Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IT’S BEGINNING TO FEEL A LOT LIKE (HOLIDAY TIME) & HOTEL CHOCOLAT GIFTAWAY

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go;
Take a look in the five and ten glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Toys in ev'ry store
But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be
On your own front door.
- Meredith Willson


Stepping outside into the rare glow of sunshine I am kissed by the cool, crisp chill of winter in the air. That special humidity that whispers snow tickles my nose and once again I am excited by the hint of another change of season. I slip on my gloves, tuck my hands deep into my pockets and there is a newfound briskness in my step inspired by the upcoming holiday season electrifying the day.

I love autumn, but this year autumn has meant nothing but rain, rain and more rain. No bright sunny days, no bundling up in gaily-colored sweaters to protect against a joyful, dizzy drop of temperatures, no crunch of golden and red foliage underfoot, only gray, damp days, matted, sticky swaths of dead leaves lying like an old forgotten scarf in the gutter and a disagreeable wet rawness seeping underneath our clothes and into our homes, chilling us to the bone. No pleasure at all.

But with Jack Frost now nipping at our noses, I am starting to get excited! We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so there is no rational line drawn precisely in between the pages of the calendar, no great November-December divide that signals the go-ahead for the official kick off of the Christmas season. Here in France, the decorations are now being hung up and down every street, swags of lights strung across the roads from shop to shop, streetlamp to streetlamp. White fluffy reindeer and polar bears, tiny elves and princess dolls are finding their way into winter scenes in every store window, snowy white, silver and gold deck every hall, garlands of green and red wind up staircases and grace window displays all over town. Candy store windows are being stacked with beribboned boxes of holiday delights and wine shops are no doubt clearing space for the extra crates of Champagne. No, I don’t celebrate Christmas but no doubt my readers know how much I love the season!



It’s been absolutely crazy in our private little kingdom here what with Simon coming home to visit then leaving for an impromptu trip to New York and, be still my motherly heart, not thinking to contact us for 4 days to let us know he had arrived at his friend’s apartment in one piece. I have been working like a madwoman on projects as yet to be told day and night and even roping my men into the action, handing out duties as a mother doles out cookies to her little ones. Husband’s Mac died and joined wayward, bored, computerless Simon in pushing little old mom out of her desk chair and taking over her laptop, leaving her like a rudderless tugboat in the great ocean, rubbing her hands in worry and pacing back and forth across the wooden floors. I’ve been cooking and baking, testing two fabulous cookbooks (soon to be posted!), organizing the first From Plate to Page workshop and packing for my long-awaited girls’ weekend in London with Meeta, Jeanne and Hilda.



So through all of this as well as the long, long month of rain, I simply had no time to cook or bake anything for this post…. BUT….

As I am now so excited by the lighting of the first Hanukkah candle on Wednesday, December 1st (and JP has already selected our gift for this year YAY! Something absolutely frivolous but simply gorgeous!), I have decided to offer you two gifts: a few favorite Hanukkah dishes that I created and posted over this past year, sweet and savory meals to be eaten and enjoyed all year round yet perfect for this Jewish holiday (just follow the links!) AND CHOCOLATE!!!


The kind, generous people at Hotel Chocolat, British Cocoa Grower & Chocolatier, presented me with a box of their LUXE Classic Christmas Selection of luxury chocolates and they have offered to send one lucky Life’s a Feast reader the same sensational box of chocolates! I am privileged to be living in a city filled with chocolatiers and have become quite the connoisseur so when I received my box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates I was a bit skeptical. JP’s eyes lit up and he dove in. I hesitated – well I always do, just wanting to select the right flavor! But I worried that I wouldn’t like these chocolates. I mean, I’ve been spoiled by the best chocolates French artisans have to offer! Oh, ever the worrywart! My hand hovered over each chocolate, dark, milk, filled or not. When I finally slipped the first into my mouth all doubt disappeared as the creamy chocolate slid over my tongue, the meltingly smooth praline filling blended with the perfectly balanced chocolate and I was convinced that I was holding in my hands stunning, top quality luxury chocolates. The dark chocolate is smooth yet rich and peppery, the milk creamy and not too sweet. And whether filled with meltingly smooth praline, mouth-warming truffle, liquor- or fruit-infused ganache or soft caramel, each and every one is fabulous! JP and I select one – or two – every evening as we settle down together on the sofa with our after-dinner glass of wine and our only complaint is that soon, oh much too soon, the box will be empty.


Be sure to visit the Hotel Chocolat website and just ogle the amazing selection of chocolates. And don’t forget the holidays! They have an amazing array of dazzling holiday gift boxes from gorgeous Christmas Crackers and Advent Calendars, to special Christmas Tree Boxes and luxurious Stocking Fillers and Wreaths. It makes a girl wish she did celebrate Christmas... well, she can still enjoy the fabulous chocolates, can't she?

Hotel Chocolat will directly send a box of Christmas Chocolates to one lucky winner here in Europe. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post (please leave either your e-mail address or twitter handle so I can contact you) by Friday, December 3 and I will randomly select the winner to be announced in my post immediately following this date. You can also tweet about the Giftaway (be sure to use #hotelchocolat and @lifesafeast in your tweet so I can find you) by Friday December 3, 12am CET. If you do both – you have two chances of winning the box.

And do take a minute to read this delightful little interview of fabulous blogger Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella for Australia's Mylookbook in which she recounts her "celebrity blogger" status, discusses her wonderful, entertaining blog as well as her future book and mentions two of her favorite blogs... Thanks so very much, my friend, for the honor. Much! Cake for you!

Any questions? Then off you go.


A Thanksgiving Dessert Recipe From a Thanksgivingless American: don't miss my latest story and a fabulous Chestnut-Chocolate recipe on Huffington Post Food.

And for a little dessert:


Silver bells, silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing
Soon it will be Christmas day

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks.
Dressed in holiday style
In the air
There's a feeling
of Christmas
Children laughing
People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on ev'ry street corner you'll hear
- Jay Livingston & Ray Evans



Thursday, November 18, 2010

RIZ AU LAIT : The Frenchman's Rice Pudding

If you carry your childhood with you, you never grow older.
- Tom Stoppard


Some people think of childhoods long past, cozy corners in some nursery or propped up at a kitchen table in some small town far away with a nanny or grandma or mom hovering not very far away. Some people think of grade school lunches, women in hairnets and metal trays, ladlefuls plopped heavily into sections, or little plastic containers pulled hungrily out of crisp paper bags and popped open, spoon dipping greedily into soft, warm creaminess, spoons licked, fingers licked, sticky and sweet. And some even think of candlelight and elegant restaurants, warm and exotic vanilla and rich, thick, luxurious cream, satiny smooth, old family favorites making their reappearance, modern, updated classics a kiss of nostalgia.

And then there are those who think of punishment, the “it’s good for you” reproach from some stern adult standing tall and large one step back, brows furrowed. Big bowls clunked down on the table, the grind of chair legs across wooden floors as the seat is pushed up to the edge, the spoon within easy reach of small pegs of arms. A weighty snack meant to fill on the cheap, day after day, adding a layer of winter fat, bulking up small bodies against the cold, protecting against whatever ails them.


"When they didn't give him boiled mutton, they gave him rice pudding, pretending it was a treat. And saved the butcher."
- Charles Dickens from The Schoolboy’s Story, 1853

I was raised in a grab-as-you-like home. From the moment we could reach the refrigerator door handle or peer over the edge of the kitchen counter, we were on our own as far as breakfast, lunch and snack were concerned. Breakfast was a quick bowl of cereal doused with milk or a Poptart or two, cinnamon toast prepared not by loving mom hands but by tiny fingers spreading butter on warm toast then dusting the top with jarred cinnamon-sugar. Lunch was eaten whenever we were hungry, sandwiches made, salads tossed or cans opened and heated on the stove, no parental supervision in sight. And snacks were pretty much a free-for-all: counters lined with boxes of cookies, barrels of pretzels or chips and cakes made by dad, ours for the grabbing whenever we were hungry. The freezer was a showcase for popsicles, fudgsicles, ice cream and ice cream sandwiches and the refrigerator overflowed with dad’s creations: gorgeous, exotic fruit compote, pastry puffs stuffed with creams and supermarket purchases of the Space Age variety, Jello and puddings, Koolaid and jarred chocolate sauces. My dad loved pudding, made box after box in every glorious color and flavor and we were raised on it like kittens on milk. Creamy and smooth, it was truly a thing of comfort, a symbol of home.

Thousands of miles away, my future husband grew up in a much more traditional setting, hot lunches simmered long hours on the stove, blanquette or daube, poule au pot or poulet frîtes, shared by the family as papa closed the shop and climbed the stairs for his daily two-hour respite. Snacks were limited and almost always homemade. And he grew up on Riz au Lait, the Frenchman’s version of Rice Pudding, creamy, sweet, warm and filling. Each baby was bottle fed with bouillie, cereal-thickened milk, each toddler, as they became toddlers, were served up big, steaming bowls of Riz au Lait. An old-fashioned woman, ma belle-mère, my Mother-in-Law believed in plumping up her children with fat-and sugar-rich snacks and that meant puddings made with either rice or tiny elbow macaroni long-simmered in whole milk and sprinkled with sugar. They were meant to fill up the growing children, to insulate them against the cold and damp of winter or to simply add on the pounds, an old-fashioned way to help them grow faster and protect their bodies against whatever could ail them.


My husband has been long begging me to make him Riz au Lait. With each cake I pull out of the oven or each glass of Panna Cotta I push into the refrigerator, he once again requests Riz au Lait, sighing heavily in disappointment as I simply do not offer him this token of womanly love. This is a dish that simply is not in my culture; I never ate this when I was a child. And although I do love it, it just never crosses my mind as something I could or should make at home. And he continues to ask for it and I continue to place cake after cake, cookies and ice cream on the table in front of him. Until last week. I was in the mood to bake and had selected a recipe. I opened up the refrigerator and to my utter shock and horror I saw that * gulp * I was out of eggs! Me? Out of eggs? Impossible! Oh, cruel fate dashing my hopes to the ground! On top of that, it was a national holiday and I knew that every single store was closed, so no eggs were to be had! And as the truth hit me squarely between the eyes, as I began to wail and moan and tear at my hair in despair, husband ran into the kitchen, glee shining in his eyes and the excitement of a child bubbling up and overflowing, and he sang “Riz au Lait! Riz au Lait is the answer! You can make it for me! There are no eggs in Riz au Lait!

And so I did. And as I measured and stirred, as I gently, gracefully slid my thin knife up the side of a fragrant vanilla bean, as I sweetened and tasted and sweetened it a bit more and as I lovingly spooned creamy portions into elegant dishes, he recounted the story of his mother feeding them this delicacy simply in order to fill up their tiny tummies, like a sweet version of castor oil meant to plump and protect, and I stared at him in amazement and wondered that he could still love it, still clamor for it, still think of Riz au Lait as comfort food, homey and good, redolent of sweet memories. And with this one simple dish, I made my man smile.

"--powerful! Crush the lesser races! Conquer the galaxy! Unimaginable power! Unlimited rice pudding! Et cetera! Et cetera!"
- Davros and the Doctor, in Remembrance of the Daleks


A perfect recipe for a treat so creamy, homey and delicious, a confection that is both simple to make and simple to eat, Riz au Lait is a versatile snack or dessert that can be flavored as one likes, stirring in plump raisins or chopped nuts, served with crème anglaise or stewed fruit, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce, spiked with rum or Amaretto or flavored with cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg. But we find that it is just perfect as it is, mere child’s play.


RIZ AU LAIT
And not, as my husband stoutly declares, Rice Pudding

7 oz (200 g) uncooked rice for risotto or pudding
3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk or half low-fat milk + half light or heavy cream
7 - 8 Tbs (100 – 120 g) sugar or to taste
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter

Place the rice in a colander with tiny holes (so as not to lose any rice out the bottom!) and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.

Place the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.

Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with the whole milk (or half low-fat milk and half cream), 1 tablespoon of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth. It should not be al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and about half of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls.


Riz au Lait is best eaten warm but this particular pudding is delicious at room temperature and even stays creamy when chilled (if, for example, there are any leftovers). Riz au Lait can also be served with cooked fruit or jam served atop it to give it a tangy kick.


Monday, November 15, 2010

ORGEAT PANNA COTTA WITH MIXED BERRY JAM

MAGAZINE MONDAY and a TALE OF THE STRANGE & UNUSUAL


Opposites attract? Of course they do. My husband and I have so much in common, our sense of risk and adventure, our tendency to shun all extraneous human contact and huddle together unsullied by the outside world, our passion for art and food and books and travel and history. Same sense of humor, same critical eye, same dreams and aspirations (mostly). But where opposites come into play, we do often part ways and on one very important point never the twain shall meet. Eating. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we both love to eat, are both fascinated by flavors and textures, ingredients and perfection. We both love to discover new cuisines, new restaurants, new wines. But we split right down the middle when it comes to the unknown.

You see, my husband has a culinary sense of adventure that bypasses even mine. The odd and the unusual intrigue him where they make me hesitate. The completely unknown draw him like a moth to the flame while I shudder and run. Yes, of course, we always order our favorite dish at the same restaurants every time: we go to Félix for the best Steak Tartare in the world, tender chunks of steak – no ground hamburger for us, thank you very much, the perfect balance of flavors, rich and luxurious, tangy with mustard and the bite of capers, the snap of onion and as peppery as you please. And served with fabulous hand-cut fries, thick and meltingly smooth on the inside, crispy and salty on the outside. In the mood for a döner kabob? We always head straight for the same stand. But he has a taste for culinary adventure that makes me shiver. If he sees something on a menu with an unusual name or a strange main ingredient, he invariably orders it. As the waiter strolls away I’ll lean over and ask, “what is it that you ordered?” and he’ll casually shrug his shoulders and say “I don’t know. I’ll see.” Traveling through foreign lands he will press his finger against the page of the menu when our order is taken, rarely if ever asking for precisions, and take his chances, all in the name of curiosity. Market and even supermarket visits find him dumping armloads of canned and packaged goods into our basket, each one stranger and more curious than the next, because he wants to try whatever is strange and uncommon. Or unknown. Or he will proudly place one of these selected items on our kitchen table and exclaim, delight glowing in his eyes, “I have to try this!” Ooooh, not me, thanks! I prefer the tried and the true or, well, at least the recognizable and the known. And he’ll taste. And he’ll eat and drink whatever he’s purchased and whatever he’s ordered. And only when it is gone, clean plate club, will he comment.


And this is how we ended up with a bottle of Sirop d’Orgeat. JP truly hates to go grocery shopping. Oh, not the market; if it isn’t crowded he loves marketing. No, I’m speaking about supermarkets, hypermarkets, those huge enclosed spaces, sometimes of dubious hygienic quality, filled with disgruntled, harried customers, couples or families oblivious to anyone or anything around them, huge, lumbering shopping carts that invariably find themselves being pushed into the back of your legs, and row upon dizzying row of consumer greediness and waste, all of those items that have little or no gastronomic or nutritional value whatsoever but are merely there to tempt the buyer into spending his or her hard earned cash on something that one could and, according to my husband, should do without. The glaring overheard lights, the lack of fresh air and the sometimes zoo-like cross-section of human life absolutely drives him mad. He’s been known to abandon nearly full shopping carts in the center of supermarkets all across France and simply walk out and go home. I’ve seen him break out into a sweat, break out into hives and break out into the worst humor since Frankenstein while standing in one of these supermarkets. I, on the other hand, simply adore these meccas of surprise and delight. I can spend an inordinate amount of time combing through the housewares section, I love seeing what new flavors of this product or that has appeared on the shelf, I love the ethnic and foreign foods and I absolutely love the satisfaction of coming home and being able once again to fill up my cupboards and refrigerator. So those Saturday mornings when I can drag him (kicking and fighting and complaining) on one of these twice-monthly shopping excursions, he will hand me over the shopping cart and the list and wave me off, saying “I will come and find you after I have found and chosen 5 strange and unusual things.” And he will wander off into the distance, singing to himself, happy in this contest he has created for himself, safe in his own private bubble.


Today, I am hosting Magazine Mondays for my wonderful friend Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice. For years and years, magazines have been our luxury; too expensive to subscribe to all those that we love, our magazine purchases have been limited to train stations and airport terminals, our guilty pleasure, reading material for a long voyage. But last year I took the bold decision to subscribe to the French Saveurs Magazine (and soon to be joined by the American Saveur), and both JP and I love them! I have made it a point to cook or bake at least one delicious thing from each issue, if not more. And strangely enough, a recent issue of Saveurs magazine had two recipes using Sirop d’Orgeat, Orgeat Syrup. JP drinks ice cold glasses of water spiked with Orgeat Syrup all summer long and simply loves the almondy flavor. I have never tried it. I selected for my entry for this week’s Magazine Mondays a Panna Cotta flavored with Orgeat Syrup and served with a Quick Fruit Jam from the July-August 2010 issue of Saveurs.


This is one fabulous Panna Cotta! We are Panna Cotta freaks; okay, to put it more politely, we are Panna Cotta connoisseurs. We adore it. But once too often we have eaten a rubbery or a floury Panna Cotta in this restaurant or that and so I decided to start making it at home. And Panna Cotta turns out to be one of those elegant, sophisticated, luxurious desserts that is surprisingly simple and quick to make. This recipe from Saveurs is simply one of the best I have ever made, silky smooth texture, it slides over the tongue like a cloud leaving in its wake a delicate sweet cream flavor kissed by almond thanks to the Orgeat Syrup. Topped with this quick and simple mixed berry jam – I used a half cup of frozen blueberries and raspberries that I had left in the freezer in place of the magazines recommended summer strawberries - and the tang of the very berry mixture was fabulous spooned up and eaten with the delicate panna cotta. This is most definitely a dessert to try. I will now use this basic Panna Cotta recipe and try it with other flavored syrups. Although, I may stay away from anything strange and unusual my husband may happen to suggest.


And here who has joined me for this week’s edition of Magazine Mondays:

Lynn of I’ll Have What She’s Having made Candied Lemon Slices from the March 2005 issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Tina of Life in the Slow Lane at Squirrel Head Manor made Beef Stroganoff from the March/April 2010 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

Allyson of Retorte made Asian Pork Burgers with Hoisin Mayo from her latest issue of Food Network Magazine.

Mary of bonbons et chocolat.com made Boston Cream Cupcakes from February 2009 issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Stacey of Views From My Window made two recipes this week : Spiced Lemon Cake and (wow!) a Peanut, Caramel and Chocolate Tart, both from the October issue of Martha Stewart.

Jan from Kitchen Heals Soul made an Unusual Celery and Pear Bisque from the November 2010 issue of Bon Appétit.

Sue from Couscous & Consciousness made Olive & Herb Fish Parcel from the August 2004 issue of ABC Delicious Magazine.

Thanks to all of you for cooking along with Magazine Mondays! So thrilled I could host this event that I love participating in. Thanks, Ivonne!

Please visit their blogs and see what delicious delights they have cooked up! And please hop over to Ivonne’s Magazine Monday page and see how you too can cook with us on Magazine Mondays, too!


PANNA COTTA AU SIROP D’ORGEAT, CONFITURE DE FRUITS EXPRESS
Orgeat Syrup-flavored Panna Cotta with Quick Mixed Berry Jam
From July-August issue of Saveurs

Serves 4.

For the Panna Cotta:

2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream (UHT is perfectly fine)
2 Tbs + ½ tsp (35 g) sugar
2 Tbs Orgeat Syrup
1 tsp (4 g) powdered gelatin

Place the heavy cream, the sugar and the syrup in a medium saucepan. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin over the top and gently stir it in with a fork or whisk. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin. At the end of the five minutes the gelatin will look like tiny yellow translucent splotches on the surface.

Place the saucepan over low heat and slowly and gently whisking, allow the mixture to heat up just to the boiling point. Watch carefully as this only takes a few minutes. Once it starts to boil (it may just foam around the edges), remove from the heat and, whisking, make sure that the yellow spots have disappeared completely: this means that the gelatin has completely dissolved.

Very carefully pour the hot liquid into 4 serving glasses (I use a soup ladle). Cover the glasses or bowls with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator – ideally over night – to firm up.

If using frozen fruit for your Quick Berry Jam, place the berries in a bowl to defrost. Once defrosted, place the bowl in the refrigerator overnight so they are ready for cooking about a half an hour or so before serving the Panna Cotta.

Before serving, prepare the Mixed Berry Jam:

½ cup total frozen fruit and the juices that have accumulated from defrosting *
2 – 4 tsps sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
Squeeze of lemon juice

* I used half frozen blueberries and half frozen raspberries

I played this part by ear, or rather by taste. Saveurs calls for 250 g fresh strawberries, 1 cup (200 g) sugar, 1 lemon and 1 split and scraped vanilla bean but as I had no fresh berries nor did I choose to use a precious vanilla bean for this, I made do with what I had and I am glad I did because it was fantastic!

Place the defrosted berries and their juices in a small saucepan with about 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar, a dash of vanilla and one small squeeze of lemon juice. Cook slowly over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until all of the juices have cooked down and the jam is thickened. You can leave it a bit more on the liquid side if you like. Add more sugar to taste along the way, if desired. Once cooked to the desired consistency, simply remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature before dividing between the Panna Cotta glasses. I topped each Panna Cotta with only a tablespoon of the jam as I didn’t want to completely drown out the very delicate flavor of the Panna Cotta and it was perfect. The rest of the Mixed Berry Jam I used to top some of the Riz au Lait I had made the day before (recipe to follow soon).


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ESPRESSO BROWNIES WITH SPIKED RICOTTA SWIRL

BROWNIEPALOOZA AND THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS


My eyes snap open as the remnants of dreams evaporate like dust in the darkness. I am wide awake much too early and as I lie in the warmth of my bed in the obscurity I am suddenly aware of the eerie calm and I realize how this city sleeps alongside of us, still snuggled up in a star-studded haze at six a.m. No trucks rumble through the streets, no gaggles of teens chattering like magpies clatter across the cobblestones on their way to school, no voyagers scurry across the square on their way to the train station. All the city seems to be asleep. Or else tiptoeing on velvet slippers so as not to wake my still slumbering men.

And I smile to myself as I realize that we are a family again, all tidily tucked up asleep under one roof, the four of us, and it comforts me. Simon arrived home yesterday from New Orleans, tall and lanky, face brushed by sideburns, with nothing more than a backpack strapped to his twenty-year-old back for his 3-week stay. Nonchalant and casual as always, he gives us each a hug, wrestles with Marty until his embarrassment and the sudden blush of redness on his cheeks dissipate, then he slides right into the household as if he has never left. Clem, on the other hand, shows an excitement that he rarely allows to bubble to the surface and he tumbles out of his bedroom office to giddily greet his little brother, proffering his hand and prattling on and on a mile a minute, verily gushing over his sibling, his face glowing with happiness. Stranger things have yet to be seen.

But as Simon collapsed into bed and passed out from exhaustion from the long journey, the house was all a-bustle with activity. Friends we haven’t seen for two years came for lunch, arriving a short time after Simon disappeared into his bedroom. Their own son, one of Simon’s closest friends, trailed in after them, even taller, lankier and more nonchalant than ours. We began catching up over bowls of olives, marinated artichokes and spicy accras as poor Léo, all alone without Simon, stared off into the distance, wondering why he had bothered coming. But miracles do happen, and it soon came out that he, like Clem, was now studying architecture, so instead of heading back home he was speedily welcomed into the conclave of young dudes in the back room, architectural students all. Finding common ground, they chattered and laughed happily among themselves.


And thanks to JP, lunch was a success. Normally, for some strange reason, some uncontrollable urge takes over whenever I know that guests are coming for a meal. I comb through cookbooks and invariably put together an impossible menu comprised solely of dishes that I have never made before, all time-consuming and last minute. I, of course, end up panicking, rushing and ruining everything. And twist myself into a bad mood on top of it all. This time, JP and I sat down ahead of time and planned the menu together from beginning to end. No home-baked bread, no first course, just a fabulous, flavorful oven-baked chicken that was placed in a marinade the night before and only had to be breaded and tossed into the oven with an armful of fingerling potatoes right before the guests arrived. Dessert was my luscious Lemon Charlotte, also prepared a day or two ahead of time. JP ran out first thing Sunday morning (as I did the final leg of house clean up) and bought bakery bread and an array of nibblies for l’apératif. And wine. Smooth sailing, indeed.

Rarely has our home been so alive! The four “grown ups” in the diningroom, the four architecture students in the kitchen; the food was delicious and abundant, enough for everyone to enjoy this hearty lunch. The noise of talking rose above the clatter of knives and forks, laughter resonated from room to room. At one point Raymond, our friend, intrigued by the animated conversation, the vivacity coming from the kitchen, sidled up to the doorway, finger pressed to his lips, to listen in, wondering that his son could so easily slide into the bonhomie of the group. He soon disappeared completely only to be discovered a few minutes later with the guys, hobnobbing congenially with the young dudes. I pulled out the tray of Lemon Charlottes from the refrigerator amid the brouhaha, the stacks of plates, empty serving dishes and restless bodies and began divvying out the goods to a roomful of ooohs and ahhhs. And dessert was served and savored. And in no time at all, the young men hustled back to the computer room (overheated and wreaking of young men, if I may say so) leaving the adults alone in a quiet space and me facing an impressive amount of cleaning up to do.


And where do these brownies fit in? Rich and decadent, I have been forgoing baking brownies since Simon went away as husband and I have been avoiding these calorie-laden goodies and Clem’s friends clamor for my macarons. But somehow or other I’ve been bitten by a peculiar craving and have pulled my cookbook of Brownies by Linda Burum off the shelf and have gone on a Browniepalooza. And no ordinary brownies will do, no siree! I began by baking Amaretto-infused Amaretti Brownies made special by the addition of ground Italian amaretti cookies and folding in light and airy whipped egg whites, which lend a meltingly smooth, ethereal quality to a super moist, chocolate-rich confection. Adult indeed; this is as comforting as it gets! Elegant and sophisticated, the Amaretti Brownies with Amaretto would feel right at home at any dinner party. I then selected another amazing Brownie, a dense, chewy espresso and Amaretto brownie with a rum and Amaretto-spiked ricotta cheesecake swirl.

Absolutely fabulous, this crowd pleaser pleased them all! I asked the young dudes to taste and give me their honest opinions before posting on my blog. The pan rapidly disappeared only to turn up, half empty, in the back bedroom cum office where they gather. Fingers were licked, smiles spread across young faces and the brownies were pronounced absolutely delicious. I grabbed the pan and scarpered with whatever was left to serve with coffee after lunch. Which I did. Flavorful and elegant yet scrumptious and satisfying, these brownies are a riot of flavors, the heady scent of rum and Amaretto, the kiss of cinnamon, chocolate touched by the earthiness of coffee, the sweet lightness of ricotta cheese, all melding together into a mellow yet astonishing luxuriously fragrant brownie.


As all good times must come to an end, this party finally did as well. And as I find myself standing before a sinkful of dishes, humming and smiling to myself, I am thankful for the family and the friends that I have, and I find that I don’t mind the washing up as I usually do. My frazzled, bleary son straggles into the kitchen and plops down beside me in a jet-lagged haze and starts to chat and as we nibble on the last chunks of brownie sitting among the crumbs on the plate I find that life can actually turn out to be pretty darn good.


The good news is: our first From Plate to Page Workshop is sold out. The other good news is that you can already register your interest for the second From Plate to Page Workshop provisionally scheduled for Autumn 2011 in Italy. We are blown away by the excitement and interest this workshop has generated and thank you all for your support!


I will be hosting Magazine Monday on November 15 for Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice and I am very excited! To participate, you simply need to find a recipe in one of your many magazines you have spread around the house, cook or bake that recipe and then post it on your blog. Send an e-mail to either me or Ivonne (see how to here) with your name, blog name and blog url, the url of the link to your Magazine Mondays post, the title of the recipe and the magazine the recipe is from before November 15, the day I will be posting the round up!


ESPRESSO BROWNIES with SPIKED RICOTTA SWIRL
Adapted from Brownies by Linda Burum


Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling:

1 cup (250 g) ricotta cheese
2 tsps rum *
1 tsp Amaretto or brandy *
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
1/3 cup (65 g) sugar
1 large egg
4 tsps cornstarch

* the alcohol may be replaced with 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ to 1 tsp almond extract to taste.

Place the ricotta in a wire strainer over a bowl and allow to drain for one hour. Skipping this step may add that extra liquid to the mix and create a soggy brownie.

Remove the ricotta from the strainer and place in a medium bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Beat with an electric mixer only until smooth. Don’t worry if there remain “crumbs” of ricotta.

Espresso Brownies:

Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling
5 oz (150 g) good quality semisweet chocolate (I used a dark, slightly bitter dessert chocolate 70%)
6 Tbs (90 g) unsalted butter
¾ cup (95 g) flour, spooned lightly in a measuring cup and leveled
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup (135 g) sugar
2 tsps Amaretto or brandy *
2 tsps dry instant espresso powder

* the alcohol may be replaced by 1 tsp almond extract

Once the ricotta has drained for one hour and the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling has been prepared, preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter an 8-inch (21-cm) square brownie pan.


Cut the butter into about 4 large chunks and coarsely chop the chocolate. Place the butter and chocolate in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Place the pan over very low heat and, stirring, melt the two together until the chocolate is almost completely melted. Remove from the heat and continue to stir the mixture vigorously until completely melted, only returning the pan briefly to the heat if the remaining chocolate doesn’t melt. The mixture should be completely smooth and creamy. Allow to cool.

Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and whisk or stir to combine.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer until light and thickened. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat for 2 minutes, then beat in the Amaretto and espresso powder. Beat in the melted chocolate-butter mixture gradually and then finally beat in the dry ingredients.

Pour 2/3 of the Espresso Brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Pour the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta mixture evenly over the Espresso Brownie batter in the pan. Pour the remaining Espresso Brownie mixture over the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta mixture and very gently and carefully try and spread it out just so it isn’t clumped up. The brownie mixture is much thicker and firmer than the ricotta mixture so be gentle so as not to mix the two together. Now marble the brownies by cutting through the batter with a sharp knife quickly from side to side adding a large zig-zag in the other direction.


Bake the brownies for about 35 minutes or until puffed (the top may be a little cracked in places) and just set. A tester inserted halfway between the center and the edge will come out clean. Allow to cool on a cooling rack for 2 hours then cover with aluminum foil and allow to set ideally overnight or at least for several hours to allow the flavors to mellow.


Friday, November 5, 2010

AMARETTI BROWNIES WITH AMARETTO


Good things have been happening lately, compliments paid. One French author and bread guru recently sent me a message saying “vous avez le talent pour mettre les mets en mots” ("you have the talent to put food into words"). A long-lost and newly-found old high school friend and undoubtedly grade school crush with whom I have been chatting on Facebook lately said to me “you are funny!” and then he continued to wonder if I had been this funny in high school. And then a great friend of mine, a masterful writer, e-mailed me exclaiming “your sh*t is good!” Ah, blunt and to the point as always. But it made me feel good.

Sometimes we all need to hear kind words, be showered with compliments and praise. Especially in rough and tumble days like we are living through now. Demonstrators take to the streets in both of my countries, ranting and railing against something I am not quite sure that they understand. France, as always, comes to a brief but effective standstill while Americans vote against their best interests. Or sometimes the jabs come low and personal, sharp, jagged pains best left ignored yet we all love to rub salt into our own wounds and feel just a little bit sorry for ourselves, don’t we? Our blog brings us down, self-doubt rushes over us, others seem to pass us by in leaps and bounds. Our insecurities rub like sandpaper, taking away every shred of confidence we have succeeded in gathering together in our silk-covered world. Or we worry over the kids or the husband comes home from work with his Sir Grumpiness of Crabby Kingdom crown perched atop his weary head. Life is good but sometimes…well, not so good.


And the rain and the sunshine play a game of hide and seek, making promises as a fickle lover does, teasing with gorgeous golden days of warmth and light only to dash our expectations to the ground as we are pulled once again into a dismal, dreary, depressing, gray embrace. We keep our spirits up as best we can, treating ourselves out to a restaurant, allowing ourselves to be pampered and waited upon, smiling up at le serveur with our most engaging smile, indulging ourselves in a little dessert and we lift our wine glasses in a toast to ourselves and our own fortitude in trying times.

Weekend mornings, more often than not, are now spent in bed, those lovely, delicious grasses matinées, snuggled down under the covers as if hiding from the big bad world, just the two of us, giggling and sharing secrets. The forest and the vineyards, our other-worldly havens of peace and tranquility, our escape from the real world of a morning, are inundated with hunters who seem to be lurking behind every clump of trees; nowhere is safe. And even if the ring of distant gunshots doesn’t keep us away, the days upon days of rain has turned the forest floor into puddles and our morning would be spent slogging ankle-deep in mud, wet leaves clinging to our boots and pant legs. So we slide down just a little deeper under the blankets and while away the best of the morning before facing the world. Do we complain? No, not a bit. Well, maybe just a bit. But we slog on as if knee-deep in mud and make a game of it all, laughing at what we don’t have, dreaming of greatness. Or getting away from it all. I write and husband writes, I bake and husband tinkers around in the garage, I warm up the coffee and he flips on the tv and we watch the world flit by on the screen, demonstrations and hurricanes, upheavals both natural and political, scandal, reality shows and silly bloopers, people just making idiots of themselves for all the world to see. But sometimes we see heroes and great things happen, sometimes we enjoy warm days and good news, and sometimes, just sometimes, we smile and sit back and allow ourselves to be swept away into our dreams.


So, yes, we all need comfort and compliments, a little tea and sympathy. Kind words and a pat on the back. And something easy and soothing to eat, just a tad luxurious to make ourselves feel pampered. Slide a slice onto a plate, pour a glass of deep, rich red or a warming glass of Amaretto and place the plate and the glass down carefully along the edge of the tub and glide down into the bubbles, hot and steamy, turn the lights down low, just a glimmer of moonlight flashing off of the mirror, close your eyes and take a nibble on a very adult brownie. A subtle hint of almonds, the warmth of Amaretto, a lightness that melts on the tongue, a deep, intense chocolate flavor. Savor something rich and decadent, something earthy, indulgent and, yes, sexy. Just for us.


AMARETTI BROWNIES WITH AMARETTO
Adapted from a recipe in Brownies by Linda Burum


These luscious, smooth, creamy brownies are a delightful change from regular brownies. Rich in flavor, dense and moist, these squares are light and airy and elegant thanks to the whipped egg whites. The top will be crispy, crackling away to reveal the dense, super moist interior with that wonderful hint of almonds. Simply gorgeous!

3.5 oz (100 g) or more crunchy Amaretti cookies, ground to make 2/3 cup measure
5 oz (140 g) good-quality semisweet chocolate*
2/3 cup (150 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
4 large eggs, separated and left to come to room temperature
1/3 cup (45 g) flour (lightly spooned into measuring cup and leveled)
1 ½ Tbs Amaretto
2 – 3 Tbs slivered almonds for the top

* I used Lindt Excellent Dark Chocolate with Grilled Almonds because not only is it a mellower semisweet chocolate, less bitter than the 70% dessert chocolate I usually bake with, but also to add more almond flavor.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175/180°C). Butter a 9 x 9-inch (22-cm square) square baking pan.

Grind the amaretti cookies to a powder using a robot mixer and then measure out 2/3 cup (about 100 g).

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl or pan over simmering water, stirring constantly as it melts. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Place the egg whites in a medium-sized bowl with a few grains of salt and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat the softened butter with the sugar until smooth, creamy and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating in each until combined. Add the melted and slightly cooled chocolate and beat until smooth and blended. Beat in the Amaretto. Beat in the flour, then the crushed amaretti cookies.

Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase to high speed and beat until soft peaks hold. Gently yet firmly fold the whites into the chocolate batter, a third at a time, until well blended, no white chunks are visible and the batter is smooth. Scrape into the prepared baking pan and smooth. Sprinkle the slivered almonds over the top.

Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until the top is puffed, a dull brown color and set. Be careful that the top doesn’t burn. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack.


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