Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 3/43: bagels

I am not a huge bagel person. Check that, I was not a huge bagel person. I am a huge bagel person now.

Thank you, Peter Reinhart.

Prior to this weekend -- the first time I made bagels at home, from scratch -- I generally did not waste my time on bagels. They were always just a big mass of dough, requiring a lot of chewing and not a ton of payoff. The possible exceptions being cinnamon-sugar bagels, which are almost a dessert, and bagels from Husband's New York hometown, loaded high with egg salad. But other than that, yeah. Give me a doughnut, an egg, even an English muffin. I'll pass on the bagels.

But then this weekend happened: week three of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge, which brought us bagels. As with all his recipes, Peter Reinhart shares with us the reasons behind the choices he makes with his bread formulas -- we get to learn exactly what makes an incredible bagel incredible. In this case, it is a handful of specialty ingredients and a day or so of patient proofing that allow the home baker to replicate that quality bagel-shop taste.

The handful specialty ingredients: high-gluten flour and diastatic malt powder. A quick trip over to King Arthur Flour's Web site and a few days later, I had nine pounds of the high-gluten, hard-to-find-in-regular-groceries flour sitting right on my front porch, along with a bag of malt powder and hell, why not, a dough whisk.

The day or so of patient proofing: Peter's recipe involves a stretchy, bubbly sponge that requires a two-hour rest, which is then used to make a stiff dough that must be kneaded diligently to develop the gluten. After the bagels are shaped, they head off into the refrigerator for a chilly overnight stay, which allows enzymes in the dough to release their flavors. Trust Peter on this one: a long cold fermentation engenders amazing bagels, bagels that are good enough to turn a person with tepid feelings about bagels into a person who has to eat the entire batch, like, now.

Husband helped me with the boiling and the addition of the toppings -- we made four plain, two poppy seed, two with a mixture of poppy seeds and kosher salt, two sesame seed and two garlic.

(Husband is prepared with his odoriferous yet delicious garlic topping.)

I called Mom and informed her that there were freshly-baked bagels cooling in the kitchen and this was her response: "I will be right over. I am five minutes away. I was going to do something else but I am hungry." Husband dug right into his garlic bagel while Mom and I went for the sesame seed. The bagels were chewy, with a perfect crust and a faintly nutty, vaguely sweet, complex bready flavor. Within moments my batch of 12 bagels was down to five.

And I had become a bagel person.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not share the recipes from Reinhart's book. But if you want to become a bagel person, procure a copy of the book and turn to page 115.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"I need to make a strudel."

During this past weekend, over the Memorial Day holiday, I vocalized a constant refrain: "I need to make a strudel. I need to make a strudel." I was like a broken record; family members were all, Go make your strudel and shut up about it already! Trouble was, this past weekend I also needed to plant the tomato garden, help Sister with her vegetable garden, make a loaf of Greek celebration bread, go shopping with Mom (important!), get malts with Mom on the way to the shops (even more important!), walk the dog, go to a parade and participate in no fewer than two cookouts. So while I was planting, baking, shopping, malt-slurping, dog-walking, parade-going and cooking out, I kept thinking, When am I going to make a strudel? Those Daring Bakers wait for no one.

(Disclaimer: I totally get that everyone is busy. It's not just me. I'm willing to bet that 95% of you Daring Bakers out there also struggled to find time for strudel. [The other 5% of you are wonderful planners and completed your strudel-making at the beginning of the month! Oh, how I strive to be like you....])

And so it was that on Tuesday night, the last evening before the Daring Bakers-mandated posting date, after my horseback riding lesson, after dinner out at the local Thai restaurant, I made my strudel. Talk about taking it right down to the wire. But I am not in this group to mess around; I am here to learn new things, to challenge myself, to roll out dough until it is thin enough that I can read the pages of The Bread Baker's Apprentice through it. I am not in this group to skip challenges because I got too busy drinking chocolate malts.

The May Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose apple strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague, by Rick Rodgers.

Though our gracious hosts this month stated that we had creative control over the filling (the dough itself was the required element of the challenge), I decided to be non-adventurous and go with the standard apple filling per the original recipe. There is something about apples and cinnamon and sugar and thin crisp pastry that just, well, kind of makes my mouth water. I thought seriously about subbing some seasonal and gorgeous strawberries, but my brain kept going back to tart apple slices and rum-soaked raisins. Maybe it's because it's chilly and raining today. Who knows. What I know: the apple filling just felt right.

