A Peek at Pasta

Ravioli with Brown Butter and SageThe week that straddled February and March brought with it more pasta making than I’ve done in the last year.  And I am somewhat ashamed.  You see, my grandmother made pasta quite frequently – to her it was not an occasion, but rather a chore that happened along with many others on any given day.

And between the demonization of carbohydrates and gluten and the availability of good, imported pastas, I’ve either shied away from eating pasta for fear of being shunned or I’ve used dried pasta when I do make it.

But I’m getting back to my roots – and of course putting my twist on things.

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Serendipity

ser·en·dip·i·ty/ˌserənˈdipitē/

Noun:
The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”.

On Wednesday evening I was in my office paging through a book entitled, The Cake Bible (those of you who read my post What’s the Difference: Flour? Part 1 will understand why) when another book on the shelf caught my eye – Four-Star Desserts by Emily Luchetti.  Jeff and I are hosting a dinner party on December 1st; so we’ve been planning the menu and other details.  When I saw Four-Star Desserts, I thought I’d browse through it to see if includes any recipes that would be a welcome addition to the dinner party menu; but what I found was even better than the best dessert for December 1st.

I found a recipe for which I’ve been searching for 5 years or more!  When we still lived in our old house, I made a cake that I really liked and wanted to make it again; but I could not for the life of me remember which cookbook it was from.  And when your cookbook collection numbers over 200, it is difficult to just thumb through them all in search of one recipe.  Every now and again, I am reminded of this cake and I look at a few books hoping to find the recipe – always to no avail and great frustration.  In fact, I’m sure I reach for the same books over and over hoping to be successful in my search. What was that definition of insanity again?

But on Wednesday – when I wasn’t looking for the recipe – it just appeared to me, presented as a gift from the cake gods!  So it must be time to make it again!

This is a great cake to make when you are entertaining people who are watching calories.  Of course, it IS cake; so it isn’t a diet dish.  But it is one of those cakes that you don’t have to say, “just a sliver” when it’s being cut!

The recipe says it can be made several days ahead and stored wrapped in plastic at room temperature, but it was best on the first day.  Fortunately it’s so good I don’t think it will last too long!

Espresso Chocolate Chip Angel Food Cake from Four-Star Desserts by Emily Luchetti

Meal type Dessert

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
  • 1 1/3 cup cake flour (sifted)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 3/4 cup egg whites (about 12 large eggs)
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon freshley squeezed lemon joice
  • 3/4 cups chocolate chips (coarsely chopped)

Note

Recipe from the book "Four-Star Desserts" by Emily Luchetti

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Sift together the espresso powder, cake flour, and the salt. Set aside.
3. Put the egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Add the cream of tartar. Increase to high speed and slowly pour in the sugar. Continue whipping until the whites are stiff but still shiny, about 3 minutes.
4. Reduce to low speed and add the vanilla extract and lemon juice. Add the reserved flour mixture. When the flour mixture is almost completely incorporated, remove the bowl from the machine and fold in the chocolate chips. Make sure that the chocolate chips are spread throughout the batter and that the flour is evenly mixed into the egg whites. Do not overmix.
5. Pour the batter into a prepared pan and cut through it a few times with a dull knife to break up any air pockets.
6. Bake until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Invert the cake on a rack and let it cool upside down in the pan.
7. Unmold the cake and slice it with a serrated knife.

Hint: To prevent the chocolate chips from sinking to the bottom of the cake, mix the chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp of the flour before adding them to the batter.

If you make this cake, I hope you look back on finding this post as a serendipitous event!!!  Enjoy!

Leftovers

Unlike many people, I like leftovers – especially when the meal the night before was wonderful. I know this is going to sound strange, but my favorite meal of the year is Christmas morning – leftovers from Christmas Eve dinner!  But when I have a day where time won’t allow me to cook, I RRREEEAAALLLLLLYYY appreciate leftovers.

Today is one of those days.  Not only was the day busy, but I’ll be at my Bible study this evening so dinner is either leftovers, fast food, or something way too late in the day.  And today is one of those lucky days where the leftovers are from a wonderful meal – stuffed shells.

Jeff and I worked together to make them and they turned out great.  The filling included: ricotta cheese, spinach from our garden, parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, salt, pepper, nutmeg, fresh parsley, and some sauteed onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes.

When we make a dish that requires tomato sauce, I am so glad that Jeff roasts and cans tomatoes when they are plentiful in the garden!  We sauteed onions, carrots, green peppers, zucchini, garlic and red pepper flakes until they were soft, added some tomato paste, and cooked it until it had a chance to caramelize.  We then whizzed it up in the food processor (allowing it to remain a bit chunky) and added it to a jar of Jeff’s roasted summer tomatoes.  Finally we added some fresh oregano and parsley and the juice and zest of one lemon and allowed it to cook until all the flavors melded together. Mmm mmm mmm!

While the sauce cooked, we cooked the pasta and filled a pastry bag with the filling.  Although you can fill the shells using a spoon, I find using a pastry bag to be more efficient and less messy. I put a layer of sauce on the bottom of the baking dish and filled the shells, nestling them tightly in the dish.  When all the shells were filled, I topped them with sauce and then some parmesan and mozzarella.

 

The finished product was a warm, gooey, delicious pasta treat with a summer-fresh tomato sauce.  It was great the first night and I’m sure it will be even better tonight!!!!

Just Peachy

Last week in the Outer Banks was terrific.  I truly can’t remember the last time I was so relaxed.  We let each day unfold like a surprise.  We had no plan, no itinerary, and no stress!

On our way home, just before we crossed from North Carolina into Virginia, we stopped at a roadside produce stand to pick up some late-summer peaches.  And boy are they good!  Jeff and I usually overdose on PA peaches in August; but this summer we just didn’t find any great peaches near home.  Fortunately, North Carolina not only delivered on a great vacation, but on great produce as well.

As a salute to vacation, I decided to bake today; which is funny since our fridge is bare. After scanning the contents, I decided to make a crostata – a rustic Italian tart.  But I wanted to amp it up a little so I added some brandy to the last of the blackberry syrup Jeff used to make a refreshing blackberry gin drink on vacation and I added a little bit of fresh thyme from the garden.

I used the 3/4 cup of blackberry syrup that remained and added to it 6 Tbsp of brandy and 1 Tbsp of chopped fresh thyme.  I cooked it over medium low heat for 15 minutes, whisking frequently, until it reduced and became dark and thick.

While the syrup reduced, I made the dough.  This dough is a very simple recipe with just a few ingredients:

I pulsed the flour, salt, sugar, lemon zest and thyme in a food processor until just combined and then added the cold butter.  I pulsed the food processor until the butter incorporated into the flour mixture and resembled coarse crumbs.  I added the ice water a bit at a time until the dough began to hold together.

Then I turned the dough out onto a board, gathered it together, shaped it into a ball, flattened the ball into a disk, wrapped it in plastic wrap and refrigerated it for approximately 1 hour.

I rolled the cold dough into a rough 12-inch “circle” – remember this is a RUSTIC Italian tart –  and transferred it onto a parchment lined baking sheet.

I then topped the dough with the blackberry, brandy, and thyme reduction – kind of like you top a pizza crust with sauce.

I sliced two ripe, juicy peaches and arranged them on the crostata.  I folded the edges of the crostata toward the center – no need to be precise.  In my opinion, the more rustic looking, the better.

I brushed the crust with egg wash and sprinkled it with some white (I’m not quite sure why they call it white when it is really clear) sanding sugar and baked the crostata in a 400 degree oven for approximately 35 minutes.

The end result is a delightfully mouth-watering treat.

I rewarded myself with a piece of the crostata dusted lightly with powdered sugar and a steaming cup of Jeff’s yummy coffee.  I’d say my day is going to be just peachy!

Rules are Meant to Be Broken

There was so much activity in our vacation kitchen that my smile was an accessory to EVERY outfit I wore!  But two things in particular stand out to me as outside the norm.

The first is that I got to cook with my dad.  Not since (1) the days of scrambled egg hoagies when I was young and my mom worked in the evenings or (2) the days of ordering so much pizza from Pizza Village in Bethlehem, PA when I was a teen and my sister was away at college and my mom worked evenings that the Italian guys knew us by phone number have my dad and I spent time in the kitchen together “creating” (or phoning in) a dinner.  But my mom was under the weather on this trip and my dad and I were determined to still serve her fabulous grilled clam pasta; so we set to work shoulder to shoulder under my mom’s direction!

Together we chopped and grated and zested and sautéed and grilled the necessary ingredients to end up with a fabulous, if a bit too spicy but just sassy enough, pasta!

