Multigrain Barley Flour Scones with Jam

Simple barley oat scones

All summer Bob Marley has been singing to me. “Jammin, jammin, jammin.” First it was (the first batch of) strawberry jam. “Yea, I hope dis jammin’ gonna last.” I made lemon verbena-strawberry preserves, lavender-strawberry preserves, and just plain strawberry, but with the first flat of strawberries I only came up with twelve jars of mixed pints and half pints. For a family who eats jam at a reasonable pace, this would probably suffice for the next twelve months. Not for us.

Wild beach plum, peach, and apricot preserves

If a week goes by without finishing an entire pint of jam, someone must be out-of-town or extremely ill. We spoon it into yogurt, spread it onto homemade crumpets and multigrain toast, churn it into homemade frozen yogurt, spread it as a base layer in a custard-fruit tart, and generally swoon over the flavor of fresh fruit preserves with very little sugar on a daily basis.

Fig Preserves and Apple Butter

Aside from the strawberry with extra herbal flavorings, I have actually been leaning in the opposite direction. I can always open a jar of jam and fancy it up based on whether I am serving it on a cheese plate, atop a frangipane tart, or dolloping some into ebelskivers for a lazy Sunday morning breakfast. Lately, my ultimate goal in making jams/preserves, has been preserving the juicy summer fruits in their closest redaction to the fresh fruit itself. For example, eating a red-tinged dripping yellow peach over the sink. Not plum jam with pineapple sage or Pinot noir strawberry–just fruit and a little sugar cooked minimally (with the exception of the apple butter).

New dates, mission figs, quince, and peaches from the Alemany market in San Francisco

Aside from a couple more batches of strawberry, I made cherry, peach, apricot cooked with their crushed pits in a cheese cloth, pluot, two different types of wild plum preserves, apple butter, wild blackberry, fig, and the ugliest (but tastiest) yellow raspberry preserves you’ve ever seen. My kids tussle over who gets to go pick the next jar (of the over 200 jars) from the pantry every time.

Basket of barley flour scones

A couple of months ago, my mom’s best friend emailed me wondering if I had heard of a non-butter (basically, healthier) scone that still had a hard, non bready texture. The short answer is no. I have not encountered a non-fat scone that actually still tastes like a scone.  However, I have to admit that my paranormal scone obsession had me concocting ways to make a tasty scone that was “healthier” as I deemed it. Just like the jams this summer, however, lately I have been tending towards a simpler scone.

Bob's Red Mill 8 grain hot cereal

I still very much enjoy ginger scones, peach and berry scones, and especially Sandbox Bakery‘s sour cherry almond scone, but at home I was searching for a scone that highlighted the grains and flour with whatever extra fruit flavorings I craved on the side.

Ingredients for multigrain barley scones

For this recipe, I decided to lower the butter just a bit. In truth, I found no difference in these scones from a higher-fat scone in its fantastic dense pockets contrasted with light flakiness. I opted for a combination of all-purpose and barley flours studded with multigrain cereal and rolled oats. Instead of cream I used buttermilk, and to be completely honest, it was the quicky homemade kind this time (milk with a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar).

Multigrain barley scone

The result? Warm and slightly dense in some areas, while crunchy in the corners and wherever you bite into a larger piece of the multigrain cereal. I could not resist brushing a little milk and sprinkling some natural washed sugar (demerara or muscovado would be incredible too) over the tops before baking them and was so happy I did. They are crazy addictive. The creamy and sweet flavor of the barley flour comes out beautifully with the oats and the mixed grains. The scone itself has so little sugar that it is not too sweet–a perfect accompaniment for your favorite apricot, fig, or plum jam. This is my new favorite scone, hands down. If you are feeling a hankering for add-ins, do it at the last second before patting the dough together and cutting the scones.

New dates

Here are some jam-making tips for seizing the last of summer fruit. Peach preserves? This recipe for cherry preserves works well for almost all stone fruits and strawberry preserves. Finally, I have mentioned it before, but I love Liana Krissof’s canning book for tips. Feel free to send me a note if you have a specific question about a fruit you want to turn into jam.

Last, but not least, if you are not a jam person, these taste pretty amazing with just-picked new dates. They are available now at many California farmer’s markets and they are absolutely delicious alongside the scones and with your favorite cup of tea.

Tea, new dates, and barley-oat scones

Multigrain Scones with Barley Flour

1/2 cup multigrain hot cereal like this one

1/2-3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk with 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar), plus a bit for brushing on scones at the end

1/2 cup rolled oats, plus a little extra to roll the scone dough in

3/4 cup barley flour

3/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour

3 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4-1 teaspoon kosher salt

6-7 tablespoons very cold butter (about 3/4 stick), cut into 1/2” cubes

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Demarara, muscovado, or natural washed sugar cane for dusting

Preheat the oven to 400F degrees. Combine the soured milk or buttermilk with the multigrain cereal and let it sit for 10 minutes to absorb the milk. Meanwhile, combine the rest of the dry ingredients (oats, barley flour, a.p. flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt) and whisk in a bowl. Add the tiny cubes of cold butter and mix in with a pastry blender or two forks for a minute or two until little pea size clumps appear.

Lightly beat the egg with the vanilla and the buttermilk-multigrain cereal mixture and then carefully incorporate all of it into the bowl of dry ingredients and butter. I use a fork until it becomes a rough mass.

Sprinkle some oats and a little dusting of flour on a clean surface and dump the dough out. Push the dough together with your hands until it is a rough ball and roll it in the oat mixture. Knead it twice or thrice until a definite mass. Pat the dough into a dish that is 1/2-3/4 inch high and cut into 8 wedges and place on a baking sheet. Brush the top of each with some milk and sprinkle with the sugar of your choice. Bake for 15 minutes or until the scones are golden brown (slightly darker than you would let a cookie go).

Posted in Breads, Breakfast, Jams & Preserves, Jams and Preserves, Whole Grains | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

S’mores in Black and White: Homemade Marshmallows & Dark Chocolate Graham Crackers

Black & White Smore's: Chocolate graham crackers with vanilla bean marshmallows

S’mores are one of those all-American foods that people outside of the United States, for the most part, do not understand. Beginning with the “jet-puffed” marshmallows, moving onto the dry cookie “graham cracker,” and finishing with a slab of gritty, vegetable oil-based Hershey’s chocolate, it is clear that whatever good is in the average campfire S’mores confection results from the sum of its parts.

Black and white S'mores

Despite the shortcomings of the humblest S’mores creation, they evoke an apple pie brand of nostalgia that reminds me of father-daughter camping trips, beach barbeques with friends, girl-scout summer camp, and the blissful feeling of being outdoors with people I love.

Bliss or no bliss, over a decade ago I set out to change the way I consumed S’mores. I should begin by stating that I am not a wild fan of untoasted plain marshmallows. I love gussied up Rice Krispy Treats and I love that faux marshmallow sauce (homemade) that goes on fruit salads and the like, but a plain supermarket marshmallow out of the bag is just not for me.

Chocolate graham cracker and vanilla bean marshmallow

As a blurry eyed freshman university student living in the dorms, I decided one fall evening that I needed a break to prepare me for the next umpteen hours of studying. My roommate had a bag of marshmallows. I had in my possession four pristine dark chocolate bars that my mother had mailed me in a care package full to the brim. After a quick trip to the school store, we had graham crackers. But how to roast our marshmallows in a dorm room? Being the rebel that I was, I illegally struck a match and lit up a……candle in my room. Need I emphasize how extremely dangerous and cool (dare I venture messianic) I was?

Thus began my almost-weekly S’mores club where a group of my buddies and I would come together with a couple of matches, to slowly candle-roast marshmallows with a coat hanger and combine them with the very smoothest, darkest, chocolate that we could get our hands on (read: that my mother would send us for this express purpose). Being the worldly and insightful college students that we were, each of us brought some sort of esoteric music track to listen to week to week. It was a wonderful way to avoid studying and gain those “freshmen fifteen” on worthwhile calories–not just dorm food.

Dark chocolate S'mores with homemade vanilla bean marshmallow and Madecasse chocolate

Fast forward to the next millennium. I began adoring Michael Recchiuti’s insane chocolate creations shortly after finishing school. Peanut butter pucks, burnt chocolate hazelnuts, and fleur de sel caramels fill our shopping sack every time. Now I have the lovely book he published several years ago and we make monthly visits with my kids to visit their beloved chocolate buddy, Susan, down at the ferry building. My son usually chooses the sesame nougat chocolate and my daughter the largest piece she lays her eyes on. And though I never let them (hey, they are expensive!), up until a year ago they always begged for one of the marshmallows.

Homemade vanilla bean marshmallows

Seeing as Recchiuti includes his recipe for Tahitian vanilla bean marshmallows in his book, I decided that I would treat my kids to homemade marshmallows and save a bit of cash. Now well over one year, a dozen batches, and many sticky fingers later, I am one of the biggest marshmallow fans around. No store-bought marshmallow can ever compare to the warm and gooey inside and crunchy, toasty, caramelized outside of a roasted homemade vanilla bean marshmallow. Not. Even. Close.

Toasted homemade marshmallow

The chocolate graham crackers came from a different sort of craving. I have made homemade graham crackers twice now and they are quite good. However, yesterday what I had in mind was more of a blackout chocolate graham cracker cookie made with real graham flour. What resulted from my experiment are my new favorite cookie. If rolled 1/16 inch thin, which seems impossible as you are doing it, you end up with a crunchy cookie, perfect for the Smore’s. If you only roll it say 1/8 inch thick you end up with a slightly softer almost brownie-like cookie, but with a deep dark chocolate taste and a slightly toothy crunch here and there from the graham flour.

Dark Chocolate Graham Crackers

They are so addictive you could crunch them up and use them for a tart crust for a dark chocolate tart or cheesecake, or even spread some softened ice cream between them and freeze for the ultimate ice cream sandwiches. Or of course, you can roast one of your homemade marshmallows (a great way to use up some of the leftover egg whites you may have from a pasta-making session) pop on a few squares of your favorite chocolate (blowing a kiss to the people who make the 75% bar at Madecasse), and make the most incredible S’mores you will ever eat.

Dark Chocolate Graham Cracker S'mores

Black and White S’mores

Freshly cooked and cooled dark chocolate graham crackers (recipe below)

Homemade vanilla bean marshmallows (recipe below)

Excellent chocolate (Amano Occumare 70%, Madecasse 75%, and François Pralus Cuba 75% are my favorite dark chocolates and Scharffen Berger 41% is divine for the milk chocolate lovers)

Prepare a large piece of chocolate atop one of two graham crackers. If you are doing this with fire, skew your marshmallow carefully with a fire-proof skewer and cook gently over the fire until it is gently browned and you think the marshmallow is going to melt and drop off of the skewer. Using one of the graham crackers, quickly scrape the marshmallow off of the skewer and onto the chocolate topped graham cracker.

If you are cooking this in an oven or toaster oven, place one marshmallow on top of one of the graham crackers and toast until it is gooey inside and toasty outside. Top with a piece of chocolate and another cracker. Eat with gusto!

Dark Chocolate Graham Crackers

(Notes: If you like thin and crispy, roll these as thin as you can, preferably 1/16 inch. If you like a softer cookie, go for 1/8 inch thick. For a sugar-topped graham cracker, brush them with milk and sprinkle with sugar before cooking.)

1/4 cup graham flour (you can use whole wheat, but you’ll miss out on texture)

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa powder

1/2  cup brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2-3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

8 tablespoons (1  stick) of cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 tablespoon honey

2-3 tablespoons cold milk

Preheat the oven to 325F degrees. Whisk together the three flours, Dutch cocoa powder, baking powder, sugars, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey and milk. Using a pastry blender, or two forks, blend in the butter to the dry mixture until little pea sized lumps appear. Add the honey-milk mixture and stir with a fork until it roughly comes together. If you shied on the side of less milk and the mixture does not come together, add a bit more.

Prepare two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Fold the dough over onto itself six or seven times until relatively smooth. Split the dough into two parts. On the parchment of one cookie sheet, roll the dough out approximately to 12 x 14 inches, or until quite thin (1/16 inch). As noted above, if you like a softer, more brownie like texture, you can roll it out to 1/8 inch.  Repeat with the other half on the other cookie sheet. Prick all over with a fork and cook for about 15-17 minutes, or until you can smell the baking chocolate.

As soon as the cookie sheets come out of the oven, score the cookie dough with either a fluted pastry/ravioli roller, a pizza cutter, or a knife to cut into graham cracker shapes. Let cool completely and then remove from the parchment and use or place in an airtight container.

Homemade Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

Approximately 40 marshmallows

(adapted from Michael Recchiuti & Fran Gage’s Chocolate Obsession)

Baking spray for the pan

3 3/4 teaspoons (1 1/2 envelopes) unflavored gelatin

3 tablespoons water

2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar, divided into halves

1 1/2 cups (16 ounces in weight) light corn syrup

4 (5 ounces) large egg whites

1/2 vanilla bean, split down the side

pinch of salt

Approximately 3 cups powdered sugar to finish

Line the bottom of an 8×12 inch sheet pan with parchment and very lightly spray both the paper and the sides of the pan with a baking spray such as PAM. Do not overdo it. Place the gelatin in a both, whisk in the water, and set aside to soften.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine 1 cup of the sugar with the corn syrup. (Recchiuti recommends an unlined copper pot.) Place over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden or silicon spoon, until the sugar melts. Continue to cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 240F degrees on a candy thermometer.

