Perfect Fudge Brownies

I am happy to report that here in Rome the temperatures have finally dropped a bit (!!!) meaning 1.) I don't have to take 3-4 cold showers a day 2.) I do not have to sleep directly in front of the fan and 3.) I can, most importantly of all, actually turn on my oven again. Needless to say my "Desserts to try" list was quite long by the time I could start baking again, and though I thought I'd want something more extravagant -- chocolate pecan pie? blueberry cinnamon rolls? -- I realized that all I really wanted was a pan of simple, classic, all-American brownies. 

I've realized I'm a bit like Goldilocks when it comes to brownies. Some recipes I've tried don't pack enough of a chocolate punch; some are too dry; some are too sweet; and still others are more cake-y rather than fudge-y. After a bit of recipe research (brownies made with chocolate? brownies made with cocoa powder? brownies made with brown sugar or without?) I opted for this one. I liked that it used both chocolate as well as cocoa powder, a good amount of butter, and not a lot of flour, which would ensure a fudge-y brownie.  To say that this recipe exceeded my expectations is an understatement -- these were a pure hit of chocolate, fudge-y and rich and dark, everything you would ever possibly want in a brownie and more. They are a million times better than your boxed brownie mix (you won't be able to go back to that after trying these) and really only require a bit of extra effort that is well worth it. These are my new standard, "go to" brownie recipe, and I can guarantee that they'll make you the most popular person in the office if you bring them to work (especially if you do so on a Monday morning). These would also be great served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (brownie sundae!) with a dollop of whipped cream and some raspberries or strawberries. If you're still sitting here reading this post, you shouldn't be -- go make these right away! Enjoy everyone!


PERFECT FUDGE BROWNIES

Ingredients:
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter
8 ounces coarsely chopped good quality semisweet chocolate
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:
Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture is smooth. Remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the butter chocolate mixture into a large mixing bowl. Let it cool to room temperature. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a 9x9 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil or parchment, leaving an overhang on all sides. You could also butter the pan instead, but make sure you are very thorough as these have the tendency to stick to the pan a bit. 

Next, whisk together the sugars, eggs, and vanilla in a medium bowl and then whisk into the chocolate and butter mixture. Gently fold in the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Once everything is well mixed, stir in the chocolate chips.

Pour the brownie batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached.

Allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan. Once cooled, lift the foil/parchment paper out of the pan using the overhang on the sides. Cut the brownies in to squares. Makes about 16 brownies.






















Recipe from www.sallysbakingaddiction.com.








Cornmeal Blueberry Pancakes

If you haven't already guessed from the title of this blog, I'm a big fan of pancakes. For me, a stack of pancakes served with butter and plenty of maple syrup is the ultimate breakfast, whose superiority can best be described in hypothetical breakfast scenarios. For example, if Pancakes were a contender in Game of Thrones, they would definitely be sitting on the Iron Throne by now; if there were a Breakfast Olympics, Pancakes would be the repeat gold medalists (with French Toast taking the silver and Home Fries taking the bronze, probably). If Breakfast were the Academy Awards, Pancakes would totally be the Meryl Streep of the Oscar count, with more Oscars than they could count. You get what I'm saying.

Apart from being the winner in all hypothetical breakfast scenarios, pancakes are also awesome in terms of their versatility. While buttermilk pancakes are the most classic type of pancake, I've also made chocolate chip pancakes, pumpkin pancakes, gingerbread pancakes, and  banana pancakes, among others --  the possibilities are endless. These pancakes are based on a recipe that I came across many years ago in one of my mom's Bon Appetit magazines, and they're among my very favorites. They are a  bit different than your average pancakes for a couple of reasons: first off, they're made with cornmeal, which may sound strange, but really works -- think of these as a cross between cornbread and your average blueberry pancake (certainly can't go wrong with that combination, right?)  The cornmeal also gives the pancakes a more substantial consistency and wholesomeness that regular all flour pancakes do not have. These are also far fluffier than the average pancake thanks to beaten egg whites, which are not always a given in your basic pancake recipe but make a world of difference. Finally, these pancakes are sweetened with honey, not sugar, which gives them a nice underlying sweetness that is fantastic with the blueberries. 

This recipe is flexible -- if you're not a fan of blueberries you can also substitute raspberries here or even sliced strawberries. If you don't have buttermilk on hand (I've never seen it here in Italy) you can easily use plain whole milk yogurt (see my note below). If you're not a fan of maple syrup, these would also be great drizzled with honey or served with blueberry compote. Enjoy everyone!

CORNMEAL  BLUEBERRY PANCAKES

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk, or substitute 2 cups of plain yogurt (not low fat or non fat) thinned with 2 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoon butter, melted and cooled
3 large eggs, separated
3 tablespoons honey
2
cups blueberries

Extra butter for cooking the pancakes
Maple syrup* 

Directions:
Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk or yogurt, melted butter, egg yolks and honey. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until blended. Next, beat the egg whites in another medium bowl to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the batter in 2 additions. Stir in the blueberries.

Melt a little butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Drop the pancake batter by 1/4 cupfuls into the skillet. Cook the pancakes until the bottoms are golden brown and bubbles form on top, about 2 minutes. 
Using a spatula, turn the pancakes over. Cook until the bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes.  

Repeat with remaining batter, adding more butter to skillet as necessary. Serve hot with butter and maple syrup (*tip: warm the maple syrup up in the microwave for 20 seconds or so -- my mom always served our pancakes with warm maple syrup and now I can't have them any other way!) Makes 16-18 pancakes. 



Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine (April 1996).







Salmon with Avocado Strawberry Salsa

  
So I'm guessing this is not exactly what first comes to mind when you hear the word "salsa." Don't worry, I understand. Up until fairly recently my knowledge of salsa was limited to the contents of what came in a Tostitos jar, in either mild, medium, or hot. When I was younger, I usually opted for the medium and enjoyed it along with tortilla chips every time my family would watch a football game on TV (I hate sports, especially when they're televised, so the salsa and chips were the most interesting part of the game). 

Even after I had started cooking, I didn't give salsa much of a thought until much later, when I was living in Italy. I know, I know -- salsa? in Italy? -- but my first years in Rome I met a group of Mexican friends through my work at Loyola. Lucky for me, they all shared my passion for cooking, and taught me how to make enchiladas verdes, cochinita pibil, and tres leches cake, all of which were completely different from the ragu' and polpette I had been raised on. Mexican quickly became my second favorite cuisine (nothing beats Italian after all,) and before I knew it I was making homemade tortillas and stocking my pantry with ingredients like carne seca and achiote paste. My Mexican friends nicknamed me "Pancha" (the diminutive of Francisca) and I decided if I weren't Italian American, I would totally want to be Mexican. 

My Mexican friends also introduced me to actual salsa, made with sweet tomatoes, spicy peppers, and sharp onions, all neatly diced and flavorful, nothing like the overly sweet, jarred stuff that I had tried in the U.S. On a trip to Mexico City that summer, I tried different varieties of salsa, all fresh and delicious, some of them so spicy they made my eyes water. My friends eventually returned to Mexico -- an unfortunate downside to the expat life -- but I've since continued to make their recipes. My sweet and savory streak this summer (this watermelon and feta salad! these nectarines with burrata!) got me wondering how I could give salsa a twist.

I'm not sure that my Mexican friends would approve of this salsa, as it isn't exactly traditional, but I must say, it's one of the best things I've invented in a while. The sweet strawberries, sharp onion, creamy avocado, and tangy lime make every bite of this salsa sing, and all of it is rounded out with a little honey and basil to keep things interesting -- every bite is different, and a million times better than the jarred salsa from my youth. Here I've served this with salmon to make a light and healthy summer dinner, but this would also be awesome with tortilla chips or over grilled chicken, or just eaten directly out of the bowl with a spoon. If you're not a fan of any of the ingredients I used, there is definitely some wiggle room here -- substitute mango or pineapple for the strawberries, leave out the avocado all together and up the fruit, substitute cilantro for the basil, or use orange juice instead of lime juice. Enjoy everyone! 

SALMON WITH AVOCADO AND STRAWBERRY SALSA

Ingredients:
4 salmon fillets 
Olive oil

1 1/4 cups strawberries, diced
1 avocado, diced
3 tablespoons red onion, chopped
2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon basil, chopped fine
Juice of the half of one lime
1/2 teaspoon lime zest

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with some aluminum foil and drizzle it with a little olive oil. Place the salmon fillets on the aluminum foil and brush with some more olive oil, then sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 or so minutes, or until the fish flakes easily with a fork (the cooking time can vary depending on how thick the fillets are, so just keep checking). 

While the salmon cooks, combine all of the salsa ingredients together in a medium bowl. Taste and add more lime juice or basil if you'd like. Transfer the salmon to 4 individual plates and spoon the salsa over each. Serves 4. 








Watermelon and Feta Salad with Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette

In my continuing quest to find new things to eat while in my "it's too hot to cook but I also want good food" phase, I give you my latest discovery, Watermelon and Feta Salad. 

Now, let me explain -- this is not exactly a new idea or recipe -- the watermelon and feta combination has actually been around for quite a while. I remember seeing it in cooking magazines and on various menus back when I was in high school. And every time I saw it, I thought the same thing -- watermelon and feta? Together? Wouldn't the watermelon make the whole salad watery,? my 14 year old self wondered. Wasn't the feta best paired with tomatoes and cucumbers, like in a Greek salad? And wasn't watermelon best sliced anyways, enjoyed at a picnic or barbecue instead of as a first course?  I remember swiftly shooting down my parents' suggestion that we order it as an appetizer at a fancy restaurant in Providence. No, the zucchini and eggplant napoleon was most certainly a better appetizer option, thanks.

Years later, my wiser 26 year old self made this salad with nectarines and burrata, was pleasantly surprised by the result, and figured that whoever created the whole watermelon feta thing might have been on to something. After all, sometimes weird flavor combinations end up being completely genius -- chocolate and mint? bacon and maple syrup? banana and peanut butter? -- and equally convincing of course was the little effort required to prepare the dish.

So, the verdict on this: it is true that the watermelon is sweet and mild and the feta is sharp and salty, but this is precisely why the two work so well together. Both ingredients balance and complement each other perfectly, an odd ingredient couple that happens to be a match made in heaven. The dressing -- olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a touch of honey -- allows the ingredients to shine without overwhelming them. Note that this recipe has some flexibility -- I added some basil for a little bit of color and freshness, but if you wanted you could probably use fresh mint instead, if that's your thing. You could also substitute another kind of lettuce for the arugula, if you wanted. I wouldn't recommend leaving out the red onions, however -- lots of people aren't fans of onions when they're raw, me included usually, but I found that they added a little bite to the salad and contrasted with the sweetness of the watermelon very nicely. 

Apart from being super tasty and quick to make, this salad is also fairly healthy, and perfect for summer when watermelon is at its best (here in Rome it is sold on every street corner this time of year). Enjoy everyone!


WATERMELON AND FETA SALAD

Ingredients:
3 cup watermelon, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 cup feta cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
8 slices red onion, thinly sliced
1 bag of baby arugula
Basil to garnish

For the vinaigrette:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons honey

Directions:
Whisk together all of the ingredients for your vinaigrette in a small bowl and set aside. 

Combine the watermelon, feta, and onion in a large bowl. Distribute the arugula onto 4 plates. Top the arugula with the watermelon, feta cheese, and red onion mixture, and sprinkle with basil. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar and olive oil over the salads, and serve immediately. Serves 4.






What to Eat When It's Too Hot to Cook

Last Saturday, I decided to spend the afternoon at a museum exhibit, followed by some shopping. If you're thinking this all sounds pretty routine, you're not taking in to consideration that the temperatures in Rome are near 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and attempting to do anything more than sit in front of your fan in your underwear is downright heroic.  

In the end, my afternoon was quite nice -- the museum and stores had air conditioning! -- but getting to the center, from the museum to the stores, and then back, was brutal. By the time I got home, I was hungry, but also still overheated from my brave excursion to the center. This wasn't the first time this has happened -- the truth is that in August in Rome, not only is it too hot to turn on the stove, it is almost too hot to even eat. Though I found myself making dishes like pesto and rice salad and sun-dried tomato and olive pasta in the beginning of the summer, they all require at least a little heat and effort, both of which are unappealing now that temperatures are at their peak (example: you mean I have to...boil the water for...12 minutes to cook the pasta?!) Soaring temperatures do not mean however that you can't eat well, so I thought I would share the dishes I've been making lately, which require more assembling and than cooking, and that fill you up without heating you up. Bonus: little to no cooking means they all take only a few minutes to throw together. 

8. Feeling ambitious: Couscous does require some effort/stove use (you need to boil water, mix in the couscous, and then take it off the heat!!) so only make this if you're feeling super ambitious. I usually mix in black olives or kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and feta cheese. It all comes together in a few minutes and the leftovers are equally good the next day.


7. Feeling a little less ambitious: Panzanella is a dish from Tuscany that makes great use of both leftover bread and summer tomatoes, and requires no cooking at all. Just mix cubes of day old bread (you don't want it to be too fresh, otherwise it gets soggy) with chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, red onion, and basil and dress it with red wine vinegar and olive oil. If you want some idea of the quantities, 8-10 cups of bread should serve 8 people or so. In the photo below I also added yellow bell peppers and used whole wheat bread. White beans or tuna might also be a good addition here, though not traditional
 
6. Temperatures high and ambitions low: Nectarines with Burrata, Prosciutto, and Arugula I've made this salad more times than I can count this summer. Again, the only effort requires is assembling a few ingredients and you're good to go. You can get the full recipe here, if you want to know more specific quantities. 





















5. Energy and ambitions low and temperatures
still rising: Watermelon and Feta Salad is similar to the above salad -- I love the fruit and cheese combination, and the play on sweet and savory. 

4. Beginning to feel a little lazy: Insalata Caprese  takes advantage of great summer ingredients -- tomatoes and basil -- and just requires a little slicing and assembling. Be sure to use mozzarella di bufala if you can find it - it makes all the difference. Drizzle some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top to serve.
















3. Feeling pretty lazy: Smoked salmon and avocado on toast, inspired by the open faced sandwiches I tried in Denmark. The ingredient combinations here are endless, so feel free to experiment with whatever you like. I usually mash up the avocado with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. Toasting the bread is optional if you're feeling extra over heated and/or lazy.










2. Feeling completely and utterly lazy: Prosciutto e melone is a classic appetizer here in Italy that I have been eating as a meal because it requires literally no effort, unless you count slicing a few pieces of melon and taking prosciutto out of the fridge effort (if this is the case, please see item 1. below). This is both filling and refreshing. Pair it with some bread if you want to round out the meal.


1. And if all else fails, this is also a completely 
acceptable meal:





Butterscotch Pudding Pops


The order in which I post recipes on the blog is always very carefully thought out; when choosing what the line up will be for the week, I take in to account the season, holiday, and most importantly, whatever I've just posted. For example, if I've just posted a recipe for pasta, I try to share a dessert or an appetizer, just to keep the blog varied (after all, you don't want 10 pasta recipes one after the other. Not that that would be the worst thing, actually...) So, that being said, this recipe doesn't really have much of a place here at the moment -- I've given you recipes for these popsicles, told you how to make and where to get good gelato, and had already prepared and photographed granita for a future post. This blog has more than its share of frozen treats this summer, and I really should've shared some other kind of dessert with you, or maybe a recipe for the grill, or something healthy like vegetables or something. But really, these were far too good to not share immediately

First off: if you don't know what butterscotch is, I am 1.) very sorry for you but also 2.) happy to educate you now (better late than never, right?) Butterscotch very similar to the more commonly known caramel, but made with brown sugar instead of white, with a healthy dose of vanilla extract and sea salt. If you add cream to it, it becomes butterscotch sauce, which is usually served over vanilla ice cream.

This recipe comes from the genius Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who had the excellent idea to make butterscotch pudding then freeze it in to popsicles. Apart from the fact that this recipe is from Deb, I could also tell from the ingredient list -- butter! cream! brown sugar! vanilla! -- that these would be spectacular, and how right I was. 

Though these are made with popsicle molds, they are not at all icy or fruity like your average popsicle, but rather smooth and creamy, just as you imagine frozen pudding would be. The flavor here is sweet but not cloyingly so, with an underlying complexity thanks to the almost toasty undertones of the caramelized brown sugar and butter. These were so good that my sister and I may or may not have had these for breakfast once or twice (you will understand after you've made these!)

Note that these are also a good compromise if you don't have an ice cream maker -- the texture is very similar to that of ice cream. The only problem I came across with these is that they melt very easily (see casualty below!) and thus were pretty difficult to photograph, but then again these are so good that I think they'll be eaten before they even have a chance to melt.  Enjoy everyone!

BUTTERSCOTCH PUDDING POPS

Ingredients:
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, or to taste (use less of a fine sea salt)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 cups whole milk

Directions:
Combine the cream, brown sugar and butter in the bottom of a medium, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally in the beginning and more frequently as it reduces and thickens. You’ll know it’s done when it becomes a bit darker, more syrupy, and smells toasty. Add cornstarch and slowly whisk in milk. Raise heat to medium. Cook mixture, stirring frequently, until it thickens slightly, anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla and sea salt. 

Cool mixture to lukewarm. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze as manufacturer directs. Makes about 8 popsicles.


Popsicle casualty!!!

Recipe from www.smittenkitchen.com.



Three Cheese Zucchini Tart


My Aunt Laura (better known as "T," as I mentioned here) is -- aside from being my favorite Aunt and a world class chocolate chip cookie maker -- also an expert gardener. When I was little, I remember being fascinated by the garden that lined the path leading to the front door of her house, a sort of sprawling, organized chaos of azaleas, snapdragons, and cosmos. My aunt knows everything there is to know about gardening, and even helped my brother, sister, and me to set up our own garden in the backyard one summer, teaching us how to dig flower beds, set up compost bins for fertilizer, and to protect our strawberry plants from hungry birds (just cover the plants with a bit of netting). That summer we managed to even produce a small watermelon from our tiny garden, which we were all quite proud of.
             Photos of T's garden, courtesy of T (Laura Lynch :))

This same summer, however, I realized that she was perhaps too good of a gardener. You see, the tomato, and zucchini plants she had been growing had flourished a bit too much, creating a supply of veggies that needed to be picked faster than my Aunt and cousin could eat them. When T came to visit, she would bring us bags of produce that, much like abandoned kittens, were looking for a good home. "Laura! We have enough tomatoes!!!" my mom would say. "But these are really good! They're from my garden! You can put them in a salad!!" my aunt would protest. You get the idea. I found these exchanges amusing, but had I been as wise at 7 as I am at 26, I would've realized that the bags of vegetables were not really a problem, but rather an opportunity for culinary creativity. The overload of summer zucchini -- a common problem for most who have gardens, not just my aunt, I later learned -- could have been easily solved by loaves of cinnamon-y zucchini bread, bowls of zucchini pancetta pasta, or elegant zucchini tarts, among many other things. Which brings us to today's recipe.  

I have called this dish a tart, but it could also be categorized as galette or a savory crostata -- a free form, open faced pie of sorts. It is simple but elegant, thinly sliced zucchini fanned out over three -- yes, three -- types of cheese, because the more cheese the better. The term opposites attract is definitely true here, as the soft spoken (if zucchini could talk, they'd be soft spoken) mild zucchini is complemented perfectly by the louder, tangier filling. The crust is I think one of the easiest and most delicious I've ever made, and is buttery and flaky thanks to the yogurt and lemon juice. I recommend you sprinkle this with basil to garnish, as I had planned to (in my excitement to make this recipe I forgot to buy it during my run to the supermarket). 


Feel free to experiment with different vegetables and cheeses for the filling as well -- this is quite a flexible recipe. I'm thinking of trying eggplant and tomato next, and perhaps butternut squash in the Winter. A little pesto stirred in to the filling would be good too. Enjoy!


THREE CHEESE ZUCCHINI TART

For the pastry**: 
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, chilled in the freezer for 30 minutes
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled in the refrigerator again
1/4 cup full fat Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup ice water


Filling: 
2 zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup soft goat cheese

Basil, to garnish


Glaze: 
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water.

To make the dough: Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Sprinkle the cubes of butter over the dough and using a pastry blender (or your fingertips, if you don't have one) cut it in until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with the biggest pieces of butter the size of tiny peas. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice and water and add this to the butter and flour mixture. With a wooden spoon, mix in the liquid in until a dough begins to form; be careful to not overwork the dough. If it seems too wet, add more flour a tablespoon at a time. Turn the dough out on to a floured work surface and form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. **You could of course use store bought pie crust, but this one is so easy to throw together (and tastes much better, in my opinion) that it'worth trying out the recipe here. 

Spread the zucchini out on to a layer or two of paper towels. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and let drain for 30 minutes; gently blot the tops of the zucchini dry with paper towels before using. In a separate bowl, mix the ricotta, Parmesan, and goat cheese and 1 teaspoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a floured work surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch round. Transfer to an ungreased baking sheet (though if you line it with parchment paper, it will be easier to transfer it to a plate later). Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the bottom of the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Arrange the zucchini on top of the cheese in concentric circles, starting at the outside edge. 

Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of the garlic and olive oil mixture evenly over the zucchini (or just plain olive oil if you're not using the garlic). Fold the border over the filling, pleating the edge to make it fit. The center will be open. Brush crust with egg yolk glaze.Bake the tart until the cheese is puffed, the zucchini is slightly wilted and the tart is golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with basil, let stand for 5 minutes, then slide the tart onto a serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Serves 6. 


Adapted from www.smittenkitchen.com