Pilgrimage to Porto

June 2, 2011

The Portuguese have a saying about their cities: “Lisbon shows off, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Porto works.” On our recent trip to Portugal, we absorbed the beauty of Lisbon, skipped the praying and the studying, and took a fast train north to Porto to work very hard at sampling as vast amounts of port wine.

Old Porto across the Douro River

Northern Portugal is known for its lush river valleys, forested hillsides, and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Its greatest landmark, the Douro River, runs some 900 miles from deep within northern Spain, across Portugal, and into the Atlantic. And it is there, at the mouth of the Douro, that people from around the world gather to sample Portugal’s famous fortified wine.

The river divides Porto from the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, home to about 30 port-house tasting rooms and cellars (“caves,” pronounced cavesh). From our rented apartment in Porto’s old town, a quick stroll over the Ponte Dom Luis I, a bridge designed by a student of A. Gustave Eiffel – which happens to look a lot like the Eiffel tower tipped on its side, brought us to “Gaia.” Dow, Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Kopke —  all the famous brands beckon the thirsty traveler with free samples of their inexpensive white and ruby ports, and then charge anywhere from $10 to $100 and beyond for a mere taste of their finer tawnies and vintages.

Kopke, "The Oldest Port Wine House"

Trekking up and down the cobbled streets, we sampled our way from tasting room to tasting room, making sure to soak up the alcohol with a Porto specialty – la Francesinha (little French thing) – a layered concoction vaguely reminiscent of lasagna that packs a year’s worth of cholesterol in a single bowl. Strata of bread and melted cheese are piled with cured luncheon meats, a slab each of pork and steak and halved sausages, which are topped with more bread and another layer of cheese. It’s all bathed in a peppery tomato sauce, topped with an egg, and baked just long enough to set the white of the egg. And as if that weren’t enough, they spread a helping of French fries around the centerpiece to soak up the extra sauce. I imagine the French are horrified that this dish is named after them, but my husband and I enjoyed it so much that we ate it two days in a row.

Our highlight of Vila Nova de Gaia was touring the Sandeman caves, a centuries-old building on the river’s edge, where the cobbled floor is made from wooden blocks so the oaken barrels aren’t damaged when they’re rolled around.

Hundreds of years of port wine production have stained the floors and infused the stone walls with the musty aroma of fermenting grapes. We heard more information than we could absorb about the differences

Endless Kegs at Sandeman

between whites, rubies, tawnies, late-bottled vintages, vau vintages, and true vintage ports. And all the while, I couldn’t keep my eyes from settling on the barred and locked cellar that stored crates upon hundreds of crates of vintage port – a single bottle of 1906 recently sold for 3000 euro – nearly $4500 dollaresh!

Locked Cellar of Vintage Port at Sandeman

On our last day in the “port zone,” we traveled by train a couple of hours up river along the Douro to the town of Peso di Regua, the historic home of the port wine trade and home of the port wine museum. The hills are comprised or schist, the rocky “soil” imperative, we’ve learned, to producing perfect port. Terraces rise from river to sky, and most of the vineyards are too steep and narrow for modern machinery to navigate—their entire bounty must be cultivated and gathered by hand, as it has been done for hundreds of years.

And there in Regua, in a back-alley-hole-in-the-wall café, we ate the next best thing to a home-cooked meal, ordered with bit of Portuguese, backed up with Italian, hand signals, and peeks in boiling pots. For a mere 13 euro (less than half of what an average meal-for-two has run), we had a bowl of locally-cured olives; bread; cheese; two full plates of meat, veggies, and rice (plus an extra dish of “grellush,” the broccoli-raab like greens sautéed in olive oil and doused with lemon juice that I’ve come to love; a full liter of house vinho tinto (house red); topped off with to-the-brim glass of “illegal,” unlabeled port from a dusty keg in the corner. The lunch and the port—especially the port—is some of the best we’ve yet enjoyed.

After all our hard work tasting port, it was time to fly south to Portugal’s southwestern tip for some rest and relaxation. The sandy coves and rocky cliffs of the western Algarve were once considered the edge of the world and are the former home of Prince Henry the Navigator’s famous navigational school (Magellan studied there). With the sweet taste of her wine still on our lips, we left Porto longing for the days before a precious collection of 3-ounce containers of liquid had to fit inside a quart Ziplock bag, when it was still okay to carry-on a stash of a favorite liqueur to share with family and friends back home.

The Edge of the World

At least while you’re taking them? My problem starts when I get home and can’t quite slough off the taking-it-easy attitude while simultaneously facing the mountains of work that have piled up during our absence. I’m sure some of that post-vacation exhaustion comes from the questionable habit of trying to see everything and do everything while traveling. More often than not, I return home needing a vacation from the vacation. And there you have it — my excuse of an excuse for not posting in 2 months. Bad, bad blogger.

Lagos beach, Algarve region

Yes, vacations. Nearly 23 years ago, I was working my way from the rains and blustery winds of Amsterdam toward the promise of Portugal’s sun-drenched shores when I happened across a Spanish circus, a handsome Italian boy, and his 6 elephants. Married the elephant keeper a few years later; never made it to Portugal. I’ve teased him for years that he owed me a trip there. In a few months, we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and this year seemed the perfect year to make that trip happen.

