04 April 2017

Food Lab 38: Dolce

A few weeks ago, Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee were at their neighborhood trattoria. As the dessert cart rolled by, they were inspired by what they saw (and by a recent article in the Washington Post on making cannoli from scratch) and proposed Italian desserts, aka "dolce," as our next lab.

We started out with a pretty extensive list: profiteroles, semolina cake (torta della Nonna), cannoli, biscotti, and tiramisu (with homemade madeleines as the base, natch).

Day of, we realized we needed to scale back a smidge, so we went with biscotti, torta della Nonna, and cannoli.

Let me start with the biscotti. I make biscotti all the time. In fact, when Mad Kitchen Scientist proposed it, he was a little sheepish, because he knows I don't really need the practice. But The Executive Committee loves it, and he doesn't regularly make it, so he wanted a quick workshop.

2 c. flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
2 large eggs

If you want a chocolate base - and I often do - go with 1 3/4 c. flour, 1/2 c. cocoa powder, and 5 TBSP butter.

3/4 c. "chunky" flavorings (nuts, dried fruit)
1/2 - 1 tsp appropriate extracts (vanilla, almond, anise, etc.)
1-2 Tbsp appropriate herbs/spices (lemon or orange zest, lavender, thyme, etc.)

You can flavor the base pretty much any way you like. We went with hazelnuts and blood orange zest. I usually do chocolate with almonds, or plain with pistachios and dried cherries. But really you can use any flavors you like.

You think they look good? You should've SMELLED them!
I think this recipe, with butter, is superior to those without. It may not be as "traditional," but the dough is much easier to handle than egg-only biscotti.

You form two "logs" and bake at 350 for 35 minutes, rotating your baking sheet once. Then you cool for ~10 minutes, cut into 1/2 inch slices and bake again at 325 for 15 minutes, flipping your cookies over once.

The great thing about biscotti is that, since it's pre-stale due to the double baking, it keeps pretty much forever.

For the torta della Nonna and the cannoli, of course we had to kick it up a notch and use homemade ricotta cheese. Every time we've tried to make cheese prior to this, it's been a disaster. Sounds like an excellent lab project! And this time it worked! I think that's because ricotta is really easy (seriously - this is the recipe/process we used, and it could not be more simple) and we weren't trying to do 14 other things at the same time. Also, we were only one cocktail in, which may have helped.

Check it out! Cheese!
Speaking of cocktails, we had done a mini-lab about 6 weeks ago where we informally messed around with making homemade bitters. We had planned to do a full-on bitters lab, and then realized we were missing some key ingredients that you seem to need to order online. So we made simple grapefruit bitters and lavender bitters.

That second featured prominently in a Chef Spouse-d-up version of an Aviation. I love me an Aviation any time: gin, lemon, maraschino, float of Creme de Violette (which gives it it's lovely color). Keeping to our "no egg white left behind!" motto, Chef Spouse added the extra egg white generated by our other activities and topped it off with a bit of the lavender bitters. 'Cause we're fancy like that.

First round, side view
First round, top view

For our torta della Nonna, we used Little Baker SF's recipe, replacing 1/2 c. of the all-purpose flour in the pastry with semolina flour and omitting the raisins in the filling. You probably could make the pastry in a mixer, but super-pasta-maker Chef Spouse followed the instructions and did it by hand:

Mad skillz, he has dem
Meanwhile, I worked on the filling. It's a little bit like making pate au choux, where you're looking for the filling to get smooth and pull away from the sides of the pan and then you get it off the heat quick because it's ready. We *did* push the ricotta through a fine sieve, and I guess if we were REAL Labbers, we'd have made TWO cakes to see if it made a difference, but we didn't have enough homemade ricotta for that.

The pasty was super easy to handle - lots of fat and we'd replaced some of the regular flour with semolina, as I mentioned above, so no toughening gluten problems, and the tart pan had a sharp enough edge that I was able to get a neat edge just by pressing the dough against the edge of the pan and removing the excess. Of course we added the almonds to the top.

Pretty pretty!
Which brings us to the cannoli. I will tell you, making cannoli by hand is a labor of love (otherwise known as a pain in the ass). The funny thing is, although we were inspired by the Post article, we didn't use their recipe - we used the one at AllRecipes.

The dough is easy enough to bring together, particularly if you use a food processor to chop in the butter (NOT SHORTENING - why would you NOT use butter in dessert, yo?) before you add the liquids. It didn't need to be kneaded anywhere near 10 minutes, and in fact, you should NOT do that because you're not trying to create a strong gluten structure. Just the opposite, as you'll see in a minute.

You also ABSOLUTELY do NOT want to run the dough to your thinnest pasta roller setting, at least not if you're using the Kitchen Aid pasta roller. Number 4 of the 7 settings - the midpoint - was correct, and yes, we know because we labbed that. Chef Spouse, the aforementioned pasta master, took care of the pasta rolling duties and found that he did have to handle the dough gently or it would stick and bunch up.

Then I cut the circles, then he wrapped them on the forms. Two tips there: one, be generous with your flour sprinkles when handling the rolled-out dough. It helps the fried cannoli slide off the forms more easily. Two, do NOT get any of the egg white you're using to seal the cannoli edge on the forms or you will NEVER get the fried cannoli off - well, at least not without shattering them.

Ready for the fryer

Mad Kitchen Scientist handled the frying, and worked out a technique using tongs, a chop stick, and an oven mitt to manipulate them in the hot oil and get the cannoli quickly off the forms. Which is another tip: you need to get a hot cannoli off the forms immediately or they start to stick. And then The Executive Committee would wash and dry the forms so we could start over, because you need perfectly clean forms or, once again, the cannoli stick.

Out of the fryer

Did I mention you can only fry about 3-4 at a time? And did you notice that we had an assembly line going that involved all of us? Also, once you're rolled out the dough once, the gluten gets activated and you can't roll it again without a fridge rest to get it to relax. Of course, on the first pass with all dough, we ended up making about two dozen cannoli and still had half the dough leftover, so you get plenty from the recipe. By that point, we were tired of rolling and cutting and sealing and frying and draining and washing and drying, so we decided that the rest of the dough could definitely be tightly wrapped and frozen to roll another day. Plus we wanted to EAT the stuff we'd made.

The rest of the homemade ricotta that was leftover from the torta della Nonna went into the cannoli filling. We skipped the chocolate bits, but we DEFINITELY added the Cointreau (and some heavy cream, because the homemade ricotta was a little drier than commercial).

Of course, we accompanied our dolce with grappa and espresso. You can tell we were at a quality joint by the accompanying lemon peel, or so Mad Kitchen Scientist says, and since we were in his house, I wasn't about to dispute him.

Bella, bella, bella!