Wham bam biscotti

My macaron mojo has apparently left the building. I hosted a book club meeting at my house on Sunday night and was intent on dropping a batch of these babies on my guests. If you’ll recall from my previous posts, my most recent attempt at macarons didn’t go so well.

The first few batches I made at the first of the year turned out beautifully, with little “feet” at the bottom of the cookies and everything. Must have been beginner’s luck, because the last time I tried to make them about a month ago, all sorts of things went wrong. First, the dough wasn’t loose enough and the cookies cracked and bubbled as they baked. Then, the dough was too wet and they didn’t rise at all. One thing after another, yadda yadda yadda. Three batches in a row – all disastrous.

On Sunday afternoon, I felt up for another go. Mixed the batter, piped them out and realized they were too stiff. Proud of myself for recognizing the problem while I still had time to correct it, I scraped them back into the bowl, whipped up a couple more egg whites, folded them into the batter and tried again. As they rested on the cookie sheets before baking, they looked much better. Even my piping was fairly consistent. I thought to myself “now that’s more like it! Finally!”

It came time to throw them in the oven, but when the timer went off and I took them out, they looked pathetic. Bubbly and full of holes, barely risen. Disgusted, I tossed them straight into the trashcan without even sampling one and started looking for other cookie recipes to make for my gals. You win, macarons. I give up.

After some consideration, I came across a butterscotch biscotti recipe I’d made once before several years ago. Hm. I had all the ingredients on hand, and it required no sifting or electric mixing. I was suddenly back in business.

The recipe I was using as a blueprint called for a few tablespoons of bourbon and the additions of butterscotch chips and almonds. I can’t make anything like this without putting my own individual stamp on it, so I replaced the bourbon with coffee and left out the chips and nuts, figuring I’d work them in as toppings later.

After I’d mixed the dough, the directions said to shape it into two flat logs. Only problem with this was that the dough seemed very wet and sticky, so every time I tried to flatten it into the requisite shape, it soundly refused to go quietly into that good night. It stuck to my hands like glue and was impossible to form correctly. I somehow figured out to wet my hands in between pats to coax it into the right shape, stuck it in the oven and nervously hoped for the best.

Lo and behold, after the required 20 minutes, the dough had risen into little flat domes just like it was supposed to. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and took the loaves out of the oven. Once they are cool enough to handle, you slice them thinly to make the biscotti and then stick them back in the oven to toast on all sides, turning every few minutes or so until they’re golden brown and crunchy all over.

You can either mix stuff into the dough to flavor it from the get go – chocolate chips, spices, nuts, etc. – or you can follow my lead and dress up the cookies once they’re baked. I melted some chocolate chips in the microwave with a tiny bit of cream to make a quick ganache, which I then used to frost the biscotti on one side. It still needed a little something to increase the wow factor, so I sprinkled chopped almonds on some and toasted sesame seeds on others. You may think sesame an odd choice in this instance, but I’m telling ya, it was awesome.  Almost like a peanut flavor, and a great combo with the chocolate.

All in all, the biscotti went over well. In fact, I just whipped up another batch this afternoon. Take that, macarons.

Basic biscotti

(Makes about two dozen)

Ingredients:

1/2 c. butter, melted

1 cup brown sugar, packed lightly

4 tablespoons strong coffee, cooled (or replace with bourbon or brandy if you want to get a little crazy!)

4 eggs

2 tsp. Vanilla

2 1/2 c. flour

1 1/2 tsp. Baking powder

1/4 tsp. Kosher salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix the melted butter, brown sugar and coffee until smooth. Add the eggs one by one, mixing well to incorporate between each addition, then stir in the vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder and salt, mix well to combine.

Line two rectangular baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat. Divide the dough evenly between the two cookie sheets and shape each into one long flat log around 1/2 inch high. Try to spread the dough as evenly as you can, wetting your hands lightly as you go to prevent sticking.

Bake the logs for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the pans once at the halfway mark, until dough is solid and has risen slightly. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let cool slightly.

When the dough is cool enough to handle, transfer each log onto a large cutting board. Using a long, serrated bread knife, slice the dough on a diagonal into 1/2 inch widths. Return all the cookies back to the baking sheets, placing them on their sides and spacing them out as far as possible.

Put the cookies back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, flipping all the cookies over once halfway through the baking time. When they’re light golden brown and toasted on both sides, they’re done.

(As I mentioned before, there are all sorts of ways you can jazz these up:  mix chocolate chips, butterscotch chips or nuts into the dough before baking; or frost/glaze them with icing of your choice, then sprinkle with chopped nuts or jimmies.)

