Tuesday, March 25, 2008

February and March have become very busy months for me and my oven

Be careful what you wish for.

If you love to bake, as I do, and you have adorable nephews, as I do, and you have a very busy attorney-sister, as I do, and you offer to make your oldest nephew's first birthday cake, before you realize it you might find yourself -- five years and a second nephew later -- the family's official Birthday Cake Maker.

Not that I'm complaining about this status. February and March have become very busy months for me and my oven, is all I'm saying.

It all started in 2003 when I made a gigantic cake in the shape of a barn for Older Nephew's first birthday. It was a 13" x 9" two-layer chocolate cake, frosted with chocolate icing and topped with a smaller two-layer square chocolate cake that served as the barn. The pastures surrounding the barn were covered in green-dyed coconut (grass), except for the pig pen, which was topped with crumbled homemade chocolate cookies. I made the barn roof and fence from homemade chocolate cookies as well, cutting out the dough by hand to create the pieces I needed to construct the cake. The endeavor took me three evenings -- one to bake and prepare the chocolate cookies, one to bake the cakes and one to make the frosting and assemble the finished product. I even included little farm animals, as the finishing touches.

It was all very cute and charming until the candles were blown out and the adults got their hands on the animal figurines. Just goes to show you can't take my family anywhere.

When Older Nephew turned two in 2004, he was really into riding the yellow cat on the merry-go-round at Chapel Hill Mall. Sister ordered one of those cakes on which they screen an actual photograph on the frosting, so I was relieved of my bakerly duty that year. The cake was adorable nonetheless.

In 2005 he wanted a red car cake, so I found myself a VW Beetle-shaped pan and got to work with a whole bunch of pastry bags and various tips. This endeavor was a true adventure in frosting, as I had to create several vibrant hues to frost the cake properly -- including red and black, which are very difficult to make. (It takes a LOT of food coloring to saturate frosting so it's red and not pink and, well, the closest I could get with the black was a very dark gray.) The trick with this cake was returning the pastry bags and the cake-in-progress to the refrigerator quite often, as warm frosting does not pipe cleanly. At age three, Older Nephew was getting to the age where he really did appreciate his birthday cakes, and could articulate such to his tired-out, flour-covered, food-coloring-stained aunt.

Younger Nephew was born in 2005, so 2006 could have been a big year for me, the Birthday Cake Maker. But Sister made it easy on me and combined the boys' birthday parties. Older Nephew wanted a red car cake again, and as you can see, one year later I seem to have refined my method for making black frosting.

I recall Sister's telling me not to worry too much about Younger Nephew's cake, considering there was more than enough dessert to go around with the car cake. But he had to have something special, so I improvised and made a little cake with the black and yellow frosting left over from the car decorating.

Last year was interesting. Younger Nephew's birthday is in February, while Older Nephew's is in March. Younger Nephew requested a train cake, which was simple enough due to astounding advances in cake-pan technology (thanks, Williams-Sonoma!). I really enjoyed using a wide variety of candies and frosting colors/tips to decorate the train cars, and presented the cake to Younger Nephew on a tray of green-dyed coconut "grass." The tracks were Twizzlers, and the ties were Kit Kats. My favorite was the coal car, which I filled with malted milk ball "coal." Younger Nephew -- who loves candy so much that if he does not get as much as he thinks he deserves he will roll up into the fetal position on the kitchen floor like an addict and moan, "CANDY! CANDY!" -- was enamored with the train cake.

Older Nephew's fifth birthday was a month later, in March. Always trying to outdo his brother, he insisted that his cake portrayed something "heavier than a train." He asked me if a mountain weighed more than a train, and I replied that yes, indeed, a mountain is heavier than a train. So he asked for a mountain cake, with a train going around it. Because I own an obscene amount of kitchen goods and bakeware, I just so happen to have a series of concentric cake pans ranging from 3" diameter to 9". I baked a series of cakes in these pans, stacked them to form a rough pyramid shape, then iced them into a mountain peak. The green frosting is below the tree line; the brown is above the tree line where flora does not thrive. I carved a spiral track around the cake for the toy train to use as it ascended to the summit. I even threw in an out-of-scale mountain goat, just for good measure. Older Nephew was filled with glee.

