Beet of my Heart

20130428-202056.jpgI am always excited at the beginning of each season to begin cooking with the  produce that is only available at that particular time of year.  There are, however, always a few items from the previous season that I am not quick to give up.  As we make the official don’t-look-back transition from winter to spring, I am excited about all things fresh and green, but I am having a hard time letting go of root vegetables. A simple tray of roasted root vegetables is a welcome part of dinner any night of the week: it’s tasty and takes virtually no effort and few ingredients.  This winter, we experimented a lot with these uglies in other preparations as well.

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Enter the beet.  Growing up, I thought that a beet’s sole purpose in life was to be pickled. I would turn my nose up at these vinegary, earthy beets that were floating alongside hard-boiled eggs in a jar of oddly-colored liquid in the refrigerator.  I now like even pickled beets, but I first learned to love the purple gems roasted, served with goat cheese on a bed of arugula.  I must say, roasting beets (and really any root vegetable) gives them  a rich, almost-sweet flavor that no other way of preparing them can.  Combine this with some vegetable stock and other vegetables and you have yourself a pretty knock-out, vegan soup.

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The only problem with beets, though, is that odd color.  No matter how you go about peeling and preparing them, you end up with purple hands unless you wear gloves.  I actually don’t mind this temporary stain and wear it proudly for a few hours (until I do the dishes) like some kitchen-battle wound.  In this recipe the beets are peeled before roasting since they have a friend (chopped fennel) on the roasting pan.  I also like to roast them wrapped in aluminum foil and just rub the skin off the cooled beets with a paper towel.  No matter how you do it, embrace being BEET RED while it lasts.

Fennel with it's root still attached (www.whiteonricecouple.com)

Fennel with it’s roots still attached (www.whiteonricecouple.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think fennel is an even more misunderstood vegetable than beets.  The bulb, which is the swollen white part attached to the green fronds, may look like a root, but actually does not grow underground. The fennel bulb, with its green fronds, is shown above with its roots still attached.  The fronds are flavorful (and are used as a tasty garnish for this soup), but the bulb is used most frequently in recipes.

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To prepare the fennel bulb, chop off the fronds,  and cut the bulb in half.  Next, remove the core from both halves (from which the roots were removed before you purchased it) by slicing in the shape of a triangle.  Then, chop the bulb according to the recipe you’re using.

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The fennel met the beets in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper.  As I mentioned here, although technically dirtying another dish, I think washing an extra bowl is worth it to assure that each vegetable piece is well oiled and seasoned.

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Immersion blender making quick work of the puree

After the oven, it is just a matter of combining the vegetables with sautéed onions and vegetable stock and pureeing either in a blender or with an immersion blender. Regardless of your puree tool of choice, be careful not to splatter purple all over the kitchen (like I did), or your clean white chef’s coat (like I did) — as pictured below, a Valentine’s Day gift from Brandon!!  The addition of orange juice and red wine vinegar brightens the flavor of this soup, and the garnish of orange zest and fennel fronds makes it sing.

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This soup would make an excellent fireside, mid-winter meal, and just as successfully keeps you warm next to a vase of freshly-picked tulips during a still-chilly spring night.

Bon appétit.

Roasted Beet Soup with Fennel and Orange

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds beets, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large (about 1 pound) fennel bulb, cut into wedges (reserve fronds for garnish)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (or 2 teaspoons fresh)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (reserve zest of 1 orange for garnish)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Toss the beets and fennel with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, thyme, a generous pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast, stirring occasionally, until the beets are tender, about 45 minutes.
  3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over moderate heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the beets, fennel, and vegetable broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Puree the mixture in a blender (working in batches) or with an immersion blender. Transfer the puree to a large pot and bring to a simmer. Stir in the orange juice and vinegar. Salt to taste.
  5. To serve, garnish with orange zest and fennel fronds.

 

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Posted in Vegan, Vegetable | Leave a comment

I Did It!

