Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Baked Ricotta

April 2011 008

I’m tall – a blessing when you need something from a high shelf, but not so much on airplanes or in the backseats of most cars.  But on a recent trip to California, heading back to my friend Jeannette’s house in Santa Barbara from the Malibu Getty, I was happy to cede the front seat to her and my buddy Jan. Why? Because my head was buried in a book called “A Handful of Herbs” that Jeannette had purchased at the museum shop. I was mesmerized by the photos, recipes and decorating ideas using fresh and dried herbs. 

This is one of the recipes from the book and I’ve already made it on three different occasions, including Easter, where it appeared as one of the appetizers. I used fresh bay leaves from a plant I’ve nurtured indoors all winter, but fresh bay leaves may be hard to find for most people here on the East coast.

March 2011 275

When we lived in Italy, fresh bay leaves were plentiful, and you’d find them growing as hedges in many public places. I always knew where to snip a few leaves when I needed them for a recipe. I won’t ever have a bay leaf hedge in New Jersey, but I’m hoping that in trimming my small plant, two new side branches will emerge sometime soon.

I couldn’t bear to cut any more of my fledgling bay leaf plant, so the third time I tried it with chives. I can envision it with sage leaves too,which are easy enough to come by in New Jersey.  April 2011 158 

I deviated from the recipe slightly, placing the leaves in a decorative fashion, rather than crushing the leaves and tucking them under the ricotta. The recipe also calls for serving the cheese in the bowl as the book illustrates, rather than flipping it over as I did.

March 2011 277

Making the basil oil that gets drizzled on top is the most time-consuming part of the recipe, but even that doesn’t take very long.

March 2011 279

Then bake it in the oven for 20 minutes. You can serve it as is, or take it a step further and flip it onto a plate as I did. But don’t try to do it hot out of the oven or you’ll have a mess on your hands. Wait until it’s cooled a little, then place a plate over the bowl and flip. It’s best served at room temperature or slightly warmed.

March 2011 282 

Sprinkle some more basil oil on top, along with bits of red pepper for color, and serve with crackers or slices of bread.

April 2011 010

Hope you all had a Happy Easter, if that’s what you celebrate. As I write this, I’m looking out my window at pale pink crabapple blossoms, cascading in the wind like a scene from Disney, all the while wafting their sweet fragrance into my home. The harsh winter gives way to the beauty of Spring and to a renewal, an object lesson in so many ways.  

April 2011 203

Baked Ricotta

Printable Recipe Here

Based on a recipe from “A Handful of Herbs” by Barbara Segall, Louise Pickford and Rose Hammick

  • 1 pound (500 g) ricotta cheese
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 red chile, seeded and sliced
  • 1/2 t. lightly crushed coriander seeds
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 fresh bay leaves, lightly crushed
  • 1 T. freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • basil oil

Put the ricotta in a foil-lined baking dish. Put the garlic, chile, coriander seeds and oil in a bowl and stir. Trickle the oil mixture over the cheese and tuck the bay leaves underneath.

Sprinkle parmesan, salt and pepper over the ricotta and bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, basting halfway through the cooking time.

Serve the ricotta spread onto toasted bread sprinkled with basic oil or salsa verde. Serve topped with a little grated parmesan.

Note: I found the foil was unnecessary. I laid out the bay leaves, put only half the ricotta in the dish, then sprinkled with a bit of parmesan, and drizzled with the oil, garlic and spices. Then I spread on the remainder of the ricotta and a bit more parmesan, followed by a last trickle of the oil mixture.

Basil Oil

  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup olive oil

Put the olive oil and basil in the blender and give it a whir – not to pulverize but just to break up the leaves a bit. Place the mixture in a saucepan and cook for several minutes. Let it sit for a bit – maybe 15 minutes or a half hour – to absorb all the flavors, then strain and use the oil, discarding the solids.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Colomba Pasquale

April 2011 126

Colomba Pasquale – The words literally mean “Easter Dove.” I know, I know, you’ve got to use your imagination a little to see the dove shape in this dessert, but people all over Italy will be serving this buttery, brioche-like cake this Sunday and you can too with a little bit of effort.

