Thursday, December 30, 2010

Marinated Figs with Gorgonzola Dolce

I shall try to be succinct. I'm working on it but it doesn't always happen. After I put "end of play" at well... the end of a play. I spend months taking out stuff. Because I said it too many times.
I wanted to leave you with a simple and "all-grown-up" appetizer for the New Year. I hope 2011 brings you simplicity and delectables. With a touch of excess to keep it interesting and savory to heighten the sweet.

If you like contrast you will like this. A touch of sharp with the sweet and crunch with the smooth, yes - you will like this very much.
Marinated Figs with Sweet Gorgonzola Ingredients- serves 6-8
(Adapted from Tastes of Italia)
1 cup dried figs
1 cup ruby port wine
1/4 cup vincotto or a good balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
zest of 1 lemon
12-16 ounces Gorgonzola dolce
Marinated Figs with Sweet Gorgonzola Preparation
  1. Combine all ingredients (except the Gorgonzola!) in a medium saucepan.
  2. Over medium heat, bring to a boil.
  3. Lower the heat and cover. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. To serve: serve warm of at room temperature. Combine the figs on a plate with a wedge of Gorgonzola dolce. If desired, provide crackers or bread. Spoon some sauce over a piece of the Gorgonzola and enjoy.
I was fortunate to still have vincotto given to me by Sausage Debauchery. A good balsamic works very well here.
The Gorgonzola dolce is more mellow (it's a younger, creamier blue cheese) than most blue cheeses. It brings out the sweetness of the marinated figs. As with most Italian appetizers, you can play with this. Leave out the nuts or use hazelnuts. Add other dried fruits. In a season that sparkles with sugar and entices children, this fig and Gorgonzola appetizer is made for adults.
During the simmering process, the port wine and vincotto (or balsamic vinegar) cook down to a thick, syrup glaze coating the figs and nuts. The figs become plumper and sweeter. This would also be delicious over gelato, ice cream or a sweet mascarpone-ricotta mixture. It is important to note that a lot of the alcohol does burn off but not all of it.
As 2010 draws to a close, I want to thank-you for your friendship. When I began the blog as an archive of recipes and stories, I had no idea how enriched I would become by meeting you via food and the wonders of cybersphere. Meeting Pat from Mille Fiori Favoriti "for real" courtesy of Bertolli Foods was proof positive these friendships are not nebulous. Grazie. To all of you.
And for fun: if you are snowed in and want to read a tantalizing discussion that went on in Dianne Jacob's "Will Write for Food" blog, click here. I dare you to not be intrigued. The topic: Is food blogging too much work? The answers are filled with passion, love, and there are some razor sharp insights into food blogging.
Happy New Year! May it bring you delicious journeys in all the facets of your lives.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Christmas Spirit

I filled my days. Baking, cooking, cleaning... avoiding thinking.

Pip-a-doodle helped me wrap.
"Christmas, children is not a date. It's a state of mind." - Mary Ellen Chase
I was writing a story from my childhood. A story that vividly evoked and celebrated my father's life. I was missing him.
I watered every bit of greenery in the home. Including the orchids which were sent from my cousins in the days following the loss of my father. Never mind that they now were a stick. I would water that stick until it crumpled into dust.

"On Christmas Day, we're going to make a Bûche de Noël," announced my daughter. I blanched a bit for I cook more than I bake. But it was Christmas and if it didn't turn out well, the process could still bright yuletide joy. Unless of course, it ended up in the garbage can.
For the first Christmas Day in my children's lives - there would be just four of us. The first Christmas without my father. My mother and sister would be in NYC. Was it possible to keep it celebratory when it was so small?
"Traditions change all the time. We want to save the culture of food here." - Giovanni Rebora, Italian food historian.
And so our new Christmas would establish a culture of food - past and present. Lasagne for the old and a new Bûche de Noël for my French-loving daughter.
"He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming! It came! Somehow or other, it came just the same." - Dr. Seuss
And so it came.

But a Bûche de Noël! Suppose after rolling and rerolling the cake, it cracked? Suppose the mushrooms were blobs? What if? What if?
Christmas Eve:
The Christmas-tidal wave that is the Haas family came. Oyster stew, two turkeys, 4 sides without dairy or eggs to combat allergies. Cookies. A vegan chocolate cake.... and some plump, puffed doves resting after their Christmas Eve meal of seeds.

Grateful for Hickory Farms which I received as part of the Foodbuzz tastemaker Program. It saved me time which was running out before the feast. Slice and serve. 30 people are about to enter my home.

And they all brought cookies. Delicious caramels, molasses cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate truffle mice.

I was grateful for the Christmas spirit that said, don't bake - make food. You will need food.

A torrent of hungry people. Chasing wee ones. While the wee ones chased Pippin and Sadie.

I'm dishing out Oyster Stew and the Christmas Spirit says "look down and don't trip." And so I do. And below me are the youngest fascinated by Pippin drinking. They were ready to try getting their water in the same way.
We stopped them.

"Kirsten, could you be wearing any less?" mentioned Grandma Haas as she gazed at her granddaughter in her old, high school show choir dress. We all felt a need for sparkle this year.

Grandpa Haas turned 92.

And Santa visited. The wee ones followed him out looking for reindeer. We danced as fast as we could and scurried Santa out the door. Christmas Eve was boisterous. Loving. Filled with food and laughter. Would Christmas Day be too quiet?
And late that night after all were snuggled inside their own homes, we all slept the sleep of children hoping we had been mostly "nice."
Christmas morning: the day of the Bûche de Noël. A lot was riding on that log. It will fill a void this Christmas.

Christmas morning:
all is bright.

Pip took refuge but he was safe. All is calm.

Coffee and waiting for the kids. Reading the Bûche de Noël recipe again and again. In the same way, I memorized lines in the days of yore.
The Christmas challenge awaits.

Kirsten decided on a Williams-Sonoma recipe. Williams-Sonoma has never failed her. It has a lot of steps. More steps than my lasagne.

But you get to douse a dish towel with confectioner's sugar and play. My husband took one look at the kitchen, grabbed a book and some coffee and retreated. Matthew napped with a cat and a dog who were still exhausted from Christmas Eve. Kirsten and I took out every measuring cup in the house and rolled up our sleeves. Creating a new tradition must be taken seriously.

"If it cracks while rolling, we'll cover it up with the frosting." Always good to have Plan B.

A cleverly-disguised log. Not even the cat knew the secrets inside this towel

Kirsten piped the meringue mushrooms. I know my limitations. I piped the stems. I've spent a lot of time with mushroom stems. They don't need to be perfect.

And after squeezing squiggles of all sizes, we removed the frosting from the ice bath and started speading. I don't particularly love frosting. Too sweet and cloying, it's never been worth the calories.
But this was a chocolate-mousse-type confection. All silky and embracing. Delicate as an angels wing and as rich as their hymns.

The meringue mushrooms were in the oven. The lasagne was assembled.

The cake was re-rolled and the lasgane was still waiting its turn in the oven. It was three hours later. Six-thirty. The men-folk were getting hungry. We had been noshing on overflowing meringues and errant frosting. We were sated,

The lasagne was worth the wait. All was working out. I had a Guardian Angel.

Kirsten glued the stems to the mushroom caps and returned all to the oven. All was too good to be true. Kirsten also had a guardian angel. Still, we were sure they would explode in the oven. Nothing happens this easily in our household.

Bu they didn't explode. The stems stayed glued. The chocolate curled. The cake didn't break. Christmas was here. Without fanfare.
"Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more."

Maybe it's a process. Maybe it's teamwork. Maybe the Christmas spirit does guide all if you summon it.
It's not too late to make your own Bûche de Noël. The recipe is here. In our season of change, we didn't change a thing. But one thing did change Christmas Eve. Paul called me into the living room.

The orchid was in bloom.
Happy Boxing Day! May your New Year bring confections and blooms.

Monday, December 20, 2010

All that glitters is sugar

I love glitter during the holidays. It's the dark days that make me add sparkle to the home. It's one of the few times during the year that I end my days with shining sugars. Below is sugar in all its glory - in a creamy-smooth cookie, a chocolate "salami" roll and a delicate pignoli cookie.

Whenever I direct a show, I often find some place for a character to throw glitter into the light. At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream I always had the fairies exit leaving glitter in their wake as they bless the home of Theseus and Hippolyta. The visual enchants. I am sympathetic to those who vacuum the theatre after me. They must hate me. Glitter clings. Glitter does not go darkly into that good night.
It's payback time. Paul and I brought home a glittery garland for the stairs. The glitter is everywhere - on the cat, in my hair but somehow as we approach the solstice - I don't mind.

And then there's the sparkling sugar. It too is everywhere. I really should get a handle on that. I am not a cookie-froster. I put sparkle sugar on most cookies before baking and call it a day. These Italian knot cookies do not need sugar. They're brightened by the citrus. They offer a buttery rich, creamy, melt-away glimpse of all good things. But a little extra sugar glistens. 'tis the season to glisten.
Italian Knot Cookie Recipe - makes 24 cookies
  • 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 half an orange
  • juice of half an orange
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two baking pans. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Cream butter. Add sugar and mix well. Add zest and orange juice and beat well. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each one. Add flour mixture slowly and mix well.
If dough is too sticky, put in plastic and refrigerate for an hour (mine wasn't). Pinch off two-inch pieces of dough. Form into a ball and then roll into a rope - about eight inches long. Form a lose knot with the rope. Place on baking pan separating them by 1-1/2 inches. Sugar-glitter if using.
Bake for fifteen minutes. (Just as the edges start to turn brown.) Can cool in pan. If icing, brush with confectioner's icing while warm.
On Facebook, I posted that I was making "chocolate salami." "Yuck" were some of the replies. And my answer to that is, "Oh ye, of little faith."

