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Figs – Kisses from the Summer Sun

Fig compote over mascarpone for breakfast.

My fig tree not only bestows me with gorgeous summer fruit but presents a nature show all year long. In the fall and winter, it loses its leaves to reveal bare-naked limbs. Small green buds evolve into broad, finger-like leaves while nubs form on its skinny branches in spring. Finally, in early summer, these little fig buttons push out pear shapes whose bottoms balloon and begin turning a musty burgundy. Biting into a fig is like a beautiful kiss. Sweet, soft, juicy, velvety, downright sexy! Perhaps this is why I have such a passion for this fragile fruit that I eat with abandon during its short-lived season.

My fig tree is named Paradiso, after its southern Italian roots. When my dad and dog, Star, died seven years ago, I wanted to plant something to honor them both. The fig, a sign of peace and prosperity, seemed appropriate. My new-found interest in figs coincided with my exploration of southern Italian food, most specifically in Puglia. Green figs with fleshy pink insides were everywhere and luscious.

Voluptuous.

A search in San Diego came up empty for this kind of fig, so I found a man in Boston who grows over 25 varieties of this delicacy. He matched my description to our growing conditions and sent me an Italian Paradiso. The long, narrow box contained a 15” twig, clustered with leaves and a few small figs. My friend, Jenny, and I cleared a space near my orange tree, and with love, gave this new tree a home. The first two years were rough, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it, but the third year he decided to stay and grew at least three feet! I have been enjoying the sweet fruit ever since.

Paradiso’s first day in my yard.

My fig tree after seven years.

What do you do with figs besides just eat them off the tree? I made a fig compote with roughly chopped figs, a little sugar, some lemon juice, water, and lots of crystallized ginger. It is tasty on toast or on grilled meat. When you cook a fig, its sugar oozes out, and it becomes almost candied. I serve these alongside grilled chicken or pork. You can also pair raw or grilled figs with ice cream and drizzle a little balsamic on top. Here I made a fig crostada.

Lucious fig crostata.

Last weekend, Chris and I made the ultimate, decadent breakfast inspired by none other than our favorite chef, Jacques Pepin‘s Instagram post. French toast soaked in vanilla ice cream, then pan-fried in butter, served with grilled figs and grilled pineapple. No extra butter or syrup is needed. The bread, Praeger Brothers Country Artisan boule, when cut into thick slices, made bunny shapes! Light and creamy with just the right amount of sweetness and fun to eat. Irresistible! If you haven’t tried this, you must!

Ice cream bunnies ready to be fried in butter.

The best breakfast ever!

Enjoy these beauties while they last and please send me your favorite fig recipes.

“To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.”
Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

Ciao for now,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Bonding Over Pomegranates

Pomegranate Twins

This story is dedicated to my forever pomegranate best friend, Jenny.

The one fruit I have always been smitten with is the pomegranate. Not because of its highly sought after nutritional benefits or how it has become a “cool” fruit, but for other deeper reasons.

Flashback. We had one of the few backyards in my Riverside neighborhood with an actively producing pomegranate tree. As fall approached, we young ones anxiously awaited the season of the pomegranate. Fall signaled the dreaded shorter days, but hope was on the horizon. Everyday, I’d inspect the fruit, watching it turn deeper and darker red. When the fruit signaled its ripeness, I would call my friends to come over to share in the harvest. “It’s pomegranate time!” Back then, pomegranates were rarely used as a garnish or addition to a meal. They were purely for the pleasure of eating straight off the tree. It was an annual tradition – an event!

The pomegranate flower looks like a squash blossom Indian necklace.

Extracting the fruit was an arduous task that my friends and I found challenging, but more so, entertaining. First, we peeled off the dark, outer leathery skin, then pulled the thin, bitter white membrane away to expose the red seeds. We’d giggle at each other, the red juice squirting all over our faces, hands, and the old clothes our moms made us wear.

The fruit finally torn apart, we stuffed handfuls of the pomegranate into our tiny mouths, crunching through the inner white seeds to extract the tart juice and gorge until we couldn’t eat anymore. It was as if eating the seeds with such abandon and recklessness was our own private ceremony, a time to share secrets. We weren’t trying to figure out which balsamic vinegar to pair with them or how to bake them into a chicken recipe. It was just enjoying the moment in its simplicity, bare and naked.

These halved pomegranates look like pretty flowers!

In my teenage years, I began making pomegranate jelly. (This recipe is from Williams Sonoma and includes apples!) It was a real gourmet treat which I gifted to friends at Christmas. I’ve graduated from jelly to pomegranate martinis, paired with gin or vodka, always a favorite for a Halloween or Christmas cocktail.

Five years ago, I finally planted my very own pomegranate tree and it is definitely the happiest tree in my yard! It grew quickly, now topping 25 feet, its branches dominating a large part of my garden. I let her have her space. Her vibrant, soft, billowy leaves catch the sunlight and remind me of a time of carefree indulgence, stained hands and friendship bonding – over pomegranates.

“Fun fact #1 about pomegranates: Pomegranates are awesome.
Fun fact #2: Pomegranates are like little explosions of awesome in your mouth.
Fun fact #3: A lot of people think you’re not supposed to eat the seeds of a pomegranate – but that’s not true, people who tell you that are liars, and they don’t know anything about life, and they should never be trusted.”
Tahereh Mafi

Ciao for now,




Granita – Sicily’s Sweet Secret

Mandorle Granita with a shot of espresso

I’ve tasted some pretty incredible things on my world-wide travels but did not expect for Sicily to offer foods that almost made me speechless. Seriously! Fine pastries in France, fresh seafood in Australia and robust goulash in Budapest all stand out as epic food experiences. What great Sicilian taste made my heart beat a little faster? Granita. If you have ever tasted Sicilian Granita, you understand. If not, it’s worth the trip just to find out – and fall in love.

