Buttermilk panna cotta

Friday was Knit Night. Tote bags overflowed with yarn and needles, food was served, general merriment was had. It's really just an excuse to get together with friends, but I find Knit Night inspirational — my knitting always gets a boost.

As hostess for this most recent event, I was in charge of the menu, and I knew exactly what to serve for dessert: buttermilk panna cotta. I recently celebrated a friend's birthday at Ben and Karen Barker's much acclaimed Magnolia Grill in Durham,  and though everything was tasty, this dessert was my hands-down favorite. Soft and creamy, the smooth taste of vanilla was followed by the slightest tang of buttermilk, accentuated by a buttery cornmeal shortbread cookie and the oomph of cherry compote. It satisfied my desire for something sinful-tasting without weighing me down.

I raced to my bookshelf after dinner that night and was thrilled to find the recipe in Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts, a book I've owned for years but never baked from. What was I waiting for? If the rest of the recipes are anything like this one, it's a book I'll be using for years to come.

In lieu of cherries, I tossed fresh strawberries and blueberries with a few tablespoons of sugar and a squeeze of lemon. Left to macerate for 20 minutes, the berries' juices formed a perfect sauce.

And just in case you're interested, I completed a waffle knit dishcloth Friday night. It looks like this:

Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Adapted from Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts
Makes 6 8-ounce servings

2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 tablespoon gelatin
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups buttermilk

Pour 1/2 cup of heavy cream into a bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside for 5 minutes allowing the gelatin to soften.

Place the sugar in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the sugar. Whisk in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cream. Add the vanilla pod and cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally; cream should remain just under a simmer. Add the gelatin and cream mixture and sugar until dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the buttermilk.

Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher (I used a liquid measuring cup). Divide the mixture among 6 8-ounce ramekins, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours (or up to 2 days) until set.

To serve, loosen the panna cotta by dip the ramekins into hot water. Turn out onto dessert plates, garnish and serve.


Biscotti for Joy

This time last year I was planning a birthday luncheon for my mother, Joy. The menu was simple, but some of the items required a lot of time and effort (like Thomas Keller's illustrious spinach quiche). There is no party this year, no shrimp to pickle or lemon buttercream to master — my mother is cavorting at the beach with a friend. Lucky woman.

I'll take Joy to dinner at Watt's Grocery, one of her favorite Triangle restaurants, when she comes to visit the weekend after her actual birthday. In the meantime, I thought I'd send a hold-over gift, a little something that recognizes her special day, a package that will be waiting for her when she returns from the coast. She's a chocolate fiend, but mailing a box of truffles in 90 degree heat is asking for trouble. After rummaging through several cookbooks, I decided to try Alice Medrich's Whole Wheat Biscotti.

I know, I know — whole wheat biscotti don't sound terribly festive. They sound almost punitive. But Medrich's recipe uses whole wheat pastry flour, which is really quite refined, and biscotti hold well, which is important in this situation. I skipped the suggested flax or sesame seeds (it is a birthday after all), and used chopped pecans in the dough simply because I had some tucked in the freezer. The result is a very crisp, light cookie that would pair well with coffee or tea, as intended.

Now I just have to stop nibbling biscotti, pack them safely away, and get to the UPS store.

Whole Wheat Biscotti
Adapted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies
Makes about 25 biscotti

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, placing a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease lightly.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, oil, eggs, salt and vanilla together in a large bowl until thick and pale in color. This will take about 3 minutes. Add the flour mixture and pecans and stir until just combined. The dough will be thick and sticky. Scrape the dough onto a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and spread it into a 5-by-15-inch rectangle (I used my fingers rather than an unwieldy spatula).

Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway though to ensure even browning. Remove from the oven when puffed and firm, and cool on a rack for 20 minutes or more.

Turn the oven heat down to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place the slightly cooled loaf on a work surface and slice into 1/2-inch thick cookies with a serrated knife. Remove the parchment paper or liner from the baking sheet and arrange the cookies about 1/2-inch apart (I actually needed 2 baking sheets to hold them all).  Bake for another 20-25 minutes, until golden brown, rotating the pan(s) again halfway through the process.

Allow to cool on wire racks. The biscotti will keep for 2 weeks in an airtight container.


