Monday, May 30, 2011

Rustic polenta cookies

I love colorful macarons filled with tasty rich buttercream, chewy chocolate chip cookies studded with nuts and buttery shortbread just as much as the next person. Sometimes however, I want something more simple, more wholesome. A cookie that is not too rich or too sweet, something a little old fashioned, rustic, that I can enjoy with my morning coffee. The kind of hard cookie that softens perfectly when you dunk it into a glass of cold milk without crumbling.

I am a sucker for anything with cornflour/meal in it. I like corn muffins, cakes and cookies, especially when they have an unrefined, almost gritty texture. A friend bought some at a farmer's market a few weeks ago that were perfect: not too sweet, not too delicate, just buttery enough. I was set on replicating them in my kitchen.

When I started hunting for recipes, most of them called for more regular flour than cornflour/meal, but I wanted the latter to really shine through. Then I finally found one that had a higher cornflour/meal content. I tweeked it a little, increasing the minimal amount of butter suggested and using polenta (which is supposedly not ground as finely). Next time I will also cut the sugar, because the cookies were a touch sweet for my taste, but besides that they turned out just right, as Goldilocks would say.

200gr polenta
120gr flour
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp vanilla extract
130gr sugar (next time I will use less!)
90gr butter
1 egg

Melt the butter and let cool. Whisk the egg with the sugar and butter until smooth and then add in the polenta and the regular flour (after sifting it with the baking powder). Kneed the dough and let rest in the fridge for a half hour and then roll it out between two sheets of baking paper. I found the kneeding a little tricky because I couldn't get the dough to stick together. The recipe I found in a forum called for half the amount of butter but the dough was much too "sandy" to stick so I doubled it. Use a shot glass (like I did) or a cookie cutter, cut out the cookies, lay them on a baking sheet and bake for approximately 10 minutes in a 360°F/180°C preheated oven.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Make your own vanilla extract

Shhhhhh...we have to keep our voices down, let's whisper.

My baby is sleeping, in a cool, dark place.

I bathed him with great tenderness, soaking him while humming quietly, a smile on my face. He smelled so sweet (don't they always?), I almost couldn't close the door and leave. All I have to do now is check on him every once in while to make sure everything is ok, perhaps give him a little shake. And wait patiently until he is ready.

It has been a week already, only about 7 more to go.

I did it, I finally made my own vanilla extract, and now that I did it, I am wondering why I waited so long. It is so basic, so quick and easy that the idea of going out to buy it seems ridiculous now.
Ok, so it isn't ready yet and I probably shouldn't boast, but when you follow this girl's  directions you can't really go wrong, can you?

So, while some people make their own because they want to use their truly exceptional vanilla beans instead of the sometimes mediocre quality of store bought extract, for me it was more a matter of convenience. That dark nectar is pretty hard to find here and the little glass bottle I brought back from the States at the beginning of the year is long gone. 

All you need is a mason jar or even a plain old jam or mustard jar, a bottle of liquor with about 40% alcohol and of course vanilla beans. This 'recipe' does not include sugar because honestly, a teaspoon of extract with or without it will not noticeably change the level of sweetness of what you are baking. The best part is that this baby is pretty low maintenance: you just top the jar off when needed with a little extra booze. Last but not least, it makes a great gift, that is if you are organized enough to start prepping a few months ahead.

Although vodka is more commonly used to make extract because it is flavorless, Clotilde suggests using rum. And who can resist the heavenly combination of vanilla and rum? I can't, so that is what I used.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Poached chicken "à la menthe"

I had a lovely bowl of freshly made mayonnaise sitting in my fridge.

But let me go back a few steps. On the week end temperatures rose to above 30°C. If you ask me, it was my daughter who brought the beautiful sunshine with her smile on Friday evening. The minute I saw her again after almost a week it was summer in my heart. Most people in Milan would however probably disagree, blaming winds from Africa or something of the sort.

Whatever the reason, in this heat all you feel like eating are cool, refreshing platters of salad and fruit washed down with large glasses of ice cold beer.  

Back to my husband's emulsion of olive oil and egg yolks. Now that I had the mayo I could make a recipe I saw a few days ago on Manu's Menu and just couldn't get out of my mind. I am glad I didn't. It is so delicate and refreshing and so light despite the mayonnaise, that we have decided this will become a staple summer dish. It is great to make for a summer lunch with friends, a picnic or a pool party because it should be made a day in advance. But please remember, especially if you are making you own mayonnaise, to keep it in the fridge or in a cool place until just before serving.

