Monday, October 26, 2009

Demystifying Pasta

Spinach and ricotta filling

Until recently, baking bread was one of those mysterious kitchen activities that I simply assumed, without giving it much thought, was beyond the skills of the average amateur. And then I discovered just how easy, and delightful, bread-baking can be. It is now something I do habitually, without looking at a cookbook or recipe, and with the easy, practiced movements of someone who is thoroughly comfortable with her enterprise.

Making pasta from scratch has a similar mystique about it, it seems. But I figured, if I can bake bread -- easily! joyfully! -- then surely I can give pasta a try. And as I read the recipe (in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, one of my favorite cookbooks), the process seemed more just time-consuming and annoying than actually difficult. As I become a better cook, I think the most important thing I have gained is confidence -- I see no reason to be intimidated by a mere recipe.

Pasta dough

The actual pasta dough is even simpler than my basic bread dough, and even easier to pull together. The toughest part was separating the eggs (I saved the whites and made meringues for dessert -- yum). It needs to be kneaded a bit (unlike my miraculous no-knead bread recipe), but it was easy and rather soothing to do. The dough really did feel amazing in my hands -- springy and lively. Then (just like bread!), the dough needs to rest a while before rolling it out.

Pasta dough, resting (shhh...)

I do not -- yet! -- own a pasta roller. I am so putting one on my Christmas list, though. Rolling the dough by hand was quite time-consuming and challenging. I was glad I had chosen to do ravioli, as oposed to something like linguini -- yikes! -- at least I only had to roll two big sheets. I made a spinach and ricotta filling (heavenly), and used a pizza cutter to cut out my little square raviolis. But then I still had all this filling, and all these weirdly-shaped scraps of pasta... so I made a ton more little "raviolis" of various sizes. I wish I had taken a picture of them all ready to cook -- they were like crazy mutant raviolis.

Assembling ravioli

Once made, the ravioli just needed to be popped in boiling water for a few minutes -- probably about 3-4 minutes. I tossed them with a simple pesto, paired it with some of my homemade bread, and served with freshly-grated Parmagiano-Reggiano. It was sublime. So many, many times better even than the "fresh" pasta you can get in the grocery store. Frankly, better than most pasta I've had in restaurants. So very much worth the time and effort.

Pasta, interrupted

I wonder what other dishes I've put on a pedestal? What other basics have I been outsourcing because I really didn't think I could possibly tackle them? Lesson learned: never underestimate the power of doing something yourself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Apple Deliciousness


I saw this recipe over at the blog for Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, and just had to try it. It is a coffee cake with layers of brioche dough, thinly slices apples and pears, and streusel topping. Not sure why mine doesn't look nearly as pretty as theirs, but it is delicious. I left out the pear and made mine with just apples, and I also made it in a springform bundt-type pan (thinking I would get all fancy or something). Will definitely make this again, but with fresh brioche dough (mine came from the freezer) and see if that helps it rise a bit better. Overall, another sweet success with the apples. I'd really better run out of apples soon, all this baking is not helping the waistline one bit.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Savory Apple Tart (Pizza)

Savory apple tart (pizza)

Oh my. So the authors of my beloved Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day have a blog. Oh yes. And it is filled with recipes! Using the dough that I already have on hand at all times! Yippee!

So yesterday when I saw the recipe for a tart (okay, pizza) using apples of all things, well I just had to try it. Verdict: oh so yummy.

And it got me to thinking... you can put a lot of things on a pizza! This one has sliced apples, blue cheese, and smoked ham. Can you imagine... sliced pears and goat cheese? ...sliced apples, goat cheese, and fig preserves?? The possibilities are endless. Yum.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halloween Fun With Chalkboard Paint


Last week, I saw this idea for blackboard pumpkins over at Ohdeedoh. (They're actually originally from Indie Fixx, to give credit where credit is due.) Anyhow, I thought these would be great for my almost-5-year-old's 5th birthday party, which is coming up this weekend. I had originally thought the kids could paint pumpkins, but I kept worrying that the paint would just get too messy. But -- aha! -- pumpkins painted with chalkboard paint can be decorated -- safely! mess-free! -- with chalk, and the kids can take them home as a favor and decorate them again and again. Neat!

So I bought a bunch of those adorable mini-pumpkins and started painting. But it turns out, a) it's really tough to paint small, glossy gourds, and b) it's really tough for little hands to draw on them with chalk without getting frustrated. Apparently there is chalkboard spray paint, which would probably be much easier. And regular pumpkins (not those teeny ones) would probably work fabulously -- and I'm definitely planning on doing some this year for sure. But I wasn't really up for buying 15 regular-sized pumpkins and then painting them all... whew!

Which led me to come up with Plan B: cardboard cut-out pumpkins painted with chalkboard paint. They turn into little chalkboards that work great, the kids can wipe off and decorate again and again. And the best part is, I already had a big cardboard box ready to go into the recycling, so the only real cost was the blackboard paint (which I had already purchased, on sale!). I love recycling!

