Saturday, November 29, 2008

Really, sugar

November is an especially challenging month to be a Daring Baker. You know, with Thanksgiving and all.

There's an awful lot to cook and bake in November. And just when you think you can relax for a moment -- after the Thanksgiving feast has been enjoyed and the leftovers have been stored away and even the turkey stock has been made -- along come those wily bakers with their rules and confections. Hence I found myself, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, making a caramel cake when there were remnants of three pies covered in aluminum foil sitting on the counter. Talk about excessive. Good thing the SciFi Channel was airing a "Mork & Mindy" marathon; episode after episode kept me and Husband entertained as I caramelized sugar late into the evening/early into the morning. In fact, Mork and Mindy were already married and honeymooning on Ork by the time I was ready to frost the cake.

The caramel cake with caramelized butter frosting recipe comes to us from Shuna Fish Lydon. Our lovely hosts for this challenge were Dolores from Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex from Blondie and Brownie and Jenny of Foray into Food -- with an admirable assist from gluten-free goddess Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go. OK! With all those credits out of the way, let's get on with it.

The requirement this month was to make the cake and frosting. We were also presented with an optional challenge: Alice Medrich's golden vanilla bean caramels. Unfortunately for my own sugar skills, I ran out of time this month and didn't get to the caramels. I thought it more pressing to get the outside Christmas lights up, especially since today was a sunny and snow-less day. But I will be making them in the weeks to come, just for the challenge of it. Plus, I already have golden syrup on hand for when the ANZAC biscuit craving strikes. So I really have no excuse not to give these candies a whirl.

Now about that caramel cake. Man alive. It is delicious. And a textural masterpiece: crunchy, golden brown and caramelized crust; soft, light, moist crumb. It smells divine and tastes even better, sweet but not too sweet, sugary but not overwhelmingly so. I just couldn't get over the texture of the cake. Simply gorgeous.

The caramelized butter frosting is another story, at least in terms of sweetness. I suggest setting out your toothbrush and toothpaste preemptively. You will need it. The frosting has great flavor and texture, but, really, sugar. In fact, the next time I make this cake -- and there will be a next time, it is that good -- I think I might omit the frosting and mix a handful of toasted walnuts into the batter. That, to me, sounds perfect.

But that cake as I made it this go 'round was pretty perfect too. I cut it in half, filled it with melted apricot jam and garnished it with a few dried apricots that I chopped finely and rolled in a bit of sugar. (Sugar! Because there wasn't enough already.) Husband ate a piece this morning as an appetizer before his Belgian waffle, so you know the cake must be good. (Another thing that is good: the fact that Husband runs marathons! You can have a cake appetizer when you run marathons, you see.)

Although it's true I wanted to go to bed a little earlier than I did last night, I am grateful to the Daring Bakers nevertheless for introducing yet another magnificent baked good to my life. And I'm grateful that Orson didn't turn Mork into a shaggy dog before he married Mindy.


Adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon

As with any cake with multiple components, it's best to approach this recipe in pieces. First, make the caramel syrup. While it cools to room temperature, get all the ingredients ready to make the cake. Then, make the cake. While the cake is baking, brown the butter for the frosting and let it cool. Assemble the frosting while the cake cools. (It would be even better to make the caramel syrup and frosting a day ahead; store the syrup, covered, at room temperature and the frosting in the refrigerator in an airtight container.) It's all about dividing the work into small tasks.

For the caramel syrup:

2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
An additional 1 c. water for "stopping" the caramelization process

It's best to have a small bowl of ice water nearby when you work with hot sugar; if any spatters and lands on your skin, you can cool it right away.

In a medium saucepan with tall sides combine the sugar and 1/2 c. water. Stir until the mixture resembles wet sand, brushing down any stray sugar crystals with a wet pastry brush. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar is an amber color. Throughout the cooking process, brush down any sugar crystals that accumulate on the sides of the pan.

When the color is achieved, very carefully pour in 1 c. of water to stop the caramelization process. Whisk continuously to prevent crystallization. BE CAREFUL with this step: the sugar is very hot and the addition of the water will cause some bubbling and spattering. Be prepared to take a step back if you need to.

Reduce the heat to medium and whisk constantly until the syrup reduces and thickens slightly. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

For the caramel cake:

10 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/3 c. caramel syrup (see recipe above), at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 t. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1 c. milk, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a tall (2 - 2 1/2 inches deep) 9-inch cake pan with non-stick cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and salt and mix until light and fluffy.

