Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The real challenge

Want to attempt something really daring?

Try to make pizza dough from scratch while my mom -- not just any mom; my mom -- makes cinnamon ice cream from scratch in the same kitchen at the same time.

October's Daring Bakers charge was pizza. And while I do not wish to take away from the challenge of homemade yeast dough...seriously, the actual dough-making was not the difficult part of this month's baking endeavor. Maybe they should call the group the Bakers Daring Enough to Share a Kitchen with Dianne's Mom.

You see, Mom is a excellent cook. She always has been. She is a great influence on my love of the kitchen and I have always admired her willful disregard for recipes. "Oh, I don't need a recipe. Just put some of this in....How much? Oh, I don't know. Enough." Hers is a marvelous way to learn to cook; it inspires creativity and flexibility and resourcefulness and instills a certain confidence in the kitchen.

But as she has gotten older, her willful disregard for recipes has evolved into a certain hilarious hostility toward culinary directives. This recipe-disgust manifests itself in sentences such as, "Martha needs a recipe to make that? I have been making that for years." Or, "It calls for a vanilla bean? You have got to be kidding me. Do you have vanilla extract? Just put that in instead. Some. I don't know how much, exactly. Just give me the bottle."

This past Sunday was the day before my birthday. Mom and Sister were planning a family dinner: Sister was making the turkey chili, Mom was to make the cake (carrot) and ice cream (cinnamon). Mom decided that she would use my kitchen, which is all well and good. However, Sunday was the day I had set aside to complete this month's Daring Bakers challenge. So as Mom second-guessed Gale Gand's cinnamon ice cream recipe in a hysterical fashion, I two-stepped around her with my yeasty from-scratch pizza dough. The situation was made slightly more complex by the fact that my dad is retrofitting our pantry from the laundry closet that it once was to the glorious kitchen storage area that it will be. Dad is hammering away; Mom is cursing at egg yolks and waiting for the "puff of steam" that is supposed to emanate from the custard at 160 degrees; I am trying to find a spot of counter space large enough to divide a sticky dough. No small task considering that the pantry has been emptied to facilitate construction, which means that there are sacks of bread flour and boxes of penne and bags of powdered sugar shoved and stacked in each square inch of the kitchen.

So. This pizza dough? Not that challenging, in and of itself.

The real challenge is the context in which it was prepared. Mom, you are a riot.




Dough recipe adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, by Peter Reinhart

The dough is the focus; however, part of the Daring Bakers challenge this month was to display creativity through the choice of toppings. Though pizza Margherita is neither terribly creative nor groundbreaking, I chose that route because I possess more than 20 jars of home-canned tomatoes from my backyard garden. They are lovely red jewels, lined up above my cabinets, just begging to be used. It makes sense to me to use the bounty I have on hand, even at the expense of creating something totally different and unique. snowed today. Not accumulating snow, but flakes nonetheless. The first snow of the season. Seems like a good time to bust out a jar of preserved summer sun.

(But of course I couldn't just leave it at that. So I whipped up a batch of sage pesto and paired it with some crunchy walnuts and tangy gorgonzola. An easy, quick, yummy departure from the red sauce-mozzarella pizza route.)

UPDATE: Since this post, I have made this pizza dough again, this time reserving one of the six pizzas for a sweet treatment. I brushed it with melted butter, then sprinkled it with cinnamon sugar before baking. It was fantastic on its own for a dessert, but it would be especially marvelous topped with a scoop of homemade cinnamon ice cream (hey, Mom!) and maybe just a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I keep making this pizza dough and I keep learning new things. This dough freezes really well. After it has rested in the refrigerator overnight or up to three days, stick it in the freezer instead of baking it right away. I wrapped each ball in plastic wrap, then packaged the dough balls in a freezer bag. The day I wanted to make the pizza, I moved the dough into the refrigerator in the morning and by the time I was ready to cook dinner, it was ready to go. Best of all: there was no discernible decrease in texture or flavor, and it was a total boon to realize that I had homemade pizza dough in the freezer just waiting for me.

Please note: the dough needs a day or more to rest. So be sure to start at least a day before you plan on feasting on your pizza.

