December 30, 2010

Homemade Fresh Mozzarella

Did you know you can make your own fresh mozzarella at home? You can! I am very pleased to bring you this post with the permission of the New England Cheese making Supply Company, benevolently ruled by Ricki the Cheese Queen. Ricki Carrol is also the author of Home Cheese Making, the first book (and one of the best) I have read on the subject. I bought this outstanding book seven years ago and went around telling all my friends I wanted to move to a farm and raise goats and make cheese (hey, there's still time...). The New England Cheese making Supply Company sells equipment, ingredients, kits, books... a veritable wonderland of cheese. Check it out, y'all!

Before we get started, I want to tell you that a) I am not a cheese making expert, I am an extreme novice and b) I did not find this to be easy-peasy- but I hope my mistakes and trial and error will help you have success faster!

To make my fresh mozzarella, I used one of the recipes that is included in 'Ricki's Cheese making Kit for Mozzarella and Ricotta,' shown here (left). I used the recipe that calls for instant non-fat milk and heavy cream. Why did I use this recipe? A few reasons- first, the non-fat instant dry milk (until you mix it with water, of course), does not take up any room in your refrigerator, second, you can have it on hand and make cheese when the mood strikes you and finally, this may be one of the most important, you may not have access to 'good' milk. Since this blog reaches people that live in may different areas, I thought it would be best to use ingredients that would be the easiest and most realistic for everyone.

If you are interested in using fresh milk, however, here's the 411. What do I mean by 'good' milk? A few things- home cheese making requires milk that has not been pasteurized at a high temperature. You may have noticed on your grocery shelves many dairy products that are "ultra-pasteurized." This is bad news for the home cheese maker- pretty much everything marked "ultra-pasteurized" is unusable (with the very small exception of the heavy cream that can be used in the instant non-fat milk recipe). Why is this? It's because the heat changes the milk proteins and they will no longer do what they need to do in the cheese making process- basically your curd wont form properly. What can you do about this? A few things- some grocery stores, Whole Foods is a good example, make an effort to carry locally produced, low-temperature pasteurized (and non-homogenized) milk. Purchase milk that is either labeled 'low temperature pasteurized' or just 'pasteurized,' but keep in mind that without knowing the temperature range for the pasteurization, it's possible the temperature was still too high. Unfortunately, you'll just have to find out by trying!

What's the deal with homogenization? That just means that the milk particles have been passed through very fine holes and that the fat particles in the (cow) milk were made smaller and therefore it no longer separates. Goat milk has finer particles, but that's another story (keep an eye out for the goat milk panna cotta recipe I'm working on). Non-homogenized milk is also called 'cream-top.' Homogenization does not have an impact here- you can use homogenized or non-homogenized milk.

Let's begin! Here's what you need:

Large, stainless steel pot with a lid

Stainless, wide ladle with holes (I got mine at Harris Teeter, shown at left, but has one too)

Heavy rubber gloves, new (like for washing dishes that can withstand high heat)

A very fine wire mesh sieve or cheesecloth draped over a larger mesh sieve

Non-chlorinated water (16 1/4 cups)

Dairy thermometer (has a lower range than meat thermometers, you need something that will show you from 80-105 degrees Fahrenheit)

Here's the recipe using the instant non-fat milk:

Fresh Mozzarella from Scratch

15 cups instant non-fat milk (made using non-chlorinated water)
1 cup heavy cream (ultra-pasteurized ok)
1 cup non-chlorinated water with 2 tsp. citric acid dissolved
1/4 cup non-chlorinated water with 1/4 rennet tablet dissolved (or 1/4 tsp. liquid rennet)
1/2-1 tsp. cheese salt or kosher salt (optional)
(recipe used with permission of New England Cheese making Supply Company)

Don't mix your citric acid or the rennet yet- wait until it's time in the recipe! Here we go! Following the directions on your instant non-fat milk's box, make 15 cups of milk using non-chlorinated water. How important is it to use non-chlorinated water? Well, it won't work if you don't! Chlorinated water renders rennet useless and basically nothing will happen... Ok! Moving on! Let this milk sit in the refrigerator either overnight or for at least 6 hours.

Pour the milk into the large, stainless steel pot you are going to use and place on the stove, but don't turn on the stove yet. Mix in the 1 cup of heavy cream. With the ladle you have, one of the most effective ways to mix is to keep the ladle underneath the surface and move it in an up and down motion. Because of the holes and wide area, this is very effective. It's also the technique you'll you use later when you add the rennet. Ok! So we've mixed our milk and heavy cream well. Now, in a measuring cup, combine the 1 cup of non-chlorinated water and the 2 tsp. citric acid, stir until dissolved. Pour into the milk and cream, stirring well. Turn on the stove and heat at a medium-low heat, while stirring, to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

This will take a little while- stir often and take the temperature every couple of minutes to see how it's progressing. I wait until I've hit 80 degrees to mix the rennet and the water- the reason being that if you mix rennet with water (either the tablet or the liquid form) it will loose its effectiveness after 30 minutes. Ok! So you've been stirring and the milk and cream have been heating up and when you hit 90 degrees, remove from the heat source, take the rennet that has been mixed with the water and pour in, vigorously mixing with the up and down motion discussed earlier for 30 seconds only. A few thoughts on this step- if you're using a rennet tablet piece, make sure it is fully dissolved and do NOT stir more than 30 seconds, you'll be tearing the curds into small pieces as they form and effectively making ricotta looking curds...

Cover the pot and let sit for at least 5 minutes, I let mine sit for about 30 minutes since the curds were somewhat soft at first. So here's the deal with curds... if it's working, after 5-30 minutes your pot will look like a large thing of custard with fairly clear liquid on the sides. You can check if your curds are firm enough in two ways, the first, just use your (clean) fingers to touch it on the side to see if you can separate it gently from the whey (that's the liquid) or, second, take a long narrow knife and insert it into the curd at an angle and lift up. If the curd separates with a distinct line and doesn't kind of crumble wetly, that's called a clean break and you are in business my friend! What if your curds are not that firm? A few things- first, let them sit a while longer. In this example I've photographed for you, I used liquid rennet and my curds were not super firm. They were acceptable enough, however, to separate from the whey and stretch into a ball of mozzarella. You'll have to make that distinction for yourself. You can try two things if your curds are not very firm, let them set longer, or start over and use more rennet.

So let's assume you are AWESOME and you have outstanding curds (I know you will), take a long, narrow knife that will reach to the bottom of the pot (I use a bread knife) and cut your curds in a grid pattern (left). Each grid piece should be about an inch and a half long. They kind of look like tofu floating around. Next you are going to return the pot to the stove and heat until it reaches 105 degrees. Stir it a little, but not much and very carefully, because you don't want to cut the curds apart. Taking the temperature of this now is effectively taking the temperature of the whey, that is ok!

Alright, so we've reached 105 degrees- I think methods can vary a little for this next step, what I found effective was to place a very fine mesh sieve over a bowl and using my ladle, scoop up some curds and place them in the mesh sieve. If the curds are large enough and holding together, the whey will probably drain without any help. If the curds are not super firm, you may need to press a little with your hands or the back of the ladle. Press gently and make sure your mesh sieve is very fine, otherwise little pieces of curd may be forced through. Don't have a fine mesh sieve? Use some cheesecloth lining a colander over a bowl to achieve the same thing. Place your curds, once sufficiently drained, into a microwavable bowl. You'll probably need to drain the curds in batches, so once they are all drained and in the bowl, microwave for 1 minute.

