Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasagne Verdi dell'Emilia Romagna - Daring Bakers Challenge

I have to say, I was pretty surprised when this month's challenge was revealed. I was expecting a dessert or perhaps something St. Patrick's Day themed, but lasagne? And not just any lasagne, but spinach lasagne! Lasagne verdi (green lasagne) as they're called in Italian*, served with ragù and beschamel (besciamella) in true Emilia Romagna style. Yum!!

You would think that with all my experience making and eating pasta, I would have made lasagne before, but the fact is I almost never even eat lasagne, let alone make them. There isn't really a good reason for this - it's just not something that ever occurs to me. I actually don't think I ate lasagne one single time during the whole year and a half I lived in Italy. Of the lasagne I've eaten in the U.S. though, I have to say this one was far and away the best. Why? High-quality, fresh ingredients (which of course are the secret to making anything taste wonderful), and thin thin layers of everything - super-thin pasta topped with just enough ragù, besciamella, and parmesan to cover it, and then layer upon layer upon layer of the stuff!

Despite their incredible tastiness, I don't think I'll be making these again anytime soon - at least not unless someone gives me a pasta machine! I spent a little over an hour rolling out 18 strips of dough, trying to make them as thin as I could, and while the end result was delicious, my arm muscles are not happy about it!! Also, I highly recommend making the pasta in advance and then leaving it wrapped up tightly in the refrigerator overnight - unless you have a whole afternoon free, you'll be eating your lasagne at midnight if you start them when you come home from work!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

I'll give the recipe below, along with my notes. I didn't quite follow the proportions for the pasta, and I made slightly different versions of the ragù and the besciamella, making the ragù a sort of amalgamation of several recipes I looked at online. Whenever I make an Italian recipe that I haven't made before, I go search around all the Italian websites I can find, because generally Italian recipes written in Italian are a bit different from Italian recipes in English. The measurements are often less precise, the verbs for describing what you're supposed to do are different, they can be quite strict about which ingredients to use and so on...

So without further ado, the recipe for lasagne verdi! My notes in purple as always

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot. *As stated above, I highly recommend making most portions of this ahead of time. It definitely makes the actual lasagne-making night less stressful!

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish.*I spread ragù on the bottom instead - I saw recipes that had you do it both ways and also recipes that had the pasta on the bottom, but this was the way that appealed to me most. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. *I made sure to poke some holes in all the layers of pasta with a fork to let out the steam. Not sure how much difference it made, but I'm sure it didn't hurt. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Layer 1

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:

Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). *I let it bake a little less time with the foil and a little more time without it, because I don't like my lasagne to be too moist. Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
*Added a spoonful of salt

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. *I mixed the salt in with the flour too. Add the eggs and spinach.*I steamed the spinach first, which most of the recipes I looked at recommended. I squoze them dry before using, although I think I squoze them a bit too dry, because I had to add a few spoonfuls of water to get the dough to the right consistency. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

*I don't know if I was able to get my lasagne quite that thin, but they were about as thin as I could make them without my arms falling off! Instead of using the method described above, I cut of small sections of the dough and rolled them with my hands into long thin cylinders. Then I rolled the cylinders into strips. I ended up with 18 strips in all, which was enough to make 6 layers in my baking dish.

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Lasagne hanging out to dry

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
*I left out the pepper and nutmeg

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped *Used 100 g prosciutto cotto instead
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma *Used 350 g. ground beef instead of the above 4 meats - I don't suppose it matters much, but that was what I had and most recipes I saw called for a mixture of ground beef and ground pork/sausage
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible) *Left out
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk *Left out
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained *Used a can of tomatoes (about 6 or 7) with their juices, plus a little dollop of triple-concentrated tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper. *I basically did what this recipe says, except obviously I left out the stock and the milk. Instead I added the tomatoes + juice at this point, and I let everything simmer about 2 hours (while I was dealing with the pasta), then added a bit of salt and pepper. The ragù smelled incredible, and I'll definitely be making some more soon so that I can eat it with just some plain spaghetti!

A final note from me: these lasagne are fantastic, but you really shouldn't serve them without a good red wine to accompany them! Sangiovese or Lambrusco are my recommendations.

