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Italian Gals Cookie Exchange

Over the years, I’ve whittled my Christmas cookie baking to two or three types. Fortunately, I know I can count on my father’s wife to bring me a tin of pizzelle and my friend Lilli to bake me some of her almond paste cookies. But this year, I can add three more types of cookies to my cookie tray, thanks to a cookie exchange with three of my favorite Italian food bloggers, – Adri, Domenica and Marie.
We started our first annual “Italian Gals Cookie Exchange,” baking cookies and shipping them to each other at our homes across the United States – from  California and Illinois to Virginia and New Jersey.  Who says you have to live in the same town to have a cookie exchange?
The arrivals were greatly anticipated and felt like an early Christmas present.  The first two arrived on the same day, including Domenica’s delicious cranberry hazelnut biscotti, one of the recipes that will be included in the newest cookbook she’s written, about to be released in March, called “Ciao Biscotti.”
 Adri’s heavenly three-nut fingers came in a tin beautifully lined in striped tissue paper, with each pair of cookies individually delicately wrapped inside its own waxed paper envelope. The buttery cookies, with almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, just melted in the mouth.
And the reputation for Marie’s legendary cucidati preceded the actual cookies. I’ve been reading about them for years, since she makes hundreds of them each Christmas and I’ve been so anxious to try them. They were every bit as delicious as what I had expected and brought back memories of Christmases with my late husband’s Aunt Jenny, who baked a similar version.
 My contribution were these chocolate-y, spicy cookies that my mother made each Christmas when I was growing up. She called them “brownies” but they’re nothing like American brownies, except for the chocolate. In addition to the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, there’s another unexpected spice that gives them a zing. For me, they’re a taste of my childhood and it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. The recipe, adapted from Alfred Portale, is listed below, but you can see step by step photos of how to make them on a post I wrote here, shortly after I started the blog in 2008. They’re actually based on a Sicilian cookie called either “tutu” or “toto,” according to reports I received from readers. Sometimes they’re even referred to as “Meatball cookies.” I think you can see why.
 Also included on the plate below are a couple of “intorchiate,” a cookie I wrote about in my last blog post.
I hope we four bloggers continue to maintain this tradition each year, and that we have inspired you to start your own cookie exchange, whether you live close to your friends, or far away. Just make sure to bake cookies that aren’t too fragile so they won’t break during shipment, and to keep it to a maximum of two dozen cookies and four people. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot on shipping and you’ll be baking until la Befana comes home on January 6.
In the meantime, Buon Natale and best wishes for a wonderful 2015 to all my readers. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog through the year and for those of you who leave comments, an extra bacione.



Cocoa Christmas Cookies
or Italian “Brownies”


printable recipe here
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 1/2 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup milk
2 cups chocolate chips

If using raisins and walnuts as Portale did, add 1 1/2 cups of each

glaze:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, black pepper. Combine and set aside.
2. With a heavy duty mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in vanilla, jam, and milk. Set mixer to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating only until it is incorporated. Add the chocolate chips. The batter will be extremely stiff.
3. Place a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter and flour it generously. Take a large spoon and scoop out a couple of heaping cups of the stiff batter onto the floured surface. Use a spoon to release it if needed. Flour your hands well and begin to shape the batter into a log shape, about an inch in diameter, rolling it back and forth on the floured surface. Use the paper to help mold it. Place the “logs” into the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
4. Remove from refrigerator and cut into sections about 1 1/2 inches wide. You can leave it this shape, or roll it between the palms of your hand into a flattened ball, which is the traditional shape.
5. Place balls on a parchment-lined or greased and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The tops will crack – this is normal. Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool. Cover with the glaze when completely cooled.
For the glaze:

Mix sifted confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until the desired consistency. I make mine almost like a frosting rather than a glaze, which means you’ll need to add more sugar. If you prefer yours to be more of a drizzle, adjust with more lemon juice.

This recipe makes about 6 to 7 dozen cookies and they freeze well. Just make sure the glaze is dry before putting them in the freezer. They will get hard if you leave them at for more than a week.

Making Corzetti with Dad

It’s pasta time with Dad again – this time with corzetti – beautiful round disks of dough made using a hand carved wooden implement created by Artisanal Pasta Tools in Sonoma California. The one I used has a lovely design of clusters of grapes, but there are many patterns to choose from.  Mine arrived in the mail one day, totally unexpected, as a gift from my friend and fellow blogger – “corzetti queen” Adri Barr Crocetti. She writes a fabulous food blog, loaded with great recipes and thorough research on Italian food.  Her beautiful photos are always so artfully composed and expertly shot. 

