Thursday, April 8, 2010

April: Italian Cuisine

This was one of those cooking club meetings where it was really hard not to eat just a little too much; everything was so succulent! Thanks, Kathy, for hosting, and thanks to everyone for all of the delicious food. Join us next month for “Homemade” cooking. Take a look in your pantry or refrigerator and identify something that you buy regularly at the grocery store: oreos? roast chicken? mac n’ cheese? yogurt? cream of chicken soup? Try a homemade version of one of these staples for the May. 13th meeting.




Fresh tomatoes and basil


Olive Oil (the best you have)

Salt & Pepper

Coarsely chop the tomatos and basil. Mince garlic cloves.

Just enough olive oil to help the basil stick to the tomatos

(you don't want it really oily). Salt & pepper to taste.

Serve with crackers, toasted slices of baguette or fresh mozzarella.



Sicilian Cassata Cake


For the marzipan

9 ounces (250 g) blanched peeled almonds

1 tsp almond extract

2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2-4 Tbs water

a few drops of green food coloring

cornstarch or potato starch for dusting the counter

For the sponge cake

3/4 C granulated sugar

1 1/4 C flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 eggs, room temperature, separated

minced zest of 1 lemon

A pinch of salt

For the apricot glaze

1/2 C apricot preserves

1/4 C water

1 tsp rum extract

For the ricotta filling

1 1/8 pounds (500 g) ricotta

1/2 C powdered sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 oz. chopped candied fruit (I used maraschino cherries, but next time will try a mixture of candied lemon peel and cherries)

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated

First stop: marzipan, because it needs to chill in the refrigerator before you roll it out. Place the almonds in your food processor and process until reduced to a fine powder. Blend briefly with the powdered sugar, then add the almond extract, food coloring, and water, little by little, until the mixture just comes together. Turn the almond paste out onto a cornstarch dusted counter (put more cornstarch on your hands, cause this stuff is STI-CKY) and knead a few times until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until you’re ready to roll it out.

Next: start making the sponge cake. Put the yolks in the food processor with the sugar and blend 4-5 minutes until pale in color and fluffy. Sift in the flour and baking soda, then add the minced lemon zest, and pulse until combined.

In a separate (clean, grease-free) bowl start whipping the egg whites on low speed. When they get frothy, add the pinch of salt and turn the mixer to high. Beat whites until they form stiff peaks (this should take about 5-6 minutes).

Scoop about a cup of the egg whites into the yolk mixture and pulse until combined; this will lighten the yolk mixture and make it easier to combine the two. Transfer the yolk mixture to the bowl with the whites and begin gently, gently folding the batter over with a rubber spatula until it all comes together.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9x9 in square pan and bake at 360 degrees for 30 minutes.

While the cake is cooling you can prepare the glaze: whisk together the apricot preserves, water and rum extract. And now you can get to the business of rolling out your marzipan. Dust your counter, hands and rolling pin with cornstarch.

Line a 9-in loaf pan with plastic wrap. Roll the marzipan into a large rectangle. Run a spatula under the marzipan to loosen it, then transfer it gently to the loaf pan. This is heavier and not as cohesive as fondant, so you have to make sure that you get the sheet to sink down into the pan as quickly as possibly, lest the sides fall off. Now trim the edges and patch up any holes.

Cover this with a damp kitchen towel while you move to the next step, making the ricotta filling: place the ricotta, powdered sugar and vanilla in the food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and stir in the grated dark chocolate and candied fruit.

Once the cake is cooled, transfer it to a large cutting board; slice it in half to form two rectangles, then slice those rectangles in half lengthwise. Brush with the apricot mixture.

Spread about 3/4 C of the ricotta filling on the bottom and sides of the marzipan in the pan. Press a rectangle of sponge cake on top. Smother the rectangle with ricotta cream and top with another layer of cake. Continue. End with the last layer of cake. Cover with plastic wrap and weigh the cake down with heavy books or a brick or whatever you have lying around. Chill the cake like this in the fridge for 24 hours before serving. When you unmold the cake you can make pretty decorations on top with powdered sugar or royal icing.

You can see detailed instructions of this whole process with pictures on Sarah’s food blog.


Spaghetti Sauce


1/2 lb bacon

2 1/2 lb ground beef

2 c onion chopped

1 c bell peppers

6 cloves of garlic chopped

3 large cans of tomatoes

3 small cans of tomato paste

1 c red cooking wine

4 tbsp oregano

4 tbsp basil

1 1/2 c water

1/2 c parsley chopped

2 tsp thyme

1 bay leaf

2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

brown sugar to taste

This will make 6-8 quarts so make sure you use a big stock pot.

Brown meats, drain fat and remove meat from pan

Cook onions, peppers, garlic

Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 3 hours (I usually simmer all day if I can)

I then laddle into plastic containers and freeze.



Gnocchi with Walnut Sauce


1 C walnut pieces of halves

1 Tbs bread crumbs (I used Italian-style)

3 Tbl olive or walnut oil

3 Tbl fresh chopped Italian parsley

1/4 C butter, melted

2 Tbs cream (I used milk and didn’t notice a difference)

Place all ingredients in the food processor and blend until smooth (3-4 minutes). Prepare gnocchi according to package directions. Drain and toss with walnut sauce. Garnish with fresh grated parmesan cheese.




Pillsbury Meatball Bubble Biscuits


1 can (12 oz) Pillsbury® Grands!® Jr. Golden Layers® refrigerated buttermilk or flaky biscuits

10 frozen cooked Italian-style meatballs (about 5 oz), thawed, each cut in half

2 sticks (1 oz each) string cheese, each cut into 10 pieces

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1cup marinara sauce, heated


Heat oven to 375°F. Separate dough into 10 biscuits. Separate each biscuit into 2 layers. Press each biscuit layer into 3-inch round.

Place 1 meatball half, cut side up, and 1 string cheese piece in center of each dough round. Wrap dough around meatball and cheese, pressing edges to seal. In ungreased 8- or 9-inch round cake pan, place seam side down in single layer.

Sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning and garlic powder. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown and biscuits are no longer doughy in center. Serve warm biscuits with warm marinara sauce for dipping.