Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chewy, ginger cookie bars

Dear Santa,

This letter will probably get lost among the hundreds of thousands that have started filling your Inbox in recent days. With my luck, it will probably end up in your Spam folder.

It is probably safer to do things the old-fashioned way: address it to Saint Nicholas (I know, I know, only your mom and few million German children call you that these days but I think it suits you) and stuff it into a boot on December 5th the way I did when I was a child, before computers became the norm. I mean, let’s face it Nick, countless generations of children did this successfully for decades before me and their letters never got lost.

First of all, before I forget, I don’t mind if you put a few tangerines and walnuts in my kids’ boots together with the candy this year. I know I used to complain about it when I was a child, but now that I am a mother, I totally get your point.

Yes, don’t you worry, I promise I will remind my children that putting out Daddy’s snow boots instead of their rain boots will not increase the amount of candy they get. It is good to know that you and I are on the same wave length about these things.

I will also refrain from telling them our best kept secret, that you are a sweet old man with a good heart and that you would never really leave a branch in their boot instead of candy if they haven’t behaved sometimes. I will however admit that it is a very helpful threat in the weeks preceding December 6th and I intend to take full advantage of it. Whoever started that rumor was most definitely a Mom.

Oh, another thing. My little girl will be writing her first Christmas letter this year. If you have any problem deciphering what she wrote, please let me know. I will be happy to help.

I am doing my best to keep up with all the traditions of this season and to make you feel at home when you come with your sleigh full of gifts. We will be decorating a tree on the week end, advent calendars are sitting on the kitchen counter, Christmas music is playing on loop on our Ipod sound system. I bought two really pretty Christmas tablecloths yesterday (ok, I know you didn’t ask for them specifically but they were soooo cute!) and my daughter picked out the new Christmas decoration that we buy every year as per tradition for the tree. We will be setting up our tiny hand carved wooden Crib under the tree and reading A Christmas Carol before bedtime. My daughter may even read a few sentences this year. Next week we will be in Germany to visit family, the Christmas markets and to celebrate the third Sunday of Advent. And yes, I have already pulled out our Christmas cookie cutters and made the first Yuletide-inspired recipe just for you, so you have something to nibble on when you stop by next week to pick up the letters.

Last but not least, I promised my kids I would tell you we will be in the mountains for Christmas, just in case you forget and come here instead. You should be able to find a snow covered roof to land on with the reindeers pretty easily but I forgot to ask if they had a chimney when I rented the apartment. If worse comes to worse I will open the balcony door for you.
I am so looking forward to your visit. I send you a big hug (are grown ups still allowed to hug you?).
What is that? My list?
I don’t have any real Christmas wishes: while I was writing you about reading books with my kids, baking cookies, decorating the tree with my loved ones, I realized I have everything I want and need right here in my home.
But if you really can’t help yourself because you are Santa and it is in your genes, I can always use a book, an accessory, some bling, something food-related…well, you decide.

See you next week!


Friday, November 25, 2011

Of pigs and olives (or cold meats and EVO)

Close your eyes and think fabulous olive oil, cured meats, regional wines and good food. The essence of Italy. This, in a nutshell, is how I spent Tuesday evening.
Frantoio Gentileschi invited a bunch of food lovers and bloggers to present their new brand Salumi del Frantoio, a line of delicatessen meats in which a part of animal fat is substituted with extra virgin olive oil. Less bad fats (saturated fats) and more good fats (monounsaturated fats like oleic acid) equals healthier food with higher nutritional value.

The wines we tasted
After a brief introduction by General Manager Evaristo Rota, the nutritional expert Samantha Biale illustrated these facts and many more as we were served dish after dish of food. Did you know that ham is rich in Vitamin B1, an ‘antistress’ vitamin that helps strengthen the immune system and generate energy? 

Nutritionist Samantha Biale
The great variety of cured meats is an important part of the Italian food tradition and this tradition should not be lost because of our modern-day qualms about consuming foods that are rich in fats. Deli meats are not particularly fat and if the fat is the healthy kind, then what are we worrying about?
The undisputed star of the evening, as an innovative ingredient in the precooked meats we sampled and definitely in its own right, was extra virgin olive oil.

No surprise that the event was hosted at the newly opened Frantoi Celletti Blu. Mr. Celletti, who is a long-time restaurateur, is also a true olive oil lover, connoisseur and taster. He teaches courses, has written a book about olive oil (that he kindly regaled us with) and is passionate enough about the subject to have opened a restaurant dedicated to EVO. When you enter the premises, the first thing you see are two massive, ancient stone olive presses. His menu revolves around olive oil tasting, each dish attentively paired with the just right oil.

