Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alessandra’s Crostata

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If you’re lucky - if you’re really, really lucky, someone will enter your life who is capable of imparting to you what’s really important on this earthly planet we inhabit.  Not because of something she told you, but because of the magical way she had of living her life.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I lost my husband and brother within the last few months. At this risk of alienating readers who are fatigued from what may seem like a ongoing obituary column, I ask those readers to proceed directly to the bottom of this post where you will find the most delectable crostata recipes ever.

February 2011 226 But to move straight to the recipes would be to miss reading about a truly one-in-a-million person who affected the lives of thousands of people in our community. That person, the same person who also is responsible for the crostata recipes you see here, is my friend Alessandra. Alessandra smiling I’ve written briefly about her before, when I posted her recipe for gnocchi alla romana. Everything I said about her then is true ten times over, and it’s worth reiterating now because. . . well, because as difficult it is to write it, it’s even more difficult to accept it, but the sad and irrevocable truth is that the generous heart that was Alessandra’s hallmark also failed her last week.

When I first met her nearly 30 years ago, she taught an Italian literature class at the local adult school. Students in the class, some of whom enrolled for 20 years in a row, were drawn by her gentle but expert teaching style. She had a way of making the most reticent student join in the discussion of works by Pirandello, Manzoni or other Italian authors.

She was the “heart and soul” of the Italian cultural organization where we both served as board members. Alessandra was responsible for returning vitality to the organization after its history as a settlement house for Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. There was rarely a contentious moment at any board meeting, partly because she knew so well how to listen, and come up with solutions to a problem.

Alessandra and Lidia She served on other boards in town too, not as a figurehead, but digging deep and pitching in gladly with full force when help was needed, whether it was cooking for a fund-raising auction (people at a local nursery school would line up to bid for her artichoke lasagna sometimes paying more than $300) or spear-heading the creation of a yearly quilt auction for the school. During her lifetime, she made and gave away more than 20 quilts, all exceptional and all crafted with love.

While her domestic talents would have put Martha Stewart to shame, she was about much more than cooking, stitching and household activities, holding down a number of jobs outside the home over the years, including as community relations director for a large law firm, an administrator for a theological institute, and as liaison for Princeton University for a villa it owned on Italy’s Lake Como.

There are so many more accomplishments I could cite, but she would get annoyed at me knowing I’ve listed even the ones above. Anyone who really knew her also knew that titles meant little to her and she was as self-effacing as they come. She lived her life simply, preferring the humble to the ornate, the quiet to the noise. She found beauty and joy in the domestic arts, but more importantly in the people who surrounded her – not only her beautiful family – a husband, three children and eight grandchildren, and her friends, but even those with whom she had a casual acquaintance. Whether you were a member of her weekly Italian chit-chat group and knew her for 40 years or whether you just moved to town and knew her for only two weeks, she always made time for you and made you feel special. Those of us who were her friends feel truly blessed to have had her in our lives.

But don’t take it from me – see for yourself how thoughtful she was, how insightful she was, how giving she was, by reading the following excerpt  from one of her journals. Although she spoke perfect English, I include the original written in Italian, as well as a translation.

Da anni, di quando in quando, mi pongo il problema di cosa sia piu’ importante nella vita non per il puro piacere della teoria, ma perche’ credo sia molto importante avere un punto fermo da cui e a cui muovere. Ne ho cambiati alcuni, perche’ dopo un po’ di tempo mi si rivelavano inferiori ad un altro. Mi sembra, da un po’ di tempo, di essermi stabilizzata su questo valore come il cardine principale:  l’amore, e piu’ di quello che si receve, e’ importante quello che si riesce a dare agli altri, a tutti gli altri. Sbaglio?”

From time to time, I have asked myself what is most important in life – not for the sake of theorizing – but because I feel it is important to have a guiding principle. I changed it several times, since after a while one seemed inferior to another. But for some time now, I gravitate around this cardinal point: love – more than what we receive, the love that we give to others, to all others. Am I wrong?”Alessandra b&w treeAlessandra 

A beauty in every sense of the word, who leaves behind a legacy of love in each and every person she met. Ciao bella.

And now for her crostata recipes. There are two and they are slightly different. Both are truly delicious so just take a dartboard and pick either of them.