The only conceivable drawback to this recipe is the fact that it is best enjoyed on the day it is baked. And since I baked well into the wee hours, no one was awake to come over and share. More for me, I suppose. I do deserve it -- yes? -- after all that gardening I did in the hot sun this weekend.


Adapted from Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague, by Rick Rodgers

For the strudel dough:

1 1/3 c. unbleached flour
1/8 t. kosher salt
7 T. water, plus more if needed
2 T. vegetable oil, plus more for coating the dough
1/2 t. cider vinegar

For the apple filling:

1/2 c. walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices (I used a combination of Braeburn, Granny Smith and Gala)
2 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 T. golden rum
3 T. raisins
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/3 c. plus 1 T. sugar
1/2 c. unsalted butter, melted and divided
1 1/2 c. panko

First, make the dough. Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Combine the water, oil and vinegar in a liquid measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, add the water/oil mixture to the flour mixture to make a soft dough. Add a little more water if the dough is too dry.

Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and knead on an unfloured surface until the dough forms a ball that is slightly rough in texture, about 3 minutes. Then, knead an additional 2 minutes, occasionally picking up the dough ball and throwing it down hard on the work surface. I am not certain of the reason for this, but who am I to mess with strudel method? Plus, it's kind of fun.

Transfer the dough ball to a plate and lightly oil the top of the dough. Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

While the dough is resting, make the filling. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Toast the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

Combine the apples and lemon juice in a medium bowl; toss and set aside. Mix the rum and raisins in a small bowl. Place the cinnamon and sugar in another small bowl and whisk to combine. Heat 3 T. of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the panko and cook, stirring, until golden and toasted, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.

When the dough has rested, assemble the strudel. Place the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

Cover your work area with cheesecloth or a clean tablecloth. (It is best if you have a work area that you can walk around, such as a table, kitchen island or peninsula.) Dust the cloth with flour, and lightly flour a rolling pin. Place the dough in the middle of the cloth and roll it out as much as you can. Pick up the dough by the edge and let its weight stretch it -- the dough is surprisingly resilient and stretches nicely.

When you can't stretch the dough by lifting anymore, put the dough back on the work surface. Pick up the edge of the dough and place it on the backs of your hands, stretching gently as you walk around the perimeter of the dough. Keep stretching the dough until it measures about 1 1/2 feet by 2 feet and is tissue-thin. Don't worry if the dough tears a little -- it won't matter once you roll up the strudel. The dough is now ready to be filled.

Gently brush it with 3 T. of the remaining melted butter, then sprinkle the buttered dough with the toasted panko.

Spread the walnuts about 3 inches from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch wide strip.

Combine the apples, the rum-raisin mixture and the cinnamon-sugar mixture in a large bowl. Spread the apple mixture over the walnuts.

Fold the short edge of the dough over the filling. Lift the cheesecloth/tablecloth at the short edge of the dough so that the strudel rolls over onto itself. Roll gently, using the cloth, until the dough is completely wrapped around the filling.

Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet, using the cheesecloth/tablecloth as a sort of "sling" to lift it onto the sheet. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit on the baking sheet and fold the ends under. Brush the strudel with the remainder of the melted butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the strudel is a deep, golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing with a serrated knife. The strudel can be served warm or at room temperature, and is best on the day it is baked.

Serves 8. Or fewer, who am I kidding.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 2/43: Christopsomos

The breads in Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice are presented in alphabetical order. Which makes sense, as that is certainly a reasonable way to organize a set of recipes and I'm relatively confident that Peter didn't necessarily intend for his book to be tackled one recipe after another, in order. But that is exactly what more than 200 other bakers and I are doing, and "artos" comes right after "anadama." Hence, this week I made Greek celebration bread, outside of the context of any actual Greek celebration.

But no matter, because (a) I am not Greek and the bread doesn't have a traditional or cultural meaning to me, and (b) hello, it is a sweet, flavorful bread studded with nuts and dried fruit, then brushed with a honey-citrus glaze. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure a bread like that is good any time of year.