The warm morning after I arrived in Catania, my host and guide Roberto announced, “You must have a granita for breakfast.” Many “bars” (our version of a coffee shop), offer coffee, pastries and granita for the morning’s greeting. My first introduction to granita made me a true believer in the seduction of Sicilian food. If this was the first of many local foods that made my body quiver with lust for more, how many more Sicilian specialities were on this gorgeous island?

It’s not easy to describe granita but I’ll try. Creamy (although there is usually no dairy), fluffy, cold, melt-in-your-mouth, and flavor intense, not sugary sweet. It is not formed with a scoop, like a sorbet, but served a little slushy. It’s made with fine flakes of ice frozen together with sugar and fruit. Other flavors may include almond, pistachio, coffee, or chocolate. Most bars serve almond, a favorite, coffee, lemon, pistachio and strawberry. This is a Sicilian ritual for breakfast when the weather heats up, accompanied by a warm brioche or other delectable pastry.

At the Bar del Santuario, my favorite stop for granita, you saddle up to the counter and order your choice of granita and pastry. Then choose an outdoor table overlooking a lovely park, alive with people and a flowing fountain. A handsome, well-groomed server brings your granita in a stemmed glass dish with a tiny spoon, a plate with your pastry and a glass of water. The only distracting thing on the table – an ashtray. You pay at the cashier inside only upon finishing your breakfast. Two granite and two pastries cost about 5 Euro or $5.75. Yes, the delicious food is much cheaper than the rest of Italy. Affordable for all, locals and tourists alike.

Mandorle granita and brioche

Mandorle (almond) with a shot of espresso on top became my fast favorite. Silky almond and sharp contrast of espresso was the perfect marriage, destined to last a lifetime. “Roberto! I want to eat this everyday for the rest of my life!” My emotional side was taking over. The mandorle is made with freshly extracted almond milk, almonds being a key ingredient in many Sicilian foods and also a major player in the agriculture scene. Each day I tried a new pastry to go with it. Buonissimo! (So good!). So addicting is granita that my day just wasn’t right without this starter.

Gelsi granita

During my two weeks in Sicily, I tried many flavors of granita. Gelsi, or mulberry is a seasonal specialty, and its dark eggplant color mirrored its deep berry flavor. At Caffe Sicilia in Noto, I tried strawberry tomato granita, with a color of rhubarb. Sounds strange but somehow the tomato just barely tames the flavor of the strawberry, pushing forth really ripe tomato for balance that is indescribable. When I asked the person next to me in line which item was his favorite, he quickly replied. “Strawberry tomato granita!” So I was not alone.

Strawberry tomato granita

I was surprised to learn that Sicilians rarely use ice. No ice in water. And to cool iced tea – what else? A scoop of lemon granita. Exquisite!

Tea with lemon granita

My last day in Sicily, I tried half strawberry (with fresh local berries) and half pistachio. Equally yummy. All fruit flavors are made strictly with fresh fruit of the season. I know you can make it here but it will never match the homemade quality and intensity of flavor only found in Sicily.

Strawberry pistachio granita

Yes, I would return to Sicily for the mere pleasure of savoring granita from coast to coast. Sicily – this one’s yours to keep!

For a fun background and history of granita, please visit Citi Map Sicilia on Granita

Ciao for now,




Holiday Pears

Pears have this seductive quality about them. They flaunt their curvy hips and hold their stem high, like wearing a tiny crown. Their taste and texture, soft, sweet and flowery, almost melts in your mouth. Rustic, yet delicate describe the Bosc variety, my favorite for poaching and making tarts. They hold their shape and don’t disintigrate into mush. A brown, weathered-looking skin, like years of overdoing a suntan, distinguishes them from the rest of their pear family.
During the winter, I make wine poached pears and serve them after a hearty meal to bring a lightness to dessert. Deep burgundy sings of the holidays and is a show-stopper with little effort and can be made ahead. Dust them with powered sugar to give them a festive feel.

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The leftover wine can be used to make Glugg, a Swedish hot wine drink, perfect for sipping beside the fire.
“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Ciao for now!

Holiday Pears
 
Wine Poached Pears
Author:

Ingredients
  • 4 Bosc pears
  • 1 bottle dry red wine, like a Zinfandel or Burgundy
  • ½ cup port – the port give a deeper color and richer flavor
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 peppercorns
  • Orange rind from ½ an orange
  • For the filling:
  • ½ cup mascarpone
  • 10 amaretti cookies, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract

Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer 45 minutes to one hour. This helps create the spicy infusion of flavors.
  2. Core the pears by using a knife to cut out the bottom of the pear, then scoop out the seeds with a melon baller. I carve a larger than usual cave to make room for the mascarpone and amaretti mixture, a surprise treat inside.
  3. Peel the pears starting from the stem, and down toward the bottom. This keeps the shape of the pears. Slip each pear into the simmering wine and poach for approximately 45 minutes to one hour. I use a deep wooden spoon or ladle to baste the pears every 15 minutes or so. A metal spoon might cut the delicate fruit. Gently flip them several times so their burgundy color is even.
  4. Cool in the pot, preferably overnight.

    Filling

  5. Mix together the mascarpone and amaretti cookies. Stir in the almond extract. I like to have a few bites of cookie when I eat it with the pear, so don’t pulverize the amaretti. Gently stuff the bottom of the pears with the filling and set upright on a platter. Pour a little of the poaching liquid onto the bottom of the platter. Dust with powered sugar and wait for the applause.

 




A Passion for Persimmons

She lured me in with her perfect “t” shaped limbs, reaching out like angel wings. “Take me home.” she whispered. Not planning to add another fruit tree to my already demanding garden, this one was like an abandoned puppy. You know, the one that finds you. I’d always loved Fuyu persimmons, their sweet versatility making them perfect for eating like an apple, or slicing into a salad for a burst of orange color.

I could not resist. Dreaming of harvesting my own persimmons made me drool with anticipation, so I loaded her into my car. That April, while planting her next to my avocado tree, she told me her name was Francesca. We bonded.

Fall arrived and she dropped her leaves, baring her naked body for what would seem like an eternity. I tended to her every need: water, fertilizer, regular conversations. “Francesca, amore. I believe in you,” I coaxed. But still, she stood frozen in time, seemingly in a time warp. My angel was fading into a ghost.

A year after I planted Francesca, I returned to the nursery where I bought her to show them photos with a final plea for help. Their advice: scrape the bark and if it is green, she is still alive. With hope, my fingernail drew a line in the bark, revealing a bright green interior. Realizing this was a test of my patience, I relaxed and observed. Within two weeks small lime green buds appeared, followed by flowers, then tiny miniature fruit. I was in love again. Our relationship had come full circle.

In October, my reward was a dozen, perfectly shaped, pumpkin orange persimmons. Inspired by Francesca’s endurance, I’ve designed a few recipes to celebrate her beauty and honor her as a treasured member of my garden family.

Right out of the oven with a brush of glaze. I love how the maple leaves look like a wreath!

Persimmon Breakfast Bake
 
This light and colorful pastry is perfect for either a pre or post Thanksgiving breakfast gathering. Your guests will want another piece!
Author:

Ingredients
  • I sheet frozen puff pastry dough – I use Trader Joe’s frozen Puff Pastry
  • Egg wash – one egg lightly beaten with a pinch of salt.
  • 4 ounces cream cheese or honey goat cheese
  • ¼ cup mascarpone cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons honey
  • ½ Teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 medium ripe fuyu persimmons
  • Apricot jam to glaze

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Thaw the sheet of puff pastry for an hour in the refrigerator.
  3. Cut out a 10” circle. I invert a bowl with a 10” diameter onto the dough to use as a template.
  4. Chill the round while you cut out the decorations for the edging. I used mini maple leaf cutters but you can use any design or even leave it rimless if you like.
  5. Freeze the dough and decorations for 10 minutes.
  6. Mix the cream cheese or goat cheese with the mascarpone cheese, honey and vanilla until smooth.
  7. Remove the pastry from the freezer and evenly spread the filling on top of the dough leaving an inch border.
  8. Brush the edges with egg wash to help the borders stick. Layer the persimmon slices on top, starting at the outer edge and working your way inward to form a spiral. Place the maple leaves on the egg washed rim all the way around. You will have a border with a fancy edge!
  9. Freeze again for 10 minutes.
  10. Bake for 35 minutes or until the bottom and edges of the tart are deep brown and crispy. About half way through I put foil around the edges to prevent them from getting too dark. Make sure the tart is well-baked. I learned that the French method is to bake their pastries on the darker side. Remove from the oven and brush with strained apricot jam while still warm. Slice and eat immediately.

 

Harvest Salad
 
One bunch lettuce – I prefer butter lettuce for its delicate consistency. An addition of curly endive would be lovely too.
Author:

Ingredients
  • 1-2 persimmons, cut into thin wedges
  • 1 fennel bulb, cleaned and cut into thin slices
  • ¼ cup toasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts. Don’t hazelnuts just speak “holiday?”
  • Sprinkling of fennel pollen if you have it. If not, here is a good source: The Spice House
  • Dressing
  • 2 Tablespoons dark, thick balsamic vinegar. I love fig balsamic.
  • ¼ cup good quality olive oil.
  • salt, pepper

Instructions
  1. Toss salad ingredients together. Add the nuts at the last minute so they don’t get soggy. Mix the vinegar and olive oil together and salt and pepper to taste. I don’t like to overpower the flavor of the salad ingredients with too many dressing ingredients so keep it simple.
  2. Drizzle on the dressing and enjoy the fall flavors!

 

The fruit of your own hard work is the sweetest. Deepika Padukone

Ciao for now,

Mary




Rhubarb Marries Meringue


Lately I’ve been feeling disenchanted with the world. About the only thing I find enchanting is my lovely, colorful garden. This is just a phase I’m going through. We all have them.

To console myself, instead of watching evening tv, I crawled into bed with food. Figuratively, not literally!  I perused my cookbook shelves and started pulling notebooks and recipe books that spoke to me. I have a few treasured and tattered notebooks that contain my private collection of dessert recipes from my days as a pastry chef . I’ve relied on the basics from these books but really haven’t delved into the more serious desserts that lined my pastry cases. Suddenly, my enchantment with life was restored. Flashbacks of colorful fruit desserts filled my head and my creativity shifted into fifth gear.

A recipe for almond meringue caught my eye. “How could I make this special and new?” I asked myself. Rhubarb! And it was all over. I quickly jotted down my ideas and slept well, excited to start cooking and already tasting the combination I dreamed up.

Rhubarb is one of those indescribable flavors that if you love it, you really love it and count the days until it is in season. Rhubarb pie – who doesn’t love it?  Every year I wait for spring rhubarb and try all sorts of new recipes using this vegetable. Yes, it is technically a vegetable. Rhubarb is just beginning to make its appearance in southern California. My friend Di lives in Iowa and told me last week how she and her sister planned to pick the rhubarb in their backyard that grows like crazy and make strawberry rhubarb jam. I was envious. I became so whinny about her stash of rhubarb, she even offered to ship me some!

My vision for a cake with rhubarb turned out perfectly, in beauty and in bite. I assembled it yesterday afternoon, took photos and then my mom and I dug in, anxious to taste it, as our dinner cooked. “Dessert first?” We asked each other. We both nodded and could not put our forks down. And yes, we did have another piece each after dinner!

