.2013

Old Sturbridge Hazelnut Cheese Ball. Yes, This is A Cheese Ball.


I never thought I was the kind of person who would make a cheese ball.  I don’t know what that person looks like per se.  But I envision it is someone crafty … with a fingerprint-free kitchen … or perhaps a dining room covered in muted plaids. I do not fit into either of those scenarios very nicely. If we are being technical, I don’t even have a dining room.

Despite this, I admit I am someone who really takes to a good holiday cheese ball.  Yes.  Even those neon salmon port wine orbs.  I don’t officially know who subscribes to that sort of cheese philosophy, either.  But I want in.

My family used to own a grocery store called Sweetheart Market.  Around Christmas, we would get holiday gifts from the venders.  And if I reach deep into my sack of ‘80s holiday nostalgia, this included the Friendly’s Jubilee Roll.  Fruitcake.  And a basket of cheese curds, plus electric-colored, nut-covered balls of cheese product. 

As I type, I am realizing I may have developed a misplaced drive to recreate these holiday items.  I made a new-ish version of an old fruitcake recipe around this time last year.  In kind, this cheese ball gets its inspiration from an early 19th century recipe for “pounded cheese” from Sturbridge Village

I took a hearth cooking class there a few months ago and the cheese was my kitchen chore.  It is fairly self-explanatory.  You take a few kinds of dairy and pound them, with some spirits and spices. 

If you lived in Old Sturbridge Village you might say something like:

“The piquance of this buttery, caseous relish is sometimes increased by pounding with it curry powder, ground spice, cayenne pepper, and a little made mustard; and some moisten it with a glass of sherry.”

When I tasted it, it reminded me of the port wine cheese from my childhood.

Whether rounded, or pounded, or neon, this sort of thing is seemingly hard to refuse.  Apparently, the cheese ball takes all kinds.

Old Sturbridge Hazelnut Cheese Ball

Ingredients:

2 generous cups of grated cheese (I like a mildly aged cheddar and parmesan)
2 tsp English mustard (such as prepared Coleman’s) or Dijon
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 to 2 tsp curry powder
1 tbsp sherry
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, softened
splash of cider (optional)
about ¾ cup hazelnuts, crushed

Instructions:

In a large bowl, place the cheese, mustard, spices, sherry, and half the butter.  Begin to mash all your ingredients with the end of a rolling pin or muddler until it comes together; taste and add the remaining butter and cider (if using) until the desired taste is achieved. 

The cheese should ultimately be the consistency of an aforementioned port wine spread.  Roll the mass into a ball. (Wax paper helps.)  Place the crushed hazelnuts into a small bowl and then roll the cheese ball in the nuts until the outside is covered.  If necessary, place in the fridge to chill until it hardens a bit (about 30 to 60 minutes). 

Makes 1 cheese ball

Notes:
-Serve with fresh bread.  It strikes me now that celery might be a nice accompaniment too.  Possibly apple slices.  Possibly.

-All the ingredient amounts are approximate.  The blending of flavors will depend on the types of cheese you select, as well as your breed of spices.  Taste as you go and you’ll be able to adapt it to your preference.  This recipe doesn’t stray far from the original, minus the hazelnuts and ball form.

-I seem to prefer roughly 2/3 cheddar to 1/3 parmesan but, again, this is a nice dish to experiment with.  The Sturbridge recipe specifies assorted hard sharp cheeses.

-You can also crush the hazelnuts with a rolling pin.

12.02.2013

A Woman Named Vera and Her Manicotti


I thought long and hard about how I might introduce this recipe.  Family traditions come dangerously close to violating one of my two rules of the Internet.  

One. Before posting anything, first ask yourself: am I okay with mom seeing [object in question]?  And two.  Does anyone give a [hoot]?

The latter is what we are concerned with today.  As manicotti is fairly unobjectionable to most.

In the interest of preemptively stifling a few yawns, I will skip the details in which this dish shows up on our yearly holiday buffet and, instead, focus on the reason it does.  Mainly, because grandma makes it.  And because it is very, very good.

Our family recipe originates from my great grandmother—and from Naples before that—though it’s had a few twists and turns along the way.  I can feel you nodding off, so here’s what you should know.

You’ll need four eggs, equal parts flour and milk, and patience.  Grandma claims success with her burner set at 4.  She’ll advise you of this, then add you should figure out what works best for you.

