28 March 2008

Fried Wild Asparagus

We went on a walk with Zio Micchi while we were down in Moneglia this weekend. For us it was a walk, for Zio Micchi it probably couldn't even be considered a stroll. This man is nimble as a mountain goat, and at 70 years old leaves us all panting in his dust. We were on a rocky hilltop, gazing down at the stunning view of the Mediterranean, when something caught my eye. "That plant looks exactly like asparagus!" I giggled.
"That's because it is!" replied Zio Micchi, explaining that once, wild asparagus grew on all the hilltops around Moneglia, but has long since been over-harvested in the areas closest to town. We collected a few stalks, which he gingerly wrapped in his handkerchief to present to his wife (Zia Marghe) upon our return. "Just wait and see how delighted she is!" he winked.
Indeed she was. She immediately went to work washing the stalks, coating their tips first in flour, then dipping them in some beaten egg and frying them in olive oil. The result (need I even say it?) was mouthwatering. The flavor was different than domesticated asparagus, it was more delicate and balanced, with garlicky and nutty overtones. They were devoured enthusiastically by all, and I instantly understood the reason for their disappearance from nearby hill-tops. I would certainly eat them every day if they were so close within reach.

26 March 2008

Focaccia Genovese
(An Italian Parenthesis)

So, I know I've been requesting American recipes, but It's funny, I recently clicked on the "Italian" category of this blog and was astonished at how under-represented is my current cuisine of residence. In fact most of the (very few) Italian recipes on this site have not even been published by me, which is pretty lame considering I've lived here for 4 (!!!) years now. So I decided to make a quick Italian parenthesis to recount a few things I learned this weekend.
Emilio and I went down to his family's vacation home on the Ligurian coast for Easter weekend. These are always culinary journeys, considering his family who loves to cook and delights in my curiosity. Zia Marghe taught me how to make Focaccia, which was (surprisingly) quick and easy, yet (not surprisingly) delicious. She says the trick is to have a really hot oven, she actually prefers to bake it in her toaster oven.

Focaccia Genovese:

Note: Zia Marghe didn't measure anything except the flour, so the ratio of water and oil might need some tweaking. Preheat oven to 250°C (450-500°F). Mix 1 cup warm water with a package of dry yeast. Stir until dissolved and set aside for about 5-10 minutes.
Add yeast water to 500 grams (about 4.5 cups) flour and stir with a fork. Add about another cup of warm water, 2 Tbsp sugar and 2 Tbsp olive oil and continue to mix with your hands until well combined. Drizzle with some more oil, cover with a clean, damp cloth and let rise for about an hour.
Cover a baking sheet (or two if using a little toaster oven) with oiled parchment paper and dump out the dough on to this surface. Spread the dough out to the edges of the baking sheet pretty thinly using the tips of your fingers (coated in olive oil to avoid sticking). Make sure to leave finger imprints in the dough, that's what makes it have it's final bumpy appearance. Drizzle with more olive oil, don't be shy, this is what makes it authentic- lot's of olive oil. It should pool up in all your little finger holes. Don't worry, it will be absorbed and not greasy. Sprinkle the focaccia evenly and generously with coarse salt. Toss in to hot oven and keep an eye on it. It's ready when the top turns golden, about 20 minutes or less, depending on the oven. Eat while hot.

22 March 2008

The Lamb Cake

I inherited the traditional ( and once terrible) task of making the Lamb Cake each Easter. The antique cast iron mold of a cute little lamb, and memories from my childhood of the thrilling cake seduced me into thinking I should have the Lamb Cake mold. As I remember the story, it belonged to Florence Herff (who my mother says was a lot like me.) She was my great grandmother who I never met. She raised my mother and so the mold came down the family tree. Now I'm not sure Florence ever actually make the cake, because Anna, the housekeeper/nanny who lived with the family for three generations was always there. When I was a child it was Anna who made the cake, easy as pie. I cannot remember an Easter without the lamb. Anna passed away 35 years ago so I inherited the mold, but not the recipe.

