Monthly Archives: December 2009

Potato Pancakes

As we roll merrily along into Christmas, I started to get a craving for potato pancakes. See, we don’t have those around the holidays in my Catholic household. I’m envious of those who get to eat these on cycle at the same time each year. It’s probably no big surprise that I was yearning to have these, as there’s only been tons of recipes published lately for every type of latke, made with every variety of root vegetable.
I’d read an article someplace in the last week or so where “Christmas Envy” was mentioned. The author talked about the tree and lights and all the decorations that go with the [cough] Christian [stroke Pagan] version of the holiday that is typically depicted in Western culture. I had never heard of this before, but then was thrown right into it firsthand over the weekend at a holiday open house.
A woman was staring at the tree and mentioned how she’d always wanted to have one for the holidays. She gazed longingly at the array of ornaments, which I must admit were a great collection. I mentioned to her that it was entirely possible for her to have one, too. She said that she was Jewish, so that the tree is not part of her holiday culture. When I pointed out that it is actually part of the old Pagan/Druid culture that the Christians co-opted, I got a rather withering look as though that didn’t actually make the suggestion go down any better.
I guess I could have told her that she should look on the bright side of her religious holidays. Very few of mine have some sort of specific food attached to them, except for the very big ones: Christmas and Easter. I mean, have you ever had anything special to eat to celebrate any holy day of obligation other than the aforementioned? Even the foods we do have like eggs, lamb, and spring things, are actually taken from earlier civilizations’ feasts.
This brings me to my holiday envy. I didn’t think I had any until this year, when I realized that I wish we had something like latkes. Potatoes and things fried in oil are two main food groups. Fortunately, I had some potatoes I’d bought at the Greenmarket and wanted to eat up before I left to head south for the holidays. I grated them raw on a box grater to get about a cup of shredded potatoes, added about two tablespoons of onion grated the same way, and put both in a bowl, squeezing out the liquid beforehand. This was all seasoned with a couple of pinches of salt, about one tablespoon chopped chives, and about a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper.

I cheated a little bit and cooked it in a non-stick Calphalon pan in a butter and olive oil combo. It took about ten minutes to cook on the first side and about five or so more on the second. I just kept peeking underneath to make sure that it was getting browned and not burnt. You have to do the old flip-and-slide to get the pancake from one side to the other in the pan.
This is probably more technically a rosti, rather than a latke, but in my mouth, it was wonderful. Crispy, easy to make, and perfect for a weeknight dinner. I added some smoked salmon and crème fraîche,which made it extra indulgent for a Wednesday evening.
 
Buon appetito!
 
 

Baked Eggs or Shirred Eggs

With the sound of snowplows serenading me as I arose from my slumber this morning, I realized my first meal of the day should be something a little bit more than the usual. I knew that I wasn’t going to be trekking up and down a snowy, and likely unplowed, hill to go to the bagel place. After being called on doing it by my sister, I now get the guilts if I even think about trying to get them to deliver my breakfast to me.

Fortunately, I had dragged myself out to do errands yesterday when it was still freezing cold outside but not yet snowing. I went and got milk, eggs, and some smoked salmon. I knew that I had plenty of bread in the freezer and coffee in the cupboard. Later, while waiting for the skies to start to turn white on Saturday, I caught up on my on-line reading of the New York Times and came across Mark Bittman’s video cooking segment on Baked Eggs with Proscuitto and Tomato.
I love eggs for any meal, and I really like to make something hearty and rich for brunch on the weekends as a counterpoint to the quick eats I gobble down during the work week before dashing out the door to catch my bus to work. This recipe caught my eye as something different to try. It is similar to Shirred Eggs or the French Oeufs en Cocotte and is just as easy to make.
As he shows, the recipe is so simple to put together. It’s just adding layer after layer of flavor. After that, place the ramekin (or in this case a Pyrex cup) in the oven to cook until the egg is set. I decided to put some of the smoked salmon I picked up in my pre-blizzard food run on the bottom of the baking dish. I cracked the egg in the dish and added about a teaspoon or so of heavy cream to that along with a few slivers of gruyere, chopped chives, and freshly ground black pepper. Then, into the oven it went.
About fifteen or so minutes later, breakfast was ready. Creamy, rich, and with that salty bit from the salmon at the end, it was the perfect start to my day. In the original recipe, Bittman points out that this dish lends itself to a range of ingredient and flavor combinations. As it is made in individual portions and doesn’t have a long cooking time, it would be a great candidate for a do-it-yourself brunch dish, allowing each of your guests to customize his or her own eggs. That’s something I might try the next time I have folks over for a pre-sledding party.
Buon appetito!

Ragu alla Bolognese

Yesterday, it was freezing outside. Today it has been warmer but is wet and miserable. I guess we can’t win on the weekend front in the Northeast. The only plus side is that this means the weather has been perfect for baking and for making hearty meals.
I’d had a craving for a Ragu alla Bolognese. This rich, slow-cooked meat sauce is the basis for many a wonderful dish in Bologna, Italy. One recipe that I’ve found to be pretty reliable in taste and texture is from Claudia Roden’s The Good Food of Italy. I have used several recipes out of this cookbook over the years. Her rendition of this classic meat sauce is the one that I have used to make my own Lasagna Bolognese (omitting the mushrooms).
Although two hours or so of cooking time might seem like unnecessary labor for a pasta sauce, this is no ordinary thing to pull together. On a day when it was too cold to venture far from the apartment, having to watch this cook away on the stovetop was a great excuse for going nowhere. The vegetables get to meld together before adding the meat, then the wine, then slowly simmering everything in stock. The flavors take time to build and meld into meaty richness combined with a backnote of tang from the tomato paste. The cream at the end emphasizes the velvety nature of this sauce on your tongue, like wrapping yourself in a blanket on a cold night while sitting on the sofa.

 

The finished sauce in the pan might not look like much to the unaccustomed eye, but when it is poured over garganelli, the truth comes out. Dusted with parmesan, this was my lunch today, as I watched it continue to pour outside of my window. My stomach was full and my soul was satisfied, even if I couldn’t actually be in Italy.
Buon appetito!

A Holiday Favorite – Almond Butter Crunch / Almond Toffee

Plate of Almond Butter Crunch

This is what happens when you read too many seasonal magazines and blogs. You end up succumbing to the “I must bake during the holidays” syndrome. My work team is doing its annual gift swap on Friday. So, I asked a few folks to contribute something sweet to the gathering. Of course, I had to chip in and make something as well, as the resident baker in the group.  I’m not sure why it occurred to me to dig out the recipe card for Almond Butter Crunch (or Almond Toffee, as I like to call it now) to attempt to recreate it.  I have vivid memories of my mother whipping up batches of this candy when I was in my teen years, but I haven’t even thought about it since then.

She had a phase during the early 1980s where she bought Almond Roca, which seemed so elegant at the time, as we didn’t generally have store-bought candy at home. Then, for some reason, she decided to try to make it herself, or at least a version thereof. I remember watching her put it together. From my fuzzy memory, it seemed simple enough that I could try it myself. Armed with a candy thermometer, wooden spoon, and all the ingredients, I set about to do just that.

Recipe card copied from my mother’s files

In trying to make this on my own for the first time, I discovered a few key points. One is that the baking sheet on which the molten mixture is poured must be greased liberally to keep the candy from sticking. I also decided not to use waxed paper or parchment paper on the tray for the initial candy-cooling phase. After re-reading my mother’s recipe card, I worked out, as well, that the Cadbury chocolate she used was probably too sweet for my tastes. Like many of the recipes that I’ve posted here, I tweaked this one, and I’ll probably fiddle with it some more before I think I have it exactly right. Still, I have a feeling that this candy will be well-received when everyone opens their presents on Friday.

The Candymaking Steps:

Here’s what the butter, sugar, syrup, and water look like mixed together

Everything starts to get foamy

 

After a few minutest, it gets more foamy and the color starts to darken

Ready to add the almonds and pour on the tray to harden

Work quickly to spread the mixture on the tray while hot then let it cool down

 Once the candy is cool, spread melted chocolate on both sides and sprinkle with chopped, toasted almonds

 

Oh, and don’t forget to have a “test piece,” just to make sure it’s o.k. to share with others

 

Almond Butter Crunch aka Almond Toffee

Prep time: allow 1.5 to 2 hours total with cooling and setting time

 

Serving Size: One standard cookie sheet worth which can be broken up into gift portions (depending upon how much of it you eat first)

Ingredients:
1 c. (2 sticks) Butter (I used Salted for contrast to the sweetness of the other ingredients)
1-1/3 c. Sugar (white or cane)
1 Tbsp. Light Corn Syrup or thick Simple Syrup
3 Tbsp. Water
1 c. toasted slivered, blanched Almonds
4-3 1/2 oz. Chocolate Bars (I used a ratio of 1:1 milk chocolate to semi-sweet sweet chocolate)
1 c. chopped toasted Almonds with skins

 

Assembly:
Prepare a baking sheet (you can also use a 13″x9″x2″ inch pan) by greasing it liberally with butter. Have the first five ingredients measured out and close at hand, along with a candy thermometer. Clear the children out of the kitchen.

 

In large saucepan, melt butter. Add sugar, corn syrup or simple syrup, and water. Cook on low heat. Stir once or twice to make sure the sugar is all melted and then leave it alone to let time and heat do its work. Bring up to a boil and watch carefully as it changes color. Do not walk away from the stove, as the candy will go from golden brown to burnt in a matter of mere minutes.When the mixture reaches the Hard Crack stage, about 300-310 degrees Fahrenheit, turn off the heat and add the slivered almonds. Stir once or twice to mix the almonds into the candy.

As fast as you can, pour entire mixture onto buttered baking sheet and quickly shake/tilt the tray to distribute candy evenly. This step must be done in a matter of seconds before the mixture starts to solidify. Let the candy cool until hardened.

Remove candy from baking sheet and place on waxed or parchment paper. Melt chocolate in double-boiler. Spread one side of the candy with half of the chocolate and sprinkle half of the almonds on it. Allow to cool on countertop or in refrigerator. Flip over the candy onto waxed or parchment paper and spread the rest of the chocolate on the second side. Sprinkle with the rest of the chopped almonds. Allow to cool; again, you can place it in the refrigerator to speed up the process. Once the chocolate is firm, break up the candy into pieces for serving or devouring.

 

Buon appetito!