Archive for My Test Kitchen

Adventures in Focaccia and Parchment Paper

Luisa’s Focaccia di Patate

Sometimes I just have to learn things the hard way. Take, for example, my experience this week while making Luisa’s wonderful focaccia di patate.

While reading Luisa’s recipe I noted that she lined her baking pan with parchment paper, in order to keep the dough from sticking to the pan. I have to admit that I rarely use any sort of pan liner when I bake. That’s probably why a look at the top of my refrigerator, where my various boxes of sandwich bags, aluminum foil, and cereal reside, revealed wax paper but not parchment paper.

I stared at the roll as I asked, “Jim, is there a big difference between wax and parchment paper?”

“Yes, there is,” he called back from the living room. “You’re not supposed to bake with wax paper, just parchment paper.”

A few days later on Sunday afternoon I stood in the kitchen, surrounded by flour, yeast, a boiled potato, grape tomatoes, oregano, and salt. I had everything I needed except I had forgotten to purchase the parchment paper. Jim was away on a business trip, his cautionary words long forgotten. Should I walk the half block to the bodega for the parchment paper or just throw caution to the wind and use the wax paper? I decided to take a risk and forgo the stroll. Come on, what could go wrong?

After two hours of rising time for the dough and another forty minutes of baking time, the pan emerged from the oven at 8:30 pm. The browned bread, dotted with cheerful grape tomatoes and spirited flecks of green oregano, looked perfect, but then I tried to separate the bread from the paper.

The wax paper had melted into the bottom of the focaccia. Suddenly it all made sense. I mean, candles are made from wax. Candles melt at high heat. Nice one, Christina. Anyway, I couldn’t save the focaccia, no matter how carefully I tried. With one swift movement, it landed in the trash. 

But I couldn’t let this recipe meet such a sorry end. On Monday night I bought some parchment paper on the way home from the subway. After another three hours the bread was done, and this time it slid off the paper with ease when I transferred it to a plate.

As for the focaccia itself, its yeasty, chewy goodness will accompany me to work as lunch for the rest of the week. Many thanks to Luisa for a wonderful recipe, and for teaching me the difference between wax and parchment paper. It took six hours, two tries, and one waxy focaccia crust, but now I’ll never forget the lesson.


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Lentils, Merguez, and Memories of Morocco

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Last week’s chilly weather and first snowstorm arrived without much warning, taking me by surprise after the mild, not-really-winter we’ve enjoyed for the past few months. During such cold spells I need food that will warm me up quickly, preferably without too much effort. When I saw Florence Fabricant’s recipe for Lentils with Merguez in last week’s New York Times, I knew I had found my dish. A meal inspired by sunny North Africa was practically guaranteed to infuse our apartment with heat and comfort.

While I’m usually not one for casserole-type dishes, this recipe’s North African twist intrigued me. Three years ago, Jim and I spent our honeymoon in Morocco, where we explored the local cuisine and fragrant spice markets. If this casserole could simultaneously remind us of our trip and leave just one pot to clean, I was all for it. (Any memory of Morocco is welcome to us, as our camera was stolen on our way home and we don’t have any photos. But that’s a story for another time.)

Even though the recipe takes about an hour and a half from start to finish, it’s pretty low maintenance overall. Basically, merguez, onions and carrots are baked in the same pot with lentils, vegetable stock, and sun-dried tomatoes. In addition to the North African lamb sausage, cumin and Spanish smoked paprika contribute to the dish’s exotic vibe. After about an hour in the oven, a mixture of panko flakes, reserved merguez fat, and parsley is sprinkled over the top of the casserole and baked for 10 minutes at high heat, resulting in a bright and sunny breadcrumb crust.

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Jim ramped up the spice factor with some harissa on the side, but I wanted to enjoy the casserole’s smoky comfort. The rich merguez complemented the pearl-like lentils and sweet sun-dried tomatoes while the panko crust made itself known with a subtle crunch here and there. Served with a simple salad and a glass of red wine as suggested by Ms. Fabricant, this meal indeed warmed me up as I had hoped.

The recipe is said to serve 6, so Jim and I needed three days to finish it. But for some reason, we didn’t tire of it; the memories of our summertime honeymoon in Morocco must have helped a little bit. And as promised, there was only one pot to clean.

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Ravioli Nightmares

Over the past year on this blog, I’ve raved about making my own bread, delighted in the joys of homemade tagliatelle, and proudly displayed my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. More often than not I’ve enjoyed the culinary challenges I’ve faced in the kitchen, learning from each failure and success. But last week I encountered a cooking project that almost destroyed me: homemade ravioli.

