Monday, December 24, 2007

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

Six years ago, my aunt and uncle and cousin, moved to the town where my parents live. This was fabulous, not only because they are some of my favorite relatives, but because my uncle is a seriously good cook. And one of my favorite holiday traditions was created, Christmas Eve dinner.
Each Christmas Eve he would showcase his talents, and manage to accomodate the increasingly complicated dietary restrictions of our family, by making an amazing buffet.
Sadly this year, they are all enjoying Christmas in their new, beautiful home in Seattle, but my mother and I are still cooking up a storm.
Here's our Christmas Eve menu. I'll do my best to pass along recipes as the night goes on.
Christmas Eve Dinner:
Gruyere puffs
portobello mushrooms stuffed with artichokes, mushrooms, parmesan and garlic
deviled eggs
phyllo triangles filled with apples, bleu d'Auvergne, chopped walnuts and a drip of honey
spanikopita (cheese and spinach pie)
meat and fish
chorizo in puff pastry
Alsatian onion tart
garlic shrimp with fried polenta
pork pies
wok-smoked duck quesadillas
ham biscuits


Let's be honest. Dough is not for everyone. Yesterday, I sat reading Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and right there in the middle of the chapter What I Wish I'd Known is: There is no point in making piecrust from scratch. Now Nora Ephron is a very rich and reasonably famous woman. She wrote When Harry Met Sally and has written and directed quite a few similar movies. Perhaps for Nora Ephron there is no point in making pie crust from scratch. I mean, if I had that kind of money, I could commission pie crusts to be made for me, regular doughs, pate brisees, pate sucres, magical shrink-proof tart shells. But I am not Nora Ephron. And for me, the alternative to making my own pie crust is some the stuff I can purchase in the refrigerated section of my grocery store. And I firmly believe that I can do better than that. And you can too. And it isn't even that hard. You can skip all those new-fangled fancy recipes that invite you to spritz the crust with vodka. All you need is your mother's oldest, most well-loved cookbook. You can borrow my mother's if you like. It doesn't have a binding anymore, and I can't say as I've ever needed to make Liver Sausage Balls or Crab Spaghetti Casserole, but the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook sure knows it's dough.

adapted from pg. 565 of the 1964 edition of the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia Cookbook

2 C all-purpose flour
pinch salt
2/3 C butter - chilled and sliced
4 to 6 (or more) T of ice water

Mix together the salt and flour in the bowl part of your stand mixer. Add the slices of butter and mix together until it reaches a sandy or pebbly texture. Add the water, only a small portion at a time, mixing in between until the dough holds together well. I don't measure my water anymore, just pour small bits from the pitcher. How much water you need will depend on so many factors, including the weather, that it's impossible for anyone to give you exact information on how much you'll need. So go slow (because it's harder to add flour back in, although it can be done), and when the dough becomes a nice ball, take it out of the mixer. Cut the dough in two and shape into flattened disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to roll out. When rolling out the dough, flour your surface well and move the dough frequently. I use 90 degree turns every few rolls to keep it from sticking, you can also flip sides.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bolognese Sauce - just the thing for a cold winter's night

Sadly, for most of us, the times you are most in need of comfort foods are the same times when you are least likely to have them. You are exhausted or sick or cranky from a crap day at work, and cooking is the last thing you feel like doing, not to mention, most comfort foods require tons of prep work and epic cook times. On one of these such nights, I took a Tyler Florence recipe from Eat this Book and thought I'd see if I could do without. Without cooking it as long as he said, without making enough to feed an army, without making fresh pasta from scratch myself.

Luckily for us, it turns out that you can edit major chunks of time from this recipe and still have a delicious dinner. I've never made it the way Tyler suggests, so if you have a few extra hours lying around, try them both and compare, but as it is, it's delicious.

adapted from Tyler Florence's Pappardelle Bolognese in Eat this Book

olive oil
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
1 carrot peeled and finely chopped (make sure it's really small, you don't want to be biting into giant hunks of carrot)
1 celery stalk finely chopped (I never use this, Ryan hates celery)
2-3 garlic cloves minced
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 cup dry white wine (I use vermouth)
1 28-oz can of whole peeled tomatoes crushed by hand plus 1 c or more of the liquid in the can.
1 c chicken stock
kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 c milk

