Saturday, March 28, 2009

Daring Bakers-Lasagne Verde Al Forno with Country Pork Ragu

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The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

A refreshing change from decadent desserts, the Daring Bakers hosts have put together a savory challenge-homemade spinach lasagne! This was an exciting challenge as I will be traveling to Italy in September, first the Cinque Terre region and then to Rome. Lynne Rosseto Kasper is a favorite cookbook author and I'm a regular listener to her "Splendid Table" podcasts.

My only deviation from the recipe was to substitute the Country Style Ragu with my own Country Pork Ragu. It was a matter of using what ingredients I had on hand which to me personalizes a dish. The Country Style Ragu was probably created in the same manner-using what's available in your larder. There was no special equipment needed to make the spinach pasta, so it was an easy one for a beginner to make. Try it in your own kitchen.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Pork Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

Country Pork Ragu

1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1/2 inch piece
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1/2 each red, yellow and orange bell pepper, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 jar prepared pasta sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat. Brown meat in batches. Remove to bowl. Add remaining olive oil,add onion, peppers, carrot and celery, saute until translucent, add garlic, red chile flakes and oregano; cook for 1 minute. De-glaze pan with red wine. Add heavy cream, crushed tomatoes and pasta sauce. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking to bottom of pan. Adjust seasonings. The ragu can be made up to 2 days ahead or frozen up to 2 months.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blueberry Crumb Cake Muffins with Lemon Balm

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Lemon Balm is one of the first herbs of Spring to make its appearance in my herb garden. An easy herb to grow, lemon balm has many uses, both culinary and medicinal. Sprigs of lemon balm can be used to garnish beverages and dried lemon balm leaves can be steeped for tea. The leaves can be buried in sugar overnight for a lemon-scented sugar to use in desserts or for sweetening beverages. Much like the lemon rubbed sugar that Dorie uses in her recipes that call for lemon zest. For savory dishes, use lemon balm with other herbs for roasting chicken or to make an herbal vinaigrette. If you are thinking of planting an herb garden, you would enjoy this perennial herb.

I added a two tablespoons chopped lemon balm to the batter for an extra jolt of lemon flavor. Making muffins seemed like an easy variation of the recipe. I could freeze them and just take out what I wanted; but as it turned out, the muffins rose too high and the walnut crumb topping melted off the top. Rustic muffins, but very tasty.

Sihan has the recipe for the Blueberry Crumb Cake on her blog, but check out the Tuesdays with Dorie blogroll to see what other bakers' have done with this recipe.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Black Olive Pesto Focaccia

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While rummaging through my cabinets the other day, I came across my old round breadboard wedged between two pans, forgotten for months. Even though board was stained and scratched, it was beginning to develop a lovely old look. Around the outer circle of the board was carved with the word "bread" which is what first attracted me to the board when I saw it in a shop in England. The knife which came with it also had "bread" carved in the wooden handle, but it has disappeared in one of our many moves. Finding the board has inspired me to pull out my bread-baking books for the perfect bread to showcase my newly found treasure.

Along with cleaning out my cabinets, I've been reading guide books and travel essays in preparation for a trip to Italy in September, soaking up everything possible on the lovely countryside and especially, the foods and wines there. Olives and olive oil play a major role in the cuisine of Italy. With that in mind, I've made a focaccia with chopped black olives in the dough, topped with black olive pesto redolent with lemon zest, capers,fresh thyme and grated Parmesan cheese.

This is my entry for "Click" hosted by Jugalbandi. The theme for March is "Wood". Perfect opportunity to weave all these ideas into one post.

Black Olive Focaccia

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 1/4 cups bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup tepid water
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons good olive oil, plus extra for oiling bowl
1 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
Black Olive Pesto for topping, recipe follows bread directions

In the bowl of a large capacity bread machine, place all ingredients except the chopped black olives. Process on the dough cycle according to manufacturer's instructions. When complete, turn out on lightly floured surface and knead in the chopped olives. Place in a large oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about an hour. In the meantime, oil an 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking pan. Line with parchment paper, oil parchment paper lightly. Preheat oven to 400° F. If you have a baking stone, heat oven with stone on rack.

When doubled, turn dough out on parchment lined baking pan. Spread and stretch dough to fit pan. Top with all of the Olive Pesto. Let rest, uncovered for about 15 minutes. Place baking pan on lowest oven rack or directly on stone. Bake for 15 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350° and bake for an additional 20 minutes until bread springs back and is golden brown. Let cool 5 minutes. Remove from pan and transfer to to a rack to cool to room temperature.

Black Olive Pesto

1 large (5-6oz) can pitted black olives, drained
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 bunch Italian parsley, stemmed
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon crumbled fresh thyme leaves
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place all ingredients in bowl of a food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse 3 or 4 times for a few seconds each time until mixture is coarsely ground. You can also use a large mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients. Store in refrigerator up to five days in a tightly covered container. Makes about 1 cup.

Recipe adapted from "Bread For All Seasons" by Beth Hensberger.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

French Yogurt Cake with Marmalade Glaze

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The weather was cold and outside it was pouring rain, but in my kitchen, the sweet, piquant smell of lemons was wafting throughout as the French Yogurt Cake baked. No wonder the French home cooks bake this cake-it's so easy, delicious and versatile. The cake is perfect with a lemon marmalade glaze, but can be split and filled with lemon cream, spread with jam, or can be transformed into a luscious strawberry shortcake.

Almond meal replaced the ground almonds and I found that heating the lemon marmalade first before straining it gave me a little more glaze. Thanks to Liliana from My Cookbook Addiction for choosing such a lovely cake for this edition of Tuesdays with Dorie. You can find the recipe on her blog.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Easy Roasted Plum Tomatoes

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Plum tomatoes are your best choice for oven roasting as they have thicker flesh than typical round tomatoes and hold up better during the roasting process. This recipe is so easy, you'll be roasting tomatoes in no time. Great for topping pizza, focaccia or just serving them plain for a colorful side dish.

Roasted Plum Tomatoes

4 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
Fresh thyme sprigs
salt and freshly ground pepper to season
extra virgin olive to drizzle

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Place tomatoes on lined pan cut side up. Lay the thyme sprigs around the tops of the tomatoes and tuck additional thyme sprigs in spaces between the cut tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil. Place in oven and bake for about 45 minutes.
Serves 4.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lemon Cup Custard

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This mild, unassuming custard that Bridgit chose created a firestorm of comments from a large number of the Tuesday with Dorie bakers and I almost didn't make it, but I love custard in any way, shape or form and anything lemon! Having said that, I nearly botched making the custard! No problems with the preparation, that went well. In addition to steeping the milk with the lemon zest, for a more natural lemon flavor,I also rubbed lemon zest into the sugar as Dorie suggested in the comment section.

The error came when I baked the custards. Not having the proper size roasting pan, I used a thick ceramic baking pan and place a cloth napkin instead of paper towels in the bottom of the dish. Needless to say, It took forever to cook! I pulled the pan from the oven after an hour even though it was not quite set. To cover my crime, I removed the custards to a bowl, whisked the mixture some and poured it in some small dessert glasses. The consistency didn't matter at all! It was delicious. The lemon flavor was subtle and light as was the custard. Perfect!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Chocolate Armagnac Cake-Tuesdays with Dorie

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Lyb's pick this week was a luscious chocolate armagnac cake with quite a story behind it. Working in a famous restaurant kitchen in New York making the same dessert, a chocolate whiskey-soaked raisin cake, day in and day out became a real bore for Dorie. Her creativity was stifled and I, well, know the feeling. It's hard to completely follow some recipes-either you are out of a minor ingredient or you don't like a certain ingredient or you just can't help messing around with the recipe. But by substituting prunes for the raisins,Armagnac for the whiskey and ground pecans for almonds got Dorie fired for "creative insubordination" even though the diners loved the new cake.

The dried prunes were soaked in brandy and when flambeed had a rich, heady aroma. This is not an everyday cake and is best served as a celebration dessert as it is very rich. Mind went in the freezer to be served when some of my family comes to visit. Go over to TWD and see some lovely variations of Dorie's Armagnac Cake.
Gadget by The Blog Doctor.