In the meantime, whisk the egg whites, salt, and the seeds scraped from the vanilla bean in a standing mixer on high. When the whites form soft peaks, add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and continue beating.

When the sugar syrup reaches 250F degrees, remove it from heat and stir in the softened gelatin. The syrup will foam up and almost triple in volume. Turn the mixer onto high-speed and slowly pour the syrup into the beaten egg whites. Aim for the sides of the bowl. Beat until the whites (not just the outside of the mixer bowl) are lukewarm to touch.

Quickly scrape the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan and spread it evenly to the sides. Let cool completely to room temperature.

To cut the marshmallows, sift about 1/2 cup of powdered sugar onto a work surface in a rectangle the size of the sheet pan. Sift another 1 1/2 cups into a large bowl. Run a very sharp thin-bladed knife around the edge of the pan to loosen it and invert into the powdered sugar rectangle. Sift another 1/2 cup powdered sugar over the top (previously the bottom). Using a ruler to guide you, cut the marshmallows with a well oiled sharp knife and cut them into the shape you like. (I like 1 1/2 to 2 inch squares.) Use a pressing motion for success. After cutting, toss each marshmallow into the bowl of powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a month.

Posted in Cookies, Dessert, Recipes for Egg Whites, Whole Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Agnolotti al Plin–Piemontesi filled pasta from zia Alida

Cut agnolotti

Is there anyone out there who is adamantly anti-pasta? That is what I thought. Pasta is the big unifier, spanning cultures, inciting pasta making parties, and is infinitely adaptable and flexible. If you have a few more guests than you were expecting, you just cook a little more pasta. If you do not consume it all in one meal, you have the world’s most wonderful leftover for another one.

Some of "le verdure" for agnolotti

Even were it not for my Italian background, I know that had I been born Kenyan,  Inuit, or Samoan, I would still ardently adore pasta.

I have been making my own egg-noodle pastas, filled and plain, for many years. It started with my hand-crank machine from Italy with which I am still on amicable terms, but which requires a bit of help to quickly produce pasta.

Yellow and orange carrots cut into matchsticks

Then I experimented with rolling the dough by hand, stilo bolognese “Bologna style,” like the little old ladies making tagliatelli, tortellini, and tortelloni di zucca “pumpkin tortelli.” That one takes a ton of practice to achieve uniformly thin pasta sheets. Lately, I have settled on my Kitchen Aid attachment, which allows me to crank out sheet after sheet of pasta dough with minimal to no assistance.

Chopping carrots for the agnolotti

While I love a good pasta asciutto “dried pasta” like spaghetti or penne, almost nothing tops a bowl of homemade egg-based tagliatelli or tagliarin (almost identical to what we in the U.S. call fettuccine) with olive oil or melted butter, and grated cheese.

Nothing that is, except my aunt Alida’s  agnolotti Piemontesi. A couple of years ago, as I waxed loony about the first agnolotti al plin I had ever tasted (in the Canavese region of Piemonte), Alida mentioned that she had a wonderful recipe for just such agnolotti. I had every intention of learning with Alida, side by side, just how she did it, but I never had a chance. Why?

Veggies for slow cooking the meat, ready for sauteing

These things take all. day. long. In fact, as a busy and zonked mother-of-two, I had to break it up into steps over several days. Sear the meat and cook on low with the vegetables. Mince and add the rest of the filling ingredients. Make the pasta dough. Fill and cut the pasta. Uh, make that four days in several hour segments.

Seared free-range veal and pork

My reasoning behind bothering to give you a time-consuming recipe at all is that these agnolotti are possibly the most delicious filled pasta you will ever taste. I shuffle my feet and begrudgingly admit that….sometimes the best things in life take a good deal of time. My advice to you is to plan ahead and have an agnolotti making party. Next time I make these, probably around the holidays, I aim to do the same.

Market fresh spinach for the agnolotti filling

The incredible combination of flavors in this pasta is attained from a real balance of meats and vegetables. In addition to the pork and (free-range) veal meats, I cooked up well over a pound of spinach, four carrots, two onions, celery, and many fresh spices. The spinach ends up in the agnolotti filling, but the rest of the vegetables simmer slowly alongside the quickly seared meat for several hours, making a rich broth that will end up making the sugo d’arrosto or “roast’s juices” that act as condiment to at least some of the filled pasta. The other way to serve these delicious little packages of flavor is with a sauce of melted butter and fried sage. I tried both on different batches.

Covering the pasta sheets so they do not dry out between fillings

Before I offer the recipe, I have some tips for your agnolotti party.

Filling the pasta

First, when making the dough, go for the thinnest setting you can without tearing the pasta. I cranked mine out at the second-to-thinnest setting. You want to see the filling through the pasta, luminous, but not breaking through it. The only way to know what is appropriate is to try it out.

Making agnolotti al plin

Second, use less filling than you think you should. I used a little espresso spoon to force me to keep the filling down, otherwise it explodes out of the seams as you attempt to close the pasta.

Cutting the agnolotti

Work in batches. I rolled out all my pasta to about the fourth to last setting and then covered it with old clean sheets so the would not dry out. Then, with the help of my dashing assistant, we would run the pasta through the final setting to its desired thinness, fill, cover it with another pasta layer, push down the seals, and then cut through with the fluted pasta roller. Repeat twenty or thirty times.

My assistant arranging the agnolotti to rest

No matter how tempted you are to stack the agnolotti on top of each other, no matter how much semolina you sprinkle between the layers, do not do it! I warn you that you will ruin a fourth or more of the agnolotti. As they rest some of them inevitably begin to fuse and when you attempt to separate them you will be cursing as the pasta tears away to expose your filling. Prepare yourself with lots of clean empty table space or many cookie sheets.

"Maltagliati" 'poorly cut' or "malfatti" 'badly made' pasta--i.e the leftover scraps

Finally, do not throw away the little scraps of pasta that you cut off of each agnolotti. Save them to dry out too and cook your malfatti (“badly-mades”) or maltagliati (“badly-cuts”) for some other night of pasta. Ours ended up as my son’s dinner creation where he chose rainbow swiss chard and baby broccoli out of the garden with a little sautéed garlic and pecorino romano.

With very few adjustments, I give you Alida’s agnolotti.

Agnolotti with sugo d'arrosto and Parmigiano Reggiano

Agnolotti Piemontesi

Pasta

1 kilogram “00” flour

8-10 eggs

semolina flour to prevent sticking

Filling

500 grams pork roast (shoulder or butt)

500 grams veal roast (ask your butcher for a cheaper free range cut similar to the pork cut)

500 grams greens (spinach or swiss chard)

3 eggs

100 grams Parmigiano cheese, grated

2 onions

1 large carrot or several small

1 large stalk of celery

3 cloves of garlic

1 branch of rosemary

2 bay leaves (3-4 if Californian bay/laurel)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

water or broth for covering the meat

salt and pepper to taste

Mince 1 onion, the celery, carrots, and garlic. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan with large sides and quickly sear the outsides of the meats, 1-2 minutes on each side. Remove the meat to a plate and saute the minced onion, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, and rosemary in the same pan until the vegetables are translucent. Return the meat to the same pan full of veggies and add water or broth until the meats are almost covered. Once the liquid begins to simmer, turn the heat to its lowest setting and cook for 2-3 hours, turning the meats once or twice until they are tender and falling apart.

