Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gnocchi

Gnocchi are like little potato pillows.  Once they are made and frozen, they make for an easy week night dinner as they can be boiled right from the freezer, so there is no thawing time required.  They taste great with anything from a simple tomato sauce to pesto to even melted butter and parmesan cheese. 

This is great Italian comfort food, especially on a cold snowy day when carbs are a necessity.


A ricer (pictured above) makes the Gnocchi process a lot easier as you'll be able to achieve the fine mashed texture required for the potatoes in this recipe with very little effort. 

Gnocchi
(10-12 servings)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Biscotti Series.....(Part 2)

The great thing about biscotti is that you really can add anything to them (I've seen some great Cranberry & White Chocolate versions) once you understand a basic biscotti recipe.  However you'll want to be careful with any sort of chunky ingredient, as they can cause crumbling when attempting to cut the biscotti loaf into biscuits (for example, finely chopping the nuts before adding them to the batter will make slicing the biscotti loaf into biscuits much easier...).

The 'zester' makes zesting citrus fruit easy....otherwise a grater or a peeler & fine dice will work...
Pistachio-Orange Biscotti
(makes about 36 cookies)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Biscotti Series....(Part 1)

Biscotti + Coffee = (makes me) happy.   It's very simple. 

And because of my simple equation, I was very excited to learn how to make Biscotti in my Northern Italian Cuisine class. 

The keys to making biscotti (the ones that I've found useful)...
-In the summer, flour tends to be more moist, so you might have to use more
-In the winter, flour tends to be more dry, so you might have to use less
-If you live in a humid climate you might need more flour
-if you live in a dry climate you might need less flour
-You might also want to see how the stars are aligning on the day you are going to make Biscotti...

I generally start off with the amount of flour the recipe states.  If the dough is too moist once all the ingredients are incorporated (and most of the time my biscotti dough is too moist, because the humidity in Toronto is higher) I'll incorporate a 1/4 cup of flour until I get the right texture.  What you are looking for in the batter is the consistency of sticky cookie dough.  

If you are unsure when it comes to baking 'doneness', it's always better to under-bake biscotti then over-bake...for two reasons:  First, the cookie will harden as it cools and second, (once it has cooled a little after the second baking) if the biscotti is not as hard as you would like it to be, you can always put it back into the oven for another 10-15 minutes.

I have two recipes for biscotti that I love => Toasted Almond & Chocolate and Pistachio & Orange 

Chocolate and Toasted Almond Biscotti
(makes about 36 cookies)

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Delightful Tiramisu

Tiramisu (for those who don't know) is an Italian trifle made with Savoiardi (lady finger biscuits) soaked in coffee and liquor, layered with a heavenly rich, but light custard.
As a general rule, I do not like trifle.  Apparently this is not the case when it's Italian trifle.  It must be the combination of the lady finger biscuits and liquor, and of course the decadence of the Mascarpone cheese. 



This recipe was adapted from the one that is in the George Brown College Northern Italian Cuisine manual.

You’re going to need a few mixing bowls for this - one for the egg whites, one for combining the egg yolks and sugar and one for the mascarpone cheese. 
I like to do the mixing by hand.  It does require some arm and shoulder stamina, but I prefer the control that you get when mixing by hand..I find that it helps with determining the right consistency for each step (and it has the added benefit of burning off some calories, which you are guaranteed to consume when you eat this dessert). 

A couple of my Tiramisu tips:
-Take the eggs out of the fridge a couple of hours before you want to make this....they need to be room temperature
-This dessert requires some planning as it does have to be refrigerated overnight
-This version of Tiramisu does contain raw eggs...if you would rather the eggs be cooked, please see the modification at the bottom of this post

Tiramisu

Ingredients:
450 g (1 tub) mascarpone cheese
6 eggs
6 tsbp sugar
1 pkg Savoiardi (lady fingers biscuits)
6 oz Kahlua (or other coffee liquor)
3/4 cup espresso coffee
1 vanilla bean
Cocoa powder (for dusting)

Directions:
(1) Have a pan (about 12" x 10" x 2.5" deep) ready for assembling the Tiramisu (I used a foil pan...)
(2) Empty mascarpone Cheese into a mixing bowl;  Mix vigorously by hand with a spatula until mascarpone is smooth (like spreadable cream cheese); Set aside
Mascarpone
(3) Combine espresso and Kahlua together in a bowl (wide enough to dip the length of the biscuits in); set aside
(4) Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites into one mixing bowl and the eggs yokes into another
(5) Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and pale

Egg Yolks and Sugar
(6) Slice vanilla bean down the center and scrap insides of vanilla bean out with the back of a knife; mix into egg yolk mixture until just combined
***placing the husk of the vanilla bean into a jar of white sugar infuses the sugar with a lovely vanilla flavour/scent which can then be used for baking, sweetening coffee etc...
(7) Whip the egg whites until they double in volume and form stiff peaks
Tips for whisking egg whites:
-make sure the egg whites are at room temperature
-use a dry, clean bowl
-make sure whisk is very clean
-whip with a loose shoulder and wrist
-sometimes it helps to put the bowl at an angle.

Egg Whites

(8) Combine egg yolk mixture with the mascarpone cheese a little at a time until just blended
(9) Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk/Mascarpone mixture a little at a time until just incorporated
***don't over mix*** (it's okay if it's a little lumpy)

Egg Yolk/Mascarpone/Egg White mixture...
Assembly:
(1) Dip the cookies in the espresso/Kahlua mixture
-Don't soak them...Quickly dip each side of biscuit in the liquid mixture and then flick off excess liquid.
(2) Layer the biscuits into the pan, covering the entire bottom of the pan (cutting the cookies as required to cover the entire bottom of pan)
(3) Spread about 1/2 of the custard mixture over the biscuits
***At this point, drop the pan from about 2 inches in the air, 2-3 times to release any air bubbles
(4) Dip and cover the custard layer with a second layer of biscuits.  Position the cookies the opposite way of the first layer (i.e. If you placed the first layer horizontally, then position second layer of biscuits vertically)

Second layer of biscuits over first layer of custard
(5) Spread the remainder of the Custard over the second layer of cookies
***Again, Drop the pan from about 2 inches in the air 2-3 times to release any air bubbles
(6) Refrigerate overnight. 
(7) Before serving, sprinkle with cocoa power

I was sending this one to my Aunt's house...but of course I had to try it first to make sure it was okay.....
*** if raw eggs freak you out ***
-Step 3 - whisk egg yolks and sugar over a pot of boiling water until they turn pale, but use 8 egg yolks instead of 6 (you must whisk continuously, otherwise you'll end up with scrambled eggs)
-Step 4 - replace the egg whites with 300-350 ml of 35% whipping cream and whip until stiff.  Replace egg whites with whipped cream in step 6 above and gently fold into the egg yolk/mascarpone mixture

Happy Cooking!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Northern Italian Cuisine

This was the first 'specialized' culinary class with George Brown College which I enrolled in after taking the Culinary Arts I & II.  I love Italian food....but I do have to confess that I didn't know much about Northern Italian Cuisine prior to taking this course.  I thought all Italian food came from the same place...Italy! 
(I now understand just how misinformed I was...)

This course is 6 weeks.  You'll need a pasta maker, or at least access to a pasta maker.  But don't fret too much about this.  There are usually enough people in class who bring pasta makers that getting access to one on the day you make pasta is easy enough.  You'll also need a Agnolitti stamp (I couldn't find one, so I used a regular round cookie cutter which worked just fine).

Agnolitti Stamp
The instructor that who taught this class had spent time working as a Chef in different parts of Italy, so he had a lot of good authentic useful tips and stories to make the class interesting. 

Week One:  Heavenly potato dumplings in tomato sauce....

