Thursday, December 18, 2008

wild goose chase

For last season's edition of Novel Food, I chose a story set in France during World War II as my inspiration. This season, we're still in France, but we've gone back further, to World War I, and the story is told from the German perspective. My inspiration for the Winter 2008 edition of Novel Food comes from All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.

I know that All Quiet on the Western Front is thought of as a war novel, not a food novel, but food is a definite and recurring theme in Remarque's most famous work. The opening scene takes place at the mess hall. There's an impromptu feast prepared under shellfire. And there is one of the greatest non-romantic love scenes in literature: the roast goose.

The story is narrated by Paul Bäumer, age nineteen, who enlists in the German Army with a group of schoolmates. His closest friend is Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed Kat, a former cobbler with an uncanny ability to forage for food and make a decent meal, no matter how poor the army rations are. One day, when Paul and Kat are out on wiring fatigue (laying barbed wire), they hear the cackle of geese coming from a shed. Later that night, they sneak out, kill a goose, and roast it for supper.

"We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common - now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.

It takes a long time to roast a goose, even when it is young and fat. So we take turns. One bastes it while the other lies down and sleeps. A grand smell gradually fills the hut."

Once the goose is cooked, the two have a quiet feast:

"In the middle of the room shines the brown goose. We take out our collapsible forks and our pocket-knives and each cuts off a leg. With it we have army bread dipped in gravy. We eat slowly and with gusto.
"How does it taste, Kat?"

"Good! And yours?"

"Good, Kat."

I love this scene because the image is so simple, yet so powerful. Remarque invokes the primal fears of death and darkness, but Paul and Kat are safe, if only for a brief while, warded by warmth, food, and companionship. I decided that I definitely wanted to roast a goose for Novel Food.

Procuring a goose proved to be a bigger challenge than I expected. None of my usual haunts carried geese. A venture into Chinatown proved unsuccessful. I did learn that Savenor's carries geese, but I balked upon hearing their price per pound.* It was almost enough to make me set out with a bow and arrow with the aim of shooting my own. (I know a spot on the bank of the Charles that is frequented by a gaggle of geese.)

Almost, mind you. I can report that no geese on the Charles were harmed in the production of this post, and I have not jeopardized my fitness to pass the bar with any charges for possession of a deadly weapon. I ultimately decided that the spirit of the dish was more important than literal adherence to the form, and so I elected to roast a duck instead.

Ducks and geese belong to the same family. Geese are much larger, and the meat is a little coarser, but both are entirely dark meat, and both are insulated by a generous layer of fat. They can be cooked using the same method, and so I chose to prepare a duck as I would a goose.

Given that the inspiration for this meal was a goose roasted on a makeshift spit over a fire, I decided to keep it relatively simple, stuffing the duck with a mixture of chopped apples and prunes, and seasoning it with plain coarse salt. I served the duck with pan gravy, red cabbage, and boiled potatoes, in keeping with the vaguely German theme of the meal.

Tom and Kitty joined me for dinner. It was a welcome respite from the hell of finals week.

Roast Duck with Apple-Prune Stuffing

I roasted a duck that weighed approximately five pounds. According to The Joy of Cooking, the cooking time is fifteen to twenty minutes per pound, plus half an hour if the duck is stuffed, so my duck should have been cooked after two hours and ten minutes. However, I don't own a meat thermometer, and two hours seemed a little short to me, so my duck actually spent closer to three hours in the oven. I'll let you (or your meat thermometer) decide on your exact cooking time.

(Recipe not for one, unless you're roasting a very small duck, or you really like leftovers.)

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Start with the stuffing: Take three or four apples (depending on the size of your duck), peel them, core them, and cube them. Mix in a bowl with a handful of prunes, a sprinkling of salt, and a splash of apple brandy if you feel like it.

Next, check the cavity of your duck for neck and giblets. Set these aside for making stock and/or giblets in cream sauce (mmm). Pat the duck dry inside and out with paper towels. Use a skewer or a small sharp knife to prick the duck lightly all over. This allows the fat to render out, which makes for crispy duck and lots of leftover duck fat for other recipes. Don't season it with salt yet. (If you salt the duck at the beginning of cooking, the dripping fat tends to wash away the salt, leaving you with bland duck and very salty drippings.)

Stuff the duck. Secure the opening of the cavity with a toothpick, if necessary. Place on a rack in a roasting tray.

Turn the oven down to 325F, and put the roasting tray in the oven.

After one hour passes, pull out the roasting tray. Pour off the fat (the clear liquid) that has collected in the bottom of the pan. (Don't discard it! You can use it to cook potatoes that are a thing of glory.) Prick the duck all over again, and return it to the oven. Resist the urge to peek in on it every few minutes or so. Have a snack if the smell is making you too hungry.

After another hour has passed, pour off the fat that has collected in the bottom of the pan, prick the duck all over again, and now season it with salt. Put the duck back in the oven.

If your duck looks as though it's not browning quickly enough, bump up the heat to 400F. Cook for another half-hour or so. When you (or your meat thermometer) judge the duck to be done, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Pour off most of the fat that has collected at the bottom of the pan. Scrape the remaining fat and drippings (the brown liquid and the crusty brown bits) into a small saucepan. Add a splash of cheap red wine, and whisk the mixture over medium heat until the alcohol boils off and you have a thin gravy. Season with salt if necessary.

Carve the duck and serve with gravy and stuffing on the side. Red cabbage and boiled potatoes are good accompaniments.

*Let's just say that it would have been more expensive than buying the fixings for a full lobster dinner.

Monday, December 15, 2008

do as I say, and not as I do

I am very bad at following my own rules.

Remember how I said that finals is not the time to go on quests for obscure ingredients, it is not the time to prepare anything you've never tried preparing before, and it is definitely not the time to fuss with multi-step, multi-day recipes?

Well, I'm only two-thirds of the way done with finals, and I think I'm already zero for three. I went on a hunt for a goose, I'm going to roast a duck later this week, and, um... I made more ravioli.*

I have a good excuse, I swear. There were lamb shanks from locally raised animals at stake.

You see, Bella joined the Stillman's Meat CSA, and she was out of town when last month's pick-up was scheduled. She offered me some of the meat in exchange for doing the pick-up, and last month, the share included two lamb shanks. Bella isn't big on lamb, so I kept the shanks, and they stayed in my freezer until I could come up with some interesting way of cooking them.

The usual way of preparing lamb shanks is to braise them until they're falling off the bone, and then serve them in their braising liquid over mashed potatoes or polenta or something similarly starchy. The only problem with this method is that a lamb shank is a fairly hefty piece of meat, more than I'd really want to eat in one sitting.

Which is why I shamelessly nicked a recipe idea from the Mad Italian Chef instead.

I know I have yet to give the backstory on the Mad Italian Chef (just as I still have yet to explain my food fairy godfather), but for now, all you need to know is that the Mad Italian Chef ran the Italian restaurant I worked at for a summer a few years ago. The Mad Italian Chef did a lot of recipe development, and among the recipes he dreamt up was a ravioli made with mint pasta, stuffed with lamb ragu.

Chopping the mint for the pasta was as close as I ever got to preparing that dish, but the Mad Italian Chef did let me taste the finished product. I was struck by the way the cool, clean flavor of the mint pasta tempered the rich, almost gamey quality of the lamb filling. An attempt to replicate those ravioli seemed like a good use to which I could put the lamb shanks.

The Mad Italian Chef gave me many recipes during my time in his kitchen, but the ravioli recipe wasn't one of them. So I improvised, braising the lamb shanks in red wine, shredding the meat, and stuffing it into pasta made with freshly chopped mint. I couldn't remember what kind of sauce the Mad Italian Chef used, so I served the ravioli in a tomato sauce enriched with a few spoonfuls of porcini powder (dried porcini mushrooms). Of course, working out all the details gave me a lovely excuse to avoid studying.

Should I really have embarked on a multi-step, multi-day recipe and devoted hours to braising lamb and stuffing ravioli when I could have been keeping company with the Chevron doctrine and focusing on the intricacies of poison pill plans?

Maybe not. But the ravioli came out really well. Even Bella liked them.

Braised Lamb Mint Ravioli in Porcini Tomato Sauce

Two lamb shanks will make enough filling for one batch of dough, with a little leftover that can go in the sauce.

(Serves one, with plenty to freeze.)