You’d be wise to heed this advice.  Because an airy, crepe-like pasta is what you’re after.  Then you’ll fill it with lightly seasoned ricotta and sauce it with a few delicate spoonfuls of your finest tomato garnish. It might not make for the most glamorous of Internet posts or pictures.  But few things that are ‘mother approved’ ever do. 

No matter.  Manicotti with a salacious story is not what we’re after here.  We’re after a woman named Vera and her manicotti.

Vera’s Manicotti

Ingredients:

for the manicotti

4 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
canola oil, for the pan

for the ricotta filling

1 pound ricotta
1 egg
1 to 2 tbsp finely chopped herbs, like parsley and basil
1 tbsp grated pecorino cheese
½ tsp sugar
few grinds of a pepper mill
pinch of salt

for the top

a few cups of your favorite sauce, this recipe will likely be a winner if you need a direction
plus a dusting of grated parmesan or pecorino

Instructions:

Prepare some wax or parchment paper torn into squares to sandwich the cooked crepes between. (The recipe makes about 16 crepes, but you won’t need a new square for every single one.)

Set the oven to 350 degrees. 

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, flour, and milk together until no longer lumpy.  Heat a 6-inch skillet on medium heat.  Grease with a little oil; you’ll want a fine sheen, so pour out any oil that pools in the pan. 

Spoon about ¼ cup of batter into the center of the heated skillet and then gently, but quickly, swirl the pan so that the batter spreads into a thin circle.  It helps to pick up the skillet to do this; it also helps to correct the heat if it gets too hot.  The crepe should cook in about a minute, maybe a little less.  You’ll know it’s done when its center is firm to the touch.  (You won’t have to flip it.) It may take a few crepes to get your technique down.

Repeat until the remaining batter is used.  You may need to adjust the heat if they start browning.  And you may need to add a little more oil every few crepes.

To make the ricotta filling, combine all ingredients; set aside. 

To assemble the manicotti, ladle a little sauce into two casserole dishes (I used a 12 x 6 and a 12 x 9), just enough to cover the bottoms.  Spoon between 1 to 2 tbsp of the ricotta filling into the center of each crepe and then roll it up, setting each one seam side down in a line, side by side.  Fill each pan with only one layer of crepes.

Cover the top lightly with sauce and dust with cheese.  Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes uncovered, or until the sauce is bubbling and the manicotti is heated through.

Makes 16 manicotti

Notes:
-You’ll want to use a simple tomato sauce.  Cooking down a 28-ounce can of tomatoes with onions, garlic, olive oil, and some chili flakes will also work.  And it won’t take longer than about 20 minutes to do so.  (Though technically, when I cook sauce I tend to use two cans of tomatoes, so I can have some leftover.)

11.17.2013

Cucumber Cream Cheese Sandwiches with Chili and Cilantro, for Now


I am in a bit of a sinkhole at the moment.  

I’m researching the role of pasta in post-unification Italy for my final paper this semester.  I am also recovering from making the world’s worst pudding on Friday night.  And if I am truly being honest, I did not fair much better attempting a chocolate poppy seed krantz cake on Saturday.  Though, I did learn if your dough only slightly rises you can turn krantz cake into "rugelach." 

What I really want to do is sit down with the Sunday Times, have a mangled krantz-rugelach with a cup of coffee, and stop time.  But a paper on pasta in Futurist-Fascist Italy isn’t going to write itself.

Which is why I am bringing you cucumbers in November. 

This is one of my all-time favorite sandwiches.  They are perfect for summer, which is when I first made them. (Dave and I smuggled them onto the Downeaster to Portland a few months ago.)  They are also quick, and so they fit in any old time.

The ingredients hardly require a garden in our age of the supermarket.  It is also worth mentioning if you make any of Jeni’s ice creams—and are bagel-deprived—you’ll need a use for the leftover cream cheese.  (Here's my most recent incarnation using her lovely base.)

So allow me to introduce the cream cheese cucumber sandwich, of which I am ideological fan.  In reality those two need some spunk to get me excited about consuming them in tandem.  The chili garlic sauce, cilantro, and capers come in to make the magic happen.  You’ll also want a really good sourdough or nutty multigrain bread because the outsides are as important as the insides when crafting a sandwich.

Which we have the luxury of securing.  Because—thankfully—this is not fascist Italy.  This is post-ice cream New England, with sandwiches.

