Water, Curd and…

Mozzarella is water, curd and salt. It sounds really simple. But, as with many great things in life, what seems to be the most straightforward of operations takes you on a circuitous path. While the necessary ingredients are few, the magic of this product is in the finesse it takes to nudge it into a milky-soft product of awesome.

I truly live a life of luxury. On Sundays Joe goes to my parents house and actually makes this fresh for the whole family. We can take it home like party favors in 1 pound balls or as bocconcini in dairy swag bags.  It gets shredded up on pizza, becomes the backdrop to thick tomato slices and basil leaves and more often than not is the scape goat of our post sunday dinner remorse.

Joe is sort of an uncle. He is married to my aunt but they didnt get married in a church and they dont live together on account of the difficulty of parking Joe’s car in my aunts neighborhood.  And Joe needs his car because he is a traveling mozzarella maker. Like a cheese producing minstrel, he will come to your house and rock your world with his dairy product.

Joe has made thousands of pounds….maybe millions of pounds of this stuff. First for other Italians in Italian neighborhood corner delis in New York. Then at Stew Leonard’s for white American soccer moms who buy everything in bulk. He followed that by working the weddings and parties of rich people who want to illustrate how much they understand about the subtleties of genuine Italian cuisine. Now he services various places that buy his handmade cheese and put their stamp on to sell to their customers.

Recently I spent the morning with Joe watching him make mozzarella at a shop in White Plains.

His career in cheese started when he got a job working in a deli. As the counter boy the owner explicitly told him not to watch while he made the mozzarella. Joe is a smart ass and an enterprising immigrant, so of course he watched. He snuck a peek through the kitchen door to witness the super secret process. Add water to curd and mix. Simple.

Soon enough Joe got another job at a deli where they asked if he could make mozzarella. He convinced them he could- and he did. But adding water to curd and mixing does not tell the whle story of how to make really good mozzarella. While he was able to pull white, cheese-like balls from the water to sell to unsuspecting customers, the end product was abysmal. It was tough, dry and pitted.

Joe is irreverent about almost everything. He is frequently a pain in the ass and a know it all. But over the state of his mozzarella he greatly worried. According to him, he worried so much that one night he dreamed of making it, and as he tells it, he woke up with the inherent touch needed to craft the milky, soft cheese. Of course he may have spun  this tale to release himself from the difficult task of actually practicing with me but I guess we will never know….

Start with very hot but not boiling water. Slice curd into the water and add salt. Allow the curd to soak in the salted water for a few minutes before draining. Once drained, add more salt and cover it with boiling water. The curd pieces will come together and you can knead it until it takes on a smooth sheen. Make a ball and pinch it shut without touching the outside. Just like clay, you dont want to leave unintentional prints on the surface

Timing is important. If the water is allowed to cool too much as you engage in the curd stretching the cheese will be tough.

Although these instructions are accurate and the video helpful, there is nothing that replaces repeating the process a couple of hundred times to reeeally get it right.

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The Regulars

Have you ever been a regular someplace?

Have you ever wanted to be?

I have.

There is this place in my neighborhood that I visit some mornings.  It happens to be a place that serves food. But that is besides the point, I promise. I desperately want its acceptance, but It’s not sure about me and I’m not convinced I’m a good addition to the life of this place.

At 7 am everyone is a regular and I don’t fit in here. I am almost apologetic taking a seat. I don’t even walk the whole way back into the space, I usually take a table in the front, sit close to the wall and hope no one is wondering what the white girl is doing here again.  As a vegetarian in a Puerto Rican coffee shop, I can eat almost nothing on the menu- yet I persist in returning. I come for the excellent coffee, but mostly I’m there to observe what might be some of the last bits of slightly dingy, hole in the wall authenticity in a neighborhood fast becoming too trendy for me to live in.

