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Italian Dinner Menu – Dessert!

February 10, 2012 2 comments

This is the last recipe from our Italian Dinner: Apricot Almond Cake with Pine Nuts.  Whew, now I can move on to something else :-). The other dessert from the dinner was a salted caramel panna cotta.  I’ve already posted the recipe (you can search for it using the handy search field on the top-right of the blog).  Cooking for so many people caused a few refrigerator space issues, especially with the panna cotta.  I wanted to use my great-nanny’s sherbet dishes, but they were not practical because I couldn’t stack them in the refrigerator.  So, I made the panna cotta in tiny jelly jars (Yay to Lewter Hardware for having the 4-ounce jelly jars). Popped on the lid, screwed on the ring, and stacked away – space issues solved!  The mason jars were not only practical, but they were cute!

I wanted to serve a non-gelatin dessert, so I decided to bake a cake.  Well, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to make one large cake or cupcakes.  Then I decided to also bake them in jelly jars.  Oh my gosh, they were cute!  But like a goofball, I forgot to take a photo of the cakes.  I just have a photo of the platter with all the mason jars and spoons (cakes are on the bottom row).  Baking in the jars worked well, I might never make traditional cupcakes again!  Here’s the cake recipe:

Apricot Almond Cake with Pine Nuts

½ cup almonds (whole, chopped, sliced, or slivered)

¼ cup pine nuts

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

½ cup dried apricots, finely chopped or minced

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1½ sticks butter, melted

⅓ cup half-and-half (or milk)*

¼ teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla

Optional garnishes:  almonds (sliced, chopped, or slivered), pine nuts, powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 345º degrees F. Butter and flour ten 4-ounce jelly jars or a 9” cake pan. You might need a few more or a few less.  It depends on the final volume of your batter.  This can be influenced by how much you beat the eggs, the humidity, most anything.

Toast the almonds and pine nuts in the oven for about 5 minutes.  Ensure that they don’t burn. After they are toasted, remove them from the pan and let them cool.  Cool completely. You can save some time by using nuts that are already toasted. 

Combine the cooled almonds and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until finely ground.  But be careful, since this can quickly turn into nut butter (not good for this recipe).  Transfer the ground nuts to a medium bowl and add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir well. Add the apricots and stir again.  Tossing the apricots in the dry mixture will hopefully prevent the apricots from sinking to the bottom. But be aware, sometimes they just want to sink, not matter what you do.  And that’s ok, because it still tastes delicious!

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and the sugar until it is thick and pale yellow, about 4 minutes on medium-high.  Add the cooled melted butter, half-and-half, almond extract, and vanilla. Gently fold in the dry ingredients by hand. Do not over mix or you will have a tough cake.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan or mason jars.  If you use the jars, pour the batter up to the line, like you would if you were making jelly.  If you want, sprinkle the top with more almonds or pine nuts.  Bake until the cakes are done and a toothpick comes out clean, about 30 to 45 minutes. Baking time depends on your oven and the size of your containers.  Let the cake(s) cool on a wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving, if you want.  This cake is even better the next day – prefect for a late breakfast with a cup of coffee!

*We usually don’t have milk at the house, but we have half-and-half for coffee.  If you don’t want the heaviness of the half-and-half, you can use about ¼ cup of half-and-half and about 3 tablespoons of water to make the ⅓ cup of dairy.  Or you could use soy, coconut, or almond milk.

Possible flavor variations:
– If you don’t have dried apricots or don’t like apricots, you can use dried cranberries.
– Add some lemon or orange zest for a nice kick.
– Add a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg.

Vegan option:
I tried to make this recipe vegan (substituting a combination of coconut, canola and olive oil for the butter and coconut, soy, or almond milk for the half-and-half).  But I had a problem finding a suitable egg substitute, since the eggs seem vital to the texture.  Not sure an egg substitute would work in this particular recipe.  But if anyone experiments with a vegan version, I’d love to hear about it.

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Italian Dinner Menu – Starters

February 3, 2012 2 comments

These are the recipes for the starters and salad we served at the Italian Dinner.  I posted the Tuscan White Bean Dip a few weeks ago.  Matt made most of the starters and the salad.  So glad I married someone who likes to cook!  He made the marinated olives and they were delicious!  The only complaint – we needed to serve them with a spoon so people could eat the juice with their bread.  Silly hosts, we only put out toothpicks!

