Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kir Royale and Champagne

With New Year's Eve approaching, you'll most likely be breaking open some champagne, but instead of pouring a simple glass of the bubbly, why not have a Kir Royale, a festive drink made with champagne and crème de cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur made from black currants. I never drank a Kir Royale until my trip to Paris this fall, when I made up for all those decades of neglect.  I even went one step further, taking a side trip to Reims, the heart of the Champagne region. It's only a one-hour train ride east from Paris.

It's also the site of one of the great cathedrals of the world, where French kings were once crowned.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1200s and continued for nearly three centuries. It remains one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War I, and work continues to this day on the cathedral.

The artist Marc Chagall designed these stained glass windows,  installed in 1974.

While the cathedral is a big draw for tourists, so too, are the many champagne houses located in the region. I couldn't pass up the chance to tour the cellars of one such producer -- G.H. Mumm.

The "caves" or cellars are exactly that, 75 kilometers of tunnels and passageways dug by hand out of the chalky soil, a process that took 70 years to complete.

The cellars contain 25 million bottles (yes, million, that's right), some of which are behind lock and key.

Those are the historic vintages, some of which date back to the 19th century. They may be worth a lot of money, but that doesn't mean they taste very good. The length of time for optimum aging is anywhere from a year and a half to five years. 

Just as in the past, champagne for today's market goes through a "riddling" process - where each bottle is held on a tilt on a wooden rack and rotated by hand in order to consolidate any sediment prior to removal. After the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle, it's frozen to make disgorging easier.

 Mumm also has a museum in its cellars, containing many old implements and machines of the trade.

Of course, tasting the champagne is the best part of the visit. In the interest of research, I had to taste three of Mumm's champagnes, including one of its best - the Grand Cru blanc de blancs, made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes.

A bottle of this will set you back a pretty penny, so you may want to choose a less expensive bubbly, like an Italian prosecco or Spanish cava, to make your Kir Royale. You probably already know that while sparkling wines are produced all around the world, only those made in this geographic region of France have the legal right to be called champagne.  

By the way, you can make yourself a plain Kir, rather than a Kir Royale, by substituting dry white wine for the sparkling wine.

Here's a little bit of trivia for all you nerdy types out there. Bottle sizes still bear the names given them by champagne houses at the start of the 20th century. With the smallest first :

• Quarter or demi bottle = 18.7 or 20cl, depending on the country

• Bottle = 75cl
• Magnum = 1.5 litres
• Jeroboam = 3 litres (named after the founder and first king of Israel)

• Methuselah = 6 litres (named after Noah’s grandfather)
• Salmanazar = 9 litres (named after the king of Assyria)

• Balthazar = 12 litres (named after the regent of Babylon)
• Nebuchadnezzar = 15 litres (named after the king of Babylon)

Whatever you're toasting with this New Year's Eve and whatever the size, I'm lifting my glass to all you readers who follow Ciao Chow Linda, and I wish you all a happy, healthy 2013.

Kir Royale

1/2 ounce crème de cassis

6 oz. champagne

Pour the crème de cassis in a champagne glass and slowly fill with champagne. Serve.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Involtini di Pesce Spada (swordfish rollups)

Christmas eve is the one night of the year when my family's table is laden with fish - everything from spaghetti with mixed shellfish, to baccala' cakes, to stuffed squid and lots more. We never called it the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" because we never counted. My mom just served fish - and plenty of it. The first time I went to Italy, I found it odd that my relatives there in the north don't really make a fuss about fish for Christmas eve dinner. This "feast of the seven fishes" was totally unknown to them. My mother adopted the culinary customs of her Southern Italian family she married into, but even they didn't have a prescribed number of fish dishes. The custom of "seven" seems to have been invented by Italian Americans. 

Whatever you call it, I still cook fish for Christmas eve and I too, can't be sure yet on whether there will be seven. Some years it's five, some years it's 10 and gosh, maybe it'll be seven this year, but if that happens, it'll be purely by accident. I usually make my traditional dishes (there HAS to be stuffed squid and baccala), but I'm frequently guided by what looks freshest at the fish store the morning of Christmas eve. This year I plan to add involtini di pesce spada - or swordfish rollups - to the menu. I ate these the first time I went to Sicily years ago and have tried - and failed - to find a good recipe since then. But last month, Fabrizia Lanza gave a talk at the Italian cultural organization I'm involved with. When I saw the cookbook, I wanted to make everything in it, including her involtini di pesce spada. Once I did, I knew I had finally found the right recipe for that dish. It's almost identical to what I ate in Palermo years ago and it's delicious. 

