Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Best Corn Fritters

Summer is drawing to a close here in western Pennsylvania. The heat wave broke right after Labor Day and the last of summer's bounty is ready for harvest. While trolling Facebook marketplace, my clever husband found a woman in Export, PA who raises chickens and sells their eggs. After doing a little research, he'd found a nice looking farm stand and a local meat market nearby. With a slight chill in the air, he surprised me with a Saturday morning outing in search of farm fresh vittles.

We started out right after breakfast and reached our first stop Schramm Farms & Orchards not long after they opened. The Schramm family really knows what they're doing and just about everything for sale in the spacious, clean farm store is grown on their own farm. We bought ginger gold apples, onions, honey and a basket of the biggest, reddest and most fragrant tomatoes I've ever seen. But the real score at Schramm's was the corn. We bought a dozen ears of bi-color corn that had just been picked that morning. I was truly in my happy place. After a trip to C&S Meats for some chicken, we hit our final destination, our new friend Candice's house. Candice has a small flock of chickens and the younger ones have just started laying, so we bought a dozen eggs and made our way home for an afternoon of food prep.


With a dozen ears of corn sitting in my fridge, I had some decisions to make. I knew some would go in the freezer and some would be boiled and eaten right off the cob, but I had a swinging load of corn to deal with. Then I remembered an episode of America's Test Kitchen where Dan Souza demonstrated a unique method for making the most yummy looking corn fritters. By pureeing and cooking half the corn first, the batter needs less flour and delivers maximum corn flavor. That sounded just fine with me.


CORN FRITTERS:

4 ears of fresh corn
2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp corn starch
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter (for cooking the corn)
1 small minced jalapeno pepper (optional)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
vegetable oil for frying

The first step of this interesting preparation involves turning half the corn into a puree. I cut the kernels off of two ears of corn directly into a large, deep mixing bowl. My blender is out of commission right now, so I used an immersion blender the pulverize the corn into a thick puree. Mine was a lot chunkier than Dan's, but you can achieve a smoother texture by using a traditional blender. I put a medium skillet over medium low heat and dropped in a tablespoon of butter. Corn has a lot of natural sugar in it and it will burn if you cook it over high heat, so its best to keep the temperature moderately low while cooking this puree. It also wants to stick to the pan, so make sure you stir this mixture frequently as it cooks. Once the butter was melted, the corn puree went into the pan and I cooked it over medium low heat until it turned a deep golden color and was very thick and pasty, almost the texture of polenta, which took about 10 minutes. I scooped it into a mixing bowl and set it aside to cool. Then I cut the kernels off of the remaining two ears of corn and got ready for the next step.

Now, if you've ever made corn fritters before, you know the whole process is quite messy. Corn flies everywhere when you cut it off the cob, so I cut mine directly into a big, deep bowl. The other big mess happens when you fry the fritters and pieces of fresh corn, which are filled with water, explode when they hit the hot oil. It can be quite dangerous and my husband and I have both gotten nasty little burns from hot corn shrapnel. The solution is to cook the corn kernels first, which allows the water to evaporate and the flavors to develop. Its nice to let the kernels brown a bit in the pan to give them a smokey taste. I cleaned the pan I'd just used to cook the puree, put it over medium heat and added the rest of the butter and the corn kernels. While they toasted in the pan, I put the rest of the ingredients into the bowl with the cooled corn puree, mixing the egg up slightly before adding it, and gently blended it all together. The original recipe called for chives and a pinch of cayenne pepper, but the combo of corn and jalapeno is such a classic pairing and I just happened to have jalapenos growing in my garden. I could imagine adding a little cumin or curry powder to the basic recipe for an exotic flavor. Fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro would be good, too. Go wild, do whatever strikes your fancy.

Once the corn kernels were slightly browned. I added them to the bowl and got ready to fry these bad boys up. In a large skillet, I poured enough vegetable oil to come about an inch up the side of the pan and turned the heat to medium, allowing the oil to heat slowly so my fritters wouldn't scorch. To test the oil, drop a little nub of fritter batter in. If it starts bubbling, you're good to go. I added tablespoonful dollops of the batter to the oil and flattened each one out a bit using the back of the spoon. When the edges were golden, I flipped them and let them cook until they were GBD - golden brown and delicious. I drained them momentarily on paper towel, just to remove a bit of the oil, and ate them hot with a little drizzle of homemade honey mustard sauce, which is just 2 tbsp of mayo and 1 tbsp each of honey and dijon mustard. The corn starch in this recipe makes the fritters crispy and the cooked corn puree makes them slightly chewy and really, really corny. Plus, no splatter burns and my kitchen didn't look like a complete disaster when I was done. Serve them as a side dish, an appetizer or a snack, I promise these corn fritters are perfect for any occasion.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Caponata

Every summer I plant something different in my garden, just to see how it works. The potatoes were interesting, we grew enough to make a big bowl of potato salad. We tried banana peppers, but how many banana peppers can two people eat? My husband enjoyed the yellow squash, but I got tired of them quickly. This year, we decided to plant onions and Japanese eggplant. The onions grow from starts that are planted early in the spring and harvested after their greens die back, usually in the fall. Our onions didn't do very well and their green shoots died back early, so we dug the tiny, plum-sized onions up. The eggplant, however, flourished and when we came back from our August vacation we found half a dozen long, curved, slender eggplants on the plant.

I picked them all, then stood in my kitchen and wondered what the hell to do with them. Japanese eggplant are skinnier, more delicate and have thinner skins than the large, bulbous Italian eggplant we typically find in the grocery store. I wanted a recipe that would showcase their sweet and succulent flavor and caponata sounded like an interesting choice. Caponata is a Sicilian appetizer or relish made of sauteed eggplant with celery, onions and tomatoes flavored with vinegar, sugar, capers and olives for a sweet and sour effect. Its delicious served cold with crackers or toasted bread or spooned over a piece of fish or chicken. I read several recipes, gathered some ideas and went to work.

CAPONATA

4 cups cubed eggplant
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced yellow onion
2 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp capers
1/2 cup chopped green olives
3 tbsp white or red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
salt, pepper, chopped fresh parsley, thyme or basil to taste

You can prepare this luscious concoction any number of ways. Some recipes call for splitting the eggplant, roasting it in the oven and scooping out the flesh when its soft. Some recipes call for chopping all the veggies and roasting them together on a sheet pan in a really hot oven. I suppose those methods would add more of a smokey flavor, but once the eggplant is roasted it still needs to be cooked together with the tomatoes, garlic and other ingredients. I opted for the ease and simplicity of a single skillet preparation. Regardless of the technique, the idea is to cook the vegetables down so they become soft and sweet, but not until they disintegrate and disappear. Since the eggplant skins can be tough and indigestible, I decided to peel mine but its more traditional to leave the skins in tact.

