“Marry Me” Homemade Pizza Neapolitana

pizzaneapolitanIn the past, I have mentioned that were it not for a certain muffin recipe, my husband might have overlooked my talents and spent the rest of his days wondering where he went wrong, empty bellied and forlorn. That is a bit of a tall tale, but to hear him tell it, it bears the truth of the ages. Then again, was it the muffins or the cheesecake? I ask with a crooked eyebrow… Who can say, he mutters with an unconcerned smile as he reaches for another.

This story is not, in fact about bride-price muffins, or a cheesecake dowry, but it is rather about a different sort of food laced emotion, a “foomotion”, if you will, and an experience so good I was finally able to say back to him, yes, for this I would marry you again. For many years, my husbands mother made pizza on Thursday evenings for him and his brother and sisters, as a treat to signify the end of another long week and the promise of a few days of freedom before the grind of school and assignments caught up with them again. Rumor has it that the pizza was good, but by the time I met the clan, this particular family ritual had fallen into disrepair, as compelling work and a multitude of grandchildren robbed her of her interest in the glorious secrets and fruits of the kitchen. For a time, my husband despaired, but eventually he decided to take matters into his own hands, and this, my friends, is where  our story truly begins.

His first few attempts at making his own pizza were, like all early tries at something new, hopelessly fraught with disastrous results. To his credit, he did try. He bought all the gadgets and accessories, a pizza cutter, a pizza peel and stone set (the stone broke flying home from where we bought it after customs rifled through our things and repacked in the most half-assed way imaginable, with the stone facing out). Sadly, try as he might, the crust was too thick, too doughy, raw, too soggy, the toppings were uncooked or too heavy, the sauce was icky… the list goes on. After his first few tries I urged him to leave it to the true masters, the Italians, whom I happily claim kinship to through a grandmother whose people are from the southern isle of Capri (near Naples), any time the subject of pasta, parmesan, tomato sauce, marinara, pizza, ricotta, mozzarella, or cannoli comes up. The problem was, I had no pizza making skills either, never having seen such a thing made at home, as we had a multitude of authentic pizzerias and trattorias within a stones throw of my birthplace. (WHAT UP NY!!!) So, the issue hung over us in the air as beautiful pizzas were smugly flashed at us from some of the better cooking/baking blogs out there,  and as we went about the business of sorting out our life as a newly married couple, the idea never quite dead but never a true possibility either. When the cravings for a really good pizza took hold of one of us, we would fight it for as long as we could, then bite the bullet and order awful delivery pizza, mourning our fate to live in a country that has no concept of such a thing as real Italian-American food. For those of you that know my husband, you can probably guess where this is all headed, and sure enough, a few days ago, he decided once and for all that he was going to make as many pizzas as he had to, until he got the damned thing right. At this I sighed, and decided to get on board, but I also smiled, because when we went through the same process with learning how to make the best NY cheesecake, the results were beyond our wildest dreams. So too with this.

He bought some pizza flour, and found a pizza dough recipe by Jamie Oliver, one of my favorite chefs. This is altered from the one on his site, but we couldn’t have done it without his recipe as a jumping off point. His recipes are so good, and I love him for his cheeky fresh take on food and life. We cut the recipe by 2/3 since it was for 6 pizzas, because while we could have finished them all off in a few days, we didn’t want to eat until we hated ourselves… not really.

I made as good a pizza sauce as I could conjure, and then looked around until I found this page, which gave us some great tips on handling the dough, making a crust, and keeping it crispy, for which I will be eternally grateful. Finally, we selected some of our favorite toppings, including fresh basil from my window,basillaid under a mix of 2 local cheeses, and thinly slices onions, mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes. We baked it all in a super hot oven on foil on an overturned cookie sheet, and viola, the best pizza I had ever had.  It is crispy, chewy, garlicky, saucy, cheesy, light and filling, all at once, and beyond yummy, Just like how I picture the fabled Neapolitan pizzas from the “Eat” section of “Eat, Pray, Love”. Teamwork really does yield the sweetest fruits!

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Ingredients: (For 2 medium pizzas, serves 2-4)

For The Dough:

  • 2 1/3 Cups Pizza Flour, or any high protein flour (plus a bit extra).
  • 1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
  • 1 Teaspoon Active Dried Yeast (make sure it’s not expired/dead)
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1/2 cup Warm Water (not too hot or you will kill the yeast)

For The Chunky Tomato Sauce: (you  may have leftovers) 20 minutes cook time*

  • 3-5 Cloves Garlic, smashed and minced
  • 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 1 Can Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Oregano
  • 1 small can or package tomato paste
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon pepper

*ALTERNATELY: You can make a super easy and delicious marinara/pizza sauce in 3-5 minutes: For 4 medium pizzas, open 2 8oz cans of tomato paste into a sauce pan, mix in 3/4 cup water, 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of granulated garlic or garlic powder. Stir and simmer 3 minutes to blend flavors.

