Monday, February 16, 2009

On An Impulse

"You think the Time to Make the Donuts guy is sexy."

I woke up with that line in my head (from having watched "The Wedding Singer" the other night). Maybe that was the reason I woke up with an unquenchable urge. I'm not sure why, but from the moment I opened my eyes I had an inexplicable desire to fill my house with the smell of hot oil. And what better way, I thought, than to make donuts? Of course!

My kids are donut fiends. We distinguish weekdays from weekends by identifying those days as "Gillian days" (days on which the nanny comes) and "donut days." On any given evening they'll ask, "Is tomorrow a Gillian day, or a donut day?" Normally their donuts come from Safeway, and are really bad.

This morning I decided that we needed homemade donuts. I've never made them before, so a bonus day off, plus a day when the kids wouldn't normally get a donut, seemed like a perfect excuse to give it a try.

I confess I'm not much of a deep fryer. When I get to that line in the list of ingredients that says, "Oil for deep frying" I usually skip to the next recipe. What a nuisance, I think. I'm not messing around with that.

Well, deep frying is a bit of a monkey business, but besides snapping at my children to stay at least 50 feet back from the stove while the oil was heating and while I was frying (I was a little nervous about that 5 cups of boiling oil; call me overprotective), it really wasn't that bad. I didn't splatter myself or the stove with oil, and there were no grease fires. A smashing success, by all accounts.

But what about the donuts? How did they turn out? They were well received. My husband declared them "pretty damned good." My oldest son (usually the pickiest when it comes to Mom's versions of beloved junk foods) said he really liked them. He wanted to open a stand where we could sell donuts. I declined on the grounds that a) we live in a cul-de-sac that gets almost zero traffic, and b) it's 34 degrees outside.

But they were, if I say so myself, pretty damned good. I made a buttermilk donut, which is the "cake" donut you buy at the store. They take less time than the yeast donuts, requiring you only to mix them up, let the dough rest, then roll, cut, and fry them. I almost had a disaster when I realized after mixing everything together that I had forgotten the baking powder, but dumped it in, mixed some more, and crossed my fingers. I don't have a donut cutter, but the recipe I used suggested using a round cutter + an apple corer. That I have.

Once they were done, we tossed them in a bowl of cinnamon and sugar, and devoured them. It's important to check the temperature of your oil from time to time. I think mine was too hot in one batch, and the result was donuts that were getting pretty done on the outside, but weren't quite cooked through in the middle. Overall, however, they were cakey and moist, and the tiny bit of mace and allspice really does enhance the flavor.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make donuts again. It's a lot of work, although the results were worth it. Maybe on birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas. I would like to play with the flavors a little--add some cinnamon, try them with ground cloves, maybe even find a cider donut recipe, that sort of thing. But on the whole I'm satisfied to have been able to say I made them once, and didn't have any disasters. As cooking experiences go, that's pretty damned good.

Buttermilk Donuts
makes 24 donuts
adapated from Sheila Lukins "U.S.A. Cookbook"

2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cinnamon and sugar, for dusting

Beat eggs in a large bowl until pale yellow. Slowly add sugar, beating until the mixture is thick and ribbony. Stir in the buttermilk, vanilla, and the melted butter.

In another bowl sift together flour, baking powder, salt, allspice and mace. Add to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Do not overwork the dough. Let dough rest in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Pour 2-3" of oil into a large heavy pot and place over medium-high heat. Heat to 370 degrees F.

While the oil is heating, roll dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/4". Using a floured 2 1/2" donut cutter (or a 2 1/2" biscuit cutter and an apple corer to cut out the centers) cut out rounds. Save the dough from the holes.

When oil has heated to 370 degrees, fry the donuts in small batches until golden brown, turning once, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove the donuts to a rack or plate covered with paper towel to drain. You may need to let the oil come back up to temperature between batches. The recipe recommended using a slotted spoon to transfer the donuts in and out of the oil, but I found a pair of tongs to be just as useful.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Turning

OK, show of hands of those who are ready for Winter to be over, and Spring to be here. As I suspected. Thank you, you can put your hands down now.

We keep having these spells of nice weather--bright sun, almost warm--and we look around and think, ahhhh, it's over. And then it snows. I mean, come on, really? Really?

So last week, in a conflicted state of mind that was attributable completely and entirely to the weather, I bought a dozen and a half pink tulips, and a cabbage. The Spring vegetables haven't really hit yet, so we're left with what stores well: cabbage, leeks, potatoes, beets.

I put the tulips in progressively smaller vases until finally their petals just wouldn't stay on and they scattered like so many enormous blushing snowflakes across my counter and floor, and then out they went. The cabbage sat patiently waiting in the refrigerator. As a cabbage does.

Its moment came with a dinner of Cabbage Gratin with Potatoes. The recipe is in the "vegetables" section of the Food + Wine 2007 Recipes cookbook, but it's got enough heft to be a whole meal in itself. Because it has bacon in it, it's not suitable for your non-carnivorous friends. But for those of you who eat meat, and just can't think of another damned thing to do with another damned cabbage, here's a wonderful idea.

The potatoes are quartered, and roasted separately. I use the little Yukon Golds that you can buy in a mesh bag, but any smallish new potato will do. The the bacon is sauteed, shredded cabbage added and wilted, and the potatoes stirred in. The whole deal is topped with cheese and then popped back in the oven. The original recipe calls for it to be broiled until the cheese starts to brown, but I prefer to actually bake it for a little while until the sauce thickens up and the cheese melts.

F+W calls for farmer cheese, and I have used this (it's what's in the picture), but I've also used Gruyere and Comte. If you're using one of these hard cheeses, I would recommend putting the cheese on in the last five minutes of the baking time, rather than at the beginning. If you do use farmer cheese (or something like it), it can go in the oven for the whole time.

What you end up with is a sort of Cabbage Mess, but a delightful one. The cabbage gets all lovely and caramelized as it cooks with the bacon, and the potatoes are soft and roasty tasting, and the cheese is melted over the top. It's an excellent meal for a night when the weather is playing one of those tricks on you, and the only thing you have to remind you that Spring really is coming are the tulips and the potted primrose you bought at the grocery store, along with that cabbage.

Cabbage Gratin with Potatoes
adapted from The Food + Wine Annual Cookbook, 2007
serves 4 (but they're pretty big servings; might even get 6 out of it)

2 pounds small potatoes (red or Yukon gold), quartered (or in 6ths if they're largeish)
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt + freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb bacon, 1/4" thick slices, cut into 1" pieces
2 lbs green cabbage, cored and thinly slices (as you can see, "thin" is a relative term; I just slice it up and don't worry much about how thick or thin the slices are)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 - 7 1/2 ounce package farmer cheese OR 1 cup shredded hard cheese (Gruyere is nice)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spread the potatoes on 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil over each pan and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 25 minutes, or until potatoes are browning on the bottom and tender. Remove from the oven and set aside. Leave the oven on.

In a deep ovenproof skillet with a lid (I use a 12" skillet for this), heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Add the bacon pieces and cook over medium heat until browning slightly, about 4-6 minutes. Add the cabbage and toss gently (I use tongs) to combine cabbage and bacon. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender and starting to brown a little, about 12-15 minutes.

Stir in the garlic and cook about 2 minutes, then stir in the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cream. Simmer 1 minute. Remove from the heat and dollop the farmer cheese over the top of the cabbage. Put the skillet in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until sauce is thickening, and cheese is melted (if using hard cheese, put the skillet in the oven and bake without the cheese, then scatter it on in the last 5 minutes of cooking to melt it). Serve right away.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Dutch Pizza

Everyone has a truly humbling cooking experience. Some people can’t make pancakes. Others are hopeless at making bread or cake. Many are completely flummoxed by gravy, turning out lumpy pastes, or thin flavorless gruel studded with little flour bombs. Scrambled eggs are often a source of frustration and tears.

For myself, I am brought to my knees every time I try to make pizza.

The dough is a cinch—yeast is my bitch. I have no fear of yeast. I can make tomato sauce from scratch, and I laugh at toppings. But when confronted with a fully topped crust, ready to be baked, I crumble.

For the life of me, I can’t get the uncooked topped dough off of the cutting board and onto the stone in my oven.

Short of flattening the dough and topping it right on the peel, I cannot see how this is done. I can flip an egg or a pancake in a pan on the stove with the flick of a wrist, but pizza? I’m totally baffled.

And don’t talk to me about corn meal.

This is why I consider the pizza I make to be Dutch rather than Italian. I always think of the Italian as so passionate, so devoted, especially to their food, which is so effortless. It's lavish and fabulous, without being particularly complex or involved. Whereas the Dutch in my mind are no-nonsense, close with their money, and either products of the 1960s counter-culture, or of the hardships faced in World War II. And really, when was the last time anyone ever said to you, "Wow, you wouldn't believe this fantastic new Dutch restaurant we found!"

My pizza is about as far away from Italian pizza as you can possibly get, which is why I think of it as Dutch.

This past week I thought I would try again to confront what has up to this time been my Waterloo. “This time,” I thought, “it will be different.”

Inspired by a description of a pizza a friend made that was topped with thinly sliced leftover rib eye steak, mushrooms, Gorgonzola cheese, and a hint of mozzarella, I set forth. All I can say is that if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I guess I’ll be posting my next entry from a padded room (I just hope they have wireless!).

The dough I used was fine, great even. It made four individual pizzas that I topped with some sliced New York strip that I bought specifically as a topping. In one pan I seared the steak, then sautéed some thinly sliced shallot, and some sliced mushrooms until both were soft and caramelized. I rolled out the dough, laid the steak slices on it, scattered it with the shallot mixture, dotted with a little Gorgonzola, and grated a couple of tablespoons of fresh mozzarella over each.

Then I destroyed them as I pushed and prodded and jabbed and poked them onto the pizza peel, and reversed the process to get them onto the pizza stone. *sigh*

As you can see, they look…well, like pizzas made by someone who really sucks at pizza making. And I guess that’s what they are, so it’s fair that that’s what they look like.

I have no happy ending to this story. They taste fine, good even. But they look terrible. Perhaps someday I will confront this problem head on, read up on technique, buy books to guide me (hey! An excuse to buy books? Maybe this day will come sooner than I think!), and practice, practice, practice. But for now I’ll just stick with making things that don’t bring me to tears or make me say words that need to be spelled with asterisks.

Until that day, here's a really good pizza dough recipe. I just hope you're better at getting it into the oven than I am.

Pizza Dough
makes 4 – 6” pizzas
from Bon Appetit magazine

3/4 cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast
2 cups (or more) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Pour 3/4 cup warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast. Let stand until yeast dissolves, about 5 minutes.

Brush large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix 2 cups flour, sugar, and salt in processor. Add yeast mixture and 3 tablespoons oil; process until dough forms a sticky ball. Transfer to lightly floured surface. Knead dough until smooth, adding more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is very sticky, about 1 minute. Transfer to prepared bowl; turn dough in bowl to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Punch down dough. Roll out dough into six inch diameter circles. Top as desired.