Friday, December 13, 2013

Let's Get Snapin': Spicy Ginger Snaps

Tis the season for cookies, especially ginger snaps. When I was little, I distinctly remember eating the small, crunchy brown cookies from a brown bag-I can't remember what brand-but my Grandma would only buy those. I remember eating them, and lingering on the spicy notes that were left in my mouth. I think that was when my love of gingersnaps started-and it hasn't stopped. However, I think it is a shame that I typically only make these during "The Holidays". I will have to change that-since ginger is such a warm, refreshing and spicy addition to any time of year…gingersnap affogato in the summer? Probably going to happen.

I have to admit, I only found and perfect this one in the past 4 years, thanks to one of my Aunt's who discovered this lovely lady and her cook books. After buying Pure Desserts, I had to buy Alice's book devoted to only cookies. I have not been disappointed yet-and I don't think you would be either if you grabbed either of those books!

The cookies are wonderfully spicy (thanks to a good quantity of fresh and dried ginger), can be cooked to snappy perfection or to chewy goodness. The traditional rolling in Demerara, turbinado or other large-crystal sugar is a classic, but topping with a small piece of crystallized ginger or leaving them plain is perfectly acceptable too.

This recipe is remarkably easy, requiring one a few pieces of equipment and can be done entirely by hand. What's more: the dough can be make a few days ahead, made into balls at you leisure, baked off when you want (or when guests pop in…or when you really just want a fresh gingersnap…). Alternatively, you can freeze pre-made balls, thaw overnight in the fridge, then bake. So really, there is no excuse. Get snaping'!

Spicy Ginger Snaps
Adapted from Alice Medrich's recipe in "Pure Desserts"
Makes about 48 to 52 small, 2" cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soday
2 heaping teaspoons dried ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch cardamon, garam masala (optional)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup un-sulphered molasses
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 heaping tablespoons freshly grated ginger*
1 large egg
3/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped finely**
1/2 cup Demerara or Turbinado sugar for rolling
1/3 cup crystalized ginger, cut into small pieces for topping

*Use a zester with larger holes, a microplane, or as I did this year: peel and cut the ginger root into small pieces, and pulse in a coffee or spice grinder until smooth, scraping the edges of the grinder between pulsing.
**The original recipe calls for mixing in the finely chopped crystallized ginger, but I find that omitting this does not impact the awesome-ness of this cookie. I bump up the fresh grated ginger to compensate, but feel free to add the crystallized ginger if you love it!

1 medium sized sauce pan (make sure it is large enough to hold the entirety of the dough, since this will be your main mixing vessel)
Small bowl for spice measuring
Rubber spatula
Wooden spoon
Measuring cups and spoons
Bowl for rolling sugar
Ordinary metal kitchen spoon
Baking sheets with parchment
Thin metal or plastic spatula for removing cookies
Cooling rack

In the sauce pan, melt the butter over low to moderate heat. Once melted, remove from the heat completely. Add the sugars and the molasses. Mix thoroughly with a rubber spatula. Crack in the egg, and stir vigorously. It is imperative that the pan is not hot, or else the egg will curdle.

Now, grab your sifter, spices, and baking soda, and measure into a small bowl. Admire how amazing they all are!

Measure the flour into the sifter directly over the with the wet ingredients, add the spices, and sift into the pan. Now, with the rubber spatula or a more sturdy wooden spoon, mix everything thoroughly together. It may take a touch of muscle-but deal with it-this is worth it.

Now, allow the dough to rest for a few minutes. Pre-heat your over to 350F, and assemble the rolling sugar and/or chop the small pieces of crystallized ginger for on top. Grab sheet pans, and line with parchment, and set up a cooling rack of sorts (towels laid flat over newspaper or brown paper bags work in a pinch).

Or, place the dough into the fridge and store it here until you are ready to bake. The dough will keep up to 1 week, if tightly covered to prevent drying.

If baking immediately, using a spoon, scoop out enough dough to make a ball the size of a small walnut. Roll in your hands, and then toss into the rolling sugar, rolling gently to help the sugar adhere. Place on the lined cookie sheet, spacing each cooking about 2" apart as they do spread If topping with the piece of crystallized ginger, place the dough ball on the sheet then gently press the piece into the cookie ball (the piece will be off-cenetered if now pressed firmly, but it's not a big deal if they do slide a bit…a few of mine always do).

Bake at 350F for 10 to 12 minutes. If you want more chewy snaps, bake until about 1/2 of the cookies have deflated. If you want snappy snaps, bake until almost all have collapsed. But of course, taste and test, and adjust according to your preference!

