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.
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