Monday, January 31, 2011

Rosemary Focaccia

Last night my mother and her boyfriend, Charley, came over for dinner. We often eat together on Sunday evenings—sometimes at their house, which is across the river in Brookline, and sometimes at our apartment, which is teeny-tiny in Cambridge. When they come here, they always bring their standard poodle, Lily, who spends the night jumping up and down, waggling her little fur-ball tail.  

For this Sunday supper, I decided to make a dish that I had seen in an old Jamie Oliver cookbook, one that I had bought at a second-hand bookstore this summer in Maine. Pork chops with Parsnips, Pears, and Potatoes. I admit: I chose it because of the alliteration. I like the way the words sound. I learned: that wasn’t a good idea. This dish was mediocre, monochromatic, and mundane. (Hah!).

As much as I cook, as much as I love to write about my kitchen triumphs here, I do fail. Quite often, in fact. More often than I’d prefer to admit. There’s the flat, lifeless loaf of bread. The bland, tough chicken breast. The dry coffee cake I just can’t make myself throw away. Failing in the kitchen is part of the learning experience, I tell myself. I try not to let it bother me. After all, as Julia Child once said: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Luckily, last night’s failure was countered by a resounding success: Focaccia.  

This crusty, salted, rosemary bread recipe, adapted from Gourmet, only uses five ingredients. It takes some time to rise, but it’s worth it in the end. It’s an easy entry into working with yeast breads, if you never have before. In fact, I think it would be pretty hard to fail. (But it’s okay if you do! What-the-hell!)

Rosemary Focaccia
Adapted from Gourmet

This bread is great cut into strips and served with more olive oil for dipping, or in order to mop up some kind of sauce.  It’s also pretty awesome when cut into a more hefty square, sliced in half, and turned into a sandwich, one that your boyfriend takes to school for lunch.

1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
4 cups (+ or – 1 additional cup) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Stir together 1 and 2/3 cups lukewarm water (between 105 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit) and the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer. Let stand until creamy, about 5 to 7 minutes. Then, add the 4 cups of flour, 1/4 oil, and 3 teaspoons of table salt. Beat with a paddle attachment on medium speed until the dough forms. Replace the paddle with the dough hook and knead the dough at high speed for about 3 to 4 minutes, until it’s smooth and sticky. Add more flour if needed. (I used an additional half cup of so.)

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead for a couple minutes with your hands, adding flour if necessary. The dough should be slightly sticky. Transfer it to an oiled bowl, turn to coat, and then cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at a warm room temperature until it doubles in bulk, around 1 and ½ hours. (Or more. My apartment is on the cooler side, so I let it rise for close to 3 hours. You can’t rush bread dough, I’ve learned.)

Press the dough evenly down onto an oiled baking sheet. Let it rise again, covered in a kitchen towel, for an hour or so, until it again doubles in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Stir together the rosemary and remaining olive oil. Make shallow little indentations all over the dough with your fingertips. Brush with the rosemary oil, letting it pool in the shallow craters. Sprinkle sea salt all over. Bake in the middle of the oven until golden brown, 20 – 25 minutes. Immediately transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.  

Friday, January 28, 2011


for summer.

(And, oh!  I see I'm not the only one...)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Indian Pudding

Today I spent a few hours looking through my cookbooks. I wanted some inspiration. It’s been a while, I realized, since there’s been a dish that I’ve craved, something that’s really moved me to cook. Between the travel and the snow, we’ve been eating simply around here. I’m wondering if I should implement some change.

I stood at my bookshelf for some time, reading the titles, touching the hardcover bindings, breathing in their scent. I brought a pile back to the kitchen table, where I sat with a mug of Earl Grey tea and flipped through the pages of a few books, old friends that I haven’t opened in many months. I read about homemade ricotta cheese, about the uses of za’atar, and about the optimal techniques for cooking salmon on the stove. I paused for a few minutes in Nigel Slater’s lyrical cookbook, The Kitchen Diaries.

