Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day Dammit: Milk Chocolate Soufflé for the Soul

Milk Chocolate Love
Some years Valentine's Day, in all its syrupy-sweet glory, is a natural extension of the fantasmagoric love-fest your life is.  Other years - like this one - it's just another snowy day in what was a pretty crap-tastic, cold, February week.  I sound bitter.  Here's why:

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Top 4 Crappy Things That Have Happened Lately
A Brief, self-thrown-pity-party-filled explanation in list-form

1. Two weeks ago I sprained my foot pretty badly by falling down two of the smallest, most-not-injury-worthy steps into the garage.  Roman was still strapped into his car seat and had to listen to me whimper and moan on the garage floor for several minutes (he was kind of freaking out) until I managed to hobble over and unstrap him.  Crutches, an air cast, ridiculous amounts of Ibuprofen, and two weeks later it's still refusing to fully heal.  I can't even walk up and down stairs comfortably, much less chase Roman or go skiing.  Such a pain.

2. A few days after the epic sprain, I discovered an epic-failure: our beloved pet, Frankie the Betta fish, has a severe case of dropsy and is currently in week # who-knows-how-long-it-took-me-to-notice of a long and inevitably drawn-out death.  I spent an afternoon looking up humane ways to euthanize fish - for which Matt made fun of me mercilessly - only to wuss out and settle on changing his water in order to "make him more comfortable" (whatever that means).  I literally wake up every morning expecting to find him floating upside down and I tell myself I worry because I'm afraid Roman will be upset, but really - it'll be me crying at the backyard funeral.

3. Earlier this week I gently (if that's possible) dropped my iPhone, the way I have a hundred other times.  Naturally, my decision to get the $3 silver-glitter-covered-cover decided to slap me in the face at that very moment and the front of the phone completely shattered.  As stupidly inane and ungrateful as it sounds to complain about, it just pisses me off to have to get a new one and tether myself a further 2-years to AT&T (which is, in and of itself, an irrational reaction as I had no intention of leaving AT&T).

4. Yesterday, I spent a lot of time making individualized Valentines and sprinkle-filled, pink, rice krispy treats painfully (literally) cut-out into heart shapes for Roman's entire pre-school class, only to be told by his teacher when I picked him up today that they "didn't have time to hand his Valentines out."  All this while Roman sweetly complained, "Mommy!  I didn't get to give my friends their treats." [Insert adorable pouty face by Roman and not-so-adorable annoyed face by Mom].

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Ok, ok, it's not that I don't want to celebrate.  Really, I just need something to remind me of the simple pleasures in life - breathe some warmth into the cold Denver winter, and even soothe my whiny little soul a tiny bit.  Something to show me the silver linings.

Lucky for me, Matt is cooking me a special, romantic dinner tonight.  I'm not sure what it will comprise of but I know this much: it will taste great!

I know this because dinner pretty much always tastes great when I'm being cooked for, but also because Matt so rarely cooks that I honestly believe God has bestowed him with some sort of permanent beginner's-luck-thing.  His food is always awesome - no matter how randomly or haphazardly prepared.

The only thing I'm responsible for tonight, besides this awesome Valentine's gift I found for Matt at Target, is dessert.  I wanted to make something special, kind of fancy, but not over the top in terms of work, time-commitment or flashiness.

Enter the Bon Appetit Milk Chocolate Soufflé.

There's something magical-sounding about the world soufflé - to "puff" or "blow up" (but prettier sounding) in French.  I think it will bring a fun but somewhat dramatic air to the closing of the dinner, without going too far into the realm of wannabe-chef.  I mean, how seriously can you take milk chocolate, even if it is gourmet and even if it is in a beautifully puffed up soufflé?
Which brings me back to the week-long pity party I've been holding for myself and the fact that I need to stop taking that - and myself - so seriously too.  So in the name of milk chocolate's levity, here are all the silver-linings to the above-mentioned Top 4 Crappy Things That Have Happened Lately:

The Silver Lingings
the milk-chocolate-y levity in the situation

1. The Ankle
I totally got pampered by both Matt and Roman for almost an entire week.  Roman learned that he can indeed use his stool to get the milk out of the fridge, and Matt learned that the house really does go to crap pretty quickly when the invisible cleaning fairy is out of commission :)

2. The Dropsy
Part of me believes that Frankie's demise might be karma coming to slap me in the face.  I'd been complaining a LOT lately that it's a lot of work to keep a large fishbowl clean.  I wouldn't be lying if I actually did briefly (ever-so-briefly!) wish Frankie might die soon.  So, in a way, even though it sucks to lose our only pet - I'm secretly pleased that I can de-clutter my counter and stop the bowl-cleaning madness for a while.

