New York City





Only a few days after coming home from Rome last week, my sister, dad, and I were lucky enough to visit another amazing city in honor of our dad’s 60th birthday – New York. It had been about three years since I had last been there (graduating from college and moving to Italy can be time consuming) so I was really excited to have the chance to go back. New York is one of my favorite places in the world, on par with Rome, Bologna, and London. Much like Rome, there is always something different to do or see in the city – there are musicals, operas, and ballets to enjoy, museums to explore, sights to see, countless stores to shop in, and restaurants to try. New York City possesses a certain energy and feel that I love and that I haven’t found anywhere else. As happy as I am in Italy New York City is one place I would like to live in one day. 


Lucky for us, New York is only a three hour drive from where we live in Rhode Island. Early Saturday morning, we left for the city. Our first order of the day was getting to the Metropolitan Opera House by 12:00 to see their production of The Marriage of Figaro. My dad has been an opera fan since he was little so we knew this would be the perfect way to spend his birthday weekend. Best of all, our friend Rachel recently made her Met debut in this production of the opera in the role of the Countess, so we were especially excited for the show. As expected, she and the other members of the cast did an amazing job (this is the Met after all) and the performance was beautiful – we also got to go backstage after the show to see Rachel, which was especially exciting for my dad, who has been to the seen many shows at the Met but never had had the opportunity to go behind the scenes. Thanks Rachel!!!

Peppermint Bark



Merry Christmas Eve to our readers! If you're anything like us today you are all probably quite busy cooking, cleaning, and shopping in preparation for tomorrow, so we wanted to keep the post for today short and sweet. Here is the recipe for Peppermint Bark, a ridiculously fast and easy recipe that would be great if you're looking for a last minute dessert or gift for tomorrow. The recipe comes from Francesca's sister, Alexandra, who makes this every year -- in fact, she even made it for Gloria when she was in Rhode Island for Christmas back in 2010! It consists of two layers of chocolate, white and semisweet or milk (depends on how sweet you want the finished product) topped with crushed peppermints. It's festive, delicious, and requires no baking, just a little melting and time in the refrigerator. 

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix



I thought that this recipe for fudge was one of the easiest edible Christmas gifts I could post here, and I was right, almost -- but that was before I discovered this homemade hot chocolate mix, which is even quicker to make (though just as delicious). To be honest, I had never been a huge fan of hot chocolate. You see, my experiences with hot chocolate up until recently had been two. In the U.S, I had grown up drinking instant hot chocolate made from packets of Swiss Miss, mixed with water or milk and warmed up in the microwave. While this type of hot chocolate still has a lot of nostalgic value for me, even my 8 year old taste buds could recognize it left a lot to be desired -- though it was a great vehicle for mini marshmallows, it was light on the chocolate flavor, and the consistency was less than ideal. When I moved to Italy, I discovered a far different kind of hot chocolate, one that is similar to melted chocolate and often has to be eaten with a spoon rather than sipped, even tempered with additional sugar or whipped cream if you don’t like your hot chocolate to be so intense. While there is nothing wrong with this (I can’t really argue with a mug of melted chocolate) it can seem more like a dessert than a drink, and can often be heavier than I want.

That’s where this recipe comes in, which made me change my mind completely about hot chocolate and is an absolutely foolproof way to guarantee excellent hot chocolate every time. It has a smooth creamy texture and a pure chocolate flavor thanks to the combined power of the cocoa powder and the semisweet chocolate, balanced out by a hint of vanilla. It is great with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and a great accompaniment to gingerbread (see photo above) but you can also go the American route and top this with marshmallows. Note that the preparation of this recipe is just as easy as it is quick; all you have to do is heat up some milk, add a few tablespoons of mix, and voila, a mugful of perfection.

As I said in the beginning of this post, this would be a great homemade Christmas gift packaged in fancy jars along with instructions for how to prepare it. It is equally nice to make for yourself to have on hand this Winter when the weather is cold and you need something cozy, or just when want to start the day with something a little fancier than coffee. Enjoy! 

HOMEMADE HOT CHOCOLATE 

Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until the chocolate is completely chopped and the ingredients are well mixed.  Alternatively, you can also chop the chocolate until it is very fine, and stir it into the remaining ingredients.

To use: Heat one cup of milk in a saucepan over medium heat until steamy. Add 3 tablespoons hot chocolate mix. Whisk over heat for another 1-2 minutes, until the mix is completely dissolved and the mixture begins to simmer. Pour into a mug (or use a ladle – I find this is easiest) and top with mini-marshmallows or some whipped cream. Serve immediately. Makes about 1 3/4 cups mix, enough for 9 cups; packs up well in a 2-cup jar. The hot chocolate mix keeps in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 months.

Recipe adapted from smittenkitchen.com and Cooks Illustrated.







Gingerbread

I wouldn’t be doing my duty as the American side of this blog if I didn’t share a recipe for gingerbread, the quintessential Christmas food in the U.S. For our non-American readers who might not be familiar with gingerbread, it is, as the name implies, a quick bread or cake made with ginger and lots of those other warm spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves that I used in this pumpkin cake and this apple cake. The other distinguishing ingredient in gingerbread is molasses, an ingredient similar to honey in texture which is a by-product of the sugar refining process. Gingerbread can also be found in the form of gingerbread men cookies, or as the base for the gingerbread houses Americans decorate for Christmas. It is something that I find tends to be in the same category as pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or s’mores on the Fourth of July – a dessert that really only gets made around Christmas, which is a shame because gingerbread is to delicious to only be eaten during one month of the year. But I digress.

As much as I love gingerbread, there’s nothing I dislike more than  gingerbread not done well – all too often gingerbread can be dry, bland, and dependent on whipped cream or powdered sugar to spice it up. I’m happy to say that this recipe is none of those things – it is quite nearly perfect. If Christmas could be summed up in a food, it would be this cake. I would even go as far as to say this is something Santa’s elves would probably eat in between making toys and taking care of reindeer – this is so good in fact, that it’s fit for Santa himself, something he would probably fuel up on pre round the world toy delivery on December 24. This is gingerbread at its best -- incredibly moist and fluffy with a deep caramel-y flavor thanks to the molasses, which highlights the spices perfectly. In short, it belongs in your Christmas recipe repertoire.

You can go two routes when making this recipe – either you keep things simple and enjoy it as a quick dessert or breakfast with a little whipped cream, or take it to the next level by making gingerbread cupcakes, and topping them with cream cheese frosting. As you can see from the photos, I couldn’t choose which version I preferred, so I ended up using the batter to make both a cake and cupcakes (breakfast and dessert taken care of in one recipe!) Both were fantastic – just depends on what you’re in the mood for. Enjoy! 

GINGERBREAD 

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 cup molasses
21/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves  
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water 

Directions:

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg, and mix in the molasses. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, and nutmeg. Blend into the butter and sugar mixture with a wooden spoon. Stir in the hot water. Pour the gingerbread batter into the prepared pan. If you’re making plain gingerbread, it will take 45-50 minutes. If you’re making cupcakes, it will take about 20 minutes. Bake the gingerbread or the gingerbread cupcakes until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the gingerbread to cool completely before serving. If you made cupcakes, you can find the recipe for the cream cheese frosting here. Makes 1 cake to serve 8 people or 10-12 cupcakes.

















Chocolate, Pistachio, and Cranberry Fudge




Now that Thanksgiving is over I can officially start the countdown to Christmas – in the next few weeks we’ll be posting both Italian and American recipes that would be a great addition to your Christmas menu, ideal to give as a homemade gift, or perfect for a snowy day.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday -- when I was little, it was a time of year more 
anticipated even than our annual trip to Disney World. I remember I loved picking out and decorating our Christmas tree, preparing for the school Christmas pageant, writing up my Christmas list, and planning what to leave for Santa and the reindeer (cookies for Santa, carrots or apples for the reindeer). Now that I’m older I appreciate different aspects of the holiday that are nonetheless equally special – there’s nothing quite Rome's city center decorated with lights, Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album, and, most importantly, a healthy dose of holiday baking to get you in the Christmas spirit. Gingerbread, decorated shortbread cookies, peppermint chocolate layer cake, homemade hot chocolate – you name it, I’ll make it and wrap it up and give it to you as a Christmas gift. Because after all, a delicious, homemade gift is the best kind of gift there is, right?

The recipe that I’m sharing with you today is for Cranberry and Pistachio fudge, which is an awesome alternative to baking Christmas cookies. For the non-American readers, fudge is a candy made with butter, sugar, and sometimes chocolate or nuts, that is cooked on the stove and then refrigerated until firm. While many fudge recipes require you to cook the butter and sugar to about 240 degrees using a candy thermometer, this version requires you to only melt and stir the ingredients together and pour the batter in to a pan, no special cooking method or tools required. It is extremely fast and simple to make yet tastes super special and fancy. I tested this recipe out on three friends here in Rome (an Italian, a Canadian, and a Dutch friend) and it went over famously, proving that fudge is universally delicious, no matter where you are from. :)

I used pistachios and cranberries here to make this fudge more Christmas-y (red and green combination) but feel free to use this recipe as a base and stir in any other ingredients you want – chopped pecans, hazelnuts, or even chopped Oreos would be good here. You could also use milk chocolate if you prefer that to semi-sweet. Note that fudge is in general extremely sweet and very rich, so it is best to cut the finished product in to very small squares (or not).

CHOCOLATE, PISTACHIO, AND CRANBERRY FUDGE

Ingredients: 

1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
3 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
½ cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
½ cup pistachios, chopped

Directions:

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with foil and grease lightly with butter. Set a heatproof bowl over a pot with a few inches of simmering water (do not boil).  In the bowl, combine the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, chocolate, butter, and salt.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fully melted and smooth.

Remove the bowl from the heat.  Add the pistachios and dried cranberries and fold in until evenly combined.  Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and spread into an even layer. Cover and refrigerate until firm, about 3-4 hours. Use the foil to lift the fudge from the pan.  Remove and discard the foil.  Use a pizza cutter (or a large knife if you don’t have this one hand) to slice the fudge into 64 1-inch squares. Store in an airtight container.









Butternut Squash and Pancetta Risotto


When it comes to Italian cuisine, pasta reigns supreme. It is the quintessential and Italian dish (equaled perhaps only by pizza) and served up differently from region to region – bucatini all’amatriciana in Rome, tagliatelle al ragu’ in Bologna, and orrecchiette con cime di rapa in Puglia, among many others. While I myself am a huge pasta fan, I do think it tends to overshadow many other Italian dishes that are perhaps lesser known (at least to our non- Italian readers). Risotto is a perfect example of a dish that perhaps you might have overlooked in favor of pasta or pizza, and is definitely worth adding to your repertoire.

Many cuisines have their own spin on rice – the Spanish have paella, the Chinese have fried rice, the Mexicans arroz con leche. Risotto is rice done the Italian way – Arborio or carnaroli rice slowly cooked with white wine and broth and finished off with a healthy dose of parmesan cheese. Sounds delicious right?