Sunday, December 30, 2012

Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce, Ricotta, and Mozzarella

Now that we are finished with cookies, cakes, and holiday goodies (at least for a while), I offer you a tasty dinner option to try in the new year.  I have been trying to find a baked pasta that I like.  I tried several recipes, but none fit the bill.  I wanted some ricotta for creaminess, but too much of it turns me off.  I also wanted something with a little natural sweetness and depth of flavor from homemade tomato sauce, but I didn't want to spend all day on one.  So, I fiddled around until I found something that worked for me.  Here is the finished product. 

This baked ziti is comprised of three main components other than the pasta.  A ricotta mixture makes it creamy, a quick homemade marinara with ground beef and red wine adds depth of flavor and that hint of sweetness I was looking for, and cubes of mozzarella baked within the dish gives you ooey, gooey cheesiness.  Both the ricotta mixture and the sauce can be made up to two days in advance making this an easy dish to assemble in parts and then bake when you want.  The sauce can also be frozen and thawed when needed.

One piece of advice...since the ricotta mixture and mozzarella cubes are added first, and the sauce is then mixed in, try not to overmix the pasta once you add the sauce.  It is good to have a swirled effect so that you get some bites with more ricotta and some with more sauce rather than having a well mixed pink combo throughout.     

Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce, Ricotta, and Mozzarella- serves 6

For the Meat Sauce: 
¾ pound lean ground beef
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
6 basil leaves, chiffonade
½ onion, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
½ red wine
½ tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp olive oil

For the Ricotta Mixture:
1 cup ricotta cheese
¾ cup grated pecorino romano
6 basil leaves, chiffonade
generous pinch of grated nutmeg
1 egg yolk
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

1 pound ziti
½ pound mozzarella, cut into small cubes
½ cup grated parmesan

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

In a skillet, heat the olive oil for the sauce.  Add the onion and cook 5 minutes until tender.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more.  Brown the ground beef in the skillet with the onions and garlic until cooked through.  Add the wine and cook 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half.  Pour in the can of crushed tomatoes along with the salt, pepper, sugar, and basil.  Cook the sauce 20 minutes until thickened. 

While the sauce cooks, boil your pasta.  Once al dente, drain and set aside until the sauce is ready. 

In a large bowl, mix all the ricotta mixture ingredients.  Once the pasta is cooked, pour the pasta and the mozzarella cubes into the bowl with the ricotta mixture and mix gently.  Pour the meat sauce over the pasta and mix briefly.  Pour the pasta into a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Sprinkle the top with the parmesan and bake 20 minutes until brown and bubbly.  Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.   

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Liege Waffles with Speculoos Spread

The waffle is a beautiful thing.  I just discovered this last year on a holiday trip to New York.  We were shopping at the holiday markets which we love to do at Christmas and wanted a little snack.  The Wafels and Dinges truck looked appealing to the hubby, but I was not so sure.  Waffles in my experience were just not so great which is, in large part, due to the fact that waffle and Eggo had been synonyms to me up to that point.  I am a bit of a sucker for dessert though, and when he returned with a warm, golden brown waffle topped with spekuloos (also spelled speculoos) spread and whipped cream, I had to give it a try.  I took a bite, and suddenly my entire opinion of waffles was tranformed.  This was no Eggo waffle, my friends.  This was something delicious.  Crusty and sugary on the edges, thick, warm, and wonderfully brown.  I have since discovered that these waffles are not made with any ordinary batter.  They are Liege waffles created using a yeast batter made special by the addition of pearl sugar (that's where the crunchy, sugary crust comes from).  

The spread on the waffles was speculoos which tastes like gingerbread cookies or graham crackers ground into a paste.  I could eat it by the spoonful.  I won't, but I could.   

See those glistening edges?  That's from the crushed sugar cubes.
After this year's trip to New York and the reminder (by way of the first bite) that these waffles truly are spectacular, the hubby decided to do a little research on the batter.  He also ordered the spread online from Wafels and Dinges (although you can also purchase other brands of speculoos spread).  We even went out and purchased a Belgian waffle iron just for the occasion.  And oh, what an occasion it was.  A taste of the Big Apple at Christmas right there in our tiny kitchen.  Delicious!

So, let me tell you a little about this waffle dough.  It requires a little time since it needs to rise, but it is well worth it, and it is very simple to make.  You essentially activate your yeast with a little sugar and warm water, mix it with flour, cinnamon, eggs, and melted butter, and let it rise for about an hour.  At that point, you mix in pearl sugar.  Now, I could not find pearl sugar no matter where I went (and I live in a place where it's pretty easy to find unusual ingredients), so I had read that you could coarsely crush sugar cubes and mix those in at the end.  It worked beautifully.  They got nice and melty on the edges of the waffle, creating the desired crunchiness, and they formed little pockets of sugary goodness within.  So, if you can't find pearl sugar, I would advise this route. 

