Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Tasting That Couldn't

Chocolate Pavé with Cardamom Ice Cream and Candied Kumquats
ipe below)

I started to feel intense aversion for the interviewing process a while ago (or is loathing too big of a word?) when I realized that my strong desire to work at a certain restaurant didn't correlate with their perception of my skills. I recently had yet another interview followed by an invitation to bring a tasting of two desserts, a chocolate and a fruit one. I couldn't decide what to bring so I finally settled on four desserts. The chocolate pavé is one of my favorite chocolate cakes, I discovered it about five years ago when I bought Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz, and to this day I never get tired of it. Because the chocolate flavor is so predominant I highly recommend using a high quality chocolate. I normally make it with Scharffen-Berger, my absolute favorite.
Note that I am having a hard time taking pictures of plated desserts, I haven't found the right spot and the ice cream kept melting before I even had time to take enough pictures. Who said that taking pictures of food is easy. The experimenting continues....

Apple Galette with Frangipane Filling Served with Cinnamon Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce

Ginger Créme Brulée with Ginger Snaps and Raspberries

Plate of Assorted Cookies*

Needless to say I didn't get the job. Apparently everything tasted good but it wasn't exactly what they were looking for. I could elaborate more but what's the point? I want to share recipes, so here they are.

Chocolate Pavé
adapted from "Room for Dessert"

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (62%)
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate (99%)
1/2 pound (8 oz.) butter
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 plus 1/2 cup of sugar

Melt the butter and the chocolate in a double boiler. Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks with half the sugar until foamy, and fold in the melted chocolate and butter. In the meantime, whip the whites with the other half of the sugar until medium peak form (DO NOT over mix the whites otherwise the cake will turn thin and very wet). Fold the whites carefully into the chocolate-egg mixture. Pour onto a well buttered and paper-lined cake pan (at least 9" if not 10" in diameter). Bake at 350 until done (the center should be firm). The cake suffles and it will start shrinking as soon as it starts cooling. To avoid cracking of the margins, push the edges in as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Cardamom Ice Cream
adapted from Blue Ginger

1 cup of milk
2 cups of heavy whipping cream
3/4 sugar
6 cardamom pods, crashed
pinch of salt
5 yolks

Scald the milk and the cream with the sugar and steep with the cardamom for an hour. After an hour re-heat the milk to scalding point and slowly add to the yolk to temper (if the milk and cream are at the boiling point there is no need to custard the yolks, they will cook with the heat of the milk and cream). Strain the custard and chill immediately. Churn into ice cream according to your ice cream maker.

* checkerboard sablées, almond cocoa nib sticks, korova cookies, ginger snaps, and pecan shortbread cookies

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

All Things Venetian

Carnival in modern-day Venice wasn't a big deal until the late 70's, early 80's, it was a private affair, mostly children in costumes, confetti and not much more. Then the city decided to market it to attract people to visit the city in one of the slowest months, February. I remember the first year we got invaded by hoards of people, the streets became unmanageable and I almost got thrown off a bridge (I kid you not). I guess Venice was experiencing a hard time financially and with the resurgence of Carnival the municipality was hoping to bring money in, but didn't prepare for the number of people that came within 2-3 days. The first few years were fun, I was in my early tweens and I remember fondly the enthusiasm we felt with all the fun activities and the music everywhere. Every little campo (square) had some sort of event going on, it was great. The novelty wore off eventually, due in part to the drunks tossing bottles everywhere, the acts of vandalism, and the amazing amount of trash left behind. I was left with a bad aftertaste, and felt that Venice was been violated, that all people cared about was cheap and fast entertainment, and nobody really understood this ancient city. Every year Venetians can't wait for the Carnival to be over so they can get they city back, I wonder whether they feel the same in New Orleans. The history of carnival is so rich, we have many characters that originated from Venice, many depicted in la commedia dell'arte, Carlo Goldoni being our most famous writer. I wish people took time to really learn what Carnival is about, and respect this beautiful place I still call home.

There are many things we eat during Carnival, fritoe or frittelle being my favorite and most loved by all children. I am not sure they were the culprit but when I was around ten years old I remember waking up covered in itchy red spots after having consumed a ridiculous amount of frittelle the day before (an early sign of my lack of control when it comes to good food). There are many recipes for these little fritters, I like the basic recipe better, made with yeast, water and flour. Typically frittelle in Venice are made with raisins, I like to add pine-nuts as well.