For the dough:

4 1/2 c. unbleached bread flour

1 3/4 t. kosher salt

1 t. instant yeast

1/4 c. olive oil

1 T. sugar

1 3/4 c. water, ice cold (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit)

Cornmeal, for dusting

At least one day in advance, combine the flour, salt, yeast, olive oil, sugar and water in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until the mixture comes together. Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes, until the dough clears the side of the bowl but sticks slightly to the bottom. If the dough looks too dry (if it doesn't stick slightly to the bottom of the bowl), add more ice water, a tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the correct consistency. Alternatively, if the dough looks too wet, sprinkle in a little more bread flour. (When I made the dough, it took a little extra water to achieve the proper consistency.)

Sprinkle a work surface with bread flour. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. If you are using parchment paper, lightly oil it. If you are using a Silpat, skip the oil.

Place the dough on the floured surface. Using a bench scraper or a knife, divide the dough into six equal pieces. Sprinkle some bread flour over the divided dough. Shape each dough piece into a ball and place on the baking sheet. Mist the 6 dough balls with spray oil (I have an olive oil spray bottle, but you could use Pam). Wrap the entire baking sheet with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Let the dough rest overnight or up to 3 days.

About 2 hours before you are ready to eat pizza, remove the dough balls from the refrigerator. Dust the counter with bread flour and place the dough on the work space. Dust the top of the dough balls with additional bread flour. Using your fingertips, press the dough balls into rounds that are about 1/2-inch thick and about 5 inches across. Lightly mist with spray olive oil (or Pam) and loosely cover with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rest for 2 hours.

While the dough rests during this 2-hour period, prepare the toppings. Note: about 1 hour and 15 minutes into this period, place a baking stone in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you do not have a pizza stone, you can use the back of a baking sheet as a baking surface. However, DO NOT preheat the baking sheet.)

For the pizza Margherita:

28 oz. can of peeled tomatoes, drained (or 28 oz. of your own home-canned tomatoes)

1 T. dried basil (or 2 T. fresh basil, chopped)

1 t. flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 t. fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 t. fresh oregano, chopped

1/2 t. kosher salt

1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese

Combine first 7 ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix well with a wooden spoon, smashing the tomatoes with the back of the spoon to create a chunky sauce. Set aside. Slice and set aside the fresh mozzarella.

For the pizza with sage-walnut pesto and gorgonzola:

2 oz. fresh sage leaves (about 1 c., packed)

1/4 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, packed

1 clove garlic

1/3 c. walnuts

1/3 c. grated Pecorino cheese

2 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 c. olive oil

3 oz. gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

1/2 c. walnuts

Combine first 6 ingredients in a food processor; pulse to roughly chop. Stream in the olive oil to form a smooth puree. Set aside. Also set aside the gorgonzola cheese and walnuts.

So now...time to make the pizzas. Make 1 pizza at a time.

Generously sprinkle the back of a baking sheet with cornmeal. Flour your hands (palms, backs and knuckles). Lay 1 piece of dough across the back of your knuckles and carefully stretch it by bouncing it on your knuckles, giving it a little stretch with each bounce. Once the dough has expanded outward, move to a full toss. If the dough doesn't stretch, place it back on the counter for about 10 minutes to allow the gluten to relax. Then, resume the stretching/tossing.

When the dough is about 8-10 inches in diameter, place it on the back of the baking sheet, making sure there is enough cornmeal on the pan so that the pizza slides around freely. Top the pizza with the tomato sauce and sliced fresh mozzarella, or with the sage pesto and crumbled gorgonzola and walnuts.

Carefully slide the pizza onto the hot pizza stone, using a wide spatula to facilitate the process. Bake for 6-8 minutes. Remove the pizza to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 3-5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Makes 6 pizzas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Near as good

My mom is infamous for her ability to stir up trouble. Sometimes it's that devilish, fun kind of mischief: smoking cigars with the groomsmen at a wedding, or with the piano player late in the evening at her favorite bar. The kind of mischief that once made Dad-- when I asked him if he was aware of something outrageously silly that his wife did -- respond in a non-plussed, not-at-all-surprised manner: "Well, I didn't know what was going on, but I've been around your mother a little bit."

Sometimes when she stirs things up, it's because she means business. Like if you need to fight with the cable company, she is a good person to consult on strategies. Should you need to return something without a receipt, well, she is your woman.

