Archive for March, 2009

Biscuits

This post is for my lovely cousin-in-law Beth, who is in need of an easy biscuit recipe. Resist the urge to buy Pillsbury rolls. They’re full of hydrogenated fats and have a fake butter flavor. Once you eat a real biscuit, you’ll never want the refrigerated store variety again. Real biscuits are buttery and crisp and have a flavor unmatched by anything you could buy in a store. And, once you get the hang of them they’re fast and easy to make.

Here are a few key points to remember when making biscuits:

  1. Make sure your butter is cold. Like pie dough, you need to use chilled butter.
  2. Don’t overwork the dough, which will only make your biscuits rubbery.
  3. Make sure your oven is nice and hot before you begin.

So here’s my recipe. Good luck, Beth!

Biscuits

Makes: 10 – 12 biscuits

Ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt

1/4 cup butter (cold and cut into cubes)

1 cup buttermilk or whole milk


Preparation Using a Food Processor:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Using the pastry blade, pulse flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt together.
  3. Add the butter and pulse around 10 times, or until the butter and flour are incorporated so you have little pebbles.
  4. Add the milk and pulse 2 – 3 times, or until you have a rough ball.
  5. Scatter flour onto a solid counter surface or a cutting board and pour the biscuit mixture on top of it.
  6. Roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick piece and cut individual pieces using a biscuit cutter, glass, cup or ramekin.
  7. Place biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until biscuits are lightly browned.

Preparation Using Your Hands:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, stir flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt together.
  3. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, blend the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is fully incorporated and you have little pebbles.
  4. Add the milk and mix until you have a rough ball.
  5. Scatter flour onto a solid counter surface or a cutting board and pour the biscuit mixture on top of it.
  6. Roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick piece and cut individual pieces using a biscuit cutter, glass, cup or ramekin.
  7. Place biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until biscuits are lightly browned.



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Homemade Focaccia

caramelized cipollini onion focaccia

The Bay Area is full of beautifully baked fresh bread. From small operations like Tartine and La Farine, to bakeries with larger distributions, freshly baked bread can be found in almost every neighborhood. Even Cotsco has an aisle selling fresh Acme bread. I cannot stress enough how lucky we are. When I was growing up in North County San Diego, crunchy fresh bread was an exotic treat, only obtainable when we traveled to New York or sometimes Los Angeles, but nowhere to be seen in the near vicinity of my house. Yet although a fresh loaf can be found within a five-minute walk from where I live now, I still like to occasionally bake my own bread.

Like most people, I love the smell of freshly-baked bread. I’m a smelly person. Not smelly, as in I smell bad (at least I hope not), but smelly, as in I am very olfactory-driven. This is both a blessing and a curse. While I am able to smell hints of lavender or citrus not always discernible to others, smells I hate – such as disinfectant or what it disinfects — seem to shoot through my nasal passages and into my brain (right below my right eye). So making bread is an act to not only feed my family and myself, but to nourish my nose as well. Homemade bread fills the house with the most wonderful lingering aroma, and as a bonus I also get to eat it.

One bread I enjoy making at home is focaccia. In addition to thinking it’s one of the easier breads to bake, I also love that it can accommodate a variety of toppings. Although it is most often baked with sea salt and rosemary, you can easily add thyme or sage instead, not to mention goat cheese, caramelized onions, olives, garlic, nuts, anchovies, and fresh tomatoes.

Focaccia is a traditional Italian bread; its recipe dates at least as far back as ancient Rome, when it was called panis focacius. Like pizza, it is made from a simple yeast dough that is often cooked with olive oil. The dough is pretty straightforward and easy to make. Best of all, making focaccia at home will fill your kitchen with warm and comforting smells, which is something you can’t buy at Costco.

Following is my recipe for caramelized cipollini onion focaccia. The onions add a sweet flavor that plays off the salt nicely. Feel free to use chopped kalamata olives instead, add goat cheese, or just use herbs and salt. Whatever you do, your house will smell delicious.

Caramelized Cipollini Onion Focaccia
Makes: one loaf
Ingredients:
2 packages of active dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 tsp sugar
4-5 cups of flour
1 ½ tsp sea salt
5 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp coarse sea salt
1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, or sage
1 cup carmelized cipollini onions

Preparation by Hand:
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let sit for five minutes or until the mixture becomes foamy.
2. Stir 4 cups of flour, 1 ½ tsp salt, and 3 Tbsp olive oil into the yeast mixture and then stir thoroughly until you can make a rough ball. You will probably need to use your hands.
3. Sprinkle flour onto a work surface (either a solid countertop or large wooden board) and turn the dough out onto the floured surface.
4. Knead the dough for at least five minutes, adding the last cup of flour as needed to prevent the dough from getting too sticky. You may not need the full cup. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth.
5. Set dough in large bowl coated with olive oil. Cover with a dish towel and set in a warm draft-free spot for at least an hour or until the dough doubles in size.
6. After dough has risen, coat the bottom of a large cookie sheet with the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil.
7. Turn the dough onto the oiled cookie sheet and press down so it fits into the pan. If the dough does not stretch, let it rest another five or 10 minutes covered with the dish towel.
8. Press your fingers into the dough to dimple it. This will help the dough bake evenly and prevent it from inflating too much when baking.
9. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for another hour.
10. Sprinkle the course salt, herbs, and onions onto dough.
11. Set dough in a preheated 450 degree oven.
12. Bake for about 15 – 20 minutes or until golden brown.Note: Be sure to check the bread after about 10 minutes if using a convection oven.

Preparation with a Stand Mixer Using the Bread Dough Attachment:
1. In your mixer’s bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let sit for five minutes or until the mixture becomes foamy.
2. Add 4 cups of flour, 1 ½ tsp salt, and 3 Tbsp olive oil into the yeast mixture. Using the bread dough attachment, mix until a rough ball forms.
3. Sprinkle flour onto a work surface (either a solid countertop or large wooden board) and turn the dough out onto the floured surface.
4. Knead the dough for at least five minutes, adding the last cup of flour as needed to prevent the dough from getting too sticky. You may not need the full cup. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth.
5. Set dough in large bowl coated with olive oil. Cover with a dish towel and set in a warm draft-free spot for at least an hour or until the dough doubles in size.
6. After dough has risen, coat the bottom of a large cookie sheet with the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil.
7. Turn the dough onto the oiled cookie sheet and press down so it fits into the pan. If the dough does not stretch, let it rest another five or 10 minutes covered with the dish towel.
8. Press your fingers into the dough to dimple it. This will help the dough bake evenly and prevent it from inflating too much when baking.
9. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for another hour.
10. Sprinkle the course salt, herbs, and onions onto dough.
11. Set dough in a preheated 450 degree oven.
12. Bake for about 15 – 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Note: Be sure to check the bread after about 10 minutes if using a convection oven.

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Bragiole for Saint Paddy’s Day

bragiole

While others were drinking green beer, making lamb stew, or boiling the pervasive corned beef and cabbage this week, I ignored all things Irish. My family was never one to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. As Italian Catholics, St. Patrick’s Day was a minor religious holiday in my childhood house, and my proud Italian father couldn’t comprehend how the nation turned it into a festive drinking day celebrating the Irish. This was particularly telling as he was never one to turn down a pint of beer, celebratory or not.

Half the time I forgot to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Not surprising from the girl who brought meatball sandwiches for lunch, but a drag nonetheless as this meant I got pinched all day (a tradition, I am happy to say, that has been abandoned, at least at my daughters’ elementary school). My family just didn’t celebrate the day. We ate a normal dinner — something like pasta with broccoli rabe followed by stuffed peppers. No corned beef for us. My mom just didn’t cook Irish.

Ironically, my dad died on St. Patrick’s Day two years ago. And then the day before the holiday this week, my maternal grandmother passed away. Now, what the nation celebrates as an excuse to drink beer and “get their Irish on” has become a time of reflection for me.

My father and grandmother were different in many ways, but one thing they could always agree on was food. Both were lifelong advocates of the southern Italian table. While my father never lifted a finger in the kitchen (he was a Sicilian male of the old school), he could correctly identify the vast range of regional dishes prepared, including what ingredients were used, and if they were fresh or not. My grandmother, on the other hand, was the quintessential Italian cook. Each day she prepared a Neopolitan dish that had been passed down from generation to generation. She got up around 4:00 a.m. each day, made a pot of coffee, and started cooking. Unfortunately, we were separated by 3,000 miles for most of my life (she in Long Island and me in California), so I didn’t get to hang out with her in the kitchen as much as I would have liked. I have very fond memories of when we were together, however: her busy at the stove, talking with a New York accent sprinkled with Italian, and making the most heavenly dishes.

