Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thanksgiving Guest Shot

Right when all my Thanksgiving dishes were ready to go and looking good, my camera batteries died and I had no way to document the recipes for you. Luckily, Maria Grazia the guest who wins the Most Prepared Thanksgiving Participant 2007 Award, was on the scene with her cell-phone camera. She took a few shots of dinner including this one of the turkey with sage lattice design. Thanks Maria Grazia!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving Round-up and Pumpkin Roulade (Bûche d'Automne)

Well, I rolled into work today after yesterday's chow fest that was the belated Sunday Thanksgiving. Our mainly Italian (plus 1 German) guests were rather entertained at the idea of participating in an American holiday made famous by Hollywood films - all Italians know about turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, so getting a chance to actually eat them is a kick. Think of how fun it would be to go to an Australian's house and eat shrimp on the barbie.

Brief Thanksgiving round-up:
°I was so excited I forgot to serve the glorious stuffing! I'm bummed since I think it's the most delicious Thanksgiving dish I serve and my guests went without it but also happy 'cause there's more for me! (sinister snickering, and hand-rubbing accompany this last remark).
°My Moroccan carrot salad was a bust! In addition to the spices called for in the recipe I added a tsp of ground coriander, and tipped the spice balance to a degree that made the dish inedible. Blech!
°The broccoli sauteed with pancetta was super easy, simple and yummy. So much better than last year's brussel's sprouts and the year before's fennel with Pernod. I'll do this one again and again.
°The turkey was great, tender, juicy and the sage lattice design was much prettier than last year's but the skin still wasn't crispy. None of this is documentable, however, since my rechargeable camera batteries instantly ran out of juice when I started taking pics yesterday. I was able only to take the above shot of the pumpkin roulade dessert before the camera crashed. Ugh!

On to the cake, a.k.a. Pumpkin Roulade, a.k.a. Bûche d'Automne (Autumn Log, as opposed to the Christmas chocolate Yule Log of fame).

I bricolaged a recipe an Epicurious cake recipe with a cream cheese frosting recipe with enough changes to warrant me writing the recipe out for you here:

The cake:

6 eggs, separated
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2/3 cup pureed SWEET POTATOES, NOT PUMPKIN! (unless it's canned) see *explanation below)
3/4 cup cake flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/4 tsp ground ginger
3/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cream of tartar (optional for the egg whites)
Butter for greasing cake pan.

Pre-heat oven to 375F. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugars vigorously for 3 minutes changing arms according to your fatigue level. I find this a great upper body workout and an excuse to eat more cake! The result should be a thick, light-yellow cream. To this, add the canned pumpkin or pureed sweet potatoes and combine.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and salt then add to the wet mixture and mix.
Whisk the egg whites, with cream of tartar if you have it, until stiff peaks form (with a food processor unless you're the reincarnation of Julia Child) and fold into the batter carefully trying not to deflate the meringue. WARNING: If you, (like I did the first time) don't bother to whisk the yolks and whites a. separately and b. a lot, you will end up with a sweet pumpkin frittata which is nowhere near as tasty as it might sound. There. You've been warned.
Pour onto a 15x10 inch cake pan and bake for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.


16 ozs cream cheese at room temperature
1 stick butter at room temperature
12-16 ozs powdered sugar plus extra for dusting (the taste is up to you)
1/2 tsp ground ginger
cinnamon for dusting

Creating the "log"
Once the cake has cooled in its pan, run a knife along the sides and release the cake onto a smooth kitchen towel sprinkled with extra powdered sugar, not terrycloth. Spread half of the frosting evenly onto the cake and with the towel, begin to roll the cake over itself evenly. Keeping the cake inside the towel refrigerate for 1 hour so that it will stay intact. After 1 hour remove the cake from the fridge and uncover it. Slice 1/3 of the cake off and then cut that piece diagonally so that you have 2 "branches". Place one on either side of the "log" and put on the first coat of the room temperature frosting. At this point you will have gaps between the log and the branches, but in subsequent coats, you'll cover the gaps. Return the cake to the fridge. After about 20 minutes, take it out again and frost the cake again, It will begin to look nicer, smoother and more like a snow-covered log. Return to the fridge for another 20 minutes then put on the last coat. At this point, you can sprinkle the cake with cinnamon and decorate with real washed fall leaves if you like.

*Since I had no canned pumpkin to work with I tried roasting and pureeing fresh pumpkin, which aside from being a giant pain in the ass, yields very poor, stringy, watery results. I think pumpkin is the only fruit or vegetable that I prefer canned over fresh. After three attempts at this cake over the past couple weeks, I wised up and roasted the much denser, sweeter, less watery sweet potatoes and they did the trick! Fresh pumpkins are so much more impactful thrown from a 5 story building and smashed. Music to eat Sweet Potato Bûche d'Automne by: Chicago Alt-favorites, Smashing Pumpkins' "1979".

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go...

Ladies and Gentlemen,to those of you Stateside, Happy Thanksgiving! I'll be spending the real Thanksgiving at work giving a presentation, but will celebrate with friends and turkey on Sunday. Thus almost all the Thanksgiving recipes I'll have to offer will sadly come too late for most of you. But I love to keep this blog as a record of what was served, what went well and what didn't for my own benefit, so maybe you'll be interested too. Here's my plan for Thanksgiving 2007:

Endive Leaves With Gorgonzola and Walnuts
Baud-Bovy Family Recipe Rabbit Terrine served with Homemade Sourdough Bread
Brined Turkey with Sage Lattice Design
Moroccan Carrot Salad, Broccoli Florets Sauteed With Pancetta, James Beard's Bread Dressing With Wild Rice, Mashed Potatoes With Giblet Gravy
Pelion Pear Chutney and Roasted Quince Chutney
Bûche d'Automne(Pumpkin Cake Roulade With Cream Cheese Frosting)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Quince Chutney

A couple years ago when I started my big annual Thanksgiving dinner preparations, I had neglected to buy canned cranberry sauce. There was everythng else, the big turkey, the mashed potatoes, the pumpking pie, everything except the iconic cranberries which are so hard to find in Italy. So, as a substitute I made three chutneys that would go well with turkey. The Pelion Pear chutney was the best of the three and has become a perennial favorite. Last year I had had the presence of mind on my summer trip to Chicago to buy canned cranberry sauce, so I was all set for Thanksgiving 2006. Sadly, the reality of the thing did not live up to my nostalgic expatriate food memories; it was nowhere near as tasty as the pear chutney. This year I'm branching out with other chutneys that I'm pretty sure I've invented. This one is made from roasted quinces and is a take off on my very auspicious membrillo experiment. This is quince, lemon, lots of sugar and sweet and savory spices. Here's the recipe*:

3 large quinces (about 2 pounds)
1 pound sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 in piece of ginger, finely minced and crushed with the side of the knife
1/4 tsp ground true cinnamon (Mexican)
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander

§§§ One point: if you omit everything after the ginger, you can make a glorious quince jam great for spreading on toast and munching along with your steaming cuppa coffee on cold mornings.

The best way to cook quinces is to roast them whole in the oven for about an hour until soft since they are very hard and knobbly, which makes peeling them raw a task I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Pre-heat oven to 350F. Wash quinces and pat them dry. Place on a baking tray and roast for 1 hour or until a bit soft. Remove from oven and let cool until you can handle them with bare hands. Remove their peels. Cut them in quarters and remove the central pith. Put a very large stock pot to the boil with canning jars and tops inside, to sterilize them. Place the quince pieces in a medium pot with high sides and add the lemon juice, sugar and ginger. Cook over medium-high heat stirring constantly until the fruit mixture begins to boil. Music to make cranberry-sauce substitute by: The Cranberries' "Linger". Since most of the cooking has been done in the oven, the mixture should thicken up and the quince pieces should melt into a uniform creamy jam consistency almost immediately. Stir until your canning jar water is boiling. Add the ground spices and incorporate. Cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Now, you’re ready to jar the chutney. Utensils you will need: 1 long wooden spoon, 1 ladle, 1 plastic funnel cut in half so that the pouring space is narrower than the jar mouths but wide enough for the chutney to go through, 2 oven mitts and ideally 1 friend standing by, surgical technician-like, to make the process go more smoothly waiting for commands like "oven mitt stat!". Using the long, wooden spoon, fish out one of the jars and shake it upside down to remove excess water (the spoon should be inside the upside-down jar). Place the jar right-side-up next to the pot of chutney. Place the funnel over the jar, ladle in jam up to just millimeters from the very top, fish out a lid with the spoon and, using oven mitts, screw the lid on very tightly. Flip the sealed jar upside-down on the counter and proceed with the subsequent jars. Allow to cool completely.

*This is a recipe that will make much more chutney than what you need for Thanksgiving unless you're inviting ALL your Irish-Catholic cousins, maybe your child's's basketball team or the like, so I've included some canning instructions so that you can enjoy the chutney all winter long with any roast meat dish.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mandarin Orange Lanterns

I've really been getting my holiday groove on lately. Yesterday I made my fourth version of a pumpkin roulade cake with fresh pumpkin in an attempt to make it edible for Thanksgiving dinner. Uch! frustrating pumpkin cake story to come soon!

Back to the holiday spirit: at baking breaks, I've been sitting down with my You Tube Christmas Carol list a couple mandarin oranges, clementines, or what have you and munching away. A very festive trick that Gabriel's grandpa taught him was how to make mandarin orange lanterns out of the peels. When you get three lit on a simple plate, they look glorious, very Christmasy and very elegant. Martha Stewart has nothin' on Grandpa Tsanos! Here's what you do:

1 mandarin orange
1 tbsp olive oil
1 paring knife

1.)Hold the mandarin with the stem end up top and the blossom end at the bottom, like the north and south poles. Score the peel along the "equator" carefully, so as not to slice the flesh. With your fingernails, begin to carefully separate the peel from the flesh. Work off the blossom end first. Separate the peel entirely. When working with the stem end, work until you have almost reached the place where the stem was. This is where you will work off the wick. You know how sometimes when you're peeling a zipper skin mandarin orange, you'll get some of the center pith along with the peel? That what will become the wick for your lantern. When you have separated almost all the peel from the stem half of the mandarin, you should begin to break the white filaments that attach the mandarin fruit sections to the stem. If you have broken them all before pulling the peel entirely, off you will take the white center pith with the peel.

2.) Once you have 2 empty hemispheres of peel, place the stem end on a plate and allow the wick to dry a bit. The drier it is the better it will absorb the oil.
While you are waiting, cut a small circle at the top of the blossom end to allow the lantern smoke to escape and the wick to get oxygen.

3. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil over the wick, and into the concave peel. Turn down the lights and place the blossom end with the hole over the top. Enjoy the orangey light and the citrusy perfume! Music to anticipate Christmas by: my pop song Christmas playlist.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chinese Fried Dim Sum? No! Italian Paste Cresciute!

Ladies and gentlemen, we're moving back to Italy after an extended tour of China. These lovely dumpling-y things frying in a wok are actually Neapolitan paste cresciute (raised dough). Valeria, our resident Neapolitan food expert, made a buffet dinner based on three varieties of paste cresciute. These first ones are plain, light and chewy on the inside crispy on the outside, to be served piping hot sprinkled with a bit of sea salt.
These babies are stuffed with a combination of ricotta, grated mozzarella and minced salami. Super rich and dead fabulous!
And finally these are plain paste cresciute, just like the ones up top but they're flattened out into disk shapes before being fried then topped with a simple tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan. Sooo good!

If you try this at home the filling/topping possibilities are limited only by your own imagination! Here's the recipe for the dough to start you out:

1 pkg dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup warm water (about 110-115F)
2 cups all-purpose or (ideally) bread flour. In Italy, choose 0 flour rather than 00.
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsps olive oil
oil for frying

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Allow to proof for 10-15 minutes until you see bubbly signs of life. If you see nothing, no foam at the top, you risk a failed recipe if you continue. Sift in the flour and combine with the water mixture. Mix until everything is uniform. Place dough on a board and knead for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and rather elastic. Coat the bowl with the olive oil and return the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl and allow to rise for about 2 hours. Then separate the dough into 10 pieces and...

1.) roll into balls for the plain paste cresciute.

2.) For the filled ones, roll the balls into flat circles about 1/2 inch thick and place about 1 tbsp of filling into the center of each. Fold over and carefully pinch the edges. Make sure your filling is not runny or you risk exploding paste cresciute in your frying oil. Music to risk exploding paste cresciute by: "Season to Risk" by Jack Frost.
3.) roll the balls into disk shapes and prepare your tomato sauce for after the frying.