Many years ago (well, decades actually) on one of my early visits to Italy, my Aunt Ave sent me home with a colomba, purchased in a store near her home.  I made room in my luggage for the Easter treat and we happily ate it shortly after we got back to the states.

Most people in Italy do not make their own colomba, but rather buy it in a store. Most people in the U.S. who want to eat a colomba also buy it at a store. Like the panettone at Christmastime, colomba has become as ubiquitous as a chocolate bunny during Easter season. They’re even sold at my local supermarket.

April 2011 133 Always up for a culinary challenge, I decided to try to make it from scratch this year. The paper forms can be ordered online, and I got mine from a great kitchen supply store in Philadelphia called Fante’s. The shipping cost more than the paper forms, but given the convenience and price of gas, it was worth it.

I’m giving you this post before Easter for those brave enough to give it a try. It’s not hard to make, it’s just time-consuming.  But truth be told, a lot of the time is spent just waiting for the dough to rise – and there are several risings. You can start the dough one day and finish baking the next.

The sight of the well-risen cakes as they came out of the oven, crunchy with almonds and sugar, was worth all the fuss, not to mention the taste of the little tidbits that fell off, needing to be “tidied up.”

April 2011 136

And the recipe makes two cakes.

I’m sending an update today - Easter Monday (Pasquetta in Italy) - to show you the interior of the Colomba. The texture was perfect, but it was a little dry, probably because I was worried that it needed more time in the oven and I baked it closer to one and a half hours, rather than the one hour stated in the recipe. Next time I’ll bake it according to the recipe.

I thought it needed a little more orange flavoring too, and might try adding a bit of orange flower water, or the grated rind of another orange, in addition to the candied orange peel. Still, there were no complaints about the colomba this Easter. I guess pouring a little vin santo over the slices wasn’t a bad idea either.

April 2011 187 

Here are a few photos of the process:

The dough just before the second rising – with candied orange peel added. You can use raisins or dried apricots if you don’t like candied orange peel, or leave out the fruit entirely.

April 2011 101

The dough after the second rising:April 2011 102

Splitting the dough into three parts – use a scale to get even distribution. One third will get cut in half and used as “wings.” The two remaining pieces will become the “bodies” of the birds.

April 2011 103

The paper molds and the cakes awaiting the third rising:

April 2011 108

The cakes are finished rising and ready for the glaze.

April 2011 109

The glaze of egg whites, sugar and ground almonds. It rose so much that there wasn’t enough room for all the glaze.

April 2011 110

Sprinkling almonds and coarse sugar on top:

April 2011 111

Fresh from the oven:

April 2011 113

And ready for the Easter table:

April 2011 144

Buona Pasqua!

April 2011 098

Colomba Pasquale

printable recipe here

Recipe originally from Bon Appetit

Make steps one through four on the first day. Step four includes an eight- to ten-hour rising that could be done overnight. Then finish and bake the next day.

Yield: 2 loaves.

Step 1 (Starter)
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cool water
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast
7 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour

Step 2
2/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons cool water
2 teaspoons sugar

Step 3
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature (very soft), cut into 6 pieces
5 tablespoons sugar
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons lukewarm whole milk
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour

Step 4
1/2 cup cool water
1 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature (very soft), cut into 12 pieces
6 tablespoons sugar
4 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons lukewarm whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups (about 10 oz.) chopped candied orange peel (I made my own using this recipe, but you can buy it in specialty foods stores or leave it out)

Step 5
1/2 cup (about) all purpose flour
2 dove-shaped paper baking molds (I got mine at Fante’s by mail order) or two buttered and floured ten-inch-diameter cheesecake pans

Step 6 (Glaze and baking)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole unblanched almonds
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/3 cups sliced almonds
Powdered sugar

For step 1 (Making starter):
Combine water and sugar in bowl of heavy-duty mixer. Stir in yeast. Let stand until yeast dissolves, about 10 minutes. Using rubber spatula, mix in flour (dough will be firm). Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let starter rise until puffy, about 45 minutes. (Initially, the starter is firm and compact, but it softens and becomes puffy and spongy after rising.)

