Monday, March 30, 2009

Lasagne Verde

**Updated with photos...scroll to the bottom for a visual experience of this exciting challenge!**

I am very sad about this Daring Bakers' posting. I worked hard last Friday to ensure my lasagna was made on time, but, unfortunately, my computer has been having extreme technical difficulties lately, and its newest trick is to refuse to load Windows. Alas, there will be no photos with the post at this time. I finally made it to a computer that I could type out a post on, but my photos are still on my camera waiting to be uploaded.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Handmade pasta is a challenge I've always wanted to undertake. It's up there on my list of baking/cooking endeavors-to-try along with baking yeast bread, roasting a whole chicken, and hand-making ice cream (another challenge the Daring Bakers has pushed me to achieve! :-) ).

I found myself with a free afternoon and an empty house so I flung on my apron, blasted my bluegrass tunes (for some reason, bluegrass always gets me in the mood for cooking) and wiped down the counters in preparation.

The dough for the spinach lasagna was simply flour, chopped spinach and two eggs. I ended up adding about 2 tablespoons of flour as the dough wasn't coming together with only two eggs. (I found out later other daring bakers had simply added another egg or two, which I had considered, and will probably do in the future.) The amount of spinach I used was only 6 ounces, when the recipe called for 10...probably the reason why it was too dry. After ending up with a green, lumpy, dough ball, I kneaded the dough for about 10 minutes. If you are looking for a good arm workout to beef up those triceps and shoulders for the swimsuit season, here's your chance! ;-) The dough, then, had to rest for a while, 30 minutes to 3 hours. (I left it about 3 hours.)

After a nice, extended workout at the pool, I came back to roll out the dough into long, thin strips. The trick to rolling out lasagna is stretching rather than smashing. It doesn't spread easily like cookie dough. Because of all the kneading, the gluten in the flour is very lively and doesn't like to cooperate with spreading thinly. I don't think my dough rolled out quite as thinly as it should have (you should be able to see your hand through it if you hold it up to the light), but when it started tearing, I chose to call it quits. I cut it into 4"x8" strips, draped some chair backs in the kitchen with linen towels and hung the pasta to dry.

The bechamel sauce was simple enough, but I burned it the first time. You start out by browning butter and flour in a saucepan before adding the milk. But I believe I had the heat up too high, because as soon as I started to pour in the milk, this horrible burning smell emitted from the pan. It is best to have the heat on the lower side of low-medium.

No meat on Fridays in Lent, so I threw together a marinara sauce to blanket my lasagna with. After sauteeing an onion, 3 cloves of garlic and 1 cup of mushrooms in a pan, I added two large cans of crushed tomatoes. Seasoning it with a little pepper (there was already added salt in the cans), I left it to simmer for about an hour. At the very end, I added about 2 T. of fresh basil.

The lasagna was layered, starting out first with a bit of bechamel in the bottom, noodles, bechamel, marinara, parmesano reggiano, etc. until all ingredients are used up, finishing with bechamel and a generous spread of parmesano reggiano on top.

I baked it about 40 minutes at 350 F covered with tinfoil. Then, took off the tinfoil and baked it another 10 minutes. And, lastly, turned off the oven, propped the door open a smidge, and let it cool and set for about 10 minutes before serving. This was exactly per recipe instructions and it worked like a charm.

This lasagna was perfect served with a Caesar salad on the side. Although, I hear that is rather un-Italian.

A wonderful spring meal! :-)

The humble beginnings of the lasagna noodles

Well-kneaded spinach lasagna dough

Looks like I've been in the green playdough

Strrretching it out...

Drying the noodles

The flavors and color of Italy

Fresh out of the oven

Warm, gooey layers of lasagna goodness

Turned out a-okay...gained a green thumb while cooking, even if I can't achieve one while gardening. ;-)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ghiradelli Chocolate: A San Francisco Treat

Rarely a trip to San Francisco passes without a visit to Ghiradelli Square. Consumption of their chocolate is an imperative when visiting the city by the bay. Not only is every flavor of Ghiradelli chocolate available in their cozy gift shop, but there is a soda fountain and ice cream bar in the space next door where you can indulge in a warm mug of their world famous hot chocolate, amply graced with fresh whipped cream, or a dish of your favorite ice cream flavors floating in their luscious hot fudge. While entering into your sugar coma, you can also observe their machine demonstrating the process of making chocolate. Mmmm....if only I could get one of those for my kitchen.

Patiently awaiting our Ghiradelli sundae with cookies 'n cream, coffee, and chocolate ice creams...drizzled in hot fudge, of course!

Eagerly anticipating the first bite...

...and he's had enough of my photographing. ;-) Time to dig in.

I can't believe how quickly we managed to consume that! :-)

Strangely, I found I have been horribly remiss in my SF trips with Ryan. He had never set foot in the chocolate haven until our last one. This is a double offense as he is the most sugar-loving person I have ever met. He certainly should have been introduced to the best place for sweet treats in San Fran!

