Monday, March 30, 2009

Spinach pasta!

This month's Daring Baker challenge, my second, was pretty intense: homemade spinach lasagna, with bechamel and meat sauces. Lots more work than I was prepared for, but in the end it was really very good. Because it is just the bechamel and some parmesan in place of heavy ricotta or mozzarella, it was a lot lighter than your typical lasagna. I added an extra egg to the pasta recipe--two eggs was just not enough moisture to absorb all the flour, even with the blanched spinach.

I made the same sauce I always do as opposed to the one DB provided (grind three or four meats together yourself?), and I added an extra egg to the pasta dough. Two eggs was just not enough to hold it together. A fourth probably wouldn't have been a bad idea. It's a nice project if you have a couple of people to help out, but I doubt I'll take this one on again. It's labor intensive even for me. I'm beat. I'm glad to have done it, though--this Daring Bakers business is definitely teaching me about cooking. And is a nice escape from work, which is getting out of hand at the moment.

(Very long) recipes for the pasta and bechamel, and directions for cooking the lasagna, are below. I used the red sauce I always make, so left out the DB's (very long, grind four types of meat yourself) version. The directions are for hand-rolling, which seems insane, but I used a pasta maker. Oddly, the only kitchen appliance Jake owns is a pasta machine.
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

All recipes below from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)

(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)
Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

  • 2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
  • 10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
  • 3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Friends at work

Turns out that while I am here snacking compulsively and worrying about stuff, my friends are doing some pretty impressive things.

Jake took off for Alaska yesterday (where an exploding volcano was canceling flights) to visit his friend Chad Lindner who just finished the Iditarod and won rookie of the year--his dad Sonny dog sled race. He came in 30thLindner, who is a well-known in the "musher" world, came in 11th. It is a pretty impressive feat. Here's Chad with his team, and the dogs who led him in. I think they're called Mulder and Eli. Chad finished in 12 days, 4 hours, 21 minutes, and 50 seconds, with 13 dogs.

I kind of imagined the sled as a Santa's sled type thing: plush seat covered with animal pelts and a place to stash your thermos. In fact, you stand on runners that are narrow like skis, and have to sort of run alongside when you get knocked off and jump back on. This site has some Iditarod 101-type information if you're interested.

Also in the news is my friend Aimee Molloy, whose book Jantsen's Gift (with Pam Cope) is coming out in April and has gotten some great early press. The book is about the Cope family's work helping children in Vietnam, Cambodia and Ghana--which they found themselves drawn into after the sudden death of Pam's teenage son.

You can learn more about it here -- it's a Reader's Digest "must read"--and pre-order on Amazon. It's a pretty amazing story worth checking out, for sure.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Big Climb(ed)!


Race and post-race brunch are officially over. We all finished strong, and while I didn't break the 11 minute mark that I was hoping to hit -- I shaved about a minute and a half off my time and finished in 11:16.70! I'm 15th among the women so far (people are racing through the day, so results can change)!

This made me really happy until I just saw that I missed the top ten women finishers by like TWO SECONDS. TWO SECONDS! The stairway is narrow and had I been more aggressive passing folks (damn kids!), things could have been different. Here are the results if you're interested. It's all fun and games until you miss top ten by two seconds.

The famous Henry Wigglesworth, who is always top five and runs it multiple times, was running it seven times this year. Barefoot. With rubber gloves for improved railing grip. We saw him after his third and fifth, and he was fine--and his times were between 8 and ten minutes or so.

In all honestly, I am pretty psyched. We all did great -- Madelyn and Brenda in the 13 range, and Court at 19. All really impressive. It looks like our team is at about 50th place--but they don't differentiate between women and men's teams, and very few teams are all women. So it isn't really a great measure.

They--plus Brenda's husband John, who was our pit crew--just left after a nice brunch, so I'm on a sugar/coffee/mimosa high and my narrow brush with top 10-ness can't bring me down. I am having another mimosa just to make sure.

Brunch was the vegetable casserole last made at Laura's baby shower that is always a hit, and my first stab at sticky cinnamon buns care of Alton Brown.

When I was in DC, my Aunt Sally reminded me that she sent me the Congressional Club Cookbook from 1961, which included recipes from legislator's wives ... my grandfather on my mom's side was a congressman from Cook County, Illinois, and my grandmother Katherine (or "Mrs. Edward R. Finnegan, Wife of Representative" according to the book) submitted some recipes -- including a "dessert pancake" that I was hoping to try out today. It will have to wait for next time, but looks great. She was into sweets, if the cookbook is any indication: S'mores and an ice cream sundae and the dessert pancake were her contributions to the book.

Anyway -- good times. I'm going to go have another mimosa and strategize stairwell passing techniques for '10. XO

Friday, March 20, 2009


It has been forever since I posted anything. Excuses are: First, I caught some nasty bug that knocked the wind out of me; second, I have now officially collected over 100 survey responses (!); third, if I didn't pay attention to some wedding planning Jake was going to revoke the offer; fourth, I managed to get a grant application out for a follow-up study to the dissertation survey; and fifth, I was in DC for a few days for a conference (that Amy tagged along for and turned into a great time). Here we are looking skeptical of the stimulus plan with the capitol building in the background but hidden behind my large head.

I did get some baking done these past few weeks -- I was on a whole wheat and bread kick (or continuing), and made two versions of whole wheat Irish soda bread in honor of March (here's the better of the two, from 101 Cookbooks), along with a doctored (sesame honey whole wheat) version of Beranbaum's Bread Bible flaxseed bread for my friend Nancie that was really *&^#@ing good. I also made some butter dinner rolls that turned out good despite having been dropped on the floor (in the sealed pyrex bowl--no three second rule needed) so that the dough deflated pretty dramatically. They turned out fine, but not in time for the dinner I was trying to pull them together for.

Here's the bread recipe, adapted from The BB:
13 oz (2 2/3 cups) All Purpose Flour
5 oz (1 cup) Whole Wheat Flour
2.5 oz (1/2 cup+1 tablespoon) dark rye flour
2 oz (.5 cup) ground flax seed
1.25 teaspoons instant yeast (about 1.5 teaspoons non-instant kind)
2 tablespoons honey
14.6 oz (1 3/4 cups) warm water
1/2 cup sesame seeds (a bit more would have been fine)
2 teaspoons salt
One 9X5 inch loaf pan.

Whisk together the flours, flaxseed and yeast, and then (making a "well" in the middle of the flour for the honey) use the dough hook to add the honey on low speed. Gradually add the warm water until it forms a dough, scrape down the sides of the bowl and cover for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle the salt on top and ad the sesame seeds, and mix on medium speed for 7 minutes, until the dough is a bit sticky but firm. Scrape the dough into a slightly oiled container, cover and let rise for about an hour, until doubled in size.

Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, flattening it to deflate it somewhat, and shape into a loaf. Place it in a slightly oiled loaf pan and let it rise, covered loosely, for about an hour. Preheat the oven to 375 at this point, with a baking sheet in it.

Slash the bread--make a long slit down the top of the dough bread with a razor blade or knife. Place the loaf on top of the hot baking sheet and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until it is golden brown. Turn it after about 25 minutes so it bakes evenly.

Let cool on a rack. While still warm, brush the loaf with melted butter.
Here's a video about shaping a loaf of bread by a guy who has a very involved bread baking blog, in case you're interested. And a couple of shots of completely unrelated loaf of white sandwich loaf I made a few weeks ago, slashed and then baked.

There were some other things mixed in as well -- Jake's 30th birthday (big carrot cake that was sort of funny looking but tasted fine ... I made a three tiered white cake, thinking one decade for each tier and realizing later that it looked like it needed a bride and groom on top. Wedding on the brain?).

But mostly it has been all surveys, all the time -- I'm happily over the hundred respondents mark, and there are only a few that seem to be unusable. The big problem is that I am out of stipend cash and now dipping into other expense reserves for printing and data entry and whatnot, so I cut the stipend from $10 to $5. People seem equally as happy. Some of these folks show up with no idea how they might eat lunch that day (after three or four hours spent at the office), or really struggle to buy diapers day to day. Every session someone tells me how grateful they are to be able to go get a sandwich (and of course someone else reeks of booze, but still). I wish I could keep giving $10.

Tomorrow is the Big Climb (!), so I refrained from going to my favorite class at the gym. I always end up with a sore ass, and I figure I should spare myself that tomorrow morning. I am already a bit weak in the knees from an overly ambitious run yesterday. I'll post my time, whatever it is, and come home to host brunch with the folks on my team. Many thanks to those of you who generously contributed to the Leukemia/Lymphoma society on my behalf! I appreciate the support.

Enjoy the weekend -- and wish us luck!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's T-minus three or so weeks and counting until this years Big Climb! Which is a race to the top of the Columbia Tower, Seattle's tallest building. That's 69 stories and 1,311 steps for a total of 788 vertical feet, which apparently means something to people who climb things.

Last year I finished in a respectable 12 minutes 41 seconds. Times can be found here, if you're interested. Technically, the my team won. But that's only because one guy -- the very fit Henry -- ran it three times in a row. They calculate team times based on the three fastest finishers, and his three times were not only our team's fastest but but faster than everyone else's top three. That's pretty humbling as far as stair-climbing goes.

