Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tiramisu: me vs. the Italians

For years I have been making tiramisu. My own recipe has evolved throughout the years, but I have come to a standard recipe that I really like using and that I think makes a really good tiramisu. My recipe differs quite a bit than how the Italians make it. After eating Lella's tiramisu everyday for the past week, I might be switching to her recipe. I haven't quite decided yet, and I might have to make them both at the same time to do a taste test. Anyone up for helping me decide?

My Tiramisu:
you will need:
mascarpone cheese, approximately 500g
eggs, 5 yolks, one whole
heavy cream, one pint
cocoa powder

- Start by lining a serving dish with lady fingers. Using a pastry brush, soak them with espresso, using enough until they feel soggy.
- Mix 5 egg yolks and one whole egg together with a few tablespoons (maybe more than a few, sorry I don't really measure this) of sugar, a little bit of the epresso, and brandy. Cook this very lightly over a double boiler, while whisking, until you can tell the eggs are thickening up. Be careful with this step because you don't want scrambled eggs in your dessert! When they start to thicken, take them off the heat and let them cool.
- In a large bowl, whip the cream together with sugar (sweet enough to your liking) until it has thickened up and you have whipped cream. Not too stiff, but definitly thick. Add the cooled egg mixture to this, and then the mascarpone. Continue to mix until you have a nice thick cream.
- Layer half of the cream mixture over the soaked ladyfingers. You can sprinkle this first layer with cocoa powder if you want, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't.
- Make another layer of soaked ladyfingers and top with the remaining mascarpone mixture. Cover this layer with cocoa powder.
- Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight or for at least a couple of hours.

Lella's tiramisu:

You will need:
5 eggs, seperated
150 grams of sugar
500 grams of mascarpone
mini dark chocolate chips or chunks
cocoa powder

- Start by arranging the ladyfingers to cover the bottom of a serving dish. Soak them with espresso and them generously douse them with rum.
- In a large bowl, mix together the egg yolks and sugar, beating them together with an electic mixer until the yolks are a nice pale yellow color.
- Add the mascarpone to the eggs and beat for another 5-7 minutes, until you can tell that it has thickened up.
- In another bowl beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks have formed.
- Gently fold the whites into the mascarpone mixture by hand.
- Spread this mixture on top of the ladyfingers.
- Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top.
- Cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator.
- Sprinkle with cocoa powder to serve.

Ok, so here are the two recipes. Which one wins? Who is going to help me test them? :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pici all'aglione

Pici is a type of pasta very specific to Siena. Pici is the pasta of Siena, and you won't find it many other places. Every restaurant in Siena has their own version of Pici, and this is Lella's. It is a very thick type of spaghetti that is rolled out by hand. This pasta goes back to the Etruscan times, before the Romans, and before Marco Polo brought spaghetti back from the orient. Of course, you can serve this pasta with any type of sauce. Many Siense restaurants serve it with a ragu, porcini, or even a cheese sauce. In Lella's class, we made it with sugo di aglione, which means garlicky sauce. This is a basic tomato sauce that is spicy with garlic and chili flakes.

For the pici:

100 grams of all-purpose flour
100 grams of semolina flour
approximately 130 grams of water
a pinch of salt

Since this is a pasta that is made with only flour and water, you use two types of flour. The AP flour will give it the gluten to stretch out, and the semolina will give it a little more taste and texture. If you don't have semolia, you can double the amount of all-purpose flour. Making pasta can depend on many things. The humidity, the temperature of your hands, even the age of the flour can change how the pasta is. It is better to have a wetter pasta than a drier one, because you can always add more flour, but you can't take any away. So, to start this process, it is best to work on a flat surface that you don't mind getting floury and messy. Dump the flour right onto your work surface, and make a hole in the middle. Start slowly pouring the water into this hole while mixing in the flour with a fork. When the dough becomes too thick to use the fork, you can use a spatula or even you hands to bring everything together. Once you have everything incorporated, start kneading by hand. You should work this dough until you have a nice smooth texture and it does not stick to your hands. You can add more flour as needed. Cover in an airtight space and let it rest for at least half an hour. After it has rested, cut off a small piece at a time, keeping the rest covered. Start working this small piece in your hands and then finish by rolling on a table or other flat work surface. You should roll it back and forth working from the middle outward to form a long thin tube. You can cut this if it gets too long and keep rolling both halves. Roll it until it is a thick spaghetti like noodle. When you are done rolling all of the dough, cook in boiling salted water for at least 7 minutes, maybe more depending on how thick your pasta is. Remove directly from the water and put into the sauce.