First we cooked the bacon to crispy perfection and removed it from the pan to get crisp on paper towels.  We poured off all but a bit of the bacon grease.  In the remaining bacon grease we sautéed red onion until it was beautifully translucent and the bottom of the pan was a gorgeous chestnut brown.

Then we deglazed the pan with about a cup of Pinot Grigio and let it cook until most of the wine evaporated.  We added the juice of two lemons and let that cook a bit longer.  We added olive oil and chopped garlic, a few too many hot pepper flakes, the zest of two lemons, some cracked black pepper and one or two ladles of the salted water in which the pasta was cooking.  We let that get nice and mellow and put the cleaned, fresh clams on the grill.

 

 

 

 

The clams cooked until they had absorbed the taste of the fire and smoke.  When they opened we put them in a large foil pan and tossed them with the pasta, crisp bacon, oil mixture, zest of two lemons, and some chopped fresh parsley.  The whole, delicious dish was served with grilled Italian bread, some fresh made seasoned bread crumbs for sprinkling over the pasta, and a bit of parmesan cheese.

Which brings me to the second thing that struck me as outside the norm in our vacation kitchen.  Fish with cheese!  Horror of horrors!  Sins against food and man!

I have watched enough episodes of Chopped on the Food Network to hear Scott Conant say at least a gazillion times that it’s just not done.  You don’t serve fish with cheese. It’s not the Italian way.

Well I stick out my tongue and give the raspberries to that sentiment!

As far as I am concerned, if we (cooks everywhere – whether home cooks or Michelin starred chefs) hadn’t pushed the proverbial envelope in the kitchen and broken a few rules along the way, we would still be eating exactly what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago exactly how they ate it!  AND there would be no cooking shows like Chopped on television – Chopped, which judges food based upon CREATIVITY, taste and presentation – not on tradition and rules.  How can we be creative if we do what we’ve always done?  In fact, isn’t the definition of insanity “doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different result?”

Sorry for the rant, but I REALLY had to get that out of my system!

This turned out to be a great meal because I got to cook with my dad, I got to eat the freshest clams I’ve eaten in I don’t know how long, and I got to break a few rules.  So I say eat what tastes good, cook with the people you love, and be innovative in the kitchen.  After all, as Thomas Edison once said, “There are no rules here — we are trying to accomplish something!”

What’s for Dinner?

Before Jeff left for work this morning he left a note for me on the kitchen counter that made my heart sing!  Now some of you might imagine a flowery message declaring his undying love; while others may jump to something a bit racier.  But those who know me best will not be surprised to hear that the note read, “Girls [our dogs] did not eat.  Would you mind marinating the lamb chops?”

Lovelier words cannot be spoken to someone who loves to cook, eat and entertain!  In fact, they are two of my favorite words when spoken together – lamb chops.  Clearly you can surmise that I am not a vegetarian –  not that there’s anything wrong with that!  So yes, honey.  Yes, I will marinate the lamb chops.  In fact, I will photograph the process!

To my way of thinking a simple but flavorful Mediterranean preparation is best when it comes to this delicious meat.

I start in my herb garden, a place that gives me great delight – the possibilities are endless and when you lightly brush against the plants you are rewarded with a lovely aroma.  Rosemary is my go to herb when it comes to lamb so I cut some fresh rosemary and immediately pull one of the fresh sprigs through my hand to warm it ever so slightly. Immediately I smell that piney scent and have the slightly sappy feel on my hands like you get when you touch a pine tree.

Back inside I prep my other ingredients.  A fresh lemon, several cloves of garlic and some red pepper flakes. Mmm mmm mmm, my hands smell wonderful.

I season the lamb chops with salt and pepper on both sides and place them in a zip top bag with some olive oil and the juice of one lemon.  I then add the lemon zest, the chopped garlic, the red pepper flakes and the chopped rosemary.  The chops are now resting in the fridge waiting to be grilled to perfection and served with a creamy polenta and some fresh veggies.

Do we always eat this extravagantly?  I wish I could answer, “Yes.”  But the truth is, we’re like so many other couples – busy beyond belief, running from one thing to the next and sometimes too tired to cook.  Some nights dinner is take-out pizza or breakfast food or leftovers eaten in front of the television; but not tonight…..tonight, we just might eat at the table!!!!