When you’re in love, you do crazy things. Not that making your sweetheart’s favorite foods is crazy, mind you, but I do think it’s possible to push the envelope quite far, as I have done at times in my quest to tantalize my husband’s taste buds. This dessert might qualify, because not only did I make a homemade version of his favorite ice cream, I scooped that deliciousness right over a chocolate waffle and drizzled it with a homemade cherry syrup.
Les’s all-time favorite sweet flavor combination is chocolate with cherries, and I have mentioned this previously on Comfort du Jour, in these scrumptious posts:
All those desserts were delicious, but when it comes to cherry and chocolate, it is unquestionably ice cream that wins my man’s heart. One of his favorite grocery store ice creams is the Ben & Jerry’s classic flavor, Cherry Garcia, and though I made it back in October 2020 for the triple chocolate-cherry brownie bowls, I felt that it needed a little tweaking, so I didn’t share the recipe at the time. The color of my first batch was off, because I had used my go-to custard base that had a yellowish tint from the egg yolks. And the chocolate chunks were 70% cacao, which proved to be too bitter and a touch gritty in the mix of so much creaminess.
So, I did what I do best and gave the recipe a makeover. And I’m back to share it with you—a homemade version of “Cherry Garcia” ice cream—one that uses sweetened condensed milk in its base, for creamy sweetness without the yellow egg color, a ribbon of sweet-tart cherry syrup that is tinged with a surprise ingredient, and bits of semi-sweet chocolate that bring just the right balance to the sweet cream, vanilla and cherries.
And, in a bold move, I gave it a go with a recipe I’d been eyeing for years on King Arthur Baking’s website—sourdough chocolate malt waffles. This dessert was nothing short of spectacular.
Over the top? Obviously, but c’mon, we’re talking about Valentine’s Day!
Before I get into the making of this lovely dessert, let me acknowledge that a few of you may not be inclined to go this crazy, or maybe you don’t have an ice cream machine yet, or you don’t have sourdough starter to make the chocolate waffles. Please feel free to lift any single part of this dessert for your own celebration, even if it means just making the cherry syrup to drizzle over store-bought ice cream, or serving the ice cream with a store-bought chocolate cookie. I ended up making a second batch of the cherry syrup (with chunks of cherries), and it was fantastic over plain vanilla ice cream.
My ingredients and instructions are all included in a downloadable PDF at the end of the post. Enjoy!
There was a time (in the not-so-distant past) that we didn’t rely on overly processed food from the supermarket for every little thing. Before the grocery aisles were jam-packed with 173 kinds of salad dressing, there was oil and vinegar, and people spiced those up by whisking in a handful of other common items to create dressings far tastier than the pre-made stuff. Vinaigrette is one of the simplest dressings to make from scratch, and creamy dressings are equally simple with a few basic ingredients.
You might be amazed at how much flavor you will be able to create at home with nothing more than simple fridge items, a few spices and a whisk (or, as I’ll show you today, a food processor). On the economic side, it costs pennies on the dollar to make your own dips and dressings, and it only takes a few minutes to pull them together.
The other benefit of making your own dressing—besides the savings and the flavor factor—is that you will know exactly what is in it. Commercial dressings contain so many stabilizing and preservative ingredients that aren’t necessary. And if it seems a healthier bet to buy the packets of ranch dressing mix and “make it yourself” with fresh buttermilk, all I can suggest is to take a closer look:
I suppose these ingredients might be perfectly harmless (remember when they said that about partially hydrogenated vegetable oil?), but it’s a fair assumption that the fresh herbs and minimal spices you add to a real homemade dressing will present a lesser concern. And your dressing will taste better, which might even lead you to enjoying more salads and vegetables.
For this creamy ranch dressing dip, I have used a whole bulb of roasted garlic to add a mellow flavor to plain Greek yogurt, buttermilk, olive oil-based mayo and a bunch of fresh herbs. A little salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and that’s all there was to it. If you prefer a bit more zing, use fresh garlic, but only a fraction of what is called for here. If you don’t have the same fresh herbs, substitute what you have or what you like. If you want to add half of a ripe avocado in place of some of the mayonnaise, go for it.
My homemade roasted garlic ranch dip was intended for dipping fresh veggies as a game day snack, but if you prefer a more pourable dressing for salads, simply ease up on the mayo and use more buttermilk.
This recipe makes about 1 1/4 cups.
2 scallions, white and green parts
1 small handful fresh parsley
1 small handful fresh dill
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/2 an average-sized fruit)
1/4 cup stirred Greek yogurt (whole fat or 2% recommended)
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. carboxymethylcellulose (just kidding—I’ve never heard of this, but it’s in the store-bought ranch mix!)
Choose a mayonnaise that you trust, bearing in mind that labels can be misleading. The front of the jar may suggest that your mayo is made with olive oil, but on further inspection, soybean oil could be listed as the first (most prominent) ingredient, with the healthier oil listed much later. Learning what your food is made of can be an eye-opener, and when you do find a product that meets your health standards, you will be able to build on it to make a lot of other foods serve you better.
Thick buttermilk works especially well for dip-style dressings. Look for a brand that doesn’t have a lot of “gum” ingredients, which are unnecessary stabilizers. Bacterial cultures should be present in good buttermilk as well. And for this dip, I do not recommend making a buttermilk substitute using regular milk and lemon juice or vinegar. That works for some baking recipes, but not in this instance, as you will miss the smooth textural element that buttermilk lends to your dip or dressing.
I love roasting garlic for use in many things, and it is easy to do. If you have never made your own, you may find some helpful tips in my previous post for making your own roasted garlic. When roasted, the garlic takes on a mellow, somewhat nutty flavor that lends a lot of depth to foods. If you prefer fresh, or simply don’t have the time or patience to roast it, I would recommend only using one or two segments of the garlic rather than a whole bulb (unless you’re battling vampires, obviously).
Begin by chopping up your fresh herbs, together with the Dijon, salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. I made a small batch this time, and my processor only rough-chopped these ingredients, even in the small insert bowl. As long as the volume reduces to make room for the other ingredients, it’s fine.
Add the mayo and pulse to combine. Add the roasted garlic and process until you no longer see visible bits of the garlic.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add yogurt, buttermilk and onion powder, and whisk until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste (remember that additional salt will need time to dissolve, so you may want to let it rest a few minutes before final taste adjustments).
Chill the dip at least one hour before serving. Enjoy within a few days for best freshness and give it a good stir when you take it out of the fridge.
Of all the things to be excited about when our kitchen remodel is finished, I’m especially looking forward to having my pasta rolling machine closer at hand. We have what we call the “prime real estate” rule in our existing kitchen, which means that we must use a gadget or appliance more than a couple times each week to justify giving it counter space or base cabinet storage. Everything else is relegated to the baker’s rack in the attached garage, or atop the wall cabinets in our laundry room.
