Category Archives: Indulgences

Pierogi Project: My first time making homemade pierogi

For the past three Valentine’s Days, James and I have stayed home and made ourselves some steak.  Mostly because going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day is akin to voluntarily being robbed.    And we were incredibly pleased with our decision when, around 7pm, a horribly windy snowstorm whipped snow against our window, and the highway was completely obscured from view.  Since we’re living on the 7th floor, the rest of the weekend promises to transform our apartment into a drafty haunted house.

And because Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday this year, I realized that we could take on a cooking project, something we’ve always wanted to try to make from scratch but didn’t have the time.  A lot of ideas were batted around until we decided that we would have steak and pierogi.DSC_0133

This seemed brilliant at the time but as I continued to research recipes, it became more and more intimidating.  We weren’t just trying a new recipe: we were making pasta dough, which we’ve never done by ourselves, making mashed potatoes, which I hate doing, and then filling the dumplings, which is what I had been regarding as the most difficult part.

There are lots of interesting pierogi recipes out there, as this is a traditional celebratory dish in several cultures, but the one I ended up using was from Sydney Oland of Serious Eats.  It seemed the most straight-forward to me, but that’s because the recipe is written very matter-of-factly.  To novice pierogi makers, like we were (are?), there was a lot of supplemental information we needed to search for as the day went on.DSC_0113

However, the results were delectable and our apartment smelled amazing for days.  Here, I detail James’ and my first foray into pierogi making – hopefully these tips will help you on your own pierogi journey!DSC_0221

Pierogi filled with potatoes and cheddar cheese

Recipe by Sydney Oland at Serious Eats, one of my most trusted sources for reliable food and cooking intel

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • large pinch of salt (I used 1/8 tsp)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)

Filling:

  • 2 large Russet potatoes
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 sliced onion fried in 1 tablespoon butter (optional) (but not really)

Procedures:

  1. Make Dough: Place flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add water, egg and vegetable oil and mix, slowly incorporating flour until soft dough forms.
  2. Turn soft dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
  3. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 1 hour.
  4. To make filling: Wash potatoes and peel (or use food mill, see below) and cut into 1 inch pieces.
  5. Boil in salted water until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
  6. Drain potatoes, place in a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork (or food mill, see below) slowly adding grated cheese.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  8. Assemble pierogi: Divide dough in half, reserving other half under a kitchen towel.
  9. *Divide halved dough into 24 evenly sized pieces. Roll each piece into a round about 1/8-inch thick.*
  10. Wet edges of dough and place a rounded teaspoon worth of filling in center of round.
  11. Close dough around filling creating a semicircle sealing edges with fingers (or crimp with a fork).
  12. Repeat with all remaining dough (there may be some filling left).
  13. Boil a large pot of water, and working in batches, cook pierogi until they rise to the top of the boiling water.
  14. Another change.  Once all of the pierogi were boiled, we sauteed them in oil to get a nice, crisp browning.  More on that below…

*Here we differed.  Instead of rolling out the dough into pieces, we rolled out one big piece to 1/8 inch thick and used a biscuit cutter (but a cookie cutter would work too), to cut out circles in order to make pierogi in the shape to which we’re accustomed: the crimped half moon.

Pictures and Anecdotes:

Making Pasta Dough:

I’ve only ever made pasta from scratch once, in a cooking class that I took with my brother Dan eight years ago.  So you could say that I was rusty.  I had decided that we would make the dough in the food processor, which would do most of the kneading for us because I didn’t feel confident that I could teach myself how to knead.

So we started in the food processor, but because this dough contains a cup of water, the water started to seep out of the food processor and all over the counter.  This may have been avoided if we had added the ingredients in a certain order, perhaps the water and then the flour, so the water would seep into the flour and not spill.  But we added the flour first, then the water, which spilled over the middle of the processor, the cavity where the mechanics of the processor meets the food bowl.

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James, in his wisdom, said we should salvage all the ingredients and mix them in a bowl with a spoon.  I was skeptical, since I’d never seen it done that way before – there’s usually a complex, delicate mixing procedure that looks like this.  However, once James mixed it all together, the dough looked exactly how it does at the end of the complex procedure, so we just decided to move ahead!

So, we needed to teach ourselves how to knead and found this video from Giuliano Hazan to help us.  (Fun fact!  I used this video completely ignorant to the fact that Giuliano is the author of the first cookbook I ever owned and the son on Marcella Hazan, who I just watched on Mind of Chef today and who is regarded as the “Godmother of Italian Cooking.”  I’d say we found a pretty reliable source!)

The steps we found are as follows:
1.  Flour the surface you’ll be working on – I tried using parchment, but it moved around too much.  I eventually switched to a wood cutting board.
2. Mold the dough into a ball so you can work with it.  It will be very sticky!  Add flour as often as you please throughout the process.
3.  Stretch the dough a little so that you can fold it over one hand like a book.DSC_0012
4. With the heel of your hand, push the dough back on to itself twice, like you’re trying to seal those edges together while also forming the dough back into a ball.DSC_0014
5. Turn the dough 1/4 turn and repeat.