Arugula, Ricotta, and Sun-Dried Tomato Ravioli filling

For the dough, Jim and I started with Jamie Oliver’s recipe from his newest book, Cook with Jamie, which called for 5 cups of flour and 12 egg yolks. In the past, dear Jamie has never steered me wrong. But no matter what Jim and I did, this dough would not come together. We tried adding more eggs. When that didn’t help, we added a bit of water. Finally we begged. Immune to our desperate pleas, the dough remained a stubborn mess of dry flour, and we finally had to scrap it and start over. We turned to the recipe that came with my pasta machine, which simply needed 4 eggs and 500 grams of flour, and it formed a pliable dough right away. Perhaps the inclusion of egg whites significantly improved our pasta situation. Whatever the reason, we gave thanks and sighed with relief.

Sealing the Ravioli

We sent the dough through the pasta machine, producing smooth sheets of dough with ease. Our small kitchen table became ravioli central, as we sliced the sheets in two, placing small mounds of our arugula, ricotta, and sun-dried tomato filling on one half before covering them with the other. Next we carefully sealed the sheets together with water before cutting out the ravioli squares. But our troubles only continued: I criticized Jim’s sealing method, as I thought he was leaving too many air pockets in the dough; he thought I was too nitpicky. Our backs and our feet ached as we leaned over the table, sealing, cutting, and griping. After 3 hours we had produced 49 ravioli, and for the sake of our bodies (and our marriage), we called it quits.

Arugula, Ricotta, and Sun-Dried Tomato Ravioli

As we sat around the table with my sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim later that night, we regaled them with the trials of our dinner preparation. The ravioli, served with a simple tomato sauce, were certainly tasty, with the sweet sun-dried tomatoes, peppery arugula, and soft ricotta forming a tangy filling. I was thrilled that most of the delicate pasta packages survived the actual boiling process. But as I relaxed at the table, my feet encased in cushioned slippers, my sore back supported by my chair, I knew I was done. The most important lesson I learned from this cooking experience is that I won’t be making my own ravioli again anytime soon.

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Better Late Than Never II: Valentine’s Day

Moroccan-Spiced Rack of LambGrilled Asparagus 

Ah, love. For Jim and me, Valentine’s Day is spent at home, avoiding the over-crowded restaurants and cooking a celebratory meal that almost always includes a rack of lamb. 

This year was no different. On Thursday night we rushed home from work, arriving at the apartment within minutes of each other at 7 pm.  As I shrugged off my coat and reached to place it on a coat hook, I noticed Jim staring intently at me.

“Did you take the lamb out of the freezer this morning?” he asked.

“Um, no. Didn’t you?” I replied.

By now you have probably guessed the answer. We walked back to the living room and reached for our folder of take-out menus in disbelief. But as the shock of our mistake wore off, we decided not to fret; we would just create our Valentine’s Day meal the following day, without any stress. And so we spent that evening relaxing in front of the television, watching Lost, eating casual Italian take-out, and doing nothing, which turned out to be just what we needed during the hectic work week.

On Friday night we started over. Jim made a marvelous rack of lamb with a Moroccan-spiced crust. I grilled some asparagus and made a fresh salad. For dessert we enjoyed our own version of Cook’s Illustrated’s Chocolate Pots de Crème from the November/December 2006 issue. We had made them earlier in the week in preparation for Valentine’s Day (at least we thought ahead one time last week), but we took some liberties with the recipe based on what was available in our refrigerator. We ate this slightly too rich, dense dessert in small bites from the heart-shaped ramekins Jim bought for our first home-cooked Valentine’s Day dinner several years ago.

Chocolate Pots de Creme

So, even though we didn’t get the Chocolate Pots de Crème ingredients quite right, and we didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day on its official day, it was okay. In fact, in our own way, Valentine’s Day was perfect.

Recipe for Christina and Jim’s Chocolate Pots de Crème, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • a dash of table salt
  • 1 1/8 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tablespoons water

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl; set a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl and set aside. Next whisk yolks, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl combined. Whisk in the heavy cream. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Mixture will be thick and silky when ready, in about 8 to 12 minutes.

Pour the custard through strainer over the chocolate. Let the mixture stand to melt the chocolate, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla. Divide evenly among 4 small ramekins. Gently tap the ramekins against the counter to remove air bubbles.

