Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Chocolate Therapy

I had a little family gathering Christmas Eve. Not everyone could come of course but a few of us made it. Grandpa would have been 96. It was the first Christmas without being able to hug Grandma and Grandpa. Over the course of many years as Grams aged, she would preface every dinner asking for dandelion wine (sometimes quite forcibly). She didn't drink.

After she passed away, a cousin sent us a few bottles of dandelion wine. For Grams. So before the meal, we had a toast. To Grams and Grandpa - thanking them for our family. A few tears were shed but the laughter and gratitude outweighed the sadness.

Were started the meal with Oyster Stew (for Grandpa) and moved on to traditional American "farm" meals (for Grams). The Italian meal comes on Christmas Day.  Paul and I have been low-carb for most of 2014 - so much so - that if we pass a bakery and smell a loaf of bread baking, we need to catch each other as we swoon. This year, when we were feeling deprived (that would be almost always), we would turn to chocolate for help. Chocolate is good therapy. And even the really good chocolate costs less than a therapist. (I still haven't outgrown that "instant gratification" thing.)

Plus: chocolate comes from a plant. Ergo: chocolate is a vegetable. So below, I am presenting you with a gluten-free chocolate vegetable. It's a variation of the flourless chocolate tortes you find on the island of Capri. It's -7F degrees here. I'll happily visit Capri via the chocolate train.

Chocolate-Almond Torte - serves about 8 depending on how much chocolate therapy you need
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate - coarsely chopped
1 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs - separated
3/4 cup granulated sugar - divided
1/2 cup almond flour

Confectioners sugar and raspberries for finishing

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. (I lightly butter that also).
3. In the top of a double boiler (over simmering water), melt the chocolate and the butter. Set aside.
4. Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl until bright yellow. (Takes about five minutes.) Slowly, beat in 1/2 cup of the sugar.
5. Slowly add the chocolate mixture and stir until combined. Add the almond flour and combine.
6. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until they form firm peaks. There is no starch in this for leavening, so it is important that the egg whites are glossy and firm.
7. Carefully fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold until all is shiny and chocolatey and no ribbons of egg whites are left.
8. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 50-55 minutes. Torte is done when you do the toothpick test and it comes clean.
9. Let cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes.
10. Using two plates, flip torte over onto one plate, peel off parchment paper and flip onto another plate.*

*You can simply serve this upside down! I froze the cake over night and it helps with serving. I don't serve it frozen (I have enough "frozen" in my life living in MN!) But I do serve it kind of cold so it doesn't fall apart during the slicing.

This can be frozen for a few weeks - so it's perfect for "making ahead."

You can use a chocolate ganache or a caramel sauce for serving. When you have 40+ people coming for Christmas Eve dinner, simple is best. I sifted some confectioners sugar over it and dotted it with raspberries.

We ended 2014 trying to keep the kitten out of the tree.

We couldn't. We worried that Pino-Bambino (or Cioppino) would strangle himself on the lights. We wondered if he was starting to think his name was "NO!" So, we took the tree down early!

But isn't he cute? When he's exhausted from climbing the tree?

I wish you all goodness and light in 2015.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Alphonse and Duchess

There are eighteen grandchildren with a memory of Santa coming by every Christmas Eve.

They would sit on his knee and and tell him what they wanted for Christmas and be rewarded with a bag containing an orange and a box of Cracker Jacks. Simple things. Building blocks of love. As the grandchildren grew older, they would learn which was Santa's bad knee and avoid it.

My father-in-law had some tough times.  He grew up in St. Paul during its infamous gangster era and had a vivid recollection of Van Meter - part of the "Second Dillinger Gang" being shot to death in his neighborhood. The press snapped photos of children looking down on the body until neighbors finally brought out blanket and covered the man.

At about age 10, work was scarce. He lost his father at a young age and his mother was scraping by. Word came to her that there was work to be had in St. Paul for one of the older children. So she told my father-in-law to hop a train (yes, hop a train - no ticket) and go to Bemidji (up north about five  hours) to bring home his brother who was working at a lumber camp. He did so.

With all of those tough times, he was an optimist. He worked two jobs, put dinner on the table for a family of 11 and never complained. If my husband would make a remark about a challenge in his job he would always reply, "Isn't it great? You're working!"

I am grateful that both my mother-in-law and father-in-law were such great storytellers. I have precious glimmers into the world they grew up in. He always called his children (and children-in-laws) on their birthdays and sang "Happy Birthday" to them. We have the recording on our answering machine from this past August. But the Santa legacy is one for the ages. And if Santa is your legacy, you carved out a beautiful life for yourself.