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

For the last two weeks in March, Portugal plied us with her pleasures. Lisbon’s castles and monasteries, Porto’s wine, the Algarve’s rugged coastline — we loved every bit of it. The Portuguese people were welcoming and friendly, patient with my limited Portuguese, and anxious to point out an obscure sight we may have missed or a particular specialty we ought to eat.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra

There was a lot of eating — and just as much drinking. According to my guidebook, the Portuguese have the highest consumption of alcohol per-capita in Europe. Immersing ourselves In that When in Rome spirit, we did our damnedest to keep up. Not certain we succeeded, but sure enjoyed trying. Our favorite place to drink? A neighborhood bar in Lisbon’s Alfama district. The whole place couldn’t have been bigger than 100 square feet, and the walls were lined with every type of alcohol made in Portugal (uncountable). The proprietress, a motherly 60-year old who stood barely as tall as her bar and spoke not a word of English, greeted us with a smile each night we passed by and was happy to pour us a shot or two or three of some previously-unknown libation such as ginjinha (jeen-JEEN-ya), a sour cherry liquer typical of Lisbon. Our favorite thing to drink? Port wine, of course, hands down. We’ve developed quite a liking for the stuff over the years, especially aged tawny, and we had no problem turning a good portion of our trip into a pilgrimage to the Douro river region, home of the port-wine trade for nearly 400 years and one of the oldest DOC regions in the world. (A few sentences cannot do the Douro justice — follow-up post coming soon.)

Tasting at Sandeman's

Of all the food we ate, my favorite was a dessert. (Is anyone who’s read a few of my posts surprised?) Pasteis (pas-taysh) de Nata, a lovely bite-sized egg custard tart. The original Pasteis de Belem is named after the town where it was created and its fame grew steadily after Portugal’s liberal revolution in the early 19th century forced the local monastery to find new ways to make ends meet. After visiting the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, we made our way to the pastry shop where I contentedly consumed 4 pastries in about 4 minutes. Crispy. Creamy. Flaky. Buttery. I regret not eating even more.  The bakery itself is a rabbit warren of a place – room after room after room of bistro tables and chairs to seat the masses that come from near and far to eat these delicacies. The “nata” version is available across Portugal, and we sampled them multiple times in every town we visited, but none compared with the original. Apparently, only three people in the world are privy to the original recipe.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon

What’s a girl with an insatiable sweet tooth to do but get into the kitchen and bake? I downloaded two recipes I found online — an easier version with pre-made puff pastry dough and the custard made entirely on the stove top; the other with handmade dough and the custard an interesting mix of homemade syrup, hot milk, and half again as many yolks. I have yet to make my own pastry dough, so I tried the puff version. The custard turned out okay, but the pastry was way too… puffy. Though quick to make and certainly enjoyable, they were nothing like the pastries in Belem. The second recipe, found on David Leite’s  culinary site, seems much more promising. I see pastry making in my near future! And likely a blog post dedicated to these lovely little treats.

I wish I would have thought to photograph the originals…. too busy eating, I suppose. (The one culinary thing we did photograph was a chorizo sausage, flame-roasted per a grocer’s instructions, by igniting pure alcohol poured into a ceramic dish made just for this.)

Flame-roasted Chorizo, Lagos

Funny… I feel a hankering for something sweet coming on. With the promise of more posts to come (and a second promise to not wait two months to fulfill the first promise), I’m off to rifle through my baking cupboard.

A presto ~

Mom's Orchard

How can it still be winter?

Maybe it was yesterday’s pounding rain or last weekend’s sneaker snow. Or maybe it’s because my daffodils refuse to show their happy yellow faces. Whatever the reason, I AM READY FOR SPRING! I want the sweet smell of daphne and narcissus. Warm breezes that send fruit blossoms falling like confetti. Evenings pleasant enough to eat on the porch. For the moment, however, I suppose I’ll have to settle for the pleasures of winter — cuddling with a good book near the wood stove, sipping big, red wine, and feasting on heartwarming bowls of steaming pasta.

Lately, I’ve been aching to dust off my pasta maker and roll out sheets of fresh egg pasta to turn into lovely cheese ravioli. Perhaps with a roasted walnut sauce… or sauteed in butter and fresh sage. Unfortunately, late winter is also the season to complete time-sensitive tasks like inventory and taxes. So I’ve settled for simpler dishes, such as smoked salmon cream sauce and broccoli and penne — the recipe I’ll share today.  It may not be homemade ravioli, but it still warms me on a cold day.

I learned this recipe from my Italian mother-in-law. My husband often jokes that he has the only Italian mother who doesn’t like to cook. While there may be some truth to that, she does excel at some dishes, and this is one of them. It goes against most modern methods of cooking vegetables in that the broccoli is boiled to near-disintegration. I have tried to make this dish without overcooking the broccoli, but it just does not create the same creamy sauce that makes this dish so yummy.

Although the recipe is “Broccoli with Penne,” it can be made with many hearty pastas, such as rigatoni, fusili, and (as shown in my pictures) radiatori. And although I usually make this with regular old broccoli since it’s what is most readily available, don’t hesitate to use a stronger flavored variety such as broccoli raab — or, if you happen to be near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, my all-time favorite friarelli.

Broccoli and Penne

  • 2 broccoli crowns, total weight from 1 to 1.5 pounds
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, sliced medium-thin
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • dried pepperoncini, crushed
  • 1 pound hearty pasta, preferably tubular
  • freshly grated Parmigiano
  • salt and pepper to taste

Start your pasta water first, and add a nice palm-full of rock salt. Wash the broccoli and cut into smallish florets — not too much stem as it won’t cook down as quickly as the rest. Split any larger stems.

Aside, in a frying pan large enough to fit a pound of cooked pasta and the broccoli, saute the garlic, pepperoncini, and olive oil over low heat until the garlic turns golden. Keep a careful eye to make sure it doesn’t burn. Once the garlic reaches the perfect stage (for me, that’s deep blond and semi-caramelized), remove the pan from the heat. Here is a picture of the little pepperoncini we haul home from Italy a quart bag at a time (that’s just a regular-sized paring knife). That quart of dried peppers lasts us for years and years. You’d think they would be horribly bland after all that time, but these little nuggets just seem to get hotter and hotter as the seasons pass.

