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November 2006
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January 2007

Anne Willan's Parmesan Balls

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Hark! The holiday party angels sing. So, how many parties have you been to so far this month? Or better yet, how many are still to come? Are you sick of showing up with your stand-by bottle of wine? Or a potted poinsettia? Well, dear readers, never fear. I've got a fantastic little recipe for you that, wrapped up in Martha Stewart-ish glassine paper and tied with a pretty bow, is a perfect holiday gift.

The recipe comes from Anne Willan - a kitchen hero of mine and a contributor to the LA Times. Not only is the recipe easy to follow, but it has the added appeal of surviving doubling and even tripling its quantities if you need high-yield baked goods for gifts this time of year. Luckily for all of us, the outcome tastes pretty fabulous, too. And doesn't slaving over a hot oven virtually guarantee you lots and lots of holiday points from your grateful hosts? Although the slaving part here is totally fabricated - it'll take you all of 20 minutes.

The food processor renders the flour, ground mustard, salt, pepper, grated Parmigiano and melted butter into fragrant, couscous-like crumbs. You roll the crumbs into small balls and let them chill before popping them in a hot oven, where the pungent flavor of the cheese morphs into something deeper and more nuanced. The mustard and ground pepper add an irresistible kick to the crumbly balls. And what comes out of the oven is a sophisticated, savory snack that is quite difficult to stop eating.

What I like the most about these holiday hors d'oeuvres is how they so easily morph from high-end to low-brow, depending on what you decide to serve them with. An elegant coupe of Champagne and you've got yourself a swish little Christmas soiree. A mug of mulled wine and - presto! - you're at a cozy weekend Advent afternoon. A tall, frosty beer and you're just hanging back taking a breather from all this insanity.

My tip to you is to shape these balls even smaller than indicated - a half inch across would probably be great (and also, my baking time was longer than indicated, by about ten minutes). They tend to the dry side and since you really do need to pop them whole into your mouth, a slightly smaller ball is all the better for being washed down with your beverage. Maybe that should be your gift to yourself this year. A break. A drink. And a handful of these toasty, crumbly, peppery balls. Then let the holiday madness wash over you!

Anne Willan's Parmesan Balls
Makes 26 balls

1 1/4 cups flour, plus up to 3 tablespoons more, if necessary
1 cup loosely packed grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup melted butter

1. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, Parmesan, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Add the butter and work it in using the pulse button so the mixture forms crumbs. Press a few crumbs together with your fingers. If it's sticky, add 2 to 3 tablespoons more flour.

2. Butter a baking sheet. Turn the crumbs into a bowl, press them into balls 1 inch in diameter and place them on the baking sheet. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes>

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cheese balls until lightly browned, 26 to 28 minutes. They keep well in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.


Menu For Hope III

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As the holidays approach, so does the annual Menu For Hope raffle, started by the lovely Pim three years ago. Last year, a whopping $17,000 were raised for Unicef. This year, the money will be going to the UN's World Food Programme. Let's try to surpass that amount! With the fantastic prizes up for grabs, I'm hoping it won't be too difficult.

From a gleaming red KitchenAid mixer to dinner for two at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London to coffee with Thomas Keller (or maybe a tea with Harold McGee?), there is sure to be something for everyone out there. And at $10 a ticket, how can you not participate?

Here's how to do it. Go to First Giving where you can make a donation (or several), and note what it is you'd like to win (a full list of prizes is here). If the company you work for has a corporate matching program, there's a box you can check so that we can collect those additional funds, too. The winners and their prizes will be announced on January 15.

And what will I be offering up as a prize this year? Well, myself. Not that way! Dirty birdy. If you've always dreamed (or, let's face it, even if you haven't) of joining me in my kitchen while I cook and curse my way through a newspaper recipe, this is your chance! I'm offering up my services as a sous-chef (co-chef?) and dining companion. You get to choose a recipe, from the New York or Los Angeles Times, of course, and we'll cook it and eat together. Our culinary adventures will be, of course, photographed and documented on this site and you'll be the envy of all your blog-reading friends. Or maybe of absolutely no one. But we'll have fun! I promise.

If you'd like to specify the particular prize of moi, then make sure you type in the code UE06 when placing your donation. That's "my" code and will let Pim and the administrators know how to bookmark your donation. But there are so many wonderful prizes to be had that you might have some trouble deciding which ones to go for. How about all of them! Go! Donate! What are you waiting for?


Azizeh Koshki's Chickpea and Chicken Dumplings

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Ah, the humble matzo ball. Few can say they do not hold affection for the fluffy bubble floating in its golden pool of fatty broth, even if they didn't have a Jewish grandmother shaping the balls by hand and dropping them gently into a steaming pot of chicken soup at least once a year. I actually had a Jewish grandmother, but I can't remember her ever making these (what I do remember her cooking were odd condensed-tomato-soup-and-noodle casseroles, pretty fantastic briskets, and the best stewed pears in all of human history). So much for that.

Matzo balls are like comfort in a bowl: almost creamy and agreeably bland against the salty chicken soup. In America, they're universally touted as being The Emblem of Jewish Food. But since my own taste memory doesn't lead me down any particular recipe road, I found Joan Nathan's article on Jewish dumplings all the more interesting.

Gundi are dumplings from the Jewish community in Iran and are simple, simple, simple to make. The hardest part will probably be finding chickpea flour (I got mine at Buon Italia, New Yorkers). You pulse some onions in a food processor and then a piece of chicken breast before mixing the mince with an array of Middle Eastern spices and letting the cold, clammy mixture sit for several hours. Chicken soup is brought to a boil, the mixture is formed into little balls and they are simmered for 40 minutes.

While they cook, gundi expand and lighten, going from soggy little balls to puffy yet substantial dumplings. Do not make my mistake and use Better Than Bouillon as your chicken soup. It's fine if used in small amounts for making a sauce or deglazing a pan. But in this case, where chicken soup really has a starring role, make your own. Otherwise you won't really be able to taste anything besides SALT, SALT and more SALT. Also, as the start to a holiday dinner, these would be tasty and interesting (who doesn't like talking about the Jewish Diaspora? Well, you might not, but your Uncle Hi will be impressed for sure). As The Only Thing For Dinner on a ho-hum Tuesday night? A little gundi overkill.

But anyway. We sprinkled chopped parsley and mint over the soup, slurped up the exotic dumplings and a lot of cooling water, and felt a little closer to our (sort of) Jewish brethren very, very far away.

Chickpea and Chicken Dumplings (Gundi)
Makes 8 servings

4 medium onions, peeled and quartered
½ pound skinless, boneless chicken breast
8 ounces (about 2¼ cups) chickpea flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cardamom, or to taste
½ teaspoon cumin
4 quarts chicken soup
Handful each of finely chopped basil, parsley, mint and cilantro

1. Using a food processor with a steel blade, pulse onions until finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Pulse chicken until it has the consistency of ground meat.

2. Combine onions and chickpea flour in a bowl and mix well with hands. Add chicken, oil, salt, pepper, turmeric, cardamom and cumin. Mix well, adding a bit of water if needed, to make a dough about the consistency of meatballs. Refrigerate until well-chilled, about 3 hours.

3. Dip hands in cold water and divide mixture into 16 portions. Shape into balls about 2 inches in diameter. Bring soup to boil. Gently add dumplings one at a time and simmer, covered, for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, toss together basil, parsley, mint and cilantro.

4. Ladle soup and dumplings into serving bowls, and sprinkle with mixed herbs.


Jill Santopietro's Cornmeal-Cranberry Pancakes

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If I ever have a restaurant, or a homey little cafe, or a bed and breakfast out in the wild, these will be my pancakes. Not only because cranberry and cornmeal are a combination made in heaven and should be served at every breakfast, every day, but because these pancakes are all the things bad pancakes are not.

They are not too sweet, and the chopped cranberries enliven each bite with a sour tang that is softened by a slick of maple syrup. They are not too heavy, the ridiculous amount of baking powder ensures a fluffy crumb (how fluffy? this fluffy!). They are soft and yielding, yet the cornmeal threads through each one with an agreeable crunch and gives these cakes some body and character. Adapted from the Breakfast Goddess herself, I think this recipe is probably worth the price of the book (incidentally? this is my favorite shower gift, along with a seasoned cast-iron pan).

I have to say that when I first saw this recipe, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, I was a bit turned off. For these gorgeous pancakes were apparently supposed to be drenched in not only a pumpkin-pie spiced (eek) apple compote, but with a cream-cheese caramel sauce to boot. I sort of had to refrain from snorting at the idea. Luckily for all of us, both of those sauces can be left by the wayside. Why would you want to muffle this sparkling example of a pancake with a barrage of spices and gloppy sauces?

Would Johnny Apple really have endorsed that?

So keep your condiments to a minimum, maple syrup or, if it must be, confectioner's sugar, and make sure you put these on your weekend to-do list. If you're like me and simply couldn't wait until the weekend, get up a little earlier tomorrow. You and your co-breakfasters will be so happy you did. And don't anyone go opening a bed and breakfast featuring these pancakes before I do. Or, if you do, let me know so I can plan my next long weekend.

Cornmeal-Cranberry Pancakes
Makes about 24 4-inch pancakes

10 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks, plus more for greasing pan
2 cups milk
4 large eggs
2 cups flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ¼ cups chopped fresh cranberries
Maple syrup

1. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the butter and milk until the butter melts. Set aside until lukewarm, about 15 minutes. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Slowly stir in ½ cup of the warm milk mixture (it cannot be hot, or it will cook the eggs). Pour in the remaining milk mixture and stir to combine.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture a little at a time, stirring slowly, just until the dry ingredients are well moistened. The batter should be lumpy and will start to bubble.

3. Heat a griddle or skillet over medium-high heat until a few drops of water sprinkled on it sizzle. Lightly grease the pan with butter, then add 3 to 4 tablespoons batter to make a 4-inch pancake. As soon as the batter sets, sprinkle the top with cranberries. Cook until bubbles break on the surface. Flip and cook for another 30 seconds, or until the bottom is lightly browned. Repeat, buttering the pan and adjusting the heat as needed. Serve with maple syrup.


John Scharffenberger's Silky Chocolate Pudding

 

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Hello? Yes? I'm still here. I can't seem to tear myself away from my blog. Or my kitchen. It's just, well, as Deb points out, old habits die hard. Even if those habits aren't very old at all. In fact, only 30 days old.

But it's Friday, and since I promise to stay away from the computer all weekend, let me just get this one little item in. After all, it's about chocolate pudding! Silky chocolate pudding. It's so good that before leaving for work this morning, Monosyllabic Morning Ben told me we had a date to eat more of it tonight together.

The recipe comes from John Scharffenberger's new book, The Essence of Chocolate, which is elegant and beautiful and offers lots of interesting recipes. But I found myself bookmarking only the homiest of recipes, this pudding and the Chocolate-Marbled Gingerbread (the combination of chocolate and gingerbread being, in my opinion, the best December flavor there is). I got to work on the pudding last night and realized, as I was stirring the milk into the cornstarch, that I've never made pudding from scratch before. Well, to be fair, I've never made it from a packet either. Mousse, yes. Panna cotta, too. But pudding? This would be my first time.

And what a time it was. Since I didn't have vanilla extract, I used half a vanilla bean, scraped clean, and mixed it in at the beginning with the milk, sugar and cornstarch. It took exactly 20 minutes for this mixture to thicken as promised. I only had two ounces of Scharffenberger 70% chocolate and supplemented the rest with an equally dark Italian chocolate bought for me by my mother because of its name. After stirring in the chopped chocolate, the mixture transformed into this glossy, voluptuous, vanilla-specked puddle of pudding.

It took quite a bit of willpower not to eat the pudding warm, for dinner, and I think Ben would have been okay with that. But we dutifully ate our turbot (too fishy) and our salad while the pudding chilled. And then. Pure deliciousness. It was silky, yes, almost velvety. Blooming with chocolate flavor and an absolute delight to eat. It's like love and comfort in spoonable form. The pudding was a just reward for all the hard work, and thankfully, I've got a hot date tonight for more.

And that's it! That's all you'll get from me! For at least, um, ... two days.

Silky Chocolate Pudding
Serves 4 to 6

1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces 62% semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Combine the cornstarch, sugar and salt in the top of a double boiler. Slowly whisk in the milk, scraping the bottom and sides with a heatproof spatula to incorporate the dry ingredients. Place over gently simmering water and stir occasionally, scraping the bottom and sides. Use a whisk as necessary should lumps begin to form. After 15 to 20 minutes, when the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of the spoon, add the chocolate. Continue stirring for about 2 to 4 minutes, or until the pudding is smoooth and thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a serving bowl or into a large measuring cup with a spout and pour into individual serving dishes.

3. If you like pudding skin, pull plastic wrap over the top of the serving dish(es) before refrigerating. If you dislike pudding skin, place plastic wrap on top of the pudding and smooth it gently against the surface before refrigerating. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.