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Sunday, March 30, 2008

It's Partytime with the Daring Bakers!


I've often said that I'm always "late to the party". This month's Daring Bakers Challenge is no exception. With the Easter Season and tax season and Spring Break, it has been an action-packed month here at chez SGCC. Every time I would set aside a day to bake my cake, one thing or another would come up, requiring my attention, and diverting me from my goal.
I also tend to be a little passive-aggressive about these challenges. I plan every detail of what I am going to do and how I am going to do it, but then my "inner insecure child" takes over and I get nervous about cracking that first egg. With all of the talented and creative DBers out there, how will I "measure up"? You see, I'm pretty new to this baking thing and still not totally comfortable with it. That's one of the reasons I joined this wonderful group - to make me reach out of my comfort zone and attempt things in my oven that I never had the guts to try before.

That's how it came to be that I was pouring cake batter and whipping egg whites at 2:00 this morning! I don't know why I was so worried. Everything about this challenge came off without a hitch and left me wishing that I really had a party to go to so that I could show off my beautiful, fancy cake!
Morven of Food, Art and Random Thoughts was our hostess for this month's challenge. She chose Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake from her "cult status" cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours. This recipe whips up into a gorgeous, fluffy white cloud of cake perfection that would make any event more festive. Though we had to stick with the basic recipe, we were given carte blanche to flavor and decorate our cakes however we liked. I happen to really like lemon, raspberry and coconut, so I chose to leave my cake as is. Lucky thing too, since at two in the morning my creative juices were beginning to ebb!
I had read about the issues that a lot of the other DBers had with the cake not rising properly. To counteract that, I doubled the cake recipe and baked it in three 9-inch cake pans. Since each pan held a little extra batter, my layers baked up higher and were perfect for cutting the layers for this cake. I froze the leftover cake to use another time. (I think I see a trifle in my future!)
After the Yule Log Challenge, I was a little apprehensive about making a Swiss butter cream again. I even thought about cheating and making a cream cheese frosting. Who would know, right? But in the end, ethics and fair play won out and I sucked it up and did it. I doubled the recipe for this too, because God forbid I should run out of buttercream! I really do love that buttercream!
The only thing I changed about the filling in my cake was to also add some lemon curd in between the layers. I really wanted a little tartness to offset the sweetness of the raspberry jam. It was a good call. I loved the way the three fillings worked together. As a matter of fact, I just loved this cake, period. It was moist and light, and the fillings were the perfect creamy balance of sweet and tart. I would definitely make this one again. It truly is the "perfect party cake". The only problem is, who am I going to get to make this for me when my birthday comes around in May!?!?
Many thanks to Morven for hosting this round, as well as to Ivonne and Lis for creating this terrific group that is the Daring Bakers! Please take some time to check out all of the other Perfect Party Cakes on the Daring Bakers Blogroll. You'll be glad you did!

Dorie's Perfect Party Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

For the Cake

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated fresh lemon zest (I used Meyer lemons)
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream

1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing

2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
1 cup lemon curd
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.

Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients.

Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

To Make the Buttercream

Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes. During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.

On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake

Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half.
Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one third of the preserves. Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream.
Spread one third of the lemon curd on another layer and lay it on top of the first layer of cake, curd side down. Spread with preserves, buttercream and lemon curd and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream leftover).

Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.


The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but I think it’s best to let it sit and set for a couple of hours in a cool room – not the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; it loses all its subtlety when it’s cold. Depending on your audience you can serve the cake with just about anything from milk to sweet or bubbly wine.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Pistachio-Crusted Flounder with Minneola-Ginger Beurre Blanc

You would think that, living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I would have boundless access to all kinds of fresh off the boat seafood. That beautiful and succulent jumbo shrimp jump right out of the water and into my frying pan? That sumptuous filets, still quivering and warm from the sea, lie in wait for their chance to bask in my oven? That's what I would think. But, if you did, you'd be wrong, wrong WRONG!

In reality, there are very few seafood markets in my area where you can consistently buy a variety of super fresh fish. The few that do exist are either pretty far out of my way or have quality control issues. Either way, I usually end up buying my fish and seafood from the supermarket, just like many of you probably do. I think that really sucks!

It wasn't always this way. I can remember years ago, when there were several little local fish shacks dotting the coastline. They were mostly Mom and Pop establishments where Pop was out early on the fishing boat, scoring the catch while Mom waited to clean, prep and sell the fish in the shop. True, the selection was limited to whatever was abundant in the Gulf of Mexico that day, but you knew where it came from and it was always ridiculously fresh. It was sustainable, local food before we even knew what that was!

Whenever I do shop for fish, I always try to get the freshest, nicest product I can find. I buy domestic or even local whenever I can. There's a little dance I do with the fish guy at my local market. I'll stroll up to the counter and he'll ask if he can help me. Then, I'll ask what came in fresh that same day, because you know as well as I do, that by the time a piece of fish has made its way to the supermarket display case, it is already past its prime. The fish guy will rattle off a few names and I'll squint my eyes (like I'm thinking really hard) and pace up and down along the case, evaluating the fish. Then, I'll ask him to take a couple of the different fishes out of the case so that I can smell them, after which, I'll wrinkle my nose and say "Nope." Then, and only then, will I finally make my selection. Just after Mr. Fish Guy puts my fish in the plastic bag, I'll say, "Um...and can I please smell that one too before you wrap it up?". He'll give me a look that says, "Oh phuck you. I'm not getting paid enough to put up with this crap!", and hand over the bag. It's amazing, but as I wheel my cart away, he always manages to tell me to have a nice day! He's probably just glad to get rid of me.

The other day I was able to get my hands on some beautiful flounder filets. I love flounder because of its mild, slightly sweet flavor and lovely flaky texture. It's also a nostalgia thing, because my mom made flounder all the time when I was a kid. I decided that I wanted some kind of crunchy topping or coating for it, so I entered my own personal Bermuda Triangle - my pantry - and rooted around to see what would work. I found panko, almonds, pecans and pistachios. I grabbed the panko and pistachios and got to work.

I processed the nuts until they were just coarsely ground and mixed them with the panko, some dried parsley and dried onion bits. Then, I seasoned and floured my filets, dipped them in egg and coated them with the panko-nut mixture. I pan fried them in some olive oil and served them with a fabulous butter sauce that I made with shallots, white wine, cream and fresh Minneola juice. It was out. of. this. world!

That butter sauce was so good, it deserves its own paragraph or two. What I did was take a recipe for a basic beurre blanc, which traditionally has lemon in it, and swap out the lemon juice for minneola juice. Wondering what the hell a Minneola is? I'm glad you asked.
The Minneola tangelo is a specific hybrid citrus fruit that is made by crossing the "Duncan" grapefruit and the “Darcy” tangerine, (a mandarin orange). It was developed in Florida by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1931. The Minneola combines the sweetness of the mandarin with the tart flavors of the grapefruit. It is a bell-shaped fruit with vibrant red-orange color. The Minneola does best in mild climates like Florida, and is widely available from December through February.

Using the Minneola juice gave the sauce a delicate sweet orange flavor. I also added a little ground ginger to balance out the sweetness with a little spice. It was really, really good! I think that any kind of orange or tangerine would work well with this sauce. I used the Minneola because I had some in the fridge. I'm so glad I did! This is definitely one for the "Keeper" file!

Pistachio Crusted Flounder with Mineola-Ginger Beurre Blanc
Serves 4 delicate flowers or 3 normal people

(Printable Version)

For the fish:

1/4 cup olive oil
6 flounder filets
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups panko crumbs
1 1/2 cups shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely ground
2 tbsp dried parsley
2 tbsp dried minced onion
salt and pepper
Minneola Beurre Blanc (recipe follows)

Season fish with salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil, 2 tbsps at a time, in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Put flour in a plate for dredging and eggs in a bowl for dipping. Set aside.

Mix together panko, nuts, parsley and onion in a wide shallow bowl or baking dish.

Dredge each filet in flower and dip in egg to coat. Then, coat with the panko mixture, gently pressing the coating to make it stick.

Saute the filets in the skillet, about 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown. Add the additional oil as needed for frying. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Plate the fish on a nice platter and drizzle with the beurre blanc.

For the Beurre Blanc:

1/4 cup minced shallot
1/2 cup white wine
3 tbsp fresh Minneola juice
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
6 tbsp softened butter, cut into chunks
salt and pepper to taste

Combine shallots, wine and juice in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue on a low boil until liquid is reduced to 1/3.

Stir in cream and ginger and simmer until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and whisk in butter, one chunk at a time, until fully incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately.

Check out what some other bloggers are doing with fish:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Top Chef, Season 4: Let's Dish! AND Giveaway Winner


Three down and thirteen more to go. I only hope I can last that long! Last night, Episode 3 of Top Chef, aired and frankly, I'm still not feeling it. Half of the contestants are coming off as an unruly bunch of toddlers and most of the rest don't seem to have any personality at all. Where are the Tiffanis, the Daves, the Stephens and Hungs? I'm even missing Marcel! I'm still hanging on to the hope that this new crop of Cheftestants just hasn't hit their stride yet.
Last night's episode was called Block Party. In the Quickfire Challenge, inspired by guest judge, Rick Bayless, the Cheftestants were called upon to take the lowly taco and elevate it to fine dining status. I thought it was a pretty good idea for a challenge. A taco is something that is lends itself to endless different kinds of interpretation. I really liked what some of the chefs came up with. I probably wouldn't have chosen Richard's jicama taco as the winner. Even though, his spin on it was pretty creative, his dish reminded me more of a spring roll than a taco. Fine dining or not, I need my tacos to have a little more heft to them. My favorites were Andrew's duck taco, Antonia's fish taco, Manuel's chorizo taco and Spike's ground pork taco. I would have probably chosen Andrew's or Spike's dish. Too bad, I don't care for either one of them.
I loved the concept of the Elimination Challenge. In it, the Cheftestants had to cater the annual block party for a group of neighbors on a cute little residential street tucked somewhere in the big city. I don't recall if they actually said where it was. They self-divided into two teams: the Red Team and the Blue Team. How original. Couldn't they have come up with better names than that? Anyway, the catch was, that they had to scrounge all of the food they used from the residents, themselves. It was hilarious to see these guys running up and down the street with their shopping bags a la the Keystone Cops. The neighbors couldn't have been more gracious and looked like they were loving every minute of their camera time. I have to say, they certainly were prepared. That one woman had enough stuff in her pantry to open her own Sam's Club! Do people really buy like that? Seemed a little OCD to me.
The block party looked like tons of fun! I wish I'd been invited! They had a dunking booth, for god's sake. Who wouldn't love that?!?! Team Blue went for the "haute cuisine" party theme while Team Red "dumbed down" the food, supposedly to appeal to the unrefined palates of their clients. Can anyone say "condescending"? Most of the food went over fairly well with the neighbors, but the judges were another story. They decided that Nikki's mac and cheese "brick", Erik's soggy corn dogs, Ryan's waterlogged chicken salad, and Zoi's "meh" pasta salad pretty much sucked.
Afterward, while the members of the Blue Team were busy patting each other on the back for kicking the Red Team's asses, the judges were awarding the win to the Red Team. WTF!!! Team Blue was utterly shocked and outraged, and they let it show to the point of offensiveness. They acted like petulant children. Andrew, yet again, let his asshole colors shine through with his ridiculous comments about "owning this place" and "needing security guards to get him out of there". this guy for real? It's like he has Tourette's or something! All I can say is it's a good thing that Gordon Ramsay isn't on that judges' panel! Even Ted looked pissed!

