Monday, January 25, 2010

solving culinary dilemmas

Q: What do you get if you cross a turkey with an octopus?
A: A leg for everyone at Thanksgiving.

Though I'm sure the reality of an eight-legged turkey would be horrifying, the old joke does remind me that I sometimes think the mad scientists are putting their efforts in the wrong place. Pesticide-resistant corn? Tomatoes that won't soften after ripening? Really, if we're going to tinker with genetic codes to produce Frankenfood, the least it could do is solve some culinary dilemmas.

I know it's petty, but I'm sure I can't be the only cook who has ever fantasized about eggs that are all yolk and no white. I'd even settle for consistently double-yolked eggs. Or eggs with a smaller quantity of white. Something, anything to avoid the Tupperware container of leftover egg whites that inevitably ends up in my fridge after I make ravioli or lemon curd.

I know there are solutions. Though I think egg-white omelettes are an affront to breakfast, and find the texture of meringue kisses to be unpleasantly Styrofoam-like, I can make gnudi after I stuff my ravioli, using the egg whites as a binder. Or, if I'm in the mood for something sweet, I can whip up a pavlova.

Unfortunately, freezer space tends to be at a premium after I've made ravioli, so gnudi are difficult to store, and a whole pavlova is a bit much for individual consumption. And so I still find myself needing new ways to get rid of those damn leftover whites.

The latest idea I've seized upon is inspired by macarons, those jewel-toned French petits fours, albeit with considerably less precision. A stiff meringue batter, when blended with crushed nuts, dolloped onto trays, and baked in a hot oven, produces a cookie that has a light, crisp shell, and a chewy, pliable interior. They are on the sweet side, but they're light, and they're perfect for an afternoon snack with a cup of tea.

On second thought, would someone give the mad scientists a call? Tell them they can go back to tinkering with the DNA of corn and tomatoes. The eggs are fine just the way they are.

Delinquent Macarons

There is no fixed list of nuts or flavorings for this recipe. I'm fond of almonds with citrus peel, and hazelnuts with cocoa (pictured above), but feel free to use whatever catches your imagination.

(For every egg white, you'll get about half a dozen macarons. Will keep in an airtight tin for a week or two, though they will start to dry out like classic meringues if you leave them for too long.)

This isn't so much a recipe as a ratio. For every one egg white you're trying to use up, you want one-third of a cup of sugar, and one-third of a cup of nuts. If using cocoa powder, add one tablespoon per egg white. If using any kind of essence, add a half-teaspoon per egg white. And if using fresh citrus zest, one lemon or orange's worth is enough for three or four egg whites.

Once you've figured out your math, dump the nuts in a food processor and blitz until crushed. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line several baking trays with parchment paper.

If you have a stand mixer or other mechanical mixer, combine the egg whites and sugar and let the machine work its magic. If you, like me, are doing this the old-fashioned way, dump the egg whites in a big bowl, add a pinch of salt, and get to work with your balloon whisk.

Once your egg whites are stiff, beat in the sugar a little at a time, followed by whatever flavorings you're using. Add the crushed nuts, and fold them in with a spatula.

Glop golf-ball sized dollops of batter onto your baking tray using a measuring cup or a big spoon, leaving space in between for the macarons to spread. Bake for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until hard to the touch. Allow the macarons to rest on the baking tray for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool. Serve with tea or coffee.

Monday, January 18, 2010

baked pasta and boiler woes

I woke up to perfect silence on Thursday morning.

As a premature curmudgeon who tends to think that the world is too loud, I'm usually grateful for moments of quiet. Perfect silence is a rare and precious commodity. I would have been delighted to lie in bed and savor it, were it not for one tiny detail: perfect silence in my apartment is a sign that the heat isn't working.

I live in an old building, and my apartment is heated by an old-fashioned, cast-iron steam radiator. Though it's a highly effective producer of heat, it also generates a steady stream of gurgling, clanking, and whistling noises. The radiator is only ever quiet when it's off, and I knew it was very much on when I went to bed Wednesday night. Putting a hand out from beneath the covers confirmed my suspicions: the radiator was cold to the touch. Judging by the chilly air in the room, it had been off for several hours.

The radiators are powered by a boiler in the basement, which also happens to be the building's hot water heater. If the heat is out, chances are high that there's no hot water either. And while sponge baths don't faze me, I know from painful experience that it is an absolute nuisance to have to wash dishes by heating water on the stove.

Suffice to say, I was very reluctant to get out of bed. I dragged myself out from beneath the covers only because the second week of the semester is too soon to start skipping class, even for me. I dressed in extra layers, but between the lack of heat and the wait in freezing wind for the T, I was feeling chilled to the bone by the time I got to school.

The classroom, while not unpleasant, was hardly toasty. Coffee helped slightly, but I still didn't want to take off my coat. I spent the entirety of Antitrust class thinking about soup and stew and polenta and other warm, comforting dishes instead of paying attention to the professor's lecture on perfect monopolies.

Thankfully, upon returning home after class, I was greeted by warm air and the radiator's familiar gurgle and clank. Maintenance had fixed the boiler. One hot shower later, I had thawed out, and I felt free to make comfort food without worrying about the logistics of cleanup.

