Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Kaleidoscope Year

How do you measure a year? In heartbeats? Adventures?

On Christmas Eve, 41 gathered under my roof. Four generations. Lexi shaking her jingle bells in her hair, Audrey twirling her dress, and Peter and Adam advising Audrey to sit on Santa's lap - because if she did, she got a gift. (She didn't. She got a gift anyway. Santa is not a Scrooge.)

With my sister and I facing our first Christmas as orphans - decidedly middle-aged orphans but orphans none-the-less, we looked to the Haas's to supply the hustle and bustle and heart of our early Italian Christmas celebrations. They did not disappoint. Christmas Day was traditional Italian but for the Eve it was mainly Midwest with a touch of the old country.And there is no sense in recreating an experience you had. You must mix it up! You cannot recreate it.  Hence, the bonet - the chocolate molded cream from Piedmont which is traditionally served during the holidays from that region.

It feels rich but is made with milk and not cream. I admit to a simplified version of the recipe - when one is serving Christmas Eve dinner (and Grandpa's 94th birthday dinner!) to 41, simple is a way to stay sane and enjoy the ride. For those interested, a more authentic and intense recipe can be found here: Piemontese Bonet.

Yes, I took the photo after I served it - without amaretti cream (which would be perfect) and without powdered sugar (which I ladled on as the cats were going for it - so a wee bit heavy-handed). But you might like the ease and since the 2012 holiday season is coming to a fast close (fast away the old year passes...)... think of it for Valentine's Day. You mold it - the possibilities are glorious.

Piemontese Bonet: Molded Chocolate Cream from Piedmont
3 cups milk
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (I used small morsels - no chopping - bittersweet would be heaven)
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, beaten
16 amaretti cookies, crushed
Optional: powdered sugar, whipped cream, Christmas hard candies, chocolate curls for decoration

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large pot combine milk and chocolate and cook on low heat until chocolate melts. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl mix the sugar and the eggs. Stir in the chocolate milk and cookies.

Pour the chocolate mixture into a mold (I used a bundt pan). Fill a large pan ( a roasting pan) with boiling water. Place the mold in the roasting pan and fill with boiling water until it comes halfway up the mold. Place in oven and bake for 60 minutes. Remove and let sit for 30 minutes and then invert it onto a plate.

Decorate with powdered sugar (which I forgot) or some cream mixed with amaretto (which I forgot) and/or chocolate curls and hard Christmas candies (which I forgot).

Slice and serve warm or refrigerate for an hour and slice and serve.

8 servings.

The gathering was what the doctor ordered. I did little writing the last six months thinking I had writer's block. But what I had was a kaleidoscope of patterns I had used and knew. I look forward to turning the kaleidoscope and inviting new patterns to inspire. I am learning more and more about taking things you know and transforming them into things that are new. Scientists do it. And artists. And writers. It's time for me to re-evaluate. The possibilities are endless.

Wishing you a year of possibilities and all the goodness that comes with it. Happy 2013! Thank you for visiting and being a community of sharing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms and Nutty Candy

Pistachio-Almond Brittle... appetizer? Dessert?

Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms

It's earthy, it's comforting and it's light. Just what the proverbial doc ordered in the days leading up to Christmas. Especially here as we start Christmas Eve with a traditional Midwestern menu (and the Feast of the Seven Cheeses - what can I say - the Midwesterners don't do a lot of fish) for 40 people (lots of food and 4 generations under my roof - does it get any better?). Christmas Day continues to be an all Italian affair with as much food as the night before but for only 6 people.

It's a simple dish to enjoy between the two holidays, elegant for company and a balm for two grad students who just finished their finals. I found this in my mother's recipe file. Not sure where it is from but I love going through her files and picturing her talking to herself as she eyes the ingredients.
Recipe says this serve 8. Only as a first serving. I used more pasta and it served 5.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup diced shallots
2 garlic cloves, minced
12 ounces mixed mushrooms
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt - divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper - divided
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups 1% milk
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1-1/2 cups shredded fontina cheese
12 ounces pappardelle (wide ribbon pasta) - I used 16 ounces
Chopped fresh parsley

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Heat oil in large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, shallots and garlic to pan and saute about 3 minutes (till tender - I add the garlic the last minute). Add mushrooms, saute 5 minutes until mushrooms soften. Add white wine, Italian seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook 2 minutes until liquid evaporates. (I lowered the temp a bit.) Set aside.

2. Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour to pan; cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk and broth, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil. Cook 2 minutes or until it thickens - whisking. Remove from heat. Add cheese, remaining salt and pepper; stir until smooth. Stir into mushroom mixture; keep warm.

3. Place 1 cup of pasta in shallow bowl and top with mushroom mixture. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve. Savor.

I don't have a huge sweet tooth (what I love about Italian cookies - is that they are not terribly cloying). But I saw this pistachio-almond candy in a long-ago Tastes of Italia and couldn't get it out of my head. I think when you see this - you won't be able to get it out of your head. And it's easy!

Almond Pistachio Candy

1 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
4 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, chopped

Toast almonds in a large, dry skillet until just starting to brown. Remove and cool.

Spray a baking sheet and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan combine sugar, orange juice, honey and almond extract. Cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. Add nuts and cook for 8-10 minutes. You want a lovely golden color.

Poor mixture onto prepared baking sheet and smooth with a spatula until 1/4 inch thick. Chill. When completely cooled, break into pieces. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 2 cups of brittle.

We can't keep Luce out of the tree. He was born in the woods and was happy to see the woods brought indoors. He makes it to the top, sleeps in it and wreaks havoc making merry. We anticipate an ornament-less tree come Christmas. And we smile. I wish you lots of smiles, the merriest Christmas, sparkle in the dark days and a New Year brimming with new possibilities, joys and love. I am grateful to be part of this extraordinary food blogging community and thank you for your support in 2012.

Peace, comfort and joy,

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Sparkle and the Real

I know it's the season of "fa la la la" but I've been craving real food. Real food is pasta with maybe a meat and some vegetables. It goes into one pot. I'm sated. It's easy. Spicy Italian chicken sausages for heat, greens for reality and pasta for pleasure.

I managed a little bit of sparkle with my first batch of cookies (and so far my only batch of cookies - and yes, they're gone). They're Citrus Italian Knot cookies - just a tad sweet. Puffy and melting in your mouth. Cookies don't always need to go crunch. A touch of sparkle and a lot of pliable - and easy.

My sister and I (mostly my sister) sold a home, emptied a house and my last drive home from the townhome was filled with glimpses of 26 years of baptisms, birthdays, holidays and I was able to give Thanksgiving. For all those years.

Because we did not have enough to do, we brought this into our home.

He was found in the woods - Mom and Dad were feral and he is not. I think. I hope. Say hello to Luce. Which is what we call him when he is adorable and sweet. When he wakes up from a nap his whiskers are askew and his fur sticks up and we call him Einstein.

When he is pouncing on my head and jumping into the soup (gives a new meaning to "Beautiful Soup"), he is called Binky-Boy.

Pippin is not thrilled. (In case you were wondering, not every pampered house cat wants a new friend.) Four days after his arrival, Paul and I left for Iowa for a production of By Candlelight at Bettendorf High School. I got to be a visiting playwright for four days and Kirsten got to stay home and referee Pippin and Luce. After four days, Kirsten declared she couldn't possibly be a "crazy cat lady" (as was previously feared) because it was too exhausting.

I came home grateful for having time with teens and theatre (it's coming home for me).

During the candlelight vigil, "I Think it's Going to Rain Today" was played in the background. And after the final scene, the names of all those "lost" in 9/11 were scrolled on screens as Leonard Cohen sang "Hallelujah." The cast walked on. Nobody applauded. You could hear a pin drop. And the cast learned that sometimes silence is better than applause. It was "the Real."

Back home with very mad Pippin and the little Tazmanian Devil, Feliway became my best friend. It says it calms cats.

And on alternate Sundays it does. And when it doesn't - there's always pasta. It's not really a recipe if you're Italian - you throw these things together all the time - but it is always real. Stable. Substantial.

PASTA AND ACCESSORIES: Chicken Sausage, Bow-Ties and Spinach - serves 4-6 (in my home - 4)
little bit of olive oil
little bit of garlic and shallots or onions or all
1 pound spicy chicken sausage - cut into 1/2"-1" rounds
1/4-1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken broth
8 cups spinach or Kale or Swiss Chard
1 pound bow-ties or favorite pasta (rotini would hug the accessories)
Save some pasta water
Herbs - your choice

Cook pasta according to directions. (Boom! Done!)
Heat olive oil and quickly saute your aromatics (garlic, shallots, onion) until soft. Add chicken sausage and and brown on both sides. Add broth or wine and stir to remove brown bits. Add spinach and stir till wilted.
Drain pasta saving a little pasta water. Add pasta to large skillet. Throw in fresh herbs at the end of cooking (parsley, basil, thyme) or dried Italian herbs at the beginning with the sausage. If dry, moisten with pasta water. Serve.

