Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My legs hurt from standing so long...

Well friends and fans....I have been cooking/baking for the past four hours, which doesn't quite make up for the fact that it's been over a month since my last post. :-( Anyway, I picked up some essential ingredients at the grocery store on my way home from work, changed into my pjs and an apron, and then hit the ground running at 7:30pm. I had been itching to make something more than my typical sauteed green and yellow squash or my frequent whole wheat pasta with ground turkey pasta sauce. I even tried to invite friends over on Saturday and Sunday just to have mouths to feed (the scare of a hurricane kept them home....we didn't get but about three drops of rain...but I digress). Thankfully, my team is having a day-long meeting on Thursday, so I jumped at the chance to provide some food for the day.

The first thing I made was lasagna. Let me start by saying, I am not of Italian heritage. I am a British Isles mutt...a sort of nondescript combo of all the islands (maybe with the exception of Wales?). And my mother who grew up on typical mid-western farm food (read: fried and boiled within an inch of their lives...but laden with fat, so awfully tasty). So one might find it surprising, but I think she makes some of the best lasagna I've ever had. The funny thing is that it couldn't be more simple. There's no meat in the sauce and it is a total of 6 ingredients: noodles, sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, and eggs. Basta.

I never saw her using a recipe when she made it, I guess mainly b/c I can't imagine how one would mess this recipe up. As long as you remember to start with a tiny bit of sauce in the pan so the noodles don't burn or stick, alternate layers, tuck in the corners, and don't overfill the pan, you're pretty much good to go. As with most lasagna noodle boxes, there was a recipe on the side. It's a good thing. If going off the top of my head, I had forgotten about the egg to be used as a binder for the cheese blend. I also wasn't sure what temp to cook it - though my guess was only 25 degrees lower than what the box suggested. Other than that, it was a pretty typical recipe, but included meat.

While boiling the water for the noodles (no ready-to-bake noodles for me!), I microwaved a Weight Watchers Smart Ones: Fruit Inspirations meal (the ultimate irony, don't you think?). The water came to a rolling boil, and I cooked the noodles, drained them, and laid them out to dry so they wouldn't stick to each other like boys at a sixth grade dance scared of actually having to talk to a member of the opposite sex. I giggled at the promise of using my Cuisinart to turn my block of parmesan into tiny cheese crumbs. At that thought, I immediately threw my two hunks of mozzarella into the freezer. I had an idea....I'd use the shredding attachment on the same Cuisinart for the first time and turn the mozz into perfect little strips of creamy cheese, but they needed to be more firm for it to be successful. The parmesan worked like a dream. I pulsed it a few times and then let 'er rip. Tiny little dusty flakes were the beautiful result. The mozzarella's fate was not as pretty. I didn't really have the time to fully freeze them for any decent length, so the first hunk ended up almost burning out the motor of the Cuisinart when it got stuck between the shredder blade and the top of the device. I messed with it enough to sort of go through one of the hunks, but decided that I'd be better off leaving the second one for the topping, which would give me some time to cut it up (I julienned mozarella...haha!). And one last thing - I put my sauce on to heat through.

I assembled the layers: first sauce, a layer of noodles, a layer of nine "dots" of the cheese blend with half the mozz that was supposed to be in there, more sauce, a layer of noodles, 9 cheese dots, and so on. Once I was at the top of my Pyrex dish, I covered it with foil and started baking. In the meantime, I cut the remaining mozz into little fine strips. After baking about 10 minutes, I sprinkled the julienned mozarella on top (almost the whole other hunk) and re-foiled the top. I had a ton of materials left over...but not enough to make a whole entire other pan. So I decided to get creative. I have these two large baking ramekins that I bought at the Junior League Resale Shop after one of my shifts last year. They're the iconic white fluted ramekin...I couldn't resist (and I think I paid $4 for the two). So, I decided to put a little bit of cheese blend in a noodle cut in half, roll it up, and put that little cheese filled pasta roll on its end in the ramekin. I repeated and periodically doused it with sauce. It got pretty messy since the pasta rolls were taller than the sides of the dish, but it looked neat. I covered with foil and added to the oven.

