Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pumpkin Panna Cotta

I love when I go out to eat and am inspired by something I have ordered. It could be as simple as the herbed butter that was served with the table bread or as complicated as the Burgundy-thyme reduction sauce that smothered the short rib. Whatever it may be, the challenge of recreating is always fun. A few nights ago I met two friends for dinner at Mercato, a great BYO on the corner of Spruce and Camac. The meal was excellent--butternut squash risotto, pumpkin fettucini, striped bass with cipollini onions--but the big hit was the pumpkin panna cotta we all shared for dessert. It was light, not too sweet and paired with a delectable pumpkin seed toffee. I've fiddled with my favorite buttermilk panna cotta recipe and have created something similar. It couldn't be easier to make and I'm happy to have found one more recipe to add to my seasonal dessert repertoire. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Panna Cotta
Yield=5 martini glasses

2 tsp. gelatin (powder form)
½ cup half and half
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp. cinnamon
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
pinch of salt
1½ cups buttermilk
¾ cup canned pumpkin purée
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup water. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes. In a saucepan heat the half and half, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and pinch of salt until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is hot but not boiling, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in gelatin mixture, buttermilk, pumpkin purée, vanilla and bourbon. Strain mixture into a clean bowl or, ideally, a pourable Pyrex measuring cup. Pour mixture into martini glasses or ramekins and chill until set, 3 hours. I garnished mine with some candied pecans and store-bought hazelnut pirouette cookies, which is totally unnecessary, but complements the pumpkin flavor nicely. Also, if you don’t care about presentation, it is much easier to chill the panna cotta in ramekins: the martini glasses take up a lot of room in the refrigerator and are quite unstable.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Quince Jam

I have to admit that I am currently experiencing a minor quince fixation. It seems as though every time I pass by Anastasio's Produce (9th & Christian) I cannot refrain from purchasing a half dozen or so of these knobby and somewhat irregularly-shaped fruits for the purposes of experimentation. I feel the culinary potential for quince is unrealized, though, I've thus far really only discovered three uses for them: in the forms of paste and jam; and piled in a bowl as an unusual yet elegant seasonal centerpiece. Moreover, quinces cannot even be eaten raw--their flesh is rock hard and tastes incredibly tart when uncooked. I can thus only speculate on my recent attraction: perhaps I'm addicted to the refreshing citrusy aroma that fills my apartment when I leave a bowl undisturbed on my kitchen table for a few days; or perhaps I enjoy witnessing the dramatic color transformation from pale yellow to bright red which takes place after many hours of cooking; or perhaps subconsciously I feel compelled to pay homage to the Greek ancestry we share by incorporating quince into my diet. Whatever the reason, I can say with certainty that I simply enjoy the taste of quince, especially in the form of jam. This jam is of course delicious spread on toast with a little butter, but also makes a nice substitute for raspberry jam as the filling in Linzer cookies. Enjoy!

Quince Jam
Yield=40 4-oz jars

16 quinces
1 lemon, halved
1 bottle or about 3 1/4 cups white wine (I used an $8 bottle of Riesling)
4 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean

Wash quinces and remove any stickers, fuzz or leaves. Cut straight down around the core to remove the flesh, then cut into big chunks and discard the core. Place quince pieces in a large heavy-bottomed pot and cover with 12 cups of water and the lemon. Gently simmer until the pieces are knife tender, about 1½ hours.
Strain the quince, reserving the cooking liquid, and discard the lemon. Pass the flesh through the fine disk of a food mill and combine with the reserved cooking liquid in the same large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the bottle of white wine and 4 cups of sugar. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, and place both the pod and seeds into the pot. Bring mixture to a simmer and let cook for 2-3 more hours until the mixture has reduced by a few inches and color has changed to a deep red hue.
The jam is now ready to be canned. I followed the canning instructions on this website: It is quite a laborious process, but ultimately worth the effort: I now have 40 little jars of jam to give as gifts for the upcoming holidays.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Crispy Sage

A few weeks ago I was motivated to make homemade butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter sauce. When I initially started shaping the pasta dough I started questioning why I had begun such a tedious process. The first few ravioli I shaped were irregular, soggy and just plain hideous. As I persevered, however, the shaping process became easier and I finally developed my own, relatively efficient system. I froze most of what I created and my husband and I were able to enjoy this classic combination of savory sage and sweet squash for a second time last night. If you can overcome the frustrating preliminary shaping trials, I think you will find that your hard work will more than reward you with a few delicious and elegant dinners.

Butternut Squash Ravioli
1 large butternut squash (about 1 lb)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp. olive oil for the baking sheet
1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 recipe pasta dough (see below)

2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
8 fresh sage leaves

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out and discard the seeds. Lightly season the inside with salt and pepper, and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour or until the flesh is knife-tender.
Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Scoop out flesh and pass through the fine disk of a food mill or purée in a food processor. Measure the purée, you should have about 2 cups (slightly more or less is fine). Stir in one cup of the grated Parmigiano. Add salt and pepper to taste. Keep testing the mixture until it tastes good to you--there is no salt in the dough, so correct the seasoning at this point. Stir in the eggs, and set aside. This mixture can be made 1-2 days in advance.

Pasta Dough

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
5 large eggs lightly beaten

Mound flour in the center of a medium-sized bowl. Make a well in the center of the mound of flour. Add the eggs to the center. Using a fork, beat the eggs and begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well. (If you are skilled at employing the "well" method on a large wooden board, go ahead and do that. I have never had much luck using a board--the eggs usually break through the mound and run all over the cutting board. I've found that the bowl helps contain "run-away" eggs.) When the eggs are almost completely incorporated, start kneading the dough in the bowl and then transfer to a large, lightly floured wooden board and continue to knead for 10 minutes, dusting the board with additional flour as necessary. The dough should feel elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature before using.

To make the ravioli, divide the dough into 4 pieces. While you work with one section, keep the remaining dough covered with plastic wrap.
1. Lightly flour the section of dough you are working with and roughly shape into a rectangle about 1/2 inch thick.
2. Pass through the widest setting on a pasta machine. Fold the dough in three, like a letter and pass through the same setting again feeding the short end in first. Repeat this step 2 times, adding flour as needed.
3. Without folding the dough now, repeatedly pass it through the machine rollers, reducing the space between the rollers after each pass. When it has passed through the thinnest setting, it is ready to be shaped into ravioli. (If the dough gets too long and difficult to deal with, cut it in half and feed each piece through separately until each has passed through the thinnest setting).
4. The dough should be just less than 6 inches wide. Cut in half lengthwise. On one of these halves, place tablespoon-sized dollops of the squash filling evenly spaced about every 1 and 1/2 inches. Lay remaining half of dough atop the squash-dotted sheet of pasta. (This whole process will take some practice. I can almost guarantee you that your first batch will be ugly. Once you develop your own method, shaping the remaining dough will be much easier). With a knife, cut halfway between each mound to create the individual raviolis. Gently pinch to seal the two doughs together, using a tiny bit of water if necessary. Transfer to a baking sheet dusted with flour and cover with plastic wrap while you shape the remaining sections of dough.
Note: this recipe makes a lot. I recommend shaping all of the dough (you may have extra filling which you could freeze) and then freezing whatever extra ravioli you don't cook immediately. Also, do not store ravioli in the refrigerator--they become a soggy mess. Cook immediately or freeze.

To finish the dish, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Combine butter and olive oil in a large non-stick sauté pan and heat until almost smoking. Add sage leaves and let sizzle until crisp, about 1-2 minutes total. Remove leaves with slotted spoon and drain on paper towel. Set aside. When water boils, add ravioli and cook until tender about 2-3 minutes (frozen ravioli also take only about 3 minutes). Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. When ravioli are done, drain, but do not rinse under cold water. Heat butter and oil again until hot, add ravioli (be careful, it will splatter), add reserved cooking water, remaining 1/4 cup of cheese and reserved sage leaves. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

No-Knead Bread

On Wednesday November 8, in his New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” Mark Bittman enthusiastically describes a no-knead bread making process. I’ve discovered that his enthusiasm was not unwarranted. Since reading the article, I’ve made the bread twice, and both times have been very pleased with the results. A rustic boule emerges from the oven truly appearing as though it had been produced in a professional bakery. The crust is thin and crisp and the interior moist and airy. It is dramatic and beautiful and comfortably feeds ten people for dinner. The next day, it makes delicious toast and sandwich bread, and moreover freezes beautifully. I’ve adjusted the recipe by adding a touch more salt than suggested in the article, and adding a half a teaspoon of sugar, which I think has markedly improved the bread’s flavor. Be sure to read the recipe through entirely before endeavoring to make this bread: you need 12-18 hours initially in rising time and 2 more hours subsequently for a second rise.

