May 4, 2011
One of our closest friends here is a couple from the US. They introduced us to Thanksgiving, and tomorrow we are going to celebrate together Cinco de Mayo. Originally a Mexican historical event, it is felt strongly by the Latino community in the US and as such adopted by all the people, especially my friend, who comes from California. We have been chasing ‘the best Mexican food of Nordrhein-Westfalen’ together for quite a while now: my friends love Mexican food and they miss it considerably. So far we have had no luck. Even the best Mexican food here seems to be pretty mediocre. So, tomorrow we are going to have a real fiesta at their place. I volunteered to bring dessert and decided it had to be a chocolate one.
I actually use my blog quite a lot: after all, I am collecting here my favourite recipes with my own notes, which is definitely useful, at least for me. I was quite shocked then when I realized I had not talked to you about the best cocoa brownies yet – a recipe by Alice Mendrich I’ve been making for quite a while, and I’ve also been sharing with all the people who have tasted them. There is something about these brownies that the others don’t have. I normally prefer chocolate to cocoa in cakes; however, although chocolate brownies are good, to me they miss some essential brownie quality. I can’t really explain it better than that, but I always had the feeling that chocolate brownies were a mere fattier and sweeter version of molleux au chocolat. These cocoa ones are totally satisfying on their own, on the other hand. Maybe, like Deb says, it is that they taste as if they may come out of a box, in a good way, and I associate that mouthfeel with brownies. Anyway, I’ve found myself baking this recipe in many occasions: it is totally fuss free, very good, and it does not require me to have chocolate bars at home when I want to whip up a batch. Chocolate bars are not a cupboard ingredient to me. They tend to disappear too quickly to qualify.
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April 20, 2011
The first time I went to Paris, I got off the train at Gare de Lyon. I walked out and was welcomed by a spectacular array of oysters. And a spectacular array of palaces. It was love at first sight.
Other visits have followed. Also this time, I was bewitched.
Paris is tiring. Among my memories of it, endless walks, cycles and metro stairways play a considerable role, without counting the miles you can walk inside museums. I’ve always known this, but somehow left it in the back of my mind: I was always fit and well, apart from that night spent with food poisoning after eating the aforementioned oysters. I’ll spare you the details, but I had a really rough time. As you may remember, I spent quite a while without walking lately. I’m not back to my usual shape yet, but in Paris for the first time I tested myself and had the impression I could make it.
I had a lot of fun, actually.
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March 13, 2011
I had a very special birthday to celebrate this weekend, so a very special dessert was in order. As you can imagine, turning to my Ladurée book was almost inevitable. Shining among the complex pastries, I was immediately attracted by the gorgeous millefeuille with raspberries. Millefoglie (a thousand leaves) is one of my favourite desserts ever, maybe because it is difficult to find it really good. When I was a child there was one place to go in Padova, Graziati. Made with thick, but not too thick, crema pasticcera, filling a generous, buttery puff pastry, I loved it very crunchy, of course, but there was a twisted pleasure in the puff pastry starting to get soggy and melting into the cream, leaf by leaf. I loved it as much as I disliked the really soggy version you’ll find in most places, with the too dense, chemically tasting filling. In Milan there are a couple of places where they’ll fill it to order. In Southern Italy they make a lighter version, filled with creme chantilly, and with the puff pastry higher and fluffier, often with a layer of sponge in between. Also this one can be lovely. When I moved to Wales I thought that a custard slice was a local equivalent – huge mistake! It is the closest equivalent, but it is like comparing tinned ravioli with hand made agnolotti. I basically lived years without millefoglie, and even here, where there is an abundance of gorgeous cakes, it is not a common dessert. Laduree version spoke of French luxury, with the puff pastry not only compressed while cooking, but also caramelized, and the filling being made by a small amount of very rich crème Mousseline (pastry cream mixed with butter) and plump, tart raspberries.
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March 8, 2011
Today it is International Women’s Day. I have always found it very depressing that we need to be remembered and protected and honored on a special occasion. But it is a fact that many women do not have the respect and recognition they deserve as human beings, and we need all the attention we can get, also from ourselves, to start with.
I have not seen my grandmother in a long while, and since then, she has been very ill. The two things are not strictly related, of course, but I cannot help thinking how much my life is different from my mother and grandmother’s life.
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February 28, 2011
I had not picked up all of my Christmas presents yet: I finally managed to see my sister, and her gift was this lovely book:
a collection of sweet recipes as prepared at la Maison Ladurée, possibly where all the craze about macarons started. It is a book of beauty, with delicate pictures and alluring desserts, where the recurrent colours and flavours, somehow a signature of the maison, form a pattern through the whole book. Pale green and pistachio, vivid pink and raspberry, pale pink and rose. There are plenty of classic recipes, and for my first dessert out of this book I chose the most classic of classics, possibly: éclair à la vanille. The reason for that – if you ever need a reason for wanting to make éclair à la vanille! – is that the recipe started with making a vanilla pâte sablée. On top of each éclair, there is a thin layer of pâte sablée. When you cook them, the sablée melts into the choux and gets mostly incorporated. Mostly: a thin layer stays on top, so you get a perfect éclair, with a thin crunchy layer on top, and a more pronounced butter and vanilla flavour. Pure genius. This is something I would not have thought about, and even when tasting them, I probably would not have guessed, because the layer is so thin. When you bite into them, they are classic éclairs, with a boost.
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February 6, 2011
My favourite snack is an apple. As a student I used to always bring an apple or two in my bag, and I never stopped to. I think it must have started when I was very young, probably right after primary school. My public primary school was indeed quite a progressive and unusual one. Children had the option to stay at school also in the afternoon (in Italy they spend only mornings at school). There was a canteen providing food for everyone, fresh, locally prepared, healthy food, with a pool of voluntary moms that were allowed to supervise after a careful training on health and safety procedures. My stay-at-home mum was one of them and she was impressed by the quality. I have to admit that as a youngster I was not very inclined to appreciate that, and while I do remember some food with pleasure, my main memory is that of hating the salad because it had so much vinegar in it. At mid mornings and mid afternoons snacks were provided during the long breaks. You were not allowed to bring any food from outside and as far as I remember the rule was enforced. So we all snacked on fruit and milk. Fruit was oranges or apples, usually. And it all started there, I think. If you think about it, this is a great trick to teach children to eat healthily. We were all hungry and so learned to snack on fruit without having to have it cut and cleaned for you by mummy first. We did not need to care that much about advertisement featuring sugary, unhealthy food and drink, since the ‘cool’ factor associated with it could not be boasted at school with your mates, and thus lost most of its appeal.
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February 5, 2011
I’m back to Germany, and it is starting to kick in. These days the trees outside have been incredibly beautiful. The world is wrapped in a blanket of fog, which freezes and makes each little branch of the tree sparkle, covered in ice crystals. Blissfully, there is no snow, making it possible to lead an almost normal life.
However I am not in the mood for appreciating this place. I won’t blame it, I know it is me, mainly. I just feel out-of-place, and I feel as if my efforts to fit in have been useless so far. I find it more and more difficult to make plans, to find something fun to do. And when I feel this way, so purposeless, I know there is only one thing that can help me: cooking. I never feel out-of-place in the kitchen. I do feel more than a bit cheesy, like Nigella happily declaring: “whenever I am in the kitchen, I am happy”, but there is some truth in it.
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February 2, 2011
I am posting these ‘nutella’ inspired cookies hoping that you will be inspired as well. Saturday is World Nutella day – fun, isn’t it? Last year I tried making my own Nutella version, because actually, of all things, I’m not really a Nutella person, though I definitely am a chocolate-and-hazelnut person. Tthat his year, you’ll see it on Saturday, but let me say that I am quite pleased with the results I am currently munching, together with these cookies.
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January 21, 2011
Do you like oranges? And if you do, are you a moderate fan, or could you eat oranges until you change colour?
Here we definitely belong to the second category. I am surrounded by orange lovers. My sister once had some serious talks with her doctor about orange addiction – allegedly vitamin A toxic effects are to be considered if you eat a kilo of oranges per day, six months a year. Since when I am here in Calabria, I have been eating comparable amounts as well: the father of my partner grows oranges, mandarins and lemons, and with great trepidation we have watched the oranges get better and better as the season progresses. They will keep improving until March apparently, but trust me when I say they are already the best oranges I’ve ever eaten. They are so good I even forgot to cook with them, apart from the occasional salad. And I do love orange desserts.
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December 26, 2010
And finally, trifle time. I was intrigued by Ivonne’s choice for the next theme of Sugar High Friday. In Italy we have a pudding called ‘zuppa inglese’, literally English soup, and I was quite curious to find out what the English name for it was, if there was any. It turned out the closest dessert is trifle.
Zuppa inglese is a dessert prepared in most restaurants and in many homes, in the Northern region called Emilia Romagna, and neighbours. A concoction of lady fingers or sponge cake, soaked in the typical bright red sweet liquor called alchermes; a thick layer of custard, heavy with egg yolks and cream, often in two versions alternating – chocolate and cream. The visual impact is definitely tacky, with its red, yellow and black striped effect; it has its rustic charms but it is as heavy as a stone, particularly after a proper meal from Emilia – from salumi, among the best in Italy (think culatello and prosciutto di parma, but don’t forget mortadella, just to name a few), to meat-filled tortellini or lasagne, to finish off with some meat dish like roasted pork or boiled poultry.
I have eaten my share of zuppe inglesi, and wanted to go the opposite way with this challenge. I decided I wanted to turn to the most English version I could find. And in order to do that, I turned to the most English of my sources – Jane Grigson, ‘English food’. I did think of Nigella first – you know I have a weakness for her fantastic accent – and there are indeed many nice ideas of hers in form of a trifle. Nigella, being the sensible woman that she is, is of course a fan of this good-looking, easy and versatile dessert you can effortlessly assemble with store-bought ingredients. But I was charmed by the original recipe. Ms Grigson laments that trifle is often tacky with its glaced cherries decorations, and rarely ‘a pudding worth eating’. Her recipe would bring the joy back to eating it. Macaroons, soaked in fortified wine and brandy, a layer of totally unflavored custard, a layer of raspberry jam, and on top, the ‘Everlasting Syllabub’ by Elizabeth David. I was bound to try it. The recipe is so old fashioned, so imprecise, and it totally works. Just the kind of recipe I love.
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