Saturday, January 18, 2014


An old woman with a wooden bowl wide as a kettle drum, equally large sieve and a number of smaller equipment arrived to our house every fall to prepare a variety of pasta for the year. She stayed a full day in the basement and by the end of the day a dozen different kinds of pasta were drying on many sheets spread out throughout our house. The next day they were all ready for storage. Today few would consider preparing pasta such as orzo, egg noodles or lasagna by hand. Not only it’s hard work but it takes serious experience.

Even if you own a pasta machine, homemade pasta turns out acceptable only if you use it regularly and learn the technique. Pasta dough has a way of refusing to obey you to be coaxed into pasta shapes. I watched an experienced chef preparing pasta for the menu scheduled for that day, and it took him hours. First he prepared the dough and hand kneaded it thoroughly. After a period of resting to let the gluten relax, he passed the dough through his pasta machine several times, using a large opening. Then he folded a third of the long ends of the rectangular dough over and one more time over the last third. Now he had three thirds folded into one.

He reduced the pasta machine opening and passed the dough through several more times. He repeated this process again and again, eventually having the thinnest opening in the machine producing a pasta thin as corn tortillas. But this is not the pasta yet. He let this sheet covered with a moist towel to dry for a few hours then using a chef knife, cut it into long thin strands of pasta, now ready to cook. How long the drying process is where years of experience come in. 

Pasta dough is simple: flour and water, no salt. Fresh or dehydrated yolks or whole eggs for egg pasta.

This is not for every home cook. It’s long, tedious and the results are questionable (I know from experience).

You can also buy the perishable fresh pasta at the market. Is it better than inexpensive dry pasta? In my experience, it is not.

In my kitchen it’s the dry pasta that reigns, and I always have some dozen varieties in the pantry. For a good pasta, should you buy the more costly Italian imports? In Italy they cannot grow the hard winter durum wheat essential for good pasta. Instead they import the best durum wheat from the winter crop in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and adjacent Canadian provinces. After packaging in Italy and shipping, you find the expensive Italian pasta on the store shelves. Any good brand of domestic pasta, made from the same wheat, is your best choice.

Read the label to make sure the pasta was made from durum wheat—that’s all you need for good pasta. Two more names you are likely to come across reading the ingredient lists on pasta packages: semolina flour and farina flour. The best pasta are made from semolina flour which is the inside part of the durum wheat grain, milled slightly coarse, slightly gritty, resembling a fine cornmeal. Farina flour is a similar slightly gritty flour but milled from hard wheat (bread flour), not durum wheat. Good-quality shaped short pasta (like macaroni or alphabet soup pasta) is made from semolina. In long pasta products they may mix semolina and farina flours and you’ll still get a good product.

Unless you use your pasta machine often and gain experience, stick with good domestic pasta for a good pasta dish. Don’t overcook and don’t undercook: just to perfect el dente.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Simple Potato Curry

I used to live in Sri Lanka for two years and, naturally, I got totally enamored with their curries. There are many different styles of curries varying from region to region throughout Asia, and varying with the locally available ingredients. In the hotter climates it's coconut milk and hot spices are the norm but in the cooler north, the spices are milder and coconut is no longer available at the markets.Ceylon curries are almost like South Indian curries (the two areas are separated by a short distance), liquidy, spicy and with the inevitable coconut milk.

Cooking a real, authentic curry is a time-consuming kitchen chore. In fact, no one in Sri Lanka serves just one curry dish; rather several curries and often a sambol or chutney surround the steamed rice along with some fried bready accompaniment such.

Yet we can make a simple curry as a side dish that won't tax your kitchen chores. This potato curry goes with just about any main dish, whether curried or not. And you can assemble the ingredients and cook them within half hour.

Simple Potato Curry

Use only fresh spices. I always use whole seeds that I freshly grind for the best flavor.

1 tsp curry powder
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 medium (5 oz) yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 fresh hot chili (jalapeno), thinly sliced
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 tsp ground hot chili
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp dill seeds
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt

Over brisk heat roast curry powder for a few seconds in a medium pot, then quickly add potatoes, onion and jalapeno slices, coconut milk and the remaining spices and salt. Turn heat to low simmer, cover pot and cook for 20 minutes. Adjust liquid if necessary.

Serves four.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bake Fruitcakes in the Spring

Why would anyone talk about fruitcakes in the winter? Those you received during the recent holiday season have already been re-gifted or are being employed as a doorstop, both of which are the standard use for such gifts. Yes, fruitcakes have a bad rep, but not mine. Recipients claim that it takes great willpower to restrict their eating pleasure to one slice at a time.

Most fruitcake bakers start thinking about making fruitcakes for gifts around October, even later. Yet fruitcakes, like good wines and ripe cheeses, need to mature for many months with occasional brandy spritzing for moisture and flavor. I begin preparing fruitcakes in early spring to be ready by the end of the year. After baking I wrap each loaf separately in clean, soft, brandy-soaked cloths then seal in foil or plastic wrap. I mark my calendar to open the packages every second month and give each another light sprinkling of liquor.

By December they look and smell heavenly. Should they be used for re-gifting, the lucky recipient will be blessed. Doorstops? Very unlikely.

Traditional recipes call for candied fruits that are hard to find until just before the holidays. They are expensive and not particularly good. This tradition dates back to times when other kinds of dried fruits were not readily available. Today we have a huge selection of good-tasting dehydrated fruits; your fruitcake will be better using them instead of candied fruits. 

Use only top-quality, fresh nuts.

And remember, fruitcakes are no more difficult to bake than banana bread—and who can’t bake a banana bread?

Heavenly Fruitcakes

Fruit mixture

2½ cups (12 oz) dried fruit mix (or glac├ęd fruits)
1¾ cups (8 oz) combination of dark raisin and currants
1 cup (4 oz) dates, chopped
1¼ cups (4 oz) pecan halves
grated zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup brandy


¼ cup cornmeal
1½ cup flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
dash of grated nutmeg
1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
¾ cup (4 oz) brown sugar
3 Tbsp molasses
2 large eggs
brandy for soaking

Combine fruit mix, raisins, currants, dates and lemon zest with brandy, mix well and let stand covered overnight.

Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Cream butter and brown sugar with a mixer until fluffy, about five minutes. Add molasses, then eggs one at a time while continuing to mix, then add dry ingredients. Stir in fruit mixture, including soaking brandy.

Prepare a standard loaf pan by lining with foil or parchment paper for easy removal. Lightly coat lining with cooking spray. Spoon batter into the loaf pan and spread evenly. Set pan in a container of boiling water that comes 2 inches up on sides of loaf pan.

Bake in preheated 300F oven for about 70 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Remove from water bath and cool on a wire rack, then unmold from the pan peeling off foil or parchment.

Wrap loaf in brandy-soaked cotton toweling (using about ⅓ cup brandy). Store for at least six month, adding more brandy every other month to keep cotton moist.

This recipe makes one loaf and it’s easy to multiply it to bake several loaves at a time. Or you can bake many mini loaves like the one you see in the photo.

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