Friday, October 31, 2014

Pumpkin Spice Cake


"Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He's gotta pick this one. He's got to. I don't see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there's not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see." - Linus
It's the night before Halloween and I've finally finished sewing the kids' costumes (he a knight in shining armor, she a medieval damsel in distress). The dinner dishes have been cleared and the pumpkin takes center stage on the countertop, ready for carving. Will it be a funny face? Or a scary face this year? Dad helps bridge a compromise (and carve the pumpkin) after much arguing, and the jack o'lantern is set on the stoop outdoors, while the salted seeds roast in the oven. They're done just in time to munch while watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on TV - a tradition we'd no sooner miss than skip trick or treating. 
Yes, it's the night before Halloween, but for years now, there have been no costumes to stitch, no arguments about what to carve on the pumpkin. And I'm watching TV alone while Linus waits in vain for the Great Pumpkin. Somehow it feels like shouting in a vacuum. 
The years have flown by faster than Snoopy's dogfight with the Red Baron and nostalgia could threaten to take me down. But no, I'm remembering the good times, and remembering that while there is no pumpkin on the counter to be carved, there is a pumpkin spice cake that is calling my name. 
And a darned good one too, even if it's not a great looker. It's baked in a plain Jane rectangular pan, with a cream cheese frosting sprinkled with nuts. The kind of thing you'd find at a bake sale - or in my kitchen tonight.

It doesn't make the pretty statement like the circular pumpkin coffee cake I made earlier in the week to serve to my Italian chit-chat group (photo below), but the rectangular recipe tastes a whole lot better.  If you really want the recipe for this one, email me and I'll send it to you, but once you've tried the pumpkin spice cake, you won't want any other.

Don't get me wrong - the crumb-topped pumpkin coffee cake was good, but not nearly as moist and tender as I wanted.
 So more "research" was in order. That's when I found this recipe on Mary's blog, "One Perfect Bite." As Mary states on her post, the recipe is a gem of simplicity and feeds a lot of people. She was so right. But even more importantly, it tastes terrific. I know I'll be making this one again and again now that pumpkin season is here. 

And even though the knight and damsel are not here to share it with me, I'll follow Linus' suggestion and be "most sincere" as I savor every bite.

Happy Halloween!



Pumpkin-Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.
printable recipe here
Ingredients:
Cake
4 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin 
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup raisins, if desired
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 package (8-oz) cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 to 3 teaspoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, if desired

Directions:
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 15 x 10 x 1-inch pan with cooking spray.
2) Combine eggs, granulated sugar, oil and pumpkin in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Stir in raisins if using. Spread in pan.
3) Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and cake springs back when touched lightly in center. Cool completely, about 2 hours.
4) In medium bowl, combine and beat cream cheese, butter, milk and vanilla with electric mixer on low speed until smooth. Gradually beat in powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, on low speed until smooth and spreadable. Spread frosting over cake. Sprinkle with walnuts. Cut to desired size. Store covered in refrigerator.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Cauliflower Cake


A couple of years ago, I was visiting a friend in London and rummaging through her cookbooks when I found this recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi. I wanted to make it as soon as I saw it, especially after eating at one of his restaurants there. But it's like the book that's sitting on the shelf you never read; or the bolt of fabric in the closet you never get around to sewing into a dress. I forgot about it. The recipe didn't appear in any of his cookbooks published for the U.S. market. Until now, that is, when I saw it in "Plenty More" - his latest cookbook and one that was gifted to me this week by my niece Keri.  My interest in making this delightful recipe was renewed.
Aside from the visual appeal, it tastes terrific, somewhat like a frittata, but with a little more heft from the cup of flour and baking powder in the recipe. It's got tons of flavor from the turmeric, rosemary and basil too, so don't leave those out. I would however, add another egg or two next time I make it, (or use less of the vegetable). As you can see from the photo below, I didn't use cauliflower, but instead used broccoli romano, or broccoli romanesco - my favorite vegetable,  another gift I received this week - this time from my son.. It tastes very similar to cauliflower, but you can't top it for distinct appearance. I've posted recipes using it before, so if you're interested, go to the white search box at the top of the blog and type in the words "broccoli romano." I can see making this with lots of other vegetables too, including with artichoke hearts - which I'm planning to try next week.  Stay tuned.
The first step is to carefully separate the florets and bring them to a boil for about five minutes, then drain.
 Line a springform pan with parchment paper, then smear with butter and sesame seeds. The recipe calls for nigella seeds, but I couldn't find them and used black and white sesame seeds instead.
 The batter is on the thick side, so be careful not to break up the florets when mixing everything together. Next time, I plan to use eight or nine eggs instead of the seven called for. I think it will make a little lighter "cake" and give more space between the vegetables.
 Still, I loved the way it looked and tasted - not quite a quiche, not quite a frittata, not quite an omelet - but a savory "cake" instead. Ottolenghi says to serve warm, rather than hot. I think it would be good either way (first hand knowledge from having reheated in the microwave). It would also be delicious at room temperature, making it ideal for taking to a picnic or dinner at someone's house. Serve in medium slices as a side dish, or in large slices with a salad as a main course. Try baking it in a square pan and slice in squares for an hors d'oeuvre. 
 Either way, it won't last long and it'll be one of those recipes you'll make over and over again and adapt to your liking.  

