Can’t Decide Between Pie and Cake? It’s Time for Piecaken!

Planning the holiday dessert lineup is always the best part of entertaining. Christmas Cookies and Italian Strufoli (sweet honey balls with non pareils and candied fruit if you are unfamiliar to this tradition)? Check. 20+ varieties of Grandma’s favorite cookie recipes? Check. Pies and cakes? Not so fast. Think piecaken. It’s a perfect dessert if you cannot choose between a slice of moist cake with melt in your mouth frosting or a traditional holiday pie.

Piecakens have been around for several years now. They have a keen sense of surfacing in food magazines, blogs and bakeries every Thanksgiving and Christmas but I bake them for Valentines Day as well.

Tradition rules with holiday pies. If you don’t have the time to bake one, go out and buy a pie. Pumpkin, Apple, Pecan or Sweet Potato to name a few. Cakes however, are a matter of choice whether they are double dark fudge, cinnamon spice, buttery bourbon, rich red velvet or any other flavor that floats your boat. Bake them together by placing a baked pie inside a cake with complementary flavors and there you have it. The dessert conversation piece. Your Piecaken.

I first learned about them a few years ago when I read about Zac Young, a talented out of the box young culinary chef who playfully and creatively crafted these little culinary wonders during the Thanksgiving holiday. My first reaction was ‘is this a good thing?’ so I had to try making one myself. I scoured the internet for derivatives of the original which called for layering pies and cakes, one on top of the other with frosting in between. If that was not unusual enough, I was intrigued with other bakers who opted to actually bake a pie inside a cake.

So off I drove to my local grocery store in search of pies that would complement my cakes. The checkout employee must have thought I was on a pre-Thanksgiving sugar rush with my purchase of nine pies in different flavors and sizes. I think that I could have told her that I was getting ready to build up my strength for black Friday shopping and she would have believed me more than my description of a piecaken. Her response was classic. She laughed and said “Are you sure this will taste good?”   I told her that I would let her know and I am happy to report that they turned out great.

 

Here is the process:

Spray coat the baking pan which needs to be at least 2” (Preferably 3 inches) tall. Pour 2/3 of your cake batter in the pan. Take the pie out of the tin. OK. There is a note on this. You CAN also bake a pie but in the interest of time, I opted like so many others to buy a ready baked pie. Gently drop the pie into the center of the cake pan so as not to sink the pie. Pour the remaining batter over the pie in the cake pan. Bake for 350 degrees for the following size pans:

6 inch pans with a small mini pie –   35 minutes

9 inch pan with an 8 inch pie –   55 minutes

 

Test for doneness remembering that this is a very moist cake with a pie inside.

Let the piecaken cool. I personally like to refrigerate the piecaken for at least 1 – 2 hours.

Frost the single piecaken and decorate or for a more traditional piecaken which kind of resembles mismatch day at school when you were a kid, layer 3 piecakens using cream cheese frosting between each layer.

Decorate, chill, serve and enjoy the reactions of your family and friends.

This may never exceed traditional pumpkin pie or spice cake but it will have guests buzzing in the weeks ahead.

Happy Holidays everyone and Happy Piecaken!

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Boozy Fun at Your Dessert Table

Hosting a dessert party during the holidays? After you plan that decadent menu of sugary sweets, fruits and cheeses, take a little time to complement your holiday Viennese table with your favorite liqueurs. Marry the flavors of your lite bites with a little boozy fun and get the party started.

 

Often served at the end of a meal during the dolce hour, liqueurs add understated flair to a festive table when complemented with little thoughtful add-ons. I love to add a small cup of fresh espresso beans for Sambuca or Anisette lovers. Try serving fresh raspberries or Blackberries for the fruit liqueurs. Citrus slices quartered and dipped in sugar alongside small sprigs of fresh rosemary for Grand Marnier or Limoncello look so pretty. Plan ahead and try anything you can imagine to make the liqueur offering that much more inviting including chilling some of the cordial glasses with a frosted sugary rim. Even coffee lovers may be tempted to embellish their drink with a little liqueur. Add a dish of shaved chocolate, a cocoa shaker, a cinnamon shaker and a little bowl of fresh cream alongside some Bailey’s or Godiva.

Liqueurs are so diverse. They can be nutty, fruity, herbal, spicy, chocolaty or creamy. Some are best served straight up and others are best on ice or in a hot beverage. However you prefer your holiday liqueur, thank the host and hostess for going the extra mile to include this little luxury and enjoy the party!