Enjoy, or pack into cute bags or boxes, and give to the people you adore, along with other goodies like freshly made filled truffles and hand-rolled truffles:


Friday, December 6, 2013

Cinderella Approved: Pumpkin Bread with Walnuts

Thanksgiving is done-but the rest of the holiday season awaits. This probably means one of two things (or three, if you are in my case): you have stocked up on canned pumpkin, you have made a large quantity of homemade pumpkin puree, or your Mom and/or Grandma has made a large quantity of pumpkin* puree, frozen it, and has been offering it to you at every occasion possible. Well, either way, pumpkin puree is a great thing to have on hand. It is healthy, beautiful and versatile. But let's not get too carried away-I mean, it is only a week after Thanksgiving…and Christmas baking looms in the near future.
Moist, nutty, spicy and tender-all good qualities of well-prepared pumpkin quick bread.
*by "pumpkin", my grandma (9 times out of 10) really means, and I quote from the conversation that I have with her almost each year, that her favorite use of "squash that is not good enough to eat" is pumpkin pie or pumpkin bars. Who cares? Well, if you have a butternut squash handy, you could easily make the following bread with pureed squash that has been roasted (375F for 45ish minutes). And I bet you'd have some of that roasted squash left over for dinner too.

Pumpkin bread should be comforting. It should be darn easy to make (it isn't called a quick bread for nothin', as the "quick" refers to using chemical leaveners, like bicarbonate, to rise during baking-no fermentation required!) and produce a fog of spicy-pumpkin laced aromas while baking. The spices called for are most likely sitting in you cupboards, waiting to be loved. If not, splurge on some quality spices for the holidays: cinnamon, whole nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, garam masala, allspice and cloves are my favorite holiday standbys. If your kitchen is lacking in a spice grater, you should consider investing. I have gone through two Mircoplane spice graters over the past 6 years, and have not been disappointed.
Tower o' pumpkin bread.
 The bread is an instant breakfast (fortified with a nice latte or cup of tea-of course). Inclusions of chocolate chips and/or nuts are a bonus for flavor and nutrition (omega, poly and mono-unsaturated fats, soluble fibers and fat-soluble vitamins anyone?).  And like many quick-breads, is better the day after. What does all of this mean? Make this-now! Share with friends, tis the season after all.

That's a hand-frothed, nutmeg-cinnamon-honey latte. Perfect with the bread.
And a quick word on the fats and sugars used: I used half melted butter, and half olive oil. I prefer melted fats or oils to solid fats (and subsequently the creaming method) in quick-breads because the liquid oils efficiently and thoroughly cover gluten proteins, which reduces gluten formation. Tough quick-breads are bad quick-breads, so I recommend you jump on the liquid fat bandwagon. Additionally, I understand the importance of being light-handed with refined sugars. If cutting back on sugar in this recipe, be especially wary of over-mixing, as sugars reduce gluten formation by hogging water from the gluten proteins (which again, need water to form gluten), adsorb moisture, which all result in a tender, moist bread. The addition of molasses and/or honey introduces a touch more hygroscopic sugars to draw more moisture into the bread as it ages….as if it will stick around for a long time!

Spiced Pumpkin Bread with Walnuts
Makes 1 loaf

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
pinch garam masala (optional)
pinch cloves (optional-acquired taste buds my be required for this spice)
1 heaped teaspoon dried ground ginger
1 heaped teaspoon freshly grated ginger (optional, but strongly suggested)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 cup pumpkin or squash puree
1/4 cup granulated sugar 
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 stick butter (4 TB) melted
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil (or, use 1/2 cup melted butter or oil)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons molasses or honey
2/3 cup milk 

Optional inclusions:
1 to 1 1/2 cups toasted nuts (walnuts and pepitas are great here)
1 cup dark, bittersweet chocolate bits
3/4 cup raisins, soaked for 15 minutes in 1 cup hot water optionally spiked with a shot or two of brandy, rum or whiskey, then drained before adding to batter 
Roasted and chopped walnuts-with additional cinnamon for good measure.
2 large bowls
rubber spatula
measuring cups and spoons
loaf pan (approximately 9" long, 4" deep, 4" wide)
parchment paper


Grease and flour the loaf pan, or line with parchment as I did. In a large bowl, sift the flour, spices, salt, baking powder and soda.

In another bowl, mix the eggs and pumpkin puree thoroughly. Add the sugars, molasses or honey, melted butter, oil and milk and mix until smooth and combined. If adding inclusions, add them to this mess of wet ingredients-you'll have less of a chance for floury-bits to stick to the inclusions (especially nuts with cracks and crevices).
Nothin' like mole-asses! 
Now, add the wet mess into the sifted dry ingredients, and mix thoroughly until combined-but do not over-mix. If over-mixed, the bread will have "tunnels" of over-formed gluten, and be tough.

Pour into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle with additional spices of your choice (optional), and bake for 1 hour, or until a knife, wooden skewer, or piece of un-cooked spaghetti emerge without gooey batter. Cool, slice, enjoy.
It is hard to not look forward to getting out of bed in the morning when you have pumpkin bread waiting for you!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chestnuts Simmering on an Electric Element: Chestnut and Lentil Soup with Parsley Cream and Toasted Walnuts

It is for certain a Monday after a holiday weekend: feelings of "I should be more rested than this!" and "Or maybe I should have slept more?" creep through your thoughts, and all you can think about is going home, having a nap and eating a nice lunch. And really, who wants to think about food after Thanksgiving? Well, I do, and I wanted to make something that was easy, light but still satisfying. To be honest, I have to (love to!) think about food-I study the various components, forms and reactions each day.

I acquired a beautiful new bowl from my aunt (below), and I had been eyeing a bag of red lentils in my cupboard. By complete luck, I also and roasted chestnuts I randomly* acquired a few weeks ago. I had also been dreaming of Italy, so naturally, chestnut and lentil soup seemed pretty logical. I looked up a few guidelines on how to whip this up, and modified it from here and here. I also read-up on the history of the Abruzzo region in Italy (thank you, Wikipedia…), where the starts of this soup hail from, since both lentils and chestnuts are specialties of the area. Next September, I hope to find myself in L'Aquila celebrating lenticchie (lentils) in the annual festival honoring the regional specialty (really, who else but the Italians would throw a lentil party?). Obviously, I did not get my hands on the real lenticchie traditionally used, so used red lentils. Red lentils cook rather quickly, and to be honest, it was the only type I had on hand! If you use a type that cooks slowly, you will need to simmer the soup longer, and potentially add more liquid to accommodate. As for the chestnuts: I had a bag that were pre-roasted and shelled. You can find these at well stocked grocery stores, especially around the holidays. You could use canned or jarred, simply drain and rinse before using.

The new bowl-the classic cobalt blue and white.
My modifications include: adding a touch of rosemary, pouring in a splash of milk pre-puree for a smoother consistency and adding in a (generous) dashes of freshly grated nutmeg and a drizzle of honey. I also decided, as I usually do with pureed soupy-things, to make a topping of contrasting flavor and toss in a few crunchy elements in the form of toasted walnuts. A few things I would definitely do next time: add more chestnuts, add less liquid, caramelize onions for a sweet-savory flavor base to compliment the chestnuts. I could also live with omitting the dairy-based topping, and subbing it just for some grated salty, hard cheese (parmesan, pecorino, asiago…) and a generous sprinkling of parsley.

Mmm, lentils. 
At any rate, the soup is good: it reminded me of the base for a hearty bean soup, but similar in starchy-thick texture and savory flavor of lentil soup. The chestnuts, I have to admit, did not stand-out as much as I had hoped, so will be adding more next time. Serve with plenty of crusty, warm bread regardless if you decided to adorn with the accouterments above (guides below!). The soup easily re-heats, with a touch of additional liquid to help thin, a few extra dashes of salt and nutmeg. Mangia mangia!

Chestnut and Lentil Soup
Serves 6 generously

1/2 pound (8 ounces) roasted, shelled chestnuts
1 pound (16 ounces) red lentils
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 small, sweet onion
4 cloves garlic, whole and smashed
1 carrot
2 stalks celery
1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
10 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
generous pinches of each oregano, thyme, marjoram
fresh grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley plus additional for topping
1/2 cup milk (any kind, except skim)
salt and pepper

Soup Accouterments:

Parsley Cream
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt
1 teaspoon honey

Mix all, with fresh parsley to taste by snipping with shears or chopping
Salt and pepper to taste, then dollop on bowls of soup before serving

Garlic-Scented Toasted Walnuts
Toast roughly chopped walnuts in a 375F oven until fragrant, about 10 minutes
Finley grate over 2 cloves of garlic, or to your taste, and toss with the warm nuts for an aromatic experience
Crusty Bread
This on is self-explanatory: get a nice French or Italian style crust bread, slice, and warm in a 350-375F oven to desired crunchy texture.

Large soup pot, preferably heavy bottom to prevent scorching
Wood spoon
Cutting board
Microplane or fine-toothed grater
Blender or immersion blender
Measuring cups
Additional bowls for toasted nuts and parsley cream

Warm the olive oil in the soup pot. Chop the celery, onion and carrots into 1" pieces, roughly, and add to the warmed oil in the pot. Toss in the smashed garlic cloves, and cook the mixture until the onions take-on brown color, and the garlic is soft. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, dried herbs, fresh rosemary and parsley, and nutmeg. Stir, using the wooden spoon to scrape off the caramelized vegetable bits from the bottom of the pan.
There is something satisfying about a strong, sturdy wood spoon scraping caramelized bits of vegetable off a cast iron pot….
Add the stock, and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Meanwhile, chop the chestnuts and measure the lentils. Add them to the simmering pot, and cover. Simmer over medium-low for about 20 minutes, checking occasionally.

Chopped chestnuts
Once the vegetables, lentils and chestnuts are tender, add the milk and puree the soup using an immersion blender or regular blender (use caution, for the steam in the regular blender may cause the lid to pop-off; I recommend using small batches if using a blender for this reason…and be careful!). You may leave some texture-it is up to your preference. Taste the soup for seasoning, adjusting for your preferences. I added a touch of honey, more salt and nutmeg to suit mine. Return to the heat for a moment, then portion out into bowls, and adorn as desired.

The soup-delicious!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rigatoni and Mornay…aka: mac n' cheese!

Not surprisingly, after the grilled-cheese and tomato soup episode earlier in the week, I was left with several large hunks of cheese. I could have easily enjoyed the cheese, plain or with some autumn apples and wine. But no, the cold weather beckoned something more: another classic of carbs laden with rich, melty cheese. I have nothing against that stuff in the blue box, of which I grew up on-made with lots of love by my Grandma-but there is something magical about homemade mac n'cheese.

My Mom first introduced us to "homemade" mac n'cheese, and has been known for throwing together some pretty wicked cheese sauces with cheese orphans in her fridge (note: she sometimes used the microwave to cook the sauce-roux and all-but this is mac n'cheese, so who cares? As long as it has tons of cheese, noodles and love…you're golden). And yes, Velveeta…that processed, mysterious cheese-like product (of which I distinctly remember not having a defined melting point in a certain food functionality lab a while back…) that lends a creamy, short and slightly sweet element to anything it is put in was sometimes featured in her sauces too.

I opted for gouda, medium-sharp cheddar, baby swiss and pecorino romano melted into a thick béchamel sauce, enriched with an egg to help emulsify. Technically speaking, that describes a child of one of the French mother sauces, Mornay: béchamel sauce, enriched with an egg and cheese. Mixed with large rigatoni noodles, topped with more pecorino and baked until golden, this is a sauce to comfort and warm the soul. If you're feeling cold, then make this-you'll feel instantly happier (not that I am saying you should take your emotions out of food-but this, after all, is an ultimate comfort food). This comes together fast-so no excuses. Especially if you live in Wisconsin, where one has access to a plethora of cheeses, top-quality milks, and where the weather is cold.

If you're not feeding a crowd, scoop the mac n' cheese into individual ramekins or smaller casserole dishes, and bake them off as you want. You want to avoid re-heating, as the sauce will break a touch (even with the addition of an egg)*. You can use any type of pasta that you want, just use something that will cling or hold the sauce: ridge pasta, curly pasta, or the classic elbows. I used rigatoni, because it was what I had on hand. Don't over think it-this stuff will be good no matter what pasta you pick.

*The next day, I had sauce reserved, and scooped this on top before baking my last 2 ramekins. Glorious runny, golden sauce was atop the re-heated mac n' cheese, which lends me to believe that it is the extra moisture, thus moisture migration that results, from the pasta that is the primary factor for a broken, grainy sauce in re-heated mac n' cheese. I recommend reserving some sauce, and doing the same as I did for re-heated portions. It is also pretty fabulous for dipping steamed broccoli in-just a suggestion.

Macaroni and Cheese
Makes 4 generous servings for a stand-alone meal, or up to 6 smaller servings as a side 

12-16oz (about 3 to 4 cups) cheese*, grated or diced into small cubes
2 1/2 cups 2% or Whole Milk
4 TB butter, or 2 TB butter and 2 TB olive oil
4 TB flour
1 egg
1 generous teaspoon mustard powder or prepared dijon mustard
16 oz, or 1 lb pasta (this was about 4 cups of rigatoni, but this will vary with pasta type, and you could certainly eye-ball this with the cheese sauce-pasta ratio when mixing at the end)
Salt and pepper

Cutting board
Sharp knife or cheese grater
Measuring Cups and Spoons
Large pot
Medium pot
Casserole dish and/or individual ramekins


First, cook the pasta by filling a large pot with water and salting it generously ("until it tastes like the sea"). Cover, and bring to a boil. Add a splash of olive oil to help prevent foaming, and add the pasta. Cook the pasta to al dente ("to the tooth" for the Italian lovers….). You want to keep some of the bite or firmness to the pasta, as it will soak up the sauce. Drain in a colander, and shake-off excess water.

Prepare the sauce: either grate or cut your cheeses into small cubes. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will melt. I am notorious for chunking my cheese into rather large pieces, due to my impeccable impatience.

Next, measure out the 2 1/2 cups of milk. Then, in a medium sized pan, melt the butter and/or heat the olive oil. Add the flour and stir to make the roux. Cook the roux for about 5 minutes on medium heat, string continually with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until slightly golden (your goal is a "blonde" hued roux, if you're feeling french and snobby) and bubbling.

Slowly add the milk you measured out earlier, whisking constantly. Cook, what is now béchamel, the sauce over medium-high heat until thick and bubbling-this will take about 10 minutes. Stir constantly, and be careful to not scorch it. I prefer a whisk to stir the sauce, as it allows me to get the bottom and the "corners" of the pan. When the sauce is thickened, remove from heat, and stir in the cheese. Allow the sauce to sit a moment to melt the cheese.

While the sauce (what is now a mornay sauce, with the addition of the cheese) is sitting, crack an egg into a medium-sized bowl, and whisk it vigorously to combine the yolk and the white. Now, stir in the cheese with the sauce. If cheese is not completely melted, return to the heat for a moment, and stir until you have a homogenous sauce (but some chunks are not an issue, if you are impatient like me). Using a coffee cup or measuring cup, transfer about 1/2 cup of the hot cheese sauce to the beaten egg, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. Pour the egg-sauce mixture into the rest of the sauce, and heat until bubbling over medium heat, stirring constantly, to cook the egg (food safety geeks: cook to 160F to kill salmonella). Off the heat, and stir in the mustard, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Taste, and adjust for seasoning.

Add the sauce to the pasta-using the large pot that you cooked the pasta in. I add in a generous half of the sauce, and see how the proportion of sauce-to-pasta is. If you want it more saucy, add more sauce. Reserve remaining sauce, if desired, for reheating portions.

Divide or pour the mac n' cheese into whatever serving dishes that you like-be sure to use oven-safe if baking dishes.

I love individual ramekins…Top with extra cheese of your liking, and bake in a 350F oven until bubbling and browned on top, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately. My favorite side with this stuff is broccoli….classic! Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tomato…Tomahto…Soup, and Grilled Cheese (Wisconsin Style)

So, it was a rainy November sunday. The day started out with a tornado watch, then progressively got cold, windy and miserable. A typical Wisconsin pre-winter day. Drudging (donning my obnoxiously cheery rain boots and running tights while fighting with my umbrella for the entire walk) my half-hung-over self (give me a break, this happens once in a blue, or in this case, full moon) to the gym for a good kick-in-the-ass workout, I was thinking about dinner. What would be delicious, but easy? And a sure cure for feeling bleu? Gooey, crispy pan-friend grilled cheese and creamy tomato soup. Done.

Cast iron pan, meet grilled cheese.
And what's better: turning the oven on will heat your kitchen, the soup will make it smell amazing, and the aroma of a grilled cheese will top it off.

You should probably make a point of swinging by the grocery store tonight and grabbing the stuff you need to make this. Heck, you may even have most of it already-and besides, stocking up on canned tomatoes (or even homemade, if you're lucky, like I am) is probably a good idea for the impending chili season.

So go ahead…make my day…and make yourself a treat. You deserve it.

Creamy Tomato Soup
Makes enough for 4 generous servings

Two 28oz cans of whole tomatoes, drained with 3 cups juice reserved
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar, white sugar or honey
2 TB butter
2 TB olive oil (or, 4 TB total butter)
2 clove garlic, smashed
1/2 small onion or 2 shallots, finely diced
2 TB flour
1 1/2 cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
1 1/2 cups milk (any kind will do)
2 TB tomato paste
pinch allspice or nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

For the grilled cheese:
Slices of your favorite semi-squishy bread, such as a sliced sourdough, italian loaf or even white sandwich bread
Any combination of favorite cheeses, preferably meeting the trifecta of ooey-gooey (like gouda), sharp and salty (aged cheddar*) and pungent (gorgonzola or any bleu cheese), all thinly sliced, or grated, or crumbled
Olive oil or butter

*I was lazy, and opted for the pre-shredded cheddar. I mean, I was making the tomato soup from scratch, I am allowed a cop-out.

