Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sylvia Cake

When I started Journey of an Italian Cook more than a decade ago, I had two teens living at home and we ate a lot of pasta (and risotto and polenta and bread). Fast forward (it's been a really fast "fast-forward") and one child has been living in Germany for a few years, while another has started her professional life in St. Paul. The days of "pasta and roses" have dwindled. A more vegetable centric, low-carbohydrate lifestyle (no pasta, no risotto, no polenta, no bread) eeked its way into our lives. 

Maybe it's the thirty-odd years of living in Minnesota, but a Scandinavian gene sneaked its way into my body.

It's not quite a fjord, but Minnesota has it share of the blazing-blue sky, frigid days. And I have fallen for its stark beauty. I have also fallen for Fika - a Swedish "coffee and cake" break - designed to be shared with friends. Part of that hygge lifestyle I fell into many years ago before I knew what it was.

I am working my way through Scandikitchen Fika & Hygge by Bronte Aurell. There's quite a lot for those with a semi-sweet tooth - just sweet enough without throwing scads of sugar into your bloodstream.

Above is the "Sylvia Cake" which Aurell surmises is named after the Queen of Sweden. It's also considered a "poor man's cake" (fattigmanskaka) because water is one of the ingredients. But what is important is not the name or the addition of water, but the fact that it is really one of the most satisfying, sweet-nibbles out there. Even my Italian ancestors would have a slice with their espresso. You should also.

Ingredients (Serves 12-16) or in my home: 8
3 eggs plus one yolk
160 grams or 3/4 cup minus 1 tablespoon caster/granulated sugar
80 grams or 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or seeds from 1/2 vanilla pod
200 grams or 1-1/2 cups all-purpose-flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of salt
100 ml or 1/3 cup cold water

150 grams or 1-1/2 sticks butter
150 grams or 3/4 cup caster/granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or seeds from 1/2 vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
1 few drops of lemon juice
75 grams or  i cup dried shredded coconut

a 20x20 cm or 8x8 inch square baking pan greased and lined with parchment paper


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C
2. Whisk (in stand mixer or by hand) the eggs with the granulated sugar, light brown sugar and vanilla until thick and fluffy.
2. Sift flour, baking powder and salt and then fold into sugar-egg mixture. Slowly add the cold water and fold until incorporated.
3. Bake in the middle of the preheated oven 25-30 minutes - until well-risen, golden brown and springy to the touch. A toothpick inserted in center should come out clean.

Frosting (Make while cake is baking)
1. Melt butter in saucepan (do not brown). Add sugar and vanilla and stir a bit to dissolve. With heat on low, add egg yolks one at a time, whisking until smooth. Remove from heat.  Add 1/4 cup (50 grams) of the coconut and stir until combined and thick.

Now the fun part that adds so much: Preheat broiler. Spread the frosting over the cake and place the cake under the hot broiler for just a minute or two. You want it lightly caramelized (so good).

Remove from broiler and add the rest of the coconut to cover the cake (add a little more if needed).  Allow to completely cool before serving. Cut into squares.

It's a cosy cake. There's no higher compliment.

So yes, there have been changes. But some things remain the same.

Wishing my USA friends a Happy Thanksgiving and everyone a sweet November.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Carnevale Pie

Something happened a few years ago. I developed a Scandinavian gene.  After decades of putting out antipasti platters, bruschetta with crostini and variations of a Caprese appetizer, my mind wanders to dark bread, open-faced sandwiches (butter, arugula, a gorgonzola slab and some sour cherry jam is an excellent choice). Maybe the decades of living in Minnesota have changed my genetic make-up and I have more in common with the Christensens and Andersens than I previously thought.

The joke here in Minnesota is, "Antarctica called. They want their weather back." We haven't had a real winter in a few years. It's back.

I also like winter. (My family now does a double-take and wonders who inhabits my body.) I've always been one for cozy winter eves, huddled under a blanket, candles lit, cats purring, books lined up and the requisite glass of wine. Nothing needs to be mowed or weeded. The outside in winter-white - stark and simple.  They call it "gezellig" in Dutch - that warm cozy feeling like a hug. Something I have practiced for decades. It's "hygge" in Danish and I guess it has become a huge thing - but it's attitude is something I've always embraced (or.... hugged?).

Part of hygge is treating yourself. (Ostensibly after you skied down a mountain for eight hours.) Well, I didn't ski down a mountain but even a short outing in the frigid air is cause for baking.

Below is a lemon-ricottta-semolina pie - Il Migliaccio in Italian. It hails from Naples so hardly Scandinavian. But perfect for Carnevale/Mardi Gras, simple enough to make and comforting to eat. The pie tastes light - it is not overwhelmingly sweet and it comforts which is the purpose of eating dessert.

There are many variations. I used the recipe from Manu's Menu and except for a few changes, the recipe's a keeper. You probably have most of the ingredients.