Citrus.Rosemary

Here are 15 of my favorite liqueur staples to serve at the dessert table. I know some of you will ask why I did not list your family faves. Also, keep in mind that this list does not include Ports, Sherrys and Brandys. My apologies to our Great Grandpa Stephen from Slovakia who remains in our families hearts but there is no mention of Slivovitz Plum Brandy in this blog. These are liqueur staples I use for entertaining, cooking, baking and enjoyment listed in alphabetical order:

  1. Amaretto (Almond)
  2. Anisette (Licorice)
  3. Bailey’s Irish Cream
  4. Chambord (Raspberry)
  5. Crème de Cassis (Black Currant)
  6. Curacao (Bitter Orange)
  7. Drambuie (Scotch Whiskey with Honey, Herbs and Spices)
  8. Frangelico (Hazelnut)
  9. Grand Marnier (Orange)
  10. Godiva (Milk, White or Dark Chocolate)
  11. Jägermeister (Swiss Herbs)
  12. Midori (Melon)
  13. Kahlua (Coffee)
  14. Limoncello (Lemons)
  15. Sambuca (Licorice)

I would be remiss if I did not mention this. While some liqueurs have seen popularity shifts over the years, others remain timeless and even more have dissipated into oblivion. Does anyone out there remember Vandermint or Cheri Suisse? Those little blue delft and milk glass bottles were so cute and the liqueurs were especially delicious on ice cream. Maybe Santa will return them to us one day.

SecretSanta

Brasciola from Sicilia to the States

Brasiola.Plated

Served with Homemade Pasta and My Spinach, Feta & Mozzarella Rolls wrapped in Phyllo

Tom and I vacationed in Sicily three years ago. We enjoyed the warm hospitality, culture and food of this beautiful island and her people. While in Palermo, we had the pleasure of participating in a cooking class of typical Sicilian cooking conducted by Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi, the Duchess of Palma on Via Butera in her husband’s beautiful family Palazzo. Nicoletta was a gracious host and an informative teacher that day. We returned home to the states with wonderful recipes which beckoned me to get my apron and prepare panelle, fresh organic pasta sauce, Pantelleria style potato salad with capers and a fragrant flan-like dessert called Bianomangiare which I will share in another blog. Our main staple of the meal centered around thin slices of lean beef that we stuffed with fresh chopped pesto called Involtini di Carne alla Palermitana or Palermitan style Meat Rolls. We asked Nicoletta if this was a version of Braciola that we prepare back in the states. Her response was similar to other European cooks who remind us that our Italian-American ancestors arrived here bringing their traditions and recipes, many of which were adjusted over the years. Just ask them about spaghetti and meat balls.

The bottom line is that many Europeans enjoy our Italian-American traditions when they visit the states but they adhere to the recipes that comprise their culinary history and Nicoletta’s recipe for Involtini di Carne alla Palermitana is exactly that. Her delicious recipe for Palermitan Meat Rolls was easy to prepare and a memorable recipe I will keep on file but for now, I will stick with my Italian-American tradition of stuffed flank steak in robust red wine and tomato sauce. My recipe was revered by my Sicilian-American father-in-law, Tony Puma. This was his favorite. I really don’t know but I believe that after a serving or two of Brasciola, Dad may have even advised my husband Tom to marry me.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 slices of flank steak, sliced very thin
  • Pignoli Nuts
  • Raisins
  • Salami cut into small pieces
  • Shaved Parmesan Cheese
  • Shredded Mozzarella Cheese
  • 2 eggs diced
  • Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • Kitchen Twine
  • 1 quart of tomato and basil sauce
  • 1 cup red wine

RECIPE:                                                                                2 Forks

Simmer the tomato sauce with fresh basil, oregano, salt, pepper and a little red wine (1 cup)

To prepare the BRASCIOLA, tenderize each slice of beef and set aside

Prepare small bowls of each ingredient so it is easy to stuff each roll

Begin to stuff the Brasciola in this order – Breadrumbs, 1 tsp Olive Oil, shredded Mozzarella, diced Salami, Chopped Hard Boiled Egg, Parmesan, Raisins, Pignoli, Salt & Pepper to taste

Roll the flank steak while keeping the stuffing neatly inside. As you roll, tuck the sides into the center of the roll

Wrap each roll with kitchen twine

Gently pan fry each roll in olive oil until brown

Move the brasciola rolls into a saucepan of tomato basil sauce. Simmer on low for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Serve with tomato sauce and shaved Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Brussels Sprout Stalks: A Special Fall Recipe That Will Take You Into December

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Tom and I love the fall. Maybe it’s because it was our favorite time of year living in New York and perhaps we love it here in Florida because the weather is a bit less humid and we enjoy his grilled specialties while dining on the lanai to the sound of ducks on the lake. Our favorite fall veggie is Tom’s grilled Brussels Sprout on the stalk. This year, we were fortunate to enjoy them through early December. Here is Tom’s story.

