Spaghetti with Tuna Fish

I don’t know about you, but if you’re trying to avoid contracting the dreaded Coronavirus, you’re taking far fewer jaunts to the supermarket these days.  I’m trying to stretch out my trips to every ten days or more, (and I enter the store donned in a mask and gloves) and that’s mostly to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m sure that even before this health scare, I had enough provisions in my pantry to keep us fed for a couple of weeks — dry beans, pastas, canned tomatoes, rice, canned sardines, tuna and even some canned artichokes are all staples I normally have on hand. I decided to put some of the tuna and pasta to work and make a meatless meal on a Lenten Friday. It’s a recipe that I learned from my Abruzzese mother-in-law decades ago but I hadn’t made in ages. Now seemed just the right time to dust it off, with a few additions of my own. It comes together in the amount of time it takes to boil the pasta, so it’s a great time saver and kids generally love it too. I added scallions and capers to mine, which my mother-in-law never did, but they amp up the flavor quite a bit. You could even add some anchovy if you like, as I saw in a recent New York Times recipe. The recipe is very adaptive to what you have on hand, so don’t make a special trip to the store for anything. If you haven’t got scallions, use minced onion or shallot, or leave them out altogether. I also used a fair amount of parsley and chives that seem to have sprung up overnight in my deck planter. Feel free to substitute and improvise with other herbs if you don’t have those handy. Even dried herbs will work in a pinch.

Mix all the ingredients together while the pasta is boiling, then add the cooked pasta to the pan just before it reaches the al dente stage, along with some pasta water. Stir everything together for another minute or two, adding more water if necessary, to finish the cooking to the al dente stage.

Sprinkle with more fresh herbs just before serving and dig in. Stay healthy readers. And wear a mask if you must go out in public.

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Spaghetti with Tuna
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 6 small scallions (or three large ones)
  • 1 5 oz. can tuna fish, drained
  • two tablespoons capers
  • ¾ cup pasta water, more or less
  • freshly minced chives and parsley
  • a sprinkle of red pepper flakes
  • ½ pound spaghetti or linguini
Instructions
  1. Place the oil in a saucepan and add the garlic and scallions.
  2. Meanwhile, start cooking the pasta.
  3. Sauté until soft, then add the tuna, breaking it up with a fork.
  4. Add the capers, red pepper flakes, half the herbs and about ¼ cup of the pasta water.
  5. Finish cooking the pasta until almost al dente and add the drained pasta nto the pan with the tuna.
  6. It's fine if a little water comes with the pasta since you'll want to add more water anyway.
  7. Add some of the pasta water and swish the pasta thoroughly through the sauce, adding more water if necessary to finish cooking the pasta.
  8. Add the other half of the herbs and serve immediately.
 

 

Pear and Pecorino “Ravioli”

Many years ago, when my daughter was a student in Florence, Italy, she took us to a restaurant called “Quattro Leoni” where I first ate little bundles of pasta wrapped around pear and pecorino cheese. I’ve been wanting to make them at home for years and finally got around to trying, inspired by the restaurant in Florence.

I’ve got time on my hands these days, as many of you do, with so many people quarantined due to the Coronavirus outbreak. I hope and pray that the deaths around the world will soon taper off and stop, especially for Italy, where more people have died from the illness than anywhere else in the world. Meanwhile, stay indoors and keep “social distancing” when you need to go out. Wear a mask if you have one, even if it’s not an N-95. My brother-in-law, who is a leading aerosol scientist in the world and studies movements of aerosols (small airborne particles), says that spray droplets are huge and that almost any cloth should stop them effectively. If you must be in situations where you encounter people, breathe through a cloth covering of some sort. There are many links on Youtube showing how to sew your own mask like this one, even some that don’t require sewing, like this one.

A great stress reliever in these troubling times is pasta making. I won’t give a primer on how to make the pasta, but there are instructions in the recipe below and if you want more detail, click here on how to make homemade pasta. I used “OO” flour from Italy, or you could use a combination of semolina and all-purpose flour. In a pinch, all-purpose flour will do.

My version is slightly different from Quattro Leoni, in both the shape and the sauce. Their’s look more like little purses, but I decided to try shaping mine into these small bundles instead. And their sauce was made with taleggio cheese and asparagus – so delicious but I had neither in the house so used butter, sage and walnuts with a sprinkling of pecorino on top.

After you’ve kneaded the pasta dough, you need to let it rest a half hour, so take that time to make the filling. I used a mixture of pear, pecorino and ricotta cheese, with a little white pepper.

Mix it all together very well.

Dab a teaspoonful onto each 3″ x 3″ square. In the background, you can see I pieced together some strips of pasta so I could make continuous strips without having to knead the scraps back together and roll them out a second time. Each time you roll the pasta, it will get tougher, so try to avoid doing that. Just make sure you wet the edge of the strips so the pasta adheres. You don’t want it separating when you cook it in the boiling water.

To help you shape the pasta into the little bundles, I made this short video with instructions:

The recipe below makes enough for about 20-22 bundles, and I made small “quadretti” with the scraps, to use in some soup.

While the pasta is boiling, put together the sauce by melting some butter, adding sage and chopped walnuts.

Drain the pasta loosely, leaving a little water on each one as you place it directly into the pan. Add more butter and more of the pasta water if you want more sauce, but this was a rich dish and I didn’t feel the need for additional calories.

