Sunday, January 31, 2016

Turning an Ugly Duckling into a Ugly Swan

I love to bake.  I love to bake cakes and pies in particular.  There is something so homey and satisfying about home baked things.  But let me be clear about something, I am no cake decorator.  As a matter of fact, I am a cake decorating dropout.

A few years back, my sister-in-law and I signed up for classes in the Wilton method of cake decorating.  After the teacher told us she used a hatpin to retrieve stray hairs that fell on her cake while she was decorating, we looked at each other and knew that we would not be returning.  We were too germ-o-phobic to consider such things ( reality though they may be).

As a result of my decoratus interruptus, I am a lousy cake decorator.  If you throw in a particularly crumby and fragile cake, there can be all manner of ugliness in my decorating.  Case in point, my Uncle's birthday cake this weekend.

His favorite cake from days gone by was the Entenmann's Marshmallow Iced Devil's Food cake (non-New Yorkers see this for reference), so I knew I wanted a rich, moist chocolate cake, with a fluffy vanilla buttercream.  With a little web research, I found a NY Times recipe for chocolate "Dump It" cake  (huh, huh, you said dump).  The icing recipe that went with the cake was a sour cream ganache, which was not vanilla and  I had made before and did not like it, so I used my own stand-by buttercream recipe.

The recipe warned that the cake was prone to sticking to the pan due to its intense moistness, so I prepared the pans as instructed, adding a parchment paper liner for extra insurance. This approach worked as the cakes came out of the pans without incident, but I could tell by the crumbs that fell during the removal process, that there would be crumb/frosting infiltration. Generally speaking, this is nothing that a crumb coat and second layer of icing could not address, but this was not the usual crumb containment issue, this was crumbageddon.

After the first round of frosting, I knew I was in deep doo doo. The cake as utterly un-presentable.  I knew I was going to have to MacGuyver that shit.  Here is a little photo essay on the rescue mission that ensued:

 It all started off with a creamy, white frosting that contracted a pox when applied to the cake.

I tried to chill the cake to seal the crumb coat.
And yes, I always have that much vodka in my freezer. 
Don't judge.

Alas, no amount of chilling would seal the disaster sufficiently to keep the frosting clean.
My hero to the rescue.

 I turned the white icing brown to hide the crumb laden disaster beneath the surface.

And voila! A cake that is neither pretty, nor impressive...but also not a total disaster and VERY tasty.  And you wonder why my freezer is filled with vodka?

The real trickery came when I put it on the table.  Pretty glasses and linens distract from lumpy cakes Ooh, look! Shiny object!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Kitchen Tool Giveaway- Entries Closed.-Winner Selected

I am in no way, shape or form an old fashioned girl.  I work full time, drink like a fish, swear like a sailor and fully embrace technology... except when it comes to kitchen tools.

For me, there is nothing like the feeling of a knife in your hand when it comes to chopping and when I make mashed potatoes, I am all about smashing the hell out of them, by hand, with one of these -

...and there had better be lumps.  You heard me. I want the lumps that prove I did the job by hand.  Besides, everything I cook is rustic and home-style and if I happen to be upping my game for a fancy dinner party, I'll smooth my taters out with one of these -

So, when I received an electric tool that exists for the purpose of mashing potatoes I thought of two things:

1) If I use this, I will no longer have a way to get out my hostility toward my coworkers in a healthy fashion.

2) I am too much of an impulsive bull in a china shop to use this tool.  It is meant for one with a far more measured and delicate touch.  I would likely create glue.

So, for those reasons (but mostly number 1), I am giving away a tool called the Dash Masher.  It is brand new in the box and ready for a cook who has far less aggression to resolve than I do.  I have family members that use this and swear by it, but I know it is the wrong tool for me.

To win this item, all you have to do is enter a comment below by 1/24/16, stating that you want the thing and I will add your name to the drawing. I will draw the winner the week of 1/25/16 and will identify the winner in this post. Then, I will instruct you how to get your address to me privately so that I can mail you your Dash Masha.

Good luck!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting Crusty

Easy as pie.  I'd like to know who came up with that saying.  In my mind, there is nothing easy about making a good pie crust.  As a matter of fact, I have spent 25 years working on my pie crust and I only recently feel somewhat comfortable with it.

My long relationship with pie crust has been a rocky one.  Part of the reason for this is that I grew up in the shadow of a woman who was famous for her pies.  The family would swoon over my mother's Pumpkin and Lemon Meringue at Thanksgiving and they would oooh and aaah as she trotted out the Chocolate Cream and Apple pies at Christmas.  These delicious pies hinged on one thing - the crust.

My mom had a perfect touch with pie crust.  Every pie was golden and flaky, with the perfect balance of salt .  It was the ideal, unsweet foil to the luscious, sticky fillings inside.

When I started baking, I tried to replicate my mom's all Crisco pie crust with absolutely no success at all.  I then made it my job to find a pie crust recipe that I could execute successfully and that tasted good enough to use as my go-to pie crust recipe.  I wanted to be the pie maker they ooohed and aaahed over.  Let's just say it took many years of "meh" to get to any form of adulation.

What I found on this journey is that there are truisms and key techniques that are critical to the success of a pie crust.  I also learned my likes and dislikes along the way. Here are some of the things that I learned in the process.

Use cold fat (butter, lard, shortening, whatever, just make it cold)
Cold water (or any other liquid in play)
Mix so that you can see chunks of fat in the dough- they = flaky
Let the completed dough have a little rest in the fridge (as little as 20 min to overnight)

Over mix once the liquid goes in
Roll or handle more than necessary
Add too much or too little liquid, should be enough to pull it together in a ball that is not overly wet, overly sticky or crumbly to the point of being powdery dry.

A mix of fats for flavor, browning, flakiness reasons
A decent pinch of salt or else you just taste flour
Hand mixing with a pastry blender (only because the food processor is heavy and a lot to clean and laziness wins)
Occasionally adding a tablespoon of sugar, depending on the filling being used
Glazing a top crust with an egg wash for shine and browning

Tough pie dough (comes from the aforementioned nevers)
Tasteless pie dough. The mix of fats and appropriate salt level helps prevent this.
When the recipe is scant and does not generously cover the pie tin when rolled out

Now, for a little visual, pie crust interlude;  here are some pies that I made throughout the years, after I learned a few do's and don'ts. The failures were never captured on film, but rather made a hasty exit by way of the kitchen garbage can. No shame in that. Failure=learning. #DareToCook



 (I know, that's two apples, but apple is my all time personal favorite)

There are a million pie crust recipes out there and they are all pretty similar.  This is what I have been doing lately and it provides the mix of flaky and tasty that I am looking for.

Recipe for a Single Pie Crust (double recipe for 2 crusts - Sorry, this is me wearing my Captain Obvious hat)
1 and 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 generous pinch of salt
4 Tablespoons cold butter
4 Tablespoons cold Crisco shortening
3 - 6 Tablespoons of Ice Water

Stir flour and salt together in a deep mixing bowl.  Add cold, cubed butter and shortening and mix together with a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor if you prefer), until the mixture is crumbly and the bits are roughly the size of peas.

Slowly add water, a tablespoon at a time and with a fork, gently fluff the ingredients until they start to come together. The amount of water needed to do this will vary by temperature and weather, so this amount is not consistent.  When the mix holds together in a loose ball, it is ready to go for a rest in the fridge.  Flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap or parchment and allow to relax for as little as 20 minutes up to as long as 1 day.

Take it out and let it sit for 5 min at room temperature before rolling.  Roll dough using a very light dusting of flour to facilitate the process. I like to roll out my dough on parchment paper as this helps ease the transfer process into the pie plate.

Transfer to pie plate and fill or blind bake as per the type of pie being made.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Full of Beans

December was a whirlwind month for us as we decided to take a trip to London and Italy during the first two weeks of December.  This was a wonderful experience as London, Rome and Sorrento are all towns that take Christmas very seriously, so gorgeous lights and decor ruled the day and the festive feeling was palpable.

