Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spring Bird's Nest Breads



An amazing thing happened in March. Spring arrived in Minnesota. We haven't seen spring since 2012 and we all thought Spring was tired of fighting the North Wind and had left the Northland for good.  It's the season of baking with cream, milk, eggs, wheat and eggs - all signs of spring and new birth.  May I just say how lovely it is to do so when a blizzard isn't raging? Of course Spring did play an April Fool's joke on us when the temperatures soared to 83 degrees F. (Spring does have a cruel sense of humor, "You want warm, I'll show you warm.") But nobody dared say they were hot.

If you have colored, hard-boiled eggs lying around - this is just the recipe to showcase them. It's a sweet bread - no yeast - no proofing. Mix. Let rest. Braid. Eat. (If you want egg salad instead: hardboiled eggs, chopped green olives, celery, fresh dill and light Hellman's mayo - addicting. When the kids were little, we used to leave some for the Easter Bunny and I would tell the kids the Bunny made egg salad. Specifically, this egg salad.)

But try the bread. It's from Cooking with Nonna and couldn't be easier. She made eight breads out of this and I made six slightly larger ones.


Ingredients
4-1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter - softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup whole milk
egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water)
Optional sprinkles which are never optional in my home



In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.

In a mixer or by hand in a larger bowl, combine sugar, shortening and sugar. When all is well-mixed, add the eggs - mixing well in between each addition. Add vanilla and milk and mix well. In thirds, add the flour and mix - on low speed. When all is added and mixed and doughy - divide into thirds and wrap in plastic. Let it sit in the fridge overnight. While the dough rests, you can rest!

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking pan or two with parchment paper.  Take out your dough balls open at a time and divide in half. Divide in half again and roll each half between your hand until you have a rope about 7-8 inches long. You now have two ropes. Braid them and then twist them into a circle to form the nest.

Repeat with next half. And go on to the next dough ball until you have 6 birds nests. Brush with egg wash and add the not-required-but-recommended sprinkles. Gently push your hard boiled egg in the center of the nest. Bake for 20-22 minutes until the breads are light golden-brown. Cool. Wrap and save or eat right away.

And for my hand-pie loving son-in-law, I have a few of these (because you can never have too much dessert.) Blueberry hand-pies.


Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Eastover, Buona Pasqua, Happy Spring! I hope i's a sweet one for all of you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Chicken Francese from Carmine Celebrates



They seemed to be on every corner in Queens - the red-checkered-table-clothed Italian-American restaurant. Chianti bottles with candles and identical menus no matter which restaurant you were in. It was coming home when you stepped into these restaurants.

The pasta was spaghetti and meatballs (not Bolognese, not ragu), lasagna (red sauce only) and manicotti. An ambitious restaurant might have had a cannelloni thrown in there. It wasn't until I was a teenager that an alfredo sauce was offered. The meat offering was limited to veal marsala and chicken cacciatore. The fish was shrimp two ways: scampi or fra diablo. Dessert was tortoni or spumoni (I always had tortoni). And there was pizza.

I loved those places. I loved the comfort it gave my young-self. These Italian red-sauce restaurants were certainly not "authentic" or upscale - we couldn't afford upscale. They were the restaurants developed from a large immigrant population that did not have a food specialty store with ingredients flown in from Italy. The ingredients came from wholesalers that were similar to the local Key Foods or A&P. You recreated recipes - that had never been written down - through memory and available ingredients. The makings of red-sauce was widely available!

I still adore those places - although they are harder to find. Maybe it's genetic - this love of peasant food. Or maybe I just need a visit to my childhood.

In 1990, Artie Cutler opened up Carmine's Restaurant in Manhattan paying homage to those southern-italian flavored restaurants. He wanted fresh, old-school comfort food that he would have at Italian weddings.

In December, St. Martin's Press offered me a copy of Carmine Celebrates for review. I very seldom take any offers anymore - but a red-sauced cookbook? Hard to refuse. Ironically, we are still low-carbing it! But we did manage to blow through Grilled Shrimp with Fennel (yes), Roasted Eggplant Dip (another yes) Scallops and Shrimp Scarpariello (yes again) and the Chicken Francese noted below.


It did not disappoint. For the record, I did not use the 3/4 cup of oil; I simply lined the pan with it and let the chips fall where they may. They fell very nicely, thank-you.

CHICKEN FRANCESE

Chicken
1 cup all-purpose flour (I used a lot less)
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/8 teaspoon cracked pepper
3 extra-large eggs beaten
5 tablespoons fresh, chopped Italian parsley
3/4 cup canola oil
1 pound boneless chicken breasts, cut scallopine (I just pounded them thin)

Sauce
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice



It's pretty low-carb (not low-fat), very comforting for a boneless chicken breast meal and delivers lots of bright flavors which I crave during the winter. Bunny rabbit food does not work for me come January. Comfort is essential. Ease is even better. Flavor is necessary.

1. For the chicken: whisk flour, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper in a shallow bowl. In shallow bowl, whisk eggs and 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Heat the canola oil in a large sauté pan until the oil reaches 325 degrees F. (I wait until it sizzles when I throw a drop of water in it).

