Wednesday, February 27, 2008

No matter how tired I was

Ever since 1984, when I was lucky enough to take my first trip overseas with my family, I have kept travel journals. My parents made me do it at first; they got me in the habit, telling me it was the only way I'd ever remember all the details of my magnificent voyages. As they are with most things, they were right. When I went to Australia as an exchange student in 1990, Mom made me promise that no matter how tired I was, or how much I didn't feel like doing it, I would write in my journal each and every night before I went to sleep.

How I treasure those volumes.

They are a cherished record of the tiny memories and observations that would have otherwise been lost to time. At the time I was creating them, they also served as an excellent place to practice my writing. Each blank page taught me that to have something to write, you must have a keenly sharp and perceptive eye for the mundane yet interesting detail. Every occurrence was worth recording, each event was fascinating. And so I started noticing things that I might otherwise have missed, so I could fill my journal pages with the beauty of Australia and the unique, amazing experiences I was having there, from the grand and expected (the swooping white sails of the Sydney Opera House; the sparkling blue of Sydney Harbour) to the everyday and in many ways the more remarkable (the click-clack sounds of my host brothers playing ping pong in the lounge room; the sight of the breakfast table each morning: a buffet of Cocoa Pops, toast, Meadow Lea and, every so often, Vegemite). I didn't want to miss or forget a thing. I don't know if I would have pursued the track that I did -- an English major at Northwestern, a career in writing (though, admittedly, it's not the type of writing I really want to be doing), a passion for this very bloggy outlet -- if I hadn't started with these modest journals, scrawled in a teenaged hand by a girl almost too excited to be able to get it all on paper.

I've kept up the habit over the years, and when I returned to Australia in 2004 I dutifully resumed my journal routine, inspiring my host mom and dad, Kerrie and Greg, to remark that not much ever changes in this world. (The only trip on which I didn't keep a journal was my honeymoon, and, man alive, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life. I kick myself nearly daily over that one.) Of course, my writing style and interests were quite different as a 29-year-old than they were as a 15-year-old, so this journal is a very different tome to read, indeed. In addition to my daily activities, thoughts and observations, this time around I included many recipes that I transcribed from Kerrie's issues of "Delicious" magazine. Each night I'd return home from the day's gallivanting and lose myself in another issue -- I wish I could get this magazine here in Ohio, but alas, subscriptions are $110+ per year -- copying down as many recipes as I could into my journal. Tucking them away for safekeeping, knowing full well that I'd always have my treasured journals; therefore, these recipes would never be very far away. The only thing I couldn't capture was the succulent photography. Tragic, I tell you.

And so it is that I share a page from my 2004 Australia journal, with some of the more personal, less interesting details omitted. I choose this entry for many reasons. First, because it demonstrates how, in Australia, the minutiae (car dealership, Law & Order) bookends the extraordinary (cruise through Sydney Harbour), making for unforgettable days. (Or perhaps it illustrates that minutiae in Australia is magnificent and thrilling. Maybe I would feel differently if I lived there, but somehow I doubt it.) Second, I choose this journal entry because what I did that day -- sail on Sydney Harbour with Kerrie and Greg -- was an iconic Sydney tourist experience. Everyone who visits there should do it, and I thought you might enjoy reading about it. Finally, I choose this entry -- this is a food blog, after all! -- because I love the dish that I jotted into the journal that night.

Pasta with Chicken, Feta and Spicy Tomato Sauce looks a lot like the dish about which I wrote last week, but I assure you, it is a completely different taste sensation. The chicken breast is first sautéed in a bit of olive oil so that it assumes a nice, brown, tasty crust. When shredded, this crust adds a wonderful crispy textural component to the tender chicken and the penne, which is an inspired pasta choice for the dish because its length approximates the size and shape of the shredded chicken pieces. The chilies and sambal oelek add a delightful spice that you don't notice so much while you're eating, but then hits you, pleasantly, after you're done. And the feta and kalamata olives! Salty, briny goodness! Such a wonderful mélange of flavors to be swimming in a pool of tomato sauce.

I need to go back. If for no other reason than to keep another journal, and get some more recipes. I'm totally serious.

Happy reading, happy writing, happy traveling, happy eating. Happy Australia.

Wednesday, 21 April 2004

Greg's off work today, so we're up early to drop off the Alfa Romeo at the dealer for some sort of fluid problem and then into Sydney. Kerrie and I pick him up at the dealer in her Suzuki -- which they just hate driving into the city -- and head over the phenomenally gorgeous ANZAC Bridge to the casino at Darling Harbour. I described the ANZAC Bridge a few days ago as "the bridge that goes like this...." accompanied by hand gestures "drawing" the angular tension wires. The casino -- the Star City, I think it's called -- is like any other, except the carpet is much less busy.

We head outside and have a walk around the shops at Darling Harbour and the nearby circular water fountain. Again, both seem smaller than they did 14 years ago, when I was here for the very first time as a 15-year-old. They've built up the city side of the Harbour with a new group of restaurants called Cockle Bay, and we stop in one called Blackbird for brekky/lunch. Kerrie has bacon and eggs and I have a BLT that I know I should have ordered extra-crispy but oh well. It was still tasty enough. If not a bit fatty. Greg's waffles arrive a bit late, but we are quite leisurely and don't mind. We leave Blackbird and begin walking to Circular Quay, north past Darling Harbour, past the Welsh Bay finger wharves (being renovated) and finally under the awesome Harbour Bridge and around to the Quay. We do a lot a reminiscing about the last time I was here.

We have about an hour to kill before our Harbour cruise leaves, so we find a spot near the Quay on a bench for some quality people-watching. There's a guy who is rather talentlessly playing what appears to be a fishing pole; a performance artist of some sort who is dressed as a donkey/horse, bent over on all fours; a man who is fishing on the city edge of the Quay and, shockingly, catching fish. He is throwing his catch into an air-temperature milk crate.

