Monday, April 28, 2008

Daring Slackers!

Oh yay! That time of month again - the Daring Bakers strike again, and the culinary blogosphere is dotted with all manner of adorable frozen cheesecake pops. The pops were this month's challenge, hosted by Deborah, of Taste and Tell, and Elle, of Feeding My Enthusiasms.

I was delighted as I did my usual food-blogs-of-the-world tour yesterday evening, as I had the chance to see some lovely photos and some insanely detailed cheesecake-pop decorations. Alas, this month's challenge wasn't meant to be over here at Red Ramekin, and I didn't get around to participating.

It's not that I didn't want to try the pops, but honestly, all of that chilling, freezing, tempering, beating, dunking and drying - not to mention the FIVE, yes FIVE (5), packages of cream cheese required for the recipe - made me into a Daring Slacker this month. Besides, cheesecake just doesn't really do it for me. I have a sweet tooth to write home about, but I'd rather sink it into something like cookies, brownies, cake, or ice cream than cheesecake. Next month I promise to make something spectacular, though.

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out some of the creations of my fellow Daring Bakers: Jen, as always, serves up the most impressively-photographed pops, with some biting wit on the side. Peabody's pops are so ridiculously cute they should be illegal. And then there's Tartelette, who takes decorating to a whole new level. It's probably better that I sat this one out; there is no way I was taking the time to put rainbow-colored sprinkles and cautious little drizzles on things I wasn't even excited about eating.

That's not to say that I haven't been concocting sweet treats of my own design lately. Jonathan and I made frozen yogurt in the ice cream maker (astonishingly, our first batch of fro yo!) not once, but twice. The first time I used mostly full-fat Fage Greek yogurt, which, in taste and in nutritional profile is shockingly similar to sour cream. Hmmm....all I can say is that those probiotic cultures better be pretty damn healthy...

The second time around, I used non-fat Fage. Still yummy, but not quite as, um, creamy as the first time around. Definitely delicious enough to make again, though, and maybe next time it'll stick around long enough for a photo!

The more interesting dish, though, was my submission to this month's Royal Foodie Joust, another blog event hosted by my totally blog-eriffic e-friend, Jenn (aka the Leftover Queen). The premise of the Foodie Joust is this: each month, last month's winner chooses three ingredients, which have to be used in a creative recipe. Bloggers vote for the most creative/delicious entry. I've been wanting to participate in this event for a while, because I love creating a good recipe now and then, and this month I finally got around to it. The ingredients this month were mango, cardamom, and brown sugar. Um, delicious? Obvio.

I decided on a mango-sticky rice variant, and created a bruleed, cardamom-scented brown sticky rice with fresh mango slices. I wanted to keep the mango fresh, because we've been lucky enough to find some unbelievably delicious Mexican mangoes at Whole Foods recently. I've also been itching to try sweet brown sticky rice, which seems to be nutritionally indistinguishable from regular old brown rice, but is much more delicate and ever-so-slightly sweet.

Some friends came over on Thursday night, and mercifully helped us to devour the yogurt and the mango-rice number. Some nuked and juicy frozen blueberries were the perfect complement both to the yogurt and the mango sticky rice.

A real recipe isn't necessary for the mango sticky rice, but here is a brief description of how to recreate it: Prepare sweet brown sticky rice in a rice cooker, using a 2:1 water:rice ratio. Add about 6 green cardamom pods to the rice and water before cooking. Once cooked, allow to cool. Place about 1/4 c. cooked rice in each well of a muffin tin, and sprinkle tops generously with brown sugar. Place under the broiler until caramelized and bubbly (this happens quickly!). Allow to cool, then remove each rice patty to a plate. Top with freshly sliced mango and your choice of other toppings: whipped cream, yogurt, ice cream, thawed frozen blueberries, etc.

I loved the combination of the spiced rice and juicy mango, and have since realized that this "dessert" is actually much healthier than the typical American breakfast. The only added sugar is the sprinkling of brown sugar on the rice, and it includes both whole grains and fresh fruit. Get where I'm going with this one? Serve it for dessert, or brunch, or any case, it is definitely worth a try. The cooked rice also keeps pretty well, so make some the day before you plan to serve the dessert to save yourself some prep time. Hey, I may be a Daring Slacker, but nobody who ate this was complaining.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hot Chick Pizza

I know, I's been a slow blog month for me. Just when i thought I'd have all the free time in the world, little things started popping up - apartment searching, catch-up schoolwork, weekend trips - that have been keeping my posting at bay.

Luckily I've still had ample time to cook, and in addition to some new sweet baking experiments (recipes coming soon, I hope!), I've been playing around with bread doughs, too. And I'm not just talking about whole wheat pitas, either. I do love my whole wheat pitas, and I especially love the versatility of the dough, but my last creation took flatbread to a new level.