A continuing ed weekend + broccoli

I spent this past weekend in class. Continuing education is a great thing, and I really enjoyed this particular course — outstanding instructors, terrific classmates, new information — but the days were long and I didn't get much done at home. I was up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday to take my boyfriend (a relatively new development) to the airport; then it was a race home to shower, a trek to the neighbor's to drop off my dog for special keeping while I was away all day, and a mad dash for coffee, arriving at class at 7:30 a.m. Sunday was much of the same, minus the airport drive and extra-early arrival time.

Which is a very long-winded way to say that a) I didn't make it to the farmers' market this weekend and b) I didn't spend much time in the kitchen. I did, however, make one of my favorite go-to vegetable dishes after a long day in class, something so simple it doesn't require much of a recipe: roasted broccoli.

Please, stay with me.

Broccoli isn't exciting or sexy, but roasting it transforms this cruciferous veg into something far different from the limp, insipid specimen most of us grew up with. There's no need to joyously shove it down raw in an effort to eat more healthily, or to drown boiled broccoli in melted cheese (though I don't know how that ever became popular). Roasting broccoli caramelizes its sugars, intensifying the flavor and making it just a tad sweet. The edges get brown and crisp, red pepper flakes add a touch of heat — it's nothing like steam-table broccoli served in the school cafeteria.

This is a great side dish, though I've been known to eat it solo when I'm tired and not terribly hungry. Like I did yesterday.

Note: Be sure to put a metal baking sheet into the oven while it's preheating. Scattering the broccoli onto a sizzling hot baking sheet will help give the final product that caramelized crunch you're going for.

Roasted Broccoli

1 large head of broccoli
kosher salt
hot red pepper flakes
olive oil

Place a baking sheet into the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut the broccoli florets away from the stalk and place in a large bowl. Trim the tough outer layer from the stalk with a sharp knife and discard; cut the remaining stem into thin rounds and add to the bowl. Add a large pinch of kosher salt, a smaller pinch of hot red pepper flakes, and a few tablespoons of olive oil — just enough to coat the vegetables. Toss.

Scatter the broccoli onto the preheated baking sheet and roast until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.


Potato gnocchi

Monday was gnocchi day. It was hazy and damp outside, my energy level matched the weather, and I wanted to do a little knitting while cooking (more on that later). I'd purchased a bag of russet potatoes earlier in the week, inspired to make the delicate potato dumplings after a recent trip to New York. Along with world-class window shopping, outstanding theater, and some fantastic people-watching, my time in the city included a wonderful meal at Barbuto, Jonathan Waxman's homage to rustic Italian fare. The gnocchi there were perfection — cloud-like potato puffs served with spinach and snap peas in brown butter, all lightly dusted with parmesan. I knew I'd have to make gnocchi soon after my return home.

In the past, I've made less-than-success gnocchi. Gnocchi that were heavy and dull; leaden, clunky orbs that left the diner feeling unusually full. It's true that practice makes perfect, and many pounds of Idahos later, I'm consistently pleased with the results. Using a food mill or ricer is imperative when making gnocchi — you end up with a fluffier mashed potato to incorporate into the dough. I think baking the potatoes also lightens the result, but many respected food authorities instruct you to boil them. You'll need a couple of hours to complete the gnocchi from start to finish, but a good chunk of that time can be devoted to something else, as the potatoes need about 1 hour to bake (I opted to knit a heartbreakingly cute baby kimono for my neighbors' recent arrival during that time).

Now that my (light, delicate) gnocchi are cooked and cooled, I must decide what to do with them. A dollop of fresh basil pesto sounds just about perfect, as my herb garden is exploding after such a rainy spring, but I could toss them in a simple tomato sauce. Or saute them with brown butter and sage. Or spread them in shallow gratin dish, sprinkle with shredded parmesan, and shove the wonderful mess under the broiler.

I'll weigh my options while stitching up the kimono.

Potato Gnocchi
Makes enough for 8-10 servings

3 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 extra-large egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prick the potatoes several times with a fork and place them on a sheet tray. Bake for 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a knife. Allow to cool slightly, but when still warm, then pass the potato flesh through a food mill or ricer.

Put a large stockpot filled with water over a high flame. Add several pinches of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Set up an ice bath in a large bowl; place it next to the stove top.

