October 29, 2017

Cheesy Baked Pasta

I have officially declared it cheese season. It's the best thing available at the farmers' market since it's too cold to grow any produce, family visits mean obligatory cheese tastings, and really the only way to stay truly warm in this weather is to eat massive quantities of cheese to build up your very own personal insulation. It's the only way. It's science. Wisconsinites love to eat cheese curds, cheese cubes, cheese plates, pretty much everything. One of my personal favorites is smothered on pasta, especially when there's four whole kinds of cheese, perfectly al-dente pasta, a smidgen of bacon (ok, maybe more), and piles of crisp, cheesy breadcrumbs all baked in a big skillet.

You probably know by now that if there's bacon in a recipe it's the first thing I cook. Some would argue that this is for snacking purposes, but cooking the bacon first gives you the real prize: bacon fat to cook everything else in. If I had an Italian grandma she'd be rolling in her grave right now, but the one thing you can do to make a bechamel sauce better is starting it in bacon fat. Anyway, I cook some bacon or pancetta in a big pan until crispy, dice it up, and leave all that lovely fat in the pan.

From there, I add the garlic since you can't have a good pasta without any garlic. It only needs to cook for about a minute since burned garlic will ruin the entire dish. To be honest, if you burn the garlic you have to start over with more bacon (which means more bacon for snacking) so it's not the end of the world. I use this garlicky bacon fat as the base for my bechamel, which is just a white sauce made by thickening milk with a roux, a mixture of fat and flour. Here, the fat is the bacon and flour gets added to it and cooked until bubbly. You want to cook the flour a bit so the starches hydrate and are ready to take on the rest of the sauce. I find that it's better to warm the milk before whisking it in so it doesn't seize as much, but be careful not to scorch it. Just warm to the touch will suffice.

Once you have your thick, velvety bechamel, it's time to add the cheese. I like a blend of fontina for butteriness and creaminess, mozzarella for the gooey stretch factor, provolone for bulk and a hint of smoke, and parmesan for that sharp, cheesy flavor. Romano, asiago, havarti, or any of your other favorite cheeses would all be fantastic. As long as you have at least one melty cheese and a flavorful cheese your sauce will be delicious. The best part about experimenting with this recipe is that you can taste the sauce before you add the pasta, so it's easy to adjust before you commit to a whole skillet of it. The cheesy bechamel is mixed with whatever bacon you have left after noshing and plenty of pasta. I prefer a rigatoni or some other tubular shape to catch all the sauce, but it's easy to substitute whatever else you have on hand. I cook it for a few minutes less than the box recommends so that it still has some texture to it after baking.

Most pasta dishes would be ready to go in the oven at this point, but this one has one extra step. I toss some panko breadcrumbs in butter AND MORE CHEESE and slather them all over the top of the pasta. This gives you some crunch and that toasted cheese flavor that all meals should have. I made this for dinner for my roommates for our monthly family dinner, and they all agreed it was the perfect touch. My roommate just walked past my door and, upon hearing what I was writing about, made sure to tell me to tell you all that this dish "is good." If that doesn't convince you to make it I don't know what will, so buy out your grocery store's entire cheese section and help me make cheese season a thing.

3/4 lb Pasta
1/4 - 1/2 lb Bacon
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Flour
3 Cups Milk, Warm
6 oz Mozzarella, Shredded
4 oz Fontina, Shredded
4 oz Provolone, Shredded
3/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1 Cup Panko
4 T Butter, Melted

Heat oven to 375F and grease a 9x13" baking dish.

Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente according to package directions.

Heat a large pot over medium heat and cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and chop.

Cook the garlic in the bacon drippings for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant. Add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes or until thickened. Slowly whisk in the milk. Stir in the fontina, mozzarella, provolone, and 1/2 cup parmesan. Add the bacon.

Toss the panko in the melted butter. Add the remaining 1/4 cup parmesan.

Stir the pasta into the sauce. Pour into the prepared dish, top with the crumbs, and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 6-8
Recipe Adapted from Giada di Laurentiis

October 17, 2017

Thai Squash Soup

I'm so excited y'all. Yesterday I got to finally break out my boots and scarves and cute winter jackets because it finally felt a little chilly in the morning. Today I woke up and it was back to mid-60s and sunny so that little blip of fall was gone, but that's not stopping me from cooking all the squash and pumpkin and cranberries and cinnamon. While squash is such a versatile ingredient,  butternut squash makes some pretty awesome soups. My mom likes her classic version with just squash, some aromatics, and some chicken broth, but there's so many directions you can move forward with. I'm pretty sure butternut squash isn't a staple in Thai food, but it pairs surprisingly well with a lot of the flavors. Thai food is known for combining unexpected ingredients that ultimately balance each other perfectly, and this recipe is no exception.

I'll admit butternut squash is a pain to prepare. It's basically impossible to cut without stabbing yourself in the end, so it's often easier to just buy the plastic tubs of prepared cubed squash. I've found that if I can manage to slice the squash in half and remove the seeds, roasting it makes it tender and easy to peel and dice. It also brings out a natural sweetness and some lovely caramelized flavors.

Any good soup starts with some sauteed aromatics. Here, I use onion and garlic, which might not be the most authentic Thai base, but it tastes pretty good. I also add some ginger for that hint of spice and to start layering flavors. I deglaze the pan with some vegetable stock (or chicken stock if you prefer) and soy sauce for saltiness and complexity. Although the squash is pretty much cooked at this point, I throw it into the pot so it can absorb more liquid and become more easily blendable. I happen to have an immersion blender that makes this much easier, but a regular blender or even a food processor will work too. You can leave some chunks in there for texture but I prefer mine perfectly smooth.

It would be a pretty satisfying soup at this point, but there's so many more ways to add extra flavor. I add a can of coconut milk for creaminess, lime juice to cut the richness, peanut butter for a salty nuttiness, and chili sauce for heat. None of those ingredients should go with each other, let alone roasted squash, but thanks to the magic of Thai cooking it tastes pretty fantastic.

2 Butternut Squashes (4-5 lbs)
2 T Olive Oil
1 Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 1/2 tsp Grated Ginger
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
2 T Soy Sauce
1 14oz Can Coconut Milk
1 Lime
1/4 Cup Peanut Butter
Sriracha or Chili Sauce to Taste

Heat oven to 375F.

Halve the squash, remove the seeds, and rub the surface with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet, cover with foil, and roast for about an hour or until fork-tender. Peel and dice.

Heat some oil in a large pot. Add the onion and cook for 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the stock and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Add the squash, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth.

Stir in the coconut milk, juice from the lime, peanut butter, chili sauce, and salt and pepper. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes.

Serves 8

October 10, 2017

Maple Walnut Blondies

One of the most underrated Wisconsin products is the maple syrup. Yes, we have beer and cheese (and cheese curds) and bratwurst and buckets of ice cream, but are any of those acceptable breakfast foods? Ok, I'm in college so some of those are considered breakfast BUT nothing is better than some good maple syrup on your morning pancakes or French toast or waffles or what have you. My problem is that I think of all of those tasty breakfast foods, buy a big jug of local maple syrup at the farmers' market, and end up with tons left over. 

Since the end of the farmers' market is approaching and I have a tendency to impulse-buy things this may or may not be a particularly relevant problem right now. That's why I look for recipes that use maple syrup as a main ingredient and star flavor; I get my fill of maple and get to have more than just pancakes. These blondies are packed with maple flavor plus some addictive maple-candied walnuts, making them the perfect fall twist on one of my favorite desserts.

The first step is to make the candied walnuts. Typically, you heat sugar in a big skillet until it reaches a certain temperature and add your toasted nuts and cool it quickly. However, as I've learned in my candy science class over the past few weeks, this is much harder than it looks. I much prefer this cheat method, which entails tossing the nuts in the maple syrup and roasting until fragrant. Once cool, this yields reasonably crunchy bits of candied walnuts with a hint of maple flavor. It doesn't matter if they're not perfectly crisp since they'll be baked into the bars anyway. Of course, if you want to skip the candying stage and just toss in some toasted nuts it will still taste delicious.

The blondie batter is pretty simple as well; you don't even need a mixer. I start with brown sugar instead of regular granulated for that subtle molasses flavor and extra color. That gets whisked together with some melted butter since there's no need to incorporate air by beating softened butter and sugar together. These bars are dense and proud. From there, I add the eggs, more maple syrup, and vanilla then stir in the dry ingredients. Lastly, the walnuts are crumbled and folded in. Sometimes I reserve a handful for garnish, too. Ok, I lied. They're for snacking, so make extra.

The main tip I have for these bars is using good maple syrup. In case you weren't aware, the cheap bottles are called pancake syrup (or something similar) instead of maple syrup for a reason. If it contains corn syrup and flavorings instead of the real stuff, it legally can't be called maple syrup. These are the useful facts we learn in food science classes. It's worth the splurge on actual maple syrup, especially from the great state of Wisconsin. Midwest is best, y'all.

1 Cup Chopped Walnuts
3/4 Cup Maple Syrup
1 Stick Butter, Melted
1 Cup Brown Sugar
2 Eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
2 1/4 Cups Flour
1/2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt

Heat oven to 375F and line a baking tray with parchment. Line a 9x13" pan with parchment.

Toss the walnuts with ¼ cup maple syrup and a pinch of salt. Spread into an even layer on the cookie tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes or until golden and fragrant. Set aside to cool and break into small pieces.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350F.

Whisk the butter and brown sugar together. Add the eggs, remaining maple syrup, and vanilla. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and remaining salt together, then stir into the batter. Fold in the walnuts.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until cooked through.

Makes 16
Recipe Adapted from Something Swanky