Cheesepalooza: Whole-milk Ricotta

Sorta-homemade lasagna with actually-homemade ricotta

I’ve been resisting making this post for a week and a half, for two reasons:

1) My photos didn’t come out all that well, and
2) My ricotta didn’t come out all that well. I couldn’t get it to set up properly. Cooking from the Market’s buttermilk ricotta is much more reliable for me, and the texture is right, while this was rubbery.

This is the first recipe in Cheesepalooza, though, and I have lots more chances to get it right. Besides, the resulting lasagna was ASTOUNDINGLY good, so hey, success!

Here’s the cheese draining on the faucet:

homemade ricotta draining

And here’s the lasagna after I ate all my dinner, went “Oh, shoot! I need a photo!” and put a little more on a plate to photograph.

sorta-homemade lasagna, one slice

It was so darn good, we managed to polish off that little more, too. SO good. And way easy, because I only sort of homemade it. You don’t even really need a recipe. What I did was bought four sheets of fresh pasta (two regular, two spinach) and layered them with jarred sauce, the homemade ricotta, and sliced whole-milk mozzarella. I ran out of mozzarella at the end (I used a pound), so I added some shredded cheddar on the top layer. This went together in maybe five minutes, and then I baked it at 350, covered, for about a half hour, then uncovered it and baked until everything was hot and bubbly. SO good!

And now here’s the worst pic of all. This doesn’t do this delicious thing justice, I promise you.

sorta-homemade lasagna

[Edit: Here’s a photo of an old batch of ricotta, made with the recipe linked above:]

ricotta in a strainer

Focaccia with “treasures”

Focaccia with “treasures”; a brilliant bread from Sicily.

It’s no secret that I admire Lana from Bibberche—heck, I dedicated a whole post to her once—and it’s no secret that I love bread, so this week, when the two met in my kitchen (not literally, more’s the pity), it was made of pure win, if you ask me.

side view of the focaccia

See, the story goes like this:

  1. Lana (@Bibberche) makes a beautiful post about her foodie daughter that happens to also be about focaccia
  2. James and I remember that I’ve been meaning to learn to make focaccia, and hey, this looks so easy!
  3. Joy ensues.

At first, I followed the recipe in Lana’s post almost to the letter. I tend to do that when I’m making an unfamiliar food, especially a baked good. I don’t usually bake using a sponge, but I figured what the heck, looks easy enough. I did cut back on the quantities of red pepper flakes and salt in the topping, and added a dusting of granulated garlic, but otherwise, I carefully followed directions. This is what I got (click the thumbnails to enlarge):

focaccia doughfocacciaantipasto on a lettuce leaf
focaccia and antipasto

The little salad is cubes of whole-milk mozzarella tossed with marinated roasted tomatoes, anchovy-stuffed olives, and pepperoni.

But wait! It gets even better! Judith from Think On It, who is a fellow member, said:

Forever, to my kid, focaccia is the Sicilian one I used to make for after school snacks for her and friends. It was basically an Italian dough (flour, salt, yeast, water and oil) [spread] out on a baking sheet and allowed to rise a bit. Cubes of treasures were poked into it, like salame, cheese, onion, garlic, tomato, then a sprinkle of olive oil and coarse salt, then a bit more rising and then baked at a very high temperature so that the dough sprang up and nearly surrounded the cubes.

When she comes here and gets focaccia in Tuscany or Umbria she says, “That’s not focaccia. I remember focaccia. How come you never make me focaccia anymore?”

Isn’t that a lovely Mom Food vignette? Isn’t it great that mine isn’t the only bratty grown child? [Judith’s focaccia posts]

At any rate, I couldn’t wait! Though we had had focaccia just the day before, I set to work to make Judith’s version. And oh, my family is still praising me for it:

onions, tomatoes, and quesofocaccia just before bakingbaked focaccia with cheese and veggiesbaked focaccia with cheese and veggies
focaccia plated with broccoli

I seeded some tomatoes (but didn’t peel them; that’s a rare task around here), and chopped some red onion finely. The cheese was Mexican queso, which is very much like a buttery mozzarella (you may remember it from last Wednesday’s Caprese salad). And in a stroke of genius, I enlisted my bread machine to knead the dough, just to see if it would come out well.