 

Marinated Olives with Orange

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

16 ounces mixed olives (green, purple, black – any combination works)

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

2 shallots, minced

pinch of cinnamon

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons white vinegar

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoons fresh mint chopped

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Dry roast the fennel and cumin seeds in a small, heavy-bottom pan on medium heat.  You want them to heat them until they start to pop, but be careful because they can burn quickly.  Shake or stir frequently.  Remove from heat and let the seeds cool.  Place the seeds in a large container with a lid.  Add the olives.

Mix the orange zest, lemon zest, shallots, cinnamon, balsamic vinegar, white vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, mint, parsley, salt, and pepper.  Pour over the olives and toasted seeds.  Mix, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 day before serving.

 

Crostini with Roasted Garlic

3 heads garlic, whole

2 tablespoons olive oil

pinch of Kosher salt

pinch of freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf of Italian or French bread, in ½” slices (thinner if you prefer, I like ¼”)

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (optional)

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Remove the outer, papery layer of skin on the garlic heads.  However, leave the skins of the individual cloves intact. Use a sharp knife to cut off a ¼  to ¾-inch slice from the pointy end of each garlic head. Place the bulbs in a garlic roaster (if you have one, we do not), an over-proof container, or you can wrap them in foil.  Drizzle the garlic with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover with a lid or use foil.  Bake for 50-60 minutes until the garlic is soft.

Let the garlic cool, and then use your fingers to squeeze the roasted garlic out of the cloves.  Or you could use a tiny fork or a butter knife to remove the garlic.

Put the garlic in a bowl, mash with a fork.  Add a little more olive oil if it is too dry (you can use the oil from the garlic roasting if you want).  The mixture should be spreadable.

Toast the bread, the oven should still be hot from roasting the garlic.  Spread with the garlic. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Serve.

 

 

Caprese Crostini

For this recipe, there are no quantities.  You’re basically making little open faced tomato and cheese sandwiches.  Make as many or as few as you want.  I’m just listing the ingredients so you know what you need:

Italian or French bread, in ½” slices (thinner if you prefer, I like ¼”)

raw clove of garlic

tomatoes, either Roma, cherry, grape, or regular (whatever is in season and looks good)

fresh mozzarella

fresh basil, thinly sliced

olive oil

Balsamic vinegar (Balsamic Vinegar Reduction, sold in some groceries and gourmet markets or you can make your own)

Kosher salt

black pepper, freshly ground

Toast bread.  Rub the bread with a raw clove of garlic.  Drizzle the bread with olive oil. Top with a slice of mozzarella. Slice the tomatoes, and put a slice on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.    Sprinkle with the basil.  And drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Fennel and Orange Salad

This is the salad Matt made for the Italian Dinner.  It was the first time he’d made the salad so it was basically an experiment.  But it worked out well and was a big hit. I’m not a huge fennel fan but I really liked the salad.  He used one orange per person.  This is a versatile recipe and can be scaled up or down.  He used pomegranates, but if you don’t like them or if they aren’t in season, you could use dried cranberries.  For a totally different taste, you can mix it up and substitute sliced ripe olives for the pomegranates and add some red chili flakes for a touch of heat.


 

8 oranges (he used a combo of Valencia, navel, and blood oranges)

1 teaspoon orange zest

3 tablespoons orange juice

¼ cup olive oil

¼ teaspoon Kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced

1 mild medium sized white onion, thinly sliced

½ cup pomegranate seeds

Wash and dry the oranges and then Zest some of the orange (no white pith) and reserve it for the dressing (about 1 teaspoon). 

Section the oranges.  To me, the easiest way is to slice off the top and bottom.  Set the orange flat on a cutting board, and then use a knife to carefully remove the peel along with all of the pith. I cut from top to bottom vertically, following the orange’s curve.  To remove all of the peel and pith, you will probably end up cutting some of the juicy flesh, but that’s ok.  It’s better to not have the pith.  While working over a bowl, take your knife and cut out each individual section of the orange.  You’ll be left with a bunch of pith, squeeze this to remove any juice. Another way to section an orange is to cut the orange in half and use a spoon to scoop out the pulp, kinda like you would do with a grapefruit.  Reserve at least 3 tablespoons of the juice for the dressing.  Drink the rest (if you want!).

