Gingerbread Houses (and other structures)

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I have confessed my love for gingerbread many times, but I am not sure if you know about my obsession with gingerbread construction. It is problematic at best.

It started when I was a pastry chef, making centerpieces for the restaurants I worked in. Now our projects represent our summer vacation. Guess where we went this year …
mt rushmore
Don’t feel compelled to go crazy like me. (I once did the Taj Mahal.) Simple houses are fine, too.

The best gingerbread for construction is made with cheap but fragrant materials. I use shortening instead of butter because I don’t plan to eat it. But if you use this recipe for edible gingerbread men, substitute butter for the shortening, and cut the spice quantity in half. Here I have added more spice than I would want to eat (for its room-freshening ability).

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 TB. cinnamon
1 TB. ginger
1 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup water

METHOD

  1. Beat together shortening and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add molasses and mix to incorporate.
  2. Sift together dry ingredients and add them alternately with the water to the molasses mixture .
  3. Divide the dough evenly into thirds, then press each piece between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll with a rolling pin to create an even sheet of dough about 1/4-inch thick. Chill sheets in the fridge or freezer until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place one parchment-packaged sheet of dough on a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top piece of parchment. Cut out the pattern pieces for your structure. To keep them in shape, remove the excess dough around them rather than moving the pieces themselves. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need. Excess dough can be re-rolled, chilled, and cut as needed.
  5. Bake pieces until slightly puffed and firm, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, make the Royal Icing ‘glue’.

Royal Icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1-1/2 to 2 lb. powdered sugar, sifted

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to medium peaks. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until the icing is thick and holds its shape. (The amount needed will vary with sugar brands, and the moisture content of the egg whites.) Icing can be thinned (if necessary) with a few drops of water.

  1. Assemble the structure on a serving platter or stiff board. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and fill the bag halfway with royal icing. Pipe a fat strip along the wrong side of the vertical edges of the front of the house. The two side pieces are then butted up against these strips of icing and held in place for 30-60 seconds. Re-enforce the inside joint with a bit more icing. Pipe similar strips on the wrong side of the back of the house, and press the back wall up against the two side pieces. Allow to set and harden for at least 1 hour.
  2. Pipe icing along one side of the roof line, and set one roof piece on top. Allow to set 30-60 minutes. Repeat on the other side of the roof. Again, allow to set 30-60 minutes.
  3. Use remaining icing to decorate your house as you see fit. Glue on candies, make icing icicles, pipe architectural features, or leave it simple and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar snow.

Fresh Pasta

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pasta fresh
When I was in culinary school, back in the olden days, my Italian instructor made pasta by hand. He rolled it out with a rolling pin, then coiled it up and sliced it with a knife into linguini. It looked so easy that I went home that night and tried it myself. I was impressed with myself, but my friends refused to eat it. I believe the exact words were “inedible”. It seems that I didn’t roll the dough out quite thin enough, so as they cooked, they puffed up into semolina pontoons. I suggest purchasing a pasta machine for best results (and to keep your friends). Plus, I tried to get fancy by making squid ink black pasta (I think it must have been Halloween), and I wasn’t quite ready for such leaps of creativity. My cat liked it though.

I have been thinking a lot about ravioli.  A lot.  But before we can make the ravioli, we need to get a grip on homemade pasta. Make this first recipe into fettuccini, and top it with a simple sauce.  (Brown Butter!!!!!)  Or use it in sheets to create the world’s best lasagna. Next week, we will talk about pasta shapes and fillings.

INGREDIENTS

1-3/4 cups semolina flour (also sometimes called pasta flour)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4-1/2 cup water – as needed

