Monday, March 29, 2010

Memory Lane

When I was little, I rarely remember eating out. Mostly, my mom cooked dinner every night and we ate at home, or she packed food and we took it wherever we were going (a thermos of chili at the local ski "mountain" topped with crushed potato chips was particularly loved). We did have a few favorites: the Italian place that served fried dough instead of a bread basket (yum!); the taco place that ran a two for one special one night a week; and Steve's, the pizzeria down the road.

I'm not sure if it was the prizes in little plastic eggs that came from the old-fashioned machines in the back, the familiarity of the fake-wood booths and dim lighting, or the cheesy, meaty pies, but the pizza at Steve's has always been that by which I judge all others. Even after I moved to New York City as a college freshman, I never was able to match the perfection that came out of that tiny hole in the wall. For nostalgia sake, and to see if I had been right all these years, I dragged a friend on a road trip a couple of years back. The pizza was exactly as I thought remembered it. It was nostalgia-filled, crispy-crunchy goodness and I am so glad I went. Mostly because after that I was able to let go of my perfect pizza and finally enjoy, without reservation, all the other pizzas I had been disappointed by over the years.

Soon after that trip I began making my own pizza at home. As much as I don't love baking I actually really like working with dough. I like the physicality of kneading, I like the change in texture as you work in more flour, and I love, LOVE, punching the dough down after the first rising (I don't care about all the recipes that say the step is unnecessary--I love it). And with pizza, I love the toppings. Mushrooms and olives, potatoes, ramps, asparagus, goat cheese, blue I experimented, slowly, the pizza I made at home surpassed in my mind the memories of pizzas gone--a good thing, to be sure.

I don't have a specific recipe for most of the pizza I make. I usually use the dough recipe found here:
*edited to add: I use half white whole wheat flour in this recipe.

In the picture above I used artichoke hearts, caramelized onions, and kalamata olives with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Here's my general method:
Make dough. Roll it out thin. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Put dough on upside down jelly roll sheets. Top pizza. Let sit for 15-20 minutes (so it will be more of a cross between thin and thicker crust). Place in hot oven and cook for 12-15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly and the crust edges are lightly brown. Slice and eat!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On the other hand...

This week at the grocery store, after scanning all of my items, the checkout worker asked me "So what's the pumpkin for?" "Huh?" I asked. "Well, it just seems like you are really into the whole, 'seasonal' thing, and I just had to ask what the pumpkin is for." "Oh, I was just really feeling a pumpkin cake this week," I replied. Which is odd considering the rest of my cart was full of the first local mustard greens of the season, carrots, and kale, and even more odd considering my on/off (mostly off) relationship with baked goods.

I have never been much of a baker. When I first started cooking, it was one of the things I was really bad at. Then, when I was in nursing school, my friends and I started something we called "Blue Bag Wednesdays." One day someone brought some treats to class in a sparkly blue bag to share with all of us. I had the idea to pass the bag from person to person, each one responsible for baking a tasty treat to share, ironically enough, during our Wednesday nutrition class. People got pretty competitive as the weeks passed. One brought mini pear tarts wrapped individually with parchment paper and tied with a flower bound in twine. Another, for Passover, brought cream puffs made without flour in honor of her Jewish father. I brought cookies. Every time I had the bag in my possession, I tried a different cookie recipe, often times bringing them in overcooked and burnt on the bottom, or undercooked and a little bit too chewy. I brought them in week after week to try to hone my skills a little bit, and by the end of the semester I managed to bring in a passable batch--lightly browned on the bottom, fully cooked, but still soft and chewy. I was pretty proud.

I've only baked a little bit since then, and when I do it's not usually for myself. Until this week. When the pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting recipe that I clipped last wall called out to me. And I decided I could make an "every day" cake. Something to have a piece of, just a little, after dinner. And remember that while March this year may be mild, the nights are still chilly and it's not quite summer.

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
from Cooking Light

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
cooking spray

2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) package low fat cream cheese
2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine flour through salt in a medium bowl, mix with a whisk.

Combine brown sugar, butter and vanilla in a large bowl, mix well with a mixer at medium speed. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add pumpkin, mix well. Fold in flour mixture until just combined. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a wooden pick comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack (or in the pan, like me, because I don't have a wire rack).

For the frosting, combine the butter, vanilla and cream cheese in a medium bowl, beat with a mixer at medium speed until combined. Add sugar, one cup at a time, beating until well combined. Frost cake.

Serves 24 (Cooking Light servings, or 16ish regular servings).

**I just read the reviews of this on the Cooking Light website, and people were pretty harsh. I liked it in all its dense glory (like I said, I'm not a baker), but maybe next time I'd add a little more cinnamon and maybe a dash of nutmeg and/or cloves to up the spice factor in the cake.

Out like a lamb?

Right around the start of this month, I found myself braving the elements while making my way toward Chelsea Piers to play golf (a decidedly warm-weather endeavor). I didn't know at the time that the rain and wind that night would turn into one of the worst rainstorms the east coast has had in recent history, but I did know that I was cold, wet, and annoyed with the weather. Still, there was something romantic about watching the golf balls sailing out toward the Hudson River, the driving range lights illuminating the rain as it pounded left and right with the wind. Even so, after a beer (or two) at the attached brewery, as we were walking toward the subway against pelting rain, I grumbled "March better go out like a lamb!"

Looking at the forecast for the next two weeks, I may actually get my wish this year. Of course the predictive value of two-weeks-in-advance weather is limited at best, but I'm choosing to be optimistic. And, I might add, I'd like to think I've had something to do with our mid-March 70 degree days. I've long believed in my ability to "train the weather." Every year when spring arrives I retire my winter coat, wear t-shirts and skirts around the house (and more appropriate layers outside, although I used to parade around in tank tops in March when I was in college), and lately, I have begun to eagerly scour the grocery store shelves for the first local, seasonal produce. Last year I discovered ramps, and spent the rest of early spring discovering different recipes to use them in. One of my favorites was this ramp and sausage risotto. For me it was the perfect "bridge food." Still good hearty warmth for a chilly March night, but incorporating a breath of fresh air, or spring, to bring me into the new season.

Ramp and Sausage Risotto
(mildly adapted from Bon Appetit)

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 lb hot Italian sausages, casings removed
12 ramps, sliced, bulbs and thin stems separated from green tops
1 cup arborio rice (although since I made this I have been experimenting with barley and farro risotto--I think those would be great too)
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups fat free, low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated, plus additional for passing

Melt butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add sausage, cook until no longer pink, breaking up with spoon, about 5 minutes. Add ramps, saute until almost tender, about 2 minutes. Add rice and stir 1 minute. Add wine, simmer until liquid is absorbed. Add chicken broth, 1/2-1 cup at a time, simmering until liquid is absorbed before adding more. Stir almost constantly. Continue cooking until rice is tender and risotto is creamy. Mix in green tops and cheese, season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with extra cheese. Serves 4.