Saturday, February 26, 2011

The long way home

When a person goes out of their way to make for you a very fine Italian pastry the least you can do is go and fetch it. So what if they live 320 miles away. You've got something more important to do? Than eat pastry?


Okay, so I was a lot closer than that when my Aunt Anna called to tell me about the pasticiotti she'd just baked. But I was already in the car when the cell rang, heading up to Maine after a long weekend back home in Brooklyn.

"Where the heck are you?" I heard Anna say. "You didn't go home yet, did you?"

(We do not subscribe to traditional forms of greeting in my family; we get right to what is on our minds.)

"Anna? That you?"

"No, it's your uncle. Who do you think it is, you lousy kid?"

(Nor, I should add, do we always speak delicately to one another.)

"Better lay off those steroids, Dominic," I barked back. "You're starting to sound just like your sister."

I could go on like this, but I'll spare you. Turns out that Anna, whom I'd visited only two days earlier, and who had made me one very fine lasagne and her wonderfully delicate meatballs, decided the prior evening that it was imperative she whip up a batch of pasticiotti (basically a tart filled with custard or, as in this case, cheese). She also decided that it would be a terrible shame if a few of the pastries did not travel home to Maine with her "pain-in-the-ass nephew," an endearment she has graced upon me since, oh, I'd say around the Reagan administration.

Hearing my aunt's enthusiasm come bursting through the headset, I knew right away what I had to do: Lie like hell. I thanked her extravagantly, said that, no, I was still at my brother Joe's place, and that, of course, I would drop by later on to pick up my pastry and to have another visit.

Except that I was in Connecticut already, on I-95 North. Still 270 miles from home, true, but 50 miles from where I'd started out an hour earlier.

What can I say, I love my aunt. I love her pastries too.

So I'd spend another night down there, so what, I told myself turning around. There are worse things than sitting around eating fresh pastries and sipping coffee with a family member you don't get to see all that much.

Not only were Anna's pasticiotti beautiful, they were right up there with the best I've ever had. The pastry was at once flakey and chewy, the ricotta filling just on the right side of sweetness. They were damn near perfect really. My aunt knew it. You can tell when a cook believes in what they feed you, and Anna definitely believed in these pastries.

"They came good, Annie," I said reaching for pasticiotti due. "Call me anytime you feel like making more, you know. Don't be shy."

Just as I was leaving her apartment Anna said that I should try making the pastries myself one day — "Put it on The Meatball" were her exact words — and when I laughed at the suggestion she showed me the book in which her recipe resides. It's a pamphlet really, put out by the Brooklyn-born Polly-O in 1977 as a way to inspire people to use more of the company's cheese products.

This got me laughing even harder, because I have the same booklet. It was my mother's. I had found it amongst her things after she passed and of course had to hold onto it. I look through it from time to time but can't say that I've ever used one of the recipes.

Here it is.

And here's the recipe that Anna uses for her pasticiotti. They don't call it that in the Polly-O booklet; they call it Pasticcini di Napoli, or Neopolitan Pastry.

Call it whatever you want. But if you happen to be making a batch while we're chatting on the phone one day, don't mention it before first inquiring as to my exact whereabouts. You will be saving me from myself, I assure you. I put too many miles on my car as it is. I don't need to be chasing down homemade pastries wherever they might be. No matter how good they are.

Pasticcini di Napoli
Recipe from the Polly-O "Cooking with Cheese Recipe Book"
Makes 8 to 10 pastries

For the pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 egg yolks
Zest from one lemon

For the filling
3 cups ricotta
6 Tbs confectioners sugar
2 egg yolks
Pinch cinnamon
1 tsp lemon zest

Sift flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Cut in butter, then add egg yolks, one at a time, while mixing with wooden spoon. Blend in lemon rind. Work dough with hands until it is soft and manageable and clears the bowl. If necessary add a little water. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly until smooth. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut pastry into rounds to fit muffin pans. Grease muffin pans and line with pastry.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine ricotta with remaining ingredients and blend well with wooden spoon. Fill prepared pastry sections. Cut leftover pastry into small strips and criss-cross over filling. Trim edges. Bake 40 to 50 minutes, then cool in oven.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eggs, Uggs & airplanes

Don't worry. I'm not reviewing old Leslie Nielsen movies all of a sudden. I'll get to the food in a minute.

As it turns out, I was on a plane to Chicago a week or so back, en route to what can only be described as a gluttonous food-and-drinkfest with friends who ought know better than to plan such events in the dead of a Midwestern winter. (Sorry, guys, somebody had to say it.)

