Posts Tagged ‘chocolate’

Tiramisu

September 29, 2012

My favorite dessert is hands down tiramisu. Not because it is an Italian food (although that doesn’t hurt) but because there is something about coffee-soaked ladyfingers, chocolate and cream filling that just makes me happy. And I mean REALLY happy.

But it always seemed such a daunting task to actually make it by hand, and therefore my experience had been limited to restaurants. But, for Valentine’s Day last year, I decided of all desserts to know how to make, this one seemed essential. The only “hard” thing about this dish is planning ahead, since you need to make it the night before consuming. But otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised at the simplicity. Do be careful of soaking the ladyfingers too long, as they will fall apart in your hands. The good news is, after destroying a few, I started getting the hang of it!

Thanks to Gourmet for this recipe which will now be my default when I am craving my favorite sweet treat. Bon Appetit!

TIRAMISU

6 Servings

  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 (8-oz) container mascarpone cheese (1 scant cup)
  • 1/2 cup chilled heavy cream
  • 2 cups very strong brewed coffee or brewed espresso, cooled to room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons sweet Marsala wine
  • 18 savoiardi (crisp Italian ladyfingers, 6 oz)
  • 1/4 cup fine-quality bittersweet chocolate shavings (not unsweetened; made with a vegetable peeler) or 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Beat together yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Beat in mascarpone until just combined.

Beat whites with a pinch of salt in another bowl with cleaned beaters until they just hold soft peaks. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating, then continue to beat whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat cream in another bowl with cleaned beaters until it just holds soft peaks. Fold cream into mascarpone mixture gently but thoroughly, then fold in whites.

Stir together coffee and Marsala in a shallow bowl. Dip 1 ladyfinger in coffee mixture, soaking it about 4 seconds on each side, and transfer to an 8-inch glass baking dish (2-quart capacity). Repeat with 8 more ladyfingers and arrange in bottom of dish, trimming as needed to fit snugly. Spread half of mascarpone mixture evenly over ladyfingers. Make another layer in same manner with remaining ladyfingers and mascarpone mixture. Chill tiramisu, covered, at least 6 hours.

Just before serving, sprinkle with chocolate.

Baby Ruth Cookies

November 7, 2011

If you are like me, you tell yourself you won’t buy the Halloween candy that you have a weakness for, yet somehow it always ends up in your pantry. And eventually, your stomach. For me, that candy bar is a Baby Ruth. So, every Halloween, I have a bowl full of extra Baby Ruths that I continuously eat during the remainder of the week.

So this year I thought I would get a bit crafty – “what if my favorite candy bar were a cookie?” So, I took my remaining Baby Ruths, chopped them up, and put them in my favorite basic cookie recipe (from The Cookie Book by Peggy Cullen).

So during the 11 minutes the cookies were in the oven, magic happened. The nougat melted and turned chewy and sweet, and the peanuts and chocolate infused the entire dough. These might actually be the best cookies I have ever made.

So, my Halloween experiment turned into a new favorite. And, I would bet that your favorite Halloween candy would also be worth the little experiment of seeing how it translates into a cookie.

So, thanks to my basic cookie recipe and Halloween imagination for inspiring my new favorite cookie!

BABY RUTH COOKIES
2 dozen

2 ounces (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/4 salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
7-10 fun size Baby Ruth candy bars, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugars, salt and vanilla until well combined. Beat in the egg. Scrape down the bowl using a rubber spatula and beat for a few more seconds.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and mix on low speed just until absorbed. Combine the Baby Ruth pieces into the dough.

Shape the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and drop them about 3 inches apart onto baking sheets. For perfectly uniform cookies, scoop the dough using a 1 1/2-in cookie scoop, leveling the dough off across the top before dropping onto the baking sheets. Bake for 11 minutes, or until the edges are golden. Let sit for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Oatmeal Cookes

March 28, 2011

I have to admit that when I was a child, I wasn’t always the biggest oatmeal cookie fan. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, necessarily, but when faced with a choice of something people called “healthy” vs. something studded with the terrible-for-you chocolate. Well. You know who won.

But the very reason I avoided oatmeal cookies growing up, seems to be the reason I am starting to become a fan. When eating a cookie, knowing I am getting healthy oats and fruity raisins seems to make me in denial of the plentiful sugar and butter components. And when I made this recipe, the chewiness (due to the brown sugar) and flavorful dough (did someone say butter?) made me wonder if faced with the oatmeal vs. chocolate question, would I still pick chocolate? Jury is still out, but I now add these oatmeal cookies to the “things I crave” list. So, if you need one stand-by oatmeal cookie recipe this is the one. Thanks to Bon Appetit’s Just Desserts cookbook for this perfect oatmeal cookie recipe!

