Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms and crème fraîche

The best type of dinner is the one I can prepare quickly and not in the sense that I want to get it over with, even though sometimes that is the case, let’s not kid ourselves, but in the sense that there’s a certain satisfaction in cooking and eating something that’s special in less than half an hour.

I love this kind of meals during a busy workday when my energy levels are low and I can’t possibly bring myself to cook anything that requires too much of my attention or time, or on a Sunday when S and I have the whole day to ourselves and I don’t wish to spend too much time in the kitchen but rather at the dinner table with a glass of wine, some beautiful food and my partner’s company.

This is how this creamy fettuccine dish was created last Sunday; with the glorious porcini mushrooms, the kings of the mushrooms, crème fraîche and parmesan, shallots and garlic and some semi-sweet wine.

The earthy, nutty aromas that emanated from the pan while I was sautéing the porcini, tricked me into thinking I was cooking some sort of meat rather than mushrooms and led me to the realization that if I could have fresh porcini on a regular basis, I would consider becoming a vegetarian. Perhaps.

The crème fraîche added acidity to the dish, without masking the umami flavor of the mushrooms, whereas the salty parmesan took away the sharp edge from the crème fraîche, and the woody thyme added freshness. With a glass of semi-sweet white wine, it was a pretty special, and quick, Sunday meal.

PS. Last night I watched this movie and it was sweet and light and full of marvelous food, aromas and flavors. You have to watch it!

Fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms and crème fraîche

If you can’t find fresh porcini, use fresh chanterelles or girolles or any other wild mushrooms you can find.

Don’t wash or rinse the mushrooms because they will soak up all the water and lose their flavor; just scrub them lightly with a soft brush all over to get rid of the dirt. There are special mushroom brushes that you can use, but if you don’t have one, you can use a very soft, unused toothbrush.

You don’t want to cook the porcini to oblivion because you want them to retain that springy and delicate texture. Their meaty yet subtle flavor will shine through but you mustn’t overwhelm them with too many ingredients. You want to complement their flavor not overpower it.

Yield: enough for 2 hungry people

250-300 g dried fettuccine
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
200 g fresh porcini mushrooms, brushed and sliced thickly lengthwise
1 garlic clove, minced
100 ml semi-sweet white wine
150 g crème fraîche, full-fat
2 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan, grated

Special equipment: colander, mushroom brush (optional), cheese grater

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the fettuccine. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard) or cook to your liking. Reserve about 60 ml (¼ cup) of the pasta water and drain the fettuccine in a colander (but don’t shake the pasta), discarding the rest of the water.

While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce.

Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large, wide sauté pan (one that will fit the pasta as well) over medium heat and add the shallots. Sauté for 2-3 minutes until they become translucent and very soft. Empty shallots and oil into a bowl, wipe the pan with some kitchen paper and heat the pan again over medium-high heat.
Lay the porcini in one layer in the pan and dry them out i.e. cook them until they release their juices and the juice evaporates, for a few minutes on each side, being careful not to burn them; moderate the heat so it’s not too high.

Season the porcini with salt and black pepper, add the garlic and 1 Tbsp olive oil and continue to fry on medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Return shallots and oil to the pan and mix well. Then deglaze with the wine. Oh the aroma! Scrape any bits that have stuck to the pan, that’s the good stuff!

Add the crème fraîche and some fresh thyme leaves, stir gently and leave to incorporate into the sauce over low heat. Add a little pasta water to thin the sauce out a bit if it’s too thick and add one last Tbsp of olive oil.

When the pasta is ready, add it to the pan and mix with the sauce.
Sprinkle with some more black pepper, the rest of the fresh thyme leaves, lots of grated parmesan and serve immediately.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Chocolate cake with dark brown sugar

The weather has finally turned and it’s starting to feel like autumn. Rain, dark skies and all that is characteristic of Dutch cold weather is back, while raincoats, boots and woolen socks have finally replaced open-toed shoes, t-shirts and skirts.

It is that time of the year. When the warmth of the oven is again pleasant and I can’t wait to be tucked in my little kitchen, bake my favorite cakes and try new ones.

This one is a cake I have been making quite often for the last two-three years and it is so scrumptious it is difficult to keep around for more than a couple of days. It is a chocolate cake made with dark brown sugar, cocoa and dark chocolate and it is my favorite everyday chocolate cake ever.

It is light and fluffy yet has a rich and deep flavor of chocolate accentuated by the molasses sweetness of dark brown sugar. Its smooth crumb and lovely crust on top, its beautiful chocolate aroma and slight moistness, makes it a perfect accompaniment to a hot cup of coffee or tea, and it is certainly ideal for breakfast before heading out to face the day or for a sweet treat in the afternoon when those sweet cravings kick in.

Chocolate cake with dark brown sugar
Adapted from here

I usually serve this plain but you can dust it with icing sugar that will cover those inevitable cracks on top, or with a patterned glaze made with icing sugar and milk.

You need to use chocolate with a high percentage in cocoa solids to balance the sweetness of the rest of the ingredients. The soft dark brown sugar makes the cake wonderfully moist and adds a level of sweetness as well as an interesting flavor, but the cake needs the bitterness of the chocolate to keep the flavors balanced.

Update 06.11.2014: Some of you have asked me about the sweetened condensed milk in the recipe. Since the cake doesn't contain a lot of sugar, the small amount of sweetened condensed milk gives the required sweetness and contributes to the cake's fluffy texture. Therefore, I wouldn't suggest you substitute it with another type of milk or cream.

Yield: 1 cake / 8-10 pieces

25 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
50 ml cold water
100 ml boiling water
50 g good quality dark chocolate (70-75% cocoa solids), finely chopped
100 g unsalted butter, softened and cubed, plus extra for greasing the pan
175 g soft dark brown sugar
125 g sweetened condensed milk
2 medium-sized eggs
1½ tsp pure vanilla extract
200 g all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder

Special equipment: stand or hand-held mixer, sieve, loaf pan (23 x 9 x 8 cm), baking paper

Butter the bottom and sides of your loaf pan with butter and line it with baking paper.

In a small bowl, add the cocoa powder and cold water and mix with a hand whisk until you have a smooth paste. Pour in the boiling water and whisk, then immediately add the chopped chocolate. Leave it for 2 minutes to melt and then whisk until you have a smooth mixture.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the softened butter, the soft dark brown sugar and the sweetened condensed milk and using the paddle attachment (or your hand-held mixer), beat on medium-high speed until very smooth. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate.
Sieve together in a bowl the flour and baking powder. Add half of it to the egg mixture and beat on medium-high until well incorporated (about 20 seconds). Add the chocolate mixture and beat to incorporate. Add the rest of the flour and beat until smooth (for about 20 seconds). In the end you should have a very fluffy and luscious cake batter.

Empty it into your prepared loaf pan and straighten the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.
Place the pan on the low rack of your oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then transfer it to the middle rack of the oven and bake for a further 30-35 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with just a few crumbs sticking to it.

Once ready, take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack until the cake cools. Then remove it from the pan and allow it to cool completely on the rack.

Serve cake as is cut into pieces, or dust it with icing sugar (it needs to be completely cool otherwise the icing sugar will melt into the cake), or glazed with icing/frosting.

You can keep it at room temperature, covered, for 4-5 days.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Greek Mousakas

There is a lot of dispute among Greeks over what is a proper mousakas and even greater over what constitutes the perfect one.

Mousakas’ roots are not Greek—you can find versions of the dish in Arab/Middle Eastern and Balcan countries. It was Greek-ified in the first half of the 20th century by the French-trained Greek gastronomist Nikolaos Tselementes, who added the delicious, yet so un-Greek at the time, béchamel sauce on top of the layered dish and introduced it to Greek home-cooks through his cookbooks. Mousakas became part of Greek cuisine ever since, as did the béchamel sauce, that made its appearance on top of other Greek dishes like pastitsio.

Greek mousakas (μουσακάς) is commonly made with minced beef/veal sauce, fried eggplants, kefalotyri cheese and is topped off with an egg-enriched béchamel sauce. But then there are other versions including eggplant and potatoes, or eggplant and zucchini, or all three. My family’s version is the last one.

You will find many versions of mousaka among Greek homes and in restaurants or tavernas. A lot of them will not be good, most of them will have the wrong type of béchamel sauce that’s too thick, others that will be filled with grease and an inordinate amount of olive oil. Mousakas must be anything but oily and greasy and unsavory. It should be characterized as meaty, honeyed rich and luscious.

The meat sauce is traditionally rather rich in sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves, but my version is a little lighter. It is mostly tomato based rather than spiced, and it lends itself to a lighter mousaka. The eggplants, potatoes and zucchinis are all fried but yet are not as heavy as you would expect. Of course, being Greek and having grown up with this dish, I’m used to eating it, so to be honest, there will be some of you who may find it heavy.

To me this is the better mousakas—of course every Greek cook will say the same thing about theirs but, oh well. The different layers of potato, zucchini, eggplant, alternating with meat sauce and a good sprinkling of kefalotyri cheese, make for a more interesting combination of flavors that work together beautifully and harmoniously. The very strict, traditional moussakas of just eggplant and meat sauce, is to me just a tad one-dimensional and even though I enjoy it, I prefer this one more.

The béchamel sauce on top is creamy and rich but not heavy, rather airy as it soufflés up in the oven. Granted, to make a good béchamel is not easy, you need to practice, however, once you get the hang of it and feel for it, then you’re okay. Following the recipe always helps.

Mousakas is the ultimate home-cooked dish. I certainly feel sorry for all those tourists having to suffer through eating mousaka in many touristy areas around Greece, eating those awful specimens of mousaka that are oily and heavy and not at all what a mousakas should be. So for those of you who would like to taste the real thing, do make this one and let me know how you liked it.

Greek Mousakas

Mousakas is all about balance of layers. The most important element/layer of mousaka for me is the béchamel. It shouldn’t be too thick nor too thin, and it should be rich and creamy.

Even though eggplant and zucchini are summer vegetables, this dish is made all year round in Greece. It is super comforting on a chilly autumn and winter evening.

Traditionally, the cheese used in this dish is Kefalotyri, a hard, yellow Greek cheese made from raw goat or sheep's milk that has a slightly salty, sharp flavor and aroma. If you can’t find it, use Pecorino or Parmesan.

Yield: 6-8 servings / for a medium-sized baking dish 31x25cm, 6-7cm deep (the size of the dish is important so try to use a similar-sized dish)


for the meat sauce
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
500 g minced veal or beef (it shouldn’t be too fatty)
Freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp sweet paprika
Pinch of sugar
½ cup passata (tomato pulp)
2 heaped Tbsp tomato paste
½ cup hot water

for the vegetables
4 medium-sized potatoes, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
2 medium-sized eggplants, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
2 large zucchini, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
Sunflower oil, for frying

for the béchamel sauce
100 g unsalted butter
100 g all-purpose flour
1 liter fresh whole milk
2 medium-sized eggs
White pepper, 3-4 grinds of the mill
3 Tbsp grated Kefalotyri

More grated Kefalotyri (about 5 Tbsp), for sprinkling on top of each vegetable layer and on top of the béchamel (50-60 g cheese in total for the whole dish)

Special equipment: kitchen paper, medium-sized baking dish 31x25cm, 6-7cm deep


make the meat sauce
Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, until they become soft and translucent and then add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute and add the minced meat. Sauté for 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously with a spoon or spatula, until browned. Season with salt and black pepper, add the sweet paprika and sugar and stir well. Then add the passata and tomato paste and stir well. Add the water, stir well and let the mixture come to the boil, uncovered. Once it does, cover and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the minced meat is almost cooked.
While the filling is cooking, you need to keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally, because it might need more water. Once cooked, the sauce should not be dry. It must have an average amount of liquid in it in order to permeate the vegetables and give the dish extra flavor.

fry the vegetables
In a wide, shallow frying pan, add as much oil to fill it by ¼. Heat the oil over medium-high heat and when it’s very hot, add the potato slices on one layer and fry them on both sides. Add more oil if needed.

Important note: The potatoes (as well as zucchini and eggplants) need to be cooked by ¾ as they will continue cooking in the oven. Be careful though, especially with the potatoes because you don’t want them to be hard.

Remove the potatoes and place them on kitchen paper to absorb the extra oil. Continue with the rest.
Fry the zucchini and eggplant slices in the exact same manner as the potatoes, placing them afterwards on kitchen paper.

make the béchamel sauce
In a small, heavy-based saucepan, add the butter and melt over a low heat. Add the flour and using a whisk, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes until you have a white roux.
While whisking, pour the milk in the saucepan, turn heat up to medium and allow the mixture to come to the boil, whisking continuously to prevent lumps.
Once the béchamel comes to the boil, turn heat down to low and simmer for 6-7 minutes, stirring with the whisk regularly, until it thickens, being careful that it doesn’t become lumpy or catches. Remove pan from the heat and add the two eggs, whisking vigorously and quickly to incorporate them in the sauce. You need to be super quick doing this because you don’t want your eggs to scramble. You can do it one egg at a time if you prefer. Add the kefalotyri and white pepper, season with salt to your liking and mix well.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

assemble the mousaka
Eyeball the division of the meat sauce into three portions in order to spread it equally over the three different vegetable layers.

Lay the potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with one portion of meat sauce.
On top of the meat sauce, lay the zucchini slices, in one layer but making sure not to leave gaps between the slices. If some overlap, that’s okay. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with another portion of meat sauce.
On top of the meat sauce, lay the eggplant slices, in one layer but making sure not to leave gaps between the slices. If some overlap, that’s okay. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with the last portion of meat sauce.
Spread the béchamel sauce on top evenly and smooth the top. Sprinkle with 1-2 Tbsps kefalotyri cheese.

Place the baking dish on the low rack of the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, then transfer dish to the middle rack and bake for a further 10-15 minutes or until the béchamel has taken on a golden brown color.
Remove baking dish from the oven and leave to cool before serving. If you try to cut pieces of mousaka while it’s hot, the layers will collapse.
The next day the mousakas will taste even better.

You can keep refrigerated for 2-3 days or in the freezer (in an airtight container) for 2-3 weeks.
You can reheat individual pieces.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bananas, chocolate et al

Whereas everyone seems to be making apple pies and pear tarts, I am making frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and covered in sprinkles, desiccated coconut and ground pistachio.

I don’t care for the seriousness of autumn, I want to hold on to the playfulness of summer. It is still rather warm out so these were a brilliant idea to cool us off somehow in the most sweet and colorful of ways.

I considered making an ice cream, but, to be honest, I have had my share of ice creams this summer and I have somewhat retired my ice cream bowl. As we speak, it is not sitting in my freezer, but comfortably in its box.

I’m also kind of in a state of watching what type of sweets I make, meaning that I prefer them on the less-sugar side (even though as we speak, I’m dreaming of a cupcake recipe I want to make that’s full of sugar) so I decided to make something that I can call healthy-ish, or something like it.

These chocolate-covered bananas are so fun and easy to make, effortless really, and a joy to eat. Crispy, crackly chocolate, firm, cold, sweet banana; perfection!

For those of you who are not keen on autumn and share my need to keep summer close, make these and enjoy them under a glorious sun.

Frozen chocolate-dipped bananas with desiccated coconut, pistachios or sprinkles

I used extra-virgin coconut oil to thin out the melted chocolate in order to have a thin coating rather than a brick-like one and it gave the bananas a faint flavor of coconut that was beautiful. If you’d rather not have that flavor, use odorless and flavorless vegetable oil to mix with the chocolate.

Use bananas that are firm yet ripe. If they have a few brown spots like mine, that’s okay. You want them to be flavorful but not soft, otherwise they will break when you insert the stick.

Yield: 16 banana sticks

8 large, ripe yet firm bananas
200 g good quality dark chocolate (60-70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
1½ Tbsp extra virgin coconut oil (or sunflower oil)
Desiccated coconut
Coarsely ground unsalted pistachios

Special equipment: popsicle sticks, large tray suitable for the freezer, baking paper

Peel the bananas and cut them in half crosswise. Insert a popsicle stick slowly and carefully half way into the banana, being careful not to puncture through the fruit.
Place the banana halves onto a baking paper-lined tray suitable for the freezer and place them in your freezer for 20 minutes. Don’t cover them because we don’t want any moisture to form on top of them.

Place the chopped chocolate and coconut oil (or sunflower oil) in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain marie) and melt, stirring often (or you can use the microwave). The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Stir gently with a rubber spatula and once the mixture is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan and empty into a jug or a tall container to make dipping the bananas easy.
Let it cool until it is warm but not hot.

Note: this chocolate mixture will not be the same as this chocolate shell as it contains less coconut oil so it doesn’t get hard in a few seconds. Instead, it takes a few minutes to set which gives you ample time to cover in sprinkles, coconut etc.

Remove the bananas from the freezer and one by one, dip them into the chocolate. You can either dip the whole banana into the chocolate or dip half of it. I prefer them half-dipped. Let the excess chocolate drip off for a few seconds and then either roll them in sprinkles/coconut/pistachios or sprinkle on top. If you roll them, they will be more covered than if you simply sprinkle them.
Place the bananas on a new piece of baking paper (and onto a tray) and return them to the freezer, uncovered. They need about 2 hours to be frozen.
Serve them either straight from the freezer, or if they’ve been in the freezer for more than 2 hours, transfer them to the fridge for half an hour or to your kitchen counter for 15 minutes to soften a bit.

If you plan to keep the bananas in the freezer for more than a day, cover each one well in plastic wrap or put them in a freezer bag or in an airtight container. You can keep them like that for 1 week.

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