Remove the meat to a plate and let it cool (or refrigerate if you are doing all of this in daily steps) and strain the remaining liquid. This will be your broth sauce. Return the strained liquid to a pan and cook on high heat until it is reduced to 1/4 of what it was and set aside to cool (or refrigerate). If you are continuing on, mince the meat either with a meat grinder or your knife.

Mince the remaining onion and saute it in about 3-4 tablespoons olive oil until translucent and soft. Chop the spinach into small bits and then add it to the onion to cook down. Add the minced meat and cook another 10-15 minutes. Let it cool down and then pour it into a large bowl. Add the Parmigiano, the three eggs, salt, and pepper and mix well. Set aside.

To make the pasta, make a large mountain of the flour and push down a little hole in the mound. Add 3 eggs and 5 yolks, slowly incorporating the surrounding flour. There are a million tutorials on this part if you look on the internet. You could also take the lazy man’s approach and do it all in the Kitchen Aid with the dough hook. Knead it with care until the pasta is smooth and glossy. You may have to add another egg or two, but do not be hasty about it. You do not want a gooey, wet dough, but rather smooth and supple.

Prepare some clean dry counter or table space for your pasta and sprinkle it lightly with semolina flour. On a separate clean flat surface, roll out the pasta dough with a rolling-pin or roll out on the largest setting of your machine, according to its instructions. If you are using the machine, fold the pasta over itself and then run it through again, repeating until you have a very smooth dough. Repeat until all the pasta has gone through and then cover with a clean sheet. Now begin running the pasta sheets through until they are about the fourth to thinnest level and cover well with the clean bed sheet.

To fill your pasta have the filling ready and maybe even a clean glass of water, in case the pasta begins to dry out too quickly. Run two sheets of pasta through the second-to-thinnest pasta setting and then fill. You will put little pinches of filling (I used an espresso spoon to limit myself) spaced apart and then cover with another sheet of pasta. Press carefully, but firmly all around each filling lump and then with your fluted ravioli/pastry cutter cut a cross hatch pattern around the filling so that you have either squares or rectangles. Carefully move your agnolotti to a prepared surface or cookie sheet with a sprinkling of semolina. Do not layer on top of each other or they will stick. Repeat ad infinitum. Let them rest uncovered for a couple of hours. I freeze several trays and then bag them for later and the rest I eat that night.

To cook your agnolotti, heat a huge pot of boiling salted water and then add your agnolotti, gently stirring once or twice to separate them. Cook 2-3 minutes or until the pasta tastes done. With a slotted spoon remove them carefully and place in the large pot of heated, reduced broth while you do the rest. If you prefer, you can also dress the agnolotti with a sage butter. Finish with a healthy grating of Parmigiano cheese.

Posted in Dinner, Lunch, Pasta, Recipes for Egg Yolks | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Borlotti Bean Corn Salad and a Pluot-Almond Cake

Borlotti and corn salad with basil and sungold tomatoes

Even a decade ago, the year I studied in the city of Bologna, Italy, I fanatically sought out unknown fruits and vegetables. For a nineteen-year old Americana, porcini mushrooms and white truffles were a sight to see in the fall. Marble sized clementines in the winter, white asparagus and rapini in the spring, and strange spotted beans in the summer dazzled me. The oh-so-common (to Italians) and humble borlotti bean, with its fiery pink-red pod and dappled white spots was exotic to me. I had never seen such a beautiful shelling bean at any of the California farmer’s markets that I frequented.

Tongue of fire beans or "borlotti"

Like any fresh shelling bean, a quick cook in lightly salted water is all it needs. In Italy, this is the most common bean in minestre (mixed soups), beans and pork, and aside beautiful cuts of meat and maybe a spoonful of Piemontese polenta.

The bean itself is sumptuous. It has a meaty, almost bacony flavor, and an incredible texture that is utterly irresistible in my corn and bean salad. The bean does not mush apart when cooked but stays in its outer covering until you bite into it and taste the silky and smooth inside. Hands down, it is my favorite bean.

A pod of borlotti beans

This salad always begins with the beans and some sweet corn, but I vary the rest of the ingredients depending upon what I have at hand. My favorite rendition also uses slivered basil, sungold tomatoes, shallots, and a simple olive oil-sherry vinegar dressing.

Shallot, sweet corn, basil, and sungold tomatoes

The cake is inspired by a favorite fall cake by Deborah Madison from her timeless Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have had an almost decade long adoration of the cake because of its seasonal versatility and simplicity. If you like the flavor of frangipane, almond croissants, macarons, and the like, you will have a hard time keeping your hands off of this cake. Select almost any  fruit (apricots, peaches, plums, cherries, pluots, apples, pears, persimmons, candied citrus) and your favorite nut. I use walnuts, hazelnuts, or almonds depending upon how they pair with the fruit.

Brown sugar butter and freshly sliced pluots

With the exception of your mixing bowl, you can cook the whole thing in an oven-safe 9- or 10-inch frying pan. Simply melt the butter (and I confess sometimes to using brown butter on this one) with the brown sugar until it bubbles, arrange the fruit slices, and then pour the cake batter on top before popping it into the oven. I like mine just barely done, such that a toothpick comes out clean everywhere except the very center of the cake. It keeps a lovely moistness that heightens the nutty flavors of the cake.

Pluot-almond cake with Whole Wheat Flour

The only tricky part of this cake is flipping it onto a cake plate once it is finished cooking. If you are a champion flipper with an assured and deft hand, you need not worry. For the rest of us, a piece of fruit or even a tiny part of the cake may stick to the pan. No worries. Just scrape it out and carefully press it back into the cake as it cools.

Serve it naked or with whipped cream spiked with creme fraiche. If you are like me, you will modestly eat three slices and then more for breakfast the next day.

Slice of pluot-almond cake with whole-wheat flour

Borlotti Bean and Corn Salad

1 generous pound of unshelled fresh borlotti beans

2 ears of sweet corn, shucked

handful of basil

15-20 sungold tomatoes

1 shallot, minced

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (or champagne)

3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt to taste

Place the two ears of corn in water and bring to boiling. Turn off heat and then cover for 10 minutes while you shell the borlotti beans. Remove the corn and set aside and then, if you want to use the same water, bring back to boiling and add the beans. Cook until they are tender, but not falling apart. Drain, rinse roughly with cold water, and set aside.