I have wanted to make chocolate salami for years but all the recipes included raw eggs - that were never cooked or even warmed. Even though my eggs are organic, I thought it risky. Looking through an old Tastes of Italia Magazine, I found this recipe. Dark chocolate and almonds. I increased the cocoa (and used good cocoa) and the almond bits.
The result is a rich confection not unlike a Perugina Dark Chocolate and Almond bar. (An unfortunate habit I picked up years ago in Europe that continues today. It's definitely worth the calories.) As is this not-so-yucky chocolate "salami" roll.

Use the best quality cocoa you can afford. The cocoa can make or break this dish. This recipe was adapted from Tastes of Italia. Prepare this the day before so it can set in the fridge over night.
Chocolate Log Ingredients
8 ounces semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli)
2 tablespoons butter, softened (can use Earth Balance soy butter)
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
6 ounces crushed amaretto cookies (for a recipe, click here)
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup crushed almonds (put sliced almonds in a baggie and crush with a mallet)
5 tablespoons amaretto liqueur
1-2 tablespoons powdered sugar for finishing
Chocolate Log Preparation
In a large bow combine crushed amaretti cookies, crushed almonds, amaretto and almond extract. Mix well.
Put your chocolate, butter, sugar and cocoa on the top of a double boiler.
Under gently simmering water, stir until melted.
Slowly pour the melted chocolate into the crushed cookie mixture. Mix well.
If the mixture seems too dry, add a few drops of water.
Put the cookie mixture onto a large piece of wax paper and form into a log (about 2 inches high and 12-14 inches long).
Cover log well with wax paper (tape it if necessary).
Put the chocolate log into the refrigerator and let it sit over night.
When ready to serve, put chocolate log onto a plate and sift powdered sugar over it.
Slice into 1 inch rounds and serve.
I used Sharffen Berger cocoa. It is pricey but periodically goes on sale.
If you don't want intense sugar and are feeling a wee bit nutty, you cannot go wrong with a pignoli cookie. Airy, delicate and addicting. It doesn't sparkle. It gleans. Their one drawback is - they don't keep very well. So sorry, you'll need to eat them within a day or two. It's a hardship, but you can do it. We finished these the day they were baked.
The dough is very sticky but having lopsided cookies is part of their charm! Enjoy them with coffee or espresso. It's like taking a break in a small cafe in Italy.
Pignoli Cookie Recipe - makes 15 2-inch cookies or 30 1-inch cookies
1 8-oz jar of almond paste (do not use the tubes - the almond paste has a different consistency)
1/3 cup white granulated sugar
1/4 confectioners sugar
3 egg whites (1 egg white separated)
1 cup pignoli nuts
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Foil and really grease your baking sheet. (The cookies work better in a baking pan without edges.) Cream your almond paste and granulated sugar. Add the confectioners sugar and 2 egg whites. Beat till smooth. Dough will be very wet and sticky. Some people refrigerate it to make it easier to form into cookies. I grease and flour my hands and go to work.
Pour pignoli nuts in bowl. Whisk your egg white in a bowl. Do grease and flour your hands. Pull off 1-2 inch piece of dough. Roll in beaten egg white and then in pignoli nuts. Put on greased pan. Cookies will spread so put them 2 inches apart. Repeat till all the dough is used.
Bake 15-30 minutes (my large ones took 18 minutes) till edges are browned. Do not let the cookie brown. It will become hard and crisp and pignoli cookies should be pliable and chewy.
We also ate our vegetables. In the most delectable ways.

Bagna Cauda with vegetables - coming soon.

Marinated vegetable antipasto platter - coming soon.
I just finished a ten-minute play and am in the midst of editing. Mythajawabi takes place on the Staten Island Ferry and is an odd, modern retelling of Ulysses and the sirens. I have no idea where in the dark recesses of my brain that came from. I will be getting it out tomorrow and putting it on my website. I dwell in the land of sugar, glitter and myth adaptation. As always - happily making deadline, but need to offer thanks for glittering sweetnesses that came my way.
Quay Po Cooks left me this lovely award. She has a delightful blog and writes from her heart. I do hope you visit her - you will find something tasty waiting.