Sugo di Aglione:

Extra virgin olive oil
garlic, whole cloves
chili flakes
tomatoes, canned or fresh, depending on the season
a little bit of stock or broth
fresh basil

This is a very easy sauce to make but also very good. Start with a good amount of olive oil and add the whole garlic cloves and chili flakes. This sauce is called sauce of the big garlic, so don't skimp on this ingredient! Only cook until you can start to smell the garlic. You don't want to burn the garlic at all because it will give everything a very bitter flavor. As soon as you can smell the garlic, add the tomatoes and a little bit of broth. Cover the sauce and let it cook for at least 30 minutes. The sauce is done when the garlic is tender with a fork. The final step is to add some chopped basil in the last minute of cooking. Add the pici directly to the sauce and served with a grated pecorino toscano cheese.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gnocchi al Gorgonzola

For the second recipe from la scuola di cucina di Lella, I am posting gnocchi al gorgonzola. Gnocchi are a type of pasta that are really more dumpling-like than pasta-like. They are made with potatoes which give them a completely different taste and texture than other types of pasta. This is a type of dish very typical of northern Italy, especially with the gorgonzola sauce. Although I am giving these two recipes together, they definitely can be used seperately. You can serve the gnocchi with any type of sauce you like. You can also use the gorgonzola sauce with other types of pasta, or even with rice or polenta. But in my opinion, the creaminess of this sauce goes well with the smoothness of the potatoes in the gnocchi. Don't be afraid of the gorgonzola because it is a blue cheese! It is mild enough in the sauce and melts well to be nice and creamy.

For the gnocchi:

Start by boiling the potatoes whole with their skins still on. When they are done (tender with a fork), drain them immediately. Let them cool for a little while, but not too long. When making the gnocchi dough, you want the potatoes to still be warm, but not hot. When they are an appropriate temperature, use a potato ricer to mash them onto your work surface. (This little machine really makes a difference, it's like a huge garlic press, but for potatoes.) Make a well in the middle of the pile of potatoes, sprinkle generously with flour, crack an egg in the hole, and add a pinch of salt. With a fork, start mixing the egg in the middle. Gradually push the potatoes and flour into the egg and work together to make a dough. If it is too sticky, add more flour as necessary. It should be a little sticky, but not too messy. When you have the dough formed, cut off one small piece at a time to make the gnocchi. With the piece you have cut, start rolling on a well floured surface into a long tube, something like a sausage, that should be about the thickness of your finger. At this point, cut the tube of dough into small pieces, a little smaller than an inch in length. Each of these pieces will become the gnocchi. You can use a gnocchi board or the back of a fork to form the gnocchi. First roll them gently in a circular motion, and then roll them off the gnocchi board or the fork to give them the lines that will make the sauce stick to them better. Cook in a large pot of salted water. The gnocchi are done as soon as they rise to the surface. This will be very quick, maybe a minute or less, depending on the size of the gnocchi. Use a slotted spoon to fish them out and place directly into another pan containing whatever sauce you want to serve them with. In this case, the gorgonzola.

For the sugo al gorgonzola:
gorgonzola dolce cheese
black pepper
parmesan cheese

In a pan over a low flame, melt together the butter and gorgonzola cheese. This should be just hot enough to melt them, not to cook them. When they are starting to get nice and melty, sprinkle generously with black pepper. (Note: this sauce will not need salt because the cheese should be salty enough.) Add just enough cream to make it saucy and mix everything together until it has a nice smooth consistency. Add a handful of parmesan and remove from the heat. Add the gnocchi and enjoy!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pappa col Pomodoro

For the first recipe from la scuola di cucina di Lella, here is the story and recipe behind pappa col pomodoro.

Pappa col pomodoro is a traditional Tuscan tomato and bread soup. It's origins are very poor as it is made with stale bread. Tuscan families would make bread once a week, and then at the end of the week, when the leftover bread was stale, instead of throwing it away, they would stretch it even farther by using it to make soup. The result is many tasty and hearty Tuscan soups which rely heavily on stale bread, including this one.

Another important thing about this soup is where it is from. All Italian food is very regional. There are 21 different regions in Italy, all of them with their own type of cuisine. There are definitely some similarities between dishes from some regions, and there are some things that you can find all throughout Italy, but Italian food is much more diverse than just spaghetti and lasagna. As I said, this is a traditional Tuscan soup. More than just being Tuscan, pappa col pomodoro is very specific to the area right around Siena and Florence.