With the mixer on low, pour the caramel syrup into the bowl in a slow stream. Scrape down the sides of the bowl then increase the speed to incorporate the syrup. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla, then scrape down the sides of the bowl again and beat until the mixture is light and uniform.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.

With the mixer on the lowest speed, add one third of the flour mixture. When incorporated, add half of the milk. Then add the second third of the flour mixture, followed by the rest of the milk, followed by the remaining flour. Beat well between each of these additions.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a spatula, fold the batter a few times to make sure it is uniformly mixed. Turn the batter out into the prepared pan.

Place the cake pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Then, rotate the pan and bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not over bake!

Turn the cake out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before frosting. (The cake can be made up to three days in advance; store at room temperature wrapped in plastic wrap.)

For the caramelized butter frosting:

12 T. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 lb. confectioner's sugar, sifted
4 T. heavy cream
2 t. vanilla extract
2 T. caramel syrup (see recipe above)
Pinch fleur de sel or sea salt

In a small saucepan, cook the butter until it's brown. Strain it through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a heat-proof bowl; this will catch the browned solids and separate them from the browned butter. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Pour the cooled butter into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the confectioner's sugar a little at a time. After adding about a third of the confectioner's sugar, add the heavy cream and mix well. After another third of the sugar has been incorporated, add the vanilla and mix well. When you have finished incorporating the sugar, add the caramel syrup and mix well to combine. Stir in a pinch of fleur de sel (or sea salt).

For the apricot filling and garnish:

1/3 c. apricot jam
1 T. water
A few dried apricots, chopped
1 T. sugar

Combine jam and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until the jam is "melted" and thinned, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

And now, to assemble the cake! Cut the cooled cake in half using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion. With a pastry brush, brush the cut side of the bottom half of the cake with apricot filling. Place the two halves of the cake together and frost with the caramelized butter frosting. (Reserve a little of the frosting in a pastry bag for decorating, if desired.) Roll the chopped dried apricots in the sugar; garnish the top of the cake with the sugared apricots.

Makes one (1) hell of a rich cake.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Present blessings

I was set to share one last Thanksgiving recipe with you all today, but, you know, actual real life stepped in and instead of cooking green beans and fennel for you, tonight I am brining a turkey for my family.

It's hell when cooking gets in the way of cooking!

So as we all begin preparing our feasts -- or traveling to our feasts -- I leave you with the following, from Charles Dickens:

Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.

Indeed. Happy Thanksgiving!

(Special thanks to Alex, who brought this Dickens quotation to my attention earlier this week.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Well, eat some brussels sprouts

So Thanksgiving is in three short days. Though with the way I've been cooking around here recently, it's like it's been Thanksgiving all month. The fridge is stocked -- overflowing, even -- with autumnal dishes. Some of them (like the fregula gratin and the breadsticks) I've frozen, to be reheated the day of the feast. Others were consumed so quickly that there was not time to contemplate any sort of long-term storage. And even though I could subsist on leftovers for the foreseeable future, still I press on with new dishes. Because there are so many recipes to share with you all.

Today I offer a side dish that's a little brighter, a little leaner, a little lighter. Something green to cut through the mounds of carbohydrates and layers of oozing gratin sure to find their way onto your Thanksgiving plate. Something healthy, even. Heavens! Something healthy.

You know, I am always impressed and intrigued by those well-balanced souls who go running, or walking, or elliptical-ing, on Thanksgiving morning. You know those people: the ones who get in their cardio, pre-gigantic meal, while the rest of us get into our "spreadin'-out clothes"
(Mom's phrase to describe any loose-fitting clothing that can comfortably accommodate a large meal). This recipe, for brussels sprouts with lemon and pistachios, is for those healthy folk among us. Even though said folk don't necessarily need a healthier side dish, as their anticipatory cardio is a license to guilt-free consumption. But still. We all strive to be more fit, to make healthier food choices. In the spirit of wellness, well, eat some brussels sprouts.

But don't worry: eating these sprouts is no chore. On the contrary, they are yummy -- tender and soft and punctuated by the citrusy tang of lemon and the singular sharp flavor of pistachios, a tasty foil to the sprouts' slight bitterness. They're cooked very rapidly in grapeseed oil, an oil which is believed to lower "bad" cholesterol. These brussels sprouts just look so pretty, sitting in a relaxed pile next to the mountain of mashed potatoes on your plate. Looking up at you and reminding you to maybe take a walk after dinner.

