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Quest for the Perfect Pizza Dough: Take Two

Last spring I began a quest for the perfect pizza dough, and the first recipe I tried didn’t cut it. I had every intention of getting right back in the kitchen, but pregnancy destroyed all my ambition. So that’s how I find myself a little over a year later finally getting around to pizza dough number two.

We haven’t spent much time in the kitchen since Penny was born, but we’re making a concerted effort to do better now that we’re out of the harrowing (but achingly sweet) newborn weeks and our life is settling down into what I think is a new normal. We’re keeping meals simple for now, and pizza is about as easy as it gets, with easy prep, only a little clean up, and an endless variety of combinations to try, many of which are fresh and healthy!

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I went back to the Smitten Kitchen cookbook for take two since the book includes two recipes and I figured it was only fair to give both of them a shot. The only difference in ingredients is that this “leisurely” dough has slightly less yeast because the rise time is so much longer. So right from the get go I was expecting mediocre results. Luckily, my expectations were too low. While this isn’t the recipe that will end my quest, it was an improvement over the first one. The crust puffed nicely and had a bit more flavor to it, thanks to the longer rise.

The best thing about this pizza, though, is that we grilled it.

David and I are not overjoyed with our current apartment, but one of the perks is that it has a balcony and we’re allowed to have a grill. I’d heard about grilling pizzas before, but couldn’t imagine it. In my mind the soft dough would just melt right down between the grill bars before the crust had a chance to set up, leaving a sad, doughy mess at the bottom of the grill. I guess this is just one of those magical things, though, because grilling pizza totally works!

Unlike baking a pizza in the oven, when you grill a pizza you want to start with just the dough: don’t put any toppings on it yet. Over medium heat, grill your rolled out dough for 3-5 minutes. Flip it over, then add your toppings, and cook for another 3 minutes or so. Remove from the grill, slice, and enjoy!

We topped this pizza with brush of olive oil, yellow tomatoes, red bell peppers, chèvre, and basil. Delicious.

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Smitten Kitchen’s Leisurely Pizza Dough

Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Yield: Dough for one pizza

Ingredients

  • 1/2 Cup warm–not hot–water (I always need more than this).
  • 1/4 plus 1/8 tsp yeast
  • 1 1/2 Cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more to dust the counter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Olive oil, for coating the bowl

Directions

  • Pour the water into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it stand for 5 minutes. The yeast will start to bloom as the granules expand. This is called “proofing” the yeast, and is done to make sure that the yeast is still alive.
  • Add flour and salt and mix until a shaggy dough forms (if you find you need more water to keep it together, as I often do, add warm water one tablespoon at a time. Don’t overdo it). If using a stand mixer, knead for 5 minutes with the dough hook. If kneading by hand, flour your counter lightly and go for ten minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic when its ready; tacky to the touch, but not sticky.
  • Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into a bowl, and place your dough inside, rolling it around in the oil so that all sides are coated. Cover your bowl (tip: a shower cap is the absolute best thing for this. Cheap, reusable, and SO MUCH EASIER than struggling with saran wrap. I keep half a dozen shower caps in my kitchen at all times) and place it in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight.
  • About an hour before you’re ready to use it,take the bowl out of the fridge and let the dough come to room temperature. The dough should have risen until almost double in size. Press a finger gently into the dough; if the dough remains indented and doesn’t spring back right away it’s ready! Gently press down on the dough to deflate.
  • Roll, toss, or stretch to your desired shape, top with deliciousness, and bake (usually at your oven’s highest heat, for 10-12 minutes) or grill over medium heat (reserving toppings until the first side of the dough has cooked and been flipped).

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Posted by on April 27, 2014 in Food

German Apple Cake

usThe best part about getting married in an apple orchard is that we get to return to our wedding venue every fall to pick apples.

Autumn is my very favorite time of year. Not just for all things pumpkin flavored, or the cooling crisp air, or gorgeous foliage (although all that is super wonderful). No, fall is my favorite because it stirs something in my blood. It wakes up a restlessness in me, makes me view everything with fresh eyes. It’s a season both melancholy and electrifying and it makes me feel alive and awake.

I worried a bit, when we first moved here, because fall is such a quintessential New England thing. How could autumn anywhere be as soul-stirring as it is in New England? In the land of perpetual winter, would fall even make an appearance?

Yes. There is fall in Minnesota. It may be short-lived, but it’s here.

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Last weekend David and I spent the morning at the apple orchard where we were married. We walked through the woods and among all the apple trees. We wandered past the gazebo where we spoke our vows, and the hidden, shady nook where we spent our first few moments alone as husband and wife. We ate apple cider and fresh donuts and sat on wooden benches at the top of a hill over looking hundreds of apple trees and talked about how we’ll bring our daughter here next year, and each year after that, and tell the stories of this magical place where Mama and Papa got married.

We left the orchard with a modest armful of apples, and when we got home I made this cake.

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German Apple Cake

This recipe has been in my recipe box so long I no longer remember where I first found it. I know I tweaked it a great deal over the years. It is immensely forgiving and adaptable (brown sugar, cranberries, nuts!). And delicious. It’s one of David’s favorites.