My pasta machine, which I only use once every few months, lives way up there, mere inches from the ceiling. I can only reach it if I stand on tippy toes on the top step of our stepladder—it is inconvenient, to say the least. And I have not pressed very hard on the argument that if I could actually reach the thing, I might use it more often, thereby earning its spot in the better real estate. It’s a catch-22 kind of thing, and a real shame because I love to make handmade pasta.
But my deepest pasta prayers will be answered with the installation of a brand-new section of cabinetry in this unused corner of our kitchen, right next to the huge sunny window. It will be my own special space—a baking station—and the cabinets and drawers will give me all the space I need for my favorite gadgets, including the pasta machine, plus a lovely butcher block countertop where I will make pasta (and sourdough bread) to my heart’s content. I cannot wait!
And in preparation for that time, I have been getting in some practice rounds with handmade pasta, due in part to my purchase of this amazing how-to book. The author of Pasta, Pretty Please, Linda Miller Nicholson, describes her recipes for brilliantly hued handmade pasta dough, flavored and colored with pure, natural ingredients, and then shaped with the most clever and creative techniques. Linda is all over Facebook, YouTube and Instragram with her craft, and you can count me among those who are utterly enthralled by her incredible, edible art. Feast your eyes!
The impatient side of me wants to dive head first into the most complex shapes, designs and colors, but I am restraining and pacing myself—partly so that I don’t get frustrated with techniques that I don’t yet understand, and partly because there is only so much pasta that my husband, Les, and I can consume in a week. If I made as much pasta as my heart desired, we’d be in major carb overload!
But I am practicing, both with the natural color ingredients and some of the special shaping. I’m happy to share a sneak peek of my progress, and then I’ll dive into the recipe that I promised at the beginning.
Stay tuned for more progress as I go. Until then, let’s talk about this handmade spinach pasta, lovingly wrapped around an easy ricotta and parm-romano filling. I will not be so smug as to imply that handmade pasta is a cinch (because it does take practice), but I will absolutely say that it is worth the effort, and if you have made pasta before, you can make a couple of simple changes to twist up the flavor and color, and you will impress even yourself with the outcome. I’ve made colored and flavored pasta many times before—with spinach, butternut squash, sun-dried tomato, lemon and dried mushrooms as ingredients—but I have already learned some new tricks from Linda Miller Nicholson, and I am excited to share them with you.
For starters, her instruction shifted me away from extensive kneading of the dough to a simpler means of laminating the dough to build gluten strength. Laminating means “layers.” After a brief kneading and a half-hour rest, you repeatedly fold the sheets of dough onto itself, layer upon layer, as you run it through the pasta machine. As you go, the dough becomes more and more supple and strong enough to withstand pressing into thin sheets for ravioli. This is good news for anyone who finds kneading tedious or painful.
Next, the color of the pasta can be intensified with a simple addition of baking soda in the blanching water for any vegetables you use to color up your dough; then, a quick straining through a mesh sieve weeds out the solids for a cleaner-looking dough. In the past, I have simply wilted spinach in a pan and pureed it into my dough. My previous results were good, but not this good.
And my filling is improved also, simply because I took a few extra minutes to drain excess moisture from the ricotta before mixing the filling. More advice from Linda, and it worked like a charm. Oh, it pays to stay curious!
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour* (see notes)
2 large eggs, room temperature (plus water, as noted in the instructions)
A fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed
1 tsp. baking soda (in the blanching water, not the dough)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt (also for the blanching water)
As always, be sure you measure the flour properly so that your dough is not dense. Use the fluff, sprinkle, level method if measuring by volume. For less fuss and greater precision, measure it by weight—270 grams.
The very best flour to use for pasta is Italian 00 milled flour or finely milled durum (semolina), which is my favorite. But both can be tricky to find. For the sake of practice, I have been using King Arthur all-purpose flour, and I have had excellent results so far. If you sub in any amount of whole wheat flour, increase the water a bit as well.
Here, I will run through the instructions in pictures, as usual. At the end of the post, you’ll find a PDF available for download, so you can print it for your recipe files. 🙂
Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the salt and baking soda and stir briefly to dissolve. Toss in the baby spinach and stir it around for 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove the spinach and place it in a mesh strainer to drain excess water.
Transfer the spinach to a regular or bullet blender, together with the eggs. Pulse blend a few times, and then run the blender continuously until the mixture is evenly mixed.
Pour the pureed mixture through a mesh strainer over a glass measuring cup. Press the puree through to strain out the solids, and then add enough water to the mixture in the glass to measure exactly 3/4 cup.
In a large bowl, stir a generous pinch of salt into the flour and create a well in the center of the flour. Pour in the pureed spinach mixture and mix with a spoon until a clumpy mixture comes together. Knead with your hands in the bowl or turn the dough out onto a countertop and knead several times until all flour is incorporated and no dry spots remain.
Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes before rolling. You may also refrigerate the dough for several hours or even a day. I’ve found this formula for pasta dough to be very forgiving.
Make the ricotta filling while you rest the pasta dough
Strain the ricotta in a mesh strainer (lined with cheesecloth if you have it) over a medium bowl. Let the ricotta drain for at least 30 minutes. Stir in parm-romano, egg yolk, lemon zest and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture into a plastic bread bag for easy piping. Refrigerate mixture while you roll out the pasta dough.
Sheet the pasta and fill the ravioli
Divide the dough into sections, keeping most of them wrapped as you work on one. Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to press the first section into a flat oval. Run it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting, folding it into thirds like an envelope and then run it through again. If it sticks, dust both sides with flour. When the dough reaches a very supple stage, adjust the setting knob one notch per run, until the dough reaches the desired thinness. For ravioli, I recommend using the thinnest or second-thinnest setting.
Let the pasta sheet rest, uncovered, on the floured counter for about 10 minutes before filling with ricotta filling. This gives the pasta time to tighten up a bit for easier shaping.
If you are making ravioli without a mold, squeeze 1 1/2 teaspoon-sized dollops of ricotta filling onto one long side of the pasta sheet. Space the dollops about 2 inches apart, allowing room to seal up the pillows on all sides. Dip a finger into a small bowl of water and slightly moisten the dough in between ricotta dollops and along the long edge.
Fold the dough over the ricotta dollops, taking care to keep the edges aligned. Carefully press out any air pockets, starting from the folded edge, then in between dollops. Seal the open edge last to ensure no air bubbles are trapped.
Use a pizza wheel or sharp knife to trim any ragged edges. Cut between the raviolis and transfer them to a semolina- or flour-dusted parchment paper. Allow the ravioli to dry for at least an hour before cooking.
To cook handmade ravioli, bring salted water to a gentle boil. Carefully transfer ravioli, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Fresh pasta cooks much more quickly than dried or frozen, so keep an eye on it and prepare to rescue it from the pot after about four minutes.
