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Friday, December 8, 2017

Holiday Baking - Sfogliatella - the Best Italian Pastry You Can’t Pronounce

Growing up in Los Angeles, and this was many years ago, the closest I got to an Italian meal was opening a can of Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs. Only when I moved to Providence to teach at Rhode Island College did I experience authentic Italian cuisine. Living close to Federal Hill, the historic center of the city’s Italian community, I had easy access to Italian delis that imported cheeses, pastas and charcuterie directly from Italy. Every block had a small bakery making cakes, pies, cookies, breads and pastries according to recipes handed down for generations.

I discovered cannoli filled with ricotta cheese studded with flakes of bittersweet chocolate. Twice baked biscotti with almonds. Pastry cream filled zeppole, a fat doughnut of sugared dough, baked or deep fried. I loved them all, but my favorite was a seashell shaped pastry, the deliciously crisp sfogliatella.
What makes this Tuscan pastry so famous is a crunchy flakiness outside and a sturdy, sweet ricotta cheese filling inside. Imagine the best croissant with a thick custardy filling.  And, by the way, the “g” is silent, so sfogliatella is pronounced “sfo-li-a-tella.”

Holiday baking

Some recipes are best saved for the holidays or special occasions when helping hands are available to join in the cooking. Making tamales on your own isn’t easy, but at holidays when you are joined by friends and family, the repetitive work becomes social and fun. The same for making Chinese dumplings filled with savory ground pork and spices.

For me, I’m making sfogliatelle with my family. Happily the pastry can be made in stages, so the work can be spread out over several days. The dough and ricotta filling can be made on separate days and refrigerated. Assembling the sfogliatelle can be saved for yet another day. And, the completed, unbaked pastries can be kept in the freezer for months, available on a moment’s notice to brighten an afternoon tea break or a weekend dinner party.

Executive Pastry Chef Federico Fernandez

For years I searched for an easy-to-follow recipe without success. When I was told that Executive Pastry Chef Federico Fernandez would demonstrate making sfogliatelle in his kitchen at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, I jumped at the opportunity.
Born in Buenos Aires, Fernandez is a worldly student of South American, French and Italian cuisine. His pastries have been served at some of the world’s most elegant hotels, the Park Hyatt, the Marriott Plaza, the Fontainebleau and now the Four Seasons. Before we met, I admired his work on Instagram. His elegantly beautiful pastries are amazing.
Making sfogliatelle requires patience, muscle work and an attention to details. Demonstrating how to make sfogliatelle for the YouTube video on Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, the very affable Fernandez showed how the process can be fun. I enjoyed the passion he puts into baking. He is an artist with a soul and a good sense of humor. While he worked, he filled my head with technical details about the art of baking and fed me samples that put me into culinary heaven.

Sfogliatelle

All-purpose flour could be used, but that would be a mistake. Fernandez uses bread flour because its higher gluten strength gives the dough more elasticity. That allows the dough to be worked repeatedly to create sfogliatelle’s characteristic flaky layers.

In the video, Fernandez uses a recipe to make 50 sfogliatelle. Not that he bakes that many at one time. He freezes the unbaked pastries, taking out each morning only the number he needs for the hotel’s breakfast service. Freezing does not diminish the quality of the sfogliatella which are freshly baked before serving.

To make his sfogliatelle, Fernandez includes semolina flour in the dough to add color and texture. He also uses semolina in the filling because that is a traditional ingredient and because Semolina gives the filling density as well as its characteristic yellow color. By contrast, pastry cream which is not as dense would melt when the sfogliatelle are baked in a hot oven.

Fernandez uses a room-sized Rondomat sheeter machine to flatten and stretch the dough. “Little by little,” as he says in the video, the dough softens and thins. At home you will use a rolling pin and a lot of elbow grease. Have friends help with the process or take breaks. If you want to rest, place a damp kitchen towel over the dough.

Creating multiple layers gives the pastry its distinctive crispy, flaky quality. This is the most labor intensive part of the process. The result is worth the effort.