This, like all ravioli recipes, is fairly straightforward but very time-consuming, and is best done over at least two days, unless you want to start at seven in the morning and do nothing else for the entire day.

Start with the lamb filling: Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add one chopped onion, two diced carrots, and two diced stalks of celery. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Toss in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Turn off the heat.

If you bought your lamb shanks from a real butcher, you can probably go ahead and add them to the pot with the vegetables. However, if they came from a CSA or the supermarket, you'll probably need to trim off the silverskin (the thin membrane that covers the meat) first. To do this, take a small, sharp knife and make one long cut lengthwise through the membrane, then use your fingers to pull it away from the meat. Make extra cuts as necessary if it doesn't come off cleanly in one piece.

Once the lamb shanks are in the pot, turn up the heat to medium and pour in enough cheap red wine to fully cover the shanks. Bring to a boil, and skim off any scum that forms on the top. Turn the heat down to a steady simmer (lots of small bubbles breaking the surface) and cook until you can no longer smell alcohol when you stick your head over the pot.

When all the alcohol has burned off, turn the heat down to a bare simmer (occasional bubble breaking the surface) and put the lid on the pot. Cook, skimming off any scum once an hour, for four to five hours, or until the meat falls off the bones.

Remove the bones from the pot (watch out for the little ones), bring the heat up to a steady simmer, and let the liquid reduce until the meat is bathed in a rich, dark sauce. Turn off the heat.

Take two forks and shred the meat into tiny pieces, fishing out the thyme stems as you go. (This is also the time to double-check that you didn't miss any stray pieces of bone.) Season to taste with salt. Allow to cool. Put the mixture in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.

Next, make the pasta dough: Dump two cups of flour on a clean counter. Make a well in the middle, crack in four egg yolks, pour in a glug of olive oil, add one-third of a cup of finely chopped mint. Stick your fingers into the well and stir so that the flour gets pulled in little by little. When the mixture starts to pull away from the counter, knead in the rest of the flour by hand. If the mixture is too dry, add a little water. Knead until you have smooth, stiff dough. (More detailed instructions can be found here.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.

To assemble, remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature. Roll it out to the second-thinnest setting on your pasta maker. Cut the dough into rough squares, about one-and-a-half inches wide. Take one square of dough, put a heaped teaspoon of filling on it, and lay a second square on top. Push down firmly with your thumbs around the filling to create a tight seal between the two layers of dough. Use a ravioli stamp or trim the edges as necessary. Set your finished ravioli on baking trays, and either cook immediately, or freeze for later use.

To cook, start by making the sauce: Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, add one finely chopped onion, and cook until translucent. Add a splash of cheap red wine, and cook until the alcohol burns off. Add any remaining lamb filling, followed by a sixteen-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, cut into rough dice. Stir in two or three teaspoons of porcini powder, and cook until the mixture becomes thick and fragrant. Salt to taste.

Now cook the ravioli: Put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop the ravioli in. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and place them gently in the sauce. Allow to simmer for a minute or two, then serve immediately.

*More details of the goose and the duck to come. The short explanation is that I'm cooking for Novel Food.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

when one is up to one's neck in exams, there is nothing left to do but cook*

I cook when I'm stressed. Finals period makes me stressed. Studying for exams makes me very stressed. So, flying completely in the face of law school norms, I probably cook more, not less, during finals period.

Granted, I don't usually cook complicated food during finals. It's not the time to be fussing with multi-step, multi-day recipes, or test-driving anything that requires exquisite attention to detail. I don't go on quests for obscure ingredients, and I don't try to prepare anything I've never prepared before. Culinary brilliance can wait until I'm no longer having nightmares about the Chevron doctrine.

Finals period calls for comfort food, and I cook solely to please myself. Fried eggs with oozy yolks, served with crusty bread. Warm salmon-and-potato salad, drizzled with butter and vinegar and sprinkled with capers. Big bowls of polenta, flecked with sliced scallions and thick with cheese. I eat whatever I feel in the mood for, nutrition and balanced diet be damned.

The recipe for the following dish (or basic premise, at least) came from Joey, an old friend who prepared it when Matt and I took a road trip to visit him in Rhode Island, back during our college days. It's not particularly new or exciting, but it's excellent winter comfort food - rich and warm and filling, warding against the promise of snow. It's well worth making, even if you do (or don't) have final exams.

(No photos. It's not photogenic, anyway - do you really want to see pictures of lumps that look vaguely like sausage in pinkish sauce?)

Sausage Sage Tomato-Cream Sauce

Joey served this over fresh pasta, but I find that it also goes nicely with polenta.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Set a large heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Remove the casings from two sweet Italian sausages and break them into small pieces. Drop them in the pan. Cook until the sausage has browned and releases its fat. Don't worry if any bits get stuck - you'll deal with that later.

Bring the heat up to medium, and add one diced white onion, a dash of red chili flakes, and several leaves of fresh sage. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent.

Pour in one cup of cheap white wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits of sausage that may have stuck to the pan. Let the wine reduce until you can no longer smell alcohol fumes.

Add a sixteen-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped. Cook at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the mixture in the pan thickens up.

Pour in one cup of heavy cream, and stir well to incorporate. Cook for another five minutes or so, and add salt to taste. Turn off the heat. Ladle over big bowls polenta or pasta. Serve immediately.

*With apologies to Samuel Beckett.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

two cooks

"I was at Harvard Law... By the end of the first semester, I had twenty-seven study partners, eight exercise books full of recipes, and a D average. So I dropped out."

When Ana Pascal tells Harold Crick how she became a baker in the film Stranger Than Fiction, I can definitely sympathize. Granted, I'm not at Harvard, I'm not holding any study sessions, and my average isn't quite that awful, but I've definitely spent the better part of this semester's reading period cooking and thinking and writing about food.

Reading period is supposed to be the time when you start to let the little details of day-to-day life slide. This is the time when law students stop doing their laundry, stop brushing their hair, and subsist on caffeine and whatever they can scrounge from the back of the fridge while they attempt to cram all the information they need into their poor little sleep-deprived, overworked, overstressed brains.

I, for one, am supposed to be devoting my time to untangling the intricacies of the Chevron doctrine and committing large portions of the Uniform Probate Code to memory. "Supposed to be" being the operative words.

Which is, of course, why my laundry is done, my hair is still brushed, and I went to have my usual Saturday cooking lesson with Michelle this weekend.

Michelle, as I may or may not have mentioned before, is married to Jake, my ex from freshman year of college. It probably sounds like the setup for a bad sitcom, but Michelle and I get along brilliantly.

The cooking lessons came about because Jake, though an excellent cook, has a cooking style that is very different to Michelle's. Cooks can roughly be divided into two groups: those who follow recipes to the letter, and those who think that recipes are a good start. Jake is definitely one of the former. Michelle is more of the latter. The two styles don't always mesh, so when Michelle mentioned that she wanted to learn more about cooking, I volunteered to teach her.

This week, we tackled berry scones and, using Thanksgiving leftovers, turkey pot pie. (At a glance, the two may not have much in common, but the biscuit crust on pot pie isn't all that different to scones.) After stuffing ourselves silly on the scones and pie, we settled in the living room. Jake turned on the television, but when it became clear that there wasn't anything particularly exciting on, I picked up a cookbook from Jake's collection to leaf through.

The book I ended up choosing was Dinner For Eight, which is the cookbook his mother wrote, and I spent a contented half-hour reading recipes I'd probably never make (like Peruvian-style pork and peanut stew) and recipes that I might use as inspiration (like braised short ribs in porcini-prune sauce), which are the two categories that I tend to sort recipes into. (If you haven't guessed yet, I am one of those cooks who thinks that a recipe is a good start.)

Jake gave up on television just as I got to a recipe for walnut lace cookies. I said something to the effect of how delicious they sounded. Jake remarked that they were easy to make, and that he probably had all the ingredients in the kitchen right at that moment.

Which is how we ended up in the kitchen for a second round of baking. I let Jake lead, because it ensured that we'd actually follow the recipe, and I need to follow a recipe through from start to finish occasionally, just so that I don't completely forget how to do it.

Lace cookies, which are a little like tuiles, are made by boiling up a sugar-butter syrup, then stirring in flour and any other additions you may have to form a sticky batter. You drop spoonfuls of this batter on cookie sheets, then bake until they're thin golden discs of buttery, burnt sugary deliciousness. They're wonderfully brittle - there's nothing quite as satisfying as taking a huge bite out of a lace cookie and feeling it shatter. (Not an exercise you want to attempt without a plate, though.)

As Jake promised, they were easy to make. So easy, in fact, that I'll probably whip up a batch of these myself sometime in the next few days, sometime after I've gone a few rounds with the Chevron doctrine and read through the Uniform Probate Code more thoroughly.

Whether or not I will actually follow the recipe remains to be seen.

Walnut Lace Cookies

From Dinner For Eight, by Denise Landis.

(Makes around three dozen.)

1 stick butter
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick liner or parchment paper and set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the corn syrup and brown sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, then remove from the heat and add flour and walnuts. Stir until well mixed.

3. Place rounded teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheet about 3 inches apart; the batter will spread quite a bit during baking. Bake until the batter has spread and is full of air bubbles and light golden brown, about 8 minutes. Be careful not to overbake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before removing from the baking sheet.

Optional extra: Roll the edges in melted chocolate.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

the tyranny of leftover turkey

So Turkey Day is over, doorstop sandwiches have lost their appeal, and there's still a mountain of leftover roast bird in the fridge. You have no cat. What to do?

I didn't grow up with Thanksgiving, for reasons that should be obvious, but destroying a turkey is among my family's Christmas traditions, and I am perfectly familiar with the attendant problem of leftovers.* Every year, the post-dinner scene is absolutely the same: no more mashed potatoes (my fault), leftover corn, leftover peas, and however much white meat is usually found on a turkey intended for a family of four, minus a slice or two.

(In my family, white meat is what you end up with if you're not quick enough to claim a leg.)

It tends to show up in sandwiches a day later, slathered in mustard in an effort to give it some kind of moisture and flavor, before my mother adds it to the soup she's already made from the carcass. Then it sits in the bottom of the stockpot until the soup runs out.

(In my family, the roast turkey dies not one, but three deaths.)

Which is why I decided that for my first Thanksgiving at home (rather than as a guest in someone else's home), I'd rather not have turkey at all.

Had I been alone, I might have made a mountain of mashed potatoes and gravy and called it good, but Lucille came to stay with me, and she had her own ideas for the menu. We ended up eating a meal of roast Cornish hens, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, white asparagus, and tiramisu. (Yes, tiramisu. We're neither of us fans of pumpkin pie.)

Unfortunately, a Cornish hen, though a lot smaller than even the smallest turkey, is still a bird with a lot of white meat. I knew the rest of the leftovers weren't going to be a problem, but it appeared that I had not succeeded in escaping the tyranny of leftover roast bird. The specter of dry sandwiches loomed large in my future.

Desperate to escape my fate, I engaged in some rapid thinking. The antidote to dry white meat is, of course, gravy. Lots and lots of gravy. The best way to get a good gravy-to-meat ratio is to cut the meat into small pieces. Gravy and meat in small pieces... pot pie!

So it was with considerable relief that I cut the leftover meat into small pieces, cut up some of the leftover vegetables into small pieces, whisked up another pan of gravy, and made a batch of biscuits for pie topping. The pot pie made for a satisfying dinner, and I knew that I wouldn't be worrying about leftovers later.

If you have that mountain of leftover roast bird and no cat, you may want to try doing the same.

(Photos will come if and when Lucille gets around to sending them to me.)

Poultry Pot Pie

Works for turkey, chicken, and any other bird that has bland white meat.

(Will serve one, because it freezes, but exact number of servings is determined by the quantity of leftovers you're trying to use up.)

Begin by assessing your leftovers. You'll want all the meat on whatever bird it was that you chose to roast, plus any remaining gravy. (If it was a particularly enormous bird, you might want to make more than one pot pie.) You might also be able to use some of your leftover vegetables if they weren't served in any kind of sauce or casserole, but you'll have to find something else to do with the rest.

To make poultry pot pie, start by taking a big, stove-and-ovenproof pan (a cast iron skillet is ideal) and putting it on the stove over low heat.

Add a small knob of butter. Once the butter melts, add one finely chopped white or yellow onion and two or three diced carrots to the pan. Let the vegetables cook, giving them an occasional stir.

Meanwhile, set a saucepan on the stove over low heat. Add a small knob of butter. Once it melts, sprinkle it with flour. Use a whisk to blend the flour into the butter until you have absolutely no lumps remaining, then pour in a generous amount of chicken stock. Turn up the heat slightly; keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens slightly - it's supposed to be on the thin side. Whisk in any leftover gravy. Season with thyme and sage, or herbes de provence if you have no objections to something not entirely traditional. Turn off the heat.

Take all the meat you pulled from the carcass of the roast bird (you're going to use the carcass for stock, right?) and cut it into small cubes. Add it to the pan with the onions and carrots. Pour over the gravy mixture from the other pan, and give everything a good stir. If, by some freakish chance, you're a little short on leftover meat, you can add a handful of white rice to bulk up the mixture. (You can add it to the pan raw. It'll finish cooking when the pie is in the oven.)

If your leftovers included plain green vegetables, like green beans, you can cut them up and add them to the pan. If not, throw in a handful or two of frozen green peas.

Turn up the heat a little, and let the mixture simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Time to make the biscuit topping. Take out a big mixing bowl and dump in three cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Cut in three-quarters of a stick of butter. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until you get coarse crumbs with the occasional lump.

You have a choice at this point. You can use milk, half-and-half, cream, or sour cream as the liquid component of your dough. If you don't have a cholesterol problem, I strongly recommend the sour cream. Measure our one-and-a-half cups of the liquid of your choosing and add it to the other ingredients. (You may need a little more.) Mix lightly until a soft dough forms.

Pinch off small handfuls of the dough and shape into rounds. Place the rounds atop the pie filling in the pan. Put the pan in the oven, and bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the biscuit topping is golden. Serve immediately.

*Australians do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I have met a surprising number of people who have failed to grasp this concept.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

indecent exposure

So I've already pushed the bounds of decency with barely dressed pasta. I guess it was only a matter of time before I crossed the line into pasta wearing nothing whatsoever.

No, not unsauced pasta. I'm talking about gnudi.

Gnudi are a Florentine specialty. Their name, literally translated from Italian, means "naked," because they look like little pillows of ravioli filling minus their outer layer of pasta. Made with ricotta cheese, sometimes with the addition of spinach, they're the lighter, lesser-known cousins of gnocchi.

And sometimes, they start out as exactly what they look like: ravioli filling. Excess ravioli filling, to be precise.

You see, after years of cooking meals for fifty with Hillel, followed by time in a hotel kitchen, my sense of proportion is sometimes a little off. At this point, I know how much pasta to prepare if I want dinner with leftovers for lunch (half a pound, dry), and how many people a three-pound roast chicken will feed (anywhere between four and six, depending on the sides and the size of the carnivorous appetites involved), but every once in a while, I vastly overestimate quantities and get them completely and utterly wrong.

For example, that sweet potato ravioli recipe? You'll probably want to make a double batch of pasta dough if you use two pounds of sweet potatoes for the filling. (Correction has been appended to the original recipe.) I'm afraid this didn't occur to me until this past weekend, because when I made the ravioli originally, I started out with five pounds of filling.

Of course, I couldn't catch the original error without compounding it: if two pounds of sweet potato filling correspond to two batches of pasta dough, then two batches of pasta dough will not stretch to an additional three pounds of spinach-ricotta filling.

The best part? I was supposedly teaching someone else how to cook. (Hi, Michelle!)

Fortunately, the ravioli turned out just fine, even if I did end up taking home a ridiculous amount of leftover spinach-ricotta filling. I figured that I'd just spend Sunday afternoon making up another batch for myself.

Which worked just fine until I ran out of eggs and reached the point where I felt like I never wanted to ever see another raviolo again.

Note that I still had a little over a pound of spinach-ricotta filling at this point. Note that the spinach-ricotta filling contained raw egg, and therefore couldn't be eaten straight.

That was when I remembered gnudi. It was the work of minutes to stir flour into the leftover filling, roll it out, and cut it into bite-size pieces. A quick sauce, a dip in simmering water, and I had solved the excess filling problem and made dinner, to boot. A pretty (in)decent correction for a silly error, I think.

Spinach Gnudi

You can serve these in a cream sauce if you, like me, have an unnatural fondness for creamed spinach, but a tomato-based sauce is really a better match. If you like wordplay, and don't mind it at the expense of mixing up your culinary geography, you can serve your gnudi in a puttanesca sauce.

(Serves one, with plenty of leftovers.)

Assuming you didn't make way too much ravioli filling and you're starting from scratch, you'll begin with a pound of washed spinach leaves.

Put the spinach leaves in a large pot or heatproof bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let it sit for a few minutes, until the spinach leaves wilt. Transfer the spinach to a colander. When it has cooled enough to handle, pick it up in handfuls and squeeze out all the excess liquid.

Chop the spinach finely. Gather it in handfuls once again and squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Put the chopped spinach in a big bowl. Set aside.

Heat a little olive oil in a large pan, and add one finely chopped white or yellow onion. Season with a sprinkling of nutmeg, and cook until soft and translucent.

Transfer the onion to the bowl with the spinach. Add half a pound of whole milk ricotta, and stir until you have a smooth white mixture flecked with green. Salt to taste, then add a little extra - you're going to add flour, too. Crack in one egg and mix until fully incorporated.

Gently stir in three-quarters of a cup of flour, one quarter-cup at a time. Cover the bowl and let it sit in the fridge for fifteen minutes or so.

Clean off a section of your counter, and sprinkle it in flour. Set out a baking tray.

Take a handful of the gnudi dough and roll it out on the floured counter until you have a long rope roughly the thickness of your thumb. (A little smaller if you have large thumbs.) Cut the rope into half-inch widths, and set them on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is gone.

Prepare a pan of sauce. (See note above.)

Set a pot of salted water on to boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn it down to a hearty simmer. (Gnudi will fall apart if you cook them at a rolling boil.) Drop the gnudi in, a dozen or so at a time, and cook until they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and deposit them in your pan of sauce.

Once all the gnudi have been cooked, turn the heat up under the sauce and cook, stirring gently to make sure the gnudi are well-coated, for two or three minutes. Turn off the heat. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

classic remedies

As I previously mentioned, I've been spending time with other law students outside of class. Tuesday's dinner-and-House M.D. with Kitty has expanded to include Tom, another law student with a twisted sense of humor. Socializing with law students has its benefits: no-one understands the misery of law school better than other law students. It also has its downside: it gives me greater exposure to other people's rhinoviruses.

Last week, Tom came to dinner with a head cold. Two days later, Kitty complained that she'd come down with a head cold. By Saturday morning, it became clear that I hadn't escaped unscathed, either.

Admittedly, it cleared up by Monday morning, but it was enough for me to soundly blame them both, and declare that we'd be eating matzo ball soup this Tuesday. And once I decided on soup, I thought I'd stick to a theme and serve beef brisket and potato kugel, too.

You might be thinking, given the story I told in my last entry, that this might be a menu I could whip up in my sleep. You'd be wrong. Ironically, I never once made matzo ball soup or brisket during my tenure as Hillel head chef during college. Kosher chicken stock and kosher beef were a little too pricey for our budget, and even if the cost hadn't been prohibitive, I knew my audience: there was no way I could measure up to expectations fuelled by all those Jewish grandmothers. Instead, I stuck to dishes like teriyaki salmon and mushroom quiche.*

In fact, the only other occasion on which I ever prepared matzo ball soup and beef brisket was a pseudo-Seder at the mad hippie engineer house. Of course, I only need one chance to start tinkering with a recipe. I behaved myself when it came to the recipe for matzo ball soup (after all, there is no sense in messing with perfection), but I couldn't resist putting my own spin on the beef brisket. It's got prunes and carrots, but it's spiced with coriander seeds and green peppercorns. The result is hardly traditional, but it is, I dare say, quite tasty.

Not Very Traditional Braised Beef Brisket

Beef brisket takes a long time to cook. It doesn't need much attention, but don't start this recipe unless you can stay at home for several hours.

(Makes a lot. Better to round up three or four people to join you, unless you really want to eat brisket sandwiches for a week.)

Take two to three pounds of beef brisket, trimmed of any excess fat, and brown briefly on each side in a heavy pan. Transfer the brisket to a large pot with lid.

Add one teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of ground coriander seeds (or crushed whole seeds, but you'll need to strain them out later), one teaspoon of crushed green peppercorns, a quarter-cup of brown sugar, and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar to the pan. Add enough water to fully cover the meat.

Bring the mixture to a boil. Skim off any grey scum that rises to the surface, then turn the heat down very, very low, and put the lid on the pot. You'll want the mixture at a bare simmer, with just a few bubbles breaking the surface. You'll want it to stay this way for the next three to four hours. Now go do something else - laundry, reading, outlining.

Check on the brisket once every hour, skimming off any scum. Once you've passed the three hour mark, stick a fork in the brisket and lift it up. If it starts to tear apart, let it cook at a bare simmer for another half an hour or so with the lid off. If it doesn't, put the lid back on and try again in another hour.

When the brisket has really started to lose structural integrity, lift it out of the pot carefully, and set it in a casserole dish. Use two forks to shred the meat into small chunks. Cover the dish and set it aside.

Bring the liquid remaining in the pot to a boil, and drop in four or five peeled, chopped carrots. Cook the carrots until you can just pierce them with a fork - they shouldn't be too soft. Lift them out of the pot, and add them to the casserole dish with the brisket.

(If you used whole crushed coriander seeds rather than ground, you'll want to strain the mixture at this point. Depending on how much you like peppercorns, you may want to strain the mixture anyway.)

Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil again. Add up to two cups of prunes, depending on how much you like prunes. (I like prunes a lot.) Cook the prunes until they swell up and turn soft but not mushy. Lift them out of the pot and add them to the casserole dish.

Bring the liquid in the pot to a steady simmer, and reduce until you have a thin, sticky sauce. Salt to taste. Pour the sauce over the brisket. Cover the casserole dish and put it in a warm oven for fifteen or twenty minutes. Serve with potato kugel, or something similarly starchy.

Note: Brisket can be made the day before serving and reheated.

*Teriyaki salmon with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach was a crowd favorite. Go figure.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

stark ravioli mad

It seems that I've been going about my quest for kitchenware the wrong way. The trick is not to convince people to buy you kitchenware without getting married. The trick is to wait for other people to get married - and then take their unloved wedding gifts off their hands.

Like pasta makers. Googie Baba (the frequent partner-in-crime of Virgin in the Volcano) had one that she was using as a dust-catcher. I say "had," because when she heard me lamenting my sorry lack of a pasta maker, she offered to give it to me. Naturally, I jumped to accept it.

So now I own a pasta maker, and Googie gets fresh ravioli as a thank-you.

And now I will finally tell the story, which I've hinted at, of how I once tried to make ravioli for fifty (almost) single-handedly.

I cooked with Hillel, the Jewish students' association, during freshman year of college. Every Friday afternoon, I'd head over to the religious center, and spend several hours in the tiny kosher kitchen with a group of other students, helping to prepare the meal that would be served after Shabbat services. The head chef was a crazy drama major whose culinary creations trod the fine line between genius and madness, and we made everything from pad thai to chicken-fried steak.

Sophomore year, the crazy drama major landed a lead role in the theater department's big spring production. The rehearsal schedule left Hillel looking for a new head chef. They asked if I would be interested. In a fit of insanity, I said yes.

Which meant that come second semester, I was no longer going to be just helping out with Shabbat dinner. I was going to be responsible for making sure that Shabbat dinner would happen.

So naturally, for my inaugural meal, I chose to prepare the most impractical dish I could possibly come up with: butternut squash ravioli in sage brown butter sauce. Granted, the rest of the menu wasn't so bad - minestrone, green salad, and brownies - but it was overwhelmed by the reality of twenty pounds of butternut squash and a mountain of wonton wrappers.*

Add in the fact that I hadn't quite grasped the basics of posting to the Hillel mailing list, and therefore hadn't confirmed that anyone else was going to show up, and I had all the makings of the oddest all-nighter I ever pulled in college. (It was a good thing I had no Friday classes that semester.)

The night before the dinner, I roasted twenty pounds of butternut squash, mashed twenty pounds of butternut squash, and seasoned twenty pounds of butternut squash. I chopped vegetables for the minestrone and assembled the salad.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, I sat down with an enormous bowl of seasoned butternut squash and a mountain of wonton wrappers, and started to make ravioli.

My memories of the rest of the night are a little fuzzy. I know I stopped to get breakfast the next morning, and a few people did show up to help that afternoon. Somehow, we did manage to make enough ravioli to feed everyone, and I learned my lesson about planning meals for a crowd.