Toppings: All optional

  • Thinly Sliced Mushrooms
  • Cubed Feta cheese
  • Black or Green Olives
  • Thinly Sliced Red Pepper
  • Thinly Sliced Small Onion (Red or White)
  • Thinly Sliced Tomatoes
  • 10-12 Fresh Basil Leaves, washed
  • 3 Cups Shredded Fresh Mozzarella, (I used 1 and 1/2 Cups shredded Tal Haemek, and 1 and 1/2 Cups shredded Na’am Cheese. These local cheeses were an amazing surprise, and were a nice change, I would recommend using them if you can find them, otherwise, mozzarella is just fine).
  • Olive Oil for brushing the dough before adding toppings
  • Cornmeal  to sprinkle for texture (optional)

Method:

  • Add water, yeast, sugar, and olive oil to a cup, set aside for 2-4 minutes.
  • In a separate bowl, mix together flour and salt, and when the yeast is fizzing happily, add to flour mixture and slowly incorporate. When it all comes together, knead until you have a nice smooth dough that is not sticky to the touch. It will probably look too dry at first, don’t be alarmed. Just keep kneading. Maybe sing a little song… Just keep kneading, just keep kneading… After about 2 minutes of this you should have a perfectly smooth elastic dough that isn’t sticky and that has no dry bits. If not, add either a TINY bit more water or a tiny bit more flour as it needs.
  • Put the dough in a large flour-dusted bowl and flour the top of it. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place in a warm room for about 1 hour until the dough has doubled in size. (I cheat by warming my toaster oven for a few minutes then popping the whole thing in there for about 30 minutes, once the heat is off, cuts the rising time in half!)
  • Now make the sauce. (See above for easier faster option) Saute the garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil on a medium flame, being VERY careful not to over-brown it. If it turns dark brown and bitter, you killed, it, start again. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I looked away for that crucial 10 seconds and had to chuck my garlic and start over. If it smells sweet, you are good, if it smells bitter, start again.
  • When it is all just very light brown, add the can of tomato paste. Saute and stir for about 1-2 minutes, caramelizing the sugars inside the tomato paste. Then add can of crushed tomatoes. Stir to make sure that no garlic/sauce bits are stuck to the bottom, then add the balsamic vinegar, oregano, salt, and pepper. It will smell amazing by now, but it’s not ready yet! The flavors need to melt together, and for this, you need a little time.
  • Stir again, then cover tightly, and cook for 20-25 minutes, keeping it on a medium heat. You want to check it and stir every 5 minutes or so. (Watch out, the splatters are HOT!) After 20 minutes, remove the cover and allow it to cook down for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the sauce is thick with very little liquid you can turn off the heat, and let it sit to cool, uncovered.
  • Once the dough has risen, take it out and punch it down… don’t be afraid to over-knead, as this is one of the few times working with dough that you actually want to develop a lot of gluten, so have at it! It should be smooth, and elastic, and not sticky, but not dry either.
  • Once it is all kneaded, separate into two halves, and roll into balls. These will be your pizza crusts. You can either use them now, or wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for tomorrow. (A very good plan if you are super busy and just making the dough took up your free time for the evening).
  • 30 minutes to an hour before you are ready to bake your pizzas, turn over a deep cookie sheet on the floor of the oven, so your pizzas will sit about 2 inches off the hot floor of the oven, or use a pizza stone, if you have one.  Preheat the oven. I turned mine up to max, which is around 250 degrees Celsius, or 482 degrees Fahrenheit.  Roll out the dough for each pizza with a rolling pin, and then place on an oiled sheet of tinfoil. You can sprinkle a bit of cornmeal over the oiled foil before placing the rolled out dough on it if you like, I enjoy the added flavor and texture this provides, but you don’t have to, and sometimes it’s nicer without it, totally up to you.
  • Now prepare your toppings, if you haven’t already. (Shred cheese, slice veggies etc.).
  • Doing one at a time, roll out your dough to the size and shape you want (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick and about 12-14 inches across) and then roll and pinch the edges to form a crust.
  • Brush the surface of the dough with olive oil, this will keep your pizza from getting soggy
  • Then, add a ladleful of thick garlicky sauce to the middle and spread all around evenly, but not too thickly! Lay down a few evenly spaced basil leaves, no more than 5-6. cover with a mix of your cheeses (about 1 and 1/2 cups per pizza), then arrange the toppings you want. If you want, sprinkle cornmeal around the crust and with your pizza peel, slide your pizza with the foil directly onto the cookie sheet, and close the oven quickly.
  • Bake for 6 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling and crust is crispy on the bottom. Set a timer, one extra minute could burn up all your hard work!!! Now make second pizza the same way (olive oil, sauce, basil, cheese, toppings, cornmeal on crust).
  • When timer sounds, remove first pizza with pizza peel and let cool for at least 3 minutes, before slicing and enjoying with a tall glass of ice cold beer.

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Easy Cheesy Comte and Basil Gouda Buttermilk Biscuits (can be made vegan!)

biscuitblog1So, I have been a very bad girl. No, not in the biblical sense as some of you may be thinking, but rather in terms of my promise to you, to bring you wonderful recipes each week. I do of course have some lovely excuses and stories… you know I would have to. For example, the birthday visit of my super sweet sister for 3 weeks, and the fan-freaking-tastic good time we had traveling all over the place hiking, biking, beaching, eating and wine tasting.

