Thursday, April 28, 2011

South Tyrol, life on a farm (maso)

Do you like the idea of roosters crowing, mountain bells chiming, thick slabs of rich yellow home-churned butter, foamy milk just brought in from the barn, a breakfast of home made cheese, the freshest soft boiled eggs, speck and jam and the most breathtaking mountain views from the window? Then follow me.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

Did you know there is no Easter bunny in Italy (if you exclude South Tyrol, which still has strong ties with German traditions)? There are eggs, lots of them. They are baked whole into the savory torta pasqualina (Easter tart). Almost everybody, young or old, gets a chocolate egg with a hidden surprise on the inside. These eggs come in all chocolate varieties and in several sizes. There are eggs for boys, eggs for girls, fancy eggs from bakeries. Lindt eggs, Ferrero eggs, cartoon theme eggs. But there is no bunny to hide them, no sir. He hops right by Italy.

There are all kinds of other animals instead. Lambs are pleniful, as a main course and in the Sicilian marzipan version. Doves are everywhere in the guise of Colombe Pasquali, acake similar to the traditional Christmas panettone. But no Easter rabbit.

As a half American, half German Easter egg dyeing and hunting are a must. I have to let the Easter Bunny know where we are. To make sure he visits us, I baked a carrot cake, because we all know how much rabbits like carrots. A mom's gotta do what a mom's gotta do, right?

I got the recipe for the cake and the frosting from the Joy of Cooking. It is fool proof and I really mean it. I baked this before rushing out for an evening on the town with F. The recipe said 25-30 minutes. Perfect! The babysitter was on her way up when I pulled the cake out exactly 30 minutes after I put it in. It looked a little wobbly in the center, not a good sign. I tested with a toothpick and it came out clean, so I turned off the oven without second thoughts, certain it would be perfect by the time it cooled off. I was in for a surprise when I discovered in the morning that it had totally sunken in the middle and was undercooked.

I wasn't going to throw away a whole cake, rabbit or not. My only option was to stick it back into the oven. I let it bake for a good 30 more minutes and the center rose, despite leaving a sunken ring and dark edges as a reminder, just to make me feel guilty about the fun I had the night before, when I was too busy downing mojitos to tend to my children cake. While it was cooling I made the frosting, which turned out lucious and creamy. I cut off the slightly burnt edges (thus the crumbs in the frosting on the sides) and slathered it in white goodness. Helloooo Easter Bunny, here we are!

We are off to South Tyrol for Easter to look for the Easter Bunny because, after all this, we forgot to save him piece of the carrot cake. Ooops...

Happy Easter to all of you!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peanut & toasted sesame dressing, design and more awards

Sunday was the last day of the Salone del Mobile, the international design fair, which is a very interesting event indeed, but overcrowded and not a place to go with children and strollers. The atmosphere is totally different at the Fuori Salone, events and locations open to the public all over the town, many of which in the more artsy and emerging areas of the city.

(The pictures were all taken with my cell phone).


In good weather, it is a great way to take a stroll and let the kids run around and wonder at all the colorful and bizzarre creations while parents get an idea of the creative juices flowing outside nurseries and a whiff of their distant life of exhibits, cocktails and designer objects.

It is exciting to discover yet another facet of the place you live, new buildings (finally!) being constructed in abandoned industrial areas and sites of a city that, despite being one of the design capitals of the world, has shown little urbanistic innovation in the past decades. As always, food was present too, in one way or the other.

And since it is spring and we are talking of ideas and creations from all over the world, here is a very simple yet fabulous idea I got from Design, Wine & Dine. It is a peanut sesame dressing you can use on salads or any other kind of vegetable and it is delicious. I think I would like it on just about anything, even my bare fingers.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Paste di Mandorla for zio Filippo

I probably shouldn't call these paste di mandorle because technically they aren't.

But let me start from the beginning.

On Wednesday zio Filippo (F's uncle) passed away. It was in the air, I woke up feeling a little melanchonic. I just didn't have it in me to write anything funny or cutesy. But you know that already if you read my last post. Then, in the evening, we got the sad news from Sicily.

Zio Filippo was no longer a young man and in the past year the C word had entered his life. Despite this, his death took us by surprise. It is not that long ago that I remember him working his piece of land, telling us about the many fruits his plants were bearing, the plants he tended to with great love and care. He loved food and cooking and often sent us things he had picked, prepared with his own hands or delicacies he had discovered in the surrounding area. He loved to read, he loved theater and music. I have fond memories of him singing a beautiful aria one evening shortly after our wedding. That night food was plenty, wine was flowing in copious amounts and by the end of the evening both my relatives and F's had taken turns singing and reciting poems and not an eye was dry. It was beautiful, a memory I will always cherish.

But the thing zio Filippo loved above all, after his family of course, was his island, so ruggedly beautiful, so rich in history and art, so misunderstood and plagued by the corruption of few.

