Risotto al finocchio e limone

When I first started learning to cook and bake all the way back in middle school, I found risotto -- much like Isabel S. and Amanda M., the reigning popular girls of my 8th grade class -- a bit intimidating (though in hindsight if it was only a few spoiled pre-teens and arborio rice scaring me, I wasn't doing so badly)My 13 year old self did lots of culinary self-teaching and cookbook reading back then, and from what I had gathered, risotto -- not unlike algebra -- was notoriously tricky. It required lots of continuous stirring, and if you didn't stir it as you should, your risotto would end up a gluey, stuck-to-the-pan mess; broth needed to be added in specific quantities, and added only when the previous ladle-ful had been absorbed, and not a moment sooner; and if you got that far, the risotto needed to be eaten immediately, or else (I wasn't sure what the else was). For a while, I stuck to what I had already learned to do well -- brownie pie, banana pancakes, any type of pasta -- which, similar to sitting in the last row during Math class, seemed a bit safer. 

As time went on, I grew more confident in my kitchen skills, and although I felt painfully out of place in gym class and overly self-conscious at lunchtime, I learned to be pretty cool in my own kitchen at least, conquering things like Baked Alaska and Cheesecake and homemade gnocchi. I eventually decided to give risotto a shot, and, to my great surprise -- pause for dramatic effect --  found it wasn't so difficult as I had expected it to be, not in the least. Sure, it required a bit of stirring and attention, but it was nothing I couldn't handle, and when it was all said and done, the rice's transformation from crunchy little grains to velvety risotto was kind of magical, up there with the rising of bread dough or the disappearing act of sauteed greens, one of those things that to this day makes cooking and baking so fascinating to me. Around the time I conquered risotto, I came to the conclusion that the Popular Girls were also harboring insecurities (so that's what made them so mean!) most everyone in the class were sporting braces, not just me, and anyways, high school was right around the corner. Moral of the story: both middle school and my risotto were both eventually overcome, conquered, brought down to size. Who knew grades 7-8 and risotto had so much in common?!

But you came here for recipes, not reminiscing -- on to today's recipe. You don't find much risotto here in Rome; it's a dish that is more common up in the north of Italy, especially in Milan, the home of risotto alla milanese (risotto with saffron). It's something then that I make for myself at home, most usually on Sunday afternoons, or after a long day at my less than dream-job, where lots of repetitive, methodical stirring does the mind good. This fennel risotto with lemon is one of my new favorites, one of those make-eat-and-repeat dishes. It's buttery and rich and creamy and comforting (butter + Parmesan cheese have this down pat) the richness of the finished dish tempered by the bright sunny hit of lemon, and the fennel! The fennel here is sauteed in said butter, then left to almost braise in wine and broth along with the rice, where it becomes sweet, almost caramelized, its telltale licorice flavor present but softened around the edges. Topped with a few extra fennel fronds, a dash more of cheese, and a grate or two of lemon zest, it's heavenly. Conquer any lingering risotto fears you might have and make this, asap, I mean it.

A couple of notes: This is another spot-on Rachel Roddy recipe from the Guardian. I found that the rice took a bit longer to cook than the 16 minutes Rachel mentions in her reicpe and also that I did not to use all 2 liters of broth -- see how things go for you. I used arborio rice here instead of the recommended carnaroli, which worked wonderfully. Risotto is most certainly best eaten right off the stove, and I've read more than once that it shouldn't be reheated or eaten the next day (if anything, any leftovers should be used to make suppli'). However, I found this reheated pretty well the next day -- I heated up a little broth in the pan, stirred in the risotto and let it absorb the broth and heat up again, and it was good as new. The next day, the fennel flavor is stronger, which was also delicious. Last thing: I doubled the lemon zest, because I like an extra hit of citrus, but I leave the choice up to you.

