Happy Holidays from Rhode Island!

After rounding up and packing a whole lot Christmas gifts, traveling a total of 12 hours, and struggling through a few days worth of jetlag -- falling asleep at 6pm, waking up at 3am, the usual -- I am home in my home state of Rhode Island for the holidays. I've 100% enjoyed the break from my less-than-dream job, have relished sleeping far past my usual wake up time of 6am, and have loved spending time with my family, including my brother and sister-in-law who flew in from D.C. I'll be here in the states for another week or so, but in the meantime, here's what I've been up to -- with emphasis on the foodie highlights! -- to close out 2017. 

At the very top of my "To Do!" list when home was a visit to PVdonuts, the incredible donut shop in our capital of Providence, which, via its very convincing social media, inspired me to make my own donuts (these pumpkin donuts here). I'd attempted a visit when I was home in November, but showed up on a Monday, a day which PVdonuts is always closed. Determined not to make the same mistakes twice, we double checked the hours and on Christmas Eve, were sure to arrive a few minutes after the 8am opening time. Even with our early arrival, there was still a line out the door, but no matter -- PVdonuts works like a well-oiled machine, and we inside and placing our order in no time. The December menu was impressive -- donuts in flavors like gingerbread! tres leches! frangipane! -- and we admittedly got a little carried away, walking out the door with 13 donuts (for only 6 people). The verdict? Aside from the fact that each donut is a work of art (see photos below) they were positively delicious, hands down the best donuts I've ever had, and likely will ever have, pure donut nirvana. My top choice was the Coffee Milk donut -- which was, shockingly enough, on of PVdonuts's vegan options -- but the the Hot Cocoa and Eggnog Donuts were up there too. All in all, there wasn't a good donut in the box -- just all incredibly great ones. Bravi!!! 

Every Christmas Eve is spent with my paternal grandparents -- there's my Nonna Ada, who you may remember from this post, and my Nonno Jim, who you may remember from this post here. Both are from Calabria, Italy -- the tiny town of Grotteria, to be exact -- and immigrated to Rhode Island in 1934 (him) and 1953 (her) where they have lived ever since. The Italian tradition on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) is to eat a dinner of all seafood -- 7 courses, traditionally -- and my nonna, even at 91 (!!!) never disappoints, whipping up some of the best food I've ever eaten. The most anticipated dish of the evening is pasta with squid sauce, where stuffed squid is cooked in the sauce, then removed and served separately, while the sauce is served over the pasta. For dessert, I made this ricotta pound cake using my ricotta from my grandfather's company, which you can read about here
On to December 25th! Christmas day celebrations are always hosted at our house, and this year we were a group of 8 -- the six of us, plus my grandmother Carol and Sangeetha, my brother and sister in law's friend from Singapore living in the U.S who has by now become an honorary member of our family (she even had her own stocking this year). Missing were my aunt and cousin Dylan were spending Christmas in Texas with Katie, the newest member of our family (remember Dylan and Katie's wedding in November?) but we were able to fit in a Facetime session with them (ah, the joys of technology). We started the day opening our presents -- particularly exciting in my haul was The Fearless Baker cookbook by Erin Jean McDowell and a signed copy of Smitten Kitchen Every Day by my hero, Deb Perelman (thank you Lakshmi!) As for what we ate? My mom and I always divide up the cooking, and this year our menu went a little something like this: prosciutto and parmesan palmiers and roasted grape and olive crostini to start; a lasagne alla bolognese, recipe to follow; spinach, strawberry, and pecan salad; roasted carrots; roasted potatoes; cranberry sauce with apples and orange zest; rosemary butter roasted beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce; and for dessert, this pine nut honey tart, plus another ricotta pound cake. It was a lovely day, complete with a fire in the fireplace, a beautifully decorated table and house courtesy of my mom, and even a little snow to make for a white Christmas. What more could you ask for?!

Because a large box of donuts and a Christmas Eve and Christmas feast wasn't enough -- here are a few more foodie highlights from my time in Rhode Island. We headed to T's Restaurant in East Greenwich, my home town, for the usual traditional American breakfast, always welcome when one lives in a country where a cornetto and a cappuccino are the typical early morning fare. I also cooked for the family one night, trying out this Spaghetti Pie with Pecorino and black pepper -- think of it as cacio e pepe, revisited -- from my beloved Smitten Kitchen blog. To top it all off, homemade hot chocolate with snowman marshmallows was our coziest way to end a day, usually while watching The Crown on Netflix. Doesn't get any better than that. 
That's about it for my time in Rhode Island! I'll be heading to NYC tomorrow for a few days, with a blog post -- expected to be very food oriented -- to follow next week. To close this post, here's our snuggly senior beagle Snoopy on Christmas, tired out from all the excitement and festivities. Have a very happy New Year everyone!

White Chocolate, Almond, and Apricot Biscotti

Merry Almost-Christmas everyone! If you're still in full-on baking mode -- I certainly am -- here's a final cookie recipe to add to the mix, which seems especially appropriate given cookies are after all the treat of choice for Santa himself, no?

I'm still excited for Christmas as a 28 year old -- how can you not be excited about a time of year whose official food is gingerbread and hot chocolate?! --  but my excitement is nothing compared to that of the Francesca of 20+ years ago. December was a whirlwind of emotions for my tiny self;  I was anxious to find out if Santa would remember to bring me my much coveted and highly popular Furby; I was curious to see whether or not Elliot M., the meanest kid in the class, would wake up to a stocking full of coal; I was slightly worried that we would accidentally happen on Santa on our way home from the Christmas Eve evening mass our family attended, leaving him no choice but to escape before leaving all our gifts. Mostly, though, I was incredibly excited, and my favorite task in the midst of all the excitement (future foodie and baker that I was to become) was setting out snack for Santa and the reindeer. I opted for Keebler M&M cookies -- my favorite cookie, hopefully up to Santa's standards -- and baby carrots for the reindeer (I'd heard carrots were good for the eyes, and they needed to see in the snow). I arranged it all on our nicest Christmas plate, and placed it with care by the fireplace, a little to the right so Santa wouldn't step on his snacks on his way out. The next morning, the fact that Santa had also opted for the same wrapping paper that my mother had bought this year occurred to me, but was quickly forgotten in the whirlwind of gift opening. Indeed, there was no day more magical, mysterious, and thrilling for me then December 25th. 

I learned a a year or two later of course that it was my dad who ate the cookies (my mom took care of the carrots and apples). Had I known what I know now, I'd have left out these White Chocolate, Almond, and Apricot Biscotti, which match up far better with my dad's sophisticated taste buds (I can't imagine he enjoyed the Keebler's cookies all that much). These biscotti -- which go by the name cantucci in Italy -- are cookies in their Christmas best, elegant and festive, full of crunchy almonds, chewy apricots, and chunks of sweet white chocolate, intensely almond-y with a kick of brandy to keep things interesting. They are crisp, perfect for dipping in coffee, but not overly so as some biscotti/cantucci tend to be, with a softer inside. My mom makes them every Christmas, without fail, and I can't imagine The Best Day of the Year without them. They get the stamp of approval from our 15 year old beagle Snoopy, too, who came to investigate as I was photographing the cookies. 
I'll be back soon with a New Year's recipe or two, plus a post on a trip to New York City. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and happy eating everyone!

A couple of notes: Fun fact: Non-Italians know this sort of cookie as "biscotti," but their proper name is actually cantucci (biscotti simply means "cookies" in Italian). They originally hail from the Tuscany region of Italy. We baked a batch of Espresso, Dark Chocolate, and Dried Cranberry Biscotti (or cantucci) to go along with these -- you can get the recipe here where they go by Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk Biscotti. If you'd like, you can substitute any liqueur, dried fruit, or chocolate you'd like for the apricot brandy, apricots, and white chocolate. These are easiest when made with a food processor, but can be made without one, too; whisk together the dry ingredients, then work the butter in with your fingertips or a pastry cutter. Chop the white chocolate and almonds separately, and then add them to the dough by hand. Note that these cookies stay fresh for up to two weeks when stored in an airtight container at room temperature. 

Looking for other Christmas appropriate bars or cookies? I've got these Double Chocolate Chunk Cookiesthese Magical, 5 ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies, these Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroonsthese Brown Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies, this Shortbread, these Chocolate Chip Cookies, and these Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies.


2 3/4 cups (370 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
1/2 cup (112 grams, or 1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons (9 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 ounces (98 grams) white chocolate
1 2/3 cups (about 250 grams) whole almonds, toasted
2 large eggs
5 tablespoons (70ml) apricot brandy
1 teaspoon almond extract
6 ounces (168 grams) dried apricots, diced

Line a large cookie sheet with lightly buttered aluminum foil and st aside. Combine the butter, flour, ginger, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a the bowl of a food processor, and ingredients in processor and process until the mixture takes on a sandy consistency. Add toasted almonds and chop coarsely, using 6 to 8 on/off turns. Add white chocolate and process until chopped. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, brandy, and almond extract. Add the flour mixture and stir until a dough forms, then stir in the apricots. Beat the eggs, brandy and almond extract to blend in a large bowl. Add the flour mixture, apricots, and stir until a dough begins to form. Cover the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees Celsius). When the dough has chilled, turn it out on to a clean floured work surface and shape it into a log about 2 inches wide. Transfer the log to the prepared baking sheet and refrigerate for another 30 minutes. 

Bake the dough until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to an oven rack and let cool completely. Reduce heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut logs from sides of pan if necessary. Transfer to work surface. Using heavy sharp knife, cut each log crosswise into 3/4 inch wide slices. Arrange half of cookies cut side down on cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. When the 10 minutes are up, gently turn cookies over and bake 10 minutes longer. Transfer cookies to racks. Repeat baking with remaining cookies. Cool cookies completely before eating. Makes about 35 cookies.

Cioccolata calda

We're nearing the end of December, which means it's time for the last round of Cucina Conversations of 2017! Our theme this month is, perhaps not surprisingly, Christmas. Here are the posts from my fellow bloggers:

Daniela of La Dani Gourmet will be sharing her recipe for torrone morbido, a classic Italian Christmas sweet;

Carmen of The Heirloom Chronicles will be making ciascuni, a Sicilian sweet made with figs and nuts;

Lisa aka Italian Kiwi will be making risotto al prosecco, or risotto made with Prosecco;

Flavia of Flavia's Flavors will be making struffoli, a Calabrian Christmas dessert;

Marialuisa of Marmellata di Cipolle will be making fichi secchi ripieni, or stuffed figs;

Last but not least, Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma will be preparing sp
รคtzle from the North of Italy, as well as panna cotta for dessert.

Let's jump a moment from December 2017 to December of 2009, all the way back when I was a student abroad in Bologna, Italy, and wrapping up my first semester of university. By the time the holiday season rolled around, I had been living in Italy, a foreign country, for nearly five months, and flourishing, if I don't say so myself -- my Italian language skills had improved considerably, and I had made Italian friends (!!!) plus friends from my language school, from all over the world. Exciting new friendships aside, I had passed all of my first semester exams at the University of Bologna, started an Italian cooking course, and Christmas, my favorite holiday, was just around the corner. Bologna -- by then crowned my Favorite Place Ever -- rose the the occasion, and was decorated beautifully for the holidays, complete with a little ice skating rink and Christmas market in the piazzaIt was an exceptionally exciting, joyful, and happy time in my life -- as my whole year in Bologna was -- made even better by a single discovery: Italian hot chocolate. 

I discovered Italian hot chocolate, or cioccolata calda on a snow-dusted December evening in a cafe on Via Indipendenza, the city's main street. I was with my sister, plus our friend Anna (who you may remember from this post and this one) and we all ordered cioccolata calda with a few cookies on the side. I placed my order without much thought -- after all, hot chocolate was hot chocolate, not much of a novelty, something that, unlike cornetti or tigelle, I had already been acquainted with in the U.S. The hot chocolate I was expecting had a present but sometimes subtle chocolate flavor, with a thinner consistency, and was served in a big mug and topped with mini marshmallows, if you were lucky. Though you could get it homemade, it was often made from a mix, which didn't detract from it -- it was comforting and tasty nonetheless.  

But this was not that. The hot chocolate that was ushered to our table, was curious, different, exotic. Upon further inspection, we discovered it was thick, so thick it was served with a spoon because it toed the line between eatable and drinkable, and was bittersweet, so much so that adding a teaspoon of sugar or two wasn't unreasonable. It was served in smaller cups that took into account its richness, topped with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream to cut the darkness of the chocolate. It was, in short, divine, yet another wonderful thing I'd discovered about Italy, and so different from what I was accustomed to -- cioccolata calda, I decided, was American hot chocolate's exotic, wiser, slightly moodier older sister, one who had lived a year abroad in Europe, studied philosophy, and spent lots of time writing, or thinking deep thoughts. I was happy to have met her, and we became good friends during my colder months in the north of Italy. Our friendship remains strong today, in Rome, where the weather is not exactly snowy but can be at its worst gray and rainy, and cioccolata calda is still welcome.

A couple of notes: Unlike American hot chocolate, where you're like to get a whole mug-ful, Italian hot chocolate is much thicker, darker, and richer, so a small cup is all that you'll really need -- I used particularly small cups for serving as a matter of preference, but feel free to use whatever you have on hand. There is a good amount of cornstarch in here to ensure the cioccolata calda gets nice and thick -- one of my taste testers likened it to "thin chocolate pudding" -- but if you'd like yours a bit thinner, feel free to decrease the cornstarch to 16 or so grams (2 tablespoons). Do sift your cornstarch and whisk the milk in well and continuously to avoid any lumps as well. This is really delicious with unsweetened whipped cream -- I didn't have any on hand when photographing this and regretted it!


2 cups (500ml) whole milk, tepid 
4 ounces (100 grams) semi-sweet chocolate
6 tablespoons (80 grams) sugar
4 tablespoons (30 grams) cocoa powder, sifted
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (20 grams) cornstarch, sifted
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Fresh whipped cream, for serving, if desired

Put the cocoa powder, vanilla, cornstarch in a medium pot and whisk together. 
 Add the milk a little at a time, whisking the whole while, until everything is smooth and no lumps remain. Place the pot on the stove over low heat, and whisk everything together constantly. 

When the milk/cocoa mixture begins to bubble and then add the semi-sweet chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Let the mixture cook for about a minute, or until it becomes dense. 
Spoon into cups, top with a dollop of freshly whipped unsweeted whipped cream, if desired. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6, depending on how large your serving mugs or cups are.