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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

Recipe Megapost: My Old Kentucky Home

6 May

Roger, our native Kentuckian, invited Joe and I over for Derby Day this year. He and Lynn always loved celebrating the Kentucky Derby. I imagine that it was particularly special for her, having grown up so close to Churchill Downs.

While I pawned mint julep duty off on the men-folk, I took charge of the food. Roger’s only “must-have” request was derby pie, an amazing chocolate-nut pie that’s possibly sweeter than actually winning the race itself. Other than that, I was free to do as I pleased.

It got me thinking a lot about Lynn. She liked to get me cookbooks, especially Southern ones. Last summer she gave me an edition of Seasoned Cooking of Kentucky, and several years ago an edition of Charleston Receipts. But the foods that make me think of her are the ones that she talked about the way that I talk about food from Pittsburgh, and those that she eventually wrote down for me the on cards I received at the bridal shower last year.

20130503_142327One of the things I remember her always loving was ham biscuits. Exactly what they sound like; cured, country ham (not the sweet, smoked style of Virginia), thin sliced and piled on top of fresh, fluffy biscuits. Roger mentioned in one of his recent emails to me that they were indeed her favorite, so I searched high and low—the wonderful butcher at Union Meat finally came through with beautiful, red slices of country ham, and I went on a search for a sturdy, slider-style biscuit recipe. The next item on the menu was from one of the books she’d given me.  Pickled shrimp are a popular picnic food in the summer that sounded just refreshing enough to cut some of the richness in the menu (oh believe me, we haven’t even started). Steamed, chilled shrimp, mixed with some vegetables, herbs, and a sweet/sour pickling liquid, all layered into a jar to marinate overnight. Along with the ham biscuits, and pickled shrimp, I figured a vegetable had to enter into the picture somewhere, so I roasted some beautiful spring Brussels sprouts with herbs de provence,  red onion, and bacon and served them at room temperature. They were an amazing contrast to the shrimp.

But the Hot Brown was what intrigued me the most. Not only was it an iconic dish, but I’d never made it before, and had only seen prepared briefly on a Food Network segment done at the Brown Hotel. On one of the recipe cards she shared with me, Lynn wrote down the Brown Hotel’s recipe for their signature dish. What is this incredible food item, you might ask? It is an open faced turkey sandwich on thick slices of Texas toast, covered by creamiest, richest pecorino romano mornay sauce I have ever made, broiled until golden, and then finished with sliced bacon, fresh parsley, and paprika.

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And yes, this whole ordeal ended with pie. Because you should always save room for pie.

Pickled Shrimp

  • 1 lb. peeled, jumbo cooked shrimp with tails
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • 1/3 cup peanut oil
  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. hot sauce
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 tsp. dried crushed red pepper

20130503_170453Layer the shrimp, onion, bell pepper, and bay leaf in a quart-sized mason jar.

20130503_170919Whisk the remaining ingredients together, and then pour over the shrimp and vegetables. Seal and allow the shrimp to marinate for 1 day, shaking and turning the jar every few hours or so.

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Ham Biscuits

These biscuits needed to be sturdier, and a little taller than normal to accommodate being made into sandwiches. Three leavening agents keep them light and fluffy, while giving you some freedom with manipulating the dough.

  • 1/2 envelope active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp. warm water (110-115 degrees F)
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 oz. cream cheese, cut into pieces and chilled
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. buttermilk
  • Slices of country ham
  • Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, or other condiments

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine yeast and warm water in a small bowl; let stand 5 minutes or until foamy.

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, then cut cream cheese and cold butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly.

Combine yeast mixture and buttermilk, and then add to the flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly 6 to 8 times.

20130504_073019Roll or pat the dough to 3/4-inch thickness. Cut with a round cutter or slice into squares.

20130504_073652Arrange biscuits on a parchment-lined baking sheet, brush with an egg wash or melted butter, and bake for 15 minutes or until deep golden-brown.

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Split biscuits and top with thin slices of country ham and condiments as desired.