Serve with any favorite sauce. I made the simplest marinara with sauteed onions and garlic, my own Italian spice blend and canned San Marzano tomatoes, plus a splash of cream.
For the record, I bought Linda Miller Nicholson’s book with my own hard-earned money. This is not a paid advertisement for Linda, but I cannot help sharing my discovery of her work because she is just awesome. You can pick up a copy of Pasta, Pretty Please at the bookstore or on Amazon, but I bought it directly from Linda’s website, called Salty Seattle. If you buy the book directly from Linda, she will even sign it for you. 🙂
In six short weeks, life will be turned upside down for my husband, Les, and me. This is when our kitchen tear-out will begin, and we are beginning to shift our expectations as we prepare for the eight weeks or so that we will be “without” a kitchen. Welcome, friends, to our “in-between” kitchen!
We have rearranged our dining room space to accommodate a baker’s rack that will hold some of the appliances that will help us get through the chaos. A new two-burner induction cooktop will allow us to do simple stove-top cooking, including heating water for my daily dose of French press coffee. We will make good use of our slow cooker, toaster oven and the panini griddle that doubles as a waffle iron. We have the gas grill for outdoor cooking, and so far, the only thing I haven’t quite figured out is how I will make bread without our oven, though don’t be surprised if I use one or more of the above to make it happen!
As we are preparing for the load out of the old kitchen (not to mention a bevy of random pantry and freezer ingredients), I’m giving all of our other small electrics a chance to prove themselves worthy of a spot in our new space. One item that will be (sadly) getting the boot is our KitchenAid 11-cup food processor, but not because we don’t use it; on the contrary, this thing gets so much action, it is on its last legs. The protective film over the power buttons has become brittle and is completely worn away from the pulse button, the feed chute is cracked and the inside of the “S” blade stem has some dried-on crud that I have not been able to remove. I have had the appliance nearly 20 years, and KitchenAid no longer makes my model (or any of the parts), so my only choice will be to replace the machine.
Until then, I’ll keep going with recipes like this one, for easy homemade hummus made with garbanzo beans, lemony artichoke hearts and lots of fresh garlic. Hummus is one of my favorite “blank canvas” foods, and it’s so simple at home, it makes no sense to buy it. The other key ingredients include tahini, olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon, which is a perfect highlight to the tangy artichoke.
Warm the garbanzo beans to soften them up before you begin and use a food processor or a good blender for best, smoothest results. Enjoy your hummus on crackers, chips, crostini or fresh veggie slices.
15 oz. can garbanzo beans, with liquid
3 Tbsp. tahini* (see notes)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
About 1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts*, drained and rough-chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Kosher salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Tahini is a paste made of ground sesame seeds. It is available in most larger supermarkets, usually in the same section as olives, or perhaps in the international aisle.
The artichoke hearts I used were Trader Joe’s, marinated in sunflower oil, vinegar and spices. If you use plain hearts, consider adding a pinch or dried herbs (dill or oregano would be great), and either way, drain all the excess liquid from them.
Pour the entire contents of the canned garbanzo beans into a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until mixture just begins to boil. Remove from heat and drain liquid off beans, but do not discard it (you’ll use it for blending).
Transfer warm beans into a food processor or blender and pulse a few times to grind the beans into a meal-like texture. Scrape down sides of the processor bowl. Add tahini, garlic, artichoke hearts, salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to combine. Scrape down the sides again.
Turn processor on and run continuously while slowly pouring about 3 tablespoons of the warm liquid into the processor. Blending slowly will help to emulsify the ingredients into a smooth blend. Add more or less of the liquid, depending on your preference for hummus consistency. Remember that the mixture will become firmer after chilling. Scrape down sides once more.
Run processor continuously and slowly blend in about 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
Transfer hummus to a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for up to a week.
There are plenty of things I don’t buy pre-made anymore—bread, salad dressing, pizza dough, ice cream, pasta—but corn tortillas are among the simplest, and the flavor is far superior to the ones I find in the supermarket. Even the “authentic” corn tortillas at the grocery are mass-produced with all kinds of processed ingredients, conditioners, preservatives and heaven knows what else. When you make them from scratch, you only need two ingredients—masa harina, which is finely ground corn that has been alkalized with lime (the mineral, not the citrus), and water. The dough rests for a short time, then it is rolled into balls and flattened into discs. Cook them on a hot griddle or cast-iron skillet, and you’ll enjoy tortillas that will make you skip store bought forever.
Flavoring the tortillas is simple, also. I like to put a couple of shakes of onion powder into a basic batch, for a quick little savory “something.” But if you want more noticeable flavor—spinach, for example—simply puree a small amount of cooked spinach with some water and measure it out in the same measurement as water in the recipe. You could do the same with cilantro, pumpkin, garlic, tomato or black beans. If you can imagine it, you can make it. Experimenting in the kitchen has resulted in some of my favorite foods!
I use a tortilla press to create the perfect round shape, but you can also use the flat bottom of a large glass bowl to do this. Once cooked, the tortillas can be used for soft tacos or enchiladas, fried crisp for hard-shell tacos or tostadas (one of my faves), or cut into wedges and fried to become homemade tortilla chips, perfect for dips and salsas.
Making tortillas can be a little challenging at first. The ratio of ingredients is printed on the masa flour bag, but your technique can only be developed with practice. See my tips for success at the end of the instructions. No reason you should go through all the frustrating mistakes I’ve made. One of these days, I’ll make a list of all the cuss words I’ve made up in the kitchen. 😊
Ingredients for Basic Tortillas
1 cup masa harina (I like Maseca brand, white, yellow or blue)
2/3 cup very warm water (or 50/50 mix of water and puree of choice)
A pinch of kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until liquid is absorbed. Knead the dough ball a few times until mixture is smooth, soft and uniform in texture. Cover the dough ball snugly with plastic wrap and allow it to rest at least 20 minutes.
Preheat a cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat, about 375° F.
Divide masa dough into 8 equal pieces, then roll each piece into a smooth ball. Keep the dough balls covered to prevent drying out as you shape and press them into flat tortillas.
Place a dough ball between two squares of plastic wrap, or cut apart a zip-top bag. The thicker plastic gives better results. Use the tortilla press to slowly flatten the dough to a disc that is about 5 to 6 inches across. Alternatively, press the flat bottom of a clear glass bowl evenly over the surface of the dough ball until the tortilla is about 5 to 6 inches across.
Carefully peel one side of the plastic away from the tortilla, then turn the tortilla out into your hand and peel away the second piece of plastic. Be prepared to ruin a few, but don’t panic if you do (see Tips below)!
Turn the tortilla onto the preheated griddle and cook the first side 60 to 90 seconds, until the edges look dry and steam is emerging from underneath. Use a spatula to flip the tortilla over and cook the second side about 60 seconds.
Transfer the hot tortilla to a plate lined with a clean kitchen towel and fold the towel over to keep them warm as you finish the remaining tortillas.
If you love corn tortillas and want to make them at home more regularly, I recommend investment in a tortilla press because it makes it so simple. I picked mine up in a specialty market that carries a wide array of foods and products for Mexican cuisine, and you can easily find them online, too. But what if you’re jonesing to make them right now? Here’s one easy way to do it, using a flat-bottomed glass dish as your “press.” For this batch, I used the blue corn masa harina, and I demonstrate how to incorporate another ingredient: black beans!
Follow the same guidelines for measuring the masa harina as I offer for measuring flour—fluff it up, sprinkle over the measuring cup to overflowing, and then level it off. If you dig a measuring cup directly into the masa bag, you’ll end up with too much and the dough will be dry. The masa should be soft and loose in the measuring cup, not packed tight.
Use warm water, not cold, to mix with the masa flour. I’ve found that the warm water is more easily absorbed and helps to create better dough. Knead the dough until it is soft and smooth, which is usually only a minute or two, though longer kneading will not cause any harm.
Don’t skip the rest time after mixing the masa. This gives enough time for the masa to hydrate fully. If you rush this step, you may find the dough crumbly or sticky (or both) during pressing.
When you roll the dough into balls, it should hold together easily without sticking to your hands, and only showing slight cracks. Trust your instinct; if it feels too dry, wet your hands and knead a few more times. If it’s sticky, lightly dust it with additional masa flour, then knead and rest it again.
I have found a modified zip-top bag more useful than plastic wrap for pressing the tortillas. Use a freezer bag if possible, as it is thicker than a sandwich bag. Cut off the zipper top entirely, and cut down the sides, leaving only the bottom of the bag attached.
Shape the sections of dough into balls all at once, and then place one dough ball inside the zip top bag layers. Keep the other dough balls covered with a damp paper towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out. When placing the dough ball in the tortilla press, arrange it slightly off center toward the hinge side. Close the press and use the lever to apply gentle pressure. If the tortilla is noticeably thinner on one edge, turn it and gently press again to even it out. Until you get used to this process, it may help to make slightly thicker tortillas. If you are using a flat-bottomed dish to press them, press your hands on it in a rocking motion all the way around until the tortilla is about 5 inches across. It’s helpful to have a clear dish so you can see the progress.
Focus on peeling the plastic away from the dough, not the other way around, and accept that you may find the first few tries unsuccessful. Hold the plastic bag flat in one hand, and use the other hand to peel, keeping the plastic at a sharp angle to the tortilla. Don’t peel straight up or the tortilla will tear. If the tortilla falls apart, just scrape it into a ball and try again. There is no gluten in corn tortillas, so they will not get tough from extra handling. If the dough feels dry after a few failed attempts, wet your hands and knead it a bit.
The initial cooking of the tortillas should be on a dry skillet or pancake griddle. If you want to fry them later to suit a dish you are making, that will be a separate process. Think of it as a form of bread, which must be baked before it can be toasted or grilled.
Give your griddle or cast-iron skillet enough time to pre-heat, and plan to let your first tortilla be a test. It may take some practice to get the right temperature on your stove or griddle. Be ready to flip them when they look “right,” not by the clock, but aim for somewhere between 60 and 90 seconds.
Have a plate ready, lined with a clean kitchen towel. You’ll want to keep the freshly cooked tortillas wrapped as you complete the rest of the batch—for warmth and also for softness.
If you decide to use pureed vegetables to make flavored tortillas, start with a liquid mixture that is at least 50% water. Pureed vegetables such as spinach or pumpkin are wet, but there is also fiber in them that may change the consistency of the masa. I recommend making basic tortillas a few times to get used to it. As you gain experience making them, you will instinctively know what the dough should feel like, and how to best adjust ratios of other ingredients to produce fun colors and flavors. Here are a few of my favorites: spinach, black bean, pumpkin, cilantro, roasted garlic.
March was National Flour Month, and I’m finally catching up on paying respect to the many ways flour feeds us, beyond the obvious (bread). My first attempts at making handmade pasta 10 years ago were outright disastrous, mostly because I had assumed the method of stirring eggs by fork into a mountain-like peak of all-purpose flour was going to be easy. In my defense, the shows I had watched on Food Network made it seem easy, but in real life, it was a humongous freaking mess that left me cussing up a storm and vowing that I’d “never make that again.” Truth is, it is those really frustrating failures that inspire me the most to give it another go, and I’m so glad I did!
In my later efforts, I enjoyed more success, letting my KitchenAid do the mixing, but there was always something about the handmade pasta that didn’t sit right with me, even after I had invested in a “Made in Italy” hand-crank pasta roller. The dough always seemed heavy or thick, even on the thin roller setting. It fell apart or crumbled, or stuck to the roller or cutting blades. But a few years ago, I found the perfect, James Beard Foundation-approved recipe that fixed all the problems I had encountered. My issue was not only how I was making the dough or rolling the pasta, but also the ratio of ingredients I was using. To that point, I had been using only all-purpose flour and whole eggs (yolks and whites). I had no idea what temperature was best for my ingredients, nor did I fully understand how long to knead the dough or whether it needed to be rested.
The better recipe, and the one I use to this day, takes advantage of a special variety of wheat called durum, which is used to make semolina flour, the gold standard in authentic Italian pasta recipes. Semolina lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor, a light yellowish color and a firmer, more toothsome texture. It has been a game changer in my journey to making handmade pasta.
The other big difference was a shift in liquid ingredients in my formula. Rather than using whole eggs, the recipe that has become my standard requires separation of the eggs, using only the yolks, plus an amount of water. Once I found this easy formula, the flavor possibilities became near-endless. And that’s where the real fun of making handmade pasta begins! Being creative with the colors, flavors and shapes of handmade pasta is one of the things that gives me—a home cook—a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.
I won’t claim that handmade pasta is “easy,” because I still feel the ego bruises from my early attempts, but I will say that if you are already making handmade pasta, go on and experiment with the flavors until you find something amazing. New flavors make their way into the mix either in the liquid, perhaps by using finely pureed vegetables as part of the water measurement, or by way of dry add-ins, as I am sharing in today’s post. And if you’re still on the fence about trying handmade pasta, I hope my adventure inspires you!
This recipe has helped me use some of the abundance of fresh herbs I’ve had since my husband, Les, gifted me the countertop hydroponic herb garden that keeps throwing parsley at me. The lemon, parsley and basil combination is terrific and perfect for spring, but you could just as easily flavor your pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, roasted red peppers or—well, you can imagine your own (and I do hope you’ll share those fabulous ideas).
8 oz. semolina flour (plus extra for rolling pasta dough)
4 oz. unbleached, all-purpose flour* (see notes)
2 oz. white whole wheat flour*
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup filtered water, room temperature*
2 egg yolks, room temperature*
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (mine is whole lemon-fused for bright lemon flavor)
Zest of one organic lemon* (only the bright yellow peel)
2 Tbsp. very finely minced fresh herbs (I used a combination of Italian parsley and Genovese basil)
All-purpose flour is easy to find, but “00” flour is better if you can get your hands on it. The double-zero flour is milled to a very fine texture, and its use results in tender, silky pasta. I have seen it in well-stocked larger supermarkets, gourmet shops and online. I also use some portion of whole grain flour in my pasta dough, but if you prefer, skip the white whole wheat and make up the difference with equal amount of additional all-purpose or 00 flour.
As with bread dough, I have found that hydration of flour for pasta dough is much improved with room temperature or slightly warm water. Cold water makes for very stiff dough that is tougher to knead.
Eggs are more easily separated when cold, but once this is done, cover the bowl of yolks and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before you begin mixing the pasta dough.
Most of the time, conventionally-grown citrus is fine. But when you intend to eat any part of the peel, it’s best to choose organic to avoid chemical pesticides.
Instructions – making the dough
Zest the lemon and mince the herbs first, and spread them out on a cutting board so that the add-in ingredients dry out a bit.
Combine flours, salt, lemon zest and lightly dried herbs in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Combine egg yolks and water in a separate bowl and whisk them together until the mixture is light and frothy.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the wet ingredients into the center and use the dough hook to do the blending. Though it might seem logical to mix with the beater blade, using the dough hook completes the blending from the center-out, in the same way as the chefs using only a fork to gradually mix the eggs into the flour. Allow the mixer to do this work for you, until the dough mixture is combined but crumbly, and no dry flour remains in the bowl. Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, if needed to achieve this stage.
Empty the dough onto your work surface, and knead by hand for at least 10 minutes, probably more like 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic, with no creases or cracks or lumps. If the dough shows any sign of cracking or breaking, wet your hands and continue to knead, repeating as many times as necessary until the smooth texture is achieved.
Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough ball at least one hour, or up to overnight. Do not refrigerate more than a day.
Time to make the pasta!
Remove the pasta dough from the fridge (still wrapped) about 30 minutes before you plan to roll it, to remove some of the chill. Set up your pasta rolling machine, and keep fresh semolina out to aid in rolling and to prevent the dough from sticking. Have a parchment-lined cookie sheet within reach, and set up your drying rack if you’re using one.
Instructions – rolling the pasta
Unwrap the pasta dough and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to slice off sections of dough about one inch thick. Keep remaining dough tightly wrapped until ready to roll, so it doesn’t dry out.
Flatten a piece of dough into an oval-shaped disk, then roll it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting. For the first few passes, fold the pressed dough in half and run it through again on the same setting. Fold it in thirds, as you would fold up a letter, and turn the dough 90° so that it runs through the machine at a different angle. This helps to reduce curling or bending when the pasta dries later. When the dough feels supple after running through the press several times, begin reducing to thinner setting with each pass.
When the dough reaches the desired thickness (either the thinnest or next-to-thinnest setting, allow the sheet to dry slightly before cutting into strips or using as ravioli. In my experience with pasta, the cutting and shaping stage seems to work better when the pasta is not super-soft. If you rush directly to cutting it, at least with a machine, the dough tends to stick in the rollers, and it will definitely stick to a ravioli mold.
After pasta sheets are complete, allow them to rest for a couple of minutes before cutting, either with the pasta machine or by hand with a fluted pasta trimmer, pizza slicer or sharp knife. If cutting by hand, the simplest way is to fold the pasta sheet crosswise multiple times, and slice through the layers with a pizza wheel or sharp knife. Dust the pasta really well with extra semolina flour before cutting to minimize sticking.
This time, I’ve opted to use the cutter attachment for my pasta roller to fashion my lemon-herb pasta into fettucine strips, but this lemony pasta would also be terrific for making sweet crab-stuffed ravioli, or ricotta-filled tortellini. I will save those for another day. 🙂
We used the lemon-herb pasta in a couple of ways—first, with littleneck clams in white wine broth, and again as a base for an amazing dish of chicken thighs in vodka sauce that Les made for us.
We have entered the last full week of March, and I’ve yet to mention that it is “National Flour Month,” a near-unforgivable oversight for someone who enjoys making homemade bread as much as I do. My adventures with sourdough have been well-documented here on Comfort du Jour, but it took St. Patrick’s Day to bring me back around to making our favorite sourdough pumpernickel. It had to be done, given the volume of homemade corned beef we have (not to mention all that pastrami), and the rising aroma of this bread from the oven was enough on its own to convince me I’d waited too long.
What makes this bread extra special for me is that I make my own flour for it, from freshly milled rye grain. This sounds more impressive than it really is, thanks to a handy grain mill that latches onto my KitchenAid stand mixer. I just turn the dial to select the grind, pour in the grain and turn it on. I purchased the mill in the summer of 2016, when “Pete,” my sourdough starter, was still wet behind the ears, and I’ve found it particularly useful for some of my lesser-used grains, including rye. After whole grain has been milled into flour, the freshness clock starts ticking, and there is nothing tasty about rancid flour. Now, when I want to make rye bread (or pumpernickel, which is technically almost the same), I mill the grain fresh, but only the amount I need, and I’m good to go with flour that far excels what I could have bought pre-milled.
This recipe relies on sourdough for rise and flavor, though there is also a small (optional) amount of instant dry yeast to boost the rising power and make the ferment time more predictable. As with many other sourdough loaves, this one begins the day before with a pre-ferment called a “sponge,” and that’s when the freshly milled rye flour starts working its magic. The rest of the flour is high-protein bread flour, which is needed for its strength because rye does not have a lot of gluten.
Coarse-milled whole rye grain is known as pumpernickel meal, and it may surprise you to know that the dark, rich color of “pumpernickel” bread is mostly for show, and it comes into the bread by way of either caramel color (which isn’t likely in your pantry), strong coffee (either liquid or powdered) or—as is the case with mine—cocoa powder! And no, it does not make the bread taste like chocolate. There’s also an unusual, time-honored technique that will come into play with this bread, and it involves bread from another time (more on that in a minute).
Up to this point, the sourdough pumpernickel recipe I’m describing has been drawn straight from p. 246 of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, the same book I depended on to learn sourdough baking in the first place. But something in my nature will not let me leave well enough alone, and I have put my own spin on this recipe—not because I think I know better than the author, but because I love certain additional flavors in my rye breads, and so I have either substituted or added ingredients, following rules that Reinhart himself would approve. Rather than brown sugar, I add molasses for a deep, earthy sweetness, and I accent this bread with onions, dill and caraway seeds, none of which are called for in the original recipe.
The resulting bread never ceases to thrill my taste buds, and it has been terrific this past week with our homemade corned beef, but I confess my favorite way to enjoy it is the same as most every bread—it makes fabulous toast!
On Day 1:
7 oz. ripe (recently fed) sourdough starter
4.25 oz. coarse whole grain rye flour* (see notes)
6 oz. water, room temperature
Combine the starter, coarse rye flour and water in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it ferment at room temperature about 5 hours, until it looks very bubbly and active. Transfer the sponge to the refrigerator overnight.
On Day 2:
2 Tbsp. molasses
2 oz. water, room temperature
2 Tbsp. olive oil (mine is infused with dill)
1 heaping Tbsp. minced dried onion, rehydrated with warm water
9 oz. bread flour*
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder* (optional, see notes)
1 tsp. instant dry yeast*
1 1/2 tsp. fine-textured salt
1 Tbsp. caraway seed, plus a few sprinkles for topping* (optional)
Up to a cup of dry bread crumbs from a previous rye loaf* (optional)
1 or 2 tsp. dried dill leaves (optional)
Egg wash for topping and cornmeal for baking
If you don’t have a grain mill, it’s no problem. Use whole rye flour, which is available in specialty markets such as Whole Foods. The pre-milled flour and resulting bread will have a finer texture, but all the flavors will still be present.
I mentioned above that strong coffee is sometimes used to give deep color to pumpernickel, but for this recipe, I would not recommend using brewed coffee in the overnight sponge. Espresso powder or a fine-textured instant coffee mixed with the flour would be a better bet if coffee is your coloring agent of choice.
Caraway seeds give a distinct note to rye or pumpernickel bread, but it is a polarizing flavor for some people. When someone tells me they don’t like rye bread, I usually assume it is the caraway. It is a warm, slightly biting flavor, and I love it, so I put it in the dough and also on top of the bread.
The addition of the “old” bread crumbs is optional, but it adds an interesting texture and depth of flavor to the finished bread. In a way, the secondary crumbs are another type of sourdough, given that the flavor and existing yeast in them contribute something to the final product. If you choose to try this, I would recommend using crumbs from a home-baked bread, and preferably sourdough, to exclude unnecessary commercial preservatives and such.
The day before you intend to make this sourdough pumpernickel, you will need to feed your starter with the entire amount of coarse, whole grain rye flour and water to make it a soupy mixture. Cover it with plastic wrap and give it a few hours at room temperature until it becomes foamy and bubbly, then put it to bed in the fridge until morning.
Remove the sponge from the fridge for about an hour to knock the chill off it. Pour a small amount of boiling water over the dried chopped onions to re-hydrate them.
In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread flour, cocoa, salt, instant dry yeast and caraway seed. If using the “old bread” technique, also add the crumbs to the flour blend.
Stir water, molasses and oil into the fermented sponge.
Combine the sponge mixture and re-hydrated onions with the dry ingredients and mix with a beater blade until dough becomes a cohesive mass around the beater. Scrape down dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a slightly damp towel and rest 30 minutes.
Switch to the dough hook and knead in the stand mixer about 5 minutes. The dough will be dense and sticky, but resist the temptation to add more flour or you will end up with a gummy bread.
Shape dough into a smooth ball and place it in a large, oiled bowl. Cover and rest in a quiet, warm spot of the kitchen until dough has doubled in size, which may be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, depending on ambient room temperature.
Grease a 9-inch loaf pan and sprinkle corn meal into the pan, tapping to distribute it evenly in the pan.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter, pressing and stretching the dough into an oblong shape, about 8 inches wide and 16 inches long. Sprinkle the dried dill onto the dough, then roll it up into a loaf shape to match the length of your bread pan. The loaf will rise more evenly if the ends of the dough meet the ends of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap or an elastic cover and let the bread proof 60 to 90 minutes, until dough has risen to about an inch above the rim of the pan.
Near the end of the proofing time, preheat the oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
Brush the surface of the bread with egg wash and sprinkle it with additional caraway seeds.
Bake for 45 minutes, turning bread halfway through baking time. Internal temperature should be about 190° F and the bread should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
Turn bread out onto a cooling rack, and cool completely before slicing.
April, I have decided, is a lovely time to visit New York. When my husband, Les, and I traveled there for our honeymoon trip a few years ago, I realized that being in the city with someone who grew up in the city is the best experience of all. When you are traveling with a “native son,” you don’t feel as much like a tourist, but you quickly get used to the idea of walking—a lot. Les and I walked, on average, about 6 miles each day, and I was free to enjoy the scenery along the way. In New York, in April, there were tulips everywhere.
The city was abuzz with the sounds, sights and smell of spring, and I was positively in love—with N.Y., of course, but especially with my husband of only a few days. His confidence in navigating the city of his youth gave me even more reason to appreciate being with him. I didn’t have to worry about a thing! Les knew instinctively which subway trains to take for various planned excursions, what time to leave and (most importantly) where to go for the best food, including John’s on Bleecker Street for pizza, which became the gold standard in my own effort to achieve the perfect N.Y. pizza dough.
One of our day trips included a visit to the Freedom Tower, now the tallest building in N.Y., at the site where the North Tower of the World Trade Center once stood. We had visited the landmark and the memorial earlier in the week, and merely seeing the names of the people who died on that dark day of history was truly devastating. I cannot (and don’t want to) imagine what it must have been like to witness those events.
We had intended to ascend the Freedom Tower on that first visit, but were offered a reschedule on our tickets because of heavy fog that apparently made visibility from the top almost nil. We had better luck on the second visit, and the view from the One World Observatory was jaw-dropping.
All that walking left us feeling pretty hungry, and our steps (and appetite) led us to the Lower East Side, to the most iconic eatery in all of Manhattan.
From the outside, Katz’s Delicatessen is pretty unassuming—just an old-school corner building with a neon-letter sign—but inside, the joint was jumping! We squeezed into line with all the other hungry tourists and locals, pulled our tickets and shouted our orders to the sandwich makers behind the counter, who were generously offering samples of the deliciousness to come. It was the most exciting lunch I’ve ever eaten, in a place you’ve probably seen, even if you have never visited New York. Katz’s Deli was the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film, When Harry Met Sally. And if you do visit the city—you know, when the world reopens—I highly recommend a visit to Katz’s, and I highly recommend that you have what I had—the $23 pastrami on rye. Worth. Every. Penny.
When business is booming, Katz’s reportedly sells 15,000 pounds of pastrami a week—and as you can see, most of that ends up on one sandwich. I did my best to stretch my jaw onto that thing, and my city-savvy hubby had to show me how it’s done, face-first and with both hands.
We had a ton of leftovers, of course, so we wrapped up the remains of our sammies and took them back to our room. It was on this trip that I learned cold leftover pastrami on rye is fantastic for breakfast.