This is a coffee cake, a snacking cake, a so-close-to-a-muffin-you-can-eat-it-for-breakfast cake. You can dress it up with a caramel sauce or a cinnamon glaze if you’re feeling jazzy, but we usually just sprinkle it with powdered sugar and chomp away.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 3/4 cup applesauce
  • 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 (depending on your sweet tooth. I like it with 1/4) cups sugar
  • 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 cups apples – peeled, cored and diced

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Grease and flour cake pan (or bundt pan, or glass dish–whatever. This works well no matter what).
  • In a mixing bowl; beat oil, applesauce, and eggs until creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat well.
  • Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and ground cinnamon together in a separate bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the egg mixture and mix until combined. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples by hand using a wooden spoon. Spread batter into the prepared pan.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool fully, then sprinkle with powdered sugar.

This cake keeps very well covered at room temperature for a few days, but it will get more moist (which I love) as time goes by. You can also store it in the fridge for a week, assuming it will last that long.

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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Food

Pita & Tzatziki

Gyros, or sandwiches

Our poorly-lit homemade version of Zorba’s delcious gyros.

I lived in Astoria (a popular residential neighborhood in Queens) for four years and that’s where I learned to love Greek food.

Astoria is packed with Greek diners, cafés, and upscale restaurants, but I really fell in love with Greek food at a hole in the wall place called Zorba’s. In good weather David and I ate there weekly at least. We sat outside in rickety metal chairs that scraped the uneven pavement, our massive overflowing plates crowding the plastic tabletop. We sat in the lingering heat of the evening with supremely generous glasses of wine and ate.

I am a person who finds something I absolutely love on a menu, and then insist on ordering it every single time. I always got the same thing at Zorba’s: a chicken souvlaki platter with pita and extra tzatziki sauce. They served their pita sliced in triangles. I’d stuff each precious slice with the spiced, marinated grilled chicken, some feta, a tomato or cucumber or two, a few french fries, and then slathered the entire thing in tzatiki. A perfect, perfect bite.

Zorba’s is definitely one of the restaurants I miss most in New York, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to recreate those simple, heavenly flavors. Luckily, I’ve come pretty damn close.

Tzatziki

My own recipe, after much trial and error
Yield: Quite a lot

Ingredients:

  • 2 Cups of plain Greek Yogurt (I use an entire tub of Fage Total, which–at 17.6 ounces–is just over 2 cups)
  • 1/2 cucumber, seeded and diced
  • 1 Tablespoon of lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
  • 1-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Fresh dill (I can’t give you a measurement on this. I use a LOT. Like… 1/4 cup. A few Tablespoons will probably suit you just fine).
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt

Directions:

  • Place cucumbers in a strainer and add salt, tossing to coat. Set aside and let the cucumbers drain for at least one hour and up to three hours. You want to pull as much moisture out of the cucumbers as possible so that the tzatziki stays nice and thick instead of getting runny.
  • Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients and let the mix chill in the fridge. One the cucumbers have drained, blot them with a paper towel and gently fold into the yogurt mixture. You may eat immediately, but flavors will meld beautifully overnight. Best served chilled. Will keep tightly sealed in the fridge for one week.

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Pita

Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Yield: 8 pitas

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups flour (bread and all-purpose work equally well. Up to half–no more–can be whole wheat)
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons oil

Directions:

  • Combine all ingredients until a shaggy dough is formed.
  • Knead by hand (10 minutes) or by mixer (5 minutes) until dough is smooth and elastic. It should not be overly wet or sticky, nor should it be incredibly dry. If you need to add more water, do it one Tablespoon at a time.
  • Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover (shower cap!), and let rise for one hour. It should be close to doubled in size.
  • Divide dough into 8 pieces (you can weigh them out if you want to be super accurate) roll into balls and cover with a clean, very damp towel. Let sit for 20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If you have a baking stone, this is an excellent time to use it. If not, find a large, flat cookie sheet and stick it in the oven.
  • Roll out one dough ball into a roughly six inch circle. You want the dough to be thin, but not TOO thin. If you can see through it, start over–you’ve rolled it out too much.
  • Place the circle on a piece of parchment paper (not wax paper, not aluminum foil) and put the whole thing in the oven directly on your stone/baking sheet. Bake for anywhere from three to five minutes (check it at three, if it hasn’t puffed, let it go two minutes more. If it STILL hasn’t puffed, take it out and enjoy your delicious flatbread. We’ll fix the problem in a minute).
  • If you first pita doesn’t puff, your dough is either rolled out too thin, or else it’s not moist enough. In which case, roll out the next piece, and then spritz it with some water. A spray bottle is perfect for this, but if you don’t have one handy just shake a few drops of water onto the dough with your fingers. Don’t over do it and soak the poor dough, you just want to get a little extra moisture on there. Pop it on the parchment paper, and into the oven it goes.
  • Repeat for all 8 pieces. If the pita isn’t going directly into your mouth as it comes out of the oven (and I wouldn’t blame you if it did) wrap it in a clean towel to keep it soft. Once pita has completely cooled it will keep in an air-tight container at room temperature for a week.

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While you could certainly just combine the pita and tzatziki and call it a day, we also love to make gyros and other sandwiches, Greek-style nachos, and use tzatziki as a dipping sauce for fries or crudités (or just a spoon, because really? It’s that good). YUM.