Cool the pots de crème to room temperature, and then cover with plastic wrap until chilled, at least 4 hours or up to 72 hours. Garnish with whipped cream if desired. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Better Late Than Never: No-Knead Bread

Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

Trends come and go, and I often find myself running far behind them, never able to keep up with newest gadget or fashion. BlackBerries? I’m afraid of them. Skinny jeans? I prefer the boot cut variety I’ve been wearing for the past seven years. But at least I’ve finally caught on to one of the most significant culinary revolutions of the past year and a half: Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread.

As soon as Mark Bittman published this recipe in his New York Times column back in November 2006, both experienced bread bakers and novices were amazed. The recipe proved itself time and time again: You too can make rustic, European-style bread in your home, and without a lot of work. Just combine some instant yeast, white flour, salt, and water, and let the mixture sit for a long time. I mean, a really long time, about 20 hours altogether. Time does all the work while your dough rises in the corner, out of sight and out of mind.

I read about this recipe everywhere, yet I didn’t consider trying it. I had never heard of instant yeast, and I didn’t own an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, which was recommended as the pot best suited for the recipe’s success. This bread wasn’t for me.

But this fall it re-entered my consciousness. Luisa of The Wednesday Chef (one of my favorite food blogs), tested a quicker variation of the recipe, also from the New York Times. After comparing the results, she still preferred the original No-Knead recipe. Suddenly I just had to make this bread. I started thinking about it all the time and even went on the prowl for instant yeast. I finally found some cellophane-wrapped packets high up on a shelf at the Red Hook Fairway, hidden among the birthday party supplies.

Next I resorted to begging, turning to Jim and my parents for a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Jim was reluctant, as our tiny kitchen was already overflowing with pots, pans, and appliances we barely used. But finally my parents gave me one for my birthday. I broke it in with those sausage sandwiches, but my second project was No-Knead Bread.

The recipe was just as easy as it sounded. I put the dough in to rise at around 12:30 pm on Saturday, ran some errands, went out to dinner, and finally, went to bed. I folded the dough a few times at 8 am on Sunday, let it sit a little longer, baked it at 10 am, and there it was: a beautiful, brown, crusty loaf of bread.

I dedicated that windy Sunday to Mark Bittman, making potato and leek soup from his new vegetarian cookbook. As soon as the creamy, soothing soup was ready, I took out my bread knife and cut into the rustic loaf. The crust crackled a bit, and then finally gave way to its soft, spongy interior.

Mark Bittman’s Potato and Leek Soup and a Slice of Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

I’ve been eating it all week, bringing slices to work with the leftover soup. With my next try, I’m excited to mix some whole wheat flour into the dough recipe. This is one trend I can handle. For once it’s nice to follow the crowd, especially if the crowd is making bread.

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Nutella and Banana Whole-Wheat Pizza

Nutella and Banana Whole-Wheat Pizza for World Nutella Day

Now here’s a holiday I can really get into: World Nutella Day. Organized by bloggers Ms. Adventures in Italy and Bleeding Espresso, this annual event celebrates its 2nd Anniversary on February 5th. All you need in order to participate is a love for Nutella, the creamy Italian hazelnut spread. That’s a requirement I can handle.

When I found out about this event a few days ago, I knew I wanted to celebrate the chocolaty spread with a recipe. We’ve known each other for a long time. While I was growing up, Nutella often visited my Italian-born mother’s pantry. It accompanied me home from my Italian study abroad trip in college and, more recently, from various business trips to Italy. But what kind of recipe could I create that would be worthy of this beloved snack food? After discussing the possibilities during a homemade pizza dinner with Jim, I realized I had the answer right in my hands: Nutella pizza!

As a child I devoured Nutella on white bread, enjoying it as a decadent alternative to peanut butter and jelly. But since I’m much older and wiser now, I wanted to incorporate a healthy aspect into my soon-to-be-devised dessert. I decided that a whole-wheat pizza crust would pair well with the nutty chocolate spread.

For my first attempt, I started with Cooking Light’s recipe for whole-wheat pizza dough. After I assembled the dough, I rolled it out, placed it on my pizza stone, and baked it for 12 minutes at 500 degrees. I let the crust cool and then joyously coated it with Nutella, adding a few bananas as well. That was the end of my Nutella-inspired fun, as unfortunately the crust was brittle and inedible. Something in my approach needed to change.