“The air is clear and cold, and there are paper-white narcissi in a bowl on the table, filling the kitchen with their gentle, vanilla smell,” he writes in his January 30 entry. “Winter at its purest.”

I picked up The Cookbook Collector, a novel by Allegra Goodman—which, of course, isn’t a cookbook, but certainly talks a lot about them. 

In one scene, Jess, a philosophy student living in Berkeley, California, catalogues a large, unique collection of antique cookbooks. She spends hours a day immersed in ancient recipes. And despite the fact that she’s not a cook, nor does she even eat meat, she is infatuated.

… Jess, who had spent the past year struggling with Kant’s Critiques, now luxuriated in language so concrete. Tudor cookbooks did not theorize, nor did they provide separate ingredient lists, or scientific cooking times or temperatures. Recipes were called receipts, and tallied materials and techniques together. Art and alchemy were their themes, instinct and invention. The grandest performed occult transformations: flora to fauna, where, for example, cooks crushed blanched almonds and beat them with sugar, milk, and rose water into a paste to caste Rabbets, Pigeons, or any other little bird or beast. Or flour into gold, gilding marchpane and festive tarts. Or mutton into venison, or fish to meat, or pig to fawn, one species prepared to stand in for another.

Cooks turned pigeons out of pies, plumped veal with tongue and truffle, stuffed bustard with goose, with pheasant, with chicken, with duck, with guinea fowl, with teal, with woodcock, with partridge, with plover, with lapwing, with quail, with thrush, with lark, with garden warbler, so that each bird contained the next, each body enveloping one more delicate in mystic sequence, until at last the cook stuffed the warbler with a single olive, as though revelers might finally taste music, arriving at this round placeholder for breath and open voice. Edible decibels. Savory olive for sweet song.

Something about that passage that moves me. Perhaps it's the time and intensity of the recipes that Jess reads; the names of birds I didn’t even know existed; the magic of cooking, of turning one thing into something completely new. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Goodman’s words have rhythm: “Edible decibels. Savory olive for sweet song.”  I love that.

Suddenly inspired, I pulled out my oldest cookbook from the shelf, which is really not so old. It’s Craig Claiborne’s Cooking with Herbs and Spices, a 1970 paperback complete with well-used grease stains and pages yellowed with age. I had taken it from a box of discarded cookbooks up in storage at my father’s house. Apparently we used to have this volume in my childhood home. Turning its pages today, I can still see my mother’s spider-scrawl in the margins.

This book contains recipes organized by individual herb and spice. For each, Claiborne gives a bit of background, some tidbits of knowledge and lore before jumping into food. I looked up rosemary, one of my favorites. The scent of this herb was one of the very first to return in the years after I lost my sense of smell. It came bursting into my sensory consciousness while I chopped up a pile of fresh leaves, preparing a lamb dish for dinner. Fitting. Rosemary is "notable with lamb and pork," Claiborne writes. I’ll never forget that first whiff. It brought me immediately back to a moment in my past, a horseback ride in the forest out West, a child on a family vacation, breathing in the scents of the earth. Claiborne approves: "Rosemary is for remembrance," he writes.

I opened to the section on cinnamon. “Cinnamon is the bark of the cinnamon tree and its value can scarcely be estimated,” Claiborne says. “It is important for pickling and it is difficult to imagine rice pudding without it.” True. 

But in this section I focused on a recipe for another pudding—Indian Pudding, the traditional New England dessert made with cornmeal, milk, and molasses. This recipe was sent to Claiborne by a reader whose mother had clipped it from the Boston Globe 25 years earlier. It arrived with a note: This recipe was taken from a seared and yellow scrapbook in Widener Library at Harvard University, and without a doubt can’t be beat.  

I live around the corner from that very library! I took this to be a sign, and so I made the pudding myself. As Claiborne writes: "It’s excellent."

