Sunday, December 30, 2012

Chestnuts with butter & rosemary

I ate them, I didn't make them.

My most trusted associate prepared these chestnuts last night. It isn't often that somebody else's work shows up in this space, but on a holiday weekend such as this an exception feels about right. Besides, there are still plenty of fresh chestnuts to be had in the stores and so now is the time you'll want to get to work on these.

Good luck.

And Happy New Year everybody!


Buttery Roasted Chestnuts in Foil (From Bon Appetit, December 2012)

2 pounds fresh unshelled chestnuts
2-3 sprigs rosemary
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons (or more) kosher salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425°. Place a large sheet of foil on a rimmed baking sheet. Place chestnuts, flat side down, on a work surface. Using a utility knife or a sharp paring knife, carefully cut through the shell on the rounded side of each chestnut to score an X. Soak in a bowl of hot water for 1 minute (this helps them steam while roasting).
Drain chestnuts and pat dry; place in a medium bowl. Add rosemary, butter, 2 teaspoons salt, and nutmeg. Season with pepper and toss to thoroughly coat. Arrange chestnuts in a single layer in center of foil (a few might overlap) and gather up edges of foil around chestnuts, leaving a large opening on top.
Roast until the peel begins to curl up and chestnuts are cooked through, 30-45 minutes, depending on size and age of nuts.
Transfer chestnuts to a platter, using a spatula to scrape in any butter and spices with them, and toss to coat. Season with more salt, if desired. Serve hot or warm.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pistachio cookies

Still into the whole holiday baking routine? Allow me to throw another idea into the mix.

Basically all I did was take my pignoli cookie recipe and turn it into my pistachio cookie recipe.

Who knew this baking game was so simple!

You get yourself a can of pistachio paste, see. Then empty it into the food processor and add sugar and a couple egg whites.

In about 30 seconds your dough is done.

Pinch out some dough and form a cookie, then top with three or four raw pistachios.

Line them up on parchment paper and toss in the oven at 300 degrees F for around 25 minutes.

And that is that.

This batch is on its way to Shyster Jersey Lawyer Friend. Who, coincidentally, left a batch of very fine pignoli cookies at my front door only yesterday.

Thanks, Shy! See you in a bit.

Pistachio Cookies
Makes about a dozen cookies

1 11-oz can pistachio paste
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
6 tbsp flour
2 extra large egg whites
unsalted pistachios

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
In a food processor, crumble the pistachio paste, then add the sugars and flour and mix until fine
Add the egg whites and mix until dough forms
Scoop out small amounts of the dough (wet hands help and so I keep a bowl filled with water on hand), then press three or four pistachios on top
Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes
Rotate the sheet and bake another 10 minutes
Allow to cool, give a light dusting of confectioners sugar and serve

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas struffoli recipe

There is a downside to loving your family.

I can prove it.

(Note to those seeking quick access to this week's recipe: Scroll down to the next photo, as a rather tense family drama is about to unfold.)

See, I recently promised a loyal reader named Melissa that I would make struffoli for the holidays. Basically crisp fried dough balls cooked in honey, struffoli is a Neopolitan specialty around Christmas, and so Melissa's request was not at all unexpected. What she didn't know, however, is that I had never made struffoli before in my life, and so I did the only thing that seemed reasonable.

"Hey Anna," I barked into the phone, "I want to make struffoli."

"Good," my aunt said. "Josephine's coming this weekend. Come and help if you want."

Anna sometimes forgets her geography.

"Aunt, I'm 300 miles away. All I want's your recipe."

"Are you coming for the Eve?"

This wasn't a question. I spend every Christmas Eve at my aunt's dinner table. Where else would I be?

"Yeah, sure, I'll be there," I said. "Can I have the recipe now?"

It only took a minute to jot down Anna's instructions. Then the trouble started.

"Does Aunt Laura use this recipe too?" I asked innocently enough.

"No, she uses milk in hers," Anna said, brusquely, I thought. "Why, you want her recipe? Her struffoli are no good."

