Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mint Mojitos

"It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." (Ernest Hemingway) In less than two weeks I am running a 10 mile race. A 'race' distance I had not run in almost fifteen years. After both a much too long hiatus from running (14 years to be exact) and then a year ago this month having a stress fracture in my right leg (with an recovery period that seemed endless), I thought my longest running distances would never be more than 6 miles, 6.2 to be exact. But a combination of factors, including the support and encouragement of my running group friends, caused my running goals to shift. In the past month I have run the distance of 10 miles twice, again returning to the world of double digit runs. The first 10 miler felt like a struggle which had me questioning how realistic my revised running goals actually were. However, the second 10 mile run not only gave me some of the confidence I so desperately needed, but it provided me with the reassurance I could do 'whatever it was I made up my mind to do'. Like some other runners, running for me is as much of a 'head game' as it is a test of physical strength and endurance. On that first 10 mile attempt, I told my small group to go ahead without me at the four and a half mile mark as I wasn't exactly certain my 'head' was in a good place. So much to the worry of some, I went rogue. Meaning I didn't stay on the course we were all supposed to follow. This was less about being fiercely independent (which I can be at times), but more about trying to (re)gain some mental focus (more on my pace and breathing, less on how much further ahead or faster my running partners were). With the support of my running group coach, I went rogue again for the second ten miler. In taking the self-imposed competitiveness with others out of the picture, I actually ran stronger and faster (well faster is a relative term). As much as I have loved and benefitted from the camaraderie of running with a group, when I am pushing myself further than I had gone before or think I am even capable, some time running alone seems to help me keep my 'head in the game'. Who knows what my performance will be on the day of this upcoming 10 mile race as many factors (weather being the biggest) will affect it. However, I have decided I have only one simple goal for this race: to finish feeling happy. Because the return to running was in part to re-experience the joy running had brought to my life. Although I will be downright euphoric if chocolate milk is available on the other side of the finish line. A more potent celebratory drink will have to wait until later in the day.

Not listed in any order of preference, some of my favorite 'alcoholic' beverages are martinis, margaritas, and mojitos. I apparently have an affinity for cocktails beginning with the letter "M" (with the exception of manhattans, intentionally excluded from this list for reasons having nothing to do with their taste but rather a still unforgotten serious state of inebriation decades ago). Fortunately one of Cuba's oldest cocktails was created and exported long before the political wall went up between the US and Cuba. However, it was Ernest Hemingway who was responsible for popularizing the mojito. Made with only a handful of ingredients, has become a signature staple cocktail in both Latin and American cuisine. Lime, mint, sugar, rum (preferably a clear, white and/or silver rum), and ice combine to create a cocktail where its' sweetness is complimented by refreshing citrus and mint. Not a fan of the mojito? Well maybe it's because the ones you had were made by bartenders pretending to be mixologists, who unbeknownst to you, substituted splenda for sugar or the Italian liqueur BrancaMenta for the mint or even over muddled it. All because it wasn't one of their most favorite drinks to make. In other words, please give making your own 'fresh' mojito a try before writing it off.

Like most libations there are a multitude of variations all claiming to be the 'one', the 'best', the most 'authentic'. After looking at dozens and dozens of mojito recipes, there seemed to be most consensus on the use of a clear/white/silver rum; the use of fresh mint leaves; and, the use of freshly squeezed lime juice. When it came to whether to use sugar or a simple syrup made with sugar, there seemed to be less agreement. Just the thought of the mere possibility of a grainy mojito had me jumping on the simple syrup bandwagon. The highly carbonated 'waters' used in the mojito ranged from mineral water, to sparkling water, to seltzer water, to club soda. Club soda seemed to the hands down favorite. I used Schweppes, although someone did a carbonated water and cocktail test and identified "Q" club soda as the 'best' albeit rather on the relatively pricey side, as far as club soda prices go. So until I someday find and splurge on a bottle of "Q" club soda, I am sticking with Schweppes.