Being an aisle seat-except-under-extreme-duress kinda guy, naturally I was called upon to rise up whenever the lovely lady stage left found it necessary or desirable to leave her seat and move freely about the cabin. And the lady found it necessary and/or desirable to move quite a lot.

The aircraft, you see, an Airbus A320 to be tiresomely precise, was crawling with an especially high-spirited band of travelers: young female gymnasts and their mommies on their way to a very important gymnastics competition. A highlight, I am certain, of the girls' young lives.

I would not describe it as a highlight of mine.

Still, I learned many important things on this flight midway across the land. First, it is possible for one mommy to hold an entire conversation with another mommy seated on the opposite side of the aircraft, while at the same time reading "The Catcher in the Rye." Second, I should have invested in Uggs boots when (well, if) I had the chance, for all but four persons (two girls, two mommies) in a group of perhaps thirty were wearing the furry footwear. Three, there is a magnificent place on this Earth that I simply must, MUST visit before I expire; it is called American Girl, and there is something terribly wrong with me for being previously unaware of its existence and place in our culture. And, lastly, it had been far too long since last I viewed one of the most poignant five-minute slices of film that I believe I have ever seen.

This, of course, is where the eggs come in. Because on one occasion when I was asked to go vertical, so to speak, there I saw, framed inside a 13-inch laptop screen two rows forward, Secundo (Stanley Tucci) and Primo (Tony Shalhoub) unveiling their prize timpano in the over-the-top dinner party scene from the 1996 indie film "Big Night."

Considering the effort that goes into preparing one, the timpano is without doubt the rightful culinary star of this film. But it isn't to me. And never has been. To me the dish that is most alluring, most romantic, is a bunch of scramble eggs that Secundo prepares in near total silence just before the credits start to roll. I did not get to enjoy this scene on the Flight of the Ugg-Wearing Gymnasts, but then the setting wasn't quite right for that anyway.

If you're not familiar, Secundo and Primo are brothers who have emigrated from Italy in the 1950s. They own a restaurant together, but it is failing and only weeks from being foreclosed upon, shuttered. A special dinner event (the big night) promises to save the business, but doesn't, and the brothers have a terrible altercation, both verbally and physically attacking one another before each runs off in the early morning hours.

If you've got five minutes, here's what happens once the fireworks clear. (Cristiano, the waiter lying on the counter, is the singer Marc Anthony, by the way.)

And so the flight to Chicago, with all the noise and the furry footwear and the artificially flavored cheesy snacks and the up-and-down relationship with the seat I was assigned, turned out not to be so bad after all. A couple nights after getting home I figured it was probably time to check out the movie again. Watching the final scene, hearing the eggs crackle in the pan, seeing Secundo acknowledge, then feed and then hold his brother Primo, then Primo hold him back... Well, I wouldn't be much of a brother if I didn't think about one of my own at a time like this. Now, would I?

I don't eat eggs with my brother Joe anymore, what with how many years it took for the docs to finally get his cholesterol under control. I've never flown anywhere with him either, come to think of it, though I would gladly suffer through another flight just like this one if he were on it with me.

My brother did accompany me on the Cyclone in Coney Island last summer, though. For my birthday.

Which, to me at least, is about as close as you get to flying without a boarding pass and a tiny bag of peanuts.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The man in the pan

My father was a cook in the Army, not at home. The only thing I can remember him ever preparing was a crispy rice dish, sort of an Italian-American version of the Korean bi bim bap. He would line the inside of a well-oiled black iron pan with cooked white rice, let that fry a good long while, then layer in a variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Not a man bound by orthodoxy, the dish, as best I can recall, never tasted the same twice. How could it? One day the meat might be freshly prepared sausage, another day leftover fried veal cutlets or pork rib meat from Sunday's gravy. Vegetables could be sliced mushrooms or ripe tomatoes or cooked carrots or what was left of the sauteed escarole we'd had the night before. Cheese? The only thing you could count on was that there would be some of it present, either mixed inside or grated on top.

After the rice had browned sufficiently, by which I mean after it had become crunchy hard, and all the other ingredients had either cooked, reheated or melted, my father would crack a couple eggs and slowly empty them over the fried-up mass. There the eggs would settle to cook, under a lid now, but not too much; a runny egg is better than a stiff one, at least to my father and to me.

Now, on this next point, I must admit that I could be terribly mistaken. Because I do not recall anybody else being around when my father prepared this dish. There is just him in my memory and, I'm guessing, a 10-year-old me. That's it.

I can see him at the stove, the one in the kitchen behind our fountain service store, and see myself nearby watching him as he cooks. I am also picturing us both at the little formica-topped table out back of the store while we ate the crispy rice. Crunch-crunch-crunching until the black pan was empty and our stomachs full.

