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It’s that time of the month again: The Daring Bakers Challenge Post. The August 2011 Daring Bakers’ Challenge was hosted by Lisa of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drive and Mandy of What the Fruitcake?!.  These two sugar mavens challenged us to make sinfully delicious candies!  This was a special challenge for the Daring Bakers because the good folks at http://www.chocoley.com offered an amazing prize for the winner of the most creative and delicious candy!

Fortunately, I jumped right on this challenge and completed it 3 weeks ago! There’s no way I’d be making candy this weekend as we sit here waiting for hurricane Irene to hit. I’ll post soon about all the delicious things I’ve prepped for the promised power outages due to this big storm but for today, here are the sweet treats I made for this challenge.

My first ever attempt to temper chocolate. Not easy and not something I’ll be rushing to do again!

Tempered chocolate, shiny and smooth!

Making the innards of the truffles was a great deal easier and it was fun to be creative. I made an assorment and all were delicious

(From the upper left going clockwise) Mint ganache dipped in white chocolate, spiced nut bark, home made marzipan w/ dried cranberries dipped in dark chocolate, and chocolate dipped spiced carmelized nuts! Yum!

It was an interesting challenge and I’m glad I tried my hand at candy making but with a fabulous local chocolate shop close by (Munson’s) I think I’ll leave it to the experts.

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When I first decided to blog about food (with an occasional rant from my soapbox about the weight struggle and the cultural craziness that drives us to be thin!) I didn’t know that #1 I’d take on both the Bakers and Cook’s challenge and #2 that I’d end up hating the WordPress blogging format. Sigh.

So let’s start with my complaints about WordPress. Sooo not user friendly! Especially when it comes to posting pictures. What good is a blog about food without fabulous food porn to make readers drool and wish they were eating what I eat? But getting my pictures inserted into my posts is an epic task and every time I sit down at my computer to share with you the delicious things I’ve eaten and carefully photographed for your enjoyment, I end up swearing my brains out and wondering why I’m bothering to do it when the enjoyment is sucked right out by the frustrations of WordPress. I keep thinking I should switch to a Google Blog, which is supposed to be easy blogging for Dummies, but then I can’t seem to find the time to make the move.

Which brings me to the Challenges. It seemed like a great idea to have something spectacular to cook and to bake each month. I love to be creative in the kitchen, right? But I’m finding that it’s almost impossible to do the Cook’s and the Baker’s challenges each month, take some decent photos of the process and then write a blog post about it.Who has that kind of time?  And then, of course, I have to eat what I’ve baked! Sometimes a whole cake, like this month!

Jana of Cherry Tea Cakes was our July Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to make Fresh Frasiers inspired by recipes written by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson in the beautiful cookbook Tartine. Now don’t get me wrong. This challenge looked awesome and I had no doubt that I’d love to have a slice of a gorgeous, rich Fraisier, but I knew if I made one, hubby and I would be eating the whole cake ourselves. I had almost decided to skip it in lieu of fitting into my bathing suit and heading to the beach, but it was a rainy day today and I was jonesing for something sweet so I whipped up this baby using a layer of chocolate cake I made and froze last month. I threw together a quick batch of pastry
cream, folded in whipped cream and a little gelatin, added some fresh oraganic strawberries and bananas, topped with chocolate ganache and a little toasted coconut and Walla! Chocolate Fresh Fruit Fraiser!

All the ingredients

Somehow I think we’ll manageto polish the whole thing off before the weekend is over.

Chocolate Strawberry Fraiser

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It’s that time of the month again (no, not that time!) for the Daring Cooks challenge. Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I’ve never made gumbo before, probably because I’m not a big sausage fan, nor have I ever enjoyed the slimy goo that okra seems to add to any dish. Since both are primary ingredients of most gumbo recipes, I’ve just never considered it as something I’d take the time or make the effort to cook up. But I suppose this is why it’s called a challenge, so I rose to it and decided to go all out and make a big pot to bring to a party. I’m happy to report that it was a huge success, even though I, myself, didn’t enjoy it enough to ever make it again.

Gumbo is a lot of work! It involves numerous time consuming steps, especially to do it well. Because timing is so important with gumbo, all the vegetables and the meat need to be carefully prepared ahead of time and ready to go, so this isn’t a one pot meal where you toss everything in and simply forget it for an hour or so as it cooks. You’ve got to be dedicated to the process, which means you want to love the results so that all the attention and time is worthwhile.