I started with the onions and celery, cooking them over medium high heat with salt and pepper in a large skillet just until slightly translucent. I added the garlic and tomato paste and toasted them briefly before tossing in the eggplant. Allowing this to cook over relatively high heat will give you some caramelization in the bottom of the pan, which adds that depth of flavor you want in caponata. I let this go for about 10 minutes, until the veggies started to stick to the pan a bit and there was a nice layer of fond developing. I added the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of sugar and as I stirred, I scraped up that beautiful fond and mixed it all back in as it cooked. At this point, the whole mixture needs to cook over medium low heat for about 15 minutes to allow the tomatoes to break down, the liquid to evaporate and the flavors to concentrate.

As the caponata cooked, it filled my house with a tangy and savory aroma. After 15 minutes, the tomatoes had integrated and the veggies were soft, but the eggplant and celery still held their shapes. I added the capers, olives and the rest of the vinegar and sugar and gave it just 5 more minutes to simmer gently before removing the pan from the heat. At this point, you could add different things like raisins or pine nuts depending on your taste, but I left mine as is. Since this mixture is best served cold or at room temperature, its important that the seasoning is right. When foods are chilled, the flavors become muted, so make sure you have enough salt and pepper to account for diminished flavor when the caponata is cold. I tasted, adjusted the seasoning, added some fresh herbs and put the finished caponata in a bowl in the fridge while I toasted some sliced baguette for the big reveal.

We enjoyed our caponata as a pre-dinner snack, slathered on crispy, toasted baguette slices with a nice glass of hard apple cider. The eggplant and celery had mostly cooked down, but there were still visible chunks and the bright, briny pop of the green olives and capers whetted our appetites. The caponata sat in the fridge all week and each day when we got home from work, we'd snack on it and marvel at how much better the taste was from the day before. The longer this stuff sits in the fridge, the yummier it gets and its an excellent vehicle for showcasing the unctuous earthiness of eggplant. So next time you're looking for an unusual hors d'oeuvres, give caponata a try.




Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Hebrew Buckaroo

On Saturday morning, I got the call. It was the culinary equivalent of the bat signal from the old Batman show. Our friends and neighbors Allison and Adam had just brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital the day before. I told Adam I was planning to cook on Sunday and asked if they'd like me to bring them some sustenance. The answer was an emphatic YES! "Any special requests?", I asked. Adam replied, "Well, if you're feeling ambitious, Allison proclaims "Challah".  This looked like a job for The Hebrew Buckaroo!

Yes, I know its ridiculous, but in that moment, I kind of felt like a super hero and my challah was a secret weapon used to fight the effects of physical and psychological hunger. But why stop there, I thought, if I'm buying into this whole super hero thing, I might as well go for broke. Nothing is more nourishing, comforting or welcomed than a pot of homemade chicken soup and it just so happens that my chicken soup has super, or should I say "souper" powers. When I asked Adam if he preferred noodles or matzoh balls, you can guess what the answer was. With a plan in hand, I set off to the grocery store. The only thing missing was my cape and mask.

I've posted both of these recipes before and made hundreds of pots of chicken soup and dozens of challahs, You'll find recipes, step by step instructions and some interesting writing here:

HOMEMADE CHICKEN SOUP

HOMEMADE CHALLAH

When I got up Sunday morning, I was feeling especially powerful. About half way through my first cup of coffee, the super powers kicked in and I headed to my laboratory, eh, I mean kitchen, to begin making the soup of justice.

Since it proofs twice before being shaped, I started with the challah. I emptied a package of rapid rise yeast into a large mixing bowl, squeezed in about a tablespoon of honey and poured in half a cup of warm water to activate the yeast. While the yeast's super powers sprang to life, I moved on to the next step and put a stick of butter, half a cup of sugar and a cup of whole milk in a small saucepan over medium low heat, just to allow the butter to melt. It only takes about 5 minutes for the yeast to activate and once it was frothy, I cracked the eggs in and whisked them up a bit before stirring in the warm milk mixture. Its important that the milk is no warmer than about 100 degrees or it will kill the yeast. With all the wet ingredients combined, I added 3 cups of bread flour and started mixing. The recipe calls for 6 1/2 cups of flour, but I find 6 cups to be enough for a soft, fluffy and delightful dough. I like to mix the flour in one cup at a time until it comes together into a ball, at which point I turn it out onto my surface and start kneading. If the dough is too sticky, I just knead in more flour a handful at a time until the dough is pliable and easy to knead. After about 10 minutes of vigorous kneading, the dough was perfect and I dropped it into a greased container for its first rise of 90 minutes.

With the challah on the rise, I turned my attention to the soup. I keep a large ziplock bag in the freezer that I use to store a variety of soup fixins. When I roast a whole chicken or turkey, the bones go into the soup bag. Celery tops, old carrots and even yellow onion skins go into the soup bag. It usually contains chicken backs, necks and wingtips, veggie trimmings and even parsley or dill stems. There are a ton of nutrients and lots of flavor in what most people would toss in the garbage. In my house, it becomes soup. My soup bag was full and I added everything to my largest stock pot along with a whole 4 lb chicken, a smoked turkey wing, a couple bay leaves, a handful of parsley and dill from my garden and several garlic cloves. I added one can of chicken broth and filled the pot with cold water until the chicken was just submerged. I put the lid on the pot and turned the heat to medium low for a whole day of simmering.

The rest of my Sunday was spent finishing this good deed, deflating the challah dough and setting it in a warm place for its second rise, removing the whole chicken from the pot once it was cooked through and letting it cool so I could remove the meat and return the bones to the soup pot and getting the matzoh ball mixture ready and in the fridge to set up. It was a day of cooking filled with care, heart and spirit. My broth was rich and golden, the matzoh balls fluffy and tender and the challah was picture perfect. It was all still piping hot when we arrived at Allison and Adam's house with our special delivery. We met the newborn Sasha Alexandra and visited with our friends for a while before leaving them to their matzoh ball soup and warm challah, which turns out is Allison's favorite meal. The Hebrew Buckaroo saved the day.

So, when the evil grip of illness sneaks in or when dastardly hunger strikes, when the devastating creep of winter threatens to cast its evil shadow over all the world or when the low rumble of empty bellies cry out for nourishment, The Hebrew Buckaroo will be there with the soup of justice.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Can Pickle That!