She has written exhaustively about corzetti and you can find her posts about them by clicking here.
As soon as I showed my father this nifty tool, he was on board to make pasta with me. Regular readers of my blog know that my 92-year old dad loves to cook, especially pasta. We’ve made bigoli together (click here) , orecchiette (click here) and lots of other foods too.
 I arrived at his house and he was ready to go – mixing the dough on the counter and armed with a recipe to dress the pasta.
We cut the disks with one side of the form.
Then flipped the wooden implement to insert the disk and press down hard to make sure we got a good imprint.
Lined up on a cookie sheet, they reminded me of Christmas tree ornaments. Hey, maybe that’s an idea for the future – poke a hole in the top, let them dry and give them a coat of some clear preservative.
Here’s a closer view. They are like little works of art.

 

Corzetti originated in Genoa, a city on the Mediterranean in the region of Liguria. So it seemed fitting that we served them with some seafood – scallops and swiss chard, with some saffron.
 My dad found this recipe in an old issue of La Cucina Italiana. Unfortunately, for us Americans, the company stopped producing the U.S. edition. You can’t even access the online version, so sadly we’ve all lost a great resource of recipes. If you’ve got your old issues lying about the house, hang onto them.
“Butta la pasta” is a commonly heard Italian expression, meaning literally “throw the pasta.” As the sauce cooked, (and it took only a few minutes), it was time for us to throw the corzetti into the water.
We cooked them al dente, and added them to the sauce pan to swirl in the juices and meld the flavors.
And then it was time to eat.
It’s a great recipe any time of the year, but for you Catholics, it’s especially apropos for any one of these meatless Fridays during Lent.
Since I’ve introduced you to my dad over the years, but never to his better half, I thought I’d throw in a photo of his wife Rose – a sweet, lovely woman who lets him (and me) have the run of her kitchen whenever he wants.  We all had a fun day together making corzetti and plenty of memories too.



Corzetti with Swiss Chard and Scallops

If you can’t find dried corzetti in the store and want to make your own, here’s the recipe we used. But you could use any shape pasta here – from rigatoni to spaghetti.

We used a simple pasta recipe of two cups flour and two extra large eggs, mixing the ingredients together, kneading the dough and letting it rest, before rolling out the dough and cutting the corzetti disks. If the dough is too dry, add a little water.


printable recipe here
From “La Cucina Italiana”

1 pound sea scallops
fine sea salt
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1 pound Swiss chard, center ribs removed and leaves coarsely chopped
1/4 cup vegetable broth
1/8 t. crumbled saffron threads
1 T. unsalted butter
1 pound fresh corzetti or dried corzetti
freshly ground white pepper (optional)

Cut scallops into quarters; set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat; add shallots, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add chard in batches, then add broth, 1/4 t. salt and saffron; cook, stirring until greens are just wilted.
Add scallops to skillet, tucking pieces among greens; gently simmer, turning scallops occasionally, until scallops are just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Add butter and gently stir until melted, then remove skillet from heat and cover to keep warm.
Cook pasta in the boiling water until just tender – 6 to 7 minutes or until al dente. Drain. Combine the pasta with the scallops and chard in the pan. Sprinkle with pepper if desired.

Lunch at Poggio Etrusco

I don’t own a home in the Tuscan countryside, but I’ve got the next best thing — I know someone who does — Pamela Sheldon Johns.
In my New Jersey kitchen, I’ve prepared a few dishes from her most recent cookbook, Cucina Povera, an homage to the peasant style cooking of Italy where nothing is wasted. Until now, we’ve never met in person. We’ve only communicated via the world wide web.
 But when she learned I was headed to Florence for a couple of weeks, she invited me to visit Poggio Etrusco, the home she and her husband Johnny Johns own, not far from Montepulciano.
It’s a house with many beautiful architectural features, like this brick archway. Everywhere you look, there is something to capture your interest.
Including a friendly menagerie of a few cats and dogs.
The house exudes warmth, just like she and her husband. Naturally, when you’re the author of 17 cookbooks, owner of a bed and breakfast in Tuscany and run cooking classes too, the kitchen is the center of activity. This is one small corner of the kitchen, where Pamela greeted me with a glass of prosecco and some munchies.
She made a variation of Adri Barr Crocetti’s recent post of bruschetta with fava beans, asparagus, peas and ricotta cheese – using really fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was practically warm from mamma’s udders. The flavor was heightened with a drizzle of fresh olive oil pressed from Poggio Etrusco’s olives. You could have quit right here and I’d have been happier than Bacchus in an unlocked cantina.
But the next dish was what really bowled me over. It started with the blossoms of this tree. Do you recognize it? In Italian, it’s a sambuca tree and the flowers are an ingredient in the eponymous anise-flavored liqueur. In English, it’s an elder tree.

 

These are the blossoms from the elder tree. They look similar to Queen Anne’s Lace, but you can easily differentiate them because they grow on a tree, not as the perennial flowering plants that spring up everywhere in the countryside. Elder flowers were new to me, but when I got back to Princeton, armed with the knowledge I gained from Pamela, I spotted an elder tree right in the middle of town — a prime target for foraging.
Before deep-frying them, Pamela dipped the flowers in a light batter made of flour, eggs and prosecco.
Tasty? yes. Unusual? double yes. I had to fight the temptation to eat every one that was put on the plate. But I tried to make nice and leave some for the others. Besides, there was plenty more food to come.
Including these large sage leaves that Pamela dipped into the same batter and deep fried.
These savory nibbles were also a perfect treat with drinks.
Ready for the first course? – a luscious asparagus timballo, topped with an egg and spears at attention. DEE vine! Pamela’s recipe follows at the end of the post.
But wait… the deliciousness continues with savory and tender pieces of pork combined with asparagus and carrots, atop a bed of farro mixed with peas and fava beans, all soaking up the rich sugo.
Room for dessert? Ma certo, if it’s as flavorful as this homemade strawberry gelato Pamela made. Why is it that strawberries taste so much better in Italy than in the U.S.?  Maybe because they’re picked when  they’re plump and red, rather than when they’re still unripe, hard and tasteless, like those in supermarkets here.
Walking around Poggio Etrusco, you could sense the pride taken in everything that’s grown for consumption — from the chickens clucking in their pens….
To the artichokes nearly ready to be picked (I’m growing artichokes for the first time this year and they are teensy compared to these plants.)
The property has lovely patios to sit and enjoy the view of the olive groves and towns in the distance.
 Visitors can rent rooms and apartments here and really immerse themselves in the Tuscan country lifestyle, taking cooking classes from Pamela or just relaxing by the pool.
Sometimes the outdoor wood-burning oven is fired up for pizza.
Johnny’s artwork decorates the tins of olive oil and bottles of wine produced at Poggio Etrusco. This is another of his designs hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms.
He’s a talented artist in other ways too and makes these large tote bags using old Italian movie posters made of plastic.They’re humorously lined with remnants from his old shirts and pants, complete with original pockets for tucking away cell phones, a wallet or other items.  They’d be right at home at a shop in New York City’s Soho.
And I felt right at home at Poggio Etrusco. It was hard to leave, but I know I’ll be back someday to visit these welcoming hosts and their enchanting home. Thank you Johnny and Pam for a memorable afternoon.

 

Pamela Sheldon Johns’

Timballo di Asparagi

This is a wonderful appetizer or brunch dish. It
is essentially a coddled egg on top of asparagus purée. The asparagus
purée remains creamy and blends with the egg yolk for a delicious sensation.
If you prefer a thicker asparagus purée, add 2 egg yolks to the mixture
before you pour it into the ramekins.

Extra-virgin olive oil and approx ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the ramekins

1 bunch asparagus

¼ cup whole milk (or, if you insist, cream)

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Lightly oil (I like the
misto sprayer that I can put my own olive oil in) six ramekins and dust
generously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place in a baking
dish and set aside.

Cut the asparagus into three parts: the ugly tough
root that you will compost; the top 4 inches of the asparagus; and the
middle part (now known as the butts).  Cook the butts in boiling
salted water until very tender, around 15-20 minutes, depending on the
thickness of your asparagus. Drain and cool. Add the milk and ¼ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and purée. Season
to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Divide this mixture evenly between
the prepared ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin on top of the
purée. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top of each
egg to keep it from drying out as it cooks.

Add hot water to the baking dish to reach halfway
up the sides of the ramekins and place in the preheated oven. Bake until
you can see that the egg white is set (the yolk should still be runny),
about 18-22 minutes. If you want a hard yolk, bake for about 22-28 minutes.

While the ramekins are baking, blanch the asparagus
tips in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain
and set aside.

Remove the ramekins from the oven. Place the ramekins
on individual serving plates. Garnish with the asparagus tips and serve
at once.

Variation for a savory pudding:
If your guests don’t love the fabulous sensation of a soft egg yolk,
blend the eggs into the asparagus purée before distributing among the
ramekins. Cooking time will be slightly longer, about 35 minutes, or
until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


The Cheesecake Chronicles

 The perfect hairdresser and the perfect cheesecake recipe are two things that I can never seem to find. I keep trying one after the other, and while I have found some good ones, something’s always missing. So I keep searching – and trying. Naturally, when I saw a cheesecake recipe at the end of a post from one of my favorite bloggers – Mozzarella Mamma – a American journalist who works in Rome – I had to give it a go. She calls itFOOLPROOF, FRAZZLED MAMMA CHEESECAKE” because frazzled pretty much describes her life lately. The foolproof part? Well, not so much.