Buon appetito!

chocolate almond and chocolate sesame biscotti

A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.

Puff daddy

One word strikes fear into the heart of cooks and chefs everywhere. And that word is… soufflé.  When made correctly, it’s sublime, but there is perhaps no other recipe so fraught with potential for disaster.

Souffle can be a finicky little bugger. If you don’t give it the love, attention and respect it deserves, it can pout and refuse to rise to the occasion, so to speak. It will show you who’s boss by emerging from the oven sad, flat and floppy instead of heavenly light and pillowy — a mere baked omelet instead of the puffy, fluffy masterpiece it was intended to be.

Hubby just got home last night from another work trip. When we got up this morning and saw the snow blanketing down (AGAIN. Ugh.), we decided to skip our planned yoga class and hole up inside for the day instead. Our thoughts turned to food, and hubby mentioned a “soufflé omelet” one of his colleagues enjoyed during a breakfast meeting the other day. Then he said, “Why don’t you ever make stuff like that?” I immediately bristled at this passive-aggressive comment and took offense. You want a soufflé, buddy? You got it.

I’ve made soufflés a couple of times before, but haven’t banged one out for a long time. And I have made them for hubby in the past, which he’s conveniently forgotten. No matter. I was up for the challenge.

The only soufflé recipe I’ve ever used is a Julia Child cheese version. Now, those of you who’ve ever prepared a Julia recipe know right away that her directions are going to make everything sound ten times more complicated than it needs to be, and you’re going to dirty every pot and pan in your kitchen before it’s all said and done. On the upside, your finished product is going to be delicious.

Souffles are one of those dishes that go a long way on just a few ingredients. Basically, all you need are eggs, milk, butter, a little flour and any ingredients you want to use as flavoring — cheese, sugar, melted chocolate, Grand Marnier, what have you. Since our soufflé was intended to serve as a late breakfast, we included shredded sharp cheddar cheese, slivered ham and a little diced red pepper. (Some sautéed onion would have made a nice addition, but you all know my audience…)

You start by greasing up an oven-safe casserole dish with butter and dusting it with grated parmesan cheese. This gives the eggs something to grab onto as they rise so impossibly high up the sides of the dish.

Next, you make a thick béchamel sauce on your stovetop by melting butter into flour to make a roux and adding milk, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Take it off the heat and stir in your egg yolks (just the yolks, mind you), shredded cheese and other flavoring ingredients.

Meanwhile, the egg whites come into play in a separate bowl (told you this was labor-intensive). Whip the heck out of them with an electric hand-mixer until they reach the stiff peak stage. As I’ve learned the hard way, you have to be painstakingly careful when separating your eggs. If there’s even the tiniest hint of egg yolk in the mix, they won’t whip up.

Once that’s done, fold the whipped whites into the béchamel, ever so gently so as to avoid deflating the whole concoction, and pour the whole mess into your casserole dish. Transfer it into the oven, set your timer for 30 minutes, cross your fingers and hope for the best. If all is well, you’ll see your soufflé slowly making its way up the dish as it bakes, but you’ll have to content yourself with watching it through the window. Don’t open the oven door, no matter how tempting it is. You’ll let in a rush of air that can disrupt the steady temperature and screw it all up.

When the timer goes off, if your culinary prayers have been answered, you should open the door to find a lovely, browned dome of feather-light eggs.

cheese souffle just out of the oven

Serve immediately to achieve maximum oohs and aahs; the soufflé immediately starts to sink back down the second it comes out of the heat. Tap into the crusty top and scoop out a big steaming serving. Don’t be shy. The consistency is so light and airy, you can eat a ton of this without stuffing yourself.

just look at that eggy lusciousness!

If you want to cut corners or you just don’t have the patience, stick to making an omelet or a frittata. But if you really want to impress your guests at brunch or turn out something truly romantic for a special-occasion breakfast, a soufflé is a great way to go.

Double whammy

Still trying to perfect my techniques, I whipped up a fairly labor-intensive dinner last night of homemade pasta AND more macarons. Glutton for punishment? Nah. I’m feeling more and more comfortable with both endeavors and won’t rest until I’ve nailed them.

First up, more macarons. Chocolate, to be exact. A pretty easy adaptation; you merely add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar and almonds. Trying to streamline, I decided to experiment by cutting a few corners to see if they’d make a difference. First of all, I decided not to sweat the sifting. I just stirred the almonds, powdered sugar and cocoa together as thoroughly as I could and hoped for the best. Next, I used a Baggie for my piping as opposed to my pastry bag (which is a bitch to clean after use). When I was done, I just popped the Baggie in the trash can and that was that. Two big time-savers right off the bat!

