Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Confession Wednesday and Romanian Apple Pie!

Thirteen weeks ago, Confession Wednesday began and the time has come for me to come clean about it. I borrowed the Confession Wednesday series from my very favorite radio show, Slacker and Steve on Alice 105.9 (Denver, that is).

Three long law school years bestowed upon me some dysfunctional habits, certain neurotic behaviors, and two radio show addictions – morning and afternoon- one each way in my Denver-Boulder commute.

Slacker and Steve are the pm version of my radio talk show addiction. It was soothing to just listen to them ramble on and on while battling traffic on US 36 south and it is still comforting to hear them on my drive home from work.

All that to say that my Confession Wednesday concept is not original. No need to reinvent the wheel, I say on a regular basis and today! I have always loved the confession Wednesday idea so I took it! Theft? Nah. Plagiarism? Meh, not really. Copying? perhaps. I will just call it inspiration with a dash of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And I will add that I love where my inspiration came from!

When it comes to my cooking, inspiration comes standard. It always did. I used my mom and grandmother as cooking role-models; no one taught me how to cook; no one said this is how you peel a carrot. I watched and watched and learned by doing and experimenting. No instruction and no cookbook for more than, well, mere inspiration once in a blue moon.

My mother still cooks like that. She basically refuses to use a recipe and I am at a point where I measure twine with a measuring tape if Thomas Keller says 3 feet of string for trussing a chicken. My recent compulsion with following (some) recipes conscientiously does not mean I need a recipe to cook. I get by just fine with the mental repertoire of dishes I have, with the ingredient matches I learned, and the ratios that have been ingrained in my head by doing and doing and doing.

The blog, however, has so far featured some 30+ recipes that I made from cookbooks I love. Not entirely original, kind of like the Confession Wednesday series. To break the pattern, I wanted to share a recipe that you probably won’t find on online or in a cookbook since it is my mother’s and since it is Romanian.

This will be (for most of you) entirely original. It may shake your concept of Apple Pie- the American version and probably the only one you thought existed. The apple pie I grew up with is vastly different from the one you think of but it is at least equally delicious.
The quantities for ingredients in this recipe are rather interesting- more ratios than any standard quantity. I told you my mom doesn’t use a recipe; she uses ratios and she does it pretty well.

Romanian Apple Pie


Dough- 15 tablespoons sparkling water (225 ml), 15 packed tablespoons flour (425 g) , 7 tablespoons canola oil (sorry- use your tablespoon!), 4 tablespoons butter (at room temperature) plus 2 (additional) tablespoons flour.

Filling- 6-7 large granny smith apples, 6-8 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Mix together the dough ingredients and work to blend it with a fork. When it comes together into a dough, begin gently working it with your hand for about a minute.

If it sticks to the hands, add a little flour. If it is too crumbly, add a little water, a tablespoon at a time. This is a fun very elastic dough so one may be tempted to play with it and over-work it. Don’t do that.

In a bowl, bring together with a fork the butter at room temperature (you want it to be soft, but not runny) and the additional 2 tablespoons of flour. This is a sort of liquid-less, uncooked white roux sauce. Well, not really but it does use the same ingredients, sort of.

On a lightly floured surface, spread your dough into a ¼ sheet with a rolling pin. Transfer the butter/flour mixture onto your now dough sheet. Distribute it evenly on the sheet with your hands then roll the dough sheet with the butter mixture inside into a log then bring it together into a ball. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes but no longer than a day.

In the meantime, make the filling. Grate the apples coarsely, peel on. Add the sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla and mix together. Put the apples mixture into a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Adjust the heat down as it comes to a simmer.

Your goal here is to allow the juices from the apple mixture to evaporate. If they don’t evaporate enough, the bottom sheet of your dough will get soggy and will not bake properly. The grated apples will turn caramel dark brown and will cook down probably in about 25-30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375ÂșC.

Break the dough into 2 equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, work both of the halves into equal size thin dough sheets- the size of a 9 x 7 pan. Because this dough is so elastic, you will need to make it slightly bigger than the pan and you will see it draw itself back in.

Lather your 9 by 7 baking pan with butter then sprinkle lightly with flour. You want to get a thin layer of butter then one of flour in the tray. I use a little piece of paper towel to spread the butter on my pan than I shake the flour around until it sticks to the butter evenly and discard any excess flour.

Place one of your dough sheets into the pan. Spread the apple filling over it evenly and top with the other dough sheet.

Put it in the oven for about 45 minutes or until golden brown, likely closer to an hour.

