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Making Perfect Pizza at Home

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Making Perfect Pizza at Home

Growing up near New Haven, Connecticut, we are spoiled when it comes to pizza.  In New Haven, Wooster Street is our Little Italy.  A half-mile long stretch of city block dedicated to the some of the most celebrated Italian restaurants in the northeast.  Pepe’s Pizzeria Napolitano and its cousin, Sally’s Pizzeria are some of the oldest pizza places in the country.  They are always high on everyone’s list of favs and people gladly wait the 2+ hours in line for one of their super thin, wood-fired tomato pies.  Tummies stuffed with pizza, no trek to Wooster St. is complete without an Italian ice and a cannoli from Libby’s.  Today, Modern Pizza and Roseland’s in Derby are worth the drive from anywhere.  Determining the best place in New Haven has been fuel for heated debate for the last 75 years.  But it all comes down to a matter of opinion.  For us, great pizza is in arms reach.

Unfortunately for most, Pizza is the good-old American go-to food.  It’s what we order when we don’t really care what we’re eating.  We just pick up the phone and call.  Then in just 30 minutes, it gets hand delivered to our door.  It’s quick. It’s cheap.  It’s easy and it’s dinner.  But it’s hardly Italian food.

On my first trip to Rome, I found out what real pizza was like.  When in Rome, do what the Romans do; drive to Naples to get the best Apizza Napolitano. (Actually Romans are quite proud of their pizza too…I just wanted to use the ‘When In Rome’ pun…)  In Naples, pizza isn’t just stomach filler.  Naples is where pizza is arguably perfected and they take it very seriously.  Here, as well as all over Italy, Italians balk over what Americans do to their beloved dish.  Order a pizza and you will not get a giant slab of cooked dough with toppings a mile high and enough to feed everyone at the table.   Pizza here is a source of pride.  For the typical Italian, it’s all about the freshest ingredients and the simplicity of design.  And there are rules…yes rules…for the construction of the perfect pizza.  The basics are this:  The dough.  The sauce.  The Cheese and Toppings.

The dough:   Fresh handmade dough, hand rolled thin to fit the plate of the individual diner.  Pizza is always an oh-solo-mio event.  For real Italian pizza, the dough is the most important part of the pizza.

The sauce:  Fresh crushed tomatoes lightly seasoned.   The sauce should be applied lightly.  You should be able to read a newspaper through it.  It should barely color the dough pink.  In Rome, the sauce is put on until about 1/2 inch from the crust.  In Naples, the sauce goes right to the end of the dough. 

Cheese:  Thin slices of Mozzarella or a sprinkling of parmesan.  Not too heavy handed.

Toppings:  The major rule about toppings is that they should NEVER be thicker than the crust.  While pizza in the US is all about the toppings, toppings on real Italian pizza are more about simplicity.

Back in the Netherlands, I went into a pizza withdrawal. Except for a very few exceptions (Renato’s in de Pijp section of Amsterdam is one of the best),   pizza here is varying shades of bad.  Undercooked pre-processed crust, terrible sauce and covered with *gasp* Dutch GOUDA cheese instead of mozzarella!  As with so many things here, if I was going to get good pizza, I was going to have to make it myself. 

Luckily, after remodeling my kitchen, my brand new Boretti oven came with a 90 cm pizza stone.  At the time I thought I would never use it.  But after 10 years, it’s one kitchen ‘gadget’ that gets more use than I thought.  Crank the heat up to the max and I can make pizza that can match some of the best.  A pizza peel is also a good gadget if you have a pizza stone.  Otherwise, cooking your pizza on a cookie sheet works just fine too. 

Keeping in mind that pizza is all about the crust, it’s actually quite easy to make authentic pizza yourself.  If you have dough leftover, you can freeze it.  To thaw,  put it in the microwave at 10% power for about 5-10 mins (depending on the size of your dough).  Check often so it doesn’t cook. 

 Here’s the recipe:

Pizza topped with mozz, marscapone, capers, parma ham and finished off with fresh rucola

 The Best Homemade Pizza

Dough Starter:

1 package (2 teaspoons)  dried yeast

¼ Cup warm water

¾ Cup flour

Dough:

1 Cup Water

1 teaspoon salt

2 ¼ Cup flour

Sauce:

5 peeled and crushed Roma tomatoes. (or a can of crushed tomatoes if you pressed for time)

1 crushed clove of garlic

1 teaspoons salt.

Toppings

Thinly sliced mozzarella cheese, Choose from:  grated parmesan, fresh chopped basil, thinly sliced mushrooms, an egg (raw – it cooks in the oven), sliced olives, Parma ham(put on pizza AFTER it comes out of the oven – YUM), mascarpone cheese, chopped garlic,  rucola, pine nuts, or whatever your heart desires..

Mix starter ingredients in a small-medium mixing bowl.  It will be rather stiff and crumbly.  Cover and let sit one hour. 

After an hour,  add the cup of water to the starter.  In a large bowl  of a mixer with a dough hook, mix flour and salt.  Add starter.  On a medium setting,  knead the dough  for about 3-5 minutes.  The dough will be very soft so it’s better with a mixer than by hand. 

Divide the dough in 4 pieces, shape into balls and put on a well floured plate or cookie sheet.  Cover and let stand until double (about an hour).  You can start this at about 4:00 to make pizza for a 6:30 dinner. 

Preheat your oven to 450-500F.  Place a pizza stone on the lowest level. To make crust, dredge a dough ball in flour and roll out dough on a floured surface.  Try to get it as close to a circle shape as possible.  It should be very thin, about ¼ inch or less.  Dusting with extra flour will make it easier to roll out.  Then, pre-cook the dough to keep the toppings from making the dough soggy. This also makes it easier to push the topped pizza in the oven.  Do this by, putting the dough on a peel and shove it in the oven for 2-3 minutes until a bit puffy but still white.  This is important because a home oven cannot even come close to the temperature of commercial ovens.  So pre-cooking the dough keeps your pizza crispy on the bottom with perfectly cooked toppings.  Repeat with the rest of the balls. 

For something fun,  I put one pre-made crust on everyone plate and let my guests put their own toppings on.  My oven can cook 2 pizzas at the same time.  Have your guests top their pizzas just before going into the oven.   If they are prepared too much in advance, they will be soggy. I always serve a salad so the people that are waiting will have something to do. They can eat their salad first. 

Pizzas take about 4-5 minutes each to cook.  I find that the oven has some recovery time between pizzas, so the later ones may take a few minutes longer. 

Buon Apetito!

A Tart is Born – Lemon Linzer Tort

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

A Tart is Born!

