Archive for the ‘Kids’ Category

The pizza party (accidentally during the Super Bowl)

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

When my friend confessed that she bought ready-made pizza dough because she couldn’t manage to raise her own yeast dough, I sprang into action and arranged a get-together at her home. It was a great opportunity for me to invade her sparkling new kitchen with to-die-for granite counter space and stainless steel wardrobe of a fridge. With a Manga-crazy teenager to keep my kids entertained and a six-month-old to keep us busy, her Humboldt Park condo was the perfect place for a pizza party with assorted offspring.

I love making dough. Kneading is a fantastic stress reliever. You can knead out a weeks’ load of sorrows, arguments, the kids’ D’s and F’s, your melting paycheck, the crazy landlady… I love to do it by hand – a bread machine or mixer will never give you the same satisfaction.

Then comes the raising of the dough, which is kind of zen – you have to wait, be patient, keep yourself from peeking under the cloth so as not to disturb the yeast at work. At least this is one part I don’t have to be worried about any more since a friend showed me a trick he learned form a TV show – to place the dough on a wooden board and cover it with a big glass salad bowl. What enlightenment! Now I can watch it bubbling, rising and sweating under the bowl. This method works for every yeast dough and is great entertainment for kids – big and small. Especially the part when ours actually lifted the gigantic bowl to the cheers of six people – if you count the baby’s screams. I hadn’t had such fun since we moved to the City of Big Shoulders.

The bowl also solves the old problem of finding a draft-free place in your home. As I’ve learned during the last six months, there’s no such place in a Chicago house – old or new, brick or frame. The temperature released during fermentation provides an ideal moist environment under the bowl that keeps the dough’s surface from drying.

Making pizza with friends is the ultimate party-pleaser. Everybody loves it (well, except my daughter) and everybody can choose exactly what to put on it. We placed bowls filled with olives, pepperoncini, thinly sliced baby portobello mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, grated Parmesan, salami, preservative-free pork sausage from my neighborhood Polish deli, sauteed onion, fresh ricotta, roasted bell peppers, baby arugula. Once the dough had risen, everybody had a chance the roll his/her own pizza, and to spread and toss it with whatever they fancied. Even the teenager got involved, to her mother’s astonishment. The grownups washed it down with Zlatý Bažant beer – one of Slovakia’s finest gifts to the world – while the kids were happy with sparkling cranberry juice.

After years of trying various pizza dough recipes, I’ve come to prefer the one given by Jamie Oliver in his best cookbook yet – Jamie at Home. It makes enough for a party, and produces the kind of thin, crunchy pizza I love. The new food lexicon would place that under “rustic” or even “boutique”, a term that drives me nuts every time I see it printed (but that’s for another post, when I get really fed up with nonsense high-profile food magazines). I never aim to get a round base. Pizza making should be fun, not a perfectionist nightmare. I strongly suggest going for the whole recipe – the leftover dough can be frozen. To use it – defrost and let rise once.

Pizza dough

Enough for 6 to 8 medium pizza bases

  • 8 cups (1 kg) unbleached all purpose flour or 6 cups (800 g) unbleached all purpose flour and 2 cups (200 g) finely ground semolina flour – this yellow wheat flour gives some color and extra flavor to the dough (available in Middle Eastern delis)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 7g packets of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 ¾ cups (about 650 ml) lukewarm water

Sift the flour and the salt into a big mixing bowl or clean surface and make a well in the middle. Mix the water with the sugar, yeast and olive oil. Leave for a few minutes to activate the yeast, than pour into the flour well. Using a fork start incorporating the flour into the liquid with a rotating movement. When it starts to come together start kneading until you have a smooth, elastic dough that doesn’t stick to your hands. Don’t worry if some of the flour is not incorporated – there are many factors that influence a dough – the type of flour, the humidity in the room, the temperature. The golden rule is “you can easily add more flour to a sticky dough, but not more moisture to a hard one”.

Place the dough shaped into a ball on a large chopping board sprinkled with flour, dust it with some more flour and cover with a glass bowl at least twice as big as the dough. It should take it up to an hour to double its size. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead carefully, pushing from the middle away from you. Turn the dough in a clockwise direction and push again; keep repeating from all sides. This is needed to knock out some of the air bubbles created while the dough was rising. Fold the dough into a ball again and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Now is the moment to turn your oven on and heat it to the highest temperature it lets you. Mine goes up to 450°F (230°C). If there are no kids around you can preheat the baking tray also, but as part of the fun of the party was that everybody got to play with their pizza, this was not an option for us. Pull a piece of the dough (the size of a softball) and roll it thin on a floured surface – the shape doesn’t matter. With the tips of your fingers make little indents all the way around the base about ½ inch (1 cm) from the edge – this is a trick I learned from a recipe for Turkish pizza. This makes the edges puff when baked – looks great.

Now spread the pizza with about 2 tbsp of tomato sauce, leaving the edges free – don’t overdo it or the center will get soggy. Sprinkle with whatever you like and bake until the dough is golden brown. Cut into irregular pieces and dig in. Continue till everybody is stuffed and happy.

My personal favorite is white pizza. Spread the rolled dough with a few spoons of fresh ricotta, sprinkle with sauteed onion and grated Parmesan and some sea salt. You can add olives and sliced rounds of cherry tomatoes for more dramatic effect. When out of the oven add baby arugula – makes a stunning presentation and adds great flavor.

Homemade pizza

Eryk’s chicken curry

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I had to obtain my 10-year-old son’s permission to write this post, as it contains his own recipe creation. He had guarded it for the last two years, but is finally ready to share with the rest of us. It was created in Milanówek – a beautiful garden town near Warsaw, during a visit to my husband’s godmother’s summer house. Ever since then, whenever we boarded the train to go there, he’d maniacally demand the products for his dish. So even before we would get to the tranquil rose garden, I would almost smell the pungent curry in my head.

Many times I was on the verge of telling him that chickens had gone extinct to free us from the curry tyranny. However, as it was me who created the gourmet monster by introducing him to oriental spices, seafood, coconut milk, Thai noodles, sushi – the list of my crimes could go on and on – I sat put and ate my curry. It is really a great, filling and easy recipe – I just don’t like that much repetition, and kids that age excel in it.

Regardless, I would let him indulge us once in a while on weekends, when I was too lazy to cook – besides, you’ve got to encourage children in the kitchen. Last Saturday was one of those days, and Eryk was happy to oblige.

Originally he would use sour cream for the sauce, but since I now have a steady coconut milk supply from the Tai Nam Food Market on 4925 Broadway – Chicago’s Vietnamese neighborhood – adds that instead. Some of the first spices I bought when we moved here were bright yellow turmeric and medium spicy Thai curry powder, both with Eryk’s dish in mind. Another modification I introduced was marinating the chicken breasts in buttermilk, which prevents the meat from drying. We eat that with rice and a simple green salad or with garlic naan bread, whenever I can get some. Originally baked in a hellish hot Tandoori oven, it’s hard to make at home.

Chicken curry with wild rice

Ingredients (serves four):

  • 2 big chicken breasts – about one pound (500 g) or the same amount of chicken tenders – free range or organic if possible
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 1-2 tbsp medium spicy curry powder
  • 2 tbsp turmeric powder
  • 1 can coconut milk – 13.5 oz (400ml), or the same amount sour cream
  • salt
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • extra milk to thin the sauce if too thick
  • 1 cup wild rice
  • 2 ½ cups water
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 kid, big enough to be trusted a knife

Take the kid, give him a knife and watch him carefully cutting the chicken breasts into bite-size cubes. Place the meat in to a bowl, add the salt and buttermilk, turn to coat well and leave for 30 minutes.

Now you can start making the rice. I’m not very keen on this ingredient, but recently I found an amazing mix of wild, black and red rice in my Vietnamese market and the smell of it when it started cooking made me gasp – sweet and nutty.

Wash the rice once. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot, add the rice, stir for 1 minute and add the water and about 1 tbsp salt. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer, cover and let cook for 20-30 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Remember that wild or black rice will need more time than the usual white stuff. Don’t take the lid off during the first 20 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok over medium heat, add the chicken with the buttermilk it was marinated in – it’s better not to use the kid during this step. Give the kid a wooden spoon and let him/her stir the meat until it’s seared from all sides. Add the spices and stir for 2-3 minutes, then pour in the coconut milk (or sour cream). Lower the heat to medium low and keep the kid stirring. If the sauce looks too thick, add some milk – ¼ cup at a time until it looks righ. Add more salt or curry if needed.

If I let Eryk do it his way, he would use 4 tbsp of the curry, but then I would have to make something else for his sister, which is not the effect I’m looking for on a lazy weekend afternoon. But you can make it as hot as you like. Let it cook for 3-4 minutes more. If your timing is good the rice should be ready by now and you can serve everything hot with a quick mixed-greens salad tossed with lime (or lemon) juice and olive oil. It helps to clean your palate and adds extra color and vitamins to the dish – if you manage to make the kids eat it.

Cure for the cold – chocolate

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

I promised myself not to say a word about the frigid, arctic, polar weather outside, as I’ve spent the last two days complaining about it on Facebook. My favorite local radio station (too many weird sounding letters and numbers to remember) is playing a double feature today – Coldplay (ha) and The Cure (ha-ha), two of my most-beloved bands, which also makes a nice little self-mocking comment to all my fellow frozen Chicagoans. So here is my own cure for very cold-weather play – chocolate. Always one for a good, dark, full-bodied bittersweet chocolate, I usually have my pantry stocked with it. I haven’t found a good US-produced brand yet that would be affordable in big quantities, so I go for the European ones – Swiss, Belgian, but also German. Buy the best one you can afford – good quality chocolate makes all the difference and gives the desserts a silky, dense body that makes them irresistible.

Hot chocolate is a classic cold weather cure, and I finally have a recipe that is fuss free, uses real chocolate (never a fan of the powdered stuff) and quick. It’s my own take on one from the December issue of Bon Appetit. I doubled the amount of milk, heavy cream and chocolate – the original wasn’t enough for the four of us. As it was a Christmas recipe it also calls for mint candy cane, but you can skip this – especially as they’re not easy to get outside the US. Everybody here except me loves marshmallows, so sometimes I add tiny ones or a splash of alcohol for the adults.

Hot chocolate

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (could also use whipping cream)
  • 2 tbsp sugar (you can add more if you want it sweet)
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 6-8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (at least 60% cocoa) chopped; 4 ounces is about a regular bar. If you find using 8 oz for 4 cups a bit over-the-top, go for 6 oz
  • ¼ tsp peppermint extract (optional) – could use vanilla instead, but only if you have the real thing
  • 4 candy canes or mini marshmallows – I’ve made it with Hershey’s chocolate-mint candy canes and marshmallows – there’s nothing like boosting your sugar level when it’s hostile outside.

Bring the whipping cream, milk and sugar to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium high heat, whisking all the time – I’ve met only one person who likes skin on milk. Remove from heat. Whisk in the chocolate until smooth, add the extract (if using) and divide between mugs. Decorate with the marshmallows and/or candy cane and drink up – it’s the best-tasting cold medicine you’ll ever get.

Chocolate cake

The other chocolate creation this week was a delicious and child proof cake from How to Be a Domestic Goddess – Nigella Lawson’s classic. I have had the book for some time now, but this is the third recipe I’ve made – or in this case I actually only assisted. It was my eight-and-a-half-year-old that chose the recipe and made it from scratch. She was bored out of her mind on sick leave from school, and letting her dive into the world of chocolate cakes was my way to regain control of my laptop. We used sour cherry marmalade instead of orange, but the result was great, as with all of Nigella’s desserts.

Chocolate cake - made by 8 1/2 years old


  • ½ cup unsalted butter (113g or one stick)
  • 4 ounces bitter sweet chocolate, chopped (one regular bar)
  • 1 1/3 cups good marmalade (orange, sour cherry, plum) – a whole 11 oz/320g jar
  • ½ cup sugar (could be light dark or muscovado for extra flavor)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs (organic or free range if possible), beaten
  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 8-inch springform pan (about 20,5cm), buttered and floured


Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C, rack positioned in the middle.

Melt the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Add the chopped chocolate and when it starts melting take off the heat and stir with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula until completely melted. Add the marmalade, sugar, salt and eggs. Stir until smooth. In a small bowl combine the flour and baking powder and start adding to the chocolate mix bit by bit. When all is incorporated pour the batter into a springform, shake a little to distribute it evenly and bake for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean (always test the middle of the cake). Let it cool for 10 minutes on a rack, before taking out. If you’ve done a good job on buttering and flouring the form taking out the cake shouldn’t be a problem – when ready it shrinks a little bit and goes off the walls. It looks quite plain, but smells amazing and is moist and slightly sour from the marmalade. We played with ours – Maia cut stars and Christmas tree shapes from a cereal box and we used them as stencils. We placed them randomly on top of the cake and dusted it with icing sugar, as Nigella suggests. It looked perfect. Not surprisingly, however, it soon disappeared.

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