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Archive for February, 2011

Where does the time go?! I barely completed the Daring Cook’s challenge and it’s back into the kitchen to be a Daring Baker. The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies. I imagine these two were paired as homage to Italian desserts however; Florentine cookies are not actually Italian cookies. These lacy, crisp and chewy treats were created by French bakers to honor Florentine royalty when they visited Paris. But still, enough of a link to get me thinking about delicious Italia.

The ancient colliseum in Rome

Panna cotta, means cooked cream in Italian and my first and only exposure to it (until making it myself for this challenge) was on a whirlwind trip through Rome, Florence, and Venice. As usual, between taking in all the amazing art, ancient history, and gorgeous scenery, we managed to locate and consume all the tastiest treats those amazing cities have to offer. It was a culinary adventure that foodie dreams are made of!

The best gelato!!

Oh! The aroma of all those shaved truffles!

Along with a daily dose of the finest gelato in countless fabulous flavors, the two week tour of the Big 3 of Italy included, amongst others, my first (and hopefully last!) taste of donkey, a plate of pasta with botarga (the roe pouch of grey mullet that’s been dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks), the finest black truffles in a heavenly dish of Tagliatella e tartuffo, and an incredible boiled beef sandwich that was scarfed down at a crowded communal table in the Central Mercato in Florence. Every day was a new discovery of fish, meats and cheeses, fresh vegetables, pastas and pastries all prepared in authentic Italian style. We picnicked above ancient ruins and in the Tuscan countryside and dined in countless tiny candlelit trattorias. 

Italian sandwiches to die for!

It was in one of these dark, tucked away little restaurants where I first tasted panna cotta. Leo’s in Santa Croce was a very special place where Leo himself greeted us at the door and escorted us to our table. He spoke no English and we spoke no Italian but it didn’t matter. The warmth of his welcome and our obvious pleasure at the sight and smells of the food appearing from the tiny kitchen at the back of the restaurant were more than enough to create that special connection between host and guest that insured that a fabulous meal would ensue. We were not disappointed.

The meal started with the antipasti special, very thinly sliced, long strands of fresh raw zucchini with scallion, shaved parmesan and a light lemony dressing. Absolutely delicious. We also had a fresh tomato/basil brochette, served with a slice of unbelievably sweet melon. Next came veal scallopini with artichoke in a gorgonzola sauce with spinach and grilled baby lamb chops, served with potatoes and caramelized onions. The lamb had an intense and delicious charred flavor from the open fire grill and every bite was moist and tender. We sucked the bones totally clean, earning an approving pat on the back from the waiter when he came to take the plate.

Leo’s grilled lamb chops with melting potatoes

And finally it was time for dessert! I had heard the name but didn’t really know what it was so I ordered panna cotta, apparently a wise choice as I received an enthusiastic nod from Leo. He soon placed in front of me a white mound of thick, slightly gelatinous, sweet cream, covered with a rich chocolate sauce. It tasted just like whipped cream but had a consistency more like a thick custard or mousse. What could be bad? Of course, topped with an excellent chocolate sauce, I’d probably eat a scoop of Vaseline! But this was quite tasty and while I knew it wasn’t going to be one of my all time favorite food experiences, I was happy to have tasted a real Italian dolce in an authentic Italian trottoria.

Chocolate and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

So this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge was an invitation to make this dessert myself. Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make and is a very versatile dessert. The simplest method is to dissolve 1 packet of unflavored gelatin in ½ cup of cold cream or milk. Bring 1 ½ cups more of cream and ½ cup of sugar to a slight simmer. Remove from the heat and add 1 tsp of vanilla. Pour the hot cream over the dissolved gelatin and stir. This will serve 4 people and the recipe can be easily doubled. If you want chocolate panna cotta, simply stir in some finely chopped semi or bittersweet chocolate and stir until melted.

Vanilla bean panna cotta with strawberry sauce and Florentine cookie

There are countless variations and methods and plain panna cotta can be flavored numerous ways. It can be served in glasses, layered with fruit gellee or or can be unmolded after chilling in lightly greased custard cups and topped with a sauce. I made a vanilla bean version, both unmolded and served with a strawberry sauce and layered in fancy glasses with chocolate panna cotta. Add a fancy cookie on the side, like these irresistibly crunchy, chewy Florentines, and you’ve got a dessert that can easily transport you to Italy without ever leaving your own kitchen. Think of the money you’ll save on airfare!

FLORENTINE COOKIES:

2/3 cup (5.3 oz) unsalted butter                                                                                                                                                                               2 cups (5 2/3 oz) quick oats
1 cup (8 oz) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (3⅓ oz) plain (all purpose) flour
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
Melt the butter and then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Drop by teaspoon at least 3” apart on parchment paper lines baking trays. Bake in preheated 375˚ oven for 8 minutes, until spread flat and brown on the edges. Remove from oven and cool completely on trays, until totally firm. Then remove to a rack. Melt 1½ cups dark or milk chocolate until smooth and spread a thin layer on the bottom of a cookie and sandwich the chocolate between  a second cookie. Let the chocolate harden and EAT!

Florentine Cookies

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How Daring Am I?

When it comes to cooking, baking and eating, I’m no slouch. I’ve eaten some stuff that many would die before ingesting. Things like donkey, brains, frogs, and grasshoppers. And I wouldn’t hesitate to try my own hand at preparing almost anything. I can bone a whole raw chicken (and almost any other animal!) I make my own caramel, I regularly bake and decorate wedding cakes from scratch and have no problem tackling such scary dishes as baked Alaska or Duck L’Orange. So when I discovered that there was a group of people out there that called themselves The Daring Bakers and The Daring Cooks, I knew I wanted in.

Happily, it’s open to anyone who is willing to commit to preparing whatever the challenges are for the month, one challenge for cooks and one for bakers, and posting about it on your blog. (Here’s the link to the Daring Kitchen’s website, if you’re interested:  http://thedaringkitchen.com/) Ever the over-achiever, I had to sign up for both cooking and baking so you, my readers, will be treated to my results of a challenge twice a month. And today is the lucky day for posting what we cooked for February.

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including www.japanesefood.about.com, www.pinkbites.com, and www.itsybitsyfoodies.com.

Now tempura was something I could get excited about. Basically, if you batter and fry a piece of old shoe leather I would probably find it delicious, so fresh veggies and shrimp inside a pale golden crispy crust is a big bonus. Get out the old electric fryer and a mountain of Crisco and we’re off and running!

Tempura bubbling away in hot oil

The key to light, shatteringly crisp tempura is in keeping the batter very cold and having the oil just the right temperature. The coating should be quite thin and the color of the finished tempura rather pale. In no way should good tempura resemble the typical Americanized Chinese deep fried shrimp or chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I love those thick, greasy, deeply golden brown heart attacks but tempura is a completely different animal (or vegetable!) Draining tempura on a rack as opposed to paper towels also keeps it nice and crunchy.

We happily gobbled up every last bite of tempura fried shrimp, sweet potatoes, broccoli, onions, and mushrooms all dunked in a spicy dipping sauce. Followed by brownies and ice cream it was a pretty scrumptious meal. The house smelled like a frialator for days after but it was well worth it.

pale golden, perfectly crisp tempura

I had to really push myself to make the Hiyashi Soba simply because I’ve never been much of a fan of the cold noodle. I want my pasta hot and preferably swimming in a cheesy cream sauce. Yes, go ahead and add some veggies or additional protein if you must, but I’ll generally pass on cold pasta, especially bathed primarily in soy sauce. But I was challenged so I rose to the occasion and cooked up some traditional buckwheat soba noodles (I briefly considered making my own but was quickly restored to sanity and purchased them at a local Asian market!) julienned an assortment of veggies and an egg crepe, and made a spicy sauce.

The fixings for Hiyashi Soba

It all looked lovely but I’m still not sold on the cold noodle thing. Fortunately I have a husband who likes everythingand he happily scarfed it down as if it were a special treat.

Ready to eat Hiyashi Soba

So the cooking challenge has been met for the month by a quick culinary jaunt to Japan. I encourage you to give one of these recipes a try and let me know how you liked it! And stay tuned. In a couple of weeks I’ll share the March baking challenge here. Mean time, it’s Monday and I’ve got 5 days of brown rice and veggies to make up for all that fried food and the whole pan of brownies I managed to finish over the weekend.

Oh those brownies were sooo good!

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Just what we need: More snow!

It’s snowing. Again. Yes, we’re hunkering down for the 7th major snowstorm of the winter (and it’s only February 1!) and as usual, it’s falling on a weekday. Mother Nature has it in for me and she’s working hard to convince me to scrap the weekend warrior bit and just break down and trade in the herbal tea for a nice rewarding cup of rich hot chocolate. Brown rice and veggies just don’t cut it when there’s a foot of new snow on the ground and another 6 inches expected! I’m dreaming about mac and cheese or French onion soup to warm my bones and nothing beats baking cookies when there are hours of time to kill while trapped in the house watching the white stuff fall! It’s the worst winter in forever so don’t I deserve something delicious for recompense?

And there in lies the proverbial rub. That no win conundrum that every food fanatic faces when deciding what to eat when. I can always find a rationalization to go for the goodie but after the last bite is swallowed I so often regret the choice I’ve made. Balance isn’t my strong suit when it comes to pleasure and once I’ve caved and convinced myself I “deserve” a treat, it’s always a struggle to get back on track.

Like most of us, I recognize that I use food for so many things other than physical nourishment. It provides entertainment and social lubricant. It’s a great distraction from difficulties or boredom as well as serving as a fabulous reward. But mostly, special foods make for rather effective medicine although, like many medications, it most often treats the surface symptoms without touching the underlying cause of the issue. And the side effects? Therein lays the real problem of living to eat as opposed to eating to live.

Of course, the number one side effect of using food for fun and feeling better is weight gain. I don’t know about you but when I’m looking to ease my pain (and yes, another snowstorm is painful to me!!) I don’t crave poached salmon and nice pile of kale. I want high carb, high fat foods like fettuccine Alfredo or mashed potatoes. Add some salt and some crunch and that’s good too, especially if it’s dipped in or topped with something creamy. We’re talking anything from simple chips and dip to sweet potato fritters with a sour cream horseradish sauce. And let’s not forget the sugar, preferably white and refined. A plain piece of good milk chocolate will do (yes, I know dark is supposed to be actually good for you but of course I prefer milk!) but why settle for that when I can whip up a batch of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies or a chocolate swirl cheesecake?

Obviously, if I indulge in this style of eating every time I think I deserve a reward or need a distraction from my discomfort, I’ll be packing on the pounds in no time. Without some balance, the extra weight causes the cultural critic to kick in to tell me I’m fat and worthless and that’s painful, which makes me want to eat some more and then that endless cycle begins. Sigh.

So here I sit on a Tuesday, watching the snow fall in record making amounts, contemplating cookies. To bake or not to bake, that is the question. Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

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