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A Holiday Any Day: Cheesecloth Roasted Turkey

28 Nov

We ended up going out to dinner on Thanksgiving this year, but Joe and I really did want to have the traditional turkey dinner at some point at our own leisure. So when I happened upon the perfectly sized 10 lb. turkey at the store over the weekend, we opted for a little mid-week celebration. A Thanksgiving 2.0, if you will.

There are a lot of ways to roast a bird, but I stumbled across the cheesecloth method a few years ago and it has never failed to produce a juicy bird with a crisp skin. With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d share this with you as it’s a method that will work with just about any bird you choose to serve. This savory centerpiece is a definite crowd pleaser, and in my opinion it’s pretty easy to prep and cook. So let’s roast!

Cheesecloth Roasted Turkey

  • One 10 lb. turkey
  • 2 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1 head garlic, halved
  • A few sprigs fresh parsley, thyme, and rosemary
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 1 onion, peeled and quartered
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup chicken or turkey stock
  • Cheesecloth (enough to put a double layer that covers the whole bird)

The day before roasting, rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and then pat dry with paper towels.

Season the turkey inside and out with the salt. Wrap the turkey in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 1 1/2 hours prior to roasting to bring to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F with the oven rack set on the lowest rung.

In the turkey’s neck cavity, place a few cloves of the garlic, a few sprigs of rosemary, thyme, parsley, and a quarter of the lemon. Wrap the neck skin over and around the cavity to enclose the seasoning ingredients.

In the body cavity, place half of the remaining garlic, half of the onion, 2 lemon quarters, and half of the remaining parsley and thyme.

Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack set into a large roasting pan. Fold the wings and tuck the tips underneath the bird.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the remaining garlic, onion, lemon, and herbs to the pot with the stock. Bring to a boil,  and then reduce to a simmer, cooking for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

Soak the cheesecloth in the butter mixture and then drape it in a double layer over the turkey.

Put the turkey in the oven and roast for 45 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F, and roast for another 15 minutes per pound (removing the cheesecloth for the final 10 minutes to brown), or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a thigh registers 160 degrees F (about 3 hours). Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 20 minutes before carving.

As I said before, the skin is crisp and savory, while both the dark and light meat are juicy and flavorful. We enjoyed ours thoroughly with some macaroni and cheese and my apple-sausage dressing. The leftovers are tucked away for sandwiches, and maybe even sharing with Dioji and Zero. Don’t forget to save the carcass and any vegetable odds and ends to make turkey stock! Waste not, want not after all.

Hope you’re enjoying your holiday season as much as we are. Give this one a try soon. With it’s buttery cheesecloth robe, your bird will be dressed to impress and full of flavor.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Cookie Connection: Cinnamon Crispies

26 Nov

When I was growing up, we spent nearly every Christmas at my paternal grandmother’s house. If I close my eyes, I can still smell her kitchen. So many of my favorite foods came from her; broccoli casserole, ham pies, sauce and meatballs, pretzel jell-o (don’t knock it ‘til you try it), pumpkin pies, her breaded chicken, and especially an array of Italian and not-so-Italian cookies.

When we celebrated Gram’s 90th birthday over the summer, my cousin Emily surprised all of us with a cookbook of her recipes written in her beautiful script handwriting. To me, it was the greatest treasure anyone could bestow.

A little under two weeks ago, my Gram passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. As we stood in the funeral home, surrounded by flowers and mourners, I turned to my cousin and said, “You know what Gram would have said about all of this, right?” We both smiled and nearly in chorus said, “Oh this is ri-DIC-ulous!” My Gram had no time for pageantry and no love for flowers. Her love and affection was, like mine, spread through sharing food and especially telling people, “Oh, you don’t eat nothing!” before scooping another meatball or piece of pie onto their plate. I will admit to doing this to my own husband many times.

After we returned to Arlington following the funeral, I started going through the cookbook of her recipes and smiling at the ones that reminded me of her kitchen. I laughed at all the mentions of “two handfuls of Crisco” or “two scoops of sugar.” Like so many good cooks, she did things by feel and not by a structured recipe or method. Her recipes matched the time in which she learned to cook too. I can’t tell you how many times Oleo is mentioned in this cookbook.

Most of the cookie recipes were familiar to me, but there were several I came across that I didn’t recall. One such recipe was for Cinnamon Crispies. As far as I could tell, they were bar cookies consisting of a layer of cinnamon-sugar cookie batter topped by chopped pecans. As I am a sucker for anything containing pecans and warm spices, I knew I had to try it. And of course, you’ll see what I mean about things being a little…non-specific:

First of all, is the butter soft? Is it cut in cold? And if soft, why isn’t it creamed with the sugar first? If sugar is a dry ingredient does that imply more of a pastry consistency? Is a flat pan a sheet pan or a cake pan? What should it look like when it’s done???

There were a few clues in the recipe that helped me decide how to work this one out. Since at the end it said to cut into squares, I decided to bake in a 9×13 in. baking pan to get a perfectly rectangular shape. As for the mixing part, the instructions said to “spread” this into the baking pan, so that made me assume it was more of a cookie dough than a pastry dough. As for the final product, that I’d just have to guess about. All it said was to bake it for 30 minutes, so however it looked at 30 minutes was what I was going to stick with. So come along with me on my adventure and let’s blindly bake some cookies together, shall we? I mean, nothing with this much cinnamon, sugar, and butter can possibly be bad anyway…

Cinnamon Crispies

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 ½ sticks butter (6 oz.), slightly softened
  • 1 egg yolk (reserve egg white)
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Sift together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.

Add the butter, egg yolk, and vanilla extract, and mix until a soft dough forms.

Press the dough into an even ¼ in. layer in a 9×13 in. baking pan.

Brush the top of the dough with the unbeaten reserved egg white and sprinkle on the chopped pecans.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove and cool in the pan for 15 minutes before cutting into squares.

They are, as advertised, both cinnamon AND crispy. The cookie layer has a little bit of chewiness to it, but the butter toasts the pecans and makes the top so crunchy. Ri-DIC-ulously delicious.

I’m so glad I could share a little bit of my Gram’s cooking with you. Whenever I need to go home for a few moments, I’ll work my way through those recipes and smile. As I wrote on the day I learned of her passing, “You’ll always be with me in the kitchen.”

Ciao for now,

Neen

Going Goldilocks: Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

4 Nov

Most recipes are a search for that just right bite. We fumble around seeking textures, flavors, and oftentimes memories in our kitchens. Then comes the a-ha moment, that blissful occasion where it all turns out just right, or at least just the way you want it. For me, nothing embodies that dance more than biscotti.

Twice-baked breads could be stored for long periods of time, which is why these cookies were favored by the Roman legions. Adding to their non-perishability is the fact that they contain no fat other than eggs. So it’s not a flaky or tender cookie, but a crunchy, dense treat meant to be enjoyed with a beverage–coffee in my case, but vin santo for many others. Still, balance is the name of the game. We’re looking for that sweet spot of crisp but not tooth-breaking, sweet but not cloying, and flavorful, but not overpowering. And in my case, an added element of memory too.

When I was a kid, we would go to Pittsburgh’s Strip District on Saturday or Sunday mornings. After the rest of our shopping was complete, my dad would often send me into Enrico’s biscotti for a “bag of ends.” These treasures were bags full of the ends of biscotti loaves, so you got to try the extra-crunchy versions of lots of different flavors. They were always a welcome treat in the car on the way home.

So when I make biscotti now, I do that search, that little dance. And like Goldilocks, I sometimes find one that’s juuuuuust right.

Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. cardamom
  • 2/3 cup dried tart cherries
  • ½ cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar together until well-blended and thickened slightly, about 3 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the vanilla.

Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom just until the flour disappears.

Stir in the dried cherries, pecans, and sesame seeds just until distributed.

Gather the ball into a ball (flour your hands if needed) and let it rest for 5 minutes. At this point, I usually weigh it.

Divide the dough in half evenly and roll each half into an 11 in. log.

Press the logs flat until they are about 3-4 in. wide.

Brush with the egg wash.

Bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan once for even done-ness. Cool the loaves on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes and reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees F.

Cut the loaves into ½ in. slices and arrange them, standing up, on the baking sheet. They can be extremely close, but shouldn’t touch.

Bake for another 22-24 minutes and then cool completely on a wire rack.

The cherries become tender in the oven and their tartness is welcome up against the warm spices and rich, nutty pecans and sesame seeds. The cookie itself is crunchy but easy to break, and doesn’t require a beverage to soften it, though one is most certainly welcome. And the extra-crisp heels remind me of the delights found in those random bags of ends.

Truly, this is a balancing act worth the effort and a welcome addition to any holiday cookie exchange. I hope you give these twice-baked treasures a try!

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Easy Energy: Granola Bars

12 Oct

Granola bars are pretty great grab-and-go calorie-dense snacks. But if you’ve bought them, you know they’re also kind of expensive per portion. Fortunately, making your own is very simple, cost-effective, and also makes it easy to customize the bars to your tastes.

Granola Bars

  • 5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups add-ins (seeds, dried fruit, nuts, chips etc.) I went with ½ cup pumpkin seeds, ½ cup chopped pitted dates, and ½ cup dried tart cherries

Line a 9×13 in. pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F, and then spread the oats and pecans out on baking sheets and toast for 10 minutes or until fragrant.

Chop the pecans and transfer the oats and pecans to a large bowl.

Combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil while stirring for one minute.

Pour the butter mixture over the oats and pecans and stir thoroughly, until there are no dry spots.

Add the dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and dates and mix thoroughly. Note: If you are using chocolate or other chips, wait 15 minutes before stirring them into the mixture so that they don’t melt.

Pour the mixture into the prepared 9×13 in. pan and press down firmly with greased hands into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or until very firm.

Cut into 32 squares.

A little crisp, a little chewy, and just sweet enough. Store at room temperature in a sealed container or individually wrapped in plastic wrap for easy on-the-go snacks. Super simple, right? And the possibilities are endless! I especially like coconut, pineapple, and macadamia nuts, or chocolate, dried cranberries, and walnuts. Pistachios, candied ginger, and dates as a combination was also a big hit. Sometimes I divide the batch in half and press into two 8×8 in. pans so I can make two different flavors.

No matter how you dress them up, these snacks are a welcome surprise in any suitcase, lunchbox, purse, or backpack. Hope you find your favorite flavor!

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

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