This serves two people generously as a main meal, and would even be enough for four if you’re serving it as a first course. But if you’re cooking for more people, you can easily double the recipe. Sprinkle grated pecorino on top and enjoy.

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Pear and Pecorino "Ravioli"
 
Author:
Serves: makes about 20-22 ravioli
Ingredients
  • FOR THE PASTA:
  • 1¼ cups flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • FOR THE RAVIOLI STUFFING:
  • 1 cup grated pecorino cheese
  • ½ cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 pear, cut into small dice
  • ¼ tsp. white pepper
  • pinch of salt
  • FOR THE SAUCE:
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • some fresh sage leaves
  • ¼ cup walnuts, chopped
  • fresh pecorino cheese to grate on top
Instructions
  1. FOR THE PASTA:
  2. Put the flour into a food processor, along with the eggs and salt.
  3. Process it for a couple of minutes until the mixture comes together.
  4. If it's too sticky, add more flour. If it doesn't seem to adhere to itself, add a little water.
  5. Knead it on a board for a few minutes, then let it rest for ½ hour, covered.
  6. Roll out the dough, either by hand or in an electric pasta roller.
  7. Don't roll it to the thinnest setting though, or the filling might break through when you're handling it.
  8. Place the dough on a board and cut it into 3 inch squares.
  9. Patch some of the long pieces together so you don't waste the dough, or so that you don't have to re-roll and re-cut it.
  10. The more you handle the dough, the tougher it will get.
  11. Place a teaspoon of the filling in the center and press the edges together, as in the picture, until you have a square shape with the four points meeting at the top center.
  12. Boil gently in water until cooked, which may take 5-8 minutes.
  13. Make the sauce, adding butter to a pan until it melts, then add a few fresh sage leaves and the chopped walnuts.
  14. Remove the ravioli from the water with a strainer, but don't worry if some of the water adheres -- it will help with the sauce.
  15. Gently stir the ravioli in the sauce, tossing them to coat with the butter sauce.
  16. Remove to plates and sprinkle more pecorino cheese on top.
 

 

Focaccia Fun

Are you feeling a bit of cabin fever? With so many across the globe in quarantine due to the dreaded Covid-19 virus, staying at home for an extended time may be a new phenomenon. As much as I like to visit with family and friends, attend movies, concerts and the opera, I love my solitude also, so hunkering down to help flatten out the Coronavirus curve is no problem. When you think about all the people who have died from this illness, self-isolation is a small price to pay.

There’s no excuse for boredom with all the offerings on TV and cable, and plenty of books and music available online. I like to paint and write too, so I’ll have lots of time for those pursuits in the next couple of weeks or however long we need to be cooped up. And here’s a novel thought — maybe you can entice your housemate to help you in the kitchen and make this focaccia. I have to confess my husband didn’t help make this focaccia, but he did all the cleanup afterwards. And that’s good enough for me, in fact better, since I hate to do the dishes.

All you need is some flour and water and yeast (and a little salt and olive oil) to make the basic focaccia. Let it rise for a few hours until doubled in size.

Then press it into a cast iron skillet (or use another oven-proof pan instead) and let it rise slightly again, enough to dimple with your fingers all over.

Use any combination of vegetables and press them into the dough in a decorative design. I used peppers, tomatoes, red onion, olives and the stems of scallions as “stems,” plus a little parsley. Generously sprinkle some coarse salt (like kosher salt) over everything and drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake at 475 degrees for about 15-20 minutes and dig in.

And let’s help out our neighbors and friends who might need a helping hand in grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions during this stressful time. Take precautions and wash your hands frequently. Many restaurants and small businesses are going to have a tough time staying afloat during this crisis. A lot of them in my town are allowing you to call in an order and pay by credit card, then pick-up your order at the curb. So do your part and order some take-out, buy some wine or a loaf of bread from your local merchant. You know what to do.

Click here to connect with me on Instagram and find out what Ciao Chow Linda is up to in the kitchen (and other places too.)

Focaccia Fun
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 t. dry yeast (about ½ package)
  • ½ t. sugar
  • 2 cups flour (I used bread flour but regular all-purpose flour is ok too)
  • ¾ t. salt
  • ¾ cups warm water (between 105 and 110 degrees)
  • olive oil to drizzle on top
  • coarse, or kosher salt for the top
  • vegetables to decorate top (I used small peppers, red onions, olives, cherry tomatoes, scallions and parsley)
Instructions
  1. Dissolve the yeast in about ¼ cup water and add a tsp. of sugar to help get it started.
  2. The temperature of the water is very important.
  3. It should be between 105 and 110 degrees.
  4. I use a meat thermometer to get the right temperature.
  5. Too cold and it takes forever for the dough to rise. Too hot and you kill the yeast.
  6. After the yeast has sat in the small bit of water and sugar, it should start to bubble up in about five minutes.
  7. Mix it with the flour, the rest of the water and the salt.
  8. You can use a food processor or just mix it by hand in a bowl until it’s all blended.
  9. Add more flour or water if needed.
  10. Knead for about five minutes, then place in a greased bowl and cover it with a dish towel, plastic wrap or a large plate.
  11. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled.
  12. This could take a couple of hours.
  13. Punch down the dough and spread in a cast iron skillet if you have one.
  14. If not, just make a free-form circle and use a cookie sheet.
  15. Let it sit for about five minutes in the pan, then use your fingers to dimple the top.
  16. Decorate with vegetables over the top in any design you like.
  17. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt.
  18. Bake in a preheated 475 degree oven for about 15 minutes-20 minutes.
  19. Check to see the bottom is browned and if not, move it to the lowest rack in your oven.
  20. If not browned enough, move it to the highest rack in the oven.
 

