Thursday, April 30, 2009

Springtime at Princeton University

This post has absolutely nothing to do with food - except if you count the coffee and cake I ate at a reception yesterday morning preceding a lecture by the Irish poet and Princeton University Professor Paul Muldoon.

While walking to campus on such a gloriously beautiful day, with so many flowers in bloom, it struck me that I should simply treat all of you to what I am lucky enough to see on my way to class. I've been auditing a macroeconomics class taught by former Federal Reserve vice-chairman Alan Blinder. (macroeconomics? I know what many of you are thinking, but I figured in this economic climate, I owed it to myself to enroll in this class, rather than the normal art history classes I gravitate to.)

This post is by no means a comprehensive overview of campus. In fact, my camera battery went dead at one point. But there are enough shots here to give you an idea of the beauty of Princeton's campus and the wonders of Mother Nature in Springtime. It really does make you glad for the four seasons here on the East Coast.

These are a row of magnolia blossoms and the fountain at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

These are the Fitzrandolph Gates, the main entrance to campus from Nassau Street, opposite Witherspoon Street. Note the allee of callery pear trees in bloom in the distance. Fitzrandolph was the son of one of the original seventeenth-century Quaker settlers of Princeton.

This is a back view of Nassau Hall, completed in 1756 and the oldest building on campus. At one point, it served as home to the Continental Congress and it was where congress first learned that the British had signed a peace treaty granting independence to the former colonies in 1783.
See that black thing sticking up a little bit in the center of the picture? It's supposedly a cannon left by the Hessians, and it's buried in the ground in this spot called "Cannon Green."
This is what is known as the Princeton "Chapel" although it's really a Gothic cathedral with stunning stained glass windows. Wednesday afternoons you can pop in on your lunch hour and hear organ music performed by some of the top organists in the country. At Christmastime, Princeton High School's choir performs its winter concert here - always to a packed crowd, starting with a candlelight procession.
This is the back of Prospect House, an Italianate structure that until 1968, served as home to Princeton University's presidents. It's now a faculty dining facility and is also often used for receptions, weddings and meetings. The flower gardens in the foreground change with the seasons and are always a photo-op for visitors. The garden is laid out in approximately its present form from a design by Woodrow Wilson's wife when Wilson was President of the university from 1902 to 1910.
This is Princeton's Art Museum. It's got a jewel of a collection -- everything from pre-Columbian art to Greek and Roman antiquities to Asian art, Byzantine art, Renaissance paintings, modern art and more than I can remember. Some of the artists represented in the vast collection include Fra Angelico, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, El Greco, Cezanne, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. This is one of Central New Jersey's hidden gems -- and it's free to the public.
These two Greek revival buildings are referred to as "Whig" and "Clio" after the Whig-Cliosophic Society, the oldest literary and debating club in the U.S.
You'll see sculpture all around campus by very famous artists, including Louise Nevelson, Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Calder and George Segal. This one is by Henry Moore and is called "Oval with Points." Lots of people like to sit in it and have their picture taken.
This is Blair Arch, prominently featured in the move "A Beautiful Mind." It's not unusual to find a university accapella singing group performing under the arch. This is the view of the arch as you're walking from the "dinky," the affectionate term for the one-car commuter rail train that makes the three-minute trip back and forth to the main station in Princeton Junction.

As you come through Blair Arch this is the view: the back of Alexander Hall, which houses Richardson Auditorium, a beautiful performing arts space. To conclude today's visit on campus, I'll leave you with a bee enjoying a vibrantly colored rhododendron blossom. Hope you enjoyed the brief tour.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Strawberry Almond Cream Tart

I was a good girl. I only ate one piece of this tart, even though I could have eaten the whole thing. But I played nice and let the seven other people sitting around the table have a slice too.

I'm still fantasizing about it though and I'm looking for an excuse to make it again. Has Arbor Day already passed? Grandparents Day? (Oh no, I'm not a grandmother yet. That won't work.) There's got to be a holiday today somewhere in the world that I can celebrate, no?

If you're worried about rolling out that crust, have no fear. You don't have to. You can just take it from the food processor and pat it into your tart pan with your fingers, as I did. The next time I make this, I may add a bit more sugar and try substituting some ground walnuts or pecans in the crust in place of some of the flour to give it even more flavor.

Be warned there are a few tricks to having the crust come out well. You don't want to overwork it and make it as tough as shoe leather, and you don't want the sides to shrink in the oven, leaving you with a flattish-looking tart shell. So pay attention:

For a 9 inch tart shell:
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick plus 1 T. very cold butter
1 large egg, beaten
1 T. ice water

Place flour, confectioner's sugar and salt in food processor and whir for a minute to blend ingredients. Drop butter into the processor in little pieces and pulse until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal or very coarse sand. Add the beaten egg and the ice water and pulse for another few times until the mixture sticks together when pressed between your fingers. The less you work it in the food processor or your hands, the better.

Remove from food processor and press it into a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan, making a thicker area around the perimeter. Prick it all over so it doesn't bubble up in the oven. Place it in the freezer for at least a half hour. Longer is better. Butter a sheet of aluminum foil on the shiny side and lay it over the pastry shell. Bake for 30 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. Remove the foil and bake 10 to 15 minutes more or until golden.
Let the tart shell cool. In the meantime, take 3/4 cup of sliced almonds and brown them in a nonstick skillet (don't add butter or anything else to the pan) or toast the almonds in the oven until they turn color. They'll burn really fast once they start to turn golden so watch them carefully. Cool the almonds. When the pastry shell has cooled, place the almonds inside like so:
You can start making the almond cream while the pastry is baking. Here's what to do:
Recipe is adapted from a decades-old "Better Homes and Gardens Encyclopedia of Cooking".

1/2 cup sugar
3 T. cornstarch
3 T. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
2 cups milk
1 slightly beaten egg

1/2 cup whipping cream
1 t. almond extract (or vanilla if you prefer)

Combine sugar, cornstarch, flour and salt. Gradually stir in milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower heat; cook and stir till thick and bubbly. Stir a little of the hot mixture into the beaten egg. (If you put the beaten egg directly into the hot mixture, you'll end up with scrambled eggs.) Return to remaining hot hot mixture. Bring just to boil, stirring constantly. Cool, then chill thoroughly, placing a piece of plastic wrap over the top to avoid a "skin" from forming. Whip the cream and fold into egg mixture with the almond extract.

When everything has cooled, spread the almond cream over the toasted almonds in the pie shell. The recipe for this almond cream was meant to fill a pie shell, so you will probably have more than you need to fill the 9-inch tart shell. (Oh, too bad, guess I'll have to finish up the leftover cream.)
Slice strawberries (about one quart) and arrange over the cream, starting from the outside and working your way to the center like so:
After you've covered the entire pie in strawberry slices, heat about 1/2 cup jelly (currant or apricot) in a saucepan. I used currant and thinned it with the juice of 1/2 lemon. Using a pastry brush, paint the strawberries with the melted jelly and place in refrigerator until serving time.The result is a luscious tart with a shortbread crust, velvety almond cream and plump berries coated in a viscous jelly. Who could resist?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tuna with Sesame Seeds and Asian-inspired Sauce

Lest you think that all I cook is Italian food, here's a curve-ball for you. While Italian food is my cuisine of choice, I'm really an equal opportunity-foodie and I prepare food from different cultures all over the world. When the weather turns warmer, I especially like to make this dish, which not only takes little preparation time, thereby heating up the kitchen very little, but it also tastes great and looks pretty enough for company.

I'm always surprised at how many servings you can get from a slice of fresh tuna. I bought the piece above, which weighed about 1.16 pounds, perfect for four people. We were only three at dinner when I made this, so we had leftovers for another meal. Serve the cold leftover tuna over a green salad and if you've got average appetites, you and another person will enjoy a light, but delicious dinner.

Tuna with Sesame Seeds and Asian-Inspired Sauce

Marinate the tuna, even if only 1/2 hour, in a splash of soy sauce, minced garlic and a drizzle of olive oil.

For a piece of tuna that weighs about 1 1/4 pounds, you'll need a total of about 1/4 cup of a combination of white sesame seeds and black sesame seeds. Black sesame seeds are harder to find than the white but sometimes they're available in small jars in the "ethnic" food sections of the grocery store. I bought mine in bulk at a local health food store. They're much cheaper that way and you only have to buy what you need.

Mix the two kinds of sesame seeds together on a plate. Take the tuna out of the marinade and press into the sesame seeds on the plate. Turn over and make sure that the tuna is covered on both sides with sesame seeds.

Heat about 1 T. of olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Place the tuna in the skillet and cook on medium heat for about three or four minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the tuna steak and your preference of doneness. I also put a lid on the pan part of the time, which helps to speed up the cooking and keep the top of the tuna steak warm. I generally test the fish (and meat) with my fingertips to tell if it's done to my liking. If the fish (or meat) still feels springy, but not flabby, (like raw meat would feel to the touch), it's usually rare or medium rare, depending on the amount of resistance. Once there's no spring left, you've got well done protein, which may be to your liking, but to me it's ruined at that point.

Pour the sauce over the tuna (or serve it in a separate bowl with a spoon if you prefer).

For the sauce:

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup orange juice
1 T. sesame seed oil (the kind you buy in Asian food stores)
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
cracked black pepper
2 T. chopped fresh chives

Blend everything together with a fork and pour over the tuna - or serve separately.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Close Encounters of the Blogger Kind

I had my first "blogger blind date" yesterday. Sue from "Rue Mouffetard" found my blog a few weeks ago through her fellow blogger friend Joyce from "Flour Power." Sue, who lives in Atlanta, wrote that she would be traveling to Princeton, New Jersey to cat-sit while her daughter and family cavorted in Italy.
"Princeton? That's where I live." I wrote to her.
Naturally we had to meet and yesterday was the day.

Sue arrived at my house toting a gift bag. Inside was a cellophane bag filled with beautifully made biscotti scented with anise and studded with chocolate. When she handed it to me saying "I made you some biscotti," right away I smiled to myself.

Why? Because I had a gift bag for her too, filled with guess what? A cellophane bag containing biscotti I had made for her. Were we on the same wave length or what? Mine were almond and cranberry biscotti, a recipe I've posted before, but this time I added some grated lemon rind.

The weather cooperated wonderfully and we were able to enjoy a delicious lunch al fresco in downtown Princeton, followed by a short walk to "The Bent Spoon," an artisanal gelateria. (Well we did more than walk, we indulged in some of the gelato as well. Here's a shot of Sue enjoying some coffee and cookie gelato.)

It was great fun meeting Sue and learning all about her family, her interests and her blog. I will be savoring her delicious biscotti and thinking of her until they all disappear. Even after they're gone however, I'll be able to enjoy them any time I want by following the recipe she posted on her blog for them.
And now you will too.
Click here for her chocolate chip anise biscotti recipe.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lemon Cake - A Repeat

Obviously I'm losing it. My mind, that is. And this recipe too. I must have accidentally deleted this post from a few months back. Fortunately, I found a copy of it in the "edit" file.
So enjoy it now - some things are better the second time around. But if my original brain shows up, I'd like to get that back please.

Kulak - what is it?

a. a Hungarian pastry made with cinnamon and almonds
b. a lightweight garment worn by the Inuit people
c. a prosperous peasant farmer in Czarist and early Soviet Russia
d. a traditional Indonesian side dish served at weddings

What's this got to do with lemon cake you ask?
Well nothing really, except I made this lemon cake to serve Saturday evening, when we gathered with our friends, the Johnsons and the Janis, to play a game of Dictionary. To play it you need a dictionary, some paper and pencils and a good sense of humor. The object for one team is convince the other team of a phony definition for a word. One of the players on a team finds a word in the dictionary that no one has heard of. Each of the players on that team creates a phony definition and all of them are read aloud, including the real one. The players on the other team vote for whichever definition they believe is the real one. The made-up definitions can sound pretty convincing and sometimes hilarious. We were all in stitches by the end of the night.

OK, so back to the lemon cake. This is a recipe given to me more than 25 years ago by my friend Carol, whom I met when our boys were in nursery school together. Carol has been living in Boulder, Colorado for decades and we've actually reconnected through this blog - another reason I'm glad I started this. Carol called this cake the "E. 62nd Street Lemon Cake," and only today, after googling it, did I learn that it's a classic recipe that originated with Maida Heatter, the doyenne of desserts. If anyone knows why it's called "E. 62nd St. Lemon Cake," please let me know. Maybe that's where she lived when she created the recipe.

The recipe calls for the rinds of two lemons, but I would use another one the next time to punch up the lemon flavor. I would also double the glaze recipe below that soaks into the cake. The original recipe also does not call for the white frosting, but I added that because it just tastes great and looks nice too.

E. 62nd Street Lemon Cake

3 cups sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 lb. butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup milk
finely grated rind of two lemons

Glaze: 1/3 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
Stir lemon juice and sugar together.

