Archive for the ‘Cheese’ Category

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Strawberry Ricotta Ice Cream

Strawberry Ricotta Ice Cream

Southerners have a way of speaking that is infinitely more colorful than us folks up north. I’m not talking about the ubiquitous use of “y’all” which I gather has as many rules as a French pronoun. A Serbian woman who speaks five languages and taught French language classes in Alabama explained the proper use of “y’all” to me.

What I’m talking about are expressions like, “he ran as fast as a bobcat with a burr under his tail.” I once worked with a guy who had a seemingly bottomless hat full of those. Unfortunately the one that stuck to me was, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hittin’(Your Noun Here)!” Example: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hittin’ a Starbucks!”

I shudder to think of the number of times I have had to fight the temptation to use those words. I believe the trick is to not think about the words too intently. It’s like cockney rhyming slang. The intent trumps the words. It makes the English language a more colorful place to live (so to speak.)

Well, lately I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Ricotta Ice Cream. Actually, not the ice cream itself, but recipes, stories on TV, and magazine covers. I was, at first skeptical—a healthy skepticism, I might add, based on real-life experience.

Greek yogurt has taken off like a dog after a shiny hubcap. (I made that one up. How’d y’all think I did?) During the past few years Greek yogurt has grown from a niche product to a dairy aisle staple. My preferred brand, Fage, no longer imports the stuff, they now make it here, and have done for quite some time.

This summer Ben and Jerry’s has gotten into the act by introducing a range of frozen Greek yogurt. I tried a couple of them and found them like eatin’ a mouth full wet cheese. The latter was not me making another attempt at the Southern idiom. That’s what it tasted like to me: an odd, mildly sour cheesiness. Frozen Kefir? Same.

So, perhaps you can see why I might be a bit hesitant about Ricotta, which, to damn it further, is often called Ricotta cheese.

Yet, like any responsible adult I must step back a moment and survey the playing field. Cheese isn’t necessarily a bad thing in desserts, is it? There’s Cheesecake, yes? I’ve been eating ricotta-filled Cannoli all my life. So in spite of my skepticism, I decided to jump into the ricotta pool. Or at least make some Ricotta ice cream.

At first I was tempted to make a frozen version of the classic chocolate chip-studded Cannoli filling. But then I happened to find some beautiful strawberries and thought they might pair well with the ricotta (like cheesecake with strawberry topping.) (They also make the photograph above much prettier than if I’d used chocolate chips.) There’s also the issue of temperature: I find the freezer tends to blunt the flavor of chocolate chips, and also makes them too hard for my fragile little teeth. (I could start a blog called “Adventures in Adult Orthodontia – or— My Life on Gas” but will resist the urge. For now.)

So the pretty red strawberries were elected.

Throwing fresh fruit into ice cream can be as tricky as going ‘round your elbow to get to your thumb. (Mark Twain would have loved that one.) If you cook the fruit you run the risk of losing its bright color, and it can also become unrecognizable. The plus side to cooking the fruit is that by adding enough sugar you can ensure that it doesn’t freeze to the “hard rock” stage. (The more sugar you add, the less something will freeze.)

My compromise was to macerate the sliced berries in a healthy amount of vanilla sugar. If you let them sit long enough like this you can soften the berries, preserve the bright color, and hopefully have them absorb enough sugar so that they won’t freeze rock hard.

I also thought it might be interesting to experiment with part-skim ricotta. I can never tell the difference between regular and part-skim in other cooking, so why not try that trick here? While I was at it I figured I’d go for broke and substitute half and half for heavy cream too. (I know. Aren’t I dangerous?)

The result was perhaps not as silky smooth as cooked custard ice cream, but it had a very nice light quality. The ricotta taste was definitely there, but the generous shot of vanilla in the recipe seemed to be magnified by it, and there was a tangy yogurt character without the odd cheese smell.

This makes a nice, quick alternative to the slow custard ice cream, and is lower in fat due to the part-skim yogurt and half and half. Yippee!

And it’ll keep you cooler than an Eskimo in an air conditioned igloo.