As the recipe says, you knead for about 8 minutes until your dough is not so sticky and feels elastic.  What does elastic mean?  Think of a rubber band – it can be stretched but will snap back into its shape.  The dough won’t be exactly like a rubber band, but it will feel tougher than when you started and you can imagine rolling it.  If you’re not sure, just take the time into consideration – if you’ve kneaded for 8 minutes, it’s probably good to go.  You don’t have to knead continuously, either.  James and I switched at one point so we could both get a chance to try it.

Ready to hydrate!
Ready to hydrate!

Now you let the dough rest under a towel to hydrate.  The recipe says 1 hour, but we waited about 1.5 hours because we were doing other things in the kitchen.

Mashed Potatoes

Now we made the potatoes.  I hardly ever cook potatoes in my house because they’re such a pain – you have to scrub them, some people peel them (but I never do because that’s where all the nutrients are), and then boil, and then mash.  I just don’t like mashed or roasted potatoes enough to go to the trouble, especially on a weeknight.  However, the pierogi memories we had included mashed potatoes, so this was a must.  It also gave me the excuse to use my food mill, which James bought me about 3 years ago and I still had never used.DSC_0017

The food mill is featured on cooking shows a lot for mashed potatoes and for tomato sauce.  It’s used to make uniform, gorgeous texture and also keeps skins of potatoes and tomatoes out of your mixture.  It was also very easy to use, once we realized that all three blades were locked into the machine for storage, and we needed to choose one before proceeding.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until after I already fed potatoes into the machine.  I don’t call this blog “Amateur Hour” for nothing.DSC_0076

Anyways, you feed to potatoes into the top of the machine and turn a crank that pushes the potatoes through the shredder blade and into the bowl below.  Some skins get shredded but most stay at the top, keeping the texture uniform.  It’s pretty badass.  The best part is that the whole mechanism is dishwasher safe.

Action shot!
Action shot!

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Once the potatoes were milled, I added the cheese and incorporated them together with a potato masher, my favorite non-fancy potato tool.  It can be used in lots of applications when you need to mash something, like avocado or mixing something hard into cookie dough like chocolate chips or nuts.

Back to our pasta dough.

Look at how it's hydrated after an hour (and a half)!
Look at how it’s hydrated after an hour (and a half)!


The big change we made to the recipe was that we decided to roll the dough out into one big sheet instead of rolling each individual piece.  It seemed like it would cut down on time.DSC_0105

Rolling pasta dough is different than any other dough I’ve worked with (mostly cookie dough.)  The elasticity we talked about earlier makes the dough start to shrink back into its shape once you’ve rolled it, so you need to apply a healthy amount of pressure to the dough to get it to stay rolled out.  The recipe calls for us to roll the dough to 1/8 inch, which is very thin – the concept is, because you’re folding the dough over to make the pierogi, you end up with 1/4 inch pasta in the finished product, just with some filling in between.  However, if your pasta is just a little bit thicker, it’s easier to work with and we didn’t find that it ruined the dish.  At the end of the process, James made a few pierogi that were 1/4 inch thick before he folded them and we can’t even find those among the others.  So the thickness is not going to screw up your pierogi!DSC_0107

Filling pierogi:
We really had a lot of fun during this part of the process.  It’s time-consuming and a little intimidating at first, which is why I created a short video to show how I did it from start to finish.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Once we rolled the dough out, we cut circles out with our biscuit cutter, which is 2 & 3/4 inch in diameter.  The exact size doesn’t matter a lot because…
  2. Then stretch the dough to be just a little bit larger, stretching the outside and turning the dough, just like a pizza, so that you can fit a healthy amount of filling inside.
  3. Measure out a rounded teaspoon of the filling and place it on one side of the circle.
  4. Flatten the filling, so it will fit the crescent moon shape.
  5. Moisten the edges with a little bit of water.
  6. Fold the pasta over and crimp with a fork.
    1. I like to make the first indentation, then for the next, I put the outside tine of the fork in the last indentation I made so that the crimps are evenly spaced.

Obviously this part of the process takes the longest.  I’d say it took us about an hour to do, although we were also preparing other parts of our meal at the same time.  But it was extremely satisfying, watching this pasta and mashed potatoes become something beautiful, this shape from my childhood that had only ever come from a Mrs. T’s freezer bag.  That is my absolute favorite part of cooking, possibly more than actually eating – when the ingredients come together and you can actually see the food take form.DSC_0137

Now once all the pierogi were finished, they sat for a while before we boiled them.  This was probably the biggest surprise when we tried to move them – the dough is wet and stuck to the plates we were storing them on, which then mangled our lovingly made shapes!  As James was tending to the pot, I had to very gingerly pry them off the plate and flip them onto their tops, which had dried just enough not to stick.  How can this sticking be avoided?  I’m not positive, but I think storing them on a different surface, like the wood cutting board, would be helpful.  We could store them on plates lined with parchment paper, and I’d recommend two layers, because the dough is wet enough to soak through the parchment, which would defeat the purpose.  You could also very lightly dust the plate before placing the pierogi down on it.  That’s probably what I’ll do next time.

You should use a large pot of water to boil your pierogi, which we did not do.  We were only able to get 5 pierogi in the pot at a time, which resulted in long cooking time and very cloudy water by the end.  The water will get cloudier than if you use dried pasta, so make sure you use a lot of water and your biggest pot!

This pot is not big enough...
This pot is not big enough…

However, fresh pierogi also cook very fast, so they’ll float to the top in 2-3 minutes.  Once they float, they’re done and can be fished out using a slotted spoon.

The original recipe says to serve the pierogi this way, but that’s not the way I remember them and certainly not what James was envisioning.  Oh no – we fried them up in olive oil for a golden brown finish and a crisp exterior.  What I found fascinating is that some of the pierogi had gotten really ugly and mangled, but once we fried them – it just didn’t matter.  It was as if my brain couldn’t even compute that they looked different than the others.  That golden brown color means “YUM ME EAT NOW” in my brain, no matter what.

Mangled, yet still looks delicious
Mangled, yet still looks delicious

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James fried up some onions low and slow to accompany the pierogi, also something I’m rather accustomed to when eating pierogi.  The apartment smelled amazing.  I think I’d like to make a fried onion scented candle.DSC_0167

We had about 50 small pierogi to enjoy and so we did, for several days now.  Pierogi are a great cooking project to take on: what would be even better is to take it on with a few friends, so you can all learn and work together, accompanied by some cold beers.  The process will go faster and you won’t be eating at 9pm… like we were.  Also starting earlier in the day would be a good rule of thumb.

Have you made pierogi before and have tips?  Is there anything you’re wondering about that I haven’t covered?  Hit me up in the comments below.DSC_0156DSC_0229

Thanks for coming along on our Pierogi Journey!

Homemade Spreadable Butter

About 6 months ago, I had an existential crisis in the grocery store.

I was standing in the oil section, trying to choose a neutral flavored oil for these delicious banana muffins.  I use olive oil in almost everything I cook, but it seemed like it wouldn’t lend the right flavor to the muffins.  I also thought it would be good to get an oil that had some beneficial component that would add to the healthiness of the muffins.

Grapeseed oil was a good price and what the original recipe had suggested.  So I googled grapeseed oil to see if it had any particularly healthy attributes.  And I was attacked by the following results:

Print Screen Grapeseed Oil

Some sites claimed that grapeseed oil was a great choice for my baked goods and others claimed that it would surely kill me.  I was literally paralyzed, hunched over my phone like that annoying person I usually grumble about in the grocery store.  I kept clicking and reading and clicking and reading, frenzied by the conflicting arguments and desperate for an answer for what I should actually choose.  All of the claims became more and more hysterical and this seemingly simple choice became more dire than ever.

I felt betrayed, afraid and embarrassed.  How was everyone else buying their products so easily?  Didn’t they know that EVERYTHING WAS A LIE?!

Why am I such a lunatic about this?  Most of it has to do with watching my mother suffer from pancreatic cancer.  When something like that happens to a loved one, it’s natural to seek answers, and I decided to focus on food, which is really the only thing I can control about my environment.  Well, and exercise, but that’s a whole separate discussion.

The point is, I was very vulnerable and these “click-bait” headlines really messed with my head.  I’m very grateful to James for encouraging me to do more research before making drastic changes to my (and, because we live together, his) diet.  Now I’m able to look at Google results like the ones above and search for reputable websites that I have decided to trust like the Mayo Clinic or Harvard Medical School.  Are these sites infallible?  Of course not.  But I try to at least look for information with a science background.  It keeps me sane.

So what does all of this crap have to do with spreadable butter?  Merely that homemade spreadable butter has two ingredients: real butter and the oil of your choosing.  And after all that, my choosing is still grapeseed oil.  It’s cheap, has a neutral flavor and a long shelf life.

Because I’m a huge nerd, I find homemade spreadable butter so much fun.  I took spreadable butter for granted for so long, as something I HAD to buy, no other options, the end. But in my health crusade, I decided to look at the labels on every single spreadable butter in the store, hoping that one contained healthy oils so I could not only use delicious butter but increase my health as well.  Each and every one, even the ones that claimed to be organic and super healthy, had a ton of chemicals in it.  A TON.  Do I know these are bad for me?  Absolutely not.  They could be fine.  I really don’t know.  But it had me thinking – can’t I make spreadable butter at home?  Does it have to have chemicals to be spreadable? And this time the internet DID come in handy – not only was homemade spreadable butter possible, it only contains two ingredients. Done and done.

So, after that rant, I give you the recipe for Homemade Spreadable Butter.  I can’t say that it’s better for you, but I can say that it’s cheaper, less wasteful (no plastic container) and tastes AMAZING.  And it’s super fast, too!

Homemade Spreadable Butter

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup, 16 TBL) of salted butter
  • 2/3 cup of oil (I use grapeseed, but you can use any type that pleases you.)

Procedure:

  1. Let your butter come to room temperature so it is soft and easy to combine with oil (Alternately, heat your butter in the microwave in 5 second intervals until soft)
  2. Combine butter and oil in a small food processor until homogeneous and smooth
  3. Chill and enjoy spreadable butter anytime

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes:

Our apartment often gets really hot, especially when we’re cooking and baking all day, and this was one of those days.  My butter was way meltier than recommended and it still worked out great.

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Because I am obsessive, I actually have three food processors to choose from, and this one can be used as an attachment to my immersion blender.  I know.  I have a lot of kitchen appliances.  I find using my tiny food processor much easier in this application, but you can combine the butter and oil with a fork or with a whisk as well.  It comes out a little chunky, but it was still spreadable out of the fridge.

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So tiny – how can I not use that?

DSC_0096You can see here that the food processor makes the butter incredibly smooth in just a matter of seconds.

DSC_0024Yeah it’s… really easy.  There’s nothing else to say.  Go make some!  And then spread it on these delicious buttermilk biscuits!  Everybody wins.

Christmas Cookie Crazy: Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

You can tell something has changed this year.  Just from the simple fact that I’ve actually gotten a blog post out, on time, during the Christmas season, about cookies.20141209_122744

All my loved ones know that for the last nine years I have been 100% Christmas Cookie Crazy.  There was research and there were spreadsheets.  I’d spend hours upon hours making dough and freezing it; then hours upon hours baking as close to Christmas as possible so that the cookies would be given at peak freshness.  People loved them and the more they raved, the more encouraged I was to make and give more.  (I really hope that people weren’t just being nice, because now we’ve been dragged into a vicious cycle.)

James even made this video last year to prepare everyone for the baked goodness:

http://youtu.be/tdk0JoRFgSM

When James and I started dating, he valiantly, like the good new boyfriend he was, offered to help me make the cookies.  You’d think that would have made things easier but no, it just added to my fervor.  Think of what we could accomplish with TWO sets of hands?! Mwhahahahaha!!!

The craze reached a fever pitch last year.  It was year 8 that I had been making hundreds of Christmas cookies and I really went overboard – I made over 400 cookies.  I kept convincing myself that I hadn’t made enough and started new batches or added another kind of cookie to the collection.  I exhausted myself to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore.  I felt incredibly sick and miserable during the romantic, and expensive, dinner out that we had planned.  (It didn’t help that I also had gallstones at the time and didn’t know it…)  And while the cookies did go over well, there were leftovers.  There was cookie fatigue.  It was obvious that I had gone to far.

And so to prevent James from leaving me, I told our families that I would not be giving cookies as gifts this year, because it was simply too difficult for me.  This year, we’re giving out salted caramels and hot cocoa mix.  Hopefully blog posts about those to follow!

However, I simply couldn’t let the season go by without making any cookies at all so I decided to make, bake and freeze two batches of cookies to share with our families.  The smells, chills and sounds of Christmas just engage something inside me that tells me I must bake!  And what do you know – I’m enjoying it again and experimenting in the kitchen.  Behold – Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

  • Servings: yield about 42 cookies
  • Print

Adapated quite a bit from Bon Appetit’s Chocolate-Pistachio Sables

Ingredients:

  • cups (2½ sticks) salted butter, room temperature
  • cups (lightly packed) light brown sugar
  • cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, “bloomed” in 7 TBL of hot water
  • 1 TBL vanilla extract
  • 1 egg 
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips
  • 1 cup unsalted, roasted hazelnuts, crushed with a mallet
  • Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)

Procedure:

The dough needs to chill for at least four hours before you slice into cookies, so the procedure for these cookies comes in two parts.

Making the dough:

  1. Put 1 cup hazelnuts in a gallon plastic bag.  Seal while pressing out all the air you can.  With a mallet, rolling pin or even a bowl, whack those hazelnuts until they’ve broken into smaller chunks.  Resist the urge to take out all your Christmas frustration and pulverize the suckers – you want small chunks, not dust!
  2. Add 1 cup of chocolate chips to the hazelnuts bag and set aside for later.
  3. Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, about four minutes.
  4. Add flour, salt and baking soda and mix to combine.
  5. Combine cocoa powder with hot water, adding one TBL at a time and stirring until smooth.
  6. Add “bloomed” cocoa powder and vanilla to dough and mix to combine.
  7. Add egg to dough and mix to combine. (Adding egg to fully mixed dough will avoid any contact with hot bloomed cocoa, preventing the chance of curdling your egg.)
  8. Unroll a large length of parchment paper, about 2 ft. long.  Cut and lay flat on counter or table.
  9. Spoon 1/3 of dough onto parchment paper.  Using your hands, form the dough into a log of relatively uniform thickness – about the size you’d like your cookies to be.  Place the log on the long end of the parchment closest to you, centered.
  10. Roll the dough up in the parchment.
  11. Grab the ends of the parchment with both hands and, with your hands close to the dough, twist several times in opposite directions.  The motion will consolidate the dough into a beautifully round log.
  12. Repeat with the remaining 2/3 of dough to create 3 dough logs.
  13. Store dough in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, so the dough becomes firm enough to slice into cookies.  Alternately, freeze until a later date.  Home-made slice and bake cookies!

Baking the cookies:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Working with one dough log at a time (keep the others in the fridge), unwrap and slice cookies with a serrated knife about 1/4 inch wide.
  3. Arrange cookies on a jellyroll baking sheet, lined with parchment or silpat, 12 or 15 cookies to a baking sheet.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with finishing salt, Maldon recommended.
  5. Bake for 12 minutes total, switching the racks and turning each pan 180° halfway through baking.  Cookies should look dry in the center.
  6. Let cool 2 minutes on baking sheet.  Move cookies to cooling racks to cool completely.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

I made these cookies twice last year – once to test on co-workers and the second time as gifts.  While people raved, I just wanted a richer, more chocolatey flavor and I couldn’t quite attain it.  To try to maximize the chocolate, I made FIVE changes to this batch: all things I’d learned to “up the ante” on chocolate flavor:

1. Blooming chocolate: I learned this from America’s Test Kitchen – apparently, to get the richest flavor from your cocoa powder, you need to “activate” it with hot water.  Even though the original recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, I added 7 TBL of water to bloom the cocoa.20141207_091017

2. More salt: Salt brings out other flavors – it’s often what’s missing when you find a recipe to be “meh.”  I used salted butter instead of unsalted to increase the salt quotient.

