Wednesday, December 31, 2008

No-knead bread

I'm sure many of you foodies have made or eaten this bread by now. It originated with Jim Lahey of the Sullivan St. Bakery in New York City, and its fame spread exponentially when Mark Bittman wrote about it in the New York Times. So much so that the weekend after the recipe was printed, food blogs reported that stores in the city were sold out of yeast.

Is all the fuss worth it? Well, if you've eaten it, you already know the answer. If you haven't tried it, or made it yet, get thee to a grocery store. Quickly. Right Now. Before the stores close for the day or run out of yeast. Well, alright, read this post first.

Fresh out of the oven and placed on a board, this bread speaks to you - literally. It starts to make a crackling sound that augurs all the goodness in the eating ahead - a crust so crunchy and an interior so chewy and full of texture you'd swear it was baked by a real Italian baker in a brick oven.

My husband, whose father was a real Italian baker with a brick oven (and who later migrated to the U.S. and started his business all over again) swears this is almost as good as the bread he used to eat growing up. His cousins in Italy still maintain the bakery in a small village in Abruzzo. Having been there many times, I can say that the family's bread (and pizza) is fantastic and special for different reasons, not the least of which is the nostalgia quotient.
But in the U.S., Lahey's bread is the best substitute. It will spoil you against ever eating ordinary bread from a supermarket bakery again. Make this bread and you will have instant friends. Make this bread and you may even get a marriage proposal. It's that good.

I have altered the original recipe to include more salt, since I thought Lahey's version was a little bland in flavor. I always use King Arthur bread flour. The first time I made it, I used ordinary flour, and it wasn't as good. Below are the ingredients for one loaf. After having made this recipe countless times, I now double the recipe and make two loaves at the same time, using two pots. The secret, as you'll read, is in the technique. You need a good sturdy pot with a lid that can go into the oven, like a Le Creuset dutch oven pot. It doesn't have to be cast iron or enameled cast-iron though. Even a heavy steel or aluminum pot will do. When I make it, I use one small, enameled cast-iron pot (in the photo) and one heavy aluminum pot that's much larger and more squat. As a result, I get one small loaf that has a rounder shape, and one large loaf that is more spread out in size.

Enough explanation, here's the recipe:

3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. instant yeast (yes, that's right only 1/4 tsp.)
2 tsp. salt
1 5/8 cups water, or more as needed
cornmeal, as needed

1. In a large bowl, place the flour, yeast, and salt. Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon. It may need more water, depending on the humidity in the air that day. When I first made this recipe, I followed the recipe and used ordinary flour and the dough was very loose and impossible to work with - kind of shaggy. Now that I use bread flour, it is always a stiffer dough, and I find I have to add more water than the 1 5/8 cups. I add just enough water to make a dough that looks like it wouldn't hold together into a ball if made outside the bowl, but not so loose that it looks like a batter. Each time you make it, you'll get a better feel for what it should look like. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap
2. Go and solve the world's problems (or play scrabble or go to sleep) while you let this rise a minimum of 12 hours to a maximum of 18-20 hours. After that time, remove the plastic wrap, and the dough should look like it's dotted with little bubbles. Flour your hands as well as your work surface, and turn the dough onto the board, folding it over on itself. Let it rest for about 15 minutes.
3.Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to your work surface or fingers, shape it into a ball shape and place it on half of a linen or cotton towel (not terrycloth) that has been sprinkled with cornmeal. You can use flour if you like instead. Sprinkle the top with more cornmeal or flour and cover with the other half of the towel. Let it rise another two hours.
4. Before the two hours are up, heat your oven to 450 degrees and place your pot or dutch oven inside. Let it heat with the lid on, for 1/2 hour. Carefully remove the pot from the oven, and remove the lid. Slide your hand under the dishtowel and pick up the dough, letting any extra cornmeal fall into the sink or onto the counter top. Turn the dough upside down into the pot. Don't worry if it's not centered or looks a mess, or seems to have deflated. When it's fully cooked, it seems as if magic has taken place inside the pot and you will have bread that looks professionally baked.
5. Put the lid back on the pot and cook for 1/2 hour. After that time, remove the lid and bake for another 1/2 hour.
6. Remove from the oven. At this point, an intoxicating smell will have permeated your house and it will be hard to resist cutting into the bread. Try. Try hard. The sound of the crackling of the crust will begin while it's resting and continue for five minutes or so. It's also much easier to cut after it's cooled a bit. Cut into the bread while it's warm, savor the goodness and graciously accept the kudos from all your friends and family. And ponder that marriage proposal.