This was my husband and my first trip abroad without a large group of family and truth be told, it was incredibly relaxing to not be responsible for the entertainment and sustenance of 18 people.  It was a trip made for relaxing.  Our game plan was basically, find something beautiful sit in the nearest piazza with a view of it and drink wine.   We did this over and over for the entire length of the trip, so objective met.  We came home very relaxed and went back to work the very next day.

Naturally, we were as interested in good food as we were in good wine and beautiful sights, so there were many memorable meals consumed and fabulous local products sampled.  The food alone could provide fodder for a dozen different blog posts, but where to start?  As a means of focusing and finding a place to start, I am going to start at the end...of the trip.

The way that I can tell that I have really enjoyed a dish in a restaurant is if the taste of it makes me want to immediately run home and recreate it.  This happened on the last night of the trip.  On recommendation of Elizabeth Minchilli (whose tour of Testaccio may need at least two posts of its own to capture effectively), we went to an adorable pizza place called Emma.  Emma is tucked away in a side alley just a few steps away from Campo De Fiori and thanks to the amazing streak of 60 degree weather that we had, we were able to comfortably dine outside.

Although they are billed as a pizzeria, Emma is a full service restaurant with salads, pastas, meat dishes, vegetarian options and of course, pizza.  Feeling like a something simple and a little lighter, we decided to skip the pizza and order salads and pastas.  I went with the herbed ravioli and my husband got a steaming bowl of pasta fagioli.

When my husband's soup arrived, it was thick and glistening with a flourish of extra virgin olive oil and a snowy shower of grated Pecorino Romano.  It was filled with irregular rags of torn pasta sheets, floating on a creamy river of thick bean puree.  I impulsively jabbed my spoon into his soup and was overwhelmed by the savory depth of flavor that it had. It was so rich and flavorful that I forgot about the plate of steaming hot ravioli that was rapidly cooling in front of me. This was the very first meal that I cooked when I came home.  Here's my version, but first, a beauty shot of it:

That's some food porn, right there.

Pasta Fagioli

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces of pancetta, diced
1/2 medium sized red onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
2 garlic clove, diced finely
1 sprig of  fresh rosemary (about the size of your longest finger)
1 dried bay leaf
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 15.5 ounce cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
32 ounces of chicken broth (canned or homemade)
1/2 of a *1 lb box of lasagna noodles, bashed into small pieces with a rolling pin

Grated pecorino romano and extra virgin olive oil for serving (optional)

*Note: you could also use a 1/2 lb of small pasta like ditalini or elbows and bypass the smashing

Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven over med heat and add the diced pancetta.  Cook until golden brown, then remove the browned pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside.

Lower the heat in the pan to med low and add the carrot, celery and onion.  Add a little salt and pepper to the vegetables to help them sweat in the pan.  Cook until the onions are translucent.  Add the rosemary, red pepper flakes (if using) and diced garlic and saute for about 30 seconds (or until you can smell the garlic).  Turn the heat back to medium and add the white wine.  Scrape up any browned bits of pancetta from the bottom of the pan while cooking the wine down and reducing by about half.

Add the diced tomatoes, drained chickpeas and pancetta to the pan and follow with the chicken broth. Raise the heat and bring to a good boil. Using a slotted spoon, remove about 2 cups the chick peas and set aside.  Once the soup is at a rapid boil, add the pasta and cook to 1 minute under the al dente instructions (ie. if al dente is 12 minutes, cook to 11).

While the pasta is boiling, put the reserved beans in a blender or puree with a stick blender into a smooth paste.  When the pasta reaches its time,  turn off the heat and stir the pureed beans back into the soup.  Cover and set aside for 5-10 minutes before serving (this allows the soup to thicken to a nice consistency).

Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with a sprinkle of romano cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Delicious Sausage Pasta Born out of Confusion

When I invited my in-laws over for dinner, I knew that I would face the challenge of what to make in order to suit all palates.  I don't eat fish, my sister in law doesn't eat beef or anything spicy, my husband hates celery (really, just celery) and my brother in law doesn't express an opinion.  So I began an exhaustive back and forth text chain with my sister in law to determine what foods she and I would enjoy in common (clearly the women are the problem in this particular equation).