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Every so often we all get into a rut.  One day looks like the other.  We have the same routine day after day; Get up, go to work, come home.  Weekends all look the same.  We seem to have the same conversations with the same people.  “Hey Mom, How are you feeling?  Good?  Great!   How’s the weather over there? …” .   While some people find routine comforting, I find it blaringly nerve racking.   However, lately I find myself in a sort of cooking rut.  I seem to have a tried and true repertoire of recipes that I keep going to time and time again.  If it wasn’t for Marko doing the mid-week kitchen duties, I’m sure I’d be putting out things from my kitchen that you could set your watch by:  Monday: Meatloaf, Tuesday: Chicken, Wednesday: Spaghetti…

Take this weekend for instance, I’ve been honorably asked by a Slow Food colleague, Henk, to bake cakes and make hors d’ourves for his 60th birthday reception.   “Lisa, you are the best baker I know and I want you to make my birthday cake.”  Wow, I am totally honored!  Henk is a consummate foodie and knows many a good professional baker and chef.  For him to ask a hobby-baker like myself to make his birthday cake is something big for me.   Henk made a few requests that I make my Raspberry-Chocolate Linzer tort and jalapeno-poppers but the rest is up to me. 

My mind starts wandering to what else I can make…Cheesecake, Black Forest cake, brownies, etc.  I go on a few days with these in mind, mentally making a shopping list of supplies.  Then suddenly it hits me.  I ALWAYS make these things.  I made these things for our LAST party.  They’re my standard go-to recipes.  Sure, I can make them in advance, they freeze like a dream, but they are ooh-soo-standard as far as I’m concerned.  If I’m going to make my mark as a Pastry Chef, then I need to be a bit more creative.  I need to make something new. 

Now I really hate to go into a party with something experimental, but I’m going to think up something special.  To play it a bit on the safe side, I’m going to try variations on a theme.  I just love the combination of lemon and poppy seeds, so why don’t try a lemon-poppy tart?   A spicy cookie crust laced heavily with poppy seeds and a creamy lemony filling.  Yeah, it’s worth a try. 

So I take my standard Linzer torte crust recipe and I substitute poppy seeds for the ground almonds.  Then I make a filling using 3 egg yolks, ½ cup lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of lemonciello (lemon liquor) and a can of sweetened condensed milk.    The filling doesn’t seem enough to fill the crust.  (I’m using a 20cm glass tart pan rather than a standard pie plate).    I debate with myself on whether to fold the edges in or let them stand straight up.  Hmm, I don’t know how much the filling will puff up.

I opt for straight up.  I bake it for 30 mins at 325F.   So far, so good.  The filling didn’t puff up at all.  Now I need to decide on a topping.  Meringue is the obvious choice and it’s been ages since I’ve had lemon meringue pie.    In the meantime, the pie cools and gets put in the freezer.  The party is still a week away.  Introducing Lemon-Poppy Tart.   A tart in born.

The verdicts of the Lemon-Poppy tart are in, folks!!  And the result was a REAL WINNER!!   I topped with soft-peaked meringue (3 egg whites, 3/4 cups sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter)  that I beat to the consistancy of marshmellow fluff and topped the tart from end to end.  Made decorative peaks.  Bake at 400 for 10-15 mins until dry on top and the peaks are nicely browned. Watch Carefully!!   Cool Completely.

Even though I made other cakes and pies,  this one had people actually FIGHTING over it.  The contrast of lemon with a hint of alcohol, with creamy meringue atop the crunchy poppy seed crust was divine!  Really!  4 people fighting over the last piece.  The fight was resolved by 1 plate and 4 forks.

In order for you to make the lemon version…you’re going to have to get the original.  Here it is:

Chocolate- Raspberry Linzer Torte

Ingredients

1 1/2  sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice

1 egg
5 ounces of almonds, toasted and ground
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch salt

½ Cup chopped chocolate (milk or bittersweet), melted
1 cup raspberry jam (or your favorite type of jam)

Directions

In an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Add honey, orange zest, cinnamon and spices. Continue mixing for one more minute. Add egg. Mix until well blended

Sift the dry ingredients together. Mix the sifted dry ingredients to the butter mixture until a dough is formed.

Wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
Grease the bottom and sides of a torte pan. Line the bottom
of the pan with wax or parchment paper. Remove dough from the
refrigerator and divide in two. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick, forming a 15-inch circle. For the second half of dough, roll it to 1/4-inch thick to create a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. Refrigerate both the top and bottom for about 20 minutes.

Line the bottom and sides of the prepared torte pan with the circle

For the second half of dough, roll it to 1/4-inch thick to create a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. Refrigerate both the top and bottom for about 20 minutes.

Mix the raspberry jam with the melted chocolate.

Remove from refrigerator and fill bottom half with raspberry jam/ chocolate mixture.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Create a lattice with the
rectangular piece of dough by cutting 12 9-inch strips.

Fold the edges of the dough up and over the top of the torte.

Bake in oven for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown.

Sunshine, Moonbeams and Snowflakes  (Lots of Snowflakes!)

I promised myself I wouldn’t do a clichéd begin-of-the-year post about what I plan to change over the next year.  Sure, we all are busy thinking about our New Years Resolutions; losing weight, getting a new job; being a better person, blah, blah, blah…But this time it’s just circumstance and a good case of good timing that brings me to this post.  You see, I need to catch you all up on some things that have been happening lately.  I was going to bring them up rather subtly, painstakingly alluding to these happenings over a series of posts.  But it’s just too exciting to hold back.  So I’m just going to let you all have it at once.  So hang on tight!

As you all know, I’m pretty miserable in my job and I need a change. I could draw out the thought process on how I came to my life’s passion but I think you can already figure that one out yourselves.  Over the last few months, I’ve decided to log out of my job as an IT Consultant and to dish up a new career in the Culinary arts, Pastry Arts in particular. I know it’s not a big shock to any of you, but for me, it’s was an epiphany.  It was a ray of sunshine.   I ran it by Marko. For years, I’ve always (semi-) joked with him that my life’s ambition was to be the “Cookie Queen of the Netherlands”, so the news that I wanted to re-invent myself to be a Pastry Chef did not side swipe him at all.   The only big shock would come financially. It would be a huge cut in salary for me. Making cookies is not nearly as lucrative as putting together bits and bytes.  Figuring it out, I’d have to sell an extra 35,000 cookies a year to make up the difference!  That’s about 100 cookies extra per day! 

When I told my sister about my decision, we immediately began daydreaming about opening our own restaurant, just like we did when we were teenagers.  Let me tell you a bit about my sister. She is going to totally hate me for writing this but in short, my sister, Dr. Christine, is my idol.  She is the most dedicated and driven person I know.  When she was 11, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, an affliction that haunts her to this day.  After High School, using her natural talent for cooking, she attended and graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Providence Rhode Island with a degree in Culinary arts.  A few years later, she decided that she needed to make a bigger impact on the world and enrolled in a medical program to become a doctor.  Even though she was severely plagued with health problems, she pushed herself through the punishing Internship and Residency programs.  At over 100 hours per week, these programs are challenging even for a healthy person. But she not only made it through, she excelled with top grades!   Currently she is the Director and Chief Physician of the Veterans Clinic in Littleton in upstate New Hampshire.  That is definitely quite an accomplishment for a recent graduate. I couldn’t be prouder of my sister! 

 In late October of last year, I get a call from her. She found this lovely little café nestled at the foot of Mt. Washington that is for sale about an hour drive from her. It’s The Moonbeam Café. She wants to buy it.  “What do you think?” she asks me. Personally, I didn’t think it was such a good idea; after all, she works 6 days a week at the clinic.  I’m 3500 miles away.  How can she swing it alone?  “Aren’t you afraid of this?”  I asked her.  “Lisa,” she explains, “It’s my dream. I don’t have time to be afraid.  I don’t know how much longer I have.  It could be 4 years, it could be 40.  I just don’t know.  I need to make every minute count.”.  Brave girl she is.  It could be so easy to be afraid and take the easy route.  But that just wouldn’t be her.  

 Suddenly the pieces are falling into place.  The café has a full bakery in the back that’s not being used. “It’s all yours if you want it”, she says.  I can hardly believe my ears.  My own bakery!  The only caveat is that I have to be in Gorham. This isn’t something that I can do remotely.  No telecommuting for me.  That would mean moving my family from the over-crowded Netherlands to the sparsely populated mountains of New Hampshire.  I can already feel Marko going into culture shock.   I’m never going to sell it to him sight unseen.

The next step is to pay a visit.  While we are in the states for our yearly Christmas vacation, we’d spend a bit of time getting The Moonbeam ready for inspection and opening day.  “Don’t forget,” my sister says, “Winter is WINTER here.  Cold and harsh, but stunningly beautiful.”  So we make our plans to be there the 26th through the 29th of December.

 Ok, Mother Nature.  It’s show time!  I need to dazzle and impress Marko. I’m putting in my order for perfect sunny skies and bejewelled snow capped mountains. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.  On the exact day we going to leave, Mother Nature decided to pitch a doozy of a fit… now affectionately known as “The Christmas Blizzard of 2010” that crippled the east coast for days. No, dear Readers, we didn’t get stuck in the snow.  We left on the road early in the morning and were at my sister’s in plenty of time before the storm.  But when it hit, it hit hard! 

 The following morning, we experienced just how professional New Hampshire is about snow removal and I got my wish.  A perfect glittering Winter Wonderland!  Thanks Mother Nature. 

The Moonbeam Café is located on Exchange Street in Gorham, NH and will be open on her birthday, January 4th 2011.  Those in the area, is sure to stop in for some great eats and to wish her a Happy Birthday!  Congratulations and Best Wishes, Dr. Chris!

 This weeks recipe is another jelly recipe that I developed just for The Moonbeam’s  grand opening.  It also makes a very impressive gift.

 White Zinfandel Jelly

 1 ½ Cups White Zinfandel Wine

2 ½ Cups white sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 pouch of liquid Certo pectin

Over med-high heat, bring wine, sugar and lemon juice to a boil.  Add pectin.  Boil for about 5 minutes or until able to set.  To test if the jelly is set, put a tablespoon or so on a saucer and put it in the freezer for about 3 minutes. If it’s not runny and looks like jelly, it’s done.  If not, boil another few minutes.  Pour in sterilized jars. Seal tightly and process in a water bath for 10 mins.  Makes about 1 quart.

Passion, Commitment and Support

 It was a typical Wednesday night.  The kids were in bed.  Marko was out for his weekly meet-up with his friends and I had the whole house to myself.   AHHH….the remote is MINE! ALL MINE!!   A nice hot mug of tea in one hand and the remote in the other, I snuggle up on the sofa in front of our large flat screen, relishing the fact that I’m completely free to choose my visual entertainment for the night.  YESSSSS.  No cartoons. No actions films.  No CSI Alien Spy Shape-shifting Profilers…just my choice.  What I want is a good old-fashioned chick-flick!  You know the kind where we women sit teary-eyed on the edge of our seats while our male counterparts roll their eyes and hand us tissues.   Yes.  That’s what I want.  As I scroll through our vast collection of feature films, I come across the 2009 movie ‘Julie & Julia’.   No, I still hadn’t seen it yet!  How could I have missed it?  It’s a food film!  It has Meryl Streep, the queen of chick flicks!  A double-click and the screen comes alive.  I am totally looking forward to the next two hours of mindless entertainment.  

Quickly, the main characters are summed up; Julia Child began as a bored yet inspired housewife living in Paris in the 1940’s and, current day Julie Powell, a talented but struggling writer with a passion for food and hopelessly stuck in a soul-sucking job.  Both women are looking for a way to turn their passion into something fulfilling.    Yeah, I relate totally to the Julie Powell character. A quick tally of similarities; Crazy Passion for Food:  Check.   Soul-Sucking Job:  Check.  Desperate Need for Change: Check.  Ever Patient Spouse tired of hearing me complain:  Check.    Then it hit me.  The catalyst to make change …PASSION! 

The movie then continues, demonstrating what both women do to reach their goals; Julia with her undying commitment to create a French cookbook in English for Americans and, Julie with her sometimes insane commitment to get through every single recipe in Mrs. Child’s now iconic cookbook in one year.  There it is, another magic word:  COMMITMENT.  

The movie then concludes with both women celebrating their respective victories and proclaiming their unending gratitude for the support given by their spouses.  Another key word revealed:  SUPPORT. 

Passion enough to make change.
Undying Commitment to make it happen.
Loving Support from those around us.  

Is this the recipe of success?   Maybe, but it’s definitely not fool-proof.  I think about my last attempt at pumpkin gnocchi.  I followed that recipe to a T.  I used all the best ingredients and still they came out too soft.   However, as any good cook knows, if you start with good ingredients, you’re chances of success improve.   We all know that life holds no guarantees.    

 “Passion, Commitment, Support.”  It’s become my mantra.

 Today’s recipe is more of a process than a recipe.  In the movie, Julie’s last recipe was to debone a duck.  It was the recipe she most feared.  This past Sunday, we celebrated Thanksgiving. (We don’t have the Thursday off here in the Netherlands so we make due with Sunday)  To face my fears, I was instructed by my Slow Food colleague, Melle, on how to debone a 15 pound turkey.  Let me tell you, if you want to have the feeling of achievement in less than an hour, then do this.  You’ll feel like you’ve just climbed Mount Everest or cured a disease.  Sorry for the lack of pictures.  My camera didn’t take too well to being covered with turkey slime.  Next time I do this, I’ll document this better and post pictures. 

"No bones about it" Turkey

How To Debone A Turkey

Step 1:   Preparation:  Cover your kitchen table with plastic.  I used an old plastic picnic tablecloth (yes, a red and white checked one).
              –  Sharpen 2 knives:  an 8 inch carving knife and a 5 inch paring knife.
              –  Have a pair of kitchen scissors on hand.
              –  Kitchen string and a needle big enough to thread it. (an upholstery needle works great)
               – Your favourite stuffing recipe.

Step 2:   Prepare bird.  Thaw if necessary. Remove from packaging and remove giblets.  Wash with warm water. 

Step 3:   Place bird on its belly, tail side toward you.

