Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Pumpkin is REAL!

Now that you know how to make fresh pasta, what should you fill it with? Pumpkin, of course. But...not the way I did it. In this post I'll show you about roasting and preparing fresh pumpkin, but there's a couple of problems with the recipe I made:

1. I did not love it.
2. I don't have permission to reprint it.

But it all began so beautifully!

Pumpkins seem to have become a hot item in the last couple years, mostly for seasonal household decorating, but I think people are also starting to eat them more. I've been seeing all sorts of crazy beautiful squash and pumpkin varieties in the markets the last couple seasons, in all different shades of earth tones, plus blue and white--and it is nice to know people are growing them, even if they aren't getting eaten. I have never tried one myself, because they are super expensive and who knows how it's gonna turn out? The one above is just a plain sugar pumpkin.

(As a side note, I was just in China, and they eat a lot of pumpkin and squash there too. The kind they used where I was, in Kunming, in the southwest, is a big, beige, lumpy type that I have seen here sold as one of the decoratives. One of the things they do with it is make a spicy pickle and it is one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. I don't even know how I would begin to describe it. Like squashy-spicy-Chinesey. Ha ha. I promise I'll do better when I have to write about it for work. But here it is.):

Anyway. For your ravioli, or most any pumpkin endeavor, the first thing to do is cut the sucker open, scoop out the seeds (which you should save and roast because they are so tasty) and place on a baking sheet.

I find this activity fun, but it does take awhile and you need a good amount of strength to hack it apart, and it is kinda messy and awkward. My dog enjoys eating the stringy stuff that I scoop out, which makes cleanup pretty easy...just drop it on the floor! (I know...sick and lazy. I know.)

Then you put it in the oven at like...oh let's say 350 or 375. I have gotten super lax about my oven temperatures in the last few years. If I am baking, I do what it says, and it's a good idea to have a thermometer in your oven if you aren't sure it's accurate, but for something like this...whatever. Just put it in and let it go for like, an hour. Check it now and again. When you can pierce it very easily with a knife, and it looks squishy, it is done. Remove from oven and let cool. Now, remove the skin. You can either scoop the flesh out with a spoon, or slice the skin off with a paring knife, or a combo. Toss in a food processor and blend away.

When blended and smooth, some people will force the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. I did not do this.
This isn't the whole amount, just what was needed for my recipe. The rest I saved to make pumpkin gnocchi...another post. Some recipes will say to hang the pumpkin in a clean dishtowel or leave it to drain in a fine strainer. I did this, but barely any liquid came out. Not sure I would bother next time.

So the recipe I used is supposedly very traditional Italian, and uses "mostarda di cremona," which is a sweet-mustardy Italian fruit condiment. I couldn't find it so I got this. There's a lot of Italian mustard fruit condiments, as it turns out.

I also was instructed to use crushed amaretti cookies, Parmigiano-Reggiano and some other stuff. Basically, I thought it was way too sweet, although I imagine the mostarda is supposed to add some kind of tang. It did not. (Though it is tasty on its own, I'd eat it on a turkey sandwich.) But this is a traditional recipe, and if you look up pumpkin ravioli you will find others that use the fruit-mustard and/or the cookies. This Martha Stewart recipe uses the cookies.

If I were making this again, here is what I would do.

About 1 1/2 cups roasted, blended, pumpkin puree

Maybe half a cup or more of good quality, whole milk ricotta, liquid strained out

tons of Parmigiano or even Pecorino Romano. Actually I think the pecorino would be better.

Salt and lots of black pepper to taste.

A lot simpler. Pumpkin really does have a lot of flavor that doesn't need masking or accenting with cookies and fruit. And I just don't like it too sweet. It lacked dimension. Cheese could provide that.

So you fill the ravs as I went over the last post, and then boil them for about 3 minutes. You don't want to crowd them and may not want to do the whole batch at once. To check for doneness, I take one out with a slotted spoon and nip off a bit of one corner. The corners are double-ply dough, and should be pretty firm. If the corner is too soft, it means your dough around the filing is WAY too soft. So be careful and taste often.

