Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

fast, fresh, & homemade

I needed ricotta cheese for Thanksgiving and decided to make my own in the Instant Pot.  It’s not complicated, and you can certainly make ricotta in a pot on the stove.  But if you have an Instant Pot,  you simply set the Yogurt button and let the pot do the rest. In about 30 minutes the milk reaches a boil at a controlled pace, thus reducing the risk of scorching the bottom of the pot.

In another 30 minutes you have fresh, homemade ricotta.

fresh ricotta

If you make lasagna or other ricotta-based dishes, then you can appreciate a flavorful well-constructed ricotta—it makes a difference. That’s why I’ve come around to using whole milk ricotta.  For the same reasons, it’s wise to look for milk that is not ultra-pasteurized.

Ricotta curds are made by adding acid to the milk, either lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid.  In my opinion, vinegar is a bit harsh and its flavor may be detectable in the cheese. Citric acid is reliable, but harder to find. I prefer lemon juice because it is convenient, mild, and the curds seem less chewy.

Once the milk has reached between 180° and 185°F the lemon juice is added to the pot and gently stirred to assimilate into the milk. Curds will begin to form; when the milk has visibly separated, let the curds set 15 to 20 minutes. Then, it’s time to drain them. I use a slotted spoon to transfer the curds to a colander lined with cheesecloth or coffee filters.  Let them drain 15 to 20 minutes and then move the curds to a bowl to use right away or into a storage container to chill up to 5 days.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese

Ingredients
6 cups whole milk, not ultra-pasteurized
1 tsp salt (optional)
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
supplies: digital thermometer, spatula, slotted spoon, colander with bowl, cheesecloth

Instructions

  1. Set multi-cooker or Instant Pot to Yogurt; press Adjust and select Boil. Pour in milk, add salt and stir with a flat spatula to keep from scorching on bottom.  Bring to simmering boil (180-185°F), about 30 minutes. If more time is needed, reset pot to Sauté Hi to reach temperature.
  2. Remove from heat, add the lemon juice, and gently stir to combine and form curds. Cover, and let stand undisturbed to set curds, 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile line a colander with 2 layers or fine cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and set it over a bowl.  Once curds have rested, skim all the curds into the colander, leaving the whey behind for other purposes (it’s highly nutritious).  Let the curds drain 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how dry you prefer it.
  4. The ricotta is ready to use or transfer it to a covered container and store refrigerated up to 5 days.  Makes 2 cups.

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.

 

Genoise… the thing that dreams are made of

Back in July I mentioned that I was working on mastering the French genoise.  I am still at it and am more impressed than ever with the amount of technique and skill required to pull this off.  When you consider it is just a basic recipe of eggs, a little sugar, a bit of flour and a smidgen of butter, you wonder how anything so simple could be so complicated.

Well, this could easily stand as a metaphor for any one of life’s lessons that come our way regularly.  In this case it is all about knowing when to follow the rules:  to recognize that tricks in fine baking have been passed down because they work.  For example, bakers weigh their ingredients because proportions and formulas are the backbone of their craft.

In the case of the genoise, nothing could more essential to its success than the eggs.  It is recommended that eggs and sugar be beaten over simmering water:  the gentle heat further binds the eggs and sugar and creates the massive volume.  Of course, I resisted this process until attempt number three, and it worked beautifully. Then you have to maintain its structure since there is no other leavener.

To deal with egg deflation, the other vital trick I learned was how to fold.  I had to practice the process of correctly lowering a wide spatula into the batter, bringing it up, dragging it gently over the top, turning the spatula in a gentle folding motion down into the batter, and back up again. Genoise folding This slow folding is used to incorporate the flour and even more crucial, the butter—which lends richness and texture to a fairly dry cake.

With a description like that, why bother with such a  dreary cake?  Because it is lean and incredibly versatile.  The genoise is regarded as the foundation in a world of sweet fantasies.  So well structured, it can be torted, or cut into multiple layers.  These layers can be brushed with a wild variety of syrups which soak into the cake, tailoring both flavor and moisture.  The sky is the limit when it comes to accessorized fillings:  curds, creams, chocolate fillings, you name it.

Finally, I actually achieved a cake tall enough to safely cut in half (so very proud).Genoise layer I brushed the layers with hibiscus syrup (made from hibiscus jelly) and heaped on an Italian style ricotta filling laced with almond and chocolate.   Since I had extra chocolate on hand, the rest was drizzled across the top.

Genoise cakeWords fail me.  The genoise was amazing and got better the longer it sat.  On average, I like a cake that is not loaded with heavy creams and butter, and this one hit the mark.  It is  not your average cake…

genoise slice

It is the thing that dreams are made of.  

Genoise

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup cake flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Directions 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 8” or spray 8” cake pan, line it with parchment or wax paper.
  2. Melt the butter and set aside in a 2 cup bowl to melt further and re-thicken.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl over simmering heat, until the mixture feels lukewarm. In bowl of standing mixer using wire whisk attachment, whisk the eggs until they have tripled in volume, 5 to 10 minutes. They should be thick, creamy and fall from the whisk resting in ribbons onto the batter surface. Whip in the vanilla or other flavoring.
  4. Sift the flour while the eggs are beating. Re-measure to ¾ level cup and sift again with salt.
  5. Fold in the flour: for ease, pour the egg mixture into a wider bowl. Using a wide spatula carefully sift flour onto surface in 3 portions, To fold in the flour, carefully cut down and fold up and over, stretching the batter to lighten and incorporate the flour in about 10 turns each time – scrape the sides and bottom, too.
  6. Add butter to batter: re-combine the melted butter; it should be slightly warm and creamy. Gently spoon out about 1 cup of batter and fold into the butter until thoroughly mixed and light. Gently pour this onto the side of the batter and fold another 10 times to incorporate. The batter is at its weakest point: it may not be completely smooth, still have streaks, and begin to deflate. Fold cautiously.
  7. Pour batter into pan, gently smoothing surface from middle out. Tap the pan on counter a few times to remove lingering air bubbles.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees in center of oven 25 to 30 minutes, until the edges begin to come away from pan and the center springs back when touched and is golden brown.
  9. Let cake rest briefly, run a sharp knife around the edge of pan and cool 5 to 10 minutes on rack. Unmold the cake, remove paper from bottom and cool right side up. If not using same day, it can be held at room temperature overnight, well wrapped. Can be stored well wrapped – up to 3 days in refrigerator or in freezer for up to 2 months.
  10. If frozen, defrost wrapped cake at room temperature. It is ready to be sliced horizontally into 2 or 3 layers, filled and decorated.

Note:  Above, you’ll note I am still resisting the weighing of ingredients. So far, I have good luck with careful measuring  (I measure the flour twice).  It seems to work deliciously!