In the end Stephanie scored another win for her fruit crumble and cinnamon-sugar fried wontons, and it was Erik (Mr. Soggy Corn Dog Man) who was asked to pack his knives and go.
So, what did you think of this Block Party episode? Of the Cheftestants' shenanigans? Of Richard's strange hairdo? Of the "hoarder lady"? Of anything Top Chef? Leave a comment on this post between now and next Wednesday at 10:00 p.m., and you will be eligible for my next Top Chef giveaway! Next week, some lucky reader will win one of these "I'm Not your Bitch, Bitch" sticky note blocks. Who wouldn't love one of those!?!?
Come on! Let's Dish!
And now, it is my pleasure to announce the recipient of this week's giveaway, the Top Chef oven mitt.
Drumroll, please!
The winner is..........PatsyK!
Congratulations, Patsy and thanks for participating! If you'll email me your mailing address at
stickygooeycreamychewyATgmailDOTcom, I'll get your prize out to you as soon as possible.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Homage to Spring: Pasta Primavera With Scallops


As I sat with my morning coffee yesterday morning, I clicked on the local news to see what the day would bring. The weather report forecasted "abundant sunshine". How about that? It didn't say "sunny" or "partly sunny", or even "very sunny". Nope. The reporter's exact words were "abundant sunshine". What beautiful words to hear at 6:15 a.m., on a dark, chilly March morning. What a wonderful promise of a wonderful day! It made me smile.
It also made me realize that Spring has apparently sprung, at least in my neck of the woods. Being on the tail end of the Easter season, we've all been hearing and talking a lot about renewal and rebirth. I've been spending so much time these past few weeks baking for Easter and posting about it, that I never had time to properly welcome Spring.
Later, as I was stopped at a red light while driving to my office, I took a good look around. I was surprised at what I saw. Almost overnight, an explosion of new growth had occurred. There was a profusion of pink, gold and violet surrounding me. Sure, living in Florida means that something is always blooming, but this was much more pronounced. The fuschias of the bougainvillea, the peaches and yellows of the hibiscus and the lavenders of the jacaranda seemed so much more vibrant than the day before. The sky was bluer and the sunlight was.....well, it was abundant! It was like all of nature woke up after a long, restorative nap.
I knew that whatever I created in my kitchen that evening had to reflect this seasonal shift. Truth be told, I'm still a little amped out on baking, so I decided to put together a savory dish that sings Spring. I made Pasta Primavera.
Pasta primavera is an Italian dish that consists of pasta and and assortment of fresh seasonal vegetables. The word primavera, in fact, means Spring in Italian. Any vegetables can be used in this dish, but I like it best with a variety having an array of bright colors and textures. I julienned most of them to facilitate quicker cooking, and because I think they're pretty that way. You can certainly just slice them up any way you like.
The sauce can be either olive oil or butter and cream based. This time, I combined both to make a light cream sauce with white wine, broth and half and half. Though the dish usually involves tomatoes in some way, I left them out because I couldn't find any that were worthy. This is all about the freshest, loveliest ingredients, isn't it?
Since this was to be a one dish dinner, I also added some gorgeous, plump sea scallops to it. I have also prepared this recipe using shrimp and chicken, but yesterday, the scallops won the draw.
I have laid out the recipe here so that, with the exception of cooking the pasta, the dish can all be made in one pot. I'm sure that whoever does the dishes at your house will be happy to hear that!
So here you have it - Pasta Primavera With Scallops - my homage to Spring!

