No pressure!

How many of you live outside of the Eastern seabord?  Ok, so of you, how many have heard of something called mostaccioli?  Am I wrong when I say that it’s the poor younger brother of baked ziti?  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good baked pasta.  My issue here is that the mostaccioli I speak of is a kind of bland, basic, tasteless staple at Michigan weddings, and in hot bars.  Truly, it’s not worth all your effort to turn out something so bland and kinda boring.

So, Michiganders, and Midwesterners, please see below for a few easy, and very tasty tips to turn your mostaccioli into a mouth watering and delicious baked pasta dish.  I am listing them as DO’S and DON’TS.

  • DON’T refrain from salting your pasta water.  The Italian tradition says your pasta water should taste as salty as the sea.  Listen to them, if anyone knows of what they speak, as far as food, it’s the Italians!
  • DO add luscious cheese and some good ricotta to your casserole.  Now, I am making an assumption here that most people know how to make baked ziti, or mostaccioli?  If not, I’ll give you a run down at the end of this list.
  • DON’T over boil your pasta before you put it in the dish. (Self explanatory.)
  • DO add vegetables, and all kinds of meat or proteins to your dish.  As a matter of fact, I use the very best jarred sauce I can find, or you can make your own.  (You hear me?  No sweet, sugary jarred Prego here, please!)
  • DO be liberal with seasoning, with the exception of salt.  Remember, you have made your pasta cooking water “like the sea” so the salt will be an inherent part of your dish.  I usually add ricotta cheese, and salt that rather liberally too, so there is that salt to remember.  Too much salt isn’t what you’re going for here, it’s mellow, cheesy and luscious.  (Maybe I should just call this Luscious Bake.)
  • DO use a large enough pan.  I was lucky enough to be gifted a set of new bakeware this Christmas (Thanks, Pop!) and it is non-stick and comes with silicone inserts, so no need for the pot holders or oven mitts to get it out of the oven!! My point is, even cooking and enough crunchy brown stuff to go around makes for maximum deliciousness!
  • My final DON’T is, DON’T NOT make this!  It’s so good, and so easy, and will feed you and your mid-sized family for several days.  This, a salad, and perhaps a good glass of wine and some bread?  That’s what will keep you warm in these ridiculously cold days!

Sooo, I forgot to mention above, have you heard of ziti?  Don’t we all know what that is?  It’s a tubular pasta, with ridges, although, I have to say that might be rigatoni, I’ll have to check my pasta shapes book.  But, you can use either, you can also use any stuffed pasta, like tortellini  (I would refrain from ravioli, simply because it will bust open and make a mess, trust me on this one)  I am also imagining how great this would be with elbows, spirals, pretty much anything that will catch the filling and sauce.

Here is the basic recipe.  You can add anything you like, but the bake time should remain fairly the same.  If you’re super adventurous, you can use fresh pasta.  In that case cut back the pasta cooking time, but then you’re probably experienced enough to know when fresh pasta is ready to go.

Bep’s All Purpose Baked Pasta (aka Baked Ziti)

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Prep a large baking dish, about 12 inches long by 3 deep.  You can rub it with olive oil, but you really don’t have to.

  • 1 pound uncooked pasta (ziti, rigatoni, etc) Usually one box/bag
  • salt, olive oil
  • 1 large jar spaghetti sauce (or 4 cups of your homemade. I really prefer Newman’s Own, or Barilla here, but it’s up to you) (*Not a paid sponsor)
  • 1 15 oz tub of ricotta cheese (whole or skim, makes no difference)
  • 1 whole egg, per container of ricotta (you can leave out, but it makes a huge flavor difference)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 16 oz shredded mozzarella (I have used provolone too, really good)
  • 8 oz Parmesan, shredded or powdery

Any or all of the below:

  • 1 pint cooked mushrooms (sliced thin, sauteed in olive oil with garlic until soft)
  • 1 jar artichoke hearts, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach (or a packet of baby spinach leaves), washed and sliced fine (if using baby leave, just leave them whole)
  • Bunch of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, to taste) washed, dried, chopped
  • Meat (1 lb ground meat, chicken cooked, pork sausage diced, you get the idea)

Bring a large pot full of water to the boil.  When it comes to the boil, add enough salt so the water is well and truly briney, taste it (probably about a tablespoon of Kosher, 2 tsp of table salt).  Add a good glug of olive oil, and let it come back to the boil.  Once it’s rolling boiling, add the dried pasta.  Cook it to the packet’s instructions, but my rule of thumb is, stir it until they’re all rolling around in the water.  Once you make the other preparations, it will be ready to drain and sauce (close to 12 minutes.) Now, I said above, don’t overcook it, and I mean that.  You should feel slight resistance when you taste and bit into it, but not crunch, just a nice solid resistance to your teeth.  It should above all be cooked through.

