No Knead for Shortcuts

December 31, 2007

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A little over a year ago, The New York Times published an article that set off a virtual wildfire in the blog-o-sphere. From the attention and fervor the article generated, you might think it contained a recipe for making a nuclear bomb, or perhaps a cool million. Not exactly. The recipe was for no-knead bread.

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I read the food blogs’ reviews and salivated over their photos like all good food blog readers. And, I of course vowed to make the bread. It would have been the perfect training wheels for the bread making novice that I was. And I still might give the recipe a go. Really, I might. But in the year since the recipe was published, it’s languished on my recipe to do list. Every time I see it, I wonder why I haven’t gotten around to it.

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Instead of using it to ease my way into the world of bread making, I chose a more complicated and much less reviewed recipe to launch my bread making career. And, still, the no-knead recipe languishes. The recipe came to mind again when I read about it in the February 2008 issue of Cooks Illustrated. In standard Cooks form, the magazine had set out to de-construct the original recipe and build it back up, making it even better.

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Cooks generally sticks to extremely classic, well-known recipes for this kind of extreme-make-over treatment: French onion soup, Sunday pot roast and breaded pork chops in this recent issue. So the fact that Cooks was trying to perfect the no-knead recipe is only further evidence of the cult-like following this bread has garnered.

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So, the question remains: why have I resisted? It might be that I’m just that stubborn. Why take the short cut when I can take the more arduous route, right? In fact, I think that’s just it. I like to knead bread. I like the tangibility and the physicality of it. Even more, I love to see the transformation from a tacky, lumpy mass of dough to a smooth, elastic ball—before my very eyes. So that’s probably why I chose this recipe for my second foray into bread making rather than trying the Times‘ original or the Cooks‘ revamped no-knead version. And there’s also the fact that these rolls—Cooking Light‘s Oatmeal Knots—allowed me to shape my kneaded dough into irresistible knots and then sprinkle them with a scrumptious mixture of oats and poppy and sesame seeds. Oh, and they’re healthy. Not to mention delicious—slightly sweet, nutty and light and airy.

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Friday night’s dinner taught me something (something other than (a) strongly reconsider your desire to make your own pasta, because it just doesn’t seem meant to be and (b) never, ever use that same pasta maker insert because that ugly spaghetti is haunting my dreams). Okay, sorry about that—back to the silver lining. Friday night’s dinner taught me that a dessert can save the day.

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I’m sure this is something that many cooks already know, but—since I’m not a huge dessert fan—it’s somewhat of a revelation to me. And one that I plan to keep firmly tucked in my back pocket for all future pasta excursions or any other try-something-new meal that could end in less than ideal results.

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This dessert—a pear crisp—did just that: saved dinner. And not only that, but it has a few other things going for it as well. First, it’s extremely simple and can be made ahead (which is quite helpful when you are otherwise occupied with complicated kitchen contraptions and one, two, oh yes, three different sauces). Second, I baked the crisp in individual servings (which were a touch too large, but who’s counting?). Everyone loves an individual dessert and it works especially well for a crisp—everyone gets plenty of the nutty, buttery topping (and an entire bowl’s worth of the crispy browned topping along the edge) and your cold topping of choice (we went with ice cream, but whipped cream, mascarpone, creme fraiche, etc would all work well too) melts right into the crisp, rather than running all over your plate.

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I used my standard crisp method for this recipe—toss the cut fruit in a bit of flour (use more flour for juicier fruit, less for drier fruit), sugar, lemon juice and zest, and spices (I used the very standard cinnamon and nutmeg here, but the options are endless; if I’d had cardamom on hand, I would have paired that with the, um, pears). And for the topping, mix oats, chopped nuts (I used walnuts here, but I’m of the opinion that any nut will do), brown sugar and spices together and cut in chilled butter until the mixture forms little honey-bunches-of-oats-esque clusters.

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And though I’ve already mentioned a number of variations—toppings, spices and nuts—there are plenty more. Feel free to spike the filling with liqueur or vanilla, for instance. And go wild with your fruit choices. This was my first pear crisp and it was a delicious winter choice. But, while it doesn’t seem like it now (for me, at least), winter will eventually end. At least I hope so. And spring, fall (to me, the official crisp season) and summer will all bring new crisp-worthy fruits—ripe for dinner saving.

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Santa was very kind to me in the kitchen department this year. As you’ll see in a slew of upcoming posts, I was lucky enough to receive a host of cooking implements. One such gift was clearly in response to one of my recent kitchen failures. One weekend this fall, we endeavored to make our own ravioli. Well, the fillings we created were delicious, but the pasta itself was a disaster. I had read in a few places that it was entirely possible to roll out pasta sheets for ravioli by hand. Well, it might be possible, but it certainly didn’t occur when I tried it. Most of the raviolis ended up in the trash (Kevin was kind enough to eat a few, but I couldn’t take more than one). Santa must have known about this disaster and, in response, he got me this:

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It’s not quite as scary looking as our potato-ricer-disguised-as-torture-device, but it’s definitely a somewhat ominous-looking contraption. It’s a pasta-making Kitchen Aid attachment. Various inserts allow you to make linguine, spaghetti, fettucine and even sheets of pasta. I spent quite a bit of time perusing the instruction manual and the reviews of the attachment online. Let’s just say that they didn’t exactly ease my fears. In what I thought was an effort to increase our chances of success, I decided to use Kitchen Aid’s pasta recipe included in the instruction booklet and the least risky-looking of the inserts, which promised to yield a thick spaghetti strand. Well, thick it was. And also completely bizarre looking:

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Using the machine itself was a challenge. After mixing and kneading the pasta, we began feeding the dough into the attachment in walnut-sized bits, following the instructions. And when I say “we,” I mean it. Using this thing kind of reminded me of assembling Ikea furniture: half-way through the instruction manual full of user-friendly photos depicting two people assembling a dresser you turn the page and–bam!–suddenly there are three people in the photo with the dresser. Likewise, this pasta attachment requires at least two people. At least it does if you want to remain halfway sane during the process.

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The difficulty and odd-looking results aside, the pasta was actually really tasty. Especially tossed in two of the three sauces I’d prepared for the evening. You see, my sister was spending the night with us. Her Friday nights typically involve stories along the lines of: “When that place closed we went to X and when X closed we finished off the night at Y. Oh and we stopped off for some food at Z on the way home.” So the least I could do to entertain her on a Friday night in with old, boring married people was create a “bar” of three sauces ready and waiting to douse our weird, but homemade!, pasta strands.

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Kevin’s choice was carbonara, a sauce I know he loves (cream, bacon and eggs: shocking that a sauce featuring these ingredients floats his boat, I know). Ali opted for a spicy tomato-and-sausage sauce, with a touch of cream. I went for a porcini mushroom sauce (any time I make myself something that Kevin won’t be eating, it’s a safe bet that it will involve mushrooms). Ali’s and Kevin’s sauces were both really good–I’d recommend them both without reservation. Mine, on the other hand, was not great–runny, bland and, frankly, a waste of $10 worth of dried porcinis. And after my trials and tribulations with the Kitchen Aid, I needed something great. Fortunately, our dessert (recipe and photos coming soon) more than made up for it.

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Nothing-To-Do-Ness

December 28, 2007

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Ahhh, winter break. I don’t have to go back to school for my final semester of law school until January 22. That’s right, January 22. That means I’ve got almost four weeks of nothing to do. So, how do I spend my first day of said nothing-to-do-ness? Why, I scrub our apartment from ceiling to floor, of course. And I particularly reveled in scrubbing every nook and cranny of the kitchen. I’m pretty sure our kitchen hasn’t gleamed in this way since the day we moved in. Or, at the very least, since I made the wedding cupcakes.

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So what do I do with this sparkly, gleamingness? Why, I desecrate it, of course. When I had finally tucked away the broom and mop and stashed the cleaners under the sink, I had almost an entire afternoon ahead of me. And I knew that the dinner we had on tap was one I’d already blogged about. So, I couldn’t even do some prep work and snap a few photos. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to waste a practically-spit-shined kitchen and a free afternoon doing nothing.

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Naturally, I headed to the grocery store. I mentioned our post-holiday need for nutrients yesterday and it was this health kick that had me thinking of bran muffins, a breakfast choice I’ve long enjoyed but never baked. I think I know the main reason for that. You see, every time I order a bran muffin at a coffee shop, I feel virtuous. But every time I peruse a recipe for bran muffins, I’m shocked by the amount of sugar, all-purpose flour and butter listed among the ingredients. Yesterday, I found a recipe that promised both a nutty, moist, hearty muffin and a breakfast that didn’t have me halfway to my daily intake of calories (less than 125 calories per muffin) and fat (3 grams per muffin) but did come loaded with fiber (more than 2 grams per muffin). I sampled the muffins yesterday afternoon and, I’ve got to admit, that small taste had me excited to get out of bed this morning.

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Post Holiday Detox

December 27, 2007

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I often ask Kevin: “What do you want for dinner?” He often replies: “Hmm. Can I have a few minutes to think about it?” Well, by the time he might be ready to answer, I’ve usually dreamed up a menu of my own. So, I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when, on our way home from Minnesota, I asked Kevin this very question. And he barely blinked before saying, “Load me up with veggies.”

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After a weekend of indulgence, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by his response. My body was calling for wholesomeness too. As if to support this conclusion, when I asked my sister, who’d just awoken from a backseat snooze on the drive back to Chicago, what she wanted for our next Family Dinner, she suggested something along the lines of one of our healthiest Family Dinners yet: a soy-glazed salmon.

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To appease our need for nutrients, I landed on a Salad Monday (technically, Salad Wednesday this week, but same idea) favorite: Greek salad. I like to think our Greek salad is a little bit special, thanks to the freshly toasted pita chips on the side or the addition of crunchy, smoky roasted chickpeas. And, brimming with vegetables and only a mere slick of dressing, this was just the detoxification we needed. With another holiday next Monday/Tuesday, I have a feeling that Salad Wednesday might have a repeat performance next week …

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Calzones for a Crowd

December 26, 2007

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Cooking for one—when I was in college (though, let’s be honest, cooking was pretty rare during my college days) and when we were in D.C., while Kevin was in grad school and sometimes had night class—was tough. It’s difficult to buy portions, divide up recipes and, more than anything, to get excited about cooking for yourself. Cooking for two can have many of the same problems in terms of portions and recipe quantity, but, at this point, I’m pretty used to it.

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Even though I’ve gotten the hang of cooking for two, I still revel in having an extra person or two (or ten) at the table when I’ve cooked breakfast, lunch or dinner. That’s one reason why I love Family Dinner so much. It’s also a major reason why I enjoy going home for the holidays. As you’ve probably noticed from the last few days’ posts, my status as a food lover does not make me unique in my family. Holidays often center around meals (and snacks and sports and card games, too).

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While my mom had a file folder bulging with recipes to try over this long Christmas weekend, I was pretty sure I’d have my chance to cook for the crowd too. And while I absolutely adore cooking for a crowd, it’s also not without its challenges. Especially when the appetites you’re aiming to please span more than fifty years and various likes and dislikes.

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As Sunday night rolled around, I got to thinking about a dinner that would suit the evening, which was going to be anchored by an important Vikings game and a blizzard, and the appetites. The answer came to me: calzones. I was looking for something that involved a “project” of sorts—something I might not do on an ordinary night. Making pizza dough fit the bill. And I definitely wanted something cozy. A packet of dough swollen with delicious ingredients satisfied that criterion. And, of course, I had to have something that would please everyone. By stuffing four calzones with different fillings, I had my perfect meal.

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We settled on the following calzones: (1) Italian sausage and spinach, with mozzarella, (2) Canadian bacon and cheddar, (3) roasted peppers and mushrooms with fontina, and (4) pepperoni and mozzarella. An informal poll after dinner revealed that the meat lovers were satisfied (more with the sausage than with the pepperoni, which just wasn’t bulky enough to fill the calzone’s pocket), the mushroom hater had plenty to enjoy despite the calzone featuring roasted veggies, and the more traditional palates weren’t pushed outside of their comfort zones (Canadian bacon was the favorite there). A great success. And infinitely adaptable for one, two or ten—both in terms of numbers and appetites.

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Christmas Morning Mimosas

December 25, 2007

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Mimosas are not an every morning kind of thing (unfortunately). And more than that, these mimosas are not an every mimosa-morning kind of thing. These mimosas are sort of like the Cadillac of all mimosas.

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After a joyful night of feasting, gifts and carols, we all woke up this morning excited to sift through our gifts—reading instruction manuals, trying things on and packing gifts up for the trip home. All this had us very hungry, of course. Good thing my mom had an incredible brunch in store.

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We dined on a great frittata (loaded with spicy greens and ricotta), freshly-baked cinnamon rolls, smoky breakfast sausages fresh from a local source, and a gorgeous plate of fresh fruit. All this had us very thirsty, of course. Good thing my mom had some wonderful mimosas in store.

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And, like I said, not just any mimosas. With Grand Marnier, a festive sugared rim and a lining of pomegranate seeds, these mimosas were definitely holiday-worthy. We sipped on them while we were opening gifts from our stockings. And during the intense game of Taboo that ensued. And during the card games that came next. Obviously, it’s time for a Christmas Day nap.

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