Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Za'atar Pretzels


What is za'atar? It's a savory Middle Eastern blend of thyme, garlic, sesame seeds, sumac, and other herbs and spices. The sumac gives it a bright, lemony flavor and the garlic and sesame seeds lend it an earthy gristle. Za'atar is delicious, and you won't be able to live without it once you sprinkle it on some garlic toast or a slice of pizza. As far as za'atar conveyances go, you can't get much better than a hot-out-of-the-oven homemade pretzel. Perfect for wintry days and stormy nights, and ideal for dipping in whole-grain mustard.

Ingredients


1 cup water slightly warmer than room temperature
1 package active dry yeast
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 Tbsp za'atar
1 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup baking soda
1 Tbsp dark brown sugar
1 egg, whisked
coarse kosher salt
za'atar for topping


Process


Make the dough.


To prepare the water, I usually pour cold, filtered water in a small saucepan and heat it until it's just slightly warmer than my finger. Yes, my breads all have finger juice in them!

Once the water is finger-perfect, pour in the yeast and sugar and let stand for 10 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour, yeast, za'atar, sugar, and salt. Stir in the yeasty sugar water and the olive oil. Knead for five minutes, or allow your hand mixer to do the work, with dough attachment. I choose the latter option because my carpal tunnelly wrists would wilt like lilies if I had to knead for any length of time.

Wash out the bowl, coat it with oil, then nestle your now-elastic and pliable dough ball into its clean new home. Throw a damp towel over the bowl and let the dough rise for an hour.

Shape the dough.


Take two baking sheets and cover them in parchment paper.

Gently punch down the dough and divide it into 8-10 pieces (more if you want smaller pretzels). On a floured surface, roll out one piece until it's long and skinny.

Create a circle by bringing both ends toward you.

Twist the two strands around each other.

Lift each end back to the round part of the circle and fold it around the dough such that the pretzel stays in position.

I promise you that you'll pick this up quickly and that it will be easier than it sounds.

Lay the pretzel on one of the baking sheets and start again until all the dough has been shaped.

Cover the dough with the towel.

Prepare the bath.


These lucky pretzels are now going to luxuriate in a baking soda bath!

Preheat the oven to 450.

Fill a large pot or Dutch oven 3/4 of the way full with water. Bring to a rapid simmer, then add the baking soda and brown sugar. The water will froth up. Reduce heat and maintain the simmer.

When the half hour is up, lower 3-4 pretzels into the water. Let them relax for 30 seconds, then flip them over with a slotted spoon or metal spatula so that the other side can enjoy 30 seconds of spa time. Remove and return to the baking sheet.

Repeat this process with the other pretzels.

After all the pretzels have delighted in their bath, brush them with the egg wash and sprinkle with the coarse salt and plenty of za'atar. They'll puff a lot, so lay it on thick.

Bake.


Bake 12-15 minutes, until the pretzels have turned golden-brown.

Place them on a wire rack.

Make a mustard dip: combine some whole-grain mustard, some smooth Dijon, and a dash of IPA or pale ale. Mix and spoon into a small serving dish.

Serve the pretzels with the dip and eat steaming hot.

Variation


Now that you've mastered pretzels, you're just a hop, skip, and jump away from making pretzel dogs, or, in my case, pretzel veggie dogs, otherwise known as HALLOWEEN MUMMIES.

To make these, blister 8-10 dogs on a hot pan for 10-15 minutes. The last thing you want is for your pretzel dough to encase pale, uncooked fake meat.

Wrap the dough around the dogs, covering the ends entirely.

Immerse the dogs in the bath and repeat as before, sprinkling with black sesame seeds and paprika instead of za'atar if you want to try another variation.


Notes



  • These aren't as hard to make as you think. Try out the recipe on a snow day! The pretzels will disappear instantly and you'll be primed for a nap.
  • These are also fine the next day if you heat them up in the oven first.
  • I tried adding other seasonings to the dough before baking, but you can't really taste them in the end. The seasonings you put on top will be much more prominent.

Verdict


A definite five stars.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blistered Green Beans with Harissa and Toasted Almonds

Do you like green beans? Like them skillet-blackened and served with a vibrant Middle-Eastern chili paste? Then you will love this recipe. I adapted it from Bon Appétit's version, which calls for chilis you can't find in the northeast in winter. I used my cast-iron Lodge, and it's never been put to better use than in creating this tantalizing side dish.


serves 4-6

Ingredients

 

1 red bell pepper
3 dried red chilis (I used chiles de árbol, or bird's beak chilis)
3 garlic cloves, minced 
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for seasoning 
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided 
juice from one lemon
1/4 tsp ground coriander 
1/4 tsp ground cumin
freshly ground black pepper 
2 pounds green beans, ends trimmed 
1/4 cup unsalted almonds


Process

 

Preheat your oven to 425.

Stem and de-seed your red bell pepper. Chop into big pieces, lightly oil the pieces, then put them on a baking tray and into the oven. They will need about 20 minutes to char and soften. Flip once or twice.

Stem and seed your dried chilis (retain seeds of one or more if you want extra heat, but be careful--bird's beak chili seeds will not exactly glide soothingly down your esophagus).

Set a small pot of water to boil. Set your skillet on high heat and toast the chilis. Remove when they are browned on both sides--about 3-4 minutes.

Immerse the chilis in the boiling water. Let them soak for 15 minutes, then put them on the tray with the bell pepper pieces.

Place your almonds on the hot skillet. Toast for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, let cool, and chop.

This is a good time to trim those beans.

When the bell pepper pieces look soft and are beginning to wrinkle, with beautiful char marks on both sides, remove pan from oven.

While the peppers are cooling, throw together the garlic, salt, 1 Tbsp olive oil, lemon, cumin, and coriander. You can use a small blender or a mortar and pestle to mush the ingredients together. I used the latter implement.

Chop the bird's beak chilis and the bell pepper finely. Add them to the rest of the mixture and pulverize until you have a chunky sauce (or frantically pound with a potato masher, as I did when our blender proved useless and the mortar and pestle did not seem up to the task). You can add a little water if it helps. Add the almonds at this point.

Set your skillet on high heat again. Place your trimmed beans in a bowl and toss with 2 Tbsp oil, salt, and pepper.

Throw half the beans onto the skillet. It will take about 10 minutes for them to soften to a succulent yet firm state. Stir occasionally, letting the beans char all around.  When they appear done, throw them on the baking sheet and into the still-warm oven.

Pour your next batch onto the skillet.

When beans are finished, put them back in the bowl and toss with the harissa. Serve hot.

Notes


  • I tried this dish both hot and cold and it was better hot.
  • The heat level is mild to moderate without the seeds. Next time, I think I would keep the seeds of one chili for more fire.
  • All recipes tell you to remove the skin from roasted bell peppers. I reject this. It's healthy, delicious, and in no way a threat to the sauciness of the harissa. Leave the skin on, says I.
  • I love the beans al dente, putting up resistance like a prize fighter who doesn't want to go down. If you prefer a more tractable bean, blanch the beans in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and then plunge into ice water before putting them in the skillet.
  • The effect of the burning-hot, heavy cast iron is key to the success of this dish. If you lack a skillet, go buy one! But while you're waiting, you can make this on a grill or broil the beans for a similar effect.


Verdict


Side dish win! I would definitely make this again.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Blackberry Pie

I usually don't post recipes that I've taken from other sources without having modified them at all. But I adore Isa Chandra Moskowitz and and Terry Hope Romero and their vegan baking wizardry, and I want to share the recipe for this pie, which tastes like a tart mouthful of summer. Two lemons plus blackberry liqueur plus a pailful of berries make for an outstanding rustic dessert. Bring on a scoop of organic vanilla ice cream and you'll be flying off the porch swing.


serves 8

Ingredients

 

Crust

 

2 1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
3 Tbsp sugar
8 Tbsp cold Earth Balance
8 Tbsp cold shortening
6 Tbsp ice water
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

 

Filling

 

6 heaping cups blackberries
zest of 2 lemons
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (about two lemons' worth)
2/3 cup sugar
3 Tbsp blackberry brandy or Chambord
3 Tbsp cornstarch
pinch cinnamon

 

Process

 

Crust

 

Sift flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Mix in sugar.

Add 4 Tbsp each of Earth Balance and shortening, crumbling them into the flour with your hands until the flour gets pebbly.

Add the rest of the Earth Balance and shortening. Your flour should be VERY pebbly.

Mix the ice water and vinegar and drizzle it into the flour, massaging it in as you go. Add more water if you need to, but do so slowly so as to avoid the dreaded soggy crust.

Divide the dough into two equal rounds. Press the rounds into disks and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate them until you're ready to use them, or freeze them if you're going to take a day or so to make your pie.

 

Filling 

 

Preheat oven to 425.

In a large bowl, toss together berries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, brandy or Chambord, cornstarch, and cinnamon. Easy!

Roll out pie crust to fit a 9-inch pie plate. I do this by placing the dough between two large sheets of parchment paper and rolling it out in all directions until it's flat and thin. I then take a leap of faith that it will be large enough for the pie plate and feverishly mush it flatter if it isn't.

Heap filling into bottom crust.

Roll out the top crust and place on top, pinching sides into place and poking top with a fork.

Note that this is vegan dough, and so extremely soft, with no gluten whatsoever. The recipe calls for cutting it into strips so as to create a lattice filling: yeah right! This is for braver souls than I. My crust was a ragged heap of disparate scraps, but they bonded in the baking process, making for an almost-normal-looking crust (see above).

Bake for 20 minutes, then lower heat to 350 and bake for another 30-35 minutes, until golden-brown and bubbly. Cool on a wire rack for at least half an hour before digging in.


Notes


  • The filling can't be beat. I'm a huge fan of citrus in desserts, and the blend of tart and sweet, with a hint of liqueur, somehow makes for the archetypal blackberry experience.
  • The crust is not bad for a vegan crust. It's sandy and flavorful; however, it gets soggy relatively quickly. If you're planning to keep the pie around for a few days and don't care whether or not it's vegan, use these ingredients, as found in this whiskey apple pie recipe: 2 cups flour, pinch salt, 15 tablespoons cold butter (almost 2 sticks) and 1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp cold water. I've had great success with this yummy, flaky crust.
  • I highly recommend all of the dessert books put out by Isa Chandra and Terry Hope. Their cookie and cupcake books produce to-die-for desserts every time. I've only just started using their pie book, but this recipe seems a harbinger of good things to come.

Verdict


4 stars; would be 5 with a butter crust (but at least use pasture-raised butter).

Madagascar Hot Chocolate Cookies

I had purchased a cinnamon-chili pepper chocolate bar from Madécasse, my favorite Brooklyn-based Madagascar chocolate purveyor, and wanted to make some cookies for a party. What I craved were brownie-rich cookies with a velvety texture and spicy chocolate chunks. I made what seemed like a lot, yet they disappeared with a quickness. Every so often, I bake cookies and proclaim them the "best I've ever made." This was one such time.


makes around 28 cookies

Ingredients

 

1 stick butter
1 bar 80% chocolate
1 bar 71% chocolate
1 bar Madécasse cinnamon & chili pepper chocolate
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt

Process


Preheat oven to 325. Line some baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a double boiler or pan-within-a-pan-of-boiling-water, melt the butter and the broken-up bar of 80% chocolate. Toss in two squares of the 71% chocolate. When you see only a few lumps, remove the pan from the heat. Allow the lumps to gently become one with the chocolate-butter broth, stirring occasionally.

Chop the Madécasse and four to six squares of the 71% chocolate, depending on how chocolatey you want to go. I like to chop fine rows in the chocolate, and then turn them 90 degrees and chop again so as to produce small chunks.

In a bowl, beat the eggs. Add sugar and vanilla extract and mix until uniform.

Pour in the cooled chocolate mixture and combine.

In a separate bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix these together, then gently fold into the wet ingredients.

Add chocolate chunks and fold them into the batter.

Refrigerate the batter for 30 minutes.

Using your fingers, scoop the batter onto your baking sheets in 1 1/2-inch rounds. You can also use a scoop, but where's the fun in that?

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Cookies will be very soft and gooey, yet will "bounce back" when poked.

Cool on a wire rack.

Notes


  • This finicky combo of chocolates produces a deep, bittersweet taste. Of course, you can go with a different blend of chocolates, as long as they equal 9 to 10 ounces.
  • If you lack spicy chocolate, simply add cinnamon, ginger, and a dash of cayenne to the batter.
  • I used bourbon barrel-aged Madagascar vanilla from Kentucky. So yummy!
  • Refrigerating the batter causes it to spread more slowly in the oven, resulting in a thicker, gooier cookie. But these cookies taste just as good spread thin. You'll just have to bake them for less time.
  • I needed three baking sheets' worth of cookies, but I put them in the oven in two installments. I've found that more than two baking sheets' worth of cookies lengthens the baking time and negatively affects the results.

Verdict


These might have to take 5.5 stars.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Not-So-Scrumptious Strawberry Cupcakes

These cupcakes look delicious, don't they?

overly sweet cupcakes of dismay

I used a recipe I'd been wanting to try for a year and a half--something about adapting Grandma's strawberry jello cupcakes to the healthy(er) modern age. I made the cupcakes, made the frosting, and even spread a layer of chocolate ganache between cake and frosting. What could be more delectable than a strawberry cupcake topped with chocolate and more strawberry? A whole lot of things! The topping was much too sweet, the ganache was lumpy, and the cake was a flavorless, dense calorie bomb. Even the Crumpet falls sometimes.

Smoky Poblano Mac and Cheese

A potluck was coming up. What to do? I like providing a veggie-filled option, but not too healthy. There's nothing worse than lugging home a barely touched vat of tofu surprise. At Whole Foods, I spied a gleaming heap of poblano peppers grown at my favorite pick-your-own orchard, Homestead Farm. "Oooooh!" I thought. I then poked around online and found this recipe. For more flavor magic, I upped the poblano content and added smoked pepper jack. The end result smelled like bacon on a skillet, with a garlic-infused roux and crunchy topping. I doubled the recipe and it was nearly gone, but with just enough leftovers for lunch the next day. Huzzah!


 serves 6-8 

Ingredients


3 poblano chiles
8 oz whole wheat elbow pasta
2 Tbsp butter
4 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tsp mustard powder
1/2 tsp cayenne powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin
zest of one lime
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups grated sharp cheddar
2 cups grated smoked pepper jack (or a smoked cheddar/pepper jack blend)
1 cup panko or breadcrumbs
cilantro for garnish (optional)


Process

 

Set a pot of salted water to boiling and cook your pasta until it's al dente. Drain and set aside.

Set the oven to 425.

Lightly oil a baking sheet. Core the poblanos and place them on the sheet.

Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until peppers start to blister and soften. Flip them halfway through the process.

Remove peppers from oven. Most recipes advise you to peel the skin, but why? It's healthy, it does no harm, and you won't even know it's there. Allow your peppers to cool with dignity!

Lower the oven to 375.

As peppers are roasting, melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Use a garlic press to drizzle in the garlic. All of a sudden, your kitchen smells like hot garlic bread. Give the butter and garlic a minute to develop amity, then whisk in the flour. A golden-brown roux will form, at which point you whisk in the milk. Allow another two minutes for the flavors to meld and the sauce to thicken, whisking now and then.

Chop the cooled poblanos.

Remove pan from heat. Add mustard, cayenne, cumin, lime zest, salt, and ample ground pepper. Scoop in the poblanos. Stir.

Add 1 cup sharp cheddar and 1 cup pepper jack to the sauce, stirring so that the cheese melts. If cheese refuses to melt, heat the pan on low heat until it submits.

In a bowl, combine pasta and sauce. Pour into a baking pan or skillet.

Cover with the remainder of the cheese. Shake the panko evenly on top.

Bake for 25 minutes, then broil for 5. Remove from oven when sauce is bubbling and top is golden-brown.

Sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Let cool 5 minutes, then serve.

Notes


  • When I made this, I scraped two ears of fresh corn into the sauce in a misguided bid to up the veggie content. Don't do this! The corn added a sweet note that has no place in this dish.
  • The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of cilantro in the sauce. I forgot to add this, and so it became the garnish. I tried leftovers with cilantro mixed in, and actually prefer the mac without it. The peppers stand out more, and the flavor seems deeper and less Tex-Mex.
  • I used a block of white cheddar for the sauce, and block of sharp orange Tillamook for the topping, giving the crust that lusted-after cheddary appearance. 
  • Spice level: if you were eating the poblanos raw, they would be moderately spicy. The roasting gives this dish a gentle heat, but not the kick in the pants you might imagine. If you want a hotter mac, slice a fresh jalapeno into the sauce and up the cayenne content. I love smoked paprika (pimentón), but was afraid to add any for fear that it would throw the flavors out of whack. If you want to try some, I suggest sprinkling it on top after pulling the pan from the oven.
  • Don't forget the lime zest! This ingredient is what gives this mac its je ne sais quoi and was the reason I tried this recipe. 

Verdict



Who doesn't love mac and cheese? Who doesn't love a smoky, mysterious potluck dish? 5 stars!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Oatmeal-Raisin Shortbread

I saw a recipe for raisin shortbread and couldn't resist packing in some oats. With an egg wash, this is a nutritious source of protein and fiber as well as a delicious breakfast cookie. If you use fancy, pasture-raised butter and a certified humane egg, you'll feel GREAT as you dig into these bars.


makes 18 biscotti-length or 36 short bars

Ingredients

 

2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups quick oats
pinch salt
1 to 1 1/2 cups raisins
egg, beaten


Process


Preheat oven to 350.

I like to do this kind of thing by hand, but you can use a mixer.

Blend butter, sugar, and vanilla. If you do this with your hands, you'll get a bonus: smooth, buffed hands! It's like a pre-cookie spa treatment. The recipients of your cookies will get some extra protein in the form of dead skin cells.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, oats, and salt. You may sift the flour, but I'm skeptical that this accomplishes much. Add the raisins. Fluff with your hands until raisins are coated with flour.

Combine wet and dry ingredients until just mixed, with no streaks.

Obtain a 9 x 13 pan.

Pat the batter into the pan until even. Run a fork along the top of the batter for crackly texture.

I refrigerated the pan for 30 minutes, then used a spatula to cut bars into the dough. You can do this at this point or after the shortbread is baked. I was afraid the oats would make the bars too crumbly after the shortbread was in its final form.

Using a pastry brush, apply the egg wash. If you hate waste as much as I do and use the whole egg, you'll end up with puddles of albumen on your shortbread. Do this at your peril!

Bake the shortbread for about 30 minutes. I baked it until it started to brown on top, but I would have preferred a gooier texture and a more pallid surface.

Let the pan cool on a rack. Cut into bars if you haven't already done so, and remove these from the pan.



Notes


  • These would be great with rum or rum extract instead of vanilla.
  • If you want to go for a strong rum flavor, soak the raisins in half a cup of rum for a day or so. The oats won't know what hit them!
  • I would like to experiment with a thicker bar and might use a 9 x 9 baking pan next time.

Verdict


These snacks are the perfect blend of virtue and luxury.