Lidia's Stuffed Shells

A month or so ago I ran across a video by Lidia Bastianich in which she made stuffed shells with her Nonna.  They are adorable together!  Even if you don't plan on making this dish, watch the video.  The recipe looked simple and it left me craving stuffed shells. I haven't made them in years.

I printed the recipe and headed to the grocery store for the ingredients. After I'd purchased the ingredients I thought I'd watch the video one more time. Well, Lidia uses different ingredients in the video than she does in the recipe (and the recipe is linked in the video so I know I printed the right one!).  So I ended up with a mixture of both recipes in the dish I made.

Baked Stuffed Shells - Lidia (the recipe)
Baked Stuffed Shells - Lidia (the video)

The filling in the recipe calls for whole milk ricotta, fresh mozzarella, grated Grana Padano, chopped fresh parsley and an egg. I was lucky enough to find Calabro ricotta in my local grocery store. It is the best ricotta! It is smooth and creamy and I could just eat it with a spoon and maybe a little honey. The store did not have Grana Padano. I didn't want to make a run to Cosetta so I went with a good Parmesan Reggiano instead. The directions say to slice half the mozzarella thin and cube the rest. Cubing fresh mozzarella seemed like it would be a trick. Turns out I didn't have to. Read on.

Then I watched the video. In the video, Lidia uses cubed provolone cheese and peas in the filling mix. I didn't have any provolone in the house but I did have some Eichten's mozzarella which has a texture similar to provolone so I used that along with the fresh mozzarella. We did run out for peas because we thought that sounded good! I think spinach or even basil would be equally good or maybe even a little crab?

All but the sliced fresh mozzarella is mixed together for the filling. In her video, Lidia suggests you put this in the refrigerator to make stuffing the shells easier so that's what I did.

The sauce is equally easy to put together.  A little olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, tomatoes and fresh basil, if you follow the recipe.  If you follow the video, a little dried oregano is added to the sauce and there is no mention of the basil! I added both!

This simple sauce smells so good as it simmers! I was a little surprised at how good the kitchen smelled.  Definitely a dish I could make for guests because it comes together so quickly and the kitchen will smell divine!

The shells are cooked even less than al dente, just enough so the shells can be stuffed.  They will finish baking in the sauce. Lidia suggests rinsing the pasta with water then putting them in some cold water to cool them. I've never done that before, so I tried it. The shells didn't stick to each other as much as they have in the past (even after a rinse, as I get to the end of the stuffing some shells would stick together) so maybe it helped with that.

The stuffed shells are placed in a baking dish to which a little of the sauce has been added. The full batch calls for a 15x10 baking dish. I don't own a 15x10 baking dish, shocking I know. But I had made a half batch (since there's just the two of us) so my pretty little red stoneware worked perfectly.

I had enough filling to make a double layer of shells. I didn't want to waste any! 

In the video, Lidia uses grated mozzarella cheese, not fresh as called for in the recipe, and she mixes it with a little of the Grana Padano (or Parmesan in my case). Nonna explains that mixing the cheese keeps the shredded cheese from sticking together.  I topped my pasta with the fresh mozzarella and a little of the grated Parmesan.

About a half hour later this beautiful dish came out of the oven!

These were delicious. The cheese was creamy, the peas added a fresh flavor that cut the richness of the cheese. And that simple sauce was so good I mopped up every last bit on my plate with a piece of good bread. We'll definitely be having this again. I could easily whip this up after work. This sauce would be fantastic on anything!

My New Favorite Sourdough Bread Recipe

Is there anything better than fresh sourdough bread? Sourdough is one of my favorite breads to make and to eat.  I've been baking it for several years now so my starter is getting some age on it. The Clever Carrot's Sourdough Bread -A Beginner's Guide was my go-to recipe until now. It is a great tutorial. If you are a first-time baker of sourdough I think it is definitely worth a read.

I have tried many sourdough recipes, some successful, some not so much.  I'm always so disappointed when the bread doesn't turn out because it's such a time-consuming process.

I recently ran across another recipe for sourdough, How to Make Sourdough Bread by The Kitchn.  What was different about this recipe is it doesn't call for any kneading. It's not a no-knead bread, you fold the dough (for 2 and a half hours!) rather than knead it.

Like most sourdough recipes, you're not going to whip this bread up in an afternoon. You have to start early, especially if your starter has been in the refrigerator for a while. I pulled mine out Thursday afternoon and gave it a good feed.  I fed it again Friday morning so Friday afternoon it would be fat and happy and nice and bubbly.

Friday night I put together the Leaven. It uses just a tablespoon of that pretty starter. Yep, that's it, just a tablespoon to make two full loaves of bread!

This is mixed with 75 grams of bread flour and 75 grams of water to create a leaven. If you don't own a kitchen scale I highly recommend buying one, especially if you like to bake. Weighing ingredients is so much more accurate than measuring them. It really does make a difference. And, when recipes only give you weights, well, you can weigh things!

This is what the leaven looked like before I put it to bed for the night.

Saturday morning it was beautifully bubbly. I knew it was ready because it floats!

The Leaven is mixed with a water and flour and left to autolyze for anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours.  This starts the process of the starch breakdown giving the bread a little head start!  The dough is what is called "shaggy" at this point.

After 30 minutes or so of rest (that's all I wanted to wait!), I added a salt/citric acid/water mixture to the dough. The recipe states that the dough will "feel quite wet and loose at this point."  Ya think? Oh, and never forget the salt when making bread! Trust me. You won't like the results.

Now the folding starts. The picture above is after my first fold. Hard to believe it will turn into anything resembling a cohesive dough at this point!  According to Emma Christensen at The Kitchn, folding is better than kneading because it gives the crumb of the bread a better structure and nicer holes. I can't tell you if it was just the recipe or if it really was the folding, but this bread has amazing crumb!

I folded the dough for two and a half hours. No, I wasn't standing there folding the dough continuously, it was fold, rest 30 minutes and repeat until I had folded the dough a total of 6 times.

Here is what the dough looked like after three "folds". You can see it is starting to come together.

After the final turn the dough is allowed to rise for about an hour.  I love my dough buckets from King Arthur Flour. It's easy to see how much your dough has risen.

After the rise I had a nice dough with lots of airy pockets already.

The dough is split in two and allowed to rest again while the proofing baskets are prepped for the final rise. I wish I got to rest as much as this dough does!

Emma suggests using proofing baskets. I've never used them but have been curious, especially when I see those beautiful loaves of dough with flour rings.  The first time I made this I tried using a towel in a mixing bowl. I didn't put enough flour on the towel and, in addition to having quite a flour mess, the dough stuck to the towel. I was able to peel it off and still make a pretty loaf of bread, but I didn't want to repeat that this time so I ordered myself a proofing basket!

I loaded it up with flour and hoped for the best!  The second loaf went into another flour-laced towel. I hoped I used enough this time! This is the long proofing stage, three to four hours.

This recipe calls for baking the bread in a Dutch oven which is my preferred way to bake bread. I love the crust you get without having to put ice cubes or water in a hot oven during baking. I personally love my Lodge Dutch oven for this but my Le Creuset works just fine too!  I do sprinkle a little cornmeal in the bottom before adding the dough just to make sure nothing sticks.

I still haven't mastered turning the dough into the 500 degree cast iron pot. It turned out a little oblong, but I did get nice flour rings so I was hoping for a beautiful loaf of bread. And no fingers or arms were burned!

 A little slash and into the oven it went. I will admit I need some practice slashing bread in a 500 degree cast iron pan.

Emma's instructions call for baking the bread anywhere from 60 to 80 minutes, "until the crust is deeply browned; aim for just short of burnt." I tested the temperature of my bread after 45 minutes and found not only was the crust beautifully browned, it was about 205F in the middle so I pulled it out.

This is beautiful bread! OK it's OK looking this time. I need to work on my flour bread art.

BUT, the crust is crispy and chewy and the crumb is soft and just melts in your mouth! The addition of a little citric acid did bump the sour just a bit. I may add more next time.

The hardest part of fresh bread is waiting for it to cool before cutting into it. With this bread you are rewarded for that wait! This is now my go-to sourdough bread recipe!

Ruhlman's Spicy Orange Chicken

I'm a big Michael Ruhlman fan. His recipes just work. His Dutch oven bread is easy and delicious and his popover recipe is a staple in our house on the weekends. Not only are the recipes fantastic, he explains why they work, or don't. My Ruhlman Badass Perforated Spoon is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets.

A while back he published a recipe for Spicy Orange Chicken on his blog. I read it and it sounded so good I made it that night. Like all of the other recipes I tried, this one did not disappoint. 

I've made it several times since then and since we like it so much, I thought I'd share it with you.

There are quite a few ingredients in the sauce but that's what makes it so good, right?  Don't let the 10 ingredients scare you away, it really comes together pretty quickly.  The recipe is for one serving, but since I wasn't planning on sharing one serving with my husband I doubled the batch.

The sauce calls for the juice of an orange, soy sauce, lime juice (or rice wine vinegar), brown sugar, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, vegetable oil, minced garlic, grated ginger and chili flakes. You'll note in my picture below there is no ginger.  That's because when I pulled it out of the frig it looked, well, not so good. I sent my husband to the store while I started the rest of the prep.

You know how delicious the butter, onion and celery smell at Thanksgiving as you're starting to make stuffing?  I think simmering garlic, ginger and red chili flakes smells even better. Once these are softened the liquids are added.

While this is simmering until reduced by half, cook the chicken.

The trick to the chicken is a mixture of egg white and cornstarch. You can use flour but per Mr. Ruhlman the cornstarch gives it a better crunch. I've always used cornstarch so I can't tell you if the flour really is different, but I trust Mr. Ruhlman.

Put a little oil in a pan, get it really hot and drop the chicken in. After a few minutes you have beautifully browned chicken strips. That is if they don't stick to the bottom of the pan. Which is what happened to me this time. I used one of my Calphalon pans instead of my trusty cast iron. Every other time I have made this I used my cast iron but it doesn't have very high sides and oil splatters all over so I decided to use a deeper sided pan this time.  I'll go back to my cast iron next time! I did still use my handy, dandy splatter shield.

Place the browned chicken on a paper towel lined plate. I totally forgot to take a picture of that. Chalk it up to having not done one of these in a while.

I did snag a picture of cleaning up the little browned bits of egg white and cornstarch that were in the pan, using my Badass spoon of course!

Before it all gets put together a few dried red chilis and more garlic are browned in the pan. Be sure you use dried red chilis.

If you don't, if you use fresh chilis, when you put them into the hot oil they will explode!  And I don't mean they'll pop open like cranberries in the fall when you're making sauce.  I mean they will EXPLODE!  It will sound like gunfire and your spouse will run into the kitchen wondering what the heck you are doing. You will find little bits of chili all over your kitchen and if one hits you on it's way across the kitchen, well that hurts!

End PSA.

Once the chilis are black and the garlic is soft, add the reduced sauce back in the pan, get it simmering then add the chicken and orange zest.

I served it over brown rice with a little roasted broccoli.  My husband and inhale this dish. The chicken has a crispy exterior but is juicy on the inside.  The sauce is hot but not too hot, a little sweet from the orange, thick and gooey over the chicken, just plain delicious.  We love the heat but if you're not a fan of hot, you could reduce the quantity of red pepper flakes and/or chilis and make it to your heat preference. It will still be delicious!

Homemade Pita Bread

Jalapenos have come in at Farmer's Market which has me thinking of all recipes jalapeno.  I'll probably can some too, but that will ...

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