Polenta Lasgna with Gorgonzola Bechamel

Today is a very important day. Other than being 11/11/11, one of my favorite people is getting married in a private but much-anticipated wedding. I’m selfishly sad that I won’t be sharing this day with her, but I’m so thrilled for the couple and their beautiful family. Congratulations and Best Wishes!

But wedding bells will ring! Tomorrow I’m heading to one of my favorite places for different but equally anticipated wedding. Last January I suffered a birthday milestone. I told Rob that the ONLY thing I wanted to do for this birthday was to taste-test wedding cake. The timing was perfect with our nuptials a mere 5 months away.

Rob mentioned this plan to his friend Katie who I can imagine groaning at the idea. Rob and Katie are a LOT alike and neither of them find visiting different bakeries and debating the attributes of almond cake to be anywhere in their definition of a good time. Katie joked that she and her fiance should come along just to get it over with and the joke turned an otherwise terrifying birthday into a really fantastic weekend. (We ended up going with the Sugar Flower Cake Shop SO so good. And Amy is delightful!)

Why am I telling you this? To stall having to talk about how disappointing my polenta lasagna was. Really disappointing. The photo in the cookbook looked SO good. The polenta was firm and neatly layered with shredded zucchini and tomatoes. The sauce stayed put instead of seeping and saturating and invading and morphing the entire dish into a soggy mess.

It didn’t taste bad, exactly. But the texture–mush. The polenta had beautifully sautéed mushrooms and rosemary mixed in and I couldn’t taste either. It was like putting a great sauce on a wet sponge. Sure, you can taste how flavorful the sauce is, but you’re still chewing a sponge.

Let’s just say I’m glad we went with the chicken as the main dish. I wouldn’t have done Team Vegetables any favors serving up this disaster. Although maybe then everyone would have had room for dessert.

But! From the ugly duckling comes the tasty swan! Wednesday night Rob used the remaining bechamel sauce on penne with shrimp and broccoli. Yowza. It was SO good. I could have had a second bowl and gone to bed ready to burst and complaining that I’ve mysteriously gained 10 pounds.

BTW-When Rob saw me taking photos of my dinner, he asked if I was going to take credit for the meal. I said I wouldn’t. Even though I totally rocked the pants off the bechamel, i.e. the best part of the dish.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

Because I don’t get to cook often (sometimes at all) during the week, I wanted to stretch out Saturday’s dinner into as many posts as possible, but I don’t want bore you with every single recipe we went through. Along with the hummus and a store-bought dip, I made a baked brie and Rob rolled up his cheesy pigs in blankets which we served with some yummy maple mustard (from a jar). For dinner, Rob made Chicken Marsala as well as roasted potatoes with brussel sprouts and butternut squash. Both were delicious! I contributed risotto and a vegetarian polenta lasagna with gorgonzola bechamel sauce…but we’ll get into that (major failure) tomorrow.

 Most of the time I try to cook vegetarian dinners when I have people over. I’m not an all-or-nothing vegetarian, and maybe this is a bit sadistic, but I kind of like serving a completely meatless meal to otherwise happy carnivores. But every once in a while I have to take one for Team Meat. I learned this over the summer when my parents came for dinner during their post-Irene power loss and my dad specifically requested that Rob do the cooking. Hrumph.

My sister-in-law maintains a gluten-free diet and while I have no trouble finding recipes that are naturally gluten-free, I haven’t worked very hard on substituting gluten-free ingredients into recipes. Because of this, I decided to make a flourless chocolate cake. Holy Decadence. This thing was chocolate to its core. Rich and creamy, and dare I say…silky? I know that picture is a mess but trust me–do NOT judge this book by its terribly decorated cover.

I took it a step further and slathered layer of white chocolate frosting on top. This was after I tried to use my fancy frosting gun, but there were chunks of white chocolate that kept clogging up the tip so I removed it and made weird blobs, which looked awful so I spread it all out, which looked a little better, so I covered it with mini chocolate chips. Done!

…except everyone was so full from apps and dinner that four people shared one piece, I ate half a piece, and everyone else declined. So I brought it to work and it was gone in under 20 minutes. I heart my coworkers.