But again, I am not at all certain that my memory can be trusted. When you lose someone before you have had time to grow a bit larger alongside them, it is possible that remembrances, such as this one, are more molded than recalled.

I would like to keep this particular memory intact, if I could. Otherwise, the crunchy rice dish that has comforted me for so long just would never, ever taste the same.

And I would miss that. Very much.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's good!

I'm gonna catch a lot of crap over this one. I just know it.

Canned soup. With meatballs no less.

The hell is this guy thinking?

In my defense (I didn't hear any of you coming to it!), you will witness some important doctoring going on here. Doctoring which, I believe, takes an acceptable mass-market (i.e., el cheapo) foodstuff and moves it toward a legitimate, even crave-worthy lunch item. Besides, I'm away on a shamefully gluttonous food-and-drink ramble at the moment, and therefore cannot prepare for you all a proper meal this week. 

What? I'm your meatball, not your mother.

I have long been a Chickarina fan; in fact, it's the only can of soup I bring into the house. In winter, I open at least one of them a week. (If you are unfamiliar, Chickarina is similar to an Italian Wedding Soup, comprised mainly of broth and meatballs, pasta and vegetables, like that.)

But I am incapable of simply cracking open a can and doing what the experts at Progresso Foods tell me to do. After all, in the not terribly detailed stove-top cooking instructions on the label, I am advised simply to "Heat in saucepan." I am also told, in no uncertain terms, to "refrigerate leftovers." But I have never followed that instruction before either. It's a can of soup. Not a vatful.

I can tell I'm losing you here, so what say we get on with it.

See these pieces of bread? They're stale. Cannot possibly get any harder. I keep stale bread around the house like other people keep crackers in the cupboard or milk in the fridge. I am never without it. Not ever.

The bread, if you hadn't already guessed, is a principal ingredient in the Chickarina soup that I eat. So is a very good bit of freshly grated cheese (Romano here), a healthy pour of extra virgin olive oil, and some freshly ground black pepper.

Go ahead, mock me. It's good, I tell you. 

Oh, boy!


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Homemade Nutella

Some things are best left to the cold and faceless experts. Such is the case with Nutella, my favorite before-bedtime spoonful of sweetness.

Ferrero, Nutella's multinational manufacturer, is a far more reliable source for the creamy chocolate-hazelnut spread than I will ever be.

Not that I haven't tried. In the past several weeks I have made two different batches of homemade Nutella, thank you very much. One was a disaster, the other an acceptable imitation but not in the slightest way memorable.

Coincidentally, and as fabulously idiotic luck would have it, I learned just last week that Saturday, February 5, will mark the fifth annual celebration of World Nutella Day. The event, concocted by a couple of Americans living in Italy, appears, as best I can tell, to call upon cooks around the globe to, well, cook something, anything using Nutella. If you are in Texas this weekend, do not be surprised if you are offered a Nutella enchilada, or perhaps a barbecued Nutella cheeseburger. If you are in Krakow, rest assured there is some person nearby who has just slaved over a batch of Nutella-filled pierogi. Traveling the South East Asian Peninsula, are you? Maybe you can score a few bites of banana-Nutella tempura.

I had never heard of World Nutella Day before either, but it seems that a lot of other people have. I checked over on Facebook where, as you might expect, the "event" has its own page; nearly 17,000 people "like" it. Over on Twitter, WND has more than 2,000 followers. (I am positively green with envy on both these points, I'll have you know. As of this writing, a mere 54 Facebook users "like" Mister Meatball and there are even fewer Twitter "followers" than that.)

So, what was the point of attempting a homemade version of the Italian condiment? I could say that the holidays, when the first batch was attempted, might have had something to do with my enthusiasm. But do you want to know the truth? It beats the absolute hell out of me what the point of all this was.

I like the stuff. I saw a recipe. It happens.

You start with lightly roasted and skinned hazelnuts.

Work them in the food processor until they liquify. (This will take some time, so be patient. I was not at all patient the first time and it proved my undoing.)

Vanilla, confectioner's sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder and hazelnut oil are next up.

Mix them together and add to the liquified hazelnut mix.

Process about a minute more.

And there you go, homemade Nutella.

Well, sort of. The real Nutella is on the left, mine's on the right.

Not bad. In fact, pretty tasty, if coarser in texture than the real stuff, and not as sweet.

On the other hand, I still know how to get my hands on the real Nutella, the one that's made in Italy (it's produced all over the world, you know), and so I'm not sure what the point would be of going through all this again.

Maybe I'll just stick with meatballs.

Homemade Nutella
Recipe adapted from the Los Angeles Times

Makes about 1 1/2 cups
2 cups raw hazelnuts
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons hazelnut oil, more as needed (I had hazelnut oil in the house, but if you don't, and don't want to buy it, I'd think canola oil might do.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts evenly over a cookie sheet and roast until they darken and become aromatic, about 10 minutes. Transfer the hazelnuts to a damp towel and rub to remove the skins. (I went with already-skinned hazelnuts on my second try, and roasted them a little less time.)

In a food processor, grind the hazelnuts to a smooth butter, scraping the sides as needed so they process evenly, about 5 minutes.

Add the cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, salt and oil to the food processor and continue to process until well blended, about 1 minute. The finished spread should have the consistency of creamy peanut butter; if it is too dry, process in a little extra hazelnut oil until the desired consistency is achieved. Remove to a container, cover and refrigerate until needed. Allow the spread to come to room temperature before using, as it thickens considerably when refrigerated. It will keep for at least a week.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Saints and sesame seeds

I once lived twelve feet above a church altar.

It was an amazing altar, one where short old ladies who wore black dresses and carried Rosary beads came together to mark all of the major Saints' Days. They would pray, of course, and light candles, lots of candles. Many of the women would linger, speaking Italian to one another and drinking espresso and eating cookies.

I was not a member of a religious order, if you were wondering, and, for that matter, did not live above a church. The altar, a real one, stood in the living room of a small ground-floor flat occupied by a woman known only as Miss Mary. The baker of all Saints' Day cookies, Miss Mary lived alone in the apartment with just her religious articles, her baking tools and, of course, her altar.

I lived in a slightly larger space a flight above, with my parents and my two brothers.

It was a pretty spectacular place to live. I mean, how many apartment buildings do you know of that smell like an Italian pastry store all day long, and for so many days out of the year? (There are a lot of Saints' Days, you know.) More important, how many act as the central gathering place for scores of people who are looking for a warm, welcoming place to spend time with their neighbors?

Right. Not many. Different times.

Anyway, enough with the altar. I was a kid. All that mattered to me was that I could run down the flight of stairs whenever I felt like it and Miss Mary would always give me exactly what I wanted.

Her sesame seed cookies.

Those dry, crunchy, slightly sweet, always satisfying biscuits are as much a part of my childhood as any food I can think of. Even today I can summon their scent in an instant and without the slightest effort. The cookies are inside my head, I tell you. And they ain't-a-gonna get out.

It wasn't until a lot of years later that I learned the cookie's proper name (Biscotti di Regina, The Queen's Biscuit). Not that it mattered. I had probably put away thousands of the cookies by then. Besides, to me they're always going to be Miss Mary's sesame seed cookies. No matter who makes them.

Even if it's me.

The dough feels like a cross between a pasta dough and a pie crust. Just wet enough so that it will hold together to form the cookies, but still on the dry side.

The only other things you'll need: milk and raw sesame seeds.

First you form these thumb-sized pieces of dough.

Dip in the milk.

And roll in the sesame seeds.

Set them down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and into the oven at 400 F.

About 10 minutes later you've got yourself a fine mess of cookies.

This is the altar I was telling you about, part of it anyway. Years back, after Miss Mary had died, I helped to clear the place out. She must have had a couple hundred statues of I don't know how many different saints, and the altar was pretty much as I'd remembered. (I came across some recipes, but not for the cookies, and so I've used a family recipe here.)

After the last of her things had been boxed up and the altar hauled away, I went across the street to Vinny Biscuit's grocery and picked up a package of Stella D'oro sesame cookies. I went back to the empty apartment, sat on the living room floor, and ate a couple of the Stella D'oros.

Then I locked Miss Mary's door and headed out, missing the smell of her cookies in the hallway a lot more than I thought I would.

I don't know what happened to the Stella D'oros. I left those propped against the living room wall. Where the altar used to be.

Biscotti di Regina 
Sesame seed cookies

Yields around 3 dozen cookies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
8 Tbsp. butter (at room temperature)
2 egg yolks
2.5 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. Anisette
1 tsp. lemon or orange zest

Combine the flour, sugar and baking soda, then incorporate all the other ingredients.
Mix together until you can just form a ball. (If the dough feels wet add a little flour; if it's dry and won't form a ball add milk, but only in 1/2 tsp. increments.)
Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate about an hour.

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Form thumb-sized biscuits. Dip each one in milk and then roll in the sesame seeds.
Put cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for around 10 minutes, or until golden brown.