Thursday, November 29, 2007

Best Buttermilk Biscuits

Several years ago, The Washington Post ran an article in their food section called "Building a Better Biscuit," which my grandmother saved for me, and which I have referred to many times since. The article gives some good suggestions: Don't overwork the dough; to get maximum rise, bake the biscuits soon after they are cut; and use buttermilk, fine sea salt, and a combination of baking powder and baking soda. Light, flaky and buttery, these biscuits are delectable!

The original recipe called for eight tablespoons of shortening, but I, conditioned by my mother, use all butter instead. This recipe can be adapted — I made a cashel blue cheese and chive variation for St. Patrick's Day — and the dough, unbaked, can be frozen and baked straight from the freezer. I prefer to eat these just as they are, maybe with a little butter, but they also make a nice base for poached eggs, Ben's favorite way of eating them.

Also, check out my latest post on about the most delicious tacos, made at the Sunday Headhouse Farmers' Market.

Buttermilk Biscuits
Yield = 8 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
¾ cup buttermilk plus more for brushing

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour mixture and using a fork, mix the butter and flour until the butter has broken into small bits and flakes.
Pour buttermilk into flour mix. Stir with fork just until the dough comes together to form a mass — Do not over-mix. Gently gather the dough in the bowl to bring together, adding an extra tablespoon of buttermilk if necessary. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat the dough into a ¾-inch thick circle. Using a two-inch round cutter, cut the dough into eight biscuits. Transfer to an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing the biscuits 2-inches apart.
Brush each biscuit lightly with buttermilk. Sprinkle a pinch of sugar over the top of each. Transfer sheet to the oven, immediately increasing the temperature to 425ºF. Bake the biscuits for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven, transfer to a wire rack to cool or serve immediately.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pumpkin Dinner Rolls

With Christmas less than a month away, only a few weeks remain to experiment more with pumpkin. Pumpkin ice cream is high on my list; pumpkin tiramisu, however, is falling quickly. It may not, unfortunately, happen this season.

And thanks to a free sample offered at Williams-Sonoma yesterday, I think I'll be making a batch of pumpkin dessert bars very soon. I'm usually not a sucker for those jarred products (butternut squash purée, for example, or roasted garlic tomato sauce) but the bar I sampled, made with a jar of their featured pumpkin butter (Muirhead), was particularly good, and the jars, at half price, became very attractive. The sales woman advised I buy two because no more would arrive this season. So, I did.

These dinner rolls, made simply with a can of Libby's pumpkin purée, actually have nothing to do with the WS pumpkin butter. Last week, looking for a festive recipe for Thanksgiving, however, I searched on Epicurious and found a recipe for "pumpkin nutmeg dinner rolls", which looked pretty good. Just like several of the 35 other reviewers, however, I wasn't crazy about the amount of butter suggested (12 tablespoons), so I omitted it altogether. I also left out the egg, added more salt (as many of the reviewers felt necessary), and added more "pumpkin spice" — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger — since many of the reviewers felt the rolls lacked pumpkin flavor. Without butter and eggs, these rolls lack the richness of a classic Parker House Roll, but nonetheless remain moist and flavorful (and far more healthy).

Anyway, I never got around to making these for Thanksgiving, but I have about 20 frozen remaining in my freezer from the batch I experimented with before the holiday. Every night, I wrap one in foil and place it in the oven to thaw. They are delicious, but best the day they are made, pulled apart at the table and served with softened butter.

Pumpkin Dinner Rolls
Yield = 22 to 24

¾ cup milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons instant yeast
¼ cup sugar
15 oz. can pumpkin purée
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
butter for greasing
1 egg

Place milk, yeast and one teaspoon of the sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. Let sit 15 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except for the butter and egg, and mix on low speed for 10 minutes, adding more flour until the dough gathers around the hook and pulls away from the sides of the bowl as the hook rotates. The dough should not stick to the bottom and sides of bowl. Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours.

Punch down the dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Grease two 9-inch square or circular baking pans. Portion the bread into 22 to 24 small balls (each weighing approximately 2- to 2¼-ounces). Place 10 balls in each pan, leaving space around each to rise. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for another hour until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Place pans in oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, beat egg with 2 teaspoons water. After the 20 minutes, brush the rolls with the eggwash and return to the oven for another 5 minutes. Remove pans from oven and turn rolls out onto a cooling rack or board. Serve immediately, letting guests pull rolls apart at the table. Serve with softened butter.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mache and Persimmon Salad

I cannot believe it, but today my blog celebrates its one-year birthday. Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about quince membrillo, a sweet paste commonly served with several Spanish cheeses including Manchego, Roncal, Idiazabal and Zamorano. This past week, I introduced two good friends and their family members to membrillo and the tradition of eating membrillo with sheep's milk cheeses. My friends, Emily and James, married in Cyprus July 18, celebrated their marriage stateside this past Sunday in Chapel Hill, and in the days leading up to the festivities, we enjoyed many delectable dinners together commenced with this classic combination.

While in North Carolina, Emily and I spent a good hour one day touring around a gourmet food shop, A Southern Season, where I found among many goodies a large selection of Cypress Grove cheeses (Cypress Grove makes Humbolt Fog). Being vegetarians, James and Emily try to eat cheeses specifically made without rennet, a coagulating enzyme made from the stomach of calves. Many, if not all, of Cypress Grove cheeses are made with a vegetarian rennet, including a yummy sheep's milk cheese called Lamb Chopper, which we savored with the membrillo. We actually enjoyed the fruit paste with all of the cheeses — Brie, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie — we ate this past week, but the Lamb Chopper-membrillo combination proved the best of all.

My week in North Carolina to say the least was memorable. By the end of each day, my face hurt from smiling and laughing so much — I lived with James' family for the week, a family of four funny children, two entertaining parents and two wonderful dogs. We played Scrabble and ping pong, watched Mostly Martha and Grizzly Man, took walks with Molly and Sally (the dogs), and generally just enjoyed the time spent together with good company.

On one of the first nights of my visit, we also enjoyed thin slices of Fuyu persimmons with all of the cheeses. Fuyu persimmons make a nice seasonal addition to many dishes, including salads and paninis. Available from September through December, persimmons peak in November, perfect timing for the Thanksgiving Day feast. If you're sill searching for a first course to prepare for Thursday's meal, try this salad — elegant, seasonal and delectable — a festive addition to the Thanksgiving Day table.

Mache and Persimmon Salad
Serves 4

2 small shallots
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teapoon kosher salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Fuyu persimmons
4 oz. piece of Parmigiano Reggiano
8 oz. mache
freshly ground pepper

To make the dressing, whisk the shallots, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, sugar and salt together. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly to make an emulsified dressing. Set aside.

Cut the ends off each persimmon. With a paring knife, slice off the skin, removing as little flesh as possible. Using a mandoline, cut each persimmon into thin slices. (Alternatively, slice thinly using a sharp knife.) Set aside

Using a peeler or a knife, shave thin long strips off the block of Parmigiano. Set aside.

Place greens in a bowl and toss lightly with the vinaigrette. Divide the slices of persimmon evenly among the plates. Top each with a generous handful of greens. Top with the cheese shavings. Crack pepper over each salad and serve.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress resolved to create the Continental Marines, a force of two battalions captained by Samuel Nicholas, a Philadelphian. Later that day, Capt. Nicholas set up his recruiting headquarters in Tun Tavern, today regarded as the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. (A plaque marking the approximate location of Tun Tavern stands on Front Street between Walnut and Chestnut.)

Since November 10,1925, when the first formal ball took place in Philadelphia, the Marine Corps has celebrated its birthday each year with galas all over the world. All commemorations of the birthday include a reading of Order No. 47, written in 1921 by General John A. LeJeune, summarizing the history, mission and tradition of the Marine Corps. Yesterday marked the 232 birthday of the USMC.

For The Novice, Magic Ready-To-Enjoy
The Bulletin, November 9

Last Saturday, presented with the rare opportunity to help my husband prepare for a weeklong field exercise, I found myself “fieldstripping” MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), the self-contained, individual rations used by the U.S. military. Fieldstripping consists of removing excess wrapping (added weight) and unneeded accessories (such as pepper, sugar, and non-dairy creamer packets), leaving the package filled with the bare necessities: snack bars, chili and beans, and M&Ms, for example.

For my services, I got paid with a package of vegetable manicotti — classic field currency — and a few other MRE components as well. While I’m sure the novelty of eating this astronaut-like food fades quickly, at the moment I’m totally intrigued.

Within seconds of filling a small pouch with a couple of tablespoons of water, the heating unit tucked inside activated, causing the bag to puff like a balloon. Hot air burst through the open end, like steam escaping a whistling teakettle’s lid, making the plastic bag hot — dangerously hot — to touch. A chemical smell, redolent of burning plastic, filled the air as the heater began warming my vegetable manicotti, squeezed inside the pouch as well in its own plastic wrapping. Following the instructions, I positioned the pouch at a slight incline and patiently waited for the magic to happen.

In the meantime, I assembled a little hors d’oeuvre — crackers and peanut butter — and opened a side dish — mango-peach applesauce. I removed the contents of the accessories pouch, setting aside the damp-proof matches, a moist towelette and two pieces of gum, opening the salt and pepper preemptively.

After 10 minutes, I removed the meal pouch and tucked in, spooning out the meal straight from the bag, attempting to keep the experience as authentic as possible. Tomato sauce, the smell reminiscent of a cafeteria lunch buffet, covered a single tube of pasta, the vegetable purée inside textured like pâté. The taste, a touch institutional as well, was fixed by splashing the entire contents of a 1/8-ounce bottle of Tabasco into the pouch.

