Archive for the ‘Italian Food’ Category

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Mutiny on the Bounty

Suburban bounty

Suburban bounty

I am convinced that the compulsion to plant a garden and grow things is hard wired into us. Is this a good thing? You tell me. Growing things requires an array of talents. For some the talent lies in acquiring the needed real estate. For some the talent lies in understanding what plant life needs so that it is properly nurtured. It is a wonderful thing to be able to walk outside of one’s door, snip a few things, and feed soul and family.

You’d think Mother Nature could have made it a little easier. I know that gardening as represented by Ina Garten on TV—that brand of gardening where you grab a shiny little pair of clippers, sweep through a pair of French doors into your garden (“Isn’t it faaabulous?”) and end up with pesto –is a fiction drawn by the video editor’s magic wand.

Real gardening is that little patch of dirt you cleared away in the back yard. That little three-by-three square next to the fence where you got the dirt under your fingernails, sprinkled in the seeds from their skinny paper envelope, that sandy oasis in a desert of concrete that you checked on and fussed over each day for weeks, practically willing the first shoots to peek through the dirt. My Aunt Sarah had a garden like that, and the bounty was celebrated and boasted about and washed and eaten with relish…or as relish.

I do not make this statement from first-hand knowledge. I am a city dweller and as such my horticultural endeavors do not extend far beyond a small juniper tree that sits in my kitchen window. Mr. Juniper Tree, whose specialty seems to be looking pretty, will not be brewed for homemade gin, and is resolutely not staying for dinner.

Still, there comes a day early in the August of each year when the bounty of my non-city dwelling friends’ gardens appear on my kitchen counter. I am blessed. I am also compelled to ask, “How many damn tomatoes can I eat?”

I take comfort in knowing that the tomatoes in their tattered ShopRite bags appear before me because the people who grew them asked that same question. I am therefore, the beneficiary of bounty overrun. The tomato equivalent of the bargain book aisle at Barnes and Noble. I am the vine-ripened “Mikey likes it!” The average suburban tomato vine is seemingly so abundantly fecund, that I often feel people who want to plant a garden should get the same warning as the little kid who keeps asking Mom and Dad for a puppy: “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for every day.”

If I were a member of a previous generation I would likely be readying canning jars and the related equipment needed to “put up” the tomatoes for winter. Back in the day that was how you ate tomatoes in the dead of winter. But I am a child of the space age: I can get anything I want, any time I want it. So the question is: what do I do with all these tomatoes now? Tomatoes look grand on my kitchen counter for a couple of days, but beyond that I’ll need to write place cards for the fruit flies that will start feasting on them. I have to act now. Or as my Aunt Sarah would have said, “RIGHT now.”

(Aunt Sarah, who is no longer around to defend herself, would nevertheless agree that she was successful at growing tomatoes not because of a green thumb but because the vines were intimidated by her.)

One of the reasons people grow their own tomatoes is that they usually do taste better than the ones you buy in the supermarket. This is mostly true, so for the first few days I eat sliced tomatoes with a few crackles of sea salt, and herb and garlic goat cheese—my preference because I find mozzarella a bit bland and goat cheese is easier on my stomach.

After I’ve had enough of sliced tomato salad, I make sauce—or gravy, as my Italian friends call it. This requires a bit of refined technique and the proper ingredients. Feel free to use this technique when cooking anything Italian. It starts with a generous dose of garlic, really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fresh oregano, a piquant, crumbly, Parmesan cheese, and, the most important item of all (and this is indispensible): Sergio Franchi. If listening to him sing “Volare” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” doesn’t put me in the right mood, doesn’t make me feel Italian, then I skip the project and have Chinese food. What can I say? The man was a god.

After I have made sauce—uh, sorry, gravy—I move on to a savory Tomato Tart. This is humble, farmhouse-style convenience food: make it Sunday, and you can eat it cold from the fridge for the rest of the week.

If I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of cherry or grape tomatoes, then this confirmed old teetotaler reaches for the vodka bottle. I don’t know what it is about them, but I seem to sleep very well after eating cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in vodka. This was a party hors d’oeuvre standby about twenty years ago.

But for pure versatility Tomato Cobbler or Tomato Crisp is, I think, the best way of finishing off the tomato bounty. Of the two the cobbler is the more labor intensive, but, for your trouble, is also more satisfying. This is really just a bigger version of grilled, breadcrumb-topped tomatoes. I bake this in a soufflé dish. Toss four or five quartered tomatoes with some minced garlic, a bit too much grated Parmesan cheese, a few snips of fresh oregano, and salt and pepper into the dish. Top with some biscuit dough for a cobbler. To make it a crisp, omit the biscuit dough and substitute a generous handful or three of cracker crumbles mixed with just enough softened butter so the crumbles hold together in loose clumps. Bake in a hot oven until the top is browned and everything is bubbly. Easy, yes?

The fun there is experimenting with different kinds of crackers, although if you are a hopeless snacker (like me) you’ll end up eating the crust and realize that you are losing interest in the tomatoes.

And after all those tomatoes, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?


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The Italian Team


Amaretti Semifreddo with roasted apricots

I’ve been making a lot of ice cream this summer. When I post a story in this venue about ice cream I tend to get a little paranoid about it. There are a couple of reasons: 1. There is no shortage of excellent ice cream available to buy, already made, at your local supermarket. 2. People still tend to think of ice cream as an ultimate indulgence, the 70’s drug binge of desserts. I half expect to receive an email calling me a horrid little man, and asking how I dare suggest such an indulgence—and besides, don’t I know that most people do not own an ice cream freezer? To which I would reply, “Little? Thank you!”

It seems no one can stop at just one or two scoops. I cannot fix people’s will power—or lack thereof—but I do have remedy for people’s lack of an ice cream freezer.

Whenever I have a question about food I look to the Italians. French food is magnifique, but even at its most casual has an arms-length formality. Italian food is a party even at its most formal. In the dessert realm I have always given the edge to the French, but as I get older I gain more and more respect for the Italian way with dolces—especially if I can introduce chocolate into the equation.

This is, admittedly, chalked up mainly to perception on my part. In my mind’s eye Rome is always sun-splashed and hot, but it’s always sweater and beret weather in Paris. Hmmm: where is my beret?

So, taking my ignorant cultural bias with a grain of salt, I think if I were to ask an Italian what to make if I wanted a frozen dessert but didn’t have an ice cream freezer, the answer would be: semifreddo.

Semifreddo translates as “half-frozen” which is exactly what it is. If, like me, you are a fan of letting your ice cream sit for a while until it hits the “gooshy” stage, then semifreddo is your man—uh—dessert. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hit the half frozen stage through you setting timers or reading thermometers. The ingredients do all the work for you.

The bad news: you will need an electric appliance—a hand-held mixer being the preferred mode of beatery here—although the heartier among us can (and do) make do with a whisk. This appliance is needed to whip some heavy cream and then whip a couple of eggs. I’m too lazy to do this the old fashioned way. The eggs are whipped until they are pale yellow, thick, and creamy. The cream is whipped to stiff peak stage. The two items are lightly folded together, plopped into a mold (in this case a loaf pan), then stashed in the freezer where the foamed eggs lighten the whipped cream and keep it from freezing solid.

There’s beauty in this concoction, and it is a beauty that is a reflection of your own taste, for the basic recipe becomes a blank slate upon which you can heap the bounty of your own imagination.

As this was my first go at semifreddo, I may have played it a bit safe, using a couple of obvious choices. I loosely crumbled about a half a package of little amaretti cookies and used those as a middle layer. During their stay in the freezer they were moistened slightly by their surroundings, but retained enough of their crunch to make them a prize. I oven-roasted a few fresh apricots and served those as a lumpy sauce, the oven magnifying their pungency, a nice counterpart to the vanilla buttery-ness of the semifreddo. Does this still count as “fruit for dessert”?

My next attempt may be a bit more fanciful. If I have the time I’ll make a simple praline from sugar and pistachios and crumble that as a middle layer. The salty pistachios and the sugar will lend a crunchy spikiness to the mellow frozen fluff. I think this may go well with a thimble of Vin Santo. Drink it? Pour it over the semifreddo?

You choose.


Click here for the Semifreddo recipe.


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Ceremonial Duties

Home-made Sugar Cones

waiting for Ben and Jerry

So far my only real celebration of summer’s arrival has been to listen to Nat King Cole sing about those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. That always puts me in the mood for a good Clam Roll.

I absolutely love summer.

Okay, that’s a total lie. Let’s just say that I’ve gotten old enough to make my peace with summer. Nat King Cole, a few reliable old movies that I watch every summer, and the hypnotic hum of the air conditioner are what get me through. When those wear off a dab of ice cream does the trick. And just as they used to say about Brylcreem, “A little dab’ll do ya.”

A little dab of ice cream? Who stops there?

I know lots of folks who cannot get enough ice cream. I’m a more recreational user. But in the hot weather there’s something mighty appealing about the ceremony that surrounds ice cream.

When I was a kid my mother used to take me to Jules Salon for Men to have my hair cut. Jules, an expat Frenchman, ran a very modern (at the time) establishment for executives, but it was still very much a barbershop. So, there was little Mikey sitting on the bench, legs crossed, waiting, reading Paris-Match. I couldn’t understand a word in the magazine, but I like to think I learned a thing or two about Peugeot, Catherine Deneuve, and Georges Pompidou anyway.

As I write this I keep thinking about how barbershops have disappeared, but then the sting of truth washes over me: it’s not barbershops that have disappeared, it’s my hair, and therefore my need for barbershops.


After my haircut a trip of mere steps would find us in the chilled quiet of Bailey’s, an outpost of the beloved but sadly departed Boston confectionary. I find it hard to believe that places like this have seemingly evaporated. They were temples devoted to the worship of chill. Everything fed this nurturing cool, from the thick marble tables, to the twisted metal seat backs, and the steel, ruffle-rimmed metal ice cream dishes. Not a paper cup in sight.

On a hot summer day, our post-haircut treat was a drippy, hot fudge sundae with Mocha Lace ice cream, marshmallow sauce (instead of whipped cream), and salted walnuts on top. This was eaten with a loooooong metal spoon. We would chase that with tiny glasses of icy cold water that dripped from an enormous marble lavabo before trotting by the candy counter for a glimpse of the dusty, jewel-toned Turkish Delight.

Yes, each sundae likely wiped out that year’s harvest of sugar cane from a small Caribbean island. But this wasn’t an everyday indulgence, merely an occasional treat. My behavior—good or bad—was irrelevant, for nothing would keep my Mother from her appointed date with Mocha Lace. I suspect her choice of Jules Salon for Men had as much to do with its proximity to Bailey’s as it did with Jules’ talent with my little scalp.

The Ice Cream ceremony takes many forms. It could be the frightening jingle of the Mister Softee truck, or the technique you’ve honed to dampen the slam of the freezer door after you’ve snuck yet another spoonful of Phish Food…or Chubby Hubby…or both.

The common sugar cone is part of my ceremony. I love them just as much as the ice cream; yet, I prefer my ice cream in a dish, with the sugar cone perched on top like a pointy hat. With each spoonful of ice cream I get a bit of crunch from the cone, yet I don’t have to worry about ice cream melting out of the bottom and rolling down my wrist. Peculiar? Sue me.

Until recently I had never tried baking my own ice cream cones. The hardest thing about this was finding the right utensil. I absolutely refused to spend the forty or fifty dollars on yet another electric appliance. This had less to do with spending money and more to do with lack of kitchen storage. I knew I needed a pizzelle iron. Who knew unless you’re willing to dig deep, that the pizzelle world has gone all electric? (Yes, I was horrified by this too, so rest easy.)

Finally I consulted Fante’s, the great Philadelphia-based kitchen supply store. After my search for an old fashioned stove top pizzelle iron had run aground in Manhattan, they offered a happily modest selection, along with great advice, recipes, and a bit of history thrown in.

(Did you know that pizzelle irons used to be given as wedding gifts etched with the new bride’s initials and the wedding date? Totally charming. Maybe I’ll have mine etched with an outline of Mikey the Pig, this site’s mascot currently oinking at the top of this page. Anyone know a trustworthy pizzelle etcher?)

I’ll admit that I did have some trepidation before my inaugural run with my old-school iron. Would the cookies stick? Would they burn? I figured who cares? The iron isn’t electric so if the worst happened I could just soak it in the sink and scrub it with some steel wool. Hey, the thing only cost about sixteen dollars. I was willing to take a chance.

I worried for nothing. After following Fante’s instructions to season the iron, each ice cream cone slid out of the iron without a fight before being rolled and left to harden (which happens fast.)

For my bonus round I substituted gluten-free flour for the all-purpose kind called for in the recipe. There was really very little difference; if anything the gluten-free cones had a slightly more fragile crumble point. (If you try the gluten free kind make sure your baking powder is also gluten free.)

And yes, that’s the scoop on making ice cream cones.


Here’s my sugar cone adaptation of Fante’s Pizzelle recipe.


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Mocha Lady Fingers

a treat for breakfast or later...

There used to be a TV commercial for Stella d’Oro cookies that was based on an ages-old Borscht Belt sketch.

(And, it goes a little something…like this:)

(The scene: a typical upper middle class suburban home. The husband enters.)

Husband:  Darling! I’m home! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (a slightly muffled off stage voice) I’m hiding!

Husband:  (Looking around, trying to guess her hiding place) Darling I’m home! I brought you flowers! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (still a slightly muffled off stage voice) I’m hiding!

Husband:  Darling I’m home! I brought you flowers!  And Stella d’Oro cookies! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (opens the door slightly) I’m hiding! In the front closet!

(In the original sketch the husband was bringing the Mrs. a diamond bracelet. That would open a few closet doors in my neighborhood.)

How many times have you walked by the Stella d’Oro display at the supermarket? Funny the stuff you take for granted. I haven’t been to the East End of Boston for many years (Go Eastie!) but many years ago I somehow found myself standing in a bakery in that part of town. (Me? In a bakery?)

This was one of those places where you walk in and think, “Ah, this is the real deal.” They could have used it as a location for “The Godfather.” I remember buying a few slices of Anisette Toast and thinking (brainiac that I am) “Ohhh, like Stella d’Oro.” Time has not diminished my gratitude to whatever god of silence prevented me from saying that out loud.

Stella d’Oro was actually a local New York City brand. What may have started as a little taste of Arthur Avenue and baked just a few miles up the road from me in the Bronx is now baked in North Carolina.

(Out of towners are now thinking, “Ohhhhh, that’s what the Bronx was for.”)

I am someone who is a sucker for a wrapper with a few foreign words. But during all those oblivious trips past the Stella d’Oro display it has never occurred to yours truly that I was usually ignoring a product whose pedigree was also “the real deal.” In the same way that the formerly ethnic bagel became mainstream, Stella d’Oro’s goodies lost their Bronx-Italian identity and became just another cookie (or bread stick.) You can take the cookie out of the Bronx; can you take the Bronx out of the cookie? I don’t have an answer.

For, as much as I’d like to rip the crinkly cello off a package of Breakfast Treats and pretend that I am eating something baked by my (very imaginary) Italian grandmother, what I really must do is appreciate the cookie itself, the baker’s art that went into it, rather than some romanticized ethnicity that I painted on it for my amusement.

The humble Breakfast Treat is really nothing more than a generously-sized, lightly Anise-scented lady finger. Lady fingers belong to a group of items baked from the recipe commonly referred to as “biscuit” (pronounced, biskwee). Things like jelly roll and sponge are cut from that same cloth. How this differs from other cakes and cookies is that the air beaten into the egg whites is the only leavener used. The only fat is usually whatever is in the egg yolks. While perhaps not as tender as chemically-leavened cakes, biscuit is another “real deal.” It requires a little technique—although with a stand mixer the only real technique may be knowing when to turn the mixer off. More importantly, it calls back to a time before chemical leaveners like baking powder which have only been in widespread use since the early 1800s.

I love baking this kind of stuff. It really asks that you pay attention to what you’re doing. There are a few steps, and a couple of bowls—and one bowl is used, washed, dried, and re-used. But I still think it is easier than pie crust.

To celebrate the humble Breakfast Treat / Lady Finger / biscuit, I decided to make my own. Should I channel my (very much imaginary) Italian Grandmother or add my own little style? What the heck: Granny had her shot, and she “did good.” I’m gonna do my own thing. Out with the anise, in with the coffee and cocoa. Hey why not? They’re breakfast treats, and that’s when I drink coffee. And I’ll put chocolate on just about anything.

Be warned: Lady Fingers are usually piped through a pastry bag. Don’t worry about it. As you can see from the picture above, you can just as easily make little round cookies by dropping a bit of dough from a teaspoon. Here are a couple of easy hints: whip the egg yolks until thick, pale, and creamy. Err on the side of over beating them. The egg whites are a different story. Whip just until they hold a peak when you pull the beater out of the bowl. Err on the side of slightly under beating. Over beaten egg whites will “curdle” and dry out.

Granted these aren’t a “rock your world” cookie. They’re mildly sweet which is what makes them breakfast friendly, but you can easily dress them for dinner by drizzling melted chocolate on top or just dipping them halfway. I’m even going to experiment on the next batch by sprinkling a touch of almond praline powder on top before they bake to give them just the kiss of a sweet, crunchy glaze.

Do you think they’d approve in “Eastie”?


Click here for the recipe for Mocha Lady Fingers.


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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?


Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart


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Mamma’s Recipe

Torta Nera

Le ricette della mamma...

There is a paper flour bag that has been sitting on my pantry shelf for months. This is not a typo: I meant to write paper flour bag, not bag of flour. That’s because the paper bag is empty, the flour having long ago given its life in the cause of pizza.

I have the unfortunate habit of holding on to stuff like this, usually because a recipe is printed somewhere on the side. I think I’ve been intrigued by these side-of-the-box recipes ever since I was a kid and saw the famous “Mock Apple Pie” recipe printed on the Ritz Cracker box. I never understood why anyone would make a fake apple pie when the real one was so easy. Yes, the thought of wet, sugary, Ritz Crackers cooked in lemon juice is intriguing, but we’ll save that for another day.

There are times when there is no recipe on the package, but I may have found the shape or flavor of the cookie or cracker pictured inspiring. In those cases I will cut out the picture and add it to a growing but rather random file of similar items. Often these bits of inspiration find their way into recipes, although sometimes it is the “feeling” of the item rather than the actual flavors that makes its way into something I bake. “Homey” or “farmhouse” are adjectives that I may take away from a session of flipping through the file that contains these bits of cardboard.

How often do I actually make any of these recipes? Uhhhhh…I’m not sure that I ever have. Even more remarkable in the specific case of the paper flour bag, is the fact that the printing on the flour bag in question was in Italian, a language with which I have—at best—a nodding acquaintance.

Still, there was enough there that I could decipher, so I neatly folded the empty bag and stuck it in a place where it could occasionally wave, “Hello” to me and remind me of its existence.

Okay, the latter is a very passive explanation of what happened. Here’s what really happened: I am endlessly intrigued with anything that smacks of simple Italian cooking. The recipe on the bag begins with the title, “Le ricette della mamma,” or in English, “Mom’s recipe.”  I was hooked.

I know enough Italian that I could further identify cocoa and orange zest amongst the ingredients; this begs the question, “Why did I wait so long to make this recipe?” Dunno, but clearly its time has come. Hey, I never write about making other folks’ recipes. Leave it to me to choose one that I can barely understand.