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Roasted Brussels Sprouts

  • 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, washed, outer leaves removed, and cut in half.
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 slices bacon (cooked), and 1 tbsp. bacon drippings
  • 1/2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1 tsp. herbs de provence
  • Salt and pepper to taste

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Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl and taste for seasoning. Then spread the sprouts on a baking sheet and roast at 375 degrees F until lightly browned, but not soft. It will take anywhere for 15-30 minutes depending on the size of your sprouts.

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Kentucky Hot Brown

I used the Brown Hotel’s original recipe and followed it to a T. The only exception being that I was able to make three sandwiches, rather than two. Honestly, I think that the amount of sauce this yields could easily be spread across four. The recipe can be found here, but here’s a photo sequence and my description of the process…

Gather your ingredients and preheat a broiler.

20130504_171142Lay one piece of crustless Texas toast in an oven-safe dish, and cut the other into triangles, putting them on either side of the whole piece.

20130504_170551Layer turkey on top, and put a slice of Roma tomato on two sides of the Texas toast.

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Make a roux and cook it until smooth, then add the cream and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture begins to simmer lightly and gets very thick.

20130504_17251920130504_172656Add the pecorino cheese and whisk until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

20130504_17353620130504_173625Ladle the hot mornay sauce on top of the turkey, and then place the sandwich under the broiler until lightly browned on top.

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Top with two slices of bacon and finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and paprika.

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Dark Bay Pie

The Derby Pie originated at the Melrose Inn, but the name is trademarked  by the Kern family and the owners are not shy about suing to protect it. Although numerous variations and recipes for this type of pie exist, to refer to anything that is not Kern’s recipe (which is again, heavily guarded by the owners) as Derby Pie is breaking the law. Hence, why my truly delicious AND SHAREABLE recipe has its own moniker, given for the final product’s similarity in color to that particular horse coat color.

  • 1 1/4 cups toasted, roughly chopped nuts – I used a mixture of pecans and walnuts
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • Pastry for one 9 in. crust

First, prepare your pastry. I use my super-no-fail pate brisee, of course! You can find that recipe right here, in the butter tart tutorial. After making the dough, patting into a disc, and refrigerating it, roll it out into a circle a bit larger than your pie pan, and then fit into the pan and crimp the edges. Return the crust to the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.

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Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until thoroughly blended and slightly foamy. Add the brown sugar, white, sugar, light corn syrup, dark corn syrup, flour, and salt and whisk until smooth.  Add the melted butter, bourbon, and vanilla extract and mix thoroughly.

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Fold the nuts and chocolate chips into the mixture, brush the inside of the pie crust with a little bit of egg wash, and then pour the filling into the prepared pie crust.

20130504_10154920130504_101333(0)20130504_101745Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the center is just set and the edges are golden brown. It will deflate slightly as it cools.

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An hour after finishing everything up, I was putting my recipe cards safely back into the book when I noticed another one from Lynn that contained three simple ingredients: An orange, a cup of sugar, and two cups of pecans. Well shoot, I already had everything…so why not? Roger and I have since decided that these are far too habit forming. If you make them, not eating the entire batch will truly be a challenge.

Orange Pecans (and Walnuts)

Lynn’s recipe called for 2 cups of pecans, but I had a mixture of pecans and walnuts leftover from the Dark Bay pie, so I went with that.

20130504_113957Zest and juice the orange into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the sugar and mix well. Put the pan over medium high heat.

20130504_114512Once the sugar has begun to dissolve, add the nuts to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring vigorously throughout, and cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed (5-6 minutes).

20130504_114629Spread the nuts out onto a baking sheet and separate using a fork. Once completely cool, store in a well-sealed container at room temperature. And again, this is if you actually have any to store.

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20130504_125706So that was what we enjoyed with frosty mint juleps as Orb made his valiant gallop from almost the back of the pack, to a massive garland of roses.

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Dioji found all of this very exhausting.

Dioji found all of this very exhausting.

It was a really wonderful way to spend a Saturday, tasting and seeing things that reminded me of my mother-in-law. Sometimes it hurts to think about Lynn, because the fact that she is gone is still so raw. But Saturday was one of the first times that the cheerfulness I remember overshadowed those pangs of sadness. I am grateful that she shared so much of her home with me, and hope that I have done her proud sharing it with you.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Recipe Megapost: FRACAS 2012

6 Dec

Each winter I go completely overboard and cook a bizarre amount of food in the span of 2-3 days for the Folger Recycled Arts and Crafts Annual Show (FRACAS). The Green Committee holds the event each December and displays creative art pieces made from recycled objects by Folger employees, family, and friends.

After I’m home from the first ingredient run, I have a brief “you are out of your mind” moment, get that five minute panic out of the way, and then move forward. Once prep lists are made and I’ve worked out what needs to be done when / how things should be stored, it’s go time.

I may not be a trained chef, but I’ve been cooking for groups since I was old enough to reach the counter. One of the benefits of being the location of choice for most family holidays was / is getting to spend days in the kitchen working on party food with my family. We put on music, everyone picks a task, and sometimes a bottle of wine even starts floating around. Sometimes grandmothers or aunts even appear, ready to help. We’ve been a pizzelle factory, ravioli assembly line, cookie shapers, manicotti fillers and just about everything in between.

It’s different to do it alone. Fortunately, I never feel alone, because when I’m in the kitchen my family is with me whether they’re physically there or not. There may be several less pairs of hands, but all of their experience sticks right with me. So when this once-a-year madness comes around I go at it with everything I’ve got.

This year, the FRACAS tasting plates were primarily influenced by dishes from France and the Mediterranean. I was inspired by the spirit of our Green Committee to think about being a responsible steward of the earth and used each ingredient in as many ways as possible. I also considered the sustainability and seasonality of what was planned and consulted with friends from the local Arlington County Farmer’s Market in order to prepare a thoughtful, respectful group of dishes. My most sincere thanks go to those purveyors for making available the many local herbs, meats, vegetables, and preserved foods (i.e. dried cherries and strawberry jam). Special thanks to the fine folks at Smith Meadows, Cibola Farms, Toigo Orchards, and Twin Springs.

We begin with the plate of tapenades, spreads, and rillettes…

Smoked Salmon Rillettes
adapted from David Lebovitz

  • 8 oz. wild salmon filet, bones removed.
  • 5 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Juice of half of one lemon
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chives, chopped.
  • 4 oz. of smoked salmon, cut into thin strips and then diced.
  • ¼ tsp. smoked paprika

Season the fresh salmon lightly with salt and steam for 8 minutes or until cooked through. Set aside to cool. In a medium-sized bowl, mash together the olive oil and butter until very smooth and then stir in the lemon juice, chives, and smoked salmon.

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Remove the skin and flake the cooked, fresh salmon over the top of the mixture then fold it in gently until well combined. Season with chili powder and salt if needed. My smoked salmon was quite salty and so I did not add any extra salt.

Cover and chill for at least two hours. Allow the rillettes to come to room temperature before serving them. They will stay fresh covered in the refrigerator for up to three days or tightly wrapped in the freezer for up to two months.
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Pork Rillettes
adapted from Michael Ruhlman

  • 3 lbs. fatty pork shoulder
  • 8 oz. rendered pork fat (lard)
  • 1 leek, thoroughly washed and split lengthwise, leaving one inch intact at the root end.
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 small bunch fresh thyme
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 qt. water or veal stock

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Dice the pork into 1 in. cubes and place in a pot. Cover with water by 2 in., bring to a boil, and drain the pork. Return the pork to the clean pot.

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Stuff the thyme and bay leaves into the split leek. Take the celery stalk and put it alongside the leek, then tie everything together with a piece of cotton twine. This is called a bouquet garni.

Stud the onion with the cloves.

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Add 2 qts. of water or stock to the pot with the pork in it, add the bouquet garni and clove studded onion, then bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook until the pork is very tender and falls apart when poked with a fork.

Remove the pork from the cooking pot and transfer it to a plate to cool. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl and set aside.

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Once the pork has cooled to slightly above room temperature, put it in a mixing bowl and mix on low speed, adding reserved cooking liquid as needed until it is a smooth, spreadable consistency. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

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Put the spread into individual containers and refrigerate until chilled.