So last Saturday, as we were sitting in Sister's kitchen eating delicious homemade chicken noodle soup, I mentioned that I'd like to make a batch of the soup, too, to enjoy at home. Mom's response, muttered just to get a rise out of me: "You could make some of this soup, but it wouldn't be near as good as your sister's." Hunched over her bowl, gripping her spoon, grinning with her mouth full, glancing sideways in a trouble-making fashion, she was gleefully waiting for me to protest. Sister stood smugly by the refrigerator, lording over her superior soup. I gently reminded the two clowns who in the family has the cooking blog.

Setting aside the fact that Sister's soup was phenomenally good and absolutely perfect for a fall evening, I was compelled to cook up a batch at home, just to prove my mischievous relatives wrong. But you know what? I will not stoop to their level. Sister's soup and my soup are equally tasty. We playfully compete with each other a lot of the time; however, the battle of homemade chicken noodle soup is a draw.

Well, I call it a draw. Mom hasn't tasted my version yet.

The recipe comes from Emeril Lagasse. Though I appreciate Emeril -- he seems to be a very nice man and a talented chef -- I have never been a huge fan of his shows. Regardless, this simple soup recipe is just perfect. It allows you to get away with using store-bought stock, thereby drastically reducing the cooking time, but still allows you to inject plenty of home-cooked flavor into the soup thanks to the hour-long poaching of chicken with various aromatics. (Of course you could use your own homemade stock, which would be superior, but store-bought stock will work wonderfully, too. But make sure you buy stock, not broth. Stock's depth of flavor is far superior to comparatively watery broth.) The result is a flavorful, complex but not at all salty, clear beautiful chicken noodle soup that you can make and enjoy on a week night -- when time is often limited and long-cooking soups aren't exactly practical.

Mom, I suppose it's your turn. How will your chicken noodle soup turn out? Probably not near as good as your daughters'.


Adapted from Emeril Lagasse's recipe

Though I cook the stock with both white and dark meat chicken, I only shred the chicken breasts to add back into the soup. I don't care for dark meat, but I do appreciate the flavor that the bones bring to the party. By all means, if you like dark meat, shred it, too, and add it back into the soup. Otherwise...teeny bits of the poached thighs and legs make wonderful doggie snacks.

3 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1 1/2 lb. chicken thighs

1 lb. chicken legs

1 quart chicken stock (homemade or store-bought)

2 quarts water

2 large onions, quartered

2 carrots, roughly chopped

2 celery stalks, roughly chopped

6-8 sprigs fresh thyme

10 fresh parsley stems

1 bay leaf

2 T. unsalted butter

3/4 c. onion, diced

1/2 c. carrots, diced

3/4 c. celery, diced (leafy tops included)

2 1/4 t. kosher salt

1 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

8 oz. whole-wheat angel hair pasta, broken into one- or two-inch pieces

1/4 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced

Place the chicken in a large stockpot or Dutch oven and cover with the chicken stock/broth and water. Add the onion quarters, roughly chopped carrot and celery, thyme, parsley stems and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour, until the chicken is falling off the bone.

Using tongs, remove the chicken from the broth and set aside until cool enough to handle. Strain the broth through a fine wire-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth, set over a large bowl or pot, to separate the stock from the vegetables. Reserve the stock; discard the vegetables.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the meat into bite-size pieces. Discard the bones, skin and fat. Set the shredded chicken aside.

Melt the butter over medium heat in the same stock pot that you used to boil the chicken. (It's especially yummy to capture some of the little browned bits that remain in the pot after you strain the broth.) Add the diced onion, carrot and celery and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the shredded chicken. Add the reserved chicken stock and bring the soup to a boil over medium-high heat.

Season the soup with salt and pepper. Add the angel hair pasta and simmer until the pasta is cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Serve hot.

Makes 8 servings.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chess pie is an actual dessert

My dog's name is Jet.
However, I rarely call her Jet.
I call her Chess. Chessie. Chessa. Chesapeaker. Chesapeakin' Peaker. (She is, after all, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.) I also call her Sweet Pea, Sweet Pie, Sweetie Pea, Sweetie Pie. At times I just call her Pie. Sometimes she is just called Beauty. Sometimes, Sweetheart. And often, Chess Pie.
And though I have been calling her Chess Pie with some regularity for the past two years, it only occurred to me three days ago that chess pie is an actual dessert.

