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!

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A classic: Pasta Carbonara

I often think about my favorite pasta dish. There is so much to choose from, but I have concluded that carbonara is it. I’d much rather eat a steaming plate of carbonara than any piece of meat or slice of cake. First, it has bacon or pancetta. Second, Parmesan Cheese. That alone could be my daily food intake. This dish encapsulates everything I love about Italian cuisine: simple and accessible ingredients. Nothing superfluous.

But I am a lucky girl. Francesco makes a sensational Carbonara. I don’t know what magic ingredient he adds (actually following a recipe???), but he nails it every time. I don’t talk about him often enough, but he is a great cook. He is an engineer, thus  I love watching him cut vegetables, or in this case bacon, with painstakingly precision. It does take him 20 minutes to cut a carrot, but hey, the result is uniform and fabulous.

Here is what you need: (for 4 people)

1 cups of pancetta (or bacon)
500 grams of pasta, Spaghetti or Bucatini
1 egg
1 cup of Parmeigiano Reggiano cheese
a hint of nutmeg
Salt and Pepper

Pancetta, or bacon, is the first ingredient that gets cooking. Cut, or mince – depending on taste, the pancetta and cook it for about 5 or 6 minutes, or until brown. Set aside.
Tip: Don’t oil the pan and don’t add any oil. The pancetta is fatty enough and will release its own juices.

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Next, heat water for pasta in  a medium-sized pot and bring it to a boil. In the meantime – there is never actual waiting time in the kitchen if you time everything right – we can get started on the creamy sauce.
In a small bowl, combine one egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, salt and pepper and whisk until the sun comes down.
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Whisk until the cheese is amalgamated with the egg – it should almost look like a paste; a creamy, cheesy paste. Set the mixture aside.

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Once the water boils, add salt and the spaghetti (angel hair pasta) or the bucatini (as seen below – I much prefer the bucatini for this recipe because each “strand” of pasta is thick and much more chewy than regular angel hair) and cook it until i is al dente – usually 7 to 8 minutes.

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Always taste the pasta before draining –  it may need more seasoning. It is also always a good idea to taste the water before adding the pasta. Salty water will make the pasta much more flavorful.

Drain the pasta using a colander and place it back into the pot. Add the pancetta and pour the cheesy egg mixture in the pot. The cheese will melt and the pasta will be coated with a layer of goodness. Serve while it’s hot.

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Add more Parmigiano Reggiano or pepper to taste. This dish is so simple, but so incredibly delicious, I have to stop myself for making it every week. Buon Appetito!

Focaccia Pugliese (potatoes and rosemary)

I’ve never been able to bake a decent focaccia – either hard as rock or chewy and off-textured. Imagine my skepticism when I decided to give a new recipe a try. Baking has to be my number one passion, I think. I mean, when I think about food, my first thought or memory is bread or cake. Coincidence? I don’t think so. If I could, I would bake sweets and savory treats all day long, hence my unrelenting drive to find baking/bread/cake/pies cookbooks with traditional and unexpected recipes. I’ll say that I would try anything at least once.

While browsing the aisles and shelves of our local bookstore, I found a little book, tucked away in a corner: 100 Great Breads by Paul Hollywood. What I found was a plethora of really simple bread and focaccia recipes that sounded and looked doable. I bought it immediately.

After a few hours of contemplating, I settled for a focaccia with potatoes and rosemary.

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The Puglia region is the hill of the Italian boot. Lots of good food and friendly folks. When I was young, my family used to drive to Gallipoli and camp there for a month. We had an RV and traveled around the coast and stopped at random camping locations throughout the area. I have really great memories of that time and I hoped that by baking something from that sunny land, I would feel the same Joie de vivre. I succeeded. I made this focaccia at least a dozen times since; I served it to my colleagues during a work dinner, to my friends at brunch and my parents at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is what you need (my adaptation to the original recipe):

4 Cups of flour
1 Package of yeast
1 1/2 Cups of warm water
3 Potatoes, cleaned and sliced
1 Tablespoon of salt
3 Tablespoons of rosemary
Rock salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine flour, salt, water and yeast in a bowl and let the mixture form a chewy and elastic dough. Let the dough rest in an oiled bowl for one hour, or until it has at least doubled in size. I like to coat the bowl with a thin layer of olive oil to avoid the dough to stick – trust me, it has happened. Not pretty. I usually place the bowl close to a source of heat – that way, the dough rises a little faster.

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While the dough rises, clean, peel and cut the potatoes. I like to use yellow gold potatoes, bu you can try using any other you prefer. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper for the dough.

Once the dough is nice and plump, roll it out onto the said backing sheet and flatten it. Tip: to help flatten it more evenly, I use a round tall glass as a rolling pin and shape the dough to the contour of the sheet.

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Now comes the fun part. With a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the flattened dough with extra virgin olive oil. Add the potatoes by placing them in whatever arrangement see you fit. Be creative.

Once you are done, add pepper; sprinkle rock salt and rosemary. Let the decorated focaccia dough rest for one hour. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven at 450F.
Tip: I like to cover the dough with plastic wrap, so that nothing will disturb it (cats included).

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Once the dough has risen, place it in the oven and bake it at 450F for at least 30 minutes or until the sides are dark and the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. I like to add a bit of extra virgin olive oil to the finished product.

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Ta daaaa! The focaccia is ready to be cut and served. Francesco and I like to eat it with dinner or as a snack. Put the leftovers in the fridge. Enjoy!

It’s still snowing: Braised Beef with Polenta

It’s the end of March. It should not be snowing. Central Virginia was covered with a soft blanket of snow yesterday and as much as I love snow, snow days, snow cones, I cannot. take. it. anymore. I had all these plans of actually getting stuff done in the garden, which currently looks like an abandoned field with twigs and dead leaves everywhere. It’s a mess. I am embarrassed. I was supposed to fix that. But no, I had to postponed my plans until the weather clears up and warmth decides to pay us a visit.

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But what do you do when you can’t go anywhere, when it’s cold and all you want to do is curl up in bed with a hot chocolate, surrounded by your kitty cats? (wow, that would have been awesome!) We cooked.
A few weeks ago, we bought two pieces of great-looking beef chuck roast with the intention of braising them in red wine. I found a delicious recipe (Emeril Lagasse) while browsing the web. I tweaked it, made it more to my taste, added a little, eliminated a few ingredients.

Beef Braised in red wine
(Recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse, 2004)

2 pounds of beef chuck roast
4 carrots
3 stems of celery
2 cups of onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1 bottle of Nero d’Avola red wine
2 cups of chicken stock
Sage
Rosemary
Thyme
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

We finally got to use our spanking new Le Creuset dutch oven – and that my friends, is reason enough to celebrate. But I digress. Coat the bottom of the dutch over with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil. Turn on the heat and let it warm up. Add the beef (cut in small pieces) and let it brown on all sides. We didn’t season the meat before browning, because we added salt and pepper to the stew a little later. Once the beef is browned, remove it from the heat and keep it covered. To the beef fat in the dutch oven, add onions, celery and carrots, minced, and cook until tender (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic, minced as well, and cook it until brown.

Return the meat to the pot, add the chicken stock, the entire bottle of Nero d’Avola (gulp!), the tomato paste, the rosemary, sage and thyme. Season with salt and pepper – but don’t worry about the exact quantity. You will be able to taste the broth and balance out the seasoning once the cooking gets underway. Bring the stew to a boil, covered, and lower the heat to medium and cook for 3 hours.

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If after 3 hours the stew is too liquidy, uncover it and let it cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. The result is a velvety and deeply flavorful sauce that coats the beef chucks completely. Serve immediately.

After tasting the braised beef, we felt invincible. We decided to make polenta as a side and the result was incredible. These two were almost meant to be served together. Soul and tummy were satisfied.

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What is your comfort food on cold and wintry nights? Drop me a line and share your traditions! Happy…SPRING!!

 

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!

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.

Christmas in Italy (Rieti and Milano)

For the last five years, Francesco and I spent Christmas either with friends in Virginia or with my parents in California. Great times were had, awesome meals were eaten, but spending Christmas in Italy is the ultimate nirvana – (and he had not spent December 25th with family in all these years). So, early in the summer when we begin our vacation planning for the year, we looked at each other and went straight to the computer. We opened our preferred cheap flights website and typed: FROM: Washington Dulles  TO: Rome. In a heartbeat, it was done. We were going to Italy for Christmas! (And extra nirvana: my parents and brother would be there as well!)

My mind, of course, went straight to Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch. It’s just how I am wired; I associate holidays, and memories, with food. Since we were spending the holidays with my in-laws, I was curious to find out their Christmas tradition. In my family, the biggest celebration happens on Christmas day and lunch is usually an unforgettable feast with local food from the Lombardy region: polenta, chiodini mushrooms and some sort of meat  – Panettone and Pandoro covered with a mascarpone cream were a must for dessert. Talk about watching your weight.

As it turns out, my in-laws’ biggest culinary feat usually happens on Christmas Eve. Dinner is served around 8pm and the menu is predominantly seafood based. (Poor husband of mine hates fish of all shapes and sizes….he had to settle for pasta al pomodoro).

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Just remembering the dinner gives me goose bumps. I was served a myriad little bites of perfection: pan-fried mussels, a polenta-based shimp cocktail served in a small terrine covered in a spicy tomato and chili sauce, fried codfish and my ultimate favorite, steamed octopus served with salt, pepper, parsley and a drop of olive oil.

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Pan-fried mussels and steamed octopus. Oh, my taste buds were making cartwheels

There are not many things I don’t like, but that night, what was put on my plate made me quiver. Francesco’s dad painstakingly sliced smoked duck breast and elegantly placed it on a buttered toast. So, imagine my face when I was presented with four slices of bright red meat and was encouraged to take a bite.”Thanks, but no thanks?” I reluctantly put that thing in my mouth and chewed. Oh God, what was I thinking? It was borderline idyllic. The flavor practically burst in my mouth, overtaking, as if for just a moment, my senses. More, please!

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Francesco may be holding the toast, but he did not have the courage to eat it. Just sayin’

First course, as if the appetizers didn’t fill me up enough, consisted of pasta with a delicate tomato-based sauce with tuna and black olives. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. First, the olives were from the olive tree that greets you as you step into my in-laws’ front yard. They were tangy, salty and mixed well with the subtle flavor of the cooked tuna.

The dinner was much more than just a meal. Sitting at the large wooden tables were four generations of my husband’s family, talking over each other, critically dissecting the food in front of them. There was something personal about each of them in their food. The olives were my mother-in-law’s great conquest; the codfish, a family recipe my husband’s aunt revived for the occasion; the polenta-shrimp cocktail, a last-minute genius concoction by my father-in-law.

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Tuna time: pasta with tomatoes, tuna and olives

It’s clique to say that the only way Italians really talk to each other is through the food they prepare, but I found it to be true. Especially during the holidays. So much history, emotions and feelings in those dishes that I, for once, learned a bit more about them without opening my mouth. Well, I actually open my mouth to eat the food, but what I meant is….you get the point.

Desserts were varied and without a doubt too caloric, too full of this or that, but who cares. I was in Italy, enjoying a restaurant quality meal and was not about to chicken out on the best part.

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Pesche Sciroppate

My mother-in-law’s juicy peaches with simple syrup and a healthy dose of whipped cream made my night. Gorgeous to look at and quite easy to make – a fresh alternative to boring chocolates or ricotta cakes. But there was more.

Panettone and Pandoro are the staple Christmasy desserts, but Francesco’s grandma, Luisa, had a trick up her sleeve. She made il rotolo, a favorite among my husband and his brothers.

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Nutella is involved. Enough said

It’s not a hard dessert to make and it takes less than 30 minutes to make, but oh boy…it went fast. One word: Nutella. A rolled cake dough with Nutella blissfully embracing its inner parts. I could have eaten just that and I would have been a happy camper. Really. With Nutella around, I lose control.

If you think that Christmas is the end of your food-related fantasies, think again. December 26 is still a holiday, Santo Stefano, and you eat like you have not stuffed yourself to the brim for two days. Tortellini in brodo was served, probably my favorite dish of all, with lasagne (a much better result than my attempt) cold cuts and more desserts.

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Word of the day: crunchy

MILANO

Our time spent in Milano with my family was also filled with food and related food coma. I was starting to doubt I would fit into my jeans at that point, but when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So I kept going. The food from the Lombardy region is much different than that of the Lazio region, where Rome is located and where Francesco is from. Our cuisine is heavier, simpler, often made from leftovers, very little seafood and lots of meat and potatoes.

My favorite dish in all the land happens to be very heavy, impossibly unhealthy. It’s called Pizzoccheri: it’s whole wheat pasta with cabbage, spinach, potatoes and a boat load of different cheeses. The more, the merrier.

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Pizzoccheri. It’s even more dense than what it looks like

We actually drove three hours to try the so-called best pizzoccheri in Lombardia. Oh, and to see my cousin and her family. We were deep into Valtellina, a valley in Northern Lombardy bordering Switzerland, following unbeaten paths, getting lost and finding our way back, when we finally arrived at a small, unattractive barn with a trattoria sign hovering over its door.

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Valtellina

The service was family style: you eat what the cook has prepared for the day and that’s it. You don’t like it? Too bad. After a few appetizers, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. A steaming plate of pizzoccheri made its way to my seat at the table. I have eaten my parents’ pizzoccheri and loved it every time, but this was from another planet. The cheese, real Fontina cheese from Valtellina, was gooey, it melted in my mouth like cotton candy. It was superb and I am not exaggerating. Major success. I went home full and happy.

Needless to say, our trip was fantastic. Spending time with family and eating good food is my kind of fun.