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from “The Minimalist,” The New York Times: Dining In
November 8, 2006

3 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
¼ tsp. instant yeast
1¾ tsp. table salt
½ tsp. sugar
Cornmeal, wheat bran or oat bran as needed

In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Add 1 and 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended. Dough will be sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest 12-18 hours at room temperature.
After the 12 hours, or when the surface of the dough is dotted with bubbles, lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it. Sprinkle a little more flour on the dough and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, lay a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth) on a counter or tabletop in a draft-free area. Generously coat it with cornmeal, wheat bran, oat bran or any combination of the three. After the 15 minutes, using as much flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking to your fingers and the work surface, quickly shape the dough into a ball and place seam side down in the center of the prepared towel. Dust with more cornmeal, wheat bran or oat bran. If the towel is large enough, fold the sides up over the bread so that it is completely covered. If the towel is too small, cover with another towel. Let rise for another 2 hours.
Forty-five minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 450°F. Place a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic: I’ve used a ceramic Emile Henry Dutch oven and a circular Pyrex baking dish) on a rimmed sheet pan and place in the oven while it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pan and pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up. This is tricky. The first time I made this I clumsily flopped the dough into the pot and it lay seam side down. If this happens, just leave it: there is no way to fix it without burning yourself, and it ultimately does not matter. So, try your best to let the dough fall seam side up, and don’t worry and if it lands seam side down. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake another 15-30 minutes or until it sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from oven, and turn out onto a cooling rack. This makes a mess. Placing the cooling rack inside another rimmed sheet pan helps catch the crumbs that fall out of the baking vessel. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pumpkin Icecream

I was surprised not to see one recipe for pumpkin ice cream this year in any of the ten cooking magazines I subscribe to. When one of my mother's former students suggested bringing a batch to our Thanksgiving dinner, we thought it was a wonderful idea. And wonderful it was. We served one scoop to each guest in an orange-flavored tuile bowl and the combination was delectable. If you have an ice cream maker and are maybe in need of a change from pumpkin pie, I think you and your guests will not be disappointed. If you dare not break tradition, but have the time and energy to make some ice cream as well, I think a scoop of pumpkin ice cream next to pumpkin pie would not be bad either.

Pumpkin Ice Cream
Yield=1 quart

1 8-oz can pumpkin puree
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
5 egg yolks
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
a few gratings fresh nutmeg
1 T. bourbon

In a small bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree and vanilla. Set aside.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan combine the cream, brown sugar and salt. Heat until sugar is dissolved and liquid is hot to the touch. In a separate bowl, whisk together the yolks, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Slowly ladle small amounts of the hot cream into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. (I place the bowl on a kitchen towel to steady it while I whisk.) When the yolk mixture is tempered, or at about the same temperature as the cream mixture (after 3-4 ladles of cream have been added), pour it into the saucepan. Over medium heat, stir with a wooden spoon until custard thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon, about 3-5 minutes longer. When custard is at the right consistency, immediately strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Stir in reserved pumpkin mixture. Transfer mixture to a storage container, cover with plastic wrap--press the wrap directly on the surface of the custard--and chill for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.
When custard is chilled, transfer to an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Add the bourbon during the last minute of churning. Serve or store in freezer immediately.
Note: Adding the bourbon is important: it allows the ice cream to maintain a soft texture even after several hours spent in the freezer. The taste is virtually undetectable, so if you desire a stronger bourbon flavor, add more than one tablespoon.

Orange Tuile Bowl

1 2/3 cups sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
7/8 cup orange juice
14 T. melted butter, cooled slightly

Whisk together sugar, flour and orange zest. Drizzle in orange juice and whisk until thoroughly combined. Drizzle in butter and whisk until smooth. (I use a stand mixer or a hand-held mixer to make this, but you could definitely whisk it by hand.)
Refrigerate mixture for at least two hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with a Silpat. Spoon tablespoon-sized dollops of batter onto prepared pan. (I only make about 4-5 at a time. This takes a little bit of practice, but the recipe yields more than enough batter to allow for mess-ups. You will ultimately develop your own system) With the back of a wet spoon, gently smooth out the dollops of batter. Bake until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit on silpat until slightly hardened but still pliable, about 1-2 minutes. With a narrow spatula, remove tuile from silpat and place in custard cup or ramekin. Let sit in mold until completely hardened, 3-4 minutes longer, then transfer to a cooling rack. Store in an air-tight container until ready to serve. When ready to serve, place tuile on plate, place one scoop of ice cream in tuile and serve. Enjoy!


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Chocolate Dipped Peanut Butter Balls

I have to say I am very excited about these homemade "Reese's Peanut Butter Cups." Many years ago, the mother of one of my parents' students made these as a thank you gift for teaching her son, and I have been dreaming about them ever since. My memory did not deceive me either for these truly are delicious! For some reason--fear of difficulty or time or for having to use coating chocolate (something I've never used before)--I hesitated to make them. I discovered today, however, that my fear was irrational. This recipe, with a little bit of practice and patience (the whole process is sort of a long affair) is actually fairly easy and very rewarding. I've discovered another beautiful homemade gift for the holidays that I am really looking forward to giving to friends...a lot of friends: the recipe makes 165!

Chocolate Dipped Peanut Butter Balls
Yield: 165 ea

2 cups (5.5 oz) vanilla wafers
1 lb confectioner's sugar
1/2 lb unsalted butter, softened
12 oz smooth peanut butter
1 lb bag candy-making chocolate disks (dark) Merckens brand is good. (I found mine at Fante's)

Fleur de Sel
paper petit fours wrappers

Using food processor with metal blade, combine vanilla wafers and confectioner's sugar. Pulse until well blended. Add softened butter, and pulse again until well blended. Add peanut butter, a little at a time, pulsing after each addition until well blended. Once smooth, transfer mixture to a separate bowl. At this point, you can either wrap the mixture in plastic wrap and chill for an hour, or you can start forming the balls. I found it easy to form the balls immediately, and then chill them afterwards. (You will ultimately develop a method that works for you.)
I used a scale to weigh each ball. Each ball should weigh 1/4 oz or be approximately a rounded 1/2 teaspoon in size. When you have portioned the desired number of balls you wish to make (you could portion all at once, but this would take a very long time), chill the balls in the refrigerator until firm (at least one hour). Wrap the remaining dough and store in the refrigerator until ready to use again.

Meanwhile, slowly melt the chocolate (estimate how much you will need) in the bowl of a double boiler. When the balls are firm, remove only a few at a time (I was working with 12 at one time). When the chocolate is melted, whisk until smooth and turn off the heat. Drop a ball into the chocolate, move gently around with a fork, and when completely coated remove ball with a toothpick. Gently lower ball into paper petit fours wrapper and gently twist the toothpick--it should ease out slowly. This process will take a little bit of trial and error, but you will eventually develop a method that works for you. Don't worry if there is a little blemish revealing some peanut butter on the top of the ball. You can fix that at the end by spooning tiny tiny amount of chocolate over the holes to touch up the open spots. When the 12 balls are coated and in the paper cups, sprinkle a tiny amount of Fleur de Sel on top of each peanut butter ball. Chill balls in freezer for 5 minutes to firm. Transfer to a stationary box (I ordered mine on-line), wrap, give and enjoy!