Create a well in the center of the riced potato — this can be done in a very large bowl or on a clean work surface. Sprinkle with kosher salt and 2 cups of flour. Crack the egg into the center of the well. Using a fork, work the egg into the potato, flour, and salt, creating a soft dough. Knead it gently for a couple of minutes, then divide into small sections (about 6 pieces). Roll each section into a long rope, about 1/2-inch in diameter. Cut the rope into short pieces, about 1/2-inch long, and roll each piece along the tines of a fork (the back side). Spread the raw gnocchi onto a parchment-lined baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.

Gently drop the gnocchi into the pot of simmering water and cook for about 1 1/2 minutes — they will rise to the surface when they're done. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and put in the ice bath to cool. Drain the gnocchi, then toss with a few tablespoons olive oil and store, covered, for up to 2 days in the refrigerator. Reheat briefly in hot water (this will take less than a minute), then toss with browned butter in a saute pan until heated through.

You may freeze gnocchi prior to cooking. Place the baking sheet of raw gnocchi in the freezer until each individual dumpling is hard. Transfer to individual freezer bags and store for up to one month.


Whole wheat naan

I find myself in sync with the food editors at The New York Times.

As I scrolled through photos of homemade naan last Wednesday night, searching for just the right shot to accompany this post on this traditional Indian bread, the newspaper was printing (and posting) a wonderful article on tandoor ovens.

While I won't be purchasing a $1299 tandoor anytime soon, I still found the piece interesting. Who knew that a ceramic artist now living in the Florida Keys made thousands of clay ovens for North America's Indian restaurants? Until a lot of extra money comes my way, my conventional oven will have to suffice. Happily, the results of my naan experiment were excellent, and pulling a baking sheet of puffed, zeppelin-like breads from the oven is pretty cool. If only I were as satisfied with the butter chicken I made that night.

I used a little whole wheat flour to assuage the refined-white-flour-guilt I sometimes suffer, but it's unnecessary (and not in keeping with a traditional recipe, from what I can tell). Feel free to use only white flour instead.

Whole Wheat Naan
Makes 12 breads

1 1/4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
pinch sugar
1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup tablespoons plain yogurt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (for greasing the bowl)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in warm water. Let it stand for about 5 minutes, until foamy. Add the yogurt and ghee.

Whisk the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and kosher salt together in a large mixing bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir to combine. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface until smooth, about 7-10 minutes. Allow the dough to rise in a large greased bowl, covered with a dishtowel or plastic wrap, about 1 1/2 - 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Preheat the broiler.

Punch the dough down and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for about 5 minutes, then divide it into 12 pieces. Cover the pieces with a dishtowel or plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Roll each piece into a thin triangle about 7 inches wide.

Place the rolled doughs onto a baking sheet or broiler tray (you can probably fit 3-4 on one tray) and place them about 5-6 inches below the broiler. Don't get them too close — remember, the breads puff up, and you don't want to set them on fire. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then flip them over and cook the other side. The breads can be brushed with additional ghee if desired.


The potato and onion omelet

The potato-onion omelet is my secret weapon. Sort of.

I pulled one together for an impromptu meal a couple of years ago when my friend Beth was visiting. There wasn't a lot of food in the house, but a quick review of the fridge and pantry revealed potatoes, onion, eggs — just what I needed for a simple omelet. I sliced, sauteed and whisked while she entertained me with stories, and not long after we were enjoying a tasty lunch. Beth still praises that meal, and I rely on this dish several times a year for a fool-proof, comforting supper.

The potato-onion omelet is not a huge secret, of course; this classic Spanish tapa has been enjoyed for eons. But it is one of those easy-to-make, you-likely-have-all-the-ingredients-on-hand, scrumptious dishes that makes you look brilliant. Traditionally cut into small pieces served with other appetizers, this is terrific finger food for a cocktail party, though I'm more likely to eat a slice accompanied by a green salad for dinner.

This dish transforms humble ingredients into something unexpected. Thinly sliced disks of potato are browned in olive oil and combined with slivers caramelized onion, the components layered and suspended in egg. It requires a little more preparation time than my average weeknight meal, but the results are worth it.

If you don't own a cast iron skillet, this is your excuse to purchase one — I wouldn't dream of cooking this omelet in anything else. Skip the overpriced culinary supply stores and look for cast iron at your local hardware store.

The omelet is lovely straight out of the oven, but it's equally enjoyable at room temperature. Leftovers keep up to 4 days, covered, in the refrigerator.

