Thursday, March 31, 2011

Homemade Pasta: A Cooking Lesson in Bellagio, Italy

I recently came home from a vacation in Italy where I took a pasta making class from Chef Luigi at Salice Blue restaurant in Bellagio on Lake Como.  The town of Bellagio provides the inspiration for the Vegas hotel with the same name, and it’s no wonder they chose a place named for its stunning beauty to inspire their palatial hotel.  The real Bellagio is somewhat less grand in scale than it’s Vegas counterpart, and has none of the commercial hype or fantasy-land aspect of the Americanized version.  The town is only about as long as a few blocks, and the handful of shops trickle up into the hillside from the main street.  The cafes and gelato shops sit right on the water's edge and overlook both sides of Lake Como.  This idyllic little spot is where my cooking lesson began.

By the end of the morning we had created a masterpiece of dual colored ravioli, stuffed with potato and pesto filling to serve for lunch at Salice Blue.  At exactly 12:30pm the entire restaurant filled to capacity.  As though the town had some communal lunch hour that everyone adhered to.  This made things difficult for Luigi, who prepares each dish to order.  After the morning cooking lesson our lunch took over three and a half hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it.  Our little table in the sunshine overlooked both the distant mountains and the piercing blue waters of the lake beneath them.  It was my own storybook chapter of my perfect Italian holiday.  Sure the next day we’d drop a passport running through the Milan train station, and the day after that realize my credit card had been stolen…but for those few gorgeous hours I ate my heart out in bliss.

We began with a tour of Chef Luigi’s home garden.  He showed me the different herbs, lettuces and grass that had been planted there, each to honor a specific moment in time.  His own birth and those of his family members properly celebrated by a rosemary bush or a crop of spring onions.
Then the lesson began…

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Homentaschen! Jewish Triangle Cookies Filled with Jam

Homentaschen, are little triangle cookies traditionally filled with jam or poppy seed preserves for the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Families bake up these delicious treats and send them to one another to celebrate the holiday.  Every year my Mom sends Mishloach Manot (gift baskets filled with homentaschen and other delicious sweets) to our close friends and family.  And from my first year away from home until now I look forward to receiving my own installment of home-baked happiness.  This year I got to actually be home for the holiday and bake these with my mom.  

The cookies are shaped to allegedly represent Haman’s (villain from the Purim story) ear, though you’ll also hear it’s his hat.  Why you would want to eat some mean man’s ear or hat I can’t understand, and personally I wish they represented a more positive aspect of the tale, but nevertheless here they are. 
Purim is also a holiday particularly geared towards children because you dress up, sing, dance and generally have a wonderful time.  These cookies are also great fun to make with kids.

The dough is fantastic to work with (the consistency is strikingly similar to Playdough) and the cookies have that indescribable old-world/foreign taste built into any Jewish recipe handed down through the generations.  This recipe is actually Auntie Tova’s (who is in fact my best friend’s Aunt not my own, so really it’s another Jewish family’s recipe, but we were all neighbors in the same shtetle once, right?).  The dough looks like a traditional sugar cookie or refrigerator cookie (meaning the dough must cool before you can use it) but don’t be fooled, not only do these taste like the home country, but if made in the traditional homentaschen way, they’re little Eastern European jewel boxes for the eye as well.

Preptime: 30 mins.  Refrigeratortime: 1 hr. Baketime: 15 mins.
Makes about 48 cookies.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Triple Chocolate (Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate) Swirls Drizzled in (you guessed it) Chocolate

I’m actually not a self-described chocoholic (though it’s possible others may describe me as such).  I don’t like the term.  Yes I carry candy in my purse and collect fine dark chocolates but it’s not an obsession so much as a healthy hobby.  I made these chocolate chocolate chocolate swirls for my friend’s birthday brunch this past weekend because it was a busy weekend and I needed something really quick that was still special.  This weekend I moved apartments, packed for an upcoming Italy vacation, and contacted breeders to find a new English Springer Spaniel puppy, all with time to spare to bake these for the bday brunch.  And aside from thinking the party started at 2pm and showing up late at 2:45pm even though it actually started at 1pm so by the time I got there it was almost over, I nevertheless did get everything done. 

Basically while cleaning out the freezer of my old apartment I found a package of puff pastry dough and was inspired.  So I defrosted my muse and then took a bunch of leftover chocolate bricks from the back of my baking shelf and had at it.  This recipe is extremely forgiving and although I don’t think they came out as show stopping pieces of art, the swirls were really cute and they were an indulgent and delicious treat for the birthday.  If you serve them warm the chocolate is melted and amazingly smooth, if they cool down they get a fantastic crunch that compliments the flaky pastry oh so well!

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