Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball

Why is it that cheeseballs only really seem appropriate in the few weeks surrounding Christmas? Maybe it’s because I go to my aunt and uncle’s house every Christmas after an enormous dinner with my family and still somehow eat the better half of a pecan cheeseball with cracked pepper water crackers. Or perhaps it could be because a “cheeseball” is exactly the right word to describe what I feel like after several nights of eggnog and Christmas cookies and, uh, cheeseball. Yeah, that’s probably it.

But really, the other 50 weeks of the year could pass by and my mind would not once even consider a cheeseball. Then, Christmas rolls around and this is suddenly a thing. It doesn’t make sense because cheese in a constant in my life and I would gladly eat this all day, every day. But for future reference, at least there’s buzzfeed to remind me of plenty of other occasions where cheeseballs are suitable.

The holiday cheeseball I made this year was a mildly disturbing yet intriguing pinecone-shaped ball of all things delicious. I made it for a Christmas party my roommates and I held at our house last weekend. As expected, the cheeseball sat on the table for a good hour and a half before someone had the courage to attack it with the cheese spreader. And once that first move was made, the cheeseball lived a very short life thereafter, soon turning into a small pile of residual almonds.

It’s a simple, do-ahead appetizer with a shockingly small list of ingredients despite having a good deal of flavor. This Paula Deen special (shocker!) contains a triad of delicious fats – cream cheese, mayo, bacon – with just dill weed and scallion added in for flavor. After a night’s rest in the fridge, the whole mass just needs to be shaped into a pinecone-ish shape, and covered in almonds. I also sprayed it with edible metallic gold spray because, why not? And that’s it! My only regret was not having ritz crackers…next time.

Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball
Adapted slightly from Paula Deen via Amy Sedaris
Makes one awesome cheeseball

1¼ cup whole unsalted almonds
1 8oz package cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
4 crispy cooked bacon slices, crumbled
½ tsp. dill weed
3 scallions, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
rosemary sprigs for garnish and crackers for serving

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the almonds out on a cookie sheet and toast for 15 minutes. Once toasted, set aside to cool.

In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayo on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add in the bacon, dill, scallions, salt, and pepper and mix to combine. Transfer to a container and chill overnight.

Before serving, use the cold cheeseball mixture to make a pinecone shape on a serving platter. Press the almonds into the cheeseball at a slight angle, beginning at the tapered end. Continue until the entire thing is covered.  Keep chilled until ready to serve. Garnish the top with sprigs of rosemary and serve with crackers.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Boston (again) and Giulia Restaurant

A few weeks ago I visited my sister in Boston and for the first time in our whole lives, her and I spent a long weekend together, just the two of us. You would think that after twenty-some-odd years we would have had a least one day of exclusive time together, but I really can’t recall when that has happened. So in late October when I discovered I had an alarming number of vacation days left, I bought a plane ticket to Boston on a whim while sending a friendly text to my sister saying something like, “hey guess what I’m visiting you, I’ll sleep on the floor of your room :).”

Per usual, we spent the majority of the time migrating from one food-related activity to the next. There were afternoon beer tastings and enormous soft pretzels at Harpoon Brewery and a hearty southern brunch at Highland Kitchen and maybe a couple nights of Trader Joes appetizers for dinner while watching Frozen because, you know, sisters. But the night that really stood out for us was our dinner at a newer restaurant in Cambridge called Giulia, an Italian place specializing in handcrafted pastas.

We were lucky to score a table to two on a Monday night, getting probably the last seats available at 5:30. A line waited out front before the doors opened and an hour into our dinner, the place was totally packed. It's the sort of place that has a cool, informal vibe, low lighting, wood and brick décor, and a casual and friendly manner from the wait staff. Yet behind this easygoing atmosphere is a place that takes food very seriously and presents an incredibly innovative and memorable experience. My sister and I went for the 6-course tasting, leaving our experience in the hands of chef Michael Pagliarini who, for the record, personally came to our table for a quick chat to ask us how we enjoyed our meal. Each course, many of which were off-menu items, met us with sheer surprise and delight and introduced to me tastes I never tasted before and a brand new appreciation for Italian food. To say the least it was simply amazing. Thank you Giulia! Here’s what we had:

Course 1: A Selection of Sfizzi
Warm semolina cakes with squash and parmesan, duck heart skewer with pickled onion and apple, and mortadella mousse crostini with spicy olive relish

Course 2: Antipasti Platter
Fresh burrata cheese, slices of prosciutto, pear and arugula salad, eggplant caponata, marinated mushrooms, and a pickled marrow and radish salad with warm crusty bread and olive oil.

Course 3: First Pasta
Spaghetti with seared Nantucket bay scallops, lemon, butter, and parsley (though very simple this one was by far my favorite. The scallops were incredibly sweet and tender).

Course 4: Second Pastas
On the left a roasted veal breast and sweetbread ravioli with swiss chard, tomato, and parmesan and on the right an emmer farro casarecce with braised duck, matsutake mushrooms, kale and squash.