Hot Italian Pepperoncini

Once the pasta water boils, toss in the prepared broccoli and let it boil for 3 or 4 minutes. If you use a firmer broccoli, either cut the pieces smaller, splitting the stems, or cook it a little longer before adding the pasta. If you’d like a garnish on your finished plate, pull out a few bright green florets at this time and let cool. Then add the pasta to the boiling water and cook together until al dente. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your garlic and oil if it’s still cooking.

By the time your pasta is nearly cooked, your broccoli should be close to falling apart in the water. If not, don’t hesitate to pull some florets out and manually break them apart. Note that you don’t want the broccoli so well cooked that the stems are bared of florets and they all go down the drain when you strain the pasta and broccoli. Once the pasta is cooked, strain well in a colander.

Turn the flame under the oil on to medium, add the broccoli and pasta, and toss. The broccoli should easily break apart as it’s mixed. If the mixture looks too oily, add 1/4 cup or so of freshly grated Parmigiano — which will thicken the sauce. If it looks too dry, either drizzle with oil or add a tablespoon or two of butter (yum!).

Serve piping hot with freshly grated Parmigiano.

Enjoy ~

Spring 2010 Limoncello Extravaganza

Yes, my lemon tree is at it again — producing fruit, but only one at a time, dammit. Certainly not enough for even the smallest batch of limoncello. In all honesty, I’m surprised that it’s producing even one with how cold it’s been here lately.

For weeks I’ve been spying on that lemon as I walk from house to office and office to house. A frigid twenty-some degrees outdoors, fifty in the greenhouse, and one brilliant golden orb proving that seasons do pass and winter will soon turn to spring. When I finally picked it, I wanted to make something special.

I dug out my Cook’s Illustrated and thumbed through the lemon recipes. My husband thought lemon bars sounded too sweet, so I settled on lemon butter cookies. One — it would satisfy my sweet tooth; two – it called for only two teaspoons of zest, so I could still do something else with the rest.

Now, I have rarely met a cookie I cannot eat, but those butter cookies were bad. It wasn’t the lemon, which was so flavorful, just holding it firmly perfumed the immediate area, and so sweet, we ate raw slices of it, peel and all.  But the cookies tasted like insipid flour, which means I wasted half a pound of butter and half my lemon zest! Perhaps they needed more zest. Or a pinch of salt (the recipe didn’t call for any at all). It may be the first time Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe has let me down.

They more than made up for it with their recipe for Lemon Linguine and Roasted Pine Nuts. It’s a new twist (at least to me) on an old Italian staple — Aglio, olio and pepperoncino. Garlic, oil, and hot pepper, also known as pasta di mezzanotte (midnight pasta) — aptly named as it’s so quick to make, partiers often whip it up as a midnight snack after a night out on the town. First, the old favorite:

Aglio, Olio & Pepperoncino

  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of good olive oil
  • 2 – 4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 2 – 4 hot red peppers, crumbled
  • 1 pound pasta
  • freshly grated Parmigiano

Start your pasta water boiling and add a handful of rock salt.

If you like your pasta on the dry side, stick with 1/4 cup. If, instead, you don’t mind a dribble of olive oil on your chin and look forward to clearing your plate of pasta so you can sop up leftover sauce with a chunk of crusty bread, go for the 1/2 cup.

Heat the olive oil over a low flame and add the crumbled peppers. Slice the garlic about 1/16 inch thick. Don’t go too thin or it will burn easily.  Add the garlic, keeping a close, close eye on it as it cooks. For me, the best aglio, olio, pepperoncino has garlic that is cooked so slowly, it turns deep blond and has an almost caramel consistency. If caramelly garlic doesn’t appeal to you, you might try the Cook’s Illustrated suggested method of cooking the garlic, detailed below.

Strain the cooked pasta, toss with the oil, and grate a tablespoon or so of Parmigiano right into each dish. Be sure to have a nice chunk of good bread on hand.

A nice variation is adding a few anchovies and capers into the saute — use the larger quantity of olive oil.

Lemon Linguine with Roasted Pine Nuts

Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated — with double the lemon and pine nuts, without the suggested pepperoncino and parsley, and the addition of a bit of butter.

  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tsp lemon zest, plus some for garnish
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, pan roasted
  • freshly-grated Parmigiano
  • 1 pound linguine

As with the first recipe, this is a very quick sauce, so start your pasta water boiliRoasted Pine Nutsng right away.

Cook’s Illustrated suggests crushing the garlic in a press and mixing it with a teaspoon of water to better disperse the flavor into the oil. I’ve never heard of or seen this done in Italy, but it sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. Couldn’t detect any difference in the garlicky flavor, and I did miss those caramelly bits of sauteed garlic, but I’m sure either method will work fine.

In a small saute pan, roast the pine nuts over medium heat for 5 or so minutes. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little brown — it only adds to their flavor and appearance. Warning: Do NOT read the fat content on the package! (And if you do, please tell me — how squirrels stay so thin?)

Here’s where I wish I would have paid more attention to the original recipe: As seen in the next picture, I added the grated lemon zest to the garlic and sauteed them together. Only after rereading the recipe did I realize that the zest was supposed to be added fresh at the end and tossed with the cooked garlic and pasta. Although I thought this dish turned out great, I think it could have been even more lemony, which the fresh zest would likely have accomplished. Fortunately, I was able to grate just a bit more zest off my poor, naked lemon and add it to each plate. Note:  when zesting a lemon, only use the outer yellow layer and try to get any oils left on the grater into your dish as they’ll add a lot of flavor.