He called his wife "Duchess" and she called him "Alphonse." He promised her he would wait until after she passed and join her soon after. And he was as good as his word. Nine weeks after Duchess left us, Alphonse soon followed. It was one week before what would have been their 63rd wedding anniversary. I don't think he wanted to celebrate it without her. And the date of Alphonse's birthday? Christmas Eve of course.

"Alphonse" loved brats, bacon and beef. And he ate his fill well into his nineties. This one's for you, Alphonse!

Steak with Mustard Butter  (from David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen which I highly recommend you put on a "wish list.")

2 8-ounce ribeye steaks (or your favorite steak - I've done this with sirloin NY strips)
1/2 teaspoon hickory-smoked salt, sea salt or kosher salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon cilantro or flat-leaf parsely
Vegetable oil or clarified butterFreshly-ground pepper

Mustard Butter
2 tablespoon unsalted butter at room temperature
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 generous Dijon mustard

Butter + steak? Overkill? No! Very, very French! And deliciously simple.

1. Pat the steaks dry and rub them with the salt, chipotle powder and cilantro. Refrigerate uncovered for 1-8 hours.

2. In a small bowl mash the butter with the dry butter and Dijon mustard. Shape into two small balls and chill on a plastic-lined plate.

3. Heat a little oil or clarified butter in a grill pan or cast-iron skillet and cook the steaks over high heat (searing on each side) until done to your liking. (Rare: 5-7 minutes each side for a guide.)

4. Put steaks on plates. Top with the knob of mustard-butter and freshly-ground peppers.

5. Watch the butter ooze into and around the steaks.

Missing both of them and thankful they have been a large part of my life. Very thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Autumn Squash

The snow came. And with it the cold. But before that happened, we had a glorious autumn and ate our fill (low-carb, etc.). Squash was everywhere.

And I even made some. Once. Because: I don't like squash. There I said it.

Don't like the texture.

Don't like peeling it.

But the family loves it so I look at new ways to cook it. This roasted delicate squash requires no peeling (happy rainbows appear) and is not too bad with the sweet and sour sauce composed of fresh lime juice, siracha and honey. (Recipe is below.)

And it is autumn-pretty. I also intensely, overwhelmingly, emphatically dislike beets. (Paul does. Woe is Paul.) I think they're drop-dead gorgeous but pretty is as pretty does and I used to make them once a year to see if my taste buds changed. No. Don't look for beet recipes here.

Now if you combine squash - let's say pumpkin with sugar and cream cheese and then top them with creme fraiche and salted caramel sauce, you could make a case for squash.

So I did that - ignoring my low-carb diet.

And bells rang in our little White Bear Lake kingdom. And all was well. These pumpkin cheesecakes have an easy gingersnap crust that adds some autumn spice. All is easy. All is perfect for Thanksgiving (they travel well). Top it with creme fraiche, whipped cream, Cool Whip for non dairy, or just the salted caramel sauce. Now that's the perfect way to get your intake of squash!

Recipe is here: Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins with gingersnap crust and salted caramel sauce

Then there's the pumpkin sheet cake. This is a pumpkin version of a spice cake and then topped with a thin, caramel icing. Again, easy, fulfills your vegetable requirement but with panache. This is from Mary of One Perfect Bite. It's a blog you should know and will like. A lot. Much more than I like squash and beets. (Come on, you must have popular "foodie" foods that don't work for you.)

Recipe is here: Pumpkin Spice Cake with caramel icing.

Now for a "real squash" recipe.

Delicata Squash with Sweet and Sour Sauce - serves 4
2-3 delicata squash, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch rings
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon Siracha sauce
2 tablespoons of honey
fresh cilantro for finishing (or in my case Italian flat-leaf parsley - because - you got it - don't love cilantro)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Generously oil 2 baking sheets
Toss squash slices in the oil on the baking sheets and season with salt and pepper
Roast them on one side for 20-25 minute - until lightly browned
Flip them and roast another 10-15 minutes until other side is lightly browned (mine didn't brown a lot)

While squash is roasting, make the Sweet and Sour Sauce by whisking the lime juice, Siracha and honey. When squash is done cooking, transfer squash slices to a plate. Drizzle the sweet and sour sauce over all. Garnish with Italian parsley - or cilantro.

There is a lovely step-by-step presentation of this recipe as well as tips on seeding the squash at Shutterbean found here: Delicata Squash with Sweet and Sour Sauce.

And finally, a week before the snow came - this happened.

We took in a stray. Pippin is giving him pointers on watching Bird-TV.  Happy autumn, all!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Country Cook

When I met my mother-in-law, Paul had kindly touted me as a super-cook. (Obsessive - yes, nowhere near "super" worthy.)

"I'm a country cook," she had said. "Nothing fancy." Nothing fancy meant getting 3 meals a day on the table for a family of 11. The meat, the starch, the vegetable.... the bread. My head spins and swims thinking about it.

Doris grew up on a farm in Cambria, Wisconsin. Homework was done by the light of kerosene lamps.  When electricity finally did come, it went to the barn first to help with the milking of the cows.

(Grandma and Grandpa Haas at their grandson's wedding in 2010). 

During the winter, the family went to church via horse and sleigh. It sounds romantic but it was chilly and horsehair blankets were piled over the kids to keep them warm.  Doris (mother-in-law) would tell me about the woman who lived next door to the church. She was the godmother of many, many children born in the winter because it was guaranteed that she could make it to the baptism. (Always thought there was a play in that.)

There were no screens on their farmhouse. And windows were bolted shut in the summer to keep out the mosquitoes. So think - hot. And then very cold during the winter. They would heat up bricks on the stove and wrap them in blankets and place them at the foot of their beds for warmth. (Very different than the way her husband Roger grew up in St. Paul - when St. Paul was the land of gangsters - a whole other blog story! And very different from my parents upbringing in New York City. All around the same time frame. We are a vast country!)

Doris went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. And one thing she knew - she wanted out of Cambria. She wanted the city - where nobody cared about your business. And so she found herself in nursing school in Chicago - working the emergency room. That was an eye-opener!

There are smiles when she recalled her courtship with Roger. They hadn't been dating that long when she asked him, "Is this going anywhere because I don't like to waste my time." She soon had a ring on her finger and it worked - over 60 years of marriage. Yes, we recently lost her. But her legacy of stories, cooking and good humor continues with her children, her 18 grandchildren and her 8 great-grandchildren (with one on the way!). We miss her and we find her unexpectedly - through memory, through cooking, through family.

She'd like this recipe. You will, too.

It is "country cooking" at its best. An apple cake - loaded with apples, just sweet enough for smiles and just fluffy enough to deceive you into think there are no calories associated with it. The caramel sauce is thin and drizzly and dresses this French-country-cooking-apple-cake into something more elegant. I first saw this on Bon Appetit and noted it. I later saw it on Ciao Chow Linda's blog and bookmarked it! Linda's salted caramel sauce is a bit thicker than mine so do check it out. And do make this before apple season is over!

I have evolved into a fair country cook. I think it is inherent in all Italians - used to peasant, somewhat poor cooking and looking to use what's available. And what's available in October in Minnesota - are apples. Glorious apples. If you like Honeycrisp and Sweet Tango - you can thank Minnesota for them. They were developed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and all Minnesotans sing its praises and head to the orchards.

The apples are first sautéed in butter (did I mention it was French and they do that a lot) and the richness of that step keeps the cake moist and the apples just a wee bit caramelized - and who minds that?

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided (plus a little more for the pan)
1-1/4 cups flour (plus a little more for the pan)
4 firm tart apples (they recommend Pink Lady - I used Sweet Tango and Honeycrisp), cored, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest

3 large eggs
(they also recommend creme fraiche for serving - I was good with the salted caramel sauce)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


  • Bring sugar and ¼ cup water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil, swirling pan occasionally and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8–10 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in butter and salt. Pour caramel sauce into a small heatproof jar or bowl; let cool. (Can be made ahead. Cover and chill.)

    • Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°. Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan.
    • Heat 2 Tbsp. melted butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add apples, sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. sugar, and cook until apples are golden brown, 10–12 minutes. Arrange half of the apples in the bottom of prepared cake pan so most of it is covered.
    • Whisk baking powder, salt, lemon zest, 1¼ cups flour, and remaining 1 cup sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in eggs and remaining 10 Tbsp. melted butter until smooth.
    • Pour half of batter over apples in cake pan, top with remaining apples, then pour remaining batter over. Bake cake until top is golden and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 40–50 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool slightly; turn out onto rack and let cool.

      Can be made ahead - cover tightly in clear wrap. But I think it's really grand the same day. Rewarm the caramel sauce if made ahead and serve. And by all means - if the spirit moves you - dollop on the creme fraiche.

