Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Broken Records

Another year coming to a close, another year where I'm still in the same rut, the same stagnant space, the same state of discontent.  You'd think I'd learn by now.  You think I'd set goals that were more concrete, more specific...so much less nebulous.

It's the last Tuesday of December, the last Tuesday of 2014...it is a cold, blustery night in Los Angeles.  The weather widget on my phone says that at 8:15pm, it is 49 degrees, but with the winds, feels like 39 degrees.  Cold.  Can I take these winds as a sign?  A sign that I'm finally ready to blow all the crap out of my life...make definitive goals, figure out where it is I really want to go, and stop thinking that life will fall into place by a magical snap of my fingers.  I don't expect 2015 to kick off without a few bumps and rough starts, but I do expect 2015 to turn into an infinitely more productive year than 2014, 2013, and even 2012.  That's a lot of time.  I have a lot of making up to do.

But before I get to work, there needs to be a drink.  A drink to say, 'so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye' to 2014 and all the fear, anxiety, and unhappiness I have poured into too many of its 365 days.  Bring out the bubbly, let's toast to a new year where I worry less, see more sun than clouds, see more good in me than bad, and appreciate the person I am, instead of sinking so much energy berating myself for what I'm not.

Let me be the first to wish you a happy new year...a truly fulfilling 2015.

A New Leaf Cocktail
Makes 2

6 fl oz cava (though Champagne or prosecco will do)
2 fl oz sweet vermouth
2 tbsp citrus simple syrup
2 tbsp fig jam
4 fl oz orange juice, fresh squeezed (about 2 medium oranges)
orange peel for garnish

In a small lidded jar or cocktail shaker, add the orange juice and fig jam.  Shake vigorously to break down the jam.  If you think you've shaken enough, shake more.  With each coupe glass, rub a strip of orange peel along the rims to transfer some of the oils to the glasses.  Into each glass, pour 1 oz vermouth, 1 tablespoon of the citrus syrup, and 2 oz of the orange and fig juice.  Stir to mix well.  Top each glass with 3 oz of cava and garnish with orange peel.

Note:  The citrus syrup is something I had left from making candied citrus peel a couple of weeks ago.  You can substitute simple syrup or make your own syrup with the peel from one medium orange (pith removed), 1 cup water, and one cup sugar.  Bring to a simmer, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves, then simmer over low heat for 10-15 minutes.  Strain peel and store in refrigerator.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Star Bright

There has been a lot of biscotti baked this past week.  A LOT.  Not all for me.  Most of those cookies have been packaged and shipped across the country to (hopefully) delighted customers.  But I am still looking at half a dozen containers holding what's left.  As much as I love biscotti, I had it in my head that I really, really wanted to make something that hinted at Scandinavia.  Whatever I made had to have cardamom.

I flipped through a couple of my Scandinavian and Danish cookbooks, I scrolled through the holiday baking list on the Sweet Paul website, and I did a little Googling.  I wound up at the Cooking Light site, reading the recipe for Swedish Almond Cardamom Stars.  They came together pretty easily and the almond and cardamom flavors shine through.  The Cooking Light recipe calls for a glaze, but I opted for a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar instead.

So, here we are at another Christmas.  Stay safe, eat well, enjoy the time with family and friends.  I wish you all a wonderful holiday!

Swedish Almond and Cardamom Stars
From Cooking Light
Makes about 4 dozen or more

2 cups flour
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup almond paste, crumbled
1 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup orange juice, fresh
3 tbsp vegetable oil

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix the orange juice and oil together, set aside.  In a large bowl, add flour, sugar, baking soda, cardamom, and salt.  Whisk to combine.  Add butter and almond paste, and with a pastry cutter, blend into flour mixture, creating a pebbly texture.  Add half the orange juice and oil mix and continue blending to bring dough together.  Scrape bowl as necessary.  Add remaining liquid and mix to combine.  You should have a dough that lifts easily away from surface of bowl.  