Well, after dessert, at least.


Adapted from "Bon Appetit"

This recipe, as written, calls for the brussels sprouts to be separated, leaf by leaf. If you find this task to be tedious, which is a totally reasonable conclusion, feel free to slice the sprouts thinly. Personally, I like the way the individual leaves serve as little cups, holding pistachios and little drops of lemon juice. But it's your call; prep the sprouts as you will.

The prep is the time-consuming part of this recipe. Once you're ready to cook, the whole dish only takes about 5 minutes, start to finish.

3 T. grapeseed oil
3 T. minced shallot
2 lbs. brussels sprouts, leaves separated from cores (cores discarded)
3/4 c. shelled salted pistachios
2 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the brussels sprouts and pistachios and sauté until the leaves begin to soften but are still bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and pepper.

Transfer to bowl and serve warm.

Makes 6 servings.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My ulterior motive

I enjoy serving a soup course at Thanksgiving dinner. I have my reasons. Soup is warming, hearty and full of seasonal ingredients. It is a pleasing and flavorful way to begin the magnificent celebratory meal that is Thanksgiving. Blah, blah, blah. My ulterior motive for making soup on Thanksgiving is to showcase my lovely pumpkin-shaped tureen and its matching pumpkin-shaped bowls. It's not like these beautiful dishes get a lot of action at other times of the year; I generally don't eat my cereal out of a pumpkin-shaped bowl. Anyone who knows me knows that I love my dishes, and Thanksgiving is these particular dishes' time to shine.

It is the season to be thankful, and thankfully there are lots of tasty soups with which to fill the fancy tureen on Thanksgiving day. Helen Corbitt's cream of mushroom soup is one favorite. Or a spicy-sweet pumpkin soup. Or potato-leek. Or roasted garlic. A-ha! This year I will fill the tureen with roasted garlic soup.

I would like to tell you where this recipe comes from, but I can't, really. It was in a magazine I was reading one day while getting a pedicure. I asked if they had a photocopier in the beauty shop so I could take the recipe home with me without stealing the magazine, and lo, the ladies were happy to oblige. So what I have is a copied page from some undisclosed magazine. Maybe "Real Simple," maybe "Cottage Living," who knows. But whoever you are, mystery woman's magazine, I would like to say thank you.

Because this soup is delicious. The luscious, creamy soup is spiked perfectly by a garnish of a few slices of chorizo. The sausage's flavor is the perfect complement to the earthy garlic. I use a chicken sausage that is spiced to resemble pork chorizo because I don't eat pork. (Feel free to substitute if you do.) And good luck not going back for seconds, this soup is so good. But you have to leave room for the turkey, you know.

Your lovely autumnal tureen, if you have one, is going to thank you. So is your family. And it must be said: if you do not have a fancy autumnal tureen, no worries. Roasted garlic soup is astounding even when served out of a paper cup.



It might be a good idea to double this recipe if you're feeding a small army, as many of us do on Thanksgiving.

3 heads of garlic
4 t. olive oil, divided
8 oz. chorizo-spiced chicken sausage (or pork chorizo, if that's how you roll)
2 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion
2 t. fresh thyme leaves
1 t. paprika
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
4 c. chicken stock (homemade or store-bought)
1/3 c. heavy cream

Roast the garlic. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut about 1 inch off the stem end of the heads of garlic, revealing the tops of the cloves inside. Place the garlic on a piece of aluminum foil and drizzle with 3 t. of the olive oil. Fold the foil over the garlic and seal the edges to form a package. Roast in the oven until the cloves are very tender, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let the garlic cool enough to be handled.

While the garlic is roasting, sauté the chorizo. Slice the sausages on the bias into pieces that are about 1/4-inch thick. Heat the remaining 1 t. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the chorizo in a single layer and cook until crispy. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel; set aside.

After the garlic is cool enough to handle, extract the roasted garlic from the papery skin by squeezing the cloves. Work over a small bowl; set aside the roasted garlic.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper and cook until the onion is translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes. Add the roasted garlic and chicken stock; stir. Bring the soup to a simmer, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender or a regular-ol' blender. (If using a traditional blender, work in batches.)