As someone who's never been particularly stylish, this gave me a huge smile. Thank-you so much!
And from The Mom Chef, I received this.
Mom Chef tests recipes from magazines - and magazines I love. She gives an honest take of the level of difficulty of the recipe as well as evaluations from her and her family (which often vary). I do hope you visit these bloggers and get to know them.
You are of course supposed to pick bloggers and pass it on - but after years of directing and having to "pick" actors for plays, I don't have the heart to choose. Especially in this heart-felt season. As is my habit, if you are a follower, please pick up the award if you desire. It is my thanks for you spending time with me in this season of "never enough time."
And bake a cookie. End the winter solstice with a touch of glittery-sweetness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Italian Feast for Father Winter

We had an Italian feast yesterday.

We also had a blizzard.
Definition of a blizzard as defined by the National Weather Service. 24 hour snowfall, 35 mph winds, 1/4 mile visibility.
Definition of a blizzard by Dylan Thomas in A Child's Christmas in Wales:
"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."
Not surprisingly, I prefer Dylan Thomas's description. After years of performing that piece, I love that so much of it is muscle memory and a part of me. Especially as I rage against winter and the need to drive in it! If you are a lover of words and have never read A Child's Christmas in Wales, find it here.
I thought creating the Italian feast would appease Father Winter.
It didn't work.There is a new coating of 16-20 inches in the Twin Cities. The Metrodome's roof collapsed, The Guthrie Theatre cancelled A Christmas Carol and every theatre and concert venue did the same. Office parties cancelled, busses pulled out of service and even the snowplows were pulled off the road until visibility improved. With few shopping weekends until Christmas, even the Sprawl- that would be Mall of America finally shut down at 4 p.m.

The feast did not halt the blizzard. But it did nourish the spirit. Baked polenta sticks with a simple warm, blue cheese sauce was the starter. The sauce reminiscent of melting snow - a thought near and dear to my heart.
Father Winter railed and reigned outside. Inside was all sugar-and-spice aroma and Christmas music. I will admit that when "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!" came on, I shut off the radio. That's just overkill.
This is so easy and so soothing. It makes about 16 polenta sticks. Make the polenta early in the day according to package directions. (I used 1/2 box of the five-minute version). Pour into a brownie pan and let it firm up. Then you can do one of 3 things: Bake it for 30 minutes in a 400 degree F oven or broil it for about 5-7 minutes per side or simply fry it. It also keeps well.
In a small saucepan combine 6 ounces of blue cheese (or gorgonzola) cheese slices or crumbles with 1/4/-1/3 cup of cream (you decide how piquant you want it). Heat gently under low heat. Pour over baked (or broiled or fried) polenta sticks. Serve. Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish.
And because I could....I also made Mushroom and Parmigiano Bruschetta from Cooking Light. Or adapted - I used small wheat pitas instead of bruschetta and a different mix of mushrooms and skipped the fresh basil because there was no going to the store for ingredients! You would need a sleigh and eight flying reindeer.

Luckily a good Parmigiano-Reggiano is a staple in this house! It's a virtuous recipe many vegetables, low-fat, etc. But more importantly it's a warming, taste treat. Just the thing to grab while you're cooking and listening to Christmas Carols that don't have the words "let it snow" in them. This topping would also be good over polenta. If you like garlicky, soft mushrooms with brighteners like capers and sherry vinegar all topped with nutty Parmigiano - check it out here.

Dinner was pasta. I cannot think of any dish that provides more solace than a bowl of pasta.

Also from Cooking Light, I adapted their Pasta with Broccoli Rabe, Chickpeas and Prosciutto to what I had on hand. If you like your prosciutto crispy, your beans creamy and your broccoli rabe steamy and sultry, this easy pasta dish will ease you into the winter night. Click on the above link for the recipe.

I believe the recipe originally came from Lidia Bastianich who always knows how to take a vegetable and heighten it.
And what's a snow day without cookies baking? It soothed the family and we may even have shared one with the dog. A round-up of Italian cookies will come later this week. Meanwhile, I leave you with this light and elegant pine-nut biscotti.

Also from Cooking Light, it's just crunchy enough for espresso or vin santo. Just giving enough to be on its own. Just sweet enough from the sugar and pine nuts. Delicate with its light champagne color - it's part air and part earth. Just like Father Winter. Find the recipe here.
The Italian feast may not have soothed Father Winter but it was a soft, comforter wrapped around our home.
And if you're dreaming of a White Christmas or want to go walking in a Winter Wonderland...

Be careful what you wish for.

And to those who sent me Facebook message, e-mails and left comments wishing me warmth and to be well during the blizzard, I want to thank you! Made me smile through the snow!