Wednesday, February 25, 2015

MATCHA CHOCOLATE CAKE


My oldest son, MiniBee, turned four (!) a couple of weeks ago, an event that was celebrated with friends and with a deluge of Venice Carnival sweets and a two-batch Pandecocco coconut cake. A couple of days later, we also had a smaller family celebration that required yet another birthday cake. As any parent knows, children are only slightly more traditionalistic than the most conservative old-Europe grandparent, so there was no way MiniBee could hear the words "happy birthday" without blowing on proper candles on a proper cake. I needed a recipe, and I remembered one for Chocolate Matcha Bundt Cake from Bakerella (of the infamous cake pops) that had been sitting patiently on my Evernote for at least three years. I love matcha and I enjoyed it in many versions on my 2009 food pilgrimage to Japan, and I especially love how it couples lusciously with chocolate. It all started when a friend gave me an assortment of fancy chocolates that contained a matcha-chocolate combination that was one of the highlights of my life as an eater.

Now, someone could argue that matcha is a risky choice for a preschooler's birthday cake, and I can definitely tell you that when MiniBee heard his birthday cake was made with TEA, he was not at all pleased. But, in rebuttal to any concerns and objections I have two points to make:

1. Children will eat any cake that's placed in front of them, especially when decorated with birthday candles.

2. It doesn't matter whose birthday is it: If I'm baking or buying a cake, I need to like it first.

The second point is actually a corollary of my favorite parenting rule:







Substitute "wear" with "eat" and "oxygen mask" with "damn cake" and you'll see what I mean.

But back to matcha. For the cake, I used some unsweetened matcha powder I bought at HMart. And since the party was attended only by five people, I decided against the Bundt format and made a simple layer cake instead, halving the ingredients and making a couple of variations (more egg, less sugar, and my trusted addition of plain yogurt to guarantee a moist texture). I also suspect the matcha-chocolate combination works best in a slimmer cake. What can I say? I think it's classier this way. And as someone who wears German slippers all year round and whose every food contains 15% dog hair, let me tell you: I KNOW CLASS.

The final matcha chocolate cake was delicious, sweet and grassy and elegant (disclaimer: see my standards above), and perfect to be enjoyed with or without children.

Oh, if you wonder about MiniBee: He had two slices and was happy as a clam. And so was I.



MATCHA CHOCOLATE CAKE

Ingredients

Chocolate Mixture
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup baking cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Matcha Mixture
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tbsp unsweetened matcha
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients
1 C sugar
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
2 eggs
3/4 C milk
1/2 C yogurt
1/2 tsp vanilla

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  • Grease and flour a 9'' springform pan. You can also line it with parchment paper if you prefer.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the chocolate mixture.
  • In another small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the matcha mixture.
  • In yet another bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, then add the rest of the wet ingredients.
  • Divide the wet ingredients evenly between the two flour mixtures, stirring until combined.
  • Pour the two mixtures into the pan. Bakerella suggests doing this in tablespoons to maintain the two colors vibrant. I poured half mixture at a time and then swirled them with my finger.
  • Bake for 45–50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • Let rest of 10 minutes and dust with cocoa powder and powdered sugar.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

VENICE CARNIVAL: FRITTELLE & GALANI

Trays with sweets typical of Venice Carnival: Frittelle, Galani e Castagnole
Today is Mardi Gras, which is the day of the year I traditionally spend sobbing in my pajamas because of homesickness. The reason? In Venice, today is the end of Carnevale ("Carnival" in English, if you seriously need a translation), my favorite celebration of all, and the one I miss the most since I've moved to the United States. Venice Carnival has been synonymous with great fun and great food since I was born. As a little girl, the fun consisted of wearing my chosen costume on multiple occasions—Venice Carnival lasts a little over two weeks—at school, on strolls around my town or in Venice, and at children's birthday parties. During each outing, us kids were allowed to throw confetti in each other's eyes and then litter the streets with colorful serpentine throws. To make things even more interesting, the right princess or pirate costume could grant you multiple fiancés by the age of 9. As a teenager and then young adult, the fun was pretty much the same, but it happened at night and was quite a bit boozier.

Now let's talk about the food. During Carnival, bakeries and pastry shops in Venice and the rest of the Veneto region start churning out an avalanche of amazing fried sweets, namely frittelle, galani, and castagnole. Venetians of all ages stuff their faces with these beloved sweets at all hours of the day. Let's see them in detail:

  • Frittelle are little sweet and soft doughnuts with raisins and pine nuts and sometimes filled with crema pasticcera (pastry cream) or zabaione, and dusted in granulated or powedered sugar. They are the Holy Grail of Venice Carnival foods.
  • Galani are paper-thin rectangles of lighlty-sweetened dough, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.
  • Castagnole are small round fried cookies very similar to shortbread. For some reason, they are the least popular among Carnival sweets, even though they are completely delicious in their own right. I am afraid they are unfairly obscured by their high-performing cousins (a phenomenon I will now call "Unfair Eclipse Syndrome").

To lessen my desperate homesickness and to share a little of the joy of Venice Carnival with my insatiable children, a couple of years ago Mr Bee and I started to make all these sweets at home with acceptable results. This year, however, we knocked one out of the proverbial ballpark by finally landing two perfect recipes for frittelle and galani that I want to share with you today. Get a Carnival mask on, hang some streamers around your house, gather friends and love interests, and deep-fry these gems: This is the closest you're going to get to my beloved Venice Carnival.

You can read more information about the history of Venice Carnival in this post I wrote for Multicultural Kid Blogs

Venetian Carival Frittelle, with and without custard filling

FRITTELLE WITH CREMA

Makes 20–25 frittelle. Just remember crema is optional: Frittelle are amazing on their own.
Ingredients for crema pasticcera
1/2 quart of milk (I would not use non-fat here)
lemon rind of half a lemon, cut in one piece (use a vegetable peeler)
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch

Ingredients for frittelle

oil for frying
1 ¼ cups water
pinch of salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp sugar (that's right)
1 ½ cups flour
6 eggs
orange rind (grated)
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup raisins
¼ pine nuts
oil for frying
granulated or powdered sugar for coating


Directions

Make the crema pasticcera
  • Pour the milk in a saucepan, add the lemon rind, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off and let rest for 10 minutes.
  • In a bowl, whisk the egg yolk with the sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy.
  • Add the cornstarch to the egg mixture and stir together.
  • Remove the lemon rind from the milk, and pour the milk slowly into the egg mixture, stirring to prevent clumps.
  • Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and let it thicken on low-medium heat until it reaches a creamy consistency. The crema will continue to thicken, so leave it somewhat runny.
  • Let the crema cool down before using.

Make the frittelle
  • Place water, butter, salt, and sugar in a small pan and bring to a boil.
  • Add all the flour all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball. This takes less than a minute.
  • Let the dough cool, then add one egg at a time. Make sure each egg is incorporated into the dough before adding another one. (I’d use a electric mixer here, if possible. Unless you enjoy the arm workout, of course.)
  • Mix in the the rest of the ingredients.
  • Heat oil to 370* degrees and fry the dough in small balls (use two spoons) for 5–6 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked throughout. Note that frittelle will first puff a little and then puff up even more after a couple of minutes of more.
  • Roll frittelle into granulated sugar or dust with powdered sugar.
  • When cool, fill the frittelle with about a tablespoon of crema pasticcera each, depending on size. I used a whipped-cream syringe similar to this one but way crappier. If you don't have a syringe, I guess that you can cut the frittelle open and fill them with a tablespoon of cream.
*The usual optimal frying temperature is 375, but that cooked our dough too quickly so it was burned on the outside and still raw on the inside. Five degrees made all the difference!

A tray filled with Venetian Carnival Galani


GALANI
Ingredients

oil for frying

4 eggs
4 cups flour
2 tbsp butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup sparkling water
grated lemon rind from one lemon
a pinch of salt
2 tbsp grappa (optional)
2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions


  • Mix the flour, sugar, and butter together until coarsely combined. You might want to use an electric mixer for this part, otherwise use your hands and be quick.
  • Add the eggs, lemon rind, and salt, Grappa and vanilla and mix.
  • Add sparkling water as needed and a little at a time until the dough becomes soft and stretchy. It should resemble fresh pasta dough, if that helps.
  • Cover the dough and let it rest for an hour.
  • Roll out the dough with a roller (champion) or with a pasta machine, going up to the smallest setting so that galani are paper-thin. If you've never used a pasta machine before, check out these instructions.
  • Cut dough into large rectangles with a pasta cutter. (Parents of young children: I couldn't find mine once so I used a Play-doh cutter.) Rectangles should be about 2x4'', but can be VERY irregular, so don't worry too much about it. 
  • Place rectangles on a floured kitchen towel.
  • Fry the galani in 375 degree oil for a few seconds, or until slightly colored and puffed up. 
  • Let rest on paper towels and dust with powdered sugar. Galani last beautifully for 2–3 days in a dry climate.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

COFFEE LOVE

Espresso cup where the froth looks like a skull
What is Mr Bee's espresso trying to tell me?
Sorry people, I've been busy with kids and work recently, and my Hotpoint stove died for good last week, so I have neither blog-post ideas nor Instagrammable food (unless you really want to see the calzone I ordered yesterday for delivery). So I've taken an old post from Italian Dead Chef, vintage 2006, about opening your heart to the person you love. Spoiler alert: DON'T.

I moved in with Mr Bee almost three years ago. When I first I came over, on a sweltering hot June day, I brought only one piece of luggage for three months. In that bag, I carried the minimum necessary amount of clothing for a Washington summer and a immigrant-family-size stockpile of Italian food such as Gragnano pasta, fresh ravioli, dried porcini mushroom, hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano (crustless, from the heart of the wheel), frozen home-made pesto, and coffee. In those three months, I committed to preparing daily and irresistible Italian meals, flaunting a continental nonchalance that Mr Bee could simply not resist.