OATMEAL COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 and 2/3 cups old- fashioned oats
1 cup raisins

Position 2 rack in the top third and 1 rack in the bottom third of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Live 2 heavy large rimmed baking sheets (or cookie sheets) with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl until very well blended. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix in flour mixture, then stir in oats and raisins.

Using trigger cookie scoop and about 2 tablespoons dough per cookie, arrange mounds of dough on prepared baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake cookies until golden brown, reversing baking sheets halfway through baking, about 14 minutes total. Transfer cookies to rack and cool completely.

Almond Joy Cheesecake

March 14, 2011

So I might lose a bit of credibility here, to disclose that I have only baked as many cheesecakes as I can count on one hand. They always tend to scare me – don’t want to overbake, don’t want to underbake. But the thing about cheesecakes (other than being delicious) is that they are ALWAYS impressive. They look so beautiful, complicated to make, and flavorful to boot.

So one day this winter I was craving making something a bit more “elaborate” than brownies, cookies or the typical baked goods. So, one random Sunday, I made a cheesecake. But, to mix it up, I thought I would try this cheesecake that promised to taste like Almond Joy.

The thing that this cheesecake taught me is that I have been slightly afraid of pretty much nothing. The cheesecake is so easy to make – and you start to get a feel for what a “done” center should really be like. It won’t wiggle in the middle, but it doesn’t look like a chocolate cake, either.

The crust might make this cake – it is amazing. The coconut and almond combination are so delicious, and the crunchy-texture balances out the smooth, rich filling.

This cheesecake is a great one to serve for company because it is so impressive with the chocolate topping and little bit of decoration. It is a lot of cake, so if you don’t have a neighbor to bring it to (like I did after devouring a few pieces) then I would plan this one for company. Also, don’t forget you should give it a night to solidify (although I sneaked a piece the night after I made it and it seemed to hold up ok, but I wouldn’t take that risk if you are making for company!).

Thanks to Bon Appetit Just Desserts for this one. I think it has given me the confidence to try a few more cheesecakes in my baking career!

ALMOND JOY CHEESECAKE

Crust:
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted (about 2 ounces)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
1 tablespoon coconut extract
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Glaze:
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Wrap outside of 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides with foil. FInely grind cracker crumbs, coconut, almonds and sugar in processor. Add butter; process until moist crumbs form. Press mixture onto bottom and 1 inch up sides of pan. Bake crust until set and beginning to brown, about 12 minutes. Cool. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.

For filling: Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar in large bowl until smooth. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Mix in coconut and extract . Fold in almonds. Transfer filling to crust. Bake until cake is puffed and no longer moves when pan is shaken, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool completely on rack.

For glaze: Combine 1 cup chocolate chips, cream and vanilla in small saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until smooth. Cool until glaze begins to thicken but can still be poured, about 30 minutes. Pour glaze over cooled cake; spread evenly. Chill cake overnight.

Run small knife around sides of cake to loosen. Release pan sides.

Toffee Squares

December 12, 2010

The problem with making cookies for the holidays is that everyone has a different favorite. I can’t go through a holiday season without making jam thumbprints for my husband (his favorite) or brownies for my co-worker (her favorite) and so on and so forth. Every year I make 3 or 4 of the old favorites that without, whining would certainly commence. Then, I always try some new ones to be added to the rotation.

And, before my designated “Christmas Baking Day” (yes, I actually take a day off of work to do it), I had to bake a bit early since our holiday parties seemed to span a 2-week time frame. So, when I saw this recipe on epicurious.com, I thought it sounded like the perfect missing puzzle piece to my cookie line-up.

The original recipe comes from a booked called Very Merry Cookie Party by Virginia Van Vynckt and Barbara Grunes. I made the recipe in the second way suggested – with the inclusion of toffee bits.

I am actually a bit embarrassed to show how easy this recipe is, since only about 30 minutes total gives you an entire 9 x 13 of these sweet morsels. They are so good that only within about 4 days from my first batch, I will be making another for yet more holiday occasions.

Thanks to Very Merry Cookie Party for this amazing recipe – and the newest member of my holiday cookie favorites.

TOFFEE SQUARES
Makes about 48 squares (on 9×13 pan)

Crust:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

Topping:
7 to 8 ounces milk chocolate, broken into pieces, or 1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped almonds, toasted
1/2 cup toffee bits

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment. (or spray a nonstick pan with baking spray)

Prepare the crust. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt. On low speed, gradually beat in the flour just until mixed. The dough will be stiff. Pat the dough evenly over the bottom of the baking pan.

Bake in the center of the oven until pale gold on top, about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and scatter the chocolate pieces evenly over the crust. Return the pan to the oven for 1 minute. Remove the pan again and, using a knife, spread the chocolate evenly over the crust. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds.

Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Using a sharp knife, cut into small squares, then carefully remove from the pan with a small offset spatula or an icing spatula.

The Cullinary Trip of a Lifetime – Part 4 (Umbria & Rome)

July 10, 2010

View from our villa

As we left the wineries and cypress trees of Tuscany behind, we entered the rolling hills, and less traveled area of Umbria. You don’t hear of many people visiting this area, due to its more popular sibling – Tuscany – but I fear it is overlooked based purely on lack of publicity. Our time in Umbria felt more rustic than any place on our trip and we encountered more pure culture and non-English speakers than I ever could have imagined. We called it our “cultural immersion” part of the journey. No Rick Steves guidebooks here.

Although the cuisine is similar to Tuscany, there are a few regional specialties worth noting. Perugia is known for its chocolate, so the delicious sweet treat is easy to come by in these parts. Truffles are also popular and abundant. This area is also supposed to have the best salumi (which we later confirmed).

So our first stop (which we got to via our Fiat Cinquecento and first interesting driving experience) was Orvieto. This small hill town is known for its amazing duomo (the most beautiful I have ever seen) and its wine called, of course, Orvieto Classico. So, not in order of importance, we visited the duomo, then tried the wine with lunch.

Pancetta Panini with a glass of Orvieto Classico

In Cinque Terre the light wine felt right with the seafood and sea views – but here, I will admit, it was a bit odd. The food in this region is very pork, boar, tomato-sauce focused so it felt ripe for red. But, when we found a restaurant on the square with a view of the duomo and ordered a panini, the white, light wine went perfectly.

After our short lunch stop in Orvieto we proceeded (sans GPS, unfortunately) to our villa. We were fortunate enough to have a work friend who knew an old coworker with a cluster of villas just outside of Spoleto (http://www.borgoacquaiura.it/borgoeng.html). We knew it would be off the beaten path and absolutely amazing. We were not disappointed.

The villa was situated on a hill, overlooking nothing but trees, flowers and a few small hill towns. Our villa, La Casetta, was the perfect home base. To add to the ambiance, we were greeted by the caretaker, Nicu, who knew absolutely no English. Remember how we called this our cultural immersion?

I have so many stories to tell about this portion of our trip, but I will try to limit it to our food experiences. Our first night, we didn’t know where we

Antipasti at Palazzo del Papa - not surprisingly lots of salumi and truffle mushrooms

should drive for dinner. We knew how to get to Spoleto, but didn’t know much about what was there. In broken Italian, we asked Nicu who kindly offered to drive us to a restaurant called Palazzo del Papa, which was down some windy roads opposite of Spoleto. To boot, he said when we were finished to tell the wait staff and they would call him to come pick us up.

So our first course was, of course, the antipasti of the house – again, it was interesting to see the difference. Of all the places we had been, this was the most robust and hearty antipasti we had ever eaten. In some ways, it could have been its own meal. But, there was just too much good food to stop there!

Truffle pasta at Palazzo di Papa

For our primi, I got a truffle pasta (although I actually ordered something else – but the language barrier was a blessing since it was amazing!). Rob had a tomato pasta then we both had pork cutlets (his with lemon and mine with truffle – that time ordered on purpose!). The food was to die for, and when we had the restaurant call Nicu, the bartender gave us a gratis after dinner drink while we waited. An amazing night.

The next night was a special one – and I won’t bore you with ALL of the mushy details. My husband and I renewed our vows. No, it wasn’t a monumental anniversary, but we had always wondered what it would be like if we had eloped to Italy, and got married in a chapel – just us. Now, at the end of the day, having our friends and family with us that day was so important to us, we never would have done it. But there was something about a romantic moment, just the two of us, in a foreign place that always tugged at me. So, when the coworker who put me in contact with the villa owner said he renewed his vows there, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity.

Nicu broke out the “popemobile” which in fact WAS the same type of car

The church in Torrecola where we renewed our vows

as the popemobile. He drove us to a church in Torrecola – population 24. Electricity had to be run from a neighboring house, the townspeople came to join us (none of whom we knew) and the entire ceremony was in Italian. But I can honestly say, there was something so surreal about that moment, that I felt not only a romantic and religious connection to my husband, but also to the land of Italy. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Now, the food. So no event like that is complete without a celebration. So after Nicu took out us, his friend Angelica and her husband Francesco out for a “chin

Wine at Il Capanno

chin” nearby, we had dinner reservations at a place we had been hearing about ever since we got there – Il Capanno (http://www.ilcapannoristorante.it/). Now you can’t be fooled by the dirt road that gets you there, and the fact that it isn’t near much of anything (except our villa). We went there the night before – Nicu took us to make sure it was “acceptable” for our celebration. They gave us wine, antipasti and we tried to communicate with the adorable girl Raquella who was there with the family. We knew it was good, and we knew it was a gem that not enough people had discovered.