*Note that 'lasagne' is a plural form. The singular would be lasagna, but that would refer to one sheet of pasta instead of the whole thing. In Italian, different types of pasta are almost always plural (e.g., spaghetti, ravioli, gnocchi), and my feeling is that if you're going to use another language's word for something, you may as well use it correctly!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tortilla de patatas - Spanish omelette

Like revenge, this is a dish best served cold.

At least, that's what I think. Lately, I've had a lot of things going on in the evening, so I've been looking around for things I can cook ahead of time and then let sit in the refrigerator for awhile so that when I get back home exhausted at 9 or 10 I don't have to do anything except get out a plate and a fork!

The tortilla de patatas fits the bill perfectly. In fact, sit around seems to be what these omelettes do best. Walk into any bar/café in Spain and chances are very good you'll see a large hunk of tortilla sitting around on the counter, just waiting to be sliced up for the next hungry customer.

It's actually sort of surprising that these tortillas aren't as popular in other countries, but they certainly are ubiquitous in Spain. People eat them as snacks, tapas, smushed between bread into a sandwich and on and on. They are really good - very satisfying, and very simple to make with just a few ingredients - the hardest part is flipping them!

2-3 large potatoes
1 yellow onion
4 eggs
Olive oil

Dice the onion and set aside. Peel the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into halves and then cut each half into thin strips. In a large pan, heat some olive oil and then add the onions and the potatoes. Let them cook over medium-high heat for a minute or so, add in a spoonful of salt, stir a bit, and then turn the heat down to medium and cover the pan.

Let the potatoes and onion cook about 15-20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs and then add the potato-onion mixture, stirring just enough to mix everything together, but no more.

Let the eggs and potatoes sit for 5-10 minutes (I use this time to wash the dishes I've dirtied), and then heat some olive oil in a frying pan. If possible, use a smaller pan to make the omelette than you used to fry the potatoes, as that will get you a thicker omelette, which is essential for nice layers of potatoes.

When the oil is very hot, pour in the egg-potato-onion mixture, and after about a minute, turn the heat to medium-low. Use a spatula to push the omelette away from the sides of the pan and to test to see how cooked the bottom is getting. As soon as the omelette starts to set on top, remove the pan from the stove, cover it with a large plate, and flip the pan upside-down. Hopefully the omelette will land right on the plate without any problems - lifting the bottom away from the pan with the spatula beforehand will help.

Slide the omelette back into the pan so that the other side can cook and return the pan to the stove. Let cook a few more minutes, just until done. You want the omelette to stay rather soft in the center, so don't overcook.

Let the omelette sit until it cools, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a couple hours. Remove whenever you want and eat - goes especially well with a glass of sangria!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lamb pastry packages

You know how some recipes say "spice to taste"? Well, for these lovely little lamb pastries, please please please do not spice to taste. Add whatever vegetables, nuts and herbs you want, but I insist that if you make these you leave in the coriander and cinnamon - they work so well with the lamb and they make the pastries taste (and smell) absolutely heavenly.

I don't normally think of meat as a pastry filling and I especially don't think of it as one that would go with coriander and cinnamon, but there are several Middle Eastern recipes that use meat this way. One of the best dishes like this that I've ever had was at a Moroccan-style restaurant (though the owners were mostly Palestinian and Jordanian); it was a pastry filled with ground meat and topped with powdered sugar, and it was incredible!

Though I left out the powdered sugar, these pastries are a lovely mix of sweet and savory. You could make one big pie and serve it as a main course, or you could make cute little pastry packages, like I did here, and serve them as appetizers. In any case, these are pretty easy to make, and did I mention that they taste fantastic?

150 g. shortcrust pastry dough (see recipe here), or your favorite type of pastry dough
100 g. ground lamb
1 smallish yellow onion
Several sprigs of fresh parsley
A handful of fresh mint
A couple spoonfuls of cashews
A large spoonful of pine nuts
A large spoonful of tomato paste
Olive oil
Coriander (freshly ground if possible)

Preheat the oven to 355º F /180º C. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper to prepare them.

Dice the onion and the cashews. Toast the pine nuts until they are lightly browned. Be sure to watch them to make sure they don't burn. Once the pine nuts are toasted, set them aside in a bowl, along with the cashews.

In the same pan you used for the pine nuts (saves dish-washing), heat some olive oil and then add the onion. After a couple of minutes, when the onion is translucent and soft, add the ground lamb and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the salt, stir, and set aside to cool a bit.

While the lamb is cooling, wash the parsley and mint and chop them finely. Add them to the nuts, along with the ground coriander, cinnamon, and tomato paste. Add in the lamb and onions and mix everything up well.

Take the dough (which was hopefully in the refrigerator), and divide it into two portions. Put one portion back in the refrigerator while you roll out the other portion into a thin, flat sheet. Using a sharp implement, cut the sheet into strips about as wide as your thumb and then divide each strip into squares.

Spoon a small spoonful of the lamb mixture into the center of each square. The mixture is rather crumbly so use your hands to press it together. Be sure not to overload the little squares - you don't want the filling to get out while the pastry is baking!

Fold the corners of the square over the filling into the center to form a little bundle. Press the pastry together to make sure the filling is well-closed in, and then transfer the pastry to the baking sheet. Repeat for all the rest of the squares, then take the rest of the dough out of the refrigerator and roll it out into another sheet. Divide into squares as before and spoon the rest of the filling onto the squares. Create the bundles and then bake all the pastries for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown.

Remove from the oven, let cool 10 minutes, and then eat.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Springtime quiche of asparagus and prosciutto

I made this quiche on a whim to use up half a bunch of asparagus, and I found that the combination of asparagus and prosciutto cotto worked perfectly. The slightly salty prosciutto cotto (I wouldn't use prosciutto crudo in this, as it's much saltier than cotto) was just the right complement for the sweet, mildly grassy flavor of the asparagus. A great dish to celebrate the beginning of Spring!

Shortcrust pastry (see recipe here)
1/2 a bunch (about 10 stalks) of fresh asparagus
A couple of slices, or about 50-60 g. prosciutto cotto - substitute plain ham if you can't get any prosciutto cotto
2 eggs
1/2 small glass of milk
Pecorino sardo or pecorino romano, or other hard cheese of your choosing
A couple cloves of garlic
Olive oil

First, preheat the oven to about 355º F /180º C. Wash the asparagus and break off the hard, stringy parts at the bottom (I usualy just bend them until they snap and throw away the part that snaps off). Cut off the tips and reserve them. Chop the rest of the asparagus stalks crosswise into little circles/cylinders.

Crush the garlic cloves and heat some olive oil in a wide pan that you can cover. When the olive oil is hot, add the garlic and, after a minute or so, the asparagus rondelles (which seems to be a word in English since my spell-checker hasn't marked it wrong!). At this point you can remove the garlic if you like - I just kept it in because I like garlic, but it's not necessary.

Let the asparagus cook a few minutes and then pour enough water in the pan to cover the asparagus. Bring the water to a boil and then cover the pan, turn the heat down low and let simmer 15-20 minutes.

When the asparagus have cooked, drain off the excess water and put the asparagus in a large bowl, along with the garlic, if you desire, and the uncooked asparagus tips.

Dice the prosciutto and add it to the asparagus. Lightly beat the eggs and add them to the prosciutto and asparagus, along with the milk. Grate in a smallish amount of pecorino and add just a pinch of salt and pepper - because the prosciutto adds a significant amount of flavor, you don't want to add in great heaps of pecorino, salt, or pepper here - just enough to spice things up a bit.

Butter a tart pan and roll out the pastry into a disc large enough to cover the pan. Cover the bottom and sides of the pan with the pastry and poke holes in the pastry with a fork. I like to bake the pastry first on its own for about 10 minutes so that it doesn't get all soggy from the filling. If you want, do this first, otherwise just pour in the filling.

Let the quiche bake about 1/2 an hour (after any pre-baking of the crust), remove from the oven and let cool 10 minutes before serving. Like most quiches, this tastes just as good, if not better, after sitting in the refrigerator for a day.

Shortcrust pastry

Rather than writing out the recipe for this every single time I post a recipe for a quiche, tart, pie, etc., I thought I'd write it out just once here and then refer back to it in a link as needed.

Shortcrust pastry is a very basic foundational sort of thing that everyone should know how to make - it takes less time and work than bread dough, and it always turns out wonderfully. I use this recipe for both sweet and savory dishes; I know lots of people like to add sugar when they make something sweeter, but for fruit tarts and pies, I prefer to let the filling provide all the sweetness. I might add sugar to something like a chocolate or custard tart, but that's about it - for everything else, this recipe works perfectly for me.

After much experimentation, I've decided that it really doesn't matter too much how much butter you use - the more you use, the flakier and richer your pastry will be, and as you use less, the pastry becomes more bread-like and solid. Though most people probably don't want this, I actually really like the crust you get when you use less butter (about 20-30 g for 100 g flour). Here I've given a recipe that calls for 1 part butter to 2 parts flour, which is pretty standard, though I've seen recipes that go as far as using equal parts butter and flour. For less flakiness, simply use less butter and a bit more water.

Flaky pastry vs. Non-flaky pastry

One last note I have is that I like to use unsalted butter and add the salt separately. Though you could just use salted butter, then you wouldn't really have a way of controlling how much salt goes into the pastry, and it's difficult to know just how much salt was already added to the salted butter.

150 g pastry flour
125 g unsalted butter
A small spoonful of salt
A bit of very cold water

If you really want a flaky crust, it's important to keep the butter very cold. This is to ensure that it doesn't melt until it gets in the oven - if it melts even a bit after it's been mixed with the flour into the dough, you won't get the nice layers of butter and flour that result in flakiness. If you're aiming for a breadier crust, you don't have to be as careful since it doesn't really matter if the butter melts a bit.

Sift the flour with the salt. Take the butter out of the refrigerator and chop it into smallish chunks, then use a pastry cutter or blender or any other implement that will work to mix the butter in with the flour, until the flour is all crumbly and you can't see any bits of butter. Again, if you don't care about getting a flaky crust, you can simply use your hands to mix in the butter - if you do care about flakiness, this is definitely not a good idea as your hands are probably the hottest thing the butter will come into contact with. If you don't have a pastry cutter, I highly recommend you get one - they're not very expensive and even though this is really the only job they can do, they do it wonderfully!

Add some very cold water, a bit at a time, just until the dough comes together. Quickly form it into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and leave to refrigerate at least half an hour to an hour before using. You can keep the dough in the refrigerator for a few days if necessary, and you can also freeze any excess dough to use later.

When you do want to use your dough, prepare whatever fillings you need beforehand and then butter all surfaces of the pan the dough will go in. Roll out the dough on a well-floured surface and then lay it in the pan and poke holes all over with it a fork. When I make tarts and quiches and things, I like to pre-bake the crust as this keeps it from getting soggy. I stick it in the oven for about 10 minutes, then take it out, add in the filling and then put it back in the oven.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cardamom biscuits

I love the flavor of cardamom, which is so unlike any other spice I've tasted. I particularly like the way it tastes in sweet baked goods, and these biscuits really give the cardamom a chance to shine through.

A couple weeks ago I made something similar with a bit less cardamom and some orange peel added in, but I like this version much more - the cardamom is so good that when you add other flavors it takes away from the biscuits, at least in my opinion. As with so many other dishes, it is best to just keep it simple and let the quality of the ingredients do all the work.

Ingredients for about 50 biscuits:
200 g. all-purpose flour
175 g. butter, at room temperature
100 g. regular sugar
1 spoonful of vanilla sugar*
1 egg
About 15-20 cardamom pods
A pinch of salt

*If you don't have vanilla sugar, you can substitute this with vanilla extract or just leave it out. However, it's really easy to make your own vanilla sugar - just buy a vanilla bean, split it open lengthwise, and put it in an airtight container which you then fill with regular sugar. After about two weeks, the vanilla sugar will be ready for use, and you can keep using it for just about as long as you want, adding more sugar when the sugar starts to get low, and adding another vanilla bean if necessary.

Bruise the cardamom pods by pressing down on them with the flat side of a knife. They should crack open a bit, but not entirely (you don't want the seeds to fall out). Heat a small pan over medium heat, and add the cardamom pods to the pan. Dry-roast them for about 5 minutes, until they start to brown.

Turn the heat off and set the cardamom pods aside to cool. Meanwhile, sift together the flour and salt.

When the cardamom pods have cooled a bit, open them up and remove the seeds. Grind the seeds up thoroughly with a mortar and pestle, or any sort of makeshift grinding materials (a thick bowl and potato masher would probably work fine).

Mix the ground up cardamom in with the flour and the salt. In the bowl of a mixer, cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla sugar.

Lightly beat the egg and then stir it into the butter and sugar. Add the flour mixture in batches, beating on a low speed after each addition. When all the flour has been added, mix until just combined - don't overbeat.

Form the dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least half an hour, more if desired.

When you're ready to bake the biscuits, preheat your oven to about 355ºF /180º C. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and tear off a little bit. Roll into a ball and place onto the baking sheet, pushing down a bit to flatten the bottom. Repeat this until all the dough has been used and you have a lovely little quincunx of cardamom balls.

Place the biscuits in the oven and bake until they start to turn goldeny - about 10-12 minutes.

Remove from the oven and after about a minute, remove from the baking sheet onto cooling racks. Let cool and then serve or store in an airtight container - the cookies should last several days at room temperature.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Spinach and herb triangles

Since I can't seem to stop myself from buying spinach, I have to keep finding new ways to eat it! These spanakopita-inspired pastries were a delightful new discovery; the addition of herbs and freshly ground nutmeg livens up the spinach, and the triangles themselves are actually much simpler to make than you might think.

I had always thought that making your own phyllo dough was some crazy, outdated thing that nobody would ever do now that frozen phyllo dough is widely available. I envisioned bakers of times past rolling the dough out onto enormous bedsheets and folding the paper-thin dough over and over itself in a method that was far too complex and bothersome for anyone to deal with these days.

But in fact, making your own phyllo dough is actually quite simple! And the good news is that when you make your own, it won't dry out as fast as store-bought dough does. The bad news is that it will probably be impossible for you to get the dough as thin as the store-bought kind; however, if you care more about taste than presentation, then I'd strongly recommend trying to make your own, at least once.

Ingredients for about 20 triangles:
For the dough:
400 g. all-purpose flour
A small spoonful of salt
A couple spoonfuls of strained, freshly-squeezed lemon juice
4 large spoonfuls of olive oil
Warm water
Olive oil for brushing the dough

For the filling:
150 g. spinach
5 or 6 sprigs of parsley
5 or 6 sprigs of coriander (cilantro)
A bunch of fresh fennel leaves (can be substituted with dill leaves)
200 g. ricotta
1 egg
1 large shallot
Olive oil
1 nutmeg*

*You can substitute the whole nutmeg with a few spoonfuls of ground nutmeg, but I've found that using a whole nutmeg and grinding it yourself changes the flavor enormously. The flavor is much fresher and more interesting - I think once you try it this way, you'll never want to go back to using pre-ground nutmeg again!

Sift the flour into a bowl and add in the salt. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and mix together, adding warm water a bit at a time until the dough is smooth and still fairly sticky. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead about 10 minutes, adding more water and/or flour as necessary.

After 10 minutes the dough should me smooth and pliable - it should not be dry. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave to rest in a warm, non-drafty place for at least an hour.

While the dough is resting, prepare the filling. Dice the shallot and set it aside. Wash the spinach leaves very thoroughly, dry them, and chop or tear them roughly.

In a large pan, heat some olive oil and, when the olive oil is hot, add the shallot. When the shallot starts to change color and soften, add the spinach, in bunches if necessary, so that you only have one layer covering the pan. Let the spinach cook until wilted - a few minutes is all it takes.

Once the spinach is done, take the pan off the heat and let cool. Wash and then finely chop the parsley, coriander, and fennel leaves. Using a mortar and pestle, or other grinding mechanism, grind the nutmeg into a fine powder.

Combine the spinach and shallot mixture with the chopped herbs in a large bowl. Lightly beat the egg, and add that in, along with the ricotta. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the nutmeg powder, and mix everything well.

If not using immediately, place filling in a covered container and refrigerate until ready.

When you're ready to make your triangles, preheat the oven to 180º C / 355º F and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper. Prepare the olive oil for brushing by pouring several spoonfuls of it into a small bowl.

Divide the dough into quarters, and leave three of the quarters covered while you work with the first one. Roll it out on a floured surface until you get a very very very thin sheet. This takes some time and effort, but keep going until the dough is as thin as you can possibly make it - the thinner the dough, the flakier your pastries will be. If the dough rips a bit in places that's okay, because you'll be rolling it all up on itself anyways, so another layer will cover the tear.

Once your dough is a big thin sheet, brush the whole sheet with olive oil and, with a sharp knife or other cutting implement, cut the sheet into strips about the width of your thumb. Spoon a dollop of filling into the center of the bottom end of one of the strips.

Fold the bottom edge of the strip over to the side to form a triangle over the filling. Then fold that triangle over its top edge into another triangle.

Continue folding the triangle over itself all the way down the strip, until you reach the end. Tuck any last bits of dough in, and place the triangle on the baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the strips, and then roll the next quarter of dough out and continue making triangles until all the dough has been used.

Bake the triangles until the edges start to brown, about 10-15 minutes. Let cool and then serve.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Castagnaccio is a chestnut cake/bread that comes from Tuscany but can be found in pasticcerie all over Italy. It is an Autumn sort of a food and is usually covered in nuts, but when it isn't it can be easy to mistake for a chocolate cake, so be careful!

If castagnaccio is an Autumn sort of a food, then what am I doing baking it in March? Well, procrastination partly, but to be fair, I couldn't have baked this until at least January because I didn't have any chestnut flour until I went to Italy, and chestnut flour is pretty essential in this recipe!

Though chestnut flour seems to be non-existent in America, in Italy people use it to make all sorts of things - bread, pasta, sweets, and so on. It gives food a wonderfully rich flavor - both sweet and meaty - that is especially satisfying in Autumn and Winter. Supposedly, the best chestnut flour can be had around November when the chestnuts have been freshly picked (gathered?) and are at their sweetest; however, if your chestnut flour comes from another time of year it will still be fine - you just might want to consider adding some more sugar if you're making something sweet.

For this castagnaccio, I used no sugar at all in the dough, and it was still sweet and cake-like. I wasn't even really sure if I should put this in the category of sweets, since it's right on the borderline between sweet and savory. In any case, it's incredibly easy to make, and it's just the sort of thing you would want to nibble on around 4:30 in the afternoon, while you sip a nice cup of tea.

300 g chestnut flour
A small spoonful of salt
A handful of raisins
50 g walnuts
50 g pine nuts
Olive oil

Heat a small pot of water until the water starts to boil. Turn off the heat and sprinkle in a spoonful or two of sugar and a healthy dose of cinnamon. Add the raisins and let sit for awhile. This is my particular way of plumping raisins - all the recipes I saw simply called for the raisins to be plumped in plain old hot water, but I like the addition of cinnamon and sugar as it adds sweetness without being overwhelming.

Preheat your oven to 350ºF / 180ºC. Chop the walnuts into smallish chunks, though not too small, and pour a bit of olive oil into a baking pan so that it covers the bottom and sides thoroughly.

Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl to get rid of any clumps. Chestnut flour can be quite clumpy, so be quite thorough in your sifting. Mix in the salt and then add some cold water, a bit at a time, mixing well after each addition. Continue adding water until you have a liquidy dough/batter. Once again, make sure there are no clumps in it.

Once your dough/batter is ready, add in the raisins and then pour the mixture into the baking pan. Cover the top with the walnut bits and the pine nuts. Add a drizzling of olive oil and finally the rosemary (use a fresh sprig if you have one - I didn't so I just sprinkled dried rosemary over everything). Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven to bake.

After about 15 minutes, remove the pan, uncover it, and return it to the oven. It will probably need to bake another 15 minutes or so after this, but check it from time to time to make sure the nuts don't burn. When the nuts have browned, the castagnaccio is done. Take it out of the oven, let cool, and serve.