This is some of the bread in my husband's cousin's bakery in Scerni, Italy (region of Abruzzo). Not round, but just as wonderful.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Prosciutto Log Appetizer

This recipe comes to you from my friend Titti, an enthusiastic member of a group I belong to called "Le Matte del Lunedi," or "The crazy ladies of Monday." We meet each week to chit-chat in Italian, drink espresso (and sometimes prosecco, I won't kid ya') and eat wonderful food prepared by that week's hostess. It makes you
want to learn Italian just to be part of the group and eat the scrumptious food. Titti is always ready to help out anyone who needs an extra hand and frequently arrives with a special treat to help the hostess, as in the case, the prosciutto log.

The group is comprised of accomplished women who hail from nearly all parts of Italy. Titti is from the Liguria region, others from Lombardy, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Lazio, Campagna, and more. The discussion can range from family to politics, but almost always touches on the subject of food. With so many good cooks from so many regions of Italy, the food at the weekly meetings is always special. Once a year, we invite the husbands for an annual picnic where the ladies (and men) really pull out all the stops, culinarily-speaking. It's an event no one wants to miss. I'll be sharing more of the ladies' recipes in the blog in the coming months. With New Year's approaching, you might want to include Titti's prosciutto log on your menu.

The recipe calls for prosciutto cotto, which translates to cooked ham. The cured prosciutto most of you know and love is called prosciutto crudo, or raw ham. Don't use that in this recipe. Look in a specialty food shop for prosciutto cotto. If you can't find real prosciutto cotto from Italy, used boiled ham instead, not smoked ham like a Virginia ham. Another substitute that is very close to prosciutto cotto is something that my local market sells called "French ham." It's as delicate in flavor as prosciutto cotto, but you'll want to trim the fat and gelatin around the edges first. At many supermarkets, you'll find something called "parmacotto," but that's not quite right for this recipe, since it normally contains a lot of other flavorings.

Prosciutto Log

1 pound prosciutto cotto, sliced
2 sticks softened butter
2 tsps. cognac
freshly ground black pepper
20 green olives, cut into small pieces

In a food processor, place the prosciutto cotto, butter, cognac and black pepper. Pulse until everything is smooth and well blended. Add the green olive bits and mix in with a spoon. Roll into a log shape and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Chill for a few hours before serving. Serve with bread rounds. To make a prettier presentation, trim the slices with a scallop-shaped cookie cutter, and decorate the plate with fennel fronds, as Titti did.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Raspberry Christmas bombe

Raspberry Christmas bombe

For years we celebrated Christmas dinner with my friend Jan and her family. Jan would always prepare this bombe for dessert, while I made a chocolate yule log.
When I was thinking about what to serve my large family clan for dessert after our traditional Christmas Eve fish dinner, this bombe naturally came to mind. It's refreshing, it's light, it's colorful and it can be made ahead of time. Plus there's no baking involved. It's as easy as scooping sorbet into a bowl.
You don't have to wait for Christmas to make this though. I've served it at dinner parties and it's always a hit. Plus it can serve a big crowd with no last minute fuss.
I normally make it with only one type of sorbet, as Jan does, but this time I chose to use a larger bowl than in the past and the one quart of sorbet called for in the original recipe doesn't fill the entire bowl. So I bought another type of sorbet and filled the rest of the cavity with that. I think I'll make it this way each time, since the contrasting colors of the sorbet makes it look even more festive. You don't have to fuss with the whipped cream piping on the top either. You can simply turn it out from the bowl and pour the raspberry sauce on top. One other variation I make from the original recipe is to use candied walnuts rather than plain ones.

It's a versatile recipe you can alter any number of ways - using pecans, almonds, or pistachio nuts - or using ice cream instead of sorbet. Be creative and come up with something of your own. I'd love to hear how you customize it.

