Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Make your own muesli

For years and years and years I ate granola with yogurt for breakfast, and it never occurred to me to use anything other than pre-mixed granola. But all that changed about a year and a half ago, and since then I've been waking up nearly every morning and eating this:

What happened a year and a half ago that was so thunderously life-changing? I read Michael Pollan's essay (now a book) in the New York Times - "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto". That essay completely changed the way I thought about food. Actually, 'changed' may not be the best word here, because I simply hadn't thought about food, at least not in depth, before.

It's shocking - I mean, we eat food every day, it's all around us, and yet in American culture at least, nobody actually wants to think about food. We don't ask ourselves "What is it? Where did it come from? How did it end up in front of me? How many hands have touched this? How many machines have manipulated it?" But once you do start asking those questions, once you look at a package of cookies and no longer see them as "Chips Ahoy!" or "Oreos" or whatever they've been branded as, but as a mixture of flour, sugar, chemically treated oil from something - supposedly vegetables?, additives with names too long to pronounce or understand... once you think about how these things were made (what is a corporate cookie factory like anyway?) and how their production is affecting the economy, the environment, the general health of the population, your own health, etc., etc., welllll, it's enough to put you off processed food permanently! At least, it was enough to put me off processed food in the sense of corporation-generated, has ingredients I would never use even if I had access to them, and really doesn't even taste that great - sort of processed food.

Which brings me back to my muesli. I actually don't think pre-prepared granola is all that bad in the grand scheme of things. It generally doesn't have a lot of weird ingredients, it tastes pretty good, and you never really hear about "Big Granola" ruining the industries of small-time oat farmers.

But still. After I read the article, I decided to really clean up my act, and go completely un-processed wherever possible. To be fair, this wasn't all that difficult for me, since at that time I was living in Milan where I had access to a fantastic open-air market and delicious fresh ingredients year-round. But I did make whatever changes I could. Instead of having crackers as a before-dinner snack when I got hungry, I switched to carrots; when possible I made my own tomato sauce instead of using the bottled kind; and I stopped buying pre-packaged granola and flavored yogurt and started making my own muesli mixes with plain and simple whole-milk yogurt.

The best part about making your own muesli is that you can change it every single day. Buy a bunch of stock items (nuts, seeds, dried & fresh fruits), and then just put in whatever you feel like each morning. After extensive experimentation, I have pretty much settled on a favorite mixture, which I'll give below, but I encourage you to play around with your muesli and see what you like best. Admittedly, it's slightly more time-consuming than just dumping a package of granola into a bowl in the morning, but it's also more fun, and it gives you just a little bit more control.

About 100 g. of plain yogurt
A generous handful of oats
A small handful of linseeds (also called flaxseeds)
A small handful of sunflower seeds
A few almonds
1 banana
In summer: a handful of fresh blueberries and/or raspberries
In winter: a handful of raisins or dried cherries or dried strawberries
In any season: a couple dried apricots or other dried fruit of your choosing

Slice the banana, wash the berries if applicable, and cut up any dried fruit that's bigger than a button (dried apricots, peaches, apples, kiwis, mangos...). Combine all ingredients together, mix well, and eat!

A few notes:
1. I don't generally put in all the fruits I mentioned here - usually I just pick one or two, but I wanted to mention all my favorites!
2. To make this more like granola, you could toast the oats with some honey, brown sugar, canola oil, etc. beforehand. I actually like them plain, but if you prefer yours a bit sweeter, then you can prepare a big batch of oats like this and then just use those each morning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Casarecce alla maltese

Though I'm just at the start of my Maltese culinary adventures, one thing I have learned about very quickly is the ftira maltija - basically the Maltese sandwich. It's made with ftira, a crusty round bread unique to Malta (as far as I can tell), tomatoes, tuna, olives, and of course capers, which grow wild on the islands. I decided to turn the sandwich into a pasta dish, and the result was quite good, maybe even better than the sandwich!

I used casarecce because I happened to have a bunch on hand, but you could probably substitute almost any type of pasta here. I think both long and short types would work, so spaghetti, farfalle, maccheroni, whatever. The casarecce I used were whole wheat, which I think goes well in this dish, as there are a lot of strong, salty flavors.

Ingredients (per person):
75 g. whole wheat casarecce
1 small yellow onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 small can good-quality tuna
4 large green olives
A handful of fairly fresh capers
Crushed tomatoes/tomato pulp
Extra-virgin olive oil

First, bring a large pot of water to a boil. While it's heating up, prepare the other ingredients. Peel and chop the onion; crush the garlic, peel it, and then chop it up a bit into even smaller bits; and rinse the olives and capers. Crush the olives with the flat side of a knife to remove the pits and then chop them up. Drain the olive oil from the tuna and break it up a bit with a fork.

When the water is boiling, salt it, and add the casarecce, stirring them every so often to keep them from sticking. After a few minutes, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and when it's hot, add the garlic. After about 15 seconds, add the onion too. Once the onion has turned soft, add the olives, capers, tuna, and tomato pulp, and turn the heat down to low.

When the casarecce are al dente, drain them and add them to the sauce. Sprinkle with oregano and pepper, stir up, and serve warm. Especially serve warm if it's a gray, rainy day like it was here today - in Malta, there don't seem to be gutters, so just a bit of rain makes the streets get crazy flooded!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spaghetti with tuna and fresh tomatoes

A simple meal for complicated times...

I haven't updated much recently because, well, I haven't been cooking much recently. Instead, I've been moving to Malta (after a brief stop in New York)! Briefly, I'll be studying at the University of Malta for a year as part of a master's program - not something I would have even suspected one year ago!

Life has been pretty hectic these past few weeks, what with seeing all my friends before leaving the country, moving to a new land, looking for an apartment, etc. It was strange to go for two whole weeks without so much as preparing a sandwich, but now that I'm finally settled into an apartment, I've started cooking again, and it definitely feels good!

Whenever I move to a new place or am dealing with a lot of complicated stuff in my life, I tend to fall back to cooking what I know and love best. This has meant I've been eating lots of spaghetti with tomato sauce and vegetables, but I've also been alternating that with this dish, which is even easier to prepare, and is of course, delicious. If you want to make it, definitely do it soon, before all the good tomatoes vanish!

Ingredients (per person):
75 g. spaghetti
1 small can of tuna, or half a larger can
A couple handfuls (about 10) cherry tomatoes or one large tomato
Extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, and add the spaghetti. While the spaghetti are cooking, wash the tomatoes and chop them in halves, or into small chunks if you're using a large tomato. Drain any olive oil from the tuna can, mash it up with a fork, and add to the tomatoes.

Note that I like to drain the olive oil from the can and add my own because the olive oil used to preserve tuna is generally of a lower quality, and if there's one thing I adore besides really good bread, it's really good olive oil! If you don't care about this, then of course you can just use the same olive oil the tuna came in.

When the spaghetti are al dente, drain them, and add them to the tuna and tomatoes. Add a spoonful or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and oregano, mix up well, and serve!

I've also tried this with sun-dried tomatoes, and it was great, although rather salty. Adding some fresh mozzarella might help even things out a bit - I'll hopefully try that one out soon!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vols-au-vent - Daring Bakers Challenge

I joined the Daring Bakers exactly one year ago, for several reasons. I loved the idea of a whole bunch of people all baking different interpretations of the same thing at the same time. I wanted to challenge myself with recipes that I wouldn't have thought/dared to have made otherwise. I wanted to improve my baking and expand my repertoire. And a part of me also just wanted to be able to say things like "Homemade puff pasty? Oh yeah, I've done that. No problem!"

This month's challenge - vols-au-vent, which are light-as-air french puff pastries that can be filled with almost anything you desire - was a perfect embodiment of all the reasons I joined the Daring Bakers. It's something I don't normally make (I tried the pastry once before, somewhat disastrously, and likely wouldn't have tried again if not for this challenge), it involves new baking techniques, and it allows for so much creativity.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

It's been fascinating to see what everyone filled their vols-au-vent with. So far, I think my favorite is julieruble's description of her peach crisp vols-au-vent filled with baked peaches, brown sugar, toasted pecans, oats, and warm butter and topped with whipped cream - yum!!

As I was preparing mine for a dinner party, I opted for a savory filling, and roasted some tomatoes with feta, fresh herbs, and lots of olive oil. I had also planned to fill half with a zucchini flan I made, but it turned out that I had more than enough of the tomato-feta dip to fill the 16 pastries I brought, and the zucchini flans looked so cute on their own, it seemed a shame to chop them up to stuff them in the pastry!

Vol-au-vent filled with roasted tomatoes & feta

The day of the dinner party, I was actually fairly sure the pastries would be a disaster. I had run into some issues with the first pastry rolling, and I was afraid the butter had managed to seep into the flour and so all the other rollings would be futile. I warned my friend ahead of time that the pastries, while certain to taste good (with a pound of butter in them, how could they not?), might not look particularly elegant. So I was beyond delighted when I put in the first batch and lo and behold, the little things rose right up!! Pastry magic happening right in my own oven =)

So if I could make them, then I'm pretty sure that almost anyone can, and I have to say that I have rarely felt as excited baking something as I did with these. So, on to the recipe (puff pastry recipe below instructions for making vols-au-vent, my notes in purple):

-food processor (will make mixing dough easy, but I imagine this can be done by hand as well) *I mixed the dough by hand - not a problem, although I may not have mixed it as thoroughly, as I didn't want to get it too warm
-rolling pin
-pastry brush
-metal bench scraper (optional, but recommended)
-plastic wrap
-baking sheet
-parchment paper
-silicone baking mat (optional, but recommended)
-set of round cutters (optional, but recommended)
-sharp chef’s knife
-cooling rack

Prep Times:
-about 4-5 hours to prepare the puff pastry dough (much of this time is inactive, while you wait for the dough to chill between turns…it can be stretched out over an even longer period of time if that better suits your schedule)
-about 1.5 hours to shape, chill and bake the vols-au-vent after your puff pastry dough is complete

Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent

Yield: 1/3 of the puff pastry recipe below will yield about 8-10 1.5” vols-au-vent or 4 4” vols-au-vent

In addition to the equipment listed above, you will need:
-well-chilled puff pastry dough (recipe below)
-egg wash (1 egg or yolk beaten with a small amount of water)
-your filling of choice

Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (If you are looking to make more vols-au-vent than the yield stated above, you can roll and cut the remaining two pieces of dough as well…if not, then leave refrigerated for the time being or prepare it for longer-term freezer storage.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.

(This assumes you will be using round cutters, but if you do not have them, it is possible to cut square vols-au-vents using a sharp chef’s knife.) *I actually didn't have any round cutters, but I found a handy substitute in a cocktail shaker!! It was nice and sharp, and the two circles it gave me were just the right sizes. For smaller, hors d'oeuvre sized vols-au-vent, use a 1.5” round cutter to cut out 8-10 circles. For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)

Using a ¾-inch cutter for small vols-au-vent, or a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter for large, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms. You can either save the center cut-outs to bake off as little “caps” for you vols-au-vent, or put them in the scrap pile.

Vols-au-vent cut-outs

Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork (prick them lightly, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise). If you are using the little “caps,” dock and egg wash them as well.

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). (You could also cover and refrigerate them for a few hours at this point.)

Assembled vols-au-vent, ready for baking!

Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more. (If you are baking the center “caps” they will likely be finished well ahead of the shells, so keep an eye on them and remove them from the oven when browned.)

Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.

Fill and serve.

*For additional rise on the larger-sized vols-au-vents, you can stack one or two additional ring layers on top of each other (using egg wash to "glue"). This will give higher sides to larger vols-au-vents, but is not advisable for the smaller ones, whose bases may not be large enough to support the extra weight.

*Although they are at their best filled and eaten soon after baking, baked vols-au-vent shells can be stored airtight for a day.

