Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

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Fall weather changes my thinking when I plan dinner, even side dishes. I turn from things like light, citrusy rice to rich, cheesy potatoes. Or at least I did today. I wanted to make a cheesy potato dish to go with the breaded, baked fish I was planning. And I wanted to make it as simple as possible, with as few dirty dishes as possible.

I decided to make scalloped potatoes like my mother used to when I was growing up. I sliced potatoes and layered them with cheese and sprinkles of flour. I poured milk over the top and baked them until they were browned and bubbly and the milk and flour had thickened into a sauce.

The only hard part about this recipe is waiting for them to bake. No cheese sauce to make, no potatoes to parboil before baking. Just cheesy, warm potatoes with a minimum of fuss and bother. My idea of a perfect side dish.

Download or print recipe here.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6-8

You can make this with your favorite cheeses. Stronger cheeses are better than mild ones, in my opinion. Use any milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer your sauce.

4-6 potatoes (1½ pounds)
1½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ cup flour, divided
½ teaspoon salt, divided
black pepper, to taste
2 cups milk (I used 2%)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heavily grease a 9 by 13 inch casserole dish.

Peel the potatoes and slice them into thin, round slices. Mix the cheeses together in a bowl.

Cover the bottom of the casserole with a thin layer of potato slices – use about a quarter of the potatoes. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour, ⅛ teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Spread 1 cup of cheese over the second layer of potatoes. Repeat the layering twice more with the remaining potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Pour milk gently over the entire casserole. Cover casserole tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 60 minutes.

Remove foil and sprinkle top of potatoes with remaining 1 cup of cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for another 20-30 minutes, until top is golden brown, edges are browned and sauce is bubbly and thick. Let potatoes rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. Leftovers reheat well.

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Homemade Ricotta Cheese

DSC_0030I took a cheese making class a few years ago. We learned how to make chevre, yogurt, sour cream, feta, cheddar and ricotta. The only cheese I have made since is ricotta. I need to try making other cheeses. Someday.

Cheese is one of those things that is so easy to buy in the store. And regular commercial cheese is pretty reasonably priced, and it can be pretty good. Cheese from the grocery store specialty cheese section and even cheese shops is even better, and still not that expensive.

Ricotta cheese is especially reasonably priced, so it is a toss-up if you want to make ricotta to save money. It is cheaper to make your own, if you are going strictly on the price of ingredients, but you do have to factor in your time.

Homemade ricotta is sweeter and creamier than commercial ricotta. It tastes more like milk than commercial cheese. Is the difference huge? No. Do I make all the ricotta we eat? No. But it is fun to make it sometimes, just to do it. There is something fulfilling about learning how to make a food we usually buy, and then doing it.

We use a lot of ricotta cheese – in stuffed shells, eggplant lasagna and on pizza. Occasionally we use it in desserts and once we used it in breakfast crepes. Homemade ricotta takes these dishes to a whole new level. Some of that might be psychological, knowing that I made that cheese myself. But the cheese does taste fresher and is creamier than commercial ricotta.

The only special equipment you need to make your own ricotta is a candy thermometer and some cheesecloth, both of which you can pick up at the grocery store. The process isn’t complicated and requires no special skills. In just about an hour you can make your own cheese.

Bring out your inner dairymaid and make some ricotta cheese. Buy some milk, block off an hour and get started.

Download or print the recipe here.

Ricotta Cheese
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup, easy to double

You need to use pure salt in this recipe; iodine or other additives can give the cheese an odd flavor. Buy fine sea salt or other salt that is just salt, read the label to check for any additives. I use fine sea salt, which has slightly larger grains than table salt. If yours is finer, use less than ¼ teaspoon. Don’t use coarse salt without grinding it first or it won’t dissolve well.

4 cups whole milk
2-3 tablespoons white vinegar, approximately
¼ teaspoon salt, approximately (see head note)

Special equipment:
Candy thermometer
Cheesecloth
Colander

Pour the milk into a large pot, at least 3 quarts, though bigger is fine. Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pot and turn the heat to medium.

Fold the cheesecloth in half and line the colander with it. Set it on top of a large bowl that is a smaller diameter than the colander so the colander rests on top of the bowl, or down inside it just a bit. You need height so the cheese can drain.

Stir the milk gently and watch it as it gets warmer. Stir more often as it gets warmer, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up – you risk scorching the milk.

Heat the milk it until it reaches 165-180° F. My stove took 15 minutes to reach 165° and 20 minutes to reach 180°.