Potato-Onion Omelet
Serves about 8

1/2 - 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced on a mandoline (about 5 cups)
1 extra large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
6-8 fresh thyme sprigs
9 large eggs

Heat a seasoned 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium flame with about 1/4 cup of olive oil. When it's hot but not smoking, add the potato slices (you will hear a sizzle if the oil is hot enough). Work in batches, putting only one layer of potato into the skillet at a time, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Fry on both sides until lightly brown, then place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt.

When all of the potatoes are cooked, lower the heat and add a little more oil to the pan. Cook the onion slices over medium-low heat until golden brown — this will take 10-15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves stripped from their stems. Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk. Add the potatoes and onions, another pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Over medium flame, pour this mixture into the skillet. Give the omelet a few shakes and press it gently with a spatula to even out the potatoes and onions. Reduce the flame and cook for a few minutes. When the edges are brown, flip the omelet onto a large plate, raw side up, then slide it back into the pan to cook the other side. Cook for a couple more minutes, then turn it onto a serving plate.


A fabulous strawberry and ricotta tart

The strawberry ricotta tart was worth it. I can't say this about every dessert I make (or eat). In fact, I can't say this about most of them. But Sunday's strawberry wonder was worth every calorie.

It began with a basket of just-picked berries from Lyon Farms. Strawberries were being unloaded from the truck when I walked through the Durham Farmer's Market early Saturday morning, and though my bags were already overflowing with produce, I couldn't help myself. A heaping basket made its way into the fold.

My dinner menu: cream of turnip soup, grilled leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic, sauteed asparagus with pancetta and lemon, Bibb lettuce with radishes and sherry vinaigrette, and the aforementioned, absolutely fabulous strawberry ricotta tart. Everything was delicious, but the tart drew raves. I had seconds that night, a sliver the following morning, another sliver for a snack Monday afternoon, and a full-size serving for dessert. I think a lot of undressed salads and extra-long dog walks are in my future, but I don't regret it. The tart is just that good.

The crisp short dough crust breaks when pierced with a fork, scattering flavorful crumbs among juicy berries and creamy ricotta-cream cheese interior. The recipe, adapted from Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson's Rustic Fruit Desserts, is time-consuming but not at all difficult. It's one that requires a bit of planning, but you can streamline things by making the dough ahead of time. I plan to use other berries as they come into season — I've got my eye on one particular blackberry bush near my house.

Strawberry and Ricotta Tart
Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts
Makes 8-12 servings

1 recipe Short Dough, baked and cooled in a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (recipe follows)

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2/3 cup room temperature cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 pints (about 6 cups) fresh strawberries, hulled; halved if large
1/2 cup strawberry jam

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the ricotta, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, salt and nutmeg with a mixer (handheld or standing) on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl to be sure each is fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and stir.

Pour the filling into the baked tart shell and place in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until the edges are puffy but the center of the tart is still a little shaky. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Immediately before serving, heat the strawberry jam in a small saucepan over low heat, being careful not to let it burn. Pour it over the fresh berries, being sure to strain the jam if it contains seeds. Toss the berries to coat evenly, then place on top of the tart. You could skip the jam altogether and simply serve fresh strawberries alongside the tart.

Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 2 to 3 days.

Short Dough
Makes one 10-inch tart shell

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tablespoons half and half or heavy cream
1 egg yolk

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender or two forks. Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in the base of a food processor, add the butter cubes, and pulse a few times. The mixture should resemble a rough cornmeal or very small peas.

Whisk the cream and egg yolk, then stir into the flour mixture with a fork (or pulse very briefly in a food processor). Don't over process — the dough should just come together into a shaggy mass. Press the dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll it on a lightly floured surface. Work from the center to the edges, turning the dough occasionally to create a (somewhat) even circle. Roll until the circle is 12 inches in diameter, about 1/8-inch thick.

Place a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom onto a baking sheet. Gently press the dough into the pan, tucking it into the bottom and sides. Line it with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with uncooked rice, dried beans, or commercial pie weights, and bake in the center of the oven for 35-40 minutes.

Take the crust from the oven and carefully remove the pie weights (lift the parchment paper or other liner). Return the crust to the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden.

Cool the crust on a wire rack, checking for cracks. Repair cracks with leftover pie dough, then pour the filling into the crust and proceed with the recipe above. This short dough crust can be prebaked one day in advance and stored at room temperature, carefully covered with plastic wrap.