Wednesday, December 17, 2008

classic shortbread

Shortbread is one of my favorite treats during the Holiday season. And while all that buttery goodness seems like a lot of work, it couldn't be easier to make.

classic shortbread
makes 16 bars

1 c. unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes.
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. vanilla (optional - I left it out this round)

1. Cream the butter using a stand mixer, hand mixer or go "old school" with a large wooden spoon. Add the vanilla at this time, if you choose to do so.

2. Sift together the dry ingredients. No sifter? No problem. Just combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl with a wire whisk. It'll distribute the ingredients evenly, and help separate the tiny bits.

3. Set your mixer to low, and slow add the dry ingredients to the creamed butter. If you have a sifter, you can simply sift the dry ingredients into the workbowl of your mixer. If not, make a "pour-a-chute" using a flexible cutting mat, plastic placemat, or even a large piece of cardstock, and a rubber band. Here's how you use it:
Trust me, it makes adding the dry ingredients a WHOLE lot easier, and gives you far more control.

4. Once the dry ingredients are incorporated, turn up the mixer to medium for about 20 seconds for a good blend. Remove the dough from the workbowl, place in a ziptop bag, and refrigerate for about an 1/2 hour. This will firm up the butter that may have become too soft, and keep it in tiny pockets through your dough (think flaky pie crust), and will allow the flour to hydrate a bit, and leave you with a more cohesive dough.

5. Now preheat your oven to 325°F, and dig out two 8-1/2" loaf pans, or one 9"x9" square pan. Due to the amount of butter in the dough, you won't need to grease the pans. Trust me.

6. Pull your dough from the fridge, and either divide in half for loaf pans, or leave whole for a square pan. Gently form the dough in the rough shape of the pan(s) you are using. If the dough gets too soft, just pop it back in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up.

7. Place the dough in your pan(s) and flatten it out to a uniform-ish thickness. Using a dinner fork, carefully create "perf" lines to divide the dough into an equal number of bars. I found that eight bars per loaf pan makes a good size. Then, take a single chopstick and dock each bar a few times. Docking the dough allows steam to escape while baking. And it makes it look cool. Check out the nifty diagram. I trust you can figure out the square pan math.

8. Once your oven has hit temperature (I'll pretend you checked your after-market oven thermometer to make sure your oven isn't lying to you), bake your shortbread for 25-30 minutes, or until the edges and top start to turn a nice golden brown.

9. When done, remove the pans from the oven, and allow to cool for 10 minutes BEFORE de-panning. This will allow the the shortbread to set up a bit, making it easier to remove it from the pan in one piece.

10. Now the fun part. If you are using loaf pans, and happen to have a empty third loaf pan available, gently nest the empty loaf pan in one of the full pans, flip them over and drop onto a cutting board or counter top from above an inch above. This should jar the shortbread loose. You could also fold up a clean kitchen towel, hold in place over the shortbread with your hand, flip and rap the edge of the pan on the counter. Which ever way works for you. Once out of the pan, flip the shortbread back onto a cutting board.

11. Remember those perf lines you made with the fork? While the shortbread is still warm, take a large knife and cut the bars apart along the perf lines. Easy, wasn't it? Just be sure to cut them apart while still warm or they will crumble. Place the bars on a cooling rack to cool completely.

12. Once cool, move the shortbread to an airtight container, and *try* not to touch it for a few days. These few days will allow the shortbread to age a bit, giving it a nice mellow flavor, and smooth texture. But don't let them age too long... again, trust me, rancid shortbread is not recommended.


Friday, December 5, 2008

ham & rice cassarole

Yup, I used the "c" word... "cassarole". It's not such a bad word, in fact, it actually brings on a nice warm feeling of comfort and happiness. That is, unless you're at a church potluck supper and just counted 45 different ways to combine elbow macaroni, tomato sauce and ground beef...