So after several years of increasingly difficult and detailed cakes, imagine my delight when, in 2008, Younger Nephew requested a "green triangle cake with strawberries on top." A triangle! Frosted green! So easy! Sister tried her mightiest to complicate the issue, asking Younger Nephew repeatedly if he was sure he wanted a cake in the shape of a triangle. I was all, "Sister, when you bake the cakes, and my (non-existent) children ask for simple cakes after years of requesting heavy baked goods constructed like mountain ranges and modes of transportation, we will see how eager you are for me to keep suggesting that my children choose something more complex than a simple triangle." Younger Nephew stuck to his guns, so green triangle cake it was. I did form the strawberries into an "A," his initial, so there was a tad bit of creativity involved in this cake.

Which brings us to Older Nephew's sixth birthday, which was last Friday. His party with his school friends is this coming Sunday, however, due to the incredibly early arrival of Easter on March 23 and Sister's desire not to clutter an already-busy weekend with a bowling party for a bunch of six-year-olds. So I am baking the cake for this coming Sunday. Older Nephew is really into a computer engineering game called "Crazy Machines," which, frankly, is too hard for me to play. (Aunt Di can bake, to be sure, but is somewhat of an idiot with the engineering games.) When playing "Crazy Machines," one uses different components to build machines to do things like set off rockets, move soccer balls from one side of the screen to another, etc. Gears are one of the components available to construct the machine. Older Nephew is really into the gears, and asked me if I could make them into a cake. Remember what I said about being careful what you wish for?

So this weekend I will be hard at work transforming two 9" and one 6" cake into a unit of three interlocking gears, with teeth and a belt and everything. It has to look just like this, and since I will do anything my nephews ask me to do, of course I shall oblige:

The belt will be made from bubblegum tape, and I'm thinking maybe those small round pieces in the center of the gears can be mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. We'll see. All I know is, I have to get a pastry version of these very gears safely to a bowling alley by 3:00 on Sunday. I'll be sure to update this space with the end-game.

UPDATE: It is late Sunday night, and all gear-cake-making and bowling is over. Though this cake was quite laborious and patience-testing, I am very happy with the result. More important, Older Nephew was thrilled with his special cake, and lots of his friends at the party who have the same computer game thought it was "awesome," too. The best part: Older Nephew helped me decorate the cake, and translated each detail of each gear into its pastry form. He placed the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and asked if I could pipe some extra chocolate frosting around the Cups' circumferences to mimic the photo more accurately. Yes, Older Nephew's eye for detail belies his young age. The biggest cake-related hit had to be the "belt," which I ended up making out of sour gummy tape. I found it right next to the bubblegum tape in Discount Drug Mart's "random sugar treats that approximate office supplies" aisle, and the color was a much closer match. The kids LOVED eating it, too. Who would have thought sour gummy tape could be so universally appealing?

Next year, Older Nephew vows to request a cake "even more complicated." And I quote. But you know, I shall jump through whatever hoop he designates.


So this post is a little different, in that I'm not including an actual recipe. I wanted simply to highlight the fun I've had over the years bending to the cake-whims of the younglings. It has become a tradition in my family that I make the special cakes; indeed, even Dad got in on the action for his 64th birthday last year. He got a cake in the shape of his favorite libation.

Who knows what cakes the future holds? All I know is, I am ready with my myriad pans, pastry tips, fondant accessories and a rainbow of gel-paste food colorings.

Happy birthday, dear nephews!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

If you would remember me when you eat and drink

The first album to which I knew the lyrics was Jesus Christ Superstar, and I think I knew them all by age four. My parents attended the world premiere production of the show on July 12, 1971, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh and purchased the soundtrack. It played continually on our bitchin' stereo, and it took no effort whatsoever for me to learn every last "what's the buzz" and "roll on up for the price is down" and "Nazareth your famous son / should have stayed a great unknown / like his father carving wood / he'd have made good" and "if you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication." I loved the music so much that I'd try to play Superstar at Christmas, though Mom and Dad kept reminding me that it really was more of an Easter record.

(The program from the 1971 premiere; Mom and Dad taped it to the inside front cover of the lyrics book that came with the album. Note: Yvonne Elliman was in this cast, though, sadly, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple [who is Christ on the original cast recording] and Murray Head [Judas] were not. The Judas in this production, Carl Anderson, went on to star in the 1973 film. I am a font of Superstar knowledge.)

(The aforementioned bitchin' stereo, which now sits in the home I share with Husband. Though it was purchased in 1965, it works beautifully in 2008 with iTunes via the Apple Airport.)

