Mint-Brownie Gelato

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Io Saturnalia, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa, et cetera

It's almost the new year.  I remember when the years seemed to slug on and on forever, how it seemed I would die of anticipation before another Christmas rolled around.  Not to be melodramatic, but I've been feeling old lately - not middle-age-crisis old, but old enough that my little cousins are beginning to consider me more of a grown-up now.  But at least I can still play hide-and-go-seek with the best of them (I had to be summoned by olly olly oxen free from one of my hiding spots this year) even with my nineteen-year-old, nearly six-foot frame (darn that last inch >.<), I still host the post-Christmas sleepover with my younger cousins, and I still run around with them and allow them to pummel me (while their parents chat and drink downstairs).  

So Christmas came and went as it always does, with me feeling just a wee bit older than usual.   We host my mom's side of the family for Christmas each year, with a sit-down first dinner (i.e. around two o'clock), see-what-else-you-can-eat second dinner (i.e. leftovers from first dinner plus really awesome ribs which my dad makes), and let's-commence-with-the-final-food-coma dessert (i.e. ice cream sundaes and various other pastries provided in a pot-luck style).  Now, I do help my dad with first dinner, especially with the side dishes.  He does most of second dinner, since I'm usually chasing small children around and trying to prevent them from drawing with Expo markers on the walls (this goal was not achieved this year... we have some lovely black scribbles in the study now). But dessert, the sundae bar of wonders: this is my arena.  

A while back, I received The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto as a gift.  Since then, when I feel compelled to break out my ice cream maker, I almost always turn to this compilation of gelatos, sorbettos, sauces, and pastries.  Gelato differs from ice cream in terms of ratios: the former tends to have more egg yolks and milk, and less cream, than the latter; moreover, gelato does not involve the incorporation of air like ice cream does (aside from the small amount introduced during the churning process), making for a denser product.  Premium ice creams only contain a small amount of air, while cheaper products contain large amounts (so you're not necessarily getting more ice cream, just more volume).  Anyway, with gelatos and ice creams, your base ingredients consist of egg yolks, milk, cream, and sugar.  You can make a pretty darn tasty vanilla by adding a little extract to this (real vanilla extract, if you please), or you can get fancy with orange zest, cardamom, star anise, and cinnamon.  I made this combination for the Christmas sundae bar this year by infusing the milk and cream with whole cardamom pods and star anise, then making the custard with the zest and cinnamon added in.  

I think the orange-cardamom gelato was pretty successful, but it would've been better with less anise (I should've used only one star, or pericarp, rather than two to perfume the milk-cream).  My mint-brownie gelato concoction, however, was wildly successful - it was a struggle not to eat the whole batch myself.  I spied the recipe for mint-chip gelato in Ciao Bella, which was simply the plain base spiked with mint extract and laced with chocolate chunks... And for some reason, I imagined the chocolate chunks as brownie chunks instead.  Genius.  I'm sure it's been done before, but I was very pleased with myself for thinking of it.  Ciao Bella has a wonderful recipe for brownies, and it makes a ton of them - I was left with two-thirds of them for munching.  This summer I found a lovely chocolate sauce recipe that I used to make chocolate milk after crew practice, and this is what I used for this year's sundae bar.  In the past I've also made the caramel sauce from Ciao Bella, but this year I decided to forgo that addition considering the gelato offerings.  With a little homemade whipped cream, and maybe some shards of peppermint patties if you're feeling adventurous, this hot fudge mint-brownie sundae is heavenly.    

Mint-Brownie Gelato

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon mint extract

2 sticks unsalted butter
8 ounces semisweet baking chocolate
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar

Combine the milk and cream in a heavy-bottom saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat until it reaches 170° F.  If you don't have a thermometer, this is when little bubbles begin to form - so you don't want it to be boiling, or even simmering really.  Be sure to stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming or the bottom from burning.  While the milk is warming up, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until smooth, then slowly whisk in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow.  

Once the milk has come up to temperature, turn off the heat and temper the yolks.  This just means that we want to add, slowly, some of the hot liquid to the eggs in order to bring them up to temperature.  We do this to avoid scrambling the eggs, since we want to thicken the custard with them, not have pieces of them floating around.  I usually put my bowl of yolks on a towel to prevent the bowl from moving around while I simultaneously whisk and pour (if you have an extra pair of hands lying around, its owner could hold the bowl for you).  So, begin whisking the yolks, then start pouring in a ladel-full of hot milk-cream while you keep whisking.  Add another ladel-full, then slowly pour this egg mixture into the milk-cream pot while whisking.

