Kyoto Comfort: Miso Soup

18 Sep

The morning that Joe and I arrived in Kyoto last year was rainy and cool. Actually most of our trip was spent under umbrellas and wrapped in raincoats (save for a literally perfect, amazingly clear day at Mt. Fuji), but it didn’t slow us down much.

At the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

That morning in Kyoto we were tired and hungry after the long trip from Tokyo, so after we dropped off our suitcase at the hotel, we wandered back through the train station in search of something warm to eat. We stumbled upon Suika KYK, a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu, which is deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. And yes, the tonkatsu was delicious, savory, and crispy.

But I was equally enchanted by the deep, umami flavor of the miso soup served alongside it. Later, back in Tokyo, we ducked out of a storm into a Japanese steakhouse and were again greeted with a warm atmosphere and steaming hot bowls of miso soup.

With the recent residual storms from Hurricane Florence keeping the skies grey and the ground wet, I found my mind wandering back to those steamy bowls of soup that warmed and comforted my body. So one cool, gloomy morning I decided to allow myself a brief moment to embrace a memory that soothed me, and recreate a few cups of deeply treasured moments.

Miso soup is simple to make from scratch. Built right, we’ll end up with a rich, deep broth and a soup that’s both deeply satisfying and pretty healthy, too.

Miso Soup

Dashi:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 – 12 in. piece kombu
  • 1 oz. bonito flakes / katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna)

Soup:

  • 1 recipe dashi
  • 2 tbsp. white miso paste
  • 2 tbsp. brown miso paste
  • 6 oz. firm tofu, well-drained and cut into 1/2 in. cubes
  • 2 green onions, bias cut into small pieces, white and green parts divided
  • 2 ½ oz. dried mushrooms (I used oyster and porcini)
  • 3 small heads baby bok choy, stems chopped into ½ in. pieces, leaves sliced
  • 1 in. piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

To make the dashi, combine the water and kombu and bring to a boil.

As soon as the water boils, remove the kombu. Add the bonito flakes and stir to mix.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow the bonito flakes to steep for 5 minutes. Strain the dashi through a cheesecloth-lined sieve.

In a large pot, heat a tbsp. of neutral oil over medium-low heat and add the white parts of the onions, ginger, and garlic to the pot. Cook until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Add the dashi and bring to a simmer.

Add the miso pastes and mushrooms and cook 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender.

Add the bok choy stems and simmer another 10 minutes.

Finally, add the tofu, bok choy leaves, and green onions, and simmer 5 minutes.

Serve, and let your heart and whole self feel warm.

While it’s a pretty light soup in a caloric sense, the tofu, mushrooms, and bok choy give it texture and heartiness that make it perfectly suitable for a meal. You could certainly add some noodles to it for something more substantial, though I think it makes a wonderful breakfast just as-is.

My life has been flipped upside-down in the last six months, but I am so grateful for the power of food and cooking to continue to not only bring me physical and mental comfort, but to bring joyful memories and thoughts to the forefront of my mind when I’m shaken. I sip this soup and I am back half-way across the world with my best friend. It is self-care in the truest and sweetest sense.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Wrapped Up Happiness: Soft Caramels

14 Sep

Recently I made a batch of soft caramels and realized that I suddenly had 64 caramels in my house, one stomach, and a husband who does not like caramel. Rather than freeze them, I decided to put a call out on Facebook: “Anybody a big fan of soft caramels?” Within minutes I was out of candy. After I shipped them off, several of the people who received them asked me about the recipe and it occurred to me that I’ve never shared it here. A cinnamon variant of them won a blue ribbon at the Arlington County Fair this year and yet somehow it never dawned on me to post it. Oops, my bad?

Anyway, it’s a delightfully simple recipe where the only real difficulty is that you have to stand at the stove for about 20 minutes and have a half-decent stirring arm. These are nice, soft caramels that are firm enough to cut and wrap easily, but that practically melt in your mouth after the first bite. Sound good to you? Me too, they are my favorite candy. And I’m super happy to share them with you.

Soft Caramels

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 ½ cups evaporated milk (1 can)
  • Pulp from ½ vanilla bean, split and scraped

Line an 8×8 in. baking pan with parchment paper.

Place a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and have a candy thermometer standing by. I use a probe thermometer with a paper clip attached because I watched a lot of MacGyver as a kid.

Melt the butter and then add the sugar, corn syrup, vanilla bean pulp, and salt. Bring this mixture to a boil.

Add the evaporated milk a small amount at a time over the course of 10 minutes. The mixture will hiss and bubble up a little bit every time you add some, so it’s important to go slowly.

After you’ve added all of the evaporated milk, attach the candy thermometer and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 238 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour the caramel into the prepared 8×8 pan.

Let cool for at least two hours. I like to move the pan to the refrigerator after an hour to make the caramels easier to cut.

