Saturday, April 30, 2016

Creamy Risotto - A delicious dinner in 30 minutes.

For a great, easy meal, consider risotto. For this Italian meal consisting of a short soft creamy rice and about anything else you desire you don't even need a recipe; just more of a technique which I will describe below.

Julian's Chicken Mushroom Risotto
This classic Italian comfort food is Arborio rice cooked in meat or seafood stock and seasoned with Parmesan or another cheese to add creaminess and flavor.  I usually toss in some mushrooms and carrot for color, but that too is optional. Below I provide you the basic technique and notes on what options you have.

Today I'm making mine with stock I prepared after last winter's roasted chicken, but if you have good ham, turkey or fish stock in the freezer, this is an excellent way to use it. Mine has a few vegetables and pieces in it, which will work fine, but is optional. The nice thing is you can even use a canned stock and it will still be good. Whatever you use should be at room temperature or warm. Since I'm starting with frozen stock, I'll have a hot pot on the stove. If you are using canned, you can go with room temperature, but not cold/refrigerated, as it will slow the cooking. If using a canned stock that isn't very strong tasting, use a cheese that has a stronger flavor to compensate like Pecorino, Parmesan or even Pepper Jack cheese.

Prep your Ingredients
While the broth/stock heats, chop your onions, garlic and grate your optional carrots. Shred your cheese (I prefer Pecorino or Parmesan, but they must be freshly grated to melt properly. Any cheese will do. You need about 1/3 of a cup grated.) I'm adding some mushrooms to the stock above for even more flavor, so I've chopped that as well and added it to the pot of liquid. Open your bottle of white wine.

Start by Sauteing Onions
Choose a heavy pot or Dutch oven and place it over medium heat with a couple tablespoons of olive oil.  Add some finely diced onion, shallot or leek. Add a couple cloves of chopped garlic and stir until the onions are soft and translucent, 3-4 minutes. .

Add Arborio Rice
I make about 1/2 cup per person for large servings, or half that for small bowls. The rice doubles in size as it cooks, so don't worry if it doesn't look like enough when you begin. Add the rice to the cooked onion mixture and stir to coat in the oil, about 1 minute.

Add Optional Grated Vegetables
Along with the rice you can also add some finely-shredded carrots, which can give your risotto a nice color and add extra flavor. But since I have carrot in my stock already, I'll just add it in larger chunks when I add the chicken stock.

Add White Wine
Increase the heat to medium-high and add wine into the pot, about 1/3 cup. I don't measure and you shouldn't either. You can use any kind of white wine that you have open but I prefer Chardonnay. If you don't have wine you can use a dry vermouth or dry sherry.  Stir constantly until it's reduced by more than half.

Stir in Broth/Stock
Add enough of broth/stock you're using to fully cover your rice, then stir. You don't have to stir it constantly, but stir it often at this stage. When half the liquid has been absorbed, add more broth and start stirring again. A slow steady stir is desirable at this stage so you can insure it does not dry out and stick. You want the rice to stay pretty wet and soupy so it has a chance to form that nice, creamy texture it is known for. I usually repeat this step one more time, adding a third round of broth/stock cooking it until it is al dente, but not mushy. Turn the heat to low.

Stir in Dairy and Solids
Add a tablespoon or two of butter and stir in. Stir in the shredded cheese of your choice. If adding raw peeled and cleaned shrimp, stir them in now to cook (3-4 minutes). Add some heavy cream (a tablespoon or two will do, or substitute milk, buttermilk or other favorite dairy product. They all add creaminess to the dish.)

Taste and Season
Now taste the risotto, season it with salt and pepper to your taste. Add a little lemon zest, orange zest, chili flakes, or a squeeze of lemon juice if needed for flavor.

Julian's Creamy Chicken and Mushroom Risotto

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Homemade Pizza with the Perfect Crust and Pepperoni Cups

The best pizza really can come from your home kitchen, if you can make a good dough and bake it properly. That's the real challenge. How do you make a good dough, and then how do you get the super hot pizza oven that bakes it to a crisp-chewy perfection?  And if you do, how do you cut it like a professional. I've got tips for you in all of these areas that will insure a pizza your Italian relatives would be proud of and your friends will think came from the area's best pizzeria!