I made this for a dinner party last month so I bought a huge hunk of swordfish, but you can use buy a small amount and make it for one or two people.

I cut my chunk in half, because after pounding the slices, I knew they would spread out a bit. I didn't want them to be so large that they'd be unwieldy to handle. Then I sliced thin pieces from each chunk, but it's not easy, I'm warning you. I even put the fish in the freezer for about an hour to make it less "jiggly" when I cut into it. It helped somewhat. I may see if my fish guy can do this for me next time. 

Here's what I ended up with from about three pounds of swordfish. 

I put some waxed paper on both sides of the fish and gently pounded with the flat side of a meat pounder until it flattened a bit (don't use the side with the prongs or you'll tear the fish apart.)

Then I added the stuffing. You can smear it all over the fish, or leave it in one spot. If you leave it in one spot, you'll have a finished dish that has a lot of stuffing in one central place. If you spread it out, then you'll have something like the first picture above. Or do a little of both. Either way works fine.

After they're rolled up and coated with breadcrumbs, place them in a casserole with slices of lemon, orange and bay leaves in between. I have a bay leaf plant and was able to use fresh bay leaves. If you can't find them, use dry ones. This casserole served enough for five people with some leftover after the dinner. I even had a few that I didn't put in the large casserole.

Instead, I put them in a smaller container and froze them for later use. They later cooked up just as if they had been fresh, so you can definitely make this ahead of time and freeze it.

It sure was nice to pull that out of the freezer and sit down to this for dinner a couple of weeks later.

These were so easy to make and taste so great that I plan to add this to my Christmas eve fish feast from now on.

Ciao Chow Linda was recently interviewed by N.J. Monthly for a story about the "Feast of the Seven Fishes." You can read more about my childhood memories of that night here.

Here are some other recipe ideas if you want to have your own "Feast of the Seven Fishes":

Involtini di Pesce Spada

from Fabrizia Lanza's "Coming Home To Sicily"

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating

1 small red onion, finely chopped

2 3/4 cups unseasoned dried breadcrumbs, divided

1 lemon, half juiced, half thinly sliced

1 orange, half juiced, half thinly sliced

1 tablespoon dried currants (I used white raisins, cut into small pieces)

1 tablespoon pine nuts

1/3 cup chopped fresh mint

fine sea salt and black pepper

1 pound swordfish, sliced into 8 thin pieces (about 1/3 inch thick; if the pieces are too thick, you can pound them gently between pieces of wax paper)

12 bay leaves, preferably fresh

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle the bottom of a medium baking dish with olive oil.

Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and onion in a medium skillet and cook over medium-high heat until softened, about three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup breadcrumbs, mixing everything together until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the oil. (I made the mistake of mixing all the breadcrumbs with the other ingredients the first time I made this, and it was fine.) Return to low heat and toast the breadcrumbs slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon and orange juices, the currants, pinenuts, and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lay a piece of swordfish on a work surface and put a heaping tablespoon of the breadcrumb filling (squeeze it in your hand to compact t) in the center and roll up. Repeat with the remaining swordfish and filling.

Pour some olive oil into a shallow pan and fill another shallow pan with the remaining 2 cups breadcrumbs. Dip each roll-up first in the oil, then dredge in the breadcrumbs until lightly coated. Place the swordfish roll-ups snugly in the baking dish and tuck the bay leaves and lemon and orange slices between the rolls. Drizzle with some more olive ol and bake until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. (Mine needed 15 minutes to cook through.)

Serves four.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Torino and Salone Del Gusto

Enough with the macarons, the tarte tatin and the tapenade. It's time for me to get back to Italy, and I did just that in late October and early November. Immediately following my trip to France, I took a train to Torino (Turin) to revisit one of my favorite Italian cities and spend some time in the exquisitely beautiful countryside of Piedmont, where this picture was taken. I have plenty of posts and enticing recipes for you from the region, but I'll start with a very brief intro to Piedmont's largest city, Torino - and finish with some photos from the Salone Del Gusto, a humongous food event held every two years. 

 The photo below is the Mole Antonelliana, an iconic symbol of this city in Northwest Italy that's often overlooked by tourists. Too bad, because Torino, the capital of Italy for the first four years of its unification in 1861, holds many delights for the tourist, including elegant palaces, a myriad of museums, and some of the best food and wine in all of Italy. The mole Antonelliana was originally conceived as a synagogue, but today it houses an engaging museum of cinema.  

The royal palace, below, was used as a residence for Italy's rulers from the 1500s until the 19th century, including King Victor Emanuele II, leader of the House of Savoy.

