Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lemon Olive Oil Cake with Raspberries and Pistachios

I know olive oil cakes are ubiquitous these days, but here's another one to add to your repertoire, and it's a keeper.
My dad's wife Rose made this for me a while ago and I've been meaning to post it for a while.
She's a great baker, and my dad's a terrific cook, so every time I visit I can be assured of a wonderful meal, including a delicious dessert.
The red raspberries and green pistachios give this cake a particularly festive look.
You might want to remember this one for the Christmas holidays. But try it as fresh, local raspberries start appearing in the markets.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Step outside your room and enjoy this gorgeous view and gardens. Click here for more information.

Lemon Cake with Raspberries and Pistachios
from Bon Appetit magazine

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  •  cups all-purpose flour
  •  teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs
  •  cups plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon plus ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup fresh raspberries (about 4 oz.)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped unsalted, raw pistachios


  • Preheat oven to 350°. Coat a 9” diameter cake pan with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
  • Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With mixer running, add vanilla and 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, then gradually add oil, mixing just until combined. Fold in lemon zest and dry ingredients.
  • Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Scatter berries over cake, then pistachios and 2 Tbsp. sugar. Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45–55 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, bring remaining ¼ cup sugar and remaining ¼ cup lemon juice to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar; let lemon syrup cool.
  • Transfer hot cake (still in pan) to a wire rack and immediately brush with lemon syrup (use all of it). Let cake cool completely in pan.
  • DO AHEAD: Cake can be made 2 days ahead. Store wrapped tightly at room temperature
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Friday, April 17, 2015

Milena's Sweet Swiss Chard Tart

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm part of a group of women who meet once a week to chit-chat in Italian. The meeting takes place at a different home each week and while we converse in Italian about anything and everything - we also eat. And every one of the women is a good cook, so we look forward to our gatherings for several reasons.
 I'm not able to attend each week, but when the group meets at Milena's house, I'm really  loathe to miss it.
Milena, who hails from the region of Liguria, is one of the best cooks in the group, and not surprisingly, taught cooking classes for a while. Whenever the group meets at her house, she makes an array of different dishes to tempt us, some tried and true, and some new ones too.
This tart is one of the offerings (among many) that she served recently at her home. The recipe contains a bit of sugar, so you could serve it as dessert, but it's not overly sweet, so if you're yearning for a more traditional dessert, better stick to chocolate cake.
 In that case, it would be equally delicious served with a glass of wine as an appetizer too.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Sweet Swiss Chard Tart

3 cups flour (minus three Tablespoons) or 300 grams flour 
1/2 cup butter or 125 grams butter
about two bunches of Swiss chard without the stems, or 500 grams Swiss chard
3/4 cup sugar or 150 grams sugar
1/3 cup pine nuts or 50 grams pine nuts
1/4 cup or 30 grams white raisins
2 eggs, separated
salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, to taste

On a wooden board (or a bowl), make a well with the flour and add 3/4 of the butter (cut into small pieces), half the sugar, a pinch of salt and the egg yolks.
Incorporate all the ingredients until you have a soft and smooth dough. Cover it with a dishtowel and let it rest for two hours in a warm place.

Put the raisins in a bowl with some tepid water and let them soak in the water for at least 15 minutes.

Wash the Swiss chard, removing the stems, and place it in a covered pot with only the water that remains on the leaves. Let it cook on low heat until softened. Remove from the pot, squeeze out any remaining water, then give the swiss chard a rough chop. Add the remaining butter to a saucepan, put the Swiss chard back in, and stir, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Put the chopped Swiss chard in a bowl and mix with the remaining sugar, pine nuts, raisins (that have been drained), a pinch of nutmeg and a pinch of cinnamon.

Divide the dough in half and roll out each half to fit a 9" pie pan that has been buttered and floured. Place one piece of the dough into the pie pan, cover it with the Swiss chard mixture, then place the other piece of dough on the top, closing the borders with a pinch.