Julian's Homemade Pizza
A good quality stand mixer with dough hook is ideal. I use my KitchenAid mixer for this. When I'm done it is rather warm, so it gives the mixer a workout. Any lesser product may fail under the stress. I use the mixer to do all of the kneading, as I'm going for a chewy-crisp crust of medium thickness. You can of course knead the dough by hand.

A good quality kitchen scale is also needed for baking. Mine is an Oxo brand electronic scale and can switch between ounces and grams easily. It can also have a bowl placed on it, then you can zero out the weight so you are not weighing the bowl but just its ingredients. Measures in cups and teaspoons aren't very helpful as it depends on the ingredient type. So always try to use weight when possible and specified in the recipe. I've given you other measures in case you don't have a scale.

Pizza Peels, metal and wood. Ideally you want both.
Pizza peels or paddles make moving your pizza around much easier. Invest in both a metal and a wood peel. I make the pizza on the wood peel and move it into the oven this way, with a little help from my metal peel. I use the metal peel to check under the crust during baking, to turn it if necessary and to remove the pizza from the oven placing it on a cutting board or back onto the wooden peel for cutting.

A thick baking steel (shown below) makes all the difference in the crust of your pizza.  This is a solid steel plate that preheats to a very high temperature, and holds considerably more heat than any of the baking stones. I have the Nerd Chef brand. You can't get the same results with a stone or directly on the rack. You need to invest in a steel that is 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick, preheat it for an hour at 500F-525F degrees or under the broiler with the door left slightly ajar.  Let it cool for at least 120 minutes after turning off the oven before attempting to remove it. It holds the heat for a long time. Be careful.

Nerd Chef Baking Steel - I have the 'pro' model, .375" thick.
It's very heavy but works like a charm.
If you are going to make dough frequently, then a cylindrical dough rising bucket is something else you may want to invest in. I just use a bowl and plastic wrap, as my recipe below makes about three large pizzas and that's enough for three weeks for my family. But if you are making more dough, having the air-tight bucket is a good idea and they are inexpensive.

Julian' s rocking pizza knife.
Finally, the pizza cutter. A classic pizza wheel will rip it up and push your ingredients around. A bigger wheel is better than a smaller one if that's what you can get. They work in a pinch, but a classic rocking pizza knife is preferred.

After I oil the edge, I add a layer of sliced cheese before I add the sauce.
There are a lot of people into making really good quality home pizza. Some have invested in wood burning ovens, table top camp pizza ovens, etc. The Serious Eats website has a great article on the topic including recipes for all varieties of pizza, from classic Neapolitan to Chicago style pan pizza.

Crisp Pepperoni Cups
If you love a good pepperoni pizza, you are probably in the group that likes the pepperoni baked on top so it curls into a nice little cup with a crisp brown edge. Not all pepperoni will do this and I had to do some research to figure out how to accomplish this. While Serious Eats also discusses this and tests a wide range of products, the long and short is this. Purchase a whole stick of pepperoni and slice it yourself to a medium thickness. Very thin slices and very wide pieces as typically sold in the store do not crisp and curl. Look for a narrow diameter classic stick of pepperoni and use a knife to slice it as shown below. Some brands brown more than others, but in my experience most hand sliced narrow sticks will curl. For the Smoke and Cure brand I used above, it browns lightly without any need for the broiler. In the photo above, I turned on the broiler for the last minute or so of baking, but I typically do not do this as I find them browned enough from the normal oven.

Medium thickness hand sliced pepperoni.
Pizza Dough
My recipe comes courtesy of a high school friend, Jeff Fox. I've made only minor modifications. The key here is to make it well in advance. I prefer to make it on Tuesday for pizza on Friday. This is important to achieving a pizzeria quality crust. The little bit of sugar in the recipes helps with browning. I use all-purpose flour and get really good results, but for a full understanding of the different flour options you may want to read this. Bread flour also works well.

1 kg all-purpose flour (or 8 cups or 35 ounces)
    plus a bit more for dusting the work surface
5 g yeast (or 1 1/2 teaspoons)
20 g sea salt (4 teaspoons)
10 g sugar (2 teaspoons)
650 g bottled still warm water* (23 ounces)

*Yeast doesn't react as well when mixed with the chemicals commonly found in tap water. Instead use purified bottled drinking water, warmed in a microwave to 100-110F degrees. Warm to this temperature just prior to use.


In your mixer's bowl, blend the dry ingredients on low using the dough hook attachment.