Generally, I cut the cooled caramel into an 8×8 grid, but you can make these any size you like. The easiest way I have found to cut them without getting a knife stuck is to use a pizza wheel.


I buy small squares of wax paper to wrap them up, but you can use little pieces of parchment paper too.

These are wonderful for sharing. Super soft, creamy, with just a little bit of saltiness to balance out the sugar. Every time I make a batch, I throw a bunch of them in a plastic freezer bag and have them on-hand to give to anyone whose day could use brightening. I’ve given them out to Lyft drivers, yoga teachers, classmates, doctors…you’d be surprised at how delighted you can make someone with just a few pieces of homemade candy. Sure, some people might think it’s odd, but even if you give one person a smile, it’ll make you both feel really great. The taste of these is beautiful, but the real joy is in the happiness they carry in those little wrappers.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Turning Leaves: Cheddar Fougasse

9 Sep

Well, I guess it’s about time for me to admit that it’s almost autumn. I’m a summer person if there ever was one. I crave heat and the bright, light flavors of summer. Farmers markets attract me like a moth to flame, and I’ll eat pounds of berries if left to my own devices.

Autumn has its merits too. Warm, sweet, spices, crisp apples, creamy pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and perhaps the most delicious holiday, Thanksgiving. BUT for now, we’re in the early moments of the pre-season, with leaves just beginning to turn golden. And for me, those warm colored waifs falling gently from the trees remind me of one of my favorite simple breads, a French flatbread that is a wonderful addition to any bread basket, the fougasse.

Fougasse is generally associated with the Provence region, but originated in Rome as Panis focacius, Roman flat bread baked in the ashes of a hearth called a focus. If these words sound familiar, you’ve probably heard of the Italian version, focaccia (which we have made and you can find right here). And like focaccia, fougasse is a blank canvas for all sorts of fillings and flavors, including nuts, olives, cheese and herbs. What makes it different is its unique shape, cut like a big, beautiful leaf or sheaf of wheat.

To make our golden, not-quite-yet-autumn leaf, I chose a simple cheddar fougasse, but you can amp this up with rosemary, oregano, basil, or whatever herbs suit you. You can also swap out the cheeses, just be careful of balancing the salt in the dough with saltier cheeses like romano. You may just need to use slightly less.

Cheddar Fougasse

Sponge:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp. instant yeast

Dough:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. instant yeast

Filling:

  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, cut into ¼ in. cubes

Combine all of the ingredients for the sponge and allow it to rest overnight, or for as much as a full 24 hours.

After the resting period, stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will look rough.

Bring the dough together and knead for 8-10 minutes, until a soft, smooth dough is formed.

Roll the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise until it has doubled, anywhere from 75-90 minutes.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly greased surface, sprinkle on the cheese, and knead a few times to incorporate. Don’t worry if you lose a few cubes of cheese here and there, you can stick them on after shaping the bread.

Form the dough into a leaf shape or a large oval about ¾ in. thick and then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush it lightly with olive oil.

Using a sharp knife, make decorative slits. I did two down the middle and six on either side, but it’s your leaf, make it to suit you! After slicing, gently pull the cuts apart so there is some space between them.

Cover the bread with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Uncover the bread and bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped. Move to a wire rack to cool.


With each changing season we invite in new culinary treasures, and this is a simple, yet beautiful one to put on your table and enjoy. No matter what your favorite time of year may be, these fragrant, crisp, golden leaves are sure to please.

Ciao for now,

Neen

A Loaf from Le Marche: Crescia al Formaggio

8 Sep

When I first came across a recipe for Crescia al Formaggio, it noted that the recipe was an enriched Italian Easter cheese bread, but beyond that there wasn’t a lot of detailed information. It’s still relatively unknown in the United States, where many of the Italian Easter breads I’m familiar with are sweet yeasted breads enriched with eggs.

In order to dig deeper, I found myself using the magic of Google to translate several Italian web pages and discovered that this savory delight dated back to the Medieval period(!), and is said to have first been prepared by the nuns of the monastery of Santa Maria Maddalena in the Le Marche region. The recipe wasn’t codified until much later, and the first written trace dates back to 19th century recipe books. Traditionally, the bread is made only on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, where 40 eggs were divided between many loaves to symbolize the 40 days of Lent. These loaves were then taken to the church for blessing before being served on Easter Sunday morning or afternoon. It was seen as an Easter reward for Lenten penance, especially since rich ingredients like cheese and eggs were expensive and not widely available to the masses.

In the present, it is available year-round in smaller loaves, but the high, soft grander ones are only seen around Easter where it is traditionally baked in a round mold or panettone pan, giving the finished bread an almost soufflé-like appearance. I wanted to make this one a little more accessible, so we’re going to bake a smaller version in a loaf pan but trust me, it’s savory, golden and absolutely worthy of a holiday. Just as a note, it has quite a long rising period due to the eggs and cheese in the dough, so start this one early in the day.

Crescia al Formaggio

Dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, egg white reserved
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water (110-115 degrees F)
  • 2 oz. (4 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups grated parmesan, romano, or asiago cheese (I use a mix of all three depending on what I have on hand).

Egg wash:

  • Reserved egg white + 1 tbsp. cold water

Combine all of the dough ingredients except the cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed for 10 minutes, scraping down the bowl every few minutes.

Add the cheese, and beat until incorporated.

Scrape the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and leave to rest for an hour. It will not rise very much. After an hour, turn the dough over in the bowl and leave to rest for another hour.

Flour your hands lightly. Scrape the dough out of the bowl, divide into three equal pieces, and form each into a 12 in. rope. My dough weighed 21 oz., so my ropes were 7 oz. each. Braid these together and then put the braid into a greased 9×5 in. loaf pan.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 2 hours, or until noticeably puffier.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and adjust a rack to the middle position.

Whisk the reserved egg white with the water and brush it on top of the loaf gently.

Bake the bread for 15 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, tent the bread lightly with aluminum foil, and bake for another 25 minutes or until the bread is a deep golden brown and registers at least 190 degrees F on an instant-read or probe thermometer.

Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then run a knife around the edge of the pan and turn the bread out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

The dark golden crust is crispy, and the soft interior is savory and rich. This bread makes excellent toast and has a perfect texture and flavor for cold-cut sandwiches. I was enjoying it with smoked turkey and tomatoes shortly after cooling.

I feel so lucky sometimes to live in a time when ingredients are more widely available, and web pages can be translated in an instant, allowing me to learn about recipes I might otherwise never have known to try. Food connects us and brings us closer together to our families and to our histories, sharing celebrations across generations. What a blessing and a joy.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Essential Kneads: French-style Country Bread

7 Sep

Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in June, life has kind of been a rollercoaster. How I feel when I wake up each day is a complete surprise. I live in a constant state of fatigue and trying to catch up with whatever joints are flaring that day. Sometimes I need a cane to walk, or can’t raise my arms overhead, or am unable to do things as simple as squatting down or bending over. Even a simple shower can be painful sometimes. It’s almost impossible to have a consistent schedule or make firm appointments. For someone who loves to move and be in the kitchen, this can be really, really difficult. I’m able to work, but the opportunities have become very limited. It feels like so much has been taken away, and my primary job has become working toward remission.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered something wonderful, something unexpected, and something I am beyond grateful to have. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that baking bread makes me feel soothed, comforted, and home. I was deeply worried that my often swollen and painful hands and fingers would keep me from this practice. Okay, sure, I could use my mixer to knead bread, but a huge part of handling bread dough and knowing when it is ready is how it feels. And you can’t do that kneading in a mixer.

One night, I made a sponge starter for a loaf of bread. When I woke up the next day, my fingers were puffy, swollen, and angry. I was heavily disappointed. Yet again, an unexpected flare had hit me. I was about to throw the sponge starter and rest of the ingredients into my mixer, and then remembered a self-massage technique my physical therapist had shown me. It basically involved rubbing down the palms and fingers to move the inflammation. I realized it was essentially the same act as kneading. So why not take 10 minutes to move my hands through soft dough and just see what happened? Worst case, I’d have to give up and let the mixer do the work.

But I was right. While it wasn’t a perfect solution, by the time I finished kneading the dough, the swelling in my hands had reduced significantly. They still ached, but I had more mobility and a better grip. My love, my home had again brought me comfort and soothed me during struggle. So in light of that, I want to share with you the bread I was making that morning (and again this week). Get your hands in there and enjoy every second of it.

French-style Country Bread

Sponge:

  • 1 cup cool to lukewarm water (90-100 degrees F)
  • 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

Dough:

  • Sponge
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (100-115 degrees F)
  • ½ tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Make the sponge by stirring all of the ingredients together in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rest overnight or for as much as 16 hours.

After the resting period, stir the starter and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt. The dough will look rough and messy. Let it rest for minutes and then stir again. The dough will be more cohesive.

Knead the dough for 10-12 minutes, adding the remaining ¾ cups of flour only as needed to form a smooth dough. On a humid summer day, I needed all of the flour. When I’ve made this bread in the winter I have needed less than half, so it can vary a lot.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container. I like a measured plastic container because it is easier to see the exact volume of the rise. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until almost doubled, 1-2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal or semolina.

Gently pour the risen dough out onto the counter and shape into a large ball.

Place this seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rest until it becomes puffy and about 50% larger. This can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and place a 9×13 baking pan or cast iron pan on the bottom rack. Adjust the other rack to the middle position.

Make three slashes across the top of the loaf of bread, or make a tic-tac-toe pattern. Have ready 1 cup of hot water.

Place the bread in the oven on the middle rack and pour the hot water into the pan below it. Quickly close the oven to trap the steam and then reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it’s a deep golden brown and the internal temperature is at least 190 degrees F. You can also test bread doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a wire rack.

Maybe a lot has been taken away (temporarily), but RA has also become my greatest teacher, helping me learn greater patience, compassion, and gratitude for the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. I have discovered strength and perseverance I didn’t know that I had in me.

Whenever I feel myself struggling—and I know that is part of this too, I will go into the kitchen, massage my hands, and find myself home again.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Inspired Spiral: Swiss Roll

6 Sep

It will come as no shock to anyone that I am a fan of the Great British Bake Off. Almost every episode, I am inspired by at least one of the challenges or history lessons presented. Recently, I’ve been watching old episodes and gathering creativity from them. In one of the episodes I came across, the contestants made Swiss Rolls, often referred to in the States as Jelly Rolls. These consist of sponge cake topped with a cream filling which is then rolled up into a beautiful spiral.

The challenge has its perils. If the sponge is not rolled at the right time, it can crack or break. If the filling is too soft, it will squeeze out the sides, if the sponge is too warm when the filling is added it can melt, and if the cake is not rolled tightly enough from the start, it will simply fall apart when cut.

By now you might be thinking, “NOPE,” or “Why would anyone want to do this?” Well for starters, sheer curiosity, and secondly the internet is FULL of people sharing techniques to avoid these pitfalls. By the time I was finished with my Swiss Roll, I didn’t feel stressed and I had a delicious and oh so light cake to share with Joe. Now, I’m not under a time crunch or fearing pressure from distinguished judges, and neither are you, so remember this is all just fun at the end of the day.

Let’s roll!

Strawberry Swiss Roll

Cake:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Powdered sugar (for rolling)

Strawberry Cream Filling:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/3 cup strawberry preserves

Butter, flour, and line with parchment a standard half sheet pan (12×17 in.), then butter and flour the parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.

Separate two of the eggs. Set the whites aside, and to the yolks add the two remaining whole eggs and one egg yolk.

Place the egg yolk and whole egg mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer along with ½ cup of the sugar. Beat this mixture on high speed until it is pale yellow and thick. This will take a good five minutes. Add the vanilla extract and beat well. Move this mixture to another bowl and clean and dry the stand mixer bowl.

Sift half of the flour mixture over the egg and sugar mixture and fold in gently, then do this with the second half of the flour mixture. Set this aside.

Add the egg whites and cream of tartar to the clean stand mixer bowl and secure a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until the egg whites are very foamy and then slowly add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar. Continue to beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.

Fold a small portion of the whipped egg whites into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest.

Pour the batter onto the prepared sheet pan and use an offset palette knife to spread it to the edges in an even layer.

Bake the cake for about 7 minutes, or until it springs back when touched and is golden brown.

While the cake is baking, lay a clean towel at least the size of the sheet pan out on the counter.

As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, dust the top lightly with powdered sugar and invert it onto the clean towel. Remove the parchment paper lining from the cake, dust the bottom (now top) with powdered sugar, and gently roll the cake up in the towel. Place this on a wire rack and let it cool for at least an hour.

Clean the stand mixer bowl and whisk attachment, and place them in the refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes. If you have enough space in your freezer, you can use that too.

While the cake is cooling, make the whipped cream filling. Place the heavy cream, vanilla extract, and sugar in the chilled bowl. Secure the whisk attachment and beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the strawberry preserves and beat until stiff peaks form. Chill this in the refrigerator while you wait for the cake to cool.

To assemble, unroll the cake gently and spread an even layer of the strawberry whipped cream on top.

Then slowly re-roll the cake, pulling in toward you as you go to tighten the spiral.

Place the cake on a platter, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours minimum.

I like to cut this cake into 12 servings. Use a serrated knife and slow, even strokes as you go. Don’t press straight down or you’ll squish your spiral. Lay the cut pieces on a platter, garnish with powdered sugar and fresh strawberries, and serve!

Honestly, as long as you take your time, it’s really not that hard to do. Beating the yolks and some of the whites separately is what gives this particular sponge the elasticity to roll without cracking or breaking. It is a low-stress sponge, I like to say. And the flavor can totally be of your own design! If strawberry’s not your game, use 1/3 cup of whatever flavor of preserves suits you. You can add some lemon zest to the batter or filling, try a different extract (oooooh almond would be good), paint the inside with flavored simple syrup before the second roll, or even give it a little powdered sugar/milk glaze after rolling. This one is a nice blank slate ripe for creativity.

So, there are some things on TV that you should absolutely try at home without fear, and this is one of them: A perfect little pinwheel to share with friends. What could be better?

Ciao for now,

Neen