Wednesday, January 27, 2010


For Christmas, I was given a fabulous cookbook, Culinaria European Specialties. The book is beautifully illustrated, rich with regional history, and fantastic recipes. I was so excited to to dive into this book and try something, it was difficult to narrow down the choices. Finally, after reading it twice--like a great novel--one recipe kept jumping out at me...Gnocchi, little dumplings. I've heard of it. I've been told about it. Friends have gushed over the sublime texture and subtle flavor. I've also heard that it's difficult to make. I've never had it...until now. I couldn't wait to jump right in and tackle this elusive pasta. Now, typically, pasta ranks about 4th on my list of starches. Potatoes and bread vie for first place followed by rice and then pasta. So, pasta made of potatoes--I was all over it.

Not knowing how the finished product was supposed to turn out, I relied heavily on the descriptive narratives of my friends: light, "fluffy", won't stick to your mouth. Okay...where do I go with THAT? Only one answer...onward. I served mine with a sage butter and parmesian cheese, but that seemed a little light for the pasta. Next time, a tomato based sauce.

Gnocchi di Patate

3 lbs mealy potatoes (I used Russets)
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups flour

Boil the potatoes in their skins until soft. Drain, leave until cool enough to handle, then peel and mash (I used a food mill with a medium sized disc). Mix in the eggs and salt and then add the flour and knead int a dough.

Divide the potato mixture into 10 equally-sized portions and roll each portio into long strings as wide as your thumb. Cut up the dough string into pieces of about 1" in length and dust with flour. Using the back of a fork, pattern the pieces with the typical ribbed gnocchi design.

Cook the gnocchi in moderately sized portions in boiling salted water.  They are done when they rise to the surface. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and drain well.  Serve with sage butter or a tomato or meat sauce.

Tip: The amount of flour needed depends on the kind of potato used. New potatoes are unsuitable for gnocchi, as they absorb far more flour than older varieties.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cardamom Bread/Braid

Every year, for as long as I have a memory, Christmas just wasn't Christmas without Cardamom Braid. My mom, grandmother, and aunts all made it. It was part of Christmas morning breakfast--with hot chocolate when I was young and coffee as I got older--and always sliced thick and spread with butter. Anything left, and it wasn't usually much, was eaten quickly the same day or shortly after.  The story was always told of how my great-great grandmother would crack open the white cardamom pods and then crush the seeds with the brass mortar and pestle that I still use today. Although I don't buy the full pods, I get the decorted cardamom, I often crush the seeds until the aroma is released and they are small enough as to not overpower a bite.  If I really want a release of flavor, though, I'll use a coffee grinder and get a finer powder to flavor my bread. Any leftover cardamom is then used in a fresh pot of coffee...placed in with the coffee grounds for a truly decadent treat.

If you aren't familiar with cardamom, be warned that it is an expensive spice to become addicted to; a small jar in the grocery store can go for $10 and up. The flavor is distinct--a cross between a pepper and a nutmeg with a hint of sweetness. It is used in many Scandinavian recipes and is an essential ingredient in many curries and other Indian dishes. I find the best price for decorted cardamom from a little shop in Riverside, CA called DragonMarsh. They carry a wide selection of herbs/spices and their quality is great. Order on line at

Now, for the good part...

Cardamom Braid/Bread
2 large loaves or 4 small loaves

1 c milk or cream, scalded
2 pkgs or 1 TBSP dry yeast
1/4 c warm water
1/2 c butter
1/3 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1-2 tsp cardamom
Dash fresh nutmeg
5 c all purpose flour (+/- depending on the weather)

Soften the yeast in the warm water with just a pinch of sugar to proof. Set aside.

Scald the milk with the cardamom and nutmeg.

Combine the butter, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Pour the milk over all. When lukewarm, add 1 cup of flour and beat til smooth. Add the yeast.

Add 1/2 of the flour and mix until smooth. Add the egg. Continue to add the rest of the flour unti the dough is soft and no longer sticky.

Turn on to a floured surface and let rest for 5-10 minutes. Knead for 3-5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray or coat lightly with oil. Place the dough in the bowl oil lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until double in size. Repeat.

After the second rise, divide dough in half. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long ropes, about the length of your baking sheet. Criss-cross the ropes in the center and braid each side, starting from the middle. Secure the ends by pinching together and tucking them under.

Place the completed braid on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and let rise a third time.

Preheat oven to 375*. Before baking, brush each loaf with an egg wash and sprinkle generously with raw sugar, colored sugar, or cinnamon-sugar (your preference--they are all good!). Bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately. Try to let the loves cool a bit before devouring!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Best Gift of All

The holiday season has passed by once again and I am amazed at how quickly it went. The best part of the season is not the gifts, the shopping, or the craziness. It's the extra time that is spent with family and friends. Even though I try to make time for it throughout the year, the days on the calendar between Halloween and New Year just seem a little more special. When we have the opportunity to spend one of our most valued commodities, time, with those we love, it makes the world a better place. At the center of most of these gatherings is food. Food brings us together and unites us in a way that rivals all others. Be it sweet or savory, large or small, the act of partaking in eating together breaks down barriers, evens the playing field, and allows everyone to be at peace, if only for a little while. This is what drives me. This is what makes me yearn for November 1. This is also what makes me a little sad on January 2. The lights and decorations get put away for another year; the routine of work and life come back into focus; the "holiday spirit" is tucked neatly into a drawer or closet or other safe haven to be forgotten until it is time again to take it out for display.

Perhaps this is why I love to have people over throughout the year. Barbeques, pot lucks, cookie swaps, or girls night--I look forward to all of these celebrations and more with the same anticipation of a child waiting for Santa to visit. I shop and prepare, hoping beyond hope that every recipe--even the tried and true--come out just perfect; waiting for the best gift of all...the happy sounds of joy at every taste. I could go without a single store bought gift if I am surrounded by the people I love and get to hear their murmors of happiness. This for me is the ultimate moment of the holiday season...and how I like to celebrate the holidays all year long.

As part of the celebratory festivities, I was fortutate enought to have the time to make rich dark chocolate fudge, spiced walnuts, light and tender potato gnocchi, beef braised in beer and onions, and cardamom bread in two varieties. While the recipe for the beef can be found in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I will post the others within the next few days. My heart and home has been filled with those I hold most dear, so my computer has been a distant memory. Like the decorations and the songs, those days must be put away for a spell and life must return to "normal".

I hope you had a wonderful end to 2009, filled with memories of loved ones brought close.