Sicilian Ricotta Cheese Cake

Sicilian Ricotta Cheese Cake
This past weekend we celebrated my brother’s birthday at a delightful, surprise summer celebration at a private wooded area in Napa Valley. My contribution to the spread was this Sicilian Ricotta Cake.

It was nice to celebrate Ross, who holds a very special place in my heart as my loving, older brother. As the eldest of the four siblings, he has sort of morphed into the patriarch of the family despite only being a couple years older than me and my other two brothers. Like many oldest siblings, he naturally carries that authoritative, leader kind of character which makes him a perfect and protective big brother. It is also what contributes to him being one of the best pastors and teachers I’ve ever met. Ross also goes by Pastor Ross as senior pastor of Calvary The Rock in Santa Rosa California. His sermons can be accessed online if you ever feel like a refreshing and relevant (for today) look at the bible.

The celebration included family members and close friends from his church who have grown to love Ross as a person, and a pastor. A few people talked about how he has positively impacted their lives, including heart-warming words from his daughter Jordan, who recently discovered in her twenties that she has a rare disease called Kabuki Syndrome. Jordan has had lifelong physical struggles including issues with speech, hearing, muscles and joints – and was relieved to learn there was a reason with this diagnosis. She’s been sharing her discovery, struggles, and even blessings of the disease in her Kabuki Unfiltered blog. The girl who struggled with social anxiety, hearing and speech is now becoming spokesperson for families with Kabuki kids, sharing publicly and even speaking at conferences. Isn’t God amazing?

I can write a book about the love I have for my brother Ross, and my other brothers Darien and Judd, but I’ll share one memory of Ross that goes back 34 years when I was struggling as a single teenage mother. I was living alone, trying to navigate my way around both becoming an adult and being a mother – not an easy feat to accomplish at the same time. Although Ross was only 20 at the time, he had the wisdom and nurturing to assign himself as my “secret pal” who regularly sent me cards with words of encouragement that sometimes included hand-written scripture quotes. I recall one day being completely broke, only to and open a card to find $20, just enough to buy a couple bags of groceries for me and my toddler. After some time I learned my secret pal was my very own brother, which confirmed in my heart that he would always play the role of protective brother to me throughout my life. And that is true to this day.

Two nights ago, he stopped what he was doing a pastor’s conference to take the time to talk me through a very difficult thing I’m currently going through. I thank God for him and can only hope that everyone can find a Ross in their life.

About the Ricotta Cheese Cake? It’s the easiest cheese cake you’ll ever make – and people will love it!
 
Sicilian Ricotta Cheese Cake

Sicilian Ricotta Cheese Cake
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
 
Ingredients
  • 32 ounces ricotta cheese, drained
  • 1 orange (for 2 teaspoons orange zest/grated rind)
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 18 graham crackers (2 packets from a 14 oz box)
  • 1 stick butter
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Generously grease a springform pan with butter.
  3. For graham cracker crust, crush graham crackers in food processor until consistency of bread crumbs; stir with melted butter until mixture holds shape when squeezed. If needed, add a little more melted butter.
  4. Firmly press graham cracker “crust” into bottom and along bottom sides of spring form pan; set aside.
  5. Sift together flour and sugar in small mixing bowl.
  6. In medium bowl, stir together ricotta cheese and orange zest. Slowly fold in flour mixture with spatula until well blended and smooth.
  7. Add eggs, one at a time, continuing to blend with spatula. Stir in vanilla extract.
  8. Pour batter into spring form pan and gently smooth top with spatula.
  9. Bake for 55-60 minutes, until cake is firm all the way to top center. Cool completely and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to set.

Strawberry Basil & Feta Cheese Pizza

 

Strawberry Basil & Feta Cheese Pizza

Some people want to laze around in bed on weekend mornings. Not me. And I’m not exaggerating when I say I pop out of bed excited to head straight to the kitchen to start cooking up some new recipe. This past Saturday it was all about  strawberries and feta cheese. That was the inspiration, and look what happened. This strawberry and feta cheese pizza was so good, I’ve been craving it ever since.

