Birthday Dinner- Cooking for my family

Is it odd that for my birthday, I asked if I could cook for my family? Maybe a bit, but it didn’t stop me. I love to cook, and I don’t have an excuse to do it for my parents and sister and brother-in-law often enough. I wanted everyone gathered around my table, eating good food, and spending quality time. The cooking happened to be a bonus.

For the menu, I needed it to be manageable, and easily stretched to feed 7 people (mom, dad, me, Ross, Mags, Zack, and my Grandma). In the end, I decided to make fresh pasta and bolognese, knowing I could do the bolognese ahead of time, and fresh pasta is always delicious and a special treat. For dessert, I made a cake from chocolate chip cookies (and vanilla ice cream too.) Disclaimer- there are a TON of photos to follow- sorry not sorry)

The first step in making all this happen was to make the bolognese. It cooked in the background for several hours while all the other chaos ensued, so I prepped it first. I actually didn’t use a pre-set recipe either. I’ve made so many batches of bolognese over the years that I make mine with the techniques I think produce the best result:

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Here’s the basic recipe in a quick rundown:

Ingredients:

bacon- 1/2 lb diced
onion-1 large or 2 medium
garlic- 4-5 cloves
carrots- 3 medium
celery- 2 stalks
tomato paste- 2 cups
red wine- 2 cups
thyme
bay leaf
ground pork- 1 lb
ground beef- 1 lb

Render 1/2 lb of diced bacon until lightly crispy. Remove from pan, but leave the fat. Add 2-3 tbs of butter to the pan (depending on how much fat renders from the bacon- you want the bottom of the pan to have plenty of oil). Put all the aromatics (onion, garlic, carrot, celery) roughly chopped in a food processor and pulse to a coarse paste. Add the paste to the butter/fat and saute with a big pinch of salt. This is where things slow down considerably- you have to keep sauteing the veggies until all the water evaporates and the paste starts to caramelize. As the brown crust forms (go for brown, not burnt!), you have to keep stirring and stirring until the mixture gets quite dry and is less than half the original volume. I demonstrated this with pics in my first post, but here they are again for reference:

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The flavor is really developed here so DON’T SKIP IT! (sorry for the shouting)

Add the tomato paste and stir for 2-3 minutes until it has the chance to cook and caramelize a bit itself. It will burn easily, but it’s also like flour in the way it has a specific raw taste, so cooking it, even for a minute or two will get rid of that flavor and really enhance the tomatoey-ness (yep, real word).

Add the pork and beef (and another huge pinch or two of salt) and scramble those up in the tomato paste mixture. Cook for several minutes until all the meat is mixed thoroughly and has a chance to start rendering a bit. You can see below, the mixture will be very thick.

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Add the wine and let it reduce for about 5 minutes. Add in the bay leaf, and some sprigs of thyme tied with butchers string. Add enough water to cover the meat and thin it out (I think I added 6 cups)

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I let mine cook for about 4 hours. In the end, the texture should be thick and smooth. I had to skim off fat near the end that had rendered from the pork and beef, but it wasn’t terrible. If your sauce is too thick, add more water. If it’s still too thin, crank up the heat a simmer aggressively for 10 or 15 minutes and that should help evaporate extra water. Taste taste taste for seasoning. I added more salt at the end. If you taste the sauce and it tastes flat and boring, it needs salt. There are so many flavors in this pot, and if you cannot taste them, or it tastes of nothing, add salt. Trust me. You probably under-salted.

The pasta is fairly simple to make (but a pain to roll out and cut). I always use the same recipe by Anne Burrell.

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Making the flour well and adding the eggs… The mess is most of the fun!

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Water, olive oil, lots of salt, and then the finger-stirring begins.

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Starts out looking rough… the kneading is where the magic happens.

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Looking pretty smooth by the end… Pasta needs to rest a while before you roll it out, so the gluten has time to develop properly, so I left this to rest for a few hours while I kept going with other things. I set it out of the fridge about 45 minutes before I started rolling to get the chill off and get it as close to room temp as possible.

My pasta rolling involves a KitchenAid mixer. I used to use a hand crank, but to be honest, they are a complete pain in the ass if you don’t have a great setup for one, or if like me, you need two hands at all times to keep things from going terribly.

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I rolled the pasta down to a 5 on the dial, and cut it into reasonable lengths before running it through the pasta cutter. We like the wider noodles, so that’s the cutting attachment I used. I hung them to dry on a wooden tree-thing (official product description). I ended up recruiting my mom to help with this part, because the cutter scores the noodles, but doesn’t cleanly cut them, so I had to individually separate the noodles. When you are making fresh pasta for seven, that’s a lot of freaking separating.

I boiled the noodles for 3 minutes or so (in very heavily salted water). Added them to some sauce, served it up and BOOM:

It was as delicious as it looks.

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Dessert was also a lot of stopping-and-starting. I made this cake once previously for my sister’s baby shower and it was a huge hit. As much as I like chocolate and sugar, I’m not much of a cake person. Put chocolate chip cookies in front of me though and I’ll clothesline a grandma to get to them if she’s in my way. Before I could start on the cookies, I had to make the ice cream.

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No cake is complete without ice cream, so I used the Chow’s Vanilla Bean Ice Cream recipe. This is the only vanilla ice cream recipe I’ve tried that doesn’t churn grainy. It’s amazingly good and our ice cream machine works wonders.

I sound a little repetitive, but I made the ice cream mixture the night before, churned it first thing in the morning the day of dinner, and let it cure in the freezer for several hours before serving. You could churn and serve right away- the texture will be more like soft serve.

For the cake, I used the chocolate chunk cookie recipe from Joanne Chang’s Flour (THE BEST BAKING BOOK EVER EVER EVER), instead of using the recipe’s cookie dough just because these cookies are my favorite. I’ve used the recipe’s version and they are fine, I just LOVE these cookies, so I relied on them for this cake. I made the dough the night before the dinner because letting cookie dough rest, even for several hours, means you’ll have more consistent bakes and the cookies won’t have a tendency to run.

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I almost overbaked the cookies intentionally. Since they sit with a cream filling, if they are slightly dark and caramelized, it helps make the flavor a bit more pronounced.

The cookies (once cooled, get piled in a circle on a plate then layered with a mixture of whipped heavy cream, mascarpone cheese and sugar. My version looks a little sloppy, but you get the idea:

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The cake should sit for several hours in the fridge so the cookies can absorb the moisture from the cream filling. It cuts easier this way too (just like a regular cake). Overnight works best, and this cake gets better and better the longer it sits.

Overall, our dinner was fantastic. As much as I’d like to think it’s because of the food, it was really the people around the table that made it so special. Laughing with my family, teasing each other and reminiscing about embarrassing moments in our lives is what I live for. I’m so grateful for them all, and there were a few more I wish were there with us that live in far away places. I look forward to 32. Each year gets better and better. I’ll start notes for next year’s menu later this week. 🙂

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