Sunday, December 27, 2009

Better Than Sugarplums

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Christmas is full of traditions. I already blogged the pizzelles, I make sugar cookies 365, and if we spent the holiday with my family it would mean prime rib and pita. One Christmas back in 1996, Southern Living featured a present cake on its cover. I make it as a red velvet, an old family recipe I am not inclined to share. It has been a staple ever since. It's really too big for just my family, although I have successfully cut down the recipe. But it is a show stopper every time I make the cake as a present. I used to make one for my Christmas party every year, but since I haven't had the blowout party in a number of years, I have to find reasons to make this cake. This year it was Christmas Eve with friends.

The frosting recipe, like many in my repertoire has changed from its original version, that is from trial and error, and I have a difficult time trying to explain these things. This year I made 4 layers of red velvet, about 7X10 each. It was a cute little cake, quite tall. And that frosting....needless to say it was a hit. Here is the recipe for the frosting. Mind you most people like cream cheese frosting on their red velvet. I don't care for cream cheese frosting on anything.

Almond Frosting
2 cups shortening
1 tea salt
1 tea almond extract
1 tea vanilla
3 16oz. packages of confectioner's sugar
1 cup evaporated milk

Beat until fluffy , makes 7 cups.

The ribbons on the cake are made with fruit by the foot, brushed with water and then sparkling sugar.

On to other traditions. Many years ago when we were spending Christmas just the 4 of us, I decided to do something a little different for Christmas dinner. No one was really excited about prime rib, turkey is a once a year food for us unless you count turkey burgers which appear every Monday night, so I decided fondue. I thought it would be perfect, not too much mess or prep, and after a retail holiday season, easy was my mantra. I have my mom's old copper fondue pot, I have my mother-in-laws old avocado green pot, and I have a copper Ruffoni pot from Williams Sonoma with a ceramic insert of which I was lucky enough to buy an extra insert. So fondue it was, and our own tradition was started. It begins with shredding cheese and cutting veggies, bread, cleaning shrimp, washing fruit and small tasks that everyone can help with. I love that it doesn't abandon the women in the kitchen cooking.

We always start with cheese. Emmental, gruyere, Colby, I have tried them all in various recipes. We dip French bread, roasted fingerling potatoes, steamed broccoli even cauliflower is yummy dunked in wine-laced cheese. It always reminds me of the Alps although I didn't eat this when I was there, but I am certain Grace Kelly may have, and looked fabulous while doing so. Then we move on to meat. The idea of boiling hot oil on the table unnerves me, so I always do beef broth. I boil it first and transfer it to the pot, as if boiling broth can do less bodily harm than boiling oil? We cook beef and shrimp. The beef gets a little grey in color and can take a while to cook if there are lots of forks in the pot, but this year we did the cheese and meat at the same time so the pot was never crowded, and we grilled the steak to rare to give it a head start on cooking and add a little more flavor. I always have an abundance of condiments, steak sauce, BBQ, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, it is all about the dunking, and a fondue plate has all kinds of compartments to sauce up!

This Christmas, the kids are a little older and I thought maybe they would enjoy beef wellington or lobster or something a little more grown up for dinner. There was a resounding NO! This is apparently our tradition, and I can see many years from now my grandchildren gathered around multiple fondue pots on Christmas Day! Honestly, I love the image, it is a fun and relaxing way to enjoy an afternoon.

This year we ate fondue a little later in the day, and we just couldn't muster up the hunger for dessert, of course chocolate fondue, yum. I have said many times that I am not a chocoholic, I like it, but when it comes to dunking a banana or marshmallow in it, well I love it! We decided to wait and do fondue dessert after a nice fish and Ceasar salad dinner a few days after Christmas and opted to eat leftover red velvet cake on Christmas Day. Not a bad trade off. We were lucky enough to find raspberries, strawberries and lady apples to dunk in our fondue, we also added a pear, banana, marshmallows and peppermint Peeps to the mix. I can't imagine eating pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie or even sugarplums (whatever that is) or really anything else for dessert during the holidays, red velvet cake and chocolate fondue, perfect.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dinner in the Style of Celle di San Vito

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Dinner in Italy. Sounds romantic, luxurious, decadent and delicious. While traveling in October with my parents and sister, we went to this little town, Celle di San Vito for lunch. I am sorry I don't know the name of the restaurant, but I doubt there is more than one or two there, and I believe it is really famous for its pizza. Pepino, our friend from Faeto really wanted us to go to dinner there, but Lori, my sister and driver was pretty adamant about going to this village in daylight. As navigator, I was a little surprised at her lack of adventure, I mean she was a trained stuntwoman, how hard is it to drive around Italy? We were in Faeto, sitting on one side of a small mountain, and Celle was across the valley on another mountain.