Last, but not least, was the process of making the mojito, of which there seems to be two camps, Shaken and Muddled. Not surprisingly each camp claims their version doesn't over mint the taste of the mojito. This version goes with the sexier, gently muddled approach.

If you were looking for reasons to plant highly invasive mint in your garden, put mojitos on the top of this list. Depending on the day of the week, the availability of the fresh mint found in grocery stores can be sometimes slim to none or even worse, has an appearance you wouldn't even want to mask in a pesto. One should be able to make mojitos on a whim or whenever you have a taste for them! So on your next trip to the farmer's market, garden center, or roadside herb stand and pick up a few mint plants. In a relatively short period of time, you will never need to deny yourself or your friends a mojito on a moments notice again. If you love a great mojito, you won't care too much about your mint's invasive tendencies. Especially after you have had one or two of them.

An ounce of simple syrup (recipe below) and 6-8 fresh mint leaves are gently muddled together. Muddling too hard will "break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, essentially ruining your drink". So find another way to take out any of your aggressions and never ever over muddle your mint. Although I am certain there are some aggressive muddlers out there who would disagree. (If your mint leaves are on the large size, use 6. If they are small to medium or a combination of S/M/L, use 8. Once you taste it, you can make your personal preference adjustments.)

After adding a generous handful of ice cubes (crushed ice is optional), pour in two ounces of white rum. Next comes two ounces of club soda, followed by one ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice. After a gentle stir to combine, top with a sprig of fresh mint and wedge/slice of lime. Then sit back and enjoy the spell this refreshing cocktail will have on you.

I know, this sounds like a cocktail made with a lot of precision. Maybe it is. But precision, as in many things, is one of the factors determining whether something is either good or great. And this Mint Mojito is great, really great. How great? Well so great that even those of you on the 'take it or leave it' mojito fence might be tempted to start singing the refreshing Mint Mojitos praises, especially on a hot summer day. 

Mint Mojitos (inspired by multiple sources)

1 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces white rum
2 ounces club soda (recommend Schweppes)
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
6-8 mint leaves
Fresh lime wedge/slice for garnishing
Spring of mint for garnishing
Ice cubes or crushed ice

Note: To make simple syrup, bring one cup of water and one cup of granulated sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. The mixture should look clear with no trace of sugar granules. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Store reserved simple syrup in the refrigerator in a covered jar.

1. Put 6-8 mint leaves in a glass. Add simple syrup and lightly muddle.
2. Add ice, white rum, and club soda.
3. Top with lime juice. Stir gently.
4. Finish with a fresh sprig of mint and lime wedge/slice.
5. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Westport, Massachusetts

Monday, May 16, 2016

Marbled Cheesecake Brownies

"You don't understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are-not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving-and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad-or good-it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well." (excerpt from "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara). Back in college and subsequently in graduate school, I used a yellow highlighter when I came across something in a book I felt had significance. Which early on meant pages upon pages were drenched in yellow. Nowadays I simply bend the corners of only those pages containing passages striking a chord, ones often lingering with me for days. Sometimes the elegance or profoundness of the author's words will cause me to gasp or even weep. When I came across the aforementioned quote from the book I am currently reading, it felt as if I was experiencing something akin to part epiphany, to part validation. I couldn't help but think the (unspoken) concept of a quality, enduring friendship, one grounded in kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, was held reciprocally between myself and my closest, most trusted friends. On some levels it explained what has drawn me to some of the people, some very different from me, who have crossed and remained in my life's path. At the same time, I gained some insight into some of those unbalanced relationships/friendships causing me the most angst, the ones I should have walked away from a long time ago. All because of a lack of or significant change in shared give and take reciprocity. Maybe like people, books also come into your life for a reason. While there are takeaways from almost every book I read, as of recent, none has resonated more with me. Thank you for letting me share my reflections with you. To return this kindness, I want to share with you the amazing, potentially last meal worthy, brownie recipe I recently found.

Years ago I came across a recipe for Marbled Cheesecake Brownies, however, in typical fashion I couldn't remember if that recipe was from a cookbook, cooking magazine, or one I cut out the newspaper. What all this means is that I either had to spend a countless number of days going through my cookbook, cooking magazine, and recipe collections or spend a finite number of hours doing some on-line Marbled Cheesecake Brownies research. Although I have a fair amount of discretionary time in my life, I went with least time intensive option. The recipe rating system on Epicurious has a fair degree of reliability, however, judging recipes posted elsewhere requires you to make inferences about their potential deliciousness based on recipe source, ingredient proportions, recipe directions, and, sometimes even the accompanying photo of the finished product. Ultimately I decided to use King Arthur Flour's Chocolate Cheesecake recipe, however, after looking at the directions I knew I would make some changes to them based on my years of brownie and cheesecake making experience.

Cheesecakes were made in Rome as far back as 1 A.D., however, the cream cheese version of the cheesecake we have all grown to love originated centuries later in New York in 1929. Brownies have a much shorter, yet slightly conflictual history with both Boston (MA) and Bangor (ME) staking their claims for its' invention in 1906 and 1907 respectively. Although there seems to be agreement that brownies were an east coast invention. Combining the tangy, rich creaminess of a cheesecake with dense, fudgy rich chocolate brownies was destined to be a marriage made in dessert heaven. Whoever conceptualized Marbled Cheesecake Brownies (aka Swirled Cheesecake Brownies, Cream Cheese Brownies, Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies) was a genius. Currently an unknown (or rather yet to be claimed) originator, but nonetheless a genius. Which means there is still time for anyone with a really good, believable (possibly verifiable) story to come forward and take credit for conceiving these incredibly delicious, decadent brownies.

Since its' inception the brownie has gone from its' early chocolatey, cake-like version to a confection having a myriad of multi-ingredient variations. These Marbled Cheesecake Brownies may be one of the better, possibly the best variation of all. Although a brownie slathered in a German Chocolate Frosting could come in a close second.

Knowing that a brownie batter has a tendency to thicken as it cools, I decided it made the best culinary sense to begin by making the cheesecake batter. After creaming the room temperature cream cheese in a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, the granulated sugar was added until well incorporated. The eggs were added in one at a time, scraping the bowl with a spatula between additions to ensure there were no clumps of cream cheese. After blending in the vanilla and heavy cream, the final ingredient added was the all-purpose flour. The resulting mixture was creamy, light, and fluffy.

The chocolate flavor of the brownies comes from both Dutch Process Cocoa and (bittersweet) chocolate chips. While these brownies are completely assembled in a pot, care needs to be taken to ensure the mixture isn't too hot before the eggs are incorporated (bits of scrambled eggs in brownies aren't exactly the best of combinations). After all of the ingredients are incorporated, you will end up with a very thick brownie batter.

Half of the brownie batter is poured into the prepared baking pan and smoothed with an offset spatula before the cream cheese layer is added. The remaining brownie batter is dropped in dollops on top of the cream cheese layer. I dropped large dollops, however, the next time making smaller dollops would make the swirling process a little easier. To swirl the cheesecake layer with the top brownie layer use either a fork or knife (I used a fork) making sure you don't allow your utensil of choice to go down to the bottom brownie layer. How much of the cheesecake shows on top depends on how much you swirl. The less the swirl, the larger the streaks of cream cheese. Conversely the more you swirl the less cream cheese streaks (I swirled more but still had a discernible cheesecake layer when the brownies were cut. Notes: Lining your baking pan with parchment pan will make the removal and ultimate cutting of these brownies effortless. In my world baking brownies in a metal pan versus a glass pan is always preferable. 

The brownies are baked in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 45-50 minutes. My baking time was 50 minutes. I generally start checking for doneness at least 5 minutes before any recommended baking time, just in case my oven is off. If these Marbled Cheesecake Brownies are underbaked, they will be difficult to cut and gooey in not a good way. If overbaked, they will be dry in the worst of ways.