Add the heavy cream. (If using a traditional blender, return the pureed soup to the pot before adding the cream.) Reheat until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Serve hot, topped with chorizo slices.

Serves 6, as a first course.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Full of sage and caraway

OK so it should be clear by now that my dad is an impressive baker. Obvious that I aspire to his excellence. Evident that my childhood baking memories unfailingly involve him. (Mom, I swear that there are some posts on the way that detail your prowess in the kitchen as well; let it be known that while Dad provided half of my cook's DNA, Mom provided the other half.) So I will not belabor the point. I shall simply share another of Dad's recipes: herb breadsticks.

Mmm, herb breadsticks. These crunchy, chewy, buttery treats were made for the Thanksgiving table. They are chock full of sage -- the herb that would come to mind first if you forced me to make a list of herbs evocative of Thanksgiving. (If you forced me to make such a list, though, that would be kind of strange.) They also include a healthy amount of caraway seeds, which adds a wonderful salty dimension to the breadstick. They are loads of fun to make, rustic, beautiful and homespun.

Good luck getting them all to the Thanksgiving buffet, though. You'll think, Oh, there are lots of breadsticks here. I'll just have one more. Then soon you'll be full of sage and caraway and the bread basket will be empty. Try to remember that Thanksgiving is about bounty and harvest and sharing. The cornucopia is never shown depleted of its stores.

Maybe I can get Husband to hide the breadsticks from me. Seriously, I've just eaten three of them.



1 package yeast
1 1/4 c. water, between 105-115 degrees Fahrenheit
3 T. sugar
1 1/2 T. kosher salt
3 t. caraway seeds
1 t. ground sage
3 1/2 c. flour
1 T. unsalted butter, melted, plus more to brush over the finished breadsticks

Sprinkle yeast into the water, then add sugar and whisk to dissolve. Let sit until foam develops on the yeast mixture, about 10 minutes.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer combine salt, caraway seeds, sage and flour. Whisk to combine. Pour in the 1 tablespoon of butter, then the yeast mixture. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and knead for 10 minutes. The dough will form a warm, smooth ball.

Remove the dough from the bowl and lightly oil the inside of the bowl with olive oil. Roll the dough in the bowl to coat it in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise 1 hour, or until a finger punched in the center doesn't rise back up.

Divide dough in two pieces. Roll out the first piece to about 6" x 12". (It is not necessary to flour the work surface; there is plenty of oil to prevent sticking.) Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into 12 pieces. Then, using your fingers, roll each piece to about 12" long. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Place breadsticks on Silpat-lined baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise until double in size, about 45 minutes.

Mid-way through this second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the breadsticks for 18-20 minutes. Remove to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and brush with melted butter. Consume!

Makes 24 breadsticks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shut up about the fregula!

I am a sucker for fregula Sarda, the toasted couscous-like pasta from the gorgeous isle of Sardinia. I am also a sucker for Thanksgiving. So when I came across a recipe for a hearty Thanksgiving gratin that listed fregula Sarda as a main ingredient, well, my pasta-loving, holiday-loving head nearly exploded.

Well maybe it wasn't that graphic but still: I got myself to the grocery store right away.

Fregula Sarda is just about the most fragrant, nutty and pleasingly textural small pasta you'll ever taste. It's a bit hard to find, though, which is why I consider myself blessed that my husband's office is in Chelsea Market in NYC. When he is in the city on business, I ask him to stop in the Italian market located on the street level of Chelsea Market and stock up on fregula and other elusive Italian specialties, such as malloreddus and pane carasau and 00 flour. If you're not in New York and/or you don't have a well-stocked Italian market nearby, you can always order your fregula online. (And if you can't find fregula or don't wish to go the online route, Israeli couscous is an acceptable substitute. It might not have the roasty-toastiness of the fregula, but its shape and texture works well in this gratin.)

The gratin recipe I found came from the pages of "Martha Stewart Living." She calls it "Cauliflower gratin with endive," but I prefer to call it "Cauliflower and fregula Sarda gratin." (I would call it simply "Fregula Sarda gratin," but then it sounds like some gourmet mac-n-cheese.) Regardless, I feel that the fregula should be highlighted in the title; it is, after all, the bright beacon that guided me to the recipe in the first place, the shining semolina lighthouse on a craggy coast of cauliflower florets.