It came out VERY well. I forgot to put strips of fresh basil on top at the end, but it was still marvelous.

This focaccia is a new standard around here. I am happy with how it looked, tasted, and pleased the family.

It’s cheap, easy, and impressive. And yeah, those are my favorite things.

(And now I can hear James saying, “Not as cheap, easy, and impressive as YOU, my love!” Silly man.)

Focaccia with treasures (bread machine and oven)
If you want to make the dough by hand, by all means, follow the recipe at Bibberche. It’s the same ingredients.

For the dough:
470 g water
660 g flour
20 g coarse sea salt
13 g sugar
7 g yeast

For baking/topping:
“treasures”—cubes of anything you like: tomatoes, onions, meat, cheese, veggies, whatever
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt

For the dough, place dough ingredients into your bread machine in the order recommended, then use the dough cycle. Prepare a large baking pan (I used 16×12 inches) by pouring the 1/4 cup olive oil on the pan and tilting the pan around until it’s completely covered in oil.

When the dough is ready, pre-heat the oven to 450°F. Plop the dough out of the bread machine onto the pan. No need to worry about how it looks; just let it rest for a couple minutes, then pat it out using dampened hands or a silicone spatula until it fills all or most of the pan. When that’s done, quickly lift the dough and flip it so the other side gets oiled, as well, and re-pat for a moment so everything’s fairly even.

Place your “treasures” onto the dough and press them in with your fingers, then sprinkle the spices and salt over the top. You may also add a little drizzle of olive oil if any areas look like they’re not sufficiently moistened.

Bake 10 minutes, then turn the pan if your oven is like mine and not completely even. Turn the heat down to 400°F and bake 5-10 minutes more, or until golden brown.

Dinner in 30: Spaghetti Carbonara with Prosciutto

Spaghetti Carbonara: Simple, elegant, and cheap.

I was inspired by one of Chris’s posts to think and write about my own carbonara.

My mother is half Italian, but this isn’t a dish she fixed. She thinks it sounds a little odd. I shall have to make it for her.

This dinner is delightful — satisfying, simple, and extremely easy.

spaghetti carbonara

You can cook the spaghetti in the time it takes to fry up the onions and prosciutto, so this dish is SUPER-fast to make, and everyone seems to like it. The actual cooking effort on the meal will take you approximately ten minutes. You can have this on the table in no time, except for the artichoke, but if you pressure-cook artichokes, they’re fast, and if you use a pot, you don’t have to tend them. Not that I mind spending an hour working in the kitchen when it’s warranted, but spaghetti carbonara is just one of those simple and delicious things that take almost no time at all to throw together. And the cost for making this dish runs somewhere around seventy cents a serving, so it’s excellent bargain food.

I usually use bacon, but I bought some prosciutto on sale, and it worked out really well with that little substitution. Plus, since there’s not a bunch of bacon grease to throw into the mix, I imagine it’s probably lower in fat than the original, though I couldn’t tell you for sure. I served it with artichokes and a bunch of black seedless grapes; serve a different veggie to get this on the table in 30 minutes.

Spaghetti Carbonara
(adapted from Ruth Reichl’s carbonara recipe—though no one wanted extra cheese on theirs)

8 oz. spaghetti or other pasta
1 egg
5 oz. prosciutto, chopped (or use bacon)
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated or shredded Parmesan cheese

Fry the onion and prosciutto together on medium heat until the onion starts to soften, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and fry for another minute or two. Meanwhile, beat the egg in the bowl you’re going to mix the spaghetti in, and add a few grinds of black pepper. Then while the prosciutto is still cooking, cook the spaghetti (if you don’t know how to do that, don’t worry — there are instructions here.) As soon as you drain the pasta (do NOT rinse), add it to the egg and mix well — the heat of the pasta will cook the egg. Then mix in the prosciutto mixture and parmesan and serve.

Weekend cooking: Nana’s Famous Fried Chicken

My mom’s chicken is unique. The pancakes are the best part. Wait — pancakes??

Of all the things my mother cooked when I was growing up, this may be the one that I end up doing the most explaining about. It’s not like any other fried chicken I’ve ever eaten or heard about, and people often tell me that it’s unlike any fried chicken they’ve had, either.