Thank you, internet. If it weren’t for you I would have had to dig deep to find someone to patiently translate the recipe. But you did it quickly, and in the comfort of my own home. Very accommodating. And I was truly charmed by your word-for-word translation. Yes, I will “…ascend well the egg whites”, I promise.

The name, “Torta Nera” bodes well. It translates as “Black Cake.” If you love chocolate (ME!, ME!) that sounds mighty good. The recipe was written in metric weight? No problem. I have a scale which will translate into ounces and cups. (PS: I think electronic scales are indispensible for bakers.) Most of the ingredients are your cake-baking basics like milk, flour, butter.

But one ingredient translated poorly: “una bustina di lievito vanigliato.” This translated as, “a sachet of vanilla yeast.” Wha??

Because in my simple mind and imagination all Italians spring from the womb with innately superior cooking skills, my first assumption was, “Good god, these folks are so clever! They even have vanilla-flavored yeast!”

Alas, this is not the case. There’s no such thing as vanilla-flavored yeast. That would be your ultimate niche market item, after all how much Panettone can you make? In the meantime I was puzzled: Did they mean a packet of vanilla? A packet of yeast? Maybe the internet translator meant plain yeast instead of vanilla yeast?

The answer was found via just a bit more internet digging. What the recipe meant for me to use was vanilla-flavored baking powder, a common convenience ingredient used by Italian housewives. An “Aha!” moment, but I couldn’t find that product in New York City, so a bit of plain baking powder and vanilla extract would substitute.

I carefully weighed and measured each ingredient before moving on to the mixing instructions where I encountered a small glitch. Turns out Mamma must have been nipping at the vino. She listed 100 ml of milk as an ingredient, but then neglected to mention when to add it and / or how. That’s okay. I’ve made a cake or two in my time and was able to channel Mamma and figure it out.

A bit of background: in setting out to translate this recipe I was hoping for a cake that would simultaneously be a bit simple and rustic, yet have an unusual mix of flavors and textures. If not, why bother? I already have a chocolate cake recipe, who needs yet another? The fact that the recipe calls for type “00” flour, a finely-milled flour usually used in pizza dough or bread gave me hope for something a bit denser than the springy Hershey’s One-Bowl cake or Duncan Hines’ mix many are used to.

Mamma didn’t disappoint. The cake was dense and dark, with a crust that gives a soft but gratifying crunch when chewed. While she didn’t specify in her recipe how much grated orange zest to add, I assumed that she would prefer the cake to be well perfumed by the citrus and so I used a generous hand.

Since it is not as aggressively sweet as an American-style chocolate cake, I found that it would be eminently dunkable with a spot of Earl Grey or a spirited companion with a bit of Moscato di Asti.

Grazie Mamma!


Click here for the recipe for Torta Nera.


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Fontainebleau Fantasy

Miami Mandel Bread

Where do the poinsettias go after the holidays are over? During the holidays they seem to decorate every surface that hasn’t otherwise been claimed by things green, red or ersatz-snowy. Here in New York, discarded Christmas trees are still lining the streets—the delay in the mulching trucks collecting them is due to the abundance of real snow this year. All over the world, Christmas lights have long ago been wrapped on a spool and stored way in the back on the top shelf of the closet until next year. Tree ornaments have been safely tucked away in their boxes.

But the poinsettias just mysteriously disappear…hmmm.

Another holiday item has been hanging around my kitchen and until a few days ago it seemed it had no intention of leaving. I’m referring to a little crate of clementines that Santa (or one of his elves) left for me. They’re delicious but for a while there I had the spooky feeling they were magically replacing themselves as I ate them: the crate just never seemed to get empty.

Well, now I can finally see the wood slats on the bottom of the crate, and it feels like a race: can I finish the clementines before they go bad? Should I be suspicious that they don’t seem to have aged a bit? Perhaps there’s a portrait of them in an attic somewhere in which they have become dried and wrinkled?