Raspberry Christmas Bombe

1 pint of heavy cream, whipped
fold in 1 1/2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup maraschino cherries, sliced
1 1/2 cups candied walnuts (optional)

Make the candied walnuts ahead of time by taking 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tsp. water. Melt the sugar in a nonstick pan, add the water and bring to boil. Add the walnuts, stirring and cooking together for about 5 minutes at high heat, until the mixture starts to turn light tan and the sugar starts to coat the walnuts. Remove from heat and spread on waxed paper until cool.

Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla. Add the candied walnuts and sliced cherries.

Line a two-quart bowl with plastic wrap. Line the bowl with the whipped cream mixture, leaving the center hollow. Freeze for several hours or overnight.

Remove from freezer and leaving a hollow semi-hemispherical space in the center, layer one quart of softened sorbet over the whipped cream mixture. I used a pomegranate sorbet, which is the pale pink color in the photo. Place in freezer again for several hours or overnight. Remove from freezer and fill the center hole with one pint of a different flavor of softened sorbet. I used raspberry sorbet here, but it would beautiful and delicious to try something like a bright orange mango sorbet too. Cover with saran wrap and place back in freezer. After several hours in the freezer, serve by turning upside down onto a plate and removing the plastic wrap. Serve with raspberry sauce.

Or you can take it one step further to make it more decorative, as I did in the photo:

About an hour or two before guests arrive, whip up one pint of heavy cream with 3 T. confectioner's sugar. Whip until you get firm peaks, but not so firm that the cream turns to butter. Place whipped cream in a piping bag, or a plastic bag fitted with a large piping tip at one corner that has been snipped. Remove the bombe from the freezer and turn over onto a serving plate. Pipe rosettes of whipped cream over entire bombe. Place it back in the freezer as is, with no plastic covering on top. Otherwise, you will smash the pretty rosette design. Don't leave it like this for more than a couple or three hours in the freezer though, or you may get ice crystals forming on the bombe. Decorate with candied violets or small non-pareils. Serve with raspberry sauce.

Raspberry Sauce:

Boil together one 10- or 12-ounce package of frozen raspberries, 2 T. water and 1/4 cup sugar. Boil for about five minutes, then force through a strainer. Add 1 tsp. lemon juice and refrigerate.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Octopus and potato salad

Now don't freak out at the mention of octopus. If I hadn't told you it was octopus in the recipe, you might think it was shrimp - or lobster. In fact, when cooked properly, octopus not only looks like bits of lobster tail, but even tastes something like it - although more tender to the bite. I've eaten it many times, but my favorite octopus memory happened a couple of years ago off the coast of Sardinia when we met Ignazina and Gemi, owners of a fishing boat called "Sampey" and a "Pescaturismo" business.

We were the only clients that day, so rather than give us the full day's excursion, which included a stop for lunch at a nearby island called Cavoli, they instead invited us out to sea to watch them haul in their catch for free. More tourists were booked for the following day, so Gemi and Igna asked us to come back and they'd repeat the fishing excursion. This time, they'd include an afternoon mooring at Cavoli, a tiny spit of land where Igna and Gemi cooked the day's catch while we explored the island and swam in the turquoise Mediterranean sea. Since then, I always think of that day when I cook octopus. I don't thrash mine upon the rocks to tenderize it the way Igna did, but it tastes great nonetheless. Maybe not as good as what I ate that sunny day on that speck of an island, but when you can't get to Sardinia, hey, you've just got to figure out some other way to recapture the moment.

Warning: Octopus shrinks A LOT during cooking, so this will not serve more than a couple of people as a main dish salad. I served it as an appetizer, along with other offerings on Christmas Eve. It was a big hit and was gobbled up in no time.

1 octopus, about 2 pounds (I bought mine fresh, but you can also use frozen.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium size potatoes, boiled and peeled
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic
freshly ground black pepper
dash of red pepper flakes, optional
2 T. minced parsley, optional

The key trick to having a tender octopus is in the cooking. It's a little daunting the first time you pick up a raw octopus but be brave and dig in. I bought one half of an octopus, already cut by the fish-monger. The next time I make this recipe, I'm going to use a whole one and double the recipe so I can have more to go around.

I have read many different techniques for cooking octopus - from slow simmers in water, to putting a cork in the water to tenderize the octopus. Others say cooking it in water can "seize up" the octopus and toughen it. This method I outline uses no water, but rather lets the octopus cook in its own liquid. It works perfectly and produces a succulent octopus. Just don't buy baby octopus. They're too small and chewy and you won't get large enough pieces.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Put the octopus in a pan with the olive oil and no other liquid. Place over low heat, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. The octopus will have released a lot of liquid. Transfer the octopus and the liquid to a glass or pyrex baking dish and cover. Bake for about one hour. Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. It will be very purple in color and will have shrunk significantly. Cut off the top of the head and the little pointy sharp beak and discard. Peel away the purple skin and most of the suckers will peel off too. Rinse under cool water and pat dry. Cut into bite-sized pieces and put in a bowl.

Cut the potatoes into small pieces and add to the octopus. Make a dressing with the remaining ingredients and pour over the octopus. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

Igna and part of the day's catch on "Sampey."

Seafood Risotto

This has become one of our favorite Christmas eve dishes. I use shrimp, bay scallops and squid, but you can choose any combination of fish you want. And you don't have to wait for Christmas Eve to enjoy it. It's a great dish for company, and one of those meals that can be made and served in one pot. It's also fun to cook while your guests are gathered in the kitchen. They can help you stir the risotto or make a salad while you take over the main chore. It's best to have all the ingredients assembled on the counter before you start cooking the risotto. Once it gets going, you don't want to take time to chop and slice or else the rice will burn or overcook.
This recipe serves at least six people if it's your main meal, or at least a dozen if it's one of many other dishes being served.

1/2 large onion, or 4 shallots, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 T. butter
2 cups arborio rice
2 small packages saffron (about 1/8 t. total)
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups fish stock, or more as needed
1 pound medium-size shrimp
1 pound bay scallops
1 pound small or medium-size squid bodies, sliced into rings
2 dozen littleneck clams or cockles
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup diced roasted red peppers or cherry tomatoes, halved
salt, pepper to taste
chopped parsley

Ahead of time, prepare the fish stock by stripping the shrimp of their shells. Put the shells in a pot with four cups of water, 1/2 an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and a bay leaf. Simmer gently for 1 hour and strain out everything, leaving only the stock. If you don't want to bother with this step, you can use purchased fish stock.
When you are ready to make the risotto, heat the stock on one burner. On another burner, in a large pan, melt the butter, add the oil and saute the onions until translucent. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or two, then add the rice and saffron and stir for a couple of minutes. Next add the wine and stir for a couple of minutes. Start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, stirring while the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue stirring for about ten or fifteen minutes, adding stock periodically, until the rice is almost cooked, but still al dente. Add the seafood (except the clams) and continue to stir, adding more stock periodically. If you run out of stock, use boiling water. The cold seafood will lower the temperature somewhat and slow down the cooking time. Turn the flame higher. Once the seafood and rice start to bubble up, add the peas, diced peppers (or tomatoes) and more stock, continuing to stir until cooked. The entire cooking time should be about 20 to 25 minutes. During the last five to ten minutes of cooking, have another pot going with a shallow amount of simmering water. Place the clams in that pot and cook until they open. When the clams open, scatter them across the top of the risotto. Sprinkle all with chopped parsley.

Stuffed Squid

Everyone in my family looks forward to our Christmas eve dinner - a traditional meal of many fish in lots of Italian households. When I was younger, my mother would spend countless hours preparing and frying all manner of fish - from smelts to whitings to eel. One particular episode branded in my memory involves eels and my grandfather, who lived with my parents. He brought the eels home from the market on Christmas eve, still alive and squiggling, and set about to end their lives in my parents' kitchen sink -- right there beneath the pristine, lacy white curtains. The eels didn't give up without a struggle and splattered their blood all over those curtains as a result. Of course my mother wasn't happy, to put it mildly.
Since my mother died more than 20 years ago, and my mother-in-law only a year later, the mantle passed to me to maintain the tradition. I have shifted away from the fried fish that used to be the mainstay of the meal, but can't give up the squid. My mother used to prepare it as the centerpiece of her meal, delicately simmering the rings in tomato sauce and serving it over pasta. It was always a favorite. But my husband is partial to this stuffed squid recipe which his mother always made, and which my son now makes every year, as part of our multi-fish dinner. It's also a great complement to the seafood risotto I prepare, with the tomato sauce from the squid spilling onto the saffron-flavored rice in the risotto. I'll be sharing that recipe with you too shortly. Although it's too late to cook these dishes for this year's Christmas eve, maybe you can start your own tradition next year.

Stuffed Squid

15 - 20 squid, medium size - cleaned
6 cups of diced, sturdy white bread, trimmed of crusts
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup white raisins, soaked in water for about 1/2 hour
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk, or more if needed
salt and pepper to taste

Buy the squid already cleaned, but rinse them under water and remove any cartilage that still might be left in the body. It will pull out easily and look like a strip of milky, translucent plastic. If you want, trim the wide end of the squid for a more even look.

Place all the filling ingredients in a bowl and mix until you have a moist consistency. Stuff the bodies of the squid, but don't fill them completely since the squid will shrink during cooking.

Place a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a casserole and lay the squid on the sauce. Cover squid with more sauce.

Bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes. If you make this ahead of time and refrigerate, be sure to take out of the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before baking. If you bake these much longer than 1/2 hour, the squid will be tough and chewy.

Tomato sauce:
Use your own recipe, or follow mine, which is about double what you'll need for the squid recipe. Use the rest another time - for pasta, or pizza or whatever you like.

1 large can (28 oz) San Marzano tomatoes
1 large can (28 oz.) tomato puree
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red or white wine
salt, pepper
1 T. dried basil
1 t. red pepper flakes (or more, if you like your sauce spicy)

Place the olive oil in a large pot, and add the onions and carrots. Saute until soft, then add the garlic and saute a couple more minutes. Break up the whole tomatoes with your fingers, or using a food processor, but leave some texture. Do not break them up so much that the sauce becomes smooth. We like it with some tomato lumps in it. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree to the pot, along with the wine, salt, pepper, basil and red pepper flakes. Simmer on low heat for about one hour.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Italian Christmas "brownies"

Italian Christmas "Brownies"

Caveat emptor: These are not brownies in the true American sense. Yes, they have a strong chocolate flavor, but they also are loaded with pungent spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a surprise ingredient of black pepper. I grew up eating these at Christmas time, when my mother would line up dozens of them in trays, waiting to be cooled in preparation for the confectioner's sugar embellishment. They're not a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region where she was born and raised. I'm pretty sure she learned it from her mother-in-law, who was from the Southern Italian region of Calabria - and it was she who labeled them "brownies." I had never seen a recipe for them in any of the Italian cookbooks I own. But one day many years ago, a photo and recipe for "Cocoa Christmas Cookies" appeared in the New York Times food section and caught my eye. The cookies looked just like my mother's. The recipe was from Alfred Portale, chef and co-owner at New York City's Gotham Bar and Grill. Portale's relatives hail from Sicily - just across the straits of Messina from Calabria. Bingo! Except for a few ingredients, the recipe sounded just like the cookie I remembered, only better. This one added a cup of apricot jam, which my mother's recipe didn't, and I think it helps keep the cookies moist, as well as adding flavor. You can add walnuts and raisins to the cookies if you like, as Portale did, but I leave them out, since they were never included in my mother's version. She did however add chocolate chips - a nod to her new found country, I suppose. And of course, her recipe calls for that unusual addition of black pepper. It adds even more complexity to the flavor - and some mystery too. I wouldn't dream of making the cookies without it.

Cocoa Christmas Cookies

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 1/2 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup milk
2 cups chocolate chips

If using raisins and walnuts as Portale did, add 1 1/2 cups of each

2 cups confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, black pepper. Combine and set aside.
2. With a heavy duty mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in vanilla, jam, and milk. Set mixer to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating only until it is incorporated. Add the chocolate chips. The batter will be extremely stiff.
3. Place a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter and flour it generously. Take a large spoon and scoop out a couple of heaping cups of the stiff batter onto the floured surface. Use a spoon to release it if needed. Flour your hands well and begin to shape the batter into a log shape, about an inch in diameter, rolling it back and forth on the floured surface. Use the paper to help mold it. Place the "logs" into the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
4. Remove from refrigerator and cut into sections about 1 1/2 inches wide. You can leave it this shape, or roll it between the palms of your hand into a flattened ball, which is the traditional shape.
5. Place balls on a parchment-lined or greased and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The tops will crack - this is normal. Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool. Cover with the glaze when completely cooled.

For the glaze:

Mix sifted confectioner's sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until the desired consistency. I make mine almost like a frosting rather than a glaze, which means you'll need to add more sugar. If you prefer yours to be more of a drizzle, adjust with more lemon juice.

This recipe makes about 6 to 7 dozen cookies and they freeze well. Just make sure the glaze is dry before putting them in the freezer. They will get hard if you leave them at for more than a week.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fennel Pizza

I get my hair cut by student stylists at a salon in New York City 's Soho. Mostly because it's a bargain - but my other excuse to go there is because it's just around the corner from Sullivan Street and the Grandaisy Bakery. It's the previous home of the Sullivan Street Bakery, but the former bakery moved to W. 47th Street and kept the name - even though it is a little counter intuitive to name a place Sullivan Street Bakery if it's not located on Sullivan Street. But their bread is so renowned that the name has cachet for New Yorkers - or for anyone who's eaten it.
Enter Grandaisy Bakery, which makes breads, cakes and pizzas that taste like they're made with the same recipes that the Sullivan Street Bakery uses. Among the offerings are artisanal breads and pizzas topped with seasonal ingredients. In the fall that means atypical toppings you won't find elsewhere, such as cauliflower or fennel.
I adore fennel in all variations so I just had to try to duplicate what I ate there several weeks ago. You'll need to pull out your mandoline to slice the fennel thinly enough. Or you can try using the slicing attachment on your food processor. Either way, it's easy to prepare and the recipe makes enough to fit into a large cookie sheet. It's perfect for a party when you want to serve finger food for lots of people. You can make it ahead of time and reheat later -- that is if you can resist the aroma when it comes out of the oven.

Fennel Pizza

For the dough:

If you don't want to make it from scratch, buy some fresh dough from your local pizzeria

3 cups flour
1 package dry yeast
1 1/2 cups water
1 T sugar
2 t. salt
3 T. olive oil
freshly ground salt
more olive oil for the top

Bring the water temperature to about 105 to 110 degrees. Use a kitchen thermometer to test. This is very important. Otherwise, if the temperature is too hot, you risk killing the active ingredient in the yeast. If the temperature is too low, it will take too long to rise. Add the yeast and sugar to the water. Wait for about 10 minutes to make sure it "blooms," or puffs up. That will ensure the yeast is working and the dough will rise.
Put the flour and salt in a large bowl and add the water, yeast and sugar mixture and the olive oil. Start mixing it together with a wooden spoon or your hands. You may have to add more water, depending on the humidity that day. It should come together in a ball. If it doesn't, add more water if it seems too dry, or more flour, if it seems too sticky. Knead on a flat surface for about five minutes or longer until it starts to feel and look smooth. Let it rest in a greased and covered bowl until it doubles in size. This may take as little as two hours or longer, depending on where you put the bowl. Leave it in a warm spot to make it rise faster, or you can even put it in the refrigerator overnight if you want to make it the next day.
When the dough is ready, grease a large cookie sheet with some olive oil, then sprinkle with cornmeal. Take the dough and stretch it out on a floured board or counter using a rolling pin. When it is nearly the same size as the cookie sheet, transfer it with your hands to the prepared sheet and shape the dough into the cookie sheet. It is a very resistant dough, so you have to keep working it to get it to all the corners. Take a fork and puncture the dough all over. Then grind some salt and sprinkle more olive oil all over the surface. Let the dough rise a second time in the pan for at least one hour.

Top it with the following:

1/2 large fennel bulb, or 1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T. freshly chopped thyme
1 T. freshly chopped rosemary

Bake in a preheated 475 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes or until bottom crust looks browned and crispy and top is golden.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lilli's biscotti

Lilli's biscotti

You know how sometimes you have a memory of a favorite dish and nothing else can compare to that version? Maybe it's the cheesecake you ate at that diner, or the lasagna your mother used to make. For me, when it comes to biscotti, nothing holds a candle to this recipe from my friend Lilli. Sure, there are plenty of delicious biscotti around, but this recipe is the one I keep making time after time. It's my benchmark and everything else comes in second. They're crunchy without being rock-hard. They're not too sweet, just sweet enough. And they're as addictive as potato chips. One friend who visited ate nearly the entire plate of biscotti - leaving nothing but a lot of crumbs on the sofa. These do make a mess when you're eating, so have a napkin handy. I don't usually add the dried cranberries, but with Christmas approaching, they're a festive touch. The only thing needed now is a cup of espresso - or a glass of vin santo. Enjoy.

