Guest post: Fig & Goat Cheese Pizza



Ciao a tutti! My name is Anna Larkin. I’m half Italian, half Irish, if my name alone didn’t already give that away. I’m good friends with Francesca and Gloria, and I am happy to contribute to their amazing new blog! I look forward to sharing many posts with you, and would like to start by telling you a little bit about myself. To start off, I’m a picky foodie. I understand that may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. “Foodie” because I love food, but there are also many foods and flavors I do not like (hence, “picky”). Some of these are olives, capers, blue cheese, anchovies, and parsley. However, I can tolerate these ingredients in small quantities; i.e. mild blue cheese dressing as an accompaniment to buffalo wings, or an anchovy flavor in a Caesar salad. 

I think I’ve always been pretty picky but according to my mom, my pickiness got worse after my year abroad in Bologna--the gastronomic capital of Italy, and, incidentally, where I first became friends with Francesca and Gloria. The deliciousness of Bolognese food was beyond anything I had ever tasted before, and have yet to taste since, though some meals have come mighty close. Thankfully New York City is full of great restaurants for us foodies, if you know where to look. In fact, Francesca and Gloria even visited me in New York, where I had the honor of introducing them to my favorite cupcake place--Magnolia Bakery. The vanilla-vanilla (vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream) cannot be beaten, but Gloria fell in love with the red velvet, which I have now come to appreciate as well. 

Going back to the whole, “Bologna has the best* food in the world so it’s been hard to find any Italian food that has come close to such perfection” thing, I do have to say that my mom and grandparents do make the best** Italian food. My grandparents are from Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, in southern Italy. Everything they make not only tastes delicious, but seems effortless. My family will routinely walk into my grandparents’ house, see nothing on the stove, and like magic, a three course meal will appear on the table. When it comes to Italian restaurants in New York, however, I prefer ones with a modern, unique twist, for example, Polpettina (literally, little meatball) in my town of Eastchester. I also love Mexican food (taco day in elementary school was always a good day), and I also love to modify recipes to make them my own. For example, I watch the culinary stars Ina Garten, Bobby Flay, and Giada DeLaurentiis on the Food Network the way an apprentice watches a surgeon perform--with focus, and with the intention to replicate the recipe in my own way. I also try and recreate recipes from my favorite restaurants. 

Remember “Polpettina?” Well, they make this amazing pizza with figs, goat cheese, arugula pesto, and pancetta--it’s easily their best pizza on the menu. I’ve made it at home several times with my sister, and I must say, it has a strong chance of beating Polpettina in a fig pizza throwdown. Finally, it is important that you know that I have a sweet tooth. (I guess taking Francesca and Gloria to Magnolia Bakery may have already revealed that fact, but I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.) I also love to make cupcakes of all kinds. My sister and I even started a small business making cupcakes and other baked goods. I recently had my first real order--a Communion cake for 50 people. Just learning how to make buttercream flowers took up a couple of my evenings, but it was so worth it, and I look forward to more orders as we expand our business. We are hoping to start selling at farmer’s markets this summer. 

In my future posts, I hope to share with you the wonderful food tour and restaurant experiences I have had, as well as some of my favorite recipes I like to create at home. I look forward to sharing with you! A presto!


*=best restaurant food
**=best home-cooked meals


FIG & GOAT CHEESE PIZZA
Ingredients:
1 ball of pizza dough
¼ cup fig spread
2 cups baby arugula
2 cloves garlic
¼ -½  cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 ounces prosciutto, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 oz. goat cheese
1 cup mozzarella, shredded
Honey, for drizzling
Directions:
Prepare arugula pesto. You can use a blender, but I use my heavy duty mortar and pestle to do the job. Grind two cloves of garlic with the kosher salt using the pestle. Add the arugula a little at a time, along with a little olive oil, grinding it until it has a pesto consistency. Stir in the grated cheese.

Roll out pizza dough onto a greased sheet pan (you can use your favorite pizza dough recipe or simply buy it from the store). Spread the arugula pesto onto the dough, followed by the fig spread. You can use fresh figs instead of fig spread like Polpettina does, but I like the sweetness of the fig in each bite so I use the spread. Add pieces of prosciutto (or pancetta) and dollops of goat cheese. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top, along with a light drizzle of olive oil.

Cook in a 425°F oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Drizzle lightly with honey after removing from the oven. Mangia!

Anna








Blondies


Though I know that there is no such thing as a “cooking gene,” it certainly seems to be a passion that is passed down from generation to generation. As I mentioned in my post for ricotta pie my grandmother was a great cook, as was my grandfather, and their daughter, my mother, is also an excellent cook and baker. I was raised in a house where pasta sauce never came from a jar, prosciutto di parma and parmesan cheese were staples, and book shelves had to be added to the kitchen in order to hold my mother’s ever expanding cookbook collection. Holiday meals were extravagant gourmet feasts -- while the parents of most kids I knew had Christmas or Easter catered, my mom would excitedly sort through her collection of Bon Appetit magazines to plan out the menu (appetizers, main course, sides, and dessert.) 

She was known to wake up with us at 6:00 in the morning to make us pancakes for breakfast before catching the bus to school in Providence, make us beef stew on cold days so we could be “cozy,” and make us chocolate chip coffee cake for no reason in particular. When I travel back to the U.S she always has dinner waiting for us when we get home from the airport -- homemade macaroni and cheese, roasted tomato soup, caramel layer cake, or anything else you request. Yes, in short, I grew up spoiled in terms of food, raised by a mother who loves to feed her family. Needless to say my cooking “gene” has been passed down from her.

So let me get to this recipe for blondies, which are, for those of you unfamiliar, a buttery brown sugar bar cookie studded with chocolate chips and sometimes walnuts. Americans know them as the less popular but equally delicious cousin of the brownie, while our Italian readers may not know them at all, so I’m happy to be introducing this recipe to you all!

Growing up, this was one of my absolute favorite things my mom would make for my brother, sister and me. There was nothing nicer than coming home after a long day at school to find her taking a pan of these out of the oven as an after school treat. Equally delightful was getting to take a plate of them to a friend’s sleepover, or finding one wrapped in aluminum foil in my lunchbox -- I was the envy of all my classmates, who would attempt (unsuccessfully) to trade their oreos or fruit snacks for one.

Note that this is a very quick and simple recipe -- all you have to do is mix the ingredients together, pour the batter into the pan, and bake. These are particularly good when served warm out of the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Enjoy!!


BLONDIES

Ingredients:

1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips (semi sweet or milk -- the milk chocolate will make for a sweeter blondie)
1 cup pecans or walnuts (optional)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9 inch square cake pan.

Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter over medium in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Let cool to room temperature. Pour into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar to the melted butter, and whisk until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, again whisking until combined. Add the vanilla and stir. Add the flour mixture to the brown sugar mixture and mix everything together with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the chocolate chips and the walnuts if you’re using them. The batter will be thick.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread to the corners.
Put the pan into the preheated oven and bake for about 35-40 minutes, or until the top is dry and almost firm to the touch -- be sure to not overcook. Makes about 10 blondies. Note that these are best eaten the day that they are made.







No Bake Peanut Butter Pie



Ah, peanut butter. An American classic. If you’re an American reading this post, you probably know and love peanut butter. Peanut butter is like a best friend you grew up with, something you’ve eaten ever since you were little. Peanut butter on a bagel for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in your lunchbox at school, peanut butter on celery sticks for snack (yep, you heard right Italians – we put peanut butter on vegetables). Every spring you probably waited impatiently for the arrival of your order of Girl Scout peanut butter Tagalong cookies. And if you grew up in my family, you also ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches (me) peanut butter and bacon sandwiches (my brother) and peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches (my sister). Yes, peanut butter is a big deal in the U.S.

In Italy however it is mostly unknown and underappreciated. Most Italians I know have never tried peanut butter, and those who have are on the fence about it. “E’ troppo pesante!” (It’s too heavy!) “E’ buono…ma non riesco a mangiarne tanto!” (It’s good, but I can’t eat very much of it!) “Meglio la nutella!” (Nutella is better!) etc. Indeed, Italians tend to prefer Nutella, the distant cousin of peanut butter, made from chocolate and hazelnuts (remember this cake?)
This recipe for peanut butter pie is one that I hope will be added to the vast list of ways-to-eat-peanut butter for our American readers, and a good recipe for Italians who want to give peanut butter a try. This is a rich dessert made a bit lighter by its fluffy texture. The flavor of the peanut butter is complimented by a chocolate crumb crust, which, as all Americans know, is peanut butter’s best friend. Best of all, this pie requires no baking --just blend together the filling ingredients, pour them in to the crust, and put the whole thing in the fridge. The hardest part about making this pie is waiting for the filling to set! Try this recipe, you’ll be happy you did! 


