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The first time I ever encountered pesto was back in high school, during choir rehearsal. We had been preparing for our holiday concert all day and we were allowed a brief dinner break before our warm-up. Victoria Robinson (who possessed a pretty sophisticated palate for her age, in retrospect) was eating this weird looking green paste out of a Tupperware container. She said it was called pesto and that she had made it herself. She offered me a taste, saying it was really good, and I declined, in a manner that I can only pray could be described as polite, despite my deep panic that I would not be able to get away without tasting it.

At the time, I had an overwhelming fear of tasting something and disliking it. While I’d downgrade my fear to a reluctance these days, when I was sixteen, it verged on a legitimate phobia. Coupled with my strong then-aversion anything green, there was no way I was going to taste that stuff. It’s really a shame, because I had no clue what I was missing.

Today, I love pesto. There’s something about the fruity olive oil, zesty garlic, and almost ginger-y basil, so simple, yet so close to culinary perfection. I don’t get to eat it often, but, each time I do, I wonder aloud why I don’t do it more often. Pesto really couldn’t be easier to make. It comes together in a matter of minutes and doesn’t even need to be heated–it’s every bit as delicious straight out of the blender and cold. 

The other great thing about pesto is that it is easily adjusted to your unique tastes. I kept the cheese at a minimum, for example, and left out the traditional pine nuts (you can also use walnuts). I also made my pesto excessively garlicky–and when I say excessively, I really and truly mean it. If you aren’t absolutely obsessed with garlic–like live and breathe for it and can eat it pretty much raw–I would strongly advise you to cut back by one clove. I thought I had ruined the pesto when I tasted it for seasoning, but it was spicy perfection when combined with the pasta, nothing a true garlic enthusiast couldn’t handle.

The gnocchi isn’t quite as easy as the pesto, but it’s not as scary as people make it out to be. If you can bake pastry, you can make gnocchi. It takes a while to get a feel for gnocchi making, but, once you do, it’s a piece of cake. I managed to get the pesto, the pasta, and the salad made in under an hour–not too steep a price for an impressive meal made entirely from scratch. The tomato and mozzarella salad (also know as “tomatoes and mootz” around here) showcases some great seasonal flavors  and couldn’t be easier. Add some hearty bread (like this beautiful organic wheat loaf I got from Amy’s Bread this afternoon) and you have a great summer-y meal that’s sure to please your inner Italian. 

Cute little gnocchi pillows waiting to be boiled

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

  • 2 medium sized russet potatoes
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 C all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  1. Clean, dry, and perforate potatoes. Microwave approximately 8 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked through and insides are fork-tender. Slit, set aside, and let cool. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
  2. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop the insides into a medium bowl, careful to remove any errant bits of skin. Add egg, salt, and pepper and mix until combined.
  3. Stir in half the flour, adding more if needed. When mixture comes together into a soft dough, empty contents of bowl onto a well-floured surface. Knead until dough feels smooth, pliable, and has lost most of its stickiness, adding as much flour as needed to achieve desired consistency. Depending on the weather and the potatoes, you may not need the full cup or you may need more.
  4. Separate dough into 4 equal parts and dust work surface with more flour. Working with one lump at a time, use your fingertips to roll the dough into long, even snakes, approximately half an inch in diameter. Cut each snake into 1 inch pieces and set aside. You may also choose to shape gnocchi on a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork, but the little pillow shapes are infinitely easier.
  5. Add your cut gnocchi to the pot of water. When the gnocchi are cooked, they will rise right to the surface. Remove them with a spider or slotted spoon. Do not worry about getting them bone dry, as the starchy pasta water will heat your sauce and help it adhere to the gnocchi. Toss with butter or desired sauce and enjoy.

(Total cook and prep time: approximately 40 minutes. Serves 4)

Basil Pesto Sauce

  • 1 1/2 C fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons pecorino romano cheese
  • 1/2-3/4 C extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of kosher salt
  1. Combine basil, garlic, cheese, salt, and 1/4 C oil in blender or food processor. Pulse to combine. (A note about garlic: for more consistent flavor, roughly chop or grate garlic on a rasp grater before adding to blender or food processor)
  2. Remove lid and evaluate consistency. If you prefer a thicker consistency, add remaining 1/4 C of oil and pulse to combine. If you prefer a thinner sauce, add more oil as desired. Sauce, when finished, should be smooth and even textured.

(Total time: 15 minutes. Should be enough for a pound of pasta–a little bit goes a long way)

 

Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

  • 3-4 ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2-1 whole ball of fresh mozzarella
  • Handful of fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  1. Slice tomatoes into quarter-inch slices and arrange on serving platter.
  2. Slice mozzarella into similar sized and shaped pieces and place on top of tomatoes.
  3. Sprinkle with fresh basil, cut or torn into relatively small pieces, salt, and pepper.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil and, if desired, balsamic vinegar.

(Total time: 10 minutes. Serves: 4-6)

Who is as obsessed with The Next Food Network Star as I am? Anybody? Anybody? Ok, so I’m well aware that this particular obsession of mine is one that isn’t shared by the masses. (Just as I am well aware that the logo above is from last season. I couldn’t find the current one in non-wallpaper form.) But I do know that there are plenty of loyal Food Network devotees out there who claim the show as one of their guilty pleasures. And, with any luck, they might just find their way to this blog!

