Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cookbook #22: Barefoot Contessa Parties

Adapted from Cookbook #22: Barefoot Contessa Parties!*

Recipe:  Shortbread

This is by far the best batch of shortbread I have ever made.  Ever.

Often I find shortbread too dry.  While fantastic for dipping into tea, shortbread sticks to the roof of the mouth.  And there's nothing pleasant about that.  So given the option, I often avoid shortbread.

But then, I needed to bake something for a little gathering of colleagues, and Ina Garten is the one to trust when it comes to baking.  Page 210 in her book happened to be shortbreads, so I thought, why not?

These little cookies were perfect.  Crumbly and firm without being dry.  Sweet, but the strong notes of vanilla.

I didn't know why shortbread was called so.  I wondered is it because it is unleavened, and thus does not rise, so it is "short."  But no.  Apparently crumbly texture used to be called "short."  Such texture is created by a high fat to flour ratio (traditionally the shortbread ratio is 1 sugar: 2 butter: 3 flour--Ina Garten deviates, but for fine results).  This is the same origin of "shortening" which is added to flour to create more of a crumble.  And "shortcake" comes from the same origin (although it uses a leavener).  So there you have it.

In the end, I put them on the table among other fantastic breakfasty foods (the almond croissants from Boulange were amazing).  And my colleagues and I sat down to a breakfast that allowed us to stop, reflect, and close out a year of teaching.  And no body had to deal with shortbread sticking to the roof of their mouths.  As far as I know.  I admit, I didn't ask.

*I love to think of parties as a verb, not a noun, in this title.   But I know it's a noun.

3/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and 1 cup of sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. If the dough is too crumbly, add water, by the tablespoon until a dough forms.

3.  Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

4.  Roll the dough 1/2-inch thick and cut with a cookie cutter.

5.  Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Two notes.  If you chill the cookies after you cut them, the edges will be sharper.  You can also halve (or third or whatever) the dough and wrap in plastic wrap.  It will keep in the refrigerator for a little while so you can make more later.  Say the next day.  In the early morning.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cookbook #21: Jacques Pepin's Simple and Healthy Cooking

Adapted from Cookbook #21:  Jacques Pepin's Simple and Healthy Cooking

Recipe:  Pasta Primavera


That's about all I have to say about this recipe.  It just screams spring.

And we're nearing the end of spring, so it's high time I made this recipe.  This is the kind of recipe that makes me want to renew my CSA box.

Pasta primavera, so the story goes, was "invented" in New York City in the 70s at Le Cirque.  Word spread, and by the 80s everyone was making it, including the husband in his World Foods class in high school.  No joke.  Nowadays, gone are the cream and butter sauce base of the 70s and in their stead come a lightened version of broth and olive oil.

This recipe comes from Jacques Pepin, after those halcyon days of heavy French cooking.  A bit of healthy living certainly led to this fine little cookbook.    I would argue that most of the recipes in this book are more weeknight cooking than weekend entertaining, but what a cookbook! Cold Peach Soup (p. 59) and Chicken Piquante (p. 150) are two standouts.

So instead of saying much more on the matter, I will let the vegetables do the rest of the talking.

Oh and be aware,  I am not a huge fan of pasta as a dish unless it has too much sauce.  So these photographs show about one serving of pasta and three servings of sauce.  Just the way I like it.


4 Servings

2 tablespoons pine nuts
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
5 cups of vegetables, diced-- any combination of broccoli florets, green pepper, red pepper, asparagus, scallions, zucchini, celery, mushrooms, tomatoes, peas
8 ounces angel hair pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided into 1 tablespoons
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh parsley
salt and pepper

1.  Preheat the broiler.  Place the pine nuts in a small baking tray.  Bake for about 2 minutes, or until lightly toasted.  Set aside.

2.  Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a pot.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet.  Saute the garlic.  Add the vegetables and 1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable broth.  Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and cook over medium to high heat for 2 minutes.  Then remove the lid and cook until all the liquid has evaporated.

4.  Just before serving, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it according to the package instructions until it is al dente.  Drain well.

