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!

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

September 12, 2010

I love a pasta dish that can be whipped up in half an hour. And when all of its ingredients are something I almost always have on hand, it’s even better. A few dishes that meet this criteria come to mind, such as Aglio, Olio, Pepperoncino — garlic and hot red peppers sauteed in a healthy dose of quality olive oil. Italians nicknamed this dish Pasta di Mezzanotte (Midnight Pasta) because it’s so quick and easy, it’s often the first choice when one comes home hungry after a night on the town. And there’s Penne and Broccoli, Tuna and Capers, Butter and Parmigiano, but my hands-down favorite is Spaghetti all Carbonara. It’s packed with protein and bursting with flavor. And when properly made, it’s creamy, deeply satisfying and the perfect choice for spur-of-the-moment guests.

30-Minutes or Less to Carbonara!

What you’ll need:

  • 1 pound Spaghetti
  • 1 medium onion, chopped small (not fine)
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 8 slices good bacon (I prefer thick-sliced)
  • 3 – 4 eggs *
  • 1 – 2 Tablespoons parsley (depends on your taste and how fresh and pungent your parsley is)
  • 1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmigiano cheese
  • Fresh ground pepper

* Properly made, this dish uses barely cooked eggs. As with past recipes I’ve posted,  using uncooked or barely cooked eggs comes with a warning: Although FRESH raw eggs do not usually carry Salmonella or other bacteria, it is possible. Such bacteria can be dangerous to small children, elderly, and sick people. Only use fresh eggs from a trusted source. (Thank you Ian!) If you’re not comfortable consuming raw eggs, you can buy pasteurized eggs or pasteurize your own (directions easily found online).

To Make Spaghetti all Carbonara:

  1. Start heating your pasta water and add a healthy dose of rock salt. (Eating under-salted pasta is like eating under-salted bread: bland, bland, bland. Serving a great sauce over unsalted or under-salted pasta will not do the meal justice. Remember, your pasta only absorbs a portion of the water, and therefore only a portion of the salt. The rest goes down the drain with the excess water.)
  2. In a frying pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta and the sauce, melt the butter and saute the chopped onions over medium heat. After a few minutes, when the onions soften but before they start to brown, add the bacon and the wine. Cook until the wine evaporates then remove from heat. As it is boiled rather than fried, the bacon will not (and should not) crisp. The time it takes for the wine to evaporate is plenty enough to fully cook the pork.
  3. Keep an eye on your pasta water. As soon as it boils, add the spaghetti and cook al dente.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the parsley, cheese and pepper.  (Beautiful bowl made by Eugene Saturday Market potter Amy Palatnick.)
  5. Strain the cooked pasta, reserving a tablespoon or two of cooking liquid, and add the pasta to the pan with the bacon, onions and butter. Turn the burner back on and toss with the hot oil. When the spaghetti is well-coated, REMOVE FROM HEAT. Add the egg, parsley and cheese mix and toss to mix well. Serve immediately, preferably with a loaf of crusty bread and a nice bottle of red.

DO NOT COOK THE EGGS. Spaghetti alla Carbonara should never NEVER never resemble spaghetti and scrambled eggs. The hot oil and pasta will heat the eggs and they may firm up in spots, but the sauce should still have a creamy appearance.

Buon Appetito!

Kitchen Tip: Parmigiano cheese condenses a sauce and will over-thicken it if too much is used. When recipes call for a lot of cheese, add it slowly so you can gauge when taste and consistency are in balance. In this recipe, where it’s mixed in with other ingredients, keep a few tablespoons of pasta water on hand. If the sauce dries out too much, toss in the pasta water a tablespoon at a time until it looks right.

Enjoy ~

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

August 29, 2010

Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the basil is lush and fragrant, and sun-ripe tomatoes are hanging like jewels on their vines.  The cool mornings remind me that fall is just around the corner and I’d better enjoy these warm days and the garden’s bounty while they’re still here.