Pasta Primavera with Scallops

1 lb. pasta of your choice (I used linguini.)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 stick of butter
1 large sweet onion, very thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 cups fresh asparagus tips
2 cups fresh shucked English peas or frozen green peas
2 medium zucchini, julienned
2 medium yellow squash, julienned
2 cups sliced mushrooms (I used the regular button variety.)
1 lb dry packed sea scallops, sliced in half horizontally
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock (Canned broth is just fine.)
2 cups half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Zest of 1/2 a lemon
Fresh herbs of your choice for garnish
Fill a large stock pot with water and bring to a boil. When boiling, add asparagus and fresh peas, if using, and blanch for 1-2 minutes. Fish out the vegetables and "shock" in a bowl of ice water. Drain and set aside. Then, cook pasta until al dente. Drain pasta and toss with a little olive oil to keep it from sticking and clumping. Set aside.
Heat 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove to a large lowl and set aside.
Add a little more oil and butter to the skillet if needed and add the carrots and red pepper. Saute about 5 minutes until tender. Add the zucchini, squash, mushrooms, peas and asparagus, and saute about 2-3 minutes more. Remove and add to the bowl with the onions.
Turn the heat to medium-high, add a little more oil and butter and add the scallops, in a single layer. Saute until lightly carmelized, about 1 minute per side, depending on the thickness of the scallops. Remove to a plate and set aside.
Add wine and broth to the skillet and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits. Reduce heat to medium and keep to a low boil until liquid is reduced by about 1/2. Add half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg, stir and continue to simmer a few minutes until cream begins to thicken.
Add vegetables and scallops back to the skillet and heat through. Toss with pasta and top with lemon zest and herbs.
If you like this recipe, you might also enjoy:
Spaghetti With Asparagus and Shrimp from Kalofagas

Reminder! Top Chef Givaway Tonight!

I just wanted to leave you a quick reminder that I'll be doing the first Top Chef Giveaway tonight. The item that will be going to some lucky reader is the Top Chef oven mitt shown here. All you have to do in order to be eligible to win is leave a comment on this post here. The deadline for comments is 10:00 tonight. I'll announce the winner in my Let's Dish! post tomorrow.

Good luck, everyone!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Baking With Mom, Part 4: Dueling Easter Pies

Wecome to the fourth and final installment of Baking With Mom. In Part 1, I shared my recipe for Pizza Rustica, a rich and decadent eggy, cheesy and meaty deep dish pie. In Part 2, I gave you an easy peasy way to make Easter Bread using the master brioche recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Those wonderfully crispy and creamy Zeppole di San Giuseppe were the headliners in Part 3. I'm still drooling in my sleep, dreaming of those!
Today, my offerings for Part 4 are Italian Easter grain pies. These pies are commonly referred to as Pastiera di Grano or Torta di Grano, and are said to have originated in a convent in Naples, Italy. They are dense and moist ricotta based dessert pies filled filled with cooked grains and delicately flavored with the essence of oranges. The traditional preparation uses wheat berries, but over the years many different evolutions of this dish have emerged, using a variety of different grains, such as barley and rice. I think this is probably because wheat berries are not always readily available. Whichever grains one decides to use, they are the key component of this pie because they represent spring, rebirth and the Resurrection. In my family, we always enjoyed these delicious sweet pies, along with our Pizza Rustica, after Mass on Easter Sunday.
Several months ago, I posted about my grandmother's Sunday meat sauce, where I observed that an Italian woman's sauce is as individual as her fingerprint. Every recipe is unique in some way, no matter how small. Apparently, the same holds true for Easter pies. When my mother and I set up shop make these pies, we immediately had "issues". Since the wheat berries aren't available in our area, we knew that we would have to use alternative grains for our pies. I always make my Pastiera with arborio rice and that's what I wanted to use. Mom insisted on barley. Here's how it went:

Me: "Barley!?!? Who uses barley in Easter pies?"

Mom: "Barley is the traditional way to make it."

Me: "No, it's not. Using wheat berries is the traditional way."

Mom: "Okay, but when you can't find wheat berries, barley is the traditional way."

Me: "You're making that up!"

Mom: "No, I'm not! That's the rule. Ask anyone! Besides, I always use barley in this pie!"

Me: "Um...I don't ever remember having a barley pie. Are you sure you didn't make it for some OTHER family?"

Mom: "Don't be a smart ass! I always use barley and you love it."

Me: "Yeah, well I want to use rice. I like it better."

Mom: "Well, I want to use barley!"

Me: "Rice."

Mom: "Barley!"

After a ten minute, stony stare-down, we compromised and decided to use both. Suddenly, "our" pies became "my" pies and "your" pies. Dueling Easter Pies, if you will.

My mother tends to be competitive by nature. When we played Monopoly as kids, she never let us win. No sir! She would kick our asses from here to Sunday, buying up every property she could and then putting five hotels on each one! When we would complain, she told us that life wasn't fair and that she was preparing us to handle disappointment. I don't know for sure, but I think that she was full of crap. I still don't handle disappointment well.

Our respective recipes for Pastiera have a few things in common, but are really quite different. My recipe is a conglomeration of various others that I have picked up over the years. Mom relies heavily on her tattered, dog-eared copy of the old Polly-O Cookbook that she got back in 1968. Seriously, the only thing holding that book together is scotch tape and a prayer! It is so fragile that she wouldn't let me take it to type out the recipe. I wanted to post this last Thursday, but I had to wait for her to write it up herself!
Both recipes begin with a base of ricotta and eggs, and both are flavored with vanilla and orange flower water, but the similarity ends there. My mother uses a traditional pie crust for her pies and I make mine with a filo crust. If you've visited here before, you know that I'm a little doughaphobic. I never make a pie crust if I can avoid it, and this was no exception. Besides, I really like the crunch factor that the filo gives this pie. I took this inspiration from one of Giada's recipes.

I also use whole eggs in my pie filling, whereas Mom separates her eggs and whips the whites before she adds them to her filling. And then, of course, there's the matter of the barley versus the rice. I also decided to add some mascarpone to my pies this year. I know that it isn't traditional, but I love the creamy richness of mascarpone and I wanted to see how it would work in the recipe. I put a little cinnamon in my Easter pies. Mom puts a splash of rose flower water in hers.

The verdict? Both versions of the Pastiera looked and tasted great! When Mom tasted my pie, she generously conceded that it was delicious. The mascarpone really added to the "wow factor", giving the pie a really silky texture. What did I think of the barley pie? Well, I have to admit, I thought that it was pretty darn good too.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti!

Torta di Risi

1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
8 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons orange zest
2 tablespoons orange flower water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
2 cups cup cooked arborio rice
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
12 sheets thawed phyllo sheets
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

Blend 1 cup of sugar, eggs, vanilla, orange zest, orange flower water, cinnamon and ricotta until smooth. Stir in the rice and pine nuts. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate. Lay 2 phyllo sheets over the bottom and up opposite sides of the dish, allowing the phyllo to hang over the sides. Brush the phyllo with melted butter and sprinkle a little sugar over it. Top with another 2 sheets of phyllo dough, laying it in the opposite direction as the first sheets. Continue layering the remaining sheets of phyllo sheets, alternating after each layer and buttering and sugaring each sheet until they are all used.

Spoon the ricotta mixture into the dish. Fold the overhanging phyllo dough over the top of the filling to enclose it. Brush the top with melted butter. Sprinkle on a little sugar.

Bake the pie until the phyllo is golden brown and the filling is set, about 40 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool completely before serving.

Mom's Pastiera di Grano
Inspired by the Polly-O Cookbook

For the crust:

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, sifted
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes
2 egg yolks
1 tsp orange zest
1tsp lemon zest
1-2 tbsp milk

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups uncooked barley (not the quick cooking kind)
2-3 cups of milk
2 tbsp sugar
2 lbs ricotta
1 1/2 cups sugar
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 tbsp orange flower water
1 tsp rose flower water
1 tsp vanilla
8 egg yolks, lightly beaten
8 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks with 2 tbsp sugar
Confectioner's sugar for dusting

To make the dough:

Pulse flour, sugar and salt in the food processor until blended. Add butter and blend until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add egg yolks, 1 tbsp milk and citrus zests, and pulse until dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If dough is too dry, add a little more milk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 1/2 hour.

To make the filling:

In a medium sauce pan, cook the barley according to the directions on the box. Make sure it still has a little "bite" to it. While still in the same sauce pan, stir in 2 tbsp sugar and 1/2 of the orange and lemon zest. Add enough milk just to cover the barley. Bring to a boil and immediately lower to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the milk has been absorbed. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, sugar, remaining zest, orange flower water and rose flower water. Add the egg yolks and beat until smooth. Fold in the barley. Gently fold in the egg whites into the ricotta mixture

To assemble the pastiera:

Roll out 2/3 of the dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Roll out the other 1/3 of the dough and cut into 1-inch strips.

Butter a 9-inch pie plate, then line it with 12-inch round of dough, leaving at least 1/2-inch hanging over the edge of the pan.

Pour in the pie filling.

Form a lattice over the pie's top with the dough strips and seal by pinching around the edges.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 1 hour or until golden brown, being careful not to overcook and dry out the pie.

Cool, and dust with confectioners' sugar.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday


Today is Good Friday. Good Friday is the day when Christians commemorate the anniversary of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and death. Many spend this day in fasting, prayer, repentance, and meditation on the agony and suffering of Christ on the cross.

Since I will be observing this Holy Day, I didn't think it was appropriate to post about food today. So instead, I am leaving you with a little meditation music. Below is a recording of Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus, recorded by one of the choral groups I sing with. (I am the highest voice you hear.) I'll be back tomorrow with the final installment of Baking With Mom.

"Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est."
(For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered, died and was buried.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Top Chef Season 4, Zoo Food: Let's Dish!


Okay, Sports Fans! Last night was the second episode of Top Chef, Season 4. What did you think about the Quickfire Challenge? The Elimination Challenge? Now that we've seen a little more from each of the contestants, have any of your opinions changed about them? Did the right chef pack her knives and go? Who do you love? Who do you hate? Who do you love to hate? My enquiring mind wants to know!

Please join in the fun. This week, I'll be giving away one of these to some lucky reader. To be eligible, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post before next Wednesday, March 26, at 10:00 p.m. EDT. That's it! You can do that, can't you? You can even be as snarky as you like. I'll let that handy, dandy random number generator do the rest. I will announce the winner of this week's Giveaway when I post about next week's episode. So, what are you waiting for?

If you missed the episode, here is a brief recap to get you up to speed, courtesy of Television Without Pity.
Let's dish!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Baking With Mom, Part 3: Zeppole di San Giuseppe

Whew! Here I am again with another Easter baking post. This is the third one this week - and it's only Wednesday. With all of this baking, writing and photographing, I am starting to droop! I guess I'm a lot more like the turtle than the hare. I'm a slow and steady kind of gal. Trying to do it all - and do it well - while still attending to my work and family obligations is tough. To tell you the truth, I don't know how some of my fellow bloggers do it!

Today we're having Zeppoli di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Cream Puffs. This is technically not an Easter treat, but since today is La Festa di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Day, I really wanted to share it with you.