If you do not have a small rolling pin, pick up a ½ - ¾ ” dowel, 5-6” in length from a lumber yard or hardware store. When you get home, sand the dowel and treat with a light film of safflower oil. Dry and clean before using.
Special equipment

2 large, sturdy rolling pins

1 small rolling pin or ½ - ¾ ” dowel, 5-6 long

Wooden spoon

Wire whisk

A large work surface

A heavy duty electric mixer

1 metal ring, 3 ½” 4 in diameter, the ring of a small spring-form pan will do nicely

Parchment paper or Silpat sheets

Yield: 10 -12 sfogliatelle

Time: 4 hours + refrigeration overnight for the dough

The Dough

Sfogliatelle are famous for being deliciously crisp. Three things create that wonderful quality, a dozen+ paper thin layers of dough with fat between the layers and using bread flour with more gluten to create thin, stretchable sheets of dough.  

For the fat, unsalted butter can be used, but Fernandez recommends an equal mix of unsalted butter and Sweetex Z or Crisco because butter melts too easily. Please note that Sweetex is an artificially sweetened fat. Fernandez uses a different product, Sweetex Z which has zero trans fats.

Even though fat is essential to making the sfogliatelle's layers crisp, in the heat of a 400F oven, the fat all but disappears.

Ingredients for dough

4 cups bread flour
2 cups semolina flour
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons honey
1 cup + 1 tablespoon water
4 cups unsalted butter, room temperature or 2 cups unsalted butter + 2 cups Crisco or Sweetex Z
½ cup all-purpose flour for dredging when assembling the sfogliatelle
¼ cup powdered sugar for dusting before serving
Ingredients for ricotta filling

2 ½ cups whole milk
½ rounded tablespoon fresh orange zest, avoiding all the bitter white pith
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups semolina
5 egg yolks
1 ¾ cups cow’s milk ricotta cheese

Directions

Before making the dough, whip the unsalted butter or unsalted butter and Crisco or Sweetex Z in a mixer for ten minutes using the paddle attachment so it is very soft and fluffy. Use at room temperature.

Making dough with layers using a simple fold

In a mixer fitted with a hook, combine the two flours, salt and honey. Blend on a low speed to mix well, then slowly add water. Continue blending on a low speed about 10 minutes. Increase the speed and blend another 2 minutes.
Touch the dough in the bowl of the mixer. If it feels too dry, add a small amount of water. Turn on the mixer and incorporate the water. Be careful not to add too much water. If the dough becomes soggy, you cannot add more flour. 

Transfer the dough from the mixing bowl to a work surface. Work the dough with your fingers until it is in the shape of a fat log. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and let rest 10 minutes on the counter. Do not refrigerate.

After resting, remove the plastic wrap. Dust the work surface with bread flour and position the log in front of you, the long way. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough away from your body. The log of dough will flatten and elongate.

To create layers, fold 1/3 of the dough from the end closest to you onto the middle. Fold the other 1/3 from the opposite end on top of the first fold. This is called a “simple fold.”

Roll out the dough. Flip the dough over and rotate it clockwise a quarter turn. Press down on the folded dough with your hands. Roll out the dough again. Allow the dough to relax a minute or two before making the next simple fold.

After folding, rolling out, flipping and rotating the dough 15 times, you will have created dozens and dozens of delicate layers. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel. The dough needs to rest and so do you. Take 10 minutes and have a cup of tea.

Making fat dough thin

Now that you have created layers and made the dough softer, the dough needs to become thinner.

Fernandez uses a Rondomat dough sheeter. He can handle a large recipe because the mechanical rollers do the physical work of rolling out the dough into a sheet almost thirty feet long. In your kitchen, you will use a rolling pin and a lot of upper body strength. But even though you are using a smaller recipe, your sheet will still be quite large. As you roll and thin the dough, it will spread in length and width so clear your counter for this step. You will need the space.

Sprinkle bread flour on the work surface. Make a simple fold one time, then roll out the dough. Because the sheet will become too large for the work space, you will wrap the dough around the second rolling pin.

Once you have rolled out all the dough and accumulated it on the second rolling pin, check the thickness. If it is not yet paper thin, roll the dough out again. You may have to do this step several times until the dough is paper thin. Once all of the paper thin dough has accumulated on the second rolling pin, you are ready for the next step.

Adding fat for crispness

In order to create croissant-like flaky layers, a fat is required. Using your hands, apply a thin film of room temperature butter or the mixture of butter-Crisco or Sweetex Z on the work surface.
Place the rolling pin with the sheet of dough on the back of the work area.

Keeping the sheet attached to the rolling pin, pull forward on the dough and lay a length of the unbuttered sheet on the work surface. Use a sharp knife to trim off and discard the rounded end of the dough so the edge facing you is square.

Spread a thin layer of fat onto the sheet of dough on the work surface.

Start a new roll. As Fernandez shows in the video, use your fingers to lift the end of the buttered dough off the work surface and roll it away from you.

To unwind another length of dough from the rolling pin, lift the roll of buttered dough and bring it back toward you.

Continue that process, pulling dough from the rolling pin onto the work surface, spreading on fat and adding that length to the buttered roll, until you have buttered all the dough.

As you create the buttered roll, the ends will become untidy. No worries. You will trim those later.
When you have applied fat to all of the dough, the roll will be in the shape of a large log. Give the entire log a final coat of fat, seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Ricotta Filling

You can make the sweetened ricotta filling and refrigerate in an air-tight container for up to three days until you are ready to assemble the sfogliatelle.

Directions

Combine whole milk and white sugar in a pan over low heat. Whisk to combine. Add orange zest. Increase the heat.
When the mixture boils, add semolina all at once and whisk well. The mixture will thicken quickly. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently to combine. Avoid burning.

Switch to a wooden spoon when the filling becomes paste-like. Continue stirring. Reduce heat. Cook another 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Use a spatula to transfer the thickened mixture into the mixer bowl. Be certain to scrape off all of the batter that has accumulated on the sides and bottom. Allow to cool for a minute.

On the mixer, use the paddle attachment to aerate the filling. Run the mixer at a low speed for a minute. Increase the speed and run for another 2 minutes.
To prevent splattering, before adding the egg yolks, stop the mixer and lower the bowl.  Add yolks. Change the mixer speed to low. Mix for a minute. Increase the speed and run another 2 minutes.

Once the filling is creamy, use a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl and incorporate all of the mixture. Run the mixer again at higher speed.

Add ricotta using the low speed and, once incorporated, increase the mixer speed to high. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix again for 10 minutes on medium to aerate the filling.

Once the filling is creamy, allow to cool. If not using immediately, place in an air-tight container and refrigerate for up to three days.

Assembly

When you make the individual sfogliatella, work in batches of four. Plastic wrap and refrigerate the other sfogliatelle so the fat doesn’t soften.

Organize an assembly line on the counter with the four sfogliatelle rounds, the bowl of ricotta filling, the small rolling pin, the metal ring, a large spoon and all-purpose flour in a bowl.

The mini-rolling pin makes flattening out the dough faster and easier but if one is not available, use your fingers to stretch out the dough.

Directions for assembly

Preheat oven to 400F.

Remove the buttered dough from the refrigerator and unwrap.

Lightly flour the work surface. Use your hands to press, stretch, roll and reshape the log. Roll the log back and forth and squeeze with your hands, keeping the shape round until the diameter is reduced to 2 ½”.

Using a sharp chefs knife, remove 1” of the uneven dough on both ends and discard. Cut the log into ½” thick rounds.  At this point, the slices can be plastic wrapped, refrigerated and stored for a day or two.

Working with one piece at a time, shape the dough into a round with your fingers and lightly dredge in the all-purpose flour.
Place the dough on the work surface. Use the small rolling pin to flatten the dough until it is half again as large as it was. If the layers come apart, press them back together.
Adding the filling is easy. Use your fingers to soften and slightly stretch the middle of the dough. Make a circle with your thumb and index finger. Lay the thin round of dough over the opening between your thumb and finger. Create a cone shape by gently pressing the center of the dough into that opening.
Spoon two large tablespoons of ricotta filling into the cone and center of the dough. Fold the dough over the filling. Press the edges of the dough together and create a conch-shell shape. Lay the sfogliatella on the work surface.

Use the metal ring to trim the ragged front edge of the dough.
Line a sheet pan with a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the sfogliatelle on the sheet pan with ½” spacing between them.

Baking

If you want to save any of the sfogliatelle for later use, refrigerate or freeze them as described below.

Directions for baking

If serving right away, place the parchment paper covered sheet pan in the preheated 400F oven and bake 35 minutes, checking that the sfogliatelle brown but do not burn.
Allow to cool. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Refrigerating and Freezing

If reserving for use within 72 hours, keep the sfogliatelle on the parchment paper covered sheet pan. Lay another parchment paper on top and seal the sheet pan in a plastic bag.  Place in refrigerator.  Remove before serving and bake as directed above.

If reserving for even later use, place the plastic bag covered tray with sfogliatelle into the freezer. Once frozen, remove the sheet pan. Put the frozen sfogliatella into an airtight bag. They will keep up to six months in the freezer.

Baking After Freezing

Remove from the freezer the number of sfogliatelle you want to bake.

Place on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, cover with parchment paper and seal in a plastic bag. Refrigerate for one day so the sfogliatelle defrost slowly.

The next day, bake as described above.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Easy-to-Make Brussels Sprouts for Thanksgiving or Anytime

Prepping for Thanksgiving reminded me of my mother's kitchen. Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday when my sister and I would join her in the kitchen and friends and family gathered around the table to share a meal.
She grew up in a household with her mom, dad, brother and four step-brothers from her dad's first marriage. Hers was a blended home in New York city with a lot of advantages and many disagreements. I think that's why she enjoyed Thanksgiving in her own home. No sibling rivalries, no mother looking over her shoulder to tell her how to make the turkey.

Brussels sprouts were always on the table for Thanksgiving. She was of the boiling-vegetables-school. She did that with beets, broccoli, carrots and Brussels sprouts. My wife and I are of the roasting-is-better method of cooking vegetables, especially Brussels sprouts.

Shopping for Brussels sprouts this week at the farmers market, I noticed that they were difficult to locate and they were priced at $4.50-5.50 a pound, higher than usual.

If you find small sized ones, they are good to cook whole or cut in half (top to root/bottom). The larger ones are best shredded, cutting from the top to the bottom-stem part so that most of the slices hold their shape.

In either case, the seasoning can be as simple as a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkling of sea salt. As a side note, do not use iodized salt. If you like kosher salt, only use Diamond Crystal brand without additives.

I wish my mom were with us Thursday. I'm certain she would like the roasted sprouts.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts - Whole

Yield: 4 servings

Time: depending on size 30-45 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed, stems trimmed of any brown spots

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with a Silpat sheet, parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a mixing bowl, toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil and seasonings.

Roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes for even roasting.

Serve hot.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts - Shredded

Yield: 4 servings

Time: depending on size 30-45 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed, stems trimmed of any brown spots

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with a Silpat sheet, parchment paper or aluminum foil.
To shred, place a Brussels sprout on the cutting board, stem side down. Slice from top to stem so the slices keep their shape. In effect you have created a cross-section of the vegetable.

In a mixing bowl, toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil and seasonings to coat well.

Spread the shredded sprouts on a lined baking sheet. For crispy edges, avoid layering the sprouts on top of one another.

Roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes for even roasting. Because they are cut, there should be browning on the edges. Be careful not to burn them.
Serve hot.

Variations

Before serving, sprinkle with bits of crisp bacon.

Before serving  add 2 tablespoons charred onion slices.

Before serving sprinkle on 2 tablespoons crushed roasted hazelnuts.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Pickles, Pickles, Pickles for Thanksgiving, the Holidays and Anytime



No doubt the people who made the first pickles thought they had made a mistake. Somebody accidentally forgot about some raw vegetables in a pot with an acid and salt. Surprise, surprise. A week later, the vegetables weren’t moldy, no bugs had eaten them and, deliciously, they had a nice crunch and tang. Thus was born, the pickle!
In the 1920s, my great-grandfather made pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Grandmother Caroline used to tell stories about working in their little grocery store as a child. When customers would want pickles, she would hop off the counter and go out front to the pickle barrels and fish out the ones they wanted.
I never knew her parents. I never ate their pickles, but I must have brine in my veins because wherever I travel, I am always on the look out for pickles.

Moroccan pickled veggies

Moroccan pickled vegetables
In Morocco at a cooking class in Marrakech at La Maison Arabe, Amaggie Wafa and Ayada Benijei taught us to make Berber bread, couscous with chicken and vegetables, chicken tagine with preserved lemons and clarified butter, tomato marmalade, eggplant-tomato salad and preserved vegetables.
The cooking class lasted four hours. The time it took to show us how to make preserved or pickled vegetables: five minutes.
To Wafa and Benijei, the process was so easy, there were no pickle recipes. A little of this, a little of that, throw the vegetables into a jar, shake it up, put it in a cupboard and in a week, voila, you have pickles.

Pickle recipes tip from Grandma

From my grandmother I learned that making kosher dill pickles was a little more complicated. In retrospect, I think that’s because pickling cukes are more prone to decay than are the carrots, parsnip, fennel and green beans used in Morocco.
For Thanksgiving I always make kosher dill pickles. This Thanksgiving I’m making both.
Pickles are very personal. What one person loves might be too salty or vinegary to another. It may take you several tries before you settle on the mix of salt, vinegar and spices that suits your palate.

Lower East Side Kosher Dill Pickles

When making kosher dill pickles keep in mind four very important steps:
1. Select pickling cukes, not salad cucumbers, and pick ones without blemishes or soft spots.
2. Taste the brine to confirm you like the balance of salt-to-vinegar. The flavor of the brine will approximate the flavor of the pickles.
3. Once the cukes are in the brine, they must be kept submerged in an open container.
4. When the pickles have achieved the degree of pickling you like, which could take three days to a week, store the pickles in the brine, seal and keep in a refrigerator where they will last for several weeks.
Ingredients
8 cups water
¼ cup kosher salt
1 cup white vinegar or yellow Iranian vinegar (my preference)
4 garlic cloves, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips
5 dried bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
10 whole mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open
5 sprigs of fresh dill
5 pounds small cucumbers, washed, stems removed, dried
Directions
1. In a non-reactive pot, heat the water and vinegar on a medium flame. When the water gently simmers, add the salt and stir to dissolve. Do not allow the water to boil.
2. Dip your finger in the brine, taste and adjust the flavor with a bit more salt, water or vinegar.
3. Place the garlic and spices in the bottom of a gallon glass or plastic container. Arrange the cucumbers inside.
4. Pour in the hot brine being careful to cover the cucumbers. Reserve 1 cup of brine.
5. To keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine, find a plastic cup that is not as wide as the mouth of the container. Place the reserved cup of brine into the plastic cup and put into the container to press down on the cucumbers.
6. Place the container in a dark, cool corner of the kitchen. Check daily to make sure the cucumbers are submerged. If the brine evaporates, use the reserved brine in the plastic cup, replenishing the liquid in the cup with water to weigh down the cukes.
7. After three days, remove one cucumber and sample. If you like your pickles crisp, that may be enough time. If they aren’t pickled enough for you, let them stay on the counter another few days.
8. When you like how they taste, remove the cup and seal the top. Refrigerate the container.

Moroccan Style Preserved Vegetables

In Morocco, virtually any vegetable can be preserved. In the class, we were shown green beans, fennel, parsnips and carrots. Experiment and see what you like, including asparagus, zucchini, beets, daikon, eggplant, daikon and broccoli.
Whatever you try, prepare the vegetable by washing, peeling and cutting them into thick sticks (carrots, daikon, parsnips, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli), some cut thin (fennel, beets, parsnips) and others left whole but with the ends trimmed (green beans, asparagus).
You may prefer the vegetables cut into rounds rather than sticks. The fun thing about pickling is you can personalize your pickles, making them any way you like.
Ingredients
2 whole carrots, ends trimmed, washed, peeled, cut into pieces 4-5 inches long, ¼-inch thick
1 medium sized fennel bulb, washed, fronds removed, outer leaves and root end trimmed and discarded, cut into thin pieces 3-4 inches long, ⅛-inch thick
12 green beans, washed, ends trimmed, cut into pieces 4-5 inches long
4 parsnips, washed, ends and skins removed, cut into pieces 3-4 inches long, ¼-inch thick
1 medium yellow or red onion, washed, ends removed, thin sliced either into circles or slivers
4 bay leaves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 garlic clove, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1½ cups white or yellow Iranian vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
Directions
1. Sterilize two quart-sized glass or plastic containers. Carefully place the vegetables vertically in the containers. Divide the garlic, salt and dry spices and pour into the two containers.
2. Combine the water and vinegar. Mix well. Taste. If you find the mixture too acidic, slowly add water until you like the flavor.
3. Pour the water-vinegar mixture into the jars, making sure the liquid covers the vegetables.
4. Seal the jars and shake well to dissolve the salt and mix up the spices.
Refrigerate. Wait one week and taste. Wait longer if they aren’t pickled enough. They will keep in the refrigerator for months.