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I am fairly adventurous in the kitchen, and there isn’t much that I won’t try.  Hollandaise sauce, however, has been something I have avoided because the list of cautions, dos and don’ts that is typically longer than the recipe itself.  I mustered up “the courage of (my) convictions” (as Julia would say), when I found the recipe for this easy, delicious asparagus tart.  I knew it needed to be served with something; since hollandaise is classically paired with asparagus, and I love the tast of mustard with Gruyere, I decided to try my hand at a Dijon hollandaise.

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The tart begins with defrosted puff pastry, which is one of my favorite pre-made ingredients to have on hand.  It is rolled out, a border, which will form the crust on the edges of the tart is scored, and the middle of the tart is pricked with a fork.  It is important here to not score all the way through the pastry since this will cause them to separate while pre-baking, and to prick the center very well so it does not puff to much.

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Once pre-baked, the tart is lined with grated Gruyere and after the asparagus is arranged, they are brushed with oil and salt and pepper.

“That was the easy part,” I thought to myself as I grabbed the butter and lemon. When I did online searches, and even looked in Ina Garten’s cookbook, for hollandaise recipes, most people say that the use of a blender makes the preparation of this finicky sauce much easier. While Julia was even an advocate of doing certain things “by machine,” I decided to hoof it and whisk by hand for my first go-around.

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First the egg yolks are whisked with lemon juice, salt, pepper and cayenne until it becomes lighter — lemon-colored.  The melted butter is then SLOWLY whisked in until fully incorporated.  This is the sauce that would come from the blender, but more traditionally the sauce was thickened.

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By just whisking for a minute or two over a pan of simmering water (effectively a double boiler), thickens the sauce nicely.  What results is a yellow, tangy, velvety hollandaise into which I whisked about a tablespoon of Dijon in order to complement the Gryuere in the tart.

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I used a pizza cutter to slice the tart when it came out of the oven, dolloped some of the hollandaise and served alongside a sauteed lamb chop (courtesy of Brandon, who had his fingers crossed throughout the duration of the hollandaise experiment!).  Both before and after a taste, all I could say was “I DID IT!”

Bon appétit.

ASPARAGUS-GRUYERE TART

Ingredients

  • Flour, for work surface
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry
  • 5 1/2 ounces (2 cups) Gruyere cheese, shredded
  • 1 1/2 pounds medium or thick asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry into a 16-by-10-inch rectangle. Trim uneven edges. Place pastry on a baking sheet. With a sharp knife, lightly score pastry dough 1 inch in from the edges to mark a rectangle. Using a fork, pierce dough inside the markings at 1/2-inch intervals. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.
  3. Remove pastry shell from oven, and sprinkle with Gruyere.
  4. Trim the bottoms of the asparagus spears to fit crosswise inside the tart shell; arrange in a single layer over Gruyere, alternating ends and tips. Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  5. Bake until spears are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

 

DIJON HOLLANDAISE

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 1.5 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pinches of cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 – 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Directions

  1. Melt the butter in a small sauce pan.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks, lemon juice, 3/4 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cayenne in a large bowl until a light lemon color.
  3. Slowly whisk the hot butter into the sauce.
  4. Place the bowl over a double boiler and whisk until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute.
  5. Whisk in the mustard and serve hot.
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The Peas to Heaven

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Spring has finally sprung and it is heavenly.  And it means that I am still on my green kick as the fresh spring produce has filled the shelves and bins at the market.  Coincidentally, one of the first-to-arrive spring veggies was my LEAST favorite as a child: peas. (Though I do find myself most enjoying things that 12-year-old me would not even consider food!) We used the little green babies in several forms in our Easter menu, and while researching recipes I stumbled across a recipe that made me do a double take.  PEA PANCAKES?!?  Yes, pea pancakes.  Who knew?!

So, while we were doing the prep work last Saturday for Easter dinner, I whipped up a small batch of the green fritters as Brandon and I immediately fell in love.  So much so that we shared the one that was left over for a pre-dinner snack on Saturday evening.  When our vegetarian friend told us she’d be in town this past weekend and wanted to get together for brunch, I instantly knew what I wanted to make.

