pizza with pecorino and fried egg

This is my attempt to recreate Otto’s exquisite Pane Frattau pizza – pizza with tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, and, the part that elicited an “Ew” from my mother when I described it to her, a fried egg. My mother is wrong, by the way – the combination of the egg yolk and the sharp pecorino is perfect in every way.

Otto is Mario Batali’s most affordable NYC restaurant (great for my limited budget!). The last time I was there, as we were waiting to be seated, I was staring off into space (a habit that made my parents worry about me as a small child), and noticed a pair of orange Crocs on a pair of feet – I thought to myself, “Who can have such bad taste to wear Crocs to this nice restaurtant?” and looked up to see Mario himself, who of course is known for his orange Crocs. I guess Mario can wear whatever shoes he likes. If you ever visit Otto (which you should if you find yourself in the area – every pizza I have tried there has been wonderful), I wouldn’t recommend dining in Crocs yourself.

I did a few runs of this pizza before I managed to get it right – I wasn’t sure exactly how much pecorino I should use, but I finally decided to use a whole lot of it (less vague quantity can be found in the recipe below). Pecorino is a strongly flavored cheese – like the more well-recognized parmigiano, it is a hard cheese with a sharp flavor. It should be made from sheep’s milk.

The first time I ever had cheese made from sheep’s milk was at a cheese and wine tasting shortly after I had moved to Cambridge (similar to the chocolate tasting I described a few posts ago). The tasting was run by my college’s head of the catering department, who was very enthusiastic indeed (though in an understated British way) about his cheeses. When he got to describing the sheep’s cheese (I can’t remember what kind it was exactly), he informed us, with great gusto in his voice, “You can really taste the animal in this one.” I was a little freaked out by both the content of the statement and the excitement with which it was said. Was I ready to taste the animal? My cheese world until then had largely consisted of American cheese singles, and pre-grated yellow-dyed “cheddar” or mozzerella. I ate only a tiny sliver, and decided that was brave enough.

My cheese-appreciation is more advanced these days (thanks partially to that cheese-tasting), and I enjoy all kinds of sheep’s cheese, including the wonderful manchego, and the pecorino on this pizza. The moral of this story is that you want to be able to taste the animal, as it were, on this pizza – the flavor of that pecorino should be loud and clear.

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pizza basics – dough, sauce, topping ideas

My family used to make pizza at home from time to time when I was growing up, but it generally involved one of those Boboli pre-cooked crusts, and pizza sauce from a jar. Making one’s own crust and sauce seemed incredibly intimidating then, but I am here today to tell you that it is really not. A homemade pizza that is made literally from scratch (starting with just flour, yeast, and water) will make you feel deservedly proud of yourself. Pizza is one of those things (like quiche, for me at least) that looks truly impressive when it comes out of the oven – the finished product looks just that, finished, and nothing like the pile of raw ingredients you started with.

I’ve broken the process down into several steps, and one good thing is that the dough and sauce recipe make enough for several pizzas. So once you get around to making the second pizza, it will feel almost as easy as starting with pre-made crust and sauce, because they will already be made – by you, and not by some food factory that adds lots of weird, unpronounceable ingredients.

The recipes follow below the fold. Got any delicious topping ideas of your own? Feel free to share in the comments! Sometime soon I want to try a white pizza with goat cheese, caramelized onions, and possibly some prosciutto slivers myself…

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dark chocolate and raspberry jam crêpes

When I was at Cambridge, the graduate student organization at my college would often plan tastings – of wine, cheese, beer, regional cuisines, and, best of all, chocolate. I went to a chocolate tasting towards the end of my time there, the night before one of my exams – I figured if I didn’t know everything I needed to know for the exam by that point, I was pretty much screwed anyway, so why not give my brain a rest and eat some chocolate? It turned out to be a very good plan indeed, as the exam I took the next morning received the highest marks of all.

The tasting was organized by a PhD student in the sciences, and she had a range of chocolate bars for us to try. I didn’t know much about chocolate prior to this (a few years back when I was backpacking around Europe, I walked out of a chocolatier in Zurich without buying anything because I thought it was too expensive, and that I could enjoy Swiss chocolate just as well by buying candy bars at the grocery stores). The tasting completely changed my approach to chocolate. The most exciting part was that a chocolatier from nearby Newmarket had brought some of her handcrafted chocolates for us to try (for anyone who lives in the area, the place was called Artistry in Cocoa, and is definitely worth giving a try). I can’t remember all of the chocolates that clearly by now, but I do remember one with a honey-cream-cumin filling (the flavors go together surprisingly well), one with an Earl Grey chocolate cream interior, and, my favorite of all, one with a center of raspberry jam made from raspberries grown in her mother’s backyard that had a coating of 98% chocolate to balance the sweetness of the jam.

Maybe I feel this way because I was only able to have one or two of these chocolates, and because I may never have one again as Newmarket is now nowhere close to where I live, but it resides in my memory as one of the best chocolates I’ve ever had.

All of that was a long, roundabout way of introducing these crêpes. For some reason I started thinking about those chocolates again the other day (it’s been nearly three years since I had them), and I realized that, though I can neither go to Newmarket nor make my own chocolates, I could recreate that flavor combination using the chocolate crêpes I posted awhile ago (then with a Nutella filling). I filled them with raspberry jam and then, to ramp up the bitter chocolate flavor, melted unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate together to garnish the crêpes. A little bit of powdered sugar made them pretty enough to serve to guests without compromising the intensity of the chocolate, and I came as close as I’ve come in the last four years to experiencing those magical chocolates again.

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sausage and potato gratin

This is a comforting dinner for the miserably chilly, wet days we’re having here in the northeast at the moment – a one-dish meal of meat and potatoes that is flavorful and satisfying (though you could also have something green on the side to make this a bit healthier!). It is pretty simple to make – other than briefly boiling the potatoes and sauteeing the onions, you just throw everything into the casserole dish and throw (or gently place) the casserole dish into the oven. This is thus a great weeknight dinner option, especially if you do some of the prep work the night before to save yourself some time – chopping the onions, peeling the potatoes, or grating the cheese, for example. If you’re only cooking for a few people, it will leave plenty of leftovers, which are just as delicious reheated as when fresh out of the oven.

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I’ve been searching for a good hummus recipe for several years now, and have tried quite a few along the way that didn’t make the cut – one was too acidic, another just plain bland. I’ve eaten hummus at many different restaurants and always liked it, and I’ve even enjoyed the mass-produced stuff from the grocery store, so it seemed like it shouldn’t be that hard to find a decent recipe. Much thanks (again) to Cook’s Illustrated, I finally have. I’m not quite sure what made the difference in this recipe – I think it uses a lot more tahini than previous ones. The others I used were also more high maintenance, calling for dried chickpeas that then had to be soaked and cooked down for hours, which was very tiresome, but the recipes claimed that the outcome would be far superior to any recipe involving canned chickpeas. I trusted them, and was let down despite all my hard chickpea-soaking labor.

This recipe calls for canned chickpeas, and is thus much faster, much less annoying to make, and, most importantly, much creamier (I know some people like chunky hummus, but I am not one of those people). It has just the balance of flavors I was looking for, along with the right texture, and thus my quest for the perfect basic hummus recipe is now ended. I am trying to make more healthy homemade snacks to have around whenever I get sudden snacking urges. It doesn’t take all that much work to whip up some hummus or salsa, and then when you get hungry in the afternoon, your healthy snack is already there, waiting for you, reaching out a helping hand to keep you from eating something processed and full of weird artificial crap – or if you forget about it (as I often seem to do with homemade healthy snacks) and let it mold, it may actually reach out a real and not metaphorical helping hand…

For what it’s worth, the weird artificial crap may never mold, which is even scarier. And to move away from that creepy image, I’ll end this little discussion with a nice (non-moldy) picture, before we get to the recipe.

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murgh makhani (butter chicken)

Butter chicken is a pretty common offering at Indian restaurants, and is a good way to ease into Indian food if you haven’t tried much of it yet – it is leftover tandoori chicken in a luxuriously creamy and spicy tomato sauce. The name is a bit deceptive, and makes it sound like a pretty boring meal of chicken cooked in plain butter. A lot more than butter goes into the sauce, but for some reason it is named after the butter swirled in at the very end, which adds an extra bit of creaminess to the sauce.

Butter chicken isn’t difficult, but it is time-consuming, since you need to first make tandoori chicken. Tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked in a tandoor, a clay oven that will get as hot as 900 degrees F. Most recipes for the home cook simply instruct you to heat the oven to its highest setting (generally around 500F). The recipe I ended up using for the tandoori chicken recommended baking it at a much lower temperature – the justification for this was that you can’t really recreate tandoori chicken at home, and cooking it at 500 degrees ends up drying the chicken out, so why not just admit the inadequacies of your oven and enjoy tender chicken instead? I was pleased with the results; I’ve had butter chicken from restaurants and that I have made myself with dried-out chicken. Baking the chicken at a lower temperature solved that problem, as the chicken stayed nice and tender, though it did seem a little less authentic. Read the rest of this entry »

penne alla vodka

I don’t think I’d ever had/heard of vodka sauce before moving to the Northeast. For the similarly uninitiated, vodka sauce is a basic tomato sauce, plus vodka, plus some heavy cream, and it is generally served over penne. One can’t really single out the flavor that the vodka contributes, but it adds a certain something that makes the pasta more exciting than just a tomato or tomato-cream sauce.

I was tired and scatterbrained last night as I was preparing this, and started off by nearly burning the pancetta after overheating the pan. Very little of the pancetta actually burned, but somehow this was enough to send billowing smoke all over the apartment, forcing us to open a window to the 15 degree weather outside. I later tried to put all four servings of sauce onto the two servings of pasta we were eating, and had to fish the pasta out of the sauce since I wanted to save some sauce for tonight. But then, still forgetting that I had intended for there to be leftovers, I dumped all the pancetta into the pasta that we ate last night, meaning there will be no pancetta tonight. After that, I made a comically disastrous attempt at whole wheat pitas, which went wrong in too many ways to list. If that had been my first time working with yeast doughs, I’d probably vow never to deal with yeast again. The pitas are more or less edible, although instead of being perfectly round, as the picture from the recipe I used suggested they should look, they are more like weird alien amoebas. Oh well, not every cooking experiment can go smoothly. In any case, despite creating one disaster after another last night, this sauce came out perfect – smooth, flavorful, a little spicy. And, yes, I think your serving size should be a lot bigger than the one shown in the picture. Read the rest of this entry »