Friday, December 31, 2010

Castagnaccio, Tuscan Chestnut Cake

Today is the last day of 2010. In Rome, it's a gray day, and leaving the house is not the least bit tempting, so I'm glad to be staying home, baking and getting ready for a feast for two tonight. For our last meal of the year, we will eat lentils (because it's tradition in Italy), slow cooked with herbs and wild mushrooms, and lamb chops, prepared simply with garlic, olive oil and rosemary, and we'll make a toast to making it another time around the sun.

Naturally on New Year's Eve there's some form of quiet reflection on experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, of the last 365 days, as well as a bit of excitement, sometimes fear or anticipation of what's to come in 2011. While we are far away from friends and family, I like to think that these treats that I cook are being shared somehow, wishing I was close enough to pop over and share one over a cup of tea and a chat, to watch ballet performances, see new pairs of glasses, and hold the hand of my dearest friend who is having a rough time. For consolation, in the absence of these things, I bake.

Castagnaccio, as it's known in Tuscany, is a cake made of chestnut flour, and was once known as poor man's food. This winter, I became interested in chestnuts, I roasted some and made a soup and delighted with the result, started paying attention to other things made with chestnuts. I drizzled chestnut honey over a salad, and used crema di marroni, (a type of chestnut cream) and marrons glacés to make a Mont Blanc dessert for Christmas dinner. When the chestnut flour caught my eye at my organic store, I was curious to taste it. I did some research and found this interesting cake. It's vegan, with no eggs or milk, naturally sweet from the chestnuts, fragrant with notes of rosemary, orange zest, and hearty; the type of snack you would want after a hike, cozying up by the fire with a glass of vin santo, or simply refueling after a morning chasing someone like this around.

Makes 1 large or 12 small cakes

Although this is usually baked in a large, round pan, I decided to make 12 individual cakes, baby cake-style so I could début a birthday gift from P. last week- silicone baking molds (3 different shapes!) This dense cake has the consistency of a thick pudding. To make it gluten free, you could easily omit the small amount of flour I added without a problem. It's a guilt free dessert, more of a snack, really. You can read about how healthy chestnuts are here, and then enjoy these treats.

14 ounces chestnut flour (this is about 3 1/2 cups)
2 ounces all purpose flour (optional)
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons sugar
grated zest of one orange
2 cups of water
5 tablespoons raisins (soaked and squeezed)
3 tablespoons pine nuts
10 walnuts, chopped
one sprig of fresh rosemary
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl (it's quite a moist flour) and add if using, the all purpose flour, a pinch of salt and sugar. Add the orange zest. Using a wooden spoon to stir, pour the water in a thin stream while mixing and trying to avoid big lumps from forming. Stir in the raisins (squeeze out the moisture first from the soaking liquid, and reserve about 2 tablespoons for the top of the cake), half the pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary leaves, again reserving some leaves for the top of the cake. You will want to grease a pan, unless you have silicone molds and pour the cake batter in. Decorate the top with the reserved raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Drizzle the top with olive oil. Bake 1 hour for a large cake or about 25 minutes for small cakes, until the top is cracked. Cool slightly in the pan before un-molding.

Buon Anno a tutti. Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Brutti ma buoni

After living in a foreign country for a while, once the honeymoon phase is over, one starts to see things and people through a different, sometimes critical eye. Years ago, the first time I stepped foot in Italy, I thought everything and everyone was gorgeous and I romanticized that image for years in my head. It was summertime, and strolling through historic Rome in the light of dusk, the women were all so beautiful with their sun dresses, and their flowing hair, and the men were all groomed and dashing. When we returned to actually live here, I discovered that Italians come in all shapes and sizes just like anywhere else! Reality had just set in.

It's no secret, Italians are image conscious, and they do spend a lot of time and money on their appearances. Some have a different style than I am entirely comfortable with (what my husband and I call "peacocking") but it certainly makes for some interesting people watching.

So, perhaps it's fitting for this country to have a cookie known as by the descriptive name "ugly, but good." When I first discovered these cookies I was delighted and intrigued, because the linguist in me loves the obvious names Italians sometimes give to food. Ever heard of maltagliati? "Badly-cut pasta." I finally set out to make them based on their name alone. They are a gem of a cookie. No butter, a negligible amount of flour, essentially they are meringues. Mine turned out soft and chewy, a little crunch from the addition of chopped hazelnuts and mini-chocolate chips baked right in there- they are light tasting, wonderful little creatures. I'm not sure how these earned the name ugly, but I guess different cultures perceive beauty in different ways.

Brutti Ma Buoni
Makes 24 cookies.