Lemon Zest and Crushed Garlic

Saute the garlic, either sliced or crushed. Pay close attention that it doesn’t burn. Once it’s cooked, turn off the flame and wait for the pasta to reach al dente. I used fresh spinach linguine which cooks in a couple of minutes, making this dish even quicker to go from pot to plate.

Once the pasta is cooked and strained, mix in the garlic oil, the lemon zest, half the roasted pine nuts. and all the butter. Toss until the butter is melted and the ingredients mixed.

Once served, garnish with freshly-grated Parmigiano and additional roasted pine nuts.

Lemon Linguine wtih Roasted Pine Nuts

I can see variations of this dish working out lovely as a chilled salad — using a little more oil and no butter, and perhaps with the addition of fresh picked and shelled baby peas. Add a warm spring day and a glass of viognier, and it sounds like treat to me.

Buon appetito ~

Winter is a good time for hearty pastas drenched in rich and dense sauces, and this sausage and tomato sauce is one of my favorites. I’m not big on plain tomato sauce unless the fruit is just-picked, perfectly ripe, and barely cooked. One of the reasons I love this sauce is that once the tomato is cooked with sausage, grated zucchini, and fresh rosemary, and then doused with cream, the tomato flavor plays only a bit part.

My friend Rosa is one of those women who can make or bake anything to perfection, and her prowess in the kitchen is enviable. Recipes gush out of her like uncorked spumanti, and I only wish I could remember half of those she’s shared with me — or make them half as well as she does. We’re often cooking or eating when she shares those recipes, so they end up scribbled on napkins or paper scraps. I’m lucky if I get all the ingredients down, much less the quantities. I doubt my version of this sauce tastes as good as hers, and I’ve surely adjusted the quantities to fit my tastes (heavy on the meat and rosemary), but it usually turns out good all the same.

This last time, however, something wasn’t quite right. Since I was hoping to turn it into a post, I called up Rosa and ran through the list of ingredients.  She assured me I was in the ballpark with the quantities, and we decided that it must have been the sausage that wasn’t quite up to the quality needed for the quantity I used in a meat-based sauce. (I usually use our favorite link sausages, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I settled for bulk sausage at the local market.) The sauce wasn’t terrible by any means, it just wasn’t amazing. (The leftovers were already better than the original dinner, though, likely due to the flavors melding with the pasta and the addition of a little more cream while reheating.)

Starting with good sausage is key, and find the freshest rosemary you can (since it’s going to fall apart into the sauce, use only the softer tips). Even though the tomatoes play a supporting role, if they’re not good tomatoes, you’ll know. Unless it’s the middle of a sun-kissed tomato season here in Oregon, I strictly use imported tomatoes in sauce.

(Kathleen’s version of) Rosa’s Sugo di Salsiccia e Pomodoro

  • 1/2 onion, chopped small
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/4 – 1 pound good sausage, ground
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 small to medium zucchini, grated
  • 4  tips fresh rosemary, each about 3″ long
  • 1 28 ounce can Italian tomatoes
  • salt
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1 pound hearty pasta, such as penne rigate or rustic linguini
  • fresh-grated Parmigiano

Saute the onion in the oil.  As you’ll be adding additional fat with the sausage, you need only enough oil to coat the onion, but if it’s not coated, add a bit more.

Once the onion is translucent, add the sausage and mash into small bits. Cook at a medium/low heat until the exterior looses its raw, pink color. Add the wine, and raise the heat to medium.

 

Meanwhile, grate the zucchini. When the wine has mostly evaporated from the sausage mix, add the zucchini and rosemary and cook until the zucchini is soft.

Add the tomatoes and their juice, mash well, and cook until the liquid created by the zucchini and the tomato water condenses. Once you’re sure the sausage has cooked (shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes into this stage), taste for salt and add if needed. The quantity will depend on how seasoned your sausage is.

Start your pasta water boiling if you haven’t already.

Because of the moisture in the zucchini and tomatoes, this sauce can easily take 45 minutes to condense. This could help you pass the time:

When the oil starts pooling on top of the mix, you’re nearly there.  Once you’re sure your sauce is almost ready, cook your pasta al dente.

Strain the pasta, add the cream to the sauce, and toss it all together with the pasta. Serve with freshly-grated Parmigiano and a bottle of hearty red wine.

Unless you like your pasta swimming in sauce, this recipe makes enough for up to 8 servings (2 pounds of pasta). Keeps refrigerated for 4 or so days or frozen for 30. Add a little cream when reheating leftovers to keep the sauce smooth and creamy.

Buon Appetito ~

Simple as Sunshine Focaccia

January 19, 2011

Everyone’s heard of painting yourself into a corner, but how about painting yourself out of a corner? I’m not particular about all my corners, just the one my computer is in. And yes, in painting the floor (with primer, to seal the um… funk into well-aged press board before we put new flooring down), I cut myself off from my computer and all the pictures that make a blog more pleasant to read. Well, even a wet, Oregon winter can’t keep paint from drying or me from posting a blog, albeit a few days late…

Focaccia. In America, it almost always seems to be billed as a bread. In Italy, however, it’s more like a thick-crusted pizza and often served like an open-faced sandwich. The focaccia I’ve been served here is more or less plain with a an herb or two sprinkled on top, and it’s lovely just like that. But in Italy, there’s much more variety: thinly sliced potatoes seasoned with rosemary and extra virgin olive oil; sweet, browned onions or, my personal favorite, soft stracchino or crescenza cheese melted into a speckled brown and creamy crust.