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Click here for my Ricotta Ice Cream recipe.

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Cheesy Easter

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

If you invite me for Easter dinner I promise to bring the bread. How much bread depends entirely on what you are cooking for the main course. If you’re cooking a Ham (or buying the spiral-cut kind) I’ll bring a loaf or two and some nice rolls. Lamb or mutton will mean I’ll need to rent a U-haul and make two trips. You’re serving mutton just like your Grandmother used to make? My Grandmother used to make Pickled Tongue but you don’t see me serving that for dinner. Easter dinner tip #1: stick with a main course you don’t have to explain.

In the past I’ve written that I consider a good bread basket to be the lifeboat that can rescue me from a bad meal. Talking mutton and lifeboats conjures images of a culinary Titanic.

Better yet, here’s a novel new idea: The First Annual Easter pot luck. The menu will be comprised solely of the items everyone in attendance gave up for Lent. With my friends in attendance there may be an oversupply of martinis and red wine, but that’s okay because there will also be an oversupply of cake, cookies, and ice cream. It’s called balance, people.

And yes, the point is moot for yours truly. Giving up things for Lent is literally not in my religion, but I can’t resist an occasion marked by a big meal.

How can Easter not be on my mind? Easter candy has been on the shelves of every drug store for what seems like months, the squishy, mellow neon of the Peeps calling my name like a Stay-Puft siren.

This is a good place to mention one of the landmarks of my kitchen: my recipe files. These could perhaps be mistaken for a paper recycling bin. I have a tendency to keep empty flour bags because a recipe printed on the side caught my eye. They tend to sit on the shelf for a while, waiting for an occasion when I will smooth out the wrinkles and bring them to life.

So it was that a long expired bag of King Arthur flour was reincarnated because of the words, “Triple Cheese Bread” printed on the side.

(I am not a paid spokesman for King Arthur flour and did not receive so much as a dusting of flour for this endorsement.)

I’m not sure why I felt like I needed an excuse to bake Triple Cheese bread. This is one of those recipes that deserves the reverse: a day of its own. I imagine that I’ll wake up one morning with the exhortation, “It’s Triple Cheese Bread Day!” on my lips.

In the meantime there’s Easter Dinner. Easter Dinner always holds an interesting allure for me. As much as I love winter, April always seems full of the warm promise of good things to come. (I was Bar Mitzvah-ed in April. Maybe that’s why I like April?)

Depending on the year, April can be both the last gasp of winter and the first whiff of spring, so it is time to celebrate with sun, flowers, and happy food. I think Triple Cheese bread is happy food because it makes me smile.

I repeat this often: if you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer then baking bread is really no harder than knowing how to set a timer. As this is someone else’s recipe I can only tell you my tips to success.

First: because all of the ingredients in bread can blunt the flavor of cheese, find the sharpest cheddar you can find. This can be tricky. I happened to find a Vermont cheddar by Cabot that they labeled “Seriously Sharp.” Its brininess turned out to be just right. (I’m not a spokesman for Cabot either. But I like this cheese and the implied harmony of pairing Vermont flour with Vermont cheese.)

Even though it may be counterintuitive, I avoided top shelf Parmesan, hoping that the modestly priced domestic version I used would lend enough saltiness and nuttiness to the bread—using the good stuff in a loaf of bread seems like a waste.

The third cheese seems like a cheat. Cottage Cheese? The name aside, I never think of this as cheese, but baking chemistry hints that this is a really good baking ingredient, tenderizing the dough into a pillowy soft foam.

Finally, here’s your choice: I used a loaf pan that is slightly oversized so my bread rose with flat top; use a standard load pan for the old-fashioned dome shaped loaf.

Triple Cheese Loaf isn’t just for dinner. The legendary Schrafft’s restaurants used it famous cheese bread in sandwiches, often pairing it with, what else—grilled, sliced ham.

Did I mention that it is amazing toasted?

No, I didn’t, because you’ll eat the whole loaf that way.

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Here’s the Triple Cheese Bread recipe.

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Marshmallow Tweets?

Back From the Beach (The Sequel)

Cornbread and Pandebono

The deadpan look on the face of the TSA agent said: “Okay, now I really have seen everything.” In her defense, who could blame her? How often does she come across guys carrying bags of flour in their carry on luggage? She carefully swabbed the outside of the packages and let me go.

(Hint to travelers: when traveling with flour, take it out of your luggage, put it in the bucket, and run it through the scanner.)

(I ask you: how many travel blogs would you have had to look through to get advice for carrying flour on board a plane?)

And you ask: why am I traveling with flour? Can’t I get it at home? A reasonable question. The TSA agent asked it too.

I have enough key chains and refrigerator magnets. I do not need any more tchochkes, so when I travel my idea of a souvenir hunt usually involves a trip to the supermarket. I don’t always know what I want when I go, but I can be easily hypnotized by the sight of a colorful wrapper with foreign words.

During this year’s summer trip to a beach down south I actually went in search of something specific: Martha White. That’s not a person; it’s a brand of flour that is legendary down south. You just can’t find it up north, and I have been told that if you want to make really great biscuits, then Martha White is your gal—uh – flour.

Unfortunately the only Martha White flour I could find this trip was the self-rising cornmeal flour. But that’s okay: biscuits later, cornbread now.

While I was trolling the aisles, I also came across a whole section of South American foods, including items from Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. I am a big fan of Brazilian Pão de Queijo, a bread made with tapioca flour and cheese. Facing me in the aisle was a box, imported from Colombia, containing a mix for Pandebono. Pandebono is a type of bread made of corn flour, tapioca starch, cheese and eggs. Supposedly you eat them warm with Hot Chocolate. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

One bumpy ride with fastened seat belts later, I was in my kitchen mixing the Martha White cornbread. Cornbread can be a contentious issue amongst its devotees. Many southerners show disdain for northern cornbread. Maybe they have a point. The sweet yellow cornbread we serve up north is dense and moist like a dessert. Southerners prefer a more savory white cornbread, often baked in a roaring hot skilled with a bit if pre-heated fat.

I know that I am always banging the drum of scratch baking, but I am not mix averse, I am bad ingredient averse. As an example, let’s take the ubiquitous Jiffy mixes. One of the primary ingredients in their corn muffin mix is lard. Hey Jiffy: it’s 2011. Seriously. Lard?

So that’s why the Martha White mix gets my stamp of approval. The ingredients are white corn meal, flour, baking soda and salt. I added my own egg, milk, and oil. The Martha White mix makes a very savory, toasty cornbread that is very light, and would be great with a bowl of chili, or as a stuffing for roast turkey or chicken.

Speaking of ingredients, the Panbebono mix lists tapioca starch as the first ingredient. Most people know tapioca as a pudding or gravy thickener, so for this gringo it is surprising to see it used in bread. I shouldn’t be surprised though, because it is getting some play as an ingredient in gluten-free baking. It also produces things with a texture that is a bit foreign to me: gummy. Gummy is a misleading word in that it sounds like a pejorative. A more accurate description would be that the Pandebono rolls have an inside that is similar to a popover.

As with the Martha White Cornmeal mix, the Pandebono mix is also very basic, and required that I add my own grated Cotija cheese, a touch of margarine or butter, and water. Cotija cheese is fairly easy to find here in New York, and its briny, crumbly taste and texture isn’t that far from Ricotta Salada.

The Pandebonos are good warm, but I found them to be even better when allowed to cool which tames their gummy texture, and brings out the contrast of the briny cheese, and the sugar in the mix. These are a real revelation for me and I can’t wait to experiment with other cheeses—possibly heresy to Colombians, so apologies in advance.

I wonder if Martha White is listed on a “no-fly” list?

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Read what I made last year when I came back from the beach.

You can order Pandebono mix here

You can order Martha White mixes here (so who needs to travel?)