Though Chess Pie sleeps in my bed every night, I have to admit, I have never had chess pie before. So it is not on the merits of its own baked goodness that chess pie makes an appearance here today. But seeing as how I inadvertently nicknamed my dog after an old-fashioned Southern dessert -- and seeing as how I write a blog devoted to the intersection of food and joyful life experiences -- well, this seemed like the right time to explore the sweet simplicity of the chess pie.

The confection, not the pup.

So what is chess pie? Basically, it's pecan pie without the pecans. A sugary, eggy filling untempered by nuts. And the name? It could be a reference to an archaic usage of the word "cheese," where "cheese" was used to describe a baked good that had the consistency of (cream) cheese even if it didn't include the ingredient itself. Or it could refer to Chester, England. Or it could have to do with the pie chest/pie safe, a piece of furniture where pies were placed to await consumption. What it doesn't seem to be, sadly, is a reference to my dog, much as I think she is the center of the universe.

This recipe comes from the tried and true Helen Corbitt's Cookbook. When it dawned on me last week that there was such a pie as chess pie, my first instinct was to call Mom and ask she if she had a recipe somewhere in her library of books and/or her repertoire of culinary life experiences. Her first instinct was to refer me to dear old Helen. I love the recipe's simplicity: five ingredients, 10 lines of text including the title. As much as I like mammoth complex recipes, every so often I relish a dish whose preparation can be encapsulated in just a handful of printed characters. I think there is a reason culinary classics are so simple: they stand the test of time because they are easily prepared with readily available ingredients and unfussy methods that can be effortlessly communicated and passed on between generations.

But back to Jet.
As I bake this pie this evening, each time I refer to it by its name I get a large, inquisitive pup at my side. I get a snout wedged between my apron and the counter top. I get a pair of big hazel eyes staring hopefully at my hands as if to wish the contents of the mixing bowl into her mouth. I get a head cocked with adorable anticipation that maybe, just maybe, my human is talking about a treat for Chess Pie, not chess pie as a treat. But tonight Jet will have to be sated by the Roast Toasties. The chess pie is for the people.

Adapted from Helen Corbitt's Cookbook

A word to the wise: like my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, this pie is sweet. Cut the slices small and maybe enjoy it with a cup of coffee or tea.

1 1/4 c. sugar
6 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 egg yolks
3 T. heavy cream
1 t. vanilla
1 9-inch pie crust, ready-made or your own favorite recipe
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Blind bake the pie crust for about 10 minutes, until it begins to crisp and turn a light brown color. Remove and set aside.
Helen Corbitt urges us to mix this pie by hand, not in an electric mixer. So, in a medium mixing bowl and using a wooden spoon, cream together the sugar and butter. Go ahead and use your hands to really combine the sugar and butter, if you find the wooden spoon isn't doing the trick. Add the egg yolks and stir briskly to combine well. Stir in the heavy cream and vanilla.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 275 degrees and bake for an additional 40-45 minutes, until the filling is golden brown and set.
Allow the pie to cool and set. Slice, and serve! Then, kiss the dog.

Makes 1 pie.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A left hook

So, the Great Shape Up of Ought Eight continues.

As I mentioned previously in this space, I have embarked on a plan to improve my health, build strength, become more fit and, oh yeah, lose a little weight while I'm at it. This is not a Diet with a capital "D." This is a concerted effort to alter my lifestyle to include regular physical activity -- including both strenuous exercise and fun, but calorie-burning and muscle-strengthening, recreational pursuits -- and to welcome some healthier foods into my daily menus.

So far, I am really enjoying this effort. I am sleeping better, I feel stronger. I'm more flexible and have improved my balance. I am relying less on dinners chock full o' carbohydrates and refined, processed snacks and more on fresh produce and protein and whole grains. I am TiVoing Gilad. I am not totally un-fun; it is not in my genetic make-up, thankfully, to eat perfectly healthfully all of the time. I strive for a life of reasonable moderation. Of vigorous activity and plenty of rest. Of increased strength and energy to power my legs to run, my feet to pedal a bicycle, my core muscles to maintain balance on a horse and my heart to beat happily when I hike with my puppy. And since I find Fall to be the most beautiful and inspiring of the seasons, now is the perfect time to explore a colorful, leafy world of sidewalks, bridle paths and hiking trails.