If you have leftovers, no question. This will make a killer chicken salad sandwich.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My husband's homemade mayonnaise

You know how you fall into a routine at home, in which each person is in charge of certain chores? The good old adage of the trash being the man's job and the laundry being a woman's job?

At our house we are pretty interchangeable. We both work and have busy schedules so we take turns cleaning up the dinner dishes, preparing the children for bed and doing laundry. We even take turns with the trash. I consider myself very lucky as Italian men go, my husband is very helpful and an extremely hands on father. Also, we are thankful for every cent we spend on outside help for cleaning and ironing because the memory of past arguments about floor washing and ironing still lingers.

There are however a few things that definitely fall into the "his" and "her" category.

F does all those things involving the car and technology, from computers to TV. He has basement and insect duty. I on the other hand, like most women out there, am the mastermind of the household, ensuring that the wheels keep turning and that its components survive. I also take care of minutiae involving closets, linens, the kids' clothes, nail cutting. And I cook. You may have noticed that.

I love cooking and all the planning and organizing it involves does not bother me in the least. Also, F is the kind of guy who likes pretty much everything I make and has never complained about any of the meals I have prepared, even the ones that went terribly wrong. Believe me, he has had his share. He never points out he was in the mood for one thing rather than the other, something I am sure I would do contantly if I didn't have control over the menu.

F comes from a family who loves food and he grew up eating exceptionally well. When we first started dating he used always talk about a Dijon chicken recipe he made. One night he invited me over to his place and made it and it was delicious. He was also the one in charge of Spaghetti alla Carbonara and all'Amatriciana (guy dishes, the Italian equivalent of a BBQ and burgers, because they involve ingredients like bacon, eggs and onions) in the old days and did a very good job at that too. Then, somewhere along the line, he stopped and never started again.

Oh wait, I forgot about the rabbit interlude about ten years ago. I had started a yoga course that I went to directly from my office on Thursday evenings. I used to get home after 9pm so F was officially in charge of dinner. The first time I walked into the door (with parts of my body hurting that I didn't even know existed), I was pleasantly surprised by the lovely aroma of roasted meat. I took my seat at the table and out came F with an amazing platter of Coniglio alla Toscana, roast rabbit with olives and herbs and baby potatoes. It was delicious and I complimented him all the way through dinner. He proudly told me he had called his mother and asked for directions. I went to bed feeling fuzzy and warm, spoiled and lucky. When he served the same meal the following Thursday I still thought it was excellent but by the fourth Thursday in a row I realized this would no longer be remembered as Yoga Night but as Rabbit Night.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. We were having lunch at friends' and as always in Italy, the conversation revolved around food. They were telling us that they had given up trying to make homemade mayonnaise because it always turned on them. Enter F, instructing them on how to make the perfect mayonnaise.

"Wait, what?"  I thought to myself. "Since when do you make mayonnaise?? Sure, I have heard about your famous mayonnaise numerous times, but in the 17 years we have been together I have never, ever seen you make it. Not once." Which I of course told our friends immediately. A whole wine-fuelled conversation started, filled with lots of laughter, about mayonnaise. It ended with me recording F on my iphone in front of witnesses promising he would make mayonnaise.

Yesteday was the day. The planets were perfectly aligned: my daughter was watching a movie, my son was unbelievably playing alone in his room and I had decided to make a recipe I will be posting about next time. I realized I had no mayonnaise in the house. I looked at Franco questioningly and he knew his time had come. So my man sat down at the kitchen table and whipped up the best darn mayo I have had in a long time. With cold eggs (every recipe insists they must be room temperature) and a wooden spoon (despite my insistence that he use a whisk or an electric beater to make it easier). In. Five. Minutes. There are pictures to prove it.  I always knew I married the right guy. I also know that he will be getting cooking duty more often now.

