Sourdough bread is having a moment. With the extra time allotted to tend to a sourdough starter and carefully craft a loaf, home cooks who hadn’t previously dipped their toes into breadmaking suddenly found themselves trying out the tasty, time-intensive project.
After a year or so in quarantine, though, the tangy bread is getting tired.
“Sourdough has certainly been the most trendy cooking project of the quarantine,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “The world is probably oversaturated with sourdough and there isn’t much flour available.”
Here are a few creative quarantine cooking projects to mix it up in your kitchen the next time you want something to do — and something delicious to eat.
Handmade pasta and gnocchi
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Pasta is another fun carbo-loaded, hands-on activity to pass the time in quarantine with an element of instant gratification — you don’t have to wait days to enjoy your pasta, but patience is a virtue.
Dumas said that beginner pasta-makers do not need any complicated tools to get started: just a mixer (stand mixers are ideal, but hand mixers will work) and something to roll out the dough. Even if you don’t have a rolling pin to flatten the dough, he said you can use a wine bottle, as long as you roll the dough out as evenly as possible. Bon Appetit has a simple recipe for pasta dough that offers infinite variation for shapes.
“One of the easiest pastas you can make is to roll pasta out into an oval or rectangular sheet, turn it lengthwise, roll it up and then cut it into little ribbons,” Dumas said.
The extra time allotted for waiting while working from home can also be a boon in the home pasta making process. Dumas recommends making pasta dough in the morning, wrapping it up and letting it rest in the refrigerator for six to seven hours before preparing it.
“For a good pasta, the trick is letting it rest,” Dumas said. “The kneading process is going to activate the gluten and the muscle of the pasta. [If you] skip this step, end up with a tougher pasta. It’s dramatic the difference in the malleability.”
But homemade pasta requires more flour than you may have available, Dumas noted. If you are low on the powdery stuff, try your hand at gnocchi, a potato-based pasta, he said. After all, Maine produces an enormous amount of potatoes, and the country has no shortage of the starchy roots crops right now.
“You just need a pile of cooked broken-up potatoes, egg and a little bit of flour,” Dumas said. “It’s kind of like playing with Play-doh.”
The trick to good gnocchi is baking the potatoes, which Dumas said makes gnocchi lighter and more pillowy than boiling them. Simply Recipes has a good recipe for beginners.
Making gnocchi is also fun — and safe — for kids.
“Kids love doughy squishy things like that,” Dumas said. “Have the kids roll out logs like a snake. You can cut gnocchi with a spoon. You don’t have to have a sharp knife to do it.”
Risotto & arancini
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Preparing a perfect risotto is a labor of love — and time. If you’re looking for a place to start, The Spruce Eats breaks down how to prepare a basic risotto for beginners.
One of the keys to making a good risotto, Dumas said, is picking the right rice: arborio and carnaroli are best, but sushi rice can be used in a pinch.
Start by adding some olive oil or butter in a skillet with finely minced onion and take the time to develop the flavor before adding the rice. Then, add a splash of white wine and let it cook out completely before you start incrementally adding stock and stirring until it is absorbed.
After you have mastered the basics, experiment with different mix-ins. For a seasonal Maine-centric twist, try a garlicky fiddlehead risotto.
Once you have a great risotto, the leftovers lend themselves nicely to another fun quarantine cooking project: arancini, or deep-fried balls of risotto covered in breadcrumbs.
“[Arancini] is certainly a labor of love: you have to make the risotto, chill the risotto and hand fry every single one,” Dumas said. “Any time I make arancini it’s because I made risotto the night before. If you were to intentionally do it, make risotto in the morning, put in the fridge, let it cool down and make your filling.”
Food & Wine has a recipe for basic arancini with peas and mozzarella, but Dumas said you can use any number of fillings: ham and peas, mushrooms, cubed cheese and lobster, just to name a few.
Plus, making arancini is a fun activity for kids.
“Kids like working with doughy and squishy things and playing with their hands,” Dumas said.
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If you are looking for a sweet treat that does not use all-purpose flour, macarons — those colorful French sandwich cookies made with almond flour and merengue — are a great project to tackle.
“Macarons are a delicious challenge,” said Jaelin Roberts, founder of Macarons by Jaelin. “They are perfect for quarantine because they demand attention and detail.”
To start making macarons, you will need certain tools, including hand mixer, parchment paper, piping bags with a round piping tip and baking sheets. A kitchen scale is also helpful to precisely measure each ingredient.
Roberts recommended either grinding your own almond flour from blanched almonds, or using Bob’s Red Mill Flour, which is the ideal consistency for macarons. Mastering the merengue is also tricky. Let the eggs come to room temperature before whipping them into the stiff mixture, Roberts said.
For beginners, Roberts recommended starting with a basic macaron recipe from Martha Stewart, which is the same one she used when starting out years ago. Flavors with simple fillings and easily-accessible extracts, like lemon and raspberry, are good for beginners as well.
Beginners should not get discouraged if their first few attempts at macarons don’t turn out like they expected, Roberts said.
“At every stage of making them, you could possibly fail and you won’t know you have failed until they come out of the oven,” she said. “My tip is to be scientific in your methods. Change one variable at a time. Is your oven too hot? It could take many trials to figure it out, but that’s what makes it a fun challenge.”
Once you finally succeed, though, she said the satisfaction will be “immense.”
No matter what cooking project you decide to tackle, take advantage of this time to try something new.
“A lot of neat cooking traditions that have fallen by the wayside as people don’t have time,” Dumas said. “Maybe it’s time to revisit those kinds of things.”