Or, perhaps I’ll tell you the one about how after she left, I went on another hike with G and our dog Bella in a very remote, rocky area, and at the very very end of the trail, deep in the park, I fell and twisted my ankle. I actually was sure it was broken it hurt so much, but then as I was crawling to a big rock to sit on away from all the crawlies in the stream bed, it sort of cracked back into place, and I could actually wiggle it. Whew. OK, so at least it wasn’t broken. It gets better. Our parks don’t really have rangers on duty so G had to call an ambulance, problem was, no one could get to us where we were. To make things worse, I had left my phone behind, and G had about 17% left on his that was rapidly draining as he tried to explain where we were so they could get a GPS lock on us. We saw an ATV trail nearby that might have some traffic, and decided to get there the only way we could, with me riding piggy back as G carried me, army style, over hill and dale. Still no one could reach us and I started to despair, sure I would have to stay the night, knowing that I would freeze my ass off and all manner of creepy creatures would come out as soon as it got dark. Or, even better, the army would have to helicopter me out of there for a mere sprained ankle, and I would spend the rest of my days paying off a massive debt for an embarrassing and unplanned helicopter ride. Please god no I thought, just let me die here instead.

Luckily, just as I was at the peak of my panic attack, a one handed old man with a geriatric poodle in a sweater happened by in his jeep, on his daily trip through the park. G flagged him down and after explaining what happened, the guy, who I later found out was named Eli, and Sally, his deaf, blind and epileptic dog, offered to 4WD me out of there. And so I was saved by a most unlikely duo. The ambulance was waiting at the exit to the park when we finally emerged, 30 minutes later, and after a short exam, they sent me off to get x-rayed and hooked up with crutches, bound for bed for the next few days.

That would be the end of my tale, but then we had the holiday, a weekend away camping at the beach, and finally, I was hit with a most common cold. So here I sit, with a list 5 miles long of things I cooked or baked in the last month and want to share with you, and yet, I’m fighting just to be able to type straight in the clutches of this crappy little head cold. So. Knowing that I had to do something to get back in the saddle, and having no bread or anything else ready made in the house to snack on, I went online looking for the easiest biscuit recipe I could find. I of course modified it, because it was just a bit, well, boring, if you must know the truth.

I hope you enjoy, because I sure did…

Ingredients: (makes 12)

2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable (canola) oil
*1/3 cup buttermilk (I used 1/3 cup 1% milk and a 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar)
*1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
*1/2 cup shredded Basil Gouda cheese
*1/4 cup shredded Comte cheese
*For vegan biscuits, substitute 1/3 cup coconut cream for heavy cream, and 1/3 cup coconut cream plus 1/2 a teaspoon of white vinegar for the buttermilk, and leave out the cheese.
Method: (takes 8 minutes prep time maximum).
1) Preheat oven to 475F.
2) Set up either an ungreased cookie sheet or large cupcake sleeves.
3) Mix all dry ingredients and cheeses together in a large bowl.
4) Add wet ingredients, and mix until just combined, no more.
5) Gather dough together into a ball, kneading for just a minute until no pieces fall off.  It will be very crumbly, don’t worry, that’s good, it means they will be light and fluffy.
6) Either break apart into 12 equal pieces and place in cups, or roll out gently to 1/2 inch thick and cut out twelve 2 inch circles and arrange on tray.
7) Bake for 10-12 minutes at 475F or until tops begin to brown.
8) Enjoy with butter and pepper for a savory treat, or with raspberry jam for a much sweeter twist.
Please let me know what you think, and I promise more good stuff is on the way!

Chocolate Cream Cheese Cinnamon Buns or “The Recipe That Was Nearly My Undoing”

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So, you might say that I’ve been putting off this post for a while. I might even admit it. The thing is, when a baking experiment hits as many snags and pitfalls along the way as this one did, some recovery time becomes necessary. During that time, I kept asking myself, how can I give this over in a way that doesn’t make me sound angry or ungrateful? Turns out, there really isn’t one, so I’m going to apologize to you in advance for the hysterics. The only saving grace of the experience was that one at a time, straight from the freezer into the toaster oven, they were… dare I say it, delicious. But none of that takes away from the absolutely overwhelming frustration, the hot tears that threatened, or the feelings of powerlessness that flared up at each and every step of this seemingly straightforward recipe for chocolate cinnamon rolls. By the way, it’s totally doable if you follow the directions at the bottom of this post. I just didn’t have those at the time.

Why was it so difficult, you ask?

WELL. I’ll tell you.

1) The Yeast: I don’t bake often. Really very rarely. (See my thoughts in “about me” on baking without a KitchenAid) So when someone says in a dough recipe (before last week) add the yeast to the other ingredients and stir before adding the flour, I don’t intuitively know that I’m supposed to combine yeast with sugar and warm water and ACTIVATE IT FIRST. Yes I almost gave up when this happened. No, I am not ashamed. Bloggers should know better.