The following recipe is a reworked version of the aforementioned ravioli, using sweet potatoes in place of the butternut squash. The filling is seasoned with nutmeg and green onions, and they're served in herbed brown butter. If you're going to make these for anything other than personal consumption, it'll go much faster if you round up all the volunteers (willing or unwilling) that you can get.

But seriously? Don't even think about making them for fifty.

Sweet Potato Ravioli

You'll need a ravioli stamp if you want those neat little edges on each raviolo, but you can cut them by hand if you're not too worried about how they look.

(Makes four to six servings, depending on your appetite. They freeze well.)

Appended correction: You need one batch of pasta dough per pound of filling. The recipe as written below has the wrong ratios; you can correct it by either halving the quantities for the filling, or making a double batch of pasta dough.

This is not a complicated recipe, but it is a time-consuming one. You'll want two days - one to make the filling and the pasta dough, and the next to assemble the ravioli.

First, prepare the filling: Preheat the oven to 400F. Take two pounds of sweet potatoes, peel them, cut them into chunks, and roast in a foil-covered pan until soft. Remove from the oven. Set aside.

Take a bunch of green onions, mince them finely, and saute in a pan with half a stick of butter.

Transfer the sweet potatoes to a big bowl. Break them up with a potato masher or a wooden spoon until you have a thick mash. Season with nutmeg. Add the cooked green onions, along with any butter remaining in the pan. Add a generous dollop of sour cream. Stir until the mixture is smooth and even. Salt to taste. Cover the bowl and stick it in the refrigerator. You can forget about it until tomorrow.

Next, make the pasta dough: Dump two cups of all-purpose flour on a very, very clean countertop. Make a well in the middle. Crack in four egg yolks. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of water. Add a dash of salt. Use your fingers to break up the eggs and swirl them around to pull the flour in, little by little. (More detailed instructions can be found here.)

Once you have a rather shaggy mass of dough, start kneading. Wet your hands if it seems very dry; continue kneading. Knead until you have a stiff dough that is very smooth to the touch. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge. You can forget about the dough until tomorrow, too.

Is it tomorrow? Pull the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Get out your bowl of filling. Grab a teaspoon. Set out a few baking trays.

Set up your pasta maker, and roll out batches of the dough to the second-thinnest setting. (Probably about 5 or 6 on the dial, depending on your model.) Cover the sheets with a damp tea-towel.

Now the assembly begins.

Take one sheet of dough and cut it into rough squares, about two inches by two inches wide. (Combine all the scraps into a ball to be rolled out again later.)

Take one square of dough, put a heaped teaspoon of filling on it, and lay a second square on top. Push down firmly with your thumbs around the filling to create a tight seal between the two layers of dough. Use a ravioli stamp or trim the edges as necessary. Set your finished raviolo on the baking tray.

Repeat this process until you run out of filling or dough, or patience. The ravioli can either be frozen immediately for later use, or cooked for immediate consumption. (You'll probably want to do a little of both.)

To cook the ravioli, set a big pot of salted water on the stove over high heat. When the water reaches a rolling boil, drop the ravioli in a few at a time. Cook for four minutes if they're fresh, and six to seven if they're frozen. (Just make sure the fillings are warmed through.)

Serve with browned butter (cook over low heat until it turns light brown in color) seasoned with rosemary or sage.

*I wasn't going to make ravioli from scratch. I wasn't that crazy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

a truly singular recipe

I collect recipes. I think I've mentioned this before, but it probably bears repeating, given the infrequency with which I will actually sit down and follow someone else's recipe through from start to finish.

I clip recipes from newspapers. I take recipe flyers from the supermarket. If you've ever been in a doctor's waiting room and found a magazine missing pages... that might have been me. (Sorry. I really like recipes for raspberry desserts.)

I have solicited recipes from everyone over the years. There’s my high school adviser’s recipe for stracciatella, barely a paragraph long. There’s that almond cookie recipe from Prunier’s, which I constructed from a list of ingredients and quantities. But no recipe is quite as singular as the one I have for polpettone, as served at La Cicala e La Formica in Rome.

(Click on the photo for a larger image.)

La Cicala e La Formica was one of my favorite lunch spots in Rome. Located in Esquilino, not far from the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, on a quiet little side street, it had outside tables and a ten-euro lunch special. I also got a kick out of the name.*

For your ten euros, you'd get a bottle of mineral water, a primi and a secondi, with two options to choose from for each. The primi would be two different kinds of pasta (or sometimes a pasta and a soup), and the secondi a choice between meat or a vegetarian dish.

I studied Italian before I went to Rome, but my classes and textbooks didn't prepare me for the rich and varied vocabulary of menus. I ordered a lot of dishes without being exactly sure what they were. Polpettone was one of them - I knew it was some sort of meat dish, but that was all.

I didn't expect it to be the best meatloaf I'd ever eaten.

Polpetti, you see, are little balls of ground meat, usually beef or pork. Polpettone (the suffix "-one" denotes something that is bigger than usual) is therefore a very large ball (or log) of ground meat. So polpettone ai funghi porcini is a log of ground meat with porcini mushrooms - in other words, meatloaf.

Whatever you want to call it, it was delicious: moist, tender, and wonderfully savory. I scraped my plate clean, and then asked the waitress if I could get the recipe.

I did tell her I could decipher a recipe in Italian. Either she didn't hear me, or she didn't believe me, because... well, you can see the results above.

I can hardly claim to be a paragon of precision in my recipes - not with my handful of this, pinch of that approach. Not when I consider "glug" and "splash" to be perfectly valid measurements. And probably not when I use "gloopy," in perfect seriousness, to describe texture.

But "Everything mixed and cooked for 40 minutes in hoven [sic]" is a category of brevity unto itself.

Fortunately, it does provide quantities for meat and eggs, so I looked at a few recipes for meatloaf and filled in the gaps for the rest. My version is below; I suspect you'll find that it's easier to follow. Of course, if you'd like to try the original, stop by La Cicala e La Formica if you're ever in Rome during the autumn. (It's right near the Esquilino Metro stop.)

Let me know if they're still doing the lunch special.

Polpettone Ai Funghi Porcini

I'm sure this would taste best with fresh porcini, but unless you're in Europe, you're probably not going to find them. You can get dried porcini from Whole Foods and other specialty food stores.

(Serves one, as long as you like meatloaf sandwiches.)

Take two ounces of dried porcini, cover them in roughly one and a half cups of warm water, and let sit until reconstituted. Reserve the liquid, but discard the dregs (you don't want any dirt that may have been clinging to the mushrooms.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a baking tray.

Chop the porcini finely, and combine in a large mixing bowl with one cup of fresh breadcrumbs. Add the reserved soaking liquid. Add a generous sprinkling of dried thyme and three cloves of garlic, finely minced.

Add one pound of ground beef (eighty-five percent lean) to the mushroom mixture. Crack in one egg. Add a teaspoon of salt and a dusting of ground black pepper. Stick your hands into the mess and toss until everything is well-combined and easily shapes into a ball.

Transfer the mixture to the baking tray, and shape it into a rectangular loaf. Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until thoroughly cooked all the way through. Serve in slices. It goes well with rosemary potatoes.

*"The Cicada and the Ant," like Fontaine's poem.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

if it's november, it must be fishy pasta

November. Ugh.

While November in Australia is really quite agreeable (not quite so scorching as December), November in New England makes me wish for a fast-forward button. Do we really need all these weeks of cold and rain and dreary grey sky as a prelude to three months of snow?

As you might imagine, November makes me even less inclined to do my reading than usual. Sadly, we've still got several weeks before the semester is over, so I've been loading up on brain food in an effort to maintain focus. (Or what passes for focus by my standards.) Which means - you guessed it - fishy pasta.

This time, it's a take on a traditional Roman recipe for pasta with broccoli and anchovies. A few of the stands at the Copley Square Farmers' Market have been carrying Roman broccoli, which is a wonderfully trippy-looking variety with fractal points. It tastes more like cauliflower than your usual round-headed broccoli, and it has a nuttiness that works nicely with the salt of the fish.

(Photo definitely not mine. It's from Wikimedia Commons.)

The dish is traditionally made with short pasta, like rigatoni or penne, but I was in the mood for fresh pasta, so I made orecchiette ("little ears") instead. I haven't yet gotten the hang of shaping them correctly, but they didn't require a pasta roller, and they're rather satisfying to make.

