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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Pandoro + Danish = Babka

Here's my version (only a little simplified) of my mom's version of Mario Batali's pandoro and Craig Claiborne's danish. (For all the Craig Claiborne fans out there, have you seen his newly reissued book of Southern recipes? Did you know he was from Mississippi? I did not.)

Cheese Babka
For the yeast mixture:
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (I used instant)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

For phase 1:
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup room temperature water

For phase 2:
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup room-temperature water
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup golden raisins (I used black)

For the cheese filling:
1 cup cottage cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter
Zest of 1/2 lemon

For the topping (optional):
1 large egg, beaten together with 1 teaspoon water

Make the yeast mixture: In a small bowl, combine the water, yeast, sugar, egg yolk, and flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Phase 1: In a medium bowl, beat together all the ingredients. Add the yeast mixture and mix well. Gradually stir in the flour to form a sticky dough. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, or use the dough hook attachment on an electric mixer (which I don't have; use those arms!). The dough should remain somewhat tacky, unlike bread dough.

Butter a large bowl and add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Phase 2: In a medium bowl, beat together the flour, egg yolks, egg, sugar, salt, water, and lemon zest.

Punch down the dough from phase 1 above and pour in the egg mixture, stirring and cutting slowly to break up the dough. The texture of this mixture will appear strange, but will smooth out after the addition of the flour. Gradually add the flour and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Knead for an additional 10 minutes. Place in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 2 hours. Punch down the dough and knead in the raisins.

Make the cheese filling: In a food processor, process the cottage cheese until very smooth, then add the egg, sugar, butter, and lemon zest and process to combine.

Shape and bake the babkas: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour 2 large coffee cans (I used cans that were 6 3/4 inches tall and 6 inches in diameter, but you can get creative here and use 3 smaller cans, or tall cake pans, or whatever; just adjust the baking time and watch them closely).

Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, pat out half of the dough into a rough rectangle about 6 by 12 inches. Spoon half of the filling over the rectangle and do your best to roll it up and get it into a coffee can. It may look as messy as this:

But don't worry. Do the other half of the dough and filling. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Bake for 35 minutes, until nicely browned on top, then brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Return to the oven for 5 minutes. Let cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then loosen the edges with a thin knife and remove from the cans. Let cool completely, then slice one and give one away.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sleepy Cozy

One of my new favorite things to do with the bug is to take her over to Watson Mill Bridge State Park, which is about three miles from our house, to go for long morning walks in the woods. The last time we went, it was before naptime and I thought the one-and-a-half-mile loop would make her nice and sleepy. I didn't expect it to put her to sleep half a mile in—I carried her the rest of the way. Before I lost the use of my arms I took some pictures along the trail.

In the evenings now that it's cold, I've been warming up the bug's bedtime milk with a pinch of cinnamon, a tiny bit of nutmeg, and one small drop of honey. She breaks out into a huge smile after every gulp, but it's always too dark to take a clear picture unless she's absorbed in her cup.

It's drizzly and chilly this morning (okay, not that chilly—45.2 degrees), but I might go ahead and bundle us up and go out. It's either that or hibernate.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Better Late

The Chalmerses set out Wednesday morning for Pittsburgh, for no other reason than we've been wanting to see it together—I'm interested in Rust Belt ruins, and Mr. Chalmers reminded us that Pittsburgh was the setting for Wonder Boys, which was not so good but which showed the city in a way that was attractive to both of us.

The bug was wonderful and sweet in the car, reading her books and hugging her animals, in particular Grandma Bear:

We stopped in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, for a light lunch outdoors (pizza margherita), and walked around marveling at the tall buildings and feeling like country come to town. The bug had a ball peeking through holes in various public statues and structures. It was windy, but not too cold.

By evening we'd reached Wytheville, Virginia, a small town in the far southwest corner of the state, where Interstates 77 and 81 intersect. It's been the setting for many a fantasy of the Chalmerses ever since Mr. Chalmers passed through it on a cross-country trip many years ago; this was my first time there. It's hard to imagine that it could have exceeded my expectations, but it did: it truly is the most beautiful small town I've ever seen. Here's the main drag (the moon is in the upper right corner):

While strolling down the sidewalk looking in shop windows (many of the the shops were open for business, amazingly), we saw: a man asleep at his desk in what I think was an insurance company, a huge pencil advertising a stationery store, people (oh, let's call them neighbors) putting up holiday lights on the streetlamps, and an almost full moon (the bug is very excited about the moon these short days). The small but perfect public park was an idyllic glade of bright-yellow-leafed trees lining a babbling brook with wooden footbridges. We had a tough time convincing the bug to come down off the big rustic outdoor stage (think Shakespeare in the Park). We walked through a pretty neighborhood, and were passing a big old Victorian house with a crazily overgrown wooded yard as people were just arriving—Thanksgiving guests. It was lovely.