But my little secrets and cute cooking tips did not last long. My American student was more curious and eager than I hoped, and within a year he had unveiled my bottomless ignorance in the kitchen. Who betrayed me? Coffee.



The Bialetti family
When I arrived in DC with a Bialetti stovetop coffee maker and four packages of Lavazza Qualità Oro ground coffee beans, it was easy to seduce Mr Bee, who had almost never had a coffee in his life. Unfortunately, the initial dose was so addictive that Mr Bee soon developed an obsession for espresso, a subject I know... well... NOTHING ABOUT. Sure, I drink espresso in Italy all the time, but ask me about how to do it, and I will deftly change subject.

Since Mr Bee was introduced to Italian coffee,  his love for the Arabica bean has exploded in the following purchases: a vintage Gaggia espresso machine, a burr coffee grinder (no blades, are you crazy?), a 4-lbs package of original whole coffee beans from the famed coffee shop Sant'Eustachio in Rome, two heavy-duty tampers, two metal pitchers for frothing milk, a knock box, set of two-ounces thick porcelain espresso cups, and a barista manual written by a visionary alchemist from Seattle who is considered the true prophet of espresso in America. Needless to say, we put my Bialetti aside and switched to fabulous morning espresso.

All this makes me really happy, of course, because the espresso I now drink at home is very high-quality and comes in a pre-heated cup. The problem arises when, in a hurry early in the morning, I dare make my own.


At whatever ungodly hour of the morning I decide to have my espresso, Mr Bee appears in the exact moment I try in vain to press the coffee into the handle, and balks in terror. The reason? I'm not pressing hard enough. Personally, at 6 in the morning (and also at 7, 8, 9, and 10), I can't even make a fist, so you can very well imagine how hard it is for me to apply 40 lbs of pressure to the portafilter. When the coffee finally drips inside my cup, too quick or too liquid, Mr Bee shakes his head with the most heartbreaking sadness: if I had to waste the good coffee imported from Italy, could I at least ask him to prepare it? He's almost about to leave me alone, when he notices that the crema on my coffee is too pale, a sure sign that the water was not hot enough, or that the coffee had not been pressed uniformly or vigorously enough. God helps us all when I add my teaspoon of sugar! Sugar in my coffee is the epitaph of my coffee disaster.

So I can't help thinking back about those days, a long time ago, when I would smile at Mr Bee and show him how much coffee you put inside you stovetop coffee pot, and how you can make a quick crema by whisking a little coffee and sugar together with a teaspoon. His eyes were wide open with wonder, and I felt like proud and generous ambassador of a wonderful heritage. Now that Mr Bee has unveiled my cheap kitchen tricks and my botched, sub-par Italian coffee, I wish I had kept a few tricks for myself. Damn Italian hospitality.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

VINTAGE RECIPE CARDS: BEIGNET FROM DEEP SPACE

Here is another Betty Crocker vintage recipe card from a 1971 collection I found at a yard sale (and please check out my other entries under Vintage Recipe Cards if you're interested in America's culinary skeletons in the closet). Today's recipe is titled "Adventure in Space" and belongs to the category of "Children's Parties". From its appearance I can only imagine this is aimed at elementary-school children whose parents understood they love science fiction and can't wait to humiliate them in front of their schoolmates.

Betty Crocker 1971 recipe cards: Kids party ideas, alien-shaped pastry
Interplanetary communication: YOU'RE A DORK!
Let's talk about the image here. We see a handful of pâte-à-choux "aliens" (Betty calls them "Space Visitors" in the back of the card) with currants for eyes. Toothpicks are used for their little antennae, which I suspect are indispensable, otherwise who would recognize these round baked beings as extraterrestrials, as opposed to, I don't know, anthropomorphic profiteroles? The leader of the group is clearly recognizable by the two jelly beans on the antennae, which I bet endow him/her to communicate in all the languages of the galaxy. The star base (or starship, or throne) is made of Jell-o and requires the use of a star-shaped pudding mold.

It's hard to look at this photo and not realize how much kids food has evolved to suit modern mothers with a crushing sense of guilt and crafting time on their hands. We live in the century of cake pops, FFS. And have you seen these Star Trek Valentine cookies, these Star Wars macaroons, this Battlestar Galactica cake, or this cake with teeth?? This space-inspired fun kid food from the 1970s looks completely amateurish. But I can't be too sarcastic, since I suspect even these misshapen pastry turds may be beyond my very pathetic manual skills. So I'll laugh just a little bit, and stick to my usual simple cakes for my kids' parties. And I'm really, really strapped for ideas, I'll get inspiration from my usual guy: Dead Chef calling Orson. Come in, Orson.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

ITALIAN BACHELOR'S PASTA (WITH CANNED TUNA)