As with other Continuing Education Culinary Arts classes, the first thing that was discussed was expectations for the class and any new tool requirements. 
This week was a demo only class.  Demonstrated was Gnocchi di Patate (Potato Dumplings), Sugo di Pomodoro (a Basic Tomato Sauce), Finissima di Branzino marinata all 'extra virgine' ed insalata Italiana (Marinated Sea Bass with Italian Sauce) and Panna Cotta (Cooked Cream). 
So one of my friends is Italian.  His parents are super Italian when it comes to the food(I mean that in the best way possible).  They even have a pizza oven in their backyard.
This is the Pizza Oven.....
His Mom made us homemade Gnocchi once.  They were like these heavenly little dumplings in tomato sauce in my mouth (This must be Italian comfort food).  So you can imagine how excited I was to be learning how to make them....everything from the ingredients to the method was surprisingly easy.   Despite this being a demo only class, I picked up the technique and have made them a number of times since (I'll include my variation for Gnocchi in a subsequent post). 
The tomato sauce was basic, but the instructor described how it could be built upon to make different variations.  In class, the Gnocchi was tossed in the tomato sauce. 
The Sea Bass was not cooked, but cured in the fridge with lemon and lime juice.  It was then served over a bed of fennel, cucumber, tomato and basil.  It was simple and pleasant.  This would be a great summer dinner recipe.
The Panna Cotta was rich....(which is not surprising considering it was made with 35% cream)...it was a useful introduction on how to use gelatin. 

Week Two: So this is Polenta....hm.

This was the first demo and lab class of the course.  Demonstrated in this class was Agnello All Modenese (Lamb 'Modena' Style), Polenta con Gorgonzola, Salsa Funghi (Polenta with Gorgonzola in a Mushroom Sauce) and Pasta e Fagioli alla Veneta (Pasta and Bean Soup Venetian Style).  The Lamb and Polenta recipes were part of the lab. 
We were shown how to butcher a lamb rack to make little lamb chops (just like the ones that are served in martini glasses with mashed potatoes at cocktail parties).... Once the lamb chops were cleaned off, they were breaded, roasted and then drizzled with balsamic and olive oil.  All in all I was happy with the balsamic and herb breaded/roasted flavour of the lamb (even though I am not a huge fan of lamb)....it wasn't too lamb-y (for those of you who don't really like lamb, you'll understand what I mean).  And true to the name of the course, Modena is in Northern Italy. 
This was my very first introduction to Polenta.  And (like the time I ate American southern grits with no cheese or butter or hot sauce) what I discovered is that Polenta with nothing in it doesn't taste like much (it had the same texture as the grits, but it was more solid).  It's pretty easy to work with (if you follow the instructions on the polenta flour box) and it will take on the flavour of whatever you cook or bake it with.  In this case it was heavily flavoured with giant chunks of Gorgonzola and topped with a mushroom sauce.  (there was extra Gorgonzola left over so I went a little crazy with this greenish/bluish cheese...ooops).   Turns out Gorgonzola's origins are traced back to a city of the same name in Northern Italy....Boom! 
The pasta and bean soup was nice.  I can see this being a good 'fall-soup' recipe.  The instructor advised us on variations of how to make the soup more flavourful (by adding bacon...YES!). 

Week Three: PASTA.

SO this is the week I learned about the magical wonders of homemade pasta.  Once you have fresh pasta, there is no comparing it to the dried stuff in the package (don't get me wrong, I still rely on the dried stuff in the packing because, let’s face it, it’s more convenient) but now I know - given the option - I would take fresh pasta any day. 
There is an art to making pasta.  Thankfully, the instructor was very detailed in the methods and provided many many tips to make the whole thing easier.
Once the pasta was made and put through our pasta machines, we took that same pasta dough and filled it with a ricotta and spinach mixture.  We then used the Agnolitti  stamps (or in my case, a cookie cutter) to make ravioli. 
This entire course was worth it just to learn how to make pasta. 
Calamari e Gamberetti Fritti was also demonstrated in this class.  This is a basic fried calamari and prawn dish. 

Week 4: Parchment Paper
I knew that cooking 'en papillote' was a very delicious French way to have fish....(the first time I had something 'en papillote' I was in Las Vegas in the restaurant up the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel) . 