Now, I know I've called it fishy pasta, and I suspect I'm not going to convince any die-hard anchovy haters, but this dish really doesn't taste all that fishy. The anchovies really just add a salty note.

I suppose you could leave them out... but I wouldn't call it brain food.

Pasta with Roman Broccoli, Anchovies and Sausage

You can omit the sausage without much drama, but I strongly recommend keeping the anchovies in.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Set a pot of salted water on to boil.

Heat a generous quantity of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add two minced cloves of garlic, a dash of red chili flakes, and one can of anchovies in olive oil. Use a wooden spoon to break up the anchovies.

Once the pasta water reaches a rolling boil, add half a pound of short pasta, shells, or orecchiette. Cook until al dente, then drain and set aside.

Take one Italian sausage (sweet or spicy, your choice), remove it from its casing, and add it in pieces to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned.

Add one head of Roman broccoli, cut into small pieces, followed by one cup of cheap white wine. When the alcohol fumes have burned off, cover and cook until the broccoli is tender.

Remove the cover, add the pasta, and cook until the liquid in the pan has reduced to a light sauce. Serve immediately.

Friday, October 31, 2008

double, double, toil and trouble

What do you get when you put the Basil Queen and the Popcorn Ball Princess in a kitchen with vast quantities of popcorn, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter, on the night before Halloween?

Popcorn balls, of course!

I had plans for a Halloween dinner that involved dining like zombies. It didn't pan out, because I couldn't find fresh calves' brains. (Frozen brains aren't the same.) So instead of fried brains with sherry butter and capers, à la Ruth Reichl, I'm presenting Bella's family recipe for popcorn balls.

Popcorn balls, if you're not familiar with them, are an old-fashioned American sweet: giant clusters of freshly popped corn held together by vast quantities of chewy caramel. Like kettle corn, but even better. Bella makes amazingly sticky, chewy, dental-work-endangering examples of this art, which, in case you've forgotten, is how she got her title as the Popcorn Ball Princess.

Bella makes popcorn balls every year on the night before Halloween, and a handful of lucky friends get to share in the fruits of her endeavour. The process of wrestling with a mountain of popped corn and a giant pot of molten caramel requires at least two pairs of hands, so she invited me along to help.

Popcorn balls qualify as candy, though of a fairly basic type. My experiences with candymaking have been limited to a few experiments with small quantities of salt caramel, so standing over a massive pot of molten sugar as it churned and bubbled its way towards the hard-crack stage was scary, but exciting.

It was definitely one of the more memorable Halloween-ish activities I've been involved in. Even if it didn't involve any brains.

(And not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary - did I mention that this blog is now a year old?)

Bobbie Sue's Popcorn Balls

This is a two-person process. Do not attempt it alone.

(Makes 40-50.)

3 cups popcorn seeds (for a total of 48 cups of popped corn)
3 cups white sugar
3 cups brown sugar
2 cups corn syrup
1 cup water
4 teaspoons vinegar
3 cups butter (6 sticks) at room temperature, plus extra for greasing hands
candy thermometer

Lay out sheets of waxed paper on a flat surface.

You can prepare the popped corn and the caramel at the same time (that's part of the reason why you need two people), but the popped corn must be ready before the caramel is done, because once the caramel is done, it's not going to wait.

Pop the corn. You will be making a lot of popped corn. You will need a very, very large pot or bowl to hold the popped corn - big enough to cook or bathe a three year-old in.

Get out a large, solid, heavy-bottomed pot, not quite as large as the one holding the popcorn, but large enough to cook a baby. Molten sugar bubbles up as it cooks, and you will be very, very sorry if you use a pot that is too small.

Put the white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, water, and vinegar in the pot. Heat, stirring slowly, until the mixture reaches a boil and starts to bubble.

Put your candy thermometer in the mixture, and cook, stirring continuously, until it reaches 260F, also known as the hard-ball stage. (It's the point at which a spoonful of the mixture, dropped into cold water, will form a hard ball.)

Once the mixture hits the hard-ball stage, reduce the heat, and stir in the butter, a stick at a time. When the butter has been fully incorporated, remove the pot from heat and get ready to work quickly.

One person needs to stir the popcorn while the other pours the caramel into the mixture. You may need to move the pot around; if you create a moving stream of molten caramel, keep a careful eye on the other person's hands. Molten caramel causes nasty, nasty burns.

(Sorry, Bella!)

When all the caramel has been incorporated into the popcorn, you'll want to grease your hands up to the wrists in butter. Take handfuls of the popcorn mixture, and shape into balls roughly three inches in diameter, setting them on the waxed paper as you go. Be sure to only take handfuls off the top, so that you're only working with the stuff that's had some time to cool, and re-butter your hands as necessary.

When all the popcorn balls have been formed and allowed to cool, wrap them in more waxed paper. Give them only to people you really like.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

whisk-y business

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a KitchenAid
My friends have stand mixers; I’m kind of ashamed

I do have the space for it if my counter’s rearranged

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a KitchenAid...

I want a KitchenAid mixer.

Of course, you say. Join the club. Every aspiring chef, enthusiastic home cook, pretentious foodie, and eager bride-to-be wants a KitchenAid mixer. Does it even need to be said?

You want one for all those complicated, meringue-based desserts, like pavlova and vacherin and dacquoise. You want to be able to make mousse at the drop of a hat. If you get the pasta attachment, you won’t need a pasta maker. You have as many reasons to want a KitchenAid mixer as there are recipes on your to-do list.

If only those were the only reasons.

I want a KitchenAid mixer to avoid my shortcomings. I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I can ignore my failings. I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I no longer have to contend with my bête noire. (Bête blanche?)

I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I can make whipped cream.

You see, a KitchenAid mixer makes whipped cream foolproof. You open the carton, pour it in the bowl, add sugar and flavorings as needed, turn on the mixer (medium speed – high makes the cream splash everywhere), wander away, and when you come back a little while later, the contents of the bowl have doubled in volume, and whisk attachment is trailing those smooth swirly patterns through a fluffy cloud of white. Turn off the mixer. Voilà, whipped cream.

Whipping cream by hand is a different matter. Despite the fact that you cannot walk away from it, you don’t take your eyes off it, and if you’re paranoid, you’ll stop to check the texture every other minute, it is still much, much easier to miss that split-second of luscious perfection and end up with a bowl of clumpy, clotted pre-butter instead.

I’ve learned that I will probably screw up hand-whipped cream about every other time that I try it.** I’ve also learned that when I work with white chocolate – my other bête blanche – it only goes right about once every three times.

Which means, if I’ve calculated my probabilities right, that I have a one-in-six chance of not screwing up when I make white chocolate ganache.***

Which is why I only make frozen white chocolate ganache. Sub-zero temperatures hide a multitude of sins - even slightly overwhipped cream develops an agreeable texture when frozen. Add crumbly shortbread and some raspberry sauce, and a disaster can become a respectable dessert.

Hmm. If I can’t have a KitchenAid mixer, could I have an ice-cream maker instead?

Frozen White Chocolate Ganache Tart

(Serves one if you like white chocolate a lot more than I do. Leftovers can go right back in the freezer.)

First, the shortbread shell: Get out a big bowl, drop in a stick of softened butter, and use a fork to mash it with one-eighth of a cup of sugar and a half-teaspoon of salt until well-combined. Measure out one cup of flour, and use the fork to gradually incorporate it into the butter until you have a sandy mixture that you can form into a ball.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Take an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan and set it on a baking tray. Take the shortbread dough and press it gently into the pan. If it seems a bit thick, remove some of the excess and bake it separately. (It's nice to snack on.)

Prick the dough lightly with a fork. Bake in the oven for thirty to forty minutes, or until the pastry has turned golden in color. Set aside to cool.

Next, coat the shortbread with a thin layer of dark chocolate (it's not essential, but it helps with integrity issues, and adds an interesting dimension to the flavor of the finished tart): Bring a pot of water to a simmer on the stove. Set a heatproof mixing bowl on the pot, and add a few teaspoons of dark chocolate chips. Stir until melted, and remove from heat. Use a butter knife or a teaspoon to coat the shortbread shell in chocolate. Pop it in the freezer to set.

The first step in the ganache (the easier step) involves melting the cream and the white chocolate together. Take three ounces of white chocolate (use chips, or cut a bar into small chunks) and place in a big metal bowl. Pour three-quarters of a cup of heavy whipping cream into a small saucepan and place over low heat. Stir the cream. Keep stirring the cream.

The idea is to get the cream to a little below body temperature, which is hot enough to melt chocolate. You could use a candy thermometer if you're gadget-inclined, but I just test with my fingertips, and pull the cream off the stove when it feels like a warm bath.

Pour the warmed cream over the chocolate. Stir until the cream and the chocolate are incorporated together in one smooth mixture. Let the mixture cool, then stick the entire bowl in the fridge to chill. Cream that isn't cold won't whip.

Once the white chocolate cream mixture is properly chilled, it's on to part two - the whipping. If you're lucky enough to be in possession of a stand mixer, pour the cream into the bowl and let the machine work its magic. If you're doing this by hand, well, misery loves company, right?

All I can recommend is that you whip the mixture gently and carefully and stop to check the texture every other minute. You even can err on the side of caution and leave the mixture a little underwhipped.

Once you get the ganache to its desired texture (or close enough), pour it into the tart shell, smooth out the top, and freeze for at least two hours. Serve with plenty of raspberry sauce.

*My sincerest apologies to Janis Joplin. I couldn't resist.

**The fact that I can hand-whisk lemon curd and hollandaise and even egg whites for soufflés without missing a beat makes this particularly exasperating.

***Given those odds, you might be wondering why I make white chocolate ganache at all. The answer, this time, is that we were celebrating Kitty's birthday.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the queen of tarts

The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I made tarts.

Large mixed fruit tarts for the lunch buffet: solid shells of pâte brisée, brushed with chocolate to keep them from softening, filled with crème patissière, plus a slice of sponge cake for added integrity, decorated with a precise geometric pattern of strawberry halves, kiwifruit slices, and diced peaches, glossy with arrowroot-thickened apricot jam.

Bite-size jewel tarts for high tea and special functions: tiny pâte sucrée shells painted in couverture, a dab of crème patissière, thin wedges of kiwifruit or mango, and the faintest sheen of raspberry glaze.

Single-serving tarts for the cake shop: thin, tuile-like shells, mounded with crème patissière and topped with berries. Mountains of blueberries, lacquered in apricot glaze. Raspberries in concentric rings under a dusting of icing sugar. Strawberries cut and arranged to form five-petalled flowers.

Elegant tarts. Dainty tarts. Beautiful tarts that left me cold.

Don't get me wrong. I loved making those tarts in all their gorgeous, white-bone-china, heavy-silver, linen-napkin perfection. I turned out over a thousand of the jewel tarts, single-handedly, for one particularly enormous gala event. I loved them as the finished product of hours of hard work, but not as something I would prepare for myself. Not as something I'd look forward to eating.

When left to my own devices, I like a tart that isn't polite, something a little lopsided and uneven that bleeds juice and drips butter and has those slightly-burnt caramelly edges. The kind of tart that follows a lazy weekend lunch, or a weekday dinner on a day that calls for some kind of dessert. The kind of tart you could eat with your fingers if you felt like dispensing with good table manners.

The Italians call it crostata, and it's really the simplest fruit-and-pastry dessert you could possibly make: a wheel of pastry topped with fruit, edges folded over, and baked until bubbling and golden.

The kind of fruit is up to you. Apples, for a rustic take on apple pie. Pears, for a soft, velvety texture. Dried apricots, plumped in water with a little brandy, for a sticky, toothsome effect.

I like sweet, overripe plums, macerated with a little liqueur, cinnamon, and just enough sugar to draw out their juices. Baked, they split and ooze and fill the kitchen with a winey, tangy fragrance. Once the crostata is out of the oven, it takes discipline to not cut into it until it's cool enough to handle.

It's really too messy to be eaten with your fingers. Of course, I like it best that way.

Plum Crostata

If you suffer from Pastry Anxiety, this is an excellent dessert to practice on, because it doesn't require much handling, and there's no elaborate crimping or fluting to screw up. Even if the pastry is a complete disaster, you can just scoop out the fruit and top it with ice-cream. Of course, you can use storebought pastry, but it won't be quite the same.

(Serves one, for a very long time.)

Get out a big mixing bowl. Dump in one cup of flour, a few tablespoons of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. Cut in half a stick of butter until the largest lumps are no bigger than a pea. Add just enough very cold water - about a few tablespoons - to make the pastry dough come together. Form the pastry into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and put it in the fridge to chill.

Take a pound of ripe prune plums (the ones with bluish-purple skins and yellow flesh), rinse them, and pat them dry. Use your fingers to pull them apart; remove the pits and discard.

Put the plums in a bowl, and sprinkle over one teaspoon of sugar and a little cinnamon. You can also add a small splash of liqueur if you like - I'm fond of Frangelico. Give the plums a stir and let them sit for half an hour or so. You'll have slightly more plums than you'll really need for the tart, so feel free to steal a few to snack on.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Remove the ball of pastry from the fridge, and put it on a baking tray atop a sheet of parchment paper. You can either use a rolling pin to roll out the pastry, or just press on it with the heel of your hand until it flattens out into a rough circle. (I still haven't gotten around to buying a rolling pin. I press it out.)

Take the plums and arrange them in rings on the pastry. Fold the edges over to create a rough border. Don't fret if it looks imperfect - the lopsidedness is all part of its charm.

Move the tray to the oven. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes, or until the juices are bubbling, the butter in the pastry has started to caramelize, and the baking tray is a mess, despite the parchment paper. Remove the tray from the oven. Let the tart cool somewhat.

Serve warm in generous wedges. If you're not dispensing with table manners and cutlery, thick cream or ice-cream is a nice extra.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

the situation calls for chocolate

The reading is still coming along in relentless waves. The outlines are supposed to be taking shape. It has officially turned cold in Boston - sweater, scarf and gloves cold. And apparently the town is in a tizzy over something baseball-related, which makes taking the T during the late afternoons a rather dubious venture.

This is a situation that calls for chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Preferably in warm, melted form.

Usually, I'd bake up a batch of "Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar" cakes, or just leave a bar of dark chocolate by the radiator to turn soft, but Virgin, of Virgin in the Volcano, asked me several months ago if I had a recipe for chocolate lava cake. She and I don't share any classes this year, so we decided to get together, have some wine, grouse about classes and the job hunt, and do some baking.

I pulled a copy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's recipe for "Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake," and I tried to follow it. I really did. I had the chocolate. I had the butter. I had the eggs, the sugar, and the flour. I only have two ramekins, but I thought I'd halve the recipe, and we'd be fine.

And then Virgin sized up my ramekins with the practiced eye of one who has handled many shot glasses and definitely knows her fluid ounces, and told me that they were two-ounce ramekins, not four. Apparently the subtleties of the imperial system of measurement are still beyond me.

Oops. It turns out that if you use two two-ounce ramekins, even with a half recipe, you'll have too much batter. And because the recipe tells you to divide the batter evenly among four ramekins, you won't realise that you've overfilled your two ramekins until you check on the cakes in the oven and discover that they look more like soufflés.

And if you didn't quite butter and flour the molds generously enough, the cakes aren't going to tip out of the molds neatly. In fact, they're not going to tip out of the molds at all.

This is the moment at which you'll probably want to give up on the recipe and serve the cakes right in their ramekins, preferably with a dusting of cocoa and fresh raspberry sauce. They come out with gently crisped tops and rich, gooey centers, so it's not a complete loss.

And Virgin really likes their name. I can't blame her. I rather prefer it myself.

(Virgin in the) Volcano Soufflé-Cakes

Inspired by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s “Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake."

(Makes three.)

Chocolate does not like high heat. Chocolate does not like water. These two factors make melting chocolate a tricky proposition. Happily, any dessert that combines melted chocolate with melted butter makes things much, much easier: as long as you melt the butter first, and then add the chocolate, your chances of ending up with a grainy, scorched mess are considerably lower.

Set up a double-boiler: put a small pot of water on the stove and bring it to a simmer. Set a heatproof bowl over the pot and drop in half a stick of butter, cut into rough chunks. When the butter has melted completely, add one-third of a cup of dark chocolate chips, or two ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate. Turn off the heat.

While you’re waiting for the chocolate to melt, beat together one egg, one egg yolk, and one-eighth of a cup of sugar until thick and very foamy.

