Friday, November 25, 2011

A Culinary Mystery: Case Closed

Earlier this year, my dad started talking about these..."things" that my great-grandmother from Italy used to make. He described them as being something like pretzels in a round loop shape. We asked my grandmother and great aunt about them, but no one seemed to remember them or what they were called. After digging through some old recipes and performing several Google searches for "Italian pretzels," we more or less gave up.

And then in May, I got the chance to go to Italy for a week as part of an art seminar I took my last semester at Mount Union. We traveled to Siena, Florence, and Rome on a huge red double-decker bus. That meant we stood out as tourists wherever we parked, and it also meant that we spent quite a few hours on the Italian turnpike. On one of those journeys, we stopped at a rest stop and I saw these:


Right shape, preztel-like...these were the mysterious "things"!

Well, they weren't. I bought them, packed them up carefully, and almost missed a connecting flight home because I declared them at customs...and they weren't the right "things."

"These are crunchy," my dad said. "What I'm thinking of is more like a soft pretzel. Or a bagel."

As it turns out, Google is much more obliging when you search for "Italian bagel." Within a few minutes, I had a handful of recipes for something called "ciambella," (plural "ciambelle") which, as far as I can tell means "ring-shaped." It seems they are actually considered cookies, but they have the soft, doughy insides and shiny exterior of a bagel or a soft pretzel. Since solving the mystery, my dad and I have made them several times (most recently, today).

Ciambelle Recipe

Ingredients

5 cups all-purpose flour
1 packet yeast
1 scant cup warm water
3 tsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp anise seeds (optional--this gives them a licorice taste)
1/2 cup white wine (we used a white zinfandel)
Pinch of salt

Steps
  1. Dissolve the yeast in warm water.
  2. Put the flour in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Add the oil, sugar, seeds, salt, wine, and yeast mixture by pouring them into the well. Gather the flour into the well with hands or a spoon until a soft dough forms. (You may need to turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead it to make it come together.) Add water or flour as needed.
  3. Shape the dough into a ball, cover it with a dish towel, and put it somewhere warm for an hour to rise. 
  4. When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a floured surface. Cut off pieces of dough and roll them out into long strips. Form the strips into loops and press down on the joint. (Larger ciambelle will be softer, smaller ones will be more crisp.)
    Ciambelle dough formed into loops.
  5. Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil on the stove; preheat the oven to 400 degree Fahrenheit.
  6. When the water boils, drop several ciambelle into the pot at a time. When they float, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a dish towel to drain.
  7. Ciambelle float when they're done.
  8. Place the boiled ciambelle on a cookie sheet. (If desired, brush them with an egg wash of one beaten egg and about a tablespoon of water.) Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until golden (time will vary based on size). Enjoy hot or cool with a glass of wine.
Baked ciambelle. Culinary mystery solved!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"What are you thankful for?"

Thanksgiving is one of those very strange holidays celebrated in America. In my mind, it's a lot like Columbus Day: distorted and misunderstood.

The history major that still lives inside me would love to make this entire blog post about Thanksgiving's fascinating past (really, it is). However, if you get me rolling on misrepresented things in history, I may not stop. So I'll spare you the lecture, and instead address the one thing I do very much respect the holiday for: providing an opportunity to reflect on our lives and express gratitude.

And on that note, a list of the top ten things I am thankful for (you knew it was coming).
  1. My family, and their constant support and encouragement.
  2. My friends, new and old.
  3. My boyfriend, who has the incredible talent of being/saying/doing whatever I need at that moment.
  4. The opportunity to be in graduate school.
  5. My assistantship.
  6. Having a place to live at school, and also a true home.
  7. My car, because I don't know what I'd do without it.
  8. My health.
  9. Delicious food that I am going to enjoy tomorrow, and that I have available to me every day.
  10. My cat and dog because they are just too adorable to be left off the list.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mushroom and Spinach Quiche

Mushroom and spinach quiche!
Lately, I've been having a craving for quiche. I saw some posts on Facebook about the International Dinner coming up at Mount Union, and it made me remember the really amazing mushroom quiche they had there last year representing French cuisine. Perhaps, in some small way, the craving was my expression of homesickness for my alma mater.

Anyway, I've never made a quiche before but I thought this would be a good time to try it out. I had a lot of mozzarella cheese left over from making pizza a few weekends ago and a few other odds and ends lying around. It was easier than I expected and pretty delicious. I think next time I'd use  a mix of mozzarella and cheddar or something similar to give it more flavor.

The recipe I (somewhat loosely) used for my quiche came from my Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 15th edition, an insanely large cookbook that seems to have just about everything in it. (It's a great book to have!) Their recipe started with a pie crust--either buy one or make it yourself. Since I've never made a pie crust before, I opted to use Bisquick's recipe. It wasn't quite enough to cover the pan, so I think next time I'd make a batch and a half.

Bisquick Pie Crust
The baked Bisquick crust.

Ingredients

1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup Bisquick mix
2-3 tbsp boiling water

Steps
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  2. Combine butter and Bisquick in a bowl (I used a fork for this). Add water (start with 2 tbsp) and mix vigorously until dough forms. Flour your hands and press the dough into a 9-inch pie dish.
  3. Bake for 8-10 minutes until golden. 

And now, for the quiche. I'm giving you the recipe as I made it, which is again, somewhat different from the cookbook.

Mushroom and Spinach Quiche
The uncooked quiche.

Ingredients

1 small onion, chopped
1 container of sliced mushrooms
3 cups loosely packed, coarsely chopped fresh spinach
1 tbsp vegetable oil
5 eggs
1 1/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp salt
Dash ground nutmeg (optional)
6 ounces shredded cheese
1 tbsp all-purpose flour

Steps
  1. Bake your crust, and turn down the oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Cook the onion and mushrooms in vegetable oil until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in the spinach and turn off the heat, allowing it to wilt just slightly.
  3. Crack the eggs into a glass measuring cup and lightly beat with a fork. You want 1/2 cup of total liquid per egg, so add milk (or half-and-half or light cream) until you have 2 1/2 cups of eggs and milk. Pour into a large mixing bowl.
  4. Combine cheese and flour in a small bowl (it's easiest to just use your hands for this). Add to the egg mixture and mix well. Add the mushroom mixture and mix well. Pour into the pie shell.
  5. Bake for 50-55 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Let sit for 10 minutes before slicing. Serves 6-8.
Ta-dah! Delicious quiche.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some Thoughts on Web Design

If you had told me six months ago that by November I would have coded a website by hand, I would told you that was crazy. Web design? Me? I'm not so sure about that.

But, strangely enough, that is the case. Web design turned out to be a required course for my program, so I enrolled this quarter, and as of a few days ago, I have actually coded a website by hand.

I know that in today's internet-driven society, that isn't much of a feat. There are millions of people who beat me to it. But despite that, I am proud of it. It isn't super cool or fancy, and it doesn't have a bunch of neat features, but it works, and I made it do that. And if you ask me, that's still pretty cool.

In the beginning, I felt like one of the most clueless people in the course. I had no idea what the heck any of those acronyms that people kept throwing around meant (CSS, W3C, etc.) and I was intimidated by all that had to do with web design. However, once I got past my confusion and fear and forced myself to jump off the high dive, I actually picked it up fairly quickly. I'm not claiming to know or understand every bit of HTML and CSS (because I certainly don't!), but I think I've come very far in the past couple of weeks.

I'm also enjoying the fact that it's something new. I haven't done much academic work in the past few years aside from the familiar routine of read, research, and write a paper. It's sort of nice to do something different, and something that's challenging in a new way.

I don't know if I'll ever need to apply these skills in my professional life, but being forced to acquire them has been a rewarding experience. It's always good to get out of your comfort zone, and if nothing else, at least my blog looks a little better because of it. ;-)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

French Onion Soup: An Exercise in Improvisation

The finished product.
I'm not an "improv" type of person. When I was in band back in high school, you'd never catch me making up a jazzy solo on an instrument; I stuck to the music. The same goes for cooking; I follow the recipe.

The problem is that I'm no longer cooking for the 4-6 people most recipes serve. I'm usually just cooking for myself so a lot of my favorite recipes have to be pared down, and sometimes you just have to do away with the recipe altogether.

Hence, this afternoon's improvisation: French onion soup.

I had some beef broth left over from last week's Italian wedding soup, so when I came across this super simple recipe for French onion soup from The Kitchn, I decided to use it up. My recipe is a conglomeration of the above and this one from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother (and maybe a few others mixed in).

Excuse the lack of precise measurements--this is improv, after all.

French Onion Soup (serves one very hungry grad student)

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, sliced into thin strips
2 tbsp butter
Some minced garlic and/or other seasonings
A pinch of salt (if your butter is salted I would skip this)
A splash of wine
Some beef broth
Some water

Optional (for topping): Bread, Cheese

Steps:
Add broth, bring to a boil, and simmer.
  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, salt (if using), and garlic/seasonings.
  2. Choose to stir or not stir. Some recipes say to give everything a quick stir right away to coat it in butter, while others say to let it be and stir once the onions start to turn translucent.
  3. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they caramelize and turn a nice brown color. The Kitchn says to not let the onions burn; Cook Like Your Grandmother says it's ok if some of them burn a little. Choose your own adventure.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat, add a splash of wine, and stir. (Most recipes say to use a dry wine, but I used white zinfandel and it was fine.) Return to the stove and cook for a few minutes until most of the liquid is gone.
  5. Add the beef broth. I had about 1 1/2 cups, so I added that with half a cup of water.
  6. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until it has reduced and looks good to eat. (The Kitchn recommends at least half and hour; I could only wait about 20 minutes). Season with salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. Optional: Toast a piece of bread in the oven/toaster oven until sufficiently toasty. You want to dry it out as much as possible without burning it. Put soup in an oven-safe bowl, top with the "crouton" and cheese (I used provolone) and put it under the broiler or in the toaster oven until the cheese has melted.
The Verdict: Despite the fact that I was very impatient and didn't simmer the soup as long as I probably should have, this was pretty decent French onion soup and it filled me up.

Things I'd Do Differently:
  • Don't burn the onions. Really, don't. You will later taste the burned, charred bits in your soup (which is not something I particularly care for--maybe you're ok with it, though). Perhaps the taste would have been diminished with a longer simmer time.
  • Use "good" bread for the crouton. The Kroger Lite Wheat sandwich bread was ok, but it got very soggy very fast. This would have been better with a denser, crustier bread.
So, there you have it. An improvised soup easily adapted to whatever you have on hand, as long as that includes onions and some kind of broth. Cheap, simple, and pretty darn delicious.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Things You're Doing Right

So I've been having a rough week or two here. In my Intro to Graduate Studies class we've been doing a lot of talking about jobs and internships, planning for future courses, workshopping resumes, and generally discussing the future.

My name is Stephanie and I have a confession: The future scares me.

If I'm being completely honest about it, I don't know where I'm going after I leave UC. I don't know what I will be doing. And I'm not sure what I want to be doing, which makes it difficult to come up with a course of study or a "dream job" to be working towards. I spent a lot of effort trying to pitch myself to graduate schools as a flexible and adaptable person, and it worked; but now I'm having a hard time choosing a path to "adapt" myself to.

I've been frustrated about this for a while. Today I was talking to Paul about it (for the umpteenth time, I'm sure) and I said I felt like nothing is going right at the moment. To which he kindly replied, "I think you're doing a lot of things right." And that got me thinking. Although the future still scares me, I'm going to try to think about the things that are going right at this moment.

So, I hereby present to you The List of Things (I Think) I'm Doing Right:

1. Learning How to Be an Adult. For the first time in my life, I am somewhat supporting myself--at least as far as rent and groceries go. I have a job and I'm learning to budget my money responsibly.

2. Being a Student. This is probably the thing I am best at in life. Whatever else I may be mediocre at, I get my work done, I meet deadlines, and I pass my classes. Period.

3. Learning to Cook. This one is obviously a work in progress, but it's a lifelong skill that is going to serve me well. I've already mastered and memorized a handful of quick and easy recipes so I can feed myself (read: so I won't starve). And learning how to make things from scratch is cheaper and better for you than eating a whole bunch of Lean Cuisine.

4. Getting Enough Sleep. It seems silly, but sleep is one of the basics of life that students seem to miss out on. I can safely report that I get about eight hours every night.

5. Staying Active. As lovely as the Bearcat Transit is on those days when I just need to get to campus in under five minutes, I have been trying to walk as much as possible. It's helping me stay in shape, and I get to enjoy the beautiful fall weather we are still having (no snow yet!!). I'm also trying to work out at least twice a week.

6. Trying New Things. Since I've been in Cincinnati, I have experienced quite a few things that are unique to the area like Skyline Chili, Graeter's, a Bearcats football game, the city bus system, two Fountain Square festivals, and more. I'm getting more comfortable in the city and I'm learning a lot about the area.

UC vs. North Carolina State

That's all I have for you right now.. but don't worry, I already have plans for a sequel to this post.