I’ve had a hankering to try making pastrami at home ever since that trip, and although we cannot match what they do at Katz’s(at least, not without giving up our full-time jobs), Les and I were pretty darn excited with the results of our first pastrami effort. When we began our corned beef adventure this year, we had purchased two large, grass-fed briskets, knowing that both would be brined at least a week, and that one would travel on to the smoker with a spicy dry rub to become pastrami. My inspiration came from Katz’s, but my recipe is drawn mostly from The Gefilte Manifesto (Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern), the same book that inspired my pierogi with potato, leek and spinach last fall. Jeffrey’s pastrami recipe instructed a 7-day brine, followed by extensive rinsing, a generous rub-down with copious amounts of spices and, finally, several hours in the smoker.
Our driveway, where the smoker was set up, smelled like the stuff deli dreams are made of, and our first pastrami was fabulous! I will not torture you with three pages of ingredients and details, because you probably just want to see the pictures, anyway. So, here you go!
In reviewing all my notes and looking back at the instructions offered in The Gefilte Manifesto, we realize that we made a couple of missteps, primarily with the finishing of the pastrami. We should have waited to cut into it, pending an overnight in the fridge and a two-hour steaming. But the aroma caused us to lose our minds a bit, and so we just charged in and cut the thing. Fantastic flavors, and we will steam the slices as we go. We’ve got nothing on Katz’s Delicatessen, but our pastrami was pretty darn delicious. We will absolutely do this again, and by that time, we hope to invite all of our meat-loving friends to join us for a pastrami feast, fresh and hot off the smoker. Who’s bringing the potato salad? 😀
It has been a fun week of St. Patrick’s Day-themed food prep at our house. As I’ve chopped and cooked, hustling from one recipe to another and digging into the history of the foods associated with Ireland, I’ve felt an almost spiritual connection to the Irish people. Theirs is a rich and layered culture, and my background music of choice, the Springsteen album Live in Dublin, gave me additional inspiration. Here’s a taste, for your listening pleasure as you tag along for the rest of my corned beef adventure.
It has been a deliciously rich week, too. We’ve shared these tasty recipes, including two versions of mashed potatoes, a no-yeast bread, a no-bake dessert and some bangin’ sausages. By the time we finish the leftovers, I expect I will have sweet Irish butter flowing through my veins. Wow!
The Irish food party started last week, when I detailed our adventures with making our own corned beef. Whether or not you jumped on the DIY wagon with us, I thought you may appreciate seeing the end result. As mentioned, we avoid meats processed with nitrates and nitrites, so I certainly do not go out of my way to find or use them in our homemade version of this St. Patrick’s Day classic. The ingredients we do use to brine our grass-fed brisket—kosher salt, pickling spices, brown sugar, Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine—add layers of flavor, and we don’t care about the pinkish color the added nitrates would have otherwise lent.
Let’s pick up where we left off, from the point of pouring the brine over the briskets and sending them to the refrigerator for a nice, long nap. I noted that we would finally make good on our goal of making pastrami from one of the briskets, and we have done that (I’ll share it tomorrow), but corned beef is the guest of honor this week, and the post-brine process is very simple. I turned the briskets each day to help them brine evenly, and the corned beef got an extra day’s soak on Sunday—a total of eight days, which is about right for a nearly 6-pound hunk of meat. I rinsed it thoroughly, nestled it into the slow cooker on top of celery and onion chunks, and sprinkled it with about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices. We have done corned beef nearly the same way for several years, so I decided to try a twist that I saw in my news feed, though I cannot for the life of me remember the source. Anyway, the suggestion was to use white wine in the brining liquid. This makes perfect sense to me, given that I use wine to roast so many other meats, so I tried it. This will become a new standard for us.
This may well be the best batch of homemade corned beef we have ever made. The meat is perfectly tender and easy to slice, and the flavors are richly entwined with every fiber of the meat. The flavor is richer and more complex than any store-bought corned beef I’ve had, and my husband, Les, suggested that it rivaled the delicious corned beef we enjoyed a few years ago at Katz’s delicatessen in New York!
Remove brisket from brine and brush away as much of the picking spice mixture as possible. Discard the brine, and I’d recommend that you pour it through a colander to strain out the seeds, berries, bay leaves, and chunky solids that might otherwise clog your kitchen drain.
Rinse the brisket. Cut up a whole yellow onion and a few stalks of celery. Scatter the aromatic vegetables into the bottom of a large pot or slow cooker. Place the brisket, fat side-up, on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices over the brisket.
Pour in 1/2 cup dry white wine, and enough water into the pot to completely cover the meat. Bring pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer about one hour per pound of meat, until brisket is desired tenderness.
Carefully remove brisket from the cooking liquid and rest on a cutting board for 15 minutes before cutting.
If you are cooking cabbage and carrots to accompany the corned beef, but them on to boil now, and use the brisket braising liquid to echo the corned beef flavors.
Slice brisket against the grain—opposite the direction of the meat fibers.
You’ll find that the corned beef slices particularly well after chilling. To reheat slices of corned beef, place slices in a steamer basket over simmering water. Or, strain more of the braising liquid into a jar and keep it in the fridge for steaming the leftovers. Why waste that flavor? 🙂
Today is March 9, and we need to talk about St. Patrick’s Day. Why the urgency, you may ask, with eight days to go? In our home, the food preparation for this fun holiday has already begun, in that we have started the brining process for our annual home-cured corned beef. Several years ago, I swore off meats processed with unnecessary nitrate and nitrite chemicals, and though it’s easy enough today to find commercially prepared “uncured” versions of corned beef in supermarkets such as Whole Foods, I get a kick out of doing it myself. This year, my husband, Les, and I purchased two large grass-fed briskets for this purpose. One will be a traditional corned beef preparation, and the other will travel an extra mile to become pastrami. The brining step takes anywhere from seven to 10 days, so we started ahead accordingly.
If this sounds exciting to you, then hightail it to the market today or tomorrow to procure the necessary supplies, and you’ll find directions for brining at the end of this post. Otherwise, sit back and relax for a brief “did you know” lesson on some of the dishes we think of this time of year, and a sneak peek at what I’ll be preparing in the week ahead. For many Irish-Americans, this mid-March holiday is usually a time for lively street parades (especially in Boston and New York), the wearing of the green (lest ye be pinched), toasting to good health with a pint (green or otherwise), and feasting on corned beef and cabbage, colcannon, bangers and mash, or Irish soda bread. But how authentic are these “St. Patrick’s Day” foods, really?
I’ve done some research this week, and honestly, it’s hit-or-miss. But in searching out stock photos from the internet, I’m drooling a bit, just thinking about these delectable foods!
Corned beef is associated with Ireland, but it originated in the U.S., where Irish immigrants found beef to be plentiful and more affordable than in their native land. Traditional Irish cuisine leans more heavily on proteins that are native to the land, including lamb and fish.