*Shaped, unbaked vols-au-vent can be wrapped and frozen for up to a month (bake from frozen, egg-washing them first. See the “Tips” section below for more storage info.).

Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough

From: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan
Yield: 2-1/2 pounds dough

Steph’s note: This recipe makes more than you will need for the quantity of vols-au-vent stated above. While I encourage you to make the full recipe of puff pastry, as extra dough freezes well, you can halve it successfully if you’d rather not have much leftover.

There is a wonderful on-line video from the PBS show “Baking with Julia” that accompanies the book. In it, Michel Richard and Julia Child demonstrate making puff pastry dough (although they go on to use it in other applications). They do seem to give slightly different ingredient measurements verbally than the ones in the book…I listed the recipe as it appears printed in the book.

2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter

*I added a spoonful or so of lemon juice, which was recommended to help relax the gluten in the dough, making rolling easier

plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Mixing the Dough:

Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:

Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.

Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don't just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8" square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

Making the Turns:

Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

Chilling the Dough:

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Folded pastry dough

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pearl couscous with cucumber and avocado

Soon I will be leaving California once again, and so it seemed fitting that before I head off on my next adventures, I should make something that features avocado, a fruit that always makes me think of California!

This dish combines avocado with just a few other flavors - cucumber, lemon juice, basil, and dill - and mixes it all up with pearl couscous, which is one of my favorite grains and is ridiculously easy to prepare. In fact, the whole thing hardly takes any time, tastes great, and is very refreshing both warm and cold.

Ingredients (for one serving):
75 g. pearl couscous (also known as Israeli or Lebanese couscous)
1 ripe avocado
1/3 of a cucumber
Fresh basil leaves
Fresh dill
A few spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon juice

Wash the basil and dill. Chop the dill finely, and tear up the basil leaves by hand. Combine the basil and dill with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper; stir; and let sit. You can either prepare everything else immediately, or else let the herb mixture sit half an hour first.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil, and add the pearl couscous. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit 10 minutes or so, until the couscous have soaked up the water. Meanwhile, peel the cucumber, and chop it into thickish wedges.

Chop the avocado into wedges as well. I usually slice the avocado in half, then cut in a checkerboard pattern across each half, while leaving the peel on. After that, I can just turn the halves upside down, push the peel inwards, and the avocado wedges just fall out.

Once the couscous are done, drain any excess water, and combine them with the cucumber, avocado, and herb mixture. Stir well and serve warm, or else refrigerate for later.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dobos Torte - Daring Bakers Challenge

Since I almost never bake cakes, almost every cake I do make involves some kind of first for me. The Dobos Torte gave me my first experience with a layer cake (and my first experience making sponge cake), and though I envisioned all sorts of things going wrong - layers sliding off each other, a cake leaning perilously to one side - the cake-making actually went fairly smoothly.

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful
of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos
Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite
Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

The Dobos Torte is a layer cake that interleaves rounds of sponge cake with a rich chocolate buttercream, and tops it all with a layer of caramel wedges.

While the cake is quite impressive to look at, I found that in terms of taste, the easier an element was to make, the better it tasted! The chocolate buttercream was divine, and it was by far the simplest thing to make. The sponge cake, while not bad, didn't really stand out taste-wise, and it sure required a lot more work than the buttercream. Finally, the caramel, which required a fair bit of attention and cutlery skills, ended up being more spectacle than edible. A whole wedge was overwhelming in its sweetness and, perhaps more importantly, much too hard on the teeth! Most people tried a bite or two and then left their wedges to the side while they devoured the rest of the cake.

If I were to make this cake again, I would probably just forget about the caramel and cover the top with shaved almonds or hazelnuts. Actually, I think I would just make the buttercream and forget about everything else =)

Below is the recipe, with my notes in purple.


  • 2 baking sheets
  • 9” (23cm) springform tin and 8” cake tin, for templates
  • mixing bowls (1 medium, 1 large)
  • a sieve
  • a double boiler (a large saucepan plus a large heat-proof mixing bowl which fits snugly over the top of the pan)
  • a small saucepan
  • a whisk (you could use a balloon whisk for the entire cake, but an electric hand whisk or stand mixer will make life much easier)
  • metal offset spatula
  • sharp knife
  • a 7 1/2” cardboard cake round, or just build cake on the base of a sprinfrom tin.
  • piping bag and tip, optional

Prep times

  • Sponge layers 20 mins prep, 40 mins cooking total if baking each layer individually.
  • Buttercream: 20 mins cooking. Cooling time for buttercream: about 1 hour plus 10 minutes after this to beat and divide.
  • Caramel layer: 10-15 minutes.
  • Assembly of whole cake: 20 minutes

Sponge cake layers

  • 6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups (162g) confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (112g) sifted cake flour (SUBSTITUTE 95g plain flour + 17g cornflour (cornstarch) sifted together)
  • pinch of salt

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (200g) caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar
  • 4oz (110g) bakers chocolate or your favourite dark chocolate, finely chopped *I used Valrhona 70%, which is my favorite baking chocolate (also good just to eat by itself!)
  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250g) unsalted butter, at room temperature.

Caramel topping

  • 1 cup (200g) caster (superfine or ultrafine white) sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (180 ml) water
  • 8 teaspoons (40 ml) lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil (e.g. grapeseed, rice bran, sunflower)

Finishing touches

  • a 7” cardboard round
  • 12 whole hazelnuts, peeled and toasted *Sadly, it is very difficult to find hazelnuts here, so I had to substitute filberts. I don't like their taste anywhere near as much, but since they serve more of a structural purpose here, I figured it was better than using a differently shaped nuts.
  • ½ cup (50g) peeled and finely chopped hazelnuts *Due to the above-mentioned scarcity of hazelnuts, I substituted slivered almonds.

Directions for the sponge layers:

NB. The sponge layers can be prepared in advance and stored interleaved with parchment and well-wrapped in the fridge overnight.