Mr. Celletti

Some interesting tidbits?
There are 1628 different varieties of olives and 638 of these cultivars (cultivated varieties) grow in Italy.
All olives start out green and turn black as they ripen, they are not different varieties. So green olives are just picked earlier (and what you use to make olive oil) .
Olive oil is expensive. A cheap bottle of olive oil is never good. A sentence he repeated several times throughout the evening was: "there is no oil in olives. It has to be made". It is not just a matter of picking and pressing. The quality of the oil starts from the olive: the finest, purest olives are hand picked. Pollination and different harvesting times also contribute in raising production costs.

While Mr. Celletti illustrated these facts, we served our first dish of the menu (created by the restaurant in unison with Salumi del Frantoio using their products) paired with fabulous regional oils and wines. He taught us how to warm the oil in small glasses with our hands before tasting it. It clearly contributed enormously to the flavor of the different courses we were served.

How to taste oil
Here is what we ate.

Rustic ham and ricotta mousse paired with Monocultivar Tonda Iblea olive oil from Sicily (sweet, spicy, undertone of tomato and basil). Served with Grechetto brut sparkling white wine from Umbria
Mortadella and black pepper mousse paired with Monocultivar Coratina olive oil (bitter, spicy, undertone of freshly cut grass)
Served with Grechetto brut sparkling white wine from Umbria
Neapolitan pizza with puff pastry, mozzarella and roasted turkey paired with Monocultivar Ortice olive oil from Campania
Served with Grechetto brut sparkling white wine from Umbria

Spinach olive-leaf shaped pasta with roast turkey julienne and pecorino cheese paired with Monocultivar Frantoio from Tuscany. Served with Grechetto brut sparkling white wine from Umbria
Sicilian busiati pasta alla Norma (with eggplant) with roast chicken and dried ricotta cheese paired with Monocultivar Tonda Iblea olive oil from Sicily. Served with Insolia white wine from Sicily

Tagliata of chicken and turkey frankfurters with a gorgonzola cheese cream and parmesan cheese crisps paired with Monocultivar Bosana olive oil from Sardinia. Served with a Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo red wine.

Pork frankfurter in pistachio crust with eggplant mousse and with a cinnamon Nero d'Avola red wine sauce paired with Monocultivar Tonda Iblea olive oil from Sicily. Served with Nero d'Avola red wine from Sicily
Lemon ice cream paired with Monocultivar Bosana olive oil from Sardinia

My favorites, in their utter simplicity, were the appetizers and the dessert. The flavor of the mortadella, ham and oils really stood out yet complemented each other perfectly. The pairing of the olive oil and creamy cold lemon ice cream was refreshing and delicious. I personally prefer my cold meats in salads or sandwiches, but I have to hand it to the chefs behind the recipes that they worked hard to create innovative and unusual pairings (although I would have taken the wrapper off of the toothpicks ...well, actually I would have skipped the toothpicks too).
At the end of the evening food photographer Silvia Luppi taught us a few tricks to make our food look as good as it tastes.

Food photographer Silvia Luppi

So remember:
1) Don’t be afraid to eat good quality delicatessen meats: it has as many calories as a pork chop and nutritional advantages too, especially if it contains EVO!
2) Buy less olive oil if necessary, but spend a little more. Good quality olive oil does not come cheap. Oh, and buy Monocultivar. They are the best.
3) The spicier the better: oil that stings your tongue and the back of your throat is richer in polyphenols. This is good.

It was a very fun evening indeed and extremely well organized, with lots of variety and interesting moments. So thank you Maja, Francesca and Salumi del Frantoio for organizing!

At my table: bloggers Giada and Cecilia

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Roasted balsamic brussels sprouts & (roasted) chestnuts and butter the old-fashioned way

Thanksgiving is not a holiday here in Italy. It is a day like any other so by the time I get home from the office it is pretty impossible for me to roast a turkey, even the smaller kind they sell here, and organize a meal for a group of friends.

When my American friends and I were not parents yet, we organized a dinner every year and ordered a pre-stuffed turkey in a fancy schmancy food store. In those days having dinner past 9 wasn’t a big deal. It was not a school night and colleagues at the office were pretty forgiving if you walked into the office a little hungover and sleepy the next day. Kids are not quite as forgiving. The first time we ordered the abovementioned turkey it was a little flat looking (it hadn’t even crossed our minds to specify that the turkey should not to be deboned) but we printed out Thanksgiving place cards and decoration and hung a big American flag on the wall and had a really good time.

