Saturday, July 23, 2022

When in Rome!

Is there a better place than the Eternal City? Everyone should go at least once in their life. It is truly breathtaking and dripping with history. We checked into the Hotel Hiberia located in a palace in the historical center of Rome. The lovely gentleman at the front desk said, "I have given you a room with amazing views!" I thanked him and when we entered our room I was shocked to say the least! Not only did it have views of almost all of Rome's landmarks, it was a corner room with two windows, and the view from the bathroom was just as stunning! My daughter and I now joke that it will always be the best bathroom in the world! Haha!

After a long day of walking and enjoying la dolce vita, we were starving! I knew exactly what I wanted, one of Rome's four classic pastas, "Cacio e Pepe!" Cacio is a local Italian word meaning cheese from the Latin word caseus. So it's basically pasta with Pecorino Romano, black pepper and mixed with pasta water to emulsify into a mesmerizing sauce of simplicity. However, don't let the minimal ingredients fool you into thinking it's easy! It's all about technique and practice!

We ate at L'Hostaria Boschetto in the Monti District. With it's charming stone arches and everything porcini, I highly recommend visiting! I ordered the Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe to see what all the fuss was. Verdict? Delicious! In fact, the couple next to us asked what I ordered and they nodded in satisfaction saying, "It is the best!"

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe from L'Hostaria Boschetto.

I've been testing every recipe out there to achieve the best version for the home cook. I tried one where you toast the pepper then simmer in pasta water, but found it unnecessary. One fidgety one that alternated heat from simmer to off, then on again, etc. only to have the cheese separate into a total disaster! Also, any recipe that calls for olive oil, cream, or anything else would have the Romans throw you in the Tiber River! Romans have an intense loyalty to their culinary traditions! In fact, one of Stanley Tucci's Searching for Italy shows featured a restaurant that used half Romano and half Parmesan in their Cacio e Pepe. Gasp! Turns out the Roman's refuse to eat there and it's just for tourists basically now.

After all my testing, I have decided that Katie Parla's "Cacio e Pepe Leonardo Vignoli," from her book Tasting Rome, is the best and easiest to achieve the desired result. While the pasta cooks, you add a ladle full of starchy pasta water to the grated cheese in a large bowl with the pepper and mix. When the pasta is cooked, transfer to the bowl, stirring constantly, adding leftover pasta water as necessary to achieve a smooth sauce. Remember the pasta will continue to absorb water so it's better to be a little more on the "wet" side. The classic pasta for Cacio e Pepe is tonnarelli, which I picked up while there. If tonnarelli is not available, buying a high quality spaghetti (not Barilla or Cervasi) is very acceptable. The strands should look a little scruffed up by the bronze dies to help the sauce adhere. Good luck!

*If you want to practice making a single serving use 3 oz pasta, 2 oz Pecorino, and 1/4 tsp black pepper!*

Simplest ingredients!

Cacio e Pepe di Leonardo Vignoli

Turned out great! Finally!

Serves 4-6 

Ingredients:

1 pound high quality tonnarelli or spaghetti
2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano (I recommend purchasing Locatelli Grated Pecorino Romano. I am usually a stickler for freshly grated, but it's a very hard cheese!)
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

*Do Not Add Salt except for the pasta water. Pecorino is Very Salty!*

Directions:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the pasta and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of the Pecorino Romano, the pepper, and a small ladle of pasta cooking water. Using the back of a large wooden spoon, mix vigorously and quickly to form a paste. (Personally, I have found that adding a regular size ladle of water or two and whisking to a cream soup consistency works just as well.)

When the pasta is cooked, use a large strainer to remove it from the cooking water and quickly add it to the sauce in the bowl, keeping the cooking water boiling on the stove. Toss vigorously, adjusting with additional hot water a tablespoon or two at a time as necessary to melt the cheese and to obtain a juicy sauce that completely coats the pasta.

Plate and sprinkle each portion with some of the remaining Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Recipe from Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill.

*I like Chianti with this recipe.*

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Wine Doors and Pizza Napoli 1955

I am recovering from Achilles tendonitis after visiting my beloved daughter in the Renaissance city, Florence. What a beautiful city that escapes the modern aesthetic, choosing to live in it's past of medieval and Renaissance history and breathtaking art. I last visited Florence 24 years ago, and I can say nothing has changed! As Emiko Davies says in her lovely cookbook Florentine, " In every nook and cranny, history seeps out onto the well-trodden stone streets and into the every day."

