My Kingdom

My kitchen. 

My comfort zone.  My safe place.  My hideaway.

I won’t cry: I will make an Apple Cake.

I won’t bang my head against the wall; I will start chopping onions on a pretty green cutting board, following Jacques Pépin’s precise instructions, and caramelize them slowly in a little olive oil. (Do try them on a burger).

I will avoid dwelling on the past, refuse to be tortured by regrets, what could have been if I had gone through the other door, if I had been wise at nineteen, if I had listened to my mother, if I…

It is small, my kitchen.  Counter space?  Will twenty inches do? Yes, my friends!  I can work in that little space just fine, spreading out to my sturdy wood kitchen table when I bake.  You don’t need yards of polished granite to perform, I assure you. You don’t need recessed lights, stainless appliances, French copper pots hanging from strategically placed hooks on the ceiling.

Or the ISLAND.

I never had the ISLAND in my life and, believe it or not, I’m  surviving.

Desire.  And passion.  With a touch of fury.  All you really need to become an outstanding baker and cook.  Not that I claim to be.

All I know is that when I am in the kitchen, I am okay.  I will put on my apron du jour, command (mostly) reliable Alexa to play something (Yes, Latin Pop works wonders), pour a glass of something other than lemonade, and become Chef.

The apron, by the way, is important.  I do have a little collection of them, since people who know me well gift them to me at times (and I go directly to the housewares department of TJ Maxx more often than not).  You slip on that crisp apron and…you’re on!

Getting serious in the kitchen.

You need to be serious.  And determined. 

Serious because you love it.  If you don’t, then make reservations.

The kitchen can heal you. You are broken, limp through your emotions, tremble secretly, swear never again, consider extreme options, then brush them aside.  You are going to cook!

My trusty black GE gas range is awaiting instructions. It’s four burners, by the way, not restaurant-size, but then, I’m not running a restaurant.  I clean it lovingly every evening, grateful for its reliability.  Yes, the Sausages and broccoli di rape were cooked perfectly, the meat tender, golden and flavorful (but I did keep a watchful eye).

I will not (usually) slam doors.  I will not drive aimlessly for two hours, boiling with anger, swearing revenge (at least, not for the whole two hours).

I will not book a flight to Paris with a credit card, shrugging whatever, had enough.

I will make a little gem of a flourless chocolate cake.  I will place it carefully on an egg-yolk-yellow cake stand which will enhance its simple perfection: I will buy fresh heavy cream, whip it to cloudy softness, add a hint of pure vanilla.

I will glance around my tiny yellow kitchen, smile at the colorful stacked bowls on the shelves across from the fridge, allow my patched-up heart to skip a beat at the sight of my French baking pan collection (gathered through numerous years of baking passion), trace the sharp curves of my Bundt pans, imagining all the glorious pound cakes to come.

I will turn the ache into a tender tart filled with satin-smooth lemon curd.

I will drown the sadness by bathing bright-green basil leaves in cool water, then patting them dry for an absolutely magnificent Pesto.

The kitchen can save your life.

The kitchen is my kingdom.

(Here is the link to the recipe for the Flourless Chocolate Cake).

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Why You Should Make Le Fraisier 

Because life is short, and you always just do what you must.

Because you are practical, responsible, with common sense coming out of your ears.

That’s most of us. 

You bake a pan of Brownies for the kids (scrupulously from scratch, please!), stirring the melted butter and chocolate with a spatula, in a pot on the stove, already visualizing the little dark squares that you have been making for twenty odd years.

Suddenly, the bubble of routine and intense boredom has become intolerable, and the urge to take that panful of molten monotony and shove it out of the window is nearly irrepressible.

So, you make Le Fraisier

In fact, I bake quite often, but generally I go for simple, hearty breakfast cakes, the ubiquitous Brownies, a pound cake baked in a spectacularly intricate Bundt pan, to obtain at least a visually inspiring product.

Naturally, the time factor is the culprit, plus the constant exhaustion, as we zombie our way through life, our only purpose survival of another day.

Following one of my favorite TV programs, The Great British Baking Show, while partially dozing, due to the above-mentioned exhaustion (and perhaps the oversized glass of Pinot Grigio), I perked up when I watched the

Genoise

mesmerizing preparation of the stunning Fraisier, one of the glories of French Haute Pâtisserie.

In the ‘old days’, before my life became so fast-paced and maddening complicated, I used to dedicate long, enjoyable, hours to the preparation of elaborate cakes and tarts, following lengthy recipes in my enormous cookbook collection.  I became quite an accomplished pâtissière!

Mousseline

 

Then life caught up with me.

Well, I’m rebelling.  I’m not making Chocolate Chip Cookies this time, but a stunning Fraisier!  And I don’t need a reason for it.

I did some research in my French baking books, surfed the web, till I found a video that seemed quite reliable.  I watched it very carefully, then wrote my shopping list, hit the stores for a few items I didn’t have at home – strawberries, almond flour, milk (yes, milk: nobody drinks milk in my house), then began the methodical prepping of the various components.  It took a couple of days, stealing time from this

and that; prepare the almond genoise (French sponge cake), the crème pâtissière, the mousseline, the simple syrup, the marzipan. A serene joy filled my heart as I watched each creamy, velvety concoction turn out beautifully.

The little things.

The final assembly was perhaps the most heart-fluttering and dramatic stage of the process.  The exquisite beauty of a well-executed gateau  makes one feel, well, worthy.

Homemade Marzipan

Damn, I still got it!

I invited my whole family over for cake, the day after.  Just because.

Le Fraisier became only a memory in thirty minutes flat!  Thank goodness for smartphones.

Make a Fraisier, my friends.  Good for the soul.

 

(If you want to give it a try, here is the link to the  professional video I followed to the letter. Have fun!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4tiAdE38E4&w=560&h=315

My Happy Place

 

My happy place.

Temporary, fragile.

My kitchen, my cakes.

Shutting out the scary world for a while.

Flour, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla. They smile when you reach for them and place them on the table. We are ready to go, they announce with glee, welcome back, rejoice, you’re baking!

Indeed I am. The kitchen is my oyster. The oven is preheating, the pan is carefully buttered.   The music is playing, the haze of comforting numbness is softening the impact of reality, the one that stings.

You are gone, and you and you and you.

I inhale the scent of cinnamon. Cakes don’t betray you.   They will rise and perfume the air, be soft and tender and warm. They will taste like that is all you need to carry on. And sometimes it is.

Beat me, scare me, bite me, slap me, torture me, o unpredictable life.

I slip into my happy place and the aroma is marvelous.

I bake, therefore I survive.

(And I write, of course)

Recipe for this awesome, sweet, solid all-American Marble Pound Cake available here.

Cakes

Because they make me happy.

Reverse the tears, dull the anxiety, turn on Rihanna, Biagio Antonacci,  Thomas Buttenshøn, 21 Pilots.

Take out the cake pans.  Like this adorable Beehive Bundt mold.

Flour, sugar, butter, they don’t hurt you.  Malleable and ivory, the butter whips into creaminess and sweetness and dreams of comfort and kindness.

Make the cakes, turn off the clamor of the world.

Tender, golden, velvety, small but great.

The mood is soft and gentle again.

Never underestimate the power of cakes.

Snowing? Let Me Hide in the Kitchen

I don’t want to hear that you like the snow.16711990_1378313948895290_4648212179890978446_n

The frigid, messy white stuff serves no purpose (unlike rain).

Probably one of the punishments we are to expect regularly from the heavens, for our less than exemplary behavior. Sure, I will recite the mea culpa to that, but I will rise in fury every time the New York’s blue sky fades into that threatening light gray to white.

Nothing but the ghostly sheet of death on our lawns, our streets, accumulating copiously on our parked cars, creating a forbidding wasteland.

Can’t go out – work, shopping, whatever – because unless you have one of those monsters SUVs (that regularly block your vision of the road when you’re driving, so hate that) with all-wheel, 4-wheel, or whatever the hell it’s called, drive, you take your life in your hands if you venture out.16587373_1378089615584390_4399470399935565463_o-1

Sure, there will be the show-offs who’ll say no big deal to drive in the snow, you just need to know how to do it, take control, yada yada blah blah blah. Not buying it, people. They are probably more terrified than me but prefer to look brave and take their chances. But it’s their call.

Rant done.

16665172_1378332025560149_4465736566893135489_o
Chocolate Fudge Bundt Cake

So I stay home. I pour a glass of wine, put on a warm sweater, then my pretty apron (from my small collection, yes, I’m a sucker for designer aprons), and sharpen my chef’s knife. And butter my Bundt pan, measure flour, sugar and cocoa, pull out a juicy onion from the fridge and a bottle of golden extra-virgin olive oil.

Dinner and dessert on the way.

Live in your kitchen, my friends, when life is inclement!

The blows, small and enormous, are always lurking, malevolent, behind the corner. You fend them off as best as you can, you toughen up, reject useless tears that solve nothing, swallow your pride, ignore the unfair words, then shut up altogether because it’s best.   Sure, the restlessness is still churning inside your heart, the endless worrying corroding your soul, but you take a two-second Zen moment, simply to keep the peace. I choose my battles thoughtfully, dear friends, and so should you.

I also choose the kitchen as my refuge. My trusty iPhone and the Echo partner up to provide the musical background, as eclectic as my personality.

16463787_1375880539138631_1594547096869222112_o
Cardamom Pound Cake

Melt the butter with coffee and chocolate, stir the thick, velvety mixture, inhale the heady scent, let it cool, while you sift the dry ingredients into a pretty stoneware pistachio-green bowl. The little things matter.  Perhaps more than the big ones. They keep you sane, steady on the path of the life that was handed to you, the one you didn’t select because you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.   Sure, we live for others (all women, mothers, do), so we try to keep the crazy to a minimum. Calm and nurturing, selfless and immune to hurt feelings.

But it’s all good.

I have a kitchen, apples, freshly ground cardamom, sweet butter and a batterie de cuisine to rival a Parisian pâtissier, and thousands of wondrous recipes in cherished cookbooks (or on Google). Or, mostly, in the treasure grove that is my memories and my imagination.

I suffer ergo I cook.

Sure, go skiing, o adventurous ones, just watch those trees.

Long live Bundt pans, cardamom and bittersweet chocolate!

(Recipe: Chocolate Fudge Bundt Cake)

The Exhilaration of a Sunny Day in January…So I Bake

A glorious January day in New York.16195780_1354008367992515_4399115493143266945_n

The sun is warming the land and our hearts, easily melting the remains of snow scattered on our lawns.   The air is mild, gentle, the sky is an intense blue, smiling down on our earth, bursting with the promise of new hope.

The birds are settling, once again, on the trees’ bare branches, tentative, quivering with the fresh joy of a new beginning. Could it be? Early spring for us all?   Perhaps.

In the heart of dreary winter, a winter that has lasted for longer that we ever expected, this break in the dark scatters the thrills of rebirth, as we all leap toward the future that looks gloomy no more.

Free and light I feel, young and powerful. I close my eyes and surrender to the caress of this Janu

16143757_1354277441298941_494074107817948250_o
Almond Paste Cake

ary sunshine, linger in its welcoming embrace.

Yes, the sun also rises and conquers the fears of the darkest night.

16143639_1355193891207296_4318033511360530590_o
Pappardelle with Sausage Ragu’

Bursting with energy, I pull ingredients out of pantry and fridge, exuberant. Which cake should I make, Apple, Almond Paste, Pound, chocolate? And my pappardelle await the sausage ragù that is in the works, because the good parmigiano I got, the golden olive oil and the desire to cook with renewed joy and relief.

Oh what a magnificent January day it is, summer in winter, fresh air to sweep away the decay of old, dirty snow.

The world is alive again.   Live your life, you good people, raise your eyes to the sky and marvel at the splendor of deep turquoise, limpid and pure once again.

Christmas: The Joy, the Madness

img_4804
The most famous Christmas tree in the world, at Rockefeller Center, NYC

I wish I were a child.

So I could enjoy Christmas in its simplest, purest form.

The closing of the schools, the colored lights popping up all around, the wreaths, the panettoni in the shop windows, Christmas decorations for sale everywhere, the presepi vendors, with every possible statuette to add to you ever-growing crèche.

The sharp chill in the air, bundling up when going outside, heavy tights, maybe even a hat (Well, I grew up in Naples, so this was as cold as it was going to get, no need for snow boots, though chic leather boots were wonderfully appropriate).  The smell of winter, roasting chestnuts, the lively fresh fish markets ready for your Christmas Eve dinner, the skinny Babbi Natale wondering the busy street, smiling for pictures with hesitant img_4801children.

The house afire with scarlet poinsettias, which nobody knew were poisonous, and nobody cared to inquire.  The majestic Christmas tree arriving on Christmas Eve, just as we kids were losing all hope, laboriously trimmed by my mother when we went to bed, and sparkling in all its glory on Christmas morning.

