Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale (Pici with Wild Boar Ragu)

February 27, 2015

 

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So I’m sure you’re all glad to know that you’ve reached the third and final installment of my odyssey of Italian Holiday posts. Yup, today is it and then on Sunday, two short days from now, I will be embarking on my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon! That’s right…I’ll be doing one blog with an “Irish-y” Recipe everyday up to March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve found some great dishes to share with you this year. There has been an absolute run on Jameson’s, Baileys and Guinness in my house, so I hope you will remember to check back in to see what I’ve been getting up to. And speaking of great recipes, I definitely have a winner to share with you today, Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale (Pici with Wild Boar Ragu)! I had this dish for the first time, oh and the second time, and maybe the third time during our holiday in Tuscany. Sooo delicious. Pici Pasta, for those of you who don’t know, ’cause I certainly didn’t before our visit, is a thick, hand-rolled pasta which originates in the Province of Siena in Tuscany.

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Traditionally the dough is only made with flour and water, though in some areas it is made with the addition of an egg and some olive oil, as I have done here. Making Pici is a very forgiving introduction to homemade pasta for folks because traditionally it is not uniform in size and varies in thickness along its whole length. There is no special pasta making equipment necessary either, the pasta is simply rolled on the counter or between your hands.

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I paired my Pici with a wild boar ragu. Apparently there are plenty of wild boar in Tuscany. There was some sort of wild boar dish on the menu in nearly every restaurant we visited. Even our Trekguyd in Cinque Terre mentioned that he had come across a wild boar or two while hiking on those trails which certainly got me to be a bit more alert. But here in good old Virginia, I think it has probably been quite a while since a wild boar sauntered by. Luckily I live very close to The Organic Butcher. I rang him up to ask if he had Wild Boar, expecting the person on the other end of the line to laugh at me and instead what I heard was, “yes, of course. How much are you looking for and how would you like it cut?” Wow, huh! But if you don’t have an organic butcher near you, feel free to substitute in some ground pork or italian sausage. The ragu will still be delicious I’m sure!

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So I’m going to jump right into the travel blog portion of this post now. If you are totally over that, feel free to scroll down to the bottom at this point to get the actual recipe. After reluctantly checking out from the perfect La Bandita Townhouse, we set out for the tiny town of Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is located about 9 miles east of Siena, kind of at the end of the Chianti Wine Trail which winds south from Florence. We didn’t actually stay in the town, but stayed just a few miles out at the stunning Castello di Montalto.

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The date of the original construction of the castle is uncertain; perhaps as early as the 7th or 8th century. We do know for certain that members of the Berardenga family were living at Montalto by the 11th Century. Ownership of this castle has only changed hands 4 times, the last time being in the 19th Century. The descendants of those owners still reside in the castle and have made portions of the estate available to rent. We stayed in the very romantic former gatekeeper’s lodgings, San Martino, so known for the fresco of St. Martin,  located right above the castle gate.

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The castle and grounds were absolutely beautiful. And although the owner had recently taken a fall, she took the time to check in and make sure that we had everything that we needed. We were very happy with the apartment, but were even more thrilled when we found out it came with a resident cat, Pinky, who seemed very content to hang out with us through our stay!

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As I mentioned, the closest town to the castle was Castelnuovo Berardenga. Unlike some of the other places we visited which had seen their fair share of tourists, this town did not seem touristy at all. And although I had learned a few words of Italian, it really had not been necessary, up to this point. The first night we arrived, the castle concierge recommended that we go to dinner at a small trattoria only a short distance away. She said that it “was not touristy or expensive” and that “all the locals eat there”. Sounded great, so off we went. The restaurant, Il Bivacco, was wonderful. The atmosphere was very cozy, apparently the restaurant now resides in a renovated blacksmith’s forge. The food was tasty, plentiful and inexpensive. We ate there a couple of times over our visit. However, we did not hear a lot of English spoken at all, certainly not by our waiter. The very first night, being somewhat tired after driving the Italian highways, and being a bit weary of wine at that point (it can happen…), the husband said “I’ll have the big beer” to the waiter. Not being at all ready to order, I said “yes, that’ll be good”, and held up two fingers. So, you’ve probably guessed it by now, but the “big beer” was immense! I’m talking like a pitcher. Seriously, it took me two hands to lift it!! Not only were we laughing, but I think the folks at the neighboring table were quite amused as well. Though I should probably mention that the husband had no difficulty finishing “the big beer”. We were a bit more cautious after that…

Now that is one big beer!

Now that is one big beer!

Siena was very close, 15 -20 minute drive away from Montalto, so we couldn’t pass up visiting and I’m so glad we didn’t! I loved Siena! We visited the Duomo and I was completely floored! As I mentioned, we saw a lot of churches in Italy, but I was really unprepared for Siena’s Gothic Cathedral. Stunning, incredible, spectacular….none of those words seem to do it justice!

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The black and white stripped walls which lead up to starry blue ceilings were inspiring (though I will mention that as soon as we entered, the husband did lean over and whisper to me “Who let Beetlejuice loose in here?”)

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Starry ceiling

Starry ceiling

And we really lucked out because we were visiting outside of tourist season, which meant that the inlaid marble mosaic floors which are usually covered with plywood, had been unveiled. This was such a treat and is only done for a few months out of every year. The floors were crafted by about 40 artists and artisans between the 14th – 16th Centuries. They were just amazing and that was only the floors! Everywhere we looked we saw fantastic art by the masters, simply too many treasures to mention.

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Siena’s she wolf

And as if the Cathedral itself wasn’t enough, the Piccolomini Library is attached to it. You remember the Piccolomini family I mentioned in the last blog…yup…them again. This library was built to house Pope Pius II’s (aka Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini ) collection of illuminated manuscripts, which are certainly beautiful

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but the frescos on the walls and ceiling come very close to stealing the show!

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We spent hours in the Duomo and could’ve stayed for days longer and still not seen everything it had to offer. Before heading out to dinner though we did head over to the Museo del Opera to climb the 131 narrow, corkscrew stairs to take in the view from the Panorama del Facciatone which is located at the top of the Nuovo Duomo facade. It was a bit of a wait and a minor cardiac stress test to get up there but the views over medieval Siena were worth it!

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Having recovered from Siena, we set out on the nearby Chianti trail to check out yet another winery, but this time rather than go with the old-established vineyards we decided to visit a newcomer, The Cantilici Winery located in Castagnoli, a small medieval hamlet close to Gaiole in Chianti. The drive to get there was truly enjoyable, very picturesque and all of the wine we tasted was excellent.

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Our favourite was Tangano which is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet grapes. Apparently “Tangano” is local slang for “really good-looking man”. We grabbed a few bottles to go and then headed over to the small local Osteria Il Bandito for lunch. What an unexpected pleasure. The atmosphere was charming and comfortable, the staff attentive and the food was fresh and absolutely delicious. What a delight!

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Sadly, it was time for us to leave Montalto but we were very excited to head back to Florence. We did have a couple of days left to explore the city before we had to board our flight back home and were going to try to fit as much in as possible. We lucked out again and stayed in a fabulous hotel, Mulino di Firenze, located about 15 minutes outside of the city. The hotel offered convenient shuttles in and taxis were not really very expensive. (Keep in mind, I’m saying that with a Washington, DC point of view).

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Florence and saw a lot more churches, visiting the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) as well as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. By the end of our time there we were without a doubt, “churched out”! And although Brunelleschi’s dome was impressive (yes…we climbed the 463 steps up to the viewing terrace),

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the inside of the cathedral was rather sparse (especially after just being dazzled in Siena). We were much more intrigued when we visited the crypt which houses the remains of the 7th Century church of Santa Reparta on top of which the Duomo is built.

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The little Baptistery was impressive as well. This building, the oldest in the city, was built on a 7th Century building and served as Florence’s cathedral until the early 13th Century.

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Baptistery ceiling

Of all of the Florence cathedrals that we visited, I much preferred Santa Croce where the graves of Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo and Machiavelli can be found.

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Feeling that we had not yet climbed enough stairs on this holiday, we decided to trek up the 414 steps of Giotto’s campanile (bell tower of the Duomo), which offered great views of the city as well as of Brunelleschi’s Dome itself.

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And yes…we did end up spending a bit of time having a few pints in an Irish pub! Go figure!!! I don’t know what to say…there’s only so much wine one can drink before….I guess you wind up in an Irish pub!

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So that’s it for the holiday review. We had a fantastic time and hope to visit Italy again soon. Next time we are eyeing the Amalfi Coast with a requisite stop over in Pienza so we can pay a visit to La Bandita Townhouse! Until then, I hope you will enjoy this recipe for Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale. Believe me, unless your people grew up with an Italian nonna who made fresh pasta every Sunday, this dish will impress and with a bit of planning, is not very difficult to pull off. Buon Appetito!

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Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ragu recipe adapted from: Bon Appètit

Pici recipe from: Jamie Oliver

Ingredients:

For the Pici Pasta:

For the Spicy Wild Boar Ragu:

  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves
  • leaves from 4 -5 sprigs of thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
  • 28 ounces crushed tomatoes (we used crushed tomatoes with spicy red pepper)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground wild boar (can substitute pork if there is no wild boar to be found)
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3/4 Cup finely grated Parmesan, divided

Directions:

For the Pasta:

Place the flour in a large bowl. Add pinch of salt and stir to combine. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the egg and olive oil to the well. Start to mix, slowly adding the 175 ml of water as needed. Once you have formed a firm dough, knead on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic. Wrap in saran wrap and place in refrigerator to rest for 30 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, roll it out into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into long 1/4 inch strips. Roll these strips on the counter or between your hands to form long tubes, about 24 -26″ long. Don’t worry if they look a bit irregular, that is part of the beauty of this rustic pasta. Place the pasta on flour dusted cookie sheet and cover with linen towel until ready to cook.

When ready to cook, place pasta in large pot of boiling salted water. Cook for about 6 – 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

For the Ragu:

Place onion, carrot, celery, garlic, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup parsley in food processor and pulse until it is finely chopped. Place in small bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add ground wild boar, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned. Transfer to plate with slotted spoon.

Increase heat to medium-high. Add reserved vegetable mixture to oil and drippings in pot, season with salt and cook until golden, about 8 -10 minutes.

Stir tomato paste and 1 cup of red wine in a small bowl until combined. Add to vegetable mixture. Cook, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has almost evaporated, 6 -8 minutes.

Add reserved meat, crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of water to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, adding more water or perhaps a glug or two of wine as needed to keep meat nearly submerged, until meat is tender, about 4 hours. Season with salt.

This ragu can be made 3 days in advance. Let cool. Cover and chill, or freeze for up to 2 months. Reheat before continuing.

To Serve:

Add pasta and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to ragu and stir to coat. Stir in 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add more reserved pasta liquid if needed. Divide among bowls; top with more Parmesan.

Enjoy!

Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

 

 

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Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro Soup

February 24, 2015

 

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After leaving the beautiful Cinque Terre, we headed south to explore Tuscany. And no dish better represents  Tuscany than this warming peasant-style soup of Chickpeas, Cremini Mushrooms & Farro. All of the ingredients featured in this soup can be found in abundance in the region. And besides evoking images of that beautiful Tuscan landscape, this soup is actually quite good for you. It is a vegetarian dish, though I suppose you could add a bit of pancetta or sausage if you really needed to satisfy the carnivore within you. It also has the ancient grain Farro in it, which has recently been stealing some of the limelight away from Quinoa as the next big supergrain that everyone should be eating. Though that doesn’t mean it has just been discovered.  Farro has been cultivated and used in Italian cooking for centuries. It supposedly fed the Roman legions at one time. A great source of protein and fiber, it has satisfyingly chewy texture and a nutty taste. It is a wheat grain, so unlike Quinoa, it is not gluten-free. Those little devils are definitely in there.

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I first tasted the soup that inspired this recipe in the small town of Chiusi, Italy. The husband and I were very interested in seeing some Etruscan tombs and artifacts and little Chiusi was one of the greatest city-states of the Etruscan league back in the day in the 7th century BC. Today the town has one of the finest collections of Etruscan archaeological findings in Italy housed in The Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The museum was fascinating, chock full of beautifully carved sarcophagi, expertly crafted jewelry, as well as stunning art and pottery.

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intricate mosaic of hunting scene

intricate mosaic of hunting scene

The most unusual, odd and somewhat creepy thing we saw there were these Canopic jars which have lids that were modeled as a portrait of the dead person held within.

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And although we thoroughly enjoyed our museum visit, we were just itching to head out to the outskirts of the town and go underground to explore some actual Etruscan tombs. There are over 400 of these tombs in the area. Although Etruscan tombs varied according to local custom, generally the rich were buried in stone sarcophagi which were placed in chamber tombs the walls of which were often decorated with brightly painted frescos. We toured the Tomba della Scimmia (Tomb of the Monkey) so named because there is a monkey portrayed in one of the frescos, not because one is interred there, The Tomba della Pellegrina (Tomb of the Pilgrim) and La Tomba de Leone, which date from around 470 BC.

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Fresco on wall in Monkey Tomb

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The Monkey himself, peeking out from behind some sort of plant.

So, as you can see, we were pretty physically active on this holiday, hiking up and down the Cinque Terre hillsides and venturing underground to explore tombs. We definitely enjoy those things, but we are also way into relaxing and being pampered. And that is just what we did at what we found to be the best hotel at which we have ever stayed, La Bandita Townhouse. This absolute gem is located in the center of historic Pienza. The charming hill town of Pienza is situated in the heart of Tuscany, nestled between Montepulciano and Montalcino. The town had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and overlooks the Val d’Orcia, which boasts some of the most often photographed, unblemished landscapes that exist.