"Artos" refers to Greek celebration breads in general; Reinhart presents a few different recipes that fit under that umbrella. I chose to make "the nativity Christopsomos, with its bread-dough cross laminated on top of a round loaf." I have made artos before -- specifically, tsoureki, which I make each year at Easter -- but had never attempted Christopsomos. It is a hefty, shiny, showstopper of a loaf whose crumb -- replete with raisins, toasted walnuts and dried figs (yum) -- is even (somehow) more beautiful than its glossy golden crust. Though this bread requires a little bit of advance planning -- in the form of a poolish, which is a pre-ferment of flour, yeast and water that needs to be made at least a day in advance -- it is, regardless, quite easy to make and immensely rewarding. I mean, you pull this bread out of the oven and you just feel good about yourself. If it is or is not Christmas.

As I discovered this weekend, Christopsomos makes a heck of an addition to a Memorial Day cookout. Non-traditional, totally. But also phenomenally delicious. Lots of my fellow The Bread Baker's Apprentice colleagues seem to agree: they've been enjoying their May-baked Christopsomos toasted, with a generous spread of salted butter, or sliced, battered and re-imagined as a dried fruit- and nut-enriched French toast. The loaf is so large and there's so much bread to go around that I'm certain that I'll serve my Christopsomos both of these ways in the coming days. But for today it was just cut yourself a piece, taste and enjoy.

Then cut yourself another piece.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not share the recipes from Reinhart's book. I implore you, in the name of all that is yeasty and carby and good, get yourself a copy, turn to page 111 and get to making your artos. Regardless of what day of the year it is, and regardless if you are or are not Greek. Trust me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The tequila didn't hurt

This is a story about Luta, Clank and a pitcher of margaritas.

You all remember Luta. She graces this space often on account of her kindness, warmth, outrageousness and ridiculousness. Luta looms large in the annals (and the kitchen) of my childhood. She is a force. But there is another force, one whom you haven't yet met. Her name was Clank. Well, actually, her name was Rosemary, but to us, she was always Clank. (The story of that nickname, like most nickname-origin stories, is not nearly as funny or endearing to those who weren't there at its inception. So I shall spare you.) Clank was a lot like Luta, but she didn't live in Texas. She was right here in my small Ohio town.

Clank was the records clerk at the school where Mom used to work. The two of them became fast friends and it wasn't long before Clank was a member of our family. She lived across town with her mother, Mary, who lived past the age of 100 and credited her longevity, among other things, to Jack Daniels in moderation. Like Luta, Clank was a surrogate grandmother to me. Always looking out for me, teaching me well, being my friend and making me laugh. "Hot dog ol' Rose," I can still hear her say, her self-referential way of expressing surprise or joy. She was real, and honest, and no-nonsense, and smart, and trouble-making. She passed away a few years ago and not a day goes by that I don't miss her.

Anyway. I am here to write about margaritas. So let me get on with it already.

Back in the day Mom used to invite her school friends over to the house on Thursdays for happy hour. On one of those Thursdays, Luta was in town from Texas for a visit. Mom arrived home after school with Clank in tow, but had to leave right away to take me somewhere or pick me up from something. "Clank, this is Luta. Luta, Clank. I'll be back soon." If there were ever two women on the face of the earth who could feel at home with anyone, regardless of the situation, it was Luta and Clank. They were old friends before Mom had both feet out the door.

Mom arrived home a half hour later to a kitchen smelling of lime and filled with laughter. Luta had made a pitcher of her margaritas. Clank and Luta would have been fast friends regardless but I'm telling you, the tequila didn't hurt. Clank needed a stiff cup of coffee before heading home that night and might have joked about having to stop and take a nap on the way. 

Tonight Mom and Sister came over for some of Luta's margaritas to start the long Memorial Day weekend in style. With fondness and cheer and no small measure of nostalgia, we raised our salted rims to Luta and Clank.


Luta Roberts' recipe

This recipe halves easily.

4 c. crushed ice
1 1/2 c. tequila
2/3 c. freshly-squeezed lime juice (about 5 limes' worth)
3 T. Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg white (pasteurized is best)
Lime slices, to garnish
Kosher salt, for glasses

Rim glasses with lime juice then in a shallow dish of kosher salt. Set aside (or put in the freezer).

Combine the ice, tequila, lime juice, Cointreau/triple sec, powdered sugar and egg white in a blender. Blend until frothy and serve in the prepared glasses. Garnish with a few slices of lime.

Serves 6.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

With cookies

I think it is critically important to have some homemade cookies in the house at all times. I mean, people stop by. Cravings hit. You really never know what's going to happen, so I find it best to be prepared at all times. With cookies.

Tonight I found that my supply of honey biscuits was running dangerously low, and I noticed that some chocolate wafers I made last week were not long for this world. So to fill the space in the nearly-empty cookie jar, I made a quick batch of cornmeal sandies. Void, filled.