Time to put on your cheese gloves! My cheese gloves are the same type of rubber gloves I use to wash dishes, but, they are new, have only been used for cheese and I've labeled them with a sharpie so I don't get the gloves mixed up. After the curds have been microwaved for 1 minute, remove them from the microwave and either using the fine sieve drain them again, or, if they are holding together enough, just drain the whey from the bowl, the curds will have released a little more whey while heating. Add the cheese (or kosher) salt to the curds and mix either with your gloved hands or a spatula. I like 1/2 tsp. of salt. Place the curds back in the bowl and microwave for 30 seconds.

You are now ready to stretch your cheese!!! The cheese should now stretch and pull easily, like taffy. Stretch it several times- mozzarella is a 'pulled' cheese and without these motions, your finished product won't have the right texture and bounciness. Stretch and either a) form into one or two large ovals or b) form into small bit sized balls (called boccaccini). I've read that you can also form a braid, I'm not skilled enough for this yet, but if you can, excellent work and you have my extreme admiration! Take your cheese and place in water that is 50 degrees for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, place it in ice water for 15 minutes. Either eat immediately or store in plastic wrap or an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Congratulations! You are a cheese maker!!! You are so awesome!!!

Where can I buy a cheese making kit? You guessed it-

Your cheese making kit will include: citric acid, rennet tablets, cheese salt, dairy thermometer, cheese cloth and recipe booklet. Remember to keep your rennet tablets in the freezer! If you have liquid rennet, remember to refrigerate it! The citric acid and cheese salt may be stored at room temperature.

How do I know if my water is chlorinated? I think most water is- so buy some spring water at the grocery store.

December 29, 2010

Panna Cotta with Goat Milk and Buttermilk with Lychee Rose Syrup

Panna cotta is so delicious- and so easy! If this isn't already in your dessert repertoire, it should be! What's also wonderful about panna cotta is that is can be made in advance- in fact, you kind of need to, since it takes a while to 'set.' Here's a version I made recently that used goat milk and buttermilk.

Why goat milk? I have two words for you- fat particles. Did you know that goat milk has higher fat content than cow milk? Not only that, but the fat particles are smaller and therefore they stay evenly distributed through the milk, which is what gives everything goaty its lush, rich flavor. Yes, I am getting goaty with it. Before you get worried this panna cotta tastes like chevre, it doesn't- in fact, when you taste it, you'll be surprised it contains goat milk and buttermilk because all you taste is creamy richness...

Panna Cotta
2 Tbsp. water
2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 cups goat milk
1/4 tsp. vanilla powder

Pour the water into a small bowl or cup. Sprinkle the unflavored gelatin over the water. Let this rest for a few minutes and in the meantime, combine the heavy cream and 1/2 cup of sugar in a small sauce pan over medium low heat. Take the 1/2 of a vanilla bean and cut a slit lengthwise down the bean. Peel back either side so that you are looking at all the tiny seeds inside. Use the blunt edge of your knife to scrape them out as best you can, adding them to the heavy cream and sugar mixture. Also add the scraped vanilla bean. You will have the best luck using a whisk to mix this- now because of the vanilla bean's seeds and later because of the gelatin. Bring the cream, sugar and vanilla bean mixture to a simmer, then remove from heat. Immediately add the gelatin, you may need to use a spatula to scrape it out of its bowl, it will be fairly solid. Whisk well, you want the gelatin to dissolve evenly. (Don't be shy about letting the milk and sugar mixture bubble a little bit, it needs to be hot enough to dissolve the gelatin.)

In a separate bowl, possibly with a pouring spout, combine the buttermilk, goat milk and vanilla powder. Add the cream mixture and stir well. Taste the mixture and determine whether or not you'd like to add the additional 1 Tbsp. of sugar (I do). Mix well, then pour into ramekins. This makes 8 generously sized portions. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. As you are pouring, you'll notice the vanilla bean seeds seem unevenly distributed. Just try your best to spread them around the ramekins evenly. What will happen is that the seeds will sink to the bottom of the ramekins anyhow, making an interesting pattern when you turn out the panna cotta later. Don't have ramekins? Not a problem. Use a rectangular or square cake or brownie pan, no greasing necessary. After it has set, use a knife to cut square portions and a spatula to help you remove them. The ideal height of panna cotta is about 1 1/2" deep, if you go much taller, they kind of can't sustain their own weight once on a serving plate. In either the ramekins or the rectangular pan, this will be best if you let it set overnight. It's done when it has the texture and bounciness of jello. Although panna cotta means cooked cream, it's really done with gelatin. We LOVE panna cotta at our house, even baby!
You may eat this panna cotta by itself or with a small amount of this syrup (the recipe below).

Lychee Rose Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 20 oz. can lychee, drained
1/2 Tbsp. rose syrup

In a small sauce pan, combine the water, sugar and lychee over medium heat. Stir occasionally as the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to medium-high and gently boil, uncovered for 15 minutes. Strain using a colander or sieve and refrigerate. Once cooled, stir in the rose syrup.

Once your panna cotta is 'set,' turn it out onto the serving plate and top with a small amount of syrup. Enjoy!

A few thoughts about lychee... I love lychee, they are so delicious! If you aren't familiar with lychee, they are a fruit that originated in southern China. During the summer, you can sometimes find them fresh in the produce section. They are small and round, have a hard outer shell that is light to dark pink and has a 'crackled' appearance. This shell should be removed and inside the fruit has ivory, opaque flesh. Inside the fruit is a black large seed (don't eat the shell or the seed). Lychee is available year round in cans, usually in the Asian section of the supermarket. These will already be peeled and seeded for you. Sometimes lychee is mistakenly referred to as a 'lychee nut.' This is not correct, and actually refers to a dried version of the lychee fruit. If you are incredibly fortunate, you may also have longan available in the summer at your supermarket. Longan, which means dragon eye, is a similar fruit with a more delicate flavor that is similar in appearance but the outer color of the shell is dark yellow. Longan are usually a little smaller than lychee. Lychee may also be spelled lizhi, which is the technically correct Mandarin Chinese spelling.
What if you find yourself with an overwhelming urge to wear black pajamas like a cat burglar and sneak into your neighbor's backyard to steal lychee from their trees? Well, you would not be the first, my friend...

December 27, 2010

Gingerbread Little Piggies!

Gingerbread is just wonderful, isn't it? Here's a gingerbread cookie recipe that has wonderful flavor- and depending on the size of your cookies and cooking time, you can determine how hard or soft you want your cookies! This post was inspired by my Mom, who has a new found love for gingerbread after a recent trip to Germany around Christmastime. She brought back some lebkuchen, a variety of German gingerbread, which were so delicious! She decided she liked the orange flavored lebkuchen the best. While these are not really lebkuchen, the vibrant orange flavor inspired me!

You may be wondering... why would you want gingerbread cookies in the shape of pigs? Isn't the right question 'why wouldn't you want gingerbread cookies shaped like pigs? Or lobsters for that matter? Go crazy people!' I for one like to make cookies in unusual shapes... Isn't is a little bit fun?