My biggest obstacle was the crust. Baking it without toppings had led to an inflexible and harsh crust, something more akin to a crisp cracker. During my second try a few days later, I melted some butter and brushed it onto the rolled-out dough before baking. Then I baked the crust at a lower temperature of 400 degrees for 12 minutes. I could see the difference as soon as I opened the oven door: The crust was brown and tender, the melted butter inviting and glistening. Instead of letting the crust cool, I slathered the Nutella on immediately, hoping that some of the moisture would be absorbed by the hot crust. More bananas, some powdered sugar, and my pizza was ready.

I took a bite and noticed that while the crust was still crispy, it was definitely softer than my first attempt. The nutty flavor of the whole-wheat crust was a complimentary base to the creamy Nutella spread and bananas. So while it took a few tries to get it right, my Nutella pizza arrived right in time for Nutella Day. I’m relieved. Grab a spoon and dig into your Nutella jar; it’s time to celebrate!

Recipe for Nutella and Banana Whole-Wheat Pizza
Prepare Cooking Light’s recipe for Whole-Wheat Dough (I substitute olive oil for cooking spray, but I doubt it makes a big difference. I also make the whole recipe and freeze half of it for another time. For this recipe, I use 1/4 of the dough in order to create a smaller pie, but feel free to create a bigger pie.)World Nutella Day

  • Cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
  • Nutella
  • Powdered sugar
  • 1/2 banana, sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place pizza stone inside. While the stone is heating, roll out the dough into a thin circle on a floured surface. When stone is ready (it should pre-heat for at least 15 minutes), remove from oven and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place dough on the stone and brush with melted butter. Bake crust for 12 minutes at 400 degrees. Crust will be brown and slightly bubbly when ready.

Remove pizza stone from the oven and shift crust to a plate. Brush generously with Nutella. Add sliced bananas (or experiment with whatever fruit you prefer). Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve immediately. Serves 4 as dessert. Enjoy! 

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Cook’s Illustrated’s Ricotta Gnocchi

Ricotta Gnocchi DoughRolling the dough for ricotta gnocchiCutting the ricotta gnocchi doughRicotta gnocchi

I’ll admit it, I’m pretty self-centered at times. Just look at this blog, where I write about what I’ve been cooking, what I’ve been eating. Me, me, me.

But Jim, my culinary sidekick–and husband–is a pretty darn good cook as well. And this weekend he took charge in the kitchen, making Cook’s Illustrated’s ricotta gnocchi from the September/October 2007 issue.

As you may remember, Jim’s grandmother makes her own amazing potato gnocchi. During his most recent trip to Pittsburgh, Jim spent the afternoon making them with her. He learned how to recognize when the dough is ready, how to roll it out and cut the gnocchi, and why it’s necessary to indent each small piece with a fork (to create grooves for the sauce, of course).

But potato gnocchi are hearty, and we were in the mood for a light dinner. We thought back to Cook’s recipe for ricotta gnocchi, which we had always wanted to try, and which promised an airy version of the Italian dumplings we craved.

The secret to this recipe is twofold. First the ricotta is drained for an hour in the fridge. Then homemade breadcrumbs bind an egg, fresh herbs, flour, ricotta, and parmesan cheese together to create the dough. With both of these steps, less flour is needed in the dough mixture, resulting in a lighter dish.

Instead of supermarket ricotta, Jim bought fresh ricotta from Caputo’s, our Italian gourmet market. The fresh cheese was less watery than its packaged counterpart, and much more creamy and delicious. I’m still spreading the leftover cheese onto crusty bread for a quick snack; I can’t stop. Oh wait, I forgot, we’re not supposed to be talking about me.

Then, with moves that would make his grandmother proud, Jim went to work while I chopped the parsley and basil. While assembling the dough, Jim asserted that because we had medium eggs on hand, we would need to add 2 in order to equal the 1 large egg required for the recipe. Any deviation from Cook’s Illustrated usually fills me with anxiety, but I let the Gnocchi Whisperer do his thing.

After the dough rested in the fridge for 15 minutes, Jim rolled it out in sections, starting from the middle and gradually lengthening the roll down the counter. Then he cut it into small, delicate squares. We cooked them in boiling water for a few minutes, topped them with a simple tomato sauce, and took a bite.

Ricotto Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce

The gnocchi were light, airy, and full of fresh herb flavor. The basic tomato sauce I made earlier in the day gently accompanied the small bites of dough, never overpowering the dish’s delicate nature. And for a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, the process was pretty painless. But maybe I’m just saying that because Jim did all the work. I can’t wait until he makes them for me again. It really is all about me.

(Unfortunately I cannot link directly to the recipes on the Cook’s Illustrated website; you have to be a member of the website to see them.)

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