A Writing Retreat On Lake Como

A Writing Retreat On Lake Como

Join me for a week on Lake Como, to write about that childhood memory, travel experience, or any other event you’ve been wanting to capture in print.  Spend the mornings in writing instruction, and afternoons in leisure touring the area, eating exquisite foods and pinching yourself that it’s real.

Kathryn Abajian and I hold the writing retreat at Villa Monastero (pictured above) in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, Italy. We’re scheduled to repeat it September 24-30., 2017.

Come along with me for an armchair visit to learn about the villa and its origins. Maybe you’ll decide you’d like to spend a week here with us too, improving your writing skills, and partaking of the region’s foods, wines and nearby sights.

     The villa was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1208, but its mission foundered in 1667, when the nuns left for Lecco, a city to the south. After three years, the villa was sold to the Mornico family, whose weath came from the iron mining industry in the area. The family converted the monastery to a noble residence, renaming it Villa Leliana. It was held by the Mornico family for nearly three centuries, when it was sold at the end of the 1800s to the German sheep owner Walter Kaas.
     But in the lead up to World War II, Kaas was declared an enemy of the state and was sent back to Germany, while Italy took over the villa. The villa was then used by the elite mountaineering unit of the Italy military called the Alpini, until it was sold in 1955 to biologist Marco de Marchi, who converted the villa into a scientific conference center.
     Marchi had no heirs however, and left the villa to the Italian government with the proviso that it be used for conferences of a scientific or artistic nature.        

     We hold daily sessions in a sun-filled conference room overlooking the lake, surrounded by beautiful artwork created by local artists. 
      The villa also has a larger conference room that served as a chapel when the nuns occupied the villa, and is the place where Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi taught his last lesson.
     You can see evidence of a religious fresco is a small niche there, dating to the 13th century.
        Other rooms in the villa highlight both the Germanic artistic taste of Walter Kaas, as well as highly decorative furnishings bought by de Marchi.
      The villa’s extensive gardens, containing thousands of species of plants, are open to the public, but at night, we writers have the beauty of the grounds and the silence of the lake to ourselves.
        Most bedrooms have modern furnishings, some with views of the lake, and a few have balconies facing the lake. Sign up early to get priority for one of these.
     Writing instruction is in the morning, and you can set up your laptop by the lake in the afternoons to soak in some inspiration from the peaceful and lush surroundings.
     If you need a break from writing, the town of Varenna has a lot to offer, with inviting shops and cafes.
Can you picture yourself seated along the lake sipping a cappuccino, or a glass of Prosecco?
     Come with us if you like, on an afternoon visit to Vezio, and step back to the 11th century and a castle that was once home to Teodolinda, queen of the Lombards.
       From the castle, you get a magnificent view of the lake and the rooftops of Varenna below.
     We also eat well on our retreats, and taste local wines and cheeses, like this taleggio.
    Dinners are all special, and we try different restaurants each night.
     If you’d like to go further afield one afternoon, we’ll take you on the ferry to Bellagio, where the streets are as quaint as the shops are prolific.
     You can even try your hand at watercolor, whether you’ve got experience or not. We can arrange a lesson for you.
     It’s not to soon to start thinking about reserving a spot for next year’s retreat at Villa Monastero – September 24-30, 2017. Check out our website at www.italyinotherwords.com for more details.
How many times have you heard the phrase “Life is short?” Well, it’s not just a saying, it’s true.
Live the dream. Now.
It’s a week you’ll never forget.


Sacher Torte

Sacher Torte

One of Central Europe’s iconic desserts, Sacher Torte was made famous after Austrian Franz Sacher made the dessert for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in 1832. 

Since then, Hotel Sacher has served it to countless visitors, and will even mail its cakes to devotees around the world who aren’t able to enjoy it in person in Vienna.
Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of eating Sacher torte in Vienna a few times, including on my honeymoon several months ago when we stayed at the hotel.
After arriving home, I had to try making it and it wasn’t difficult – just a little time consuming.
 I used a recipe from Lidia Bastianich, who knows a thing or two about the dessert since she was born in what’s now present day Croatia, once part of the Austria-Hungarian empire.
I baked it in a springform pan, and while the the top of the cake puffs up a bit while baking, it deflates when it cools.

Most recipes call for two layers, but Lidia’s called for three, so I split this into three parts, then filled the interior with the traditional apricot jam.

Pour a thick ganache glaze over the top, but save some to decorate with the traditional “S” for Sacher.

It’s a really rich cake, so you don’t need a large slice to feel satisfied.