3. The iPhone
Oh yeah, I got an iPhone 5 today.  *sheepish grin*

4. The Rice Krispy Treats
I now know that the "raspberry" color combo on the back of neon food coloring is bullshit.  It turns an ugly mauve-y purple color.  Never again.  I also got to snack on the leftover, rather cute rice krispy hearts.  And for once, I rather enjoyed the sprinkles.

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Milk Chocolate Soufflé for the Soul
Using the Bon Appetit Recipe, copied below 
Makes 8 Servings

waiting to be baked
The original recipe also includes a Nougat whip to dollop on top of the soufflés.  It all seemed too rich for me so I didn't make the nougat whip and, instead, served this with plain homemade whipped cream.

12oz high-quality milk chocolate (such as Lindt, Green & Black, or Valrhona), choppedpped 
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream 
2 large egg yolks 
Pinch of salt 
6 large egg whites, room temperature 
2 tablespoons sugar
Butter & sugar for ramekins 

The finished product.

1. Butter eight 3/4-cup soufflé dishes; sprinkle with sugar, tilting cups to coat completely and tapping out any excess. Arrange prepared soufflé dishes on large baking sheet.

2. Combine chocolate and cream in large metal bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of barely simmering water and stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

3. Remove bowl from over water. Stir egg yolks and salt into chocolate mixture.

4. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in another large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 2 tablespoons sugar, beating until semi-firm peaks form.

5. Using rubber spatula, fold 1/4 of beaten egg whites into chocolate mixture to lighten. Fold remaining egg whites into chocolate mixture in 2 additions.

6. Divide chocolate mixture among prepared soufflé dishes, filling dishes completely.  

DO AHEAD Can be made 2 days ahead. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled.
7. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Bake soufflés on baking sheet until puffed and tops feel firm, about 16 minutes if at room temperature and about 18 minutes if chilled.

Serve soufflés immediately, passing whipped cream alongside.

 Happy Valentine's Day Dammit. :)

This post has been brought to you by How do you do - a freaky, fascinating, former #1 hit in the 70s that I'm obsessed with.   Thank you Mouth & MacNeal.
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Forgettable Shrove Tuesday; Memorable Baked Pancakes.

In all its Shriven Glory.
 I always forget about Shrove Tuesday.  How could I not when it is so obviously overshadowed by the infinitely more exciting Mardi Gras and Carnival?  Who wouldn't prefer gorging on Cajun food or dancing in Rio to being "shriven?"  Even with Papa Ratzi resigning in a somewhat foreboding reminder of of the Lenten season being upon us, I can't help but want to celebrate, pull out the marks, have a last hurrah of sorts.

I also forget Shrove Tuesday because, as a more somber holy day, I tend to associate it with my time in England.  In England it's known as Pancake Day (see my brief classicized homage here) - a time to use up the larder's contents before the fasting of Lent.  "What better way than to make pancakes (or, technically, crepes in the case of Britain)?" said nobody, ever. :) 

Well, they're not gumbo, that's for sure (And I even had my act together and put a batch of my wonderful gumbo in the freezer for the occasion!).  And did I mention I even bought Roman a Mardi Gras mask!?  But the other day I received the random newsletter I still get from the lovely deli / gourmet food store I used to frequent in my London Days: Melrose & Morgan.  And in it was contained a recipe for something I'd never really tried before (gasp!): baked pancakes.

My curiosity was sufficiently stirred.  And since Matt is in Florida for most of the week (back in time to make me Valentine's Dinner though :)), I figured we'd go with pancakes for dinner tonight.  Roman was thrilled.  As was I - with the result, that is.

It's fitting that a British deli should post this recipe - the result is like a flatter, eggier, more crepe-y Yorkshire Pudding.  I loved it.  I'd recommend making more than one as Roman and I greedily split one together and I could easily have had more.  But then I'm a bit of a piggy.

This recipe comes from David Eyre and was published in the infamous Essential New York Times Cookbook from back in 1966.  Can't wait to get my hands on the 2011 reprint.
The recipe is currently featured on the Melrose & Morgan webpage, but I'll copy it below as I'm certain it will be gone soon enough as we move onto other exciting, seasonal goodies.

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David Eyre's Baked Pancakes
Makes 1 large pancake (crepe) to share
I'd make more if I were you. :)

You'll note that the ingredients are also listed in grams and milliliters, as is the British custom.  I would take this moment to recommend that you use this as an opportunity to go out and buy a cheap but accurate kitchen scale.  Weighing ingredients in baking and pastry is something that should not be undervalued.  Significantly more accurate, therefore guaranteeing consistency over time.  Just my two cents. :)

80g (a little less than 1/2 cup) Plain flour
120ml (1/2 cup) of milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional, but do it)
Pinch of salt
30g (2Tbsps) butter

For serving:
2 Tbsp icing sugar
Juice of half a lemon


Preheat your oven to 425F (220C).

Mix all ingredients except butter, icing sugar and lemon juice in a bowl.  Do not over-mix.

Melt the butter in a 12-inch (or 10-inch, in a real pinch) pan.

Once melted, pour the batter and place in the oven for exactly 10-12 minutes (or until the edges are golden).

DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN until the time is up!

Sprinkle with icing sugar and lemon juice.  Serve warm with jam or maple syrup.

Yum.  I feel shriven. :)

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Italy Part 2: Rome: "Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me."

Approximately two years and two months ago, Matt and I were in Italy, celebrating our unofficial 8-year-meeting-anniversary.  And almost exactly two years ago today, I wrote the first part of what was meant to be a duet of posts - a musing I called: Italy Part I: San Martino: "Il Bel Far Niente."  Needless to say, things in the early parts of 2011 got crazy for us - on many levels - and I never got to write the second part.  Two moves later and two years later, today I was prompted to finally do so by the happy and unexpected request from a friend to give her some recommendations for good food and beautiful sights to see in Rome.  After writing an inappropriately long list for her, I also spent some time re-living our last trip there through the beautiful photos we took and felt compelled to share here - if for no other reason than just to prolong the feeling of delicious nostalgia all this has provoked.

I believe we left off somewhere in Campania...

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Have you ever had ten shots of espresso in one morning?  I don't recommend it. That's precisely the reason that I found myself suddenly vomiting out the rental car door on a rather hideous side road in the south of Italy on the morning we said goodbye to Matt's family in San Martino.  We were headed to Rome.  And, as if to purge it of any lingering non-Roman commitments, my body decided that all the good-intentioned-Campanian-caffe's of the past few hours had to go.  Basta already with all this Campanian-sciocchezze: there's only room for Roma.

It was fitting because, for me, as a rule, vacation is a delicate and constant struggle between eating too much and not seeing enough.  I am a self-professed not-doer on vacations - I prefer not to fill my day with places I have to be at a certain hour, things I have to see to check-off the endless mental list of "been-there-done-thats" - but I like to take in the scenery, the people, the feel of the place -- and eat.  A LOT.  For me, the memories are made at the lunch table, at the coffee-stop, at the random bench where we sat and chatted for an hour while eating strawberries from the market (where I still regret not getting some porchetta to-go as well).

*  *  *
"You may have the universe - but Italy is mine."

Italy has always had its hold on me - for no good, particular reason.  And within Italy, despite two years in Trieste, Rome is the favored, overflowing cup of happy memories for me.  I could sit in almost any spot in that city and feel happily satisfied just to be there, without seeing or doing anything else (except maybe eating, of course).  It holds so much meaning, so much history for me, that simply having made it back there with Matt once more was almost enough for me.

Matt and Roman Fecit.