As beautiful as it is, because it is a meringue, has a short shelf life and when cut, does not hold its shape for long. Use a serrated knife for best results. There are just two steps to the recipe and each can be made a day ahead. The rhubarb compote will last for 7-10 days in the frig and once the meringues are baked, you can leave them in the oven (oven turned off) overnight so they won’t collect moisture and will stay dry.

This recipe is one of the very best, I think, I have ever created. I hope you make it and enjoy it as much!

Almond Meringue Cake with Rhubarb Compote
 
Ingredients
  • ¾ cup sugar, 150 grams, split in half.
  • 1½ cups ground almonds or almond meal, 100 grams
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 4 egg whites at room temperature
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
Rhubarb Compote
  • 1 Cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 6 cups rhubarb cut into 1” pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
The Rest
  • 1½ cups heavy cream
  • 2 boxes fresh raspberries

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
  2. Line two sheet trays with parchment paper. Place an 8” cake pan bottom on the paper and draw a circle for your template. Repeat two more times. You will need three circles for the three layers of meringue. Turn the paper over so you can see the outline but the meringue will not absorb the ink or pencil!
  3. Measure half the sugar, the almond meal and cornstarch together. Set aside.
  4. Beat egg whites until foamy and starting to hold together. Slowly add the remaining half the sugar – 75 grams. Beat until glossy about 5 minutes total time.
  5. Fold in remaining sugar/almond mixture.
  6. Fold in almond extract.
  7. Place the meringue into a 14-16” pastry bag, fitted with a plain tip and starting on the outside line, pipe the meringue, working your way inward until the circle is all meringue. Repeat with the other two circles.
  8. I had a little bit of meringue left over so made these little buttons to use as added decorations.
  9. Bake 225 degrees for about one hour or until very dry. Turn the oven off and let your meringues sit there until you are ready to use them.
Rhubarb Compote
  1. Makes 3 cups
  2. Combine sugar and water in saucepan. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add rhubarb and lemon juice.
  3. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes. The rhubarb will break down. This is the reason I cut it into such large pieces.
  4. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use.
To assemble
  1. Whip cream until soft peaks form. Place whipped cream in a pastry bag, ready to pipe.
  2. Place one meringue round on a cake plate or cardboard cake round. Spread about 1 cup of the rhubarb compote evenly on top of the meringue.
  3. Pipe a whipped cream border around the edge of the cake, then fill in the middle. You can go lightly on the cream in the middle. The whipped cream adds a creaminess but you don’t want the cake to be mostly cream!
  4. Sprinkle on about ¾ of the box of raspberries. I made sure some of the raspberries stuck out of the sides for the glamour effect.
  5. Repeat with another meringue, rhubarb compote, cream and raspberries.
  6. Place the last layer on top and spread with remaining rhubarb. Sprinkle the remaining raspberries on top and voila!
  7. This would be delicious served with chilled Prosecco.

 

“People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Julia Child

Ciao for now!

Mary

 




Late Summer Watermelon Salad

Mouthwatering collage of color. Perfect for Labor Day

Labor Day’s Swan Song of summer demands a final salute to the ambrosial fruits the season delivered. This recipe is so simple it’s embarrassing but I make it over and over and continue to receive rave reviews. Peach Balsamic Vinegar is its secret ingredient, drawing the flavors out of the watermelon and complimenting the mint. It also brings a sweet and sourness that makes this salad unique. The addition of figs is optional but the two fruits are the perfect union. Each bite is a mouthful of cool, crisp tang that will create a smile!

Late Summer Watermelon Salad
 
Ingredients
  • 1 medium watermelon, cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup barely chopped fresh mint
  • 2-3 Tablespoons Peach Balsamic Vinegar or White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 3-4 figs, sliced lengthwise into quarters

Instructions
  1. Place watermelon in a large bowl. Gently stir in mint, then vinegar. Fold in the figs.
  2. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  3. Be prepared for no leftovers!

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” 

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Ciao and Happy Labor Day Holiday!

Mary




Lemoniscious

Lemon Meringue Cake. Delightful!

Lemon Meringue Cake. Delightful!

My aunt Barb is a baker. Not just a home baker; she owned a bakery and can recite a recipe for a cake without blinking an eye. That is why, when she came for a visit, my task was to make for her a birthday cake that was so extraordinary she would be speechless. I think that’s what I did!

In perusing cake recipes, I came upon something that was more like a fruit-filled cake and pie combination. I had never seen anything like it and knew instantly that this was THE perfect cake. The combination of thin layers of lemon cake, lemon cream filling, whipped cream and meringue were making my mouth water.

My beautiful aunt Barb enjoying her birthday cake.

My beautiful aunt Barb enjoying her birthday cake.

Nigella Lawson created this recipe. She gets all the credit.

Recipe here: Lemon Meringue Cake.

Even though there are several steps, I promise it is not complicated. Do not worry about how the layers look after they are baked. After you assemble them, the cake comes together neatly and cuts like a dream. The cake lasts for about four days in the refrigerator. The only change I made was to use a bit more lemon cream for a thicker layer of tartness. This recipe sings of sweet, tart, crunchy (meringue) and soft. It has been added to my repertoire of celebratory cakes and is a keeper.

Gorgeous presentation and needs no embellishment.

Gorgeous presentation and needs no embellishment.

Ciao for now!

Mary




Summer’s Arrival

Mar.sunset Mission BeachCAEvery summer has a story. ♥

What is it that is so romantic about summer? Is it the long hours of sunlight, its warm breezes persuading us to linger a little longer to drink in the day? Is it the fond memory and sentimentality stirred up of childhood vacations and days out of school spelled “PLAY” all day? Or is it simply a dreamy time of gazing at the setting sun and slowing life down for a while. I decided to share this Midsummer romance by having a summer solstice party.

