Tuesday 28 October 2008

Daring Bakers: Pizza Dough

Ah pizza. It's hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy the stuff - a bit of nice dough, rich and fragrant tomatoes, melty tasty cheese...to not like one ingredient is difficult, to not like all three when they're combined is nearly criminal. Even though the A&N household had a recent forray into pizza-making, we went down that road again for a good cause: this month's Daring Baker's challenge, set by Rosa of Rosa's Yummy-Yums.

The dough recipe was one from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, a tome that is loved by those in-the-know for the fantastic bread you can get from it. Peter's pizza dough called for you to make the dough mixture and then retard it in the fridge for at least 24 hours to help give the dough a more rounded, ferment-y flavor while keeping its crispness when rolled out and baked.

Following the recipe, I found the dough got quite wet before I had even added all the suggested water. I like baking bread, but don't feel I've quite cracked it yet, and often become concerned that my dough is too wet and end up adding more flour. I've tried to resist that dislike of having wet dough stuck to my fingers, stuck on the countertop, and riding up to my elbows, and just knead the love and suppleness into the mixture. Although my instinct told me this pizza dough was too wet, I carried on with it, kneading it and putting it into the fridge as directed.

The too-wet dough stayed too wet, and the 24 hours of resting it did in the fridge transformed the 6 unique dough balls into 6 suggestions of separateness. However, dough is resilient and it still baked up well and, once topped with the sauce, cheese, and extra goodies of everyone's choice, it was adored (as evidenced by the picture of the lone leftover slice, cheeseless and languishing on its plate the day after our dinner party ended). I'd be interested in trying the recipe again with better moisture balance, since I still prefer my normal pizza dough method but know that Peter Reinhart normally gives good results and he's a master I should pay attention to.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Pears Poached in Whiskey

The question I'm most asked by friends now (in a concerned manner) when we're out for a dinner is: do I miss not drinking in my pregnancy? Have I been having anything alcoholic to drink at all? The truth is, I've never been a big drinker and my desire for beer or wine has dropped down to almost nothing these days. So my taste for a tipple has nearly evaporated.

Except for whiskey. Whiskey was one of the first drinks I'd ever tasted; my father would have a tumbler each night and my kind offer to fetch the drink from the kitchen for him was so I could steal a few sips from the top. I confessed this to my mother recently and she refused to accept that a 10 year old would enjoy the taste. Oh but I had, and oh but I do.

To work a bit of whiskey into my diet but in a safe, alcohol-burned-off format, I poached pears in a pot of whiskey along with cinnamon and honey to round off the flavor. The color of the pear was less glorious and deeply jeweled than if I'd poached them in red wine, but it was the taste that I was after. The pears took on a gentle flavor of the poaching liquid, and the liquid itself created a wonderful syrup that when coupled with cream tasted so very good (yet so bad). Before reducing the sy
rup down, Mr A&N poured a glass of the liquid for me, mixed with a touch of cream, for my own style of white russian. I drank and I supped. The baby seemed content; perhaps my child was developing his own whiskey-palate.

Pears Poached in Whiskey
serves 6

  • 6 pears, peeled
  • About 6 C of water
  • 150ml whiskey
  • 1 1/2 sticks cinnamon
  • 3-4 Tbs honey
  • 2 extra Tbs honey or sugar
  • Cream to pour over the top
(This does produce a lot of liquid. The liquid can be scaled down if you have a smaller pot to stand the pears in or if you want to poach the pears in batches)

  1. If you are able to stand the pears up in the pot they'll be cooking in, first lop off a bit of their bottom so they can stand up. If the pears need laying down in order to fit, then the bottoms don't need lopping.
  2. Combine the water, whiskey, cinnamon and honey in a large pot and bring to a boil.
  3. Add the pears and simmer gently for about 20 minutes or until the pears are soft enough for a fork to go into them easily.
  4. Remove the pears and set aside to cool slightly.
  5. If using the large amount of liquid, spoon out about 3 ladle-fulls of the liquid into a smaller pot, add another 2 Tbs of honey/sugar and set to a vigorous boil. Keep boiling until the liquid is reduced and it turns syrup-y (15-20 minutes).
  6. Serve with the syrup and a touch of cream poured over the pears.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Pasta with Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Fennel

Sometimes you find life acting upon you more than you acting upon it. Work has been like that for me lately, with me coming home barely in time for a late dinner or in time (just) for a soothing cup of tea before bed time. There are only 4 more weeks until I start maternity leave so work won't continue like this for much longer, though a different kind of madness will hit after that.

Even without much time, you still have to eat, and I'd always rather my meal was home-made and leaving me wanting more even if given the time constraints it seems the stuff that dreams are made on. Roasting does amazing things to cherry tomatoes; if left at that, they'll make a bruschetta topping that any devote
e of the red-white-and-green tricolor flag would be proud of. Using the roast tomatoes as a base to a pasta sauce transfers that magic to the main course.

In this case, I roasted the tomatoes along with thyme and sliced fennel, which is also intensified and sweetened by the roasting. When all the roasting pieces and juices are tossed together at the end it creates an improbably rich and meaty sauce (despite the absence of animal products) which defines the word
umami with each mouthful. Not quite the same as a half day of work and a long soak in a bubble bath, but as easy dinners go, it comes close.