Recipes I’ve consulted offer varying opinions about how long to bake macarons and at what temperature. My last lemon batch was tasty, but almost a little too chewy, so I left my chocolate macarons in the oven a little longer than I have my prior two attempts. Around 16-17 minutes instead of the usual 12-13. In the meantime, I simply melted chocolate chips with Half and Half in the microwave and stirred in a tiny bit of butter to make a quick ganache filling.

Final results? The cookies looked great. They smelled great. They tasted great, EXCEPT, they were overbaked. Way too crunchy without a hint of their trademark chewiness. Hmph. Apparently 16-17 minutes is too long – live and learn. If it wasn’t for that minor flaw, this might have been my best batch yet! The other shortcuts I took didn’t seem to affect the outcome at all. Good to know. One more time, and I think I’ll have it sorted.

overbaked chocolate macarons

For our entree, I pulled out the new pasta machine again and rolled out a couple mounds of dough. It still boggles my mind that all you have to do is knead a few eggs into some flour and bam – noodles. I rolled through the dough into long, fragile sheets and laid them out to dry while hubby helped me concoct a quick bolognese sauce with Italian sausage (the Marsh butcher counter is the best place in town for bulk Italian sausage, IMHO). I’m more a sweet sausage fan, but hubby likes it spicy, so we blended a pound of each. The results – delicious, with a nice but not overpowering kick of heat.

We boiled the pasta briefly to soften. In retrospect, it might have been smart to cut the pasta to size before boiling it – the pasta expanded as it cooked, and we had a hell of time trying to fish the sheets out of the scalding water without ripping them and/or hard-boiling our fingers in the process.

Finally, I got the lasagna assembled and threw it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Our lovely neighbors agreed to join us as taste testers. At long last, the oven buzzer rang and I delivered the steaming dish of bubbly cheesy goodness to the table, along with a bowl of quick-boiled green beans and slices of the French bread our neighbors had contributed.

homemade lasagna with fresh noodles

The lasagna was, well, it was fantastic. The fresh noodles are labor intensive to create, but they make such a HUGE difference – the texture was light and simply melted in my mouth, not a trace of the chewiness that I hate. And the sauce was awesome. I have to admit, hubby made a great call with adding in a bit of the hot sausage for punch. It was excellent. (AND he washed the entire mountain of dishes my efforts produced. Bless him. He’s a keeper.) Even the toddler scarfed down some of the leftover noodle “rags” with a little bit of sauce and some cheese on top.

All in all, a great meal shared with great friends. What more could a person want?

Macarons, part deux

Figuring I’d keep striking while the oven’s hot, this afternoon marked my second foray into the macaron-making process. Flavor du jour — lemon.

I’m quickly deducing that sifting the almond meal is my least-favorite and most time-consuming step of the whole recipe. It took forever, scattered almond crumbs all over the kitchen, and I had to use two separate sieves because they kept clogging up. After I’d finally sifted an entire lightly packed cup’s worth, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and stirred it through the powdered sugar.

Instead of mixing vanilla bean into the batter, this time I went with lemon zest and a few drops of yellow food coloring. Unfortunately, when I mixed the almond meal/powdered sugar in, the dark flecks of almond made the whole concoction look like Dijon mustard. Not exactly appealing. The appearance improved somewhat after baking, but the yellow food coloring got totally lost somewhere along the way. (If anyone knows a trick for achieving a uniform color and consistency, I’m all ears.)

For the filling, I whipped up a batch of homemade lemon curd in a double boiler, another first and not too difficult to do. After an hour in the fridge, it was DELICIOUS, a sort of ridiculously thick, rich lemon frosting.

Again, the texture and taste of the cookies turned out well, but the appearance is still not perfect in my discriminating eyes. I slathered on the lemon curd and started assembling them, but the curd was so thick, I shattered several of the delicate cookies before getting the hang of just how much pressure to use. And I overdid the lemon curd on the first few — as it warmed to room temperature, it melted a little bit and oozed down the sides of the macarons. No matter. I’ll save the “mistakes” for myself.

a few of the more photogenic final products

I’ve got tons of lemon curd leftover. This may call for a batch of scones…

Macaron madness

According to the food media, macarons are the new cupcake. I, for one, am completely happy to jump on this bandwagon in support. When I say macaron, I’m not talking about those outdated mounds of coconut and egg white your grandma used to make; I’m referring to the beautiful little silver dollar-sized mouthfuls of deliciousness you find in France. These little beauties have made their way across the pond, and are steadily making a name for themselves right here in Indianapolis. You can find them around town without too much trouble — Circle City Sweets and Taste are two locations that immediately come to mind.