Beat a little of the egg white and brush over the top of the  tart. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Lemon Pasta With Shrimp

 While in Las Vegas last fall at Giada's restaurant, I ordered a dish of lemon spaghetti with shrimp. To say it was a disappointment is an understatement. The shrimp were well cooked, although there were few of them (two maybe?) But even worse, the pasta was dry and in some cases, the gummy strands were stuck together and had an insipid flavor instead of with a nice lemon zip. What had sounded so promising left much to be desired. There had to be a better way.
When I saw this bag of artisanal, Italian-made lemon pasta at Claudio's, an Italian specialty food shop in Philadelphia, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
Giada's pasta with shrimp was in for a makeover.
This lemon-flavored pasta may have taken it over the top, but the dish, with plenty of lemon juice and lemon zest, would still be delicious with regular spaghetti (if possible, use an artisanal brand, not the commercial, supermarket variety).
Drain the pasta from the cooking water before it's done, since it will cook for a couple of minutes in the sauce too. But save some of the cooking water, in case you need a little more liquid. After you put in the white wine and cream you'll want to reduce it a bit, but keep in mind that once you throw in the parmesan cheese (off the heat), it will thicken somewhat. Add the parsley and basil just before serving to maintain its fresh color and flavor.

If you live anywhere near Philadelphia, do stop by one of the specialty food shops on South Ninth Street and pick up some of this wonderful pasta made in Gragnano.  Claudio's and DiBruno Brothers are two places any lover of Italian products - pasta, cheeses, salumi - shouldn't miss. If you don't live nearby, click on the links to order online. If you are in the neighborhood, however, there are two stops for pastries that shouldn't be missed: Isgro Pasticceria at 1009 Christian Street and Termini Brothers 1528 South Eighth Street for the best cannoli and Italian pastries this side of Naples.

Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Lemon Shrimp Pasta
printable recipe here

serves two to three

1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 T. butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
about 14 shrimp (or 1/4 pound)
1/4 cup white wine
red pepper flakes
salt, pepper
juice and rind of 1 lemon (about 1/3 cup juice)
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
handful of minced parsley
handful of minced basil
1/2 pound pasta
pasta cooking water, if necessary

Cook the pasta until almost al dente, but drain from the water before it reaches that point. Save about a cup of the cooking water.  In a separate saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil, and cook the shallot until nearly softened, then add the garlic for a few minutes at medium heat, making sure not to burn it. Turn the heat to high, then add the shrimp and cook for a minute or two on each side. Add the white wine, also at high heat, but turn it down to medium and season the shrimp with red pepper flakes (to taste, don't go overboard), salt and pepper. Add the cream, lemon juice and lemon rind and let everything cook together for a few minutes on medium heat to reduce a bit. Don't let it thicken too much because the parmesan cheese will also thicken it a little. Turn off the heat and add the parmesan cheese, the basil and parsley. If it looks too thick, thin it out with a little pasta water.
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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Honey Baked Ham with roasted grapes

I know this would have been more useful had I posted this ham recipe before Easter, but it's still perfect anytime you've got a crowd coming. Kentucky Derby party in your future maybe? 
 It's a great dish for company, especially when you don't have time to fuss. And it tastes so much better than those store-bought pre-sliced honey-baked hams sold at franchises.
This big ole' ham was also purchased pre-sliced, but I normally buy one that isn't. I just happened to be at a Costco before Easter, when the pre-sliced ones were all that was available. Throw out any seasoning packet that may have come with your ham. You can do better, without using artificial ingredients or flavorings.
Mix some melted butter, honey and light corn syrup together, pour it over the ham, occasionally baste with it while it bakes and you've got a lip-smacking ham that everyone will love and that serves at least 15 or 16 people. 
I added some roasted grapes at the end too, just because roasted grapes have become my new favorite ingredient for adding to recipes. 
Use the leftover ham bone and bits of ham to make this bean soup recipe.

