Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Monday, September 27, 2010

For Nonna: Homemade Cavatelli

Just a year ago, my grandmother died at almost 98 years old.  In addition to being a beautiful woman, my grandmother was the most generous of women, and affected so many people in her long life. To her grandchildren, she was Grandma, to her precious great-grandchildren (22 of them!), she was Nonna, the Italian word for grandmother.  She taught me to cook, and taught me to see food as a way of taking care of those we love; to feed them, body and soul.  I would like to share a piece I wrote right after she died.  I shared it at her funeral, but I reread it myself every so often, as a way of remembering my Gram, and all the lessons she taught me.  I hope this gives you a sense of who my Gram was.

"We cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love."

These are the words of Mother Theresa.

"We cannot do great things.  We can only do small things with great love."

In my life, no person has embodied this sentiment more than my Gram.  She was from such a different world that the one she came into when she came to America.  Her mother died when she was very young, and perhaps because of this, her life's work was to create a strong and loving family.  My grandmother's devotion to us was a constant in all of our lives.  She knew only one way to love: completely.  For Gram, family was everything, and everything was family.  To be her grandchild was to know that no matter what mistakes you made, no matter how far from home you went, you were always loved, you always belonged, and you were always welcome back home.  She was quick to let you know if you had done something wrong in her eyes, but just as quick to pull you close to her and love you anyway.  For her, 'love' was a verb.  It was not so much about how she felt, but what she did to show us how precious we were to her.  She showed her great love for us everyday in the many things she did for us - the cooking, of course, but also the clothes she made for us (all those matching outfits for Christmas and Easter so that we wouldn't look shipala-shopala), the mending of clothes; in short, her complete engagement in our day to day lives.

She was the kind of grandmother who, when she was babysitting, would get us out of bed after our parents had left so that we could watch 'a program' on TV with her before she told us to go 'nee-naw'  (how many of us can still sing the nee-naw song?).

I have vivid memories of Gram sending us cousins out into summer rainstorms to dance in the backyard, splash in the puddles, much to our mothers' dismay.  She overruled our mothers, and we were often happy for it.

Growing up, we did not carry pop tarts or twinkies as the treat in our lunch boxes.  We had a baggie full of crispelles, or a couple of Gram's homemade machine cookies.  We did not call the pizza place on a Friday night for pizza, we walked upstairs and sat at Gram's kitchen table.

I will always be grateful for her strong presence in my life.  After the death of our father when we were very young, my mother, my sister and I could not have had the life we had without the help of my grandmother.  She was with us after school when my mother was working or in college, she cooked for us, took care of us when we were sick, listened to us when we were sad.  I am who I am in large part because of the guiding presence of Gram in my life.  And this story is not unique.  Probably every one of my cousins has a similar story, and that is the most amazing thing about my grandmother.  Her capacity for love, for generosity was boundless.

My Gram was quick to develop relationships with all those around her; she connected with people, and used her many gifts to help her to do that.  When she heard someone was sick, whether it was a family member or one of many friends and acquaintances in her community, she always sent a loaf of bread, and a jar of her famous chicken soup with pastina.

She suffered terrible losses and great hurt over the course of her lifetime; she nursed her children and grandchildren through illnesses, buried both of her parents, all of her brothers and sisters, her son-in-law, her husband, her granddaughter and her son, and she did not become bitter or ever once doubt the faith in God that sustained her.  With every loss her love grew.  With each sadness her faith in God, in her family, in her friends and in herself strengthened, deepened.  She had confidence in God's plan for her, and because of this, through the many difficult times in her life, she lived with great love and generosity towards others.

It is hard to imagine a world without the presence of my grandmother, but the small acts of great love with which she blessed each of us remain, and this world is far better because she lived.  Now it is up to us to continue her work.

We should continue loving each other, forgiving each other, helping each other.  We should follow her example of love in action, not just within our own families, but with everyone we encounter.

When my sister Betsy and I were little girls, my grandmother came down each night at bedtime to say goodnight to us.  It was always a three part goodnight, in Italian, and now I say goodbye to my sweet grandmother the same way:

Buona serra, buon repose, e buona notte.


One of the types of pasta Grandma used to make was cavatelli.  When I was a little girl, I would go up and help her to form the shaped pasta, then to drop them in the boiling salted water for just a couple of minutes while they cooked.  While this is not my Gram's recipe, I am making these in honor of her today, to feed my family.  We will be together, and we will talk about her, remembering the many gifts she gave us.

Homemade Cavatelli:
16 ounces ricotta cheese
2 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt

In a wide bowl, place flour and salt, creating a well in the center.  Add the eggs and ricotta to the well, and using your hands, begin to incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients little by little, pulling in the flour as you go.  Continue until you have a smooth dough that is not too sticky, adding more flour if necessary.  When the dough is done, knead about 20 times to make it smooth, and then let it rest in a cool place for about a half hour. 