Greek Nachos! Ground lamb, tomatoes, cucumber, feta, and tzatziki on toasted pita chips.

Greek Nachos! Ground lamb, tomatoes, cucumber, feta, and tzatziki on toasted pita chips.

 

Baked, seasoned fries with tzatziki

Baked, seasoned fries with tzatziki

Posted by on April 24, 2013 in Food

Quest for the Perfect Pizza Dough: Take One

We make pizza at home. Even as a child I remember doing this with my family. We would buy frozen pizza dough, and after school I would set it on the countertop to thaw. We stretched it to fit our rectangular baking sheet, slathered it with sauce and shredded cheese, and bam. Pizza.

I still make pizza at home, but over the last few years we’ve gotten more adventurous with our toppings. That, and I make the dough from scratch now. I started making bread in 2008, when I still lived in New York. I didn’t own a stand mixer or a bread machine, so I did it all by hand. I made a loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread, and to my surprise I got two perfect loaves the first time out. I’ve had many failures in bread-making since then (if you’ve ever browsed my facebook photo albums you know that I can’t make a French baguette for love or money. Some of those failures are pretty epic). Bread may be temperamental, but it’s not difficult to make. Having been lucky with my first loaves of bread, it was no big deal to start making my own pizza dough. I started making it every once in awhile. Then we moved to Minnesota, and I started making it a lot.

Pizzas we’ve made: olive oil, potato & scallion, white sauce, asparagus, bacon, & eggs; tomato sauce, mozzarella, & venison pepperoni; tomato sauce, assorted veggies, & mozzarella; Margherita pizza.

 

Minnesota doesn’t have good pizza. I apologize to everyone I’ve just offended. If there’s an excellent pizza joint you think I’ve over-looked, feel free to let me know about it in the comments, but be aware that I grew up outside of Boston and then moved to New York and I promise you that the bar is very, very high. In the three and a half years that I’ve lived here I have yet to find pizza that hits the spot (see also: bagels, Chinese food).

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My homemade pizza is nowhere near as good at the professionals back East. But I’m determined to make it as close as I can get. Hence, the Quest for the Perfect Pizza Dough. I’ve tried half a dozen pizza dough recipes over the years. Some of them are great; some less so. But I never keep track of which is which, and it’s about time I started. David and I make pizza from scratch on Friday nights, and I plan to try a new dough recipe each week. I’ll report back here with the recipe and the results.

I suppose I should mention the things that I believe make a great pizza crust–since I’m sure there’s a lot of varying opinions. I’m a pizza crust LOVER, so I have high expectations. I want a dough that’s easy to work with, the produces a flavorful crust that blisters and bubbles up along the edge of the pizza. Sometimes I am in the mood for something crispy, but floppy pizza can be ok, too (I’m the type of person who folds her slices in half before eating).

First up?

Smitten Kitchen’s Rushed Pizza Dough

Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Yield: Dough for one pizza

photo_1I love Deb Perelman, and I love all things Smitten Kitchen. Her website is my go-to resource when I’m feeling stuck or uninspired. I was so, so excited when her cookbook was released this past fall. She’s got two pizza dough recipes in there, this “rushed” dough, which comes together comparatively quickly, and a “leisurely” dough, which requires an overnight rise in the fridge. I decided to try the “rushed” dough first.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 Cup warm–not hot–water (I always need more than this).
  • 1 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 1 1/2 Cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more to dust the counter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Olive oil, for coating the bowl

Directions

  • Turn oven to warm (200 degrees) for five minutes, then shut it off.
  • Pour the water into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it stand for 5 minutes. The yeast will start to bloom as the granules expand. This is called “proofing” the yeast, and is done to make sure that the yeast is still alive.
  • Add flour and salt and mix until a shaggy dough forms (if you find you need more water to keep it together, as I often do, add warm water one tablespoon at a time. Don’t overdo it). If using a stand mixer, knead for 5 minutes with the dough hook. If kneading by hand, flour your counter lightly and go for ten minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic when its ready; tacky to the touch, but not sticky.
  • Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into a bowl, and place your dough inside, rolling it around in the oil so that all sides are coated. Cover your bowl (tip: a shower cap is the absolute best thing for this. Cheap, reusable, and SO MUCH EASIER than struggling with saran wrap. I keep half a dozen shower caps in my kitchen at all times) and place it in the oven for one hour. Make sure the oven is shut off!
  • Remove the bowl from the oven. The dough should have risen until almost double in size. Press a finger gently into the dough; if the dough remains indented and doesn’t spring back right away it’s ready! Gently press down on the dough to deflate.
  • Roll, toss, or stretch to your desired shape, top with deliciousness, and bake (usually at your oven’s highest heat, for 10-12 minutes)

Verdict

This dough is designed to be done quickly, and the number one rule of breads is that time = flavor. Flavor was lacking, here. David described it as “neutral” but I’m going to go ahead and call it bland. My other main complaint about this dough is that the outer edge of the crust just did not rise at all. I’ve made this dough a few times recently, and that’s been a consistant problem every time. I am a crust-loving gal. I want to get to that pillowy, bready crust at the end of each slice, and it’s just not happening here.

I did love how quickly this came together, and although it was disappointing it wasn’t offensive, or anything. I’d keep it on the back burner for weeknight emergencies, but the quest for the perfect pizza crust continues!

Toppings

We topped this pizza with olive oil, fresh ricotta, grape tomatoes, yellow bell pepper, bacon, and fresh basil. This was delicious and fresh, a perfect reminder that spring IS on the way, even if there’s still snow outside. (Yes, it’s still snowing in Minnesota. Yes, it’s mid-April). The toppings made up for the lackluster crust; I’ll use these ingredients to top more pizzas in the future!

Do you have a pizza dough recipe you think I’ll love? Leave a comment and let me know, or shoot me an email! This quest is serious business.

Posted by on April 14, 2013 in Food

Still Cooking.

So, I could start this post off by apologizing profusely for my absence. I’m the worst blogger, sorry I never update, blah blah blah.

Or I could just skip all that and get into it.

Here’s some stuff that’s happened since last time:

1. David and I are getting married. I KNOW, RIGHT? We’re deep in the forest of wedding-planning with approximately 4 months to go until the happy day. I am artsing and crafting all over the place. I am weeping over caterers. I am keeping a running list of songs to play at the reception. And I am loving the hell out of my fiancé. Planning a wedding is one of the most enormous, exhausting, exhilarating things I have ever done.

2. David is in graduate school for his MBA (Masters of Business Administration).

3. I am still working for the state if Minnesota (39 hours per week, y’all) and still loathing every moment of it.

4. I’ve cooked some pretty damn amazing things in the last year.

5. But maybe not quite as awesome as what David made me for dinner tonight. This was his first Saturday off since January and he probably won’t have another one until the wedding (September 1, 2012!) We really took advantage of every moment.

We slept in until 8:00am (for people who normally get up around 5:00am, this was heavenly) and went grocery shopping first thing to get it out of the way. It was supposed to start raining later in the day, but the morning–although cloudy and crisp–was clear. We headed to the park to play catch for an hour.

Afterward, we came home and watched some TEDtalks on food systems and agriculture (we are food people. Um, clearly) while drinking beer and working on wedding arts and crafts.

Yes! (A quick aside; bear with me).

In the interest of saving money while simultaneously indulging my inner craft-whore, I decided to make all of the decorations for our wedding reception!

I’m making paper flowers out of book pages (David and I are also book people) and using paint chips swiped from hardware stores to make garlands. Here’s a sneak peak:

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ANYWAY. Around 3:30pm we packed up the art supplies and spent the next four hours making dinner. Actually, David spent the next four hours making dinner, and I kept him company and documented things on Instagram. Here’s how our evening went, start to finish:

Lamb shank stewed with caramelized onions, prunes, and garlic, topped with mint and served with an Israeli couscous with quinoa, parsley, shallots, and toasted pine nuts.1

Recipes adapted (rather loosely) from:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/emeril-lagasse/pine-nut-and-preserved-lemon-couscous-recipe/index.html
http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/12/fall-apart-lamb-with-prunes-recipe.html

Am I the luckiest, or what?

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  1. We didn’t realize this until after the fact, but this is basically the Lamb Stew with Dried Plums that Katniss is so obsessed with in THE HUNGER GAMES. She is correct; it’s freaking amazing.
Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Food

Homemade Samoas! Happy Birthday, Maura!

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I used to challenge my younger sister to popsicle eating contests when we were kids.

“I bet I can eat my popsicle faster than you can!” I’d say, and she would totally buy it. Maura would risk a cold headache and chattering teeth to finish her popsicle first. Me? My intention was never to “win.” I’d slurp mine as slowly as I could, enjoying every sweet, dripping lick I had left while Maura looked sadly on with nothing but an empty stick and a sticky face. I pretty much did it just to torture her.

If you ask her, I’m sure she’s got plenty of similar stories about all the crummy things I did to her in our childhood, since I was older and had the advantage of experience and overactive imagination on my side. (Maura, I am really, really sorry that I tricked you into giving me your favorite troll doll. And also that I made you switch Popples with me because yours was way cuter).

Despite it all (don’t worry, she gave as good as she got), my sister is one of my dearest friends and makes me laugh like no one else can. Her scathing wit and sharp insight make for the best phone conversations, her sense of style is impeccable and enviable, and she inspires me constantly with her creativity and perseverance. I am proud to have her in my life, as both a sister and a friend.

So when she requested homemade Girl Scout cookies for her birthday this year, I didn’t bat an eyelash (I also totally kept several of them for myself).

Homemade Samoa

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Shortbread Cookies:

Ingredients
2 Cups flour
1 cup of butter (softened)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 Cup powdered sugar

Cream butter and sugar. Add flour and salt to form a dough. Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for an hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough to roughly 1/8th of an inch and use cookie cutters or the rim of a glass to cut cookies into the traditional ringed shapes (Sprinkle counter liberally with powdered sugar to prevent sticking). Bake on parchment paper for 8-10 minutes or until bottoms are just golden and tops are still pale. Let cool completely.

