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.