Classic Tiramisu’

I take my desserts very seriously. I am that girl who approaches a banquet or buffet line and goes directly to the desserts, fills up her plate, walks back to the table and basks in a glow of happiness and serious sugar high. Desserts are my Shangri La; leave me on a desert island with a jar of Nutella, some bread and whipped cream and I am all set. Among the many desserts I have tried in my 30 years (or a bit more, but who is counting?) of existence, a classic tiramisu’ gets me weepy, nostalgic in the best possible way. A good tiramisu’ has very few ingredients and is made very quickly. It’s almost a dessert afterthought…with a punch.

I wrote an article about the subject for my local news weekly, C-VILLE Weekly where I discussed the various ways to make the dessert. There is, however, only one person who has mastered the tiramisu’ challenge – my mom. I use the same ingredients, but hers has something more…just that little je ne sais quoi  that makes you go “ohhh, now I get it.” So, I took advantage of the opportunity to learn and photograph the master at work. (Granted, the photos were taken with my phone, but I am sure you get the idea).

 Ingredients:

400 grams of Savoiardi (Lady Fingers cookies)
3 eggs
300 grams of mascarpone cheese
6 tablespoon of sugar
pinch of salt
coffee (3 to 4 cups)
cocoa powder

The preparation is easy and quick. In a bowl, mix egg yolks with sugar and beat to creamy consistency (you will start to see bubbles forming). When you have fresh eggs, the color of this “cream” is something for the books. Next, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. The eggs need to be warm…so take them out of the fridge a little in advance, or if you don’t remember or don’t have time to do anything in advance like I do, I have a simple trick – fill a bowl of very warm water, not boiling hot though, and add the eggs. Leave the eggs until they are warm. What a different it makes!
Once the egg whites are beaten to soft peaks, add them to the creamy mixture of sugar and egg yokes…VERY GENTLY. You don’t want to undo the airiness of the egg whites. I would say…massage the egg whites into the egg yolk and sugar cream. Now, you are ready to add the mascarpone cheese. Here, again, be gentle and add the cheese just one spoonful at a time. [Your can read this interesting article about “soft,” “medium” and “stiff” peaks here].

Once we have completed these steps, we can move on to the second stage of the dessert. Let’s brew some coffee, shall we? You can choose the strength of the coffee and remember that the Savoidardi cookies will be dipped in it. I like to use a nice hard espresso, which gives the Tiramisu  a tangy and rich after taste. I would err on the side of more coffee than less…you don’t want to add water to it and completely lose the taste (trust me, I tried it and it ain’t pretty).
Dip the Savoiardi (or lady fingers) into the coffee and place them in a terrine of your choice.

savoiardi_logo
Once the bottom or the terrine is covered with coffee-soaked cookies, spread a layer of the cream mixture and be sure to cover every corner of the terrine.

crema_logo
Repeat for as many layers as you want, ending in a layer of cream.
almosttiramisu_logo
Refrigerate. Once you are ready to serve, sprinkle cocoa powder and remember not to breath in the powder!

tiramisulogo Serve and enjoy!

Christmas in L.A.

What’s better than a snow and cold Christmas? One spent in 85-degree weather surrounded by family. Thank you Los Angeles. Not once in out two-week holiday break did I wear a coat. Glorious. Just bloody glorious.

I know this post should have made it on the blog loooooong time ago, but you know when people say “life got in the way”? Well, nothing really happened to me, just traveled back to Virginia during the Polar Vortex, our water pipes froze, no water for two days and I caught the flu. Excuses? No, but I had to say something. Mea culpa. I just want to leave you with some outtakes from a perfect winter break. Hope life is good to all.

The best dish ever made on the face of the earth is my mom’s risotto with pears. She made it for Christmas lunch and I still crave it.

mamma e risoThe recipe is fairly simple. Just cook the risotto as you have always done, or follow this recipe. Once the arborio rice had browned (with garlic), deglaze with a little white wine, add the diced pears and a generous 2 cups of cheese. Not just any cheese, but cheese with some attitude: Fontina would work wonderfully and so will manchego (that’s what we used). You can also mix a few different cheese, but be sure that the flavor palette is similar.

risoThis is what the final result looks like. It tasted even better. Cooking with fruit is something I want to start doing more. I usually don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I can’t keep up, honestly), but I do like to make promises to myself and this year I would like to explore the world of cooking salty dishes with fruits. Wish me luck. Actually, you should wish my husband some luck. “Honeyyyyyyy! Here is my new concoction!” You know how many times he has heard that? And he still forces himself not to cringe. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

photo(42)We visited beautiful Ojai, California – a sunny and artsy community a little more than an hour away from Los Angeles.

art centerDid some culturing at Ojai’s The Art Center (Francesco and dad in the background).

photo(45)Went wine tasting at one of the best wineries in the valley. Per mom, dad and Francesco, The Ojai Vineyard‘s Syrah was pretty tasty, with deep tones and crisp aftertaste. I couldn’t say, I still don’t like wine. photo(46)The vineyard did, however, have a surprisingly fresh and sweet dessert wine: Riesling Ice wine. Delicious. It tasted nothing like wine and a lot like candy.

photo(49)We baked some surprisingly delicious breads, with olive and walnuts. The olive loaf had the most perfect crust, while the walnut loaf was heartier. Recipes coming soon.

When it comes to food, there is really no kidding around in my family, and especially during the Christmas holidays, we tend to over indulge. My favorite dish is polenta, lentils and cotechino. What’s cotechino you ask? Well, it’s complicated. All the translations you’ll find on the Internet are just not detailed enough to give you an idea of what this thing really is. It’s boiled pork sausage, or a boiled salami, but much tastier. It’s very fatty and hence the reason to indulge in it only once a year.

photo(50)This, my friends, is my ultimate bliss. Warm polenta, sliced cotechino and a healthy dose of lentils cooked in tomato sauce. Every time I eat polenta, I cut up a small piece of brie, or any other soft cheese, and I place it in the middle of my small mountain of yellow grits. The heat melts the cheese and what you get is a scrumptious melted goo.

photo(51)You have to try it to understand. It’s an out-of-body experience.

Although it’s almost a month late, I want to wish you all a healthy, peaceful and happy New Year! Now, let’s get cooking.

Food Reads: Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone”

What better way to spend a rainy day than to read a good book, under the covers surrounded by my kitty cats? Not much, really. I have been reading a lot of food-related books lately, and it has only increased my appetite for more. This time, it was the great Ruth Reichl.

Reichl has had a pretty sweet life – full of passion, happy and sad memoriesI have read a few of her books in the past and for every single one, I found myself wanting to be Ruth Reichl, the food writer. Perhaps, one day.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table was all I wanted and more. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I was transported to the places Reichl visited (summer camp in France!), her cottage, her room, and especially her kitchen. At 7, she was already cool. Actually, at 7, she was already cooler than I’ll ever be. By the time she was a teenager, she could do no wrong in my book. There are so many instances where I wanted my life to mirror hers…to be her – from her life in a New York City apartment accompanied her trials and tribulations of a creative roommate, to just cruising through life with experience, grace and fierceness.

Her mother must have been hysterical, although probably not really easy to live with. The queen of “mold,” as Reichl calls her –  the failed parties, failed dishes, the 70’s…those were the days.


Her adventures as a summer counselor on Ile d’Oleron, France, brought back so many memories of hot, sticky Italian summers spent playing in the muddy grass and traveling around in my family’s RV.
Reichl’s spontaneous trip with Madame and Monsier Deveau to an isolated farm to discover the best berry tart on the planet was mouth watering, literally. But, why, Reichl asks, was that tart so my better than any other tart? “Good butter from fat cows and wild berries grown in the island air.” Wow. Doesn’t that make you want to get on a plane?

Her voice is unmistakable. Reichl’s wit is present at every turn: during her school years in Canada, in Manhattan apartments, in a commune in Berkeley, California. It almost makes you wonder whether you, yourself, are experiencing life at its fullest. Are you actually doing what you love? Sure, it may sound like a clique, but it’s probably the hardest question you will ask yourself and when you find that you indeed are not doing what you were intended to do in the first place, well…life can suddenly appear much brighter.

Food for thought.

Out and About: Amsterdam

I say this every time I am back from a great trip, but this time I really mean it: I want to move to Amsterdam! Francesco had planned a business trip to the Netherlands in late June and I was lucky to tag along. While he was hard at work, I spent a week wandering the streets and canals, alone with my thoughts. Everywhere I looked, I imagined myself living in the moment, riding my bike to and fro, sipping a cold beer in an outdoor cafe’, living on one of the magnificent homes along the canals. I can absolutely live here, I told myself…and there is no doubt in my mind that I actually could.

There is so much to do, see, experience in this city. In 5 days, I barely scratched the surface…but I am not complaining…I will be back, Amsterdam, I will be back.

Canals_logo

As tourists would do, we visited every museum imaginable. Below is the Rijksmuseum, or State Museum, a mastodon of a building with substance, history and art. A darn pretty good combination. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” is included in the collection as well as many more Dutch masterpieces. The Van Gogh Museum is obviously a sight – the man’s genius is unmistakable in his big, fat strokes, studies in color and pencil sketches.

Rijksmuseum

The Flower Market was my next stop. Bulbs, bulbs and more bulbs of so many colors! Apparently, the Netherlands produce more than five billions tulip bulbs – a few of those came home with me (but only those with a U.S. and Canada certificate). My favorites are called “Queen of the Night” – a delicious dark burgundy color with black tones. The bulbs took over the narrow street and each vendor showed off his or her spread of flowers with colorful photographs or wooden clogs or flowers.

flower market

Amaryllis

Another unofficial symbol of the Netherlands are the wooden clogs…and you know I couldn’t resist. I found these in a shop along the Flower Market street and had to try them on. Cute, eh?

clogs

One place I was both anxious and looking forward to visiting was Anne Frank’s House, which was turned into a museum by her father Otto. It was an incredible, emotional experience: Touching the walls where she lived, looking out from the same window, standing in her bedroom. I cried my way through the museum. Those 45 minutes left a hole in my heart.

Anna Frank's house

Food in Amsterdam was surprisingly different than I expected. We ate delicious Argentine steaks, enormous salads and were lucky enough to visit and savor the cuisine at The Five Flies Restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants in Amsterdam – built in the 17th century. Walking in, one is transported to a parallel universe – Rembrandt’s etchings on the walls, dark wood paneling, crispy white tablecloths and an incredibly tasty food.

The Five Flies restaurant

I began my meal with a mushroom soup, or “Soup of forest mushrooms, foam of mature cheese from Beemster region,
crispy curry flavored bread stick.” That thing was. out. of. this. world.

mushroom soup

Creamy, velvety, sweet and savory at the same time…with a curry bread stick. Flipping insane. SO GOOD. If that’s how the meal begins, I thought, I am in for a treat. Indeed. Next up came the main course – “Grilled beef, roasted endives, home made fries
and sauce Hollandaise flavored with tomato” or as I vulgarly called it: a piece of steak.

steak

I mean, look at that beauty! So pink, soft, delicious. The entire meal was an experience – from beginning to end, I was in awe of the service, the flavors of my food and the uniqueness of the restaurant itself. Fun fact: some of the restaurant’s clientele included Mick Jagger, Walt Disney, Bruce Springsteen among others. Not too shabby.

Dinner by the canal

One night close to the end of our trip, Francesco had a business dinner to attend, so I decided to go back to my hotel and sit by the canal…with a salad and some ice cream. This was my view.

more canals

The canals…I couldn’t get enough of them. Bikes parked on its iron gates. There were so many people riding their vehicles throughout the city – of all ages. What a stunning way to live. If we could get half of the bike infrastructure the Netherlands have, we would be a much healthier, happier society.

It was hard leaving, but someone was happy we were home. This is Diego in all its glory. Love this fur ball.

Diego

In which we finally bought a grill

It took us a year and three months, but we finally did it. We bought a grill (euphoria ensued). Since we moved in into our new home last year, I have been dreaming about the culinary possibilities of owning such a fantastic piece of equipment. It arrived in a box, disassembled, on a Tuesday night. It had been raining on and off for three days and the sky looked angry, dark clouds fast approaching. Of course we could not wait until the next day to put the puppy together.

We rushed, read the instruction one minute and checked the sky the next, but we made it…we built it, put a cover on it and waited for the rain, which never came.

grill
Now that this was a reality, I scrambled to find a good first recipe, but I realized that the simplest ones are always the best. We decided on grilled zucchini and patate al cartoccio, potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil and a good steak. It sounds really clique, but there is nothing better after a long day in the office then to come home, head straight to the backyard, grill and listen to the sound of the pond’s waterfall. Very relaxing.
zucchiniThe recipe for the zucchini is so simple, it almost cooks itself. Just slice the zucchini lengthwise making sure each slice is thick enough not to be burned as soon as you put them on the grill. Once the slices have reached your preferred doneness, I personally love a bit of burned crunch on the edges, place them on a plate and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and fresh parsley for a hint of freshness…and summer.

I first made patate al cartoccio when I was still living at home. I remember we had some friends over for dinner and I wanted to contribute to the cookery and, let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with potatoes. I cut the potatoes in thin slices and placed them in a “cup” made of aluminum foil – just wrap the foil in a manner that forms a cup – and added extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt, pepper and rosemary. I closed the “cup” and put it on the grill. That’s it. No stirring necessary and the result is rather sophisticated. I let it cook for about 10 minutes, checking from time to time that nothing is burning. Serve it in the foil.

cena_logo
I cannot reiterate enough how excited I am for this grill. I feel like I have a new world of possibilities to explore.

What are your favorite grilling recipes? I’d love to know!

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

simbolo

We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

Plaza_mayor

It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

Mercado_sanMiguel

The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

mercado_prosciutto

Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

panino

But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

paella_mercado

It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

luna

architecture

Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

dinner_firstnight

We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

cuevas_lantern

The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

cuevas_architecture

Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

cuevas_cena

Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

colazione

For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

lunch_mercado

For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

paella_cena

This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

noi

Know what I miss most about Italy?

THIS.

A well-stocked macelleria
Well stocked

A cold cuts butcher’s shop. Carnivorous or not, that is one good looking spread. My preferred combination is prosciutto crudo with cantaloupe during steaming summer months.

 THIS.

Cheese and more cheese
Cheese and more cheese

Although slightly lactose intolerant, I cannot resist a hearty Fontina or a creamy Crescenza.

AND ESPECIALLY THIS.

Need a hand with those?
Need a hand with those?

Well, this is what I dream at night. Parmigiano Reggiano is, in my humble opinion, the perfect cheese. And as you may have noticed, we Italians use it in just about every dish – there is even Parmigiano ice cream.