The first time I visited, I was just out of college, newly married, and surprise pregnant with my first daughter. Although it was very early, I was not able to enjoy the wine culture of Florence. Total bummer. Although, this time I was ready for a party and my 19 year old daughter was able to celebrate with me! Perhaps the best time I have ever had! 

I have to admit the weather was a little chilly and rainy the entire trip, with the exception of Rome (which I will post about soon). With umbrella up, I was surprised to stumble upon the most lovely wine door! Completely by accident! These small stone arch doors, which are supposed to mimic the noble Renaissance palazzos to which they are attached, sold wine to passerby's to help struggling aristocratic families sell wine from their vineyards. Brillante!

I happened to stumble onto the wine door on my way to Pizza Napoli 1955, located Via Dei Neri 73/R, 50122, Firenze, Italia. Tired, wet, and hungry, I was met with a chair to rest, glass of wine, and the BEST pizza I have ever had! The best part is that when my pizza de bufala arrived in all it's pillowy glory, it was heart shaped! So delicious! I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever able! Anyway, when I got home I searched how to shape a heart pizza! I still use my go to My Basic Pizza Dough and this video! Mine didn't turn out as good as Pizza Napoli, but they've got 67 years experience! Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K0H0-hb9RY

(This is Pizza de Rossa, my daughter's favorite!)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Rabbits, Eggs, and Simnel Cake

In ancient times, Easter was celebrated in honor of the spring or vernal equinox, symbolizing the end of winter (death) and the rebirth of life, as well as the importance of fertility. The word Easter is believed to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, Eostre, from whom "east" (where the sun rises), "Easter," and even the female hormone "estrogen" got its name. Eostre's feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Eostre's two symbols were the hare (one with a particularly high libido) and the egg, which symbolizes the possibility of new life.

In European folklore, when wild hares abandoned their nests, they were sometimes taken over by plovers, who would lay their eggs in them. The locals would then find the eggs in the bunny nests. Further, in the 16th century, we see the appearance of the "Easter Bunny" in German writings. The legend said that if good children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. The legend was then brought to America in the 18th century, by German immigrants.

And finally, I must mention the "Simnel Cake," eaten during Easter in the UK, Ireland, and other European countries. Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake, made with a layer of marzipan or almond paste baked in the middle of the cake, and topped off with a ring of eleven marzipan balls, said to represent the true disciples of Jesus (Judas is omitted), and sometimes a ball in the middle to represent Christ. I don't care for simnel cake, but I do have a sublime recipe for "Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries." This recipe from Shelley Wiseman is a light buttermilk cake, filled with a layer of mascarpone cream, and topped off with very sophisticated Sherry-spiked berries. I love this cake so much, it may be my absolute favorite! It makes the perfect ending to any Easter celebration!


Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries

Serves 8-12, (cake and cream can be made a day ahead, store cake covered at room temperature)

Ingredients:

For the cake
2 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising), like Swans Down
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the berries
1/2 cup Fino (dry) Sherry
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups mixed berries, cut if large

For the cream
8 ounces mascarpone (1 cup)
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar

Directions:

For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with oven rack in the middle. Butter a 9" round cake pan (2 inches deep). Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat together the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer at low speed, beat in the buttermilk until just combined. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing after each addition until just combined.

Spread batter in cake pan, smoothing top. Rap the pan on the counter several times.

Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Discard the paper and reinvert cake onto rack to cool completely.

Macerate the berries
Bring Sherry and sugar to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Put berries in a bowl and pour hot syrup over them. gently tossing to coat. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving.

Make cream and assemble cake
Beat mascarpone, cream, and sugar in a large bowl using cleaned beaters until mixture just holds stiff peaks.

Halve cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. Carefully remove top half and reserve. Put bottom half on a plate, then spread evenly with all of the cream and replace top half. Serve with berries. It's Fantastic!


Monday, February 28, 2022

Mardis Gras and the Best Jambalaya!

Mardis Gras (aka., Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday) is March 1, marking the last day of fatty food indulgences before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While some people around the world celebrate the day eating pancakes, I prefer a delicious bowl of jambalaya! I first acquired a taste for this spicy sausage and seafood-laden dish from a friend in college who made a batch along with freshly baked bread every Sunday. Although I think he used Zatarain's and a tube of Pillsbury, it was always a good time! Just like chili is in Texas, jambalaya is classic Louisiana party food, making it the perfect choice for Mardis Gras!

Jambalaya is a dish steeped in ambiguity. So much so, you can stir up heated discussions regarding just the root of the word "jambalaya!" One theory is that it comes from the Provencal word "jambalaia," meaning mishmash or mixture. Another theory is that it comes from the Spanish word "jamon," meaning ham, combined with "paella," the classic Spanish rice dish. The third theory is that it comes from the French "jambon," meaning ham, with a contraction of "a la" and "ya," the African word for rice. And finally, it might come from the Native American Atakapa tribe's saying, "Sham, pal ha! Ya!" meaning "Be full, not skinny! Eat up!" 

If that's not enough, contrary to popular misconceptions, jambalaya is not specifically a Creole dish. In fact, there are two kinds of jambalaya. Creole which contains tomatoes, and Cajun which does not. I prefer it with tomatoes. I also think the key to a really great jambalaya is tasso. Tasso is a highly seasoned smoked pork. I am lucky to find it locally, but you can order some from cajungrocer.com. Andouille sausage is also authentic; however, if you can't find it or don't want to add it to your Cajun Grocer order, you can substitute Spanish chorizo, not Mexican chorizo, which is not the same thing. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention "the holy trinity." Similar to mirepoix and sofrito, it is the base to most Louisiana cuisine. It consists of finely diced onion, celery, and green bell pepper. I use red bell pepper because I detest green bell peppers in any form. 

Just like cioppino, it's hard to make a bad jambalaya. Jambalaya is very adaptable and can contain shredded chicken, venison, oysters, etc. Feel free to add what you have on hand, or prefer, to make it your own! If it gets too thick, just add some water! So celebrate Mardis Gras this year with a delicious bowl of jambalaya, lots of crusty bread, cold beer, and a bottle of Tabasco (or Crystal) hot sauce. Beads optional!


Sausage and Shrimp Jambalaya

Serves 8

Ingredients:
1/2 cup tasso (or chopped ham), 1/4-inch dice
14 ounces Andouille (or Spanish chorizo, or other smoked sausage), 1/2-inch slices
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper (or green), chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning 
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup long grain rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
Italian parsley, chopped for garnish


Directions:
In a large pot or dutch oven, brown the sausage on each side in batches, set aside. Add the tasso, onions, celery, and bell pepper to the pot and saute until tender. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Add the tomatoes (with can juice), stir and break up with a wooden spoon. (An old-fashioned potato masher works great too!) Add the stock, browned sausage, Cajun seasoning, thyme, cayenne, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Remove the cover and raise heat to a boil. Add the rice, stir, cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Taste the rice to make sure it's done!) Remove the lid and add the shrimp. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shrimp are cooked through. Remove the bay leaves and serve with a garnish of parsley. Add hot sauce to taste at the table, along with crusty bread.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Swedish Chef



Swedish meatballs (kottbullar) are a traditional dish consisting of seasoned beef, pork, and/or veal meatballs covered in a brown gravy and are one of the best-known and loved Swedish dishes. The first recipe appeared in print in Cajsa Warg's Swedish cookbook in 1754. Before the invention of meatgrinders in 1845 by German Baron Karl Drais, Swedish meatballs were truly a labor of love and considered a luxury item served at traditional smorgasbords and other special occasions. Swedish meatballs also have deep roots in America's upper Midwest, brought by Scandinavian immigrants with the peak of their migration between 1870-1900. They were also featured at the 1939 New York World's Fair at the Swedish Pavilion's Three Crowns Restaurant, explaining their popularity in the early 20th century with a resurgence in the 1950s and 60s. Swedish meatballs are traditionally served with brown gravy, mashed or boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam or sauce, and pickled (or pressed) cucumbers. 

This recipe, that I found at The Spice Garden, is adapted from Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking and is the best I've ever tasted! The meatballs are exceedingly tender and moist, and the creamy sauce has just the right tang thanks to the addition of sour cream. One tip to remember when incorporating sour cream to a warm sauce is to stir in 1/2 cup of the gravy, 1/4 cup at a time, into the sour cream, whisking very well until incorporated before adding it to the gravy. If you don't do this, more than likely the sour cream will curdle and leave clumps in your gravy. Eek! I like to serve my Swedish meatballs with buttered egg noodles and if you can't find lingonberry jam, cranberry jam makes a decent substitute. So stop buying them at IKEA and make them yourself! They are way better, "bork, bork, bork!"


Swedish Meatballs

Serves 4-6 as an entree.

Ingredients:

For the Meatballs
1, 1" thick slice of bread
Milk to soak the bread
1 1/2 lb ground meat (1/2 lb beef, 1/2 lb pork, 1/2 lb veal, or a combination) (I used 3/4 lb beef and 3/4 lb pork)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
2 cups beef stock

For the Gravy
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Chopped parsley, for garnish

Directions:
For the Meatballs
Soak the bread in enough milk to saturate it and let it soak a few minutes. While the bread soaks, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

Wring the liquid from the bread (discard the milk) and add it along with the remaining meatball ingredients (except for the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the 2 cups beef stock) in a large bowl or stand mixer and mix with your hands or mixer until the ingredients are well incorporated. Shape the meatballs into approximately 1" balls, and place on a large plate or baking sheet. (The meatballs can be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to cook.) 

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a deep saute pan over medium/medium-high heat. Drop the meatballs into the bubbling butter and brown them on all sides. (Do not overcrowd! You should brown them in batches, setting them aside on a plate until all the meatballs are browned.) When all the meatballs are browned, return them to the pan and add the 2 cups beef stock, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. When done, remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and place them on a warm baking sheet and hold in a warm oven.

For the Gravy
Mix the sour cream, flour, dill, and Sherry in a medium bowl. Whisk in 1/2 cup of the stock, 1/4 cup at a time, until fully incorporated. Make sure there are no lumps! Mix the sour cream mixture into the stock and continue to stir until thickened, just a few minutes. Taste and season with salt (if needed) and white pepper, to taste.

To serve, add the meatballs to the gravy and transfer to a platter or serving bowl. Garnish with the chopped parsley.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Magic Bean

In France, January 6 is "La Fete Des Rois," which translates to "Festival of Kings," also known as Twelfth Night and the Epiphany, when the biblical three kings came to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. It is celebrated by sharing a "Galette des Rois," or "Kings' Cake," with family and friends throughout the month of January. Just like the song The Twelve Days of Christmas! Galette de Rois is a delicious, flaky pastry made with buttery puff pastry and filled with frangipane (almond cream paste), and includes a hidden "la feve" (originally a dry bean, or "magic bean"), and is sold with a silver or gold paper crown to perch on top. The person who gets the feve in their slice is declared the King or Queen and is allowed wear the paper crown! It is also customary that the youngest child at the table go hide (e.g., under the table) where they can't see the cake. The oldest person then cuts the cake into slices, the child comes back and chooses who will get each slice, just to keep things fair!

Galette des Rois is also known as a Pithivier, named after the town Pithiviers in northern France, where it apparently was created. The distinction between the two is the feve or magic bean. This recipe from Laura Calder, who seldom lets me down, was surprisingly easy and turned out beautiful! Just remember to keep everything as cold as possible. My only comment is that I thought it could be a little sweeter, so next time I will try using store-bought almond paste (sold in cans) instead of the ground almonds. I used the traditional dry bean and I saved a paper crown from our Christmas Crackers. My kids loved their Galette des Rois  (they each ate two slices!), and my youngest got a kick out of hiding under the table, in addition to finding the magic bean and getting to wear the crown! It truly is a tradition worth trying!


Galette des Rois (Kings' Cake)

Serves 8

Ingredients:
For the tart
2 sheets puff pastry, about 1/4" thick, chilled
1 egg, lightly beaten for sealing the pastry
Sifted icing sugar, for dusting (or a few spoonfuls of apricot jam, heated until runny) (I used apricot jam!)

For the almond cream
1/3 cup/70 g butter, softened
1/2 cup/70 g icing sugar
1/2 cup/70 g ground almonds (or almond paste)
1 egg
1 tablespoon dark rum
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 magic bean

Directions:
For the almond cream
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the almonds, then the egg, rum, and vanilla extract. Beat smooth with a fork. Cover and chill until firm, for at least an hour.

For the tart
Lay an 8" round plate on one sheet of cold puff pastry and go around it with a knife.


Do the same for the top round, but then roll this one a little with a rolling pin to make it slightly larger than the bottom round. (I found 8 1/2 " to be about right!)


Lay the smaller round of chilled pastry on a baking sheet. (I lined mine with parchment paper and highly recommend it.) Spread the chilled cream over, leaving a good 1" margin all around the edge. Hide a bean somewhere in the cream. Brush the border with egg wash (one egg white mixed with a smidgen of water).


Lay on the top round of chilled pastry and lightly press the edges to seal. Score the edge all around with the blunt side of a knife to seal.


Make a cross in the center for steam to escape and draw spirals out to the edges for decoration.


Brush with egg wash all over the top, avoiding the edges, so that they'll puff up easily. Chill in the freezer until very firm, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees/230 degrees C. Bake the cake until puffed up high and dark golden in color, about 30 minutes.

Sprinkle with a thin coating of icing sugar and blast under the broiler or melt with a blowtorch. You can also brush with melted apricot jam for a glaze.