Every summer, I tell myself that its the last time I'm planting cucumbers. And every summer, I find myself buried under a mountain of cucumbers. Last year I planted four cucumber plants and by the end of July I never wanted to see another cuke again. Out of necessity, I learned to make pickles and it opened my eyes to the glorious world of homemade brined vegetables. This year I was smart and planted two Kirby cucumber plants, which is a variety specifically designed for pickling. When the giant dill pickle balloon is flying over the Rachel Carson bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, welcoming people to our annual Picklesburgh festival in July, its time to kick into full pickle production mode.

So far, I've harvested at least 40 cucumbers from two plants that I started in early May. The first batch became sour pickle chips with a simple vinegar brine. This basic recipe calls for equal parts of white distilled vinegar and water, with a little salt and whatever flavorings you like. You can add garlic, peppercorns, dill seed or even dill sprigs to enhance the flavor. I also made 12 jars of bread & butter pickles based on the recipe I used last summer. Click here to read about it. But the ones I am most proud of are the fermented pickles that spent a week sitting in a bowl on my kitchen counter. This was my first attempt at fermented pickles and I am awed by how authentic they taste. 

Fermented vegetables were a staple in the diets of my eastern European Jewish ancestors. The fermentation process allows the natural sugars in the vegetables to turn into lactic acid, which creates an acidic environment that prevents the growth of bacteria that would normally cause food to spoil. Its an easy and inexpensive way to preserve foods for extended periods of time, which is great for long, harsh winters. The crunch and sharpness of brined veggies also makes an excellent counterpoint to the often bland meat & potato based diets that were common in places like Poland and Russia. When immigrants came to America from eastern Europe, they brought this tradition with them and the kosher dill pickle became a popular street food and standard fair in Jewish delicatessens. The cucumbers were washed and stacked in barrels with dill, garlic, spices, salt and clean water and left to ferment in a relatively warm place for a few weeks or even a few months. The longer they sit in the brine, the more flavorful they become. I grew up on those pickles and have vivid memories of fishing them out of the huge barrel at Tabachnick's deli. 

FERMENTED PICKLES

10 large pickling cucumbers
5 cups clean water, filtered or distilled
5 tbsp pickling salt
5 large sprigs of fresh dill or a tablespoon of dill seeds
5 cloves of garlic
About 20 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 grape leaves or horseradish leaves (optional)

There is quite a bit of science behind the perfect naturally fermented pickle and they deliver health benefits that shelf-stable vinegar brined pickles do not. Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics, which are essential for gut health and aid in digestion as well as boosting your immune system. Fermentation helps break down cellulose in the skin and seeds of the vegetables, making them easier to digest. Because pickles are highly acidic, bad things like e.coli are unable to survive in that environment. A word of caution, however, while the ingredients and preparation are very simple, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. The more you know, the less likely you will end up with mushy or even moldy pickles. 

First, choose the right cucumber. Look for varieties that are bred specifically for pickling, like Kirby or Alibi. If you use standard slicing cucumbers, which have thinner skins and more moisture, your pickles may turn to mush. Pickling varieties are smaller, shorter, have thicker skin and less moisture, which allows them to soak up the brine more effectively. Second, make sure you use the right salt. Ordinary table salt contains iodine and other chemicals that can interfere with the fermentation process. Kosher salt will work, but pickling salt also contains an enzyme that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Make sure the salt you use does not contain iodine. Finally, the addition of tannin will help keep your pickles crisp, which is where the bay leaves, grape leaves or horseradish leaves come in. I was extremely fortunate because my husband decided to grow horseradish in the garden this year, so I was able to use a leaf in my pickles. However, horseradish leaves will probably be impossible to find, but grape leaves are available in the specialty section of your grocery store. If you can't find them, use a couple extra bay leaves. They'll help keep your pickles crunchy and add a little extra flavor. 

Fermented pickles, day 1
So that's it. Are you ready to pickle? Before you begin, wash your cukes really well in cold water and make sure you remove any remaining bits of blossom. Leave your cucumbers whole for this preparation to make sure the brine doesn't break down the flesh too quickly. Find a nice, deep bowl or large jar in which your cucumbers will fit snugly. The cucumbers need to stay completely submerged in the brine and not be exposed to any air or they'll mold. I used a deep earthenware bowl that I covered with plastic wrap, but if you have a deep bowl with a lid, that would work well. For every cup of water, use one tablespoon of salt and heat the water up slightly just to dissolve the salt more easily. Also, if your cucumbers are really cold, the warm water will help them come to room temperature more quickly. Add the salt, garlic, bay leaves, dill seed and peppercorns to the water and warm it up over low heat. In the bottom of your bowl, place a couple sprigs of dill and half of the grape leaf or horseradish leaf. Place the cucumbers in the bowl, making sure you have enough room so they will be completely submerged in the brine. Once the salt is dissolved, pour the brine over the cucumbers and put the rest of the dill and the other half of the grape or horseradish leaf on top. If the cukes float, place a small plate over them to make sure they stay below the surface of the liquid. Cover your container with plastic wrap and find a spot that's out of the way to let them ferment. The best temperature for this process is between 68 and 72 degrees, so don't let them get too cold or too hot. 

Fermented pickles, day 5
It was so difficult for me to be patient and for the first few days, I looked at my pickles a couple times a day. On the third day, I took one out of the brine and sliced it. The color had changed slightly from its original bright green to a duller, more olive color. It was starting to ferment, but still tasted mostly like a cucumber. On the fifth day, the brine began to look cloudy and little bits of foam were floating on the surface. This is a normal bi-product of fermentation and I decided to have another taste. If you've ever eaten a half-sour, you'll know what my pickle tasted like after five days in the brine. It was still quite crunchy and tasted like a cucumber, but the brine had definitely penetrated the skin and that classic deli-style pickle flavor was developing.

Fermented pickles, day 8
On the eighth day, I tasted again and this time they were perfect. Still crunchy, very briny, sour and complex, I had succeeded in fermenting my own pickles. They were soft, but not mushy and there was a pleasant tingle when I bit into the slice. They tasted exactly like the kosher dill pickle of my youth. I took the remaining seven pickles out of the bowl, put them in containers, poured the brine over them and set them in the fridge. Since the garden is still in full production, this won't be the last batch of fermented pickles I'll be making this year. I'm looking forward to sharing my briny prize with friends and family.




Sunday, July 1, 2018

First Harvest Dinner

It was a Friday night in June and we had no dinner plans. To be fair, it had been an unusually busy week with both of us working extra hours. The following day my radio station was holding our largest annual event, a big concert with six bands in a beautiful park in the middle of Pittsburgh's university district. I hadn't really been thinking about our dinner plans for the evening before Summer Music Festival. Yet there we were, sitting in the living room debating our options of mediocre Chinese take-out, a trip to the grocery store for some frozen or prepared foods or making due with what I had on hand. My husband was ambivalent.