Farfalle pasta with canned tuna in oil

I don't know how many self-professed "bachelors" are among the readers of this blog, but I'll dedicate this post to them nonetheless. Any of you reading this might know one and send him this recipe to help him through his day. The recipe is for Tuna Pasta, a dish that is mostly, if not exclusively, consumed by Italian bachelors. You might wonder, "Is this pasta going to turn me into one of those suave Italian hunks the whole world cannot take its eyes from?" No, sorry. Those suave Italians à la Marcello Mastroianni, with their impossibly well-fitting suits, their smart and distant gaze, their pitch-perfect flirting skills, and their irresistibly magnetic charm do not cook. They only eat at nice restaurants or cozy trattorie, or they pay a visit to their loving mothers for some exceptional traditional fare. The bachelor I'm talking about is of the familiar dork variety: the one that buys monochrome socks in bulk (I'm not judging, I do the same) and are more than happy to spend their evenings in front of the TV eating the easiest/comfiest meal possible.

The original recipe is very simple. You overcook half a box of short pasta (short pasta requires less water, hence a smaller pan, hence easier dishwashing) and then you plop the contents of a whole can of tuna on top of it. Stir hastily and serve eat.

I have consumed the original tuna pasta in biblical quantities in my life, especially in the years during which my sister and I were living with our divorced dad, who did all the cooking. I remember one glorious 2-week streak of interrupted tuna pasta that finally broke me and helped me decide that I should really learn to cook. So I guess without tuna pasta, there would be no Dead Chef, and what a sad, cold world would that be.

The recipe I want to give you today is an improvement on the basic recipe. It's still simple, but demands the use of a pan to give the tuna some extra flavor. It's comfort food, but with a little more self-respect (let's not kid ourselves, it's delicious!). And sometimes, that's all it takes. Enjoy.

Detail of farfalle pasta with canned tuna and oregano

TUNA PASTA

Makes 2 hefty portions *wink*

1 tbsp EVOO
1–2 anchovies
1 crushed garlic clove
A can of canned tuna in olive oil (like Genova)
1 tbsp dried oregano
Half a box of pasta (spaghetti are best, but short pasta will do)

  • In a large pan, heat the EVOO and then add the anchovies and garlic. Stir the anchovies until they've melted completely. Discard the garlic when it starts to brown.
  • Drain the tuna and then plop it in the pan. Break it with a wooden spoon, trying to keep some larger chunks intact. The oil may splatter at this point; cover with a splatter screen for a few minutes.
  • Cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes, or until the tuna bits get a little crispy. Add the oregano.
  • Once the pasta is cooked, stir it in the pan with the tuna, add a splash of EVOO and serve.

And since we're making pasta, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:



Monday, December 29, 2014

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (I BELIEVE IN LENTILS)


New Year's Eve Italian braised lentils with bacon and onion detail


New Year's is approaching, and I could not be more excited given the tone of the last three months of the year. (As I said elsewhere, the Libra horoscope for the end of 2014 was a picture of a dead albatross.) To make sure 2015 starts in the best possible way, I cannot forsake the Italian tradition of eating lentils on New Year's Eve to ingratiate the gods of money for the following year. This tradition is still popular in Italy, and appears to have originated in Ancient Rome, where it was customary to give a little bag of lentils on New Year's Eve in the hope that they transform into money in the new year. I know it's just superstition, but I have never skipped a year and, frankly, I'm pretty terrified to see what would happen to my "finances" if I don't have lentils on December 31.

Money concerns aside, I love lentils and I take every opportunity to eat them. Actually, I will say that lentils stir in me a deep affection and gratefulness that I don't have for any other food. This love for lentils exploded on a terrible night, four years ago. I was home with my husband and my then 5-day-old baby, and we got horrible food poisoning from a Whole Foods lasagna brought over by our well-meaning family. For an entire night, Mr Bee and I shivered like two demonically possessed while taking turns vomiting, excreting, and taking care of our very hungry and loud newborn. And if you're not familiar with the needs of a 5-day-old, please know this involves nursing and pumping every two hours, diaper changing and counting, diaper-content analysis, and worrying like mad that everything is normal.

What can I say? That was really a dismal night of fear and solitude that made us reconsider our nature as human beings. Luckily the truly dictatorial symptoms subsided after 12 hours, but the fear and depression persisted. I can vividly remember sitting on the couch the next day while the baby was sleeping, talking with Mr. Bee about how terribly scary everything was, and how completely unprepared for parenthood I felt even in the face my very well-honed aptitude for catastrophizing. In order to restore some of our strength, we decided to defrost a lentil soup I had stocked in the freezer. We ate in total silence, and suddenly a miracle happened: With every bite of lentils, our bodies were being replenished with ancient, rich nutrients that gave us a noticeable jolt of energy. At the same time, our mood noticeably improved, moving from completely-forlorn-to-the-ineluctable-destiny-of-all-things to kind-of-hopeful-that-this-parenting-thing-might-just-be-alright.

So eat your lentils on December 31. They might bring you money, health, and happiness even when you've lost all hope. And what more could you wish for 2015?

Happy New Year, everybody.

New Year's Eve Italian braised lentils with bacon and onion detail

NEW YEAR'S BRAISED LENTILS

This recipe contains meat, but can be easily made vegan by replacing bacon with EVOO and using vegetable rather than chicken stock.

2-3 strips of pancetta or bacon cut in thin strips (optional, but if not using substitute with 3 tbsp EVOO)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 cups dry lentils (I like the French ones, but green lentils will do)
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup chopped San Marzano tomatoes and sauce
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
salt, pepper
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar (optional)
  • Heat a large pan and cook the bacon strips until they release a decent amount of fat and appear translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook at medium heat for 10 minutes or until soft.
  • Add the dry lentils and stir them around the pan.
  • Add the wine and cook until almost completely evaporated, for about 8 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes, the stock, and the bay leaf. Cover and cook for an hour or until lentils are cooked through, adding more stock or water if necessary. 
  • Adjust for salt, then serve sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper, EVOO, and a little bit of apple cider vinegar (3 tbsp should suffice for the entire pot, but follow your taste).
Another thing. Lentils are usually served as a side dish, but you can add more stock and turn it into a soup. And if you're overstuffed already, a tablespoon is enough to get by, monetarily, in the next year.

Need more recipes for New Year's Eve? You should really try my Smoked Salmon Butter then.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE

The holidays are sneaking up on us with shrapnel-fury (who's the genius who gave us a late Thanksgiving this year???) and demand that we silence our wreathing inner demons for about two weeks and be merry and cheerful and bright. It's an impossible task, of course, but we'll try once again. To help you expedite your holiday shopping and possibly delay your anger explosion at the Christmas family table for an hour or two, here is Dead Chef's holiday gift guide for the family and beyond. Everything here is pure gold: I dare you not to buy anything. Let's start!

FOR THE KIDS: POP-UP PIRATE


I have longing and painful memories of not having this as a kid and being allowed to play with it only at my cousins' (incidentally, they also had all of He-Man character toys). It's a jolly pirate stuck in a barrel and playfully tortured with swords. Once the right sword gets to him, he is launched from the barrel. The Italian jingle explained the process with something that I will loosely translate thusly, "He's going to launch like a missile / Once you tear him a new one." Jokes aside, this is a great game for kids: simple, sturdy, fun, and begging to be played again and again for years. My almost 4-year old is still playing with it. And you know what? This is one of the few games I enjoy, too.

Buy it here.


FOR DAD: MOZZARELLA KIT


Aren't you sick of stereotyping dad by making him brew horrible and sour IPAs at home? I'll say enough with the home brewing already! If you want to provide dad with a worthy project to impress his family and reconnect with some kind of olden-days skill, then get him a mozzarella kit. First of all, mozzarella can be eaten with the entire family and in a variety of dishes (check thisthisthis, and this). Secondly, and this might be my own fascination, a man is a man when he can manipulate and subdue a chunk of dairy.

This cheesemaking kit gets great reviews.


FROM PARENT TO PARENT: A WEEKEND HOME ALONE

When I'm alone, my house looks like this to me.

This is for the parent who takes the most care of the children and who is constantly denounced by society for both spoiling and neglecting the kids so that they will turn out just like Millennials, but without the icing of good manners (i.e. The Worst). I'm trying to be PC here, but we all know I'm talking about mothers. This is the idea: you take the children to the grandparents or to a sky lodge or wherever, and the other parent (mom) is left in A CLEAN HOUSE for an entire weekend. I've been twice the recipient of this gift, and I can tell you there's is really nothing like it. I read, I sewed, I watched a movie during the day, I went out with friends, I ate whatever, whenever I wanted, and I SLEPT IN.

FOR OTHER PARENTS WHO NOW HATE CHRISTMAS: FATHER CHRISTMAS BY RAYMOND BRIGGS


I can't remember how we got hold of this wonderful children book. It is a beautifully illustrated story of a very grumpy Santa on his big day of the year, stuck in what appears to be a much hated yet comforting routine. This Santa hates the cold and the work, complains non-stop throughout his sleigh-ride around the world, and is only really happy when he drinks his Cognac or a bottle of "party-size" red wine surrounded by his pets. Kids will enjoy all of the details in each panel; parents will fall in love with the unsentimental humor. And the beauty of it all it's that there's no post-modern sarcasm in this tale. Somehow, below Santa's cranky mutterings, readers will find the comforting rituals and magic of the Christmases of their childhood.

Buy it used (new is pretty expensive) here.


