Friday Fennel Pizza

If it’s Friday, it must be Pizza — and I’ve got fennel on my mind.

Today’s pizza showcases a tempting combination of flavors and textures that covers all the bases.  We’ve got creamy ricotta,  fabulous fresh anise-scented fennel, slices of spicy sausage, and more.

This easy pizza begins with a mild ricotta base designed to complement fennel’s sweet and subtle flavors.  Any firm precooked sausage will work, but I’m particularly fond of linguica — or perhaps an Italian or Portuguese style laced with a hit of fennel or anise seed,  garlic, and red pepper.  

It’s not too late to latch onto fresh fennel before it goes out of season.  Its bulb is the most tender and mild part; to easily slice it, first cut the bulb into quarter wedges and remove any lurking hard center core.  Save those tougher stalks and shoots for use in soups, stews and other cooking projects.

 If you are as crazy as I am about fennel’s mild licorice flavor, sprinkle some of the feathery fronds across the pizza before popping it into the oven.

Remember to remove your smartly prebaked pizza crust (see here) from the freezer for a quick defrost before launching into pizza mode. If not, have one medium pizza crust ready for topping.  It’s that easy and that good!   

White Pizza with Fresh Fennel and Sausage

  Ingredients

  • 1 medium prebaked pizza crust or 1 recipe pizza dough 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Ricotta filling:
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese, good quality
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • Toppings
  • ½ onion, sliced
  • 1 cup chopped seeded pepper, pasilla, or other
  • 1 cup fennel, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup sliced olives, optional
  • 8 oz. sliced fennel-flavored cooked sausage
  • pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh or dried rosemary or oregano
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

Instructions

  1. In a medium pizza pan, roll out the pizza dough and prebake, or have prebaked pizza on hand. (see pizza crust)
  2. Preheat oven to 375° to 400° F.
  3. Prepare the ricotta filling: if the ricotta is watery, drain it well. Season with Parmesan, garlic, nutmeg, salt and pepper and fold in freshly chopped parsley. This can be done ahead.   
  4. Toppings: thinly slice the onion, fennel, olives and precooked sausage.
  5. To assemble: lightly brush the crust with olive oil.  Spread the ricotta filling evenly over the crust.  Distribute the onion, pepper, fennel and olives over the ricotta and top with the sausage.  Season to taste with red pepper flakes, rosemary or oregano, and sprinkle the Parmesan and fresh fennel fronts on top.  Drizzle a little olive oil across the top.   
  6. Bake until the center is bubbly and the crust is browned, 15-20 minutes. Let stand briefly, then slice.  Yield: 1 medium pizza.

 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Anyone familiar with this site knows that homemade pizza is one of my favorite indulgences.  I tend to think of it toward the end of the week—with the unrealistic plan of enjoying leftovers on the weekend. That so rarely happens.

The pupose of today’s post is is to eliminate my on-going irritation concerning the whereabouts of my current pizza dough recipe. More exact, I tend to misplace or lose track of my latest pizza-dough-du-jour because it regularly changes. It’s a mirror of my life: as my life evolves, so goes my pizza dough.

Lately, I’m making a dough that uses instant yeast. It is brilliant because it requires no advance proofing of yeast in warm water, thus eliminating 10 to 15 minutes lead time.  The instant yeast is combined with the dry ingredients and blended with hot water (120 to 130 degrees). The dough is briefly mixed, then given a quick knead to get the gluten going, and left to rest for only 10 minutes—opposed to the usual 30 to 60 minute rise.

pizza dough ball (1)
Ten minute pizza dough

The longer traditional yeast development is regarded essential for optimum rise, texture, and flavor.  However, this dough has fine flavor; it is quick, malleable and can be patted out quite thin, all for which I give high marks. I like to keep the flour at least 50% all-purpose or bread flour, then fill in the remainder with whole wheat, semolina, a bit of flax meal, or other fun flours.

When I have my act together I prefer to pre-bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes, which moves past the ‘fussing with dough’ phase and wards off potential sogginess.

pizza crust
Pre-baked crust: a blank canvas

Pizza is ready when I am.

Either way, then it’s a simple matter of gathering toppings and baking it all off in a hot oven for 15 or 20 minutes. In the throes of a busy week this dough wins hands down.

Here is my current Quick and Easy Pizza Dough, ready for topping.

Quick and Easy Pizza Dough

Ingredients

  • 1½ – 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water (120-130 degrees F)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

Instructions

  1. In a medium bowl, mix together 1 cup of the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the hot water and olive oil and stir to combine with spatula.
  2. Continue adding the flour until the dough just clears the sides of the bowl. In bowl or on a floured surface, knead for about three minutes, until the dough is soft and slightly sticky without leaving a lot of residue on your fingers.
  3. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 10 minutes, lightly covered with a towel.
  4. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 400-425 degrees F. Well oil a pizza pan or baking sheet.  With floured hands pat the dough into the pizza pan. Add sauce and toppings of choice and bake in lower third of oven for 15-20 minutes, until center is bubbly and crust is golden brown.    Yield: 1 large or 2 medium

To pre-bake the crust: Well-oil 1-2 pizza pans. With floured hands, pat the dough into a large pan, or divide the dough in half and pat with floured hands into two oiled medium pans. Bake at 400-425 degree oven until firmly set but not colored, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on rack or store lightly wrapped until needed. A well-sealed crust can be frozen up to a month.

A Few of My Favorite Things

When it comes to tasty baking combinations, these days it’s hard to beat buckwheat groats, tahini, and honey. And here we have a cookie with all three—plus a surprise crunch factor thrown in for entertainment value!

This idea comes from a gluten-free cookie re-engineered from Gluten Free Girl – an excellent site for all things gluten-free.  These soft, moist, fiber rich cookies are the perfect purveyor for any of your favorite additions: perhaps a handful of trail mix or a combo of dried fruit, seeds & nuts, and/or white or dark chocolate.

In this case, the star is roasted buckwheat groats, well known for its characteristically earthy, nutty taste. I’m partial to its toasty/tobacco flavor that’s reminiscent of cooler seasons. Buckwheat’s hard outer hull must be removed for it to become fully edible. Since it has no gluten, buckwheat flour is often used as a substitute for wheat flour.

Although it is frequently associated with grains, buckwheat is a seed related to sorrel and rhubarb. That’s welcome news since seeds are literally jam-packed with minerals and antioxidants. Once toasted the buckwheat groats are called kasha. If the roasted variety is too strong, try the milder, unroasted buckwheat as a delicious rice substitute.

Even though these cookies are effortless to whip up, they do require a little advance planning. Allow a 30-minute soak for the groats to achieve their iconic texture, and one-hour chill time to firm-up the dough before baking.

So fond am I of these cookies, I have taken to making two different sizes. In a 10”x10” pan I portion out nine large 3-tablespoon/scoops—large enough for on-the-run happy meals.  In an 11” round pan, I layout approximately ten rounded tablespoon-sized cookies—ideal for a mid-morning or afternoon snack.  Or, for a slightly more logical solution you could make about 20 cookies, but that’s just how I roll…

All-Occasion Buckwheat Cookies

Greatly reworked from a gluten free concept, 3:30PM Cookies at Gluten-free Girl.

Ingredients
¾ cup buckwheat groats
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg or ½ tsp ground ginger
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
¼ cup tahini
½ cup honey
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup spelt or whole wheat flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
¾ cup favorite fruit/nut mix (or ¼ cup each nuts/seeds, dried cranberries, white chocolate)

Instructions

  1. To soak the buckwheat groats: melt the coconut oil in microwave for 30-40 seconds. Stir in the tahini to combine, then add the honey.  In a small mixing bowl, measure ¾ cup groats along with the cinnamon and nutmeg or ginger. Pour the warm coconut oil mixture over the groats. Stir well and let soak for at least 30 minutes.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together.  Pour the soaked buckwheat mixture over it. Add the egg and stir with a spatula to combine. Add the trail mix and blend.
  3. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.
  4. Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment or silpat.
  5. Using 3 Tbsp scoop, place 9 on baking sheet. Shape into flat cylinders. Bake 17-18 minutes until golden brown and set on edges.
  6. Cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet, then move to wire rack to cool completely. Repeat making 1 pan of smaller rounded tablespoon cookies. Yield: @ 20 2-1/2 to 3” cookies.

Honey Spiced Cakes

If you are a fan of pain d’epices, the classic French sweet bread made with honey and spice, then here’s a version that will make your head spin. Part of the appeal of the pain d’epices loaf is that it is designed to improve with age. However, once you’ve had a bite of one, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

These smaller, personal sized cakes receive their distinct identity from an enticing blend of spices featuring aniseed and compounded with rye flour.  The healthy dose of honey adds enough richness and moisture to make it hard to believe they contain not a whit of butter or oil.