P.S. This visit, we discovered a new flavor in their line of filled chocolates. PEANUT BUTTER! Move over Reese's, a new chocolate-peanut butter bite is in town. Ghiradelli's bars has peanut pieces hidden inside the thin chocolate wafers, giving a delightful crunch to each bite.

My handsome model demonstrating how to perfectly nibble a chocolate bar.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pensées Français

This morning I am dreaming of Paris. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe, watching the passerby, plotting out my next exploit while sipping my thick, rich chocolat chaud avec chantilly. I pick up my copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, immersing myself in Hugo's somber descriptions of Paris. The cathedral looms ominously over the Île de la Cité, swathing it in its dark shadows. Sweeping over the facade, I recoil at the sight of the grotesque gargoyles. From atop the Gothic tower, I glance out over the expanse of the city peeking into the activity of chaque arrondissement. Les Parisiens do not stop; life is too short not to take advantage of every moment. The sheer artistry, beauty of this city is nearly overwhelming....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ziti for San Giuseppe

You know how I love to celebrate the feast days in style. Today is a very special one, indeed. Today we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, a man of steadfast faith and tremendous patience. Oh, how I could learn a lesson or two from him....

Somehow, at my college, the feast of St. Joseph became associated with Italian food, so that now I consider a proper celebration of St. Joseph's Day to involve an ample supply of pasta and Italian meat and cheese bread. The feast certainly isn't reserved only to the Italians -- for, after all, St. Joseph wasn't an Italian -- but I can safely say San Giuseppe receives his due honor in that fair country.

Hey, and I'm not complaining. I'm a huge fan of Italian fare. I'll use any excuse to consume a heaping plate of spaghetti.

Here's an adequately-Italian dish, a brainchild of the fair Giada De Laurentis, which I've made on several occasions. The tots love it, as it reminds them of macaroni and cheese, and its a smashing success with the men as the hidden orbs of meat satisfy their need for hearty substance. Us, women...well, it will just have to be a few extra miles on that run tomorrow. ;-)

Baked Ziti with Meatballs

1/4 c. plain dried bread crumbs

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 T. milk

3/4 c. Romano cheese, grated

1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb. ground beef

all-purpose flour, for dredging

1 lb. ziti

1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil

5 c. tomato sauce
3 c. whole milk ricotta
2 c. shredded mozarella

1/2 c. grated Parmesan

6 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 in. pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine bread crumbs, eggs, milk, 1/2 c. of Romano and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Add beef and carefully combine.

Shape into bite-size pieces. Roll each meatball in flour.

In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of slightly-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for about 8 minutes, until al dente. Remove immediately from water and cover if not using immediately. Don't rinse as this prevents the sauce from clinging to the pasta.

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When almost smoking, add meatballs and allow to cook without moving about 3 minutes. Turn over and brown on other side.

Cook until golden brown on both sides. Remove from heat and place on a paper towel to soak up excess grease.

In a large bowl, combine tomato sauce and ricotta. Add the cooked pasta and meatballs, mixing well.

In a large, greased baking dish, place pasta mixture. Sprinkle with mozzarella, Parmesan and remaining Romano.

Dot with butter. (I left this out; I don't think the extra grease and fat is necessary.) Place baking dish on baking sheet to catch drippings while cooking. (Definitely necessary, unless you were planning to clean the oven afterward.) Bake until top is golden brown and bubbly, about 30 to 40 minutes.

This dish is easily doubled and freezes well. Don't use shaped pasta that is any bigger than ziti as they don't embrace the sauce well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ice Cream Sandwich Love

I apologize for the hideousness of this photograph. (I made it a little smaller than usual in an attempt to offset the effects of my horrible camera skills.) Truly, all I wanted to do was consume the comforting layers of sweet flavor....

Ryan introduced me to these simple, chewy discs of oatmeal delight. Prior to his revelation, I had been firmly convinced that an oatmeal cookie could not be complete without raisins and at least a bit of cinnamon. He made a believer out of me: oatmeal and a smidgen of vanilla extract are the only absolutely necessary additions for a perfect oatmeal cookie. Not to say that I don't still love my oatmeal raisin spice cookies, but I am quite content with the purity of his oatmeal cookies. If taken out of the oven at the right moment, they literally melt in your mouth as you bite in.

Oh my. We're lucky if the dough even makes it into the oven. The dough satisfies about as well as the cookies. There is nearly always a scuffle for licking the bowl and spoon.

However, if some of the dough doesn't make it into cookie form, then we are at a loss for making our ice cream sandwiches...a mutual fetish we cannot overcome. There are few foods as delicious as cookies and ice cream; marry them and I nearly swoon at the sight.

This ice cream cookie creation is entirely homemade. The French vanilla ice cream was a second batch after the first success at ice-cream-from-scratch I made the other day. I am very excited to try out some other flavors now that I know it can be done without an ice cream maker, but, first, I had to make Ryan a batch of his favorite flavor.

Ice cream meet cookie.

It was a match made in heaven.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Palm Tree Birthday Cake

One of my highlights last week was the joint effort of producing a palm tree cake with Ryan. His grandmother's fascination with the fir of the tropics lead Ryan to his ingenious birthday cake idea. He is steadily infusing a familial tradition of homemade birthday cakes, constructed in shapes most pleasing to the honoree of the day.

This latest construction was made using one boxed white cake, one boxed chocolate cake, and a large orb of fondant. I am completely clueless when it comes to the fondant department, but Ryan swears by fondant made with powdered sugar, shortening and marshmallows. He colored and rolled out large sheets for covering the cake, carefully slicing out layers to adorn the cake pieces I was carving out from the cake sheets. My favorite part of the cake was the 'coconuts' -- probably the largest on the planet(!). It was the best I could do with the cake pieces...cut them too small and they'd fall apart! Our final touch was a sandy beach at the bottom of the palm tree, achieved by spreading a bit of frosting on the white cake and sprinkling brown sugar on top.

I can almost hear the waves against the shore....

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sunshine Bars

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; you make me happy when skies are grey...."

Sunshine Bars

1 c. orange juice
1 c. dried apricots
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. oil
1 1/2 c. rolled oats
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. wheat germ
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
1 c. raisins
2/3 c. toasted almond meal
1/2 c. shredded, sweetened coconut (opt.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Heat orange juice to a boil. Put apricots into a pan, bring to a boil again, and turn off heat. Cover pan and let apricots absorb juice until tender enough to cut with a sharp knife, but not really soft.
Mix honey and oil. Stir oats, flour, wheat germ, cinnamon, and salt together.
Drain apricots and add the juice to the honey-oil mixture.
Chop apricots and add to dry ingredients along with raisins and almond meal. Combine dry and wet ingredients and press mixture into a greased 9" x 13" baking dish. Sprinkle coconut on top if desired.
Bake 30 minutes. Watch carefully -- cookies made with honey brown quickly.
Allow to cool completely before cutting.
Makes about 2 dozen squares.

A delightfully sweet, soft, homemade granola bar...Perfect for breakfast on-the-go!

I promise; they will bring great joy to your day.

"'ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away...."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Spicy Carrot-Currant Muffins

I discovered tomorrow's breakfast. (Or maybe lunch, dinner, afternoon snack...) I am a sucker for breakfast foods; I will eat them at nearly anytime of day. A muffin, such as this, can be enjoyed whatever your mood, whatever the situation, whatever the weather....

These tasty morsels are great warm straight from the oven or slathered with peanut butter for additional protein. The allspice gives them a rich spiciness. I found a cup of tea to be an essential accompaniment as I carefully picked the crumbs off the wrapper.

Carrot-Currant Muffins
from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe

2 c. all-purpose flour (I used 1 c. all-purpose, 1 c. whole wheat)
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. allspice
1/3 c. brown sugar
2 T. granulated sugar (opt.)
1 c. finely grated carrot
1 T. fresh lemon zest
3 T. fresh lemon juice
1/2 c. currants (or raisins)
1/2 c. milk
1 large egg
2 t. vanilla extract
4 T. butter, melted
(I used 1/4 c. applesauce -- next time I will use half applesauce, half butter, as they ended up a tad dry and stuck to the paper a bit too much)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line cupcake pan with baking cups or grease.
Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl. (Add granulated sugar if you like your muffins on the sweeter side.) Place the grated carrot in a second bowl. Add lemon zest, lemon juice and currants, and mix with a fork. Use the fork to beat in the milk, egg and vanilla. Slowly pour this mixture, along with the melted butter, into the dry ingredients. Use a spoon or spatula to mix the ingredients together. Don't overmix.
Spoon batter into prepared muffins cups. Bake in the oven 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan to cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ploughman's Picnic Lunch

A rare sunny day in February last week gave Ryan and I the opportunity for a picnic lunch in the park. I absolutely love picnics. Any opportunity I have to be outside, I jump on instantly. Something about being out of doors makes everything seem fresh and more enjoyable.

The dilemma faced when packing a picnic lunch revolves around the question of what is easily portable. The notion of an English Ploughman's lunch came to mind. It seemed appropriate as Ploughman's lunches were traditionally served outdoors on chilly days to workers when they come in from the fields for a hearty meal at midday. Despite the sunshine, it was still rather chilly and it would provide a filling meal before a long shift at work.

Normally, a Ploughman's lunch consists of a hunk of cheese, some meat, fruit and greens. The platter is garnished with pickles and relishes to accompany the meats and cheese. Simple, yet sustainable. It is served alongside a mug of warm cider or ale.

For our Ploughman's lunch, I picked up some English Stilton with Cranberries and English White Cheddar cheese to go with a loaf of hearty wheat bread.

A wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables including carrots, green bell peppers, spring mix, apples, grapefruit and kumquats were included in the mix. A jar of cornichons and warm apple cider tied into the traditional Ploughman's meal.

As it was Friday and I needed something meatless, I opted for a little fish dish of salmon pinwheels in lieu of sausage.

To craft these, simply spread a warmed tortilla with cream cheese blended with a bit of dill, lay pieces of smoked salmon on top, roll and slice to desired size.

And don't forget your siesta...essential for good digestion.