Monday, January 21, 2008

La Caprese

La Caprese fig. a: torta alla caprese

Recently we started working through Josée di Stasio's à la di Stasio: Les Saveurs de l'Italie DVD collection. We watch a great deal of our television programming not when it actually airs, but later on DVD, and à la di Stasio, the local cooking show sensation, is no exception. Occasionally we happen upon an episode of à la di Stasio as it's airing, but for the most part we've watched them commercial-free on DVD. We were particularly excited, particularly eager about the Italian series, though. We'd heard all kinds of promising tidbits about the series' production from Elena Faita, who was part of the consulting team--we had a feeling we could expect good things and, as you might have gathered over the last three years, we're crazy about Italian cuisine.

The set consists of six shows, four on specific Italian cities and their environs (Rome, Modena, Naples, and Palermo), one on a crucial geographic region (Chianti), and a final episode dedicated entirely to the famous Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant. Naturally, given our ongoing obsession with pizza napoletana, we started with Naples. We had a feeling that at least one of Napoli's famous pizzerias would get highlighted, and we were right--an early section of the episode consists of an interview with an octogenarian pizzaiolo at Da Michele, the camera simultaneously giving us a sense of the lively atmosphere there, as well as glimpses of Da Michele's transcendent pies.

The remainder of the Naples episode features quite a few utterly tantalizing recipes, including two by Irene Mucilli of the rustic La Pignata à Pontelandolfo that really knocked us for a loop: Polpette con cacio e uova (egg and cheese croquettes), which looked particuarly good when served with a tomato sauce, and Cavatelli with Rapini and Pancetta. Funnily enough, though, it was the episode's last recipe, its only dessert--Torta alla Caprese, the torte of the island of Capri--that we ended up making first, and it wasn't Michelle who led the charge on this cake, as you might have expected, it was me. I say this not to brag about having made the torta, a cake known simply and affectionately as La Caprese in the region, but only to emphasize that if I can make it, you can make it.

The recipe is presented by one Edda Bini Mastropasqua--of Ischia and Montreal--and she stresses that although she gets many requests from family and friends to make her Torta alla Caprese, all the glory must go to this fabulously simple and rewarding recipe because otherwise her talents in the kitchen lie almost completely with savory foods and not with sweets. I'm more or less the same--I've got a strong sweet tooth (very strong, in fact), but when it comes to cooking, 99% of the time I lean towards the savory side of things. But having made the recipe four times since first discovering it, I, like Edda Bini Mastropasqua, am tempted to call this La Caprese recipe foolproof. The cake that results is a moist, luxurious chocolate-almond torte that only needs a light dusting of confectioner's sugar (patterned or not) to complete the scene, although I highly recommend accompanying it with vanilla ice cream or, even better, a delicate milk gelato.

Torta alla Caprese

1 cup sugar
5 large eggs
9 oz almonds with skins, ground*
1 tbsp baking powder
7 oz 70% cacao chocolate
7 oz unsalted butter
1/4 cup espresso coffee, brewed
confectioner's sugar

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter the interior of a 12" circular baking dish.

In a mixer, beat the eggs and the sugar for 5 minutes at medium speed. Fold in the almonds and the baking powder.

In a bain-marie, melt the butter and the chocolate together over medium-low heat. Add the coffee and mix well. Add this mixture to the almond mixture and mix well.

Pour the batter into the baking dish and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. Turn the cake out onto a plate and let it cool fully. When it is no longer warm, dust it with confectioner's sugar.

dusting the torta alla caprese fig. b: giving the torta a right dusting

Serve, cutting the cake into long, thin wedges.

* Use a nut grinder, a spice or coffee grinder, or a food processor. Make sure they are very well ground. We prefer a hand-cranked nut grinder because it gives the almonds a lighter, fluffier texture that we feel produces a better Caprese.


Dedicated to JK.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

7 is my lucky number

Yesterday, we received a message from Joanna at Nylon Diner informing us that we'd been tagged for a meme. I promptly made my way to Nylon Diner to find out what the details were and I found the following list of instructions:

1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

I decided to go the "random" route, and though the rules don't specify, I kept things food-related. I also made a point of including a recipe. (You know how we do here at AEB.)

Here goes:

1. Many years ago now I spent about a month in Turkey, a trip that culminated in a 1-week stay in Istanbul. I found Istanbul completely enchanting, but the strangest, most fascinating night that I spent there culminated with dinner at a taverna on a bustling little street--not much more than an alleyway, really--known as the Nevizade Sokak. Back then the street was lined on both sides with restaurant after restaurant--all of them open to the elements on this particular night and all of them with seating spilling out onto the street, leaving only a very narrow passageway through which to walk by and pick your particular taverna. I guess we got there early in the evening, as things go along the Nevizade Sokak, because the scene was fairly quiet when we arrived, but as the evening rolled on things changed dramatically and pretty soon we were witness to the greatest floor show I've ever witnessed. You see, not only were the restaurants now full, filling the night air with the roar of true festivity, but the passageway cutting through the middle of the Nevizade Sokak had been transformed into an absolutely ungodly procession of vendors, hawkers, hustlers, confidence men, prostitutes, and, yes, tourists--utterly bewildered tourists.* They seemed to be selling just about everything--from iced almonds to bus tickets to shoeshines--but stranger still, the food vendors seemed to be operating in symbiosis with the restaurants. In other words, the restaurant management didn't appear to have any problems with their patrons ordering food from passing vendors, it seemed to be understood that you might want to round out your meal with a kebab from one passer-by, a piece of loukoum from another.

Anyway, towards the end of our meal I ordered a bottle of mineral water--not from a passing mineral water vendor but from our waiter--and the mineral water that was brought to me, quite by coincidence, was a bottle of Kinik brand mineral water. I kept the bottle cap and this is what it looks like today.

Kinik sodasi fig. a: Kinik sodasi

2. I once had a collection of t-shirts from restaurants that carried either the name "Anthony's" or "Tony's." Most of them came from the Mid-Atlantic, where I lived at the time and where there happened to be quite a number of "Anthony's" and "Tony's" restaurants, many of which sold t-shirts, for some reason. After a while my friends started helping me out with this quest, and occasionally I'd receive a t-shirt from well outside the Mid-Atlantic. This is the only t-shirt that remains from my namesake collection.**

tony's place tee fig. b: Tony's of Hialeah

3. Back in 1994, I was winding my way along Highway 61, en route from Memphis to New Orleans, when just outside of Vicksburg, MS I came across Margaret's Gro. & Mkt., the most fantastic piece of vernacular architecture I've ever encountered. Margaret's was still a grocery store underneath, and Margaret was still helming the operation, but her friend the Rev. H.D. Dennis had spent the better part of the last 10-15 years transforming her humble roadside store into The House of Prayer, using only salvaged materials. I got a full tour of The House of Prayer and its surrounding campus (including the 50-ft Tower of Prayer) from the Reverend himself.

rev hd @ margaret's fig. c: Margaret's Gro. & Mkt. and Bible Class, the Rev. H.D. Dennis, architect

Inside, the shelves at Margaret's were a little bare and the interior wasn't as elaborately festooned as the outside (the House of Prayer was still very much a work in progress), but that was more than made up for by the New Ark of the Covenant the Reverend had built (again, out of recycled materials) in full anticipation of the Second Coming.

4. I have a small collection of 1930s Chinese posters. Most of them have nothing to do with food or drink, but there are exceptions.

gande price and co fig. d: Gande, Price & Co., Ltd.: Wines, Spirits & Cigars: nice punt!

5. In August 2005 Michelle and I spent a couple of weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area. One day, while rummaging through the loot at a 20th century collectibles store in the Mission District, we came upon a bag of vintage 1960s pins bearing all kinds of vintage Flower Power sentiments that had recently been unearthed in a local warehouse. I figured this was about as good a souvenir as I was likely to find in San Francisco, so I bought a few of these pins for myself and for friends, including "SAVE WATER SHOWER WITH A FRIEND" and "STAMP OUT REALITY," but my favorite one was this beauty.

take a hippie to lunch fig. e: or else!

I'm especially fond of wearing it when I take Michelle out for lunch.

6. Recently I rediscovered my very first venture in food publishing. It appeared in Sunnyvale United Soccer Club Presents Our Favorite Recipes, eds. Wilcox, Ledford, Shaha, and McLaughlin, and today, a little worse for wear, it looks like this.

chocolate mousse fig. f: chocolate mousse recipe

You gotta start somewhere, right? Anyway, I tried it again recently and it works. Thing is, there's an important ingredient missing. I'm sure it was part of the recipe I submitted to the printers (I swear!), but somehow it didn't make it into the published edition. If you can't read my Mom's handwritten annotation, it reads: "1 package of chocolate chips." You don't have to use chocolate chips, of course. Use 12 oz. of any good, dark chocolate. God knows how many people in Sunnyvale attempted to make this chocolate mousse according to the recipe as it appeared. I shudder to think.

Actually, the other thing that's missing is the source (or did the printers leave that out too?) Gourmet? Bon Appétit? Sunset? Nope. If memory serves, the recipe came from that other font of gastronomic expertise, National Geographic World.

7. My maternal grandfather, Freddy--the eldest of 15--was a chef who got his start as a lumberjack camp cook back when he was still a teenager. He eventually moved to Quebec City and there he began to work in the hotel business. He also met my grandmother, Amabilis, there. My grandmother wasn't a cook by trade, but she came from a line of cooks from Havre St-Pierre who'd worked on ships, and she did have a good mind for business. They met in the hotel trade and that's where they remained. They got married, started a family, and in the early '40s when a business opportunity presented itself in Edmundston, NB--then an important regional center at the junction of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine, and the so-called "Gateway to the Maritimes"--they relocated. My grandparents owned and operated the New Royal Hotel for roughly 30 years, during which time it was famous across the region for its banquets. This is what it looked like back in its 1960s glory days.

new royal hotel fig. g: New Royal Hotel, Edmundston, NB

One of my favorite photographs of my grandparents is this one, taken not long after they met in Quebec City.

freddy & bilis 2 fig. h: Bilis & Freddy

My grandfather is the one in the middle. Not sure who the woman on the right is, but the doll on the left is my grandmother.

My grandfather being a chef, he tended to do most of the cooking in their household. My grandmother didn't make the widest range of dishes, but what she made she made well. For reasons that I've never fully understood, she never used an oven. She made everything on the stovetop. Even her roasted chicken. It took her a while, but she was patient. My Mom swears it's the best chicken she's ever had.

Today, Epiphany, is my grandmother's birthday. She would have been 100.

And now, passing the torch:

1. My Favourite Things
2. Tiny Banquet Committee
3. You Can't Make Everything From Scratch...
4. Bits and Bytes From Elsewhere
5. Saint Sustenance
6. Word Things
7. The Good Stuff


* This scene apparently originated in the nearby Çiçek Pasaji--the famed Flower Passage--which, by the 1960s, had become a vision worthy of Aragon's Le paysan de Paris.

** Truth be told, my favorite of these was a baby blue "Anthony's Chicken & Ribs" t-shirt that I wore for about a decade. For a while I also owned a matching "NO PARKING Anthony's Chicken & Ribs VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED" sign that someone, um, acquired on my behalf. I didn't keep the sign nearly as long as I kept the t-shirt.