5.  Transfer the contents of the skillet to a large serving bowl and add pasta, 1 tablespoon oil and salt. Toss well.  Divide the mixture among 4 warm plates and garnish with parsley and pine nuts. Salt and pepper to taste.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cookbook #20: I'm Just Here for More Food

Adapted from Cookbook #20:  I'm Just Here for More Food:  Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking

Recipe: Pound Cake*

*And yes, I did take a little bite off of the corner of the pound cake.  I was willing to sacrifice the picture in order to have a piping hot taste of pound cake fresh from the oven. 

This cookbook is rather clever in its setup.  Alton Brown teaches you the methods of mixing and then expects that you will begin to see the patterns of putting together a recipe.  So instead of listing in each recipe all of the steps for the Biscuit Method or the Creaming Method or Straight Dough Method or the Muffin Method, each chapter has an introduction to the method with all the science bells, whistles and gee-gaws we have come to love and expect from Alton Brown.  After you figure out the method, his recipes become more outlines than programs, and you get to have your own wiggle room.  He, of course, explains precisely why you want the Creaming Method here with a pound cake.  While it may be considered a pound cake, it should not feel brick-like in your belly.  Instead, you want to aerate your cake.   To do that, you need to rub together the fats with an abrasive.  This is where the butter and the sugar come in.  And the stand mixer.  Keep mixing until the fat changes in volume and texture.  So the most important take home message here is... pay attention to your mixing method.  Isn't science fun?

Pound cake has a long tradition, and everyone seems to have a recipe for it.  Back in the 1700s, the recipe was simpler--one pound each of flour, butter, sugar and eggs.  These days such a mass seems a bit, well, excessive.  Besides, now many include a leavener.  But you could leave the baking soda out, that is if you want to whip even more air into the eggs.  That's a lot of whipping, but it's possible (and even what the fine folks over at Cooks Illustrated recommend).  To add to the sense of excitement, you can also add your own touches.  The British and the Mexicans often add nuts or dried fruits, while the French add chocolate or lemon juice.  The Colombians drench their pound cake in wine, while some just put crystallized ginger, coconut, pumpkin, or sour cream in theirs.  I like mine with fresh fruit.  Alton Brown suggests buttermilk in his recipe, and I have to say, it turned out tangy and light while still maintaining the dense moistness.  Yes, light and dense.  It sounds paradoxical, but this pound cake recipe will help you achieve paradox.

On a side note, pound cake holds a special place in this household.  We associate pound cake with the husband's grandparents--that and chocolate-covered orange peels, borscht, latkes, and overcooked hamburgers.  All in all, a sweet list of food, but pound cake, well, takes the cake.  The husband's grandfather died this past year.  About two and a half to three years ago, we decided to make a "Greatest Hits" dinner for the grandfather and the grandmother.  We said that we would come to their place and make whatever yummy things they liked.  The grandfather wanted brisket and pound cake.  We scoured the grandmother's recipe box for a brisket, and we whipped up our own pound cake.  We sat around their table and laughed until the grandmother got tired.  We cleaned up the dishes, wrapped up the leftovers, and then clicked the door shut quietly behind us.

We're glad we got the chance to do that with them.

1 Pound Cake (serves 6-8)


8 ounces (2 sticks) softened, unsalted butter
14 ounces (2 cups) sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
14.5 ounces (3 cups) flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2.  Grease or use parchment paper on a bundt pan or bread loaf pan

3.  Assemble batter using the Creaming Method:
     a.  Scale and measure all ingredients.  Fats should be pliable but solid (no sign of melting).  If the kitchen temperature is over 70 degrees, chill the mixing bowl.
    b.  Combine all the dry goods (except sugar) by pulsing in a food processor.
    c.  In a small bowl, beat eggs together with any extracts.
    d.  Using a stand mixer, with the paddle attachment, on medium speed mix the fat(s) alone for a minute to spread them around the bowl.  Add sugar(s) slowly and beat until mixture lightens noticeably in texture and increases slightly in volume.
    e.  Reduce the speed to stir and add the eggs slowly, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
   f.   Work in the Dry Goods in three installments alternating with any additional liquids, such as milk.  Always start with the dry ingredients and finish with the wet for a smoother batter.

4.  Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour, or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan.

