Friday, April 10, 2009

No Need to Knead

Perhaps no other smell is as inviting as the smell of fresh bread baking in the oven. But as with so many "from scratch" baked goods, so few of us go through with the effort. Who can blame us? It's so hard! You have to proof your yeast, mix your dough, knead, let it rise, punch it down, knead some more, etc. And all too often, the results are lackluster: too soft, too dry, too yeasty tasting. For a few dollars (and much less effort), you can get a better tasting bread from your favorite bakery. That was, however, until the introduction of "No Knead Bread."

No Knead Bread came into popularity in November 2006, when Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and best-selling author of How to Cook Everything, published a column featuring a novel means of bread making. Yes, you guessed it, a way to bake bread without any kneading whatsoever. Incredibly, a small amount of yeast plus flour, water, salt, and time does all the work. Oh, that and a Dutch Oven. Yes, you actually make the bread in a Dutch Oven. Amazingly, Mr. Bittman promised that the end result was superb, describing it as "incredible...fine-bakery quality...European-style." After making the bread just one time, I was sold. With a modicum of effort, I had produced a beautiful, delicious artisanal bread that was better than any bakery loaf.

While the loaf was certainly easy to make, I wouldn't describe the recipe as perfect: the dough was way too sticky to handle, there were a couple of steps in the process that didn't make much sense to me, and transferring the sticky dough to a piping hot Dutch Oven was quite treacherous.

I soon became obsessed, scouring websites and blogs for pointers from other No Knead Bread aficionados. I was thrilled when one of my favorite cooking magazines, Cook's Illustrated, published its take on No Knead Bread. Unfortunately, in typical Cook's Illustrated style, Christopher Kimball and his test kitchen crew managed to complicate the beautiful simplicity that is No Knead Bread by adding in lager to add flavor depth (not necessary!) and adding in a knead. No thanks Mr. Kimball. Cook's Illustrated did, however, come up with an ingenious way to get the blob of dough into the fiery cauldron.

So if you've never made No Knead Bread, or if you've made it in the past and had trouble with certain steps, this is the recipe that you need. I promise that you will enjoy a delicious artisanal style bread with very little effort.

3 cups unbleached bread flour [scooped then leveled] (such as King Arthur)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast (such as Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt (or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt)
1 ½ cups water at room temperature Cornmeal, wheat bran, or extra flour as needed.


  1. In a large glass or ceramic bowl, combine flour, yeast and salt. Add water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky.

  2. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at room temperature. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles.

  3. Lay a piece of parchment paper, about 18 inches long, over a 10-inch nonstick skillet.

  4. Lightly flour a work surface (I use a Silpat) and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold each edge over into the middle (like an envelope).

  5. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball and place, seam side down, into parchment-lined skillet.

  6. Lightly flour top of dough and cover with plastic wrap for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

  7. At least 30 minutes before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put Dutch Oven(with knob covered tightly in about 2 layers of heavy duty foil) in oven as it heats.

  8. When dough is ready, score the top with a knife (6 inches long by ½ inch deep), and dust the top with a little flour, corn meal, or wheat bran.

  9. Carefully remove pot from oven. Using the parchment as a sling transfer the dough, parchment and all, into Dutch Oven. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned.

  10. Cool on a rack.

Makes one 1 1/2 pound loaf

Cin cin!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

How Do I Love Thee Guernsey Crest? Let Me Count the Ways...

I love ice cream. Who doesn't? It's sweet, cold, creamy, and oh so satisfying. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't like ice cream. Sure, we may argue over the best flavor. There are those who love the basics - chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Of course, cookies and cream, chocolate chip cookie dough, and, most recently, cake batter, have become big favorites. And then there are the fruit inspired creations: mango, coconut, etc (I'm sure we'll start seeing pomegranate become more mainstream because for whatever reason we need pomegranate in everything these days). For the nostalgic folks out there, you can still find the "grandma flavors" - pistachio, rum raisin, butter pecan.