Venetian Fritters
Fritelle alla Veneziana

500 grams all purpose flour (1# 1oz)
15 grams dry active yeast (.5 oz)
4 tablespoons sugar
200 grams raisins (7 oz)
100 grams pinenuts (3.5 oz)
pinch of salt
2 cups warm water
zest one orange

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, add half of the flour and let rest for few minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until just combined, the dough should be very wet and slightly thicker than a waffle batter. Let rest for 3 hours. Fry by dropping spoonfuls in hot vegetable oil (set at 380), drain, and dust with powder sugar. Eat fresh as they turn stale after few hours.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pretty in Pink

Blood Orange Marmalade

I didn't realize how much my father influenced my taste until I started cooking for myself. He was and still is an amazing cook, able to create dish after dish close to perfection. Growing up with such a talented and passionate mentor taught me amazing lessons on taste and simplicity. His mother grew up in a poor Venetian household during WW I and II and her cooking was highly influenced by those scarce times when every part of the animal was used. Periodically my father brought home some unpopular items like bull testicles or cow's brain (I kid you not!), but most often he was drizzling balsamic vinegar on strawberries or making the most amazing risottos using local plants like hops or nettles. He introduced me to the richness of bittersweet chocolate or taught me that the best way to eat fish is by simply grilling it with no other ingredient than some good olive oil. When he made green tomato jam I thought he was insane, but now I realize he was ahead of his time. He also introduced me to the amazing taste of orange marmalade, sweet bitterness. So when I recently went to the farmers' market I brought home 4 pounds of Seville oranges and some blood oranges. I initially set out to make Seville orange marmalade but to my dismay I burned it by setting the flame on high by mistake. I hadn't planned to use the blood oranges other than for juice but I decided to turn them into marmalade instead.

When I fist moved to the States blood oranges were a rare find and very costly, and I remember the looks of surprise and the questions that followed when I would bring them to work for lunch. Now they are readily available and luckily they cost the same as other oranges. According to this book, blood oranges originated from a single mutation in 17th century Sicily. In Italy they are very common but in the States it took some years for the imported tree to finally start bearing full crops, now we can all enjoy them.

My mom used to make jams when I was little, but after moving to the States I hadn't made many. It wasn't until few years ago when I met a lovely German woman that I was hooked into making jams again. She brought some of her preserves to a restaurant where I used to work and I was blown away, they were so good. She put vanilla beans in them and I have used the beans in most of my preserves since then.

I am by no means an expert at making preserves, and I keep experimenting and learning about natural pectin in fruit and so forth. My orange marmalade was made following no recipe, adding sugar to taste (some oranges are sweeter than others so I always start with less sugar than I think I need), and cooking it to the right consistency. It came out so good I ate a ton yesterday, spread over left over walnut bread.

Blood Orange Marmalade

4 pounds organic oranges
2 pounds granulated sugar (or more depending on taste)
2 vanilla beans, split in half and seeds scraped.

Wash the oranges, cut them in slices and remove the seeds. Cut in smaller pieces, depending on how chunky you want it. Add some water and the sugar to make a soupy, not too watery, mixture. Cook on low until it thickens. To check to see whether the sugar has reached the right jellying consistency put a teaspoon of marmalade in the fridge for few minutes. Keep cooking if too "loose". Fill clean jar while the marmalade is still hot. Let cool at room temperature and then sterilize the jars by boiling for 10 minutes. This double boiling method was taught to me by my mom and it works to kill every bacteria, even botulinum's spores.

Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bread Baking Babes

One of my favorite bloggers, Ilva of Lucullian delights, inspired me to bake this month BBB's choice, a five-grain bread with walnuts. As a professional baker, I know how important it is to be part of a community of bakers to learn from one another, and I consider myself very lucky to belong to the Bay Area's Baker's Dozen group. I decided that the BBB would be a nice group to to be part of as well (I like the parallel with Ilva too, she lives in Italy but is from the Sweden, I live in the States but am Italian). With this in mind I considered a sign that I own a copy of The Italian Baker by Carol Field, and when I went to measure the ingredients I saw another sign when I realized that I had exactly 300 grams of walnuts like the recipe asks for. I am not sure how I should have interpreted the sign of a ruined recipe by spilled coffee while I was taking pictures, maybe as a hint against sloppiness?

Tanna is the kitchen of the month, and chose the bread, an interesting five-grain bread with walnuts.

Without farther ado, here is my Pane ai Cinque Cereali con Noci story.

Since the coffee spill ruined Tanna's instruction I decided to use the book's version following it step by step, or close (see below). Since I realized I had barely enough dry active yeast for only half the recipe I scaled it down. My yeast had been in the fridge but it was past its expiration date so I made a sponge with 1/8 cup of water, 1 1/2 tsp of dry active yeast, a pinch of sugar and 1/4 cup of the flour mixture to get it going. I let the sponge activate nicely for half an hour and made more coffee. When the sponge showed signs of life I added the rest of the water, the flour-nut mixture and mixed everything in my kitchen aid mixer. After one minute I realized that the dough looked scarily wet so I checked the recipe again and discovered that I had forgotten the a/p flour and I quickly blamed the lack of caffeine (see above). I added the missing flour and let me mixer do its job. I had to add a little bit more flour, just enough to get the dough to gather around the hook.

