Almond, lemon and berry cake

2 weeks ago, as I was going through my kitchen notes, a yellowed piece of paper fell into my hands. There was a handwritten recipe on it, written in that basic style that a cook uses only for herself. I am sure you know the style, just so much information that you – and only you – understand what the outcome should be. Almond meal, lemon juice and sour cherries were involved. A google search didn’t bring up anything similar, so I have no idea where this recipe came from – if you recognize the recipe below, please let me know, I’d like to give due credit.

With the prospect of a dvd filled late-afternoon in our cool, air-conditioned bedroom behind closed shutters (this July has been brutal in Rome), I dared the idea of turning the oven on. The kitchen was already terribly hot (no AC here), so I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound” and cranked up the oven.

Since I was born with the CFR-syndrome* (and because I didn’t have everything at home and there was no way I was going outside to the 44°C / 111°F heat), I made some changes. The cake turned out lovely and I have since repeated the success and even made some little tweaks. This is an uncomplicated cake with a surprisingly multi-layered taste – the almonds give a slight crunch and a nutty taste, lemon juice and powder make it fresh and underline the berry taste.

Almond, lemon and berry cake
source: a little yellowed out piece of paper, with some changes by me

prep: 10 mins
bake: 40 mins
cool: 10 mins

all purpose flour, 135 g
baking soda, 1 tsp (5 g)
almond flour**, 85 g
citrus powder***, 3 tsp (substitute fresh zest)
butter, 185 g
sugar, 200 g
lemon juice, 60 ml (I obtained that amount from 1 very juicy big lemon)
Vanilla extract, 10 ml
eggs, 2
berries, 125 g (any berries you have or even sour cherries)

Heat the oven to 180°C / 360°F, line a loaf cake pan with heat proof paper (with overhang!) and butter it liberally.

Mix the flour, baking soda, almond flour and citrus powder/zest. In a casserole type pan, mix butter, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla extract, let it completely melt and dissolve on low heat. Add slowly to the flour mixture and mix with a spatula to just combine. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until completely incorporated. Fill the (runny) batter into the lined and greased pan. Scatter your fruit on top – no need to push down, they will sink!

Bake for 40 minutes (a skewer should come out clean). If you are using frozen berries, it will take up to 20 minutes longer.

Take the loaf pan out and let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. You can then remove the cake from the pan easily by just grabbing the ends of the lining. Eat at room temperature. Some whipped cream on the side is a lovely addition. Keeps in the fridge for at least 3 days (the longest we had some left over).

This is not a very fluffy cake, rather a bit on the dense and coarse side but not unpleasantly so. The size is just right to serve it to a couple of friends for coffee and maybe have leftovers for the next day. No one has been able to eat less than 2 slices!

* Can’t Follow Recipe
** so much better to make your own than buy: just pulse whole blanched almonds for 20 seconds in a food processor or similar. Some coarse crumbs are perfectly ok, it doesn’t have to be too fine.
*** Take an untreated, preferably organic citrus of your choice (orange, lemon, mandarine…), slice into really thin rounds and dry in the oven for a few hours at a low temperature with the fan on. When they are perfectly dry and crisp, grind them to fine meal / powder in the food processor. I made mine in the winter with perfect oranges and have been using it in pasta sauces and salad dressings. You can substitute fresh zest of the lemon you are using for the juice.

Steamed/poached fish, Asian inspired

just before steaming

Just before Christmas, I came up with this simple preparation of sea bream – it turned out to be one of the best ways to eat a big whole fish. I immediately twittered about it so at least I wouldn’t forget what basically went in there, but didn’t have high hopes to ever replicate the experience again.

Over Christmas and New Year we had some friends visiting from Germany, and one of the days was already set aside as “play day” – on which we go to the market, buy whatever is fresh and catches our eye, come home and prepare / cook it together and eat. We eat many courses. We eat in the kitchen and in the dining room. We eat for hours. Oh, and we drink wine, do I have to mention that?

Where was I? Yes, play day, and the menu for the day turned out to be with an emphasis on fish, and one of the courses was my try to recreate that Asian inspired steamed fish. And it did work! There is no set recipe for it, but these are the guidelines.