Butter and flour a tube or bundt pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift first three ingredients. In a large bowl, cream the butter. Add sugar and beat for two to three minutes. Add eggs and mix a few more minutes. Alternately, add dry ingredients and milk. Stir in lemon rind. Pour into a tube or bundt pan and bake for one hour and 10 to 15 minutes.
Let cake stand about three minutes then cover with rack and invert. Remove pan, then flip back over and while still hot, brush with glaze. Let it cool.

If desired, make a separate glaze/frosting using about two cups of sifted confectioner's sugar and about three or four tablespoons lemon juice. It should not be as thick as traditional frostings, but not as thin as a glaze either -- somewhere in between. Continue adding either lemon juice or confectioner's sugar until you get the right consistency. When cake is cool, drizzle on top and let some run down sides.

And for all those of you who stayed with me this far and are wondering about kulak:
The answer is c. a prosperous peasant farmer in Czarist and early Soviet Russia.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pork Loin Stuffed With Prunes and Apricots

Same old, same old, plain old roast pork? Not this one. It's gussied up and stuffed with prunes and apricots and easy enough to make for a weeknight meal. I started out with a large boneless pork loin bought on sale, one that would have served at least 12 people. I cut it in thirds and wrapped each piece for the freezer.

Last night I cooked one of the roasts for just me and my husband. It weighed only about 1 1/2 pounds, but there was enough meat leftover for another two meals. That's because there is very little fat, no bone and it didn't shrink during cooking. That's the good news. The bad news is that there is very little fat, no bone and it can easily dry out if you cook it too long. If you brine the roast, even for just an hour, it will guarantee that you won't end with a piece of shoe leather.

To brine a roast of this size, measure out a quart of cold water. Put about 1/4 of it in a saucepan with 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup sugar, a couple of garlic cloves, some black pepper corns and some herbs. You could use rosemary or sage, both of which work well with pork. Bring the water to a boil and continue to boil for about two to three minutes to dissolve the salt and sugar. Take the pot off the heat and add the rest of the cold water. Put the pot in the refrigerator until the water is no longer warm. Place the pork into the water, turning it around once and store the pot in the refrigerator for at least an hour. You could even do this the night before you cook it if you want.
Take the meat out of the water and pat dry. With a sharp knife, cut a hole into the center of the meat and poke it all the way through to the other side.
Twist the knife while it's in the center, to create a small stuffing "pocket."
Stuff pitted prunes and apricots into the hole, using the end of a wooden spoon to poke the fruit into the center.
Cut little slivers along the outside of the roast and put little pieces of garlic into the slits. Sprinkle all over with salt, pepper, and herbs de provence. Place in a small roasting pan greased with olive oil. Add one large onion, cut into quarters. Drizzle everything with more olive oil. Roast at 375 degrees for about one hour or until a thermometer registers about 135 degrees. Remove from oven. The temperature will continue to rise. Cover with foil and let rest for about 10 to 15 minutes before slicing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Foraging For Wild Greens

This is my 100th post, and while I had planned to write a long, personal story and recipe to note the event, I'll keep it for later because I want you to go out into the fields this week and look for these greens -- if you're lucky enough to live where they grow. In the Northeast U.S., they are perfect for picking for only a few more days. Right now they're so tender, you could eat them raw.

This lovely bouquet of wild greens belongs to a member of the cruciferae, or mustard family, the same family as broccoli rape and arugula and many other vegetables. In fact they taste a lot like broccoli rape. They're also known as winter cress, but the botanic name is barbarea vulgaris or barbarea verna. If you wait much longer, they'll be in flower and too bitter to eat.

Here's a photo I took in Italy last June of a field of wild mustard greens in full bloom.

In his book "Stalking the Wild Asparagus," Euell Gibbons noted how the first sign of spring would be not the robins on the lawn, but the Italians who would swarm out from town to gather winter cress from fields and ditches. Here are a few lines from the book, originally published in 1962:

"The suburban dweller seldom bothers to identify the plant which the immigrants are so eagerly collecting. Such knowledge is strictly for squares. He is satisfied to refer to it merely as "some weed the Italians eat." We have come to a poor pass when we think that allowing ourselves to be bilked because of our own ignorance contributes to our status. And still we think we have a mission to teach the rest of the world "the American way." Heaven forbid this kind of thinking. We do have some things to teach, but we also have many things to learn from other cultures. Unless we realize that cultural exchange is a two-way street, we shall fail, and much of the ancient and precious wisdom now residing in the simple peoples of the world will be lost."