I then used a method I was taught by my bread mentor to develop more gluten in the dough, the stretch method. I let the dough rest 5 minutes then I stretched and folded it like a letter. I did this once more and then let the dough double in size, which it did very nicely, but it took more than an hour, close to two.

I shaped 600 grams of the dough into two mini loaves and the rest was shaped in min-rolls.

I kind of rushed the raising because I needed to get out of the house and that was a mistake, the bread wasn't ready when I baked it.

In all it was a nice recipe and it tasted very good, especially with some freshly made blood orange marmalade. It is a dense bread with a nice flavor. I would add more salt to the dough, make it wetter next time, and try to let it raise more. What surprised me was the color of the crust, it looks rather dull, not much caramelization. It a keeper.

Pane ai Cinque Cereali con Noci
Five-Grain Bread with Walnuts
adapted from Carol Field

Makes 2 9 X 5-inch loaves
1 1/4cups (300 grams) walnut pieces
3 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast or 1 1/2 small cakes (27 grams) fresh
1/4 cup warm water
3 cups water, room temperature
3 3/4 cups (500 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups (125 grams) oat flour or finely ground rolled oats
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (125 grams) rye flour
1 cup less 1 tablespoon (125 grams) whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup (125 grams) brown rice flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (20 grams) salt

Toast the walnuts for 10 minutes in a 400° F oven; then chop in a food processor fitted with the steel blade or with a sharp knife to the size of a fat rice kernel. Do not grind them finely.
Stir the yeast into the warm water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 3 cups water. Mix the walnuts, flours, and salt and stir 2 cups at a time into the dissolved yeast, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. The dough should come together easily. Knead on a floured surface, sprinkling with additional all-purpose flour as needed, until firm, elastic, and no longer sticky, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir the yeast into the warm water in a mixer bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 3 cups water. Stir in the flours, walnuts, and salt with the paddle. Mix until the dough comes together. Change to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 4 minutes at medium speed until firm and elastic but still slightly sticky. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a surface floured with all-purpose flour.
Make sure your food processor can handle the volume of this dough. Even when done in 2 batches, there will be 4 cups flour to be processed. Stir the yeast into the warm water in a small bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Place the flours and salt in a food processor fitted with the dough blade and process with several pulses to sift. With the machine running, pour the dissolved yeast and 3 cups cold water through the feed tube as quickly as the flours can absorb it; process until the dough gathers into a ball. Process 40 seconds longer to knead. Knead in the walnuts by hand on a surface floured with all-purpose flour.

First Rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Shaping and Second Rise. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. The dough should be moist, firm, and noticeably elastic, if slightly sticky. Cut the dough in half and shape each half into an oval loaf to fit a loaf pan. Place the loaves in the oiled pans (preferably glass), cover with a heavy towel, and let rise until truly doubled and fully above the tops of the pans, 1 to 1 ¼ hours.
Baking. Heat oven to 400° F. Slash a pattern in the top of the loaves. One baker in Milan cuts the shape of a stalk of grain on the top; elsewhere bakers make 3 parallel slashes. Bake 40 to 45 minutes; bake the last 5 to 10 minutes out of the pans on a baking stone or baking sheet to brown the bottoms and sides. Cool completely on a rack.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Nettle Ravioli

I love the taste of fresh pasta. In fact it tastes so good that it only needs some good EVOO (extravergin olive oil), some butter and lots of parmesan cheese. Ever since buying the kitchen aid pasta attachment I have been making pasta often.

Pasta is easy to make and there are plenty of recipes. I make it eyeballing the ingredients, half a/p flour, half semolina, eggs, EVOO, and salt. If it is too dry I add an egg, if too wet I add some flour. Pasta needs to rest before you roll it, to let the gluten relax and to allow the moisture to be distributed.

It all starts with simple ingredients,

then it is resting time,

followed by shaping.

The filling is also simple.

Buon Appetito!

If there are some dough left over you can roll it up and cut it like tagliatelle.

Semolina Pasta

3 ounces semolina flour
3 ounces all purpose flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon extravergin olive oil
pinch salt

Mix all the ingredients and knead until smooth. Let rest at room temperature for half an hour. Either roll as thin as possible by hand or use a pasta machine. I used my kitchen aid pasta attachment and went to setting 6. Keep the pasta ribbons covered to avoid drying.

Nettle Filling

1/2 pound nettles
1 medium shallots
homemade ricotta cheese
1 egg
pinch of salt
zest of one lemon

Sauté the shallots in EVOO, then add the nettles and cook until wilted. Chop cooked nettles then mix the rest of the ingredients until well blended.

Homemade Ricotta

2 quarts whole milk
2 cups buttermilk

Heat the milk and the buttermilk to 170F. Let stand at room temperature for one hour then strain it through cheese cloth. Keep it refrigerated until ready to use.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A cookie is a cookie is a cookie?