I stood in the kitchen at about 6:30 that evening, my stomach softly rumbling, and stared into the empty abyss of the refrigerator. We had eggs, a head of cabbage and and a couple of apples. The pantry held a little more promise with a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes and a couple boxes of pasta. Combined with good olive oil, some of the grated Parmesan cheese I unearthed from the fridge and a whole bunch of herbs from my garden, I could make a nice, light and fresh tasting tomato sauce and serve it with angel hair pasta. Voila, dinner would be served.

For a decent tomato sauce, onion and garlic are necessary ingredients, but alas, my fridge was uncharacteristically devoid of onions and I had two pathetic dried out cloves of garlic on hand. That's when my brilliant, handsome and resourceful husband chimed in with "hey, we have a whole bunch of onions and garlic growing in the garden". I seriously need to marry that guy. This is the first year we've attempted to grow onions and its early in the season. The garlic had just put out their shoots a few weeks prior, so we figured they'd be underdeveloped. Gloves and trowel in hand, I ventured out to see if I could harvest enough goodies to make this sauce happen. I pulled up two small onions and a puny garlic bulb, but also decided to harvest the one fairly large Japanese eggplant we had in the garden. With veggies procured, combined with handfuls of fresh basil, oregano and parsley, I was ready to go to work.

TOMATO SAUCE WITH EGGPLANT

1 12 oz. can good quality whole peeled Italian tomatoes
1 cup chopped fresh eggplant
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup each chopped fresh basil, parsley and oregano
Salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

Honestly, this sauce is so easy I'm embarrassed to write a blog about it. But there are some fine points that will help you make the very best dinner you can out of these sparse but flavorful ingredients. Normally, when garlic has reached maturity and the bulbs are big and fat, they are harvested and left to dry for a few weeks until the skin become papery and garlic has mellowed. I didn't have that luxury and fresh garlic is extremely assertive. The bulb I dug up was only about the size of a hazelnut, but it stunk up the whole kitchen, so I used half of it. Before starting the sauce, I put a large pot filled with water over medium high heat and added several tablespoons of salt for my pasta. In a medium saucepan, I sauteed the chopped onion with some olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes just until it was translucent before adding the garlic. While that sauteed, I opened the can of tomatoes and lifted each tomato out of the can into a bowl, leaving the liquid in the can, and I crushed up the tomatoes by hand until all the big pieces were mostly broken down.

Once the garlic and onions began to brown, I added the sliced eggplant and another splash of olive oil and let that cook until the eggplant began to soften, then I added the tomatoes and just a splash of the tomato liquid, turned the heat down to medium low and let it gently simmer for about 15 minutes. I came back and tasted, added a pinch more salt and pepper, a little more tomato liquid and half of the fresh herbs. After 15 minutes, I dropped the pasta into the boiling water and cooked it until it was still a little chewy, about 8 minutes. Before I drained the pasta, I scooped out a cup of the pasta water to loosen the sauce. When you drain your pasta, for goodness sake, don't rinse it!!  Pasta has a thin layer of starch on the outside that allows the sauce to penetrate and stick to it. I drained the pasta into a colander, dumped it back into the pot and scooped the sauce on top. The pasta will taste better if you let it finish cooking in the sauce, so I added about half of the pasta water and put it over medium heat to finish cooking. It only took about 6 minutes for the pasta to absorb the liquid in the sauce and take on its beautiful flavors. Before serving it, I added the rest of the fresh herbs, stirred it all together and admired my work.

We enjoyed our dinner with a little of that grated Parmesan cheese on the top and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. It was delicious! The red pepper flakes brought just a little heat and the sauce was sweet, mellow and surprisingly complex. With just a few ingredients and a little imagination, I'd managed to pull a really lovely, light and flavorful dinner out of thin air, thanks to my garden. Even though its early in the season and the garden has just begun to produce, its such a satisfying feeling to cook with the stuff you grow yourself.



Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Cake That Blew My Mind

There is much to be said about relationships with neighbors. Rarely do we get a chance to vet our neighbors before we end up sharing streets, trees and comfortable, sometimes very close surroundings. We were fortunate to find a warm and welcoming group of neighbors on the cul-de-sac in New Hampshire where we lived for four years and we spent many weekends and a few holidays going from house to house for informal gatherings and parties. When we bought our house in Pittsburgh, we hoped to find the same kind of welcoming environment and thankfully our wish came true. The neighbors in this somewhat secluded little enclave just east of the city are delightful, fascinating people and we've become close with a number of them, including the folks who live directly across the street from us - Cara and Michael. Cara owns and operates an amazing yoga and bodywork studio where I periodically go for massage, Michael is a well known professional musician and we hang out from time to time and keep an eye on each other's houses. When Cara told me they were getting married and throwing a big party, I offered to bake her a cake.

I had about a month before the party to think about the style and flavors that would be best for this very special cake. It couldn't be some ordinary cake or something that looked like it came from the grocery store. This cake needed to be as beautiful and unique as the love between two extraordinarily creative people and as delicious as the special moment it was made to celebrate. Carrot cake? Too traditional. Chocolate cake? Too ordinary. Red velvet cake? Not special enough. Sheet cake, layer cake, tiered cake, the possibilities seemed endless. I enlisted the help of my friend Suzanne, fellow Bitchin in the Kitchen founding member and expert baker, and she agreed to help me make this piece of edible art. We settled on a jelly roll style cake, which looks more difficult to make than it actually is. I've made rolled cakes for holiday dinners in the past and they never fail to impress. For the flavors, we decided to go with something seasonal, simple, light and fresh - sponge cake with a layer of strawberry jam and lemon curd rolled up inside, topped with sweetened whipped cream. It would look spectacular and taste like a tangy strawberry shortcake.

STRAWBERRY LEMON CURD CAKE ROLL

Lemon curd filling
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 large lemons)
2 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
4 tbsp butter

Strawberry jam layer
2 cups chopped strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp liquid pectin

Jelly roll cake
12 eggs
1/2 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cream of tarter

Whipped Cream Frosting
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla
10 fresh sliced strawberries and mint leaves for decoration

EQUIPMENT
Two 17x11 sheet pans
Stand mixer
Hand mixer
At least two very large mixing bowls
Two large clean kitchen towels
A really large rectangular platter, cookie sheet or cardboard cake holder for final presentation
A lot of patience and maybe an adult beverage or two

If you're ambitious enough to take this on, good for you!! But I think its only fair to warn you that this is a complex project that requires time, flexibility, skill and a bit of kitchen knowledge. Having two people was vital because we coached each other and ultimately made better decisions as a team than we would have independently. We had some bumps along the way that ended up working to our advantage and at times the whole thing felt like it would either be tragic or magic, which was scary and exhilarating. Bottom line - don't take this on unless you're either highly confident in your skills or prepared to ruin a crap ton of ingredients.