This particular Spanish twist comes by way of David Lebovitz and his great blog of the same name.  The cakes are one of a fascinating collection from  Chef Daniel Olivella in his new cookbook, Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.  Olivella, born in Spain, shares his grandmother’s thrifty sweet cakes originally made with stale bread saturated in red wine. Daniel now lives in Austin, Texas where he operates Barlata Tapas Bar.

Rather than red wine syrup, David chose to roll his variation in sugar and then dip the tops in a cider syrup.  I passed on all that, since mine were plenty moist and sweet from the honey.   I also used smaller silicone molds, which hold about ¼ cup when filled, and less than a standard muffin cup.

For a final touch of sparkle,  I lightly dipped the baby cake tops in turbinado sugar crystals—and called it good!

Honey Spiced Cakes

Inspired by David Lebovitz’s adaptation of Daniel Olivella’s version in Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.

Ingredients
For the cakes
1 cup honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup whole or low fat milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Optional syrup
1/2 cup sparkling apple cider, hard or non-alcoholic
1/2 cup, plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Finish variation:  1/3 cup turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Use small silicone cups or line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake liners.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey and brown sugar. If your honey is super thick, you may wish to warm it slightly before mixing.
  3. Sift together the all-purpose and rye flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg or ginger, and cloves, into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the milk and eggs, stirring until partially combined. Add the honey mixture and stir until everything is well-combined.
  4. Divide the batter into the cups; each should be about two-thirds full. Bake until the cakes are barely set in the center and the tops are lightly browned 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely.
  5. Prepare the optional syrup while the cakes are cooking and cooling: bring the cider and 1/2 cup granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan or skillet, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  6. To finish: put the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Remove the cakes from the muffin cups and roll each in the sugar, coating the sides. Dip the tops of each cake in the syrup after you roll each one, and set them on a serving plate.
  7. Alternatively, simply dip the tops in turbinado sugar.

To serve:  Chef Olivella suggests serving with remaining syrup and a bit of crème fraiche, but as a snacking cake they are good on their own.  Store in airtight container at room temperature 4-5 days.  Yield:  about 12 cakes.

So much cheese… so little time

You never know when good fortune will cross your path.  For some time now I’ve been making my own yogurt, thanks to the ease and convenience of the ole Instant Pot. Once committed to the process, my results have become far superior to any of the usual store bought varieties.  When I discovered one  batch could yield two distinct styles I got even more excited:  I’d have a quart of fine yogurt for daily use, plus a good supply of thick, creamy Greek yogurt worthy of cheese status.

During my early Greek yogurt period, I came across Home Cheese Making (3rd edition) by Ricki CarrolI, while browsing books at a used book sale. (Ricki has a 4th edition coming out  December 2018).  It looked nearly new (good/bad sign, whatever), I added it to my stack and brought it home.  Several days later, I opened the book and knew this was no mistake. I haven’t met a cheese that I didn’t like, and here was an opportunity to see where all this could possibly go.

Ricki’s well laid-out book takes a complicated subject and breaks it down into manageable chunks. It’s geared to the novice as well as the skilled cheese maker, with a wide range of cheeses to consider from soft fresh cheeses like queso fresco, mozzarella, and feta, to ripened cheeses like cheddar, gouda, brie, and much more.  Here, I could begin to understand and more fully appreciate the art of cheese making—and I was ready.

You can get started in cheese making with a few basic kitchen supplies.  A good digital thermometer is a must, plus a colander, cheesecloth, a long spoon or spatula, the usual measuring cups and spoons, a long knife for cutting the curd, a stainless steel pot, and a reliable cooking unit that maintains a steady temperature.

Each cheese requires specific additives for its success. Some of the basics are: a starter such as yogurt, a mesophilic or thermophilic starter; liquid rennet for coagulation; calcium chloride for curd formation; lipase powder for flavor; and cheese salt.

Sourcing cheese making supplies can be a hassle, but I’ve had good luck with Ricki’s website, New England Cheese Making Supply Co. It is a reliable resource for cheese making information and supplies.

Since cheese making can be intimidating, I centered on a realistic mindset:  cheese has been around for centuries, surely I can figure this out.  Granted, there’s a large learning curve—at this point I’m happy mastering fresh cheeses.  I’d tinkered with ricotta and mozzarella before, and I welcomed the opportunity to give them another try and add them to my cheese line-up. I was starting over but making progress—they both turned out well.  ✓✓

Thus far, my biggest success comes from making feta cheese.

