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Friday, December 30, 2011

Cuckoo for (Good) Crackers

While David and I were cooking some of the Chrismukkah food, we had the film Julie & Julia on the computer in the background.  I haven't seen this movie in a while, and definitely not since I started a blog this past July.

I've read both of Julie Powell's books;  while I liked Julie & Julia well enough , I had to skip over large portions of her follow-up book, Cleaving.  I really didn't want to hear about her affairs, particularly since I thought her husband was a little bit of a saint based on the portrayal in her first book.  Powell was somewhat more likable in the movie, but I've concluded that it was only because she was portrayed by Amy Adams, who has made a good career out of being cute and likable.

Anyway, Powell's reaction in the movie to the first comment on her blog rang true.  However, she becomes self-centered about the whole process, very "me, me, me."  Admittedly, she had a job she hated and she was basically living to blog and perhaps ultimately to get a book deal.  I'm pleased to say that the bloggers that I have met in the past five months bear no relationship to Julie Powell.  Rather, I've found the blogging community friendly and welcoming.

Getting off that tangent, I'm continuing to post recipes from the Cucina49 Chrismukkah, which peaked with a large dinner party on Christmas Day.  There were two menorahs a-blazing, competitive dreidel-spinning (our friend Nick always wins--he's got the technique down), David's brightly shining Christmas tree and, of course, lots of good food, including a decidedly non-kosher charcuterie platter.

It's easy enough to put together a good chatterer platter:  I like at least one hard and one soft cheese, preferably one cow's-milk cheese and one goat's or sheep's milk cheese.  Usually I will also have at least two types of cured meats, black olives and perhaps some mixed nuts.  Cashews and cheese are an irresistible combination.  Sliced fresh baguette or good crackers is also a must. 

Can you tell we nibbled off the raclette while we were cooking?

Note that I say good crackers, not crappy commercial crackers with lots of hydrogenated soybean oil or preservatives.  Stonewall Kitchen makes my favorite store-bought cracker, but when I have time, I prefer to make them myself.  The following recipe can be adapted to other fresh herbs and hard cheeses that may be lurking in your refrigerator.  They are buttery, flavorful and worth the relatively small amount of time and effort involved.

Rosemary-Parmesan Crackers
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten

1/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup good-quality Parmesan cheese, finely shredded
1 1/2 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

Using a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment on medium speed until it is creamy.  Turn the mixer to low and add the rosemary, Parmesan, salt and pepper until just incorporated.

Add the flour all at once and continue beating until the flour is incorporated.  Every time I've made the recipe, the dough at this stage refuses to hold together.  Add two tablespoons of warm water and combine again--this should make the dough come together, although it will still look crumbly.

Dump the dough onto a floured cutting board and roll it into a log about one inch in diameter.  Wrap the log in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour or overnight--this is a great item to make ahead of time. 

When you're ready to bake the crackers, heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Slice the dough into rounds about 1/4 quarter inch thick, or thinner if you prefer.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and then space the rounds on that sheet--there will be about 24 crackers, depending on how thickly you've sliced them. 

Bake for about 25 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through.  The crackers will be done when they are a light golden color.

Cool on wire racks. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Exploding Churros and Deep Frying

On the public radio show The World last Friday, there was a story about a lawsuit over a recipe published in a Chilean newspaper.  The recipe included erroneous instructions for making churros, a fried pastry popular in Spain and Latin America, among other places.  (As an aside, I have a recollection of one of my early Spanish textbooks being called Churros y Chocolate--that's how ubiquitous these snacks are).

Among the errors was an instruction to heat the oil to 482 degrees Fahrenheit, which is past the flash point.  Several readers who made the recipe had the oil explode out of the pan when the churros were added, suffering burns on their arms, faces and chests.

In this season of deep-fried Hannukah foods, it is good to remember that oil should never be hotter than 375 degrees and you should use oils with high smoke points.  On the rare occasions that I deep-fry anything, I use peanut or canola oil and keep the temperature around 350, which I monitor with a heavy-duty kitchen thermometer.  Also, you should use a very deep saucepan such as this one, which holds six quarts.  I use a scant inch of oil and am paranoid about not overcrowding the pot.

Just a friendly reminder to those who are deep-frying, since I published a deep-fried recipe yesterday and will publish another later this week.  If you want to read more about the Chilean lawsuit, in which the readers eventually prevailed, here is a good article.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Time to Make the Doughnuts

A confession:  I do not like doughnuts.