The huge piazza was the site of nightly concerts and awards ceremonies for the 2006 winter olympics. During the games, I worked for the city's daily newspaper La Stampa, and would occasionally leave my job early enough to hear performers like Ennio Morricone here in Piazza Castello. For those of you who aren't Italian, you would certainly recognize Morricone from the many film scores he composed, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Cinema Paradiso.  He's considered a national treasure in Italy.

 The building in the next photo is called the Palazzo Madama, and is so named because in the 17th century, it was chosen as the favorite residence by Maria Cristina of France, the widow of Victor Amedeus I. It was closed to the public for many years, but it's now a museum where you can see beautiful works of art, from mosaics to ceramics to exquisite paintings.

 Just in case those two palaces didn't suit them, the Savoy family had Stupinigi built in the 18th century, a  "hunting lodge" about 15 minutes by car from the city. 

Back in Torino, you can feel like a royal at one of the many elegant cafes in town, including this one --  Baratti & Milano, where the waiters are spiffily dressed.

But even if you're not a king or even a duke, the warmth exuded by people in the city can make you feel like royalty, including this couple -- Maurizio Tassinari and Iva Battistello, who own a wonderful food shop called Sapori. They invited me into their kitchen to watch fresh pasta being made, then served me plateful after plateful, even opening a bottle of wine for me to wash it down with.

  Aside from the memorable meals I ate in restaurants in the city, I had my fill of wonderful food and wines at the biennial Salone del Gusto. This year, the Salone was held in conjunction with Terra Madre, another food extravaganza that brings in food producers from other parts of the world. The combined event, with more than 1,000 exhibitors from 100 countries, was held for five days in the Lingotto, the former Fiat factory,  and you could easily take that long to see it all. Imagine the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City multiplied by four. 

Here's a little slide show to give you a taste of what I saw, ate and drank during the 11 hours I spent there:

And since we were walking distance of this place -

  the food emporium that started in Torino, my friend Lilli and I had to stroll over, peruse the aisles and finish the day with a pizza or two.

In the days ahead, I'll be posting more entries from Torino and Le Langhe, including recipes of some of the delicious meals I ate. But the next post will be a detour to Sicily - for the newest menu addition to my traditional "feast of the seven fishes" Christmas eve dinner. Go out buy some Italian pine nuts now - just sayin'.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012

Making Macarons

You're looking at a box of colorful macarons on a park bench. They didn't come from a fancy shop. Mais non, I made them. In Paris. And I may never make them again. They are as fussy to make as you might imagine, and now I know why they cost nearly $4 each at the Lâdurée store in New York. 

 I signed up for a morning of macaron making at "Cook'n With Class," a cooking school in Montmartre, only a couple of blocks from my friend's apartment, where I was staying.

Macarons may actually be Italian by the way, not French, since some food historians believe that Catherine di Medici brought them to France as early as 1533. That's when she married the man who would become the future King of France (Henry II), toting along her pastry chefs from Italy. It's all still unsettled, but if the French want to claim macarons, that's ok by me. Pretty as they are, they're awfully sweet, and I'd much rather sink my teeth into some bonafide Italian biscotti any day. 

Still, I wanted to learn how to make these ethereal confections and why not from a Frenchman in Paris?

The chef, Patrick Hebert, spent many years working and living in the U.S., and he showed us how to make macarons with three different classic fillings: white chocolate, raspberry jam, and salted caramel. 

The fillings were made first. You'll need a candy thermometer. Oh, and it's best to make these on a day when it's not raining or too humid.

 Lots of butter is added. Dieters might want to opt for a different cookie. (sorry for the strangely tinted photos. I had my camera on the wrong setting.)

 Don't buy eggs from your local farmer and use them for macarons the same day. Older eggs work better. And you have to sift the powdered sugar and almond meal a couple of times so there aren't any lumps.

 Every step is fraught with the prospect of failure. You've got to make a sugar syrup and let it reach a certain temperature before adding to the egg whites. That's in preparation for the Italian meringue (See... more evidence that macarons are really Italian!) Then you beat the egg whites until they reach a certain consistency and temperature.  

 Mix the almond meal/sugar with the meringue.

 Then beat the crap out of it. That's right, the whites are supposed to deflate at this point. Go figure.

 Food coloring gets blended in - not liquid, but powdered or gel. The flavor comes from the filling -- not the actual cookie.

 The mixture is put into a pastry bag and piped onto parchment paper. Some experimenting was going on with some odd color combinations, as you can see.

 Before baking, you've got to leave them out at room temperature to form a "skin." If you've got a warm place, like resting on an oven top, that's good. Sometimes people use a blow dryer to reach this stage sooner. 