I imagined my children having fond memories of Easter Sunday when I would bring the dusty mold off the shelf and perform the magic I once saw. But in reality, I would start the experiment only hours before having to present the cake to my big family of five brothers whom also could not imagine an Easter without the lamb. Always optimistic, picturing the perfect presentation, I would start looking through cookbooks to find the perfect recipe. For many, many years the cute little cake would turn into a monster nightmare of frustration and tears. The lamb would become a Frankenstein sort of creature with toothpicks and excessive amounts of icing gluing together his head, ears, nose. One year he had to go to the party laying down, like the slaughtered lamb. I had many a humiliating Easter and grew to dread the hateful little lamb. My children had uneasy feelings about Easter as a holiday that involved lots of hair pulling and cussing.

But no more! After close to 30 years of experiments, I have learned the secrets of how to make the Lamb Cake and I am sharing every detail with you so maybe you too will dare to create a cake that delights little children and grandparents alike.

How to Make a Lamb Cake

Dust off the cast iron mold. Ours is in 2 pieces that fit together with the nose side down.
Use spray oil with flour in it if available. Get the oil in all the nooks and crannies.

Preheat oven to 375

Have all ingredients room temperature
Sift before measuring 2 cups cake flour,
resift with:
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
In another bowl cream until fluffy:
1 cup sugar and 1/3 to 1/2 cup butter
combine: 3/4 cup milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla

Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture in 3 parts, alternating with thirds of the liquid combination. Stir the batter until smooth after each addition. Whip until stiff but not dry
2 large egg whites. Fold them lightly into the batter.

Now, put the mold NOSE side down on a cookie sheet and fill with batter. Next is the secret to an upright lamb with ears... carefully add bamboo skewers into the nose, across the head to the ears and one for the entire length of the body. Much like the Statue of Liberty, the lamb needs a structure to be sure it will stand true and tall.

Next, close the other half over the mold and place in the oven for 50 minutes. Our mold has no vents or way to test for doneness, so you just have to know 50 minutes is right. Trust me on this. Don't open the mold!

When done, let it sit IN THE MOLD, nose side down for 15 minutes.

Then you may lift the back off and see how you did.
Let the lamb rest for another 15-30 minutes to cool and set.
When cool, carefully loosen the edges with a knife, especially around the ears. Then flip it onto a platter. Before icing the cake I recommend freezing it for a short time to give it more strength.

I make lots just in case I need to glue a head or ear back on...

Sift 4 cups confectioners sugar
beat until soft:
6 Tablespoons butter
Add sugar gradually
Add 4 teaspoons vanilla or coffee or orange, etc
Blend until creamy (add a little cream to make it creamy)

Let icing sit over hot water for 10 to 15 minutes.

Let Lamby out of the freezer and stand him up. Slather thickly with icing to make him look fat and cute. While icing is still wet, pat shredded coconut all over him. Add raisins for eyes and nose and tie a pretty bow around his neck.

Decorate the platter and take a picture of the little guy!

09 March 2008

American Food Part 1 continued: Bread Pudding

Posting about Helen's gumbo got me thinking about another one of her specialties...bread pudding. Now I'm sure bread pudding-type dishes can be found all over the world. It's just about the simplest baked dessert I can think of, and is made from humble, common ingredients...bread, milk, eggs, sugar. Grandma Helen claims that stale french bread from New Orleans is the key to this recipe's success, but I believe that any light, airy baguette-type bread will do just fine. You can omit the raisins if you're not a fan, but the sauce is, in my mind, essential.

Helen's Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce

1 large loaf french bread (1.5 medium): a few days old and stale (or you can cheat and put it in a 200 degree oven for a while to dry it out)
1 quart milk
1 cup raisins
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Tear the bread into pieces a little larger than bite-sized. Place in a medium bowl and add milk and soak/stir until soggy. In a separate bowl mix together eggs, sugar and vanilla and then add to bread and milk mixture once it gets soggy. Add raisins. Pour into a pyrex or ceramic casserole dish and place that in another pan filled with about 1/4 inch of water. Bake until bubbling and beginning to brown on top (not sure how long this should take...10 mins?...will report back).

Meanwhile, make sauce in a double boiler or metal bowl suspended over a pot of boiling water. Melt 1 stick of butter and then whisk in 1 cup of powdered sugar. Beat one egg yolk in a small bowl and add a few spoons full of butter/sugar mixture to egg, then add to the rest of the butter/sugar in double boiler and mix until there are no lumps. Remove from heat, let cool and then add 1/4 cup of whiskey (I think Helen uses Bourbon).

Pour sauce over cooked pudding (you may not want to use all of it-to taste) and then return to oven and broil for a minute or two. Serve warm (or eat cold for breakfast straight out of the dish).

American Food Part 1: Seafood Gumbo

The more time I put into thinking about it, the more confused I've become about what truly is American food. It definitely gets complicated by the fact that we're predominately a country of immigrants, and most every food item I can think of is really "fusion" cuisine. What do Americans eat everyday? Well, the answer must be 'a whole lotta different stuff.' This country is so big, so diverse, it's impossible to generalize except to say that we eat a lot! Unfortunately, American food seems to most often conjure up the old cliches...hamburgers, hotdogs, apple pie. These things certainly have their place and their fans, but it's definitely not what I eat everyday! To me, the closest answers I can come up with to what is truly American food are regional specialty foods; creations that resulted who-knows-when from creative combinations of foods from the old country with new ingredients fresh from American soil. Since I've had little time and little need to cook lately (everyone else seems to be cooking and inviting me over these days), I'll post about some different examples over the next several weeks.

Example #1 is my Grandma Helen's Seafood Gumbo. Helen grew up in New Orleans and is a wonderful cook when it comes to local specialties. Gumbo, in my mind, is a pretty great example of an American food--a fusion of old and new world and utterly unique. Read all about it here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gumbo. I've never made Helen's gumbo, but have eaten it several times and plan to try my hand at it as soon as opportunity arises. A few ingredients my be hard or even impossible to get in Italy (okra and file powder, for example). You might just have to come visit to give it a try!

Seafood File Gumbo

Combine and set aside this seasoning mix:
1.5 teaspoons ground cayenne
1.5 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
.5 teaspoons of following:
white pepper, black pepper, dried thyme leaves, oregano leaves
2 bay leaves, crumbled

5.5-6 cups fish stock
3/4 cup canola/vege. oil)
2 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped bell peppers
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 lb. sliced okra
1 tablespoon Tabasco or other Louisiana hot pepper sauce
1 1/4 tomato sauce (unseasoned)
3 tablespoons gumbo file http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fil%C3%A9_powder
Assorted seafood: whole crabs (break claws at joint, and crack cleaned bodies down middle), shelled shrimp, oysters, firm white fish, etc. (she doesn't specify how much--a few lbs. total?)
1 lb. Kielbasa sausage or chicken (optional, though important for flavor to some)

In heavy stockpot heat oil over med. heat until smoking point. Add onion, celery and bell peppers and stir. Turn heat to high and stir in file powder, tabasco, garlic and seasoning mix. Cook for 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium and stir in tomato sauce-cook 5 minutes stirring constantly and scraping bottom of the pan as the file thickens. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium. Add okra, sausage or chicken, and crabs and cook until okra is done. Turn off and let sit if you have the time and then rewarm close to the time you want to serve (flavor improves with sitting). Add fish, shrimp, and oysters to re-warmed soup over medium/high heat about 5 minutes before serving.

Serve over rice. Mmmmmm.

06 March 2008

All-American in Italy

Friends, Family, Fellow bloggers: I have a small request.
I want american food. I want your most american, down-home, back-country or inner-city, passed-down, real recipes. I have been colonizing Italy, one meal at a time, and I'm running out of ideas.
I'm ready to show Italy that we might have something more than McDonald's to offer the world's kitchen.
Give me all you got.