Monday, December 10, 2012

Sweet Sights and Smells of Christmas

Just as the opening declaration of ‘Gangnam Style’ elicits an immediate response to jump out of your chair and dance, the first signs of the holiday season prompt sweet tooths the world over to stock up on cookie baking ingredients and rummage through their cookie cutters.

Baking Christmas cookies is a holiday tradition that has been shared from generation to generation.  While my mother certainly took part in Christmas cookie baking, it was actually my father who really seemed to enjoy this pastime with his daughter.  I fondly recall mixing the dough and selecting the various shapes to fit into an old cookie press that belonged to my chef grandfather.  Many years later, my mother-in-law presented me with the gift of a new cookie press kit of my own.  Of course, as does anyone with a loving grandmother, I have happy memories of visiting Grandma’s home where she would often be waiting with a new cookie recipe in and for the two of us to try out.  Years later, during my first holidays in marital bliss, I partook in the labor-intensive full afternoon in the kitchen, evidenced in the photo here of my mother preparing to carry out her assistant’s duty and sample the wares that we prepared one day in my condo more than fifteen years ago.  Just look at all of those plates of cookies we made strewn all over the table! I have continued to uphold the tradition of Christmas cookie creation, although these days I do tend to bake one or two types a week.

Some families embark on an all-day and into-the-night massive cookie-baking marathon, extracting sheet after sheet of the tasty treats from the oven.  Anywhere from six to upwards of a dozen different recipes are mixed, formed, baked and then trimmed with the intricate creativity that goes into any artistic presentation.  These epic baking projects are generally oriented toward the goal of gift giving.  Once plated and wrapped in red or green cellophane wrapping and secured with a flowing ribbon, or used to fill gift bags bearing various Christmas designs, these home baked packages of joy never fail to bring smiles to any recipient.

What defines a cookie as a Christmas cookie?  Several variables lend yuletide influence, including shape, color, ingredients used and even the origin of the recipe in question.  If a cookie recipe has been made at Christmastime by, say, your great grandmother and has been made by subsequent generations every Christmas, then that certainly qualifies regardless of appearance.  Seasonal ingredients such as peppermint, ginger, dried cranberries or winter spices also help to allocate a recipe to the Christmas lineup.

The dead giveaway, however, often comes in the form of shape and color.  Cookie cutters are available in such shapes as candy canes, fir trees, stockings, snowmen, gingerbread men, Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  Add a snowflake and a mitten to your inventory and those two will carry you through the entire winter when the snow is blustering outside and you’re seeking some fun in the warmth of the kitchen.  The cookie press offers another method for shaping cookies.  Disc-shaped stencils fit onto the end of a cylindrical shaped gun-like device, and the dough is pressed through the stencil onto the baking sheet.  Christmas trees, wreaths, stars and candy canes are but a few of the shapes available for this option.  Pressed cookies are generally smaller than the average cut cookie, but neither is really complete without a finishing touch of holiday dazzle.  Once frosted with icings and sprinkled with red, green or silvery casting sugars, nonpareils, chocolate sprinkles, red candies and dragees, the final presentation can serve as the perfect tabletop or countertop decoration in and of itself, at least very temporarily until the entire lot is consumed.  Hand-shaped cookies can also be trimmed for seasonal intrigue, as when creating rolled log-shaped cookies to be coated with white icing and drizzled with chocolate until they resemble logs of winter white birch.  One of Brian’s favorites is a peanut butter cookie topped with a Hershey’s kiss in the center.  The cookie is formed by rolling the dough into balls; I’ve given them some holiday sparkle by rolling the balls in green and red sugars before setting them on the baking sheet.

When planning your Christmas cookie-baking day, select a variety of recipes – some old, some new, some with chocolate, some without, some shaped and some dropped.  Poll family members to weigh in on their past favorites.  Stock up on plenty of ingredients for the batters and trimmings.  Visit a kitchen supply shop and pick up a couple new cookie cutter shapes to keep things new and exciting.  I also highly recommend baking sheet liners, such as Silpat or silicone liners; by making this investment you will never burn another cookie again and cleanup is a snap.  When the big day comes, set up a separate decorator station with bowls of icings and sprinkles and toppings.  Be prepared to make multiple batches of each cookie so that you’ll have plenty to share and enough to keep, and remember to leave some out for Santa’s visit.