Part of it is that I generally don't like sweet breakfast pastries (though a good muffin is welcome), and part of it is that a ring of dough fried in oil just isn't appealing to me.

There are several major Hannukah traditions:  lighting the menorah, or candelabra, for eight nights, playing dreidel games and frying foods in oil to commemorate how long the oil lights burned when the Jews reconsecrated the temple.  For more about the story of Hannukah and its traditions, please see this link

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are the most traditional food fried in oil, followed closely by doughnuts filled with jam. 

This year, I was lucky enough to receive a gorgeous new wire skimmer from my parents just in time to make treats to take to our friend Vicki's annual Christmas Eve open house.  Earlier last week, I heard a wonderful story on the public radio show Here and Now about a Persian chef's take on traditional Hannukah foods, including doughnuts filled with pastry cream instead of jam.

Pastry cream?  Hmm, maybe doughnuts didn't sound so bad.

These are not your standard yeast doughnuts.  The dough didn't rise very much, and though the doughnuts largely stayed flat, they were delicious when stuffed with pastry cream.

Persian Cream-Filled Doughnuts
Adapted from Chef Reyna Simnegar

1/2 cup unsalted butter
¼ cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
¼ cup water
2 large eggs
2 tbsp. amaretto liqueur
4¼ cups all-purpose flour
4 cups canola oil

For the pastry cream:
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 egg yolks
5 tsp. cornstarch

Powdered sugar for garnish

Combine the sugar,  half-cup of water and yeast in a small bowl.  Cover and set aside while the yeast activates.

Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar, salt, quarter-cup of water, eggs and amaretto.  When those ingredients are just mixed, add two cups of the flour and mix again.

Add the yeast and remaining flour and mix to combine.  The dough will be pliable and not too sticky.

Dump the dough on a piece of parchment paper and roll out to an even, one-inch thickness.  Set the dough aside for at least an hour in a warm place to rise, covering it with a dish towel or plastic wrap.

When you are ready to make the doughnuts, cut the dough in two-inch circles using a glass or a biscuit cutter.  Re-roll the dough scraps and cut out as many doughnuts as possible.

While you are cutting the doughnuts, heat the four cups of oil in a large saucepan.  The oil is ready when it registers 350 degrees on a thermometer.

Drop the circles of dough into the hot oil, being careful  not to crowd the doughnuts.  Flip with a wire skimmer or a slotted spoon so the doughnuts brown on both sides.  This process goes very quickly--be careful your oil stays an even temperature and keep an eye on them.  Each batch will take less than two minutes.

Place the cooked doughnuts on a paper towel-covered baking rack or in a colander to drain.  Repeat with the remaining dough.

Allow the doughnuts to cool completely.  While they are cooling, make the pastry cream by combining all five of the ingredients in a small saucepan.  Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking frequently.

Cook the cream for an additional minute, continuing to whisk it.  Then remove the cream from the heat and cool at room temperature, whisking periodically.

To fill the doughnuts, use a pastry bag with a long tip.  Insert the tip into one end of the doughnut and carve a small hole before inserting the cream.  I stopped filling the doughnuts when the sides of them bulged and looked as if they were about to crack.

Serve on a platter and dust with a liberal amount of powdered sugar.

Makes approximately twenty-four doughnuts.  There was leftover pastry cream, which I served the following day with a pistachio-almond cake.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sisterhood of the Traveling Menorah

It's Chrismukkah in Cucina49.  What's Chrismukkah, you say?  It's what David and I name the rare holiday season where Hannukah and Christmas collide.

Jewish holidays are on a lunar calendar, so Hannukah can fall anywhere in December.  There are years it's started at the very beginning of December, and years when it is at the very end.  This year it started at sundown this past Tuesday night, which means it's a Chrismukkah year in our household.

In the lobby of Cyrano's 
on the second night of Hannukah.

It's been a busy week with the closing of the wonderful, sold-out run of Inspecting Carol tonight and the start of rehearsals for my next project, along with helping out at a theatre whose board I sit on.  The main Hannukah ritual is lighting a menorah each of the eight nights, so I've started a project I call "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Menorah," where the menorah has come with me for the past couple of nights to wherever my evening commitment has been.  Have menorah, will travel.

Backstage at Inspecting Carol on the third night of Hannukah. 