"I was just asking. Why, what's wrong with Laura's struffoli?"

"I just told you, she uses milk. You're not supposed to use milk."

"So, what, it ruins the texture? The taste? What exactly?"

"How should I know? I never had your aunt's struffoli."

I should mention that Anna and Laura are in no way estranged. In fact, they're really quite close as sisters-in-law go. They live about a quarter mile apart and see each other regularly.

"You've known each other for 70 years and you never had her struffoli? How is that even possible?"

"What do you want from me?"

"And if you never tried Laura's, how do you know they're not good?"

"There's eggplant in the oven," Anna told me. "I have to go."

(Note to those of you who are still with me: There is ample time to scroll down to the photos and recipe, you know. I'll understand.)

A not-so-attractive trait that I possess is tenacity. And so, yes, Laura's was a struffoli recipe that I now had to have. Due to a bad bit of luck on the health front, speaking to my aunt by phone wasn't possible, and so I texted my swell cousin Susie, her daughter-in-law, who was still living in Laura's apartment due to being displaced by Hurricane Sandy back in October: "Ask Laura for her struffoli recipe and email it to me when you get a chance. Also ask her if she's ever had Anna's struffoli. If she has, ask her if she liked them."

A few days later Susie sent me the recipe but nothing else.

"Didn't you ask her about Anna?" I responded.

"Yes, I did. Not sure if you can use it, though."

"Why's that?"

"Because she didn't actually say anything," Susie wrote. "All she did was make a face!"

If you are unfamiliar with the language shared by many families such as mine, allow me to translate. Laura's making a face could only mean one thing: she doesn't like Anna's struffoli any more than Anna likes hers. Whether she's ever tried them or not.

Which brings us to why loving your family as much as I do can be a real problem. By asking both Anna and Laura for their recipes I now had to decide which one of them to actually use. Which meant insulting one of the very dearest women I have ever known.

After two whole days of torturing myself over this decision, and a disastrous attempt at creating an original recipe that made use of chickpea flour (don't ask!), I readied to inform Melissa that I would not be making struffoli this Christmas after all.

Then the perfect solution arose.

"Hey Fred," I texted. "I need you-know-who's struffoli recipe. And pronto."

My friend Fred, I should mention, shares a home with an expert struffoli maker. Each year this person hosts something called "Struffoli Saturday," a work event where multiple friends and loved ones get down to the task of producing a hell of a lot of struffoli for their holidays. This individual's recipe, it turns out, is as closely guarded as her identity. But something very close, Fred assured me, was published in a magazine some time ago. That is the recipe my friend connected me with in order to avoid insulting one of my dear aunts. And that, with only a couple of minor alterations, is the recipe that I have used here.

This recipe (reprinted in full below) calls for a fairly wet dough. First mix the ingredients in a bowl and then roll the dough out onto a floured surface and kneed for a bit.

Once the dough is workable cut it into six pieces and then roll out each piece like so.

Cut into half-inch pieces and lightly roll each one into a ball before deep frying.

It doesn't take very long to fry struffoli. Depending on the temperature of the oil it can take anywhere from one to three minutes. Just keep an eye on them. These are about as light in color as you'll want; they can stay in the oil longer and get a bit darker if you prefer.

Removing the struffoli to paper towels gets rid of at least some of the oil. At this stage you can either finish the whole job, part of the job, or just store the struffoli until you're ready to make them. I prepared the whole batch and so this works out according to the full recipe's instructions.

Well, sort of. For starters, I used at least twice the amount of candied fruit as called for. (This gets diced up finely, by the way, but the fruit are so pretty I wanted to show them in the pre-cut stage.)

In a pan under low- to medium heat warm honey and the zest of one orange.

Then add the struffoli and mix thoroughly. I also added some of the candied fruit at this stage, but the recipe doesn't call for that.

Plate the struffoli, sprinkle candied fruit (or colored sprinkles if you prefer), and you're done.

Now, go and call a relative that you love a lot and wish them a Happy Holiday.