For me, I don't think there is anything better than chocolate chip mint ice cream. Words cannot describe my love of this flavor and why I think it rules. There are a lot of good chocolate chip mint ice creams out there, but few that are truly great. What makes a great chocolate chip mint ice cream you ask? Here is my list of criteria:

  • Color - should be pale green, not too dark or unnaturally bright
  • Chocolate chips - the flat chips work best, not the mini-morsels and not little flecks of chocolate dispersed all through
  • Flavor - should be a clean minty flavor that is neither distinctly peppermint nor spearmint
  • Sweetness - sufficiently sweet without being overpowering or cloying

Where can one find the perfect chocolate chip mint? Well, as you guessed by my post title, that honor would clearly go to Guernsey Crest Ice Cream in my beloved hometown of Paterson, NJ. Their chocolate chip mint possesses has those 4 qualities listed above in the perfect balance: it is truly wonderful and easily beats other local faves Applegate Farms (Montclair) and Gelotti (Paterson).

In addition to the quality of Guernsey Crest's chocolate chip mint, you truly have to appreciate the whole experience. Guernsey Crest is located on 19th Ave in the heart of Paterson, near Market Street. While the area is not that bad, if you are not used to the area (or are just downright snobby) then it will seem worse than it is. But trust me when I tell you, it is not that bad an area (if it were located on Presidential Blvd or East Main Street, then that would be a different story).

As you pull up, you'll notice it doesn't look like an ice cream store. It doesn't like a store. It looks more like a side entrance to a factory. It's actually in a quasi-industrial area. But the sign says Guernsey Crest Ice Cream, they have flavors listed outside, it must be an ice cream shop. The experience continues as you walk through the door and are greeted by a nearly bare room with a bunch of servers standing behind a plate glass window. Yes, that's right. You get your ice cream through a hole in the glass. Guernsey Crest has all the ambiance of a check cashing store.

Speaking of cash, you'll still have a ton of cash in your pocket because their ice cream is cheap, cheap, cheap. I actually went there today for the first time this season to pick up a half-gallon for a party (ok, I bought one for my freezer too). The price: $8. Yes - $4 per 1/2 gallon. You cannot beat that. Prepackaged ice cream at the grocery store costs more than that. Just want a small - $1.25. You can have 3 ice cream cones for the price of a Starbucks. You can't beat that!

I highly recommend that the first chance you get, you hop in your car, strap on your Kevlar vest (just kidding...I swear!) and head to Guernsey Crest. I can't attest for all their flavors, but the chocolate chip mint is downright brilliant.

Guernsey Crest Ice Cream Company
134 19th Ave
Paterson, NJ 07513
(973) 742-4620

Don't want to take my word for it? Visit Off the Broiler for a second opinion.

Cin cin!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Struffoli...Sounds So Much More Dignified Than Honey Balls!

So, I know it's a little bit late to be sharing Christmas recipes. What can I say? Had I planned on starting a food blog earlier, I would have written this up before Christmas. However, had I written this up before Christmas, I wouldn't have been able to share all of my important learnings.

You see, I actually just started making these in 2007. My Grandma Fran, whom I've mentioned before, passed away in December of 2006. After that point, I resolved that I would continue on some of her Italian traditions that made my childhood so special. And, I feared, if I did not continue these traditions, they would simply be lost to future generations. So, in November 2007, I called my Godfather Bill (aka, my Grandma Fran's culinary partner in crime) for the recipes for 3 of my Christmas favorites: honey balls, bow ties, and orange cookies. Right now, let's talk about the Honey Balls.

I was actually pretty amazed that my family had the recipe written down, as I NEVER had seen my Grandma refer to a recipe. Apparently, once she moved in with my Godfather, there were tons of arguments over the way every dish should be made, so they finally had to put some things on paper. Had it not been for these kitchen quarrels, re-creating these dishes would be very difficult.

Makes 2 Rings or Platters of Honey Balls

Dough Ingredients

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, scooped then leveled
3/4 teaspoonful baking powder
6 large eggs, room temperature

Syrup Ingredients (Per Ring or Platter, so you'll need to make 2 batches of this syrup)
1 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoonfuls orange zest
1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon
1/4 teaspoonful clove
1/4 teaspoonful allspice

Other Ingredients
Colored nonpareils
1 quart oil for frying (peanut oil preferably)

Special Equipment
Deep fryer
2 large, deep aluminum chafing dishes
2 large serving platters

Preparation (The Night Before)
  1. Sift together dry ingredients into a large bowl.
  2. Create a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, and add the eggs. Stir until eggs are incorporated, and then turn out onto a floured surface.
  3. Knead dough for about 5 minutes until dough is smooth and firm (like a baby's bottom, if baby's bottoms were muscular). This is a very stiff dough, but if it feels too dry, just wet your hands with lukewarm water and then return to kneading.
  4. Cover dough with an inverted bowl and allow to rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Knead again for 5 minutes. Do this another 2 times for a total of 3 kneads. Allow dough to rest, covered by an inverted bowl, overnight.