1.Position the racks in the top and centre thirds of the oven and heat to 400F (200C).
2.Cut six pieces of parchment paper to fit the baking sheets. Using the bottom of a 9" (23cm) springform tin as a template and a dark pencil or a pen, trace a circle on each of the papers, and turn them over (the circle should be visible from the other side, so that the graphite or ink doesn't touch the cake batter.)
3.Beat the egg yolks, 2/3 cup (81g) of the confectioner's (icing) sugar, and the vanilla in a medium bowl with a mixer on high speed until the mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted a few inches above the batter, about 3 minutes. (You can do this step with a balloon whisk if you don't have a mixer.)

4.In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2/3 cup (81g) of confectioner's (icing)sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remainder, leaving a few wisps of white visible. Combine the flour and salt. Sift half the flour over the eggs, and fold in; repeat with the remaining flour.
5.Line one of the baking sheets with a circle-marked paper. Using a small offset spatula, spread about 3/4cup of the batter in an even layer, filling in the traced circle on one baking sheet. Bake on the top rack for 5 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed gently in the centre and the edges are lightly browned. While this cake bakes, repeat the process on the other baking sheet, placing it on the centre rack. When the first cake is done, move the second cake to the top rack. Invert the first cake onto a flat surface and carefully peel off the paper. Slide the cake layer back onto the paper and let stand until cool. Rinse the baking sheet under cold running water to cool, and dry it before lining with another parchment. Continue with the remaining papers and batter to make a total of six layers. Completely cool the layers. Using an 8" springform pan bottom or plate as a template, trim each cake layer into a neat round. (A small serrated knife is best for this task.)

A sponge layer

Directions for the chocolate buttercream:

NB. This can be prepared in advance and kept chilled until required.

1.Prepare a double-boiler: quarter-fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil.
2.Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and thickened, about five minutes. You can use a balloon whisk or electric hand mixer for this.
3.Fit bowl over the boiling water in the saucepan (water should not touch bowl) and lower the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes until you see it starting to thicken a bit. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for a further 2-3 minutes.
4.Scrape the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. It should be quite thick and sticky in consistency.
5.When cool, beat in the soft butter, a small piece (about 2 tablespoons/30g) at a time. An electric hand mixer is great here, but it is possible to beat the butter in with a spatula if it is soft enough. You should end up with a thick, velvety chocolate buttercream. Chill while you make the caramel topping.

Chocolate buttercream

Lorraine's note: If you're in Winter just now your butter might not soften enough at room temperature, which leads to lumps forming in the buttercream. Male sure the butter is of a very soft texture I.e. running a knife through it will provide little resistance, before you try to beat it into the chocolate mixture. Also, if you beat the butter in while the chocolate mixture is hot you'll end up with more of a ganache than a buttercream!

Directions for the caramel topping:

1.Choose the best-looking cake layer for the caramel top. To make the caramel topping: Line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper and butter the paper. Place the reserved cake layer on the paper. Score the cake into 12 equal wedges. Lightly oil a thin, sharp knife and an offset metal spatula.
2.Stir the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring often to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved into a smooth syrup, turn the heat up to high and boil without stirring, swirling the pan by the handle occasionally and washing down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with a wet brush until the syrup has turned into an amber-coloured caramel.
3.The top layer is perhaps the hardest part of the whole cake so make sure you have a oiled, hot offset spatula ready. I also find it helps if the cake layer hasn't just been taken out of the refrigerator. I made mine ahead of time and the cake layer was cold and the toffee set very, very quickly—too quickly for me to spread it. Immediately pour all of the hot caramel over the cake layer. You will have some leftover most probably but more is better than less and you can always make nice toffee pattern using the extra to decorate. Using the offset spatula, quickly spread the caramel evenly to the edge of the cake layer. Let cool until beginning to set, about 30 seconds. Using the tip of the hot oiled knife (keep re-oiling this with a pastry brush between cutting), cut through the scored marks to divide the caramel layer into 12 equal wedges. Cool another minute or so, then use the edge of the knife to completely cut and separate the wedges using one firm slice movement (rather than rocking back and forth which may produce toffee strands). Cool completely.

Caramel wedges

Angela's note: I recommend cutting, rather than scoring, the cake layer into wedges before covering in caramel (reform them into a round). If you have an 8” silicon round form, then I highly recommend placing the wedges in that for easy removal later and it also ensures that the caramel stays on the cake layer. Once set, use a very sharp knife to separate the wedges.

Assembling the Dobos

1.Divide the buttercream into six equal parts.
2.Place a dab of chocolate buttercream on the middle of a 7 1/2” cardboard round and top with one cake layer. Spread the layer with one part of the chocolate icing. Repeat with 4 more cake layers. Spread the remaining icing on the sides of the cake.
3.Optional: press the finely chopped hazelnuts onto the sides of the cake.
4.Propping a hazelnut under each wedge so that it sits at an angle, arrange the wedges on top of the cake in a spoke pattern. If you have any leftover buttercream, you can pipe rosettes under each hazelnut or a large rosette in the centre of the cake. Refrigerate the cake under a cake dome until the icing is set, about 2 hours. Let slices come to room temperature for the best possible flavour.

I had a bit of sponge and buttercream left over, so I made a mini-slice with 8 layers - easier than making a whole 8-layer cake!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fusilli estivi con pesto

This is a sort of take-off on caprese - the classic Italian salad of mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. Here the basil comes in the form of pesto, which is very useful if you have too much basil to make a normal caprese!

Though I had my own basil plant last summer, this summer I've been moving around/on vacation too much to deal with having plants, so I've just been buying basil at the farmer's markets each week. The only problem with this is that you can't buy basil in quantities smaller than a gigantic bunch, and of course basil only lasts for a few days, so you have to eat it quick!

Since I really can't eat that much basil on my own, I've just been using as much as I need and then turning the rest into pesto. This has led to a bevy of interesting pesto creations for dinner, and so far, this pasta is my favorite.