These are simple and fast to make, and have a refreshingly short ingredient list. They can be made with or without chocolate, with hazelnuts or with a combination of hazelnuts and almonds. I cannot say that my recipe is very authentic, not having eaten the originals. I researched around the internet and concocted a batch based on the basic quantities of 4 egg whites, 1 cup of sugar. Some recipes used the lemon rind and a bit of cinnamon, others added amaretto liqueur. There were some without any flour and some with up to 3 tablespoons. Here's what I ended up using:

4 egg whites
1 cup sugar (I would decrease this next time to 3/4 cup.)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup toasted hazelnuts
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

Beat the egg whites with a hand-held mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until incorporated, about two minutes. Beat in the flour and the vanilla. Chop the hazelnuts and add to the egg whites, folding them in gently along with the chocolate chips if using. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat (if you have neither just butter the baking sheets.) Using a tablespoon or soup spoon, drop the cookie batter onto the sheets, smoothing each slightly with the back of the spoon (or leave a few peaks so you can call them ugly.) Bake in a 300 degree oven for 25-30 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes before carefully removing with a spatula to continue cooling on racks.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


It's nice to be able to stay home and bake where it's safe and warm, especially when the city is burning with protests and confidence votes. These are strange times, and it seems smarter to stay out of the mess by just being domestic.

I got a lot of strange looks around town when I proudly announced I was planning on making my own panettone. I can understand in part why people find it strange. In Italy, there is more panettone than people could possibly consume this season. According to the press, the price went up 19% on this and other Christmas food items compared to last year! I thought it would be nice to master it this year, so that next year, when I'm living in the States again, I know I can have fresh panettone without the price tag.

There is something about buying bread that comes in a box that doesn't exactly scream freshness to me. There are so many variations on the original panettone now- some with limoncello, or piped full of chocolate, ranging in price and quality, some come decorated like christmas trees and I've even seen some sold in fancy handbags! But to smell the orange and lemon notes coming from your own kitchen, that is something that cannot be bought.

My first attempt was a complete flop a few weekends ago, so much so that I almost gave up. I was using Italian 00 flour which is much finer than American all-purpose flour and I did not adjust the quantities. I was convinced that I must have omitted a cup of flour since I was distracted by Roman. But when I made it the second time, counting out loud as I added the flour, I got the same result. It looked like cake batter instead of bread dough. But this time, I decided to trust my instinct and kept adding flour, just enough so that I could knead it by hand. The result was still light and airy enough to bear the name panettone.

The recipe is originally from Martha Stewart and I came across it here, recommended by an Italian, which for me lends more credibility to a Martha recipe. I made a few changes, like using only raisins instead of candied fruit, and I also omitted the egg and cream wash for the tops. I'm looking forward to using my leftovers for french toast. It is also wonderful for breakfast, lightly toasted and spread with butter or some fig jam.

Adapted from Martha Stewart and from Z Tasty Life
Makes 3 medium loaves

I used standard size paper lunch bags to make this recipe. If you have deserving friends and/or neighbors, this makes a wonderful gift. I must admit, I am selfishly keeping all three loaves for myself this year. I'm not ashamed to say I don't always feel like sharing a good thing!

For the sponge:
1/3 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

For the dough:
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
2/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups mixed dried and candied fruit (I used exclusively raisins, since that is my preference)
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange

To make the sponge, warm a small bowl by rinsing it with hot water. Pour in warm water, and sprinkle one package yeast on it. Let stand until dissolved. Stir in 1/2 cup flour, cover with plastic wrap and let stand about thirty minutes, until doubled. Sprinkle remaining package yeast over warm milk. Let stand until dissolved. Beat together sugar, eggs, egg yolks and vanilla. Mix in yeast-milk mixture. Add sponge and stir until well incorporated.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (I do not have an electric stand mixer, so I used my hand held mixer), combine butter and remaining 3 1/2 cups flour until crumbly. Slowly pour in egg mixture and beat on high speed for 3 - 4 minutes, until dough is elastic looking and long strands form. Beat in fruit and zests. Turn the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 2 to 3 hours. Fold down the tops of your paper bags to form a 3 inch cuff.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead gently a few times to deflate. Divide the dough in three. Roll each piece into a ball, and drop into the prepared bags. Place the bags on a baking sheet about 4 inches apart and cover with plastic wrap (greased with a bit of canola oil if it looks like you're dough will rise and touch the plastic wrap.) Leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Carefully but decisively slash the top of each loaf in a cross pattern with scissors or a serrated knife. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 375. Bake for an additional 20-30 minutes (you may have to cover them with aluminum foil to prevent them from over browning.) Loaves are done when a wooden skewer inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuscan Wild Boar Ragu

Last Sunday, our feast of epic proportions started with a decadent soup and as a main course, we feasted on Wild Boar Ragù served over fresh tagliatelle.

But first, a short rant: There's "ragu" (pronounced "ragooooo") and then there's ragù. One comes in a jar with a gaudy label and calls itself "America's favorite pasta sauce." How can that be?? Am I that out of touch!? The label even has the accent facing the wrong way, which matters the least but I think bothers me the most! Jarred tomato sauce with sugar versus a luscious meat-based, slow-simmer sauce. I'm sure you can guess which one I'm about to tell you about.

This recipe is from a lovely cookbook called Olives and Oranges, Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. It was a gift in September from my uncle and I've been pouring over the recipes wanting to make everything.

This is slow food at it's best. I shopped for the meat on Thursday, marinated it for 24 hours, simmered it for three hours on Friday, let all the flavors deepen on their own on Saturday and then served it on Sunday. If you can't find wild boar (honestly, here in Rome my butcher said it's very hard to find and we're only 2 hours from Tuscany), ask for pork shoulder. Make sure you order in advance and ask them to cut it into 1 inch pieces (bone-in) because they have the tools required to do this.

During every step of the preparation, I got more and more excited about the sauce. This ragù is a dish that makes you feel like you're sitting in front of a fireplace in a stone house in the Tuscan hills and it's snowing outside, with a pot simmering on the stove full of all the flavors of the countryside.

Tuscan Wild Boar Ragù
From Olives and Oranges
Makes about 6 servings.

It was nice to be able to make this ahead. This was the first meal I think I've ever served where every course was done ahead of time, and there was no stress the day of. If you marinate overnight, count about 4 hours to make the sauce from start to finish. Serve it over the highest quality tagliatelle or pappardelle you can find (or make yourself if you're really ambitious).

Marinade Ingredients:
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
3 garlic cloves
1 shallot, quartered
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
8 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 1/2 cups dry red wine (that's good enough to drink...)
2-2 1/2 pounds bone-in boar shoulder (or pork shoulder) cut into 1 inch pieces (have your butcher do this!)

Combine the above ingredients in a large bowl and add the boar. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, or overnight.

Ragù Ingredients:
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
1 garlic clove
1 fresh sprig of rosemary (leaves only)
Fine sea salt and coarsely ground pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups water
1 tablespoon tomato paste (double-concentrate if you can find it)
1 28-ounce can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, with their juices

For the ragù:
In a food processor, pulse the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and rosemary until finely minced.
Drain the meat, pat dry and discard marinade. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot, over medium-high heat. Add boar, slowly feeding it into the pot to keep pan temperature from dropping too much, and cook until you have a good sear on one side (about 10 minutes, **this went faster for me). Move browned pieces to side of pot and continue until all meat is seared. Transfer meat to a plate.

Add vegetable mixture and 1 teaspoon salt to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables start to brown, about 7 minutes. Return meat to pot, add water and tomato paste, stirring to dissolve paste. Cover and simmer gently for about 2 hours.

Add tomatoes and their juices and simmer for another hour, until the meat is very tender, gently breaking meat into chunks with a wooden spoon as it becomes tender. Remove from heat and let cool.

Remove meat from the pot and shred with your fingers (this gives a county style ragù that will coat your pasta in the appropriate way). Return meat to the pot and reheat gently before serving, or let cool and refrigerate for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chestnut and Porcini Soup with Rosemary Walnut Biscotti

You know when homemade food tastes like love? Do you ever say it? I do, and I don't know if it's just one of my idiosyncracies, or if people actually say this. In order to say it, you have to feel it- be pretty darn passionate about food I guess.

Today we had another Sunday lunch with friends. An "epic" Sunday lunch that I spent my whole week planning, shopping for, marinating, stewing, simmering, whipping, well, you get the picture. Oh, and by shopping, I should elaborate. I push a 20 pound stroller with a 26 pound baby and 15 pounds worth of groceries uphill over ridiculously bad sidewalks, all the crosswalks blocked by illegally parked cars, and every second sidewalk blocked for some sort of construction work. I think I earned the right to eat heavily on Sundays. Go triceps.

I've sort of been on a roll of cooking with ingredients that I've never used before. This week I chose chestnuts. In Paris in early November, my friend served me a chestnut and porcini soup, that I kept thinking about. It had a richness to it, and a sweetness at the same time, and I finally decided to make my own to serve for today's starter. It's the perfect late fall, early winter soup because it's thick, velvety, hearty, comforting...the kind of soup that makes me say, "this tastes like love."

Roasted Chestnut and Porcini Soup

Adapted from Sara's Secrets on the Food Network

I was pretty intimidated by roasting the chestnuts. Now that I've done it, it's not so bad at all, it was just slightly painful to peel hot chestnuts but I suppose I could have let them cool more. The work was worth it, as this is a luxurious tasting soup, slightly sweet from the chestnuts and the parsnip, while the porcini add a whole other layer of complexity and richness.

1 1/4 lbs roasted chestnuts, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms

2 cups water

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium carrot

1 stalk of celery

1 parsnip

2 shallots

1 sprig of fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

3 cups chicken stock (I used my recently made turkey stock.)

2 tablespoons dried sherry (I used white wine)

Creme fraiche for garnish

To roast the chestnuts, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place each chestnut flat side down on a clean dishtowel and with a medium size, very sharp knife, make an x in the shell of each chestnut before roasting (or they may explode in the oven.) Roast them for about 20-25 minutes until the skins have peeled back where you made the incision and they are golden in color.

When they are cool enough to touch, peel them, removing both the hard shell and inner skin. (don't leave them too long, or peeling will be difficult). Then coarsely chop and get on with the rest of the soup.

Place the porcini in a bowl and cover with two cups of boiling water. Let steep for 20 minutes.

Dice the carrot, celery, parsnip and shallots. In a sauce pan, melt the butter and saute the vegetables until tender. Add the thyme, bay leaf and the stock. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the porcini mushrooms to the sauce pan. Then transfer the porcini soaking liquid to the sauce pan, making sure to drain out any gritty sediment before adding. Add your chestnuts, bring to a boil and then cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Working in batches, puree the soup until velvety and return to the saucepan. Add sherry or white wine. Bring to a simmer and add salt and pepper to suit your taste buds. Before serving, add a dollop of creme fraiche, that your guests can then swirl into the soup and swoon over. Can be made one day in advance.

Rosemary Walnut Biscotti

After last week's biscotti, I wanted to make some savory biscotti accompany this soup. I started with a savory biscotti recipe by Giada di Laurentis and added rosemary and walnuts. They were not as crunchy as my regular biscotti, they were softer and I really enjoyed having something to nibble alongside the soup.

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons chopped Rosemary leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese, at room temperature

3 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs, beaten, at room temperature

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, rosemary, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and goat cheese together until smooth. Beat in the sugar and eggs. In batches, add the flour mixture and beat until just combined, then incorporate the walnuts. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet. With damp hands, form the dough into a 13 inch-long, 3 1/2 inch-wide loaf. Bake until light golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 300. Transfer the loaf to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut the log on the diagonal into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange the biscotti, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake until pale golden, about 15 minutes, then flip the biscotti and bake for another 15 minutes on the opposite side. Transfer the biscotti to a wire rack and cool completely, about 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Local Flavor

We all know Italy is famous for food, but today on the street, I found flavor of a different kind. This is just a sampling of the little morsels of local flavor, sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, that I encounter on a daily basis. Enjoy.

Stop one: While waiting at the butcher shop today, the old woman in front of me asked for "macinato," ground beef. "Fresh," she said to the butcher, "like you." "I was born nice," he retorted, "but as I grew I got fresh, it happens..."

Stop two: As I approached my salumeria where I buy my cheeses, salami, fresh pasta, odds and ends, I could see Danilo the owner leaning over his counter, his face pursed into a serious scowl, his arms gesticulating madly, screaming at a small old lady who barely moved. I stopped the stroller outside of the store, hesitated before going in. He saw me, stopped for a moment and then continued his tirade. I waited patiently outside the door until he got it all out (he ended it with "Okaaayyy? Ciao") at which point I thought the little lady would be leaving, but she stayed put. I entered, pushing Roman and timidly asked for porcini mushrooms for a soup and cantucci to serve with my vin santo. He turns to speak to the woman, "Mamma," he says, "this lady is American but she speaks French to her son." Internal voice: "Oh my gosh, that's his mother he was screaming at! And she just stood there and took it??" Later he tells me they stole his motorcycle outside his house, and you know, "the motorcycle is more important than a wife," he tells me trying to justify his behavior and rage.

Stop three: Fruit stand. "Do you know where I can find fresh bay leaf?" "Bay leaf? Do you know what it is? It's growing everywhere. Just go and pick it behind the church."

Stop four: Caffè and cornetto (like a croissant) at our usual stop. This time Roman wants half my cornetto, and I oblige. In walks a grandma pushing her 11 month old grandson in a stroller. "How old?" she asks me, "14 months," I say. She proceeds to sit and spoon feed him a jar of bland, tasteless vegetables. "I don't let him have cornetto and bread, all these schifezze" (nasty things) she says. Internal voice: "You should see Roman eating his broccoli stalks and thai chicken curry cooked in coconut milk with sweet potato. Schifezze, my son?! Never. Just real food."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Italian Biscotti or a cookie by another name...

My mother used to make these biscotti in the 80's and she had never been to Italy. In fact, I've come to think that she traveled by cooking. Dinners were
feijoada from Brazil, dal from India, empanadas from South America and Polish stuffed cabbage and she had never been to any of those places. If she had, I'm sure she would have been like me, eager to try and adapt local dishes, incorporating all of those flavors, foreign and familiar, into her life.

Biscotti means twice cooked, and these cookies are indeed baked twice to gain the perfect crunch for dipping in tea or coffee. Here in Italy, they go by different names (cantuccini or biscotti di Prato) and can incorporate different nuts, spices and sometimes candied or dried fruits. They are also shorter than we are used to seeing in the United States by about 1/3 the length. Twice baked cookies and breads were a staple of the Roman Legions because they kept well. There is a long history of these types of cookies all over Italy and parts of France and Spain. My mom's recipe called for only hazelnuts, but I had only 5 ounces, so I added 3 ounces of almonds. The nuts are toasted in the oven before they go into the cookies and this brings out a lot of flavor. The cookies themselves are satisfyingly simple, rather mild tasting, begging to be dipped into a hot cup of morning coffee or an afternoon tea or hot chocolate.

Biscotti con Nocciole

8 ounces shelled hazelnuts (or almonds, or a mix)
4 ounces butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven and while they are still warm, wrap them in a clean dish towel. Let them steam for 1 to 2 minutes, then rub the nuts together vigorously in the towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Coarsely chop the nuts, leaving some whole.

Increase oven temperature to 350. Cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Lightly beat the eggs with the vanilla, add to the butter and sugar and mix well. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt, add the nuts and coat well with the flour mixture. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture until well blended.

With lightly floured hands, form the dough into two strips, each about 12 by 3 inches. Place the dough strips on a baking sheet coated with a silpat or parchment paper (or simply butter the baking sheet.) Bake for 30 minutes or until the dough is set and slightly colored.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 275. While the strips are still hot, with a sharp knife, slice the strips of dough on the diagonal into 1/2 inch thick pieces, or thicker if desired.

Place the cookies cut side down on the baking sheet. Toast in the oven for 13 minutes on each side or until light golden in color and slightly dry. Stored in airtight containers, they will keep for up to two weeks.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mâche Salad and a meal for a rainy day

Sunday we were treated to the perfect excuse to stay inside and eat all day - a massive rainstorm. Luckily, we had been planning for guests and I spent the morning cooking. P. entertained Roman and I had a few hours of kitchen "therapy," chopping, simmering, roasting, stirring. By the time our guests arrived, I was overwhelmed with excitement. It had been a while since I had put together a meal of this calibre and instead of tiring me out, it gave me a real boost of positive energy.

I've always been one to try out new dishes when we entertain, (something I inherited from my mother) and this time I was going for Osso Bucco, which smells amazing, by the way. I served it over very rich mashed potatoes, made with butter, milk and mascarpone. Normally I would have a problem with cooking with that much fat, but I like the decadence on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe fat can have the effect that sunshine does.

We did the shopping on Saturday but as usual since Roman was with us, I was distracted and forgot to buy a side vegetable. As I lay awake worrying about this during the wee hours between Saturday and Sunday morning, this delicious fall salad came to me, and luckily I found one lonely store open on Sunday morning to pick up the missing ingredients. I knew there was a reason I was losing sleep. The salad turned out delicious!

Here's what I used:
Lamb's lettuce, also called Mâche
Delicata squash (any fall squash would do)
Sliced pear
Pine nuts
Goat cheese
Chestnut honey
Balsamic cream
Olive oil

Cut the squash into a dice and toss with maple syrup and olive oil - roast in the oven and cool.
In a frying pan, toast the pine nuts until golden. Remove from the pan and add the pancetta, fry until crispy and drain on paper towels. Assemble the salad starting with the mâche, squash, sliced pear, pine nuts and pancetta and a slice of soft goat cheese. Drizzle the salad with a balsamic cream, chestnut honey, both of which have intense richness, so drizzle lightly...and a bit of olive oil. Top with freshly ground pepper.

Note: If you want this to be vegetarian, substitute pomegranate for the pancetta, which will also add beautiful color.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Festive persimmon cake

Last fall, as a very small Roman and I began to visit Rome's markets, an orange-rosy hued fruit caught my eye. Not that I'm shy, but it took me several months before I decided to ask one of the merchants what they were and how to eat them. Persimmons, or kaki as they are called in Italy, were officially in my life.

P. took this photo last December when we went to visit a town in Umbria called Gubbio. Soon after we arrived there was a snow storm and it made for a picturesque stay, complete with this snow-covered persimmon tree in the courtyard of the hotel.

I sometimes scoop out the pulp and mix with yogurt for breakfast. I find persimmons to have a very mild taste and can be roasted, used in jam and cookies, eaten plain or, baked into a bread cookies or cake. This cake, (originally called bread by James Beard) is very festive, decadent and rich...I can imagine it in the court of Henry the Eighth around Christmastime. To be that much more decadent, I added a cream cheese frosting. Unfortunately I don't have pictures of the inside of this cake because I took the whole thing to a baby shower. But once sliced, the inside is chock full of walnuts, apricot chunks and raisins. You can taste both the nutmeg and the brandy. It would be a real treat served at a holiday party, served with egg nog, mulled cider or a glass of prosecco! I recommend serving this cake for afternoon tea, or un-iced for breakfast or brunch. I think it would be too heavy to eat following a meal. Mmmm, I'm getting in the mood of the season that's upon us!

Persimmon cake
Adapted from James Beard

3 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (the original called for mace)
2 cups sugar
1 cup melted butter, cooled
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup Cognac or bourbon (I used brandy)
2 cups persimmon puree (depending on size, this would be between 2 and 4 persimmons, not necessary to peel them)
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
2 cups raisins (I used one cup raisins and one cup of chopped dried apricots)

Sift all five dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and add the melted butter (cooled!), eggs, Cognac, persimmon puree, nuts and raisins. Mix the dough until it is quite smooth. James Beard used 4 molds, but I baked this in a ring mold to do the cake. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, or until a tester comes out clean.

Cream cheese frosting, courtesy of Martha Stewart found here!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A la recherche du pain perdu

A long, long time ago, my friend Fanny made me pain perdu, or French toast as we Americans call it, in her Parisian kitchen. I had eaten plenty of French toast, but this was different. I asked her recently how she made it, and she said it was pretty improvised, like any good French toast! Knowing how to make something without a recipe is like having a trick up your sleeve. In the fog of morning, before coffee is even made, a few standard ingredients get mixed together and utter deliciousness comes out. The right bread, thickly sliced, beautiful organic eggs and milk, and that's it? Sitting down to a plate of this makes morning special, and with the holidays at our doorstep, I think we all need a little bit of just that.

Now that I'm living in Italy, in the absence of brioche, I've become fond of Panettone, Italian holiday bread. It's delicious and eggy like a challah or a brioche, but apparently very difficult and time consuming to make. I happily bought one at the fair-trade store, with no preservatives and only good things inside. My personal preference is panettone with raisins. The most traditional type is made with candied fruit, which I am not fond of. Raisins are the perfect addition.

Panettone French Toast
feeds 3-4
Cut 6 thick slices of panettone
Beat 4 eggs and mix with about 3/4 cup of whole milk
Soak the panettone in the liquid for 10 minutes per side.
Fry in butter until golden brown on both sides.
In a preheated oven (350 f or 180 c), bake for about 5-7 minutes just to make sure the egg cooks through. Don't leave it in for too long, since you don't want to dry out the toast.
Serve with real maple syrup.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Porcini Mushroom Tarts

I feel lucky to live, for now, in a place where porcini mushrooms are sold locally. They are still expensive, but fresh woodsy mushrooms, sauteed with fruity olive oil and chunks of garlic are sometimes better than dessert. Something magic happens and they melt in the pan.

This fall, I've made porcini several times, simply, in the pan with garlic, a bit of chili, white wine and served over fresh fettucini. Last weekend, I realized how long it had been since I had made "rustic" tarts and decided that my porcini would be a wonderful filling. I do shy away from this kind of dough, and I lack the practice to make it without some degree of frustration. This dough recipe, from Baking with Julia seemed straightforward, but I had some trouble nonetheless. Perhaps it was in the conversion of butter from cups to grams. The dough needed a lot more flour than called for in the recipe, and even then, it was hard to handle (giving that middle tart the real "homemade" look.) But they tasted just right, and I made no apologies whatsoever!

If it had not been raining cats and dogs, I probably would have gone out to buy some white wine, rosemary or thyme to add to my mushrooms. But porcini do not need any doctoring, and I really loved the simplicity of these tarts. They were just the thing to make a cozy Sunday lunch, next to a bowl of leek and potato soup.

Porcini mushroom tarts

For the filling:
If you can't get fresh porcini, substitute any combination of mushrooms you like.
Sauté the mushrooms in olive oil and garlic, salt, pepper to taste. Add white wine (optional) or a little water and simmer for a few minutes to reduce the liquid.

For the pastry dough:
(makes enough for 2 8 inch tarts, or 4 mini tarts)
3 tablespoons sour cream (I used yogurt)
1/3 cup (approximately) ice water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

To make the dough in the food processor:
Stir the sour cream and 1/3 cup ice water together in a small bowl, set aside.
Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt into the bowl of the food processor fitted with the metal blade; pulse to combine. Drop the butter pieces into the bowl and pulse 8 to 10 times (mixture should be speckled with butter pieces no bigger than the size of peas.) With the machine running, add the sour cream mixture and process just until the dough forms soft, moist curds. Remove the dough, divide in half and press each half into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours.
Bake for 35-40 minutes at 400 degrees. Let the tarts rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Granola, 2 Ways

Now that it's fall, I feel like a squirrel foraging for nuts, trying to store up sustenance to survive the long winter I know is ahead of us. Even if it's not going to be as cold here in Rome as some places I've lived, fall is the time to get a head start on boosting the immune system, which for me means not being hungry all the time.

On a recent weekend visit, my Uncle told me about his favorite "secret" granola recipe (which he willingly shared). He adapted it from Melissa Clark's recipe, and now I've adapted it from him. The secret lies in the trio of unexpected ingredients, namely the olive oil, maple syrup and cardamom. My old granola recipe was pretty dull in comparison and I'm excited to have one that is more unique and much more delicious now.

We eat granola almost every morning with fruit and yogurt. Sometimes if I'm feeling indulgent, I'll mix it with ricotta because I know I'll burn it off ten-fold during my busy days with this crazy superhero. (Happy Halloween, by the way)

"Secret" Granola
You can obviously use any combination of nuts and dried fruits you like. Slivered almonds would be a nice addition .

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking oats)
1 cup
raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 cup hazlenuts
1 cup sesame seeds
¾ cup pure maple syrup
½ cup
extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup packed
light brown sugar
1 teaspoon
kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¾ cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 300°.

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients except the raisins. Mix thoroughly and spread the mixture evenly onto a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until the granola is golden brown and well toasted.

Once the granola is cooled, transfer to a large bowl and stir in the raisins.

Read on for part 2:

Next comes the issue of afternoon snacks. I cannot make it from one meal to the next without snacks. For years I have purchased granola bars because they are portable and a somewhat healthy snack, however they are usually to sweet and fall short of my expectations. I set out to finally make my own. This is also a twice handed down recipe, from King Arthur Flour, then to Smitten Kitchen and now it's shown up in my kitchen, with more changes (like even less sugar!)

These bars completely met my expectations, and I love being able to control the amount of sugar, change the nut and fruit combination, really the sky is the limit!

Seriously delicious granola bars

1 2/3 cups rolled oats (I used half oats and half spelt flakes)
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup oat flour (or baby oatmeal, which I need to use up since Roman likes real oatmeal)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon (you could use more but I didn't want to overpower the other flavors)
6 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup maple syrup (or honey)
1/3 cup hazelnut spread (Rapunzel makes a good organic version, otherwise use Nutella)
1 tablespoon water
2-3 cups any combination of dried nuts and fruit. Here's what I used (I opted for a full 3 cups worth):
sunflower seeds

Here is the method:
Chop all the nuts and seeds either by hand or in a food processor.
Combine the oats, sugar, oat flour, salt, cinnamon in a bowl and add the chopped nuts and fruits.
In another bowl, combine the melted butter, Nutella, maple syrup and water. Mix well to combine, then add this mixture to the oat/nut mixture and make sure it is well combined.
Line a 8x8x2 pan with parchment paper and press the granola mixture in firmly and evenly (use some plastic wrap and this will be less sticky.) Bake at 350 degrees for 30 - 40 minutes. Once cooled, if the granola seems crumbly, put it in the refrigerator before cutting.
Can be stored in the refrigerator or at room temperature, either individually wrapped or in an air-tight container.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Sunday morning when we're up before the sun is a good time to put up some bread to rise. It's a good way to take advantage of the day. I learned this in my childhood, growing up with parents who loved to bake. Weekends at home involved lots of flour spilled on the floor, wildly delicious scents coming from the oven and (much to my embarrassment) opera played way too loud with all the windows open for the neighbors to hear.

I have a tattered and stained copy of James Beard's Beard on Bread dated July of 1976, inscribed from my father to my mother. I was a year and a half old at the time. I like to think about how happy she must have been to get this gift, at a time when money was scarce and baking your own healthy loaves was (and still is) an excellent way to nourish your family. The book is literally a treasure trove of amazing, unique bread recipes. I love that my copy is falling apart at the seams and has my mom's notes scribbled beside many of the recipes.

Beard's recipe for french baguettes is not very traditional, nor is it the recipe that I grew up on. I know my father doesn't use olive oil in his baguettes. As luck would have it, these turned out to be the best looking baguettes I've ever baked. They are flavorful, thanks to the olive oil, but to be honest, they are not as good as my dad's. How could they be?

Adapted from James Beard
2 packages active dry yeast
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 to 4 cups all-purpose flour (all flours seem to react differently, so you just have to play it by ear)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the oil and 1/4 cup of the water. Beat this mixture well with a wooden spoon for about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the flour and continue to beat with the wooden spoon. Alternately, add flour, one cup at a time, and water, until you have a fairly soft dough, reserving approximately 1/2 cup flour for kneading. Remove the dough to a floured surface, and knead for several minutes until it springs back very briskly when you press your fingers in. It must be smooth and satiny. Oil a large bowl lightly and let the dough ball rise until doubled in size. (Cover bowl with a dish towel.) Punch the dough down and let it rest for 5 minutes. Then divide the dough into 3 and shape each portion in to a baguette. Once placed in the pan, let the dough rise again. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Before putting the baguettes in the oven, slash each one with a sharp knife. Bake for approximately 35 to 40 minutes until golden brown with a crisp exterior.

Tiens, Pépère, tu veux goûter?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sformato with butternut squash and chard

It was a long week with Roman's first virus and all of the extra care that went into getting through several long nights with a fever. He's fully recovered and seems to have bounced back even stronger than before. I can now return to the kitchen for short periods while he plays happily with his dad. For this and other reasons, I'm jumping for joy! I discovered a new dish that is sure to become a regular at our dinner table. It's called a sformato and it's like a cross between a soufflé and a vegetable fritatta, but it has no eggs although your taste buds won't believe it! It's made with chickpea flour, so for a vegetarian dish, there's plenty of protein in there. Served along side a salad, it makes a lovely lunch, brunch or light dinner. This new discovery put me in a seriously good mood. Food, and voracious 13 month olds can do that for me.

The Italian word sformato means un-molded. There are sweet versions (obviously not using chickpea flour) or savory, with whatever vegetable combination you like, or what's on hand. The method is simple. I'm delighted to have discovered chickpea flour, which apparently is used a lot in Indian cooking. I searched around on the web some and found lots of interesting uses for this flour, like chickpea flour crepes. It's always fun to discover new ingredients and bring new tastes to the table.

My version of sformato uses red onion, butternut squash and chard, all organic and in-season. I just happened to have these nice fall vegetables in my fridge and I love how the three colors and tastes compliment each other. Someone else just couldn't resist, and dug right in!

Sformato with butternut squash and chard
I found an italian recipe on a cooking forum online, translated it and then adapted it using my own combination of vegetables. Thus, the recipe uses liters and grams. I have a kitchen scale, which I love for measuring flour when baking. It's so much more accurate than the American method of using cups. If there is one kitchen item I recommend, it's a scale.
1/2 a butternut squash
1/2 red onion
4 leaves of chard leaves or other green leafy vegetable
1 liter of water (4 cups)
1 cube of organic salt-free vegetable broth
200 grams chickpea flour (this is equal to 1.6 cups)
4 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
salt if needed (I didn't use any because the parmesan is salty enough for me)

Cube the red onion, squash and finely chop the chard. Sauté the onion and the squash for several minutes (it will take just a few minutes since the pieces are so small), then add the chard, cover and cook for about 4 minutes, until the chard is wilted.

Bring one liter of water to the boil and dissolve the bouillon cube. When it boils, turn off the heat and using a whisk, add the chickpea flour a little at a time, whisking constantly so that it does not clump. Stir for about 2 minutes. Add the cheese and then combine this with the vegetables.

Oil or butter a pan (I used a lasagna pan) and spread the mixture evenly, bake for 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Let the sformato cool before cutting into squares and serving. Can be served room temperature, or warm.

As he says, "miam, miam!"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Zucchini-Parmesan Bread

This fall we are hosting a lot of visitors from the States and I always like to offer fresh baked goods when there are guests in the house. (It gives the impression that I actually have my act together!) Lately, I've been baking some old favorites like banana bread, cranberry orange bread and last week I tried a new bread, using zucchini and parmesan. The recipe is slightly adapted from one of the oldest cookbooks on my shelves, Jane Brody's Good Food Book. My mother bought this book in the '80's when she was on her serious health kick. Back then, my sister and I thought her recipes were pretty disgusting, but now we both have well-worn copies of her book and I think its fair to say we both use it pretty frequently.

I made this bread twice and the second time I doubled the amount of parmesan for extra flavor. I also experimented with substituting olive-oil for the butter, but I preferred the butter version.

Zucchini-Parmesan Bread
makes 1 loaf
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
5 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup shredded, unpeeled zucchini squeezed dry (the Roman type of zucchini I used yielded no liquid)
1/3 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 cup buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup milk with 1 tablespoon white vinegar, let sit for 5 minutes)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons grated onion

In a large bowl, mix together the flours, sugar, parmesan, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix in the zucchini.

In a small bowl, combine the butter, buttermilk, eggs, and onion. Add to the flour mixture, stirring the ingredients to combine them well. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350 degree oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before turning out of the loaf pan. Cool completely before slicing.

Zucchini on Foodista

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Birthdays have always been momentous occasions for me. Today was Roman's first birthday and there was a lot to celebrate. His first time around the sun. First words (mama, papa, "yum") first steps (we're up to 8), the innumerable list of skills he seems to acquire daily.

I've been planning his first birthday cake since some time in July. I have a soft spot for old-fashioned layer cakes, the kind that have all that soft, billowy frosting and that sit proudly on cake stands on imaginary grandma's kitchen counters. And until Roman starts asking for cakes shaped like trucks, super-heros or cartoon characters, I figure I will keep it traditional.

Well, this morning finally rolled around and the butter and eggs came out of the refrigerator early in order to get the cake baked by nap time, and I realized that I only have 2 of the requisite 3 pans required for a super high layer cake. Plan b was cupcakes.

This cupcake recipe comes from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook, given to me years ago by my good friend Rita, who loves to bake. I have made these several times over the years- for my sister's baby shower (when my dad claimed he thought they were muffins and ate one when we weren't looking) and for P's 30th birthday a few years back.

While they were cooling on the racks before nap time, Roman spotted them and started saying "yum yum yum" and practically leapt from my arms to grab one, so I caved and let him taste one (un-iced). I think a little indulgence is all right when you're turning one, after all.

Sometime during his nap I realized I had a house full of people and nothing for lunch. After a quick trek to the butcher, I decided to make up a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs. Everyone seemed happy, especially the birthday boy.

Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cupcakes
Adapted from Magnolia Bakery Cookbook (The original called for self-rising flour. You can reduce the amount below by 2 teaspoons and add the amounts of baking powder and salt that I indicate below.)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (do not pack these full)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream the butter until smooth, using an electric mixer. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine the flour mixture and add in four parts, alternating with the milk and the vanilla extract, beating well after each addition. Line 2 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake papers. Spoon the batter into the cups about three-quarters full. Bake until the tops spring back when lightly touched, about 20-22 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on a rack before icing.

Traditional Vanilla Buttercream
I just about halved the Magnolia recipe for icing, and I still had far too much, but then again if you love icing, go for it... here is their full recipe.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft
8 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, until icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency (you may not need all the sugar). Use and store icing at room temperature, as icing will set if chilled. Can store in airtight container up to three days.
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