I was first taken with les belles macarons during our visit to Paris nearly two years ago, and was happy to make their reacquaintance during a long weekend there in November. Within the windows of every patisserie we walked past, and there were MANY, there they were. Mouthwatering rainbows of the tempting gem-like little cookies in all flavors and colors. I only wish I could have tasted them all, but at a euro or so each, I had to be somewhat selective about sampling.

In simplest terms, a macaron is a flat meringue cookie sandwich. The cookies themselves have a shatteringly thin glassy surface that gives way to a slightly chewy interior and some sort of sinful filling in the middle. Chocolate cookies with chocolate ganache, pistachio, lemon, berries, mocha — the possibilities are endless, as you saw if you watched the inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Morgan turned out a “red hot” macaron with chocolate filling, and a blackberry version that looked divine.

Last night, we ended up hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve get-together with our neighbor friends down the street, and I decided macarons would be a lovely addition to our hors d’oeuvres table. Since I’d already put together some chocolate custards as a sweet treat, I chose to create a vanilla bean macaron with raspberry filling. Armed with a recipe from the current issue of Bon Appetit and encouraged by two YouTube macaron demonstrations, I started plotting my approach.

On paper, macarons look deceptively simple to make, but hold your horses. It’s not as easy as it sounds to pull them off and come away with the elusive “foot” on the bottoms that allows you to correctly sandwich the cookies together.

There are really only three ingredients for the cookie part of the program — powdered sugar, egg whites and almond flour — plus whatever flavoring agents you might want to incorporate. Now here’s the first challenge: almond flour is not a commonly available ingredient. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what it was, although the Bon Appetit recipe said it was sometimes just labeled as ground almonds. A trip to the Marsh baking aisle uncovered barley flour, spelt flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour and several shelves full of other specialty flours, but no almond flour. Hmph. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s came to my rescue. I quickly located a bag of almond meal that I assumed was what I wanted. $3.99 later, I was appropriated supplied and ready to bake.

Here’s the drill, you sift the almond flour/meal with the powdered sugar (not as easy as it sounds because the almonds tend to gunk up the sieve), then you whip the room-temp egg whites with a tiny bit of sugar until they hit the medium peak stage (I added the vanilla bean here). Fold the almond-powdered sugar into the egg whites in stages until just combined, then carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag. (A Baggie with the corner cut out will do in a pinch if you don’t have a pastry bag in your culinary arsenal.)

Pipe the batter onto a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet in 1/2-inch blobs about an inch and a half apart and then leave them be for about 30 minutes. They will spread out and become very flat, but don’t worry. This is what you want. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and put them in the oven immediately – the YouTube demo said to wait until the surface is slightly hardened and you can touch it with your finger without it sticking. Something about doing this helps them bake up the right way.

While you wait, you can prepare your filling. In my case, I simmered fresh raspberries with sugar, cornstarch and a little orange juice until thickened, then strained the mixture to remove the seeds.

Once they’re “gelled,” the macarons bake at 290-300 degrees for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When they come out, cool them on the sheet and then carefully peel them off the parchment paper. Spread a little filling on each side and stick them together to create the sandwiches. Voila – macarons!

my vanilla bean macarons with raspberry filling

I definitely need more practice piping so all my cookies come out consistently the same size, but overall, I was pretty darn pleased with my first shot at macarons. The texture seemed appropriately delicate and the flavor was good, although the almonds kinda overpowered the vanilla beans. I’m already daydreaming about new combinations to try next time.

Wishing you all a deliciously happy 2011!!!!

Happy New Year!

Presto – pasta!

I’m convinced I must have been Italian in a previous life. I fell immediately in love with Rome during a whirlwind high school tour eons ago; one of my fondest memories of that trip was celebrating my 16th birthday in the Eternal City. I was so enamored with Italy, I proceeded to take two years of Italian in college. It wasn’t until last year that I finally got to return to this beautiful country, tagging along with hubby on a business trip through Milan and a little slice of the countryside around Parma and Bologna. We’ve since been back to Milan twice more within the past eight months for quick stays, but I haven’t yet revisited Rome, Florence and Tuscany; or made it to Venice for the first time.