Step 4:   Being careful not to puncture or cut the skin, start the operation.
            –  With the paring knife, make a long incision from the top of the neck, all the way down the spine, to the beginning of the tail. Cut through the skin to the bone. (Do not cut the tail in half)
            –  Starting from one side, using the tip of the knife, gently cut under the skin and the small bits of meat close to the backbone. Getting as close to the bone as possible. Patience is the key here.
           –  Making very small slices, cut very close to the bone, follow the ribcage.�
–  There are 2 areas of concern:  The shoulder blade and the hip bone.

                To get around the shoulder blade:  gently scrape the meat off the bone until the joint at the top of the wing is revealed.  Scrape a bit more and using the scissors cut the ligaments until the bone comes free.  Gentle prodding may be necessary.

                To free the hip bone:  Scrape the bone until the joint is clearly visible.  Cut the ligaments with a scissors or knife.  The ligaments on the side farthest from you will be the most difficult.  Resist the urge to just crack it off.  This risks ripping the skin.  Cutting and gentle prying works the best. 

            –  Continue cutting around the ribcage until the sternum is reached.  This is very close to the skin so be careful.
            –   Remove thigh bones:  Starting from the hip, gently scrape the meat from the bone until the knee joint is revealed.  Cut the ligaments and remove the bone.
            –   Remove the first wing joint.  Scrape the bone and cut the ligaments.  CAREFUL:  the skin is very thin here.  This is as far as you can go with this side.
            –  Do the same to the other side of the bird.
            –  Removing the sternum:  At the center of the breast, the skin is very close to the bone and attached by a membrane.  Using the scissors gently cut the membrane close to the pointed bone of the sternum, freeing the bone. 

DONE!   Breath Deep.  Dance the Rocky dance to ‘Eye of the Tiger’

Step 5:  Lay the bird out flat (spread eagle) and season with salt and pepper. 

Step 6:   Fill with your favourite stuffing.  I used the ‘New England Sausage, Apple, and cranberry’ stuffing recipe from Epicurious.  It was delicious. 

Step 7:  Pile the stuffing on top of the turkey.  Call your spouse, friend, or partner to hold the bird together wile you sew the back with the cooking string and needle.
            –  Turn the bird over and sew the neck area and the crotch area closed. 

Step 8:  Arrange on a very large baking pan.  Arrange the wings and legs in a natural position. 

Step 9:  Generously grease with softened butter.  Salt and pepper generously.
            –  Add about 2 cups of water to the pan.
            –  Cover tightly with aluminium foil.
            – Bake at 325F (150C) until the internal stuffing temp is 170F) For a 15lb bird, it took 3 hours.
            –  cool for about an hour.
            –  Get your camera ready. Accept rave reviews

Sinter Klaas Kapootje

Friday, November 19th, 2010

SINTER KLAAS KAPOONTE

It’s holiday time in Holland and as an introduction to this post, I kindly present a segment from one of my favorite holiday movies:  Miracle on 34th Street:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOJXyqdF3uY

One of the things that always interested me is how other parts of the world celebrate holidays.  Living in Europe has given me an up-close-and-personal view of traditions that some people only read about.  With my birthday in December, I particularly find traditions that revolve around Christmas most intriguing. What I find fascinating, aside from the obvious food festivities, are the main characters of the celebration. To much confusion, many countries celebrate the birth of Christ and the feast of Saint Nicholas on the same day. This often results in heated secular debates, hilarious comedy (South Park’s ‘Spirit of Christmas’ pilot comes to mind) and hypothetical inquiries about the mish-mash of traditions as to which tradition goes with which celebration.  Hmm, what does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Christ anyway or Saint Nicholas for that matter?   To prevent confusion, some European countries hold separate and distinct celebrations. While traditions in countries vary greatly, the feast of Saint Nicholas or Sint Nicolaas as he is known here is mostly held on December 5th.  This is the alleged birthday of the 14th century Turkish cardinal (hence the red suit and mitre) known for giving all his worldly wealth to the poor before becoming a priest. Sinter Klaas, as he is more commonly known, is not the jolly fat man that Santa is (Santa’s modern-day image had been well defined by a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1940’s) but a thin, old, stoic priest, dressed in a pointed hat, long white beard and red cardinal’s cape. December 5th is known as Pakjes-Avond or ‘package night’ and is the traditional day of gift giving. Unlike Christmas, this day is unfortunately not an official day off.  This often causes Pakjes Avond to be celebrated on the nearest weekend.


As the Dutch tradition goes, sometime in mid- November, Sint arrives in Holland by steamboat from Spain where he ‘summers’ in Madrid.  This is a nationally televised event that has every believing child glued to their TV or if they have access, standing outside waiting impatiently at designated docks for the steamboat to gloriously arrive.  With much pomp and circumstance, Sint disembarks his steamboat and is escorted to his gilded chair to give his welcoming speech.  Then with the same miracle that Santa is simultaneously at every department store in the US, everyone welcomes Sint as he mounts his faithful horse, Amerigo, and rides through every town.

He is accompanied by his entourage of black Moorish sidekicks, all named ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete.  Since actual Moors are difficult to come by in the predominately white Netherlands, the roles of the Zwarte Piets are played out by normally white Dutch people dancing around in black-face, wigs, and gaudy court jester costumes. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very P.C., in the same way that seeing an old film of the white Al Jolson in black-face singing ‘Mammie’ is.  In the ‘80s there was a movement of sorts to be non-discriminating, so instead of Black Pete, there was Pink Pete, Green Pete, Blue Pete, etc… It just got out of hand, so now the Dutch have their beloved Zwarte Piet back.  Now back to Sint’s journey. 

Along the route, the streets are filled with yet more children, each hoping to get a handful of sweets and tiny gingerbread cookies named pepernoten from the ‘Piets’ as they dance by.  Sint en Piet(s) will remain in cold, rainy Holland until after his birthday on December 5th. After that he will again board his steamboat, turn it around and return, exhausted, to sunny Spain. 

During the time that Sint and Piet(s) are in town, children may set out their shoe.  The concept is very similar to setting out your stocking except that kids can do this at any time.  Children set their shoes out with cookies for Sint and Piet and water, straw, carrots, and/or apples for Amerigo before getting off to bed.  They also add their wish-list.   While they set out their shoes, children are encouraged by their parents to sing loudly, loud enough for Sint to hear.  The next morning they will wake to find their shoes filled with small presents, pepernoten, and marzipan figures, and/or a letter made out of chocolate. 

The way Sinter Klaas gives gifts is not as gentle as with Santa. With Santa, if you are good -you get presents. If you are bad – you get coal.  If little Dutch kids are bad, Sint puts them in a sack and takes them to Spain. This rarely does any good as a threat, since most Dutch families spend 3 weeks vacation in Spain during the summer. But anyway, December 5 is the day to exchange gifts. However these aren’t ‘real’ gifts, per se, but are gentle criticisms from the past year. This often home-made gift is mostly accompanied by a poem that subtly points out those nasty character flaws of the recipient. An example is by getting grandma a bell since whenever grandma needs anything done, like hanging pictures or fixing the door lock. She will never call anyone to do it but gives gentle hints whenever someone visits. So, when she wants something done…ring the bell!