Honestly, these pancakes are so simple that there isn’t much to say about them!  I will say that this is one recipe in which I am okay with employing the microwave to quickly melt the butter for the batter.

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Also, I came across several recipes that tell you to add the dried dill, turmeric and coriander to the dry ingredients in the batter.  Instead, I add them to the sauteed onions and allow them to almost toast for a bit while their flavors become incorporated into the onions. Their intensified flavors are, therefore, better-incorporated into the fritters.

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As far as the peas are concerned, I will probably also surprise you when I say that I prefer using frozen peas in this recipe! I do love fresh peas in a number of applications, but here opening the box of frozen peas simplifies this recipe since they do not need to be-pre-cooked.  They are likely a bit sweeter than the spring peas at the market, anyway.  The simply get dumped into the spice-onion mixture and then smashed with the back of the wooden spoon once they’ve thawed.

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I also did not use the same non-stick pan in which I sautee the onions for frying the pancakes as most of the recipes I saw suggest.  I prefer the temperature control and uniformity that I get from cast iron for this purpose.  Don’t be afraid to add more oil as you work your way through the batter since a dry pan really doesn’t do much.  I also found that 2 tablespoons of batter makes the best size pancakes, both for frying and eating.

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We topped the pancakes with smoked salmon, Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of chopped fresh dill.  Served alongside (bottomless) mimosas, these pea pancakes made a divine main course.  I then whipped some cream in which we dipped fresh whole strawberries for dessert.  Heaven indeed.

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Bon appétit.

PEA PANCAKES

Yield: about 12 pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 boz (10 oz) frozen green peas
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 3/4 teaspoons dried coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon tumeric
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1.25 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup milk, room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Directions:

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and season with 3/4 tsp salt; cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes until softened and starting to brown.
  2. Add the dried spices to the onions, stir to combine, and allow to “toast” for about 1 minute.
  3. Add the frozen peas and cook for 5-8 minutes and, once thawed, smash with a wooden spoon or potato masher until about 1/3 of the peas are mashed. Let cool a bit.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, remaining 1/2 tsp salt, eggs, milk and butter together to make a batter. Fold in the vegetable mixture to combine.
  5. Wipe down the sauté pan with a paper towel (or place a cast iron skillet over medium heat) and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. For each pancake, spoon 2 tablespoons of the batter into the pan and fry, about 2-3 minutes per side, until golden browned and crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and keep warm.
  6. Serve with Greek yogurt or crème fraîche, fresh dill and smoked salmon, if desired.
Posted in Brunch, Vegetable | Leave a comment

Easter Limes

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When preparing our menu for Easter dinner this year, Brandon and I consulted several sources and found ourselves drawn to recipes that highlight the green freshness of spring. I think it had something to do with the LONG, GRAY winter we had this year; it left us both chomping at the bit for the grass to grow, the daffodils to sprout, and the spring produce to show up at the market.

Starting with a pea and parsley soup, followed by a pea shoot salad, and continuing with asparagus in the main course, I knew that I needed to find something verdantly sweet for dessert. I recalled having made Ina Garten’s lime curd tart last year while I was expectantly waiting for the mild days of spring and decided to cap off our paschal feast with this sweet and tart, uhh, tart.

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The recipe begins with lime zest. Until I began cooking for real, all citrus peels found their way into the trash. Now, I really try to incorporate orange, lime and lemon zest into anything in which I use their juice since it is true that the zest contains the essence of the citrus flavor. When zesting the limes for this recipe, Brandon and I both closed our eyes and imagined we were on a beach with margaritas in our hands – it really filled the kitchen with the scent of lime.

The trick to making this recipe is that nothing looks, at first, the way you think it should. Lime curd as a finished product is smooth and sweet with a hint of green offered by the lime itself. When the lime juice is first combined with the butter and eggs, however, the mixture produces curds, which I can assure you I was NOT expecting the first time I made this recipe! I learned from this British Food History blog that these curds were initially separated from the liquid whey. Heating the curds and whey, however, allows them to integrate and thicken the mixture (essentially producing a custard) so it can be stored, spread or (as in our case) poured into a tart shell.

