Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fear Itself

Often, when I am trying to muster the courage to try or learn something new, I remind myself that people have been doing such-and-such a thing for thousands of years, and that if they can, I can too. This is how I encouraged myself to learn to cook, knit and sew. Obviously this technique doesn’t always work—if I were trying to teach myself molecular gastronomy, the argument doesn’t hold up, but since I am not inclined to learn molecular gastronomy, I think I’m OK.

Where it did come in handy recently was in pasta making. I have wanted to make my own pasta for a very long time, but have always been a bit shy of it. It seemed so…daunting, somehow. But why? Recipes aren’t accompanied by the dire warnings that are sometimes delivered with yeast breads and things like hollandaise sauce. They’re generally fairly breezy and simple, just a couple of ingredients and some technique. Maybe it was that pasta machine piece. It looks to me rather like the receiving end of the guillotine with a crank in it to automate the process of removing anything left over after the business at hand is concluded.

After dithering for months, I finally made up my mind. It was time to conquer pasta. I borrowed a pasta maker from a friend and wasted no time.

And I found it to be ridiculously simple. People often imply that they reserve making pasta for special occasions, dinner parties and the like. If I were making ravioli, I can see doing that. Making the filling and stuffing them would take some time, I can understand. But for your basic strands, heck, you can make that up in 45 minutes (15 minutes of hands-on time).

I did a little research and found a sort of generally accepted recipe: 1 egg to 1 cup flour, plus a little salt and olive oil. Not too intimidating. And mixing it up was a snap.

I did hit a bit of a snag when it came to the machine. I had to actually throw the first batch out because I cranked it through so many times that it came out looking not unlike something the Founding Fathers would have used to write up a document listing their further grievances against King George III and declaring that all Americans have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of a decent meal that didn’t involve brown gravy, boiled potatoes, or sticky bland bread sauce (which I was served once by the British mother of a former boyfriend and found to be so nasty that I couldn’t eat more than a bite, in spite of the fact that it was considered a tremendous treat by the whole family much, I suppose, as our own stuffing is at Thanksgiving and everyone thinks their mom’s was the best and gets very snippy when anyone suggests that actually, dried fruit is really gross in stuffing, or whatever. But I digress).

But Deborah Madison came to my rescue. As a brief aside (yes, another one), I find it interesting that when I’m not looking for a recipe for a certain kind of thing, I stub my toe on dozens of versions. But when I am looking for a certain kind of recipe, I either can’t think where to look, or the sources I choose are all completely devoid of that which I seek. I must have checked four cookbooks for basic pasta making recipes, and they were all sources I was positive would have some kind of guidelines, but to no avail. Finally, drawing on the assumption that vegetarians would eat pasta and therefore a vegetarian cookbook could reasonably be expected to have a recipe for homemade pasta in it, I checked “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Bingo.

But what really made it outstanding was that the machine making instructions included the tip that the first four or five passes through the machine should be on the widest setting, and each time you should fold the resulting rectangle (or rectangleish shape, because of course it’s not a perfect rectangle) into thirds, squish a bit here and there to thin out any significantly thick bits, and put it back through the machine with the “rough” edge first. That is, fold it, rotate it 90 degrees, then pick it up and put it back through the machine. Eureka!

In no time at all I was cranking out pasta like Sophia Loren. Or someone. Anyway, it was a breeze and I loved it. I made skinny strands and wide strands, rolled it out paper thin and made strands of that, and stopped one or two positions short of the thinnest setting, and made slightly thicker strands. So far I’ve only dressed it with butter and fresh herbs from my garden, and it is truly phenomenal. My husband keeps teasing me because I almost never made the dried pasta we have by the carload in the pantry, but I made fresh pasta for three meals in a row over the weekend. Well, it tastes different, that’s all.

Tonight I’m making an actual recipe (Fettuccini with Crispy Capers) so we’ll see how that comes out, but I can’t believe it will be bad. And if you’ve been timid about making pasta up to now, I can assure you that if I can do it, you can do it.

Homemade Egg Pasta
Adapted from nowhere in particular, technique mostly from “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison

1 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Pour out flour on a counter top or cutting board, making a well in the center. Break the egg into the well, and pour in the bit of olive oil and sprinkle in the salt. Work the flour into the egg until it forms a dough. You may find you need to scatter it with a little water here and there. I kept a measuring cup of water on the counter and dipped my fingers in and moistened the ball a couple of times. The dough should be smooth and not sticky. If it’s sticky, you’ll have a hard time working it through the machine, so don’t add too much water. It should just be malleable. Knead for about 10 minutes total.

Let rest for half an hour in a ziplock bag.

To roll out the dough, set up the machine and open it to the widest point. Press the dough out into a thick rectangle and pass through the machine once. Fold the resulting rectangle in thirds, press to thin out any excessively thick places, and put back through the machine again with the “rough” edge first. Do this a total of four or five times.

Begin moving the knob on the machine to make the pasta thinner. Pass it through on the next thinnest setting, and continue making the dough thinner until you reach the desired thickness. The thinnest setting makes a very delicate finished product. Depending on your sauce, you may want to stop at the second to last setting and make your shapes from there.

Pass dough through “shaping” attachment (alternatively you can cut it to ribbons by hand at this point, although most machines come with some sort of attachment to create even strands of one shape or another). Hang over a wooden spoon suspended between two large pots or cans or canisters to let dry a little (I used my flour and rice canister, which are about 12-14” tall, with a couple of wooden spoons balanced between them; if you have a dish rack, you could also use that).

The pasta will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, or can be frozen for a month or so. Fresh pasta, as you’ve no doubt heard, cooks in just a couple of minutes in boiling water.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Just WOW

So for three days now I’ve been trying to think of a way to tell you about these brownies. I’ve gone from detailed explanations about how much chocolate there is in them, how incredibly awesome they are, and exactly how I found the recipe, all the way to just typing “zOMG hurry and go make these!” over and over, like some kind of insane cut-and-paste baking mantra.

Homemade brownies always seem to let me down. I buy brownies in bakeries and they’re thick and chewy and dense. The ones I make at home always seem to be thin and sticky, like chocolate paste thickened with some flour. For a long time I thought this was just me, and then I decided it was my recipes—because clearly these brownies can be made—and I started searching for something better.

I started collecting brownie recipes like some kind of sugar-crazed magpie. I would read over them and compare them to what I had made in the past. It was pretty obvious to me that I wanted something with a slightly higher ratio of flour to sugar and butter. The high sugar/butter recipes yield a very candy-like product. Also, I have a weird, inexplicable prejudice against recipes that only make an 8 or 9” square pan. I want 117 glorious square inches of chocolaty loveableness. (Did I do that math right? Is a 9” x 13” pan 117 square inches? I confess I was never much good at area, unless we were talking about circles, and then I knew there was something about the diameter or the circumference and pi played a role but I was always much more interested in two-crust versions than in irrational, transcendental numbers. And I might not even be right about circles. Geometry was a long time ago. )

Where were we? Oh, right, brownie recipes. So I wanted a big pan, and I wanted a pretty thick brownie.

I thought I had found it when a friend of mine brought some brownies into the office. They were just what I’d been wanting: quite thick, still moist, somewhat cakey. Since she has a pastry degree (and just what a woman with a degree in pastry is doing working as a product manager is a question worth asking, but when I did she pointed out that pastry doesn’t pay much. Touché.) I figured she was an excellent source. When I begged her for the recipe, she confessed that they were a mix (she’d made them on a weeknight and was tight for time), and she had put peppermint patties between the layers, which accounted for their height.

When I stumbled on a recipe that was the foundation for a brownie sundae, I was pretty sure I’d hit pay dirt. After all, for it to hold up a couple of scoops of ice cream, a brownie has to have some serious muscle. You’re not going to get some wimpy, effete, milquetoast brownie there. This is not some Ashley Wilkes you’re going to be piling the toppings on to. You’ve got to have Rhett (in brownie form, of course, although let’s be honest, if you had the opportunity to scoop ice cream and whipped cream and whatnot onto Clark Gable, wouldn’t you do it? I mean, the way he was in Gone with the Wind when he was all young and hunky, not the way he is today—which of course is dead).

SO. These brownies. Melty chocolate, a ton of butter, five (yes, five) eggs. They are the brownies of my dreams. The recipe makes a 9” x 13” pan, and they’re a good three-quarters of an inch thick. They have a thick, fudgy texture, but they’re not grainy and sticky. This recipe is now my one and only. I can stop looking. This is brownie nirvana. Transcending any previous brownie experience. The Rhett Butler of brownies. The Crown Jewels of brownies. The Empire State Building of brownies. The Grand Canyon of brownies. These brownies put the “wow” in “brownie” (OK, OK, so there is no “wow” in “brownie”—there should be). These are brownies with a capital B. zOMG hurry and go make these.

Fudge Brownies

from the LA Times' Culinary SOS feature; this is the brownie from the Brownie Hot Fudge Sundae at a restaurant called BLD
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (13 ounces) chocolate chips
1/4 cup cocoa powder
5 eggs, room temperature
3 cups light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground espresso
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. In a large bowl set over a pot of simmering water, melt together the butter, chocolate and cocoa powder, stirring until completely combined.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisk in the espresso, vanilla and salt. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture, then the flour until thoroughly combined. Pour the brownie mix into a greased 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish.

4. Bake the brownies on the center rack until set on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean (it should have moist crumbs stuck to it, but the filling should not be doughy), 45 minutes to an hour and ten minutes (start checking around 35 minutes; the original recipe said they'd be done in 45 minutes, but at 45 minutes mine were still pretty liquid in the center. They were in there for a good hour). Remove the brownies and cool the pan on a rack to room temperature. Cut into squares to serve.