Monthly Archives: November 2010

It’s the Great Pumpkin


My sophomore year at Northwestern, my roommate Cindy and I lived in an off-campus apartment. Pies were a big thing at our place. I don’t remember why, but we frequently had pie. Pumpkin was a favorite. Anyway.

Thanksgiving is a few days off, but this year, instead of pumpkin pie (to hell with tradition!), I’m making pumpkin semifreddo. Semifreddo, if you’ve never experienced it, is like meringue and ice cream falling in love. I tested the recipe a few weeks ago to make sure it would taste—and look!—good. Approved!

Adapted from Bon Appétit, November 2002

Very Important Notes:
This looks like a long recipe, but it’s fairly easy—plus, you can make it a couple of days before Thanksgiving!

Special equipment: You’ll need a candy thermometer to temp the sugar syrup. If you’re using a hand mixer to beat the whites, you may need a second person to help you pour in the hot syrup.

Caramel sauce isn’t complete without a splash of bourbon. I add 2 tablespoons, but, feel free to leave it out if you’re a teetotaler. You’ll need about 15 supermarket variety gingersnap cookies for the crust—I’ve added toasted pecans and salt for good measure. For the filling, I’ve made a few adjustments to the spice measurements.

For the Crust
1 cup gingersnap (or chocolate wafer) cookie crumbs
¼ cup toasted pecans, chopped
2 tablespoons packed golden brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ teaspoon salt

– Line a 9¼ x 5¼ x 3-inch metal loaf pan with plastic wrap.   To make the cookie crumbs, break the gingersnaps into pieces and pulse in a food processor until finely ground. Add the toasted pecans and salt and pulse once or twice to combine. With the processor running, pour the butter through the tube and process until the mixture is moist. Press the mixture onto the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of the prepared loaf pan. Place the loaf pan in the freezer.

For the Filling
¾ cup canned pure pumpkin
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1½ tablespoons light corn syrup
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped
½ cup English toffee bits

– In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, honey, and spices. Set the bowl aside.

– Stir the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the syrup boil 8 to 10 minutes or until it registers 248˚F on the candy thermometer.

– While the syrup boils, place the egg whites in a clean, dry mixing bowl (if you’re using a stand mixer/KitchenAid, use the whisk attachment). Beat the whites on medium speed with an electric mixer until they loosen, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium-high and whisk until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Now you’re going to add the syrup—don’t be scared!—very carefully and slowly, start pouring the hot syrup in, with the machine still running. Beat the mixture until the outside of the bowl is cool to the touch and the whites are thick and glossy, about 7 minutes.

-Add 1/3 of the meringue to the reserved pumpkin mixture and fold it in with a rubber spatula until it’s completely incorporated. Fold in the remaining mixture—this time you don’t want to over-mix; just fold the whites into the pumpkin, turn the bowl about 90˚, and repeat the folding action. Do this a few times until the mixture is just combined. Fold in the pecans and toffee bits and spread the mixture into the frozen gingersnap crust. Cover the semifreddo with plastic wrap and freeze at least 8 hours and up to 4 days.

Bourbon Caramel Sauce
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ cup whipping cream
½ stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons bourbon

– Stir the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the syrup boil until it is a deep amber color, about 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cream, butter, and sour cream. Return the pan to the heat and stir in the vanilla, bourbon, and salt. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, just until the sauce is smooth.  When ready to serve the semifreddo, heat the sauce a bit.

– To serve the semifreddo: Wipe the sides of the loaf pan with a towel dampened with hot water. Invert the semifreddo, then turn over and cut into slices. Serve with the warm caramel sauce.

It Burns

11-19-10-PostI love this picture. So soothing and festive. Do you want the recipe for this beautiful meringue? Well, too bad. Maybe some other time because this, my friend, an unapologetic rant. A non-soothing, utterly un-festive, Grinchy, grouchy, rage-filled rant.

I was looking for a portable electric burner today. In the past, when I’ve uttered the phrase “portable electric burner” at hardware or all-purpose stores like Home Depot, Target, Lowes, Sears, etc. I am met with strange facial contortions, puzzled silence, and the inevitable, “What do you want that for?” (P.S. Why do you care?)

Even though I’ve had trouble obtaining said portable burners in the past, I figured it was because I’d been shopping in New York City where the constrained real estate proportions of stores doesn’t allow for as much merchandise, as, say, Framingham, MA.

I was wrong. This is what I suffered through today.

***All conversations start with me sweetly saying, “Excuse me, sir, do you carry portable electric burners?”

Guy #1, Target: I approach him while passing the hair product aisle. He turns on his heel, takes a few steps, and turns down the first aid aisle. I’m thinking he’s looking for a colleague who might know where the burners are. Alas, he is looking for the burner in the first aid section. (OOHHHH! I just got it! I said “burner” and he thought, “Burner…Fire… Wounds… First Aid!”)
He says, “Hmm, I don’t think we have those.”
I reply, “Hmm, I think this is more of a small appliance or camping gear kind of thing.”

It is approximately 11:45am. My stomach is starting to rumble and I feel my blood sugar levels falling dangerously low. This means I only have 20 or so minutes before I begin to see spots and become speech-impaired. I zip over to Lowes.

Guy #2, Lowes:
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
Me: “Probably not, but what the heck. Do you have portable burners? You know… small, they have an electrical coil like the one on your stovetop, you plug it in, and you can cook on it?”
Guy #2: 15 seconds of silence.

Guy #3, Lowes: “Yeah! We have those! Just walk to that aisle over there and you’ll see a few different options.”

Me: Giddy! Finally, someone who knows what I’m talking about! WRONG. I’m staring at a wall of replacement coils for an electric stovetop. I guess they’re portable because they’re not connected to a stove???  Semantics.

Guy #4, Lowes: “Uhh, those are a fire hazard…What do you want them for anyway?”
Me: Glare.

Bon Appétit – Paris Food

Pain-au-chocolat_SacasaMaybe it was fall’s cinematic sunlight or the giddiness of waking up in Paris, but this was pain au chocolat perfection. A first bite left my lips slippery with melted butter and glossed with warm, bittersweet chocolate. No one was looking, so I allowed myself to lick my equally slicked and stained fingertips. Why thank you, but no, I don’t need a napkin! It was impossibly flaky—so much so that at least one third of it wound up wasted on the sidewalk.

cheeseA women I once met told me she thought cheese should be its own food group. I believe the French have already declared it so.

Candy-shopA candy shop in Île Saint-Louis. The Parisian version of me lives on that lovely island and comes into this shop to bathe in its sunset-gold light. The shopkeepers always hand me a cookie to nibble on while I fill a rustling paper bag with sweets. And as I pay, they offer me a chocolate-covered candied orange peel.

Candy-shop-2These cellophane-wrapped nougat squares reminded me of swanky marble tiles. Only better, because you can eat them. Hansel and Gretel’s evil witch must have had exactly these in her little house.

Reviewing-the-menuLunchtime in Paris. A woman peruses the menu, carefully, and with much thought. I like the beginnings of her smile. She must have read a menu item that made her mouth curve pleasantly upwards.

Lunch-at-Le-Comptoir_SacasaI’m not well-versed in the art of eating alone, but found that I was a quick study, a prodigy even, given the proper location. Pictured here, boudin blanc at Le Comptoir.

Raspberry-tartsRed is my favorite color.

breakfast-in-bedIt was quite sunny, but my friend Pauline and I drew the blue velvet shades and pretended it was dreary so we could have a proper breakfast in bed.



Ooh La La — Paris Streets


The plane lands. I gather the debris of a lengthy trip—books, magazines, scraps of paper, sweater, scarf—and haltingly make my way down the narrow aircraft hallway. “Au revoir!” and “à bientôt!” are cheerfully sprinkled on each descending passenger.

In a fog, I walk up to the bespectacled man at customs. He looks no-nonsense, but turns out to be chatty. I fumble with answers—after ten days of awkwardly searching for the right words in Italian and French, I have trouble answering in plain English. Outside, the sky is a furious, incandescent fuchsia and the wind, after eight hours of breathing a thick, hot vapor, is a sea urchin, all aggressive needles.  I feel far away. From what, I don’t know, seeing as here is home, here is familiar. Nonetheless, otherness. Days and days later, disorientation still lurks. It’s much darker in the morning than before I left. I can’t sleep, and night drags lazily on its belly towards the dawn.

Clign-7Paris, so often caught on film and between the black-and-white of text and page, is difficult for me to see clearly, without the word wreaths and golden halo. I walked the Jardin du Luxembourg, Trocadéro, Ile Saint-Louis, Notre Dame; all the big names and little dead-end streets, as if sleepwalking. The brisk fall air and blue tinged light dizzying, drugging, releasing dusty moths in between my lungs and sternum. Super-saturated Technicolor, the song had it right, this is life through rose-colored glasses.

Roses_Sacasa1A stroll through Paris.




old-lady1A visit to the Clignancourt, the flea market.







La Dolce Vita

The trip was sudden. My father called from Rome to say a friend, Aída, was planning a dinner to draw attention, and hopefully, investments, in Nicaragua. The dinner would take place at Ca’ del Bosco, a winery in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. The chef planning the dinner was Michelin-starred  Vittorio Fusari, currently  owner of Dispensa Pani e Vini, a lovely, modern restaurant with glass-walled kitchen, where local, and often, neglected, ingredients are showcased. Aída asked if I would plan the menu with Vittorio—I balked, to say the least. “I’m not a chef,” I explained, but, she pressed and coaxed, and, a day or two later, I was packing my bags.

Padenghe  sul Garda, about a 2-hour drive from the Milan airports, is breathtaking. Lake Garda is encircled by the picturesque town, complete with terracotta-hued lakeside villas and cafés, bobbing sailboats, and snowcapped mountains in the distance. I could see the gently rolling waves from my bedroom, where I found a personalized chef’s jacket laid out on the bed.

The glint of  chef Vittorio’s Michelin stars kept me up that night. In the morning, I was driven to Torino, where Salone del Gusto was taking place. Vittorio, with an abundant mane of silver hair and matching beard, met me at the gates of Salone. We talked about traditional foods of Nicaragua, and within a few minutes, had outlined a  menu that would combine Italian and Nicaraguan ingredients and methods of preparation. Then, it was on to a tour of Salone—I must have eaten at least 5 kilos worth of regional cheeses, prosciuttos, breads, olives, and more cheeses. It was a dream version of a street fair. I love a street fair.

The day of the dinner, I went to Dispensa, with my father’s housekeeper, doña María del Carmen, in tow.  Chef Vittorio wanted to serve tortillas at the dinner, and doña María del Carmen came, mercifully, to help—about 200 tortillas needed to be shaped and cooked right before the dinner. At the restaurant, I was very graciously absorbed into the staff—all boys—and helped prep for the dinner. Halfway through the day, Vittorio sat me down for an incredible lunch. I’m not a food critic, but I can say that every bite tasted of the changing foliage, the earthy breeze, and the surrounding vineyards.

Later that afternoon we moved the operation to the Ca’ del Bosco kitchens and started readying for service. Among the appetizers were beef tartare polpettini dusted with pinol, a blend of ground toasted corn kernels, cacao, and spices normally used as a beverage base or as a coating for fried fish.  A first course of risotto with black beans paid homage to Nicaragua’s gallopinto while seared filet of beef was served with a delicately spiced cream sauce that also had pinol. It was inspiring to see how our humble pinol can be made to sing (expect to see a version of the recipe here soon). The hectic pace of plating course after course for 100+ guests was nerve-wracking, but I think I slipped into the groove easily and…dare I say it? Did I experience a tinge of nostalgia? Did I suddenly want to be a line cook?

In all, the visit was dreamy. My gracious hostess Aída plied me with local fare and fabulous sparkling wine, chef Vittorio and his staff welcomed me into his kitchen, and the Ca’ del Bosco folks Ivo and Alfonso let me roam around the vineyard and winery. Grazie mille a tutti!