Looking for more rice recipes? I've got this Butternut Squash Risotto and this Risotto with Peas and Pancetta, these Rice-stuffed Tomatoes with Potatoes, and this Insalata di Riso. Looking for more recipes with fennel? I've got this salad with Fennel, Orange, and Olives. Looking for more Italian comfort food? I've got this Butternut Squash Lasagne, this Pici pasta with sausage ragu', these Canederli, this Polpettone, and this Polenta con funghi

(Fennel and lemon risotto - recipe from Rachel Roddy)

1 large fennel bulb
2 litres (2000 grams) vegetable or light chicken stock
5 tablespoons (75 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion
1 1/2 cups (320 grams) carnaroli, arborio, or vialone nano rice
1/2 cup (125ml) dry white wine
Zest of a lemon
1/2 cup (60 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Extra cheese and lemon zest, for serving

Start by preparing your fennel. Cut off the fennel fronds (the feathery greens at the end of the stalks) and set aside for garnish. Using a sharp knife, cut off the tough bottom stem, the stalks of the fennel and any of the tough outer layer. Slice the resulting trimmed fennel bulb in to thinnish slices. Peel and finely chop the onion. Melt half the butter in a large deep frying pan/saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the chopped onion and the fennel with a pinch of salt, or until soft and translucent.
Add the rice to the fennel and onion mixture, stirring for 2-3 minutes, to toast the grains and coat them with the butter. Add the wine to the pan and stir until it has been absorbed. As the rice is absorbing the wine, place your stock in a medium pan on another burner on the stove and bring it to a simmer over low heat. When the wine is absorbed, begin to add the stock to the rice a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly and allowing it to be absorbed before adding the next. Rachel says this process will take about 16 minutes, but I found it took a little longer. Taste the rice: it is cooked when it is tender, but still with bite.
Turn off the heat on the pan, and add the rest of the butter, the cheese and the lemon zest. Cover the pan. Let it sit for 1 minute, then beat the risotto vigorously with a wooden spoon until the risotto is creamy and glossy. 
Taste the risotto and add a little salt, if you think it needs it. Divide the fennel up between 4 plates, decorating with fennel fronds, some extra Parmesan, and a little lemon zest if you wish. Servse 4.

Wellesley Fudge Cake

So: I have officially been 29 years old now for 3 weeks. My birthday (which, of course, I share with my twin sister) was on January 27th, and we celebrated by going to the famed Babington's Tea Room for high tea, followed later by an aperitivo at our new favorite restaurant, Secondo Tradizione, followed still by an evening at the ballet (more than one person asked us if we were turning 29 or 79 -- we know, we know, it was a relaxed sort of birthday, and we wouldn't have had it any other way)! 

My birthday has always been a highly anticipated day for me, with lots of good food and cake and friends and well-wishes, because after all, you're celebrating the day you arrived on the planet, which is a pretty big deal. I've done quite well in the birthday department in my 20s -- we rang in 21 in London, one of my favorite cities, welcomed 23 with a party in Bologna, and turned 28 in Rome with a homemade cake and a birthday brunch, to name just a few. My recent 29th birthday, however, felt different than my previous birthdays, celebratory but also a tiny bit melancholic, and I've realized I don't particularly like the idea of being in the last year of my 20s. After all, this is the decade in which I studied abroad, really learned Italian, graduated college, moved to Rome, fell in love, experienced a broken heart, translated a book, opened a blog, met some of my dearest friends, and learned more or less how to be an adult (emphasis on the more or less) in the world. It's been a good and important 10 years, and I'm not sure how I feel about leaving them behind. Being thisclose to 30, to entering a new phase, has left me feeling a little wobbly, and I'm finding myself taking stock of things and considering what changes I might want to make, what I might want to tackle next (first up: a job I'm happier in, ideally one related to food and writing). I wonder what the last year in my 20s will look like, and what my 30s will be like, what I'll eventually do, and where I'll go, which is exciting but also overwhelming and a little scary at the same time. Its been a reflective, pensive couple of weeks for me following my birthday, and lately I've been feeling a little out of sorts. 

