Sunday, 13 May 2012

Graduation Season (and Seasoning Chicken Calzone)

Well, the collegiate graduation season is certainly upon us and soon, too, will high schoolers be on the move to this chapter in their lives. Last weekend (and as shall be the main focus of this post), the timing worked out perfectly for me to be able to attend my alma mater's Baccalaureate and Commencement activities, without conflicting with the Baccalaureate and Commencement activities of Denison's which took place this weekend. And already the time has brought me to gear up for my drive to Indiana next weekend for Notre Dame's graduate Commencement exercises! But until then, I will be posting like crazy (or at least aiming to) so that I can catch up on missing items that have occurred between my conference trip to New Orleans and today's graduation. [I do want to note that five concurrent posts are in the works at the time of me writing this one; unfortunately I haven't figure out how to control time to make the frequency of my posts any more logical.] Speaking of graduation, it's rather strange to think that it was only two years ago since I graduated from Albion, but who knows, perhaps another graduation ceremony or two are still in my future. In any case, before I continue, I do want to congratulate once again the class of 2012 in its entirety for successfully completing the requirements needed to graduate! And what better way (okay, I can think of a few alternatives) to celebrate than with chicken calzone?! [Extra credit for originality?]

The story here, as I feel the need to have to emphasize in order to help explain the jumps from moment to moment, begins with food on Friday early evening, before the Baccalaureate service. I had arrived earlier in the day and checked out an otherwise lifeless campus (since classes were no longer in session, none of the professors were around and it was a rather hot day to begin with; though the staff and faculty that were present were as lively as ever), one which seemed immediately different to me. Over the course of my stay, I realised this was no longer "my" Albion, but one which would forever guard memories of my time here while growing to fit the needs of the now-residents of campus. This said, following my strolls through memory lanes, and exploration of the newness of Albion, I caught up with Jake, my college yearbook advisor and members of her family.

As we chatted, I was in for a special treat as one of her daughters, Hanae, had earlier volunteered as head chef for dinner (not knowing/realising that I would be joining them). When I arrived, she and a family friend were chopping roma tomatoes and ripping spinach stalks for the filling of a baked pasta dish (which I would soon come to find were large pasta shells). To the diced tomatoes and shredded spinach (it's important to note they were shredded, but not yet cooked), they added what I considered to be a generous amount of ricotta (really, you can't have enough cheese). As they finished stuffing each shell, they placed them on a bed of pasta sauce (one jar's worth).

And just when I thought they were nearly done, they brought out two bags of shredded cheese (3-4 c from what I could tell) and piled it on. This was going to be good. And indeed, after about 40 minutes in the oven it was! As I forewarned Hanae I would include in my brief critique of the meal, the only things that seemed to be missing were salt and pepper (perhaps salt in the water and pepper to mix into the filling?). Otherwise, this was a deliciously filling meal on its own.

Then, cue the cues.. while Jake and I were earlier talking, she had pulled together a handmade wheat dough (no measuring necessary for her, a trait I think Hanae has picked up on) and used it to create a cheese bread I had never seen before: one which uses a layer of ranch dressing instead of tomato sauce. Complimenting this, of course, was even more cheese (these timed mixed between mozzarella and cheddar (I think). Though it could have used a bit more time to rise before baking, about half an hour was all that was needed to finish this one up.

That evening, I stayed at the house of the college chaplain (Dan) and his family (if memory serves me correctly, Dan was the first Albion person I ever met). The next morning, I joined his wife Lynne and their three daughters for breakfast (inclusive of pancakes, scrambled eggs with cheese, and bacon), before joining one of my former college suite mates, Jeremy, for a follow-up breakfast (his first) at Full Moon Restaurant, located off the highway (in close proximity to La Casa, for those who know what I'm referring to). There, I had what was described as a strawberry "French pancake" with cointreau suzette (from what I could tell, the cointreau burned off in the process leaving behind a compliment to the otherwise sweeter breakfast item).

Following Commencement, I joined my honors thesis advisor and ethnic studies professor Diane and her husband José for a small gathering with other Albion College faculty and friends (Len, Ramona, Midori, Suellyn, Trish; my apologies to those I missed..). With me I brought a bag of beskuit I made the morning prior to add to the beautiful collection of food which included tortilla (which, as was described to me, is like a frittata but from a different country; it's made with eggs and potatoes, one of which José was inspired to add olives) and an amazing "lemonade" (it's essentially sangria, but made with white wine; as of my writing this post, I'm eagerly awaiting this great spring/summertime/anytime recipe). Of additional note, I have to give props for the cheese selection that accompanied the spread: Gruyère and Manchego (whether or not they're AOC, I'm unsure). [To check out the other food items and photos from my visit, click here.]I must also add that, though I think it goes without saying, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Albion, and the maturity of the relationships that began building in Albion continues to flourish. I can only hope that all graduates are able to sustain the connections they have respectively built; it's a community and a collegiality, and in many cases a friendship, that simply don't grow overnight.