For sauce, pretty much what I always do for any kind of ravioli is just butter and olive oil cooked together with chopped herbs like sage and rosemary. Those two would be perfect for this. I don't think I would use garlic. When you put so much effort into the filled pasta, you don't want to bury it in sauce. Make the sauce in a pot while the ravs cook, and put them in with the sauce using a slotted spoon as they finish cooking. Draining is a little rough on homemade ravioli and can break them.

Here is my finished product. There is perhaps no food that I am more likely to gorge on than my homemade ravioli. And that's why the too-sweet filling was so ANNOYING. I still stuffed my face anyway, but it really should have been better.

Homemade ravioli is a great Christmas/festive thing to make. Rolling pasta is fun to do with family and friends. If this were a cheesy food magazine article, I would also mention something like "Pumpkins are like a shot of sweet sunshine from the cold winter earth." And you would laugh at me and it would be hilarious. But so good!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crank it

I said in my last post that I had a couple of pumpkin recipes coming up. Well, here is one that is good for Christmas and celebrations in general (we always do Italian food Christmas eve): pumpkin ravioli.

But first, you need to learn how to make fresh pasta. Unlike pie crust, this is one staple I think I am pretty good at making. I've been doing it for years on my own, and even had a cooking lesson in Italy where I made it with a couple of actual teachers.

This post will be just about the pasta, and then I'll do another one for the filling later. This is the same basic recipe and technique for any kind of flat-shape or filled pasta (the only stuff you can make at home, really).

First, a word about equipment. The easiest and most common way to make pasta is with a pasta roller, which looks like this. I think this is the exact same one I have. There are also electric models. You can also make pasta by hand and/or with a rolling pin, though I've never done this. It is the more old-fashioned way and I think it yields a different texture. I can't advise on that method, but Marcella Hazan can if you want to check out one of her cookbooks. She really talks it up. She can also explain about different flours, which I'm not going to do. For the normal person at home, you can just use all-purpose, or half all-purpose and semolina. And you can throw in some whole wheat as well if you want to be healthy, though this does make the dough a little harder to work with.

First thing to do is this.
Put about 1 cup of flour on a cutting board or counter, and heap it up. Then carefully make a big well in the center, all the way down to the board. It's more like a donut of flour around an empty space than a crater. And really make sure the walls are solid. Crack two eggs into a bowl (this is easier, I think) and then pour them carefully into the well. You can also crack them right in.

Now, use a fork to whisk the eggs. As you whisk, draw in small amounts of flour to gradually thicken up the eggs. Work slowly and carefully. It is fun and satisfying to do it right. If you rush, you can have bad leaks and major egg runoff disasters. You can see I have one rivulet above, but the flour can generally handle a couple of those.

When the mixture is too thick to stir anymore, push the rest of the flour into it and start working it by hand. Have extra flour nearby. Push and knead the dough ball until it is uniformly smooth. You may have to add more flour, or, the ball may not be able to absorb all the flour. When the ball comes together and is relatively smooth, brush off the crumbs and bits from the cutting board and wash your hands.

Now it is time to knead. Opinions on kneading time vary considerably: I've seen/done 3 minutes to 20 minutes. Marcella says at least 8. Kneading is easy. You push the dough flat, fold it, and push again. It's not so exact, and it is a good work out. When done, the dough will be almost shiny, totally uniform, and not sticky at all.

You can now wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it if you want to make your finished dish later, but you will have to knead it back to room temperature before using it.
So the machine has 6 widths. Divide the dough into quarters, set the machine on its widest setting, and place the dough on the roller as above. Push it in and crank it through. The first roll is very rough and looks really bad. Fold it in half, and put it through again. Do this a couple times, until it looks about like this.
If the dough is really ripping apart and full of holes, you will need to sprinkle it with lots of flour. Just keep rolling and folding and flouring until it is smooth. (If this happens it is because you did not knead long enough, or left it too sticky.)

Reduce the setting by one. Pass the strip through, then fold, and pass through again. It will start looking pretty nice, like this.

Now keep folding, rolling, and decreasing settings. A nice thing to do is to fold the dough with the edges coming in and meeting in the middle, if you get what I mean...This way, you have smooth ends. I guess I didn't do it this time, because my ends are uneven.

Warning: do not skip settings! This is evil and wrong and will backfire. I don't know how or why, I just know it is a terrible idea.

If you are making ravioli, go all the way to the thinnest setting. As you approach the thinnest setting, your dough may get too long to manage. In this case, cut it in half and deal with each part separately.

When it's done, the dough will look really smooth and lovely, like this.

Now, you can do anything with it. The machine comes with cutters for spaghetti or fettuccine size noodles (they're pretty self explanatory), or you could cut it by hand into super thick ribbons (which is AWESOME). You may want to do this now and consider this your practice batch.

For ravioli, use a pizza cutter, if you have one, to trim the ends, and then cut squares. The easiest way to do it, I think, is cut about 8 or 12 squares at once and then arrange them like they are in this picture. Then place your filling (only about a teaspoon) in the centers of half of them.

Before you cover them, lightly moisten the edges around your filling with water (just use your finger). Now put the top dough piece on--and this is another place where you have to work slowly and carefully. You want to do your best to get all the air bubbles out from between the layers. Try to kind of "cup" your hand over the center and work all the air out before pressing down the edges to adhere.
When all that pesky air is out, gently press down the edges to adhere. Do the ravs one at a time rather than assembly-line style: moisten edge, cover, press; now move on to the next one. When they are all covered, as above, start crimping. This is slightly fun. Oddly I don't have any pics of it. But all you do is take a fork and press the edges down to make a ruffled edge. I usually do both sides.

With scraps and irregular sized pieces, you can do stuff like this. (Of course, once it is cooked it is not quite as cute, but still fun to make and eat.)

That is all for now. Pumpkin filling will be next post.

Note: If you want to make a batch of fresh dough for noodles before making ravs, be aware that you do not have to let them dry--though you have probably seen images of hanging noodles (and on this very blog, in fact). You can cook them right away; I always hang them just so I have somewhere to put them as I am working. I think that's what everyone does. And they can hang for awhile, but become hard to handle if they get too dry.

And regarding shapes. The ravioli I made are probably big enough to be considered something else, like tortelli. You could also do circles (but this wastes dough, and necessitates re-rolling) or fill each square as above and then fold it up in a triangle shape (use less filling).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sweet pie o' mine

Honestly, I think I missed the butter bus. When I was a kid, I just did not understand it. Why, for example, did people put a layer of butter under the maple syrup on pancakes? This did not make sense to me at all--as far as I could tell, butter was flavorless or salty, and did not go with sweet foods. I did use it on my baked potatoes, but over the years I began seasoning them with excessive black pepper, and then garlic powder, and then crushed red pepper flakes...because these things had flavor, and butter was just, NOTHING. I remember a friend telling me she would eat spaghetti with butter...but no parmesan cheese. This completely shocked and revolted me. Today, I would rather dip my bread in olive oil than use butter.

Similarly, I never understood the draw of pie crust, which as we know is basically butter and flour. It was just this flavorless, starchy bottom to an otherwise delicious fruity filling. In high school, I spent a lot of time with my friend Grace, over at her house--she and her family LOVED pie. They were really into making pie crust, and eating pie, and had very high standards and strong opinions. But I never got what all the fuss was about.

Things began to change when I visited Grace in the UK where she lives now (this was in 2000, jeez she has been there for a long time) and we went on a four day-long road trip through Scotland. We had a giant thing of Walkers Shortbread, which I was initially not interested in at all...but grew to LOVE. When I think of that trip I picture looking out the window (on the wrong side) of a tiny red car (which, we later realized, had a donut spare tire on the whole length of our drive, oops) at beautiful, rainy hills and lakes and sheep, and the crinkly red plaid wrapper of shortbread. And the flavor: plain, a little salty mixing with the sweet, a little crunchy, a little tender...