While I honestly believe that you must have access to a file of cookie recipes that your family has tried over the years that of worthy of revisiting, I’ll start you off with a basic recipe for cookie cutter-friendly cookies.

Christmas Objects Cookies

3 sticks butter, softened at room temperature
1 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract, whichever is your preference
3 1/2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar and vanilla.  On a low speed, add the flour and salt and mix until the ingredients are combined and the dough begins to form.  Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly shape the dough into a disc.  Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about half an hour.

Place the chilled disc onto a floured surface, flour a rolling pin and roll the disc until the dough is about ¼ inch thick. 

Cut out various holiday shapes using large cookie cutters and carefully place the cookies onto a lined baking sheet.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden.  Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature.

Next, prepare the icing.

1 pound confectioners’ sugar
4-5 tablespoons water (approximately)
Food coloring tints of your choice
Casting sugars, sprinkles, red cinnamon candies, nonpareils, dragees, miniature chocolate chips and any other trimmings of your choice

Adding a tablespoon of water at a time, stir together the confectioners’ sugar and the water until the sugar has melted and the result is a smooth icing that isn’t too thick to work with.  Divide into multiple proportions and tint each one a different color, if desired.  Thinly spread the icing over each cookie, one at a time, and add the sprinkles of choice immediately before moving on to the next cookie.  Allow the icing to dry before serving.  Makes about 20 cookies.

Food for Thought
Making homemade candies has also become increasingly popular during the holiday season.  Perennial favorites include peppermint bark and fudge, both of which are easy to produce.  Barks are as simple as melting chocolate, spreading it over a baking sheet that has been lined with foil, sprinkling the topping over the whole thing and chilling until firm.  Once the bark is hardened, simply break off pieces and it’s ready to enjoy.  Peppermint bark begins with chilling a layer of dark chocolate, then spreading a layer of molten white chocolate and topping with chopped candy canes before returning the baking sheet once again to the refrigerator to harden.  For a satisfying combination, try making a bark with dark chocolate, topped with chopped smoked almonds and very lightly sprinkled with sea salt crystals.  Fudge and truffles both offer the guilty pleasure of infinite combinations, from dark chocolate truffles laced with orange, mint or raspberry liqueurs to fudge created with white chocolate and peanut butter and studded with chopped peanuts.  Ah, such divinely, sublimely sweet essences of Christmas!  While these confections may be easy to make, they will not be easy to keep around.  The holiday season comes around once a year, so enjoy the sweet array of treats without guilt.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dessert Evolution: Beyond Pumpkin Pie

Once the final mouthful of stuffing is consumed and the table is now strewn with empty wine bottles and dirty dishes, how will you entertain your Thanksgiving guests after dinner?  Perhaps all will join together in a communal collapse on the couch for a football game or a family classic film?  Or maybe the girls will begin strategically plotting coordinates for the next day’s Black Friday expedition, sending the guys to flee to a game of poker in the other room.  Whatever the evening’s destination may be, there are sure to be desserts in the equation.

Typically, Thanksgiving Day desserts are relegated to a couple of hours post-dinner, in the hopes that the gastronomic overindulgences and the tryptophan-induced daze will lift.  The excitement of a touchdown, or of a hoard of flying monkeys for that matter, will tend to whet appetites once again.

Thanksgiving desserts have spanned far beyond the ubiquitous pumpkin pie.  Even the humble pumpkin pie has now evolved to incorporate cheesecake batter, mousse, meringue toppings, streusel crumb toppings and, sometimes, not even a pie at all.  Pumpkin parfaits, pumpkin ice cream, dessert breads and pumpkin roulades have now joined the lineup that celebrates the autumnal gourd.

What were once simple apple pies now add a pop of color, thanks to the addition of seasonal cranberries within the shroud of pastry crust.  Apples also now nestle peacefully with pears under the cover of a crispy crumb blanket.  Today’s caramel craze has led to heavy drizzles of caramel over a topless apple pie.