We had supper at a place on the main street called Troy's, which was a New York–themed Philly cheesesteak joint:

My cheesesteak was excellent, which is good because Troy's was about the closest we got to eating in the North on this trip.

Coming down a mountain into West Virginia that evening, on a curvy, fast highway, we had an honest-to-god blowout. Within twenty seconds our tire was completely gone. Mr. Chalmers very carefully pulled over right next to the guardrail beside a sheer dropoff. With trucks and holiday traffic whipping past us, we got the car jacked up, but we couldn't get one of the lug nuts off—it just kept spinning frustratingly. The bug was asleep. Mr. Chalmers started walking back up the mountain, where we'd passed an exit about a mile back. It was cold and windy. About an hour later, a courtesy patrol truck stopped, and the man used special tools to get the tire off and the spare on, then he went to look for Mr. Chalmers, because he said there was absolutely nothing off exit 1. Half an hour later he came back—without my husband. The courtesy guy called up to the mountain tunnel people—nobody had seen him. He called the state troopers—no luck, but they'd go out looking for them when they could spare a car (apparently there was a big domestic disturbance in the next town, ten miles down the road). Just then a truck pulled up with Mr. Chalmers in it. He'd walked (and run) eight miles, to the nearest business, a liquor store, and gotten a ride back.

By that time, the hazards had run down the car battery, so we had to jump start it with the courtesy truck. It was after 10 when we got to a motel with an available room and started trying to put the bug to bed. We were all exhausted. The bug, however, would not sleep. She was delirious with excitement about being in a new place, and insisted on exploring the new place until 3:30. So we slept off and on from then until she woke up for good at 7:30. It was actually a relief to be out of the bed with that little kicker—if she wasn't kicking us in the throat we were getting it in the face.

In better spirits now with a few hours of sleep under our belt, we drove slowly to the Wal-Mart and got a new tire put on—we were all set by 8:30 in the morning. Thanksgiving morning. Pittsburgh would've been a possibility if the specter of at least two more sleepless nights in a hotel room weren't looming over us. So we drove home. It was a pretty drive, and thankfully uneventful. The bug was adorable, of course, and perfectly sweet. She's a good road-tripper but a very bad co-sleeper.

It's Saturday now. The first thing I heard this morning when I woke up was Mr. Chalmers and the bug outside cleaning the smoker getting it ready for a turkey breast he'd put in a brine yesterday afternoon. We had just the right size pot:

We've been making food since yesterday, eating each dish as it's ready and not worrying about Thanksgiving traditions or getting everything on the table all at once. (Mr. Chalmers told me we can do anything I want for Thanksgiving each year as long as he gets to smoke turkey.) So I made Polish food.

First up, pierogies. I'd never made them before, so I pretty much followed this recipe, which worked well, though the dough was a little doughy—roll it thinner than 1/8 inch. For the filling, I boiled 2 1/2 pounds of potatoes (mixed varieties), had Mr. Chalmers rice them (even though I've been boxing, his arms are still stronger), then beat in 1 minced sautéed onion, 4 ounces grated Cheddar cheese, some chopped parsley from the yard, and salt and pepper.

I'm a fried pierogi type, as you might've guessed. I boiled them till they floated, drained them well (till they were a bit dry), then fried in butter with onion.

The bug had her own little bowl. She especially liked the applesauce her grandma from Washington made for her.

Ever since I saw a picture of a plastic to-go container of cabbage rolls (in my Pittsburgh research online), I'd been craving them.
Thanksgiving cabbage rolls (mostly from Joy of Cooking): Cut out the core of a green or Savoy cabbage and put it in a large pot of boiling salted water for 5 minutes or so. Meanwhile, mix together 1 pound ground turkey, 1 large egg, 1 grated carrot, 1 diced onion, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup raw white rice, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Pull a leaf off the cabbage and put the head back in the boiling water. Slice the back of the center rib off to make the leaf flexible. Set the leaf on the counter concave side up and put a 1-inch-diameter line of the turkey mixture at the core end. Roll it up like an eggroll, somewhat loosely (the rice will expand). Repeat with the remaining filling.

Chop 1 cup of the remaining cabbage. Heat some olive oil in a large sauté pan and add the cabbage and 1 diced onion. Cook until lightly browned, then add 1/2 cup wine (I used red; it was open) and cook until it's evaporated. Add 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes in puree and break up the tomatoes a bit. Add some water, about 1/4 cup brown sugar, some raisins, 1/2 teaspoon citric acid (I couldn't find any, so I used Fruit-Fresh, which contains ascorbic and citric acids, plus about a tablespoon of sherry vinegar—?), about 6 ginger snaps, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the cabbage rolls, seam side down, in the sauce, cover the pan, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

Serve with sour cream or crème fraîche.

Somewhere in there we also had sausages. Oh, and I made a plain old apple pie for dessert.

Today, of course, will be turkey, and I also want to make my mom's cheese babka, which is sort of a mash-up of a Mario Batali pandoro and a Craig Claiborne cheese danish. Mr. Chalmers kindly consented to using preground coffee for the forseeable future so that I'd have two big cans to bake the babkas in. They've been emptied and washed, so stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Regular Food

Hi! The recipe-testing job is over, and of fifty-four dishes I managed to take pictures of about six. Sometimes I'd make a dish, put it on the table, then start the next one without stopping. And sometimes they just weren't gorgeous, or it was still dark and the pictures would've been bad anyway. Here are a couple, though:

Crunchy fried smelts with a chickpea and beet salad—the dressing was simple and tangy (lemon, Champagne vinegar, olive oil, Dijon), which offset the richness of the smelts nicely. The fish were fried in a very light tempura-style batter. They could be eaten bones and all.

This is one of I think four racks of lamb I grilled in the last month. This one was sprinkled with coarse sea salt, then basted as it grilled, first with soy sauce, then miso paste, then mirin to glaze it a bit. I had to test it twice (poor me).

Here is the bug digging into one of the less successful dishes. The recipe was fine; it just wasn't a good concept for a dish: morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), onions, smoked paprika, and squid, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The squid didn't go so well with the sausage. I gather it was supposed to be a riff on a Hawaiian lau-lau.

I made a lot of crêpes in the month of October (by which I mean I made a lot of batter, and my mom made a lot of crêpes). The last one of the batch is always the funniest. Halloween crêpe!

Braised oxtail on puff pastry, with sweetbreads sautéed in browned butter, with shallot and olives and white wine. This was the second of two sweetbreads dishes. (Note to Athenians: Because of me, Justin at the East Side Publix has about a case of sweetbreads he'd love to sell you. Enough sweetbreads for anything you'd like to make will set you back about $1.29. Email me and I'll send you some recipes.)

One of the last recipes was a pan-roasted quail with a cherry-Port jus, fresh herb spaetzle, and seared foie gras. Mr. Chalmers was out of town and the bug was asleep when I made this lovely, rich dish. At the very end, I seared the foie gras, set it on the counter, then made myself a quesadilla for supper. I was so sick of foie gras.

It was the best quesadilla ever, incidentally, with Monterey Jack and some quick-pickled vegetables left over from an earlier recipe.

I'm happy to be back to making normal food, although so far I think I've been overcompensating: generic Cheerios, grilled cheese, cinnamon toast, hamburgers.

Here the bug is eating dry cereal with diced pears, but she won't let go of the half pear long enough even for me to cut the core out. I love her fall work shirt and her very serious expression.

Here's a corrective to the preceding picture.

I was unsuccessful in my attempts to explain to her why it wasn't a good idea to play in the pile of ashes in the backyard.

Yesterday I finished up some copyediting work, then the bug and I went into town and bought something I've wanted for a long time:

A heavy bag! And heavy-bag gloves and hand wraps (which, I learned the hard way yesterday, are necessary).

I wanted one with a Puerto Rican flag on it, but all they had in my size was plain black. Perhaps that's a good thing. Back when I was working as a cook, I used to hit a funny homemade bag in the garage every night after work, and it really helped me sleep (the sous chef, if I remember right, recommended it as a way to wind down after doing three hundred covers in three hours). I'm not having trouble sleeping now (last night is an exception—the bug and her crazed shouting might've had something to do with it), but it sure is fun. The whole lean-to feels like it's going to come down with just the slightest tap (from, say, the bug).

Also, it's fall: