Monday, March 30, 2009

Daring Bakers: Lasagna of Emilia-Romana

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

In the introduction to the recipe, Kasper writes, "
Mere films of b├ęchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta.... The results are splendid."

Maybe in her world. I followed the pasta portion of the recipe faithfully, letting the dough rest for as long as possible - anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours is recommended. I waited the full three hours before starting to roll it out, in order to give the gluten maximum opportunity to develop, and still, my sheets were anything but sheer. It seemed impossible: before I'd stretched it even as thin as boxed dry lasagna, holes were popping up everywhere. This was an exercise in frustration, as you can see.

I found the dough stretched a little better if I sprinkled a few drops of water on the surface. Following Daring Baker Audax's recommendation, I also allowed the stretched sheets to stick to the counter for several minutes; if you pick them up right away, they will shrink and become thick again. Still, my lasagne was nowhere near thin enough "to see color through," as the recipe calls for. Only the last few sheets even approached that level of thinness, and that was after I picked them up from where they had been resting on the counter and found they stretched very thin and long in my hands. Unfortunately, by this point, I had already boiled the rest of my (too-thick) lasagne. If I were to try this again (let's face it: not anytime soon!), I would let the pasta rest much longer - probably five hours - before I started rolling it.

Here are my (leathery-looking) lasagne, my ragu, and my bechamel sauce. Or rather, Dan's bechamel sauce - he made it! Rolling the lasagne was taking so long that I began to get frustrated and worried that I wouldn't have this mess done in time for dinner, so I enlisted his help.

Our deal is I do the cooking, he does the dishes. This works for us: I like to cook, and he actually enjoys washing dishes. To me, that is as foreign as saying "I enjoy drinking toilet water," but hey, I'm not going to argue. We 've had this arrangement for years and rarely deviate from it. Sometimes I'll fill the sink with soapy water for him or he'll put water on to boil for me, but that's about it. But yesterday, I was desperate, and he could tell, and he cheerfully agreed to help me out. So while I called out directions from my lasagne-rolling spot, Dan made the bechamel (and did a great job of it, too!).

The recipe includes instructions for a country-style ragu, and while it sounded amazing, it called for veal, pork loin, skirt steak, pancetta, prosciutto, and red wine - a definite budget-buster. So, having already spent more on groceries than I wanted to this month, I made up my own turkey ragu, using ground turkey, hot Italian turkey sausage, and turkey pepperoni that I had on hand. The turkey ragu was the saving grace of this experience for me; I rarely make meat sauce for pasta, but this ragu was so delicious that I will definitely have to make it again, and I probably wouldn't have come up with it if not for this challenge.

So here it is: the labor-intensive lasagne that ate my Sunday (completely with big, ugly hunk of ragu - yeah, at this point, I didn't really care about getting a pretty picture). Sadly, after all of that work, it wasn't even that good. It wasn't bad, certainly, but it was nothing special. Maybe if I had been able to get the whisper-thin, ethereal lasagne that Kasper writes about, I would feel differently. At least I got an awesome ragu sauce out of the deal, and Dan learned how to make bechamel. (What should I teach him next - bearnaise? Beurre blanc? Why do all white sauces start with b?)

This post has gone on long enough, so I'll post my turkey ragu sauce in a separate post tomorrow. Hope you all had a nice weekend!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Notice a pattern?

Here's a shot of a recent meal: brown rice and lentils, topped with fried onions with garam masala and plain yogurt, served with a side of shredded root veg salad on romaine.

And here's another recent dinner: grilled cheese sandwiches, sliced cucumbers, and shredded root veg salad on a bed of romaine.

And you've seen this one before: a recent fish dinner served with - what else? - shredded root veg salad and romaine.

Yep, it's fair to say I've fallen in to a rut. The root veg salad is great, especially with goat cheese and pecans, but I've come to rely on it a little too much. And it's not just the salad: I've been in a cooking slump, which partially accounts for my light posting lately. Even Dan, who normally loves my cooking, has gently noted that my meals have been a bit boring lately. The good news is, I think I've finally - finally! - started to climb out of it. I'll write more next week about a couple of the things I've been doing to shake the dust off my shoulders and get moving in the kitchen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cake and Punch

I made a lemon cake and some chocolate cupcakes for the baby shower last weekend. I did all the baking at home, then transported the unfrosted cakes to my mom's house, because I didn't want to risk taking finished cakes on a three-and-a-half hour drive. It was a good call, because a few of the cupcakes got smooshed along the way, so I can just imagine what would have happened to a frosted cake.

I made a last-minute choice to make two cake flavors; I had originally planned to do one large lemon cake and I had a really cool crane design worked out for it. I thought that some people might not like lemon, however, so I did a regular lemon layer cake and the cupcakes. As it turns out, lemon was actually much more popular than chocolate, so it would have been fine, but oh well.

Anyway, I busted out my piping tips and this spontaneous, swirly design is what came out. Overall not too bad, although the writing could have been more centered. I had so much trouble with the frosting that day. I usually use only butter in my frosting, but for these cakes I used half butter, half shortening, as my grandmother taught me; it was my first time using the "new" (trans-fat-free) Crisco and now I see what everyone on the cake decorating boards has been complaining about. It is prone to cracking and in order to get a smooth result, I had to make the frosting softer than I normally would.

The frosting was also frustrating when it came to the cupcakes; it seemed to deflate and looked sort of sad and melted. My mom said no one would notice but me, but I was definitely annoyed - one of the few times lately when I actually get to share something I've baked with a larger group, and they weren't up to my usual standards.

The shower was nice and intimate, with just under twenty guests at my mother's house. I insisted that we have a punch bowl, which my mom thought was funny and old-fashioned - "Who drinks punch anymore?" - but it turned out to be a hit! I used this recipe, which was just right - not overly sweet like some punches - and the leftovers mixed well with rum, although vodka or amaretto would have worked, too.

*A note on buttercream: what constitutes buttercream is a matter of raging debate across the internet and in various cookbooks. Many will argue that buttercream must contain eggs. I grew up calling this buttercream; it has no eggs, and is not a cooked frosting, but since you start by creaming the butter, buttercream seems like a fitting name to me.

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup Crisco
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar mil
1 tablespoon

Cream butter and Crisco together until light, fluffy, and completely blended. Add vanilla and half a cup powdered sugar and beat until well-incorporated. Continue adding sugar in 1/2 cup increments until all has been added. If necessary, add some or all milk to adjust consistency.

These are the quantities my grandmother dictated to eight-year-old me when she gave me the recipe, but it's really only enough to frost one layer. For 8" or 9" layer cakes or a 9"x13" sheet pan, double the quantities.

Follow directions for Grammy's buttercream, but substitute butter for Crisco (so instead 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup Crisco, use 1/2 cup butter). This frosting will have a slightly stronger butter flavor. What can I say? I love butter. Not everyone does.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Serendipitous Design

This weekend we went home to Maine for my sister-in-law's baby shower. We had a nice, small shower at my mom's house. My mom is an artist (check out her art education blog) and her painter's eye carries over well to food presentation. Take, for example, this veggie platter:

She used a melamine set of one large platter and six removable paisley-shaped sections. A really neat touch, though, was the celery "flower" in the middle: while prepping the celery sticks, she chopped off the bottom in one fell swoop and was going to toss it when she noticed that it looked like a flower, so instead she placed it in the center and instantly added more visual interest. (She also commented on how cool it would be to use the celery "flower" as a printing block, as detailed in her post about vegetable printing.) This is just one example of how the most mundane objects can be beautiful if you stop to look at them, and it was a cheap (free!) way of adding a little more spark to the decor.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Time to Get Growing

Due to the tough economy and rising food prices, more people are turning to gardening as a major food source. I want this economic slump to end as much as anybody, but I'm happy to see a silver lining: more Americans will be eating fresh, local (as local as it gets!) food - good for our budgets, our waistlines, and our taste buds, too.

According to this article, flower seed sales are down, but vegetable seed sales are way up, and the National Gardening Association predicts that there will be 40% more homes with vegetable gardens this summer than there were two years ago.

Even the White House is getting its own vegetable garden (for the first time since World War II): an 1100-square-foot plot will host 55 varieties of plants, including spinach, chard, collards, kale, lettuces, hot peppers, tomatillos, berries, and herbs. The total cost for seeds, mulch, etc: $200.

Are you planning a garden this year? What will you grow?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Making Progress

Remember my New Year's resolutions? I'm not doing so well with the tea, but I am making progress with the fish. Last week I stocked up on frozen fish fillets, buying swai (Asian river catfish) and Cape Capensis (South African hake). I realize that both selections are about as far from local as you can get; I've got to do some research and see if I can find a store that sells affordable, local fish. In the meantime, I've got enough fish for the time being to last several weeks; I'm trying to start us off at fish dinner once per week and work our way up to twice weekly. Hopefully then we can maintain the habit.

I dipped the swai in a blend of fine cornmeal and Old Bay seasoning, then baked it at 450 for about twenty-five minutes - until cooked through and flaky. I also baked some potatoes from our latest CSA share and served the shredded root veggie salad on a bed of romaine. The fish was okay, but a little bland. I'm looking for more interesting ways to cook it, since it's apparently not the most flavorful fillet. Any ideas? I'm open to suggestions.

P.S. Happy St. Patrick's Day! Last year I made corned beef and cabbage. This year I'm making barbecue ribs, for no particular reason at all.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday breakfast

We had a lovely weekend here at Chez Choice of Pies. For once, we didn't have to go anywhere or do anything; Dan didn't have to put in any overtime hours, and I didn't have any deadlines. So we slept in, lounged around, caught up on some television shows, and took a nice long walk together. Sunday morning - actually, Sunday noon - we enjoyed a big breakfast.

I made biscuits (have I mentioned how much I LOVE BISCUITS?), using my usual King Arthur white whole wheat flour, and served them up with fluffy scrambled eggs and cantaloupe slices. If I were more a morning person, I would love to make us a big breakfast every day, but as a night owl and an insomniac, I'm usually getting my best sleep just as Dan is rolling out the door. Thank goodness for weekends (and 24-hour diners).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I yam what I yam...

... and that's a lady who loves her spinach. Baby spinach, especially. Fresh, local, organic baby spinach for the first time in months! This salad was amazing - just spinach, a shredded carrot, and some sprouts with a very lemony dressing (lemon juice + salt + EVOO). I had some last night with homemade cheese pizza (this dough recipe is still amazing - I made another quadruple batch yesterday and froze three extra balls).

I buy shredded mozzarella in a big two-pound bag for $7.99. Two pounds yields approximately eight cups, which is enough for at least eight pizzas, depending on how cheesy I'm feeling. I use tomato puree (one 28oz can has enough for at least twelve pizzas) and I buy the flour and yeast for the dough from the Coop bulk bins, so pizza is a very cheap meal (and if you go easy on the cheese, it's pretty healthy paired with a salad). Each pizza provides dinner and lunch the next day for the two of us, so I'd wager it comes out to less than fifty cents per serving. Even when we have to buy lettuce from the grocery store, I'm pretty sure pizza and a salad comes out to around $1.00 per serving. Definitely thrifty, tasty, and easy!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Winter CSA - March

Here's the March share that we picked up a few days ago. Notice anything... unusual?

That's right! GREENS!!! That's a bag of fresh baby spinach in the top left. Thank goodness for greenhouses (the ground's still frozen here). There's also a bag of alfalfa-radish sprouts, which have a slightly spicy bite. Other than that, we've got the winter usual - potatoes, carrots, daikon, celeriac, beets, and rutabagas. A few of the potatoes are huge, so I'm thinking they are good candidates for baking. Maybe we'll top them with some veggie chili.

Does anyone have any rutabaga recipes to share? I'd like to try something a bit different with these. I'll use most of the carrots, celeriac, and beets to make more of that amazing shredded salad, and I'm toying with a few different options for the daikon.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I've got a lot going on this week, including some deadlines for work, so I'm going to take a few days off to rest and give my food brain a chance to come alive again. I've really enjoyed the books that I picked up last week: they are so interesting and I'm getting some really fun recipe ideas! I think that they are just what I need to help rouse me from these mid-winter doldrums. I'll be back next week with a shot of our March CSA pickup and a book review or two.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cooking with Sarah: Bourbon Caramel Sauce

Here is video number two, in which I make the bourbon caramel sauce that I served with the chocolate cake and ice cream from my first Daring Bakers challenge. (I think it's better than the first video - what do you think? I know I felt more comfortable in front of the camera the second time around.)

Monday, March 2, 2009


I know I promised to post the caramel video today, but life got in the way. Specifically, Dartmouth announced their next president today, which means my poor hubby had to work all weekend to get video material ready for the announcement. He was spirited away to Boston on Friday (under cover of a signed confidentiality agreement) to tape an interview of the new guy, Dr. Kim, and then worked all weekend to edit the clips. So while he was racking up loads of overtime pay (yay!), my video is not quite yet ready to go. See, I do the first edit (the "rough cut"), but I'm reliant on Dan to finish it up by mixing the sound and correcting the color. (Since we shoot in our kitchen, which has only one window - a large skylight - the light color and quality can change drastically over the short period of time that we are actively shooting.) My saint of a husband is now putting on the finishing touches (instead of catching up on sleep, as he should be) so hopefully I can post the video tomorrow.

In the meantime, however, let's take a tea break.

Remember my resolution to drink more green tea? I'm not doing so well with that. I'm still drinking mostly black tea. I think I've had three cups of green tea so far this year. Bad Sarah! (I've also made no progress with the fish resolution, but that should change soon - pollock filets are on sale this week and I plan to stock up!)

But can you blame me, really, when such delectable teas as this Twinings Lady Grey are tempting me? The decorative flecks of cornflower almost make this too pretty to drink. I'll have to use this tea in some scones or tea cookies soon. I picked it up right after Christmas. Dan loves the tins that Twinings loose tea comes in because they are so useful for storing small items; we keep our laundry quarters in one.

The little tea house was a Christmas gift from my Aunt Gail. It's perfect for brewing a single cup and comes with a tiny tray to set it on when you take it out. The enormous round cup was a Listen Center find; after trolling Home Goods, the Christmas Tree Shop, and numerous other stores in search of the perfect oversized mug, I gave up - and promptly found this beauty for only a quarter.