Posted by: dinaguillen | September 28, 2009

Go Homemade

There is something so satisfying about cooking from scratch.  When I was little, my mom taught me how to make homemade yogurt, and to this day, I make it at least once a month, sometimes more often since I’m a yogurt addict.  My mom even sewed me a yogurt cheese bag over 25 years ago so that I could make my own yogurt cheese, and I still use it today. 

And one year for a breakfast-themed cooking club, I was assigned homemade bacon by the host.  I was astonished at the fact that I could make my own bacon – it never even occurred to me to try.  But there was this incredible sense of accomplishment and exhilaration after making it.  

So for cooking club this month, I went with an entire theme of homemade ingredients.  The idea actually came up almost six months ago, when my good friend and fellow cooking club member Cindy LaCasse asked me if I wanted to join her for a cooking class at East Bay Restaurant Cooking Supply.  If you live in the Sacramento area, this is a great place to shop for cooking supplies, and in the back of the store, there is a cooking school offering all kinds of fabulous cooking classes.  Cindy had taken a previous cooking class there and walked away learning how to make the best scones.  This time, several personal chefs from around Sacramento came in to teach a series of classes for over a four-hour period.  We had the best afternoon, while one chef after another taught us something new and exciting, from mouth-watering grilled fish with spring garlic, to heavenly Malaysian curry puffs, to the most delicious Vietnamese spring rolls.

One thing all the chefs’ classes had in common that afternoon was the use of the freshest ingredients available.  One after another, they walked into the kitchen when it was their turn to demonstrate, and stressed the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Cindy and I walked away completely inspired, and decided to take it one step further – we decided to host a two-month cooking series with a “homemade” theme.  Not only were we going to use fresh, seasonal ingredients, we were going to cook using homemade ingredients …specifically, homemade cheeses and meats. 

One of my favorite parts of hosting cooking club is planning the menu, and this time was especially fun because I had a co-hort.  Cindy and I perused every cooking magazine that came out the last six months (which was easy since she subscribes to ALL of them), the Internet, and our cookbooks, and found some great cheese and sausage recipes.

Since I was hosting first, I had to quickly make a final decision on how to incorporate these homemade ingredients into a meal, and decided on pizza.  Which was not hard since everywhere I turn lately in Sacramento, there is a new pizza place opening with some great pizzas being served.  After visiting two of these places, Hot Italian and One Speed Pizza, I left wanting to recreate many of those pizzas with my cooking club.  I sent out the invitations with recipes, giving each person an ingredient in pizza to make, whether it was a cheese, sausage, or pizza dough.  

Cooking Club Invitation

Cooking Club Invitation

Michelle and Lisa made the most delicious oozing, fresh mozzarella cheese (see previous post on Michelle’s experience making mozzarella), Carolyn made the perfect feta cheese that tasted so authentic, Bonnie made the best goat cheese I think I have ever tasted, Cindy made a pork sausage to die for, and Nicole came through big time on the most important ingredient for pizza – the dough.  I made a homemade tasso (Cajun ham), a homemade ricotta, and a homemade pizza sauce.  I also provided the makings for the following amazing pizzas:

 Fig, caramelized onion, feta cheese, arugula, and prosciutto pizza

 Tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage and ricotta cheese pizza

Potato, caramelized onion, pancetta, goat cheese, olives and arugula pizza

Proscuitto, mozzarella, goat cheese, mushroom medley and fried egg pizza

Tasso, green onion, tomato, mozzarella and garlic oil pizza.

Once everyone arrived for cooking club, we started assembling them, baking them on a pizza stone in my oven (which is a far cry from a pizza oven – but you gotta work with what you got) and one by one, we began tasting. 


Most of the cooking club loved the fig, feta, prosciutto, arugula and caramelized onion pizza the best, which I agree was very good, but my hands down favorite was the prosciutto, goat cheese, mushroom, arugula and egg pizza.  My mouth is watering just typing those words.  As I sliced through the pizza, and the yolk started running over the proscuitto and the mushrooms, and the crunchy sound of the crispy yet chewy crust – omg.  That just took me over the edge. 


Making homemade cheeses and meats was a wonderful new experience for us, and everyone had some really great feedback during our cooking club gathering on their homemade experiences:

Cindy (pork sausage recipe from Real Cajun cookbook): The recipe says to use pork fat back, but I decided to use the fat from the pork shoulder and that was a mistake.  It was too difficult and dense to grind, leaving chunks in the sausage.  Definitely go with the pork fat back instead.

Nicole (pizza dough; recipe from www.epicurious.comClick here for recipe): The recipe called for making a starter and for the dough to rest overnight, but I’m not sure I would go through all that trouble next time I make pizza dough.  I’ve gotten similar results from pizza dough recipes that don’t require so much resting time.

Lisa (mozzarella; recipe from www.cheesemaking.comClick here for the recipe): I made the mozzarella a couple of times, and I came out with much better results using regular whole milk instead of organic milk. 

Carolyn (feta cheese; recipe from www.finecooking.comClick here for recipe):  Give yourself plenty of time.  Making feta is a minimum 2-week process.  The first week you need to salt and drain the whey, and the second to fourth week you need time to let the cheese sit in a brine to get that great salty flavor.  And don’t forget to sanitize every utensil before making this cheese.  If bacteria gets in the cheese, it gets spongy.

Bonnie (goat cheese): I tried many variations of goat cheese recipes, and the one that came out the best was from a book I ordered from  The book is called Home Cheesemaking: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses, and it comes with a starter kit. The texture and flavor of that goat cheese was the best.

I made the Cajun tasso recipe from Real Cajun, a new cookbook from one of my favorite chefs, Chef Donald Link.  This recipe is pretty near perfect.  The only thing I did differently was not add as much cayenne and red pepper as the recipe called for.  I can’t handle a lot of heat, and I cut the pepper quantity almost in half.  The recipe also suggests that for a more authentic Cajun tasso, to let the seasoned pork sit in the refrigerator for 3 days before smoking.  I followed that recommendation, and the tasso came out fantastic.  And since I don’t have a smoker, but I do know how to plank grill really well, I grilled the pork slices on oak planks for 1 hour. 


The tasso was amazing on pizza, and now I can’t wait to use it in gumbos and jambalayas.  If you want to try the plank grilled tasso version, here is the recipe: 

Plank Grilled Cajun Tasso (Adapted from Real Cajun)


1 ½ gallons water

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup kosher salt

5 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons juniper berries

2 tablespoons allspice berries

5 star anise

4 tablespoons black peppercorns

½ teaspoon curing salt (I did not use this – mostly cause I couldn’t find it)

1 bunch fresh thyme

1 bunch fresh sage leaves

7-8 pounds boneless pork butt, cut into 5 by 2-inch slices

Tasso spice:

1 ½ cups paprika

½ cup chili powder

3 tablespoons cayenne powder (I used 1 ½ tablespoons)

2 tablespoons ground white pepper (I used 1 tablespoon)

2 tablespoons red pepper flakes without seeds (I used 1 tablespoon – you can get red pepper flakes without seeds from Asian markets)

¼ plus 2 tablespoons table salt (I used kosher salt)

¼ cup dried oregano

2 tablespoons garlic powder

Bring the brine ingredients to a boil in a large pot, then cool to room temperature.  Transfer to a large bowl, add pork making sure pork is submerged, cover and refrigerate for 2 days.

Soak two oak grilling planks for at least one hour. Drain.

Combine the tasso spice rub in a bowl.  Remove pork slices from refrigerator, pat dry, and toss in spices until each slice is evenly coated.   Put the pork slices on a rack over a baking sheet, and let air dry in the refrigerator for 3 days.  Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before ready to smoke.  Place soaked planks on grill rack and grill for 3 minutes until lightly charred.  Carefully turn planks over and place pork slices on charred slide of planks.  Cover and grill for 1 hour or until internal temperature of pork reaches 160 degrees.


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