Weeknight Cooking: Spaghetti Alla Carbonara

plate of spaghetti carbonara
Sometimes you don't have time to put together a whole meal, but you also don't want to order from one of the same three takeout places yet again: That's when a simple meal like spaghetti alla carbonara comes into play. Most people have the ingredients for this quick, tasty dish on hand. All you need is pasta, eggs, olive oil, bacon, cheese, salt, and pepper.

If you have time to go grocery shopping or happen to keep it around, pancetta is also used instead of bacon in some recipes. I'm more likely to have a half-used package of bacon hanging around from the weekend's leisurely breakfasts.

There are a ton of recipes for spaghetti carbonara out there. I've even made one with red wine before. The thing to watch out for is any recipe calling for cream. True spaghetti carbonara is devoid of it. And to be honest, the way the cheese and egg coat the pasta, it becomes so creamy that more cream would be overkill.

I choose a version from a little booklet Saveur sent me when I became a subscriber, and I cut it down to two servings, which actually ended up being the perfect amount. No leftovers, and we were sufficiently full. I reordered the recipe a little to replicate how I made it and how I think it works best as far as timing everything so it's all done at the right time and ready to be mixed together.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara (adapted from Saveur's Italian Classics, Volume 2, supplement)

1 TBS extra virgin olive oil (I never measure. Just pour a little in the pan.)
5 strips of bacon, cut into into 1/4-inch- to 1/2-inch-wide pieces
1 egg plus 1 yolk
1/2 lb of spaghetti (You can really use any pasta. I used specialty pasta called spaghettoni, which is a bit thicker than regular spaghetti.)
1/2 cup grated parm

1. Put a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
2. Heat the olive oil in another pan at medium-high, and add the bacon strips. Cook until almost crisp then turn off the heat and leave them in the pan.
3. Once your water is boiling, add your pasta to it. Follow the cooking time for al dente.
4. While the pasta is cooking, mix your egg and egg yolk with 1/8 cup of water (I just eyeballed half of 1/4 cup). Set this aside.
5. Remove half of the bacon to a paper towel, and set that aside.
6. When the pasta is ready, drain it, and dump it back in the pot.
7. Immediately add your eggs, half the cheese, and the bacon left in the pan with its oil and fat. Stir this around until well mixed and eggs have become creamy.
8. Divide between two plates. Sprinkle remaining cheese over each pile of spaghetti, season with salt and pepper, and top with reserved bacon.
9. Dig in!


Trials In Blondies Continued

So after I made my first batch of blondies, those chocolate chip walnut ones, I was inspired to make more to see if I could find my ideal blondie. I came across this recipe from Martha Stewart, which I thought would be more blondie-like because instead of chocolate, it calls for toffee bits. I just so happened to have some of those in the freezer.

Brown Butter Toffee Blondies (from Martha Stewart's Cookies)

1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts (about 4 ounces)
1 cup toffee bits

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper; butter and flour parchment paper.
In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the butter until it turns golden brown; remove from heat, and let cool. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine browned butter and both sugars; stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Attach bowl to mixer; add eggs. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla, and beat to combine. Add flour mixture, walnuts, and toffee bits. Mix until thoroughly combined, and pour into prepared pan.
Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes (do not overbake). Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before turning out of pan onto a cutting board. Peel off parchment paper; cut blondies into 3-inch squares. Blondies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.

This recipe was a little more complicated than the last one, using both the stove and the KitchenAid and dirtying more than just a mixing bowl. If you're looking for something quick and easy, the other recipe is better, but if you want something that seems like a more traditional blondie and you aren't afraid to put in a little more time and wash a few more dishes, then you'll want to give this one a try.

The blondies came out very buttery, mostly in a good way, a little on the verge of too buttery though. But this did help them to retain their chewiness and fresh taste the next few days. I like the addition of toffee, but this still wasn't quite what I wanted. Maybe it's butterscotch I'm looking for?

At any rate, that's all for blondies for now. I still want to try some other recipes, but I don't want to make myself sick of blondies in the process. It's time for a little break.

In the meantime, if you have a great blondie recipe and want to share it, please do! Also, if you have an opinion on what constitutes the perfect blondie, I'd love to hear that too!


