Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coffee and...

When I was growing up, my parents frequently invited friends and family over for "coffee and..." This was shorthand for "come by for a casual cup of coffee and a piece of cake." Of course, this was predicated on the fact that my mother had baked something warm and wonderful during the day, and my prodding her to invite people over to enjoy it. A little while later, the house would be full of laughing, happy adults catching up on each other's lives over "coffee and." Sadly, I think this quaint custom has been forgotten. The simple art of just getting together on a casual basis has become a major production. We are all so busy that the thought, heaven forbid, of dropping by someone's house unannounced to visit is considered an imposition. But I actually think this casual setting may be a terrific alternative to the fuss and preparation of a formal dinner. I experienced this first-hand today.

Earlier in the week, we had invited a friend for Sunday dinner. As she was at the tail-end of a cold, she declined dinner but still wanted to come by to visit. I invited her for coffee and seized the opportunity to try a new cookie recipe. I wanted something light as this was a mid-afternoon visit. And, of course, I wanted something easy so as not to take up my whole weekend. David Leibovitz and Flo Braker to the rescue. Pain d'amande are deliciously crisp, thin, almond cookies that are a snap to make. I served them with some sweet green grapes, and a French press pot of Kuta coffee from CounterCulture.

The doors and windows were open on this warm spring day blowing a light breeze through the house. We sat, we talked, we laughed, we noshed. It was relaxed and unhurried.

I propose that we revive the "coffee and" tradition. For all you bakers out there, it's really the perfect excuse to whip up a tried and true item from your trusty catalog, or even try something new. If you're not particularly adept at baking, seek out a top-notch bakery in your area or pick up something at Whole Foods' terrific bakery.

The nice thing about the Pain d'amande is that you can freeze the dough for up to two months, so you'll be ready at a moment's notice when those friends drop by unannounced, and you wouldn't have it any other way. Get the coffee ready, I'll be over.

Pain d'amande - via David Leibovitz and Flo Braker

8 TB butter, salted or unsalted, cubed
1-1/3 C coarse crystal golden sugar (Demerara sugar is available in supermarkets, specialty food stores, natural food stores, or online)
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/3 C water
2-1/3 C flour
1/4 t baking soda
1 C sliced almonds, blanched or unblanched

1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat with the sugar, cinnamon, and water. Stir until the butter just melts but don't allow to boil: most of the sugar should not be dissolved.
2. Remove from heat and stir in the flour, baking soda, and almonds until well mixed.
3. Line a 9-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap and press the dough into the pan so the top is smooth. Chill until firm.
4. To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
5. Using a very sharp chef's knife, slice the dough crosswise, as thin as possible into rectangles. If you can get them as thin as a coin, all the better. The thinner they are, the more delicate and crisp they'll be.
6. Space the cookies on parchment lined baking sheets and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the cookies feel slightly firm and the undersides are golden brown. Flip the cookies over and bake an additional 10-15 minutes, until the cookies are crisp and deep golden-brown on top. The baking time depends on how thin you cut the cookies. Cool completely, then store in an airtight container until ready to serve.

Storage: once baked, the cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days. The dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days, or frozen for up to two months, if well-wrapped.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

LaPizza Fresca, NYC

Where do the days go? We had the most wonderful pizza in New York City last Saturday night and here it is a whole week later and I still haven't told you about it. My deepest apologies.

You may remember a blog posting about a month ago telling you of our attempt to have authentic Neapolitan pizza within 20 minutes of home. We were not successful (but not through any fault of our own) on that try. Of course, we had a terrific dinner at this restaurant that night, but the quest for true pizza was still on.

LaPizza Fresca on E. 20th St and Broadway is a pizza lover's dream come true. A small, warm space, packed with a diverse crowd, it is blessed with not only exquisite pizza, but with delicious, handmade pastas, and an outstanding wine list. Be still my heart.

They do not accept reservations for parties of less than five so we were very lucky to score one of the two tables still unoccupied at 7:15pm. The minute we sat down I felt as though I had been beamed back to Italy and I could almost convince myself that I was sitting in beautiful Sorrento.

We ordered pies one at a time, so as not to have them sitting on the table getting cold and soggy. First up, Cime di Rapa (broccoli rabe, sausage, and fresh bufala mozzarella). Next, Monte Bianco (Robiola, Parmigiana and Fontina cheeses with porcini mushrooms and Prosciutto San Daniele). Lastly, we ordered the classic Margherita, the standard by which all pizza must be judged. This pie consists of nothing but tomato sauce, fresh bufala mozzarella, Parmigiana Reggiano, and olive oil.

Our favorite? I can't even begin to relay to you the rich, earthy flavors of the Monte Bianco pie, with its hardy cheeses, woodsy porcinis, and delicate prosciutto. The bufala mozzarella on the Cime di Rapa was so light and airy. But when we had finished the last pie and felt like we needed just one more, it was the Margherita that we re-ordered. This was the ultimate - so pure in flavor; the bufala mozzarella and Parmigiana just lightly layered on top of the famous San Marzano tomatoes, with a sprinkling of EVOO to top it all off. We couldn't stop raving about this particular pie.

LaPizza Fresca is pricey (even by NYC standards) and service is not for the hurried here. In the true sense of Italian dining, they set a leisurely pace.

I think what makes these pies so different than anything else you may know as pizza, is the crust. The dough is hand pressed with Italian flour and a precise amount of water. This comes out of a wood-burning oven ever so crisp and thin. Of course, anyone can combine these ingredients, throw them into a high-temp oven, and pray for pizza. But it takes practiced hands to produce ethereal, Neapolitan pizza. It takes hands that have been certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (LaPizza Fresca was the first in New York to receive this certification). This association was created in 1984 to implement a standard protocol for the creation of authentic Neapolitan pizza. VPN is backed by the Italian government and certifies restaurants that produce authentic Neapolitan pizza around the world.

If you are passionate about good pizza, then you must seek a pie that is crafted in the tradition of Naples (check out this guide to find a certified pizza master near you). Once you do, you'll see that all others are pretenders to the throne. The true and rightful heir to the original that was inspired by Italy's Queen Margherita in 1890, is authentic pizza Neapolitan. Don't be fooled by impostors.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Un Caffe, Per Favore!

Have you seen or heard about "Pocket Coffee?" Neither had I, until recently. These are shots of espresso (not espresso-flavored) encased in bite-sized, delicious, dark, praline-enrobed chocolate imported from Italy. Could it get any better than that?!

My friend, Noreen, was lucky enough to score a sample from someone she met on a plane. When I dropped something off at her house a day or two later, her husband was raving about them, but teased me by waving the package in front of me, telling me he couldn't share them with me as they were being saved for their daughter (it's a good thing I really like their daughter!).

I was, of course, now laser-focused on procuring some Pocket Coffee. Doug said you could only get these on-line or in Italy. Since I didn't have much chance of going to Italy anytime soon, being the internet-savvy girl that I am, I immediately started to scour the web. I didn't have to scour too hard. My Google search turned up several sites offering Pocket Coffee. Just as I was about to place my order, a little voice inside piped up "why don't you try the Italian specialty food store around the corner from your house first?" Duh...(I love that little voice). The next day I dispatched Barry to A&S Pork Store (BTW: if you live anywhere in the north Jersey area, a pilgrimage to A&S for all things Italian is in order). Lo and behold, he came through with the goods. A package of five little coffee rockets for a mere $3.89 and no shipping!

These chocolates are not only delicious, but they have a nice little kick. They are the perfect pick-me-up! Divertire! (enjoy!)