I was intrigued by the additional brining process, since feta’s flavor develops more fully the longer it ages in brine.  This small extra step felt like a giant leap into cheese making. ✓

If you happen to read the previous post,  Feta Focus, you’ve absorbed a few feta details.  Essentially, Greek feta has earned its own provenance: much like a European wine appellation, it must be made with either sheep and/or goat’s milk. I’m keeping it simple at this point, I am happy  staying with familiar and readily available:  whole cow’s (not ultra-pasteurized) milk.

Feta cheese is fairly simple to make. I used a sous vide with my first batch, which was entirely unnecessary. The second time, I filled my well-scrubbed kitchen sink with 90° hot water, placed the covered milk-filled stainless steel pot into the warm water bath, and stirred occasionally until it reached 86°.   That’s when the starter culture and ultimately the rennet are introduced and the curd making process unfolds.  I added more regulated hot water as needed to maintain the temperature. Once the curds have formed, the process moves along fairly quickly.

It’s important to allow time for the curds to drain well.

Once draining has slowed significantly and forming a mass, the cheese is placed in molds for shaping and further straining.  It’s then briefly placed in a brine solution for a quick rest to stabilize the feta before turning out onto a mat to dry.  

The cheese is then returned to the brine for aging and storage. The feta is ready to eat in 4 to 5 days. 

Homemade Feta Cheese

Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (avoid UHT or ultra-pasteurized milk), sheep and/or goat’s milk
1/8 tsp. lipase power, for flavor (diluted in ¼ cup unchlorinated water, let stand 20 minutes)
1/8 tsp. calcium chloride, for curd formation (diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water)
1/4 tsp. mesophilic starter culture, MM100, bacteria to convert lactose to lactic acid
1/2 tsp. liquid rennet, to coagulate milk (diluted in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water)
1/4 cup salt for brining/storage

Utensils:  Digital thermometer, large stainless steel pot, large spoon & perforated scoop, colander, measuring cup & spoons, curd knife like a boning knife, cheesecloth or butter muslin, 2 perforated molds, sushi mat.

Instructions

  1. Warm the milk in a stainless steel pot to 86°F. As milk is heating, stir in the diluted lipase and the diluted calcium chloride.
  2. When brought to temperature, sprinkle in the starter culture and stir Cover and let milk ripen for 1 hour.
  3. Add the diluted rennet and stir gently with spoon in an up-and-down motion (not a stirring motion) for several minutes. Cover and let set undisturbed at 86°F for 1 hour until it has gelled, separates from side of pot, and there is a clean break in the curd when sliced with a knife.
  4. Using a long knife cut the curd at an angle. Turn the pot and slice into 1/2-inch cubes all the way to the bottom. Repeat if necessary. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Gently stir the curds on and off for 20-30 minutes. As the curds firm and retract, stir more briskly.
  6. Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth or butter muslin and place a bowl under it to catch the whey. Scoop in the curds and let excess whey drain off 2 hours.
  7. Once dripping has stopped divide into 2 cheesecloth lined perforated molds and weigh down. Turn often in molds to drain for 4-6 hours, regularly rotating to weight evenly until no more liquid collects.
  8. To stabilize feta, place the blocks in brine and weight down to keep submerged  1 Tbsp. salt per 1 cup unchlorinated water to cover for 4-5 hours.
  9. Remove feta to mat, cover loosely with cloth, refrigerate for 1-3 days to drain and air dry. Turn several time daily. Brine can be filtered and reused.
  10. Return feta to storage brine. Refrigerate 4-5 days, or up to 30 days. Yield: 1 pound.

Feta Focus

Feta is a fresh, briny cheese often associated with foods rooted in the sun-drenched Mediterranean cuisines – think olives, capers and vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  Here in the US, feta is often made from cow’s milk which produces a pleasantly mild, slightly tart cheese.

To be called feta in the European Union, it must originate in Greece and be limited to sheep and or goat’s milk, thus offering a rich panorama of flavors and textures. Depending on process and aging time in brine, Greek feta can vary in saltiness, range from soft to hard textured, and taste from tart to tangy.

One popular treatment is to submerge bite-sized feta cubes in olive oil along with assorted herbs, garlic and such, and allow the marinade to infuse into the cheese; the longer the better.  That is certainly lovely with a robust cheese that responds to big flavors, but beware of overpowering a mild flavored feta.  To better showcase feta’s more subdued qualities, I prefer to deconstruct the whole concept.

