Back to Bread Baking: Rosemary Asiago Focaccia

7 Jun

So, it’s been a very strange two months.

The first week of April, I woke up suddenly with back pain so excruciating, Joe and I had to cancel our annual trip to Boston for PAX East. Things deteriorated from there. My joints swelled randomly and massively, there were weeks at a time when I could not walk, and I was in constant, excruciating pain. After a long two months of MRIs, x-rays, labs, and doctor appointments, I was finally diagnosed last week with rheumatoid arthritis. While things haven’t improved greatly (yet), I am much more comfortable and have a treatment plan to move forward.

Needless to say, I wasn’t doing much cooking. The last couple of weeks I’ve had a little more energy, my hands hurt a little less, and I have started to cook some meals and get back to baking. I’ve been going for a lot of comfort foods like meatloaf, soups, and homemade pasta. But what really feels like home to me is baking bread. So when my rosemary plant decided to offer this…

I knew a really good focaccia was on the way.

Let’s get back in the kitchen together!

Rosemary Asiago Focaccia

Bread:
2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
2 tbsp. sugar
3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1.5 oz. finely grated asiago cheese

Toppings:
2 tsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1 oz. coarsely grated asiago cheese

Dissolve the salt in 2 tbsp. of water and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast, sugar, and water, and let stand until foamy, 5-10 min.

Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly add 3 1/2 cups of flour to the bowl. Add the salt water and olive oil, and once incorporated, add the chopped rosemary and finely grated asiago cheese.

Once the dough comes together, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (You can also knead this in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, I just enjoy doing it by hand.) Add flour as needed if the dough is sticky.

Form the dough into a ball and transfer to an oiled bowl, tossing to coat in the oil. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a towel and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and adjust a rack to the lower third of the oven.

Lightly oil a baking sheet and turn the risen dough out onto it. Gently stretch the dough into an oblong shape about ½ in. thick.

Let rest, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Gently dimple the dough with your fingertips. Brush the surface of the dough with olive oil, and then sprinkle on the coarsely grated asiago cheese and chopped rosemary.

Bake the focaccia for 13-15 minutes or until golden brown all over. Allow it to rest at least 15 minutes before slicing.

This bread reheats especially well in the toaster or conventional oven (if you don’t finish it all in one day!)

While I often find the road ahead daunting and uncertain, I am lucky to be surrounded by supportive people, and have hobbies like cooking and yoga that ground me and offer me a meditative space. And I’ll keep writing to you here as often as I can, because food is meant to be shared and I will always be happy to share with you.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The King’s Crispy Treats

26 Mar

I went on a granola bar making binge recently. First I had a friend who was traveling who I thought could use a snack, and then I was in a show with a lot of long hours and heavy lifting, so I made tons of bars for the whole cast.

Then Joe spoke up. He doesn’t like oats, or the texture of most dried fruit. What kind of bar could I make for him? I remembered a Kashi bar that he used to eat that had chocolate covered pretzels in it and a sort of crispy cereal base. I considered that banana chips weren’t chewy and so I added those to the equation, and that’s when it hit me. Add some peanuts and peanut butter and you have something approximating Elvis’ beloved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches in breakfast bar form. With a little added chocolate because yes, please!

Elvis Bars

  • 3 ½ cups crispy rice cereal or puffed rice cereal
  • ½ cup roasted salted peanuts, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup banana chips, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup chocolate covered pretzels, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 3 tbsp. peanut butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. salt

Line an 8×8 in. square pan with parchment and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the cereal, banana chips, and peanuts.

In a medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter, honey, vanilla, and salt. Cook until the mixture just starts to bubble.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the peanut butter until smooth.

Add the peanut butter mixture to the cereal mixture and stir well to combine.

Wait 15 minutes for the mixture to cool slightly, and then add the chocolate covered pretzel pieces.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and press firmly into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator for two hour before cutting into squares.

I wrap them individually in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.

Crispy, chewy, sweet, and salty. Delicious! Hope you enjoy these royal treats soon.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Pressed Perfection: Gram’s Pizzelles

6 Dec

I have introduced you to my Gram before, and shared with you her delicious stracciatella (you’re welcome). But there was in fact, a second recipe card she gave me at my bridal shower five years ago. A particular offering that appears on every Italian Christmas and wedding cookie tray, but seemingly only on those occasions, the pizzelle.

After my Gram passed away a few years ago, they stopped being a special occasion cookie only for me. They became a thing I made when I missed her and wanted to share her with people.  I pull out the pizzelle iron more than a few times a year, and most recently I brought it out right before Thanksgiving to share these with my students.