3 egg yolks
about 1 cup oil
half a lemon
salt to taste

The risk of making mayonnaise is that it can turn on you, meaning the emulsion can separate back into the individual ingredients. The idea is to use all ingredients at room temperature and to pour the oil in a few drops at a time, especially at the beginning. If you want a ligher tasting mayonnaise use a lighter oil. We used extra virgin Tuscan olive oil from our olives and it turned out delicious but strong and with a very yellow hue. Second, make sure you only use the freshest eggs (because they will be consumend raw) and that you keep the mayonnaise refrigerated.
To make the mayonnaise, F briefly mixed the egg yolks and then started pouring in the oil with a very weak but steady flow whilst constantly turning. When the emulsion was ready he added in a good squeeze of lemon and salt to taste.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Beer (spring) chicken

My spring cleaning started a little late this year. To be honest, these days I just don't have the time for a real, full-on spring cleaning. What is more likely to happen is I will walk into a room and open a drawer or a cabinet and realize it is a mess. I will tackle that one corner and suddenly be hit by a cleaning frenzy that will persist until I have pretty much gone through the whole room, seaking out hidden spots or black holes (yes, those places in which all the useless crap you have lying around your apartment tends to accumulate). That is exactly what happened the other day when I opened one of my son's drawers: a folding attack ensued followed by my realising that a sorting was long overdue (you know it is time when your 2-yr old still has baby socks and a few 6-12-month tshirts lying around in there).

It also happened in the kitchen recently, when I decided to organize my overflowing cupboards. I got rid of the expired stuff (ouch!), separated cans of tuna from jams and honey, reuniting them with their long-lost friends the anchovies and capers. As I was color-coordinating my sugar in hues of white, beiges and darker browns I noticed a bottle of beer I didn't remember buying. I pulled it down from the rack and realized it was alcohol free beer. What the...? Then it hit me, I had bought that beer when I was pregnant (if you know how long ago that was, you were really attentive while reading the first paragraph) and since I am not planning another pregnancy any time soon (to say the least) I started thinking of how to get rid of it.

Throw it out? No way.
Give it to my newly-married girlfriend? Er, a touch patronizing and very cheap.
Drink it? No thank you, I've had my share of alcohol free drinks and babies.
Cook with it? Possibly.

I googled the word beer and chicken together and up came about a hundred recipes for 'beer can chicken'. Who knew that was a trend? And what do you do if you have a bottle and no BBQ? I kept searching (not that I won't consider the beer can thing, now that I discovered with further research you can do it with an oven roasted chicken too), remembering my sister-in-law makes chicken with beer. I typed in the words "birra+pollo" (Italian for beer+chicken) and up came a few interesting recipes that did not involve stuffing tin up the derrier of fowl. I guess Italian men haven't picked up on that testosterone-laden trend yet. When reading through a few of those recipes, what I did notice was that some people complained in their comments that the sauce turned out more or less bitter. The general response was to use very light beer, no stout.

Out came my chicken thighs and herbs. In less than a half hour we had some tasty, extremely tender chicken for dinner. Was it bitter? Yes, a little, despite using an extremely light beer. The chicken however was not. Also, if I remember correctly, alcohol free beer always tasted a little bitter to me. But if anyone has other suggestions on how to get rid of the bitter aftertaste, I am happy to hear them. Next time I plan to keep the sauce a little saucier and to have some crusty bread on hand. Because there will be a next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spaghetti with clams and roasted fennel* - for my munchkin

Dear Munchkin,
yesterday you climbed onto a doubledecker bus with a big toothless smile and drove away.
Five years ago you were barely a baby and now you are hundreds of kilometers away with your friends, laughing and playing and chatting a mile a minute.
When I got back from the office, I came across the pink mug with your name on it, the one you use to drink your milk at breakfast. I picked it up and held it in my hands and felt my chest tighten a bit. It is normally so easy to just reach out and touch you, but now all I can do is caress its smooth surface.
Don't worry, I am not sad, I know you are in good hands and that you are having the time of your life. A few days ago, when I was kissing you good night and I told you I would miss you, you took my face in your hands and said: "don't worry Mommy, I will only be gone five days and then it will be the week end and we will have two whole days together". When did you grow up and become so wise?

How are you suddenly old enough to leave with your own suitcase that holds 6 plastic bags, one for each day, with your name on it and a full change of clothes (including your cupcake underwear) and an extra bag for disco night, with a fancy dress and tights in it? 
Your brother didn't really seem to notice you were gone and got extra cuddles and attention, but the apartment seems quiet. While I was brushing his teeth I wondered whether you were brushing yours alone or if your teacher was helping you. While I was changing his diaper I glanced over at your bed. It was intact, each and every pillow in the right place. I felt that pang again. That is when the little one seemed to finally catch on. He walked over to your bed and tried to climb onto it, repeating your name over and over. He had a hard time falling asleep, there were a lot of tears. It was the fifth time in his life he was sleeping without you (and the first three he was in the hospital with me and barely knew you - or me - yet).

