Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lessons from "Baking Fails"

A few weeks ago, I came upon a recipe for a cookie that caught my eye. It’s called “torcetti,” a type of old-school Italian sugar cookie. It’s a bit unusual as it is made with yeast, which most cookies do not have. Besides yeast, the recipe called for European-style butter which I had never used so this intrigued me. I gathered up the ingredients and went to work.

But first a little history. According to the website, Turin Epicurian Capital, these cookies date back to around 1700. An article supposes that during around that time, while waiting for bread to bake in community ovens, some of the bakers took leftover dough, shaped it into a type of breadstick, coated them with sugar or honey, formed them into little “twists,” and baked them. Voila - torcetti! 

There are a zillion recipes for torcetti out there. I used one from Food52, one of my trusted sites, and I liked the fact that it recommended an overnight rise.
Torcetti from Food52

Off I went to work! Followed the recipe to the letter - used a thermometer to test the water temperature to dissolve the yeast; placed the dough in the oven for the first rise; creamed the softened butter and added it to the dough. You get the idea…

My first pangs of fear that this was turning into a “baking fail,” was trying to incorporate the butter into the dough. It took forever and a lot more flour than called for to get a non-sticky, manageable dough. Finally, it came together! Since I was utilizing the overnight rise, I covered the dough with plastic wrap and placed the bowl in the fridge.  

The next morning, giddy with anticipation, I pulled the dough from its’ chilly slumber, and stared at the bowl in disbelief. It had not risen at all. At all. My first thought was, “well, that was a big waste of expensive European butter, four cups of flour, wah, wah, wah.” 

But I really didn’t want to toss the whole thing out, so I preheated the oven to 250 degrees, turned it off, shoved the covered bowl in, and waited. I figured I had nothing to lose at this point. In about an hour, the dough had magically doubled in size. I was thrilled! Maybe this wasn’t going to be a wasted effort after all. 

after the oven-rise
Again, I went back to the directions: rolled out the dough to the stated dimensions, cut the strips, rolled in sugar, and baked them. 
ready for the oven
Twelve minutes later, I had the saddest looking cookies on my baking trays. But, I thought, even if they don’t look great, if they taste good, I’ll be happy. Let me cut right to the chase here and not keep you in suspense (although I'm sure you've guessed the outcome): they were terrible! Heavy, dense, tasteless. I was so disappointed!I threw them all out.
finished cookies

So what did I learn from this? I rediscovered how much I LOVE working with yeast dough! The last yeasty-type recipe I made (a few years ago) was the fabulous brioche from Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Boston. The smell as I worked the dough was intoxicating. And kneading it put me in an almost zen-like state. There is  definitely something to be said for how baking can be relaxing and reduce stress

I’m not sure why my torcetti did not come out as they should (I don't think it was the recipe); perhaps the yeast was old (even though the expiration date was months away), maybe I overworked the dough? Who knows? Will I attempt them again? Definitely. 
sad cookies

I know a lot of people may not feel that baking is relaxing, but if you focus on the physical activity of rolling or kneading the dough, enjoy the smell of the yeast or the spices in your recipe, you’ll most likely forget about what else is going on in other parts of your life - the daily stresses - at least for awhile. Making these torcetti reminded me of the pleasures of baking. 

Have you had a baking fail that you’ve learned from? Leave a comment below.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gluten-free Quinoa Apple Snack Cake

Happy Saturday!

I have been testing gluten-free baking recipes like mad lately in preparation for a class I’ll be giving in September (more on that exciting news another time). The latest in my testing lineup is this delicious little number. 

While I’m pretty familiar with using almond flour (or almond meal) in GF baking, I wanted to expand my GF flour repertoire and this recipe, which uses quinoa flour, sounded perfect.

Besides the quinoa flour, it uses all-purpose gluten-free flour, but it’s the quinoa flour that gives it an interesting nutty flavor. And even though there is one cup of brown sugar, the cake is definitely not sweet. The apples provide moisture, and the chopped walnuts give it a nice crunch.

Another ingredient I had not used before is xantham gum, which helps with the body and texture of GF items. If you use all-purpose “cup for cup” GF flour, it already has xantham gum in it, so you don’t need to add it. I prefer to add individual ingredients myself rather than an “all in one” type flour. 

While the cake was really good on it’s own (with a simple dusting of confectioners' sugar), I felt like it was missing something, so the next day I whipped up a small batch of cream cheese frosting (thank you, Martha Stewart, for this not overly sweet version). Bingo - now I really liked this cake! It all just worked - grated apples, walnuts, dried cranberries, cinnamon, nutmeg - you get the idea. Perfect for an after school snack or afternoon tea. 