CAULIFLOWER CAKE
From "Plenty More" by Yotam Ottolenghi
Serves 4 to 6 (I think it serves 8 or more, even as a main course, with a salad on the side- CCL)
• 1 small cauliflower, outer leaves removed, broken into 1¼-inch florets (1 lb/450 g)
• 1 medium red onion, peeled (6 oz/170 g)
• 5 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
• 7 eggs (scant 1 lb/440 g)
• 1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped
• 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/3 teaspoons round turmeric
• 5 ounces coarsely grated Parmesan or another mature cheese
• Melted unsalted butter, for brushing
• 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
• 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
• Salt
• Black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC.
Place the cauliflower florets in a saucepan and add 1 teaspoon salt. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes, until the florets are quite soft. They should break when pressed with a spoon. Drain and set aside in a colander to dry.
Cut 4 round slices, each 1/4-inch thick, off one end of the onion and set aside. Coarsely chop the rest of the onion and place in a small pan with the oil and rosemary. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Transfer the onion to a large bowl, add the eggs and basil, whisk well, and then add the flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper. Whisk until smooth before adding the cauliflower and stirring gently, trying not to break up the florets.
Line the base and sides of a 9 1/2-inch springform cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides with melted butter, then mix together the sesame and nigella seeds and toss them around the inside of the pan so that they stick to the sides. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the pan, spreading it evenly, and arrange the reserved onion rings on top. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and set; a knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Remove from the oven and leave for at least 20 minutes before serving. It needs to be served just warm, rather than hot, or at room temperature.
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