I nabbed this recipe from Gluten-Free Goddess and I didn’t change any ingredients. My pan was a 9 inch instead of a 10 inch so my cake might have been a little thicker, but I’d even consider an 8 inch to beef it up even more. Due to my history of trying to get cakes out of pans, I cut this into wedges before removing it. I really didn’t want to risk having to glue this bad boy back together with frosting. After I cut the wedges, I saw that it was still a little jiggley in the middle so I stuck them back in the oven for an additional 10 minutes to let everything firm up a bit. You can find the recipe here: http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/

The White Chocolate Frosting is from Diana’s Desserts. I made some changes to the ingredient proportions just to suit my own personal taste (more chocolate, less vanilla, less powdered sugar).

White Chocolate Frosting:

1 cup white chocolate

1 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

6 tablespoons of butter

Melt white chocolate–I prefer to just stick it in the microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring in between. The original recipe says to let it cool to room temperature–I had to wait a little longer because Rob was at the grocery store picking up more milk, the only thing of important lost in fridge drama. During this time the chocolate started to harden a bit and that’s how I ended up with the decorating tip-clogging chunks.

Mix sugar, milk and vanilla until combined. Add butter and salt and continue to mix until it’s nice and smooth. Add more powdered sugar if you need to thicken the frosting, more milk to thin it out.

I am a HUGE white chocolate fan and this frosting was incredible. It looked awful on my cake, but the taste was worth it. I still have some in my refrigerator and I have big plans for a batch of cupcakes with this magic as the filling. More on that next week.

Hummus

Rob and I go through hummus like some families go through milk, or eggs, or air. I have my suspicions that this is due to the two hours between when Rob gets home from work and when I get home…meaning (and this is not necessarily pointing fingers) that it’s Rob’s snack of choice while he waits to eat dinner with me. So you might say that hummus is the glue that holds our relationship together. Hummus and beer.

For our dinner party last weekend, there was going to be a delay between the arrival of the first guests and the last. I wanted to have appetizers to put out right away, but have the hot hors d’oeuvres still hot when the remaining guests came in. The easiest solution was to have a couple of dips prepared to put out first.

Hummus goes with everything–chips, crackers, tortillas, veggies, cheese–if you can snack it, you can smother it with hummus. I put hummus on sandwiches instead of condiments.  I love the different varieties and textures and general versatility. My absolute favorite hummus in the world is from a restaurant in Connecticut called Sesame Seed. If you have a chance, you need to visit them. It’s not a vegetarian restaurant, but their vegetarian dishes are flavorful and seasonal and delicious.

I haven’t made this recipe in almost two years so I don’t remember if I made the same alterations this time as I have in the past. The underlying recipe I go back to is from Ina Garten but I always manage to make a few changes. The recipe below is how I made it Saturday.

This batch came out very thick and a little bit…pastey? But in a good way? Is that possible? I do love a thinner, creamier consistency but this hummus was hearty and begged to be scooped up by a good, strong cracker. This would have been perfect sandwich hummus. Anyway, I think a few tablespoons of the chickpea liquid would have smoothed things out a bit. Also, there was room for even more garlic, in my humble and garlic-loving opinion.

Hummus, adapted from Ina Garten:

Ingredients:

6 garlic cloves (I’m in love with the jars of minced garlic. Makes my life easier)

1 cans chickpeas

1/2 cup tahini

4 tablespoons lemon juice (and yeah…I use the stuff that comes in the plastic lemon…)

1/4 cup olive oil

salt

Combine garlic, chickpeas, salt, tahini and lemon juice in food processor. Add olive oil through the tip while the processor is running. Salt to taste (at least one teaspoon!)

