Category Archives: Dessert

mommom’s measurements

It continues to intrigue me how much more connected I have grown to the food and culture of my Italian heritage since moving to Maine, where I am away from the family, bakeries, and cities that have always been there to sate my cravings for specialty desserts and cured meats. My critical palate for Italian food has led to me to focus on learning how to make my favorite foods from scratch.

Next in line was pizza dolce. I called my grandmother and finally penned down her recipe for pizza dolce, pronounced by my Southern Italian family as “pizza dulch.” Traditionally made around Easter, this sweet pie is an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta. The  grainy-smooth ricotta cheese results in a very  light cheesecake, and the vanilla extract, orange blossom water, and cinnamon combine elegantly on the tongue. My mom and her sisters have the recipe, but I opted to go straight to the source: Mommom.

She rattled off the ingredients list with no hesitation and no recipe. For the crust, she recommended mixing the dry ingredients and adding water “until it-a form-a the dough.” For the filling, she instructed to add “half a box” of this to “a small glass” of that, among other equally vague steps. Her delivery left me stranded in a territory where many feel uncomfortable: baking without an exact recipe.

I barely use recipes to cook, but when I bake, I am still pretty reliant on them. The old world cook embodied in my grandmother doesn’t sweat the small stuff because she doesn’t need to. She knows how her food should come out and has perfected recipes by look and feel. She knows how each ingredient will alter the outcome, and I can only hope to gain some of this intuition with the mainstays of my family’s culinary history. If this pizza dolce project says anything, it whispers, “You’re on the right track.”

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eggs, history, and sweets

In An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, Tamar Adler weaves together methods about “How to Teach an Egg to Fly” and her opinion mirrors my philosophy: “meals still qualify as meals if they are eggless. But an egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to.” A fried or poached egg is the perfect punctuation mark to leftovers or odds & ends that need to be eaten. I love eggs, and this love will never grow old or tired. If I ever open a restaurant, I will hire a person to walk around and ask people if they would like a fried egg with that instead of a grind or two of pepper. They are that important.

The food historian in me has always wondered how eggs have become so integral to our diet. Egg-based pasta and noodles, egg drop soup, frittatas, potato latkes, lamb and egg tagines, omelettes — the savory applications are countless and wholesome. But what really gets me is the foundation eggs provide for the world of baking and pastry. Mastering the potential of an egg–its yolks and whites, separately or together–seems to be a precursor to mastering true desserts.

My 100 word preview of the Encyclopedia Britannia article on the use of eggs in baking elucidated only the how, not the when or who. I learned that yolks are 50 percent solid (60 percent of which is strongly emulsified fat), and they effect the color, flavor, and texture of baked goods. Whites, on the other hand, are mostly protein with no fat, and are most important for texture. They also hold air well. (NB: My use of the word “learned” above is very generous.) I was pleased when a slightly more aggressive set of Internet search terms led to The Food Timeline and an FAQ about eggs. It offered the following quotation from The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Sama:

In the Roman period pastry cooks made much use of eggs for desserts as well as cakes. Apicius (25 BC) invented baked custard: milk, honey and eggs beaten and cooked in an earthenware dish on gentle heat. Eggs really made their way into the kitchen with Apicius, who mentioned them frequently in the Ars Magirica.

Lynne Olver, the author of The Food Timeline, elaborates that once eggs were recognized as binders and thickeners, their culinary applications proliferated. But when asked about when this began, she notes: “The food historians do not venture into this territory.” When one reaches this wall, one must accept defeat. And I did just that, by diving into my egg carton, separating a few eggs, and utilizing centuries of culinary wisdom with no known origin. I made Meyer lemon curd (below) and almond meringues (in progress above), and reinforced that while I can eat lemon curd all day, I’m not big into meringue cookies.

This particular curd & meringue night was before Christmas, and I put the jar of lemon curd in my Mom’s stocking. I hear she stirred it into whipped cream as topping for angel food cake, another egg white-heavy treat. She allowed the yolk and white to meet and mingle on the dessert plate, and it sounded divine.

Tonight, I answered cries from my sweet tooth by revisiting this treatment of eggs: separating them and letting the parts grow independently bigger than the whole, creating cranberry curd and chocolate cookies. I utilized Alton Brown’s lemon curd recipe but replaced the lemon juice with unsweetened cranberry juice  and the lemon zest with orange blossom water. The result was ethereal, complete with tart, sweet, and perfume-y notes.

To care for my egg whites, I made François Payard’s Flourless Chocolate-Walnut Cookies. These are perfect for anyone who lusts after chewy brownies, so everyone. They taste like crunchy walnut Nutella. Unlike meringues, which are made from whites whipped into stiff peaks, these cookies utilize whites in their original form as the only liquid ingredient besides a bit of vanilla extract. They came out looking exactly like those pictured above and are now added to my list of future party favorites. Make them for your gluten-free friends, your Jewish friends (or self) during Passover (as recommended by the NYMag article), or if you would like the smell of chocolate and toasted walnuts to permeate your home.

Thank you, eggs, for making possible so many culinary wonders.

a christmas review

A celebration is rarely complete without food and beverage. My family, like most, has such ingrained food traditions that I come to expect certain foods on certain holidays. The winter holidays (namely, Christmas and New Year’s) are the most emblematic of these food expectations. Mom always makes approximately fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies the weeks leading up to the big day. Christmas Eve consists of fette dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, with dishes like baccala salad, fried smelts, and spaghetti with tuna marinara. And Christmas morning holds my favorite tradition of all: egg nog, clementines, and panettone.

By Thanksgiving, panettone have arrived at the seasonal displays at our local grocery stores in New Jersey, and around December 15th, there are already a panettone or two in the house waiting to be unwrapped: the most desired and fleeting gift of Christmas morning. This year, though, I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in Maine. As I might have mentioned here a few times before, Maine has few Italians and even fewer places to by Italian food. So one night, before venturing on the twenty minute drive to the nearest Hannaford to fulfill my panettone craving, I gave them a call to see if they had it in stock. After my inquiry was misheard as “melatonin” and I was transferred around between four different employees, I finally caved. I was making panettone myself.

Following Mario Batali’s recipe, I mixed the dough and watched it through the first and second rise, kneading it a bit here and there and finally adding the raisins. I was a bit hesitant about getting the shape right (right = pretty much a top hat), but the oven and the yeast seemed to do all the work for me. When I took this out of the oven, I almost sang.

Speaking of Italian pastry one cannot find in Maine, easily or at all, I visited New Haven, CT on my way back north and went to Lucibello’s Pastry Shop. The smell of butter and sugar smacks you on the head when you walk into this very unassuming bakery, coaxing you to buy their cookies and pastries. I got two pignoli cookies (probably my favorite cookie of all time) and a sfogliatella (or lobster tail, or lobster claw, or ricotta-filled pastry) for the bus.

anginetti (italian love knots)

One day approximately five months ago, my friend Daniel and I made Italian love knot cookies. For some reason (thesis, job applications, and otherwise being a senior), I never got around to posting the gorgeous pictures he shot or the recipe we used. I simply glommed the cookies and moved on with my life. Time to remedy that! All of the pictures were taken by Dan.

Moleskine Recipe Journal, courtesy my handsome and lovely brother Johnny

Cookie Ingredients

Icing Ingredients

Cookies Waiting to be Baked

Post-Oven

Dipping

On Drip Tray, with Zest Garnish

lemon lavender cookies

My first act as a college graduate was to sleep until 3:45 pm. My second was to get a new iPhone. My third, to prepare a hot dog dinner with an absurd amount of condiments for my family. And finally, I made some cookies.

Despite my efforts to use up everything in my kitchen before graduating, the contents of my college kitchen nearly doubled the mass of stuff in my home kitchen. My mother and I have spent the past hour or so consolidating our flour, crushed red pepper flakes, and other normal ingredients, and moving all of my “weird” ingredients (i.e., rosewater, turmeric, chow chow, Indian pickle) to the basement fridge.

Lemon Lavender Cookies (Adapted from a Feed the Editor recipe)
Yields 2 dozen 3-inch cookies or 3 dozen 2-inch cookies

These lemon lavender cookies drew equally from my ingredients and my mom’s, and what a wonderful marriage they are.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup almond meal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons dried lavender buds
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup granulated white sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Juice of a small lemon
Zest of a small lemon

Preheat the oven to 400° F.

Combine flour, almond meal, baking soda, baking powder, lavender buds, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix thoroughly.

Microwave butter in a dish for 15 seconds, until slightly softened. Whisk together with 3/4 cups of the granulated white sugar in a large bowl for about 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla extra, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Stir until combined.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing between additions.

Spoon a heaping tablespoon of cookie dough into a small bowl that has the last 1/4 of the granulated white sugar. Toss the dough ball around into the sugar to coat. Place on a baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat. (Oh, the joy of being at home and having access to my mother’s Silpat!)

Bake for 8-9 minutes. They are done when they are golden brown around the edges.

beer ice cream

Two cups of Magic Hat #9, 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup sugar, 8 egg yolks, and liquid nitrogen make for a boozy, creamy, ridiculous experience. I doubled the Los Angeles Times recipe. You can make the ice cream base mixture and use a standard ice cream machine, but liquid nitrogen is reminiscent of brewing witch potion and therefore far superior.

coffee and cupcakes

My cousin and I went to Cups after our snorkeling adventure, and our moms stopped by the La Jolla cupcake lounge one morning while waiting for stores to open. The four of us returned one evening after watching the sunset from Mount Soledad, a beautiful but freezing location.

My cuz and I split the Raspberry Basil Cupcake. Cups’ selection rotates every day, and while all varieties seem delicious, I always go for savory elements in my sweets. Always. You could taste the butter in the icing, as well as a shade of raspberry essence, but the star was the cake portion of the cupcake. Even at the end of the day, the cupcake tasted fresh with a light but chewy texture. The basil flavor fit in seamlessly, and the entire experience was very reminiscent of eating a slice of carrot cake, with strong notes of cinnamon and an ingredient fondly remembering its savory applications, but not missing them.

Sera’s Chai is pictured above, but it was way too sweet for either of us to enjoy. Overwhelmingly saccharine, like those kind folks who sometimes overdo it.

I ordered a Brazilian coffee: a shot (or two?) of espresso brewed with spices. Every few sips, a little speck of cinnamon stick would land in my mouth. Sounds unpleasant, but chewing on these was warmly refreshing and a great complement to the bitter strength of the coffee.