Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Eataly megastore opening in Milan - a step-by-step visual tour

Last week Eataly opened the doors of its long-awaited megastore to the Milanese. While there has already been an Eataly store in Milan for years, its size and visual impact were somewhat underwhelming when compared to some of its counterparts in locations like Turin, Rome, Genoa and New York.
I, and apparently many others given the lines stretching across Piazza XXV Aprile, was curious to see how Oscar Farinetti, its founder, had transformed a much-beloved cultural landmark, the Teatro Smeraldo, into his Milanese flagship store. Over the years I had spent  many a memorable night at concerts and shows in the theater's auditorium and even more very early mornings partying underneath the theater in a club that was a well-known hangout for the Milanese movida.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

All natural, no-sugar peanut and pistachio butter cookies

I have been seeing recipes for these natural peanut butter cookies around for a while now. When I saw Monet post about them the other day, I knew my time had come. She has a beautiful baby daughter so I knew the recipe would be wholesome, but she is first and foremost a wonderful baker so I was certain these cookies would be really good besides being healthy.
That is a must in my book. My idea, and those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have heard me preach this before, is that if you are going to make a dessert or something sweet you might as well go the whole way and make something worth the calories you are ingesting. Otherwise, if you are on a health kick or trying to lose a few pounds, skip dessert altogether and have some fruit or yogurt instead.
 There are cases, however, when this does not apply, like feeding your kids afterschool snacks that are so good they won't really be able to tell they are naturally sweetened and full of wholesome ingredients.
So even though I still stand by my belief that a chocolate fudge cake should be a buttery, sweet, dense affair, if the result of a recipe is a lovely tasting cookie that satisfies a craving without going way overboard, why not?
With this batch of cookies I finished the jar of pistachio paste I told you about in my last post. I also used up that almost empty jar of peanut butter I had lying around for more time than I care to remember. It worked out perfectly, since I didn't have enough of either to make a whole batch of just one kind, and how do you split an egg in half?
Both cookies are delicious because they are so incredibly full of nutty flavor and they are just sweet enough, with that touch of salty that keeps you wanting more.

See how chewy these are on the inside? Mmmmmh...
 The peanut butter cookies are crumbly and dense, perfect to have with a cup of coffee or a big glass of milk. The pistachio cookies have a completely different texture, moist and chewy and rich. They are sweeter because I had added some sugar to the paste (ok, so there is a little sugar in the pistachio cookies, but if you want to make these 100% without sugar, pistachio butter would work just as well) and are fabulous with a cup of unsweetened tea in  my book. The different texture is the result of several factors: i) I used more pistachio paste than PB because I wanted to finish the jar, ii) the pistachio paste was not as dense as the PB, iii) the pistachio cookies baked as long as the others but they were a bit bigger in size.
To make the two different batches, I followed Monet's basic instructions but divided the egg mixture into two bowls. Then I added the different nut pastes into each and split the dry mixture between the two. It makes for a little extra work and more bowls to wash but this way you won't end up with a huge amount of cookies if you are making both. If making just one kind, use a whole cup of the nut butter of choice and use just one bowl for dry ingredients and one for wet ingredients.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

All-natural homemade pistachio pudding

Remember the pistachio ice cream of our childhood? It came in big tubs and had a light, almost flourescent green hue. It was very sweet and tasted more like almonds than pistachios, although it didn't taste much like almonds either if we are really being honest.
Pistachio ice cream, or pistachio gelato, is a different world nowadays because Italians take their pistachios very seriously. It is a darker, more natural shade of green, almost a sage green.The not-too-sweet, a-touch-salty incredibly creamy custard is usually interspersed with chopped pistachios that add texture and flavor. It is often made with pistacchi di Bronte, the best the country has to offer although in some gelaterie you can choose between Sicilian, Californian and Iranian pistachios.  I wasn't kidding.

