Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fresh Heirloom Tomato Sauce, and More Ways to Use Ricotta

I guess until summer ends I'll still be in my Italian phase.  I just can't resist those fabulous heirloom tomatoes and wonderful fresh herbs.  Here is my fresh tomato sauce served over stuffed shells (with my homemade ricotta, but a good packaged ricotta works fine, too), but I also also love it spooned over angel hair or other pasta.    At the end of the recipes, I'll also have some more ideas for using homemade (or not) ricotta and tomatoes.

When I say fresh tomato sauce, I'm not talking about spaghetti sauce - you know the long-cooked type that you find in a jar.  No, this is a barely cooked sauce that tastes like fresh tomatoes.  To start, I use heirloom tomatoes (the big purply ones) that I buy from the Specialty Farmer at Cedar Walk Farmer's Market.  If you've been reading my blog, you know that I love their produce and buy from them all the time.

My friend thought they looked "dicey" - all purply and cracked.  Yup.  They do.  It's because the Specialty Farmer leaves them on the vine until they're practically bursting,  and picks them just before coming to market.  Do not be fooled by the looks.  This results in the most flavorful tomatoes that I've ever eaten in this country.  Head over there if you live in Charlotte!  It's open on Tuesdays from 4-7.

Fresh Tomato Sauce
Serves 4
The first time I made this sauce, I cooked the tomatoes for 10 minutes, as I had seen in so many recipes.  But heirloom tomatoes, especially these cherokee purples should not be cooked that long, unless you want a very mushy, watery sauce.  By grating half of the tomatoes, and leaving half diced and not cooked, you end up with the most flavorful and best textured fresh sauce.

3 pounds heirloom tomatoes (preferably cherokee purples)
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon olive oil, or more to taste
garlic or diced shallots, optional
2 tablespoons white wine
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (your choice - oregano, thyme, sage, lavender)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Cut off a slice from the bottom of half of the tomatoes.  Use your fingers to pull out the seeds from the little pockets in the tomato.

Using a box grater on the coarse side, gently grate the tomatoes into a colander, set over a bowl.  Grate until you get to the cracked upper part of the tomato, and then discard the rest.

 The remaining tomatoes need to be skinned.   If the tomatoes are not very ripe, you'll want to make an X- cut in the bottom of the tomato.  Very ripe and cracked ones don't need to be cut.

Boil a pot of water and immerse a few tomatoes at a time for 10-15 seconds.  Immediately dip them in cold water to stop the cooking.  The skins will now peel off easily.

Cut off the craggy top of the tomato, remove the seeds and cut out any hard core, and then dice the tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice.  Add the chopped tomatoes to the grated ones in the colander.  If there are any hardish bits of tomato,  add these to the juice in the pot under the colander.  Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt over the chopped tomatoes and let them drain for 15 minutes.  You'll now have a potful of chopped tomatoes and a rather large quantity of tomato juice.

If you like garlic or onions in your sauce, add the olive oil to a pot and saute the onions until soft, or the garlic for a minute (I never use either in this sauce).  If not using the garlic and onions, pour the juice and hard bits of tomato into the pot along with the olive oil, wine, vinegar and chopped mixed herbs.  Heat the juice on medium-high heat until simmering.  Cook until the juice is reduced and thickened to a puree-type thickness (a matter of taste as to how thick it should be, but when you add the chopped tomatoes the sauce is going to get thinner as the tomatoes lose some of their liquid), about 10-15 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and add the chopped tomatoes.  Stir in sugar and remaining salt.  Taste, and adjust the sugar, salt and vinegar to get the taste you like.  Stir in the chopped basil (or you can add the chopped basil directly to the pasta).  Use immediately over pasta.

For Stuffed Shells
Makes 16 shells

16 large pasta shells
2 cups homemade or Polly-o Full-Fat Ricotta
2 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, or a mixture of Parmesan, Asiago and Romano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs
1 large egg
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line a baking dish with heavy-duty foil, and then place a sheet of nonstick foil in the bottom (NO Cleanup!).