We tried a regional wine from Montefalco that special night. I can honestly say the only reason we knew it was regional is we had seen a sign for the exit close to the villa. For our antipasti, we of course ordered “of the house” and were not disappointed. Rob got a delicious ravioli for his primi (which we shared). Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing – it all was – but what I remember most about this meal, other than basking in the glow of our vow renewal, was the steak. Oh my goodness, the

Best steak of our lives - salt crusted with rosemary

steak. I feel like in my life I have had some pretty good steaks, all over the country. But this steak had some sort of unique salt crust, and it blew you away. I could never reciprocate it no matter how hard I would try. We both agreed it was hands down the most amazing steak we had ever hand in our lives. For dessert, we got a chocolate mousse with a pistachio creme that was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Needless to say, during our time in Umbria we went back to the delicious Palazzo del Papa for dinner, this time getting a pizza and confirming the legend that Umbria does indeed have the best salumi and cured meats. Hands down, best pizza I have ever put in my mouth.

Spaghetti Carbonara in Assisi

Another memorable meal was in Assisi, where we visited for a day of sightseeing. Those who know me well, know carbonara is my favorite pasta dish. As a child, my father and I would beg my mother to make it as much as she could. The whole trip I knew that certain dishes were only available regionally. And although there were some exceptions (my husband had a mean carbonara in Venice), I knew in Umbria and Rome, we had entered “carbonara country.” So, for lunch in Umbria, I ordered my first plate of this heavenly pasta. It was a drier carbonara – less of that heavy creamy sauce – which was perfect for lunch. The bacon was like none I have ever had. All and all, an amazing dish, and worth the long wait to experience it in its regional birthplace.

Once we left the peaceful lands of the villa and entered clustered, noisy, crowded Rome, I will say we both experienced a bit of a culture shock. It took many different directions (GPS still broken) and near misses with other traffic to make it to the Hertz station to drop off our car. To boot, it was raining. Although, I have to admit, this was the first real rain of the trip (minus about 1 hour in Tuscany) so neither one of us was complaining. Once we got settled at our B&B, we realized it was pouring rain and we were starving. It was time for one of those typical 2 hour Italian lunches, while the rain would hopefully pass through.

We ducked into a little place in an alley by our B&B – looked like it was filled with locals (good sign), looked crowded (also a good sign) and looked very unassuming (the best sign). We sat down, shook out our umbrellas and dug into the menu. For an antipasti, we got baccala (cod fish) that was fried. Despite its popularity in Italy, it was actually the first baccala we had on the trip. It was crispy and delicious.

Bucatini in Rome

For our main meal I got, not surprisingly, carbonara. Rob got a bucatini (the spaghetti like strands with a hole in the center like a long tube), which has now become one of my favorite types of pasta. It was served traditionally, with a tomato sauce. They were both so flavorful, and the pasta was cooked to perfection. It seemed the perfect lunch in a cozy restaurant, while watching people trudge past in the rain. Then, we topped it all off with an espresso, to give us the energy to trudge in the rain ourselves.

Our last evening in Italy, after a visit to the Trevi Fountain, we decided to eat in a popular area with outdoor restaurants, street performers, and amazing food. I will admit, I ate more food than I ever thought possible. But I realized that this time the next day, I would be getting whatever Delta airplane food they put in front of me on a plastic tray, so I had to load up on the good food while I could. We did both primi and segundi and I had a craving for traditional spaghetti with a meat sauce. Yes, it sounds simple for my last meal, but I wanted to have that one, comfort food that I always think of when I think of Italian food. I wanted something traditional, after all of the amazing specialties we had throughout the trip. Rob got a gnocchi and we both got breaded veal for our main dish. We held off on dessert, knowing we could find some good gelato nearby. We were right.

Gelato in Rome

We literally followed the people with cones into what might be the closest thing I have ever seen to a gelato palace. The place was huge, more gelato than I have ever seen in my life, and there was a system. You pay first. Of course, as clueless tourists we waited about 10 minutes before realizing the system, but once we did and got our cones, we knew it was worth the wait. Maybe it was because it was our last night, or maybe it was because I was eating ice cream that tasted like a candy bar, but it was the best gelato I have ever had in my life.

The cuisine of Umbria and Rome was not only memorable because I was able to experience carbonara, but because it was yet two more regions, with their own specialties. Umbria felt raw in its culture, Rome a bit more metropolitan. In Umbria, it was all home grown food prepared in traditional ways, in Rome you could get some pretty good Chinese food, I am sure. They both had their own personalities, and it was necessary to experience both to appreciate the differences. This part of my trip has a sentimental meaning to me. Not only because I renewed my vows with my amazing husband, but because it was my last few days in a country where I know I will be returning.

Below are a few more food photos of our time in Umbria and Rome:

Rob in the butcher shop in nearby Spoleto where we bought our meats and cheeses for the villa

Lunch on our patio at the villa - meats, cheese and bread from the butcher shop in Spoleto

The antipasti at Il Capanno

Ravioli at Il Capanno

Chocolate mousse and pistachio cream at Il Capanno

Wine at Trattoria Al Camino Vecchio in Assisi

Gnocchi in Assisi

Best pizza I have ever had at Palazzo del Papa outside of Spoleto

Fried baccala in Rome

Carbonara in Rome

Spaghetti with meat sauce the last night in Rome

Gnocchi in tomato sauce in Rome

Last meal in Italy

Chocolate Toffee Cookies

July 7, 2010

So I realized that this is officially my first cookie recipe on this blog. At this point, it was looking like I either a) didn’t like to bake cookies, or b) didn’t like to eat cookies. I can assure you I love both. The ironic thing about it is I am one of those people who craves cookies at 10pm on a Tuesday night (or my husband does), and I decide to make them – from scratch. I have a few go-to recipes almost memorized, and it constantly amazes me how quickly you can make cookies from scratch (does anyone REALLY need break and bake??).

However, instead of blogging one of my go-to chocolate chips, my chocolate cherry or kitchen sink (I am sure all will follow in due time), I am going to blog one I tried this past week. I had been craving cookies every night for a while week, and after a weekend away eating my mom’s amazing cookies, I was beyond inspired. I love toffee (and who doesn’t like a little run in their cookie) so I figure I would give this one a whirl. I do have one word of warning – they are rich and addictive!

So, next time you are sitting on the couch on a Tuesday night thinking you want cookies, give these a try – guarantee you can have them done in 20 minutes!

Thanks to Bon Appetit for this one (by Ginny Leith Holland). I omitted the almonds it originally called for, but feel free to throw some in if you wish!

CHOCOLATE TOFFEE COOKIES

Makes 3 dozen

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups crushed chocolate-covered English toffee (such as Heath bar; about 7 ounces) or use one package of toffee bits

Preheat oven to 350°F. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg, rum and vanilla and beat until well blended. Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into small bowl. Stir dry ingredients into butter mixture. Mix in toffee and chopped almonds (if using).

Drop batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto heavy large ungreased baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies puff slightly and crack on top but are still soft to touch, about 11 minutes. Let cookies cool on sheet 1 minute. Transfer cookies to rack and cool completely (cookies will become crisp). Repeat shaping and baking with remaining batter. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Store in airtight container at room temperature.)

The Culinary Trip of a Lifetime – Part 3 (Tuscany)

June 26, 2010

As we left the Mediterranean behind in Cinque Terre, we were lucky enough to have hired a private driver/tour guide to take us from the coast into Siena – stopping within the Chianti region along the way. If it is in your budget, that is one travel recommendation I would have to make. Although we loved the trains (at first) and driving (although we thought we might not make it in one piece), there is something so relaxing about having someone else worry about it for you. And, instead of having a full day of travel from Cinque Terre to Siena, we had a full day of amazing food, wine and scenery.

Cappuccino in Pietrasanta square - the cup had a painted of the duomo in the background

Our first stop along the way was Pietrasanta. No, it isn’t in most tour books. But, it is the town from which my husband’s grandfather is from, and thus it would have been a shame not to see it, being so close. No culinary memories other than a cappuccino on their town square – but the memories were a bit more nostalgic for us. We found the church his grandfather was baptised in, and spent time in the square he surely played in as a young boy.

We then made a quick stop – and by quick I mean 20 minutes – in Pisa to see the tower, get a photo, then get the heck out of there. It was crowded, and quite overrun with tourists (ourselves included, of course). Then we headed south, past Florence (I know, everyone can add the “you are crazy” here), and to the Chianti region. We told our guide, Alessandro, we liked to go off the beaten path, where we could really experience the culture. So, we ended up in the small village of Lamole, just outside of Greve. I give him kudos for this choice, because I have yet to find a person who has been to Lamole. It was a quaint little town, but what I remember most was, of course, lunch.