Focaccia with Potatoes and Rosemary

I have yet to make cheese focaccia here in the states. The one time I found imported crescenza cheese in an uppity New York shop, it was two days past its expiration date and well on its way toward wedding-mint pastel. Maybe the author of this cheese-making blog could help us out with a recipe for a nice, soft, focaccia-worthy cheese, but until that happens, I’ll make do with my usual herbed or plain focaccia. It’s always a favorite, even if it does turn out like the bready, American version.

I never considered making homemade focaccia until I received a recipe book and focaccia pan one birthday. I’m not so good about adhering to recipes, and one of the biggest deterrents is when a recipe gets complicated for something that seems so simple. It was the sponge that turned me off — making a yeasty mix and waiting for hours and hours before I could even start the dough. Years later, I did delve into that yeasty, spongy world with my chewy Italian Ciabatta, but a dozen years ago, I wanted something manageable, quick, and fail safe. Simple as Sunshine Focaccia was born.

Simple as Sunshine Focaccia

This recipe is so easy, even my friends that swear they can’t bake bread can make this. It’s a pretty soft and sticky dough, and I find it easiest to use a kitchen-aid type mixer, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be made without one. You’ll also need a deep dish pan. In a pinch, a large pie plate would work, as would a Pyrex casserole dish. Best is a deep-dish pizza pan like this one:

 

Focaccia Pan (aka Deep Dish Pizza Pan)

As written, the recipe takes about 4 hours between mixing, rising, and baking. But I’ve also made it in barely over an hour. See Speed Focaccia below.

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • olive oil
  • salt, rosemary, or…(see Toppings below)

Kitchen Aid Mixing Method

  1. Pour the water into your mixer’s bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top and add the salt and sugar. Don’t worry about waiting for the yeast to dissolve.
  2. Dump the flour in and mix it in with the paddle until all the ingredients are incorporated — a couple of minutes at most.
  3. Remove the mixer, drizzle a bit of olive oil on the walls of the bowl, and swirl the dough around with a rubber spatula until it and the bowl are coated with oil. Cover and let sit for an hour or two in a warm spot.
  4. Punch down with the rubber spatula. Cover the bottom of your baking dish with a table spoon or so of olive oil and plop the dough on top. Use your fingers to spread the dough into a flattish form and let rise for another hour or so.
  5. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
  6. Just before placing the pan in the oven, dimple the top with your fingers or with the handle end of a wooden spoon.
  7. Drizzle with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake for 25 to 35 minutes (depending on how hot your oven really is). The sides and bottom should be nicely brown, and the top should be golden — especially where the olive oil was drizzled. If it’s not turning brown after 25 minutes, crank the heat up to 400 degrees. (This can also be baked on a barbecue, but you’ll need to start with a cool pizza stone so the bottom doesn’t burn. See my Chewy Italian Bread post for more info on baking bread on a barbecue.)
  8. Remove from the pan promptly, using a spatula to carefully loosen any area that sticks to the pan. Cool on a wire rack and serve, preferably warm.
  9. Doesn’t keep more than a day or so, but no worries. It rarely lasts that long.

Hand Mixing Method

  1. Pour the water into a deep bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top and add the the salt and sugar. Don’t worry about waiting for the yeast to dissolve.
  2. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time. Mix with a wooden spoon for as long as you can, then use your floured hands to mix until all the ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the walls of the bowl, and swirl the dough around until it’s coated with the oil. Let sit for an hour or two in a warm spot.
  4. Follow from step 4 above.

Speed Focaccia

  1. Preheat oven to 100 degrees (or the closest you can get).
  2. Mix all the ingredients as in steps 1 and 2 above.
  3. Oil the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise in the oven for 20 minutes.
  4. Remove the dough, and raise  oven temp to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, put dough into oiled pan and spread. Drizzle with more oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake as explained above.

Toppings

  • Fancy Salt: whatever you pour or spread on top, don’t skimp on the salt. I like to use some chunky orange salt someone gave me as a gift some years back.
  • Rosemary-Infused Oil: saute a couple of tablespoons of fresh,chopped rosemary in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over low heat for a few minutes and drizzle over dough just before baking.

    Ingredients for Caramelized Onions

    Caramelized Onion Ingredients

  • Caramelized Onions: caramelize onions and spread over the top just before baking.
  • Olive: Use your finger or a small spoon to dunk halved olives in the dough just before baking. My favorite are the black, semi-dry Greek olives. Save a few to scatter on top.
  • Fresh cherry tomatoes: Just spread them on top and sprinkle with salt just before baking. Chopped, fresh basil is a nice addition to sprinkle on top just before serving.
  • Potato and Rosemary: Slice potato into thin rounds — no more than 1/8″ thick, preferably less. Boil for 4 – 8 minutes (depends on how thinly you sliced them) just until a fork pierces the center without breaking it. Strain and fan across dough just before baking. Top with chopped, fresh rosemary, olive oil, and salt.

The possibilities are endless. Travel through the Italian countryside, and you’ll find focaccia with fresh grapes, sweet figs, or savory sage. And every single one of them goes perfectly with a nice glass of red wine.

Go ahead. Experiment.

Buon appetito ~

Canoodling with Caneles

January 10, 2011

I am in love — with a dessert! Not surprising with my sweet tooth, but I can’t believe I made it four-plus decades and living/traveling on four continents without ever having the pleasure of meeting this lovely French specialty, the Canele.

It’s like creme brulee in a caramelized crust. A magical custard baked in its own dish. Crunchy on the outside. Creamy in the center. Absolutely delicious.