75 g. fusilli per person
A handful of cherry tomatoes
Ciliegini di mozzarella (the little cherry tomato-sized balls of mozzarella)
Kalamata olives (I added them to jazz things up, but if you want to keep it simple, they can easily be omitted)
A few basil leaves for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, and add the fusilli. Wash the basil, cherry tomatoes, and olives, and chop the cherry tomatoes into halves. Pit the olives, and chop them into halves.

When the pasta is done cooking, drain it, and run cold water over it to cool it. Drain again, and combine with the pesto, mixing well. Add the cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and olives, and mix again.

Serve, adding the basil leaves on top.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Farfalle with watermelon

This pasta is certainly not traditional, but it is tasty and it's a great way to use up any extra watermelon you've got sitting around!

I read somewhere that you can use watermelon pretty much anywhere you would use tomato. While watermelon is clearly no tomato substitue, the idea of using watermelon in a savory dish intrigued me, and as I have a gigantic watermelon sitting in my fridge, now seemed like a good time to try it out!

I did use the watermelon pretty much as I would use cherry tomatoes, though I probably put more thought into the other elements of the dish that I would have if I were using tomatoes. I wanted to combine the watermelon with something salty to highlight its sweetness, so I chose black olives, which worked perfectly. I imagine feta would also be delicious here, but I'll have to try that one another time.

75 g. farfalle per person
1 large slice of watermelon per person
A handful of kalamata olives
Several leaves of basil
Olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and, in the meantime, cut the watermelon into small chunks. Rinse and pit the olives, slice them in half, and add them to the watermelon. Wash the basil leaves and chop them up.

When the water is boiling, add lots of salt, and then the farfalle. Let cook until al dente, drain, and run under cold water. Drain the farfalle again, and mix them with the watermelon, olives, and basil. Drizzle with olive oil, and add the pepper (I didn't add any more salt because I had used a lot when cooking the farfalle, but if you think the dish needs it, go ahead and add some more).

Serve immediately or after refrigerating - this is a great dish for a hot day!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


When it comes to dips, you really can't beat Middle Eastern cuisine. With their rich tradition of appetizers (meze), the countries of the Middle East have come up with a huge collection of fantastic foods to put on a pita - hummus, tzatziki, baba ghanoush, skordalia, and on and on... Muhammara is yet another one of these dips: a delicious combination of red peppers and walnuts that is perfect to make now as red peppers are just coming into season.

Though it's a bit labor-involved if you don't have a food processor, muhammara keeps really well, so I usually just make a ton and freeze the stuff I don't eat in a few days. Before you eat it, just move it to the refrigerator a day before. It's wonderful to make some in the fall and then enjoy it in the middle of winter when you've all but forgotten how a good pepper tastes!

4 large red bell peppers
250 g. walnuts
A spoonful of cumin seeds
A couple cloves of garlic
Lemon juice from half a lemon
A few spoonfuls of olive oil
Hot pepper flakes
Pomegranate molasses

Preheat the oven to 350º F / 180º C. Wash the peppers, cut off the stems, and remove the seeds and white bits as best you can without actually cutting into the peppers. Roast the peppers in the oven for about 45 minutes, giving them a quarter turn approximately every 10 minutes, until the skins are all black and blistered. Remove the peppers from the oven and let cool.

Toast the cumin seeds and then separately toast the walnuts. Peel the garlic cloves and, using a mortar and pestle if possible, crush them together with the salt and the cumin seeds until you get a brownish paste.

Peel the peppers, and scrape away any remaining white bits or seeds. If using a food processor, combine the peppers with the walnuts, garlic-cumin mixture, pepper flakes, lemon juice, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses, and process away.

If making muhammara the old-fashioned way, grind the walnuts and the peppers separately by pounding down on them with a potato masher for a very very long time. Then add the peppers to the walnuts, pound a bit more, and stir in the garlic-cumin mixture, pepper flakes, lemon juice, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses. Taste and make any necessary seasoning adjustments.

Cover the muhammara well and refrigerate for at least an hour - it's better to make this a day in advance though, so the flavors have time to really blend. When it's ready, serve with pita or other bread.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bakewell Tart - Daring Baker's Challenge

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

As an ardent lover of tarts, I was very happy when this challenge was announced. It was a recipe that was completely new to me, it looked delicious, and it seemed pretty simple. Of course, wouldn't you know it - of all the Daring Baker's Challenges I've done, the one that seemed simplest would be the one I mess up. Luckily my problem - undercooking - was easily fixed by an extra 20 minutes in the oven (guess I should have paid more attention to the name of the tart!).

In any case, after I did bake it well, the tart was delicious and seemed to only get better with time. In fact, my parents had about a quarter of a mini-tart left on the fifth day after baking, and according to them it was just as good, if not better, than the tart had been on the first and second days! So apparently, this is a tart that keeps very well.

It is quite simple - a sweet pastry with a layer of jam and on top of that a layer of frangipane (made mainly with eggs, sugar, and ground almonds). While the frangipane was interesting, my favorite part was really just the combination of pastry and jam. I have not yet attempted to make my own jam, but I used some very good jams that I got at the farmer's market several months ago - though I like jam a lot, it seems I never have any occasion to eat it!

I ended up making 3 tarts and still had plenty of dough left over, which I plan to use to make some jam-filled cookies, and hopefully that will use up those jars of jam. I made one big tart, which I filled with raspberry jam, and two small tarts, which I filled with apricot jam. The apricot jam was kind of watery, so I couldn't use a lot because I didn't want to get the crust soggy, though I did take the precaution of pre-baking the crusts.

The raspberry jam was much more substantial, so I was able to use more of it, and I say the more jam you can use the better, so if you make this I definitely recommend a nice sticky jam!

Below is the recipe, along with my notes in purple.