3. More vanilla: Vanilla is often cited as a flavor booster, so instead of the teaspoon the recipe suggests, I added a tablespoon.

4. More fat: The reason that milk chocolate is so popular is because it contains more fat and more sugar than dark chocolate.  So instead of using an egg white, as the recipe suggests, I used a whole egg.  A little more fat to increase the chocolate flavor – and a little more egg magic also helped the dough stayed together better.  I’ve done this with peanut butter cookies as well and I’m very happy with the result.

5. More sugar: I used Toll House dark chocolate chips instead of chopped bittersweet chocolate.  The sugar brings out the chocolate flavor we all know and love while the chocolate chips cut out a whole step of chopping chocolate by hand – not one of my favorite kitchen chores.

The combined efforts definitely gave me a more satisfactory cookies – the dough wasn’t as brittle and I did have a better chocolate flavor.  Still not perfect, but I think my loved ones will enjoy them!

A manageable dough:

I think the addition of a whole egg as opposed to an egg white really gave this dough what it needed to be easier to handle.  While the steps above seem a little complex, and certainly take more time than a scoop cookie, I think you’ll find it’s easier than it sounds.  Pictures to help visualize below.

The log formed with my hands.  I know it… looks gross.  Try to look past that.

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Rolling in the parchment:20141207_095316

Twisting the ends to make the cylinder:

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20141207_095401 Last year, I found that my cookie logs became flat on one side when chilling.  It’s easy to fix by hand once you’ve sliced the cookies, but I thought I must have some vessel that was curved that would help them keep their shape.  And behold – I remembered that I had a baguette pan, which I have never ever used to make baguettes, but that is just the right size.20141207_100353The twist method makes a pretty impressive cylinder.  However, the edges to get a little wonky, as one might expect.  Fortunately, this dough is very forgiving.  I slice the ends to the right width and then just mold those scraggly edges with my fingers.  In some ways, I actually like the look of them better! 20141208_18272720141208_183503

Left: cookie that has been cut from the inside of the log. Right: end slice that has been molded into shape.

Cutting the slices is very easy, especially with a serrated knife (bread knife)…

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Sometimes the knife can’t get through the chunks of chocolate chip or hazelnut and they fall apart.  Never fear!  Just mold them back together with your fingers.20141208_19131920141208_19133420141208_191336Baked cookies:

With a little bit of effort, these cookies are dressed to impress.

20141209_122707Here you can see the differences in the cookies.  Some turn out picture perfect like the cookie in the top right but, really, I think they all look pretty delicious.  I kinda like the imperfect ones better.

Perfect with a mug of something warm, snuggled with loved ones in front of the fire.  Cookies and Christmas just go together.  I mean, really – what’s Christmas without cookies?

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Thanksgiving 2: Reenie’s Bread Dressing

As I’ve stated before, my mother really didn’t like to cook.  Yet, she made sure our family of 6 ate a home-cooked meal every single night and sat down at the table together at the end of the day (except for Friday which was, of course, pizza night.)  When I went to college, my tastes in food and interest in cooking soared to a much more adventurous place than my mother’s would ever go.  But despite that, my mother taught me invaluable lessons in the kitchen, from how to store food, how to make food stretch farther, etc.  One of the greatest was using dried herbs and granulates while cooking.

There are so many options for these dried spices and our apartment in full of them.  They last much longer than fresh herbs and don’t require any kind of chopping, which makes them perfect for busy families, weeknight meals and, especially, experimenting.  They can help you save a dish that’s missing something or guide you to creating a brand new recipe.  I am incredibly grateful to my Mom for introducing me to their wonders.

This year, I celebrated Thanksgiving Day with James’ family and we had a second Thanksgiving with my family on Black Friday.  I made stuffing for both Thanksgivings and for my family I made my Mom’s traditional bread stuffing, which consists of all dried herbs and granulated onion powder.  It’s a simple dish and absolutely delicious – all the flavors you expect from Thanksgiving without any of the work.  When splitting up the side dish duties this year, we realized that my Mom’s “bread dressing” and the family’s famous “rice dressing” had almost the exact same ingredient – one has bread and butter, the other has rice and bacon.  Otherwise, all the ingredients are the same.  Why mess with perfection?

I did experiment a little bit, of course.  I increased the butter by… 150%, which frankly was a little overkill.  But below I give you the recipe that I think will come out just right.

Reenie's Bread Dressing

Ingredients:

16 slices Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread (one loaf)
8 TBL butter (1 stick) – 6 TBL melted, 2 TBL cut into small chunks
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp sage
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 & 1/2 cups chicken stock

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF.
  2. Melt 6 TBL of butter.  Keep remaining 2 TBL in refrigerator until step 8.
  3. Cut or tear bread into chunks.
  4. Mix all dried spices together.
  5. Pour half  of melted butter onto bread and toss to coat.  Pour remaining butter and toss again so butter is as evenly distributed as possible.
  6. Immediately after, while butter is still wet, sprinkle dried spices while tossing so coating is even.
  7. Add 1 & 1/2 cup of chicken stock to moisten bread.
  8. Pour dressing into a 9 x 13 casserole dish.
  9. Cut remaining 2 TBL butter into small chunks and distribute on the top of the casserole.  (The butter doesn’t need to be cold, but it helps when handling with your fingers!)
  10. Bake in oven for 30 – 45 minutes until top is crisp.

Procedure with anecdotes and pictures:

Unfortunately I lost a lot of my pictures, so I don’t have any visual illustration of mixing the dressing.  I hope my description above will suffice!

Mom loved to keep Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread in the house and that’s what the bread dressing was always made from as well.  I made sure to pick that up for this dish as well, but I’m sure any wheat bread would be great.20141128_115559

Another wonderful feature of this recipe is that you don’t need to wait for the bread to get stale – it can come right out of the bag!  That really saves on time and prep.

I find it’s easier to cut the bread with a bread knife than to tear into chunks with my hands.  I was able to cut four slices at a time, which made it really fast.  I found that cutting length-wise first made it easier to hold the slices together as I cut.20141128_12350220141128_115839

Dotting the stuffing with butter is something I just learned in this past month from Bon Appetit and it yielded great results – lots of crunchy, buttery pieces for everyone to enjoy, giving contrast to the soft pieces buried underneath.  I totally recommend it – what’s 2 more tablespoons of butter on Thanksgiving?20141128_125515

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Yeah… it got a little burnt. Stick to 30-45 minutes and you should be safe! And it was still tasty!

 

Thanksgiving Dry Run: Cornbread Stuffing

This year for Thanksgiving, James and I have volunteered to bring a dish we’ve never tried before but that I’ve always wanted to make: cornbread stuffing.  Or I guess, more exactly, cornbread dressing since it won’t be stuffed inside the bird. We’re from Philadelphia and cornbread is not really a staple of family meals, although always welcome.  Stuffings or dressings that don’t use regular sandwich bread have always fascinated me, since that’s what I grew up eating – Mom’s bread dressing is always made with Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread.  I’m also interested in the texture difference that chunks of cornbread would lend to stuffing – but most importantly, the flavors of slightly sweet cornbread combined with sage and rosemary sounds heavenly.  James’ brother, Andrew, the brave host of Thanksgiving even with the most adorable 3.5-months-old baby now residing in their home, welcomed the side dish and we’re excited to contribute.

Cornbread stuffing actually requires the use of two completely new recipes to us: baking cornbread and then the cornbread stuffing.  We could buy the cornbread, of course, but I saw several warnings that grocery-store cornbread would be too sweet.  And I had to concede that can happen – grocery-store cornbread can often taste like corncake.  So we decided to do a dry run and make both recipes, so we can be sure it’s delicious on Thanksgiving Day.

I only do dry-runs for really important things: I’ve done a few Christmas Cookie dry-runs, feeding my office with the tests, or before we’re going to make a special meal for someone.  But having the audacity to volunteer yourself for the most important part of the Thanksgiving table and trying a new recipe?  You must have some nerve.  Thanksgiving is the most sacred of meals in the year: if you’re contributing, you better bring your A-game.

The best way, in my opinion, to do a dry run is to do the recipe once exactly as written.  Therefore, I did no such thing.  Who has time for that?

When waiting at the doctor’s office one morning, James and I went through a whole bunch of recipes for cornbread stuffing on our phones and narrowed down the ones we liked.  Eventually, we settled on an Anne Burrell recipe, but we decided to sub in bacon for sausage, and omit cranberries and walnuts, to make it more crowd-pleasing.  All the rest of the ingredients seemed right on.

I found a recipe that reviews lauded as a sturdy cornbread that wouldn’t fall apart, that seemed perfect for this dish.  We needed 10 cups of cornbread, and in the very helpful video from Anne Burrell it looked like she just used two 8-inch cornbreads, so I’m trusting that I was right about that.

And therein lies one of my biggest frustrations as a home cook – poor recipe writing for normal people.  This recipe called for 10 cups of cornbread.  Sorry, but cornbread isn’t measured in cups.  Had I decided to base the amount of cornbread I needed to make on the number of cups in the recipe, I would have made 5 cornbreads instead of two.  Can you help a girl out and tell me how I get to 10 cups?  Come on now.

We’re feeling really good about the stuffing at this point, but we do have a few tweaks to make, which I’ve included in the recipe below.  I’ll make updates once Thanksgiving Day has gone down!

Cornbread Dressing

Adapted heavily from Anne Burrell’s recipe

Ingredients:

Cornbread (makes one 8″ x 1″ loaf):

Dry ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup plus 3 TBL yellow cornmeal
  • 1 TBL baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 4 TBL) melted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Cornbread dressing:

  • 2 pounds bacon
  • 2 medium-sized onions, diced
  • 1 heart celery, diced
  • salt
  • 3 gloves of garlic, pressed
  • 10 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2  8-inch cornbread loves, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 5 cups chicken stock

Procedure:

  1. First, bake your cornbread, at least 6-hours prior.
    1. Preheat your oven to 400ºF.
    2. Grease your pans
    3. Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately.
    4. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir just to combine.
    5. Grease pan, pour batter into pan, smooth into an even layer.
    6. Cook for 30-33 minutes, until a skewer or knife inserted into the center of the loaf can be removed (mostly) clean
    7. Cool, remove loaf from pan, leave loaf out in the open air to stale
  2. When ready to make the dressing, preheat oven to 350ºF
  3. Chop all your ingredients – onions, celery, herbs
  4. Cook bacon in a skillet on the stovetop.  Cut bacon into pieces with kitchen scissors or with a knife.
  5. Once bacon is cooked, remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain
  6. Let fat cool slightly and removed from pan.  Leave about 4 tablespoons of bacon fat in the pan. (You heard me.)
  7. Add onions, celery and 1/2 tsp salt and cook in bacon fat on medium heat until they are lightly golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  8. Add pressed garlic and herbs and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  9. Remove “aromatics” mixture from heat and let cool slightly – you’ll be mixing it with your hands soon.
  10. In a very large bowl (I mean VERY large), combine cornbread chunks, chicken stock and aromatics.
    1. Add chicken stock 1 cup at a time.  You may not need a full 5 cups.
    2. This may be easiest to do by hand: reach down into the bowl, and pull your hands up as if folding the mixture on top of itself.  It may take about 2 minutes until mixture is thoroughly combined.
    3. The final mixture will be very wet, but about half of the cornbread cubes will still hold their shape.
  11. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish and bake in oven for 30-45 minutes, until the top is lightly golden and the mixture is very hot in the middle.
  12. Although delicious hot, we found the dressing even more delicious after sitting in the fridge for a day.  Heat in the oven again before serving.

Procedure anecdotes:

Since I’m serving this for guests, I took extra care to make sure my onion was properly diced, which can be a daunting task.  If you’ve never done it before, you make cuts in the onion in three directions.  It’s easiest in this order:

Horizontal slices (about 3):20141116_160028

Vertical Slices:20141116_160109

Now you can see the little cubes you’re aiming for, you can make perpendicular slices:20141116_160129

For the bacon, we cut the slices into pieces, instead of crumbling the bacon after it was crisp.  I wanted big chunks instead of bits.  James likes to cut each slice into the pan, as opposed to slicing the pieces altogether.

20141116_155710 20141116_155725 20141116_162747

 

I don’t always use fresh herbs, but it’s fun for something special.  Fresh herbs taste deeper, in my opinion – you get more of the flavor.  For the rosemary, you can strip the leaves (or “needles”, really), off their sprig by holding onto the top of the sprig and pulling your fingers downward.  You do not need pick them off one by one!  The smaller “branches” that hold the leaves are perfectly safe to eat.20141116_162512

With the sage, the recipe calls for 10 leaves.  I pile these leaves on top of each other and then roll them up, almost like a cigar! Then I slice into very thin ribbons or “chiffonade.” I then run the knife through the ribbons again several times to get a very fine mince.

20141116_162108(0) 20141116_162236

 

Finally – that yummy cornbread.  As I said above, the recipe we used isn’t my ideal cornbread for eating with some BBQ – it isn’t very moist and doesn’t have an interesting flavor on its own.  However, we hit a home run for the stuffing.  It works PERFECTLY – not too sweet and very sturdy.  It’s very easy to cut into cubes and mix with the aromatics and chicken stock.20141116_162742 20141116_163709

The finished mixture is half crumbly, half chunky – the texture really could not be more perfect!

Oh.20141116_164106

Yeah.20141116_172742

 

Girl.20141116_173843

 

Bonnie Mac and Cheese

The time has come.  It’s been years of pain, discomfort and embarrassment avoiding high fat food due to the 2 centimeter-sized gallstones in my belly.  But finally I can share with you all – I can eat cheese again!  Pain free!!!

It took about 6 weeks until I was finally ready to try cheese again.  The gallbladder surgery makes you feel funky and it takes a while for your body to figure out how it should digest again.  But at a rainy beach weekend with my girlfriends, I dared to say “No it’s okay – I’ll eat the pizza.”  They were terrified of what might happen to me (nothing that would be inconvenient for them, thank goodness), but we went ahead and ordered the pizza.  I went ahead and ate the pizza.  And then … NOTHING HAPPENED.  Which is the point!  No hot flash, no sweating, no cramping, no needing to lie down.  I could enjoy that pizza and that’s all.  Pure bliss!  (It was really good pizza with arugula and prosciutto, too, a fitting way to enter back into cheesedom.)

But enough about pizza I got in Rehoboth, let’s talk about cheese we can enjoy together.  If my title is any indication, as soon as I knew I could make cheese, I immediately bought some extra sharp cheddar and made the greatest cheese dish on earth: mac and cheese.  Cheese sauce.  Pasta.  Heaven.

One of my favorite things about cooking is watching ingredients turn into something else.  Which I know sounds “DUH”, but I don’t mean roasting a tomato, although that is amazing.  I mean taking cream and whipping it into fluffy clouds or beating together a batter that becomes cake (Reenie Cake, naturally.)  Well the Mac and Cheese recipe I’m about to share with you is another one of those – you take butter, flour and milk to create a thick, velvety sauce before your eyes that just needs cheese added to it. It’s amazing.