Pasta with Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Fennel

Serves 2 generously or 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 fennel
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 500g / 1lb of cherry tomatoes
  • handful fresh thyme (or around tsp of good dried thyme)
  • olive oil
  • 250g (1/2 package) of dried pasta
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 Tbs cream
  • parmesean cheese for topping
  1. Slice the fennel into thin-ish slices (about 1 inch long by 1/4 inch thick) and chop the garlic.
  2. Toss the fennel together in a roasting pan with the sliced garlic, the cherry tomatoes and the thyme. Drizzle generously with olive oil (probably about 3 tablespoons worth) and toss together well.
  3. Roast at 170C / 375F for about 30 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to deflate a bit and there are juices thickening in the bottom of the pan. Shake the pan once during roasting to distribute the flavors.
  4. Meanwhile, boil some water to prepare the pasta.
  5. When the pasta is done, toss together with all the items in the roasting pan (minus any twigs left over from the thyme). Stir in a bit of cream so that everything is gently touched with cream but not swimming in it.
  6. Serve with parmesean grated on to - or not.

Monday 6 October 2008

Marinated Lamb

The financial crisis has been making itself felt in headlines and households around the world, and its presence is beginning to seep into my kitchen. I'm becoming conscious that each grocery bill seems to crawl its way upward even though I'm not buying anything extra. I think about how I'm Eating For Two now and will soon have Another Mouth To Feed, neither of which feels like good timing (but when are life's timings perfect?).

We were due to have some friends around last weekend for a Sunday lunch, which set Mr A&N and me to planning our menu and thinking with our extravagant hats on rather than our financial crisis ones. Though we've been fairly good at reducing the amount of meat we eat during a normal week, having guests and hosting a Sunday lunch practically obliges meat to be on the menu (unless, of course, you're hosting vegetarians). It was a commitment, a bit of a splurge, but leg of lamb went on to the menu, one large enough
to feed 5 adults, 2 of whom were 30+ weeks pregnant. Big things would be expected from this lamb.

This being lamb, it seemed that marrying lamb with Middle Eastern flavors would be clever move, and out came the trusty Moro cookbook, a repository of never-fail recipes with a Middle Eastern/Spanish vibe. A simple marinade would do, to bring out the flavors of the lamb without distracting from the main show. The marinade Moro suggests can be used with just about any cut of lamb, and takes its flavor from lemon, thyme, red wine vinegar and paprika. The lamb is slow cooked and topped up with water to keep the meat moist and create a nice sauce in the pan.

And then the financial crisis hit, but in a different way from expected. Of the 3 friends coming around, 2 were lawyers and both were called into the
office all weekend to work on emergency financial bail-out packages. The lamb was marinating but there were no guests to eat it, and however indulgent I am with my food, sharing a 6lb leg of lamb between two people seemed an indulgence too far.

We instead called up our good friends down the road on the chance they were free that night, and offered to cook and ferry the food round to theirs if they'd be willing to help us eat it all.
They didn't say no (would you?), though Mr A&N did leave a warning in my ears: the lamb would make its way down the road, but there wouldn't be much of it making its way back down. This was because we were heading to see Mr A&N's best friend, known for having an appetite that could rival Homer Simpson (though fortunately for him without Homer's looks or girth). His one-year-old son takes after his father, and for a typical breakfast eats two whole wheat cereal biscuits, two pieces of toast, and one banana, followed an hour and a half later by a banana and yogurt top-up, followed an hour and a half after that by a full lunch. And to think I get twitchy about our grocery bills.

The slow-cooking and marinating gave us juicy and salty meat and a nicely intense gravy from the left-overs of the marinade. I watched as slice after slice of the lamb disappeared - pleased that it was going down well, but wondering when the two men would put the brakes on the eating and let the poor lamb be. It took about 45 minutes of concerted effort, but in the end all that was left was the bone. Not only did Mr A&N's friend make short work of this 6lb lamb leg, but Mr A&N joined him in the meat-based debauchery. W
ith many more meals like this we'll be feeling the financial pinch pinching very tightly, but at least we'll go broke with a contended belly and a full smile on our greasy lips.

Lamb Marinade, from Casa Moro
serves 6-8 (...supposedly)

  • 2.5kg / 6 lb leg or shoulder of lamb (can also use other cuts of lamb)
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 medium red onion, well grated
  • 2 tsps sweet paprika
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  1. Lightly score the lamb to help the marinade seep into it.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients together (except for the olive oil). Season with salt and pepper (about 2 tsps of salt per kilo) and rub into the lamb.
  3. Add the olive oil on top and leave to marinate for a minimum of 2 hours, or ideally in the fridge overnight, turning occasionally to coat the meat well.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C / 325 F.
  5. Cook the lamb in a large roasting tray, adding in a small glass of water (about 125ml) after the first half hour of cooking and another glass of water after each subsequent hour. Baste the lamb every 45 minutes or so.
  6. After around 3 hours, test the lamb for tenderness by inserting a skewer deep into the meat. If it feels soft and has a good amount of 'give', it is done.
  7. Leave to rest for 15 minutes before carving.