Nicole and Laurette pick ripe boysenberries to add color and flavor to their favorite cocktail.

Nicole and Laurette pick ripe boysenberries to add color and flavor to their favorite cocktail.

Berries ended up in wine, champagne Trains and just for fun- to eat!

Berries ended up in wine, champagne Trains and just for fun- to eat!

Laurette approves of my newly planted grapes which are producing in spades! I didn't realize it but they must be champagne grapes. Even better.

Laurette approves of my newly planted grapes which are producing in spades! I didn’t realize it but they must be champagne grapes. Even better.

The Summer Solstice is always a special day for me. It signifies the longest hours of daylight and the launch of the warm days of summer. I chose to celebrate this day with a gathering of friends for a potluck of favorite summer dishes.

A feast for the gods.

A feast for the gods.

Watermelon alla Maria. Recipe to follow.

Watermelon alla Maria. Recipe to follow.

The response was overwhelming! Creative and complementary dishes were packed like sardines on my dining table, each vying for attention. I couldn’t have planned a better menu!

This front dish was a tangerine-basil pasta and chicken. Bellissimo!

This front dish was a tangerine-basil pasta and chicken. Bellissimo!

Homemade ice cream and gelato topped off the evening. The hit was a fresh black cherry cheesecake. Second place-Vietnamese coffee ice cream with cardamom - silky and taste-tingling!

Homemade ice cream and gelato topped off the evening. The hit was a fresh black cherry cheesecake flavor. Second place-Vietnamese coffee ice cream with cardamom – silky and taste-tingling!

There were divine recipes I had never tasted, all made with love. I realized what incredible friends I have. I am grateful for this diverse and inspiring group of people who give my life meaning and depth. When in doubt, throw a party. It will set your summer in motion and bring laughter, love and balance back into your life.

My dear girlfriends bonding over good food and wine.

My dear girlfriends bonding over good food and wine.

 Jenn, the mixologist, makes killer "Trains," a mix of champagne, Saint Germain and sparkling water. Her cocktails were the hit of the evening!

Jenn, the mixologist, makes killer “Trains,” a mix of champagne, Saint Germain and sparkling water. Her cocktails were the hit of the evening!

It was smiles and laughter all night. My best friends Jenny and Alan truly helped me bring in the summer vibe.

It was smiles and laughter all night. My best friends Jenny and Alan truly helped me bring in the summer vibe.

One of the recipes I made and loved was so simple yet delicious. Here it is:

Minted Watermelon Salad
 
Ingredients
  • 1 ripe preferably seedless watermelon, cubed into 1 inch pieces
  • ¼ Cup Peach White Balsamic Vinegar
  • ¼ Cup packed mint leaves, sliced into thin strips

Instructions
  1. Toss vinegar and mint with watermelon. Let flavors meld for about an hour. Chill and serve. This is so delicious and refreshing. You will love it.

So here’s to all those summer nights when my feet hit the sand and the waves break my fall and all my friends around me out number the stars. – Unknown

Ciao and summer love,

Mary

 




Once Upon an Easter

photo 1This time of year, my thoughts return to my childhood and fond memories of Easter. Sentimentalist that I am, I still have my first Easter basket left by the Easter Bunny. Well-made, it has stood the test of time, the pink weaving now faded. I retrieve it from the upper cupboards of my closet every year and fill it with chocolate eggs and marshmallow peeps.

My vintage basket comes alive each spring.

My vintage basket comes alive each spring.

This basket brings back fond memories of a simpler time of innocence. A time when my mother wore white gloves and a hat that matched her Easter finery and my father donned a lighter grey suit always accompanied by a red bow tie. They were a smart couple.

My grandmother’s sewing machine seemed to run non-stop and her first granddaughter, me, was the lucky recipient of artfully designed outfits to mark any occasion. The Easter dresses she made were always the prettiest and frilliest, sometimes even worn with a fancy hat and gloves like mom’s.

Although I don’t hide or hunt for Easter eggs anymore, I do like to make something special to celebrate the holiday and satisfy my sweet tooth. Lemon and chocolate always make my heart pitter patter. Here are two favorite recipes that sing spring.

Lemon crème is so versatile. In this simple recipe, I stir in crème fraîche to lighten the crème and give it an almost cheesecake taste, then swirl in more on top to jazz it up. Because I love the tartness of lemon and can never get enough, I topped the tart with my homemade Meyer lemon marmalade. The flavors complemented each other beautifully.

Lemon Crème Tart
 
Ingredients
  • 2 eggs
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 Tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
  • ½ to 1 cup of crème fraîche

Instructions
  1. Mix the eggs, sugar and lemon juice together. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes or until your whisk holds most of the crème, revealing the bottom of the pan.
  2. Spoon into a clean bowl and stir in the butter and zest. I use a lot of zest because I like a very tart crème. Adjust for your taste. Chill a few hours.
  3. When cold, stir in the crème fraîche and pour into a pre-baked tart shell. Today I made a pine nut crust. Refrigerate and let rest until set.
  4. To serve, spoon some lemon marmalade over the top. Light and delicious!

 

lemAn elegant and tasty dessert fit for any occasion. Substitute raspberries or strawberries for the marmalade if you prefer a sweeter taste.

My Italian friend Nico first introduced me to Pelligrino Artusi. I was intrigued with the gastronome who lived in the 1800’s and revered for his authentic Italian recipes. In his book, The Art of Eating Well, the recipes are rough on the edges, but the recipe for amaretti caught my eye. They are super simple to make and are crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I think they would pair well with coffee or tea and could be used as a dipping biscuit, like a biscotti. I adjusted the recipe and shaped them into little droplets with an indentation to hold chocolate or ganache. I tried filling them with colored white chocolate for Easter but was not as excited about the final result as I was the chocolate.