Baking sheet
Aluminum foil
Medium to large pot
Wooden spoon
Cutting Board
Immersion blender or regular blender
Large pan

Pre-heat your oven to 450F. Strain the tomatoes using a strainer or carefully by using the lid of the can, but reserve 3 cups of the juice. Using your hands, squeeze out the seeds from the tomatoes, and place on the aluminum foil lined baking tray.

Reserved tomato juice and milk make for an awesome tomato-y and creamy soup
Sprinkle the tomatoes with the brown sugar, white sugar or honey, and gently toss to coat. Bake for 30 minutes, until the juices are mostly evaporated and there is slight browning on the tomatoes lining the edges of the sheet. Allow to cool.

The foil will make life way easier when it comes to peeling' this babies off the pan
While the tomatoes bake, get on with the rest of the soup: heat the oil and/or butter in a medium to large pot. Add the onions or shallots, and the smashed garlic. Cook over medium until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and the flour, and stir to combine. Cook (what is now a roux) until the flour is slightly brown, about 3 minutes over medium.

Slowly add the stock, then the milk, then the tomato juice, whisking constantly. Now, peel the tomatoes from the baking sheet, and add to the pot. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and let the mixture cook for about 20 minutes.

Take the pot off the heat, and puree with an immersion blender or transfer with a coffee cup in batches to a regular blender. Return the soup to low heat, and cover.

Now, make the grilled cheese: pre-heat a pan on medium heat, and add the olive oil and/or butter. Slice the cheeses, or sprinkle if cheating and using pre-shredded. Layer the cheeses on a slice of bread, then transfer to the warmed pan. Cover, and allow the cheese to melt and the bread to brown-about 5 to 10 minutes depending on your pan, bread thickness, cheese variety and stove-top. Check occasionally-no one likes a burnt grilled cheese…when the bread is browned and the cheese is melted, add slices of bread atop the melted cheese and flip. You may need move the bread around a bit to sop-up the olive oil or butter. Cover, and brown the bread.

Remove the grilled cheese from the pan, and slice in half (if desired-I personally think triangle shapes aid in dipping). Let sit for a moment while you dish up the soup. Serve hot, with or without some sort of green vegetable to make you feel like you are consuming a well-balanced meal, such as steamed green beans with sea salt, garlic and olive oil. If you have pesto hanging around, it'd probably be a good idea to put a small dollop on top of the soup, as we did.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Epic Apple Pie with Corn Meal Crust

Everyone needs a treat on their birthday. Cake, pie, ice cream, whatever…this year, I made an apple pie for my Dad. Last year, it was apple cake (apple kuchen). I have been on a pie-kick lately, so apple pie just felt natural. This baby is chock-full of apples, a whopping 2.5 pounds. A double-recipe of pastry is needed for a double crust pie, since lattice top doesn't really work so well with large chunks of apple that shrink so much when cooked. 

This thing weighed a whopping 4.5 lbs at the end…hence "Epic" in the name
Being super kitsch-tastic, I adorned the top of the pie with mini leaves, cut from a vintage canapé cutter set that I acquired last summer when visiting a friend in Minneapolis. 

To jazz the pastry up a bit, I added some finely-ground locally sourced and milled corn meal. I find that this adds fluff, a subtle flavor, as well as a nice yellow-tint and great texture. The pasty is made in the traditional way, as noted in the pumpkin pie post and rhubarb pie post. Only this time, a layer of pastry blankets the top of the pie, creating a golden dome of flakey-awesomeness.

This pie would be fabulous for thanksgiving, or for just eating for pleasure. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you're in business. Now, gather your apples and make some pastry-and make this pie!

Apple Pie with Cornmeal Crust
Makes one, 10" pie


For the Filling:
2.5 pounds apples, peeled, cored, quartered and cut into 1/3” wide by 1” long slices
2 TB butter, cubed
1 TB cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
zest and juice of one lemon
¼ teaspoon salt
2 TB honey
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 TB tapioca, finely ground

For the Pastry:
2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
¼ cup finely ground cornmeal
2 sticks chilled butter, cubed
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup ice water
¼ cup vodka
1 egg and 1 TB water, for egg wash

Cutting board
Paring knife
Two large bowls, one for filling and one for pastry
Measuring cups and spoons
Pastry cutter or fork
Rolling pin
Pastry brush
Baking sheet

Make the filling by combining the cut apples with the diced butter, spices, lemon zest and juice, honey, brown sugar, salt and tapioca. Mix well, set aside. Can be made up to 1 day in advance. Store in the fridge, tightly covered with plastic wrap touching the surface of the apples.

