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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

Birthday Bakes: Carrot Cake

2 Sep

I love carrots. They’re like the candy of the vegetable world, really. There’s always a bag of them in my refrigerator and I eat them with such consistency that Joe doesn’t even ask me to put them on the shopping list anymore. Much like coffee, he just assumes I’m running low and buys more.

If I’m waiting for something to bake or cook in the kitchen, I’m usually also leaning against the counter dipping carrot pieces in hummus or peanut butter. So it’s kind of weird (now that I think of it) that I’ve never once blogged about carrot cake. Probably because I’m the only one in this household that likes it and I just can’t eat a whole cake by myself.

So when I got the opportunity to make one for a friend’s son’s birthday recently, I HAD to jump at the chance. The natural sweetness of carrots blended into and a soft, tender cake full of warm spices is absolutely a treat. Wrap that up in some rich, decadent cream cheese frosting and we are definitely talking celebration-worthy. And plus, no one can say you didn’t eat your vegetables, right? Let’s make some cake!

T’s Carrot Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups canola oil
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups peeled and grated carrots

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 16 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 4 oz. butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt

Candy Decorations

  • 6 oz. green candy melts
  • 6 oz. orange candy melts
  • Orange and green sprinkles

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter, flour, and parchment-line two 9 in. round cake pans and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in medium bowl.

Whisk the sugar and oil in large bowl until well blended, and then add the eggs one at a time, beating between additions.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir until well-blended.

Stir in the grated carrots.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. I prefer to do this by weight rather than volume because it results in more even layers.

Bake the cake layers for about 40 minutes each, or until a tester inserted into center comes out clean. Allow them to cool in the pans for 15 minutes and then invert onto wire racks, peel away the parchment paper, re-invert and allow them to cool completely. The re-inverting is important because the tops of the cakes will be a little bit sticky, so you want the bottom-side on the cooling rack.

To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together on low speed until smooth. Gradually add the powdered sugar and beat on medium speed until fully incorporated and creamy.

Add the vanilla extract and lemon zest and beat until combined.

Taste the frosting and then decide whether or not to add the pinch of salt. Cream cheese brands can really vary salt content-wise, so you may or may not need it depending on your preference.

Now onto the fun stuff! I always think it’s easier to trim and frost a chilled cake, so I usually wrap and refrigerate layers for a few hours or overnight. Carrot cake has enough oil in it plus added moisture from the grated carrots that it won’t dry out at all as long as you wrap it up well.

Take a look at your cake layers. If they’re even and flat, leave them alone. If you have any doming, it’s a good idea to trim them with a serrated knife.

Put one layer on a cake board. If you have one, set that on a turntable. Place a layer of frosting on top of the cake layer (about ¾-1 cup of frosting) and then stack the second layer on top.

Then place a large dollop of frosting on top and frost the top and sides of the cake using a spatula or offset palette knife.

I have these cake scrapers to smooth the sides, but you can just as easily use the flat side of a knife, bowl scraper, bench scraper, or a plain old flat spatula.

Once you have a nice even coat, put the rest of the frosting into a piping bag for decoration. You can also use a gallon sized plastic freezer bag with the corner cut off for this.

Don’t be intimidated! Keep it simple with small swirls of frosting around the top and bottom or go nuts with patterns. At this point, it’s going to be delicious no matter what. Play around a little. You can always scrape a decoration off and throw that frosting back in the piping bag. If your hands are warm and the frosting gets a little soft, refrigerate the piping bag briefly and return to work when it has cooled.

You can also decorate in a way that allows you to practice as much as you want by using some candy melts, which are just colored vanilla candy you can buy at most craft stores and also online. I melted about 6 oz. of green and 6 oz. orange melts and drew these little carrots on some parchment paper, then sprinkled them with colored sugar.

They set up quickly and stick easily to frosting, so it’s a relaxed way to do more intricate decorations. I also used candy for the lettering on this cake by pouring the melted candy into letter-shaped silicone molds.

Once you’ve decorated your cake, put it in the refrigerator to let all of the frosting and decorations firm up. You can leave it uncovered if you are serving it that day, or box it up if you need to store overnight.


This cake is warm, spicy, and sweet. The smooth, luxurious cream cheese frosting compliments the spices, especially the ginger (in my opinion) without being overwhelmingly heavy. The little candy decorations give a nice vanilla crunch that adds a lovely bit of texture to the whole dessert.

To see the smile on Tobias’ face as his mom opened the cake box was the ultimate reward. There is nothing better than helping to make someone’s special day even sweeter.

Happy cake baking!

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Perfect Prize: Pan Pizza

28 Aug

It doesn’t take knowing me very long to realize that I’m kind of a nerd, a title I wear with pride. Let’s be real, I went to graduate school for library and information science, so reading and research are my jam. I’d say that a lot of this stems from having parents who read to me and who encouraged me to read from a young age.

One of the perks of being a kid who already LOVED to read was Book It!, a program that Pizza Hut has been running since 1984 to promote literacy. When I was a kid, you’d receive a badge and for every book you read, you’d get a sticker to put on it. Once it was full, you could present the completed badge at a Pizza Hut and get a free personal pan pizza. And man, was that an awesome reward in my mind. I loved those little pan pizzas. They were thick, super cheesy, and had awesome crispy edges from the cast iron pans they were baked in. I remember my cousins and I nearly emptying the shakers of parmesan cheese onto our pizzas and gleefully devouring them as we contemplated how to convince our parents to give us more quarters for the arcade machines in the front of the restaurant.

Adult-me still loves books (especially cookbooks!) and definitely still loves pizza. But I have my own beloved cast iron pan now, and my love of reading and research have most certainly led me to learn how to make that cheesy, chewy, crispy delight right in my own kitchen. And with a husband who has an extensive collection of video games, I don’t even need quarters to play games while I wait for my pizza.

Want to make one? Here’s how!

Pan Pizza

Dough:

  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups bread flour
  • ¾ cup warm (110-115 degrees F) water, divided
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Sauce:

  • One 15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tsp. dried herbs (I like a mix of parsley, oregano, and basil)

Toppings:

  • 9 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Whatever you like on your pizza!

Pan:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 8-10 in. cast iron skillet

Begin by making the pizza dough.

Combine 1 tbsp. of the flour, ¼ cup of the water, and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for about 5 minutes, or until foamy.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup water, 2 tsp. olive oil, and salt and stir to combine.

Slowly add the flour ½ cup at a time until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic.

Roll into a tight ball and then place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat in the oil.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough ball doubles in size. It will take about an hour.

Pour 2 tbsp. of olive oil into the cast iron pan. Place the risen dough on top and then stretch it to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 2 hours.

While the dough is rising, prepare the sauce. Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees F.

Lightly press down on the dough in the pan to remove any large air bubbles, and then spread the sauce on top, going all the way to the edges.

Top with the cheese and any other toppings you might wish to add.

Bake the pizza for 15 minutes and then carefully remove from the oven and then cook on the stove top over high heat for 1 minute.

Just look at that cheesy goodness:

To remove the pizza from the pan, run a knife or palette knife around the edges, and then use a large palette knife, tongs, or a spatula to lever it out of the pan and onto a cutting board.

Allow the pizza to rest for 2-3 minutes before slicing.

The crust is thick and chewy with crisp edges from the olive oil and high heat, and the cheese is beautifully broiled on top and gooey underneath. It’s a little decadent and a LOT delicious.

It just goes to show that if you bury your nose in a cookbook (or many), you too can always relish the rewards of reading.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Overnight Success: Dreamy, Creamy Mascarpone Cheese

27 Aug

I have a tendency to over-buy ingredients. It’s this paranoid fear that I’m going to screw up a recipe, so I want to have enough of something on hand to restart the process if that happens. With pantry items, that’s not a problem, but with perishables it sometimes leaves me scrambling to think of what to do. When I was making candy recently, I ended up with several cups of leftover heavy cream and didn’t want it to go to waste.

Then I realized WOW, it’s been a long time since we made cheese together. Shame on me, because homemade cheese is extra fantastic and in a lot of cases does not require any sort of special equipment or ingredients. Ricotta, for example, can be made in under an hour with just milk, buttermilk, and a piece of cheesecloth. Make some lasagna with that and you might never want to go back to store-bought again.

While many cream-based cheeses require starters, mascarpone, Italy’s excellent cream cheese, requires little more than some heavy cream, powdered milk and a lemon to create. A cream cheese is a wonderful blank slate with all sorts of applications. Your time at the stove will be quick, I promise. It does have to set in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, so start this one early in the morning or the day before you want to use it.

Mascarpone Cheese

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
  • Juice from one lemon (about 3-4 tbsp.)
  • Colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth
  • Candy thermometer, probe thermometer, or instant read thermometer
  • A metal spoon

Whisk the heavy cream and milk powder together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Attach your thermometer and slowly bring the mixture to 180 degrees F, stirring regularly to prevent scorching.

Once the desired temperature is reached, remove the pan from the heat and switch to using the metal spoon if you are not doing so already. Stir in half of the lemon juice.

You will not see large curds separate from the whey, rather the mixture will begin to thicken. Watch for it to coat the back of the spoon and for some specks of solids appear in the mixture.

Add the remaining lemon juice and stir to combine. Cover the pot and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

Once the mixture is firm to the touch, you are ready for the final step.

Dampen the cheesecloth and line the colander with it. Transfer the cheese to the cheesecloth-lined colander, pull the ends together, and squeeze firmly to remove the excess moisture. This will make the cheese thick and spreadable.

The mascarpone is ready to use, hooray! This recipe yields about 12 oz. of cheese.

While the most common application is tiramisu, mascarpone is great spread on toast, mixed into sauces, served with fruit, or even stirred in to finish risotto. You can also sweeten it and use it for cheesecakes, cake fillings, or as a substitute for whipped cream on top of cake or pie. So many uses you’ll probably want to make more. My favorite application is mascarpone-stuffed medjool dates with crushed pistachios, honey, and fruit. YUM.

If you aren’t going to use the cheese immediately, store it in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator and use within a week. With a few simple ingredients and some time, you’ll have enough on hand to play however you like.  Creamy, soft, and just a little bit lemony, it’s a treat you don’t want to miss.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Double Dessert: Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with a Graham Cracker Crust

23 Jul

Let’s face it, you have enough difficult decisions to make on a day to day basis, yes? So when it comes to having your dessert at the end of a long day, why add one more challenging choice into the equation? This is precisely the thought that came into my head Sunday afternoon. I wanted these super fudgy brownies I made earlier in the week (that seriously satisfied my illicit obsession with “testing” brownie/cake batter), but also had a craving for creamy cheesecake. And yes, the classic marbled chocolate and cheesecake brownie seemed like the obvious answer, but there were a few sticking points I needed to address.

First of all, if you are going to call something a cheesecake, it needs a delicious crust. And second of all, fudgy brownie and cheesecake together cry out for something fruity or acidic to cut all of that richness. So what I started to imagine was a crunchy, sweet crust, gooey, rich brownie, and smooth decadent cheesecake with a little strawberry swirl. I wandered into the kitchen without a recipe and only my cravings to guide me. And a few hours later, I definitely had no difficult choices to make.

Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with Graham Cracker Crust

Crust

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 pinches of salt

Brownie Layer

  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. cacao or cocoa butter,* melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cacao or cocoa powder*
  • ½ tsp. salt

*Cacao butter/powder are the raw versions of cocoa butter/powder. This just means that these products have not been processed at temperatures higher than 115 degrees F. Either will produce great results, I just like the flavor of the raw product. Can’t find cocoa butter? Any neutral cooking oil will do in a pinch.

Cheesecake Layer

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil and butter the foil.

Combine the graham crackers, sugar, salt and melted butter and mix well.

Press into the prepared pan in an even layer and bake for 12 minutes, or until just set. Move to a wire rack to cool slightly while you prepare the filling.

To make the brownie batter, combine the butter, cacao butter, and sugar and mix well.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until thick.

Stir in the dry ingredients, but do not overmix. Some lumps are fine.

Pour the brownie batter on top of the crust and set aside.

To make the cheesecake layer, blend the cream cheese, egg yolk, and sugar until smooth. I like to use a food processor for this.

Drop the strawberry preserves onto the cheesecake filling and swirl just slightly. Do not blend well.

Drop the cheesecake batter on top of the brownie layer in dollops and then use a butter knife to swirl the fillings together.

Bake for 35 minutes or until puffy and just set.

Allow the brownies to cool at room temperature for an hour, and then chill for 2 hours before cutting into 24 pieces. If you care about keeping it pretty, wipe down your knife with a warm, damp cloth between cuts.

This really is an awesome contrast of textures and flavors. You get that rich, fudgy brownie against smooth, creamy cheesecake with little swirls of strawberry to brighten it all up a little. Dessert need not be a difficult choice ever again. You’re welcome!

Ciao for now,

Neen