A Cook’s New Year’s Resolutions

I never take much stock in New Year’s resolutions. I think last year it was “take more naps,” which if you know me is hilarious because I wake up at first light and fall asleep absolutely no later than 11 p.m. solidly and routinely. There’s no margin of error naps.

This year, I’m making a few food and cooking resolutions.

When I moved to London, I vowed to cook more widely. Lack of equipment has dictated much of what I can and cannot make. There were only so many pots and pans I was willing to lug overseas for a one-year stay. The Le Creuset cast iron Dutch oven, my prize piece, has found a temporary home in the back of one of my mother’s cupboards. The Cuisinart blender-food processor combo I got for Christmas two years ago is packed up neatly in a box in my best friend’s basement. Anything electrical is stashed somewhere in either New York or California, and other than a cookie sheet, no bakeware made the trip across the Atlantic.

I wanted to try my hand at Yorkshire puddings, but didn’t feel justified in buying new muffin tin pan in the U.K. when I have a perfectly good one sitting in my boyfriend’s mother’s basement back in San Francisco. Gnocchi was on my list of things to try making for the first time, and I did manage to pull together everything I needed for that one: Twice now I’ve made spinach ricotta gnocchi (or what some Italians might prefer to call “gnudi”). Still, I don’t think I’ve made as much headway as I would have liked by this point.

On that note, here are my cooking and food resolutions for 2008:

1. Make chicken liver pate.
I talk a big game about chicken liver pate, but if I told you I’ve made it before, I lied

2. Roll my own pasta. I don’t know if I will really accomplish this unless I have access to a hand crank machine (about $30) or a Kitchenaid mixer with pasta attachment, but I’ve seen pictures of Lidia Bastianich rolling pasta by hand with a wood pin, so anything is possible.

3. Buy one good bottle of wine
($30-$50 retail price range) to enjoy at home or while traveling with my boyfriend.

4. Eat offal at St. John Bread and Wine. (Ox heart is on the Winter 2008 menu.)

5. Buy and cook with an ingredient I’ve never heard of before
without first looking for something that fits that bill, i.e., stumble across something new in a market or while traveling and then later figure out how to use it.

6. Make one really impressive dessert.
An “impressive” dessert must contain several steps of preparation and be something that could potentially be royally screwed up. Examples include opera cake, strudel, cheesecake, or some elaborately decorated cake with homemade fondant.

Spotlight On Bodum

For about a year, I’ve had my eye on some particular glassware by Bodum, a company that consistently takes home design awards for its pieces. The glasses I’ve been ogling are from its Pavina collection of double-walled, hand blown glass, which keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.

The design is modern and sleek, very Scandinavian; the parent company is Swedish. I find the size of the glass in my hand to be just slightly larger than I prefer, similar to Riedel’s stemless wine glasses, but I’m willing to overlook it because of my high appreciation for their form-function balance.

The only reason I haven’t picked up a set for myself is because of how much I’ve been moving around. But because a good thing usually disappears the moment I set my sights on it, I’ve decided to grab a set now while I can and stash them at a friend’s house until I can move back to the U.S. for good and not worry about shipping glassware all over hell and back.

Two 12 oz. glasses sell for $19.95 directly from the company’s web site or at brick-and-mortar stores, including Crate & Barrel ($9.95 per glass) and Macy’s, which sells them for $19.98 for a set of two as “everyday value” or EDV items, meaning Macy’s discounts don’t apply.

What’s the Difference Between an Herb and a Spice?

And where does lemongrass fit in?

Hooray for Alton Brown on Good Eats, who recently answered a question that I think many of us would know the answer to if we ever thought about it hard and long enough: What’s the difference between an herb and a spice?

It’s funny; we can name them. We can put them in one or the other category, but we often do this without considering what the criteria is.

It’s simple.

An herb expresses its essential oils, and thus flavors and aromas, in the leaves, whereas a spice expresses its flavors elsewhere, such as in its seeds, roots, bark, or unripened berries. Ground ginger or turmeric are rhizomes=spice. Cilantro (or in British English, “fresh coriander”) is a leaf. Basil, parsley, bay leaf, mint? Herbs. Cinnamon, vanilla, cayenne, cumin, mustard seed? Spices.

What’s lemongrass? It’s a “grass,” and grass is leaf-like (chives are an herb, afterall), but it’s really more a stalk, which is a bit tough to actually eat; so in use, it’s more like a spice, right? Like a vanilla bean, it can be steeped. Well, Wikipedia refers to lemongrass as a herb in the first paragraph, and someone known as The Veggie Lady (http://www.theveggielady.com/lemongrass.php) named lemongrass the “herb” of the month at one point. So I guess it’s an herb, even though it’s not quite a leaf.

Struffoli: Learning to Cook From Discrepancies

One of my most basic tricks of learning to cook is to read many different recipes of the same dish before whipping it up for the first time. If you look at the variations that are out there, you come to realize which ingredients are essential and which might make the recipe come out better or more stylized or what have you.

I’m in Astoria, New York again for the holidays (I was here for a few weeks this summer, too), where I’m guessing there are more bakeries per capita than anywhere else in the United States. There are Greek bakeries with spinach pies, French bakeries with croissants and palm cookies, European generalist bakeries with long loafs of bread and fruit strudel, and Italian bakeries with Napoleons and cannolis.

With Christmas a few short weeks away, all the bakeries in this neighborhood have gorgeous displays of specialty items that customers should pre-order for the holidays. I was walking today and came across a window with struffoli: tiny fritter balls (think mini doughnut hole) that are stacked in a pyramid and covered in honey and candy sprinkles. My sister and I had struffoli years and years ago at a holiday get-together hosted by some people my father knew. For such an otherwise unmemorable event (Who were those people? Where did they live?) it seriously impressed me that my sister can describe in vivid detail those little honeyed balls 15 years later.