2 Forks Recipes

Moderate Recipes

As a child growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I never like Brussels Sprout. They were just another vegetable my Italian mother made me eat. Who would guess that in my 60’s I would develop a new appreciation for this vegetable?

 

We love our Trader Joe’s in Naples, Florida and we visit the store 2 – 3 times a month to pick up the unusual and special culinary items that we can’t find in a supermarket. On one visit last year, we came upon a display crate full of Brussels Sprout stalks. At first, I didn’t realize what they were. Each one is a heavy, sturdy 2 foot long stalk with dozens of Brussels Sprout attached.   I was intrigued and impulsively bought one without any idea of how I was going to cook it but I was sure that I wasn’t going to just remove the sprouts from the stalk and steam them! With grilling season being all year in SWFL, I decided to cook them on my grill. Here’s the simple recipe. We rate it 2 forks for moderate preparation:

INGREDIENTS:

  • One 2-2 ½ foot long Brussels Sprout Stalk (Seasonally available at the end of Fall)
  • 3 – 4 Tbsp diced pancetta lightly sautéed in EVOO
  • 1 Small diced onion lightly sautéed in EVOO
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) enough to brush or spray the entire stalk and for sautéing the pancetta and onions
  • 3 – 4 Tbsp Shaved or Shredded 3 Cheese blend. We prefer Parmesan /Romano/Asiago blend
  • Coarse Ground Sea Salt
  • Coarse Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Tsp Herb de Provence or Italian Seasoning
  • 1 – 2 Tbsp Pignoli Nuts or Sliced Almonds
  • 2 – 3 Tbsp Raisins or Craisins

*Make sure the stalk will fit on the grill before preparing the stalk!

Pre-heat the grill to Medium – High Heat

PREPARATION STEPS:

  1. Rinse and pat or air dry the stalk
  2. Lay the stalk on top of double width aluminum foil. Make sure it is long and wide enough to enclose the entire stalk.
  3. Liberally spray or brush the stalk with EVOO
  4. Drizzle the diced and sautéed pancetta and onion along with the EVOO over the stalk
  5. Sprinkle the stalk with shaved and shredded Parmesan/Romano/Asiago cheese.
  6. Sprinkle the Pignoli nuts or sliced almonds and raisins or Craisins over the stalk
  7. Dust with Herbs de Provence or Italian Seasoning
  8. Sprinkle with Coarse Ground Sea Salt and Coarse Ground Black Pepper

**Note: The seasonings will adhere to the stalk better if the stalk is coated with EVOO. Otherwise, they will fall off a dry stalk.

9.  Fold up Aluminum foil sides and ends to completely enclose the stalk

10.  Place directly on the back of the bottom rack of the grill. Cook for 45 minutes. Don’t worry. It will not burn!

***Note: Grill the meat of your choice (Steak, London Broil, Ribs, etc) on your grill alongside the stalk.

11.   After 45 minutes, remove the stalk from the grill. Place on a long platter and let it stand wrapped for 4-5 minutes.   Open the top of the foil wrap for a great table presentation!

 

When ready to serve, sever each sprout with a sharp knife and place directly on everyone’s dinner plate. Much of the drizzled / sprinkled add-ons will collect at the bottom of the foil wrap. Scoop the add-ons and drizzle them on the plated sprouts. Enjoy with your favorite grilled meat. Leftover sprouts can be sautéed in EVOO and enjoyed the next day.

 

Enjoy!

Tom

 

 

Dancing with Sugarplums

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“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse… The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…”

How often have we read The Night Before Christmas and really thought about Sugarplums? A few years ago, I decided to make some and I include a small tray on dessert tables during the holidays ever since.

Try your hand at preparing, serving and gifting sugarplums this holiday season. They are so easy that you will wonder why you have not made them sooner.  You can make these nostalgic sweets in less than 20 minutes.

A Note to the Healthy Fooderati out there.  Add some shredded coconut, reduce the jam a small bit and think of Sugarplums as a natural holiday energy bar. Whatever you envision in your sugarplum recipe, they are a great addition to your holiday dessert table.