Bakewell Tart…er…pudding

Makes one 23cm (9” tart)
Prep time: less than 10 minutes (plus time for the individual elements)
Resting time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Equipment needed: 23cm (9”) tart pan or pie tin (preferably with ridged edges), rolling pin

One quantity sweet shortcrust pastry (recipe follows)
Bench flour
250ml (1cup (8 US fl. oz)) jam or curd, warmed for spreadability
One quantity frangipane (recipe follows)
One handful blanched, flaked almonds *In a stroke of luck, I was saved from having to blanch and flake my own almonds by the genius of the man in front of me at the bakery stand line at the farmer's market. I went the day I was baking the tart and was just there to get my usual loaf of bread, when the guy in front of me asked if he could have some of the almonds that had fallen off of the stand's almond croissants. What a brilliant idea! It would never have occurred to me to ask for them, but after hearing that man I asked for some as well and came home with a nice bag of perfectly flaked, slightly buttery almonds.

Assembling the tart
Place the chilled dough disc on a lightly floured surface. If it's overly cold, you will need to let it become acclimatised for about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry to 5mm (1/4”) thickness, by rolling in one direction only (start from the centre and roll away from you), and turning the disc a quarter turn after each roll. When the pastry is to the desired size and thickness, transfer it to the tart pan, press in and trim the excess dough. Patch any holes, fissures or tears with trimmed bits. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.

*I didn't quite follow the tart-assembly instructions as written here. Instead, I rolled out the dough immediately after making it and filled all of my tart pans, trimming and saving the excess dough. I then covered the pans and refrigerated them until it was time to bake the tart, at which point I let the pastry bake on its own for about 10 minutes before taking it out, letting it cool a bit, and then filling it with the jam and frangipane. This way, I could be sure the dough wouldn't get too soggy!

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Remove shell from freezer, spread as even a layer as you can of jam onto the pastry base. Top with frangipane, spreading to cover the entire surface of the tart. Smooth the top and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. Five minutes before the tart is done, the top will be poofy and brownish. Remove from oven and strew flaked almonds on top and return to the heat for the last five minutes of baking.

The finished tart will have a golden crust and the frangipane will be tanned, poofy and a bit spongy-looking. Remove from the oven and cool on the counter. Serve warm, with crème fraîche, whipped cream or custard sauce if you wish.

When you slice into the tart, the almond paste will be firm, but slightly squidgy and the crust should be crisp but not tough.

*As I noted above, I completely undercooked my tarts and didn't realize it until it was time to serve them. We cut into the first tart, and the paste was more than "slightly squidgy" - it was a soggy mess! See picture below:

Luckily, my parents were the only audience for this slight disaster, and they readily agreed to wait while we baked the tarts another 20 minutes. We covered them with aluminum foil so the tops wouldn't burn - I think my original problem was that my oven runs hot and so after about 15 minutes the tarts looked like they were done, even if they weren't at all done inside! Happily, the waiting for hours and then additional baking didn't seem to them any harm at all, and this way they were still warm when we finally dug in =)

Sweet shortcrust pastry

Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes (minimum)
Equipment needed: bowls, box grater, cling film

225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp) salt
110g (4oz) unsalted butter, cold (frozen is better)
2 (2) egg yolks
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract (optional)
15-30ml (1-2 Tbsp) cold water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Grate butter into the flour mixture, using the large hole-side of a box grater. Using your finger tips only, and working very quickly, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Set aside. *Instead of a grater, I used my lovely pastry cutter, which is great for mixing butter into flour when you don't want to use your fingers much, as they'll heat it up.

Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract (if using) and quickly mix into the flour mixture. Keep mixing while dribbling in the water, only adding enough to form a cohesive and slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes


Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Equipment needed: bowls, hand mixer, rubber spatula

125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5oz) icing sugar
3 (3) eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract
125g (4.5oz) ground almonds
30g (1oz) all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar together for about a minute or until the mixture is primrose in colour and very fluffy. Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The batter may appear to curdle. In the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. Really. It’ll be fine. After all three are in, pour in the almond extract and mix for about another 30 seconds and scrape down the sides again. With the beaters on, spoon in the ground nuts and the flour. Mix well. The mixture will be soft, keep its slightly curdled look (mostly from the almonds) and retain its pallid yellow colour.

*I let my eggs sit out for several hours before I made the frangipane and this seemed to help in that no signs of curdling ever appeared.

Overall, a great tart, and certainly a learning opportunity!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Zucchini herb yogurt cake

I have been suffering from a surfeit of zucchini lately. Not from eating too much zucchini, just from having too many zucchini and not knowing what to do with them!

Ever since the zucchini started appearing at the markets, I can't keep my hands off them. I've been buying 2 or 3 a week, which may not seem like a lot, but for one person who already has plenty of other food at home, it certainly adds up.

And of course, I can't make the same zucchini dish over and over again, so I've had to keep coming up with new ways of using the little guys! I've made zucchini fritters, zucchini sautéed with pasta, zucchini baked with pasta, zucchini stuffed with feta, zucchini stuffed with lamb - just about the only thing I haven't made is zucchini ice cream. An interesting idea actually, but that will be for another day...

This cake started out in my mind as a set of zucchini herb muffins. Upon realizing I didn't have any muffin tins, I had to change course. After mulling over various possibilities, I decided that a savory cake - a sort of cross between zucchini bread and a zucchini quiche - would be a nice thing to try and a good way to use up both some zucchini and some of my fresh herbs, of which I also buy wayyyy too many (the bottom shelf of my refrigerator is currently stuffed full of basil, mint, dill, sage, and thyme which I'm sure will all dry out before I can ever use them up).

Considering the number of things I make that don't turn out at all the way I had envisioned them, this cake came shockingly close to what I had planned. Light, fresh, and very herby, it's a great summertime snack or appetizer.