The crust did not fall off. My husband cut into it and then I made him put his fork down so I could snap one last photo (this went fast). That happens a lot around here!

I have been thinking of the evolution of my blog. Seven years ago I started it to connect with the foods of my childhood and the foods of my family that came before me. Today, I am looking at simpler fare. A little razz-a-ma-tazz thrown in once in a while because - it's theatre! I'm not sure where it's going or if I'm on the right track - but blogs need to change don't they? They're personal. And as the seasons and day-to-day-living changes, I am realizing that our blogs reflect that. Do you ever look back at your early postings and think - how different everything was?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Feeding Body and Soul: Salmon Salad and Sour Cherry Pie

And so it came to pass that after six months of low-carb, healthy eating (including trip to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, including trip to the Covered Bridge of Madison County), Claudia thought we could introduce carbs once a week into our dinner. Husband-who-is-allergic-to-dieting found that he now fits into his absolutely favorite suit he bought in his 40's - was dismayed. He's not done! So I guess I'm not either. (Although I may sneak out for a trip to local once cream store for a cone - what flavor?)

So I bring you a healthy summer dinner and then I dynamite the entire process with this exquisite sour cherry pie. Balance is key, correct?

I found the salad on Pinterest and even carb-deprived Claudia thought it sounded good. It's from a blog called Gimme Some Oven and it couldn't be simpler. I bought the smoked salmon (about 8 ounces) and tossed it with spinach, blueberries, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, red onion and an avocado.

The blog suggested blue cheese and walnuts which would be good but weren't in my kitchen!

Dressing: 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (I used Sherry vinegar), 1 tablespoon honey, salt and pepper.

Allergic-to-dieting-Paul loved it and he is of the Midwest-farm-mindset that dinner should always include something warm or else it's lunch. Of course, he also used to think dinner must have a carb - but I guess I cured him of that. Be careful what you wish for....

On to the pie.... because that's really what you're here for....

In the five years I've had Pippin, he has never climbed counters, never helped me bake. Never. Ever. In fact, when Luce did ALL those things, Pip would tattle on him. He'd come get me. Now he helps me bake. By sitting on the recipe. You have to give him credit for filling in the space.

Sour cherries (amarene cherries) are very popular in Italy - some are preserved in wines and other hard liquors. A lot of amarene cherries go into jams which are later used as condiments for meats or a jam crostada. Recipes and more information can be found here.

In Des Moines, there were just-picked sour cherries at their expansive Farmer's Market - downtown - complete with farm breakfasts (all carbs) and entertainment - such as the Mimes. That talked. Which made me wonder if they flunked out of Mime School.

When I saw the cover recipe from Bon Appetit - showing a sour cherry pie in all it's glory (bonus for the addition of almond flour in the crust), I knew that some tasty were carbs were in my future.

And they were. And the crust was as tender as I imagined. And the filling spilled all over the pie - just as it did in Bon Appetit's cover recipe. I felt virtuous. As virtuous as one can feel eating carbs. In a carb-stricken life.

And I made an absolute mess pitting the cherries. Next time I will put on a beekeeper's suit when I pit cherries. We won't discuss other alternatives.

And it disappeared so I only had one piece. If you can get your hands on some sour cherries, make this summer dessert. Worth. Every. Calorie. Every. Carb. I have some extra in my freezer.... in case I need a taste of summer during Evil Polar Vortex Season.

Recipe is here: Bon Appetit Sour Cherry Pie.

I didn't change a thing.

Minnesotans are lake creatures. Maybe part Druid. And a big thing is to go "up north" to Lake Superior - to the Boundary Waters, to Mille Lacs, Brainerd, Crow Wing... and it's funny because sometimes we don't appreciate what is in our backyard. Two blocks away is White Bear Lake (the photo above is what greets me from the parking lot of my favorite grocery store) ... I walk it, I meditate to it, and I watch it freeze and thaw with the seasons. And yes, I have even ice-fished on it.

And the Twin Cities boasts many lakes - including Lake Calhoun above - which is part of a chain of lakes. A walking and biking trail spans per 35 miles taking you around many lakes - including Mary Tyler Moore's Lake of the Aisle walk. In a sense, I find a piece of the Mediterranean when we go walking. For six months of the year.

I am investigating Amarone wine. Worth the expense? If you really just intended to soak cherries in it? (Trying to recreate an Amarone Manhattan.) If you have information, opinions - please share with me. Hope you all have a lovely end-of-August week!