Cauliflower and fregula Sarda gratin is a delicious amalgamation of seemingly disparate ingredients: the aforementioned glorious fregula (OK, OK, shut up about the fregula!), a head of cauliflower, pale-green endive and melty smooth Gruyere. The fregula adds a rustic and flavorful heartiness to the dish; the cauliflower, subtle vegetable crunch; the endive, a bitter element to contrast the cauliflower's mildness; the Gruyere, well, cheesy goodness. All rounded out by a dash of cayenne.

You might think that a pasta-based side dish would be too much as part of a meal notorious for its starchy side dishes. But trust me, this gratin has a place alongside the mashed potatoes and stuffing on the Thanksgiving table. Because Thanksgiving is about neither moderation, nor mindless consumption. It is about homemade traditions, appreciation for the season's bounty, celebration of those things -- food and family -- that make us who we are and make us happy. I see no reason why several carbohydrate-based dishes cannot be a part of this well-considered and well-woven culinary fabric.

I see no reason why a Sardinian pasta cannot become part of the American Thanksgiving tradition.


Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 heads endive, cut lengthwise into sixths
1 c. fregula Sarda (or Israeli couscous)
1 large head of cauliflower (about 2 lbs.), cut into bite-sized florets
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3 c. milk
1 T. dried oregano
1 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
12 oz. grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 c. panko
1/3 c. grated Pecorino cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the rack in the lower third of the oven.

Butter a deep, wide ovenproof dish. Place the endive in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the fregula Sarda (or Israeli couscous, if using) over the endive. Top with cauliflower.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the milk and cook, whisking frequently, until the mixture thickens, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the oregano, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Add the Gruyère and mix until it melts and is smooth.

Pour the cheese mixture over the cauliflower. Sprinkle panko over the gratin. Set the dish on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with grated Pecorino. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for an additional 40 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender. If the cheese browns too quickly, tent the dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven. After baking, transfer the dish to a wire rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Monday, November 17, 2008

So many good things going for it

Pecan pies make me happy.

A homemade pecan pie has so many good things going for it. It is packed full of nuts and sugar. (You already know how I feel about nuts, and you might be able to guess how I feel about sugar.) It is completely easy to make; foolproof, even. And if it's coming out of my kitchen, then it was baked from the recipe my father uses, a recipe that is imbued with a lifetime of warm kitchen memories and pecan nostalgia.

Pecan nostalgia? Yes, pecan nostalgia. You all have met Luta before, right here in this space. She is the wonderful southern woman who, though not related by blood, always has been a sort of surrogate grandmother to me. Phenomenal in so many ways, Luta and her beloved husband Jack would outdo themselves each year when they would send a generous shipment of in-the-shell pecans all the way from Texas to snowy Ohio. Once they even sent along this totally bad-ass nutcracker, this horizontal slingshot-looking torture device which hooked onto the edge of the table and used a great deal of inertia (and a very large rubber band) to crack the shells loudly but gently, revealing two perfect nut meats. Growing up, the holidays simply were not the holidays without that noisy popping-cracking sound, echoing and reverberating around the house.

And when my family was cracking pecans, that meant Dad was baking pies. He thinks his recipe comes from the wonderful old standby, Helen Corbitt, but he says he can't remember for sure. Since Dad has made this pie for as long as I can remember -- and since the recipe is recorded on a tattered old card in his perfect all-caps handwriting, which he developed over a lifetime of writing on blueprints -- I shall call it his. It is a wonderful recipe. It is all nut, with little of the gooey sickly-sweet filling that comprises some lesser pecan pies. The ratio is perfect: a taste of sugar with each forkful of toasty pecan. A shot of Grand Marnier ups the flavor ante, adding just a hint of liquor. Just enough to get the holiday revelry going.

In my childhood I never thought to ask why the majority of the cooking tasks fell to Mom, while nearly all the baking fell to Dad. I just remember that Mom was the one making hearty soups that would "outgrow" the pots in which she began cooking them, while Dad was hunched over the butcher-block counter tops rolling out dough or braiding a loaf or, thank heavens, sitting at the table with me, creating a ruckus with the slingshot-inertia-hardcore-nutcracker. I now understand that the division of labor reflected a very simple truth: while Mom can bake if cajoled and Dad can cook if he's hungry and nobody is around, Mom is the gifted cook while Dad is the skilled and patient baker.

And Luta was the pecan distributor. How much joy and memory is contained in a humble nut pie.



