Tag Archives: Recipe testing

Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Pizza Dough Recipe

I have quite a collection of pizza dough recipes, but somehow, I’ve never made this dish at home.  It’s something that I always prefer to eat out, at places where they have the high-burning ovens that create that crisp-chewy crust, preferably with some char on the top edge.  Last night, that changed.  I whipped up a batch of Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Pizza Dough from this month’s Bon Appetit magazine and invited some friends over to sample the results.

Flour, salt, yeast mixed together

Four ingredients and a bunch of time, as with his No-Knead Bread recipe, that’s all it takes to make this dough.  Plan to start this recipe a day before you want to serve the pizzas.

Adding water to the flour mixture

The water needs to be at least warm.  Boiling hot water will kill the yeast and water that is too cold will not activate its chemical properties.  I’ve messed up yeast before, so I’m always a bit intimidated by working with it.

Dough all mixed together

The dough just needs to come together before it has to sit for a while.  It will not look like much, but this is only the first stage of the process.

Peeking at the progress part-way through

Look at all these great bubbles from the yeast doing its work

After about twenty hours, this was the result, all bubbly and risen high.  I let the dough sit a bit longer as my kitchen temperature was a bit cooler than that stated in the recipe instructions.  Also, note that the top is a bit dry, which is an error that I made in prepping it.  I should have left plastic wrap on top instead of covering the bowl with a towel.

Dough divided in to rounds

It took a bit of work and a bunch more flour to get the dough divided up into rounds for the second stage of the rising process.  Still, I think they look kind of beautiful, don’t they?

Look at all these great pizza toppings!

While the dough was in its last rise and the oven was heating up, I pulled together some toppings for the pizzas, so that when my guests arrived, we could put everything together.

Dough stretched out and ready to cook

I decided to go with rectangular-shaped pies, as I don’t have a pizza stone.  The dough was still really sticky when I tried to shape it, so I just worked with it the best I could.  The baking sheet was lightly greased with olive oil before I put the dough on it, in the hopes that the bottom would get extra crispy.  Then, my friends joined in to pile on their choices of toppings.  As it was a Lenten Friday, with some of the group observing dietary restrictions, we split the pizzas up into all-veggie and meat-eater friendly.

Adding some mushrooms

Then some artichokes

All loaded up with great toppings

Put a bit of cheese on top

Out of the oven and ready to eat

Of the six rounds of dough, we devoured four.  A salad on the side and a couple of desserts, including this Torta al Cioccolato, made of the rest of the meal, along with a few bottles of wine and beer.  It was definitely a casual, relaxed, hang-out kind of Friday night with topics ranging from Downtown Abbey to the Oscars to jobs to dating.

The red peppers and onions went on this one

The pizzas were a hit, with a couple of my friends completely shocked that this was my first attempt to fix them at home.  They were the perfect group dinner: easy to prep, cook, and serve, even with the staggered arrival times of my guests.  Although the smoke detector went off twice, as my apartment isn’t really ventilated appropriately for high-heat cooking, I would certainly make these again.  Maybe, someday, I’ll even get to prepare them in my own backyard Italian pizza oven.

Buon appetito!

Spiced Butternut Squash Soup from Paula Wolfert

I’ve been enchanted by Paula Wolfert’s book The Food of Morocco since it came out last year.  I raved about all the great dishes that everyone made from it for the event hosted by the Culinary Historians of New York featuring Ms. Wolfert, but I hadn’t yet tried my hand at any of them.  Food and Wine also did a feature on some of the recipes, which I’d set aside to make later.  One in particular caught my eye, the Spiced Butternut Squash Soup, which seemed like a perfect thing to make on this snowy Saturday.

I used a kabocha squash

In anticipation of the arriving storm, I’d stocked up on the ingredients.  I even managed to track down a goats cheese cheddar from Patches of Star farm at the Union Square Greenmarket.  It might not have been exactly the same as the one called for in the recipe, but it imparted a tangy, creamy flavor that when combined with a dollop of crème fraîche and a smidgen of harissa livened up the squash and blended well with the La Kama spice mixture which was cooked with the vegetables.

La Kama spice blend (Wolfert suggests using the leftover with roasted vegetables)

As with many winter vegetable soup recipes, this came together relatively quickly after the labor of dismantling and de-gutting the squash.  I should have taken a photo of the whole messy process, but my hands were too sticky and I wasn’t quite sure how attractive it would have been to see a picture of all the seeds and fibrous mass that came out of the kabocha splayed all over my countertops.  It’s kitchen carnage at its best.

