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 app├ętit 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.)