I have no answers to these questions, merely recognition that clementines are not merely a holiday treat, they are actually in season all winter, the bounty of millions of Spanish citrus trees. I was staring at them the other day and asked them (politely), “Is there anything I can do with you other than peel and eat?”

This conversation dovetailed nicely with the fact that January (a/k/a “The Monday Morning of The Year”) is drawing to a close. I’ve been a good boy and now I deserve a cookie. (By “good” I mean I ate well in an effort to reform bad habits collected during the holidays.) (By “cookie” I mean…cookie.)

Mind you, I’m not looking to dive back into the gluttony pool; I just need a little something sweet (but not too), and crunchy (very). If I can perhaps fulfill this requirement without straying too far from my current healthy habits, well, yahoo.

My first thoughts went to Angel Food Cake. While it has no fat, in this case it also has one great downfall: it’s not crunchy. Good material, wrong fit. But while my mind was on Angel Food Cake I remembered the old advice about day-old Angel Food Cake: slices of it are great toasted.

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the biscotti – one even serves above as the button for the Butter Flour Eggs subscription form. Biscotti also go by the name Mandel Bread, especially when referring to the almond (mandel) variety. Biscotti or mandel bread usually refers to an eggy, slightly rich batter baked in a loaf, then sliced and toasted. Some folks refer to this as a twice-baked cookie.

I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here. Why not toast skinny slices of Angel Food Cake into skinny blonde biscotti? Nifty idea, thanks!

So here’s what I did: I made a small recipe of Angel Food Cake batter and mixed in some toasted, sliced almonds. As I was about to pour the batter into a loaf pan I spied the clementines waiting patiently on my kitchen counter. In a (relatively) thrilling flash of inspiration (okay, you had to be there) I applied the working side of my microplane to three of the ever-youthful clementines. Folding the batter carefully (so as to not leave a crease) I distributed the rind evenly.

After cooling the loaf thoroughly I sliced it into slices less than ¼” thick and toasted them on a rack in a 300 degree oven.

I won’t lie to you here: I’m not a paragon of self-control.  So I’ll admit that there weren’t a lot of these left to share with friends, family, or co-workers because I inhaled them. They are like Clementine-scented, almond-studded crack. But I’ve given them the unlikely-but-eminently-more-evocative name of “Miami Mandel Bread.”

I think it has something to do with the fact that in my imagination I can see a frilly-capped, apron-ed waitress throwing these on the table with the coffee at the Fontainebleau Hotel back in 1965—when the place was hot, but long, long before it was cool (not that I’d remember.) My big, blonde, and quite imaginary Aunt Sylvia would’ve passed me one and explained, “They’re good…and dietetic too!”

They’re skinny, the Clementine rind make little “pops” of citrus in your mouth as you chew, and they remind me of losing weight so you can go to Miami and lie in the sun. And the writer in me likes the alliteration of Miami and Mandel. Yes, the almonds add back some of the fat that the lack of egg yolk and butter deducted. But it is healthy fat along with a fistful of minerals that you know you need. Gracious, these are practically health food. (Yeah, yeah, I know…)

What can I tell you? This has been a really cold winter. Can you blame me for having Miami Beach on my mind?

C’mon down!


Click here for the recipe for Miami Mandel Bread.


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My Italian Grandma

Bisque Tortoni

Bisque Tortoni

I mentioned a long time ago that my Mom is Executive Vice President of Food Nostalgia here at Butter Flour Eggs. (She doesn’t spend a lot of time in the office, preferring to correspond with her terrified underlings by iPad.)

If you’re looking for insight into my food aesthetic she would be your starting point. I’d wager that’s true of most offspring. Did I read somewhere that Mother Orangutans chew food and then feed it to their babies mouth-to-mouth? What are the chances that baby Orangutans grow up complaining that their Mothers were terrible cooks?

Thankfully my Mother let me have first crack at my own food. She was a good cook, but when she wanted us to eat something really great she took us to our Italian Grandmother. Okay, I’ll cop to the fact that the only way I could really have had an Italian Grandmother was if she came here by way of Odessa. And spoke Yiddish. 

No, my brother and I didn’t really have an Italian grandmother; we did, however, have two really great substitutes.

If you were casting a movie and wanted a sweet, tiny-but-sturdy, Italian Grandmother-type, Mrs. Cappy (short for Capobianco) would have been your choice. She was our babysitter, kind and patient, no fool, and certainly no pushover. Oh, did I mention she could cook? It bears repeating: she could cook. Mr. Cappy must have smiled a lot.

My Mom was a good cook. Mrs. Cappy’s cooking was like nothing we’d tasted before. Real Italian Grandma food. (My Mom is not insulted by this. She agrees.)

My other Italian Grandmother was a guy named Giovanni—John to his friends. He ran a joint called “Giovanni’s” near where we lived. I use the term “joint” affectionately. I have a feeling that John played Italian Grandma to thousands of folks like us because the one thing you could always count on to start your meal at “Giovanni’s” was a wait in line to get a table. I don’t remember how long the average waiting time was; when you were a fidgety kid like I was, five minutes may just as well have been two hours. In those days all I had to occupy my fidgety self while waiting in that line were the cigarette machines. Every once in a while I’d hit the jackpot on one of those many-armed bandits and a book of matches would fly out. (The matches always advertised New Jersey’s Palisades Park. This made no sense to me: we were in Boston.)

If Mrs. Cappy was an Italian Grandma out of central casting, then “Giovanni’s” was like an Italian restaurant out of a set designer’s imagination. I doubt John had more than fifteen tables crammed into what he must have started as a road house bar room. In one corner: the requisite shrine to John F. Kennedy, our local fallen hero. In the other corner? Who knows? John kept the place dark. Atmosphere? Memories of places like “Giovanni’s” always seem to exist in a visual time warp where film noir meets “Happy Days.” You could see the food. What more did you need?

I don’t remember any tables, just booths with Formica topped tables. Each booth came equipped with a juke box that flip-flip-flipped its pages so you could choose amongst the likes of Bobby Darin, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, and, of course, Sinatra. My memory is sketchy but I’d swear the paper placemats bore maps of Italy. Sound familiar? Probably.  I have just described “Giovanni’s” and who knows how many other, similar joints in every metropolitan area of the country.

Menu? I’m sure “Giovanni’s” had one, but we never used it, because we were there on a mission: Veal Cutlet Parmigiana, my Mom’s version of soul food. She still says it was the best Veal Cutlet Parmigiana she ever had, and she’s very, very picky.

It won’t surprise you to learn that my most vivid memory is of dessert. There were two choices: Spumoni Ice Cream and Bisque Tortoni.

Bisque Tortoni was a tiny, subtly sweet, slightly mysterious frozen dessert served in a little paper cup with a Maraschino cherry on top. Was it ice cream? Kind of. But the consistency was a bit different: it was creamier when allowed to soften a bit, a bit drier, and had some kind of cookie crumbs swirled through it and sprinkled on top. There was a heavy hint of something—vanilla?—that flavored the entire affair.

Some years later, perhaps slightly before the internet became the encyclopedia of everything you always wanted to know about but never found the answer to, I found a recipe for Bisque Tortoni in the newspaper. The recipe answered my questions about the unusual consistency of Bisque Tortoni. It is a frozen mixture of whipped cream, whipped egg whites, and sherry. I clipped out the recipe, knowing that I now had the knowledge and the power to make Bisque Tortoni.

Until I lost the recipe.

Relax. The story has a happy ending. While paging through an old cookbook, the yellowed clipping fluttered out like an oak leaf that had been pressed between pages of a bible. A sign? I thought so.

I’ve updated the recipe a bit, if only cosmetically, by suggesting the use of Amaretto instead of sherry, amaretti cookies instead of macaroons, and by piping the mixture into ramekins instead of paper cups.

For full effect, eat it in a dark room while listening to Tom Jones.


Click here for the recipe for Bisque Tortoni.


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