Artusi’s Amaretti
 
Ingredients
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 Cups powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract or lemon/orange zest optional

Instructions
  1. Mix the almond meal and confectioner’s sugar together. Stir in the egg whites and almond extract. I did this with my fingers. Add flavoring if desired. The almond extract delivers the extra Humph.
  2. Sprinkle a bit of almond meal onto your work surface. Take a large piece of dough and roll it into a log about an inch in diameter. Cut into 1 inch pieces. Stand the piece upright and using your thumb, make an indentation into the center. This will be the well that holds the chocolate.
  3. Place them on a greased and almond meal floured baking sheet or use parchment paper and bake them for 11 minutes at 325 degrees.
  4. Let cool. Have fun decorating or enjoy them as is.

 

 

The amaretti dough is easy to roll out and shape. Be creative!

The amaretti dough is easy to roll out and shape. Be creative!

 

Chocolate filled amaretti. A perfect little bite when your sweet tooth aches.

Chocolate filled amaretti. A perfect little bite when your sweet tooth aches.

May spring bring sweet memories your way!

Ciao for now, with love,

Mary

 

 




Pucker Up! Lucious Lemons Rock

My baby planted last May.

My baby Meyer Lemon planted last May. Star is her guardian!

When I think of lemons, this folk tune often sings in my head, “Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.”* The author, of this song, Jose Carlos Burle, must never have tasted a Meyer lemon or he wouldn’t have written this song!

My Mom's Eureka tree - the Mother Lode!

My Mom’s Eureka tree – the Mother Lode!

Lemons are so happy. Their cheery yellow color radiate love, a freshness and an eagerness to be utilized to the fullest. This means the zest AND the fruit. I cannot bear to juice a lemon without first removing its fragrant and flowery rind or zest. For me, this is the flavor, and, hence from which all delicious tartness is born. The Meyer lemon, less acid, more mandarin-scented and thinner-skinned, than its brighter yellow-colored cousins, makes it the perfect flavor for desserts. Its mellow tang shines in vinaigrettes and desserts.

More orange-yellow colored Meyer is in the back and Eureka is in the forefront.

More orange-yellow colored Meyer is in the back and Eureka is in the forefront.

Lemons are as dear to me as chocolate. Their flavor absolutely makes a bold and intense statement. So pucker up!

Here are a few of my favorite ways to celebrate lemon season.

Lemon Vinaigrette

I love the simplicity of this vinaigrette. The lemon gracefully enhances the lettuce leaves. Feel free to embellish it with capers, fresh herbs or olives. I tossed it with warm vegetable ravioli (butternut squash would be good) and was delighted with the taste. Also I can envision this dressing a niçoise salad, or any tuna salad. Feel free to adjust seasonings, amount of lemon juice or oil.

Lemon Vinaigrette
 
Prep time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: salad dressing

Ingredients
  • ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • Juice of ½ Meyer lemon or about ¼ cup
  • Zest of ½ – 1 lemon
  • Pinch Fleur del Sel (salt)
  • ¼ cup safflower oil

Instructions
  1. Whisk the lemon juice and zest into the Dijon mustard. Slowly add the oil, whisking constantly until the vinaigrette fuses together. Add salt to taste. Adjust the amount of oil if it is too tangy for your taste.

 

Lemon Herb Butter

Lemon Herb Butter
 
Prep time

Total time

 

Author:

Ingredients
  • Lemon Herb Butter
  • 4 Tbls. Unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbls. Fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. Meyer lemon zest
  • ⅛ tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbls. finely chopped parsley, basil, dill, mint, etc.
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped shallot or garlic

Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients. It is easiest accomplished with a food processor.
  2. Spoon butter onto a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Shape the butter into a log and roll it up in the wrap. Freeze until firm. To use, slice off discs and use as added flavor on top of chicken or fish, vegetables, pasta or rice.

 

Lemon Tarts with Candied Lemon Peel

I experimented with a few ways to “candy” lemon peel. I must say, it is not as easy as it sounds! My favorite way to create the peel I used for the tarts was to use very thin yellow-only julienne skins, simmered in a sugar syrup, then dipped in sugar. If you would like the recipe, I recommend the one from Epicurious at the bottom of this blog.

Sweet Pastry Crust

1 1/4 cups flour

½ tsp. salt

2 Tlbs. Powered sugar

10 Tbls. Unsalted butter (1 ¼ sticks)- I prefer Kerry Gold Irish butter

3-4 Tbls. cold water

1 egg yolk

In a food processor combine the flour, salt, and powdered sugar. Pulse until blended.

Add the butter. Pulse again just until butter and flour form small peas.

Mix cold water and egg yolk. Add to mixture. If you live in a dry climate or if the weather is very warm, you will probably need the extra 4th tablespoon of water.

Pulse just until combined.

Form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour to rest the dough.

Roll dough to 1/4” thickness. Depending upon the size of tart mold you are using cut out rounds of dough and place in molds. Refrigerate or freeze.

I prefer these sweet little tart molds. They have such character!

I prefer these sweet little tart molds. They have such character!

Lemon Filling: (caution! This is an adapted recipe from a French version so don’t be intimidated by the gram measures)

Lemon Filling
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: lemon

Ingredients
  • 210 grams or 1 ¾ cups of powdered sugar
  • 2 lemons juice and zest
  • 5 eggs
  • ⅜ cup clarified butter

Instructions
  1. Mix together powdered sugar and lemon juice. Whisk in eggs. Stir in cooled clarified butter.
  2. Cook over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until lemon coats the back of a spoon.
  3. Pour into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate.

