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.

Watch and learn

I think I’m addicted to television cooking shows. For a long, long time, the Food Network was my go-to channel. I’d simply flip on the TV and leave it going in the background for hours, picking up a tip or two by osmosis as I’d go about my day. I got very used to the voices of celebrity chefs infiltrating my consciousness. However, thanks to the proliferation of reality TV cooking competitions, I hardly ever watch it anymore. Namely, my must-see TV now consists of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and Next Food Network Star.

Random thoughts about each series: Next Food Network Star would be the competition I’d be most likely to enter if I could. The challenges seem to be the most up my alley, although I have absolutely no desire to host my own television cooking show. The contestants seem to be fairly normal people and there’s not nearly as much of the high drama you find in some of the other series.

This past season’s winner, Melissa D’Arabian, was my top pick all along. The network promoted that runner-up guy as some kind of Zen food yogi, but he always just seemed half-stoned to me. Come to think of it “Let’s Get Baked” wouldn’t be a bad name for a cooking show… but I digress. Although she seemed a little hyper at first, I liked Melissa’s French-inspired food best; it looked the tastiest and the dishes she cooked often seemed like things I could see myself making at home. She’s already busted out several little cooking tips and hints that I have found extremely useful and am likely to remember forever. Plus, the woman has four little girls, all under the age of 5 (including 1-year-old twins!). Anyone who has time to deal with that AND cook gourmet dinners complete with do-it-yourself French pastry is my hero.

Hubby and I taped one of Melissa’s first shows on the DVR and were very impressed with it. On the season finale, part of her show demo meal was an individual potato gratin made in muffin tins. I downloaded the recipe and hubby and I have made it twice within the past week. It is ridiculously easy, and super tasty. Tonight, we’re going to give her crispy-skinned chicken breast a l’orange a whirl.

I like Hell’s Kitchen, but sometimes the drama gets to be a little much to bear. It’s like the American Idol of cooking shows with Gordon Ramsey cast as a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Simon Cowell. I know it’s all about ratings, but seriously. I’ve worked in a handful of restaurant kitchens with all different kinds of culinary personalities, and I’ve never seen anyone act that way. I’d certainly never want to work for someone who’d get in my face and call me an effing donkey, and I have to question the mental stability and sanity of anyone who does. Then again, some of the HK contestants are complete whack-jobs anyway.

Gordon Ramsey is obviously a good chef and has made a career out of being an uncompromising perfectionist. I suppose it’s a bit like playing basketball for Bobby Knight. I know he’s a good coach, (my fellow IU alumni are probably going to bust my balls for even making this comment at all) but aren’t there just-as-effective leadership techniques that don’t rely on fear, intimidation and masochism? I’ll watch Hell’s Kitchen, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t take it seriously.

Top Chef is perhaps my favorite cooking competition to watch. There’s no golden post or television show prize waiting, the winner simply gets a buttload of money to use to further their own culinary dreams and aspirations. In my book, that’s awesome.

These are hardcore, serious chefs and it’s fun to see what kinds of dishes they manage to produce. I don’t kid myself that I could hang with this level of crowd for a second; they cook using products and techniques I’ve never seen, hear of, or know how to spell. Last season, though, it was cool to see caterer Carla give fly-under-the-radar Hosea and snooty Stefan a run for their money in the finale by staying true to herself and her simple, cooking-with-love style. That’s the approach I’d take; I was sorry to see her lose it in the end by letting her sous-chef rattle her self-confidence.

Some of these chefs show off creativity that is truly stellar. In each episode, at least one contestant makes something that leaves me seething with envy and renews my interest in going to culinary school. For example, in this week’s episode, two of the top-rated appetizer dishes included a savory macaroon filled with avocado guacamole, and an apple sorbet in a little shot glass with a goat cheese cracker/cookie. YUM.

As an added bonus, I love, love, love the judging panel. Gail Simmons is like your best girlfriend, Tom Colicchio knows his shit but conveys criticism in a way that’s not soul-destroying, and Padma Lakshmi is a tasty visual treat that whets the appetite anytime she appears onscreen. (How in the world do these people eat all of that food without making themselves completely sick or gaining 200 pounds?)

Too early to make a prediction yet about this season, but I seem to think it’s going to be one of the two brothers.

Fellow foodies, leave me a comment! Your favorite cooking show and why????