Ponder that thought for a while.

My husband discovered a field not far from our home where these greens are as prolific as weeds. We set out on Saturday for our foraging expedition and came home loaded with bags and bags of them. There's nothing like getting something for free. Especially when it's nutritious, healthy and abundantly growing in fallow fields.

A pretty ladybug found its way into this bag along with the mustard greens.

We were overflowing with mustard greens. We gave some to friends, others I blanched and put in the freezer. Some we ate very simply by boiling, then draining and tossing them in some olive oil, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. On Sunday I went a little fancier, adapting a recipe that Mark Bittman posted in the New York Times last week. The recipe uses broccoli rape (sometimes spelled broccoli rabe) instead of the wild greens and it could be adapted for many different vegetables. But the wild mustard greens really made it special. We were licking the bowl to extract every ounce of goodness.

Spaghetti with Mustard Greens, Garlic and Bread Crumbs

For two people:

1/3 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup bread crumbs, preferably homemade
a couple of shakes of red pepper flakes, or to taste
wild mustard greens, a couple of large handfuls, or about 1/2 pound
salt, freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Put 1/8 cup of olive oil into a large skillet over medium-low heat. When oil is warm, cook garlic just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add bread crumbs and red pepper flakes and cook until bread crumbs are golden. This will take about five minutes or so. Remove and set aside.
2. Cook mustard greens in boiling water until soft, about five minutes. Drain well.
Bittman tells you to cook the pasta in the same water, but I would not recommend doing this with the wild greens, since the bitterness remains in the water.
3. Boil the pasta in salted water in another pot.
4. Meanwhile, add the remaining 1/8 cup of olive oil to a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the mustard greens and toss well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and bread crumb mixture and mix well.
5. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a little of the water. Toss pasta in the skillet with the mustard greens. If necessary, add a little of the pasta water. Adjust seasonings and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Stuffed Artichokes

I never ate an artichoke until I was in my 20s.
Boy have I made up for my errant youth.
I love artichokes in all forms - tender marinated artichoke hearts in salads, warm and baked in a lasagna oozing with bechamel and parmesan and whole ones squished and fried as crispy as potato chips the way Romans eat them. Those are called "carciofi alla giudia" or "artichokes Jewish-style." I once tried duplicating them at home, but my version was about as tasty as fried cardboard. I guess I'll have to go back to Rome to properly enjoy them.

My mother-in-law introduced me to artichokes. She had a very narrow repertoire of dishes, but they were all delicious. In her case, less was more, since in limiting her range of offerings, she could make them practically blindfolded. One of her specialties was stuffed artichokes. Naturally, there was no recipe involved, so I had to pay attention while she prepared them. Over the years, I've made them dozens and dozens of times and if you don't get the proportions exactly alike each time, it's no big deal.

Here's an approximation of what you'll need:

For two large artichokes:

Trim the artichokes by slicing off the stem so it can stand upright in a pot. Then peel off the bottom-most leaves. Trim across all the pointy parts on the remaining leaves with a scissors or a knife, slicing off the topmost circle of leaves to make them level. If you want to, scoop out the choke in the center using a grapefruit spoon. But even if you leave the fuzzy choke inside, it will be ok. You wouldn't want to eat it, but it will soften during cooking and you'll be able to scrape it off and eat just the heart.

For the stuffing:
about 2 cups cubed, stale Italian or French bread, trimmed of crusts
1 egg
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, optional
handful of Italian flat parsley, minced
2 cloves minced garlic, or to your taste
salt, pepper in generous amounts
olive oil

With a fork, beat the egg in a bowl, and add the bread, cheese, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix in a little water until the mixture starts to stick together. Start out with just a little water at a time, maybe 1/8 cup or so. You don't want the mixture to be sopping wet, but it shouldn't be dry either and it should stick together. When you reach the right consistency, stuff in between the artichoke leaves.

Place in a pot with some water, or chicken broth, or water with a chicken bouillon cube. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bring to a simmer and let the artichokes cook for about two hours with the lid on. Keep checking to make sure all the water doesn't evaporate. After a couple of hours, test one of the leaves. If it's not fork-tender, cook another 1/2 hour or until done.
If you find yourself in central California this May 16th or 17th, try to get to the Artichoke Festival in Castroville, known as the artichoke capital of the world. Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first Miss Artichoke Queen there in 1947.