Here's how to make these little cuties...

Step 1: Gather supplies. You'll need sturdy cardboard... I took a large shipping box and flattened it. You'll also need a cutting tool, like a boxcutter or X-acto knife. And... chalkboard paint! I went to my local paint store and discovered they now have tintable chalkboard paint, so you can get it in any color you like. I suppose that technically means you could do orange, but then I'm not sure how well the chalk would show up...? I chose black.

Cutting out

Step 2: Cut out pumpkin shapes from the cardboard. I found this easiest to do on the floor of my garage (so I didn't need to worry about damage from the box-cutter), kneeling on the cardboard to keep it from moving. I suppose you could also try to cut out the shapes with strong scissors, but I think my hands would fall off. About halfway through, I switched from the box-cutter (which was kind of dull and didn't lock so I was holding the blade down with my finger... ow) to an X-acto knife, which I found muuuuch easier. Word of caution, though: my X-acto blade was completely destroyed.

Pile 'o cardboard pumpkins

Step 3: Lay down newspaper, and paint your shapes! The paint dries on cardboard in about an hour, but each side really needs two coats for maximum coverage and wipability, so this whole process can take several hours.

Painting pumpkins

Step 4: Decorate your pumpkin! Then wipe off the chalk and do it again! Just remember that these are made of cardboard, so I wouldn't recommend using a really damp cloth! I've gotten best results from a paper towel or piece of cloth that is just *barely* damp.


I can think of dozens of uses for these little cuties. You could make holes in the stems of the pumpkins, and string them on twine for a garland of jack-o-lanterns. You could hand them out at the kid's school Halloween party. In our case, they're going to be a combination craft activity and take-home favor for my daughter's 5th birthday. Fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Apple Harvest


Hmm, what do do with ten pounds of gorgeous Stayman apples? They are lovely for eating -- as crisp as a Granny Smith, but sweeter. But they are also, apparently, great for cooking and baking. This week I am determined to make my way through these apples!

Half-eaten Apple Spice Cake

Yesterday I made an apple spice cake. It was insanely delicious. Like, I can't believe I just made that delicious. The recipe is from The 1997 Joy of Cooking, and I still can't get over how good it was. Interestingly, there are no eggs in the batter -- just flour, butter, buttermilk, brown sugar, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves. And of course, chopped apples! I hesitated about adding the 1/2 cup of chopped pecans, because I thought the kids might balk at the texture, but they were perfect. I topped it with a quick white icing, also found in the Joy of Cooking. Fab-u-lous.

Unfortunately, the 1 cup of chopped apples called for by the recipe only dispensed with ONE apple. Ahem. We're going to have to pick up the pace. Ideas for what to do with a lot of apples, besides apple pie?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gifts That Keep on Giving

Last Christmas, a dear friend who clearly knows me well, chose for me what was probably the perfect gift: seeds. Not just seeds, but seeds from Seed Savers Exchange -- gorgeous heirloom seeds for vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Unusual selections I might never have been bold enough to choose for myself, but were lovely to get to experiment with. And they say the best gifts are those that "keep on giving," right? Well, here it is October, and I am still harvesting the fruits of these seeds that I received and planted so many months ago! Who could ask for anything more?

Rossa Bianca Eggplant

The other night, I made eggplant parmesan (one of my family's favorite dishes) with the most gorgeous, adorable eggplant ever. And we grew it right here by our front walk! The variety is Rossa Bianca, and you can find it at Seed Savers. It was delicious -- zero bitterness, perfectly firm flesh, and beautiful to watch grow. There is another flower on the plant right now and I am just hoping against hope we might be able to get another eggplant before the first frost.

Moonglow Tomato

We are also growing these gorgeous heirloom tomatoes called Moonglow. They are orange, not red, when ripe, and are lower in acid than other tomatoes. Absolutely delicious. And the plants -- which we started from seed, mind you! -- have been the happiest, leggiest things. Taller than me, no blight whatsoever, and very productive. This year has been my experiment in zero feeding -- not only did I not use conventional fertilizers like Miracle Gro, I didn't even feed them with compost or organic fertilizers. Nada! They got watered, and that's it. Now, the soil was enriched with organic compost and manure before planting, but still. I am impressed.

Empress Bean

My green beans (these lovely Empress Beans) fizzled out earlier than they should due to neglect on my part -- I simply got busy, forgot about them, and failed to keep them picked. Too bad. The ones we got were crisp and lovely.


And finally, for a bit of beauty, the moonflowers are finally blooming. They were started indoors in February, but I remember from trying them a previous year, they are awfully slow growers here. Each blossom only seems to open once, at night, but I caught this picture very early in the morning. If you can't tell from the pic, these flowers are huge, bigger than my open hand. And amazingly fragrant! Too bad they are so fleeting, but I think that's part of their charm.

My friend also gave me zinnias (so tall! so bright! so long-lasting! I am going to plant so very many more of them next year!), several kinds of melon, and more. What fun! Now, hmm, what to put on my wish list for next year.....