Grate Expectations

Apparently, so my sources tell me, Italian Cheese Week is being celebrated from 15-22 June 2017 (like I need an excuse!).  So, in honour of all things cheesy, I decided to share a couple of really easy recipes for you that I’ve picked up over the years.

There are a few things I like to have a good stock of & cheese is one of them.  As with my pasta shelf, I also have a cheese shelf in the fridge (yes, really).  Grana Padana, Gorgonzola (preferably Dolce, but I don’t mind a bit of Picante), Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) & usually a bit of mild Cheddar all live happily together (albeit in diminished quantities by the end of the week).  And there’s always at least one tub of proper, full-fat cream cheese too.   As you all know, cream cheese goes with pretty much anything – mix with a splodge of pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce or, if you’re feeling naughty, it’s really nice spread thickly on a digestive biscuit with a dollop of raspberry jam on top (don’t judge me, try it – it’s addictive though!).  Recently, I’ve been a bit unhappy with my usual brand of creamy cheesiness – because according to it’s list of ingredients, it’s more fillers than actual cheese (locust bean gum anyone? No, didn’t think so) & therefore I have switched to another brand.  It always pays to read the back of a packet, because if like me you want a pure product for a specific recipe, you need to know that’s what you’re getting.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making my own Ricotta cheese – thanks to the lovely Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe in “Gennaro’s Italian Year” (which was given to me by my guys & like them, it is very much loved!).  Now before you all start going “ooh!  that must be really difficult!”, it’s not.  All you need is a few pints of milk, some fresh lemon juice & a big saucepan (I use my pasta pan, which is pretty huge).  It takes a few minutes to bring the milk to the boil, then just take it off the heat for roughly 30 seconds before repeating the process a couple of times.  Finally, put it back on the heat & squeeze in the lemon juice, bring it back up to the boil & turn it off.   Then give it a stir – it will separate into curds (the cheese) & whey (the cloudy looking liquid). Tip it into a sieve & leave it to stand over bowl, so that the liquid drains away & as if by magic, you are left with a lovely soft cheese.  While that’s cooling, I’ll whizz up some wilted spinach in the food processor with a few pine nuts (untoasted), a little lemon zest, a spoonful of my favourite full-fat cream cheese (just because I like it) & a shake of sea salt & black pepper.  It’s then mashed up with the ricotta, before I pop the lot into a piping bag, ready to fill my favourite ravioli!

Sometimes (quite often), I will have a little leftover pasta & the lovely cheesy mixture, so I like to ladle some of my homemade tomato sauce into individual dishes, then layer up the lasagne sheets with alternating fillings of piped cheese & tomato sauce.

Adorn the top layer with a few ripped pieces of Mozzarella, a grating of Parmesan & a pinch of Oregano, then bake for 15-20 minutes at 200*C until everything is bubbling up around the edges & the cheese is crispy & golden on top.  They make a tasty simple starter or a light lunch, served with a gorgeous green salad.

And now, my pièce de résistance: cheese biscuits.  These are probably one of the easiest things to make – you just chuck everything in a bowl & squish it together.  It’s great for using up all those random leftover bits of cheese that seem to congregate at the back of the fridge.

What you need:

8oz grated mixed cheese, at room temperature (I use 80% medium Cheddar, then 10% each of grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, depending on what I’ve got in the fridge)
8oz plain flour
8oz salted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon sea salt
Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Half a teaspoon English mustard (the pre-made type, not the powder)
Quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne
Optional:  a teaspoon of fennel or poppy seeds

How to do it:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (unless you want to do lots of washing up later, lining your trays this way will mean that you simply lift the paper out after cooking & transfer to a cooling rack, leaving clean trays – you’re welcome!).

Mix the cheese & butter together in a bowl with the mustard – use a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon to make it into a smooth type of thick paste.

Mix the dry ingredients together & slowly add to the cheese & butter, stirring well to form a soft, pliable cheesy dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, take a third of the dough & carefully roll it out to about half a centimetre thick.  Using a palette knife, slide this under the rolled out dough to ensure it is not stuck to the worktop & add a little more flour underneath, if need be.

Cut into shapes – either use small cookie cutters or slice into finger length strips, just create whatever you like!  Lift them onto the lined baking trays, leaving about an inch gap all around (they will not grow too much) & then repeat the above, until you have used up all the dough.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 16-18 minutes, until they are lightly golden, then transfer to a cooling rack & remove from the greaseproof paper.

Once cooled, either eat them as they are, top with various cheeses as a snack, or make into canapes to go with pre-dinner drinks!  These crisp little bites of melt-in-the-mouth moreishness have just the right amount of kick too – the heat sneaks up on your tongue, so be warned!

Here’s to a “grate” week of cheesy delights!  A x

 

 

 

Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x

 

A Pizza Cake

Fridays are fabulous for many reasons: it’s the Preekend, the fizz is chilling in the fridge & thoughts turn to dinner.  Pizza is very much loved in our house & we’ve tried them all over the years – the fresh, the frozen & the takeaways.  But nothing beats making your own, getting everyone involved & having a relaxing meal (pizza is definitely relaxed & a great way to wind down the week!).

