February 25, 2016

Chocolate Chip Pancakes

Italians don't really do breakfast. If anything, people grab a cornetti (croissant) and a cappuccino and power walk to wherever they need to be. So when my class was cancelled this morning I wanted a big hearty brunch that would last me until the next time I happened to have time for a real breakfast (which probably won't be soon between visiting as many countries in Europe as possible and eating as much food as possible and also going to class).

I ultimately decided on chocolate chip pancakes despite the fact that baking powder, vanilla extract, and chocolate chips don't exist here. I made it work, though, by making my own baking powder, using a powdered vanillin substitute, and chopping up a fancy Italian chocolate bar. Hopefully you won't have to do the same, but it just proves that this recipe is pretty hard to mess up.

Like all good pancake recipes, this recipe is extremely simple. You just whisk your dry ingredients together and your wet ingredients together and combine them just until mixed and then fry them up by the dozen. More specifically, I combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt first.

As for the wet ingredients, I use eggs, vanilla, butter, and, of course, buttermilk. I cannot stress enough how important it is to use buttermilk. Buttermilk isn't really a thing in Italy, so the first time I made these here I just used regular milk and these were flat and lifeless because the batter wasn't acidic enough to activate the baking soda. This morning, I added a squirt of lemon juice which worked as a good substitute but still wasn't nearly as good as the liquid gold found back home in the south.

To finish the batter, just stir everything together until just combined. The hallmark of a good pancake batter is that it's still slightly lumpy because fully mixing it risks overmixing it, which means tough pancakes. Cooking the pancakes is an art as well. I've found that either the first pancake is the most perfect one or the worst one, so don't be discouraged if it's hideous (it still tastes delicious). I like to fry mine in a mixture of butter and oil so I get flavor and color. I use just enough fat to cover the bottom of the pan, but you can always stray from this. Some people prefer all butter or all oil, and my dad uses enough of both to practically deep fry the pancakes--which is delicious if you aren't watching how much fat is used.

Before frying, you can fold in some berries, bananas, chocolate, nuts, or anything else you happen to want in your pancakes. I love chocolate chip pancakes, but I tend to add them on top of the finished pancakes so the chocolate doesn't scorch in the pan. If anything does burn in the pan, you should wipe it out and start with some new butter and/or oil so the rest of your pancakes don't burn. As I said earlier, this recipe is pretty hard to screw up, but that's one of a few ways to ensure that you're getting the best pancakes possible.

3/4 Cup Buttermilk
1 Cup Flour
3 T Sugar
1 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt
1 Egg
1 tsp Vanilla
2 T Butter, Melted

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Combine the buttermilk, egg, butter, and vanilla, then whisk into the flour mixture.

Heat some butter and oil in a skillet or on a griddle and cook pancakes until golden brown.

Serves 2-4
Recipe Adapted from

February 10, 2016

Chocolate Lava Cake

Italian desserts are wonderful. I've had panna cotta (think ice cream jello), gelato (ice cream but better), brioche con gelato (tons of gelato crammed into a fluffy brioche roll), struffole (Italian doughnut holes), cenci (strips of fried dough smothered in powdered sugar), and more. However, I'll be the first to admit that the dessert scene here could be improved by some chocolate cake, and your Valentine's Day plans probably could as well.

One of my favorite local bakeries/pizzerias has these giant brownies (but they look like chocolate cake) that look absolutely fantastic, but I don't really want to splurge 4 euro on about 10 seconds of bliss. I'd rather make my own chocolate cake, especially if there's an oozing molten center. There's the slight problem that Italians don't have baking powder and use vanillin powder instead of vanilla extract, but that doesn't matter for this recipe, making it even better for my chocolate cake quest.

I like my cake extra extra extra gooey, so simply underbaking the cakes isn't quite enough for me. I like to make a chocolate ganache to dot in the middle of each one before baking. This ensures that the center is always molten, even if you leave it in the oven a little longer than you should. It's just a mixture of cream and chocolate that I melt together, whisk until smooth, refrigerate until firm, and scoop into balls that go in the center of each ramekin. You can skip this if you want, but it's one of my favorite things about this recipe.

Now for the actual cake. It's not your typical chocolate cake recipe since it doesn't have much flour, relies on aerated eggs for leavening instead of baking powder or baking soda, and is baked in ramekins until gooey. This all means that the recipe is a bit more complex, but I promise that the end result is worth it.

Since the eggs are the main reason why this cake rises, it's really important to make sure they are thoroughly whipped and aerated. I love my whisk attachment on my stand mixer for this purpose, but it is possible to do this by hand (and you won't feel bad about eating more than one of them since it's definitely a workout). The egg, egg yolk, vanilla, salt, and sugar are whipped until they reach the ribbon stage, when they are a silky pale yellow and flow from your whisk in a smooth stream to form ribbons.

That mixture gets poured onto the butter and chocolate, which are melted together and cooled so they don't cook the eggs. Make sure you use high quality chocolate because it's the main flavor in this cake and you will definitely be able to tell the difference. The mixing technique in this step is crucial because you don't want to deflate the eggs you worked so hard to aerate. I gently scoop and fold with a silicon spatula until it's just combined; you want to do this by hand because a mixer would be too harsh, even on the lowest speed. The flour is added in the same style; there's only two spoonfuls so it shouldn't take long.

The batter is poured into ramekins that I have greased and coated with a 50/50 mixture of sifted flour and cocoa. This makes it easier to remove the cakes from the ramekins should you attempt to do so. I'm not much of a risk taker so I prefer to serve them in the ramekins, but it's hard to beat the aesthetic of a perfectly smooth molten chocolate cake on a plate with whipped cream, berries, or whatever else you want to serve them with. Most ramekins have a small notch near the top, which is where I fill the batter to. If your ramekins are straight, fill them up to around a 1/2" below the top. This leaves room for rising and for the ganache, which I drop spoonfuls of into each cake before baking.

There's no water bath for these cakes; they are simply baked at 400F until cooked through. This can be a bit hard to gauge since you can't do the toothpick test. I wait until the tops are crackly and they jiggle slightly when shaken gently. You don't want a soupy mess but you also want the cakes to be molten. They are best straight out of the oven so you get maximum ooziness, and I love to have them with vanilla bean ice cream or homemade whipped cream. For a true Valentine's Day treat, you can go all out with ice cream, whipped cream, fresh raspberries, chocolate sauce, and anything else you might enjoy. I'd recommend them as part of a big fancy dinner with spinach and prosciutto stuffed shells and warm focaccia, but maybe that's just because I'm completely immersed in Italian food.

3 T Cream
10oz Chopped Chocolate
1 Stick Butter
4 Eggs
1 Egg Yolk
1 tsp Vanilla
1/4 tsp Salt
1/2 Cup Sugar
2 T Flour

Heat the cream and 2oz chocolate in a small bowl and stir to combine. Chill until solid.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 400F. Grease 8 6 oz ramekins and dust with a 50-50 mixture of cocoa and flour.

Melt the butter and remaining chocolate together in a large bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, salt, and sugar together. Pour gently on top of the chocolate mixture and sprinkle with the flour. Gently fold the mixture together to avoid deflating.

Spoon the batter into the ramekins. Place a spoonful of the solidified ganache in the center of each ramekin and press down until just covered with batter. Place the ramekins on cookie trays and bake for about 12 minutes or until set just around the edges and crispy on top.

Makes 8
Recipe Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

February 2, 2016

Spinach & Prosciutto Stuffed Shells

Italy has a lot of pasta. It's a pretty obvious statement, but it's one that I've come to love while I've been here. I've had it all'amatriciana, con pomodoro (with tomato sauce), tossed in butter and rosemary and sea salt, and frutti de mare (with all sorts of seafood in Sicily). Pasta dishes are perfect for Valentine's Day because they are always luxurious, flavorful, and colorful. Also, anyone who serves me carbs has the key to my heart (to all my single male readers aged approximately 18-23 my email is on the top right corner of this page). I picked out this recipe in particular since stuffed shells just seem fancier than regular old pasta with tomato sauce (which is still delicious!) and are also much less messy to eat. You can actually cut them up and eat them as opposed to noisily slurping long noodles in front of your date.

This dish has three main components: the pasta, the stuffing, and the sauce. The pasta is easy enough; just buy a big box of big shells (mine had about 25 or 30 in it and it fit in the pan perfectly) and cook them to al dente in heavily salted water. One of the things I've noticed about Italian pasta is that they take the idea of al dente very seriously; any non-fresh pasta is cooked only until it's no longer noticeably crunchy. I do love al dente pasta but here it's a little much. However, I would recommend cooking it to the true Italian al dente here because the pasta cooks for a while in the oven and even American al dente pasta could turn to mush. If you're not big on shells, this filling works just as well for manicotti (long tubes), but you might have to break out a piping bag to fill them properly.

The filling is a little more complex but still very easy. Like most stuffed pastas, the base is ricotta cheese with some egg as a binding agent. I throw in some fresh spinach, some salty diced prosciutto (you can usually find it at the deli counter instead of hunting it down at specialty stores), and more cheese, specifically parmesan and an Italian blend. You could substitute other cheeses like mozzarella, grana padano, or provolone as long as you keep the ratio of 1/2 cup hard cheese (like parmesan or grana padano) to 1/2 cup shredded melting cheese (like mozzarella or the Italian blend). The only prep you have to do before combining all these ingredients is blanching the spinach; it reduces a lot of the bulk and retains the gorgeous green color.

The sauce is just my basic San Marzano sauce. It doesn't need many ingredients because the tomatoes taste so much better than regular cheap canned tomatoes. If you're making this for a romantic evening, trust me on this and splurge on the San Marzanos. I start by sauteeing some garlic in some olive oil until fragrant but not too brown. Then I add the tomatoes, a bit of sugar, and some fresh herbs. It only has to simmer for a few minutes and it's ready to go.

I spread a few spoonfuls of the sauce on the bottom of a big glass baking dish to prevent the pasta from sticking and burning. I stuff each shell with either a spoon or a piping bag; you want to fill them enough so that they are plump and hearty but not so much that they overflow and you run out of filling. I've found that a big spoonful is generally pretty good. Once your baking dish is full of these beautiful little morsels, top the whole thing with the rest of the sauce. Try and get an even layer and cover all the tops to prevent them from burning. I sprinkle additional melting cheese on top to prevent the sauce and the pasta from drying out too much (and because in Wisconsin and Italy there's always room for more cheese). At this point, you can stop and refrigerate the dish if you're making it in advance. About half an hour before it's time to impress your date (or just yourself if you plan on eating this alone while watching The Bachelor... no shame), pop it in the oven until bubbly and gooey and serve with some crusty bread. I'll have the perfect dessert recipe to complete your evening in a few days.

1 28oz Can Crushed San Marzano Tomatoes
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 tsp Sugar
1 Sprig Rosemary
2 Sprigs Thyme
25 Pasta Shells
15oz Ricotta
1 Egg
6oz Fresh Spinach
1 Cup Shredded Italian Blend Cheese
1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan
3oz Prosciutto, Diced

Heat some olive oil in a medium pot. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, sugar, rosemary, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes.

Cook the pasta shells to al dente in salted water according to package directions. Drain.

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spinach and cook for 30 seconds, stirring often. Quickly transfer to an ice bath with a slotted spoon. Squeeze out the excess moisture.

Stir the ricotta, egg, 1/2 cup shredded Italian blend cheese, and parmesan together. Add the spinach and prosciutto and season with salt and pepper.

Heat oven to 375F.

Spread a few spoonfuls of sauce onto the bottom of a 9x13" glass pan. Stuff the shells with a spoonful of the ricotta mixture. Place each shell in the dish. Pour the remaining sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining Italian blend. Bake for 30 minutes or until hot, bubbly, and melted.

Serves 6-8
Recipe Adapted from Gather and Dine