Ingredients: Get a whole, cleaned white fleshed fish that is around 1 to 1,5 kg (Sea bream in my case). This can feed 2 as an only course or up to 6 as part of a multi course menu. The poaching liquid I concocted was about 200ml stock (vegetable in my case, but you could also use fish or chicken), a generous dash of soy sauce, one minced chili (adjust according to the heat you want but definitely check the hotness before cooking the fish) and a dash of lime juice. As additional flavoring I covered the fish with thin slices/sticks of ginger, garlic and leeks. I think ginger and garlic are essential but the leeks can be substituted by scallions. I also stuffed the belly of the fish with parsley, you could substitute cilantro (harder to find in my neck of the woods) or omit it completely. Do not substitute bay laurels, that is a flavor direction that doesn’t fit with the theme of this dish (though I usually always add laurel to my fish dishes).

The main point of the technique is to steam/poach the fish very gently in a sauce, so you need a (slightly) rimmed plate where the fish can fit in (at least the main body part of it) and a pot/pan with a lid that can accommodate this plate. Place a little bowl in the big pan and place the plate on it. Add some water to the pan, paying attention it doesn’t reach the plate (take into consideration that the water will boil and thus throw bubbles later). Make 2-3 rather superficial cuts on both sides of the fish and place it on the plate. Pour your poaching liquid carefully over it. Cover the fish with ginger, garlic, leeks etc. Place the lid over your construction and put it on a medium-high heat on the stove. Let steam and poach for 25 minutes. Wear oven mittens and be very careful when you remove the lid at the end of this time – steam is very hot and can cause burns! Remove the lid carefully but quickly and decisively.

Divide the fish and serve with a spoon or two of the poaching liquid as well as the vegetables. Do not forget to dunk fresh wheat bread into the sauce!

Gravlax

Shines like a jewel after 6 days

Shines like a jewel after 6 days

I usually have conflicting feelings when T. asks me something about cooking. “How do I cut the onions?” is innocent enough, he is my kitchen assistant, and I very gracefully sometimes let him take care of the lower tasks. Examples being cutting the guanciale and the bread, washing the greens – have you seen how much dirt comes from that spinach? – and reaching for things that are higher up.

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

A totally different story it is when he asks, seemingly innocently as we wait our turn at the fish stand (“bionda”, blondie, is what everyone gets called here), something like “how do you make the gravlax?”. Instantly, I have voices inside my head. What, you don’t have voices inside your head when you are cooking? “Why does he want to know? What does he plan? Is he thinking he can make the dish himself? Why is he so self-esteemed all at once? Ha, he needs to peel a ton of potatoes before he can cook a dish alone.” And, most importantly: “Sh**! He is going to see how easy it is to produce something so show-stopping!

bed the salmon in the mixture

bed the salmon in the mixture

Because easy and show-stopping and delicious it is! There are 100 ways to use it, too: drape slices over potatoes or blinis with some creme fraiche-horseradish mix, put pieces&bits into scrambled eggs, combine with zucchini for a delish pasta sauce…..

weigh it down with a matching wine!

weigh it down with a matching wine!

So, now go buy the freshest piece of salmon you can lay your hands on, with half of it make Nicky’s Salmon tartare for instant gratification while you wait (the only difficulty in making gravlax!) for the rest to turn into jewels!

Gravlax (Graved lax)
ancient method, own mix

prep: 20 mins
unattended: 6 days

Salmon fillets, freshest possible, without skin
coarse salt, 2x the weight of the salmon
sugar, 1x the weight of the salmon
herbs (I used fennel seeds, wild fennel greens, berries and leaves of myrtle; 1tbsp of each – feel free to use a mix that you like best – dill is traditional, if that rocks your boat!)

Wash and pat dry the salmon fillets. Check for any tiny fishbones that may be in the flesh, you can easily pull them out.

Mix salt, sugar and herbs. In a deep non-reactive dish (glass or ceramic) make a thin bed with the mixture. Put the fillets on this bed and cover completely with the rest of the mixture. Put foil saran wrap/cling film (thanks for reminding me, eat!) directly on the salt mixture, put the dish in the fridge and put something as a weight on it. I strongly advice to use the wrap/film, as the mixture will get soggy and smear on whatever you are using as a weight.

On the 2nd day, the fish will already start losing liquid, the salt mixture will get sticky. Check to see if you need to patch any bare spots. The fish has to be completely covered with the mixture throughout the process.

After 5 to 6 days the fish will be “graved”. It is hard, thinner and shiny. Bury it out of the mixture, wash quickly to get rid of the clumps of salt mixture and pat dry.  Discard salt mixture! To eat, slice real thin. Will keep, packed in parchment paper, weeks in the fridge. Can also be frozen.

Update:

There has been some discussion about eating raw salmon and possible parasite infection in the comments and in emails.  Here is what my research (in various government and/or research institute based sites in English and German) delivered and how I handle the situation:

* Raw fish, especially fresh water (or mixed-living) fish, can have parasites. Salmon is one of the those fish.
* The parasites live in the stomach and/or intestines of the fish when it is alive. When it dies, they go into the flesh.
* That is why fish are gutted as soon as they are caught – the worms have no time to eat themselves into the flesh. Don’t ever buy un-gutted salmon at the market.
* If some parasites (or their larvae) have found their way to the fish flesh, they are detectable with the bare eye – they are at least about 1 cm long.
* Almost none of the fish worms can’t adapt to the human system and don’t live in humans. There are no certain numbers but there have been about 200 infections in the USA in the past 27 years.
* Freezing at temperatures around -40°C (which you can’t achieve in a home freezer) and also cooking the fish kill all parasites. Hot smoking as well, but not cold smoking.
* Marinating (acids) doesn’t kill the parasites. There is uncertainty about salting. Some sources say abundant salt (as I use in my recipe as opposed to some lighter “graves” in other recipes) is enough to kill all parasites.
* All fish in Europe that are sold for explicit raw consumption have been frozen before – like in sushi restaurants.
* The fresh salmon from which I get the fillets at the market is not frozen.
* But it is very fresh, it has been gutted quickly, and I do visually examine the fillets before “graving” them with a lot of salt.
* Everyone should decide himself if he wants to eat fresh raw salmon or any other fish. I will surely keep on doing it, observing the above rules.

slice it thin - flavor explosion!

slice it thin - flavor explosion!

Walnut Wedges of Decadence

Walnut Wedge of Decadence

Walnut Wedge of Decadence

This is what one of our friends at our international Thanksgiving Dinner called these. Let me tell you, they really are decadent. There is nothing healthy or low-cal or low-fat in these. But tastewise, they are one of the best desserts I had in some time.

The walnut wedges came about because of my laziness and incapacity, I might say. See, I am pastry dough-handicapped. I fear pastry dough, I fear the mixing (under-mixed? crumbly! over-mixed? stone-hard!), the rolling out (it will stick, no matter how much flour I use) and the transferring to the pie dish (it will tear no matter which method – drape over the rolling pin or fold loosely in quarters)… No matter which lovely blogger takes me through it with a magical recipe, step-by-step, sometimes even in person and live, I am afraid of the pastry dough (actually any dough that I have to roll out, including pasta though, which I guess makes me a failure among all foodies – and I live in Italy, of all places!).

Imagine my joy then, when years ago I came by a pate brisee /sucree (short crust pastry) recipe – I think it was on Clotilde’s blog – where I read the words “no need to roll out, just press the dough/crumbs with your fingertips into the pie dish”. Since then, whenever I can (actually even when I can’t) I go back to that kind of dough when I want to make a pie. For this recipe I used brown sugar instead of regular sugar and changed the proportions a bit – usually I use a bit less butter and sugar for that amount of flour.

And the filling? Years ago, for another thanksgiving party (in Germany, mind you), I had researched the perfect pecan pie. The 10 or so recipes that sounded best to me I threw together and came up with mine. And this year, since pecans were hard to find and very expensive I wanted to substitute them. And since I have about 2 kilos of shelled organic walnuts from my father’s very own plantation in Turkey, I didn’t think too long! But go ahead, if pecans are cheaper in your neck of the woods, or any other nuts (I imagine almonds would be good, too), use them. They will still be Wedges of Decadence.

Walnut Wedges of Decadence
own creation
serves 12 (at least!)

prep: 20 mins
bake: 45 mins

for the crust:

all purpose flour, 180 g
brown sugar, 110 g
butter, 110 g (very cold and cut into pieces/cubes)
salt, pinch

for the filling:

walnuts, 200 g (toasted and coarsely chopped)
cream, 250 g
sugar, 100 g
brown sugar, 60 g
honey, 3 tbsp
butter, 3 tbsp
bourbon whiskey, 2 tbsp
orange peel, 3 tsp
caraway seeds, 1 tsp
aniseed, 1 tsp
salt, 1 tsp

for the topping:

dark chocolate (70%), 100 g (broken into little pieces, or use chips)

Heat the oven to 180°C.

Mix all ingredients for the crust. You can do this with a food processor, a pastry cutter or with your hands (as I did). Knead till you have a crumbly dough that doesn’t hold well together. You can add just a sip of milk or water if you think it doesn’t come together at all. Dump the dough into a 28cm pie dish and press with your fingers into the dish. Try to press it to a uniform thickness. It will run up the sides, for this recipe you don’t need this, whatever goes up the sides, patch it back on the bottom of the dish/form. Put the form on an oven tray (this is a precaution against possible spillage later on) and put in the oven (middle rack) and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, till golden, but not dark. If it has puffed up, push it gently down after you take it out of the oven. Keep the oven temperature.

While the crust bakes, prepare the filling. Mix all the ingredients for the filling except the walnuts in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat (it will bubble up considerably). Let boil for ca. 5 minutes, stirring every once in a while. You want everything to dissolve and thicken together.The mixture will be very hot, be careful!

Take the oven tray with the form on it out of the oven. Distribute the walnuts evenly on the crust. Pour the cream/sugar mixture evenly over it, paying attention to cover every area while pouring – you don’t want to be forced to correct later on, since then the walnuts will come to the top. Put the tray with the pie form on it in the oven again. Bake for 25 minutes. The filling will bubble up and may (doesn’t always do it with me) spill, that is why you want the pie form on an oven tray! After 25 minutes, the filling should be thick and dark golden-brownish. Take it out of the oven with the tray, as it will be unstable and soft till it cools down.

Right after you take the pie out of the oven, distribute the chocolate pieces evenly over the pie, paying attention to not touch the filling with your fingers (hot!). Let sit for a minute or two, till you see that they are melting down. Take a fork and plow through the chocolate (try to keep to the surface only, not the whole filling!) to create a thin layer of chocolate all over the pie. Run a knife along the circumference. Transfer pie-dish first to a cooling rack, later to the fridge (cover with foil) to allow the whole pie to get stable and hard.

Serve very slim wedges, at room temperature. Go to heaven.

Walnut Wedge of Decadence - the profile

Walnut Wedge of Decadence - the profile

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Hello World!

Oh, I can still blog! Who would have thought, after (I have to go check) – wait, what, 2 months??? No way! How did that happen? I promise, dear readers (if there are any of you still out there!), that I won’t let my business (which, by the way, is becoming a huge success, thank you for asking) get in the way anymore. I have been cooking and eating delicious food, so blogging will continue.

Delicious food like above, from delicious days, the book. Now, I do have a love affair going on with pumpkins (or squash, or gourds) as you might remember, so this recipe from Nicky’s book (I am friends with a real cookbook author, how cool is that?) was one of the first I tried – aside from the recipes I was lucky enough to receive months earlier to test and have been going back to all summer long. I made a lot of diners here in Rome very happy, I might add.

One of the best aspects of Nicky’s recipes is that they are suitable for seasoned cooks and absolute beginners alike. If you have been in a kitchen for more than just a couple of times, these recipes deliver a great base, a new idea that you can build around and vary according to what you have on hand and still get great results. And if you don’t feel adventurous or this is the first time you are using your kitchen (this book is definitely a good one to start cooking with) just follow the recipe and surprise yourself.

Pumpkin soup Indian style
slightly altered from original recipe in delicious days, the book
serves 4

prep: 10 mins
cook: 20 mins

hokkaido pumpkin, a smallish sized one around 1000g
onion, 1
garlic, 1 clove
ginger, fresh, a 2cm piece
ghee, 2 tbsp
yellow curry paste, 1 tbsp
garam masala spice mix, 1 tbsp
coconut milk, 1 can (400ml)
vegetable broth, 600ml
brown mustard seeds, 2 tbsp

Wash and cut up the pumpkin. Get rid of the seeds and the fibers. If you are using a hokkaido, no need to peel. Cut the pumpkin into chunks. Dice the onion and the garlic, finely mince the ginger.

In a big pot, heat up the ghee. Roast the onion and the garlic, add the ginger, curry paste and the garam masala mix, wait till the aromas are released. Add the chunks of pumpkin, roast for a couple of minutes. Add the coconut milk and the broth. Cook for about 15 minutes, till the pumpkin pieces have become soft. Mash finely with a stick blender, till no chunks are left.

Dry roast the mustards seeds in a pan and decorate the soup in individual bowls with them. Definitely eat with good, heavy, country bread (or naan, if you can lay your hands on some) and drink a full bodied and aromatic white wine with it.

Hot Days, Cold Food

watermelon granita

watermelon granita

It is so hot in Rome that we choose the gelateria on our once, twice, thrice daily visits according to the shadow/sun ratio of the route to get there.

And sometimes, we just have to stay at home and eat one of these:

melon granita

melon granita

chocolate sorbet

chocolate sorbet

watermelon granita unveiled

watermelon granita unveiled

These are all so easy to make. For any granita, you just need any ripe, real fruit. Puree, add a tiny bit sugar (do this even if your fruit is very sweet, sugar helps with the crystallization of the granita) and a little bit lemon or lime juice. Mix and put in the freezer. For a granita you absolutely don’t need to mix it in between, just before serving, take it out and scrape with a (stable!) fork to obtain the fluffy mountain of cold goodness. Of course you can add alcohol, herbs, just be creative!

For the chocolate sorbet, I used David’s recipe (via Smitten Kitchen). Serve with some pistachios, hmmm!

These were not the only ice creams and granitas in my kitchen. I also adapted David’s Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream (via Cafe Fernando). Just mix a can of condensed milk, one can (use the milk can) of strong espresso, add the fabulous cajeta you have in your fridge (I omitted the ground coffee as I dislike the gritty texture), mix and put in your freezer. You will have to mix this every couple of hours to get a nice, smooth ice cream without ice crystals.

Another great quick ice cream was fig ice cream. Boil a pound of figs with some brown sugar, grated lemon peel and some juice and a dash of homemade vanilla vodka. After it cools, mix it with 250 ml of cream, add some more lemon juice and freeze, as above, working it every once in a while with your stick blender. Serve with little pieces of candied orange peel!

And here are some tips for making very quick ice cream from none other than Harold McGee!

Keep cool!

melon granita - scratch with a fork!

melon granita - scratch with a fork!

Eat Fish Week: Trout Strudel

I will be on an island all week, and a bad conscience has been nagging all the time. Have so much stuff to blog about but so little time. So here you are: my folders give enough material for a whole fish week. You won’t find exact recipes for anything, just an idea of what I threw together. It is meant to inspire you. And if I find a begging comment about some real recipe when I come back, I might think about it!

trout strudel

Let’s get fancy. This is the signature dish of an Austrian restaurant I used to love and have already written about. Used to, because last time we were there with some blogfriends, the experience was less than stellar and I am not very keen on taking my hard earned money there soon. But this dish, it is really good. So I researched and found this recipe online, it was authorized by the cook himself, but it wouldn’t work. Believe me, I am not a novice in the kitchen and I can notice and fix broken recipes, but this one, no. So no recipe here, not even a source, but just an inspiration: Make a strudel, fill it with a farce of mushrooms and a piece of fresh trout fillet. Let me know if you have a great experience!

inner life

Excuse the bad picture, it was sooo late as I was finally done with this un-obeying recipe!