This is a very easy soup to make with not too many ingredients, but it is very delicious.

Here's what you will need:
Extra virgin olive oil
Whole garlic cloves
A couple of chili peppers, crushed
Stale bread (the older, the better)

A note on some of the ingredients-
The bread should be from a very simple, country style, hearty loaf. If you only have fresh bread and want to make this soup, you can dry out the bread in the oven for a few minutes- not enough to toast it, but just enough to dry it out.
In the summer when you can find really nice flavorful tomatoes, use fresh, but in the winter, canned tomatoes are better than fresh ones without flavor.
Also in the summer, the basil is going to be more aromatic and flavorful, so you won't need to use as much.
You can use whatever kind of stock you like, vegetable or chicken. In a pinch, you could even use water, but a good stock will make this soup better.

Here's how to make it:
- Start with a good amount of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot. It should be at least 2 tablespoons of oil per person.
- Add one or two whole cloves of garlic per person (depending on how much you like garlic), and the crushed chili flakes. The heat on this pot should be very low, you don't want any color on the garlic, it should stay white throughout the cooking process.
- After a couple of minutes when you can start to smell the garlic, add a couple of handfulls of fresh basil.
- Add the bread and toss in the hot oil to evenly coat it. There should be enough bread to soak up all of the oil.
- Add the tomatoes and mix well to coat the bread.
- Fill the pot with enough stock to cover all the tomatoes and bread. The stock should be warm, so it doesn't stop the cooking process. It will depend how much stock you will need on how stale the bread is. Really stale bread is going to absorb more of the liquid, so keep an eye on this and don't let it get dried out.
- Cover the soup and simmer for at least an hour. Stir occasionally and add more stock if necessary.
- When the soup is done cooking, you can serve it as is, or pass it through a food mill for a smoother texture. According to Lella, it is very important that you do not use an electric blender, but do this step by hand with a food mill. This is meant to be a hearty soup and it should not be pureed.
- Serve the soup with a thread of extra virgin olive oil on top.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scuola di Cucina, week 1

As I mentioned a few posts back, this week I started helping at a local cooking school. The past 5 nights I have helped out the teacher, Lella, with a different group of American students every night. Each night we have had around 25 students and we make 4 dishes. Since there is a different group each day, we have been repeating the same 4 dishes each day. I figured it was time to start sharing my experiences at the school, along with some of the recipes.

Before starting, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this experience. I didn't know if I would be in the class as a student, or as a helping hand to Lella. It turns out I am a little bit of both. Lella does not speak any English, and I was a little nervous to have to translate everything on my own. Luckily for me, there is another girl who comes every night to do most of the translating. I am mostly there to grab things for Lella, watch, and help the students a little. One night I was on my own to translate, and it actually went pretty well. I am a lot better at understanding Italian and translating from Italian to English than the other way around. This class is a great way for me to practice Italian and also learn some new things about Italian cusine.

These classes for the American students will go for a few more days, and then next week, on the 28th, a session of classes for Italian students will start. Lella has invited me to attend these classes as well, to help her, and learn more than these same 4 recipes. But, these 4 recipes are really great, and I have enjoyed making them and then eating them every night. My dinner every night this week has consisted of pappa col pomodoro, gnocchi al gorgonzola, pici all'aglione, and then tiramisu. :) So, stay tuned for recipes and photos! I will try to post one each night this week.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brussels part 2

Last weekend Justin and I went on our first trip out of the country. We decided on Brussels after we found some cheap airline tickets on Ryanair that we just couldn't pass up. We were excited to go to Brussels for many reasons, one of them being the food, which I already told you about. Another reason we decided to head to Belgium was because neither of us had been there before. We were excited to experience a new city together.

We arrived Friday afternoon and were instantly greeted with a cold wind and snow. Having lived in Michigan for the first 23 years of my life, you would think that I would be able to handle cold weather and winter conditions. But 2 years in California and now the mild Mediterranean climate of Italy has softened my tough Michigan self. It was COLD!

After finding our way to our hotel and checking in, we decided to bundle back up and head outside to explore the city for awhile. At this point, it had already started to get dark (and colder), so we didn't wander too far. Our hotel was very close to the city center, so we walked around there, had a nice dinner, and then headed back to our hotel so we could get an early start on the next day.

Saturday morning wasn't much warmer, which gave us a good excuse to visit some museums. First we went to a museum for the city of Brussels, which was located in the old city hall in the city's majestic Grand Place (this is the main square of Brussels). After this visit, we took the metro north of the city to visit the Atomium, a giant structure in the shape of an atom which was built for the 1958 world's fair. There are different exhibits in each of the atom's spheres, and a great view from the top (well, our view was actually pretty snowy and limited, but I can imagine that it would be great on a clear day).

After seeing enough museums for the day, we continued our walking tour of the city, and ended the day with a hamburger and a beer. I was very excited to have a burger for the first time in at least 5 months (Italians think that McDonald's has good burgers, they have never heard of father's office I'm guessing). Then we decided to see a movie since movies in Belgium are shown in their original language (unlike Italy, where they are dubbed in Italian).

On Sunday we walked around some more, ate more waffles and chocolate, and saw a few more sites. We visited a couple of parks, saw the Royal Palace, visited a couple of churches, and also went to the museum of the Belgian bank (we needed to warm up again, but actually, it was pretty interesting).

Sunday concluded our sightseeing as we left for the airport early Monday morning. We both enjoyed Brussels and the experiences of a new place together. One of the things that I really liked about Brussels after being in Italy for almost 5 months was the diversity of the city. I know this might sound a little stupid, but everything in Italy is so Italian. This is also why I love Italy, but sometimes I just want a burger and not pasta! Brussels was a nice change for the weekend, but I was happy to return home (yes, Italy feels like home) to a langauge that I understand, warmer weather, and even a big bowl of pasta.

Fancy buildings in the Grand Place

The Atomium

More buildings in the Grand Place

A typical looking Brussels building. Actually, this is the restaurant that we ate dinner in the first night. Notice the painting on right side. There are murals throughout the city on random walls. Belgians really like comics and I think these are characters from a comic strip.

The old city hall in the Grand Place.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Taste of Brussels

Justin and I were excited to go to Brussels for many reasons, one of them including food! Belgian waffles, frites, beer, cheese, and chocolate! This is the first blog post on our trip to Brussels, with more to come soon, with more than just food.
Every beer produced in Belgium also has a specific glass that is made for it. I can't imagine all of the different glasses that bars must have to stock there. Beer typically made in Brussels is fruity, so I thought I should try a cherry beer (the beer on the right). This beer tasted nothing like beer, but more like a cough drop in liquid form. It was red and very sweet!

This is the window of a cheese shop that we walked past. It looked so good! We did have some cheese at a restaurant one night that was very good, but they couldn't tell us what kind of cheeses they were. There were a few soft, bloomy rind rind chesses, a soft washed rind, a firmer one, and a blue. All were good, but it would have been nice to know what we were eating.

No, this isn't in a shoe store. It was in a chocolate shop. This shoe was made of chocolate!

The window of a chocolate shop. Justin and I bought a box of mixed chocolates from this shop. They didn't last too long because they were delicious! We also bought a regular chocolate bar from the grocery store that was just as good. Those Belgians know how to make chocolates.

Don't you dare think that these are French fries! They are Belgian frites! All around Brussels there are friteries, where you can buy frites with mayonnaise.

More chocolate! :)

This is quite possibly the world's greatest waffle. Belgian waffles are so different than what you might think of as a Belgian waffle. They are doughy, dense, sweet, and crunchy with sugar crystals. Then top it off with whipped cream and raspberries! YUM!

The waffles on display to choose from.

Another round of beer. No fruity ones this time.

Justin's dinner our first night in Brussels. It had brussels sprouts! Of course I had to take a picture!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

So what exactly am I doing here anyway?

This is a question that I have been asking myself and have been trying to answer since we arrived in September. Our original intentions didn't quite work out, so we are in Siena as part of a backup plan, figuring things out as we go along.

Our original plan was to come to Siena for the month of September so we could both take a month long language course at the Universita per Stranieri (university for foreigners). Then in October, we would move to Parma where I would begin a pastry program at an Italian culinary school. Everything seemed to be working out fine, I had enrolled at the culinary school, enrolled in the language class, bought one way tickets to Rome, purchased health insurance for a year abroad, given notice for my job, and told our landlord that we were moving. Then at our appointment at the Italian consulate in July, everything changed. We were told, sorry, you can't have the visa you need for this school. Apparently, since the culinary school offered an intership as part of its program, you couldn't get a regular student visa that we were applying for. And, these special student visas that allow you to do an internship are few and far between. The Italian government had already given out it's alloted amount for the time period that I was applying for. So, sorry, you can't go, was what I was told.

Well, this information didn't exactly settle too well with me. Actually I was pretty much in hysterics at the consulate office. There goes thousands of dollars, years of my dreaming and hard work, just for a stupid student visa. As Justin was driving home, I thought that there was no way we would be able to come to Italy. My dreams were crushed. When we got home, we started talking about different options and what we could possibly do. The problem was the culinary school. The language class in Siena only required a normal student visa, which was still available. So I did the only thing we could think of that would still allow us to go, I enrolled at the language school for the entire year. After a couple of weeks of scrambling to get everything together, a few more trips to visit the nice lady (HAHA sarcasm here) at the consulate office, I was promised a student visa valid for a year. Less than a week before we were supposed to leave, I got my passport back in the mail with a visa stamped in it.

So, here we are in Siena. For the last 4 months I have been taking language classes, but as of December, I have completed the highest level. (don't ask me how, I still have trouble with the language and am no where near fluent.) Since arriving I have been questioning what I am doing here and what am I getting out of this experience. I haven't done anything food related except cook dinner at home. This was supposed to be a year-long food adventure, but it hasn't quite been what I had been expecting so far.

Well, thanks to our landlord, that is about to change. Our landlord knows a woman who runs a culinary school in Siena. He talked to her and told her about my wishes to learn about Italian and Tuscan cuisine. I met with her and she offered to let me take her classes for free in exchange for my help with translating for some American students. So, starting January 18, I will be back on the culinary track again. Finally! I am so happy about this opportunity to finally be here working on something that pertains to my original desire to come to Italy.

So, I guess that is the long version of me saying that I am starting a cooking class in a couple of weeks. :)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bonjour Bruxelles!

One of the expectations that I had of living in Europe before we came here was that we would be jet setting all over and traveling to new and exciting places every weekend. Well, because of time and money constraints, that hasn't exactly been the case. Since arriving in September, we have yet to even leave Italy. We barely have even left Tuscany. That all changes this Friday when we head to Brussels for a long weekend!
This idea originally came about when Justin and I were looking for somewhere to go over new years. We were originally planning on going to Rome or Venice for the weekend, but the train to get to Venice is quite expensive and all of the hotels we found in Rome were really expensive for the holiday weekend. Then, through RyanAir, a cheap European airline, we found tickets to Belgium for the weekend after new years for only 14 euros each way! So, it is cheaper for us to fly to Brussels for the weekend than take the train to Venice.
We are excited to be traveling somewhere that neither of us has ever been before and excited to be leaving the country! After being in Italy for 4 months, it will be strange to be in a country that doesn't speak Italian. I have been told that Brussels is quite an international city because it is the headquarters of the European Union, and that most people speak English. I hope so because I don't remember anything of high school French and don't even know a single word of Dutch.
It should be a fun and exciting weekend, and I will report back with photos and stories of our Belgian adventure next week.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year from Siena! It is hard to believe that 2009 is over and that we have entered into a new decade. The last 10 years have been pretty amazing, and I can't wait to see what the next 10 have in store for us.
To celebrate the beginning of the new year we joined most of Siena for a party in the Piazza del Campo. Most of the day Thursday it had been raining pretty heavily and steadily, so we weren't sure how the Sinese would be ringing in the new year. At about 8pm, I sent Justin out into the rain to see if anything was going on. He returned only a little wet and said there were plenty of people out and about and that the rain was letting up. So a couple hours later, we decided to venture out to see what was going on. As we got nearer to the city center and the piazza, there were more people and more firecrackers going off. Once we entered the piazza, we realized that there was quite a party. The piazza was packed full of people, all enjoying live music and a panorama of images being projected onto the walls of the piazza. It was quite a site to see, on all of the 700 year old buildings. People were partying and dancing and having a good time.
Right before midnight, the clouds left the sky, clearing up instantly, so we could see the full moon and a sky full of stars. The next minute, people were cheering, kissing, poping champagne, and saying "Auguri!" to everyone. Then the fireworks started. I don't think there was an official firework show planned, but everyone seemed to have brought their own, and started lighting them in the middle of the crowd. There were fireworks going off in every direction in the piazza. It was pretty neat.
So, Happy New Year and Molti Auguri per un buon nuovo anno 2010 for all of our friends and family all over the world!