It turned out to be a wise decision for a number of reasons. First of all it was cold and rainy so, not a lot to do in Faeto. Second, the road was full of hairpin curves and one portion was down to a single lane where it had washed away, (gulp, that's me swallowing the crow), and last, based on the amount of food we consumed, we could have never gone to bed within hours of eating. I declared it the best meal of the trip. Nothing fancy, nothing exotic, nothing new to my palate. It was so delicious, the table next to a fire, it was perfect. This weekend I duplicated this simple meal for a few appreciative friends. The photos are from the Italian dinner, with the exception of the table setting, the cannoli and the pizzelle.

I rearranged my house last year and turned my keeping room into the eating area and the table is next to the fireplace. We started with Antipasti. A platter of prosciutto and salami, bruschetta which was grilled bread with fresh chopped tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil, and finally assorted olives, marinated mozzarella and peppers. The olives and mozzarella were the only additions, otherwise it was the same as in Celle. Sadly, I didn't have Anna Sabatino's bread to make my bruschetta. We sipped red wine and savored the smell from the oven.

For Primo we had baked pasta. The pasta in Celle was apparently hand rolled, like a gemelli, but I found Torchetti, imported from Italy and made on 150 year old bronze molds. I made a marinara with Pomi tomatoes and added some mild Italian sausage. The sauce cooked all afternoon, and at the end I added a Tablespoon of homemade pesto for a little brightness. I tossed the sauce with cooked (al dente) pasta, added a few chunks of mozzarella and baked it for about 25 minutes in a very shallow dish. In Celle, I am certain it was baked in a wood fired oven, it was crusty on the top and the sauce was sweet and burnt in places. In Celle it was served in individual terra cotta type vessels that were shallow and held in the heat on that chilly day. Mine was equally as delicious.

For Secondi, we had grilled pork chops that had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil, lemon zest and bay leaves. And for Contorni we had roasted potatoes and salad. The potatoes were not as crispy as they were in Celle, and I opted to not make them with the sausage, but I tossed the wedges with olive oil, garlic and onions and baked it in a hot oven. I think the potatoes cooked with the sausage would make a fine winter meal on its own. The salad was simple, mixed greens with white wine vinegar and olive oil. The salad is last, that is the way we always eat it at my house, and in Celle too.

We then brewed some coffee (no espresso here) and poured a little Sambuca. In Celle we had fresh roasted chustnuts (cue the music, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.... but as wonderful as they smell, they are too mushy for me. We opted for Dolci and had handmade cannoli and pizzelle, and more Sambuca. Many of our guests had never had Sambuca con la mosca which translates to Sambuca with ants. Really, it is 3 coffee beans which represent health, happiness and prosperity.
It was a great dinner. Fun to relive it and tell about my great Italian roadtrip. Everything I made will be standards in my recipe repetoire, but not all at once! Buon Apetito!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cookies and Cream Cake Truffles

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To whom do I owe this idea? Well, around the web, Bakerella gets the credit, she seems to be the first "mainstream" blogger to put these up, although she called them cake balls. First posted in 2007 and over 450 comments, well, this is a bloggers dream post. I stumbled on her blog a while back after Googling cake balls. Let's face it, that is a bad name. It makes teenage girls giggle, and frankly, they are the target customer for these sugar bombs. My sister in Iowa, the viticulturist sister not the singing, glitter sister, told me last year she made cake balls. I admit I was a little curious. She told me mix cake and frosting, roll 'em, dip them in candy melts, done. I thought YUK! But after my web search, that was pretty much how everyone, including Bakerella was doing it. I love to bake homemade cakes, fine crumb, great cocoa, vanilla bean, but I could see no reason to waste a homemade cake on cake balls, so fine, a box would work. The candy melts, well, yuk again. They are greasy, and after years of hand made truffles coming out of my kitchen bathed in Guittard I broke down and said, okay, candy melts, no tempering for cake balls.

