Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Daring Bakers/Strudel

So I have been waxing on and on about spring and before I know it, it's already summer in Milan. Not good summer, city summer, I have to study for exams but I don't have A/C and I am in Italy so there isn't A/C anywhere kind of summer; I actually went to the supermarket just to cool off today, because I was so hot kind of summer. Luckily I also had to buy some ingredients for May's Daring Bakers Challenge, so I managed to kill two birds with one stone.

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

I am pretty amazed that I managed to do this Daring Baker's challenge because it is 95º outside, also there's The lack of A/C issue and the fact that my oven/stove is all part of my living room/entire apartment, so I cannot even escape the heat. Usually, I would go downstairs for a bit, but its hotter out there than it is in here with the stove and oven on. I know, I know, I am a wimp, for some of you when it's 95º out you're probably wearing a hat and gloves. Seriously though, this is city hot, the very worst kind, it's like the tarmac sucks up all the heat and then spits it back at you. I guess us bakers would call it a convection oven, the heat circulates perfectly (unfortunately). Anyhow, I persevered, and reminded myself that I am 20 and that if anyone should be able to do this, I should.

The moment I read the challenge, I could tell that this wasn't a walk in the park. In itself the strudel dough is not a challenging one, but rolling it out, well that was going to take a good bit of patience and effort. Luckily, I waited a bit to start this challenge so I kind of knew what was coming my way, holes are inevitable, it may wrinkle a bit, an exact 2' x 3' rectangle may not be possible. So I decided to just have fun with the dough and not worry. That totally worked for me, I was playing around with it, lifting it, shaking it, doing the hokey pokey etc...and what I ended up with was practically hole-less and tissue thin. Success.

Because the freedom in this recipe was in the filling, I decided to make a savory strudel with Roasted Beets, Candied Walnuts and Goat Cheese. This is a pretty standard combination these days, but I thought that it would be a unique and interesting change for a strudel. I basically roasted about 4 cups of julienned beets with some salt and olive oil, "Candied" some walnuts (I am going to be honest here, I have no idea how to work with sugar/caramel, so this is kind of a boot-leg version but good nonetheless), and then topped the whole thing with hunks of creamy goat cheese.
In the end, I didn't love my filling, I mean the idea was good, but the execution not so much, there was not enough cheese and it was slightly too sweet. I think I would have been better off with salty walnuts. I loved the crust though, i just ate all around the OK filling, and the whole point of this challenge was the tricky dough right? That being said, I am going to give you guys the orignal recipe for Apple Strudel, because it is sure to be good. If you like my idea and try it yourself let me know how it works out! Unfortunately, this week between exams and the heat I don't have the courage to try out any new combinations, but I really can't wait to give this another whirl, when I do, of course I will blog about it.

Apple strudel

from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

2 tablespoons (30 ml) golden rum
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 g) sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted, divided
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) fresh bread crumbs
strudel dough (recipe below)
1/2 cup (120 ml, about 60 g) coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds (900 g) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ inch-thick slices (use apples that hold their shape during baking)

1. Mix the rum and raisins in a bowl. Mix the cinnamon and sugar in another bowl.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

3. Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Make the strudel dough as described below. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Mix the apples with the raisins (including the rum), and the cinnamon sugar. Spread the mixture over the walnuts.

4. Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself. Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

5. Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

Strudel dough
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary.
Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally.
Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can.
Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors. The dough is now ready to be filled.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Flavors of Spring/Fava and Pea Salad