FOR THE BEST OF FRIENDS: ARCHY & MEHITABEL BY DON MARQUIS


I found this total joy of a book only a few years ago, so pardon me if you know it already, but it's worth talking about in the hope that future generations will also enjoy it. Published in 1927 as a collection of Don Marquis' columns, this book recounts the stories of Archy, a cockroach who writes poems on a typewriter, and his friend Mehitable, a passionate alley cat. This is a wonderfully funny, dark, bittersweet, romantic, and heartbreaking book. And the illustrations are from George Harriman himself, of Krazy Kat fame (a personal favorite). I am so in love with this book it almost hurts.

You can buy it here.


FOR YOUR OVERWHELMED FRIEND: A GIFT AND A RE-GIFT


You know what I really need? An inexhaustible collection of unopened treats in my pantry to be brought as last-minute gifts at parties and family events. I'm always running to the closest grocery store to find something that hopefully is not too popular and won't look exactly like what it is: a desperate random gift wrapped in haste and profanities. And don't tell me I'm alone in this. So let's start a virtuous cycle of regiftables. The idea is, buy two boxes of the same NICE treats, be it cream-filled bonbons, or gourmet macaroons, or Turkish pistachios, or whatever. One is for the giftee, and one is to be regifted. You don't actually have to explain the process to your giftee. You might add a wink if you feel like it, but we all know regifting will happen. You are just a generous and understanding facilitator.


FOR THE FRIEND WHO IS EASILY PLEASED: ORIGAMI SANTA ORNAMENTS

Line of 10 red and white origami Santa against a pillow
Last year I purchased a "Christmas Crafts Fun Kit" for my kids at a thrift store. I'm usually very wary of crafts for kids, mostly because I think it's weird that parents do all the work without even the chance of complaining about it, since crafting requires that you look ecstatic at all times. In any case, the only activity I picked up on is Origami Santa. Now, I like origami in principle but I really don't care about it much. These Santas, though, have something special. They are unapologetically adorable (if I may), and the process by which they're made is weirdly addictive, so much that this year I bought a pack of red origami paper to make as many Santas as I can. I plan on giving one to whomever is going to come by my house, and I'm already sad that in two weeks I'll have no reason to make my little Santas. That's why I think you should make them, too.

Here's a video tutorial. I know it's 7-minutes long, but after 3 Santas, you'll be down to 2 zen minutes.


FOR YOUR DEAREST, NON-VEGETARIAN FRIEND: OILY MACKEREL 

Jar or Mackerel in Oil decorated with a small origami Santa
OK, so this is not the most photogenic food.
But look, Origami Santa!
Home-made treats are always well received, but if you don't want to bake yet another batch of cookies and want to surprise your giftee with something strong-flavored and unexpected, then home-made mackerels are just what you want. You just need a few mason jars, a few whole mackerels (get them at H-Mart), and good olive oil. They are salty, oily, great with bread, and, according to science, healthy, so really, what's not to like? There is a slim chance your giftee might find them a little too tasty, but I believe this is the kind of litmus-test gift to see if this friendships is a keeper or a tosser.




OILY MACKEREL


For 2
3 jars

2 fresh whole mackerels, cleaned
Kosher salt
freshly-ground black pepper
1C EVOO
2 tbsps lemon juice

  • Turn the broiler on. Place the mackerels in roasting dish, and sprinkle liberally with salt on the outside and inside. Let stand on the counter for 30 minutes.
  • Broil the mackerels for about 8-10 minutes, turning them halfway, until the skin bubbles up.
  • Fillet the mackerels and add more salt if desired, then sprinkle with freshly-ground black pepper.
  • Mix EVOO and lemon juice together.
  • Place fillet inside the mason jars, then pour in the olive oil mixture to cover the fish.
I read the mackerels in oil keep refrigerated for a month. Just bring them to room temperature before serving them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY

AN ANTHROPOLOGIST'S DREAM

I've spent the last 2 months (or more, who cares) locked at home with a ton of work to do and with a child who has been sick every other week with a variety of viruses. My life has completely unraveled. My baby has been wearing the same summer onesies, designed for children half his age, and I can't remember the last time I went shopping for groceries. I can only tell you that today my fridge contains only vintage exotic sauces and two half cabbages, soft and jaundiced like two moldy pillows. But never mind the baby or the fridge: After two months with basically no real nutrition or human contact, I have regressed to what can only be described as a female hominid at the dawn of our species, struggling with bipedalism and clearly affected by reverse encephalization (i.e., I walk on all fours, and my cranium shrank). I've also become intensely paranoid and easily startled, like a trapped beast, and I find myself napping on the floor, cuddling with my dog and growling when I dream, because now I live like I would in a pack of wolves. My husband realized I was in desperate need of socialization and took me out to a dinner party last week. Everything seemed menacing and weird. My eyes were popping out of my skull at the unusual sound of human words; I dug at food with my hands from the potluck table; and when I finally retreated to the bathroom, I left the door open because at this point I don't know any better. So yes, I'm an anthropologist's dream, a fantastic human regression whose only purpose is to now be subject of study. This is all to say, I need human companionship. Someone take me out, please.