Cara was expecting at least 60 people, probably more, so we needed a big cake. We decided to make two rolls, place them side by side and frost them as a single cake, giving us a prettier presentation and a nice flat surface to decorate. I researched a number of recipes, found what I wanted for each component and then doubled the measurements. You could certainly cut this recipe in half for a single roll cake. You could also use jarred strawberry jam and pre-made lemon curd to save a lot of time. But given the high importance of this occasion, I made everything from scratch.

Since I wanted it to be well chilled, firm and spreadable, I decided to make the lemon curd the night before. This is an easy recipe, but not without its challenges, especially since I'd imbibed not long before wandering into the kitchen. Probably should have waited until after I made the lemon curd, but I was a little excited and in a celebratory mood. The only time I'd made lemon curd before, it turned to liquid in the pie shell once the meringue was on top. It tasted good, but was more like lemon soup than curd. The recipe I picked had a generous proportion of cornstarch , the better to assure the proper thick consistency. I separated my eggs, put the yolks in a measuring cup and set the whites aside. I zested and juiced my lemons and had the butter cut into chunks and sitting in the fridge. In a large saucepan, I measured the sugar, cornstarch and salt and whisked it to combine. I added the water to the measuring cup with the egg yolks, whisked them together then added them to the saucepan and turned the heat to medium low. This needs to heat slowly, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching or clumping on the bottom. I used my wire whisk in an attempt to get the smoothest possible results, but it was just not thickening. I switched to a wooden spoon and when the mixture was just starting to coat the back of the spoon, I took it off the heat and mixed in the lemon juice, zest and butter. It was still pretty soupy, but my hope was that it would set up in the fridge overnight and have a nice, custardy texture in the morning. Well, the next morning when I opened the fridge, I found a bowl of lemon soup, but since I was no longer under the influence I was able to think more clearly and realized that cornstarch reaches its maximum thickening power as it comes to a boil. I hadn't boiled the mixture the night before, so I put the whole thing back in a saucepan and on the stove over medium high heat. Sure enough, my curd thickened like crazy as soon as it hit boiling point and I took it off the stove and whisked in another tablespoon each of lemon juice and butter. I transferred it into a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill.

Again, jarred strawberry jam is absolutely acceptable for this recipe, but I found a container of strawberries in the freezer that we'd picked ourselves the previous summer and since this was a special occasion cake, I was pulling out all the stops. I put the thawed berries into a small pot and added 4 or 5 of the fresh ones I'd bought to decorate, using a potato masher to crush them up. The sugar went in next and I put the pot over high heat, bringing the berry mixture to a boil and letting it bubble rapidly for a few minutes before adding the pectin. Just another minute of boiling and the jam took on a shiny, dark color and a slight thickness. I removed it from the heat, poured it into a small bowl and set it in the fridge to cool. My prep was completed, so I cleaned up, relaxed and waited for my baking buddy to arrive.

When Suzanne got here, we jumped into cake mode and I immediately pre-heated my oven to 350 degrees and moved the racks to the middle and top third of the oven. This classic jelly roll sponge gets its porous and fluffy texture from beaten egg whites and since we doubled the recipe, we had a lot of beating to do. Its really important that the egg whites don't come in contact with any fat because that will prevent them from whipping properly, so we cleaned out the bowl of the Kitchen Aid mixer very well and I scrubbed the whisk attachment with salt and rinsed it under hot water, just to make sure it had no fat clinging to it from a previous use. While Suzanne prepped the baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper and spraying them with non-stick spray, I started separating eggs. One by one, I cracked them over the bowl of my Kitchen Aid, allowing the whites to fall into the bowl and depositing the yolks into a separate bowl. I added thecream of tartar to the egg whites, which helps to stabilize them and keeps them from deflating, and I set the Kitchen Aid to medium speed just to break the egg whites up.

I added the water to the egg yolks and using the hand mixer, I started beating them on high speed. With one hand on the hand mixer and the other on the Kitchen Aid, I beat both mixtures on high speed. Once the egg whites were at stiff peak stage, Suzanne added a cup of sugar and let them beat for another few minutes. And once the egg yolks were thick and pale yellow, Suzanne added a cup of sugar to them, along with a little lemon juice and the vanilla extract and I beat them for another couple of minutes to incorporate everything. Suzanne measured out the flour, baking powder and salt and slowly added that to the egg yolk mixture while I beat it in with the hand mixer. At this point we realized that neither bowl was big enough to hold this enormous amount of cake batter.
I found the biggest bowl I had, we dumped in all the yolk mixture and I started adding small amounts of egg whites, folding in each addition until it was well incorporated. Once all the egg whites were folded in, I poured the batter into the prepared pans, eyeballing to make sure they were as even as possible and we each took a pan, spreading the batter into the corners and getting it as evenly distributed as possible. The pans went into the preheated oven and half way through the 18 minute baking time, we rotated them and alternated them on the racks. This cake can over bake easily, so we removed them as soon as they were slightly brown on top, springy to the touch and were coming away from the sides of the pans.
After just five minutes of cooling, we turned each cake out onto a kitchen towel that was dusted with confectioners sugar. The cakes were somewhat thick so I scored very gently lengthwise with a serrated knife, being careful not to cut more than about a quarter of an inch into the cake. This technique gave the cake more flexibility and allowed us to gently roll them in the towel and set them in the fridge in their rolled state so they would keep their shape as they cooled. With the cake cooling and all the components ready, we cleaned up again and sat down to rest before tackling the construction. While we relaxed, Suzanne scoured the internet looking for design inspiration and she found some great examples that used slices of strawberries to make floral patterns.

With just three hours remaining before the party started, we entered the kitchen to begin construction. When I pulled the lemon curd out of the fridge, I found a solid block that was easier to slice than spread, the result of too much cornstarch! I was so overly concerned about the curd not setting up that that I overcompensated. For your convenience, dear reader, I have adjusted the proportion of corn starch in this recipe so the same thing doesn't happen to you. You'll most certainly thank me for it later. We conferred and hypothesized and decided that if we beat a little cream into the curd, it would loosen up and become spreadable. Once again, both mixers came into play. We used the Kitchen Aid to make the whipped cream, to which we added the confectioners sugar and vanilla and beat on high until it held hard peaks. In a separate bowl, Suzanne beat the lemon curd with a couple tablespoons of the cream until it was smooth, light and fluffy and it actually improved the flavor. We took the cakes out of the fridge and started lining everything up for assembly and decoration.