We board the boat at 2:15 for a 2 1/2-hour cruise around Sydney Harbour, which is just fantastic. It goes all the way up past North Head and Manly and beyond. It is a perfect opportunity to see the beautiful homes perched on the sandstone cliffs overlooking the various bays, coves and spits.

It's also the perfect opportunity to see nude beaches and beaches with shark-proof fences (they get bull sharks in the Harbour). So if you're ever with me and I'm trying to swim nude in Sydney Harbour but am concerned about the bull sharks, kindly remind me it's OK because of the specialty fencing. Thanks. There is a black and white and glass monstrosity that our guide mentions is frequently rented by Elton John when he is in town because he thinks it looks like a grand piano. My favorite part is North Head, the gateway to a vast ocean, or, conversely as I like to think of it, the gateway to a vast continent that I am lucky enough to call "home" every so often.

Our cruise includes afternoon tea, which is just lovely. I am thinking of instituting afternoon tea at home.

The voyage continues back downtown, past Kirribilli point, which is the site of the Prime Minister's Sydney home, and then under the Sydney Harbour Bridge before turning around and heading back into Circular Quay. It is magnificent to sail under the Harbour Bridge and view the skyline and Opera House from that angle -- a new one! [Ed. note: I had no clue of this at the time, but I was to return to Australia a year later on my honeymoon, and at the time I would sail out of Darling Harbour, through Sydney Harbour, out through The Heads and turn south along Australia's coast heading to Tasmania. Talk about a thrill: sailing out of Sydney Harbour (or, I am certain, in) is one of those grand experiences I am lucky enough to be able to cross off my life list.]

We disembark and grab a taxi back to the casino, for we have to hurry to pick up Greg's car before the dealership closes. We barely make it, but make it we do, then a long traffic-filled drive back to Penrith.

Tea is pasta with a ricotta-herb sauce (Kerrie's cooking is definitely more adventurous now than it was in 1990 -- not that it was bad then, on the contrary, it was quite good. It was just more comfort-foody then, homier. Lots of baked dinners. Maybe it has to do with grown kids, empty nest, world travels. Or maybe she has always been an adventurous cook, and my tastes have changed since I last saw her. Quite possible!), then I watch my second ever episode of Law & Order. I will now fall asleep wondering what Sydney Harbour looked like in its natural state.

*Another recipe from "Delicious"*


Adapted from "Delicious" magazine

1 lb. penne pasta

6 T. olive oil, plus 3 t. to cook the chicken

1 small onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed and coarsely chopped

2 small red chilies, rehydrated, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 t. sambal oelek or harissa

26 oz. strained tomatoes (I like Pomi strained tomatoes, which is readily available in groceries in my area, though any smooth tomato puree will do)

3 c. chicken, sautéed and shredded (about 3 boneless, skinless breasts)

4 oz. feta cheese, diced

1 c. kalamata olives, pitted and cut into halves or thirds

1/2 c. flat-leaf parsley, freshly chopped

Heat 3 t. olive oil in a medium skillet. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper; add to the pan and cook until their internal temperature reaches 161 degrees F. (I use an internal probe thermometer for this task.) I flip the breasts several times throughout this process to develop and nice, brown crispy "crust." When they reach the desired temperature, remove to a cutting board and allow them to cool so that you can handle them.

Using your hands, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces; measure 3 cups of the chicken and set aside.

Rehydrate the dried chilies by adding them to a small bowl of boiling water and allowing them to "steep" for about 5 minutes. Then, cut off the ends, remove the seeds and finely chop.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the penne according to the package directions, until it is al dente.

While the pasta water is coming up to a boil and the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Heat 6 T. olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat; add the onions and cook until they're translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chilies, and cook for 1 minute. Add the strained tomatoes and the sambal oelek (or harissa, if using) and begin to whisk together the sauce. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta and place it in a large serving or mixing bowl. Add the chicken, kalamata olives and parsley to the tomato sauce, reserving some of the parsley for garnish. Mix to combine. Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well. Add the feta just before serving, and stir to combine. Garnish with reserved parsley and....enjoy.

Serves 4-6. Personally, I was amazed at how well the chicken "stretched" the penne, considering that one pound of pasta typically serves 2 in my household. But this recipe had enough for 2 servings for 2 of us, with enough left over for at least a couple more servings. This recipe is a winner. Way to go, journaling process!

Monday, February 18, 2008

This is for you, Sister, and your years of hard work

Before Sister was an attorney, before she was married, before she was a mother of two young boys, before she lived a suburban existence in a nice three-bedroom home with minivan and a Honda CR-V, Sister moonlighted as a cultural anthropologist. I know, I know: it's a tale as old as time. Aren't we all Fulbright Scholars, completing our field work on the way to our PhDs, only to learn that, at the terminus of that arduous intellectual road, where we really meant to arrive was law school?

For Sister, her Fulbright Scholarship involved work in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, where she had been an exchange student in the mid-1980s. As I fell in love with Australia, she fell in love with Sardinia. When she was choosing the location for her PhD field work, Cagliari logically made the short list. She spent about two years there in 1993-1995 studying intergenerational experiences with pregnancy and childbirth (I think! She would have to clarify). This time her residency in Sardinia coincided nicely with spring break of my freshman year of college (it is all about me, after all), and in March 1994 my parents were amazing enough to send me to visit her for a week. I had been to Cagliari once before, for a few days during a family vacation to Europe in 1984. However, as I recall I wasn't totally comfortable with the place. All the Italian-speaking and topless beaches, for whatever reason, were intimidating to me -- which is absurd because (1) we were staying with trusted friends (Sister's host family) who not only were hosting us nicely but also providing any necessary translation and (2) I was a child and nobody was expecting me to go topless. But such were the paranoid ravings of my pre-adolescent mind. In 1994 I was a college student, thrilled to return to Sardinia and experience it as a "normal" adult.