The first one was given by Alessandra to our mutual friend Ellie, over an afternoon filled with friends and a crostata demonstration by Alessandra. It is topped by the traditional criss-crossed strips of dough on the top. Eleanor gave me a hint that freezing the dough strips for a few minutes makes them easier to maneuver over the filling.

February 2011 278 The second recipe was given by Alessandra to Cristina, another friend and a vivacious, transplanted Roman who conducts cooking classes in her home. She invited me to join the class last week when she dedicated the recipes to Alessandra, cooking foods from the Veneto region of Italy, where Alessandra was born. Cristina gave the crostata a more non-traditional border, resembling the sun –  a most apropos reminder of someone whose star will shine forever in our hearts.

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Alessandra’s Crostate

Printable recipes here

Crostata No. 1 (from Ellie via Alessandra)

Makes two 8-or 9-inch tarts or crostate

  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter, (12 Tablespoons) at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk (save egg white)
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup to 1/4 cup sherry
  • a few teaspoons of ice water, if necessary
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

or for one crostata:

  • 1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg yolk, (save egg white)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/8 cup sherry
  • a few teaspoons of ice water, if necessary
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

Place flour and sugar into food processor and pulse for a few seconds. Add the butter in small pieces and pulse again, until it resembles coarse sand. Add the egg(s) and sherry to the food processor, pulsing until the mixture starts to form a ball. Add a little ice water, a teaspoon at a time, if necessary. If you don’t have a food processor, mix by hand with pastry cutter or spoon. Let it rest for about 1/2 hour.

Divide the dough into 3/4 for the bottom and 1/4 for the strips. Roll the bottom onto a floured surface and fit it into a buttered tart pan, letting any excess hang over the edge.
Fill the crust with jam. Roll the remaining 1/4 of the dough on a floured surface and cut into strips. Place them lattice-fashion over the jam, attach them to the dough along the rim, then trim the edges of the crostata. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 25 to 30 minutes until the dough is golden brown. I place the crostata on a cookie sheet that has been preheated in the oven to 425 degrees, then lower it immediately to 375 degrees. It helps ensure the bottom crust is cooked thoroughly. Eleanor likes to bake the empty shell for a few minutes at 375 degrees, then add the preserves and top it with the strips. Try it either way and see what works for you. The results depend not only on the recipe but also the type and size pan you use. Eleanor uses an 8-inch pan, but I use a 9-inch tart pan and it works fine too.

Crostata No. 2 (from Cristina via Alessandra)

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 stick and 3 Tablespoons melted, but slightly cooled butter
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 shot glass of grappa, liqueur, wine or other alcohol
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

Prepare the dough similar to above recipe, but if you want to make a decorative border like Cristina’s, do not divide the dough into two parts. Make one round disk and roll out between two sheets of waxed paper. Place over a pie plate that has a “lip” on it. then take a butterknife and make cuts all along the rim. Take every other “flap” and flip it in toward the jam. Cristina also used two different kinds of preserves to create the “sun” effect.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011


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Is it a good idea to eat a fish that is sometimes referred to as the “ex-lax” fish? And what makes me think I should eat it when its consumption is banned in Japan and Italy?   Well, I wasn’t aware of these tidbits of information when I purchased the fish at my local fish market, Nassau Seafood. There it was sitting on ice chips, looking white and fleshy and appetizing, with a name I didn’t recognize. The guy ahead of me was buying it too, and he sounded like he’d eaten it before and liked it.  I try to broaden my taste experiences now and then, so I bought a small chunk too, then proceeded to look it up online when I got home.

January 2011 395 It’s found in tropical and temperate waters around the world and has a dark colored skin.  According to Wikipedia, it’s sometimes called “white tuna” or “butterfish” but these names are misleading. It does have a buttery flavor though, which is why people like it.  It’s even on the menu at Eric Ripert’s paean to all things fish – Le Bernardin. So far, so good, right? So why the negative moniker?


Well, there have been reports of intestinal problems, similar to food poisoning. Stay near a bathroom, some food bloggers report. This is due to escolar’s inability to digest certain wax esters that it ingests, giving it an oil content of up to 25 percent. I wasn’t too reassured after reading that, so I called the store where I bought the fish and spoke to owner Jack Morrison.