Indian Pudding
From Craig Claiborne’s Cooking with Herbs and Spices

This pudding comes together quickly, but then bakes slowly in low-heated oven for hours. When it’s done, the edges have just started to pull away from the pan and the middle is set, but still a tiny bit jiggly. Scooped in a bowl, the pudding is soft and creamy with just a bit of chew from the very top crust. It smells like cinnamon and molasses, like corn and ginger and cloves. It tastes like Christmas. Eat it hot with vanilla ice cream, or, as I did, with a scoop of greek yogurt.

4 cups milk
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup vegetable shortening *
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup molasses
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 (heaping) teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

*In Claiborne’s original recipe, he calls for minced suet—an ingredient I don’t have lying around, nor would I even know where to buy.  I used vegetable shortening instead.  It worked just fine.

-Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

-Bring the milk to a boil in a pot on the stove.  Add the cornmeal gradually, whisking vigorously.  When the mixture begins to thicken, set aside to cool.

-When cool, or nearly so, stir in the rest of the ingredients.  Mix well.

-Pour into a buttered baking dish and bake for about 2 hours (mine took 1 hour, 45 minutes).  Serve hot, with vanilla ice cream (or yogurt). Enjoy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Coq au Vin

Last week I was in New York City.  I spent five days walking the snowy streets of Manhattan from meeting to meeting, lunch to brunch to dinner.  I ate pizza at Otto, late night burgers in Gramercy, and sipped wine at the Blue Ribbon Bar.  Amid a bit of business, I had a chance to see some good friends, as well as a pretty awesome exhibit on kitchen design.  I stayed with my brother in his studio apartment, where I slept on an air mattress on the floor and after 24 hours, already desperately missing my bed, I began to wonder whether I’m getting old.

But despite an aching back and little sleep, Manhattan beckoned with its familiar urban details: the women in four-inch heels avoiding slush puddles on the sidewalk edge, taxis honking at all hours of the night.  I’ve missed the hectic swoosh of commuters through Grand Central Station and the greasy scents coming from the hot dog and kabob vendors scattered through Midtown.  I love the anonymity of walking down the street in New York—any street, at any time—where absolutely no one knows who you are.  I love the excitement of the city, the silence amid the overcrowded noise. 

On the Saturday night of my trip, my little brother, who works in real estate, took me out to dinner.  My mother and her boyfriend, Charley, were also in town, and they came, too.  We went to the Union Square CafĂ©, a classy joint serving high-end American food, one that’s been around for 25 years, a lifetime in New York.  We sat at a cozy table in a back corner of the restaurant and ate oysters while drinking a bottle of Sancerre.  Later, there was beef carpaccio, a Cara Cara orange salad, and scallops served with hazelnuts, sunchokes, and brown butter.  To finish: a Calamansi lime tart, which sparkled alongside tiny sips of port. 

When we left the restaurant, close to midnight, I stood out on the street, steps away from the bustle of Union Square, waiting for my family to put on their coats.  It was cold, and I could see my breath cloud the air.  I could still taste the citrus from the dessert on my lips.  The night was strangely silent.  Even the taxi, which drove slowly past, looked oddly alone.  I felt lucky, and I felt full.  And you know what?  I missed home.

Now here’s a clunky transition:

Coq au Vin.

I have a recipe for coq au vin that I’ve been meaning to share for a while now.  I’ve made it a number of times this winter already—for big dinner parties, as well as for just Matt and me.  Cooking, it fills the apartment with the scent of chicken, red wine and thyme.  If there is any recipe that reminds me of my new home in Boston, this is it.  

"One of the classics of French cuisine, coq au vin may sound fancy, but at heart it is really nothing more than a simple braised chicken dish," they write in The Best Slow & Easy Recipes, one of my favorite Cook's Illustrated cookbooks.  "Chicken is cooked in a red wine sauce and finished with bacon, glazed pearl onions, and sauteed mushrooms.  At its best, coq au vin is a boldly flavored dish, the acidity of the wine rounded out by rich, salty bacon and sweet caramelized onions and mushrooms.  The chicken acts like a sponge, soaking up those same dark, compelling flavors."

This coq au vin is easy to make ahead, chill overnight, and then reheat before dinner.  It can be served alongside noodles, polenta, or even rice.  But I like it with a big hunk of crusty bread, best used to mop up the sauce.  Eaten like this, perhaps while sitting on the couch, you couldn’t be much farther away from high end Manhattan, from high heels and expensive wine.  Sometimes, that’s the best possible thing.

Coq au Vin
Serves 4 - 6

6 ounces (5 slices) thick-cut bacon, chopped into medium pieces {you can substitute regular bacon as well}
4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces {drumsticks, thighs, and split breasts cut in half so that each person can have some white and dark meat}
10 ounces white button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
1 ¼ cups frozen pearl onions, thawed
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bottle (750 ml) dry red wine {a $7 - $10 bottle of medium bodied red table wine made from a blend of grapes, like Cotes du Rhone, works well, the folks at America's Test Kitchen write.}
2 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into two pieces, and chilled
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

-Fry the bacon in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat until crisp, about 10 minutes.  Transfer to a paper towel with a slotted spoon.  Reserve the fat in a separate small bowl.

-Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.  Heat 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Add half the chicken and brown on both sides, 7 – 10 minutes. If it begins to scorch, lower the heat. Transfer chicken to a plate.  Repeat, using more bacon fat as needed, until all of the chicken is browned.  Remove skin from thighs/drumsticks and discard.

-Pour off all excess fat except for 1 tablespoon. Heat over medium heat until shimmering.  Add mushrooms, pearl onions, and ¼ teaspoon salt.  Cook for 10 – 12 minutes, until lightly browned.  Add garlic and thyme and cook 30 seconds more.  Add flour and tomato paste, stir for one minute.  Slowly whisk in the wine, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot.  Then, whisk in the broth.  Add the bay leaves.  Bring to a simmer.

-Place the chicken, along with its juices, into the pot and bring to a simmer.  Cover. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the chicken is fully cooked.  This will take about an hour for thighs and drumsticks (170 – 175 degrees on an instant read thermometer) and only 20 minutes for the breasts (160 – 165 on the thermometer).  I simmered the thighs/drumsticks for 40 minutes, and then added the breasts.

-Transfer the chicken to a platter, tent with foil, and let rest while finishing the sauce.  Defat the braising liquid.  You can do this by letting the liquid cool for a few minutes, and then scooping the fat, which will have risen to the top, off with a metal spoon. 

-Bring the defatted liquid to a simmer and cook until thickened.  It will measure about 2 cups, and will take about 20 minutes.  Off the heat, discard the bay leaves, and then whisk in the butter.  Season to Taste with salt and pepper.  {Here, you can let the sauce cool, place the chicken back in the pot, and refrigerate overnight.  When ready to serve, simply reheat on the stove, on medium low heat until warm.} 

-To serve, on a platter, spoon the sauce over the chicken.  Sprinkle with reserved bacon and the fresh parsley.  Enjoy!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Joanne Chang's Sticky Buns

As I write, it is Sunday morning and raining outside.  I can hear the church bells across the street, the cars zipping through puddles, the creaky footsteps of my neighbors upstairs.  The apartment is warm, warmer than it’s been in weeks, and the kitchen smells like citrus because of the bowl of clementines, of which I’ve eaten nearly half, sitting on the table to my right.  Matt is at the library, and I am here alone.  The sticky buns are staring at me from across the room.

I baked a batch of these sugary buns last year.  We ate them on Christmas morning, just like I did as a kid.  They were sweet and flaky and not too hard to make.  This year, I baked another batch from another recipe, this time for brunch on New Year’s day.  These sticky buns—from Joanne Chang’s new cookbook, Flour—were big and moist, almost obscene in their thick coat of pecans and buttery goo.  When Matt thumped one down on his plate while sitting at the table with mimosas and friends, it echoed with such tenor that we all began to laugh.  These sticky buns aren’t for the weak or weary.  They’re awesome.

