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Citrus Lovers, Part 2

Some twenty-five years ago, I was traveling alone in Italy, just sort of wandering and making my way down to Basilicata to visit my relatives there. Hanging out for a few days in Naples, I met some locals who encouraged me to take the Circumvesuviana Railway to Sorrento, and then get some sort of transportation – boat, bus, scooter, or cab -down the coast to Praiano, a little fishing village just south of the jetsetter’s paradise, Positano. I bought a ticket for the train, and when I got to Sorrento, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Praiano-several miles but an inexpensive cab ride south. We started driving and suddenly we pulled out onto the coastal road. My jaw literally dropped and I must have gasped because the driver laughed and slowed down so I could take a picture.

 

The utter drama of it all- cliffs and outcroppings literally hanging in mid-air over sheer drops down thousands of feet to a shimmering Mediterranean Sea. You could see miles down the coast, which wove in and out, proffering rocks here and there, just wide enough to be someone’s private beach. And beaches they were, since Italians will literally set up a beach chair and umbrella anywhere they can. You could be sure a little stand selling Peronis and Campari-Sodas was not far behind. The weather seemed to add to the drama, since you could actually see it change as you looked down the coast.

The sun rules this land, even more than anywhere else in Italy. And almost anywhere you look- lemon and orange groves! Citrus is king here and it graces everything- from simply grilled fish to gelato to scamorza wrapped in fragrant lemon leaves, drizzled with olive oil, and tossed onto a grill. Limoncello, poured from delicate bottles, is what you drink after dinner- a lovely but bracing digestif.

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I ended up staying in Praiano, forgoing my plans to visit my relatives in Basilicata. My new friends came down to the coast and days of sun, sea, music and wine followed. When I finally went back up to Rome, I was so enchanted with the carefree life on the Amalfi Coast; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That place was like heaven to me, and all these years later it still is. I’ve been back many times, and each time my senses are overwhelmed by everything around me.


 

If there’s any one that can add a sense of romance to a discussion of lemons, I guess it’s me. Lemon is my favorite flavor, and I always associate it with this beautiful area of Campania, from the Amalfi coast to Capri, Sorrento, or the enchanting island of Ischia. Amalfi lemons are big, sweet, and fragrant and have a look all their own – a bumpy surface with a very thick rind.

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We go through a lot of lemons here at L’Arte – we make a Torta Caprese al Limone, which is a flourless almond and white chocolate cake scented with lemons. We have our “L’Amalfitana”, a white lemon cake filled with lemon curd and covered with a thin layer of lemon buttercream. We make sweet Lemon Taralli, Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, and Delizia di Limone gelato in the summer. We also make candied lemon zest, which we use in all manner of recipes as a bittersweet component.

Meyer lemons are a favorite of mine- they’re a cross between lemons and tangerines, so they’re sweet and have a shiny, herbal-scented rind. I like to make Meyer lemon curd. I fill delicate tart shells with the curd, then top each tart with a dollop of toasted silky meringue. Lemon curd can be easily made in a home kitchen and kept in the fridge for up to 10 days. It can be used as a tart or cake filling, but is also yummy as an alternative to jam or marmalade.


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Meyer Lemon Curd

150 g. sugar
grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons
3 eggs
¾ cup Meyer lemon juice
112 g. butter, cut into pieces

  • In a medium bowl, combine the sugar with the lemon zest, rubbing the zest into the sugar with your fingertips.
  • Add the eggs and whisk together until well combined.
  • Whisk in the lemon juice, then add the butter pieces to the mixture.
  • Place the bowl over a pot of gently simmering water, preferably with the bowl fitting snugly over the pot.
  • Cook the curd, stirring frequently but not constantly, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of lightly whipped cream. The temperature of the curd should be about 150F., although judging by consistency alone is fine.
  • Strain the curd into a bowl or container. Let cool to room temperature in an ice bath, then refrigerate until ready to use.

Lemons add a note of freshness to anything that you’re cooking. Because they’re acidic, they balance out salt, make a counterpoint to richness and eggs, and enhance flavors like vanilla, almond, berries, and even chocolate. Of course, they are a formidable flavor component on their own, a bold taste that comes through strong in even something like mousse or a souffle.


I spent my birthday one summer in a lovely rented house on the island of Ischia, which is about a forty-minute hydrofoil ride off the coast of Naples. Twelve of us had rented this large home built into the side of the mountain. The roof of the house was a beautiful swimmming pool and patio that overlooked the Bay of Naples. There were, of course, lemon groves and a small vineyard on the grounds, and the house even had a wood-burning oven where pizza could be made.

Days were spent riding around the island on scooters and motorcycles, searching out new beaches, picturesque villages and restaurants. Lunch was often had directly on the beach, as restaurants close to the shore will literally set up a table and chairs on the sand for you, then bring you a chilled ice bucket with a bottle of white wine and plates of steaming linguini with clams and mussels.

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Omnipresent on menus in the restaurants of Ischia is the dish Pasta al Limone. I became absolutely addicted to this dish, and so I created my own version of it when I got back to the States. We can’t really get access to Amalfi lemons here, but I make the dish with lots of lemon juice, Limoncello, and mascarpone, and I prefer fettucini as it seems to work well with this type of sauce.