My childhood Easter memories were as such informed much more by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice than they were by iconic meals and specific foods (well, except for the chocolate bunnies and abundant PAAS-dyed eggs). I remember playing album 1, side 2 on my Fisher-Price record player in my bedroom more than I remember associating any one dish with Easter. Waving palms around the house while "Hosanna" blared? Yes. Eating something at brunch that would become highly memorable and nostalgic? Not so much. My aunt always made scalloped potatoes, and there was always thickly-sliced ham (which did not appeal to me in the least, and continues not to appeal to me in the least), but beyond that...Easter was Superstar, not superfeast.

However, about 10 years ago I started making a Greek braided Easter bread that has come to signify everything I love about cooking, especially cooking for holidays: old-world, ethnic traditions (even if they don't represent my own familial background), the joyous feeling of creating something unique to commemorate the day -- plus the requisite time off from the day-to-day schedule to plan and execute a recipe that takes more hours and effort than your ordinary average dish. This bread, called tsoureki, fits this criteria perfectly.

Tsoureki is a Greek braided brioche-like bread that has, nestled within its individual plaits, Easter eggs that have been dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. The eggs themselves recall spring, new life and resurrection. The cracking of the shells symbolizes Jesus' exit from the tomb on Sunday morning -- the metaphoric rolling away of the stone, if you will. Many great food cultures have a similar egg bread central to religious celebrations (think: Jewish challah, French king cake), but I am drawn to the tsoureki for its sheer beauty and utter deliciousness -- even though I am not Greek and have no personal Greek traditions to uphold. But who needs personal traditions when the end result is as gorgeous as this?

I first made tsoureki when I was living in my minuscule apartment in Chicago, to take to an Easter dinner hosted by friends Chuck and J. I vividly recall allowing the bread to rise on a baking sheet set atop my old Apple computer, because I simply did not have the counter space. You might imagine, then, how challenging it was to braid and shape the loaf given that my kitchen "counter" was maybe 10 inches wide and was home to other critical apartment accoutrement such as the telephone/answering machine. (This is the same apartment that didn't have a single drawer in its "kitchen.") So, not the ideal surface for braiding tsoureki, or for any other culinary pursuit except perhaps cutting grapes in half. I didn't have a stand mixer with a dough hook, then, either (I have since succumbed to some sort of KitchenAid illness and have come to possess three), so I must have kneaded the dough by hand. Which means that it is quite possible to make tsoureki if you don't own a stand mixer or three -- though such ownership certainly helps. Regardless, the cramped labor conditions in my old Boys' Town apartment were worth it, because I remember Chuck and J. and the rest of their guests being rather impressed with the results.

I can't blame them; this bread is a looker -- shiny egg-washed braids cradling deep red Easter eggs throughout the entire circumference of the beautiful loaf. It tastes just as good as it looks, too, with a subtle hint of fresh orange that elevates tsoureki above run-of-the-mill egg bread. Plus, bonus treat! When you're through with your slice(s), pull out a red egg and crack into its yummy hard-boiled interior. Cholesterol be damned; there is no limit to the number of delicious hard-boiled eggs I can consume on Easter.

Don't tell your family and friends that this bread is relatively easy to make -- the "difficult" aspect of it, if you can call it that, is planning. You need to allow yourself enough time for the multiple rises but even then, it's only two rises of one and a half hours each. As you wait for the yeast to do its thing, go ahead and catch up on your correspondence, or perhaps dig into a good book, or tune into some quality TV. Making tsoureki forces you into some downtime: it makes you slow down, engage in some quiet, home-bound pursuits and relax -- even for just a few hours. Which is something we all need to do more of, anyway. And if all that wasn't enough to convince you that this recipe is worth trying, then do it for the delightful smells. There's nothing like the smell of glorious yeast and baking bread. But keep all those small pleasures a secret. Let your family and friends think you've been toiling all Lenten season long on the tsoureki, hair pulled back, up to your elbows in bread flour, proofing yeast, braiding, twisting, coloring eggs....

Present tsoureki at your Easter table and your guests will ooh and aah at your mad bread-making skillz. They will be even more impressed if you perform an impromptu rendition of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" -- with no less passion than Yvonne Elliman mustered for Ian Gillan -- as you slice into the loaf.

Happy Easter!



Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

For the Easter eggs:

8 large hard-boiled eggs

1 c. boiling water

4 t. vinegar

1/2 t. red food coloring

For the tsoureki:

1 c. milk

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough

3/4 c. sugar

4 1/2 t. active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 packets)

3 large whole eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk

1 t. kosher salt

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more to grease the bowl and plastic wrap

Grated zest of 1 orange

2 T. freshly-squeezed orange juice

2 t. pure vanilla extract

2 to 3 c. bread flour

6 to 8 red Easter eggs (the number needed will vary depending on the size of the loaf)

Heat milk in a small saucepan until a candy thermometer registers 110 degrees F. Pour the milk into the bowl of an electric mixer and add 1 1/2 c. of the all-purpose flour, the sugar and the yeast. Whisk to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let stand somewhere warm until the mixture is bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Attach the bowl to an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. On medium-low speed, add the whole eggs, one at a time. Add the remaining 1 c. of all-purpose flour and the kosher salt. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure all the flour is incorporated. Add the butter, orange zest, orange juice and vanilla. Mix briefly to combine. Gradually add enough bread flour to form a soft, sticky dough. (The most recent batch I made took about 2 1/2 c. bread flour. You want to add enough flour to make the dough form a ball around the dough hook, but not too much that the dough becomes dry.)

Generously butter a large bowl and place the dough in it; cover tightly with plastic wrap, then drape with a kitchen towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until the dough ball is about 1 1/2 times its original size, which takes about 1 1/2 hours.

While the bread is rising, prepare the red Easter eggs. Hard-boil 8 eggs. (I do this by placing the eggs in a saucepan, covering them with water, partially covering the pot and bringing it to a boil. Once it's boiling, I turn off the heat and let the eggs stand, covered, for about 10 minutes. Then I run them under cold water to cool them off.) Combine the boiling water, vinegar and red food coloring in a deep bowl. Carefully place one or two eggs in the dye mixture at a time, depending on the size of the bowl you're using. Make sure there is enough dye mixture to cover the eggs; if not, double the dye "recipe." Leave the eggs in the dye for about 10 minutes, so that they take on the darkest possible shade of red. Remove to a metal cooling rack set over a cookie sheet or a piece of plastic wrap, and allow the eggs to dry.

Line an 11" x 17" baking pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Divide dough into thirds. On a floured surface, roll out each piece into a rope approximately 30" long.

Loosely braid the three 30" ropes together.

Join the two ends together, pinching to adhere the dough to itself and form a ring. Place the ring on the pan.

Nestle the dyed eggs, heavy ends down, around the ring. (The loaf pictured below only had room for 6 eggs.) Lightly grease a piece of plastic wrap with butter, then cover the loaf with the greased plastic. Set aside to rise until doubled in size, which will take about 1 1/2 hours.

With about 30 minutes left to go in the rise, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolk with 1 T. water. Remove bread from the oven after 15 minutes; lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. and brush the bread with the egg wash. Return the bread to the oven and continue baking until the loaf is brown and hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 20 minutes. The tsoureki will be a dark brown color because of the egg wash; do not be alarmed. But of course you don't want to burn it, so if the bread becomes too dark cover it with aluminum foil while it finishes baking. (This is critical; I have to do it each time otherwise the top of the bread burns before it's baked through. I usually cover the bread with foil after its first 5 minutes of baking at 350 degrees.)

Cool on a wire rack. Warm up your singing voice, and serve.

One loaf will easily serve 8 people, though there might not be enough red eggs to go around. A note about the "bleeding" of the dye: I haven't figured out a way to prevent it, so you'll have to accept the less-than-perfect appearance of the eggs. I find it rustic and homemade-looking, and like it that way. Dishes with deep religious and cultural significance shouldn't be perfect, anyway, because they are, by design, meant to feed everyone -- including those in the poorest households who aren't so worried about the dye not running. Plus, let's look at it more symbolically: perhaps the "bleeding" of the dye into the dough around it can further symbolize the blood of Christ. See, I know you wanted a lesson in religious symbolism with your bread recipe.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Let other people spin their wheels in the streets; I shall stay close to my soup bowl

Last Saturday, it snowed 18 inches in the town directly north of my small town. It snowed 24 inches in the town two towns directly west of my small town. I don't know exactly how much it snowed in my small town, but I'm guessing it was somewhere in the middle. So, yes, our home was hemmed in by 21 glittering inches of white, March snow.

While Jet leaped about in her own private winter play land, trying to keep her head above snow (which should not be difficult considering she weighs 100 pounds and does not ride close to the ground, but was challenging due to the sheer volume of snowfall), I stared out the front window, waiting for the man who plows our driveway to show up so I could send him over to clear off our neighbor's driveway, too. During snowplow-watch, Mom and Dad appeared, just barely making it into the driveway by giving their car a running start from down the street; seems that, dating back to the time they were teenagers, they've always enjoyed driving around in blizzards. They used to try to gun their car up large hills during massive snowstorms. Now, they just tool about their hometown and surrounding locales, even when they have nowhere urgent to go and nothing in particular to do. They joined me on snowplow-watch, and as we were drinking coffee in the front room, a gorgeous brown and white dappled horse ambled down the street, being ridden by two of the happiest women I've seen in some time. I opened the front door and, absent the usual traffic, the blustery noise of the snow and the clip-clop of the horse's hoofs made me yearn for a different century, one that doesn't start with a "2." "Beautiful horse!" I yelled, before realizing I was standing on my porch in a snowstorm in my robe, discussing equine aesthetics at a substantial volume with two women astride a horse on a relatively busy street in the year of our Lord, 2008. "Our car was snowed in!" they gleefully answered. I had a feeling that even if their car had been accessible, they would have busted out the horse for this journey regardless. "Good thing you have a horse," I responded.

The only thing that can possibly improve day like this is soup.

So I went about considering my soup repertoire. With as many good, warming soup options as there were sweater-clad government officials and weatherpeople on television -- we are working hard for you, citizens, we don't have time for ties and business apparel because the snow! it is falling! -- it took some time for me to decide that Italian wedding soup was the answer for this blizzardy day. Husband lobbied hard for potato-leek; it is one of his favorites. But that will have to wait for the next low-pressure system. The thought of Italian wedding soup's teeny meatballs, treading chicken stock with rustic, flavorful escarole...it sounded the perfect antidote to Mother Nature's blowing and drifting assaults.

Though I am only one-quarter Italian, at times that minority seems to take over my entire being. Its little 25% wages big-time war with the 50% Polish and 25% German elements of me, usually planting its victorious Italian flag on my dinner plate. I have Dad to thank for this, who in turn has his Grandpa Masterson (name off the ship: Mastroianni) to thank. Grandpa Masterson was one of the many Italians who lived "Up Croton" in New Castle, PA, slang for a Little Italy of sorts, only a purely residential, working-class, OK, poor, Little Italy. This is where Grandma Masterson would cook tomato sauce for days on end, and where the parents and grandparents would serve sugar- and cream-laced coffee, poured over slices of bread, to children on Sunday mornings. It's where Grandpa Masterson would grate a mountain of snowy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top of his pasta while humorously stating, "I no like-a the cheese." It's where my godfather grew up. Yep, my godfather.

(Grandpa Masterson standing outside his home Up Croton, eating a bowl of gnocchi or cavatelli, while Dad's Aunt Nikki and Grandma Masterson peek out the window, ca. 1928.)

(My grandfather, Pa, leans against the porch beams of Grandpa Masterson's house Up Croton. This was taken when he was dating Dad's mom, Ma Chris, in the mid-1930s. Check out his sweet ride.)

If you've never been to an Italian wedding, you need to get yourself invited to one. If you've never been to an Italian wedding in New Castle, you really need to make some friends in that town. For not only will you be able to sample real Italian wedding soup in its native surroundings, but also you will be privy to a host of behaviors that are challenging to describe yet thrilling to experience. There is always a fistfight. There is usually an older lady, typically a friend of the groom's grandmother, who is a kleptomaniac. Someone must be "assigned" to her lest the caterer's worldly belongings end up in her car along with all the centerpieces and the contents of the dessert buffet, placed in Styrofoam to-go containers given to her by unknowing and well-meaning servers. There are koombits, which most people call Jordan almonds, tied up with ribbons in little tulle bags. Then there is the time, near the end of the night, when the tipsy, more happening female guests start smoking cigars with the groomsmen. And pizzelles. Someone always makes pizzelles.

Italian wedding soup is a celebratory dish, but it's a humble, one, too. There's nothing very fancy about it, and nothing that goes into making it is wasted. Though I purchased the produce from a high-end grocer to make my version, I am certain Grandpa Masterson strolled out to his garden and plucked heads of 'SCArole (escarole) fresh from the Up Croton soil. He and Grandma Masterson used every part of that head of 'scarole, right down to the stem, throwing away only the very last bit. They made the chicken stock that served as the base for the soup, so they shredded up the cooked chicken into bite-size pieces and returned them to the pot. These were poor people, and they did not waste.

(Dad and his brother, my Uncle Ray [left], forage around an Italian garden Up Croton, ca. 1945.)