Once the brownies are baked and cooled to room temperature, they should be wrapped and refrigerated for at least 4 hours or overnight (preferable) as this makes cutting them easier. 

Cutting the Marbled Cheesecake Brownies into 24 squares makes them the perfect serving size. They are on rich side. I think they taste best served slightly chilled with a glass of milk. They are a picnic, barbecue, feed a sweet tooth, graduation party, or even after a long run perfect treat.

These are some seriously delicious brownies. And from what I remember, even better than the ones I made years ago. The investment of time searching for a 'new' recipe turned out to be a great use of my discretionary time. February 10th in National Cream Cheese Brownie Day, but I wouldn't wait until next year to make these Marbled Cheesecake Brownies. And, if by chance, you are looking for a way to extend a kindness to someone you value and treasure as a friend, especially a chocolate and cheesecake loving friend, a plate of these brownies would speak volumes.

Marbled Cheesecake Brownies (modified version of King Arthur Flour's Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies)

Brownie Batter
1 cup (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups dutch process cocoa
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 Tablespoon vanilla
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour (recommend King Arthur's flour)
2 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (54-60% cocoa) (Recommend Ghiradelli Bittersweet 60% Cocoa Chocolate Chips)

Cheesecake Batter
16 ounces cream cheese, room tempeature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (recommend King Arthur's flour)

1. Lightly spray and line a 9"x12" inch metal baking pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
3. To make the cheesecake batter:
       a. In a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth and there are no lumps.
       b. Beat in granulated sugar.
       c. Beat in eggs one at a time until fully incorporated.
       d. Beat in vanilla and heavy cream until blended.
       e. On medium speed, blend in flour until fully incorporated. Set aside.
4. To make the brownie batter.
       a. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Then stir in the sugar, cooking until mixture is smooth and shiny. Note: Stir constantly. This mixture will be thick.
       b. Remove from heat and stir in cocoa, salt, espresso powder, and vanilla until blended. Allow the mixture to cool slightly (approximately 3-5 minutes). Note: If mixture is too hot, the eggs will curdle. If the mixture is allowed to cool longer than 5 minutes, blending in the eggs will be slightly more difficult.
       c. Using a whisk, beat in eggs, one at a time, until blended.
       d. Whisk in flour and baking powder, stirring until smooth. Note: Batter will be very thick and possibly look a little grainy, but do not worry.
       e. Stir in chocolate chips. Note: If batter is slightly warm, the chips may begin to melt slightly. Again, not to worry.
5. Spoon half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan. Smooth with an offset spatula.
6. Pour cream cheese batter over brownie base layer.
7. Dollop remaining brownie batter on top of cheesecake layer. Using a fork or knife, swirl the two together. Note: Allow some of the cheesecake batter to show through. In other words, don't overswirl.
8. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the top springs back when pressed lightly and edges are set. Note: Can test with a cake tester. Look for the tester to come out clean.
9. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Cover and chill at least 4 hours (or overnight) before cutting.
10. Serve slightly chilled. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Sheep at Harmony Home Farm, Little Compton, RI

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pistachio Dusted Goat Cheese Pears

I had been purposely avoiding going to some of my favorite landscape nurseries. Showing this kind of restraint knowing they are finally fully stocked with a wide array of beautiful as well as unusual annuals and perennials might seem, especially to those who claim they know me, to be a bit out of character. Admittedly, restraint isn't necessarily the word coming to mind when describing me. While change is always possible, my hesitancy cannot be attributed to a significant personality trait pendulum shift. Always lingering in the back of my mind at this time of the year is the sage old 'wait until after Mother's Day to plant' garden advice. Although with some dramatic changes to the climate in past years, I have begun to wonder whether this garden wisdom continues to be relevant. No, my hesitancy in planting all of the urns and hanging baskets can only be attributed to my inability to make the 'what I want their aesthetic look and feel to be this year.' decision. A weighty decision occurring annually as I have apparently yet to find that 'one to be replicated year after year' look. What this means is that I need to have some sort of vision before stepping foot inside into any gardening center. And finally, thankfully it came to me this weekend. A simple, mostly mono-chromatic look with some textural contrasts to create a kind of elegance on a small scale. In other words, various shades and textures of green along with some white flowers for the back and sides and hydrangeas in the urns gracing the front of the house.

My affinity for mono-chronicity is due in large part to a strong desire to create a sense of calm or a kind of zen-ness around me. Sort of as a way to balance out all of the chaos going on and running through my head. Mixed color flower arrangements have always been a little unnerving. So in my world, having to spend long periods of time in a mixed color garden would more than likely send me over the edge. Conversely, I am drawn to those gardens dominated by the tints, shades, and tones of green interspersed with flowers in a single color. Ones like Edith Wharton's gardens at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.

This desire for simplicity spilled over into the creation of this cheese platter and the making of these Pistachio Dusted Goat Cheese Pears. If you love goat cheese, just wait until you experience its' flavor complimented by a layer of finely ground pistachios. However, if by chance you are somewhat ambivalent toward goat cheese, the kind of person who could take or leave it, well, just wait until you experience its' flavor complimented by a layer of finely ground pistachios. As an added bonus, they could not be more simple to make. Quite possibly, you will think twice about putting an unadorned log of goat cheese on a cheese platter again. Not just for the aesthetics of your platter, but for its' taste.

These Pistachio Dusted Goat Cheese Pears are here just as the summer entertaining gets underway. If you are looking to create a memorable as well as elegant cheese platter, make it one dominated by a single cheese or varieties of a single cheese and great crackers and of course, amazing bottles of wine. Your entertaining life has now gotten a whole lot simpler. Sometimes there is much to be said for keeping things simple, especially when life or gardening design decisions are anything but. And less can sometimes be more.

Pistachio Dusted Goat Cheese Pears (inspired by a recipe in The Cheesemongers Kitchen: Celebrating Cheese in 90 Recipes)
Makes 3 large pears

11-12 ounce log of goat cheese
1/2 cup pistachios, finely ground in a food processor
Crackers (recommend Rock Creek Crisps-Moroccan Rosemary with Raisin)
Olives and/or Fresh fruit (grapes, cherries, blackberries, sliced pears, sliced apples)

1. Divide goat cheese into three pieces.
2. Shape the pieces of goat cheese into free-form pears, remembering no two pears look alike.
3. Roll the goat cheese pears into the finely ground pistachios until well coated. Shake off any excess.
4. Use some small branches or fresh herb leaves to make a stem and/or stem with leaves.
5. Transfer to a serving platter.
6. Serve with crackers, fresh fruit, and/or olives.
Note: The Pistachio Dusted Goat Cheese Pears are best served the same day as made but still delicious the next day. Make several hours in advance.

South Shore Beach, Little Compton, Rhode Island

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Torta di Mele (Apple Cake)

My affinity for open spaces and landscapes has been reflected in many different aspects of my life. For as long as I can remember they are what I love to photograph most (secretly I am an Ansel Adams wannabe). Many take photos of their friends and family, I take photos of the sky, trees, sea, animals, flowers, mountains, and architecture. For more than seventy years there has been a vacant piece of property on the east side of our home. This open space was one of the many things that drew me to this house almost nine years ago (because it certainly wasn't the 'what was I thinking' long narrow, hardly a gathering kind of place galley kitchen). My bucolic view underwent a dramatic change a few weeks ago when the invasion of construction trucks arrived to begin building a house. Now, each time I look out my kitchen window or side door, there is an audible 'ugh' followed by a deep sigh. In my suburban community there has been the unsettling trend of replacing smaller houses with larger ones and lots serving as play spaces for generations of children have all but disappeared. Unlike some other communities across the country where the value of open space takes precedence over growth, the changing landscape here only further deepens my love for the by the sea town in Rhode Island I was fortunate to call home for a couple of years. Short of moving back there, I suppose I will now need to turn my annual return trips into at least semi-annual ones. Hopefully these return visits along with travels to less population dense places will minimize and help to cure the angst I have been feeling over the changing view from my kitchen window.

In the last blog post I shared the titles of two recently made cookbook purchases. The recipe for this Torta di Mele (Apple Cake) comes from one of them, Emiko Davies first cookbook: Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence. Through her photographs, stories, and recipes Emiko makes you lust for Florence and everything Tuscan. I was completely mesmerized by this book. If I close my eyes and use my imagination, I feel as if I can see and feel the landscape of Florence. And now I can taste it.

Desserts usually don't come to mind when you think of Tuscan cooking. So why did I choose to make the Torta di Mele (Apple Cake) as the first recipe out of this cookbook? Maybe because I sometimes consider myself a baker first, cook second. Or maybe this rustic apple cake just spoke to me.

I picked up two beautiful Golden Delicious apples at the grocery store for this Torta di Mele (Apple Cake). But after making this cake, next time I might look for 3 medium sized apples so the top of cake can be topped with two circular rows of apples. In other words, 3 medium sized versus 2 larger apples would be for aesthetic purposes only.

There is nothing pretentious about this recipe. And with the exception of Golden Delicious apples you more than likely have all of the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator.

After peeling, coring, and cutting the apples into 1/2 slices, they are mixed with the freshly squeezed lemon juice and two tablespoons of granulated sugar (taken from the total amount of sugar used in the recipe). While the apples marinate, you make the batter. Having room temperature butter is critical to creating a well-blended batter. The lemon juice used to marinate the apples ultimately goes into the batter along with half of the sliced apples. The combination of the lemon zest and lemon juice are what differentiates and sets this apple cake apart from all others.

Using a 9 inch springform pan allows you to easily remove the cake from the pan and transfer to a platter or cake stand. Baked in a 360 degree (F), yes 360 degrees, this is not a typo, the cake bakes for 55-60 minutes or until the top is lightly golden and easily springs back when lightly pressed.

The cake easily removes from the pan after a 15-20 minute cooling period. There are two finishing touch options. Either a dusting of confectionary sugar (my favorite) or a brushing of melted apricot jam over the top. Both options add some sweetness to this very moist, flavorful cake, although I am partial to confectionary sugar.

From start to finish this incredibly delicious, satisfying cake comes together in less than 2 hours, a hour of which is baking time. Although intended to be a dessert, it would be perfect to serve at breakfast, brunch, with a light lunch, or bring to a picnic or gathering. Depending on the time of day it's served, it would pair perfectly with a cup of coffee or glass of sweet vin santo.

In spite of my earlier rant over the impending loss of the open space view outside of my kitchen window, the space surrounding my home has always been secondary to the space and food created within it. While some spending time here will often comment on the look of my home, those that share how it made them feel is the compliment always bringing a smile to my face, a flutter to my heart. And this Torta di Mele is destined to make all those that enter and partake in the gifts coming from my kitchen feel like they are surrounded by love.

Torta di Mele (Apple Cake) (barely any change made to Emiko Davies recipe as shared in her cookbook Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence)

2 large Golden Delicious apples (or other good cooking apples), peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/2 inch slices Note: Or use 3 smaller Golden Delicious Apples in order to have two circular rows of sliced apples placed on top of the cake.
Juice and zest of 1 medium sized lemon
6 1/2 ounces (180 g) granulated sugar, separated
4 1/2 ounces (about 9 T) (125 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature (Note: Original recipe called for the use of 3 medium (1 3/4 ounce) eggs)
5 ounces whole milk
10 1/2 ounces (300 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
Confectionary sugar for finishing (or warm apricot jam for finishing)

1. Preheat oven to 360 degrees (F). Prepare a 9 inch springform pan and set aside.
2. In a medium sized bowl, mix together apple slices, juice from the lemon and 2 Tablespoons of the the granulated sugar. 
3. In a standing mixer, beat the remaining sugar and butter until pale and creamy (approximately 4-5 minutes).
4. Add eggs and beat until until you have a thick, pale mixture. Scrape sides of bowl as needed.
5. Add milk and the lemon zest. Beat on low until combined.
6. Fold in flour, baking powder, salt and half of the apple slices, along with all of the lemon juice to combine.
7. Pour cake batter into prepared pan and smooth surface of cake using an offset spatula. Arrange remaining apple slices over the surface of the cake.
8. Bake in the center of the oven for 55-60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and springy to the touch. Allow to sit for at least 15-20 minutes before removing from the pan and transferring to a cake stand or platter.
9. Finish with a liberal dusting of sifted confectionary sugar. Note: Instead of confectionary sugar, brush with melted apricot jam.
10. Serve with coffee or vin santo.

Scenes from Martha's Vineyard, September 2015.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Spaghetti Alla Gricia

It has been thirty days since I have had a diet soda. Or rather almost a month since I removed the diet soda IV from my arm. Considering this beverage has been my primary form of morning, noon, and night liquid intake for decades, it is nothing short of a miracle I have had enough willpower to end this addiction. Weaning myself from this diet soda addiction was not an option (been there, done that). Cold turkey was the only painful choice. Needing an alternative source of hydration, I had no other choice than to turn to water. Over the course of the past several weeks my consumption of water has surpassed the amount of water passing my lips in a very, very long time. If I told you I drank more water in the last 30 days than I had since I was 18 years old you might think this a bit of an exaggeration, rather than a claim much closer to the truth. Just remember truth is almost always stranger than fiction. Had I not decided to fingers crossed finally eliminate diet soda from my life I may have never discovered the deliciousness and thirst quenching qualities of water. Who knew water could be so satisfying? Well certainly I didn't. Not surprisingly I have begun to develop an affinity for some of the European waters, although I am not ready to declare a commitment to any of the English, Swedish, French, or Italian waters I have been trying just yet. No reason to hurry or even make this decision as there is a lot of water drinking catching up to do. Besides I was a 'will drink only one kind of diet soda snob' for decades, so this time around I will forego becoming one of those 'will drink only one kind of water snobs'.

Speaking of water, we have heard over and over again never to throw away the (salted) pasta water before finishing a pasta dish. This Spaghetti Alla Gricia proved this to be true and was a perfect example of the sauciness value pasta water has to finishing off a pasta dish.

As much as I had promised myself to stop buying new cookbooks (another addiction), I was weak in the knees when I came across two new recently published Italian cookbooks: Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City and Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence. In the event that I never get to either of these two cities, I can vicariously experience them both through the recipes, stories, and photographs in these two books. More than simply great inspirational cookbooks, they are gastronomic guides and visual tours of Rome and Florence.

Without going into a long story as to why I decided to first make a pasta dish from Tasting Rome, I will share my 'think I have died and gone to heaven' experience making and eating Spaghetti Alla Gricia, a dish somewhat like a carbonara. Only this one is made with guanciale instead of pancetta or bacon, Pecorino Romano instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and white wine instead of eggs.

So what exactly is guanciale? Whole cured pork jowl and one of the key elements of the cucina romana. The rendered fat from guanciale adds both flavor and thickness to many of the classic pasta dishes like Carbonara and this Gricia. 

I thought if water from Italy could be imported to the states, then guanciale should too. And the good news: it is! You may have to seek out a grocery store with an extensive array of Italian foods, but it can be found. Note: Substituting guanciale with unsmoked pancetta or bacon will not yield the same or texture to a pasta dish as guanciale is quite a bit fattier.

Pecorino Romano is a hard, salty sheep's milk cheese, a staple in the diet in ancient Rome. Cheese labeled as 'Romano' is not the same as Pecorino Romano (so buyer beware). Freshly grated and pre-packaged grated cheeses are two different animals, ones performing and tasting differently. For the purest flavor and the best consistency in sauces (or any dish calling for grated cheese) always, always grate your own cheese.

Spaghetti Alla Gricia is the kind of dish you don't have to wait for the weekend to make. It all comes together in well under an hour, making it perfect for a mid-week dinner or a last minute dinner party. Paired with a simple salad and wine, it is a dish destined to make you feel as if you brought Rome home.

The rendered fat from the guanciale, white wine, and some of the reserved pasta water not only helps to create the sauce but it also continues to cook the al dente spaghetti. I was a little reluctant to cook the spaghetti to very al dente (approximately 6 minutes of cooking time) as I worried I would end up with an inedible dish. Turns out I worried needlessly as the spaghetti cooks to the perfect consistency after added to and cooked over medium-high heat with the 'sauce'.

The original recipe called for the use of only 1 cup of grated pecorino romano cheese. I ended up using almost 1 1/4 cups. While I loved the lightness, taste and texture of this dish using that amount of cheese, the next time I make Spaghetti Alla Gricia I will more than likely increase it to at least 1 3/4 cups to create an even creamier coating of cheese/sauce on the spaghetti. Depending on how that works I may end landing on an amount somewhere in the middle. If it is your first time making it, begin with 1 1/4 cups, taste it and then decide if you want to add more grated cheese before plating it.

If I tell you I inhaled a bowl of this Spaghetti Alla Gricia it might give you the wrong impression of my table manners. Well I actually took three very quick bites but then decided I should slow down, sit back, and savor the absolute deliciousness of this pasta dish. If it were possible for a dish to allow you to time travel to another time and place, this Spaghetti Alla Gricia would open that portal. And maybe someday when I finally travel to Italy, I can consume as much wine, pasta, and of course, water as possible. Until such time, I can at least begin working my way through these two cookbooks.

Spaghetti Alla Gricia (slight adaption to the Spaghetti Alla Gricia recipe in Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill)

1 pound spaghetti (recommend using a premium brand Italian pasta)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
7 ounces Guanciale, cut into 1 1/2" x 1/2" inch strips
1/2 cup white wine (recommend a Pinot Grigio)
1 3/4 cups Pecorino Romano, freshly grated (plus more for serving) Notes: (1) A 6-7 ounce block of Pecorino Romano will yield the amount of grated cheese needed and (2) Original recipe called for 1 cup of grated cheese, so depending on taste, use anywhere from 1 to 1 3/4 cups of grated cheese.
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat, salting the water. Add the pasta and cook until very al dente or partially raw (approximately 6 minutes). Drain reserving the cooking water. Note: The pasta will continue to cook when it is added to the liquid in the skillet.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low-medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer add the guanciale, stirring until golden brown (approximately 8 minutes). 
3. Add white wine and cook until the alcohol dissipates (about 1 minute).
4. Add a small ladle of the pasta cooking water and bring to a simmer. 
5. Add pasta and another small ladle of the pasta cooking water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring vigorously, until a thick sauce forms (add more water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency).
6. Remove the skillet from the heat, and add 1 1/2 cups of the grated Pecorino Romano. Mix thorough and season to taste with salt and pepper.
7. Transfer to a large platter or plate in individual pasta bowls. Sprinkle each portion with additional  1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste. Serve immediately with additional Pecorino Romano. 

Important Notes:
1. Keep pasta water heated as warm or cooled pasta water will create clumps in the cheese instead of creating a creamy sauce.
2. Do not use already grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Buy a block of cheese and freshly grate. There is a night and day difference between the two.
3. Can add a sunny side up fried egg to each individual portion for a more traditional carbonara.
4. Only use a white wine you would be willing to serve and drink. 
5. Freshly ground pepper is the only spice you need as the rendered fat from the guanciale, the Pecorino Romano, and the salted pasta water give the dish enough of a salty finish. 

Sheep on farms in Northern Wisconsin and in Little Compton, Rhode Island.