La Festa di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Day, is commonly celebrated in Italian communities throughout the world. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is a feast day to honor St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus and husband of Mary. For this, he is recognized as the patron saint of fathers. St. Joseph was also a carpenter by trade and thus, is also regarded as the patron saint of carpenters and all workers.

If you are interested in learning more about St. Joseph and the history behind La Festa di San Giuseppe, there are numerous others who have already written much about him more eloquently than I can, including here and here and here.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe are wonderful pastries made with a pate choux, which is an airy, eggy cream puff pastry. The pate choux is piped into rings and then either fried or baked, and filled with a rich, thick cooked pastry cream. The zeppole are then adorned with either amareno or maraschino cherries. In Sicily, they are also called sfingi, and are often filled with a ricotta cream, similar to cannoli instead of a cooked custard. These delectable pastries are traditionally made in celebration of St. Joseph's day and are rarely available in pastry shops any other time of year.
When I was growing up, St. Patrick's Day usually just sailed right by as we were waiting for St. Joseph's Day to arrive. I mean, what self-respecting Italian kid would choose soda bread over a crispy, light as a feather pastry filled with a luscious, rich, almond-scented pastry cream? Not me, that's for sure! So when my mother and I decided to do some Easter baking, I begged her to make these zeppole as well.

We decided to use the recipe we found in the Nella Cucina Cookbook by Mary Ann Esposito. You can use any cream puff or profiterole recipe you like, but I will tell you that these pastry puffs turned out perfectly. They were very light and crispy on the outside, and moist on the inside. We did have to play around a bit with this pastry cream, however. It tasted absolutely divine, but it didn't really set up enough to pipe into the puffs. We made a second batch in case we had made a mistake with the first one, but it came out the same. Finally, we cooked the cream some more and kept adding tablespoons of flour, one at a time, until we got the consistency we wanted. You may not have this issue, but if you do, either add some flour or try another pastry cream recipe. We also added an extra egg yolk and about 1/4 cup more sugar to the pastry cream.

The next time I make this dish, I will probably use a different pastry cream recipe. There are so many great ones available. Who needs to deal with runny cream! We actually had to make these zeppole in two installments. We made the pastry cream that night, and left it to chill and set up. Then, the next day we baked and filled the puffs.

We were sooooo thrilled with our finished product! My pastry puffs turned out a little smaller than Mom's, but they still looked great. Our zeppole looked just as pretty as any I've ever seen in a bakery - and they tasted better! Never in my life did I ever think that I would be making pastries from scratch! But, with a little help from my Mom, I did it!

Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Adapted from the Nella Cucina Cookbook
Makes about 24 pastries

Pastry Puffs
2¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups water
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
3½ tablespoons lard
6 large eggs

Almond Pastry Cream

1/3 cup or cornstarch
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
Confectioner's sugar for dusting
Maraschino cherries, drained and halved for decorating

Preheat the oven to 425ºF.

Grease and flour a cookie sheet or line with parchment paper.
Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together and set aside.

In a heavy saucepan, heat the water, add the butter and lard, and when melted, remove pan from the stove and add the flour mixture all at once. Beat with a wooden spoon, then return the pan to medium-high heat, beating the mixture until it comes away from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the eggs one at a time, beating with a wooden spoon or hand mixer to blend each in well before adding the next egg.

Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch nozzle with some of the cream puff mixture. Squeeze out 3-inch puffs about ½ inch apart on cookie sheet. Bake the cream puffs about 20 minutes or until golden brown. When done, carefully slit the side of each cream puff with a knife to allow steam to escape and prevent the puffs from becoming soggy inside. Transfer the cream puffs to cooling racks.

In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch and sugar for the filling. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and butter over medium-high heat until the butter melts. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook over medium heat until it starts to thicken, about 2 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and slowly add the eggs, beating well. Return the mixture to the heat for just a few seconds to cook the mixture, being careful not to scramble the eggs. Pour the filling into a bowl, add the almond extract, and blend. Cover with buttered waxed paper and refrigerate until ready to use.

To serve, use a small knife to cut off the top third of each cream puff. Add about 1/4 cups filling (more if the puffs are larger), replace the tops, and put puffs on a decorative platter. Dust with confectioner's sugar and pipe a dollop of cream on top. Top with a cherry half and serve immediately.

The pastry shells can be made ahead and frozen, and the filling can be made a day before serving. The lard is what makes the recipe authentic, but you may use all butter.

If you enjoyed this recipe, you might also like:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Baking With Mom, Part 2: No-Knead Easter Bread


Okay, all you Easter bakers out there. I am now officially going to ROCK YOUR WORLD!!! I have stumbled upon something that is sure to revolutionize Easter bread baking. Are you ready? Maybe, you should sit down for this. Comfy? All right, here it comes..........
I Made No-Knead Easter Bread!!!
Can you believe it? Well, it's true. Let me start at the beginning.
If you recall, my Mom and I had a marathon baking session the other day. We churned out several different kinds of traditional Italian Easter treats. We were elbow deep in flour, butter and ricotta cheese, and gossiping our heads off, when we realized that we had forgotten to start the dough to make our Easter bread. Easter bread is a rich and slightly sweet yeast bread, that is braided and baked with colored eggs entwined in it. It is very similar to challah. Although it is a very popular Italian specialty, many other European cultures also boast their own version of it too.
We were majorly bummed about this, because this particular dough requires two rises. That meant that even if we dropped what we were doing and started right then, it would be at least three hours before the loaves would be ready to be baked. Crap! I couldn't believe we forgot about the bleeping Easter bread!
Suddenly, it hit me. I still had half a batch of the master recipe for brioche dough from the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook sitting in my fridge. If I could make doughnuts and almond brioche out of that dough, why couldn't I make Easter bread out of it as well?
I raced home and grabbed the dough, and raced back to Mom's. (It's a good thing we only live a few blocks away from each other or else I would have probably needed Stacey's defibrilator!) Within ten minutes, we had the dough formed and ready to rest. About an hour after that, the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked Easter bread was wafting through the house. Let me tell you, that house was already smelling pretty damn good from all of the pies we'd been baking. The combination of the two was absolutely heavenly!

Anyway, those loaves of bread turned out fantastic! They were beautifully burnished on the outside, and soft and pillowy on the inside. We were able to get two gorgeous round loaves out of the dough I had on hand. With a whole batch, I'm sure you could get four.
Imagine that! Who'd have thunk it? No-Knead Easter bread!

Since this bread is traditionally associated with the Easter holiday, I am submitting it as my entry in this month's Bread Baking Day event hosted by Susan at Wild Yeast, and founded by Zorra at Kochtopf. The theme for the month is Holiday celebrations.

No-Knead Easter Bread
Adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
For the Brioche Dough:
1½ cups lukewarm water
1½ tablespoons granulated yeast (1½ packets)
1½ tablespoons salt
8 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup honey
7½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Mix the yeast, salt, eggs, honey and 1½ cups melted butter with the water in a 5-quart bowl or lidded (not airtight) food container.
Mix in the flour without kneading, using a spoon. You can also use a 14-cup capacity food processor or a heavy-duty stand mixer with dough hook. If you’re not using a machine, you may need to use wet hands to incorporate the last bit of flour. The dough will be loose but will firm up when chilled. Don’t try to work with it before chilling. You may notice lumps in the dough but they will disappear in the finished product.
Cover (not airtight) and allow to rest at room temperature until dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours. The dough can be used as soon as it’s chilled after the initial rise. Refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 5 days. Beyond 5 days, freeze the dough in 1-pound portions in an airtight container for up to 4 weeks. When using frozen dough, thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using, then allow the usual rise and rest times.
For the Easter Bread:
(Makes 4 loaves)
1 batch of brioche dough
4 raw, dyed eggs, more if you are clumsy (Make sure you use raw eggs. They will cook along with the bread. I didn't do this and my eggs sank like pretty colored lead bullets!)
1 egg, lightly beaten for egg wash
colored sanding sugar for decorating (optional)
Butter or grease a cookie sheet or line with parchment paper, or a silicone mat.
Dust the surface of the dough with flour and cut into 4 quarters. Dust each piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter turn as you go.
Divide each ball into thirds, using a dough scraper or knife. Roll the balls between your hands (or on a board), stretching, to form each into a long, thin rope. If the dough resists shaping, let it rest for 5 minutes and try again. Braid the ropes, starting from the center and working to about 1 inch from one end. Turn the loaf over, rotate it, and braid from the center out to about 1 inch from the remaining end. Carefully bring both ends around to form a circle, and braid the ends together to close the circle. Place one colored egg in the center of each loaf.

Allow the bread to rest and rise on the prepared cookie sheet for about an 1 hour.
Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 350-degrees F. If you're not using a stone in the oven, 5 minutes is adequate. Brush the loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with the sanding sugar. Bake near the center of the oven for about 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before slicing.

Pat yourself on the back for coming up with such a clever idea.

For more Easter Bread recipes, check out:

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Baking With Mom, Part 1: Pizza Rustica

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter and the beginning of Holy Week for Christians everywhere. Holy Week is the final week of Lent. It commemorates the events of our Lord's last week before His death.

It's hard to believe that we're already about to celebrate Easter! It is said that as we get older, time appears to pass much more quickly. I guess I can attest to that. Though I still have quite a way to go before I'm eligible for AARP discounts, there's no denying that I am getting older - and time seems to be whizzing by me at warp speed!

The Easter season is one of my favorite times of the year. Yes, I enjoy the hustle and bustle (and the cookies!) of Christmas time. I love the carolers and the beautifully decorated houses, and even the inflatable lawn ornaments. I espcially love perpetuating my family traditions through cooking and baking, and learning about the cherished traditions of others. But the reality is, that Christmas has become a multi-billion dollar marketing bonanza controlled by the retailers, where bigger, brighter and grander is always better. They tell us what to want and how much of it we need to make our lives complete. Sorry, but I don't need some corporate honcho in an ivory tower defining my wants and needs!

To me, Holy Week and Easter are about reflection, quiet joy and renewal. The promise of rebirth and hope. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Easter usually falls in the early Spring. To me, Spring is also about rebirth, renewal and hope. The best part of it is that no one is shoving any video iPod Nanos and XBox 360 Consoles down my throat!

One of the things that my family looks forward to each year as Easter approaches, is enjoying the many traditional Italian baked goods associated with the holiday. They're not fancy. There's no Swiss meringue, chocolate ganache, puff pastry towers or spun sugar decorations in the lot. Just simple, rustic goodness made by loving hands and warm hearts.