For one, I used a special secret ingredient in the dough. More importantly, though, I created my first original yeasted dough recipe. Most of the chemically-leavened recipes on this site are my original recipes, and I've gotten pretty comfortable baking on the fly, without a recipe, recording measurements as I go. Yeast, though, has always been a tricky thing, and I've mostly stuck with other people's guidelines when it comes to making pizza, pita, or bread.

Ever since the last pita episode, though, I've been looking for a good day to make more flatbread. The idea of a Mediterranean pizza seemed to be stuck in my head, and I wondered if I could incorporate some of that inspiration into the dough itself, and not just the toppings on the bread. Thus my garbanzo dough was created. I was hoping to get a real chick pea flavor in my dough with the addition of garbanzo flour.

Honestly, I can't say that I'd be able to pinpoint garbanzo as the distinctive flavor of this dough, but it really was much more flavorful than ordinary dough. It turned out to be the perfect backdrop for a host of different toppings, including spinach, red onion, roasted peppers, herbs, and feta.

I made the dough with a sponge in the hopes of it imparting a certain richness in flavor that straight doughs often lack. Although it sounds complicated, a sponge is like a pre-dough made with all of the liquid, part of the flour, and the yeast of the recipe, which allows the yeast to develop a bit before the addition of more flour and other flavoring agents (salt, oil, etc.). The sponge entails an extra rising period, but this recipe is pretty flexible - I made it on a day when I was in and out of the kitchen, and all of the rising times are approximate. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's pretty hard to mess up a flatbread dough.

The dough mixed and rose beautifully, and was particularly easy to roll out for thin, almost cracker-like pizza crusts. A combination of garbanzo, white whole wheat, and whole wheat flours resulted in a lower gluten content and thus a slightly less elastic dough than a traditional wheat dough. After a few minutes on the pizza stone, the crusts were golden, crunchy, and slightly bubbly around the edges, but the interior was thin and a bit chewy.

Given that legumes in general are about the healthiest thing one can consume, and that they lend a distinctly savory and pleasant flavor to this dough, its appeal is two-fold. I made a bunch of dough, used half for dinner on Friday, and then saved the rest in the refrigerator for lunch on Sunday. Yes, the secret is out, I'm so not doing the whole matzah thing. The name "hot chick pizza," though, was created during the car ride back from a Passover seder...

We took the dough in a whole bunch of directions, so it wasn't just plain old pizza, either. We made several smallish thin-crust breads, some with spinach and ricotta, and some with peppers, onions, and pine nuts. We also did a "deep-dish" risen-crust pie with sausage and mozzarella (guess who ate that one?). We tried out a wee calzone with ricotta, tomatoes, and spinach, and even made a little garbanzo griddle cake that Jonathan ate with scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Next time, I think I'll make a huge batch of this dough, and stash some in the freezer so that when I'm struck by a garbanzo griddle cake craving (they happen to the best of us), I'll be totally prepared. Seriously, though, this dough is awesome. Try it!

Whole Wheat Garbanzo Dough (for Chick Pizza)

1 c. garbanzo flour
1 c. white whole wheat flour
1 tbs. instant yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 3/4 c. warm water

All of sponge
2 1/2 - 3 1/2 c. whole wheat bread flour
2 tsp. salt
2 tbs. olive oil

Prepare sponge: mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, and add warm water. Stir for a few minutes, until thoroughly combined. Sponge with be very wet. Let sponge sit, covered, for about 45 minutes, until bubbly. Add salt and oil, and then start adding additional flour. Stir in about 2 c. of flour, adding more until dough is too stiff to stir with a wooden spoon. Turn out the dough and begin kneading, continuing to add flour until it is just tacky and smooth. Return dough to bowl and cover with oiled plastic wrap and a dish towel. Let rise until about doubled in bulk, 1 1/2-2 hours. Punch down dough and either roll out for pizzas or place in a sealed plastic bag and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Makes enough dough for about 6 smallish, thin-crusted pizzas.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Farro Soup (Book Review)

A while ago, Mia picked up a copy of Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Soups." It's a beautiful book, with lots of vibrant, colorful pictures, and lots of recipes for vegetable soups. I like soup a lot, and I especially like making vegetable soups, because they're easy, they look good, and they're delicious. They require no particular skills, and they're basically impossible to mess up. Plus, I like chopping vegetables, which is usually required in large quantity.

The first soup that we chose to make from the book (and which we have re-made several times) is the summer version of the farro soup. We had just bought some farro in California for half the price that Whole Foods in Cambridge charges, so we were eager to make something with farro. In addition, the winter version of farro soup in the book is basically the same as the summer version sans tomatoes - why leave out the tomatoes when you can add them?

As in all of the vegetable soups I have made, you begin this one by chopping up an onion, carrots, and celery and sauteing them in olive oil. Then you add tomato paste and fry it for a little while. Next comes tomatoes, then water and pre-soaked farro. At the very end, you add a can of chickpeas. Deborah insists that, unless the chickpeas are organic, you should dispose of the liquid, but I consider that to be, if not pretentiously green, at least overly cautious. Then again, I don't wash my produce carefully, and I strongly prefer charcoal grills, so maybe I'm just asking for trouble.

As usual with soup, the most important thing is to make sure there is enough salt in it. Luckily, if there isn't enough salt, the solution is quick and easy - add more. The same is true with other seasonings. Mark Bittman had a recent post that suggests that the timing of salt addition is not nearly as important as people think, and I trust Mark Bittman, so I don't worry too much about under-salting the soup at first.

As you can see from the pictures, the tomatoes give the broth a nice red color, and the various vegetables give lots of pleasing contrast. The soup is best served warm, of course, but when we make a gallon of it, Mia and I usually can't resist taking it out of the fridge and gorging on it cold right out of the used yogurt containers that serve as our Tupperware. It never lasts very long.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Would Not a Pita by Any Other Name...

Taste so damn good? I think you can guess the answer to that question. We've made homemade pita a few times now, but I've finally been inspired to blog about it because of the various pita incarnations that came out of our most recent batch.

On Friday night we had the pleasure of entertaining two friends who, luckily, don't mind showing up to dinner at the scheduled time to find their hostess covered in flour and furiously rolling out the dough for fresh pitas (pita is something you want to eat straight from the oven, anyway - trust me). We made one of my favorite meals: chicken and lamb marinated in lemon and mint, roasted zucchini and eggplant, a kalamata-studded Greek salad, and of course, fresh whole-wheat pita. To top it all off, Jonathan made a lemony hummus, and I mixed up a bowlful of tahini-yogurt-cucumber dip. Seriously, this is one of the best-tasting meals in the world, and it is perfect for entertaining. Serve everything family style, and dig in.

But back to the pita. There isn't a whole lot of room for experimentation with the dough itself; I picked a recipe from the amazingly entertaining and informative blog Arabic Bites, and did my usual 100% whole wheat thing (I used whole wheat bread flour, to be exact). I mixed and kneaded by hand, then let it rise for about 2 hours, allowing for a long rest because I was using whole wheat flour. Although I did a fair bit of kneading, I am a firm believer in the idea that you can't really mess up a flatbread. Since you end up rolling it out before baking, it doesn't fall prey to the usual problems that come with yeasted breads (and believe me, I've seen them all).

To go with the meat, veggies, and hummus, I made a whole bunch of regular pitas, making sure to roll them out very thinly in order to achieve that magical balloon effect that leaves the bread with the oh-so-convenient pocket. I won't pretend to know why rolling the dough very thinly has this effect on the baked breads, but it does. See?

After some experimentation, I've decided that soft pitas are best for dipping and stuffing, so I take them out of the oven very soon after they've puffed. As they cool, they deflate and develop a light and chewy crumb. They stay soft like this for at least a few hours...maybe more, although they've never stuck around our kitchen long enough for me to know.

But while plain pita is great and all, I used this batch to test out a few other ideas. The first was a Mediterranean-ish flatbread, which turned out to be great pre-dinner snacking food that we consumed while I finished rolling/baking the remaining pitas on Friday evening. I simply rolled out a hunk of dough, brushed it generously with olive oil, and then topped to my heart's content. I made a couple versions, both of which started with a hefty sprinkling of spices. My sister introduced me to authentic za'atar after her recent trip to Israel, so in an attempt to mimic that flavor combination, I dusted the glistening dough rounds with plenty of thyme, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, salt, and pepper. The first flatbread also had olives, feta, and red onion, and on the second bread I substituted the feta for some pine nuts.

Both were quite tasty, especially dunked in hummus and yogurt. Next time I think I'll use more toppings, although I've baked enough heavy-handedly topped pizzas to know that this can cause its own problems...that pizza peel to pizza stone transition can get ugly.

A bit of leftover dough languished in the refrigerator all day on Saturday, which gave it a little extra yeasty tang on Sunday, when we had the opportunity to bake it. My daily food blog perusal turned up the spectacular idea of a breakfast pizza, which I was itching to create myself. This was indeed utterly delicious - perhaps my favorite incarnation of this round of pita. I topped the pizza with spinach, mozzarella, and one egg, which rolled around threateningly as I attempted to move the pizza into the oven. There were no disasters, though, even if the yolk cooked a bit more quickly than I would have liked in the hot oven. The egg white was perfectly soft, though, and melded with the melted mozzarella to form a lovely blanket over the wilted spinach.

In the future this pizza won't be relegated to breakfast - I can easily see an egg atop all sorts of tasty pizza ingredients, and a little runny yolk always makes everything taste better, right? As always, I used my pizza stone (both for the pitas and the flatbreads), and the crust on this pizza was slightly crisp on the outside, but chewy and bubbly on top. Definitely the best brunch food I've made in a while, or at the very least, since the last time I made brunch.

So, while I continue to dream up new ideas for my next batch of pita dough, I'll also encourage you to experiment with some pita of your own. Most recipes I've found are pretty much the same: flour, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and salt. Choose one, heat up your oven as high as it will go, and get rollin'. It is definitely worth the effort.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


I promised nibs, so here they are:

Making their rounds through the culinary blogosphere, cacao nibs seem to be everywhere these days. They are folded into buttery and chocolatey cookie doughs, sprinkled atop chic pasta dishes, and here at Red Ramekin, tucked into my favorite treat: biscotti.

I was so excited about using cacao nibs that I made two batches of biscotti with them. One was adapted from David Lebovitz's very dark and chocolatey biscotti, (featured in the pictures below) and the other was an adaptation of my regular almond biscotti recipe, enhanced with a touch of cocoa, spices, and of course, the nibs themselves. I'll admit it, though, we gobbled up the second batch so quickly that we kind of, um, forgot about the whole taking pictures use your imagination. They looked like a cross between the almond and the chocolate varieties, with visible chunks of nib speckling the dough.

Before getting to the biscotti, though, let's talk nibs. The cacao nib is a wholly worthwhile culinary experience, even at $9 for a smallish-sized box from Scharffen Berger. The nibs are simply roasted and crushed cacao beans, which are usually used to make the smooth and sweet chocolate that we are used to eating. The nibs, though, are unadorned, and on their own taste intensely chocolatey and bitter, like unsweetened baking chocolate. You might say that they are an "acquired taste," or if you aren't a total and unabashed food snob, you might just toss them into some cookie dough and enjoy the chocolate crunchiness that they impart when paired with something sweet.

In cookies the nibs seem to lose their harsh bitterness, and taste almost like very dark chocolate bits. The texture is quite different though, and the visual effect is much more interesting. In our first batch of biscotti, I timidly chopped the nibs to soften their harshness, but this proved unnecessary; in the second batch, I tossed the pieces in as they were, and they struck just the right balance of subtlety and bite.

Until it is definitively shown through dubious medical evidence and sensationalized New York Times articles that cacao is the most anti-oxidant rich substance in the world, though, I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to acquire more nibs. A little bit goes a long way, so we still have a few handfuls of these little treasures left. I'm trying to dream up a new use, but then again, I never tire of cookies. Once we've worked our way through this box, though, I doubt we'll be seeing another one until our next lazy afternoon spent meandering through the Ferry Building.

Our first batch of biscotti (pictured in this post) were quite yummy, but a bit too chocolatey for me. If you are looking for a relatively healthy chocolate cookie, though, these would work just fine. I prefer my biscotti to be a bit lighter, thus facilitating my habit of eating 10-20 of them per sitting. Keeping this in mind, I made the second batch with just a couple tablespoons of cocoa to complement the nibs, and some spices to heighten the flavor without going overboard. I enjoyed these cookies much more, and found that the nibs were really the star ingredient. In batch #1, the nibs were all but lost in the hefty dose of cocoa powder and smattering of dark chocolate chunks that I added to the dough.

If you are looking for a biscotti-making tutorial, check out my earlier post on almond biscotti. And if you get your hands on some nibs and are looking for a recipe, try this one. (To put things in perspective, we devoured the entire batch in two days.) I happen to love the combination of cocoa and warm spices, but you can tweak the recipe according to your tastes. I also added some liqueur to this recipe, which makes the dough supple and easy to form into logs. I think the nutty-fruity scent of frangelico works really well here, but amaretto, brandy, or perhaps even Grand Marnier would work. These biscotti have just a small amount of sugar, perfect for a snacking/dunking cookie. If you like sweeter cookies, increase the sugar to 2/3 c. For recipe directions, see the post mentioned above.

Nibby Spiced Biscotti

2 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tbs. unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
pinch of cloves
1/4 tsp. salt
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/4 c. frangelico
2/3 c. whole toasted almonds
1/4 c. (or more, if desired) unsweetened cacao nibs