The poem would go like this:
Dear Grandma,
Sint knows that sometimes we can all use a hand.
Using tools and ladders are things for a man.         (Sint is a chauvinist too).
If you tried this yourself, I’d hate it if you fell.
The next time you want something done, please ring this bell.�
Sincerely,
Sint and Piet

For a simply hilarious take on this Dutch tradition, and if you have 20 minutes to spare, then give a listen to David Sedaris 3 part commentary named ‘6 to 8 Black Men’.  Enjoy.  

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbJpRLhaSqs&feature=related

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU1D1HKTDCY&feature=related

Part 3:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g17Pl7MFMco&feature=related

The following is a recipe for Dutch Pepernoten.  Tiny Dutch gingerbread cookies.  Great for baking with the kids. 

Pepernoten

  • 100 GRAM SELF RAISING FLOUR
  • 50 GRAM BUTTER
  • 50 GRAM BROWN SUGAR
  • 2 TBSP MILK
  • 1 TBSP PUMPKIN PIE SPICE

Mix all the ingredients well to a dough and form about 100 balls. Put these on a greased baking tray and bake 12 minutes at 350 degrees.

The Perfect Baguette

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

The Perfect Baguette

 It’s weekend!! Finally!!!  And as usual, I gleefully head to my kitchen sanctuary to work on this weekend’s projects. Since it was so busy last weekend with Rebecca’s birthday party, I decided  to take it easy.   I start off with my obligatory Saturday standard, homemade baguettes.  Yes, home made baguettes, I said. Before you “Ooh” and “Ahh” like I’ve just proposed to walk a high wire over a pit of flaming lava, I have to let you in on something.  About a year ago, I got into a sort of obsession to make the perfect French baguette.  I mean, I’ve spent tons of time creating poolishs (pre-fermented dough), and triple kneading methods.  I’ve translated recipes from French, Italian, and even Russian.  I’ve used regular flour, bread flour, wheat flour.  Used milk, starter, special pink Himalayan salt, fresh yeast, dried yeast… Yes, I’ve paid my dues for this cause and usually ended up in varying states of failure.  That is until I came across a recommendation on a book from my favorite resource, The Mother Earth News. (Ok, I admit, I’m a closet tree-hugger).  The book is called “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” by Zoe Francois and Jeff Herzberg.  What they propose in this book is a manner to make bread dough without kneading and by using the simplest of ingredients: regular flour, dry yeast, salt and water.  “No kneading needed?” you ask.  We’ll it seems that in order to make fluffy and high bread, you need to convince the dough to get the gluten strands in the flour to lengthen. Apparently this happens in 2 ways; either by vigorous kneading, or over time. Now, I love kneading.  It’s rhythmic and lets you take out a week’s worth frustration on a little soft piece of dough, which in turn thanks you for your effort by producing fluffy white (or wheat) loaves. It just takes soooo long to get a result.  If I want fresh warm bread for breakfast, I’m going to have to get up at 4am.  Ahem…I love my family, but the only thing I plan on doing at 4am on a Sunday morning is sleeping.  For this, a mix-and-wait method is a real boon.  Not to knock Jeff and Zoe’s efforts, but this mix-and-wait method is also not new. From what I read it has also been around for a while.  I remember an aunt that did the same thing and her dinner rolls were just delicious.  They did, however, make a lovely book. 

Nowadays, if someone would ask me to name 3 things that are always in my refrigerator I’d say:  white wine (from the Alsace, of course), zucchini pickles, and bread dough.  I love this recipe.  I can make the perfect baguette in the same time it takes me to go to the store and buy one.   I finally found a recipe that is so laughingly easy that we can have great bread every weekend or even every day for that matter. (In a pinch, it can also make pretty good pizza dough and bagels too.  But those are other stories) To bake off your baguette; simply sprinkle the surface of the cold dough with flour. Grab a fistful about the size of a grapefruit. (*-see bottom footnote)  Take the blob of dough and plunk it down on a lightly floured surface, floured side down.  Push it into a rectangle form.  Roll into a log a bit shorter than the baguette form pan. Roll the log to smoothen and lengthen it. Pick up the dough at the ends and put it in the form.  

 Even though I have a pizza stone, I bake my baguettes in a baguette pan so the baguettes come out straight and round.  This is a pan with slots for 3 baguettes made by Chicago Metallic. I think I bought it from someone at Amazon.com.  I love this pan. It can bake 3 loaves but I always bake one at a time.  This way it gets evenly brown all the way around and I don’t have 3 loves ‘calling’ to me.   After it’s in the form, wait 20 minutes and then slash the loaf on a steep angle (about 30 degrees) and about ¼ inch deep.  There are fancy knives and razors that do this, but I find that any small sharp serrated knife works great.  I use a tomato knife by Henkel’s. Then again, I love this knife and I use it for everything.   Just be decisive and slash away, just like Dexter would.  It should look like this:  

Slash at 30 degrees

 

 

Add a cup or so of hot water to the drip pan and let ér bake for about 30 mins.  The crust should be darker than golden brown and have even darker spots on it.  It’s ready!  Try or should I say I DARE you to wait until it’s totally cool before tearing into it.  If you wait,  you will be rewarded with it singing to you.  That’s the sound the crust makes when it starts to cool. The delicious crackles of fresh baked bread.  Mmmm. 

This dough is said to be able to stay in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.  But I find that it gets runny after about a week and a half and makes not very good bread after that. My suggestion is that if you want bread for the weekend; start your fresh your dough Wednesday evening. A batch makes about 3 good sized loaves.  If you like that sour-dough taste, then don’t wash out the dough container.  Just scrape out any hard, crusty bits and make the next batch right in. The result will be a greyer dough, a nice custard crumb with that characteristic tang of sour dough and NO CLEAN UP   🙂  

Storing bread tip:  Never ever, ever store baguettes or boules in paper or plastic bags.  This causes the crispy crust to be soft and gummy.  If on the off chance that you have leftovers, simply leave it on a cutting board and cover with a cotton towel, just like they do in France.  Good bread will stay crispy for a day or two. 

Since I am such a fan of this book and bread, I will leave it to you, kind Readers, to support Zoe and Jeff by purchasing your own copy. However, I just feel inclined to share my metric equivalents for the recipe with you. 

No-Knead Baguette or Boule  dough for the metrically inclined

Adapted from ‘Artisan bread in Five minutes a day’ by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzburg

700 ml warm (not hot) water

2 packages of dried yeast  (about 4 teaspoons)

1 tablespoon salt

1 kilo white unbleached flour

Equipment:

1  plastic storage box with lid about 5 to 8 liters (closed but not airtight).  About the size of a large shoe box.