So when I saw the struffoli today, I first thought I might just place an order and pick up a tray a few days before Christmas when my sister comes to town. Then instead, I thought I’d look up some recipes and see if struffoli are something I might attempt to make myself.

The recipes I found varied pretty dramatically in terms of what goes into the dough. We always hear that baking is a science (though these doughnuts are technically fried, I still think struffoli go in the “baking” category), and that the ingredients must be exact. I would expect the honey-based syrup that’s poured on the mound of fritters might vary dramatically from recipe to recipe, but not the dough. Let’s compare some of the doughs.

The first really simple recipe I found, from grouprecipes.com, calls for only four ingredients, if you don’t count the oil for frying:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Vegetable oil for frying

The next one, from recipeland.com, calls for softened butter in the batter as well as baking powder:

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon butter, softened
½ cup sugar plus one teaspoon
2 cups flour, all-purpose
½ teaspoon baking powder

Mario Batali’s recipe, which makes a whopping 40 to 50 struffoli, uses no butter but a dozen eggs and Limoncello:

3½ cups all-purpose flour
6 egg yolks
6 eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon Limoncello
4 cups canola oil, for frying

Another recipe from About.com does include butter, though the quantity is not a proper measurement, and adds grain alcohol. Gross. Oh, and it specifies to fry the dough balls in olive oil rather than a flavorless one.

4 cups (400 g) flour
4 eggs
1 teaspoon grain alcohol
A chunk of butter the size of a small walnut
1 tablespoon sugar
The zest of a half a lemon, grated
The zest of half an orange, grated
1 pinch salt
1 pot full of olive oil for frying

These recipes vary quite considerably. But here’s my assessment. Obviously, the dough is flour-based, and no recipe calls for anything other than all purpose white flour, so that’s in. Second, I bet that using more eggs makes the struffoli fluffier and chewier. Normally, the amount of eggs I use in a recipe might change depending on whether or how I’m going to lighten the recipe for health reasons, but since these are once-a-year treats (and they’re already deep fried), I’m going to work off the recipes that call for a good amount of eggs. The same can be said for my feelings about the butter. Using a small bit of butter probably does add to the taste and texture, so it’s in.

Not all the recipes call for sugar, and the ones that do call for very little. I’m not worried about whether the struffoli will be sweet enough since they are bathed in honey before eaten; but in baking, sugar is considered a wet ingredient because it melts into a liquid once heated. So I am concerned about the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. Luckily, since I’m opting to use a recipe that’s heavy on eggs and includes a bit of butter, I doubt the dough will be too dry. (Additionally, some of the recipes indicated in the preparation section that more flour can be added while working the dough if it’s too sticky -- hence, the dough is not going to suffer from lack of sugar as wet ingredient.)

Two recipes call for alcohol: Limoncello in one and grain alcohol in the other. The alcohol will burn off during cooking, I’m sure. The Limoncello is likely only included for flavor. I honestly can’t make too much sense out of the grain alcohol, but maybe it thins out the batter just a bit more. Whatever the case, I hate the taste of Limoncello, so I’m going without alcohol. But somewhere in the back of my head I’ll remember this and might try the recipe with a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which makes all bakery items taste extra special in my opinion, and would have a chemical effect that’s pretty close to Limoncello or grain alcohol.

My point is that this recipe feels very flexible, but since it’s not something I’ve made before, I do want to refer to at least one recipe, even if I decide not to follow it to a tee. I’ll probably add a small amount of baking powder and a pinch of salt, too.

Here’s my version of the dough recipe, which I’m hoping to try out before December 25. Essentially, I’ve cut Batali’s recipe in half and then made a few other minor adjustments. I’ll update with notes after I test it out.

Struffoli Dough, jilleduffy's version
3 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt, whisked into the flour
½ teaspoon baking powder, whisked into the flour
Zest from ½ a lemon and ½ an orange
2 inches canola oil (or safflower or vegetable oil) in a deep pan, for frying

My "Mom's" Sausage Stuffing Recipe

According to my sister, this recipe is from Cooking Light magazine, though altered I'm sure by shorthand. Secret? Eggs!

Sausage Stuffing for Thanksgiving

1 ½ pounds peasant-style white bread (soft sandwich bread – not round loaf)
4 4oz. links sweet turkey sausage
2 teaspoons butter
1 pound mushrooms, cut
2 cups chopped onions
1 ¼ cups chopped celery
1 ¼ cups chopped carrots
½ cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced sage
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 large eggs
14oz. fat free less sodium chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400.

Trim crusts from bread and cut into cubes. Spread on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes.

In a large skillet, cook sausage links over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until brown on all sides. Remove and cut sausages into ¼ inch slices. (Don’t worry if the sausages aren’t cooked completely through; they will cook again in the oven.) Reserve the sausage slices and bread in a large mixing bowl.

Reduce oven temperature to 350.

Using the same skillet, melt the butter and add the mushrooms to sautée. Once soft, remove and reserve in mixing bowl with bread and sausage mixture.

Using the same skillet, coat it with a fresh layer of cooking spray and cook the onions, celery and carrots for about 5 minutes. Add the herbs and cooks 1 minute more.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and broth.
Add the bread mixture to the skillet. Add the broth and egg mixture and stir to combine.

Pour stuffing into a large baking dish and bake for 45 minutes at 350.
The stuffing (or “dressing”) can be served as-is, or, instead of baking separately, it can be baked inside a bird.