5.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool 15 minutes in the pan, then turn onto a rack to cool thoroughly.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cookbook #19: The Best Soups in the World

Adapted from Cookbook #19:  The Best Soups in the World

Recipe:  Czech Smooth Potato Soup

I love a cookbook with chutzpah.  Look at the title.  Not Soups of the World.  No, no.  This cookbook boasts the BEST Soups in the World.  Who am I to disagree?  Such cheekiness is welcoming, as I sometimes declare "Soup Week" for no discernible reason (this week, happens to be Soup Week, where we have had this Czech delight detailed here, but I also have a fresh American asparagus soup and a Colombian potato soup also on the docket).  I wish to make only the best soups.

This past Friday evening, I made bramborova lisovana polevka or, as everyone knows, "smooth potato soup" (okay, count me among the laity especially when it comes to the Czech language).

I have a 1990s crush on the Czech Republic.

I share this crush with many of my generation who witnessed the Velvet Revolution from afar.  I, like many of my fellow American Gen X'ers, have been to Prague.  The first time was in 1995, just before Thanksgiving.  Two of my dear friends from high school (who were then living in Germany) and I drove in a snugly appointed compact car from Vilsek to Prague.  Along the way, we saw a "Castle for Sale" sign printed in big, block English that somehow bothered me more than I wanted it to.  Somewhere in the rural western Czech Republic with our mighty American dollars, we bought crystal at a roadside stand in part because we had to use the bathroom and it seemed the polite thing to do:  a fair exchange of money for crystal and much-needed facilities.

But then we got to Prague, all dark, dank, and almost Decemberish, and I fell in deep love with this city.  I loved the Charles Bridge, which we trundled across all bundled up in scarves, and I loved the Castle all lit up and sparkling above the river as the sun went down around 4 p.m.  And I even loved the pizza we ate in a turret submerged into the river even though the pizza had corn on it (this was back in the vegetarian days, and lordy, let me tell you being a vegetarian in recently opened Czech Republic was a sight to behold).

In 2003, the husband and I returned to Prague in what was possibly one of the worst weekends of our entire summer.  The heat hovered around 95 degrees, I had an unsightly and rather irritating heat rash on my calves,  the Rolling Stones were in town so Prague was filled with motorcycle-riding Germans and Belgians, and we stayed in a hostel so hostile the bathrooms reeked of Kafkaesque nightmares. I kept trying to convince the husband that Prague was wonderful, Romantic, with the capital "R."  And for a just moment I was able to convince him.  We wandered off the tourist path into a cobblestone courtyard all strewn with the remnants of the yellow blossoms of some tree, watched a family play cards in the twilight hours, and sipped Tokaji, a regional wine.  For two hours Prague was all that I had once imagined it to be.  And stupidly, we pleasure-seeking Americans left that enclave, in search of another experience.  When I think back on this second trip to Prague, I regret leaving our seats at this little, tucked away restaurant that I, if pressed, would never be able to find again.  But I hold this moment fondly, closely.

All of this has only the most tangential connection to this wonderful soup.  Thank you for affording me that indulgence to remember Prague.

This soup looks rich--it really does.  Egg yolks, cream, potatoes, bacon, lard!  It boasts "filling" and "heavy."  However, it's a light, little soup.  Given that it has 5 cups of water to 1 cup of cream, the soup is actually a insubstantial bit of potato-y goodness.  I recommend serving it with a big ole green salad and skipping the fried bread.  Just have a good roll instead.  And while this will not bring anyone back to cobblestoned streets littered with yellow tree blossoms, it certainly does shed a positive light on the Czech Republic and its food.

4 servings

1 1/4 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
5 cups water (or chicken broth)
3 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup pork lard
1 cup bacon (about 1/4 pound), diced
4 to 5 ounces bread slice
1 cup cream
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Place the potatoes in a pot with the water and 1 teaspoon of salt.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to medium heat and cook until tender, about 35 minutes.  Remove the potatoes without dumping the water, pass the potatoes through a food mill or sieve (or whip with an electric mixer until just blended).  Return to the potato water in the pot.

2.  Meanwhile, in a skillet, melt the lard over medium heat, then add the diced bacon and cook, stirring, until crispy, about 8 minutes.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Fry the bread sliced in the skillet until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes in all.   Remove and set aside.