After the gathering, I made my way "home" home to Metro Detroit for an admittedly short visit. Shortly after my arrival, my dad and I went to Famous Dave's (which I've written about before) before catching a late night showing of The Avengers in 3D. [Yes, it's that good that I felt the need to include the trailer.]

I'll insert an awkward transition here and note that on Sunday I surprised my mom at the airport upon her arrival from a trip she took to Las Vegas, and on Monday I drove through terrible weather to get back to Denison and the start of the work week. This past week, as alluded to by virtue of the fact our seniors graduated, was Senior Week and thus a time in the office to catch up and organise remaining end of the year projects. Alongside the work of the day, the evenings of this week proved to be a big one in the world of food, including many a student celebration (check out this week's album which includes photos from Marilyn's ISS dinner for the seniors), as well as the series premiere of "Around the World in 80 Plates" and the season premiere of "Food Network Star". To cap off the week, and inspired by the dish Jake had prepared in Albion, I returned back into my kitchen and pulled together a new dough recipe (guided by a previous one I've made as well as others- 1 and 2) for chicken calzones that I'm making for dinner tonight.

For the smooth and subtly elastic dough I ended up with, start things off in a mixing bowl with one .25 oz packet of fast rise yeast and then 1 tsp granulated sugar sprinkled over 1 & 1/4 c warm-hot water (hot enough to touch without you burning yourself). To this, add 1 tbsp of unsalted butter give it all a stir and wait about 5-10 minutes to activate the yeast. With your mixer on low, add a dash of salt and then 1 c all-purpose flour. Once well incorporated, mix in 1/2 c cornmeal, and then another 1 c all-purpose flour in total (add this in about 1/4 c at a time to make sure it gets mixed in very well). Continue to let the mixer knead the dough until the dough pulls away by itself from the edges of your bowl. Covered and in a draft free environment, let the dough rest (don't expect the dough to rise; this is more of a thin crust dough) for about half an hour before checking on the consistency of the dough.

While the dough is resting, dice six chicken tenderloins and get these frying in a pan with about 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil. After browning all sides of the chicken pieces, season it all with ground black pepper and dried Italian herb seasoning.

To this, add about 1/2 c frozen (or fresh) vegetables, followed by about 1/3 c jarred tomato sauce. Continue to cook everything together, aiming to evaporate as much liquid as possible.

Once as much liquid has indeed evaporated, give the chicken a taste; most likely at this point, you'll need to add a pinch of salt, as well as more ground black pepper and dried Italian herb seasoning. After you're satisfied with the taste, get the pan off the heat and leave it covered to cool and allow the aromas to develop.

By this point, the dough should be ready; add up to another 1/2 c all-purpose flour if needed and knead the dough by hand until it barely sticks, adding even more flour (unlikely) if necessary. Once the dough is smooth, though elastic (but not sticky), divide the dough into six rounds (do the same for the chicken calzone mix) and allow these to rest as you get ready to make the calzones (versus making stromboli or empanadillas). Set the oven to 350°F and have ready one separated egg (the yolk whisked up with about 1 tbsp water and the whites whisked up lightly), as well as a bowl of shredded cheese (here, sharp cheddar). Roll out the dough into a thin round and layer the cheese, 1/6 the chicken, and then another layer of cheese. Fold the other side of the calzone to create its signature half moon shape, using the egg whites as a sealant along the perimeter.

After the six calzones have been completed, and transferred to a baking sheet lightly covered with cornmeal, brush on (or paper towel on) the egg wash you created (the one with the yolk and water), and finish these off with a light sprinkling of the dried Italian herb seasoning. Bake the calzones for about half an hour or until the crust begins to change colour and/or has become a beautiful golden brown. If necessary, and only if you're comfortable with this, set the oven to broil for about two minutes to finalise the browning process. I forewarn you to be careful with this steps as I wouldn't want you to burn the meal you just spent time making.

And with this, I present to you my chicken calzones (which, by the way, refrigerates and microwaves very well the next day); for six, in total, the cost of these came out to about $3-4. For the complete album which includes the photos of this recipe, click here.

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