In batches, dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess. With tongs, dunk the chicken in the egg mixture, let excess drip off and slide into the hot oil. Fry briefly until lightly browned. Drain on paper towels.

2. For the sauce: Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter under medium-high heat. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent. Add the white wine and simmer until it is reduced by half. Add the chicken stock, salt and pepper and cook until the liquid has again been reduced by half.

While simmering, add lemon juice and whisk in the remaining butter. Return the chicken and any juices to the sauce and cook until it is warmed through. Put chicken and sauce on platter, scatter with remaining parsley and serve.

This is excellent with spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic.

Stay tuned: Another recipe from Carmine Celebrates will be coming your way this week. Any suggestions? The Marinated Beef with Cipollini Onion Sauce? The vegetables? Chocolate Torta? Pasta Quattro Formaggi?

Yes, it's winter. And although we have had a lot less of it than the east coast (hello, Boston - do you need pasta and chocolate?), we do get the odd week of arctic air. And then the cats chill. Or rather - warm. Actually, Pippin and Cioppino-bambino are just pretending to get along.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Chocolate Therapy


I had a little family gathering Christmas Eve. Not everyone could come of course but a few of us made it. Grandpa would have been 96. It was the first Christmas without being able to hug Grandma and Grandpa. Over the course of many years as Grams aged, she would preface every dinner asking for dandelion wine (sometimes quite forcibly). She didn't drink.

After she passed away, a cousin sent us a few bottles of dandelion wine. For Grams. So before the meal, we had a toast. To Grams and Grandpa - thanking them for our family. A few tears were shed but the laughter and gratitude outweighed the sadness.

Were started the meal with Oyster Stew (for Grandpa) and moved on to traditional American "farm" meals (for Grams). The Italian meal comes on Christmas Day.  Paul and I have been low-carb for most of 2014 - so much so - that if we pass a bakery and smell a loaf of bread baking, we need to catch each other as we swoon. This year, when we were feeling deprived (that would be almost always), we would turn to chocolate for help. Chocolate is good therapy. And even the really good chocolate costs less than a therapist. (I still haven't outgrown that "instant gratification" thing.)

Plus: chocolate comes from a plant. Ergo: chocolate is a vegetable. So below, I am presenting you with a gluten-free chocolate vegetable. It's a variation of the flourless chocolate tortes you find on the island of Capri. It's -7F degrees here. I'll happily visit Capri via the chocolate train.


Chocolate-Almond Torte - serves about 8 depending on how much chocolate therapy you need
(gluten-free)
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate - coarsely chopped
1 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs - separated
3/4 cup granulated sugar - divided
1/2 cup almond flour

Confectioners sugar and raspberries for finishing


1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. (I lightly butter that also).
3. In the top of a double boiler (over simmering water), melt the chocolate and the butter. Set aside.
4. Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl until bright yellow. (Takes about five minutes.) Slowly, beat in 1/2 cup of the sugar.
5. Slowly add the chocolate mixture and stir until combined. Add the almond flour and combine.
6. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until they form firm peaks. There is no starch in this for leavening, so it is important that the egg whites are glossy and firm.
7. Carefully fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold until all is shiny and chocolatey and no ribbons of egg whites are left.
8. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 50-55 minutes. Torte is done when you do the toothpick test and it comes clean.
9. Let cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes.
10. Using two plates, flip torte over onto one plate, peel off parchment paper and flip onto another plate.*

*You can simply serve this upside down! I froze the cake over night and it helps with serving. I don't serve it frozen (I have enough "frozen" in my life living in MN!) But I do serve it kind of cold so it doesn't fall apart during the slicing.

This can be frozen for a few weeks - so it's perfect for "making ahead."

You can use a chocolate ganache or a caramel sauce for serving. When you have 40+ people coming for Christmas Eve dinner, simple is best. I sifted some confectioners sugar over it and dotted it with raspberries.



We ended 2014 trying to keep the kitten out of the tree.


We couldn't. We worried that Pino-Bambino (or Cioppino) would strangle himself on the lights. We wondered if he was starting to think his name was "NO!" So, we took the tree down early!

But isn't he cute? When he's exhausted from climbing the tree?


I wish you all goodness and light in 2015.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Alphonse and Duchess


There are eighteen grandchildren with a memory of Santa coming by every Christmas Eve.


They would sit on his knee and and tell him what they wanted for Christmas and be rewarded with a bag containing an orange and a box of Cracker Jacks. Simple things. Building blocks of love. As the grandchildren grew older, they would learn which was Santa's bad knee and avoid it.

My father-in-law had some tough times.  He grew up in St. Paul during its infamous gangster era and had a vivid recollection of Van Meter - part of the "Second Dillinger Gang" being shot to death in his neighborhood. The press snapped photos of children looking down on the body until neighbors finally brought out blanket and covered the man.

At about age 10, work was scarce. He lost his father at a young age and his mother was scraping by. Word came to her that there was work to be had in St. Paul for one of the older children. So she told my father-in-law to hop a train (yes, hop a train - no ticket) and go to Bemidji (up north about five  hours) to bring home his brother who was working at a lumber camp. He did so.