Just don't ask them for any of their recipes. Especially if you do not intend on using them.

Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

1 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel (I used orange peel)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
vegetable oil for deep-frying (I used canola oil)
3/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1/4 cup finely chopped candied fruit (I used more than twice that amount)

Whisk flour and salt in large bowl. Add butter; rub in until fine meal forms.
Whisk eggs, yolk, and next 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Stir into flour mixture. Let dough stand 1 minute.
Turn dough out onto floured surface; knead until pliable (dough will be sticky), about 1 minute. Divide dough into 6 pieces. Roll each piece out to 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut ropes into 1/2-inch lengths.
Add oil to depth of 3 inches in large pot. Heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees F.
Working in batches, fry dough until brown, 3 minutes per batch. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels.
Stir honey and orange peel in large saucepan over medium heat until warm. Add fritters and toss (I also added some of the candied fruit at this stage). Transfer fritters to platter, shape into wreath. Sprinkle with candied fruit. Cool completely.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pasta & toasted bread crumbs

Aside from the air, the water and a good sfogliatelle, the two things that I most require to function in this world are bread and pasta.

Big surprise, then, that a bowl of spaghetti and bread crumbs is a favorite around here.

If your people trace back to southern Italy, Calabria especially, this might be a traditional dish on Christmas Eve. It isn't part of my family's holiday tradition; Aunt Rita usually goes with a hazelnut sauce over angel hair. And so I make this spaghetti with bread crumbs pretty much whenever I please.

Use any plain bread crumbs that you like, of course, but you'll never convince me that homemade isn't best. The bread crumbs that I keep around the house come from leftover crusty loaves made by talented bakers right here in town. This is about a cup's worth of crumbs, which is enough for at least a pound of pasta, probably more.

In a hot pan toast the bread crumbs. You don't need to coat the pan first, but make sure to stir the crumbs frequently and make sure that they don't burn. This should only take a few minutes at medium heat, so do not—I repeat, DO NOT—leave the bread crumbs unattended—say, while texting your pals a link to that preposterous YouTube video of Dylan singing "It Must Be Santa." I know. I've been harassing people with that one for a couple holiday cycles now myself. Just remember why we're here, okay. The crumbs have got to come first.

This is where individual taste comes into play, and so feel free to adjust the ingredients however you like. Translation: you people who refuse to use anchovy in your cooking can just forget that they're here and stick with a straight-up aglio e olio.

Where was I? Right. I'm not shy about using extra virgin olive oil. It's the basis of this dish and so I'm not about to measure it out in tablespoons; I pour out what I pour out, that's all. The other ingredients are garlic (there's gotta be four good-size cloves here at least), hot pepper to taste, and of course plenty of anchovy fillets. (Deal with it.)

The only other ingredients are the pasta and the all-important (well-salted) water that it's boiled in, so don't throw all of the pasta water down the drain. I use tongs to transfer the cooked spaghetti from the water and into the pan, then ladle in as much water as needed to properly incorporate the ingredients. This stage should be done quickly and at very high heat.

What we've got here is less than a half pound of spaghetti, by the way. I'll incorporate two or three good pinches of bread crumbs while the pasta is in the pan, then sprinkle about as much over the top after it's plated.

This is some seriously good peasant food we've got here, friends. I'll take it over air and water any day.

The sfogliatelle? That I'll need to get back to you about.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to make a great fruit cake

I used to think that all fruit cakes pretty much, well, sucked.

Then my friend Tom turned me around. Eight or ten holiday seasons ago he showed up at my place with a specimen he had baked an entire year earlier. This fruit cake was wrapped so tightly, and in so many layers of different materials, that it took us several minutes just to unwrap and have a look at the thing.

What I remember most is the smell. Tom's was one boozy baked good, all right. Not only was there bourbon in the recipe he'd used, but every few weeks the guy would strip the cake down to its cheesecloth skivvies, drizzle more whiskey over it, rewrap and then return the cake to its assigned resting place inside the fridge. That's a lot of drizzling that went on over the year.