I recently received two large packs of pistachios as a gift: my sister-in-law had been to Bronte and my father-in-law brought back some amazing Iranian pistachios from the Middle East. Everytime I open my cupboard and see them lying there I feel a pang of guilt, because I still haven't used them.
So finally, a couple of weeks ago, I made some pistachio paste. It is actually just the pistachio butter from the linked recipe with a little added sugar (no butter), so follow the indications for making the butter.
And then it just sat there.
I will be honest: I am scared of both the pistachios and the paste. I am trying to loose some weight and pistachios are just one of those things I don't want to be around. I know they are nutritious and full of healthy fat and that I could have them in my breakfast granola or yogurt or as a snack. But you know how it is... you start with one and before you know it you have had about fifty.
As a result making gelato, my first instinct, is out of the question, because there is NO.WAY I can resist that.
And then yesterday, on a whim, I finally settled for pudding. I though it would be a good solution for the kids and not as much a temptation for me. Little did I know...
So pudding it was. I started surfing the web for a recipe and was astonished at the quantity of dessert recipes I found that used packaged pistachio pudding base. It seems that,  unlike the ice cream of the '70's, green pistachio pudding full of food coloring and goodness knows what else, is still very popular, at least abroad. Who knew?
Then I finally came across a recipe on Joy the Baker that actually used homemade pistachio paste.
I'm thinking next time I can avoid the butter, because really, there are enough healthy oils in the nuts.
I unfortunately could only have a spoonful from each child (you know, just for equality's sake) and was really blown away by the outcome. It  was silky and smooth, not too sweet and full of flavor. 

Milk, eggs, sugar, pistachios and a thickening agent... that is all you will need. This is pudding the way your grandma would have made it... the flavor is incredible, the color is natural (if you want it even greener, just get rid of the peels) and it took only 15 minutes (although I did make the pistachio paste beforehand)!
Pistachios are pretty easy to find anywhere, and any upscale store sells pistachio paste or butter if you are too lazy to make it, so you have no excuse! Throw away that package of pistachio pudding mix and try this. 


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Castagnole, an Italian Carnival treat


Today is Martedì Grasso the last day of Carnival all over the world. Except Milan, where it is just beginning.
My daughter was home sick last week for three days and as a result she missed a costume party she had really been looking forward to, although I am sure the insane brave grandmother who yearly hosts this party for the whole class was not too upset to have a third grader less running around her apartment.
My daughter was a good sport about it all, despite her disappointment, and so I decided to surprise her and organize our own little Carnival party at home. My son's pre-school was closed for a few hours on the same day for meetings, so it seemed like the perfect way to fill an afternoon. We pulled out streamers and I set up a little make-up corner and we had ourselves a good time.
For it to be a real party, however, we needed snacks. I had some fruit juice stashed away but nothing even closely resembling Carnival treats so I decided to look up a recipe online. Carnival sweets are usually quite basic fried batters or doughs, recipes from a very long time ago when people did not have great means and when there were very few ingredients to choose from after a long winter. The most popular varieties are chiacchiere, tortelli and frittelle, although things get a bit complicated at this point. 
As most things food in Italy (this recent  post being just an example), every region and town has a different name (and often recipe) for the same thing. Milanese chiacchiere are called galani in Venice, bugie in Genova and other names elsewhere. Venetian frittelle are made out of doughnut batter with raisins and pine nuts mixed into it, but in Milan the batter is simple and they are often filled with chocolate cream or custard. Tortelli and zeppole are a part of the same family. Then there is pignolata (as my Sicilian mother in law calls it), little balls of biscuity fried dough bound together with honey that are called struffoli in Naples. Last but not least, let us not forget castagnole (called this way because they are reminiscent of castagne, the Italian word for chestnuts), which I often ate as a child in Venice.
I opted for these because they seemed like the quickest and easiest of all to make: there was no time for rising as I had a very hungry Ninja Turtle and rock star waiting for their snack.
While searching on the web, I discovered that in most places they are more akin to doughnuts, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and can be filled with a variety of creams like the abovementioned tortelli (or frittelle? or zeppole?).

Very different from what I remembered.
Then I finally found a recipe for the castagnole that I grew up eating. It is, once again, a recipe from long ago, prepared with very simple and frugal ingredients. The castagnole were easy to make and they turned out exactly how I remembered them: not overly sweet, with a crumbly texture, almost like short crust pastry.
I think it took me 15 minutes tops to make them from scratch and the kids devoured them warm, proceeding to lick the confectioner's sugar off of their finger tips when they were done.

Buon Carnevale!

Ingredients (makes about 40)
50gr butter, softened
80gr sugar
3 eggs
pinch of salt
350gr flour, approximately
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

oil for deep-frying
confectioner's sugar for garnish
In a stand mixer or in a bowl, mix the butter and sugar until light and airy. Add in the eggs one at a time. Add a pinch of salt and the flour a little at a time, making sure the batter does not turn too dry. Add the baking powder.
Start heating the oil, covering the bottom of the pot by about two inches.
Tear small pieces of the dough off and form little balls with your hands. When the oil is hot (you can check by throwing in a little piece of dough - it should not sink), deep fry the dough balls turning them every now and then until they are golden, about 3-5 minutes. They will start cracking a bit, that is normal. When they are ready, place them on a plate lined with paper towel to absorb excess oil. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve.