Friday, December 14, 2012

Baci di dama

This morning we woke up to our first snowfall here in Milan. It started last night and hasn't stopped yet. The city still looked like a winter wonderland when I left for the office before seven this morning but that is changing rapidly as the snowflakes get heavier and the snow turns wetter and dirtier with each passing hour.
7:20 on Instagram
From my office window
Il Duomo di Milano (under the snow and under construction)

I can't wait to start my week end with a cozy family meal and perhaps a movie. That is, if I survive the elementaty school outdoors Christmas market and manage to stay awake after less than five hours sleep and a mild hangover following our office Christmas dinner last night.
On the topic of office parties, I am very glad I was not the one who downed four glasses (not shots, glasses my friends) of grappa after prosecco, red wine and moscato. And then proceeded to give a long and embarassing emotional speech on friendship to the table (more than two dozen of us) that was recorded on several phones and will be sent to everyone via email before the day is over. And then went on to unsuccessfully hit on some ladies at the neighboring table who were having a perfectly enjoyable evening before he came along. And then loudly told one of our colleagues about how their attraction for each other was undeniable. Nope, glad I was not in his shoes this morning.
Then again, when it comes to shoes, he has a history of drinking champagne out of the shoes of his co-workers at Christmas parties and I would be lying if I said his performance hasn't become part of the yearly fun.
Do you have an office Christmas party? Any funny stories to tell?
As Christmas draws closer here is another idea for all those Christmas cookie swaps or a great bite-sized cookie for your guests. Or are you simply looking for a gluten free recipe?
Baci di dama were first created over a century ago in the city of Tortona, in Piedmont. The name, lady's kiss, probably originates from the cookie's resemblance to pursed lips. The recipe is easy and straightforward, if a little time consuming. And I finally found a way to use my stash of rice flour (why on earth this recipe never came up on my Italian Google search I know not).
 It had never occurred to me to bake these, after having had them a million times, until David recently posted about them.

In Italy they do things really traditionally, so I stuck to the original recipe, but you could use Nutella instead of bittersweet chocolate for the filling if you want to kick up the hazelnut ratio or if you are looking for a way to save some time. I read several recipes, some of which use almonds instead of hazelnuts, others that add cocoa powder or orange zest to the dough.
140gr/1 1/4 cups hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
140gr/1 cup rice flour (but you can use all purpose flour too)
100gr/3 1/2 oz. room temperature butter, in pieces
100gr/1/2 cup sugar
a pinch of salt
55 gr/2 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped and melted

Pulse the hazelnuts in a food processor until very fine. Mix the ground nuts with the rice flour in a bowl. Add the cut up butter and then the sugar and salt. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the butter is completely incorporated and until the dough is smooth and holds together. 
Divide the dough into three parts, or more if the dough cracks while rolling it out, and roll each piece until about 2cm/ 3/4-inch  thick. Chill the rolled out dough on parchment paper in the fridge or freezer until firm.
Preheat the oven to 160ºC/325ºF and line two baking sheets.
Take one log of dough out at a time and cut them into equal bite/marble-sized sized pieces and delicately roll them (they tend to crack) into balls. Place them on the baking sheet leaving a little space between them. Proceed in the same way with the other dough logs.
Bake the cookies for 10-14 minutes, rotating them midway. The tops should be lightly golden.

While you let them cool, melt your chocolate in a double boiler. Put a small drop of melted chocolate (less than you think you will need, trust me) on the flat side of one cookie and then press the flat side of another cookie onto it, sandwiching them.
Place the filled cookies on a cooling rack until the chocolate is set.
The cookies will keep for more than you will possibly manage to save them in an airtight container.



Monday, December 10, 2012

Whisky Christmas log with chocolate chips, cranberries and marron glacés

The holidays are right around the corner and there are just no more free slots in your calendar for yet another social engagement: there's the office party, the elementary school fundraiser, the pre-K recital and party, the last minute Christmas drinks with old colleagues, the dinner with close friends, the cocktail with your pilates buddies and the afterdinner toast with those other friends you only see once a year in December. No to mention lunch with the girls and the charity bake sale you agreed to help out with.
As if Christmas in itself does not involve enough binging, we stuff our faces all the way through December and suffer a hang over or two in the process.


What is it about the holiday season that makes everyone act like they will never be seeing each other again? Most of us live in the same city, perhaps just blocks away from each other, and we will probably bump into each other at the supermarket in our yoga pants at least a few more times before the year is over. Ok, so this year may be an exception if the Mayas have any say, but it is just the exception that confirms the rule: life will pretty much be the same as the day before when you wake up on the 26th or next January 1st, so why all the craziness?

In Italy the holiday season is all about eating dry, mass produced pandoro and picking out the candied peel from panettone while balancing a glass of bad quality, often too sweet spumante with a smile stamped on your face. The good part is the homemade crema al mascarpone that at least one member of each family is usually famous for.
I also remember many a Christmas holiday in Sweden during which the initally greatly anticipated and delicious Julbord became the fodder of nightmares as the days passed. By the fifteenth Julsbord I ate in seven days I was dreaming of bowls herring and ris a la malta hunting me down in the snow.
I know that wherever you are, you are being tormented by something spicy or sweet, just in a different guise. Stale stollen? Sorry sorrel? Boring bunuelos? Terrible turron? I want to know more!

Here is something you can make to bring to a party or to wrap up as a gift. I guarantee, it is anything but bland, dull or plain. It is right up there with chewy dark gingerbread, spicy and warming mulled wine and the most wonderfully studded Christmas pudding you can conjure up in your mind.

I tweaked the original recipe (from this blog, which is full of great recipes and stories) using marrons glacées and dried cranberries because cherries are not a favorite (to say the least) in our home but I still thought red was essential for the Christmas feeling. You can mix in figs, dates, apricots or any kind of nut. It is a great way to use up odds and ends in your pantry, a more traditional version of a Monster cookie or an Everything bagel. The end result was delicious, truly addictive and it took me under two hours to make, from beginning to end (cooling and setting included because I used the freezer). The recipe makes six logs: I brought three to a dinner party and pretty much ended up eating the other three myself, when no one was looking.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fennel and zucchini tarte tatin

Last night, we were all sitting together in the children's room before bedtime. The room was bathed in the golden light of a bedside lamp. The shutters were closed, it was a dark and cold outside. My husband was reclined on our dauther's bed, in a comfy sweatshirt and warm socks. We were all listening to her read a few pages of a book out loud. It was sweet and moving to watch her lips form sentences, to hear her little voice read us a story, halting here and there to re-read a word she couldn't grasp. I was lying across from them on my son's little bed. He was nestled and cozy under the duvet. I was stroking his impossibly soft, just washed hair and breathing in that delicious smell of clean child and fresh sheets. I felt the pillowy comforter and crisp sheets beneath me.
My daughter read something funny and we all laughed. We started and we couldn't stop. In glee, my son jumped out of the bed and hopped onto his sister's bed, kissed his father and curled up into his arms. his fingers playing with his worn blankie, sucking on his beloved ciuccio. My daughter read on.
It was one of those perfect moments. A fleeting instant of total, pure, unadulterated joy. We were together, we were one, we were comfortable and safe and happy.
This is a moment I will remember. Not this exact instant perhaps, but I know when I think back and remember these early years I will remember them being oh so good because of a collection of moments like these. This is what makes every difficult, exahusting, frustrating moment of parenthood 100% worth it. This is what life is really about.
This recipe was inspired by the beautiful blog Manger, a real treat for the eyes as well as the palate.
I love how versatile it is, you can pretty much use any vegetable following Mimi's simple, straightforward directions.
I had never made a tarte tatin because it felt a little daunting. You see, tarte tatin happens to be F's favorite cake after pecan pie (my second post! Forgive that store bought dough and photo, it still is a killer recipe with a homemade crust) and when we honeymooned in Paris (twelve years ago this month) he ate it at least once a day while I, little trollop that I am, hopped from mousse au chocolat to crème brûlée to a tatin or two myself. Now that I have made a very tasty (if I may say so myself) savory version, I feel I can try to approach the traditional version of this greatly beloved tart.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chocolate ov(om)altine buttercream frosting

My daughter celebrated her birthday with her friends almost a month early this year.
Not because she happens to be born on the day of the Mayan prophecy (although, hey, we might as well party while we can just in case they were right!).
She and a friend decided a year ago they wanted to celebrate together this year. It so went, that once we got our act together, the only week end available between their two birthdays (which are a month apart) was last Sunday, and this thanks to a last minute cancellation (note to self: work harder on becoming a psycho mom and book the next party a year ahead).
It was rushed and a little earlier than I had planned but it meant I was keeping the promise I made to myself when my daughter was born, that her birthday and Christmas would always be two completely separate affairs and that I would never make her feel like she missed out. I will not pretend this promise hasn't made Christmas a tad more stressful than it already is for most parents; the question why we decided to abolish contraception that April of many years ago instead of the following month may or may not, in my worst moments, have crossed my mind.  
Juggling Christmas cards, school vacation, shopping craziness, tree decorating, Advent, St. Nicholas, Christmas parties and recitals x2 and birthday cakes, presents and party paraphernalia is enough to make the sanest person go out of their mind. So to be honest, why not do it a month early?

I do not believe in huge, fancy affairs for kids' parties. Having one in our apartment is out of the question, but we still try to keep it simple. We usually rent out a large, not necessarily pretty, but affrodable space and bring our own food and decoration. Family, family friends, parents, older and younger siblings are all welcome. We hire a person to entertain the kids for a few hours but that is where it usually ends. It is a however a loud, crowded, sweaty, crazy affair and takes a lot of time to organize and to recover from.
Nonetheless, before the party this year I was doubtful; it was an organized affair with pretty strict times. It was interesting (Museum of Natural History) and reasonable in price (especially sharing costs) and well-structured, but we were only alloted 1/2 hour to serve cake and drinks (no pop corn! no potato chips! no balloons!), could invite max 25 kids, no parents. 
So yes, I was doubtful and sorry I couldn't invite family friends and lots of kids. I was sorry us grown ups couldn't mingle while the kids wreaked havoc, drinking bubbly and eating panettone and make a little Christmas party out of it; I was sad we weren't allowed to make a drab, badly sound-proofed room look nicer with lots of tacky pink decoration. But I reminded myself the party wasn't about us grown ups, or about my inner Martha Stewart. It was about my daughter and her school friends (without a ton of children of our friends and baby sisters and brothers tagging along). Still I was a little sorry.
Then the day came. We served cake, we poured drinks, we soothed crying children, put cold water on bumps, we broke up piles of little bodies, we smiled at complaints and mopped up sticky messes. I never knew a half hour could last so long. Once that mass of energy moved into the other room to begin the planned activities leaving  destruction, cake crumbs and frosting prints in its wake, I wasn't so sorry after all.  

Since all I had to do this year was provide the cake, I decided I would make one. I have not made many layered cakes yet and most of them turned out to be pretty sorry sites (although tasty) because Mr. Frosting and I have seem to have some issues.  In the pictures above, you see what was left after decorating in a hot kitchen so the frosting is looking a little deflated but it was absolutely perfect to decorate with.
My daughter asked for chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. I got the recipe over at Joy the Baker and it worked perfectly paired with this cake. There was not a slice left to take home and not much left on the plates at the party either, a success according to the messy, full plates I usually throw out after birthday parties.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Spezzatino con piselli

I live in Italy and as I have already told you more than once, Thursday will be just another day -office, taking children to a birthday party, dinner, getting ready for another school/work day on Friday - so I have plenty more time on my hands right now than most fellow Americans.
Granted, we will be eating turkey meat for dinner and cranberries will make an appearance in some form on our table, but I am not standing in my kitchen cursing right now like so many of you probably are. Or maybe not since you are sitting here reading my blog, in which case, what are you doing here??? Get moving, Thanksgiving is the day after tomorrow!
We may not celebrate Thanksgiving as much as we would like to for all the reasons above, but it still is a time of the year to stop and think about what I have and say thanks.

I am thankful I am not a turkey.
Ok. Just joking.
But not entirely.
I am thankful I have first world problems to worry about, like will the buttercream frosting for the birthday cake I am baking this week end turn out ok or not.
I am thankful for the circle of life. Two days ago I found out that the place my grandmother just left in this world will be filled by a brand new soul: a person I love dearly just told me, in these exact words, that she is baking a second turkey this Thanksgiving, due in April. Making a turkey is not always as easy as it looks and she is some of the best mom material out there, so I couldn't be happier. It makes loss easier when you realize that those who have lived a full life must leave room to others who are still waiting to get their first, incredibly sweet taste.
For more things that really count when you are giving thanks, go here and here.

Here is something you might feel like making now if you are not American, or next week when you are all turkeyed out if you are.
This dish is a classic Italian recipe, the kind grandmas were making long before we were born. It is traditionally made with veal, the less noble cuts, and it is great to eat as a main course accompanied by mashed potatoes, rice or polenta.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Griessbrei (German semolina pudding) and recipe for pomegranate syrup

You are never ready when a loved one leaves you. Even though you know it is going to happen sooner rather than later because of age or health conditions, even though you think you are  prepared, you really never are.

This past week end my grandmother passed away. We called her Mutti, Mommy in German, because that is what she was for all of us, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren alike, in one way or another.

Mutti, unlike my Nana, was a maternal, traditional grandmother.

...a heap of love...
We spent time with her every summer in Austria, where she lived when we were growing up. I remember watching her  darn socks by the kitchen window with a red and white sock mushroom, the flavor of her roast chicken with peas and freshly picked mushrooms and my sister's favorite, her Paprikaschoten, meat-stuffed peppers. I remember how she always soaked envelopes in water to peel off the stamps for my uncle's collection; how she came into our room in the morning, pulling the curtains and opening the windows, so the chilly morning mountain air and the chiming of the village church bells would abruptly wake us. I remember running errands with her: the smell of freshly cut wood curls at the wood carver's who made our Christmas crib; the pungent tang of fresh milk and cow dung at the barn where the farmer filled her milk can. I remember running my fingers along the smooth surface of the tailor's chalk while they chatted. We often walked to the neighboring town on small paths along cornfields and on a few occasions she pulled us into them to give us a scolding or a very rare spanking when we had really misbehaved.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Just got back

Leaving is always sad. It seems that the older you get, the harder it gets, but I have already written about that.

Leaving is a little less sad when your big sister surprises you with comforting Bavarian treats for the drive back across the Alps. 

What can I say? A big sister is always a big sister, even when you get older. She always does just the right thing at the right time.


Auf wiedersehen Munich! Till the next time.

More pics on Instagram.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween and what to do with leftover chocolate: milk-chocolate cornflake brownies

The other day I tackled one of my kitchen cupboards because it was a mess. The kind of mess I have to sort while the kids are not around: to me it is the corner of horrors but they think of it more like a piece of heaven. It is an out-of-reach shelf where I dump store all the candy and chocolate we seem to accumulate over time.

Now, as you know, I am not shy of giving my kids a treat now and then. Their life is by no means devoid of sugar. I do however try keep their sugar intake somewhat under control. I never buy candy but my kids get more than enough at birthday parties and as gifts from well-meaning friends and family. On Fridays we usually get a gelato when I pick them up from school: it is a way to celebrate the beginning of the week end and a compromise to get them to eat their fruit or crackers or raisin snack the rest of the week when most kids around them is nibbling on chips, pizza or candy. Of course the argument ensues whether to get gelato as opposed to the horrendously colorful creations on sticks marketing experts have the guts to call ice cream. I give in fifty percent of the time. I limit Nutella to week end breakfasts and the cereal they eat during the week (an easy solution for F who is in charge of getting them to school while I sit at my desk at the office) is something halfway healthy, with some whole grains and rice to balance out the sugar and salt per gram.


And I bake. I bake my children cookies, cakes, brownies, tarts, pies. I make them hot chocolate in the winter and pop corn before movies sometimes. The salt, fat and sugar content may not be ideal, but at least I know what they are eating, what ingredients go in and that they are not eating highly-processed snacks.

Anyway, back to my clean up. After yet another party a few weeks ago we came home with a bag full of candy. As I tried to put said candy away I was buried under an avalanche of sugar, food coloring and high-fructose corn syrup. I realized it was time to get rid of some while the kids were not watching, especially in view of Halloween and the all the holidays that will follow. I dumped at least a pound or two of lollipops melted out of shape, rock hard gummy bears, leaking chocolate coins and gelées with all sorts of unidientified fuzz and crumbs stuck to them. Not to mention the traditional sugared almonds in all hues (red for graduations, baby blues and pastel pinks for christenings and births) that might have become real estate for some unwanted wiggly creatures for all I knew.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Gnocchi alla Romana

The week is over and I am feeling smug.
I got up at 5:35am and ran a little over 8kms before heading to work.
My son has finally settled into his new pre-K routine.
As he proudly announced on Monday when I picked him up from school, he slept on R's pants.
What he meant was that on his first afternoon there he finally napped on his teacher's lap (after shedding some tears).
Maybe next week he will even be able to stay there for the after-school program so I won't have to go back and forth to pick up the kids four times an afternoon (three of which a moody pre-schooler. You moms hear me, right? You know how long and unpredictable those walks can get, especially when you are on a schedule).
I renewed my ID card at the Town Hall and was the first in line, a once in a lifetime happening. In and out in 5 minutes!
Ok, I admit I had already been there the day before, only to find out I was missing a paper they forgot to tell me about on the phone. But hey, you can't win 'em all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Twice-fried Chinese green beans

What do you do when you have a great recipe and a pretty mediocre picture of it? Do you wait till the next time you cook it and then make sure it is for lunch and not dinner, thus ensuring good light, and that you have your camera handy?
Well, if you have thousands of followers, a cookbook out and a nomination for best photography you might not even have to think about it.
If you are me, however, you consider the pros and cons.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Amor Polenta

Up until the beginning of the Twentieth century, polenta was a staple of northern Italian peasants, to such an extent that the inhabitants of regions like Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto often suffered from pellagra, a disease caused by the lack of Vitamin B3 in corn. So much so, that polentone (literally polenta eater) became a derogatory term for southern Italians to call their northern counterparts.

Polenta is still a well-loved comfort food and a favored accompaniment, in its unadultered form or studded with lovely melted pockets of cheese, for winter dishes such as slow cooked meats, sausage, stews and mushrooms. In Veneto, white polenta often makes its appearance, creamy or grilled, alongside fish (usually baccalà, dried salted cod).

Funnily enough cornmeal is not a common ingredient in other traditional recipes. Sure, I have seen random cookies, loaves of bread and even pasta for the gluten intolerant, but there is no  Mediterranean version of corn muffins or cheesy corn studded cornbread.

There is however one exception: Amor Polenta, a corn and almond meal-based pound cake that was created in the Lombard city of Varese and that is as a consequence also known by the name of Dolce di Varese. It is a simple cake (and very quick to mix up), to be enjoyed with a cup of afternoon tea, for merenda (the mid-afternoon snack of all Italian children), for breakfast or as an unpretentious dessert. It tastes like home. Yet, despite its modesty, the cornmeal adds a delicate crackle when you bite into it and the hint of rum is warming and unexpected.

It is normally made in a traditional rounded and ridged loaf pan but I don't make it often enough to justify buying one. I am not excited by the obvious alternative, a loaf pan, because I feel this utterly simple cake deserves a little extra decoration, so I use my kugelhopf tin filled halfway. Ingredients are in grams but you can use the converter link at the top of the blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Risotto ai finferli (with chanterelle mushrooms)

It is still quite warm in this corner of the world but you can definitely tell fall has arrived when walking through the market stands. Figs, pumpkins, apples, chestnuts, grapes everywhere. I couldn't resist when I saw a bright yellow basket of chanterelles the other day (although I was not quite as excited while I stood in my kitchen cleaning them). There really is nothing better for an early Sunday dinner than a nice, creamy risotto that tastes like the forest in autumn.
You can pretty much put anything you fancy into a risotto but there are a few things that are a must in my book and that involve a lot of Italian words like al dente, all'onda, mantecazione, Vialone nano and Carnaroli.
Go here if you want to find out what any those words mean or if you need a risotto tutorial. I made an exception to one of my rules and used chicken stock to make my mushroom risotto instead of vegetable stock because I had some homemade stock in the freezer and I thought it would add flavor to the dish.
The amounts below are approximate. 
Ingredients (5/6 servings)
500gr chanterelle mushrooms (finferli)
500gr rice
vegetable/chicken stock
2-3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
pepper for garnish
Clean and chop the mushrooms into bite size pieces. Heat olive oil in a heavy-based pot and the stock in a separate pot. Peel and chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and lightly brown in the oil. Add in the mushrooms and a most of the parsley (set aside a little for garnish) and cook a few minutes before toasting the rice. Cook the risotto following the tutorial. Remember to add the butter and grated Parmesan cheese a few minutes before serving, making sure you mix fast to release the starch. Garnish with a little more parsley, a good sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and pepper.
For a vegetarian dish, substitute chicken stock for vegetable stock.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Do not enter unless...

.... you are any, some or all of the below:
  •  a fan of Andrew Zimmern's Bizzarre Foods
  •  an adventurous, curious eater
  •  a person with a strong stomach
  •  a fool for Halloween or anything gory
  •  NOT a vegetarian
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nectarine streusel cake

Growing up in a multicultural family was not always easy. I spent a lot of my life feeling like the odd-one-out wherever I was, like I never fit in anywhere 100%.
I was always a little different, the American when in school, the Italian when going back home for vacation. I had German speaking nannies in the States, English speaking nannies in Italy.
Then again, being a mix of sorts had its perks.
I got to travel a lot to see family.
I learned early on that different is good, interesting, enriching.
It also meant learning many lanuguages.  
My first words in New York were German. When the English was starting to sink in we moved to Paris for a year and my brain got rewired. I wouldn't really say I speak French, but I certainly have a knack for it. Then we moved back and when I finally learned to read and write in English, we moved to Italy, where I started over again in a new language. I even picked up Venetian on the way and a few words of Swedish and Spanish.
When we were kids, my sister and I had fun listening in on tourists' conversations, we always had a secret language to gossip in wherever we were and we got to daydream (more than we usually did) during English and German class in school. 
I could read books and watch movies in a variety of languages and making friends on vacation was easy once I got over my initial painstaking shyness towards my peers.
I never, however, was shy around adults and it entertained them to no end to hear me readily switch from one language to another without a moment's hesitation.
Languages are key for who I am and what I do today.
Last, but not least, languages are useful if you spend a lot of time ogling recipes. If my mother wasn't German, I probably would not have been able to make this recipe and translate it for you. Which is a very good thing, believe me. Once you have tasted how the silky fruit makes the baked batter go all custardy in its proximity, becoming the perfect contrast to the crumbly, crystallized buttery topping, you will understand how right I am.