It was hard to get a recipe out of my grandmother. She was completely disconnected from the idea that food is often made using a list of ingredients with directions. Instead of actual recipes, I would receive a list of instructions that were more subjective than definite. She loved to write recipes (or at least her version of what a recipe is) down on note cards, which were full of comments like “add some milk” or “pinch the dough until it’s right.” It would drive me nuts when I would ask “how much milk?” and she responded “enough,” as if that said it all. But when I was in the midst of making a dish, I found that “enough” was often a better direction than an exact measurement. She and my mom (who hands down recipes just like her mother) taught me to trust my instincts in the kitchen and that the look and feel of a mixture is what’s important. My grandmother’s recipes helped me learn more about technique, color, feel, and texture than any cookbook ever could.

So in honor of my father and grandmother, I made Italian gravy this week. I still can’t tell you how my family makes this dish, although I will tell you how I made the bragiole.

Bragiole

Makes: 6 bragiole

Ingredients:
6 pieces of thinly cut beef (either 1/4-inch bottom round slices or flank steak work well)
2 hard-boiled eggs chopped
Minced parsley and garlic (enough to sprinkle on the meat)
Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Preparation:
1. Tenderize the meat so the pieces are nice and thin.
2. Season each piece with salt and pepper and then top with the egg and parsley.
3. Add a little garlic to each piece (not too much, but enough to flavor) and top with some freshly grated cheese.
4. Roll each piece of meat up and place a toothpick in each one so it stays closed.
5. Brown in olive oil and then cook in your gravy.
6. Simmer for at least an hour and serve.

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Confessions of a Girls Scout Cookie Hater

girl-scout-cookies-in-the-trash1
It’s Spring, which means it’s Girl Scout cookie season. Little Girl Scouts and Brownies everywhere are marching door to door selling boxes of Americana. If you live a few flights up or don’t have any Girl Scouts in your neighborhood, you may have escaped the door-to-door sales period, but I would be surprised if you haven’t encountered little green- or brown-vested girls somewhere else. Rosy-cheeked and armed with multi-hued boxes, they sit at card tables in front of your local hardware or grocery store, at parks, or near the door of your morning coffee spot ready to sell Thin Mints and Do-Si-Dos. You may even work with people who push cookies for their daughters at the office. The Girl Scouts and Brownies are everywhere this time of year, and many of us can’t dodge buying a box or two (or ten). I mean, who can turn down a cute little 8-year old girl selling cookies to pay for the big end-of-year campout?

So each year I find myself with boxes of Samoas, Lemon Chalet Cremes, and Tagalongs, to go with the ever popular Thin Mints and Do-Si-Dos. But here’s the problem: I hate Girl Scout cookies.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate the Girls Scouts of America. Unlike the Boy Scouts, with their appalling homophobia issues, the Girl Scouts are quite likable. The organization works to empower girls of all ages, which I think is great. My daughters were Brownies for a couple of years, and if the meeting time hadn’t interfered with piano lessons, they would still be in their old troop hawking their own boxes of cookies.

My dislike of Girl Scout cookies has nothing to do with the Girl Scout organization itself and everything to do with the actual cookies. They’re just not very good. Actually, they’re awful. Whenever I see people look genuinely excited to get their boxes, I am confused. The chocolate in the Thin Mints and Samoas is waxy, while the Samoas themselves are so overtly sweet they make me nauseous. Trefoils are sort of like shortbread, but without the great buttery taste, so why bother? The Do-Si-Dos, which are peanut butter cookies, are probably the best of the bunch, but even they’re a poor facsimile of what a real peanut butter cookie should taste like. And don’t even get me started about the partially hydrogenated oils in every box.

I have kept my feelings about Girl Scout cookies bottled up for years as detesting them seems tantamount to hating grandma and apple pie. But I need to be brave and stop living a lie. So I am shouting it from the rooftops (or rather my computer). I hate Girl Scout cookies! There is nothing tasty about them and I’m tired of pretending Thin Mints are a treat. If this organization is going to bombard us with cute kids selling plastic-wrapped confections, can’t the cookies at least taste good?

Maybe they really aren’t all that bad and I’m just turning into a crabby old lady. The next thing you know I’ll be screaming at the kids to get off my lawn. Okay, it felt good to get that off my chest. That said, I’m sure I’ll be buying more boxes next year.

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Cherry Turnovers

cherries

I recently wrote about turnovers and posted my apple turnover recipe. I love apple turnovers, but also adore cherry. Unlike apples, however, cherries are only in season for a very short time each year, from about June through July. If you want to eat cherries the rest of the year, you need to use frozen or preserved. Although cherries are amazing when fresh, and fresh cherry turnovers are beyond compare, you can make delicious cherry turnovers with some frozen cherries and jam. I also use these same ingredients when making cherry pies out of season.

Here’s the recipe. It’s easy, fast and yummy.