 Ingredients for Sugarplums

  • 1/2 cup chopped pitted dates and/or figs
  • 1 cup chopped nuts*
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries or craisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped prunes
  • 4 tbsp fruit jam
  • 2 tsp orange zest
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • Optional Confectioners’ Sugar for dusting
  • Optional Shredded Coconut 

* Traditional sugarplum recipes call for ½ cup walnuts, ¼ cup hazelnuts and ¼ cup pecans. I love changing it up with substituting ½ cup pistachio nuts for the walnuts, keeping the hazelnuts and pecans.

Mix Fruit and Nuts   Start by placing the chopped dates/figs, chopped nuts (walnuts or pistachios, hazelnuts and pecans) cranberries or craisins and prunes in the bowl of a food processor. If you don’t have a processor you can do it by hand and just chop everything together until it’s in very small pieces and starts sticking together.

Once all of your fruits and nuts are in the work bowl, pulse the processor several times until everything is in small pieces and is well-mixed.

Add Ingredients and Mix into a Ball   Now add the jam, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves. Give it several long pulses until the mixture begins to come together in a ball.

Christmas Trivia Moment:  Sugarplums get their name from the prunes, or dried plums, in the recipe.

Check the Consistency. Stop and check it once it starts to come together. When you press it between your fingers it should hold itself in a ball, but you want to retain some texture and be able to see individual pieces of fruit and nuts. Don’t blend it so much that it turns into a sticky paste!

Roll Candy through Sugar   To finish your sugarplums, place the granulated sugar in a bowl. Roll the candy into small balls, and roll them in the granulated sugar. To make it a bit healthier, you could roll them in chopped nuts or coconut instead.

How to Serve and Store Sugarplums   To keep things neat, serve them in paper candy cups. An optional touch is to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on top right before serving. These sugarplums last for weeks if you keep them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

 This is an EASY Recipe. Let’s rate this 1 Fork. Enjoy! 

Nutty Over 10 Nuts and Yes! That Includes Chestnuts

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Unless you are on a low fat diet or have a nut allergen issue, you’ll probably find a few of these nuts in your pantry at home or on your plate at your favorite restaurant. I love nuts and I could probably live on them for an extended time but I recognize that even with nuts, everything is best in moderation. Here’s my list of theTop 10 nuts to pantry stock for your cooking, baking and snacking needs, saving my favorite for last just in time for the holiday season.

  1. Brazil Nuts
  2. Macadamia Nuts
  3. Almonds
  4. Pecans
  5. Walnuts
  6. Cashews
  7. Hazelnuts
  8. Pistachio Nuts
  9. Pignoli (Pine) Nuts
  10. Chestnuts

#10 Chestnuts – I love Chestnuts or Castagne as they are called in Italy. They are the classic comfort food when it comes to nuts, putting us in a good mood and reminding us that the holiday season is here. I add them to our Thanksgiving stuffing and make sure they always have a place on our Christmas dessert table.

I have fond memories of my in-laws loving chestnuts as much as we do today. Tom’s mother would inspect each and every chestnut in a bulk basket at the produce store for the good ones. His Dad would get his handy “chestnut knife” ready. In actuality, it was a simple pearing knife but we knew that the task would not continue without this special tool which was perfect for marking an “X” on each chestnut before roasting them on a salted pan. They loved to have a few chestnuts dipped in a small glass of red wine at the end of Christmas dinner. Personally, I’m good with a buttery salty coating and a glass of egg nog as I stare at the large basket of fruit, feeling guilty but not enough to pass up this seasonal treat. How do I like chestnuts best? In a simple little brown paper bag so I can make believe I am enjoying them while window shopping in the Big Apple.

Burlap.Chestnuts     ChestnutsAtPinocchios

We even brought our little love of chestnuts to Pinocchio’s Ice Cream when we operated the store on Sanibel Island. The first Friday in December is the Sanibel Luminary Stroll. It’s a festive time for island businesses to kick off the season with complimentary food, drink, song and cheer. Giving the little bags of Chestnuts to our loyal Customers was memorable. Although a few patrons admitted to never eating them, (those are the fans who came back for seconds) many Customers shared their own treasured memories of preparing and sharing chestnuts with family and friends.

 

Enjoy eating your Chestnuts. I hope you cherish every bite this holiday season.

NutsToPantryStock.2

Here are the lyrics to “The Christmas Song”

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols
Being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like eskimos
Everybody knows
A turkey and some mistletoe
Can help to make the season bright
Tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep, tonight
They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loading lots of toys and goodies
On his sleigh
And every mother’s child
Is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly…
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said
Many times, many ways
Merry Christmas, to you
They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loading lots of toys and goodies
On his sleigh
And every mother’s child
Is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly…
So I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two…
Although it’s been said
Many times, many ways
Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas, to you
Merry Christmas

The Christmas Song” (commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or, as it was originally subtitled, “Merry Christmas to You) was written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé.

Nuts About Pignoli Cookies

PignoliOnPlate

Half the fun of visiting Italian neighborhoods is in asking locals about their favorite pizzeria and bakery. This is not an easy answer. Trust me. Their response is specific and passionate. Who makes the best pizza? Well, you need to rephrase that by asking who makes the best pizza sauce, cheesiest pizza, best thick crust, thin crust, best pizza to fold in half and eat in one hand….and the list goes on.   Italian bakeries are no different. As a matter of fact, their bragging rights are even more specific because they relate to the baked goods they produce. Best bread, best cannoli, best sfogliatelle, best cassata cake, best rainbow bars and of course, who makes the best pignoli cookies. What makes them the best? Are they crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside and filled with almond paste to die for? Then let’s talk about the nuts. Are they sweet, toasted and above all, covering every space on top of the cookie? Do you get them plain or with confectioners’ sugar on top? “Oh yes please” or “No way, it ruins the presentation and taste of the nuts.” The options are endless and the opinions are firm usually ending in “everyone knows they make the best”.

Astoria, New York City had great bakeries on every block from 30th Street to 37th Street where I went to school at Most Precious Blood. This did not even cover the other avenues let alone Steinway Street or Ditmars Blvd where La Guli Pastry Shop reigned Italian supreme but Ditmars is another blog dedicated to the love of good Greek streetfood.

Caiazzo’s Bakery was located on Broadway between 33rd and 34th Streets, just 2 short blocks from my home. My mother entrusted me with the important task of going to Caiazzo’s to buy my father’s sesame seeded Italian cookies. I know they were made fresh that day because I was blown away by the strong aroma when I stepped in the store. Caiazzo’s was known for their Italian loaves, focaccia and pizza bread, sesame cookies and pignoli cookies. I gave the owner, a little Italian lady dressed in black and sitting on the stool next to the register my money. She carefully weighed the brown bags and smiled as I left with a bag of Dad’s sesame faves but not without a little bag of (Oh Yes!) Pignoli cookies for myself. They had a delicious chewy almond paste on the inside, a crisp golden bakery crust on the outside and an abundance of sweet little pine nuts all lover the cookie. Who could want anything else?

I’ve read recipes and baked Pignoli cookies over the years. Some were pretty decent but nothing compared to the memorable taste of this iconic neighborhood bakery. It seems like a cookie of this character would appeal to adults but this little Italian girl and her cookie loving pals enjoyed the entire experience of eating them and that is exactly what it was – an experience. In the same spirit that Oreo® lovers break apart the cookie so they can eat the white icing first, my friends and I knew that there is an exact way to eat Pignoli cookies. You had to first eat all of the pine nuts one by one. Then savor the chewy almond paste filling for last.

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Caiazzo’s is gone but the popularity for pignoli cookies lives on. Go online and check out Ferrara’s in Little Italy, NY or visit your local bakeries and make your own decision on local bragging rights. For me, it’s DeRomo’s gourmet market, restaurant and bakery in Bonita Springs, Florida. The family is originally from the Bronx and it’s a little like going home.

DeRomos.Pignoli   DeRomosCookies.Box

DeRomo’s Pignoli Cookies. There were a little more than 7 in the box when we bought them.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Sicily, head to Trapani, Cefalu or Catania for some traditional Sicilian dolce. You will find these same cookies are made with pignoli nuts, hazlenuts and pistachios. Some are even enrobed in chocolate. They were a very close second if not just as good as Caiazzo’s but this came as no surprise since the Pignoli cookie is a traditional southern Italian dolce.

Dolce.Serio.Sicily

Check Out these Pignoli, Hazelnuts and Pistachio Sicilian Versions from Cefalu.

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These Colorful Marzipan Fruits accompany the chocolate enrobed pignoli and almond cookies on the far right.
The Pasticceria was in Catania.

My advice is to give our French counterparts, the macarons a rest after years of hype and give Pignoli cookies a try. Then let the world know who makes the best in your neighborhood.PignoliNuts.2