Monday, February 24, 2014

Banana Cake with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

It's wickedly caloric but wickedly good. I'm blaming it all on a snowstorm and that salted caramel sauce I saw on Stacey Snacks' blog. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

 I had just come in from shoveling the driveway for the umpteenth time this year and although it was cold outside, I had worked up a sweat and was craving ice cream. All I had was plain vanilla, but to dress it up, I could quickly whip up a caramel sauce. Never mind that there are a gazillion calories in caramel sauce (not to mention ice cream). Hey, I deserved it after all the shoveling this season.

Fast forward two days later when I had baked a banana cake for my Italian chit chat group. Not just any banana cake, but really the best banana cake I'd ever tried. It's from my friend Jan, who gave me the recipe decades ago when our kids were babies. Over the years, I lost sight of it and finally took the time to scrounge through stacks of old recipes to find it. I could have made the buttercream frosting that came with the recipe - delicious in its own right. But with the extra caramel sauce that was too much of a temptation for my weak resolve, I used it instead in a frosting, incorporating a bit of leftover cream cheese too and sharing the caramel goodness (and calories) with a bunch of other women.

Now you can enjoy it too. Just make sure you balance the calories with some jogging - or snow shoveling - which shouldn't be a problem with a lot of winter still ahead of us.

Jan's Banana Cake

printable recipe here

2 eggs

2/3 c. softened butter

1 t. vanilla

1 1/4 cups brown sugar

2 cups cake flour

2 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

1/2 c. buttermilk

1 1/4 c. mashed very ripe bananas (about 2)

crushed walnuts for decorating the sides of the cake

Grease the bottom and sides of two layer cake pans and line with greased waxed or parchment paper. Beat the first four ingredients together until smooth. Combine the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, alternately with the buttermilk and banana. Pour and spread in the prepared pans and bake at 350 degrees until centers are set - about 20 to 25 minutes. when cold, fill and frost with either rich butter icing or the cream cheese caramel frosting. Decorate the top with a little of the reserved caramel sauce, and press crushed walnuts onto the sides of the cake.

Rich Butter Icing  (a delicious recipe, and the original one that Jan uses, but I used the cream cheese caramel frosting instead)

1/4 cup butter or margarine

2 c. sifted confectioner's sugar

1 egg yolk

1 t. vanilla extract

1 T. cream

Cream Cheese Caramel Frosting

6 oz. - 8 oz. softened cream cheese (a typical bar of cream cheese is 8 oz., but I had already eaten some, so I used only what was left - 6 oz. - and it was fine)

1/2 cup butter

1 c. confectioner's sugar

1 t. vanilla

1/2 cup caramel sauce (below)

Beat the cream cheese and butter until well blended. Add the confectioner's sugar, vanilla and caramel sauce until smooth. Spread on interior layer of cake, then on the sides and top of cake.

After incorporating the 1/2 cup caramel sauce into the frosting, you'll have enough caramel sauce left over to drizzle over the top of the cake too. Drizzle in concentric circles, then run a toothpick or knife through the circles at equal distances. You might need to reheat the sauce a bit to make it pourable

Salted Caramel Sauce (from Bon Appetit):

1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cream
3 tbsp butter 
1/2 tsp. kosher salt (not regular salt)

In a small, heavy saucepan, heat the water and sugar on medium boil until turning golden, 8-10 minutes.
You can scrape the brown bits on the sides of the pan down with a wet pastry brush.

Take the golden liquid off the heat and carefully add in the cream, it will bubble and boil, so be careful not to splatter yourself.

Place back on the stove and stir for 2 minutes.

Add in 3 tbsp butter and salt and cook another minute or two until the butter and mixture is nice and smooth.

Transfer to a heat resistant vessel, and place in the fridge to cool. You can make the caramel sauce 5 days in advance.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Moist, Easy Meat Loaf

I fess up. I used to buy those powdered French onion dip mixes back in the 70s, add a little sour cream, throw some potato chips in a bowl and serve that at parties. Alright, so bruschetta and guacamole have taken center stage these days, but that doesn't mean I don't have a nostalgic yen for those chips and dips of yore. Still, I stay away from processed foods, so those powdered chemical concoctions don't entice me. Except the other day I was in my local health food store, and a table with free samples of chips and dip were just sitting there, begging me to try some. One dip and one chip and before you know it, I was paying for a package of the stuff at the cashier. It was an organic mix, mind you, but still, knowing my addiction to chips, and all those calories from the sour cream I'd need to make the dip, I figured my hips would thank me if I came up with a different plan for that package.

Then another idea from the past came to mind - meat loaf - a hearty meal for these snowy days that never seem to end. I remembered making meat loaf years ago using oatmeal and those packaged soup mixes too, and they added lots of flavor. Now with the organic soup mix, I could do it without adding artificial ingredients. 

Bake it in a loaf pan or shape it into individual portions. Halfway through baking, top it off with a mixture of ketchup and brown sugar. I forgot to smear it over the top until about 15 minutes before removing it from the oven. But if you do remember to do it earlier, say a half hour to 45 minutes before the meat loaf is done, you'll get more of a caramelization of the sugar on top that's hard to resist. Line your loaf pan with some aluminum foil to help remove it from the pan when it's done.

And serve up a moist, flavorful meat loaf - good for sandwiches the next day too. For an Italian version of meat loaf, click here for my friend Alessandra's recipe.

Lest you think we Easterners are tired of the snow (well, it has been a lot of shoveling and commuting problems for some), there have been some benefits too, like cozying up by the fire, cooking up a pot of soup, or building a snow lady who's dreaming of warmer climes. Find the positive, people. It's there.


Moist, Easy Meat Loaf

2 lbs. ground meat (I use a combination of veal, beef and pork)

1 package of onion soup mix

3/4 cup oatmeal (I use the quick 1 minute-cooking oats)

2 eggs, beaten lightly

1 cup tomato sauce (or tomato juice)

salt and pepper to taste


1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup brown sugar

Mix all the meat loaf ingredients thoroughly together in a bowl. Press into a loaf pan that's been lined with foil. Bake at 350 for 1 1/2 hours, and halfway through add the topping, by mixing together the ketchup and brown sugar in a bowl, then smearing over the top.

Let the meat loaf rest about 10 minutes after baking, for easier slicing.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Valentine's Day Love Story

They met in Austria during World War II - Frank, an Italian-American soldier and Maria, a young Italian woman trying to find her way home from Czechoslovakia with a group of other displaced persons. 

It had been a harrowing time for both of them: He fought his way through Europe following D-day, including the brutal Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. She endured untold indignities and fear, after being snatched from an Italian factory and sent to work in a labor camp, sewing uniforms for the Nazis.

But they found each other after his unit entered Linz, Austria, shortly after the war ended in Europe in May 1945. The attraction was instant, and three months later on August 15, they married in Nussdorf-am-Attersee,  a beautiful lakeside town in Austria. 

After reciting their vows, they thought the bells pealing throughout the town were in celebration of their nuptials, but in reality, it was to announce Emperor Hirohito's surrender of the Japanese to the Allies. Either way, it added more joy to their already happy day.

Eventually, they made their way back to her hometown near Piacenza, Italy. Her father had long since died, but her mother was still alive and jubilant when her daughter returned in the arms of an American soldier who was now her husband. 

Shortly afterwards, Frank returned to the U.S. to start the process of procuring documents to patriate his new Italian wife. During their separation, letters flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, with Frank writing in Italian, the language of his parents.

"Mi sono innamorato di te dal primo giorno che ti ho vista."  

"I fell in love with you from the first time I saw you," he writes in one letter. 

The letters contain many more romantic declarations, that will be left to the readers' imagination to ponder. I wouldn't want to infringe too much on Maria and Frank's privacy since Maria was my mother and Frank is my father. This is my story as much as theirs and I will never know all the background because when my mother died in 1986, she took those wartime details with her. For her, those war years were too horrifying to describe to anyone, even to my father, who had seen his share of war time atrocities.

