Italy, part 2

PeperonataTo begin our culinary indulgences that evening, I found a recipe in one of my favorite Italian cookbooks, the award winning “A16 Food + Wine” by Nate Appleman & Shelley Lindgren.  A16 is an acclaimed restaurant in San Francisco, named after the highway that cuts across southern Italy.

Bruschetta with Ricotta and Peperonata
6 bruschette (or a baguette)
1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta, drained if necessary and at room temperature
Kosher salt
2 cups peperonata (recipe to follow)
Extra virgin olive oil

Taste the ricotta.  If it seems bland, mix in a pinch of salt.  Divide the ricotta evenly among the bruschette, and then top with spoonfuls of peperonata.  Note – since I had a lot going on with this dinner, rather than making individual bruschettes, I sliced a baguette in half lengthwise, then cut into lengths that fit in my Calphalon panini press and toasted until golden, then cut into 1 1/2 inch bite-sized strips.  This worked well as a “ricotta and peperonata delivery device!”

Although they are not as sweet as red and yellow bell peppers, Gypsy peppers are perfect for making this bright, versatile condiment, particularly in the late summer when this medium-sized, tapered variety has turned from green to shades of yellow or red.  If you cannot find Gypsy peppers, use a combination of red, orange and yellow bell peppers.  Stay away from green bell peppers as their grassy flavor will overwhelm the more nuanced character of the others.  This recipe makes about 6 cups.

2 1/2 pounds Gypsy or red, orange and yellow bell peppers
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons capers, soaked and rinsed in water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 fennel bulb, cored and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Roast the peppers: cut off the stems, then cut lengthwise, removing the seeds and membranes.  Pre-heat the broiler.  Press peppers to flatten, then place on a half sheet pan and slide under the broiler.  Broil until skins are charred, then remove from oven and place peppers in a bowl; cover tightly with plastic wrap – this creates steam, which will loosen the skins –  rest until cool enough to handle.  Remove skins (they should slide right off). Tear the peppers into roughly equal pieces about 1/2 inch wide.

PeperonataIn a large pot, heat the 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat.  Dab the capers dry with a paper towel, and add them to the hot oil.  Fry the capers for about 1 minute, or until they bloom and become crispy.  Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes, or until the paste turns from bright red to brick red.  Stir in the onion, fennel, chile flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion and fennel are tender.

Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, dislodging any browned bits from the pan bottom, and stir in the peppers.  Cook for a few minutes, taste for the seasoning, and adjust with more salt or vinegar if needed.  At this point, the peppers can be served warm or at room temperature.  Or, let cool completely and store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

For our salad course, I decided to keep it simple, and selected another of my favorite recipes from A16, a cucumber salad with fresh ricotta cheese.

Cucumber Salad with Ricotta, Almonds and Bottarga
3 small to medium Persian cucumbers or 1 1/2 English (hothouse) cucumbers
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, or as needed
2 cups fresh ricotta, drained if necessary
1/4 cup whole natural almonds, toasted and coarsley chopped
1-ounce piece bottarga for grating

Slice off a piece of cucumber and taste it.  If the skin is bitter, peel the cucumbers. Otherwise, keep the peel.  Halve the cucumbers lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon.  Cut the cucumber halves crosswise. (If you are using an English cucumber, you will need to cut the halves crosswise into 2 or 3 pieces before quartering them.) Quarter each half lengthwise, then cut again into narrow, fingerlike wedges. They should be about 4 inches long. In a bowl, toss the cucumber wedges with 1/4 teaspoon salt, the olive oil, and the lemon juice. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or lemon juice if needed. Set aside.

Taste the ricotta. If it tastes bland, mix in a pinch of salt. Place an equal amount of the ricotta, about 1/3 cup, in the center of 6 plates. Divide the cucumber wedges among the plates, arranging them around the ricotta. Sprinkle the almonds over the ricotta and cucumbers. Using a Microplane or other fine-rasp grater, grate a generous amount of bottarga over each salad. Serve immediately.

During our first trip to Napa Valley, Curt and I were so fortunate to dine at Ad Hoc, one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants. After we polished off our main course, our waiter appeared with a cheese board and this was my first introduction to the idea of serving an after-dinner cheese course. It was such a treat!  So, after our oso bucco plates were cleared, we all enjoyed a few tasty bites of proscuitto from my favorite local Italian market, Claro’s, and some yummy cheeses.

zabaglioneSelecting our dessert course was difficult .. so many delicious options! I came across a recipe on Better Homes & Gardens webpage that sounded amazing, albeit somewhat decadent, and it was decided .. Layered Chocolate Zabaglione Cream Cakes.

There are 3 components to this dessert: chocolate cake, white chocolate cream frosting and white chocolate zabaglione sauce. Curt (my hubby) found a Ruffoni zabaglione pot on eBay that still had the wedding gift tag on it .. I sure like the way the copper causes the eggs to set up properly.

Layered Chocolate Zabaglione Cream Cakes
Makes 12 servings

1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate
6 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup sifted cake flour
White Chocolate Cream Frosting (recipe below)
White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce (recipe below)
Fresh berries (optional but makes for a beautiful presentation!)
White and/or bittersweet chocolate curls or shavings

Grease a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper or waxed paper; grease paper and set aside. In a small saucepan combine butter and bittersweet chocolate. Heat and stir over low heat until melted; set aside to cool. Allow eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs slightly. Add sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon; beat with an electric mixer on high speed for 10 minutes. Sift about one-third of the flour over egg mixture. Gently fold in flour. Repeat sifting and folding in one-third of the flour at a time. Gently fold in melted chocolate mixture. Spread batter in prepared pan.

cakeBake in the preheated oven for 18 to 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and peel off paper. Cool cake completely on a wire rack. Cut cake into 24 squares or 2- to 2-1/4-inch circles.

Just before serving, place a cake square or circle on each of the dessert plates. On each cake square or circle, spread about 3 tablespoons White Chocolate Cream Frosting. Top each with a second cake square or circle. Spoon White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce over cakes, allowing some to flow down sides. If desired, garnish with fresh berries and chocolate curls.

White Chocolate Cream Frosting
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao (found this at Bev Mo)

In a large mixing bowl, beat whipping cream, powdered sugar and liqueur on high speed of an electric mixer until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Use immediately.

White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Dash salt
1/2 cup whipping cream

In the top of a double boiler, beat egg yolks with white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao, sugar and dash salt. Place over boiling water (upper pan shouldn’t touch the water). Beat on medium speed of an electric mixer until mixture nearly triples in volume and temperature reaches 145 degrees, and maintains that temp for 3 1/2 minutes (about 15 minutes total). Remove from heat. Place pan in a larger bowl of ice water and continue beating until zabaglione has cooled.

zabaglioneIn a small bowl, beat 1/2 cup whipping cream on medium speed until soft peaks form (tips curl). By hand, fold about one-fourth of the whipped cream into zabaglione to lighten; fold in remaining whipped cream.