Then came the frosting. I do not like, nor buy canned frosting. I used to sell it. Yep, cans of Duncan Hines frosting by the case, "Please Mr. Grocer, wouldn't you like a display devoted to cake mix and canned frosting?" But that wasn't my big seller, you see in 1984 or so, the #1 selling item in the grocery was Crisco, and I was the Crisco girl. Did you ever notice how closely Crisco and canned frosting look? One of our pitches was to fill a Crisco can with vanilla frosting and take it in a store and pitch the manager on a Crisco end cap, and open up the can and eat a spoonful of the "frosting" Crisco to gross him out and explain that Crisco is never bought alone, there are dozens of add on possibilities. Yes, it worked, but I was so over the frosting fascination. Quick buttercream is SO easy, why bother with the canned stuff. So I mentally filed my cake ball ideas.

One balmy fall weekend we were heading to an out of town volleyball tourney and I offered to bring dessert. I thought maybe cake balls would work well. Thankfully 16 year old girls could care less about how the sweet things look, because it was disastrous. Remember my instructions were mentally filed, and things are a little crowded up there. I had a few boxes of Williams Sonoma Cookies and Cream pound cake mix that I bought on clearance. I baked one in an 11x7 pan and cooled it. I whipped up a yummy vanilla bean buttercream frosting and mixed cake and frosting. rolled them out and dunked the crumbling balls in gloppy faux chocolate. They looked disgusting and everyone loved them. I knew I would return to this since I had 2 more boxes of mix, so here we are. I returned to the Web and was thrilled that the name cake balls had morphed into cake truffles, they were better already!

I again baked the cake in an 11x7. In the 15 million Google results for cake balls, half tell you to cool the cake, the other half to not. I cooled it and then crumbled it into a bowl. I made a basic quick buttercream, 1 stick unsalted butter, ~3 cups of xxx sugar, vanilla paste, dash of salt and milk to get the right consistency. I then incorporated small amounts of frosting at a time to get the stuff to stick. Not gooey greasy balls, but balls with texture. It does help that this cake mix actually has bits of an Oreo-type cookie in it. Then I chilled it. After about an hour I rolled, and I rolled them small. Then I chilled them again. Then I melted the faux chocolate. It's even more temperamental than the real thing, or maybe I have used the real thing for so long it seems easier to use Guittard. Regardless, I used a double boiler and got the water to a good simmer without anything in the top pan, just letting it get hot, and removed the whole thing from the heat. Then I dumped in the candy melts (which is a brand name for Wilton) and a small amount of Paramount Crystals which are like a dried shortening (get them from a candy making store), it makes the chocolate very smooth. I was surprised how smooth the chocolate stayed not being on any heat source but the water. My mistake the first time was overheating the chocolate and it got lumpy, which by the way, is unattractive and quickly melted my buttercream. I then sprinkled a few nonpareils on top for the contrast and voila.

A few more steps, but the chill time made a big difference for me. I'm not a huge fan of the taste of the concept, I prefer my cake in a slice so I can eat cake, then the frosting, but these are great small nibbles of cake. Less mess than a cupcake, lots of decorating possibilities, and endless flavor combinations. It made so many I boxed up a few dozen for the mail lady. So, what are you waiting for? Get in there and bake!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

White Christmas and Pizzelles

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Ahhh, the perfect Saturday. Cold and sunny outside, smelling like a bakery inside. Today was pizzelle day. For those of you unfamiliar, they are a flat Italian cookie made in a press. Mine is electric, I have had it for about 10 years, and I think today was its last hurrah. My delicious pizzelles are obviously browned more on one side than the other, an apparent electrical problem. Oh well, it has had a long life, and has been without a leg for years. So next Christmas I won't have to balance a hot electrical appliance on a cork.
The recipe I have used in the past few years is from Nick Malgieri's book Cookies Unlimited. There are a million variations on the web, and it really is personal. My family has always gone with the crispy anise flavored pizzelles. There are thicker soft versions, pizzelles with anise seed, fennel seed, almond and chocolate. The chocolate isn't bad, but I love the anise. I choose to use anise oil instead of extract. It takes a small amount, less than ¼ teaspoon for a double batch. With the extract you could easily use a teaspoon or more. The key is to know when enough is enough, because too much anise oil and the whole batch is ruined, I know, I've done it. So what better way to kill time while making pizzelles than to watch the old standard White Christmas. My favorite holiday movie. So much to love! First of all, the Sisters song. My sister Lori and I can butcher that song beautifully after just one glass of wine.
Then there is Vera-Ellen, and I don't care what all the haters say, I would enjoy a 17" waist for a day or 2. She is an amazing dancer and perfect with Danny Kaye.
How about the clothes? Edith Head was so talented. I love the color, the silhouettes the movement of the fabrics when they dance. If those dopes on the design shows recreated the gorgeous black velvet gown Rosemary Clooney wore in her song, Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, they'd be lauded for their simplicity and vision, and yea, plagiarism, but it is fabulous.
Which brings me to the song The Best Things Happen When You Dance. I love that, the words are perfect. When I was in high school, slow dancing was better than making out. Kids today have no idea...and the dance Vera and Danny do with it is swooning! Brendan Fraser brings that song to the masses in the movie Blast From the Past (very funny) and he dances pretty good too.
Of course anyone who knows me knows I love anything military, so the theme of the General and his boys is a nice story to boot, and those uniforms, the patriotism and the camaraderie of the troop, makes for a timeless theme.
If I had any singing talent at all, I would find some folks to harmonize the Snow song with. And the cocktails and class in the railroad car, it so makes me want to take a train. Geez, I was born way too late.
And then the famous finale. The kids in their pointe shoes (red ballet go Edith), dancing around that huge tree covered in tinsel. We used to tinsel our tree when I was a kid, I loved the way it sparkled. And the cast dressed in Santa inspired gowns and suits with the fur and the glitter, the snow falling behind them and the best selling song of all time. What a great movie....