Do you do a lot of GF baking? Tell us about your successes (and challenges) with this type of baking. Let’s help each other create really fabulous GF desserts. Leave a comment below.

Here’s hoping you have a wonderful weekend!

Print apple cake recipe here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Baked Quinoa with Roasted Butternut Squash and Gruyere

Happy Spring! It’s here at last and I, for one, am thrilled! Even though the winter here in NJ wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I absolutely detest the cold, gray days. So I say, onto brighter, warmer, sunnier days!

And now that we've rounded the bend from winter, you may want to start thinking about options for the upcoming Easter holiday, or Spring dinner parties, and I've got a great suggestion for you. The recipe, as it stands, doesn’t work for Passover due to the breadcrumbs, but you could substitute matzoh meal and it would probably succeed nicely.

We eat a lot of quinoa in my home, and although we usually jazz it up by making it with chicken stock (rather than water) and adding in diced veggies and fragrant herbs, it’s still not all that exciting. But last week I found a recipe on food52 that piqued my interest: Baked Quinoa with Roasted Butternut Squash and Gruyere. Sounds good, no? Indeed!

The recipe calls for fresh breadcrumbs and I urge you to follow the recipe rather than using store bought crumbs. It really does make a difference and it’s so easy to make your own. You can either use a leftover baguette, or buy a couple of rolls. Simply pulse the bread (torn into pieces) in the food processor, and voila, fresh breadcrumbs! Any crumbs you may have left over can be frozen for a future use. It really couldn’t be easier and the result is worth it. 

Besides being delicious, this bake with a golden crunchy topping is versatile. It can stand alone as a hearty non-meat main course, or it can shine as a lovely side dish to say, a crisp roast chicken or oven-baked pork chops. It’s good for a crowd - it bakes in a large 9x13 baking dish - but it also keeps well several days in the refrigerator. 

Here’s wishing you a lovely Spring! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day: Nutella Brownies!

Nutella Brownies

Need a last-minute dessert for your Valentine's Day lunch or dinner? I think these Nutella Brownies from my February 2014 post are the answer! 

Wishing you all a delicious Valentine's Day!


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eating in Sarasota

Venice Beach

Greetings, dear readers!

Hope your January is treating you well. For me, I get through the winter with mentally focusing on how many days to Spring (as of today, 48!). But since that didn’t work so well for me this year, we escaped to Florida for a few days! 

Our base of operations for the week was Sarasota on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. My previous trips to Florida’s west coast were for work so truthfully I never saw much besides airports and whatever hotel I was sequestered in. But this time, we saw a lot of this gorgeous coast, and had a lot of great food (which is really why I travel). 
Dinner night one was at Shore. A trendy spot smack in the middle of St Armand’s Circle on Longboat Key. Shore has a beautiful open air dining area overlooking the street, dotted with candles and heaters (for chilly evenings). I loved the soft glow created by the dimmed lights but I saw many guests pulling out their phones and powering up the flashlight to read the menu. I continue to be amazed at how many restaurants plan the dining environment without taking into account actually being able to read a menu in the near-dark! 

We dined at Shore on a Thursday evening and the place was hopping (it is the season in Florida), but that did not damper the enthusiasm or level of service from the wait staff. 
Martinis at Shore

Crab Cake - Shore
We began with a Tito’s Cosmo (for me) and a Tito’s martini with bleu cheese-stuffed olives (for my husband) - both done very well. From there, we enjoyed the Maryland lump crab cake with a jicama slaw and Old Bay aioli. 

I chose the Key West shrimp and scallops with lemon risotto, local greens, and tomato confit, which was a delicious combination. The shrimp and scallops were cooked perfectly but the risotto was slightly gummy. My husband, unfortunately, chose the St Louis “Jenga” Ribs with Mongolian glaze, chopped Chinese salad, and crushed peanuts. He is constantly searching for good ribs, but once you’ve had ribs in BBQ capitals like Austin, North Carolina, and Memphis, most restaurants can’t live up to that, and sadly these did not. They were overcooked. Enough said. 

Shore’s atmosphere struck me to be more about people watching than food. And that’s perfectly OK.

Sarasota hosts a terrific farmer’s market every Saturday and we spent some time enjoying the warm morning air checking out the vendors. Everything from fresh seafood to baked goods to gorgeous produce, were available. If I lived in Sarasota, I’d be there every week.

If you know anything about me, you know that breakfast is my favorite meal so I was anxious to visit some of the breakfast restaurants in the area. They ran the gamut from “eh” to “very good.” I won’t bore you with the “eh” options because I’m not in the business of bashing restaurants, so here are the two best venues we found:
Pancakes - Sun Garden Cafe

Sun Garden Cafe in Siesta Key - this cafe is located in a pretty little beach town and they have a nice outdoor courtyard. We loved the fluffy pancakes and very good sausage gravy. 
Perfect Biscuit - Buttermilk
Biscuit Egg Bake - Buttermilk

Buttermilk in Sarasota - for me, Buttermilk was the standout. They specialize in biscuits and man, were they good. I had the delectable egg bake biscuit with Benton’s perfect bacon - I was making yummy noises all the while! My hubby loved the biscuit with sausage gravy (so flavorful with nice chunks of sausage). 
Pastries at Buttermilk

While ordering, of course I had to peruse the baked goods case, which looked fabulous. I made a mental note to come back to try one of the pastries. And the day before we left Sarasota, I did. It was hard to choose only one item, but I restrained myself (fearing even more pounds to lose when I came home!) and picked the fabulous brown sugar-cinnamon coffee cake. OMG. This cake had a terrific light crumb and a crunchy buttery topping that was almost candy-like. Another place that would be on my weekly visit list if I lived here. 

Coffee Cake - Buttermilk
The next night we had dinner with friends at the somewhat touristy, but still good, long-time Sarasota venue — Columbia. Founded in 1905, and according to their web site, the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is now managed by the fifth generation of the founding family. Columbia features authentic Cuban cuisine at several locations around Florida. We ate at the Longboat Key site and it’s a good thing we had a reservation because this place was mobbed! It’s a huge restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalks full of customers enjoying signature mojitos and daiquiris (yours truly enjoyed the Tango Mango Daiquiri). 

Sea Foam Margarita - Fins
We ventured a bit outside the Sarasota area to meet friends for lunch on different occasions. One day, we soaked up the warmth in Venice Beach at Fins - a waterfront restaurant with a million dollar view. Loved the sea foam Margarita!

Another day while in the North Port area, we had a fabulous lunch at Nan’s Thai Noodle. The pork with Thai spicy noodles was killer! It’s in a nondescript strip mall and the restaurant has no atmosphere at all, but the food was outstanding.

Back to “serious” dining: all the top restaurant lists mention Indigenous. Owned by Chef Steve Phelps, he opened this restaurant in a beautifully restored home in 2011. The atmosphere is warm and comfortable, like having dinner in a friend's home. It’s a rather rambling house (again, with almost no lighting), and we were seated in the wine bar dining room, where our server also happened to be the bartender. Even though the bar and the other tables in this room were full, we never felt neglected. He answered questions about the menu and the evening’s specials, and guided us to a great wine choice. 
Cheese Crackers - Indigenous

Our waiter brought us a small basket with delicious cheese crackers as we pondered the menu (these reminded me of traditional Southern cheese straws). We both chose one of the soups for the first course and switched halfway through so we could try each of them. My favorite was the thick and creamy wild mushroom bisque with truffled rye croutons. Not far behind though, was the gazpacho with crunchy chickpeas, basil yogurt, and garam masala. This was so refreshing on a warm evening.
Pork Belly - Indigenous

For the main course, after much debate, my husband settled on the pork belly with white cheddar drop biscuit, tomato jam, Everglades hollandaise, and pickles. Tender, juicy, flavorful - probably the best pork belly we’ve had.
Thai Lamb Meatballs - Indigenous

My choice was the Thai lamb meatballs. Practically shouting with the bright flavors of lemongrass and ginger, subtly painted with garlic yogurt, and surrounded by marinated cucumbers, carrots, shallots, and basil, these were absolutely delicious. We enjoyed the dinner with a wonderful Italian red that complemented both dishes perfectly.

Our last dinner in Sarasota took us to Veronica Fish and Oyster - a very cool place in the Southside Village section of town. Their tagline is “a modern oyster bar with a nod to classic supper clubs of past.” From the warm greeting when you enter, to the attentive service from our wait person, it was a delightful evening. Of course, great drinks and delicious food must figure into that equation for a restaurant to be somewhere I would return to, and they did. 

Since we were in a  supper club of sorts, I thought I’d take a step back in time and try their whiskey sour. I’ve never been a whiskey drinker, but this one made with Templeton rye and citrus and served over ice, could make me a convert. This was a perfect sipping cocktail. 

Potato rolls - Veronica's
Dinner was a home run all the way through, beginning with the warm house made potato rolls served with sea salt butter. Think about the standard-issue potato rolls you might buy at the supermarket and ramp up their fluffy texture and yeasty flavor by about 100%. Slather on the perfectly spreadable sea salt butter. Then try not to eat all of them before your dinner comes. Good luck with that!

Fried Shrimp - Veronica's
Well, I didn’t eat ALL the potato rolls so I had room for my dinner, which was fabulous. Starting with the Szechuan fried shrimp with snow pea slaw and pickled pineapple. Light, crisp shrimp with a delightfully refreshing slaw and just-enough-tart pineapple to bring all the flavors together. A winner!

Gumbo - Veronica's
Given my (some would say) overeating of the aforementioned rolls, I opted for a smaller entree. The Chef’s Momma’s Chicken Gumbo with Andouille Sausage and Jasmine Rice had caught my eye weeks earlier when I was deep into restaurant planning. This rich, spicy soup brought me right back to traditional gumbos from the New Orleans area that I love.

Even though the desserts proffered sounded wonderful, and you know I am all about dessert, there was no way I could manage it. Next time!

This is owned by the Shore Diner team, but for my money and time, Veronica’s would be my choice between the two. 

All in all, a delicious, sunny week on Florida’s Gulf Coast! If you’ve been to the Sarasota area lately and want to share your restaurant finds, please leave a comment below. Until next time: eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Siesta Beach

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bella Sicilia: Parte Sesta (part six) - Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa

Chocolates at Duomo
Happy New Year, dear readers, I hope you had a wonderful holiday season!

Well, here we are at the end of my Sicily travelogue. Writing this for you has helped me relive how beautiful this trip was. I saved something special for my last Sicily post: the extraordinary lunch we had at Ristorante Duomo in the charming hill town of Ragusa. I hope you enjoyed this virtual journey as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Helmed by Ciccio Sultana (chef/owner), Duomo is everything you might expect at a Michelin starred restaurant: exquisite food, gracious service, beautiful surroundings (a food stall in Singapore earned a Michelin star in 2016 so remember fabulous food can be found anywhere).

Terry and Chef Ciccio
As you may know, when I travel I spend a great deal of time researching food and restaurants at my destination, and Sicily was no different. To me this is not drudge work, I love reading about the foods and restaurants at our upcoming destinations. A search turned up many good possibilities in the area, including four Michelin starred locales in the 2017 guide. After deciding on Duomo, I asked our tour leader to make a lunch reservation for us, and that morning during a walking tour of the city, we happened to pass by the restaurant. To my delight, Chef Ciccio was outside making a phone call and he kindly took a picture with me. I’m sure it was no big deal to him, but it made my day!

The lunch menu at Duomo is prix fixe, and quite the bargain 
 I think. For 59 Euros, you get five courses (with a couple of extra surprises), and three glasses of wine/champagne. The full menu is below. From beginning to end, this lunch was outstanding, and must go on my “top five” list* of memorable meals.
bread basket

Duomo Lunch:

smoked swordfish
  • Smoked swordfish with cantaloupe melon salad and pistachio sauce, with an olive stuffed pistachio marzipan and mock pit
  • spaghettone
  • Homemade spaghettone with moresca sauce “taratata” with tuna bottarga and carrot cream
  • truffle ice cream
  • Sicilian scorzone truffle ice cream
  • amberjack
  • Amberjack with Hyblean caper blossom powder, “Fiore” black olives stuffed with Pizzuta d’Avola almond, green beans, smoked sauce
  • cannolo
  • Cannolo stuffed with Ragusa ricotta on lukewarm San Cono prickly pear soup served with Pizzuta d’Avola almond sorbet
  • Housemade chocolates

As I mentioned in Parte Due, one of my reasons for wanting to go to Sicily was to seek out any ancestral ties on my mother’s side. In corresponding with our trip leader, Alessio, before the trip, I told him that I was looking for connections to my mother’s family who had emigrated to the US from Palermo in the early 1900s. I told him the family name was Librizzi and perhaps he could help me research it when we got to Sicily. A short time later, Alessio responded that his wife’s maiden name is Li Brizzi, and he would be happy to introduce us. I nearly cried when I read that! What are the chances that our tour guide’s wife would have the same last name (albeit with a slightly different spelling) as my mother’s family? Pretty slim, I think. 

On our last evening in Palermo, Alessio invited the entire group to join him, his beautiful wife Cristina, and their two adorable boys for dinner.  I didn’t get to spend much time talking with Cristina, and most likely we are not related, but when Alessio said “no matter, we are “cugini" (cousins) and you will always have family here in Sicily,” I felt like the connection that I have always felt to this beautiful island was more real now than ever before. 

Ciao, bella Sicilia, fino al mio ritorno! (until I return).

* My “top five” (in no particular order):

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA
Vetri, Philadelphia, PA
Duomo, Ragusa, Sicily
Steireck, Vienna, Austria
The Lost Kitchen, Freedom, ME

Upcoming in early 2017: lunch at NYC's Bouley and the food scene in Sarasota, Florida! 

Stay warm, eat well, be happy!