Italian food is probably my favorite cuisine to cook. Pasta, tomatoes, fresh herbs, roasted meats, cheeses, breads, wines — what’s not to like? When you start out with ingredients this fabulous, you really can’t go wrong. Plus, the preparations are usually fairly simple, often requiring little more than a drizzle of olive oil and a few grinds of salt and pepper.

Hubby gave me a pasta machine for Christmas. As in, one of those stainless steel thingys legit chefs use to roll out pasta dough to paper-thin thicknesses. This is the kind of contraption I often find intriguing, but would never in a million years think to buy for myself. Like the waffle iron my brother gave me two years ago, which I’m ashamed to say only saw use for the first time back in October.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more fearless when it comes to cooking and stretch my culinary boundaries. No time like the present to dive right in.

A chef acquaintance recently sent me an email that said making your own pasta at home is one of the easiest things in the world to do. I didn’t quite believe him. I can recall making homemade noodles from scratch on precisely one occasion, and they weren’t great. My last attempt at gnocchi was pretty good, but wow, what a lot of work.

The pasta machine looked a little intimidating when I opened it up, consisting of several heavy parts that linked together and a c-clamp to attach the whole thing onto the edge of a counter or table. All the pieces arrived slickly oiled, and the directions for cleaning warned against washing with water, instead instructing to dust the whole apparatus with flour and then feed dough through every orifice to de-oil.

At hubby’s suggestion, YouTube came to my rescue. A quick “how to make pasta” search uncovered a very helpful tutorial that bolstered my confidence. Mentally telling myself that Italian grandmas and Top Chefs do this all the time without batting an eye, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

I say this in all sincerity — making pasta at home is not that hard. It’s true. It just takes a little time and some elbow grease. Flour, eggs and salt are the only ingredients you need. No joke. It literally costs pennies per serving.

The first thing you do is dump a good amount of flour onto your (it goes without saying, VERY clean) surface. Mound it up into a pile and create a well in the middle, into which you crack a couple of eggs. Sprinkle on enough salt to lightly cover each yolk. Then, very carefully so as not to collapse the walls of your flour fortress, you blend the eggs with a fork, slowly incorporating flour all the while until it becomes an oozy, sticky blob.

Once the dough is fairly together, you can start kneading it, adding more flour until it becomes smooth and dense. This part takes some muscle, I was surprised to find. You keep folding the dough in half and pressing it out again and again. It takes about five minutes until the texture becomes smooth and pliable, then you form the whole thing into a ball and let it rest for about 10 minutes.

I felt like a mechanic getting the machine c-clamped onto the counter and cranking a test batch of dough through all the openings. If there’s an adult equivalent of playing with Play-Doh, this must be it. Hubby even got into the picture. Maybe I’m easily amused, but it was so much fun to see the delicate sheets of pasta becoming impossibly thinner and thinner, finally emerging from the cutter as threads of spaghetti and thick linguine. When all was said and done, the entire kitchen was coated with a fine dusting of flour, but we had two cookie sheets full of pasta drying for dinner.

The pasta looked gorgeous, but I was secretly terrified it would turn into a gloopy, floury mess once I dropped it in to cook. I whipped together the simplest of tomato sauces as I waited for my pot of water to boil. Holding my breath, I eased in the first batch of noodles. It held together and after a few seconds, floated to the top of the water, looking like actual fettuccine!

I boiled the pasta for about four minutes as per the instruction booklet, then cautiously fished out one of the noodles and slurped it into my mouth. Joy of joys – it was fantastic!!!

from-scratch fettuccine

I quickly drained the fettuccine and tried my hand at the angel hair. It only took about two minutes to cook, and was terrific as well! Mamma mia, what a revelation. Hubby complained only once to say that the kitchen smelled like boiled eggs when I started cooking the pasta, but he shut right up after I stuffed a noodle in his mouth.

The texture of the homemade pasta was perfect, so unbelievably tender and worlds better than store-bought dried brands. With a light coating of the tomato sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, it was a delicious meal, if I do say so myself. I couldn’t have been prouder. Even my picky-eater son and stepson scarfed down their entire servings.

pasta perfetto!

I can’t wait to experiment with different shapes and creative add-ins for the dough. Next up, cannelloni. Or perhaps ravioli. Maybe a fettuccine alfredo. The possibilities are endless… buon appetito!