 

Delizia al Limone

Delizia al limone is one of those desserts I can’t resist when I see it on a menu. Occasionally, I’ll spot it at the pastry counter of D’Angelo’s — an Italian specialty food store here in Princeton, N.J. But otherwise, it’s not easy to find, even at Italian restaurants in New York City. It’s such a regional dessert that even in Italy, you’re not likely to see it unless you’re in Naples or other towns in the Campania region of Italy, where lemon trees are as commonplace as a handsome ragazzo on a Vespa. I’ve been wanting to try for years to make it home but never got around to it until recently. Once you try it, you’ll see why it’s such a beloved dessert in Southern Italy — a sponge cake soaked with a limoncello syrup, stuffed with a lemon cream, then covered with a thinned-out drizzle of lemon cream. It’s so lemony and irresistible, but to be frank, it’s very laborious to make.

I followed a recipe on Manu’s Menu. You need to have these semi-spherical molds to achieve the proper look of the Delizie. This recipe made only enough for eight little “cakelets” — not nearly enough for all the work required, in my opinion. If I make it again (a big “if”), I would double the recipe for the sponge cakes.

I would also take a few shortcuts – like buying lemon curd rather than making it from scratch. Same goes for the lemon crema pasticcera. So much can go wrong as you’re making either of these two ingredients, including curdling (which didn’t happen to me, since I stood over the pot stirring constantly, but easily could have.) Instead, I would use a package of instant vanilla pudding, flavored with lemon juice and lemon peel, and add some homemade whipped cream to the pudding to create the lemon crema pasticcera.

There were so many steps to follow, so many bowls and pots to wash, that this recipe became a half-day project. Have I discouraged you completely? Well, I hope not, especially if you take the short cuts I suggested.

My friends in the weekly Italian chit-chat group loved these little lemon delights. If you’re like me and love lemon desserts, maybe you’ll give it a try. You’ll feel like you’re back in Capri – before the Coronavirus hit. Wash your hands and stay safe everyone.

Click here to connect with me on Instagram and find out what Ciao Chow Linda is up to in the kitchen (and other places too.)

Delizia al Limone
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • SPONGE (CAKE)
  • 150 gms – 3 large eggs divided
  • 90 gms – ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 40 gms – 1 ½ oz. all-purpose flour
  • 25 gms – 8 tsp cornstarch
  • 25 gms – ¼ cup almond meal
  • ½ lemon peel grated
  • ½ vanilla pod
  • 1 pinch salt
  • LEMON CREAM
  • 40 gms – 2 egg yolks
  • 40 gms – 1 ½ oz. sugar
  • 1 or 2 lemons
  • 40 gms – 1 ½ oz. butter
  • LEMON CREMA PASTICCERA
  • 180 gms – ¾ cup milk
  • 80 gms + 30 gms – 3 oz. + 1 oz. cream
  • 80 gms – 4 egg yolks
  • 60 gms – ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 15 gms – 5 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 lemon
  • ⅓ vanilla pod
  • LIMONCELLO SYRUP
  • 30 gms – 1 oz.water
  • 30 gms – 1 oz. granulated sugar
  • 50 gms – 1 ¾ oz. Limoncello
  • ½ lemon
  • GLAZE
  • Remaining Lemon Cream
  • Remaining Lemon Crema Pasticcera
  • 60 gms – ⅓ cup milk
  • 125 gms– ½ cup cream whipped and lightly sweetned
  • 30 gms – 1 oz. Limoncello
Instructions
  1. SPONGE (cake)
  2. Beat the egg yolks with 40 gms – 1 ½ oz. of the sugar, grated lemon peel and scraped vanilla until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the almond meal and mix well.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining sugar and a pinch of salt.
  5. Mix together the cornstarch and flour and then sift it into the egg yolk mixture, alternating with additions of the beaten egg whites.
  6. Make sure to fold these in gently, so as not to deflate them.
  7. Grease and coat with flour some semisphere tins and fill them till ¾ with the batter.
  8. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 170°C – 340°F for 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
  9. When ready, unmould them and keep them on a wire rack to cool down.
  10. LEMON CREAM
  11. Grate the peel of the lemon and then juice it.
  12. Put the grated peel in a bowl with the lemon juice and keep it to infuse for 20 minutes.
  13. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale and then add 40 gms – 1 ½ oz. of the lemon juice and grated peel.
  14. Keep mixing.
  15. Put this mixture on a slow flame and cook it, while continuously stirring, until it reaches 80°C – 176°F.
  16. Then remove from the fire and put the pot in a double boiler filled with cold water. Blend it with a stick mixer until smooth.
  17. Let it cool down to 50°C – 122°F, then add the chopped butter and keep blending until smooth.
  18. Cover it with cling wrap (make sure that the cling wrap touches the surface of the cream so a skin doesn’t form) and refrigerate it until completely cold.
  19. LEMON CREMA PASTICCERA
  20. In a pot put the milk, cream, lemon peel, and scraped vanilla bean and bring to a boil.
  21. Then put the fire off, let it infuse for 1 hour and then filter it.
  22. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar, cornstach and salt until pale.
  23. Then slowly add the filtered milk.
  24. Cook this mixture until it reaches 82°C – 180°F, then cover the cream with cling wrap (make sure that the cling wrap touches the surface of the cream so a skin doesn’t form) and refrigerate it until completely cold.
  25. LIMONCELLO SYRUP
  26. Dissolve the sugar in the water and add the lemon peel.
  27. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Put the fire off and let it get back to room temperature. Then filter it and add the Limoncello.
  28. ASSEMBLING
  29. Mix together the Lemon Cream and the Lemon Crema Pasticcera (make sure they are both cold). Add 30 gms – 1 oz. of Limoncello and 30 gms – 1 oz. of sweetened whipped cream and mix well.
  30. Put this cream in a piping bag and fill the sponge cakes by making a little hole at the bottom (you can use a knife to make the hole and then pipe in the cream).
  31. Try and fill them as much as possible. Reserve the remaining cream.
  32. Using a toothpick, prick the sponges on all sides and brush them with the Limoncello syrup.
  33. To the remaining cream, add 125 gms – ½ cup of sweetend whipped cream and 60 gms – ⅓ cup of milk to make the thick glaze.
  34. Cover the delizie with the glaze and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
  35. When ready to serve, decorate with some whipped cream and lemon zests.
 

 

Crispy Cheesy Pan Pizza

I’m partial to Neapolitan pizza, but when I saw this on King Arthur Flour’s website as its “recipe of the year” I was more than a little intrigued. The company has one of the best websites for recipes anywhere, and I have found that their recipes always produce optimum results. This may resemble a thick crust Sicilian pizza, or maybe you’re thinking Chicago deep-dish pizza. But it’s nothing like either of those. The dough, although thick, is not at all dense due to the long rising time overnight in the refrigerator. In fact, it’s quite light and easily digestible. It’s a snap to bake at home in a cast iron skillet, a technique that produces a crunchy bottom and side crust that crackles when you bite into it. It uses only a half cup of tomato sauce, which gets dolloped on after you’ve spread a layer of mozzarella cheese, ensuring that the dough doesn’t become soggy.

If you’ve made no-knead bread before, this procedure will seem familiar to you. You can check out the King Arthur page for more explicit photos on how to handle the dough (it’s easy).

Leave the dough in the refrigerator anywhere from 12 hours minimum to 72 hours maximum, allowing the dough to develop flavor and great texture. It also gives you lots of flexibility in case your plans change at the last minute and you want to save the baking for the next day. When you are ready to get down to business, just press the risen dough into an oiled cast iron skillet. It does require proper timing and close attention on the day you bake it and the directions seem long, but if you read through them before starting, and follow them exactly, it’s really easy to make.

Spread the grated mozzarella cheese thoroughly all over the dough, all the way to the edges, to get that crispy, crunchy, cheese-y top. Then dollop the tomato sauce on top, (sorry, no photo for that step but check out the King Arthur website) and add the rest of the mozzarella cheese. I also sprinkled a little grated pecorino cheese over everything for a sharper tang. You could add other toppings if you like as well, but don’t get too carried away or you’ll weigh down the dough too much.

When you remove it from the oven, you won’t be able to resist digging into it right away. It pulls away from the pan easily, and you could even slide it out of the pan onto a plate or board for slicing.

Or not. We couldn’t wait to dig in, so we sliced it right in the pan.

We could have eaten the whole pie by ourselves, but used a bit of restraint and saved half for another night. It could serve four for dinner, with a salad or soup on the side. Or it would make a great appetizer, sliced into smaller pieces and served with some drinks before dinner. It may even have you forgetting all about that Neapolitan pizza you thought was your favorite!

Click here to connect with me on Instagram and find out what Ciao Chow Linda is up to in the kitchen (and other places too.)

Crispy Cheesy Pan Pizza
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 2 cups (240g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon instant yeast or active dry yeast
  • ¾ cup (170g) lukewarm water (I had to use almost ¼ cup more water but it depends on the humidity/dryness of the day)
  • 1 tablespoon (13g) olive oil + 1½ tablespoons (18g) olive oil for the pan
  • TOPPING:
  • 6 ounces (170g) mozzarella, grated (about 1¼ cups, loosely packed)*
  • ⅓ to ½ cup (74g to 113g) tomato sauce or pizza sauce, homemade or store-bought
  • freshly grated hard cheese and fresh herbs for sprinkling on top after baking, optional*
Instructions
  1. Weigh your flour; or measure it by gently spooning it into a cup, then sweeping off any excess.
  2. Place the flour, salt, yeast, water, and 1 tablespoon (13g) of the olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer or other medium-large mixing bowl.
  3. Stir everything together to make a shaggy, sticky mass of dough with no dry patches of flour. This should take 30 to 45 seconds in a mixer using the beater paddle; or about 1 minute by hand, using a spoon or spatula. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to gather the dough into a rough ball; cover the bowl.
  4. After 5 minutes, uncover the bowl and reach a bowl scraper or your wet hand down between the side of the bowl and the dough, as though you were going to lift the dough out. Instead of lifting, stretch the bottom of the dough up and over its top.
  5. Repeat three more times, turning the bowl 90° each time.
  6. This process of four stretches, which takes the place of kneading, is called a fold.
  7. Re-cover the bowl, and after 5 minutes do another fold.
  8. Wait 5 minutes and repeat; then another 5 minutes, and do a fourth and final fold.
  9. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest, undisturbed, for 40 minutes.
  10. Then refrigerate it for a minimum of 12 hours, or up to 72 hours.
  11. It'll rise slowly as it chills, developing flavor; this long rise will also add flexibility to your schedule.
  12. About 3 hours before you want to serve your pizza, prepare your pan.
  13. Pour 1½ tablespoons (18g) olive oil into a well-seasoned cast iron skillet that’s 10” to 11” diameter across the top, and about 9” across the bottom.
  14. Heavy, dark cast iron will give you a superb crust; but if you don’t have it, use another oven-safe heavy-bottomed skillet of similar size, or a 10” round cake pan or 9” square pan.
  15. Tilt the pan to spread the oil across the bottom, and use your fingers or a paper towel to spread some oil up the edges, as well.
  16. Transfer the dough to the pan and turn it once to coat both sides with the oil.
  17. After coating the dough in oil, press the dough to the edges of the pan, dimpling it using the tips of your fingers in the process.
  18. The dough may start to resist and shrink back; that’s OK, just cover it and let it rest for about 15 minutes, then repeat the dimpling/pressing.
  19. At this point the dough should reach the edges of the pan; if it doesn’t, give it one more 15-minute rest before dimpling/pressing a third and final time.
  20. Cover the crust and let it rise for 2 hours at room temperature.
  21. The fully risen dough will look soft and pillowy and will jiggle when you gently shake the pan.
  22. About 30 minutes before baking, place one rack at the bottom of the oven and one toward the top (about 4" to 5" from the top heating element).
  23. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
  24. When you’re ready to bake the pizza, sprinkle about three-quarters of the mozzarella (a scant 1 cup) evenly over the crust.
  25. Cover the entire crust, no bare dough showing; this will yield caramelized edges.
  26. Dollop small spoonfuls of the sauce over the cheese; laying the cheese down first like this will prevent the sauce from seeping into the crust and making it soggy.
  27. Sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella.
  28. Bake the pizza on the bottom rack of the oven for 18 to 20 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the bottom and edges of the crust are a rich golden brown (use a spatula to check the bottom).
  29. If the bottom is brown but the top still seems pale, transfer the pizza to the top rack and bake for 2 to 4 minutes longer.
  30. On the other hand, if the top seems fine but the bottom's not browned to your liking, leave the pizza on the bottom rack for another 2 to 4 minutes.
  31. Home ovens can vary a lot, so use the visual cues and your own preferences to gauge when you’ve achieved the perfect bake.
  32. Remove the pizza from the oven and place the pan on a heatproof surface.
  33. Carefully run a table knife or spatula between the edge of the pizza and side of the pan to prevent the cheese from sticking as it cools.
  34. Let the pizza cool very briefly; as soon as you feel comfortable doing so, carefully transfer it from the pan to a cooling rack or cutting surface. This will prevent the crust from becoming soggy.
  35. Serve the pizza anywhere from medium-hot to warm. Kitchen shears or a large pair of household scissors are both good tools for cutting this thick pizza into wedges.
 

Black Forest Cake with Birchbark Decoration

I confess. I went off my diet to enjoy two — no, make that three —  slices of this cake. And there’s still a quarter of the cake left. I’ve made it twice now — once for Christmas, when we had a big crowd that consumed all of it. And I made it again last week, when it was just the two of us. But don’t judge – I sliced off a quarter of this cake and took it to my 90+ year-old neighbors to help them celebrate Valentine’s Day. Studded with cherries and hugged by a white chocolate birch bark, this cake would also be perfect to celebrate the upcoming birthday of George Washington – the first president of the U.S.A. who legend says chopped down a cherry tree as a young boy.  You don’t have to embellish it with the chocolate birch bark if you want to make it easy on yourself. Just serve it with the whipped cream frosting and everyone will love it just the same. The cake recipe is from “Alice’s Tea Cup” cookbook, but it’s practically the same as the Hershey’s recipe I’ve been using for decades. Alice’s Tea Cup recipe calls for 1/4 cup sour cream, and I didn’t have it on hand, so substituted plain Greek yogurt instead. The cake is very forgiving and even without the sour cream or yogurt, it’s a delicious cake with a beautiful crumb.

Just a word of caution before baking however. The first time I made this, I put all three cake pans in the oven at once — not a good idea since they came out lopsided. The next time, I baked each cake layer one at a time and it was much more even. When you’re assembling the cake, you could eliminate the liqueur soaking each layer if you’re serving it to young children. But in my opinion, the liqueur adds so much flavor and it’s dispersed enough even for children to handle. I used about 1/2 cup of Cherry Marnier for the three layers, but next time, I’ll increase it to 3/4 cup. If you don’t have Cherry Marnier (I finally finished the bottle I’ve had for more than 40 years), substitute with kirsch or brandy.

The first time I made this, I used amarena cherries from Italy (my favorite), but they are a bit expensive to use in such quantity. This time I bought some jarred pitted cherries that were just fine. After you’ve soaked the layer in liqueur, spread the whipped cream in abundance and dot it with the cherries. Repeat with the second layer, then top with the third layer.

Smear whipped cream all over the sides and top. If you plan to decorate with the white chocolate birch bark, (and I do encourage you to do so. It makes quite a statement.) the perimeter doesn’t have to be perfect since it will be completely covered. Just make sure you have enough whipped cream to help the chocolate pieces adhere.

Making the birch bark is simple. First use a paint brush to “paint” melted dark chocolate marks across a piece of parchment paper. The area you cover in chocolate should be as tall as the finished cake with all the layers and frosting, and slightly wider than the circumference of the cake. After you’ve made the dark chocolate marks, let the chocolate harden. Then melt the white chocolate and let it cool before spreading over the dark chocolate with an offset spatula (I dripped some over the dark chocolate first before spreading with the spatula). This part can be tricky if the temperature isn’t just right. If you spread the white chocolate while it’s warm, or worse yet, while it’s hot, it will melt the dark chocolate and smear it. A little smearing is fine, but you don’t want to lose the characteristic look of the birch bark. If you wait until it’s too cold, the white chocolate will harden and you’ll have a hard time spreading it. I got the idea from “The Cake Girls” – and you might want to check out these directions before trying.

Let the white chocolate bark cool completely. Put it in the refrigerator if your room is too hot. Then slice or break off pieces to use for the decoration. Don’t worry if some of them break in two or three pieces. You can always patch some together on the cake.

I finished it off by piping some whipped cream rosettes on the top. But even that is not necessary if you don’t have the right equipment. Everyone will love it just the same.

Including my husband, who by now has shown remarkable (and uncharacteristic) self-restraint by eating only one slice a day of this cake. As for me, don’t ask. Because unlike George Washington, I may have to tell a lie.

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Black Forest Cake with Birchbark Decoration
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspooon kosher salt
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup hot brewed coffee
  • FOR THE FILLING AND FROSTING:
  • 2½ cups whipping cream
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • a jar of sour cherries in liquid (drained), or amarena cherries in syrup (use as many as you like. I didn't measure but I think I used about 1 cup total)
  • ¾ cup liqueur (Kirsch, or cherry marnier, or brandy)
  • FOR THE BIRCH BARK DECORATION:
  • 12 ounces white chocolate
  • a couple of ounces of dark or milk chocolate
Instructions
  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans.
  2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl.
  3. Add eggs (one at a time), sour cream, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes.
  4. Slowly drizzle in hot coffee, mixing until the batter is blended. Batter will be thin.
  5. Pour batter into prepared pans.
  6. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of cake comes out clean.
  7. Cool completely before removing from pan and frosting.
  8. FOR THE FILLING AND FROSTING:
  9. Whip the cream with the confectioner's sugar, adding a little at a time, until peaks form.
  10. Be careful not to whip too much or you'll end up with butter!
  11. Take one layer of the cakes and sprinkle generously with the syrup.
  12. Spread some of the whipped cream on top, and dot throughout with the cherries.
  13. Repeat with the second layer.
  14. Add the top layer and spread the remaining whipped cream on the top and sides.
  15. FOR THE BIRCH BARK DECORATION:
  16. Melt the dark chocolate, either at low heat in a double boiler or in the microwave.
  17. Using a paint brush, brush marks on a long piece of parchment paper, using a measurement that's slightly taller than the three cakes would be with the frosting, and a bit wider than the circumference of the cakes.
  18. Let the dark chocolate cool, then melt the white chocolate, being careful not to overheat, or will "seize" on you. If this happens, try adding more white chocolate, off the heat, and stir vigorously.
  19. Alternately, add a small amount of boiling water, one teaspoon at a time, stirring into the white chocolate.
  20. Let the white chocolate cool, then spread over the dark chocolate.
  21. This can be tricky because if you spread it while it's still warm, it will melt the dark chocolate and you'll lose the characteristic marks of the birch tree. But if you let it cool too much, it will harden and be difficult to spread.
  22. Let the white chocolate cool completely (I put mine in the refrigerator), then cut large chunks of it, and press them against the sides of the cake.
  23. If some of the pieces break off, just patch them by pressing into the sides of the cake.
 

Barley, Pomegranate and Orange Salad

While searching for a recipe to serve at my recent book group dinner, where the book was set in Israel, I naturally thought of  Yotam Ottolenghi, the pre-eminent Israeli chef whose cookbooks (and restaurants in London) are a treasure trove of Middle Eastern cooking.  I was surprised to find a salad using bulgur, since I associated the grain mostly with soups. Since pomegranates are a favorite of mine, the recipe was calling my name. Although not included in Ottolenghi’s recipe, I felt the urge to add the oranges — both blood oranges and cara cara oranges — since they were in season and added more color and flavor. The celery leaves are crucial in this recipe, and unfortunately most celery in supermarkets has scant leaves. If you’re lucky enough to find a locally grown bunch of celery, you’ll more likely to find leaves on the ends of the stalks. But even with the supermarket celery, I managed to pluck enough leaves to add to the recipe. This salad is delicious even several days after making it, so keep it in mind for a do-ahead recipe to take to a party.

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Barley Salad
 
Recipe adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's book "Plenty"
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 cup pearl barley
  • 6 celery stalks (leaves picked and reserved), cut into dice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 2 small garlic cloves, crushed
  • ⅔ teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt, black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chopped dill
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • ½ cup pomegranate seeds
  • sections from 2 oranges (I used one cara cara and one blood orange)
Instructions
  1. Cook the barley according to package directions.
  2. Usually, it is simply placed in a pot and covered with water, then boiled for about 30 minutes.
  3. Drain the barley and transfer to a mixing bowl.
  4. Add the celery, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, allspice and salt and pepper.
  5. Stir, then leave to cool completely.
  6. When it's cool, add the herbs, celery leaves, pomegranate seeds and orange sections.
  7. Squeeze the juice from the remaining pulpy part of the orange that's left into the bowl and mix.
  8. Serve.
 

Halibut with oranges and salsa verde

In an effort to eat more low calorie foods and lose some weight before dress shopping for my daughter’s wedding, I have been trying to cut back on the pizza, pasta and pastries and focus on fish, fruit and flavors. (I am constantly sabotaging myself and Superbowl Sunday party foods didn’t help.) Since it’s citrus season, and I can’t seem to get enough of those luscious cara cara oranges and blood oranges, I combined them with a fish that I love to order when eating out — halibut. It’s always so expensive at the fish market, making it a relative bargain on a restaurant menu. But I couldn’t resist buying some when I saw it on sale last week, and a 3/4 pound piece was enough for the two of us. It provided the perfect foil for the oranges and the salsa verde. It couldn’t be much simpler to cook either. Just dry the fish thoroughly, sprinkle with salt and white pepper and place it skin side down in a hot skillet coated with oil. I didn’t use olive oil here since the heat is cranked way up, but rather chose canola oil. You could use peanut or safflower oil, which also have a high smoking point. The skin will start to crisp up, and eventually loosen from the pan. After about five minutes, lower the temperature of the burner.

You could flip the fish over and finish cooking on the other side, or even easier, just leave it skin side down and cover with a lid. It should finish cooking in just a couple of minutes.

While the fish is cooking (or before you even start cooking the fish), make the salsa verde, by finely mincing the parsley, dill, onion, capers and jalapeño. The jalapeño is optional, but I had some candied jalapeño in the pantry and I thought they would add a nice “zip” to the salsa.

Scatter the orange sections and salsa all around the fish.

Serve with some rice and vegetables for a colorful, healthy and easy to prepare dinner that’s fit for company or just you and your partner.

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Halibut with oranges and salsa verde
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • ¾ lb. - 1 lb. halibut
  • 2 tablespoons canola, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil with a high smoking point
  • 2 oranges sectioned into supremes (I used one cara cara and one blood orange)
  • FOR THE SALSA VERDE:
  • ½ cup finely minced parsley
  • ½ cup finely minced dill
  • a couple of tablespoons finely minced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • a couple of slices of candied or fresh jalapeno (optional)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • salt, pepper
  • juice that remains in the oranges after sectioning
Instructions
  1. Let the halibut sit on the counter for about a half hour to let it reach a temperature closer to the room temperature.
  2. It will cook more evenly if it's not cold from the refrigerator.
  3. Dry the piece (or pieces) of fish, then sprinkle with salt and white pepper.
  4. Heat the oil in a skillet, then add the fish, skin side down.
  5. Cook at high heat until the skin starts to loosen from the pan.
  6. (Be patient - It will take five minutes or so and it will splatter a lot of oil on your stove).
  7. At this point, lower the heat slightly, and put a lid on the pan to finish cooking.
  8. It should take only a couple of minutes to finish cooking.
  9. While the fish is cooking, section the oranges and make the salsa verde.
  10. For the salsa, combine all the ingredients and stir with a fork.
  11. Remove the halibut from the pan, drizzle the salsa on the fish and around the sides, and scatter the orange sections all around.
 

Lusciously moist chocolate chip banana loaf

I know most of you are familiar with banana bread, but I refuse to call it that. It’s not bread folks. With butter, sour cream, eggs, sugar and more, it’s really cake. So why does everyone call it banana bread? And more irritating, why do I sometimes find it in the bread basket on restaurant tables, when what I really want with my steak dinner is a good baguette or crusty piece of Italian bread.

This recipe is from a website cooked Cookies and Cups  and it’s referred to as “The Best Chocolate Chip Banana Bread Recipe.” While it’s pretty darn delicious, another pet peeve of mine is when recipes are referred to as “the best” or “world’s best.” I mean, come on, have you really tasted every single recipe for that particular dish that’s out there? But enough kvetching. I guess that class decades ago at Columbia Journalism School with Judith Crist critiquing (no, savaging) my work taught me and my classmates how to write without hyperbole. Moreover, years of working in a newsroom with editors breathing down your neck also forced me to write “just the facts, ma’am” (except the editors weren’t so kind in their comments.) But I digress.

What I can honestly say though, is this is the best chocolate chip banana bread/cake/loaf I’ve ever eaten. My decades-old version of this recipe is getting the heave-ho to make room for this one. And you may feel the same way if you give this a try.

It’s simple to make using just a bowl and a wooden spoon to mix. It contains both butter and sour cream, and in addition to the mashed bananas, it uses thinly sliced bananas, making for one moist cake. Make sure your bananas are really ripe — dark brown and ready-for-the-trash can ripe. You’ll get the most intense flavor that way.

After lining the pan with some parchment paper and pouring in the batter, sprinkle with some additional chocolate chips. And use the mini chips, since the large ones have a tendency to sink to the bottom.

Bake it for at least an hour (it took 65 minutes for mine to cook completely), slice and enjoy. It’s especially good when warm, but the next day it’s even better since the flavors have had time to meld.

You could omit the chocolate chips and the walnuts too, if you like, and you’ll still be left with one delicious banana bread, er, loaf, or cake or whatever. It may even be the world’s best. But I doubt you’ll hear that from me.

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Chocolate chip banana loaf
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 3 medium bananas, divided
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1½ cups all purpose flour
  • ½ cup mini chocolate chips (and more to sprinkle on top)
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Spray a 9×5 loaf pan with nonstick spray. Line the bottom and up the short sides with a strip of parchment paper. Spray again with nonstick spray.
  3. Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl mash 2 of the bananas with a fork, leaving them slightly lumpy.
  5. Slice the remaining banana thinly, and set aside.
  6. In a large bowl stir together the butter and sugar.
  7. Mix in the eggs and vanilla and stir until smooth. Add the sour cream, mashed bananas, baking soda, and salt, and stir until blended.
  8. Next mix in the flour until incorporated.
  9. Fold in the chocolate chips, walnuts, and sliced banana.
  10. Pour batter into the prepared pan - sprinkle with a few more chocolate chips -- and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (mine took 65 minutes to completely cook)
  11. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, and then using the parchment paper as handles, carefully lift the banana bread out of the pan to cool on a wire rack.
 

Pot Roast with porcini mushrooms and onions

It all started with a bottle of wine — well, two to be exact. A good friend of my husband’s — who owns an extensive wine cellar — sent us a surprise gift of two bottles of Brunello di Montalcino. He knew we had been in Montalcino a couple of years ago, where we had enjoyed wines from the Caparzo vineyard, so he wanted to repay some hospitality with a bottle of the 2013 and the 1990 vintage. We couldn’t wait to crack open the older vintage first. But I knew I needed to accompany it with a meal worthy of this 30 year-old wine. I had some dried porcini mushrooms I had bought in Italy waiting to be used, so I decided to incorporate them into a rich pot roast.

Start by dusting the meat (mine was a chuck roast that weighed 2 1/2 pounds) with flour, salt and pepper, and browning it in olive oil. Then remove it from the pan.

Add the onions and sauté them in the oil that remains in the pan. They’ll add a sweetness and richness to the dish. While the onions were cooking, I soaked the porcini in water.

The onions reduced considerably and turned a golden color. Those browned bits on the bottom of the pan will add lots of flavor too, once the liquid is poured in and everything has a chance to blend together.

Place the browned meat back into the pan and add the liquids, plus the seasonings — bay leaf, herbs de Provence, salt and pepper.

Place a lid on the pot and put it in a preheated 350 degree oven. Let it cook for two hours, checking it every once in a while.

Remove the meat from the liquid. If you have time to let it cool, let it sit for a half hour. It’s not necessary, but it makes it easier to slice. If you want, you can place the platter in the microwave to reheat it, then add the hot porcini and onion sauce to ensure it’s piping hot when served.

Sprinkle with some minced parsley and serve more sauce on the side.

We drank the wine with our pot roast dinner, accompanied by sweet and sour cabbage, mashed potatoes and carrots. I think we did the 1990 vintage justice. Now onto the 2013!

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Pot Roast with porcini mushrooms and onions
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 2½-3 pound chuck roast, dusted with flour, salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1½ large onions, sliced (about 3 cups sliced onions)
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, crushed
  • ½ cup dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated in 1½ cups water for about ½ hour
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup red wine
  • a few fresh bay leaves (use dried if fresh unavailable)
  • 1 teaspoon herbs de Provence
  • salt, pepper
Instructions
  1. In a heavy Dutch oven, add the olive oil and bring to a medium to high heat.
  2. Dust some flour, salt and pepper on all sides of the chuck roast, shaking off any excess.
  3. Place the meat into the pan with the olive oil and brown all around.
  4. Remove the meat to a platter.
  5. Turn the heat lower and add the sliced onions, cooking them until they caramelize.
  6. Add the crushed garlic and cook for a minute or two, then return the meat to the pan.
  7. Add the red wine, beef broth, the mushrooms and the liquid from the mushrooms.
  8. Add the bay leaves, herbs de Provence, salt and pepper.
  9. Place a lid on the pan, then place it on the middle rack of a 350 degree preheated oven for two hours, checking every once in a while to make sure the meat is immersed in liquid.
  10. After removing the pan from the oven, gently take the meat out of the pan and onto a platter.
  11. This step is not necessary, but it makes for easier slicing, especially if the meat has rested at least a half hour.
  12. Reheat the sauce to make sure it's piping hot, then pour some of the porcinis and sauce over the meat and serve the rest of the sauce on the side.
  13. Sprinkle with a little minced parsley for garnish.