You’ll need one piece of special equipment, and that is the aforementioned pizzelle iron. There are many varieties, but this is the one I have. It bakes two cookies at a time.

Pizzelles

  • 3 eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter, melted and cooled*
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla or anise oil**
  • 1 ¾ cup flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • Pinch of salt

    *Gram’s recipe actually calls for margarine, I just never have it around
    **I use a combination of vanilla and almond extracts

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs, and then beat in the sugar until smooth.

Add the melted butter and extracts and mix well.

Finally, whisk the flour mixture into the egg mixture until a batter is formed.

Drop the batter by spoonfuls (I use a 1 ½ tbsp. disher) onto a preheated pizzelle iron and bake for 30 seconds, or until just golden.

Move to a wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: 24 5-in. cookies.

I know that as the holidays approach, I’ll definitely make more pizzelles to add to cookie trays and gifts for people. There’s always a moment of delight when someone receives these so beautifully pressed, crisp, sweet little treasures. And for me it means my Gram is still right here baking and sharing with me.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Un-puzzling Apple Pie

30 Nov

I’ve been after the perfect apple pie for a while. There are so many variables: What kind of fat in the crust? Cooked or uncooked filling? Cornstarch or flour? What kind of apples?

And I’ve encountered all of the usual problems too: Under-baked crust, melted or broken crust, mushy apples, watery filling. With every pie I’ve baked, I’ve had a chance to learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

The good news is that I’ve combined several methods that turn out a pie with a flavorful, flaky crust, and a filling that’s sweet-but-not-too-sweet and that holds together when sliced.

Here we use a pretty traditional all butter pastry, but stay mostly hands-off and also chill it several times throughout the process to keep it workable and stable. For the inside, I wanted to avoid a watery filling, but pre-cooked ones make the apples too mushy by the time the pie is baked, so we’ll instead take time to extract some juice from the apples, make it into a syrup, then toss the apples with that and cornstarch to create a filling with the perfect consistency.

Let’s do it to it!

Apple Pie

Crust:

  • 2 ½ cups unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled in the freezer for 10-15 minutes)
  • ¼ – ½ cup ice water

Filling:

  • 3 lbs. apples (Good varieties that will not break down are Honeycrisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh, or Cortland). I used 3 large Honeycrisp and 3 Granny Smith for a balance of tart and sweet.
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch

Prepare the crust by combining the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and mixing.

Add the butter in chunks, pulsing between additions, until the mixture is a sandy, pebbly texture.

Slowly add ice water while pulsing, until the dough holds together when pressed between fingers. Do not overmix.

Turn the mixture out onto a countertop and gather into a ball. Divide the dough in two pieces and flatten into discs. These weighed about 12.5 oz. each. Wrap these in plastic wrap and chill for 30 min – 1 hour.

To make the filling, peel, core, and slice the apples. I also quarter my slices.

Toss the apple slices with the sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and allow this to sit for at least 30 minutes, but up to an hour is fine.

Meanwhile, roll out one pie dough disc into a 12 in. circle, fit it into a pie pan, and trim the edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Roll the other dough disc into a 12 in. circle, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Then place a strainer over a bowl and pour in the apples. Allow them to drain for 30 minutes, or until ½-3/4 cup of juice has accumulated.

Take the pie dough circle on the baking sheet out of the refrigerator before you begin the next step to allow it to get slightly pliable.

Put the juice and the 2 tbsp. of butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and boil until it reduces to about 1/3 cup and is syrupy, about 7-10 minutes.

In a bowl, toss the apples with the cornstarch and then toss with the reduced syrup.

Fill the pie crust with the apple mixture.

Gently wet the edges of the crust and place the top crust over the filling. Trim the edges and then crimp with a fork. Cut 5 slits in the top. Wrap the pie in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Preheat an oven to 425 degrees F and place an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet on an oven rack placed on the lowest setting.

Once the oven is preheated, unwrap the pie and cover the edges with an aluminum foil ring to prevent the crust from overbrowning. Bake the pie for 45-55 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and tender when poked through one of the slits. Remove the foil ring during the last 10 minutes of baking.

Allow the pie to cool for at least 4 hours before slicing.

Hope you have a chance to try this one during the holidays. It’s sure to make them merrier!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Adventures in Japan!

1 Nov

After a year of planning, we finally took off on our trip to Japan a couple of weeks ago.

We left DC midday on October 18th and arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 19th.  Shibuya, the neighborhood in Tokyo we called home base, is about 80 minutes from the airport via the Narita Express train. By the time we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we were pretty exhausted so we spent the evening at the hotel bar talking about what we wanted to do the next day.

The next morning, I got up and walked to a local gym in Shibuya to work out. I was honestly impressed that I found it on the first try. Directions in Japan rarely involve street names. Anytime I consulted Google Maps, it was “cross the crosswalk,” “go up the stairs,” “go over the walkway,”…etc. Nothing super specific, so I ended up using a lot of landmarks like shops or subway stops to find exact locations. But I did find the gym, and had a good workout that definitely helped shake the jet lag. I also happened to find the statue of Hachiko on my way there. This Akita came to Shibuya Station to greet his master, a professor, coming home from work every day. The professor died in 1925, but Hachiko kept coming to the station daily faithfully until his own death 10 years later. The statue was erected in memoriam.

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I headed back to the hotel to meet Joe and we decided to head to Kōrakuen, and wandered through the Koishikawa Kōrakuen gardens before heading to Yasukuni-jinja, which means “For the Peace of the Country Shrine.” It is a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million people. It’s unusual and massive torii (gates) are constructed of bronze and steel. Housed in the shrine complex is Yūshū-kan, a fascinating and somewhat controversial war history museum that begins with Japan’s samurai tradition and goes all the way through World War II.

After a full day, we grabbed some karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and sushi from Shibuya Station’s massive food hall called Food Show, and took a quick break at the hotel. We spent the evening walking the neon-lit streets of Shibuya, wandering in and out of shops and arcades before winding up at a place called the Living Room Café, a really relaxed bar with some great live music. A perfect way to close out our first full day there.

On Saturday, we headed to Harajuku to visit Meiji-jingū, Tokyo’s largest shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. The sprawling forested grounds contain over 120,000 trees collected from all over Japan. There are several torii as you walk along the path toward the main shrine, the tallest of which stands 12m high and is made from a 1500 year-old Taiwanese cypress tree. Also along the path are rows of decorative sake barrels, gifts to the shrine.

After leaving Meiji-jingū, we made our way to the famous Takeshita-dōri. Even on a rainy day, this street was packed with people filling the unique, funky shops lining it from end to end. We explored, snacked on street food, and even popped into a cat café to grab a coffee and pet some fluffy creatures. In the evening, we went to Shinjuku to explore the nightlife, arcades, and shopping there. A lot like Shibuya with tons of stores, neon lights, and music just pouring into the street.

Sunday I got up and made my way back to Shinjuku for class at Bikram Yoga Shinjuku. Even though I don’t understand more than a few words of Japanese, I know the sequence so well that I was able to follow along just fine. It reaffirmed how special this yoga is, that I have found it so many places and been able to share practice with so many people.

Joe and I spent the rest of the day wandering Akihabara, which is a ton of sensory overload. Arcades, manga shops, giant 8-floor tech stores, media, and book stores are everywhere, and we went to as many as possible before the rain got too heavy and sent us back to Shibuya.

Monday we got up to catch the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto. The train reaches speeds of up to 186 mph. By car, the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto would take approximately 6 hours, but on the Shinkansen, the trip took just under 2 and a half. It was pretty awesome.

After checking in at the New Miyako Hotel, we visited Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine built into the side of Mt. Inari. The entire path through the shrine goes about 4km up the mountain, and I would say we went about 2/3 of the way up. It is lined with hundreds of orange torii as you walk up and is a really breathtaking place. This shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. There are many stone foxes along the pathways, and foxes are considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the harvest. We spent a full afternoon exploring, and then wandered the surrounding streets and shops into the evening.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel to the Kyoto Aquarium and spent a couple hours exploring the exhibits there and seeing a dolphin show, before hopping back on the Nozomi Shinkansen to make our way to Hiroshima.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, the city was buzzing. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there were signs that read “We ❤ Carp!” About a 1/3 of the people we saw were in baseball jerseys, and we eventually figured out that the local baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, were the current Central League Champions and had a playoff game that evening vs the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. We even got to see their trophy because we just happened to wander into the store where it was on display. Later, we found a good pub to watch the game, but unfortunately the home team lost.

On Wednesday, we took the streetcar to Genbaku Dome-mae to visit Peace Memorial Park. The first thing was saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was the former Industrial Promotion Hall, but the atomic bomb in 1945 exploded directly above it, and this is all that remains of the structure.

We also visited the Korean Atomic Bombs Victims memorial, the Peace Clock Tower, the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and finally the Children’s Peace Memorial where we registered and donated 2 paper cranes to add to the thousands already there.

We then took the streetcar over to a shopping area called Hondori and spent the afternoon shopping and exploring the surrounding area. After heading back to Hiroshima Station, we went to the rooftop of nearby Fukuyu department store for some panoramic views of the city before catching the Nozomi Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The trip took about 4 hours, but would have taken about 9 and a half by car. Pretty cool.