Nowadays, if we do a big celebration, it is on the week end. Nonetheless, I try to keep some of the tradition alive and make simple yet Thanksgiving-reminiscent dishes for the family on Thursday night. Turkey in some form and an easy fall-inspired side dish like the one I am posting today. I tell my children about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower and the Indians who helped them survive that first dreadful winter in the New Land. We draw turkeys with our hands and talk about what we are thankful for.

This year I drew inspiration from a post by The Nervous Cook, in which she oh-so-charmingly described making butter in the second grade while her teacher told her and her classmates about how Thanksgiving started. The point was to show children the fun way how people used to make everything from scratch, with hard physical labor. They then used the butter on an important staple of those days, corn. Pop corn with homemade butter: how simple, yet how brilliant! I immediately did this with my children and was quite stunned myself at how easy it was to make your very own butter, even without using a stand mixer (which would sort of defy the whole point). All you need is some cream, about a cup, a pinch of salt and a jar. Just shake, shake, shake until the cream thickens and then solidifies, the fat separating from buttermilk. I think it took about 20 minutes on and off with all three of us taking turns (I’ll let you guess who did most of the shaking). It took even less to polish off the bowl of pop corn. I am thankful for these special little moments with my children.

Here are some more things I am thankful for this year:

My job. A lot has changed in the past couple of months and it hasn’t been an easy transition but I feel fortunate to have a good job in a beautiful office, colleagues that are also friends and a salary to bring home. 

My children and the man I created these miracles with. I am in awe every single day.
My whole family, each one of you.

Being healthy. This should be at the top of the list, because you don’t really need any of the rest if you aren’t around to enjoy it.

An unexpected (but much hoped for) four days coming up with my sister and her family. Any time our kids get to spend together is precious.

I am thankful for this blog and I am thankful for friends. New friends, old friends, blogger friends. Thanks for being a part of my every day.

I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. And even if it isn’t Thanksgiving for you, just take a minute to think about what you are thankful for in your life. We should do this more often. What are you grateful about today? 


Roasted chestnuts
Brussels sprouts
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

I was lucky to have some roasted chestnuts my mother in law gave me in a doggy bag leftover from our Sunday lunch together. If you aren’t that lucky, to make life easier you can roast yours beforehand. My mother in law sprinkles some salt on them before roasting, I think it is the perfect extra touch. Cut the brussels sprouts in half, toss in a bowl with olive oil, pepper and salt and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and lay out on a lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes at 200°C. Add the chestnuts for the last 5-10 minutes to heat them up. Toss them in a bowl again with extra salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shortcut Monte Bianco

I walked into the store and towards the counter. I had pretty much already made up my mind and knew where to look. I made my way through the crowds, nearing the display I was headed for. I could have almost reached what I had come for if it hadn't been for two people blocking my view. The sales person was showing his customer a product. I looked on a little impatiently, hoping I would make it to school in time to pick up the kids. It wasn't until they started discussing  skin tone and color tests that I did a double take.

Since when have jeans-clad, unshaven, sneaker-wearing students with back packs started buying/wearing  foundation? I ask this out of pure curiousity, I am not in the least preoccupied with a person's preferences or judging. 

I simply am not accustomed to seeing a guy that age, an age when most of us felt uncomfortable in our skin, standing self assuredly at a make up counter amidst a throng of women, trying on foundation and discussing the pros and cons of the product in question with the sales person. Even if I live in one of the world's fashion capitals, where appearance is a priority and something to be taken seriously. Even if I live in Italy, where men are known to be well-groomed and where the concept - if not the word -metrosexual probably originated.

I admit I have sometimes wondered with friends if that guy who just walked by was wearing bronzer. We have all read article after article about the male population being the fastest growing consumer group of cosmetic products (and surgery). But let's face it, not many of us are used to sharing their Diorshow mascara with the man in their lives.

Have you ever had to elbow a man to get to that last box of No. 2 foundation first? Do your male friends/kids wear make up? Is this a new trend?

Here is the kind of girly dessert a lady would order because of the creamy, soft texture and the sweet nuggets of marrons glacés and dark, toothsome bits of chocolate strategically hidden throughout. It is also the kind of dessert any husband eating a manly slice of bourbon pecan pie would constantly be stealing forkfuls from. It is also one of those shortcuts I often like to post about to make our lives easier. This is a quick version of a Monte Bianco, a popular dessert in Lombardy and Piedmont of quite certain French origin. The ingredients are pretty much the same and despite this taking literally just a few minutes to put together, the final effect is pretty sinful and delicious.

This recipe was given to me by a friend, Laura, without exact amounts, which just goes to show how forgiving it is. And why my amounts are pretty approximate. You basically have to eyeball your ingredients according to the size of your container. Those below should be enough for a springform. Ideally that is what it should be made in but I haven't replaced my broken one yet so I made mine in a glass, freezer-proof bowl. You could also make it in individual glasses.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moussaka-inspired lasagna

I am sure at least some of you are wondering why the heck I didn’t just make moussaka. I'll get back to that in a minute. First I wanted to share with you one of those unique moments of motherhood.

Those of you who have (or have had) young children know that many earnest conversations take place in the bathroom. Little ones rarely answer important questions if posed directly, but they somehow seem to reveal a lot of essential information in the most unexpected moments. We had one of those mother-daughter moments just last night.

My daughter: “Mommy, when we grow up we leave to go and look for a husband, right?”

Me: “…” (quick mental note to self: never ever let daughter watch another princess movie).

My daughter (misunderstanding my snort of laughter): “no, I mean, not go all around the world. I mean in the city we live. I’m scared, I don’t want to go”.

Me: “Sweetie, first of all your husband could be from anywhere in the world. Secondly, there are a lot of things you will do when you grow up. You will study something you are passionate about and hopefully find a calling or a job you will love and that will fulfill you. You will travel and meet lots of people and make many friends. And maybe on one of those trips or when you are having fun with your friends you will meet the person you will fall in love with. And then maybe you'll get married, or maybe you won't. You certainly don’t have to. But when it is the right time it will happen, you won’t look for it” I sentenced, proud of my women's lib talk.

My daughter: “But I want to get married. Voglio cercare marito (I want to look for a husband. I just had to leave it in Italian for those who could appreciate the choice of words of my five year old, so quaint and old fashioned, something out of a nineteenth century novel)”.

Me: “Well then you should (get married I mean). Love will find you when the time is right”.

My daughter: “But I’m scared anyway”.

How did I get from trying to convince my daughter to eat her vegetables to trying to dissuade her from becoming a wife as her sole reason of adulthood in a matter of a few days?

Which leads me back to where I started. Why did I make a moussaka inspired lasagna instead of a moussaka?

Simple: I had some fresh packaged lasagna that needed using up, two large eggplants that I didn’t know how to convince my kids to eat and a jar of ragù sitting in my fridge. If you decide to make it from scratch, you could use lamb for your ragù, but I had beef ragù. And since my ragù was the Italian kind, lacking those flavors so unique to Greek moussaka, I made a cinnamon flavored béchamel sauce.

I am aware that eggplant (aubergine for many of you) is no longer in season in this part of the world. I made this a few weeks ago when it still was. I decided to post this recipe because so many of my readers are in the other hemisphere. You Australians, New Zealanders, Chileans and so forth and so on must be sick and tired of reading recipes for stews and gingerbread when you are getting ready to pull out your flipflops and head to the beach. So this is for you, although I have to admit that lasagna isn’t exactly beach fare.

It served its purpose at my house. The roasted eggplant puree was perfectly nestled between the béchamel sauce and the ragù and although adult taste buds can easily detect the smoky flavor, my children didn’t and gobbled it up. After they swallowed the last bite, I of course informed them of what they had so much enjoyed, as I always do when I have to resort to this method. They giggled.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fall sweet potato cake

Italy is facing a debt crisis.

Our scandal-plagued Prime Minister, as the New York Times defines him, has promised to finally step down.

Local news + a job in finance + Q3 reporting season= pretty crazy days in the office.

Not much time to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather and autumn sunshine (that followed the copious amounts of destructive rain).

Yet I love the fall with its orange and yellow hues and its promise of the approaching holiday season. I thoroughly enjoy those first soups and stews, a warm cup of tea to warm my hands after biking back from work in the crisp air.

I have been buying pumpkins, sweet potatoes and eyeing chestnuts at the supermarket.  The other day I was tempted not to make my daughter taste her food, a rule in our household, before pushing away her helping of oven roasted sweet potatoes, so eager was I to bite into that crispy salty exterior and that pillowy, sweet interior. I mean, what kid does not like sweet potatoes? I knew I had to come up with another way to use up the second huge sweet potato I had bought, another way to lure my daughter and her father into enjoying this particular ingredient. My son didn’t need convincing. That a-boy!

That is how this sweet potato cake was born. It is moist, it has a lovely crumb. It is filled with the smells and flavors of this season. We get white sweet potatoes here, but if you make it with the orange variety, you will get the color of fall too. You can drizzle it with glaze or keep it simple like I did. With every bite, you will feel like you are walking down a New England road, the rustle of colored leaves underfoot, a canopy of flaming orange and red above your head. This recipe makes a big cake that keeps perfectly for a week, so you can take a walk through the blazing foliage every morning before you start your day, wherever you are.

Oh, I didn't convince my daughter (although she loved the batter) but F loved the cake and so did my son. You can't win 'em all!