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Coconut Topping:

Ingredients
1 lb sweetened shredded coconut
1 stick butter
1 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350. Spread coconut on a baking sheet and toast coconut until lightly golden brown, flipping several times to prevent burning.

Make a caramel sauce (CAUTION: SUGAR WILL BE EXTREMELY HOT!): Melt sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan over steady, medium-low heat–whisking constantly–until amber-colored. Add butter. When all the butter has melted remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the cream (the caramel will froth violently, just keep stirring).

Set aside 1/2 Cup of caramel sauce, and combine the rest with the toasted coconut.

To Assemble:

Brush the tops of cooled cookies with caramel, then spread the caramel coconut mixture on top and allow to set completely. Melt some high-quality dark chocolate in a double-boiler and dip the bottom of each cookie in the melted chocolate. Pipe chocolate stripes across the top of the cookies with a piping bag or a ziploc with the corners cut off.

Enjoy!

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A very happy 26th birthday to my little sister, Maura. I hope the cookies were just want you wanted! I love you!

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Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Food

Some Days Are More Difficult Than Others (A Boyfriend Post)

It’s a difficult thing to watch when someone you love is being having a rough time. And there can be a feeling of helplessness knowing there is not much you can do about it. On this specific Friday, however, I took it upon myself to do what I could within my power to make sure this difficult day didn’t get any worse than it already was–I arrived home after work on that Friday with a bag full of culinary delights and flowers.

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In the grocery bag were a few of her favorite things: there was cheesecake, there was lemon ice cream and the ingredients for a delicious home cooked meal too. Chicken, lemons, cream, butter, potatoes and cheese–there are just a few of her favorite things. Do you see a theme here? We got cooking and had gnocchi and chicken with a lemon cream sauce! Oh and a “Kelly Riley Salad” made of iceberg lettuce, red bell peppers and cucumber with a light, homemade vinaigrette. It turned out to be a wonderful evening. We hung-out in our kitchen, worked together to create a meal and for a few brief hours Kelly forgot her woes.

Just because you get some release doesn’t mean the difficult things in life go away. That’s how things work, though, and we all learn to work through every day in our own way. As you can see, our household focuses on food–and here we come to the following night’s meal and the recipe of this post: Pasta with Chestnuts, Pancetta and Sage via Epicurious.

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We happened–don’t shun us because this might sound pretentious–to have a jar of chestnuts in the pantry and pancetta in the freezer. Though we didn’t have the called-for tagliatelle, we did have some angle hair pasta on hand. So, Saturday being Saturday, we opened a bottle of wine and began that evening’s work. Mise-en-place is common phrase at our place. While Kelly watched, talked and listened we had Girl Talk on in the background and the preparations began.

The recipe called for ‘crumbling’ the chestnuts. When you see a jar of nuts, you don’t usually associate that word with the limitations of what you can do with the ingredient. The things crumbled with ease however, since they are already roasted and ready to go. Very convenient!

From there it was easy–chop, dice, grate and you’re ready.

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Then you saute, boil, toss and it’s done!

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Some days are more difficult than others.

Posted by on April 17, 2011 in Food

Love = Laminated Dough

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Traditions are important–birthday traditions even more so. In my house the very best birthday tradition is that you get to eat whatever you want. I can’t remember the last time I celebrated my birthday with a traditional frosted cake.  Infancy, perhaps. For me? Cheesecake all the way. I’m a loyalist, too, so it’s cheesecake every single year. Sometimes I’ll switch the flavor up a bit–plain cheesecake, raspberry swirl, salted caramel, whatever strikes my fancy.

My birthday isn’t until July, though, so cheesecake will have to wait. (Sorry. Didn’t mean to get your hopes up, there).

David’s birthday was in March, though, and he definitely knew what he wanted:

Croissants. I love croissants. I love the girl who bakes croissants. And she must love me–otherwise, why would she make them for me? They were damn good.

One of our annual traditions is making a food item for one another on their birthday. I think the initiation of the tradition happened when I made fresh Cod with sun-dried tomato tartar sauce (at the end of the night I found out Kelly doesn’t like sun-dried tomatoes…or tartar sauce) and fresh fava and jalapeno salad (she doesn’t like beans either). She enjoyed the meal and in subsequent years began baking for me on my birthday. She’s an excellent baker.

Kelly had previously mentioned (numerous times) that she had always wanted to make croissants. So why not provide an opportunity?

This year, when she asked what I wanted I immediately replied “marzipan croissants”. Hell yeah. When I lived in Germany, I used to go to this bakery for breakfast whenever I had class in the schloss. I used to get two things: a warm marzipan croissant and a warm ham and cheese croissant.  So damn good. The only issue: what’s marzipan? Well, in Germany it’s almond paste. An almond paste that by law (yes, by law, much like the Reinheitsgebot) is two parts ground almond to one part sugar, only additional flavoring allowed being rosewater. Apparently here, Kelly discovered, marzipan is a type of almond dough. More for baking independently or as part of cake, than stuffing pastry. After some additional research on both sides, we agreed that Kelly would make an almond paste then.

As such we spent the better part of my birthday proper sitting around the house, relaxing and every few hours beating butter or folding and rolling dough with butter. It was a fun, long process. But worthwhile. The almond paste was spectacular by itself. Baked into homemade croissant: amazing.