Trials In Blondies

I'm in search of the perfect blondie recipe. But one thing I've been considering is what exactly is a blondie? Is it just a chocolateless form of a brownie, and hence, you can put whatever you want in it and still consider it a blondie? Or does adding certain things to the batter, such as nuts, chips, and coconut, make it, say, a congo bar or some other treat?

This all started with a chocolate cake craving. Now, blondies are a far cry from chocolate cake, so it took a strange thought process getting here. Chocolate cake -- the kind I would want -- seemed a little too extravagant and over the top to make for a small craving on a weeknight, so I began looking for brownie recipes. Brownies are typically quicker and easier, and I can eat them without any sort of frosting or ganache, which I would require on chocolate cake -- unless it's a fudgy cake like flourless chocolate cake. But back to those blondies...

While I was flipping through books and magazines looking for any sort of recipe that might not take too long to make but still hit the spot, my boyfriend commented that he liked blondies. Hmm... they're not chocolate based, but I could go for something with a chewy, buttery texture, I reasoned. Within minutes, my craving changed -- well sort of: I picked a recipe with chocolate chips.

Blondies with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts (from Everyday Food, September 2007)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush an 8-inch square baking pan with butter; line pan with a piece of parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides. Butter paper.
In a large bowl, whisk butter and sugars until smooth. Whisk in egg and vanilla. Add flour and salt; mix just until moistened (do not overmix). Fold in 1/2 cup each chocolate chips and walnuts. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle with remaining chocolate chips and walnuts.
Bake until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Set pan on a wire rack, and let cool completely. Using parchment overhang, lift cake from pan and transfer to a cutting board; cut into 16 squares. Store blondies in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 2 days.

chocolate chip and walnut blondies
These were incredibly easy to make -- I didn't even need the KitchenAid -- and quite tasty too. But were they the perfect blondie? Not quite. I didn't think there was enough of the chewy part, which is what I love most. Too many chips and walnuts got in the way. When I make these again, I'm going to double the batter, so I'll get a thicker blondie but still plenty of crunch and chocolate. Don't get me wrong though: They are absolutely delicious and when eaten warm with the chocolate still gooey, they satisfied my chocolate-cake-turned-blondie craving (perhaps a chocolate blondie craving?) with the first bite.

See Trials In Blondies Continued for my next blondie test.


Sea Bass With Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette

This was supposed to be halibut with lemon-basil vinaigrette, but for some reason, it's always my luck that Whole Foods never has the kind of fish I'm looking for on the night I'm looking for it. Nor did they have the recommended backup fish selections. So I went out on a limb and, with consensus from my boyfriend, chose sea bass to fill in.

This recipe comes from The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh. I recently got this cookbook and already have several recipes on my "to make" list. My favorite thing about it is the serving size index. If I want to make dinner for two, I can turn to the Two Serving heading and find all the recipes meeting my need. This recipe below was actually for four but I altered it, using less vinaigrette ingredients and only two pieces of fish. Sea bass is quite expensive!

Grilled Sea Bass With Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette (adapted from Bon Appetit and made for two)

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoons olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)
1 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil or 3 teaspoons dried
1 teaspoons drained capers

2 5- to 6-ounce sea bass steaks (about 3/4 inch thick)

Whisk lemon juice, olive oil, crushed garlic clove and grated lemon peel in small bowl to blend. Stir in 1 tablespoon fresh basil and capers. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 hour ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)

Season sea bass steaks with salt and pepper. Brush fish with 1 tablespoon vinaigrette, dividing equally. Grill steaks in grill pan over medium-high heat until just cooked through, about 4-6 minutes per side. Transfer fish to plates. Rewhisk remaining vinaigrette; pour over fish. Garnish fish with remaining basil and serve.

The only strange part was that I wasn't sure whether brushing the fish with the vinaigrette included getting some of the basil and capers on it. I decided to try to add these chunky elements to the fish, but it would have been easier to cook it without them. And the basil did get a little brown, and some of it stuck to the pan.

We enjoyed the fish with some leftover potatoes, but we both decided it was just a little too lemony. Next time, I'll cut back on that.

Note: Using my new book Knives Cooks Love, I learned a great way to cut herbs. For something like basil, you stack the leaves on top of each other, roll them lengthwise into a tight cocoon, and then slice the roll so you have nice shreds.