For step 2:
Attach dough hook to mixer. Add all ingredients in step 2 to starter. Beat until blended, scraping down sides of bowl often, about 5 minutes (dough will be soft and thick). Scrape dough off hook; remove hook. Cover bowl with plastic. Let dough rise at room temperature until puffy and bubbly on top, about 1 hour. The dough will look thick, shiny, and slightly puffed.

For step 3:
Reattach clean dough hook. Add first 5 ingredients in step 3 to dough; beat until blended. Add flour. Beat at low speed until smooth, scraping down bowl and hook often, about 5 minutes (dough will be firm and compact). Scrape dough off hook; remove hook. Cover bowl with plastic; let dough rise at room temperature until lighter in texture and slightly puffed, about 3 1/2 hours. The dough will double in volume and become lighter in texture but less glossy.

For step 4:
Reattach clean dough hook. Mix water and yeast in small cup. Let stand until yeast dissolves, about 10 minutes; add to dough. Add 1 1/3 cups flour, half of butter, sugar, and 2 yolks; beat until dough is smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape down dough hook and sides of bowl. Add remaining 2 yolks, milk, vanilla extract, and salt. Beat at low speed until blended, about 3 minutes. Scrape down hook. Add remaining 2/3 cup flour, remaining butter, and orange peel. Beat dough until well blended, about 5 minutes. Scrape dough into very large (at least 4-quart) buttered bowl. Cover with plastic. Let dough rise at room temperature until doubled and indentation remains when 2 fingers are pressed about 1/4 inch into dough, 8 to 10 hours.

For step 5:
Sprinkle 1/2 cup flour onto work surface. Scrape dough out onto floured work surface (dough will be soft and sticky). Gently toss dough in flour until easy to handle. Brush away excess flour. Divide dough into 3 equal pieces. Divide 1 piece in half; shape each half into 10-inch-long log. Arrange 1 log crosswise in each paper baking mold, curving ends to fit. Roll each remaining dough piece into 11-inch-long log, slightly tapered at ends. Place 1 log across dough in each mold. (If using 2 cheesecake pans, divide dough in half; place half in each prepared pan). Cover molds (or pans) with plastic. Let stand at room temperature until dough rises to top of each mold and indentation remains when 2 fingers are pressed about 1/4 inch into dough, about 3 1/4 hours.

For step 6 (Glaze and baking):
Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 375 F. (I used a temperature of 350 F. and baked it for one hour). Finely grind sugar and whole almonds in processor. Add egg whites and almond extract; blend 10 seconds. Peel plastic off dough in molds. Spoon half of almond glaze over top of each. Sprinkle each with sliced almonds. Sift powdered sugar over. Slide rimless baking sheet under molds; slide molds directly onto oven rack.

Bake breads until brown on top and slender wooden skewer inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes (I baked it for one hour at 350 degrees). Cool breads completely on rack. (Can be made ahead. Wrap; let stand at room temperature up to 2 days or freeze up to 1 week.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wild Greens Crostata

April 2011 041

It’s that time of year, my friends. And I’m not talking about crocus, daffodils, and tulips. I’m not even talking about artichokes, asparagus and ramps. No, it’s that time of year when you find old Italians (and not so old ones) stooped over along the roadside picking wild greens known as winter cress or mustard greens. You can find more details about the plant and another recipe for them here.

They’re something that evokes my childhood days, when my parents would head out with us kids in tow, to clip and gather these greens that taste similar to broccoli rape, but more bitter. (Lest I get any comments about it, it’s correct to call it broccoli rape or broccoli rabe, raab, rapini or even Chinese broccoli, but it’s not related to broccoli.)

April 2011 065

I was reminded of them on my recent trip to Santa Barbara, where the hillsides along the road were blanketed with them.

March 2011 329

It’s a real tease though for you food foragers out there, for once they start sprouting their pretty yellow flowers, you can forget it – they’re too tough and way too bitter to eat.