Now back to the twentieth century.

Cucumber Cream Cheese Sandwiches with Chili and Cilantro

Ingredients:

4 ounces cream cheese
2 tbsp capers, roughly chopped
10 to 12 cilantro sprigs, stems and leaves finely chopped
1 scallion, finely chopped
black pepper and salt to taste
~1½ tbsp chili garlic sauce, divided
1 cucumber, sliced
slices of bread (I prefer sourdough)

Instructions:

Combine the cream cheese, capers, cilantro, and scallion; taste and adjust seasoning.  Spread a little of the mixture on each piece of sourdough (about a tbsp).  Place a few slices of cucumber on one slice of bread and spread about a tsp of chili sauce on the other.  Combine sides.  Slice.  Eat.

Makes 3 to 4 sandwiches

Notes:
-Instructions are based on one sandwich.  The number of sandwiches will depend on how thick you spread it.

-A word about the krantz cakes.  I've been using active dry yeast (instead of instant) in recipes and this has historically worked out well, despite defiantly not dissolving the active yeast.  But my yeast is getting old.  

11.06.2013

Cinnamon Piment d’Espelette Ice Cream with Buttered Walnuts Without Apology


The older I get the more I find there are two types of people in this world.  Those who like walnuts.  And those who cast them off as chalky, wrinkly little bastards. (Not my words.)

Who consider their presence abhorrent.  A good brownie, spoiled.  A chocolate chip cookie gone bad.

To all the he-man walnut haters, I say: feel free to substitute pecans.  The point is, do not let this prevent you from making this ice cream. You’ll get a ballet slipper beige cream with brick red flecks from the piment d’Espelette, a delicate chile with a subtle heat, said to have hints of peach and sea.

I find the walnut’s tannins a welcome contrast to the heavily steeped cinnamon.  And they convince me of this further once buttered and generously salted.  The ice cream does have a little kick to it, so feel free to play with the spices.  Just don’t nix the nuts.    

Call me crazy, but I think it’s a dessert even a walnut-hater could love. 


Cinnamon Piment d’Espelette Ice Cream with Buttered Walnuts

Ingredients:

for the ice cream base

2 cups whole milk
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp cornstarch
1¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp brown rice syrup
1½ ounces cream cheese, softened
pinch kosher salt
½ tsp ground piment d’Espelette 
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of smoked paprika (optional)

for the buttered walnuts

¾ cup walnut halves
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp sea salt

Instructions:

Day 1:

In a medium saucepan, pour in the whole milk.  Take out about 2 tbsp of milk and mix with the cornstarch in a small bowl; set aside.  Add the cream, sugar, and brown rice syrup to the saucepan with the milk.  Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat and then let boil for 4 minutes.

Remove the hot mixture from the heat, whisk in the cornstarch slurry, and return to the heat until it thickens slightly, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula (1 to 2 minutes).  Meanwhile, whip the cream cheese until smooth (this can be done with a wire whisk).

Gradually whisk the cream cheese into the milk until smooth (be sure the cream cheese is at room temperature or it will never fully incorporate).  Add the salt, piment, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, and paprika.  Allow to steep for 30 minutes (or until desired level of spice is achieved).  I wanted a little more cinnamon flavor, so 30 minutes was perfect for me, but this will depend on your preference and the strength of your spices, so start tasting after 15 minutes.

Once at the desired level of cinnamon, remove the stick and allow to cool.  (You can speed up this process by setting the ice cream in a bowl that has been set in a larger bowl filled with ice.)  Allow to chill overnight in the fridge.

To prepare the nuts, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Toss the nuts in the butter and salt and spread on a baking sheet.  Bake for 10 to 15 minutes (or until toasted and fragrant), turning once during the baking.  Let cool completely and then seal in an airtight container.

Day 2:

Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister of an ice cream maker and spin until the ice cream starts to form a ribbon and pull away from the sides of the bowl; add in the buttered nuts during the last minute of the spinning.  Pack the ice cream into a freezer-safe container and seal with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit roughly the size of the lid.  Cover and allow to freeze at least 4 hours before eating.

Makes about a quart

Notes:
-I only had brown rice syrup, which I think I might actually prefer to the corn syrup that is usually called for with Jeni’s ice cream bases.  (It’s a little less sweet.)