To wash it all down, I sipped on a vanilla dairy shake, fortified with vitamin D and calcium, packing a whopping 450 calories. And while I had hoped for a packet of peanut M&Ms or Skittles, a very dense carrot pound cake satisfied my sweet tooth.

Truthfully, while I quite enjoyed my meal, I perhaps relished even more the experience, one highlighted by having to use a bottle of Tabasco standing just taller than a book of matches. If I had to subsist on MREs daily, as my husband and fellow Marines had this past week during their patrol exercise, I probably would think otherwise. Moreover, as noted by my husband, I rarely would have the opportunity to enjoy my MRE as a sit-down meal: “Chow is continuous,” he says. “You eat when you can.” Each MRE contains approximately 1,200 calories, and often one MRE, when supplemented by a few grocery store items — beef jerky and Jif-to-go — will last an entire day.

Sometimes too, my husband reminded me, limited time precludes heating. I envisioned eating cold vegetable manicotti — a hard but not impossible act. And then I considered some of the others entrées — cheese omelet with vegetables, beef ravioli, and barbeque pork ribs — a harder idea to swallow. Apparently, hot or cold, “the omelet is the worst thing ever.” But everyone has a favorite, and once the meals are distributed, a fair amount of swapping takes place: Mexican-style corn for refried beans, for example, or pumpkin pound cake for a molasses cookie.

In 1980, the MRE replaced C-rations (combat rations), which consisted of six cans including an entrée, cheese, crackers, candy, an accessory pack, a dessert and four cigarettes. A C-ration contained no heating device, though troops devised “all sorts of ingenious heating mechanisms,” says retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel David Smith. Mr. Smith, a former helicopter pilot, would drain fuel from his helicopter into a can filled with sand to create a sterno-like heater. A tank’s engine could also be used as a heater. When Mr. Smith served, rations were swapped just as they are today, and of course there were favorites back then too — beans and franks, and ham and eggs.

MREs, a vast improvement over C-rations, are remarkable inventions: They have a minimum shelf life of three years, can withstand a parachute drop from 1,250 feet, and can sustain short-term temperature extremes of -60ºF and 120ºF. And MREs continue to improve: To eliminate the need for fieldstripping, scientists have been developing a lighter weight and more calorically dense ration, First Strike Rations, allegedly well received thus far.

I asked my husband if the guys, after being in the field for several days, ever talk about the food they miss.

“All the time,” he said.

I bet they did — homemade bread, spaghetti and meatballs, roast chicken. But I shouldn’t have been so romantic: My husband disclosed the food most craved when out in the field — Five Guys Burgers and Fries. I should have known. I did just learn, after all, that McDonald’s is the only restaurant that consistently exceeds my husband’s expectations.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Fair Trade Pecan Tart

Once a term used only to label coffee, chocolate, tea and a few other imported products, Fair Trade now describes a few domestic items as well. In honor of Fair Trade month (October), four farmers — two banana farmers from Costa Rica, a pecan farmer from Georgia, and an apple farmer from Vermont — visited several East Coast cities on a tour called the Faces Of Fair Trade. Last Tuesday, Joe Coffee Bar hosted one of the tour's stops, and I got to meet Diann Johnson (the pecan farmer), Glen Schreiter (the apple farmer) and Yocser Godoy Carranza and Carlos Vargas (the banana farmers) — the new faces of Fair Trade.

I never realized all the difficulties — isolation, for example, and low prices driven by increased market supply from countries such as China — domestic farms face, until I spoke with these farmers, especially Mr. Schreiter.

To survive in a globalized world, Mr. Schreiter had to change his game plan, and in 2000, he initiated a complete restructuring of his farm, Saxtons River Orchards, in Saxtons River, Vermont. The last straw? Mr. Scheiter couldn't even sell his apples to his neighbors, living only 10 minutes from his farm. Before 2000, Mr. Schreiter's 200-acre farm, equipped with a multi-million dollar packing facility, shipped their apples all over the world. After 1993, however, when NAFTA enabled China (the largest apple-producing country in the world) and New Zealand to sell their apples to consumers in the U.S. and all over the world, Mr. Screiter's farm began suffering.

And so, Mr. Schreiter downsized his farm to 40 acres, sold the packing facility and hooked up with an organization called Red Tomato, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting farmers and consumers. Red Tomato purchases 50 percent of Mr. Schreiter’s apples as well as fruits and vegetables from family farms located all along the East Coast, supplying shops throughout New England. Because few farmers’ markets operate near Saxtons River, and because the farm’s isolated location discourages many visitors, Mr. Schreiter believes his orchard could not survive without Red Tomato.