City Wonders and Roscioli


When an email arrived in my inbox asking me if I'd like to take a complimentary City Wonders tour of Rome, I had mixed feelings. I was just about to leave for the eternal city, so the timing was perfect, but having lived there and visited dozens of times, I was skeptical. Would I just be revisiting some of the places I was already familiar with, or would I be learning something new, I wondered? As it turns, it was a little of both, and a great way to spend a couple of hours. City Wonders offers tours in many cities besides Rome - Paris, London and even New York, for instance. And within each city, it offers several different kinds of tours. I chose the food and wine tour (no surprise) and expected to be traipsing around the city sampling foods from different restaurants and shops where I might have already eaten.
Instead, what followed were two hours inside a private wine-tasting room at Roscioli, a legendary food purveyor whose shop and restaurant on via dei giubbonari I'd passed innumerable times. The evening went by in a flash, as Alessandro Pepe, one of Italy's best-known and respected sommeliers, educated us on the many varieties of Italian wine and what paired best with each.
The "rimessa" as the room is called, is the perfect place for small gatherings of wine and food tastings, just around the corner from the restaurant and deli.
In all, we tasted six different wines, from Sicily to Friuli.
We started the evening tasting buffalo mozzarella from Paestum, and burrata from Puglia, two places I had just visited on my month-long trip to Italy and where I ate plenty of both of these cheeses. They're usually not paired with wines, Alessandro said, but if they are, choose a light white wine, like a fiano di Avellino or a greco di tufo.
We tried a Greco di Tufo with the label of Alexandros. The wine takes its name from the village of Tufo, south of Naples. But tufo is also the name of the grape variety and the volcanic soil that gives the wine a strong mineral finish. However, 90 percent of the wines called Greco di Tufo don't actually come from the village of tufo, Alessandro said.  
This pesto from Liguria was  also a delicious accompaniment to the wine.
I was too busy eating and drinking to get shots of all the wines and foods, but one of my favorite (and surprising) pairings was this tuna from Sicilian producer Tre Torri, that was matched with a luscious red wine - a nero d'avola - also from Sicily and the cantina Marabino. The tuna had been aged for two years in extra virgin olive oil and stood up well to the nero d'avola, whose grapes are grown in a volcanic soil, giving it a "salty" taste.
We ate pistachio-flecked mortadella paired with a bubbly lambrusco from the producer La Battagliola. Forget about what you might remember about those treackly lambruscos first imported to the U.S. in the 1970s. This is different, offering a much fresher taste, and the perfect palate cleanser to accompany the richness from the fatty mortadella it was paired with. The Italians have been making sparkling wines long before Champagne came on the scene, Alessandro said. A sparkling lambrusco was mentioned in 1567 by Andrea Bacci, the personal doctor of Pop Sisto V, he said.
Speaking of old, we also drank a montepulciano from Contucci winery, the oldest winery in the world, dating back 1,000 years, Alessandro said. Of course, most of the vines are from 20 to 45 years old, he said, and are planted in the red "pietra rossa" soil that gives the wine its plummy, earthy flavor.  This wine was paired with salumi made at the Antica Corte Pallavicina, near Parma, an artisanal producer of cured meats that I wrote about in a blog post here.
My favorite wine of the night was this barolo from the Le Langhe area in the Piedmont region, a wine I had previously tasted in Piedmont. It's an explosion of flavor in the mouth, with a roundness and perfect balance of fruit and tannins.
"For me, (France's) Burgundy and (Italy's) Langhe are the only two wine regions in the world, in the sense that vineyards and geography were designed upon the soil composition, and not based on the properties. So when you look at the map, this actually tells you something about the type of wine you might find in each," Alessandro said. This bold wine was paired with an equally bold food - a parmigiano reggiano vacche rosse cheese aged 36 months. Talk about a marriage made in heaven….
We left the Rimessa Roscioli thoroughly pleased with our food and wine tasting through Italy and would recommend anyone to contact City Wonders, if this is indicative of their tours.
Of course, this tasting only whetted our palate to eat at Roscioli's restaurant, so we rounded the corner and sat at a table next to the deli counter, where a heaping bowl of burrata cheese tempted us.
 But it was pasta we succumbed to, namely this plate of rigatoni alla carbonara.
 And this decadently rich pasta alla carbonara.
 We were too sated to order dessert, but Roscioli provided us with these treats gratis - buttery shortbread cookies and meringues with a rich chocolate dipping sauce.
Grazie mille City Wonders and Roscioli and Alessandro.
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Monday, October 6, 2014

Orange French Toast


If I'm going to indulge at breakfast, it's likely to be pancakes or waffles -- or so I thought until I tasted this orange French toast with almonds. It's permeated with a delicious orange flavor from the orange juice and Grand Marnier liqueur it sits in overnight  (you're with me now, I'll bet). Pull it out of the fridge in the morning (great for when guests come) and sprinkle some sliced almonds on top, then place in a buttered skillet, before flipping over and adding almonds to the second side.
I ate this delicious dish earlier this summer at the Birchwood Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast in Lenox, a quaint New England town in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The owner, Ellen Gutman Chenaux, is the quintessential innkeeper, friendly and eager to please her guests who stay in this beautiful 19th century building. 
 If you're not touring the area, which is chock-a-block full of interesting sites and activities -- from the Tanglewood Music Festival in the summer, to the Norman Rockwell museum to the Berkshire botanical garden -- you can pull up a rocking chair and relax on the front porch.
Sit by the fireplace in the spacious living room, and choose a book from the voluminous library.
The sun-drenched dining room is a welcoming spot for morning breakfast, but don't expect a bowl of cold cereal. Oh no, Ellen's breakfasts are renowned, having been named the "best breakfasts in New England" by bedandbreakfast.com.
This herb-filled quiche with a corn salad on the side gives you some idea, but there are several other side dishes to enjoy as well, and always homemade breads, coffeecakes and cookies.
Each morning presents a different opportunity for Ellen to shine in the kitchen, as with this soufflé roulade served with roasted potatoes.
Once I got home, I wanted to recreate her French toast, fortunately made easy because Ellen has published a cookbook (Breakfast at Birchwood - available at the inn) with recipes from her legendary breakfasts and afternoon treats on the front porch too.
This recipe is perfect for when you're having guests, because it's prepared the night before (and even two nights ahead works fine) and cooked the next morning. The only sad part is getting to the last bite or two.
Orange French Toast
from "Breakfast at Birchwood" cookbook by Ellen Gutman Chenaux