With all of those tough times, he was an optimist. He worked two jobs, put dinner on the table for a family of 11 and never complained. If my husband would make a remark about a challenge in his job he would always reply, "Isn't it great? You're working!"

I am grateful that both my mother-in-law and father-in-law were such great storytellers. I have precious glimmers into the world they grew up in. He always called his children (and children-in-laws) on their birthdays and sang "Happy Birthday" to them. We have the recording on our answering machine from this past August. But the Santa legacy is one for the ages. And if Santa is your legacy, you carved out a beautiful life for yourself.

He called his wife "Duchess" and she called him "Alphonse." He promised her he would wait until after she passed and join her soon after. And he was as good as his word. Nine weeks after Duchess left us, Alphonse soon followed. It was one week before what would have been their 63rd wedding anniversary. I don't think he wanted to celebrate it without her. And the date of Alphonse's birthday? Christmas Eve of course.

"Alphonse" loved brats, bacon and beef. And he ate his fill well into his nineties. This one's for you, Alphonse!

Steak with Mustard Butter  (from David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen which I highly recommend you put on a "wish list.")

2 8-ounce ribeye steaks (or your favorite steak - I've done this with sirloin NY strips)
1/2 teaspoon hickory-smoked salt, sea salt or kosher salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon cilantro or flat-leaf parsely
Vegetable oil or clarified butterFreshly-ground pepper

Mustard Butter
2 tablespoon unsalted butter at room temperature
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 generous Dijon mustard

Butter + steak? Overkill? No! Very, very French! And deliciously simple.




Prep
1. Pat the steaks dry and rub them with the salt, chipotle powder and cilantro. Refrigerate uncovered for 1-8 hours.

2. In a small bowl mash the butter with the dry butter and Dijon mustard. Shape into two small balls and chill on a plastic-lined plate.

3. Heat a little oil or clarified butter in a grill pan or cast-iron skillet and cook the steaks over high heat (searing on each side) until done to your liking. (Rare: 5-7 minutes each side for a guide.)

4. Put steaks on plates. Top with the knob of mustard-butter and freshly-ground peppers.

5. Watch the butter ooze into and around the steaks.



Missing both of them and thankful they have been a large part of my life. Very thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Autumn Squash


The snow came. And with it the cold. But before that happened, we had a glorious autumn and ate our fill (low-carb, etc.). Squash was everywhere.


And I even made some. Once. Because: I don't like squash. There I said it.

Don't like the texture.

Don't like peeling it.

But the family loves it so I look at new ways to cook it. This roasted delicate squash requires no peeling (happy rainbows appear) and is not too bad with the sweet and sour sauce composed of fresh lime juice, siracha and honey. (Recipe is below.)



And it is autumn-pretty. I also intensely, overwhelmingly, emphatically dislike beets. (Paul does. Woe is Paul.) I think they're drop-dead gorgeous but pretty is as pretty does and I used to make them once a year to see if my taste buds changed. No. Don't look for beet recipes here.

Now if you combine squash - let's say pumpkin with sugar and cream cheese and then top them with creme fraiche and salted caramel sauce, you could make a case for squash.

So I did that - ignoring my low-carb diet.


And bells rang in our little White Bear Lake kingdom. And all was well. These pumpkin cheesecakes have an easy gingersnap crust that adds some autumn spice. All is easy. All is perfect for Thanksgiving (they travel well). Top it with creme fraiche, whipped cream, Cool Whip for non dairy, or just the salted caramel sauce. Now that's the perfect way to get your intake of squash!

Recipe is here: Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins with gingersnap crust and salted caramel sauce




Then there's the pumpkin sheet cake. This is a pumpkin version of a spice cake and then topped with a thin, caramel icing. Again, easy, fulfills your vegetable requirement but with panache. This is from Mary of One Perfect Bite. It's a blog you should know and will like. A lot. Much more than I like squash and beets. (Come on, you must have popular "foodie" foods that don't work for you.)

Recipe is here: Pumpkin Spice Cake with caramel icing.

Now for a "real squash" recipe.

Delicata Squash with Sweet and Sour Sauce - serves 4
2-3 delicata squash, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch rings
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon Siracha sauce
2 tablespoons of honey
fresh cilantro for finishing (or in my case Italian flat-leaf parsley - because - you got it - don't love cilantro)

Prep:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Generously oil 2 baking sheets
Toss squash slices in the oil on the baking sheets and season with salt and pepper
Roast them on one side for 20-25 minute - until lightly browned
Flip them and roast another 10-15 minutes until other side is lightly browned (mine didn't brown a lot)

While squash is roasting, make the Sweet and Sour Sauce by whisking the lime juice, Siracha and honey. When squash is done cooking, transfer squash slices to a plate. Drizzle the sweet and sour sauce over all. Garnish with Italian parsley - or cilantro.

There is a lovely step-by-step presentation of this recipe as well as tips on seeding the squash at Shutterbean found here: Delicata Squash with Sweet and Sour Sauce.

And finally, a week before the snow came - this happened.



We took in a stray. Pippin is giving him pointers on watching Bird-TV.  Happy autumn, all!