Strawberry Basil and Feta Cheese Pizza

If you’ve never tried the combination, it really is a good one. In fact, while I was building the pizza, I couldn’t stop nibbling on just the strawberries and feta together. Combine that with a crispy, fresh pizza crust, fresh basil and little drizzle of olive oil – and we’re talking flavor!

I was telling my brother Darien about this pizza and he said I should have drizzled some balsamic over the top, and he may be right. Either way, I think you can’t go wrong as long as you keep it simple, and be sure you make your own crust! The recipe below is easy and delicious if you love a thin, crispy pizza crust.

Strawberry Basil & Feta Cheese Pizza

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Strawberry Basil & Feta Cheese Pizza
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2
 
Ingredients
  • 5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups water
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast (I used 1 packet Active Dry Yeast)
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 pound fresh strawberries
  • 6 fresh basil leaves
  • 1 (or more) cups feta cheese
  • drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Instructions
  1. Add yeast to 1¾ cups luke warm water (make sure it’s not hot); stir in sugar, vinegar and olive oil and let sit for about five minutes until foamy. In bowl of stand mixer, combine all ingredients (start with 5 cups of flour).
  2. Using dough hook, mix on medium speed for about 4 minutes, or until flour gathers to form a coarse ball.
  3. Let dough rest for a few minutes; mix again for an additional few minutes, or until the dough clears the sides of the bowl and sticks just a little to the bottom. If dough appears too sticky, add more flour by the tablespoon. To test, gently stretch a small piece of dough - if should be stretchy and translucent in center. If not, process a little more.
  4. Transfer dough to a floured counter, dust the top with flour to absorb the surface moisture, then fold dough into ball.
  5. Place in a bowl that has been brushed with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap, and cover the top of the bowl with a towel. Let sit at room temperature for 90 minutes. Dough should double in size.
  6. Transfer dough to floured counter, punch down, knead a couple times, and divide dough into 3-5 equal pieces; form into balls. Rub each ball with olive oil. Place in individual ziploc bags and refrigerate 2 – 12 hours. Remove from refrigerator 1-2 hours before using.
  7. Note: I cheated and made a pizza with one of the dough balls without that last rise in the refrigerator, and the taste and texture was very good. But it’s *way* better the next day or two.
  8. Use within 3-4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
  9. To prepare pizza (see photos), place pizza stone in oven and heat oven to 500 degrees F, at least 20 minutes prior to baking pizza. Dust dough (and fingers) with flour.
  10. On pizza peel dusted with cornmeal, press and stretch dough to 10-inch round. Lightly drizzle with olive oil. Layer cheese on top, then arrange strawberries and basil (see photos).
  11. Slide pizza from peel onto stone (being careful not to let toppings slide off) and bake for about 9 minutes, or until crust and cheese begin to brown. Drizzle with a little balsamic and additional basil if preferred.

Bucatini with Sicilian Meatballs

Bucatini with Sicilian Meatballs
 

 
My mother used to make spaghetti and meatballs almost every Sunday as we were growing up. It really wasn’t Sunday morning if my brothers and I didn’t wake to the comforting aroma of onions and garlic, mix with basil and tomatoes wafting into our bedrooms from the kitchen. This was a familiar tradition in my Sicilian mom’s family, but after she married my Jewish dad, I know she made it weekly for him because he could never ever got enough of it. I remember she used to tell him he could only have “two forkfuls” of the spaghetti to make sure he stuck the old Atkins diet that was so popular in the 70s. I’m so glad he didn’t listen. Who wants to limit their favorite foods to just two forkfuls? Not me!

I made this pasta for my son and daughter-in-law who just had their second child. Sounds weird (and wonderful) to say, but I now have FOUR grandchildren. How is this possible when it doesn’t seem that long ago that I had my kids? Well it’s true, and little Bradley is a healthy and gorgeous baby and I couldn’t be happier that I get to see them more often now that I live in Santa Cruz.

I’m glad January is here and that the holidays are over. I love all the festivities and family time, but I also really love when things get back to normal. And I love new beginnings, and the new year reminds of the excitement of life – and all the wonderful things that can happen. This past year was a really difficult one for me for a few reasons, including getting through the first year of my life without my mom who died at the end of 2013. That, combined with other family issues, really had an impact on how I was feeling.