Canele

 

I first came across them at the Oyster and Champagne benefit for Slow Food Eugene that I attended this past summer when I brought a “doggy bag” of them home for my husband. He raved about them for days. I intended to seek out the patisserie that made them — Eugene’s Caramel French Patisserie — but never quite got around to it.  And then, one day, there they were, right in front of me, at the holiday version of the Eugene Farmer’s Market’s. For five weekends of the Holiday Market, I visited the French proprietress, Barbara, and loaded up on multiple packets of these addicting delicacies, and they would all disappear within minutes of my arrival at home. Then the Holiday Market ended, and my husband and I were left going through withdrawals. I started researching recipes immediately.

Talk about overwhelming. There are dozens and dozens of recipes out there. Many of them use the same few ingredients, but the ratios are vastly different, as is the method of preparing the batter. Then there was the slight discrepancy in cooking temperatures and the huge discrepancy in cooking times — from 50 minutes all the way up to two hours — both versions at 400 degrees! Why? I’m guessing it’s because there are a lot of people out there trying to get this just right. I’ve never come across a dessert that has so much history and secrecy (the official recipe is reportedly locked in a vault in Bordeaux). Nor have I come across a dessert that could be so expensive to make! Twenty bucks for a single copper and tin mold at Amazon. !!! Fortunately, there’s a less expensive silicone version. Purists would surely scoff at the idea of using it, but at 1/8 of the price, we decided we could make do — at least until we find ourselves in France again and can import our own copper molds.

All that was left was to pick a recipe and start baking!

canele ingredients

So far, we’ve experimented only twice. Although neither was perfect, they were both a pleasure to consume. First thing we realized is that one silicone mold (8 pastries) would not suffice. The folks at Amazon were happy to oblige.

 

Silicone Canele Mold

Silicone Canele Mold

The ingredients are basic: milk, sugar, eggs, butter, flour, fresh vanilla bean, and rum — the latter being the only thing I didn’t have on hand, so I substituted amaretto. The first recipe I tried called for nearly a cup of butter — so much that the resulting caneles ended up being boiled in butter. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, it just wasn’t the result we were looking for. We ate them, of course, and enjoyed every bite, but I started sifting through additional recipes online. The next version we tried called for only 3 tablespoons of butter, which worked out well. But it also called for a little less flour, which left the custard a little on the dense and moist side. I also think it could use a whole vanilla bean rather than just a half. And I’d like to have some rum for the next try, but I’ll have to decide whether to go for the 1 tablespoon in some recipes or the 4 tablespoons in others.

I should note that I’m not trying to improve on a centuries-old recipe — especially since I doubt any of the recipes online will perfectly match that secretive concoction. But I do plan on experimenting with versions and tweaking them until I come up with a personal favorite.

One thing I noticed is that the pastries aren’t as tall as they should be (and therefore denser), which I have a feeling is due to the custard not holding to the silicone mold as it bakes as it might on the copper and tin molds. Until I have $300 to invest in the fancy molds, I can deal with dense. On this last batch, I took one tray out of the oven after 80 minutes at 400 degrees (left) and baked the second tray in for the full two hours (right). (Other recipes call for 75 minutes at 375 on convection.)

 

Experimenting with Cooking Times

Experimenting with Cooking Times

My husband preferred the less-cooked version; I preferred the more-cooked, crustier version. Perhaps next time I’ll try somewhere in the middle…

Canele Crust

 

No matter what, all 15 of them went down very, very easily over the course of an afternoon and evening. (Yes, 15 of them, the entire batch, between the two of us! Perhaps we shouldn’t have procured that second mold. I’m writing this morning while exercising off a small portion of the calories from my treadmill desk — 342 calories burned and counting!) We tried them 1/2 an hour out of the oven and again at one hour (supposedly the preferred cooling time).

 

A Tray of Canele

A Tray of Canele

The few that remained after dinner, even though well past that 1-hour “optimum” cooling time, were perfect when paired with a glass of tawny port.

Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port

Needless to say, more experimentation is in order. I’ll gladly sacrifice myself (and my waistline) to this endeavor and eventually post a recipe. In the meantime, if you’ve never had the pleasure of eating a canele or two or three… I highly recommend Caramel in Eugene. (I didn’t see them on her website, so you might call first.) I also read raves online about Ken’s in Portland.

Bon appetit!

Puff Pastry is my Enemy

December 30, 2010

Well, at least my waistline’s enemy. It’s just too darn easy to make beautiful and yummy treats out of the stuff!

But first, my apologies for my absence these past few weeks. I had hoped to find time to post a recipe or two, but the season’s production schedule and sales kept me busy. No complaints, but I’m glad for more free time to play in the kitchen, dig through those drawers, and find long forgotten toys!

Cream-Filled Puff Pastry Horns

Last winter, I bought a couple packages of “cream horn molds” from an outlet kitchen shop. Six metal tubes in each for $2.99. Stuck the things in a drawer and didn’t open them until last week when I decided it would be a lovely idea to experiment for our family’s dessert on Christmas.

Cream Horn Molds

Cream Horn Molds by Norpro

Now, I don’t generally recommend experimenting for large family gatherings, but anything that turns out this wonderful on the first go around gets two thumbs up. With puff pastry, it’s just too hard to go wrong. No time to find these molds? There are a dozen ways to prepare your puff pastry without them; from making two equal-sized circles, cutting out the center of one, and layering it on top of each other; to folding up these triangles.

The hardest part to making these yummy desserts is deciding what to fill them with. I couldn’t decide, so I made three:

  • zabaglione cream (tiramisu filling – mascarpone, eggs, sugar, vanilla), 1/2 batch with only half the eggwhites to make it more dense (1.5 whites to 3 yolks)
  • 1/2 batch easy chocolate mousse with chopped, dried cherries
  • 1/2 batch mocha chocolate mousse (just add espresso)

They’re all simple to make, but they do need to be made at least 4 hours before you use them so they’ll be firm enough to stay where they’re put.  No time? Whip some cream, spoon it into a Ziplock bag, cut a corner off the bag, and squeeeeeeeze into the baked horns. Grate a little dark chocolate on top and you’re golden. Kick it up a notch by adding fresh berries or flavoring your whipped cream with almond or lemon or….