I wanted to go back and bask in all the old and new (for Rome) and old and new (for me).  I
wanted to see our school, stop at our favorite bar, see the restaurant where we had our first date.  And I wanted to try all the restaurants (or at least a few) that we never could have afforded in our college days, to bring our son Roman (!) to the garden where I met his father, stay at a hotel in the center of it all, buy useless mementos, drink good wines.  I wanted to see how the city had changed, relish how much it had stayed the same.  I wanted to take destination-less walks - in circles, even - and admire the stores that I'd frequented once, or the new ones that had taken their place.  And despite my otherwise aimless wandering, I wanted to gleefully check off every single thing and place I wanted to eat or eat at off my impossibly long food-itinerary (I can't entirely let go of type-A Brenda).  And I did.  We did it all.  And, to-date, that brief moment of time in Rome stands out as one of my favorite vacations we've ever taken.

I often tell Matt that I think I'll never be one of those people who can find a place they want to go back to every year and not get sick of it.  In some ways I'm addicted to finding and experiencing newness.  But if I'm really honest with myself, I know that, if given half a chance, I'd be back in Rome every single year if I could.  You may have the universe - but Italy is mine.

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Top Five Memories of Roma 2010
the old-the new, the very long-winded

5. The Only Real Roman.
There was something about seeing Roman in Rome.  It was like my life had come full-circle for one brief second, like all the things that meant most to me had been fulfilled, granted to me in complete perfection for just one moment, to observe and enjoy. 

The little man & Stone Pines at Villa Pamphili Park

He had no idea where we were and much less why it held so much meaning to me and Matt.  And perhaps that innocent glee was what made watching him - run in the rain in Piazza del Popolo (the first sight in Rome-proper that Matt and I ever visited together), or snootily lift his nose and pretend to drink wine at his first Roman lunch, or splash the water in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi with utter disregard for Bernini's sculpture - all the more endearing and perfect.

Piazza del Popolo in the rain.

Doing like the Roman does.

4.  Boring Pretty Things Everywhere.
One of the first things that ever struck me about Italy was how - to me - everything looked so pretty, no matter how boring.  Literally, everything.  It still does.

I had a few chances to walk around Rome by myself on this trip and it was often at those moments - temporarily removed from Roman's demands - that I had the chance to savor the beauty of quotidian life in Rome once more.

A city of fountains, ruins, strong opinions and a mish-mash of cultures that all somehow converge into a mutual - and expected - reverence for all things Italian. But mostly all things Roman. Filled with beauty to the very brim, for anyone willing to stop a moment and find it: A dimly lit barber shop on a cobblestone street. The perfect espresso with the perfect schiuma, gone almost before you can even admire it. The most impossibly tiny little car parked on what surely must be a sidewalk - and no parking tickets on the window. A fountain with a serendipitous mosaic of red, orange, brown and yellow Autumn leaves floating on the water's surface; a temporary art installation by nature herself, gone with the next flow of water. Chestnuts - castagne - arranged just-so on a street vendor's fire pit, their familiar scent filling everyone's mind with unmistakably Autumnal smells. Rows of stores selling hand-crafted Saint figurines. Priests walking together, laughing, in the Vatican. A man sitting on thousand-year-old ruins, smoking a cigarette, talking on his telefonino. Giant puddles of water forming in between imperfectly laid cobblestones. My son hugging a column at the Pantheon. The Carabinieri standing in the Piazza - enjoying their cigarettes and coffees more than keeping the peace. Or maybe that's just how they do it - keep the peace, I mean - by living well, and beautifully, alongside everything and everyone else.

3. Back to School.

It's difficult to describe seeing your one-year-old stand in the courtyard of the school where you met his father - the same courtyard you snuck into by climbing over the wrought-iron fence because you broke curfew.

 It's strange to watch him sit on the chair in the classroom where your then-boyfriend had Latin class and loved to hang-out at night reading Tacitus standing up, at the professor's podium (after he'd all but done your Latin homework for you :)).

the courtyard
It's a completely bizarre sensation to take him down to the little dining room where you and your now-husband first got to know each other over pumpkin risotto and a somewhat unorthodox version of veal Carpaccio that you still talk about to this day.

But it's also pretty fantastic.

Even more fantastic, somehow, than that same blonde-Italian secretary (Letizia - "Titz" for short, if I recall), still there 8 years later, recognizing you both and being blown away that you actually did get married - just like everyone said you would.

2. Simple food, joyfully served. 

One of the things I recall vividly about living in Rome as a student was the real feeling of indignation I carried with me over the fact that I could not afford to eat everywhere and everything I wanted to.  In that sense, this trip was near-complete vindication.  

Our meals were not extravagant.  They were not particularly fancy or expensive, nor were they at the trendiest or most talked-about spots in Rome.  They were something far better than that: they were elegant, simple, and joyfully served.

Italian food is not complicated, - sometimes I would even say it is an endless collection of variations on a theme - but what makes the food stand out is the care and the true joy you find in how it is crafted, cared about, and passed over to you - an edible representation of all the culture and history behind that person, that family, that city, that particular moment.

Here are my three favorite meals from our trip:
Piazza delle Coppelle
I. Osteria Da Mario
Piazza delle Coppelle, 51  00186 Rome, Italy
A short-and-scenic-walk from the Pantheon through winding streets leads to a small courtyard filled with a small food market and a covered seating area for this family-owned osteria. 

As our first Roman meal - salsiccia e broccoletti for Matt, pasta pomodoro for the Master, and saltimbocca alla Romana with carciofi alla Romana for me - it was perfection.
salsiccia e broccoletti

II. Da Lucia
The dining room at Da Lucia
Vicolo del Mattonato, 2b, 00153 Rome, Italy
"Da Lucia," in Italian, means "at Lucia's place.  It feels like a Roman house in this trattoria, tucked away in a beautiful corner of Trastevere, family-owned and run since WWII.

We had a quiet, beautiful lunch of stewed rabbit, involtini con piselli and - because we were lucky enough to be in Rome while they were in season - Puntarelle alla Romana (chicory sprouts with a pungent but delicious anchovy dressing) while Roman slept in his stroller.  
It was pouring rain outside that day, so we didn't get to take the leisurely stroll through Trastevere that we'd hoped for, but instead we stopped by a nearby bar for a quick caffe' and chatted about the good old days.

It was almost too good to be true.

III. Piccola Cuccagna
Vicolo della Cuccagna, 13  186 Rome, Italy
Piccola Cuccagna
Piccola Cuccagna is just the type of place I would have never stopped had it not been recommended to me.  On the corner of Piazza Navona, in plain view of Bernini's 4 Rivers, I'm fairly certain that most people who don't know Rome write it off as a tourist trap.  Well, it's not.

The combination of the setting with, an unrelenting penchant for, as one writer put it, the "unapologetically impolite foods favoured by Romans" - pasta with small intestines, Tripe alla Romana, and Puntarelle (vinegared chicory shoots with anchovy sauce) - left nothing to be desired.  We were utterly satisfied and even giddy.

For primi piatti we had: prosciutto e melone (because it never gets old), bruschette, and some buccattini all'ammatriciana - a Roman pasta specialty.

For the secondo, Matt was bold and ordered the roast branzino (fileted and deboned at the table) served with perfect rosemary potatoes and some radicchio and lemon.

I,however, was vastly bolder and ordered the Trippa alla Romana (tripe in tomato and parmesan) served with - what else? - lovely Romanesco broccoli.

Trippa alla Romana
Dessert was, as always in Italy, a delicious but forgettable afterthought to the main event.

1. Oldies but Goodies. 
I don't remember when it happened, but I do recall the odd sensation of suddenly realizing that the world no longer saw me as a kid.  It didn't change how I saw myself - eternally in my mid-twenties for the record - but it changed the way I experienced other people, and other places too.  It is lucky, therefore, that certain things in this life - only a few, really - never get old.  And, in fact, they often get better the longer they're around.

walking our old path up the gianiculum hill

We might have returned to Rome almost a decade older and, for the sake of argument, wiser - suddenly, it seems, married, parents, professionals.  But we still felt the same exhilaration when we saw the forum, the Colosseum, the Victor Emmanuel Monument again that we did in our college days.   And we loved going back and taking cheesy pictures together, re-living the places, sights and smells that have thrilled people for more than two thousand years, the same places that make up a special piece of our past - and now, present - lives together and forever will.  Oldies but Goodies.

kisses in front of Vittorio Emmanuele

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