Mix the olive oil, orange juice, orange zest, salt, and pepper.  Toss this with the orange sections, fennel, and onion.  Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and serve.

 

Note:  I’m having some font/style issues with WordPress today, sorry if there are inconsistencies.  Also, issues with spacing and proofreading. I’m frustrated and tired of tinkering with it, so I’m just gonna post “as is.” 

Post 12/13 – Italian Lentil and Pea Soup with a Pesto Swirl

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the many beautiful sunsets we saw in Levanto, Italy

Once again, I took liberties with my naming.  Italian might be a misnomer, but I made up this soup using a few ingredients we bought in Italy, so I called it “Italian.”  The rest of the ingredients came from our pantry or Garden Cove.  It was a pantry soup, tried to use what I had on-hand.

We bought the pesto in Levanto and the orzo pasta in Milan.  The recipe is also inspired by a soup we had in Levanto.  We had dinner at Ristorante da Rino, at the recommendation of our friend and host, Claudio.  It was one of the best meals we had on our trip. My favorite part of dinner was the minestrone soup. Their soup rivaled some of the food at the slow food restaurant, La Pallotta, in Assisi (one of the best meals of my life).   It was a thick, creamy bean soup with a pesto swirl, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of Parmesan.  Nothing like the thin, tomato-based soup served in the States.   

Pesto:  We visited and fell in love with Liguria, a region in northwest Italy. It is famous for its cuisine, particularly pesto. For good reason – the local pesto is incredible! We brought home a few jars.  The pesto we bought includes cheese, so this dish isn’t vegan but it is vegetarian friendly.  You could easily make it vegan by using a pesto with just basil, walnuts (or pine nuts), olive oil, and garlic and leaving off the optional Parmesan sprinkle garnish.  It would probably be even better if you made fresh pesto.  But there was something special about using a jar of pesto from a cute little shop in Levanto.

 Orzo pasta:  We also bought back orzo pasta.  Orzo pasta is pasta in the shape of large grains of rice.  It is also called risoni.  Luckily, you can find it in many grocery stores here.  It was just kinda cool using a bag from a fancy-dancy department store in Milan. Orzo is often used in soups.  I love it in lentil soup, split pea soup, and chicken soup. Since this soup is a combination of split pea and lentil soup, I thought it would be a good addition.  This soup is thick, more like a stew, so I pre-cooked the orzo in salted boiling water and then drained it before adding to the soup.


I made this soup a few weeks ago.  I wrote down the ingredients on the back of an envelope.  I have so many scraps of paper with a list of ingredients, it’s kinda ridiculous!  Slight problem, I didn’t include the directions. So, I’m trying to recreate it in my mind.  Hope it isn’t too scattered.

 

Italian Lentil and Pea Soup with a Pesto Swirl

10 oz. (approx. 2 cups) of fresh sugar snap peas (frozen sweet peas would work too)

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 stalks of celery, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 cup lentils (I used Turkish red lentils)

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

¼ -½ teaspoon black or cayenne pepper (or Penzeys’ Black & Red Blend)

½ teaspoon dried parsley

1 bay leaf

½-1 cup of cooked orzo pasta (depends on how much you like pasta!)

pesto, for garnish

olive oil, for garnish

freshly grated Parmesan, for garnish


If you use fresh pods, use everything – pods and peas (might want to remove the string if they are stringy).  You can also use frozen peas or frozen peas in the pod. Cook the peas until just tender in a small saucepan on the stove or zapped in the microwave. Mash them with a fork or purée with a hand blender.  Set aside.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot sauté the celery, onions, and garlic in the olive oil, until soft.  Stir in the lentils, water, mashed peas, salt, pepper, parsley, and bay leaf.   Cover and simmer on low for about hour or until the lentils are tender.  Check every 20 minutes or so to see if it needs more water.  Add water as needed. Remove the bay leaf.  Purée some of the soup or mash it (depends on how much texture you want).  Add the cooked orzo pasta.  Serve with a swirl of pesto, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of Parmesan.