You won't find Marilyn there, but you'll find "Cal Choke"

There are lots of exhibits, artichoke samplings, wine-tastings and plenty of other entertainment too. For more information on the festival, click here. I wouldn't make a special trip, but if you're in the area, it's worth a day trip. Last year, following a wedding we attended in Carmel, we drove to the festival and had lots of fun.
Castroville's Artichoke Festival - Saturday May 16, and Sunday May 17, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chocolate Amaretti Cake

I must be channeling a lot of other bloggers unconsciously since I made this cake the same week that Tuesdays With Dorie bakers chose chocolate amaretti cake as their project. Even though we use the same ingredients, the proportions for mine are different, with more chocolate, more amaretti and more almonds. This is one case where more is more.
I also serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, rather than a chocolate frosting. Just mention the word cream and I'm in. Plus I like the contrast of vanilla and chocolate.

You don't have to use those expensive, individually wrapped amaretti that come in a red tin. Just buy the kind you find in bags in the cookie aisle at the supermarket.

You'll understand why this cake is worth blogging about once you try it. It's rich with chocolate flavor, it's elegant, and it's ridiculously easy to make. I've been baking this for years for my Italian chit-chat group and by now many of them have adopted this recipe too.

This cake reminds me of the time we were living in a fully furnished apartment in Rome and I offered to contribute this cake to a dinner at a friend's home. Trouble was we had no mixer. The kitchen was large but the batterie of pots, pans and other kitchen equipment was rather deficient to put it kindly. I asked the landlord if he could get us a mixer, a toaster and a corkscrew, and he did come through with the toaster and the corkscrew. But instead of a mixer, he brought over a stick blender - the kind you use to make pureed soups.
Something definitely got lost in the translation.
Oh well, you make the best with what you're given and I managed to turn out a pretty terrific chocolate amaretti cake using the stick blender. Hopefully you have a real mixer in your kitchen.
Chocolate Amaretti Cake

6 ounces semi-sweet or dark chocolate
1 cup almonds
1 cup amaretti cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9 inch round cake pan all around and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pan with flour.
Melt the chocolate, either in a double boiler or in the microwave.
Put the almonds and amaretti cookies in a food processor and grind until it resembles sand.
Put the butter and sugar in a mixer and mix until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl occasionally.
To the mixing bowl, add the nut and amaretti mixture and the melted chocolate.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes.
Let it cool and flip onto a serving platter. Remove the parchment paper and decorate with powdered sugar, using a paper doily as a pattern. I have also baked this in a pretty ceramic dish and served it without flipping it. Just be aware that the top may be a little crunchy and cracked if you serve it this way. You can still decorate with powdered sugar, which hides a lot of defects.

Serve with plain whipped cream, or whipped cream flavored with a little bit of coffee liqueur or instant coffee dissolved in a little liqueur, or with ice cream.

Hurry up. Get going. I know you'll want to chomp down on this:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bean and Ham Soup

Had your fill of ham and cheese sandwiches or omelets from all that leftover Easter ham?

Still have that hambone left? Well then make some soup.

This ham and bean soup made a soul-warming, satisfying and economical dinner during yesterday's dreary, drizzly weather here in Central New Jersey, with plenty left for the freezer. It looks like today's weather is no better, so this soup will still be season-appropriate.

A lot of recipes tell you to soak the beans overnight, but I find they're still rock hard the next day. Just save yourself the trouble and start out with the dried beans and boil them per the instructions below. They'll soften during the cooking. Just don't add salt until the end.

Bean and Ham soup

I leave a fair amount of meat on the hambone when I'm trimming the ham, knowing I'm going to be using it for soup. I also add little bits of leftover ham, maybe 1/2 cup to 1 cup or so. Hopefully, you've been saving the rinds of Parmesan cheese when you get near the end of a piece. They add great flavor to a soup. Pull one out of the freezer and drop it in the pot with the other ingredients.

1 pound dried small white beans
2 T. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 cup diced celery
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup diced carrots
1 ham bone, plus extra bits of ham, if desired
10 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
pepper, to taste
1 rind of Parmesan cheese (optional)

Put the beans in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes on high heat to get rid of any scum. Drain.

In another pot, saute onions, celery, garlic and carrots until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients, including the beans, but don't add the salt. DON'T add salt to a pot of dried beans or it will take forever to them to soften. Cook over low to medium heat for at least two hours. Remove the rind, the bay leaf and add salt.

Remove the bone and any meat that hasn't already flaked off. Put the meat back in the soup. You can eat the soup as is, or blend part of it with a stick blender to get a creamier texture.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pear Apple Crostata

Last week I promised you this recipe, courtesy of my friend Jan who brought it for dessert recently following our dinner of stuffed shells. It was warm and beautiful. I wish I had thought to take a photo of the entire thing before we sliced into it, but one can only resist so much temptation. You can call it a galette, a croustade, a crostata or even an open-face pie. But whatever you call it, call it fantastic.

Jan used dried cranberries and dried cherries, but if you don't have both, you can substitute more of one or the other. Eat this warm topped with a scoop of ice cream, and it could become your go-to dessert.

pastry crust:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel (maybe even a little bit more, but not a tablespoonful)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter cut cross-wise in 1/2 inch slices
1/4 cup or more heavy cream

Whisk flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt in medium bowl. Add butter; using pastry cutter, blend butter with flour mixture until coarse meal forms. Drizzle 1/4 cream over; toss with fork until moist clumps form adding more cream by teaspoonfuls as needed if dry. I added 2 more teaspoons. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour. You may do this a day ahead. In that case, let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before rolling out.

5 firm but ripe Bartlett pears, peeled cored, and thinly sliced
1 large granny smith apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
2-3 tablespoons dried cherries
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons (maybe a bit more) finely grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon (generous) ground nutmeg
heavy cream for brushing
sliced almonds for edge

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix all fruit, sugar, flour, lemon juice, lemon peel, and nutmeg in a large bowl to coat. (I whisked together the sugar, flour, lemon peel and nutmeg before adding the juice or the fruit.)
Roll out pastry on sheet of floured parchment paper to 14inch round, Transfer crust on parchment paper to baking sheet. Mound fruit in center of pastry, leaving a 2 inch border all around. Fold pastry border over fruit, crimping slightly. Brush edges with cream and gently press on sliced almonds.

Bake until filling bubbles and almonds are lightly toasted, about 1 hour. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream if desired.

Related Posts:
Fig Crostata

Monday, April 13, 2009

How To Make Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs

Who needs a tutorial on making hard-boiled eggs? Well, maybe you if you've ever started to boil eggs only to have them crack and burst open in the water, releasing a gush of egg whites. Or have you ever cooked them to the point where the yolks aren't a creamy yellow, but rather have a greenish tint around the edge? Do you find it difficult to peel off the shell without a layer of egg white coming along for the ride? Come on now, fess up.

Fear not, I've got a foolproof way to cook them to perfection, and easily peel them too, even if it's a bit unorthodox. I've been using this method for so long, I don't even remember where I first learned it. But it works every time, and I've been doing this for decades.

There are many opinions on how to cook hard boiled eggs - start with cold water, start with boiling water, etc. My method starts with boiling water, but you can't just drop an egg into the water without following these instructions exactly.

First, you've got to pierce the eggs with the sharp tip of a knife or a large needle, or even a turkey skewer as I do. Poke a teensy little hole in the broader end of the egg. Look at the photo below and you'll see a little hole in each egg. Don't do this while they're in the egg crate. You've got to hold the egg in the palm of one hand while poking a hole with the knife or needle, or any other sharp pointy object. Careful, because if you press the egg too hard, you could crack it and end up with a gooey, raw mess in your hand.
Why should this work, you ask? Because if you pierce the egg and then put it into the boiling water, you'll see little bubbles percolate out of that teensy hole. The egg is creating a seal as all the air immediately rushes out, keeping all the contents of the egg inside. It really works, try it!
When the eggs are all in the water, set the timer to 12 minutes for medium size eggs, 13 minutes for large and a few seconds longer for jumbo.

After the appropriate time is up, take the eggs off the heat and drain the water. Immediately fill the pot with cold water. Change the water two times because the heat from the eggs will warm up the cold water. You want the eggs to stop cooking.

Now take each egg and crack it all around against your sink or countertop, but don't peel it. Drop it back into the pot with the cold water. When you're finished tapping all the eggs and putting them back in the water, start peeling. You'll find that water has now seeped in between the cracks you made in the eggshell, allowing you to slip the shells off easily.

Peel the eggs and slice open. Inside is a moist golden yolk, and a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg.

Next up, deviled eggs.

One caveat to this method is if the egg already has a crack in its shell, in which case you'll find out as soon as you drop it in the boiling water because it will start to ooze its liquid immediately. Scoop it out immediately and save that one for scrambled eggs.

Le Matte Hit The Road For Pasquetta

It may be just another workday if you live in the U.S., but if you're in Italy, it's Pasquetta or Easter Monday and you've got the day off from work. Most people spend the day with family and friends enjoying a picnic lunch in a park or the countryside.

Le Matte, my Italian chit-chat group, is celebrating Pasquetta by taking a road trip to the beach. Clara, one of our members, invited us to share the day with her at her vacation home on the Jersey shore. We're a large group of more than 25, but not everyone is available on every meeting. Today there are at least eight of us are heading out, toting all sorts of yummy foods that we will enjoy once we get to Clara's beachhouse. I wish you could join us.
Here's my contribution.

Deviled Eggs

one dozen eggs, hard boiled (click here for a post on how to make perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs.)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp. salt
white pepper, to taste
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. white wine vinegar

Put the yolks and all the other ingredients in a food processor. Pulse until everything is blended and smooth. I then use a pastry bag to pipe it into the egg whites, but you can spoon it in. Sprinkle with paprika. Decorate with either edible flowers, pieces of pickle, red or green pepper, tomato strips or anything else you can dream up.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

When I was a young girl, my mother made a lamb cake for Easter, using a specially shaped aluminum cake pan. I inherited the pan decades ago, and carried on the tradition when my kids were little, but then forgot about it as they grew up. A few years ago, I resurrected it when my niece and her then two-year old son Hayden came for Easter. It was a big hit, even though it just didn't seem right cutting into the cute little creature for dessert.

I don't have my mother's original recipe, but I found a pretty good one on a few years ago that I've included below. It's a nice firm-textured white cake that holds up well as you stand the lamb upright to frost and serve. I once used this cake pan for my daughter's birthday, repositioning the ears and frosting the cake to resemble our cat Rocky. At that time, I used a cake mix, but the softer texture didn't hold up well. When I went to serve the cake, to my dismay, Rocky's head had fallen off. A few wooden skewers later and a camouflaging ribbon around the neck and he was good as new. Lesson learned - don't use a box cake mix for this specialty pan.

I like it with a buttercream icing, but you can use a cream cheese icing, or any kind you prefer.
The hard part is cutting the first slice. I hate to see that little lambie's butt sliced off. It's even harder to see it decapitated, but all that icing and coconut around the ears makes me come to my senses.

I know there are similar pans available for sale on various websites including You may even be able to find one at a good kitchenware store where you live. If you don't have a lamb form, it's also delicious as a layer cake using two 9" cake pans.

Lamb Cake

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 egg whites
  1. First, prepare your mold. Coat with vegetable oil, let sit for a few minutes then wipe clean with a paper towel. Then grease and flour your mold, making sure to get all the little areas.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Sift the cake flour, then sift again with the baking powder and salt; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture alternately with the milk. Stir the batter until smooth after each addition. Add the vanilla.
  4. In a large glass or metal mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it, then quickly fold in the remaining whites.
  5. Fill the face side of the mold with batter. Move a wooden spoon through the batter GENTLY, to remove any air pockets. Make sure not to disturb the greased and floured surface of the mold. Put the lid on the mold, making sure it locks or ties together securely so that the steam and rising batter do not force the two sections apart.
  6. Put the mold on a cookie sheet in a preheated oven for about 1 hour. Test for doneness by inserting a skewer or wooden toothpick through a steam vent. Put the cake, still in the mold, on a rack for about 15 minutes. CAREFULLY, remove the top of the mold. Before you separate the cake from the bottom let it cool for about 5 more minutes so that all the steam can escape and the cake can firm up some more. After removing the rest of the mold, let the cake cool on the rack completely. DO NOT sit the cake upright until completely cooled.
  7. I frosted my lamb with a buttercream frosting, then covered it in coconut and pressed in some small pieces of raisin for the eyes and nose. Give it a little ribbon collar and lay it on a bed of coconut dyed green with food coloring. Decorate with jelly beans and/or small chocolate eggs if desired.