Mixing everything together

When finished, the soup has a vibrant orange color, made even richer in texture by flecks of the spices.  Sometimes I find that these single vegetable dishes can be dull and bland; however, that is not the case here.  The heat from the harrisa, the sour pucker of the cream, and the earthiness of the aged goats cheese cut through the strong notes of the squash to create a harmonious spoonful of warm, soul-filling flavor.  The aroma is enticing without being heavy, leaving one to dream about warmer, more exotic shores far away from our current winter wonderland.

Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

Buon appetito!

Curling up with Chicken Soup and Kathleen Flinn’s Book “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry”

The least-well-received “present” that I got during the holidays was a cold bug from one of my nephews.  As much as I loved playing with the active little guy and holding his newborn brother, I really didn’t need an extra special gift from them to take home with me to New York.  Fortunately, I could sit on the couch for a few days and wrap myself up in Kathleen Flinn’s book about her adventures in culinary school, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry,* as I nursed my way through stuffed-up sinuses and a hacking cough.

This story about surviving job loss, pursuing long-held dreams, living in Paris, and finding love, was the perfect antidote for my illness.  Each chapter tells a piece of the tale of Flinn’s trip from mid-level corporate worker to graduate of the Cordon Bleu cooking school, the same one that Julia Child attended.  She ends every installment of her journey with a recipe based upon some of what she learned in the program or in life.  I have to say that these dishes sounded delicious and were tempting me, even in my cold-medicine-induced haze to try to reproduce them.

Flinn also talks about the time she had la grippe or the flu when she was in Paris.  Having been sick far away from home, in another country, with a language barrier to boot, I can imagine just how miserable she felt.  I’ve been there.  There’s the challenge of trying to figure out how to explain what ails you, sorting out what you can get over the counter to cure the aches and pains, and conjuring up how to comfort yourself in an unfamiliar place.  For some relief, Flinn whips up a batch of Potage de Poulet aux Nouille, avec de l’Ail et des Herbes, or that childhood sickday staple more commonly known as Chicken Noodle Soup.  Looking for something to chase away my own symptoms, I decided this might just be the trick.  The rich, steaming broth studded with meat and sprinkled with vegetables and herbs opened up my nasal passages and soothed my sore throat.  In any language, the remedy for a cold remains the same.

Browning chicken for soup

Cooking the carrots, celery, onions, garlic

Adding stock and herbs to the pot – I didn’t make a bouquet garni, and I omitted the Herbes de Provence

Broth simmering away

Which gives me time to shred the chicken – I also took out the herbs at this point

Putting chicken and broth together – I opted not to add noodles

A bowl of warm, comforting chicken soup

Buon appetito!

Italian Stuffed Flank Steak and Roast Pork Romana for the Feast of St. Stephen

Antipasti from The Italian Store to kick off the evening

I’ve long been a fan of the day after Christmas, referred to as Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day depending upon the country in which it is observed.  Of course, neither of those feast days are celebrated in the United States, where the 26th of December is usually get-back-to-work-day unless one is fortunate to be able to take vacation at that time.  When I sent a message to a friend saying I was coming to Virginia for the holidays, he invited to me to his Festa di Santo Stefano (feast of St. Stephen) gathering that he was having in Washington, DC on Monday night.  After I offered to help out with any last-minute kitchen prep, he gladly accepted my assistance.

His recipe book

For the main courses, my friend had picked out several recipes from his culinary “bible,” The New Basics by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins: the Italian Stuffed Flank Steak (sometimes referred to as braciole) and the Roast Pork Romana.  I’ve written in the past about this book, and its place in my own cooking journey so it was no surprise when I discovered that he not only had it, too, but that he’d used it so much he’d had to break the binding apart and put it into a notebook, sticky note pages and all.  Flipping through it again, I realize how advanced some of the entries are, especially for the early 1990s when I first bought my copy.

Prepped Flank Steak

Steak wrapped for cooking

Cooked Steak

These two selections turned out to be perfect for a flexible, casual gathering and would be ideal for an open house or brunch.  They could be cooked a bit in advance of the arrival of the first guests, or in our case, just as they’d walked in the door, and cut into slices so that everyone could help themselves at the buffet stations that he’d set up on his dining room table.  Rolling the steak meant that it was cooked a bit more well-done on the outside and rare on the inside so that guests in favor of one or the other style had plenty of meat to select.  The steak was meltingly tender with a creamy, sweet flavor from the peppers blending with the fragrant spinach-breadcrumb-Parmesan filling.  The fatty proscuitto kept everything well-basted.

Pouring wine over pork

The Roast Pork Romana was dressed with a rosemary-garlic-butter and chopped proscuitto before it was drenched, really drenched, with two cups of vin santo and then put into the oven to cook.  When I got to the step in the recipe where it said to pour the wine over the prepared meat, I called my friend away from his frantic pre-party cleaning and organizing to confirm with him that I should actually saturate the dish with the alcohol.  He assured me to go ahead and do it.

Roast Pork Romana with Endives

It worked beautifully!  The pork cooked to a tender moist finish in a bath of sweet wine and fat.  The endives tossed around the outside of the meat melted into a soft, delicate layer.  The reserved juices made a tasty sauce that I poured over the cut slices of pork when they were placed on a platter for serving.  The only issue that I had was with the cooking time, which is listed at one hour and 15 minutes.  The next time I fix this, I’ll check the temperature and doneness of the meat after an hour.  Residual heat (the instructions say to tent the meat and let it sit after taking it out of the oven) will continue the roasting process, which leaves the pork in danger of being overcooked and dried out.

Everything served

Once on the table, the contrasting colors of the two platters of meat enhanced the festive atmosphere.  The endives were served in a separate bowl along with some braised fennel.  I was relieved of kitchen duty to go join the other guests as my friend whipped up a penne with an arugula-mint pesto and a risotto dish to round out the meal.  Glasses were raised in the good cheer of the holiday season and the food was quickly devoured.  Then, we all went into the night to continue our festivities at a local watering hole.

Buon appetito!

Almond Butter Sticks

These might not look like much in the photo but at that first delicious buttery, sweet bite, teeth breaking through the layers of dough folded over almond-sugar filling, you are destined to fall in love with these cookies.  I think that the recipe first came from a Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook that my mom had from 1963, if I’ve remembered it correctly.  It really doesn’t matter, however, as from when that first batch of Almond Butter Sticks came out of the oven, hot and fragrant, they became a family favorite.

The ingredients are deceptively simple: butter, cream cheese, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and almond extract.  The trick to making these is a couple of things, as I can attest after having made probably about 50 batches of these.  I found the recipe on Cooks.com, which gives the same instructions that I have on my well-used recipe card.  After dividing the dough in half, each piece is rolled out in to a large rectangle, filled with 1/6 of the sugar-almond extract mixture, folded into thirds, and then turned a quarter of the way around where the process is repeated two more times.

The dough, divided in half

This is not a recipe to be made when it is hot and sticky outside as the dough becomes too soft to work with and will be difficult to turn and fold.  Aside from reserving baking these for drier and cooler months of the year, one tip I have is to do a flip and fold method.  After folding in the sides, carefully turn over the whole parcel of dough so that the folded sides face downwards and the flat side (what was the bottom) faces upwards.  I’ve found that this keeps the bottom from becoming to thin, leading to it breaking or becoming difficult to lift from the table when rotating it.

The first fold

The second fold

The final folds

Cutting the cookies

Another extra step that I usually do at the end is that after the last folds, I do one more gentle roll out of the final dough, filling and all.  This is really just to seal it and to make the cookies a bit larger.  The recipe on line says that this makes 72 cookies.  I don’t think that either my mother or I have ever managed to get that much out of a batch.  My average is about three dozen.  It kind of doesn’t matter because they don’t really last very long anyway!

They may not be pretty, but they are yummy

Last weekend, I mailed a batch of these to my sisters who were all together to support a member of our family who is going through a serious illness.  The reports I got back via emails and Facebook were that they devoured all of them – not a surprise.  These cookies were one of my specialties in college.  Using them and their irresistible appeal, I was able to barter the loan of a friend’s car and a lift to take the Foreign Service Exam, to name a few favors.  Yesterday, they also made the guys who delivered my new couch very happy, as being stuck at home for several hours waiting for them meant I had time to whip up another batch on the fly.  As you can see all from all the beautiful layers of the one in the photo below, there’s a clear reason why these cookies have had so many fans.

Layers of cookie and sugar filling

Buon appetito!

Mixed-Berry Crostata for Pie Party Live

Do you ever commit yourself to a last-minute cooking or baking project and they realize, “Whoops!  I actually need to deliver on this and do it well.”  This has happened to me more than a few times which is why I try to keep some no-fail, sure-fire, crowd-pleasers in my recipe file.  One of these is a a project I whipped up today, after offering at 8:30 a.m. this morning to join Pie Party Live, hosted by The Diva that Ate New York.  Good thing that I’ve made this Mixed-Berry Crostata about fifty or so times before.

Mixing the wet ingredients into the dry

The recipe comes from an issue of Bon Appetit magazine from May 1995 dedicated to Mediterranean cookery.  Remember when they used to do a whole issue devoted to the cuisine of one region or country?  I really wish they did those again.  I’ve saved all the ones that I could get my hands on, as that was during the time I was living overseas, and the magazine wasn’t easy to find where I lived.  These are priceless resources for my cooking library, and all the dishes I’ve tried to make from them have worked really well.  One of these is the Grandmother’s Tart (or Torta alla Nonna), from which I made the crostata.

Crostata dough

I’ve baked this dessert in several countries and cities, using metric, imperial, and American measures and pans, so here’s my tips for making it.  Many of these are low-tech, as something I’ve never really discussed on this site is that I really do love to get my hands messy when I cook.  I have no problem mixing pastry dough by hand or mixing up the stuff for meatballs and then shaping them between my palms.  Cooking, for me, is a tactile experience, as much in the eating as in the preparation.  This is also where the extra ingredient of care gets added in, and that isn’t listed in any recipe card, on-line instructions or cookbook that I’ve ever found.  It also lets you know when you need to adjust the composition of a dish to add liquids or solids to make it come together.

Thank goodness I found this during my emergency jam run this a.m. when I realized I had didn’t have enough of it in my fridge!  Sarabeth’s is in my neighborhood.*

Although the instructions call for using a food processor, truthfully, you can easily use a pastry cutter or a fork to cut the butter into the dry ingredients.  After I add the eggs, I use a wooden spoon to incorporate everything.  Then, when the egg is mostly mixed in and there is no longer any visible liquid, I put the spoon aside, roll up my sleeves, and mix all the rest of it by hand.  The moisture and heat from my palms helps to bring those last bits together, and then I knead it for about a couple of turns just to make sure that there are no clumps of butter hanging out in the dough.  This isn’t bread, so you don’t need to knead it more than a few times (personally, I don’t think I’ve ever kneaded it for a minute like it says in the instructions).

Crostata base with filling

Then, you press the dough into the removable-bottom tart pan.  This dough is very forgiving so you can shape it and patch up holes as you go.  In the U.S., I use about a 9-inch pan.  Overseas, look for one that is about 23 cm in width.   The original recipe calls for cherry or apricot-pineapple preserves.  I say, use what you like and what you’ll eat.  Cherry is a favorite of mine, but today, I decided to use Mixed-Berry (or frutti di bosco).  In Italy, I have seen crostate at bakeries with either plum (prugna), cherry (ciliega), or apricot (albicocca).   It is possible to make the dough in advance and press it into the pan without adding the jam.  Then, put it into the refrigerator, covered in plastic, with the ball of dough for the lattice top also covered in plastic and placed in the fridge.  Take it out about 15 minutes before filling it with jam and creating the lattice.

Lattice top added

The trickiest part of making this is really to roll out the cross pieces for the lattice without them breaking apart.  I think I’ve only managed to do this successfully about once or twice.  The positive side is that it definitely looks rustic (rustico) and handmade (fatto a mano) if they aren’t perfect or don’t break in the middle during baking, which mine usually do, as you’ll see in the results below.  Don’t fret over this at all!  The only advice I have is again that this dough is so forgiving.  If a piece breaks before you’ve laid down the lattice slat, stick it back together and roll it out again.  Also the recipe calls for 12 equal pieces.  I’ve done 6, 8, 10.  It doesn’t matter as along as they criss-cross.

Mixed-Berry Crostata

Here is what the end result looks like.  Lemon-perfumed, shortbread-like crispy crust with melty, sweet, gooey fruit all cooked together.  This is perfect for an impromptu supper or tea or as a potluck contribution, and the leftovers, if there are any, make a delicious next-day breakfast or snack (not that I’m speaking from any kind of personal experience on that, mind you), and you can take all the credit for making it yourself, which is sure to impress your guests.

Buon appetito!

*Kitchen Witch Tip:

For this version of the crostata I used Sarabeth’s Spreadable Fruit.  I like it in this recipe as spreadable fruit is less sweet and more of the fruit flavor is present.  The down side is that it can also sometimes be more liquidy.  To use it here, measure out the amount that you need for the filling and let it it drain for 10-15 minutes in a fine-mesh sieve before spreading over the crostata base.  That way, you will not have all the liquid seeping into the crust to make it soggy.