In my family, my Mom was always in charge of the Easter baking. Since she did such a great job, the rest of us didn't interfere much, except when it came to taste-testing! Actually, that's a big, fat lie. We were just all too lazy or busy doing our own thing and couldn't be bothered with baking Easter pies. Then, a few years ago, my father got sick and everything changed. Mom didn't have the drive to do it anymore. All of her energy was wrapped up in taking care of him. In an attempt to keep some normalcy in our lives, I sucked it up, stepped in and took charge of the Easter baking. Some recipes I kept the same and some I tweaked, because well, sometimes I can be a contrary, royal pain in the a$$!

This year, I was able to talk Mom into baking with me. It didn't take too much conning...uh, I mean encouragement. After the French bread fiasco, I guess she was ready to get her hands back in some dough. We made two kinds of Pizza Grana, Easter Bread (easy, easy, easy - you will love it!), Zeppoli and the recipe I'm sharing with you today, Pizza Rustica. How about that? In one afternoon, I ended up with a week's worth of post material! Anyway, I don't want you to exhaust yourselves from reading about all of our exploits in one sitting, so I'll be spreading it out over the course of the week. In addition to some great recipes, you'll hear all about the good, the bad and the ugly of baking with Mom!
Pizza Rustica is a traditional Italian Easter pie with a ricotta base, which is then filled with a variety of dried meats and cheeses. The name literally means "rustic pie". My Pizza Rustica is big, cheesy, creamy and gooey hunk of a pie stuffed to the gills with six, count 'em, SIX different kinds of dried and fresh MEAT! Though many recipes for Pizza Rustica specify that the meat, cheese and other filling ingredients be layered, I like to make mine, Napolitano style, so I cut or chunk them up and add them to the ricotta filling. It makes it a lot easier to cut the pie into slices. I also like to mix a little sugar and lemon zest into my crust. Mom absolutely insists that you must add a pinch of freshly ground black pepper to the crust too. She's been making this pie since before I was born. Who am I to argue?

(Look at all that meat!!!)

The original recipe calls for something called dry "basket cheese". Basket cheese is a is very mild and lightly salted cheese made from cow's milk. It get its name from the way it is formed - inside a basket. It can be difficult to find unless you live close to a large Italian community. In the cultural wasteland that is the Gulf Coast of Florida, I can rarely find it. You can easily substitute dry mozzarella. Also, I use a rich, dense homemade ricotta that I am actually able to get here. If you can find some, use it. If not, drain your ricotta for a while in some cheese cloth to get rid of any extra liquid. It makes for a richer filling. This is a pretty versatile recipe. If you don't care for any of the meats or cheeses that I've used here, choose something else.

Pizza Rustica is best eaten when it is completely cooled. You can even eat it right out of the fridge. Although it is traditionally enjoyed at Easter time, it makes a great meal anytime.

Since Pizza Rustica is such a quintessential Italian holiday dish, I've decided to submit it as my entry to Festa Italiana, a new blog event sponsored by Maria of Proud Italian Cook and Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita.

I can't wait to see what everyone else has come up with!

Pizza Rustica

For the crust:
4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
4 eggs
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp fresh lemon zest
2 tbsp heavy cream

For the filling:

2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb hot Italian sausage, casings removed
2 lbs whole milk ricotta
4 large egg yolks and 2 whole eggs, lightly beaten
8 ounces dry basket cheese or dry mozzarella cheese, diced into small cubes
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into small pieces
6 ounces thinly sliced mortadella, cut into small pieces
4 ounces thinly sliced sweet sopressatta, cut into small pieces
4 ounces thinly sliced hot sopressatta, cut into small pieces
6 ounces thinly sliced cappicola ham, cut into small pieces
1 egg white

To make the crust:

Combine flour and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the butter is broken down and the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the eggs, sugar, pepper and lemon zest. Process until the mixture turns into a smooth dough. Add 1 tbsp of the cream and pulse until incorporated. The dough should be smooth and soft, but not sticky. If it looks crumbly or dry, add a few more drops of cream. If is is sticky, add a tablespoon or two more flour. You kind of have to use your judgment here. What! Do I have to tell you everything?

Remove dough onto a lightly floured surface and form into a large disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.

To make the filling:

Position the rack on the bottom of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and saute until golden brown, breaking the sausage into pieces, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and set aside to cool.

Into a large bowl, stir together the eggs, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, mixing well. Add all of the meats and stir to combine. This step will definitely build up your biceps. You may have to use your hands for this, but hey, when else do you get a free pass to play with your food!

To assemble the pie:

Cut off 1/3 of the dough and set aside. Roll out the larger piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to a 16-17 inch round. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch springform pan. Gently press the dough to fit. Trim the dough overhang to 1 inch. Save the scraps for patching up holes.

Spoon the filling into the dough-lined pan.

Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough over the filling. Pinch the edges together to seal.

Brush the egg white over the entire pastry top.

Bake on the bottom oven shelf until the crust is golden brown, about 1-1 1/2 hours, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let pie cool for at least 30 minutes. Release the pan sides and transfer the pie to a platter. When cooled, cut into huge wedges and serve.

Go outside and run two miles wearing a weighted vest, to counteract the assault on your arteries.


For more recipes like this, check out: