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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My best things in life

     As the end of a new year approaches, I thought I'd reflect on what I consider my indulgences - past, present and future.  Some may consider this as my wish list for Father Christmas.  Why not?  A little hope never bothered anyone, did it?

Best place to live: I’d kill to have an apartment in Paris and a house in Provence for the summers and a cabin in the woods in the Auvergne.  I would have a nice vegetable garden, chickens of all kinds, ducks, geese, etc. so I can have a daily supply of eggs in all colours. 

Toujours Provence

Best meal: a nice selection of cheeses - cow, goat and sheepish blue, with cracker assortment and the best red wine I can afford.  Then, Neuhaus chocolates for dessert with a nice cappuccino made with crème bruleé flavoured beans and creamer.

Best way to relax: eating my “best meal” in bed, while watching a good movie.

Best piece of clothing I own: my St. John trench coat.  I bought it last year and wear it any chance I get (which in Florida is not very often).

Best blog: Lost past remembered.  She offers history of luscious food.  A sight and sigh for true epicureans.

Best inspiring individual: Princess Diana has inspired me throughout her lifetime.  Her contagious energy in the face of adversity was remarkable and her elegance unique and always impeccable.

Best music: I grew up on ABBA, and for years they were the only group I would listen to.  Nowadays I like Celine Dion, mostly for her positive attitude towards life and unrelenting character, and Adele for her absolute talent.

Glamorous ABBA

Best read: The murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  The first time I read it I didn’t know the twist at the end.  Christie broke the rules when she wrote it.  It is a book that you only need to read once, and the surprise hits you like a bucket of iced water.

Best TV:  This is so hard.  TV is really bad these days, especially in the U.S.  I like Mad Men and Sex and the City - both excellently written, and the reality TV show Giuliana & Bill; the latter because of the ridiculous way in which it is filmed, and the even more ridiculous way in which they handle themselves.

Best fashion designer: Alexander McQueen.  He possessed true genius.

Best beauty essential: False eyelashes!  I just discover this and have yet to master their application, but they give the biggest oomph to the eyes with minimal effort, even when one is utterly tired.

Best shop:  I have a love-affair with Anthropologie these days.  But I am counting my days till I get to visit Liwan, in Paris.  I have a feeling I will feel like buying the whole shop.

A shelf in Paris' Liwan

Best thing about blogging: it gives me a sense of freedom to express myself and my deepest feelings and opinions without any contrition.

Best thing in life: the moments of laughter with the people I love, anytime, anywhere.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sweet breads for the holidays

     At this time of year, I gobble up on panettone and pandoro.  The sweet yeasty cakes from Italy whether with raisings or without, are my favorite for the holidays and I survive on them all the time.  I can have them for breakfast, mid-afternoon snacks and as a dessert after lunch or dinner.  This year in particular I have found lots of different panettone and pandoro cakes here in Orlando and decided to go on a tasting adventure.

     Our first cake, Panettone has a long history, finding its roots in the Roman Empire.  It first appeared in Milan, around the 15th century, and spread like wildfire as a traditional bread for Christmas.  Its origins are quite mythical, and they involve a love story of two bakers, the invention of the bread by a nun in order to cheer the convent at Christmastime, and a last minute dessert presented on Christmas Eve at the court of Count Sforza in Milan.  My grandmother used to make her own panettone every year.  It took her a whole day to make the bread, and it was “de rigueur”, as my Milanese grandfather demanded it homemade.  She put everything in it – candied fruit, raisins and walnuts.  It is tradition to eat a slice of this bread on 4th January 4th to commemorate the feast of San Biagio, the patron saint of the throat, in order to insure good health for the coming year.  Italians eat panettone with a nice cappuccino or espresso for breakfast, and with a flute of Prosecco or Vin Santo as a holiday treat.

