Friday, October 25, 2013

A French Chef, an Italian Diva, and a Luxurious Lasagna

One of my favorite ways to spend my Saturdays is to cook something elaborate and listen to The Splendid Table on NPR. Last Saturday, Lynn Rosetta Casper spoke to Daniel Boulud, French Chef, author, and owner of his three-star Michelin restaurant Daniel, as well as many more, who was promoting his new book Daniel. I was so inspired, that I pulled out his recipe for "Lasagna with Chicken, Wild Mushrooms, and Fontina Cheese." This bechamel based lasagna combines tender chicken with spinach, wild mushrooms, and an entire pound of fontina cheese! The mixture is seasoned with white wine, nutmeg, and white pepper, then topped off with a generous layer of Parmesan cheese! It's very rich and extremely delicious! Although somewhat time consuming, this luxurious lasagna is the ultimate comfort food! 

After presenting my wondrous concoction, and after my husband took his first bite, he made a reference to Chicken Tetrazzini. What? WHAT? Well, on second thought, given the ingredients, it should be reminiscent of Chicken Tetrazzini; although, much tastier and definitely a more sophisticated presentation. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicken Tetrazzini originated in San Francisco and was created for and named after Luisa Tetrazzini. Luisa Tetrazzini was a world renowned opera singer from Florence, who moved to San Francisco to sing in the early 1900s. Her most famous performance was on Christmas Eve in 1910, when she got up on a platform and serenaded an estimated 200-300,000 San Franciscans! She was also the fat lady of "it's not over till the fat lady sings!" No wonder such an uber-rich dish was created for this larger-then-life and deeply revered performer!   

I baked this lasagna in a standard 9"x13" Pyrex baking dish, and it did bubble over a little in the oven. So, if you have a slightly deeper pan, I would recommend using that. If not, place a baking sheet underneath the pan in the oven, to catch any possible drips. In addition, one 9-ounce bag of spinach works well because after you remove the stems, you will be pretty close to the 8-ounces that the recipe calls for. And finally, serve this luscious lasagna with crusty bread or breadsticks, a big green salad, and a bottle of white wine. So, whether you are singing for your supper or feeding a crowd, everyone will love this decadent lasagna, which just might summon an encore!

Lasagna with Chicken, Wild Mushrooms, and Fontina Cheese

Serves 10-12, Can be assembled a day ahead.

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely diced
2 stalks of celery, finely diced
1 pound wild mushrooms (I used cremini mushrooms), trimmed and roughly chopped
1/2 pound spinach leaves, stems removed, washed
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra to grease pan
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into approximately 1/2" pieces
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups milk
1/2 bunch Italian parsley leaves, roughly chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
16 dried lasagna noodles
1 pound fontina cheese, cut into small dice
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

To cook the vegetables, chicken, and bechamel:
In a large Dutch oven or stockpot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and celery with a sprinkle of salt and white pepper, and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high, and add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, then add the spinach with a sprinkle of salt and white pepper. Cook until the spinach is wilted and the mushrooms are tender. Remove the vegetables from the pot and reserve. (After sitting, my vegetable mixture seemed to release some liquid, which I was slightly concerned about, but didn't cause any problems when added to the bechamel. So don't worry!)

Add the butter to the same pot, and adjust the heat to medium. Season the chicken pieces on all sides with salt and white pepper, and add to the melted butter. Cook, stirring, until the chicken is almost cooked through but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until almost completely reduced. (This took about 10 minutes, which made me afraid that the chicken would be overcooked, but surprisingly it remained very tender.) Sprinkle the flour over the chicken, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, allowing the flour to coat the chicken and absorb the liquid. Gradually stir in the cream and milk, scraping the pot to release any cooked flour from the bottom and sides (if necessary, stir with a whisk to break up any lumps). Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, allowing the liquid to thicken. With a spoon or ladle, reserve 1 cup of the liquid. Remove the pot from the heat, and add the cooked vegetables. Add the chopped parsley. Season generously with nutmeg, salt, and white pepper to taste.

To assemble the lasagna:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the noodles for about 8 minutes; they should be not quite cooked through. Strain the noodles in a colander, and rinse in cold water. Drain, then toss noodles with 2 tablespoons of olive oil to prevent sticking. Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter a 9"x13" baking pan. Place a layer of 4 noodles on the bottom, overlapping them slightly. Top with one third of the chicken mixture, then one third of the diced fontina. Repeat layering twice, finishing with a layer of noodles.

Spread the reserved 1 cup sauce on the noodles and then sprinkle with Parmesan.

(At this stage, the lasagna can be covered and refrigerated overnight.) Cover with aluminum foil or a lid and bake for 30 minutes. (I would recommend buttering the foil to prevent the Parmesan from sticking once removed.) Increase heat to 400 degrees, remove the foil, and continue to bake until golden brown, 10-15 minutes more. (If not browned, run under the broiler for a minute or two, don't let it burn!)