Black Cod, Fingerling Potatoes, Brown Beech Mushrooms, Lemon "en Papillotte" @Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Las Vegas
However, I had no idea that cooking in parchment was also an Italian thing.  Turns out that this is a super easy and quick technique to infuse fish and seafood with a lot of flavour.  The instructor demonstrated how to cook sea bass in parchment paper (recipe entitled Branzino in Cartoccio) with carrots, cucumbers and herbs.  It was not fishy at all (as I expected it to be).  This recipe was part of the lab.
Fagiolli all'uccelletto (Beans Tuscan style) and Fegato di Vitello all Veneziana con crostini di polenta bianca (Calves Liver Venetian Style with Crostini of White polenta) was also demonstrated in this class.  This Tuscan (also in Northern Italy) bean recipe is more of a side dish.  The beans were flavoured with sage, rosemary, garlic, tomatoes and chili flakes.
The calves liver on white polenta crostini was interesting.  I can't say that I would make it again (as I discovered in week 2, I am not a huge fan of polenta)....it didn't occur to me before this class to make crostini out of polenta, so there's that....

Week 5: Bone with a Hole...

Ossobuco translated to english means 'Bone with a Hole'.  Sure, okay. 
It's a Milanese speciality.  Milan is in Northern Italy, so it makes sense that this would be included in this course. 
This week Ossi Buchi alla Milanese (Ossobuco), Risotto alla Milanese (Saffron Risotto) and Crostini ai fegati alla Toscana (Liver Crostini Tuscan Style) were demonstrated.  The first two recipes (Ossobuco and Risotto) were included in the lab portion of this class.  The Ossobuco was pretty labour intensive (I do have an appreciation labour intensive food as I find that the flavours have more depth....however this recipe was a little too labour intensive even for me).  Ossobuco is traditionally made with veal, which is what was done in class, but if I ever do this recipe again I will probably use beef instead (I know, this is complete sacrilege to the Ossobuco traditionalists out there, but I am just not a huge fan of veal...).
The Saffron Risotto was fantastic.  The saffron added a lovely flavour and colour to the risotto. I have used this recipe with other beef stews in my culinary travels and it's been a perfect match. 
The liver crostini was just that.  A liver puree with carrots, celery, garlic, capers, anchovy and white wine, spread on crostini.   

Week 6:  Tiramisu

Having now made Tiramisu (which is included in the lab for this class), I can say that this recipe is not for people who don't like to whisk things.  The amount of whisking involved could potentially work up a sweat....(this is most likely because I have no upper body strength, but whatever...).  Despite the whisking and mixing, the end product is phenomenal (in my humble opinion).  I generally have an aversion to custard/creamy desserts, but this recipe is light and decadent and heavenly.  I've made it a couple of times and received many compliments (my adaptation of this recipe will be included in a subsequent post).
Biscotti and Stuffed Olives (Olive Ripiene) are included with the demo. 
I love biscotti with a cup of coffee.  So I was thrilled to learn some tips and techniques on how to make this successfully (I'll include my toasted almond and chocolate chip biscotti recipe in a subsequent post).
The stuffed olives were stuffed and breaded and deep fried.  These were very good, but I think they were too fiddly for me.  I would definitely eat them again, but will probably never make them.  

I'd recommend Northern Italian Cuisine for anyone who likes and wants to expand their knowledge of Italian regional food.  It definitely expanded my culinary ranges and provided me with the confidence to take on some of the more traditional Italian recipes that I come across...(which I used to just leave up to the Nonna's).

As a side note, I bought my pasta maker from Williams Sonoma  (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/imperia-pasta-machine/ ).  I am very happy with it.  

Happy Cooking!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Adventure in Shortbread Part 2 (Part 5 of 'Christmas Cookies')

The second of the two kinds of shortbread that I make is the type that melts in your mouth...it's light and it's airy. 
I have been using this recipe for years (It was my very first shortbread recipe!).  I am not sure where it originally came from (sometime in the late 1980's, my sister put together a MacWrite-v.4.5, 3-ringed binder recipe book (including hand-drawn pictures by yours truly) (she was probably somewhere around the age of 10 so I would have been 5 years old...) for my Mom & Dad's wedding anniversary...this is where I found it).

This is a good shortbread dough to use with a cookie press.  Personally I am not a huge fan of the cookie press, mainly because I find that once the cookies are baked, they are almost too delicate and crumbly.  So a few years ago, I started using a piping bag to shape these cookies. Although it required a lot of arm strength to pipe them out, I ended up being extremely happy with the results.  They are much more sturdy and can stand up to being packaged with other cookies.  I used a number 1M Wilton tip on a regular piping bag, and piped them into mini rosette shapes. 