Did you sleep well my love? Were you homesick? Today I am calling you at 2:00pm. The teachers thought it best not to call the first day, so you could get settled. They strategically picked the afternoon so you little guys would be distracted by all the planned activities after speaking to us.

What are you doing this morning? Are you hiking up the mountain with the secret map? Are you playing on the shores of the lake? Or are you taking that boatride you were so excited about?

Whatever you are doing my love, have fun. Laugh until your tummy hurts, run until your cheeks turn pink and your hair looks even crazier than it usually does. Even if a teeny irrational part of me wants you to be a little homesick, the truth is I know you are probably not and that you are having the time of your life and this makes me happy. Because it means that you feel loved at home, that you know that we are waiting for you no matter how far away you are and that our love makes you feel safe enough to spread your wings and fly.

My daughter is away at a program called Scuola Natura organized by the Italian public school system to take kids on a nature trip for a week. Our school was picked at the last minute so there was not much time to get organized before departure. Which is a good thing if you are asking me, because: a) my daughter would have burst with the excitement of leaving if she would have had to wait even just a day longer; b) it didn't give us parents too much time to agonize before they left (as some of you know, this was the second night my daughter was ever spending away from us). The organizational aspect was quite intricate as you can imagine, considering it involved preparing for a 5-year old to be away for five whole days filled with several activities. Besides the clothes bags I mentioned above with names and hand written notes of their content and an endless list of accessories to prepare, it involved (among other things):

- decorating a treasure box together with your child to take along to store material and souvenirs
- organizing a cell phone card to give the teacher to use for phone calls and calling procedures
- a meeting with the teacher and parents
- writing addresses on adhesive labels and buying stamps for postcards
- preparing an envelope with spending money in small bills
- writing a personal letter to the teacher describing your child' everyday habits and bedtime routines to   make them feel at home as much as possible

Here is a recipe that my little girl really enjoyed the night before leaving. Hope you enjoy it too. 

*For those of you who do not like fennel, roasting it totally erases that aniseed flavor and makes it soft and sweet, almost like a roasted onion. You have to try it to believe it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Roasted fingerling potato and leek soup with spinach

You know how some weeks are just much busier than others? Well, last week was one of those weeks.

On Monday my daughter's school held its spring fundraising party, on Tuesday she had her vaccinations, yesterday we had a class meeting to discuss an upcoming trip (more on that soon - this alone generated a whole new level of matters to tackle), the elementary school she is starting in the fall called to fix an appointment for orientation (which we luckily managed to move). All of these happenings naturally took place during office hours. On top of this, Italian listed companies are reporting their first quarter results this week making it extremely hectic at work and the husband is away on a business trip.

Yesterday was also nail-cutting night.
Yes, nail cutting. If you are wondering why the heck that would even be worth mentioning, you are not a mom. Cutting the nails on four little hands and four little feet in constant movement is no easy task. Even worse when those feet are ticklish or those hands are scared of scissors. To top it all off, for those of you who aren't informed, the speed in nail growth is inversely proportional to the child's age: the younger they are, the quicker they seem to grow. So half of the time, you feel like you gave birth to Struwwelpeter.

As a result it has been a week of simple meals. In my usual quest to feed my kids as many vegetables as possible I made a your classic potato and leek soup with a few handfuls of spinach in it. What made it special was the roasted leftover fingerlings I used in it. Boy did that take it to another level.

You can have it warm and simply call it potato and leek soup or be fancy and have it cold as a Vichyssoise. I promise you, you'll love it either way.

I don't know about you, but I have been having some trouble with blogger the last few days, making it impossible to post or comment. Many comments on my last post were deleted in the process, but for those of you who left them, I want you to know I did read them and answer them. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mango & cucumber salad with Pimenton de la Vera

Robert De Niro is standing in the kitchen. He is suspiciously eyeing the door to the hallway. Everything is quiet. He stands and waits. He looks tense. Then he takes two steps back and opens my oven, pulls out some foccaccia and just as he is about to bite into, it my boss walks in a grabs it from him. That is when the crickets start.