Fully-formed curds

Fully-formed curds

 

Curds beginning to integrate

Curds beginning to integrate

 

Curds fully integrated

Curds fully integrated

This deception continues as you prepare the tart dough. When mixed, the dough itself BARELY sticks together, and looks more like a sandbox than a smooth pastry dough. However, once patted into the dish in which it will be baked (I used a spring-form pan instead of a false-bottom tart pan), it holds it’s form and provides a stable and tasty foundation for the smooth lime curd.

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The shell does, however, need to be pre-baked. It is lined with a piece of buttered aluminum foil and is filled with dry beans. The beans serve as a weight so the shell does not puff up too much. I keep a jar of beans on the pantry cart that I use specifically for this purpose since they can be reused over and over again.

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The shell, once given the opportunity to cool a bit, is filled with the cooked lime curd. I made a few very thin lime slices on the mandolin and floated them on top of the tart as a garnish before it had a chance to harden at all (it does not become very hard, but does not remain liquid). I made some sweetened vanilla whipped cream for serving which adds a different kind of richness as you take each bite.

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Here’s to spring produce, short sleeves and margaritas!

Bon appétit.

 

LIME CURD TART (from Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook)

Ingredients
Tart Shell:

  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • Pinch salt

Filling:

  • 4 limes at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 4 extra-large eggs at room temperature
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the butter and sugar together until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together.
  3. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Press the dough into a 10-inch-round or 9-inch-square false-bottom tart pan, making sure that the finished edge is flat. Chill until firm.
  4. Butter 1 side of a square of aluminum foil to fit inside the tart and place it, buttered side down, on the pastry. Fill with beans or rice. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, prick the tart all over with the tines of a fork, and bake again for 20 to 25 minutes more, or until lightly browned. Allow to cool to room temperature.
  5. Remove the zest of 4 limes with a vegetable peeler or zester, being careful to avoid the white pith.
  6. Squeeze the limes to make 1/2 cup of juice and set the juice aside. Put the zest in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the sugar and process for 2 to 3 minutes, until the zest is very finely minced. (Alternatively, you can just chop the zest very finely on a board and mix it with the sugar in the electric mixer until thoroughly mixed.)
  7. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar and lime zest. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and then add the lime juice and salt. Mix until combined.
  8. Pour the mixture into a 2-quart saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes. The lime curd will thicken at about 175 degrees F, or just below a simmer. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  9. Fill the tart shell with warm lime curd and allow to set at room temperature. Once set, serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Posted in Baking, Confection | 2 Comments

Lenten Pagach

When one thinks of Lent, they often think of food without sugar and/or fat, and of course devoid of flavor.  Luckily, I do not typically give anything food-related up for Lent except for meat on Fridays.  You’ll find that pagach (pronounced pah-gosh) is certainly not lacking in flavor or fat for that matter (thanks to the butter and cheese!).  Brandon and I make it once per year on a Friday night during Lent since it fits the bill for a delicious, if not indulgent, meatless dinner.

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I worked in a pizza shop for the majority of my high school years, and pagach was made and served on Wednesdays year-round.  During Lent, however, an additional batch was made up for Fridays and we were sure to sell out before the night was over.  You may be asking what exactly pagach is.  Well, I can tell you its certainly not Italian despite its presence in the pizza shop, and originated somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Think: oversized-peirogi-in-pizza-dough (but better).

First things first: pizza dough.  As the rush of orders would subside at the pizza shop each evening, 50 pounds of flour would be loaded into the large mixer in the kitchen and a fresh batch of dough would be rolled out and refrigerated for use later in the week.  Now, I do like to scale recipes down, but I never have been able to figure out how to scale that pizza dough recipe into something I can actually make at home.  So after trying MANY recipes, I have finally settled on my favorite – it comes from Alex Guarnaschelli of Food Network fame.