March 2011 375

But for those of you in the Northeast U.S., the time is now – and the window to harvest them is short  – maybe another week or so. I ran out yesterday and filled a couple of grocery bags full. They’re growing in a fallow field nearby, but I’ve spotted them in dozens of places. Start looking DOWN (and don’t pick them where pesticides have been sprayed). They don’t take long to pick, but it is tedious to clean them, blanch them, drain them and prepare them for the freezer.

April 2011 073 It’s worth the trouble though. First of all, who doesn’t like free food? Besides, they’re super delicious and you can tell from their mineral-y taste, that they’re good for you. The best thing is that you’ll have them tucked away for those winter nights when you don’t have to run to the grocery store for a vegetable. I finished last year’s stash just last night, and they had special meaning for me since they were picked by my husband’s hands last spring. I drove out to the same fields yesterday, and commemorated what would have been our 41st wedding anniversary by gathering the greens that he loved so well. 

Making the crostata takes very little time, especially if you use a pre-made pie shell, which I recommend as a time-saver if you’ve got a heap of mustard greens to pick through and clean. Just roll out the dough, add the filling:

April 2011 039

Crimp the sides and brush with olive oil, or a beaten egg:

April 2011 040

Bake it for 45 minutes or so, and sit down to a slice for dinner, or cut it into small pieces as an hors d’ouevre:

April 2011 068

Wild Greens Crostata

Printer Friendly Version

  • one cup cooked and chopped wild mustard greens (you could use spinach, swiss chard or kale if you can’t find the mustard greens)
  • 3 scallions, sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 16 ounces ricotta cheese (2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
  • small handful of chopped parsley
  • salt, pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

If you’ve blanched the greens and stored them in the freezer, thaw them and squeeze out the moisture as much as possible. Chop roughly. If they're fresh greens, cook in boiling water for five minutes. Drain and submerge them into cold water to stop the cooling. Drain again, then squeeze out as moisture as possible.

Spread the pie crust on a cookie sheet or pizza pan. Saute the scallions until limp, add the garlic clove and cook until soft. Place the scallions and garlic in a bowl and add the greens, ricotta, parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix everything together and spread on the pie crust. Bring the outside edges toward the center, crimping as you go along. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 45 – 50 minutes or until golden brown.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Classical Cooking

April 2011 023Let’s step back more than 2,000 years for this recipe – one that was noted by Cato, an early Roman soldier and politician who lived around 200 B.C.  In between fighting Hannibal, the Punic Wars, and all that lapsed Roman morality to reign in, this statesman who hailed from ancient plebian ancestors also devoted himself to writing a farming handbook complete with recipes and agricultural advice.

Cato’s recipe for this olive paste is included in “The Classical Cookbook,” a book of recipes from ancient Greece and Rome that I bought at the Getty Villa in Malibu (photo below) on my recent trip to California.

March 2011 458 To those of you who have never visited the Getty Museums in California, you should know there are two, and they are both fabulous. On my last trip to Santa Barbara, my friend Jeannette took me to the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a stunning series of buildings and gardens designed by the architect Richard Meier.


The Getty Center houses European paintings, drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, decorative arts, and European and American photographs and is a must-see for art lovers traveling to the West Coast.

But this time we went to the Malibu Getty, which dedicates its beautiful buildings overlooking the Pacific Ocean to an extensive collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art – from mosaics:

to frescoes:


March 2011 461

to sculptures:

to ancient coins, jewelry, glassware and many other beautiful works of art that have survived not hundreds, but thousands of years, including this vase:

March 2011 440 While I can’t own one of these precious works of art, at least I can content myself with eating in the same manner as Augustus Caesar, Cato or Socrates. And now so can you.

Olive Paste

adapted from “The Classical Cookbook”

printable recipe here

  • 4 oz. black olives (Don’t use bottled or canned olives please – buy olives from a deli or good grocery store)
  • 4 oz. green olives
  • 4 T. red wine vinegar
  • 4 T. olive oil
  • 1 heaping t. chopped fennel leaf or finely diced fennel root (I used fennel fronds)
  • 2 t. chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
  • 2 t. dried or chopped fresh rue (I left this out since I couldn’t find it at this time of year.)
  • 2 heaped t. dried or 3 t. chopped fresh mint

Buy pitted olives to make your life easier. Chop the herbs roughly and put them, along with all the other ingredients, into a food processor. Whir until everything is blended and finely chopped (but not pureed). Serve with pita bread or crackers. This would be great accompanied by a sharp sheep’s cheese like feta.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Inspired By Lotusland

March 2011 267

Ever wish you lived in a climate where it’s almost always sunny and warm? Where you don’t have to shovel snow in March? Where you can pick lemons from a tree instead of a supermarket bin? Where ginger root isn’t just something to buy at the Chinese grocery store but actually grows in the ground?

March 2011 259 OK, all you Southern California folks know what I’m talking about. For one week, I was able to bask in your near 80 degree temperatures and bright sunshine every day. For one week, I escaped the New Jersey sleet (and luckily came back to warm sunny weather too!).

For one week, I headed to Santa Barbara with a good friend from Princeton, to visit a mutual friend from another lifetime ago.  I don’t know what I would have done without their friendship and support during those early years of motherhood and they have remained close friends to this day – nearly 34 years later.

I’ve written about Santa Barbara before and you can find highlights of that trip and the beautiful seaside town here.

This trip however, was filled with different adventures that were just as much, if not more fun. I’ll fill you in on some of the other sights, sounds and tastes in later posts, but today is all about Lotusland, a 37-acre botanical garden in Santa Barbara.  The unusual gardens are home to extraordinary collections of various types, including rare cycads, cacti, palms and euphorbias.

March 2011 508 Lotusland was created by a beautiful and charismatic Polish woman named Madame Ganna Walska, who collected men almost as abundantly as she collected plants. 


Lucky for visitors to Lotusland that most of her six husbands were wealthy, leaving her with abundant resources to spend on creating the series of gardens that takes you from one enchanting environment to another, including a topiary garden:

March 2011 516

a cactus garden:

March 2011 523 an aloe garden:

March 2011 491 plus fern gardens, butterfly gardens, water gardens, succulent gardens, a Japanese garden and at least ten other types of gardens.

Lotusland gave me the itch not only to get working in the garden, but in the kitchen too, inspired by the ginger root I saw growing in the ground there.

March 2011 494 I thought I’d keep this really simple and it doesn’t get much simpler than this. After you’ve peeled and sliced the ginger root, peeled the garlic, sliced the scallions and lemons, you’re almost ready to sit down and eat – forget Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals. This one takes five minutes. Here are the ingredients for one serving – it’s all very switchable – use more garlic or less ginger root or whatever amount of each ingredient you want, depending on your palate and how many servings you’re making.

March 2011 261

Place a piece of fish (in this case sole that’s been salted and peppered first) on a plate. Arrange the ingredients on top of the fish. Put the plate in a steamer. If you don’t own a steamer (and I don’t) I just put a plate upside down in a large skillet, add water and let it come to a boil. Then on top of the first plate, place the plate containing the fish. Cover and let it steam at a low simmer for five minutes. Some of the water from the pan will find its way onto the plate, and that’s fine because it dilutes the soy sauce a bit. If you’ve got a little sesame oil, it would be nice to add a drizzle at the very end.

March 2011 265

I hope you’ve cooked the rice and veggies beforehand, because after five minutes, the fish is ready to eat.

March 2011 269

Steamed Filet of Sole

printable recipe here

for one serving:

one-half pound piece of flounder (or sole)

1 T. soy sauce

1 scallion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, sliced

a few slices of peeled and sliced ginger

salt and pepper

one or two slices of lemon

sesame oil

Place a piece of fish (in this case sole that’s been salted and peppered first) on a plate. Arrange the rest of the ingredients (except sesame oil) on top of the fish. Put the plate in a steamer. If you don’t own a steamer (and I don’t) I just put a plate upside down in a large skillet, add water and let it come to a boil. Then on top of the first plate, place the plate containing the fish. Cover and let it steam at a low simmer for five minutes. Some of the water from the pan will find its way onto the plate, and that’s fine because it dilutes the soy sauce a bit. If you’ve got a little sesame oil, it would be nice to add a drizzle at the very end.