Chirp chirp chirp

Why are crickets singing if it is the middle of the day in Milan? And why am I wondering about the crickets instead of questioning why Bobby is sharing foccaccia with my boss in the my kitchen?

Chirp chirp chirp

I open my eyes in the semi-dark room and reach out to turn off the alarm on my iphone. 5:55am. Time to get my big butt out of bed and go running. I really don't feel like going. My running partner isn't coming this morning and I am ever so tempted to nestle in my duvet and sleep in for another half hour. Then I remember that pistachio-filled chocolate I greedily inhaled nibbled on last night while watching the William & Kate E special and know I have no excuse. On top of it all, it is light out these days and perfect running temperature.


I need to do this. I am nearing forty, I had two children plus two C-sections, I have a food blog for God's sake. I have to run by that tree and the homeless guy who says "ciao" everytime I pass only one more time and I am done.


This is for you, so I can keep on baking new cakes and conjuring up new recipes involving the likes of chocolate, nuts, cream, cheese and butter.

How do you food lovers and bloggers stop the calories from leaving their mark on your waistline? I know at least one of you uses a treadmill. If you are the kinda person who has a fabulous, quick burning metabolism, please abstain from shoving it in our faces leaving a comment.

This is a non-recipe, a mere idea, because I can use some healthy, fresh foods instead of calorie-laden desserts (ignore the foccaccia, ribs and olive rolls); because it is spring; because my son has lately vetoed vegetables and I am trying to get him to eat his share of vitamins and to learn that salads can be fun; because when you are in a rush this takes about 5 minutes to prepare and it is sweet, spicy (the kids got a mild version), crunchy and refreshing.

If you love the idea of using mango for more than dessert, here is another fabulous salad. A little more labor intensive but fit for any dinner party.

Adapted from Muy Bueno Cookbook

3 cucumbers, peeled
1 ripe mango, peeled
Pimenton de la Vera, habanero or other chili powder
olive oil
lime juice
Peel and dice the cucumbers and mango. Dress with oil and lime juice (but lemon juice or cider vinegar will do too) and salt and sprinkle over some hot chili powder. If you have cilantro, I would definitely use that too.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Heavenly pistachio butter cups (and recipe for pistachio butter and paste)

Yesterday we participated in an event called Bimbimbici (children on bikes) organized by an association that is trying to make Italian cities more bike friendly. It was a beautiful day and since we recently bought our daughter a new bike it seemed like the perfect occasion to take her out for a ride. A friend kindly lent us a bike with child seat (mine broke and I haven't replaced it yet) and so our youngest also got his first chance to ride on the back of my bike.

Needless to say he loved it and had a smile stamped on his face for most of the ride (expect when the many bikes had to turn into a smaller street making us stand in the scorching sun for a few minutes; he was quick to let everyone know how unhappy he was). Our daughter could not believe that she could finally get off the sidewalk and ride in the middle of the street, with actual policemen standing all over stopping cars to let us pass.

My husband was especially happy pedalling around town looking at all the black and red flags hanging out of windows, after his soccer team won the Serie A title on Saturday night.

So to celebrate I made this little treat for him. The man loves pistachios and Reeses' almost as much as his team and always fights the temptation of bringing back a few suitcases of the latter whenever we travel to the States. I read this wonderful recipe a while back on Heavenly Housewife's blog and fell in love instantly. I went out and bought a few bags of pistachios and have been waiting for the time and occasion to make these.

What can I say? It is impossbile for the combination of dark chocolate (I adapted the recipe and only used 70% chocolate instead of a mix if semi sweet and milk chocolate) and pistachio not to be sublime. Of course now that my husband know these can be made at home instead of in some magical secret laboratory somewhere in the US, he will be expecting peanut butter cups too. Good wife that I am, how can I not oblige him? ;o)


My advice is not to make these because they are addictive. But if you really want to (don't say I didn't warn you), the first step in this recipe is making a lovely pistachio butter by toasting the nuts until your kitchen smells delicious and then grinding them to a luscious green spread. You can make a lot of it like I did and store it in your fridge in a sealed jar to use in a pasta sauce or to smother onto crostini. By adding sugar and butter you will get an even better pistachio paste to fill these cups. I have some of this left too and I intend to try making some other form of dessert with it.