2) The Mashed Potato: The recipe says you need to add mashed potatoes to the mixture to make the dough light and airy. However what it fails to mention, is that without a heavy duty mixer, You will NEVER get all the potato lumps mixed properly into the dough, and you will see them, staring up at you, mocking you, from your otherwise perfect mixing job, making you want to toss the whole thing and go to Cinnabon. Yes, I picked out every single lump I could find. No, it wasn’t any fun at all, but I was not to be defeated by this recipe, no matter what.

3) The Rising: The recipe calls for one rising of the dough to double the size, then to knead it, and set aside in fridge either until ready to use, or overnight. Well by the next day, it had risen double again. OK, no foul there, except it had risen so much that it pulled off the plastic covering it and had dried out all around the edges. ACK!
So I punched it down, kneaded it a bit more, and got ready for the real fun, rolling out the dough and filling with delicious goodies. Except that even after adding all 6 cups of flour, (she calls for 4-6MAX) it was still wetly sticky, so much so that it was nearly impossible to handle. Sorry there are no pics of the rolling out or adding filling, but I think you can understand why. I was just trying to get through it. The filling did smell amazing, and I used chopped chocolate pieces instead of cinnamon chips, since no such thing exists here.

4) The Rolling Out: Her recipe then says to roll out the dough, sprinkle filling on top, roll up, and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces, then lay out in a buttered dish. But the roll was far too big. More on this in a moment.

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before 2nd rising

5) The “second” Official Rising (3rd for me): So now I have 10 rolls, in one big Pyrex pan, and the recipe calls to let them rise double AGAIN. Fine I say, even though they are pretty huge already, “it’s good for the airy texture you want” I told myself. Yeah. So they rise double, and now they are popping up out of the top of the dish and I am starting to literally see red because I know whats coming once they start to bake. Breathe Leah, just breath.

Poofed up and ready to bake

We should have halved the dough, and baked in 2 separate dishes. If we had, I think they would have really been OK after the first 25-30 minutes of baking. Unfortunately, all there was in the recipe to that effect was, “Then roll out dough on lightly floured counter to roughly 12 x 18 inches for large sized rolls. If dough has been divided for smaller sized rolls; roll out dough to approximately 1/2 inch thick”. Forgive me for saying so, but there should have been a neon sign screaming that if you end up having to use all 6 cups of flour, you had better damn well halve the dough before making your rolls, and bake in 2 batches. Not to mention that based on her photos, which I only realized later, she had baked each and every one of these in their own INDIVIDUAL little pans, so they ended up evenly baked through. No mention of this in the method though. Not a peep.

6) The Baking: They are in there for about 8-10 minutes when I see that they are spilling over the edges and poofing up all over the place. Normally, the sight of oven action fills me with glee, but this time I felt nothing but the hot pricks of impending tears behind my eyes and a vague and unpleasant tightness in my chest. The tops quickly got brown and hard, (so much for light and airy dough and all that potato drama) but I could see the sides and bottom were still raw. So, I covered the dish with foil, turned down the temperature, and prayed for the best. When the timer went off, they were of course still raw inside, but we only learned this after the middle roll deflated 2 minutes out of the oven. So, we put them back in, for ANOTHER 25 minutes before taking them out for good, afraid they would burn or be hard as rocks if we baked them any longer. Sadly, the bottoms and sides of all the middle ones were still raw even thought the tops were a gorgeous golden brown.

7) The Icing: So there we were, with our slightly cooled, ghetto-assed, 3/4 baked, 1/4 raw, hard on top, chocolate cinnamon rolls. At least they smelled heavenly. I started making the cream cheese icing while they baked, and melted some good quality dark chocolate, so my spirits had for the most part bounced back. Which brings us to the amount of icing sugar the recipe called for. 3 cups. THREE. It looked and tasted really good after 1 cup of icing sugar. Then I added the other 2 cups, and all I tasted was sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Gone was the delicate cream cheese flavor unless you closed your eyes and tried really hard to find it. I would recommend doubling the other ingredients or halving the powdered sugar in the recipe if you are just making the vanilla glaze, seriously. I split the mixture between 2 bowls and added melted chocolate to one of them, and it just looked too light. Nothing like the pics. OK I said to myself, suck it up. It’s really not a tragedy considering what we have been through already today. Besides, the chocolate one was delicious. I think the bitter chocolate balanced out the sugar, so for that one, the amounts made sense. I started icing them, first with the Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing, then with the Vanilla Cream Cheese Icing, and smiled for the first time in hours.

Vanilla Cream Cheese Icing

🙂 So Pretty! 🙂

Perfect Cinnamon Buns

After 2 days of frustration, we finally got to try one. From the edge. Where it was actually baked through. And it was all almost worth it.

Chocolate Cream Cheese Cinnamon Bun

OK. I’m done with my rant, and really, these were so yummy, they kept well in the freezer, they even came back beautifully in the toaster oven wrapped in foil on a low temp for about 30 minutes, (especially the ones that were half baked) and to be fair, it’s a FANTASTIC idea and the recipe is delicious. It just wasn’t given over well. It was like she wrote it all down as if it was for herself, knowing what she already knew, and didn’t consider new bakers or anyone else who hadn’t done them before into the equation. In the end, I will do these again, but only with all of the modifications and considerations I told you about, and not without a mixer.

