Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas and Truffles

I generally plan and prepare the meals for my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and over the years I’ve grown tired of preparing turkey-centered feasts for both holidays. You see, my wife doesn’t eat red meat, which is fine, but it puts us in the position of having to figure out the main dish for our Christmas meal. For many years we’d have turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving and again for Christmas, but then I started fishing around for a different Christmas main course, a task that hasn’t been as easy as it probably sounds.

La Grande Insalata Mista

Our Christmas celebration tends to be small: besides me, there’s only my wife, my 18-year-old son, and my 78-year-old father in attendance. But pleasing the palates and dietary needs of just four people can be difficult, especially when it’s Christmas and you want everyone to be happy.

Focaccia topped with rosemary and sage

A couple of years ago we landed on Chicken Parmigiana as our main course for Christmas, which seems to fill the bill all around. In case you’re not familiar with it, this classic Italian dish features boneless chicken breasts pounded flat, breaded, and pan-fried in olive oil. These are placed in a baking dish and topped with Italian tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses, then baked for a half-hour. This year I upped the people-pleasing quotient by adding turkey meatballs to the tomato sauce, giving us two types of poultry in the same dish(!).

Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Caramel Squares

The Chicken Parmigiana got me thinking about appropriate side dishes and led to an entire “Italian Christmas” theme for the dinner table (not including desserts). I relied heavily on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for recipes and inspiration, a cookbook I highly recommend.

For the record, our 2010 Christmas repast consisted of the following:
  • Chicken Parmigiana with Tomato Sauce and Italian-style Turkey Meatballs
  • Whole Wheat Linguine
  • Focaccia – Italian flat bread topped with rosemary, sage, kosher salt, and olive oil
  • Sweet and Sour Onions – small cipolline onions slow-cooked with butter, salt, vinegar, and a bit of sugar
  • La Grande Insalata Mista – a big Italian salad with Bibb lettuce, watercress, fresh spinach, artichokes, fennel, carrots, red bell pepper, and green onions
  • Panettone – Italian holiday bread studded with dark and golden raisins, toasted pine nuts, and orange and lemon zests

Coconut Biscuits. Slightly nutmeggy and very crisp.

In addition we made two different cookies—Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Caramel Squares and Coconut Biscuits—which aren’t Italian but complemented the other dishes nicely.

Italian Sweet and Sour Onions

Because my son insists on a devastatingly rich chocolate something for Christmas, I also made Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles. This was the first time I had ever made truffles and they were extremely good, so good that every time I ate one I was amazed at how good it was. If you love chocolate and have even rudimentary skills in the kitchen, you should make your own chocolate truffles. Friends and family you share them with will love you deeply for it, and you will love yourself.

Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles, some dipped in cocoa and some not.

I used a recipe originated by Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Haut Chocolat, that appeared in an issue of Bon Appétit a few years ago. There are two ingredients: bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream. With so few ingredients, use the best chocolate you can afford. I used a one-pound block of Callebaut chocolate that cost $20.00. With a yield of 25-30 truffles, we’re talking $.75-.90 per truffle, depending on how big you roll them. That’s not inexpensive, but believe me, you will not regret it.

Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles
Adapted from a recipe by Katrina Markoff
Makes 25-30

Truffle Base
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped

Truffle Coating
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

For Truffle Base 
Bring cream to simmer in heavy small saucepan. Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm, about 10 minutes.
   Stir 7 ounces chocolate in metal bowl over pan of simmering water until smooth (don’t let bottom of bowl touch the water). Remove from heat and add remaining 2 ounces chocolate. Stir until completely melted and smooth. Stir in cream. Chill truffle base until firm, 2-3 hours.
   Line baking sheet with waxed paper. Using your hands, roll about 2 teaspoons truffle base into a ball. Transfer to prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining truffle base. Chill until firm, about 1 hour.

For Truffle Coating 
Line a second baking sheet with waxed paper and set aside. Stir chocolate in metal bowl over pan of simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
   Dip balls of truffle base into bowl of melted chocolate to coat; you may use your hands to do this. Place on prepared sheet. Roll in cocoa powder if desired.

Store truffles in airtight container and keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature one hour before serving. Will keep for about one week.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Finale

The last two sessions of the baking class are devoted to making four items without assistance from Chef Dennis or classmates. At the end of the last class, the four items will be presented to the chef and to outside friends and relatives, who are invited to the classroom for a look and tasting before we pack up for the semester.

The students' final dishes arranged for presentation.

The final items are the same for all students, and must be made according to the recipes distributed by the chef. They are:
  • An 8-inch white cake, split in half horizontally, iced and decorated in a manner of our choosing. The icing is a vanilla Swiss meringue butter cream.
  • An apple streusel pie, including a flaky pie crust, apple filling, butter-and-brown sugar streusel topping, and pastry "leaves" for decoration.
  • A 9-inch fresh fruit tart. A sweet tart dough is prepared, rolled out and placed in a tart shell, then prebaked without filling (“baked blind”). The cooled, baked shell is filled with vanilla pastry cream, then decorated with fresh fruit.
  • Crèmes brûlées.

We have a total of 8 1/2 hours to prepare all of the above from scratch. In the first session, which is 5 hours, I prepare the cake, frosting, pie dough, tart dough, pastry cream, and crèmes brûlées, leaving all items frozen or refrigerated. The following week we have 3 1/2 hours to finish everything, including decorating the cake, preparing the apple pie filling and streusel, baking the pie, baking the tart shell, filling and decorating the tart, and caramelizing sugar on the crèmes brûlées.

My final cake. It looks a bit rough around the edges,
and I wish I had been more creative with the decoration.

I knew it was going to be a stretch to finish everything on time, and many students, including me, didn’t quite make it, though I came very, very close. My last step before total completion was caramelizing the sugar on the crèmes brûlées. This is done with an acetylene torch and should take only a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, like me, several students left their crèmes brûlées to the end, and I had to wait for a torch. When I finally got one it wasn’t working properly and I spent precious minutes trying to get the flame going. Time was called as I was fiddling with the torch. I didn't quite finish, but I still feel pretty good about what I accomplished.

Apple Streusel Pie. This turned out nicely.

All in all the baking class has been a good experience. I have a much greater appreciation for the science of baking and all the little tweaks that go into making a dish properly. For example, if you look at the photo of the fruit tart, you’ll notice that the crust underwent shrinkage during baking, i.e. it no longer conforms to the sides of the tart pan. Had I let the unbaked crust rest for 15 minutes before baking, this probably wouldn’t have happened, or at least the shrinkage would have been less. Little things like this separate the novice from the pro. (I meant to rest the tart dough before baking, but I was in a hurry and forgot.)

The final fruit tart. You'd eat this, wouldn't you?

I’ve enjoyed the class, but have decided to give cooking classes a break and just cook at home for a while. Next semester I’m taking a course in database management. Au revoir! :)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I’ve had this recipe for Italian cornmeal cookies, or zaletti, sitting around since last summer when I saw it on David Lebovitz’s site ( In case you’re not familiar with David he is a former pastry chef who worked in the San Francisco area for many years, notably at Chez Panisse. David is now a food writer/bloggist living in Paris (my favorite city!).

Anyway something about zaletti appealed to me, but for various reasons I didn’t get around to making them at the time. Then the Introduction to Baking class started in August, and since I DO try to have a sense of balance about my diet, I haven’t been inclined to make sweets outside of those I’ve brought home from class each week.
For various reasons the baking class has yielded no take-home treats for the past few weeks, and I guess I'm getting into the habit of having baked goods around (I know that's bad). So last weekend I decided to finally make those cornmeal cookies. They’re exactly what I wanted: buttery, crispy, not-too-sweet cookies that go well with coffee or a cup of tea. My wife, whose heritage is at least half Italian, seems to really like them.

The rolled logs of dough, wrapped and waiting to be sliced into individual cookies.

I think of zaletti as “everyday” cookies: you can eat two or three every day and not feel like you’ve overindulged. Of course indulging is good too, but sometimes it’s nice to have a plainer cookie you can just sit and relax with, and zaletti do that for me.

Rather than fine cornmeal I used polenta, which gives the cookies a crumbly crunch and texture. For half the batch I used currants (which David’s recipe calls for), and
for the other half chopped dried cranberries. The currants seem to hold their own a bit better. FYI.

Since I essentially made David’s recipe verbatim, I offer the link below to the recipe at his site. Hope you enjoy.