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Pienza city walls

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La Bandita Townhouse is a 500-year-old palazzo and convent, lovingly renovated by John Voigtmann, a retired record company executive. From the outside it is indistinguishable from its neighboring Renaissance age buildings. It is when you step inside the 12 room luxury boutique hotel that the magic begins. All of the nun’s cells have been replaced with an expert blend of contemporary furnishings accented by the old world charm of exposed stone walls and rustic ceiling beams.

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All of the light-filled rooms boast fabulous views of the charming town

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The view from our room out into a private medieval walled garden.

or the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

Crazy Tuscan Tree

Crazy Tuscan Tree

But as I’m sure you all know, design – stunning though it may be –  isn’t enough to make a great hotel experience. Customer service makes all the difference in the world and the folks at La Bandita Townhouse have perfected it. They were wonderful from the very first email when I was planning the trip, offering information on the surrounding area, restaurants, shops, towns, you name it, throughout our entire stay right up to the moment we reluctantly checked-out. And whenever we needed anything, which wasn’t often because they had obviously put a lot of thought into the layout of the rooms and common areas – and everything we needed, for the most part, was often to be found in the first place we looked for it, the attentive hotel staff was right there to help in any way that they could. And although Pienza is certainly a captivating town, La Bandita Townhouse is a destination all within itself. I can’t wait to visit again!

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Guest lounge and honor bar serves champagne every evening for happy hour.

 

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Not only was the hotel top-notch, but they also have a excellent restaurant as well which serves traditional Italian food but with a modern twist.

Visiting a winery in Tuscany and trying some of the local Brunello was high up on our to do list as well. The folks at La Bandita Townhouse were happy to assist us and quickly booked a tour and tasting for us at one of Montalcino’s premiere wine estates Ciacci Piccolomini D’Aragona. The estate, dating from the 17th Century and located just outside the medieval village of Castenuovo dell’Abate, was beautiful. The tour started with the history of the winery, peppered with some intriguing inheritance scandals, moved on to the production of the wine and concluded in their new modern tasting room. We sampled three of their wines, the 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, the 2011 Montecucco Sangiovese and the 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, as well as their olive oil and honey which were all excellent.

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On the way back to the hotel we stopped to visit the 8th Century Abbey Sant’Antimo, a former Benedictine Monastery. This abbey is richly decorated and  functions today as a Cistercian house.

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Love these gargoyles!

 

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Mystery creature…looks pretty scary!

 

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Sneak peek of one of the elusive monks in residence.

Well, I’m sure I’ve surpassed your vacation picture tolerance level at this point. So I’ll leave off for today. Stay tuned next time to hear about our stay in an 11th Century castle’s gate keepers lodgings, our visit to Siena and Florence and to get a great recipe for Wild Boar Ragu and homemade Pici pasta. Until then, if your home base is anything like good old Virginia, gripped by this relentless Winter, you’re probably still shivering in your boots. I hope you will make up a big pot of this hearty Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro soup to warm yourself and enjoy it with some toasted crusty bread and a bottle (or two….) of wine.

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Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro Soup

  • Servings: 4 - 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

recipe adapted from: Williams Sonoma

Ingredients:

For the Soup:

  • 1 1/2 cups (9 1/2 oz./295 g) dried chickpeas, picked over and
    rinsed
  • 8 cups (64 fl. oz./2 l) cold water
  • 1/3 cup (3 fl. oz./80 ml) olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 small fresh rosemary sprig
  • 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml) warm water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 4 cups (32 fl. oz./1 l) vegetable broth or water
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz./60 g) pearled farro (if you can’t find pearled, you will need to soak the farro overnight.)

For the Mushrooms:

  • 1/2 lb. (250 g) fresh cremini mushrooms, (can substitute porcini mushrooms) brushed
    clean
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons dry white wine
  • 1 fresh thyme sprig
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 tsp. unsalted butter

Extra Virgin Olive Oil for Drizzling

Smoked Paprika for Garnish

Directions:

Put the chickpeas in a large bowl with water to cover and soak for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

Drain the chickpeas, rinse well and place in a large saucepan. Add the cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chickpeas are tender, about 2 hours.

In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and rosemary sprig and sauté until the onion is softened, 5 to 7 minutes. In a small bowl, dissolve the tomato paste in the warm water and add to the pot. Stir in the chickpeas and their cooking liquid, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add the broth, return to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the flavors have blended, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Discard the rosemary sprig.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender and return it to the pot. Alternatively, process the soup in the pot with an immersion blender. Bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. Add the farro and cook until tender yet still slightly chewy, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the mushrooms: Cut away the tips of the mushroom stems and thinly slice the mushrooms lengthwise. In a large fry pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and thyme sprig and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper and continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushroom juices have evaporated, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the thyme sprig. Stir in the butter.

Stir the mushrooms into the soup. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with a grinding of smoked paprika.

Enjoy!

Chickpea, Cremini & Farro Soup brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)


Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey

February 21, 2015

 

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Holy frozen tundra has it been COLD for the past week. I know, I know…it’s winter. It is supposed to be cold. And yes, I am the person who detests hot weather. And yes I will be complaining much more loudly and often once that sultry Virginia weather kicks in this summer. Still…it was been awful freaking, record-breakingly, bitter cold recently. Perhaps that is why I have found myself thinking fondly back on a trip that we took to Italy last October. That was where I had my first taste of Pears with Pecorino & Honey. I saw it served both as an appetizer and as a light dessert. The juicy ripe pears combined with the salty Pecorino cheese and the sweet honey was just sublime.

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Fresh, simple. locally sourced…seems to describe everything we ate on that holiday. And I can truly say, we didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there, whether we were dining in a fancy pants restaurant or a little local trattoria. Except for the bread that is…what a disappointment. In my visions of Italy I would always be sipping wine at a little table with some lovely cheese and a loaf of bread. Well, truth be told, I did have a few where I was zipping around on a Vespa with a bottle of wine and a fresh loaf of bread in tow (Ciao!) … but anyway, my expectation for the bread was way high and it tasted pretty abysmal. Well, in Tuscany proper anyway. Tuscan bread does not have any salt in it. Bleck! Apparently back in the day, their old enemy Pisa, set up a blockade of sorts which made it difficult to acquire salt. So the Tuscans started making bread without it and have kept up the daft practice even though salt is readily available. Talk about fearing change… But besides the bread, it was a fantastic trip. I have been dying to tell you all about, so I think I will take advantage of this weather which certainly brings hibernation to mind, to stay put (under a mound of blankets…) for a few moments and take the time to do just that over the next few posts.

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We arrived in Florence mid-October which meant the majority of the flood of summer tourists had subsided. The weather was absolutely fantastic, still warm during the day but a bit chilly in the evenings, though in light of recent weather around here, perhaps I will revise my opinion to say it was a bit “balmy” in the evenings. We rented a car and drove north to the Italian Riviera portion of the Ligurian region where we planned to spend 3 days visiting Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, the “five lands”, is made up of the five towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare which seem to cling precariously to steep cliffs jutting up from the sea.

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The towns, along with the surrounding hillsides and coastline make up The Cinque Terre National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No car traffic is allowed in the villages but no worries, it is easy to travel between them by train or boat taxi. We had booked a room in the lovely Luna di Marzo hotel which is located in Volastra, a really small village, still in the park, located just up the cliff from Manarola. The views from the room were simply breathtaking!

 

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The husband and I were really psyched because not only was Cinque Terre amazingly beautiful, but the park has hundreds of miles of hiking paths which shoot dramatically skyward, wind through the hillside vineyards and olive groves and descend steeply to twist along rugged coastal footpaths. We love hiking and couldn’t wait to hit the trails and take in all of that the area had to offer.

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Luckily I had heard about Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd and was able to hire him to take us on a trek of all five towns and I’ve got to tell you this was the highlight of our holiday! Originally from Rhode Island, Pall has been living in Riomaggiore for over 10 years. I would say that he has all the knowledge of a “local”, which he certainly does, but it is more than that. He is so enthusiastic about the area and has been traversing it for so long, he certainly knows more than the average local. He proved invaluable to us during our visit.  Not only did he expertly guide us (and yes there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to hike it…or perhaps I should say a “savvy” vs. a “clueless” way…) on a small, personal, day long trek through all five towns and the surrounding hillsides,

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but he was also a fount of information on everything from local history,

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Saw lots of churches in Italy. But when Pall took us to The Black Church in Monterossa al Mare, it definitely stood out.

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It is the chapel of the Brotherhood of Death and Prayer and is filled with “momento mori”.

 

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The Brotherhood saw to the welfare of orphans, widows, shipwreck victims and the destitute.

 

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You could also have a burial mass said for folks who had been excommunicated here as well.

 

to Sciacchetrà wine production,

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on to general hiking tips and even recommendations for the best restaurants that the 5 towns had to offer. He took us to the best gelateria in all of the five towns! Not to mention he is a truly fascinating guy and great fun to hang around with. All park passes, train tickets and boat taxi fares were included in the price of his tour.

Relaxing on the boat taxi headed back to Riomaggiore after our trek.

Relaxing on the boat taxi headed back to Riomaggiore after our trek.

 

Having booked with Pall on our first day in Cinque Terre, we were able to benefit from all of his knowledge and make the most of our next two days there. Even after Pall’s tour was officially over, he was still trying to make sure we had a great visit. So, when the husband and I let him know we had never tried the local Sciacchetrà wine, he arranged to have us meet a friend of his, Roberto  who owns the Terra di Bargòn vineyard.

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For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Sciacchetrà wine, it is the white wine that has been cultivated and produced in Cinque Terre for many years. It is odd that there even is wine production in this area. Remember, the towns are situated on rather steep cliffs. Those industrious Cinque Terre dwellers from long ago literally carved out the terraces on which the vineyards grow and then undertook the backbreaking challenge of harvesting the grapes, carrying them on their backs down along the narrow, cliff’s-edge paths to town.

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But that wasn’t the end of the hard work for them. Then they had to dry the grapes. Sciacchetrà is a straw wine meaning that the grapes are dried to concentrate their juice. Though often thought of as a dessert wine, Sciacchetrà is considered a wine of meditation and is excellent paired with cheeses. We were very curious about it to say the least after hiking through the vineyards all day. With hardly any notice, just a quick phone call from Pall, Roberto was able to come meet us at his Cantina where the Terra di Bargòn Sciacchetrà is produced and cellared. What a treat! Roberto is quite a character. He told us all about the history of that rare wine, how his family came to produce it and gave us a first hand account of the labor intensive cycle of production.

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But better yet, he let us taste the Sciacchetrà of the year (there is a two-year fermentation) as well as a 2009 reserve and a 2003 reserve. It is difficult to describe the taste, but I would say sweet but not too sweet and silky smooth with hints of honey and apricot. All I can say is that it is unique, delicious and definitely something you should sample. (Sciacchetrà is not widely imported to the US. Terra di  Bargòn will ship to the US through their website if you are interested. Better yet….go visit them in Cinque Terre.) There are not a lot of folks in Cinque Terre today that are willing to do the kind of work that is required to make Sciacchetrà. Roberto is perhaps one of a dying breed. He offered us keen insight into a way of life which has been handed down for generations in Cinque Terre. Unfortunately this way of life and this special wine is in danger of being lost forever, but not if Roberto has anything to do with it. The authentic cultural experience of tasting the wine and meeting Roberto was essentially priceless!

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Cinque Terre was absolutely amazing. I am so glad that we decided to give it the time it deserved and did not try to do it as a “day trip” from Florence. It would not have done the slow-paced vibe of the place justice. Now, that being said, I do understand that in the Summer months, especially August, the place is over-run with tourists, so you might want to plan accordingly. What you must do is book a trek with Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd. While you are traversing the hills, he will have you up to speed and CT savvy in no time flat. And make sure you sample that Sciacchetrà wine while you still can. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy this simple, yet elegant dish of Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey.

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It will have you dreaming of long and lazy, sun drenched days. When you gaze out your window, you won’t see a frozen, barren, arctic waste land. No. You’ll see a beautiful green and rugged coastline framed by the turquoise sea. Just make sure you don’t shatter the illusion by sneaking a peek at your thermometer!

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Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey

  • Servings: 2 - 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 2 pears
  • 3 Tablespoons Honey
  • 1/4 cup shaved Pecorino Cheese
  • handful of roughly chopped pistachios
  • freshly ground pepper

Directions:

For a Fresh & Light Spring/Summer Dish:

Core and slice pears. Scattered shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.

For a Warm & Comforting Fall/Winter Dish:

Core and slice pears. Place on broiler rack. Scatter shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Broil until cheese is melted and slightly browned. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.

Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)


White Chocolate Skyramisu & our annual Iceland in December Adventure

February 27, 2014

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I bet I’ve got a few folks scratching their heads with the title of this blog post, wondering what is “skyramisu” and who goes, nevermind goes annually, to Iceland in December? Well, let me begin by saying Skyramisu is not a misspelling of Tiramisu, the coffee flavoured Italian dessert. It is an adaptation of that popular treat using Icelandic Skyr and cream cheese instead of mascarpone cheese. Tiramisu with an Icelandic twist if you will. The resulting dessert is simply divine! There are a few other differences between the two as well. Instead of using coffee soaked ladyfingers, wafer cookies are used here. Prince Polo, a very popular chocolate bar in Iceland, was the ingredient called for in the original recipe, but since I couldn’t find Prince Polo here in the States, I went with Quadratini biscuits, little bite sized wafer cookies in dark chocolate and cappuccino flavours made by Loacker. These worked perfectly. (You can find them at World Market or online at Amazon.) At this point you may be saying “Hold on a second, what exactly is Skyr?” Well, Skyr is Icelandic yogurt, though I believe it is technically not yogurt, but rather strained skim milk cheese. If while reading this you find yourself pulling some horrible face, just stop it! Skyr is delicious! The Vikings brought Skyr to Iceland with them when they settled the country and it has remained in the Icelandic diet since the 9th Century, so you know it must be good! ( And before you start, don’t even mention the rancid shark thing…Everyone should be allowed a few little quirks…)

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Just focus on this delightful dish…stop thinking about the shark!

Skyr is very smooth, rich and creamy and is a sort of cross between ice cream and yogurt. It has 0% fat, has 2-3 times the amount of protein found in regular yogurt and is high in calcium. And unlike the elusive Prince Polo bars, Skyr is now widely available here in the US. Skyr.ie is imported direct from Iceland and there is a company located in New York owned and operated by a fellow from Iceland, Siggi’s. Their delicious products can be found in the yogurt section in Whole Foods and many other chain grocery stores. See, what’s not to like? If you haven’t tried it, run out today and give it a whirl! I first came across it last December, when I visited Iceland for the first time. My husband and I fell in love with the place and particularly liked being there in December. Contrary to popular belief, the temperatures are generally not that cold, they hover right around freezing, though I will admit there always seems to be wind, ranging from breeze level right up to gale force. Even though there are few hours of daylight, that actually gives you a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Icelandic folks love Christmas, so it’s great to visit in December. Believe me, if you can’t get in a Christmas-y mood there, you really are a terrible Scrooge! Another plus is that there are very few other tourists visiting at this time, which suits me just fine – we got the run of the place along with all sorts of airfare and hotel discounts for going in what is considered the “off season”. This year like last, we stayed at lovely Hotel Rangá for a few days and splurged on the Antarctica Suite.

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We hoped to see the Northern Lights again, after last year’s amazing display,

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but alas we were not so lucky. The weather this year was very snowy, indeed snowing every day. (We actually really loved all of the snow this year) So, with the snow came the clouds and the lights were just not visible. In a last-ditch attempt to chase the Aurora down, we even went out with SuperJeep on one of our last days in Reykjavik, but still it managed to elude us.

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I will say though, the SuperJeep Northern Lights tour was a lot of fun, full of off-roading and vodka spiked hot chocolate. I definitely recommend them if you are in Reykjavik and want to get out of the city for a better chance of seeing the lights. The folks at SuperJeep really put forth a good effort on our part, but the cloud coverage just would give! Oh well, I won’t be too disappointed because it means we’ll just have to go back next year to try again 🙂

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Another tour that did not disappoint, but was in fact the highlight of the trip this year was our journey to Jökulsárlón with South Iceland Adventure Company.

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We had gone on a tour to Thórsmörk with them last year and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. So I contacted them this year and was able to book a private Jökulsárlón tour with them. They don’t usually offer that tour in December because the limited daylight hours combined with the long travel time and possible dodgy December weather make it a challenge. Nevertheless,  they were willing to give it a try if we were and we are so glad that we decided to give it a go! Now we probably could have just driven there ourselves, but the advantage of having South Iceland Adventure take us was that there was no driving, we could just sit back, relax and take in the gorgeous vistas. And our fantastic tour guide, Stefnir, is from the area right around Jökulsárlón, so he was just a wealth of information and knew all the best places to visit along the way. Nothing like a local’s knowledge! Jökulsárlón is a large lake formed by a glacier located in southeast Iceland, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Bits of the Vatnajökull glacier break off (calve) into the lake and these icebergs float around until they melt enough to fit through the narrow opening of the lake and drift out into the ocean, though some do wash up on the nearby black sand beach.

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This place is stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful! Completely surreal, haunting and magical. Simply a must-see if you visit Iceland. And if you can, leave the driving and the expert guiding to the folks at South Iceland Adventure Company. You won’t regret it.  Pictures really don’t do Jökulsárlón justice, but here are a few for you.

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The black lines in some of the icebergs are caused by ash from past volcanic eruptions.

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In the summer you can zoom around the lake in Zodiac boats for a upclose view of the icebergs. As you can see, December proves a bit too icy for that.

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Over at the black sand beach…

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Now we did manage to drive around  south Iceland on our own a bit and after getting turned back by a snowstorm one day, we persevered and made it out to the tiny fishing village of Vík and the Dyrhólaey peninsula the following day. I’ll just let our pictures do the talking here…

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After our stay in the countryside, we headed into Reykjavik for a few days. We hiked up to Hallgrímskirkja to take in the views.

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Reykjavik bird’s-eye view

We took a day trip out to The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool and Spa located in a lava field in Grindavík about 40 minutes from Reykjavik.We simply wouldn’t miss it. This year was interesting because the winds were just insane. I kid you not there were literally white caps forming in the pool! As a consequence we tended to shelter under bridges and behind rocks and were still able to really enjoy the waters.

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Otherwise we had a great time just hanging out in the city.

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Once again, we couldn’t stay away from Bæjarins beztu pylsur! Best hot dogs in the country.

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Believe me, we ate at least one every day we were in Reykjavik!

This is where I have to give a huge shout out to a superb Icelandic travel blog, I Heart Reykjavik , written by Auður Ösp. I found her site after our visit last year and have followed it ever since. If you are headed to Iceland, you really must take a look this blog. Come to think of it, you should really check it out whether or not you have plans to visit Iceland. Not only is this blog very entertaining and witty but it is also chock full of honest expert advice from a local on all the sights and natural wonders to be seen in Iceland.  You will also find savvy travel tips, bar and restaurant recommendations and reviews, notes about Icelandic history and culture and even a few lessons on how to say useful phrases in  the Icelandic language. And for a bonus, Auður is a wonderful photographer and Iceland is a gorgeous subject. If her stunning photos can’t tempt you to visit, I don’t know what could! This year we followed lots of her recommendations and can say it sure beat the tired old tourist guide we were dragging around with us last year. Thanks to I Heart Reykjavik we found Ölstofan, a great down to earth bar which not only serves up delicious beer – such as Bríó, their own German pilsner- but does it with music played at a level which is conducive to actually being able to have a conversation with the other folks there who, like us, tend to be a few years past their 25th birthday, she led us to

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Chillin at Ölstofan

The Noodle Station which served up some truly spicy (not often found in Icelandic cuisine) Thai Noodle Soup that I’m still craving, ate the best french fries in Reykjavik at the Laundromat Cafe (and yes you can really do your laundry there while eating fries, reading a book, drinking a beer and surfing the internet) and had one of the best meals of our lives at Grillmarkaðurinn. This top-notch restaurant serves up the freshest local ingredients in exquisitely prepared traditional Icelandic dishes with a modern twist. And it is one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in which we’ve ever had the pleasure of dining. The decor was a blend of chic modern and natural organic outdoorsiness (I think I just invented this word). Our experience there was superb from start to finish! We give it our highest recommendations. So our heartfelt thanks go out to I Heart Reykjavik! We couldn’t have done it without you!

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But I suppose I should get back on the subject of this White Chocolate Skyramisu. Icelandic folks love their Skyr and I noticed that it was featured in quite a few desserts. This one really tempted me in particular because of the inclusion of coffee and white chocolate. Yum!  This tasty dessert comes together very quickly and is sure to please. It is a bit heavier than its inspiration, Tiramisu, but believe me you will savour every thick, rich, creamy decadent spoonful.

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All the while thinking of just how good for you Skyr is. Yeah…you could even say you were being virtuous by gobbling up this dish…At least that’s what I was able to convince myself of! I’m just sitting around, scarfing down dish after dish, thinking about our recent Icelandic break and planning out some adventures for this coming December! (Anyone up for a jaunt into the magma chamber of a volcano?)

PS. Just a reminder – my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-stravaganza is going to start this Saturday March 1st! I will be posting one Irish-y recipe a day all the way up to March 17th! The Baileys, Guinness and Jameson will be flowing! Check back in to see all the fun! (And wish me luck! – 17 days in a row is a lot of blogging!)

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White Chocolate Skyramisu

recipe adapted from skyr.is

Ingredients:

for the base:

  •  2 – 250 gram bag of bite sized wafer cookies
  • 3/4 cup strong black coffee

for the filling:

  • 400 grams cream cheese
  • 2 containers (300 grams) vanilla skyr
  • 1 tablespoon milk or cream
  • 1 cup (150 grams) White Chocolate
  • 2 Tablespoons brandy or coffee liquor (I used Kahlua)
  • 1 cup (100 grams) icing sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • white chocolate shavings for decoration
  • cocoa powder for decoration
  • rolled wafer cookies

Directions:

Layer the wafer biscuits (cookies) on the bottom of a 9 X 13″ dish. Pour coffee over wafers and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer combine cream cheese and skyr mixing until smooth. Add icing sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, to cream cheese/skyr mixture and continue to mix until fully incorporated. Add egg yolks to the cream cheese mixture mixing until combined.

Place chopped white chocolate in microwave proof bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of milk to chocolate. Microwave in 15 second increments until melted, stirring often. Add liquor into melted chocolate and mix until combined.

Gently fold the melted chocolate/liquor mixture into the skyr mixture.

Spoon filling over the soaked wafer cookies and chill.

When ready to serve, sprinkle with cocoa powder and grated white chocolate. Garnish further with a rolled wafer cookie.

Enjoy!


Czech Guláš served with Knedlicky (dumplings)

February 21, 2014

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Guláš, or goulash, a soup or stew of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika may have Hungarian origins, but it is also quintessentially Czech. Every pub or restaurant that you go to there has their own unique version. Often it is served with Knedlicky (bread dumplings), but I’ve also seen it in a bread bowl or simply with potatoes. I can tell you this first hand because I was lucky enough to actually visit Prague back in September! In my last blog I mentioned that I had met my husband in Berlin after he finished with a work conference there. Well once we met up, we jumped on a train and high-tailed it to Prague! Now Berlin was very nice. I would definitely visit again given the chance, but Prague….well …what can I say…I am completely smitten! It was just stunningly beautiful! I really fell in love with it!

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And as much as I liked our hotel in Berlin, Casa Camper, I completely adored The Golden Well (U Zlaté Studně), the boutique hotel where we stayed in Prague. I think it may indeed be my all time favourite hotel. The hotel is ideally located at the end of a quiet, cobbled, pedestrian street, right up against the walls of Prague Castle in the historic Malá Strana (Little Quarter) district.

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Every single room in the hotel seemed to offer gorgeous vistas over the city.

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Centrally located, it was only a short walk to get to Charles Bridge, St. Nicholas Cathedral, Old Town Square and the Jewish Quarter, yet so removed from the hustle and bustle of some areas of the city, it was a tranquil and peaceful oasis. The hotel and its exceptional staff truly exceeded our expectations. Our room was very luxurious and large. There was a bottle of wine waiting for us when we arrived,

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as well as nightly bedside turn-down treats on the bedside table and a pillow menu. Yup…you heard me right. Pillow menu! You could choose a different style pillow, or two every night…”tonight I think I will go will the wool, lavender scented pillow” Yay! And the staff could not have been more friendly and attentive. As soon as we checked in we were offered a drink and snacks while a hotel representative went over a map of the city with us, advising us on possible destinations. Each afternoon wine and nibbles were served in the lounge. The breakfasts were out of this world. Not only were they served on a terrace which provided breathtaking views over the city, but they were so delicious and plentiful. I must admit this is the first time I have been exposed to the concept of the “breakfast dessert”. Just sounds great huh? Well let me explain. We were served a full cooked breakfast, you know, eggs, sausages, hash browns along with the well stocked breakfast buffet items. When we finished, our server asked if we were now ready for our “breakfast dessert” which would consist of pancakes or french toast! As much as we adored the idea, we were not able to take her up on it but it is good to keep in mind for the future! I just can not praise this hotel enough, and even if I didn’t care for Prague at all, which I assure you is not the case, I would be tempted return to the Golden Well as a destination all in itself! Over our four days in the city, we spent quite a lot of time at the Prague Castle Complex, thoroughly explored St. Vitus Cathedral,

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climbed to the top of the bell tower for fantastic views over the city,

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took a leisurely stroll over Charles Bridge,

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Commissioned by Emperor Charles VI in1357 and lined with statues of the Saints, it spans the Vlatava River connecting Prague Castle and Old Town.

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saw the astronomical clock strike the hour

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The astronomical clock was built in 1490.

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On its hourly chiming there is a procession of the 12 apostles, Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass.

and climbed Old Town Hall tower to take in the view as well (can’t get enough of those stairs!),

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Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Final resting place of Tycho Brahe.

roamed the Jewish Quarter,

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The Old Jewish Cemetery was in use from early 15th Century up until 1787. It was the only place in which Prague’s Jewish citizens could be buried.

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When they ran out of land they began to layer graves on top of one another. There are approximately 12 layers of graves, 12,000 tombstones and up to 100,000 burials.

climbed to the top of Petřín Hill

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and hung out with some monastic brewers at the Strahov Monastery Brewery.

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Actually, we might have spent more than our fair share of time sampling the local brews!

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Whew! What a fantastic time! Needless to say, we worked up quite an appetite! And, to our delight,  pretty much every restaurant or pub we visited in that magical city had guláš on the menu. We tried out our fair share of them and enjoyed them all. Apparently Czech Guláš  is slightly different from the guláš offered in other countries in that it is a mostly beef based, thick stew served with bread dumplings and often garnished with fresh raw onions. I couldn’t wait to get back to my humble kitchen and try to figure out a good recipe. The bread dumplings were new to me, being more familiar with our big southern fluffy chicken and dumpling style dumplings. I went ahead and gave you a recipe for these Knedlicky and feel it was very similar to the dumplings we ate in Prague.

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Definitely a new dumpling concept for me and I had a great time trying it out. I did seem so odd though, making a yeast bread dough and also adding bits of stale bread to the mix and then boiling it…who thought that up?! But they are just perfect for mopping up all that lovely guláš sauce. The morning after our guláš feast, we even fried a bunch of bread dumplings up in butter with our scrambled eggs and sausage and they were really tasty! We were very pleased with this version of Czech Guláš.

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Quite fortuitously I made a huge pot of it right before our last big snow storm and it went a long way towards keeping the chill away on those frigid nights . Not to mention, its very presence couldn’t help but to  call to mind the heart warming memories from our Prague holiday. I can not wait to go back!

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Czech Guláš

yield: 6 -8 servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 lb. beef stew meat (boneless chuck roast), cubed
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to season meat
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to season meat
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, sliced into rings
  • 7-8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons marjoram
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 12 oz. Pilsner Urquell beer
  • 1 1/2 cups beef broth
  • 6 oz. tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons cornmeal ( or all-purpose flour)
  • 1/4 cup water

for garnish:

  • onions
  • hot red peppers
  • parsley

Directions:

In a 12″ skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high. Working in batches, add beef which has been seasoned with salt and pepper to the pan and brown on all sides. Remove to platter and set aside.

In same skillet, add remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and saute onions until tender. Add garlic, paprika and cayenne and cook, stirring mixture continuously for 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

Mix beef broth, pilsner beer and tomato paste together. Place browned beef and onion mixture into slow cooker. Pour broth mixture over meat and onions. Add salt, pepper, marjoram and cinnamon. Stir until ingredients are well combined.

Cover slow cooker and cook on high for 6 hours.

About 30 minutes prior to serving, whisk cornmeal with water until smooth. Stir mixture into Guláš to thicken.

Garnish each bowl with onion, spicy red pepper and fresh chopped parsley.

Serve with 3-4 Knedlicky per helping. (recipe below) Or alternatively, serve in bread bowls.

Knedlicky

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 grams yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 cups cubed white bread

Directions:

Place milk in saucepan and warm to lukewarm (95° F). Pour 1/2 cup of warmed milk into bowl of stand mixer. Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Stir to dissolve. Sprinkle yeast over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes or so until foamy.

Add the egg yolk and remainder of yeast and stir on low speed with the paddle attachment. Begin adding the flour, about 1 cup at a time. Add the cubed bread. If mixture seems too dry, add a bit more milk. Switch to the dough hook and knead for about 8 minutes. The dough should be elastic.

Dust work surface with flour and divide dough into 4 equal peices. Shape each into oblong rolls. Place rolls on parchment lined baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for about 1 hour or until approximately doubled in size.

When dough is ready, prepare a large pot of salted, boiling water. Carefully slide dumpling rolls, two at a time, into boiling water. Cover pot and reduce to simmer. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, turning rolls several times so that they will cook evenly.

Remove from boiling water and place on cutting board. Cut dumplings into 1/4″ slices using string and serve immeadiately with Guláš. (if you want “neater” edges to your dumplings, use biscuit cutter )

Wrap any left over dumplings in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator. To reheat the dumplings, place in steamer basket and steam for about 8 minutes.

Enjoy!


Königsberger Klopse (German Meatballs)

February 18, 2014

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So you know how I pulled that disappearing act back in the Fall? Well there were just a whole bunch of reasons that happened, some fun and some not so fun. But this post is going to be about one of the fun things. My husband had to go to Berlin for business and I got to tag along! Well, what I actually did was wait until all of his work stuff was nearly done and then flew over and met him. I worked out really well. I avoided all of the stressful icky work stuff and turned up just in time to do all the fun vacation-y, touristy stuff. The only thing I was really sad I missed out on was the Donor Kebab shop that turned into a full on disco suddenly at 3 a.m. My husband took me back to the scene but it failed to make it’s dance-tastic transformation for me. But luckily the Disco Donor Kebab wasn’t the only sight to be taken in whilst in Berlin. What a great city!

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We only had a couple of days to play the tourists there, but we made the most of them. Folks were really friendly and we couldn’t have been anymore impressed with the public transportation system. It was so well thought out, it just made it incredibly easy to speed all about the town. The weather was just perfect, warm but not too warm during the day and jacket weather in the evening. We stayed over in the part of the city that had been “East Berlin” before the wall came down, in the Mitte neighbourhood. If anyone is headed over that way, I have to tell you, we stayed in a great little boutique hotel, Casa Camper. Yup, it is owned by the same folks that do the Camper shoes. Our room was  a bit quirky, sleek, modern and spacious. The hotel is in a great location close to tons of shops, restaurants and the Weinmeisterstraße underground station is right across the street. One of the best things about the hotel is that they don’t do those silly little mini bars in your room, instead they have a lounge located on the top floor which is open 24 hours a day. You can always get a snack there and they have a fully stocked honor bar that you can help yourself to any time of the day or night. Makes you feel right at home! On the weekend they serve their generous breakfasts until 2 pm! It was a great find and as far as I’m concerned the place to stay in Berlin. We spent most of what little time we had in the city checking out the various museums at Museumsinsel (Museum island…that’s right a whole island of nothing but museums!), the Fernsehturm (tv tower – tallest structure in Germany),

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the Berlinerdom (Berlin Cathedral)

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and visiting a pub or two or three…

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Statue of St. George in front of Brauhaus Georgbraeu

Besides the many pints of beer we quaffed (uh…there really were quite a few…) we had some really tasty meals. (Good thing or we really would’ve been in a state with all that beer on empty stomachs…) My husband loves meatballs. Seriously. He likes those little appetizer cocktail meatballs, he likes them perched on top of spaghetti, stuffed into subs or just all on their lonesome. So you can imagine how delighted he was to find them on the menu of pretty much every restaurant we visited! When we got back home, he was somewhat despondent that his meatball access had been curtailed. So I set out to find a recipe for Königsberger Klopse (German Meatballs), just like we had in Berlin. These savoury meatballs cooked in a creamy white sauce came close and definitely brought a smile to his face. Cooked in a broth, rather than grilled, these meatballs are very tender, a bit spicy and have a fresh zing from the lemon zest. The original recipe called for veal, but I went with beef, though I think pork would also work well.  Also there seems to be some folks out there who are quite insistent that capers must be included in this dish for it to be authentic. If that is true, I have fallen a bit short here as there wasn’t a caper to be had in my house on the day I prepared them. If you are a caper fan, feel free to toss a bunch into the mix.

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I served these meatballs over Spaetzle, which I made from scratch. I’m afraid though that I don’t really have that recipe down yet. Certainly not enough to share with you. I’m thinking at this point that a Spaetzle maker might be a necessity here, cause I tried a variety of methods from colander, to potato ricer to strainer and often just ended up with some sort of mutant uber-spaetzle blob. So I’ll put that one on hold right now. I will mention though that after struggling with my homemade spaetzle demons, I found a lovely box of Authentic German Spaetzle at the grocery store, just hanging out there with all of the pastas. That might be the way to go to save yourself a bit of frustration if you haven’t already acquired mad spaetzle making skills. Rice or parsley butter potatoes would also be a good alternative as an accompaniment. And don’t forget a tall frosty beer. I went with one of our all time favourite beers, Pinkus Ur-Pils,  which happens to be brewed in Germany, so that worked out just perfectly. As they say in Germany, “Prost!”

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Königsberger Klopse (German Meatballs)

recipe adapted from: Craig Claiborne at The New York Times

yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 4 teaspoons butter
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoky paprika
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 2 Tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons chives, finely chopped with additional for garnish
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups beef broth
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Directions:

Put beef in mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper and mix to combine.

Heat 1 teaspoon of butter in saute pan. Add onion and garlic. Cook until softened. Add onion mixture to beef. Add breadcrumbs, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and zest, paprika, parsley, chives and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly. Shape mixture into equal sized balls.

Heat remaining butter in saucepan and add flour, stirring with whisk until smooth. Add broth, and wine, stirring continuously. Add meatballs to simmering sauce. Stir gently from time to time so that they cook evenly, about 25 minutes.

Beat sour scream with egg yolk and lemon juice. Add mixture to meatballs. Heat briefly without boiling. Serve hot with spaetzle.

Enjoy!


Sunflower Cupcakes for our Anniversary

June 30, 2013

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Hmmm….Talk about laziness. I made these adorable little Sunflower Cupcakes for our anniversary! Yup…our anniversary which is way back in April! April 26th to be exact, and I am just now getting around to posting about it. Oh well, better late than never I suppose and I definitely wanted to share the recipe for these little gems with you. I Love, Love, LOVE cupcakes. I’m sure that comes as no surprize to anyone who has been following my blog for any time now. Indeed I love them so much that when my husband and I were married, 4 years ago now, we decided to forego the traditional wedding cake and have a tower of sunflower cupcakes instead.

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So I thought I’d do up my own version of sunflower cupcakes for this year’s anniversary. Mine looked a bit more rustic than our wedding version. But on the plus side, I did not use fondant at all, but my all time favourite frosting, Swiss Meringue Buttercream. And the center of my cupcake sunflowers was an Oreo cookie!

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Who doesn’t love Oreos?!! If there are some Oreo haters out there, which I simply can’t imagine, but then again folks never cease to amaze me, you could sub out the cookie for a bit of chocolate frosting with some chocolate sprinkles or mini chocolate chips sprinkled over top of it for texture. We were quite pleased with the Oreos. It was like having a cupcake and a cookie all at once, which is a definite win if you ask me.

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Every year we dream about spending our anniversary in some exotic locale. It never seems to work out that way for some reason or another. Though to our credit we did actually manage to get away from home this year. We went off to a lovely little cabin retreat in Fayetteville West Virginia.

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I know I’ve blogged about Fayetteville before, but I just adore the place. It has an abundance of hiking trails with drop dead gorgeous views.

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And although it is a pretty tiny town, it has several top-notch restaurants. I know I’ve mentioned Diogi’s before, which is our all time favourite Mexican Restaurant. Pies and Pints serves up stunning handmade pizzas and plenty of delicious craft beer to wash it down with. And this year we visited the Secret Sandwich Society for the first time. Let me tell you, it completely knocked our socks off! After a long day of hiking we were able to relax out on their breezy deck with some unbelievably tasty sandwiches served up with homemade ketchup and pickles…oh and perhaps a couple or four or so bottles of beer.

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And although we are always sad to leave, we are consoled somewhat by our usual stop by Tudor’s Biscuit World for some ginormous breakfast biscuits on our way out-of-town. That’s right! A veritable WORLD of biscuits. And when I say ginormous, I am not exaggerating. Basically you have a huge biscuit wrapped around hefty portions of egg and sausage with a serving of hash browns thrown on top as well!

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You can hardly get your mouth around this monster! It is a wonder I can get my husband, or puppy, to leave that town at all! (see all of our Fayetteville Photos here)

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But back to my adorable Sunflower Cupcakes. I won’t fib to you, these guys took a bit of work.

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The baking of the cake part was easy and tasted superb. The vanilla bean really shined through. Though I suppose if you are a fan of chocolate cupcakes, you could substitute your favourite recipe in here. The dark colour of a chocolate cupcake base would look a whole lot more like dirt, but I really like vanilla cupcakes and they were for my anniversary, so decided to indulge myself here. It was the decorating of the cupcakes that was a bit time-consuming and fiddly. Let me just say M&M’s are pretty small, as if you weren’t aware of that fact, and getting those lady bug spots on them was really interesting. Not to mention it took me a little bit of practicing with the Wilton tip #352 to get those flower petals done properly.

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A little patience goes a long way here. I’d recommend doing things in an assembly line sort of way. You know, all the lady bug spots, stick all the Oreos on the center of the cakes, then pipe all the sunflower petals on, then perch all of the lady bugs up on top. Get some good tunes queued up and the time will go by pretty fast. That is if you don’t get pastry bag induced carpal tunnel syndrome in your hand by the end of it. But they were so worth it! Not only a visual delight but also really delicious and reminiscent of our wedding day as well. They went along famously with our Veuve, but then what wouldn’t?!! Just perfect for our  4th anniversary! Keep your fingers crossed for us for next year’s travel plans…I’m eyeing St. Petersburg, Russia or maybe Positano, Italy. Any suggestions?

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Sunflower Cupcakes

recipe adapted from: Damn Delicious (for the cupcakes) Runcible Eats (for the frosting)

yield: 21 Cupcakes

Ingredients:

for the cupcakes:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

for the frosting:

  • 5 Large Egg Whites
  • 1 1/2 Cups Sugar
  • 2 Cups (4 sticks) Butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, cool but not cold
  • 1/4 tsp Salt

Directions:

For the cakes:

Preheat oven to 375°F.  Line two 12-cup standard muffin tins with paper liners; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, sour cream and egg whites.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter, sugar and vanilla bean seeds on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Beat in vanilla until well combined. With mixer on low speed, add dry ingredients and sour cream mixture alternately in 3 parts, beginning and ending with dry ingredients, beating just until incorporated.

Scoop the batter evenly into the muffin tray. Place into oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

For the frosting:

Now for the frosting. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites and sugar together. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water but do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved and the color is milky white, about 2-3 minutes.

Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat on medium-high speed (start slowly at first) until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle attachment. Add the cubed butter and beat on medium-high speed (start slowly at first) until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. If the buttercream looks like it is breaking, don’t worry, it will eventually come together.

Add the salt and beat for 5 seconds to combine. Add food coloring to frosting until desired shade of yellow is reached. I used Wilton’s Gel food coloring in the Lemon Yellow shade.

Place frosting in piping bag with a Wilton #352 tip attached.

Cupcake Assembly:

Set out 11 Oreo cookies. Carefully pull each cookie apart, like you may have done when you were a kid, taking care not to break either cookie half.

Pick red M&M’s out from bag and set aside. Using chocolate decorator’s frosting pipe on a little head, line down the center of the back and a few spots on either side of the line to turn each M&M into a lady bug. I have also seen this bug decoration done with black food colouring and a small paint brush.

Pipe frosting around the underside edge of cookie half and place in the center of the cupcake. Pipe petals of frosting going from the edge of the cookie out to the edge of the cupcake. Place the petals right next to each other. Once one row of petals is done, add a second row slightly off-set from the first.

Put a little dot of frosting on the underside of each ladybug M&M and stick it on top of each flower.

Enjoy!


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