After calling his supplier, Jack called me back and gave me more information on the fish I’d just bought. It was caught off the Bahamas in the Florida straights, where most of the big-finned fish, like swordfish and tuna are caught.  The fish were landed at Cherry Point, South Carolina, so they are considered local fish, he said.

They’re the smooth-skinned variety, he said, another point that’s crucial, because the rough-skinned escolar is what causes the problem. According to Wikipedia: “The greatest concern around this fish is the mislabeling of the rough skin escolar for that of its higher priced smooth skin escolar relative. This has created significant bad press by consumers due to the inappropriate processing (not-deep skinning the fish) and selling the cheaper (rough) skin fish that has a significantly higher oil content than that of the more expensive, smooth skin fish causing purgative issues.”

Whew, that’s better, I thought, because now my curiosity had really been piqued and I was ready to try the fish no matter what.

“We’ve had very good response and have been incident free when the fish are local and are caught relatively quickly and we know the process,” Jack said. “However, all the blogs suggest you eat small portions of this fish.”

Which is what I did, since I had purchased a piece that weighed a little less than 6 ounces.  I marinated it for a short while, then cooked it in a grill pan and served it with a salsa made of different colored heirloom tomatoes that looked really fresh and delicious at the market, even though it’s midwinter. The fish was firm and fleshy, like a cross between a Chilean sea bass and a tuna (if tuna were white) and the taste was sort of buttery, but not oily at all. No wonder people like this fish.  Hey, I don’t know what Japan and Italy are thinking, but if it’s good enough for Eric Ripert, it’s good enough for me.

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Grilled Escolar with Heirloom Tomato Salsa

Printable Recipe Here

  • 1 6-ounce piece of escolar
  • about 2 T. soy sauce
  • 1 minced garlic clove
  • Marinate the fish with the soy sauce and garlic for about 15 minutes. Then cook in a hot grill pan over the range, or on an outdoor grill for about 5 minutes on each side, or until flesh is firm. Serve with tomato salsa

Tomato Salsa

  • heirloom tomatoes (yellow, red, orange) – enough for 1 cup minced
  • 1/2 jalapeno pepper
  • a few slices of minced bell pepper, optional
  • a few slices of onion, minced
  • minced fresh herbs – cilantro, dill or basil
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • splash of olive oil
  • splash of white balsamic or white wine vinegar
  • Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and serve over the fish.



Friday, February 4, 2011

Chocolate Lava Cakes And A TV Makeover

February 2011 040 I know, it’s not fair posting this sinfully decadent chocolate dessert first thing in the morning.  But hey, oatmeal can only take you so far. I’m not suggesting you make this for breakfast, but it does have eggs, after all – standard breakfast fare right?  And as far as I’m concerned, chocolate - dark chocolate in particular - should be declared one of the basic food groups – you know all those antioxidants and such.

Aside from the intense chocolate flavor, another great thing about this dessert is its ease of preparation. Fifteen minutes of work and you’ve got dessert that would impress any guest and wow any suitor (Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.) Plus you can make it up to three days ahead of time and keep it in the fridge before baking. Just for kicks, I thought I’d try freezing it unbaked to see how that might work out too. Guess what? It worked like a charm. Just make sure you prepare it in pyrex containers that are freezer and oven-proof (or throw-away aluminum containers) and you’re good to go.

February 2011 030 From whence does this fabulous recipe come, you ask? That’s where the fun part begins. The recipe is from a cookbook called “Alice’s Tea Cup,” named after  the eponymous cafe in New York City.

9780061964923_259_general I had tea and cake at this charming shop in New York City (one of four locations in the city) with my daughter and Genevieve Gorder, host of the HGTV decorating show “Dear Genevieve.”  It was in this tea shop where Genevieve was discussing possible ideas for the makeover of my daughter’s living room in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Yes, it’s true, true, true. Those are real people whose rooms get redone on that show!

Oct-Nov. 2010 289 My daughter simply sent an email to the show and they liked her letter well enough to follow up with interviews and then transform her living room from so-so to sensational. The show airs this Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on HGTV, so be sure to tune in and watch the metamorphosis. There are repeats too, and you can read more about it here. During the show, you’ll see scenes at Alice’s Tea Cup with Genevieve (in the center) my daughter (on the right) and yours truly, as well as shots of the living room before and our honest-to-goodness surprise reaction after the reveal.

I’ll give you a sneak preview. Here’s what her living room looked before. Not awful, but bland – no pizzazz. And if you know my daughter, you know she definitely has pizzazz.

Christina's living room before And ta-da ……………. here’s the “after.”  Pretty snazzy right? Can you believe it’s the same space?

December 2010 054 OK, so tune in Saturday night if you can, to see how the whole process evolved. In the meantime, here’s the low-down on making these chocolate lava cakes (they’re actually called “warm soft chocolate cakes” in the cookbook.)

When you bake them immediately after preparation, give them only 11 minutes in the oven and you’ll get that waterfall of chocolate oozing from the first photo. It’s really like eating warm chocolate pudding with only a little bit of cake holding it together. If you fill the baking cups and refrigerate them (for up to 3 days), then you need to bake the chilled cups for 13 minutes.

But if you freeze them first, then put them in the oven frozen, they will take longer.  Here’s what one looked like when I pulled it from the oven after 19 minutes. That little dip in the center had me worried.

February 2011 056 But when I flipped it over, it held firm and didn’t cave in.

February 2011 058 But it needed something else – maybe some powdered sugar.

February 2011 059 Oh yes, that’s better. This is the frozen one after baking for 19 minutes. It’s still oozing, but I think next time I’ll give it only 17 minutes, so it can be closer in “oozement” to the one that is baked unfrozen for only 11 minutes. (Actually I think I’d bake the unfrozen one for 12 minutes because maybe there was a little too much “lava” and not enough cake.) Have I totally confused you here?

The confectioner’s sugar was nice, but there was still something missing. Maybe a little whipped cream?

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Now you’re talkin’!

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Oh no, it’s melting, it’s melting!!!!!!!!!!!

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That’s easy enough to fix – just keep the whipped cream nearby and add another dollop. Dig in!

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A big, big thanks to gracious Genevieve and her friendly, helpful crew who couldn’t have been nicer to us, at a time when we really needed something to smile about.  And thank you to Alice’s Tea Cup for putting up with the interruption during filming and providing us with great food. We’ll be back!

Warm Soft Chocolate Cake (Lava Cakes)

From “Alice’s Tea Cup”

printable recipe here

makes four servings

  • 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup)
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray four individual 4-ounce pyrex cups (or aluminum baking cups) with cooking spray or coat with butter. Dust with flour.
  2. In a medium glass bowl, melt the butter and chocolate in a microwave oven or in a water bath or double boiler. Mix thoroughly until you have a shiny chocolate sauce.
  3. In a large bowl, use a mixer to beat the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar until thick. Add the chocolate/butter mixture and beat until thick. With the mixer running, add the 1 tablespoon flour.
  4. Divide the mixture evenly among the prepared baking cups and bake for 11 minutes. Watch the time carefully.
  5. Turn each container upside down onto the center of a serving plate and slowly lift to reveal the cake.

You can prepare these ahead of time and bake later. Cover the filled baking cups and refrigerate up to three days. Then bake the chilled cups for 13 minutes.

Or, cover the filled baking cups and freeze. Take them from the freezer and bake for 19 minutes if you want it to look like the one in the lower photos, or for only 17 minutes, if you want it to have more “ooze.”


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Eating My Way Through Miami

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It sure was nice while it lasted – a week in warm Miami at the invitation of my brother-in-law Joe and sister-in-law Jan, whose hospitality was as welcoming as the Florida sunshine.  Arriving home to New Jersey on the last flight before everything was cancelled for a few days, I was confronted with another 20 inches of snow lining the sides of the driveway and icicles menacing enough to sever an ox.

February 2011 018 But I shall focus on the positives – never mind the slippery sidewalks, the frigid temperatures, and the mounds of snow that make putting money in a parking meter downtown a truly uphill climb. Never mind that the furnace broke three hours before I left for the airport. Yes, I’m serious.

Never mind, because a repairman came to my rescue moments before I had to dash out to the airport. Never mind, because the arctic weather allows me to bake bread, to simmer soup, to putter around the house doing things I wouldn’t dream of doing if the weather were warm enough to play outdoors.

Never mind because I am still basking in the glow of my visit to our Southernmost state and the glorious pampering I received from my relatives.  Not to mention the bounteous meals I ate in Miami, like the two-for-one lobsters at “Captain’s Tavern” (yes I ate them both):

January 2011 252 Since this was Miami, home to a large number of Cubans, I couldn’t leave without eating a meal at a Cuban restaurant. In this case, we went to a well-known Cuban restaurant with the unlikely name of Versailles. Once inside, with its large rooms lined in etched mirrors, anyone who knows anything about the French palace could see how it got its name.

January 2011 374 Spanish was the language of choice here that night (I heard it spoken everywhere I went in Miami) and the waiting line outside attested to the restaurant’s popularity. After a 15 minute wait, we started our meal with a pitcher of sangria and a platter of crispy plaintain chips served with a garlic sauce.

January 2011 369 I ordered a Cuban sampler called “Criollo” – a platter laden with “ropa vieja” (shredded beef in a tomato sauce,) fried pork, fried plaintains, a croqueta, some yucca, yellow rice, black beans and something else (that small beigy thing to the right of the rice )I didn’t recognize. 

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I managed to eat only about half of the platter, but the leftovers provided by brother-in-law with lunch for another day. Sadly I was too stuffed after this filling meal to enjoy any of the various flans on the menu or even a cup of Cuban coffee.

My brother-in-law order the oxtail stew. He loved it. Cubans sure do have a lot of starchy and beigy-brown colored food, it seems. But hey, they were packin’ ‘em in, so you can’t argue with success.

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For me though, the week’s food highlight was a feast of stone crabs, a Florida delicacy. I’m not sure if you can find them in your area, but I’ve seen stone crabs at my local fish store here in Princeton on occasion. Unlike most crabs, the bodies of stone crabs are rarely eaten. It’s the claws that seafood lovers prize. The meaty claws are plucked off the bodies, which are tossed back into the ocean. Now don’t get all verklempt on me – the bodies grow new limbs, and studies have shown that removing their claws forces Florida stone crabs to eat sea grass. That’s important because it’s been proven to be healthier for them, allowing them to regenerate their claws faster and for the female Florida stone crab to produce more baby stone crabs.

January 2011 302 Typically, they’re already cooked when you buy them, and cracked at the store too, which is a good thing, because the shells are as thick and brittle as ceramic tile. Occasionally, you will need to help things along with a metal claw cracker, but in general, you can pick the shells off easily and expose the flesh. They’re eaten cold, and dipped into a sauce that complements the crabs, made of mostly mayonnaise, mustard and some seasonings. The sauce comes already prepared from Norman Brothers, the store where my sister-in-law buys the stone crabs, but my brother-in-law likes to spice it up a little further with more Worcestershire sauce and A-1 sauce. It’s an addictive accompaniment that would be great with any kind of seafood – from lobster to crabs to steamed halibut.

January 2011 296  You may not have the luxury of finding stone crabs where you live, but you can surely have the sauce. The recipe below comes from a landmark restaurant in Miami called “Joe’s Stone Crabs.”  Actually you can have the crabs too, since Joe’s Stone Crabs will ship its crabs (and key lime pie too) anywhere in the continental U.S.  Click here to see the prices for a meal of stone crabs, cole slaw and key lime pie.

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We followed up our stone crabs with the traditional dessert of key lime pie.  Who am I to buck tradition? I had to do my part – a few times in fact - to help out the key lime pie industry. This one was also bought at Norman Brothers and it was excellent. While I don’t have their recipe, I can send you to this link if this picture has you yearning to bake your own.

January 2011 291 Before leaving for the airport, we had to stop at a little hole in the wall called “Carlito’s Cafe.” It’s a stand-up place where you order through the window - a Cuban sandwich or a chicken sandwich (that arrives with potato sticks sprinkled on top) – all for a few bucks each.


But the best part about Carlito’s is the coffee – good, rich, dark Cuban coffee with a thick crema on top – all for just 65 cents.




 Stone Crab Claw Sauce

serves four

printable recipe here

(courtesy of “Joe’s Stone Crabs” restaurant)

  • 3 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon A-1 sauce
  • 1/8 cup light cream or half and half
  • 1/8 tsp. salt

Beat the dry mustard and mayonnaise together for one minute. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until everything has a creamy consistency. Chill. Dip the crab claws into the sauce with your fingers.