Might be “enjoying” the warm days too much… we spent the last week installing a thousand or so square feet of gravel pathway between home and shop.  Add wine to the tired body in the evening, and not much energy is left for posting blogs (yes, Saturday did pass without a post, if anyone’s counting). Not much energy for cooking either, but, as I walk past the garden on our new path, those ripe tomatoes are calling, “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”

If I were still living in Italy, I probably never would have attempted homemade pizza as there seems to be a pizzaiolo and a wood-fired oven just around every corner. There are few places in America where this is true, and our little corner of rural Oregon is not one of them.

Starting completely from scratch, making both your dough and sauce, pizza can be quite an endeavor. It’s unlikely that I would make the time to do it often. Since pizza is one of my husband’s favorites, I’ve found ways to simplify the process.

  1. Most important step is cooking your pizza on the barbecue. Few home kitchens are equipped with an oven capable of baking a pizza quickly. A well-heated barbecue can do it in 6 minutes, almost quick enough to keep up with Stefano’s appetite. And when he’s on his best behavior, it’s even enough to keep up with a small party. Until we build ourselves a wood-fired pizza oven, barbecued pizza is the way to go.
  2. You will need a pizza stone. Although store-bought pizza stones will work, they’re a little thin and a barbecue’s intense bottom heat may overheat the stone. In the past, when cooking with the stones, I kept two on hand so I could switch stones when the other became too hot. These days, I use my homemade pizza stone made from firebricks. I’ve had a few inquiries on this, so I’ll make it a separate post where you can find the information.
  3. Have the dough on hand. A few weeks back, I posted the recipe for Chewy Italian Bread — which is what I use for pizza dough. Included in that post were instructions on how to make more than one batch of dough at a time. Each “loaf” of dough will make three 12″ to 14″ pizzas, depending on how thin you roll the crust. Allow one refrigerated “loaf” to come to room temperature, and you can have barbecued pizza on the table in 30 minutes. Note: When I have time, I prefer to make pizzas out of a “fresh” loaf of dough (rather than a previously made refrigerated loaf) because it’s more willing to roll out to a thinner crust. If I know ahead of time I’m making pizza, I’ll turn a batch of biga into a batch of dough and let it sit in a covered bowl for 2 to even 8 hours until I’m ready.
  4. Get creative with the toppings.
  • Use fresh tomatoes and make a 5 minute quick sauce (recipe below).
  • Next time you’re cooking tomato sauce for pasta, make a little extra and set it aside for pizzas.
  • Ditto for bechamel/white sauce. (Bechamel, fresh prosciutto and grilled zucchini is a personal favorite!)
  • If you’re sauteing mushrooms, make an extra cup and freeze them.
  • Grill up an extra zucchini.
  • Skip the sauce altogether and make one of the pizze in bianco (white pizzas) below.
  • Stock your refrigerator and cupboards with topping like olives, artichoke hearts, anchovies…

Pizza dough basics:

  • Have your dough at room temperature, whether it’s homemade fresh, refrigerated, or store-bought, and flatten a softball-sized lump onto a floured board.
  • Although I’ve done my share of dough flipping, just rolling it out keeps the kitchen a little cleaner (and the ceiling).
  • Keep your dough and board well floured, and turn the dough often so you don’t end up prying it off the table with a spatula.
  • Roll it out into a shape that works with your pizza stone. Make it as thin (or thick) as you like, just make sure that it’s not so thin that it won’t support the weight of its toppings as you slide it from pizza peel (or cutting board) onto your pizza stone.
  • Spread a thin layer of cornmeal on the pizza peel to keep your dough from sticking.
  • ALWAYS wait to put your toppings on until after you have transferred from your workspace to your pizza peel.
  • The longer you leave a topped pizza on the peel, the harder it is to get off. And, yes, I know from experience that it is possible to reach a point where it will not come off in one piece.
  • When transferring the pizza from peel to stone, give it a little side-to-side shake first. Use your spatula to loosen any areas that stick BEFORE you try to slide it off, and keep the spatula handy in case you missed a spot.

Ready for Toppings

Pizza In Bianco 1

One of my favorite pizza toppings is a simple mix of

  • fresh mozzarella
  • fresh basil
  • olive oil
  • salt

If your fresh mozzarella is packaged in water, you’ll need to let it drain and dry for a few hours.

Mix chopped basil and cubed mozzarella in a dish, pour at least a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on top and smush a bit. Spread on the pizza (this one was a little heavy on the cheese and it ran off the sides when baking). Salt to taste just before serving.

Ready for the Barbecue

Six minutes later…

Ready to Devour

Kitchen Tip – Saving Basil

In Italy, you can purchase confections of cubed, frozen parsley, and I always thought this was a great alternative when fresh herbs weren’t on hand. I brought the practice home with me. Whenever I pick parsley, I pick a bit extra, chop  it up, and stick it in a Ziplock in the freezer.

Basil is a different story. Who wants brown flecks of defrosted basil on a pizza? The trick is to keep the cut edges of the basil from being exposed to the air for too long. As with the parsley, when I gather fresh basil, I gather as much as I can, chop it up, set aside what I need for my current dish, and stuff the rest into an ice cube tray I keep just for this purpose. Then I fill the cubes with just enough olive oil to cover the basil (pushing the basil down into the oil with a small spoon once it’s moistened with oil helps), and freeze. Store the frozen cubes in a Ziplock. In winter, it’s the next best thing to fresh basil. Use the cubes in pasta sauces, soups, pizza, even Pesto! If necessary, they can be defrosted in the microwave on a low setting, and any extra oil (is there such a thing?) can be drained off and used for other dishes.

Tray of Basil Ready for the Freezer

Frozen Cubes Ready to Use

Sal’s White Pizza

  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • parsley
  • fresh Parmesan cheese

Another one of my favorite white pizzas is this simple “garlic bread” pizza. It’s been almost 20 years since I worked for anyone besides myself, but my last job was waiting table in an Italian pizzeria in Glenwood, CA, ( a blip on Park Boulevard between Oakland and Montclair in the east bay). Sal’s parlor was always packed. More than an appetizer, Sal served this yummy creation as an “appeaser” while patrons waited for their entrees.

Mix a tablespoon or so of finely chopped garlic with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, squishing the garlic a bit with the back of the spoon to release its flavors. Pour onto your dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped, fresh parsley and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste

Sal's Garlic Bread Pizza

Pizza Margherita

A simple pizza, named after a princess called Daisy.

  • tomato
  • garlic
  • basil
  • mozzarella

I’ve consumed more than my share of simple tomato sauces on pasta and pizza over the years, but these days I just don’t care much for most tomato sauces unless they’re either made from barely-cooked fresh tomatoes or  if they’re sporca — dirty — as our friend Andrea would say — filled with loads of yumminess like olives and capers and bacon.

The trick to make a 5-minute tomato sauce is to start with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, chop your tomatoes into half-inch cubes, and strain all their water away before tossing them into the pan. (The small size of these pieces makes in unnecessary to remove the tomato peels.)

For one 12″ – 14″ pizza:

Saute slices of fresh garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Strain 3 -4 chopped, plum tomatoes, giving them an extra squeeze as you transfer them from colander to pan. Saute on medium to medium-high. The heating tomatoes will generate some water — don’t cook any longer than necessary to evaporate that liquid. Your tomatoes will start to lose their shape, but should not be cooked long enough to lose their fresh-tomato color.

Spoon onto a prepared pizza dough and spread with the back of a spoon. Add a few slices of fresh mozzarella, chopped basil to taste, and get it on the barbecue.

Margherita Ready for the Grill

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

And there you have it. Three pizzas start to finish in 30 minutes. Since we were eating the first as the second and third cooked, after 15 more minutes all that was left were the dishes and the last sips of wine.

Now, if only I could figure out how to write one of the posts so quickly!!!

Buon appetito ~