Madrid, Day 1: Food Tour with Devour Madrid

My sister and I are back from three wonderful days in Madrid, and naturally I'll be using today and tomorrow's post to fill you in on all of the delicious food we ate there. As with all vacations my sister and I take, food was our number one priority, and good foodies that we are, we decided to start off our trip with a food tour organized by the company Devour Madrid

Having fallen prey to tourist trap restaurants in my first trips in Europe as a student -- I can't even tell you how much mediocre paella I had in Barcelona, and anyways, paella is actually a dish from Valencia -- I am always eager to have a little local culinary guidance when traveling. The food tour we signed up for, entitled "Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour," thus seemed a perfect way to start off the trip. Our tour guide, Mette (Danish and living in Spain for the past year and a half) greeted us at Plaza Mayor at 10:30 am to begin our four hour tour, where we learned we would be trying the following dishes (as you can see in the below photo, we were quite happy with the selection): 

So, let's get started! 

1. EL RIOJANO
Our first stop on the tour was El Riojano, one of Madrid's very oldest bakeries, opened in 1855 by Dámaso Maza, the personal pastry chef of Queen María Cristina of Austria. If a bakery has been open for 161 years and the founder was baking up sweets fit for royalty, you know the place has to be good, and El Riojano did not disappoint. Here we tried soletillas -- spongy sweet pastries akin to ladyfingers -- dipped in hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was worlds away from the powdered mix stuff I had growing up, more like melted dark chocolate thick enough to eat with a spoon. The soletilla had a delicate flavor and texture that made it perfect for dipping in the hot chocolate -- the hot chocolate was allowed to shine and not overwhelmed by the soletilla, and the soletilla was enhanced by the richness of the hot chocolate (win win!) We washed all of this down with a nice cup of café con leche, which was so good that I completely forgot to miss my usual morning cappuccino

2. EL MERCADO DE SAN MIGUEL 
After the sweet treats at El Riojano we jumped right into the more savory side of Spanish cuisine with a quail egg, olive, anchovy, and pickled pepper skewer accompanied by a glass of Vermouth at El Mercado de San Miguel. A little background on the mercado itself -- originally built in 1916, the market was renovated reopened in 2009 to great success, and now houses a variety of different vendors selling tapas, baked goods, beer, wine, champagne, among many other things. I admit I was a bit wary of the skewer. Hard boiled eggs are one of my least favorite foods, and I only like anchovies when they're mixed into pasta or accompanied by some other ingredient. I was pleasantly surprised however -- the salty anchovy, sweet pepper, and quail egg in the first bite joined in perfect flavor harmony, and the same went for the tart pickled pepper and mild olive in the second bite. The Vermouth was ice cold and just sweet enough, exactly what you want to drink on a warm Spring afternoon in Spain. Off to a good start!


3. EL JARDIN DEL CONVENTO
Our third stop on the tour was at El Jardín del Convento, or rather the Convent Garden. Here Mette explained to us that the nuns who live in the convent here are Hieronymite nuns, or cloistered nuns, who regularly bake cookies that they sell to the public. They've devised a system in which the customer rings the doorbell of the convent to be let in, and then goes down the convent hallway to a turnstile set in to the wall, where they can see what sweets are for sale that day. The customer selects and pays for their cookies using the turnstile device, all without ever seeing a nun. A sign on the convent door informed us that the cookie operation was closed until Monday, so we did not get to see how the cookie/turnstile set up worked up close (next time!) We did however go around the corner to another bakery, where they sell dulces del convento, or rather "sweets from the convent," which sells sweets made by all different orders of nuns in Spain. Here we sampled a soft and chewy coconut cookie -- reminiscent of the American style coconut macaroon -- that was delicious. I took two. 


4. EL ANCIANO REY DE LOS VINOS 
Next on the menu was a "regalito" ( a "little gift,") or rather a bulltail stew wrapped up in phyllo pastry, topped with a sweet red pepper and a balsamic reduction served with a jus that we were instructed to pour generously over the top. The tail of the bull was a cut of meat that was usually reserved for the poorer class, but after trying this dish I'd be apt to say that the richer Spaniards missed out. The bulltail was slow cooked and perfectly tender (reminiscent of Rome's coda alla vaccinara) and the crispy phyllo was a nice contrast to the filling (I had thought that it might get in the way of or take away from the stew itself, but this was not the case). This perfect little parcel was the highlight of the tour for me, and when a six year old picky eater on our tour decided he did not want to eat his, I happily split it with another member of our group (I may have given him the smaller piece, though)...

5. TABERNA LA BOLA
During our tour Mette told us to look out for gold plaques outside some restaurants and shops in Madrid. She explained that these plaques are reserved for institutions that have been open for at least 100 years, and our next stop, Taberna La Bola -- opened in 1870 -- proudly sports a its own plaque, cleaned every day with lemon juice to keep it extra shiny. Taberna La Bola is known for its cocido madrileño, a chickpea based stew with chorizo and potatoes.We learned that cocido madrileño actually has its roots in Jewish cuisine, the addition of pork coming in later in the 15th and 16th century when Jewish Spaniards began to incorporate pork in to their meals to prove that they had converted to Christianity. Seeing as how a whole serving of cocido madrileño might have been too heavy at this point in the tour -- we were at our fifth stop, after all -- Mette instead had us try the course served before the stew itself, which was the broth from the cocido served with noodles. It was tasty, but not by any means my favorite stop on the tour. This could have been because the dish was eaten after the regalito -- a tough act to follow! -- but I felt that it needed a bit more flavor and could have perhaps simmered for a bit longer. Still, it was fun to be allowed in to La Bola's kitchen to see them preparing the cocido madrileño for the many hungry diners that were expected for lunch -- the restaurant was completely booked for that afternoon!

6. LA DISPENSA DE CARMEN 
After Taberna La Bola, we headed over to La Dispensa de Carmen, or "Carmen's Pantry," which sells freshly prepared classic Spanish dishes. I imagine this little shop is the saving grace of busy families and bachelors alike, or anyone who hasn't quite learned to cook like their abuela but is still craving home cooked food. This a version of fast food I like far far more than McDonalds or Burger King -- actually, it is reminiscent of Italy's tavola calda, where you can also buy a variety of freshly prepared dishes -- and indeed, the albóndigas (meatballs) and empanadas we tried here were delicious. The meatballs were light and flavorful -- the meat had been mixed together until just combined, and no more -- and the empanadas, with a tuna and hard boiled egg filling, had a light, crispy exterior, not at all heavy or bread-y like I had been expecting. Another successful stop!

7. FERPAL 
No trip to Spain is complete without trying some jamónand on our stop #7 on the tour, we sampled jamón ibérico serrano and jamón bellota at Ferpal. Having grown accustomed to Italy's prosciutto di parma I was interested to see what the Spaniards had to offer. If I remember correctly, the jamón ibérico serrano is aged for at least 12 months (though some are aged up to 48 months) and made from black Iberian pigs. Jamón bellota is aged for longer, is more expensive, and is made from pigs that eat only acorns (bellotas). While both were good, I found I preferred the jamón ibérico serrano, which had a milder flavor and softer texture than the jamón bellota

8. LA CASA DEL ABUELO 
I had been told by many friends to try gambas al ajillo while in Spain -- one even declared it "the best thing I have ever eaten, ever," so I was excited to see it on the menu for the day's tour. La Casa del Abuelo specializes in this dish, which consists of shrimp (gambas) cooked quickly in terracotta pots with chili, olive oil, and garlic. Mette told us that the restaurant originally specialized in sandwiches, but when flour became scarce during the Spanish Civil War, they switched to shrimp, which was cheaper and more readily available. And I'm glad they did -- this dish was far better than any sandwich, with tender, perfectly cooked shrimp and lots of spicy, garlicky olive oil, the ideal accompaniment for the fresh bread served alongside. We were also given a sweet red wine, served cold, that helped cool off the heat of the chili. I would seriously considering hopping on a plane back to Madrid just to order this one again. Really. It was that good.

9. TORRON VINCENS
For the very last stop on our tour (sob!) we visited Torrons Vincens, which specializes in turrón, a candy made with egg whites, sugar, honey, and sometimes almonds. It is similar to Italian torrone, and can be either soft and chewy or hard and crunchy depending on how long it is cooked. Mette has us try three different kinds of turrón, the first being the traditional hard and crunchy kind, the second being slightly softer and sweeter, and the third being the sweetest, with a sort of toasty, caramel-y undertone (this one was called turrón de yema quemada). This last one was my favorite, and I was sure to buy a large piece of it before leaving the store (I am proud to say that I managed to bring it back to Rome for my colleagues in one piece rather than devouring it all myself).

And just like that, our food tour was over! To anyone visiting Madrid soon, I highly recommend Devour Madrid's Ultimate Spanish Cuisine tour -- our tour guide was lovely and the food was superb. It also gave us a good introduction to the city and it's cuisine on the very first day of our trip -- indeed, I would recommend doing the tour at the beginning of your stay, rather than at the end -- as well as an idea of what to look for foodwise during the rest of our trip. I'll be back tomorrow with another post on our adventures in Madrid!







Banoffee Pie


Happy Friday everyone! Seeing as how I'm leaving for a trip to Madrid soon, and things are busy at work, I'm going to keep this post for Banoffee Pie -- one of my very favorite desserts! -- short and sweet. Now, if you've had the misfortune of never hearing about Banoffee Pie until just this moment, here's a little background: it's a British dessert, one that I'm sure Princess Kate, Harry Potter, and David Beckham all enjoy. It is quite simple, consisting of a buttery, crisp cookie crust, a layer of gooey toffee (or dulce de leche, but Banoffee Pie is nicer sounding than Banulce de Leche Pie) sliced bananas, and a generous swoosh of freshly whipped cream. As you can imagine, it is insanely delicious and insanely easy to prepare, meaning that you could very well make and finish this whole pie off by yourself -- I speak from experience -- so it's best to make this for a group.

I've made this dessert for last minute dinners with friends since it is so quick to prepare, but if you'll already be busy preparing lamb, ham, etc this Easter Sunday this dessert is impressive (and not to mention yummy) enough to be worthy of your holiday menu this year, without requiring much time at all. The dark chocolate garnish is not traditional or mandatory, but I do recommend this last step, as it makes the dessert even prettier (plus the addition of chocolate is never a bad idea).

Have a nice Easter everyone! Will be back soon with a post on what we ate in Madrid!


BANOFFEE PIE 

Ingredients for the crust:
8 ounces (250 grams) of digestive biscuits, graham crackers, or plain vanilla cookies, crushed
1 stick (100 grams) of butter, melted

Ingredients for the filling:
2-3 bananas, sliced
1 (350 gram) jar dulce de leche
250 ml whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Dark chocolate shavings, for decorating


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium bowl, mix together the cookie or graham cracker crumbs with the butter. Pat the mixture into the bottom of a 9 inch spring form pan. Bake the crust for about 7 minutes. Set the crust aside and let cool completely.

Once the crust is completely cold, cover it with a nice layer of dulce de leche (I use almost the whole jar for this). 
 Cover the dulce de leche with a layer of bananas. 

Next, using electric beaters, mix the whipping cream and powdered sugar together until the cream is whipped to soft peaks. Spread a layer of the cream over the bananas and dulce de leche. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings. 


Put the pie in the refrigerator for about an hour (I find it is much easier to cut the pie into slices when it is cold) and serve. Serves 8-10. 










Asparagus with Parmesan and Prosciutto



On a blog where butter, sugar, and chocolate reign supreme, I realize this recipe may be a bit of a surprise. After all, the recipes I've posted for green, vegetable-y dishes, are far and few between, and one of them would anyways be Basil Pesto (which is served with pasta and thus doesn't really count). Indeed, these asparagus probably feel out of place here, kind of like a vegan at a BBQ or a new kid in school who doesn't quite know who to sit with at lunch. 
That being said, it's always nice to change things up and take a step away from all the cake and cookies, and with Easter coming up/yesterday being the first day of Spring I thought I would shake things up with something lighter, savory, and seasonal. 

So, the verdict? Did I regret straying from my usual sugar dusted path? Not at all! Do not let the simplicity of this dish fool you -- it is spectacularly delicious. The asparagus is bright and fresh and perfectly cooked, a perfect counterpart to the salty richness of the prosciutto and the sharpness of Parmesan cheese, and the overall dish is pretty and elegant, a step up from your usual steamed asparagus. It is super versatile, great as an appetizer for a dinner party, as a simple dinner alongside a poached egg, or as a fancy side dish for Easter. Since writing this post, I've already made this dish 3 more times (my sister and I will soon turn into asparagus and prosciutto bundles ourselves, if this continues,) and oh, did I mention it only takes about 15 minutes to prepare, start to finish? Perfection indeed!

One final note: be sure to use good quality prosciutto and Parmesan, and the best asparagus you can find. When dishes have so few ingredients they have to be top notch, as there are not many other ingredients for them to "hide" behind. Enjoy everyone!

ASPARAGUS WITH PARMESAN AND PROSCIUTTO

Ingredients:
18 asparagus spears
6 slices of prosciutto
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fill a large pot with water and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Place the asparagus in the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Drain the asparagus and put them immediately into a large bowl of ice water (this will help preserve the bright green color). Leave the asparagus to chill in the water for 2 to 3 minutes, then remove them and pat them dry.

On a clean work surface, lay out the slices of prosciutto and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Gather three of the asparagus spears together, and wrap them up in the prosciutto and Parmesan. Repeat with all asparagus spears. Place the asparagus and prosciutto bundles on a lightly greased baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little extra Parmesan. Bake the asparagus for 10-12 minutes, or until the prosciutto is crispy and the cheese is melted. Serves 6.





Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate Fudge Frosting

Generally speaking, there is usually some logic to what I decide to make and post next on this blog. If I've been on a dessert kick, I try and reign things in with a hit of savory (like this tomato and cheese cobbler or this swordfish); if I've been baking with a lot of chocolate I try and balance the recipes for the month with a touch of citrus; if we're around Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, I try and make season recipes to help you in your menu planning.

That being said, I hadn't really planned on baking or posting these cupcakes. They were not on my lengthy "Recipes for Blog" list, and February and March's recipes have already been quite carb/sugar/butter heavy (not that there is anything wrong with this -- the name of the blog is "Pancakes & Biscotti," after all). I'm just saying that I could have very well posted a recipe for soup or a frittata or something, as per my original plan. These cupcakes, for all intents and purposes, go against my usual blog rules.

So why did I make these? Because on Sunday morning all my plans for making something savory, light, or otherwise went out the window when I woke up with an intense cupcake craving. You know that sort of cupcake craving, right? When only a buttery yellow cupcake with swirls of chocolate frosting and a dusting of colorful sprinkles will do, and there is no other solution than to bake up a batch of cupcakes? I had all the ingredients to make these on hand, which I took to be a sign that I really was meant to make cupcakes, relevance to the blog or not. Which is exactly what I did. 

These cupcakes are both fluffy, light, and tender with a rich buttery taste and a sunny yellow color. The frosting is perfectly smooth and deeply chocolate-y, sweet but not overly so, with a lighter consistency than your usual buttercream. As I mentioned above, rainbow sprinkles are a must -- is there anymore more special than a cupcake with rainbow sprinkles?! -- and make these extra pretty. Indeed, as far as cupcakes go, they are pretty much perfect, which is saying a lot for a tiny individual cake -- they most certainly pack a punch.

A couple of notes: this recipe can be doubled to make a two round 9 inch layers if you're more in a layer cake instead of cupcake mood, or you can make a sheet cake with this as well.  Whatever type of pan you decide to make these in, this will become your new favorite cake recipe, guaranteed -- it's superb. Enjoy everyone!


VANILLA CUPCAKES WITH CHOCOLATE FUDGE FROSTING

Ingredients for Cupcakes: 
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup + 6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons whole milk

Ingredients for Frosting:
1/4 cup butter
2 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sprinkles to decorate (optional, but not really)

Directions:
To make the cupcakes: Butter a 12 cup cupcake tin and set aside (alternatively, use cupcake liners). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the vanilla. In a medium bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt. Add in to the butter and sugar mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk. Mix everything together until just combined. Fill the cupcake tin or cupcake tin filled with cupcake liners 2/3 of the way full with batter. Bake the cupcakes for 12-15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached. Let the cupcakes cool completely.

To make the frosting: Over a double boiler (or in a small sauce pan or skillet) melt the butter and chocolate together. If you're using a sauce pan or skillet be sure o have the heat very low and watch carefully that the chocolate doesn't burn. Set the chocolate and butter mixture aside to cool slightly. In the meantime, stir together the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. Pour in the chocolate and butter mixture. Using electric beaters, beat the frosting together until light and fluffy. Frost the cooled cupcakes and decorate with sprinkles. Makes 10-12 cupcakes.







Lemon Squares


I've been spoiled by the weather in Rome this Winter. Temperatures have been mild, I've been wearing my light Spring jacket since January, and last week, it was so warm that it felt like Summer was around the corner. My friends and I had lunch outside and -- gasp! -- my freckles even came out. Nope, Rome is nothing like New England, where my parents have faced snowstorm upon snowstorm so far and the weather doesn't really warm up until June. You can imagine then how a recent bout of gray, gloomy, and rainy weather here in the Eternal City would then be a shock to the system after so much sunshine and warmth, so I did what anyone would do in my situation: I made a pot of soup, got out my rain boots and umbrella, and of course, made lemon bars.

Lemon bars, you might ask? While the instinct might be to curl up with a chocolate-y and indulgent dessert when the skies are cloudy, I find that lemon bars are just what you need to ward off a downpour. They are sunshine in the form of dessert, bright and fresh and tart, a happy golden yellow that reminds you that Spring is imminent. A colleague of mine -- sick with a cold -- also claimed that these bars were just the pick-me-up she was looking for to wake her up and get her through her morning work routine, which makes me think that these bars also totally qualify as medicine (citrus fruit has Vitamin C, doesn't it...?)

So, what makes these so good? These bars are boldly lemon-y -- not for the faint of heart -- with a generous amount of lemon zest in the filling to take the citrus flavor to another level, as well as a good dose of (freshly squeezed, please!) lemon juice. The filling is perfectly smooth and tart and dreamy, and reminded me of a glass of lemonade. The crust is buttery and just sweet enough, reminiscent of shortbread in texture and taste, and the 1:1 crust to filling ratio here is perfect. A dusting of powdered sugar over the top makes these especially pretty and the sweetness provides a slight contrast to the lemon filling. Added bonuses? These are perfect for that one friend we all have who "doesn't like chocolate" or for the other friend who "really doesn't like sweet desserts," and would also be an excellent addition to your Easter menu this year. Enjoy everyone!

LEMON SQUARES

Ingredients:

Crust: 
2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 sticks butter (224 grams, or 1 cup)
1/8 teaspoon salt

Filling:
2/3 cup lemon juice (I used about 3 large lemons)
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons lemon zest (or 1 tablespoon if you want a sweeter bar)

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9 x 13 inch pan with a little butter and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar, flour, and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and mix it together with the dry ingredients. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut the butter into the flour mixture until a crumbly dough forms. Alternatively, you could also use a food processor for this. Pat the dough mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Prepare the filling. Whisk together the lemon juice, flour, zest, sugar, and eggs until well combined. Pour the filling over the crust and put the pan back into the oven. Bake the lemon bars for another 20-25 minutes, or until the filling is set. Let the bars cool completely. Cut into squares and dust with powdered sugar. Makes 16 squares.