Posts tagged holidays

Valentine’s Day Hits and Misses

Poor Jim. February deals him a double whammy each year: First comes my birthday on the 9th, then Valentine’s Day less than a week later. To take some pressure off this celebratory one-two punch, instead of going out we cook dinner at home on Valentine’s Day. Some meals turn out wonderfully, like last year’s rack of lamb and chocolate pots-de-crème. This year was, well…okay. Let’s start with not-so-great and save the best for last:


The Miss: Greek-Style Braised Lambs Shanks
I knew I wanted to make some sort of braised meat for the main course. Doesn’t a slow-cooked, rich piece of red meat sound like the perfect foundation for a romantic meal? (Sorry, vegetarians.) I stubbornly thought so. Lamb shank, a tough cut that responds well to braising, had been on my to-cook list for a long time. I sent Jim off to the butcher with a wave and a smile while I looked for a recipe.

To my surprise, my cookbooks were no help, providing not a single recipe for my desired meal. I turned to the trusty Internet and came across these Greek-style braised lamb shanks. (I still don’t really understand what is so Greek about this recipe; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Greek about the dish apart from the lamb. Whatever, I’m not here to argue with Epicurious.)

I’ll cut to the chase: I halved the recipe from 6 shanks to 3, and in a dumb move I decided to reduce the braising liquid without reducing the cooking time. So, after 2 hours in the oven, my extravagant, Merlot-based sauce reduced down to almost nothing, resulting more in a roasted lamb shank dinner instead of the braised-meat-falling-off-the-bone-and-swimming-in-a-deep-romantic-sauce type meal I was hoping for.

Now I am also wondering if there was a mistake in the recipe, which instructed me to cook the shanks in the oven uncovered. Aren’t most braised dishes cooked with the cover firmly in place in order to prevent evaporation of the cooking liquid? The shanks tasted fine, but I have learned my braising lesson. Oh, we also made some lemon orzo and a spinach salad on the side. sorbet2Meh.

The Hit: Blood Orange Sorbet
Jim gave me a copy of Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook for my birthday, and we decided to break it in with the recipe for blood orange sorbet. Making this frosty treat gave me the opportunity to try yet another birthday gift I received, this time from my sister: the ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

As always, simple recipes yield the best results. After squeezing the juice from several crimson blood oranges, we mixed it with some (a lot of) sugar and threw the entire mixture in the fridge to cool. About half an hour later we put the ice cream attachment to work on the mixer. We didn’t have to lift a finger. The KitchenAid simply twirled away for about 20 minutes, and suddenly our fresh, sparkling dessert was ready. We placed it in the freezer for the end of our meal. 

And as I mentioned above, we truly saved the best for last. Cool, sweet, and simply pretty to look at, this refreshing sorbet cheered me up after my braising adventure gone bad. I can’t wait to see what other kind of sorbets and ice creams we come up with. Maybe I should start planning for next year. Jim, are you ready yet?

Recipe for Blood Orange Sorbet (adapted from Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook)

  • 6 medium blood oranges
  • 1 regular medium orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • fresh mint, for garnish

Wash 1 or 2 of the blood oranges and grate 2 tablespoons of zest from them. Halve and juice all of the oranges, discarding any seeds that fall in along the way. This will leave you with about 1 cup of juice. Put the orange juice and the zest in medium bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Refrigerate the mixture until it is very cold, around 40 degrees. Add the mixture to the ice-cream churner or machine. Churn the mixture until it starts crystallizing, about 15 to 30 minutes. You can stop churning it once it has reached your desired consistency. Transfer the sorbet to an airtight container and place it in the freezer until firm. When ready, scoop the sorbet into 2 bowls and garnish with fresh mint. (The sorbet can be stored in the freezer for 2 days.) Serves 2. Enjoy!


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Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso, with a Twist of Lemon

Ingredients for Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso

Jim and I celebrated Easter at my parents’ house over the weekend. As noted in last week’s New York Times article about Easter desserts, many Italians prefer to buy their sweets at the pasticceria rather than bake them at home; my Italian-American family is no different. So I figured that while my mother was busy making her traditional dish of lamb, peas, and eggs, I would add a homemade touch to our dessert options.

(By the way, that lamb dish is a family secret. I promised my mother I wouldn’t share it, so you’ll just have to be satisfied with this tart.)