The Frying:

Heat a wok or other large pot with at least 2 inches of oil to 350F. Too cold and your dough will absorb too much oil, too hot and it will burn on the outside and be raw on the inside. Add the dough pieces one at a time and fry for a total of 4-5 minutes turning the pieces so they cook evenly. Remove and drain on paper towels. Enjoy!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Congee Breakfast

A study was shown on Italian TV to demonstrate how the taste of many foods we love is acquired, not innate. All babies love sweet and dislike bitter but a taste for some of the foods we love as adults is learned. Take the example of wonderful gorgonzola cheese. I happen to love it but if you'd have tried to serve it to me when I was a kid with all it's veins of blue mold, I'd have run screaming from the room. Then take the Chinese delicacy of eggs preserved in ashes. On TV they looked like normal hard-boiled eggs with the TV color system screwed up. The whites were black and the yolks were green. I imagine that much like gorgonzola, these eggs have developed in flavor through the time their are aged and through contact with the ashes. Whether one appreciates that flavor is a matter of learning. A group of Italians were given the eggs to taste and a group of Chinese tasted the cheese. I'm sure you can imagine the grimaces on both sides. Nobody liked the taste of the new food.

Now why am I telling you about this?

My worst culinary experience in China was eating the traditional congee (a rice gruel) with traditional condiments for breakfast. It's pretty, isn't it? The pickled vegetable strips up top were pungently tasty and salty, the mushroom at 3:00 was yummy and chewy but the orange marinated tofu (still don't know what it was marinated in) just knocked me off my chair! I had to spit it out and then the flavor stayed with me all day long. It was a very strong flavor and I'm sure it is appreciated by people who've learned how, but I'll be happy not to run into it again. Not in a dark alley. I'm too scared.

Friday, November 09, 2007

All the Tea in China and Me, the Maniac With the Camera

All the tea in China? Ok, I know the five kinds here wouldn't even count for all the tea in New Jersey. But anyway, here's the booty I brought home:
the little round balls in the center of the photo are Jasmine dragon pearls, super perfumey and with a light delicious taste. The dark disk at 6:00, is Pu Er a black tea with a rich taste that tolerates a long brweing (5-7 minutes) without getting bitter, the other three teas, (at 9:00, 12:00 and 3:00 are something of a mystery to me. I wrote down the the shop clerk's pronunciation of the teas in Chnese and now don't know which name corresponds to which tea. Sorry! 9:00 and 3:00 are daisy-like flowers and 12:00 seems like an algae, it's soo green.
One of the things I really wanted to bring home from China was lots of tea but I did no research beforehand to find out what I should be looking for so my pantomime shopping experience was a little shaky. In Beijing, I heard the specialties are jasmine and chrysanthemum teas, so I made sure to get them. Tea shops often display transparent glass cups of tea with bloomed flowers inside. At first I was charmed but after seeing this time and again, I got the impression that the bloomed flower tea was a sort of tourist trap, all looks and no flavor.

Now, the tea I saw almost everybody drinking on the street looks just like this. Standard green tea leaves floating at the bottom of very large glasses or jars, made to be sipped all day long. Music to sip tea all day long by: "Pennyroyal Tea" by Nirvana. When I took this photo the tea owner looked at me as if I were an absolute moron and giggled to himself. What a spectacle I was! I'm sure he thought I was so strange to marvel at what to him was the most normal everyday habit. I did things like that all over town and ellicited laughs everywhere I went.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Exotic Fruit from China

Disclaimer: I thought of calling this post "Strange Fruit" but since this is just a post about what seems exotic to me, I thought the reference to Billie Holiday's song about lynching in poor taste.

So, on to the flippant: isn't this fruit fun? It's a type of persimmon and I just love the turban-like shape of it. Sadly, when I cut one up to eat, I realized this is the type that must be super-ripe before they lose their awful, acrid taste and become really sweet. I just didn't stay long enough in China to be able to enjoy them. My utter ignorance of the Chinese language prevents me from telling you what this fruit is. I had no way of asking what they were or understanding any answer. I thought this fruit, found everywhere in Beijing in October were cherry-sized apples, but after buying some at a road-side stand and biting into one, I discovered they resemble nothing I've ever tasted. They're perfumy but too sour to eat out of hand, and at the center they have a rather large stone. If I weren't living out of a suitcase when I bought them, I'd have made some rockin' jam out of them for sure. These may not look too pretty but they are delicious! We had these pickled in a restaurant in Shanghai and on the English menu, they were called "Chinese olives". They were crisp, juicy and sweet-and-sour. Very nice!
And after my first run-in with the cherry-sized apple things in Beijing, I found people everywhere in Shanghai eating them on a stick coated in hard crack caramel. Here you see a tiny shop display (I swear the shop was narrower than a fat Western tourist) where they've skewered mandarin orange sections, cherry tomatoes, grapes, something-like-pineapple and especially those cherry-sized apple things all covered in caramel and sometimes rolled in sesame or walnut. The hard crack caramel coating would do wonders with the tartness of the cherry-apple things. Sounds great, no?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Beijing Hot Pot! (With Super Beef and Chicken Feather-Shaped Vegetable)

My very best meal in China was a Mongolian Hot Pot, well, actually, a Beijing Hot Pot since it's popular there too and they offer local ingredients to make the dish their own. That evening my boss and I went AWOL from an Italian Delegation group dinner and Shanghaied (pun intended) a China expert to take us to an authentic restaurant. What do I mean by authentic? A place that would seem normal to a middle-class Beijing resident. Pier Luca, our hijaked tour guide asked a cab driver (oh what an asset it is to speak the language!) to drive us to a good place to eat. It was that simple.
The menu came in Chinese to Pier Luca and he asked if there was an English-language version as well. Oh what fun that menu was! 5 pages of culinary adventure and hilarious/adorable Sino-English vocabulary choices. Have a close look at this menu page. (Sorry for the poor photo quality) We passed on the "artefactitious crab", "sheep's pizzle" and "ox throat" and went straight for the "super beef" and lamb. My boss wanted to make sure that we ended up with something relatively familiar. For vegetables, we chose some bok choy, mushrooms, cellophane noodles and my favorite, "chicken feather-shaped vegetable". See above. We had initially laughed at it but, when it arrived, we saw the utter logic and descriptiveness of the name, don't you agree? So we began to pick up slices of the raw meat and veggies and drop them into the boiling broth. We'd leave them in just until cooked (less than 30 seconds for the meat to a couple minutes for the bok choy) and then enjoy it hot out of the pot.Last but not least, the fabulous dipping sauce (sorry again for the photo quality) that flavored everything with hints of peanut, sesame, soy, chili and I'm sure a lot of other things. It was fabulous!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy Day of the Dead 2007

I interrupt the saga of culinary adventures in China to celebrate the Day of the Dead. November 1st, the day after Halloween, is a big holiday in any country with a large Catholic population celebrating all our dearly departed and in Mexico, parts of Central America and many neighborhoods in the U.S., it's known as Dia de los muertos. I'm nostalgically missing Dead bread right now (a sweet yeast bread with lots of spices, often in the form of bones) but we're taking advantage of the national holiday in Italy and having a Mexican dinner party. Among other things, I'm serving "Sopa de chile poblano y espinacas" (Poblano Spinach Soup). As usual, this is adapted from a recipe in Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

The recipe goes like this:

6 poblano peppers roasted, seeded and peeled
6 cups packed fresh spinach leaves
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tsp salt
1 cup smoked ham in a 1/4 inch dice
1 cup cooked potato in a 1/4 inch dice

In a large stock pot, pour in 1 cup of the stock and bring to a boil. Add the cleaned spinach leaves and the poblanos and cook until the leaves are thoroughly wilted. Take off heat and blend with an immersion blender or in a food processor until smooth. A Day of the Dead video to puree soup by: Return to the pot and add the cream and salt, bring back to a boil and add the ham and potatoes. The smoky quality of the ham makes a nice foil to the spice of the poblanos and the richness of the cream. Serve immediately near the tomb of your favorite deceased relative accompanied by plenty of smoking incense and lively mariachi music.

Happy Day of the Dead everyody!

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