Saturday, February 27, 2010

Catching some culinary waves...

As a food blogger, I spend a lot of time perusing other blogs for inspiration. And it's always amusing to me when a recipe seems to catch on and spread like wildfire--the NYT no-knead bread, for one infamous example. Who among us didn't run out and buy a new pot for that one? (Well, I did.) Recently, I tried another recipe that's been burning up the blogs for at least five years (no one ever said I was quick on the uptake!), a ridiculously simple tomato sauce that people are just GA-GA over. I was inspired to try it after reading 545 mostly fawning reviews over at Smitten Kitchen. Now I hate to be in the very tiny minority of dissenting voices, but I'm just not sure what the fuss is all about. Yes, the sauce is very simple and easy to make, but it pretty much ends up tasting like, well, tomatoes. I found the texture luscious (because of the butter), but the flavor was a little flat. Maybe I'm just used to jazzier sauces, but it needed some spice, some kick, and most definitely, some GARLIC! However, in reading all 545 comments, I came across a poster who was bragging about her incredible homemade meatballs, so I popped by her site, and used her recipe as a guide to make some truly terrific meatballs of my own! And they were SO flavorful, that they went perfectly with the low-key tomato sauce. So on its own, I do not recommend the tomato sauce, but with some zesty meatballs thrown in, it becomes a must-make!

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions
Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking)

Serves 4 as a main course; makes enough sauce to lightly coat most of a pound of spaghetti (Gina's note: I doubled this recipe then made meatball sandwiches the next day with the leftovers!)

28 ounces whole peeled tomatoes from a can (real San Marzanos, if you can find them)
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a heavy saucepan (it fit just right in a 3-quart) over medium heat. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, discard the onion, add salt to taste and keep warm while you prepare your pasta.

Serve with spaghetti, with or without grated parmesan cheese.

Mara's Meatballs
(Source: adapted from
Kleio's Belly)
Makes about 48 meatballs

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning (fresh herbs would be even better!)
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 cup bread or cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
2 eggs, beaten

In a very large skillet, saute onions in the olive oil until they are translucent. Add the minced garlic and Italian seasoning and cook for another minute or two.

In a large bowl, gently mix the meats together by hand (don't overwork or your meatballs will be tough!). Add the cheese, bread or cracker crumbs, salt, pepper, eggs, and onion-garlic mixture. Mix again very gently until everything is combined.

Using a cookie scoop if you have one, fashion 1 1/2 tablespoon-sized meatballs, then fry them in the skillet over medium heat until browned all over and firm to the touch (or you can bake them in the oven at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes).

The other very popular recipe that I tried my hand at lately was from my old friend, King Arthur--their take on homemade Oreos. Along with the killer carrot cake cookies, I seem to be on a bit of a sandwich cookie bender. I usually abhor making such fussy things, preferring instead to purchase my Oreos or Vienna Fingers as the need arises. But the idea of homemade Oreos was intriguing and worth a try, and these turned out great! I took a bunch of them into work, and people raved about the "Oreos on steroids." LOL! I did make a few adjustments to the recipe, though. First of all, I used 1/2 cup black cocoa and 1/4 cup natural cocoa (Scharffenberger), and it was still a little too dark/bitter for my tastes. Next time, I will pull back on the black cocoa a wee bit and use half of each (3/8 + 3/8), or maybe even 1/2 cup regular cocoa to 1/4 cup black. Also, I added 1/4 teaspoon baker's ammonia (available through KAF) to the dough, and it made gave the cookies a great crispiness and snap, more like the store-bought ones. And after pressing a tray's worth of cookies, I chilled them for up to 30 minutes. Finally, I made the filling with half shortening and half butter. That was a very good decision! The texture was still slightly waxy like a real Oreo, but smoother and with better flavor. Very fun recipe!

King Arthur Flour)

1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional but good
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup black cocoa or Dutch-process cocoa (I recommend half and half)

about 6 standard-size candy canes or 3 ounces peppermint hard candies*, optional
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (or 1/4 cup shortening and 1/4 cup butter)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (omit if you're making the peppermint version)
2 teaspoons cold water*
*If you're adding the peppermint candy, increase the water to 2 tablespoons

1) Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two baking sheets, or more if you have them.
2) To make the cookies: In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, salt, and espresso powder. That's right; there's no leavening in this recipe, so don't worry that something's been left out.
3) Beat in the egg, water, and vanilla, then the flour and cocoa. The dough will be very stiff.
4) Roll the dough into balls about the size of a chestnut (about 2 level teaspoons). A teaspoon cookie scoop works fabulously here, as well as for the filling. If you don't have one, consider a purchase; you won't regret it. Place the dough balls on the prepared baking sheets (I baked mine on Silpats), leaving about 1 1/2" to 2" between them.
5) Use the flat bottom of a glass, dipped in cocoa as necessary to prevent sticking, to flatten the cookies to about 1/8" to 3/16" thick. The end of a food processor's pusher tool works well here, too (this is what I used, and no extra cocoa). Take a ruler and measure the cookies' thickness; you want to get pretty close to this measurement, for the best-textured cookies.
6) Bake the cookies for 18 to 20 minutes. It's important to bake them just the right amount of time; too little, and they won't be crisp; too much, and they'll scorch. Watch them closely at the end of the baking time, and if you start to smell scorching chocolate before the time is up, take them out. When they're done, remove the cookies from the oven, and allow them to cool completely, on a rack or on the pan.
7) While the cookies are cooling, make the filling. If you're making the peppermint version, break the candy canes into pieces, and process them with the confectioners' sugar in a food processor till they're pretty finely ground.
8) Beat together the sugar, shortening, and vanilla. It'll seem very dry at first, but will eventually begin to clump together.
9) Add the water, beating till smooth and spreadable. The filing should be stiff, but not so stiff that you can't flatten it when you sandwich it between the cookies.
10) Place one level tablespoon filling in the center of one cookie; again, a teaspoon cookie scoop, slightly heaped, is perfect for this task. Place another cookie atop the filling, and squeeze to distribute the filling evenly. Repeat with the remaining cookies. Store in an airtight container.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, those cookies look GREAT! I'll have to try those when I'm feeling ambitious.