Once the dough is rested, pull off a small handful at a time, and on a floured surface, roll into a long, thin strand, no more than a half inch wide.  Cut the strand into segments of about three quarters of an inch long.  Using the side of your thumb, press down on the piece of pasta dough, sliding your thumb across the width of the dough, so that it curls almost like a scroll.  Repeat until all the dough has been made into cavatelli.  As you cut and shape the pasta, place them on a floured cookie sheet so that they can dry a bit.  It is best if the are not piled on top of each other, as they may stick together. 

Pasta can be cooked immediately, or can be placed in the refrigerator covered for use in the near future. 

To cook, place the cavatelli in a pot of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes until they float to the surface.  Serve with your favorite sauce and lots of good grated cheese. Enjoy the pasta with people you love, because Nonna taught me that every meal tastes better this way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Celebrating a Birthday at Work: Carrot Cake

If you are lucky, you get to work in a field that is rewarding and fulfilling, and if you are really lucky, you meet coworkers who are 'simpatico' and become true friends.  I am blessed on both counts. I am a middle school teacher, and I met my dear friend Jeri when I began teaching at my current school.  She is all the good things one would want in a teacher.  She is compassionate towards kids, passionate about the subject which she teaches, and she holds everyone, kids and teachers alike, to high standards.  She is a font of creative ideas and shares her ideas with everyone around her in the most helpful manner. She is a class act, full of positive energy, and she is celebrating a birthday this week.  I am a firm believer in the idea of finding any reason to celebrate, so today, we had carrot cake for Jeri's birthday.  It had to be the best carrot cake, worthy of Jeri, and I just so happen to have an awesome carrot cake recipe.  It produces an ultra moist cake, has a delicious carmely glaze that is absorbed by the cake, and is frosted with the most delicious cream cheese frosting.  I have made it in layers, but it is easier to make in a 9 X 13 pan because it is so moist. It also works well in cupcake form.   Make it for someone with whom you are fortunate to be friends, and they may even share!

Carrot Cake  (from Southern Living)

2 cups all- purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups grated carrots
1  8 oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup sweetened coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Stir together the first 4 ingredients.  Beat eggs and the next 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth.  Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended.  Fold in carrots and next three ingredients.  Pour batter into a greased and floured 9 X 13 inch pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil to prevent excess browning, and bake 13 minutes more or until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean.  Drizzle Buttermilk glaze (recipe follows) evenly over cake. 

Buttermilk Glaze:
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

Bring sugar, baking soda, buttermilk and corn syrup to a boil in a large saucepan over medium high heat.  Boil, stirring often, 4 minutes or until mixture is golden brown.  Watch it closely because it will boil over easily.  Remove from heat and add vanilla extract.  Drizzle over carrot cake.  Once the cake is cool, frost with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows).

Cream Cheese Frosting:

1 stick butter, softened
12 oz. cream cheese, softened
1  16 oz. package confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add confectioners sugar gradually, beating just until mixed thoroughly.  Add vanilla extract and mix.  Spread over the carrot cake after it has completely cooled.

Note:  I made the cake and buttermilk glaze 2 days ahead, and put it in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap, and it kept nicely.  I then frosted it the night before I served it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Phillo, Phyllo, Pho Phum, I Smell Something Yum: Spanikopita

I grew up in a section of a city where the majority of the residents were either Irish or Italian.  I was surrounded by good Italian markets and restaurants.  The various foods did not seem terribly exotic, and as my grandparents spoke Italian around the house, the sound of the language was very familiar to me.  Fast forward to my young adulthood, and my first encounter with someone who pronounced ricotta cheese 'ri-COT-ta. Italians pronounce it re-GAWT-ta, so I was startled at this much more harsh sounding pronunciation of the word.  Similarly, to hear people talk about making something like my beloved lasagne with cottage cheese just about appals me.  I say this in the knowledge that any Greek person who sees the way I make the following dish will be similarly appalled.  And I apologize in advance; this is the best I could do.  I will say that although it is not in the least authentic, it is pretty darn good, and as long as you don't have any Greek people over for dinner,  it will totally satisfy.

Spanikopita (Spinach and Feta Pie)

1/2 package frozen Phyllo dough (usually there are 2 plastic wrapped packages in each box.  Use 1 of the plastic packages per recipe)
4 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 packages frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta
10 oz. part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated romano cheese
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp red pepper flake
1 tsp lemon zest
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

Mix the spinach and all the following ingredients well in a large bowl.  Unwrap the phyllo dough, and lay it out, covered with a damp kitchen towel to prevent the dough from drying out.  Mix the melted butter and the olive oil in a bowl.  Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a 9 X 13 baking dish with the butter and oil mixture.  Lay 2 sheets of phyllo dough at a time at the bottom of the baking dish.  After each 2 sheets, drizzle and brush the butter and oil mixture.  Add 2 more sheets of phyllo dough, and repeat the process until you have used half of the sheets.  Place the spinach and cheese mixture evenly across the phyllo dough, and the add more phyllo sheets, 2 at a time, drizzling the oil and butter mixture between sheets, as before.  Repeat until you have used all the phyllo sheets, and then coat the top sheet liberally with the oil and butter mixture.  This can be done a day ahead, amking it a great weeknight dinner option.  Bake at 350 degrees for about a half hour, or until the phyllo dough is golden brown and crispy.  Slice and enjoy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Weekend Breakfast: Monkey Bread

Weekend breakfasts call for something a little more interesting than cereal and milk, especially when the weekend morning is as gorgeously beautiful as ours have been here in Connecticut recently.  There is definitely the feeling of Fall in the air, but the sunny skies still say Summer.  Sitting on the back deck reading the Sunday paper and drinking several cups of tea is a real treat, and a lovely respite from the hustle, bustle and chaos that mark the beginning of the school year.  Usually our weekend breakfasts involve eggs and English muffins, but this weekend was different.

This was the weekend we closed up our pool for the season.  It is a thankless job:  all work, no payoff.  In addition, it is sad because it marks the end of another summer, the last stint of freedom for a while.  Sometimes it goes easily, sometimes we run into difficulty, like the year we were lulled into keeping the pool open by long, warm September days.  As soon as October hit, it was instantly cold and rainy, and we closed the pool wearing slickers in the rain one miserable Sunday.  But this year, we closed it over a weekend that we could have spent swimming, it was so warm, and it went off without a hitch, except for the ground wasp nest that was "found" by Anna's friend Brynn while she was helping us with the job.  And everyone helped, with no complaints or eye rolling, which, with a teenage and a preteen girl in the house, is no small gift.  So this weekend deserved a special breakfast.  I have been wanting to find a good recipe for Monkey Bread for some time now, and finally decided to use an old standby dough for cinnamon rolls that I have used for years.  Everybody loved it here; I hope you try it and enjoy as well!

Monkey Bread

For the dough:
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 package active dry yeast
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup sugar 
1 tsp salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs

To coat the monkey bread pieces:
6 tbsp butter, melted
4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Put half of the flour and all of the yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Heat the milk and butter slowly in the microwave, until just warm and the butter is almost melted.  Stir until it is melted completely (mixture should be about 120 degrees).  Add to flour mixture, then add eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla.  Beat on low speed until mixed, then scrape sides of the bowl with a spatula.  Add the rest of the flour, put on the dough hook, and knead for 6 - 8 minutes.  Shape into a ball, and place in a greased bowl in a warm spot, covered with plastic wrap. 

When the dough has almost doubled in size, punch it down.  Spray a bundt cake pan with cooking spray.  Mix the cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, salt and pecans together in a bowl, and prepare the melted butter in a  separate bowl.  Cut quarter-sized pieces of dough (I made my pieces too large), roll the small pieces in a ball, and then coat in melted butter.  Place immediately in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and coat generously.  Place the coated pieces in the bundt pan, spreading evenly.  Repeat until all the dough has been used up. If there is melted butter or cinnamon/sugar left, spread them evenly over the top of the cake (why not?). Place the pan in a warm spot, and let rise for about an hour.  Alternately, you can put the cake pan in the refrigerator overnight, and remove in the morning, waiting for the dough to come to room temperature and to rise before baking.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the cake is golden brown.  Turn pan over and serve with powdered sugar on top.  To serve, just pull the pieces apart.  My daughters have requested that the next time I make this, I make Monkey Bread Muffins.....a great idea, I think!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nectar(ines) of the Gods: Nectarine and Blueberry Crisp

My mother drove out to one of the orchards in town earlier this week and stumbled upon a basket of local nectarines marked 'seconds.'  She inquired about the fruit, and the cashier told her that the nectarines were not as smooth and beautiful as the fruit they sold at full price, but that they were still tasty.  A good sized basket with at least twenty pieces of fruit was just five dollars, so she bought them, and dropped half off at my house.  My daughters, undeterred by the irregular fruit, ate a few of them before I even got home that day.  Once I arrived, I banished all the fruit eaters, and wrapped them up to save for some weekend baking.  I do believe a few pieces of fruit were pilfered even then.  When I was cutting them up for the crisp I made on Sunday, I understood why.  These were the sweetest, tangiest, juiciest nectarines I have ever tasted.  I quickly threw together this crisp, throwing a few blueberries in for a little color and some more flavor.  We ate the whole thing for dessert tonight, and I called my mother after to let her know how delicious it was.  How else could I guarantee that she would drive to the orchards again to get me more nectarines?