Before I share one of my favorite recipes from this holiday season, I want to thank my friends and fellow bloggers who have read, commented upon and advised on this blog, which is just five months old.  I've loved hearing from all of you and value your input.  A special thanks to two bloggers who have sent me virtual kudos over the past month:  Curry and Comfort, a fabulous blog specializing in international food and particularly the food of India, which awarded me a "Versatile Blogger Award," and Gluten Free Food, a blog that makes living gluten-free look very tasty, which awarded me a "Fabulous Blogger Award" earlier this week.  Thank you Ramona and Balvinder for the kudos!

I've made the following recipe twice in the last month and will likely make it again in an appetizer version for our big Chrismukkah dinner on Sunday.  You can vary the meats used in the meatballs to suit your taste, but this is one of those moments when (ahem) I'm going to ignore a little pork working its way into the food. 

Mama Lidia's Meatballs
Adapted from Lidia's Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich

I used crumbs I made from a stale loaf of rosemary bread,
which added another layer of flavor.
2 pounds 80% lean ground beef
1 pound ground mild Italian sausage
2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably fresh
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 large carrot, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. truffle or kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Once the oven comes up to temperature, toast the breadcrumbs for two to three minutes if you are using fresh ones (which I highly recommend).

 Prepare two large cookie sheets by lining them with parchment paper.

Place the carrot, celery, onion and garlic in the bowl of your food processor and pulse until the vegetables are almost liquefied. 

In a large bowl, combine the meats with your hands until thoroughly mixed.  Add the vegetable mixture, salt, pepper and breadcrumbs and mix again.  Beat the eggs in a small bowl and add them to the mixture, along with the parsley.  Mix again with your hands to combine the ingredients thoroughly.

Shape the mixture into balls with your hands.  You can vary the size of the meatballs--this recipe makes at least 48 large ones or 96 small ones. 

Bake for approximately eighteen to twenty minutes, depending on the size of the meatballs you are making.  This will result in a par-baked meatball that can then be finished while cooking in a sauce.  For a thoroughly cooked meatball, bake for another two minutes.

Serve with pasta or as an appetizer with a mustard or marinara sauce on the side.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bûche de Noël: French for "Ridiculous Amount of Work"

I really don't know how people work in Starbucks.

I have schlepped my camera, camera connector, recipe and laptop all the way to Oregon, where I am working today, and I can't hear myself think over the whining of the sullen teenager sitting next to me at the counter, who apparently doesn't wish to sit with his family a few tables away but still wants to communicate from a distance.

As my friend Erika would say, le sigh.  And to think I once thought business travel was glamorous.

This month's Cake Slice Bakers pick was a challenging one:  a traditional French Bûche de Noël, or Yule log, complete with meringue mushrooms and chocolate leaves.  I set out on Saturday thinking that it would be time-consuming, but not complicated.

Boy, was I wrong.

I can't even enumerate all the things that went wrong, because it would just make me cry.  David came into the kitchen on Saturday afternoon to find me in full meltdown mode.  He then asked me to help him bring in his Christmas tree during a particularly delicate place in the French buttercream process. 

I walked away for two minutes--really!--and returned to find that my beautiful cooked meringue was not incorporating the butter and had turned into a curdled mess, which I promptly dumped down the garbage disposal.  A few minutes later, the garbage disposal started belching the mixture back up again.

Neither David nor I are particularly handy people, but he managed to fix the garbage disposal and I decided that using a cream cheese icing would make my life a lot easier at that point, which was more than two hours into the process.

Yes, the final product was pretty.  Yes, it was delicious.  In the end I posted a photo of the final result on my Facebook page and my friend Stacey, an excellent cook, reminded me that I had just spent almost four hours on the fancy version of a Hostess HoHo.

Chocolate-Almond Bûche de Noël
Adapted from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle

For the cake:
2/3 cup cake flour, sifted
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa, sifted
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
6 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

For the almond syrup:
1/3 cup water
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. amaretto liqueur

For the frosting:
24 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli)
2 tbsp. soft almond marzipan paste

For the garnish:
Meringue mushrooms (may be purchased here)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line the bottom of a standard rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper, and then spray it with nonstick baking spray with flour. 

Whisk together the cake flour, cocoa, 1/3 cup of granulated sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a separate, larger bowl, lightly beat together the eggs, oil and vanilla.  Add the flour mixture all at once and stir until just combined.

Using a hand mixer and a clean bowl, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar to the soft peak stage, about 5-7 minutes.  Drizzle in the remaining 1/3 cup of granulated sugar and continue beating until the whites are stiff and glossy.

Fold a third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture until just combined, then gently fold in the remaining whites.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 12 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched lightly.

While the cake is the oven, thoroughly dust a clean dish towel with powdered sugar and lay out on the kitchen counter.  When the cake is done, gently invert it onto the dish towel and remove the parchment paper.

Roll the cake up with the dish towel, starting at a long end.  Place the entire roll seam side down on a cooling rack.

To make the syrup, combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.  When it boils, add the amaretto, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool completely.

Start the frosting by melting the bittersweet chocolate in a small saucepan with two tablespoons of water, whisking until the chocolate is completely melted.  Remove the chocolate from the heat and allow it to cool completely.

Using a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese with the powdered sugar until well blended, then add the almond extract.  This will not make a terribly sweet frosting, which kept the cake from becoming too one-note in my opinion.  You may add sugar if you prefer a sweeter frosting.

Divide the frosting into two bowls.  To one, add the cooled chocolate and beat with a hand mixer until blended.  To the other, add the marzipan and beat until blended.

To assemble the cake, unroll the cake from the dish towel.  Brush the cake thoroughly with the amaretto syrup--there will be some left over.

Using a serrated knife, trim the short ends, creating a three-inch strip and a one-inch strip.  These will be using for the branches coming off the main log.  Spread the almond frosting over these strips and roll up tightly, securing them in aluminum foil.  Place these in the freezer to firm up.

Thickly spread the almond frosting over the remainder of the cake.  Carefully reroll the cake and place it seam side down on the desired serving platter.

When the "branches" are firm enough, place them in the desired position next to the cake roll and attach them using a thin coating of the chocolate frosting.  Using an offset spatula, frost the entire cake with the chocolate frosting, using the spatula to create striations to give the impression of bark.

One of my actors demonstrating how not to eat this cake. 
Do not try this at home.

Arrange the meringue mushrooms around the log, securing the bottoms with a thin layer of chocolate frosting.  Immediate refrigerate the cake, and remove it a half hour before you plan to serve.

Serves approximately 12 people. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Am I Blue?

Hosting gatherings on Friday nights after working a full day is always a challenge, even when it's a small group of friends.

Last night I hosted a book group in which I've been participating for about two years.  It's a great group of women, an interesting combination of lawyers, social workers and educators.  This month we were reading a book by an Alaskan author, My Name Is Not Easy, a young adult novel about Alaska Native students at one of the boarding schools that were once ubiquitous around the state when remote villages didn't have their own high schools.

The subject matter is fascinating and important--Alaska Native teenagers removed from their homes and transported hundreds of miles away to be educated to values that weren't necessarily their own--but the book is just so-so, mostly due to the bland writing.

I knew that I wanted to make a cake and set out some finger foods, but since we meet at seven I was going to make fondue.

Now, my love of fondue is well known.  However, I wanted to do something a little different if I was going to serve up a big pot o' cheese again so soon.  I modified the recipe I used previously to incorporate sassy, stinky Gorgonzola cheese.  It gives the fondue a slightly funky flavor that is a nice counterpoint to the creaminess of the texture.

An all-blue fondue would just be too much--apparently it turns gray and unappetizing--but the proportions I used were just right.  There's something wonderfully communal about sitting around talking about a book while everyone is dipping their forks into the same pot.

Blue Cheese Fondue
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

8 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
6 oz. Gruyere cheese, finely shredded
6 oz. Emmethaler cheese, finely shredded
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup dry white wine*
1 cup water
1.5 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in water

Cubes of French bread, baby carrots and grapes for dipping

Combine the wine, water and garlic in a fondue pot or other small saucepan on the stove.  Bring to a rolling boil.

Add the cheese in two installments, whisking constantly.  Do not let the cheese mixture boil.

Add the cornstarch slurry and continue whisking until the mixture is thickening.  Remove the pot from the stove and place over its burner, if you are using an actual fondue pot.  The mixture will continue to cook down slightly over the heat.

Serve with cubes of bread, baby carrots and grapes for dipping.  Easily serves six people.

*I used an unoaked California chardonnay, which worked well.  Avoid oaky Chardonnays, as they will clash with the blue cheese flavor.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons

I read yet another article yesterday, this one in the New York Times, about how eating raw cookie dough is bad for you.

Well, sure.  Raw eggs can contain E. coli and other bacteria.  But get this--the article was about how raw flour can be tainted.

Oh great, another thing to worry about while I continue to eat raw cookie dough.  I can't help it, and let's face it, neither can you.  Are any of you not susceptible to eating it?  I'm looking around and I don't see any hands.  OK, that's because I'm working late and there's no one else here.  But still.