If you’re seeking a unique twist for a Thanksgiving dessert, look no further than your family’s year around favorites.  The dessert police will be too occupied with gobbling up their own pumpkin doughnuts to haul you away in handcuffs because you opted out of the pumpkin pie tradition.  If your family consists of shameless chocoholics, run with it.  A chocolate torte can be made festive for Thanksgiving by spreading orange hued frosting between the layers as well as on top of the cake, followed by a finishing touch of fall colored candies or casting sugars.  In fact, one of the most ideal flavor pairings is that of dark chocolate and orange, so try incorporating some orange flavor as well as color into that frosting.  Candy making hobbyists can get creative by making some chocolate cornucopias – molds can be purchased in craft stores that sell chocolate making and baking supplies – and then filling them with homemade truffles.  Pecan pie is so much more decadent when chocolate is incorporated into the filling.  If your family is nuts about nuts, try making a chocolate pecan pie with a mix of nutty favorites, whether that list includes cashews, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts or all of the above to cover all bases.  Go with lightly salted nuts, as the flavor combination of sweet and salty is deliciously satisfying.

Cheesecake is another perpetual favorite.  While last Easter’s strawberry-covered cheesecake may seem out of place on an end-of-harvest feast, the topping can be switched up to highlight autumn’s cranberries instead of spring and summer varieties of berries.   Below is a recipe that I have come up with that I will be using this Thanksgiving to crown a Coeur a la Crème, a super easy French dessert that resembles a rich and creamy soft cheesecake.  In fact, the generosity of the holiday season is coming over me; I’ll share the whole dessert.  However, if you prefer to use a traditional cheesecake, this topping will work on that too, as well as over a pumpkin pie or vanilla ice cream.

Coeur a La Crème with Cranberry-Port-Hazelnut Topping

1 ½ 8-ounce blocks cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 ½ cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon finely grated orange zest

Place the cream cheese and sugar in a mixer bowl.  Using the paddle attachment, beat on high speed until thoroughly combined.  Change from the paddle attachment to the whisk attachment.  Add the remaining ingredients and beat until the mixture is well blended and thickened.

Line a large, fine-meshed sieve with cheesecloth and hang the sieve over a large bowl, making sure that the bottom of the sieve is suspended above, not against, the bottom of the bowl.  Pour the cream cheese mixture into the sieve and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.  Fold the overhanging cheesecloth to rest gently over the top.  Place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, make the topping.

½ tablespoon water
½ teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
½ cup sugar
½ cup ruby Port
1 tablespoon Cointreau
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup fresh cranberries

½ cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts

Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin powder over it.  Set aside.  In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the sugar, Port, Cointreau, cinnamon and cloves.  Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Stir in the cranberries and reduce the heat.  Allow to simmer until at least half of the cranberries have popped.  Transfer a ladle full of the hot mixture to the bowl containing the gelatin.  Stir to combine.  Now transfer the contents of the bowl into the remaining cranberry mixture in the saucepan and stir until combined.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Allow to cool to room temperature.

Remove the sieve from the refrigerator.  There should be liquid accumulated in the bottom of the bowl.  Discard the liquid.  Peel back the cheesecloth that was folded over the top of the cream cheese mixture.  Place a serving plate upside down on top of the sieve.  Invert, turning out the mixture onto the plate.  Remove the sieve and gentle peel off the cheesecloth.  With an empty, clean ladle, gently press down on the center of the dessert, creating a well.  Ladle the cranberry topping into the well, allowing it to overflow and trickle down the sides.  Sprinkle with hazelnuts and serve.

  • Traditionally, this dessert was so named because it is made in a porcelain dish with tiny holes in the bottom.  A coeur, meaning ‘heart,’ is the shape of this dish.  However, as most households may not possess such a dish, a large, fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth works just as well.

Whatever dessert you choose, traditional or nouveau, the sweet mouthfuls will comfort all with the perfect, happy ending to this family holiday.  Be sure to accompany dessert not only with coffee or tea, but consider also offering espresso, cordial liqueurs such as Frangelico for an autumn nutty flavor, Port, a warmed spice wine, or a sweet dessert wine such as moscato.

Food for Thought

If you need further inspirational reading for Thanksgiving menu planning, read all about potatoes, flavorful vegetable dishes such as braised fennel or Brussels sprouts, cranberries, pumpkins, desserts and even a comforting way to use up that leftover turkey! 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Thyme

Well it's about thyme!  After a summer of thrusting fresh basil from the garden into the culinary spotlight, thyme will now have its season of stardom.

Thyme is a perennial member of the mint family, originating in southern Europe and Mediterranean cooking.  There are numerous sub-species of this popular aromatic herb, including the prevalent lemon thyme and common thyme, the narrow-leafed French specimen and the broad-leafed English variety.  It is easily grown in garden plots and windowsill pots.  Thyme infuses a pungent minty-lemony aroma into culinary creations.

Although thyme hails from warmer regions, it's a highly coveted ingredient in cold weather fare.  It is added to soups and stews, sprinkled over fish, meats and poultry, stirred into gravies and mashed potatoes and used to flavor sautéed or roasted vegetables.  Classic French favorites like coq au vin and boeuf bourgignon just wouldn't be authentic without plunging whole sprigs of thyme into the simmering pot.

While I stock almost no dried herbs in my kitchen because fresh is always superior, there are two jars in my spice rack: oregano and thyme.  These herbs are strong enough that as a dried variation, the flavors are, in my opinion, an acceptable substitute for use in soups or stews in a pinch or if one is pressed for time to harvest thyme leaves.

Thyme is one of the most widely used herbs in Thanksgiving cookery.  It is used for seasoning the turkey and as a flavor booster in gravy.  Thyme is used to flavor stuffing and mashed potatoes.  Some cranberry sauce recipes call for the herb as a savory counterpoint to the condiment's sweet component.  Thyme may also be used in the dough for making biscuits.

There are only a scant few prep tasks that I really abhor, and one is dealing with thyme leaves.  When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, that is a sure way to put a scowl on my face until the tedious task of stripping those tiny leaves off of the stem is behind me.  Under perfect conditions, you can strip them off by running your thumb and forefinger along the stem against the direction in which the leaves are pointing.  Alas, this is not always successful and thus individual picking of each leaf, accompanied by some grumbled choice words, ensues.  One technique that often works, though not always, is to leave the needed thyme sprigs out on the counter the day before its rendezvous with your dish.  If climate conditions are favorable, it will dry just enough to make the leaf-stripping process more productive.

Here are three simple recipes that feature thyme in the short ingredient lists.  The third recipe also helps you to utilize some of that post-Thanksgiving leftover cranberry sauce.

Cornish Hens with Orange Thyme Glaze

2 Cornish hens
½ orange, cut in half
2 small bunches thyme sprigs
½ cup orange marmalade
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place the hens in a roasting pan.  Stuff one quarter of an orange and one small bunch of thyme sprigs into the cavity of each hen.  Sprinkle each hen generously with salt and pepper.  In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine all remaining ingredients and stir until the marmalade is melted and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.  Brush one-half of the mixture over the hens.  Place hens in the oven and bake for one hour, brushing with the remainder of the sauce halfway through cooking time.  Serves two.

Lemon Thyme Shrimp and Scallops

1 pound sea scallops
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon cold butter

Heat the olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the scallops and shrimp and sauté until the shrimp have turned pink and the scallops are opaque.  Remove from the skillet with a slotted spoon and arrange on four plates.  Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for one minute.  Add the wine, lemon juice, lemon zest and thyme.  Deglaze the pan and allow to simmer until slightly reduced.  Add the 1 tablespoon of butter and stir until the mixture is thickened.  Pour sauce over the seafood.  Serves two.

Cranberry Thyme Topper

1/2 cup white wine
1 cup cranberry sauce (preferably homemade with whole berries)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bunch scallions, green parts sliced crosswise into ¼-inch slices

Combine the above ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until combined and heated through.  Allow to simmer for five minutes.  Remove from heat and spoon over four pork chops or four salmon filets before roasting them in the oven.

Food for Thought

Many recipes for stews call for a bouquet garni.  Just what is a bouquet garni?  Exactly what it sounds like, a bouquet garni is a cute little bouquet of whole sprigs of various herbs.  The bouquet is either held together within the confines of a cheesecloth sachet or tied together with kitchen string.  Thyme is one of the usual suspects to be found in a bouquet garni, along with parsley, bay leaves and, sometimes, marjoram.  The bouquet is typically added to the pot to simmer with the other ingredients, the aromatic flavors permeating the stew.  Before serving, the bouquet is simply fished out and discarded.  When tying a bouquet garni together, leave a length of string to make it easier to find when it's time for removal.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fun with Fungi!

Truffles and morels and mushrooms, oh my!  A fungus by any other name is, well, it’s still a fungus.  Mushrooms are one of nature’s most versatile and exotic specimens for use as an ingredient in the kitchen.  Their earthiness adds a whole other facet of flavor to stews, is enhanced when sautéed with sage and marries perfectly with cheeses atop of pizzas or within paninis.

The first mushrooms are believed to have been cultivated by early Chinese, Greek and Roman civilizations.  Mushrooms were utilized by these cultures both for medicinal properties and for culinary consumption.  Today, there are thousands of varieties of the edible fungus, many of which are harvested or cultivated for your enjoyment, including such specimens as chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, porcini mushrooms, cremini mushrooms, shiitakes, cepes, enokis and Portobellos. 

On the subject of edible fungus, truffles are another species.  Truffles grow underground and are located by tunneling snouts of trained pigs and dogs.  If the critter doesn’t gobble up the unburied treasure first, perfectly ripe truffles are then destined for the kitchen.  The most prized truffles are known as black diamonds, found primarily in the French Perigord and Italian Umbria regions.  The white truffle grows in the Piedmont region of Italy.  Truffles are harvested during the autumn months and into mid-winter.  Truffles provide an intense earthy flavor and fragrance that is coveted in every gourmet chef’s kitchen.  Truffles are very expensive provisions, however.  I would recommend splurging on truffles solely for special holiday cooking and consider adding truffle oil to your pantry staples inventory for infusing truffle flavor on an any day basis.

Morels are from the same fungus species as truffles.  They are characterized by a honeycomb appearance on the surface, with a cone-like cap.  The color ranges from tan to a deep espresso brown.  The darker the morel, the more intense flavor it holds.  Morels add a level of smokiness and nuttiness to their earthy flavor.  Morels are typically harvested throughout the spring.

Cultivated white mushrooms pervade the supermarkets en masse.  While they do have their place in epicurean projects, the flavor is very mild at best.  Canned mushrooms should be avoided at all costs, unless you want slippery, slimy slices that taste like the brine or water in which they were packaged.  While I used to have to frequent one particular gourmet market for wild mushrooms, I have noticed them cropping up in well-stocked supermarkets.  These include shiitakes, creminis and oyster mushrooms.

Originating in Japan and Korea, the shiitake mushroom boasts a brown cap that can be as large as six inches across and whose edges often curl under.  The cap, although thin, has a meaty texture and has a flavor that faintly reminiscent of beef.  The stems are very tough and are usually discarded or simmered in stocks for added flavor.

Oyster mushrooms are easily identified by the gray, multiple, petal-like caps that fan outward from the stem.  They have a strong earthy flavor with undertones of pepperiness.

Cremini mushrooms resemble the white mushroom in size and shape, but are much darker brown in hue.  They are actually the immature version of the popular, large and meaty Portobello mushroom.  They are dense and full flavored, a more rewarding alternative to the white mushrooms for use in stews.

Mushrooms that naturally sunbathe in ultraviolet rays undergo a chemical conversion that transforms ergosterol into vitamin D.  If you have been informed by your physician that you suffer from vitamin D deficiency, or if you are one of today’s many individuals that is chained to a corporate cubicle all day, seeing about as much sunshine as the vampires your teenage daughter voraciously reads about, help yourself to a plate of mushrooms.  It’s a lot more enjoyable than gulping down a vitamin capsule!

Unless you happen to be a mycologist, one who is trained to accurately identify wild fungi, refrain from regressing back to the days of our ancestors.  We are no longer a hunter and gatherer society, no longer required to venture into the woods to pluck wild mushrooms.  Many of the wild mushrooms spotted in backyards and along hiking trails are in fact toxic.  Just ask the golden retriever here on Long Island who made the news by making such an attempt at culinary mushroom gathering.  She couldn’t wait to get the backyard mushrooms into the kitchen and began snacking immediately.  This resulted in an extended stay in the local emergency hospital and a very hefty vet bill for her owner.   Stick to the mushrooms in your food markets, and keep children and pets away from the snacking temptations of mushrooms in your yard.

