Gung Hay Fat Choy…Ringing in the Year of the Monkey

In San Francisco…hell, in the Bay Area…there is NO shortage of Chinese restaurants to go to for a celebratory Chinese New Year dinner.  However, as any local will tell you, all the decent ones (and even some borderline mediocre ones) are packed to the rafters during this time of the year with families of all sizes, everyone vying for the coveted large round tables, herded in and out like commuters at rush hour.  My family has, on more than a few occasions, been rushed through the obligatory eight-course preset menu, complete with Peking duck and long-life noodles in under 90 minutes, all the while yelling across the huge lazy susan in order to carry on a conversation above the din of the overcrowded room.   Needless to say, it’s hardly an enjoyable experience.

Her abhorrence of crowds and mediocre food…because let’s face it, even the “good” Chinese restaurants over hype and under perform when they’re trying to turn their tables 5 times in one night…has led my mother to sometimes take a non-traditional approach to celebrating Chinese New Year.  A few years ago mom had the novel idea to go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant for Chinese New Year to avoid the hoards of Chinese families.  It would’ve been a win had she picked a better place.  Instead, we traded mediocre Chinese for subpar Italian!  Last year my sister-in- law, Yvonne, volunteered to wait in line for an hour to purchase roast goose and BBQ pork from arguably one of the best vendors in town (and probably the only one my mother deems worthy), anxiously hoping and praying they didn’t run out before it was her turn (apparently there was lots of hoarding going on), just so we could enjoy dinner at home.  This year, to avoid standing in line completely, we opted for “cook it yourself” Japanese sukiyaki, somewhat unconventional but certainly not as weird as Italian.

Like Chinese hot pot, sukiyaki involves cooking from a communal pan (preferably cast iron) with everyone picking and choosing from a variety of raw sliced meats (mainly prime beef), vegetables, tofu and noodles.  The difference is that instead of a large pot of clear broth, the food is simmered in a shallower pan with a smaller amount of liquid that is richer and more concentrated in flavor consisting of soy sauce, mirin, and dashi (Japanese fish stock).   To make things easier my other sister-in-law, Mariko, bought bottles of very good premade sukiyaki base.

While I guess the whole point of going out to eat or buying prepared food for Chinese New Year is to avoid handling big knives (and thereby reducing the risk of cutting oneself and having “bad luck” for new year), the minimal preparation involved (you can get the butcher to slice up the beef) and communal aspect of sukiyaki makes it the perfect alternative to usual Chinese New Year fare.  Best of all, there’s no yelling across a large table or getting jostled by harried waiters or rushing to finish an eight course dinner!

To cap off our Japanese meal, I made Mochi with Chestnut Filling for dessert (and a lemon meringue pie, but that’s another story).  This mochi is a variation of my mom’s recipe, which is surprisingly easy and very delicious…and can be made in the microwave!

Mochi with Chestnut Filling

  • 1/3 cup Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour
  • 1/3 cup Glutinous Rice Flour
  • 1/2 cup Sugar
  • 5 oz. Warm Water
  • 1 cup Chestnuts, cooked and peeled
  • 3 Tbsp. Powdered Sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 Tbsp. Rum
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies from director Ang Lee, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).  It’s one of the best films ever made about food and family, which is, after all, at the heart of Chinese New Year.  Gung Hay Fat Choy!

 

Small(est) Dice Challenge: Baby’s First Birthday Cake

This past week, my son celebrated his first birthday.  My husband’s uncle wanted to make one of his signature, grand cakes, but I don’t give my babies sugar.  I allowed him to make his cake for the family, but my son was going to get a healthy cake.  I searched online for cakes with no sugar and stuff he has yet been introduced.  I found pieces of information that were helpful, but didn’t please me 100%.  Yes, I’m one of THOSE mothers. So, in my usual fashion, I just decided to wing it.  Most recipes had bananas in it, I guess that takes care of the sugar and butter part maybe.  I started by mashing them into a “dough.”  My son was not pleased at first for me ruining a perfectly good banana, but I let him look at what I was doing, and he even grabbed a taste.

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Some recipes said add oatmeal, but I think oatmeal may still be hard for him to chew, so I used his baby oatmeal cereal.  I mean, might as well, he never cared for it by itself.  I, then, added applesauce, which had no added sugar.  It was all apples.  I also put in wheat flour.  Some people use vanilla for taste, but what does he know about vanilla.  He won’t miss it. I mixed it all up, until it looked like a basic muffin mix.

Finally, I put it in my muffin pan.  I did a test batch first, in case, 375° ended up being too hot.  I thought my usual 350° was not going to cook the mush well enough, so I went a little higher.

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After baking, the “cupcakes,” I made the frosting, which was Greek yogurt and applesauce.  It wasn’t bad.

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Finally, he gets to lick the batter off.

Now my little cake didn’t look very good next to the big cake, so I hid it among the fruit on the top and put a giant candle on it.  It blended right in with it.

 

My son was happy with his little cake and, best of all, he didn’t end up with a tummyache.  Furthermore, other people approved of it as just a healthy bread alternative to their coffee.  I think I won this round.

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Downton Abbey…or High Tea at Highclere

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for good British drama, costume or otherwise.  Being the Anglophile that I am, I am not merely satisfied with watching PBS or BBC America to get my fix.  Oh, no.  I subscribe to Tunnel Bear so I can bypass those pesky internet region-restrictions and watch all my favorite UK programs as soon as they air.  It all started when I was a kid and discovered Masterpiece Theatre on PBS (yeah, I’m actually old enough to remember its original host, the wise and erudite Alistair Cooke).  Sure, I was weened on American soap operas–my grandfather loved General Hospital, while my dad favored All My Children (don’t ask me why)–but I found the “other worldliness” of British period dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street utterly fascinating.  It was the original BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, in fact, that turn me onto Jane Austen and consequently English literature.  So when Downton Abbey came along, I was smitten.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.00.07 PMIt had all the requisite makings of a fan-worthy British drama–compelling story line, gorgeous period costumes, lush scenery and grand estates, and a talented cast delivering some of the most quotable dialogue (courtesy of the brilliant Julian Fellowes).

And, of course, Downton Abbey had the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith, whose Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham was undoubtedly the most quotable of all.  I think most fans of the series would agree, despite the ups and downs in the quality of the story lines over the course of six seasons, Smith’s spot-on portrayal of Lady Violet was what really kept us engaged.  Just when the narrative stalled or became dull, you could always count on her to inject a bit of lively humor to jump start the scene.

Given the multitude of characters that have populated the series over the years, the countless plots and subplots, it would probably take more than a few posts to hit all the highlights from both upstairs and downstairs– Mr. Pamuk expiring on top of Mary in her bedroom, Sybil’s marriage to Branson the chauffeur and subsequent death after childbirth, Matthew’s demise from a car crash, Edith secretly giving birth to Marigold, the many schemes of Thomas, Daisy’s awkward deathbed marriage to William, the respective incarcerations of Bates and Anna, the slow-burn romance between Carson and Hughes.

Instead, I’ve decided to simply do tea, high tea that is, to commemorate the place where all of this delicious drama took place–Downton Abbey, otherwise known as Highclere Castle.

Arguably one of the most divisive of characters, at once snobbishly cold and compassionate and fiercely loyal (you can love and hate her, often switching back and forth in the same episode), Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is a force to be reckoned with. And as such, I felt she deserved to have a tea sandwich created in her honor–white bread (well because you can’t get any whiter than her) layered with a smoked trout filling (cold fish) and slices of cool cucumber.  It’s prim and proper with the crusts trimmed off, but quite delectable and richly satisfying.  My chef friend, Brian, gobbled down at least four in one sitting!

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The Lady Mary

  • 4 slices White Sandwich Bread (e.g. Pullman loaf)
  • 1 can Smoked Trout Fillets (aprx. 4 oz.), drained
  • 2 Tbsp. Cream Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. Mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. Butter, softened
  • 1/2 tsp. Chopped Fresh Parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. Chopped Fresh Thyme
  • Salt/Pepper to taste
  • 1/4 English Cucumber, sliced

To make the Smoked Trout filling, break up the trout with a fork, then mix in the cream cheese, mayonnaise, herbs, salt and pepper until smooth and spreadable.

Serving as the counterpoint to The Lady Mary is The Matthew (her greatest love), a sandwich consisting of sliced whole wheat bread (Matthew was always more down to earth), layered with slices of roast beef, a spicy horseradish cream cheese spread, and fresh baby arugula (mainly because I don’t care for watercress).

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The Matthew

  • 4 slices Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
  • 1 Tbsp. Butter, softened
  • 2 Tbsp. Cream Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. Horseradish Cream
  • 1 Tbsp. Mayonnaise
  • 4 oz. Sliced Roast Beef
  • 1 oz. Fresh Baby Arugula or Rocket

To make the Horseradish Cream Cheese Spread, blend the horseradish cream, cream cheese, and mayonnaise until smooth.

Scones are a must at any high tea.  As a nod to the Irishman Branson, who symbolically bridged the two classes at Downton Abbey, I did twist on the classic Irish scone by incorporating some golden raisins (or sultanas as the Brits would say) infused with Earl Grey tea.

IMG_20160124_232114Irish Scones with Earl Grey Sultanas

Yields: 1 dozen scones

  • 1-1/2 cups + 1 Tbsp. All-Purpose Flour
  • 1-1/4 tsp. Baking Powder
  • 3/4 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
  • 2 Tbsp. Sugar
  • 2 oz. Butter, chilled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
  • 1/2 cup Whole Milk
  • 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2/3 cup. Golden Raisins
  • 1 cup Earl Grey Tea (double-strength)
  • Turbinado Sugar for sprinkling

Soak the raisins in the hot tea for about 15 mins., then drain and squeeze out the excess liquid.  Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. flour over the raisins and gently toss to coat.  Combine the remaining dry ingredients in a bowl and cut in the cold butter with two forks until the butter has been broken down to the size of pop corn kernels.  Toss in the flour-coated raisins.  Whisk together the milk, vanilla and about half of the beaten egg, then mix the liquid into the dry mixture to form a dough.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, pat it into disk, then roll the dough out to 1/2″ thickness.  With a 2″ round biscuit cutter, punch out disks of dough.  Arrange the disks onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and brush the tops with the remaining egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.  Bake the scones in a preheated 425°F oven for about 13-15 mins. or until golden brown.

 

IMG_20160124_232139Now something Mrs. Patmore would’ve made for high tea is a traditional Victoria Sponge Cake, a light and airy vanilla sponge cake layered with strawberry jam and sweetened whipped cream.  For my version, I made a very easy vanilla chiffon cake, split the cake horizontally in half then spread a layer of homemade strawberry jam on one half, then top it with a layer of vanilla whipped cream and the other half of the cake.  I chilled the entire cake in the freezer until firm, then using a 1-1/2″ round cutter I punched out petite four size cake bites and dusted the tops with powdered sugar.

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Mini Victoria Sponge

The round out the menu, I came up with a bright and zippy Meyer Lemon Tartlet, in honor of everyone’s favorite Granny, the delightfully acerbic Lady Violet.  It’s a classic high tea staple that never disappoints–a beautifully buttery and flaky tart base made with pate brisee, filled with a sweet and tangy Meyer lemon curd, lightly dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with a tiny sprigs of mint.

IMG_20160124_232155Meyer Lemon Curd

Yield:  1 cup

  • 1/2 cup Fresh Meyer Lemon Juice
  • zest of 2 Meyer Lemons
  • 2 Tbsp. Butter
  • 1/2 cup Sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 Whole Eggs
  • 1 Egg Yolk

Combine the lemon juice, zest, butter, sugar and salt in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil.  In separate bowl whisk together the eggs and yolk, then carefully whisk in the hot liquid to temper the egg mixture.  Return everything to the saucepan and gently cook the mixture on medium heat until thick, whisking the entire time.  The curd should coat the back of a spoon.  Strain the curd into heat proof bowl, press a layer of plastic film onto to surface, and cool to room temperature for refrigerating.  Spoon about 2 tsp. chilled curd into each baked tart shell.

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High Tea, Downton Abbey Style

Given that high tea can often run right into the dinner hour, I’ve chosen to end this high tea with a cocktail…sort of a salute to the end of Downton Abbey (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t watched all of Season 6 yet)–a decidedly British cocktail, made with Gin, Pimm’s, and Owl’s Brew (an English tea mixer).

The Crawley Pimm's Cup
The Crawley Pimm’s Cup

The Crawley Pimm’s Cup

  • 1 oz. Gin (preferably Hendricks)
  • 1 oz. Pimm’s No. 1
  • 2 oz. Owl’s Brew, The Classic
  • 3-4 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 4 oz. Sparkling Lemonade, chilled
  • 2 strips Fresh Cucumber
  • Mint Sprig
  • 3 Fresh or Frozen Raspberries

Combine the gin, Pimm’s, Owl’s Brew, and bitters with 3-4 ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.  Shake to blend, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with sparkling lemonade.  Garnish with cucumber strips, mint and raspberries.

 

 

 

 

 

Small Dice Challenge: Baking Coconut Pecan Bars

I still have a bunch of pecans in my freezer from my mom from Christmas, so I looked through the Baking book to see if there were any recipes that called for them.  I found “Double-Layer Coconut Pecan Bars.” Of course, this sounded delicious to me, because I love coconut, so I figured it was worth a shot to make.  This recipe came from some lady’s grandmother who got it in a cooking class in the 60s.  I wonder if Granny laced this with other stuff, too…while she hosted her key parties.  Anyways as I started reading the directions, I realized I didn’t have an 8-inch square pan, but I did have a  9 x 13 rectangular pan.  Oh boy, I was going to have to convert stuff…ugh…math.  I got started on making the shortbread.

That was easy, except I didn’t make enough so I had to go back and make more.

IMG_20160121_143806 Finally it was ready to bake.  I always forget to bake the crust so I’m glad the directions reminded me.  I can’t count how many times I’ve made soggy pot pie because I’ve skipped this step.  It’s important.

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While the shortbread was baking I prepared the topping.  I realized I ran out of brown sugar.  Why do I never have the exact ingredients?!  Well I substituted it with regular sugar, I guess that works.  I prepared everything else more or less exact considering I had to add more to fit my pan.  When I pulled out the shortbread, the topping was ready to be poured over it.

Then I put it in the oven for 20 more minutes.  After pulling it out, I let it cool for a couple of hours.  Finally, I was able to cut the bars so I could try it.

Oh my goodness, they were delicious.  My daughter hesitated to try it, because she claims she doesn’t like coconut… but I made her.  She thought they were “delicious.” I waited a couple of days for my husband to have some and reminded him, and he said he didn’t like coconut (so that is where my daughter gets it from, as well as other bad habits not worth mentioning).  So apparently I am the only one in the world who likes coconut.  Guess I’m gaining 10 lbs. this month eating these bars.

If you do like coconut AND pecans, I included the recipe below.  It is pretty easy to follow.

I converted the ingredients to a 9 x 13 baking dish, your welcome:

Ingredients

Shortbread

3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Topping

3 eggs

1 1/4 cups brown sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened shredded dried coconut

2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups pecans, chopped

1 tsp salt

Instructions

  1.  Preheat oven to 375°.  Butter your baking dish.
  2. Make the shortbread first. Cream the butter and sugar together until mixed.  Works best with an electric mixer but you can use a wooden spoon.
  3. Stir in the flour, until combined. Transfer mixture to the buttered pan and press your batter evenly into the dish.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes.
  5. While baking the shortbread prepare the topping.  In a bowl, mix the eggs and sugar until well combined with your electric mixer.  Toss the coconut and flour together in a separate bowl then add it to the egg mixture along with the vanilla pecans and salt.
  6. Spread the topping over the shortbread and bake for 20 more minutes, until the filling is puffy and brown.  Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 4 to 5 days if it lasts that long.

 

A toast to a King and a Colonel

The Goblin King (Laura)

David Bowie died on January 13, 2016 from a battle with cancer.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to remember how he died, I want to remember how he lived.  While most people have been touched by his music, his talent extends further.  I think I was 11 or 12 when I first saw Labyrinth. One of my friends had it, and I was a young fan of Jim Henson’s work.  When Bowie came onto the screen, I was mesmerized. Growing up in a small town, he was not like anyone I had ever seen before. I wanted to be Jennifer Connelly.  I would’ve stayed in that labyrinth and ruled the goblins with him.  While I appreciate and often listen to David Bowie’s music, I will never forget The Goblin King.

 

So I raise a glass to David Bowie, The Goblin King and more….

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  • 6 Sliced pieces of a peach
  • Sprinkle of Brown sugar
  • 5 oz of White wine (something light like pinot grigio)
  • 1/2 shot of Brandy
  • 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream

Put peach slices, wine, and brown sugar in a pan and let it bake for about 10 min at 350°.  Take out and put in a blender with brandy.  Blend until smooth.  Put into a wine glass.  Whip the cream with mixer until desired consistency.  Lop over peach mixture.  Add a slice of peach for garnish.

 

Truly Madly Deeply Sad (Mimi)

As if this week couldn’t get any worse, this morning we woke up to the devastating news that the truly brilliant, madly accomplished, and deeply admired Alan Rickman passed away, also of cancer at the “young” age of 69.  Like Laura, I’m determined to remember him for the life he lived and the countless performances on stage and screen he so generously bestowed upon us.  His presence in any medium was always compelling.  Whether he was playing Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard (1988) or the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Alan Rickman imbued his “villains” with wit, intelligence (albeit maniacal), pathos, and passion.

Of course, one can say that about every one of his portrayals, from the underrated, beleaguered television actor Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest (1999) to the recently deceased cellist Jamie in Truly Madly Deeply (1990).  And of all the characters in the Harry Potter franchise his Professor Snape was by far the most intriguing, complex and supremely watchable.   My favorite Alan Rickman performances, however, weren’t the brash, bold, dramatic ones, but rather the more subtle ones like his Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and his Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock (2008).

The timber and cadence of his iconic voice is what I will remember the most about Alan Rickman, because even when he’s not on the screen his presence is undeniable.

Cheers to the late great actor!  I raise a glass of Rickman’s Potion in his honor–Bulleit Bourbon (depth), Owl’s Brew (English tea), Spiced Cherry Bitters (complexity), Ginger Beer (fizz & bite), Orange (brightness)

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  • 1.5 oz. Bulleit Bourbon
  • 2 oz. Owl’s Brew (The Classic)
  • 3-4 dashes Spiced Cherry Bitters
  • 4 oz. Chilled Ginger Beer
  • 1 Fresh Orange Slice

Combine the bourbon, Owl’s Brew, and spiced cherry bitters in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes.  Shake the blend, then strain liquor into a chilled martini glass.  Top off with ginger beer and garnish a slice of fresh orange.

I’d like to end with a smile…courtesy of a wonderful man who knew how to laugh at himself.

Hey mambo…mambo Italiano

We call ourselves the Vivande alums–a group of friends and former co-workers at a once popular, now defunct San Francisco Italian restaurant–who gather once or (if schedules permit) twice a year to share a meal, some laughs and reconnect…often reminiscing about the good old days at Vivande Porta Via.   Vivande was the first of three Italian restaurants where I would work (who knew?) and it was the place where I truly learned to appreciate Italian cuisine and Italian culture.  Up until I went to cooking school, my Italian culinary vocabulary was pretty much limited to lasagna, spaghetti and pizza.  And even at the culinary academy, where “classic” cooking techniques were decidedly more French, my exposure to Italian cuisine was rudimentary at best–I made gnocchi (never even heard of that before) and risotto once.

Since my job at Vivande was in catering sales (I’d wanted a break from pastry), I had to know what the hell I was selling…  and so began my education…one dish at a time.  All the employees were allowed to order one meal per shift off the menu, with some exceptions.  Of course, it wasn’t until I became Director of Catering that I had access to the full menu (oh yeah, you better believe I took full advantage of that perk).  Anyways, one of my first duties was to edit the daily specials and print out the menus, which gave me the chance to study the menu descriptions and decide what I wanted to try for lunch–pasta alla norma was one of my favorites (penne pasta in marinara with gorgeous pieces of sauteed eggplant, ricotta salata, and fresh basil).  The bolognese was a revelation…nothing like the meat sauce my mom made out of a “spaghetti seasoning” packet and canned Del Monte’s tomato sauce when I was a kid.  There was a depth of flavor I had never tasted before–the heady aroma of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano melting into the warm pasta and sauce was irresistible.  My friend and co-worker Maria once had the great idea to save her favorite “bolo” to take to the movies after work.  Needless to say, she had a tough time flying under the radar once she cracked open the lid of her takeout tray!  I don’t remember what movie Maria went to see, but whatever it was it apparently did not pair well with pasta bolognese since she complained later of indigestion.

One movie that I think does go perfectly with Italian food is Big Night (1996).  This gem, co-directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci (who plays Secondo), is practically a love letter to authentic Italian cooking.

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Set in the 1950’s Jersey Shores, the movie tells the story of two immigrant brothers from Abruzzo–the older a virtuoso perfectionist chef named Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and the younger an impassioned, ambitious restaurant manager named Secondo–who, despite their splendid food, are struggling to keep their restaurant Paradise afloat.   The problem is that their customer base can’t appreciate the authenticity of Primo’s sublime cooking.   While Primo believes that “to eat good food is to be close to God” and stubbornly refuses to pander to ignorant palates, Secondo, as a businessman, strives to cater to customer demands.  When a customer requests a side of spaghetti, he explains to Primo “sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.”

In a last ditch effort to revitalize their business and attract more customers to Paradise, Secondo convinces Primo to go all in on an extravagant dinner in honor of Louis Prima, a famous Italian American jazz singer, whom their “friend” and rival restauranteur Pascal (Ian Holm) has supposedly persuaded to dine at their restaurant.  The brothers plunge headlong into preparing a sumptuous, lavish menu for their “big night”–the centerpiece being the timpano, a complicated, multi-layered baked pasta dish.

Even though Prima and his entourage never show up at Paradise (it was all a ruse for Pascal to get back at Secondo for turning down his offer of work and sleeping with his wife), for one grand evening diners feast on truly magnificent food and take part in a joyous celebration, which in the end is what everyone remembers about Big Night.  On a side note, you can catch a very young, skinny Latin superstar Marc Anthony as the lone waiter Cristiano.

Coincidentally, the food, the comradery, and lively conversations are what I remember about my time at Vivande.  Now that we’re no longer in the thick of the day to day challenges of running a restaurant and catering business, confronting crisis after crisis, putting out fires (literally and figuratively), we can laugh at our mishaps (like the time I forgot to order ice for a 200 person office party) and remember fondly those individuals who provided us with countless hours of amusement–like “Pizza Rustica Lady” who recounted (ad nauseum to anyone who had the misfortune of taking her call) her laborious trek across the city on four buses to come to Vivande for her single slice of pizza rustica, a dish we probably only made once a week and eventually had to discontinue because it didn’t sell.  Sadly, there came a day a few years back when not only the pizza rustica but an entire restaurant fell by the wayside…and along with it a treasure trove of culinary delights.

Maybe it was the bitter cold temperature, or the fact that I found myself watching a lot of 90’s movies…or that Trader Joe’s in Westlake ran out of chicken stock (what the hell?!) and my plans to whip up a pot of hearty sausage and kale soup had been thwarted, but I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to recreate (with what I had on hand) my all-time favorite Vivande specialty–the N’figgiulata.  I’d sold hundreds of them for catering and never got tired of taking home the leftovers from off-site catered events.  What is this miraculous dish you may ask?  Well, it is a rich, moist Italian bread that is rolled and stuffed with veal, salami, olives, spinach and cheese…and a host of other ingredients I can’t even remember now (although I used to be able to rattle them off lickety split).  I think the version they made at Vivande used a focaccia dough, but for my interpretation I used my handy-dandy pizza dough.

To make my N’figg,  I rolled my already proofed pizza dough into a long rectangle, about 18″ x 7″ and 1/4′ thick.  I spread a thin layer of homemade pesto (yeah, I usually keep some in the freezer), then sprinkled on a generous layer of shredded mozzarella and asiago cheeses, followed by a layer of cooked crumble chicken Italian sausage and ground turkey (seasoned with oregano, garlic, and chili flakes), a layer of sauteed yellow onions, mushrooms and organic Tuscan kale, a sprinkling of capers and chopped Kalamata olives, and a little more shredded cheese.  I then very carefully rolled the layered dough into a big fat log and transferred it onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, brushed it with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled the surface with a little parmesan and sea salt.  I covered the N’figg lightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm spot to proof again for another 30 mins.  When it was nice and puffy, I baked the N’figg at 375°F for about 40 mins. until it was golden brown.

N’Figgiulata

  • 2/3 batch Pizza Dough
  • 3 Tbsp. Pesto
  • 6 oz. Shredded Mozarella
  • 4 oz. Grated Asiago
  • 2 links Chicken Italian Sausage
  • 8 oz. Ground Turkey
  • 2 Garlic Cloves, finely chopped
  • Sea Salt/Black Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. Dried Oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. Chili Flakes
  • Olive Oil
  • 1 Small Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 8 Medium Brown Mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 Small Bunch Tuscan Kale, stalk & rib removed
  • Dry White Wine
  • 2 Tbsp. Capers, drained
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata Olives, pitted and chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. Grated Parmesan

As you can tell from the photos, the N’figgiulata is a beast of a dish–certainly not something you’d make for just one person…unless you’re planning on freezing parts of it to enjoy at a later date (which is what I ended up doing).  It is, however, something you might consider for a party…say a reunion for old co-workers…or your own version of a “Big Night.”  Can anyone say Superbowl Party?  Buon Appetito!

Small Dice Challenge: Baking Scones

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Happy New Year!  For Christmas, I received some new baking tools from Mimi.  Apparently, she was not impressed with my burnt cookie sheets and gave me new ones complete with silicone mats so my cookies don’t stick to  the bottom either.  She, also, told me that measuring is very important in cooking and baking in order for things to not come out the way I keep making them come out.  Therefore, she gave me a measuring digital scale for me to weigh flour and what not.  Finally, since my New Year’s resolution is to be a better cook among other things, I was presented with a cookbook all about baking, which is called (great name, by the way), Baking.  The book claims that I can pull off “60 sensational treats…in a snap.” Challenge accepted.  I probably won’t do this every week, because that New Year’s resolution thing, also, wants me to lose weight, but I will be intermittently trying recipes from this book.  The challenge is, though, whether or not I can follow directions.  So, here we go…

I started with the first recipe of scones.  This came from a lady called, wait for it, “The Scone Lady.” Where do they come up with these names. It would be funnier if she didn’t make scones at all.  I mean, she could just make cookies and brownies, and just be called “The Scone Lady.” Then, one day, someone is writing a book and says,  “I need a recipe for scones, who do I call…I know, the scone lady.”  “The Scone Lady,” not wanting to disappoint anybody, just starts making up ingredients, and everybody believes her, because she’s called “the scone lady.” Okay, where was I?  I started with weighing my flour on my new deluxe weighing machine.  I felt just like Pablo Escobar making sure I was getting my money’s worth of flour measured correctly.  Then, I was told to use a food processor to pulse, but, guess what, I don’t have one of those, so I improvised.  I had my “one-balled” beater (if you remember, it broke in my last post).  I just passed it 10 times around the bowl, same thing.  Then, I added cold butter, which made me worry a little for my poor beater, but I basically only had to smoosh the butter around.  Finally, since I wanted savory rather than sweet, I added Rosemary for flavor.

I would like to point out that while I was preparing the batter, I was, also, making supper.  This shows that this is an easy recipe to follow if I was able to concentrate on more that one thing.

They look like little half-chickens.
I made wontons that look like an army of little half-chickens.

Since I didn’t want to overwork my beater, I moved on to working the dough with my hands.  You can still see chunks of butter, but the book assured me that it was ok.  I, then, was asked to create a 6-7 inch circle.  I’m no artist, so my sculpture was a little something to be desired.

I, then, sliced it into eight pieces.  I’ve had a lot of practice cutting up pizzas, so I’m kind of an expert now. Then, came the choices.  I could either freeze them (which was recommended) or bake them right away.  I chose to freeze them.  I wasn’t taking any chances.

One of these things is not like the other...
One of these things is not like the other…

After I left them in the freezer overnight, I used heavy cream to glaze the top and salted each one.  I debated whether to sprinkle cheese on top, but my hunger won out, and I didn’t feel like grating cheese.

Best part, "painting" with cream
Best part, “painting” with cream
There's a thief in our midst...he's running away with my measuring cup...Get Him!!
There’s a thief in our midst…he’s running away with my measuring cup…Get Him!!

Now, here comes the kicker, they wanted me to preheat the oven at 400°.  I raised my brow and thought, “Really, you want ME to use 400°…you’ve got to be joking.”  They weren’t.  So, I did.  After waiting what seemed like an eternity of preheating, I put the scones in the oven.  My house was filled with the aroma of Rosemary.  The scones came out beautiful and fluffy.  They actually weren’t heavy and seemed more like triangle biscuits.  I should call her “The Biscuit Lady”and see what happens.

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After they cooled down a bit, I dug into the scone.  It was delicious….oh wait…there’s an aftertaste.  Yep, I used too much Rosemary.  It did not go well with my coffee.  Oh, wow, that aftertaste was not pleasant.  I needed a second opinion, so I called my daughter over.

Me: “Hey, try this scone.

Her: “Papa taught you how to make scones?!”

Me: “No, I taught myself.”

She takes a bite.

Her: “Mmmm…(her face drops)…they’re good, but I don’t want anymore.”

Me: “It’s okay if you don’t like it.”

She stares at me.

Me: “It’s not good, is it?”

Her: (Shakes head) “I just wanted to say it was good.”

I made chicken soup that night and decided to drown my scones in the broth.  They were much better.  The broth calmed the rosemary down and made it edible.  I think I ended up winning this challenge with my soup soakers, but lost if we’re still calling them scones.

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