Check on the butter-chocolate mixture. The chocolate should be mostly melted; stir with a rubber spatula until smooth and even. Don't worry if you have lumps - they're going to melt anyway when you bake the cakes.

Move the bowl to the counter and gently fold in the egg mixture.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Take three two-ounce ramekins, butter them, and lightly flour them. Tap them to shake out any excess flour. Spoon the batter into the ramekins, filling them right up to the top.

Place the ramekins on a tray and bake for four to six minutes, or until the cakes have risen above the edge.

Remove the tray from the oven; transfer the ramekins to plates. Dust with a little icing sugar or bitter cocoa. Serve immediately with fresh raspberries or raspberry sauce on the side.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the best souvenirs are edible

We've come to the point in the semester when the notes that have to be written up have started to overwhelm the amount of reading that notes have to be taken upon. All the good law students have settled in and started to outline for all they're worth.

Which is, of course, why I went to Vermont this weekend. Bella offered me a chance to get out of Boston, plus an invitation to her family's pseudo-Thanksgiving fall supper, and I couldn't resist.

Not only did we eat enough turkey and trimmings and pie to leave us full for the next two days, I also visited a maple sugarworks and bought lovely, smoky Grade B syrup.

And Bella's mother, who happens to be a skilled baker and enthusiastic gardener, sent me home with a loaf of homemade bread and a jar of dried homegrown Roma tomatoes.

The bread is soft and nutty and makes fantastic grilled cheese sandwiches, but it's the dried tomatoes that I'm really excited about.* They're sweet and chewy and wonderfully tangy, and they're wonderful to cook with once you get beyond the urge to eat them straight out of the jar like potato chips.

The following is another in my long line of fishy, garlicky, your-breath-will-knock-out-vampires-at-fifty-paces pasta dishes. The breadcrumbs, odd as though they might sound, are not a mad experiment. They're lifted from Sicilian-style pasta dishes that use cheap breadcrumbs as a supposed substitute for pricey cheese. I'm not quite sure I buy the explanation, but the resulting dish is a little like eating pasta with toasted garlic bread - crunchy, salty, and just a little oily.

Just try not to eat all the dried tomatoes before they make it into the sauce.

Spaghetti with Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies and Toasted Breadcrumbs

You can use storebought breadcrumbs, but they won't taste as good as breadcrumbs you make yourself.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil.

Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add a generous splash of cheap white wine (the kind you really wouldn't drink) and bring to a simmer.

Cut a big handful of sundried tomatoes - the plain kind, not the ones in oil - into thin strips. (This is easier to do with kitchen shears than a knife.)

When the salted water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of spaghetti.

Drop the sundried tomatoes into the pan. Simmer until the tomatoes soften and the wine has reduced by half. Open a can of anchovies in olive oil and add them to the pan. Use a wooden spoon to break them up. Cook until the mixture turns thick and saucy. Turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in another pan. Add half a cup of breadcrumbs and three thinly sliced cloves of garlic. Toast until the breadcrumbs turn golden. Set aside.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain and add it to the pan with the sundried tomatoes. Squeeze over the juice from half a lemon. Add the breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

*I had a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich made with Vermont cheddar and lots of butter on Friday. I finally understand what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

distraction techniques

It's been more than a week again, hasn't it?

Well, I'm not sick, and I haven't been eaten by my reading (yet), so this time I'm going to blame my absence on my laptop.

I've had the same laptop for five years, and it's starting to make noises that suggest that it's headed to the Great Computer Store In The Sky, so I've been leaving it at home and taking notes by hand in class instead. This may be better for my concentration, but it has turned out to have a rather dismal effect on my blogging.

Mea culpa, mea culpa. Can I distract you from my delinquency with some apple raspberry cake?

"Cake" might not be quite the right word for it, but I haven't come up with a better way to describe what is essentially fruit in a pancake batter with baking powder, a not-quite-clafoutis. It's an easy dessert, the sort of thing that you might whip up when you want more than plain fruit, but don't feel like digging out a cookbook and making sure you have all the ingredients and equipment to bake something from a proper recipe.

The results are anything but fancy. It's served right out of the baking pan, so the presentation isn't elegant. The batter-fruit ratio is skewed in favor of fruit, so the slices tend to disintegrate when you transfer them from pan to plate. And when topped with yogurt and honey, they're a thoroughly unphotogenic mess. Probably not the sort of thing you'd want to serve at a dinner party, but just the thing to follow roast chicken or chili or some other solid, unassuming meal.

Apple Raspberry Cake

The French call this type of cooking au pif, literally, "by the nose." All you need to bake it are a few basic ingredients, a pan, a bowl, a whisk, a teaspoon, and a quarter-cup measure if you really, really insist. You can approximate and eyeball your way to the final result, and it'll come out just fine. This works well with ripe plums and other stone fruit, too.

(Serves one for a long time. Will freeze.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Get out a big mixing bowl. Crack in one egg. Add roughly a quarter cup of sugar. You may want a little less or a little more, depending on the sweetness of your fruit. Beat until well combined.

Add a rough teaspoon of baking powder, around three-quarters of a cup of flour, and a big pinch of salt. Beat again until the mixture starts to clump on the whisk.

Pour in a splash of milk. Beat the mixture until it becomes gloopy. Add more milk and keep whisking until the mixture becomes a pourable batter, about the consistency of thin yogurt.

Melt half a stick of butter in a cast-iron or other ovenproof pan big enough to serve as a baking dish.

Meanwhile, take two or three apples, peel them, core them, and cut them into wedges.

Once the butter has melted, swirl it to fully coat the pan, and pour off all the excess into the batter. Beat in the melted butter.

Put the apples into the pan. Scatter a generous quantity of fresh raspberries over the apples. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Pour the batter over the fruit. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

Serve warm. It goes well with Greek yogurt and honey.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

establishing routines

It has apparently been a week since I last posted anything.


Can I claim "actually socializing with other law students" as an excuse?

Despite spending the better part of last year running as far away as possible from law school and everyone related to it, it appears that I interacted enough with a few people to spend time with them outside of class this year.

Allow me to introduce you to Kitty. She and I share two classes. We also share the same twisted sense of humor. Kitty is not much of a cook (she subsists largely on raw vegetables), but she does own a television.

Did I mention that that twisted sense of humor lends itself to an appreciation of House, M.D.?

So we've established a routine. Tuesday evenings, she comes to dinner at my place. After dinner, we go over to her place to watch House.

Thus far, it's turned out to be a good arrangement. Kitty's fondness for raw vegetables means that while she may not do much cooking, she can put together a tasty salad.

Which is just the thing to accompany a goat cheese and sundried tomato quiche.

As autumn settles in and makes itself comfortable, I start thinking about the products of high summer. Sundried tomatoes don't taste all that good when there are fresh, ripe tomatoes in abundance. But once the days grow shorter and the wind carries a chill, sundried tomatoes come into their own.

Sweet-salty and softly chewy, they add warmth and depth to dishes. And when sundried tomatoes are paired with goat's cheese and seasoned with lavender, it's like eating a slice of Provençal summer.

Not a bad way to start an evening with the world's most sarcastic doctor.

Goat's Cheese and Sundried Tomato Quiche

I've been buying goat's cheese from the Crystal Brook Farm stand at the Copley Square Market. It's worth tracking down if you're in Boston.

(Serves one, with leftovers that are good for breakfast.)

Start with your favorite butter pastry recipe. Make enough for an 8-inch tart pan.

Preheat the oven to 350F. If your tart pan is false-bottomed (outer ring with an inner disc of metal, see image) set it on a cookie sheet or other large oven tray. False-bottomed pans are finicky, and if you move them wrong when the pastry is still soft, you can create cracks that will leak when you pour in the egg mixture later.

Roll out the pastry and line the tart pan. Prick the pastry lightly with a fork, cover with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Move the entire tray, pan and all, into the oven. Bake the pastry case blind until it starts to color slightly - about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove the entire tray from the oven and allow to cool.

Take a small quantity of soft goat's cheese - around three or four ounces - and crumble it into the bottom of the tart shell. Sprinkle with herbes de provence. Scatter a few sliced sundried tomatoes over the goat's cheese.

Beat three or four eggs with a little milk or cream and a sprinkling of salt until the mixture is pale yellow in color. Pour the egg mixture into the tart shell.

Carefully transfer the whole tray to the oven. Bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the quiche is set and golden on top. Serve hot, with a green salad on the side.