Visions of sugarplums

The newly minted Top Chef Just Desserts season has kicked my sweet tooth into overdrive. (What’s with all the drama, by the way? An open plea to Top Chef producers – PLEASE just stick to the food. Leave the whining, bitching and bipolar episodes to Hell’s Kitchen. I expected more a little more from you. Here’s hoping you’ll redeem yourself with Top Chef All Stars…)

The holidays demand sweets. That’s just all there is to it. When I was growing up, one of the events I most looked forward to was our church’s annual holiday tasting party. Each year on the first Sunday evening of advent, the church played host to a huge seasonal program. Following the big show, the tasting party would take over the basement to offer table upon table laden with every imaginative use of sugar one could fathom. All created by the loving hands of the church ladies and you know as well as I do, no one cooks like a church lady.

Here how’s it worked:  you’d grab a paper plate and troll the aisles, loading up with anything that struck your fancy. Cookies, brownies, buckeyes, cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats, bars, chocolate-covered whatever, sweet Chex mix, corn flake wreaths, peanut butter fudge, butterscotch chow mein noodle haystacks… good grief. It’s enough to send me into sugar shock just thinking about it. Looking back, I’m not sure how it was successfully managed, but it was. I don’t think actual fights broke out over the last item on any given plate, but the potential was definitely there. I do seem to remember an awful lot of hyper children running around that basement.

Every year around the first of December, I start sorting through my cookie recipes, intending to recreate some old favorites and maybe try a few new ones. I even picked up a jar of red and green holiday sanding sugar at Michael’s the other day in anticipation of this year’s baking extravaganza.

I’d like to try my hand at sugar cookies and gingerbread men, but I’ve traditionally not had good luck with these kinds of dough. In fact, the last time I attempted to make gingerbread men, I recall spending an entire afternoon painstakingly mixing, rolling, cutting, decorating and baking them, only to bite into one and discover that it tasted like nothing but straight-up flour. Bleh.

To me, nothing says Christmas like the winning combination of chocolate and mint. (It even brings back fond memories of mixing up mugs of peppermint schnapps-spiked hot chocolate in my IU dorm freshman year.) I’ve got a wickedly decadent recipe for crème de menthe brownies, and another for double chocolate chip cookies with crushed candy canes that I plan on dusting off within the next week or so.

Creme de menthe brownies

I’m all for collecting other ideas and suggestions. If you’ve got a favorite cookie recipe, holiday or otherwise, feel free to post as a comment below. In the meantime, here’s a recipe I made several times last year to much acclaim. It’s super easy, doesn’t require many ingredients to fuss with, and is consistently delicious. Enjoy – and bring on the sweet eats!

Cookies ‘n creme fudge

3 (6 ounce) packages white chocolate baking squares

1 (14 ounce) can EAGLE BRAND® Sweetened Condensed Milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups crushed Oreos (it could be fun to experiment with other cookies as well)

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the white chocolate squares, sweetened condensed milk and salt. Remove from heat and stir in crushed cookies.

Spread evenly into a wax paper-lined 8-inch square pan. Chill 2 hours or until firm.

Turn fudge out onto a cutting board; peel off the wax paper and cut into squares. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Memories of mom food

This past Monday would have been my mom’s 78th birthday, so of course, she’s been on my mind all week. My dear mom passed away eight years ago, and still, not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

On a not-so-coincidental note, I just finished reading Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life,” and it really hit home for me. Each chapter consists of a personal food-related anecdote along with a corresponding (and mouthwatering) recipe, sort of a my-life-story-through-food piece of work.

Whose life doesn’t have distinctive food-related memories, especially where moms are concerned? Whether she was a gourmet chef who made the most elaborate dinners in town or had trouble boiling water to make a box of mac and cheese, everyone has food connotations when it comes their moms. Chances are, there’s at least one thing she made — good, bad or ugly — that will forever stand out in your memory and remind you of her.

My mom wasn’t a terribly adventurous cook, but what she made was solidly good and consistent. Let me paint a picture for you. As a child of the 1970s growing up in Indiana, here’s what the majority of our family dinners looked like. Some sort of meat (usually dipped in flour and fried), mashed potatoes from a box with gravy, canned green beans, individual bowls of iceberg lettuce salad with Kraft French dressing and perhaps a few shreds of cheese, and bread and butter. Sound familiar? Not that we didn’t branch out now and then and go crazy with a pizza, tacos or something else, but that was the sort of meal you might find on our table any given night during my childhood.

