Friday, February 29, 2008

My Big Fat Greek Pizza

If Wolfgang Puck ran for president, I would vote for him. I mourned the recent death of the California Pizza Kitchen founder. That is just how much I love the thin crust "gourmet" pizzas. When eating out, I love pizza margherita, tomato and basil with fresh mozzarella. I have a deep and profound love for kalamata olives, feta and spinach, so that's usually the pizza I make at home.

Let's get started. I like the full flavor of a whole wheat crust, but I'm not a fan of the texture. I tried to strike a compromise by using King Authur's White Whole Wheat Flour in Wolfgang Puck's classic recipe for pizza dough. The results were pretty good.

First, proof the yeast and then dump all the ingredients into the food processor.
Process until the mixture forms a ball ... or something close to a ball. OK, at the point it all clumps together, you're good.

Knead the dough a for a few minutes by hand until it's smooth and firm. Place it into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until it has doubled in size, about two hours. Divide the dough into four balls. (I always use a scale for this part.)

Shape each ball by pulling down on the sides of the dough and tucking them underneath the rest of the dough. You'll can feel when you need to stop this process because the dough will start to fight back and become harder to pull. Next, roll the ball on your board until the top is smooth. Place the balls back into the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let them rise for an hour.

Here comes the fun part! Grab a ball and start flattening! I have tried to toss the dough in the air to stretch it. This has resulted in dough finding a final resting place in the garbage can. I must admit that I have to take the training wheels approach and use a rolling pin. I bare the scars of this shame every day. I roll the dough on my board and then transfer it to a peel. I don't care about the shape. Throw a little cornmeal on the peel before you add the dough.

Top with your favorites. This version has spinach, kalamata olives, feta, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. I also added sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, dried oregano and fresh basil. As you add your toppings, periodically lift the dough or jiggle it to make sure it isn't sticking to the peel.

Transfer the pizza from the peel to a screaming hot pizza stone for the signature crispy crust. I can't show you my stone because it is an embarrassment. I have dropped and burned so much stuff on it, it has changed colors twice.

A note about pizza stones: buy the largest one that will fit in your oven and just leave it in there all the time. It helps regulate the temperature and provides great baking results. You can place it on the floor of the oven if you have a gas oven and on the lowest rack if you're lucky enough to have an electric oven.

We'll skip to a shot of the finished product now.

Tools of the trade:

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My Global Kitchen

I have never been overseas. The very first place I will visit when I leave the country is Morocco. I have been fascinated by it for years. Greece is next, but that's another post.

Back to Morocco. I am by no means saying that my idea of Moroccan is authentic, but I do my best. It's unbelievably cold in Chicago and I wanted comfort food for both lunch and dinner this week. (You know I only cook on the weekends) This meal consisted of a chicken tagine, lentils and couscous. A tagine is both the stew and the vessel in which you cook it. (You could make this in a Dutch oven, but where's the fun and shopping in that?)

I make the tagine and lentils together. This may be heresy, but that's what happens when you don't travel. The most important ingredient in both the tagine and couscous is the spice. Moroccan cooking uses cinnamon, saffron, paprika, ginger and cumin. I cheat. Williams-Sonoma sells a great tagine spice blend. I add extra saffron.

The tagine and lentils take the longest to prepare, so I'll start there. This consists of onion, garlic, preserved lemon, oil-cured olives (Trader Joe's) and of course lentils. I used green lentils today.
The orange zest and pine nuts are for the couscous.

Brine, season and brown the chicken. Transfer the chicken to a plate. I used two boneless, skinless thighs and two boneless, skinless breasts.

Add the onion to the pan and cook until softened. Season with the spice blend, salt and pepper. Once the onion gets a head start, add the garlic.

Add the sliced preserved lemon (make sure you rinse the lemon before slicing) and olives.

Add the lentils, chicken broth and a couple of bay leaves. Cover and simmer.

Halfway through the cooking time, add the chicken and any of its juice to the tagine. Cover and simmer. When it's done, the liquid will be thick and dark and the chicken will be falling apart.

Now doesn't that look good??! Here is where you should add fresh parsley and cilantro. I didn't have either, so I added the dried versions with the bay leaves.

Let's focus on the couscous. I used whole wheat (Trader Joe's). Couscous is probably the easiest thing you can make that doesn't involve a microwave. The ratio is 1:1 water and pasta. I like to experiment with different flavors when I make mine.

Start with onion and garlic. Season with the spice blend, salt and pepper. I added oil-cured olives and orange zest.

Now add chicken stock. I goofed and added the pasta before the liquid, so I ended up dumping the contents of the pot onto a plate. Anyway, bring the liquid to a boil. Add the pasta, stir, turn off the heat and put the lid on the pot.

Five minutes later, fluff with a fork and you're ready to eat. I tossed in toasted pine nuts. Add fresh cilantro and parsley. If you don't have fresh, add dried to the hot liquid right before you add the couscous.

If you decide to make these dishes, go easy on the salt. The preserved lemon and olives bring a lot of salt to the party. After I seasoned the onions in each dish, I did not have to add any more salt.

Given my camera limitations, this is the best I could do with the plated dish. All I need is some mint tea!

Tools of the trade:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This Is Damn Good

There are a few times when I make something so good that I say aloud, "This is damn good." Here is one of those dishes. This is all about building flavor by cooking in layers.

First, add thinly sliced onion to a hot pan (don't let the extra virgin olive oil smoke.) Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. After the onion softens, add garlic. Now, add in thinly sliced mushrooms. Once these have browned, season with salt and pepper. If you season these before browning, the salt will draw out too much moisture and they will sweat instead of brown.
Add in frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained. Please do better than I did in breaking it up. I add the sun dried tomatoes last because I don't like their texture when they cook; I just want to heat them through.

Toss this mixture with pesto and pasta and you have some wonderful, flavorful eating.

Tools of the trade:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lazy Breakfast

Okay. Breakfast rocks! Y'all know I have a love affair with breakfast based on posts about scones, waffles and sausage, beignets, hashed browns, pancakes and fritata. On one of the food sites, someone asked for breakfast recipes for a crowd. I recommended a recipe from Everyday Food, a breakfast strata. I decided to make one this morning. I changed the recipe based on the ingredients I had: turkey bacon, frozen chopped spinach, feta and Parmesan cheese.

Make the custard first: beat the eggs and add the milk. I seasoned the custard with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Add cubed bread to a buttered baking dish. One of the reasons this was a lazy breakfast is because I had bread cubes in the freezer. Whenever you have leftover bread, don't throw it out. Freeze it! You now have a base for bread pudding, and strata. You can also make bread crumbs if you need to.
Back to the post at hand. Next, I layered the turkey bacon, spinach and cheese. I finished with a layer of bacon.

Add the custard. Oops! I didn't make enough. I tried to halve the recipe, but I overdid it with the filling.
That's better!

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or up to overnight. Bake at 350 for 90 minutes. The beauty of this is that you can make it night before, leave it in the fridge, get up the next morning, put it in the oven and go back to bed while it bakes. (I didn't sleep; I got on the phone.) Make sure you set the timer!

Look at this!!! Puffy! Golden brown!
I got one word for ya: Wow!!!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Promises, Promises

Cherries were on sale at the grocery store and I couldn't resist. I hindsight, I should have. I didn't realize that they were out of season and of course my cherry clafoutis didn't turn out right. I was so excited by the prospect, but oh well. I halved the recipe, which I think was my downfall. I will not be defeated! I'll get it right next time.

Start with a buttered baking dish.

Combine the eggs and sugar. Beat until the custard ribbons (think zabligone).

Add flour and cream.
Briefly beat the egg whites and add them to the custard. Pour the cherries into the baking dish and add the custard.

I baked it according to the recipe (I'd forgotten that I'd halved the recipe.) Of course I ended up with an over-baked custard -- tasty, but rubbery. This is what happens when you try to do too many things at the last minute. (Hey, it was New Year's Day and I was worried about hot grease and chicken.)

Tools of the trade:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Big Easy Desserts

This is my fifth and final Mardi Gras 2008 post. Here is a recap of my Fat Tuesday menu:
Now, what is all that without a good dessert? My goal was to make beignets and cafe au lait. I was too tired and had no space left in my kitchen to do so. This was supposed to be in addition to bread pudding and a Doberge cake that was a lagniappe surprise. Yes, I cooked for four straight days. I actually made the dirty rice later in the week and took it to work for lunch.
Now for the bread pudding and Doberge cake. Here are the disclaimers:
  1. I forgot to take pictures of the finished bread pudding. The one above is from Food
  2. I forgot to make the sauce for the bread pudding
  3. The things I suck the most at are torting a cake and icing a cake (you'll soon see why this is a problem.)
Let's tackle the bread pudding first. Emeril Lagassee has a wonderful recipe and it hasn't failed me yet. Start by cubing your French bread.

I cube fresh bread and leave it out to stale.
Once you have stale bread, make your custard and soak the bread. I like to soak the bread overnight.

See that little lone raisin in the corner? The rest are at the bottom of the bowl. Pour this into a buttered casserole dish and bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes.

Moving on to the Doberge cake. This cake is unbelievable. It is six or seven thin layers of cake separated by pudding. The cake is then covered in buttercream. Lemon, chocolate and caramel are the flavors of choice. I chose chocolate. Some chocolate versions are all chocolate. I like yellow cake with chocolate filling and icing.

Here's a picture of a professional cake from Haydel's in New Orleans.

I'll show you my poor facsimile later. I started with the recipe in New Orleans Classic Desserts by Kit Wohl. However, it had so many crucial errors that I had to find additional recipes on the Web.
This is a job for Old Faithful, (stand mixer) and Miracle (food processor) too. If you have a second mixing bowl, now would be a good time to use it. (You'll have to beat the egg whites separately.) Cream the butter and sugar. Take the dry ingredients for a spin in the food processor (unless you prefer to sift the long way.)

After the eggs have been added to the creamed butter and sugar, Add the wet and dry ingredients to the batter. Start and end with the dry. Do not over mix!
Fold in the stiff egg whites.

I'll say it again. I am not good at torting cakes. I thought I'd help myself out by baking this cake in three layers and then splitting each layer. Prepare the pans with parchment and a baking spray. I like Pam for Baking and the Crisco version.
The cake strips around the right and center pans help the cake bake evenly. The cakes will brown perfectly and won't be domed. See the makings of cheese straws behind the cake pans? It was a marathon cooking session. This was Super Bowl Sunday and I also worked out some nachos.

Needless to say, I failed again at torting. I could've easily just stacked the three layers and been done with it, but where's the challenge in that? And once again my buttercream refused to be light and fluffy. But, I got it all together. Not flawlessly beautiful, but good. I forgot to tell you how I made the chocolate pudding. I didn't take any pictures of that either.

I know you can't really see them, but I promise there are six layers. My issue when torting is that by the time I get to the center of the cake, the knife is coming through the top of the cake. I just need more practice.
Tools of the trade: