Tuesday, April 19, 2011


For the last 2 months I have been working once a week for a Jewish family, helping them create weekly Shabbos/Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners.  It has been an awesome learning experience as the family keeps kosher so therefore, I must abide by the kosher cooking laws.  And let me tell you, there are a lot.  Dairy and meat are never mixed.  There are separate counter spaces for the two as well as separate ovens and stove top burners, different sets of plates, utensils, bowls, etc.  Certain proteins (mainly pork and shellfish) are off limits, as well as certain vegetables.  Kosher law prohibits eating bugs, so leafy greens, spongy veggies (broccoli or cauliflower to name a few) and some other odds and ends must be eliminated from the menu or carefully cleaned.  All meats, dairy, and processed foods must have the kosher symbol on them.  There are a few different symbols of which I am still learning as I do the weekly shopping.   I am also not allowed to turn on the oven/burners, so someone must be present to do this for me.  The purpose, to my knowledge, is that a Jewish person must be part of the cooking process in some way, shape, or form.

Passover is a 7 or 8 day festival celebrating the Jews' freedom from slavery and the fight from Egypt.  There are many traditions and observances that go along with this celebration.  The main observance is the removal of wheat products or leavened bread (Chametz).  The purpose stemming from the fact that the Jews' did not have time to let their bread rise when leaving Egypt.
Chametz includes anything made from the wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, as well as the avoidance of rice, corn, and legumes - all items commonly used to make bread.  One interesting part of Passover (for those that keep kosher) is that the entire house must be cleaned (hence spring cleaning) to make sure there are no "Chametz" particles in the house.  The kitchen was cleaned thoroughly, and all the drawers were sealed shut. All surfaces (including the stove, fridge and freezer) that come in contact with food had to be covered with foil or contact paper.   
Last week I spent several days helping to prepare meals for Passover this week. When I arrived for cooking, the cleaning was just finishing.  I learned that all the food products from the pantry, freezer, and fridge, were moved out of the house and into the garage, where the family had to eat their meals for the last week.  A whole new set of kitchen equipment (mixing bowls, food processor, pots and pans, utensils, etc.) are brought out each year for this week long holiday. 
Foods (with the exception of fresh vegetables) must be Kosher for Passover (which can be hard to find- the family had to travel 3 hours to Chicago to buy the items).  The family is planning to have ~150 guests for dinner during the week = LOTS of food.  Twenty chickens, 15 pounds of carrots, 20 onions, 5 pounds of celery, and 48 squash were peeled, diced, and prepped in one day for this passover event.  We made 14 pans of brownies, 2 soups (sweet and sour cabbage and sweet and sour meatball), 100 cups of fruit salad, and many other traditional (and non-traditional) foods. 
Some Traditional foods:  Potato kugel,  roasted chicken, gefilte fish (some sort of poached fish dumpling- ours were pre-made), and charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine).  The food preparation was a lot of work, but more of an incredible learning experience for me.  I hope they enjoyed their Seder meal.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ricotta - cheese making 101

I found an intriguing recipe for a pistachio-marzipan ricotta filled cake in the latest issue of Saveur - I so want to try and make it- looks so yummy, that with the fact I've never tried pistachio marzipan.  I've only had the traditional marzipan made with almonds.  So somewhere in reading this recipe I decided I wanted to try and make everything from scratch.  So the first step is to make the ricotta.  Yesterday I twiddled away several hours for shopping, one failed attempt, and one success for ricotta cheese.
It's actually pretty easy; the hard part was finding the citric acid.  You can find it online but then you have to pay the shipping which ends up being more than the product itself.  I checked in numerous grocery stores and vitamin shops but no luck.  I briefly wished I was back at my old job with easy access to all sorts of molecular grade chemicals (probably not the best idea)!  Finally I found everything I needed - cheesecloth, local whole milk, and citric acid - at Strawberry Fields, which is a local gourmet grocery.  It was mixed in with the spiced and baking supplies - Whole Foods may carry it too, but not sure.
At home, I broke out the Garde Manger cookbook from culinary school and found the cheese recipes.  It's been a long time since school so I had to consult my notes which weren't so helpful.   Here's how I did it:

  • Thermometer (meat one will do- need to register 185F)
  • Whole Milk- 1 gallon (good quality milk)
  • 1 tsp. Citric Acid
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 oz. water
  • Cheesecloth
  • Strainer/Colander
  • Large pot
  • Dissolve the citric acid in the water (NOTE:  make sure it is fully dissolved- I think I missed this step my first try)
  • Heat the milk, citric acid (in water), and salt over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Keep the thermometer in the pot to monitor the temperature.   Stir the milk often to prevent scorching - heat until the temperature reaches 185F (85C). 
  • When it's reached 185F, remove from heat and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes - this will allow for curdling.
  • Line a colander with the cheesecloth and place over a large bowl.  Drain the curd into the cheesecloth-lined colander, and place the whole contraption in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour - up to 4hours. Voila- your cheese is ready.  You can store it in an air tight container for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.

Problems- well- these happen, especially during your first attempts.  My first run resulted in about 2 curds!  So without straining, I placed the milk back on the heat, dissolved another tsp. of citric acid (making sure it was completely dissolved), added a pinch more salt, and watched the temperature carefully.   When it reached 185F, I had a lot of curd.  It's all about trial and error.  Good luck!

Note- the little brown spot is from scorched milk!  Oops