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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

Game Night Snacks: Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

17 May

I had some pizza dough in the fridge recently that I needed to use and it got me thinking about creating a savory version of the Cinnamon Rosettes on this blog. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are also going on and the Pens are in the Eastern Conference Finals, so I’ve also got stadium snacks, bar food, and Pittsburgh on the brain. That led me to one natural conclusion. Let’s flip the script for…

Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pizza dough, homemade or store-bought. Recipe here!
  • 12-15 slices pepperoni
  • 4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 oz. pecorino romano cheese
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • Optional: ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

Roll out the pizza dough into a rectangle about 12 x 15 in.

Melt the butter with the herbs and spices, and then brush onto the pizza dough, leaving a small seam at the bottom.

Layer on the mozzarella cheese and most of the pecorino romano cheese (reserve some for the tops of the rolls).

Add a layer of pepperoni.

Roll the pizza dough toward you slowly, jellyroll style, and pinch the edges together to seal.

Place the roll seam side down on a cutting board and slice into 12 equal pieces.

Put each roll into a muffin tin cup and then sprinkle additional pecorino romano cheese on top.

Bake 25-27 minutes or until golden brown on top. Move the rolls to a wire cooling rack and serve warm with marinara sauce for dipping.

These are really delicious the day they are made, but they also reheat well. Just put them back in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

Ciao for now (and let’s go Pens!),

Neen

Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.

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Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.

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Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

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After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:

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This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.

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Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!

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Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


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Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.

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Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.

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Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

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Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.

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I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

Quick Re-Heats: Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

23 Apr

One of the most in-my-face changes since becoming a self-employed person with odd “office hours,” has been figuring out when and what to eat. Sometimes there are evenings where I teach from 6 until 9:30. I personally don’t like to eat less than 2 hours before I teach a hot class, and sometimes afterward my brain kicks into “I just want to relax” mode before I have time to consider dinner. The problem is that thinking leads to grabbing something easy or fast on my way home. And while Alexandria has a decent variety of quick, healthy food options, let’s be honest that buying a $10-15 salad/pizza/sandwich that I could make at home for a fraction of the cost is not the best idea.

So I’ve been leaning on foods that are easily re-heated and those that can be made for the sole purpose of using up odds and ends at the end of the week. Soup, lasagna, chili, and pot roast are all pretty good examples. Still, for simplicity, nothing beats quiche. And this version negates the need to make pastry, which is a good bonus. I make these on Sunday and refrigerate them in individual containers. The key here is to not think too hard about specific ingredients. Use what you have. In this instance, I made this right after Easter, so I had leftover ham, potatoes, a lone tomato, a half package of mushrooms, and some half-wilted salad greens. I also only had 5 eggs, and I assure you it was not the end of the world.

Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

  • 1 russet potato, sliced thin on a mandoline
  • 6 eggs, well beaten
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of shredded or diced cheese (I used a cheddar-jack blend)
  • 1 roma tomato, diced
  • A few handfuls of greens (I used kale/spinach/chard salad blend)
  • 5-6 oz. of ham, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 6-8 oz. white or cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Prep the potato crust first. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and lightly grease a baking sheet. Lay the sliced potatoes out—they can overlap a bit.

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Bake for 9-10 minutes or until just lightly golden. This isn’t to cook the potatoes through, but to make them pliable.

Grease a muffin tin. Let the potatoes cool slightly and then lay slices in each cup, pressing them against the bottom and sides. Make sure they overlap slightly. Five slices usually does the trick if you’re working with a large potato.

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Set the pan aside while you prepare the filling.

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Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Place a skillet over medium heat and add some olive oil or butter to the pan. Gently saute the mushrooms until they start to give up some liquid, and then add the ham and garlic. Cook one minute more, and finally add the tomato and greens to the pan. Cook until the greens wilt slightly, and then remove the pan from the heat. Season the filling with salt and pepper to taste.

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Beat the eggs with the milk, nutmeg, and some salt and pepper.

To assemble the quiches, place a generous amount of the vegetable/ham filling into each crust, top each with shredded cheese, and then very slowly add egg custard to each one until ¾ full.

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Carefully move the muffin tin to the oven and bake the quiches for 12-15 minutes. They will puff up and be golden brown on top when ready. Let them sit in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of each, and lift the quiche out with a wide spoon or small spatula.

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I like to have quiche with some greens in spicy vinaigrette to offset the rich custard. Yum.

To reheat from cold, just pop into a toaster oven or conventional oven set to 350 degrees F and cook for 5-8 minutes. Nearly instant breakfast, lunch, or dinner! This recipe usually makes about 8-10 quiches depending on how large the potato is and how many odds and ends you’re throwing into the custard.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Share the Love: Breakfast Cake

12 Sep

A former colleague of my husband’s once said to him that it was foolish of me to bake for my coworkers so often. She claimed that my colleagues would not take me seriously. They would see me as nurturing, mothering, and not as an asset to the company itself. Not a professional.

Huh.

