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.

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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.

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

tiramisulogo Serve and enjoy!
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Orange juice and almonds breakfast cake

Cake for breakfast sounds good no matter how you look at it. I remember my mom making cakes for my brother and I since we were little – and that, my friends, was the best part of waking up and getting ready for school. These cakes were low in sugar, but packed with big flavors. The other day, while I was taking a mental picture of my pantry, I suddenly realized that tea and cereals (I am somewhat lactose intolerant) for breakfast every day is just. plain. boring.

So, I ravaged through the kitchen and concocted a breakfast cake that I was sure would be a step up from my usual breakfast. It was an experiment and I am proud to say, it was a well thought out and executed experiment. But I will let you be the judge. Let me know what you think!

Here is what you need:

2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking soda or baking powder (I use a vanilla-based baking powder I buy when I am in Italy)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of orange juice (freshly squeezed is best)
1/3 cup of sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon of grated nutmeg
1 cup of roughly chopped almonds

The first step is to mix together the dry ingredients. In a medium-sized bowl or food mixer, combine the flour, baking soda or baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well.

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Pre-heat the oven at 400F. Add the orange juice, egg and vegetable oil and mix together. While the mixture is mixing, add the almonds, nutmeg and vanilla extract. Mix again until the dough is uniform. This cake is purposely not too sweet: I wanted to taste the distinct flavor of the almonds and nutmeg.

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Pour the dough into a cake pan. To add even more texture, I sprinkled chopped almonds on top.
Bake the cake in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Once ready, moved the cake to a cooling rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.
The best thing about cakes for breakfast is that they last three or four days in a cool, dry place.

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This delicious experiment is best enjoyed with hot tea, milk or why not, a glass of orange juice. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear from you! Buona colazione! – Happy breakfast!

Homemade Meat Tortellini (with VIDEO)

As it happens after heavy eating, drinking and merry making, the last thing I wanted to do was think about food. But Francesco’s aunt, Liviana, gave me a reason to get up and get going. “Do you want to learn how to make homemade tortellini?” How can I say no to that?

I was a mere spectator at first, attentively observing how Liviana moved in the kitchen; how she prepped a huge wooden board on the table and began pouring the flour on the board. She made a whole in the center of a mountain of flour. She poured the eggs in and began mixing. We were making pasta from scratch, hands deep in the dough. I’ve actually never made pasta without a mixer. By forcefully using my hands, I could feel the texture and consistency of the pasta dough and make slight adjustments to it.

For the next 20 minutes, I wrestled with the dough. Pasta making is a great workout.

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The recipe we used is perfect for a dough that has to be elastic for filling: one egg per every 100 grams of flour (Farina Tipo 00 in Italy, but at home in Central Virginia, I use any organic, unbleached all-purpose flour).
For 3 kilograms of tortellini (about 6.5 pounds), we used 800 grams of flour and 8 eggs.

The filling. The recipe Liviana shared with me is pork-based, but a vegetarian version – spinach and fresh ricotta cheese – is on my to-do, or better, wish list.
Filling: 100 grams of prosciutto crudo (3.5 ounces), 100 grams of mortadella, 100 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano and 300 grams of a mixture of pork loin and one sausage. The beauty of food made at home, by hand, is that you can adjust it to your liking. With this particular recipe, you can add more prosciutto, mortadella, or sausage. Customize away.

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The meats, cold cuts and cheese need to be minced and blended together to the consistency of a sticky paste….think Pâté. Once the mixture is ready, place it in  a bowl and cover it to avoid dryness. The filling needs to retain its moisture for the tortellini to be soft and chewy.

The next step is getting the pasta ready for cutting. Just like when making lasagna, we started with sheets of pasta laid out on the kitchen table. With a tortellini cutter, we cut the sheets into squares of about 1 inch each- that was our desired size for each tortellino.

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Once the squares were ready and separated, we had to act quickly to avoid the pasta getting too dry. We added a dollop of filling onto each square and “closed” the dough to make the tortellino. It took me a few “closures” to get the hang of it, but I finally mastered it: folding the dough in such a way that it prevents the filling to leak even while cooking in boiling water or both. It’s a laborious process, but bloody fun. That’s me below in action. Two hours and change and we had 6.5 pounds of tortellini.

Tip: While you are prepping and cutting the sheets of pasta, keep them covered with plastic wrap or a open ziploc bag. The dough won’t dry as quickly and it will be much easier to fold and seal each tortellino.

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The “closing” of the tortellini is an art, I found…and it takes lots of practice. In the time I was able to successfully make one, Liviana and her daughter, Roberta, made 10 or more. The folding process is easier shown than explained. Check out yours truly in the video below:

The best way to serve tortellini is with homemade chicken broth. The best time to eat it is on a snowy night. I made my own batch of tortellini as soon as Francesco and I got home from Italy. I have to say, they were good. Really good…and they even look decent!

To cook them in broth, bring the liquid to a boil and add the fresh tortellini. Cook them in the boiling broth for about 5 or 6 minutes (I like them a bit al dente) and serve them with some Parmigiano Reggiano. They heal the soul…or achy bones on a winter night. Either way, a slam dunk.

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Tip: Because the process to make tortellini can easily take all afternoon….(it did for me), make a big batch and freeze them. If you are like me, a little forgetful in the kitchen, this little tidbit of information can save you from disaster – don’t place fresh tortellini in a bag ready for the freezer…you run the risk of creating a ball of frozen tortellini that won’t even come undone in boiling broth. So, freeze them as you work: place the filled tortellini on a tray and put the tray in the freezer for a couple of minutes, or until the tortellini are cold enough not to stick together. This saved my life…I am known to make these kinds of disasters.

Buon Appetito!

May Foodie Penpals: The Reveal!

When I was in middle and high school, I had many pen pals scattered around the world: Ukraine, Sweden, United States…and probably more. I wanted to learn English so badly, I would search and search for those youngsters who were looking for the same thing I was: a listening ear in a foreign language. I would share with them thoughts about life, about my family, my pets (Lola and Puffo, my two cats and Suomi, my loving dog); I delved into the music I listened to (mostly rock, highlighted by my passion for Nirvana) and asked more questions than it was probably acceptable.

Forward that 15-20 years later and I have found the perfect 21st century exchange experience: Foodie Penpals – an amazing program created by Lindsay at The Lean Green Bean. It’s exactly what it sounds like: You are matched with another foodie around the U.S. and you have about 10 days to send them a box of goodies (either store-bought or home-made) along with a nice, written note.

I was matched with Colleen from Michigan, to whom I sent a box to, and with Connie, a great mom from Boscobel, Wisconsin. When her package arrived, I was completely unprepared. It was sitting on my front porch, staring at me. I was so giddy inside. The feeling I felt as a child when I saw a letter from my pen pal in the mailbox came back, times 100.

Connie outdid herself –and put my box to shame!

Everything in her box was delicious: Apple Jelly (homemade!), Asparagus Spinach Dip Mix (insane!), canned tomatoes and zucchini (unbelievable!), chocolate chip cookies, crackers, honey (one of my favorite things on the planet), dry chocolate mint for brownies (!!!) and a brochure of Boscobel.

What I absolutely loved about this program was getting to know Connie: everything she works hard for on her farm turns up in the kitchen, and by the small garden I try to maintain, I can attest that it is hard work! The flavors of her canned deliciousness were and are (I am savoring all of them so that they don’t run out too fast..) incredible: it almost feels like I am in her garden, picking tomatoes and zucchini with her. And that’s the beauty of cooking from scratch.

So thank you Connie for this unbelievable box of goodies!

– – –

If you are interested in participating in the program, here are some details about Foodie Penpals directly from Lindsay:

-On the 5th of every month, you will receive your penpal pairing via email. It will be your responsibility to contact your penpal and get their mailing address and any other information you might need like allergies or dietary restrictions.
-You will have until the 15th of the month to put your box of goodies in the mail. On the last day of the month, you will post about the goodies you received from your penpal! 
-The boxes are to be filled with fun foodie things, local food items or even homemade treats! The spending limit is $15. The box must also include something written. This can be anything from a note explaining what’s in the box, to a fun recipe…use your imagination!
-You are responsible for figuring out the best way to ship your items depending on their size and how fragile they are. (Don’t forget about flat rate boxes!)
-Foodie Penpals is open to blog readers as well as bloggers. If you’re a reader and you get paired with a blogger, you are to write a short guest post for your penpal to post on their blog about what you received. If two readers are paired together, neither needs to worry about writing a post for that month. 
-Foodie Penplas is open to US & Canadian residents.  Please note, Canadian Residents will be paired with other Canadians only. We’ve determined things might get too slow and backed up if we’re trying to send foods through customs across the border from US to Canada and vice versa. 

If you’re interested in participating for June, please CLICK HERE to fill out the participation form and read the terms and conditions.

You must submit your information by June 4th as pairings will be emailed on June 5th!

*If you’re from somewhere besides the US, Canada or Europe and want to participate, send me an email and I’ll see if we get enough interest this month!

The Lean Green Bean

Guest Post: Foodie Penpals, the receiver

Guest post by Colleen Aiello:

Hi Everyone!!
My name is Colleen and Chiara has graciously allowed me to write a guest blog for her site! I am super excited but please bear with me, this is the first time I have ever done something like this.Chiara and I met through a program called Foodie Penpals. If you aren’t familiar with Foodie Penpals….each month you are assigned a name to send a small package to and another person gets your name. Chiara sent to me this month and the penpal I sent to was in California. I thought the best part was going to be thinking about and collecting everything to send to my foodie penpal….that all went out the window when my package arrived!!

I swear Chiara and I must have been BFFs in a past life, she couldn’t have put a better box together for me!!

Photos by Colleen Aiello
Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies?!?! Are you kidding me?!?!? I.Am.In.Love. Those cookies were seriously the best thing I have ever put in my mouth!!

Chiara asked me a little bit about myself and I told her that I loved sweet and salty combos and that I was currently training for my first 5K. Included with the BCC Cookies was a huge Hazelnut and Milk Chocolate Bar! She also included a package of SuperFood and Fruit Leather. So So Good after a good training session!!
My favorite by far (well, except for those darn cookies!!) was the can of Home Cooked Virginia Peanuts (I had to rip them from my husband’s hands!)…don’t even get me started on the Carrot Chips she sent. I’ll admit I was leery of them at first but I honestly had to tear myself away from them!!
Thank you so much for the amazing package Chiara!! I loved everything!!!