6 eggs
1 cup orange juice (or 2/3 cup orange juice plus 1/3 cup Grand Marnier)
1/3 cup milk or cream
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
rind of one orange, finely grated
8 slices challah (egg bread), cut 1-inch thick
about 1 cup sliced almonds, (not listed in the cookbook, but served with them at the inn)
butter
powdered sugar
orange slices
maple syrup

Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add orange juice, cream or milk, sugar, vanilla, salt and orange rind. Mix well. Dip bread slices in egg mixture, turning to coat both sides. Place the bread in one or two layers in a large dish or pan. Pour any remaining egg mixture over the top of the bread. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, melt a generous amount of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bread slices and cook through, browning on both sides. Arrange on a plate, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and garnish with orange slices. Serve with maple syrup.

(If using the almonds, add them to one side of the bread and place that side down into the butter. Then sprinkle more on the top and flip to cook the second side, adding more butter if necessary.)

The cookbook says this recipe serves 4, but I cut it in half and got three generous servings (six large slices of challah), so I think it's not unrealistic to expect 6 servings when making the full recipe.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lemon Spaghetti with Swiss Chard



I don't live in a warm place like California or Florida or Arizona (or the Amalfi coast-sigh), where people are lucky enough to pluck fresh lemons from backyard trees. I have to rely on the supermarket variety. But with a box of pasta and organic lemons from a high quality grocery store, you can still serve a flavorful and easy-to-make pasta dish that will earn you raves. Add some Swiss chard to the mix and you'll also garner a few kudos for the extra nutrition factor.
In support of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative (PSGC), a wonderful group that fosters garden and food-based education in our local schools and community, I'm posting this recipe with chard for their "Garden State on Your Plate" program. Chard will debut in chef-led tastings at the Princeton elementary schools this fall, with more farm products to follow. PSGC has its own website (http://www.psgcoop.org), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/psgcoop.org), Twitter (https://twitter.com/psgcooporg) and Instagram account (psgcoop), so hop on over and cheer them on.
But don't forget to give this recipe a try. It comes together in practically the time it takes to boil pasta, and the fresh flavors will have you and your family asking for seconds. Maybe even planning a trip to Sorrento!
Lemon Spaghetti with Swiss Chard
printable recipe here

1/4 cup minced sweet onion (like Vidalia)
6 - 10 large Swiss chard leaves, roughly chopped
2 T. olive oil
salt, pepper

grated zest and juice of 3 lemons
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pound spaghetti or linguini
1 1/2 cups - 2 cups of pasta water
more parmesan cheese for serving
fresh basil, optional

Sauté the onion in the olive oil until limp, then add the Swiss chard and sauté for a few minutes until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Grate the zest of three lemons and squeeze the juice from them, discarding the seeds.
Bring the water to boil in a large pot and add a generous amount of salt. Cook the pasta al dente, especially since you'll add it back into the pot for a few minutes with the sauce. Drain the pasta, but reserve about 2 cups of the pasta water.
Set aside the pasta while you make the sauce.
It takes only a few minutes so don't worry about the pasta getting cold.
Use the same pot in which you boiled the pasta and put in the lemon zest, olive oil, heavy cream and about 1 cup of the pasta water. Bring to a boil over high heat, add the pasta to the pot and lower the heat to medium, all the while stirring everything together. Add the lemon juice, the parmesan cheese, and the cooked Swiss chard and stir vigorously. Keep adding more pasta water until there is enough sauce. Some people like the sauce to be very loose, so if you're one of them, add more of the pasta water and keep stirring. Taste and season with more salt and pepper to your liking. Serve with additional parmesan cheese. If you have fresh basil, add a generous sprinkling of that at the end too.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Under The Tuscan Gun" Pop-Up Dinner


Have you ever attended a pop-up dinner? If you're not familiar with them, it's kind of like a supper club, where an up-and-coming chef cooks for a small group in a home, or in an underutilized restaurant space. This one was held in a small cafe in Brooklyn, not far from Prospect Park, with twinkling lights greeting us as we arrived. We ate simple, but delicious food, from start to finish, including these mascarpone and amaretti cups (recipe at the end of the post).
 And who was the chef, you might ask?
Recognize this handsome fellow? It's Gabriele Corcos, otherwise known as "The Tuscan Gun" on social media and as the co-star of a show on the Cooking Channel called "Extra Virgin."
 He's also married to this lovely woman - Debi Mazar - co-star of "Extra Virgin." You may remember her from her role in the movie "Goodfellas" or from the HBO series "Entourage." She, along with Giulia, one of their two adorable daughters, stopped by to greet the diners and drop off some food for Gabriele, (so he doesn't have to eat the same thing for all 10 nights that the pop-ups were held).