2 cups water
2 cups milk
3-1/2 tablespoons butter
peel of one lemon (I wouldn't bother next time. I'd just double the limoncello.) Or zest a lemon.
1 pinch salt
1-2/3 cups semolina
4 eggs
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
12 ounces ricotta (drained, commercial ricotta works best in this recipe)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon limoncello (says its optional but definitely use it or use fresh lemon juice and I'd add at least another 1/2 tablespoon)
Icing sugar to decorate (NY Times has a raspberry sauce for it which works)

1. Preheat oven to 355 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

2. Put the milk water, butter and lemon peel in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove lemon peel (if you zest, leave it in) and slowly add the semolina - constantly stirring. Stir for ten minutes (yeah, the arms got a work out. I wound up just constantly folding and lasted about 7 minutes and declared it good enough). Try not to get any lumps but if you do smooth it out with an immersion blender (I got a few and I blended the entire thing because I like getting batter everywhere - including in my hair). Let it cool for a few minutes.

3. Whisk the eggs with the sugar. Add the ricotta, vanilla and limoncello and whisk well.

4. Slowly add in the semolina mixture and combine well.

5. Pour mixture into prepared pan.

6. Bake for sixty minutes (starting checking around 55 minutes). The pie will be slightly wobbly (like a cheese cake but a toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean).

7. Cool completely. Sprinkle icing (confectioner's) sugar over it. Serve at room temperature or cold.

If you need another reason to embrace, winter: sunrises.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Spaghetti Pie - Cacio e Pepe Pasta Pie

I've been in Minnesota for a long time now. Longer than my many years in New York City. And something has happened - I look forward to January. You may wonder - do I really look forward to temps colder than the arctic? And snow that stays from December through April? Have I lost my mind? Maybe.

I like the slow pace. Darkness comes and I am inside with my writing pencil and my books. I am not conflicted - wondering if I should be outside weeding, flicking Japanese beetles off my plants, exercising outside or replanting when the warmth comes. I have two boards on Pinterest that are seemingly the same: "Gezellig"  (Dutch for that warm cozy feeling that candles and fireplaces and purring cats give you) and "Slow Living" - for those moments that beg you to slow down.

I have a list of 12 "slows" that I read every morning - slow-money, slow-exercise, there's even a "slow journalism" - where you read the effects of a newsworthy article weeks even months later - after the dust settles. There's an English periodical devoted to that. The anti-twitter. I am liking that idea a lot.

And then there's the food. Bye-bye lean meats and 1,000 variations on a wedge salad. Hello pasta and melted cheese. Hello spaghetti pie - Cacio e Pepe Pasta Pie to be exact. I made this Christmas Eve. There were 35 people in my home so I took a slice and hid it for when I would have time to savor it. I'm glad I did. The pie was gone in an instant.

Cacio e Pepe Pasta Pie - serves 4-8 depending on size and appetite of human being eating it
(From Food and Wine)

1 pound spaghetti
1-1/2 cups milk (you really need about 1/2 cup)
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
6 ounces Fontina cheese, shredded (about two cups)
6 ounces sharp, white cheddar cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)
butter for greasing pan

My Hidden Slice of Pie

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Cook spaghetti until al dente.

In a bowl, mix pasta, milk, Parmigiano, eggs, pepper, salt and 1-1/2 cups of the Fontina and cheddar.* Scrape into a buttered 9-inch springform pan. Then sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of Fontina and cheddar on top.

*even though I wrapped aluminum foil around the springform pan and put it on a pan to collect excess milk, the milk came pouring out. I would either use less milk or drain most of the milk that the pasta did not absorb before scraping all into the springform pan.

Bake the pie for 35-40 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Turn on the broiler. Broil the pie eight inches from the heat for 2-3 minutes until browned on top.*

*I did not broil the pie. I baked it for 40 minutes and had enough browned, crunchy cheese on top!

Transfer to a rack and let it cool for fifteen minutes. Remove the ring, cut the pie into wedges and serve.

It works as a side but now that it is indeed January - this works for me as a main dish. You can lie to yourself and balance it with a salad and say "See, healthy eating."

I don't make crazy resolutions. I do make "think, Claudia, think" notes. Remember all those years of fearlessly declaring how multi-tasking was the future? I am now thinking, one-thing-at-a-time. There's something to be said for being the tortoise and not the hare.

Pino has the right idea. A box and a little sun. Sometimes that's all you need. And a little spaghetti pie.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Traditional Christmas: Citrus Cookies and Ricotta Cookies

"Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. 
Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept." - Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas is Wales
There's comfort for me in the phrase "Always on Christmas night..." After a ridiculous number of courses (plus some scotch or whiskey, wine and cognac), my Italian and Uncles would indeed start singing around the "adult" table while my cousins and I (at the cousins table) watched in horror. I am so glad for those days.
My husband had oyster stew ever Christmas Eve in honor of his father who was born on Christmas Eve. When my father-in-law's first grandchildren appeared, he was Santa for over a quarter of the century every Christmas Eve. Every grandchild sat on his knee. Even when the knee was giving way. I'm grateful for those days, also.