-The nuts will almost taste too salty on their own.  But you’ll need this salt to come through the cold ice cream.

-In addition to pecans, another potentially interesting walnut substitute could be peanuts.

10.29.2013

French Onion Soup, for the Chill of It


Growing up, my family had a membership at a place called Lake Shore Yacht & Country Club.  We didn’t ever “yacht.”  I don’t really remember seeing many boats, for that matter.  But I do recollect my mother making us go to early morning swim team practice.

Which arguably functioned as a creative, aquatic form of maternal punishment, as the water heater in the Central New York “yacht club” pool was broken more days than not.  (It is worth mentioning that Syracuse is rumored to see more gray than Seattle.)

This, of course, was balanced out by dinner.

We would get to eat in the clubhouse on Saturday nights about once a month.  My dinner selection was predictable.  Usually a turkey club (no cheese), cut into quarters, with a side of ruffled potato chips.  Or chicken fingers and fries, the unofficial dinner anthem of American 10-year-olds.

And occasionally, if I was very lucky, I was allowed a side of French onion soup.  It was served in those sturdy, brown and gray variegated crocks.  With a thick layer of bubbling cheese, which always burned your mouth a little bit.

Since switching over to my winter coat, I’ve had a craving for blazing hot burn-the-roof-off-your-mouth soup.  Consequently, I have also been faced with a surplus of sourdough, as a result of Dave turning Canary Square into a small bakery last week.  My memory went to Lake Shore.

And then to Tartine, wherein Chad Robertson has a decidedly non-fussy recipe that utilizes homemade chicken stock, leftover wine, and a little duck fat: all things I miraculously had on hand to substitute for the standard beef broth.  And I wouldn’t even question doing it again.

The whole endeavor lends a kind of therapy to a cold fall night.  The most crucial thing is that you coax the onions to relax and turn deep caramel.  Which involves feeding them cream, white wine, and—eventually—cheese.  (To make good French onion soup, you should wine and dine an onion much like you would a human.)

It’s a worthy process.  The flavor developed in such a short amount of time feels like cheating.  As does topping it with good crusty bread and enough cheese to cover, go golden, and then bubble in spots.

Such things will erase the memory of a chill every single time.  I bet mom knew that though.

French Onion Soup
Adapted from Tartine Bread

Ingredients:

1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp duck fat
6 yellow onions, cut into ¼ inch-thick slices
1 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups dry white wine
2 quarts chicken stock, homemade if possible
4 to 6 slices sourdough bread (this will depend on loaf size), cut to fit inside your crocks
5 ounces Gruyère, grated

Instructions:

In a large saucepot (or Dutch oven) on medium heat, add the butter and duck fat; when the fat starts to melt, add in the onions, salt, and cream.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent (10 to 15 minutes). 

Raise the heat slightly and cook the onions, without stirring, until their bottoms start to brown (about 5 to 7 minutes: feel free to check with a spoon if you can’t tell).  Stir the onions, scraping up any residue, and then add a ½ cup white wine to deglaze the pan.  Repeat this (browning the onions without stirring and then deglazing with ½ cup of wine) 3 more times; the onions should turn deep caramel in the process, getting darker with every stirring.

Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer; cook for about 15 minutes (or until the flavors meld, I cooked mine closer to 25 or 30).  Season again with salt, as needed (keeping in mind the soup might get a bit more concentrated in the oven).

While the soup is cooking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Add the bread slices to a sheet pan and toast them until dry and brittle (10 to 15 minutes); remove and set aside.

Place oven-proof bowls on the sheet pan.  Ladle the soup into the bowls, filling almost all the way to the top; cover with bread slices (this can be one large slice or several small ones) and top generously with cheese.  Bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown and the soup is bubbling (this may take 20 to 30 minutes in large dishes, but it will cook faster in smaller ones: I had about ¾ cup-sized bowls and it took about 10 minutes).

Makes about 6 cups

Notes:
-This can easily be made into a meal for one or two, with leftovers.  Bake off the number of bowls you need and place the rest of the soup in the fridge (you’ll want to keep the bread and cheese separate).  Assemble the soups and bake them off, as needed (it was fine starting with cold soup).

-How much seasoning you need will depend on how salty your stock is and how much you reduce your liquid.  Taste as you go. (Mine was well seasoned out of the pot, but got a little concentrated in the oven, so the second day I added a little water into the bowls before I put them in the oven.)