Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Absolute BEST Buttermilk Biscuits

It's always sweet when Life takes you by the hand, invites you on a quiet stroll 180 degrees away from stress and sits you down to a reminder of how perfectly simple a blessing "homemade" can be. Even better if she sits you down next to a generous serving of sweet butter, some strawberry preserves or local wildflower honey. If she's feeling you are particularly deserving, perhaps she's got some sausage gravy up her sleeve..... Eewwww wait. Lets backtrack.

Mama Magel was a strong contender in the kitchen when it came to baking. Her pecan pie, even after her death, can still bitch slap my version into a corner... whimpering, tail tucked and submissive. And I've passed her Poor Man's Pie recipe into so many NYC restaurant kitchens that she's probably achieved legendary status in the home kitchens of immigrant cooks when they return home.

Nevertheless, her frame of reference on a few items was as contained as any housewife of the 1960's. And in the 60's, biscuits came out of a tube, (slammed against the side of a counter), or mixed from a box named Bisquick. Mama Magel opted most often for the "Poppin' Fresh" option. I can only assume that before those refrigerated tubs were an option, my Ohio bred sisters and friends never knew biscuits outside of a literary reference here or there.

And so it is I offer the following recipe to my sisters and you all, dear readers. This was passed to me from my 2nd favorite catering chef (myself retaining the #1 position) soon after I realized I'd be spending more than a passing fancy with this world of food. He describes it as basically a ramped up version of the one from "Joy of Cooking". Seems he's not only correct, but also astute in his ramnping up instincts.

The key to this recipe is not processing the butter too much. If using a KitchenAid (as I do) don't let the butter get smaller than pea size. In reality, you can only err by processing the butter TOO MUCH.

Danny Boy's Biscuits

4 ounces unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup buttermilk for brushing

Cut butter into 1/2" cubes. Place in a bowl in freezer. Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. When butter is very cold, add butter to dry ingredients. Using the paddle attachment process butter and flour until butter is pea sized. (If making by hand, use your fingertips to process flour mix to the proper size.)
On low speed, add buttermilk until barely mixed. Wrap mix in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm.
On a floured board, roll out biscuit dough until 1/2" thick. Fold in thirds (like puff pastry dough) and roll out two more times. (The idea being we are distributing the butter into layers to help the dough "puff" into layers as they bake.)
Return to the refrigerator to allow it to chill completely. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Punch out biscuits with a cutter of the desired size. Refrigerate again, or freeze before baking. Brush with buttermilk.
Bake 10 - 12 minutes

Cheddar biscuits
Reduce butter to 3 ounces
Add 3 oz cheddar to dough at the last minute of mixing. Brush with buttermilk and and top biscuits with additional 1 oz. shredded cheddar. Bake as described.

Add 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary (or chives, etc) with the butter. Proceed with baking as described.

Sweet ones, you will be surprised at how much better these biscuits get the less you process the butter. You are going to thrill at how something so simple is so soul fulfilling. Don't shy away from some sausage gravy if you are feeling especially Southern! And don't hesitate to layer some Cheddar Biscuits with Ham and Honey Mustard. Ready, Set, Go!

Big Love,
Big Mary

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fresh Home Made Ricotta

OK, this is by and large, a total plagiarism from a Wednesday edition of the NY Times. But let me steal with a pinch more respectability. It's so easy to pass over the weekly info-blast that is the Dining In/Out section. Such a breeze to tear out this recipe or that destination, and file it for future reference. Really no sweat to peruse an article, check it off as potentially needed data and turn the page. We New Yorkers could turn blasé into the new black... Big Mary is here to shake you out of your fog and say... TRY THIS, IT'S WORTH IT!

Let me tell you. If you try this once, you'll probably never buy ricotta again. AND you'll find yourself cooking with ricotta about 5 times more often than ever before. My only caveat would be to advise you to please never share with your dinner guests just how simple this process is. Stress the precision timing and temperatures necessary, the importance of sourcing only the freshest milk and of course that indescribable magic possessed by the most seasoned culinary artist which allows the curds to separate from the whey and hold shape as delicate pillows of ricotta. Yes sweet friends, baffle them with bullshit!

This mystic revelation of curd gathering could not have fallen into my lap or plate with a more perfect opportunity for appreciation. I've been so focused on the clarity of summer's flavors, that it seems preordained I should be introduced to the purest form of milk manipulation at this point in time. Home made ricotta tastes of milk times 3. I haven't experimented myself, but I'm reckoning that this may be the prime opportunity for some organic milk or raw product in it's available.

No need to tease you further. Here's the recipe the NY Times published and adapted from “Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking” (Chronicle, 2002)

Home Made Ricotta Cheese
Time: 1 hour

2 quarts whole milk

2 cups buttermilk.

1. Line a wide sieve or colander with cheesecloth, folded so that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place in sink.

2. Pour milk and buttermilk into a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently; scrape bottom of pot occasionally to prevent scorching. As milk heats, curds will begin to rise and clump on surface. Once mixture is steaming hot, stop stirring.

3. When mixture reaches 175 to 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, curds and whey will separate. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Immediately turn off heat and gently ladle curds into sieve.

4. When all curds are in sieve and dripping has slowed (about 5 minutes), gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Let drain 15 minutes more. Discard the whey.

5. Untie cloth and pack ricotta into airtight containers. Refrigerate and use within one week.

Friends and Any Others......... Make it this week! You deserve it!
And here's a few suggestions on how to enjoy it.

Grilled Bruschetti with Herbed Fresh Ricotta

Grill sliced sourdough, rustic Italian or baguette toasts with olive oil until charred lightly. Season fresh ricotta with a healthy pinch of salt, and a few spoonfuls of chopped fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, chives, basil, marjoram,etc.)
Spread on Bruschetti and enjoy.

Toasted Pound Cake with Ricotta and Honey Crushed Berries

Crush some fresh berries with a potato masher until chunky with juices flowing. Stir in a few tablespoons of top quality honey and set aside to macerate.
Slice homemade or store bought pound cake about an inch thick. Saute with a knob of butter in a skillet until golden brown. While still warm, place cake on a plate and top with a generous spoonful of homemade ricotta. Garnish with a generous amount of the berries and enjoy.

Cavatelli with Tomato, Bacon, Parmesan and Fava Beans

12 ounces whole fresh fava beans
4 ounces sliced bacon (thick sliced) diced into 1/4" pieces
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
14 ounces canned diced tomatoes (or petite diced) - you may substitute
1 pound peeled, seeded and chopped fresh Roma tomatoes)
1/2 cup dry white wine
12 ounces frozen cavatelli pasta
1 cup home made ricotta
6-8 large fresh basil leaves
freshly ground Parmesan Reggiano to taste
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Peel fava beans from outer pods and blanch in salted boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove from boiling water and drop into ice water. When well cooled, drain again and peel second skin. Set aside.
Saute bacon in a large skillet until brown and moderately crisp. Drain and set aside. Return bacon fat to skillet and add olive oil.
Saute sliced onion in olive oil mix. When the onions are translucent, add red pepper flakes and minced garlic Saute for an additional minute. Add tomatoes and white wine. Simmer a few minutes to "deglaze" the pan. Add reserved bacon and reduce heat to a bare simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Put on a large pan of salted water for the cavatelli and bring to a rolling boil. Meanwhile roll basil leaves into a skinny tube and thinly slice into a chiffonade.
When water is boiling, add cavatelli and cook according to package directions.
When cooked to your preference, drain cavatelli and add to simmering tomato sauce.
Portion into warm pasta bowls, and divide reserved fava beans onto the pasta. Finish the dish with a generous dollop of ricotta, basil, ground black pepper and Parmesan.
Serves 2 - 4

Well that should be enough to send you out to the milk shelves and garden to explore your own inspirations of how to exploit this new found goodness. I expect friends and family to pull me to a new obsession before I exhaust my ideas on how to enjoy ricotta. Trust that I'll be sharing them with you as well. Remember to please support your local farmers markets as we swell into the season of all things green... and red, and yellow, and orange...

Contented eating sweeties,
Big Mary