Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spaghetti Carbonara

My college roommate (of bourbon pear apple sauce fame) made the simplest, fastest version of this recipe for me the day I arrived to visit her in Paris for the first time, jetlagged and starving, farther from home than I'd ever been. She plunked a bowl down in front of me of just-boiled pasta, tossed with egg and cheese. It was a revelation--something new, yet familiar and comforting. It was precisely the right way to start off my first (semi) grown up travel in a foreign land.

As we all know, however, bacon makes everything better. This iteration of the dish, called by its right name, spaghetti carbonara, is bacon and eggs on pasta. In the spirit of my roommate, I tolerate no fripperies here. Cream? No. Red pepper flakes? No. Even pancetta is too much for me--it's better with American-style salty pig bits. Just pasta slicked in bacon grease and egg yolk. You know you love it.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Start water boiling for pasta.

In a large skillet, fry:
5 slices of bacon, cut into half inch pieces (or however many slices you have left in the package--this is flexible)
1 whole clove garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

When the bacon is very crisp, remove the pieces from the pan with a slotted spoon. I know it seems fussy, but it's totally worth it for crispy bacon at the end.

While the pan is still hot, splash in:
2 Tablespoons vermouth, white white, or similar (optional)

After the booze bubbles off, turn the heat off and leave the pan sitting on the burner.

Meanwhile, beat together:
3 eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or similar
lots of fresh ground black pepper
I always do this in a Pyrex measuring cup, for ease of pouring later.

Cook 1 pound of spaghetti according to the package directions. Drain. Dump the pasta into the bacon grease pan and turn until the strands are coated. Then slowly drizzle in the egg mixture, stirring vigorously to avoid clumping. The heat from the pasta will cook the egg and melt the cheese.

Sprinkle with fresh herbs for pretty if you have guests. If you don't have guests, eating leftovers for breakfast is legit: It's bacon and eggs!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Irish Potatoes?

What have we here?
Could these be the world's most precious new potatoes, plucked from the carefully-tended beds of an eccentric billionaire's winter greenhouse? Are they Idaho spuds genetically modified for dwarfism? Peel-and-eat tater tots? Could they be some kind of modern art commentary on the Irish-American immigrant experience?

Nope. They're Oh Ryan's Original Irish Potatoes (TM)! What are these taste treats made of, you ask?:
Like the hummingbird cake from earlier this week, they straddle the delicious/horrifying divide expertly. Also like the hummingbird cake, they have a certain retro feel--the green foil labeling, the playing on outdated ethnic stereotypes ("Ha ha! Those Paddys can't get enough of the 'taters!"), the weird compulsion to make food look like other foods or non-food items.

I picked up this box for something like four bucks at my friendly neighborhood Shaw's grocery store. Look for them wherever trashy, sugary seasonal foods are sold. Get your own box in time for Monday's St. Patrick's Day festivities, and line your stomach with a few Oh Ryan's Original Irish Potatoes (TM) before you start guzzling whisky and/or green beer. It's the Irish way!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nearly No-Knead Bread

I. Made. Bread.

And not just any bread. Good bread.



Tangy, moist-crumbed bread.

There are those who must be thanked. 1) The Human Vacuum, who gave me a subscription to Cook's Illustrated this Valentine's Day, and 2) the fine people in America's Test Kitchens (where Cook's is produced), who labored mightily to improve the already miraculous No Knead Bread recipe recently popularized by the NYT's Mark Bittman, and succeeded.

If you are, like me, yeastphobic and shy of bread baking, this is the way to begin. First, watch the video of Bittman making his version of the bread, complete with a demonstration of the cool technique where you cook it in a Dutch oven. Then read the article in the Times that explains why letting the dough sit for 12-24 hours works gluten miracles.

And then listen up while I tell you about the tweaks in Cook's Illustrated: The flavor is improved by adding a little beer and a little vinegar. The texture is improved by reducing the liquid and indulging in a smidge of kneading between the first (super long) rise, and the second (shorter) rise. Just 15 quick knead. Also, Cook's offers a handy tip: when you turn out the dough, do it on a piece of parchment paper and then use the paper to lower the ball of bread dough into the already hot Dutch oven. Just leave the paper in there while it cooks and spare yourself burnt hands at all stages of the process.

Cook's Illustrated is protective of its innovations (and rightly so), so I have made a moral compromise and annotated the NYT recipe below rather than copying the Cook's recipe. But you should really subscribe.

Here's the Times recipe, with my notes on the Cook's tweaks in itals:

No Knead Bread (or in this case Nearly No Knead Bread)

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery and Cook's Illustrated
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed. I skipped this and just used a little more flour
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer, like Bud
1 Tablespoon white vinegar

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water, plus 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer plus 1 Tablespoon white vinegar, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal.

Knead the dough 15 times, then form into a ball. Optional: Place on a sheet of parchment paper. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 500 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Lift dough into pan on the sheet of parchment and reduce heat to 425. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hummingbird Cake

I've been hesitating over whether to post this cake for months. Because it's sort of delicious and sort of disgusting at the same time.

When the holiday season descends, some people rewatch It's a Wonderful Life, some people read The Night Before Christmas aloud en famille. And some of us--a very special sorority, to be sure--flip through the recipe boxes of their ancestors.

For some reason, I was struck this year by the fact that my granny's recipe box, a flimsy tin number painted with orange flowers, contains about a million recipes involving a can of crushed pineapple. There must have been a craze for the stuff that coincided with my granny's most prolific young-wifely recipe clipping phase.

This mad assemblage of spice cake, banana, and canned pineapple under a blanket (really more like a duvet, actually) of cream cheese frosting could not be ignored. It was ridiculously fun for the ToastWomen to make. Truly, you have not lived until you have poured one and a half cups of "salad oil" into a bowl of cake batter. Even now, an image of the Pyrex measuring cup, overflowing with oil, looms golden and horrifying in my mind's eye.

The result was headachingly sweet. One thin slice could send the vulnerable into diabetic coma. To my mind, it actually tasted retro. This one is, I think, for dedicated nostalgic cooks only. And yet...the taste sticks with you. It's "different," with all that the use of the term implies, good and bad. In fact, I wouldn't mind having a slice right now.

Hummingbird Cake
from my granny's recipe box, with granny-style directions preserved

For the cake:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups salad oil
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 can 8 oz crushed pineapple, unstrained
2 cups chopped pecans, divided
2 cups chopped bananas

Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bow, add eggs and oil, stir
until moistened. DO NOT BEAT. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup nuts and
bananas. Spoon batter into 3 9" greased pans/ Bake at 350 degrees for
25-30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes.

For the frosting:
2 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cups butter, softened
2 package 16 oz each of powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine cream cheese and butter until smooth, add powdered sugar slowly
and beat until fluffy. Stir in vanilla, put nuts on top (I didn't, as you can see, because I'm not a fan of nuts in dessert).

[ToastPoint notes: Obviously, you should frost the cake, using the usual layer cake method, before putting the nuts on top. Serve on a vintage-y cake plate. Store in refrigerator, or the bananas continue to ripen in a scary way.]