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.