But as a believer in the Almighty God, I am never discouraged about the future. I know that all of us will experience hard times because that is just part of life. In the bible (John 16:33), Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble.” The words that follow are probably the most powerful words for me from scripture. He then goes on to say, “But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Wow. Those words are so comforting to me, and because I believe that with my whole heart and mind, I am strengthened in all I think about and do.

This year, I hope to spend a lot of quality time with my friends and family – even it if means just doing simple things like having a cup of coffee with a friend, or preparing and delivering a dinner for someone – especially my kids who no longer live with me. I remember how hard it was to work, cook dinner, and do all the millions of other things you need to do when the kids are little.

I think I might have to bring back the Sunday tradition of spaghetti and meatballs – maybe you want to join me. There’s no doubt, someone will be glad you did!

Enjoy!

Sicilian Style Meatballs1

Bucatini with Sicilian Meatballs
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: several
 
Ingredients
  • 1 pound Bucatini pasta (spaghetti with holes in center)
  • For simple tomato sauce
  • 2 cans tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ medium to large onion, finely diced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed or finely chopped
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons dried or fresh basil
  • 2 teaspoons parsley
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ cup red or white wine
  • 2 teaspoons heavy cream or half and half
  • Meatballs
  • ¾ pound ground beef
  • ¾ pound ground pork
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • I medium onion, minced
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and minced
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ½ teaspoon rosemary
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped (or teaspoon dried basil)
  • ¼ cup red or white wine
  • 2 eggs, slighty beaten
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to tasted
  • a couple splashes olive oil
Instructions
  1. For the meatballs, combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and with your hands blend together for a couple minutes.
  2. To form the meatballs, grab a handful of the mixture and toss loosely to form a ball.
  3. Heat olive oil in large, heavy-bottomed pan to medium low. Don’t let it get too hot.
  4. Add meatballs to the pan without crowding. The surface will start to brown quickly - just monitor and turn frequently so they brown evenly. I just use my hands with a spatula to turn. Monitor closely tp prevent burning.
  5. Once the meatballs have a carmelized surface that is as even as possible, add a little water to the pan and cover to make sure that the meatballs are cooked all the way through. Sometimes I like to splash in a little wine in the pan. Simmer covered for 5- 10 minutes until done in the center.
  6. For the tomato sauce, saute onions with olive oil in a small sauce pan for several minutes until tender.
  7. Add the garlic, stir and cook another minute without browning garlic. Add the basil, parsley and oregano, salt and pepper. Saute another minute or so.
  8. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for a couple minutes. Add 1½ cups of water to the sauce.
  9. Once simmering, add more herbs and salt to taste if needed, the sugar and wine; stir.
  10. Simmer loosely covered on low for about 30 minutes. After 15 minutes (of the 30), stir in heavy cream,
  11. For the pasta, cook to al dente (and according to package directions).
  12. While the pasta is cooking, prepare a large serving dish by spreading about ½ cup of sauce on the bottom. When the pasta is ready, take directly from water without rinsing and toss in the serving bowl. Make sure all the pasta is tossed with the sauce to prevent from sticking together. Add more sauce and toss lightly.
  13. Garnish with grated Romano or Parmigiano cheese, fresh parsley and crushed red pepper.
  14. Add meatballs to your spaghetti sauce, or you can leave them as is. I like to decorate the family style pasta dish by putting the sauce-dipped meatballs all around the edges of the bowl.
  15. Makes about 20 meatballs, depending on their size.

 

Easy Pasta Fagioli (Pasta & Bean Soup)

Easy and Delicious Pasta Fagioli

 

Last week I turned 53. That doesn’t sound like a very attractive number to me, and I’m not even sure why. Maybe because it’s an odd, ugly number – or – maybe it’s because I’m discovering that 53 doesn’t look or feel like 43, or 33. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the other day I was trying to take an iPhone photo of something I crocheted and accidentally launched the camera into selfie mode. Without any warning, I caught a picture of my face, reading glasses on, looking down, furrowed brows, and I was like, “WHO is that?”

While I’ve never been the type to worry about laugh lines, getting a few grays, or even a little extra tummy chub from eating too much pizza, I’m not totally adjusting to the new, mature me as a whole. I know this might sound a little vain, but getting older never got in the way of me feeling attractive – and now all of a sudden that might be changing. For the first time in my life I’m starting to look mature, and now I really, really, really want to be ok with that!

I think getting older is not very different than other areas of  life where we don’t get a choice. I guess it comes down to how we respond to what’s happening. My hope is that I respond by continuing to love the woman looking back at me in the mirror, and the only way that will happen is if I remember what’s important.

I know it’s important to take care of, and appreciate, my healthy body, so I’ll continue running along the beach, eating lots of green stuff (with small doses of peanut butter cookies and chocolate cake). But most importantly, I’ll make sure my focus is on Godly and eternal things, and less on the material things that fade away and carry little meaning. Instead of looking at the lines on my face, I’ll choose to spend my time looking at the faces of the people I love.

I think I’m going to be ok with 50+.

Did I mention I’ll also keep making lots of soup? Yep, that. Because we all know it’s good for the body and the soul!

Easy Pasta Fagioli (Pasta & Bean Soup)
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6-8
 
Ingredients
  • 1 pound Italian Sausage (casing removed)
  • ½ pound pasta shells (or whatever pasta you prefer)
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 3-4 celery ribs, chopped
  • 3 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, crushed
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fennel
  • 1 teaspoon dried or 4 leaves of fresh basil
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 cups fresh or canned cannellini beans
  • 2 cups of fresh or canned tomatoes (for fresh, blanch and peel before chopping)
  • 32 ounces chicken broth (preferrably homemade, but canned works)
  • ¼ cup wine (whatever you have on hand)
  • Optional: 2 cups fresh baby greens like spinach (my favorite part)
  • Parmigiano cheese, grated (for garnish)
  • Optional: crushed red pepper, freshly chopped parsley
Instructions
  1. Cook pasta according to package directions; toss with a little butter to make sure that the pasta doesn’t stick together; set aside.
  2. In heavy bottom pot, lightly brown sausage in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Remove sausage (but leave remaining bits); set aside.
  3. In remaining oil, saute onion, celery and carrots with a little salt for 4-5 minutes; add garlic and saute for another minute. Return sausage to the pan.
  4. Turn heat to medium high and add the tomatoes, making sure to scrape the bottom of pan to combine all the flavors. Add the wine and simmer for another few minutes.
  5. Add the chicken stock, beans, cooked sausage to the pot and bring to a heavy simmer.
  6. Add a little water or more chicken broth if it looks too thick. It should be a little soupy since pasta will be added later.
  7. Once you have all the ingredients in the pot, let lightly simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Optional: In last couple minutes of cooking at baby greens and stir to incorporate.
  8. When ready, serve in individual bowls. First put about a handful of pasta shells at the bottom of an empty soup bowl. Ladle out some of the meat and vegetables from the soup and then ladle some of the broth over the top. Garnish with cheese, crushed red pepper.
  9. Note: To make a little healthier use whole grain pasta.

 

Florentine Cookies (Laceys)

Florentine Cookies (Laceys)

Please don’t look at these cookies and think they are too complicated for you to make. They aren’t! If you haven’t tryed Florentine cookies, they are sort of a mixture between a candy and a cookie with their chocolaty, toffee-ish, nutty taste and texture.

Florentine Cookies

Some people think of these little delectable treats as a Christmas cookie, but I don’t really believe in holiday cookies. If you love a cookie, I say eat it year-round! As far as these Florentines, I actually was reminded how much I love them after enjoying them this summer at Peet’s Coffee, and  after buying a package of them at Trader Joe’s for myself…I mean…my mom and her friends  at the senior community. ; )

The ladies went crazy over these cookies, so of course I had to get in my kitchen and whip up a batch for them the following week. They liked the homemade version even better. Of course they did. Isn’t everything always better with the addition of love?

Happy cooking making!

By the way, I slightly adapted this recipe that I believe is a Food Network recipe.


Florentine Cookies (Laceys)
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
 
Ingredients
  • 13/4 cups slivered almonds, lightly toasted
  • 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • ¼ cup teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I used chocolate chips)
Instructions
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat.
  3. If almonds need a little toasting, just roast in a dry pan for a few minutes until lightly toasted on edges.
  4. In mixing bowl, stir together nuts, flour and salt (and orange zest if you prefer).
  5. In a small fry pan, on medium heat, whisk together sugar, cream, corn syrup and butter until mixture simmers and sugar is completely dissolved. Continue to simmer for another minute.
  6. Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour into almond mixture. Stir to combine; set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Don't let cool too long; it will become to hard to work with.
  7. Carefully form rounded teaspoons of mixture into ball and place on baking sheet, leaving a few inches between cookies.
  8. Bake for about 18-20 minutes until cookies are thin and have a carmel color (be sure to check to ensure they don't burn). Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool. Repeat with remaining batter.
  9. For drizzle, melt chocolate in heat-proof bowl over boiling water, or in microwave.
  10. Spread thin layer on flat side of half the cookies and make "sandwich" with the other half.
  11. Spoon remaining chocolate into small plastic sandwich bag and cut tiny hole at corner. Drizzle over tops and let cool.
  12. To store, place parchment paper between cookies to prevent from sticking together.
  13. Makes about a dozen "sandwich" cookies.
  14. Enjoy!

 

Tuscan Style Tomato Stew with Italian Sausage and Cannellini Beans

Tuscan Tomato Soup

This post was supposed to be about my daughter Jasmine’s 22nd birthday cake, except the one I made a couple nights ago tasted more like cornbread than fluffy white cake with vanilla butter cream frosting. I have to admit, it was tasty for cornbread – but I didn’t intent on making cornbread, so it wasn’t exactly the taste I was going for.

Instead of sharing a cake recipe, I’ll share a little about my favorite girl and this yummy soup that actually tastes just the way it should: like tomato stew with Italian sausage and cannellini beans, and not a hot dog or something. :)

So the cake didn’t turn out so well, but I think Jasmine did! Each birthday that passes I reflect on the day my only daughter was born and think about some of the precious times I’ve shared with her. And since life, with all its twists and turns, brings us challenges along with the good stuff, I also find myself considering those times as well.

As I do, I get overwhelmingly proud that despite having to experience hurts (completely beyond her control)  that my daughter’s loving, giving and beautiful spirit shines through with immense brilliance.  Each day that passes, I see her bravery and resilience to live a happy and successful life, despite some undeserving setbacks. She is well on her way to blossoming into the bright, strong, lovable young women God intended her to be. Can’t you just see it?

I feel blessed to have the honor of being Jasmine’s mother for the last 22 years, and I look forward to building more precious memories with my daughter and my best friend.

So while I’d love to share her wonderful cake with you, it was a bit of a flop – but this soup wasn’t – so here’s my recipe for this delicious and easy tomato stew with Italian sausage, veggies, lots of garlic and cannellini beans. If you use fresh tomatoes, it will taste even better!

Tuscan Tomato Stew

Tuscan Tomato Soup


Tuscan Style Tomato Stew with Italian Sausage and Cannellini Beans
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-5
 
Ingredients
  • 4-5 Italian sausage, with casing removed
  • 4 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
  • 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 medium fresh tomatoes, blanched, cored, peeled and chopped
  • 1-2 zucchini, chopped
  • 2 cups cannellini (white kidney) beans
  • ¼ cup wine
  • ½ cup carrots, chopped
  • kosher salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Parmigiano cheese, shredded or grated
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
Instructions
  1. With sharp knife, slice an X on the bottom of each tomato (see image above). Blanch tomatoes by adding to boiling water for 1-2 minutes; remove from water quickly.
  2. Peel skin by pulling back corners (see image).
  3. Cover bottom of heavy bottom skillet with olive oil and brown sausage. Remove sausage without removing the oil and carmelized bits. Set sausage aside.
  4. In same pan, add onions, carrots, celery and a little kosher salt: saute until tender and slightly carmelized; about 8 minutes (see image).
  5. Add thyme, basil and garlic and cook for another couple minutes.
  6. Add tomatoes to pot and bring to high simmer, making sure to scrape any carmelization from the bottom of the pan; add wine and continue to simmer for about 5 minutes. Process in pot with immersion blender or masher until you have a thick sauce (see image). Taste and add salt as needed.
  7. Return sausage to pot and simmer on medium for a few minutes; add beans and return to simmer.
  8. Once simmering again, add chicken broth to desired consistency and continue to cook with loosely covered lid for 15 minutes. Add zucchini and finish by simmering another 15 minutes.
  9. Serve hot, topped with grated cheese.

 

Eggplant and Bolognese Pizza

Eggplant Pizza

I’m thinking about making a New Year’s resolution to make and eat pizza at least once a week. That’s because pizza is just such a comforting and delicious food to eat, isn’t it? And the best thing about making homemade pizza is that you can make it as healthy or as naughty as you want. Personally, I love making healthy pizza that tastes naughty! I do that by always using whole wheat crust and fresh, delicious ingredients.

But it all starts with a wonderfully healhty homemade crust. I use what is now my go-to recipe for homemade pizza crust that I slightly adapted from my blogger buddy Chef Chuck. The only thing I do different to the recipe is use whole wheat flour, add dried rosemary, and use a little more vinegar and salt.

If you’re worried that making your own dough is too time consuming, don’t be! It really takes just a few minutes of your time – especially if you have a KitchenAid with a dough hook. But don’t even worry if you don’t have one – kneading dough for about five minutes can be fun – really!

One last note about making your own pizza: Everything can be customized to your taste. That means you can make the size of pizza you want, add more or less sauce, and even change up the ingredients. Don’t like eggplant? Use mushrooms! Like ricotta cheese instead of mozzarella – use it! You get the point.

Either way, just have fun with it and enjoy!

Eggplant Pizza

Eggplant and Bolognese Pizza
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: several
 
Ingredients
  • For the dough
  • 4½ cups all white whole wheat (I prefer King Arthur’s)
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (plus additional for rubbing on dough balls)
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • a little rosemary (optional)
  • For the topping, use more or less of ingredients to taste
  • ½ cup slices mozzarella cheese, sliced in small pieces or shredded
  • 1 cup tomato sauce ( or use 4-5 fresh small tomatoes). Or prepare bolognese ahead of time. My recipe can be found here: http://bit.ly/ti6gY4)
  • 1 small eggplant, cut in small 1 inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsely, roughly chopped
  • crushed red pepper if desired
  • Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano cheese if desired
  • a little cornmeal to dust on pizza
Instructions
  1. For the dough, add the yeast to the 2 cups of water for several minutes until it becomes foamy. Add the sugar, olive oil and vinegar.
  2. While the yeast is dissolving in the water, add the flour, rosemary and salt to food processor jar and pulse a couple times.
  3. Add the water and yeast mixture gradually to the flour mixture and process until the dough begins to form a ball and comes away from the sides of the container. Turn out onto floured surface. Sprinkle with flour and knead for several minutes until the dough is smooth and not sticky.
  4. Place in bowl rubbed with olive oil, cover with towel and let sit for 1½ to 2 hours until it doubles in size.
  5. While the dough is rising, prepare the eggplant by frying in olive oil in a small pan until lightl golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
  6. Back to the dough: After two hours, turn out onto lightly floured surface, knead a couple times and cut in ½ or in three equal pieces. Form into neat balls and use as needed. To use the next day, rub lightly with olive oil, cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight (I prefer using the next day for better flavor).
  7. For the pizza, preheat oven (with pizza stone if you have one) to 500 degrees F. Place rack in the center of the oven.
  8. Stretch out your dough and push downward in center with fingers to desired shape and size.
  9. Dust pizza peel (or parchment paper) with a little cornmeal and lay down your dough on top of it, reshaping it and leaving a little more thickness on the edges.
  10. Spread out layer of sauce in center of dough, leaving about an inch for the crust. Arrange eggplant pieces and cheese evenly over sauce. Sprinkle top with fresh parsley.
  11. Lightly rub a tiny bit of olive oil on the edges.
  12. Slide onto pizza stone and let cook for about 10 minutes until cheese is bubbling and crust looks browned.
  13. Remove and garnish with the fresh parsely, parmigiano cheese and crushed red pepper if desired.

Pasta Bolognese (Italian Meat Sauce)

I know there are folks who add ground beef to tomato sauce and call it bolognese. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but I don’t even call that a meat sauce. To me, meat thrown in tomato sauce doesn’t make it a meat sauce. More importantly, it doesn’t compare with the taste of a bolognese sauce that is created by adding a little tomato, paste or sauce to a variety of other flavorful ingredients including herbs, vegetables, pork and beef.

There is a big difference between meat that’s been simply added to a tomato sauce, and sauce that is lovingly prepared by building layers of flavors into a sauce and simmering ingredients that include pancetta, celery, carrots, garlic and meat.

Like with most classic sauces and dishes, there are countless varieties of bolognese depending on where you’re from - or on how your family prepares this tasty rich sauce. My mom didn’t prepare bolognese very often because my father preferred spaghetti sauce with no meat. But I love meat sauce and with time I’ve come to create a version that my family and friends love.  Here’s the very tasty version of bolognese.

 

Pasta Bolognese (Italian Meat Sauce)
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
 
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 2 tablespoons pancetta, finely chopped
  • 3 ribs celery, finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 5-10 garlic cloves (depending on taste)
  • ¼ cup fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 small can tomatoe paste
  • 1 large can tomatoe puree
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons dried parsely
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (divided)
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons half and half
  • about 2 cups water (or beef broth)
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • ¼ cup parmigiano reggiano cheese
Instructions
  1. Add pork, beef, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ½ cup of wine to a large bowl and mix thoroughly with hands. Set aside.
  2. In large pot, saute pancetta on medium low heat until it's a slightly crispy and has rendered fat. Add onions and celery to same pot with a little olive oil and saute until wilted and slightly browned.
  3. Push mixture to the side of the pan, add crushed garlic to the center, and cook for about 45 seconds.
  4. Turn heat up a bit and add fresh parsley and meat mixture. Cook for several minutes until fully cooked and beginning to carmelize.
  5. Push mixture to side of pan and add the tomatoe paste to center of pan. Cook for a couple minutes.
  6. Pour wine in pan and stir pan ingredients together, making sure to scrape bottom of pan.
  7. Add all seasoning: parsley, oregano, basil, bay leaves, additional salt, pepper.
  8. Add tomatoe puree, bring to a slight bubble and stir.
  9. Add 1 tablespoon of half and half.
  10. Turn heat down to low, cover loosely and continue to simmer for 3 hours, making sure to add water or beef broth, about ¼ cup at a time, as sauce thickens. Add the other tablespoon of half and half at the 2½ hour mark.
  11. When ready to enjoy, cook spaghetti to al dente. Drain and toss with a little sauce in large bowl. Spoon additional sauce on individual servings.
  12. Garnish with parmigiano reggiano cheese or pecorina romano.
Notes
Makes plenty of sauce, so if you're not serving a lot of people, it's great to freeze.

Fig and Anise Biscotti

Fig and Anise Biscotti
Sometimes joy can be found in the most unexpected places.

My 87-year old mother now lives in a senior community with a lot of other men and women around her age and even older. I have to admit when I first started visiting her there I was looking for ways to avoid socializing with some of her new friends because, after all, how boring would that be? Well, I’ve since had a much-needed attitude adjustment.

In the last couple months, I started visiting my mom at dinner time when she’s sitting with a table full of her BFFs. I’ve gotten to know a few of them, including Vivian from the UK who provides daily updates on Fred, her tiny fish who is sick and tinkering with death.  

Then there’s Carol, a retired school teacher, who wrote the most articulate essay on why she “almost always votes democratic.” And of course I can’t forget Virginia, who enjoys a daily regimen of two ounces of vodka – one shot at 6:30 p.m., the other at 7:30 p.m. – and then heads off to bed at 8:30. She says her doctor approves of this routine because “it works.” I’m no doctor, but that makes sense to me!

This morning I got up at 4:30 a.m. to make these biscotti and lemon poppyseed muffins to share with my mom and her friends at their 8 a.m. breakfast. It warmed my heart to see how this simple gesture put big smiles on their faces and how happy they were to get these fresh-baked goodies.

It’s been quite a gift getting to know these beautiful people who have so much to say and have more dynamic personalities and zest for life than some folks half their age. It’s funny how God works in our hearts. The truth is that I’m probably getting a lot more from seeing them then they are from seeing me. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to my next trip. What shall I bring next?

Fig and Anise Biscotti
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: Makes 20
 
Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 11/2 teaspoon ground anise seed (I used whole seeds)
  • 1 cup dried figs, finely chopped (tough stem removed)
  • 1 egg white, beat with a little water (for egg wash)
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper (or plain baking stone)
  3. Add flour, baking powder, anise and salt to bowl and mix.
  4. With electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter til creamy. Add one egg at a time at beat until incorporated. Stir in vanilla extract.
  5. Now add the flour mixture and beat until blended.
  6. Stir in chopped figs.
  7. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Form the dough into a 12-inch by 3-inch log. Transfer the log to the baking sheet.
  8. Bake for about 30 minutes until firm. Cool to touch and place the log on cutting board.
  9. With serrated knife, slice along the short edge in ½ inch diagonal slices.
  10. Return to baking sheet and bake for another 10 minutes until light golden brown and then flip and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool completely.
  11. Serving suggestion: Great with coffee or tea, or just on their own!
  12. Enjoy!

Caponata


Of all the things I love to  cook, this simple little caponata recipe is by far one of my favorites. It’s one of those appetizer recipes I just can’t wait to dig in to even before I start cooking! I especially enjoy preparing it because of the way it fills my home with the smells I remember as a child when my Sicilian mom and aunts would cook.

The last time I made this for a little party, my girlfriends and I were standing in the kitchen and doing a little taste testing. We started laughing because all of a sudden we all stopped talking and the only sound you could here was, mmm….mmmm…!

Caponata is surprisingly very easy to make. It’s pretty savory because it’s got a good dose of olives and capers (which is probably the reason I love it so much). The other thing I love about it is that it has a great combination of textures. Well that’s if you don’t over cook the veggies or swap out the celery, according to my 87-year-0ld mom. She says that it’s the celery that defines caponata (and if you knew my mom, you’d have to listen to her).

Caponata
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6-8
 
Ingredients
  • 1 medium eggplant, cut in cubes
  • 1 cup fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped (or canned, whole) kosher salt
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • ¼ green olives, cut in half
  • ¼ cup Kalamata olives
  • ¼ cup white wine|
  • 2 cups, plus about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt to taste
Instructions
  1. On medium heat, in 3 tablespoons olive oil, saute onions and celery for about 10 minutes until moderately tender.
  2. Add the garlic for about 30 seconds and then the olives, tomatoes, capers and wine and continue to saute for a few minutes. Taste and add salt to taste.
  3. Set pan aside. In small or medium sauce pan, add olive oil and heat to 375°. One little trick, if you don’t have a thermometer, is to drop a cube of bread in the oil to see if it has a little sizzle. When the oil is ready, carefully add the eggplant and fry for a few minutes, turning to make sure the pieces lightly brown evenly.
  4. Remove with slotted spoon and place on paper towels for a few minutes to absorb oil.
  5. Add to pan with the other vegetables and gently saute for about five minutes to further blend flavors.
  6. Serving Suggestion
  7. This side dish is absolutely delicious served on roasted baguette slices. Just slice your favorite baguette, brush with a little olive oil (you can even give them a rub with fresh garlic), and lightly toast in oven. Spoon on the caponata and serve warm or at room temperature.
  8. I’ve also eaten this just a side dish and LOVE it. You can also toss with fresh pasta, but any way you choose to eat it, it’s sure to taste good!
  9. Enjoy!

 

Serving Suggestion

This side dish is absolutely delicious served on roasted baguette slices. Just slice your favorite baguette, brush with a little olive oil (you can even give them a rub with fresh garlic), and lightly toast in oven. Spoon on the caponata and serve warm or at room temperature.

I’ve also eaten this just a side dish and LOVE it. You can also toss with fresh pasta, but any way you choose to eat it, it’s sure to taste good!

Enjoy!