PERFUME IDEAS?

In the past year, I've become more interested in perfumes. Mostly I love how perfume smells on other people, and I finally realized I can also simply buy a bottle and become part of that crowd. From then on, I've been struggling to find a fragrance I feel comfortable in. The most-acclaimed perfumes are too sexy and sophisticated, and I don't really see the purpose of wearing a perfume with more personality than I'll ever hope to have. Really, I tried Tom Ford's Black Orchid, and it demanded I behave like a mix between Joan Crawford and Ernest Hemingway. Clearly impossible. So I'm looking for a deadpan fragrance, but I'm having no luck so far. This also led me to realize one massive gap in modern perfumery: Where are the food-inspired scents? You would think all the major perfume houses would be just churning out food perfumes. After all, is there anybody who doesn't count fresh bread as the best smell in the world? I'd be all over a perfume giving me the smell of a croissant, or bread pudding, or possibly my favorite smell of all: a nicely charred hanger steak.

THE RULE OF TWO

My youngest baby is now a toddler, an event that I almost missed thanks to my oldest son's constant interference. Anyway, if there one lesson I've learned about dealing with children aged 6 to 18 months, is the Rule of Two, and I want to share it here for parents in need. It is a simple concept: Give them two of anything. When you're having dim sum and your child is bored out of his/her mind, do not reach for the iPhone. Give them two soup spoons. Or two straws. Or two cars, if you have them (good for you!). If you give your child one toy, this will be hurled across the restaurant; but two, it's a game. And when you're child gets bored, change objects or add a third.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

GENIUS INVENTIONS FOR PARENTS / 2

You might remember I published a list of genius inventions for parents a few months ago. There I proposed 5 ideas for products that will make the lives of new parents immensely easier, so I'm surprised I wasn't contacted by any venture capitalist afterwards. I guess those people have nannies. In any case, now that my children are a little bit older, my needs as a parent have matured. For example, I'm meditating on purchasing half a dozen wet floor signs to be used around the house every day. But I digress. Here's a list of five more inventions that need to happen right now.

And wheels.

1. SHOP-VAC TOY BOX

I was watching the leaf collector on Thanksgiving Day (why were they working?) and I had a vision. What if, at the end of the day, I could just vacuum all the toys around the house so that they fall straight into their dedicated box? So here is the idea: a vacuum with a larger nozzle that will suck toys big and small into the canister, which is actually a wheeled toy box. How great that would be? I would love if the vacuum part could be detached and applied to different toy boxes.









2. SMARTPHONE HEADBAND

Look at my headband!
I think the next big thing in televised sports will be Baby&Toddler Dressing. I am really surprised nobody has thought about it. It involves physical force, quick smarts, and lots of drama. It's the ultimate man vs. beast conflict. For those of you who appreciate how difficult it is to get a child aged 0 to 4 dressed, but still feel unfit for formal competition, then I might have a solution for you. It's a headband with a clip on the front for your smartphone, so that your baby can be distracted by the cute video of a baby sloth on your forehead while you change his/her diaper and put clothes, socks, shoes, coat, and even gloves on your little love. You know it will work.




Just as effective.

3. GENTLE!


This is so essential. It's a wall-mounted loudspeaker who repeats the word "GENTLE!" strongly but firmly at regular intervals (suggested: 45 seconds). If you have a baby and a dog or two small children, you know you need this. As far as I'm concerned, this will finally allow me to have a conversation with my husband without screaming "GENTLE!" every five words.


4. COOL-TO-EAT


This is a device to instantly cool food that your child deems too hot to eat without screaming, and then proceeds to scream anyway because he's hungry. I'm a mother who cooks, and there's nothing as maddening as scrambling to get lunch ready only to see it rejected with desperate rage because its temperature is not ideal. Technology did actually bring us the Blast Chiller, but it is used only in molecular gastronomy restaurants and is huge. I need something small and cheap-ish to keep on my kitchen counter or even at the table.



5. PLAYGROUND BAR


Yes, you can go on the slide, dear.
When I'm stuck watching my children at the playground, bored out of my mind, I dream about Playground Bar. It is a coffee bar with an enclosed playground inside and outside. You come in with your children and send them to the playground while you watch on the side, seated comfortably at real table on a real chair rather than an acorn stool (I live near a "treehouse" playground) with people serving me food and drinks (I'm dreaming of other mothers working part-time, so that they know what I need). Ah, the dignity... The thought only is intoxicating! For those of you who think McDonald's already fits the bill, I'll counter by saying that Playground Bar does not serve junk food. Instead, it provides appropriate snacks in the form of fruit, cheese, bread, and other healthy treats. For mothers, it will serve very complex French pastries that kids don't yet understand and therefore will be suspicious of. At Playground Bar, I can order a coffee, or a stiff drink. And about this, can someone tell me why Irish Coffee is not every mother's favorite drink? It has everything you need: the energy of caffeine, the soothing embrace of booze, and the health benefits of calcium. Playground Bar, come to me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI (MADE WITH CHESTNUT FLOUR)

Image of plated chestnut-flour pumpkin ravioli.
  
Here I am with a recipe that has been wiggling in my brain for months: pumpkin ravioli made with chestnut flour. I LOVE chestnut flour. I bought it for the first time a few years ago from The Italian Store, and I've used a few times to make linguine and crepes with great success. Chestnut flour has a mellow, sweet, nutty flavor that is subtle and unexpected. It produces a pasta dough that is tougher than the usual dough for egg pasta, but it also cooks very well and maintains a good bite, so it's worth every extra pound of pressure you need to apply to your rolling pin and pasta maker.

The pumpkin/chestnut idea became suddenly urgent when last month, on a whim, I bought a peanut pumpkin that a DeadChef follower and cooking expert later defined as "the MOST delicious pumpkin ever for pies and everything else". This is the kind of comment that gets me really excited, of course. Unfortunately, days passed and I couldn't get to my ravioli thanks (really, THANK YOU) to a string of unforeseen, disheartening sh*t, including Microbee (the youngest) getting sick and throwing the entire family into a weeklong nightmare of tears, snot, insomnia, and recrimination. When I finally judged myself ready for my peanut pumpkin, I realized with great horror that it had rotted from the inside and was completely inedible. To make things worse, my farmer's market was not selling them anymore. Which brings me to my new motto:

Image of motto, "Good things rot for those who wait".

I had to give up on the best pumpkin in the world, but I wasn't giving up on my ravioli vision.
So I immediately drove back to my farmer's market and purchased another pumpkin. This time, I chose a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, because if I couldn't have the best, then I wanted another with a similarly evocative name. The Cheese Pumpkin didn't disappoint—well, it did disappoint in not tasting like actual cheese, but I knew the name was due to its shape—it is a more velvety and sweet version of a butternut squash, and decidedly more delicious. 

While the pumpkin was roasting in the oven, I worked on the chestnut-flour pasta dough, and then rolled it out, stretched it, filled it, and cut it despite the slightly unnerving attentions of my very defiant and mechanically-obsessed Minibee (the oldest).
Step-by-step ravioli making. Image of thinly-rolled pasta dough, dough with bits of filling, hands pressing dough on filling, hand using pasta cutter to shape ravioli.
The pasta cutter in the last pic belonged to my maternal grandma. It's my amulet.

I'm happy to report, the final ravioli were a total delight, sweet and creamy and absolutely perfect for fall. We served them topped with melted butter, grated Parmigiano, and a little black pepper, and added some leftover cheese pumpkin cubes aside. It took a whole afternoon with the constant sabotaging by my kids, but when there's a pot of buttery ravioli at the end of the parenting tunnel, nothing can stop me.

Two close-up of chestnut pumpkin ravioli. Second image shows open ravioli with filling oozing out.

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI 

(MADE WITH CHESTNUT FLOUR)


for the filling:

2C roasted pumpkin (with EVOO and kosher salt)
1/2C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
freshly ground black pepper

for the pasta:
1C chestnut flour

1C unbleached all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 tbsp EVOO
2 eggs
1 egg white (for sealing the ravioli)

finish:
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4C grated Parmigiano
freshly ground black pepper

MAKE THE FILLING
  • Peel and cut your pumpkin in small pieces. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in a 375F oven until fork tender. Let cool.
  • Mash the pumpkin with a potato masher if you like to keep some of the original texture (and heartiness), otherwise, puree until smooth in a food processor. 
  • Stir in the Parmigiano and the pepper.

MAKE THE PASTA DOUGH
  • Mix the two flours in a bowl and stir in the salt and EVOO.
  • Add the two eggs and mix first with a fork and then, when the dough starts to come together, with your hands, until you obtain a compact, elastic dough that is not sticky. If the dough is still dry and crumbly, sprinkle with water until you reach the desired consistency.
  • Cover and let rest of 30 minutes.

MAKE THE RAVIOLI
  • Roll out the dough with a rolling pin or with a pasta machine until very thin. If you never used a pasta machine before but want to start now, check out these instructions.
  • My ravioli were 3X3'', because I wanted to have a little filling in the center and some room for the pasta itself to breathe (you get to enjoy the chestnut flavor more). If you want the same, cut the pasta in 3'' wide strips and place a heaping teaspoon of filling every 3''.
  • Brush with egg white (mixed with a couple tablespoons of water) along the edges and in between the filling heaps.
  • Place another strip of pasta on top and cut the edges of each piece with a pasta cutter.
  • Place the finished ravioli on a floured kitchen towel and sprinkle with flour.

COOK&SERVE
  • Melt butter in a nonstick pan.
  • Cook the ravioli in gently boiling water for 2–3 minutes. Be delicate: they are.
  • Serve the ravioli, about 5 per portion, topped with melted butter, black pepper, and Parmigiano.