Now that you have the milk, cream, eggs, and sugar in your pot, turn the heat on to low and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the custard reaches 185° F.  If you don't have a thermometer, check the custard's doneness by dunking your wooden spoon into the custard, holding the spoon with the convex side facing you (so the edge is facing down at the pot), and wipe your fingertip horizontally through the middle of the custard on the spoon.  The remaining custard should not begin to drip or slide when you do this, and it should leave a definite line where your finger had been.  This means it has thickened sufficiently.  Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, then cool completely in the refrigerator, ~4 hours.  

While that's cooling, jump on those brownies.  Preheat the oven to 350° F and chop the chocolate into small shards.  Either in the microwave or a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter together, then let cool slightly.  In a small bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, and salt together.  In a large bowl, beat the eggs on low speed until smooth, then slowly add in the sugar until incorporated.  Beat the eggs and sugar on medium speed until the mixture is pale yellow and thick.  Reduce the speed again and add in the butter-chocolate mixture.  Now mix in the flour, cocoa, and salt until just combined.  I was able to fill one 13x9 inch pan and one 9x9 inch pan, but you could try other sizes.  Bake ~20 minutes (depending on your pans) until set, then cool completely.  

Cut half of the brownies from the 13x9 inch pan into small chunks, about 1/2 inch cubes, then put them in the freezer until they've hardened.  Remove your chilled custard from the fridge, then add in the mint extract.  Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Once it's almost done, ~1 minute left, slowly add the frozen brownie chunks and let the ice cream maker churn them into the frozen custard.  Freeze until solid, then serve with hot fudge and whipped cream.  


Ukrainian Babka

About that Russian-Ukrainian dinner party on Saturday... It went swimmingly!  There was a lot of cooking to be done, so I won't post all of the recipes (after all, some of them are family secrets); however, I'll give you a little cultural-gastronomical explanation for each item on the menu, and include some pieces of Zaharchuk family tradition too.  Also, I'll have a hand in preparing Christmas dinner in a couple more days, so there will be plenty more posts to come about that.

To provide context for this meal, you must know that I am of Ukrainian origin; however, my great grandparents [on my dad's side], who arrived in America from Ukraine, spoke Russian, not Ukrainian.  My desire to connect with these cultural roots compelled my decision to study the Russian language in college.  I derive personal significance from both Russian and Ukrainian food, music, mores, et cetera, even though some animosity has existed (and probably still exists to some extent) between the two countries.  I really enjoyed cooking and presenting this meal (I made everything myself, except the pierogies and the kielbasa with kapusta; my dad is responsible for those) not only because I clearly love to cook, but also because it constituted a rite of passage for me.  In a way, I am now the keeper of the family history.  These aren't simply recipes: they capture that which defines me, and the rest of my family, as Zaharchuk.

The Menu:

Borscht - You're probably familiar with this beet soup.  Ukrainian borscht always has meat in it, while the Russian version doesn't.  I made Russian borscht from Natasha's Kitchen, with a couple adaptations, and I'm smitten by it.  I shall be eating the leftovers for the next several days with a lovely dollop of sour cream (we all know how I feel about this condiment).  Also, please don't pronounce the at the end of borscht, which in Russian characters is борщ, and there's certainly no sound.

Blintz (Ukrainian) - These are a Zaharchuk family classic.  I actually wrote my college essay for the common app about making these with my dad, and specifically about the pan we use to cook them.  They're little crepes filled with a cheese mixture and baked, served with sour cream and/or strawberries.  To give you an idea of what this pan, and this recipe, mean to my family, let me give you an excerpt from that essay:
The blintz pan found its way into my family in 1951, a gift at the wedding of my grandparents Evelyn Lukashewitz and Alexander Zaharchuk.  Together they carried on the tradition of Russian Orthodox Easter.  Grandma Z made all the classics[...] When she passed away, the tradition continued through my father.
Keep in mind that this pan probably cost 75 cents back then, and maybe 10 dollars now; but man, this charred, warped little pan sure cooks a crepe better than any Teflon one could.

Salmon Kulebiaka (Russian) - I'd never made this dish before, but we had a pescatarian among us so I was obliged to make something with fish.  It's sort of like a beef wellington, with lemon-mushroom rice, salmon, and hard-boiled eggs wrapped in puff pastry and baked.  I used Michael Symon's recipe... He's an Iron Chef, so I trusted him, and to great success.