Recipe slightly adapted from Elle Decor.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Batter Up!

The Major League Baseball Playoffs are in full swing, with the Red Sox versus the Tigers and the Dodgers versus the Cardinals, it's time for a baseball party! Sliders (tip: 1 pound ground beef makes 12 sliders), chips, and cracker jacks makes a fun menu, but baseball cupcakes make it a grand slam! While I have nothing against store-bought cake mix, I do detest that miserable excuse for frosting in a can. Yuck! In fact, buy the cake mix, but make James Beard's Butter Cream Frosting, instead. It's so easy! No boiling, no cooking, just cream together butter and confectioners' sugar, mix in some heavy cream and whatever flavorings (e.g., vanilla, instant coffee, liqueur, maple syrup, orange juice, etc.) to create a delicious frosting that will send that canned frosting back to the minors! 

These "Baseball Cupcakes with Butter Cream Frosting" are so cute and just what the catcher called for! In addition, you can add orange food coloring to make "Basketball Cupcakes," or yellow for "Tennis Ball Cupcakes," or make half the frosting black to make "Soccer Ball Cupcakes," etc. It's an easy and fun way to celebrate whatever sport you're into! Oh yeah, one more thing, Go Cards!

Baseball Cupcakes with Homemade Butter Cream Frosting

Makes 24 cupcakes

For the Cupcakes
1 box cupcake mix of choice
White cupcake liners
1 recipe James Beard Butter Cream Frosting (follows)
2 red gel icing writing tubes (available in the cake section of most grocers)

For James Beard's Butter Cream Frosting
1/3 cup softened butter
3 cups confectioners' sugar
3-4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (for alternative flavorings: use 1 tsp. liqueur, or 1 tbs. instant coffee, or 1/4 cup maple syrup omitting the cream, or 1/3 cup orange juice omitting the cream, etc.)

For the Cupcakes
Make cupcakes according to package directions. Allow to cool on wire racks before decorating.

For the Butter Cream Frosting
Cream together the butter and sugar. Then vigorously stir in the heavy cream and flavorings of choice. (For these baseball cupcakes, I just used vanilla extract.) Spread the frosting evenly over each cupcake. Allow the frosting to set. Using the gel icing writing tubes, decorate each cupcake with two semicircles, then add the "stitching" along the semicircles. How fun!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chocolate Truffles au Naturel

Truffles are a subterranean fungus which have been found in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North America. The most prized and exceedingly expensive are from France and northern Italy. Truffles grow symbiotically with oak, hazelnut, poplar and beech trees. These gnarly looking lumps, called "the diamonds of the kitchen" by Brillant-Savarin, have a very strong mushroomy, meaty, and earthy taste that is hard to describe, but enhances any ingredient that it touches. For instance, once I was served warm popcorn generously adorned with black truffles and it was astonishingly good!

So, while real truffles are a rare treat for most people, on a regular basis, chocolate truffles are not! In fact, with careful instructions, they are fairly easy to make at home and don't cost a lot! Unlike the fancy, perfectly round, decorated truffles that are mass produced by chocolatiers everywhere, my favorite are chocolate truffles that resemble real truffles, having emerged from the earth covered with "dirt." This recipe for "Chocolate Truffles au Naturel" have a smooth creamy ganache filling encased in a crisp, cocoa-coated chocolate shell. They are quite delicious and positively addictive! You'd be proud to serve these to anyone at anytime!

Chocolate Truffles au Naturel

Makes 30-40, depending on the size (sounds like a lot, but trust me they will be gone very quickly!) (recipe can also be doubled successfully)

For the ganache filling
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons liqueur of choice (e.g., Grand Marnier, Cognac, Rum-which is what I prefer)

For the chocolate coating
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

For the ganache filling
In a saucepan, heat the chocolate and heavy cream over low heat, stirring occasionally until the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat and pour into a bowl. Stir in your liqueur of choice. Place the mixture in the refrigerator until it is firm, a minimum of 2 hours.

Cover a baking sheet with a piece of parchment or wax paper. Using two spoon, scoop out and drop mounds of 1/2-1 teaspoonful, depending on the size you wish to make, onto the paper. Refrigerate until very cold or overnight.

When cold, loosen the mounds from the paper and use your fingers to make them as round as you can, if not already so. (This can get messy, but remember these are supposed to look natural, so they don't have to be perfect!) Refrigerate until ready to coat.

For the chocolate coating
Place a jelly-roll pan or plate in the refrigerator to chill well.

Place the chocolate in a oven-safe saucepan and place in a very low oven. Check after a few minutes, stir to see if the chocolate is melted. If not, place back in the oven and gently melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally until melted. (Alternately, you can melt the chocolate in a microwave over 15-second bursts, stirring after each burst until melted.)

When the chocolate has melted, stir it well from time to time as it cools to body temperature. (This is determined when you notice no difference in temperature when you touch the chocolate with the knuckle of your pinky finger.)

Remove the chilled pan or plate from the refrigerator and sift the cocoa powder evenly over it. 