Lastly I tried little layers of noodle squares, sauce, and the limited remaining cheese blend (certainly couldn't let anything to go waste!) It didn't fill up the top and I didn't put foil on this one when i put it in the oven. In retrospect, had I not filled my initial Pyrex dish quite so high, I would have probably had enough supplies to make a whole other (if slightly anemic) lasagna. I would have just been a little low on the cheese blend, I suspect. But I have another thing of ricotta, some left over mozz, and some more parmesan, so I could have whipped something up. I might have also run out of sauce, but I would have seen that coming and would have been able to know when to call it the last layer.

So after all my lasagna dishes were in the oven, I moved on to desserts. I had told some co-workers (including my boss) that I would bring in a loaf of banana bread today, but last night three things got in my way - I fell asleep on my couch while reading, I didn't have any buttermilk, and my little recipe post-it DIDN'T HAVE A COOKING TIME ON IT!! I've made this banana bread recipe multiple times, though not recently....how on God's green earth did I make it if I didn't know how long to cook it?? Anyway, in order to make up for the fact that I came to work empty handed, I decided to not only bake a loaf of banana bread, but I also decided to try out a new recipe for a citrus pound cake. It wasn't part of the of the recipe, but I decided to also create a citrus glaze (a few of the pound cake reviews said it was too dry).

Feeling adventurous, I started with the pound cake. Thankfully, when I bought a set of silicone baking items it came with two loaf pans. The batter for this pound cake required cake flour (which I don't think I've ever used before). I sifted the flour, baking powder and a few other things, whipped up the sugar and the zest of the orange an lemon until it was all sort of a light orangey color, and so forth. The batter didn't have any immediate leavening (like the banana bread recipe), so it definitely looked more like a runny cake batter. The recipe called for a loaf pan of slightly different dimensions, but when I piled the batter into the silicon pan, it was only about 3/4 of the way full, so I figured, let's throw caution to the wind. I tapped it on the counter a few times to let the bubbles out, set the timer on my microwave, and tossed it into the oven (having moved one of the racks to the middle).

On to my banana bread. I washed out my teaspoons, my mixing bowls (I had already used another couple bowls others during the great lasagna extravaganza which were washing in the dishwasher), a spatula, etc. Because the recipe has buttermilk, baking powder, and baking soda, it basically explodes once you mix wet and dry ingredients. Thankfully, I remembered that and got those two separate bowls ready. Then, in a flash, I used my trusty hand mixer to mix the two bowls' worth of ingredients. As it was expanding, I managed to get it into the other silicone loaf pan. Thankfully, both desserts are supposed to bake at 325 degrees, so I was able to pop it in the oven as well - I just set the timer on my oven.

The citrus pound cake came out first. I tested it after an hour, and it was just a bit too moist in the middle. But after another measly 5 minutes, the toothpick came out just slightly moistened. I let it rest for a bit in the silicon loaf pan. About 15 minutes later, the banana bread came out. At that point, the pound cake was cool enough to touch. I turned it out and put it on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet. I had created a citrus glaze (mostly lemon with a bit of orange) and decided that I wanted to double-glaze the loaf. I pricked the top crust with a toothpick to make a few holes. I drizzled the glaze over the still warm cake, intending for this first layer to soak in (like I said, some reviews of the recipe said the cake was too dry). I will either bring the glaze with me on Thursday and apply the second and final layer of glaze right before surviving...or maybe I'll glaze it Thursday morning so it will have a chance to set. Decisions decisions.

My one regret is following the part of the banana bread recipe that said to grease and flour the pan. I think, actually, that flouring it was the reason a little corner stuck to the pan. It was a blessing in disguise, however, b/c I was able to do a quick taste (if only a corner of the pound cake had stuck....).

I can't wait for Thursday's lunch.