Take it out of the oven and sprinkle generously with powder sugar. Cover it with a dry clean cloth. This creates a little steam and moisture. Don’t skip this step or the crust will get so hard you will not be able to cut it without it breaking it into a million crumbs.

Give it time to cool down then cut it into 2 inch squares and enjoy your (likely first) Romanian treat.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Weather Appropriate Bolognese

Right around the time I thought it might be totally out of season to make Bolognese again, it decided to snow in Colorado. In the interest of full disclosure, it didn’t actually snow at my house, but it was cold for a few days and it did snow about 30 minutes away from where I live and up in the mountains with some ski areas getting as much as 16 inches of snow. Yep, at the very end of April!

That to say that what I cook depends on more than the season and what I find at the market, it depends on the temperature outside. And while I allow the temperature to tell me what to make, with this recipe I might have to make an exception and have a soul-warming bowl of Bolognese on a sweltering August afternoon because it is that good.

That good that when recently confronted with the question what is your favorite recipe, I had no other thought but the Chez Panisse Bolognese. It is actually beyond good- I am borderline delirious just thinking about a bite of it. And Lulu loves it too- really really loves it- so it is a total winner.

You may imagine a red sauce drenching some overcooked ground beef with some old school dried oregano flavoring the whole thing. That could not be farther from this recipe. It turns out that a traditional Bolognese sauce actually has a very small amount of tomato. And the main characteristic of such a traditional sauce is its velvety rich texture. Those things, plus the list of ingredients make the Chez Panisse Cafe Bolognese a very traditional recipe. The recipe below is adapted and tweaked.

Ingredients: 1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms; 4 oz pancetta, diced; 1 yellow onion, diced fine; 4 ribs celery, diced fine; 1 carrot, diced fine; 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine; 1 ¾ lbs skirt steak cut into 1/4 inch cubes; 1 cup dry white wine; 2 bay leaves; 2 springs of thyme; 1 ½ cups beef stock; 1 ¼ cup milk; 3 tablespoons concentrated tomato paste; olive oil; kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Plus, one cup porcini liquid – you’ll see what I mean below- no need to buy it.

For garnish: ¼ cup flat leaf Italian parsley; freshly grated Parmigianino-Reggiano cheese; fresh ground pepper.

[Side note on a few ingredients

Dried porcini mushrooms are found in specialty stores as well as larger food retailers like Whole Foods. Try to find the bulk version because it is cheaper and because it allows you to buy exactly how much you want. The price difference is significant- for .5 oz - $4.99 for the pre-packaged and $1.43 if bought in bulk.

The best way to do the pancetta is to get a nice slice of pancetta from your specialty deli counter. We got it from here but delis, butchers, and a lot of food specialty places, large ones like Whole Foods included have it. The pre-sliced and pre-packaged is just not the same.

If you are really lucky and have access to green garlic, use it to substitute the cloves!]

Prepare the porcini mushrooms by soaking them in boiling water for 15 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water and reserve the liquid. Chop the porcinis fine.

Heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat and pour in 2 tbs olive oil. Add the pancetta.

When the pancetta released some of its fat, add the vegetables – onion, celery, carrot- and allow to soften slightly about 3-4 minutes Add the garlic and porcinis an cook until the vegetables are soft. Turn the heat off on this pan, for now.

In a separate pan, heat 2 tbs olive oil on medium-high heat. When the oil gets hot, add the skirt steak and a little salt and brown the meat for about 15 minutes with the pan covered.

Turn the heat to medium and add the vegetables, wine, porcini liquid, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a simmer then adjust the heat to maintain a really low simmer. Let the sauce simmer until the liquid evaporates and the contents begin to brown.

Deglaze the browned pan and contents with one cup stock and a few tablespoons of milk.

Add the tomato paste and stir well to incorporate both the tomato paste and the milk. Make sure you scrape any brown bits that might have gotten stuck to the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer the sauce an every now and then add a few tablespoons of stock and a few of milk. Allow the liquid to evaporate somewhat before you add more- the goal is a creamy velvety sauce not a soupy one.

When you have about ½ cup stock and milk combined, allow the sauce to reduce and the liquid to evaporate enough until it begins to brown. This will give your sauce a deeper color and more intense flavor. Deglaze with the rest of the stock and milk. Scrape and stir.

The sauce is done when the meat is very tender and the texture is silky and rich, probably somewhere close to tow hours but don’t be afraid to cook it longer if needed.

Rain or shine, serve it over home-made pasta, garnished with fresh chopped Italian parsley, Parmesan, and fresh ground pepper.