Because I’ve been baking up a storm, I like to delegate the dough making on a Friday night to the guys & my Husband has become Chief Pizza Dough Maker.  Usually, I’ll pour us each a glass of Prosecco to sip (in “scary saucers”, which my Husband can fit his face in) & while he’s kneading the dough, we catch up on each other’s news & gossip. Here’s how to make your own.

What you need for the dough:

12g fresh yeast
330ml lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature, not hot or cold, just right)
500g strong white bread flour (plus extra for kneading, etc)
A good pinch of sea salt

What to do:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, stirring with a fork to ensure it’s all mixed.

Mix the sea salt & flour in a large bowl, then add the yeast water, stirring well to create a dough.

Bring the dough together with your hands, wiping it around the bowl to remove any excess on the sides.  Sprinkle a little flour around the bottom of your bowl (all will become clear later on!).

Dust your worktop with a bit of flour, then tip the dough out onto it.

Knead well for ten minutes using firm strokes, pushing away from you with the heel of your hand & then folding back on itself, turning & repeating.   This gives it (& you!) a good workout & makes it smooth, elasticated & easy to work with.

Once kneaded (it should spring back from the touch), place in the floured bowl & cover loosely with a piece of lightly oiled clingfilm.  It doesn’t need to be sealed tight – your dough will double in size, so needs room to grow.  As long as there are no gaps around the edge of the bowl, it should be fine.  Put it in a warm, draught-free place to prove for half an hour – I tend to put mine in the airing cupboard, except when it’s Summer & then it sits on the worktop in the kitchen.  Proving is where the dough is allowed to rest from all that exercise & all that kneading you’ve done will ensure it rises well.

Once the dough is proving, turn on your oven to 230*C to ensure it’s really hot by the time you are ready to start cooking the pizzas.  This is when I prepare my tomato sauce & get chopping the toppings.  Usually, I have a couple of jars of my homemade tomato sauce in the fridge, leftover from the various pasta dishes I’ve made in the week.  This sauce was something I started making when I was 17, in my own kitchen with a couple of Italian cookbooks for inspiration.  Fast forward 30 years & it has become a staple in my repertoire, my signature sauce & a flexible foundation for many of my recipes – especially pizza!  Unfortunately for you lovely people, I can’t share it (secret family recipe & all that, you know the score).  

However, if I don’t have time or any pre-made jars, I make this simple version.  It’s just a tin of Italian plum tomatoes, gently squished by hand in a bowl (just get your hands in there & do it – you’ll wash).   Add a little sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a tiny pinch of sugar (to balance the acidity), a little shredded fresh Basil & that’s it, no cooking required!   Make it into your own signature sauce – add a little chopped fresh garlic or a sprinkle of shredded fresh chilli, if you’re fancy it being a bit fiesty.  It’s your sauce – create your own masterpiece & just play around with different flavours until it’s how you want it.

By now, your dough will be ready to shape into pizzas.    Dust your worktop with a little flour & remove the dough from the bowl – it will be quite sticky now, so just scrape it around the bowl to remove it all.  Knock it back to remove any large air bubbles (I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & give it a quick knead for a few seconds).

Before you start worrying about throwing spinning sheets of dough in the air like a professional Pizzaiolo, just remember you’re in your kitchen at home & how you do it really is up to you.  Cut the dough into quarters & set aside three of them on a floured worktop.  Take the piece left & shape it into a ball, then work into a circle (or whatever shape you want) with your fingers, pushing it out on the worktop, or use a rolling pin – whatever you feel comfortable doing.   Sprinkle a little coarse semolina onto a flat baking tray & transfer your dough onto it.  Set aside while you do the same for the other dough balls.

Once the dough is stretched out, I smooth a large spoonful of the sauce over the top, leaving half an inch around the edge & it’s ready to be adorned with beautiful toppings! Obviously, we all have our favourites – mine is spinach, ricotta & sundried tomatoes – shiny green swirls of wilted spinach & splodges of ricotta are decorated with snipped up, ruby red sundried tomatoes.  I am also a bit partial to Proscuitto & Pepperoni with a few plump, roasted pepper pieces on top (I buy the jars, because I really don’t have the time to faff about roasting my own & they really are quite lovely!).  

Finally, I add a little torn mozzarella, a dusting of Parmesan & a pinch of pungent Oregano.  I only use a small amount of each topping, because pizza shouldn’t be drowning in them – it will never cook properly if it’s stacked like a skyscraper & your base will just be soggy (& nobody likes a soggy bottom).  

Bake in a very hot oven, a minimum of 230*C, for about 5-8 minutes, until the melted cheese has oozed into all the gaps, before it crisps up & turns a gorgeous golden hue.  If you have a pizza oven, it will take about 3 minutes because they get to much higher temperatures (I’m going to have to invest in one, especially with the amount of pizza I make!).

Slide it onto a chopping board, slice it up & serve!

Another tip is to get yourself a proper chopping board specifically for pizza, because they also double up as a serving tray & everyone can help themselves to a slice (just use a couple of napkins – no plates to wash up!).

Have a go at making your own Friday night treat – it’s a pizza cake!  A x