In the midst of all this uncertainty however, cooking and baking, as always, is a constant, and from my kitchen recently, another source of comfort: chocolate cake. Think about it: whatever ups and downs you may encounter, however unsure or unsteady you're feeling, you can be sure that by mixing together flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and cocoa in the prescribed quantities, and baking the resulting mixture for a set amount of time (give or take a few minutes) you will end up with a chocolate cake. Chocolate cake, I realized, is a sure thing, the cure to whatever may be ailing you, reassuring, a guarantee even when nothing else is, always a good thing. I may not have a very clear idea of what this next year will hold, nor where I'll be as I enter my 30s, but I celebrated my slightly shaky birthday with a slice of steady, unwavering, chocolate cake. Which, by the way, was an exceptional chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake in question comes from the cookbook American Cake, written by the lovely and talented Anne Byrn (you may remember her from this post here). This is Wellesley Fudge Cake, a cake that was first baked at the Wellesley Inn on Wellesley Square in Massachusetts, not far from my home state of Rhode Island. It is a quintessential New England cake, the "fudge" frosting an ode to the fudge that college girls at Wellesley college would famously whip up in their dorm rooms back in the day, with a little butter, chocolate, and a borrowed Bunsen burner. The cake is light and fluffy yet deeply chocolate-y, dressed up with one of the best frostings I've ever eaten, EVER, thick and truffle-y and glossy and downright addictive, just barely sweet. I topped the whole thing off with a snowfall of sprinkles, which are optional, but make the finished cake so festive and pretty they might as well be mandatory. Birthday or not, ups and downs or not: no matter where you are in life at the moment, you owe it to yourself to make this cake.

A couple of notes: The recipe as Anne wrote it uses buttermilk; buttermilk is one of those ingredients I've never been able to find in Italy, so I substituted plain full fat yogurt (not Greek, the thinner kind) whisked together with a tablespoon or two of milk, and it worked perfectly.  If you'd like a two layer cake, make the cake as described below, using either two 8-inch rectangular cake pans, or two 8-inch round cake pans. Or, do as I did -- as you can see in the photos -- and halve the recipe for both the cake and the frosting to make a one-layer cake, baked in a rectangular 9x13 inch pan. Frost the cake right when the frosting has come together -- it hardens as it cools and makes for difficult frosting. Finally, I loved this cake as is but also would be tempted to add a nice dose of mini chocolate chips to the cake next time, to up the chocolate-factor even further.


Ingredients for the cake:
4 ounces (112 grams) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (120mL) water
2 cups (200 grams) granulated sugar, divided use
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks, 168 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk (240mL), at room temperature (see notes above)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for the frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick, 125 grams) unsalted butter
4 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup (80 mL) whole milk
3 1/2 cups (435 grams) powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract  

Rainbow sprinkles for decorating (optional) 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Lightly butter and flour the bottom of two 8 inch square baking pans, or if you're making just one layer cake like I did, grease just one pan. Shake out the excess flour, and set the pans aside. 
Place the flour, baking soda, an salt in a medium sized bowl, and stir to combine well. Set aside. Place the chocolate and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir and heat until the chocolate is nearly melted, about 1 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, stir in 1/2 cup (50 grams) sugar, and set the chocolate aside to cool.
Place the butter and the remaining 1 1/2 cups (150 grams) sugar in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixture until the mixture is fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the chocolate mixture to the batter, and blend on low for 15-20 seconds. 
Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, and blending on low until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and stir in the vanilla. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing the tops, and place the pans in the oven.
Bake the cakes until the tops spring back when lightly pressed with a finger, about 25-30 minutes. The cakes should just begin to pull away from the sides of the pans. Remove the cakes from the oven, and place on a wire rack to cool for 1 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the cakes and give them a gentle shake. Invert the cakes once and then again to cool on the racks, right side up. Let cool completely, 30-35 minutes.

While the cake is cooling, make your frosting! Place the butter in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. When the butter melts, stir in the cocoa and milk. Let the mixture come just to a boil, stirring, and then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla until the frosting is thickened and smooth.
When the cake layers are cooled, and when the frosting is smooth and still a little warm, place 1 layer on a cake plate or platter and spoon a generous 3/4 cup frosting over the top, smoothing it to let it cover the layer and let it trickle down the sides. Place the second layer on top (if you have decided to make both layers) and ladle more frosting over the top, smoothing everything out. For a casual look, let the frosting drip down the sides of the cake. Decorate with rainbow sprinkles if using.
For a more finished look, run the frosting around the edges of the cake using a metal spatula, just to seal in the crumbs. Repeat spreading the frosting around the edges of the cake. Let the cake rest for 1 hour before slicing and serving.  Serves 8-12.