This year I'm not on Henry's team, but have a great group: there's Madelyn, who is a trainer when she's not dealing with journalism school; Colin, who lives in San Fran now and used to run stairs with Madelyn and I before he moved; Courtenay, who is new to the whole thing and has gone from horrified by the idea to wanting to practice at 7AM; and Brenda, who has climbed Rainier twice and will definitely be a contender. Not like we're trying to win or anything, but it'll be fun and hopefully there will be celebratory drinks afterwards.

Last year I didn't try and raise money for the event's charity-- leukemia and lymphoma research. I do several races of some sort or another every year, and never feel comfortable about asking people to donate. But this year I'd like to try and raise something. A friend from work is about to take on a bone marrow transplant in March. A friend I grew up with's younger brother recently went through a transplant. And my mom recently told me of someone she knows who needs a bone marrow transplant. All are in their 30s or 40s. WTF?

So, if you have the means to do so, please donate a couple of bucks. I don't think there is a minimum for the website. Our team fund raising page is here. It's sparse, but functional.

Many thanks!

Flourless chocolate cake and coconut ginger ice cream

I am sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I joined this on-line baking group called "Daring Bakers," which I found because I noticed that some of the blogs I ended up on when I googled things like "pumpernickel flour substitute" had references to it. It's basically a group of people with blogs involving baking or food who all bake the same thing once each month. A couple of members choose a recipe for the entire group, and you are supposed to make it at some point during the month and then post it on a designated day (yesterday! I hope I'm not on the outs already). There are some pretty lengthy rules about posting that I am still not entirely clear on. For example, we are required to post the following statement with this month's flourless chocolate cake and ice cream recipes:
The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.
There is also a website for members with forums with people fielding questions about baking and cooking.

I was feeing a bit skeptical until I started in on it and looked at this month's host Dharm's blog for guidance on how the cake should look when it came out of the oven (answer: sort of still wet and wobbly in the center). I found out that Dharm is a dad of two cute kids in Kuala Lumpur who recently posted a chocolate layer cake he made from a recipe he found in a 1978 edition of Australian Women's Weekly. How can you not love that? So I am sold again. Plus, I brought the cake and ice cream over to our new friends' house for a (pretty fantastic) pot luck dinner, and it was a hit. I respond very well to positive feedback, and they gave me a lot of it. Hostess Priyanka took this picture for me. I made the cake, plus a coconut ice cream with candied ginger (they gave you leeway on the ice cream part). I had extra heavy cream so we made whipped cream, too--which was unnecessary but always good.

The cake has just three ingredients: chocolate, butter and eggs. The tricky part is beating the egg whites and folding them into the chocolate/egg mixture -- on the first try I let the eggs sit too long and they separated, so I had to beat a new batch and added some cream of tartar that time. It worked. Second tip is to use the best chocolate you can afford -- it will (as the Daring Bakers instructions told me) taste exactly like whatever you use. I went part expensive chocolate, part cheap.

The ice cream is easy enough, but making a custard base always means hovering over the stove for a while. Good study break. I used the opportunity to test out the confection thermometer I've had for years without using (not sure where it came from), and turns out that yes, the custard does seem to thicken considerably somewhere between 150 and 170 degrees. Very cool.

Here are the recipes, the cake from DB and the ice cream adapted from Peggy Fallon's Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts:

Flourless Chocolate Valentino Cake

Printable Recipe
  • 16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped. [I used 1/2 Valrhona from Trader Joe's, and 1/2 nestle chocolate chips; 3/4 semisweet and 1/4 bittersweet]
  • ½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter [I accidentally skimped on the butter by those extra 2 tablespoons and didn't notice until just now]
  • 5 large eggs separated
Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.

Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and put into two medium/large bowls.

Whip the egg whites in a medium/large grease free bowl until stiff peaks are formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).

With the same beater beat the egg yolks together.

Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate.

Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds. Fold until no white remains without deflating the batter.

Pour batter into prepared pan, the batter should fill the pan 3/4 of the way full, and bake at 375F/190C

Bake for 25 minutes until an instant read thermometer reads 140F/60C.

Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie and a cake tester will appear wet.

Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold.

Coconut Ginger Ice cream

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 14oz can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 tablespoons candied ginger (for a garnish or to mix in, or more if you want)

Heat the cream, coconut milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan until the sugar melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat.

Beat the egg yolks, and very slowly whisk in a cup of the warm cream to heat the eggs without cooking them.

Add the egg/cream mixture slowly into the remaining warm cream and coconut milk and return to the heat, stirring regularly until the custard thickens and coats a spoon.

Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Cover and let come to room temperature, and then chill in the fridge for a few hours or up to a couple of days.

When ready to freeze in an ice cream machine, add a teaspoon of vanilla and the diced ginger (if mixing in), combine well and freeze according to your machine's directions. Return to teh bowl and leave in teh freezer for a while if you have the time.
So that's my first Daring Bakers challenge. Happy Sunday!