During the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of Pope Francis, you could say she was the poster child for all working mothers pulled in umpteen directions by home and work obligations.  I was always amazed that she found time to blog about the historic events happening at the Vatican after putting in long hours of work at Associated Press (AP) in Rome, a competitor to the company I worked for in New York.  I secretly envied her being able to report on a piece of history as it unfolded, but at the same time, I didn’t miss the minute to minute deadlines of working for a wire service.
So back to the cheesecake and Mozzarella Mamma (MM), otherwise known as Trisha. She writes a terrifically engaging and interesting blog, which hints at what a great reporter she must be for the AP too. But at writing recipes…. well, let’s just say, “Trisha, don’t quit your day job.”
The photo above is not Trisha’s cheesecake recipe. The photo below is. It looks pretty good, right? Well, as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Keep reading.
Trisha’s recipe calls for 12 ounces of chocolate chips, which I used. But they all sank to the bottom of the cheesecake. I served it to my Italian chit-chat group anyway, and they all thought it was great. But to me, it was like eating a hard candy bar on the bottom and cheesecake on the top — and a rather sweet cheesecake at that. So I emailed Trisha and asked about the snafu, who wrote back saying “Oh I forgot to say you have to melt the chocolate chips.”
OK……………………………………………..
So I made it again, melting the chips. I wish I had a photo to show you of the second cheesecake, but let me just say that the melted chips formed a solid chocolate mass at the bottom of the cheesecake. Again, I served it to a group of friends at a monthly “food salon” I’m part of. They all ate it with gusto, but I was sure it still wasn’t what Trisha had served her family. No fail cheesecake? I don’t think so.
 I didn’t bother emailing Trisha again for more explicit directions, but I had the feeling the chocolate was supposed to get mixed with the rest of the batter, creating a chocolate cheesecake, not one flecked with chocolate bits. However the directions were vague and I didn’t want to take any more chances.
On the other side of the country, fellow blogger Adri of Adri Barr Crocetti.com, was having the same experience as I with the cheesecake recipe. But she continued to fiddle with MM’s recipe at least two more times, while I gave up and looked elsewhere for a different recipe – partly because I prefer the “tang” of sour cream in a cheesecake, rather than the sweetened condensed milk MM’s called for.
I found just what I was looking for amid the dozens of cookbooks on my shelf — in an old plastic spiral bound cookbook from Hershey’s. The chocolate didn’t sink to the bottom. Instead, it blended beautifully as I swirled it with the vanilla portion.
The recipe doesn’t call for it, but I decided to envelop the bottom of the springform pan in aluminum foil and bake the cheesecake in a hot water bath, also known as a bain marie. It helps bake the cake at a more even temperature, avoiding a ridge along the outer edge that can occur if you don’t use a hot water bath. I say this from experience, having made a fourth cheesecake without the hot water bath for Easter dessert. As you can see, it didn’t bake nearly as evenly as the one made with it. The graham cracker base was a little burned too, something that didn’t happen with the hot water bath cheesecake. OK, confession here – so maybe I left it at a high temperature too long before lowering it to 250 degrees.
We scarfed it down nonetheless, but the one baked earlier, in a hot water bath, was just about as perfect as you can get – in both taste and appearance. I think my cheesecake search is finally over.
But that hairdresser? I’m still looking.



Hershey’s Marble Cheesecake
printable recipe here

 

  •  Chocolate crumb crust (recipe follows) – or use a graham cracker crust if you prefer
  • 3 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese , softened
  • 1 cup sugar , divided
  • 1/2 cup dairy sour cream
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract , divided
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3  eggs
  • 1/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Directions
    1 Prepare chocolate crumb crust. Increase oven temperature to 450°F.
    2 Beat cream cheese, 3/4 cup sugar, sour cream and 2 teaspoons vanilla in large bowl on medium speed of mixer
    until smooth. Gradually add flour, beating just until blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each
    addition.
    3 Combine cocoa and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in medium bowl. Add oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1-1/2
    cups of cream cheese mixture; stir well. Spoon plain and chocolate batters alternately over prepared crust, ending
    with spoonfuls of chocolate on top; gently swirl with knife for marbled effect.

    (At this point, I wrapped the pan in aluminum foil and baked it in a hot water bath.)

    4 Bake 10 minutes. Without opening oven door, reduce oven temperature to 250°F; continue baking 30 minutes.
     Turn off oven; without opening oven door, leave cheesecake in oven 30 minutes.
    5 Remove from oven. Immediately loosen cheesecake from side of pan with knife; cool to room temperature.
    Refrigerate several hours or overnight; remove side of pan. Cover; refrigerate leftover cheesecake. 10 to 12
    servings.Chocolate crumb crust: Heat oven to 350°F. Combine 1-1/4 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (about 40 wafers,
    crushed), 1/3 cup powdered sugar and 1/3 cup Hershey’s cocoa; stir in 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter or
    margarine. Press mixture onto bottom and 1/2 inch up side of 9-inch springform pan. Bake 8 minutes; cool
    completely.