After learning from Alessandro the history of Chianti Classico, it only felt fitting to get a split. We were seated at a

Lunch in Lamole - Pork and a Boar Ragu

table for two on a patio, overlooking sweeping views of Tuscany. Blue sky was interspersed with ominous clouds, yet we dined outside without a drop of rain. I started the meal with salumi, but unlike the salumi I had in the past, this was a softer kind. It had lots of pepper to give it a kick, and it was amazing. Rob got a pear ravioli that was so soft, sweet and salty, it melted in your mouth. Then for our main coarse, I got the boar pasta. I was told Tuscany is known for its boar, and you shouldn’t go there without trying it. It was slow cooked, braised for many hours, and added to a ragu over freshly made pasta. It tasked like a slow roasted pork (but a little richer, on the edge of tasting like beef). It was to die for. Rob got a pork that was almost too pretty to eat – until the first bite, then it was gone in a hurry. Dessert was something chocolate, filled with chocolate, then drizzled with chocolate. The perfect end to a perfect meal.

Balsamic vinegar casks at Montagliari Winery

Then, it was time for some wine tasting. Alessandro took us to a very small winery – definitely off the beaten path – for a private wine and balsamic vinegar tour. If you are like me, I knew very little about how they make balsamic, and the patient process that goes with it. We arrived at Montagliari Winery, in the heart of Tuscany, with more sweeping views of valleys and an approaching storm. We got the key to the place, then Alessandro took us into the balsamic vinegar aging room. I learned that the vinegar goes into 5 different casks, all of a different type of wood to give it its flavor – all the wine evaporating and condensing in each step. The result is a small, concentrated amount of 35+ aged balsamic. It is not a wonder, now, why Italian balsamic can cost in the hundreds.

Then, the wine – the cellar was massive, and wine dated back….well, let’s just say we were able to find a

Each cubby was one year of wine - there were many rooms, dating back to the 70s and 60s.

bottle of wine from the year I was born. After seeing the process, it was time to taste, so we went into the wooden paneled tasting room, just as we began to hear thunder threatening in the distance. The winemaker himself, David, joined us to participate in the tasting. We started with the balsamic vinegar, which was like nothing I have ever tasted in the US. Then, the wine, which was so earthy and rich. We tried some grappa (I am NOT a fan!) and some vin santo (I am also not a fan, but Rob is). Apparently, the way Tuscans drink vin santo is by dipping biscotti in it (because it is very strong otherwise). The winemaker even pulled down a good bottle of scotch for my husband, when he mentioned his love for it. We were talking about the winery with David, drinking great Chianti, and now listening to the rain falling just outside the open door. It was one of the most memorable experiences.

After Montagliari, we went to the “Crazy Butcher” of Panzano. You may recognize the name from a special on the Food Network about him – he is good friends with Mario Batali. We briefly met him, but what I really remember is the meat hanging in the fridge/freezer (vegetarians beware!). We were greeted with a glass of complementary wine (in true Italian style), and were asked to try some bruschetta with Chiani

The Crazy Butcher shop in Panzano

butter. Now, I may not speak the language, but when I saw the spread I knew that Chianti butter is the famous lard butter (lardo). I must admit, sounds a bit odd, but if you forget what it is and just pop it in your mouth, it is amazing. If you ever go there, you must try it.

After then a short stop at the Pentecoste e Castellina (a regional wine festival), a tasting at Rocca delle Macie Winery and a visit to the walled town of Monteriggioni, we were dropped off at our hotel in Siena – full and tired.

The next day, we had another tour guide, Nathalie, take us south a bit through the Brunello region. If you learn about Brunello di Montalcino, you will have a fond appreciation for it. The wine HAS to be grown in Montalcino and HAS to be 100% Sangiovese grapes. There was a scandal a while back, where a winemaker was adding grapes other than Sangiovese to his Brunello (making it NOT a Brunello). It was called Brunellopoli by the Italian press. You can tell, Italians take this tradition very seriously. So, if you are ever wondering why Brunello di Montalcino is so expensive, it is because it can only be made in this small town south of Siena. Needless to say, you cannot afford land here, unless you are growing grapes and then selling expensive wine.

We spent some time in the city of Montalcino – a beautiful hill town that truly lives for its wine. Then, we went to the outskirts to a winery called Poggio Antico. The winery had more sweeping views of the cyprus trees, and we went inside to get a private tour with another couple from the US. We then tasted the wines, and had a profound appreciation for the tradition of them, and a bit of sticker shock at the price.

We then visited Mont Antimo, a striking abbey in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, and then headed

Lamb stew (front), chickpeas (back left) and a fresh ragu (back) in Pienza

to Pienza for lunch. The restaurant Nathalie took us to once again had sweeping views of Tuscany (hard to avoid these views since almost all of the towns are hill towns). We sat along the hedge, looking into the valley, and had amazing wine and, of course, amazing food. I had a lamb dish – which may have seemed a bit heavy for the spring, but it melted in my mouth. Lamb is another cucina tipica in Tuscany, so I had to have it. Rob had a ragu that was absolutely amazing. Then we toured the town, which was quaint, filled with flowers and had a romantic vibe. Much to his dismay, I told Rob I want to move here someday. It was the perfect little town.

The atmosphere at Anica Osteria da Divo in Siena

Then back to Siena and for the meal I had been waiting for. On this trip there were only two dinner reservations I made. La Vista in Varenna, Lake Como and Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena. I found this restaurant on TripAdvisor as a “must visit” and then did some more digging to find out it truly is a gem in the city. Although the food is to die for, you go for the atmosphere. The restaurant is actually in ancient Estruscan tombs – so you feel as if you are eating in a cave. Surrounded by history, stone and candlelight, the experience is once in a lifetime. Because it was a “special meal “(which seems silly to say on this trip since every meal was memorable), we went all out. Bottle of nice wine,  primi, segundi and dessert.

For our primi, I got a lasagna and Rob a cannelloni. Amazing. We both got the stuffed pork as our segundi. As you may know, Tuscany is known for its pork, so again, we had to try the regional favorite. We were not disappointed. For dessert we got biscotti and vin santo. We left satisfied and full, then walked around the duomo at night, and experienced the beautiful main square in Siena. What a gorgeous city.

Below are some more food photos from our time in Tuscany:

Pear ravioli and salumi at restaurant in Lamole (Chianti Region)

Chianti with a view at the restaurant in Lamole

Dessert at restaurant in Lamole (Chianti Region)

Did I mention we ate a lot of gelato?

Ragu at the restaurant in Pienza

Cannelloni at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena

Lasagna at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena

Stuffed pork at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena

Biscotti and vin santo at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena

Our time in Tuscany was something I will never forget – we were able to experience the foods and wines that have made it so famous. We experienced the “must dos” like Pisa and Siena, but also went off the beaten path to places like Pietrasanta and Lamole to experience the Italian culture at its purest. Although Lake Como and Cinque Terre leave you awestruck with their beauty, Tuscany has a different kind of beauty – one that is more real, and in a strange way feels like home.

The Culinary Trip of a Lifetime – Part 1 (Venice & Lake Como)

June 12, 2010

So yes, it has been a month since my last blog post. No, I didn’t stop cooking and I certainly didn’t stop eating. I spent 2 weeks in Italy, vacationing with my husband, and 2 more debating how on earth I would going to write a blog post (or multiple blog posts) about it.

The reality is, we will be doing this in phases. We took a cooking class in Lake Como that warrants its own blog post. Also, each region had such different, unique food – I will be breaking this out into Northern Italy (Venice, Lake Como), Cinque Terre/Italian Riviera, Tuscany, Umbria and Rome.

So, I will start from the top…

I was lucky enough to have been to Italy once with my parents, but I barely dipped my toe into the culture, the food and the wine. I knew I needed to go back. On the flip side, my Italian husband (whose grandfather came from a small town in Tuscany called Pietrasanta) had never been. We love food. We love wine. It seemed so obvious.

So, on our 3 year anniversary, I surprised my husband with plane tickets for the next spring, and 8 months later we were on a very long Delta flight to Venice for two weeks of relaxation, romance, scenery, food and wine. And more wine.

I did my culinary homework before the trip – reading about the foods in each region and studying up on my issues of La Cucina Italiana (I highly recommend it). I started to learn what areas were known for, what you “have to have” in each city, and the importance of all of the Italian basics.

VENICE

Our trip began in Venice, and I will admit I was so enamored by the romance and a bit blurred by jetlag, that I didn’t take photos of much food in this city. But, it was obvious the abundance of seafood. Our first night when my husband got Carbonara (my personal favorite) I went with a seafood pasta. Of course, it was a small taste of what 2 weeks in Italy would be like – food heaven. Also, in Venice we had our first gelato (which was followed by MANY more) – there is nothing else like it! Gelato is make with milk instead of cream (which is how ice cream is made) so gelato is lighter and smoother.

Below are a few food and wine pictures from Venice:

Gelato

Street market stall

Panini

Drinks at Cafe Florian - I had the house red, Rob had sambuca

VARENNA, LAKE COMO

After a mere one night in Venice, we took the train to Varenna on Lake Como. I was particularly excited about this city, and not for the chance of running into George Clooney (although it would have been nice.). I have heard that Lake Como is a gem – a still somewhat off the beaten path vacation area for wealthy Milanese. The alpine lake is a crystal blue, the alps show their snow caps in the distance and the little villages are quaint and surreal. Every view was a postcard.

Beef Risotto with Red Wine Sauce at La Vista

Our first night in Varenna we had reservations at Ristorante La Vista – very well known for amazing cuisine. We each started with a shrimp bruschetta that was amazing, the freshness and slight citrus of the dish woke up your palate. My entree was a risotto with beef, yet instead of the traditional broth sauce, it was a heavy wine sauce, drizzled with a red wine syrup. It seemed so intriguing on the menu, I knew I had to try it and it was so rich and deep with flavor. I could never recreate it.

Filet of Beef with Balsamic Reduction at La Vista

My husband had a filet mignon with a balsamic glaze. I beamed with pride when he told me it tasted like my filet mignon I make for him with balsamic (on this blog) but of course the quality of the balsamic in Italy surpasses anything we have in the US, so it certainly was a notch above. Dessert was a chocolate dream on a plate. And complementing our meal along the way was a splurge wine – a Barolo. Lake Como is close to the Barolo region and as we attempted to eat regional cuisine and drink regional wine on the trip, we knew it was the right wine for the night. It was one of the best bottles of wine I have ever had.

Chocolate Goodness at La Vista

As if we hadn’t had our culinary overload on our first night, on day two we were picked up in the Varenna square by Francesca who wove us up some hills for 10 minutes (Italian driving at its best) to her father Moreno’s restaurant in Perledo. We partook in a cooking class at his restaurant – 5 hours of cooking, drinking, eating and hearing Moreno’s stories. As I mentioned, this experience deserves its own entry, so I will do one at a later date.

Other food and wine we enjoyed in Varenna (and nearby Bellagio, after which the famous LasVegas hotel is named) included:

The Barolo at La Vista

In Northern Italy, an Aperitivo (drink before dinner) always included lots of snacks

Chianti Classico

Tiramisu - my favorite!

Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Sausage and Fennel

Lamb Chops with Fresh Herbs

Filet Mignon with Green Peppercorn Sauce

Melon with Proscuitto

Mini Peanut Butter Cupcakes

April 11, 2010

If you live within a few houses of me, you will know that sometimes I just get in the mood to bake. And living with just my husband and I, we can NEVER eat all that I bake. I will bake bread (thanks to my mother for my 4 mini bread pan that is perfect for giving loaves away!), cookies, brownies….pretty much whatever i feel like giving a try. And if you live within a stone’s throw, you get your share as well.

But, this Easter I was headed to my friends Tim and Julie’s house, along with others – so it was the perfect time to bake something yummy for the crowd. Although I had my two nephews with me other the weekend, I thought I would use it to my advantage instead of against me, and enlist a little helper. There would be lots of kids at the party, so I thought making something kid-friendly would be ideal. I found this recipe in Food Network Magazine (on an article talking about cupcakes that taste like candy bars) and was immediately drawn to the fact it was supposed to taste like a Reeses. Not only is that perhaps my favorite candy, but I knew my nephew, Nicholas, was a fan of chocolate and peanut butter as well.

A few tips on these – yes, you can make them with kids! Nicholas, being 6 years old, lasted through the making of the peanut butter topping before finding cartoons more entertaining. These cupcakes aren’t your average cake recipe plus icing – it is more involved. But lots of steps can be made with kids’ help – stirring of the mixture, putting the mixture in the pans, etc.

Also, don’t overbake these. I find them to be cooked before the 20 minutes suggested – if you overbake they will become a bit dry. I might even trade the cake recipe for another next time. But, the brilliance of these is in the peanut butter topping and glaze. You might want to double the peanut butter recipe (mine ran a bit shy on the last few). Another great thing about this recipe is the mini muffin pan you use – you get more cupcakes and they are the perfect size for kids (or myself who is trying to lay off the sweets!).

Enjoy!

MINI PEANUT BUTTER CUPCAKES

For the Cupcakes:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter,
cut into pieces
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/3 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt1/3 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    For the Topping:

    1/2 cup heavy cream
    1 10-ounce bag peanut butter chips

      For the Glaze:

      1 tablespoon unsalted butter
      6 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped

        Make the cupcakes: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F using the convection setting, if available. Line a 24-cup mini muffin pan with paper liners. Combine the butter, cocoa powder and 1/4 cup water in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap and microwave until the butter melts, about 2 minutes. Whisk to combine, then whisk in the brown sugar.

        Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the warm cocoa mixture. In another bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla; stir into the batter until just combined but don’t overmix.

        Divide the batter among the prepared cups, filling each three-quarters of the way. Bake until the cupcakes spring back when touched, about 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

        Make the topping: Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan, then pour over the peanut butter chips in a bowl and let stand until the chips melt, about 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Refrigerate until the topping is set, about 10 minutes, then beat with a mixer until fluffy. Transfer to a pastry bag with a 1-inch round tip and pipe peaks onto each cupcake. Place in the freezer while you make the glaze.

        Make the glaze: Put the butter, chocolate and 3 tablespoons hot water in a small, deep microwave-safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap and microwave on 50 percent power until the chocolate melts, about 2 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Dip the frozen peaks of each cupcake into the glaze, letting the excess drip off. Refrigerate until set, about 5 minutes.


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