Tom's fruit cake was like none I had ever tasted. The thing weighed a ton, yeah, but it was also incredibly moist and satisfying. Best of all, the flavors were spectacular, owing much to my friend's prominent use of figs and prunes and nuts and other good things he'd taken from the cupboard and tossed in.

It's gotten so that Tom really cannot afford to show his mug around here during the holidays without a fruit cake stuffed into his backpack. Not if he wants a place to sleep, he can't.

This year his fruit cake may have company, because a couple weeks back I decided to get hold of Tom's recipe and give it a try myself. The foundation comes from a recipe provided by King Arthur Flour, which I've reprinted in full below. However, like my friend, I messed with it some.

Here you've got 1 1/2 pounds of mixed fruit. There's a variety of candied fruit and orange peel, plus dried figs, prunes and apricots.

Then there's a 1-pound mixture of golden and purple raisins.

The nuts (walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts) weighed in at 1 1/2 pounds.

The fruit, raisins and nuts get combined with 4 cups of all-purpose flour, and then you add to that a mixture of butter, sugar, eggs and brandy or rum (I went with Jack Daniel's).

Stir it all together so that the ingredients are well combined (at this point I decided to add a little more Jack, though I'm not sure why).

Then get yourself some buttered-and-floured cake pans and fill them with the mix. (Note: the recipe claims to make one 10-inch cake, but that's not even close to being true. The blue pan at the top is a deep 10-incher, and I got another couple of smaller cakes out of the batch.)

Once the cakes are out of the oven let them cool for 15 minutes. Then drizzle some more liquor on top and allow them to cool thoroughly.

I decided to take my friend's lead and age these cakes, at least for a few months. Wrap them in cheesecloth, then moisten the cloth with whatever liquor you like (I stuck with the Jack Daniel's all the way). Add a layer of plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, and then toss into a Ziploc-type bag. Store in the fridge and occasionally take the cakes out and pour a little liquor over the cheesecloth, just to keep things nice and moist.

Tom is promising to have a two-year-old fruit cake in his backpack when he arrives for his annual weeklong visit in a few weeks. By that time my cakes will be around six weeks old, and so maybe we'll break into one of them and do a side-by-side comparison.

There are worse experiments to participate in, you know.

King Arthur's Light Old Fashioned Fruit Cake 
From "The Baking Sheet Newsletter"

4 cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 pounds pecan halves (I used a mixture of pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts)
1 1/2 pounds whole candied cherries (I didn't use any cherries. Instead I went with a mix of candied fruit and orange peel, and dried figs, prunes, and apricots)
1 pound golden or purple raisins (I mixed the two together)
1 cup (2 sticks, 8 ounces) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups (15 3/4 ounces) sugar (I only used 1 3/4 cups)
6 large eggs
1/4 cup (2 ounces) brandy or rum (I used 1/2 cup of Jack Daniel's)

Preheat your oven to a 275°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan, two 9 x 5-inch bread pans, four 1-pound coffee cans (the wide, short kind) or 8 small bread pans. (They're insane. I got three cakes out of this recipe; Tom says he usually does too.)

In a very large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and spices. Add the nuts and fruit, mixing until they are well coated.

In a second bowl, cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the brandy or rum.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry and mix only until they are well combined. Fill whichever pan you use 2/3 full and bake for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the size of your pans. (My two smaller cakes took an hour to cook; the larger one, an hour and forty minutes.)

After you remove the cakes from the oven, let them cool in their pans for 15 minutes. After this rest, remove the cake from its pan and immediately sprinkle brandy or rum over them; then let them cool completely. Wrap in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. Store in a cool place to let the flavors mellow and mature. You can sprinkle a few drops of brandy or rum over them every few days during the storage period if you wish. The alcohol evaporates and leaves only flavor.

These fruit cakes will last for months if you can keep them that long. They taste so good, they are hard to give away, but they do make wonderful gifts.

To serve, cut the cake in very thin slices. It is very rich and will go a long way.