It really did sound like a good idea. Peaches, mascarpone, zabaglione, caramels, tawny port, savoiardi … what could go wrong? A lot, apparently.

Peach Tiramisu

Peaches and Whiskers Blake Tawny Port

First lesson: do not freeze mascarpone cheese. If you find good, imported Italian mascarpone on sale for 75% off because it expires in a week, DO NOT fill half of your freezer with little blue and white tubs to use at a later date. DO buy all you can use in that week, however. Make a tiramisu a day. Make mascarpone/gorgonzola/walnut loaf and spread it on crusty bread for lunch. Hell, put it on your eggs in the morning if you have to, just use it all up before it expires. If you don’t, you’ll spend more time trying to save it when you defrost it than than a fresh tub of imported cheese is worth.

Second lesson: I’m guessing that Italians don’t make peach and caramel tiramisu for a reason. If they’re going to spend all that time making dessert, they’re going to make something edible, such as the real thing. Someone has surely come up with some good variables out there – which is what I was trying to do yesterday – my experiment just didn’t turn out that way.

I started out defrosting peaches I’d plucked last year from a nearby peach farm. Whenever I defrost a quart of sliced peaches, I’m always left with a good 1 to 1.5 cup of peachey liquid. For pies and sauces, I’ll use this “juice” instead of any water the recipe calls for. (Kitchen Tip: If it’s not needed for the recipe at hand, I’ll freeze it in an ice cube tray, perhaps plop a frozen blueberry or two into each cube, and save it for some yummy summery drink, or, preferably, to keep sparkling white wine cool on a too-hot day.) For my peach tiramisu experiment, I used a cup of the peach juice instead of coffee, melted a handful of caramels in it to add flavor and thicken it up a bit, and topped it off with 1/4 cup of Australian tawny port (in place of  the amaretto I use in true tiramisu – though the amaretto would have worked nicely with the peaches too). The concoction tasted good enough to drink — so far so good, I thought, as I poured it over the savoiardi cookies (aka Ladyfingers) — I mean, doesn’t it look like it should have worked?

Peach Tiramisu

Savoirdi (Ladyfinger) Cookies

Peach Tiramisu

Caramels in Peach Juice

Peach Tiramisu

So far so good with the caramel, peach, and port infused savoiardi, right?

Even the zabaglione egg cream thickened up to perfection:

Peach Tiramisu

And that’s where I ran into trouble. You see, frozen mascarpone turns grainy due to its high fat content, and defrosting doesn’t undo the damage. A sample tasted like sweetened sawdust. Once on my tongue, the little globules of hardened cream melted, but I didn’t think cautioning my Mother’s Day guests to retain each bite of dessert in their mouth while the custard turned creamy would work out so well, so I tried to “fix” the mascarpone. First, I beat it with the Kitchen Aid’s beater paddle. Nope. Then the whisk. Still grainy. Tried my hand-held beating wand and found myself teetering in three-strikes-you’re-out territory. Then I laid my eyes on my Vitamix. A-HA! If this beauty could pulverize kale and chard and dandelion greens into velvety green liquid for my breakfast each day, surely it could silken up a tub of grainy mascarpone, couldn’t it?

Apparently not. It tried, though, I’ll certainly give the Vitamix that, and it made sure the entire household knew how hard it was trying by the godawful noise it created while doing it. As I continued shoving the cheese into the blades with the Vitamix-provided tamper, the blender’s valiant effort paid off in still-grainy but potentially edible mascarpone.

Between the beating and the whisking and the Vitamixing, I lost, oh, about an hour trying to save the cheese – a good part of that trying to dislodge it from the blender’s blades. I finally combined the mascarpone with the zabaglione, egg whites and vanilla, spread it on top of my savoiardi cookies, and placed it in the refrigerator to set overnight. Meanwhile, the peach sauce (peaches, peach juice, sugar and corn starch) had cooked to perfection on the stove top.

So last night, after a feast of gourmet pizza (Mom’s request) and spinach salad, I brought out the dessert, placing a nice-sized square in each bowl and topping it with warm peach sauce. The peach sauce was truly fantastic, but the custard was still grainy, and the cookies had disintegrated to mush. One guest outright refused even a taste. Okay… he doesn’t eat dessert often, I can count him out. Another guest didn’t want more than a couple of bites – and he loves his desserts. Four of us ate full servings, but only one said she’d eat it again. (Thanks Mom – always a trooper!)

Maybe we were simply too full. Or maybe the dessert really did turn out that badly. Whichever the case, I will: A.not freeze mascarpone again, and: B. stick to regular tiramisu, at least when preparing for guests.

The good news? I have the rest of that bottle of port to help me get over this travesty!

Mom's Orchard

How can it still be winter?

Maybe it was yesterday’s pounding rain or last weekend’s sneaker snow. Or maybe it’s because my daffodils refuse to show their happy yellow faces. Whatever the reason, I AM READY FOR SPRING! I want the sweet smell of daphne and narcissus. Warm breezes that send fruit blossoms falling like confetti. Evenings pleasant enough to eat on the porch. For the moment, however, I suppose I’ll have to settle for the pleasures of winter — cuddling with a good book near the wood stove, sipping big, red wine, and feasting on heartwarming bowls of steaming pasta.

Lately, I’ve been aching to dust off my pasta maker and roll out sheets of fresh egg pasta to turn into lovely cheese ravioli. Perhaps with a roasted walnut sauce… or sauteed in butter and fresh sage. Unfortunately, late winter is also the season to complete time-sensitive tasks like inventory and taxes. So I’ve settled for simpler dishes, such as smoked salmon cream sauce and broccoli and penne — the recipe I’ll share today.  It may not be homemade ravioli, but it still warms me on a cold day.

I learned this recipe from my Italian mother-in-law. My husband often jokes that he has the only Italian mother who doesn’t like to cook. While there may be some truth to that, she does excel at some dishes, and this is one of them. It goes against most modern methods of cooking vegetables in that the broccoli is boiled to near-disintegration. I have tried to make this dish without overcooking the broccoli, but it just does not create the same creamy sauce that makes this dish so yummy.

Although the recipe is “Broccoli with Penne,” it can be made with many hearty pastas, such as rigatoni, fusili, and (as shown in my pictures) radiatori. And although I usually make this with regular old broccoli since it’s what is most readily available, don’t hesitate to use a stronger flavored variety such as broccoli raab — or, if you happen to be near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, my all-time favorite friarelli.

Broccoli and Penne

  • 2 broccoli crowns, total weight from 1 to 1.5 pounds
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, sliced medium-thin
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • dried pepperoncini, crushed
  • 1 pound hearty pasta, preferably tubular
  • freshly grated Parmigiano
  • salt and pepper to taste

Start your pasta water first, and add a nice palm-full of rock salt. Wash the broccoli and cut into smallish florets — not too much stem as it won’t cook down as quickly as the rest. Split any larger stems.

Aside, in a frying pan large enough to fit a pound of cooked pasta and the broccoli, saute the garlic, pepperoncini, and olive oil over low heat until the garlic turns golden. Keep a careful eye to make sure it doesn’t burn. Once the garlic reaches the perfect stage (for me, that’s deep blond and semi-caramelized), remove the pan from the heat. Here is a picture of the little pepperoncini we haul home from Italy a quart bag at a time (that’s just a regular-sized paring knife). That quart of dried peppers lasts us for years and years. You’d think they would be horribly bland after all that time, but these little nuggets just seem to get hotter and hotter as the seasons pass.

Hot Italian Pepperoncini

Once the pasta water boils, toss in the prepared broccoli and let it boil for 3 or 4 minutes. If you use a firmer broccoli, either cut the pieces smaller, splitting the stems, or cook it a little longer before adding the pasta. If you’d like a garnish on your finished plate, pull out a few bright green florets at this time and let cool. Then add the pasta to the boiling water and cook together until al dente. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your garlic and oil if it’s still cooking.

By the time your pasta is nearly cooked, your broccoli should be close to falling apart in the water. If not, don’t hesitate to pull some florets out and manually break them apart. Note that you don’t want the broccoli so well cooked that the stems are bared of florets and they all go down the drain when you strain the pasta and broccoli. Once the pasta is cooked, strain well in a colander.

Turn the flame under the oil on to medium, add the broccoli and pasta, and toss. The broccoli should easily break apart as it’s mixed. If the mixture looks too oily, add 1/4 cup or so of freshly grated Parmigiano — which will thicken the sauce. If it looks too dry, either drizzle with oil or add a tablespoon or two of butter (yum!).

Serve piping hot with freshly grated Parmigiano.

Enjoy ~

Spring 2010 Limoncello Extravaganza

Yes, my lemon tree is at it again — producing fruit, but only one at a time, dammit. Certainly not enough for even the smallest batch of limoncello. In all honesty, I’m surprised that it’s producing even one with how cold it’s been here lately.

For weeks I’ve been spying on that lemon as I walk from house to office and office to house. A frigid twenty-some degrees outdoors, fifty in the greenhouse, and one brilliant golden orb proving that seasons do pass and winter will soon turn to spring. When I finally picked it, I wanted to make something special.