Split dough into two equal sections.  Lay down a large piece of plastic wrap and flatten dough into circle.  Fold over plastic wrap and roll dough to 1/4 inch thickness.  Repeat with second piece of dough.  Chill both for about an hour.

Cut out cookies with star cutter (or whatever you like) and place about an inch apart on a parchment lined baking sheet.  [I used a small star cookie cutter, about an inch and a half across.]  Bake for 6-8 minutes until edges begin to turn golden brown.  Cool on rack and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Best Laid Plans

When I decided a couple of months ago that I was going to have a Christmas party this year, I felt as though I had months to straighten the place up, do a massive autumnal Spring cleaning, and plan the perfect little soiree (which I'm always planning in my head to some degree).  I haven't had a get-together in close to five years.  It was time.  I even thought it would be great to have a fondue party (to officially break in the fondue pot my parents gave me for Christmas a few years ago).

My party would be a 2014 version of this:

1952 Diane and Allan Arbus

People dressed spiffily, a table spectacularly laid out, sparkling conversation, and wine flowing freely.  Then, before I knew it, Thanksgiving happened.  There has been no autumnal Spring cleaning, no straightening, and I have barely thought of holiday logistics.  I still don't have a baking schedule, a completed Christmas card list, or a wreath on the front door.  

All this means there will be no party.  At least not a Christmas party.  Maybe a New Year's party?  Not a New Year's Eve party (too stressful)...but a get-together post-holidays, when peace and calm reign again.  It will be a few close friends, a pot of melted cheese, free-flowing wine, and no pressure to throw a 'perfect' party.  Doesn't that sound like a good idea?

But...just because I'm not throwing a holiday party doesn't mean that I can't share a couple of appetizer ideas for your holiday get-together.  They are easily cobbled together, requiring not a lot of prep, and are great to add to any selection of cheeses, salumi, dips, or whatever else you find yourself craving.  

Persimmon and Tarragon Bites
Makes 12

1 Fuyu persimmon, sliced thin
1/4 cup goat cheese or cream cheese
1-2 sprigs, fresh tarragon
black pepper, fresh ground
12 mini toasts, crackers, pita chips

Place a half moon slice of persimmon on each toast, top with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cheese, and garnish with 2 tarragon leaves.  A fresh crack of pepper is a nice addition.  

So easy it's not even a recipe!  But that's what you want...easy!  Time to actually mingle with the people you invited to your house!  To be honest, I cannot lay claim to this combination.  The credit must go to a woman that I've spoken to a couple of times at the produce exchange I go to.  She brought the tarragon at this month's exchange and when we were chatting she shared this combination with me.  I came right home and made it, since I had the goat cheese, the toasts, the persimmon, and thanks to her contribution...the tarragon.  It's divine.  She also offered the cream cheese substitution for those who don't like goat cheese (who are you people?).  Doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling this will be no problem.  

Warm Herbed Olives

1-2 cups, olives (a variety)
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves
1 garlic clove, minced
black pepper

In a large skillet, over low heat, add olives, rosemary, garlic, and pepper.  Stir frequently to combine everything and allow flavors to mingle.  

Again...this will require little to no effort.  Be sure to get a variety of olives.  You can buy a mix at any grocery stores that has a decent service deli and they will probably already be a little seasoned.  If you can, buy small amounts of single varieties that you can combine as you like.  Kalamatas, picholines, Nicoise, Alfonsos...there is a whole world of olives out there for you to conquer!  If you don't like rosemary, you can take it to a different level with oregano, or even basil.  The important part is to warm them to release a little of their oils and develop the depth of their flavors.  

Spicy Almonds
Makes 2 cups

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp shichimi togarashi or chili powder
pinch of salt
2 cups almonds, roasted, unsalted
3-4 dashes hot sauce

In a large skillet over medium flame, heat the olive oil until it barely starts to shimmer.  Add garlic powder, curry powder, cumin, togarashi, and salt.  As the spices begin to warm, stir to mix together.  Add almonds and stir quickly to coat with oil and spices.  Lower heat and add hot sauce, still stirring to distribute hot sauce evenly.  Remove from heat and let cool.  


