Summer Berry Cake


The more I’ve baked, the more I’ve realized that desserts generally fall in to two categories. The first category is for fancy, involved desserts – layer cakes, soufflés, pavlovas – that are fun to trot out for a dinner party, holiday, or birthday, the sort of dessert you don’t come across every day and are best made during the weekend. The other category is for “one bowl,” every day desserts that are equally as good as their more elegant counterparts, but are quicker and easier to prepare. These desserts are perfect to make for unexpected guests, great with a cup of tea or coffee, and a convenient quick fix for a sugar craving.

As much as I love to make more complicated, elegant desserts (and I will be sharing these with you on the blog as well) I’ve noticed that I have mostly shared with you so far desserts that fall in to this “one bowl” category – like this coffee nutella cake, this brownie pie, and these blondies. This is because between work, seeing friends, and working on this blog, I find that these are the recipes that I myself have time to make – they allow me to still bake during the week without requiring too many ingredients, dirty dishes, or time. I imagine that most of our readers are also juggling work, family, and other commitments, so I prefer to share recipes that I know you are likely to make – you may not have time to whip up a layer cake from scratch after a day of work or school, but maybe mixing up the ingredients for blondies is more doable, and gives you a way to bake without using up too much energy.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is just one of these recipes – a quick but delicious buttery vanilla cake that needs no frosting or glaze, as the blueberries and raspberries should be allowed to shine. It is a perfect cake for summer, when berries are at their best, and given the red white and blue colors, might be a nice for a Fourth of July picnic or barbecue. I made this cake last month when my friend Shannon came to visit from the States, figuring that she would be hungry when she arrived – it went over so well that we decided to photograph it and put the recipe on the blog. Note that you can also add 1 tsp of lemon zest to the batter if you want a lemony berry cake, or even a teaspoon of cinnamon; you can also use any combination of berries that you want.
Bon appetit!

SUMMER BERRY CAKE

Ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup plus 1 ½  tablespoons sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup blueberries
3/4 cup raspberries

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 9 inch rectangular cake pan.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl using electric beaters, beat together the butter and the 3/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the vanilla extract. On low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined. Stir in the blueberries and raspberries.

Spread the batter evenly in pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1 ½  tablespoon sugar and sprinkle over the top of the cake. Bake until the cake is lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 40-45 minutes. Serve the cake warm or room temperature with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.









Guest post: Chicken with Bell Peppers and Sweet Potatoes




For almost two years now, I’ve been working for Loyola University Chicago’s PROLAW program based here in Rome. PROLAW is a master’s in law program in Rule of Law for Development, designed to prepare its graduates to be effective rule of law advisers in their countries. Each year, the program admits 20 or so students from all over the world, who I am lucky enough to work with from September until April. These students – from Armenia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Egypt, the Ukraine, Russia, and Mexico, to name just a few – make my job incredibly fun and interesting. I now speak a little Nepali, understand the importance of a carne asada in northern Mexico, and have learned about the Islamic festival of Eid.  I can’t even begin to describe how important they have become to me, and I know that without them my experience in Rome wouldn’t be nearly as special.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve also been curious to learn about the many different cuisines represented in our group. It has been fascinating to learn about what my friends typically eat in their own countries, what they think of Italian food, and what dishes they miss most. Their stories and recipes have inspired me to explore new cuisines and try out new dishes from all over the world, which I will be sharing with you in future Guest Posts. The first of these posts comes from the lovely Otsetswe (or Ot, as we call her) from Botswana.

There is an expression in Italian that I have yet to find a good translation for in English: in gamba. Wordreference.com translates it as “to be very capable,” but this doesn’t exactly convey the exact sense of the expression. The expressions “accomplished” “with it” or “cool” come close, but aren’t quite the right translations either. Though I cannot find a good linguistic equivalent of in gamba, I can find a good embodiment of the word: Ot, who was a member of the 2013-2014 PROLAW class, is hands down one of the most in gamba people I know. At the age of 29, she is already a lawyer working within the Legislative Drafting Division of the Attorney General's Chambers in Botswana, is a master’s candidate for her LL.M. degree in rule of law for development, and is married with a three year old son. She is also one of the funniest, easy going, most considerate, and intelligent people I have ever met. Ot and I hit it off right from the first day of orientation back in September, and she later became a fixture in the Italian 101 class I teach for PROLAW (always arriving early and picking a seat in the front row,) my usual dining companion at the University mensa (cafeteria) and my go to person for advice or suggestions on recipes and cooking. I know that her PROLAW classmates undoubtedly feel the same way as I do; she was highly respected and admired among her peers, so much so that she was even selected as class speaker for the end of the year ceremony. She is, in short, just awesome.

Brownie Pie




In the 12 or so years in which I’ve been baking, I’ve built up a bit of a repertoire – I’ve created all different variations of cheesecake, mastered the famously fussy bittersweet chocolate soufflé, and can now whip up homemade ice cream, no problem (whatever kind you want! I’ve developed 15 different flavors to date!) However, all of these more elegant desserts can be traced back to this one right here – the humble brownie pie.

This pie marked the beginning of my love affair with baking, as it is the first dessert I ever made on my own, at age 13. That year in particular I had decided I wanted to contribute something to our family’s Easter lunch – washing the dishes and setting the table had become boring, not to mention the rule in my family is that whoever cooks doesn't have to clean up.  I came across this recipe, then labeled “Chocolate Pie” while looking through my mother’s collection of cookbooks (which, by the way, occupies an entire bookshelf and then some.) 

Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake Bars



When people learn I like to bake, I’m often asked the same question: What’s your specialty? Though there are many desserts that I like to prepare, my most requested dessert by friends and family (especially by my cousin Dylan) is without a doubt cheesecake – over the years I’ve made more than I can count and have developed all different variations of it. I’ve found living in Italy that la cheesecake is a dessert that Italians go crazy for, but often aren’t quite sure how to make. I’ve also found that cheesecakes in Italy tend to be quite different than the American cheesecake we are all used to; the versions I’ve come across use gelatin instead of eggs, as well as ricotta, mascarpone, or even robiola cheese.

As you can probably guess, my recipe for cheesecake is the classic American one, using cream cheese (or rather, il Philadelphia as they call it here,) sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract, all baked on top of a cookie crumb crust. Seeing as how the cheesecake batter base itself is quite simple, I see it as a sort of blank canvas upon which I can create many different variations of cheesecake. For example, by altering slightly your mix in ingredients and crust, you can whip up a tiramisu cheesecake, chocolate chip cheesecake, coconut cheesecake, oreo cheesecake, vanilla bean cheesecake, or caramel cheesecake, among others. You can also make cheesecakes more in line with the season, like peppermint or gingerbread for Christmas. In short, cheesecake is an American dessert at its finest – decadent, over the top, and delicious.

The recipe I am sharing with you today is for cheesecake bars rather than the traditional larger round cheesecake made in a spring form pan – it is a more portable version, with a shorter baking and cooling time (i.e you don’t have to wait so long to be able to eat them!) and a more manageable portion size if you want to indulge without eating a whole slice. To create this recipe, I simply halved my standard cheesecake recipe and baked it in a square cake pan. Inspired by the Nutella chocolate cake I made not so long ago, I decided to try creating a chocolate swirl on the top by making a semi-sweet chocolate ganache, and it turned out perfectly. The bittersweet chocolate offsets the sweetness of the cheesecake base and compliments the chocolate cookie crust – plus it looks really elegant and more complicated than it is!

Seeing as how this is just cheesecake on a smaller scale, the same rule applied above applies here as well -- if you prefer to leave out the chocolate swirl, you could also use this recipe to make chocolate chip cheesecake bars, Oreo cheesecake bars, cheesecake bars with a fruit topping…the possibilities are endless! Use your imagination and enjoy!

CHOCOLATE SWIRL CHEESECAKE BARS

Ingredients for the crust:
1 and 1/2 cups chocolate cookies
2 tablespoons sugar
4-5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted


Ingredients for the filling:
1/2 pound cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup chocolate chips
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Using a food processor, finely grind the cookies into crumbs with the sugar. Add the butter and pulse briefly to blend. Press the mixture onto bottom and up sides of a 9-inch baking pan to form your crust. Bake the crust for 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Let the crust cool completely.

Beat the cream cheese in large bowl until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until well blended. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Beat in the heavy cream, and finally the vanilla extract.
Once your filling is done, make the chocolate swirl. In a small skillet or saucepan, melt the chocolate chips with the heavy cream and stir until everything is melted and well combined. Using a spoon, place dollops of the chocolate mixture over the surface of the cheesecake mixture, and then use a knife to swirl the two batters together to create a nice marbled effect.
Bake the cheesecake bars for 30-35 minutes, or until the filling is set in the center and the edges are puffed and very lightly browned. You can also test for doneness by inserting a knife in to the center of the cheesecake; if it comes out with no batter, the cheesecake is ready.  
Let the cheesecake cool completely to room temperature, and then refrigerate them until cold. This recipe makes about 10 cheesecake bars. 














Supplì all'Amatriciana




In my almost four years living in Italy, I have traveled the country quite a bit – Florence, Verona, Milan, Torino, Venice, Matera, Lake Como, Sardinia, Calabria, Pisa, Rieti, Tivoli, Urbino, and Orvieto are just a few of the cities I’ve been lucky enough to visit. Besides confirming my belief that Italy really is the most beautiful country in the world, my travels have also taught me a good deal about Italian cuisine. While I already knew that Italian food is across the board superb, I also realized that it is very regional -- the dishes you find in the place you are eating in in vary greatly depending on the climate, ingredients available, and even history of the individual city. I have enjoyed fantastic risotto alla Milanese in Milan, delectable gnochetti sardi in Sardegna, delicious orecchiette con cime di rapa in Matera, and superb piadina romagnola (recipe to be posted this week!) in Bologna, Rimini, and at Gloria’s house in Bertinoro