Monday, May 31, 2010

Amalfi Lemons

We're just back from a weekend on the Amalfi coast where we stayed at a 400 year old monastery now in use as a b&b. We visited Pompeii and Herculaneum and drove the treacherous but stunning coastline with baby sleeping in the back seat. I wish I had pictures to share of our drive but much of the coast has no place to pull over and we were mostly concerned with making it out without being driven off a cliff by a tour bus. The hilly region is entirely terraced and laced with lemon trees. Whoever built those terraces, probably thousands of years ago, was really bad-ass, I'm sorry there is just no other word to describe the work that went into cultivating that land for agriculture.

Along the drive we did stop once where a man was selling lemons. I should have been wary since he had no prices listed but I was distracted by his beautiful produce. Some of the lemons were as big as melons. I decided to buy some of these beauties to make lemon marmalade. I should have known better-- I do know better, but dizzy from the drive and the heat, I paid a whopping 25 euros for about 15 big lemons and 2 pounds of cherries.

At home today, I searched the internet for some ideas on marmalade and then just kind of jumped in. With Roman now being mobile, I didn't really take the time to research much and just decided to make it up as I went along. I ended up using 10 lemons, which I put through the food processor, then set this to boil with 5 cups of water, 5 cups of sugar and about a cup of honey. Then we went out to play in the grass.

About 45 minutes later we came back in to a bright, citrus-scented kitchen. I don't think that's how you're supposed to make marmalade, but it worked and there was now a HUGE pot of the stuff bubbling away! I filled up all the mason jars that I could find lids to and the pot was still half full. Hubby raised an eyebrow wondering what we are going to do with all of this. He's right- I made way too much. I'm thinking it will be good on yogurt, ricotta (my current obsession) ice-cream and in a lemon tart which I intend to make soon. I seem to have gotten through this adventure without wasting all of those overpriced but luscious amalfi lemons! Now off to put baby to bed!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

When in Rome, make pizza....

I've always loved to shop for food and living in Rome makes that pretty fun. My butcher, Sergio sees me coming and calls out “Stella” (star) and switches on the Nicola Arigliano for me and Roman to dance to. He thinks Roman wants to be a butcher and he tells all his customers that Roman is his “ciccio” (fat). This leads to raised eyebrows as if he's making some claim to paternity (he's a grandfather...) but he innocently smiles and tells them that I'm a good customer who buys his meat and Roman is breastfed and therefore a recipient of said “ciccio,” in an effort to back pedal from this well meaning misunderstanding.

Then there's Gianmarco who sells cheeses, salamis and breads at the organic store who calls Roman “giovanotto” (young man.) And there's the baker who slices off a chunk of pizza bianca, which he cannot eat yet, and hands it to Roman. Pizza Bianca is like the PB&J of Roman kids. At 4 pm when school gets out, you'll see a line at every bread and pizza shop, and little people walking around clutching their slice of salted plain pizza wrapped up in waxy paper. Of course all the way on our walk to and from the market, old ladies stop us to squeeze his legs and talk to him, calling him random cutesy names like “my sparrow” and “chubby chops.” Food shopping will probably never be such fun as this. I must say, it's pretty hard to feel lonely here. And here he is- my giovanotto:

Obviously my apartment did not come equipped with a wood oven and it might seem crazy to make my own pizza in a country like Italy. Nonetheless, after a long hiatus from bread baking, a batch of pizza dough seemed like the right thing to get myself back into gear. Confession: I do not have time to play test kitchen to find the world's best pizza dough recipe (
see NY Times Dining In section). I just happen to love the process of baking and the fact that it's hands on. It feels good, smells good and you get to play with your food.

I am the type of baker that you may hate because I really don't measure, which is very inconvenient for writing down a recipe. Baking is supposedly very scientific, but science was my weakest subject and somehow I can bake! I use a mixture of flours and my dough probably never turns out the same. But the process is the same, and that's what I love. Once you've made pizza dough or bread a few times, you will get the feel for how much flour you need to add to get the right consistency before you can knead it, and when to stop adding flour and let it rise. It's not something to stress over. Just buy some flour and start experimenting. I used to buy 50 lb bags of organic flour from the bakery at Whole Foods Market because I baked every week. Our neighbors were eating a lot of my bread!

Here is the pizza dough recipe I use:

1 package dry yeast
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cups warm water (warm enough to bathe a baby in)
2 ½ -3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water in a large bowl and let stand for 5 minutes. Add about 2 cups of the all purpose flour, the whole wheat flour, oil and salt to the yeast mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended and it forms a ball. Keep adding all-purpose flour until you think you can start to knead it without it sticking too much to your hands.

Turn dough onto a floured counter top. Don't wash the bowl, you're going to need it again. Knead until smooth and elastic (think baby's bottom) adding enough flour just a bit at a time to prevent dough from sticking. Then coat the same bowl from before with some additional olive oil and put your dough ball back in the bowl, turning it to coat with olive oil. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise an hour or so until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 500. Punch the dough down and let it rest briefly (5 min) before you shape it. This recipe should make 2 round pizzas. Shape and stretch the dough and place on a pizza stone onto which you have sprinkled corn meal. Add your toppings and bake for about 12 – 14 minutes or until crust is browned.

Here are some ideas I have tried in the past for toppings:

-Roasted red peppers, feta and rosemary
-Caramelized onions, feta and rosemary
-Strips of broiled or grilled eggplant, sausage, rosemary
-Pesto, thin slices of tomato, anchovies, mozzarella
-Mashed white beans, artichoke hearts, pecorino cheese and rosemary
-Pesto, sauteed mushrooms, fontina cheese
-Caramelized red onions, garlic-sauteed spinach, red peppers and feta cheese
-Pesto, lamb-sausage, eggplant, red onion

Today, I chose to cover my pizza in artichokes that I bought sott'olio (preserved in oil and slightly cured), and freshly grated good quality mozzarella, in the States you want to buy the best of the best, not the plastic stuff.

Buon appetito

Sunday, May 16, 2010


It's not always easy to whip things up in the kitchen like I used to in the “pre-Roman” era. Rome might be an amazing food city, but in the age of globalization, the US wins again as far as convenience in finding ingredients. For example, I am on the hunt for more than one type of baking chocolate, a staple in the kitchen of a baker! So far, there are just bars of Nestle (!!) “fondente”, totally standard melting chocolate, not so impressive! No mention made to whether it's semi-sweet, bitter-sweet, etc. I would certainly like a huge chunk of Belgian chocolate like I used to buy at Whole Foods. Anyway, Italians are born foodies so it must exist here. I'll just have to search harder. No one I know here likes to bake, so I'm finding it hard to get much advice on the subject.

Meanwhile, I have a new favorite nut! The hazelnut, which if Italy had a national nut, it would be this one. I always used to leave them behind in jars of mixed nuts and I never really gave them the time of day. But you taste “nocciola” gelato and tell me the hazelnut does not earn your utmost respect!! Yesterday being the umpteenth day of rain here, we're all feeling kvetchy and I'm staring into an almost bare cupboard (I like to shop almost daily—gives us an outing!) and so to lift my spirits I melt the whole bar of fondente, which as it turns out is only a little stronger than milk chocolate, pour it over roasted hazelnuts spread on some parchment paper. Let harden, and voila my own free-style chocolate bar. Didn't much help baby's yearning to go outside, but chocolate and hazelnuts gives a girl just that extra bit of patience.

Years ago, I used to make little clusters by melting dark chocolate and then combining that with shredded coconut and slivered almonds and spooning free-style clumps of it onto parchment to cool in the fridge. It actually contains healthy fats and anti-oxidants so in fact it doesn't even count as dessert. Ha! Next I will try pistachios and raisins.

****SPQR, initials for the latin phrase “Senatus populusque Romanus” (the Senate and the people of Rome) appears everywhere in Rome (even on all the manhole covers), as it is the motto of the city of Rome from ancient times.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Someone's in the kitchen with Roman...

The kitchen is an excellent place for a baby. The sizzle of onions, the crinkle of parchment paper, cinnamon to smell, wooden spoons to hold, pots to bang, pot holders to wave, bits of zucchini to chew on. All very stimulating to a little one.
So here we are in Rome and lo and behold baby makes three. A long, gray, rainy winter gives way to an even rainier spring. My sweet tooth just won't quit after long days and nights of nursing my little Roman. So, a blog on baking is born. Here I will share my creations and discoveries inside and outside of my "Roman" kitchen.
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