Colcannon, a mixture of cabbage and mashed potatoes, is an authentically Irish food, but is traditionally made around Halloween, not St. Patrick’s Day. Playful (or superstitious) cooks might still hide coins or lucky charms (not the cereal!) inside, giving dinner guests a chance at good fortune, though it sounds more like a good shot at a trip to the ER, or perhaps a ruse to convince children to finish their vegetables.
Bangers and mash is a rustic dish of sausage (usually pork or lamb) on top of mashed potatoes with onion gravy. This dish is definitely original to Ireland, as well as other parts of the U.K., and it earned its nickname because of the sound the moisture-heavy sausages made when they “popped” during cooking. I love bangers and mash with Guinness-based gravy, and the immature side of me just thinks it’s fun to say “bangers and mash.”
Finally, soda bread, long considered to be an original Irish food, technically isn’t. Culinary historians credit Native Americans as the first to use soda ash as a leavening agent in bread, but Irish immigrants to the new country quickly recognized the technique as a means to enjoy bread during yeast shortages. When baking soda became available in the U.K., the Irish adopted the chemical leavening trick to make breads from the stuff they had on hand—soft, low-protein wheat flour and sour or cultured milk.
I love food history, and even though some of these foods are questionable in their authenticity to St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be making (and sharing with you) some version of all of them between now and next week.
Our corned beef is already underway, and if you’d like to play along at home, here’s how to begin. As I mentioned, I do not use the nitrate chemical known as “curing salt,” and it is not necessary for home-cured corned beef. The intended purpose of curing salt is to inhibit growth of bad bacteria while the meat is brining, but between modern refrigeration and the natural nitrites that occur in another ingredient I use, my brisket is well protected. One noticeable difference in nitrate- and nitrite-free corned beef is the color; mine will not have the rosy hue you see in commercially processed corned beef. The flavor, however, is exactly the same (or better).
You will need a container for brining the corned beef. It should be large enough to hold your brisket, plus about a gallon of liquid brine mixture. Choose a non-reactive, sealable vessel for this purpose—in other words, do not use a metal pot! A plastic container with a tight lid is fine, as is a food-grade plastic brining bag (plus a container large enough to hold it). Depending on your container, you may also need a non-reactive bowl or plate heavy enough to weigh down the brisket so that it is fully submerged at all times. For cooking the brined brisket, any slow cooker, roasting pan or Dutch oven will do, but you won’t need that until next week. You will also need enough space in your fridge for said container.
Prepare your brining liquid in advance, and allow time for it to cool completely before adding your brisket. I’ve seen some recipes that begin with cold water, and that may be OK, but the coarse salt and sugar will dissolve better and more quickly over heat, so I usually warm the liquid to incorporate those grainy ingredients, then cool it down (usually with ice cubes) before adding the rest. Do not pour warm brine onto the brisket—this would promote bacteria growth.
About a cup of kosher salt or coarse sea salt* (see notes)
About 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 packet or bottle of pickling spices*
12 oz. bottle Irish ale*
12 oz. bottle celery juice*
1/2 cup real fermented sauerkraut brine*
Kosher salt and coarse sea salt are about the same by volume and can be used interchangeably here. You can also use canning and pickling salt, or fine-textured sea salt, but because the crystals are much smaller, you should use slightly less (somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 cup). Do not use table salt containing iodine.
Pickling spice is a blend of dry ingredients, usually including peppercorns, mustard and coriander seeds, allspice berries, ginger, garlic, bay leaves and sometimes chile peppers. You could whip up your own blend if you so desired, but the simplest thing to do is purchase a jar of spices ready to go. McCormick makes a good one that you will find in the regular spice aisle of just about any supermarket. You will use the entire bottle, and you may as well pick up two of them so you’ll have extra spices later for cooking your corned beef.
The remaining ingredients are optional, but I’ll explain here why I use them. A few years ago, a guest at our big Super Bowl party had left behind a growler jug of a local IPA that was much more “hoppy” than beers we usually enjoy. Not wanting to waste it, I glugged about a pint of it into our corned beef brine, and it was fantastic. Every year since then, I’ve put a bottle of Irish ale into the recipe and it always turns out great with that little extra layer of flavor. I think a bottle of Guinness would be great, too.
Celery juice powder is a natural source of nitrites, one of the same chemical additives in commercially processed corned beef. I haven’t yet seen the powder available anywhere, but my supermarket carries celery juice in the same refrigerated section as kombucha and probiotic drinks. Check the ingredients of any celery juice product you choose. This one I use is only celery juice and a hint of lemon juice. I don’t want to know who is actually drinking this stuff, but I’m glad it’s available. 🙂
Real sauerkraut is a naturally fermented product, containing loads of healthy probiotics. Good bacteria threaten bad bacteria, so a few splashes of the brine from the natural sauerkraut is my extra security measure during the brining process. I would not recommend using the brine in canned sauerkraut, as it likely contains vinegar and who-knows-what else. But if your kraut came from the refrigerated case, and the ingredients listed on the package are only cabbage and salt, and it says “naturally fermented” or “live cultures” somewhere on the jar, you’re good to go. Hang onto the sauerkraut for all the yummy Reuben sandwiches you’ll make next week.
About the pink color:
I’ve tried a few other tricks to get the reddish color that is typical of commercially produced corned beef, but most did not work and others were only nominally effective. If you feel inclined, try adding about a cup of pure beet juice to the brine (more seems to affect the flavor), or try some beet powder if you can get your hands on it. But if you can overlook the idea of artificially enhanced color, I promise the flavor of home-cured corned beef is even tastier than the pink version you grew up with. It’s a good trade-off.
Ready? Let’s do this!
Heat about 3 quarts of filtered water to a near boil, then turn off the heat.
Add kosher salt and brown sugar. Stir until dissolved, then toss in a couple of cups of ice to cool it down.
When the brine is fully cooled, add the Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine.
Place your brisket into the non-reactive container. Sprinkle the pickling spice over the top of the meat. Carefully pour the cold brine over the meat.
Use a heavy, non-reactive plate or dish to hold the brisket under the brine liquid. You don’t want the top or any edges exposed to air while the curing takes place. I usually use a flat-bottomed Pyrex dish to press it down, and when I seal the container, it becomes sort of wedged to keep the brisket from floating to the surface.
Refrigerate on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator for at least 5 days for a smallish brisket, or up to 10 days if your brisket is on the larger side. Check on the brisket each day, and turn it so the brine and seasonings make their way into every fiber of the meat. Keep it submerged.
If you don’t have room in the refrigerator, you can do the brine step in a cooler. Be sure the container holding the brisket and liquid is fully sealed, and refresh the ice as needed to keep it cold for the duration of the brining process.
When brining is complete, rinse the brisket under cold running water for several minutes, then proceed with cooking as usual.