I made them in small steps, over the course of three days.  First: I mixed and kneaded the brioche dough, which I then let rise in the refrigerator overnight.  The next day I rolled it out into a rectangle, filled it with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and pecans, and then rolled it back up into a log.  Sliced into eighths, again the raw buns proofed in the refrigerator overnight.  

On Saturday morning, New Years Day, I made a sauce out of butter, brown sugar, honey, and cream. I spread it in a pan, sprinkled it with more nuts, and placed the buns on top.  After 45 minutes in the oven they emerged smelling like cake, like caramel, like all the Christmas mornings of my childhood.  They also emerged the size of my skull.  These sticky buns were huge.

Later, I would read on Joanne Chang’s website that there is a typo in her cookbook.  Instead of using an entire recipe of brioche dough, I should have used only half.  But I don’t know. I liked the plump extravagance of these buns.  They sat on the serving tray with sticky authority, confident in their considerable girth.  Eat me, they commanded.  We did.  

“Sticky Sticky Buns”

Note: I am writing the recipe as I made it, with the full batch of brioche dough. If you want to go the way it was originally intended, you still need to make the full recipe of brioche dough in order for the proportions to work (and the dough hook to be effective in the standing mixer), but halve the amount of that you use for the buns and freeze the rest.  

3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 and 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt

Brioche Dough:
2 and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 and 1/4 cup bread flour
1 and 1/2 packages active dry yeast (3 and 1/4 teaspoons)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold water
6 eggs
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons (2 and 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 10 – 12 pieces

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup pecan halves, toasted and chopped

To make the brioche:
In a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flours, yeast, sugar, salt, water, and five of the eggs.  Beat on low speed for 3 – 4 minutes, until all of the ingredients have come together.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Once it’s together, beat on low speed for an additional 3 – 4 minutes.  The dough will be stiff and seem dry.

Still on low speed, add the butter one piece at a time, waiting until it disappears into the dough before adding more.  Mix for 10 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed, or even using your hands to help incorporate the difficult bits.  It’s important for the butter to be thoroughly mixed into the dough.

Then, turn up the speed to medium and beat for 15 minutes more.  The dough will become sticky, soft, and somewhat shiny.  It looks shaggy at first, and you may wonder if it will ever come together.  But it does.  It just takes some time.  Eventually the dough will become smooth and silky.  Now, turn up the mixer to medium-high and beat for 1 minute.  Test the dough: If you pull at it now, it should stretch a little and have some give.  Add a few tablespoons of flour if it seems wet or loose.  If it breaks off into pieces, continue to mix on medium for another few minutes.

Place the dough in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap directly touches the dough to prevent a skin from developing.  Put the dough into the refrigerator.  Leave it there at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

For the buns:
First, make the goo.  In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Whisk in the brown sugar until it dissolves.  Remove from heat and add the honey, cream, water, and salt.  Let cool.  (This can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.)

On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle about 16 by 12 inches, and a 1/4 inch thick.  Position the rectangle so that the short side is facing you.

In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and half of the pecans.  Sprinkle the mixture over the entire surface of the dough.  Then, starting from the short side farthest away from you, roll the rectangle into a tight log, like a jelly roll.  Trim 1/4-inch off of each end to make it even. Cut the log into eight even pieces.  (At this point, I kept the unbaked rolls, wrapped in plastic, in the fridge overnight.  It’s also possible to freeze them, and then let them defrost in the fridge overnight, or at room temperature for a few hours before baking.)

To finish:
Pour the goo into a 9x13 inch baking dish.  Sprinkle the remaining pecans over top.  Place the buns in the pan, spread out evenly.  Cover in plastic wrap and let proof in a warm spot for two hours, or until the dough is puffy and soft, and the buns are touching.  (Because I had let the cut buns proof in the fridge overnight, I only had them sit out for a half hour before baking.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Bake on a middle shelf for 35 to 45 minutes, until golden brown.  Let cool on a wire rack for a half hour.  Then, one at a time, take out the buns and invert them onto a serving platter.  Spoon the extra goo sauce over top.  Serve.