Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Christmas Wonder

So I still think this blog was not the best idea I ever had. But then again, I have no one to talk to about food. My husband sure likes to eat it, and wants to know what it is; but any details beyond that and his eyes glaze over. This Christmas however, a small miracle happened. I complained of nostalgia. (Hardly a surprise that I'm complaining, bear with me). I miss Christmas at home, with all the stuff of my childhood - specially the desserts I have no clue how to make. I looked up a bunch of recipes for this sweet bread, sort of a panettone, and set out to make it happen. Now this thing requires a lot of kneading, and while I make most of my doughs in my processor, this recipe calls for 2.2 lb flour, which is beyond its capacity. After kneading it by hand for about 20 minutes I was dead tired, my wrist hurt and my arm tingled. Enters Christmas miracle: my husband continued kneading, proudly and quite fiercely, for another good 20 mins. He says he's ready to do it again anytime.

It's difficult, for me, translating a recipe from the metric system. I was fortunate to remember the right texture and consistency this dough is supposed to have, or else this would have been a great failure. Twice a year my grandma would make it, for Christmas and Easter, and I would hold her bowl so she could knead with both hands. Unfortunately her recipe is now lost, and that's why I had to search the web for this one.

For the dough:
7-7 1/2 cups bread flour
1 fresh yeast cake
1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon set aside
2 cups + 2 tablespoons milk
2 stick unsalted butter, minus 1 tablespoon
1 tablespoon salt
5 egg yolks
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons flavoring, like vanilla, rum, coconut

I kept saying to myself, this can be made. I can make it. But as always, when I'm trying a recipe for the first time and I really, really, want it to be a succes, my heart was trembling, second guessing every step. I sifted the flour with the salt in my biggest bowl. I made a well in the middle. I combined the yeast with the reserved sugar and added a bit of the warmed milk. Let that bubble, or mix instant yeast in the flour. Fresh yeast is best, (one cube) but I didn't have it. Dissolve the sugar in the warm milk. Melt the butter and cool it. Mix the yolks well with the citrus zest. Time to rock and roll: add the wet to the dry, the sweet milk, the perfumed yolks, and half the melted butter. Keep the other half handy. This mixture will be very sticky and annoying, so as you knead it you'll butter your hands from time to time and that will help a great deal. Knead. Knead. It's worth it, my stubborn crave sings to my tired hands. Keep going for 30 to 40 minutes, if you don't have a husband to offer sweet salvation half way in. The dough will only be barely sticky and easy to work with when it's ready to proof. It has to be not too firm. If you shake your bowl from side to side it should jiggle. Early on if it's stiff add more milk, 2-3 tablespoons at a time.
This dough needs a warm, draft-free spot to proof for about 2 hours. The warmest room in my house is the downstairs bathroom, but as I pictured this herculean labour of love sitting on top of my toilet, a loud alarm went off in my head. (Have I mentioned we're potty-training a toddler?) Instead, I warmed my oven low temp for 20 minutes, left the door open for 5, and put in the dough. Took it out one hour later because it had no more room to grow, as I left both racks in. Only leave in one, at the lowest setting.
In the meantime, prep the filling. I did one with walnuts, to quiet my craving, and the other with raisins, for my husband.
All you need, for the raisins: about 1 1/2 cups, steeped in hot water + 1 teaspoon rum, and about 4 tablespoons nutella/melted chocolate/jam, enough to make a thin layer over dough sheet.
The walnuts have to be fresh. They spoil quickly, so I preffer to buy them whole and crack them myself. [Actually, I like it when my husband does the cracking]. About 1 lb, whole, or 1 1/2 cups for the meats. Grind them finely and mix with 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon cocoa or nutella and 1 egg white beaten to a froth.
Line 2 loaf pans of 4 lbs capacity each with parchment paper. These will come out weighing 5 pounds each, so make 4 if necessary. Preheat oven to 350.
When the dough is ready, spread a thin layer of vegetable oil on your workspace. Do not use flour. Divide into 4. Put 2 aside. Roll the other two into 1/2 inch thick sheets, and spread filling over them. Roll them up, and then braid them to make a single roll. Of course, if this looks like trouble, just roll once. Bake for about 50 minutes until nicely browned on top. Cut when completely cooled, several hours later. Have a mug of hot chocolate ready when you do so. And sit by the tree. Bite into a slice and have peace in your life, if just for that moment.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The blue whale

A while ago I made this pizza while being on the phone the whole time. I honestly don't remember exactly what I did to it, and that caused me real, serious pain, cause it has to be the best one I ever made. I have since tried to recreate it, but of course it wasn't the same.

I know I caramelized a bunch of onions in the fat letf from frying the bacon; on the crust I put sauce and then a layer of thinly sliced zucchini, seasoned and tossed with a tbsp of olive oil; and then the onions, bacon, red peppers and feta cheese. The thin crust was crisp, and the edges were wonderfully puffed and soft, and that zucchini ... was tossed in lemon juice and olive oil. I'll have to redo this one right away, because Zhara loved it and ate a nice portion.
Which portion later got vomited all over her bedroom in the I-don't-want-to-sleep-even-though-I'm-dead-tired-and-it's-way-past-my-bedtime tantrums. She does this, when she gets upset, she vomits voluntarily and/or holds her breath until she passes out.

How nice of me to put this story in a food post. That pizza's not looking half as good  as it did before I remembered all this. Which is for the best, cause it's midnight and it's not wise or healthy to start on dough now. Eh. I must be not very smart.

Zhara's Second Birthday Cake

Words don't come easy to me, when it comes to cake. I really wanted to do it myself, but let's face it, I'm no baker. I tested a lot of recipes. I experimented with frosting and the results were really, really, creepy. That's because the cake was Spongebob, and it just did not work. So I ended up doing fondant, and as it turns out, it really was not as difficult as I imagined. I don't know why I was so intimidated. It wasn't close to perfect, but Zhara recongnized it, yelled Spongggggeeeee cake and her whole little being shook with excitement, so, mission accomplished.

I worked from top to bottom and you can see exactly where I got bored and stopped working his pants piping the details on the lower side, like his belt and what have you.

Even now, if  Zhara sees pictures of it she runs to the kitchen to see if there's more. And she sings Happy Birthday. (Seriously, she's very verbal. She sings.)

I'll come back with the recipe, this I have written down, so I'm not likely to forget it.

Soup with Happy Childhood Aroma

Since I started cooking I explored several cuisines, and while I'm eternally in love with French and Italian, lately I've been craving some of my native Romanian dishes. The stuff I grew up on is nothing fancy, but it warms my soul. We're big on soups here, so this will be the first of many.

Meatball veggie soup

Get a pot of water on the stove to warm. In a mixing bowl place your ground meat (chuck, typically, but also pork or chicken, 1 lb should do) and let sit while you gather the other ingredients. Finely chop 1 small yellow onion and sautee it in a tbsp of butter until soft but not browned. Let cool a bit and dump it over the meat. To this add up to a cup of rice, I like mine with a lot of it. Crack an egg on top. Season with salt and pepper and add 2 tbsp chopped parsley. Mix only when you have all your ingredients, and only until just incorporated. Form meatballs. Place carefully in hot water, just below boiling point. After about 10 min you can allow it to boil gently. Now add your veggies, cut as preferred (I liked a fine dice on all, but Zhara likes to pick them individually; you don't want to know how long it took her to finish a bowl, so now we do chunks): 2 potatoes, 1 big carrot, 1 medium zucchini, 2 stalks celery or half a celeriac. I add 1 whole onion, which I discard at the end. When the potatoes are tender add 1 can white beans, 4 oz tomato sauce and 2 tbsp tomato paste. I also add the juice of half lemon, or 1 tbsp vinegar. Boil two minutes more. Serve with sour cream.

The maiden voyage

      I first sat down to write this months ago. I'm not really the self-doubting-dig-your-own-hole kind of gal, but this voice in the back of my mind kept saying, this is stupid. and ridiculous. and sooo stupid. And maybe it really is, but I'm going to do it anyway. This will help me organize my thoughts and my recipes. It will be great to have them all in one place. And if someone else will benefit somehow, that'll be great.
     I have a two year old girl, Zhara. She is amazing. And so she only likes amazing food. Am I likely to produce amazing food for every single meal? Pfffft. But at least I'm trying. When I was young and my mother was trying to teach me stuff I could care less about cooking. When I finally wanted her expertise, we had the Atlantic in between, so I mostly learned on my own, watching tv and simply reading cookbooks. Whenever I get a new one, I read it cover to cover, as I would a novel [insert puzzled husband thinking I've lost it here]. Fact is, I'm entirely obsessed with food now. And lately, with dough. It seems anything I want to eat comes on top of, wrapped in or around some dough or pastry.
    Anyhoo, my daughter is a very picky eater, but thankfully she loves pasta, rice dishes and soups, so we do ok. I still cannot get her to eat eggs or potatoes or most meats, but that will come too, in time.

   A simple, simple pasta dish that Zhara loves, to begin this then:
   Carrot Zucchini Pasta

Boil water to cook  8 oz favourite pasta to al dente. We like to use miniature shapes, they're just easier for toddlers. Cube 2-3 oz smoked bacon and pan fry for a few minutes, then add 1 small onion and cook 5 min more. Grate 1 medium carrot and 1 medium zucchini on coarse grater and add them to the pan. After a couple minutes add a ladle of pasta water and put a lid on it, and cook on high heat for 3-4 minutes. Add about 6 oz tomato sauce, season if needed and toss the pasta.

Zhara enjoys this pasta tremendously. And I kinda like it too :)).