In a large pan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and cook about 10 minutes until they are soft but not browned. Raise the heat and add the ground turkey. Brown the turkey, breaking it up into chunks with a wooden spoon. When the meat is no longer pink, add the white wine and simmer until evaporated. Then add the tomatoes, their liquid and the chicken stock. This is where you have to make a decision. The more liquid you add, the longer you'll have to cook it before it's ready to eat. I usually use all or nearly all the liquid in the tomato can plus the one cup of chicken stock and leave it for about 20-30 minutes. After 20 minutes check it, if it seems thick enough, go ahead an add the milk and simmer for another 20-40 minutes. You can probably get away with the lower end of that, but I often just leave it to simmer until I'm ready to eat, so it often goes about 30-40 minutes.

Boil up some water, cook your favorite pasta according to the package directions. I like rigatoni or shells or penne with this, but I know everyone has their own favorite. Drain the pasta and pour over the sauce.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Cookies Episode 1: Gingerbread

I've never made gingerbread men before. I've always wanted too, but we never had a real gingerbread man cookie cutter. We had a gingerbread policeman (don't ask), but no regular man. So a few years ago I bought a cute little cookie cutter with the best intentions of turning out a full army of the little guys. Never happened. I had no recipe, a crowded, crazy pre-christmas schedule, a family of mice living in my stove, [insert excuse of your making here], etc. But this year, I was determined. Some kind friends pointed me in the direction of a gingerbread recipe that would actually taste spicy and gingery. And so I was finally able to have my little family of gingermen, along with whales, crabs and of course, the traditional Christmas octopus.

I used Martha Stewart's recipe: Basic Gingerbread Cookies. The recipe was great with one little tiny caveat. Whatever you do, DO NOT bake these for 20 minutes. I used regular cookie cutters, rolled to the proper thickness, and checked the first batch at 15 minutes. They were a bit overdone. I'd recommend 10-12. 20 will most likely set off your smoke alarm, and unless you're hoping to meet a dashing young firefighter for the holidays, I'm recommending you avoid that.

I iced using Royal Icing, truly a fascinating substance. This recipe makes about enough to tackle any home spackling projects you might have lined up, and will dry sufficiently hard for that use as well. If you have no experience using royal icing, I would advise much practice cutting holes in your plastic bags and squeezing things through the tip, because we eventually scrapped the faux pastry bag idea, poured the stuff in a bowl and applied using skewers as paint brushes.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Alsatian Onion Tart: Good News, Bad News and a Special Treat!

I always used to eat my vegetables first. Who are we kidding, I still do, nothing’s changed. I’m a big fan of getting things over with. So bad news first: I have been longing to make this Alsatian Onion Tart as soon as I laid hands on Baking with Julia. I was pretty thrilled throughout most of the preparations, but as I smeared the soft, sweet onions over the puff pastry dough, it hit me. This is not dinner. Lovely in a rustic sort of way, and promising to be delicious, yes. But dinner? Nope. Absolutely not substantial enough to be a meal. The good news is, I think it would make a fabulous appetizer for a party if you cut it up into nice bite size pieces. It is sweet and buttery rich. In fact, I’m packing up the leftovers and bringing them to my mother’s for snacking on during tree decorating. I’m thinking about making it for our Christmas Eve dinner. I’m planning cocktail parties, just so I can serve it again. But it is not dinner.
Alsatian Onion Tart
adapted from Baking with Julia

2 -3 large onions chopped (I know it sounds like a lot. I used 1.5 and was sorry it was so skimpy).
1 cup chicken stock
4 slices bacon chopped
1 sheet puff pastry dough, defrosted and rolled out to the size of a large cookie sheet or thereabouts
½ cup shredded gruyere cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350. Put the onions and chicken broth into a pan over low heat and cook for 30 minutes until the onions are very soft. Drain off any extra liquid (I had none, but Julia says to do it, so if you have extra liquid…) In a separate pan, cook the bacon. Don’t let it get too crisp, because it will be going back in the oven, and you want them non-charred. Roll out the puff pastry dough until it’s very thin, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. This will keep the dough from rising, which is what you want.Transfer the dough to a large ungreased cookie sheet (or a pizza stone I suppose).Spread the gruyere over the dough. Add the onions and spread the onions all the way to the edge. Top with the bacon. Cook for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Surprise Treat: Palmiers
So, it turns out that the Alsatian Onion Tart only requires the use of one puff pastry sheet. And honestly, who’s going to wrap the other sheet up and stick it in the freezer when you could be using it to make palmiers instead!
Recipe halved from Barefoot Contessa
1 C of sugar
1 sheet puff pastry dough
pinch salt
Prehead oven to 450.
Pour half the cup of sugar on the surface you will be using to roll out the dough. Lay down the dough and then pour the other half of sugar on top. Spread the sugar all over the top of the dough, the goal being to coat the dough with sugar. Roll out the dough to a 13x13 square. Then fold the two outside edges in towards the middle so they go halfway to the middle. The fold them again so they touch in the middle, then fold one more time so all the layers are stacked on top of each other. Cut into 3/8" slices and put cut side up on your baking sheet. The recipe tells you to use parchment paper, but I don't own any so I went with out. Lucky for you, things were awfully chaotic in the kitchen when I was making these, so I got to test out several different methods. I have learned: Pepperidge Farm is not kidding when they say not to cook puff pastry in a toaster oven. It heats up far to unevenly. Bad call. Also, if you have a light colored baking sheet (as opposed to your older, deeper gray to black ones), it makes for lighter colored (urm, Not Burnt) palmiers. Cook for ~6 minutes on the first side, and then flip and cook another 3-4 minutes on the other side. Cool down on a baking rack.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Focaccia Watch - Day 2

Dough as nature intended, without buttered plastic wrap

If you have a sure-fire way to butter a plastic wrap, do tell. Personally, I had a devil of a time even getting the plastic wrap to detach itself from itself, much less smearing it down with butter. You know actually, I don’t want to hear it. It’s unclear I can associate with anyone who thinks they can do better than I did, and I definitely can’t associate with you if you are a master plastic wrap butter-er. Best to keep it under your hat.

Day two was not very exciting. Sadly, neither was the fruit focaccia (although that’s just my personal take on things. Ryan seems pleased, and I’m still waiting to hear back from another expert taster.) I just expected something more from a two-day project, you know? I give and give, and what do I get? Bread with raisins and cranberries in it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Baking with Julia - Fruit Focaccia

Be honest here, do you own a cookbook that tells you how to make a wedding cake? Not something you can use as a wedding cake if the bride and groom were homemade, home grown, “make me a wedding cake and that will be my wedding gift” kind of people, but an actual Glorious Wedding Cake? Well I don’t. Because I don’t actually own Baking with Julia yet. But I will. Oh yes, I will. From the moment I first paged through it, I was entranced. I mean, I had never seen a cookbook before that went on for 289 pages before casually throwing in a recipe for a Glorious Wedding Cake (and yes, it includes marzipan decorations). Seriously people, I have a best friend who was at one point, a professional baker. I’m fairly sure she can bake a Glorious Wedding Cake (her grandmother also knew Julia Child, so don’t go comparing yourself to her, you don’t need to give yourself a complex) . But this cookbook assumes that I need to know how to bake a wedding cake, that YOU need to know how to bake a wedding cake. I am giddy with power. I can bake anything. Sadly for all of you, I did not choose to bake a wedding cake. For one, no one I know is getting married. Also, I’m not a huge fan of marzipan. Not wanting to let you down too much, I picked Fruit Focaccia. Don’t worry. It’s just a bread that takes 2 days to make. Perfect for a novice baker like me. Right?

Day 1 Baking Advisory: Have a cocktail and some self-restraint.

No matter how bad it looks, do not throw out the dough (I considered it, believe me). Always trust Julia over a packet of yeast; and when you get to the part in the recipe where it actually says “Now comes the messy part,” you might want to take a moment, step away and enjoy a stiff drink before continuing. By the time Igot to the messy part (adding the fruit to the fruit focaccia for those who were wondering), my dough was shiny and hard, not soft and batter-like (as advertised) and my mixer was not extremely hot (as threatened). When I incorporated the fruits, I truly felt in my heart, Nothing good can come of this. But after much spatula wielding, poking, prodding and cursing, I gave up, threw the whole darn mess in a buttered bowl and hoped for the best. And you know what? By the end of the rise (incidentally that was three and half hours later), everything looked exactly as promised. How it tastes? Well for that, you'll just have to come back tomorrow.


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