Sister and I spent a wonderful week together, sightseeing and eating marvelous picnic lunches of crusty bread and fresh Sardinian Pecorino cheese, which, if you've never had it, is nothing at all like any Pecorino you can get in this country. It is salty but not too salty, but best of all is its mouth-feel: yielding but not mushy, almost squeaky between your teeth. That trip was 14 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday: sitting near the sea at Nora, hunk of bread, one knife and a wedge of cheese, sharing more of that Pecorino than two people should reasonably consume.

(There's Pecorino in that blue bag.)

We took a drive up the western coast of the island to Alghero in a trusty Fiat Panda. We explored Capo Caccia, which is a collection of cliffs in northwest Sardinia that features a network of stunning caves and grottos where the rock meets the Mediterranean. We saw an old Italian man quietly herding his goats across the main road that hugs the coastline, stopping traffic as his caprine charges meandered about at their own precious pace, the tiny tinkling bells on their collars the only sounds for miles. We ate Pecorino; did I mention the Pecorino?

Also, we laughed. Like hyenas. Like idiots. Like fools. It is, after all, what we do best.

Most of what amused us is unable to be published here. Not because it is unfit for mixed company, but rather because it is so stupid that the vast majority of the reading public would find Sister and I to be insane for finding it so funny. It's the kind of situational humor that is especially hilarious to siblings who are close. The type of hilarity that, say, Niles and Frasier Crane would greatly enjoy but that would send Martin in search of a pint at McGinty's and inspire serious eye-rolling in Roz and Daphne.

Among the things about which we laughed that week were the daily goings-on in her apartment. Sister rented a room from a woman named Maria Grazia, who lived in a lovely building in Cagliari facing the Piazza Sant'Eulalia. This painting of the piazza was done by one of Sister's friends; Maria Grazia's building is to the right of the church:

As a prime example of our idiocy, one of Maria Grazia's neighbors was a woman whose last name was "Buda," which we brilliantly deduced from the nameplate on her apartment door. She had a small white dog. We decided to refer to it with the redundant nickname of "Small Little Buda," or "Small Little" for short. (Sister had a boyfriend at the time who spoke in similar redundant phrases; we were making fun of him. Needless to say, he wasn't her boyfriend for much longer.) We found this to be hilarious. Fourteen years later, we still use the phrase "small little," though the story behind its origin is beginning to fade from memory.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?

Sister's room didn't overlook the piazza, though it had its own attendant inside jokes. Her view was of the roofs of the neighboring buildings. Beautiful in a different way, this view provided us with many laughs every morning as we'd wake up to the same crew of roofers -- the next building over -- doing the same work they did the day before. Italian initiative. They did a lot of smoothing of tar. Each day we'd awaken and ask each other: "Are the smoothers here?" Here's a view out Sister's window, sadly sans smoothers:

OK, OK, to the food! When we weren't laughing uncontrollably about a small pup or monitoring the smoothers, we were eating Mulino Bianco carrot cakes and culurgionis (ravioli filled with potato and mint) and cooking tomato sauce. I tend to make my signature tomato sauce a more complicated affair, involving roasted whole tomatoes and a food mill and at least five tablespoons of parmesan or aged pecorino. Sister learned from Maria Grazia that it doesn't have to be quite so intensive. It is what it is; you use the basic vegetables and herbs, and that's it. The sauce reminds me of Maria Grazia's response to our uptight questions about whether Italian TV would carry the Oscar ceremony (I was there the Sunday it was taking place, and we were heavy into Schindler's List that year). Maria Grazia stated, matter-of-factly, "If it's on, it's on. If it's not, it's not." One of the best answers I've ever received to any question, at any time.

Sister's/Maria Grazia's tomato sauce is perfection in eight ingredients. The veggies are minced with a mezzaluna, though of course you can perform this step with a chef's knife if you wish. Sister still uses a mezzaluna, and I happen to have one, so I choose to do it this way out of respect to tradition and memory. The sauce is not rocket science, as the sofrito (onion, celery, carrot) is not a groundbreaking component of Italian cuisine. However, I had never made sauce with a sofrito base -- just a base of onions and garlic. Adding the carrots and celery makes the tomatoes sweeter and, unbelievably, more tomato-y. Even though the sofrito is cooked in olive oil to soften it, some of the vegetable pieces do retain their crunch, which adds a pleasing textural contrast to the smooth tomato puree and the al dente, slippery pasta. The pleasure of this meal recalls the true simplicity of the Italian kitchen -- at least, the Italian kitchens I've been in. No pretense. Just ingredients and dinner. And joy.

There are a lot of things one learns on the way to earning one's Master's Degree, PhD and J.D. I will never learn many of those things, as I choose not to follow the admirable path that would tack those estimable letters onto my last name. But along Sister's studious road, she learned how to make a damn fine pasta sauce, with some damn complex flavors, from some damn simple ingredients. And I learned it from her. How lucky am I? Significant culinary benefit, minimal cerebral effort.

This is for you, Sister, and your years of hard work. And your quality sense of humor. And your discerning tastebuds. This is also for small little Buda, and the smoothers.


Adapted from Sister's recipe, adapted from Maria Grazia

1/4 c. olive oil

1 medium white onion, minced

4 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 c. celery, minced

1 c. carrot, minced

2 28-oz. cans of tomato puree (any brand you like; we used boxes of Pomi strained tomatoes when we were in Sardinia)

1 t. kosher salt

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

1/4 c. fresh basil, shredded

3 T. fresh oregano, finely chopped

1/4 c. red wine

1 lb. pasta

Grated aged Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste

Mince the onion, garlic, celery and carrot.