Pierogies/Vareniki/Pelmeni (Ukrainian) - These are another Zaharchuk family tradition, and what's not to like about them?  Pasta stuffed with cheese and potatoes, and panfried with caramlized onions and butter.  Come on.  Then you eat them with sour cream!  They're delightful.  The reason why I have several names listed is because, well, they have several names.  Pelmeni is the Russian name for these dumplings, and they can be filled with a myriad of fillings.  Vareniki is what they're called in Ukrainian, but some dialects refer to them as pierogies, which is what my grandparents called them most often.  No matter what you call them, they're delicious.

Roasted Root Vegetables - Not too much to say about these, just a variety of root vegetables (turnip, butternut squash, sweet potato, carrot, and parsnip) roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Russian cuisine makes use of a lot of these hearty veggies, since it's relatively easy to grow them and keep them through the harsh winters.  Fun fact: the most commonly used cooking oil in Russia is sunflower oil, which I haven't seen in the states.

Kielbasa with Kapusta - Kielbasa is an Eastern European sausage, which I've found either fresh or smoked.  For this dinner, my dad cooked the smoked version, but both are scrumptious.  Kapusta is braised, pickled cabbage which sometimes becomes a pierogie filling in my family.  I didn't used to like this, but it's grown on me over the years, and it's not very difficult to make.  It's pretty time-consuming to make, but not compared to the babka!

Babka with Cinipaska (Ukrainian) - Babka is a Ukrainian sweet bread and another Zaharchuk favorite.  Apparently, babka is meant to be flavored with saffron (which is one of the most expensive spices by weight in the world, if not the most expensive); however, my dad didn't discover this until last year or so, since my grandmother's recipe didn't have any mention of saffron.  Neither she nor her mother could afford such a luxurious spice, so after all these years my dad and I have been trying to figure out the proper amount to add into our recipe.  We serve it toasted with cinipaska, which is a sweet cream cheese spread.  I personally like it toasted with jam, especially raspberry jam, but the cinipaska is also delicious.  My dad came to the realization that it's basically uncooked cheesecake, so he's kind of a huge fan.  The recipes for both of these are below.

Rogaliki (Russian) - I'd never heard of these darling cookies until I found them on Natasha's Kitchen while in pursuit of Russian desserts.  They taste yeasty like crescent rolls, but with the toothsome texture of a shortbread cookie, and have a little pocket of fruit preserves in the middle.  I made mine with cherry preserves.

Morozhenoe (Russian) - This is the transliterated word for ice cream, but this Russian verison is made differently from American ice cream.  Essentially, you make a very loose whipped cream, and once the cream starts to thicken, you add in a can of sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest, then freeze it in a mold.  After a stir two hours into the freezing and another eight hours to solidify, I just removed it from the mold and sliced it into rectangles.  The texture is slightly more icy than the American version, but it's darn tasty, and it doesn't even require an ice cream machine.  I found this recipe in Russian and tested my language skills by following the instructions with using a dictionary as little as possible.  I think I was successful.


1/2 cup warm water (90-100° F)
1/2 teaspoon and 3/4 cup sugar, divided
1 1/2 packs (3 3/8 teaspoon=3/8 ounce) active dry yeast
3/4 - 1 cup golden raisins, depending on your taste
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 ounce (a pinch) saffron (optional)
3 large eggs
1 stick butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

Warm some water in a kettle or the microwave until it reaches 90-100° F.  If you don't have a thermometer, dunk your finger into the water to test it (it should feel like the temperature of hot tub water).  Stir in the sugar and yeast, then let it proof for ~15 minutes.  Meanwhile, boil ~3/4 cup water and soak the raisins.

While the raisins are soaking and the yeast is proofing, scald the milk over medium heat (this just means bringing the milk up to a simmer) and be sure to stir frequently to keep a skin from forming and the bottom from burning.  If a skin does form, it's not a big deal, just stir it back into the milk.  Once it's simmering, add the saffron and let it purfume the milk.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, butter, salt, and vanilla.  Once the yeast has proofed and the milk has cooled to 90-100° F, whisk these into the wet ingredients as well.  From here I usually use a wooden spoon to add in the flour, one cup at a time.  After the first three cups, drain the raisins and stir those in as well.  Continue adding the flour until it's completely combined.

On a clean counter or cutting board, generously dusted with flour, knead the dough.  You'll end up adding ~1 cup of flour during this kneading process, so keep your flour container handy.  Alternately, you could knead this dough in a mixer fitted with a dough hook, but I really enjoy the process of kneading bread.  It does take ~15 minutes to knead the dough properly by hand, so get those muscles ready.  You'll know it's done when the dough is tacky, but not sticky, it's soft, and when you tear off a small piece and stretch it with your fingers, it doesn't rip (this is called the window-pane test).  Place the dough into a well-oiled bowl, turn the ball of dough around in the oil to coat.  Cover with a towel and let rise 90-120 minutes in a warm place (I set my oven to 90° F).