I finished the pizzelles before the movie was through, so I engaged in a little cork craft. I admit, it is a little weird, but still cute at the same time. My sister (the one I sing with) has sort of gone "over the edge" with these and covered her entire flock of reindeer (and anything else that will take a little glue) with Martha's fabulous glitter. Apparently she bought the variety pack and things are sparkling in living color all over Santa Monica.
For me, back to the ovens. Much more to prepare. Go on, get in there and bake!

Nick Malgieri's Pizzelles
1¾ cup flour
pinch salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk (save the white for meringues!)
¾ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons anisette (what is that? I use a trace of anise oil)
1 stick butter, melted and cooled
Mix dry together and set aside. Beat eggs, sugar anise and butter. Add dry ingredients. Bake on pizzelle iron. YUM!
Says it makes 24, but you'll eat a few in the process...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Daring Baker's Cannoli

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Yes, I am aware it is December, but seriously, a house full of relatives: parents, in-laws, siblings, children, nieces, nephews, a couple of baking orders, 3 days of retail including Black Friday and Poof! November was gone. So here we are, making cannoli. The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

I am a seasoned cannoli maker. It is best made ahead regardless of what any non-Italian tells you. My grandmother would make hers in November and layer them on brown paper in boxes in a cool room. The paper absorbs the oil, the cannoli ripen and dry out a bit. Nothing is worse than a soggy cannoli, therefore, you never fill it before you want to eat it, and the frozen ones pre made? Forgetaboutit!

I made my dough after dinner one evening and let it rest in the fridge overnight. I was concerned. I had always used a sweet white wine in Grandma's recipe, but because it is Daring Baker's, I went with the recipe posted and used Marsala. Now I am not familiar with it, so my requisite for the wine guy was that it had to be drinkable as I rarely get into a project like this without a little nip for me. The color of the Marsala was deep amber, beautiful, tasted divine, but made my dough very brown.

The next morning I rolled them with the trusty pasta machine so they were super thin and sort of made 5" circles and wrapped my tubes. I have inherited quite a collection of tubes and recently added to it. One year I did an Italian dinner fundraiser for my alumni club (Go Hawks!) and made about 70 ahead.

This recipe made about 24 very dark cannoli. Now please don't get me wrong here, they are DELICIOUS, but they are not pretty. My Grandma's recipe follows, I suggest you try it. It doesn't have the vinegar which the Daring Baker's found so important, but if my memory serves me right, I fried up batch after batch of them and they were perfect. It also doesn't have cocoa and of course the wine is specifically white, my preference.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 eggs
6 T powdered sugar
2 T melted butter
½ cup sweet white wine
1 tea vanilla
1 tea cinnamon
Mix well. Chill a few hours and then roll and fry.

The Daring Baker's recipe called for 375° oil, but when you drop 2 shells in the oil, the temp plummets. I preferred the cannoli that went in closer to 380°. They got that beautiful blistered effect, but a degree higher led to brown/burnt cannoli. The entire batch was really less than perfect, my fault entirely.

The blog problem here is that although they are made and leaching out their excess oil, we are not filling and eating the little guys until I have a reason. Like my son home, or company coming, or a little something to celebrate. So here is my blog to that point and you Daring Baker's will have to wait until later in December to see the finished product with sweetened ricotta and chocolate, maybe even some pistachios. Until then, Buon Appetito!