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Melt the lard over low heat and then pour a 1/8 in. layer of it on top of each container of rillettes. This seals the containers and keeps the rillettes fresh. Put the rillettes back into the refrigerator and chill until the layer of fat has solidified. Remove from the refrigerator two hours before serving.

Covered, they will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week and in the freezer for up to a month.

Mediterranean Olive and Vegetable Rillettes
adapted from Michael Ruhlman

  • 1 zucchini, cut into ½ in. discs.
  • 1 yellow squash, cut into ½ in. discs.
  • 4 oz. mushrooms, quartered.
  • 2 medium sized tomatoes, quartered and seeded.
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 cup kalamata olives, pits removed.
  • 1 onion, diced.
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced.
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup basil, chiffonade cut.
  • Salt and black pepper

Broil or grill the red and yellow peppers until the skin is black all over. Put them in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow them to cool.

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Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin, core, and seeds and then ½ in. dice.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, and tomatoes with ¼ cup olive oil, spread on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.

Saute the onion and garlic in 2tbsp. of the olive oil until soft, but not browned and then set aside to cool slightly.

Process the olives, garlic, and onions into a puree. Fold in the balsamic vinegar, roasted vegetables, peppers, and basil.

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Season to taste. Cover and refrigerate for up to a week.

Fig and Olive Tapenade
adapted from David Lebovitz

  • 1/2 cup dried black mission figs
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup nicoise or kalamata olives, rinsed and pitted.
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 tsp. stone ground mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled and smashed.
  • 1/2 tablespoon capers, rinsed and patted dry.
  • 1 tsp. finely diced rosemary
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and black pepper

In a medium-sized pot, simmer the figs in the water until they are soft and the cooking liquid becomes syrupy. Remove the figs from the water with a slotted spoon and reserve the excess cooking liquid.

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In a food processor, pulse together the olives, mustard, lemon juice, garlic, figs, capers, rosemary until a chunky paste forms. Add the olive oil until the mixture is spreadable.

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The reserved liquid from the figs can be used to thin the spread if needed. Season to taste. Refrigerate for at least one day prior to serving. Covered, it will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Roasted Garlic with Marinated Dried Tomatoes

  • 1 cup dried tomatoes
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 heads garlic
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Salt and black pepper

Combine the tomatoes and olive oil and set aside for at least 30 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened slightly. If you have trouble getting the tomatoes to soften, you can put the mixture over very low heat for 5 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Split the heads of garlic in half horizontally and drizzle olive oil on each half. Put the garlic back together and bundle tightly in aluminum foil. Roast the garlic for 40-45 minutes or until soft and lightly caramelized. Set aside to cool.

Squeeze the softened garlic out of the peel and mash in a bowl. Drain and roughly chop the tomatoes, then mix them into the garlic with the lemon juice and thyme. If you like a chunky texture, stop and season here. If you prefer more of a spreadable consistency, you can puree this in a food processor. Season to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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…The second plate was full of cured pork tenderloin and parma ham accompanied by a few young cheeses and special condiments to brighten everything up. Everything here mixes and matches pretty well, but my favorite was a toast topped with the cured tenderloin and mustard fruit. Salty, sweet, and a little tangy, yum!

Sage and Thyme Cured Pork Tenderloin

  • 4 lb. pork tenderloin, trimmed of fat and sinew.
  • ½ gallon water
  • 1 cup salt
  • 5 tbsp. DQ Cure #1, also known as pink salt or Instacure
  • 1 cup sugar (you can use a mixture of brown and white)
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 bunch fresh sage

Combine the water, herbs, salt, curing salt and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Set aside and chill until cold in a container large enough to hold the tenderloin.

Add the pork to the container of brine and place a plate on top of it to keep it submerged. Allow this to sit in the refrigerator for 48 hours.

Remove the pork from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Set it on a wire rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Roast the pork until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees, rest, and then wrap and chill. Slice thin on the bias to serve.

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Ancho Chile Spiced Ricotta

Follow the recipe found here for making homemade ricotta. Once the curds have drained, add 1 tsp. ancho chile powder and mix thoroughly. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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Queso Blanco with Roasted Piquillo Peppers

Follow the recipe found here for making homemade queso blanco. Prior to pressing the cheese, fold in 1/3 cup diced roasted piquillo peppers. Store well wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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Mustard Fruit
adapted from Michael Symon

  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup stone ground mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 pear, peeled, cored, and chopped into ½ in. cubes
  • 1 dried sour cherries

Place the dried cherries and chopped pears in a clean, quart-sized mason jar and set aside. Cover and shake to mix.

Combine the wine, sugar, vinegar and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the mustard until thoroughly blended and then mix in the mustard seeds.

Gently pour the hot liquid over the fruit in the jar, cover, and shake gently to distribute the liquid. It should generously cover the fruit. Store in the refrigerator for at least two days and up to one month. The longer it is stored, the more pronounced the flavors will become. The dried cherries will also plump up a little bit and they are delicious.

Giardiniera
adapted from Michael Symon

  • 1 pound celery, peeled and sliced thin.
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, cut into thin rings.
  • 2-3 cherry peppers, diced.
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced.
  • 1 red onion, quartered and sliced thin.
  • 1 tsp. ancho chile powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. toasted, ground coriander
  • 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped.
  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. Pack into a 1 quart mason jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month, shaking gently every so often to redistribute the liquid.

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Strawberry Jam Tart with Walnut Crust

Follow the recipe found here for making a strawberry jam tart, but replace the cornmeal with ½ cup finely ground walnuts.

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Chocolate Hazelnut Tart
adapted from the Noble Pig

Tart shell:

  • 12 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • Zest of one large orange

Filling:

  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup Nutella or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Chopped hazelnuts to garnish

Preheat the oven to 325o F.

Melt the 12 tbsp. of butter in a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat and brown just a touch. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the sugar, vanilla, salt, and orange zest until the sugar is mostly dissolved.

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Put the flour in a large bowl and add the butter mixture. Mix until a soft dough forms.

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To form the crust, roll the dough into a ball and then press it into an ungreased 10 in. tart pan with a removable bottom using the heel of your hand. Push the crust approximately ½ in. up the sides of the pan.

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Freeze the crust for 15 minutes and then bake it for 25 minutes or until the edges are just becoming golden. Set aside on a wire rack to cool slightly. Unlike many tart recipes, the crust does not have to be completely cool before the filling is added. It can be warm, but you should be able to touch the sides of the pan.

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Whisk the cornstarch with ¼ cup of the heavy cream. Make sure the cream is cold when you do this.

Combine the remaining 1 ¾ cups cream, chocolate-hazelnut spread, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the cornstarch mixture and mix thoroughly.

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Whisking constantly, bring the filling to a boil and boil for one minute or until it thickens considerably.

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Pour the filling into the tart shell.

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Top with chopped hazelnuts and refrigerate until set for at least two hours before serving. Chilling it overnight is ideal for the very easiest cutting serving. Covered, the tart will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

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Here’s the whole spread waiting to be enjoyed in our photography department. As you can see, I was not the only one contributing delicious goodies. We have a very talented staff, what can I say?

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And that doesn’t even include all of the truly special artwork that was created for the event. Tote bags, planters, wreaths, mobiles, frames, dioramas, models, origami…you name it, my colleagues thought of a creative way to make it. A personal favorite was a giant paper crane made out of a proposed engineering plan. He was pretty cool looking. For my own FRACAS piece I wanted to find a way to save all of the beautiful greeting cards Joe and I received at our wedding, so I made this wreath out of those, fabric scraps left over from making a skirt, a bow from the groomer which Dioji no longer cared to wear, and a broken embroidery ring:

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Well, I hope that this post will sustain you through December, since I’m fairly sure that I’ll go MIA during Christmas baking season. (Dare I try to break the record of 114 dozen treats?) All I’ll say is that a certain grandma gave me a pizzelle iron at my bridal shower and that it’s been calling to me from the cupboard ever since I deemed it acceptable to begin thinking about Christmas.

Warmest holiday wishes to all of you. Remember that what you always have is what you carry in your heart and head, so make it something fun!

Ciao for now,
Neen