210 grams or 1 ¾ cups of powdered sugar

2 lemons juice and zest

5 eggs

3/8 cup clarified butter

Mix together powdered sugar and lemon juice. Whisk in eggs. Stir in cooled clarified butter.

Cook over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until lemon coats the back of a spoon.

Pour into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate.

Zesty lemon just waiting to be savored.

Zesty lemon just waiting to be savored.

To make the tarts:

Carefully fill the cold tart shells about ¾ full with the lemon filling.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the shells brown and the filling is bubbly.

Le tart citron

Le tart citron. Almost too pretty to eat!

Let cool. Filling will “settle” meaning it ends up sinking a bit in the shell. Don’t worry. It will still taste fabulous. Either top with a candied lemon slice or pipe a bit of lemon mousse on top. For the mousse, I just add a little of the lemon crème to whipped cream and fold gently. Pipe mousse on top of the tart and garnish with slivered candied lemon peel, candied violets or mint leaves.
I love these tarts  for a refreshing springtime dessert or any season for that matter.
They are a delightful treat for baby or bridal showers or for an afternoon tea party.

100 things to do with a Meyer Lemon from the LA Times: Hhttp://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-meyerlemons16jan16,0,5003872.storyere are a few more sites for ideas with Meyer (or any variety of) lemons:

My favorite recipe for candied lemons: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Candied-Lemon-Peels-232352

 A good story on Meyer Lemons from NPR:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100778147

How to make clarified butter from Joy the Baker: http://www.joyofbaking.com/ClarifiedButter.html

Avec l’amour de ma maison à la vôtre avec l’amour, le bonheur et la bonne santé  (With love from my house to yours with love, happiness and good health)

Merci mille fois! (Thanks a  million!)

Mary

*The song compares love to a lemon tree. “Lemon Tree” is a folk song written by Will Holt in the 1960s. The tune is based on the Brazilian folk song Meu limão, meu limoeiro, arranged by José Carlos Burle in 1937 and made popular by Brazilian singer Wilson Simonal.




Plum Crazy

Late summer is my favorite time of year. The skies are clean, the breezes warm and the markets are bursting with late harvest veggies and fruits. So many home and garden projects have taken me away from my writing time. In exhaustion, I  find myself sneaking in an occasional afternoon nap, imitating my dogs who get tired watching me work.

My snoozing Star.

This Labor Day weekend my family from Denver arrived to get in the last licks of summer and enjoy the ocean waves. My sister-in-law, Mirna, brought with her several pounds of Italian plums, just plucked from her Colorado tree. We would make Spiced Plum Jam she announced.  I learned that Italian Plums are a European type (European domestica), and are harvested in late summer and early fall. Longer and thinner, more like a Roma tomato, they slice beautifully and the pits are much easier to remove than their Santa Rosa sisters. They remind me of elderly petite Italian women elegantly enrobed in deep purple capes.

Ladies of Italy

This was my first experience cooking with these sophisticated beauties. Mirna, who is a fabulous and creative cook and often does not use recipes, demonstrated how to slice the plums, and then cut them in thirds to make eight cups.

My beautiful sister-in-law, the chef and creative goddess.

Mis en place. Plums, lemons, cinnamon sticks, cloves.

Awaiting spice in their lives!

Using a wide grater, we removed the rind of three lemons.

The thick zest will give a deeper lemon accent.

Into the copper pot went a handful of cloves, about three tablespoons, 6-7 cinnamon sticks, 11/2 cups of sugar and a scant two cups of water. This jam will have character and flavor!

Sugar Plums

Dissolving the sugar and ready to cook.

The spicy plums come to a boil and reduced to a simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. The kitchen is quickly infused with spicy aromas reminiscent of baking gingerbread men at holiday time. We chuckle because it is blazing hot outside.

Bubble bubble. Aromas fill the kitchen with spice.

The French Pandora tunes bring us back to summer and now time to pour the spicy goodness into clean jars for sealing.

Funneling the preserves into hot jars.

15 minutes in a water bath and the lids give a sharp “pop,” creating the seal and indicating the plum jam can wait, patiently and infinitely, for someone to open the jar and delight in its sweetness. Spicy Plum Jam is the perfect holiday gift too. It pairs well with pork or chicken and is yummy spread on brioche toast. For those wishing to jazz this recipe up even more, Mirna suggests adding peppercorns or even crystalized ginger.

Ready for gifting or as I did, smothering it on buttermilk pancakes.

Cooking with Mirna is always fun and I love her spontaneity and joy of life. I envision many more culinary experiments with her in the future!




Blueberry Hill

This tart is oh, so French!

As a pastry chef, fruit desserts were my specialty as well as my favorite pastries to create. If fruit was in season, it showed up in abundance in my pastry case from Strawberry Napoleons to a Blueberry Bourbon Cream Cake, a tall tower of thin cakes spread and layered with a light bourbon cream and fresh blueberries. It was delicious and decadent! If this blueberry cake recipe interests you, let me know and I will post it.

In researching blueberries in France, I came upon the region of Auvergne, just north of where I stayed in Languedoc, where blueberries reign and a famous Tarte au Myrtilles originated. I made the European version but was a bit disappointed with the results so chose to modify a Cooking Channel recipe with crème fraîche to give it a French flair.

Jacques Pepin’s recipe for Pate Sucre or a sugar cookie crust is by far my favorite.

Mis on place. Ready to get started.

The pillow top filling of cream cheese, crème fraîche and sugar.

Gently cook the berries to retain their gorgeous shape.

Mom pours the luscious berries over the creamy filling.

Decked out and ready to eat. I like the rustic look of it.

Each version of a fruit tart, like the Clafoutis, is a variation on a theme, each one with a different twist.

This weekend mom and I made multiple blueberry desserts and chose the best to share with you. My mom made divine blueberry sour cream ice cream.

Blueberries and Cream Ice Cream. You will not be satisfied with just one scoop!

A duet of flavors. The picture shows how beautifully the ice cream pairs with the tart.

Speaking of my mom, let me introduce her. She is a gourmet cook from the get-go, I’m sure inheriting the genes of her mother who also had a gift in the kitchen.

Mom – my collaborator, mentor and best friend!

We’ve spent many days and nights cooking together canning mango chutney, pitting cherries or creating jams with the apricots from her tree. She is my inspiration. As we were steeped in blueberries and trying recipes, she began to tell me her blueberry story. I’d love to share it with you.

Blueberries…….How I wish I lived in the places where blueberries grow wild. My mom tells me stories of how she picked blueberries right in front of the cottage where her family vacationed in Michigan. If she and her sister filled a large pail of berries, Swedish pancakes were the reward. Her grandfather’s cousin, Uncle Axel, resided in another house on the property and was a master cook at those delectable pancakes smothered in blueberry “syrup”. Of course they ate as many as they picked but what was in the pail, appeared on cereal in the morning, in pie after dinner, and just “as is” in a bowl to eat as you passed by. My mom says that there has never been a blueberry that tasted as sweet and delicious as the wild ones that grew around Higgins Lake in Michigan.

Anticipating the first bite of these juicy little gems.

Since I don’t live in “blueberry country”, I must do with the large containers of berries from Oregon and other growing places. What to do with them? Take a page out of mom’s childhood. Make syrup, make pies, make crumbles, and kuchens. Add them to a bowl of mixed fruit for a salad, and if you are so inclined, crank up the ice cream maker and add the blueberries to a custard for a cool and refreshing dessert.

Happy Birthday Mom!!

To make these desserts, you can visit these websites for the recipes:

Blueberry Tart   In improvising, I made Jacques Pepin’s Pate Sucre recipe and added more crème fraîche than sour cream.

http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/laura-calder/fresh-blueberry-tart-recipe/index.html

Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

http://jcocina.com/blueberry-sour-cream-ice-cream-4th-of-july-holidayrecipeclub/




Ruby Beauties

Cherry Clafoutis in its glory.

Hi my faithful readers,

Do you sometimes get that overwhelmed feeling? That’s where I am today. I so want to share with you everything that is swirling around in my head. But where do I find the time? Since returning from France with a million ideas to post, I find that my garden, my home, my real workplace, my dogs, and everything else is catching up with me..so be patient and as soon as I get caught up, my posts will come as regularly as you have come to expect. For now, enjoy the season of cherries.

I know summer has arrived when the cherries have finally made their appearance at my local markets. Worldwide shipping has made it possible to have peaches, nectarines and plums in out-of-peak season but there is only one cherry season – thank goodness.

Wild sweet cherries along the trail.

The French love their cherries. Most homes I visited in the Dordogne have backyards abundant with fruit trees and they all have a couple of cherry trees. The hiking trails of southern France are dotted with wild cherry trees and hikers often stop for a quick nibble. Last year while hiking in the Perigord region, I was fortunate to experience this treat, along with the fraises des bois or wild strawberries that grew along the roadside.

Our hiking group enjoying a snack courtesy of Mother Nature. Note the cherry trees on the right.

My friend Jacques invited me to have drinks with friends of his in Villeneuve. When we arrived, our hostess was in the kitchen, her table overflowing with the harvest of her cherry trees. She explained that it was taking her all day just to pit the cherries so she could preserve her bounty. Of course, she will make the French traditional dessert, clafoutis as well.

Fresh, ruby cherries await their future.

Clafoutis is a country French dessert originating from the Limousin region. This rustic cherry-studded pancake, pronounced kla-foo-TEE, is a favorite among many French households. In fact, everywhere I was invited, it was cherry clafoutis – for an afternoon snack or for dessert. One thing that surprised me was that the home cooks do not pit their cherries. You just plow through the spongy cake, carefully chewing the cherry before removing the pit from your mouth somewhat gracefully. Upon researching the cherry and this recipe, I discovered that there is a very good reason for leaving the pits intact in the cherry. Traditionally the cherries were left unpitted so the kernels could release their delicate almond flavor as they baked.

Beautifully puffed straight out of the oven.

The recipe I’ve included here is from Joanne Weir in a Fine Cooking Magazine. Here is a link for the recipe. http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/cherry-almond-clafoutis.aspx

I chose this recipe above all others because the sliced almonds gave it a sexier appearance and I liked the fact that the cherries are soaked in Kirsch, a cherry liquor, to give the clafoutis a bit more flavor.

Cherry-dotted crust – so lovely!

My recipe turned out perfectly and I loved how the cherries embraced the edges of the pie dish, forming a pretty crust. You might want to make this to celebrate Bastille Day, this Saturday, July the 14th.

Warm clafoutis with a dust of powdered sugar makes an elegant, yet simple summer dessert. Serve with ice cream or crème fraîche for added decadence.

Preserving and canning are also my summer passions but this year I wanted to do something other than making jam. After perusing various cherry recipes, I landed upon Brandied Cherries. Yum! These too are easy to make, will be lovely holiday gifts and delicious spooned over some vanilla ice cream.  The recipe, which I successfully halved, is from Epicurious http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Brandied-Black-Cherries-102090

Poached cherries ready for their brandy syrup bath.

Spoon the cherries into pretty jars, let them macerate in a cool dark place for a few months (if you can wait) and you will be rewarded with the fresh taste of cherries with a hint of brandy. Sophisticated.

Glistening cherries will sleep for several months to intensify the brandy flavor. Spoon over ice cream and use the liquid as a base for a spritzer or champagne cocktail.

Fruit desserts are my favorite so look for more creations in upcoming posts. I just bought a pound of blueberries so I will be experimenting this week with new ideas. Until next week, a bientot!