Saturday, May 18, 2013

Perfect For a Picnic: Coconut Custard Cups

Ever play the picnic game when you were little? You know, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…”  The way we played it, the thing you brought always had to begin with the first letter of your name. So let’s play. I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…coconut custard cups! Oops, I guess I lost the game. But I do have the cutest and most convenient desserts at the picnic. Can I still come?

Memorial Day is fast approaching and it’s a big picnic day for many. I started to think about the things I really would want to bring to a picnic and kept coming back to pie. Pie might be a great conclusion to any meal, but it’s especially perfect for picnics. I always imagine it atop a red and white gingham tablecloth ready to be snatched up by Yogi Bear. Though my coconut custard cups are not the traditional picture of pie, your taste buds won't be able to tell the difference.  

This is what a slice of coconut custard pie in a glass looks like. Because you want to know what else says, “Take me to a picnic”? Mason jars. What could be easier than a dessert you can screw the cap onto, pack up, and go with? Everyone gets their own perfect sized portion, and there’s just something fun about eating  from a jar.

The custards are made with coconut milk and toasted shredded coconut along with other typical custard things like heavy cream and egg yolks, and they are baked right inside of the jars in a hot water bath. 4-ounce glass mason jars or ramekins are the perfect size; anything deeper than about 2 inches won’t cook evenly. To give the feeling of a piecrust, I caramelized sugar on top of the custards like crème brûlée and placed a buttery shortbread cookie on each. Use your favorite shortbread recipe, and cut into fun shapes if you choose. Happy picnicking!

Coconut Custard Cups
Yield: 6 servings in 4-ounce mason jars or ramekins
- 2 cups heavy cream
- ¾ can coconut milk
- 4 eggs yolks
- ½ cup sugar, plus ½ cup for brûlée topping
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup sweet shredded coconut, toasted
1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and coconut. Bring to a boil. In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks, ½ cup sugar, salt, and vanilla extract, until well-blended and lightened in color. Add the hot cream to the egg yolk mixture a little at a time, whisking continually. Stir in the toasted coconut.
2) Add the mixture to small 4-ounce glass mason jars, oven-safe shallow bowls, or ramekins, filling up to 2” high. Place the filled cups into a roasting pan with enough hot water to reach halfway up the side of each.
3) Bake until the custard is set around the sides, but still jiggles a little in the center, about 45 minutes-1 hour. Refrigerate 2 hours-overnight. When ready to serve, sprinkle the remaining sugar evenly over the tops of each custard, then brûlée or caramelize the tops with a blowtorch. Top with mini shortbread cookies, if desired.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Risotto Balls

I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, but I’m just going to say it flat out. I think that my risotto balls are the best. Toot toot!

These risotto balls are famous (at least in my family) and I make them a lot, especially on holidays. One of the main reasons why I've held back on posting about them is that I never really had a set “recipe.” I pretty much make a standard risotto and then add as much butter and Parmesan as I want until it tastes delicious. Of course, there’s a little more to making risotto balls than that, so I finally wrote down a recipe. But I will suggest keeping some extra butter and Parmesan on the side. You know, just in case.

To prepare the risotto balls, I start with a traditional white wine-spiked parmesan risotto, which I make sure is a little tighter than it typically should be. A well-made risotto is creamy but not thick, and smooth but not thin. In other words, it should spread a little when spooned onto a plate, not stand on its own. You’ll know you hit the right balance, when the risotto moves and ripples like a wave when you shake the pan. This is called all’onda (“wave”) in Italian. For risotto balls, I cook the risotto just past all’onda (emphasis on just), then cool, so that the rice holds together well when shaped.

Just a quick side note about risotto: Despite its reputation for being kind of a fancy dish, it is practically the easiest thing in the world to make. There is somewhat of an art to it, but it’s nothing the average Joe couldn't master. I did, after all. The result you want is for the rice (Arborio) to be fully cooked through while simultaneously holding the perfect consistency. The trick is to gradually add simmering hot stock, and to constantly, and quite vigorously, stir between each addition to develop the starch. All it takes is a little sweat and elbow grease. You’ll achieve extra richness and creaminess at the end by “finishing” with the butter and cheese.

I do not add meat ragu or peas to my risotto balls like it’s done in the traditional Sicilian way, though I very easily could. I choose not to because I feel that the risotto is so flavorful, that it speaks well enough on its own. So creamy, and cheesy, it is complimented only by the crispy panko breading. One surprise I do hide in the center is a tiny block of Fontina cheese, which melts ever-so-rightly when fried.

Just like making a meatball, I form the risotto with my hands, stuffing a cube of Fontina into each one as I go along. At about 2 ½”- 3” they are just the right size, so you can pop them into your mouth one after the other—and believe me, you’ll want to. Fun fact: Risotto balls are also called arancini, meaning “little oranges” in Italian, which describes their ideal size and shape perfectly. We’re having a regular language lesson today! A little breading of eggs and seasoned panko breadcrumb, and they’re ready to be fried. I deep-fry mine at 325-250 degrees to get them golden on the outside and melted on the inside.

The simple cheesy goodness of these risotto balls makes them the perfect appetizer, side dish, or snack. And when it’s a holiday, stack ‘em up high so that everyone can get a few. They can easily be made in advance and reheated. You’re welcome!

Risotto Balls:
Yield: About 12, 2 ½”-3” risotto balls
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons for finishing
- ½ cup finely chopped shallots
- 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fontina cheese, cut into 12 cubes
- 1 quart canola or other fryer-friendly oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- About 1 cup panko breadcrumb, seasoned with salt, pepper, and ¼ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1) In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to completely coat in the butter shallot mixture. Lightly toast the rice, stirring continually, about 2 minutes.
2) Add the white wine, stirring continually, until almost fully absorbed by the rice. Using a ladle, add about ½ cup of the hot chicken stock to the rice at a time, stirring continually, making sure that each addition is fully absorbed before adding the next. Continue the process until all of the chicken stock has been used, or the rice is fully cooked and tender, about 25 minutes.
3) Remove the mixture from the heat. While it is still warm, stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, the ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, and the chopped fresh parsley, until fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The mixture should be slightly thick and creamy. Spread out on a sheet tray and cool completely before wrapping in plastic and refrigerating. Refrigerate 2 hours-overnight.
4) Preheat the frying oil to about 325-350 degrees. Form the cooled risotto into balls about 2½”-3”, stuffing a cube of the Fontina cheese into each. Roll each ball in the egg, then dredge in the seasoned breadcrumb. Fry until they are golden on the outside and the cheese is melted on the inside. If not serving immediately, reheat before serving.
**To plan ahead for a holiday or party: Make the risotto a day or two in advance (doubling the recipe if necessary) and refrigerate. On the day before the holiday/party or the day of, assemble and fry. Reheat in a 350 degree oven before serving.