Fresh Pita Bread

Ocassionally, when we have an evening with no plans, we will make some Middle Eastern dips and some fresh pita to go along with it for dinner. Fresh pita is so moist and delicious that I wonder why I was ever content with what we buy from the grocery store. The recipe is adapted from one in Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads. It takes a bit of time but is very well worth the effort. The bread lasts a couple of days in a ziplock bag and freezes well, too.

Fresh Pita Bread
2 Tbsp. Instant yeast (I like Saf Instant)
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 c. warm water
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt
5-1/2 c. 00 flour or all purpose

In a mixing bowl combine yeast, sugar, and water. Whisk to dissolve yeast and let sit 5 minutes to foam. Add oil and salt. Turn the mixer on low and add 2 c. flour. Mix well. Add 3 more cups of flour, a little at a time. Mix well for 1 minute. Take the remaining 1/2 c. flour and spread a bit of it on a flat surface. Turn the pita dough out onto that surface. Add a bit of flour to the dough and knead for a minute. Let the ball of dough sit for 5 minutes, then give it one final knead for a minute. Divide the dough in half, then take each half and roll into 10 balls, sized just smaller than a golf ball. You will need a little flour to prevent them from sticking, but don’t use very much. Place the 20 doughs balls 1 inch apart on the floured surface. Cover with a large tea towel to rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the rack in the center of the oven. Cut foil into 12 roughly 7″x7″ squares. You will be cooking your individual pitas in the oven directly on the foil. Take one risen dough ball and roll out on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin to a 6-inch circle, about 1/4 inch thick. They may not be perfectly round but that will come with practice. Place rolled-out dough circle on a piece of the cut foil. Repeat with 5 more dough balls. When you have 6 pita on foil place the 6 foil packets directly on the oven rack and bake for 5-7 minutes until puffed and pale. You can leave them a minute longer if you want the pita to take on a slightly brown tone. While they are baking prepare 6 more pitas and place on the remaining pieces of foil. Remove the baked pitas from the oven when they are done, then slide them off the foil and onto a rack to cool slightly. (They may loose some of their puffiness as they cool, but this is to be expected.) Put the next batch of 6 pitas into the oven and, while they are baking, roll out the next 6, placing them on the original six pieces of foil. Continue in this manner until all the dough is used. Serve warm. Makes 20 individual pita breads.

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Triple Vanilla Creme Brûlée

Crème Brûlée is one of my favorite desserts. I like a strong vanilla flavor in custard, so I add not just a vanilla bean, but vanilla sugar and extract. It is a great Valentine’s Day dessert. The recipe is adapted from The New Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America.

Triple Vanilla Creme Brûlée
2 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. granulated vanilla sugar, divided plus extra for topping
1/2 large vanilla bean
5 large egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Boil 4 cups water for the water bath. Place 4 large ramekins (or 8 small ramekins) in a roasting pan and set aside. Place cream in a 2-quart sauce pan. Add half the sugar to the cream. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the cream, then add the vanilla pod to the cream. Bring cream mixture to a simmer. In a small bowl combine egg yolks with the remaining 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar. Beat well. Pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs, whisking constantly. Pour egg mixture back into hot cream. Return to the stove and cook 1 minute until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Strain custard mixture into a bowl and whisk in vanilla extract. Pour custard into ramekins. Place roasting pan with filled ramekins in the oven. Pour boiled water into the roasting pan so the water comes half way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 25-30 minutes until custard is set on the edges but still quivers slightly in the middle. Remove ramekins from pan and let cool on a rack. Chill uncovered at least 4 hours. When ready to serve sprinkle 1/2-1 tsp. granulated sugar on top of each custard. Using a kitchen torch, caramelize sugar to form hard coating. Serves 4.

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Pear and Pecan Salad with Key Lime Vinaigrette

This is a lovely, refreshing winter salad. The key lime vinaigrette compliments the pears, and the crunch of the pecans adds nice texture. If you need a salad for your Valentines Day meal, try this. I use key limes or Mexican limes for this recipe because they have a more floral flavor. If you only have access to Persian limes, use just half of a lime.

Pear and Pecan Salad with Key Lime Vinaigrette
3-1/2 c. torn Romaine lettuce
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 large pear, peeled and cubed
juice of 1 key lime
1/2 c. toasted pecans, chopped
1/4 c. sliced or cubed fresh mozzarella cheese
small sprig of fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Begin by toasting the pecans at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes until fragrant and toasted. Place Romaine lettuce and green onions in a bowl. Squeeze lime juice over the pear cubes and toss. Add pears to the lettuce. Sprinkle with pecans. Add cheese. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with key lime vinaigrette and toss. Serves 4.

Key Lime Vinaigrette
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
zest and juice of 1 key lime
1/4 tsp. sugar
kosher salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place all vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl and and whisk until smooth.

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Ras Malai (Indian Cheesecake)

Every year my husband teaches the Ramayana, an Indian epic, in one of his courses. At the end of the reading he serves his students some Indian food, including this homemade version of Ras Malai. It is delicious. The recipe is adapted from Beyond Curry by Hemalata Dandekar.

Ras Malai (Indian Cheesecake)
Cheesecake
1 (32 oz.) container whole milk ricotta cheese
1 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp. shelled unsalted pistachios, crushed in a mortar and pestle

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl mix together ricotta, sugar, vanilla and salt until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 9×13 glass baking pan. Bake for 40 minutes until bubbling and set. Make the cardamom cream sauce while the cheesecake is baking. Remove cheesecake from oven. Cool 10 minutes on a rack then cut into 24 squares. Gently drizzle cooked cardamom cream sauce over the ras malai. Use all of the sauce even if it looks like too much. It will soak into the cheese. Tastes best when allowed to chill overnight so the flavors can mature. Sprinkle pistachios over ras malai just before serving. Serves 12-15.

Cardamom Cream Sauce
1 c. half and half
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. sugar
a pinch of sea salt
1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds (out of the pod), crushed in a mortar and pestle
5 strands saffron

In a saucepan combine half and half, cream, sugar and salt. Crush cardamom in a mortar and pestle until it is roughly ground, not a fine powder to yield 3/4 tsp. roughly ground cardamom. Add cardamom and saffron to the cream mixture. On medium low heat bring to mixture a boil and let simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes or until it has reduced by a fourth. It should be slightly thickened and very pale yellow.

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Rice Salad with Smoked Trout

During the winter months I keep extra canned food in the pantry so, if the weather is bad, I can make something easy and tasty without having to run to the store. This rice salad is a great way to use leftover rice from dinner, and adding whatever canned fish you might have on hand makes this a simple yet flavorful dish. For this recipe I used smoked trout, but you can use canned tuna or salmon. I buy tinned smoked trout at Trader Joes.

Rice Salad with Smoked Trout
3 c. cooked rice (I like to use Jasmine rice)
1/3-1/2 c. mayonnaise or grape seed oil Vegenaise (as needed)
2 Tbsp. finely chopped onion
2 Tbsp. chopped celery (optional)
1-2 cloves garlic, grated
salt and pepper to taste
1 (4 oz.) can smoked trout, drained and chopped
1/4 tsp. dried thyme or za’atar
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh Italian flat leave parsley (to taste)

In a large bowl combine rice and mayonnaise. Mix well. You want the rice moist but not saturated. Adjust the amount of mayonnaise to your liking, add onion, celery if you are using it, and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add smoked trout. Mix well. Add thyme and 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. Garnish with remaining parsley to serve. Serves 4-6.

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Oven-fried Cauliflower

One of our favorite ways to prepare cauliflower is to bread and fry it. But this can take time and is quite messy, so I have found a simple and clean method for making this dish: bake it in the oven. As the breaded cauliflower bakes it becomes soft and creamy on the inside with a crunchy breadcrumb exterior. Delicious.

Oven-fried Cauliflower
1 medium head cauliflower
3 large eggs
salt and pepper
2 c. Italian style breadcrumbs
1/2 c. olive oil (not extra virgin), divided

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse cauliflower, then trim away the leaves and stem; cut into florets. Let cauliflower pieces drain on a paper towel to dry. Beat eggs in a pie plate or shallow dish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour breadcrumbs into a second shallow dish. Dip cauliflower pieces in egg, then breadcrumbs. Make sure the cauliflower is well coated with the crumbs. Drizzle 1/4 cup of the olive oil onto a baking sheet. Make sure the oil is spread to the edges of the pan. Place breaded cauliflower onto prepared pan. Drizzle the remaining 1/4 c. of olive oil over the cauliflower to moisten the crumbs. Bake for 30-35 minutes until fork tender. Turn the cauliflower about every 10 minutes during baking so the breadcrumbs do not burn. Remove cauliflower to a paper towel-lined plate to drain slightly before serving. Serves 4-6.

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Beef Vegetable and Dumpling Soup

This soup is comforting and filling on a cold winter day. It is adapted from one my mother makes. It takes some time to prepare, but you can divide the steps by making the soup stock one day and finishing it with the vegetables and dumplings the following day. The stock can also be frozen. I like to use Russian Pelmeni for the dumplings (I get them from a Russian market) but you can use a meat filled tortellini or small ravioli if you prefer.

Beef Vegetable and Dumpling Soup
Soup Stock
3 Tbsp. Olive oil
2 large beef shanks
garlic powder
onion powder
salt and pepper
1/2 large onion, quartered
1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped
2 stalks celery including leaves, rough chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
14 cups water
2 Knorr chicken bouillon cubes
1 Knorr beef bouillon cubes
1/4 c. dehydrated vegetables
1/2-1 tsp. kosher salt
10 whole peppercorns
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1/2 bunch fresh Italian flat leaf parsley

Heat oil in an 8-quart stockpot on medium high heat. Sprinkle beef shanks with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder on both sides. Sear shanks until browned. Add vegetables and saute 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Add water, bouillon cubes, dehydrated vegetables, salt, herbs and spices. Bring to a simmer then lower heat. Skim foam from top from time to time. Simmer for 1-1/2-2 hours until meat is fall off the bone tender. Strain the stock. Cut meat from the shank into bite size pieces then return cut up meat to the stock.

Finishing the Soup
1/4 large onion, chopped
2 carrot, peeled and sliced or diced
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 c. chopped Savoy cabbage
1/2 c. sliced portobello or chanterelle mushrooms
1 tsp. dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
25-30 veal Pelmeni (Russian dumplings) or meat-filled tortellini

In a large stockpot heat meat stock on medium low heat until it simmers. Add onion, carrots and potato. Cook for 5 minutes. Add cabbage, mushrooms, thyme, salt , pepper and Pelmeni. Partially cover and cook 10-15 minutes or until dumplings and potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Serves 6.

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Pasta with Clam Sauce

This pasta with clam sauce, a family favorite, is always on our January menu. After all the heavy holiday eating I want dinner to be something light, simple, and comforting. Made with canned minced clams, it takes all of fifteen minutes to get on the table.

Pasta with Clam Sauce
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 (6.5 oz.) cans minced clams with juice
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp dried Greek oregano or more to taste
1 Tbsp. chopped Italian flat leaf parsley, plus extra for garnish
red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper, to taste
1-2 tsp. fresh lemon juice or more to taste
1/2 lb. thin spaghetti

Bring a 6-quart pot full of water to boil for the thin spaghetti. In a 1-quart saucepan warm olive oil on medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until garlic is fragrant and soft. (Do not brown garlic.) Add clams with all the juice from both cans and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add oregano, parsley, pepper flakes, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer 7-10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook spaghetti until al dente. Drain. Place pasta in a serving bowl. Pour clams with all of the liquid over the pasta and toss. (It will look very soupy, as if there is too much liquid.) Cover the pasta and let sit 5-10 minutes to allow the liquid to absorb into the pasta, which should be moist, not dry. Garnish with extra chopped parsley and serve. Serves 4.

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Italian Tomato Cream Sauce

P1030552.JPGChristmas Eve is my favorite night of the year and I look forward to it all year long. It is a time when we gather as a family, give gifts, reflect on the gift of the Savior Jesus Christ and remember those who are no longer with us. Our Italian American family celebrates with a multi-course feast. The above photo shows part of the fish course one recent Christmas Eve. It is followed by a pasta course; some years we have lasagna, other years we eat homemade ravioli. If we are having ravioli, it is served with this tomato cream sauce. The sauce goes well not only with ravioli but with tortellini or spinach fettuccine. For the best tasting sauce, make it the day before you want to serve it. The flavors need time to mature. I usually double this recipe for Christmas Eve. Have some nice, crusty bread on hand to dip in the sauce.
Merry Christmas, Buon Natale.

Italian Tomato Cream Sauce
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 (14 oz.) can diced tomatoes with juice
3 Tbsp. fresh chopped basil
2 Tbsp. fresh chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
1 tsp. dried Greek oregano
1-2 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper to taste
3/4-1 c. heavy cream

In a saucepan combine oil and garlic. Turn the heat to medium and sauté garlic until soft and fragrant but not brown. Puree the tomatoes in a blender then add them to the garlic and oil. Add herbs and salt and pepper. Cover and let cook 15-20 minutes to thicken slightly. Add the cream and heat until warm but do not boil. Taste and check for salt, pepper, and sugar. This is enough sauce for 3/4 lb. pasta.

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Holiday Cheesecake

This is our family’s favorite cheesecake. The recipe came from my cousin Marilyn in New Jersey. My mom bakes it for every Christmas Eve gathering, most Easter holidays and for some birthday celebrations. It is dense, rich and delicious. It can be left plain or topped with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or blueberries. My mother loves it topped with drained crushed pineapple.

Holiday Cheesecake
3 (8 oz.) pkgs. full fat cream cheese, softened
1-1/2 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 pint (16 oz.) sour cream
1 c. heavy cream
5 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan. Wrap the bottom of the pan with foil to prevent leakage in the oven. In a mixing bowl beat cream cheese and sugar together until creamy. Add cornstarch, lemon juice and extracts. Mix well. Add sour cream and mix. Add heavy cream and mix. Add eggs one at a time until just mixed. Do not over beat or the cheesecake will crack when baked. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour. Turn the oven off and let the cheesecake sit in the oven for 1 additional hour. Do not open the oven door. Remove cooked cheesecake from the oven and onto a rack and immediately run a knife around the edges to prevent cracking. Do not remove springform. Let cool completely. Wrap in foil and refrigerate overnight before serving. Serves 12.

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