With the mixer running on low, slowly add warm water until the dough begins to come together forming a ball. Run the mixer two minutes more on low, scraping up any pool of dough that forms on the bottom or sides with a rubber spatula to keep the dough combined. If the dough climbs up too high on the hook, scrape it down and then restart the mixer.

Turn the mixer to the second speed setting and mix for five minutes more scraping up any dough from the bottom/sides of the bowl or down from the top of the hook as needed. While the dough is mixing, lightly oil a large bowl or rising bucket.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Turn and kneed the dough for another 2-3 minutes and shape it into a ball. You can also do this in the mixer, on low speed for 1-2 minutes. I like to handle the dough at this stage, but that is not required. Dough temperature is an important variable to control when baking all breads. You should always check your dough temperature when you are done mixing. Ideally, it will be 75-78F (24-26 C) at this stage.

Place the dough ball into an oiled rising bucket or bowl and coat the dough ball lightly with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap or an air-tight lid and let it rest on the counter for 2 hours. The dough should approximately double in size. Punch down the dough and re-cover. Let it sit for another 4-6 hours.

Punch the dough down again and then turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead it a couple more times. Rub lightly with oil and cover with a clean kitchen towel and let it sit for another hour or two on your work surface. It may continue to rise.

Now, punch it down one last time, and turn once or twice giving it a final knead. Cut the dough into 3 pieces about 600 grams each (for thick crust large pizzas) or 6 pieces 300 grams each (for thin crust pizza). Weigh the pieces for consistency. Form each into a round ball shape. Place in separate plastic containers sprayed lightly with olive oil. Ideally these will be round containers. If you don't have plastic containers, wrap each piece loosely in plastic wrap or place each in a plastic bag, noting that it will continue to rise and may double again in size. Don't fold the bag over to restrict rising and do not stack the pieces, so they can still rise unencumbered. You can also store the dough in one large piece in an air tight container in the refrigerator and divide it when ready to bake if you prefer. However you store it make sure it has some room to expand as it will continue to rise in the refrigerator.

Let the dough sit in your refrigerator for 3 days, then bake. The dough holds well in the refrigerator for up to a week, but should not be held there longer.

If you can't use all of the dough fresh after the three-day rest in the refrigerator, you can freeze the dough for up to 3 months.  If you do freeze the raw dough, take it out the day before you wish to use it and place it in the refrigerator to thaw. For even easier pizza, par-bake the crusts, then freeze them. You can top them right from the freezer and bake. This makes for a quick week-night pizza.

When ready to bake, let the dough sit on the counter at room temperature for 1-3 hours before baking. While it's coming to room temperature, pre-heat the pizza steel on the top rack of a 525F degree oven for an hour. I typically use the convect-bake mode but if you don't have that option it isn't a problem.  Make sure the rack is close to the broiling (top) element, but will have at least 3 inches clearance when the pizza is on the steel. In my oven this means the rack is placed at the second to the highest rung.

Place the dough on a very lightly-floured work surface in the center and turn it a couple times, and giving it a light dusting of flour on the top, flattening it out and stretching and shaping with your hands into a round circle. Ideally you will use your hands to stretch the dough to size, by lifting it and moving it from hand to hand letting gravity stretch it into shape. Alternatively you can use a floured rolling pin but this option is not idea. Stretch the dough to about 12-14 inches across, into the classic round pie shape, the size of your pizza peel and steel.

Remember the crust will expand during baking, so don't be concerned if it looks too thin at this stage. If you can toss it on your knuckles instead, as a pro like Tony Gemignani does, go right ahead as that is a better and faster way for a consistent, round and thinner crust pizza. But I find the gravity stretching method from hand to hand works just fine, with less mess.

When properly stretched and shaped, sprinkle your wooden peel generously with corn meal or semolina course ground flour. Fold half the dough over on itself and transfer to the peel. Lightly oil the edge being careful not to get oil on the peel, as it will inhibit sliding the pizza off onto the baking steel. Cover with your favorite sauce, cheeses and other toppings. A pizza can sit in this state for an hour awaiting baking but the sooner you move it to the oven the easier it will be to move off the peel. I always place a few slices of cheese on the crust first and place the sauce on top of that, but this choice is yours and assembly order is not overly important.