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ruled by the Wind...

...or the sun, or the jet stream, or an off-shore flow, or some crazy ass storm travelling down from the Bering Sea.  While the weather tends to dictate what I eat and how I eat pretty frequently, a day's or night's cravings may or may not be fulfilled.  Or you can say, 'to hell with it!' and throw caution into that Santa Ana wind event that's bound to come rolling around.  

And so again it happened.  I wanted soup, it was the kick-off weekend of fall, after all...and yet...Mother Nature thought it would be amusing to give Southern California yet another few days of hot, sunny, 102 degrees in the shade before finally gracing us with days that were almost crisp, where heading out in the morning, I could wear a jacket and maybe even a scarf!

I was thinking about Italian Wedding Soup when I made this.  I still  want to make a classic wedding soup.  When I was young and dad made it, I usually ignored the escarole and ate as many mini meatballs as I could get my hands on, even before they made it into the soup.  Meatballs would have been in the same danger had I made them on this go-round.  So little meatballs...you're safe for the time being.

Curly Endive and Millet Soup
Easily serves 2-4

1 tbsp olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, minced
4 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
2 cups water
5-6 fresh basil leaves, chiffonaded
1 bouillon cube, optional
1 medium bunch curly endive, washed with leaves torn from stems
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup millet
1/4 cup Italian dry sausage, sliced thin into quarters, optional
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large stock pot, add the olive oil, bay leaves, garlic, and onion.  Over medium heat, cook the onions until translucent.  When the onions are ready, add the stock, water, bouillon cube, basil, endive, and red pepper flakes.  Stir to combine and let simmer for 5 minutes, allowing red pepper flavor to bloom.  Remove the bay leaves, then add the millet and sausage (if using).  Let soup simmer for 20-25 minutes to let millet cook.  Serve with toasted hearty, crusty bread.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hiding in the Shrubs

Up until a couple of years ago, the only definition I knew for 'shrub' was something along the lines of 'a woody plant smaller than a tree.'  Thanks, Dictionary.com.  A shrub was something green, generally round, and bordered your property line or was planted in neat rows down the length of your driveway.  Then I discovered a whole new definition:  '...a sweetened vinegar-based syrup, a drinking vinegar...often infused with fruit juice, herbs, and spices for use in mixed drinks.'  My first reaction?  'Hell, yes, count me in!'

So it was the October 2012 issue of Sunset magazine where I first discovered this mysterious shrub.  Considering how I've rarely used vinegar for more than salad dressings or for pickling, I was very interested in trying it.  The Sunset recipe is for a cranberry shrub and since it was perfect for Fall, I jumped right into making it.  Happily, it's easy-peasy to make and it truly is a great mixer for cocktails.  I also love drinking them as a soda, where one part shrub to 2 parts sparkling water or club soda on ice is a treat.

1've used the Sunset magazine recipe as my base for the shrubs since that first time.  Over the past couple of years, there has been cranberry, raspberry, Italian prune plum, and the latest incarnation...gala apple.  A little swap of apple cider vinegar for the red wine vinegar, the addition of an overripe Bartlett pear, and this mix is so, so, so perfect for Fall.  I also took it upon myself to make a little Fall cocktail that's perfect for sharing.

Gala Apple Shrub
Adapted from the Sunset recipe
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

3-4 Gala apples, cut into small pieces 
1 pear, cut into small pieces
1 cup sugar 
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups water

In a medium saucepan, add all the ingredients and bring to a low boil over medium heat.  Stir occasionally and with the back of the spoon, smash the fruit as much as you can.  Let simmer for about 10-15 minutes, making sure all the sugar has dissolved.  Place a fine mesh sieve or a medium size bowl and pour the shrub into the bowl.  Let the shrub drain and press the fruit to get as much liquid from them as you can.  Allow to cool, then store in a bottle in the fridge.  Lasts at least 2 weeks.

Note:  You don't need to peel the apples or pear.  


Apple & Rye
Serves 2 (and maybe a wee bit more)

1 fl. oz ginger simple syrup
4 fl. oz gala apple shrub
2 fl. oz rye whiskey
tonic water
apple slices, thin, for garnish

Throw all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice.  Shake vigorously to mix.  In two old fashioned glasses, add ice cubes and a thin slice of apple.  Pour in cocktail three-quarters of the way and top with tonic water.  Toast.  

Note:  If you don't have the ginger simple syrup, I recommend making some.  It will last for awhile and you'll be able to use it in many drinks.  If you don't want ginger, make a plain simple syrup and muddle a thin slice of ginger in your glass and discard before adding ice and the cocktail.  To make the ginger simple syrup, in a saucepan, add one cup water and one cup sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and stir frequently to allow sugar to dissolve.  Add 3 or 4 3-inch pieces of ginger. Allow mixture to come to a simmer.  Remove from heat.  Let mixture steep for half an hour or so.  Discard ginger and store syrup in the fridge.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Search Of

If you're old enough to remember the show that was hosted by Leonard Nimoy,  you're old enough to understand the importance of searching for the unknown, the unexplained, the mysterious.  But what am I in search of?  No, not extraterrestrials, not what happened to Amelia Earhart, not the truth about the Bermuda Triangle.  More pragmatic, more practical, but still mysterious.  It's pizza.  More accurately, perfect homemade pizza dough.  Okay, maybe not perfect.  Maybe pretty damn close?  Can someone lead me in that direction?  It seems like it would be so simple.  A mix of water, salt, flour, oil, yeast.

I try recipe after recipe, not tied down to one formula.  I skimmed Jim Lahey's My Pizza (having made his no-knead bread, I'm behind this man).  I think about the tools I use, the ingredients I have on hand, what I can tweak, what I should tweak, what I accidentally discovered (hello overnight cold rise!), and why I always forget I own a pizza stone.

I haven't tried Jim Lahey's yet.  That's next on the list.  The latest recipe I used was Alice Waters' recipe from The Art of Simple Food.  It's good.  Very good.  Alice's recipe got the overnight cold rise and since the recipe makes enough for two pizzas, the first was traditionally baked in the oven, the second was actually 'baked' in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop.  More like fried, with a touch of olive oil, then after adding some caramelized onion, cheese, and porchetta (Oh, porchetta!), I threw it under a broiler until the cheese melted and the crust charred.

The other recipe is from a book I bought awhile ago called,  The Cook's Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking by Carla Capalbo.  I bought it at the used bookstore around the corner and it's turned out to be a great little find.  Lots of practical, not over the top recipes and in the year or so that I've had it, I refer to it more times than I thought I would.  This version also got the cold rise treatment and was made solely by the cast iron/stovetop/broiler method.  Thanks to a pizza craving when Los Angeles had one of its ugly heatwaves last month, I couldn't wait for the temps to drop to satisy the craving, and that's when I tried the stovetop method.

I loved using my cast iron skillet so much, that I'm throwing cast iron pizza into the regular rotation.  For some reason, it just seems like it takes less effort.  Which, in looking at it objectively, doesn't.  Two steps compared to throwing it on a sheet and slipping it into the oven.  I don't know.  They're both good.

Porchetta and Caramelized Onion Pizza
Dough recipe makes enough for 2 10-inch pizza

Alice Waters' Pizza Dough Recipe

2 tsp dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup rye flour
3 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup olive oil

Stir together the yeast and 1/2 cup lukewarm water.  Add the rye flour and 1/4 cup of the ap flour.  Let this sit in a bowl until bubbly, about 1/2 hour.  In another bowl, mix the remaining ap flour with the salt.  After the yeast mixture is foamy, add the flour and salt mix, along with the olive oil and cold water.  Mix dough and turn out onto a floured board, kneading for about 5 minutes until dough is soft and elastic.  If your dough is wet, add a little more flour, tablespoon by tablespoon until the right consistency is met.

Here you can either put the dough in a bowl, covered and let it rise for 2 hours in a warm spot or put the dough in the refrigerator for an overnight rise.  Just remember to take it out a couple of hours before you want to use it.  


6 oz porchetta, sliced paper thin
1/2 cup onion, caramelized
1/2 cup Grana Padano, grated
1/2 cup Asiago, grated
2 tbsp basil, chiffonaded
red pepper oil, for drizzling (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees (if baking in the oven).  Stretch dough to roughly 10-12 inches. Sprinkle dough with cheeses and basil.  Spread caramelized onion and porchetta over dough.  On a pan, with a thin layer of coarse cornmeal, place pizza and put in oven.  Bake for 8-12 minutes.  When removed from the oven, sprinkle with the remaining basil and drizzle the oil.  

If you opt for the cast iron skillet method, make the dough big enough to fit into your pan.  Put pan over high heat and add a little oil (about 1 tsp or so).  Add dough and allow to cook, flipping over every few minutes.  Turn on your stove's broiler to its highest setting.  Top dough with porchetta et al and put pan under broiler.  Keeping an eye on the pizza, remove when you see a little char on the crust and porchetta edges look crispy.  

Basic Pizza Dough
From 'The Cook's Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking'
Makes roughly 2 10-inch pizzas

2 1/2 tbsp fresh cake yeast or 1 pkg dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
pinch of sugar
1 tsp salt
3-3 1/2 cups all purpose flour

In a bowl, mix the water and yeast.  Stir in the sugar and let stand until yeast dissolves and begins to foam, 5-10 minutes.  Mix in the salt and about a third of the flour, stirring and gradually adding the flour until dough easily pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth, about 8-10 minutes.  In a lightly oiled bowl, place the dough inside and cover with a moistened and wrung out dish towel.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 45-50 minutes.  Punch down the dough and knead for a minute or two.  Dough is ready for toppings.  Bake using either method above. 

Notes:  both recipes actually call for unbleached flour.  Obviously, all purpose will work the same.  I tend to have either or on hand, so use what you've got.  As for the rye flour, if you don't have any, swap regular flour for the 1/4 cup called.  I had it on hand and think it adds a subtle touch that you can't quite place your finger on.  Feel free to use whole wheat if you don't have rye.  The second recipe calls for cake yeast.  If you can find it, I highly recommend using it.  It's a hit or miss find for me, so I use the dry yeast.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Not a Fluke

Or The Summer of Plums.  I love stone fruit season and we are now right at the tail end of it.  Fall is officially here, but I'm holding on for a little bit longer before jumping headfirst into the season of apples, apples, apples, pomegranates, and more apples.

While I usually cannot eat enough nectarines and peaches over the Summer, this year I was a little disappointed.  There were great fruits every now and again, but only every now and again.  Plums, though?  I had days upon days filled with black plums, red plums, a pluot here and there, and even green plums.  At season's end, I'm thrilled to find Italian prune plums (also called Empress plums, though these are a little larger) in the stores and markets.  Not typically an eating plum, I personally love the slight tartness when you bite into one that's not overripe.  I love the bright citron flesh hiding underneath the silver wax bloomed dark purple skins.

This recipe won't be for everyone.  Orange blossom water lends a distinct floral (some might say, perfumey) undertone.  If you're totally against it, you could substitute a little almond flavoring, or even a touch of orange.  But...I think the orange blossom is a small enough amount that you won't feel as though you're chewing on a bouquet.  Mind you, I am the girl who loves rose-flavored candies and can happily work through a pack of Choward's violet gum in no time.

Plum and Orange Blossom Preserves
Makes about a cup

3 cups Italian/Empress plums, chopped (about 6-8)
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp orange blossom water

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring all ingredients to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Lower heat and cook until reduced by about a third, 20-25 minutes.  Preserves will thicken a bit.  Store in a glass jar.  This will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.  The possibilities?  On toast.  On French toast, instead of maple syrup (same with waffles).  Mixed with plain  yogurt and topped with granola.  Topping vanilla ice cream.  Mmm hmm...