Put a very large pot of water up to boil, mixing in 1 teaspoon of salt.
Add the pasta shells and cook for 1-2 minutes less than the box calls for.  Immediately rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking.  Sprinkle on a little oil to keep them from sticking.

While the shells are cooking, combine all of the filling, except for 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, in a bowl, and stir to mix well.

Spoon 1 well-rounded tablespoonful of filling into each shell.

When all of the shells have been filled, spoon on the sauce, and top with the remaining mozzarella.

You can leave the shells uncovered, or cover with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes, just until the filling is hot.  If the shells were covered, you might want to low-broil them briefly to slightly brown the cheese.  Watch carefully, however.  If you don't like any part of the pasta crusty, don't broil at all.

Fresh herbs are really hard to cut when they're wet.  I like to chop them first, then put them in a small strainer, wash them and then dump them onto a paper towel to dry thoroughly before adding to my dish.

Heirloom Tomato Sauce with Spaghetti and Mixed Italian Cheeses

Friday, July 1, 2011

Becca's Baby Shower Bear Cake

After making marshmallow fondant for my last baby shower event, I was excited to try covering a cake with fondant.  I had been hesitant before, because commercial fondant doesn't taste very good, but marshmallow fondant tastes pretty good and doesn't have a lot of artificial ingredients in it.  The second drawback came when I saw that fondant shouldn't be refrigerated.  That doesn't work for me, because I usually use buttercream made with egg whites and butter.  I decided to use Marshmallow Fluff instead of egg whites, but I wouldn't sacrifice the butter.  Somewhere along the road, I read that if the cake were kept at 45 degrees, the fondant would be okay.  Since I have a second refrigerator, it was easy to make that adjustment, and as you can see from the picture, the fondant came out beautifully.  The lettering is done with Wilton Sugar Sheets, and I didn't know how they would do refrigerated either, but they seemed to be fine as well.

I made the bear a week in advance to give it time to firm up so that I could easily move it to the cake.  It took an entire recipe of marshmallow fondant, and I added the green while the marshmallows were melted. This way I didn't have the arduous and messy task of kneading in the green.  (I needed some black and pink fondant, which came from the white batch that I made to cover the cake). Work on a piece of waxed paper, so that you can move the bear after it has been made.

Start with the legs.  They need to be fatter at the top (the hip/thigh part) and taper to the foot.  Just bend the bottom of this piece to make the foot, which you can perfect after the bear is assembled.

The legs are going to attached midway, or slightly farther back from the center of the body.

Once the legs are made, the body can be shaped.  It needs to be pear-shaped so that it comes down between the legs.  Make the body taller and thinner than it needs to be.  The head is going to weigh it down so that the finished bear will be shorter and fatter than you started. Attach the legs with a little water.

The arms get fashioned in the same manner as the legs with the top shoulder/bicep fatter than the hand.  If you have the arms too long, you can always pinch off some to get them right once you have the bear all assembled.

For the head, start with a round ball about 1/3 the size of the body.  Put a toothpick or stick of spaghetti into the body and then stick the round ball on.  Once you have the ball stuck onto the body, you'll be able to see if it is proportioned right.  If it isn't right, you get something that looks more like a pig, so just keep playing with it until it looks right.  The snout, nose and eyes, though will really start making it look like a bear.

Some directions for teddy bears have the snout be flat and oval, but mine just didn't look bearlike until I made the snout stick out and be more triangular.  Once you have it the shape you like, attach it with water.

Color a small bit of fondant with either dark brown or black coloring.  Make the nose a reverse triangle from the snout.  My bear has a substantial nose!  I think it could be smaller and still be very bearish.  The eyes, on the other hand, need to be pretty small to be right, and to me they seem to look best if they are touching the snout rather than farther up on the head.  The mouth is easiest made with an edible marker.

For the ears I flattened a very small ball of green fondant, and then made them slightly concave.  I used a fondant ball tool to make the indentation for the pink fondant.

To add the final touches. put on the pink foot pad with a small brown pad at the bottom.  For the toes use the edible marker.  The toes can either be on the pad like I did, or off the pad on the green part (these are the claws, so they can even be right at the edge of the green part of the foot).

To make the fur, use a small scissor to make tiny clips into the fondant, which will stick up and look like fur.  Lastly, score the head/snout area so that it looks like the head has been stitched.  I used a flat toothpick, but there is a fondant tool for this purpose, if you have one.

Slide the waxed paper and bear onto a cardboard round and set aside to dry for 5-7 days at least. Once the bear has dried out, you'll be able to lift him off of the paper and onto the blanket, or wherever else you like.

For the blocks:
The blocks came from a Wilton design, which you can find at http://www.wilton.com/idea/Baby-Block-Cake.  For the round cake, I had to proportion the blocks smaller, but you'll  have to adjust them to the size cake you make (mine was 12-inches).   To see if the proportions would work, I cut the blocks out of paper and laid them on an upside down cake pan.  Once I had the right size block, I printed out letters on my computer, testing out different fonts and sizes to get the one I liked best, and the size that looked good on the block size I had chosen.  After you do that, you can use the Wilton instructions for cutting out the Sugar Sheets and applying the sanding sugar.  A word of caution - you can't pipe and sprinkle all of the blocks with the sanding sugar, and then hope to transfer them to the cake.  If any of the piping gel has gone onto the back or off the sides of the block, the blocks will adhere to the surface you have them on.  Instead, cut out all of the blocks, attach the letters and only  apply the edge gel and sugar just before placing them on the cake.  To get the spacing nice, I put my little paper mockups on the cake, and then replaced each one with the Sugar Sheet block.  That way it was easy to see which block went where.

Making the blanket:

I used the blanket to hide the little cardboard round that the bear was on.  I was afraid that the bear might sink into the cake, so I put 3 straws into the cake (cut even to the top of the cake) to support him, and then the bear was on a 3-inch round cardboard that I found at Michael's Craft Store.

To get the correct size, I just kept adding strips to the blanket until it covered the cardboard.

To begin making the blanket, sprinkle a work surface with powdered sugar and roll a piece of fondant to  just thicker than 1/16-inch.  Cut out strips, about 1/8-inch wide.

Lay the strips horizontally, and  weave 1 strip through the others so that one horizontal is on top and one on bottom, alternating until the whole strip has been woven.

Fold back the strips that are underneath the vertical strip.

Place on another vertical strip, close to the first one.

Fold down the strips that were up, so you now have two strips that are woven.  Fold up the strips that are underneath, and repeat the whole process.  Move the strips close to each other after they are woven in.

When the blanket is the size you want, press down on it to mesh it all together nicely.

Cut the tails to an even length.  To make the fringe, make small cuts into the tails with a knife.  Slide the blanket onto a small round or square cardboard so that you can move it, and so that it provides a nice base for whatever will go on top of it.

For the cake I used the chocolate cake recipe from my wedding cake (http://amazingdessertrecipes.blogspot.com/2009/06/tales-of-tiered-cake-final-recipes.html) . I used a nail rose in the center of each to make sure that the cake cooked evenly in the middle (don't forget to remove it when you flip the cake out of the pan!).  It worked beautifully.  A center cone would also work, but then you have to put in a plug, so I prefer the nail method.  The frosting was an easy marshmallow meringue buttercream- see http://amazingdessertrecipes.blogspot.com/2010/02/valentines-day-layer-cake.html.  Leave out the cassis and use the powdered sugar and corn syrup sparingly, to taste.  Don't forget that you'll have the sweet fondant on the outside, so you don't want the frosting too sweet.  Some people won't eat the fondant, though, so it should be sweet enough.  You'll need a double recipe (3 pounds Marshmallow Fluff).