But after my mother died, my father let me keep those treasured letters that she saved. Letters that speak  not of war, but of love and longing and separation and being reunited in the future. When I read them, I feel as though I'm secretly peering backwards into the lives of two young lovers in a steamy novel, except that they were real and they were my parents. 

I can only imagine how many countless stories exist similar to my theirs - including that of my father's brother Sam, who met his wife Irene in a small village in France during World War II. Thankfully, a professor and researcher from L'Universit√† degli Studi in Milan, Silvia Cassamagnaghi, has written a book called "Operation War Brides," detailing the history of this fascinating subject, including a part about my parents. The book will be available in Italian bookstores at the end of February, and I can't wait to read it. Especially since the book jacket features two people who are very near and dear to me - my mother and father as they appeared on their wedding day. 

You may not have a story as dramatic and romantic as my mom and dad's, but that doesn't mean you can't surprise the ones you care about, whether it's your lover, your spouse, your parents or your neighbor down the street - with a special treat on Valentine's Day.  

Love is our true destiny.  We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another. - Thomas Merton

Who, being loved, is poor? - Oscar Wilde

To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. - Pablo Neruda

Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity - Henry Van Dyke

How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill? A kiss, and all was said - Victor Hugo

Happy Valentine's Day to all my readers.

Buttery Sugar Cookies (from

printable recipe here

2 sticks unsalted, softened to room temperature (1/2 lb., 225 g)

3/4 cup sugar (150 g)

2 large eggs

1 T. Amaretto, optional

1/2 t. vanilla, increase to 1 t. if omitting the Amaretto

3 1/2 cups flour (525 g)

To decorate:

1 lightly beaten egg

colored sugar crystals or sprinkles

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to incorporate.

Beat in the Amaretto and vanilla and then about a third of the flour until smooth. Gradually beat in as much of the remaining flour as possible using the electric beater, then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon or a spatula.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead quickly; if you haven't stirred in all of the flour you can knead in the rest quite easily. Once you have a smooth, homogeneous dough, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (180 degrees c.)

Working with about half the dough at a time, roll it out to a thickness of not less than 1/8 inch (no less than .3 cm.), being careful that the dough is very evenly rolled out. Carefully cut out shapes with your cookie cutters. Gently transfer to a cookie sheet (I use unlined, ungreased cookie sheets with no problem at all). If you want to decorate, just gently lift the cookies one by one, brush around the edges with a beaten egg, then dip in the decorative sugar before placing on the cookie sheets.

Bake for about 10 minutes. They will be set and appear cooked but they will NOT brown. You'll know they are done because they will slide right off the cookie sheet when just nudged with a spatula. Remove from the oven and gently lift each cookie off of the baking sheet and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Butternut squash and greens

If you haven't already noticed from all the butternut squash recipes I've posted lately, it's one of my favorite vegetables - winter or summer. It makes a great soup, filling for lasagna, or even a delicious base for ice cream. It's also wonderful just as a vegetable side dish, as pictured here. My friend Dede made this dish a while ago for a luncheon of our Italian chit-chat group, and I wanted to eat the whole plateful. But I played nice and left some for others. Then  I went home and made more just for me. I used kale in my version, since that's what I had at home, but I much prefer it with swiss chard or spinach, as Dede made it.

You could even add some chick peas or cannellini beans to make this a vegetarian dish with complete proteins, or serve it as a side dish with a piece of grilled meat, as I did. 

Butternut Squash and Greens

Note: Dede cooked her squash in a skillet, but I tossed the pieces with olive oil and roasted them in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.

2 T. olive oil

1 3/4 lb. peeled and diced butternut squash, sprinkled with salt and pepper

a couple of large handfuls of greens, chopped - spinach, swiss chard or kale

1/4 cup onions, diced

1/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries

grated parmigiano reggiano sprinkled on top (I omitted it)

pine nuts 

Heat 2 T oil in skillet and cook 1 ¾ lb peeled and ¾’ diced squash sprinkled with S & P

Partially cover with lid…heat on med to low and cook until squash begins  to brown…

Add onions and raisins (I used cranberries and raisins)…cook until tender and browned

Add spinach or other greens until wilted.

Remove and add Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or pine nuts to taste  

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