This is an easy dish that can be frozen for future use, makes a great dish-to-past (hey, it IS a cassarole), or is great just served up in a bowl, and attacked with a spoon.

ham & rice cassarole

2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp pure olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 c. uncooked rice (no 'minute' or boil-in-bag, please... use the real stuff... like Japanese rice)
2 c. ham, diced (we like turkey ham for this dish)
1 Tbsp. dried parsley
1 qt. low-sodium chicken broth
1/2-3/4 c. grated parmesan (the stuff in the green can works great for this)
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1. Set your oven rack to the middle position, and heat your oven to 375°F... being sure you remember to remove your 12" cast iron skillet first. (What? It's the only good place to store it.)

2. In a 4-6 qt. pot over low heat, sweat the onion in the butter and olive oil, along with a pinch of kosher salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.
3. Halfway through the sweat, stir in the garlic.
4. When the onion appears cooked, but not browned, stir in the rice, ham and parsley. Lightly sauté the rice and ham for 3-4 minutes. This will start to cook the rice, and give the finished dish a subtle nutty flavor.
5. Gently pour in the chicken broth and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring everything up to a boil. If you'd prefer a more risotto-like texture, add one cup of broth at a time, stirring until most of it is absorbed by the rice, then repeat with the next cup of broth. Once all the broth is in, bring to a boil.
6. Once it hits a boil, cut the heat and transfer the mixture to a baking dish, and sprinkle the grated parmesan evenly over the top.
7. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. When the 30 minutes are up, remove the lid and return to the oven for five additional minutes to crust up the top a bit, then remove and let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Leftovers are freezer-friendly, and reheat easily in the microwave. Just portion out one serving in a microwave-safe bowl, and nuke of medium for two minutes. Remove, stir and nuke on high for an addition minute or two.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

escarole and bean soup (revised)

Note: Hey Kids, I've been tweaking the soup a bit, so I made some revisions to this recipe.

Soup. Nothing could be easier, and more welcome on a chilly night. And I bet you're thinking "But Matt, unless I open up a can, soup takes ALL day." To which I respond...


escarole and bean soup (revised 1/10/09 - revisions bolded)

1 Tbsp pure olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 cooked Italian sausage links, diced*
1 heaping Tbsp minced garlic ("jarlic" is just fine for this)
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried parsley
2 quarts good chicken stock
1-15.5 oz. can of cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 c. orzo (rosa marina) pasta, cooked to package directions
15 c. chopped escarole
pinch of kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

*again, I'm using pre-cooked Italian sausage from a local shop. Try this: next time you're cooking sausage, cook a few extra and stash 'em in your freezer.

1. In a stock pot over low heat, sweat the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil, with a pinch of kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
2. When the onion is almost translucent, add the garlic and sausage to brown.
3. After the sausage has browned a bit, add the red pepper flakes, oregano and parsley, and continue browning.
4. When browning is done, add about 1/2 c. of the chicken stock to deglaze the pot and recover all the tasty bits of onion and sausage that stuck to the bottom.
5. Once the pot is deglazed, add the remaining chicken stock, and increase the heat to medium-high. You'll want to bring the broth to boil for a about a minute or two before reducing the heat back to medium.
6. While the stock is heating, add the rinsed, drained cannellini beans to allow then to heat through.
7. Now's the time to also add the orzo. The orzo will continue to cook in the soup, so it's not a bad idea to undercook it just a bit.
8. Once the soup has come to a boil, reduce the heat to low, add all of the escarole to the pot and slap on the lid for 5-10 minutes.
Psst... come here... closer... I want to share a little 'soup secret'... just before you declare your soup 'done', add two tablespoons of unsalted butter to the pot and allow it to melt in. The butter adds a nice finish to the taste, and a nice shimmer to the broth. Trust me, this will make your diners go "oooooo".
Ladle up the soup into bowls, and garnish with whatever you choose. Personally, I like some parsley and some cubes of romano cheese (does fresh baked bread count as a garnish?) Need to 'brighten' the flavor up a bit? Just add a quick squeeze of lemon juice.

This is a great recipe for planned leftovers, or for preparing and freezing for later... somehow, leftovers never seem to make it to the freezer 'round here. :)