What You’ll Need

  • one or more packages of puff pastry (2 sheets each)
  • cream horn molds or other creative way of making a receptacle for the filling (see “triangles” link above)
  • filling
  • whipped cream for garnish and for filling the very base of the baked horn
  • grated dark chocolate for topping
  • pastry tubes or Ziplocks to disperse the fillings

The Puff Pastry Horns

  • Thaw the dough for 40 minutes, unfold, and smooth with a rolling pin on a lightly floured board.
  • Depending on how many molds you have, each sheet of puff pastry (two sheets per box) can be cut into eight or nine 1″ strips.
  • Squeeze one end of the strip around the point of the mold and twirl the strip around the metal. Lay on a cookie sheet with the end of the strip facing down.
  • Per the instructions on the back of the mold package, let the pastry rest for 1/2 hour between wrapping and baking. We waited on the first batch, didn’t on the second, and didn’t notice any difference. See that  glass of red wine in back of the wrapped molds? Might of had something to do with it. (I highly recommend having one or two of those on hand during this process.)
  • Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees.
  • Cool for a few minutes (just enough to not melt the fillings), and fill. The Ziplocks weren’t getting the dense chocolate mousse all the way to the bottom of the horn, so we dispensed just enough whipped cream in each one to fill up the point.
  • The zabaglione cream was by far the favorite, but I think the chocolate mousse complimented it well. Whatever you decide on, spoon it into a pastry tube or ziplock (cut off a small corner), flill up the horns, grate some dark chocolate on top, and serve.

Baked and Ready to Fill

Puff Pastry Cream Horns

Yum! Yum! Yum!

Between thawing, wrapping, baking, cooling and filling, it does take a bit of time to make these. Once the dough was thawed, we were filling and serving these to order within 40 minutes. During a large holiday meals, a break between the meal and dessert can be a welcome pause. If you want to serve them right after dinner, the horns can be made ahead of time, although the ones we ate that were still a bit warm were melt-in-your-mouth good. A minute or two under a broiler did the trick for leftover horns. We didn’t have any filled horns leftover, so I can’t tell you whether they’ll store well or not if once they’re filled.

My husband’s one complaint? Why hadn’t we ever made these before! They were such a success, I’m planning on making them for New Year’s Eve. Something tells me they’ll go very well with champagne.

Buon appetito~

Easy Chocolate Mousse

December 30, 2010

This recipe comes from my friend Danuta at Pfeiffer Vineyards in Junction City, Oregon. If you clicked on that link, you can imagine why everything that comes out of that lovely villa is spectacular.

This mousse is pretty enough for a party when served in wine glasses topped with whipped cream and berries, or it can be used as a filling for things such as a chocolate cookie crust or these Puff Pastry Cream Horns. Her plain chocolate is yummy, but don’t hesitate to experiment with additions.

Danuta’s Easy Chocolate Mousse

  • 2 cups chocolate chips, blended until fine
  • 2 T light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 2 cups whipped cream

First, turn the chocolate chips into near powder. I tried blending these, and it worked okay, but after a minute or so, the chocolate on the bottom melted and prohibited the blade from spinning properly. I dumped the contents into my handy dandy food processor and it was ready in about 5 seconds.  If you don’t have a way of chopping these fine, you can make the recipe with whole chips, just keep the flame low on step two and stir constantly until they’re melted.

Second, boil the corn syrup and water for one minute and mix in the chips until smooth.

Third, while the chocolate is cooling to room temperature, whip a pint of light whipping cream. Mix and chill for 4 hours.

And that’s it. Yummy chocolate mousse in three easy steps!

  • As mentioned above, this is great just like it is and can be served right out of the bowl.
  • For fancier serving, divide into wine glasses before chilling. Top with whipped cream and berries.
  • Chill in a homemade or store-bought chocolate crust and top with whipped cream and grated dark chocolate.

Want to experiment with additions?

  • Add a shot (1 oz) of strong espresso to the chocolate and syrup mix before it cools.
  • Chop some dried cherries and mix in while combining with the whipped cream. (Note: my food processor was not so handy dandy with the cherries. The darn things were impaled on the blade within seconds, so I had to resort to old fashioned chopping with my Alaskan ulu knife (also a handy dandy tool!).
  • Almond flavoring ??
  • Orange zest ??
  • ??
  • ??
  • Don’t stop here — the possibilities are endless!

Enjoy~

THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

December 5, 2010

Christmas came early to Elmira, Oregon this year, in the form of a dozen or so mahogany chestnuts. I grew up singing about roasting chestnuts every holiday season, but had never tasted one until living in Italy with my then-boyfriend, Stefano. In Milan, his hometown, a crew of wizened men dot downtown streets, huddling over

Raw Chestnuts

coals, hawking newspaper cones of fire-roasted chestnuts. As romantic as it is to lean against the stone wall of a castle on a wintry day sharing warm chestnuts with your lover, we left that bit of romance in Italy when we came to America. Years have passed since either of us has even pondered eating one, so imagine our surprise and delight to find a pile of raw chestnuts in our driveway. Mind you,we’re more likely to celebrate Festivus than Christmas, but when the universe makes such a perfect gesture, The Christmas Song seeps into even the Scroogiest mind, and Jack Frost nips at heels. I’d also like to note that my husband and I don’t make a habit of eating food we find on the ground. Sure, in a lifetime of travels and some living on the edge, we’ve both ingested the occasional ground score, not really knowing if it was contaminated with botulism or drugs. But we’re forty-somethings now. We know better. This was okay because we found it in our driveway, our gated driveway. Chestnuts. We jokingly called it a Christmas miracle.

We’d had a dinner party the night before, and through the morning-after limoncello haze, Stefano pointed through the kitchen window, calling my attention to a patch of what resembled bulbous, brown mushrooms poking through our gravel drive, surely brought on by the recent rains. He went to investigate and soon burst through the front door looking like a kid who’d just met Santa. “Chestnuts!” Stefano called, cinnamon-brown bounty tumbling from his hands as he showed me his treasure. “They must have spilled from someone’s car last night—I’ll roast them tonight for dessert.”

I flicked one shiny nugget with the tip of my finger. “You’re sure they’re chestnuts?”

Stefano scoffed. “Of course I am,” he said, separating the nuts from the gravel he’d hauled in with them.

The man hasn’t lived in Italy for almost twenty years, yet he holds fast to his Mediterranean blood. Food is his specialty. Of course, he specializes more in the consumption of food than the preparation of it, but, dammit, he knows a chestnut when he sees one. The chestnut is a staple of Italy’s cuisine, and her people have long been nourished by the tree. From the fruit, Italians bake tortes, grind flour, cook jam, make candies, distill liqueur, and even mash polenta. No wonder they hold festivals in its honor.

Stefano washed and dried the chestnuts, carved a perfect slice in their bottoms, and set them aside while he rattled the cabinets searched for a roasting pan—something we didn’t own. Hubby concluded he’d have to make one, so I directed him to a stack of old frying pans we’d stored in our barn. Half an hour’s labor, a table-top drill press and my persistent Italian turned a well-used, thick-bottomed Revereware sauté pan into our new roasting pan.

We’d barely finished an early dinner of asparagus risotto when Stefano hightailed it onto the back deck, blasted the barbecue’s side burner on high, and began tossing the chestnuts around in the pan, flipping them over and over, shells clattering against metal, their burnt aroma tainting the autumn air. It took forever. Finally, we sat side by side at the dinner table, a kitchen towel spread between us, blowing on the steaming honey-colored meat that peeked from charred shells.

Stefano’s never been one to take his time eating. He’d peeled, chewed, and swallowed before I’d even scraped a bit of flesh onto an hors d’oeuvre fork. I knew something was wrong the moment the spec of nut meat hit my tongue.

“Hmmm…” Stefano murmured, scraping his tongue on his teeth repeatedly before sticking it as far out of his mouth as he could. “Thumpthing’s not right.”

To say the least, these chestnuts were not worthy of song. They tasted bitter and metallic. It took less than a minute for us to wonder if drilling holes through the pan’s Teflon coating had allowed its essence to bake into the nuts, two minutes for Stefano to discard the remaining chestnuts into the woodstove, and three minutes for us to start swigging port straight from the bottle in a mad attempt to wash the awful taste from our mouths. Within forty minutes, the gas started. Five hours later, Stefano rolled out of bed, nauseous and stomach churning. By six in the morning, he’d suffered through seven bouts of diarrhea.

To the untrained eye, Horse Chestnuts look much like the sweet chestnut—castagne, in Italian, also knows as marrons. But rather than some confectioner dipping them in glaces, mother nature has filled the horse chestnut with aesculin, a poison which breaks down blood proteins and inspired the common rat poison Warfarin.  Though rarely fatal, chestnut poisoning can damage both liver and kidneys. It causes vomiting, loss of coordination, and stupor, occasionally paralysis or respiratory failure. In a nutshell, one should not eat gathered chestnuts unless they are from an identifiable tree. The horse chestnut, Esculus Hoppocastanum, has palmated leaves with five to seven finely-toothed leaflets; its bark is covered with markings that resemble a miniature horseshoe. The sweet chestnut, Castanea Vesca, has long, single leaves that alternate from side to side on the twig; its deeply furrowed bark resembles a hefty cable.

Needless to say, we felt pretty foolish the following day. When not sleeping off the toxins, Stefano moped from couch to toilet and back to couch, looking sheepish. I wasn’t sure if he was more upset from general malaise, his err in judgment, or because that mistake had forced him to exchange an entire day’s meals for a bowl of boiled rice. I spent the day quietly thankful. Considering Stefano suffered only severe diarrhea for consuming one whole nut and I but a bad case of flatulence for a mere taste, I’d say we were let off relatively easy—our true Christmas miracle.

Yes, point taken. Lessons learned. We won’t eat foreign objects found in our driveway. We’ll buy a proper roasting pan. And whether we celebrate Christmas or not, it always arrives on December 25th.

Old-Fashioned Fire-Roasted Chestnuts

First and foremost, purchase or gather your fresh chestnuts from a reputable source, a half dozen or so per person. Chestnuts spoil fast, so don’t purchase more than a week or two before using and store in a paper bag within your refrigerator’s vegetable compartment. Chestnuts should be firm, uniform in size, and have glossy shells. Discard nuts that rattle.

Rinse and dry the chestnuts, and then cut or an X into the flat side of the shell to prevent the nuts from “exploding” like popcorn. You can forgo the cut if you’re using a covered roaster such as a long-handled popcorn popper.  Roast over a low fire for 15 to 25 minutes. Shake the pan often and watch for the shells to curl back if slit or pop open if not. A hot fire can cook the nuts in as little as 8 minutes. Don’t worry about charred shells, they’ll only add to the romance. To retain moisture, wrap the chestnuts in a towel as soon as you remove them from the fire. Peel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle and eat while hot—either plain, dipped in butter, or drizzled with olive oil.

Enjoy ~