While your pasta is cooking, place your ricotta cheese into a medium sized bowl and add the egg, beaten, and salt and pepper.  Use a fork to beat this until it’s fully incorporated.  Now, you will need to taste it for seasoning.  A little tiny bit of raw egg won’t kill you.  Adjust the salt and pepper so it tastes good to you.  At this point, if you’re using the herbs, add them, and beat again into the ricotta mixture.  Reserve a tablespoon or so for later.  Set this mixture aside.  Prep all the other ingredients you’re adding, if any.  Check if your pasta is done, and if it’s ready, drain it in a large colander. Once the pasta is drained, it’s really just a matter of plonking everything in the baking dish, adding cheese and baking it.

Leave your pasta to drain for a few minutes, and add the sauce to the bottom of your baking dish.  Add the pasta to the baking dish and mix until all the pasta is covered with sauce evenly.  Take 1/3 the ricotta mixture and mix it through the pasta and sauce.  If your using the other ingredients, with the exception of the artichokes, swirl them into the pasta now too.  Once everything in incorporated, add the artichokes to the ricotta and mix well.  Then spread the mixture evenly over the pasta, it doesn’t have to perfect, it will get covered with cheese at this point!.  Sprinkle the Parmesan over it, then cover the whole thing with the mozzarella.

Once everything is done, put it in your oven and bake for 45 minutes, and allow at least 10 minutes of cooling time to be able to cut through it.  If you reserved any herbs, sprinkle them over the plate when you’re serving.  For the two of us, this will make 3 dinners, or at least 2 dinners and 1 lunch.  It’s so good, and honestly, isn’t that easy?  Mostaccioli, FEH!!

This is what ours looked like tonight!

YUMMY!  And so easy!
YUMMY! And so easy!

For all of you that will be getting into Winter Storm Ivan, be safe, and don’t spend much time outside if you don’t absolutely have to!  Cook something instead!

I have found Nirvana…!!

I have always prided myself on being able to tell a great story.  I hear it all the time, “Oh, you’re so funny, you should write a book!” And so, I have thought about writing a book of my humorous stories and becoming the next David Sedaris (a complete joke on my part!).  Alas, usually after relaying the story a time or two, it is gone from my increasingly sieve-like mind.  And so, writing a book based on my crazy life, pales as time passes.  When the world of blogging came into being, I thought in a smug, self-satisfied way that it was only for people that liked to hear themselves talk, and who were caught up in the whole “me, me, me” culture that I see popping up all around me.  It took years for me to actually stop and read people’s blogs, on topics that interested me.  Like cooking.

And so this blog was created, and I have tried to keep it up, even though I sometimes forget about it totally.  I thought about cooking myself through all kinds of books, similar to the woman that cooked her way through Julia Child’s cook book (and had a movie made about her book, about her blog…)  I don’t have enough discipline to do that, my attention span just won’t stretch that far.  My next idea was to write what I was cooking on a weekly basis, but, true to form, I can’t remember to write it all up in the blog.  So, the next idea was to create my own ingredients, and show people how easy it is to make your own stuff, and take the mystery out of all the packaged foods we buy and eat on a daily basis.

One reason why this idea was a winner is where I grew up, versus where I live now.  I grew up in New York, in Flushing, Queens in fact.  Or as my niece and nephews call it “the big city.”  You can find ANY ingredient there, at any time of the day or night.  Not so in Michigan, just outside of Detroit, where I live now.  Although there are many upsides to living here, not the least among them being, it’s fairly handy to be able to walk down the street to what is called  “party store” and pick up wine, beer or spirits and mixers on any day of the week, well into the wee hours of the morning.  That counts for quite a bit when you’re a foodie and a cocktail-er, as I am.  I am actually passionate about telling people that they can make things so much better if they make it themselves, rather that going out and buying something that may be of questionable quality, and certainly of indeterminate freshness and pureness.

And that is now my goal.  I will attempt to give people the skinny on things that I myself make, or have made, that are simple and easy and infinitely cheaper than most of the stuff you try to buy in the stores.  Today’s lesson is homemade ricotta.  Full fat, home made and delicious cheese.