NO BAKE PEANUT BUTTER PIE

Ingredients:

Crust:
About 25 chocolate wafer
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Filling:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 ¼ cup whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla

Directions:

 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Crush the cookies until they're fine crumbs. Pour the melted butter over the top and stir with a fork to combine. Press into a pie pan and bake until set, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

 Beat the peanut butter with the cream cheese until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and beat until smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the vanilla and whipping cream until it forms peaks. Fold into peanut butter/sugar mixture. Pour the filling into the crust, evening out the top with a knife or spatula. Top with chocolate chips if you want. Chill for at least an hour before serving. Serves 10.









Penne alla Vodka


“I can’t wait to go to Rome. Chicken parmesan is my favorite food ever. I’m going to eat sooo much chicken parmesan when I’m in Rome!!!”

Hmm, not quite. This remark was said to me a couple of years ago by a college classmate who was preparing to study for a month in Rome. I kindly had to explain to her that she would never find chicken parmesan in Rome – or in Italy, for that matter – but that she would surely try lots of other actual Italian dishes that would be much better. Confusion and then disappointment ensued. She did not take the news well.

Being raised in a family with grandparents from Italy (Calabria and Le Marche, to be exact) and then later living in Italy has taught me that Italian cuisine – real, authentic Italian food – is quite different compared to Italian American cuisine, or rather food that is perceived as Italian by most Americans. The influx of Italian immigrants to the U.S (especially between the years 1880-1920) made the presence of Italian food more prominent in the U.S; and, with time, this Italian food evolved to become a whole different sort of cuisine. Our chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, and pepperoni pizza differ greatly from anything that falls within the realm of authentic Italian food, a land where ingredients are fresher, portions are smaller, and the overall dish is simpler. Real Italian food means cooking pasta until it is al dente, never serving seafood with cheese, and that peperoni are bell peppers, not a type of sausage. Italian American food is a bit like the louder, obnoxious fraternal twin of actual Italian food; both share a few traits (the use of tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta) but actually are two completely different entities. 


I have found however a dish that is a middle ground, a sort of overlap between Italian and American cuisine – penne alla vodka, or pasta made with tomatoes, cream, and, of course, vodka. I say overlap because it is not clear whether this dish originated in Italy or in America. Some claim that the dish was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy, while others recognize an American chef named James Doty as the true creator. Other still assert that Luigi Franzese, a Neapolitan cook who had immigrated to the U.S created the recipe in the New York restaurant Orsini in the 1970s, and other still say that the recipe was developed by a chef in Rome in the 1980s for a vodka company that was hoping to popularize its brand in Italy. Regardless of its origins, penne alla vodka is a dish that can be categorized as both Italian and Italian American food, as it can be found and is enjoyed in both countries (though the Italian version often has the addition of speck*). It is a dish that provides a bridge between what are usually two very different cuisines.  


My version of this dish is more in line with the Italian American cuisine – no speck here, and I use chicken broth, which isn’t a very traditional ingredient for pasta sauce, but which adds a nice depth of flavor. Penne alla vodka is easy to make and always a crowd pleaser, one of my most requested dishes by friends and family (my friend from Nepal declared it to be the best pasta he’s ever had, anywhere!) 


Serve this dish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a loaf of crusty bread to not let any of the sauce go to waste. Buon appetito! 



PENNE ALLA VODKA

Ingredients:
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ of a small onion, chopped
1 cup vodka
1 cup chicken stock
1 can crushed tomatoes (32 ounces)
salt and pepper
1lb penne
¼ - 1/2 cup heavy cream
20 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn


Directions:
Heat a large skillet over moderate heat. Heat the oil and add the chopped onion. Cook the onion until it is soft and translucent. 