 Once they go into the oven, you're still not home free. You've got to open and close the oven door a couple of times to let the moisture escape - or keep the door ajar with a spoon. (I told you they were fussy to make.) But if you've taken all the proper steps, you'll end up with nicely shaped cookies, like these. They've got the requisite "feet" all around the edges -- de rigeur for a proper macaron.

 For a final touch, you can brush a little finishing powder on top to give a nice glisten.

 Then pipe the fillings onto one half and sandwich two of them together.

And have a little fun while you're at it.

For those of you still undaunted, here's the recipe:


(recipe from Cook'n With Class)

printable recipe here

Making the macaron shells

yields about 70 macarons (140 shells)



300g/10oz 300g/10oz 110g/4.5oz == 300g/10oz 75g/ 2.5oz 110g/4.5oz


almond meal/ground blanched almonds
sugar 10X (also called powdered or icing sugar) liquified egg whites

plain white sugar (not powdered) bottled water
liquified egg whites

page2image5592 page2image5752

Note : A few days before preparing macarons, start saving egg whites, keep them refrigerated.

  1. Strain the egg whites, weigh as indicated in each recipe and separate in two bowls.

  2. Weigh almond meal and powdered sugar separately, then sift them together. This is important! Repeat this twice. Do not add any

    large bits of almond powder. Weigh and replace this with same amount of fine almond meal.

  3. Pour one quantity of egg whites (110g) in the sugar-almond mix, do not mix.

  4. Weigh the sugar (plain white, not powdered) and water for the syrup.

  5. Put water and then sugar in a small pot, cook on medium heat until temperature reaches 110°C (230F). At this point start 

    whipping the second bowl of egg whites (second quantity of egg whites – 110g).

  6. When the syrup reaches 115°C (239F) carefully pour it onto the whipping whites and keep going at high speed for about 1 minute.

  7. Reduce the speed of the mixer and keep whipping until the mixture reaches 50°C (122F)page2image16032

  1. Mix the meringue into the sugar/almond/eggs mixture until the mix starts to be shiny. Don't worry about saving the volume of the meringue, it is supposed to deflate at this stage. When shiny it is then ready.

  2. Mix the food colouring into the mixture. Use either powdered or gel food colouring but not liquid.

  3. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a round tip and pipe rounds on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.

  4. Tap gently the cookie sheet on the table lined with a towel to remove piping imperfections. Do this only if you have imperfections

    (i.e. bumps) in your piped macaron.

  5. Preheat the oven at 150°C (300F)

  6. Leave the piped macarons at room temperature for about 30 minutes or until the macaron has formed a ‘skin’.

  7. Total cooking time is approximately 12 minutes. Open the oven quickly to let moisture escape after 8 and then after 10 minutes of

    the baking process or leave the oven door ajar with the help of a spoon.

  8. When ready, slide the parchment paper off the cookie sheet and onto a cold surface (marble, steel, glass etc.) to stop the

    cooking. Let the macarons cool, then detach them from the paper one by one.

Top tips• •page3image11896

Macaron shells tend to crack more if there is a lot of moisture in the air. So try and make them on a day when it’s not raining and not too humid.
Use egg whites which have been stored in a jar/container for a couple of days or better for one week. 


Raspberry jam filling

250g fresh or frozen raspberries
200g sugar

15g pectin

50g lemon juice

Purée the berries for several minutes until the seeds are broken and
almost entirely puréed. Put the purée, sugar and pectin in a pot, bring
to a boil. Stir and boil for 5 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and add
lemon juice, mix. Let the jam cool on large dish in the refrigerator
before filling a pastry bag to pipe the fillng in the macarons.

Pectin’s strength can vary, use more if you find the jam too runny to
be piped.

Caramel beurre salée




heavy cream

a heavy pinch of fleur de sel

unsalted butter at room temperature.


Pinch of fleur de sel or heavy sea salt

Make a dry caramel by melting the sugar one tablespoon at a time.
Shake the pan instead of using a spoon to stir it. When the sugar is a
dark amber colour carefully add the cream and salt. Cook until the
temperature reaches 108°C (226°F). At this point pour into a dish and
let it cool in the fridge with a film covering the bowl. Whip the butter
until fluffy, then incorporate the cold caramel. Transfer to a piping bag
and fill the macarons. 

White chocolate pistachio ganache

1 tbsp

heavy cream

high quality white chocolate
pistachio paste

almond meal

Boil cream and pistachio. Then pour over chopped chocolate.
Let it sit a couple of minutes, then stir well and when
homogeneous incorporate the almond meal. Cool in the fridge
before using it. 

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