Thursday morning I took an early trip to Tsukiji Market to see all of the vendors, and treated myself to a delicious sashimi breakfast.

Joe and I met up and went to nearby Shinjuku, where we went to VR Zone, a virtual reality park, to try out a few VR experiences on the HTC Vive. I have to say, it was pretty immersive and a lot cooler than I could have expected. Mario Kart in VR was WILD. After a little bit of lunch in Shinjuku, we decided to go back to Akihabara and check out some of the shops and a retro arcade that we’d missed when we went the first time.

Friday, we got up and met up with our tour guide to head for Mt. Fuji. Most of our trip thus far had been a little bit grey and rainy, but we woke up to a perfectly clear day. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride, we stopped in a town nearby Mt. Fuji for lunch before heading to the Fifth Station. The Fifth Station is about halfway up Mt. Fuji at approximately 2,305m above sea level (the mountain is 3,776m tall). Our guide Yoko remarked that there were only about 3-4 days of full visibility this time of year, so we were extremely lucky to have such beautiful views.

After Mt. Fuji, we traveled about an hour and 45 minutes to nearby Hakone, where we took a boat cruise on Lake Ashi before ascending to the summit of Mt. Komagatake via the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway. The summit of Mt. Komagatake had some stunning views, and we even saw Mt. Fuji in the distance.

After a trip back down the ropeway, we grabbed some ice cream before hopping back on the bus to Shinjuku, then caught the subway to home away from home in Shibuya.

Saturday we visited the expansive Ueno Park and spent several hours at the zoo there.

In the late afternoon we headed to Shinjuku for a quick meal before heading to the Robot Restaurant for a show there. Pictures and videos will never, ever do the experience justice. All I can say is if you are ever in Tokyo, treat yourself. It was a whole lot of silly fun.

Our last day in Tokyo, we headed to Ginza, where we visited Café de l’Ambre, a shop where the sign above the door reads “Coffee Only.” It has been in business since 1948 and specializes not just in roasting different varieties of coffee, but also in ageing its beans. After a delicious cup of coffee, we headed back out toward the main street in Ginza.

We spent some time wandering the shops and had a really great lunch at a place called Tsubameya before heading back to Shibuya. Then it was time for one last waltz through the neon lights of Shibuya. Even in the pouring rain, the streets were packed with people (many in Halloween costumes!) and the mood was lively. What a cool, special place.

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We’re already talking about where we want to go when we go back!

Eastern Shore Edition: Seafood Stock *and* Crab Bisque

20 Aug

Joe and I somehow got it into our heads last night that we could eat 2 lbs. of steamed snow crab legs. Several clusters in, we realized that our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. But there was no way I was going to let the remaining meat or the MOUNTAIN of shells go to waste. Seemed like the perfect opportunity to try my hand at making a creamy, delicious crab bisque and build it from the seafood stock on up. Let’s get to work, shall we?

Seafood Stock

Ingredients

  • Shells from 2 lbs snow crab legs
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 5-6 carrots, diced
  • 5-6 celery ribs, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 sprigs thyme
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. black peppercorns

Method

Roast the crab shells in a 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.

Place a stock pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute until the vegetables start to soften. Take a selfie maybe?

Add the shells, white wine, thyme, peppercorns, and tomato paste. Then add water until the shells are covered by about 1 inch.

Bring the stock to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 and a half hours. Skim the grease and foam from the surface every so often during the cooking process.

There will be a decent amount of evaporation. The first picture is the beginning of the cooking process, and the second is the end.

Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve, pressing the solids to extract as much as possible. Yields about 2 ½ quarts

The stock is now ready to use for our delicious…

Crab Bisque

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ qts. seafood stock
  • 2 oz. butter
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ cup cooking sherry
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 3-4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 oz. crab meat (I used snow crab legs)
  • Juice from ½ lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

Method

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat and then add the celery, carrot, and onion. Saute until the vegetables soften and give up their juices. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more.

Deglaze the pan with the sherry, and then add the tomato paste.

Add the seafood stock, paprika, thyme, and bay leaves.

Bring the soup to a gentle boil, and cook for 20 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cream.

Puree the bisque in batches, and then return to the stove, season with salt, pepper, and the lemon juice.

I prefer to add the crabmeat to the individual bowls when serving, but you can add it to the pot of bisque if you like. Garnish the soup wish fresh chives and enjoy!

So next time you “accidentally” order too much shellfish, toss your shrimp, crab, or lobster shells in a pot and get that stock going. In addition to being a wonderful base for soups and sauces, it is also delicious cooking liquid for rice and other grains.

I might just have to let my eyes get too big more often. 😉

Ciao for now,

Neen