Persimmon Panini

If you've never tasted a persimmon, now is the time. You'll find them in the markets from October to February, but they are most readily available and affordable in November and December. Look for the Fuyu persimmons or the Sharon fruit which have sweet tasting flesh even when they feel slightly firm and underripe. If you can only find Hachiya persimmons, wait until the flesh is very soft and ripe before eating, or it will taste extremely bitter. In fact, it most likely will be inedible.
Today for lunch I made a delicious sandwich: a persimmon panini. I was inspired by my Bon Appetit magazine's December issue which gives a recipe for a beautiful and delicious salad with Fuyu persimmons, prosciutto, pomegranate seeds, baby arugula and toasted pistachios. I made a variation of the salad not too long ago replacing the pistachios with candied pecans, omitting the pomegranate seeds and adding some nice shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. I made a simple balsamic vinaigrette with honey, shallots and a tiny bit of garlic. The combination was delectable and it made for a nice accompaniment to an otherwise boring dinner. Now, on to the panini.

Persimmon Panini
Yield=1 Sandwich

2 slices sandwich bread
2 heaping tsp. mascarpone cheese
1 Fuyu persimmon
3/4 oz Prosciutto di Parma
1 1/2 oz sliced fresh mozzarella
a small handful of baby arugula
1/2 tsp. olive oil

Preheat a panini machine.
Spread one slice of bread with mascarpone cheese. Peel and slice persimmon into 1/4-inch thick pieces. Discard core. Top with half the slices of persimmon. (One persimmon will give you enough fruit for two sandwiches, so you can enjoy the remaining slices while you finish preparing your panini). Top with prosciutto. Top with sliced mozzarella. Top with baby arugula and remaining slice of bread.
When machine is ready, brush olive oil on both the top and bottom sides of the cooking surface. Place sandwich on griddle, close top and let press until you see the mozzarella ooze out. Enjoy!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quince Paste

About a year ago, my mother came to visit my husband and me in Philadelphia and brought us, as always, a delectable basket of goodies. Included amongst the spoils was a plastic container of Quince Membrillo. I had seen it in specialty shops and in Whole Foods but had never tasted it. My mother suggested we pair a sliver of the quince paste with a slice of Zamorano cheese (a raw sheep's milk cheese produced in northwestern Spain), which she also thoughtfully had included in our package. The combination was delicious. Since her visit I seem to notice quince paste everywhere: in more specialty shops, on menus as an accoutrement to cheese plates and in cookbooks as a candy. Well, last week I was inspired to learn how to make it. I walked down to the Italian Market and visited my favorite produce shop, Anastasio's. I ordered a case of quince, which are currently in season, picked it up the next day, and got to work. (You don't have to buy a case--a case contains about 36 quince--but I wanted to make homemade quince jam with the remainder.) I was more than pleased with the results for a few reasons. Most importantly, the homemade paste evoked a much stronger quince flavor than the packaged version. Secondly, the brilliant red color of the homemade paste is beautiful and much more appealing than the deep, dark maroon hue of the store-bought. And thirdly, I made enough quince paste to use as gifts for three different friends with more than enough remaining for my husband and me to enjoy at home. A gift of a nicely packaged piece of quince paste paired with a nicely wrapped piece of Zamorano or similar hard Spanish cheese such as Manchego or Roncal makes for a lovely and unique house-warming gift.

Homemade Quince Membrillo

6 medium quinces (about 2 lbs)
6 cups water
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 cups sugar

Wash quinces and remove any stickers, fuzz or leaves. Cut straight down around the core to remove the flesh, then cut into big chunks and discard the core. Place quince pieces in a medium-large saucepan and cover with the water and lemon juice. Gently simmer until the pieces are very tender, about 1½ hours.

Drain the quince pieces. Pass through a food mill. Transfer purée to a large non-stick sauté pan. Add the 3 cups of sugar and cook over low heat, stirring frequently for about an hour. The mixture will have reduced slightly in size, will be thick and shiny and will be rosy in color.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Spread the quince paste so that it is approximately ½ inch thick. Smooth with a spatula and try to form into an even rectangle—it most likely will not cover the whole surface area of the pan. Set aside to cool completely.

When cool, turn out onto a large cutting board. Fill a large vase or cup with hot water and have a clean towel by your side. Cut parchment into squares approximately 2” x 6”. Cut quince paste into same size. Layer quince paste in between parchment paper and store in a Tupperware in the refrigerator.

Slice into triangles or small squares when ready to serve. Will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.