I've never been a fan of chicken sausage. Gold 'n Plump sent me a huge package in the spring - all natural, locally grown, family farms and I agreed to try them. I've always loved turkey sausage (although as I write this, I hear a specific Italian blogger largely singing "nooooo" in the distance) but chicken sausages have eluded me. They have improved in the last ten years (the last time I tried one). I will be writing more about this - which will be my last "gifted" blog. I was surprised and enamored by the chicken sausage - not greasy - but not pasty and tough and bland as the previous ones I had. Do you know you're not eating pork? Absolutely. Do you care? No. (I still hear a certain someone crying "noooo" in the wilderness.)

And because 'tis the season, I did want a touch of sparkle. I love these because they are not sweet (hence the sugar-sparkle). And the touch of citrus is welcome in winter. Find them here. Because there are times you want sparkle. Without being blinded by it.

First snow. It's December. It's Minnesota. It's real.

Twinkle lights because everyone needs a little sparkle. It helps with what's real.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Orange-Almond Tart

It began with a simple orange-almond tart.

And ends with a pelican.

Or I have it backwards and I start with the pelican.

And end with the tart.

In-between there is an estate sale, bins of memories boxed-up for a later date. There was the sunrise on Lake Superior in Grand Marais.

The view of the lake from the Gunflint Trail.

A peek at Canada.

And at Trail's End - the Boundary Waters. (Complete with a cafe filled with White Sox memorabilia - clearly designed to insult Minnesotans who love their North Shore - the "Norwegian Riviera.")

An estate sale - it's wearing your heart.

And so later we went to a big lake. And I left armed with 20 years of magazines that I was getting rid of - after I went through all the recipes and cut out what I wanted. I started out with saving almost every recipe. And then I whittled. After hours of whittling, I was left with this orange-almond tart. Served with an orange sauce or Marsala whipped cream. I thought it was a good idea.

It was.

It is.

Delicate - almonds and oranges complementing and complimenting each other. More a gateau than the Sicilian Orange Tart I wrote about earlier. A nutty texture - the creaminess is not from within as with the Orange Tart but comes from the sauces it's served with - and it's worth making the sauces. Everyone had both - together - on top of one another. And they're easy. Easy as ... pie. tart. The boys had thirds. The daughter had it again for breakfast (nuts=protein, orange=fruit).

This is a transitional tart. Not too heavy and rich as those that bewitch you in the winter. But not as berry-light as summer gives. Just sweet enough. Just crunchy enough. Just fruity enough to see you through autumn. And just celebratory enough to add to to your Thanksgiving table.

Orange Almond Torte with Orange Sauce and Marsala Whipped Cream
- from Bon Appetit, February 1995
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter - room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks (save the egg whites - you'll need them)
1 cup almonds, toasted, finely ground (I like mine ground - but not to a powder - I like the nuts and crunch)
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon orange peel
1/2 teaspoon coriander (did not get a whiff of that at all in the torte)
Pinch of salt
2 large egg whites

Powdered sugar

Marsala Cream
1 cup chilled whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons sweet Marsala

Orange Sauce (makes 1-1/4 cups; good over ice cream, scones, pound cake...)
1 cup orange juice
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch springform pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment. Butter parchment and dust with flour. Beat 1/2 cup butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually add sugar, beating until blended. Add eggs, then yolks - 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. At low speed, beat in almonds, flour, orange juice, orange peel, coriander and salt. Scrape down sides of bowl occasionally.

Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in medium bowl until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into batter in 2 additions. Transfer to prepared pan.

Bake cake until golden (it will not be rising) and tester inserted in the middle comes out clean - about 40 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack. If desired, sprinkle with additional powdered sugar when cooled. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.)

Marsala Cream:
Beat whipping cream and sugar in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Mix in Marsala.

Orange Sauce:
Whisk juice and cornstarch in bowl until cornstarch dissolves. Melt butter in heavy small saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in sugar, orange peel and orange juice mixture. Whisk until sauce boils and thickens slightly - about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

After the estate sale. my sister and I each took one of my mother's beloved penguins.  I brought home a pelican from my mother's townhome. She loved those big, floppy birds and kept two by the fireplace. I put it on my hearth (The Pelican on the Hearth!) and packed for Grand Marais. Friday was spent travelling and going through recipes in the car. Saturday morning, I got up with the sun and Paul and I walked the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Where we were welcomed by a pelican.

P.S. I have turned on Word Verification for a few days to try and combat the huge growth of Spam I deal with daily.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Summer of 2012

The summer of 2012 began with a loss. And ended with a proposal by the river.

And a ring. An assurance of the circle that is life.

It began with an unexpected journey. And had beautiful detours for guidance.

(Under a Midsummer Moon at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.)

"How many are in the cast?" asked the frightened techies as seventeen young performers (ages 11-18) filed in for their three-hour tech. Do they know they only have ten-minutes to set up the stage?"

"Yes, they know." (It sort of was rehearsed to death.) And then we went on to have a smooth tech. (Rare.) The techies smiled. Staff and cast breathed a sigh of relief. The Fringe goes to blackout at exactly 60 minutes. The play ran 58 minutes. I cannot say I sat through the performances with nerves of steel.

As closing neared, I threw a cast party for the cast, crew and families.

When a show works, there is electricity between the cast.

Respect. Affection.

And play. So after consuming 10 pounds of pasta, 2 sausage-pepper-potato bakes, 18 cannoli, blueberry cheesecake bars ...

Bruschetta... (yes, I did a lot of healthy) ...

Zucchini-tomato tart.

And platters of Proud Italian Cook's Eggplant Bites.

"I don't even like eggplant," declared one teen as he popped a 6th one in his mouth. I made these four times this summer. Find Marie's recipe here. It's not too late to be enchanted by eggplant.

They played link-tag in the backyard. They played till dark. They played till I was worried that they wouldn't see the little squirrel holes that populate our yard. Visions of tripping and spraining ankles before the final performance did run through my mind. And the director's. But I loved seeing them play - I couldn't... wouldn't halt it.

Of course, the director yelled "Group hug" and the eve came to an end.

I'm somewhere in there. I'm trying to avoid "chicken soup" for the aging soul here... but you know - it was an honor to work with them and my director and designers. There was spiritual balance this summer because of them.

Vegetables were picked.

Heirloom tomatoes were consumed. We barely did anything with them but pick them, slice them and pop them in our mouths. You almost got a sugar rush from their natural sweetness. I think I may have salted them... once.

Caprese was required.

And once-in-awhile, I was inspired to cook them and throw them on pasta. It's not an overly pretty picture - but you know "all that glitters does not always taste good."  Mister Meatball's 7-minute tomato sauce can be found here.  With better photos.

And in August I splurged on halibut. Halibut (3/4 pound) with parsley-butter sauce. Cooked in a skillet - 1/2 stick of Earth Balance butter (I told you I was aging), 1/2 lemon, a little white wine - for probably no reason but it was there and I'm a sucker for leftover wine - and a handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley. Didn't bother with salt and pepper. Didn't even add garlic! Simmered slowly till all flavors joined together - maybe to play link tag. Simmered until the halibut flaked on the top and the greens promised a lingering summer.

It's September. It's warm. But I look forward to woolen scarves, soups, plaids, flowering Kale and fall color. Boots (not snow boots!), cozy sweatshirts, autumn bonfires. Looking forward. It's the most heartening part of the circle.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thank-you! I appreciate you.

I want to thank you all for kind messages of support and sweetness regarding the passing of my mom. They were - are - very appreciated. I will be filling the pasta bowl again and resume visiting you around Labor Day. My sister and I have much to do before her memorial gathering at the end of August. 

Not a lot of cooking is going on. Last week one of my dinners consisted of two brownies. Two days ago, I had a pound of grapes for dinner. Macaroni and tuna salad sits in the fridge for those who need to grab and go. I am considering two ears of corn for dinner tonight. It is mighty fine, just-picked Minnesota sweet corn. I am looking forward to that.

In true "life goes on and so does the show" -  my eves are devoted to Under the Midsummer Moon at the Minnesota Fringe Festival August 2-12.  165 different productions in 15 theatres.  We open Thursday, August 2 and it has been a joyful distraction to be working with my amazing staff and cast on this labor of love. 

I need tissues at rehearsals - and I wonder why - I know what is happening! I wrote it! But the young performers have shown such grace and commitment - that I am transported every eve into their world.

See you in September...