Coffee worth waking up for

If I’m serious about wanting to earn my way into this establishment as a regular I may have years of work ahead of me.  On a recent morning an older guy sat at the end of the counter and a few minutes later, without having said anything, was handed a warm tinfoil package,which he tucked under his arm before shuffling out. Another man came in and before he was able to take his stool the fry cook behind the counter had dished out his oatmeal and readied his place at the counter. Sometimes I think everyone in there is related. But I can’t be sure because English is not regularly spoken here.

I only stumbled in on the over-heard suggestion of my building super. He likes it so much he’s there quite a bit more than he is at work in my building (as illustrated by the hole in my bathroom ceiling for the past 8 months). The stolen recommendation was always intriguing because obviously, he had not meant it for me.

I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t eat meat and this place does not cater to my kind. The tiny red façade has seen a lot of change happen around it, including the gentrification of the stretch of Chelsea it inhabits.  But I don’t think it has changed. I have a feeling that the yellow backlit menu above the grill lists the original items.  They have a register so old it looks like a prop. I’m not 100% sure it has a bathroom.

I've said too much

Whatever niche it’s established for itself, however meat oriented, foreign feeling or trapped in a stasis it may be, it is not ironic. Yes, I would like to order something besides toast. But for this place to start serving veggie burgers or vegan mac and cheese would be the death of it. Whenever I go in I have the distinct feeling that I’m slowly poisoning it. More people like me eating there regularly might alter this place and I’m terrified that the Google army that has moved in across the street will infiltrate, bringing their laptops and narrow pant with them. It has yet to be inundated by Chow postings, Serious Eats columns and Twittererers.  If it ever shows up on a top 10 list I’ll be livid. Although I am not one of the time-tested regulars, I feel a certain responsibility to protect its integrity.

Maybe I should stop going there. It’s a selfish kind of love.

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Banana Bread as Romantic Weaponry

This fall I left NYC and went to the Georgia mountains to play frontier woman for the weekend. I bought a flannel shirt (with colors), tended a fire, rode a tractor and most importantly, baked banana bread.

As savvy readers know, there is no reason to engage in any of these activities unless compelled by some misguided romantic adventure. Well, that’s what this was. And perhaps this is an over-share, but the relationship resulted in an extravagant use of precious vacation time and a huge credit card bill. Thankfully, there was this banana bread to save me from total ruin.

If I can’t express something with words, I’m going to cover my feelings in butter and feed them to you. At the time, I was obnoxiously optimistic, so it was probably a good thing I was in a remote location where no one I know could have have been a witness to what came next.

I admit it, I used this baked good as a weapon. He loved banana bread and I knew this recipe would win him (or his stomach) over. I had searched for the recipe, given it a test run and then punched it up using what I knew about my Target’s taste preferences.

And it worked.

Sadly, nothing that came after the banana bread or that weekend could quite live up to expectations. And in all honesty, perhaps nothing SHOULD overshadow this loaf of moist banana-y greatness.

In honor of his birthday I baked up a cathartic double batch and watched someone else enjoy it.

If I can’t have you, I will make you fat. 

Deb from SmittenKitchen jacked this up from a few other bakers and I in turn jacked up Deb’s version. I added 1 cup of roughly chopped toasted walnuts, divided.

4 ripe bananas, smashed
1/3 cup melted salted butter
3/4 to 1 cup light brown sugar (depending on the level of sweetness you prefer, I always use the smaller amount)
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 cup of flour

To make crumble:  crumble 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour in a bowl with your fingers until it resembles small pebbles. Add cinnamon, sugar and 1/4 cup of walnuts. Mix with your hands. 

Preheat the oven to 350°F and butter your pan. With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Meanwhile, roughly chop and toast 1 cup of walnuts. Into the bananas mix the sugar, egg, vanilla and bourbon, then the spices. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Fold 3/4 cup of the toasted walnuts into the batter just before incorporating the flour. Add the flour last, mix. Pour mixture into a buttered 4×8 inch loaf pan. Sprinkle the crumble over the top of the bread. In the center of the oven, bake for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack. 

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Disaster Cookies

I took the easiest cookie in my repertoire and mangled it into these Disaster Cookies which ultimately put my office into polarizing sugar shock. Yeah, I F’ed up an oatmeal cookie.

The Amazing Vanishing Quaker Oatmeal Cookie recipe found under the top of the oatmeal box, is the blank canvas of the baked good world. You can successfully throw almost anything into these cookies to great and delicious effect. The only downside to this old standard is that I am able to make them while drunk and subsequently eat all the evidence before morning.

I strayed from my standby. I cheated with these cookies that Deb from Smitten Kitchen promised would be awesome. And honestly, they may be that great- they are sweet and salty and combine chocolate and oatmeal. That sounds fantastic. So I admit that I may owe these disaster cookies to human error, but the comments posted on these cookies match my own outcome, which tells me their margin of error is very small.

Crispy Salted Oatmeal Cookies

Additional notes to make your cookies less Disastrous– The issue with these cookies is that they spread! To avoid this:

  • DO NOT: Over whip your butter, Use super fine sugar (use regular) or Butter your cookie pans (use parchment).
  •  DO: Form the batter into balls and chill in the fridge for an hour. Use only cooled pans and leave plenty of room between cookies. Make sure the oven is up to temperature and remains so throughout the baking process.

Once these puddles of disappointment were out of the oven there was nothing to do but scrape them onto a plate and bring them to the office. People are bored at work and will eat almost anything to take their mind off of spreadsheets. At least that is what I was banking on.

Can you believe that people liked them?! Some people became so rabid for these cookies they were hiding them in napkins and stashing them in their desks. They wanted the recipe, they wanted to know when they could expect to get them again and later on in the day when the sugar had taken its toll, they wanted to know who had taken the rest of the cookies?!!! Where were they?!! MORE SUGAR NOOOW!!

Evidence that butter+sugar can never go wrong.

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A Sunday Without Dinner

Once upon a time I lamented the ubiquitous Starsucks- with their burnt coffee and bassackwards ordering protocol. But recently Blue Bottle coffee opened in my neighborhood bringing an even more elevated laboratory feeling to the simple cup of coffee. The store has no sign, and before I even enter I am on the defense. The  pretty hipsters behind the counter have witnessed my store front pacing and I am now feeling very uncool. Once inside, I’m not sure where to look: is there a menu? Is that passé? I realize I’m dressed inappropriately for the venue and I’m glad I at least blow-dried my hair. I finally need to admit I need help to ORDER A CUP OF BLACK COFFEE. The staff seem to be sympathetic to my lack of artisan coffee knowledge and go on to diagnose the type of coffee I will be most pleased with. Thanks. Bonus, they explain the genius of the concentric circle pouring of hot water over the coffee which replaces the primitive electric drip pot mechanism which I ignorantly use on a daily basis. I leave clutching my $4 cup, ashamed, and wondering if this is really better than a fresh cup of deli coffee.  I will tell no one (but you) that I am questioning Blue Bottle supremacy. Cringe.

Later that day I’m in Greenpoint and starving. There are a lot of places to eat in Greenpoint. For people coming for a day visit to “discover” the neighborhood, just look for a place with a huge line and get on it. You will like what they serve. If you want something more “authentic” you are looking for a Polish restaurant or a donut shop. If you are vegetarian, you are looking in the wrong neighborhood and will end up with a 12 dollar salad served on a cake plate. A cake plate. Even if the greens were locally sourced there is no excuse for a cake plate.

A CAKE PLATE!? REALLY!? You have not tricked me. I know I am being ripped off.

Turn around, go back to the donut shop and make peace with the proudly displayed B grade in the window. As a kid I frequented a donut shop just off the highway, housed in a windowless building with no sign. It had a red metal door and the guy who made the donuts lived in the kitchen and slept on a cot by the stove. This could not be worse than that.

Shamed out of the coffee shop. Closed out of brooklyn’s meat-loving restaurants and lacking the iron stomach needed for donuts, I was feeling defeated and still hungry.

Thankfully I ended my day crawling around on the floor of Bonnie Slotnick’s tiny cookbook shop. This awesome little firetrap of a shop specializes in vintage cookbooks and all the freaky gelantinous, cream-cheesy and butter-based foods found within. If you are researching theme party menus, trying to recreate an old lost family recipe or just want to understand how to put together an iced sandwich (no, really), this is the place for you. Thanks to Bonnie, who actually climbs the walls of this place to find the tome you need, it is easy to get sucked into this place for hours as I did. I left at closing and walked home, still hungry but sated.

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Long Weekend

A looong weekend. I always have high hopes for the things I’m going to accomplish over a 3 day break from work. What actually ends up happening is that I sleep late, sit around looking up food porn on the interwebs and read the paper for half the day.

Saturday, after venturing up town to see the Greatest Grid at the Museum of the City of New York, I felt like I had filled my quota of culture and was ready to go lowbrow. So I headed to the Bronx for coffee  at Artuso’s Bakery and a connoli to go. I am always secretly hoping that the Bronx will rebound and become the amazingly cheap yet still awesome type of place that Astoria once was….. I’m still waiting. What does a borough have to do to attract some hipsters and gays?

The next at Sunday dinner my father emphatically explains that the ribs are from Denmark, his tone suggesting we should be impressed. My aunt is yelling at her husband for undersalting the mozzarella. She then over salts it and announces she has ruined it, imploring why does he let her do that!? My mother and her brother are weirdly wearing coordinating outfits. This is a close family and I cant tell you how often this happens. Yes, we have pictures of these non gender specific fashion transgressions.

non gender specific button-downs.

mozz bawls

For a family that eats as much as we do, the conversation has taken a strange and sharp turn as of late. My uncle is inspecting a bottle of agave my mother has given him. My mcgangbang loving cousin is recapping the movie forks over knives and my sister is explaining the concept of Quorn to my aunt. Who are these people?!

On Monday I finally get the kitchen to myself and embarked on the flour-less brownies my mother has been sniffing around for. The first thing I notice about this recipe is that there are few ingredients but many bowls required. Since this is my first time out, I played along and committed to a sink full of dishes.

Ingredients and measurements etc

Pros (because today is a glass half full day): These brownies taste great. The weird drizzle of egg and agave gave the top a nice marbled crust.  Coffee in the batter makes the small amount of chocolate flavor go a long way. Lining the bottom of the pan with parchment takes all the irritation out of cleaning the pan. These things are super moist.

Cons: These things are super moist. Brownies fall into two equally valid camps: cakey and fudgy. These are the latter. I think I swing bit more toward the cakey side. Brownies also take a fuck long time to bake. You wouldn’t think that but they really do and this leads to the most common recipe downfall- premature removal from the oven. Followed by the failure to wait until completely cooled to eat.

Notes for next time- There is no reason to have ¼ ofa cup of leftover beans hanging around so just use the whole can. These are really sweet, I would actually cut down on the agave next go around. Do use an aluminum pan if possible, it really is the best conductor of heat and gives the bottom a nice crisp. Follow the directions when it comes to the nuts; blending some and folding some in to the batter. This, along with the crusty top provides badly needed textural interest.

All that remained of the crackly crust Black Bean Brownies

Day two update- Do whatever you can to keep from eating any of these until they have cured in the fridge for several hours. I know this is a useless plea but these brownies are 100% better day 2.

My mother was disappointed to learn that the presence of beans in this recipe instead of flour did not in fact negate all caloric content. These wont spike your glycemic index or irritate your gluten sensitivities but these are still a pretty decadent brownie. Just to make sure we fed one to my dad, a notorious lover of rich chocolate desserts. As we manically watched him consume the bean based creation he became concerned we had hid something unsavory (or healthy) in the mix. Once he was satisfied that there was no mayo in the brownie (his most hated food product) he finally had to concede his enjoyment.

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