I thought that was some managerial psycho-babble right there. What’s the point of being an asset and doing your best work if you aren’t good to the people around you? What kind of feelings do you build up in your life? What kind of environment do you create if you aren’t welcoming?

Still, that idea struck me when I got laid off earlier this year. Maybe she was right. All summer, I wondered what I would do when I finally found a new job. I fretted over the idea of not being taken seriously. Even though I consider the blog a fine example of my writing skills, I considered removing it from my resume and LinkedIn profile.

Then I thought of the butter tarts and the Nanaimo bars that gave one colleague memories of home. The Happy Camper and FRACAS where I got to share my favorite things with the whole staff. The boerewors I made for my former boss when he couldn’t find it anywhere in DC.  The cider doughnuts I got up early to fry at least once each fall when suddenly DC turned crisp, orange, and gold. The multitude of morning coffees shared with people reaching into the infamous “Giant Cookie Jar,” and leaving with a smile and a thank-you.

I decided then and there that I would embrace my whole self. Wherever I ended up, I’d work hard to be a productive and driven member of the team, AND continue to share what I love.

What is one of the first things we learn in preschool and kindergarten? Sharing. Our smallest selves are taught that if we share with one another, the community as a whole benefits. It’s an enormous ripple effect; joy multiplies when we share. Sharing bonds us and can bring groups together that might otherwise never communicate. It teaches us to think beyond our own personal existence and consider our place as a citizen of the planet.

In other words, sharing is really important. And if it isn’t considered a professional asset to be willing to share (whether it be knowledge, caring, office supplies, time…), then I think we need a serious change of culture.

I did find a new job. In fact, of the 60ish I applied for, I interviewed for, and got the one I wanted the most. And during my first week at the office, an invitation went out for an in-office bridal shower. The party planner happened to be in my office and was discussing the expense involved in buying cupcakes for the party.

“How many do you need?”

And so it began. Inspired by my family’s favorite birthday cakes, I made four varieties that I knew would bring an extra shot of delicious to a celebration. And a tart too, so as to not leave our gluten-free and vegan friends hungry.

A version of Lynn’s Triple Coconut Cake all filled up with tangy lime curd…

coconut cakeRoger’s two joys in one; a red wine chocolate cake enrobed in bittersweet chocolate ganache…

chocolateJoe’s sunny lemon cake with blueberry filling, lemon cream cheese frosting, and candied lemon peel…

lemon cakeA rather decadent chocolate-coconut-macadamia tart with an almond-coconut crust that was both gluten-free and vegan…

tartAnd a tribute to my love of all things breakfast, this little number…

“Breakfast in Bed,” or Brown Butter Cake with Maple Buttercream and Praline Bacon

  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 3 1/2 tsp.  baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 2 tsp.  pure vanilla extract

First, melt the butter and allow it to brown lightly. Then return it to a small container and refrigerate until it has re-solidified completely. Do not skip re-solidifying! Adding melted butter to the cake batter will make for a very dense, sunken cake.

20130906_23380920130907_081156Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 12-well cupcake tins (or use paper liners).

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they are smooth and fluffy. Then add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well between each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract.

20130907_08162820130907_081724With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture (in three additions), and milk (in two additions), beginning and ending with the flour.

20130907_082050Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans, and then tap the pans gently on a counter to remove excess air bubbles.

20130907_082457Bake 23 to 25 minutes or until they are golden on top, and a slightly darker golden brown at the edges. They’ll have wonderfully crispy edges a la the pancakes at the ultimate palace of flapjacks, Pamela’s. Do not argue with me about Pamela’s pancake supremacy, you will not win. Important note: These do not rise a lot–they will not have high domes. The cake is still fluffy and moist inside, I assure you. If you really want the extra lift, you can add another tsp. of baking powder.

Place the cakes on a wire rack to cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, and then remove from the pan and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

Maple Buttercream

  • 8 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

To prepare the buttercream, combine all of the ingredients in a mixer on low speed until they are combined, and then beat on medium-high speed using a whisk attachment until creamy and fluffy. It will take 5-7 minutes.

20130908_08343220130908_084715Praline Bacon

  • 1 lb. sliced bacon
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ oz. pecans, toasted and ground

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Arrange the bacon in a single layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake the bacon for 20-30 minutes, or until it begins to brown.

Mix together the brown sugar and toasted pecans.

20130908_085332Remove the bacon from the oven and sprinkle the brown sugar / pecan mixture on the slices, pressing down lightly to make it adhere. Return the bacon to the oven and cook until crisp, about another 10 minutes.

20130908_08535220130908_091416Allow the bacon to cool completely before breaking into small pieces.

Finally, assemble the cupcakes. Pipe or spread the maple buttercream onto the cupcakes and sprinkle on the candied bacon.

20130908_094153It really is like eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon…only better!

The cupcakes went over very well at the party, and the best part is that sharing them helped me get to know my new coworkers better.

So what if people think you’re nurturing? The way I see it, if that’s the most negative thing someone can think of to say about you…you’re doing a pretty okay job on planet earth.

Ciao for now,

Neen