After the first rise, the dough will have doubled in size.  Punch down the dough (basically just push the air out) and place on a clean, well-floured counter or cutting board.  Babka is traditionally made in a tall cylindrical shape.  My dad designated a large tin can, which used to contain tomatoes I believe, for this purpose; however, loaf pans are also perfectly fine.  This recipe yields two loaf pans and a large cylinder-shaped container.  Butter and flour your pans of choice, cut the babka to size, shape, and place into the prepared pans.  Let them rise again for 60-90 minutes until they double again

Bake the loaves in a 400° F oven for ~15 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325° F for another ~30-45 minutes.  If the loaves begin to brown too much, tent them with tin foil (but don't seal down the foil, you'll prevent the steam from escaping, and you don't want a soggy loaf).  When you tap the top of the loaf with your knuckles, it should sound hollow when it's done.  Remove the loaves from the oven, let cool in the pans until you can handle them, then cool completely on a rack.  Meanwhile, pull together the cinipaska:

3/4 pound cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup golden raisins

Cream together the cream cheese and butter, then stir in the sour cream and sugar.  Once everything is combined, add in the golden raisins.  After the babka has cooled, rub the top with softened butter, then slice.  I like to toast the babka and spread raspberry jam on it, but it's also great either toasted or not toasted with cinipaska.


Butternut Squash Soup

This is Frankie (my cousin, he's 8), helping me cut out sugar cookie candycanes! 
I've done a lot of cooking and baking these past few days since I've been home.  I really missed my kitchen with all of its equipment and cleanliness (thanks mom) and granite countertops and space - all of the space I need to have multiple food projects going and watch movies/shows with my mom's iPad at the same time.  I've been testing recipes for her, since she and my dad participate in an international dinner "club" (she hesitates to call it a club but... it's a club) with their friends every month, and this Saturday it's their turn to cook the meal.  So you'll all be hearing about that later this week.  In any case, I've gone America's Test Kitchen for the past couple days.  But last night I slept over at my cousin Frankie's house with my Auntie Emy and Uncle Frank, so no more ATK for now; however, we did cook and bake a lot - Ina Garten's ginger cookies, sugar cookies decorated with royal icing, my Nutella cake, and my butternut squash soup (with grilled cheese to go with it, mmmm).

They're supposed to be candycanes but I made a dinosaur.  Rawr. 

The butternut squash soup is my own recipe.  I've been fiddling with different ingredients for a long time, and last night's version turned out really well.  I've tried such additions as cocoa powder (weird, but good), soy sauce, garlic, et cetera, but I found that orange zest and juice do the trick.  I usually don't like to post about recipes that require expensive equipment to which some people don't have access.  But this soup is such a favorite of mine that I had to share it... You need a blender or food-processor to purée the final product (I imagine a food mill would also work, but I haven't tried it).  Ginger and cumin are my two favorite spices, and they work well together here with the squash and hint of citrus.  If I'd had fresh ginger I would've used it in place of the dry by grating in a tablespoon-ish, so if you are a ginger fan like I am then I'd recommend that (my mom dislikes ginger but really enjoys this soup when I make it for her, so don't be discouraged from this recipe).  It also takes less than an hour from start to finish... Just be careful when you're loading your blender/food-processor (only fill it up 1/3 of the way at a time, and pulse it to purée... Unless you want molten-hot soup exploding all over your kitchen).

Unfortunately, I was so excited to eat the soup that I forgot to take pictures of it.  Yeah.  Oops.  Next time I make it, I will update with soup photos.  For now, enjoy the cookie pictures!

Update (December 30): I made this soup for Christmas dinner, so I've got a picture now

Butternut Squash Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 butternut squash (~2 lbs.); peeled, seeded, and diced into 1" cubes
1 onion, diced
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1" cubes
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 golden delicious apple, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4-8 c veggie or chicken stock
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or 1 tablespoon fresh, peeled and grated)
1 orange, zested and juiced
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.  Add onion, carrot, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste, then cook until the vegetables have softened.  Stir in the spices (cumin, coriander, and ginger), then cook a couple minutes more to perfume.

Add the remaining veggies, and enough stock to cover everything, then bring it to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the squash and sweet potato are fall-apart tender, ~20 minutes.

Adjust seasoning, add the orange zest and juice, then purée until smooth.  Serve with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream.

Baked Rigatoni

Tomorrow (Friday), I shall departing this fair Chicagoland and returning to the quiet woods of New Hampshire.  I've been feeling a little off-kilter these past few weeks, as I've taken a hiatus from crew due to a mysterious back injury (which thankfully isn't a stress fracture, but now I have no clue what it is); so I'm looking forward to going home and focusing on my health... And making up for all of these months without cable TV.  I shall be watching ALL of the Foodnetwork (i.e. Ina, Giada, Chopped, Iron Chef America), and What Not to Wear, AND Say Yes to the Dress... Oh goodness... How I've missed glorious, glorious television.

In any case, my departure means that the perishables in the refrigerator must be used, or else discarded, which I find unacceptable.  My solution is this baked rigatoni, which I threw together from such leftovers, and produce remnants, as: a head of broccoli, two sweet Italian sausage links, the last of the milk, a few basil leaves, and a hunk of extra sharp cheddar cheese, plus some non-perishable staples.  I fancy these something-out-of-nothing meals as sort of my specialty.   I've found that my best meals usually come from my desire, or need, to use up leftovers and nearly-time-to-throw-away produce.  I nearly made this one a one-pot-meal too, but I had to boil the rigatoni and broccoli, darn!  Nonetheless, this one was quickly thrown together and plopped in the oven while John and I watched another episode of Deep Space Nine.  If I'd had extra cheese, and perhaps some breadcrumbs, I would've sprinkled them over the top with a little butter, but the oven still made a crispy-crunchety crust of the exposed rigatoni.

Also, please excuse the photos for the risotto post and this one.  I haven't had my camera around while I was making these last two dishes, since Delilah (my camera) resides in my dorm room and I was cooking at John's apartment, so my iPhone had to do the job.  I'm sorry.  But my homeward-bound-ness means that perhaps I'll have access to my dad's nice fancy wide-angle lens, so I'll have extra pretty photos for the rest of December.  Hooray!

Baked Rigatoni

1/2 lb. rigatoni
1 head broccoli, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb. (2 links) sausage, casings removed
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
6 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated (this measurement isn't very exact; I had ~3/4 of a block of cheese left, but if you like things cheesy and you have more than this, go for it)
Handful basil leaves, torn

In a large pot of boiling, salty water, add the rigatoni (notice how I'm only using half of a box - this makes enough for ~3 normal hungry people).  When it's shy of being almost al dente (~4 minutes), add the broccoli.  Just as a side note, the stem is perfectly good to eat, even though most people throw it out.  Isolate the stem by cutting off the florets, then cut off the woody end (~1 inch) and peel the outer layer of flesh either using your knife or a peeler.  From here, I usually cut the stalk in half length-wise and make thin half-moons, but that's just me.  Cut them however you'd like.

While the pasta is cooking, break up the sausage into a hot castiron skillet with the olive oil, searing until crispy and just cooked through.  Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon and leave the fat.  Whisk the flour into the drippings and cook for ~2 minutes to remove the raw flour taste, then add the chicken stock and milk.  Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently.  Add in the mustard and cheese, then reduce the heat to low until the pasta and broccoli are both al dente.  Drain the pasta and broccoli, and toss them into the sauce with the cooked sausage.  Bake for ~30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and the top is browned.

Sprinkle on the torn basil leaves, and dig in.  

Nonna Risotto

I'm not Italian.  But if I were, and I had a nonna (i.e. "grandmother" in Italian), I imagine that I would ask her to make this tomato-sausage risotto, and it would make me feel comfy and satisfied and loved, like a wee little baby.  Alas, I had to make this wonderful concoction for myself and my love, sans nonna... And he's Irish so no nonna for him either.  Anyway, on this finally characteristically chilly December day (last week it was in the 60's, good grief), and on this second day of finals week (I guess now it's the fourth day, but I wrote this on the second), this piping hot bowl full of carby, meaty deliciousness was just what I wanted.  I finished 3 of my 4 finals last week (I'm not sure my professors understood that finals week is when finals happen...), so I've had time to procrastinate studying for my last final and instead keep my friends' bellies full.