There are weeks when I doubt myself more than usual, when all I want is some sort of external justification, I want someone or something to give me a reason to believe that everything is going to be OK, that people really do like me, and that it's inner beauty that counts. On weeks like these, I miss home, and when I miss home I do my best to bring home to me. Every spring, when the cherry blossoms start blooming and the baby ducks are following their mother in the 72nd street pond, my mother is insistent on weekly trips to the farmer's market. Aside from tradition, this is pure indulgence, whoever said that only cakes and sweets are indulgent, is just plain wrong. I am the first person to proclaim myself as a sweet tooth, but when I find the freshest, seasonal fruits and vegetables I can't help but think that they are the kings and queens of all things edible, that nothing, no matter how elaborate can surpass the flavors of farm to plate.
The one thing that my mom always buys without fail, are fava beans. Maybe it's that they remind her of her Italian roots, maybe it's that they taste like spring-in-a-pod, no matter what it is, they are always delicious. During our family reunion, we all sat around in the living room, peeling (and then peeling again) fresh favas, popping them one by one into our mouths, desperate to make the process go faster. But favas, like the arrival of Spring, can't be rushed. The methodical double peeling may seem tedious to some, but to me it is soothing, and when I taste the fruits of my labor it is worth the time spent doing it. Although I also enjoy peeling them alone, giving myself time to reflect, the best is sitting side by side with a good friend or a loved one, chatting and not seeing the time fly as the daunting pile of pods slowly dinishes. This also defines the stereotypical image of Italian women, sitting outside their homes doing some kind of handiwork, while chatting away with their neighbors. It's all part of a really beautiful experience, of nurturing, providing and creating. Nurturing the vegetables, providing food for your family and creating friendships and relationships that never really go away.
So, on weeks when the blue sky just doesn't seem blue enough and the heat is a burden rather than a joy, I turn to the flavors of home and slowly, everything falls back into place. This fava bean and sweet pea salad is a springtime staple in my house, the smoky pancetta is an ideal backdrop for the sweet peas and slightly more bitter favas. It is also, incredibly easy, because like I said, when it comes to good vegetables, little to no work is need to make it good.

My Mother's Spring Fava and Pea Salad
serves. 8
Time: about 40 mins., excluding fava peeling.
•Frozen favas can replace fresh, just remember that they also have a skin that needs to be peeled off. Same goes for the peas (minus the peeling part).
•This recipe can easily be expanded or diminished, and the ingredients can be changed pretty easily, chopped asparagus and green beans are other great alternatives.

• 3 c. sweet peas
• 3 c. peeled favas
• 1/4 c. cubed pancetta
• 3 med. shallots, thinly sliced.
• a few tbsp. olive oil
• sprinkle of coarse sea salt

1) Boil the peas and favas in salty water for 5-6 minutes each. Until, they are cooked through but firm. Set aside to cool.
2) Render the fat from the pancetta, until it is crispy. Spoon the pancetta onto a plate. Add 2 tbsp olive oil to the pan with the remaining fat.
3) Gently caramelized the shallots in the same pan.
4) Combine everything in a large serving bowl. Add a bit more olive oil and salt as necessary.
5) Can be served right away, or can be prepared the night or morning before and refrigerated.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Just Keep Trying/Whole Wheat Bread

So, I was going to hold off on this post for a bit, but based on how horrendous my ricotta gnocchi photos were I decided I had to prove myself as a pseudo-photographer. Also, I really want some prettier pictures to be at the top of screen.
As I have discussed in previous posts, I have a really really difficult time making bread. I wish I could understand why, and I am starting to learn that I don't knead properly, or enough. The bread today was pretty good though and I am feeling like my practice is finally paying off. I don't know quite why but I always seem to choose bread as my ultimate procrastination method. I think that the long intervals of non-work time are perfect for this because rather than constantly being busy, I can study while the bread is rising and take breaks to tend to it.
Studying for exams has been even harder this time around, because aside from the beautiful weather calling to me, I am starting to feel the end of the school year. For the first time ever, the end of the school year makes me want to cry. Yesterday, I bought my ticket to go home from Milan, I held off for a few weeks just to keep living with the idea that maybe the end of my year here wasn't creeping up. However, I had to face reality (and cheaper fares) yesterday, and it was such a sad moment. Buying my ticket online definitely didn't have the same dramatic effect, as say going to a travel agency would have, but still I was heartbroken.
The funny thing is that this weekend was kind of a roller coaster, one of those weekends when I would have liked to be home, to feel safe and coddled and not so exposed. Despite this moment of insecurity this weekend though, I just really feel that everything is starting to make sense here, to fall into place. I feel like I belong, I feel like people want me here and I feel like I have a life here. Leaving just as things are starting to get good seems like I am cutting something short, preventing a great thing from becoming even greater. And because of my mixed emotions, I gave myself permission to interrupt my studying and make bread. As usual, even if it was just for a mere moment, everything made sense.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Daring Cooks/Ugly Pictures

This month's, and the inaugural, Daring Cook's challenge was to make Ricotta Gnocchi inspired by the recipe in Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Aside from my lame, embarrassing photos the challenge was a smashing success. I had such a fun time through the whole process of making these, and the result was little clouds of goodness floating on my plate (I repeat, this is NOT represented by my pictures.) I decided to make an event out of this challenge and invited 10 friends over for dinner. Not only was I amazed that I fit 10 people into my apartment, but also that I made 120 gnocchi and fit them all in my mini fridge.