You can see the crushed sugar cubes in the batter.  You want to make sure you allow these waffles to brown enough so that you melt that sugar and create crunch. 
I wanted small waffles since they are so rich once topped with the spread, so I scooped 1/4 cup of the batter into the center of my waffle iron which, of course, did not fill the entire thing.  That was fine.  It gave me small, round waffles about 4 inches in diameter.  I then topped two of them with spekuloos spread, sliced banana, and whipped cream, and I am a little embarassed to admit that that was dinner.  But remember, it is Christmas, and I'm pretty sure that makes waffles topped with cookie spread okay. 

Liege Waffles- makes approximately 10 (4 inch) waffles
adapted ever so slightly from Food and Wine

  1. 1 1/2 Tbsp granulated sugar
  2. 1 packet active dry yeast
  3. 1/3 cup lukewarm water
  4. 2 cups all-purpose flour
  5. 1/4 tsp salt
  6. 3 large eggs
  7. 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  8. 1 tsp cinnamon
  9. 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
  10. 1 cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes
In a small bowl, mix the sugar, yeast, and water.  Let stand 10 minutes until the yeast the mixture begins to foam.  Mix the flour, salt, and cinnamon in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Turn the mixer on to rotate the paddle to create a small well in the flour mixture.  Pour in the yeast mixture. Mix at medium speed to moisten. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between each addition. Add the vanilla and mix.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly drizzle in the melted butter until incorporated.  The dough will be thick and very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Stir in the pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes.  Allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes.
Preheat a Belgian waffle iron and brushed with additional butter if desired. Scoop 1/4 cup of batter into center of waffle iron (may need to adjust the amount of dough depending on the type of waffle maker being used).  Cook the waffles according to the manufacturer's directions until they are golden and crisp which will take anywhere between 3 and 5 minutes (mine were perfect after 4).  Serve topped with spread of choice, syrup, fruit, and/or whipped cream.   

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cookie Swap

For some reason, this holiday season seems a little more hectic to me.  It may be that I have been more of a procrastinator (which is very unlike me) this year with things like shopping, but we have also had some problems with the computer which has prevented me from posting for a longer time span than usual.  In any event, I am back and wanted to share some pictures and a recipe from the cookie swap I hosted just a few days ago.  There were five of us total which was a good number, but you could certainly have more.  The more people attend, the more cookies you take home with you. 

In case I have never mentioned it before, my house is very small.  I like it that way.  Less to clean.  However, it is a little trickier when you have people over.  In this case, the cookie 'bar' was set up on a back counter just outside the kitchen so that everyone could gather around it easily, and I kept things very simple.  A homemade garland made of kraft paper, a small Christmas tree, cookie boxes, burlap, and canning jars (which had candles in them although they weren't lit in the pictures).  White platters and bowls displayed the assortment of cookies nicely.  And what great cookies they were!  From left, here is what we had...

Molasses Cookies-  these were soft and chewy with a sugary coating and just the right amount of molasses to flavor

Oreo Balls- Oreo cookie mixed with cream cheese and coated in white chocolate

Speculoos Buttons- lightly spiced, crisp cookies similar to gingerbread edged in sprinkles and glazed

Chocolate Walnut Cookies- crisp on the outside, soft on the inside with a taste reminiscent of a brownie

Snickers Filled Peanut Butter Cookies- peanut butter cookies formed and baked around a Snickers miniature candy

Each person at the swap made 5 dozen of one type of cookie and we divided them so that we each received a dozen of each.  A cookie swap is a perfect way to have your holiday treats without doing all the baking yourself.   

I leave you with two for the Speculoos Buttons I made from Bon Appetit and the other for Oreo Balls.  You can also make the Snickers cookies by simply mixing up a homemade or store-bought peanut butter cookie dough and rolling it in balls around a miniature Snickers candy before baking.  The cookies will spread out leaving the candy piece in the middle.  Yum!

Speculoos Buttons- makes about 90 cookies
from Dorie Greenspan for Bon Appetit

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons mild-flavored (light) molasses
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg white
  • Sanding or other decorative sugar