If you're using a mezzaluna, I find it easier to do this in batches, and the cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin. Otherwise you will be mezzaluna-ing for days.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add all the vegetables at once. Sauté for approximately 5 minutes, until the sofrito starts to become tender. Add the kosher salt and pepper, and cook for a few more minutes to allow the salt to begin to draw the moisture out of the vegetables.

Stir in half of the basil and half of the oregano (reserve the remaining herbs to add at the end of the cooking process, which results in a nice layered effect of different herby flavors). Cook the mixture for another 4-5 minutes.

Pour in the tomato puree and the red wine. Stir to combine thoroughly with the vegetable mixture. Reduce the heat to low and allow the sauce to simmer for about 20 minutes, as the pasta water comes up to a boil and you cook the pasta. Once the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to the package directions to al dente. At this point, add the reserved herbs to the sauce.

Drain the pasta and mix it with a ladle or two of the sauce. Serve immediately topped with additional sauce, if you'd like, and a sprinkle or two of aged Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Eat while remembering Sardinia, dreaming of Sardinia, or just thinking of sparkling blue waters and squeaky sheep's-milk cheese. Whatever makes you smile.

This meal serves 2-3, depending on how many you can typically feed with a pound of pasta in your family. I know you are "supposed" to be able to feed 4 with a pound of pasta. I find that to be a farce. This sauce recipe, on the other hand, will make enough for at least 4 meals. It keeps well in the refrigerator for about a week and freezes very well.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kind of like the best of relationships

There are few things that surprise me about Husband. I've known him for 12 years; we've been married for 2 1/2. Just over 5 years ago he uprooted himself from his large hometown of New York City to move to my small hometown in Northeast Ohio to see if we could make it as husband and wife. It took a couple years for us to get hitched, but hitched we got and, well, here we are. I anticipate his every move, his every thought. I know when he is going to tell certain stories. I know what punch lines are coming. I know if they are going to be hilarious punch lines, or offensive ones. I know what sweaters he's going to don before they emerge from the dresser drawer. I know the tone of voice that is to be used in a variety of situations. I know when he is about to quote Howard Stern or Larry David. (Subsequently, I know when to run for cover.) I know him almost as well as I know myself.
But I don't understand why he loves Boston cream pie.

He is not from Boston. He never lived in Boston. He has no real emotional attachment to Boston, other than the fact that his brother went to MIT. He is not the type who is enamored with custard. He would never turn down a good chocolate glaze, and does enjoy yellow cake (but not uranium). But the combination of custard, glaze and cake? What is so special about that?

Husband was trained as a journalist. So to honor his vocation, I shall ask why this pastry of choice:
Not My IM: Why do you like Boston cream pie so much?
Not Husband's IM: i dunno. it just tastes so good
Not Husband's IM: i have random memories of it from when i was a kid, going to boston to see my brother in college
Not Husband's IM: and my parents, being them, always insisted on getting it somewhere
Not My IM: Ah yes
Not Husband's IM: that's a part of my life that i kind of forget about since it was pretty isolated.. four years of going to boston all the time
Not Husband's IM: we never had been there before andrew's first day there, and really only went back a handful of times after
There you have it. A combination of the very simple fact that it tastes good, and a specific childhood memory to boot (I had no idea). It just goes to show you: just when you think you know your spouse like clockwork, he might have a new answer for you that you weren't expecting. I'm just glad that this one had to do with dessert and, not, say, cross dressing. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Husband first told me of his affinity for Boston cream pie (but not the reasons behind it) when he moved to Ohio in late 2002. When Valentine's Day 2003 rolled around, it was quite clear what type of dessert I'd be baking for him. (Each February 14th he receives the rich baked goods, I receive the expensive gifts: each of us is spoiled in his or her own luscious way on this Cupid-filled holiday that somehow warrants jewels and chocolate.) The icing on the cake in 2003, so to speak, was a set of heart-shaped cake pans that a friend had given me just before Valentine's Day. Though it didn't quite make sense to me why I had to embark on a sea of custard and glaze, embark I did nonetheless, smashing an expensive bottle of pure vanilla extract upon the hull of my new heart bakeware to the cheers of the crowd and the refined handclaps of the Queen. My place was not to ask questions regarding his motives or why he couldn't choose a baked good with fewer steps; my place was to set sail across new culinary waters in his service, especially on Valentine's Day.
The result was very pleasing, indeed. I was proud of my effort, though the chocolate glaze didn't set as well into a lovely shiny coating as I'd hoped it would. (The excess pooled into a sinful reservoir on the edges of the cake plate but, really, who could cry about that? Grab a spoon and hop to it.) Husband (then-Boyfriend) loved it. The sponge cake was moist; the custard was rich with flavor; the glaze was, well, made from cream and chocolate.
Regardless, Boston cream pie did not become a fixture in my repertoire -- I reach for the recipe less than once a year. It really is a special occasion confection. And I don't always make it for Husband on Valentine's Day. In fact last year, in the midst of the Great Valentine's Day Blizzard of Ought-Seven, and as a nod to Husband's similarly-baffling obsession with Conversation Hearts, I made him a small red-velvet cake with cinnamon frosting that recalled the beloved chalky Necco candy. But this year I am falling back on the classic (though I'm using standard 8-inch cake pans). It only seems fair, given his insane work schedule that has him in New York City half the time, and here at home with me the balance of this work days. He drove home late on the 13th to spend Valentine's Day with me, so the very least I could do was bake his favorite dessert for him. And anyway, I'll take straining egg custard over driving 400 snowy miles on I-80 across Pennsylvania any day.

Happy Valentine's Day. Should you make a Boston cream pie for your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, friend, sister, mom, self, whatever, may you indulge unapologetically in each of its rich layers. May you appreciate each and every bite, each and every nuance of flavor and texture. May you be grateful for the tempered egg yolks, the two types of flour, the egg whites whipped to soft peaks, the precise method of folding the batter exactly 12 times. The layers of that Boston cream pie just didn't fall into place; someone put them there -- lovingly, carefully -- from disparate, thoughtfully prepared elements. Kind of like the best of relationships.

Adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of "Cook's Illustrated"

The intelligent and thorough editors of "Cook's Illustrated" say that it "seems that [Boston cream pie] does indeed have its roots in Boston, where it developed in the middle of the 19th century. Modern baking experts believe that since pies predated cakes in the American kitchen, pie pans were simply more common kitchen equipment than cake pans. Hence the name pie was originally given to this layer cake."
The cake is comprised of three elements: Prepare the pastry cream first; it can be done up to 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Then bake the sponge cake. You can even do this step a day ahead and store the cakes, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. Not long before serving, prepare the glaze.

For the pastry cream:
2 c. half-and-half
1/2 c. sugar
Pinch salt
5 large egg yolks
3 T. cornstarch
4 T. (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
Heat the half-and-half, 6 T. of the sugar and the salt in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until simmering. Stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined. Whisk in the remaining 2 T. sugar and whisk until the sugar has begun to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds.
When the half-and-half mixture reaches a full simmer, scoop about 1/2 c. of it into the egg yolk mixture -- whisking constantly -- to temper the egg yolks. Make sure you scrape the sides of the egg yolk bowl as you do this. When the egg yolk mixture is incorporated, add it to the half-and-half mixture that's in the saucepan, whisking to combine. Return to a simmer over low heat, whisking constantly until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds. Don't stop whisking! It will seize and become very lumpy and unpleasant if you do.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the butter and vanilla. Strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve that you've set over a bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a "skin" from forming and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.

Makes about 3 cups. This is more pastry cream than you'll need for this Boston cream pie, so by all means keep the rest for éclairs or donuts or tarts or licking off a spoon or whatever.

For the sponge cake:
1/2 c. cake flour
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. kosher salt
3 T. milk
2 T. unsalted butter
1/2 t. vanilla extract
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle portion of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8- or 9-inch cake pans (you can use shortening or a non-stick spray). Cover the pan bottoms with rounds of parchment or waxed paper.
Whisk the flours, baking powder and kosher salt in a medium bowl to combine and break up any lumps. Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter melts; cover and keep warm.
Separate 3 of the eggs, placing the whites in a large bowl. Reserve the yolks and place them plus the remaining 2 whole eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in another medium bowl if you do not own a stand mixer). Using a hand-held mixer, beat the 3 whites at low speed until foamy. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and gradually add 6 T. of the sugar; continue to beat the whites until soft, moist peaks form. Make sure you don't overbeat! Set aside the whites.
(If you don't have a stand mixer, clean the beaters and proceed to re-use your hand-held mixer in the next step. Otherwise, use your stand mixer in the next step.)
Beat the whole-egg mixture with the remaining 6 T. sugar. Beat at medium-high speed until the eggs are very thick and a pale yellow color, about 5 minutes.

Pour the beaten eggs on top of the whipped whites.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the beaten eggs; fold very gently 12 times with a large rubber spatula. Make a well in one side of the batter and pour the milk mixture into the bowl. Continue folding until the batter shows no trace of flour and the whites and whole eggs are evenly mixed, but take care not too deflate the whites too much, about 10 additional strokes.
Immediately pour the batter into the prepared cake pans; bake until the cake tops are light brown and feel firm and spring back when touched, about 16 minutes for 9-inch cake pans and 20 minutes for 8-inch cake pans.
Immediately run a knife around the pan perimeters to loosen the cakes. Place one pan on a towel and cover the pan with a cooling rack. Using the towel to protect your hands and catch the cake, invert the pan and remove the pan from the cake. Peel off the parchment. Reinvert the cake onto another cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining cake.
Cool the cake layers to room temperature before proceeding with Boston cream pie.

For the glaze:
1 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. light corn syrup
8 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1/2 t. vanilla extract
Bring the heavy cream and corn syrup to a full simmer over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat and add the chocolate; cover and let stand for 8 minutes. Uncover and stir to combine the melted chocolate with the cream mixture. (If the chocolate has not completely melted, return the saucepan to low heat; stir constantly until melted.) Add the vanilla; stir very gently until the mixture is smooth.
Cool until tepid so that a spoonful drizzled back into the pan mounds slightly. (The glaze can be refrigerated to speed up the cooling process, stirring every few minutes to ensure even cooling.)

To assemble the Boston cream pie:
While the glaze is cooling, place one cake layer on a cardboard round on top of a cooling rack that's been set on a cookie sheet or a piece of waxed paper. Carefully spoon about 1 1/2 c. of the pastry cream onto the cake and spread it evenly up to the edges. (I like to use an offset spatula for this task, but a butter knife will work just fine.)

Place the second cake layer on top, making sure the layers line up properly.

Pour the glaze onto the middle of the top layer and let it flow down the cake sides. Try to keep an eye around the entire perimeter of the cake to make sure it's flowing evenly; if it's not, give the glaze a nudge with an offset spatula or butter knife. Completely coat the cake with the glaze. If desired, use a small needle to puncture any air bubbles that form in the glaze.

Let the cake sit until the glaze fully sets, about 1 hour. Serve the same day, preferably within a couple of hours.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Year of the Rat

The kitchen of my childhood was a remarkable place. More often than not -- and I really mean that -- all surfaces were clear of clutter so that ingredients could take center stage. The knife block was set aside so that flour could be scattered across the countertop to receive a heaping mass of bread dough; utensil crocks were nestled between the toaster oven and the refrigerator to make room for yet another bowl full of prepped vegetables; a teapot was temporarily relocated, sacrificing its home on the stove for a simmering soup that was about to outgrow its pot. Sometimes it was just the four of us creating this cherished upheaval in the service of dinner for the nuclear family. Sometimes (luckily, many times) we tore the kitchen apart with the help of beloved friends and extended family, which made the chaos and airborne flour and delicately splattering cooking oil all the more memorable and fantastic.

I remember these egg rolls falling into the latter category: they were a dish we made when company was coming. My parents had a regular crew of neighbors and friends who comprised what they called "Dinner Club" in the '80s. They would also host more free-form parties with guests that did not necessarily know each other; when each person arrived s/he would be assigned, along with a person who wasn't his or her spouse, to the last-minute prep and cooking of a particular dish that fit into the evening's menu. Though it sounds like cheesy getting-to-know-you racket, Mom and Dad insist that it was a quality good time filled with appropriate adult shenanigans and that it wasn't at all like a reality show. Of course, by the end of the evening everyone knew each other quite well (this had nothing to do with the wine). To a 10-year-old witness, it looked so sophisticated. I couldn't wait to be old enough to cook, and have friends who were old enough cook, so we could have cool parties like this.

I can see why Mom and Dad used this egg roll recipe for such occasions: lots of steps; lots of prep, lots of opportunity for people to get to know each other while chopping and woking and wrapping and frying. For whatever reason, it is the rolling of these egg rolls that I remember most. I have many memories of my dad and mom -- and Dad and Mom's friends -- placing the filling into the egg roll skins on the diagonal, dipping their fingers into water and perfectly sealing the little packages to ready them for their trip into the oil-filled wok. Food is always about taste, smell and sight. This recipe really uses your sense of touch.

Beyond the extraordinarily crisp shell and the salty, soft interior, I love these egg rolls because I know exactly what is in them -- which is more than I can say for a lot of the egg rolls I order at restaurants. As I said, this recipe requires a little bit of time-intensive prep-work, but, really, anything worth doing takes time. Your willingness to use several frying pans and mise en place yourself to the hilt will be rewarded with a delicious dinner and the smug satisfaction that you, little ol' you, can recreate Chinatown in your modest kitchen. Finally, though my parents' recipe calls for pork and shrimp, my adult self does not partake of those protein sources. I substitute chicken and tofu, but, like Steve Perry earnestly exhorted, any way you want it, that's the way you need it. Make them your own; add whatever meat you wish, or go totally veg. Just make sure that you pre-cook any meat or seafood you use before adding it to the wok with the stir-fried vegetables.

A note on MSG: this recipe is from the '80s. Like acid-washed tapered jeans, shoulder pads, the belief that George Michael was straight, and a single, sequined, oversized glove, people thought MSG was a good idea. I am well aware that here in the oughts, people aren't so into the MSG any longer. If you are so inclined, please feel free to leave it out of this recipe; however, it only calls for 1/4 t. and I never seem to suffer any ill effects from it. But then again, I still listen to tapes.

Happy Chinese New Year, dear reader! May this and every year -- Chinese or otherwise -- be replete with intense egg-roll-making kitchen upheaval.



For the filling:
2 T. vegetable or peanut oil (1 T. each to cook the tofu and chicken)
8 oz. extra-firm tofu, diced
1 lb. ground chicken
3 eggs
1 T. butter
2 T. vegetable or peanut oil (to sauté the vegetable mixture)
6 oz. bok choy, chopped
6 oz. bean sprouts, whole
4 green onions, finely diced
4 oz. mushrooms, shredded on a box grater (I like to use creminis, but any mushroom is fine)
1/2 T. soy sauce
1 t. kosher salt
1 t. sugar
1/4 t. Accent (MSG)
1 t. sesame oil

1 lb. egg roll skins
4 c. vegetable or peanut oil (to fry the egg rolls)

For the hot mustard sauce:
2 T. Colman's dry mustard
4 t. water

For the sweet and sour sauce:
4 T. white vinegar
4 T. sugar
4 T. ketchup
1 c. water
1 1/2 T. cornstarch
1/2 T. salt
1 t. sesame oil
3 T. orange juice
1 T. pineapple juice

Press the tofu: Remove the tofu from its packaging and water and cut into a small dice. Unfold one clean tea towel and spread on a rectangular cookie sheet; place the diced tofu in a singe layer on the towel. Place two clean tea towels on top of the tofu, followed by another cookie sheet. Weigh the whole thing down with a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven or foil-covered brick or something else suitably heavy. Press for about 15 minutes. 

While the tofu is being pressed, in a large nonstick skillet with 1 T. vegetable or peanut oil, sauté the ground chicken until cooked through. Set aside.

Disassemble the tofu-pressing rig and remove the tofu. In the same skillet you used to cook the chicken, sauté the tofu in 1 T. vegetable or peanut oil until it takes on a bit of color around the edges. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat eggs together with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. In the same skillet you used to cook the chicken and tofu, melt the butter; add the eggs to the pan, cooking as you would an omelet. Flip once; finish cooking on the other side. Remove from heat, and cut into thin strips.

Heat 2 T. vegetable or peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Stir-fry bok choy, bean sprouts, green onions, mushrooms, soy sauce, salt, sugar, Accent and sesame oil for 2 minutes. Add the reserved meat, tofu and egg. Cook for 2 more minutes. Place the meat and vegetable mixture in a colander to drain away the broth; you want the mixture to be as dry as possible for egg-roll assembly. (You can simply place the colander in the sink because there's no reason to reserve the broth that drains away.) Allow the meat and vegetable mixture to cool completely.

While the mixture is cooling, make the dipping sauces. For the hot mustard, simply mix together 2 T. Colman's dry mustard with 4 t. water. (You can multiply these amounts for more sauce.) For the sweet and sour sauce, combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking from time to time. When the sauce reaches a boil, knock back the heat to low and allow it to cook and thicken for about 10 minutes.

Now, finally, my hungry friends, it is time to assemble the egg rolls! Fill a little dish with water, have an empty plate nearby to collect your completed gems, and hop to it. It takes less time than you might think:

(1) Place an egg roll skin diagonally in front of you. Put 2-3 T. of filling near the center of the skin. Moisten the corner nearest you with a dot of water; fold that corner up and over the filling, securing it to the dough. Then moisten the remaining flat edges of the egg roll skin with water.

(2) Fold the right and left sides in, over the filling, pressing lightly but firmly to adhere the dough to itself.

(3) Roll the egg roll closed, and make sure the edges are sealed. This will prevent excess oil from getting inside the parcel as it fries.

(4) Place the finished egg roll on a plate, and continue with the next one. Work quickly; your stack of raw egg rolls might start to stick together the longer they sit on that plate.

When everything is assembled, bring 4 c. of vegetable or peanut oil up to 350 degrees in a wok to fry the egg rolls. (I use my infrared thermometer to measure this.) Using tongs or a Chinese spider, carefully drop the egg rolls in, about 3-4 at a time. They cook very quickly, about 1 minute per side. You want them to be golden, brown and delicious -- but only a LIGHT golden brown. If they get too dark brown, their light, crispy texture is compromised.

Remove the finished egg rolls to a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Serve immediately with the dipping sauces. Then, contemplate the Chinese zodiac.

Makes about 16 egg rolls. If you have filling left over after you've used all the egg roll skins, it makes a rather yummy addition to rice. You can add it to plain steamed rice and serve it alongside your egg rolls, or add it to steamed rice, then stir-fry the whole mess in the wok for a delicious, impromptu fried-rice side dish.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Unafraid of untoward heft

Many of you New Yorkers might disagree, but Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a force with which to be reckoned. I don't believe it's possible to rank one style above the other, as they are separate -- but equal -- pizza creatures. But for every delectable pie that comes out of Lombardi's century-old oven, its thin crust spotted with coal-dusted dough bubbles, there is another emerging from the kitchens at Pizzeria Uno with no less than a pound of magnificent cheese oozing atop a thick cornmeal crust. It's enough pizza-related goodness to start a fight or, at the very least, to make your head spin.

Let's get one thing straight: there are as many "original" and "best" deep-dish pizzerias in Chicago as there are drunken Cubs fans in the bleachers at Wrigley. I love all of them (the pizzerias, that is; not the drunk Cubs fans). Gino's East is marvelous, and the graffiti-covered walls of its restaurants add a certain je ne sais quoi to their pizza experience. Giordano's is tasty, and I have many wonderful college memories of eating at the Evanston location on Sunday nights when the dining halls were closed and we all had to fend for ourselves. The only deep-disheria I never really loved was Lou Malnati's, but I suspect that's only because I didn't spend a whole lot of time there. I focus on Pizzeria Uno today only because it's the one pizzeria's recipe that I've consistently cooked at home. Though this dish is completely worthy of every pizza-related superlative you can throw at it, I'm not advocating Pizzeria Uno as the end-all, be-all of the Chicago pizza experience. Go to Illinois; eat at each and every establishment. May your bellies be full of cheese, and may your minds not be able to decide which is "best."

Deep-dish pizza is a lot like Chicago: substantial, unafraid of untoward heft, salty, weighty and real. A slice is a meal unto itself, even though it is quite easy to eat more than one slice at any given sitting. The thick crust -- crunchy with cornmeal on the outside, tender on the inside -- is laden with no shortage of mozzarella cheese, then sauced with a flavorful intermingling of tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs. The whole thing is sprinkled with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a generous drizzling of olive oil. You will note that this construction method flies in the face of other, more conformist, pizza processes, which dictate sauce first, cheese on top. That's another way deep dish is like the city of Chicago: We will do things our way, though it might be the opposite of conventional wisdom. Take the White Sox's Comiskey Park (built in 1989). They could have constructed it so that fans would have a view of the gorgeous Chicago skyline (a la Pittsburgh's PNC Park). Instead, they built it so fans had a view of the crumbling Robert Taylor Homes. As go the views beyond its outfields, so go Chicago's pizzas: unexpected and wholly original. As they should be, for a city as strong, proud and unapologetic as Chicago.

I remember digging into my first piece of deep dish back in the '80s, when my family went to the Gino's East just off Michigan Ave. while we were visiting my sister at Northwestern. (I think that location has since closed.) I recall we didn't have any pens or markers to add our signatures to the graffiti'd walls so Dad, being that good dad that he is, went to Osco and bought an array of ink options for his girls. He might have even picked up some Wite-Out, so our important scrawled missives would show up on the dark wood. We feasted, we jotted inane notes on most every surface. It was memorable, and happy.

I was a very giddy girl, therefore, when Mom purchased a deep-dish pizza pan a few years later. I was even happier when we found this recipe, from Jeff Smith's book, The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American. I was ecstatic when Mom bestowed the pizza pan upon me, submitting to the reality that she never makes dough from scratch because she kills the yeast and has zero patience for kneading. (For the purposes of this post, let's agree to set aside Jeff Smith's proclivities, if we may, though I just took another look at the cover of this book and he is flanked by two Boy Scouts. I am a little creeped out now; however, I see no reason for us to take it out on the pizza.) Jeff claims to have divined the recipe to Uno's deep dish, having run it past their chef of 30 years only to receive a smile and a nod.

Whether or not this is exactly Uno's recipe is, in my book, highly irrelevant. This pizza is amazing, and is better than nearly anything you can get in any restaurant. Not a difficult dish to make, per se, but it is a little time consuming and requires some specialty equipment, including a stand mixer and two round deep-dish pizza pans. Yes, you could get away with using a hand-held mixer for the first step of this recipe and then kneading the dough by hand, but the process would be much more laborious and, I daresay, might dissuade you from making it at all. You need the deep-dish pans or 9" or 10" round cake pans that are about 2" deep; it's technically impossible to make a deep pie on a thin pizza pan. Remember that everything is easier with the right tools. Plus, if you are or would like to become a serious cook, this investment in equipment is one worth making. Your patience and diligence will be rewarded with the best deep-dish pizza outside -- and maybe even inside -- The Windy City.

So get to it. Arm yourself with some yeast and several pounds of cheese and go start a fight with a New Yorker.


Adapted from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, adapted from Gino's East Pizzeria

Please note: Though it makes the recipe much less labor-intensive, you do not need an electric mixer to make this dough. Just hand-mix the ingredients in a large bowl (a metal spoon or dough whisk works best). At the point where the recipe directs you to add the remaining flour and switch to the dough hook, just add the flour to the dough, mix a little, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough forms a smooth but tacky ball, 10-15 minutes. (The dough is tacky when it feels sticky but when you pull your hand away, the dough does not actually stick to your fingers.)

For the crust:

2 packages quick-rise dry yeast (about 5 t. yeast, if you buy your yeast in bulk)

2 c. tepid water (90 degrees)

1/2 c. vegetable oil

4 T. olive oil

1/2 c. cornmeal

1 1/2 t. kosher salt

5 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

For the filling:

1 lb. sliced mozzarella cheese

1 lb. sliced provolone cheese

2 28-oz. cans whole peeled plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if you've recently come into some money)

2 T. fresh basil, chopped (or more, to taste)

1 T. fresh oregano, chopped (or more, to taste)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 t. kosher salt

For the topping:

4 T. Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, grated

4 T. olive oil

In the bowl of an electric mixer, dissolve the yeast in the water. Whisk the yeast and the water together to make sure the yeast is completely dissolved; the mixture should look a little bubbly. Add the vegetable oil, olive oil, cornmeal, kosher salt and 3 cups of the flour. Beat for 10 minutes using the mixer's paddle attachment.

When the 10 minutes are up, add the remaining 2 1/2 cups flour and switch to the dough hook.

Knead for several minutes with the machine, until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl and forms a ball. (You could do this by hand but it would be difficult; the dough is quite sticky.)

Remove the dough and the dough hook from the bowl. Shape the dough into a smooth round. Put about 1 t. of oil in the bowl, and spread it around with your fingers. Put the dough back into the bowl and cover with a layer of plastic wrap, then a kitchen towel. Put the bowl someplace warm and cozy in your kitchen to allow the dough to rise until it doubles in bulk -- about an hour and a half. After it has risen, punch it down and allow it to rise again for another hour and a half. Punch down a second time, and the dough is ready to go.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Oil two 9" or 10" pans with about 1 t. each olive oil. Divide the dough in two pieces, and begin to stretch out each piece with your fingers to get it started on its way to circle-dom. (I don't recommend throwing it into the air, unless you are particularly skilled, as this will most likely result in no dinner for you but a raw yeasty feast for the dog.) When each piece of dough is about 8" in diameter, put them in their respective prepared pans and begin pushing the dough toward the edges and up the sides. This will take a little patience, as the dough has a little bit of spring in it and wants to shrink a little. But it will conform to the pan in due time. If necessary, stop and let the dough relax for 5 minutes or so, then proceed again. Make sure it comes all the way up the sides, to the rim. It should be about 1/8" thick throughout the pan.

Mix together the filling. Strain both can of tomatoes to remove most of the liquid, then transfer the tomatoes into a bowl. Squish the tomatoes between your very clean fingers to break them up into a sort of sauce. Add the basil, oregano, garlic and salt; stir to combine.

Layer the slices of cheese like delicious, dairy tiles right on top of the pizza dough. (Place half the mozzarella and half of the provolone in each pizza, so you end up with 1/2 lb. mozz and 1/2 lb. provolone per pie.)

Ladle half of the tomato mixture on top of the cheese in each pizza; spread it around as evenly as possible, keeping in mind that the sauce is rather chunky. Sprinkle 2 T. of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino on top of each pizza, and drizzle each with 2 T. of olive oil.

Bake the pizzas on a center rack until the top is golden and gooey and the crust is a light golden brown, which should take about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the pizzas rest for about 10 minutes before you cut them, or else you will have a cheesy runny mess instead of excellently formed deep-dish slices.

Technically you could add whatever toppings you like to this pizza, but I am a purist and insist that traditional "plain" cheese is the only way to go. However, if you must add extra toppings, place them on top of the tomato mixture but underneath the Parmigiano-Reggiano/Pecorino and olive oil.

These pizzas can be comfortably cut into 8 pieces each. I always assume each person wants 2 pieces. So, I'd hazard to say this recipe serves 8 people, total. Note: Do yourself a favor: do not skimp on the cheese. Two pounds might sound like a lot (OK, it is a lot), but I see no point in going through with this deep-dish exercise if you are just going to wimp out with the dairy. Ask yourself this: what would the Daleys do? They wouldn't limit cheese amounts, that's what.