METHOD

  1. In a large bowl, combine semolina and eggs, and mix until the egg is well absorbed. Add water slowly, a little at a time, and stir until a firm, dry dough is formed. The dough should look crumbly, but hold together when compressed. Knead for 3-4 minutes, until smooth.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.
  2.  Divide the dough into three portions. Work with one at a time, and keep the rest refrigerated. Run the dough through the pasta machine rollers, starting at its widest setting (usually #1).   Pass the dough through the rollers, fold it, and pass it through again, 4-5 times on the widest setting. As you do this, you will notice that it is becoming smoother, and more manageable. The machine is essentially kneading the dough. Try to keep the strip of dough from getting too wide by folding it lengthwise occasionally. When it is perfectly smooth, start passing it through each descending width of the machine. Make only one pass through each number, unless you encounter a tear or hole. Dust with extra semolina as needed to prevent sticking. As the dough gets longer and longer, cut it in half so you’ll have manageable sized strips to work with. When you have reached the thinnest width (usually #7) the pasta is ready to cut, form, or cook.
  3. Pass dough sheets through the cutter attachment of the pasta machine, or use any number of cutting tools, including pizza/pastry wheels, embossed rolling pins, or a chitarra (a pasta “guitar”). Dry long strands by hanging over a dowel (or a fancy pasta drying rack) or toss strands immediately in more semolina and set aside in loose piles. Continue with remaining dough.
  4. To cook fresh pasta, use an extra large pot of boiling salted water. At the rolling boil, add pasta, stir, and cook 1-2 minutes. Drain and dress as desired.

chitarra-IMG_4560b

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Browned Butter and Amoretti

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pumpkin raviI am continuing my campaign against everything “Pumpkin Spiced.”  My strategy is to provide actual pumpkin foods, which I adore.

If you read the last post, you are now ready to graduate from homemade noodles to homemade stuffed pasta.   Congratulations!

The first time I heard of these raviolis, they sounded kinda gross to me. I grew up knowing pumpkin only in pie, and the idea of a savory application was super-weird. But I was raised right, so I kept my opinions to myself, and I tried them. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between me and the squash family.

The sweet creamy texture of roasted squash is so perfectly paired with browned butter and sage – the two flavors melt together in my mouth like … like butter. To top it off, these ravioli are finished with a crumbling of an amoretti cookie or almond biscotti, a stroke of genius that I can only attribute to a culinary savant. Whoever you are, I am not worthy. Make this filling first, and let it cool while you make the fresh pasta recipe from last week. Invite all your friends over for a autumnal feast, then make them do the dishes.
Happy Fall!

INGREDIENTS

1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 recipe pasta dough
4 ounces (1 stick unsalted butter)
3-4 leaves fresh sage

3-4 amoretti cookies or almond biscotti, crushed

1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

METHOD

  1. Preheat oven to 450˚F. Toss cubed squash with olive oil, bay, and thyme, and spread onto a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast until golden brown and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir squash occasionally for even browning. Cool completely.
  2. Transfer cooled squash to a food processor, and blend. Add eggs, cream, salt and pepper, and process to a smooth puree. Set aside.
  3. Roll out 2 sheets of pasta dough to the thinnest setting of your pasta machine. Brush one sheet with water, and use a teaspoon to place equal mounds of puree, about 2 inches apart, down the length of the sheet. Lay the second sheet of pasta directly on top of the first, and press around the mounds of pumpkin to seal the dough. Us a cookie cutter, pastry wheel, or knife to cut out the ravioli, and set them aside on a baking sheet dusted lightly with semolina. (Do not overlap moist, fresh ravioli). Repeat with remaining dough. Scraps of dough can also be easily re-rolled.
  4. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat melt butter with sage. Let butter foam,  then let the solids sink to the bottom and brown before removing the pan from the heat. Set aside.
  5. Bring a huge pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add raviolis carefully. The raviolis will sink to the bottom, and slowly make their way back to the surface. When they come back up,  in about 3-4 minutes, they are done. Drain them well. Return the brown butter pan briefly to the heat to re-warm, then add drained ravioli. Toss to coat, then serve with a sprinkling of crushed amoretti, and a dust of Parmesan.

pumpkin rav

Buerre Noisette

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brown butter
Browned butter is possibly the best sauce on earth. It is incredibly simple, yet most cooks are too timid to get at its full potential. We are accustomed to thinking that anything brown or black is burned. Not so with browned butter.

The French name means nutty butter because the milk solids sink to the bottom and take on a nutty flavor. If you have the guts to let it get black, you have buerre noir, and a heap’n help’n of flavor.

Simply melt the butter over med-high heat. A sauté pan is best, as the solids sink quickly to the bottom. Do not stir, just watch and wait. You will see the fat and solids separate. Some will sink, and some will float at first. Keep the heat on and eventually they will all end up on the bottom, browning nicely. That’s it!

Browned butter makes a great sauce for all kinds of foods including vegetables, fish, potatoes, and noodles. It can also be chilled and used in cake and cookie recipes for incredible, unexpected flavor.

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