This risotto, man, trust me, you want to make it.  My recipe is adapted from Smitten Kitchen's Tomato and Sausage Risotto (the link is above), which is adapted from a Martha Stewart newsletter.  If you've never made risotto before, don't be intimidated!  It's actually very easy, you just have to pay attention to it.  Protip: Cooking risotto is easier than cooking plain rice... I burn it every time, or at least get a crust of crunchy rice grains stuck on the bottom of my pot.  But I've made risotto several times, and I've never screwed it up.  Instead of adding rice and water to a pot, clamping the lid on, and praying that the box directions were right, you toast the rice in a pan and add the liquid one cup at a time.  Then you stir and stir and stir until you've developed this wonderful, creamy texture, the rice is cooked through, and it tastes not-boring like regular rice usually does.  Ta-da!  And everyone will be so impressed like ooooh you made risotto?  How are you so talented?  They only serve that in fancy restaurants!  But you'll know that it took you around half an hour and only involved some extra ladeling and stirring.  Gordon Ramsey (ha, if he were to read this) would probably send a hitman after me for saying that making risotto is easy, but it really is, and none of us are going to be on Master Chef anytime soon, so it doesn't have to be perfect.  Just homey and darn tasty.  

Tomato-Sausage Risotto

1 can (28 oz.) ground peeled tomatoes
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed and skins removed
3/4 lbs. (3 links) sweet Italian sausage
1 cup arborio rice
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 ball fresh mozzarella
Handful basil, torn

In a saucepan, bring tomatoes and 3 cups chicken stock to a simmer.

Heat olive oil with crushed garlic cloves over medium heat.  Remove sausage from the casings and break up meat into the pan.  Brown the flesh until caramelized, about 4 minutes, then add the rice.  Toast for 2 minutes until the grains are slightly opaque, then deglaze with 1/2 cup of chicken stock.

Once this liquid has been absorbed, add a cup of the warm tomato-stock.  Stir frequently, swirling the pan, until the liquid has been absorbed.  Add another cup, repeating the same process several times, until the rice has been cooked through (you may not use all of the liquid).  Turn off the heat, then stir in the pat of butter.  Serve with a few chunks of mozzarella and a sprinkle of basil.  

Chickpea and Dumpling Soup

I was reading last Thursday's post on Sprouted Kitchen about brownies, and I was surprised, since Sara Forte's (the author) tagline is "a tastier take on whole foods"... Such indulgences don't generally appear on her site.  As I read the post, I noticed that, when describing why these decadent brownies had made this rare appearance, she noted that they were "the kind [she] would eat warm with a scoop of ice cream and feel riddled with guilt about for the rest of the day".  Why is it that we associate guilt, among other negative emotions, with what we eat?  The best explanation I've heard, when discussing this topic with my dormmates over lunch, suggests that we have established a reward system surrounding food in this country.  We designate certain foods those which are only to be eaten when we "deserve" them.  In my experience, food guilt is also related to self-confidence in our appearance... Those who are more confident in their appearance tend not to experience food-related guilt, or subscribe to this reward system.  What do you think?

I've removed myself from this reward system during college, because having crew practice six times a week tends to burn a few calories.  I am generally a healthy eater... I won't pretend that I eat only salads and fruit and yogurt every day, but yes, I do enjoy feeling good about what I'm putting into my body, so I try my best to make wholesome choices.  I say wholesome, and not healthy, because healthiness generally connotes low-fat, low-sugar, low-calories, low low low, blah blah... I value foods which are "clean" - that is, foods without a lot of preservatives and fillers and chemicals - over foods which are low-this-that-or-the-other which are guaranteed to drop a pant size in a week, et cetera.  That junk isn't food, it isn't really nourishing, it's just some cardboard that you're nibbling on to keep your stomach full.  I'm not suggesting that to eat a stick of butter every day is a wholesome or "clean" choice, nor am I arguing that fruits and veggies are for squares (trust me, I encourage eating more of these because they are, indeed, wholesome).  I'm just suggesting that these foods which are labeled with the stigma of unhealthiness (butter, oil, sugar, bread, et cetera) can have a regular place in our diets, in moderation.  But I'll always argue that butter is better for you than margarine, real sugar than no-calorie sweetener, reduced fat milk than skim, and so on, because those "healthier" choices are less wholesome.  So come on, live a little, care about what you put into your body... Aaaand have some butter.

Anyway, now that I'm done being dogmatic, let's talk soup, wheee!  I've never actually eaten the whole chicken-and-dumplings-thing, I've only seen it in magazines and on TV... Although I'm kind of a big fan of doughy things with gravy things and other stuff (i.e. chicken pot pie).  Yes, I realize that was quite eloquent.  I really don't know why I've never had chicken and dumplings, maybe I'll make it and post about it sometime.  Until then, this soup is inspired by a food magazine article I read about three years ago, lounging around Barnes & Noble... The recipe just appealed to me, since I'm also a sucker for all things soup.  I didn't write down the recipe, so I developed this from memory and my other experiences with soup-making.  The dumplings are adapted from Tyler Florence's recipe found here.  This recipe is super (souper?  lulz, probably not an original pun) easy to make, and makes you feel all warm and cozy inside.

Chickpea and Dumpling Soup

1 yellow onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 
2 (28 oz. each) cans whole, peeled tomatoes in juice (I got ones with basil)
2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 cups water

Chop the onion into a medium dice, then make a paste of the garlic.  To make this garlic paste, mince the garlic as finely as possible.  Make a little pile of garlic, then pour on 1/4 teaspoon salt (it's important that it's coarsely ground for this).  Place the blade of your chef's knife at a very acute angle to your cutting board, scraping down and across the garlic and salt until it becomes a paste.  Alternatively, use a garlic press to crush the garlic and add the full 1 1/4 teaspoons salt later.

Warm the olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat, then add the onion.  Saute until translucent, then add the garlic, remaining salt, and oregano.  Cook until everything has melted down a bit.  In the meantime, open the tomatoes.  I buy whole tomatoes because I really enjoy doing this next step, but feel free to buy diced tomatoes (but I may judge you a little for it... don't you like to play with your food?).  Pour the tomatoes and juice into a large bowl, then, using your impeccably clean hands, break down the tomato flesh into small pieces.  Remove the basil leaves (if you're using canned tomatoes with basil), chop them up, then add them back into the tomatoes.  Add these newly crushed tomatoes to the pot with the stock/water and stir, allowing the mixture to come up to a boil.  Open the chick peas, then rinse and drain them before adding as well.  Cover the pot and bring the whole mess up to a simmer, then allow it to bubble away for 20 minutes.  While the soup is simmering, make the dumplings:

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
~1/4 cup [whole] milk or buttermilk

Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together, then pour in the milk/buttermilk.  I do this with a spoon, because whisks are annoying when all of the batter gets stuck.  Also, do this slowly, because you may need less than 1 cup of liquid.  Then stir in the sour cream.  Before you add the dumplings, be sure to check the broth for seasoning (it's harder to add salt/oregano after the pot is full of delicate dumplings).  Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of batter into the simmering soup (don't let it boil rapidly, especially during the dumpling stage).  Cover and poach the dumplings for ~15 minutes until cooked thoroughly.  DON'T STIR (you'll break the dumplings!).  Keep the heat around medium-low to prevent the bottom from burning.

Serve sprinkled with some parsley/basil, or with a dollop of sour cream, because I basically love sour cream on everything.

Nutella Chocolate Cake with Nutella Icing

So when I said that there would be stress-baking this week, I wasn't kidding.

I had an oral final exam yesterday for Russian (which I thought went swimmingly, hooray), so while I was supposed to be preparing my monologue about two characters from Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, which we've been translating this quarter, I was obviously procrastinating.  When I procrastinate, I obsessively check and re-check my favorite food blogs - and upon the discovery that they haven't posted anything new in the last five minutes, I revert to Smitten Kitchen and press the "Surprise Me!" button over and over and over again... And since I do this fairly often, I tend to run into certain recipes several times.  When I came across the everyday chocolate cake post yesterday, for maybe the fourth time, I wondered, could I make this a Nutella cake by swapping out the butter for Nutella?  I mean, it sort of has the consistency of softened butter... Yeah, I like Nutella.  

Later that night, instead of studying for my biology exam today, I decided to satisfy my curiosity about this Nutella-butter business... And watch claymation Christmas specials.  I substituted Nutella for butter one-to-one; but upon creaming the Nutella with the brown sugar (I also omitted the granulated sugar to account for the extra Nutella sweetness), I realized the texture wasn't quite right. I then added half the amount of butter from the original recipe, and thereby obtained optimal creaminess.  But oh, I couldn't stop there.  If I could make a simple chocolate cake Nutella-y, why not make a simple icing a little Nutalla-y?  

Oh my goodness.

I don't think I need to tell you how good Nutella, heavy cream, and confectioners' sugar are together.  Plus cake.  

Update December 19: After fiddling with the amount of butter, I found that using a full 1/2 cup of butter and Nutella yields a lovely batter.  Furthermore, I adjusted the oven temperature and cooking time, since my original trial was a little underdone in the middle.  I may attempt to test a temperature somewhere in the middle later on, but for now here's the updated version.

Nutella Chocolate Cake

1/2 cup Nutella
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the Nutella, butter, and brown sugar until smooth, 2-3 minutes.  Beat in the egg, then the buttermilk and vanilla.  Sift in the remaining ingredients (flour through salt) and stir until barely combined, mixing as little as possible.  Pour batter into a prepared loaf pan and bake at 375°F for ~50 minutes until a knife (or toothpick) comes out cleanly.  Now, jump on that Nutella icing:

2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons Nutella
~2 tablespoons heavy cream

In a microwave-safe bowl with high sides, microwave the Nutella for 10 seconds until soft.  Stir in the heavy cream until thoroughly combined, then whisk in the confectioners' sugar.  These measurements aren't terribly exact, so adjust them as necessary.  Pour the icing over the hot cake, and let it cool to room temperature before serving.

Gingerbread with Espresso Glaze

Oh boy, the first real post!  I've had a craving for gingerbread for the past couple weeks, but never got around to gathering up the ingredients for it (I never seem to have buttermilk when I need it...).  This gingerbread recipe was adapted from the cookbook "Flour" by Joanne Chang and from King Arthur Flour's recipe here.  Joanne's book was given to me as a gift from a colleague this summer (well, she was more like my mentor... I was just a lowly intern, whom she took under her wing.  Thanks Hala!).  I've also made her ginger molasses cookies (are you sensing a theme here?) and an adapted version of her lemon-raspberry cake... They were both amazing.

I finally got my act together and made some gingerbread for study break last night.  Study break happens every Wednesday and Sunday night in my dorm (the best dorm, Maclean, woot), when a student or RA (or RH for that matter, otherwise known as Resident Head) provides a snack.  I like to use study break as an excuse to make new things that I've wanted to try, but for which I haven't been quite motivated enough to buy the ingredients.  Since we get reimbursed for the study break ingredients, it's an excellent motivator.  But we have to make enough for ~50 people (since not all 100 students are around to eat it), so I can't get too overzealous about making weird/time-consuming/expensive/difficult recipes.

Hence this gingerbread.  I liked how easy the King Arthur Flour recipe was, since I didn't have to wait for the butter to soften or spend 6 minutes using my hand-mixer to cream butter and sugar.  Melt the butter, whisk with the other wet ingredients, add the dry mix, and BAM.  Nomnoms.  But I wanted to add a little pizzazz, a little drama, because my life isn't that exciting.  What's more exciting than espresso?  Probably a lot of things, but it's so delicious, I couldn't resist.  I don't just casually have an espresso machine lying around [sadly]; however, I do casually have some instant espresso powder lying around [luckily].  So I co-opted the coffee glaze from Joanne's recipe, simplified the preparation of King Arthur's, and added some pizzazz (espresso + fresh ginger + allspice = PIZZAZZ!).  The result was delicious - especially since, when I poured the glaze all over the piping hot gingerbread, it sank in and made an extra ooey-gooey top layer.  The dry and fresh ginger combo brought out different layers of spiciness, which with the earthy aroma of espresso made for a really yummy treat.  This week will probably bring more treats, since I'm a stress baker/eater... You're welcome.   

Gingerbread with Espresso Glaze

To prepare the fresh ginger, simply use a spoon to scrape off the skin and use a zester, or the smallest side of a box grater, to grate the flesh.  For peeling the skin, you could also just use a vegetable peeler or a knife, but the skin is soft enough that using a spoon is easy.  I tend to eye-ball how much ginger goes into the batter – the 3 tablespoons is just an estimate – and I grate it right into the mixing bowl to catch all of that great gingery juice.

Regarding the Ceylon cinnamon – if you don’t have it, don’t worry about it, just use regular cassia cinnamon.  But you could always use this recipe as an excuse to go buy some… (trust me, it’s lovely).  The flavor is so much subtler than cassia, and not as bitter.  It’s sweet and a little citrus-y even.

1 heaping teaspoon espresso powder
3 tablespoons fresh ginger
1/4 cup hot water
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup black-strap molasses
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice

In a large mixing bowl, combine the espresso powder, grated ginger, and hot water, and leave it to steep for a couple minutes while melting the butter.  Add the butter to this mixture, followed by the molasses, buttermilk, and egg.  Whisk to combine.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the remaining ingredients (flour through allspice).  Whisk this dry mix into the wet ingredients from above.  Once they’re combined, pour the batter into a prepared 9x13 inch pan and bake at 350°F for 25-35 minutes.  In the meantime, make the yummy espresso glaze:

1 heaping teaspoon espresso powder
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 cup powdered sugar

These measurements are somewhat estimated – I just add a little more powdered sugar or cream depending on the consistency I want.  First mix the espresso powder and hot water until the powder has dissolved.  Add the cream, then whisk in the powdered sugar until combined.

Once the gingerbread has finished baking, immediately pour on the glaze.  Let it cool to room temperature before slicing.  Serving with a little whipped cream doesn’t hurt one bit.