2 small zucchini or 1 very large one
2 or 3 scallions (green onions)
A large bunch of fresh dill
A large bunch of fresh mint
125 g. all-purpose flour
A small spoonful of baking soda
A smaller spoonful of salt
125 g. yogurt
50 g. kasseri cheese (a Greek/Turkish cheese made from unpasteurized sheep's milk. If you can't find any, substitute with a semi-hard cheese of your choosing, but I think the flavor of kasseri is perfect for this cake - a stronger cheese would be overwhelming)
A few spoonfuls of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 160º C / 355º F. Wash the zucchini, trim the ends, and chop them into thin rondelles. Wash the scallions and chop them finely. Heat a large sauté pan, add olive oil, and then add the zucchini and the scallions. Let cook on medium heat about 10 minutes, until zucchini are tender. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Wash the mint and dill and chop them up very finely. In a large bowl, sift together the flour with the baking soda and salt.

Grease a cake pan with olive oil. You could also use a loaf pan, to make the cake appear more bread-like - whatever you have available should be fine.

Lightly beat the eggs, and grate the cheese into the eggs. Working rather quickly, add the zucchini & scallions, the yogurt, the herbs, the eggs, the cheese, and the olive oil into the flour mixture. Mix together with a spoon just until the ingredients are combined. Immediately pour into the cake pan and place in the oven.

Let bake about 15 minutes, until a fork inserted in the cake comes out clean. Let cool and serve at room temperature, or refrigerate until serving later.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Panzanella (Tuscan bread salad)

Panzanella is a classic Tuscan summertime dish. Simple to make, it requires no cooking and is best if made at least an hour before serving, so it's a great dish to bring to potlucks and parties.

The version I made is the most basic one, but it's easy to make your own variations by adding whatever ingredients you want. Some common additions include hard-boiled egg, anchovies, capers, or lettuce.

Ingredients (for a large salad):
1/2 loaf of high-quality, somewhat stale bread (though the typical bread would be Tuscan bread, which is made without salt and in my opinion is a complete waste of flour, I used some older sourdough walnut bread I had, and it was delicious. The walnuts were a great addition to the salad as was the extra flavor of the sourdough)
1 cucumber
5 medium-sized salad tomatoes
1 red onion (the fresh kind if possible)
A handful of basil leaves
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Cut the bread into thick slices and place the slices in a large bowl of cold water to soften up. Depending on how stale your bread is, this could take from about 5-15 minutes. The bread should be soft but not disintegrating.

When the bread is softened, remove it from the water and squeeze out any excess water from the bread. Taking a bit at a time, crumble the bread into smallish bits (not as small as real crumbs), and place the crumbled bread in your salad bowl.

Slice the onion into half-rings. Wash and peel the cucumber (if it's the kind that needs to be peeled) and slice it fairly thin. Wash the tomatoes and dice them. Wash the basil leaves and tear them up by hand.

Add the onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and basil to the bread. Add in several spoonfuls of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stir everything up, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Just before serving, add in a spoonful or two of balsamic vinegar, and extra olive oil, salt, or pepper, if necessary.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Zuppa di farro e fagioli (Tuscan farro and bean soup)

I know June is not usually the month when you'd think of making a hearty country soup like this, but the weather here has been unseasonably gray. Besides that, this soup is really really good. So good I think it can be made in any season, unless it's so hot that you can't even bear the thought of turning on your stove!

Hearty is definitely the first word that comes to mind when you take your first spoonful of this. It's the sort of soup you would want after biking through a bevy of hills in a rainstorm - thick, warm, and revitalizing.

A classic Tuscan dish, this soup focuses on two main ingredients: farro, a form of wheat (I think it's also called emmer in English), and fagioli, i.e., beans. Though you can use whatever type of beans you want, I think the most common kind, and the kind I used, are fagioli borlotti. In fact, the main reason I made this soup was because when I was in Lucca in December I bought a giant sack of fagioli borlotti (they're dirt cheap in Italy and unreasonably expensive in the U.S.), and they'd been sitting in my cupboard untouched since then. They're a very good bean - I don't know how to describe them except that they taste exactly the way a bean should taste. Here's a picture of them if that helps:

Anyways, zuppa di farro e fagioli had been on my list of recipes to make for months, and I finally decided it was time. And it turns out that the soup tastes great (of course, every Italian recipe I've ever tried has tasted great), and I now have a large pot of wonderful soup that will last me through most of the week!

I looked through a bunch of different recipes, and naturally no two were quite the same. After getting a general feel for what needed to be done and taking stock of the ingredients I actually had on hand, I made my own version as described below. However, soup is very versatile, so feel free to substitute things, for example using water or peeled tomatoes, adding celery, using leeks or shallots instead of onions, etc.

Ingredients (makes 3-4 portions):
200 g. dried beans - fagioli borlotti if you can get them, other beans if you can't
200 g. farro (you can find it at Italian grocery stores and at some supermarkets, like Whole Foods - may be near the pasta section or perhaps in other grain sections)
1 small yellow onion
1 carrot
Herbs of your choosing, fresh whenever possible, but dried if not. In this case, I used fresh thyme, as I had just bought a large bunch of it, along with dried rosemary and sage, and a bay leaf thrown in for good luck
A couple spoonfuls of tomato paste
Several cups of vegetable broth
Olive oil

The night before you make the soup, rinse the beans under cold running water and then put them in a pot and fill the pot with water so it covers the beans and then some. Let the beans soak overnight and throughout the next day, changing the water every so often when you can.

Approximately 3 hours before you want to eat the soup, bring the water with the beans in it to a boil and then let them simmer for 2 hours.

Towards the end of the simmer, peel the onion and carrot and chop them finely. Wash and chop any fresh herbs.

After the 2 hours are up, drain the beans. Set 1/3 of the beans aside and mash up the remaining 2/3, either by hand or in a food processor (it's pretty easy to mash them up by hand, so the food processor isn't really necessary here).

Bring the broth to a boil, and pour a bit of it into a small cup. Add the tomato paste to this small bit of broth to dilute it and let it spread more easily into the soup.

In a large pan, heat some olive oil, and then add the onion, carrot, and fresh herbs. Sauté them for a few minutes, then add the beans (both the mashed-up ones and the ones left whole), the broth, the tomato paste, and the dried herbs. Add salt and pepper, cover, and turn heat down to a simmer. Let cook about 20 minutes, then rinse the farro and add them to the soup. Let cook another 20 minutes and serve warm.

As the soup is very hearty (did I mention that before?), there will likely be plenty left over for the coming days, which is just fine!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trofie alla genovese

Trofie are a type of pasta typical to the Liguria region of Italy, and in this dish, which you can find throughout the region, they are served with pesto, potato, and green beans.

Lately, basil has been all over the marketplace and I simply cannot resist a fresh bunch of basil. Unfortunately, you generally can't buy it in very small bunches, and even though I'll eat some pretty much every day, I inevitably end up with extra. So of course, the solution is to make some pesto!

I made a bunch of pesto last week to go with some potato gnocchi, and I still had a bit left over. I was planning to just put it on spaghetti or something, but then at the market today I saw a lovely bunch of green beans and was reminded of the genovese style of serving pasta with pesto. Though I had never made the dish myself before, the preparation turned out to be quite simple, and the end result was very rewarding! The only difficult part was actually finding trofie, which are not very common here in the U.S. I suppose I could have used some other type of pasta, but I wanted to be really authentic and so ended up shelling out $8 for the bag at my local Italian foods store. Ridiculous, I know, but it was just this once, and the trofie actually are really good - dense but small, so the balance of pastaness ends up being just right.

Ingredients (given per person):
75 g. trofie
1 small potato or 1/2 a medium potato per person
75 g. green beans per person
Pesto - you can get it from stores, but it's usually much better if you make your own, as described here

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Peel the potato and chop it into smallish cubes. When the water is boiling, add salt and then the potato. Let the potato cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the potato is cooking, wash the green beans and chop off the very ends. Chop them in half. After the potato has cooked 10 minutes, add the green beans and the trofie. Let cook another 15 minutes or so, stirring from time to time and testing to make sure not to overcook anything. When done, the trofie and green beans should be tender but still have some bite to them.

Drain the pasta, potatoes, and green beans, reserving a couple spoonfuls of the pasta water. Dilute the pesto with the pasta water to make it easier to spread over the pasta, and then mix everything together. Serve immediately.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


This Italian snack is a great way to enjoy fresh, seasonal vegetables. The raw vegetables are dipped in a mixture of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then eaten right away.

Though pinzimonio can be made with pretty much any plant-like food, I think the two most common are fennel and celery. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the celery, but fennel in olive oil is fantastic. I also like to use carrots, radishes, and broccoli (the broccoli leaves are particularly good at soaking up the olive oil - yum!)

This dish works great as an appetizer or as a quick snack when you don't have time/energy to cook.

You will need:
Olive oil
Vegetables of your choosing. Long, stick-like vegetables are best as they can easily be dipped in the olive oil. The word pinzimonio is supposedly a combination of the words pinzare ("to pinch") and matrimonio ("marriage") - you pinch the vegetable between your fingers and marry it with the olive oil mixture to form a delicious snack!

Wash the vegetables and prepare as necessary (trim, peel, etc.). If using fennel, use only the bulb part, and cut it into quarters. Mix the olive oil with the salt and pepper, and arrange the vegetable slices around the olive oil for easy dipping.

Enjoy! If you end up with extra olive oil, just soak it up with some nice crusty bread.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Apple Strudel - Daring Bakers Challenge

As with so many Daring Bakers challenges, this was delicious, a great opportunity to learn a new technique (strudel-rolling in this case), and most likely something I will not be making again for quite some time!

Not because it wasn't absolutely wonderful, but simply because it was so much work! Thank goodness my mom was there to help me roll up the strudel (which then ended up being her Mother's Day dessert); otherwise, I'm sure it would have been a disaster. As it was, there was a significant amount of dough-patching, but after it was all baked, you couldn't tell at all!

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 Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Though the recipe given was for apple strudel, we were actually allowed to make pretty much anything we wanted, as long as it was a strudel. Now, I usually love when we're given the freedom to experiment and be creative, but in this case, the recipe given for apple strudel looked so good that I really couldn't bring myself to make anything else. Besides, as this was my first strudel, I kind of wanted to start with a classic. Luckily, there were still some apples being sold at the farmer's market, so I bought a couple pounds as soon as the challenge was announced - May isn't really apple season, and I wanted to make sure I got them before they ran out!

I used pink ladies, but they weren't quite tart enough for my taste, so I added a bit of lemon zest to the recipe, which you'll see in my modifications below. As usual, any of my notes will be in purple.

Preparation time
Total: 2 hours 15 minutes – 3 hours 30 minutes

15-20 min to make dough
30-90 min to let dough rest/to prepare the filling
20-30 min to roll out and stretch dough
10 min to fill and roll dough
30 min to bake
30 min to cool

Apple strudel
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

2 tablespoons (30 ml) golden rum
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon *I used a whole cinnamon stick, which I first pan-roasted for a few minutes and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The flavor was fantastic - much more complex that what you get in pre-ground cinnamon.
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 g) sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted, divided
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) fresh bread crumbs
strudel dough (recipe below)
1/2 cup (120 ml, about 60 g) coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds (900 g) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ inch-thick slices (use apples that hold their shape during baking)

1. Mix the rum and raisins in a bowl. Mix the cinnamon and sugar in another bowl.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

3. Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Make the strudel dough as described below. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Mix the apples with the raisins (including the rum), and the cinnamon sugar. Spread the mixture over the walnuts.

*I added lemon zest from one small lemon to the apple-cinnamon-sugar-raisin-rum mixture. I also let it sit for a few hours to let the flavors really get into the apples.

4. Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself.

Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

5. Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

Strudel dough
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary.
Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally.
Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can.
Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors.

The dough is now ready to be filled.

A few additional notes from me:
I let the dough sit for a lot longer than 90 minutes (more like 3 hours), and it was extremely stretchy and easy to work with. That being said, my rolling/stretching technique needs a bit of work, and I ended up with some rather large holes. Luckily, I had a bunch of extra dough around the sides that I could roll up to patch the more major holes.

The strudel is even better with vanilla ice cream!