For this simple method, begin with a block of feta, slice it for easy serving, sprinkle it with herbs and seasonings, and drizzle it lightly with olive oil. Cover it and allow the flavors to meld for an hour or so in the fridge.

When ready to enjoy, bring the marinated feta to room temperature, perhaps drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it appears dry, and garnish with fresh herbs.  Serve with an assortment of olives, crusty bread, pita crisps or crackers, pass a bowl or crunchy radishes, and call it good!

Herb Marinated Feta

Ingredients
1 lb. fresh feta cheese
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon savory, rosemary, or oregano
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme
Accompaniments: assorted olives, fresh bread or pita crisps, crunchy radishes

Instructions

  1. Slice the feta and arrange it on a serving plate.
  2. Sprinkle the cheese with herbs and red pepper flakes. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Cover and chill for an hour or longer.
  3. To assemble, drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it looks dry, dust with grinds of salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh thyme, assorted olives.
  4. Serve with crunchy bread, crackers or pita crisps, and a bowl of fresh radishes.   Serves 4.

Salsa and the Art of Fermentation

The tomato crop is just about over and done with for this highly productive year.  Markets everywhere were awash with heavy, ripe tomatoes.  Across the street, my wonderful neighbor had such a bumper crop on her hands that she kept a steady stream coming, in hopes I would use more.

Nothing says summer like sweet, juicy tomatoes fresh off the vine. They were everywhere this year and they went into everything!

20170909_161755

One noteworthy success worth sharing came by way of an outstanding homemade fermented salsa, which started out as a fairly basic version.  Earlier, I had tested a batch of fermented baby cucumbers and hot peppers, and they were crazy good. The cukes were reminiscent of old fashioned half-sours. Well, why not salsa?

The ferment process is fairly intuitive; there is no cooking required, just a scrupulously clean work space and tools.  All it takes is a little time and salt to transform vegetables into a new realm of complex flavor and nutrients. The salt acts as a natural preserving agent while tiny microbes busily gobble up the sugar and transform it into lactic acid—which in turn serves as a natural preservative. It’s a happy environment for beneficial bacteria to flourish, to keep harmful bacterial in check, and to become rich in probiotics.

There are a few simple tricks that will help ensure proper fermentation and prevent the risk of food-borne illness. As with all pickles, the vegetables need to be kept completely submerged below the surface of the liquid solution.

C02 builds up during fermentation and those bubbles need to go somewhere. I started out with the jar loosely covered with cheesecloth and lid, set in a small bowl for run-off, and knew I could do better.Salsa Ferment.ph

I found a handy fermentation lid that works like a charm and I’ve since learned there are many similar devices on the market.

IMG_0518

Once a mason-type jar is properly filled, the lid is screwed on and water is poured into the well on top which creates a vapor lock.  A small cap is then placed over a center vent which allows pressure to release safely.

When the salsa is prepared and in the jar, it’s a simple matter of topping it off with brine to secure it all.  It is left to ferment on the counter for 2-5 days or longer, depending on the temperature of the room. The warmer it is, the quicker the process.

As it ferments the salsa mellows and develops robust but nuanced character; the harsh saltiness shifts into an intriguing, pleasantly sour taste. The longer the salsa ferments, the more pronounced the flavor. Once achieved, enjoy the salsa as is or refrigerate for longer storage. It will hold for several months.

Likely it won’t last that long, though.

Naturally Fermented Salsa

 Ingredients
1 cup onion, dice
3 cups tomatoes, seed & dice
1 cup mixed peppers, seed & dice (serrano, jalapeno, pasilla are good)
2 cloves garlic, mince
Handful of fresh cilantro
Lime juice to taste (start with ½ lime)
1 teaspoon salt
Brine ratio: 1-2 teaspoons salt to 1/4 cup water

Instructions

  1. Mix together all the ingredients including the salt.
  2. Place the salsa in a 1 quart mason jar, pressing down to release some liquid. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid.  Place a lid or other weight to submerge the salsa.  Finish with a bit of extra brine if needed and top off throughout fermentation process.
  3. Ferment for 2+ days at room temperature (mine took 5 days, then sat in fridge 4 more days before using).
  4. When  the fermentation period is complete, the salsa is ready to eat or can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.  Yield: about 1 quart