The recipe comes from my favorite cook book Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci.  I’ve given this book as gifts to many aspiring cooks because it is exactly what it promises – simple, easy-to-follow advice to make extremely stunning and impressive food.  Linda had me cooking risotto and cheese-stuffed chicken breasts very early into my cooking endeavors.  And she taught me so much about food and cooking that I’ve applied to many recipes of my own.  God bless you, Linda.

I make this recipe exactly (almost) as Linda describes and she turns fancy french cooking into something possible for this amateur here.  We’re going to make a roux, add milk to make a béchamel sauce and add cheese to make a Mornay Sauce.  Sound scary?  It’s not!  But it is weird

When you start to add the milk to the roux, the mixture seizes up into a big clump, so you need to add more milk quickly and keep stirring.  My only complaint is that Linda doesn’t describe what happens when you add milk to the roux.  She only says “Have faith and continue to add the milk.”  Rather ominous.

So in order to help you visualize this recipe, James, angel that he is, filmed the entire progression for you and helped me edit this video into true perfection.  This will allow you to see all the various stages so you, too, can achieve homemade mac and cheese glory.  I am here to serve. (THANK YOU, JAMES!!!)

This recipe asks you to be stirring almost constantly for about 15-minutes, which I really love.  It’s a simple recipe, but you’re really earning that creamy sauce, putting lots of love and effort into the dish.  You feel very accomplished when it’s done – and you SHOULD.  You just made homemade mac and cheese!  You’re the bomb.

Ready, Get Set – BONNIE MAC AND CHEESE!

(I do require that you refer to the dish that way from now on.  In honor of my struggles.  I think I deserve it.)

The following video will show you the progression of the sauce.  Specific times for each step are indicated below.

Mac and Cheese

  • Servings: Possible to serve 6-8, depending on how willing you are to share...
  • Print

Adapted ever so slightly from the “Macaroni and Cheese Variation” written by Linda Carucci in Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. medium shell pasta
  • 6 TBL unsalted butter (I use salted butter and adjust the salt at the end)
  • 5 TBL flour
  • 3 cups milk (I have always used 1%, but I’m sure whole milk would be delightfully decadent)
  • 2 cups (.5 lb) shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp kosher salt plus more for pasta water (with salted butter, I ended up using 1 tsp at the end)
  • A few shakes of hot sauce or 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper

Procedure:

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.
  2. Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.
  3. In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.
  4. Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)
  5. Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add. (0:42)
  6. Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time. (2:45)
  7. When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays in tact, without filling in.) (4:05)
  8. Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)
  9. Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired. (6:00)
  10. Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.

I cooked my pasta almost as soon as I came in the door from work, far before I was making the cheese sauce.  When the pasta was fully cooked, I drained and coated with the lightest coat of olive oil I could manage, to keep it from sticking.

This isn’t usually recommended, because the olive oil covers the natural starches brought to the surface of the pasta when cooked, which helps grab onto the sauce.  But as far as time management is concerned, I found this much easier.  I like to cook my pasta in my largest pot, which gives it room to move around in the water while cooking, but it also takes a long time for the water to boil – sometimes 15 – 20 minutes.

The pasta cooled to room temperature, but when the hot cheese sauce was poured on the pasta, the dish  was heated back up again.  I found this tactic much easier than cooking the pasta and making the sauce at the same time, because the sauce needs your full concentration.

I enjoy using Medium Shell pasta, because the sauce gets stuck in the shells like delightful little bowls of cheese sauce.  Mmmmm…

20140808_192148 20140808_192142

2.  Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.

Mise en place (everything in its place) will be your friend.  Again, the sauce will take your full concentration for those 15 minutes.  Be prepared!

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You can use any cheese in this recipe, although cheddar is most traditional.  Just make sure to do a little research on which cheese is a good melting cheese.  Not all cheeses melt well and can become stringy or clumpy.  Here’s a good article with a couple suggestions – I really want to try smoky gouda next.

3.  In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.

You can use a larger pot, but I think that a 3 qt. pot should be your minimum.  You’re doing a lot of whisking and stirring and a smaller pot could cause sloshing of hot liquid onto your feet!  Not fun.

Cut your butter into tablespoon-sized pats first, for quicker melting.20140808_201456

See video for visual of steps 4 through 9.

4.  Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)

This will cook the flour in the butter, for added flavor.

5.  Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add.  (0:42)

6.  Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time.  (2:45)  (This actually happens at 1.25 cups, but I read the recipe wrong – ha!  I added all the milk at when there was just 1 cup left.  Things still turned out fine.)

7.  When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays intact, without filling in.) (4:05)

8.  Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)

9.  Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired.  (6:00)

I think the hot sauce is clutch in this recipe, but I didn’t add it when I made this video because the dish was made for two dear friends who are also new parents and hot sauce is not for everyone.  I, personally, add the hot sauce and  pour the hot sauce over the mac and cheese when it’s on my plate.  The hotness cuts through the rich cheese sauce with delightful contrast.

10.  Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

20140808_20391020140808_20392320140808_204114Oh yeah, girl.