This is where the teamwork made the biggest difference. Working very carefully without trying to flatten the cake too much, we each took a roll and spread a thin layer of strawberry jam on the inside. Then we put small dollops of the curd on top and spread it in an even layer over the jam, doing our best not to squish them together too much. We actually had exactly the right amount of each to cover both cakes. Rolling the cakes can seem a little scary. With all that filling, its best to roll them loosely and the most effective way to do that is by using the towel to gently nudge the cake forward and roll it up without pressing on it. We each rolled our cakes and I got mine done and onto the serving platter first. Suzanne had a blow-out and her cake split as it was rolling, so we used the towel to scoot it onto the platter, putting the split side right up against the other cake. It worked!!

They were both in tact and nestled in together like a couple of lovebirds. One cake was slightly longer than the other and they were both just a little too long for the platter, so before decorating we cut the ends off and tasted our work. The cake was spongy, the lemon curd was tangy and rich and there was a pretty pink ring and just a hint of strawberry flavor from the jam. The whipped cream added lightness and was neutral and clean enough in flavor to allow the lemon to really shine through. The spiral was uniform and it was holding its shape nicely. We were both extremely pleased with the results.

Using a large offset spatula, I spread a thick layer of whipped cream all over the cake, covering the sides, ends and the gap where the two rolls came together to create a flat surface on top. My friend Jenny sent me a cake decorating kit and its a lot of fun to play around with, so I broke out a piping bag, filled it with whipped cream and did a little fancy scroll at the base of the cake and along the top edges. Then Suzanne went to work with strawberry slices and she made two flowers on top that seemed to bloom right off the cake!
A few mint leaves from my herb garden added a pop of green and we stood back and admired our work. I have to admit that as many remarkable and beautiful things as I've cooked, this was the most stunning and rewarding of them all. It only took us an hour to construct and decorate and we carefully slid the cake into the fridge and flopped down on the couch to rest our weary bones.

That unbelievably gorgeous cake was quite the conversation piece at the party. People could not believe we made it ourselves. As it sat in the kitchen while dinner was served, the cream and curd began to penetrate the spongecake from inside and out and by the time we cut into it, it was the perfect soft texture. The distinctive coiled slices looked impressive on the plates and I made sure every piece had plenty of whipped cream. The bride and groom got the first slice and within half an hour, there was barely a smear of whipped cream left on the platter. Compliments abounded, but honestly the greatest joy comes from making the creative effort to show two people how special and loved they are. At every celebration, great memories are built around the act of sharing food to nourish and sustain the people we care about. It was an honor to present Cara, Michael, their lovely families and close friends with a unique, beautiful and scrumptious piece of art to add to their memories of that wonderful day.






Saturday, May 19, 2018

Where Your Food Comes From

When you stop and think about what happens to your food between the moment it springs to life and the moment it lands on your dinner table, it boggles the mind. Read the ingredients on the label of what you're about to consume. How many ingredients are in that yogurt, salad dressing or bag of chips? Do you know what all of them are? Furthermore, where do all of the individual ingredients come from and how did they get from their point of origin into your food? How many trucks, factories and processing plants did they see along the way? Its astonishing how dependent we have become on big business for the very thing that sustains us - our food.

That said, living completely off the corporate food grid is more challenging than it seems, but there are smart ways to reduce processed and manufactured stuff from your diet simply by paying attention to where your food comes from. The closer to home it is produced, the less impact that ingredients have on the environment and the fresher it is likely to be. Even though they are factory produced, we buy pretzels that are made right here in Pennsylvania because they don't have to be trucked in from several states away. In the summer, we grow our own vegetables and purchase from farmers markets. Most of the bread I buy comes from local bakeries and I try to buy locally grown and produced items as much as possible. Also, read the labels on your grocery items and look for the least amount of weird chemicals, additives and unnecessary ingredients. If you don't know what something is, how do you know what its going to do to your body?

I used to rely on McGinnis Sisters for all my local meat, eggs, produce and baked goods, but since they closed a few months ago I've felt a little lost. We inherited a big chest freezer last month when Jason's grandmother passed away and it was sitting mostly empty in the laundry room, so I'd been thinking about finding a good source for locally raised beef, pork and chicken and stocking up. And then an e-mail showed up in my inbox from Pittsburgher Highland Farm, purveyors of local, grass fed organic Scottish highland beef. I'd met these folks at a farmers market a few years back and signed up for their e-newsletter. Once again, inspiration arrived at the right moment.

Scottish highland cow at Miles Smith Farm
I was a regular customer of Miles Smith Farm when we lived in New Hampshire and we'd go visit on farm days, meet their herd of magnificent Scottish highland cattle and stock up on the best quality beef I've ever purchased. Miles Smith Farm runs a pristine and ethical operation and raises their herd with respect and care. The experience made me truly appreciate where that beef came from and the efforts made to ensure a good life for these beautiful creatures who nourish and sustain us. When you walk up to one of these impressive beasts, you develop deep gratitude for the incredible gift they give you. 


I started poking around on Pittsburgher Highland Farm's website and reading about their operation. They are raising a small but growing herd on a pasture in Laurel Highlands, just east of Pittsburgh, adhering to the very highest USDA standards for naturally raised, organic, grass-fed beef. Their cattle are given no hormones, fed no by-products or grains and spend their days grazing in the mountain pasture. In addition to beef and lamb, they have recently added bone broth, tallow balm and dog treats. Looking at the order form, I found a number of economy packs that would allow me to sample a variety of cuts at an affordable price. The next day, a co-worker of mine mentioned that he was also looking to try some locally raised beef and we decided to split a large order. I called that afternoon and spoke to Dana, one of the partners in the business, who told me all about the company, the herd and their products. I ordered an assortment of sirloin roasts, strip steaks, skirt steaks, stew meet and ground beef and it all came out to be about $7 a pound, which is a bargain when you consider what goes into its production . A week later, I went to Dana's house and picked up a swinging load of beautiful meat, half of which I delivered to my co-worker the next day.

The following weekend I took out a package of two strips steaks and cooked them for my husband and I for Sunday dinner. The steaks were quite lean and I prepared them very simply with just a bit of course salt and pepper, seared in a smoking hot cast iron skillet and finished briefly in a hot oven. They were absolutely amazing with a deep, beefy flavor and juicy, luscious texture. The weekend after that, I took out a package of ground beef and made burgers, which were also amazing. Not only is this product of superior quality, but I feel good knowing exactly where my dinner came from. I can't wait to take a road trip to meet Mark and Dana's herd and I plan to be a loyal customer of Pittsburgher Highland Farm for a long time to come.




Monday, April 16, 2018

Apple Pie From Scratch

Mom Mom Jessie as a newlywed 
My husband's sweet grandmother Mom Mom Jessie passed away last month at the age of 97.  Jessie was the oldest of eight siblings, born in 1921 to a huge farm family that grew just about everything in the rich soil of southern New Jersey. Being the oldest. she was her mother's right hand and learned how to run the household, care for her brothers and sisters and, of course, cook. She married a south Jersey farm boy and they raised two kids, passing her love of simple and wholesome cooking down to future generations. Mom Mom learned to make everything from scratch by hand without the benefit of fancy kitchen gadgets and electronics. She pickled, she made jam, she preserved vegetables and she baked. At her funeral, praises were sung over and over about Mom Mom's pies. My husband has always raved about Mom Mom's pies and he speaks with loving nostalgia about her sour cherry pie made with cherries from her brother's farm. So I set out to follow her lead and make a pie from scratch.

Not long after my husband and I got engaged, we were talking to Mom Mom on the phone and I asked her to share her tips for making pie crust. I'd recently had a failed attempt and I was sure she had some farm wisdom that would set me on the right path. Mom Mom's answer was totally not what I expected. "To be honest, I haven't made a pie crust in years", she said, "my secret is Pillsbury. Its so much easier and tastes just fine".  She laughed sheepishly. Mom Mom didn't realize it at the time, but her comment gave me permission to be lazy all these years and not learn how to make my own pie crust. Its high time I mastered this most basic kitchen skill.

APPLE PIE

Pie crust:
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, cut into cubes and very cold.
6-7 tbsp ice water

Filling:
6 apples, peeled, cored and sliced thinly
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tbsp good quality honey or maple syrup
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp cinnamon
zest of one large lemon
juice from half a lemon

There is nothing quite as satisfying as a well made apple pie. My mother made a lot of apple pies when I was growing up. It was standard fare on every holiday table and while I helped her many times, I couldn't tell you how she made the crust. There something daunting and mysterious about pie crust and the one time I tried to make it myself, I overworked it and it was tough and bland. Its not terribly difficult, but there are several variables and a lot can go wrong with the smallest mistakes. The proportions of fat to flour, the temperature of the ingredients, the moisture content and the way the dough is made can all have profound affects on the final product. A good pie crust should be tender, flaky and have a rich, buttery flavor.

My research started with my go-to source for all baking knowledge - Baking With Julia - the companion book to Julia Child's wonderful PBS series. Julia's basic pie dough recipe called for a mixture of butter and shortening, explaining that shortening yields a flakier crust, but butter brings the flavor. This is because shortening has more water in it, which evaporates during baking and creates that distinctive flaky texture. Butter has less water and creates a more crumbly crust with tons of flavor. Also, the fat needs to be ice cold so it stays in small pieces as the dough comes together. Those small pieces of fat melt during baking and the water evaporates, leaving an air pocket in the crust, which gives it that flaky texture. If the fat gets too warm, it melts and disintegrates into the flour, leaving no air pockets and no flaky texture. I didn't happen to have shortening in my pantry, but I did have 2 sticks of Amish rolled butter with 84% butterfat. I cut them into large chunks and put them on a plate in the freezer to get them well chilled while I measured out the rest of my ingredients.

I measured my dry ingredients directly into the bowl of the food processor fitted with the blade attachment, pulsing a few times to sift them together before adding the cold cubes of butter. I pulsed the food processor until the mixture resembled course cornmeal and there were still quite a few largish chunks of butter remaining. One tablespoon at a time, I added ice water and pulsed the processor until the mixture just started the come together, but hadn't yet formed a ball. I took a small handful of the dough, squeezed it in my hand and it held together. The dough had a crumbly texture, but once it was turned out onto my work surface, it came together into a mass. One of the classic mistakes you can make with pie dough is to overwork it, which results in a tough, hard crust. This dough should not be kneaded and requires at least an hour to rest and chill in the fridge before it gets rolled out. I split the dough in half, worked each half into a rough ball and transferred it to a sheet of plastic wrap, which I used to press and shape the dough into a smooth and evenly round disk. With my pie dough chillin' in the fridge, I turned my attention to the apples.

The variety of apple you use makes a tremendous difference in the flavor and texture of the pie. Some varieties like Red Delicious and Rome become mushy when they are cooked. Cooking can also change the flavor, causing some apples to become too sweet or just bland. Granny Smith apples are known for keeping their shape when they cook, but they are very tart. A mixture of different varieties will result in the best flavor and texture. I chose a combination of Granny Smith, Macintosh and Gala apples, which I peeled, cored and sliced very thinly. I added all the other ingredients to the apples and set them aside to macerate in their own juices and soften before baking.

After about 2 hours in the fridge, the pie dough was firm, rested and ready to rock. I left it sitting on the counter for about 20 minutes so it could warm up just a bit before I started rolling it out. I also set my oven to 375 so I could blind bake the bottom crust. Blink baking is a technique where you pre-bake the bottom crust to make sure it stays crispy as you bake your pie. My mother never blind baked her pie crusts and the bottom was always floppy, doughy and under-cooked. For most of my life, I thought that's how all pies were supposed to taste because that was all I knew, but when I experienced a well-baked pie crust for the first time, I knew there was room for improvement in my mother's technique. Now, I never bake a fruit pie without blind baking the crust. I unwrapped one piece of dough and started working it a bit with my hands.
It was a really stiff dough that still had kind of a crumbly texture and it was not an easy task to roll it out into a somewhat circular shape. It kept cracking around the edges and I had to roll the edges together and pinch them as I went to keep the dough together in a single piece. It was also pretty sticky and I had to flour the surface and flip the dough quite a few times to keep it from sticking to the table. But I finally managed to get it rolled out and into the pie plate. I trimmed the edges, built the dough up to make a nice border and placed it in the fridge to firm up for 15 minutes before blink baking. When it was chilled, I poked little holes all over the bottom of the dough to allow steam to escape as it bakes, which keeps it from bubbling up, then placed a sheet of parchment into the center of the crust and filled it with beans. I keep a jar of beans in my pantry that I only use for this purpose. The beans act as weights that keep the crust flat and prevent it from sliding down into the pie plate as it bakes. After 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven, the edges of the crust had just started to brown and I removed it from the oven and let it cool down while I rolled out the top crust. I also turned the oven down to 325, which is the perfect temperature to bake the pie long enough for the apples to cook without burning the crust.