Lilli's biscotti

1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. vanilla
1 pinch salt
1 cup whole almonds, toasted ahead of time in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes
1/2 cup dried cranberries, optional

Mix sugar and butter together until blended. Add eggs, one at a time. Add flour, baking powder, vanilla, and salt until all is blended. Scrape from the bottom to make sure everything is mixed in. The batter will be very stiff. Add the almonds (and dried cranberries if using) either with a durable wooden spoon, or with your mixer. Don't mix for long if using a mixer since you don't want to break up the almonds.

Take about 1/3 of the mixture and plop it onto a well-floured counter or board. Shape into a "log" that resembles a small, flat loaf of bread, tapering the two ends at an angle. It's a sticky dough, so you'll need to keep your hands and board floured. Repeat two more times with the remainder of the dough. Butter a cookie sheet and place the "logs" on the cookie sheet, leaving ample room between them. Coat with a thin layer of milk or beaten egg. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven until golden - about 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and turn the heat up to 450 degrees. Carefully place one of the "logs" on a cutting board, using two spatulas if necessary to keep it from splitting. With a sharp knife (I use a serrated knife) slice the cookies at a diagonal. Hold one hand firmly on the log while you cut with the knife in the other hand, so you don't break the dough and crumble the cookies. A few are bound to break. Place the cookies back on a cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for about five minutes. Watch carefully so they don't burn. Flip the cookies over and bake another five minutes on the other side. Makes about four dozen biscotti.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cream of Porcini Mushroom Soup

Don't make this if you're worried about cholesterol. I use a half stick of butter and a half-pint of cream for this recipe. But it's not the kind of soup you'll make everyday. It's a special occasion soup. I ate it at a very special occasion -- the wedding of my nephew Greg and his bride Shea -- in a lovely setting in Montreal, Canada. The ceremony took place at Chateau Ramezay, a structure built in 1705 that served as the residence of Montreal's governor at that time but is now a museum. The reception was held at Duel, a Montreal restaurant whose two chefs maintain a friendly rivalry between Asian and modern French cuisine. I tried to duplicate one of the courses we ate (since the chefs never responded to my request for their recipe) and if my attempt is not exactly the same as theirs, it's pretty darn close -- and pretty darn good. I really wouldn't be too concerned about the calories and cholesterol either. The recipe makes enough to feed eight people. So if I calculate the damage spread throughout that many servings, I think I feel better already.

Here's the beaming couple:

Cream of Porcini Soup

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 stick butter
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced (white part only)
4 shallots, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups fresh sliced mushrooms (I used cremini, but you can use button mushrooms if you like)
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced (you can use white potato if you prefer)
1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine
4 cups chicken broth
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tsp. salt, or more to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 pint heavy cream

Soak the porcini mushrooms in 2 cups tepid water for at least 1/2 hour. In the meantime, melt the butter and saute the leeks, onions and garlic until transparent. Drain the mushrooms, which have been soaking, and save the soaking liquid. Chop the dried mushrooms and add to the pot with the leeks, onions and garlic. Add the fresh mushrooms, except for about 1/2 cup that you reserve for the end garnish. Continue to saute everything until the mushrooms are cooked through. Strain the water where the porcini were soaking and add to the pot. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the heavy cream. Simmer for at least 1/2 hour or until the potato is cooked through. Put everything into a blender and blend until totally smooth. You'll have to puree everything in about three separate batches. Pour the puree into a clean pan and add the cream, stirring until everything is blended and heated through. Serve with the mushroom garnish floating on top. To make the mushroom garnish: Chop up the remaining 1/2 cup of mushrooms and saute in a couple more tablespoons of butter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pumpkin ravioli with walnut cream sauce

Before I begin, let me say this is a project for the patient and the committed. There's no squirming out midway because you're tired or your pilates class is starting and you have to run to the gym.
But be not afraid for you shall be rewarded.
After traveling to Bologna together (the pasta heartland where pasta filled with squash is on every menu) my friend Ellen wanted to learn how to make these. So I invited her over to spend time in the kitchen rolling out pasta. It's a lot more fun and takes a lot less time with someone else helping. We didn't cook the pasta while she was at my house, since I wanted to freeze mine for later. She was planning to cook hers at home with a simple butter, sage and parmesan cheese sauce. Wonderful.
But sinfully sublime is what I would call the walnut cream sauce. The photo of the finished pasta in sauce is from a pasta party we had at our home a couple of years ago, when we gathered some relatives and friends for an evening of pasta-making and eating. The kitchen was a mess when we were finished, but we had a lot of fun and our tummies were grateful.

To make the pasta you need a pasta machine or you'll need very strong arms to roll out all the dough. This recipe for pasta and for the filling makes enough for about 110 ravioli.
Pasta dough:
3 cups flour
4 jumbo eggs

If you want to be authentic, you can make a "volcano" of the flour on a wooden board, then crack the eggs into the center and start to incorporate them into the flour until the liquid is all absorbed. Otherwise, put everything into a food processor and blend until it starts to hold together. Pull it out of the food processor and knead it on a floured board until it becomes smooth.
Let it rest under a covered bowl for at least a half hour, which will help the dough to become even more smooth and elastic and easy to work.
Flour your board or counter and cut off a quarter of the pasta. Keep the rest under the bowl. Flatten the piece with your hands, flour it a little then pass it through the thickest setting on your pasta machine. Keep changing the setting until you get to the penultimate one -- not the thinnest one. Now you should have a long strip about three to four inches wide. If it's too long and cumbersome to work with, cut it in half. Lay it on your board and place little spoonfuls of filling all across the strip, leaving a small space in between each spoonful.
Dab a little bit of water between the filling and across the top and bottom of the filling. Take one edge of the long strip of dough and carefully fold it over the filling, pressing down in between each one to take out any air bubbles. Run a decorative crimper along the edges to separate the ravioli. If you don't have a crimper, a knife will do.

Lay the ravioli on cookie sheets that have been covered with floured, linen dishtowels. Refrigerate if serving that day, or place in the freezer. After a few hours, remove from the cookie sheets and store the ravioli in plastic freezer bags.

For the filling (adapted from "The Splendid Table" by Lynne Rossetto Kasper):

I don't use the typical Halloween-style pumpkin, since it doesn't have as much flavor as squash. This recipe gives you the closest approximation to what you'll find in Italy. Some recipes call for the addition of crushed amaretti cookies, but I find that a little too sweet. The squash itself provides adequate sweetness. I also do this ahead of time and drain the cooked squash in a cheesecloth-lined sieve overnight. Otherwise, you risk having a filling that is too watery.

1 large butternut squash
1 1/2 large sweet potatoes, or two small ones
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
nutmeg, black pepper

Roast the potatoes in a 375 degree oven. Roast the squash at the same time. Cut the squash, remove seeds and place on an oil baking sheet. Roast for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until it is easily pierced with a fork. Remove the flesh from the squash and puree it in a food processor, then place in a sieve that is lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Place a bowl under it to catch the water that is released and put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight, along with the potatoes.
The next day, remove the skin from the potatoes, puree them in a food processor, and put in a bowl. Add the pureed squash, the cheese and a grating of nutmeg and black pepper.

Make and fill the ravioli.

When you are ready to cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the ravioli but do not let the pot to continue at a rolling boil or you may burst the ravioli. Boil for four or five minutes until cooked.

Cover with sauce and parmesan cheese.

Walnut cream sauce
(This is enough sauce for about four dozen ravioli.)

1 1/2 cup walnuts, roasted in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a few grindings of nutmeg
dash salt, freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sweet wine such as vin santo or moscato
freshly grated parmesan cheese

Roast the walnuts in the oven. If you have the patience, remove some of the outer skins of the walnuts. This is easier to do if you put them in a linen dishcloth, fold in half and rub back and forth. Grind the walnuts in a food processor until they are coarse - not fine. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the heavy cream and wine. Cook for a few minutes on high heat until the
sauce reduces and emulsifies. Add the nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg salt, and pepper. Take off the heat and add a generous amount of parmesan - at least 1/2 cup or more. Pour over the ravioli and serve with additional parmesan.