August 28, 2008

Pastry+Italian = my idea of Heaven

I feel like a giddy schoolgirl lately, or a groupie of the highest order. That's because I have spent the last few days in the company of only some of THE most important pastry chefs in the WORLD. Yep. That's me looking like I just won the Mega Bucks at a Las Vegas casino. And that's me with the Italian team looking frightened by the honor, the enormity, the sheer brilliance of these pastry professionals.

me with italian team members Fabrizio Galla, Rossano Vinciarelli and Roberto Rinaldini

me with Master pastry chef and judge Ewald Notter (I promise I didn't pay him)

They are here in Nashville for the 2008 World Pastry Team Championship taking place Sunday Aug. 31st and Monday Sept. 1st at Gaylord Opryland Convention Center. Who knew? Did YOU? Because I didn't. And when I found out I nearly fainted with the promise of watching two days of fierce pastry competition: an event of artistry and showmanship, of unbelievable chocolate and sugar showpieces--more art than food-- that, if you haven't seen them before, will blow your mind. Here is just a preview (keep in mind this is ALL chocolate and sugar):

I've had the pleasure of watching the Italian team practice for several days at the Nashville State Culinary School kitchen where they have been guests of some very nice folks, using their kitchen to practice all day everyday for a week. They shipped 5 containers of their own equipment and indredients from Italy and were met by 2 coaches and one team captain. This is just to give you an idea of the greatness of this upcoming event that we in Nashville have the honor of hosting.

What I've seen so far has been amazing. The skill, the precision, the concentration and focus of these gentlemen (who also happen to be some of the nicest chefs I've ever met), has been inspiring to say the least. Not one of them is pretentious or snobby at all. And do they ever have reason to be! In Italy these guys are well-known pastry chefs in a country that takes its culinary professionals very seriously, each of them boasting numerous awards and accolades.

Each team from ten different countries will be requred to complete all of the following elements:

1 sugar showpiece
1 chocolate showpiece
1 pastillage tray
3 different types of chocolate bonbons
3 identical enremets
3 different petits gateaux
3 entremets glacé
14 identical plated desserts

The judging is based on three categories: degustation (taste), 40% of the score; artistic (showpieces), 30% ; and work (hygiene, efficiency, waste)30%. The judges are some of the finest pastry chefs and former pastry champions from all over the world. (I had the pleasure of meeting one while volunteering at the World Pastty Forum, taking place all week leading up to the event with classes for professionals and demonstrations by master pastry chefs from all over the world).

The competition Sunday and Monday is going to be fierce, the skill and beauty awe-inspiring, and hopefully I will report on the *taste* of some of these works of art. I will at least get to see all of the masterpieces from a very close vantage point. In addition to driving the Italian team around town and serving as unofficial personal translator, I have managed to secure a spot as a server during both days of the competition--one of the most coveted spots by volunteers. Our job will be to take each entry by hand (and very carefully) to the judges (except for that huge sculpture which the team carries of course). I will be on my best behaviour, and needless to say, I will be rooting for the Italians. So stay tuned...Forza Italia!

August 24, 2008

Parma Almond Cake

The name of this cake, also called "Bocca di dama" in Italian means "mouth of a lady." I don't know if it's because, as cookbook author Michele Scicolone (or, "leave that chick alon-eh" as my boss, Tom, likes to refer to her) says, it is so delicious it's fit for the mouth of a lady.

All I know is it's very easy to make and very versatile served plain or as we do at work, sliced into 3 layers with ricotta cream and peaches in between and covered in whipped cream. It's great like that, but I prefer to make it a one-layer, simple crumbly cake, sprinkled with sliced almonds and served with a dollop of fresh ricotta cream.

What makes this cake so easy is it's two-step process. Combine your dry ingredients, whip your butter and sugar, then add your eggs and beat in the extracts, then fold your wet into your dry. I like to do a couple of different things while I'm making this cake so that I can let it mix a long time.

I've learned that mixing well and properly is the key to perfect cakes. It's not so much the baking or the combining, it's the patience you exhibit in letting the mixer go longer than you may want to. I've had to learn to wait, then wait some more, and let it do its thing. Because if your butter and sugar are not well combined and your sugar remains grainy, or if you don't beat in your eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, you really will end up with a dense and stodgy cake, with no volume and no height.

On the other hand, mixing well and being patient pays off in a cake that's rich, yet light and fluffy, tall and uniform, something for a lady to be proud of.

Parma Almond Cake (adapted from "La Dolce Vita" by Michele Scicolone, my go-to book for all Italian desserts)

1 1/2 c blanched almonds
1 c sugar
1/2 c a.p. flour
1/4 t. baking powder
8 T unsalted butter at room temp. (Michele uses only 4 T of butter but I found it wasn't enough to really absorb the sugar and create a smooth, fluffy texture)
4 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract
3 T sliced almonds

1. Preheat oven to 325F. Butter and line an 8-in. round cake pan.
2. In a food processor, combine blanched almonds and 1/4 c of sugar. Process untily fine. Add flour and b.p. and pulse to blend.