For the Fruit:
About 8 medium peaches or nectarines, cut up
2/3 cup blueberries
juice of 1/4 lemon
2 tbsp. Instant tapioca
3 tbsp. brown sugar

For the Crisp Topping:
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter, melted

Mix the fruit and the next three ingredients in a 9 X 13 baking dish.  Toss well to mix. Mix oats and remaining ingredients together in a bowl, and then crumble over the fruit mixture.  Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350 degrees until crust is golden brown and fruit is bubbling.  Serve warm, preferable with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lots of Reasons to Love: Pizza Dough

There are a lot of reasons I love my husband.  He is one of the most intelligent and curious people I know.  He has a wicked sense of humor, keeping the rest of us laughing much of the time.  He is the sweetest, and most loving father I could ever imagine, staying far more calm than I as our daughters enter the teenage years.  He is fiercely loyal, and loves to cook.  In addition, he is persistent to a fault, rarely getting frustrated at the many jobs there are to do around the house.  He is an amazing partner and friend.  His many wonderful qualities, however, have made my Michael a man who loves a good household project.  Over the years, we have relandscaped, built a stamped concrete walkway, knocked down interior walls, built closets, painted, gutted and retiled a bathroom.  I am just the cheap labor; I often cannot see the forest for the trees, as they say, and Michael is the one with the vision, the knowledge and skills to carry out the plan.  It is one of the few times that I just do what I am told. 

A few years ago, we ripped out a brick patio in our backyard to prepare for a large deck.  Michael is not one to discard any useful things, so we stacked the bricks in a large neat pile in the side of our yard, knowing that down the line, we would find some way to use them.  A friend casually said to Michael, "If you just pulled a few of the bricks out of the center, you'd have a brick oven to make pizza."  An obsession was born!   From that point on, Michael spent all his free time researching, planning, drawing, and getting ready to build the brick wood-burning pizza oven that now stands in our backyard.  To be fair, we had been talking about the fact that there is no good pizza to be had in the town in which we live.  But still, there were people who called us crazy.  Sometimes it was me.

We dug, poured a cement base, spent the Spring of 2007 building the structure of the oven out of cinder block, then I channeled the spirit of my grandfather, who was a bricklayer when he first came to the U.S. from Italy, and mastered the fine art of bricklaying.  We spent that summer sweating in the backyard laying brick over the cinder block structure, then building the barrel arch from firebrick.  While I would not want to build another pizza oven, I will say that working on such a project together was a rewarding experience.  Our kids would swim several yards away in the pool while we worked, so the hours we spent working, we also spent talking.  There was nowhere we could go, and nothing else to do but sing along to the music playing on our ipod and talk.  So although I ended that summer far more exhausted than I started out, we finally got some good pizza. 

Making pizza in this manner is a project in itself.  The fire needs to be built in the oven three hours before the pizza is made, because the mass of the oven needs to absorb the heat from the fire until it is saturated and can reflect the heat back to cook the pizza.  It is perfect for a lovely late summer or early fall evening with friends and a few bottles of red wine. 

This dough is very versatile.  It makes a great calzone, good bread, and works very well in a traditional oven jacked up to the highest temperature.  Let the oven preheat for at least 30 minutes, and if you are using a pizza stone, make sure it is in the oven while preheating.

Pizza Dough (adapted from Alton Brown)

1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus more to coat the dough while rising
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. active dry yeast

In the bowl of a stand mixer, place the water, sugar and salt.  Mix well until the sugar and salt are dissolved, and then taste to see if it is balanced.  This is essentially what your pizza dough will taste like, so if it is bland, add some sugar or salt.  Add the yeast, stir and let sit for a couple of minutes for the yeast to activate.  Add the flour, then using the dough hook, start the mixer on low, as the flour and liquid become incorporated.  Add more flour if necessary to form a sticky but smooth dough.  Knead the dough (continuing to use the stand mixer and the dough hook) for 15 minutes  Alternately, the dough can be mixed and kneaded by hand.  Cut the dough in half, and roll each half into a ball.  Coat each piece of dough with olive oil and place in a large bowl covered with a clean damp dishtowel.  Place in a warm place to rise.  Dough can be made a day in advance and left in the refrigerator. 

When the dough has risen, stretch by hand into a medium sized circle.  Top with your favorite pizza toppings, and bake on a pizza stone at the highest temperature your oven will reach.  When the cheese on top is golden brown, and the crust is crisp and browned, pull the pizza out with a pizza peel.  Slice and enjoy!