5 1/2 cups flour (plus more for rolling)
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. mace
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/4 tsp. allspice
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
11 Tbsp. unsalted butter (room temperature)
2/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses (measured in a liquid measuring cup), not black strap
zest of one whole orange
1 egg (room temperature)
1/4 cup buttermilk (full fat if possible)
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. orange extract

In the bowl of a mixer, combine the butter and shortening. Add the sugar, molasses and orange zest, mix well. Use a spatula if you need to- there may not yet be enough in the bowl to make it all mix well together. Add the egg and buttermilk and mix. In a small cup, combine the water and baking soda, add to the butter and shortening mixture.

In a separate bowl, combine 5 cups of flour with the cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, mace, cardamom and allspice. Add the flour and spices, but not all at once, to the butter and shortening mixture. A sticky dough will form. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour to the dough and mix. The dough will be pretty sticky, but will hold together. Separate into three portions, wrap each portion in cling wrap and refrigerate for at least a few hours.

Once your dough is sufficiently chilled, preheat your oven to 350 and position your rack in the center. Using a little flour underneath the dough and spreading a little over the top of the dough, roll out one of the three portions of dough. What's great about this dough is that it isn't hard once it is chilled, so you can pretty much roll it out right out of the fridge. The downside of this, though, is that you have a limited amount of time to roll it and get your shapes cut out. If your dough is too sticky, use more flour, you can even spread flour over the rolling pin. If your dough is too soft, chill it again, maybe using the freezer if you want to speed it up. Use a spatula if you need to to transfer your cookies to the baking sheet.

Now these little pig shapes, which are so cute, don't you think? are very small. So if you are making larger cookies, you'll need to adjust your baking time upward just a tad. So go ahead and cut out your adorable cookie shapes and place them on a parchment lined baking sheet. If you have more to do before you bake them, pop the cookies that have already been cut out but not baked back in the fridge so they'll keep their shapes nicely!

Before you bake your cookies, you can decorate them! Use colored sugar or sprinkles- I made my little piggies pink with some beautiful pink sugar crystals. So if your cookies are tiny, like these little pigs, which might be and 1 1/2" long, bake for just 8 minutes at 350. When you take them out of the oven, let them rest on the baking sheet for just a minute or two before using a spatula to transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy! These little piggies may become a favorite!

December 13, 2010

Ode to Pimento Cheese

Love pimento cheese? Sing its praises with this nifty poem!

Honey Lavender Gelato

Homemade gelato, yay!!! Gelato is actually not that difficult to make once you have the technique down! I started making gelato a few years ago and once I figured out the basic recipe and technique (basically you have to keep your egg yolks from being heated too fast) you can pretty much flavor it however you'd like! Which got me thinking... We used to eat several years ago at this wonderful Argentine restaurant that had honey lavender gelato as a dessert. I never saw it in stores, so I figured if we wanted to eat it, I'd probably have to make it!

Honey Lavender Gelato
3 cups whole milk
1 Tbsp. honey
1/8 cup lavender (dried flowers)
pinch sea salt
4 egg yolks (room temperature)
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar

It's very important that your eggs are room temperature. In a sauce pan over medium-low heat, combine the milk, honey, salt and lavender flowers. The flowers will only float on the surface of this step, so don't be alarmed if they won't mix in. Heat, stirring constantly, until bubbles form around the edges of the pan- you are just scalding the milk, don't allow it to simmer or boil.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the egg yolks, cream and sugar. Stir with a whisk until well combined and the sugar begins to incorporate into the other ingredients. Once the milk mixture has reached the desired temperature, use a measuring cup to remove roughly 1 cup of the hot milk. In a very slow trickle, add to the egg yolk mixture while whisking. This will take several minutes to add the whole 1 cup of hot milk, keep whisking the whole time. This is tempering the eggs, raising their temperature slowly enough that they don't cook and become scrambled eggs. You need to do this with at least 1 cup of the milk mixture, more is also acceptable, but it's probably unnecessary to do more than 2 cups.

Add the egg yolk mixture to the remaining milk in the sauce pan and heat over medium to medium-low heat. You need to stir it constantly and do not allow it to boil. An occasional simmering bubble is alright, but not a lot of them. This next step is probably best with a wooden spoon, you won't need the whisk anymore. You might be wondering if we're going to be keeping the flowers in the gelato, we aren't, but we aren't at the step where we are straining it yet. This stirring over medium/low heat can take up to 30 minutes. In this step we are forming a custard and the mixture will start to gradually thicken. When it is slightly more viscous and coats the back of the wooden spoon well, not in a watery way, your custard stage is complete!

Now, strain the custard through a mesh sieve. It may be slightly too thick to pass through easily, you may need to stir the contents of the sieve to help it along. Once you've strained it, mix the strained custard well and place the bowl that it is in in a larger bowl full of ice water. Allow to cool, then place plastic wrap over the custard, with the plastic wrap touching the surface of the custard and refrigerate overnight.

Pre-freeze the bowl of your ice cream maker in the freezer. Remove your custard from the refrigerator and using a spatula, empty into the ice cream maker bowl. Turn on the ice cream maker and mix for 20-30 minutes, you'll visually be able to tell when it is done. Using a spatula again, scrape into a freezer container and freeze before serving.

This is so marvelous! The flavor is amazing and your family and friends will love it. It will be a flavor they can't get anywhere but at your house! What's also outstanding about this dessert for a dinner party is that it can be make several days ahead of time!

Where can I buy lavender flowers? I have bought lavender at Harris Teeter in the spice section and also at Whole Foods. I believe the brand I bought at Harris Teeter was McCormick. Why not use local honey and support your local farmers?

December 10, 2010

A Winter Treat- Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger Root and Cinnamon

Butternut squash is just wonderful, isn't it? I love a good, creamy butternut squash soup! I get so excited at the beginning of fall and winter because there are so many delicious things to eat!
This recipe I really like, not only because it's pretty easy, but because the soup also has onion, garlic, ginger root and some aromatic spices like cloves and cinnamon. The cream that you add at the end is optional, the soup is certainly delicious without it!

Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger Root and Cinnamon

1 medium to large butternut squash

1 onion

1-2 cloves garlic

2" piece of ginger root

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

pinch of cloves

1/2 tsp. salt

freshly cracked pepper

3-4 cups chicken, vegetable or beef broth

1/2-1 cup heavy cream

Prepare your butternut squash! Refer to this video on how to! You want roughly 2" pieces.

Place the butternut squash into a large pot. Cut the onion into quarters, place in pot. Add the garlic, here's how to smash it and get it out of its skin pretty easily:

Next, add the ginger root. Here's how to easily remove the outer skin of the ginger root.

Ok! So your pot should now contain the squash, onion, garlic and ginger root. Add the cloves, cinnamon, salt and pepper, then the broth. If you can get most of the contents of the pot covered with just 3 cups of broth, just use that. Use the additional cup of broth only if you have a large amount of squash and 3 cups doesn't suffice. Bring to a simmer and cover, cook for 45 minutes.

Now, we need to blend the soup. You can either use a handheld blender and blend it in the pot, or, you can blend it in batches in a blender. Be very, very careful if you are using a standard blender, the heat can cause the top to come off the blender and you don't want to get burned! You may also decide to wait to blend it until it is cooler. Once well blended, stir in the cream (the amount is up to you) and taste to see if you need additional salt and pepper. You can enjoy this soup hot or cold, although since it is winter, hot might be preferable!

Optional garnishes: bacon lardons, finely chopped ham... use your imagination! This can be served in a soup bowl or in a tea cup!

Depending on how much broth you use, your soup can be on the watery side. To ensure relatively thicker soup, use the minimum amount of broth necessary to simmer the squash and other ingredients and if you are still concerned about the soup being too watery, uncover and cook off some of the liquid (before blending).

December 4, 2010

Croque Mademoiselle!

Ok, so this is not really a thing (yet)- there is either a Croque Monseiur or a Croque Madame- wonderful French bistro sandwiches, which started showing up on menus around 1910- the classic Croque Monseiur has ham and gruyere- the Croque Madame adds a fried egg on top. This variation takes its inspiration from both- we make a 'butter' of grated gruyere, dijon mustard and butter, then nestle it between some wonderful french style slow cooked ham, soak our hearty but soft sourdough in egg beaten with milk, pan fry it in butter and voila! Croque Mademoiselle!

Croque Mademoiselle
(makes two sandwiches)
Four slices of sourdough bread (I use a boule)
2-3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup (loosely packed) grated gruyere
2 tsp. dijon mustard (not whole grain)
6 thin slices French ham (sometimes called Jambon Blanc, slow cooked ham will also be fine)
1 egg
1 Tbsp. milk or cream
Freshly cracked pepper

Melt one of the tablespoons of butter. Mix with the gruyere and mustard, this will form a paste. Spread the paste on one side of each of the slices of bread, add some freshly cracked pepper. We omit salt here because the ham and gruyere are already sufficiently salty. Place three slices of ham in each sandwich, (the sides of the bread with the gruyere spread are on the inside). Beat the egg thoroughly and mix in the milk or cream. Quickly immerse the outside of each sandwich on both sides in the egg, wiping off excess. You don't want too much egg, the flavor will overwhelm the rest of your sandwich.

Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and at a medium to medium low heat, cook each sandwich for about 5 minutes on each side. Enjoy! This is delicious! It is also very fast and simple! If you don't care for ham, why not try turkey? If you don't care for egg, skip the egg part and have a wonderful grilled ham and cheese with a hint of dijon!

Got Five Minutes? You've Got Almond Bark!

If it is possible, this bark recipe is even easier than the one with hazelnuts!!! This takes literally five minutes to make, then you need to let it solidify in the fridge. Yay, bark!

1/2 lb. semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 Tbsp. olive oil (light tasting)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup raw almonds
1/8-1/4 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
tiny pinch of salt

Using a bowl or a measuring cup, melt the chocolate in the microwave. I've received a few questions about this- what I usually do is melt it in 30-45 second increments, checking on it after each increment. It might still look solid but actually be melted, so go ahead and try to stir it with a utensil. Once you've melted your chocolate, stir in the oil, vanilla extract, tiny pinch of salt and cinnamon, which is optional. If you use 1/4 tsp. of cinnamon, the taste is definitely present. If you'd like it to be more subtle, go for just 1/8 of a teaspoon. Or, if you're not into cinnamon, just leave it out! Mix well, then add the almonds. You'll probably recall that in the hazelnut bark recipe, we roasted the hazelnuts. Why aren't we doing that here? A few reasons. First, I think hazelnuts taste better when they are roasted. Do a little taste test yourself and see what your opinion is, it doesn't have to be the same as mine! I think almonds are delicious raw. Also, raw almond 'skins' aren't really offensive or a bad texture, so we don't worry about the skins here. However, if you roast pretty much any nut that has a skin, you'll probably want to remove it by rubbing the nuts in a dish cloth, the texture is not too great and sometimes the skin might be a little bitter once roasted.

Moving on! Mix to incorporate the almonds, then spread the bark on a baking sheet lined with either parchment or wax paper. Spread evenly with a butter knife or offset spatula. Refrigerate until solidified, probably at least one hour. Once solid, remove from paper and chop into 2-3" pieces. Can you believe how easy that was?

December 1, 2010

A Homemade Gift Easier than Cookies?!!! Delicious Hazelnut Bark!

What would you say if I told you there was an elegant, delicious, homemade gift you could make in 20 minutes that would delight everyone on your holiday list? You'd say get out of here! I'm not going anywhere, I'm here to share the secret with you!

Here is your new go-to recipe for your holiday arsenal, hazelnut, ginger and chocolate bark! Let's be honest about this, all we are doing is melting chocolate, mixing some things in it, and solidifying it in the refrigerator. So basically, if you can work a microwave, you can make this. That is the extent of 'technique' here. Easier than making cookies! Truly! I made this yesterday and it took about 15-20 minutes. (This doesn't include refrigeration time, just 'active' time).

Hazelnut, Ginger and Chocolate Bark
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (semi-sweet is ok too)
2 ounces hazelnuts
1 1/2 ounces crystallized ginger (chopped) (optional)
olive oil (light tasting)
sea salt

If your hazelnuts are raw, set the oven to 350. Roast on a baking sheet for roughly 8 minutes, until slightly browned, be careful not to burn. Transfer nuts to a dishcloth and rub off the skins, this is shown in the picture above.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl or measuring cup in the microwave. Once melted, stir in roughly 1/2 a tablespoon of olive oil- other vegetable oil is alright also. I use a light tasting olive oil for this. Stir in 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a small pinch of sea salt. Stir well. Stir in the ginger (optional) and hazelnuts (do not add the skin that has been rubbed off). You don't need to chop the nuts.

On a baking sheet lined with either waxed paper or parchment paper, pour the mixture and spread evenly with a butter knife or offset spatula. Refrigerate until solid, most likely at least one hour. Once solidified, peel from waxed or parchment paper and chop into 2-3" pieces. Enjoy! I'll bet you can't believe how easy that was and yet how elegant and delicious the bark looks!

November 30, 2010

The Biscotti Everyone Wants for Christmas!!

These biscotti are so incredible! I normally don't get too excited about biscotti, I find that it is usually too hard and often doesn't have a lot of flavor. These are not only slightly soft, but they are packed with hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate and crystallized ginger, so flavor is not an issue! You may be surprised to learn that they also contain chili powder, which is often seen paired with chocolate in both Italian and Mexican cuisine. Often, you will see the gelato flavor of chocolate with chili in Italy (it's wonderful!). These are one of my Mother's favorite cookies- she requests them frequently!

These would make a great gift- you could put them in a mason jar and tie the jar with a ribbon, that would be a great presentation! The holiday season is approaching and I'm sure all the Moms out there need ideas for teachers' and sitters' gifts!

Biscotti with Chocolate, Hazelnuts and Ginger
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter (room temperature)
2 eggs (room temperature)
1 cup sugar
2 ounces crystallized ginger, chopped
2 ounces raw hazelnuts, chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (I use ground cayenne chili powder)
3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups flour (unbleached, all-purpose)
2 Tablespoons light (or heavy) cream

For the Dipping:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper, there's no need to grease either the baking sheet or the parchment paper. In an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, mix at a medium speed for 1-2 minutes until well combined. Add the chopped hazelnuts, chocolate and ginger and mix together gently. Next, add the cardamom, baking powder, salt, chili powder and cocoa powder, combine thoroughly. Add the flour, this will change the mixture from very liquid to somewhat clumpy. Once well combined, although forming clumps of dough, pour in the cream while the mixer is moving at a low speed. This brings it all together to the right dough consistency!

Now, separate the dough into three pieces and with each piece, form a log that is rather blunt on each end. This is important because you want the biscotti once cut to be close to all the same length. For smaller biscotti, form four logs. Place the logs on the baking sheet with parchment paper several inches from each other and bake at 350 for 20-22 minutes. They won't be completely baked at this point, they will still be slightly soft and somewhat raw on the inside. That is alright and that is what you want to keep them soft! Let the logs cool on a rack for 15-20 minutes, or longer, before you cut the logs into the biscotti. I use a serrated bread knife for this, it seems to work fairly well. These will be a little difficult to cut, they may crumble a little. Just be patient and proceed carefully and it will be fine!

Place the biscotti you have cut back onto the baking sheet and bake at 350 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and using a spatula, transfer to a wire rack to cool. You may need to do this in batches, or, if you'd like to move the process along faster, prepare one or two additional baking sheets.

While your biscotti are baking for their second time, or cooling, prepare the dipping chocolate! This really makes this cookie! They are delicious without this step, but this step really takes them over the top! Use 8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, (I use 60% cacao), and microwave for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes or until melted. Mix well, and if necessary, transfer to a bowl or plate where you'll be able to get chocolate completely on one side of the biscotti. (If you're using a Pyrex measuring cup, you can turn it on its side.) I do this because hey! it saves me from having to wash more dishes!

You may use the same baking sheet you've been using that has the parchment paper on it for this next step! Make sure, though, that it will fit in your refrigerator, because you'll need to place these in the refrigerator to solidify the chocolate. Dip each biscotti in chocolate so that one whole side is covered (see the picture, the side that is facing down was dipped in chocolate). Place on the baking sheet, chocolate side down. Once finished with this step, place in the refrigerator.

These are just wonderful and I'm sure you are going to love them! If you do not care for hazelnuts, why not try walnuts or almonds? If you don't care for ginger, you could try candied citrus peel, which I'm sure would also be delicious!

November 28, 2010

Amazing Apple Pie

Who doesn't love a wonderful, homemade apple pie? Especially at this time of year! I used to be pretty intimidated by homemade pies- especially pies with elaborate tops. Then I came to my senses and realized, hey! those are made with cookie cutters! It's just as easy as making sugar cookies! And so it is. Here's my apple pie recipe- but the pie dough recipe and techniques can be used on any pie.

You'll notice a very beautiful pair of hands in these pictures, with an impeccable manicure. Those are not mine- I wish! Those are my darling sister's hands, who, as you can see, has incredibly attractive long elegant fingers!

Pie Dough
2 1/2 cups flour (unbleached, all-purpose)
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup shortening, chilled
13 Tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2" cubes
8 Tablespoons ice water

Using a food processor, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Next, add the shortening in relatively small spoonfuls and mix, the mixture will resemble corn meal. Add the butter one piece at a time while mixing together, the consistency will still resemble small grains. Add the ice water while the food processor is on, in just a few seconds the dough will 'come together' and become a ball. Remove the dough, using a spatula if it is sticky, and separate into two equal sized balls, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour.

Apple Pie Filling
4 Rome Apples
4 Opal Apples
2 Tablespoons flour
juice of one lemon
zest of one lemon
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (from a whole nutmeg, not pre-ground)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon allspice
pinch sea salt

Peel the apples and cut into slices that are no larger than 1/2" at the widest portion. Cut off the core parts of the apple slices, using your fingers as your judge of what is too rough. You may also core the apples before slicing them, but I find apple coring rather perilous, it seems to take a lot of brute force and often the apples are somewhat slippery... if you have a husband or boyfriend that wants to help, perhaps they could undertake this portion of the recipe?

In a medium to large sized bowl, squeeze the lemon. Add the apple slices as you cut them, occasionally mixing with a spatula to evenly distribute the lemon juice. This will prevent your apple slice from turning brown. Add the lemon zest- the easiest thing to use is a microplane- here is one from Williams-Sonoma:

These are incredibly useful for citrus as well as hard cheeses. Add the remaining flour, sugar and spices and salt, mixing to distribute everything as evenly as possible. Some liquid will form, that is absolutely fine. This happens frequently when you add sugar to fruit. Keep the liquid, it's going in the pie, too!

Rolling and Shaping your Pie Dough

I use a french rolling pin, which, as you can see in the picture has no handles and is tapered at both ends. I find that this is not only pretty easy to use, but it also rolls the largest surface area at one time, which is the reason I prefer it, hooray efficiency! Anyhow, get yourself a large cutting board or clean surface on which to work with your pie dough. Place enough flour, and have some additional flour handy, you are going to use it as needed to prevent your dough from sticking. Take one of the two dough pieces out of the refrigerator. This is going to be your pie crust, the crust on the bottom. Roll the dough out, until you have reached about 1/4" in thickness throughout, and the size of it exceeds the outer edge of your pie dish- you'll need to eyeball this, but if you're worried, go ahead and measure. Now, here's how to get your pie dough from the counter into your pie dish:

As you can see in the video, you roll your pie dough around the rolling pin, then unroll it on top of the pie dish. You may need to move it around a little to place it in the best position, but you get the idea! Ok. If you are making a pie with a decorative top, you can cut off the excess dough around the lip of the pan. If you are making a regular, rolled dough top, leave the excess for now. We'll come back to that!

Place your pie dish with your wonderful pie crust in the freezer while you get your decorative top ready! Also, preheat your oven to 475 and place your oven rack at its lowest level. Retrieve your other chilled dough from the refrigerator and roll, using flour as needed, into the same thickness of dough. Now- you can either use plain cookie cutters, or specially designed cookie cutters that are especially for pies- this just usually means that there is a lever that presses a design onto the top of the 'cookie' also. Here is what I have:

For the pie featured here, I used oak leaves and one acorn in the center. But you can do whatever you like! Be creative and make it the way you would like it to be! It's your pie!

Now that our dough is ready, remove the pie crust from the freezer and add the apple pie filling. Mound it slightly in the center, and pour in the juice in the bowl also. Begin to cut out shapes in your pie dough and arrange them on top of the apples. There's really not a need to press them together, they'll stick sufficiently and once baked, attach to one another. I start in the center and work my way out in circular levels, I don't have any mathematical system, I just put leaves where it looks nice. In some areas, you'll need to slightly overlap the leaves, in others you won't. This is fine! What's actually useful and utilitarian about this method of topping pies is that you won't need to cut holes for steam to escape, which you do have to do with pies with traditional rolled crusts. Be creative, the leaves don't even have to be all facing the same direction.

When you're finished placing all the leaves, beat an egg white and brush the top of the pie with a pastry brush. If you don't have a pastry brush, you can actually use a paper towel to do this. Fold the paper towel several times until it is a long, narrow tube, then use one end the same way you'd use a pastry brush. If you start to have trouble with your dough while cutting out the shapes, if your dough becomes too soft, and it very well might due to the room temperature and the warmth of your hands, place it in the freezer for a few minutes to get it to firm back up.

Once your pie is brushed with egg white, it's ready to go in the oven! Now, reduce the heat of the oven to 425. Place your beautiful pie on a baking sheet. This is very important, it prevents you from touching the crust edges when you move the pie in and out of the oven, it's very much worth it. Place the pie, which is now on the baking sheet, in the oven and set the timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, rotate the pie, lifting only the baking sheet, and reduce the heat to 375. Bake for another 35 minutes- however, check after 15 minutes that the crust is not browning too fast. This often happens to me, so what I do is after 15 minutes cover the pie with foil and cook it with the foil for the remainder of the 35 minutes. It's important to let it cook for the full 35 minutes, even if you have to protect the top with foil, because it needs that amount of time to a) sufficiently cook the apples and b) sufficiently cook away the apple liquid.

After removing from the oven, lift (carefully) off the baking sheet and allow to cool on a rack for at least four hours. (Sometimes I leave mine overnight). Enjoy! This is a wonderful pie that I hope you will feel comfortable trying, and giving your own decorative flair to- I know you can!

Variation: For a traditional top pie, treat the top dough as you did the bottom- roll out and transfer the same way using the rolling pin. Arrange nicely on the top of the pie, cut four slits radiating from the center. Take the excess dough of the top and bottom, and, fold toward the inside. The folded dough should be even with the pie plate. Take a fork and gently press the dough on the edges against the pie plate edge. A beautiful traditional crust is now yours! Brush with egg white and follow the same baking directions!

Some other variations: Use a different citrus fruit, other than a lemon, but adjust for relative size. I would imagine grapefruit juice and zest would be delicious! I use Rome and Opal apples, but you can use different varieties- just try to have one somewhat tart apple and one sweeter apple variety.

November 26, 2010

Simple and Delicious Garlic Bread

You may never make garlic bread any other way again! I know I don't! Forget butter, forget lots of prep time- this garlic bread is a snap and it is incredibly delicious! I got this idea after attending a Spanish cooking class several years ago. Spanish cuisine has something called tomato bread, which includes a technique of using raw garlic cloves on hot, toasted bread. I got to thinking... what if I'm just interested in garlic flavor on the bread? This easy and delicious recipe was born! This uses olive oil instead of butter, which is great because it is slightly more healthy!

Garlic Bread with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Bread slices
garlic clove(s)
olive oil
sea salt
I use relatively soft bread for this, like ciabatta, or a sourdough, or a boule without a very hard crust on the outside. The softness of the interior of the bread becomes irrelevant once you toast the slices, but the chewiness is wonderful. You may use a toaster or the oven, if you're using the oven, toast the bread slices on a baking sheet at 350 for 8-10 minutes. They won't really be turning brown yet, if you like your bread darker, you can toast the bread slices for longer.
Take a medium sized garlic clove- it needs to be something that you can hold on one end and have good control. Cut off the root of the clove, but cut a sufficiently wide area, you are going to rub this on the toasted bread. Here's a video of how to!

If you are not a huge fan of garlic, rub the bread all over on one side just once, for a bolder flavor, twice (I like twice!). Now, take your olive oil and distribute evenly over the bread. This is the butter substitute, so don't be stingy! Now, sprinkle large grain sea salt over the bread. Enjoy! I serve this with pasta, in the picture above it is featured with my Sausage, Fennel and Cream Pasta Sauce:

In Italian, this type of bread with olive oil and raw garlic is called 'Fettunta.'

November 24, 2010

An Apropos Read for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to gather with family and friends. It is a beautiful opportunity to give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. In addition to our blessings, the historical basis for Thanksgiving deserves some respectful contemplation.

I recently re-read a favorite book of mine just in time for Thanksgiving, 1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which you can purchase on Amazon:

This book is a detailed account of North and South America and its cultures before European presence. The relatively recent research is fascinating and is very different from what most of us learned in school.

Did you know that Native Americans invented the mathematical concept of zero before the Middle East? There are not only multiple written languages but even a recently discovered language that is 'written' three dimensionally in a binary form with intricate knots, colors and beads. One culture in Peru completely dispels the widely accepted theory that agriculture must flourish first for cultures to grow in sophistication. Instead, this culture had such an incredible bounty from the sea, it was sufficient to sustain a sophisticated culture without agriculture.

The Mesoamerican calendar has both circular (weeks and months) and linear (years) parameters and is actually more efficient than the Western calendar- each day has a unique name that doesn't repeat. The tribes in New England formed a sophisticated government that institutionalized individual liberty to such an inspiring degree that many believe our nation's constitution was founded on many of its principles.

Finally, the story of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag tribe and Squanto (who was actually named Tisquantum, which wasn't his real name and meant 'the wrath of god,' his story alone is fascinating), is written with incredible perspective and detail. The reality was that the Wampanoag needed to align themselves with the Pilgrims to keep the Narragansett at bay- previous to this, no foreign visitors had been permitted to stay.

I was inspired by much of what I read and have a new perspective of our nation and its history. I hope that books like these will lead to a better understanding of the contributions of Native American cultures.

November 20, 2010

Chocolate Layer Cake, Decadent and Divine!

Is there anything more delectable than a well done chocolate layer cake? I used to be intimidated by layer cakes, they seemed like so much work. They are really not that bad! If you get yourself an offset spatula and a little cake turn table or lazy susan, the frosting is much, much easier! I prefer to use ganache instead of butter cream frosting. Ganache- if you are already familiar with ganache, you are probably nodding in agreement. If you aren't familiar with ganache, I have three words for you- heavy cream and chocolate! Ganache has two ingredients, seriously, two. One of the main reasons I like it more than butter cream frosting is that butter cream is significantly more labor intensive, but I don't think it is necessarily tastier. Butter cream frosting also contains more sugar. Ganache has no added sugar. That's probably why the wonderful heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate positively sing! While I love chocolate, sometimes I feel that a heavy dessert that is solely chocolate is a little bit dull. To give the cake depth, I add cinnamon and ginger to the cake batter and I also add cinnamon to the ganache- not enough to overpower, but enough to add a gorgeous complexity and depth to the flavors. Finally, you will probably be surprised to learn that this cake contains olive oil. Olive oil is used instead of butter in cakes in some regions of France and it seemed to me to be a good alternative- probably better for you too, although we certainly can't go around billing this cake as 'healthy.'

Chocolate Cake
(makes 2 9" round cakes that will be cut into 4 layers)
2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cup flour (unbleached, all-purpose)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup olive oil
2 eggs
1 shot of espresso, plus enough water to reach 1 cup

Preheat the oven to 350. You will need 2 9" round cake pans. I use Pam cooking spray, but you could use butter if you like. Pam is just faster and easier in my opinion and doesn't effect the flavor. Spray the pans with Pam, then place parchment paper rounds in the bottom of each pan. Here is how to trace and cut out parchment paper rounds:

After placing the parchment rounds in the bottom of the pans, either spray with Pam or butter, then add a sufficient amount of flour to coat the bottom of the pan. You can do this easily by holding the pan at a 45 degree angle with one hand and tapping the bottom of the pan with the other. With the hand holding the pan, you may need to rotate the pan to tap out the excess evenly.

In a standing mixer, combine all of the dry ingredients. Add the cream, milk, olive oil and eggs, mix until incorporated and then mix at a medium high speed for 1-2 minutes. To make the espresso and water, I usually pour the shot of espresso into a measuring cup, then add enough water to reach 1 cup. If you don't have an espresso machine, you can substitute 1/2 a cup of coffee and a 1/2 cup of water. Add this to the batter and mix until well incorporated, it will be on the runny side.

Pour, as evenly as possible, into the two round pans you have prepared. Bake at 350 for 30-32 minutes, until a fork's tines come out of the center clean. Cool in the pans on racks for 15 minutes, then invert on to racks and allow to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, the bottom of the cakes may look a little lighter in color because of the flour, that is absolutely fine.

Ganache with Cinnamon
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
20 ounces (1 lb. 4 oz.) bittersweet chocolate (60% cacao)
1/2 (slightly heaping) teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the cream, either on the stove or in the microwave. Heat until scalded and very hot, but do not boil. In a metal or glass bowl, place the chocolate, either chopped or broken into pieces by hand. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and allow to sit for a minute or two. Using a whisk, mix the ganache well, until it is shiny and smooth. Add the cinnamon. Refrigerate.

When your cakes have cooled and you are ready to cut layers and assemble the cake, take the ganache out of the refrigerator. In order to speed up the process, I usually put the bowl of ganache over some simmering water in a sauce pan on the stove (a make shift double boiler). I get it to liquefy again (after solidifying in the refrigerator) and then I put the bowl in an ice bath to get the ganache to cool down and get to an in-between consistency that will be the easiest to work with.

In the meantime, you can cut your cakes into layers (once they have completely cooled, of course). I find it easiest to do this on a little cake turn table or lazy susan and using a long, narrow, serrated bread knife. Here is a video on how to do this:

One reason why it's important to make your cake layers as even as possible is that when you cut the cakes into layers, one layer can end up much more even than the other... Here's an example of when it goes badly. However, this is not a problem, you can still use this cake layer and the ganache layer will fix it and no one will notice!!!

Moving on! Let's assemble and frost this bad boy. Do you have an offset spatula? These are exceptionally helpful in frosting cakes. My offset spatula is about an inch wide, they come in various sizes, this size in the photo I find very useful with frosting desserts.

The cake turn table or lazy susan is also very, very helpful in frosting cakes. You turn the cake with one hand while you hold the offset spatula at an angle in the other hand.

If you have a cake layer that didn't turn out too well, use it on the bottom. Place some of the ganache in the center of the layer and spread evenly using an outward motion with your spatula.

Let's frost and assemble our cake!

Alternate cake layers and ganache, and when it is time for the final layer, try to use one of the layers that has a cake top (one of the two layers that was the top of the cake when you baked it).

When you've placed the final layer on the top, spread ganache over the top and as you use your offset spatula to evenly spread the ganache, allow the excess to fall over the sides. Then, you can evenly distribute the ganache on the sides to complete the frosting. You are done!!! I keep this cake in the refrigerator and when I'm planning to serve it, I let it sit out for about 20 minutes.

I hope this inspires you to make this delectable cake! Some variations you might try include nuts, you can add roasted chopped nuts to the layers and the top, you can use jam or jelly in each layer, or you could add chopped crystallized ginger. Use your imagination and you can come up with your own favorite variation!

November 17, 2010

Roasted Butternut Squash, Easy and Delicious!

Butternut squash is so good! You barely have to do anything to it and it is delicious. Well, with the exception of, ahem, getting it into an edible form. This squash does take some effort to peel and dice. It's easier than you think, though! Here is how to very easily get your butternut squash ready, and this recipe for roasted butternut squash could not be easier. You'll be surprised that the only ingredients are squash, olive oil, sea salt and pepper!

A question I've been asked a lot in the past week is, 'what are you serving for Thanksgiving?' Now I love Thanksgiving, but I am not of the opinion that you have to eat the same thing every year. For example, instead of sweet potatoes, I am planning on serving this delightful roasted butternut squash. It's not quite as sweet as sweet potatoes, but it certainly still has some sweetness, which is brought out with the roasting and very nicely offset with sea salt. Enjoy!

Roasted Butternut Squash
1 medium sized butternut squash
olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. One medium sized butternut squash is probably acceptable for about 4 side servings (you'll have to eyeball it). If I were having 6-8 people, I'd probably cut up 2, and 8-12 people, 3. It will depend a little on how big they are. You'll need disposable plastic gloves (like you see at the doctor's office, you can buy them at the drugstore), a 6 inch chef's knife and a vegetable peeler. You may be wondering why you need the gloves. It's my preference to use them for a few reasons. Butternut squash kind of stains your hands and really dries them out, it's really quite odd, because putting on lotion doesn't seem to help. It is as if your hands have been 'sealed' by the juices. Also, they can be slippery, so the gloves help a little. Finally, wearing the gloves makes it a little less gross when you take out the seeds. You don't have to use them, but you might be more comfortable. Here's a quick how to on peeling and dicing your squash. You want the pieces to be about 1 inch cubes or so.

Using your chef's knife, which you might notice in the video I hold with my thumb and pointer finger on either side of the base of the blade, you want to cut off the top part that has the stem. The reason it's good to hold your knife like this is that it gives you more stability and it is less likely to move from side to side. Cut the squash into about three sections, each section should be about four inches long. Then, take your vegetable peeler, and peel off the outer skin. You will probably see green veins. Try to peel the outer layer until the squash is about the same color as the center, this may take more than just once around. Once it is peeled, cut it into small pieces, about one inch.

When all your squash is cut into small pieces, place on one or more baking sheets. You'll want them to be spread out and not on top of one another, they won't roast well if they are crowded. Pour olive oil over the squash, and using a spoon, turn over the squash and move around until all pieces are coated with olive oil. I suppose you could do this in a bowl, but I think it's just as easy to just do it on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. A good rule of thumb when applying salt and pepper is that you'll want less pepper than salt.

Roast at 425 for 35 minutes, stirring a few times during the roasting. Stirring them will ensure even cooking and browning. Believe it or not, you are done! Baby likes these, so give them a try with your little ones, too!

Another question I've received is how do you make sure everything is ready at the same time? That is a tough endeavor and it certainly takes planning and execution. Here's the good news about this dish, though, you can prep the squash (cut it up) and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. You don't have to worry about it turning color like potatoes. You know you'll need 35 minutes to roast them and getting them ready to go into the oven is a snap with just olive oil, salt and pepper, so you can do that when you're ready to put them in.

As if you needed more reasons to love butternut squash- did you know that compared to sweet potatoes it is lower in calories, carbohydrates and sugar? One cup of sweet potatoes equals 130 calories and the equivalent amount of butternut squash just 63 calories. Hooray butternut squash!

November 16, 2010

Smoke That Turkey, Y'all

Thanksgiving is upon us! I really like Thanksgiving. I like it because it is a holiday almost completely devoted to food and because there is no gift giving. Don't get me wrong, I love receiving a gift as much as the next girl, but sometimes the shopping for gifts can be stressful! I don't think I know anyone easy to shop for!

On to the food- you probably all know where you'll be eating Thanksgiving, or you are hosting. I myself am hosting, but on the Saturday following Thanksgiving (we have two Thanksgivings so we see all the relatives). This year, we are planning to smoke a turkey on the big green egg- I'm very excited about this, mostly to make the turkey taste, well, not like turkey. I wish I liked turkey, but I'm afraid I just can't get there. The only turkey I do like, seems to be smoked turkey. Now, while I am smoking my own turkey, you may not be able to. That is not a problem. Perhaps you have heard of Greenberg Smoked Turkeys, which is a company in Texas that sells mail order smoked turkeys. These have got to be tasted to be believed. We had the extreme pleasure of tasting one of these turkeys when we had our 'dinner calendar' after having our baby. For those of you not familiar with the 'dinner calendar' concept, a friend of the new mother organizes friends to bring dinner to the family over a few weeks. Our darling friend Jody sent us a smoked turkey from Greenberg. I remember saying to my family while eating it, "there is something so right going on in Tyler, Texas, y'all," and no doubt there is- because this turkey is so delicious, it tastes like ham. Here is there link!

What's funny about this is that although it is delicious, their smoking is quite intense and we found that it made the husband smell like smoked turkey for a while. That is the only downside (if that can be considered a downside).

Enjoy! More Thanksgiving related posts to follow!

November 15, 2010

The Day After the Dinner Party...

Sometimes I think we give little thought to the recuperation and clean up following hosting an event. We have developed- although I laugh a little when I say 'developed,' it is more like we are tired so this is what we do, but I have noticed that it is a pretty consistent pattern. No matter! Here it is.

After our fabulous and fun guests leave, we go to bed. We don't do any dishes, we don't start the dishwasher (partially because ours makes a loud beeping noise that wakes everyone up, even baby), we just go to sleep. The next morning, we feed baby at home and then, with me still in my pajamas, we get in the car, even the dog in the back, and we drive through Starbucks and we get breakfast sandwiches- you know, the kind with eggs and cheese and breakfast meats... mmmm... breakfast meat. My Dad has a new year's resolution every year to eat more breakfast meats. I'm not sure what it accomplishes, but I like where his head is. So we drive through Starbucks so we don't have to get dressed to go out in public. Actually, this is mostly just me, the husband does look presentable. But baby and Mommy, we're still in our pajamas. I want some footy pajamas too, don't they look comfortable?

We also go out to eat for lunch and we get take out for dinner- unless there are a lot of leftovers, we might eat those. During the day, we do a few loads of dishes. I would like to sing the praises of my dishwasher, we have a Miele, and it is hands down the best dishwasher I have ever encountered. I don't rinse any dishes. Really. I scrape off the big pieces of food and I just load them in without rinsing them. Almost 100% of the time, they get clean. For those of you interested in the water use differential, I was told that the dishwasher uses 4-5 gallons of water and if you rinse the dishes before putting them in, you use 19 gallons. Go figure. So by the end of the next day, nearly all the dishes are done, and no one was really stressed out by the clean up! Except maybe Pele. Weird things stress her out. She breathes really heavy in the drive through line at Starbucks.

So my message to you is that you get a pass after hosting people and doing a lot of work. Go ahead! Go to a drive through in your pajamas. It is exhilarating! And besides, our baby is too young to register any of this. I'll start being more adult when he's 2 or something :)

November 13, 2010

An Intimate Dinner for Four

Perhaps you are a little nervous about entertaining for a lot of people and you prefer to have a smaller dinner party. That is great! Having one couple over is wonderful, because you get to focus on them and spend time with them in a way that is more complete. We had a lovely, adorable couple over last night for dinner and it was so much fun!

Getting ready for another dinner party was surprisingly easier than I expected, since a lot of the prep work I had done for last week's dinner party helped me very much. I had less straightening to do, the houseplants looked pretty alright and I could use the salad dressing I'd made last Friday.

Our menu was:

Cheeses with cocktails

Mache salad with chevre crostini with bacon and honey

These are the crostini before and after going in the oven in the first step of their preparation. Take some french bread (baguette) that is at least one day old (two days is good, too), and slice into very thin slices (this is why it's helpful if it is stale, won't work otherwise). Place on a baking sheet and drizzle liberally with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bake for 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees, until they turn this wonderful light brown color.

Have one as a snack, they are deee-licious. In a small bowl, combine 2/3 of a cup of goat cheese crumbles or chevre with 2 Tablespoons heavy cream, add a pinch of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. Mix well, then spread on the crostini. Top with some bacon lardons (small pieces of bacon pre-cooked) or crumbled bacon. Heat for 5 minutes at 350, drizzle with honey and serve as an accompaniment to any salad. We had mache with a dressing the was white wine vinegar, olive oil, dijon mustard and some chopped chives.

Bacon lardons are wonderful! Cut raw bacon into small pieces and fry at a medium low heat until a lot of the fat has liquified and the bacon is not quite done. Drain on paper towels. Use on salads, crostini, the list is endless!

Lamb chops with rosemary and garlic

Mmmmmm... lamb chops! I love lamb. I think it might be my favorite meat. It is either lamb or pork. So these lamb chops are great, and not hard to make at all! In your food processor, combine:

6 garlic cloves
3 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons peppercorns
4 sprigs rosemary (leaves only)
1/8 cup olive oil

Combine until most or all of the peppercorns are broken and it resembles a paste. It will be mostly green in color. We have a little rosemary bush outside, so now I don't have to ever buy rosemary, it's great. Rosemary is surprisingly hearty, I don't really ever water it.

We used two racks of lamb chops that were already frenched, I just sliced them. You can go ahead and trim away more of the fat if you like. The rosemary and garlic paste you have made is more than you'll need for this, so reserve about 1/4 to 1/3 of it to use and store the rest in the refrigerator. Spread a little bit of the paste on each side of the lamb chops and let sit, I let ours marinate for about 3 hours. Cook either on a grill or on the stove to your desired doneness. Wonderful!

Potatoes with truffle oil

Here are the potatoes before they are roasted. I use yukon gold potatoes and a I peel about half of the skin off in parts. I'm getting rid of the eyes, but even if they didn't have eyes I'd probably peel them this much anyhow- it gives the outside a nice variation in texture once they are roasted. I did this, the peeling, in the morning on Friday and then I put them in a bowl of water (to prevent the exposed parts from turning color). To make the potatoes, remove from the water, coat with olive oil and place on a rimmed baking sheet or similar pan and roast for 1 hour 35 minutes at 350. After removing them from the oven, mash them together very coarsely (you're not making mashed potatoes, so they just have to break apart). Sprinkle with salt (you'll need more salt than you'd probably think) and freshly ground pepper, then top either with plain olive oil, or if you have it, truffle oil. Probably any type of flavored oil would be delicious, for example, garlic infused oil, or rosemary infused oil. These are so simple and delicious.

Chocolate pots de creme with cardamom and a hint of cinnamon

You can find the dessert recipe here:

During baby's afternoon nap I did my hair. Here's baby and Mommy in the kitchen! Here's also a shot of your dining room table and baby and Mommy getting ready for baby's bedtime. He looks so cute in his red pajamas!!!!!