(The extra-awesome bonus result of all this Fall recreation and reasonable eating: I have made a commitment to improve my lifestyle well before the beginning of 2009. Meaning, I can get myself under control before I need to turn the effort into a New Year's resolution. I dislike New Year's resolutions. They are stressful and cliche and they never "take." Best to get started now.)

With all this in mind, Fabulous Trainer Heather allowed me to borrow one of her cookbooks to inspire a healthier take on cooking. I must be honest: at first I was skeptical of the book. Heather is a weight-lifting champion. Every ounce of her is lean and mean. She has that most excellent kind of strength: she looks tiny and unimposing in her everyday civilian clothes, but then she can turn around and lift a small car while still engaging her core and breathing perfectly. She personifies power. But the impressive way in which she eats is not the way I can eat: she eats to fuel her body to perform at its absolute physical peak. She is a professional. She trains people and wins trophies that are half a foot taller than she is. My needs are not as stringent. I need to power my body to get through the day feeling good, to stave off migraine attacks, to build muscle to support my horseback riding and running and to burn calories to fit into my clothes.

So when she handed the book I thought, "Oh no. A book full of recipes containing rice syrup and soy protein powder and stevia. What am I going to do with this?" But I took it anyway and when I got home and began leafing through it I was delighted to find that the recipes looked good. Tasty. Healthy. Fresh. Without a ton of alternative ingredients. The recipes stared at me from the pages, urging me to consume them on my path toward better health. "Look at me! I can give you the energy you need to sit your trot with your feet out of the stirrups!" How refreshing.

Given the somewhat meandering style of eating that I am trying to alter -- breakfast some days, an unhealthy lunch, no snack in the afternoon, dinner way too late -- I often get headaches after working out. I decided that this malady has to do with, at least in part, insufficient fuel intake. So I chose a few recipes from the book for energy-boosting snacks that might preempt my brain's insistence on developing a post-exercise headache. One of these is a recipe for "breakfast cookies," which sounds ridiculous but is actually rather amazing. I sometimes eat them for breakfast, but mostly I utilize these cookies as a pre- and post-workout snack. So far it's been working well: no headaches! And they're tasty, too. While lacking the moist buttery yumminess of the traditional cookie, they do pack a fruity, nutty flavor and powerfully nutritious punch that is like a left hook to my migraine-inducing vascular system. Plus, they go really well with coffee, and beat the pants off an Egg McMuffin in the morning pick-me-up arena.

December is just around the corner. That month I'll be sharing lots of gooey, sweet, delicious and amazing cookie recipes in honor of the holidays. But right now it's October. For now, I'm sticking with the healthy breakfast cookie.


Adapted from The Eat Clean Diet Cookbook, by Tosca Reno

1 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. vegetable oil

6 egg whites

1/3 c. dried figs, finely chopped

1/3 c. dried cranberries, finely chopped

1/3 c. dried blueberries, finely chopped

2 t. vanilla

2 c. all-purpose flour

1 c. whole-wheat flour

1 c. bran flakes

1 t. baking soda

1/4 c. ground flax seed

1/2 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground allspice

1/2 c. slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the brown sugar, vegetable oil and egg whites in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together to combine. Stir in the dried fruits and vanilla.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, bran flakes, baking soda, ground flax seed, cinnamon and allspice. Whisk together to incorporate.

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture in two additions. Add the almonds. The dough will be stiff and a little sticky; use your hands to incorporate the almonds and make sure the mixture is well-combined.

Roll tablespoons-full of the dough between your hands to form balls. Drop the balls onto parchment- or Silpat-lined baking sheets. (A spring-loaded ice-cream scoop makes this task particularly easy.) These cookies do not spread, so they can be placed relatively closely together on the baking sheet. Using your fingers, flatten the dough balls.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, then allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet enough for you to handle them. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 4 dozen cookies. Store in a covered container.