May 24, 2009

Amaretti cookies

I love amaretti.  Outside of Italy it is more common to find the crunchy style of amaretti, delicious with coffee or crumbled over ice cream, but my favourite is the soft amaretti cookie found in Italian bakeries.

If you have ever had one in Italy you know what I am talking about - soft and chewy, fragrant with almonds.  They are sold by the pound and on Sundays you will see families carrying bakery boxes full of these treats.

Recently we made them for a wedding shower.   They are incredibly easy to make - if you opt for plain cookies, that is.  If, on the other hand, you want to pipe them into fancy shapes, well, let's just say that you better have some strong arms!

For the shower we made piped amaretti in pink and white to match the colour scheme. After piping several hundred cookies it felt like my arm was going to fall off but it was all worth it when we saw the finished product on the tables.

The room was stunning.  The bombonniere were pashmina scarves in a range of pinks, each draped over the guest's chair and tied with a gold bow.  The centrepieces were tulips, again in matching pinks and whites.  Despite the torrential rains outside, the room absolutely glowed.

And we had some very talented bakers contributing to our sweet table - from cream-filled dates to truffles to these lovely daisy sandwich cookies, I could not resist sampling them all.  

As incredible as all of these cookies were, my favourite continues to be the humble amaretto. It's a classic for a reason!  And, for those with food sensitivities, these cookies are gluten and dairy free!

Start by mixing the ground blanched almonds with the sugar in a large bowl.   Make sure the almonds are fresh - bulk food stores with a high turnover are good places to source ground almonds but if they are not absolutely fresh then make your own.   Finely grind whole blanched almonds in the food processor - just make sure to grind them with the sugar to avoid making almond butter!
Whip the egg whites just until they are barely at the soft peak stage.  They will be very soft and you will be tempted to keep whipping but don't - you want them very soft and billowy.

Fold the egg whites into the almond mixture and add the almond extract - you don't need to worry about deflating the whites so get in there with your hands and make sure that they are thoroughly incorporated. This will take a few minutes.

All that is left is to tint and shape the cookies.  The most basic cookie is untinted and rolled into balls.

Since we were making these for a special occasion, we tinted half the batter pink and left the rest untinted, piping the cookies in layers with a star tip. 
To make this shape start by piping out a 4cm (1 1/2") base star layer on a parchment lined baking sheet, rotating the bag slightly before lifting the bag to finish the layer.   

Using the same tip, pipe a smaller star over the centre of the base layer.  You will get a more finished look by placing the piping bag over the base layer so that the points of the star tip fit into the grooves of the base layer.  Again, rotate the bag slightly to finish.

Warning - the dough is stiff so this will take some elbow grease!

Sprinkle with a bit of granulated sugar, top with an almond or an espresso bean, and bake.  Pull these out of the oven before they start to brown - they will look underbaked and will be very soft but they will set up as they cool.

I promise you, these will impress your friends!

Makes 200 cookies.

11 cups of blanched ground almonds
12 egg whites
4 cups of sugar
3 teaspoons of almond extract
sugar for sprinkling
food colouring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix sugar and ground almonds until well combined.

Place egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until foamy and light, just barely at the soft peak stage.

Using a rubber spatula, fold beaten egg whites in ground almond mixture. Add almond extract and food colouring. Mix until well combined.

Transfer batter into a piping bag and pipe out cookies onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. **Instead of piping, you can also form cookies by rolling batter into 1 inch balls.** Sprinkle each cookie generously with sugar.

Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are golden, about 15 minutes. Let cookies cool briefly on baking sheets before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 3 days. 

May 19, 2009

Vegas sweets

Sin City = Sweet City!

On a recent trip to Las Vegas I was disappointed by the food, which was mediocre at best despite the hefty price tags. Surprising, I know, given Vegas' current reputation as a celebrity chef mecca, but I chalked it up to the fact that we were visiting in low season.

I was drowning my disappointment in the slot machines when I discovered the most exquisite pastries in the patisserie at the Bellagio. Day after day the display case contained edible works of art - with prices to match!

The yogurt parfait was incredible - a perfect blend of yogurt, fresh mixed berries, soaked sponge cake and granola. So yummy! But, at over $10 a bowl, a very expensive addiction.

These are the creations of Jean-Philippe Maury, an award-winning pastry chef who has truly elevated the humble pastry to an art form, including a 27 foot chocolate fountain with almost 2 tonnes of white, milk and dark chocolate cascading through a series of handcrafted glass bowls.

I thought I had stumbled on a unique find in Vegas... but then I started noticing other decadent treats around town - the gelatos at the Venetian, The Chocolate Swan at Mandalay Bay - and I realized that local pastry chefs are bringing new meaning to Vegas decadence. Before I knew it I was frittering away my time and money at the pastry shops instead of the slot machines.

Now that's my idea of Las Vegas indulgence! If I could only figure out a way to get the calories to stay in Vegas!

May 13, 2009

Tortelloni with goat cheese

Hungry in Hogtown posted this week about cooking with La vache qui rit cheese and my mind went immediately to the old school classic - pasta con il formaggino - and I thought I'd make a grown-up version for this week's Presto Pasta Night, hosted by Patsy of Family, Friends & Food.

Italian mothers everywhere feed their toddlers pasta with formaggino. As a young kid, it was an absolute staple. When we were fussy or my mom didn't feel like cooking anything more complicated, we had this Italian version of macaroni and cheese.

For anyone who isn't familiar with formaggino (literally, "little cheese"), it's the Italian spreadable cheese sold in individually wrapped wedges or rounds. Personally, I am partial to Crema bel paese but you can experiment to find your own favourite.

While I absolutely love the classic version, I was in the mood for something more sophisticated and I'd been eyeing these porcini mushroom tortelloni. I resisted for weeks because of my short-lived attempt at a low-carb diet but who was I kidding? I was raised on bread and pasta and was lost without it.

Back to the tortelloni. As I said, I'd been eyeing this pasta because porcini mushrooms are among my favourite foods ever. Remember those fairy tale toadstools? That's what the porcini mushrooms look like and their perfume is out of this world. They are night and day to the mushrooms you find in the grocery store which pale in comparison to the pungent earthy aroma of the porcini.

Alas, they are not readily available where I live except dried, which I use often, but there is nothing like a fresh porcini mushroom in season. I was lucky enough to forage for porcini mushrooms in Italy, where they grow wild. It was incredible but falls into the category of "don't try this at home" unless you are with an expert! There are many poisonous mushrooms that resemble edible species, including porcinis, and it is very easy to get them mixed up as my mother's family discovered many years ago in a terrible trip to the emergency room.

We were with a life-long forager so we had no reservations about devouring the mushrooms we picked. In fact, we practically ran back to town with our bounty and promptly cooked up a feast of pasta with porcini mushrooms sauteed in oil and sat down in a cantina to enjoy it with copious amounts of wine drawn directly from barrels. Heaven.

You can imagine, then, that my standards were quite high but these tortelloni were definitely up to the challenge. While they could not compete head to head with fresh porcini they were really very good.

I had been contemplating what sauce to pair with the tortelloni when I saw the Hungry in Hogtown post and was inspired to use a cheese sauce. I decided on goat cheese - I figured it would stand up to the porcini mushrooms and complement it nicely. I was not disappointed.

I also decided to add chives for a mild onion flavour and it was good but competed a bit with the porcini so next time I would leave them out unless I was using plain pasta.

Tortelloni with goat cheese
Serves 4

250g (8oz) package of tortelloni (I used PC Trento-Alto-Adige Porcini Mushroom Tortelloni)
125g (4oz) goat cheese
chives (optional)

Cook tortelloni in boiling salted water according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, crumble goat cheese in a bowl and add chopped chives. Add a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water to loosen up the cheese and create a sauce.

When pasta is cooked, drain and add to cheese mixture. Toss and serve immediately.

May 10, 2009

Happy mother's day!

I hope that someone cooked for you today!

May 7, 2009

Carrot and ginger chicken

It's hard to imagine a more unlovely food than the knobby ginger root but the one I picked up at the grocery store this week was particularly ugly - it looked like a foot with swollen toes.   It's a good thing I'm not hung up on looks 'cause I love ginger and there is no way that I would let aesthetics get in the way of a good meal. 

And what's not to love?  It is pungent and spicy, hot and refreshing, all at the same time.  I especially love its Italian name:  zenzero.

Aside from tasting great, ginger's medicinal properties are legendary and Eastern medical practitioners have used it for centuries.    I don't know anyone who doesn't reach for the ginger ale when they feel under the weather but ginger is much more than that - it is a digestive aid, an anti-oxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, an anti-nausea and is also often used to help relieve cold symptoms.

Try brewing some ginger tea next time you get a cold - steep chunks of peeled fresh ginger with lemon and honey.  It always makes me feel better and I promise you that, if nothing else, the ginger tea will for sure clear your sinuses! 

So when I saw a recipe for Chicken with Ginger in Everyday Food I knew I had to try it and I was not disappointed.

The ginger is definitely the star of the dish so if you don't like ginger give this one a pass or dial it down by using grated ginger instead of the matchsticks called for in the recipe.

Even if you are a ginger lover you will want to soak the ginger as recommended to reduce its bite, otherwise get ready to feel the burn.  

As usual, I tweaked the recipe a bit, adding carrots and sesame oil and reducing the amount of soy sauce.  Next time I think that I will also add sesame seeds.  

I served this over Asian noodles but it would also be great over rice.

Carrot and ginger chicken
Adapted from Everyday Food

Serves 4-6

1 tbsp canola oil
4 chicken breasts, cubed
2 inch piece of ginger cut into matchsticks
1 carrot cut into matchsticks
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
3 green onions, chopped

Heat canola oil over medium-high heat and saute chicken until golden brown.  Remove from pan and set aside.

While chicken is cooking, soak ginger in a bowl of cold water and prepare sauce by combining soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil in a measuring cup.  Set aside.

Drain ginger and add to pan with onions and carrots.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to brown.  Clear a space in the middle of the pan and add garlic.  Allow to cook for 30 seconds then stir into vegetables.

Add sauce to pan and cook until reduced.  Add chicken and stir until heated through.  Add scallions and stir.

Serve over rice or noodles.

May 3, 2009

Cherry blossoms and chicken roll-ups

Spring has finally arrived in Toronto!  If we needed any more evidence, the cherry trees are in bloom and it seemed that half of Toronto was in High Park today enjoying the magic.

You would be forgiven if you did not immediately think of Toronto and cherry blossoms in the same sentence but the Japanese cherry grove in High Park, a gift from Tokyo in 1959, draws thousands of visitors each spring when the trees are in bloom.  

Walking under a canopy of fragrant blossoms, it's easy to forget that you are in the middle of a bustling cosmopolitan city, at least until you get to the chip truck! 

G and I spent the afternoon wandering around the park and worked up quite an appetite so we stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up some chicken cutlets and arugula for these awesome arugula and goat cheese chicken roll-ups.

These come together in minutes and are fancy enough for company (they'll think you were slaving over a hot stove all day!).

I cheated and bought chicken cutlets because we were short on time but normally I would just buy chicken breasts and butterfly them myself - it's way cheaper and I find that the cutlets are more even that way.  But store-bought cutlets work great too.

One chicken breast half should yield two cutlets - if the breasts have been butterflied, cut them in half vertically down the middle.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper and top with a small handful of arugula and a knob of goat cheese.  Spinach or ham and mozzarella is a great combination too - my mom made these all the time when we were kids.

Try to make sure that you start with the cut side up before you add the toppings because the rolls will be prettier that way but don't sweat it too much.  I didn't pay enough attention and ended up with a couple having cut side out and they were fine.

Roll each cutlet tightly, starting at the smaller end, and secure with a toothpick.

Saute in a little olive oil until golden brown.  This should only take a minute or two then flip over and brown the other side.  They will still be raw on the inside so don't overcook them at this point or they will be shoe leather by the time you finish the dish.

If your saute pan is oven-safe you can simply transfer the pan into a 425°F oven for about 10 minutes or until no longer pink in the middle.  If your pan is not oven-safe, transfer the roll-ups to a baking sheet lightly drizzled with olive oil before transferring to the oven.

If you're being fancy, slice before serving.  Otherwise, just remove the toothpicks and serve up with a side of rice and veggies and you've got a quick and healthy (did I mention delicious?) dinner.

Arugula and Goat Cheese Chicken Roll-Ups
Makes 8 roll-ups (2 per serving)

4 chicken breasts, butterflied and cut in half
2 cups arugula, washed and trimmed
50g goat cheese (I use one of the small logs)
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Place cutlets cut-side up on a baking sheet and sprinkle top with salt and pepper.

Spread a small handful of arugula on each cutlet and top with 1/8th of goat cheese.  Starting at the smaller end, tightly roll the cutlet over the filling and secure with a toothpick.

Heat olive oil in a non-stick saute pan over medium heat and place cutlets in pan, seam side down to seal.  Saute cutlets, turning periodically, until golden brown on all sides but still raw in the centre.  

Transfer to oven for approximately 10 minutes until no longer pink.  If your saute pan is not oven-safe transfer cutlets to a lightly oiled baking sheet before transferring to oven.

Slice if desired and serve.