Yup, now you get it that's the fridge in my "angolo cucina" (tr. kitchen corner). It is just that, a corner of my living room, but last night, I was pretty glad that my kitchen is in my living room. Although the gnocchi were pretty straightforward they did include a decent amount of hands-on time right before serving, which would have kept me in the kitchen and away from guests, that is if I had a kitchen. So not only did I get to make something new and tasty but I also got to spend time with my friends. Given that I was making so many gnocchi and that this is a Daring Cook's challenge I decided to make three different types of: Lemon Scented Gnocchi with Anise Seed Butter (picture above, yuck, don't scroll up), Smoked Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula Pesto, and Classic Ricotta Gnocchi with Butter and Sage. I wish I could pick a favorite but they were all really tasty and different, personally I was all about the smoked ricotta one's because they were the furthest from anything I have ever tasted before. Also, I got the ricotta at my family reunion so I was excited to use it. Luckily my guests all had different favorites and before I got the chance to take a decent picture, I swear that's the reason, they were all gobbled up.

I really hope some of you are inspired to try this recipe yourselves, because not only is it manageable but it's also fun and it leaves you feeling really accomplished, I mean its not very often I can say I made 120 of something. Like Mitch Hedberg said, "I like rice. Rice is great if you're hungry and want 2000 of something."

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi
Source: From The Zuni Café Cookbook.
Yield: Makes 40 to 48 gnocchi (serves 4 to 6)
Prep time: Step 1 will take 24 hours. Steps 2 through 4 will take approximately 1 hour.

• fresh ricotta. If you can find it, use it. Fresher=better. Always.
• make sure the ricotta is well drained, this is just going to make your life easier. I drained mine for 2 days, but 24 hours will do.
•watch a video, it helps you get an idea of what the forming part should look like.

For the gnocchi:

1 pound (454 grams/16 ounces) fresh ricotta (2 cups)
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches of chopped lemon zest (all optional)
½ ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about ¼ cup very lightly packed)
about ¼ teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)
all-purpose flour for forming the gnocchi

Step 1 (the day before you make the gnocchi): Preparing the ricotta.
If the ricotta is too wet, your gnocchi will not form properly. In her cookbook, Judy Rodgers recommends checking the ricotta’s wetness. To test the ricotta, take a teaspoon or so and place it on a paper towel. If you notice a very large ring of dampness forming around the ricotta after a minute or so, then the ricotta is too wet. To remove some of the moisture, line a sieve with cheesecloth or paper towels and place the ricotta in the sieve. Cover it and let it drain for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can wrap the ricotta carefully in cheesecloth (2 layers) and suspend it in your refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours with a bowl underneath to catch the water that’s released. Either way, it’s recommended that you do this step the day before you plan on making the gnocchi.

Step 2 (the day you plan on eating the gnocchi): Making the gnocchi dough.

To make great gnocchi, the ricotta has to be fairly smooth. Place the drained ricotta in a large bowl and mash it as best as you can with a rubber spatula or a large spoon (it’s best to use a utensil with some flexibility here). As you mash the ricotta, if you noticed that you can still see curds, then press the ricotta through a strainer to smooth it out as much as possible.

Add the lightly beaten eggs to the mashed ricotta.

Melt the tablespoon of butter. As it melts, add in the sage if you’re using it. If not, just melt the butter and add it to the ricotta mixture.

Add in any flavouring that you’re using (i.e., nutmeg, lemon zest, etc.). If you’re not using any particular flavouring, that’s fine.

Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the salt.

Beat all the ingredients together very well. You should end up with a soft and fluffy batter with no streaks (everything should be mixed in very well).

Step 3: Forming the gnocchi.

Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. When it boils, salt the water generously and keep it at a simmer. You will use this water to test the first gnocchi that you make to ensure that it holds together and that your gnocchi batter isn’t too damp.

In a large, shallow baking dish or on a sheet pan, make a bed of all-purpose flour that’s ½ an inch deep.

With a spatula, scrape the ricotta mixture away from the sides of the bowl and form a large mass in the centre of your bowl.

Using a tablespoon, scoop up about 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter and then holding the spoon at an angle, use your finger tip to gently push the ball of dough from the spoon into the bed of flour.

At this point you can either shake the dish or pan gently to ensure that the flour covers the gnocchi or use your fingers to very gently dust the gnocchi with flour. Gently pick up the gnocchi and cradle it in your hand rolling it to form it in an oval as best as you can, at no point should you squeeze it. What you’re looking for is an oval lump of sorts that’s dusted in flour and plump.

Gently place your gnocchi in the simmering water. It will sink and then bob to the top. From the time that it bobs to the surface, you want to cook the gnocchi until it’s just firm. This could take 3 to 5 minutes.

If your gnocchi begins to fall apart, this means that the ricotta cheese was probably still too wet. You can remedy this by beating a teaspoon of egg white into your gnocchi batter. If your gnocchi batter was fluffy but the sample comes out heavy, add a teaspoon of beaten egg to the batter and beat that in. Test a second gnocchi to ensure success.

Form the rest of your gnocchi. You can put 4 to 6 gnocchi in the bed of flour at a time. But don’t overcrowd your bed of flour or you may damage your gnocchi as you coat them.

Have a sheet pan ready to rest the formed gnocchi on. Line the sheet pan with wax or parchment paper and dust it with flour.

You can cook the gnocchi right away, however, Judy Rodgers recommends storing them in the refrigerator for an hour prior to cooking to allow them to firm up.

Step 4: Cooking the gnocchi.

In the largest pan or pot that you have (make sure it’s wide), bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil (you can use as much as 3 quarts of water if your pot permits). You need a wide pot or pan so that your gnocchi won’t bump into each other and damage each other.

Once the water is boiling, salt it generously.

Drop the gnocchi into the water one by one. Once they float to the top, cook them for 3 to 5 minutes (as in the case with the test gnocchi).

My Variations

•Lemon Anise:
Exclude the sage. Add a heaping teaspoon of lemon zest. For sauce melt a stick of butter with 3 tbsp anise seeds and pour over prepared gnocchi.

•Smoked Ricotta:
Replace half the ricotta with smoked ricotta. Exclude sage.
Make an arugula pesto by combining, 4 c. arugula, 1/4 c. parmiggiamo reggiano, 1/4 c. pine nuts, 1/4 c. olive oil, in a blender, blend until smooth add olive oil as needed.
Pour over prepared gnocchi.

Follow the recipe. For the sauce melt 1 stick of butter with a 1/4 cup of chopped sage, pour over cooked gnocchi.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Family/I have never eaten so much in my life

Part of me wishes I had more food pictures to show for the weekend, to prove that the following story is true. I'm asking you to trust me and enjoy the picture of my two cousins walking towards my uncle's delightful house after a morning at the market.

The thought of family reunions usually makes me cringe. Aside from the fact that they usually involve more fighting than getting along, for me, the term conjures up images of oddly composed fruit and cheese skewers, gloppy chili and orange creamsicle jello. I'm not exactly sure why I think this, because I have neither had creamsicle jello nor a family reunion.

Well, not until last weekend that is, when I finally understood why families even bother reuniting. And I promise it was not just the food that did it (although that definitely didn't hurt). It was the wine. Ha. No, but really, the time outside the requisite 6 hours of eating per day, was nice, no more than nice, it was fun!

Lucky for me, my family is Italian, which means only one thing: good food. When I say Italian, I mean in Italy, the real deal. So when we landed in Calabria, where I am 99% sure that no one has ever even heard of creamsicle jello, I knew I was in for a special weekend. What they do know in Calabria is that the woodsy freshness of wild mint makes a great gelato, and that frying hunks of yeasty bread dough tastes better than baking it, and that ricotta is meant to be eaten straight out of the wooden basket it was made in the same morning. So although southern Italy may be behind in some regards, when it comes to food it offers fearless dishes with flavors bolder than any I have tasted.

As I was saying, I was really having such a great time discovering new places and getting to know new people. Not just people, but family, who will always welcome me into their homes and offer a hand when a hand is needed. Some of the "marry-ins" made sure to remind us that they do not share chromosomes with the rest of us--so we all get along but mostly because we recognize and accept each others' nuttiness--but I am pretty sure that they wish they were blessed enough to be born into a family like mine.

And although I may never learn why potatoes in Calabria actually taste like potatoes; I did learn that my great-uncle knows how to roast them to perfection. I may never understand the art of thin and tender ravioli like the pork and anise ones I had; I do understand that although my nonna never listens to anyone, she knows us all better than we think. And even if I am never lucky enough to eat as well as I did last weekend; I am lucky because I got to spend time with 25 irraplaceable people, who easily make this world a friendlier place to live in.