Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lavash Crackers

I generally am not a fan of single-use kitchen appliances. But I make an exception for my pasta machine. There are a few reasons for this dispensation: first and foremost, it makes amazing pasta, which is pretty near impossible without it. And secondly, my dear sister gave it to me. And third, it is a chunky metal machine with no electric parts (thus thrilling my Luddite heart, and nearly getting around the whole 'appliance' category). And this past weekend, I discovered another charm: it's not single use! In addition to making pasta, it also makes kick-ass crackers.

I was asked to bring appetizers to a party with a delicious Middle Eastern theme, for a reception in honor of one of the best books I've read in a long time. So I made some trusty hippie hummous, fancied up for the occasion with a topping of sumac, toasted hazelnuts, and fresh mint (for the record: highly recommended combination). But to go with? The pita bread at the closest grocery store was a bit underwhelming, and I wasn't up to schlepping to the Middle Eastern market. So I looked up cracker recipes. Namely lavash, in keeping with the evening's theme.

These lavash come from the amazing Peter Reinhart, and have many things to recommend them (beyond giving your pasta machine newfound purpose). They're fairly easy to make, cheap, and infinitely adaptable (I went with a topping of flaky salt and cumin seeds, as it seemed vaguely thematic). They're quite dramatic if you present them whole, and between their thin-ness and the yeast, they bake up deliciously light and crisp. And yes, you can roll them out with a rolling pin if you don't have a pasta machine. But if you have one, I highly recommend exploring this off-label application.

Lavash Crackers

Adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, Peter Reinhart
yields enough lavash for a party

1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon active yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups flour (or more, as needed)
toppings: coarse salt, whole seeds

Place the water in the bowl of a stand mixer (or just a large bowl, if you prefer to knead by hand), sprinkle in the yeast, and let soften a few minutes. Add the salt, honey, and olive oil, then knead in the flour (with a dough hook or your hands), until you have a firm dough, somewhat on the dry side (not quite as stiff as pasta dough, but fairly stiff — if the dough is too loose, it'll be hard to roll out later). Add more flour as needed to form a firm dough. Continue kneading for several minutes, until the gluten is well developed and the dough is smooth and supple. Place in an oiled bowl, swish around and flip over so that the now-oiled bottom is on top, and cover and set aside to rise until doubled (~90 minutes, though you can also do this in the refrigerator the night before).

When the dough is risen you're ready to make the crackers, line a few baking sheets with parchment or grease them very well (I haven't tried the latter, so it's possible there may be some sticking). Gather some toppings, and a spray bottle of water (or a dish of water with a pastry brush), and preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit.

You can roll these out as thin as you can with a rolling pin, but for best results, use a pasta machine. Take walnut-sized lumps of dough, and flatten with your hands until they can go through the machine at the widest setting. Run it through on thinner levels (because it's softer than pasta dough, you can likely skip levels), ultimately cranking it through level 5. Gently place the thin rolled-out lavash on your prepared cookie sheets. Spritz or brush gently with water, then sprinkle with desired toppings.

Let the prepared lavash rise for 5 minutes on the sheets, then transfer to the oven, and bake until mostly golden, ~15 minutes. Remove, let cool for a moment on the racks, and then transfer to a rack to finish cooling. Repeat with remaining dough.

Serve lavash whole for dramatic effect, or break into shards.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hippie Krispie Treats

You know that thing wherein you think you're one of many people nibbling away at a particular snack? And then you find out that, in fact, everyone else has had just a bite or two, if that, and you've essentially eaten the entire thing yourself? This is one of those snacks.

Luckily this recipe is surprisingly healthy, a boon to those who end up finishing the majority of the batch (over a few days, but still). Ostensibly they're a take on scotcheroos, the krispie treat variation featuring peanut butter. And a cup of corn syrup. And a cup of sugar.

But this hippie version loses the refined sugar in favor of maple syrup, and instead of artificially flavored "butterscotch chips", gets caramel sweetness and heft from brown rice syrup. They are undeniably sweet, but not cloyingly so, especially when you enjoy it with a cup of tea. And then you enjoy another. And then another.

Hippie Krispie Treats

adapted, only slightly, from The Bojon Gourmet (brilliant!)
yields 8 squares

1/4 cup (3 ounces) maple syrup
1/4 cup (2 3/4 ounces) brown rice syrup
1/4 cup (2 ounces) almond butter or peanut butter
1/4 cup (1 1/2 ounces) chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) coconut oil
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
2 cups crisp Rice Krispie-style cereal

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) coconut oil
1/3 cup (2 ounces) chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate
2 tablespoons chopped, toasted almonds (optional)
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt (optional)

Line an 8x4 or 9x5" loaf pan with a sling of parchment paper.

In a large saucepan, bring the maple and rice syrup to a rolling boil for 1 minute, stirring frequently with a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon (be careful not to let it boil over).

Remove from the heat, and stir in all of the remaining bar ingredients except the cereal (nut butter, chocolate, coconut oil, and salt). Stir until the mixture is well combined, then fold in the cereal. Pour the mixture into your lined loaf pan, packing down firmly with a spatula or your hands.

In a small saucepan (or the same big one, if you've scraped it clean), melt the remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate and 1 tablespoon coconut oil together over very low heat, stirring constantly just until melted (be careful not to scorch the chocolate). Pour this chocolate mixture over the rice mixture, spreading to form a smooth top layer. Sprinkle the nuts and salt (if using) over the top.

Let the bars set at cool room temperature (about 1 hour) or in the fridge (about 1/2 hour) until firm. Lift the sling out of the pan, trim away the edges if you like (delicious!), and cut into 8 squares.

They will keep at room temperature for several days. Bojon Gourmet thought they were best the day of (with the cereal softening a bit thereafter), but I found them to be lovely for several days (in case the crisp secret lay in the cereal, it was Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hazelnut Pudding

I have been on a serious pudding kick lately. I made chocolate pudding for friends with a new baby. I made pistachio pudding to use up the last of some half-and-half from a houseguest. And then I made chocolate pudding again for a sickbed delivery (in related news, did you know that people still get whooping cough?). And yet, I am still not done of pudding.

But pudding, apparently, was done of me. I had made all the puddings there were. I was literally googling around for alternate options, plugging in "pudding -chocolate -rice -pistachio -bread," but coming up woefully short on new directions in which to take my obsession. And then, like a good Oregonian, I thought of hazelnuts. Why should pistachio be the only nut that gets its own pudding? Does hazelnut have enough oomph to anchor a pudding?

Turns out it does. Hazelnut pudding — especially when you deepen the flavor by giving the nuts a good toasting first — is lovely. It's rich yet subtle, comforting yet grown up. And when you top it with a blob of barely-sweetened whipped cream, and a pinch of locally made coffee salt you were recently gifted — well, it's just sublime. The world of pudding just got a little bit bigger.

Hazelnut Pudding

yields 6 small cups

1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 cups whole milk
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
a hefty pinch salt (if you're not topping puddings with additional flaky salt, you may want two hefty pinches)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pats

For serving: lightly sweetened whipped cream, additional toasted and chopped hazelnuts, flaky salt, etc.

If your hazelnuts are raw, roast them: preheat your oven to 275° Fahrenheit, and pour the nuts onto a rimmed baking dish. Bake, shaking to turn them once or twice, until they get a nice rich golden color and smell amazing, ~15-20 minutes. Let cool slightly, and then rub in a clean dishtowel to remove the loose skins. You may need to do this a few times — get off what you can, but no need to go nuts about it (sorry). Some skins are fine.

Place the roasted hazelnuts in a blender, along with half of the sugar and all of the milk, and blitz for a few minutes, until as smooth as possible. Pour into a large saucepan, and heat over a medium flame until it just begins to steam.

While the milk is heating, scare up 6 small dishes for the finished pudding. In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, and salt until smooth and lump-free. When the nutty milk mixture is steamy, pour it into the yolks mixture slowly, whisking constantly (you'll have to whisk like the Dickens at first, but it'll be less critical as you loosen the mixture up). When everything is incorporated, return the mixture to the saucepan. 

Cook over a medium (or, if you want to be extra careful, medium-low) heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens (this should just take a few minutes). Eventually the mixture will come to a boil — let bubble for a minute while you stir, then turn off the heat. Add the butter and vanilla, stirring to combine. Pour into your serving dishes and chill until cool and set.

To serve, topped with whipped cream and flaky salt or toasted hazelnuts if desired.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Chickpea and Kale Soup

In a lot of ways I am a big hippie. I store my bulk-bought rice in cleaned-out tomato sauce jars (poured through my trusty metal canning funnel, no less), and I sleep under a threadbare quilt stitched together from old fabric samples. But when it comes to food, hippies and I have some issues. Sure, I have eaten my share of tofu and tempeh. But there are so many areas where hippies are dead wrong. Like telling you that nutritional yeast is an acceptable substitute for grated cheese. And insisting that you should never, ever salt your dried beans until they're finished cooking.

A recent article helped bust open this hippie myth for me. Cooking beans with salt is my new favorite thing. And not just cooking them with salt — soaking them with salt. Although the good old hippie cookbooks warn that salt toughens bean skins, it's actually quite the opposite — advance salting helps soften bean skins, yielding beans that cook up evenly, consistently, and, most importantly, full of flavor.

Recently I put this newfound briny knowledge to good use by cooking up some chickpeas for a delicious soup. After a salty soak, beans are simmered with a bunch of aromatics and a glug of olive oil (and a bit more salt). A few of them are pureed with the two full bunches of kale, which yields a ridiculously green and flavorful base, and the rest of the beans bob along in the broth. It's clean yet satisfying, full of bright green flavor but also a protein-rich depth. So what turns such a simple preparation into one of the best soups I've tasted? Is it the kale? The olive oil (toned down from the original 1 1/2+ cups called for, but still)? Or is it the salt?

Chickpea and Kale Soup

adapted from Franny's: Simple Seasonal Italian
yields ~8 servings

2 cups dried chickpeas
1 carrot, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 celery stalk, cut into large chunks
1 onion, peeled and halved
11 garlic cloves
5 strips lemon peel
1 rosemary sprig
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or more to taste
3 quarts water
~1/2 cup olive oil (this is toned way down — if you want the full effect, throw in a full cup with the cooking beans)
¼ teaspoon  dried chili flakes
2 bunches Tuscan kale
Freshly cracked black pepper
Lemon wedges
Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with plenty of water and a hefty spoonful of salt. Let soak for 8 hours or overnight, then drain.

Wrap the carrot, celery, onion, 3 garlic cloves, the lemon peel, and rosemary in a large square of cheesecloth and secure with kitchen twine or a tight knot. Place in a large pot with the soaked and drained chickpeas, the additional salt, the water, and 1/4 cup of the olive oil (alternately, if you don't want to deal with cheesecloth, you can just float all the aromatics in the broth, and fish them out later). Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the chickpeas are tender, about an hour. Add more water if needed to cover.

While the chickpeas are cooking, finely chop the remaining 8 garlic cloves. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook until the garlic is fragrant but not golden, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, and transfer the garlic to a blender or food processor.

Remove the center ribs from the kale (or not, if they're not too fibrous) and coarsely chop the leaves. In the same skillet you used for the garlic, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over a medium-high heat. Add enough kale to fill the skillet, and cook, tossing, occasionally, until tender (~3 minutes). Remove, and transfer to the blender or food processor with the garlic. Repeat with the remaining batches of kale until it's all cooked, adding more oil to the pan if needed.

When the chickpeas are cooked, add 2 cups of them to the blender along with the kale and garlic, and a cup or so of cooking liquid. Puree until smooth. Return the puree to the pot and cook over medium-high heat until hot. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.