In 11 years, Red Tomato has succeeded in bringing locally grown produce to markets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. In 20 years, Equal Exchange, the oldest and largest Fair Trade for-profit organization in the country, has brought numerous Fair Trade goods — including domestic nuts and dried cranberries — to hundreds of cafés and stores, reaching over a million consumers. These organizations, realizing that domestic farmers face many of the same challenges producers in marginalized regions of the world face, have changed the face of Fair Trade. Read "The New Face of Fair Trade" in this past weekend's Bulletin to learn more about this new trend.

Also, find all of your holiday baking needs, certified Fair Trade that is, at Joe Coffee Bar. 'Tis the season for pecan pie, so plan ahead: Find a source for Fair Trade products, and purchase enough now to cover your seasonal baking needs. Equal Exchange is another good source for Fair Trade products and information. This recipe has been adapted from this month's Bon Appétit — it's delectable — not cloyingly sweet. I'm very thankful I got to see my husband this weekend, who happily took the remaining tart off my hands ... I'm looking forward to returning to my morning oat bran routine.

Diann Johnson (pecan farmer from Georgia) stands with Joe Cesa (owner of Joe Coffee Bar) at Joe Coffee Bar, where many Fair Trade products are sold:

Fair Trade Pecan Tart
Serves 5

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ C. sugar
1 large egg yolk
pinch sea salt
1¼ C. all purpose flour
2-3 T. milk, cream or water

Beat butter and sugar using an electric mixer until smooth. Add the yolk and salt and mix again until smooth. Add the flout, mixing on low until just incorporated. Add the liquid, a tablespoon at a time, to bind. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll into an 11-inch round, approximately. Transfer to a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Pierce dough all over with a fork and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.

3 large eggs
½ C. packed brown sugar
½ C. maple syrup
½ C. dark corn syrup
¼ C. unsalted butter, melted
1½ C. coarsely chopped Fair Trade pecans, roasted and salted

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Whisk together the eggs, sugar and syrups until well blended. Pour in the melted butter, whisking constantly. Stir in the pecans. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet and pour the filling inside. Bake tart until filling is puffed and slightly set, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Pumpkin Ravioli

Happy Belated Halloween! Well, this certainly won't be the last pumpkin recipe of the season, but it's the last for a few weeks at least. With Thanksgiving just weeks away, I have to admit I have been thinking a lot about pumpkin pie and pumpkin ice cream. Maybe that's because I have a pecan pie sitting on my counter. I need to do something about that — I had a slice for breakfast. I wish I were kidding.

Anyway, I can't pretend this recipe will take little effort. It might take all day actually. However, this recipe can be made over a few days: Roast the squash and make the filling one day; make the dough and shape the ravioli the next; cook them immediately or freeze them indefinitely. The sage brown butter sauce takes no time to prepare, so having these tasty pillows on hand (frozen) makes for a simple dinner.

And I guess they really can't be called ravioli. I'm not sure what shape they are, but they're yummy nonetheless.

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Brown-Butter Sauce

1 sugar pumpkin*
olive oil
kosher salt and pepper
2 cups Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
*Winter squash such as Hubbard, red kuri or butternut make fine substitutes for the pumpkin. One sugar pumpkin yields about two cups of flesh.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and discard. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil on a baking sheet. Season inside of pumpkin with salt and place cut side down. Roast for about 45 minutes or until a knife inserts easily through the skin into the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Scoop out flesh and place in a bowl. Add the two cups of cheese and season with salt to taste. Mix to combine. Taste and add more salt until the mixture tastes well seasoned — there is no salt in the dough, so this is your only chance to season the ravioli. Add the eggs and mix to combine. Set aside

3½ 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. 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:
4 T. unsalted butter
8 fresh sage leaves
¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano

To make the ravioli, divide the dough into 4 pieces. Keep the dough covered with plastic wrap at all times. 
Lightly flour one of the pieces of dough, and shape into a rectangle about ½-inch thick.

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.

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).

The dough should be just less than 6 inches wide. On the bottom half of the dough, place heaping teaspoons of the squash filling, evenly spaced every 1½ inches. Fold top half of dough over bottom half. With a knife or fluted roller, cut between each mound to create the individual raviolis. Gently pinch to seal the two dough layers 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.

At this point, decide how many ravioli you want to cook, and then freeze any remaining: Do not store ravioli in the refrigerator — they become a soggy mess.

To serve: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Place butter in a small sauté pan and heat until it bubbles. Add the sage leaves and let sizzle until crisp, about 1-2 minutes total. Turn off the heat, remove leaves with tongs and drain on a 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). When ravioli are done, drain, or remove with a spider, but do not rinse under cold water. Place ravioli on a serving platter. Heat butter again until hot and begins to brown. Return the sage leaves and then spoon brown-butter over ravioli. Sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately.