More Bits and Bites from Florence and Siena

Red wine at Acqua al 2 on our first night in Firenze.

Bread and olive oil on the table at Trattoria ZaZa in Florence, highly recommended.

Bruscetta and crostini with white beans and lardo in a small cafe in Siena.

A little dolci of paneforte -- a classic Italian fruit cake, spiced similar to mulled wine -- also at the little cafe in Siena.

An evening of gelato.

Typical Tuscan breakfast: small cappuccino and a pastry.

Turns out, I don't like Campari -- a bitter alcohol that looks like it will taste like Grenadine but really is closer to citrus pith -- and soda.

Affogato, on the other hand, is something I will always gladly dive into: espresso and a thimbleful of gelato.

No More Scharf

News: Scharffenberger chocolate maker to close its Berkeley plant. Joseph Schmidt in San Francisco affected, too.

Sad day.

Bites and Bits in Florence, Italy

I've just returned from a four-day holiday in Florence (Firenze), where my friend and I needed to simply get away from the bitter cold of New York in January, take a break from work and school, and eat well. Here are some pictures of the little bits and bites we noshed along the way. (Photos of more substantial meals to come!)

A typical breakfast: cafe doppio and an apricot pastry with little sugar crystals on top. The powdered sugar coated pastry, my friend's, was filled with a soft sweet cream. European portions are small. One pastry would have easily fit in the palm of my hand.

On Sunday, we walked through the street markets, dodging the locals who spilled out from the churches in the piazzas. A light rain and overcast sky was cut by the aroma of roasting chestnuts. My friend bought a huge bag of them for 7 euros (correction: 5 euros), and we nibbled the meat out of the shells, still quite warm, as we strolled along.

Two nights in a row, we had dinner at Borgo Antico in Piazza di Santo Spirito, south of the Arno and not far from Palazzo Pitti. We drank the carafe house wine by the half liter and dipped the Florentine bread (which is known for being made without salt) into fruity olive oil. All restaurants have bread and oil on the table. Borgo Antico's little twist is to provide a tiny glass dish with cubes of mortadella -- or at least I'm guessing it was mortadella -- a cured pork meat, served cold or at room temperature, from Bologna, which is just north of Florence.

The night before we left, we walked by a few bakeries that had giant cannolis in their windows. The shells looked thick, and a single strip of orange peel adorned the open end where the filling showed. "I have to eat a cannoli before we leave!" I said. The next morning when we paid for our pastry breakfast, at about 8:30 in the morning, I asked the woman at the cafe if I could buy a cannoli for takeaway. "Cannolo?" she asked, politely teaching me the singular word form. "Si!" I said. "You want a small one or a big one?" she asked. I got the small, which was barely bigger than my thumb, the perfect portion size for tasting without feeling piggy. I saved it in my bag until we arrived at the airport and made it through security. Then I savored that last little bite of Italy.

Rustic Soup of Small Fish, Fennel and Olives

I'd be lying if I didn't credit Cooking Light as the starting point for this recipe: Rustic Soup of Small Fish, Fennel, and Olives.

The magazine's Provencal Pork Stew with Olives and Fennel (January 2006) is a favorite dinner for my boyfriend and me. But every time we ate it, we'd scoop out all the pork on the first night, leaving the leftovers meatless.

I reinvented the leftovers from the previous night's soup, sans pork, into a quick lunch using a can of sardines I had in the cupboard. And behold, a new soup was born.

Unlike the pork version, the fish soup doesn't require a long simmer. Serve with crusty bread, or add white beans, such as cannellini, for a more substantial meal. You could also set in a nice big piece of white fish in the soup at the end and poach it until done. Yum.

Rustic Soup of Small Fish, Fennel and Olives
olive oil
2 cups sliced fennel bulb (about 1 bulbs)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 anchovies packed in oil, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup fat-free, less-sodium vegetable broth
1 teaspoon fennel seed
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves, dried
1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
1 tin (3.75 ounces) per person sardines packed in water, drained and large bones removed
1 big can diced tomatoes, undrained
1/2 cup good purple olives, such as nicoise (kalamatas work but may be too salty)
salt and pepper (white or black) to taste
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add fennel and onion; sauté until tender and carmelized. Add garlic and anchovies; sauté 2 minutes.

Add wine to pan, scraping pan to loosen any browned bits. Stir in fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and tomatoes. Add the vegetable broth and bring to a simmer.

If adding pre-cooked beans, add them now. Stir in the olives. Gently add the sardine pieces, being careful not to break them up too much. Add the salt and white pepper last, and stir to combine. Simmer at least 10 minutes more to let the flavors combine.

Before serving, remove bay leaf and stems from thyme (the leaves should have fallen off). Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.


This is a follow up to my post from a few days ago about perfecting my Oatmeal 'Something' Cookie recipe.

Last night, I baked some of the cookies from the same batch that I made a few days ago. And they didn't come out right!

I can't tell you how mad I am about this. When Boyfriend and I lived in England, I made these cookies over and over again and found that there were two tricks to baking them in that apartment's particular oven: bake the dough from frozen and use the convection oven setting for the last three or four minutes (it made the outermost part just the slightest bit crispier).

In our current apartment, I learned quickly that the oven runs hot, so I set it a few degrees lower than 375, and it works like a charm.

Back to the most recent batch of cookie dough: I made it a few days ago. On Day 1, I had set the dough in the refrigerator for several hours before baking it. Those cookies were excellent. The next time I baked from that batch of dough, Day 2, the dough was still in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper and sealed in a zip-top bag. Those cookies came out fine.

On Day 3, with about a third of the dough still remaining, I didn't foresee anymore baking in the near future, so I moved the dough to the freezer. Then last night, Day 4, I decide to throw some cookies in the oven, straight from the freezer, for some friends who were over.

They (er, the cookies, not the friends) came out awful. Boyfriend says they were fine, but they were definitely in the oven a minute and a half too long, so the bottoms were hard. Leaving them in too long was the first problem, but secondly, the dough didn't melt and spread the same way it did when it came straight from the fridge.

Because I often don't cook from a recipe, I'm usually very flexible about matters of consistency. Who cares if it's consistent if it still tastes good, right? But this time I just got mad, like I knew it could have been better had I just put in a little more time and a little more attention to detail.

If I care about consistency now, is that a sign that I'm maturing as a cook or that I'm getting older and more crotchety?

Birthday Babka

Other than my profile picture, this is the first picture of myself I've posted on this site. When I found it the other day, I felt it was appropriate to post. It's from my birthday last year (2008), so it's me and my unusual birthday cake.

I initially had my heart set on having a chocolate bundt cake for my birthday, a specific one I that saw in the window of La Guli in Astoria. A few days before my birthday, I went in to ask about ordering one, and the woman working there said, "Oh, you mean the sour cream loaf?"

It's funny how the same cake described in different words can make you change you mind about it completely. No. I did not want a "sour cream loaf." I wanted chocolate bundt cake. The bakery-cafe where I worked in college, Sweet Tooth (update December 2012: Sweet Tooth of Buffalo has since closed), has the best Triple Chocolate Espresso Ring bundt cake, dense lush cake with a thin drizzle of chocolate ganache on top and flecks of espresso beans. That's what I was really craving. (The official description is: "Our moist rich chocolate cake ring with a hint of espresso, ganache glazed and garnished with chocolate mocha beans." Really, it's divine.)

Since I couldn't get the cake I really wanted, I decided to wing it. Boyfriend and I were headed to Long Island to celebrate my birthday at my mom's house over dinner, and there's a bagel shop with a lot of bakery items where I decided to look for something.

Maybe it was the ring shape, maybe it was the thought that I could eat it again for breakfast, but what we ended up with was chocolate babka, though it was more like a puffed crumb coffee cake with chocolate.

Perfected Cookie Recipe: Oatmeal (Something) Cookies

There has been a lot of talk lately about the "perfect cookie," from The New York Times Online to NPR's chemically-inclined analysis.

While I'm not a fan of using the word "perfect" to describe anything, especially any food, I have spent the last three years perfecting my own signature cookie recipe, and I've finally nailed it.

The last time I made it, I made a few tweaks, forgetting that the index card I have now contains the true recipe, the one to trust, the one that needs no more tweaking.

The "(Something)" in Oatmeal (Something) Cookies can be: chocolate chips, raisins (soaked and drained), chocolate chunks, M&Ms, dried cranberries, or as most recently tested Reese's Pieces.

Oatmeal (Something) Cookies
3/4 cup, or 1 stick, good butter, preferably European, such as Lurpak, President, or Kerry Gold
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark works fine)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 medium eggs (if using extra large eggs, use 1 egg and 1 yolk)
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. table salt
2 3/4 cups rolled oats (not "quick" oats or instant)
1 cup of "something"
for raisin cookies, add 3/4 tsp. cinnamon

Let all ingredients reach room temperature of about 68 degrees. Make cookies the usual way: cream together butter and white sugar; add brown sugar and continue creaming; add vanilla, beat; add eggs, beat. Whisk next three ingredients together separately. Switch to a wooden spoon and incorporate the dry mix into the wet (I use the spoon, but I continue to beat the dough slightly here). Stir in the oats, and lastly, stir in the something else.

Refrigerate the dough for at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Drop small amounts of dough onto a parchment-lined or Silpat-lined baking sheet two or three inches apart. It's very important to only put a small amount of dough for each cookie. Using too much dough will result in a puffy cookie. If using M&Ms or Reese's Pieces, you can tell the right amount by trying to get at least three, but no more than five, candy pieces in each lump.

Bake on the center or higher rack for about 8 minutes, or until the edges brown.

[See the follow up to this post: "Consistency!" January 17, 2009, about the baking process.]

Wedding Food

Here are some long overdue food photos from my friends' wedding reception.

Roasted black cod with sauteed ribbon vegetables, blue Peruvian mashed potatoes and sundried cherry beurre rouge.

Roasted vegetable stack.

Roasted Chilean sea bass, fresh spinach and orzo, plum tomato and vidalia onion saute, topped with crispy parsnip ribbons.

Review in Pictures: Mill Pond Restaurant, Long Island

Mill Pond Restaurant in Centerport, Long Island, New York

Salad: apples, cranberries, pecans, blue cheese, and port dressing. Big portion for a starter.

Pasta special of the day: Pumpkin ravioli with lump crab and lobster meat in cream (a bit sweet, but heavenly for two bites).

Seafood special of the day: Sea bass with asparagus, rice galette, and roasted eggplant and tomato relish. The relish and rice cake were lovely, but took the spotlight away from the fish, which was nice enough.

Personal favorite: Seafood fra Diavolo over linguini. Hearty and meaty with voluptuous shellfish.

Pappardella bolognese with rosemary, tomatoes, and cream. Smelled great; didn't taste it.

Special of the day: Christmas roll.

Special of the day beef dish. (I don't remember exactly what cut it was or how it was prepared, and my apologies for the blurry photo.)

Banana cream tart. Forgettable.

Tartufo: A softball-sized ice cream scoop, covered in chocolate, and with sweet cherries and chopped nuts in the center. Fun to share, simple, and yummy.

Mill Pond Restaurant
437 East Main Street
Centerport, NY

5 Things I've Cooked Lately

1. Crepes stuffed with chicken, broccoli, Spanish onions, and white sauce.

2. Fennel seed and sea salt spelt crackers.

3. Impromptu chili with chorizo and corn.

4. Roasted fennel.

5. Soft scrambled eggs on Turkish-style bread (bought) with Bulgarian eggplant spread (made by Parrot Market, a local grocer).

Review: Stamatis, Astoria

I've recently started reviewing New York restaurants on Yelp in 100 words or fewer and will repost some of them here. Enjoy.

Stamatis, Astoria

Exquisite Greek food. Huge portions for sharing.

Lamb in tomato sauce ($14) was the homiest thing I’ve eaten in a while: braised lamb shank falling off the bone, which we ate with rice and peas and a half-sized portion of okra in tomato sauce ($5). Comfort food.

Though listed as an appetizer, grilled squid ($12), with fire-grill char, could easily be a main. The small antipasto ($9) is four dips: taramousalata (mayonnaise-like whipped spread of fish roe), tzatziki, mashed eggplant with garlic, and skordalia (mashed potato with garlic).

House red by the carafe ($10) is a light and drinkable bargain.

2909 23rd Ave., Astoria, NY

Review: Michael and Angelo’s, Astoria

I've recently started reviewing New York restaurants on Yelp in 100 words or fewer and will repost some of them here. Enjoy.

Michael and Angelo's, Astoria

Wonderful, classic Italian food and specialty pizzas at their absolute best.

Pizzas come in regular crust and thin (very thin). Recommend Michelangelo’s special pie, regular crust ($20.50): pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, onions. Garlic lovers should not pass up the Sofia Loren pie ($10.75 small, $19.50 large): shallow pools of fresh white mozzarella, hunks of tomato, garlic, and good olive oil.

Everything is made with homey love. Pasta and chicken entrees about $15. Fish (mostly salmon, sole, shrimp) around $20. Calzones, heroes, about $7.

Open daily, except Mondays, until 11 p.m.

Michael and Angelo's
29-11 23rd Ave., Astoria, NY 11105