There are hundreds of gumbo recipes out there containing every kind of meat, sausage and seafood available. There’s even a green gumbo that’s completely vegetarian. I chose to make a chicken and sausage gumbo using my butchers store made chorizo and smoked Andouille sausage, as well as organic, air chilled chicken thighs. I made a rich, homemade chicken stock, mixed up my own Cajun spices and spent almost an hour stirring the roux as it browned, first on its own and then with the addition of the “holy trinity” of chopped onion, green pepper, and celery. And yes, I eventually added the dreaded okra, which fortunately cooked away to almost nothing and the goo simply added thickening power to the gumbo.

The Cajun food "Holy Trinity" of onions, green peppers, and celery (plus garlic and the dreaded okra!)

 

 

The roux after about 15 minutes of cooking

 

Here's the roux after adding the veggies and cooking for another half hour or so

 

Good quality, well seasoned meat is key

 

A big pot of gumbo ready for the party

 

Served over white rice it was a tremendous hit at the party but for me, the ratio of work to enjoyment simply wasn’t there. I’m glad I tried my hand at it but it’s not a recipe that I’ll be adding to my regular repertoire.

The finished gumbo, served over white Lousiana rice

MY RECIPE FOR CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE GUMBO

1 cup rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
1 ½ lb chicken thighs, bone in
2 tablespoons Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend
2 ½  lbs sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts good chicken stock (or canned chicken stock)
1 bay leaves
1 cup sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Tobasco to taste

DIRECTIONS

Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning. 

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. Switch to a flay spatula and stir the vegetables into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring, scraping the bottom of the pan until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.  

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced sausage and stir for about a minute. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.

Add the okra. Season with salt and Tabasco, all to taste.  Simmer for another 30 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and take chicken of the bones and return meat to the pot. Serve in bowls over rice.

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This month in the Daring Kitchen, the baking challenge was tied to the the cooking challenge and we were to make sweet edible containers but required to use a specific filling instead of the carte blanche of the savory challenge. The April 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Evelyne of the blog Cheap Ethnic Eatz. Evelyne chose to challenge everyone to make a maple mousse in an edible container. Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote for mine your favorite from April 27th to May 27th at http://thedaringkitchen.com! You’ll see some amazing creative containers here!

Forgetting how busy this month would be with a houseful of guests for Passover and a weekend away in NYC to celebrate my birthday (stay tuned for my next post!) I foolishly thought I’d be whipping up multiple versions of sweet and salty cups to hold that delicious maple mousse. But even though I had numerous fab ideas, including toasted nut cups, bacon tuilles, and candied lemon peel baskets, reality took hold and I only executed one. But it was a great one! Gorgeous, lacy caramel baskets!

Many home cooks are totally intimidated by the idea of making their own caramel but a few tricks make it pretty fool proof every time and a good basic caramel is an elegant and impressive trick to have as part of your kitchen repertoire. It’s quite versatile and can be shaped or spun into cups and cages and fancy decorations or with the addition of cream and butter, it becomes a sublime sauce that keeps for weeks in the fridge. A quick zap in the microwave refreshes both a hard caramel and sauce, bringing it back to its liquid state, taking away the pressure to work quickly.

The trick to great caramel is a pinch of cream of tartar and patience. The sugar has to melt and simmer slowly until it reaches the correct temperature, but I don’t bother with thermometers.  Instead I simply watch carefully for the sugar syrup to turn the perfect deep amber color that tells me it’s ready and then I remove it immediately from the heat and pour it into a pyrex measuring cup. There, it stops cooking so there’s no danger of the sugar burning (which can happen quite quickly) the caramel begins to cool and thicken so I can work with it. The pyrex container can also easily be popped into the microwave for reheating when the caramel gets too thick to work with. 

This color is about 30 seconds shy of ready to take off the heat

Here’s the recipe for basic caramel:   

Combine in a heavy bottomed saucepan: 1C sugar, 1/3 C water, and 1/8 tsp cream of tartar. Place over medium/high heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved and liquid is clear. When bubbles begin to appear, turn heat down to medium and let simmer WITHOUT stirring until sugar turns a deep amber (caramel) color (8-10 minutes, 320°-350°) watching carefully and removing from the heat as soon as the desired color is reached. Pour directly into a pyrex measuring cup (be careful! This stuff is seriously hot!)