Mushrooms are used in a variety of dishes, from soups,stews and stuffing to pizzas, paninis and pastas.  Mushrooms are on every ingredient list for Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon.  Chicken with morels and a creamy sauce makes an elegant entrée.  Try topping a pizza with fontina, mozzarella, Asagio, Pecorino Romano, sliced creminis, garlic and chopped pancetta.  Mushrooms are tossed into ommelettes and stirred into mashed potatoes, risottos and polenta.  Truffled mashed potatoes and truffled macaroni and cheese are decadent indulgences.  A favored autumnal side dish that I like to prepare is that of sautéed wild mushrooms.  The savory garlic and the sweetness of cream sherry meld perfectly with the earthiness of various mushrooms and fresh sage.

Wild Mushroom Saute

8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms
8 ounces fresh oyster mushrooms
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup cream Sherry
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Slice the cremini mushrooms.  One by one, peel off the petal-like caps of the oyster mushrooms.  Remove stems from the shiitake mushrooms and discard, then slice the caps.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add all of the mushrooms and sauté for several minutes, until they soften and their size reduces.  Add the garlic and sauté for five minutes more.  Add the Sherry and the sage and stir for another two minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serves four.

Cream of Mushroom Soup for 2

1 pound fresh white mushrooms
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
2 shallots, chopped
2 tablespoons cream Sherry
1 tablespoon flour
2 ½ cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Sea salt and ground white pepper
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
2 additional white mushrooms, sliced

Chop the 1 pound of mushrooms in a food processor.  Melt and heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat.  Add the mushrooms and shallots, and sauté until the mixture is cooked – the mushrooms will turn brown.  Add the sherry and sauté for another minute.  Sprinkle the flour over the mushroom mixture and stir to combine.  Stir in the cream.  After about two minutes, remove from heat and transfer the soup to a blender.  Blend until smooth.  Pour back into the saucepan, stir in the nutmeg and season to taste with salt and white pepper.  Heat through.  Ladle into two large soup bowls; garnish each with the mushroom slices and the chives.

Easy Cheesy Mushroom Pizza

1 round Italian bread, halved horizontally
Tomato Pizza Sauce recipe10 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 ounces fontina cheese, grated
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
½ pound pancetta, chopped
4 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Place bread halves, cut-side up, on a large pizza stone or baking sheet.  Spread the tomato sauce over both.  In a large bowl, combine the fontina and mozzarella, then arrange the mixture over both pizzas.  Scatter the sliced mushrooms and the pancetta over both.  Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Romano over each pizza.  Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.

Mushroom Prep 101
Never wash mushrooms under running water, they become waterlogged and their texture is compromised.  To remove dirt from mushrooms before cooking, take a damp towel (or a damp heavy duty paper towel that doesn’t shed lint) and rub the dirt off of each mushroom.

As indicated above, shiitake mushrooms should be stemmed and cast aside.  Make quick work of slicing the caps by stemming all of the mushrooms first, then stack up four or five caps at a time and slice through them all at once.  Of course, the task can be even easier if you cheat: many supermarkets vend sliced shiitakes and sliced creminis.  If you opt for purchasing pre-sliced mushrooms, use them within a day or two.

For the above recipe, oyster mushrooms are easy to ready for the skillet.  Simply peel away the petal-like caps, one by one and drop them into the skillet or a prep bowl.

When dealing with white mushrooms or cremini mushrooms, they can be sliced for sautéing or for topping something, like a pizza, stem and all.  If you’re going to send them for a plunge in the stewing pool, they can either be tossed in whole or you can halve or quarter them lengthwise if you want smaller chunks.

Some mushrooms, such as porcini mushrooms, are readily found as dried mushrooms.  These are fine for adding to stews; simply rehydrate them in a bowl of boiled water for thirty minutes before adding them to the recipe.  For a flavor enhancement to soups or stews, you can also pulverize the dried mushrooms into a powder and then stir them into the pot.