What I came up with on the common "yes" list was:
Italian sausage - Yes if not spicy
Cream Sauce - Yes
Nuts - Yes

OK genius, now what?

Here is the recipe that was born of this conundrum:

Fettucine with Sausage and Walnut Cream Sauce

1 Lb Fresh Fettucini (**cooked to the package instructions)
1 Lb Bulk Italian Sweet Sausage
2 Tbs Olive Oil (1 for sauteing sausage, 1 for sauce)
3 Tbs Butter (1 for sauce, 2 for finishing)
1 Medium Shallot (chopped finely)
1 Large Clove of Garlic (unpeeled and smashed)
1/3 cup of Dry White Wine (I used Orvieto Classico)
2 Tablespoons Frangelico Hazlenut Liquer
1 &1/2 Cups Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese
1/2 Cup Finely Chopped Walnuts
Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley (to taste)

In a large saute pan, cook sausage in 1Tbs olive oil over med-high heat, breaking it with a spoon into small pieces as it cooks.  When browned nicely, remove with a slotted spoon to a plate with a few layers of paper towels to drain.

Pour off the sausage grease (leaving the yummy brown sausage bits behind in the pan, of course) and add remaining Tbs of olive oil and 1 Tbs butter. Reduce the heat to medium and  when the butter has melted, add the shallot to the pan.  Cook until the edges start to just brown then drop the smashed garlic clove into the pan.  Saute for a minute or until you can smell the garlic.

Add the white wine and Frangelico and turn the heat up to medium high, scraping any bits of sausage from the bottom of the pan as the wine and liquor reduce. When you have reduced to about a third of the original volume, remove the garlic clove and add the heavy cream.  Continue cooking until the cream starts to thicken a bit, then add the sausage to the pan and throw in about 75% of the walnut pieces, reserving the rest for garnish.  Cook about 2 minutes to heat the nuts and sausage through.
Taste, then *season with salt and pepper.

Add your **cooked pasta to the pan of sauce and toss to coat.  Throw in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, some chopped flat leaf parsley and a handful of Parmesan, again, reserving some of the parsley and cheese for garnish.

Taste for seasoning, adjust if necessary and garnish with remaining cheese, parsley and nuts.

*I season on the conservative side at this step as the pasta and its residual water and the Parmesan will add more salt to the dish when you incorporate it.

**I under cook the pasta by 1 minute as it will cook in the sauce.  I don't strain the pasta, but remove it from the water with tongs, allowing a little of the cooking water to come with it.

This is an original recipe and  is protected under copyright laws.  Please cook and enjoy, but don't publish as your own.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Labor Day Look Back

Today is Labor Day and while the rest of America is grillin and chillin, I am looking back at my history of cooking and thinking about where I go from here. What wild craving will send me into the kitchen to find a way to scratch its itch?  Today it's peach pie.  So, while a peach pie bubbles away in the oven, I am thinking about the things that I have cooked in the last year and wondering why I did not enjoy them more at the time.

One of the things that I find to be less of a saying and more of a truism is that hindsight is 20/20. I know this to be true because in the moment, whenever I am baking or cooking, the defects and minor imperfections are magnified in such a way as to obscure my enjoyment of whatever it is that I am making.  Yet, when I look back at pictures of dishes past or I try to get a sense memory of what it was like to serve and eat a particular item, I almost always recall it with positivity and love.

Sure, there were some clear cut failures that ring out in my memory that no amount of time can glaze over.  Like the time I accidentally made some gorgeous chocolate muffins that had the salt and sugar ratios reversed.  They were picture perfect muffins with a gorgeous crown on them, their moist interior hinted at by the studding of chocolate chips that poked out of them..until you bit into them and they tasted like the Bonneville Salt Flats. My kids particularly enjoy recounting that failure.  Or the dozens of burnt cookies and un-risen cakes that I dumped into the garbage in my earliest attempts at baking.

For today, I will focus on the things that I made over the past year, but at the time, was too myopic to really enjoy.  In honor of Labor Day, her is a photo look back at some culinary labors of love:

Croque Monsieur
Silly Halloween Cupcakes
(not a decorating triumph, but a very delicious cupcake)

 Hand Rolled Cavatelli
(made at a cooking class in Rome)
 One of several Apple Crumb Pies
 Lasagna Bolognese
 Another Apple Crumb Pie
 A couple of Ribeyes getting cozy.
 Antipasto platter.
 An absolutely epic Chili Cheese Dog.
 Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies.
 Mille Crepe Cake
 Mac N Cheese Chili Casserole
 Panna Cotta with Berry Sauce

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Bandwagon Can Bite Me ( A love story and a recipe. Well, a recipe anyway.)

Photo Credit -

At some point, this tough, green lawn ornamentation became America's "it" food.  With me being naturally averse to things that look like landscaping of the plant kind or a lack of pre-bathing suit landscaping of the human kind, this curly cruciferous bundle of old lace and chlorophyll has never found it's way on to my plate. Until very recently, that is.

I have to be honest,  I have purposely avoided Kale at all costs because it's a bandwagon food.  Any food that gets too much hype or that my sister-in-law attributes the high quality of her "movements" to is an immediate NO for me.  I have managed to live a great many years without this "super food" and quite happily, I might add.  Then we went on vacation and I got sideswiped by my husband's order of a kale salad at dinner one night.

Me: Kale salad?  What the *#ck?
Him:  I wanna try it.
Me: It's the substance that Ariel says makes her crap like a show pony.
Him:  Exactly.
Me: You can finish this vacation alone. Waiter!  Another vodka and soda please.
Him:  I want to see what it's all about.
Me:  OK, but you have to sleep in the car tonight.

When our entree salads arrived, I looked down at my bowl of chopped Cobb Salad and realized, I am eating a similar bowl of rabbit food (this was after the chili cheese tater tots as an appetizer, of course).  What's the real difference, other than the fact that his is much greener and looks much more like it was shaved from someone's nether regions?  Let's put mind over matter and try it.

I tentatively stuck a fork into his salad and retrieved a dark green tumble of vegetation.  It looked angry, frizzy and menacing.  My expectation was that it would be as bitter as my 8th grade math teacher and about as enjoyable.  Mr Toscano be damned! It was actually somewhat more tolerable than hearing him prattle on about right angles. My assessment on the spot was that it was not as bitter as I expected and it was nicely dressed (that helped) but chewing through it was somewhere south of a burlap bag in terms of tenderness. It needed a lot of jaw work, but not totally terrible.

My husband, a friend to all vegetables except celery, loved it of course and proclaimed that he will be eating more kale salads going forward.  "Oh goody"  I thought, this gives me more quiet time and less access to the bathroom.  If he is going to eat this, I need to find a way to make it more palatable, so that I can hold my short-order, "everyone eats something different" cooking to a minimum.

So here's what I did to make the topiary tolerable:

Red Cabbage and Kale Slaw w/Sweet Red Onion Vinaigrette
1/2 medium head of red cabbage, shredded, washed and spun dry
1 medium Bunch of kale, stemmed and shredded, washed and spun dry
1/4 of a small red onion, sliced thinly

1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 of a small red onion roughly chopped
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs honey
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Pulse ingredients for dressing in a mini chop or food processor until emulsified.

Pour all vinaigrette over veggies and let sit in fridge for 1 hour to overnight.  Toss and redistribute dressing before serving.

In  closing, I fear that there is little to be concerned with in terms of theft of this recipe, because...kale.  However, it and all other poorly constructed and unpolished writing on this site are, of course, copyrighted.

At the end of the day, kale still has a taste and texture akin to zoysia grass but the dressing is quite tasty and you'll probably crap like a show pony. For some (like the guy that gave me a ring all those years ago and my sister-in-law), that's really all that matters.

Pictures of the festively shredded confetti of plant matter below.

Just so that you don't think I've gone all nuts and granola on ya, I served the kale salad with twice baked, french onion soup stuffed baked potatoes and a big, hairy steak.