Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Okay, so it's only 8.30 p.m., but man, if I make it to midnight, it will be a miracle. But never mind. Any excuse to open the bubbly, enjoy it and snap a few shots.

Happy New Year, guys. May 2008 simply present you with better times, new friends and old around and good food to warm your hearts.

Visit often.

Cin Cin.

Language of Baklava

Why didn't I hear about this book sooner? Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber is a must read for anyone who loves food or cooking and who understands how you feed the soul when you feed other people, how food helps you have roots and how food helps you wander among other cultures. (Of course now you should read all her other books, too. She has her own wonderful website here.)

I just finished reading it, and I find myself craving Middle Eastern food. She has sprinkled her favorite recipes throughout the book. Yesterday, I came home from our Publix with dried chick peas, which are soaking now (will I make hummus or falafel? I don't know yet); bulgur (cracked wheat for Subsistence Tabbouleh) and long grain rice. I think today I'll seek out ground lamb and use the wheat for kibbeh the way she describes it ("Cowboy Kibbeh" in the Bad American Girl chapter).

I would pass this book on to everyone I want to read it, which is what I normally do with books I love, but I can't. It's a cookbook, too, and I must have it in my cupboard.

Her novels include Arabian Jazz, Crescent and Original. I've got Crescent (Oooh! I just read that it is banned in Texas. I will have to make all my children read it.), which I will plunge into today, since it is New Year's Eve and I'll take the day and indulge myself, perhaps at the beach here in South Florida.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bread Like Sam's

After making pizza after pizza the other day, I browsed the same book, Carol Field's Italian Baker, and found a recipe I made a lot for a little while..Pane Pugliese. This recipe reminds me of the bread you get at Sam's Italian Market in Willow Grove, PA, a bit north of Philadelphia, near the PA Turnpike. Sam's is an incredible Italian grocery in a suburban blank spot (my opinion only; we lived and liked it near there for six years...Sam's was one thing that helped us like it) and the bread that place turned out: moist, dense, full of flavor. Flavorful, in fact.

So my penciled notes from way back when(date: 3/23/92. Sam was not even 4, Ian just 2 1/2, Bryn not even a thought) say, "Great texture, moist. Reminds me of Sam's. Relatively easy, slightly messy (sticky)."

All true.

Like the pizza, I did have a strike...well, not a strike so much as a fire in the oven...With the first batch of bread yesterday. So here's what happened: I use an oven thermometer. Oven was at 450. I put in the loaves, ran to pick Bryn up and got back to a...very toasty smell, shall we say? The oven thermometer was reading 550. The third loaf, the one that was on the lower rack? A blackened door stop. A large piece of charcoal. The parchment paper? Gone. I can only guess it self-combusted (oh, I know, nothing self about it!)...Luckily, the two loaves on the top shelf seemed okay...

The little loaves went fast. I had promised one to a friend, and the rest barely made appetizers for this family.

So today, I wanted more. I did only two loaves (same recipe, bigger loaves) and baked both on the top rack. All went well. But oddly enough, the oven was registering 550 when I took the loaves out. Weird, but worth watching.

Anyway, this bread is every bit as good as I remember it. This is a loaf made with a "biga" or starter, which is what I think gives it its texture.

Every time I make bread, I wonder why I don't do it more often. I own a Kitchenaid. The flour
costs pennies. And homemade bread? This is real food.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Babette's Feast/Babette Feasts...

Here. Here's the link to that wonderful movie about food and friendship, the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, Babette's Feast. You can learn about the author, Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen ("I had a farm in Africa...") here. Also read about it on IMDB here: Babette's Feast.

The name of my blog is only clever if you know about the movie! (Rachel...)

Making Pizza Round...And the mistakes it took to get there

I have made my own pizza for years. It's easy. But it's never been pretty. Square, squiggly, pulled, pushed...shape just didn't matter. Size did. Toppings did. Taste did. And my pizzas tasted great.

But now, part of my job as food editor for Florida Table is to do the food styling for photo shoots...well, for Florida Table AND for Boca Raton Magazine. If it has to do with food, they call me in.

Tomorrow they want a model eating/making/cutting pizza. My first instinct was to buy crusts, but then I knew they would look like cookie cutters. So I bought a couple of my family's favorite pizzas--you know, for those times I am not around to coddle them with homemade pizza--which are Freschetta Brick Oven pizzas...but they are square. So I still had to figure out round on my own.

I made three recipes worth of dough.

That was the easy part...and the book, my favorite The Italian Baker by Carol Field, said this particular recipe (Pizza alla Siciliana) makes enough for one 15-inch pizza. Okay. My oven can cope with could I make it round?

So I turned the first batch out. Patted it into a neat disc. Started rolling. I got a PERFECT circle. Trouble is, it was more like 19 inches across. It was definitely a LARGE pizza. I didn't even know how I was going to get it from the counter to the oven.

I thought I'd try using the pizza peel and the back of a very flat cookie sheet. Brilliant, right? Wrong. The dough stretched, sagged, pulled and fell. Through the oven rack...

So I split the second batch into two pieces. I rolled a perfect, smaller circle. This circle I tried to move to a cookie sheet, but it lost all shape as I did it (that's it below the over-sized monstrosity)...Strike two.

Then I spotted a huge ceramic platter that I've had for years. It was a gift from one of my best friends ever, Donna. It's so big it doesn't actually get pulled out that often. But now, it was just the ticket. I rolled out a third piece of dough (the second half of batch two). Perfect circle. Because this recipe is so wonderful, nothing sticks...I gently slid that circle onto the platter, then I made tiny adjustments so it was even all around.

And the platter even fit into the oven.

Repeat two more times. End result: three par-baked shells for a photo shoot. I am so proud. And the ruins? Topped with fire-roasted crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a touch of real Parmigiano-Reggiano and some fresh basil plucked from the patch of dirt in front of the condo: Can you say dinner?

And just for the record, let's add learning to toss pizza crusts to my list of things to do in 2008.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Baking, December 23, 2007

I put it off as long as I could...I don’t know why, but it took until school vacation started for me to actually get around to baking...So I’ve baked up a storm in the past 48 hours.

Over the years, I’ve tried to pair down the list. I used to make scads of cookies...and truffles...and what I really love is to have a baking weekend, where I invite friends over, we ALL bake our three or four faves and then we have a real assortment..It’s a bakers’ cookie exchange, I guess. But here in Florida, I don’t know enough people still, so this time it was just me--with the occasional pop-in from my son, Ian, or daughter, Bryn, both of whom levied their own taste tests.

At any rate, my must haves this year--well every year--were toffee, Martha Stewart’s chocolate espresso shortbread wafers, Chocolate cookies with sea salt and classic shortbread. The sea salt cookies were a kind of a repeat..I made some last year--and lost the recipe. So I found this one...It’s good. My son’s friends say it’s great, but ...well it will stay in the files, but I may look again (and btw, I substituted cocoa nibs for the walnuts, not being a really big fan of nuts in cookies).

The toffee I did twice. I never am satisfied with the texture. I followed a Martha recipe and cooked it to soft crack stage, just the way she said, but it’s too sticky for me. So I did a second batch, same exact ingredients from Martha, but cooked it to 300 degrees, hard crack. That’s the batch that is cooling in the photo, so I haven’t tested it yet...One year, I’ll only make one batch. (And I guess this is the entry that states definitively that I am a Martha fan. What can I say, but I admire her work and her recipes...)

The shortbread is the recipe I got from Marcie Barker, whom I worked for and with at Union Square Cafe in NYC...two decades ago (gulp). It is the simplest and the best recipe I have ever made. I decorated it with pearl sugar, because I’ve moved that box of pearl sugar from Louisville to Florida apartment number one to Florida apartment number two. Use it already.

The coffee espresso wafers are my favorite of the bunch. Such a grown up cookie. And for a long time, the kids didn’t like these, so there were always enough for me. You mix in the espresso ground coffee (the beans, not the liquid). Again, it’s about the texture: it just melts in your mouth, but has this deep, dark rich flavor.

The chocolate sea salt cookies satisfy my penchant for all things sweet/salty, which I know is not everyone’s cup of tea, but man, it sure is mine. Check out the recipe links, and here is Marcie Barker’s Shortbread:

1 pound butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour

Heat oven to 250 degrees. Mix the butter, sugar and vanilla together. Add salt and flour. Pat into one big layer on a cookie sheet, making it about 1/2-inch thick. (If you want to press sprinkles or pearl sugar into the shortbread, do it now.) Bake 60 to 75 minutes. Let cool slightly and cut into pieces.

Let's Make Gnocchi/December 12, 2007

I had to think a moment why I decided I HAD to make gnocchi over the weekend... Then I remembered: Stephen from the Top Chef Holiday special made leaden balls of gnocchi. They were soundly mocked, and I thought to myself I’d better at least make them one time just in case I ever find myself, you know, in a competition having to make gnocchi. I don’t want some judge to drop my gnocchi like a bowling ball on national TV.

So. I checked in with the crew at kitchen forum. They sent me to read Lidia Bastianich’s recipe...and so I began. Whole potatoes in their skins, boiled til tender. Cool slightly, put through food mill (Lidia prefers a ricer, but guess what: I don’t own one). Then let them dry and cool. Add eggs and just enough flour. Roll, cut, press against fork tines, boil. I served mine with brown butter, fresh sage and grated parm. If you look at the photo above, they do look a bit rough, but my cutting technique improved rapidly--it had to; this recipe made a gazillion little pillows of potato pasta.

My Plastic Thanksgiving/ November 22, 2007

This is as little out of order, but I couldn’t resist posting the photo I took. Thanksgiving happened to be my birthday. No one REALLY appreciates the effort of a good meal in this house (okay, my middle son does, but he’s also home from college and is VERY happy with any hot food...) and it was my birthday (did I already say that?)...So after a good friend took me to the beach for breakfast and ALMOST for a tattoo..or for an almost tattoo, not sure which..(either way, I didn’t get one!), I got home, relaxed some more...relaxed some more...and then heated up the “meal” I’d purchased from our local grocer.....turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, even green bean casserole. I DID make the pumpkin pie, by the way...

As it turned out, the pie was the only part of the dinner I liked. Can you say tastes like plastic? Well, okay, the cranberry sauce was okay. The green bean casserole, which I though would be a “treat” for everyone? I threw it out.

So the photo above? My ode to the plastic Thanksgiving (note that I will try again, but maybe from a more...upscale, shall we say, place?)

The photo below? Fort Lauderdale Beach on my birthday.

Epcot's Party for the Senses, November 6, 2007

My dear daughter, Bryn, and I went to Epcot for the International Food and Wine Festival, which is held every autumn. What an event. In addition to the regular pavilions, countries set up kiosks with regional foods and regional drinks...The lines were a bit daunting, but we nibbled at Ireland on a potato pancake, a.k.a. Boxty, and Bryn tasted leek and potato soup...her verdict: It is cold. Yup. It was hard for her to take a cold soup. The boxty was tasty. We also stopped at Italy for wonderful tiramisu and a made up concoction that was very yummy: the Italian Margarita. Hey, limoncello, grappa and margarita mix. How bad could it be?

The big event was Party for the Senses, which you had to have tickets to. Once again, we were overwhelmed by the size of Epcot. Because we just didn’t know where we were going. We got all the way to The Americas, where our pass gave us reserved seating to Jon Secada (we missed him as we wandered in the wilderness known as Epcot)...but where was the event? Surely we didn’t have these VIP passes only to have to wait in line for food like the mere mortals sans passes....Nope. I DID have to call the number and confess my stupidity to the Disney operator. She set me straight and directed us to the World Showcase (as differentiated from the World Show PLACE)...Once we entered, though...ahhhhhh.

The event was crowded, but the lines (the few there were) moved quickly. We got plates that held a wine glass (Bryn drank Evian) for any number of tastings we wanted. My favorite had to be the Fairy Tale Cuvee from Iron Horse, which seems fitting for a trip to Disney, right?

While we wandered, we got one great dish with a “strange” sauce. Bryn asked what it was....hmmm. To tell her or not to tell her? It was crab...She liked it, so I figured I’d tell her. Big mistake. After nearly being sick, she quickly turned to desserts and played it safe for the rest of the evening. She was my photographer, too. (That is her shot of duck confit with carrot oil above.)

Yikes, I almost forgot--we got to eat at Todd English’s Bluezoo at the Dolphin, too. A spectacular meal, but more later.

Mmmm...Pot Pie

Originally Written November 2, 2007

I am cheating a little bit--I made this a few weeks back when I had to do some recipes for Florida Table--all about chicken--and I always test my recipes beforehand-- even though I am pretty confident things will work, I always tweak. This pot pie used up some leftover roast chicken from Costco (I pretty much love all things Costco--the chickens are all natural, hormone-free and only $4.99 and big enough for at least two, count ‘em, two, meals)..anyway, this fired on all cylinders, as they say. Great crust (if you don’t feel like making crust, please buy the Pillsbury crusts, already rolled out...I confess to always having a box of these in my fridge)..I can’t really divulge my recipe here because it was for Florida Table magazine (subscribe now!), but I will give you the secret to gorgeous looking crusts: egg wash. That’s all. Crack one egg, beat it and brush it on. For sweet desserts, do the same, then sprinkle it all with sugar. Gorgeous. My pot pie is divine, but you’ll have to buy that winter issue of FT to cook it for yourself.

This afternoon I am heading off to Epcot for its International Food and Wine Festival event. I will report in when I am back on Sunday.

Burrata Dinner: October 31, 2007

It might be a day or two before I get into the groove...ideally I’d have a beautiful picture of tonight’s dinner here...we had lovely burrata, tomatoes, a bit of onion, olive oil and fresh basil from my garden.

We ate it too quickly. By the time I remembered I want to photograph my dinners...well, you see what was left.

But it’s worth talking about burrata, a mixture of mozzarella and cream. The outer “shell” is pure mozzarella. The inside is this creamy mix of mozzarella and cream. It is smooth, rich, decadent and somehow wholesome all at the same time. This dish was basic food, good ingredients at their finest. The pound of cheese wasn’t cheap ($15.99 at our local cheese shop, The Cheese Course), but worth it. And don’t tell: I saved a tiny bit for my lunch tomorrow. I bet I’ll be the only one lunching on burrata.
Made on a Mac