I decided on baked pasta, because the only thing better than plain pasta with lots of melted cheese (one of my favorite comfort foods) is pasta with lots of melted cheese and crispy, crusty edges.

I have two rules when I prepare baked pasta: 1. It's all about the pasta and cheese. 2. Not too much sauce.

This means no strange additions - this is not an anchovy-appropriate pasta dish, for example. It also means cooking up a sauce that is thick, but not heavy.

A mixture of pureed onion and tomato paste may sound peculiar, but it produces a sauce that clings nicely to the pasta without pooling in the bottom of the dish. The onions mellow after simmering, and the tomato paste adds an appealing umami-sweet element.

The finished dish is deceptively moreish. If you're anything like me, you'll be picking at the leftovers when cleaning up, possibly going after the leftovers in the fridge after midnight, and then wondering two days later if it isn't too soon to make it again.

I'm certain it'll make a reappearance before the winter is out. Hopefully, the same cannot be said of my building's boiler woes.

Baked Pasta with Oniony Tomato Sauce

You can use Italian sausage in the sauce, but it's an entirely optional extra.

(Serves one, provided you like leftover baked pasta. Particularly if you like it cold from the fridge for breakfast.)

Take two white onions, cut them up roughly, and blitz in a food processor until you have onion puree. Set aside.

Set a big pot on the stove (large enough to hold both sauce and a half a pound of pasta.) Melt a tablespoon of butter over low heat, and add the onion puree.

(If you're making this pasta with sausage, omit the butter. Take an Italian sausage, remove the casing, and cook over low heat until meat is nicely browned, then add the onion puree.)

Cook, stirring well, until the onions are no longer giving off fumes. Add a can of tomato paste, and stir it in. Add a little water, and keep the sauce at a low simmer.

Bring a big pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and throw in half a pound of penne, ziti, rigatoni, or other short pasta. Cook until the pasta is just a little harder than you want the finished result to be - that is, cook it to al dente if you'd like the baked pasta to be very soft, and cook it until it's still a little raw and floury-tasting if you'd like the baked pasta al dente. Drain (do not rinse); set aside.

Simmer the sauce for another ten to fifteen minutes; add salt to taste. (Go lightly. You'll be adding cheese.) Turn off the heat; add the drained pasta and mix well.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Take a glass or metal baking dish and lightly grease with a little oil or butter. Add the sauced pasta. Cover with one to one-and-a-half cups of grated cheese, exact variety up to you. (I used a mixture of Comte and mild cheddar, because it was what I had on hand.)

Transfer the baking dish to the oven. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until cheese is melted and develops crusty bits.

Remove from oven; allow to cool for five to ten minutes before serving.

Note: If you prefer your pasta heavier on the sauce, use a mixture of tomato paste and crushed or pureed tomatoes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

reason enough for celebration

When the pilot makes his final announcement before descending into JFK airport, I always brace myself.

No, I have no fear of flying. I don't get airsick. And bumpy landings don't affect me. Instead, I take a deep breath and ready myself for the worst when the pilot announces the weather conditions in New York.

If I'm lucky, the temperature is just a little below zero, and there hasn't been much snow. If I'm less fortunate, the temperature is something that means nothing in Celsius or Fahrenheit (beyond a certain point, it's all "too damn cold") and there's a foot of old snow on the ground. If I'm really, truly out of luck, there's been snow, a few warm days, and then a cold snap that's left ice slicks everywhere.

And that's before I even get to Boston.

This time, I was lucky. Cold, but not brutal weather in New York, and I was pleasantly surprised to see clear footpaths when I arrived in Boston. When I woke up the next morning, there was even a blue sky overhead. Best of all, I'm back in my own space, reunited with my kitchen.

Which is all reason enough for celebration - in other words, time to bake.

Winter is when I like to focus on lemon desserts, because the vivid yellow fruits brighten my mood. Lemon curd - a simple mixture of eggs, sugar, and lemon juice, thickened over heat and enriched with butter - is one of my favorite starting points.

Lemon curd can be used as a filling for a tart shell, but it also serves as an excellent (and gluten-free) base for a souffle. Light, fragrant, and satisfyingly lemony, it does a wonderful job of chasing away winter blues. And that may be a reason for a celebration of its own.

Lemon Curd Souffle

This will also work with lime.

(Recipe not for one.)

Prep first. Get out two big bowls, one metal, and one big balloon whisk or electric mixer. Wash everything in hot soapy water and dry thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Lightly butter and sugar a souffle dish.

Separate six eggs. Put four of the yolks in your metal bowl; put the whites in the other. (Leftover yolks can be used for pasta or mayonnaise.)

Fill a small saucepan with half an inch of water, and bring to a simmer. Add half a cup of sugar to the four yolks in your metal bowl, and set it atop the saucepan.

Stir until the sugar dissolves, then whisk in one-third of a cup of lemon juice. (If you're feeling impatient, this can also be done in a heavy-bottomed pan directly over very low heat.) Once it thickens, remove from heat and whisk in two tablespoons butter. Set aside.

Beat the six egg whites with a quarter-cup of sugar until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, glop half the egg whites into the lemon curd mixture, and fold in gently. Add the other half, and fold in gently until no streaks remain.

Spoon the mixture into the souffle dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until light and risen, but still wobbly in the middle. Carve out portions with a big spoon. Serve immediately.