Ingredients:

For Rolls:

In a cup to activate: 1  package serving of pre-measured active dry yeast  (2 and 1/4 teaspoons if you have a bigger package) added to 1/2 cup lukewarm water (too hot will kill the yeast) (add pinch of sugar to feed the yeast) Set aside for a few minutes until you see it foaming. (See, I sound like a pro now).
2/3 cup shortening or butter. I used butter.
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup mashed potato, very well cooked and mashed until smooth.
1/2 cup milk (evaporated milk is best, not condensed, that’s something different)
1/2 cup water that the potato cooked in
4 to 6 cups all purpose flour (this varies… the less flour the better but you must be able to handle the dough).

For Filling:

3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 – 1 cup cinnamon chips or semisweet or dark chocolate chips (chopped) plus more to sprinkle over top

For The Chocolate and Vanilla Cream Cheese Icing:

4 tablespoons butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
3 oz.  Ghirardelli  or your choice of 62% bittersweet unsweetened chocolate morsels, melted.
A few shakes of salt (3-4)
3 cups confectioners sugar (seriously think about cutting this down)
1/3 cup whole milk or 3% (approx – use enough to get desired consistency)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method: IN A MIXER!

For Rolls:

Mix together shortening, salt & sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat in. Add mashed potatoes, yeast/water mixture, milk, potato water and mix until all are combined.

Add three to four cups of the flour, mixing well adding enough additional flour until dough can be handled and turned onto a floured board. Knead well using as little flour as possible. Place in large oiled bowl, cover and let rise double in a warm dark place. About 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Knead lightly and cover, place in fridge until ready to use or overnight. If storing overnight in the fridge, make sure the whole bowl is wrapped around very well with plastic wrap.

If refrigerated, let bowl sit at room temperature for 30 – 40 minutes before beginning.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Then,

a) For 10 larger sized rolls, you will need to bake in individual round 7 inch tins (approximately).  roll out dough on lightly floured counter to roughly 12 x 18 inches. I did this over 2 big pieces of saran wrap and saved myself a LOT of sticking to counter mess and hassle later on. It also made it easier to roll up. See photos. Brush on melted butter, then sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon mixture and chopped cinnamon or chocolate chips. Leave about 1/2″ border.

Starting at the longer edge,  tightly roll up dough into a long log. With a helping hand holding the end up for you, slip the floss under the end, and cut into 1 1/2″ pieces ( I used dental floss to do this and it was really clean and neat) and place in their respective tins. Alternately, you can start in the middle with a knife, and keep halving them until you have about 10 rolls and then place them in their buttered tins. Let rise until double before baking.

or

b) For 20 smaller rolls, If you use all 6 cups flour, and you also want smaller rolls that will bake all the way through, take my advice and halve the dough, and bake in 2 batches, or in 2 pans on 2 racks of oven. You may need a slightly longer baking time if you do both at once. Roll out dough to approximately 1/2 inch thick. Brush on melted butter, then sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon mixture and chopped cinnamon or chocolate chips. Leave about 1/2″ border. Starting at edge tightly roll up dough. Cut into 1 1/2″ pieces ( I used dental floss to do this and it was really clean and neat) and place in large buttered baking pan. repeat with the rest of the dough. Alternately, you can start in the middle with a knife, and keep halving them until you have about 10 rolls per log and then place in large buttered baking pan or Pyrex and repeat. Let rise until double before baking.

Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 – 30 minutes or until lightly browned and enjoy.

Make Icing while they are baking:

Cream together the butter and cream cheese. If making it all chocolate, add melted chocolate (melted in a double boiler), salt, confectioners sugar, milk, and vanilla. Beat until smooth and spreadable, otherwise add everything BUT the chocolate, then split into 2 bowls, and then add the chocolate to one of them. The chocolate icing was literally so good that it kept disappearing by the spoonful. I highly recommend making it.

Freeze leftovers (after you cut them apart) for later, if you have any.

I’d love to hear your comments, especially if you have worked with a sweet sticky dough before or made anything like these.

Herbed Butternut Squash with Onion Marmalade and Ricotta on Olive Oil Toast, and A Few Words About Staying Fit While Writing A Food Blog

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I am one of those people who just LOVES food. So you can imagine how stinky things get when I decide its time to go on a diet and start getting fit again. It doesn’t help that my husband (the sandwich king) also loves food and can eat whatever he wants in huge quantities without ever gaining an ounce. I love him, but seriously-not cool.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my body, as each and every one of you should love yours. Beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes. It’s just that winter brings with it a certain sense of couch surfing complacency and most of us don’t instinctively jump on the “lets get toned for summer” bandwagon until it’s WAY too late. By then, we just sort of give up and hide beneath a beach dress hoping that our skinny friends wont try to be “cute” and drag us into the sea, ocean, pool, or whatever. Thus, the soft body phenomenon perpetuates itself, year in and year out. Lets be honest, exercise takes WORK, and most of the time we just don’t feel like it.

Just trying to limit myself to small portions becomes a chore when I know I need to make twice the amount normal “healthy people” (read: skinny with motivation)  eat in an attempt to satiate my husbands’ appetite- and when it’s all pretty yummy, you try eating just a little bit.  Go on. I double dog dare you.

No? I thought so.

As I’m sure you will all agree, when we get to this place, we are literally ready to consider almost any method to get skinny quick. (Tapeworm, anyone???)

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I’m sure you’ve all been there, when you are single or dating and it’s just so easy to limit what you are eating because there is no one else to cook for; eating ramen noodles (GACK) out of a cup for a few meals a week and skipping others because it’s just not fun to cook while you are alone, let alone do the dishes afterwords (ack, dishes! my arch nemesis!!!!!!!)- the weight just seems to fly off. Oh how I miss those effortless skinny days.

So with all of this in mind and no taste for “fad diets” I finally broke down (read: manned up) and started using the treadmill that has been sitting sad and neglected in the corner gathering dust for the last few months. An hour and a half a day (walking fast, not running, I don’t run) really gets my blood flowing, burns a ton of calories, and as an added bonus, get me warm without having to spend a fortune on heating. SCORE. It’s slow going, but it’s healthy and sustainable. Also, with the advice of a dear friend, I started planning my meals ahead, having the same things each day for breakfast and lunch, and varying my snacks a bit, so that I can actually have a wonderful dinner with G where I eat what I want within reason and don’t feel like a hungry puppy trying not to drool as he cooks and consumes something simple while trying to fend for himself. He actually is a pretty good cook but just like I described before, when you are just cooking for yourself the motivation to WOW just flies out the window and hides under a bridge. With the trolls.

trolls

If you want the details, it’s pretty bland, but it’s working, and I appreciate dinner that much more, so here it is. Breakfast: SMALL bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and a coffee or any green tea. I like Lemongrass with Ginger. Lunch: SMALL bowl of quinoa. Snacks: Two 12 Minute boiled egg-whites with pepper ( I give the yolks to the Dog and she adores me for it) and the occasional ginger snap cookie or two spread with ricotta or some other tasty thing. I use a small amount of salt and pepper in the oatmeal and quinoa and use coconut milk for half the water I would normally put in the quinoa, which makes it creamy and delicious. The idea is to eradicate most, but not all salt and fat because then I would just fail. Any veggies I can slip in there are also great, but this is a good basis that gives me protein and healthy carbs without feeling like I’m starving. Then comes DINNER when I can have any delicious thing I have been obsessing about, and take a smaller portion than I would if I just had it all in front of me and just kept eating. And eating.

This is actually easier if:

1) I make my own plate and don’t let him make it for me,

and

2) I consciously think about how much I want to consume over the next 30 minutes and STOP WHEN I’m FULL. Easier said than done right? Well, I’m learning.

Doing it this way, dinner always feels like a treat and I work harder to make it awesome because I know it’s where I’m going to get all of my happy food chemicals for the day. It’s interesting how much more seriously I take these meals knowing I will have to wait until the next night to try again if it doesn’t work out.

OK, reality check- I miss being slim but I LOVE being able to whip up and eat super yummies in the kitchen without too much fuss, which is why you will love this recipe from our dinner last night, for squash with onion marmalade on toast from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten of ABC kitchen in Manhattan. I stumbled across it a week ago while surfing Mark Bittman’s NY Times dining section videos and spent 30 minutes or more trying not to lick my computer screen. The fact that I couldn’t find ricotta for weeks for a different recipe I’ve been wanting to try didn’t help much either, the stores kept selling out before I got there. I guess the early bird really does get the worm, er, cheese.

 

So here it is, with my variations. Sorry for the less than awesome shots, our lighting is all yellow and I haven’t figured out yet how to do that sexy food photography where everything comes out looking huge and amazing without looking flat or wet. Trust me that this was stellar despite my poor photography, and think of the photos more as visual aids than actual representations of this fantastic dish. If you need more convincing, use the video in the link above. 🙂

Herbed Butternut Squash with Onion Marmalade and Ricotta on Olive Oil Toast

Ingredients: (for 2 for dinner, or for 4 for appetizers)

1 ripe medium or large sized squash, peeled sliced, and de-seeded. I used butternut

butternut squash

but you can use others. Use a bigger squash if you want to make it for more people, I had leftover onion marmalade and cheese mixture, so this recipe can easily be expanded.

16oz good 9% fat ricotta cheese, fresh if possible. you may have leftovers, no tragedy there 🙂

A loaf of Really good fresh rustic bread, something towards the baguette or nutty sourdough flavors, NOT SWEET.

Olive oil

Chili Pepper flakes

1 very large onion

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

Small handful fresh parsley

Pinch of *fresh thyme (my own addition)

Pinch of *fresh rosemary (my own addition)

Fresh mint for garnishing ( I didn’t have any, but I highly recommend using it)

Sea salt

Black pepper

*For those of you who don’t use fresh herbs that often (and why you wouldn’t is beyond me) and who don’t want to spend the money to buy a whole bunch of fresh herbs just for this one dish, There is an answer. I didn’t know this until last year, but herbs keep amazingly well in the freezer for ages, I’d say up to a year. This means that you can use what you need and save the rest, and just take a bit when you need it. So much better than using the dead dry stuff or buying a whole bunch of fresh and then throwing it out when it rots a week or two later in the fridge. Cool huh?

Method:

1) Preheat oven to 400-450F

2) Peel squash, de-seed, and slice into 1/4 inch slices. Arrange on a baking tray over baking paper for easy clean up. (Did I mention how much I HATE dishes)… Chop rosemary (ours grows outside and is HUGE, you may not have to) and sprinkle it, thyme, sea salt, pepper, and chili flakes over squash. Drizzle olive oil generously over the whole baking tray, and pop into preheated oven for 30 minutes.

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3) While squash is baking beautifully, slice onions into thin spears, and saute in olive oil, salt and pepper on medium high heat. Once they are browning, add 1 cup cider vinegar and 1/2 cup maple syrup to deglaze the pan. cook down until you have a sticky sauce and the onions are really soft, about 25-30 minutes. Add some water if you feel like the onions need more time and there isn’t enough liquid, but not too much. I’m sorry that I don’t have a photo of the onions alone, because they were really beautiful, but G had come home and was bouncing around the kitchen helping me prepare the cheese mixture and I just forgot. Make them and you will see for yourself 🙂 They will be a sort of brown sweet and sour caramelized delicious mixture that fills the whole house with a pungent and intoxicating heady aroma.

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4) When that is done, and if you didn’t have help, mix the ricotta with salt, pepper, and a small handful of chopped parsley. The squash should be done by now, so take it out of the oven and mash it up. It will smell heavenly.

See the bits of chili, rosemary, and thyme?! YUM!!!

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4) In a pan, pour out a bit of olive oil, heat the pan, and toast your crusty bread slices on both sides, or just one if you are impatient like we were to get it into our mouths already. WATCH them so they don’t burn! They should be golden brown, less dark than my photo below. This is where I got sad because I didn’t have any really amazing bread in the house so I first tried it with a challah roll, which I toasted a bit too much 😦 and was too sweet for this dish, and then I tried it with a nice sandwich baguette which turned out to be far superior. I’m still going to do it again when I get some real artisanal bread….FOOD ZEN. Spread the ricotta on the toast, then add some or all of the onions to the squash – You should have a ratio of (2:1) squash to onions. mix them up gently, and add a layer to the cheesy toast. See how nicely the onions swirl in with the squash? They should be just combined, not mixed completely, so that you get the different flavors and textures.

voila!

A little shake of salt and pepper to top it off, aaaand FRESS!!!!!!

Again, here it should be garnished with fresh chopped mint, and I highly recommend it, it would be a good contrast to the sweetness of the squash and the sweet and sour onions. SO effing GOOD. Sigh. Can’t wait until tonight!!! OK, I’m going to go slave away on the beloved/dreaded treadmill for a while before I eat my keyboard, quick word of advice, find some walking/running music with a good fast beat that you can match while speed walking, it really helps get your head into the right mindset.

The next day:

As a quick update, just wanted to let you all know how well the leftovers held up from the squash on toast extravaganza. If you have any, which you probably wont. No photo, so sorry, I hadn’t thought to include it in the blog, but it was too good not to!

Ingredients:

Tortillas

Ricotta with parsley, salt and pepper

Onion marmalade

Spinach, fresh or frozen

Parmesan

Melty cheese

1 egg per tortilla

Preheat toaster oven. 350-400 (low broil)

I wanted to do something with spinach so I defrosted a bit of frozen spinach, squeezed all the water out, and added salt and pepper. Then I took the leftover ricotta mix and slathered some over a couple of uncooked tortillas, about 2 tablespoons more or less per tortilla. I dotted the cheese with spinach, not much, about the same as the cheese, maybe less. Then I took a forkful of the onion marmalade (see recipe above) and spread that across the spinach and cheese.

Next I shredded a tiny bit of best ever Parmesan, (see the importance of being cheesy blog post) not much, and a bit more melty cheese, you can use mozzarella or cheddar, I used something local called tal haemek. Lastly, I fried up a couple of perfect over easy fried eggs with whites set but the yolks still runny, this was essential. Be careful not to break the yolks.  Place them over the rest and wrap them up GENTLY.

I arranged them on foil over the rack from the toaster oven, and then popped it in for about 4-5 minutes. Set a timer so they don’t burn! They will come out hot and crispy, and all delicious inside from the runny egg yolk and the warm cheeses, and have that delicious sweet and sour bite from the onions. Slice on  an angle, serve immediately alone or with salad, and drink a beer with your dinner and all will be well 🙂

The Importance of Being Cheesy

basherjerusalem
Photo from http://www.Basher.co.il

Do you ever feel like you want more from the cheeses in your life-but then you look at the absolutely sprawling selection in the grocery store and just feel intimidated? I used to feel that way back in the states, when I almost always just gave up and went for a nice sharp cheddar.

I mean hey. Cheddar is reliable, he’s a safe bet, he’s easy to find, and the most you have to invest into the thinking process is mild or sharp? (sharp, always sharp).

After moving to Israel I had a different problem. There was practically no cheddar anywhere, and when I did find it, it was an expensive slab of waxy food misery that had me weeping into my pillow for the sharp Vermont cheddars of yore. Fast forward through a year or two of feeling sorry for myself (there are basically one or two dairy mass producers in the whole country and they are all for the most part flavorless and BORING wastes of calories) to the day I found *Basher, Fromagerie Fantastique! in Jerusalem’s famous Machaneh Yehuda market where, as you can see, I was in for a very different kind of ride…

basher4Photo from http://www.Basher.co.il

Not only do they know more than you can imagine about the cheeses featured here, they offer you tastings left and right until you literally have tried 5-15 cheeses you have never had before. I could never leave the store without spending $50.00 – $100.00 or so, but Oh My God was it worth it! I learned more about cheese than I had ever thought I could know, tasting real creamy Parmesans, mustard seed studded Goudas, black truffle sandwiched between truffle infused layers of Camemberts? (I think it was), huge rolls of goat cheeses, creamy aromatic sheep’s milk cheeses that literally melt in your mouth…

SexiestCheese

I’m salivating like a wolf so I’ll stop here, but the list goes on. and on. and on. Oh, and for my old and uninitiated self, they had a crumbly white cheddar veined with salty crystals seen in a massive block in the top photo that will literally make you want to forget you ever ate anything else that ever carried the name. A happy girl was I.

About a year and a half ago we moved up north, away from the cheese mecca that is Basher, and this as I’m sure you can all imagine, made me very sad indeed.

I randomly saw Eli Basher (owner featured in the photo at the top) at a conference for prospective small business owners last week, and was able to hear how he got things going 15 years ago when the entire country knew locally made Kashkavalo (meh) as the most exotic cheese around. Sadly I didn’t have time to swing by the shop that day. Lucky for me my husband was down state this week and brought home some long lusted after PRESENTS!!!!!!!!!!!!
Presents!!!

And opened 3.2 seconds later…

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What you see here is the best Parmesan you ever had, (eva eva), the aforementioned white cheddar of lore, and of course, my personal favorite. The Lou Perac is a creamy sheeps milk cheese (not for the faint hearted) that is so yummy and smooth, spicy, salty, and sharp in all the right ways, that if you handed me some slathered on a hunk of crusty baguette with a glass of a good semi-dry chilled white wine, there is little in the world that I wouldn’t do for you. Seriously. My advice? Next time you are faced with a wall of cheeses and absolutely no guidance whatsoever, be bold, and try a new cheese. It just might change your life. 🙂

Also on the menu for the weekend was a visit from my sweet sister the chef, who brought joy and happiness in her own way, in the form of Italian organic wild blueberry jam (my favorite ever since I moved to a place where a 1/4 pound of berries costs more than a gallon of gas) and the biggest bottle of real vanilla extract that I have seen in AGES and that dwarfed the now almost empty one in my fridge that she brought me last time. It’s freaking impossible to find the real deal, like no one up here ever considered that buying the fake stuff might seem like an affront to our very being. Well, it is.

WildBlueBerryVanillaMonster

Soon after she arrived, we celebrated with a Parmesan and sauteed onion herbed omelet with sour cream and buttered toast with blueberry jam, and suddenly, almost all at once, everything was right in the universe. Even my plate was happy, talk about heavy subliminal messages! 🙂

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*Quick note, these are all things I love, none of the companies you see above paid to be here, I just want to share some really great stuff with you guys.

Chocolatey Food Porn

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Lady Godiva (c.1898) by the Hon. John Collier (1850-1934) is in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.

Some of you may know how seriously addicted I am to good chocolate. How my face involuntarily twists in a grimace when I taste something that was mass produced to feed the undiscerning hordes. Blech. Sure, it’s fine if you are in a bind, personifying the mega-bitch from hell; nostrils flaring as the smoke pours out of your ears and you twitch like a crack fiend aching for just a bite of something, anything that will pull you up out of the pit of despair and give you that much needed panacea of a dopamine/chocolate/endorphins/love rush. I get it. But when its not life or death, (someone elses if they cross you on days like this) quality matters. That’s where these little beauties come into play,

normanlove
the top 10 best chocolatiers in the world according to national geographic.com, and I’m not likely to disagree with them any time soon. Thanks mom for the article. Photo above is of Norman Love Confections hailing from Florida, USA. Also, check out what one of my favorite chocolatiers is doing to give something back with the Lady Godiva Program.

In other food porn related news, I just searched Chocolate Cinnamon Buns on Google images and holy F***.

choccinnbun

It’s safe to say that I have found my next project at thefreshloaf.com 🙂 so stay tuned for some cinnamon chocolaty goodness coming your way soon.