3. In an electric mixer, beat the butter and the remaining 3/4 c. of sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. (This could take about 20 min. total mixing time). Beat in the extracts. Gently fold in the
ground almond mixture.
4. Scrape batter into prepared pan and sprinkle with sliced almonds.
5. Bake for 45-50 min., or until top of cake is golden and tester comes out clean. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Serve this cake plain, or with ricotta cream or whipped cream, or slice in half and fill with apricot jam or any kind of fruit preserves, fresh fruit, or whatever you desire.

August 18, 2008

Lasagne love

(Before I begin, you'll notice I'm spelling it with an 'e' and not an 'a'. That's because the word in Italian means the layers of pasta itself, which would be plural and ending in e rather than singular, which would be lasagna. End of Italian lesson).

Is there any better comfort food than lasagne? Not in my book. Of course, I don't really like the comfort foods that we think of as American. Not a big fan of mac n' cheese, chili, or the like. But I do love some good, homemade lasagne on a Sunday evening shared with friends. of course, turning on the oven when it's hot outside is not always a good idea, but it was worth the sweat.

I have in the past been guilty of making lasagne using store-bought ingredients like the sauce and the pasta. But this time I made all of it (except for the pasta. I just didn't have the time, and it was a last-minute dinner party, so don't hate me).

I started by making my sauce by sauteeing garlic in olive oil, adding tomatoes, two bay leaves and a sprig of rosemary. Then I browned my meat (organic, pasture fed beef from a local farm) in a different pan. When it was done, I added it to my sauce, seasoned it, and let it simmer for about 40 minutes.

Then I made a white sauce instead of just opening a tub of ricotta which is standard. This turned out so much better! I made a roux with butter and flour, then boiled milk with 1/2 an onion, a pinch of nutmeg, a sprig of parsley and added the flour-butter mixture slowly to it once it started to simmer and stirred it while it cooked until it thickened. I then strained the sauce, put it back in the pan to warm and thicken some more, and added about 5 oz of parmigiano cheese, salt and pepper. It tasted great on its own.

Then just compose your lasagne however you want: layer of pasta, layer of meat sauce, layer of white sauce, cheese, and repeat til it's gone! Sprinkle some fresh basil or sage on the top with some mozzarella and more parmigiano and bake for about 45 min.

Now I know I don't need to tell you how to make lasagne. Not only is it a standard in most people's repertoire, but there is no right or wrong way to make it either. I am just saying that when you start with high quality ingredients and make each component from scratch, the end result is extra special and great tasting, and made with lots of love. True of most things you make from scratch really. The end.

August 10, 2008

The Bounty of Summer

Now that all the Italy talk is over --for now-- I can get back to updating the blog on what's been going on in my own kitchen.

We have literally been embarassed by the riches of our CSA harvest (the Barefoot Farmer is our choice this year). The last couple of weeks have been off the hook with beautiful produce --everything from swiss chard to green onions, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes which are just coming in now, corn and LOTS of it, lettuce (just ended), summer squash, zucchini, herbs and more.

It has really been fun to pick up that bushel of goodness every Monday and get to work on figuring out what to cook. And only once or twice did we have to share with our neighbors and friends when we really couldn't eat it all. Not that we don't like sharing. It's just that I've been pretty busy and cooking an awful lot lately.

So here are a few examples of what I've done with our bounty. A few things (like the green beans) are from our very own little backyard garden, but everything else is from Jeff and his amazing organic farm in Red Boiling Springs, TN.

summer vegetable ratatouille

grilled sirloin with green beans, potatoes and tomatoes

spicy summer squash soup

no caption necessary here

spaghetti with lemon, corn, cherry tomoatoes, basil

corn fritters (a first for me and so yummy!)

I would share this corn fritter recipe with you but then I'd have to kill you. Actually, you'll find it on page 369 of joy of cooking--the book, not the blog. My only variation: add some cornmeal to the batter to thicken it a bit. While warm, sprinkle with chives from the garden; serve with a hot pepper of any kind and some beer for a perfect summer dinner!

August 6, 2008

Italy: part 6, Villa d'Este (finale)

I've been blogging about this trip for what seems like months now, and if it's dragging out for you too, I apologize. On the other hand, it has afforded me the opportunity to stretch out the life of this brief but wonderful little trip to Italy...

Our last stop was Lake Como and the historic, beautiful and exclusive Villa d'Este. What a remarkable place this was. I had only ever heard about its beauty and its opulence, its elegance and over-the-top luxury. In short, a place that needs to be seen to be believed.

It is one of the "Leading Hotels of the World" and its history since its incarnation as a hotel in the early 20th century after being home to a former queen of England and other Italian aristrocrats before that, is fascinating and its former guests some of the world's most famous actors and actresses, politicians, world leaders and wealthy elite.

