Pecan Pie Bars



I was looking over the recipes that we have posted on our blog so far, and realized two things:

1. Our blog has nearly reached the 100th post mark -- we currently have 97 posts (counting this one)
. Given that Gloria and I had been talking about setting up a blog for such a long time, this is quite gratifying -- expect a special post to celebrate this milestone!

2. In the past 97 posts, we have shared quite a few recipes for dessert. Sure, there is quite a bit of pasta mixed in and a few secondi, but Gloria and I clearly have a bit of a sweet tooth. Whether it be Italian ricotta pie, American peanut butter pie, or Danish fastelavnsboller, we love them all. 

Which got me thinking -- the recipe for my number one favorite dessert in the world isn't actually on this blog! How could I have in all this time not put a recipe for pecan pie on here? My apologies. Better late than never, right?

Pecan pie is not an Italian dessert, and it is not even a dessert that comes from my region of the United States -- in fact it is a dessert from the South, especially common in Texas, a state I have never traveled to. I made my first pecan pie in high school at the request of my Nonno, who also loved this dessert. I have him to thank for introducing me to one of my favorite things to bake and eat -- it was love at first bite. Besides the fact that pecan pie is super quick to throw together, it is sweet, crunchy, and gooey all at the same time, even better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of fresh whipped cream. If you really want to take this dessert over the top, you can add chocolate chips or coconut to it, or go all out and add both as I used to do for my Nonno (who was also a huge coconut fan). Pecan coconut chocolate pie anyone?

You'll have noticed that this recipe is for pecan pie bars, not regular old pecan pie -- I noticed on that it was convenient to have a portable version of this dessert for holidays or birthdays, as pecan pie isn't the easiest dessert to eat when making the rounds. I made these recently as a birthday gift for my friend Costanza, a hugely talented pastry chef and owner of Dess'art in Testaccio. Making a dessert for a pastry chef is always a bit nerve wracking, but these got her stamp of approval (phew!) If that's not proof that you to make these bars asap, I don't know what is! Enjoy!

PECAN PIE BARS

Ingredients:

For the crust: 
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped coarse
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces


For the filling: 
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 and 3/4 cups pecans, toasted


Directions:
For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Fold two large pieces of aluminum foil perpendicular to one another in the baking pan so that there is overhang around all the edges. Butter the aluminum foil.
Place the flour, baking powder, salt, brown sugar, and 1/4 cup pecans in a food processor. Process the mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles sand.

Pat the mixture evenly into the prepared pan and bake until the crust is light brown, about 20 minutes.

For the filling: While the crust is in the oven, whisk together the melted butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl until just combined. Add in the egg and whisk until incorporated.

Pour the filling on top of the hot crust and sprinkle the 1 and 3/4 cups pecans evenly over the top. Bake until the top is brown and cracks start to form across the surface, 22 to 25 minutes. Cool for 1 hours. Remove the bars from the pan using the foil or parchment paper “handles” and transfer to a cutting board; cut into desired sizes. Makes 10 squares.

Recipe adapted from Baking Illustrated. 









Strawberry Cake

As I mentioned in this post about this cake I created for my friend Sergey, I make it my mission to bake birthday cakes designed and tailored specifically to the requests of the friend or relative who is celebrating a birthday. It’s kind of a fun challenge for me, not to mention a great (delicious) homemade birthday gift. Over the years I have come up with recipes for a cookies and cream layer cake (for the 22nd birthday of my lovely college roommate), a chocolate peppermint cake (for my twin sister on our birthday) and a chocolate raspberry cheesecake (for my cousin Dylan) among others. 
This cake recipe came about a few years back for my best friend Kelly’s birthday – she requested a (pink) strawberry layer cake for her birthday, a dessert that she had enjoyed often when she was little. While doing a little research for recipes on the internet however, I was disappointed to find that most recipes for strawberry cake rely on strawberry gelatin mixtures to get the pink color and strawberry flavor.  While there is nothing wrong with a shortcut here and there, it doesn’t take much more effort to throw a bunch of strawberries in to a food processor to get the strawberry flavor and color and give the cake a more authentic strawberry flavor.
This cake is among the best I have ever made – it tastes exactly like a fresh strawberry, is moist and fluffy, and has a gorgeous color. It is also far easier to make than your average layer cake – just stir everything together in a bowl and you’re good to go, no beating the sugar or butter together before starting. I used a cream cheese frosting here to offset the sweetness of the strawberries, but a vanilla buttercream would probably be good too. And actually now that I’m typing this I bet a chocolate buttercream would be fantastic as well – chocolate covered strawberry cake! Keep this recipe in mind for any special occasion, especially Easter next week! This would be a very Spring-y addition to your meal. Enjoy everyone!

STRAWBERRY CAKE
Ingredients:
For the cake:
Nonstick vegetable spray
All-purpose flour, for pans
3 cups self-rising flour or 3 cups all purpose flour + 4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup pureed strawberries
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, beaten
red food coloring (optional)
For the frosting:
1 (8oz) package of cream cheese, softened
1 stick of butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
Extra strawberries, to decorate

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray and flour three 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, tapping out excess flour; set aside. Alternatively, you could also forget making a layer cake and use this batter to fill a 9 inch square pan and a 12 cup cupcake tin like I did (more portable for work!)
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, pureed strawberries, vanilla, and eggs. Stir in the flour and salt, mixing everything until well combined. If you want the cake to be a brighter pink, feel free to add a drop or two of red food coloring and stir everything together until you achieve the right shade. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans. Bake the cakes for 25-28 minutes for a layer cake or square cake, 10-12 minutes for cupcakes, or until a tooth pick inserted in the center comes out clean. 
Let the cakes cool completely and then invert them on to a wire rack. Prepare the cream cheese frosting. Beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Slowly add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, tasting as you go, until the frosting is to your liking in terms of sweetness (you may end up using less than 3 cups of frosting if you like your frosting less sweet). Frost the cake as desired, decorate with sliced strawberries if you’d like, and refrigerate until ready to serve. 
Recipe adapted from www.adashofsass.com. 







Fastelavnsboller


I know what you're probably thinking -- eclairs, two pasta recipes, Nutella muffins, and now this. Depending on who you are, you're probably thinking I either really love you (carbs!!) or really hate you (bathing suit season is fast upon us!!) I would however like to remind you that this blog isn't called Pancakes & Biscotti for nothing, and besides this recipe was too good not to share.

These buns may look familiar -- if you read my post on Denmark, you'll know that these are Fastelavnsboller, the most delicious thing I tried while in Aarhus. Fastelavnsboller, also known as Shrovetide buns, are a Danish treat that precede the Lenten fast and are eaten traditionally on February 15, when Danish Carnival is celebrated. Obviously, we are over a month past February 15, but I think any time is a good time to eat these.


While the modern art museum and the Rothborg castle were lovely, the highlight of the trip was Småkage Huset, the amazing bakery we found in our neighborhood, where we first tried fastelavnsboller. The ones that Småkage Huset makes were so delicious that Allie, Gabriele and I each had one in the morning (we wanted to try both the vanilla and chocolate flavors) and then bought some to eat later on that afternoon. In fact, they were so good that they made me deeply resent the large display of cornetti* in the cafe' where I have breakfast (they would never be as good as fastelavnsboller!)
and regard my usual cereal/yogurt breakfast with utter disdain (how could I go back to eating such a normal breakfast after what I had tried in Denmark?!)

Thankfully, my Danish cookbook has a recipe for these, so my fastelavnsboller withdrawal phase has come to an end. This recipe did not disappoint. These buns were a bit cakier than the ones we tried at Småkage Huset, but still fantastic, with a vanilla custard filling and chocolate glaze. The custard can be baked right along with the bun, so no need to worry about filling these afterwards. These may have a lot of components (bun, glaze, filling) but none of the three are at all difficult to make, and would be awesome on a Saturday or Sunday morning or great for brunch. Note that these do not keep well, but not eating them all at once anyways is a feat in itself. Enjoy!

*Cornetti are the classic Italian breakfast food, often eaten alongside a cappuccino -- think of them as croissants, but sweeter and with less butter.

FASTELAVNSBOLLER

Ingredients for the buns:
1/4 cup warm water
1 1/2 ounces fresh yeast (also called cake yeast)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, plus 1 extra egg yolk
3/4 cup whole milk
Pinch of salt
3 1/2 cups bread flour

Ingredients for the filling:
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cornstarch or 2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
pinch of salt

Ingredients for the icing:
1 egg white
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cream


Directions:
Pour the water into a bowl and stir in the yeast until dissolved. Combine the butter and sugar in another large bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in one whole egg and the extra yolk. Briefly warm the milk on the stove. Add the milk to the yeast mixture, combine, and then stir the yeast and milk mixture in to the butter mixture. Stir in the flour and salt, a little at a time, and mix to a soft dough, adding more flour if necessary.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly flowered surface and knead until smooth. Lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with a towel, and leave in a warm place until it doubles in size, about 1 hour. 

To make the filling, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a pan. Whisk in the sugar, flour, and milk. Add the salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens an coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool.

Lightly grease two baking sheets. Turn the dough out on to a floured surface and divide into four. Cut each part in to 4 pieces and shape in to balls. Place on the baking sheets. Make a well in the center of each roll, and fill it with a spoonful of the cream filling. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for 1 1/2-2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly beat the remaining egg and brush it over the buns. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden. Cool completely.

To make the icing, beat the egg white until stiff. Stir in the powdered sugar, cocoa, and salt and beat until soft. Stir in the cream and beat for 1 minute. Place a spoonful of icing over each bun, covering the cream filling, and serve. Note that these are best eaten the day they're made. Makes 16 buns. 







Banana Nutella Muffins



You've probably noticed by now that one of my very favorite ingredients to bake with is Nutella – you can see it in these cookiesthis cake, and in this one, too. Nutella, like bacon or cheese, is simply one of those magical ingredients that makes everything better, whether it be a slice of bread, a strawberry, or a cookie -- the delicious factor of any food is usually upped by 1000 when paired with Nutella. I admit that I've come to prefer it to it’s American cousin, peanut butter (nothing against peanut butter of course!)

Lucky for me, Italy is the home of Nutella, and it is available in many different forms -- a Nutella filled cornetto for breakfast, Nutella pizza at the pizza by the slice place, Nutella gelato...(thankfully I have an annual gym membership to counteract all of this). I've found one of the best ways to eat Nutella is via the Nutella and banana crepes I often get for dessert at Andirivieni, one of my favorite places to go in our neighborhood. Since making crepes can be a bit time consuming, not to mention tricky (they’re thinner and thus not quite as easy to flip as pancakes) I decided to take the main flavors of the crepes that I like so much and put them in to a muffin form. Muffins after all only take a few minutes to mix up and bake, are portable, and are a more acceptable breakfast than a crepe might be (at least that’s what I tell myself). These muffins came out amazingly – they are perfectly moist and packed with banana flavor, swirled with a healthy dose of nutella that ends up mostly in the center of the muffin. These would be great for breakfast, brunch, or dessert, because let's be honest, they fall more in the dessert category. If you're (gasp) not a fan of Nutella, feel free to leave it out and use chocolate chips, pecans, walnuts, or a combination of those instead. Enjoy!


BANANA NUTELLA MUFFINS

Ingredients:

2 extremely ripe bananas
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 egg
3 ounces plain Greek yogurt
1  teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2  teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup sugar
½  teaspoon salt
Nutella

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Grease a 12 cup muffin pan.
In a large bowl, mash the bananas with the melted butter. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, yogurt, and vanilla, and combine with the mashed banana mixture. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the banana mixture until everything is just combined (don’t overmix!)


Distribute the batter in to the muffin cup. Using a spoon, place a dollop of Nutella over each muffin and use a knife to swirl it in. You can use as much Nutella as you would like, but try not to add too much (otherwise the Nutella sinks to the bottom of the muffin and sticks to the pan). Bake the muffins for 12 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool a bit before removing them from the muffin tin. Makes 8-10 muffins.







Lasagna alla Bolognese

 

As much as I love living in Rome, my favorite Italian city is not the home of the Coliseum and Piazza Navona, but rather up North, in the land of tortellini, porticos, and la torre Asinelli* – Bologna, Italy. This may seem surprising. After all, Rome is the capital, the Eternal City, one of the most iconic places in the world. 

Though Bologna may not boast the history and grandeur of Rome, it holds a great amount of sentimental value for me. I spent my junior year of college there, living in a homestay, attending the Università di Bologna, and took language courses. I perfected my Italian, traveled all over the country, and formed friendships with the many people I met along the way, and quickly adopted Bologna as “my” city. Though I already knew I loved Italy before this, my year in Bologna solidified this for me, and made it clear that my love affair with Italy had only just begun.

Friends and language aside, Bologna gave me another great gift – the opportunity to explore, learn about, and enjoy its cuisine. Though food is good wherever you go in Italy (really, you can’t go wrong) some say that Bolognese food is the best in all of Italy, and I would be inclined to agree. 

The recipe that I am sharing with you today is for lasagne* alla Bolognese, one of the mainstays of Bolognese cuisine. Everyone has their own recipe for lasagna. In the U.S you’ll find lasagnas made with mozzarella, ricotta, or even cottage cheese, lasagnas with pesto, cream sauce, tomato sauce, vegetables, or chicken. While lasagna certainly lends itself well to interpretation, I wanted to share the more authentic, Bolognese version of lasagna, which I happen to think is the most delicious one there is. The classic lasagne alla bologneseconsists of sheets of homemade pasta layered with a meat sauce called ragù,* béchamel, and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Compared to some American recipes I have seen, this is kind of a pared down version of lasagna – the emphasis is not so much on the cheese but rather on the ragù, which is the star of this dish. 

I first learned how to make this lasagna thanks to a cooking course I enrolled in while living in Bologna. I remember working with my fellow classmates to put together the different components of the dish – chopping the vegetables for the ragù, grating the cheese, rolling out the fresh pasta – and feeling like I had won a culinary gold medal once we put all of the elements of the dish together to make what was the best lasagna I had ever tasted. 

My Nonno Dom (my grandfather on my mom’s side) was the master of lasagna – it was his contribution to every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember him expertly checking the dough to make sure it had the right consistency, rolling it out to the correct thickness, and beginning the assembly process with such skill that it seemed like an art. It was a holiday ritual I always helped him with, and something we both looked forward to every year. Since he passed away in 2013, I have taken on the role of lasagna maker in the family, something I know my nonno would be proud of. 

Though this dish may seem time consuming, fear not – the ragù is just a matter of chopping, mixing, and simmering, the béchamel comes together in a snap, and then all that remains is a little layering and baking. I have used premade noodles here to keep this dish home-cook friendly as well. The hardest part will be waiting for the lasagna to be cool enough to eat. This is a true crowd pleaser (who doesn’t like lasagna?), a good way to combat the cold this time of year, and perfect if you’re feeding a large group (like at Easter)! Enjoy!


LASAGNE ALLA BOLOGNESE

Ingredients for Ragù:
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 can crushed tomatoes (28-32 ounces)
1 1/4 pounds ground beef
1 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon salt

For Béchamel:
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of flour
3 cups whole milk
A pinch of salt
12 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese

Instructions:
Heat some olive oil in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat and sauté the carrot, celery, and onion and cook, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking the meat up as much as you can with a wooden spoon. Add the wine and let it cook down for a few minutes. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and salt and pepper. Bring the ragù to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook until sauce is thickened, about 30 minutes, stirring to make sure the sauce doesn’t cook too much on the bottom. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

While the meat sauce cools, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and whisk the flour. Let the flour and butter cook for a minute or so, then whisk in the milk and bring it to a bubble. Add the salt and let the milk mixture cook a few minutes more, or until the béchamel is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.  

Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix 3/4 cup of béchamel into the ragù until thoroughly combined.

Spread a little of the ragù over the bottom of the baking dish. Place the pasta sheets in a single layer on top of sauce, positioning them to fit the pan (I usually do two horizontal pieces and one vertical piece). Spread 1 cup meat sauce evenly over the pasta, and drizzle with some béchamel, about 1/3 cup. Sprinkle some Parmesan over the béchamel, about 1/3-1/2 cup. Repeat this layering of the pasta, ragù, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times. Place final 3 pasta sheets on top of the lasagna, and cover completely with remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Note that you may not use all of the ragù.

Spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna; bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and continue to bake the lasagna until the parmesan and béchamel have browned, about 10-15 minutes. Let the lasagna cool a bit before slicing and serving. Enjoy!


 *The Torre degli Asinelli was built in the 11th century. Named after the family that commissioned it, it is over 97 metres, making it the tallest in Italy.


*In Italian, lasagna is plural, as are all types of pasta (this makes sense, actually – lasagna is 
composed of more than just one layer of pasta). Therefore Italians use lasagne, with an “e.”

*Ragù is another mainstay of Bolognese cuisine. It is classically served over tagliatelle, or in lasagna. Though every recipe varies (there is no one definitive recipe for ragù) it is a sauce made with carrots, onions, celery, tomato, and meat. 

Every recipe is different; some are heavier on the tomato than others, some use beef while others use a combination of beef, pork, veal, or even pancetta; some recipes use white wine, others red, and some use milk. The recipe used here is the one that I like best, but feel free to experiment to find your ideal ragù recipe.