Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine's Day. Normally, I'd probably serve the chicken with store-bought whole wheat penne.

Today I want to talk about chicken parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese, and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*

Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
  3. Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
  5. Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
* There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes

Here’s an interesting new discovery in behavioral science: When the last conversation you have before going to sleep is about pancakes, you will wake up craving pancakes. This finding is based on not-exhaustive research consisting of a Facebook conversation I had with a friend about the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant in Deleon Springs State Park.

Pancakes on the griddle by Laurie Sterbens

Whole-grain Oatmeal Banana Pancakes on the griddle are a healthier way to satisfy a powerful pancake craving.

I didn’t make it to the restaurant during my recent visit, but my friend raved about the restaurant’s five-grain buckwheat pancakes and we agreed to meet there for breakfast in the near future.

In the meantime, I woke up with a fierce pancake craving, so I made a batch of my own. I hate that feeling you get after eating the standard white-flour pancakes covered with butter and sugary syrup. A full tummy combined with an insulin spike and crash, leaving me feeling like I want to go back to bed, is not the way I want to start my morning. I make Oatmeal Banana Pancakes, which are not only loaded with fiber but also are a great way to use that last, overripe banana. Also, you’ll notice they’re eggless. That’s because we have an egg allergy in the family, but you won’t miss the egg in this recipe.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes

3/4 cup rolled oats

1 1/2 cups whole grain white flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 medium banana, pureed*

1 1/2 cups skim milk

Butter-flavored cooking spray

Mix together all dry ingredients. Add banana puree and skim milk and mix gently with a whisk until combined. Heat griddle to 350 degrees and spray with butter-flavored cooking spray.** Cook until pancakes begin to bubble, gently flip and cook to other side. Serving suggestion: Top with blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of sugar-free syrup.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes by Laurie Sterbens

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes, topped with fresh blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of sugar-free syrup, won't leave you feeling like you'd like to go back to bed.

* A half-cup of applesauce also works well here — a handy way to use up those lunchbox-size applesauce cups that my son refuses to eat.

** I usually cheat here and add a pat of butter to the grill, or Smart Balance spread, if I’m feeling a little more virtuous. It just gives the outside of the cakes a better texture.

Another Eggless Cake: Kindergarten Graduation

I’ve been an unemployed journalist posing as a stay-at-home mom for nearly three months now, and weird things are starting to happen. Famous in the family for my brown thumb, I started a small organic vegetable garden with my son. After seeing three miniature bell peppers appear, I became obsessed and started sketching out plans for year-round plantings in the two large raised beds that I now plan to build.

After nine years, the fake bride and groom no longer occupy the crystal frame in our living room and our wedding party now appears in a large silver frame with eight tiny windows that used to say “1 1/4 x 2.” The fake bride and groom were with us for so many years I thought they’d earned a place in the family, though, so they are in the frame behind our own wedding picture.

I am seriously hoping I’ll find employment before I descend into full photo-album creation or, horrors, scrapbooking, but I have become a frequent flyer at the large craft store that just conveniently opened near my home. I’m finding myself on the hunt for cake decorating supplies, mostly. This is weird because I’m not really into sweets, especially cake. I’ve never gotten over the revelation that icing had shortening in it. Gross.

But I’ve got a little boy with an egg allergy who deserves cakes like every other kid for his birthdays and other occasions. Most recently was his kindergarten graduation. His teacher wanted to have a cake for the class, so I volunteered to make an eggless version, which she supplemented with storebought cupcakes.

Kindergarten graduation cake by Laurie Sterbens

For a kindergarten graduation, "Congratulations" seemed too stuffy. I went with "Yay!"

I decided that “Congratulations Kindergartners” was too stuffy for little kids, and also didn’t relish the idea of piping all those letters and trying to fit it into an appealing design. “Yay!” seemed more appropriate.

I used the same recipe I used for my son’s birthday Bakugan cake, which was a hit with kids and parents alike. I’m not a baker; I start with a mix. I use two boxes of reduced sugar devil’s food mix, each one baked in a 9×15 rectangular pan. Instead of the three eggs called for, I use two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half a cup of applesauce per layer. This produces a moist, somewhat dense and nicely flat layer a little over an inch thick.

After allowing the cake to cool, I spread storebought chocolate-chocolate chip icing on one layer and topped it with the second layer. I then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream (I do insist on homemade buttercream) and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

To decorate, I first sketched out a design in actual size. I kept the piping to a minimal by using fondant for the balloons and some of the letters. I rolled the fondant out in a pasta machine and cut it with cookie cutters, letter shape cutters and whatever else was handy that worked. I piped on some of the lettering, the balloon strings and the yellow trim, which was vanilla buttercream. I then added star sprinkles. It was not a restrained, elegant design, but it was for kindergarten.  They’re not into restraint.

The cake was a hit, even with people who didn’t know it was eggless. Now I’m wondering what can be my next cake-decorating occasion. Although first there’s the garden…

Not to be confused with Cake Boss

When your little boy turns 6 and he wants to have a birthday party, standard operational procedure is to call the bakery and tell them you need a Spider-Man cake or a baseball cake or a “Cars” cake, or whatever is the current kindergarten favorite.

When your little boy has a food allergy, you have to go to plan B. My son’s allergic to eggs, so I am now the proud owner of a growing collection of professional-looking cake-decorating equipment. I have more equipment than skill. Hey, there’s a reason the saying is “easy as pie.” Cake can be complicated.

Recently my son had a birthday and though we’ve managed to avoid it so far by taking him to theme parks, this time he wanted a party, and that meant a big birthday cake.

These days you can go to a craft store such as Michael’s and have a good chance of finding a kit for making a cake with a variety of popular themes. You currently have no chance of finding what my son wanted, which was a Bakugan cake. Bakugan toys are currently wildly popular with kindergarten boys and were developed by cruel Japanese artists who never considered that somebody might have to reproduce these characters in icing.

My son’s additional requirements were that the cake would be chocolate inside with white icing, with red trim and letters.

After determining that there wasn’t a ready-made kit available, I did a Google search to see what other Bakugan cakes had been attempted out there in Mommyland. There were some brave attempts to reproduce the logo in icing, but nothing really grabbed me.

My solution: First, my standard kindergarten occasion no-egg cake: Two boxes of reduced sugar cake mix. Instead of the three eggs called for per box, I used two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half cup of applesauce. Baked in two 9×15 pans, they will be slightly more dense than regular cake and will make nice 1 1/2-inch layers.

Eggless Bakugan Cake by Laurie Sterbens

Eggless Drago Bakugan birthday cake by Laurie Sterbens

I slapped a layer of canned chocolate/chocolate chip frosting between the layers, then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream. For the decorations, I blew up a picture of the Bakugan figure Drago from a tracing book, traced that onto colored fondant with a toothpick, cut out the pieces and assembled the Drago on parchment paper, then added details with edible marker. I then reassembled the figure on top of the cake and added the red trim (and I would just like to say here that red gel food coloring is pretty disgusting stuff) and lettering. I also added a little fondant platform for the actual Drago toy, which my son also wanted on the cake. The empty space up front later held six red candles.

It’s not Cake Boss, but my son thought it was the coolest cake ever.