So. Croissants. From scratch. What had I gotten myself into?

Croissants are a lengthy ordeal centered on something terrifying called “laminated dough.” Essentially, that means that you make a dough and layer it with butter about a thousand times. When you put the croissants in the oven the butter melts, leaving flaky pockets behind. Mmmm.

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I’d never made a laminated dough before, and they’re rumored to be pretty high maintenance. Keep the butter and your work surfaces cold! Work fast and roll out accurately! Don’t panic!

Luckily there’s a built-in step in the croissant-making process to help you get out all your fear and anxiety. Beating the butter!

  1. This is the first video I ever took with my phone, and it shows. Apparently it doesn’t reorient itself the way the regular camera does?
  2. “Pasturized” butter. Obviously, the butter is pasturized! What I meant to say is that the butter was made using milk from pasture-fed cows. David thinks this mix-up is hilarious.
  3. Unintentional cleavage shot. Sorry!

After that, things just seemed to fall into place…

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The verdict?

The very best part is that David had the brilliant idea to freeze the shaped croissants before the rise. That means we have a whole stockpile of croissants in our freezer and we can just take them out, thaw, rise, and bake ’em, and have fresh, homemade croissants on a whim! As a matter of fact, we had some for breakfast this morning. DELICIOUS.

Happy, happy birthday, my love! Hope your croissants are everything you wished for! I am so excited and also terrified to see what you’ll request next year…

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I have to say that making these was a blast. Time-consuming? Yes, but not nearly as scary as I thought they’d be. Rather than try to detail the process here, I’m going to redirect you to Julie’s excellent tutorials at Willow Bird Baking.

I’ve been reading her blog for over a year. She issued a croissant challenge to all of her readers, and without  her encouragement and painstaking instructions and photo tutorials, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. If you want to make croissants look through all of her amazing suggestions and success stories and get in the kitchen:

http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/secret-garden-recipe-homemade-buttery-croissants-and-pains-au-chocolat/
http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/homemade-croissant-phototutorial/
http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/croissant-masters/
http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/croissant-masters-round-2/
http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/croissant-masters-round-3/

I made my own almond paste using this recipe:
http://www.mysisterskitchenonline.com/2008/12/10/you-mean-i-can-make-my-own-almond-paste/

And then used that to make almond pastry cream:
http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Twice-Baked-Almond-Croissants-103999

(I also used the orange vanilla simple syrup in that recipe to glaze the croissants before baking so the almond slices would stick to the top).

Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Food

Hot Chocolate…on a STICK.

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So, it’s been three months since my last post. I’m pretty much the worst blogger on the planet. You’re about to forgive me though, because I come bearing Hot Chocolate on a Stick.

Part of living in Minnesota is surrendering myself to the notion that every type of food imaginable can and should be served on a stick whenever possible. The winters are very, very dark and long here; I’m not going to begrudge anyone whatever amusement they can find. If putting a wooden skewer through a snack makes you happy, then more power to you!

Given that I’ve garnered a bit of a reputation when it comes to all things edible over the past year, I knew that whatever Christmas gifts I gave this year had to include something homemade and delicious. I didn’t want to send anything too delicate that might break or spoil during shipping, so that ruled out most of my original ideas. By sheer luck I stumbled across this post on an adorable blog called Giver’s Log and knew instantly that I’d found the perfect thing.

I made 68 of them, because I am just that crazy.

David was away deer hunting almost every weekend (we recently bought a 7 cubic ft freezer chest to hold all the venison meat. And David claims to have grown up in the suburbs), so luckily I had the whole kitchen to myself. Sixty-eight chocolates molded in Dixie cups with sticks and candy canes poking out of them take up an astonishing amount of space.

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The most time consuming part of the entire project was actually the packaging. I made three flavors: original, peppermint, and cinnamon. I wrapped each individual stick in plastic and tied it up with ribbon, hemp twine, and a little label indicating the flavor. Then I grouped them up and placed them together in larger bags–four to a pack–and added another label with directions.

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We had a huge blizzard the weekend that I made all of these. It was so cozy to be inside my apartment melting chocolate and eating broken candy canes while the snow piled up outside. I may also have had a mug of hot chocolate or two. I mean, someone had to be the taste-tester and David was up in Wisconsin sitting outside in the freezing snowstorm waiting for Bambi to come along, so I had to bite the bullet myself. Tough job.

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Hot Chocolate on a Stick

adapted from Giver’s Log
Yield: approximately 10 sticks of Hot Chocolate

WORD OF WARNING: Do not let so much as a drop of water near your chocolate or it will seize. If it seizes (and you will know if it does because it will become a grainy, horrible mess) it will still taste delicious, but it won’t look as pretty. If you don’t care how they look, then you don’t have to be so vigilant. Make sure that all of your equipment is bone-dry. NO LIQUIDS. This means that you can’t add booze to these (just splash some into your mug once it’s all made!) or things like vanilla or almond extract. If you want to add flavorings they should be in powder or paste form only.

You will need: a double boiler (or a metal bowl over a sauce pan), a piping bag (or a ziploc bag), chocolate molds (Dixie cups and ice cube trays work just as well),  a wooden spoon (or whisk, I quickly abandoned my spoon for the whisk. Use what works best for you!), and sticks (wooden dowels, lollipop sticks, popsicle sticks, candy canes, cinnamon sticks, whatever!).

Ingredients:

  • 8 oz high-quality chocolate, between 60 to 72% cocoa. Do not skimp on the chocolate. I used Guittard and it was amazing.
  • 1/4 cup of cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup of powdered sugar
  • pinch of salt

Directions:
Set up your molds and have your sticks handy.

Sift together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Please do not skip this step. Sift. Please sift. Then set aside.

Gently melt chocolate in a double boiler until about 2/3 of the chocolate is melted and a few solid pieces remain.

Take off heat and add the powdered sugar mixture. Stir, stir, stir. It will be very, very thick, like frosting. If it looks like a big old gritty mess, just keep stirring; it should smooth out soon enough. The final product will be smooth and very glossy and shiny. Immediately transfer to the pastry bag and pipe into your molds. You want 1 oz of chocolate in each mold. If you have a kitchen scale it is immensely valuable here. If not, try to split the chocolate evenly between 8-10 molds. Add a stick and let it harden–usually I give it about 2 hours to be safe, though they are often set before then. (If you use candy canes for the sticks, you will need to prop them up. After much trial and error and an awful lot of swearing I found that hooking them on a bowl worked best. Of course, I didn’t have a bowl that was the perfect height, so I supplemented by adding crumpled tinfoil around the rim). When chocolates are set, remove from molds. Hot Chocolate on a Stick will keep well for up to one year in an air-tight container. Do not store in the fridge or freezer.

Decorating (Optional):

I decided to dress mine up a little bit to make them extra-pretty. I bought some white candy melts and dipped the set chocolates into it and then either dipped them in colored sugar, or applied chocolate transfer sheets (the plaid decorations you see in pictures). There are lots of great ways you can play with these. I already have some good ideas for future batches. Be creative, and pretty much anything goes.

To Serve:

Stir 1 stick into 1 cup (8 oz) of hot milk until melted. If feeling incredibly indulgent, top with homemade whipped cream. Enjoy!

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I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and that a joyous New Year’s Eve awaits you. May 2011 bring you health and happiness.

Much, much love.

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Posted by on December 26, 2010 in Food

The Ethics of Eating Well

It is almost time for apples, which means it’s almost time for apple-picking. Few things bliss me out as much as spending a crisp, sunny Autumn day picking apples and drinking hot cider before going home to bake, bake, bake.

Yesterday, I was hunting around online for an orchard where David and I could go and pick our fill. The first place that came to mind is the orchard that David and I visited last year. It was an idyllic, lovely little orchard, and exactly the sort of apple-picking experience I wanted. But I hestitated. The apples at that orchard are grown using pesticides.

And as that moment of hesitation expanded, I realized that I was probably going to have to go ahead and find an apple orchard that’s chemical-free. For me, eating has become ethical.

I dug my heels in on this for a long, long time. My food came from the supermarket. It appeared there, by magic, waiting for me to buy it. Anything that happened to it before it got on my plate didn’t really interest me. I had no desire to think about it.

When David and I were in the first flush of dating, he mentioned an article he had read about the dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup and how it is in absolutely everything we eat. Man, did I fly off the handle. “Psh!” I said. “It’s corn. It can’t possibly be that bad for you! The government regulates these things! They wouldn’t let people eat it if it was bad for them!” They were gonna have to pry the Diet Coke from my cold, dead fingers, I can tell you that much. David, wisely, did not push the issue. My ignorance was a bright flag; I waved it.

The first thing that put a crack in my resistance was cooking. Cooking, for me, began as an experiment. A challenge. When I was a junior in college Dan came up to visit me for a weekend, and I decided to make my first ever pie. I found a recipe somewhere–who knows where–for a simple apple pie, and I went at it with gusto. Peeling apples with a slippery little paring knife, rolling out the crust, dumping it all together and hoping for the best. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could DO it. If I could create something out of nothing, like magic. It turns out, I could.

The pie was gorgeous coming out of the oven. The high crust was golden and sugar-sparkled. When we cut into it (without bothering to let it cool–how could we wait?) there was an odd, 2-inch gap between the dome of the crust and the cinnamony filling, but who cared? I had pulled this out of thin air. It tasted wonderful.

That’s how I cooked for a long time: to see if I could do it. I tried many more pies. I made bread. I made over a hundred mini cheesecakes for the holiday party at David’s office. I made pita, and macarons, and fresh pasta. If it was difficult or time-consuming, I tried it. I started to read about food, to invest more time and thought into what I was making, and soon enough these one-off cooking experiments evolved into something else. I started cooking full meals, three times a day. For the first time in my life, I was cooking consistently to feed myself.

The more I cooked the more interested I became in the ingredients I was using. It became a lot harder to pretend that the food I was buying at the grocery store was harmless, or even–that it was food.

I will tell you right now that one of the biggest reasons I refused to inform myself about the American food industry is that I knew, instinctively, that something was very, very wrong with it. And once I opened that Pandora’s Box there was no going back. I’d either have to drastically change my life, or go on as I was and feel ashamed and guilty about everything I ever put into my mouth for the rest of my life.

Let me pause for a minute here, and just try to say something. I’m not here to tell you what to eat. I’m not here to say that the way I feed myself is the way that you should, too. Food is deeply, DEEPLY personal and I sure as hell don’t want anyone to dictate the very complicated relationship that I have with it. I’m not trying to dictate yours, either. The reason that I’m writing this post is that while a lot of things have changed in my life in the last year, one of the most visible changes has been centered on my relationship with food. And it’s been one of the most emotional changes. One of the most exhilerating. I want to process that, to record it. To take stock and say, this is where I am, this is what has happened to me, this is how my life has changed.

Needless to say, I opened Pandora’s Box. I read all the Michael Pollan: THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMA, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, SECOND NATURE, and THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I watched FOOD, INC. and JAMIE OLIVER’S FOOD REVOLUTION.  I read blogs and books and listened to podcasts and talked to people and educated myself. I went to farmers markets and started an herb garden in my window sill and tasted things. And there were a lot of really terrible moments where that dormant sense of dread I’d felt so often in the grocery store, the one I refused to face, proved to be justified, and even more horrific than I’d thought. I gave up the Diet Coke of my own accord.

We joined Mississippi Market, a local food co-op. I became obsessed with the idea of going to the Farmers Market. I marked the opening date on my calendar, and we were there at 8am that dull grey April morning, browsing through half a dozen stands all bearing some slight bundles of asparagus and perhaps some new potatoes. Not very glamorous. But as the summer went on, the number of vendors exploded. By buying almost every last bit of our produce at the Farmers Market, David and I wound up eating seasonally. For myself, at least, it was the first time in my life.

I love sugar snap peas, particularly when eaten raw. I fell in love with them, oddly enough, in New York. After work one day my friend Bri and I met up and decided to amble around down in Union Square as we so often did. The Wednesday farmers market was still thriving, so we gathered up some bread, some cheese, some strawberries, some sugar snap peas. We sat on the grass and reveled in our bounty. As we sat there, chatting and laughing, snapping open thick pods and popping raw peas into our mouths like candy, I remember falling a little bit in love with just about everything at that moment. Every time I eat them I think about that afternoon.

Our co-op had some. Slender little things imported from Mexico. I bought a bunch, and shelled them enthusiastically (I love to shell peas. When I worked in restaurants I also loved to roll silverware or fold napkins. I find small, repetative tasks that require little focus so relaxing and lovely). And they were…ok. Not great. This is nothing against our little co-op, which champions local growers and products at every turn. But the winter sugar snaps imported from Mexico? Not impressive.

Several weeks later in the spring, our Farmers Market had sugar snap peas by the trillion–big fat pods that snapped with the most delightful, satisfying crunch I had ever heard. Mexico had nothing, nothing on Minnesota as far as peas were concerned, and I made my first decision about eating foods in season. I will never, ever eat wimpy little sugar snap peas again. I will wait, in agony, every year for that brief window of time when peas are available locally, and then I will GORGE MYSELF on them. Having had something so delicious, I never want to settle for a subpar sugar snap ever again. It will be worth the wait.

Eating in season, eating locally, eating food that has been raised without chemicals or hormones, meat that has been fed only its natural diet and been granted the freedom of unrestricted movement–these are some of the things that guide my food choices, now. I want to support my community, stimulate my local economy, meet the people who raise my food and know that they do so sustainably. I want the food that I eat to be food.

I’m by no means a purist. I love coffee. I love my fully-stocked spice cabinet. I really, really love citrus. But I want to make the most ethical food choices that I can. I want the time that I spend in the kitchen to be a joy, the ingredients that I use to be the freshest and most nutitious, the meals that I eat to be delicious and shared with the people I love.

I’m not saying that eliminating HFCS from my life was easy. I’m not saying that I will never eat another Snickers Bar. I’m saying that educating myself about my food, and making a commitment to better food choices is something that I have never once regretted. Not for a second.

I’m saying that once I realized that other choices existed, once I explored them and committed to them, a lot of beauty came into my life. And this small triumph, this act of deliberate choosing, opens up so many other doors. In how many facets of my life am I doing what I’m doing simply because I haven’t bothered to access any alternatives? My choices about eating have empowered me to make other choices, to take control of my life in other ways.

Eating mindfully is just a start.

And I am still learning.

I just recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE, and was telling David about it on a long car ride. In the book, Barbara is having a phone conversation with a friend of hers who happens to be a gourmet chef. They are discussing Barbara’s garden, and she mentions that the potatoes have recently come up. Wait, says the chef. What do you mean ‘up?’ What part of a potato comes ‘up?’ Barbara answers somewhat incredulously, the plant part. Hold on, says the chef. What are you talking about? Potaotes have a plant part?

The gourmet chef and I have that in common. Potaoes grow under ground. They sprout little eyes that take root and, you know, that’s it. The fact that potatoes have a plant part that grows up above the ground astonished me.

“Can you believe it?” I said to David in the car. “A plant part? I never knew that! Did you?”

“Um, yes,” he said, this man who claims that the corn fields where he grew up count as the suburbs. “We drive past potato fields all the time.”

Well, imagine that.

Posted by on September 16, 2010 in Food