Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peanut Butter–Chocolate Thumbprints

My daughter, Abigail, developed this recipe when the family complained that her peanut butter–chocolate sandwich cookies (two cookies and twice as much filling) were just too fattening!

2½ c smooth peanut butter, at room temperature
1½ c brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
2 tsp.vanilla extract
5 oz bittersweet chocolate chips
4 Tbs unsalted butter

To make the cookies:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon mats.

2. Place the peanut butter, brown sugar, and baking soda in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-low speed for 1 minute. Add the eggs and vanilla. Beat on low speed until blended, about 30 seconds.

3. Using your hands, shape the dough into small balls, each about the size of a unshelled walnut. Flatten the ball into a fat disc and place on one of the baking sheets. Each sheet should hold 12–15 discs. Continue until you have used up half the dough.

4. Bake for 6 minutes, then rotate the sheets and continue backing until the cookies become puffed and crackled, about another six minutes. Remove from the oven.

5. Using the handle of a thick wooden spoon, make a depression in the center of each cookie. (Be careful not to press so hard that you crumble the cookie.) Let the cookies cool on the sheet for 10 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.

6. Repeat with the remaining dough.

To fill the cookies:

1. In a microwave using a microwave-safe bowl. melt the chocolate chips and butter. Stir well to combine. Let cool for 10–15 minutes while the mixture thickens.

2. Using a small spoon, fill the depression in each cookie with some chocolate mixture. Leave on the cooling rack to set.


These cookies are a Tuscan version of almond biscotti. The recipe comes from Chef Paolo Monti, who runs a great cooking school in Lucca, hence the native metric measurements.

250 g whole almonds (about 8¾ oz)
500 g flour (about 17½ oz)
400 g sugar (about 14 oz)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
grated zest of an orange
grated zest of a lemon
5 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Toast the almonds until golden, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool before proceeding. (The nuts can be warm but not hot.)

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the orange and lemon zests and the cooled almonds.Mix to combine. Beat all but one of the eggs with the vanilla extract and add to the dry ingredients. Mix well until all of the dry ingredients have been moistened (the dough will turn a slightly darker shade of yellow).

4. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead until the entire dough sticks together and becomes relatively smooth.

5. Roll the dough into a log and cut into four equal pieces. Roll each piece into a log about 10 inches long. Transfer the logs to two baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicon mats (two logs per sheet). Space the logs well apart.

6. Beat the remaining egg with about 1 tablespoon of water to create an egg wash. Paint the logs with the wash.

7. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven. After a few minutes but while the logs are still hot, cut them on the bias into ¾-inch slices. Place the slices back on the hot baking sheets to dry a little more. They should be crisp on the outside but still soft on the inside.

• Don't be surprised if the dough initially seems too dry to come together. Kneading will almost always do the trick. However, depending on certain conditions (such as the size of the eggs, the humidity, the type of flour, etc.), it may be that your dough is too dry. In that case, add a little more beaten egg.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Farro and Bean Soup

This is another dish I added to my repertoire following my trip to Lucca. Farro is a grain that you can find in health food stores and the bulk bins of specialty food markets. Tuscan restaurants serve zuppa di farro in many different styles, but the ones I liked best were creamy )from the puréed beans and potatoes) and peppery.

1½ c dried cranbery beans
5 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 large sprig fresh sage
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 Tbs olive oil
4 ripe plum tomatoes, diced
2 meduim potatoes, diced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1¼ cups farro
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1. Place the cranberry beans in a large stockpot and cover with two inches of cold water. Let soak overnight.

2. The next day, add enough cold water so that the soaked beans are covered again by two inches. Add two of the the garlic cloves and sage. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until the beans are cooked, about 2 hours. While the beans are cooking, add water as necessary to replace what has evaporated.

3. Meanwhile, finely chop the remaining garlic along with the onion, carrot, and celery. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium-low flame. Sauté the chopped vegetables until they soften and begin to caramelize, about 10–12 minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes begin to dissolve into the other vegetables, about 6–8 minutes. Add the potatoes and cook for another 6–8 minutes. Transfer the contents of the skillet to the cooking beans.

4. When the beans are cooked, purée the soup, preferably using an immersion blender. Add enough water so that the soup will be thin enough to cook the farro. Season heavily with salt and especially pepper. (I add a full tablespoon of pepper.)

5. Add the farro and rosemary and simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for at least an hour. If the soup becomes too thick, add more water. Reheat as necessary before serving.

• The mixture of onion, carrot, and celery is a staple of European cooking. The French call it mirepoix, while the Italians call it soffritto. The ratio is usually 2 parts onion to 1 part carrot to 1 part celery.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tordelli di Lucchesi

Nearly every restaurant in Lucca, where I vacationed last summer, serves a version of this traditional Lucchesan dish. Tordelli look like ravioli, but that's where the resemblance ends. The filling is savory rather than cheesy, and the cinnamon- and sage-infused ragú with which the tordelli are served is distinctively Tuscan. I learned how to make this dish from Chef Paolo Monti, who runs a fabulous cooking school in Lucca. Worth a trip!

(serves six)

The Filling
¾ lb Swiss chard, stems removed
3 c day-old Italian bread, cubed
2 Tbs pine nuts
2 Tbs raisins
1 oz Parmagiano-Reggiano, grated
1 large egg, beaten
½ whole nutmeg, grated
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

The Pasta
500 g flour (about 3¾ c)
5 eggs (plus an additional egg for the wash)
1 Tbs olive oil

To make the filling:

1. Add a quarter-inch of cold water to a large skillet and place over medium heat. Add the chard and braise until wilted. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze dry.

2. Place the squeezed chard in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the bread, pine nuts, raisins, and cheese. Process until puréed.

3. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Add the egg and nutmeg, along with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine.

To make the pasta:

1. Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until the dough forms a ball. (If the dough is too dry to come together, add water, a teaspoon at a time, until it does.)

2. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.

To make the tordelli:

1. Cut the dough ball into quarters. Working with one quarter at a time, roll out using a pasta machine to setting 7 (the thinnest setting on a standard machine). Dust with flour and transfer to a large pasta board.

2. Place small balls of filling (about the size of large grapes) along the strip of pasta. The balls should be the width of two fingers apart and centered on the bottom half of the pasta strip.

3. Beat an egg with a little water (about a tablespoon) to create an egg wash.. Using a quick, light stroke, paint a little egg wash around each ball of filling. This will help seal the tordelli.

4. Fold the top half of the pasta strip over the bottom half. Press to seal, squeeing out any air bubbles that form.

5. Use a ravioli cutter to separate the individual tordelli. Flour well to prevent sticking.

To complete the dish:

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Cook the tordelli until done, about 7 minutes.

3. Serve topped with ragù alla Lucchese (see accompanying recipe).

Ragù alla Lucchese

I use store-bought chicken stock all the time—but not for this recipe. It's going to take you the better part of an afternoon, anyway; so you might as well be a purist and make your own stock, too. It's much easier than you think (see accompanying recipe).

1 large onion, (to make 1 c chopped)
1 large carrot, (to make ½ c chopped)
1 stalk celery (with leaves), (to make ½ c chopped)
4 cloves garlic
2 oz pancetta
6 leaves fresh sage
4 Tbs olive oil
¾ lb ground beef
¼ lb ground pork
1 tsp kosher salt
1 stick cinnamon
1 while nutmeg
4 cloves
1 c red wine
homemade chicken stock, warm
3 Tbs tomato paste

1. Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and pancetta. Coarsely chop the sage.

2. In a large sauce pan or Dutch oven. heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the ground meat. Break up large clumps with a wooden spoon and turn occasionally but do not overstir. Instead, let the heat rise up from the bottom of the pan to cook the meat. When the meat is well browned, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain the fat from the pan and wipe clean with a paper towel.

3. Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining oil. Add the pancetta and sauté  until some fat is rendered, about 2 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and salt. Cook until the onions become translucent, about 10-12 minutes.

4. Return the meat to the pan. Stir in the sage and spices. Add the wine and enough stock to cover the meat. Stir in the tomato paste.

5. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for at least an hour. As the liquid evaporates, add more warm stock. Reduce the sauce to a pleasing consistency.

• Like all mirepoix, the aromatics in this sauce should be proportionally ½ onion, ¼ carrot, and ¼ celery—and as finely chopped as possible.

• As the sauce reduces, Chef Paolo  sometimes adds bouillon powder (with MSG) to enhance the flavor.

Homemade Chicken Stock

1 tomato
½ onion
1 carrot
2 stalks celery (with leaves)
2 bony chicken parts (such as necks, wings, and backs)
4 c cold water

1. Prepare the vegetables as follows: Cut a cross in the top of the tomato. Cut off the root end of the onion but leave on the skin. Peel the carrot and trim its ends. Halve the celery to fit into the pot.

2. Place the vegetables and chicken in a large sauce pan. Cover with the cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until flavorful.

• I keep an assortment of scrap chicken parts (such as necks and backs) in my freezer specifically for stock making. You don't need to defrost frozen parts in order to use them. The water will do that for you as it heats. But  you should wrap the pieces individually in wax paper before freezing them so that you can separate what you need when you need it.

• Chef Paolo advises purchasing celery stalks with the leaves still attached. He says the leaves hold much of the celery's flavor.