Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rum Raisin Cake

I know, it’s October and I should really be writing about a pumpkin recipe, right? Listen, I love pumpkin as much as the next person, but I feel like everywhere (EVERYWHERE!) I turn, the word “pumpkin” is screaming at me. From lattes and bread, cookies (even Paleo cookies) and candies, to pancakes, pasta and beer.  I know that pumpkin has a short window in which to take over our minds and diets (basically from October to late November), but I’m going to buck conventional thinking here and give you a recipe for a fabulous cake that will still give you that cozy, warm, autumn feel (and the house smells wonderful as it's baking): rum raisin cake.

I recently got the new baking book from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh called Sweet. Yotam is the chef-owner of several delis and restaurants in London. He is also a prolific author, having written five cookbooks (I also own his terrific cookbook, Jerusalem), and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers. 

Helen Goh is a pastry chef who has worked closely with Ottolenghi for many years as his lead product developer. 
bake prep

When Sweet came in the mail a few weeks ago, I set it aside. With cookbooks that appear to have real promise, I like to wait until I have a chunk of time to relax with it. Depending on the time of day, I either get a cup of coffee, tea, or a glass of wine, and settle in. I leaf through the entire book, earmarking recipes that sound good. It’s a lovely way to force myself to “detox” from all things digital, at least for a little while.
my well-tagged copy!
And that’s exactly what I did last week. By the time I was done, there were so many post-it notes sticking out of the book that I knew it was a keeper! My goal was to find a cake to accompany a fall-themed luncheon we were planning. And as you may have guessed, it wouldn’t be pumpkin! 

Helen Goh’s description of how she came up with this cake really won me over: Helen and her son have a tradition of sharing a sundae when they go to an ice cream parlor. On the rare occasion they don’t share, she always orders a rum raisin cone. “This, along with her affection for the rum-soaked retro classic rum baba, was the inspiration for this cake.” I loved this little story. I, too, almost always order a rum raisin cone when I go to our favorite ice cream store in the area, Gelotti’s. The combination of the custardy vanilla oozing with boozy raisins speaks to my soul.

So onto the cake! First off, it’s got a good amount of rum in it. The raisins soak overnight in a half-cup of dark rum. And there’s an additional tablespoon if you make the optional rum-caramel icing.
the gorgeous batter
ready to bake!
just out of the oven
isn't this gorgeous?!

The cake is chock full of butter and sour cream so it’s super-moist. But what really makes this cake stand out is the rum-soaked raisins. The rum infuses the cake with a sweet warmth and the now plump raisins are bursting with flavor. 

Due to time and logistics, I simply dusted the finished cake with powdered sugar (which was lovely), but next time I would try the recommended icing or just add a dollop of whipped cream on the side. You can’t go wrong with any of the additions.
ready for your Fall dessert table

The cake keeps very well wrapped in foil for a few days. In fact, I’m going on day four now and it’s still moist and delicious. 

So, my friends, break out of that same old pumpkin routine and bake up something different! 

Print recipe here.

Happy Fall!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sicilian Pistachio Cookies (gluten-free)

Greetings, Dear Readers.

I feel a bit out of sorts posting a simple cookie article after yesterday's horrible event in Las Vegas (I wrote it last week). Even though I feel depressed and at a loss to come to terms with the senseless violence, and our government's inability to take serious action about realistic gun control, sometimes it does help to cook or bake to relieve some of the stress and anxiety (I know it helps me). Even better would be to invite friends and/or neighbors for a meal, or "coffee and..." to talk peacefully and calmly, or simply to just be together. I hope you and your loved ones are safe.
--------------------
While summer is my fave season, I do love the Fall - the warm days/chilly nights, country drives, throwing on a cute little jacket, and the luscious flavors of Fall - plums, pumpkins, pistachios, cinnamon, cardamom. 

Last year at this time I was in Sicily (read about my trip here and here). Ahhhhhh. Beautiful, mysterious, complicated, delicious Sicily. How I loved that trip! Feeling a bit “homesick” for my ancestral homeland, I needed to make something to help me get back there virtually. 

Mt Etna's volcanic landscape
The adorable donkeys of Etna Donkey Trekking
That’s when I came across this recipe on Food52 for Sicilian Pistachio Cookies. Pistachios are a huge part of Sicily’s agriculture, especially near Mt Etna, which we visited. We were taken in by the otherworldly volcanic landscape of Etna. The mountain had just erupted a couple of months before we were there and black lava was everywhere.  The trusty, adorable donkeys of Etna Donkey Trekking carried us over craters, through ancient forests, and afforded us panoramic views otherwise impossible. I highly recommend this excursion if you visit the Catania area.