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After the addition of all the flour

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After the addition of half the flour

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Kneeding

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After kneeding

Despite an updated recipe, I do use the same techniques I was taught while working at the pizza shop.  First, the dough must always be oil-covered.  If it is not, a skin will develop and the dough will not be able to stretch out without breaking.  Second, to store and rise uniformly, the dough must be in the shape of a sphere. In order to do this, take the dough in your hands and begin to fold the dough in on itself as if you’re folding a sock.  Continue to do this until the entire piece of dough, except the bottom, is a sphere.  Then roll the ball on the counter with the heel of your hand, smoothing the bottom of the ball.  This will assure the dough rises and stretches evenly.

Here you can see the size increase after 1.5 hr.

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Here are the steps to rolling the dough balls:

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Now for the pagach.  All I remember the filling to be is glorified mashed potatoes and cheese and, despite searching, I can not find a recipe for pagach filling online that I like.  So I set out to “doctor up” (tee-hee) some potatoes in a way that would give the most flavor to the pagach.  Sauteeing some onions in garlic in butter and oil and adding chopped rosemary at the last minute created the base for the potato flavoring.  I combined this mixture with the potatoes, milk, salt and pepper to create a well-seasoned, spreadable mixture.

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After stretching out the pizza dough (you can use a rolling pin if you think stretching by hand may end in disaster), the potato filling is spread over half the dough, followed by a layer of chopped raw onion, followed by (and in my opinion, the best part of this whole contraption) a layer of cheese.  I love the taste of sharp cheddar, but it doesn’t melt as well as mozzarella so I use a combination of the two.

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The dough is folded over onto the filling and the edges are pinched closed.  It’s necessary to cut some vent holes in the top of the pagach to allow steam to escape during baking.  An addition I have made, since I like improving both flavor and aesthetics, is an egg wash over the top of the pagach before baking to assure a lovely golden-brown crust.  And if you thought this wasn’t enough, spread a bit of butter of the top of the pagach after baking to even further increase the dietary sins you must take with you on Sunday!

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So, as promised, a delicious, not low-fat, but meatless Lenten pagach.

Bon appétit.

 

PIZZA DOUGH (by Alex Guarnaschelli)

Yield – 2- 12 inch pizzas (enough for 2 pagach)

Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (about 110 degrees F)
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling dough
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 scant tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus some additional for coating the bowl/greasing the trays

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Stir to dissolve the yeast and allow the mixture to rest for 5 minutes.
  2. Using a sieve or strainer, “sift” about half of the flour over the yeast mixture and blend until smooth with your hands. Add the salt, pepper and honey and mix to blend. Sift in the remaining flour and mix to blend.
  3. Lightly flour a cutting board or flat surface. Turn the pizza dough onto the floured area and knead for 3 to 5 minutes. The flour should feel smooth and the ingredients fully integrated.
  4. Place the dough inside a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place, about 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in volume.
  5. Press gently on the dough and turn it onto a floured surface. Divide the dough into 2 equal parts, rolling each quarter into a loose ball. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow the dough to rest for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Dough can be refrigerated and used for up to one week.

 

PAGACH (original recipe)

Yield – 1 large pagach

Ingredient

  • 4-5 boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 4-5 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup white onions, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, chopped
  • 1 cup milk
  • kosher salt
  • freshly cracked black or white pepper
  • pizza dough (see above)
  • 1 lb cheese, grated (I use 1/2 lb each mozzarella and sharp cheddar)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the potatoes and cook until soft.
  2. Melt 2 Tb. butter with 1 Tb oil over medium-low heat and sautee the garlic and 1/4 cup of onions until translucent.  Stir in the rosemary and take off the heat after 1 minute.
  3. Add the onion-garlic mixture, milk and 1 Tb. butter to the drained potatoes and mash until creamy.  Season with salt and pepper. Add more milk if needed.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  5. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil and lay the stretched out pizza dough on the tray so half the dough is hanging off the top of the baking sheet.
  6. Spread the potato mixture on the dough, leaving about 1/2 inch margin.  Top with the remaining onions and the cheese.
  7. Fold the top half of the dough over the potatoes and pinch the dough closed on all sides.  Brush the top with egg wash and cut vent holes in the top.
  8. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until browned, rotating halfway through baking.  Spread butter on the top of the pagach before serving.
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It’s a Marshmallow World

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am today that we got only a dusting of snow from the storm (weirdly named Nemo) that had the potential to finally turn Philadelphia white.  While it is still cold I figured I could whip up a treat that, when I am not looking out the window, could make me think there’s a blanket of fresh snow outside.  And nothing brings me back to snow days and shoveling that mile-long driveway in the woods like a mug of hot chocolate.

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As you have probably gathered, there are few things about which I am lazy when it comes to the kitchen.  Well, here’s one of them – I use Swiss Miss hot chocolate.  You may gasp (!) but it’s true – when I want hot chocolate I have no time for tempering and melting and incorporating.  But I have developed a method to elevate the humble packet to something a little bit more special.

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Enter the immersion blender.  This little gadget got some bad press in the New York Times, but it’s truly something we use at least once per week.   It turns celery root or rutabaga , soups and (you guessed it) hot chocolate into smooth, silky delights.  For the hot chocolate I add 6 oz. of milk to a pan (just like the packet says), warm it over medium heat (stirring so it does not scald) and then dump in the contents of the packet.  I then tilt the pan (so air can become incorporated into the milk) and blend until it is frothy (about two minutes) with the immersion blender.

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Think of this as making whipped cream with milk – you will see that the frothy layer you’ve just created is very similar.  I then pour into a mug and add something.  Add what, you ask?  Whatever you want!  My go-to is a shot of Bailey’s, but tequila, brandy and dark rum all work nicely.  For a sweeter treat try butterscotch or peppermint schnapps.  The Beekman Boys have published recipes for hot chocolate featuring international flavors (they do the real deal here, but I have just added the flavorings they suggest before blending the powdered hot chocolate with the milk), and Martha Stewart even has a recipe with peanut butter added.

Regardless of the addition you make to your hot chocolate, my guess is you’ll reach for some marshmallows to pack into the top of your mug.  I knew that homemade marshmallows were possible, but I had no idea where to begin so I scoured through about a dozen recipes and realized that I was definitely up for the task.  All marshmallows are is whipped egg whites, sugar and gelatin.  So I set out to whip up some fluffy goodness.

Eggs are ubiquitous and they are used in both the least and most finicky of preparations.  Marshmallows, along with real Belgian waffles and souffles, reside on the finicky end of the spectrum because they require the beating of egg whites.  On her The French Chef, Julia Child typically showed a technique only once or twice since she felt her audience would “get it.”  Whipping egg whites, however, is something she did over and over again because it is a process that must be done absolutely correctly for optimal results.  Here’s how I do it:

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I start out with three bowls: the KitchenAid mixing bowl (for the whites), a plastic container (for the yolks) and a small bowl big enough to hold an egg.  As I will explain later, it is extremely important that none of the yolk end up in the whites, so separating the white into a small bowl first assures that if the yolk does break you do not have to discard the entire batch of whites and can simply add it to the rest of the yolks for use in an omelet in the morning.  Many chefs will say breaking the egg on a flat surface rather than the edge of a bowl also prevents breaking the yolk since there’s less chance that a piece of shell will be forced into the egg upon breaking.

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As you can see, I broke a yolk, so I was glad to have been using my three-bowl method.  I have heard these rogue pieces of yolk called “goldfish” before – I think I will call this one Nemo.

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Cold eggs are easier to separate than room temperature eggs, but room temperature whites whip better.  This means it’s wise to plan ahead and allow an hour before you need to start whipping your whites so they can come to room temperature after separating.

 

 

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Once at room temperature, you can start to beat the eggs.  Go slowly at first to break the eggs up and then add a pinch of salt, which helps the process along.  Once the whites are broken up you are ready to whip.

Beginning to froth

Beginning to froth

The goal here is to beat air into the protein of the egg whites.  Proteins have hydrophobic (water hating) and hydrophilic (water loving) portions.  By beating you “bend” the proteins, exposing the hydrophobic portions.  Like a magnet repelling  the proteins will go back to their original conformation (with the hydrophobic parts tucked on the inside).  If we are incorporating air by beating when this occurs, the protein forms a bubble with air in it.  Voila.  Fat (like that of the egg yolk, or if the bowl isn’t impeccably clean) disrupts the bubble formation and as a result the whites will not whip up as well – hence the need to avoid goldfish.

Medium peaks

Medium peaks: the peak on the whisk falls over.

Stiff peaks

Stiff peaks: the peak on the whisk remains upright.

So, turn up the speed and add a pinch of cream of tartar.  This acidifies the eggs and actually helps to create and preserve the bubbles we are looking for.  You can beat the whites to different stages for different uses, but we are looking for fully-beaten “stiff peak” whites.

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With the eggs beaten, it is really just a matter of sweetening and hardening them for the marshmallows.  A syrup (at 245°F) of sugar and cornstarch both sweetens and hardens the egg whites.  Since it is hot it also causes the egg whites to expand as it is drizzled in (just like when a souffle is put in the oven).  And next is the gelatin.  The powder is softened in water, creating a sort of disc in the bowl.  This needs to simply be heated quickly to dissolve the gelatin and it is also drizzled into the egg whites.  They are then beaten until cool.

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There are two options when it comes to forming the marshmallows.  They can either be free form using a spoon or molded into a pan and cut after they set.  Regardless of the method, the marshmallow mixture sits atop a dusting of 1 part corn starch and one part confectioner’s sugar.  After setting for several hours, they are fully dusted in this mixture and then are ready to enjoy.

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Bon appétit.

VANILLA MARSHMALLOWS

Yield: 30-50

Ingredients

  • 2 envelopes (17g) powdered gelatin
  • 1/2 cup + 1/3 cup cold water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of cream of tartar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 cup corn starch

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 cup of cold water to dissolve and soften.
  2. In a small saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, mix the sugar and corn syrup with 1/3 cup of water. Place over medium-to-high heat.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, pour in the egg whites and beat on low speed until frothy. Add the pinch of salt.
  4. When the syrup reaches about 210ºF, add a pinch of cream of tartar, increase the speed of the mixer to high and beat the whites to stiff peaks.
  5. When the syrup reaches 245ºF, slowly pour the hot syrup into the whites, pouring so that the syrup does not fall on the whisk since some of the syrup will splatter and stick to the sides of the bowl.
  6. Scrape the gelatin and water into the pan that you used for the syrup and heat until dissolved (about 30-45 seconds).  Pour the liquified gelatin slowly into the whites as they are whipping.
  7. Add the vanilla extract or paste and continue to whip until the mixture is feels completely cool when you touch the outside of the bowl.
  8. Meanwhile, combine the confectioner’s sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl Dust a baking sheet or counter surface evenly and completely with a generous layer of the marshmallow mixture with a sifter.  Make sure there are absolutely no bare spots.
  9. Use a spatula to spread the marshmallows in a layer on the pan or a spoon to make free-form marshmallows on dusted counter. Allow to dry for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, uncovered.
  10. Put about 1 cup of the sugar-corn starch mixture into a large bowl. Use a pizza cutter or scissors (dusted as well with the dusting mixture) to cut the marshmallows into any size or shape pieces that you’d like. Toss the cut or free-form marshmallows in the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Shake the marshmallows vigorously in a wire strainer to remove the excess powder.

Storage: The marshmallows can be made up to one week in advance, and stored in an airtight container.

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Savory Birthday Wishes

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For as long as I can remember, I looked forward to the birthdays of everyone in my family because it meant leftover birthday cake for breakfast for at least a few days after. Our friend Emily, however, prefers birthday grub of the savory variety. So, for the past few years I have whipped up a batch of her favorite butternut squash risotto in lieu of a chocolatey confection. This year instead of arriving with a prepared batch of risotto, I suggested packing the ingredients I needed so we could cook together in her kitchen while enjoying a birthday beverage and more than a few laughs.

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The only thing I prepared before leaving for Emily’s was the butternut squash for the risotto. While many people associate the rich flavor of a butternut squash only with autumn, I really find it comforting all winter long. Preparing the squash for roasting can be a challenge unto itself, but with a SHARP kitchen knife (I have broken my fair share of vegetable peelers on squash and just find the knife to be a better tool for the job) and a small spoon the awkwardly shaped veggie can been quickly reduced to a dice. Here are the steps I use:

  1. Cut a small slice from the top and the bottom of the squash, making a flat surface on each end on which the squash can rest
  2. Cut horizontally just above the rounded bottom portion of the squash.
  3. With the squash on the cut end, cut off the peel of the squash deep enough to see bright orange. (This is where the vegetable peeler is lacking – it leaves behind some of the fibrous paler-orange flesh just under the peel that never gets quite as tender and succulent and as the inner flesh does when roasted. It’s a balancing act though as you don’t want to cut too deep and be wasteful.) Rotate and continue cutting until the entire piece is peeled. Repeat with the second piece.
  4. Halve the bottom piece vertically and, using a spoon, remove the seeds and fibrous material from the inside cavity. Scrape deep enough that all the fibers are removed.
  5. Cut peeled and gutted pieces to the size you need. (For the risotto I like just-smaller-than-bite-size pieces.)

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I then roasted the squash until tender on a baking sheet. While I tend to like to minimize the dishes I generate while cooking, this is one place where I don’t hesitate to dirty a bowl. Tossing on a baking sheet is difficult so I always oil and season vegetables destined for roasting in a separate bowl to make sure all pieces are well-coated. It also prevents the inevitable escapee from jumping off the baking sheet to the floor to become a dog snack (though the dogs do love squash!).

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After cooling for a few minutes, I packed the ingredients I would need for the risotto and headed over to Emily’s. After having a toast for her birthday, I began by setting up my mise-en-place. While not much of a secret at all this is a simple often neglected technique. A mise-en-place (literally, “everything in place”) assures that I will be able to cook without surprises and enjoy every moment of it. The bacon and shallots are diced and the cheese is grated. The one item you can not see in this photo is the pot of chicken stock on the stovetop, and it is perhaps the most important ingredient to have in its place (I’ll tell you more below).

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Risotto is incredibly easy and, for many, therapeutic in both preparing and eating after a long day. There is a basic formula for all risotto regardless of the flavor being used, and a few rules to follow which make it incredibly easy to learn and versatile to adapt.

Risotto begins with onions or shallots sauteed until translucent in butter or oil. The grain is then toasted in the butter/oil/onion mixture, the pan is deglazed with white wine (or dry vermouth as I always use), and then stock is added in small quantities while the pot is stirred.

RULE #1: Only add hot stock. Bring your stock to a simmer as you’re sauteeing your onions or shallots. As you add the stock, the temperature will fall with each addition if it is not hot and the result will be a mushy risotto.

How do I know when to add more stock?

RULE #2: Add stock when, after scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon, the risotto does not immediately fall back in on itself (as in the above picture).

Do I really need to keep stirring the pot?

RULE #3: Keep stirring. Risotto is such a comfort food in part because of its creamy texture. Some recipes rely on the addition of A LOT of cheese or cream, but near-constant stirring for the 25 minutes it takes to cook the risotto develops the grain’s starch and, therefore, a lovely creamy texture.

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Lastly, when the risotto reaches al dente, the flavoring are added, which in this recipe includes saffron (the stamens of crocuses), grated Parmesan and our roasted squash. Be sure to taste and correct the seasoning as well since no two batches of stock are exactly the same.

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There’s no candle in this birthday “cake,” but Emily surely got her wish.

Bon appétit.

SAFFRON RISOTTO WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH (from Ina Garten’s Family Style)

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut squash (2 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 ounces pancetta, diced
  • 1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. You should have about 6 cups. Place the squash on a sheet pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer.
  4. In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the pancetta and shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 full ladles of stock to the rice plus the saffron, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir, and simmer until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Continue to add the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry, then add more stock. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 30 minutes total. Off the heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan cheese. Mix well and serve.
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