We did not skip a beat in getting to know the stomping grounds of the rich and famous. My proletarian, humble lifestyle notwithstanding, I took to the life of a princess with little difficulty. The floating pool, the lakeside piano bar, the boxed fancy chocolates at bedtime and the extraordinary breakfast buffet, the artistic treasures, the Renaissance gardens designed by the architect Palladino Palladini, and the sixteenth-century villa itself... it was both more than anyone could imagine and everything I expected all at once.

We sat by the pool, gently rocking on the lake in our cushy blue chairs, soaking up the Italian sunshine; sipped campari and sodas on the veranda, and walked through the gardens admiring the view. We also took a drive along the winding road along the lake looking for George Clooney's house and then took the ferry across the lake to the town of Bellaggio (much prettier than Steve Wynn's version in Vegas by the way).

I took very few photos of the food while at the Villa d'Este. Maybe it was that the natural and man-made surroundings were overwhelming to the senses, leaving me with little more than the energy to enjoy eating and soak up the ambience. I do remember the whole-roasted branzino and the pesto pasta with baby green beans and potatoes. And I admired the top-notch hotel staff and their professionalism and immaculate attire.

I feel very lucky to have experienced a place like the Villa d'Este. It's not a place I am likely to return to unless I become rich and famous one day. But I don't really think I need to. It was a glimpse of a lifestyle and a place that can just as easily live on in my imagination as it did in the brief two days I was there. I was whisked away early the last morning of the trip to catch my flight in Milan, feeling as if I had just been in a dream, but a dream that I've been fortunate enough to live in for a while now.

*mille grazie to the Tiberti family for letting me in on their family vacation.

Arrivederci Italia. Until next time.

August 2, 2008

Italy, part 5: the wild, wild North of Italy

Before I tell about one of the top 5 meals I've ever had in Italy, I want to remember a few of the other things about Asiago that struck me. I knew they were famous for cheese, but why were there so many great bakeries and pastry shops in one town, in the North no less, which is not as famous as Southern Italy for pastries?

All I know is I drooled over the windows on every corner...

Now, back to that meal. We were taken on a country road by Stefano, up the mountain to a place where he said the food was "local but not typical." Hmmm. I was intrigued. We pulled up alongside some horses eating to what looked a lot like a ranch in Colorado: stables, more horses, a little ranch-style outpost with a sign saying "Locanda Appaloosa."It was dusk and really pretty up there and all I could think of was that this was a strange place for a restaurant.

The owner came outside to greet us, as did his cute old dog named Byron (like the poet) and led us into what seemed like their home rather than a restaurant. There was a big open kitchen, used for cooking demonstrations, with a huge old antique stove as the centerpiece and everything was done in wood from floors to ceiling. On the walls were murals of Western scenes and there were American Indian artifacts all over the place. It was as if the owners had an obsession with the Wild, Wild West. Not to worry, though. This was no Outback Steakhouse. The food turned out to be unmistakably Italian and unbelievably good.

I think I counted 11 courses, but I may have lost count after the 2nd or 3rd dessert.

Here is the menu, with accompanying pictures (the quality of which get progressively worse as the wine got progressively better...)


Pane fritto con guanciale di maiale affumicato (fried bread stuffed with smoked pork jowl - on right - the others were a vegetarian antipasto I can't remember because who wouldn't eat the pork jowl?) *served with Prosecco made using the Champagne method.

La nostra "carne salada" con i xaleti marinati (housemade beef carpaccio aged for 25 days in salt and spices with marinated local wild mushrooms)

Ricottini di zucca e erba cipollina con polvere di amaretto e ricotta affumicata di malga (housemade smoked ricotta with pumpkin, amaretto and herbs)


Bigoli con la salsiccia (housemade 'bigoli' - a large, hollow whole-wheat pasta- with sausage) *wine: Zonta Cabernet dal Bassano "Due santi"

Pasta e fagioli estiva leggermente piccante (a summer, spicy 'pasta e fagioli' soup)


Stinco di maialino da latte arrosto in due cotture (Roast suckling pig -slow roasted in milk for 8 hours)


Polenta "grezza" e couscous con verdure tritte (homemade, unprocessed polenta and couscous with sauteed vegetables)


Robiola con erba cipollina e marmellata di carrote; Gorgonzola con Madeira, noci e miele d'Acacia (blurry photo notwithstanding, this cheese course was amazing: housemade Robiola with herbs and carrot marmelade; housemade Gorgonzola with Madeira wine, hazelnuts and Acacia honey).


Piccola cassata italiana con frutti di bosco (a 'cassata' semifreddo with wild berries-oh, yummy)

Tortino di pesche (the lightest, most delicious little peach torte)

Cioccolatini di casa al latte con la liquirizia e cioccolatino bianco con il croccante (can you believe this?? little housemade chocolates with licorice and white chocolate with candy sprinkles) *served with dessert wine and then finished off with a 'crema di limoncello'



I can die now. Just remembering it makes me happy... Grazie to Francesca, the chef-owner (yes, a Female Italian Chef! Hooray!) And Pippo, her husband, co-owner/manager/waiter. I got so excited I had to have a picture with them.