Course 5: Main Savory Entrée
Tenderloin of veal with lentils, parsnip puree, diced apple, autumn berries and warm locally foraged mushrooms

Course 6: Desserts
A sweet corn cake with caramelized figs, mascarpone cheese, and crispy orange peel and a vanilla bean panna cotta with pine nuts, sea salt, and pine bud syrup. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Apple Tart (reprise)

Well, Halloween is over so I guess that means it’s Christmas, right? I hate to admit it but I think I’m getting in that holiday mood already… though in my defense it is hard to avoid. Certain little details are cueing me in on the festive spirit: the earthy, musky smell of decaying leaves on the side of the road, a bubbling pot of chili on the stove, a cool intake of breath mingling with the smell of wood smoke, Christmas lights on the trees outside my office. There’s no denying it, the holidays are here, ready or not.

And with all of that said, I’m starting to also get the baking itch. It is yet again time to start compiling the “need to make” cookie list with my sister (though we barely put a dent in last year’s), stocking up on butter like it’s a rare commodity, and coming up with any excuse to make the house smell like cinnamon.  And because I conveniently had a bag full of apples after a trip to the pumpkin patch last weekend it all began with an apple tart (again).

Yes, this one is extremely similar to the one from 3 years ago, albeit in a cooler looking pan, but that’s ok. A classic apple tart is one thing that certainly bears repeating. The dough comes together incredibly easily in the food processor and is filled with nothing but a whole lot of sliced apples. It gets a nice coating of sugar and butter before going into the oven, causing the tops of the apples to caramelize, and the whole thing is glazed with a layer of apricot jam after coming out of the oven. For the record, the dough recipe makes enough for two tarts, which means you can make one now and freeze the rest of the dough to make another on Thanksgiving. Can’t beat that! Note: You can use whatever tart pan you may have, it doesn’t have to be rectangular one like the one pictured.

Apple Tart


For the Pastry
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbs. sugar
12 Tbs. cold unsalted butter, diced
½ cup ice water

For the Tart
4-5 crisp/tart apples
¼ cup sugar
3 Tbs. cold unsalted butter, diced
¼ cup apricot jam

For the pastry, combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until about 10-15 times until the butter is well distributed and the size of small peas. With the machine running, slowly pour in the water until the dough just comes together. Dump onto a floured surface and knead into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour. 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the apples and cut them in half down the center. Use a melon baller and a knife to remove the core. Place each half cut side down and use a small sharp paring knife to cut the apples into thin slices.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and divide in half. Save the remaining half of the dough for a later use, freezing if needed. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until abut an inch bigger than the tart pan on all sides. Place into the pan and trim off the extra overhanging dough. Arrange the apples in the pan, flat side down so that they all fit snuggly inside. Sprinkle the sugar overtop and scatter the diced butter over the apples as well.  Add a dusting of cinnamon on top as well. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is golden and the apples are caramelized.  Right after taking the tart out of the oven, warm the apricot jam in a small saucepan and use a pastry brush to glaze the top of the tart. Allow to cool for an hour before serving. Delicious with vanilla ice cream!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Baked Brie Linguine

Sometimes, Most of the time, I would say that cheese is the answer to all of our trials and a much deserved reward for our triumphs. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s basically a good decision at any time or occasion. For my roommate and I, this past week has felt particularly “cheese-centric”. So, when we decided to spend an afternoon of our weekend having a fun cooking lesson, cheese was the obvious star of the show.

The recipe is simple: boil up a big pot of linguine (or in our case, make fresh pasta from scratch for a slightly more complicated but more fun version) and spoon over loads of garlic and rosemary infused melted Brie. That’s it. We sat at the table in silence, savoring every moment of the indulgent dish and contemplating how to justify eating this much more frequently that we should. Besides "it's just soooo delicious" we’re still working on an answer…

Baked Brie Linguine
Serves 4-6

For the Pasta (makes about a pound)
2 cups flour
2 whole eggs plus 2 egg yolks

For the Baked Brie Linguine
One 8 oz round of Brie
2 cloves of garlic
1 sprig of rosemary
olive oil
sea salt and pepper
1 lb pasta (fresh or dry)
6 oz fresh spinach
4 oz grated Parmesan cheese

To make the pasta
Pour the flour into a bowl and make a well in the center. Add the eggs and mix with a fork, adding the flour bit by bit. Once it’s too stiff to mix with a fork, use your hands, adding a little water if it seems too dry. Pour the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough until all of the flour is incorporated. It will seem stiff at first but will soften as it rests. Wrap in plastic and let sit at room temperature for an hour. Using a pasta machine, roll out the dough, about one-eighth at a time and cut into linguine. Let dry on a rack until slightly stiff and transfer to a plate until ready to use.

To make the Baked Brie Linguine
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Open the box of Brie and remove the plastic wrapper. Place it back into the bottom of the wooden container. Use a knife to remove the rind from the top of the Brie, leaving a little bit around the edge. Finely slice the garlic and remove the rosemary from the stalk. Lay the garlic over the cheese, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and drizzle with some olive oil. Scatter the rosemary overtop and grate with some Parmesan. Place the Brie on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 25 minutes.

While the Brie cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the cheese has about 4 minutes left (12 if you are using dry pasta) add the pasta to the water. When it has finished cooking add in the spinach and stir. Reserve about a half-cup of the pasta water and drain. Return the pasta to the pot and add a few lugs of olive oil, half of the reserved water, and the grated Parmesan. Stir, adding more water if it seems too dry.

Place a portion of pasta into your serving dish and spoon a healthy portion of the melted cheese over the pasta. Top with a little bit of cracked pepper.