Sliced cheese, then sauce, chopped onion, garlic, peppers, sliced mushrooms
pepperoni and shredded cheese. Sprinkled with dried oregano and basil.
Ready for the oven. For crisp pizza cups, place the pepperoni on top.
When ready to bake the pizza slide it onto the hot baking steel. If it doesn't slide off easily (which in my experience it rarely does), use the metal peel to assist you by slipping it under the pizza and sliding it off onto the back of the steel. Remember, that the baking steel is very hot and that you must place the pizza far back near the furthest edge of the steel on the first attempt. Do not try to sit the raw crust on the hot steel from the front and slide it back. This will not work. Slide your wood peel that is holding the pizza all the way to the back of the baking steel and then tip it up so the pizza crust first makes contact near the back of the hot steel. Slip the metal peel under the raw crust and use it to ease the pizza quickly onto the metal steel, leaving the pizza in place centered on the hot steel until it begins to cook. If you need to move it let it bake a minute, and then use the metal peel to re-position.

It should take approximately 8-10 minutes for a large thick crust pizza or 5-7 minutes for a thinner crust pizza to be done. The crust should brown nicely and puff up.

For a thinner crust pizza you may have to use the oven's broiler function to finish the top of the pizza if needed standing at the oven the entire time to ensure it doesn't burn. For the thicker crust, which takes longer to bake, I've not found I need to do this.

Remove from the oven with the metal pizza peel transferring onto a wooden cutting board or back onto the wooden peel for slicing. Use the pizza knife in a rocking motion to cleanly cut the pizza into pieces. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Fresh from the oven, a thick chewy, yet crispy pizzeria-style crust,
in various types from Julian's kitchen!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Kung Pao Spaghetti

This perfect Marco Polo dish, a fusion of Italian and Chinese cuisines, seems to have been invented by California Pizza Kitchen. I had this at their restaurant and found it to be so good I wanted to make it at home.

Julian's Kung Pao Spaghetti
It's simple to prep the several ingredients ahead of time, and just do the final cooking when you are ready for the meal. I love the spicy flavors combined with the classic thick spaghetti noodles, and the crunch that the peanuts provide.


1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 tablespoons corn starch
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 3/4 cup raw peanuts
2 green onions, thinly sliced

For the sauce:
2/3 cups light soy sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry sherry or white wine
1 tablespoon red chili paste with garlic, or more, to taste
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon sesame oil


In a small bowl, whisk together all of the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Cut chicken breasts into bite-sized cubes. Season chicken breasts with a mixture of corn starch, salt and pepper by sprinkling the mixture over the chicken and turning and doing the other side in a similar fashion. We are not attempting to 'bread' the chicken, just help it crisp up a bit when cooking. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken to skillet and cook until cooked through and lightly browned, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside. Add the raw peanuts to the skillet with a little salt, and stirring constantly cook until browned, about 2 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain well.

Reheat skillet and add garlic and white portions of green onion and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in soy sauce mixture and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in pasta, cooked chicken and cooked peanuts.

Plate and top with the chopped green upper stems of the green onions and serve.

Chicken browned and slightly crisp.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Loaded Cauliflower Mash - Flavorful and healthy.

Mashing cauliflower is a favorite with dieters, replacing their mashed potatoes with this vegetable. But they don't actually have to be low calorie or flavor free. But if you follow my recipe below and leave out the high-fat ingredients, they will still be very flavorful and healthy.

Julian's Loaded Cauliflower Mash
I make several varieties of this and they are simple to make. I like them also as a make-ahead side that can be finished by popping them in the oven when I'm ready for them even several days later.

In the below recipe I give you my 'loaded' version, which simulates the stuffed loaded twice-baked potato. But you really can substitute to your taste and dietary preferences. I've marked the optional items. Whatever you choose to add, the basic technique and ingredients are the same.

The key ingredients: cauliflower, onion and garlic
Ingredients (4-6 servings)

1 large head cauliflower
4 slices bacon (optional)
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 small onion or shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
2 tablespoons milk, cream/buttermilk (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives or green onions
1/4 cup low-fat shredded shredded cheese


Fill a large pot with water and add a pinch of salt. Set the pot over high heat and let it come to a boil. While the water heats, cut the cauliflower into florets removing and discarding the core. When the water is at a rolling boil, add the cauliflower and cook until tender, about 10-20 minutes.

With optional bacon: In a skillet, fry the bacon until crisp; set aside on a paper towels to drain. Chop into pieces. Drain the oil from the skillet reserving one tablespoon. Wipe any burned bits from the skillet, return the tablespoon of bacon drippings and heat over medium heat.