     Pandoro is original from Verona, the town of the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.  Unlike panettone, it never contains raisins or nuts (a factor that makes me prefer it to the former), and is shaped tall and somewhat pyramid-like.  It is sprinkled with lots of confectioner’s sugar just before serving and can be used inventively for a number of desserts.  Pandoro can be cut diagonally and stuffed in between layers with pastry cream and liqueur.  If cut this way each piece resembles a star, making it highly appropriate for the holidays.  It can also be served stuffed with ice-cream or topped with a nice zabaglione sauce.

Juliet's balcony in Verona

     I started the holiday season early this year with an unusual pandoro with crème of pistachio made by Pasticceria Paluani.

     This was a soft cake with an unusual filling.  The creamy slithers of creamy pistachio made it perfect as a dessert on its own.  Generally, store bought pandoros include a packet of icing sugar to sift on top just before serving.  This one was no exception, and with the sugar being vanilla-scented, it made it even more special.  This is the perfect cake to end your Christmas dinner.  Accompany it with a nice flute of chilled prosecco. 

     Next we tried the Tronco di Natale, also from Pasticceria Paluani.  The Italian version of Spain's Brazo de Gitano, this "trunk" purports its Italian origin with its filling of vanilla and hazelnut cream.  Remarkable in shape, it's covered in chocolate and is topped with two sugar flowers on the top, reminiscing of the  wildflowers that just grow on a fallen tree trunk.  I suggest slicing it with a sharp serrated knife and accompanying it with a nice cup of good Italian espresso.  This was my husband's favorite of all the breads we tried.

     Certainly the most outrageous Christmas bread / cake was the profiteroles by Dal Colle.  Leave it to the Italians to create the perfect hostess gift, which consists not only of pandoro filled with hazelnut cream, but is also topped with profiteroles filled with pastry cream.  Needless to say, if you are invited over for Christmas dinner, bring this cake as your contribution.  You'll be remembered as the perfect guest.

The inside of the impressive Dal Colle cake.

     My next test was the panettone from Pasticceria Scarpato made exclusively for Williams-Sonoma.  At $39.95, it was the most expensive bread.  The justification for the splurge?  Marrons glacés of course!  This exclusive bread is as light as cotton as its sponginess is surpassed only by the creamy chunks of glazed chestnuts found throughout.  Once opened, it will last several days under a domed cake stand, and when not so fresh anymore, it makes heavenly French toast.

     Although it is an expensive cake, should you sign up for the Williams-Sonoma VISA card, you get $25.00 statement credit plus an additional discount given at the store just for opening the account.  Hence, it is the perfect opportunity to get this sumptuous bread and indeed enjoy the holidays.

     Last but not least, we tried something from Germany - the Baumkuchen, or tree cake.  I remember this uniquely shaped, distinguished-flavoured cake from my days in Argentina.  We used to order it for the holidays from Confitería La Suiza in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Luro, where my cousin lived.  

     Baumkuchen is a unique cake with roots as far back as the 1500's.  It originated in the area of Bohemia and is cooked on a spit while "brushing on even layers of batter and then rotating the spit around a heat source. Each layer is allowed to brown before a new layer of batter is poured. When the cake is removed and sliced, each layer is divided from the next by a golden line, resembling the growth rings on a crosscut tree" (

     As you may imagine, this cake is not simple to make due to not only because of the special equipment necessary for the task, but also the required skill of the pastry maker.  It is always recommended to be accompanied by champagne or prosecco, which is what we chose for our year end celebrations.  The baumkuchen I found was at World Market and was covered in chocolate, and it is a mini example of this tall, traditional cake.  Still, it is an exotic addition to any holiday table.

     I hope you have fun trying some or all of these cakes just as much as we have.  And remember, the diet starts in January.  


Friday, November 30, 2012

The Allure of Salted Caramel

     It was not too long ago that salted caramel became the “in” flavor of our age.  According to food writer and eater extraordinaire Nigella Lawson (see my post on her here), salted caramel is the “class A drug of the confectionary world”.  And she has the photo to prove it.

     Perhaps it was the ongoing fascination of sweet and sour that Americans had acquired, mostly through ill-prepared Chinese food, that made it stick.  I still remember when four years ago I made a stop at my local Starbucks drive-in on very chilly night and saw they were offering a salted caramel hot chocolate.  Keen on the combination, I ordered it at once and was not disappointed.  The slight hint of saltiness added that extra kick that made the already rich hot chocolate a multi-dimensional treat.  Earlier on during that same dreadful year of the global financial crisis, Häagen-Dazs had introduced their version of salted caramel ice-cream.  And the craze in America had begun.

     Since then, the flavor has appeared in everything sweet and savoury – cocktails, main courses, appetizers, sauces, you name it.  The trend started in France’s Brittany region, where famous pattisier Pierre Hermé initially invented a salted caramel macaroon, while also spreading a few grains of fleur de sel on top of exquisitely dark, almost glinting chocolates.  Going back to Nigella, she claims salted caramel is one perfect combination because it brings together effectively opposing flavours, which cause a highly positive physiological reaction in the brain.

     For me, the allure of this flavor became compellingly attractive in a recipe I found through Pinterest for a vanilla cheesecake with a salted caramel sauce.  The original was in a Polish website called Art Kulinaria.  And no, before you ask, I don’t speak polish.  But here is where Google’s translator feature becomes highly useful; so much so, that it allowed me to actually bake the recipe to perfection.  What also attracted me to this recipe was the fact that it contained topfen, a curd-type cheese from the Alps within its ingredients, along with the ubiquitous ricotta.  This is, in fact, what a true cheesecake should be like, its deliciousness extending even to the crust, which incorporates ground almonds to give it that extra touch of luxury throughout. No brick-like firm texture here, as is the one obtained when using American cream cheese, but the light, airy smoothness of fresh, almost always unpasteurized curd cheeses like the Italian ricotta and the Eastern-European topfen.  It is indeed a delicate cake.

     This is a luscious recipe and it proves an elegant dessert for tea-time or the end of a light dinner.  It fits into a 22mm diameter mold – roughly 8.5 inches.

Ingredients for the base:
  • 270gr. Graham crackers crumbs
  • 30gr. Ground almonds
  • 85gr. melted butter
Ingredients for the curd:
  • 450gr. Topfen
  • 400gr. Ricotta
  • 175gr. sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 500ml very cold cream, 36% milkfat or higher
  • 1 level Tbsp. of sifted icing sugar
Ingredients for the caramel sauce:
  • 250ml. cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 60gr. butter
  • Fleur de sel for sprinkling
     Line the bottom of a circular mold with parchment paper and lightly grease the sides with butter.  From the outside, wrap it tightly with plastic wrap so that when inserted into the bain Marie water will not leak into it.
     Combine the Graham cracker crumbs, ground almonds and melted butter and mix thoroughly to the consistency of wet sand.  Cover bottom and sides of mold with the crust and refrigerate for 1 hour.

     Preheat the oven to 300F degrees.  Prepare a vessel larger than the mold of the cake and a kettle of boiling water for the bain Marie.  In a separate bowl, mix the topfen and ricotta cheeses.  Add the sugar and one egg at a time, combining thoroughly in between each egg.  Add the salt, scrape the seeds of the vanilla pod and mix.  Pour this mixture into the mold with the refrigerated base, then place it into the larger vessel and fill half way up with boiling water.  Insert into the preheated oven and bake for about an hour to an hour and a half (depending on the oven).  Remove from the oven when a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean, but watch that the cheesecake does not become extremely firm (you do not want an overcooked cheesecake, trust me on this one).  So watch your oven like a hawk.  After baking, remove from the oven and leave to cool.  Once at room temperature, place in the refrigerator at least 3 hours or – better – overnight.

     Once the cake has cooled, whip the very cold cream with the sugar to stiff, in a bowl that has been previously placed in the freezer for a few minutes, along with the beaters.  Top the cheesecake mold with the cream and place back into the refrigerator to stiffen.

     In the meantime, make the caramel sauce by placing the cream, butter and sugar in a saucepan, stirring under low heat, until the sugar dissolves.  Increase the heat, bring to a boil and cook on low for 5 to 7 minutes, until the sauce thickens.  Stir several times during cooking and watch that it does not burn.  Put aside to cool.  This will also help the sauce thicken.

     Bring the cheesecake out of the refrigerator, carefully remove it from the mold and place it on a cake pedestal.  Pour the caramel sauce in a thin abstract pattern on top of the cake and sprinkle with fleur de sel crystals. This cake can be served with a nice coffee flavored with – why not? – salted caramel creamer.  International Delight has a very good one, the Salted Caramel Mocha, which is a seasonal product, mostly available during the holidays.  My advice is to rush over to your neighborhood supermarket and grab two or three (they last about 5 months in the refrigerator).  It is a rich coffee creamer that adds just the right amount of saltiness to the already rich mocha flavor.  I like it better with a medium roast blend, like a Viennese (I use Helmut Sachers’).  You should grind the beans just before brewing them.

Best latte ever

     The holidays are definitely a time to indulge. So when gobbling all that fruitcake and panetonne, I suggest a salted caramel macchiato martini. Just mix in a cocktail shaker with ice:

A nice salted caramel chocolate tartlette from The Fresh Market 

Strain into a martini glass. It tastes very much like a white Russian. I chose to coat the rim with salted caramel sugar from the The Spice & Tea Exchange.

     The holidays are THE time of the year to indulge. I have found salted caramel, as a flavour, encompasses it all. There is no better way to celebrate than by going from one side of the tasting spectrum to the other. Regardless of what your beliefs are, my wish is for you and your family that of truly Happy Holidays, full of warmth, cheer good food and, above all, good company.



- Lawson, Nigella, My love affair with salted caramel,
- Severson, Kim, How caramel developed a taste for chocolate, New York Times, December 30, 2008

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"The Discovery of Chocolate"

     Alright.  I admit it.  I have taken an extended sabattical and this is a big no-no in the blog world.  I do, however, have several things under works that I think everyone will be please to read and get inspired about.

The Festival Welcome Center, where the event took place.

     This past weekend, for instance, I attended the 17th Annual Epcot Food and Wine Festival here in Orlando.  This is truly an event I love and look forward to every year, having attended it several times now.  This one however, was the very first time (and I certainly feel not the last), that I had the pleasure to participate in one of the seminars offered.  The Discovery of Chocolate was sponsored by Callebaut and was as indulgent as its name suggests.

This was what greeted each guest as they arrived at their seat.

    It lasted just over an hour.  As soon as we took our seats, we were faced with 5 different containers with 2 oz. of chocolate each ready for the tasting from the best South American chocolates: 40.5% Ghana, 66% Mexique, 70% Saint Domingue, 72% Venezuela and 75% Tanzanie.  As Chef Julien Rose, from Oregon based Moonstruck Chocolate, expertly prepared a luscious chicken mole, we were encouraged to smell and taste the delectable pieces.  Apparently, the best way to taste chocolate is to allow for a 15' pause in between the different sorts, and always from lighter to darker.  My tasting notes are as follows:

  • Ghana: milk chocolate with sift, velvety and creamy texture.  Smells like vanilla.  High in sugar an with a light cocoa flavour.
  • Mexique: reminiscent of burgundy wine.  More up-front bitterness and slightly acidic.
  • Saint Domingue: earthy and very intense.  Bitter yet leathery.
  • Venezuela: best to pair with spices (this is the one used for the mole during the seminar.  Intense and sharp.
  • Tanzanie: very bitter.  Fruity and slightly acidic with a long after-taste.  Best for confections.

Chef Julian Rose in action.

     To wash down all the wonderful chocolate, we were offered 2 liqueurs.  One of them was Rosa Regale, an Italian dry wine made with - yes! - rose petals and raspberries, which can be served as dessert wine or as an aperitif.  It was suggested as a pairing for the darker type chocolates.  The other drink served was Crave Chocolate Mint liqueur, which in its mint version pairs particularly well sweeter chocolates, like whites and pralinés (the company also makes it cherry and chili flavored, this latter one a future objective of mine).

     For the demonstration, Chef Julian Rose prepared chicken mole with 72% Venezuela cocoa before our very eyes, and I must admit that although I have never used chocolate in the cooking of savoury foods, this dish blew me away.  It was accompanied by a purple potato pureé and crunchy greens. I'll be preparing it in the near future (the recipe was given to us) and sharing this wonderful dish with all of you.

Chef Rose's chicken mole.
     Dessert was Brazilian truffles called brigaderos.  They are made daily in their native Brazil, as they are best consumed fresh, and Chef Rose picked up the recipe in his recent trip to that country.

From bottom left to top right: white chocolate and coconut,
praliné, semi-sweet chocolate, pistachio and dark chocolate
truffle brigaderos.
     Needless to say, the truffles were delicious and satisfied each one of my sweet teeth.  I really enjoyed this experience and look forward to more in next year's festival.  If you are a Florida local, or want to enjoy one of the best food adventures of your life, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival is indeed the right ticket.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Autumnal muffins to welcome the season of the harvest

     Ah Autumn!  I welcome the season with even more eagerness every year.  Perhaps it is the fact that summer here in Florida is too hot. (No, wait! That is the real reason, actually).  For all of you up north, I'm sorry to admit this, but when the end of August arrives, I come alive.  The tourists go away from Orlando and I get to have the city to myself again.  No more interminable traffic jams, plus the prospect of shorter days and cooler weather reminds me that the holidays are just around the corner, and so are the opportunities to enjoy rich foods, both made at home and bought and the local gourmet shops.

     My first bake of this Autumn season was a Swedish recipe I found in a blog called Scandilicious.  I like to call them Autumnal Muffins, and just as one of the blog's commentators points out, they pair extremely well with a shot of scotch (my favourite being The Famous Grouse) as an evening snack.

     I am reproducing the recipe with USA measurements here, along with the photos I took while making it.  The muffins taste very earthy and they seem indeed to be made for Autumn.

Ingredients (for about 12 muffins):
  • 5.29 oz. white spelt flour
  • 3.5 oz. whole grain spelt flour
  • 1.76 oz. oat bran
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 salt
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 whole nutmeg, finely grated
  • 8 sprigs of sage, roughly torn, plus 4 whole ones for scattering on a few of the muffins
  • 3.38 oz. plain yoghurt
  • 3.5 tsp. melted butter
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 generous squirt of mild honey
  • 1 tsp English mustard
  • 9 oz. butternut squash, roughly grated
  • 3.5 oz. Stilton cheese, broken into 1/4 inch chunks
  • A handful of walnut pieces
  • Extra cheese of your choice for sprinkling on top of the muffins

1. Preheat the oven to 375F and line the muffin pan with squares of parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl mix all the dry ingredients and stir through with a large spoon to distribute the raising agents.  In a medium bowl mix the yoghurt with the melted butter.  Crack the eggs into a cup and beat with a fork.  Add the honey and mustard to the eggs and stir again so you distribute the honey and mustard evenly.
3. Make a well in the middle of the larger bowl with the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid ingredients.  Stir through about eight times (do not overmix or you'll have tough muffins!) using a large spoon, scooping in a figure-of-eight motions so you can incorporate all the ingredients.  Add the butternut squash, stir 2 to 3 times and then finally add the Stilton and the walnuts, roughly chopped.  Stir through a few more times so you have an even mixture.
4. Use an ice-cream scoop and distribute the muffin mixture equally in the muffin pan.  Lay a few shelvings of extra cheese on top (Parmeggiano is a good option).  Then place a few sage leaves on some of the muffins.  Bake on the upper shelf of the oven for 20 minutes or so, until they look golden-brown and firm to the touch.  Eat while warm.

These savoury muffins are an ideal afternoon snack with a shot of Scotch, as accompaniment to a soup or with a crunchy Autumn salad.  They also freeze well.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Picnic Day

     I've been wanting to go out on a picnic for a while.  Wanted us to go out, have a swim, then cook a nice barbecue, and generally have a blast in the outdoors.  The time presented itself this past Labor Day, when the weather couldn't have been more perfect - lovely blue sky, hot, but not overtly (96F maximum), and with relatively low humidity.  We headed for Wekiva Springs, just a 20' drive from our home.

     The park is a great place to spend the day outdoors.  The natural spring has the purest, clearest water, and it is NOT salty.  As soon as we arrived we took a swim, then relaxed while people-watching.  There is canoeing as well, which we will do some other time, and some long and mysterious trails, with wildlife appearing right before ones eyes just like magic.
The main spring, highly inviting and refreshing.

     When lunch time hoovered, we grabbed the grill and some burgers and found a shadowy spot under a palm tree.  We did have some trouble lighting the coals, and spent about half a bottle of lighting fluid until they finally started burning, but once they did, the burgers cooked steadily and turned out wonderfully juicy.  I brought two huge ones, one made out of ground lamb with herbs and the other of beef with foie gras, ordered from Dean & Deluca.  I made some raita to pair with the lamb burger and opened a jar of caramelized onions to top the foie gras one.  To both, I added some tomato slices and lettuce.  Once placed into the sesame seed-topped buns, they were so big I cut them in half so that we both could try each variety.  They were delicious and filled our stomachs for the rest of the day.

Walking the trails after our substantial burger lunch.
     I am including here the recipe for the raita sauce I used on the lamb burgers.  It's Nigella Lawson's, and goes great especially with Indian or middle-eastern food.  

  • 250gr Greek yogurt
  • 2 fat or 3 thin spring onions
  • 1/2 fresh green chili
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 cucumber, peeled and cut into small cubes 
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons freshly chopped coriander and mint
  1. Tip the yogurt into a medium mixing bowl and, letting everything drop on top of it, slice the spring onions finely and deseed and chop the chilli finely too.
  2. Peel and mince the garlic into the yogurt and also add the peeled cubed cucumber and most of the freshly chopped coriander and mint, reserving a little to sprinkle on top later.
  3. Mix all these ingredients together, and taste for seasoning.  I agree with Nigella's suggestion of adding a fair bit of salt.  Sprinkle the remainder coriander and mint on top and serve.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A foodie day in D.C.

     A few weeks ago, and in his best out-of-the-blue fashion, my husband decided he wanted to visit his family in Alexandria for the Muslim Eid festivities.  I said I would go, however I would need one day to spend on my own around Washington D.C. and do some museum viewing, along with food tasting and shopping.  He agreed and we booked the flight.

     Our expedition lasted only three days, but it was fulfilling enough for me.  We packed light in order not to have to check any luggage in (a total and costly enterprise these days), and I made sure there was enough space left for my Neuhaus chocolates in my bag, which I planned to get from their shop at Union Station.

     After spending the whole of Sunday on Eid prayers and eating spicy Indian food throughout the day, I prepared for my D.C. excursion on Monday.  I left early.  Just before 10AM my husband dropped me at the Metro station in Virginia and, about 20 minutes later, I was in D.C.  I got off at the Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station and headed for the National Gallery of Art and its West Building.  I was interested in seeing the paintings from the Middle Ages and, especially, the Renaissance.  I was not disappointed.  In fact, I was shocked at the amount of treasures I found.  The museum's imposing marble hallways lead to individual galleries with works by Tintoretto, Titian, Bernini, Rembrandt, and several painters of the Flemish school of the 14th and 15th centuries, including both paintings and sculptures.  My particular interest was, of course, that of seeing the only Da Vinci in America, the portrait of Ginevra De' Benci.
Ginevra De' Benci is the American Leonardo

     The daughter of a wealthy banker of the time, she is portrayed very much in the same way of the Mona Lisa, with a river on one side and a forest on the other.  The expression on her face suggests a calm, though acute misdemeanor.  I was surprised to see that the back of the picture is also painted, showing elaborate work of laurel leaves and gold.  Leonardo was obviously a man of detail.  I also admired James Whisler’s portrait of his mistress, Symphony in White No. 1.  Unlike Leonardo’s this is quite a large painting of a very young girl with a sort of haunting look that is softened by the lovely lace white dress she is wearing.

Giant marble columns inside the 
National Gallery of Art.
     After an hour and a half of walking, my spirit richly imbued by the presence of so many great works of art, I became hungry.  I walked all the way into the Concourse, which is the section of the Gallery that connects with the East Building, and grabbed an early lunch (I hadn’t had breakfast).  It was self-service and I chose a Greek-style flatbread with a green salad and a slice of spongy carrot cake with the creamiest of cream-cheese icings.  I grabbed a San Pellegrino limonatta to drink.  All for $15 – quite expensive in my view. 

     Re-inforced by this sustenance, I went back to the West Building and into the shop in the lookout for some mementos.  I got a set of six coasters, magnets for my fridge with imprints of famous paintings, a silk scarf for a relative of     ours, and gift-wrapping paper with antique design of the different regions of Italy.

My new vintage set of coasters.
     I decided to leave the East building, where modernist works of art lay, for a future trip.  I went out of the National Gallery and through 7th Street, headed for the National Archives, a place I’d always wanted to visit since I saw the National Treasure movies.  The Archives may hold lots of information about the nation, but not much of it is for viewing.  One basically enters the building and, after going TSA-like security, walks into a rotunda where the “Charters of Freedom” are displayed.  It starts with the Magna Carta (although I’m not sure which Magna Carta we are talking about here, as I saw the original one in London at the British Library), then goes on to the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, the full Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.  Although the room is very dark, due to conservation issues of these prized documents, the scripts are fading alarmingly.
The National Archives building
     After finding nothing else of interest in the Archives, I headed for the Metro again and into Union Station for my foodie adventure.  As soon as I went in, I looked for the Neuhaus shop, which was momentarily closed, with a sign indicating that the attendant had gone to the bank and would be back shortly.  I took a moment to ponder which of the boxes I was seeing through the glass windows I would be buying.  But of course I already knew, and did not have to wait but two minutes, when the shop attendant came back and invited me in, all smiles.  The temperature inside the store was a cool 60F, but I was in Heaven.  I chose an All Dark Ballotin, and a selection of Cornet d'Oré, Tentation and Caprice.  Then I also chose three pieces to have “on the go” with a nice cup of coffee.  The shop attendant was so thrilled about all my shopping that he did not charge me for these latter ones.

     By now I had been walking for about 4 hours and was hungry again, so I headed downstairs for my visit to “B. Smith’s Restaurant”.  It is found in an imposing area of the big building that makes up the train station, with the highest possible ceilings, carpeted walls and large dining salon.  There is also a bar preceding it.  Since I’d had lunch earlier, I only had a B. Smith’s limonatta, a cocktail drink made with lemoncello liqueur, and fried oysters in aioli sauce, served on a bed of greens with chopped pepper and mango.  Both were delicious and refreshing, and I welcomed the relaxed and quiet atmosphere of the restaurant.  The service was very friendly and knowledgeable, and I was glad to notice the many people of colour that patronized the place, dining unobtrusively with the rest of us.

Fried oysters with aioli sauce at B. Smith's Restaurant.
      Full of contentment, my joy hit another note of happiness when I saw Prêt-á-Manger, one of my favorite sandwich shoppes from Europe.  I ordered a cappuccino and had it for dessert with the three chocolates I had gotten as a thank-you gift from Neuhaus.  Then, I headed back to Virginia, where my husband picked me up at the same location he had dropped me earlier in the day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A birthday celebration

     I've been planning my husband's birthday for months.  Although I'd already given him his present two months earlier - a day of dolphin interaction and swimming at Orlando's Discovery Cove attraction park - I wanted to prepare a special meal on the actual date.  I wreaked my cookbooks trying to find some sort of fusion, if one must, between Indian flavours and Western ones.

     A friend of mine whom I lost contact with left once at my place a book called Quiches, pies and tarts.  I love all of those, either sweet or savoury, and there is one in particular I had always planned to make, ever since I started dating Pakistani men: Indian dhal pies.  As it happens, I was planning to make it for my ex-boyfriend’s birthday, but my present husband benefited from it, as well he should.  You will need to collect some special ingredients, like besan flour and masoor dhal (or red lentils), and add one or two spices to your spice rack, that is if you don’t already have them.  It bears mentioning that, although the recipe does not call for salt, I added a pinch of it to the dhal mixture, yet it could very well have done without it as one really does not miss it.  These pies also freeze very well, so if you plan to do so, stop just short of the shredded cheese.  Place them on a plaque in the freezer for about an hour or so, until moderately hard, then transfer to an insulated bag to complete the process.

Here’s the recipe for 6 individual pies:

*      10 oz. potato, diced
*      14 oz. butternut squash, diced
*      2 carrots, chopped
*      2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
*      2 oz. broccoli florets
*      1 onion, chopped
*      1 tsp. ground turmeric
*      1 tsp. garam masala
*      1 tsp. ground cumin
*      2 cloves garlic, crushed in a mortar
*      1 tsp. black mustard seeds
*      ½ cup red lentils
*      2/3 cup grated Cheddar
*      ¼ cup thick yoghurt
*      2 cups besan flour
*      1/3 cup milk powder (preferably skim)
*      4 oz. cold butter, diced
*      1 egg, lightly beaten
*      Baking beads


1 – Preheat the oven to 400 F.  Place the potato, butternut squash and carrot on a plaque and drizzle with the olive oil.  Bake for 40 minutes, turning once, until golden brown.  Steam the broccoli for 3 to 5 minutes.

2 – Cook the onion in a little oil until soft.  Add the spices, garlic and mustard seeds and cook for 1 minute.  Wash the lentils several times in cold water, then add to the mixture along with 1 cup of water.  Bring to the boil, then simmer, stirring, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the lentils are soft.

3 – Grease the six fluted loose-based tins. Process the flour, milk powder and butter for 15 seconds until crumbly.  If you don’t have a food processor, just rub the mixture between your fingers until it becomes crumbly.  When it comes together, turn out, gather into a ball and roll out to line the tins.  Cover with baking beads and bake for 7 minutes.  Remove the paper and the beads and bake for an additional 5 minutes.  Allow to cool.

The final product, with a side of Green
Goddess cole slaw.

4 – Divide the lentil dhal among the pastry shells, top with the roast vegetables, broccoli and Cheddar.  Bake the pies for 5 minutes to melt the cheese and top with a little plain thick yoghurt to serve.

     To complete the birthday celebration I decided on a truly Indian sweet instead of the proverbial cake.  Indian sweets are, to my taste, generally unimpressive, but when I saw this dish being prepared by Chef Anjum Anand in her cooking show, my taste buds were asserting it will be worth a try.  A creamy, pale yellow cream, Shrikhand (or Sweet Saffron yoghurt), is one of the main desserts in Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisine.  A festive dish kept for special occasions, it’s basically sweetened thick yoghurt with a bit of nuts, some fruit and silver leaf for decoration, very refreshing for a hot summer day. 

     Edible silver leaf is not easy to find here in America (not even in Asian stores) and if you do, it will cost a bundle.  Here’s where I got mine from  After all, this was indeed a special occasion.

This recipe, which will render approximately 4 servings, should be started the night before and finished about half an hour prior to assembly.

Shrikhand is delicious and refreshing.