Since Dorie Greenspan participated in a debate with Sara Dickerm and David Lebovitz, I have been intrigued to define what a "delicious cookie" is for me, or better, how I would answer her questions: "What defines a cookie for you? What does the perfect cookie look like? What size is it? What's its texture? What makes a cookie American?"

I am skipping on the last question and leave Americans to answer.

I have three criteria for a cookie to make it into my file of permanent recipes, execution, look, and taste. As a trained pastry chef, I can say that I can tackle almost every recipe I find, but a cookie that has too many steps will not make it unless it has a relatively easy recipe, is beautiful to look at AND tastes excellent. Checkerboard cookies are an example of a cookie with many steps, but it starts with an easy sablée recipe and not only results in beautiful cookies but the taste wins all three criteria.

"Size matters" said a character on Seinfeld, so for me a cookies has to be one or two bites. top. I normally make the cookies much smaller than the recipe calls for. Because I TRY to watch my sugar intake, a cookie has to be super tasty, not too sweet, and small so if I like it I can indulge.

Another big factor, but not a critical one, is the freezing potential of a cookie, as I love to double a recipe and keep some dough in the freezer to bake on a whim. Currently I have three cookie doughs in the freezer which tickled some women's taste buds happy on Tuesday when they sampled them at a neighborhood meeting.

Last but not least is the texture, crunchy usually wins in my world of cookies.

Here are the three stars of Tuesday night and a wish of a:

Happy Valentine's Day

From left to right: Almond Sticks with Cocoa Nibs by Alice Medrich, Korova Cookies by Dorie Greenspan (aka World Peace Cookies), and Ginger Snaps (recipe courtesy of Chez Panisse Restaurant). All three recipes are easy to make and freeze, look beautiful AND taste excellent.

Almond Sticks with Cocoa Nibs
Adapted from Bittersweet

3/4 cup whole almonds
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 ounces unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
¼ cup cocoa nibs

Combine the almonds, flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor, and pulse until the almonds are reduced to a fine meal. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like a mass of crumbs. Combine the water, vanilla, and almond extract, drizzle them into the processor bowl, and pulse just until the dough looks damp. Add the cocoa nibs and pulse only until evenly dispersed.

The dough will not form a smooth cohesive mass-it will be crumbly but it will come together as you press it into a 6-by 9-inch rectangle, about ½ inch thick. Wrap tight and freeze.

When ready to bake preheat the oven to 325F. Cut the dough into 3/8 inch slices and transfer onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until golden brown, approximately 12-15 minutes, rotating the pan half way during baking. Cool completely and store in a airtight container.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thyme Aplenty

Here are few examples of thyme varieties. They all have a scent but some are more fragrant than other, and some are just plain gorgeous with their variegates leaves.

Variegated thyme, decorative.

Plain "old" culinary thyme, already blooming in January!

Decorative groundcover thyme, not very fragrant, super tiny leaves.

This is absolutely my favorite, Lemon Thyme, not only it is a super pretty plant with its yellowish hue, but it can be used for its delicate lemony scent. I use it to flavor custards like pannacotta, creme brulée, ice cream bases, you name it. Did I mention that it is my favorite?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Candied Kumquats

I couldn't resist these beautiful "citrus gems" so I decided to buy some. I did candy them and will use them in a chocolate dessert I am making for my second interview at a local restaurant. According to this book kumquat means "gold orange" in a Chinese dialect, and indeed they look like little oranges.

When I did a pastry internship at the restaurant Chez Panisse I learned a simple recipe to candy this dainty fruit which I had never used before. Because kumquats have a relatively thin pith they don't need to be blanched before being candied, making the process really fast. The only annoying part is the removal of the seeds, as kumquats are really seedy.

Candied Kumquats


Slice the kumquats thinly and remove all the seeds and the little stems.
Bring equal parts of sugar and water to a boil to make a simple syrup (i.e. 1 cup of water to 1 cup of sugar).
Add the sliced kumquats to the warm syrup and simmer covered with parchment paper until the fruit is translucent (10-15 minutes). Cool down and store airtight in the refrigerator. The kumquats covered in syrup keep for weeks.


Another early bloomer which is also very hardy. In Italy we call it "Bucaneve" which literally translates as "snowpoker" as the flowers poke through before the snow melts. Another gorgeous plant indeed.


These beautiful plants are in full bloom in my garden now, in fact they are always the first plants to bloom and their acid green color is just spectacular. I have collected few varieties during the years because of their hardiness and beauty.
I have a variegated sample, some purple ones, miniature ones and some that are just giants.
After bloom the inflorescence lasts many months because what we perceive as petals are actually modified leaves and they live a long time. The actual flowers are indeed very tiny.


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