You can use any pie shell recipe you like, but this simple one is the one Dad always uses. I think it's from the back of a can of Crisco. It's a simple, no-fuss, very forgiving, flaky and delicious crust.

For the crust:

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 c. Crisco
3-4 T. ice water

For the pie:

12 oz. raw unsalted pecans
1/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
Pinch kosher salt
1 1/2 T. Grand Marnier
2 large eggs

First, make the crust. In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut the Crisco into the flour with a pastry blender. Add the water, 1 T. at a time, mixing with your hands until the dough comes together in a ball. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

When the dough is chilled, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 10-inch round. Place the dough in a pie plate, trim and flute the edges and return to the refrigerator to chill while you assemble the filling.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted, remove from the heat and add brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, Grand Marnier and eggs. Whisk the mixture until well-combined.

Remove the pie shell from the refrigerator and fill about 3/4 full with pecans. Pour the filling over the pecans and bake for 35-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Makes one delectable pie.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lovely and large-scale

Though I still do not eat red meat, there were some years back in the '90s when I was a vegetarian. It was a pretty serious issue for me at the time. Thanksgiving, however, was never a big problem because that holiday dinner has always been more about the delicious side dishes than it was about the bird itself -- so not piling turkey on my plate wasn't any huge sacrifice. (I would revise this point of view in 2006, when I made my first brined Thanksgiving turkey. My goodness. It is about the bird!)

Even considering my pre-2006 turkey ambivalence -- and even though I had no trouble loading up my Thanksgiving plate with mashed potatoes, stuffing cooked outside the bird, salad, green beans, etc. -- my vegetarian self still craved a centerpiece dish. Something lovely and large-scale to "take the place" of the turkey I wasn't eating. I found the recipe I was looking for in the pages of an old-school issue of "Vegetarian Times."

The magazine titles the recipe "Torta rustica" and describes it as a "satisfying, rustic Italian pie." Whatever you call it, it is a show-stopper. A golden brown, rustic looking beauty, this pie weighs nearly five pounds and is a good three inches tall -- a work of culinary art sure to impress even the meat-eaters at the table. And my, will the vegetarians thank you! If they're anything like I used to be, they are probably wary of "the vegetarian option" presented to them during otherwise meat-heavy gatherings. They're probably expecting some grilled vegetables. Or bland pasta. Or maybe they're looking at the silver lining and anticipating filling up on Thanksgiving side dishes. But they probably aren't expecting a main dish they can call their own.

The pie is a layered study in color: the meaty and earthy brown mushrooms, speckled with the dark green of thyme; the white and bright greens of the spinach and ricotta layer; the deep red of the roasted red peppers; the rich amber of the pastry enveloping the filling. But it's not just about looks. This pie is delicious and, as promised, satisfying. Its component flavors benefit from an hour spent in a hot oven together, commingling. Spinach and nutmeg, mushrooms and thyme, red peppers and Pecorino, flour and shortening, all playing well with each other in the service of a great meal. It's almost as though the ingredients are thankful to have each other. Thankful to offer what they can share based on their own stores and strengths.

Thankful to give that gigantic bird a run for its money.


Adapted from "Vegetarian Times"

For the pastry:

2 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/4 butter (1/2 stick), chilled and cut into pieces
1/4 c. vegetable shortening
6-8 T. ice water

For the filling:

4 T. olive oil
1 c. shallots, chopped
2 lbs. cremini mushrooms, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. fresh thyme, finely chopped
3/4 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
15-oz. container of low-fat ricotta cheese
3 10-oz. packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 large egg whites
1/2 t. freshly-grated nutmeg
1/4 t. crushed red pepper flakes
1 c. grated Pecorino cheese, divided
1/4 c. panko, toasted

First, make the pastry. In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in just enough ice water to allow the mixture to form a ball (it's easiest to form the ball with your hands, instead of a spoon). Form the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic and chill in the refrigerator while you make the filling.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms release their liquid and it evaporates, about 15 minutes. Stir in the thyme, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, spinach, 3 egg whites, nutmeg and red pepper flakes until well combined.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a lightly floured surface, roll about 2/3 of the chilled dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough in a 9-inch springform pan, pressing it up the sides of the pan. Using a fork, beat the remaining egg white and brush over crust. Sprinkle the panko over the crust.

Stir 1/4 c. of the grated Pecorino cheese into the mushroom mixture and another 1/4 c. cheese into the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mushroom mixture into the pastry crust and pat into an even, relatively compact, layer. Spoon the ricotta mixture on top of the mushrooms and pat into an even layer. Arrange strips of roasted red pepper over the spinach mixture. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 c. Pecorino cheese evenly over the peppers.

Roll out the remaining dough to a 10-inch round. Cut slits in the dough, for ventilation, and place the dough over the assembled pie. Fold the edges under to meet the top of the bottom piece of pastry; press to seal.

Place the pie on a baking sheet, and bake until the crust is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Remove the side of the springform pan and bake until the sides are golden brown, about 10-15 minutes more. Remove to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Cut into wedges using a serrated knife and gentle, but firm, pressure. Serve, and enjoy!

Makes 10 servings.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Something like nuts

Even though there is never a shortage of foodstuffs on the traditional Thanksgiving table, we still need snacks. Everyone needs snacks.

Something to munch on as the drinks are poured and the guests begin arriving. Something to flex jaw muscles as people hover around the kitchen, inhaling the scents of roasting bird and salivating, all Pavlovian-like, at the sight of pan gravy coming together. Something to look pretty, scattered about the house in precious little ceramic bowls and tiny dishes. Something that's easy to make from ingredients likely to be found in any freezer and pantry. Something warmly-spiced and festive-looking.

Something like nuts. Herbed, toasted, spiced nuts, to be exact.

It's way more fun to prepare and serve your own wonderfully-flavored nuts than it is to pick up ready-mixed nuts at the grocery store. It's also super-easy and the resulting mix tastes much better -- and is significantly less salty -- than what comes out of a can. This mix was born of necessity one snack-less holiday, when I reached into Mom's freezer where she keeps what she calls "the nut bag." You never know what types of nuts you'll find in the nut bag: almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts. Sometimes there are sesame seeds, which are not in fact nuts but find themselves cozying up to the nut bag regardless. (Actually, you'll hardly ever find cashews in Mom's nut bag, as they're Dad's favorite and rarely survive more than a few days in the house.) As a matter of housekeeping -- should you wish to start your very own nut bag -- it is best to use a large plastic bag to house many smaller plastic bags, to keep each nut variety separate. Sometimes the smaller bags are secured with rubber bands, sometimes those black office binder clips. Like Mom, the nut bag is full of surprises.

Anyway, I reached into the nut bag, extracted some of whatever was in there at the time, then went spelunking in the spice cabinet for some flavor to accompany the nuts. I also cut off a bit of fresh rosemary from Mom's plant that was still a hold-out from the summer, surviving nicely in her bright kitchen well into the winter. I mixed everything with some olive oil and a little salt, then roasted the concoction in the oven until it smelled pleasing. And a Thanksgiving snack was born.

Of course, these nuts are good any old time. You don't have to wait for Thanksgiving. They're wonderful set out in a pretty ramekin on a cheese board. They're great to snack on as you're enjoying a little post-work martini. Package them in a cellophane bag with a stylish ribbon for an easy hostess gift. Or give them to your dad for him to enjoy as he watches National Treasure on cable for the 58th time*.

Like I have to tell you when to eat nuts. You already know when to eat nuts, innately, because everyone needs snacks.



Toasting and grinding your own spices will make a world of difference to this (and just about every other!) recipe. If you have the time, go ahead and buy the cumin and coriander whole, toast them over low heat in a dry skillet until they're fragrant, then grind in a spice/coffee grinder.

And of course you can use any ol' nut that happens to be in your nut bag. Lots of pistachios? Throw them in! No cashews? Who cares!

1 c. raw unsalted cashews
1 c. raw unsalted almonds
1 c. raw unsalted pecans
1 c. raw unsalted walnuts
1 c. raw unsalted hazelnuts
1/2 c. pine nuts
2 T. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 T. cumin
1 T. coriander
1 t. kosher salt
1/3 c. olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine well. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet; bake until toasty brown and fragrant, 13-15 minutes.

Cool slightly on the baking sheet and serve while warm.

Makes about 6 cups.

*UPDATE, 11/18/2008, 8:27 p.m.: As I write, Dad is watching National Treasure for the 59th time. He just called to tell me they're at the part where Gates and his group of treasure-finding merrymakers enter Trinity Church in Manhattan.