This is not to say that my mom wasn’t a good cook. She was. She was also an extremely organized cook. These two qualities led to her leadership rise on church planning committees for large-scale luncheons, dinners and banquets. (I like to think this is where I get my penchant for catering – it’s in my blood.) I just think as a busy working woman with two children, she took some shortcuts where she could find them, and when they proved successful with picky eaters like my brother and I. She had her work cut out for her. I didn’t grow to appreciate vegetables until college and liked to douse my fried chicken with ketchup. My brother got upset if any food item on his plate touched anything else. Fortunately, my dad was an easy audience, inhaling two or three servings of anything she put in front of him and pronouncing it wonderful.

Some of my mom’s “famous” dishes include spaghetti sauce that consisted of ground beef mixed with cans of tomato and mushroom soup and a little Italian seasoning, a chocolate chip coffeecake that has personally won me some rave reviews as well (including a recipe publication in Rachael Ray Magazine), and a fancy beef dish called Saucy Sirloin that she’d make when company came over.

I was at my dad’s house last weekend and happened to catch a glimpse of my mom’s old recipe box on a cabinet shelf as he reached in for something, so I swiped it and brought it home with me to look through at my leisure this week. This was a real walk down memory lane. Inside, I found some real treasures, like my grandmother’s pineapple cookies and persimmon pudding recipes. I also found a lot of things that call for a can of Campbell’s or a packet of Lipton onion soup mix, old favorite standbys for Hoosier cooks of a certain age and inclination. And casseroles. LOTS of casseroles.

There were a few recipes in there that I can’t recall ever eating. I don’t remember my mom ever preparing anything as exotic as asparagus strata, chicken curry or Harvey Wallbanger cake, but lo and behold, there they were. And I must admit, I was moved and thrilled to actually uncover a few recipes I had given her over the years that she must have thought worthy enough to hold onto.

In my beloved mom’s honor, I dug out one of her oldies but goodies to make the other night. It’s called porcupines. (Relax. Although we have been known to eat wildlife shot by my dad or brother from time to time, this dish is not actually made of porcupines, silly.) It’s a moist and savory meatball with rice that spikes out as it cooks to look like – what else – a porcupine. The whole thing simmers away in a tangy tomato/Worchestershire bath until it’s tender and delicious. My toddler even ate some without protest. And because the ingredients are simple and accessible, it’s super affordable to make. This hearty dish is a great alternative to meatloaf, perfect to serve with a salad, green beans or perhaps some steamed broccoli with cheese sauce. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

And to my mom, wherever you are, thanks.

Porcupines

(Serves 3 or 4)

1 lb. ground beef

1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice

1/3 c. milk

3 tb. finely chopped onion

1 egg

1/2 tsp. celery salt

1/4 tsp. garlic salt

2 tb. margarine (or Crisco shortening if you’re really kicking it old school)

1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 c. water

1 tb. Worchestershire sauce

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix the ground beef, rice, milk, onion, egg, celery salt and garlic salt until well combined. You can add a few twists of freshly ground pepper as well. Form into meatballs about the size of a golf ball; an ice cream scoop works well for this purpose and lets you make sure all the meatballs are evenly sized.

Melt the margarine in a large saucepan and add the meatballs. Turn them gently to brown on all sides, then add the tomatoes, water and Worchestershire sauce. Cover the pan and simmer for 35-40 minutes until the rice is cooked, moving the meatballs occasionally to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom. If the liquid boils away too much, add a little more water, but the sauce should be fairly thick when it’s done.

… and to all a good meal!

This Christmas has been one of relaxation in our household, which is not a bad thing at all considering the busy year it’s been. The week has been very low-key, filled with cooking, shopping and lots of cozy fires in the fireplace. Nice.

During the past 10 days or so, I’ve been busy making holiday treats of various shapes and sizes — milk chocolate pots de crème for our Christmas dinner finale, white chocolate Oreo fudge and peppermint meringues to name a few. I found this recipe for cookies and crème fudge on allrecipes.com and have been making the heck out of it this season. With just three ingredients to worry about, it’s super easy to make, looks very pretty all packaged up in a holiday tin and tastes awesome. For the last batch I made, I used the holiday Oreos with the red filling, thinking they would look beautiful nestled into the white chocolate fudge. However, the color ended up bleeding out into the fudge, turning it sort of an alarming shade of red, but I threw in a little peppermint extract and called it festive. A brilliant and quick-thinking move on my part, if I do say so myself.

Since it was originally just going to be a quiet Christmas Day with hubby, the toddler and me, I didn’t go overboard on my dinner plans. My dad ended up joining us, which was fine, but for once, I was secretly glad not to have to cook a big meal for a tableful of folks.