Make the pastry by sifting the dry ingredients. Finley grind the cornmeal in a food processor or a coffee grinder/spice mill. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or fork, ½ at a time, combining the second portion a bit less for larger clumps. Sprinkle over the water and vodka, and mix with a fork or a pastry cutter until the pastry comes together, and sticks together when squeezed in hand. Scoop the pastry on a well-floured surface, and form into a disc. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425F. Remove filling (if made in advance) and pastry from fridge, allow to come to room temp. Cut the pastry in half, making once half slightly larger than the other; this will be the bottom crust. Roll out the bottom crust to fit into a 10” diameter pie plate or tin. Fit and trim the edges for a 1” overhang. Scoop in the apple filling. 
A mountain of apples, with flakey-cornmeal pastry.
Roll out the top pastry, and trim for a 1” overhang. Match-up the bottom and top overhangs, pressing together slightly, then folding under to make a neat edge. Flute the edges as desired. Poke 8 steam vents in any design in the center of the pie.

If desired, make decorations in autumnal shapes from the reserved pastry (above). Scoring the backs of the shapes with a paring knife and dipping in the egg wash will secure them to the top of the pie. Brush the entire top with egg wash with a pastry brush, or you could use your fingers if you are lacking a pastry brush.
Ready for the oven!
Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake at 425F for 25 minutes, then reduce to 375F and bake for 35-54 minutes longer, until the top pastry is golden and filling is bubbling.

Cool, and serve as desired. 

Soup is On! Butternut Squash Soup with Yogurt, Honey and Toasted Nuts

It is getting brisk here in Madison (but I am still not convinced it is merging on winter….Wisconsin, you can do better than this!). The leaves are almost all turned, and fallen to the ground. And the very last outdoor farmers market on the square is this weekend…sadness! Last weekend, like a mad squirrel preparing for winter, I gathered several pounds of apples and many squash. I plan to do the same this weekend.

I did manage to get my hands on a beautiful butternut squash a few weeks back, and I had been dreaming of the butternut squash soup I would make with it, on request by a wonderful friend of mine. I wish I could make this for you, and send it via FedEx in a thermos, but I just don't think it would do the recipe justice!

I remember the very first time I had butternut squash soup: my mom, aunt, sister, cousin and I had traveled to Milwaukee to see a gallery opening for a cousin. We stopped for lunch at a french place call La Coquette. The soup was a deep yellow-orange color, robust, and silky smooth. It was topped with a drizzle of maple syrup, and toasted pepitas. It was wonderful, and I believe my squash-loving-transformation began at that moment. I have since then been back a few times, and the food is still excellent. If you're ever in Milwaukee, I recommend you stop in.

The recipe is simple, and comes together quite easily. The end product is pureed, so you do not need to worry about pretty slicing-and-dicing. In regards to cooking the squash, you have two options: you can either roast your squash ahead of time or the day-of, you will just need an additional 45 minutes. Or, you can peel and cube the squash, and simmer in stock. I have made both versions, and I prefer the roasting as it gives better flavors, in my opinion.

I have made many modifications over the past few years to suit my taste, but this is pretty much what I follow each time. I love that the ingredients are all stars of late summer and fall produce: squash, sweet potato, apple, pear, carrot, garlic. The addition of a sweet potato helps thicken the soup, and I love the color and flavor it lends. The milk is the key ingredient for a silky-smooth soup. If you want to be indulgent, you can use whole milk or even half-and-half.

A word on the variety of squash: I find that butternut is the easiest to peel and cube if going that route. However, if you are roasting and scooping out the flesh, practically any autumn variety of sweet, non-stringy squash will work. I have used acorn in the past, and suspect that buttercup, kobocha, and carnival would be equally delicious. Drizzle the soup with yogurt or sour cream spiked with maple syrup or honey, and a sprinkle of toasted nuts or pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for tangy-crunchy contrast.

And lastly, about the spices: suit to your tastes, and do not use sub-par spices. Seek out the highest quality (I truly love Penzey's spices!). The spices used in this soup can be used for many other fall and winter recipes, so invest in the best you can find.

Bon Appetite!