Add vodka to the pan. Reduce vodka by half, which should take about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and crushed tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a bubble and let cook for about 10 or so minutes, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Let the vodka sauce cook on very low heat for about half an hour, or until the consistency is on the thicker side. Make sure you stir the sauce so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
While sauce simmers, cook the penne in salted boiling water for about 11-12 minutes for al dente pasta. 


Stir the cream into the sauce – start by adding ¼ of a cup, and if you decide you want more, go ahead and add another ¼ cup. Remove the sauce from the heat, and add the basil leaves, stirring to combine. Toss the pasta with the vodka sauce, and serve with parmesan cheese and bread. This recipes makes enough for 4-6 people, depending on how hungry they are!










Ricotta Pie


When I was little, I remember being labelled as a "good eater." "Oh, my girls eat anything," my mom would say about my sister and me. And it was true -- sweet potatoes, avocado, shrimp, parmesan cheese -- our taste buds were wise beyond their years. I remember feeling even a little sorry for the kids who were "picky eaters," whose culinary horizons didn't stretch beyond chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and Kraft Easy Mac. That being said, I did have my limits -- there were of course foods that my fairly complex palate wouldn't go near.  Ricotta cheese was one of them. I decided very early on that I despised finding a layer of the stuff hidden in my lasagna or within the seemingly innocent pocket of ravioli or manicotti. I didn't like its texture, its consistency, or its sneaky tendency to conceal itself in my pasta. I avoided eating ricotta cheese for years, convinced that it was one of the few foods I would never grow to like. 

So why am I sharing a recipe for ricotta pie you may ask? This recipe was the one that changed my mind about ricotta. "Torta di ricotta" is a dessert traditionally made for Easter in Italy. My mom makes it for this holiday, without fail. For years I had automatically passed on this final sweet course, given its main ingredient -- and prepared my own chocolate souffles and strawberry layer cakes, eager to have a dessert I liked on the table. But one year, I decided to give it a try, convinced by my father who offered me a bite of the slice he had taken. ("Oh just try it! You'll like it!") I took a tiny bite. It was sweet and perfectly smooth, reminiscent of a cheesecake, but lighter and sweeter, all wrapped up in a delicate crispy pasta frolla. One bite sufficed to elicit immediate regret on my part for never having tried it before. 

The nicest thing about this recipe is that it belonged to my maternal grandmother. I never had the chance to meet her, but I know she spoke Italian with a lovely northern accent, was petite like me, and was an incredible cook. This pie is proof of that. Her recipe isn't completely traditional -- the typical ricotta pie has candied fruit. However, my grandmother decided to add chocolate chips and cherries, perhaps to make the pie a bit more appealing to her three children. 


In case you're wondering, when I moved to Italy my relationship with ricotta changed. It is lovely in a cannoli, spread on toast with honey, or used as a main ingredient in a torta salata. We are friends now. So do make this dessert!! -- unlike any layer cake or cheesecake you will ever make, all you have to do is whisk together the ingredients in one bowl and pour it in to the pie crust. A couple of last notes: if you want to save time, you could also buy a pre-made pie crust here rather than making your own. Finally, be sure to use good quality, well drained ricotta here to guarantee a good pie. Enjoy!

RICOTTA PIE

Ingredients for crust:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (150 grams)
1/4 cup sugar (50 grams)
1/8 teaspoon salt (pinch of salt)
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (196 grams)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract



Ingredients for filling:

1 1/2 lbs good quality ricotta cheese, well drained
5 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1  cup of sugar
3/4 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
½ jar maraschino cherries, drained and chopped
Powdered sugar for serving



Directions:

To make the crust: Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until just combined. Add the butter and process it in to the flour mixture until small pieces form. In a bowl whisk together the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla, and add to the flour mixture slowly, while the food processor is running. Turn the dough out on to a work surface and knead it a little bit to form a ball. Flatten the ball of dough in to a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator for an hour or two. Take the dough out of the fridge and and use a rolling pin, roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Place the pie crust into a lightly greased 9 inch pie plate. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 


Next, make your filling. Put the ricotta in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar, and then add to the ricotta. Mix everything together until well blended. Add the vanilla and stir again. Stir in the chocolate chips and cherries, and blend. Pour the ricotta mixture in to the pastry crust. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the pie filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the pie comes out clean. Let cool and then sprinkle powdered sugar over the top. Serves 8-10 people.