Since it had been out of the fridge for about an hour, the top crust was a little easier to roll out. I managed to get it pretty thin and by the time I was done, the bottom crust had cooled enough to work with. I poured all the apples into bottom crust and gingerly draped the top crust over the apples. I cut the edges of the dough off so they were even with the border, but there was a gap between the partially baked bottom crust and the raw top crust. So I gathered up all the scraps of dough, formed them into a ball and I rolled it into a long, thin rope, which I used to encase the outside of the border of the bottom crust, bringing the raw top crust over it and crimping the edges with my fingers. It looked pretty nice, actually, and I was proud of my ability to solve a problem quickly with scraps of dough. Before I put it in the oven, I carved a heart into the center of the top crust to allow the filling to vent as it cooked. Then I painted the entire pie with a beaten egg and sprinkled the top liberally with Demerara sugar. If you don't have this light brown sugar in large crystals in your pantry, I strongly suggest you get some. It is perfect for topping pies, cakes, cookies and muffins and yields a crunchy, sweet exterior to any baked item.


The pie needs at least an hour to bake and it should be placed on a baking sheet to make sure any juices that run out don't drip onto the bottom of your oven and burn. The pie is done when you can see the juices bubbling under the air vents you cut into the top crust. Some juices will probably leak out into the center of the pie and that's just fine. I took my perfectly browned pie out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool. An hour later, I sliced a piece for both my husband and myself and added a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Its hard to accurately describe how scrumptious this pie truly was. The fruit was perfectly cooked with lots of visible slices of apple that still had some texture. Because of the combo of flour and corn starch in the filling, the juices had thickened up nicely and were slightly viscous without being gooey or gummy. The bottom crust was cooked through and slightly browned, just as it should be. Overall, the crust was delicate and tender and had a crumbly texture, almost like shortbread, with a strong buttery flavor. It was absolutely divine. I figure the best way to honor Mom Mom's memory is to cook like she did, with the freshest ingredients, a little common sense and a lot of love. I think she would have been proud of this apple pie. Cheers to you, Mom Mom, wherever you are.




Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pizza Party


I think I have respectable skills in the kitchen, but there are many types of food I just do not know how to make, nor am I likely to attempt them at home. I love Indian food, but don't have enough experience cooking it to do it right. My baking skills are good, but I have yet to take on challenging things like puff pastry. I've never made pho. All these cuisines are available at restaurants, where they are made by people who know those flavors and techniques inside and out, certainly much better than I do. Even though I know its quite easy to make, until recently pizza was one of those foods for me.

I sit on the board of directors of a very cool theater company here in Pittsburgh called Bricolage Production Company. A couple years ago, I offered to host a dinner party at my home with the company's founders as a silent auction item for their annual fundraising event. It was an elaborate dinner; we made pasta by hand, we made our own pesto with herbs from our gardens and we made ice cream from scratch. The folks who had the winning bid in the auction were wonderful people and it was a tremendously fun night, but it was a ton of work and took us hours to prepare. We were all completely exhausted at the end of the night. When it came time to plan the fundraiser last year, we decided to do something much less complicated and after a little brainstorming, we settled on an Oscar night pizza party. I have a nice, big den with a gas-jet fireplace and a huge, comfortable couch where we could watch the Academy Awards presentation. Plus, I've never made pizza at home before!

Tami Dixon at work
Tami Dixon and Jeffrey Carpenter, the founders of Bricolage, are warm, smart, highly intelligent and really fun people and Tami loves to cook. My job was to have appetizers and desserts ready and Tami was in charge of the pizza and salad. By the time the Bricolage gang arrived, the house was spotless, my favorite chocolate blackout cake was chilling in the fridge and there was a lovely spread of cheeses, fruit, crackers, olives and yummy deviled eggs with just a touch of horseradish in the filling. Tami immediately jumped in and started making the dough. She was using yeast that was specifically made for pizza dough, which means that the dough doesn't need to proof before baking. She also used jarred pizza sauce and pre-shredded Italian cheeses as well as a variety of fresh toppings, which tasted great and saved a ton of time. The result was absolutely delicious and I was surprised at how good and how simple it was to make. Tami made about 6 different pizzas and we had an amazing feast and a wonderful evening watching the Oscars together.

Tami's mushroom pizza
Over the next couple of days, I found myself thinking about that pizza. The following weekend I decided to make an enormous pot of slow-cooked spaghetti sauce with meatballs and sausage. Its one of my favorite Sunday dinners because it rewards me meal after meal with things like lasagna, meatball sandwiches, shakshuka and, of course, pizza. In the past, I would buy a pre-made crust, but not this time.




PIZZA DOUGH

3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour
1 tsp sugar or honey
1 packet instant dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

As usual, I did a little research before I proceeded and settled on a basic recipe I saw multiple times. Making pizza dough at home is easier than falling off a log and if you've worked with any kind of yeast dough before, this is a breeze. I combined all the ingredients in my stand mixer and using the dough hook, mixed until the dough came together into a ball. I kneaded it for about 5 minutes in the mixer, then turned it out onto my counter and kneaded it by hand until it was nice and smooth and stretchy. I gave this dough an hour-long proof in an oiled bowl and allowed it to just about double in size. At this point, the dough can be used to make pizza, but I wanted to see what happened if I let it proof overnight in the fridge. According to everything I read, the longer it sits in the fridge, the more flavor the dough develops.

A bit about equipment - there are different ways to make pizza. It can be baked in a pan, on a cookie sheet or straight on a pizza stone. I had a pizza stone for a long time, but it eventually cracked and I just haven't replaced it yet. If you are using a pizza stone, you will need a peel to get your pizza in and out of the oven. Also, the familiar technique of flipping pizza dough in the air until its paper thin provides great theatrics, but its impractical for a home cook. Tami used a rolling pin and so did I. The dough is very stretchy and tends to shrink back as you work with it. If you let it rest for a few minutes as you're working it, the gluten will relax a bit and it will be easier to roll. 

I cut about a quarter of the dough off so I could make a test pizza before putting the rest of the dough into an oiled ziplock bag and setting in the refrigerator. I rolled that small dough ball out with a rolling pin until it was very thin, then laid it into an oiled baking pan. I cranked the oven to 450 degrees and while it pre-heated, the yeast in the dough reactivated. By the time the oven was ready, the dough had just begun to puff up. I popped it into the oven for just 5 minutes so the crust could set a bit before I put the sauce and toppings on it. A thin layer of sauce followed by handfuls of grated mozzerella and parmesan cheeses went on before I put it back in to finish baking. About 10 minutes later, I pulled a beautifully bubbling pizza with a golden, crispy crust out of the oven and was pretty pleased with my effort. The pizza was tasty with a toothsome, crunchy crust. The next day, I used the rest of the dough and filled the biggest baking pan I own to make a giant pizza. It was even more delicious and we ate the leftovers cold right out of the fridge for two more days. It was the gift that kept on giving. I'll be making my own pizza dough from now on so any day can become a pizza party!