3.  In a small bowl, mix the cream and egg yolk, then stir into the soup and heat over low heat for a few minutes until the soup is very hot but not bubbling.  Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, stir, then taste, and add more salt if necessary.  Add the bacon and parsley, stir, and serve with the slices of fried bread.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cookbook #18: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Adapted from Cookbook #18:  The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (2002)

Recipe:  Pasta alla Carbonara

Oh Judy Rodgers, how I love thee, thy restaurant, thy straightforward cooking, thy sense of humor, and thy cookbook.  I have been waiting to cook from thy book since January, but I waited, waited as I should, for just the right English Peas from the Berkeley Bowl.  There they were, and, well, here I am. 

The Zuni Cafe is perfect:  bar and mezzanine are a corner shop, and you can sidle up to the floor to ceiling windows to sit on the benches, or you can make your way to the back to sit near the wood-burning oven or the oyster bar.  Upstairs, the tables are snuck into coveys and coves, and you sometimes feel as if you're the only ones in the restaurant, even at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.   The Zuni Cafe has a long history with the husband and me.  He spent his 21st birthday here having dinner with his father before tottering down the steep stairs and then out into the night to celebrate with his friends.  This was the very first restaurant the husband took me to in San Francisco back in 2000 where I had anchovies with celery for the most divine appetizer, the roast chicken with the bread salad (that we replicate at home when we mean to impress), and I had simple mountain Gorgonzola drizzled with lavender honey and a glass of Bonny Doon's vin de glaciere*.  I had no idea cheese, honey, and wine could be so perfect.  We have been here for family birthdays, Sunday afternoon hamburgers, rainy afternoon shoestring fries, weekend cocktails at the copper bar, out-of-town-guest oysters and martinis, pre-theater dinners, and post-beach Caesar salads.

And when I turned 30, the husband gave me this cookbook.

So it is with pleasure, I turn to page 210 with Judy Rodgers and her amazing cafe cookbook.  Behold the Pasta alla Carbonara.  The word "carbonara" means "coal-worker" or "coal-seller," and some say that this was a dish eaten by coal workers or that the black pepper resembled coal flakes.  But this recipe was not included in Italian cookbooks prior to World War II.   When the husband and I were in Italy with his family back in 2003, we heard a story that this pasta was created for American troops in Italy during the second world war.  Americans liked their eggs and bacon, and this was the way to satisfy them.  But others have suggested that the food shortages in Rome post 1944 forced Romans to get creative with their Allied rations of powdered eggs and bacon.  In the end, American, Italian, coal-worker or just plain black pepper, this little pasta recipe is fantastic, and Judy Rodgers does it just right.  She suggests serving it with Malbec.  I suggest just making the pasta right now.

*Seriously, click the Bonny Doon website link.  While I cannot find the vin de glaciere there anymore, their website is downright amazing.
4-5 servings

7 ounces bacon or 5 ounces guanciale cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch segments
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (I used part skim), at room temperature
1/2 pound penne, spaghetti, or bucatini
1 1/4 cup shucked sweet English peas
2 ounces pecorino romano or pecorino sardo, grated
Lots of fresh black pepper

1.  Warm the bacon in olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over low heat.  It should gradually render a little fat, which will mix with the oil.

2.  Lightly beat the eggs with the ricotta.

3.  Drop the pasta into 6 quarts rapidly boiling water seasoned with scant 2 tablespoons salt (a little more if using kosher salt).  Stir, and cook until al dente.

4.  When the pasta is about a minute from being al dente, add the peas to the water and raise the heat under the bacon.  Cook the bacon until it is just crispy on the edges but still tender in the middle.  Turn off the heat under the bacon.

5.  Drain the pasta, shake off the excess water, and slide the pasta and peas into the pan of bacon.  Immediately pour the beaten eggs all over the steaming pasta, add most of the pecorino and lots of cracked black pepper.  Fold to combine, working quickly so that the heat of the noodles, bacon, and bacon fat slightly cooks the eggs.  The eggs and ricotta will coat the pasta and form tiny, soft, golden curds.  (If you prefer the eggs cooked further, return the pan to low hear, but use a nonstick pan, or the eggs and pasta will stick to the pan and to each other, becoming a big glob of pasta).

6.  Serve in warm bowls with the remaining pecorino and black pepper.