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Fettucini Al Limone

 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons brandy
½ cup Limoncello
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
½ cup mascarpone
1 cup lightly packed grated Pecorino Romano
½ lb. fettucini

  • Heat the oil over low flame in a large saute pan.
  • Saute the garlic in the oil until it just starts to color. Add the lemon zest and saute for another thirty seconds or so.
  • Add the brandy and the Limoncello and bring to a boil. Let the liquid reduce somewhat, then add the juice.
  • Season this mixture with salt and pepper and then let it reduce by half.
  • Turn the flame down to low and whisk in the mascarpone. Let the mixture cook very slowly for a few minutes, while you boil the pasta.
  • Cook the fettucini in boiling salted water until al dente.
  • Turn the flame off of the sauce and whisk in the Pecorino Romano. Drain the pasta, saving a few tablespoons of pasta water.
  • Toss the fettucini in the sauce along with the hot pasta water.
  • Serve immediately with a slice of lemon for garnish and a little more cracked black pepper and grated cheese, if desired.

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Citrus Lovers: Part 1

Looking out over citrus groves to the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast

Looking out over citrus groves to the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast

I often wish I lived somewhere surrounded by orange groves- preferably Sorrento, where the groves overlook the Mediterranean and one relaxes in the afternoon, sipping a Campari and Soda with a slice of fragrant orange while contemplating the view.

Looking north to Vesuvius from Sorrento

Looking north to Vesuvius from Sorrento

Yes, well….It’s fifteen degrees here in the northeast and the groundhog saw his shadow – the snow and ice won’t be leaving soon, I’m afraid.  As for me, I’m usually dreaming about the Amalfi Coast and the lemon and orange groves that proliferate there, and planning my next trip- its been my absolute favorite place to go for the last 25 years!

But winter here at home also means that wonderful citrus fruit is in season. And nothing brightens up a chef’s dullish winter pallette like citrus. The sweet yet astringent quality of oranges and lemons is extremely desirable in all types of cuisine and baking, sweet and savory. I also personally love to eat oranges in all varieties. I was in an orange grove in Florida a couple of weeks ago, and couldn’t get enough of the honeybells, tangerines, and pink grapefruits.

Honeybell oranges at Ridge River Groves in Florida

Honeybell oranges at Ridge River Groves in Florida

If you’ve never had a honeybell orange, you’re really missing out on something terrific, and they are in season in January-February. (They are actually a cross between a tangerine and a pink grapefruit.) Another extremely succulent and sweet variety is the satsuma, a type of mandarin orange that’s available now. It’s very easy to peel and bursting with juiciness. A navel orange that’s pink on the inside with a delicate, complex flavor is the cara cara orange. Cara caras are grown in California and are available in most supermarkets now –I highly recommend them as well (that pink color tends to make them a chef’s favorite for garnishing.)

While we make loads of citrusy desserts all year at L’Arte, January and February are particularly focused on them. Granita is usually thought of as a summer dessert, but why not make a refreshing winter granita that reminds us of the sun and those citrus groves? This is a luscious and super easy to make granita that combines citrus juice and Prosecco.

 

Orange, Grapefruit, and Prosecco Granita

 

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sugar
¾ cup water
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 cup fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
2/3 cup Prosecco

  • In a small pot, bring the sugar and water to a boil. Stir to dissolve all of the sugar, then remove the pot from the heat. Let the sugar syrup cool.
  • Add the remaining ingredients to the sugar syrup and stir gently to combine.
  • Pour the granita mixture into a shallow pan and place in the freezer. Allow the mixture to freeze, preferably overnight.  (It will take at least six hours to freeze)
  • Chill your serving glasses (martini glasses are nice to use).
  • Remove the granita from the freezer, and using a large metal spoon or ice cream scoop, scrape the ice to break it up, mixing it as you do. Return to freezer until ready to serve.
  • To serve, spoon the granita into the chilled glasses. I like to garnish the granita with a little whipped cream and a piece of candied orange peel.

Candied citrus peels are a popular item at L’Arte. They’re a versatile treat that we use in our cannoli filling, our Italian Ricotta cheesecake, as a garnish or decoration, or just on their own as a confection, plain or dipped in chocolate. We make them weekly at L’Arte, and since they take a few days, there always seems to be a batch simmering on the stove or drying on racks. People are always asking me how to make them. Its a long process, but very easy to do, and you have a lovely citrus aroma in your kitchen the whole time.

We start out with thick-skinned oranges or grapefruits. We score the fruit, then peel it.

We cut the peel into strips, then blanch it for about 30 seconds in boiling water.

 

After draining it and rinsing it in cold water, we put it back in the pot, adding equal parts sugar and water. You want the pieces of rind to be completely submerged in the syrup.

We bring this mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the rind is translucent, which means that it is soft and saturated with the syrup. At this point, we remove the rind from the syrup and let it dry on racks.

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We wait for the rind to dry to the point that it can be rolled in granulated sugar without the sugar melting. This can take several hours or an entire day, depending on the humidity. (We test one piece- if it isn’t ready the sugar will start to melt after a couple of minutes. In that case, we let the peels dry another hour or so.)

Now we roll each piece in sugar, then let the pieces dry again, usually overnight on parchment-lined sheet pans.

The next day, we either put the candied rind in plastic containers to use in recipes, or we dip the ends in tempered chocolate to sell by the pound as confections.

I know this sounds like a crazy amount of sugar, but remember, this is candy. And it is a bittersweet treat, with just the right amount of each – bitter and sweet, that is. The orange rind and pith almost melt into a jelly and are offset by the slight crunch of the sugar and the deep richness of the bittersweet chocolate. It’s a sophisticated taste, very satisfying in small amounts.

I think that if you are a citrus lover, like me, then you always order the lemon souffle instead of the chocolate cake, or buy the lemon poppyseed muffin instead of the bran muffin – we are very loyal to our favorite fruits. More on lemons in the next post!

 

 

Cioccolato

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I am not what you would call a “chocoholic”. I absolutely love chocolate as an ingredient; I appreciate its fascinating history and the complexity of producing it. I like working with chocolate and teaching people how to work with it in confections and desserts, but I don’t crave it on a daily basis.

However, during the Eurochocolate festival in Perugia, strolling the streets and piazzas while breathing in the heady aromas of dark, milk, and white chocolate, it’s hard not to want to taste everything in sight. And the beguiling contrast of meters and meters of confections against a backdrop of gorgeous architecture and panoramic views is really inspiring to a pastry chef like myself.

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One of the most popular confections is chocolate bark, which comes in small beautiful packages or is sold by the kilo in big slabs. Chocolate bark is just dark, milk, or white chocolate with all manner of sweet, crunchy, flavorful, aromatic, or surprising add-ins mixed into it while it’s in its melted state. When the chocolate cools and sets, these delicious items are embedded in it. At Eurochocolate, you can find bark with anything from rose petals, dried bananas, lavender, and coconut to cereal, hazelnuts, pistachios, and puffed farro (my favorite).

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Gianduja is so popular in Italy, and its hard not to love it. It’s the perfect marriage of two luscious flavors- chocolate and hazelnuts. Gianduja was invented in Torino where the Piemontese hazelnuts are plentiful. Rich and unctious hazelnut paste is combined with melted dark or milk chocolate and allowed to become one, so to speak. Gianduja can be either a confection on its own or used as an ingredient in desserts- such as our Gianduja Cheesecakes at L’Arte.

Chocolate truffles abound too- their crisp shells make a satisfying contrast to their rich, creamy interiors. There is even a stand that sells chocolate truffles flavored with the real underground fungus that Umbria is famous for- black truffle-scented chocolate truffles!

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One of the things I love about the pasticcerie, or pastry shops in Italy, is that they always contain a bar! Why we haven’t adopted this idea in the States is beyond me. You order your pastry and eat it with an espresso or a cappucino standing up at the bar. Or, of course, you order yourself an aperitivo or an amaro or a glass of wine… It’s just so civilized. The main corso in Perugia has a gorgeous pastry and chocolate café called Pasticceria Sandri.

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Its beautiful vaulted ceiling painted with murals and antique glass cases filled with pastries and chocolates are truly a sight to see.

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The dolce vita lifestyle that attracts so many of us to Italy always includes a break in the late afternoon for a little pastry or a biscotti, a coffee, and some time to actually think, or reflect on what’s happening in your day. It’s a small thing, but can really add to the quality of life.

Ricciarelli are a type of biscotti, or cookie, commonly seen all over Tuscany and Umbria, although they are originally from the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena. They are made with almonds or hazelnuts and are a sort of Italian macaron. I developed this very easy-to-make chocolate version of the ricciarelli, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a late afternoon cappucino. They are rich and chocolatey but very light, and on a platter or cake stand, they also make a nice addition to a holiday dessert table.

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CHOCOLATE RICCIARELLI

Note: This recipe is measured by metric weight, not volume. Since accuracy is super important in pastry making, using a scale to weigh ingredients is the way to go. Small scales that measure both by ounces and grams are inexpensive and readily available.

 126 g. ground toasted hazelnuts or almonds  (Lightly toast the nuts in a 325F. oven, then grind them in a food processor.)
150 g. sugar, divided into two halves
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking powder
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional
3 egg whites
large pinch salt powdered sugar

  • Preheat oven to 325F.
  • In a large bowl, combine ground almonds, the first half of the sugar, the cocoa powder, baking powder, vanilla, and black pepper.
  • Add the salt to the egg whites, which have been put in the bowl of the mixer.
  • With the whisk attachment, start whipping the whites and when they come to soft peaks, add the other half of the sugar in a stream.
  • When the meringue has firm peaks, stop mixing.
  • Fold the ground nut mixture into the meringue all at once.
  • Make oval shaped tablespoonfuls of the batter on a parchment lined baking sheet, spaced 2 inches apart.
  • Sift confectioner’s sugar on top of the batter mounds.
  • Bake until just set, about 12 minutes.
  • Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then remove them with a metal spatula. Keep them in an airtight container until ready to eat!

L’Arte in the News

December 2014
L’Arte in Ramsey Winter 2015 Classes with Chef Vicki Wells
http://www.boozyburbs.com/2014/12/19/larte-ramsey-winter-2015-classes-chef-vicki-wells/

August 2014
The perfectly sweet, wonderfully ripe New Jersey peach
http://www.northjersey.com/food-and-dining-news/recipes/the-perfectly-sweet-wonderfully-ripe-new-jersey-peach-1.1062789

Real Housewives of New Jersey Film Must-See Episode at L’Arte
http://www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-new-jersey/season-6/videos/is-bobby-playing-nicole

June 2014
Homemade Gelato at L’Arte della Pasticceria in Ramsey
http://www.boozyburbs.com/2014/06/06/gelato-larte-ramsey/

April 2014
‘Tis the season for luscious lemon desserts
http://www.northjersey.com/food-and-dining-news/recipes/tis-the-season-for-luscious-lemon-desserts-1.961606

March 2014
Pistachio cornetti at L’Arte
http://www.northjersey.com/food-and-dining-news/pistachio-cornetti-at-l-arte-1.733952

January 2014
L’Arte della Pasticceria gets new chef, new pastries

http://www.northjersey.com/food-and-dining-news/l-arte-della-pasticceria-gets-new-chef-new-pastries-1.674348

Re-Opening Alert: L’Arte Della Pasticceria, Ramsey, NJ
http://www.boozyburbs.com/2014/01/21/re-opening-alert-larte-della-pasticceria-ramsey-nj/

Cucina della Terra

 

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Here I am on my yearly trip to Cucina della Terra in Umbria, Italy. Cucina della Terra, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, is the small, lovely culinary school that my friends Gerri and Jack own in Castiglione del Lago, a beautiful town situated above Lago Trasimeno, one of the largest lakes in Italy. Umbria is the region directly in the middle of the country, northeast of Rome and southeast of Tuscany. It is known as “the green heart of Italy”, and it certainly is – green, I mean. The rolling hills, farms, olive groves, and vineyards make it one of the most picturesque places in the country. It bears a resemblance to Tuscany, but only up to a point- there is no “chi-chi” or snob component here, few tourists, and more of a “real life” feel.

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

I love coming here for many reasons. I reconnect with Italy – the food, the land, the scenery, and the lifestyle. (Okay, the wine too…) I get to cook and bake using the pure earthy ingredients that are the basis of real Italian food, which is very simple and wholly depends on the terra from which it came.

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

There are 35 olive trees on the property, and the bright green olive oil that comes from them is strong and peppery- we use it for everything. The fruit and vegetables are incomparable- autumn brings cipollini onions on the stalk, all manner of squash and pumpkin, fennel, porcini and a load of other fragrant mushrooms, black kale, lentils and beans grown on the shores of the lake; plums, pears, apples, and figs that are bursting with juicy flavor.

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Umbria, with no coastline, is famous for its more earthbound delights like truffles and game. Venison ravioli, braised duck, grilled marinated quail, and wild boar sausage are all dishes to be savored here – and we do, of course. Pici al ragu di cinghiale is a dish, prevalent in Tuscany and Umbria that really exemplifies the cuisine: hand made pasta (like a very fat spaghetti) with a robust and aromatic sauce of braised wild boar and tomatoes. As soon as I arrive in Umbria, my mouth starts watering, looking forward to a porchetta panini- a sandwich of whole roast pig stuffed with wild fennel, garlic, and herbs. Speaking of fennel, I do love greens of any kind (I don’t know any Italian-American that doesn’t). Umbria grows its share of greens and then some. The open market in Castiglione had this beautiful escarole and leafy broccoli (almost worthy to be the subject of a watercolor).

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Baking is wonderful too as we use the freshest, fluffiest eggs whose bright orange yolks infuse everything with a saffron hue. Cream, milk, mascarpone, sheep’s milk ricotta, aged parmigiano, all types of pecorino — the dairy has a purity that is very palpable. I make marmellata (fruit preserves) with anything and everything – green figs from the fig tree in the back of the Cucina are my favorite.

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

We make gelato and sorbetto as well as all kinds of biscotti, making the most out of the fresh hazelnuts that come from Piemonte, the amazing dried and glaceed fruits that are available at open markets all over the Mediterranean, and of course, the chocolate (more about that in the next post).

The food and wine lovers that come to Cucina della Terra get to hunt for truffles, taste fantastic wines at beautiful vineyards, pick olives and watch them being milled into that fragrant green elixir know as extra virgin olive oil, and visit some of the famed scenic hill towns of the area like Orvieto, Montepulciano, Pienza, Assisi, and Bevagna.  The landscape, cuisine, people, and culture of Italy are so diverse. Umbria is certainly captivating, though each region is worth discovering on its own!

 

Grape Harvest

I have to admit that the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the words “Grape Harvest” isn’t the image of a bucolic Tuscan countryside of vine-covered hills; it isn’t bottles of Cabernet or Sangiovese; it isn’t even the happy thought of vineyard-hopping and wine tasting in Napa Valley, Long Island or the Finger Lakes. It’s the image of Lucy stomping grapes in a huge vat, flinging purple grape sludge at a very angry Italian woman. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get on YouTube right away and search for “I Love Lucy, Grape Stomping Episode.” You won’t be sorry, trust me.

That being said, I have an idealized vision of what life on a vineyard must be like. One of the most emotional travel experiences of my life was visiting the large farm that my great grandparents owned in Basilicata, in southern Italy. “Spogliamonaca” was pretty much in ruins when my cousins and I visited a few years ago, the beautiful stone farm buildings and houses just shells of what they had been. But the vineyards were still planted and flourishing, and gave us an impression of what it must have been like to have lived there at the turn of the last century when the farm was thriving.

In any case, I love grapes, and I love wine. I use both in my cooking and baking extensively. When autumn rolls around, and grapes become available, I buy them up and turn them into lots of different treats. One item I’m totally crazy about is “Schiacciata a l’Uva”, which is something I first tasted years ago in Tuscany and have been making ever since. It’s a kind of sweet focaccia made with wine grapes, and it’s totally fabulous. I make mine with an olive oil brioche dough, layer it with seedless green Thompson grapes, sprinkle it with vanilla sugar, fresh thyme and black pepper, and bake it on the stone floor of our bread oven. It’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and full of grapey flavor- perfect for a picnic or wine tasting, or wine –making for that matter.

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Emma Munroe, barista and salesperson extraordinaire at L’Arte invited Amanda and I to a day of her family’s extended winemaking festa. Emma’s family has been making wine yearly since the prohibition! It was a fun time with a lively and very funny family in the midst of their traditional foray into the art of winemaking–punctuated, by the way, with very frequent toasts and lots of raised glasses of the the wine that they had made two years ago.

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Every autumn, the Iannaccones buy grapes in crates from Corrado’s Market in Clifton, N.J. They crush them, let them ferment for 10 days, then squeeze out the juice, which is already wine, by the way (like Beaujolais Nouveau).

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They then let this young wine sit in large glass jars called carboys, fermenting until the spring, when it will be bottled.

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We drank wine from two years ago- it was strong, and flavorful, almost like a cross between grappa and wine. But then again, all of the homemade wine I’ve tasted in Italy is like that.

After the very hard physical work of squeezing the grapes and bottling the wine, Emma’s large extended family sits down en masse to a dinner of lasagne and sausage and peppers. It really is a wonderful tradition, rare in a world where many families (like mine) have drifted apart and moved to different corners of the country.

But back to baking and cooking with grapes and wine. Using wine as a liquid in baking adds an incredible amount of flavor, and grapes just bake really well in cakes and pies, although it’s not that common to see. We do lots of crostate at L’Arte and one of my favorites is our Harvest Crostata, which consists of a tender and crumbly pasta frolla crust filled with a sweet and juicy combination of apples, pears, plums, and grapes. I also love to use Concord grapes- their flavor is so unique, although for some people it’s hard to appreciate them because of the somewhat troublesome texture of the skin and seeds. Which is one reason why I decided to use them in a granita, that quintessientally Italian version of flavored ice. Granita is a great item to make at home because it’s a frozen dessert that doesn’t involve an ice cream or gelato machine. And it’s a refreshing way to end a big meal, maybe along with a plate of biscotti.

Concord Grape Granita

Concord Grape Granita

1 qt. Concord grapes, on stem
¾ cup red wine or Port
3 cups water
½ cup sugar

  • In a large pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a rapid boil.
  • Turn flame down to medium and allow the mixture to boil for about 20 minutes. The grapes will have turned mushy and lost a lot of their color.
  • Remove the pot from the heat and strain the liquid into a large bowl or container.
  • Pour the liquid into a large metal baking pan or other flat container.
  • Freeze the mixture, stirring every so often.
  • When the granita is completely frozen, scrape it with a metal spoon or ice cream scoop. Put back into the freezer until ready to serve.
  •  Serve in small glasses, garnished with fresh grapes.

Ground-To-Table

A friend was telling me that she went to a special event at a restaurant in late August and the dessert that was served was Apple Crisp. I’m sure that this Apple Crisp was delicious, but it just makes me wonder. Did the restaurant not know it was late August? Even supermarkets have a section of local produce, and produce purveyors for restaurants have an abundant supply of seasonal fruits.

I have always been a proponent of eating seasonally and locally, long before it was a trend. And before that, it was just what people did, without thinking about it. My grandmother’s garden in central Jersey overflowed with carrots, celery, strawberries (real ones, not the kind that are huge and white inside), tomatoes, peppers, basil; she had a sweet cherry tree, a sour cherry tree, a pear tree, an apple tree, a grape arbor, even a well. Every year, she would preserve the tomatoes so that she could make gravy (that’s Italian-American for tomato sauce with lots of meat) all year round. Other than that, the fruits and vegetables were eaten when they were ripe and ready. The point is we ate cherry pie only in the spring, because that’s when there were cherries on the trees. We actually looked forward to the beginning of June, because we would pick the ripe cherries, bring them to Grandma, and she would make us a pie. Then we wouldn’t have them again until the next June! The thought of it! No instant gratification? All I can say is, that cherry pie tasted really good.

Right now the farmer’s markets are abounding with a myriad of fruits and vegetables – September is truly the best time to frequent them, in my opinion. My sous chef Amanda and I make weekly trips to the farmer’s markets in Ramsey and Hoboken, and we also make a weekly trip to a wonderful fairyland-like place called Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff, N.J. (http://www.abmasfarm.com) You drive down a long residential road to get to Abma’s, then cross a mini railroad track, drive up a hill and arrive at the farm, a very picturesque little place where you can even visit the chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, and cows. Since Amanda and I are both city girls, Abma’s is a real treat for us.

Heirloom and Beefsteak Tomatoes at Abma's Farm

Heirloom and Beefsteak Tomatoes at Abma’s Farm

Jersey tomatoes are in full effect, so to speak, and Abma’s has lots of them. I buy beefsteak tomatoes for our “Italian BLT”, which consists of our own grilled sourdough bread, warm crispy pancetta, homemade roasted garlic mayonnaise, and ripe beefsteak tomatoes. Tomato and Basil Crostata, something I’ve been making for years, is adapted from a wonderful recipe by Giuliano Bugialli. Tomatoes are cooked with aromatics- celery, garlic, onion, basil, parsley, and carrots- until everything is very soft, then baked in a tart crust with Parmigiano, topped with thinly sliced tomatoes- its really very lovely. Also, at this time of year when tomatoes are really over-abundant, I like to make a sweet tomato preserve. The tomato, as we all know, is actually a fruit, and thus marries well with sweet ingredients like citrus and vanilla bean.

Tomato and Basil Crostata

Tomato and Basil Crostata

I’m a very lucky girl, because every year I get to go to the beautiful town of Castiglione del Lago in Umbria, Italy, and hang out with my friends Gerri and Jack, who own a small cooking school there called Cucina della Terra (http://cucinadellaterra.com). I’ve taught baking, dessert, and chocolate classes there. They have a wonderful program set up where the students, all lovers of Italian food and wine, spend mornings and afternoons visiting vineyards, sheep farms and beautiful hill towns, go hunting for truffles, pick olives, and the like. Gerri and Jack know everyone that’s food and wine related in the area, and often have some local expert come to the school and prepare something or give a talk about gelato, or lake fish, or whatever. Then everyone cooks a big meal with local fish, game, produce, and cheese, and we sit down to a fantastic dinner with wine from the vineyards we’ve visited. (Yes, I know, it’s a really tough thing to have to experience!)

In any case, one day, a guy named Sal from Sardinia (where they know something about sheep) showed up with a huge metal pot of warm ewe’s milk. He proceeded to make different kinds of pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) and then, finally, he made fresh sheep’s milk ricotta from the whey that was left from making the other cheeses. Since the ricotta is a fresh cheese, we were able to use it right away and I made these ricotta fritters. They’re pretty simple and fun to make, if you don’t mind deep-frying. I serve them with the sweet tomato preserves. Another sweet/savory treat, they work well as a snack or a dessert- this time I’m giving an actual recipe for the preserves!

Ricotta Fritters with Sweet Tomato Preserves

For the fritters:
2 eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
½ vanilla bean, split and scraped
½ lb. fresh ricotta cheese
Grated zest of ½ orange and ½ lemon
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2/3 cup all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
Canola oil for deep-frying

  • Place the sugar in a medium bowl and rub the grated zest and scraped vanilla bean seeds into the sugar with your fingertips. Add the eggs and whisk the eggs and sugar together.
  • Whisk in the ricotta and the citrus juice.
  • Sift the dry ingredients together and stir them into the egg mixture.
  • Let this mixture rest in the refrigerator for about a half hour.
  • Pour the canola oil 1-2 inches deep into a heavy wide pot. Heat the oil to 325F.
  • Drop spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil and fry a few minutes on each side. The fritters should be golden brown. Drain them on paper towels and serve warm, with the tomato preserves on the side.

 For the preserves:

2 ½ lb. ripe tomatoes
2¼ cups sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
½ vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon salt

  • Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds.
  • Drain in a colander under cold running water.
  • Peel the tomatoes, but don’t remove the seeds.
  • Chop the tomatoes coarsely.
  • Put the tomatoes with their juice and the remaining ingredients into a large heavy pot.
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently.
  • Cook until the desired preserve-consistency is reached. The mixture will look translucent and will be quite syrupy, with most of the liquid gone, when it’s ready. Towards the end of the cooking time, very frequent stirring will be necessary to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot.
  • Spoon the preserves into a jar and chill until ready to serve.
  • The preserves will keep several weeks in the refrigerator.

Ground-3

Fresh Figs

I once ate an entire kilo of figs while sitting on an outdoor staircase in Montmartre in Paris. It was late summer and the open-air markets were overflowing with ripe, gorgeous fruit. When fruit is perfect, I find it totally irresistible.

I was in Paris at that time because I had been doing a short “stagiaire” (apprenticeship) at Rostang, a Michelin two-star restaurant. I realized that the Parisians revere and respect fruit as much as I do, because the last dish that every diner at the restaurant received was a bowl of cherries. The cherries were from Limousin, an area known for that fruit and they arrived at the kitchen directly from the orchard in baskets. We would wash them and deliver them to the table at the end of the meal, after dessert and coffee. (Very few fancy restaurants in the U.S. would ever have the nerve to do anything this simple and lovely. Diners here almost always receive a platter of complicated petits fours at the end of a meal, which I, for one, am always too full to look at, let alone eat.) In any case, those cherries were so dark and plump and bursting with juicy cherry flavor, the customers ooh-la-la-ed themselves into a fruit ecstasy, leaving the restaurant in a very happy state.

But back to the figs. Figs are what I would call a special fruit. For me, along with olives, they symbolize the Mediterranean. If you love figs, you are probably pretty passionate about them. They’re absolutely perfect if you eat them right out of their little baskets, like I did in Paris, or better yet, directly from the tree. My grandma, who grew up on a farm in southern Italy, used to say that purple figs were donkey food – she and her family would only eat white figs! Personally, I’ll eat any variety of fig and enjoy it as long as it’s ripe. The soft, squishy texture of ripe figs along with the pleasant, slight crunch of their small seeds adds to the uniqueness of the fruit. There are several varieties of figs, distinguishable by color: purple, brown, green, white- each one a little different from the next.

In addition to eating them, I do, of course, cook and bake with figs – I really can’t get enough of them – but I tend to treat them simply and honestly and let the inherent flavor and texture speak for themselves. I think that if you are excited about an ingredient, you treat it with respect and create dishes that highlight it, rather than use it in a way that masks its uniqueness. In late summer and early fall, figs are pretty plentiful in markets in the northeast (although they never seem to be cheap). While occasionally blurring the lines between sweet and savory, or creating a dish that has a balance of those elements, figs are a good ingredient choice since they are delicious when complemented by honey, brandy, citrus, vanilla, almonds, walnuts or chocolate. But they also pair well with savory ingredients like cured or air-dried meats, balsamic vinegar, cheese, chicken and duck, or wild game.

Since figs have a slight strawberry-ness to them, the combination of strawberry and fig is very nice. Try serving a slice of toasted or grilled plain poundcake with a little mixture of sliced figs and strawberries. Toss the fruit with a little vanilla sugar and let it macerate for few minutes beforehand. A spoonful of mascarpone or crème fraiche is perfect with this. I also enjoy the combination of figs and espresso- I often serve espresso gelato with honey-roasted figs.

I make a crostata (the Italian version of tart or pie) with a walnut crust topped with fresh purple figs drizzled with honey, the pinkish interiors making a lovely pattern- it’s very simple and delicious. If I have a surplus of figs, I like to make preserves. Green figs are perfect for this, with orange or lemon added. I cut the figs in half and weigh them, then add half that weight of sugar. I add a couple of oranges or lemons, quartered. I put everything in a large heavy pot and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture has thickened to a nice preserve consistency. I realize I am very haphazard about this but it’s so easy to do- you just have to stir a lot towards the end of the cooking time. And I’m not that picky about the preserve having a very jelly-like texture.

Fig, Walnut, and Honey Crostata

Fig, Walnut, and Honey Crostata

I also like to oven-roast fresh figs, cut in half and drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The following recipe, using oven-roasted figs, is a nice accompaniment to a cocktail or glass of rose. Figs with prosciutto are a natural combination, but I also love them with bresaola, the Italian air-dried beef. The rich texture and deep, almost peppery flavor of the bresaola are a nice counterpoint to the fresh delicate figs.

Fig 2

 

Crostini of Fresh Figs, Bresaola, and Ricotta

For 8 hors d’oeuvre size servings

8 fresh figs, any variety
16 smallish paper thin slices of bresaola or prosciutto
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
4 slices bread, halved (I used ciabatta, although almost any bread will do- whole grain is nice with this too.)
3 tablespoons toasted chopped hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds
Fresh oregano, thyme, or rosemary, coarsely torn or chopped

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Cut figs in half, placing them cut-side up on a lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.
  • Drizzle the figs with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Roast for 10-12 minutes, or until figs have softened but not lost their shape.
  • Meanwhile, brush the bread slices with a little olive oil and lightly toast them in the oven.
  • Spread a layer of fresh ricotta onto each bread slice.
  • Top with a few fig halves or quarters, and a few pieces of bresaola or prosciutto.
  • Sprinkle with chopped nuts and the herbs. If desired, drizzle a little more balsamic vinegar on top.
  • Serve at room temperature. (These can sit a while before serving.)
  • Note: If you are a vinegar enthusiast like I am, fig balsamic vinegar is the obvious choice for this dish. It is available at lots of places, but I get mine at Kalustyan’s at 123 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

Gelato in Sicily

I’m walking down a shaded cobblestone street in Palermo. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning but the blazing sun is already trying to assert itself in the open spaces between the awnings and balconies. I’ve had a morning espresso and am looking for a little “Sicilian breakfast”. I find a caffe and order a brioche filled with frothy, fragrant peach gelato. It comes on a little square of paper and I continue on my way, eating my breakfast as I go. The streets of old Palermo exude a mysterious air, daring you to satisfy your curiosity and investigate the dead ends and alleyways. I had come to Sicily by boat from Naples a few days ago. It was an overnight trip and upon arriving in the harbor I got the distinct impression that I was now in a place that bore only some resemblance to mainland Italy.

As a chef, of course, I am most interested in the food. I walk through the Vucciria, the open-air food market that snakes through town. I eat at small restaurants, savoring charred sausages, pasta with fried eggplant, breadcrumbs and ricotta salata, and more exotic dishes like black couscous with cuttlefish. The North African influence on the food of Sicily is obvious and intriguing. The pastries are wonderful of course, but the gelato is what I crave, pretty much at any hour of the day. Why does the gelato in Sicily taste so different, I wonder? It’s light, almost foamy, refreshing yet flavorful.

Eventually I end up in Taormina, a beautiful seaside town, bordered on one side by the slopes of Mount Etna. I drink a lot of very cheap but very good wine, eat more terrific food, and of course, continue on my gelato odyssey. I rent an apartment there where I can buy food in the market and cook at home, trying to recreate some of the wonderful dishes I’ve been tasting. The volcanic soil produces amazing fruit and vegetables.

When I get home, I work on a base recipe for vanilla gelato, Sicilian style. As in most things that are deceptively simple, it takes some work and experimentation to get it right. The resulting recipe, which is very easy to make (and therefor great to make at home if you happen to have an ice cream or gelato machine) is not custard-based like French ice cream, and has a much lower cream content than American ice cream. That absence of fat allows more flavor to come through, and also makes it easier to eat and digest.  In any case, I’ve been making Sicilian-style gelato for a quite a while, and it is, of course, a staple of ours at L’Arte della Pasticceria.

We pay close attention to temperatures- after the gelato base is made, we process it in our beautiful Milanese gelato machine. It then goes into a freezer set at 0 degrees F. to set for a few hours, after which it goes right into our gelato display case, set at 10 degrees F., and it’s served to our customers from there. By never allowing the gelato to deep-freeze, we keep the texture consistent and avoid iciness.

Making gelato at home is fun and pretty much worry-free. You can make your gelato base, chill it, then let it process in your home ice cream machine while you are eating dinner, if you like. When it’s ready, you can eat it immediately or spoon it into a container and let it set up in the freezer for an hour or so, then enjoy!

I like to eat my vanilla gelato either sandwiched in a fresh brioche or with a generous spoonful of amarena cherries in syrup (or both).

Note: Amarena cherries are small flavorful dark cherries, grown in Italy, that are preserved in syrup and sold in jars. They are available at specialty food stores and on-line.

Gelato Post 2
Vanilla Gelato with Amarena Cherries in Syrup

 Vanilla Gelato

 2 cups milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup heavy cream (I use fresh heavy cream from a local dairy)
2/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • Combine the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of the milk in a small bowl, whisking to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.
  • Put the remaining milk, cream, sugar, and salt into a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk, then add the scraped bean to the milk as well. Put the pot on a medium flame and bring slowly to a simmer.
  • When the mixture starts to simmer, whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Continue whisking until the mixture comes back to a boil and starts to thicken. Cook, whisking, for 1 minute.
  • Strain the mixture into a bowl, then put the bowl into a larger bowl filled halfway with ice. Add cold water to make an ice bath.
  • When the gelato base is cool, process it in a gelato or ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Fill a container with the gelato and put in the freezer. The gelato is best eaten about an hour or so after resting in the freezer.

 

Clara Louise Tea Room

I’ve been obsessed with food, restaurants, bakeries, and bars since I was about five years old. I grew up in an Italian American home in central New Jersey. My grandparents barely spoke English, and the household was very food and celebration centric. I was a shy child but when we went as a family to my favorite restaurant, the Clara Louise Tea Room, I would run to the doorway that went into the kitchen and peer inside, fascinated. Very daring for a timid kid like me.

We went there a lot- sometimes I would go with my mother and aunts for lunch, sitting downstairs at very feminine flowery glass tables. Other times I’d go with my parents, aunts, and uncles for dinner upstairs in a masculine room with hunting prints and lots of wood. There were waiters in red jackets and things like jellied consomme and sole almondine on the menu. Every year on my birthday, the waiters would bring me a piece of vanilla cake covered with fluffy seven minute frosting, colored sprinkles and a sparkler stuck in the middle. It was a great place and I guess it made quite an impression on me because I’ve been in the food industry now for 30 years.

As a pastry chef, I’m often involved in peoples’ celebratory events. I say “involved” but of course what I mean is that I make cakes or other desserts for them. It’s such an emotional thing, and cakes are so symbolic, that I often feel like I really am involved in a way that’s meaningful. It’s one of the nicest aspects of the profession.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they always seem charmed and fascinated. They get a wistful look in their eyes, thinking, no doubt, that if only they could do something creative and crafty for a living…I usually tell them that yes, it’s a great profession and I’m so happy to make beautiful pastries by hand and its wonderful to feed people delicious things and make them happy. But if they press me further, I can’t help but tell them that the food industry is crazy. Crazy!! Restaurant people are like circus people, for God’s sake. It’s definitely an alternative lifestyle, so if you are looking for normalcy, I tell them, look elsewhere. I’ve dealt with celebrity chefs, lunatic millionaire entrepreneurs, a philandering chef ex-husband, unbalanced employees, thieving literary agents, and the French. But I’m used to it by now. Besides, boring isn’t for me.

In any case, these days I’m pretty civilized, making pastries and desserts here at L’Arte della Pasticceria, a lovely little pastry shop and café in northern Bergen County. How I came to be in charge of the kitchen at L’Arte is another story, and what came to pass in the years in between the Clara Louise Tea Room and L’Arte is an even longer story.

I love cooking, baking, and eating, but I also love reading and writing about food. I develop all of my own recipes and I like to share them. So, I am hopeful that in starting a blog of my own, I will share my food experiences and knowledge, and interact with people that feel the same way that I do- fascinated and obsessed with the world of food and eating!