Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sugar High Friday! (or My little dough balls)

Before I start: I’m aware that my first few paragraphs are spaced differently than the rest of my post. To this I have to say: Blogger does not deserve any more of my time or frustration or anger or tears. And I wish there was an icon for pulling your hair out. Now, onto the food.

My dad is a meat man. Not only is he a meat man, he’s a grill man. More than anything, he’s a steak man. He grills steaks out about four times a week, on an average, sometimes more, sometimes less, but if it’s less, then he’s usually grilling some other form of meat (sausage, quail, chicken) in its place. He eats pasta and enjoys it enough, but his first taste of gnocchi (which I of course love, coming from dough) was a dish I had ordered at a restaurant, and he hated it. He called them “little dough balls.” He couldn’t pronounce the word correctly, and instead has since referred to them by this title.

That was about five years ago, and in that time I have gone to cooking school in Italy and came home to make him goat cheese gnocchi, which he actually enjoyed, and I, of course, ate them like candy. There’s something about the doughyness of gnocchi, I am a pasta-addict, but gnocchi go the extra mile and combine pasta with a hint of a thick, plump bread. It’s fun to bite through a piece of tender gnocchi, thicker than pasta but still retaining a similar taste.

So I love gnocchi, and I love sweet things. Desserts are my weakness. I’ve often wondered if I could survive only eating desserts (but then I would miss my pasta), or would I? For Sugar High Friday (yaya! My first one! But the 31st Sugar High Friday to date, created by The Domestic Goddess to celebrate sweets once a month) I decided to combine my two loves. The host this month is Seven Spoons, and the theme is Shades of White, with a given list of some possible ingredients such as ricotta, marshmallow, champagne, almond, and cream. I was immediately drawn to ricotta (I’m also a sucker for cheeses….my list of loves seems to be getting longer, but chocolate, cheese, and pasta are no doubt the top three) and I began to brainstorm what I could do with it. I thought about all the ricotta desserts I knew of, ricotta cheesecake, cannoli, and then I began to think if ricotta gnocchi, and ricotta gnudi that I’d made before. Light bulb! Sweet ricotta gnocchi. I’d never heard of it before yet it seemed like something that would have to have been done before. I searched for some recipes online, but only came up with fried ricotta gnocchi fritter things. I consulted Dan, and he mentioned fried gnocchi too. I didn’t want to do fried; I wanted seemingly regular gnocchi, made with ricotta, boiled and then finished in a buttery sauce, only I wanted them sweet. I’ve eaten candied olives for dessert before, why not a sweet version of gnocchi?

So I began to brainstorm again, thinking of shades of white, and again asked for some help from Dan (as much as I love to cook, and bake, and make and mix and stir things, I’m simply no good at throwing random ingredients together and coming up with something brilliant. I like to stick to my recipes, sometimes adding a little more vanilla than called for, but I need something concrete to follow). For the gnocchi I strayed. I would go out on a limb (while Dan held onto me, of course), and we came up with orange and almond gnocchi.

Orange and Almond Gnocchi
in Amaretto Sauce

170 g ricotta (after draining overnight in a fine-mesh sieve)
45 g ground almonds
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar (I kept adding this to the mixing bowl and it’s so light the scale didn’t register at all, hence the tablespoons instead of grams)
zest from at least half a large orange
liberal pinch of salt
20-25 g flour and extra for rolling

large pat of butter
a few glugs of Amaretto
juice from half an orange

First, I bought a container of ricotta that was 250 grams, used a little to test the gnocchi, and found that it was too runny, so following other recipes I’d looked over (see, I need that direction), I drained what was left by pouring it into a fine-mesh sieve on top of a larger bowl, which I then covered with Saran wrap and stuck in the fridge overnight. When I measured it out, it was 170 grams. Put it in a mixing bowl and add the ground almonds. Mix together, then put in the powdered sugar, depending on how sweet you want it, 3 or 4 tablespoons. Stick your finger in there and make sure it tastes good. Mix in the zest and a large pinch of salt (Dan says this really brings out the almond flavor), and finally mix in the flour. I say 20-25 grams because it depends on the consistency, you want them to be soft, but not too gooey you can’t roll them. (Some people hesitate to put lots of flour in their gnocchi, which I did at first and then ended up with some mushy gnocchi which ended up falling apart. If you’re one of those people that doesn’t like floury gnocchi, you can add a little more ground almonds and a little less flour). Finally, on a floured surface (marble, parchment, something flat and smooth) take the dough and roll out into a log under your hands. You’ll probably have to take it in sections because as you roll, it becomes longer and hard to deal with big pieces. Roll to about the circumference of your thumb, and then taking a knife cut into little one-inch pieces.
Put the gnocchi on a plate or tray, not touching, and stick them in the fridge while you start to boil the water. While the water is boiling, in a sauce pan over medium high heat, melt the butter, amaretto and orange juice with a large pinch of salt (Dan also thinks this is necessary to bring out all the flavors). You want the sauce to thicken and bubble a little, and when it does, turn the heat down to low. Once the water boils, add salt, take the gnocchi out of the fridge and put them in the water (I did this in two batches, but it depends on how big your pot is). Let them float to the top and then cook for another minute, the best way to know when they’re finished is to take one out and try it, you don’t want them too done because then they turn to mush. When they are perfect, take out with a slotted spoon and transfer directly to the saucepan, making sure everything gets coated, swirl around a few times. Pour onto two dishes and impress your date, or take the saucepan directly to the table and have a great afternoon alone.

Note: The finished product, as you can see, is not exactly white, but I guess that falls under the theme Shades of White. I was thinking of taking a picture of my actual whites (ricotta, ground almonds, flour, powdered sugar, salt) but I thought better of it and I'm sure yall all appreciate it more that I didn't. So my Orange and Almond Gnocchi is a lovely orangey shade of white. And thanks to Dan for being a taste-tester, although he borders on salt-obsessed and eats a whole plate of gnocchi before giving you his opinion.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A great "recipe"

I’m of the opinion that making salad is not cooking. I don’t know if people oppose this view, or agree, but it has always bothered me a little to see recipes for salads. What do you need the recipe for? You just throw some lettuce in a bowl, mix in some variation of the typical combination of nuts, cheese, and fruit and you have yourself a salad. I even got annoyed at my wonderful Williams-Sonoma Florence cookbook (which I love, thanks ma) for including a recipe for a simple cold, mixed green salad that involved no cooking at all. It’s not that difficult to do, do you really need something to tell you “Put all ingredients in bowl. Combine well. Eat.”? Yes. Even though I go off now on salad recipes, I do love a good ole mix of spinach, goat cheese, strawberries, and pine nuts. Or blue cheese, pears, and walnuts. Or parmesan, tomatoes, and pine nuts…or any number of combinations. I feel that these are all fairly obvious pairings that anyone can easily throw together, which maybe is why I get irritated when I see recipes for these common salads upon the pages of my favorite books or websites. What I want to see is something out of the ordinary, a salad that doesn’t happen everyday.

For me, that salad happened one day in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico around the summer of 2003. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the restaurant, but I do remember we returned. And I remember the wonderful plate of avocado and mango salad that I got, with perfect alternating slices of green and bright yellow that matched in size. Now, I’m aware that there are many recipes for an avocado and mango salad, but this was my first experience with it, and I have since rarely seen it on menus and have yet to be served one at a friend’s dinner. I have, however, gotten to serve it to others, and earlier this week I had a craving for that creamy, muted avocado flavor and the thick sweet mangos, so I had the pleasure of breaking someone else into the goodness that is an avocado and mango salad. And then I decided that I could live in Mexico.

Avocado and Mango Salad

1 squishy but not too juicy mango
1 ripe avocado
1 head of butter lettuce (I used butter lettuce, but you could try any green you like)
1 lime
some basil leaves (this was a last minute decision and good one. I am partial to basil though...)
Freshly ground pepper

Wash and tear off butter lettuce leaves, arranging them on a plate or bowl however you want. Cut the mango into long, half-moon slices (if I had a better way to say it, or knew how to cut a mango correctly, I would tell you). Halve the avocado and cut into long slices like the mango. Arrange alternately on the plate, or throw them all in, wherever they end up is fine. Tear basil leaves in small parts and put in between fruit. Squirt a lime and grind some pepper. Eat. Enjoy with one other person. Think of being in Mexico.

A little note: I know my version is very simple, even without olive oil as a dressing, but I like my main flavors to really stand out. Dan is not so simple. And he is very into his Asian flavors. He was not going to stop at simply “squirt a lime.” He made his own dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, tamari (soy sauce), olive oil, cilantro, basil, mint, a tiny red chilli pepper, and added some pickled ginger to the finished salad. There is still a debate as to whose is better. Dan's salad

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

El Tropezón

There is one restaurant in all of Barcelona that I can always count on. Not only count on for the food, but mainly for its dependability. When nothing else in the city is open (which usually includes the hours between 3ish and 6ish for lunch, or all day Sunday), El Tropezón is there for me. My most recent visit was on a Saturday afternoon around 5 pm, when most restaurants are closed, resting up or preparing for a big Saturday night, after going to about 3 different places that were closing up, there was El Tropezón, like a bright shining light at the end of our hunger-inducing tunnel. One of my first times there was around 1 am on the weekend, which is good to know you don’t always have to go straight for a kebab if you need a midnight snack and want to be seated at a restaurant. In between, there have been various visits on Sundays and “inconvenient hours,” when the rest of the streets are lined with large metal doors that tell you the owners are strolling the city like everyone else.

Now comes the good part: the food. First of all, I’ve made a few mistakes there in my selection, El Tropezón does have faults, such as the croquetas and bombas (potato and meat rolled into a ball and deep fried), but what they do right, they do it really right. I’ve gone back a few times for the xistorra (greasy red sausage) and pincho moruño (pork on a stick…for Americans shish kebab), which are both excellent meats and saves you having to order pan con tomate (the typical Catalan plate of tomato smeared over bread). They each come served on top of slices of pan con tomate, dripping their greasy goodness onto the bread. And did I mention I’m not much of a meat person? Of course, living here in Spain, as most people will tell you, it’s hard to avoid and it’s definitely growing on me, I’m happy to say (I just can’t get enough of that xistorra). This last Saturday afternoon I was totally blown away by a new dish that seems so simple, yet it was so delicious, I don’t know how I never ordered it before: mushrooms. Perfectly cooked in a garlicky butter sauce, a big silver platter of ‘em. What’s not to like? I’m still thinking about them now, and salivating…I’m told that the pimientos del padrón (the small green peppers, one in every few are spicy) are good, although I’ve never been a fan of peppers myself. The one overall complaint is the ice-cold wine, but after a few glasses from the pitcher, and a few bites of sausage and bread, it washes down quiet nicely. Before I finish dreaming about El Tropezón, I have to note the atmosphere: this was the first thing that drew me in. It’s all dark wood. Dark wood tables. Dark wood benches. Dark wood counter. Dark wood stairs, you get the idea. But it feels very rustic, very Spanish, like you should go in and plant yourself by the tiny bar/kitchen, get some ham, and listen to the wait staff shouting orders to each other.

(I’m sorry to say there are no pictures of the food we ate because I couldn’t mooch a camera off anyone at the time)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

My twist on an Italian favorite

I don't have a sweet tooth; I have sweet teeth. I don't know if other people are affected by this problem, but it weighs heavily on my life. I remember when I was a little girl on family vacations and my parents would let my sister and I order a dessert instead of dinner at nice restaurants. Since then, I can't seem to satisfy my need for sugar, but I am completely content in this. Sweet over savory any day. With that said, I do eat normal food, and often cook it as well, but the fun lies in the desserts. Unfortunately, I find myself away from my kitchen, luckily in Barcelona, but nonetheless missing my Kitchen Aid mixer, my tart molds, my springform pans, my counter space, my Mexican vanilla extract, my cookbooks, and most of all, my oven. I currently live in an ovenless apartment, which is quite a blow to an amateur pastry chef (chef meaning one who loves cooking, although she may or may not be good at it), to which an oven is a necessary appliance. Since coming to Spain, I’ve been able to mooch off my friends and use their ovens…as long as I promise them some of the results.

A few weeks ago my friend Ben was having a dinner party, which he decided to throw together at the last minute, informing me on the day of and asking me if I could make a dessert. I’m not one to refuse, but I did have a time problem between the request and the dinner with my classes. Recently I had gone to a bar in Barceloneta that offered wine out of wooden barrels lining the walls to be sold to go. All you have to do is bring in your own container, and straight out of the tap from the antique barrels appears your wine. Did I mention how cheap it is? Some are about half a euro for a litre. And they have sweet wine, so I thought why not try some barrel-sweet wine and make some biscotti to dip in it. I quickly searched through my most reliable recipe source while I am away from my own collection, and found a recipe for hazelnut biscotti. I love anything that strays from the typical, for example, almond biscotti slightly bettered by replacing the nuts with hazelnuts. Although biscotti takes two cookings, as the name implies (bi=two, cotti=cooked), the preparation is fast and easy, and I was able to do my second baking at Ben’s. However, I didn’t have enough time to make it to the bar in Barceloneta for the sweet wine, but instead stopped into a regular store and got some moscatel, which worked just fine, once again, twisting the typical Tuscan “biscotti and vin santo” to include moscatel with hazelnut biscotti.

Unfortunately I don’t have pictures from this event, or anything up until now because I am waiting to replace my camera that was stolen (I really do live in Barcelona), so until that day, I regret to inform that I don’t have pictures of anything I’ve done so far. However, I think my mooching doesn’t have to stop at ovens, but can be extended to temporarily stealing my friends’ cameras as well, and I plan to make this again and will then post pictures of the Spanish take on biscotti and vin santo. Until then, I will post a view from Ben's apartment and biscotti that isn't mine.

Hazelnut and Orange Zest Biscotti

Adapted from

1 1/2 cups hazelnuts
3/4 cup sugar (plus extra for finishing)
2 cups self-rising cake flour (if you don’t have it, add a little baking powder)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (not necessary, the orange zest adds flavor as well)
Orange zest from one orange (or as much as you like…I used two blood oranges)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. I bought already toasted and skinned hazelnuts, but if you don’t, then toast hazelnuts in a shallow baking pan until lightly colored and skins are blistered, 10 to 15 minutes. (Leave oven on.) Wrap nuts in a kitchen towel and let steam 1 minute, then rub off any loose skins in towel while nuts are still warm (don't worry about skins that don't come off). Cool nuts completely, then chop them, leaving some in larger pieces and some finer. Mix with sugar well, then add flour and combine everything together with a fork. Add 2 eggs and vanilla (although I didn’t have vanilla, I think the orange zest makes up for it and adds an interesting flavor) and mix until dough forms. Finally add the orange zest and mix with fork or by hand until everything is incorporated.

Halve the dough and roll each into a log (recipe says 10x2x1 inches but I made one giant log, which made for quite large biscotti, which tasted good but took much longer to cook all the way through). Put the logs onto the parchment paper on the baking sheet. Crack 1 egg in a bowl and beat with a fork to make an egg wash. Brush on top of each log (not too much or you’ll end up with biscotti covered in scrambled egg…as I almost did), then dribble a small handful of sugar over the top of each log.

Bake until golden and set but still soft and a little springy, about 25 to 30 minutes (longer if your biscotti is larger like mine was). Cool logs for 10 minutes on baking rack.

Using a serrated knife, cut logs into ½ inch thick slices at an angle. You know you’ve cooked them enough when they are like well-cooked cake in the middle—not soggy at all, cooked all the way through, but still a bit spongy. Arrange slices on their sides in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake slices, turning over once, until golden and crisp for 20 to 25 minutes (although once again I had to do mine a bit longer, which caused some of my edges to almost blacken, but remember biscotti is supposed to be very crunchy and we mended it with a knife, scraping some parts off. And don’t forget you can do this last step a bit later, if needs be, as I did in the oven during the dinner party). Finally, cool the biscotti on a cooling rack. Eat, dipping into moscatel, or whatever sweet wine tickles your fancy.

Should be enough for 6 people, depending on hunger and sweet teeth….