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Flower Power

Squash Blossoms

Squash Blossoms...hard to find / easy to cook

I was recently admonished by a trusted friend that some of my recipes are too involved—too many ingredients, too many steps. (An admonishment is like a scolding without the finger wagging.) But here’s the thing: for me, the kitchen is an oasis, especially on a hot summer day when I have my A/C cranked to “meat locker”. I don’t mind a few extra steps. Even if I am listening to music or watching TV while I cook, I generally tune those out and get a lot of very important thinking done while I, say, boil sugar (alarmingly, one of my favorite pastimes).

This all reminds me of a time when I changed jobs and had to train the person who was taking my place. Not to cast anyone in a negative light (too late), but it was a difficult transition. She just didn’t understand any of the work she was inheriting and, like a big, fat, dumb salmon, kept swimming against the tide. The lesson I learned – and hopefully she also learned (although I know she didn’t)—was that I can only demonstrate how I do something. It may not be the best or most optimal way, but it’s how I got the job done. So there.

What you see when I cook is a work in progress—both the cook and the cooked. So sometimes I go out on a limb to learn something new or try something new.

(Defensive anyone?)

But speaking of easier recipes, a few days ago an errand took me a little out of the way. I found myself very hungry, and, happily, in the middle of a farmers’ market. The farmers’ markets here in Nueva York can be touch and go. Example: this one featured a booth where someone was selling maple syrup (provenance unknown) in bottles shaped like the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately I already have that bottle in my Maple Syrup Bottle Collection.

But as I turned to step down the subway stairs I spotted a couple of tables selling the type of stuff I like to find at a farmers’ market: fresh currants, and, one of my all time faves, squash blossoms.

Currants are a great ingredient (especially for someone who likes to boil sugar), because they make great preserves, or a great glaze for chicken. They’re a little on the tart side uncooked, but I thought they’d be fun stewed and added to an eggy vanilla ice cream as it freezes. Fresh Currant Ripple is most definitely not something you find at Carvel.

Ah, but Squash blossoms? For a city boy these are like bringing the farm into my little urban kitchen. They are that breath of fresh country air I always imagine you get when you get out of the car at the farm after a long drive from the city.

(How naïve. That first breath of country air you get at the farm actually smells like…well…there are cows and horses and chickens there. Smells like a farm. Or like New York on a hot, summer day.)

Maybe the novelty (to me) is that squash blossoms have remained a true farm product; they are too perishable for supermarkets. Like fiddle ferns, they always seem (to me) like something you luck into.

They’re kinda groovy, relaxed, and they look like hippies dressed in tie-dyed psychedelic orange. These are the flower that blossoms from tops of squash as they grow. I’ve never grown squash; perhaps if I did I’d take them more for granted.

Okay, maybe not the easiest ingredient to find (I can already feel the breeze from the finger wagging I’ll get), they are however, easy to prepare. These are very informal preparations. In fact, I learned these when camping out one summer as a kid. Take your pick: savory or sweet.

You may have had something similar to the savory kind on Super Bowl Sunday when you’ve been served Jalapeño Poppers. For this recipe you simply throw some ricotta cheese, garlic, anchovy, salt and pepper to taste in a food processor, and whirr until combined. Fill the blossoms and then dredge in flour. Pan fry in canola oil quickly, just until the flour starts to brown. Drain on paper towels and eat while still warm. Cooking through isn’t really the point here, this is just to add to the overall flavor.

The sweet variety is just as simple. Combine ricotta and just enough confectioners’ sugar in the food processor so that the cheese is only mildly sweet, say about a tablespoon or less to a cup of ricotta. Stuff the blossoms with the cheese and pan fry as above. Dredge the filled, fried blossoms in cinnamon and sugar as soon as they come out of the pan. Let these cool to just warm and serve as a special dessert or treat.

This is the part where I tell you how I did things. These ideas are optional. First, I use Wondra flour to dredge the blossoms. You may have seen this stuff in the supermarket packaged in a tall blue canister. Wondra is a very powdery flour that chefs swear by for dredging.  You can also use it to thicken gravy. I like it because it makes a very light, slightly crisp coating, an important concern with our delicate blossoms.

Second, I fill the blossoms with a pastry bag and nozzle. It’s just easier for me, but please feel free to use a spoon.

Groovy, huh?

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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?

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Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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