While the beans are cooking, whisk the vinegar and salt with the shallot in your serving bowl and let stand for about 5 minutes. Slice the larger tomatoes in half and leave the smaller ones whole and then add them to the shallot mixture. When the beans are done and cooled slightly, add them, along with the olive oil to the bowl, tossing well. With a sharp knife shave off the corn kernels and add them, tossing gently, followed by the slivered basil. (You can stack the leaves of basil, roll them like a cigar and then slice thinly). Check if you need more salt and then serve.

 

Pluot-Almond Cake

Topping

2 large pluots (or whatever fruit you have chosen)

3 tablespoons butter

2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
Cake

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract (if using almonds, otherwise reduce or omit with another nut)

3 eggs

2/3 cup finely ground almonds (or hazelnuts or walnuts)

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Heat the brown sugar and butter in a 9- or 10-inch oven safe skillet over medium until it is all melted and bubbling slightly. Take off of the heat. Slice the pluots in half from stem to bottom,  remove the pit, and then slice each half lengthwise to make 1/4 inch thick pieces. Arrange the slices in the pan in concentric circles, overlapping slightly, and beginning with the outside (you can also do a spiral, snail-shell thing).

To make the batter, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, and then add the vanilla and almond extracts. (I often end up doing this in the Cuisenart because I have just used it to grind up the nuts.) Beat the eggs in, one at a time, stirring between additions, and then fold in the nuts, followed by the rest of the dry ingredients. Carefully spoon the batter over the fruit and smooth it out.

Bake in the center of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes until the a toothpick comes out clean on the outside and the cake is mostly golden and springy (see above note). Remove the cake from the oven, being careful to not grab the handle of the skillet pan out of instinct with your bare hands (it is embarrassing to admit how many times I have done this), and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Place a flat plate or cake plate on top of the pan and quickly and confidently flip the cake onto the plate. If any part of the fruit or cake stays in the pan, just remove it and stick it back on the cake. Let cool for another 10 minutes or so, or let cool to room temperature. Delicious plain, with whipped cream, or with whipped cream spiked with creme fraiche.

Posted in Almonds, Cakes, Nuts, Rustic Fruit Desserts, Vegan, Whole Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Every Day Multigrain Whole Wheat Bread

Homemade multigrain bread

Do you love whole wheat, multigrain bread like my family does? Would you like to make a loaf so tender with such a luscious crumb that the only thing limiting your perfect slice is a well-sharpened knife?

I make a version of this bread weekly. It is that delicious, plus your house takes on the heavenly smell of home-baked bread. If you ever buy Milton’s multigrain bread at the store, this is so much better and makes the most divine toast, peanut butter sandwiches, BLTAs (BLT with avocado), and even a healthy french toast. Plus, it has a many more whole grains than the aforementioned name-brand bread.

Homemade Multigrain Bread with Wild Blackberry Preserves

It is so easy that it requires merely my checking in on it twice and then actually baking it in the oven. You could start it in the evening, allow its first or final rise overnight in the refrigerator, and bake it in the morning or you could just mix out the dough first thing in the morning and make it in the afternoon on a day that you are in an out of the house once or twice.

Here are the basic steps. Mix together all of the ingredients (except for the salt) until they come together in a rough dough. Cover and let rest for half an hour.

Add the salt and then mix with a dough hook for 7 or 8 minutes on medium speed (or hand knead until elastic and smooth). Let rise for an hour and a half until doubled in size.

Checking for fully proofed dough

If your dough has fully proofed, a dimple formed by your finger will not slowly fill back in, but rather leave a little mark.

Fully proofed dough--the dimple does not fill in

On a lightly floured surface, press out the dough into a square using your hands. Imagine the dough in thirds. You are going to fold the dough like an envelope. I pull gently on one side while folding over the first third. This prevents air pockets in the loaf.

Stretching one side of the dough while folding into thirds

Now fold the stretched side over the top until it reaches the edge. You should have a rectangle shaped envelope, just like a paper you would send in the mail.

Envelope of multigrain bread dough

Now you will roll the loaf into itself in a spiral, from one short end to the other, pressing down slightly as you go to push out air pockets.

Rolling the envelope of dough before pinching ends closed

Pinch closed the ends and then roll the loaf back and forth gently in your hands until it looks perfectly shaped for your loaf pan. Turn your oven onto 400F degrees to preheat. Drop the loaf into a buttered (or cooking sprayed) loaf pan and let it rise for somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour and fifteen minutes.

Dough ready for final rise in the loaf pan

You will know that the loaf has risen when it is about 1 1/2 times its original size or just comes over the top of your loaf pan. Do not let it over-rise or you will have air pockets and breaks in the finished, cooked loaf.

Fully risen multigrain loaf

Cook your loaf for about 40 minutes, turning 180 degrees halfway through cooking, until a golden brown on top and such that you can knock on the top and hear a sort of hollow sound, not a thud-like sound, which indicates your loaf is still underdone.

Remember to let the loaf cool on a rack immediately upon removal from the oven. If you don’t dump it out, it will continue to cook and steam the outside, which results in a nasty texture. Also, do let the loaf cool for a couple of hours because if you try to slice it fresh from the oven, it will fall apart in a crumbly mess.

Finished multigrain loaf

One final note is that you should feel free to experiment with the proportion of your favorite grains. Sometimes I use only oats and millet. Other times I add rye, barley, quinoa, and oat flakes. My favorite combination, however, is below, using one half oats and one half multigrain cereal such as Bob’s Red Mill 8 or 10 grain hot cereal.

Homemade Multigrain Whole Wheat Loaf

(inspired by Kim Boyce’s Oatmeal Sandwich Bread in Good to the Grain)

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons unsulphured organic blackstrap molasses *

1 package active dry yeast

1/2 stick or 2 ounces butter, melted and cooled (or olive or canola oil if vegan)

2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 cups bread flour

3/4 cup rolled oats

3/4 cup multigrain cereal such as Bob’s Red Mill

1 tablespoon kosher salt

In the bowl of a standing mixer add 2 cups of warm water and 3 tablespoons molasses and stir to mix. Sprinkle the yeast package over the top and let stand for 5 minutes to make sure it blooms and is active. If not, start anew with new ingredients. Add the rest of the ingredients except the kosher salt and mix with a wooden spoon to form a shaggy dough. Cover with a towel and let rest for 30 minutes.

Add the kosher salt and mix with the dough hook on medium speed for about 7 or 8 minutes until the dough has a satiny, smooth, elastic look. Scrape the dough into a large, well oiled or buttered mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a towel for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes, or until fully proofed (doubled in size). If you can poke the dough with your finger and it does not bounce back, it is ready.

Shape the dough. Pour out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and flatten into a square with your hands. Now fold the dough in thirds into an envelope. Pull one side gently while folding the other side in and finally fold over the pulled side onto the top. It should really look like a paper ready to be mailed. Now you will roll the dough into a spiral from one short end to the other, pushing down slightly as you go to ensure no air pockets. Pinch closed the ends and then roll the dough slightly back and forth between your hands until the dough resembles the shape of your loaf pan.