Spiced Apple Cider Sangria

Hey, you know what’s fun? Planning a dinner party without a functioning refrigerator. Even more fun? A very large grocery bill slowly melting away. Rob was going to go shopping on Friday for our little shindig but I suggested that we both go Wednesday night after work–mostly so it wouldn’t be crowded but also so I could pick up a few things to make in advance. So we went to the store, loaded everything into the fridge, watched Ghost Hunters and called it a night. That’s when I first heard The Noise. The noise went click, hum, click, and then silence. I was ready to call TAPS, convinced that we had a ghost trying to communicate with us from the other side. On further inspection, I found The Noise was coming from the fridge. Thursday morning Rob noticed the freezer wasn’t quite cold. Thursday afternoon, the whole thing was shot.

If Rob and his father have one thing in common, it’s a love, no, a need, for ice. Big, hulking blocks frozen in Tupperware and emptied into coolers big enough to hide a body (my father-in-law actually has a cooler we refer to as the coffin). Preparation for Hurricane Irene had fallen to me and it caused me no small amount of stress knowing my ice making and cooler packing would be up for evaluation. Fortunately the Great Refrigerator Breakdown fell on Rob’s capable shoulders and he packed the most impressive cooler I’ve ever seen. They should give out awards for this. I spent Friday stressing that we’d have to throw out everything.  Saturday morning the repair man came and fixed the problem in under 20 minutes! The entire cooler survived! A few items actually froze, preserving them even more so. We served everything as planned and (so far) there haven’t been any reports of food poisoning.

The party went well, except we might have gone too heavy on the appetizers–everyone was full before dinner and stuffed to capacity afterwards. Our tiny apartment held 8 people nicely, though the table was tight. Thank goodness our wine rack expands into a buffet serving station–we didn’t have to put any platters on the table. Not all of the dishes were nominated for repeat performances, but cook and learn. I’m also sorry to say that I was a bit of a whirling dervish all morning and afternoon and forgot to take pictures of a lot of the dishes. For that reason, this post is going to be sadly without illustration. I do have some saved up for the rest of the week so stay tuned.

I have to confess that I get super-excited about using my various serving dishes, bowls, glasses, etc. I wanted to get some use of my giant punch bowl and I had been looking for a couple of weeks for an appropriate drink when this came across my Facebook updates. Perfect timing and perfect recipe for a late Autumn party. (BTW–I adore My Life as a Mrs., you should definitely be following her.) I made some adjustments for time, taste, and volume. The original recipe involved heating and spicing the cider before mixing the sangria but I had a lot to do Saturday. I also substituted rum for brandy, which will get much more use in my house! 

Apple Cider Sangria

Ingredients:

4 cups apple cider
1 bottle red wine
1 cup orange juice
1.5 cups spiced rum
generous sprinklings of cinnamon, ground allspice, and cloves

Mix and serve!

 

Pumpkin Arancini

A couple of months ago, a group of my friends decided to start monthly pot-luck dinners and this month our theme was “Fall.”  I wanted to make pumpkin risotto, but I didn’t think it would be at its best after an hour and a half drive. I Googled “how to reheat risotto” and the most frequent answer was “Don’t.” But the one helpful suggestion was to make arancini—fried risotto balls.

I didn’t have to do much research for this recipe since I’ve made risotto many times before, but I did force myself to cook with a pen and pad at my side so I could make notes as I went along as to what measurements I was using and in what order I added ingredients.

Risotto is pretty easy; it just takes a little patience. On the down side, adding pumpkin was a big waste of time and pumpkin puree. I couldn’t taste it at all. Except for the slight orange tinge and the delusion that I was eating something healthy, there was no difference. I had intended to use 1.5 cups but we made pumpkin pancakes for breakfast and I only had a cup and a third left. But honestly, I don’t think the extra pumpkin would have made a difference. The only thing I think could have helped bring out the pumpkin flavor would be reducing or eliminating the parmesan cheese and that’s a deal breaker in my kitchen. The allspice helped make the recipe more autumnal, but not more pumpkiny.  Let me know if you have any tricks to pump up the pumpkin in risotto.

Bring 6 cups of stock to a rolling boil and then reduce heat, keeping it simmering.

In a large sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then add 1 cup of diced onions and a tablespoon (or more if you like) of garlic until your house smells fantastic and you’re ready to open a bottle of Chianti and spend the day reading and watching the snow.

Add 2 cups of Arborio rice and stir it around until everything is coated in oily goodness.                                                                                                                                                             

Add 1 cup of dry white wine and stir until it’s absorbed. I used an inexpensive Riesling and the smell when I put it into the pan so deeply offended my husband, that he had to open a window in the middle of a snow storm. I didn’t think it was that bad.                                                                                                                                                       

Add one cup of the stock and let it absorb, stirring often.  Actually, a glass of wine would be perfect for this part of the process. It’s a lot of adding stock, stirring, and waiting.

Add the rest of the stock half of a cup at a time, each time waiting for it to be absorbed and stirring often. I used all six cups but you’re looking for that creamy texture while still maintaining a firmness to the rice.

Turn off the heat and stir in 1 and 1/2 cups pumpkin. Accept the fact that you won’t be able to taste a drop of it.  

Add 1 cup Parmesan cheese (less if you don’t need cheese to survive) and 4 tablespoons butter.

Add salt and pepper to taste and 1/4 teaspoon allspice.                                                                                                                                                                                 

Cool risotto completely. I stuck the entire pan in the fridge, not wanting to clean an extra bowl. I then showered, pulled together my costume, looked out the window every five minutes in amazement at the ever-growing snow outside, and finally set up 3 bowls for my assembly line for the arancini: 1 cup flour, 3 eggs, a mix of 1/2 cup parmesan and 1 cup bread crumbs.

I’ve made Giada de Laurentiis’ arancini a few times but her recipe involves mixing eggs and breadcrumbs into the risotto and then rolling them in additional breadcrumbs. Instead, I decided to bread the risotto by forming them into balls, stuffing them full of cheese, (I tried to keep them small, but I wanted a decent amount of cheese in each one so they ended up being a little bigger than golf balls) and then going at it the old fashion way: coating them in flour, eggs, and then the breadcrumb/ parm blend. This gave a thicker and crispier crust with a steamy, creamy inside. 

We then stuck the arancini in Tupperware, loaded them into our faithful red cooler, and drove what turned into about 2 hours because of drivers who should really just stay home when the weather is bad. We also stopped at my in-law’s house to drop off Madison. Three kids and a feisty Puggle would be waiting for us at the party and our four-pound Yorkie can be a bit of an a-hole with too much commotion.

Once we arrived, I left Rob in charge of the actual frying. I don’t know how to qualify the fact that he’s better at dropping things into hot oil and waiting for them to turn brown, but he is.  Just like he’s better at vacuuming, taking the dog out at 6:00 am on a Saturday, and driving in the rain.  We didn’t know how long it would take so he just kept his eye on them and waited until they were a deep brown before pulling them out. The cheese didn’t quite melt all the way on the first few so after that he kept them in a little bit longer.  

I’m very happy with the finished product. I’ve been eating them for the last couple of days reheated in the microwave, which does nothing for the crust but I can get over that.

And once more, without the commentary:

Ingredients:

2 tablspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 cups Arborio rice

1 cup white wine

6 cups stock

1 1/3 cups pumpkin puree

1 cup shredded Parmesan

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

ground black pepper and salt to taste

1 teaspoon allspice

Cubes or balls of your favorite cheese

3 eggs 

1 cup flour  

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan

1 cup dried Italian-style bread crumbs

Bring stock to a rolling boil and then reduce heat, keeping it simmering

In a large sauté or sauce pan, heat oil

Add onion and garlic until the onions start to get translucent

Add rice and stir it around until well coated

Add wine and stir until it’s absorbed

Add one cup of stock and let it absorb, stirring often

Add stock half of a cup at a time, each time waiting for it to be absorbed and stirring often, until rice is creamy but still firm

Turn off the heat and stir in pumpkin

Add cheese and butter

Add salt, pepper and allspice

Cool risotto completely

Mix together the parmesan and bread crumbs in one bowl

Form risotto into balls, stuffing with cheese

Coating each in flour, eggs, and then the breadcrumb/parm blend.

Place in deep fryer or pot of hot oil until the outside is a deep brown and cheese is melted