1 wooden spoon

Baguette pan, baking sheet or pizza stone

Mix water, yeast and salt in the box.  Add flour and mix until all the flour is incorporated. No kneading…just mix.  Cover and set at room temperature about 2 hours until double in size.  Put it in the refrigerator at least overnight and up to a week and a half.

* By the way,  this is also nice for boule dough.  A boule is a round bread.  Simply shape the floured dough into a ball by stretching the floured surface and gathering the loose ends on the underside.  Let sit on a floured (or cornmeal) board for about 40 mins.  Slash decoratively and bake for about 40-45 mins directly on the pizza stone or a sturdy baking sheet.

The Pumpkin

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

The Pumpkin

 OK, this is going to sound a bit catty, and I’m kind of ashamed to write this at the expense of my dear friend. But I think it’s an amusing story and for a struggling writer like me, when it comes to ‘the story’; everything is fair game. 

In a previous post I wrote about my garden. The garden to the left of me is rented by my long time friend, Suni.  She’s an expat from Thailand and has been living in the Netherlands for the last 30 years.  She’s an excellent cook and avid (and competitive) gardener.  Even though we’ve been long-time friends, our relationship has been strained as of late.  Probably due to a thousand small things that neither one of us could pinpoint, but together add up to a smoldering rift. 

To start with, my oldest daughter, Rebecca, has a birthday exactly on Halloween.  Halloween, to this day, remains one of my favorite holidays.  I find it so unfortunate that it is just not celebrated here in Holland.  Last year, when my mom was here for her birthday, we carved pumpkins and, like always, I saved the seeds.  We had so much fun that we wanted to plant our own pumpkins this year from the seeds I saved.  Since I bought the already grown pumpkins last year, I have no idea what kind they were.  All I know is some were big and some were small.  I just threw all the seeds in a jar. 

This past March, I started my pumpkin plants indoors along with some butternut and acorn squash plants.  With a few weeks of TLC, I had 18 beautiful plants.  Anyone who ever grew pumpkins knows that even one plant will take over your garden, so what was I to do with 18!?  Share them, of course. So one sunny Sunday afternoon in May, I proudly brought my perfect pumpkin plants to the garden to share with my fellow gardening fanatics.  During transplanting, most of the plant markers got lost or mixed up so I wasn’t sure which plant was which anymore. So, I gave my neighbors first pick with the caveat that ‘you get what you get’ and to leave me 5 plants.  Happily, my neighbors bounced back to their own gardens, arms full with their newly adopted plants.  Suni, taking her share of plants agreed with the caveat and made a comment of letting nature take its course. 

Weeks past and toward the middle of august, my entire garden was a tangle of vines.  Their large leaves reaching sunwards.   Getting curious as to what nature brought me, I start peeking under leaves to discover a beauty of a jack-o-lantern, already the perfect size for carving.  Excitedly, I call my kids over to check it out.  Rebecca takes one look and excitement takes over her whole little body.  She immediately claims it for her own and both kids begin to dance and sing celebrating our success.  Curious to what the commotion is all about, Suni trots her small booted feet over to my garden.  “Look at MY pumpkin”, Rebecca squeals.  Suni pushes back the massive leaf; the curiosity slowly drains to confusion and then rage.  “You!!” , she howls, slowly straightening upright, her tiny gloved hand pointing a dirty finger at me, “You gave me CRAP plants!  It’s YOUR fault I don’t have a jack-o-lantern!”.  Her eyes shooting yellow venom as she spits the words at me.  In shock, I calmly tell her that I’ll share my own crop with her. “I want my OWN jack-o-lantern!”.  In a complete rage, she stomps back to her garden, screaming and kicking her own plants. “See? See?  All CRAP!!” She yells ignoring a good sized jack-o-lantern of her own that’s still growing.  At this point my kids stand frightened behind me. Their joy completely dissipated.  “Psycho Kitty”, I say out of the corner of my mouth, just loud enough for them to hear.  After she calms down, I walk over to her side of the garden as she shoots one last poisoned look in my direction. “Next year,” , I say like Queen Latifa. My finger making cobra circles in the air, “grow your own @#!*$! plants”. 

Dear Readers, you will be happy to know that she finally did grow a decent sized jack-o-lantern this year…almost as big as mine ;-).

Poor dear, she must be losing her mind to get her panties in such a bunch over a pumpkin.  To honor my dear friend, today’s recipe will be her signature dish, the National Dish of Thailand:  Pad Thai. 

Pad Thai

1 large wok

1/3 cup vegetable oil

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 Cup of firm tofu, cut in  ½ inch cubes

½ pound peeled raw medium shrimp (optional)

4 eggs

1 package of thick Cantaboon rice noodles (soaked in water for 3 hours)

½ Cup tamarind sauce (recipe below)

¼ cup of chives or Chinese (garlic) chives.

1 Cup of bean sprouts. 

A dash of fish sauce (optional)

Garnish:   bean sprouts, peanuts  (chopped fine),  lime wedges, Chinese chives, sugar, ground red pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce

Directions

In a large wok over high heat, heat oil.  Add garlic and stir-fry 30 seconds.  Add tofu and shrimp and stir-fry another minute.  Break eggs and wait until set, about 1 minute.  Fold to break up.  Take noodles out of the water (using your hands works perfectly for this) and put them in the wok.  Stir fry until ingredients are mixed.  Add tamarind sauce and mix.  Add chives or garlic chives and bean sprouts and mix again.  Taste.  It should have a nice balance of sweet and salty.  It should not be too dry. 

To Serve:  The idea is that the noodles provides a base that guests can customize to their own tastes.  Serve with garnishes and let the guests help themselves.

Tamarind sauce:    In a small saucepan, add 1 cup of water, ¼ cup tamarind sauce,  ½ cup brown sugar, and a teaspoon of salt.  Simmer over med heat, stirring frequently until a thin paste. About 45 mins.  Taste.  It should be a nice balance of sour, salt and sweet.  Adjust if needed.

The Oath

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The Oath

Ok, everyone.  Repeat after me.  Let’s take our solemn Cooking God/Goddess oath. 

I ,(your name here),  do solemnly swear that I will never ever use inferior ingredients in my recipes  no matter how much I am tempted to save a few pennies or use up that expired product so help me (insert your higher being here).

Yep. I did it again.  I ruined a perfectly good recipe all for the sake of saving a few cents!  This year, I was blessed with a decent crop of tomatoes.  Just as my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before me, when life gives us tomatoes…we stuff them.  This recipe is really nothing fancy.  It’s basically just breadcrumbs and fresh herbs, salt, pepper and parmesan cheese, a good heavy hand of olive oil and baked for about an hour or so.  Summer, defined. 

Besides the garden fresh tomatoes, the main ingredient is breadcrumbs.  As I rifle through the cabinets, I make the discovery that I’m flat out.  Donned with my ‘shopping’ backpack, I head out the door and off to the store.  Determined, I make a bee-line to the aisle.  There it is…my ‘usual’ brand for 59 cents and there right next to it…the generic brand in its much larger bright red box. For 19 cents!  Nineteen cents I tell you!  What a bargain!  Still, I stand there inspecting each box.  In one ear, I hear all my ancestors whispering to me, “Get the good stuff, Lisa. Quality in = Quality out”. In the other ear I hear my husband, “It’s a tight month, Lisa, so please be thrifty”.  After 5 minutes worth of this mental angel/devil debate, home economics beats out tradition.  The generic brand wins. 

I hurry home full of nostalgia about my mother’s stuffed tomatoes.  Crispy on the top, tender inside, and wonderfully jammy on the bottom. All held together by a thin tomato skin.  I nearly floated home.

As I mixed the squeezed tomato juice with my new purchase.  I noticed it immediately.  Instead of a nice crumbly mass, it was gooey and leaden.  Hmm, maybe if I add more oil it will help.  Ignoring the internal warnings to just throw it all away, I slid them in the oven.  Maybe some alchemy and a miracle will occur in the next hour.  After an hour, I held my breath and closed my eyes as I opened the oven door.  Feeling like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I carefully opened one eye and then the other focusing to see what occurred in my oven.  Quickly snapping my eyes back shut with a pursed –lipped ‘eeuuuooowww’.  It was the culinary equivalent of a charred-faced Daffy Duck. Instead of crispy, tender and jammy, they look like browned cement balls.  The tomatoes under them flat, black and greasy.  What a waste of my perfect, self-nurtured tomatoes, I think to myself. Yep, and the good olive oil, and fresh basil, and garlic and my time…  All to save 40 cents!  Still dealing with the devil, I wait for a bit until they’re cooled. They taste best at room temperature, you know.   After some time, I stick my fork in my first victim. It barely goes in.  Mental flash to all my relatives doing the ‘I told you so’ dance.   Not worth the calories, I concede, as I shovel the contents of the baking dish in the trash.   Lesson learned. 

For this recipe to be truly authentic, you’re going to have to conjure up the spirit of my thankfully very much alive mother.  She never uses a recipe for this. Neither do I.  It’s all by using your taste.

Rosie’s Stuffed Tomatoes

8 ripe round tomatoes (not roma)

About 1 cup or so of GOOD unflavored breadcrumbs

1 fat clove of  garlic – pressed

Handful of basil, chopped

2 teaspoons  of dried oregano (or to taste)

3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese ( or to taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil (vegetable oil works here too)

Preheat oven to 350 F or 160C. Cut 6 tomatoes in half from the core, cutting the core in half.  Remove the core from both sides (You can core them before cutting. Just try to keep the hole as smalll as possible)  Remove the core from both sides.  Squeeze the pulp and juice into a bowl.  Use a spoon if it doesn’t come out easily.  Try not to crush the skins.  It’s going to hold everything together in the oven later.   Cut the other two tomatoes in half and squeeze out the juice into the bowl.  Reserve these two tomatoes for another use.  Chop any large bits of pulp small. Add garlic, herbs, salt, pepper and cheese. Add enough breadcrumbs to form a soft, loose mass.  It should squish easily between your fingers. If it doesn’t, add some water.  Taste it.  The taste should have a nice balance of herbs and salt. If it tastes bland, add more salt or cheese.  Pack into tomatoes.  Place in a baking dish.  Very generously add olive (or vegetable) oil over the tomatoes, patting with your hands to flatten a bit.  Bake uncovered.  After about 30 mins, flatten gently with a spatula.  Bake another 30 minutes  or until the tomatoes are flattened and crispy looking.  Cool to room temperature or serve cold.

Live To Eat

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Live to Eat.

As a kid, I was chubby, uhh…portly…aaagghh…who am I kidding??  I was FAT!   F-A-T.  FAT!    Even as a toddler, I LOVED food.  I easily mastered adult servings of mother’s eggplant parmesan, my grandmother’s southern fried chicken and little potatoes, my aunt’s fried calamari.  You get the idea.  “You live to EAT”, my mother would scold me, “You need to eat to LIVE!”  Live to eat?  Mom, you make it sound like a bad thing!   She was right though.  Tipping the scales at 252 pounds (115 kg) at the age of 14 and doubly blessed with an unfortunate last name, I was teased and ridiculed.  Consequently, I went through my youth with a love/ hate relationship with food.

How could I not?  For me, growing up in an Italian immigrant family, food meant good times.  Food meant tradition and most of all, Food meant family. For ours and most Italian families, our culture revolved around the kitchen.  One of my very first memories was of me at the age of 3 making sausage with my grandfather.  The whole family got involved, grinding meat, mixing in the herbs, taste testing.  It was my job to poke little holes in the fresh raw coils with a safety pin. This keeps it from exploding in the pan while cooking.  It was very important work for a little one like me.  Food and Family.  No better combination. 

As a teen, I learned that doing insane amounts of sport would balance my love of good food. To release the frustration of the constant barrage of teasing, I became an avid runner and rollerblader.  At first running only late at night so others wouldn’t see me.  At the prodding of a friend, I also took up tae kwon do.  The weight flew off and I walked into my senior year of high school 100 pounds lighter.   100 pounds in 9 months!   What I wouldn’t give to have that metabolism today!  The best part of it was, for the very first time in my young life, I felt I was in control.  

How is that?  How can food be so controlling?  How can it can give you control and just as easily make you lose it. Think about it. How many times do I wake up in the morning psyched to start another day of deprivation?  The day’s menu mentally planned out; coffee and that healthy cereal for breakfast, a fruit for snack, Small salad with light dressing for lunch and steamed fish and vegetables for dinner.   Yes, Sir!  I’m going to do it this time!  I make it through breakfast all proud and confident.  With my carefully packed lunch in one hand and my laptop in the other, I head for the office.  Tick, tick, tick, tick, 10:00:  Fruit break.  Right on schedule.  Meanwhile, a colleague arrives with a chocolate tart with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.  It’s her birthday.  Immediately panic sets in. DANGER IMMINENT, DANGER, DANGER. Tightly clutching my bag of emergency carrots, I politely decline the festivities.  Yeah, I’m in control of this.  Tick, tick, tick, 11:30. Too early for lunch. Ok, maybe just a nibble.  11:45 lunch devoured.  Take a walk at lunch? Nah, got too much work to do.  Tick, tick, tick. 2:00.  Fruit gone.  Lunch gone. Emergency carrots gone.

I’m left without a net.  It doesn’t notice me, but I know it’s there.   That tart!  A good sized piece is left over, lounging there promiscuously. White clouds of sweet cream sensuously sliding  to the plate beneath. That TART!  Must resist. Can’t resist. Must….alright.  I’ve been really good today.  Just one small piece.  Carefully, I plot the course of the knife to get the maximum amount of cream and chocolate in the smallest amount of space. Bits of cream and chocolate cling  to the knife as I slice with the precision of a surgeon.  My head swirls with heady anticipation.  “This is going to be gooood.”  I say to myself.  As I replace the knife, the first forkful is on its way to my mouth. “Sweet Heaven “ as my eyes roll  back. By the time I get to my cubicle,  it’s gone.  I scrape away the last bits of chocolate and crust and toss the plate in the trash bin.  I plop down on my seat.  A content ‘yeeaaahhh’ rolls through my head.  Still savoring the lingering sweetness,  I remember the plan for the day. 

