Archive | April, 2011

Rhubarb Cheesecake

27 Apr

Photo taken by James Cockayne

I remember many years ago on a slow Indian train journey being amazed by the luminous greens and yellows of the rice fields contrasted by the vibrantly coloured saris of the workers. It surprised me then to think that as hard as we try nature will always outshine our efforts.

Subtlety is not rhubarbs calling card, and when it caught my eye I was unable to resist. With no particular use in mind I poached it for 10 minutes with some vanilla bean, brown sugar and apple juice. Upon inspection the fridge revealed some left over ricotta which along with a little yoghurt gave me an idea for an indulgent treat.

I crushed biscuits in the food processor and added some melted butter. Then with the left over ricotta (200g) I beat in sugar (75g), the yoghurt (50g) and an egg until smooth. It was only then that I scratched my head and wondered what I was I was going to bake this unexpected treat in. After some rummaging around in the draws the best bet seemed a muffin tin. I generously greased each pocket and lined the base with the crushed biscuit and some of the cheesecake batter. I mixed up the toppings, using some of the rhubarb, some of the left over biscuit and leaving a few plain.

They baked for around 20 minutes until the cheesecake was just set. I impatiently hovered waiting until they had cooled sufficiently to try to release them. All my efforts were in vain as with every attempt I simply found a new way to break them, though they still tasted delicious.

In the end it proved there was nothing wrong with my method only a lack of patience, having sat in the fridge overnight the remaining cheesecakes easily popped out of the tin, leaving a tasty and elegant looking dessert…..


Spring Is In The Air

19 Apr

The year is moving on apace and even though there are no thoughts yet of dragging the ac unit from storage, the colours and flavours of the kitchen are all the proof you need that change is afoot. Blood oranges have all but disappeared, rhubarb is well into its season and all of a sudden cavelo nero and kale are not the only greens available. Wild Garlic or Ramps as they are known here in the US are one of the first signs of a more bountiful season.

Morels also appear come spring time and when Carmine, who owns the fruit and veg store where I live, handed me a bag of the wild mushrooms free of charge it dawned on us both that paired with some ramps, lots of butter and a little parsley I would have the makings of a perfect seasonal dish.

I should say that while I have always enjoyed the new season wild garlic, mushrooms in general are not my favourite food. I think it’s the earthiness as I am no fan of the beetroot, perhaps one too many mud pies as a child. Anyway ‘I could not look a gift horse in the mouth’ (can anyone tell me what that means?), so I prepared a simple pasta dish that actually changed my feelings on morels altogether.

The fact that uncooked they reminded me of a very smelly pair of socks made me a little cautious with my portioning but I gently sautéed a handful in some butter with a few of the chopped ramps stalks and salt until I had drawn out some of their moisture (3-5 minutes). Removing them from the pan I added a little more butter and salt to cook the rest of the ramps. Meanwhile in salted water I cooked some tagliatelle, which once drained I mixed with a splash of oil. When the ramps were warmed through I returned the morels to the pan, added some parsley and then poured the pasta on top. The whole lot was then tossed together with a gentle squeeze of lemon juice.

I really did not expect to enjoy the dish so much, there was no hint of smelly socks but instead a gaminess that work so well with the butter and ramps. I only wished I had cooked a little more, but thankfully with the mountain of morels I still have there is always another meal around the corner.

Di Fara: A Living Legend

13 Apr

I think I have alluded to Dom DeMarco’s pizzeria a few times throughout this blog without ever scratching the surface. This then is it.

I finally made the journey out to Midwood, it took about 40 minutes, first on foot, then by train. It was a nasty grey day but on a whim I decided that it was as good as any other. Midwood is very much suburbia, feeling far from anywhere resembling the NY everyone pictures. It looked a lot like Golders Green in London, urban scrawl graffiti over every bit of railway siding, plenty of semi-detached housing with driveways and garages, religious jews in their funny outfits and a high street full of double parked cars and the heavy usage of horns. In mitigation it was Friday just before all the jewish businesses were closing and the people were scrambling to get their provisions in before the sabbath.

The point of all this is to frame the pull that Di Fara has. It is a long way from the city with little reason for an outsider to visit. However, other than a police patrolman and some local mechanics, every other person in the joint seemed to be in the neighbourhood just for the pizza. One woman was collecting a pizza for her boyfriend in New Jersey, she was passing so had to stop in, “it would be worth it even for cold pizza”.  I picked up some definite Australian accents, and a fella who judging by his girth was a regular but still very much in awe of his pizza.

They were all here for the same reason, anytime you Google New York’s Ten Best Pizzas you will see Di Fara. In my opinion some of the lists have him in quite bad company (don’t ever go to Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s despite what any guide may say) but he has to be a genuine contender. As always you have to suspend some of the pre-conceptions of visiting the ‘best pizzeria in NY’. This is not Per Se your meal will not be the result of hundreds of chef hours preparing complicated sauces and foams, but it is still a real labour of love.

DeMarco makes every pizza himself and for a 75-year-old he is pretty sprightly. But that translates to a 40 minute wait for 2 slices of pizza on a quiet rainy Friday. Part of the reason is that at 75 he is not as fast on his feet as he once was. In fact this had been one of my fears that having put off this pilgrimage off for so long I was in danger of missing out should the old mans health begin to suffer. Fortunately he seemed in rude health, taking his time, but very deliberate about all his actions. Its his attention to detail that makes the pizza what it is. Making every one from scratch is a lot of work for one person, DeMarco himself finishes every pizza with scissor cut basil and extra parmesan which is periodically grated by his daughter.

Here in lies the success of this very ordinary looking pizzeria. Forty years ago there would have been many dedicated pizza men like Dom, keeping the business in the family and ensuring high standards were being met by being there for every pizza. Now many of the New York style pizza joints are anonymously owned or with priorities solely on profit rather than quality. Di Fara has remained a rock in the shifting sands and hence he stands out.

So the question I have been waiting to answer; Is this really the best pizza in New York?

No, but it is the best place you could go if you wanted a slice of true NY style pizza. The pizza genre has many different styles from classic Neapolitan, Chicago deep dish, New Haven super thin, grilled and I am sure many others. So the fairest I think you can say is that this is the best NY style pizza in New York. For the best pizza in NYC I would have to recommend the Neapolitan style pies at Motorino.

Either Or

11 Apr

I am the kind of person that either follows a recipe to a fault, or having read the recipe with good intentions ends up in a very unique destination all of my own.

Todays endeavour was much of the latter. Having found a Bakewell Tart recipe I quickly copied and pasted it into my ‘to make’ folder for a later date. Today was that later date. I stopped off from our Sunday morning stroll to pick up a fluted tin with removable base and some almond extract (could not find essence).

They have been doing some painting work on the outside of the building recently so I had an audience as I rolled out my pastry. It was at this point that I realised the method gave no indication of tart size, hence when I lined up the pastry to the tin there was a discrepancy. This called for some free styling. Fishing around in the kitchen draws I found some foil tins and figured with a little adaptation they could work.

I’d say it would have been a success if the pastry been a little better. The filling was fine, fluffy almond frangipane sitting on top of raspberry jam; delicious. The crust not so much. The first tart I baked at the wrong temperature, totally my fault. The second which although inferior in looks fared much better. The crust was at least edible, if not quite reaching the standard of pastry I would be happy to pay for.

So lessons learnt, first find a more reliable recipe and be sure to read all the necessary information before beginning, next improve my pastry making skills and hope for edible results.

Risotto Balls with Ricotta, Honey and Black Pepper

9 Apr

My free days are becoming somewhat rarer, thus finding myself at home with a spare morning and some left over risotto I decided to experiment. I lucked upon a pretty good ratio of ingredients; 100g ricotta. 20g honey, 1 tblsp chopped thyme, salt and lots of pepper (For the crust 25g sourdough crumbs, 25g panko). I pulled the pea risotto out of the fridge and made a production line of rice , ricotta mix, well seasoned flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs.

By taking a small amount of risotto in the palm of my hand and pressing a divot with my thumb I made space for a blob of the ricotta, honey and pepper mix and then placed a ‘lid’ of rice over the top and gently formed into a ball. Having made all the balls I then floured, egged and crumbed them.

refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and then fry in batches, in oil at 190 C until golden brown, dry on some paper towel.

The result is 10 balls of fried goodness that will be eaten faster than they should.

Pizza Dough as inspired by Slice

4 Apr

Over the last few months I have tried various methods of making pizza at home. I have played around with different types of dough, sauce and cooking techniques. I am still far from reaching perfection and I have been only concerning myself with the basic elements of dough and sauce.

Dough: The pizza dough recipe I offered in the post Pizza 101 is an excellent starting point. It is the recipe I learnt in baking class and produces great crust without too much effort or forward planning, it can be easily frozen and pulled out whenever needed.

The next step though was to create a sourdough pizza base which adds several dimensions in taste and texture. The naturally occurring yeasts and slow fermentation of the dough allows for a greater depth in flavour and a better crust texture.  Sadly I do not yet have my own perfected sourdough pizza recipe, however I have achieved very reasonable results with the method below.

200g sourdough starter (40%) Recipe and method of how to make starter see sourdough post

325 g water(65%)

500g all purpose flour (100%)

1.5 teaspoon fine sea salt (2%)

Once you have your dough you can allow it time to develop. There is nothing to stop you kneading and proofing your dough ready for baking that same day, however, improved results can be seen with some patience. By allowing the dough to cold ferment over several days you will see benefits in both flavour and texture taking the finished product closer to something you might expect from a wood fired pizzeria.

Once the ingredients are fully mixed allow to rest for 10 minutes, this will allow full hydration and help develop the strength of the dough. Knead for a short time, try 12 quick turns. If you were to imagine the picture as knead 1 you would then turn the piece of dough 90 degrees on the bench and repeat the action by picking up the point furthest from you and folding it towards you, turn on 90 degrees and repeat. Once again cover the dough and leave for 15 minutes. Repeat the kneading process 3 times with 10 min rest in-between. Your dough is now ready to go into the fridge for at least 48 hours.

Over this time it will double in size and remain in good condition for up to 6 days in the fridge. There will be subtle changes to the structure of the dough most easily seen once baked. Before baking you will need to remove as much dough as you need and shape it into a small ball and allow it to rest covered at room temperature for 2 hours. You will then be ready to stretch your base. For instructions see Pizza 101

Some background reading on homemade pizza making at the Slice blog led me to a good all round tomato sauce.

2x 400g whole peeled tomato cans (go for San Marzano if you can)

1x tblsp extra virgin olive oil

1x tblsp unsalted butter (optional)

2-3 x garlic cloves mashed or grated fine

1/2x tsp dried oregano

pinch of dried chilli flakes

1 x tsp fine salt

1x onion peeled and cut in half

1x tsp sugar

Puree the tomatoes using a food mill or processor. Heat the oil and butter with garlic, oregano, chili flakes and salt for a few minutes, stir regularly and do not allow garlic to burn. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to simmer, turn the heat down to its lowest setting and reduce the sauce by half (approx 1 hr) check for seasoning and allow to cool before refridgerating. (Store for 1 week or freeze).

The new cooking technique I have been using came from the same source. As author himself points out in his post it seems rather obvious yet it took several goes before it became obvious.

The most common method is to use a simple pizza stone and give it a long heating period at the highest temperature your oven will go to. This gives the base enough time to brown while allowing the dough and toppings to fully bake. The downsides to this method are a very hot apartment (simply not viable in Summer in NY), a long cooking time for the pizza which can be a problem serving multiple guests and a lack of puff/char in your crust.

The alternative which will solve all these problems is to use a combination of your broiler (grill) and the gas stove top. The secret is all in the different transference of heat in cooking techniques. (For more info see the Slice blog post….) Simply enough start your pizza under the grill, the heat from above will give the dough a good oven spring allowing it puff up quickly while imparting good colour/charring. Once everything on top is cooked as you like, transfer to the gas stove to give the base its crisp texture and colouring.

You should preheat your grill and your pan on the stove top. Once the dough is flattened out to the size of your pan, carefully drop in and begin to top. Once the pizza is assembled place as close to the grill as you can. Once the edges of the pizza have puffed up sufficiently (2 minutes approx) you can remove and place back on the stove top to cook the base.  After a couple of minutes you should be able to lift the pizza to see underneath, once you have some colour and are happy that it is cooked through you are ready to serve.

The final result is as  close to a wood fired pizza as is possible without the oven. You should have a slightly charred and chewy base, with very puffy and slightly blackened crust.

Food For Thought

1 Apr

I had an epiphany the other day which was in no way related to food hence it should not really be appearing here on this blog. However I think inspired by the caffeine rush from a morning coffee at Pedlar, it struck me that the podcast I was listening to so closely reflected my own views that I was compelled to express it.

The Israeli/Palestine issue is complicated and so tied up with the emotions of interested parties that sensible conversation becomes nigh on impossible. This Podcast really struck me as seeing the truth of the matter with American, British and other powers allowing Israel to continue in a cycle of abuse that hurts itself as much as the Palestinians.

There is no easy answer and I do not think that either side can be labeled as right or wrong, both have wronged and both have been wronged. The solution lies with the side that has the ability to make concessions, to be brave enough (knowing innocent people will continue to be targeted) to make them. Israel has that power, Palestine does not.

Next time you are sat on a train, in your car or with nothing else to listen to try this.

If you are having trouble with this link, you can go straight to Itunes and download the second episode in Johan Hari’s series. series

(If you are not interested in the intro skip to 6min 44seconds)