Honey Baked Ham

1 large bone-in ham (mine weighed about 12 pounds)
1/3 cup butter, melted
8 oz. honey
1/8 cup dark corn syrup

Roasted grapes are optional, but if you want to add them, roast them on a Silpat or parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Set aside. (You can do this the day before)
Place the ham flat side down and bake, covered with aluminum foil, for one hour at 250 degrees fahrenheit.  
Melt the butter together with the honey and corn syrup. 
Remove the foil from the roast, raise the temperature to 350 degrees fahrenheit, and reposition the ham so that the fatty part is on top. Cook for another hour, basting with the butter/honey/corn syrup mixture several times.
If using the roasted grapes, add the cooked grapes during the last minute or two, just to heat them through again.
Slice, swishing the slices through the honey glaze as you put them on the serving platter.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bay Leaf Pound Cake

Bay leaves are one of the unsung heroes on the spice/herb shelf. They sit there in jars turning paler and paler with each passing year, and find their way into the occasional stew or soup. When they reach that point, where they're insipid in taste, it's time to throw them out and buy new ones.
I've had a fascination with bay leaves since the year I lived in Italy, where I encountered hedges of bay leaf plants everywhere, tempting me to pluck a leaf or two whenever I needed it for a recipe.
 If you're in Italy during college graduation season, it's common to see newly minted graduates around town wearing laurel wreaths encircling their heads, a tradition started at the University of Padua, one of the world's oldest universities. 
For you word nerds out there: The Italian word for graduation is "laurea." 

Ovid with a laurel wreath

I've since bought my own bay leaf plant, although it's not hardy in the harsh New Jersey winters. Instead, I've pampered it indoors for a few years and reluctantly used its leaves the first year or two. Mostly, I just admired it and drew of a sketch of it in my "nature journal."
I have used some of the leaves in the past for a wonderful appetizer with ricotta cheese, but when I saw this bay leaf pound cake from David Leibovitz' "My Paris Kitchen,"  I knew my now thriving, four-year old bay leaf plant was in for a pruning.

David says you can use either dried or fresh bay leaves for this recipe, but since I had the fresh, I thought, "why not?"
 There are at least two types of bay leaf plants by the way - California and Turkish. What you find in spice racks at grocery stores is mostly the dried Turkish variety. Each of the varieties is highly aromatic, but from what I've read the Turkish, or Mediterranean variety (my plant) has a subtler flavor, with floral overtones. Some sites even claim that the California bay leaf has a "medicinal" taste and is more suited to making wreaths (or crowning Olympic champions) than to culinary purposes because of its strong flavor. If any of you readers has ever cooked with a California bay leaf, let me know.
For this recipe, start by buttering a 9" x 5 " loaf pan, and place a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom. Butter the parchment paper. Line the bottom of the pan with bay leaves. 
As part of the recipe, more bay leaves are steeped in melted butter for an infusion, lending even more herbal flavor. 
Pour in the batter (I tucked a bay leaf into each of the long sides of the pan also) and dot with butter across the top.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. The recipe says to bake 45 to 50 minutes, but I had to leave mine in closer to 55 minutes. 
It's done when the cake releases slightly from the sides of the pan and is golden.
Flip it over and admire the bottom of the cake (that no one will see, but the flavor the leaves impart is definitely perceptible).
I used a bay leaf and small branch to decorate, but a lemon or orange glaze would be nice too.
Dust heavily with powdered sugar and carefully remove the leaf.
Slice and serve, being careful to remove the bay leaves on the bottom and sides before eating.
The cake has a tender crumb and a subtle, aromatic flavor that's hard to pinpoint. It's a nuanced, perfumed taste that would also pair well with a tumble of berries, or a bit of whipped cream.

 Or just enjoy as is.

Bay Leaf Pound Cake
from David Leibovitz' "My Paris Kitchen"
printable recipe here

  1. 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon butter, sliced; at room temperature
  2. 8 - 10 small to medium sized bay laurel leaves, fresh or dried
  3. 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  4. 1 cup granulated sugar
  5. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  6. ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  7. 3 eggs, at room temperature
  8. ½ cup crème fraiche (or sour cream)
  9. Powdered sugar
  1. Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Take the pan off the heat and add 3 bay leaves. Let steep 1 hour; remove bay leaves and discard.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a standard loaf pan with some butter; dust the pan evenly with flour and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper (easiest way to do this is to place the pan on the paper and trace all around the bottom edge with a pencil; use scissors to cut it out).
  3. Dab one side of the remaining bay leaves in a bit of butter and lay them evenly along the bottom of the loaf pan, buttered side down.
  4. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.
  5. Combine the eggs, crème fraiche, and melted butter in a medium bowl; gently stir into the flour mixture just until the batter is smooth, without over-mixing.
  6. Scrape batter into the pan carefully over the bay leaves. Put the remaining butter in a small zip-top bag and snip off one corner. Pipe the butter in a line down the center of the batter; bake 45 – 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  7. Remove from the oven and cool 10 minutes; run a knife around the edge of the pan, then turn the cake out onto a rack to cool completely. Dust top with powdered sugar.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rack of Lamb

Springtime is finally here and to me, that means more than just daffodils and fresh produce in the farmer's markets. It's also a time for lamb, a meat that I love not just for its taste, but for its profound religious and artistic significance. 
The lamb features importantly in the story of Passover in the Jewish religion, and at Easter in Catholicism. Walk into many churches in Italy, and you'll see exquisite mosaics of Christ as a shepherd, with his flock. This one is in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome.
Lamb is traditionally eaten at Easter time among Italian families, and I love to make a whole grilled leg of lamb when serving a crowd. Unfortunately, most Americans infrequently cook lamb, if at all.
When prepared properly, it's a flavorful meat to serve to family and always is a hit when company comes to call, especially when prepared in this style, which is fork tender and so delicious.
A rack of lamb is an elegant, albeit expensive dish to serve to company, since one serves just two to three people. Two of us had no trouble polishing off this rack of lamb in the photo below. So if you're planning on company, you'll want at least two racks. Make sure they're people you really like, and who really like lamb. 
This roast comes from a half a lamb I bought locally from a friend of a friend who raises a few lambs organically not far from where I live. It wasn't trimmed as well as I wanted, so I "Frenched" it (trimming out the fat to expose the tops of the bones) and cut away almost all traces of fat and the "silver skin" under the fat. )If your butcher can't (or won't) do this, it's not hard to do and is essential. Otherwise, the fat won't melt during the short cooking time and you'll end up biting into a layer of fat, and fighting the toughness of "silver skin" to get through to the meat, which is truly tender.
This rack weighed only 1.7 pounds before trimming, and you can see how much fat I trimmed from the roast. You're bound to trim off some specks of the meat too, but that can't be avoided. Be sure to use a very sharp, thin knife. 
This knife is one of the several treasured ones made by my grandfather for me decades ago, when he would take an industrial file of carbon steel and whittle it down on a spinning stone wheel in the basement, before inserting it into a wooden handle. 
Smear a good amount of Dijon mustard over the front and back of the roast.
Then cover it with the mixture of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and herbs.
Roast it at high heat for ten minutes, then lower the heat and roast for fifteen minutes longer.
After letting the roast rest for 15 minutes, slice between the bones and serve. 
Buona Pasqua.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Rack of Lamb
serves two to three people

1 rack of lamb, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds before trimming (double the recipe for two racks) 
3 cloves minced garlic
3 sprigs rosemary, minced
grated lemon peel from 12 lemon
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 T. grated parmesan cheese
2 T. olive oil
salt, pepper
Dijon mustard to spread on lamb

If the rack of lamb is not already trimmed by your butcher, you will need to do so, by cutting out the fat and bits of meat between the ribs (a process called Frenching) and by trimming away all the visible fat. Most butchers leave some fat on the meat, but this cut of meat is very tender, and the fat doesn't need to be there to tenderize or flavor the meat. Besides, when the roast is covered with mustard and bread crumbs, and spends so little time in the oven, the fat won't melt into the meat, leaving you a layer of unappealing layer of fat when you bite through the bread crumbs into the meat. Beneath the fat you'll find a layer of "silver skin" and it's best to trim this away too.
Make sure you leave the roast at room temperature for an hour (I left it for two) before roasting in the oven. Otherwise, you can't be assured of even cooking. 
After trimming off the fat, sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper, then spread a layer of Dijon mustard all over, top and bottom.
Mix together the garlic, rosemary, lemon peel, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and olive oil. Dab the mixture over all sides of the roast.
Place the roast on a rack in an oven that's been preheated to 450 degrees. Roast for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 300 degrees and roast for 15 minutes more if you like it cooked medium rare (as in the photos). Use a meat thermometer for accuracy - 120-130 degrees for rare (barely cooked inside) 130-140 degrees for medium rare (bright pink to red inside), 140-150 for medium (pale pink inside.) Let the roast rest for 15 minutes. It will continue to cook a bit further and the temperature will rise slightly. 
Slice between the ribs and serve. 

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Grilled Baby Artichokes

According to the calendar, it's the first day of Spring, but it sure still feels like winter outside here in central New Jersey. Patches of snow are scattered across my lawn from the last storm and even more snow is forecast for our region today.
But if Mother Nature isn't cooperating, signs of Spring are abundant at the grocery store - from the first fava beans to these baby artichokes that I couldn't resist.
I've made stuffed artichokes and posted the recipe for them before, as my mother-in-law taught me years ago. But I'd never grilled artichokes the way my blogger buddy Marie does. Until now, that is.
They're a snap to make, but they do need to be boiled first before putting on the grill (or grill pan, in this case.)
Just square off the tops and plunk them into boiling water for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes. Test with a knife and if they offer no resistance, they're done. Drain and cool, then cut in half and scoop out the small choke in the middle.
Drizzle them with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, some minced garlic, parmesan cheese (or Romano) and minced parsley. Toss in a bowl to coat.
 Then place on a grill pan that's heated on high heat and brushed with olive oil.
 After a few minutes, they should have nice grill marks, so flip on the other side and let them heat another few minutes until thoroughly heated through.
 Serve as a side dish, or as a first course, or even as appetizers with drinks. Have a side dish ready for the inedible part of the leaves.  
Join us for a writing retreat in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Grilled Baby Artichokes

Trim the top of the artichokes and boil for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes, until tender. Remove and cool, then cut out the hairy choke in the middle. Place the artichoke halves in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. To the bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, minced garlic, minced parsley and some parmesan cheese (or Romano cheese). Toss everything together and grill on high heat for a few minutes on one side, then flip and grill the second side for a few minutes.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Flounder with Roasted Grapes

Roasted grapes, what took me so long to discover your delights? Fellow bloggers like Stacey, Marie and Domenica have been praising your virtues for a while, and I even posted a recipe years ago from Lidia featuring sausages in the skillet with grapes. Well, maybe I was lagging when it came to roasting grapes myself, but since trying them this past weekend, I've finally come on board.
The natural sweetness of grapes becomes even more intense after a roasting at high temperature in the oven, and adds a jammy, fruity taste to anything you pair it with.
In this case, it was flounder - apropos for a Lenten Friday night's dinner. It's also good for calorie counters too, and there are plenty of us out there. And it's delicious enough to serve to company.
 I had a small piece of fennel in the fridge needing to be used, so I roasted some matchsticks of fennel too, drizzling them with a little olive oil, but leaving the grapes naked. I experimented with them, roasting some in clusters (yes), as individual grapes (yes), and cut in half (no, they burned).

The dish comes together in less than 15 minutes, assuming you've roasted the grapes ahead of time.  
If you're like me, you'll be wondering what took you so long to try this easy and delicious way of using grapes. But now that I've tried them, I''ll be roasting grapes and eating them in dishes at meals any time of day. 
To wit: My new favorite breakfast: lemon-flavored Greek yogurt with roasted grapes and hazelnuts.

Flounder with Roasted Grapes
printable recipe here

two pieces of flounder, about 1 lb. total
2 Tablespoons olive oil
flour, for dusting
salt, pepper
1/2 cup Prosecco, or dry white wine
1 Tablespoon butter
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 Tablespoon thyme leaves
a few clusters of seedless grapes

Roast the grapes in a parchment-lined (or Silpat-lined) cookie sheet in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. I don't add any oil or salt to the pan. Just grapes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Dry the pieces of flounder with a paper towel and dredge with flour on each side. Pat the pieces to remove excess flour. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the olive oil into a skillet and place over high heat. Gently place the pieces of flounder into the hot oil a few minutes until golden on one side. Flip over gently and let it cook on the second side for a couple of minutes on high heat, just enough to brown slightly. Then pour off any excess oil, and pour in the Prosecco or white wine. It should bubble all around the fish and reduce somewhat. Lower the heat, then add the butter and thyme leaves. Pour the lemon juice over the fish, then add the grapes and swish the pan a little to warm the grapes, taking care not to break up the fish pieces. (I also had roasted some fennel pieces with the grapes and added those at this point too). Serve immediately.

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