My son waited for Santa by the door and would fly into his arms. I'm very grateful for those days. And grateful that the uncles have kept the tradition for my grand-nieces and nephews (two new grand-nieces arrived this year). Grateful.
This year, I have found comfort and strength in looking back to go forward. My baking is a combination of traditional American cookies and the old Italian ones. I have shared the Italian ones before but I am revisiting them for memory brings comfort. Christmas Past, Present and Future coexist is my kitchen. Funny what a cookie can do.
Citrus Cookies (my son-in-law's favorite)

And ricotta cookies (my favorite and judging by the fact I need to make them a few times during the holiday season - it's a favorite of others).

Citrus Cookies (makes about 24)

3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter - softened and cut into pieces 
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
zest of 1/2 orange
juice of 1/2 orange

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 baking pans. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar and mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Add the zest and juice and briefly mix. Add the flour in 3 additions and mix well. If dough is too sticky, refrigerate for an hour.

Pinch off a two-inch piece of dough. Form into a ball and then a log - about 8 inches long and  form into a lose knot or simply cross the ends. Space them about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes (just until the edges look like they are browning). Can cool in pan. But I cool on a wire rack after a few minutes. 

Ricotta Cookies (makes about 30)

Ricotta Cookie Ingredients - about 30 cookies
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Ricotta Cookie Glaze (optional)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-4 teaspoons milk
Ricotta Cookie Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Set aside baking sheets. No greasing required. 
  2. In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda and salt. 
  3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, combine the zest and sugar. I add the zest for a brighter flavor - the cookies will not be lemony. 
  4. Add the butter in chunks and the ricotta cheese and beat till smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat till combined. Slowly add the flour mixture. Beat until all is combined. Dough will be soft and a bit sticky. 
  5. Form into 1-inch balls and place on baking sheet. 
  6. Bake for fifteen minutes - until bottoms are browned but cookies are not. If desired, glaze immediately while warm and cover with sprinkles (immediately - the glaze dries quickly) or just use the glaze. Cool and serve.
Combine powdered sugar, vanilla and milk in saucepan. Stir over medium heat till the mixtures turns liquidy and into a glaze. Brush tops of ricotta cookies as soon as they come out of the oven and cover with sprinkles. 
These are not an overly sweet cookies, so if you like your cookies sweet, the glaze is a good idea. If you like a not-so-sugary cookie, simply cool.
Quedlinburg: Where we visited Matthew in September and this week - Matthew comes home for Christmas. Grateful.

We visited the castle and he visited the Christmas Markets. There's at least one more trip to that medieval city in my future. Grateful.

Pino (mostly) stays under the tree these days. The bottom third of the tree remains undecorated.

And he still rings the bell every day. Many angels have gotten their wings.

Wishing you bell ringers and cookies in 2017. Say some words to the close and holy darkness before the New Year. Wish the world well.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I Will Feed You Pasta

I'm not going to lie. It's been a tough week. I have been writing Antigone in Munich about Sophie Scholl and The White Rose Society. Sophie practiced and preached passive resistance in Germany in the early 1940's. It's a play for young audiences and it is filled with heart and heartbreaking. I find it interesting that I started this play the day I got home from Germany. Maybe there are no coincidences.

I have spent a few years fighting carbs. This week, I caved in. These are dishes that feed everyone - everyone and bring comfort. It's right up there with warm blankets and purring cats. (From Bon Appetit, October 2016) Need some comfort? Here we go.

Ingredients (4 servings)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces prosciutto (about six slices)
1 pound mixed mushrooms, sliced
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
1 teaspoon thyme leaves plus more for serving
Kosher salt, ground pepper
1 cup chicken broth
12 ounces pappardelle or fettuccine
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter

Heat 1/4 olive oil in heavy pot (a Dutch Oven works) over medium heat.
Cook prosciutto in a single layer, turning till crisp.
Transfer to paper towels and drain.
Heat remaining two tablespoons of oil in same pot. Cook mushrooms 5-8 minutes until brown and tender. Turn heat to lmedium-low, add shallots and 1 teaspoon of thyme, a little salt and pepper and cook (constantly stirring) until shallots are translucent. Turn heat to low. Add chicken broth and simmer until there is only a thin layer left.
Cook pasta in another pot until very al dente - about three minutes less than recommended cooking time.  Using tongs, transfer pasta to to pot with mushrooms. Add 1 cup (I added less) of cooking liquid. Crumble half of prosciutto into pot. Increase heat to medium, cook stirring until pasta is finished (mine talk one minute, Bon Appetit says 2 minutes). Add cream, simmer and cook until pasta is coated. Remove from heat, add butter. Adjust seasonings. Put pasta in dishes (or one big dish dish), crumble the rest of the prosciutto on top and serve. Garnish with thyme. I always serve with Parmiggiano-Reggiano.

From start to finish, I was at the stove about twenty minutes. Fast, easy, fresh.

Food is nurture.  want to nurture. The body. And the soul.

This is first and foremost a food blog but I should let you know who I am.

I am the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Grandma and Grandpa were from southern Italy so were marked "brown" at Ellis Island while northern Italians were marked "white."

All are welcome at my table. All. Every race, every religion, those with no religion, LGBT, immigrants. There are no walls. There never will be.

From Leonard Cohen, who has provided solace for me through the years.

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.