I turned to Jamie’s Italy and settled on the torta di riso, a sort of rice custard tart flavored with vanilla and orange zest. With its ingredients of Arborio rice, milk, and citrus, it reminded me of the Easter desserts discussed in the Times. At Jim’s request I decided to flavor the filling with lemon instead of orange zest, which made the tart seem even more Easter-appropriate.

While preparing the filling, I was surprised at how similar the process was to making risotto. Instead of slowly adding meat or vegetable broth and stirring the Arborio rice until it absorbed the liquid, for this dessert I poured milk into the pot while the rice simmered. The recipe recommends taking the pot off the heat while the mixture is still quite liquidy, with the milk becoming slowly absorbed by the rice as it cools.

A slice of the torta di riso

My torta di riso emerged from the oven as a smooth, serene sea of lemon goodness. Topped with fresh whipped cream, the tart emitted subtle citrus flavors combined with the texture of silky rice. Should I admit that we ate the torta on Saturday night instead of on Easter? We just couldn’t wait. That’s another characteristic of my Italian family: We love to eat.

Recipe for Easter Torta di Riso (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy)

  • 1 shortcrust pastry, baked until just browned in an 11-inch tart tin with a removable bottom (I followed the recipe on page 279 of Jamie’s Italy. It produces a very sweet, flaky crust, and takes about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. If you use this recipe, make sure to roll the crust out very thin; I always forget, causing it to come out a little too thick after baking.)

For the filling:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 vanilla beans, sliced in half
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • zest of 3 1/2 lemons
  • 1 wineglass of white wine (about 3/4 of a cup of wine)
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 eggs, whisked
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a high-sided pan at low heat. Remove the seeds from the vanilla beans, add them to the butter, and stir. Cook for 1 minute, then add the rice, granulated sugar, and lemon zest. Turn the heat to medium and add the white wine. Stir until the wine has almost cooked away.

Slowly add the milk while continuing to stir the rice. Simmer the rice and milk mixture over low heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes. Do not cook the rice all the way through, as it will continue to cook in the oven. It should still have some bite when you remove it from the heat, and the mixture will still be quite liquidy.

Allow the rice mixture to cool slightly. I noticed that at this point the rice absorbs much of the liquid. Mix in the whisked eggs. Pour the rice into the tart case, sprinkle it with powdered sugar, and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Cool. Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Enjoy!

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Flaky Blood Orange Tart

Food & Wine’s Flaky Blood Orange Tart

We’re taking off for California in a few hours, and I won’t post again until after the New Year. But I wanted to leave you with this beautiful blood orange tart, which I made last week from a recipe in January’s Food & Wine magazine.

I had been trying to figure out what to do with the six blood oranges left over from last weekend’s holiday crostini. After spending $15 on the rotund citrus fruits, I refused to let any of them go to waste. Luckily, Food & Wine gave me the perfect use for them.

I assembled the tart on Tuesday night after work, and then wrapped it in plastic and froze it until Thursday night, when I baked it in the oven for an hour and 15 minutes. While the assembly phase was as labor-intensive as those pesky crostini, the actual baking part was easy: The tart went directly from the freezer into the oven, making it possible for me to relax during our rack of lamb dinner.

When we finally tasted the tart after it cooled, we discovered that the crust was one of the flakiest, most buttery ones I had ever made. Sure, it was slightly charred at the edges, but this small error didn’t make a difference in the overall effect. The acidic, sparkling oranges were balanced by sweet layers of sugar, and I spent the rest of the week eating this crostata for dessert, then for breakfast, and for dessert again. Now that’s what I call a holiday present. Thanks, Food & Wine!

Happy Holidays!

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Holiday Appetizers

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine magazine 

On Saturday night Jim and I threw our annual holiday get-together. We made most of the food ourselves, from a mix of new recipes and old favorites. As always, the night had its share of winners and disappointments:

Three-Cheese Mini Macs from Food & Wine, December 2007
These small starbursts of elbow macaroni and cheddar, American, and parmesan cheeses were the hit of the evening, and were picked off their Pittsburgh Steelers tray faster than I could make them. Most of the labor was done ahead of time, as I prepared the pasta and cheese mixture on Saturday morning, then filled my mini muffin tin and placed it in the fridge until guests started to arrive. After 10 minutes in the oven, then 5 more on the cooling rack, they were ready to go. And I was easily able to cook more of these comfort-food favorites as the night wore on.

Goat Cheese Crostini with Blood Orange and Black Pepper Marmalade, from Bon Appétit, December 2007
For these labor-intensive crostini I spent Friday afternoon painstakingly peeling blood orange sections from their papery membranes. But the result was worth it: a tangy yet sweet jam that perfectly complemented the creamy goat cheese spread. Unfortunately I made a grave error regarding the bread. In the past I have sliced and toasted my bread an hour or so before the guests arrived and then frantically assembled the crostini. I feel silly even writing this, but this year I prepared my bread the afternoon before and sealed it in an airtight container. Of course it didn’t work. The crostini were too hard and crunchy on the night of the party.

Mark Bittman’s Polpetti from the New York Times, November 29, 2006
In this week’s New York Times Dining section, Mark Bittman provides ideas for 101 simple appetizers; where was he when I needed him last week? In any case, for two years in a row I have made his fantastic polpetti (little meatballs) to tons of acclaim. Last year I used ground beef and pork; this year I used ground veal and pork. I doubled the recipe and made them a few hours before party time, then quickly warmed them up in the oven. The veal-based polpetti didn’t brown as much as I expected, but the taste was gentler and more subtle than last year’s beef version. On Saturday night they disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to take a photo of them.

White Bean Puree from Time Out New York, March 4-11, 1999
I have made this bean dip for the past eight years. For previous parties I used canned white beans as the base for the puree. But last week I bought a bag of dried white beans and soaked those little guys for 8 hours. After another hour or so of simmering on the stove with an onion and some garlic, then a swirl in the food processor with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil, my bean dip had a fresher taste and lusher texture than ever before. A 15-minute infusion of fresh rosemary completed the task, and added a kick of natural herb flavor.

Holiday Table with Appetizers

We also made some fresh mozzarella, basil, and sundried tomato skewers from Giada’s Family Dinners, a second round of pizzelles, and brownies. And we can’t forget Jim’s awesome homemade egg nog. Just to be sure we had enough food, we also ordered a fresh vegetable plate and some wraps from the gourmet grocery down the block. Interestingly, no one touched the wraps, but the rest of the food was gone by 11 pm. Since the best evidence of a successful party is the absence of leftovers, I’d have to say that things went very well.

Now, what should we make next year?

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Holiday Baking: Pizzelles


Whenever we visit Jim’s family in Pittsburgh, his Italian grandmother always sends us off with some of her amazing homemade foodstuffs, such as her hand-rolled gnocchi and her sweet pickled peppers. But at Christmas time Grandma’s attention turns to baking. Brown paper bags and clear plastic containers fill the kitchen and dining room, all containing her homemade holiday cookies for family and friends.

Thin, waffle-like Italian cookies called pizzelles are the stars of her festive baked goods. And Pizzelle ironnow that Jim and I are forming our own holiday traditions in Brooklyn, pizzelles are our buttery link to his family in Pennsylvania. So this week, in between setting up our Christmas tree and decorating our apartment, we pulled out our pizzelle iron and started waffling away. 

I had never heard of pizzelles before I met Jim, but I’ve since learned that they are specialties of Abruzzo on the central east coast of Italy, where Jim’s grandmother was born. My family is from Puglia in southern Italy, a region with its own culinary traditions, pizzelles not included. Those Pugliesi don’t know what they’re missing.

Although pizzelles are traditionally flavored with anise or vanilla, there are many variations, including chocolate, hazelnut, and almond. Supposedly pizzelles are one of the earliest known cookies. The older waffle irons were even made with specific family crests, but today’s electric irons commonly emboss the dough with a flower and basket weave pattern. Feast days are not complete without these celebratory waffle cookies, although I’ve only seen them during the Christmas holidays.

Jim’s grandmother is a wonderful cook and doesn’t use written recipes. She simply knows what feels right, whether she’s rolling out dough for potato gnocchi or Easter bread. So for a definitive pizzelle recipe we turned to the trusty Villaware recipe pamphlet that came with our iron.

Sifting the ingredients for pizzellesMixing the ingredients for pizzelles

We started with a basic mix of eggs, flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder, adding both vanilla and anise oil for a double dose of holiday flavor. The dough was thicker than Jim and I remembered, so we tried to thin it out with a few tablespoons of water. When the iron was hot and ready, we dropped two spoonfuls of dough into the pizzelle molds, held the iron closed for about 30 seconds, and then removed the fragrant disks to a paper towel. We started the process again, opening and closing the iron over the thick dough to efficiently produce twenty-four pizzelles.

Unfortunately, this round of pizzelles was just okay. The anise oil and vanilla subtly flavored the dough, but the final texture of the cooked pizzelles was too dense. During an emergency telephone call to Jim’s grandmother on Sunday she informed us that we had used too much flour. She had just finished making nine-dozen pizzelles, so she knew what she was talking about. Stay tuned for another batch…and a recipe, I hope!

Update: Recipe for Pizzelles
Adapted from the Villaware Prima Pizzelle Baker pamphlet

In our pizzelle-making experiments this year, we’ve determined than Grandma was right (of course): Using less flour than recommended by Villaware makes a lighter, more airy cookie. The recipe below reflects this adjustment; if you prefer a denser pizzelle, add a little more flour to your batter.

  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise oil
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add the melted butter, vanilla extract, and anise oil. Sift flour and baking powder together, then combine with egg mixture. The batter should be slightly thick, yet you should be able to drop it off a spoon onto your pizzelle maker. Recipe makes 20-24 pizzelles. Enjoy!

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Pumpkin Pie D’Oh!

Mixing the Foolproof Pie DoughSeparating the cooked pumpkin from its shellMixing the fillingThe sad crust

Thanksgiving is over, and the deluge of December holidays will be here before I’ve fully recovered from it. In addition to the frenetic shopping, traveling, and gift-swapping that await me, there’s cooking to be done. And in the world of holiday baking, ’tis the season for Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Pie Dough.

Published in the November/December issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, this recipe has been the talk of message boards and food blogs, with bakers everywhere producing stunning and tasty pies. I first experienced dough-related success back in October, when I used the recipe to make Cook’s Apple-Cranberry Pie. The revolutionary addition of vodka to flour, salt, butter, vegetable shortening, and water created a malleable dough and wonderfully flaky crust. So when I promised my mother that I would make a pumpkin pie for our Thanksgiving feast, I knew exactly which recipe to use. The good people at Cook’s, always thinking of everything, had generously posted a single-crust version of their foolproof recipe on their website.

With the pie crust mentally taken care of, I turned my thoughts to the filling. In the past I’ve made a perfectly good pumpkin pie using canned pumpkin purée. I’m not ashamed to admit it. But this year I decided to challenge myself and make my purée from real pumpkins. A quick stop at Whole Foods after work on Monday loaded me down with two sugar pie pumpkins, and I envisioned two leisurely days of pastry making, pumpkin roasting, and pie baking.

What is it about time management that I will never understand? On Monday evening I made my dough and placed it in the fridge to use the next day. What I should have done next was roast the pumpkins, so that I could quickly assemble the filling from The Joy of Cooking the following night. Somehow I decided that watching television was a much better idea.

I am sure you can imagine how the next evening turned out. After roasting the pumpkins, pre-baking the pastry shell, mixing the filling, burning my left arm, and baking the pie, it was 11:30 pm before the pie was finished and I could go to sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.

But I didn’t experience the satisfied slumber of one who has cooked a perfect pie. Oh, no. You see, my pie was ugly. Somehow the crust had cracked during the pre-bake, and filling oozed around one side of the pie. I also misunderstood the crimping instructions, and didn’t trim the edges of the dough enough; the crust crumbled off every time I shifted the pie’s position. Transporting the pie to Yonkers on Metro-North was an altogether separate, distressing adventure.

Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie

By the time my bedraggled pie appeared on our Thanksgiving table, I could only hope that at least it tasted good. And it did: The filling was light, airy, and full of fresh pumpkin flavor, the crust appropriately flaky (at least in the spots where the filling hadn’t leaked around it). Lucky for me, whether I give them a jewelry box made of popsicle sticks or a sad-looking pumpkin pie, my family is always proud of me, and will usually eat whatever I make for them. And for that I give thanks.

And next time, I will give more time to my pie.

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