  • 2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • Sprinkles, colored sanding sugar, or dragées (optional)
Whisk first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside. Using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat butter in a medium bowl until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add both sugars and molasses; continue to beat until mixture is smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla; mix for 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low; add dry ingredients and mix to blend well.
Scrape dough from bowl and divide into thirds. Using your palms, roll each piece of dough into an 8-inch log. Wrap logs tightly in plastic or parchment paper and freeze for at least 3 hours. (For neater edges, remove logs from freezer after 1 hour and roll on counter.) DO AHEAD: Dough can be made up to 2 months ahead. Keep frozen.
Arrange racks in top and bottom thirds of oven; preheat to 375°. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Whisk egg white in a small bowl to loosen; lightly brush all over 1 log. Sprinkle with (or roll in) sanding sugar. Using a long, slender knife, slice off a sliver of dough from each end of log to make ends flat. Cut log into 1/4 inch-thick rounds. Transfer to 1 baking sheet, spacing 1/2 inch apart; place in freezer while you cut the next log. (The cookies hold their shape better if you bake when dough is cold.) Repeat with remaining dough.
Bake 2 sheets of cookies, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back after 6 minutes, until tops are golden brown and centers are almost firm, 11-13 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire racks and let cool. Repeat with third sheet of cookies. DO AHEAD: Cookies can be baked 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.
Mix powdered sugar and 7 teaspoons cold water in a large mixing bowl (glaze will be very thick). Spoon about 1/2 teaspoons glaze onto each button (alternatively, fill a resealable plastic bag with glaze and cut a small hole in 1 corner; pipe glaze in an even circle around edges of cookies, then fill). Decorate with sprinkles, colored sugar, or dragées, if desired. Let stand on rack at room temperature for at least 30 minutes for glaze to set. DO AHEAD: Cookies can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.
Oreo Balls
1 package Oreo cookies
8 oz cream cheese
1 bag white chocolate morsels
Grind the Oreos in a food processor.  Add the cream cheese and continue processing until well blended.  Roll the mixture into 1 inch balls and chill in refrigerator or freezer for 30 minutes. Melt the white chocolate in a double boiler and dip each ball into the chocolate using a toothpick or skewer.  Place on wax paper until the chocolate hardens.  Keep refrigerated while storing.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Nachos Grandes...As Supper or a Quick Nibble

Life is hectic, and if you are anything like me, dinner sometimes falls by the wayside because you are too tired or too short on time to spend any over the stove cooking.  Nachos Grandes can be a solution to that problem. With it only being the hubby and I here, this is a dish we have sometimes when we need a quick fix.  I know some people will say that nachos can't be a meal, but these really have everything you need to make a complete one, and you can customize them with other ingredients as well.  If you prefer not to eat them for supper, they make a great appetizer or quick nibble to serve when you have people over.  Either way, they are tasty and filling.

This recipe originally came from a great little cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers. I have changed it to suit our tastes and what we usually have on hand, but really just about anything can go here.  If you can imagine it on a baked nacho then it should be right at home in this dish.  It's also a great way to use some of the things you preserve over the summer months like jalapenos, corn, and salsa.  One word of warning...the sour cream is baked with the nachos which means it sometimes separates a little in the oven making it looks slightly less appetizing.  I would suggest still baking it, though, as it tastes wonderful warm on the nachos and helps create a sort of saucy thing. 

Here is how I layer them up. 

Place corn tortilla chips (we use multi-grain) in the bottom and up the sides of a baking dish (I use a 9 x 9 but use a 9 x 13 if you want a thinner layer of nachos).  Mix a can of refried beans (you can use non-fat) with a tablespoon or so of water to thin them out enough to be spreadable.  Spoon and spread them on top of the chips in the dish.  Add some corn.  This really is a dish where you layer things until they look good to you so change the ingredient amounts to suit your tastes. 

Then layer on some diced tomatoes and pickled jalapeno slices. 
Sprinkle on some shredded cheese (most any kind will do but I usually go for either Monterrey Jack or Sharp Cheddar), and dollop some sour cream in spoonfuls over everything.  Bake it for a few minutes, and you'll be ready to dig in.  I serve salsa on the side, but you could also add the salsa to the nachos before baking. 
Nachos Grandes- serves 4
Remember, all of the ingredient amounts below are approximate. Use your judgement once you start layering everything together. The first set of ingredients are the ones on the nachos in the pictures, but underneath, I have listed other possible ingredients.
4 cups corn tortilla chips
1 15oz can refried beans mixed with a tablespoon or so of water (to thin them)
2 cups fresh corn kernels or frozen kernels, thawed and drained
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/4 cup pickled jalapeno slices
2 cups shredded cheese (I use either Monterrey Jack or Cheddar)
1/4 cup sour cream
Your favorite salsa, for serving alongside
Other Possible Ingredients:
1 tablespoon chopped green chiles or fresh jalapenos in place of the pickled
1/4 cup sliced olives
2 tablespoons scallions
1 tablespoon chopped pimiento
1/2-1 cup chopped zucchini or summer squash
Fresh chopped cilantro
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Layer the tortilla chips into the bottom and up the sides of a 9 x 9 (or 9 x 13 if you want a more shallow layer) baking dish.  Spread the beans over the chips.  Layer all other ingredients up to the salsa in the order listed on top of the beans.  Bake the nachos for 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and the beans are hot.  Serve with salsa on the side.