Friday, April 24, 2015

Pizza with Cilantro Pesto, Roasted Broccoli, and Red Onion

I have been making (and eating) a lot of pizza. It tends to be a Friday night ritual, a sabbath of sorts, when you want to mark the end of the week but not leave the house, and linger over something delicious. It's a ritual I may love even more than challah, with a similar religious fervor. But, at the same time, it can get a little boring.

When you have pizza every week, there are a lot of benefits. There's the ritual of it all, the removal of the daily crap-what's-for-dinner scramble, and the fact that you (mostly) remember to set up dough the night before. Also, you get good at it. You learn how much yeast, which oven rack works best, what proportion of whole wheat flour you can get away with. But when you make pizza regularly, you also start to hunger for a bit of variation. Yes, I still love a classic red pie, with a pile of thinly-sliced mushrooms and a few green olives (and a good shake of the addictive pizza pizazz spice mix that came along with a tin of cookies in my Christmas package from a dear friend). And lately, I've been back on my seasonal spate of asparagus pies. But with pizza after pizza, I sometimes want to mix it up. Sometimes this does not go so well (okra curry pizza, I'm looking at you). But this pie was pretty great.

I don't know why, but this worked. Cilantro pesto is bright and bracing, and roasted broccoli has got that fusty caramelization. Add red onion (and, of course, lots of cheese), and it's surprisingly successful — a welcome little bit of variation within the comfortingly delicious ritual.

Pizza with Cilantro Pesto, Roasted Broccoli, and Red Onion

Pesto (enough for multiple pies):
1 bunch cilantro, washed and dried
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon mild vinegar, such as rice or cider
2-4 tablespoons olive oil

2-3 broccoli crowns (I tend to make a lot, as I end up eating a good amount of broccoli off the pan)
olive oil
1 ball of dough, ~10 ounces
1/4 - 1/3 pound mozarella, shredded
1/4 a small red onion, thinly sliced

To make the pesto: Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor, and blitz until a loose paste forms (you may need to scrape things down a few times until it gets going). Add more olive oil as/if needed, then add salt and additional vinegar to taste. Set aside.

Preheat your oven to 425° Fahrenheit. Place a pizza stone on the bottom to heat up, and a rack in the middle for your broccoli.

Break or cut the broccoli into bite-sized florets, and toss with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt, and bake until beginning to soften/caramelize (it'll bake more on the pizza, so don't go nuts). Remove, and let cool somewhat. Turn the oven temperature up to 475.

To assemble the pizza:  Place the pizza dough on a lightly-floured counter top, and press outward into a thick disk (leaving a 1" unpressed area along the edge as the crust). Pick up the disk and let it drape over the backs of your hands, letting gravity help you stretch it into a 12-14" circle. If the dough resists, let it relax for a few minutes (covered), then try again. Place the stretched dough on a peel (or overturned cookie sheet or cutting board) that's lightly dusted with semolina or other type of flour.

Spread a generous portion of the pesto over the dough, up to within an inch of the crust (refrigerate any leftover pesto for another use, such as pasta). Sprinkle on the cheese, then scatter the roasted broccoli and red onions. Slide the pizza onto the preheated stone in your oven, reduce the heat to 450, and bake ~7-10 minutes, until the crust browns and the cheese melts and everything looks delicious. Remove the pizza from the oven, let cool for a moment, then slice and serve.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Chocolate Macarons

A few years back, I was having a drink with a bunch of writers here in town. And one woman (whose work I admired, but whom I had never met) walked in with her two little kids, and plopped them down at a nearby table with a clatter of crayons. And then she explained how she was late because, well, she'd jumped out of bed earlier to deal with some household emergency, slipped on a sheet, and cracked a rib against a bedpost. And by cracked, I mean fractured. So here she was, trussed up, tending to her kids, sipping a glass of wine. Oh, and her husband was traveling, and not slated to return to the country until later that night. How was she even here, we wondered? How was she even upright? She waved away our concerns. "I kinda feel like I can do anything right now," she laughed. "I'm just running on fumes." And, likely, painkillers.

I've had a spate of those weeks as well recently. Wherein you produce story after story, jump at the feast-or-famine freelance chance to do some background reporting/recording for another radio program, field an unanticipated spate of calls for a separate project (more soon), and, oh yeah, get ready to host a dozen people for Passover. Lordy. Fumes indeed.

Thankfully the madness is mostly over. Stories were filed, floors were scrubbed, food cooked and folding chairs purchased. After a few weeks of overworked insomnia (which involved a 5 am bathroom cleaning one Saturday morning), I even slept in. Exhaaaaaale.

And part of the secret to my success lay in these cookies. I knew that my schedule was about to explode, and in the pre-madness weeks, I did what prep I could. And thankfully, these cookies freeze beautifully.

I have long been a fan of the delicate cookie plate as a Passover dessert, mostly because we're full of the meal (and it allows me to supply saucers instead of proper dessert place, which is generally all that's left in circulation at that point in the evening). Yes, these particular cookies are a wee bit fussy. But they're delicious, all chocolate and almonds and air. Also, sometimes a bit of fuss is nice — especially when you can get it out of the way before the madness begins.

Chocolate Macarons

adapted from David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris
yields ~18 finished cookies (I doubled the recipe for a crowd)

If you're making this for Passover, you can omit the corn syrup, and make sure you have kosher-for-Passover powdered sugar (most of them have cornstarch). Also you can swap out a dairy-free cream and margarine for the butter, and end up with a dairy-free dessert.

1 cup (100 grams) powdered sugar
½ cup almond flour (50 grams)
3 tablespoons (25 grams) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65 grams) granulated sugar

½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons light corn syrup (optional)
4 ounces (120 grams) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (15 grams) butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Stack two cookie sheets together, and line the top one with parchment paper (this isn't necessary, but in my experience gives you the best results). Prep three stacks of cookie sheets — if you don't have enough, just lay out three sheets of parchment paper.

Sift or grind together the powdered sugar, almond flour, and cocoa powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites, gradually and then increasing the speed to high, until they begin to rise and hold their shape. While whipping, sprinkle in the granulated sugar, and continue beating a few more minutes until you form stiff peaks.

Carefully fold the dry ingredients into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. Continue to mix until it becomes a batter that will pour off of your spatula in a thick-yet-pourable (not plop-able) stream — the party line in macaron-making is going for something that "flows like magma". You want it so that when the batter pours down it will hold its shape for a few seconds, but then gradually slump down into the remaining batter. Yes, you will be deflating things. But that's okay. Think about the fact you're going to pipe cookies that you want to hold their shape somewhat, but not maintain the peak from where you piped them.

When the mixture has reached this stage, transfer it into a pastry bag, or plastic bag (if the latter, then snip off a corner). Pipe one-inch circles onto your parchment paper, with about an inch between them (I just aim for as small as I possibly can). Repeat with remaining batter and sheets.

When the cookies are all piped, rap the baking sheet against the counter once or twice to pop air bubbles (if you have free range sheets of cookies, you can lift up the parchment by both sides, and then drop it from a height of a few inches). Bake about 12-15 minutes, until the cookies are set just enough on the bottom where you can almost peel one off. Remove, let set on the sheet a few minutes, and then remove the cookies to a cooling rack. Repeat with remaining cookies — if you're recycling cookie pans, let them cool slightly between batches. And don't worry about the cookies sitting out on the counter awaiting their turn in the oven — some recipes actually recommend that.

When the cookies are baked and cooled, heat the cream and corn syrup in a small saucepan. When the cream just begins to boil at the edges, remove from heat, and add the chopped chocolate. Let sit one minute, then stir until smooth. Stir in the pieces of butter. Let cool until it becomes thick-yet-still spreadable (I kept trying to speed this up in the fridge, then missing my window and needing to microwave it — seriously like 3 times). When the ganache is ready, take a spoon or knife or small spatula, and place a small spoonful of ganache on the flat bottom of a cookie. Find a similarly sized cookie (if yours, like mine, um, vary a bit), and sandwich them together. Let age a day before eating, or store in the freezer for a few weeks.