For our main course, I ended up buying a turkey breast, which I stuffed with lemon slices and thyme sprigs and threw into the crockpot. It was delicious – moist and juicy with great savory flavor, and I used the stock that was released to make a scrumptious gravy. For sides, we had wild rice with dried cherries, apricots and almonds, and a panful of Brussels sprouts that I sautéed with garlic and olive oil, then steamed and topped with bacon. I’m telling ya, if you don’t like Brussels sprouts, I can convert you. Really, you can’t go wrong with almost any vegetable by sautéing it in olive oil and garlic, then topping with bacon or cheese. Alternately, roasting it in the oven until it turns brown and crispy works, too. Try it next time you have broccoli or asparagus on hand. Yummy.

Christmas dinner spread

Hubby really wanted to make Yorkshire puddings, something we’ve talked about for ages but never actually tried. For non-British readers, Yorkshire puddings aren’t really puddings at all, they’re like a popover/dinner roll thing that caves in the middle to create a little bowl of dough, into which you then spoon a big ladleful of gravy or jus. You see them often served abroad at carvery lunches in England or with roast-and-potatoes-type meals.

I looked up a few recipes and thought they all sounded deceptively simple. Hm. This immediately made me somewhat suspicious, but I was willing to give it a try. The batter is just milk, egg and flour, stirred together and left to sit for 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the recipe you’re using.

The next step is to coat your muffin tins with oil or a little of the drippings from your roast (I used bacon grease), spoon in a little batter and off you go. The puddings are supposed to puff up as they bake, then collapse in the middle as they cool to create the bowl shape. Mine didn’t collapse; they just stayed puffy in the middle. They tasted good, but there was no way you’d have been able to use them as edible gravy vessels. I’ll try them again, though, maybe throwing in some parmesan cheese and herbs next time.

the failed Yorkshire puddings

I spent a good chunk of my Christmas loot on new cookbooks! Shock of shocks, I did not previously own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, but I do now. Along with an awesome slow cooker recipe book I found on the bargain rack for $5, and a series of Culinaria books on Germany, France and Italy. What could be more perfect! They contain not just recipes, but tons of cultural information and profiles on various cities and regions. I can’t wait to dig into them.

Elsewhere in the week, we’ve been talking about making paella for awhile. I researched online and came up with a Gordon Ramsay version that sounded promising. Gordon definitely hooked us up on the shepherd’s pie, so I figured his paella would fit the bill as well. Plus, he’s looking kinda hot now that he finally got those weird craggy lines fixed on his chin… His recipe called for a slew of shellfish, which I had to leave out if I had any hope of hubby eating it at all. And the onion as well, of course, but that goes without saying.

Gordon’s paella calls for rice, tomato, spices, chicken, chorizo and some veg. That’s about it, really. Nothing too intimidating. I’d never cooked with chorizo before, and I had exactly one kind to choose from during my shopping excursion at Kroger, so I hoped for the best. It looks like a regular cased sausage, but I found as I sliced it up and tossed it into my pan, it completely melted away into the sauce. It definitely left a kicky flavor behind, but no chunks of nicely browned sausage to bite into like I was hoping for. Alas. Next time I’ll know to use a hard sausage or include some chunks of ham as well for texture. Everything else came together nicely. It was really just exactly like a risotto, which I’ve made many times over.

As I was stirring hot stock into the rice, chicken and veggies, I was struck that many different cultures share a go-to chicken and rice comfort food just like this. In America, what is possibly more comforting than a steamy bowl of chicken and noodles? In Italy, you’ve got risotto; in France, coq au vin; in India, chicken tikka masala. There’s arroz con pollo, pilaf, dumplings, chow mein, you name it. Wherever there is chicken, there is chicken and rice.

The paella turned out very spicy, but good. We enjoyed it with a bowl of olives, garlic bread and some Manchego cheese (that was the only disappointment of the meal). I stirred through a handful of shrimp into my own bowl, which added a lot, I thought.

Paella

my bowl

Would love to make paella again, this time with all the seafood… maybe a girls’ night dinner in the offing?? Although I still need to have the gals over for an Italian spread inspired by our trip to Milan. I’ve already got that one all planned out in my head – bruschetta, pasta, grilled steak with parmesan and arugula, and tiramisu for dessert.

The New Year looms ahead. I’ve been writing my blog now for a whole year! Here’s hoping my few and faithful readers have enjoyed hearing about my food exploits as much as I’ve enjoyed experiencing them. Happy 2010!!!