  

Whipped Shortbread
(makes about 60 cookies)

1 lb(500 g) of butter, at room temperature
1 cup sifted icing sugar
1/2 cup corn starch
2 tsp vanilla
3 cups all purpose flour

(1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees
(2) Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper
(3) With an electric mixer on medium speed, cream butter and icing sugar until very fluffy (this is what gives the cookie that light and airy texture...it takes about 5 minutes)
(4) Mix in corn starch and vanilla until combined
(5) Turn electric mixer to low and mix in flour 
(6) Turn electric mixer back to medium speed and continue to mix until dough has that light and fluffy texture (about 3-4 minutes)
(7) (time to get the cookies onto your baking sheets) Drop by teaspoonfuls or use a cookie press or pipe cookies onto the parchment lined baking sheets.  (I usually do this in a couple of batches as I don't have enough baking sheets or oven space to bake these all at once.  If you find your kitchen getting too warm in between batches, pop the shortbread dough into the fridge so it doesn't melt prior to baking)
(8) Once they are shaped, before putting them in the oven, its time to have some festive fun with cookie decorations...I used red and green M&M's and different coloured sugars. 
(9) Bake 20-25 minutes, until edges are a golden brown



We made it!  All 5 Christmas 2011 National Day of Baking recipes have been posted.  I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing about them. 

I know I am a few days late, but Happy New Year!  I wish you all the best things for 2012.  And, as always...

Happy Cooking!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An Adventure in Shortbread Part 1...(Part 4 of 'Christmas Cookies'...)



The thing with Shortbread is that my mom likes the buttery 'Walkers'-like Scottish version (the one that comes in the Tartan packaging...), and everyone else likes the light and airy, melt-in-your-mouth Whipped version.  So, in order to spread the Christmas joy to all those around me.....I make both.  I am fairly certain this is how I go through so many pounds of butter in December....

Basic Shortbread (the one that my Mom likes...)

I've been using a recipe for shortbread, which was ripped out of an old Martha Stewart magazine, for years now.  It's a very basic shortbread recipe (hence the name of the recipe), which isn't too sweet.

I try not to fancy it up, which means no icing, sprinkles, nonpareils etc, because it's pretty good as is and it's a nice departure from the super sweet decorated treats which are available in abundance at this time of year (don't get me wrong, I love those too...I do sometimes wonder how the silver nonpareil's end up 'silver'....one of life's mysteries I guess...).  This is the kind of shortbread that is good for dunking in a hot cup of tea...

The other good thing about this cookie is that it lasts for about a month in an airtight container...and tastes even better about a week after it has been baked. 

Basic Shortbread
(makes about 36 cookies – depending on how big you want the cookie to be)

Ingredients:
1 1/3 cups unsalted butter, room temperature, (plus more for pans)
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour 

Directions:
(1) Preheat oven to 275 degrees
(2) Butter a 9 x 10 x 1 inch baking pan (it's okay if it's a little bigger)
(3) In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy 
(4) Add salt, vanilla and almond extract, mix to combine
(5) Turn the mixer speed to low and add flour, 1 cup at a time, until just combined
(6) Press dough into prepared pan (1/2" thick) leveling and smoothing the top (I use the side of a tall water glass as a mini rolling pin to smooth out the top)
(7) (this step makes cutting them easier once they have finished baking) using a dough scraper or a dull knife (you don't want to scratch the bottom of you baking pans) cut dough lengthwise into about 9 strips (or however wide you want the cookie to be)  cut the strips crosswise into 36 bars about 3 inches wide (or however long you want the cookie to be) 
(8) Using a fork, poke a creative decoration into the surface of the unbaked cookie
(9) Bake shortbread until they are a light gold colour (but not browned) - this can take 75-85 minutes, so be patient
(10) Once finished baking, remove pan from oven, let cool slightly on a wire rack.  Once it's cooled slightly, go over cuts that were made prior to baking with a dull knife
(11) Let cool complete, remove from pan
(12) Can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month 




Warning, these are very addictive....

Up next….Part 5 of 5 of the 2011’s Christmas cookie extravaganza!  Whipped Shortbread….