Butter or oil the loaf pan and then drop the loaf in. Preheat the oven to 400F degrees. Cover loosely with a towel or plastic wrap and let it rise until 1 1/2 times its size and just peeking over the top of the loaf pan an inch or so. Bake for 40 minutes in the center of the oven, turning 180 degrees halfway through cooking, until it is a medium brown color. If you knock on the top of the loaf and hear a thud, it is not done. Continue baking for another 5 minutes. If you hear a hollow sound, the bread is done.

Remove from the pan and let cool on a rack for several hours.

*Note: Unsulphured molasses is the first boiled molasses and considered more pure in flavor. However, blackstrap molasses, the third boil product actually contains an incredible amount of iron. If your family is vegetarian or just low on iron, consider this one because in the bread you really do not detect much of a difference between the two. More on this here.

Posted in Breads, Breakfast, Vegan, Whole Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Roasted Figs with Prosciutto, Gorgonzola, and Walnuts with a Mache-Wild Arugula Salad

Wild Arugula-Mache salad with Roasted Figs, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto Crudo, and Walnuts

Folks, I believe that, at some point in the months since I began this site, I declared my fervency for vegetables, fruits, and all things sweet. Despite my realization tonight that this is my first post that includes some sort of meat, I am not a vegetarian. As you have probably gathered, however, I do not have a separate meat or fish course every dinner. If a protein other than dairy or eggs finds its way into my recipes, great. If not, I usually do not miss it.

These roasted figs are a big exception.

Mission figs

Figs, prosciutto crudo, gorgonzola, and walnuts. Let me start by saying that figs alone are not to be trifled with. They stand alone. A perfectly ripe fig with soft-skin tearing from the sugars and dewy with a honey-like juice is just heaven. Add a salty and barely stinky cheese like a feta, robbiola, pecorino toscano, or ricotta salata and you have a decadent lunch. Toasted nuts on hand? Nirvana.

Prosciutto crudo

If, however, you add a favorite prosciutto crudo to the fig-cheese-walnut synergy and let it crispen along the edges, you have one of the most wonderful meals known to mankind.

Mission figs, gorgonzola dolce, walnuts, and prosciutto crudo

Hyperbolic? Just try it and I think you will agree.

As the four ingredients roast together, the bursting-with-flavor figs begin to caramelize, like a good jam. Juices spill out from the fruit and bubble together with some of the melted gorgonzola cheese and the sizzling prosciutto fat.

Three finished roasted figs

These juices are irresistible. I always dip my finger in the little pools of umami-sweet jam leftover on the roasting pan. Since I am always a sucker for a phenomenal salad, I opted to use those juices on some of my favorite lettuces available in our backyard right now: mache (also known as valeriana and corn lettuce) and wild arugula.

Homegrown mâche (lamb's lettuce or valeriana) and wild arugula (rucola)

Whatever you do, pick light, small greens–nothing watery or robust like iceberg or romaine lettuce. This is key because when you lay the warm roasted figs on your bed of lettuce, those jammy juices will release each time you slice through and subsequently coast the little salad greens. Enjoy!

Roasted figs with gorgonzola dolce, prosciutto crudo, and walnuts

Roasted Fig Salad with Gorgonzola, Prosciutto, and Walnuts

(serves 2)

4 large or 6 small figs, sliced in half lengthwise

slab of gorgonzola cheese (“piccante” will melt slowly and “dolce” more quickly)

4 to 6 slices of prosciutto crudo, sliced in half lengthwise

8 to 12 raw walnut halves

Mache lettuce and arugula, or whatever delicate lettuces you have on hand.

Preheat the oven to 400. Wrap each fig half with half a slice of prosciutto. Lay on your roasting pan rounded side down and top with a small piece of gorgonzola (about the size of a nickel or quarter) and a walnut half. Roast in the center of the oven for 6 to 8 minutes or until the cheese begins to melt and the edges of the prosciutto are crispy. Be careful not to let the walnuts blacken.

Remove from the oven and let cool for a minute before placing atop a bed of lettuces on each plate.

Posted in Dinner, Figs, Nuts, Salad, Walnuts | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Panzanella with Roasted Red Peppers & Grilled Eggplant with Basil-Garlic Yogurt Sauce

Grilled Panzanella with Roasted Red Pepper, Sungold Tomatoes, and Basil

Between our garden, my Mystery Box from Mariquita Farm, and my inevitable (and beloved) trips to the farmer’s market, I had more vegetables than I knew what to do with this past week. Among them were some red bell peppers, a gorgeous dark purple Italian eggplant, several bushes of basil, and the best tomatoes in the world, tiny orange Sungold tomatoes. With a couple of loaves of my favorite ciabatta bread on the counter, I immediately thought of panzanella.

Red Bell Peppers

The first panzanella I tasted resembles this version like a cookie resembles a granola bar. Not much. My husband was put to work by my Northern Italian relatives in making a very Southern Italian dish. It involved the stalest of bread, sliced before hardening, freshly diced tomatoes, garlic, basil, salt, and olive oil, and not much else. He was instructed to dip the rock hard slices of bread into the delicious slurry and then hand-squeeze out the excess juice before layering the soaked, aged bread on a platter, drizzled with the remaining sauce. It was marvelous, but it took a while.

Sliced, salted, lightly oiled eggplants

Grilling Peppers and Eggplant

My panzanella is much quicker, can be made without much forethought (i.e. no planning to harden the bread days in advance), and sometimes includes a couple of sweet roasted bell peppers (capsicums). If you decide to go with a grill plan for dinner, the panzanella and the eggplant serve as a filling vegetarian meal. If you want to add some ribs or lamb with it, then the time that the veggies and ciabatta occupy the grill is minimal so you can do everything swiftly.

Oil-brushed ciabatta bread

Start by roasting the bell pepper until the skin is puffed and blackened in spots and then toss it into a food-safe plastic bag to rest for a couple of minutes before peeling it. While it is resting you can grill the eggplant and finally the ciabatta toasts (be careful, they burn quickly if you put them on too high heat). The eggplant takes no more than 4 or 5 minutes per side, depending on how thickly you slice them.

Grilled ciabatta toasts

The eggplant tastes great either hot from the grill with the cool basil-yogurt sauce spooned over the top, or at room temperature. It is a flexible barbecue dish.

Sungold tomatoes in garlic and olive oil

Finally, if you felt like adding more to the eggplant dish, something crunchy like pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, or even toasted almonds would taste delicious atop the yogurt sauce, but I do not find it necessary, especially if you are serving this with the panzanella, which has the crunch of the grilled ciabatta bread. If you really want to emphasize the sour tang in the sauce, a sprinkle of sumac powder would be tasty too.

Grilled Eggplant with Basil-Garlic Yogurt Sauce

These are two of my absolute favorite summer dishes because they showcase the inherent beauty and flavor of the tomatoes, basil, peppers, and eggplant. Enjoy. They will not last long on your table before you (or someone else) devour them, hence no extra pics of the eggplant dish.

Grilled Panzanella with Roasted Bell Pepper, Sungold Tomatoes, and Basil

10-12 slices ciabatta bread, sliced 1 inch thick

1 pint Sungold tomatoes

1 large red or orange bell pepper

20-30 small leaves of basil

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing the toasts

1 tiny clove of garlic, pressed

salt to taste

 

Preheat the grill to medium high or an oven to 450F degrees. Roast the bell pepper, turning once or twice until it is charred in places and the skin looks puffed, about 10-15 minutes on the grill and about 15-20 minutes in the oven. Seal into a food-grade plastic bag and let rest for 5-10 minutes before peeling, then open it up, remove the core and seeds and slice the whole pepper into long thin strips.

While prepping the bell pepper slice a couple of the larger tomatoes (or all of them if they are not cherry tomatoes) into halves and add 2 tablespoons olive oil, and the pressed garlic clove. Brush both sides of each slice of ciabatta bread with a little olive oil and then grill on the grill for about 1 minute per side. Pay close attention since they burn quickly. Remove from the heat and then roughly cut each grilled bread slice, crosshatch fashion into bite sized pieces. If they are crunchy enough you could just break them by hand. Add to the bowl with tomatoes and olive oil, and then add the basil, pepper slices, and salt to taste. Mix very well so the juices combine and then serve.

 

Grilled Eggplant with Basil-Garlic Yogurt Sauce

1 large Italian eggplant

1 pint plain yogurt (Greek, whole, or low-fat)

1 small clove garlic

15-20 basil leaves

Olive oil, for brushing

Kosher salt

 

Heat the grill to medium-hot. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into pieces no more than 1 1/2 inches thick, sprinkle loosely with about 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, and let rest in a colander while you prepare the sauce. Crush one clove of garlic and add to the yogurt along with salt to taste. Stack the basil leaves and then slice them thinly (chiffonade). Add to the sauce and refrigerate until ready to use.

Dab each eggplant slice with a paper towel and then lightly brush with extra virgin olive oil. Grill each side for 4-5 minutes until they can be pierced with a fork. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Set on a platter and drizzle with the yogurt sauce or allow guests to add their own.

Posted in Dinner, Salad, Vegan | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sheep’s Milk Yogurt with Almond-Pistachio Olive Oil Granola

Olive oil granola with almonds and pistachios

When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived in a very fun, tasty neighborhood about a block away from the corner of Haight and Ashbury nearby one of the San Francisco Boulangerie bakeries. I would always order some sort of croissant or toasted baguette to accompany my cappuccino and could not fathom what possessed the weirdos who ordered the granola, fruit, and yogurt when there were such divine breakfast pastries.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was having breakfast there with my husband and son who had only been eating solids for a few months. Since yogurt was one of his favorite foods (and still is at almost five years old) I added one of the yogurt and granola bowls to our order. I only felt a tad bit guilty about how many bites I stole from him. It would have hurt his poor little stomach to have finished it alone, right?

Pistachios, almonds, and pumpkin seeds

My grandparents always seemed to have a stash of granola around when I was growing up, but they usually ate it with milk and blueberries, not yogurt. When I was twenty-one, I traveled through Greece with my (then boyfriend) husband and had one of the Cyclades islands mainstays–strained yogurt with honeydew melon, apricots, walnuts, and honey. Over the years I have tinkered with various favorite granolas, but in the last year or so I have found the most synergistic of marriages in an olive oil granola with fresh fruit (melon and some stonefruit are ideal) and sheep’s milk yogurt.

Cardamom pods

Every few weeks I make a batch of my favorite granola. One of the latest cues for whipping up this easy-peasy, delicious granola tends to be when Rebecca from Garden Variety Cheese is selling her other-earthly fresh sheep milk yogurt. For those of you who think yogurt and granola is for health nuts, uh, cover your eyes for the next part. Sheep’s milk yogurt has well over twice as much fat as cow’s milk and results in a creamy, sinfully tasty yogurt that resembles strained Greek yogurt. It also has a recognizably sheep-milk flavor and tang–much like a sheep’s milk cheese–that blends incredibly with the sweet granola and fruit.

Tastiest granola ever

As with any granola, this one is infinitely flexible for omissions and additions. I change it almost every time. Sometimes I do not feel like the cardamom, but rather a little star anise or a leftover vanilla bean pod. Other times, I add hazelnuts and almonds instead of the nuts and seeds below. The only thing I advise you not to alter too much is the proportion of the liquids. You need them to make things properly adhere. Finally, when the granola finally comes out of the oven and you are dying to taste it, RESIST! Do not stir it or touch it whatsoever.

Messy granola pans with carmelized maple syrup and brown sugar

What you will regret in having to soak your pans to wash them you will pat yourself on the back for in having perfect crunchy clumps of granola, not just tiny little crumbly pieces because you impatiently stirred the hot granola upon removing it from the oven.

Sheep’s Milk Yogurt with Pistachio-Almond Olive Oil Granola

Sheep’s Milk Yogurt with Pistachio-Almond Olive Oil Granola

(adapted from this recipe)

3 cups multigrain oats (such as oats, barley, rye, quinoa, etc.)

3/4-1 cup raw pistachios

3/4-1 cup raw slivered almonds

1/2-3/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas)

1 cup coconut chips (natural food stores, Whole Foods, etc. sell these)

3/4 cup real maple syrup

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)

1/4 teaspoon ground star anise (optional)

discarded empty vanilla bean pod (if you have one lying around)

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Combine everything in a large bowl and mix well. If using the vanilla pod, let everything sit for five minutes, stir again, and then cook. Spread everything out onto a rimmed cookie sheet and cook for 35 to 45 minutes, stirring every 14 minutes or so until it is a golden color and fragrant like cookies. Do not stir after you take the granola out of the oven. Wait until it has completely cooled before breaking the granola out of the pan.

Posted in Almonds, Breakfast, Nuts, Pistachios, Vegan, Whole Grains | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Secret to Bright Green Italian Basil Pesto

 

Bright green Italian pesto

Pesto? Come on, you are thinking, everyone knows how to make pesto.

Yes. I know. It was one of the first dishes I ever tried to make (aside from a botched 6-year-old effort at vegetable soup with water and bouillon cubes).

To make pesto poorly seems incongruous. Pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, basil, salt, and Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. These are synergistic ingredients, explaining the ubiquity of some sort of pesto pasta on almost every Italian trattoria or pizzeria’s menu. I remember the first time that sister number two and I ate pesto: homemade by our Sicilian great-grandmother, by the spoonful straight from a jar in her kitchen. It is one of my earliest food memories (since they are neurologically categorized separately, right?).

Organic basil from Tomatero Farm at the Alemany market

I also remember when sister number two came to visit me during the spring of my year in Italy and we went for a weekend trip to stay with our relatives in Piemonte. On the train ride there we twittered away excitedly about how we were going to go to our favorite local pizzeria in Ivrea to order the vibrant green paste (“pesto”) of the Gods that we had eaten there several summers prior.

Bright green Italian pesto

This pesto, we remembered, was nothing like that which we would get at the supermarket. The supermarket pesto smelled days old, was a dark green color and really only got us through desperate college lunches and dinners. By contrast, the Italian pesto, almost a creamy color, begged to be eaten with a scent of freshly picked basil and tasted like the legend that we rightly fashioned in our heads.

We were crushed to be informed that basil was not yet in season and so they had no pesto dishes.

Every year for over a decade, I have made several batches of summer pesto that I store in the freezer for when the hankering hits months later, but every time I make it, that inimitable leafy green color disappears within twenty seconds of making it, no matter how much olive oil I add to prevent the oxidation that turns the pesto dark.

Blanched basil

I am in disbelief that it took me this long to realize there was one other little trick I was missing. Perhaps you are too.

Did you know that most restaurants, even the fancy ones, pre-cook those gorgeous vegetables that accompany a traditional steak, lamb shank, or fish dish? The bright green spinach, the orangest of carrots and bright green sugar snap peas and broccoli? Yep, they typically toss them into boiling salt water for a quick blanch, which seals in the color, and then immediately stop the cooking by immersing them in an ice bath.

Pesto made with Mariquita Farm basil

Well you can do the same thing with your fresh, fragrant basil and you get incredible, gorgeous pesto, just like you could get at a trattoria Italiano tipico. To cut corners (because that’s often the kind of gal that I am when I have two hungry kids tugging at my clothes), I use the boiling salted water in which I cook my pasta. Simply toss in all your basil, if it is a small amount, or do it in batches with several bunches. Let it barely wilt, say 8 to 10 seconds and then fish it out with a strainer or one of those frying basket-spoons and plunge it into an ice bath for 20 or 30 seconds. Pat it dry on paper towels and then continue with your pesto recipe as planned.

The lovely thing about this trick is that you can use less oil without worrying that the pesto is going to darken. As always, cover the extra bowls of pesto with a layer of olive oil and it will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge or months in the freezer, especially if you made extra to give to sister number two who has just moved back to the Bay Area with her family. Hooray!

Extra pesto for later

Bright Green Real Italian Pesto

Note: A recipe for pesto is like giving a recipe for how much salt to add in something. It really depends on personal taste. This is my own favorite way of making it. Feel free to scale down the pine nuts or use raw ones, etc.

2 large bunches of organic basil

2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts

2-3 small cloves of garlic, crushed right before adding

4-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Pinch of kosher salt

Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano cheese to taste

 

Boil a huge pot of salted water (which you can use later if you are making pasta to go with the pesto). While it is heating prepare a large ice bath. In a Cuisenart, lightly whiz the pine nuts and garlic with some of the olive oil. When the salted water is boiling add the basil leaves in batches for only 8-10 seconds at a time. Remove immediately and plunge into the ice bath, swirling them around. Remove and drain of the excess water with either a salad spinner or by setting them in a colander or on paper towels. Repeat until all the basil has been blanched and patted dry.

Add all the damp, blanched basil to the Cuisenart with the pine nut-garlic mixture and blend again on high-speed, slowly adding the rest of the olive oil and salt. Puree until the texture is to your liking. I like to leave a few larger bits of pine nuts so sometimes I add them in two batches. Taste for balance and add more salt if necessary. Store packed down into containers with a little layer of olive oil on top.

If making a pasta right then, cook the pasta. When “al dente,” drain the pasta, reserving a half cup or so of the hot starchy pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot with generous helpings of the pesto sauce and add some of the pasta water, a tablespoon at a time while mixing. Serve with ample grated cheeses while the pasta is piping hot.

Posted in Dinner, Pasta, Vegan | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

The Wedding Cookie Tower

My sister's wedding cookie "cake"

A few months back I mentioned a type of cantucci (“biscotti” here in the U.S.) that I crafted for my sister’s wedding cookie cake. This being my first time actually constructing the cookie tower, I had no idea what quantity or shapes of cookies to expect from all of her family and friends. Just in case, I began preparing four types of cookies several nights prior to the wedding.

Cardamom-pistachio cookie dough

I made a no-nuts version of these salty chocolate wonders, the aforementioned oatmeal-raisin chai biscotti, four types of little meringues (cinnamon-hazelnut, almond, vanilla, and walnut), and a new rice shortbread cardamom cookie with a pistachio border. Why these four cookies?

Cardamom-pistachio rice flour shortbreads

Salty chocolate shortbreads

If any of you out there are zealous enough to ever try your hand at a wedding cookie cake, I will explain my choices. I made the little chocolate shortbread-type cookies and the cardamom pistachio rice flour shortbreads because the dough is rolled up into logs that wait in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them up. Sounds good for a gal pressed for time, but who craves fresh, fragrant, crispy cookies, right?

Dad's anise biscotti

Mom's sugar hearts

Emily's dog spritz cookies

As for the biscottini and meringues, they provided dramatically different texture and structure than what I expected everyone else to make. The light meringues could sit atop anything without weighing the other cookies down and the biscotti could be stacked in myriad ways to develop layers.

Finally, I made four enormous batches of my tiny cookies mainly because I had no idea that I would end up with twenty-two batches of cookies lovingly baked by my sister’s friends and family.

The morning of the wedding started very early with the usual bridesmaid stuff (hair, primping, etc.) and then my husband and I got to work while my mother-in-law offered us indispensable babysitting.

First layer almost done, beginning the second layer

I thought it would take about two or two and a half hours of “gluing” together cookies with a thick powdered sugar-and-water frosting that I piped. Not even close.

Bottom level with seven types of cookies

Second level

Four and a half hours, six levels, many extra hands sticking cookies on here and there, and a complicated six person moving job from the kitchen to the display table 15 feet away outside, it was done.

The third level, with the oatmeal-raisin chai biscotti (with white chocolate)

Fourth level

Each level was different, dictated in part by the shape and weight of the cookies and in part by their color appeal. I give a lot of credit to my husband, who helped engineer every single layer with me.

Levels five and six (Maggie's chocolate coconut macaroons & Jessie's first ever macarons)

Unbelievably, we still had quite a lot of remaining cookies that the hairdresser and photographer happily helped us consume.

Ringbearers and flower girl

The wedding was gorgeous with orange, yellow, and green flower arrangements and blues and oranges for the wedding party. My bride-sister was stunning (not hard for her to do since she is pretty easy on the eyes anyways) and so happy.

Oranges, yellows, and greens

The bride's dress--lovely retro lace

Nana and her granddaughter selecting their favorite cookies

Posted in Cookies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 11 Comments