But you do need to serve it with a generous portion of whipped cream.
Anything less would be sacrilegious.

Speaking of religious, here are a few photos of the beautiful city of Vienna, including St. Stephen’s cathedral, with its multi-colored tile roof.
This is one of the entrances to the vast Hofburg – now home to Austria’s president, but once the imperial palace of the Habsburg empire.
You can visit the palace rooms and even enjoy a performance of the famous Lipizzaner stallions here.
Of course, one palace is never enough, so in the summer the Habsburgs retreated a short distance away to the Schonbrunn palace, with its cozy 1,441 rooms,

If you’re in Vienna during opera season, try to get tickets to a performance. Even if there’s no opera or symphony scheduled while you’re there, take a “behind the scenes” tour of one the world’s most elegant opera houses, or just step inside to gaze at the beautiful architecture.

Lovers of Gustav Klimt’s art have myriad venues to view the Austrian artist’s work, including the famous Beethoven frieze at the Secession building, and his painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes, in the Belvedere museum.

But don’t forget to end the day at the Sacher Hotel, with a slice of their incomparably delicious, eponymous cake.

Even if you can’t get to Vienna, you can make the cake at home with the recipe below.
Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.
Sacher Torte
recipe from Lidia Bastianich
For The Torte:
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) butter, plus 1 T. for the cake pan
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs, separated
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and lukewarm
1/4 t. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 c. almond flour
For filling and glazing the torte:
1 3/4 c. apricot preserves
2/3 c. light corn syrup
6 T. water
2 T. dark rum
pinch of salt
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped in small chunks
whipped cream for serving
Butter the bottom of a 9″ springform pan, lined with a parchment circle. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer, using the whisk attachment, until light and smooth. Incorporate the egg yolks, one at a time, and then pour in the chocolate gradually, mixing it in thoroughly and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. On low speed, incorporate the flour. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, and spread in an even layer.
Bake until a cake tester come out clean — or until the top springs back when lightly pressed — 35 minutes or longer. Put the pan on a wire rack,  cool briefly, then remove the side ring of the springform pan and let the cake cool completely.
Lift the cake off the metal pan bottom, and peel off the parchment. Slice the cake horizontally into thirds, making three thin layers. Take the top layer and place it upside down on your cake plate, so the crusty baked top becomes the base of the torte.  Place narrow sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper, all around the bottom of the cake, to catch drips when you pour the chocolate glaze.
Whisk 1/2 cup apricot preserves with the water and heat, stirring, until the preserves dissolve into a loose syrup.  (I used a stick blender to break down the large chunks of apricot.)Brush 1/3 of the syrup on the bottom layer and let it soak in. Then take half of the remaining apricot preserves and spread it over the apricot syrup. Repeat with the remaining layers, ending with the top layer and the thin apricot syrup.
For the chocolate glaze: Heat the corn syrup, rum, salt and water in a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off the heat and put the chopped chocolate into the pan, stirring, until the chunks have melted and the glaze is smooth and shiny. Let is cool slightly until it just starts to thicken, then pour the glaze over the top and sides of the cake, smoothing the sides so there are no bare spots. Save a little of the chocolate glaze to make an “S” shape, or to write “Sacher” on top of the cakeif desired. If so, let the glaze solidify at room temperature and for the glaze to become a little thicker. Then use a piping bag to pipe an “S” on the top of the cake.
Polenta With Spuntature E Salsicce (ribs & Sausages)

Polenta with Spuntature e Salsicce (ribs & sausages)

 Years ago, when I lived in Rome, I’d order polenta with spuntature at a restaurant in my neighborhood of Trastevere. But only in winter. It’s a rare restaurant that features it at other times of year, and if it does, it’s likely to be a place devoid of Romans.

Even though you can certainly make polenta in spring, summer or fall, to me, it’s strictly winter food. And now that winter is in full swing, polenta is on my mind.
I’ve made it a few times this season already, but not with spuntature.
Since I was going to be making a ragù, I thought I’d include some sausages too, and put together some meatballs to enrich the sauce even more.
As long as you’re going to the trouble of cooking something for several hours, you might as well make enough to put in the freezer for a few meals later on, right?
So I pulled out my biggest stainless steel pot to get it going.
While the sauce was simmering away, I fried some meatballs.
I know, frying foods isn’t the best thing for you, and I do broil meatballs occasionally too.
But there’s nothing that brings back memories of my childhood like the scent of meatballs frying in hot oil.
As children, we’d stand by the stove while my mother drained a few on paper towels, eagerly waiting to snare one and take that first bite into a crunchy, meaty ball, with steam still spewing out of it.
After sampling one or two, the rest went into the pot with the sauce.
When the sauce had simmered for a couple of hours, I started on the polenta.
I’ve made polenta with a slow cooker, (using Michelle Scicolone’s recipe below). I’ve made it in the oven in an “almost no-stir” method (America’s Test Kitchen recipe below). I’ve made it with my nifty automatic polenta stirrer (the paiolo).