Remove the truffles from the refrigerator and drop two at a time into the coating chocolate. Using two forks, turn the truffles, coating them well with chocolate. Lift a truffle with one fork, tapping that fork with the other to knock off excess chocolate, then drop the coated truffle onto the pan or plate containing the cocoa powder. Using a spoon, quickly roll and coat with the cocoa powder, then push it to the side. Continue with the remaining truffles. When done, place the pan or plate into the refrigerator to cool completely and firm the chocolate coating.

After the coating has cooled and the truffles are firm enough to handle, using your fingers, palm-side down, shake each truffle to remove excess cocoa powder. Transfer them to a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. (They will keep well in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks and can be stored in the freezer for several months.)

To serve, mound the truffles in a serving dish. Can be served at room temperature or cold from the refrigerator. They are quite indulgent!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Roquefort

Few things in the culinary world are as ethereal as the elusive souffle. Souffles were created in the late 18th century by Antoine Beauvilliers, author of L'Art du Cuisinier (aka., The Art of French Cookery) and owner of the famous Beauvilliers, which was the most famous and elegant restaurant in Paris at that time. Souffles, as well as other egg dishes, are very popular in French cuisine. Souffles are served as a course during a meal and are positively breathtaking to look at! So, why don't more people in America make souffles? Possibly because of the rumors that they are difficult, fall without warning, or have never even tasted one!

I've made many souffles over the years, and I yet to have one collapse. The most important thing to remember is to separate your eggs very carefully. There must not be any trace of shell. When cracking eggs, always whack them on a flat surface as opposed to the side of a bowl. It produces less shell shatter. The other and most important thing is to make sure there is absolutely NO yolk in the egg whites. The fat in the yolks will not allow your egg whites to hold their loft. As long as you separate your eggs properly, you too can make a perfect souffle! 

This recipe, from French Classics Made Easy by Richard Grausman, for "Roquefort Souffle" is my absolute favorite cheese souffle! It's like a Roquefort cloud and in my opinion the best souffle I've ever tasted! If you love Roquefort as much as I do, you can add an extra ounce of cheese, it will still turn out perfect and even more delicious! I would recommend starting the meal with a bowl of soup, like Cream of Asparagus or the like, then serve this fabulous souffle along with a baguette, mixed green salad adorned with pear slices and toasted walnuts and dressed in a nice French vinaigrette (recipe follows), and finishing with homemade chocolate truffles and a glass of champagne! It's a classic menu and not one you'll soon forget!

Roquefort Souffle

Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as an entree.


4-cup souffle mold
Butter and all-purpose flour, for souffle mold
1 cup milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt (not in the original recipe)
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
2 ounces Roquefort cheese, crumbled (about 2/3 cup) (plus another ounce, if you like)
4 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar


Preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the rack set in the lowest position. Liberally butter a 4-cup souffle mold and lightly dust with flour, tapping out any excess.

In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat. While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolks and water together in a small bowl. Add the 3 tablespoons flour to the yolks and blend until smooth.

Before the milk boils, stir about 1/4 cup of it into the egg yolk mixture to thin it. When the remaining milk boils, add it and stir well.

Return the egg-milk mixture to the saucepan and whisk rapidly over medium-high heat, whisking the bottom and sides of the pan until the mixture thickens and boils, about 30 seconds. (Turning the pan as you whisk helps you easily reach all areas of the pan.) Continue to whisk vigorously for 1 minute while the souffle base gently boils. It will become shiny and easier to stir.

Reduce the heat to medium and allow the souffle base to simmer while you stir in the mustard, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the cheese and mix well until it melts completely and the mixture comes to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and cover.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes.

Pour the warm souffle base into a large bowl. With a whisk, fold in one-third of the beaten egg whites to lighten it. With a rubber spatula, carefully fold in the remaining egg whites. Stop folding as soon as the mixture is blended: a little egg white may still be visible.

Pour the souffle mixture into the prepared mold, leveling the surface with your spatula. If any of the batter touches the rim of the mold, (mine didn't even come close) run your thumb around the rim to clean it off.

Bake for 5 minutes. Lower the temperature to 425 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. (You can test for doneness by inserting a skewer or cake tester.) The souffle should rise 1 1/2 to 2 inches above the mold and brown on the top. Serve immediately!

French Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 1/2 cups


3 tablespoons tarragon vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

*Additional ingredients that can be added are 1 garlic clove (halved and removed when the dressing has acquired the desired garlic flavor), chopped fresh herbs, chopped shallots, and chopped hard-cooked egg. To accompany the Roquefort souffle, I kept it simple and did not include any additional ingredients.


In a small bowl or jar, mix the first five ingredients together. Add the oil and mix until all the ingredients are well blended and smooth. Blend well again just before using. Any leftover vinaigrette can be stored in the refrigerator for another delicately flavored green salad.

***You may also be interested in Giandua Souffles, a fabulous dessert and can be made ahead!