Living in New York for the first 30+ years of my life, the cheery, bright yellow Polly-O Ricotta was a wonderful staple of my cooking repertoire.  With my husband being a lacto-ovo vegetarian, good Italian casseroles are a great way to keep us fed and quickly ready for dinner.   Alas, after moving to Michigan, I have come to find that there isn’t a readily available source of ricotta that I can find at any store.  And thus the use in most Michigan recipes of cottage cheese in those foods that I have grown to love and make all the time.  That to me is sacrilege and 100% unacceptable.  But, I found a shop nearby that sells what I expect is normal, out of the tub ricotta for a ridiculous price.  I use it sparingly and don’t buy it much because it’s expensive.  Imagine my surprise when I was watching The Cooking Channel and saw one of the chefs making cannolli with homemade ricotta that he had sweetened before the cheese making process.  It was a revelation!  I COULD do that and on a regular basis, and a fraction of the cost!  And so, I made it today, and made the best ricotta gnocchi (thank you, Mark Bittman) that I have ever had!  On this day, I pass along to you, the simplest recipe I have ever made (although that’s not saying much) which packs an amazing flavor punch for as few ingredients as you have to have on hand!  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think, or what your experiences are doing it… I can always use a critique!

(NOTE: I use full fat milk here, but once you get used to making it, you can use skim or anything in between)

Homemade Ricotta cheese:

2 quarts of full fat milk (8 cups)
1 pint heavy cream (optional)
1/3 cup of lemon juice, no pips (1/4 cup if you use the heavy cream)
1 tsp salt

Implements you will need:
2 sheets of cheese cloth, folded so you have 6 layers
Colander with many holes (mesh ones are usually best, but a metal kitchen colander is fine)

In a heavy bottomed, large pot, combine the milk and cream and on a medium heat, bring the milk to a steady boil.  While heating it stir it occasionally to prevent a skin from forming over the top.  Keep and eye on it, and when you start to see a foam form around the sides of the pan, and it starts a slow rolling boil, pull the pan off the heat and allow to cool for a minute or two and stir in the salt.  After cooling briefly, and making sure all the salt is dissolved, add in the lemon juice.  Stir it gently until well combined.  You will see the mixture will thicken slightly, and you will see a little curdling.  Once you have stirred the juice in, stop.  Let it all sit for an hour to an hour and a half.  It will seem to be turning a darker yellow, but resist the temptation to stir it.  The idea here is that you want to allow the cheese to form as large of a curd as you can manage.

While the cheese is cooling, line the colander with the cheesecloth and set the whole thing into the sink.  After the cheese has set for a while, take it gently to the sink and use a ladle to spoon the mixture into the cheesecloth lined colander.  When you have about half of it in the cheesecloth, you can pour the remaining cheese into the colander and let it drain.

DO NOT press on the cheese curds to extract liquid.  Resist this as strongly as you can, so you don’t lose valuable cheese as opposed to liquid, or whey that drains out.  You will see the cheese will start to become creamier and more solid.  I usually wait anywhere from 15 to 30 min to check where the progress is.  The goal for this is to have a creamy and very small curd cheese.  After about 30 min, I usually gather up the cheese cloth and either hang it from the faucet in the sink, or transfer the whole thing to a mesh colander, which will allow the whey to drain much faster.

It is completely up to you, how long to drain this.  If you want ricotta, then maximum of 45 minutes draining.  If you want to make something like Indian paneer, at least 2 hours until the cheese is very firm (similar to firm tofu)

Fresh ricotta will not keep long, so my suggestion would be to make it as you need it and use it soon.  It really does not freeze well at all, so keep that in mind.  It will keep for several days well covered and completely cooled in the refrigerator. 

A few notes here on flavoring.  You can very easily make this a sweet cheese for desserts by omitting half the salt and adding in 2 tablespoons of sugar in the step where you add the salt.  Remember to stir well so all the crystals melt and are fully combined, then proceed with the lemon as above.  Also, on the savory side, I made a batch of this with 3 finely chopped cloves of garlic (you may even want to grate them finely), 1 teaspoon of dried fresh basil, and a good solid grinding of freshly cracked black pepper.  Also, for the curdling agent, the lemon is a good non-flavoring agent, but I have also seen about half the amount of white vinegar used.  I have not used it myself, so I don’t know how the vinegar effects the flavoring.

OK, go forth and create cheese!

E.