Technically, it’s not even just fried: it’s fried and then baked. But it’s the breading that’s most unusual. Mom uses Italian bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, and the coating isn’t light and crispy—it’s substantial and crunchy, and not at all greasy, despite being fried in a nice big puddle of oil.

chicken, pancake, corn, potatoes

Growing up, I didn’t like meat. Even when I was eating baby food, mom had to hide the meat behind my veggies to get me to eat it. But the cool thing about fried-chicken nights, to me, was that I could get the total yum of mom’s fried chicken without eating the meat, if I played my cards right:

Card #1: Eat plenty of the pancakes. (“Pancakes” = the fritter-like things my mom made from leftover breading ingredients, and my favorite part of the meal, with the exception of…)

Card #2: See if you can cadge some chicken skin from someone, or manage to eat just the skin off a piece without mom noticing.

Mom HATED it when I ate just the skin from a piece of chicken, but she eventually got used to the idea that there was no way she was going to force me to eat the chicken, so she may as well let me have a piece of skin and give the meat to someone who wanted it. But it took years. And the innate stubbornness of her darling daughter.

I’m calling this “weekend cooking” because it’s just plain time-consuming. It’s NOT hard, not at all. Just takes a while, especially if you make a lot, and if you’re anything like my mom, you’re not going to bother making it unless you make a lot. I suppose if you only made as many pieces as would fit in one frying pan, the time factor would be much lessened. Hypothetically, of course, because I have never seen mom make less than ten pounds of fried chicken at once. In the summer, it’s good cold the next day. In the winter, if there’s any left over, it’s great reheated.

Munchkin The Elder always calls this “Nana’s Famous Fried Chicken”, but growing up, it was just fried chicken. I didn’t have any other kind until I was an adult. All other kinds are some weird substitute. And these days, I often even eat the meat.

It’s kind of like me, too, now that I think about it. A little Italian, but not in all that overt a way, and American, but in just a weird enough way that people kind of wonder. It’s multicultural fried chicken—yeah, that’s it!

chicken cut

Nana’s Famous Fried Chicken

5-6 pounds chicken parts (mom does 10 pounds of leg quarters; I use thighs)
Oil for frying (I used more than a pint, but less than a quart, for this amount of chicken)

The Breading, dish 1 (halve if you don’t want pancakes from the leftover):

6 eggs, beaten with
1 T. oil and
1 T. water

The Breading, dish 2 (halve if you don’t want pancakes from the leftover):

1 can (15 ounces) Italian Breadcrumbs (or make your own)
1 cup Parmesan cheese (yes, in the green can. Cope.)
1 T. granulated garlic / garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. dried basil

With one hand, dip the chicken pieces one at a time into the egg mixture. Place the chicken into the breading dish and use the other hand to cover the chicken with bread crumbs. This way, you won’t bread your fingers. Bread all the chicken pieces one at a time that way, and place them on a dish that will fit in your fridge (layers are fine). Let rest for 30 minutes to 3 hours in the fridge.

If you’re making pancakes, mix the bread crumbs and egg mixture together, add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of water to the mixture to make a thick batter, then let sit covered in the fridge until the chicken is done frying.

Preheat oven to 350F. Fill a heavy frying pan (I use cast iron. Mom often used whatever she had handy, and for a while, she used an electric skillet) with enough oil to go up to about halfway on the chicken pieces. I started with about a pint in my 10-inch iron skillet. Heat on medium-high until a piece of breading sizzles when it hits the oil.

Fry a few pieces at a time (as many as will fit in your skillet — I did 3 at a time), turning once, until both sides are browned as brown as you like it. Place the fried pieces on a cookie sheet in the oven. Mom says to tell you it’s not done yet. Keep frying and adding the new pieces to the oven to finish cooking. By the time you’re done, the pieces you put in first will be perfect. If you’re not making the pancakes, go ahead and serve those pieces, turn off the oven with the rest of the chicken in it, and let it heat through while you eat. Otherwise, leave the oven on, make the pancakes (see next paragraph), and by the time you’re done with those, all the chicken should be done.

To make the pancakes, just fry 1/4-cup-or-so portions of the batter, turning once, until they’re as brown as the chicken or a little browner. Don’t worry if the oil foams up so you can’t see the pancakes — it’ll die down in time for you to flip them.