I dug out my Cook’s Illustrated and thumbed through the lemon recipes. My husband thought lemon bars sounded too sweet, so I settled on lemon butter cookies. One — it would satisfy my sweet tooth; two – it called for only two teaspoons of zest, so I could still do something else with the rest.

Now, I have rarely met a cookie I cannot eat, but those butter cookies were bad. It wasn’t the lemon, which was so flavorful, just holding it firmly perfumed the immediate area, and so sweet, we ate raw slices of it, peel and all.  But the cookies tasted like insipid flour, which means I wasted half a pound of butter and half my lemon zest! Perhaps they needed more zest. Or a pinch of salt (the recipe didn’t call for any at all). It may be the first time Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe has let me down.

They more than made up for it with their recipe for Lemon Linguine and Roasted Pine Nuts. It’s a new twist (at least to me) on an old Italian staple — Aglio, olio and pepperoncino. Garlic, oil, and hot pepper, also known as pasta di mezzanotte (midnight pasta) — aptly named as it’s so quick to make, partiers often whip it up as a midnight snack after a night out on the town. First, the old favorite:

Aglio, Olio & Pepperoncino

  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of good olive oil
  • 2 – 4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 2 – 4 hot red peppers, crumbled
  • 1 pound pasta
  • freshly grated Parmigiano

Start your pasta water boiling and add a handful of rock salt.

If you like your pasta on the dry side, stick with 1/4 cup. If, instead, you don’t mind a dribble of olive oil on your chin and look forward to clearing your plate of pasta so you can sop up leftover sauce with a chunk of crusty bread, go for the 1/2 cup.

Heat the olive oil over a low flame and add the crumbled peppers. Slice the garlic about 1/16 inch thick. Don’t go too thin or it will burn easily.  Add the garlic, keeping a close, close eye on it as it cooks. For me, the best aglio, olio, pepperoncino has garlic that is cooked so slowly, it turns deep blond and has an almost caramel consistency. If caramelly garlic doesn’t appeal to you, you might try the Cook’s Illustrated suggested method of cooking the garlic, detailed below.

Strain the cooked pasta, toss with the oil, and grate a tablespoon or so of Parmigiano right into each dish. Be sure to have a nice chunk of good bread on hand.

A nice variation is adding a few anchovies and capers into the saute — use the larger quantity of olive oil.

Lemon Linguine with Roasted Pine Nuts

Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated — with double the lemon and pine nuts, without the suggested pepperoncino and parsley, and the addition of a bit of butter.

  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tsp lemon zest, plus some for garnish
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, pan roasted
  • freshly-grated Parmigiano
  • 1 pound linguine

As with the first recipe, this is a very quick sauce, so start your pasta water boiliRoasted Pine Nutsng right away.

Cook’s Illustrated suggests crushing the garlic in a press and mixing it with a teaspoon of water to better disperse the flavor into the oil. I’ve never heard of or seen this done in Italy, but it sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. Couldn’t detect any difference in the garlicky flavor, and I did miss those caramelly bits of sauteed garlic, but I’m sure either method will work fine.

In a small saute pan, roast the pine nuts over medium heat for 5 or so minutes. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little brown — it only adds to their flavor and appearance. Warning: Do NOT read the fat content on the package! (And if you do, please tell me — how squirrels stay so thin?)

Here’s where I wish I would have paid more attention to the original recipe: As seen in the next picture, I added the grated lemon zest to the garlic and sauteed them together. Only after rereading the recipe did I realize that the zest was supposed to be added fresh at the end and tossed with the cooked garlic and pasta. Although I thought this dish turned out great, I think it could have been even more lemony, which the fresh zest would likely have accomplished. Fortunately, I was able to grate just a bit more zest off my poor, naked lemon and add it to each plate. Note:  when zesting a lemon, only use the outer yellow layer and try to get any oils left on the grater into your dish as they’ll add a lot of flavor.

Lemon Zest and Crushed Garlic

Saute the garlic, either sliced or crushed. Pay close attention that it doesn’t burn. Once it’s cooked, turn off the flame and wait for the pasta to reach al dente. I used fresh spinach linguine which cooks in a couple of minutes, making this dish even quicker to go from pot to plate.

Once the pasta is cooked and strained, mix in the garlic oil, the lemon zest, half the roasted pine nuts. and all the butter. Toss until the butter is melted and the ingredients mixed.

Once served, garnish with freshly-grated Parmigiano and additional roasted pine nuts.

Lemon Linguine wtih Roasted Pine Nuts

I can see variations of this dish working out lovely as a chilled salad — using a little more oil and no butter, and perhaps with the addition of fresh picked and shelled baby peas. Add a warm spring day and a glass of viognier, and it sounds like treat to me.

Buon appetito ~