This week– I thought it was a good episode. Pretty exciting and some interpersonal drama, which, as NFNS is pretty focused and benign, doesn’t come around all that often. The drama, of course, is the ongoing Brianna-Serena clash, something that was really played up in this episode. I have to admit that I don’t care for Brianna all that much. I think her food looks amazing, but her personality rubs me the wrong way. Probably because I related much more to the slightly over-sensitive Serena. Neither woman is my top pick, but I like Serena a lot and find myself rooting for her. When I saw the two were paired for the lunch truck challenge, I smelled disaster on the horizon. Fortunately, neither food nor conflict ended up burning in Two Chix in a Truck–and the only smell was the sweet smell of success when this unlikely team came out on top. They also shared a lovely moment when they won, something that endeared me to Brianna a bit more.

I was also really surprised by Tom this week. He really hadn’t done much for me before. I liked his goofy, laid back personality, but I didn’t think of him as someone I would like to watch on a weekly basis. He had a great week this week, however, and really seems to be coming into his own in this competition. I hope he does well. Of course, I’m rooting for Arti, who I think is the complete star package, has a unique point of view, and, unlike season 4’s snippy Indian cook, Nipa, a warm and wonderful personality. But I would still be happy to see Tom hang on a bit longer.

But enough about all that. Let’s get to this weeks biggest reason to celebrate: Paul is gone!

I have passionately disliked Paul since the first or second episode. I don’t know if it’s the fact that he, despite having worked as a comedian, totally fails at being funny. Or if it’s the fact that his jokes often come out more-than-borderline sexist or racist. Or if it’s the fact that he just seems like a jerk. Whatever the reason, I’ve been carefully watching, hoping he will screw up badly enough to be eliminated.

When I saw Paul standing in the bottom two, alongside likeable puppy dog Brad, I knew his number was finally up. And I very calmly remarked to my boyfriend, who has been roped into being my viewing companion, that I was pleased to see him go. Er… if pumping both fists into the air and screaming, “YES–FINALLY!” can be construed as calmly remarking. Yeah.

Anyway, it’s peace out, Paul. You seem like a talented chef, but this gig just ain’t your thing.

Next Food Network Star says "so long!" to Paul Young. (Photo source: http://www.foodnetwork.com)

P.S: I hate to associate my favorite author with my least favorite contestant, but does anyone else think he’s the spitting image of David Sedaris? This picture doesn’t show it particularly well, but it’s been driving me absolutely nuts!

  

 My grandmother (who just turned 89!) was born on the 4th of July. For my entire childhood, my grandparents lived in north Jersey, as did my mother’s sister and her family, who happened to live on a lake that had some pretty fantastic fireworks. Nearly every year, we would go to my aunt’s house for fireworks and the ubiquitous, yet delicious, berry and Cool Whip covered American flag pound cake. You know the one I mean.

 In recent years, we have been switching things up a bit more. A few years ago my mom asked me to make a giant patriotic cupcake cake (red velvet with cream cheese frosting and a fondant “wrapper”), which turned out really great. The common theme for Grandma’s birthday sweets, however, is the red, white, & blue that is an inseparable part of the holiday. 

This year, we returned to the flag cake, both for nostalgia’s sake and because it’s just plain delicious. However, my mom also asked me to make some patriotic decorated sugar cookies. Itching to play with the sparkling sugar, I happily obliged. They turned out exactly as I had imagined. The colors darkened properly and the sparkling sugar was a great effect. And, taste-wise, I would say that these were one of my better batches of sugar cookies ever. An all-around success! 

I’ve posted my standard sugar cookie recipe below. I suppose I must have found the bare bones of the recipe somewhere, but I’ve played with many different recipes and tweaked them so much that I feel I can rightfully call this one my own by now. I hope it works as well for you as it does for me.   

  

Happy birthday, Grandma!

Rolled Sugar Cookies 

  • 1 C butter, softened
  • 2 C sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 3-3 3/4 C all-purpose flour
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Cream butter and sugar (I do this by hand, but you can use your mixer if you like). Add eggs and vanilla and stir until well combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine salt, baking soda, and 3 cups of the flour. Stir into the wet ingredients.
  4. Add remaining flour gradually–you may not need it all. You are looking to achieve a very firm consistency that will lift after rolled and cut with minimal distortion. If you have added all the flour and dough is still soft, chill for 15 minutes or until desired consistency is achieved.
  5. Roll dough in three batches, combining the scraps to re-roll. Cookies that are re-rolled will have a less delicate texture, but they will still taste delicious. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are set and just barely developing color on the bottom. Let cool and decorate with the glaze or frosting of your choice.

Hi, I’m Rachael and I make cakes (and lots of other delectable edibles). Food is pretty much my life. Which is great, but sometimes my friends and family get a little tired of hearing me talk about it. Which is why blogs are so great, because you can talk all you want and if people don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to read it!

Anyway, this blog will be an outlet for my love of all things food, be it baking, cooking, decorating, cookbooks, food memoirs, food television, etc. I will probably post a lot of recipes, some original, some links to recipes written by others that I really enjoy. I will definitely post lots of pictures of my baked goods (fancy cakes, decorated sugar cookies, etc.). Finally, I will wax endlessly about all my geeky food favorites: restaurants, products, shows, tools, ingredients.

Whatever this ends up being, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I will!