I had the sudden realization during a conversation the other day that I have a tendency to go through, shall we say, unique obsessive phases. I was telling someone that I was really obsessed with igneous rocks – well, actually just obsidian and pumice – for about a year in middle school, and they gave me a look that clearly said, “I think that either you are from some planet that is separated from Earth by at least one asteroid belt, or else you probably grew up under one of those igneous rocks that you were obsessed with.” It had never really occurred to me before that this kind of obsession may not be entirely normal, and then I started thinking about some of my other obsessions. Scarab beetles, for a while. I was also fixated on Aquaporins (that would be the protein channels that allow water to travel through cell walls) and prions (the misfolded proteins that cause mad cow disease) at various points in time. And the concept of zero. And bloodroot flowers. And the “cerulean” Crayola crayon. And, well, you get the idea.
I also go through obsessive food phases (surprising no one). Like ricotta, or lemon zest, or chorizo, or mini turnovers. The phase I am currently in is Ottolenghi. That would be Yotam Ottolenghi and his eponymous cafes in London. One of my younger brothers is currently in London for grad school, which means that in theory he could get take out from Ottolenghi any time he wished. Ah, how unfair the world is. My obsession with Ottolenghi is by no means unique, however. He’s a bit of a buzzword in the food world, particularly because he has a new cookbook of vegetarian recipes out this year, and ever growing swaths of people are being extolling how fresh, curious, vibrant, and downright stunning his recipes are. He is the cure for food doldrums.
Yes, the food doldrums. Does that happen to you too? From time to time, food starts to feel like the same old joke being told over and over again. It loses its spark, and everything begins to run together into predictable combinations. Steak with blue cheese. Salad with pears and pecans. Salmon with soy glaze. Greens with garlic. Not that this is entirely bad. It’s often lovely to have standby combinations that you know are tasty. But sometimes you don’t want standby anymore. In Norwegian there is a phrase, “mat lei,” which when literally translated means “sick of food.” But its actually meaning is more along the lines of, “tired of everything.” And, I’m afraid that’s how I get when I’m tired of food. I start to feel blase toward nearly everything. So it’s really good to find something that gives me a little jolt, and Ottolenghi’s cooking is exactly that. Pretty much every time I stumble across one of his gorgeous dishes somewhere I think, “oh my! I have never heard of anything like that before!” Soba noodles with eggplant and mango; peas and beans with lemon zest, tarragon, mustard and coriander; sauteed spinach with sumac and fresh cheese.
I don’t have any of his cookbooks (yet!), and in general I can’t remember where I saw one of his recipes within about 5 minutes after I saw it. But, my mind greedily snatches at all the new, simple yet surprising ideas for flavors and preparations and tucks them away for later use. This amazing roulade is inspired by one of his recipes, a rich crusty bread wrapped around creamy Tallegio, a wonderful lightly aged, delicately pungent cheese. I took the basic idea and ran with it, layering a profusion of other rich Italian flavors atop the cheese. Sauteed mushrooms, spinach, roasted tomatoes, good pepperoni. As it bakes, the roulade develops a crisp outer layer that guards soft pillows of cheese and mushrooms and bread inside. It requires some extra time and effort because the dough needs to go through several rises, but when you take a bite you will know exactly why you bothered. It will sweep any food fatigue cobwebs away. Hopefully, you will be inspired.
Mushroom, spinach, and cheese roulade (serves 4-6) Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s Tallegio roulade
For the dough:
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2 tsp. active dry yeast
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 3 1/2 Tbs. canola oil
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 egg yolk + 1 egg white (that is to say, 1 egg, divided!)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- a bit less than 3 cups of all-purpose flour
For the filling:
- About 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt or creme fraiche
- a couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes + a pinch of thyme and drizzle of olive oil
- another couple of Tbs. of olive oil or butter
- a couple of shallots, or a small onion, finely chopped
- about 4 cups of sliced mushrooms (cleaned first – I know you’re not supposed to wash mushrooms, but I don’t have one of those fancy little brushes for cleaning them, and I don’t like dirt in my food very much, so I just rinse them.)
- a splash of sherry or white wine, if you have it
- about 5 oz. (a couple of cups) of baby spinach
- salt and pepper (about a tsp. I’d guess)
- about 5 oz. of Tallegio cheese, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices (or you could definitely try another soft, slightly aged cheese, or even a mix of cheddar and mozarella)
- 1/2 cup or so chopped good quality pepperoni or hard salami (optional)
- a handful of poppy seeds or sesame seeds (also optional)
- To make the dough, heat the milk until it is pretty warm, but not really hot, to the touch (around 100F), pour it into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Wander off for about 10 minutes, then come back and check it. It should be foaming (if not the yeast has kicked the bucket and you’ll have to try again). Stir in the sugar, oil, egg, egg yolk, and salt. Then stir in the flour a bit at a time until you have a pretty stiff dough that pulls off the sides of the bowl and comes together into a shaggy ball. This can be done by hand or in a mixer with a bread hook. Then, either turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 7 minutes (upper body workout for the day!), or let the dough hook in the mixer do the work for you.
- Make the dough into a ball and coat it lightly with a little more oil, put it in a bowl, cover the bowl with a towel, and let it rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. (You could also make the dough in the morning, or even the night before and then just leave it in the refrigerator to do a slow rise.) When the dough has doubled in size, pat it into a thick rectangle, then roll it out on a lightly floured surface to be about the size of a baking sheet (around 12X16″). Cover your baking sheet with non-stick baking paper or a silpat (or grease it really really well) and transfer the dough rectangle onto it. Cover it back up with a towel and let it rise for another 30 minutes, until it is a bit puffy. In the meantime, slice the cherry tomatoes in half, put them in a baking dish, drizzle them with a little olive oil and a pinch of thyme, and roast them in a 425F oven for 30 minutes.
- Heat about 2 Tbs. butter or olive oil in a large sautee pan, add the shallot or onion and cook for several minutes, until softened. Then, stir in the mushrooms. Allow the mushrooms to cook over medium heat (stirring occasionally) until they have given off all their liquid and the liquid has evaporated (about 10 minutes). Then add in a splash of sherry (if you’re using it) and the spinach, and cook until the spinach is completely wilted. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
- Take out the dough and spread the yogurt on it. Then scatter it all over with the cheese, the pepperoni, the tomatoes, and the mushroom-spinach mixture. Preheat your oven to 400F. Gently lift one of the long sides and roll everything up into a big jelly roll like creature. Gently lift it and place the seam side down on the baking sheet so that it doesn’t burst open while baking. Cover it back up with the towel, put in a warm place, and allow to rise yet another 30 minutes (this is the last rise, I promise!)
- Brush the roulade with the egg white and sprinkle it with poppy or sesame seeds. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 325F and bake for another 20-25 minutes, until it has turned a lovely shade of gold and the cheese is (most likely) bubbling out and it smells amazing. Take out of the oven, cut into slices and serve accompanied by a salad and a nice red wine (which you probably cracked open and started on when you discovered the dough had to rise a third time! But, just smell that roulade. It’s so worth it!).