Preparation (The Next Day)

  1. Knead dough again. Then roll out to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 1/2 inch strips, then roll these strips into ropes. Then cut each rope into 1/2 inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, but don't drive yourself crazy. Be sure to keep dough covered with a towel at all times, as it can dry out very quickly
  2. Once you are done, they should look like garbanzo beans.
  3. Heat oil to 375 F in a deep fryer. Once the oil is hot, drop dough pieces in batches into oil and fry until golden brown (be sure not to overcrowd the deep fryer). Drain to paper towels and divide into 2 batches, putting half in each chafing dish.
  4. Set fried dough balls aside while you make the syrup.
  5. To make your syrup, bring honey to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently.
  6. Reduce heat to low, then add orange zest, stirring until it is distributed throughout. Then add the remainder of the ingredients, and keep it over low heat (barely simmering) for 10 minutes.
  7. Place one of the dough ball-filled chafing dishes over 2 burners, set on the lowest possible heat. Pour the syrup over the balls and stir until all the balls are coated with honey.
  8. Transfer the balls onto a platter, and shape into a ring or a pile. Sprinkle with nonpareils.
  9. Make another batch of syrup and repeat this process for the other batch of dough balls.
  10. Once cooled, cover with plastic wrap well.
Notes and Learnings
  • This is a unique recipe in several ways. The syrup is more intensely flavored than most, due to the addition of the citrus and all the spices.
  • Speaking of the syrup...this is one area that I tweaked versus my family's original recipe. Although my Godfather had given me some measurements and some timing directions, I suspect these were a tad "off." The end result when I first made these in 2007 were a syrup that was completely unworkable and a honey ball that could pull out a filling or two. I found that by reducing my simmering time, using less sugar, and working in batches in a large, flat vessel over low heat (thus, the chafing dishes), I was able to achieve a superior result.
  • Plating these is tricky no matter what. So try to get someone to help you, and keep a bowl of cold water nearby. You'll want to keep your hands cold and wet because you'll absolutely need them to shape your platters.
  • This makes a firm, somewhat crunchy honey ball. I know that many times, struffoli are softer, and somewhat fritter like. We do not care for this type, and I think once you try this recipe, you will be sold.
  • Truth be told, I'm not sure that all the kneading is quite necessary, but this is the way my family does it, and everyone loves the way they come out, so I dare not change it. I suppose that all the kneading builds up the gluten, providing a lot of the structure and making the end result firmer than many other struffoli.
  • Ah, the word "struffoli"...that brings me to my next point. We don't call them that in my family. I'm calling them that here because that's what they're most commonly known as. In my family we call them "ciciri," presumably because of their pre-fried resemblance to garbanzo beans/chick peas (or "cici" in Italian). Oh, some people call them "pignolata" too, but "struffoli" is clearly the most popular name out there. Whatever you call them, they're truly delicious.

I do hope that you enjoy these as much as I do. I know this is more a Christmas dish, but who says you have to wait that long...Easter is right around the corner...

Cin Cin!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why Am I Blogging?

I'm asking myself that question as I sit here right now. It's not for lack of things to do. I have a demanding job that has my out of the house for far more than 40 hours a week. Then, when I get home, I have a brief case full of even more work to do. And, in between, I try to actually enjoy some time with my wonderful wife and 2-year old son.

I've always had a passion for good food. From cooking it to eating it, I truly appreciate everything about food. And the scientist in me really enjoys the science behind food too (Alton Brown, anyone?) I'm sure part of this influence comes from my Grandma Fran. A first generation Italian-American, my Grandma Fran could always be found cooking and baking up a storm. I loved spending time at her house around the holidays, where she set out a larger than life feast in--where else--the basement. And, every chance I could get, I would get inside the kitchen with her.

As I embark on this blog, I look forward to sharing this love and, of course, a recipe or two.

Cin cin!