If you've ever seen "Extra Virgin," one of the things I enjoy most about the show, (aside from the recipes and the scenery in Tuscany) is watching the close bond between all members of the family. You couldn't miss it at last week's dinner either.  No qualms about PDA here (public display of affection). 
 OK, so on to the food - and drink - starting with a favorite of mine - aperol spritz.
Next came a plate with three different appetizers - one more delicious than the next: pecorino cheese drizzled with honey and red pepper flakes; white bean and pancetta bruschetta, and beef tartare served on a grilled lemon slice. Never having eaten raw beef, I was skeptical but gulped down the bite-size portion in one shot. Wow, the tartness of the lemon complimented the hand-chopped filet so perfectly. If it always tastes this good, I wonder what took me so long. I'm now a convert to beef tartare.
Lentil soup has long been a favorite of mine, and Gabriele's version did not disappoint, with pancetta and parmesan rinds added for flavor. 
 Gabriele came out before each course to give a little background and explain what we were eating. Here he is readying one of the pasta courses (yes, there was more than one). Can you tell he's happy in the kitchen?
This pasta was dressed with a "finto" or "fake" sauce, originating with farmers who wanted the full body and flavor of a red sauce, but who couldn't afford the meat. It was laden with chunks of carrot, onion and celery and red wine added color and depth.
 Next came pasta alla gricia, one of my favorites whenever I'm in Rome. It's made with guanciale, from the cheeks of the pig, and was tossed with pecorino cheese and sage leaves. 
Porchetta, imbued with the flavors of rosemary, garlic and fennel seeds, was the star of the main course, but the side dishes held their own too - grilled endive with gorgonzola and peperonata with potatoes.
 A refreshing salad of arugula, fennel, olives and orange slices provided a light finish.

The vibe was fun and lively, and with about 20 people present, it was intimate enough to converse with nearly everyone, but not so crowded that it became too noisy. 

 Gabriele was so friendly and gabbed with everyone.
Including me.

His sous-chef Anthony Michael Contrino did a fabulous job on everything from drinks to dessert.

Actually, the entire staff was friendly and helpful to a person and made the evening run effortlessly (or so it seemed to us diners.)

Everyone at our table was practically moaning over the dessert - mascarpone and amaretti cups - and we finished up with digestivi shots of limoncello and Averna. 
After hearing that all the recipes from the dinner were in Debi and Gabriele's cookbook "Extra Virgin,"    I had to buy a copy and prepared what will be served for dessert tonight when friends stop by for dinner.

For all you folks in the New York City area, Gabriele is planning another series of pop-up dinners in Brooklyn in October. The best way to find out details is to follow "Under The Tuscan Gun" on social media, like Facebook or Instagram. Don't miss it!   

Mascarpone and Amaretti Cups
From the cookbook "Extra Virgin" by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 2 ounces sugar
  • One 8-ounce container mascarpone
  • Salt
  • 1 1/2 cups roughly crumbled amaretti cookies
  • 1 shot brandy
  • Cocoa powder
  • Shaved dark chocolate, for garnish
  • Fresh seasonal berries, for garnish
  • Fresh mint, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

Mix the egg yolks with half the sugar until you obtain a creamy light mixture. (I had only supermarket eggs, not farm fresh, so I cooked the egg yolks and sugar on top of a double boiler, whisking until they got thick.- Ciao Chow Linda) Work the mascarpone in a separate bowl using a wooden spoon, making sure you eliminate any lumps, then add to the eggs and continue to mix well. 

In another bowl, mix the egg whites with a pinch of salt and the remaining sugar until they reach a somewhat firm peak, and then fold them into the mascarpone. 

Add the cookies to a medium bowl and stir in the brandy (just until moistened, you don't want them soggy). Add a dash of cocoa powder. Divide the cookie crumbles into the bottom of 6 glasses. 

Add the mascarpone cream to a pastry bag and pipe the cream into each glass. Top with a sprinkle of cocoa powder and shaved dark chocolate. Garnish with a few berries and a sprig of mint. 
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