Homemade Ravioli With Chicken Marsala Filling

I received a pasta maker and ravioli attachment for Christmas. The time had come to unbox these and put them to work -- or as it turned out, put me to work.

For my first attempt, I wanted to stick with a regular egg pasta dough, no spinach or anything fancy, and I wanted to make some sort of meat filling. The pasta maker included recipes for the dough and a couple different fillings but not one I was in the mood for.

I searched around a bit for filling recipes but just wasn't finding any that struck my fancy. So I posted a want ad on Serious Eats and got some great ideas there (thank you to those who responded!). I finally chose Tyler Florence's chicken marsala filling.

I read through the recipes for the filling and for the dough. The dough needed to rest for about 20 minutes, and the filling needed to cool before it could be used. Taking these things into account, I decided I would make the dough first to the point where it needed to rest, then make the filling and let it chill, and then go back to the dough. Cooking always requires this balance of time. You don't want to be sitting waiting for two things when you could be waiting on one and working on another.

Pasta Dough (adapted from Imperia recipe and Williams-Sonoma Pasta)
There are many recipes out there for pasta dough. They all basically call for flour and eggs. Some, like the one I found in Williams-Sonoma Pasta, also call for olive oil. I took the recipe that came with the pasta maker and the one from the Williams-Sonoma book and used ideas from both. The one that came with the pasta maker said I could put the flour and eggs in my KitchenAid and mix it on a low speed. It then said to moisten the dough with water if necessary. This is where I borrowed from the Williams-Sonoma recipe and moistened the dough with olive oil instead.

2 1/4 cups flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
olive oil, as needed

Combine eggs with 2 cups flour in bowl of electric mixer. Using paddle, on low speed, combine until dough comes together and is no longer sticky. Add more flour as necessary. If dough gets too dry, moisten with olive oil.

fresh pasta dough
Knead dough by hand until it's smooth and not sticky. Wrap with plastic wrap and let sit about 20 minutes.

smooth ball of fresh pasta dough
While the dough rested, I moved onto the filling as planned...

Chicken Marsala Ravioli Filling (from Tyler Florence)

8 ounces chicken breast, cut in strips
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup Marsala wine or chicken broth
4 thin slices prosciutto, sliced
4 bay leaves
Fresh thyme and parsley leaves
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated, divided
Salt and pepper
1 egg
1/4 cup heavy cream

Brown chicken in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add shallot and garlic. Deglaze with Marsala. Take pan away from heat source and flambe. Return pan to stove, flame will go out in about 1 minute. Add prosciutto and herbs. Sprinkle in bread crumbs and 1 tablespoon Parmesan. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of olive oil to keep moist. Discard bay leaves. Pulse together all ingredients in a food processor. Add egg, cream, remaining Parmesan and olive oil. Pulse again. Chill before filling ravioli.

First, I made sure I had all my ingredients prepped and ready to go. Those cute little prep bowls are from Pampered Chef, and they really do make me feel quite pampered. Also, it's fun to just toss your ingredients into the pan as if you're cooking on the Food Network instead of in a little apartment kitchen. They held chopped garlic and shallots, grated cheese, breadcrumbs, and fresh thyme (I skipped the parsely). I also sliced the prosciutto and chicken, and with all of that done, I turned on the stove and placed a pan with oil on the burner. Now, let the cooking begin!

ingredients for chicken marsala ravioli filling
Step 1 - Brown the chicken in the olive oil.

Step 2 - Add the shallot and garlic. And for me, deglaze with marsala and flambe was simply add marsala. I wasn't about to try lighting alcohol on fire today. Maybe another day.

chicken in marsala
Step 3 - Add prosciutto and herbs.

chicken in marsala with prosciutto and herbs
Step 4 - Add cheese and breadcrumbs. I think I might go a little less on the breadcrumbs next time. While a runny mixture is a definite no, the filling seemed a little on the dry side, even with the addition of olive oil.

chicken with marsala, herbs, cheese, and breadcrumbs
Step 5 - Remove the bay leaves, put the rest in the food processor, and process away. I did this in batches, but once everything was ground up, it could all fit in the processor bowl at the same time. And I was able to add in the remaining ingredients (egg, heavy cream, parmesan, and olive oil).

Step 6 - Cool the filling and then put it in the fridge to chill further.

chicken marsala ravioli filling after food processing
With the filling all set to go, I could return to pasta making. This didn't turn out to be as difficult as I thought it would, once I got the hang of it. I had to divide the dough ball into pieces, take each piece and run it through the pasta machine several times -- starting with the thickest setting and then going thinner and thinner, until I got to the second-thinnest setting, which is recommended for meat-filled ravioli.

pasta maker
fresh pasta dough draped over my hand
fresh pasta sheet

With the pasta sheets laid out and ready to go, it was time to put the ravioli attachment on. Because the sheets might spread out farther than the width of the ravioli attachment, it comes with a cutter that is as wide as the opening. I had to cut each sheet of pasta with this before I could feed it through the machine.

I folded the pasta sheet down the middle, making a soft crease. The crease should go into the middle of the machine. Then I simply followed the directions to place about 2 1/2 tablespoons of filling into the middle of the pasta sheet.

ravioli maker
I slowly turned the crank, fixing the alignment of the pasta and smoothing and adding to the filling as necessary. And the machine sealed off perfect little ravioli packets. I have to admit I ruined one whole sheet because it caught in the machine. You have to be careful that no little bits of pasta or filling get stuck to the machine because it can cause your next batch to jam or tear.

I laid each set of ravioli on a sheet of floured parchment and waited the recommended 10 minutes before separating them.

uncooked ravioli
After that I added them to a pot of boiling water. They really do cook quite quickly. Within minutes the ravioli were floating to the top of the pot, a sign they are ready.

cooked ravioli
One small afterthought was the sauce. I didn't want to use a tomato sauce with the marsala filling, so I threw together a quick marsala sauce, consisting of heavy cream, marsala wine, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. I thickened this with a little flour. I really should have made a roux, but I was in too much of a hurry to taste my little ravioli creations, so we did have a few flour clumps in the sauce.

marsala sauce
ravioli with sauce
Even though this meal took a lot of work, it was worth it, and I highly recommend making your own pasta. It was delicious, and the texture is nicer than storebought. Plus, with your own filling, you know what's going into it. You don't have to worry about any preservatives or other additives.

The ravioli outsides were chewy and tender, and the insides were a teeny bit dry, but the cream sauce helped to balance that. I can't wait to make some other pastas and raviolis. I do have a whole book full of ideas to get through!

plate of ravioli


Snowed In With A Slow-Cooked Chicken Dinner

So this post is a bit behind schedule, but even though I've let so much time lapse, I couldn't not tell you about this recipe.

When we had that first big snow storm, back on December 19, I was actually really excited for it. I thought it would be fun to get snowed in with my boyfriend (who jokingly rolled his eyes at the idea), some movies, and a nice slow-cooked meal.

The night before the storm was expected, we went food shopping and got all the ingredients for Andrew Schloss' slow-cooked chicken dinner. Schloss is the author of Art of the Slow Cooker. I've heard some negative feedback on this book -- about how it's not really a slow cooker cookbook because the recipes entail so much prep work. It certainly is not Fix-It And Forget-It, but I have been pleased with the results of recipes I've tried from it, even though they involve some upfront work and post-slow-cooking work. My one complaint is that I can't really make any of these recipes on a week day -- throwing everything in the crockpot on my way out the door to work. But they are good on a day off -- or an afternoon off, as was the case for me on snowstorm Friday.

After I finished working and as the first flakes were making their way to the ground, I began preparing this recipe. First, the spice rub for the chicken -- a nice mixture of brown sugar, salt and pepper, paprika, dry mustard, thyme, and garlic powder. There's also supposed to be dried sage and rosemary, but I didn't have those and forgot to pick them up at the store.

With the rub prepared, I turned to the next task: the chicken itself. I stood there looking at the whole chicken we had bought and looking at the part of the recipe I skipped over before that says to cut the chicken into parts, and then I looked at the chicken again. I groaned, thinking I would have bought chicken parts if I had paid better attention initially. No chance of that now.

Well, this was something new for me, so I took out Joy of Cooking and turned to the section on butchering a chicken. I read the text, examined the diagrams, and still felt lost.

My boyfriend convinced me I could do it. And I, knife in hand, went to work. In the end, I think I did alright. I didn't cut the wing tips off. And I didn't separate the drumsticks from the thighs, but I ended up with four nice chicken pieces.

When we were done, I swore I would never buy a whole chicken again if I needed to cut it prior to cooking, but my boyfriend recently surprised me with a copy of Knives Cooks Love, and it just might be enough to inspire me to try again.

With the chicken cut up, I next had to remove the skin from all of the pieces except the wings, combine the spices with flour, and rub the chicken with this mixture. The remaining flour mixture helps thicken the sauce later. Then I put some potatoes on the stove to boil. After they boiled for about 5 minutes, I moved them to the slow cooker, as the recipe instructed.

And then I browned the seasoned chicken on both sides.

Next: all the veggies. Chopped onions, carrots, and celery get sauteed in a little oil...

...and the remaining flour mixture.

After that I poured in some wine, which added liquid -- pretty important when it comes to slow cooking -- and also great flavor. And then some chicken broth goes in, for a little more liquid and flavor. Because of the seasoned flour, the broth and wine thicken to a thin gravy.

I poured the vegetables and sauce over the potatoes and placed the chicken pieces on top. Then it's 3 to 4 hours on the high setting, during which time the whole place smelled so good!

When time was up, I took the chicken out of the slow cooker and scooped out the veggies. To the leftover gravy in the pot, I added potato flakes. The recipe calls for them to thicken the gravy even more.

Then I poured that gravy over the chicken and veggies I had arranged in a serving dish, and we were ready to eat.

This was the perfect meal, warm and comforting, to eat while watching the snow fall and pile up. The chicken came right off the bone, and the sauce complemented it well. I liked it so much I even used my biscuit to wipe up what was left on my plate.

The leftovers were just as good. I simply put the whole pan, covered with foil, into the oven at 350 degrees for about a half hour and then uncovered it and cooked the chicken until it was piping hot, about another half hour.

Don't forget to check out Art of the Slow Cooker for the complete recipe!


Cran-Marnier Truffles

cran-marnier truffles
I've been a little tired and a little busy, and I've also had a bit of writer's block, but I don't want to leave you with nothing, so here's another candy recipe for you. (Who doesn't love truffles?) I made these for the holiday cookie platters along with the candies I wrote about a couple weeks ago. They always get rave reviews, at least from those who like cranberries.

Cran-Marnier Truffles (Christmas Cookies, Better Homes and Gardens special issue, 2007)

1½ cups sugar
1 5-ounce can evaporated milk
½ cup butter
2 cups tiny marshmallows
8 ounces premium dark baking chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
2 teaspoons finely shredded orange peel
½ cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
12 ounces semisweet baking chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons shortening
Unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper; set aside. Butter the sides of a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Combine sugar, evaporated milk, and ½ cup butter in the saucepan. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils. Reduce heat to medium; continue cooking for 6 minutes, stirring constantly.

Remove saucepan from heat. Add marshmallows, dark chocolate, liqueur, and orange peel; stir until melted and smooth. Stir in cranberries. Beat by hand for 1 minute. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Cover and chill in the refrigerator about 1½ hours or until almost firm.

(I measure out everything I need to pour into the saucepan ahead, so I don't have to worry about the sugar mixture burning.)

Shape chocolate mixture into 1-inch balls. Place balls on prepared baking sheet. Cover and chill in the refrigerator about 1 hour or until firm.

Microwave semisweet chocolate and shortening in a medium microwave-safe bowl on 50% power (medium) for 2 to 3 minutes or until mixture is melted and smooth, stirring after every minute. Cool slightly. Dip balls, one at a time, into melted chocolate. Let excess chocolate drip back into bowl. Place truffles back on baking sheet. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until chocolate is set. If desired, lightly sprinkle truffles with cocoa powder before serving. Makes about 54.

To Store
Place truffles, without cocoa, in a single layer in an airtight container; cover. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 1 month. Let stand for 30 minutes. If desired, sprinkle truffles with cocoa before serving.

Instead of sprinkling the truffles with cocoa, after I've rolled them in the melted chocolate, I'll stick a dried cranberry piece on top. They don't just look pretty... they also let everyone know what's inside!