Back to the cookies! These little gems are SO easy to make, and as a bonus to people who need to watch their gluten intake - they are GF! The cookies have it all: crunch, spice, citrus - a trifecta of deliciousness! 
crunch, citrus, spice pre-rolling

What are your favorite Fall recipes? Do they bring back memories of a favorite trip? Leave a note below. And let me know if you bake these cookies!

Enjoy!


Full recipe here!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Republishing from 2009 (because it's that good!): September Plums


Wow, this was first published in 2009, one year after I started writing The Cook's Tour. I'm embarrassed by the photo that accompanied this post (above), which did not show the beauty of this cake (suggestion: ignore the photo and make this cake!) I've learned alot in these last eight years about photographing food, and blogging in general, and I thank you for joining me on the "tour" as we've traveled the globe (literally and figuratively) eating and discovering. 

I also noticed from the original post that there was no "print" option for the recipe (because I didn't know how to do that back then!). So I've added the print version for this recipe here and below.

If you are celebrating Rosh Hashana this week, I wish you a sweet New Year! 

Original Post:
Otherwise known as Italian Prune Plums. They are only available for a short period of time, right around mid-September so when I see them, I grab them. These little babies are full of purpley-sweet deliciousness. With beautiful gold flesh, they make terrific desserts. For me, the arrival of these plums heralds the coming of Fall.

One of my favorite prune plum recipes comes from a recipe my late mother-in-law made for years: Viennese Plum Cake. She clipped it from a newspaper who knows how long ago. The Xeroxed copy I have is wrinkled and stained from over-use (is there such a thing as over-use with good recipes?).

This is a perfect example of a cake that is good "plain or fancy." It is excellent as a simple coffee cake with no adornment whatsoever, but with a quick whip of some vanilla-tinged heavy cream, you could dress it up and serve it to some lucky dinner guests. And it is really fast to put together -- I made it Thursday night in about 15 minutes (not including baking time, obviously). Delicious warm out of the oven and at room temp. You cannot go wrong with this cake!

Viennese Plum Cake
1/2 C butter at room temp
1/2 C sugar
2 eggs
1/4 t salt
1 C flour
1 t baking powder
16 medium-sized Italian prune plums - washed, halved, pitted
1/2 C sugar
2 t cinnamon
1 TB butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8x8 square pan.
Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Blend together salt, flour and baking powder in small bowl. Combine flour mixture with butter mixture. Spread dough evenly in prepared pan. Place plums skin side down on top of batter.
Mix together cinnamon/sugar combination; sprinkle over plums (this mixture seems like too much, but use it all). Dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until top is golden.
Wrapped well, it keeps for 4-5 days (this is just an estimate because it never lasts that long).
Print version.



Monday, August 28, 2017

Plum Squares with Marzipan Crumble

Well, it’s that time of year…late August, which begets fall, which begets winter, my least favorite season (oh, who am I kidding? I hate winter). The only good part of August (IMHO) is the arrival of Italian prune plums. These purple beauties make me smile the first time I spot them in the store every year. 
Most years I make my late mother-in-law’s famous plum cake. Friends and family constantly request “the Freda plum cake,” and it is a definite winner. I have also tried other versions because I firmly believe one can never have too many plum cake recipes.
This year, the first plum cake I’ve made is from Smitten Kitchen. Deb Perelman’s Plum Squares with Marzipan Crumble is an absolute delight. I loved the texture of this cake. With sliced almonds AND marzipan (almond paste) in the crumble, which is used on top of the crust and sprinkled over the juicy plum mixture, you get all these luscious flavors and crunchies converging in every bite.

The recipe also has pan size options - only have a 9x13 pan? You can use it. How about an 8” square? That works, too! Just follow Deb’s directions for baking in different size pans. 

The finished product keeps very well, wrapped in the refrigerator for a week. I’m sure you can freeze them, too, but I didn’t have any leftover to freeze! 


Don’t wait too long - go buy your prune plums today (before they’re gone) and make this cake!

Print here and if you've made this recipe, tag us at our FB page to let us know how it came out.

Happy baking!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Great Catskill Mountain BBQ Fest!

Franklin BBQ, Austin
I am so excited to announce that I will be a judge at the Great Catskill Mountain BBQ Fest this Saturday, August 26 in Fleischmanns, NY. This is a Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned professional competition and is shaping up to be a terrific event.

There are three separate competitions:
  1. Professional Competition: teams come from all over the country to compete against each other for money and trophies. This contest will showcase the standard four KCBS meats: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. 
  2. Fire Company Throw-down: local fire companies go head-to-head (and hose-to-hose) to compete for prize money and a trophy with one meat category: chicken.
  3. “You Be the Judge” - People’s Choice Charity Rib-Off: this is open to all participating (pro and fire company) and all food concession vendors.
Of course, the fest is not just about BBQ. There will be a craft beer tent, plenty of kid’s activities, craft vendors, live music, and other entertainment. Admission is free and all net proceeds benefit the Fleischmanns Park Lighting Project.
Micklethwait BBQ, Austin

As I am a big time BBQ fan, I am really looking forward to my first gig as a judge (and will be studiously reviewing the KCBS rules before the event). If you are a BBQ lover, or just want to take a ride to beautiful upstate New York (the weather forecast is looking good!), put this on your calendar and stop by to say hello (I’ll be the one happily up to my elbows in BBQ!).

Saturday, August 26
11am - 7pm
Fleischmanns Park
242 Wagner Avenue
Fleischmanns, NY



Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Fresh Bread at Bivio in Montclair


For almost five years, pizza aficionados in the north Jersey area flocked to Bivio Pizzeria Napoletana in Little Falls like hummingbirds to sugar . Once you had a taste of Tomasso Colao’s authentic pizza made with his own natural yeast cultured dough, you were hooked. I count myself among the faithful. 

I wrote about Bivio Pizzeria when it first opened in 2011 and was a dedicated patron for Bivio’s entirely all-too-short run. Besides the delicate, innovative pizzas on offer, Tom was a master bread baker, and one of the joys of ordering a salad or appetizer was the incredible crusty bread that came with it. For awhile, you could also buy a loaf of Tom’s rustic breads to take home.

When Bivio closed in 2015, I was devastated (as were many of their other loyal followers). Of course, I missed the pizza and the bread, but also the vibe. Bivio had a special warmth that I haven’t found anywhere else in the area. A restaurant’s ambience starts with the management and Tomasso and his wife, Jackie, imbued Bivio with a genuine cordiality that made Bivio somewhere you wanted to be. From the soft lighting to the cool jazz, to the friendly yet professional service, Bivio had it all.

I’m still searching for that very special pizza but at least now I can once again get Tom’s bread. That’s right, Bivio groupies, Tomasso Colao’s handmade Italian bread is now available at the brand new Bivio Panificio in Montclair. Tom is firing up his wood-burning oven to turn out the breads we so loved at the original Bivio. 
I was there opening day to visit Tom and, of course, to get my hands of that bread! Tom’s new location is a small storefront in a quiet residential neighborhood, and when I arrived he was hard at work turning out those gorgeous rustic loaves. In the oven was the last batch for the day, “pagnotta,” a traditional peasant loaf with a deep, dark crust. He had already made baskets full of bastones and pane Bivio, and the aroma in the store made my heart sing. 

After visiting for awhile, I went home with two loaves (because, how could I not?), a bastone and the pagnotta almost too warm to even hold. I had planned to use the bastone with dinner that evening, but the minute I got in the car, I tore the heel from the loaf and ooh’d and aah’d the whole way home. Welcome back, Tomasso, Jackie, and the “baby” (their natural yeast culture), you were sorely missed.

107 Pine Street
Montclair, NJ
973-941-9602

Wednesday-Saturday (call for specific hours)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Soft Shell Crabs with Orzo Summer Salad


One of our favorite summer meals is soft shell crabs. Last week, we were able to buy “whales” at Gus and Company Fish Market in Montclair (whales are the largest size of soft shells). They weren’t cheap but they were incredibly meaty and brimming with freshness.

After a light dusting of seasoned flour, the crabs are sautéed in a delicate mix of just butter, olive oil, and cream sherry. They come up golden brown, crisp, and delectable. I can’t provide a formal recipe for you because it was a “verbal” recital from a friend’s long ago stint at a New Jersey seaside restaurant. These are the best soft shells we've ever had. Here’s the gist:

Mix some all-purpose flour with salt, freshly ground pepper, and a bit of paprika in a bowl. Transfer seasoned flour to a plate or container big enough to use for dredging. 

Dry the crabs with a paper towel. Dredge crabs in seasoned flour and set aside.

Melt 1-2 TB of butter and 1-2 TB olive oil (it should be a 50/50 proportion) in a heavy duty pan (we use cast iron). When the pan is hot, add the crabs, shell side down and cook until golden. Flip and cook about 3-5 minutes, depending on size of crabs. Remove crabs from the pan, add about 1/4 cup of cream sherry and cook until alcohol evaporates and approximately 2 TB of sauce remains. Pour pan sauce over crabs and serve.
We made a delightful orzo salad to accompany the crabs. From the good cooks over at Food52, this salad is the perfect summer side, packed with sweet cherry tomatoes, scallions, fresh spinach, and salty feta. It’s colorful and delicious, and as a bonus, you can make it ahead of time. If you like, a bright Sauvignon Blanc is very nice with this meal.


Happy Summer Eating!