And I’ve made the instant type polenta too. They’re all good, but to me the best tasting polenta is made the old fashioned way – with good coarse grain cornmeal and by constant stirring for 45 minutes while you stand over the pot.
The polenta transforms to a creaminess that’s just begging for a good sauce to slather on top.
That’s where the ribs and sausage come in.
And they could find no better place to rest – except in your stomach of course.

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Ragù with spuntature e salsicce
(Tomato sauce with ribs and sausage)

printable recipe here

2 1/2 – 3 pounds Italian sausage (hot or sweet)
2-3 lbs. pork spare ribs2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, minced
8 – 10 cloves of garlic, minced
2 carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
6 – 23 oz. cans imported Italian tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 T. dried basil, plus fresh basil, if available
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper

about 3 dozen meatballs (recipe below)

Place the sausage in a pot and cook over medium flame until browned, and some of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausages from the pot and set aside.
Place the ribs in the pot and brown them all around. Remove and set aside.If there’s a lot of fat in the pot remaining from the sausages and ribs, drain most of it, but leave a little for flavor. Add the olive oil to the pot. Finely mince the onion and garlic in a food processor and saute in the olive oil. Do the same with the carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables in the olive oil until softened.
Add the remaining ingredients and put the sausage back into the pot with the sauce. Add the spare ribs.
Add the fried meatballs to the sauce, if desired.
Cook everything together for at least two to three hours on a low flame, stirring periodically.

My mom’s meatball recipe

I sometimes broil these, and they’re good that way, but oh-so-much better when deep-fried. 

2 1-2 – 3 pounds of ground meat (I use a mixture of pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper

oil for frying 
Trim the crusts off the bread. Put the bread in a low temperature oven for a short while or leave it out for a few hours to dry out. Save the crusts to make bread crumbs for another recipe.
Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meats until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Fry in a heavy pan with ample oil, or if you want to be healthier, place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 – 500), watching carefully so they don’t burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side. Drain off the grease and add the meatballs to the sauce.

Basic Polenta
1 cup cornmeal
2 cups milk
2 cups water (or use all water and eliminate the milk)
salt, to taste
a couple of pats of butter
grated parmesan cheese, as desired

Pour the cornmeal and the milk and water into a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir over a low to medium high heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the mixture looks creamy. Add salt and taste the polenta. It will taste “raw” if it needs more cooking and may still have some grittiness. In that case, cook longer. If it becomes too thick, add more liquid. When it’s done to your liking, turn off the heat, add a couple of pats of butter and parmesan cheese, as desired.

Slow Cooker Polenta – – Michele Scicolone, “The Italian Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)
Serves 6
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ teaspoons salt
5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.
Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test KitchenWhy this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)

 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
pinch baking soda
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.
The Farm Cooking School

The Farm Cooking School

 My son Michael and daughter-in-law Beth gave us a gift certificate at Christmas to the Farm Cooking School, a wonderful enterprise run by two former editors from Gourmet Magazine, and located at Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville, N.J., about 1/2 hour from my home.

Shelley Wiseman and Ian Knauer run the school and offer classes in everything from Mexican cuisine to cheese making to venison butchery and lots more.
Shelley was Gourmet’s travel food editor and a recipe tester for 12 years. She’s the author of two cookbooks, including her latest, Just Tacos.
Ian, who founded the school, worked in Gourmet’s test kitchens for more than a decade, before returning to his family’s farm in Pennsylvania where he wrote The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food
We were enrolled in an “experimental” class, intended for people already comfortable in the kitchen, since we were given basic recipes but had to come up with our own creations, ones that would be judged by each participant.
Shelley gave everyone a basic recipe for pastry crust, for a quiche filling and for a sweet frangipane filling. We were then charged with making either a savory or sweet quiche or tart, choosing from the following ingredients:
one tray of vegetables, an array of cheeses as well as bacon and raw salmon.
And a tray containing a variety of fruits, chocolate, and mascarpone cheese for use in a sweet tart.
 Each person was required to make one tart or quiche, and my husband Ron ( a neophyte in the kitchen, but a quick learner!) and I worked as a team on one savory quiche and one dessert tart.
The school had ample room for us all to roll out our crusts, mix ingredients and bake our quiches (there was another stove/oven not visible in the photos.)
The school’s batterie de cuisine was impressive, with all kinds of knives, bowls, pans and other kitchen equipment you could want.
(The guy at the stove’s not too shabby either!)
 This is the savory quiche we made with mushrooms, caramelized onions, bacon and gruyere cheese. as it came out of the oven.
Another person chose salmon, asparagus and dill for his quiche.
And someone else chose to use goat cheese and chives as main ingredients.
 I lost my notes, so I can’t really recall what the dominant ingredients were in this one.
I do know that they were all really delicious.
 Now it was time for dessert, and only two people chose to make a sweet tart, including us.
One participant made this lovely concoction with a delicate flaky crust, filled with pastry cream and topped with blueberries and caramelized pineapple.
For our tart, we started by making a chocolate crust, incorporating some cocoa into Shelley’s basic crust recipe, while eliminating some of the flour.
We followed Shelley’s recipe to the letter for the almond frangipane filling, and nestled poached pears atop the filling, brushing them with some apricot preserves before popping the whole thing into the oven.
After eating all the quiches and tarts, and taking notes, we were asked to vote on our favorites.
It wasn’t easy to choose, because they were all so very good and it was hard to compare the four savory quiches to the two sweet dessert tarts.
But in the end, we were thrilled when the most votes went to our pear tart!!!
The prize was a certificate for one of us to attend another class at The Farm Cooking School.
I’m already thinking about that cheese making course… or maybe that wine class…or maybe we’ll sign up for one of those farm to table dinners at the school.
Or maybe we’ll do all of the above.
One thing’s for certain — we’ll be back again more than once.  I’m looking forward to driving there in the daylight next time, to soak in the beautiful view of the countryside along the route, and the farm property itself.
If you’re in the Southeastern Pa/Central New Jersey/metropolitan New York area of the U.S., take at look at the school’s website  and enroll in one of the classes offered. 
There are also culinary vacations offered at the Farm Cooking School in the beautiful Delaware River Valley, or even in sunny Provence, France. Click here for more information.
Meanwhile, here is the recipe for our winning tart, using our variation of Shelley’s tart shell recipe and her sweet frangipane filling:
Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.
Pear Frangipane Tart with Chocolate Pastry Crust
adapted from a recipe of The Farm Cooking School
for the tart shell:
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
2 T. sugar
1/4 t. salt
1 stick (4 oz.) semi chilled butter
1 large egg yolk
ice water – 2 T.
For the filling:
2 pears
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Frangipane Filling
1/2 cup almond flour or 1/2 cup whole or slivered blanched almonds, toasted and cooled completely
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 t. salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add butter and work in with fingers until mixture is like coarse crumbs with some pea size pieces. Add egg yolk and chilled water and toss with a fork to evenly distribute. Squeeze a handful to see if it holds together in a moist dough. If not, add another tablespoon liquid and try again. Squeeze dough together. Chill in a disk wrapped in plastic wrap 30 minutes to 1 hour to rest.
Roll out the dough and fit it into a tart pan. Prick the bottom all over with a fork. Line the pastry with foil or parchment paper and fill with dried raw beans or rice. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet until the sides are firm and the edges are brown, about 20 minutes. Remove the weights and foil or parchment and bake another 10 to 15 minutes more.
While the crust is baking, poach the pears. Peel the pears and cut in half, removing the core and trimming out the stem. Place 1 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar into a saucepan and heat until sugar dissolves. Add the pears and simmer, covering the pan with a lid. Turn once and keep an eye on the liquid, adding more if necessary. Poach until a knife pierces easily into the pears.
Remove from the water and cool. Slice thinly along the short end of the pears. After you have made the frangipane filling and put it in the tart crust, fan the pears over the filling in a decorative fashion, using a long knife to transfer the pear slices so they stay intact, but splayed out.
Spread a little apricot jam over the pears and bake the tart until puffed and golden, about 45 minutes.
Almond Pound Cake With Dried Fruits

Almond Pound Cake With Dried Fruits

 A gift of dried fruits is always appreciated, adding a “somewhat” healthy option to the plethora of cookies, cakes and candies usually consumed during the holiday season. I’ve been snacking on some of the dried fruits out of hand, and using them in my morning oatmeal, but the diverse array included in the lovely tray from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law got me thinking that they’d look (and taste) wonderful in a pound cake.

Not that I needed more desserts now that the Christmas treats were gone.
Well, maybe precisely because the Christmas treats were gone was reason enough to bake these cakes.
So there they were, fresh out of the oven, waiting to be eaten.
If I can’t fit into my jeans any longer, I’m blaming it on my brother-in-law Joe and sister-in-law Jan.
They made me do it.
Dust the top with powdered sugar. If you’re feeling creative, cut a stencil of pears (or whatever else you can dream up) and hold it in place with toothpicks before you sprinkle with the sugar.
Remove gently so you don’t smear the design.
Slice and admire the jewel-like studs of dried fruits, but most importantly, enjoy a piece of cake.
Almond Pound Cake with dried fruits
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 tsps. vanilla
8 ounces almond paste, room temperature
6 large eggs
2 cups dried fruits, diced or minced (I used dried apricots, prunes, pears and peaches and next time would use even more)
Sift flour, baking soda and salt together. Place butter, sugar, vanilla and almond paste into a mixing bowl and beat until everything is blended, three or four minutes.  Add eggs, beating in one at a time. Slowly add flour mixture and beat until blended. Fold in dried fruits and spoon batter into two buttered and floured 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pans.
Bake at 350 degrees about one hour and 10 to 15 minutes.
Beer Braised Pot Roast

Beer Braised Pot Roast

Funny how inspiration for a meal strikes you sometime. This one started with half a dozen bottles of beer that had been sitting in my fridge for six months – bottles of beer left by my kids during a visit last summer. Bottles of beer taking up space and needing to be used. Oh, I like the occasional beer on a hot summer’s day, or even with chili in the winter, but I’m partial to a glass (or two) of wine most of the time.
So the beer needed to be drunk, or used in a recipe. And when I thawed this hunk of beef from the freezer, the light bulb went off. Why not make beef a la carbonnade – the classic Belgian beef stew with beer?
But instead of carving the roast into cubes, as in the traditional recipe, I wanted to leave it whole, and serve slices of beef in a rich gravy.
Start with a roast – this was a top round roast – not an especially tender piece of meat, but braising for three hours takes care of that. Season mightily with salt and pepper and sauté in olive oil until brown all over.
Remove the beef from the pan, then fry some bacon (always a good thing) in the same pan. Remove the bacon and the grease, then sauté some diced onions in butter until nearly golden.
Put the beef and everything else in the pan. Cover and let it cook on low heat on the range for three hours. I would have just popped it in the oven for three hours instead of cooking it on the range, but I had a cake baking and couldn’t disturb it.


The beef will have shrunk and you’ll have lots of liquid with a fair amount of fat on the surface. Skim off as much as you can. Remove the meat and use a stick blender to make the sauce more homogeneous. It doesn’t have to be a purée, but I didn’t want to eat bites of once-crisp bacon that had now turned flabby.
Besides, a smoother sauce caresses those noodles you’ll serve it with oh-so-much better.
If you prefer, serve it with mashed potatoes, or even rice.
Even after two dinners and one lunch, there was still plenty of leftover beef and gravy. How to refashion it into something new?
 Cut it into strips, add some sautéed mushrooms, then a little water and sour cream into the gravy and you’ve got a poor man’s beef stroganoff.
Again, it’s delicious over noodles (especially if they’re home made.)
Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.
Beer Braised Pot Roast
1 4-5 lb. top or bottom round roast
2 T. olive oil
salt, pepper
4 slices bacon, cut into large pieces
3 sweet yellow onions, diced (@3 cups)
6 cloves garlic
1 T. butter
2 c. beef broth
2 c. dark beer or amber ale
1 T. tomato sauce or tomato paste (I had some leftover in the fridge, but you can omit if you like)
a couple of bay leaves, rosemary sprigs and fresh thyme.Use a sturdy, oven-proof pot.
Salt and pepper the roast heavily, then sauté in the olive oil until browned on all surfaces. Remove from the pan and fry the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon and set aside, then drain the bacon grease. Sauté the onions and garlic in the butter until nearly golden. Add the meat back to the pot, along with the broth, beer, tomato sauce and herbs.
Cook at low heat on top of the stove for three hours, or in the oven at 325 for three hours.
Remove the meat from the pot, then using a stick blender, smooth out the sauce.
Slice the meat and serve with the gravy, over noodles, rice or mashed potatoes.

Spanish Flan

Spanish Flan

 You’ve probably eaten Spanish flan before – crème caramel’s kissin’ cousin. So often it’s too “eggy” tasting with no other flavor, or the texture’s filled with too many holes. This recipe from Bon Appétit, however, gets it just right. 

The flavor is rich in vanilla and cream, but not too heavy. The texture is silky and practically melts in your mouth, and the caramel sauce oozes all over this luscious custard.
I added a topping of a Spanish confection called “turrón” – an almond candy that comes in many textures – from a crumbly one I bought at a local Spanish restaurant/store, to a hard-as-rock one that’s similar to the Italian torrone. It’s totally unnecessary, but adds another texture to the smooth custard.
This flan was the sweet finale to a delightful evening spent with my book club (and husbands) discussing a book set in Spain (The Telling Room) and noshing on tapas and Spanish wine.
And because you can’t have too much beauty in your life, here are a couple more photos of paintings of one of my favorite artists – the Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, many of his works are on view at The Hispanic Society of America, in New York City, but the museum closed for renovations starting January 1, 2017. If you’re interested in seeing more of his work, but can’t get to Spain (where you can visit his actual studio), or don’t want to wait two years or more until the renovation is complete, click here for a link to more information about the painter and photos of his work:





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Spanish Flan

The recipe calls for individual flans. I doubled the recipe and baked it in a large ring mold, placing it in a water bath, or “bain marie” and baking for 40 minutes.

From Bon Appetit magazine May 1992
via Epicurious.com
printable recipe here

1 3/4 cup whipping cream
1 cup milk (do not use low fat or nonfat)
pinch of salt
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
3 large eggs
2 large yolks
7 tablespoons sugar


      1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Combine cream, milk and salt in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into cream mixture; add bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes.
      2. Meanwhile, combine 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in another heavy medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high and cook without stirring until syrup turns deep amber, brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan occasionally, about 10 minutes. Quickly pour caramel into six 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups. Using oven mitts as aid, immediately tilt each ramekin to coat sides. Set ramekins into 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
      3. Whisk eggs, egg yolks and 7 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl just until blended. Gradually and gently whisk cream mixture into egg mixture without creating lots of foam. Pour custard through small sieve into prepared ramekins, dividing evenly (mixture will fill ramekins). Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins.
      4. Bake until centers of flans are gently set, about 40 minutes. Transfer flans to rack and cool. Chill until cold, about 2 hours. Cover and chill overnight. (Can be made 2 days ahead.)
      5. To serve, run small sharp knife around flan to loosen. (I also put some hot water in the sink and let the metal ring mold sit in the hot water for about 30 seconds to loosen the caramel. Don’t let it get inside the mold. You won’t succeed in loosening all of it however. Much of it will remain inside the mold.) Turn over onto plate. Shake gently to release flan. Carefully lift off ramekin allowing caramel syrup to run over flan. Repeat with remaining flans and serve.
Spanish Tortilla And Sorolla

Spanish Tortilla and Sorolla

 If you’ve never had a Spanish tortilla, then dispel any thoughts of the thin, flat disk that’s served with enchiladas and  tacos in Mexico and Central America.

A Spanish tortilla is more closely related to an Italian frittata, but there are differences there too. Whereas a frittata is usually puffy and light from the eggs, a Spanish tortilla is densely filled with potatoes, and the eggs are merely what holds it all together.
A Spanish friend of mine made one for me decades ago, and I never tried to make one myself until a couple of weeks ago, when my book club met over an evening of Spanish tapas and talk.
We gathered (with husbands this time) to talk about “The Telling Room,” a book set in Castile, Spain, about a cheesemaker and a feud over an expensive cheese called Páramo de Guzmán.
Naturally, we had to search for the cheese, and I found it for sale at La Tienda, an online store selling Spanish foods..
It wasn’t made in an artisanal way, as originally created by the protagonist in the book, but as with the original cheese, it’s made from sheep’s milk in the Castile region (Guzmán) of Spain, has a sharp flavor and is preserved in a tin filled with olive oil.
Aside from the tortilla, other Spanish wines and foods filled out the menu for the evening, including olives, garlic shrimp, chorizo, jamon de Serrano, manchego cheese and quince paste, and homemade olive bread.
But back to the tortilla. You start by cooking potatoes and onions in olive oil – a lot of olive oil. Use good quality extra virgin olive oil, since it’s an integral part of this dish. I used extra virgin olive oil from Casale Sonnino, made by my friends George and Claire Treves.
At a certain point, you remove most of the oil and cook the eggs and potatoes together. They will look slightly like scrambled eggs. Keep shaking the pan to prevent sticking on the bottom.
The whole thing goes into the broiler to brown the top, and then gets flipped over.
It’s great eaten hot, warm, or even at room temperature, which is why it makes the perfect do-ahead food for a night of tapas, or to take on a picnic.


We finished the evening with a Spanish flan for dessert, the subject of my next blog post.
But while we’re on the subject of Spain, I must share a few photos with you of the work of a too-little known Spanish artist named Joaquín Sorolla.
His work can be found in Spain, of course, but also at the Hispanic Society of America in New York, a much under appreciated, under visited museum in the northern reaches of Manhattan. The museum was founded in 1904 by the stepson of a railroad magnate, Archer Huntington.
The museum and library contain rare books, letters and documents pertaining to Spanish and Latin American culture, in addition to a stunning collection of decorative arts and paintings.
I have visited the museum several times in the last forty years since first finding out about it, and even though Velazquez, El Greco and other Spanish masters are represented there, I am always mesmerized by the Sorolla paintings.
The photos below are panels from his mural series depicting the various provinces of Spain, painted expressly for the museum in the early part of the last century.
Sorolla is a master of depicting the light, as you can see below in these glorious examples below.
Enjoy the photos, because it’ll be a while before the public can view the real paintings again in person. The museum closed on January 1, 2017 for a two to three year renovation,

A portion of the murals that cover four walls.
Seville: The Dance
Ayamonte – The Tuna Catch
Castile – The Bread Festival
Galicia: The Cattle Fair
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Spanish Tortilla
from Bon Appetit magazine September 2012
printable recipe hereIngredients
8 servings

1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, quartered, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 onion, quartered, thinly sliced
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 large eggs, beaten to blend

Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add potatoes, onion, and salt. Use a heatproof spatula to coat potatoes with oil. When oil begins to bubble, reduce heat to medium low and cook, turning frequently, until potatoes are tender but not browned, 20-25 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer potatoes and onion to a large heatproof bowl. Add eggs and stir gently to combine; do not break up potatoes. Strain oil into a glass measuring cup; wipe out skillet.
Heat 3 tablespoons reserved oil from measuring cup in skillet over medium high heat. Add egg-potato mixture and cook, stirring constantly but gently to keep potatoes intact until eggs begin to set (eggs will look scrambled), about 2 minutes. Spread mixture in an even layer; reduce heat to medium low. Preheat broiler to high. Cook tortilla, shaking pan occasionally to prevent it from sticking, until eggs are nearly cooked through, about 12 minutes. Transfer skillet to oven and broil until top of tortilla is just cooked, about two minutes.
Remove from oven. Invert a large plate over skillet. Using oven mitts (skillet and potatoes will be very hot; use caution), hold plate firmly over skillet and flip, releasing tortilla onto plate. Let sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes and up to 2 hours before serving.

Pandoro Zuppa Inglese And Alkermes

Pandoro Zuppa Inglese and Alkermes

Pandoro is a staple in Italian households at holiday time, along with its cousin, Panettone. Unlike panettone, pandoro has no raisins or candied fruits, and is typically served with a dusting of powdered sugar.

But with all the cakes, cookies, candies and ice cream eaten in our household in the last week, there is still plenty of Pandoro to be eaten.
If you’re like me and have leftover pandoro, here’s a way to use it up – a zuppa inglese – a classic Italian dessert whose name translates to “English soup,” although it’s not at all a soup, but more of an English trifle. The words “pan d’oro” mean golden bread in Italian, and it’s easy to see why once you slice into the egg-rich confection.
Zuppa Inglese is typically made with sponge cake and layers of pastry cream. The cake is usually sprinkled with Alkermes, an aromatic red liqueur that’s used in Italian desserts and as a digestivo.
Recipes for Alkermes date back to the Renaissance, and generally contain a variety of spices including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, along with rose water and other ingredients. Its scarlet red color is derived from a small parasitic insect called kermes, or cochineal. These are parasitic insects growing on paddles of prickly pear cactus in Mexico and Central and South America. They look like a white fungus on the prickly pear paddle, but when when scraped off, give off a brilliant red color. On a trip to Peru earlier this year, I saw the insects first hand, and observed Incan women dying fabric using coloring made from the insects after they were dried and ground.
Here in the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to find alkermes (sometimes spelled alchermes) but the last time I was in Florence, I brought some back from the Santa Maria Novella Farmacia, one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, dating back to 1221, and well worth a visit.
The farmacia has expanded its product line to include perfumes, soaps and other items, but still makes alkermes, using the same recipe since 1743.
The company now has branches all around the world, including one in New York City, but alas, alkermes can’t be bought there.
If you can’t get to Florence, Italy, you can always try making your own alkermes. Francine Segan has a recipe in her book “Dolci,” (using red food coloring, not cochineal insects). Email me if you’d like that recipe. Or use a combination of kirsch and the liquid from maraschino cherries. It won’t taste the same, but it’s a pleasant substitute and it will be the right color.
Anyhow, to assemble the zuppa inglese, make some chocolate pastry cream and some vanilla pastry cream. I “cheated” and used a box of instant chocolate pudding, to which I added some rum, and a box of instant vanilla pudding, to which I added some whipped cream.
Place the chocolate pudding on the bottom of large glass bowl, followed by a layer of the pandoro (or sponge cake or savoiardi biscuits.) Sprinkle the pandoro with the alkermes, then cover with  the vanilla pudding/whipped cream mixture, followed by another layer of pandoro and more alkermes.
Whip some heavy cream, spread it over the layers and top with sprinkles. Grab a spoon and dig in.


For more recipes using pandoro, click here for a Pandoro “Christmas tree”,
 here for a zuppa inglese “alla Napoletana,”
and here for a fruity zuccotto.
Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.
Pandoro Zuppa Inglese with Alkermes
1 large Pandoro cake (or sponge cake or savoiardi biscuits)
1 small box instant chocolate pudding
1/4 cup dark rum
1 small box instant vanilla pudding
1/2 pint whipping cream
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
alkermes (I diluted it slightly with a simple sugar syrup made by boiling some sugar with water)
Mix the packaged instant pudding according to directions on the box (or make pastry cream from scratch.) Add the rum to the chocolate pudding. Whip the 1/2 pint of cream with the sugar, and fold 1 cup of the whipped cream to the vanilla pudding. Save the rest for the top.
Slice the pandoro cake. Place the chocolate pudding on the bottom of a large glass bowl and cover with slices of the pandoro (or sponge cake or savoiardi biscuits.) Sprinkle alkermes on top, then cover with the vanilla pudding. Place more slices of pandoro on top of the vanilla pudding and sprinkle with more alkermes.
Spread the remaining whipped cream on top and decorate with colored sprinkles.
Christmas Snowflake Pasta

Christmas Snowflake Pasta

 During a recent visit to Williams-Sonoma, I spotted bags filled with this snowflake (fiochi di neve) pasta and knew it would be perfect for this holiday season.

  I have a weakness for pasta shapes, and there are always at least five or six different kinds in my cabinet.
There are umpteen ways you could dress this pasta, but I thought it deserved a festive red and green treatment with Christmas just around the corner. Using just what I had in the fridge and freezer (part of a red pepper, half a bag of peas, some ricotta and parmesan cheese), dinner was on the table in the time it took to boil the pasta.
Of course, you can make this recipe with any pasta shape, but the snowflakes are just so apropos for this time of year. If you do use this snowflake pasta, with this recipe or any other (click here to buy it) take a photo and email it to me. I’d love to see your creation.
Buon Natale!

Christmas Snowflake Pasta
printable recipe here
makes two very generous portions

8 ounces (half a bag) snowflake pasta (available from Williams Sonoma)
1/2 to 3/4 of a red pepper (about 1/2 cup), diced
about 3/4 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
salt, pepper to taste
red pepper flakes (optional)
pasta water
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
minced parsley

Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water until almost done. It will cook a little longer in the sauce. While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce. Sauté the onion and pepper at low to medium heat in the olive oil until softened. Add the frozen peas and stir. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes, if desired.
Using a slotted spoon or “spider” tool, drain the pasta right into the pan with the peas and red peppers. It’s ok if some of the pasta water gets into the pan too. In fact, you’ll need to reserve about a cup of the pasta water for this recipe. You may not use all the water – maybe only half of it – but it’s good to have it on hand.
After draining the pasta into the red peppers and peas mixture, add spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese and some of the reserved pasta water. Stir and blend everything together. You want it to be moist, not dry, and you may need to add more pasta water as the pasta continues to absorb it. Keep stirring in the rest of the ricotta and pasta water (at low heat)  until you have the desired consistency – not soupy, but not dry either). Turn off the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese, leaving some to serve at the table. Sprinkle with a little minced parsley and serve.