Cherry Turnovers

Makes: 9 turnovers

Turnover Ingredients:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry 2 cups fresh or frozen cherries

1/2 cup cherry jam or preserves

1/2 cup bown sugar

2 Tbsp flour

1 tsp lemon juice


Topping Ingredients:
1 egg scrambled
2 Tbsp white sugar

Preparation:
1. Bring puff pastry to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. Place frozen cherries, jam, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
4. Roll out pastry dough on a lightly floured surface into a 12- by 12-inch square and then cut it into 9 equal pieces.
5. Scoop cherry mixture onto the lower half of each square, being sure not to overfill.
6. Turn the upper half of the dough over the cherry mixture and pinch the ends. If the dough doesn’t seal, you can lightly coat the edges with an egg wash and then press them down.
7. Lay the filled dough onto a baking sheet and coat each turnover with an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
8. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 12 – 18 minutes, or until golden brown.
9. Serve immediately or store for later use.

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Turnovers

Apple turnover in hand
Turnovers are often forgotten in the dessert world. Tarts and pies steal the show when it comes to articles, cookbook recipes, and blogs, but turnovers are just as sweet and delicious, and portable to boot. Like their bigger and more prevalent cousins, turnovers are simply cooked fruit encased in buttery pastry dough. Yet unlike the tart and pie, you don’t need to slice them, set them on a plate, or make a presentation out of serving them. Sure you could plop some ice cream or whipped cream next to one and set a mint leaf on it, but you could just as easily wrap it in a napkin and stick it in your pocket for later. This is why turnovers (both the savory and sweet variety) are also referred to as pocket pies.

Portability makes turnovers the perfect dessert for a variety of occasions. They’re a great choice for parties where people will be milling about instead of sitting down. They’re also ideal for putting in kids’ lunches, packing for picnics, or taking on car or airline trips. But you don’t need an occasion to make turnovers; they’re great any time.

Turnovers are incomparably delicious when made with homemade puff pastry, but very few of us have the time or inclination to make puff pastry from scratch. Although you can create a nice turnover with homemade pie crust, I prefer puff pastry’s flaky texture for the finished product and so I opt for frozen store-bought sheets. If you have time to make your own puff pastry or know of a shop where you can buy it, you’ll be in for an extravagant indulgence when you bite into your luscious turnover. But if you’re like me and usually have only the frozen stuff available, you will still reap the rewards of a buttery and fruity treat.

To make fruit turnovers, simply create a bowlful of whatever pie filling you like most. I am partial to apple and cherry turnovers, but blueberries, pecans, and pureed pumpkin are also great fillings. Anything you would stick into a baked pie or tart will work. You then scoop the filling into cut pieces of puff pastry, seal and bake. That’s it.

There’s no reason dessert has to be a plated affair. So the next time you’re taking a road trip, want to put something extra special in your child’s lunch, or you’re simply in the mood for a sweet pocket pie, make some very easy and delicious turnovers.


A few tips to making turnovers:

1. You can cut your dough into circles or squares to make either half moon or triangle turnovers.
2. Overstuffing the dough will make the turnovers pop open and the juices will all ooze out, so be careful to leave room for crimping the edges of the dough.
3. If your dough is dry, you may want to seal the edges with an egg wash.
4. If you want your turnovers to be glossy, brush with an egg wash before baking.
5. Sprinkling sugar on the outside gives the turnovers a sweet crispness.
6. To perk up cold turnovers, simply warm them in a heated oven for about five minutes. This will recrisp the outside and warm the fruit filling.

turnover-on-a-plate

Apple Turnovers

Makes: 9 turnovers

Turnover Ingredients:
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
2 cups diced apples cut into 1/4-inch squares (you can use Granny Smith, Fuji, Golden Delicious or any other firm apple)
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp flour
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Topping Ingredients:
1 egg scrambled
2 Tbsp white sugar

Preparation:
1. Bring puff pastry to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. Cut up apples and place in a bowl with the lemon juice so they don’t become brown.
4. Combine apples with sugar, flour and cinnamon.
5. Roll out pastry dough on a lightly floured surface into a 12- by 12-inch square and then cut it into 9 equal pieces.
6. Scoop apple mixture onto the lower half of each square, being sure not to overfill.
7. Turn the upper half of the dough over the apple mixture and pinch the ends. If the dough doesn’t seal, you can lightly coat the edges with an egg wash and then press them down.
8. Lay the filled dough onto a baking sheet and coat each turnover with an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
9. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 12 – 18 minutes, or until golden brown.
10. Serve immediately or store for later use.

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