For the cups, simply cover small inverted bowls with non-stick aluminum foil (Reynolds makes an amazing product that NOTHING sticks to!) and when the caramel cools to the right thickness, use a spoon to drizzle the thickened caramel over the cups. Reheat as necessary if the caramel cools too much to work with. When completely cooled, remove from bowls and pull away the foil to leave beautiful, shiny caramel bowls.

Right before serving add the filling of your choice. The Daring bakers were asked to use this recipe which I combined with a dark chocolate mousse and topped with chantilly cream (pictures below!):

Maple Mousse
• 1 cup (240 ml/ 8 fluid oz.) pure maple syrup (not maple-flavored syrup)
• 4 large egg yolks
• 1 package (7g/1 tbsp.) unflavored gelatin
• 1 1/2 cups (360 ml. g/12 fluid oz) whipping cream (35% fat content)
1. Bring maple syrup to a boil then remove from heat.
2. In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks and pour a little bit of the maple syrup in while whisking (this is to temper your egg yolks so they don’t curdle).
3. Add warmed egg yolks to hot maple syrup until well mixed.
4. Measure 1/4 cup of whipping cream in a bowl and sprinkle it with the gelatine. Let it rest for 5 minutes. Place the bowl in a microwave for 45 seconds (microwave for 10 seconds at a time and check it in between) or place the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water, stir to ensure the gelatin has completely dissolved.
5. Whisk the gelatin/whipping cream mixture into the maple syrup mixture and set aside.
6. Whisk occasionally for approximately an hour or until the mixture has the consistency of an unbeaten raw egg white.
7. Whip the remaining cream. Stir 1/4 of the whipped cream into the maple syrup mixture. Fold in the remaining cream and refrigerate for at least an hour.
8. Remove from the fridge and divide equally among your edible containers.

The caramel basket filled with dark chocolate and maple mousse and chantilly cream

And here are a few other desserts that I made that utilized the caramel:

Caramel Cage over Chocolate Bombe

Raspberry Brownie cake with Caramel Lace

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It’s time for another post on the Daring Kitchen’s cook’s challenge and it was a fun one! Renata of Testado, Provado & Aprovado! was our Daring Cooks’ April 2011 hostess. Renata challenged us to think “outside the plate” and create our own edible containers! Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote on your favorite from April 17th to May 16th at http://thedaringkitchen.com! (If you do this, you better vote for mine!!)

We were encouraged to do as many as we liked and if I weren’t so obsessed with trying to stop that extra 5 lbs from taking over my poor old body, I would have gone crazy with creativity. Most of the edible containers that I envisioned involved deep fat frying to make something firm and crisp enough to hold a creamy and delicious filling. How about bacon baskets filled with creamy mac and cheese? Or fried potato cups filled with scallion cream cheese scrambled eggs? Maybe I’ll give these a try after I’ve really come to terms with my post-menopausal bod!

In an attempt to have just a bit of balance, my first go at the challenge were polenta cups filled with my home made chili.  Polenta is quick and easy to make and such versatile stuff, it’s a regular staple at my house. And of course, corn and beans together make for a complete and healthy protein so polenta paired with vegetarian chili is a naturally low-fat, super healthy meal. But personally, I’m not at that interested unless the chili is topped with plenty of sharp cheddar cheese and sour cream, which is probably why I can’t seem to keep those extra few lbs away!

To make polenta it’s 4-1, water to cornmeal. Bring the water to a gentle boil and slowly whisk in the corn meal and cook, whisking continuously, until thickened (about 3-5 minutes.) Stir in a bit of butter and whisk until melted. You can also stir in some whole kernels of corn if you want added texture. Pour the hot polenta into whatever molds you’re using.  I used a lightly oiled muffin tin and then pressed in oiled glasses to form the cups. They set up very firm in an hour or so and popped right out of the tins. The I just trimmed the tops and whallah! Beautiful, edible cups that canbe  filled with the chili recipe of your choice. My recipe is included at the bottom of this post

The polenta cooling in the muffin tins. The drinking glasses were the perfect size to make a the polenta cups!

The polenta cups were delcious filled with my homemade chili!

For my second edible container, I made parmesan cheese bowls and filled them with spring vegetable risotto. Parmesan bowls are easy to make but look great and add so much crunch and flavor to whatever you fill them with. Simply make 4 inch circles of shredded parmesan on a baking sheet and bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes, or until bubbly and beginning to be golden brown. Remove from the over and carefully drape them, while still hot, over small inverted bowls. Once they cool they will harden and crisp up. The trick is to use non-stick aluminum foil, both to line the baking sheet and to cover the bowls you use to drape the baked cheese over. Then the baked parmesan is easy to handle and will pop right off the bowls and are ready to hold your choice of delicious filling.

Crispy parmesan bowl waiting to be filled

I just love risotto because it satisfied my craving for a creamy carbo treat without the need for any actual cream and it’s incredibly versatile in terms of flavors. You can add meat or seafood for a whole meal in one dish or keep it simple and use it as a side dish. Chicken, beef or fish stock will enrich and influence the flavor as well as an acidic (wine, lemon juice, or balsamic vinegar.)The starch in the Arborio rice thickens the risotto and the aromatics (onions, garlic, shallots etc) provide great flavor. Some butter and/or cheese added at the end will put it over the top but it isn’t necessary if you’re really trying to curb your calories.

The parmesan bowl was fantastic filled with spring vegetable risotto

Edible containers are nothing new (think baked stuffed potatoes or soup in a bread bowl) but it is fun to stretch the imagination and imagine new and creative ways to eat your bowl. I encourage you to try this fun project and share about it here! And if you’re more disciplined about the fat and calorie counts than I am, you can always go for lettuce cups!

 RECIPE FOR MY VEGETARIAN CHILI (serves 6-8)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 dried chipotle peppers, reconstituted by simmering in 2 C water for 30 minutes, chop fine
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder                                                                                                                                                                                                           1 1/2 tsp  salt
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their liquid
3 cups cooked red kidney beans, drained
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans, drained

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed sauce pan and add the first five ingredients and sauté the vegetables until softening but not browned ( about 10  minutes). Add the chopped chipotle, salt and spices and stir. Add the tomatoes and 2-3 cups of water and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Add the beans (and more water if necessary) and simmer another 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in polenta bowls with sharp cheddar and sour cream if desired. The chili will get spicier the second and third day. Enjoy!

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The girls were coming home for the weekend so what better time to do the baker’s challenge than when I’d have some help eating up the sweet experiments. The March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake. It was important to have help with the consuming, particularly since the recipe for this month made enough dough for not one, but two cakes! Of course I could have cut the recipe in half but what fun would that be when we were given free reign to experiment with fillings?

From the moment I read what the challenge was, I began to fantasize about the various flavor combinations I might try. I toyed with the idea of apples and cinnamon, dark chocolate chunks with toasted pecans, candied lemon peel and coconut. Oh yum, the possibilities were endless. I found myself awake at night trying to decide what I wanted to use for the two cakes. I must have changed my mind a zillion times it was so hard to land on just what I was in the mood for!

Last year's poppy hamentashen

The fact that the kids were coming home on Purim weekend helped me to decide the flavor for one of the cakes. In place of hamantashen, the usual Purim cookie, I’d stuff one of the coffeecakes with the traditional poppy seed filling that usually fills the hamentashen. For the second cake, I settled on white chocolate, toasted macadamia nuts, and dried cranberries.

Fortunately, I have plenty of experience with yeasted dough so I wasn’t at all intimidated by the recipe although having a layer of sweetened meringue inside was new to me. It made for a bit of a sticky mess when rolling and shaping the cakes, but added a delicious sweetness and moisture when it was absorbed into the dough as it baked. I had some ideas about flavoring the meringue as well (coffee flavored meringue with a chocolate and toasted almond filling crossed my mind) so if you decide to challenge yourself to make this recipe, remember that you can go wild with experimenting and adding layers of flavor! I could have easily baked (and eaten!) 8 or 9 different versions of this cake and I’m quite certain I’ll be returning to the basic recipe again because it made such a silky, sexy, easy to work with dough that produced a tender and versatile bread that would make fabulous sticky or cinnamon buns as well as savory filled loaves or pockets.

Both cakes turned out fabulously and we happily scarfed them down over the course of weekend making for another remorse filled Monday of deprivation but it was worth every bite! Here are the photos and the basic recipe:

I do hope you’ll try to make one of these cakes!

The dough after its first rising

  

The white chocolate, macadamia nut, cranberry ring before rising and baking
The baked white chocolate cranberry coffeecake dusted with powered sugar. Yum!
A slice of the white chocolate, macadamia nut, cranberry coffecake. So moist and delicious!
The baked poppyseed coffecake ring with lemon glaze. Sooo delicious
A lot of air in the poppyseed coffeecake but still yummy!

Makes 2 round coffee cakes, each approximately 10 inches in diameter
The recipe can easily be halved to make one round coffee cake

FILLED MERINGUE COFFEE CAKE

Ingredients
For the yeast coffee cake dough:

4 cups flour
¼ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dried yeast
¾ cup whole milk
¼ cup water (doesn’t matter what temperature)
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 large eggs at room temperature

For the meringue:

3 large egg whites at room temperature
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup (110 g / 4 oz.) sugar

For the filling: Your choice! Be creative! I used:

1C white chocolate chips

¾ C toasted macadamia nuts

¾ C chopped dried sweetened cranberries

Directions:

Prepare the dough:  In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 ½ cups (230 g) of the flour, the sugar, salt and yeast. In a saucepan, combine the milk, water and butter and heat over medium heat until warm and the butter is just melted.

With an electric mixer on low speed, gradually add the warm liquid to the flour/yeast mixture, beating until well blended. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes. Add the eggs and 1 cup (150 g) flour and beat for 2 more minutes.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a dough that holds together. Turn out onto a floured surface (use any of the 1 ½ cups of flour remaining) and knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, sexy and elastic, keeping the work surface floured and adding extra flour as needed.

Place the dough in a lightly greased (I use vegetable oil) bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise until double in bulk, 45 – 60 minutes. The rising time will depend on the type of yeast you use.

Prepare your filling (roast and chop nuts, measure chocolate, etc)

My prepped white chocolate, toasted macadamia nuts, and dried cranberries

Once the dough has doubled, make the meringue:
In a clean mixing bowl – ideally a plastic or metal bowl so the egg whites adhere to the side (they slip on glass) and you don’t end up with liquid remaining in the bottom – beat the egg whites with the salt, first on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high and continue beating until foamy and opaque. Add the vanilla then start adding the ½ cup sugar, a tablespoon at a time as you beat, until very stiff, glossy peaks form.

Assemble the Coffee Cakes:

Line 2 baking/cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Punch down the dough and divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, working one piece of the dough at a time (keep the other half of the dough wrapped in plastic), roll out the dough into a 20 x 10-inch (about 51 x 25 ½ cm) rectangle. Spread half of the meringue evenly over the rectangle up to about 1/2-inch (3/4 cm) from the edges. Sprinkle half of your filling of choice evenly over the meringue (ex: half of the cinnamon-sugar followed by half the chopped nuts and half of the chocolate chips/chopped chocolate).

Now, roll up the dough jellyroll style, from the long side. Pinch the seam closed to seal. Very carefully transfer the filled log to one of the lined cookie sheets, seam side down. Bring the ends of the log around and seal the ends together, forming a ring, tucking one end into the other and pinching to seal.

Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife (although scissors are easier), make cuts along the outside edge at 1-inch (2 ½ cm) intervals. Make them as shallow or as deep as desired but don’t be afraid to cut deep into the ring.

Repeat with the remaining dough, meringue and fillings.

Cover the 2 coffee cakes with plastic wrap and allow them to rise again for 45 to 60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Brush the tops of the coffee cakes with the egg wash. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes until risen and golden brown. The dough should sound hollow when tapped.

Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper off the cookie sheets onto the table. Very gently loosen the coffee cakes from the paper with a large spatula and carefully slide the cakes off onto cooling racks. Allow to cool.

Just before serving, dust the tops of the coffee cakes with confectioner’s sugar as well as cocoa powder if using chocolate in the filling. Or glaze with a complimentary flavored icing. These are best eaten fresh, the same day or the next day.

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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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