Butternut Squash Soup
Makes enough soup for 6 generous servings

1 large butternut squash, enough for about 4-6 cups of roasted flesh or cubed squash
1 small onion, sweet if you can find it; several shallots are even better
3 cloves garlic
2 small carrots
1 small to medium sweet potato, peeled
1 ripe pear, or 1 small apple, peeled and cored
4 tablespoons olive oil, butter or a combination
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sweet curry powder
1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon hungarian paprika, or, smoked paprika if you can find it
1 to 3 heaping teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 bay leaf
2-3 cups vegetable stock (you may cheat, and use pre-made here, or even a high-quality powder stock base, as I often do)
1 1/2 cups milk (anything but skim, please)
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
salt and pepper
For topping:
Generous handful or two of toasted pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped
Yogurt or sour Cream mixed with honey or maple syrup to taste

Sharp knife
Cutting board
Aluminum foil
Peeler or sharp paring knife
Baking pan or sheet
A large pot, or a cast iron dutch or french oven if you have it
Wooden Spoon
Blender or Immersion Blender
Measuring Spoons
Small pan (optional, for toasting nuts if not using aluminum foil in an oven)

If you are roasting the squash, you can do this a few days ahead of time, or you can add on 1 hour to the total cook time of the soup. Pre-heat your oven to 425F. Cut the butternut squash in half, right where the round end and the neck meet. You will have two pieces, of which you will now cut in half the long way. You will have two pieces (of the neck), and two pieces (of the bulb). Scoop out the seeds of the bulb halves. Alternatively, if using acorn, cranial or buttercup: slice in half the long ways, scoop out seeds. Place the squash on a baking pan or sheet lined with aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt, and work into squash with your fingers. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, watching so it does not over-brown. The squash is done when a fork is easily pierced into the flesh. Remove from oven, and cool. Scoop out the flesh and set aside.

Roasted squash, scooped from the skins. Doesn't look that appealing, but tastes amazing in the soup!
If you are steaming or simmering the squash, you can do this the same day, and it will take about 20 to 30 minutes to the cook time. However, this method involves peeling the squash, a step I find to be a massive pain in the ass when it comes to any other type of squash besides butternut-so use butternut for this method! Peel the squash, and slice it in half as specified in the above roasting method. Scoop out the seeds of the bulb end, then slice and dice the squash into 1/2" to 1" cubes (doesn't have to be perfect-the smaller the pieces, the faster they will cook). Simmer in stock until fork tender, and drain.

Heat on medium large soup pot or cast iron French or Dutch oven, and drizzle in olive oil ot coat the bottom. Roughly chop the onion, carrots, sweet potato and pear or apple. Smash the garlic cloves with the back of a chef's knife, and peel.

Throw it all into the warmed oil, and cook on medium until the onions take on some brown color, and the garlic is tender. If sticking occurs, add a small amount of stock to de-glaze, using a wooden spoon to scrape any brown bits from the pan. At this point, add all of the spices and the and heat until just fragrant.

I love how the turmeric stains just about anything it touches!
The Spices!

Add the squash, stock and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer on medium heat, then turn down to medium-low, cover, and cook until tender. This will take about 20 minutes. Check about half-way, you may need to add additional stock.

In the meantime, assemble your blender or immersion blender. Mix the yogurt or sour cream with honey or maple syrup, and toast the nuts in a 350F oven on a piece of aluminum foil until slightly brown and fragrant. When you are done, you can re-use the foil, or wrap up any remaining nuts. Alternatively, toast the nuts in a dry pan on medium heat on the stovetop, stirring the nuts so they do not burn.
Toasted pecans, and yogurt with honey.
After 20 minutes, check the contents of the pot by piercing various pieces with a fork: the soup is ready to be pureed if all the components are fork-tender. Remove the pot from the heat, remove the bay leaf (don't discard-you'll add it back after blending) and add the milk. If using a blender, transfer the contents in batches with a coffee mug; the soup will all not fit into one blended vessel, so it may take a few minutes of transferring and blending to get a completely smooth soup. Alternatively, if using an immersion blender, careful blend the soup until smooth. Taste for seasoning, and add about 1 tablespoon of honey or maple syrup for extra sweetness if desired; add the bay leaf back to the pot, and return to a simmer over low heat. If you find the soup is too thick, you may add additional stock and/or milk.
The soup, all ready-to-eat! 
Serve the soup in bowls, drizzled with the spiked yogurt or sour cream, and toasted nuts. If you're looking to beef-up the meal, serve with a slice of crusty bread, and sautéed spinach with garlic and red pepper flakes. The soup re-heats beautifully, with the addition of some milk or stock to help think if it has thickened upon refrigeration.

The soup, with sautéed garlic-spicy spinach.