Anyway, I guess now, nearly ten years on, I think I am starting to get it. Fat and flour can be magical together.

And yet--it is a HUGE DEAL. People never make pie crust, and if they do they talk about it like they parted the dead sea. Or red sea, whatever. I just don't think it should be so major. I've read and edited scores of pastry recipes, made a few over the years, and I reject the idea that it is so difficult. I mean it's basically two ingredients! Do we really need to be buying this stuff premade? (OK maybe puff pastry or phyllo--that is different. I'm talking here about ordinary, American-style pie crust).

So the first crust I have made recently was back in September or something, for the True Blood finale party. If you watch it, I recreated the maenad's human heart pie, BUT fortunately with homemade tomato sauce and turkey meatballs. The crust recipe is from my Joy of Cooking from the 70s (from Scott's awesome Grandma Harvey) and it used part butter and part veg shortening, aka, transfat. I happened to have some Crisco from when I made Christmas cookies a year or so ago (it is used in the frosting, I think so it doesn't go rancid), so I made the crust as directed. As you can see, it's kind of lumpy and bad looking, but people really liked it, and it was crisp and flakey and all that nonsense. But, I didn't actually eat more than a nibble of the crust, since I hate meatballs. It looks cool though. Yeah that's a heart on top, and that's a four pack of TruBlood type O negative. As you can see, I took very little care with rolling and making it smooth and everything.
This Thanksgiving I wanted to try again, and thought I would do better. I also didn't want to use the Crisco. It would be all butter. The principles are so could I go wrong?

You start with a ton of butter in a bowl of flour with some salt.

Then you use your hands to work it in till it looks like this. If you are fancy, you use a pastry cutter thingy, which I don't have. And actually I went a bit longer than this, till it was more like cornmeal, as the Joy said.

Then I sprinkled in the cold water. You then work it into a doughy mass. I know you don't want to overwork it, but that's about all I know. So from here I mushed it up till it held together, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. It does best to chill for 24 hours. I gave it about two.

Then, I took it out and attempted to roll it. And here is where I ran into problems: I did not have a surface large enough. I seemed to have enough dough for a double crust, even though all I needed was a single. It overhung the cutting board and was a real pain. So I decided, why struggle to roll it thin and smooth, and then have a lot left over with no real purpose? I left it nearly a half inch thick, hoisted it into the pan, pushed it in by hand and smoothed it out as best I could.

It was uneven in color and texture. Does this mean I should have worked it more, or is it supposed to be this way? I did not know and still don't. I pricked it with a fork and put it in the oven.

ROUGH! Grace would not approve. But I had also made a kind of cookie thing which I ate when it was cool enough. It was good! It was crumbly and satisfying and not so different from shortbread.

As for the pumpkin pie...I have a lot of pumpkin related posts coming up. I made this from a roasted sugar pumpkin and a roasted acorn squash (because there was a pumpkin shortage this year!) Per the Joy, I mixed them up with heavy cream (no sweetened condensed crap), sugar and eggs and seasonings, and cooked it in this makeshift double boiler, then poured it in the crust.

The finished pie was...medium. It had good points and bad points. The crust was thick and crumbly and had a good texture on the teeth and was super satisfying, and the flavors of the filling were amazing. However, it looked pretty bad, and the filling was not thick enough. If you sliced it really cold it held its shape OK, but then tended to run. None of which stopped me from eating the pie for days and days until it was gooooooooooone....

The bottom line is, whether you love pastry or just think it's medium, it's worth it to try it out yourself. I think a lot of people aren't even sure what they like or don't like in crust--I know I didn't--and the idea that it is this impossible, magical food that no one can make at home has been foisted upon us by the devils at Pillsbury. I would like to try it out more, read some more recipes, and work on my rolling and shaping skills. But I am happy with my lumpy, ugly, trans-fat free crust just the way it is, too.