Saute the chopped onion and garlic either in the above bacon drippings or a tablespoon of olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Drain, and return to the pot.

When the cauliflower is tender, drain completely straining away as much water as possible reserving a 1/4 cup of the liquid. Return the cauliflower to the warm pot and place back on the cooking burner that is turned off. Stir or toss to remove excess moisture, then add the sauteed onion and garlic.

Stick blender to puree the ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.

Mash in the pot using a stick blender, an electric mixer or a hand potato masher. I prefer the stick blender as it processes the cauliflower, onion and garlic more finely, but any option will work. Once you've mashed the ingredients, add butter, milk, cream, buttermilk or some of the reserved cooking liquid, depending on your supply, taste and diet. Add only enough to reach a mashed potato consistency, stirring in a little at a time. You can add a couple tablespoons of shredded cheese, a teaspoon of fresh chopped chives or green onions if you are so inclined for additional flavor. Blend together with a spoon.

Transfer to 4-6 individual casseroles or one larger casserole dish and top with cheese and crumbled bacon. Bake in the oven until the cheese melts and the dish is heated through. If freshly made this takes only about 5 minutes. If previously refrigerated baking takes longer to heat through, approximately 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and top with remaining chives or green onion tops and serve hot.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Bundt ~ Buckeye Cake

This dark chocolate cake has a sweet peanut butter filling, analogous to the famous Buckeye candies you find in Ohio. It's so moist and delicious, it doesn't really require a glaze or frosting, but sometimes I use one anyway for some extra guilt.

Julian's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Bundt
When I wrote my Double Lemon Bundt Cake recipe, I reviewed the history of the cake type if you are interested. Also note in this recipe, like all my other Bundt cake recipes, you cannot substitute buttering and flouring the Bundt mold with food release spray. I have tested that, and for Bundt cakes it really doesn't work. I use the Canola food spray or Pam Food Release in many recipes, but not for Bundt cakes, as they will not release properly from the cake pan without the traditional grease and flour, although here I substitute the flour for cocoa powder.

This cake holds well when refrigerated, for 3-5 days. It will retain it's moisture and flavor. Let come to room temperature before serving.


Peanut Butter Filling
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
4 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons milk or heavy cream

1 cup water
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
       +2 tablespoons for greasing the pan
1/3 cup cocoa powder
       +3 tablespoons for dusting the pan
1 heaping tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon salt
Prepared Bundt Pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Peanut Butter Chocolate Topping
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
4-6 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped


1. Preheat your oven to 350F degrees. Butter a 10-12 cup Bundt pan generously with 2 tablespoons of softened butter. Sprinkle the 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder into the pan and swirl it around to coat the entire pan. Reserve loose cocoa powder and dust the middle middle tube evenly.

2. Make the peanut butter filling by adding all of the filling ingredients to a large mixing bowl and mixing with a hand mixer or wire whisk until smooth and well combined. Set aside.

3. Heat the water, 6 ounces of butter, 1/3 cup of cocoa powder, espresso and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. When butter is melted whisk to combine. When the mixture just begins to boil remove from heat and set aside.

4. In large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar and baking soda. Whisk in the chocolate and melted butter mixture.  Stir in the vanilla, sour cream and beaten eggs. Whisk until just fully combined.

5. Pour 1/2 of the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Spoon the peanut butter cream cheese filling evenly on top of the batter, trying to keep it from touching the sides or middle tube.

The peanut butter filling before being covered with batter.
6. Cover the peanut butter filling with the rest of the cake batter. Bake in the preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes.

7. Cool the cake for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a thin knife if needed, and place a cake plate over the pan. Invert the pan so it’s resting cake-side down on the plate, and carefully lift the Bundt pan away from the cake.

Here it is shown with a thicker, chocolate peanut butter topping.
Not beautiful, but so flavorful and decadent. 
8. Make the optional topping by heating the cream, sugar, peanut butter and corn syrup until it just begins to boil. Pour the heated mixture over the chocolate and let it sit a minute to start melting. Whisk until smooth and shiny. If you use 4 ounces of chocolate, let it cool slightly as it will be more thin and tend to run off the cake. It thickens as it cools, so waiting a bit stirring while you wait, will help it stay in place. The 4 ounce version looks nicer on the cake. The 6 ounce version tastes even better.

Showing peanut butter filling.