Euphoria leaches out to shock and then guilt.  Failure!  Again!  I feel  as if  that very knife that I used to cut the tart with is being rammed through my heart.  “How can I be so weak?”, I plead with myself.  Fifteen minutes of mental self flagellation gives way acceptance.  Well, the damage is already done.  Tomorrow’s another day.  Might as well have another piece. 

 The below recipe is a great way to blow your diet.  My sister and I thought of it when we were in high school.

Chocolate Cream Pie with Chocolate Chip cookie crust.

For Crust:

1 roll of pre-made chocolate chip cookie dough. –or- ½ batch home made.

½ cup flour

For chocolate cream

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened)

1 1/3 cups whole milk

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

 Cream Topping

2 Cups chilled whipped cream

½ Cup sugar

Top with:  Chocolate shavings or toasted almond slivers

Directions

For Crust:

Heat oven to 350 F.  Knead prepared chocolate chip cookie dough with the flour on a lightly floured surface.  The dough should be no longer sticky.  Roll it in a ball and then flatten out to ¼ inch thick or as thin as you can considering the chocolate chips. (as if you were making pie crust.).  Slide the crust into a pie pan and crimp ends.  Check the crust at about 5 minutes baking time.  If the crust slid down the pan, remove from the oven and carefully slide it back into place.  If it puffs, carefully tamp it down.  Bake for 13-15 minutes until golden brown.  Cool completely.

For chocolate cream:

In a heavy saucepan whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and a pinch salt. Chop chocolate and add to sugar mixture. In a bowl whisk together milk and egg yolk and gradually whisk into chocolate mixture. Bring mixture just to a boil over moderate heat, whisking constantly, and boil 1 minute, whisking. Remove pan from heat and whisk in butter and vanilla.

Pour into the pie crust.  Cool completely in refrigerator.

Just before serving:  Whip the cream with sugar until stiff peaks form.  Pile decoratively on top of chilled pie.  Top with chocolate shavings or toasted almond slivers.    Accept rave reviews.

Dig For Peace

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Dig For Peace

Living in a country where every inch of land is at a premium,  I feel truly thankful for my vegetable garden.  A ‘moestuin’ or ‘volkstuin’ as it’s called in Dutch.  (tuin meaning garden). If I were in the UK, it would be called an ‘allotment’.  My vegetable garden is not in my postage-stamp of a backyard. It’s a mile and a half away. It’s a swath of property that I rent yearly from a lovely older couple named Co and Sjannie.   While my backyard measures about 30 feet long and 18 feet wide, my vegetable garden is about 300 feet by 30 feet.  A virtual field by Dutch standards.  In my garden are a big wooden tool hut and a shabbily built but good-sized greenhouse made with scraps of wood and old single-paned windows, most broken at this point.  (Note to self:  Fix the greenhouse this fall).   My garden is part of a group of gardens, 30 or so, all rented out and in various states of use.  On the property are a few farm animals that the Co owns; a fat horse,  5 or 6 lively goats and a dozen or so sheep.  My kids love to help him feed the sheep and brush the horse.  In exchange for all the rhubarb in my garden, he gives me a steady supply of fresh eggs from the beautiful brown hens he has running free in his backyard.  They are simply the most delicious eggs I’ve ever tasted; large with rich bright orange yolks. 

In our gardens, we all participate in this Urban Barter System.  Someone with a good crop of leek will exchange with someone punished with lettuce.  Cabbage plants are traded for strawberry plants.  When someone’s crop of string beans fails, we all chip in to share our own crop.   In this little social eco-system everyone gets what they need and nothing goes to waste.  

What’s wonderful about this unique situation is the pride you get from knowing that what is set on your  table comes from your own hand.  Earth that you tilled. Seeds that you planted.  In recent years the term “Locavores” has been coined.  This meaning eating what is fresh, local and in season. What’s more local than your own back yard?     Sure, it’s a lot of work digging in the dirt in the fresh air rather than sitting in a stuffy office and then running to some big corporation

Rebecca's Harvest

supermarket . (To buy vegetables  shipped from who-knows-where and sprayed with who-knows-what?)  But it is so rewarding.  When I see my kids eating tomatoes fresh off the vine or arguing with my youngest over when to pick the corn, I know it’s  worth the effort.      Besides, what ‘s better than the smell of a carrot just pulled from the ground, or the taste of a fresh picked raspberry, or the sweet-tart crispness of an apple right off your own tree?  Not too much, that’s what!  

During and after World War II,  many countries, in order to alleviate farm worker shortages in the agricultural industry, made efforts to support their citizens to grow their own fruits and vegetables.  Thus the term ‘Victory Garden’ was coined.  While many farm workers went off to fight the war and the much of the remaining crops used for food for the troops, thousands of families on the home-front turned over plots of grass in their own back yards and started growing.  The plan was simple,  use existing land  and labour of the homeowners.  To support the war effort, home gardens started appearing everywhere. Tilled rectangles of neatly rowed vegetables sprung up in suburbia.  In the middle of cities; rooftops, windowsills, and vacant lots turned into green goodness.  Not only did it support the war effort, for families it meant so much more. Besides the obvious nutritional value of fresh grown fruits and vegetables, it was a way to work together for a common goal. It was a learning experience for children and it saved families money in a time where every penny mattered. 

Nowadays, with more and more of this earth’s agricultural land being used to support  bio-energy and a growing population, is it possible that we can one day revisit the concept of the Victory Garden and subsequently, a barter system?

Tonight we’ll be having the below recipe, using a nice butternut that came from my garden.

 Pumpkin Risotto

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice (1 1/3 cups)

2 medium white onions, finely diced

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

About 1 teaspoon freshly ground  pepper

1 teaspoon salt

7 cups vegetable or  low-sodium chicken broth

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups arborio rice (about 11 ounces)

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a non-aluminum medium saucepan or wok. Add the pumpkin and half of the onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until the pumpkin is just tender, about 7 minutes. Stir in the wine, nutmeg, white pepper and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
  2.  In a food processor, puree the pumpkin mixture until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl. 
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable or chicken stock to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to low and keep the stock hot. 
  4. In the same non-aluminum saucepan or wok, heat 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter until it begins to sizzle. Add the rice and the remaining onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Immediately stir in 1 cup of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 2 minutes. 
  5. Reduce the heat to moderate and gradually add 3 more cups of the hot stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking until each cup is almost absorbed before adding the next, about 15 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Continue adding the remaining 3 cups stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking as above, until the rice is tender, about 10 minutes longer. The risotto will be quite loose. Stir in the parsley and the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons butter. 
  6. Spoon the risotto into 6 warmed soup plates and sprinkle the Parmesan on top. Serve immediately.