My in-laws were already on their way to Sicily when the news came and attended the funeral yesterday for all of us. F lit a candle in church and I left the office a little early to make these sweets for him. While his grandson, the one named after him and who is following in his footsteps pursuing a military career, was reading a letter about him to a crowd in Trapani and F was lighting the wick, I was mixing the ingredients, the essence of Sicily. Whilst grinding the almonds I started thinking of the beauty of the blooming trees, while I was zesting the lemon I thought of the island's clear waters, the crisp blue sky, the winds from Africa. I thought of zio Filippo, his bushy eyebrows, his family, the many children and grandchildren he left behind. I thought that he had done good, that he had had a full rich life, no regrets. I thought of his wife, zia Lina, of the first time I saw her making paste di mandorle in my mother in law's kitchen and of how hard it must be for her. They were married for more than half a century.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I realized too late that I had skipped an important step. I forgot to beat the egg whites. I just mixed them in! I baked the cookies anyway, determined to make these in Filippo's memory and honor. I'm glad I did, because they turned out delicious anyway. They were chewy and full of flavor. Perhaps they didn't rise as much and they were chewy and soft instead of being slighty cakeu and moist, but every bite was still a bite of Sicily.

Per te, zio Filippo.

I got the recipe from Manu's Menu.
This is a vegetarian recipe, it uses up those left over egg whites in your freezer, it has just four ingredients and it is gluten free. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mediterranean stuffed green peppers & amazing women

I have to admit I am a little uninspired these days when it comes to cooking and writing. I am sort of missing the umph, I am distracted. There are things on my mind.

It is hard to write about the superficial, the mundane when my very close friend was readmitted to the hospital on Monday for his second bone marrow transplant. His wife, also a dear friend, is a blogger. She has the gift of expressing the ups and downs of battling leukemia as the mother of two young children with such simplicity, honesty and irony that she leaves me at a loss for words.

My thoughts the past weeks have also constantly been fleeting across the ocean to Monet, a fellow food blogger that I do not know personally. We are not really friends, we have only ever exchanged a few words, but I cannot stop thinking of her, her family and their loss. She writes beautifully and her words have deeply touched my heart and soul.

My words ring empty  when I read what these amazing women have to say. What may be therapeutic to them, their writing, is a lesson to all of us. They teach us strength, compassion and an intense love for life, a true eye opener to those of us caught up in the minutiae of our daily routine. As Moomser puts it, life is simply what is is, so we have to live every moment fully and create memories that will help us through hardship. And while doing this, Monet reminds us to bestow kindness on the strangers we will encounter today, because they could be walking down a dark road. If you see someone falter, don't honk at them, don't be aggressive. Try to be a little more patient, because you don't know what they are experiencing inside.

So today, I will step aside, and let them do the talking.

Below, the simplest of vegetables with an unexpected, complex filling.

This is not a typically Mediterranean recipe, or at least not that I know of. I called it Mediterranean because each and every ingredient used is so typically representative of this area. In every bite you will taste the saltiness from the anchovies, the creaminess of the feta perfectly balancing out the acidity and fruitiness of the sundried tomatoes and capers.

I admit I used a short cut when I made these. A while back I had bought this Sicilian paste that I didn't want to use on crostini or with pasta as suggested. It is 100% natural and thus easy to make at home in a food processor or blender. I am not giving amounts as they depend on your personal taste and on how many peppers you will be using.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lime tart and Milan's hidden corners

Summer arrived a few months early. During the week end temperatures reached 33°C, and I saw a thermometer in the sun that read 39°C! This is not natural, not even in the Mediterranean. So we spent most of our week end outdoors, picnicking in the park, taking walks and basking in the beautiful sunshine.

Milan, not always considered a gem among the many beautiful Italian towns, is called the city of hidden gardens, terraces and courtyards.

Here are a few corners off the beaten track (for tourists at least).

The Idroscalo was originally built for hydroplanes in the Twenties. It is now a recreational area for the city of Milan.

We also went to Villa Necchi Campiglio. Did any of you see the movie "I am Love" starring Tilda Swinton (2009)? The villa, which was said to be the real star of the movie, was built in the Thirties and is an example of Italian proto-modernist architecture, with stunning interiors, that also boasts an imposing art collection. Access to the gardens is free and it is a nice place to sit and read a newspaper while sipping a cappucino or enjoying lunch at the café by the tennis court.

The Necchis didn't have it bad, with a private garden, tennis court and swimming pool right in the center of Milan. 

Discrete garbage can
Villa Necchi Campiglio
via Mozart, 14
tel. 02.76340121

And did you know that just a few steps away, there are flamingos year-round in the garden of Villa Invernizzi? Whenever we walk by, my kids love to press their noses agains the gates and look at them.

On Saturday we went to a friends' house for a housewarming party. Inspired by the almost florescent green leaves exploding even in the most grey corners of this city, I decided to make a lime tart. Out came my Joy of Cooking, my already open pack of Digestive cookies and that bag of limes that had been patiently sitting in my fridge waiting for my attention. I had two cans of condensed milk in my cupboard from another dessert I made a while back. I was set to go. Isn't it the best feeling when you make a great dessert using things you already have? I just love it.

Notes to self: do not bake a cake that involves whipped cream at the height of summer (or in the first decade of April, like I could've known...). The whipped cream started melting while I was taking pictures.