Cornmeal sandies. I love the name. Even if the cookies weren't delectable, I'd probably still bake them, just because of the name. It's evocative of a crumbly, sweet cookie yielding softly on the tongue but lingering with a crunchy, toothsome bite. Cornmeal sandies. Tumbling bits of crunchy cornmeal and sugar crystals, barely capable of holding their shape as you bite into them.

The name does not disappoint. These cookies have a delicate flavor and an even more delicate crumb, punctuated by orange and lemon here and there courtesy of a few teaspoons of finely grated zest. They are perfect, just perfect, with a cup of tea. And they look so pretty all lined up on their cooling rack, sugar coating glittering and beckoning.

But you see if I eat them all, then the cookie jar will be empty again. And I'd have to bake again.

I suppose worse things could happen. 


Adapted from "Better Homes and Gardens" (I think; when I cut recipes out of magazines I don't always remember from which publication they came)

1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 c. sugar, plus more for coating the cookies
2 1/2 t. orange zest
2 t. lemon zest
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. yellow cornmeal (I use coarse-ground because I love the texture, but feel free to use the more finely ground cornmeal)
1/4 t. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper.

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add the 1/4 c. sugar, orange zest and lemon zest. Beat to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla and beat to combine.

Sift the flour into a separate bowl. Add the cornmeal and salt and whisk to combine. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl to gather the dough into a ball.

Using a teaspoon or a spring-loaded ice cream scoop, roll dough into 3/4-inch balls and place about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Flatten slightly with the palm of your hand.

Bake 10 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are slightly browned. Remove from oven and cool about 8 minutes on the baking sheets.

Place sugar on a plate or shallow dish and gently roll the still-warm cookies in the sugar to coat. Place on a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies. Store in an airtight container with plastic wrap between the layers of cookies.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On the happy occasion of his 66th birthday

(Dad grills in his work clothes.)

Dad enjoys making the absurd claim that I only like him when I need something. For example, when I need a pantry built. Or a laundry room designed and constructed. Or when I need some company because Husband is out of town for work. Often he accuses me of "ignoring his ring," if he calls and I'm not home or can't pick up for whatever reason.

None of this is true, however; I need Dad all the time.

(Dad takes a break from laundry room construction, while demon-dog Jet stares in the background.)

I feel the need to reiterate this fact on the happy occasion of his 66th birthday. Happy birthday, Dad! I would still need you even if the pantry was perfect when we moved in and the laundry room wasn't flooded and the garden was rototilled and the driveway was paved and the lettuce frames were built and the broadcast spreader was set with the correct aperture to put down the weed and feed. I would need you even if Husband was in town all the time. I would need you even if my car wasn't leaking transmission fluid, and if the mailbox wasn't knocked down repeatedly by the city snow plows. I would keep needing you even if you ceased paying for breakfast every Saturday morning. I would even need you if told me you couldn't dogsit Jet when Husband and I go out of town.

(Dad displays a bowl of pasta.)

Wait, maybe that last one isn't true. We really value your work as dogsitter. But anyway, you are much much more than the sum of your practical knowledge, handy skills and helpful demeanor. When people tell me they are jealous of my builder-Dad -- and ask if they can borrow you for their own home improvement projects -- I beam with pride. Then tell them that you are too busy to hire out. (I tell this to Mom, too, when she begs for some of your time to fix up your own house. You're out of luck, Mother!) I know I don't say it to you enough; I know I am usually too busy poking fun at you to communicate earnestly. But, Dad: You are the best and I am lucky to have you.

(Dad walks hand-in-hand with Nephew at Niagara Falls.)

And so tonight I'm making you some chicken. Though at first blush a chicken dish doesn't seem quite special enough for the birthday dinner of a man of your stature, this is a pretty delicious chicken dish. The meat is stuffed with a flavorful, pleasingly assertive mix of goat cheese, fresh thyme and caramelized leeks, then cooked and topped with the simplest sauce of fond, dry white wine and chicken stock.

(Dad peers out from behind the Inn at Turner's Mill menu, may she rest in peace.)

It is so yummy that it might make you forget, Dad, that pasta is your favorite meal. (Well, it might not do that, but I assure you that you'll enjoy it nonetheless.) Though a stuffed chicken breast is not nearly as awesome as all you've given me, I hope this meal gives you a pleasurable evening of eating and celebrating. Because after 66 years, you deserve at least that much.

To 66 more!


Adapted from "Cooking Light"

This recipe originally called for spring onions instead of leeks, but good luck finding those around here in the month of May. I suppose their season has passed; no matter, leeks are tasty, too!

4 T. olive oil, divided
1 1/3 c. leeks, thinly sliced (about 2 leeks)
3/4 t. kosher salt, divided
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
1 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 T. milk
2 t. fresh thyme, chopped
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 c. dry white wine
1 c. chicken broth

Heat 2 T. of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the leeks, 1/4 t. salt and black pepper to the pan and cook for 12 minutes, stirring frequently. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook 8 minutes, stirring often. Uncover and cook 5 more minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, combine the leek mixture, 1/4 t. salt, goat cheese, parsley, milk and thyme. Mash together with a fork to combine.

Cut a horizontal slit through the thickest portion of each chicken breast to form a pocket. Stuff about 1 1/2 T. of the cheese mixture into each pocket. Sprinkle the chicken evenly with the remaining 1/4 t. salt. 

Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the remaining 2 T. olive oil, then add the stuffed chicken breasts to the pan. Sauté the chicken for 5 minutes, then turn over. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook an additional 10 minutes, or until the thickest part of the breast measures 161 degrees Fahrenheit on a probe thermometer.

Remove chicken from the pan and let stand 10 minutes. While the chicken is resting, add wine to the pan to deglaze, then bring to a boil, scraping the pan to release the browned bits. Cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add the broth and cook until reduced to about 1/4 c., about 8 minutes.

Return the chicken to the pan with the sauce to warm through.

Serve, spooning the sauce over the chicken breasts.

Serves 6. Goes quite nicely with mashed potatoes or polenta and a big helping of perfectly-dressed salad.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 1/43: anadama bread

For the past month or so I've been making Peter Reinhart's light wheat bread, from his masterful The Bread Baker's Apprentice, over and over again. For one thing, it is delicious. For another thing -- and this is key -- it is totally easy to make and doesn't require any planning ahead in the form of a starter or soaker. So I can decide to bake bread on a whim and just a few hours later have a perfect loaf cooling on the counter.

However, beyond the light wheat bread, I had never tried any of the other recipes in The Bread Baker's Apprentice (well, save the crackers, which popped up as a Daring Bakers challenge last September). And frankly, considering how many cookbooks and clipped recipes I've collected that I haven't even started to explore, who knows if I would have gotten around to really using Reinhart's book. I certainly would not have immersed myself in the narrative, learning about the formulas and the methods and, as Reinhart likes to say, the spirit of bread baking. But thanks to Pinch My Salt's Nicole -- who wondered aloud via Twitter a few weeks ago if she should undertake baking her way through The Bread Baker's Apprentice and, by the way, any of you out there want to join me? -- here I am, at the start of a journey of a thousand miles, which starts with a single step, a whole lot of flour, some water, salt and yeast.

Yes, I will be baking my way through The Bread Baker's Apprentice. All 43 recipes. But I won't be alone. More than 200 fellow bakers are undertaking the task as well. Our only goal is to learn. Wait. Let me revise that. Our only goals are to learn, and to eat phenomenal bread. With Mr. Reinhart as our guide, I don't see how we can go wrong.

The first recipe in the book is anadama bread -- a lovely, simultaneously soft and crunchy, golden bread that is popular in New England. I had never heard of anadama bread before, but now that I know it, I'm certain it will appear in my kitchen again. The bread starts with a soaker of cornmeal and water that sits overnight before being mixed with bread flour, molasses, yeast, salt, water and shortening to form a rough dough that's the color of brown sugar.

The finished result is subtly but deeply sweet, soft yet toothsome thanks to the flecks of coarse-ground cornmeal scattered throughout the crumb. I enjoyed it quite a bit this morning with a purple smear of Greaves blackberry jam.

The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that participants do not include the recipes in their blog posts, which makes me just a little sad because I'd like to share it with you all right away. That said, Peter Reinhart's book is marvelously written, wonderfully instructive and well worth the price of purchase. So go out and get yourself a copy, and turn to the anadama bread on page 108, and get to baking, and get to eating. You won't be sorry.

Next up: Greek celebration bread.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"I see nothing wrong with this recipe."

A disclaimer: Mom is a fantastic cook. Always has been.

An unfortunate fact: Even given her innate cooking skills -- and with full measure of my appreciation for her instilling in me a love of a well-made meal -- I still poke fun at her from time to time. About her penchant for blowing off recipes completely, adding and subtracting ingredients at will and fully disregarding measurements, Dad is fond of saying, Mom doesn't need the recipe. It's not like she'd follow it if she had it. All she needs is the title of the recipe, just the idea. Now this is, when you think about it, a compliment. Mom knows food well enough that cooking is second nature. She doesn't need to think about precisely what goes into a dish or what specific method to follow. She creates, and improvises, and the result is always delicious. 

What is not quite as complimentary is the relentless ribbing we've been giving Mom since the mid-'80s about her habit of finding a single dish, enjoying it, and then cooking it over and over and over again to the exclusion of all other recipes. I've written about this before. First it was the phyllo chicken. Then, when friends and family could not take one more meal of phyllo chicken, it was the chicken in sun-dried tomato and cream sauce (this was at the height of sun-dried tomato mania, when the ingredient was "new" and trendy). When nobody could eat even one more bite of chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, Mom moved onto the black bean tostada. And then the lobster-stuffed tenderloin. I should not complain; we were eating well. Very well. But still, I think daughters are contractually obliged to make fun of their mothers.

So I thought today -- in belated honor of Mother's Day and with a nod to the mind-blowing finale of the fifth (time-traveling) season of "Lost" -- I would travel back to the 1980s to celebrate the first obsessively oft-cooked dish that I can remember Mom making: mustard chicken in phyllo. Thankfully, my trip to an earlier time shall not include witnessing the birth of Ethan or having a hootenanny in the Dharma security command or detonating a hydrogen bomb because my boyfriend made eyes at a comely fugitive. My trip shall include only chicken. And phyllo. And champagne mustard. And a few jabs at Mom. I tease because I love.

Mom says, "I made this for every dinner guest I had in the late '80s." She also says, as I carefully measure the mustard, "Oh, see, I would never measure that." Dad says, "The only things that are for sure in this recipe are the chicken and the phyllo. You never know what else she'll put in there." I say, as I ask Mom at least 15 questions to clarify her written recipe, "Why does the ingredient list include items that are not mentioned in the method and why does the method refer to ingredients are not on the ingredient list?" Mom replies, trying to get the words out with a straight face, "I see nothing wrong with this recipe as written." Figures.

All mocking aside, once I was able to decode her recipe I had to admit that this dish does make an easy and elegant meal. The creamy chicken filling is divine, the phyllo flaky and pleasing. Rounded out nicely by a crisp salad with lemony dressing, phyllo chicken is a pleasant change of pace for a weeknight supper. And as Mom proved countless times in decades past, it truly is a great dish for entertaining. I understand why she reached for it so often: it is really tasty, and surprisingly quick to make. An attractive option when you've got a kitchen full of guests and you'd rather drink wine with them than attend to complex last-minute dinner preparations.

I asked Mom if her fab '80s guests ever got tired of eating the same dinner each time they visited her. She insists that all her guests were different and were therefore immune to the dangers of repeated phyllo chicken. "I knew a lot of people in the late '80s."



1/4 c. olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 lbs.), cut into bite-sized pieces
5 T. cornstarch
1/4 c. champagne mustard (I used Stonewall Kitchen's champagne shallot mustard)
2 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. red pepper, chopped
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch white pepper
About 20 sheets of phyllo
3/4 c. butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 c. panko or other bread crumbs, divided

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the chicken until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the chicken and stir to combine. Add the mustard, heavy cream, chicken base, red pepper, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Cook until the mixture simmers and the sauce is thickened, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place two sheets of phyllo on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the top sheet with melted butter, then add two more sheets. Butter again, then add two more. Repeat until you've used 10 sheets, buttering between every two sheets. Do not butter the top sheet. Spoon half of the mixture lengthwise into the center of the parchment, leaving at least 3 inches of phyllo all the way around the chicken. 

Fold the long sides over the chicken, then fold in the ends. Carefully turn over the whole parcel, then brush with more melted butter. Brush with beaten egg, then sprinkle with 1/4 c. of panko. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets and chicken mixture.

Bake for 12 minutes, until the parcel is golden brown.

Using a serrated knife, slice into 4 pieces and serve.

Serves 8. Note: If you are using the smaller phyllo sheets, make 4 small parcels instead of 2 large ones. That said, I prefer to use the larger sheets (14" x 18") -- the larger parcels make a more communal dinner party-esque final result.