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When the milk is at least 165°, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar and stir. The milk should separate into white curds that look like cottage cheese, and greenish liquid. The liquid is whey. If the milk doesn’t separate after 1 minute of stirring, add another tablespoon of vinegar and stir for another minute. If you don’t have definite separation after the additional vinegar, add more vinegar, a teaspoon at a time and stir for a minute after each addition. Never fear, it will separate.

Take the pan off the heat and stir occasionally for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, slowly pour the curds and whey through the cheesecloth into the bowl. Pour slowly so you don’t splash – everything is still hot at this point. Let the curds drain for about 5 minutes.

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After 5 minutes, the curds should be drained and look like ricotta cheese. If they still look wet, give them a few more minutes to drain. Scrape the ricotta off the cheesecloth and into a small bowl. There will be about 3 cups of whey in the large bowl. Don’t throw it away – see note at the end for ways to store and use it.

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Add ⅛ teaspoon salt to the cheese and stir. Taste the ricotta. If it tastes salty to you, stop adding salt. If it’s not salty enough, add another ⅛ teaspoon salt and stir and taste again. Add a touch more salt, if it still doesn’t taste salty to you.

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Stir gently for 5-10 minutes. The curds will get smaller and the cheese will get amazingly creamy as you stir.

Congratulations, you have made ricotta cheese!

The whey:
You will have about 3 cups of whey left over. Don’t throw it away. Store it in a jar or container in the fridge for up to a week. Freeze it for longer storage. Use it instead of milk or buttermilk in pancakes, muffins or bread.

Vanilla Custard

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Custard is one of those desserts that I forget about. It is sublime in its simplicity – milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. We didn’t have custard that often when I was growing up, but I always loved it. My mom and grandma made custard pretty much the same way – not too sweet, not too rich and always topped with ground nutmeg before they baked it. That is what custard is to me – plain, simple and delicious.

I decided to try making custard last week during our Colorado vacation. It was a rainy afternoon and we had all the ingredients on hand. I didn’t have my recipe with me, so I trolled the internet until I looked at enough recipes to decide on a ratio of eggs to milk to sugar. In my in-laws’ less-than-stocked kitchen I had to improvise for both custard cups and a water bath. Coffee cups stood in for ramekins, with the overflow going into a serving bowl that was oven safe. The custards baked up just fine, despite the high altitude and the less-than ideal baking vessels.

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Rich’s parents and I were happy, though they didn’t have any nutmeg, so I had to make do with cinnamon. Rich has never liked custard that much – he prefers his desserts to have more substance, and more chocolate. Calvin wasn’t impressed either. They are both requesting chocolate almond custard. I expect you will be seeing a recipe for that sometime soon.

I made another batch of custard once we got home to make sure I could replicate the results. I can’t say that it was really much better than the improvised custard we had on vacation. But I got to use ground nutmeg on top. It brought back a true taste of childhood. Rich and Calvin still aren’t fans, but that leaves more for me.

Download or print recipe here.

Vanilla Custard
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4-6 servings

Use any kind of milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer the custard. This is not a sweet dessert. You can increase the sugar to ½ cup if you like, with no other changes to the recipe. Or sprinkle sugar on top when serving for added sweetness and crunch.

2 cups milk
4 eggs
⅓ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
dash salt
nutmeg or cinnamon
sugar, for serving (optional)

Equipment:
Custard cups or ramekins
9 by 13 inch baking pan, or equivalent
boiling water for a water bath

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot or teakettle of water to a boil and keep hot. Lightly grease 4-6 custard cups or small ramekins. I used 6 ounce custard cups and needed five of them. Set ramekins in a 9 by 13 inch baking pan or other pan large enough to hold them without crowding. Set aside, preferably near the oven.

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Heat milk in a 2-3 quart saucepan over medium heat until very hot. Milk will be steaming and there will be bubbles all around the edges when it is hot enough. Don’t let it boil. Stir occasionally at the beginning and more often as it gets hotter. It should take 5-7 minutes to get hot enough, depending on your stove and the size of your pan. The larger the pan, the faster the milk will heat (and the closer you need to watch it).

While milk heats, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt together in a large bowl until sugar is no longer gritty.

When milk is hot, beat it gradually into the egg mixture. Start very slowly so you don’t scramble the eggs. When all the milk is mixed in, pour the custard into the prepared ramekins, filling them almost full. Sprinkle tops with nutmeg or cinnamon.

Set ramekins, in the larger baking pan, as near to the oven as possible. Pour boiling water into the larger pan, trying to get the water to the same level as the custard in the cups. Carefully transfer the filled pan to the oven.

Bake custard 25-30 minutes, or until the centers barely jiggle when you move the pan. Remove the pan from the oven. Remove ramekins from the hot water and place on a rack to cool. When cool, cover and refrigerate. Let custards come to room temperature for a few minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the fridge for two or three days, covered.

Frozen Treats in January – Cinnamon Gelato

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Gelato is the hot ice cream lately. Or at least it seems to show up in articles in food magazines and on restaurant menus that we have seen lately. We have been thinking about making our own for quite awhile now, but have never managed to find the time. This weekend all the stars aligned and we made our first gelato.

Gelato, according to various sources, is Italian ice cream that is heavy on egg yolks and often uses whole milk as the base instead of cream. I found recipes online that ranged from a dozen egg yolks to none. I settled on one that had a modest amount of egg yolks and both cream and milk that I found on the blog Italian Food Forever. The original recipe was for vanilla, and called for a vanilla bean. We didn’t have any on hand, so I used vanilla extract and then decided to make cinnamon gelato, so we added two teaspoons of cinnamon.

We beat the egg yolks with sugar, heated the milk and cream, tempered the eggs with a little hot milk and then cooked the whole shebang until it thickened. Then we strained the mixture into a bowl to chill in an ice bath until it was cold. Then we churned it in the ice cream maker and put it in the freezer until it was firm enough to serve. After all that we expected perfection.

It was good, but nothing special. And I thought it tasted more like eggy custard than gelato. I prefer my own cinnamon ice cream, which is much less work and doesn’t make a mountain of dirty dishes. I think I am going to leave the gelato making to the professionals, which is not to say I won’t enjoy the rest of our batch. Maybe it just needs some caramel sauce

Scalloped, Au Gratin or Cheesy Potatoes


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Potatoes, milk and cheese go together, no matter what you call them. Sure, it is easy to pick up a box of the dried potato slices with the included powdered sauce. But why do this when you can put in just a little more effort to get something that tastes so much better?

I usually make cheesy potatoes by slicing potatoes, boiling them until they are barely tender and then layering them with the cheese sauce I use for macaroni and cheese before baking them until brown and bubbly. I change the cheese mixture to concentrate heavily on sharp cheddar and Parmesan – we like the stronger cheese flavors with the potatoes.

The other night I decided to skip making the cheese sauce and try making the potatoes the way I made them once, several years ago. We were at my parents’ house during the holidays and my brother and his family were visiting. We had been shopping or sightseeing (the memory is fuzzy) and were throwing together dinner at the end of the day. It was one of those meals where several people each made a dish and what we got was a hodgepodge that was perfect. I can’t remember anything but the potatoes and how much fun we had. Not sure what that says about my memory, that I only remember the dish I made.

Anyway, I sliced the potatoes and simmered them on the stove in milk. Then I layered the potatoes in a casserole with grated cheese and poured the hot milk over the top before baking them in the oven. They were fabulous, if I say so myself.

To truly recreate what I did this time, you will have to boil the milk over onto the stovetop. Then you have to trail milk all over the stove, floor and counter while you are removing the pan from the stove. Oh, and you have to forget to grease the casserole dish until you have half the bottom covered with hot potatoes. Don’t forget to start the whole process with a sink full of dishes that you forgot to wash earlier in the day. Other than that, you can follow the recipe and end up with a quick version of what my mother used to call scalloped potatoes. I recommend starting with a clean sink and skipping the boiling over part.

Download or print the recipe.

Scalloped Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6-8

Use starchy white or yellow potatoes for this recipe, rather than waxy red ones. The starch will help thicken the sauce.

4 large potatoes (about 1½ pounds)
2-2 ½ cups milk
2 cups shredded cheese (I used 1 cup sharp cheddar, ½ cup Swiss and ½ cup Parmesan)
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large casserole (mine is almost 9 by 13). You can also use a smaller casserole, but you won’t have as much surface area for the browned cheese on top.

Peel the potatoes and slice them into thin rounds. Put the potatoes in a large pot. Add milk until most of the potatoes are covered. Add salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover with the lid and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes, or until potatoes are almost tender. Lower the heat if the potatoes threaten to boil over.

Use a slotted spoon to move about half the potato slices to the greased casserole dish. Spread them in a single layer – you don’t have to be neat. Layer about half the cheese on top. Add the rest of the potatoes, spreading them out as evenly as possible. Pour the hot milk evenly over the potatoes. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining cheese.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until bubbly and the top and edges are browned. Tent the top loosely with foil if it starts to get too brown. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving so the sauce can thicken just a bit. Reheats well.