My adaptation of Italian wedding soup, while delicious, would make the Italians Up Croton bite the spaces between their thumbs and index fingers and cry, "Madon." Instead of beef meatballs, I use ground turkey (I gave up beef many years ago). And though I still use chicken in the soup, if I'm in a rush I reach for canned chicken stock and omit the meat itself. The soup is better if you take the time to make the stock from scratch, thereby poaching the chicken, pulling apart the meat then adding it back into the pot. But if you're very tight on time, you can get away with skipping this step. I fed my version to Dad, who is very much his grandfather's grandson. Though he would prefer beef to turkey, he enjoyed this soup nonetheless -- and you will too. Plus, Italian wedding soup is one of the few ways that I enjoy escarole and curly endive. I don't know where the greens' bitterness goes in this soup but it's just...gone. What you're left with is green goodness swimming around in chickeny liquid fortified by egg, cheese and the occasional Italian-spiced meatball.

Italian wedding soup is a metaphor for the Italian wedding itself: bitter things that maybe should be fighting, mixed in with fortified elements, spicy elements, boiling around in a large pot, yet still managing to remain for the most part civil and joyous because hey, this is a happy day!

And for those of you who aren't Italian or who haven't had the luck of traveling Up Croton, think of a pot of Italian wedding soup as approximating the feeling of being indoors while a blizzard rages around you: it's nice and warm in here, and there's nothing I need from the outside world right now. Everything I require is right here: soul-warming broth, nutritious turkey meatballs, delicious greens, salty cheese and stick-to-your-ribs eggs and pastina.

If it's not in this house, if it's not in this pot, I don't need it. Let other people spin their wheels in the streets; I shall stay close to my soup bowl.



For the turkey meatballs:

20 oz. ground turkey

1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, freshly chopped

1/2 t. garlic, minced

1 egg, beaten

1/8 t. freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 t. kosher salt

1 c. Italian breadcrumbs

1/2 c. Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

2 T. olive oil, to fry the meatballs

For the soup:

3 48-oz. cans of low-sodium chicken stock

2 chicken or vegetable bouillon cubes

3 ribs plus the tops of one bunch of celery, chopped

1 large white or yellow onion, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, torn

1/3 c. white wine

4 c. escarole, heads quartered and chopped into bite-sized pieces

4 c. curly endive, heads quartered and chopped into bite-sized pieces

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

Salt, to taste (optional)

1/4 c. pastina/acini di pepe

1 egg, beaten

1/3 c. Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Bring the chicken stock and the vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes up to a simmer. When I made Italian wedding soup this past weekend, I started with some frozen stock I had leftover from some previous chicken poaching; I always freeze it in old-school metal ice-cube trays -- the kind with the metal lever release -- so the stock is easily accessible when I'm ready to use it.

While the stock is coming to a simmer, make the turkey meatballs. In a medium bowl, mix the ground turkey, 1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, garlic, beaten egg, 1/8 t. pepper, salt, breadcrumbs and 1/2 c. cheese. I prefer to use my hands for this, but I suppose you could use a spoon if you were so inclined. I'm sure they use their hands Up Croton. When the mixture is thoroughly combined, form it into small bite-sized meatballs, using a teaspoon as a rough guide. If they get any larger than that, they are a little hard to eat in the context of the soup, and you have to cut them in half with your spoon (oh, such labor).

Fry the meatballs in a non-stick skillet in about 2 T. of olive oil, turning once, until they get some nice color. You don't have to worry about cooking them through; their romp in the soup will take care of that. Plus, they are so small it doesn't take long to cook them, anyway. This step is just for color and texture. Set the meatballs aside on a plate to await their dip into the soup pool.

When the chicken stock is simmering, add the celery, onion, carrot and parsley and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the wine.

Add the reserved turkey meatballs, the curly endive and the escarole to the soup, and heat through. These ingredients don't need to cook for very long; in fact, if you allow the greens to overcook, they will start to fall apart and become rather stringy. Five minutes, tops, is all I let the soup go once I've added the meatballs and greens. Add the pepper and salt (optional); taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary.

Add the pastina/acini di pepe and stir through the soup. Cook for about 2 minutes. Just before serving, beat one egg with 1/3 c. cheese, then drizzle this mixture into the hot soup while stirring constantly. This fortifies the soup in the most delicious way imaginable.

Ladle yourself an immense helping, and enjoy! Hopefully at this point you are still in your robe, and can look out the window at the falling snowflakes, secure in the knowledge that you don't have to go anywhere.

Unless you have a horse.

Serves many. At least 12. I lost count after I fed it to my parents, myself, my husband, my sick sister and nephews and then still had plenty left over for lunches.

Note: This soup is especially great with day-old Italian bread (it HAS to be stale for an authentic experience), or buttery, olive oily, homemade croutons.

Also, if you wish to include chicken in the soup, just poach 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the stock while you're bringing it up to a simmer. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pot and let it stand until it's cool to the touch. Pull it apart into bite-sized pieces, and return those pieces to the soup.

Even better, you can start from scratch and make your own chicken stock -- thereby omitting the need for stock and bouillon cubes. But that, as they say, is another show. (If you are not into roasting and boiling chicken bones for hours on end you can check here for a quick little lesson on how to make a simple "stock," or court-bouillon, for lack of a better phrase.) It will make your soup taste better and even more homemade, but will add much more time and fussing and ingredients to the process: you will need cheesecloth and extra aromatics, because not only will you need the chopped celery, onion and carrot for the finished soup, you will need the same vegetables to cook down with the chicken to make the stock in the first place. If you have the time and inclination, by all means, go for it. I am a huge advocate for recipes that take all day!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wouldn't you want her to be "family," too?

There are those to whom we are related. There are those with whom we choose to associate, cultivating cherished friendships. Then there are those whose friendships with us are so close, so strong, that the bonds feel familial, even though they're not.

That's Jack and Luta to me and to my family: relatives though not technically relatives. In many ways, they're the grandparents I never had.* (Half of my grandparents passed away before I was born; the other half passed away when I was very young.) Roughly a generation older than Mom and Dad, Jack and Luta met my parents when they all found themselves living in an apartment complex in Ohio in the early 1970s. As we would learn was her style, Luta knocked on the door one day, not long after Mom and Dad moved in, proclaiming, "Hi, I'm Luta, and if you'll open that door I'll come in and introduce myself." Mom opened the door. It has stayed open for 37 years.

(L-R: Jack, me, Mom, Sister, Luta, at their home in El Paso in 1985.)

Jack and Luta were Texans, and they spent most of the time that I knew them living in Dallas and El Paso. After they left Ohio (after they met my parents) and moved back to the Lone Star State, we would load up our cream-colored station wagon and drive through the night on marathon road trips to visit them each year. We'd stop in exotic places like Vicksburg, MS, where we visited a mansion that had a Civil War cannonball still lodged in one of its walls. Ever the enthusiastic tour guide, Luta would -- as Jack would fondly state -- "drag us all over Texas" (and beyond). To Eisenhower's birthplace:

(Luta and Mom in the back; Sister and I are standing in the front. Admission was $.25 in 1977.)

To pecan farms. To Santa Fe. To the road to Santa Fe (where we stopped for a delicious packed lunch):

(1986. I thought that hat was really cool; turns out, Jack's pants were the coolest fashion statement made that day.)

To places where you could buy turquoise jewelry. To the Inn of the Mountain Gods. To South Fork. To White Sands National Monument. To the Texas State Fair:

(1977: SPECIAL SALE on saddles!)

And, when I was really into rock collecting, she (and Jack!) made sure I got to visit a place where they would let you pick out a geode, then split it in half for you so you could enjoy the matching halves of the colorful, crystalline stone. Those were some of the most memorable trips of my life.

When all I used to eat were french fries, she didn't try to feed me anything else.

And then there's the way she refused to stand on ceremony. She never saw a person to whom she wouldn't speak, if she felt like it. No one was a stranger to her. Once, in the grocery store, a particularly cute baby in a stroller caught her eye. With a fervor most reserve for their own grandchildren, Luta approached the bewildered mother and proclaimed, "Oh, that baby is so cute I could just kick him up and piss him!" Her zeal got the best of her brain's and tongue's abilities to form letters into words in the correct order. The mother scooted her cart quickly into the cereal aisle away from the crazy Texan lady.

See, if you knew Luta, wouldn't you want her to be "family," too? And I haven't even started telling you about Jack.

You might be able to imagine that Luta was a gifted, if no-nonsense, cook and hostess. Her food was delicious and her parties perfect, but everything was prepared with the greatest of ease. She took a little help from the store before Rachael Ray turned those seven words into a curse. Take this Chicken Divan recipe. Luta could have used a French mother sauce (Mornay) in the casserole, as the original dish does. Luta could make a mother sauce, make no mistake about it. However, Luta had better things to do, such as plan our next excursion to Juarez, Mexico, to get our nails done. Or, tutor one of the many Mexican kids (her "children") that she helped during her decades of volunteer work. Girlfriend didn't have time for sauce Mornay.

What follows is Luta's recipe for Chicken Divan, which she gave to Mom and which Mom cooked so much in the '70s and '80s that I actually believed the dish was named Chicken Dianne. Maybe I needed a hearing aid of some sort, or perhaps this belief was but one by-product of my self-centered youth. At any rate, this dinner epitomizes everything that is so right (delicious, rich, creamy, easy, salty, cheesy) yet so wrong (calories! fat grams!) with mid- to late-20th-century casseroles. As far as sentimentality goes, this one can't be beat. It's childhood in a baking dish. Its flavors, while not culinarily complex, per se, are pleasing. How can they not be? If you don't find all that mayo and cheese and chicken pleasing then perhaps you need your head examined. Plus, the critical inclusion of the broccoli means that you are getting some vegetable nutrition, swimming around down there underneath all those less nutritious elements. Some beta carotene fighting the good fight, though outnumbered by a much larger army of cholesterol milligrams. I will say this: don't skimp on this recipe. Don't try to make it with fat-free cream of chicken soup, or low-fat mayo. The sauce breaks and the texture is wrong and it's just...not very 1970s. Shove in all the fat grams you can, just don't make it every night.

I mean, Luta was not a very moderate personality. She would agree that there's no point in half-assed Chicken Divan.

*I speak of Jack and Luta here in the past tense. Jack passed away some time ago. Luta resides in a nursing facility in El Paso. We still write back and forth to each other, and she still lovingly addresses us all as her "Ohio children." I refer to her in the past tense only because this post refers to trips that took place in the past, to good times passed together, to experiences that cannot happen again. Though her faculties are diminished somewhat, Luta is still very much with us. I'm not sure if she's up to dragging us out for Tex-Mex, but past tense she ain't.


Adapted from Luta Roberts' recipe

For the chicken:

2 chicken or vegetable bouillon cubes

1 large carrot, cut in half

Half an onion, cut in half

1 celery stalk, cut in half

6-8 whole black peppercorns

3 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

4 whole chicken breasts, poached, cleaned and sliced

For the sauce:

2 cans condensed cream of chicken soup

1 c. Hellman's mayonnaise

4 t. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

1/2 t. curry powder (you can use whatever curry you like -- I recently used Vindaloo from Penzeys and it was most delicious, though I'm willing to bet Luta used something more common)

For the casserole:

3 10-oz. packages frozen broccoli spears, defrosted in the microwave

1 c. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1/2 c. Panko bread crumbs

2 T. melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 13" x 9" baking dish. I like to use Mom's old-school CorningWare:

Poach the chicken. Fill a large pot about halfway with water. Add the bouillon cubes, carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns, flat-leaf parsley and chicken breasts. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Allow the chicken to simmer in the broth until it's cooked through, about 25 minutes. (You can use a probe thermometer to check the temperature if you'd like -- it should be at 161 degrees F -- but since this is a casserole, the chicken will spend additional time in the oven so I don't worry about specific temp. Just make sure it's cooked through.)

Remove the chicken from the broth. If you are a picky chicken person, as I am, now is the time to remove any of the less appetizing parts of the breasts -- gristly bits, vein-y bits, what have you. If you are like my husband, and you can use your mouth to make an entire chicken breast, on the bone, disappear with nary a trace left behind, you can skip this onerous step. Up to you.

Slice the chicken crosswise into pieces about 1/2" thick; set aside until it's time to assemble the casserole.

(A note about the broth: refrigerate it overnight, skim the fat the solidifies at the surface, strain the liquids away from the solids through a cheesecloth set in a wire mesh strainer set over a large bowl or liquid measuring cup, and you have yourself a nice -- if simple -- chicken broth. Use it anywhere you'd use chicken broth. Or freeze it in ice cube trays, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, for use somewhere down the road. But definitely don't throw it away. That would just be wasteful, and Luta would not approve.)

To make the sauce, whisk together in a large bowl the condensed cream of chicken soup, mayonnaise, lemon juice and curry powder. Set aside.

Assemble the Chicken Divan. Layer the defrosted broccoli spears in the bottom of the buttered casserole dish. Place the poached chicken slices on top of the broccoli, then pour on the sauce. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese in an even layer on top. Mix together the Panko and the melted butter; sprinkle this mixture on top of the cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the casserole is piping hot and bubbly. Like a lasagna or a deep-dish pizza, it's best to let the Chicken Divan sit for about 10 minutes before scooping out a serving, otherwise, you end up with quite the runny mess. But if you can't wait, you can't wait. Who am I to judge?

Serves about 8. And, as did most dishes in the '70s and '80s, it makes great leftovers!