I am particulary partial to sweets that aren't that sweet.  Contradiction?  Not really.  Give me tangy hard candy, tart gelato or a lightly sweet pastry and I'm happy.  Sickly sweet sweets need not apply to be my dessert.

When David and I hosted the Inspecting Carol cast and crew dinner a couple of weeks ago, we were too crazed making the main course for me to spend a lot of time making dessert.  I finally settled on these cookies.

The dough was irresistible, but the cookies were phenomenal.  Cakey, slightly crumbly and just the right degree of sweet to follow a big meal.  Definitely a keeper, with or without the sugar glaze on top.

These are glazed, but the glaze is so light-colored that it doesn't show up in the photos.

Lemon Ricotta Cookies
Adapted from Lidia's Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich

For the cookies:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
8 ounces part-skim ricotta, drained if necessary
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 tsp. lemon zest

For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 cup lemon juice, preferably fresh-squeezed

Prehear the oven to 325 degrees.  Prepare two baking sheets by either spraying them with nonstick baking spray or covering them in parchment paper.

Whisk together the sifted flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with a hand mixture on medium speed until the butter is light and fluffy, about three minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until thoroughly combined.

Add the ricotta, almond extract and lemon zest all at once and beat until the mixture is smooth.  Add the flour mixture and beat very briefly on low speed.

Drop small lumps of the dough, about a tablespoon each, onto the prepared baking sheets.  Don't worry if the lumps are not precisely even--that's part of the charm of these cookies. 

Bake for 22 to 24 minutes or until the cookies are lightly golden and fluffy.  Transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely.

While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze.  Place the lemon juice in a medium bowl and whisk in the powdered sugar bit by bit until the glaze is thick and pale yellow.  You may not need all the powdered sugar.

When the cookies are cool, dunk the top of each one in the glaze and return them to the racks to dry.

Makes approximately 36 cookies.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Queen of the Hill

Six days.

That's longer than I have been away from this blog since I started it in July.  I'm practically getting separation anxiety.

This past weekend David and I went on a long-overdue visit to see my parents in St. Louis.  We ate incredibly well and my parents were also kind enough to host our friends Scott and Kathy, who moved to Kentucky but came up to visit.  Scott and Kathy married David and I, so they have a special place in our lives.

Scott and Kathy outside the Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis, a surprisingly fun tour.

One of the highlights of the trip was walking St. Louis' "The Hill" neighborhood, which was settled by Italian immigrants in the later part of the 1800s and remains a hub of Italian culture today.  There are two good-sized grocery stores, DiGregorio's and Viviano's, as well as butcher shops, bakeries, a gelateria and of course the bocce ball club.

If you're interested in Italian culture in the Midwest, this is a must-stop destination.  Despite the city of St. Louis falling on hard times, the Hill remains vibrant and bustling.  My father stood in line outside the Missouri Baking Company to get cannoli for Saturday's dinner.  Lots of places claim to have the best cannoli in St. Louis, but the lines outside Missouri Baking Company make a strong statement that theirs really might be best.
I don't really like cannoli, and theirs are awesome.

Stop at one of the two groceries (or both) to fill up your trunk with high-quality salumi, cheese and fresh pasta, along with Italian wine.  I found varietals represented in both of their wine departments that I haven't seen in many places in the United States.  And the prices?  For the quality, dirt cheap.

I preferred Viviano's.  It feels like a relic from the 1950s, slightly dingy and crammed to the brim with products.  Fifty kinds of olive oil?  Check.  Twenty varieties of fresh ravioli?  Check.  A cheese and meat counter with a sassy counterman who knows every olive, meat and cheese in his area?  Check.  It isn't as organized or as well-lit as DiGregorio's, but I loved the chaos of it. 

After purchasing a case of wine, along with some olive oil, dried pasta and items for Saturday's dinner, I couldn't resist the gelateria.  Called Gelato di Riso, it's just a block down from Viviano's and has at least twenty flavors of both fruit-flavored and creamier gelato, and they'll let you have two flavors in a dish.  The lime gelato was to die for, creamy and tangy, and was even better next to the pomegranate gelato, which was sweeter and silkier.  My mother and Scott both flipped over the seasonal eggnog gelato, and David pretty much refused to let anyone at his blood orange gelato. 

This neighborhood makes for a great walking tour, and also claims some top-notch old-school Italian restaurants.  If you're anywhere near St. Louis, it's worth the detour.