Homemade yogurt – easier than you think

Homemade yogurt is easy to make, and cheaper than commercial yogurt. I have made it in the past, but not for a few years, and my mom used to make it sometimes when I was growing up. Last week my mother-in-law asked me if I had ever made it and wanted a recipe so she could make her own yogurt. My father-in-law eats a lot of it and she wants to save some money by making it herself.

I called my mom and asked how she used to make it – scald the milk, mix in some commercial yogurt and let it sit for several hours in a warm place. She used to use the top of the fridge, when refrigerators used to vent out the back. Now they usually vent out the bottom in the front and the top isn’t much warmer than anywhere else in the kitchen.

I looked up a recipe I had from a cheese making class I took a few years ago – heat the milk to 110 degrees, add commercial yogurt or a powdered starter culture and let it sit in a warm (100 degree) place for 8-12 hours. Or, for thicker yogurt, heat the milk to 180 degrees and keep it at that temp for 10-20 minutes, then cool to 110 and proceed as above.

I also looked online and found recipes that were all over the map – heating the milk anywhere from 100 degrees to 185, using varying amounts of yogurt as a starter, and using all kinds of different contraptions to keep the milk warm for the culture to work.

I ended up combining my mom’s recipe with the more precise directions from the cheese making class. I heated the milk to 180, which made it steamy and frothy around the edges, but not boiling. I poured the heated milk into a glass bowl because I thought it would cool faster than leaving it in the hot, thick-bottomed pan. I should have used metal because the glass retained the heat instead of dissipating it, but I do think it cooled a little faster than it would have in the pan. I could have used a water bath to cool it even faster, but I didn’t want to go to the trouble.

It took about 30 minutes for the milk to cool to 110, which is just warmer than lukewarm to the touch. Don’t skip this step – if you add the yogurt while the milk is too hot, you will kill the cultures and you won’t get any yogurt.

I decided to keep my culturing milk in a cooler with a jar of hot water next to the container of yogurt for heat. Low tech, and it used what I already had on hand. It worked beautifully. You could also use the oven with the light turned on and the door closed, or you might have that warm spot in the kitchen that I don’t have. Find a place that you can leave undisturbed for 6-12 hours.

And, you have yogurt.

My breakfast this week – yogurt over granola, with fresh strawberries and a drizzle of honey.

Homemade Yogurt
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 1 quart yogurt

 Equipment:
3-quart saucepan
Large bowl, optional
Quart canning jar or quart container with a lid, preferably glass, for culturing and storage
Quart canning jar or other container for hot water
Picnic cooler large enough to hold the yogurt container and the water jar
OR
A warm place you can leave undisturbed for 6-12 hours, like the oven preheated to 100 degrees and then turned OFF, with the light left on, or anywhere else warm you can find in your house.

Ingredients:
4 cups (1 quart) milk, skim, low fat or whole (I used skim)
¼ cup plain yogurt (non fat, low fat or whole milk), make sure it contains live, active cultures. I used non fat Dannon.

Heat the milk to 180 degrees in the saucepan over medium heat. After the first 5 minutes, you need to stir frequently to keep the milk from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The whole process should take about 10 minutes. If you don’t have a thermometer, the milk is ready when it is very steamy and very frothy around the edges. Don’t let it boil.

Remove the pan from the heat. If you like, pour the milk into a bowl to cool faster. Stir occasionally until milk cools to 110 degrees, which is slightly warmer than lukewarm. If you test with your finger, make sure you wash your hands first! This should take 20-30 minutes. Add the yogurt to the warm milk and stir gently to combine.

While the milk is cooling, fill the jar or container with very hot water and place it in the cooler to start warming it.

Pour the milk/yogurt mixture into your storage container and cover it. Place the container into the now-warm cooler and close the lid. You might have to turn your cooler on its side, as I did, for the container to fit.

Leave undisturbed for 6-8 hours. Check to see how thick your yogurt is with a clean spoon. If it is to your liking, move it to the fridge. If it isn’t thick enough, give it more time, up to 12 hours. You might need to rewarm the water in the jar once to keep the cooler warm enough. My yogurt was done after 8 hours, and I rewarmed the water in the jar after 6 hours, but I don’t think I really needed to.

There may be a layer of liquid whey on top of your yogurt when it is done. This is fine – you didn’t make a mistake. Spoon it off and save it to use as part of the liquid when you make pancakes or homemade bread. It will keep about a week in the fridge. Your homemade yogurt might give off more whey in the fridge than commercial yogurt. Just gently stir it back in or spoon it off and save it for cooking.

Yogurt keeps 7-10 days, in the fridge.

Download the recipe here.