The dozens of delectable treats gifted by my father’s many friends and colleagues, ALL of the Neapolitan Christmas sweets of our dreams, delivered personally at our front door, huge wreaths of honey-glistening Struffoli, trays of the glorious Pasta Reale, almond pastries enrobed in flawless fondant; spicy, chocolate-covered Mostaccioli ; a beautiful and elegant Cassata, circled by a supple and img_4803delicious green ribbon of almond paste, rich with ricotta cream scented with cinnamon and vanilla.  Cases of Neapolitan salame, Auricchio provolone balls, sharp and tender, dried figs and baskets of whole nuts..

Watching television programs, silly and old-fashioned, featuring ancient Laurel and Hardy comedies, which we kids found unbearably funny, to the point of falling off a chair laughing (me, yes, I know hard to believe, considering that there isn’t much I deem ‘funny’ in these pragmatic days).

My mother frying img_4805up some tortelli, delectable little jam-stuffed dough bundles, dusted with powdered sugar, traditional from Modena, the only dessert she made, since all the others – classic, traditional and magnificent – were conveniently delivered by the greatest home bakers of our town, including the nuns of the nearby convent/orphanage/ school of Our Lady of Lourdes..

But the tortellini, well, those were being meticulously hand-shaped by my mother, hundreds of them, perky and uniform, lined up in plates that were then placed on every flat surface in the house to dry.  No Christmas without tortellini in broth was acceptable, and we could never get enough.

Cozy in our flannel pajamas and hand-made wool bed socks (yes, by my mother, who knitted in the dark while watching television), we lucky children would go to bed with our perfect visions of sugarplums brightening our innocent dreams.

Now, well, it’s a whole different tune.  The endless baking to15235722_1304462176280468_1633769514450993402_o be consumed casually and quickly, expected always, as if little elves populated the kitchen in the wee hours and produced a whimsical pastry wonderland.

All the gifts you wish to buy for those wonderful people in your life, and straining that tight budget, hoping that perhaps the spirit of Christmas will ease the pain of the after-the-holiday mail delivery.

The hours that are never enough, fending off exhaustion, cursing yourself for not having more spunk and energy after a full-day of work, living nights of a thousand worries and fears.

But here I am, playing magic elf in the kitchen, braving the stores, the cold I hate, pushing forward, determined to make this Christmas happen once again.15272314_1296545833738769_2820909459958049186_o

And yes, of course, I will place baby Jesus in the manger at midnight on
Christmas Eve, quietly, when everyone is asleep.  He will just be there in the morning, miraculously appeared, sweet and gentle, with his chubby cheeks.

Yes, it’s all right, Christmas will always be wondrous.

Don’t Think, Just Make a Cake

When you are afraid of the night. Just because it’s dark. The shadows become sinister, concealing all that is comfortable and honest.IMG_3049

When an ancient melody sneaks up, and suddenly your lungs tighten, allowing you to exhale only the memories. The ones you refuse to acknowledge because there is no point to their existence.

Take the soft, malleable almond paste in your hand and begin breaking it up into chunks. The scent of a biscottificio in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy, stimulates my remembrances, a stab in the heart, but in a good way. When life was simple, and stopping at a local bakery to buy a small bag of freshly made, tender, almond-scented Maddalene was what happiness meant. And it did then. For many years I’ve attempted to recreate that flavor of childhood, that golden cookie that warmed my soul, a ray of sheer, incomparable joy.

Memories inspire the best recipes. Simply follow the aromas in your mind, and your hands will know where to reach for the ingredients.

Almond paste, carefully prepared around Christmas time, perfected by the waiting period, creamy soft, a little morsel of Paradise lost.

The fishing boats were distancing themselves from the shore, at the Granatello harbor in Portici, launching their nocturnal adventure.   The drowsy sun melted into a liquid carpet of orange and pink on the placid sea; the acrid smell of salt water invaded my nostrils. Happiness was intense and absolute, and even the harsh graffiti on the low, thick walls of the pier were a love letter. The upcoming night wasn’t frightening, then, it would caress me with dreams of everlasting joy, a future of a myriad moments like these.

But enough.IMG_3048

The softened butter is already in the large stainless steel bowl, it welcomes the almond paste chunks I drop in, incorporating them into a silky embrace.   The eggs are slowly warming in a bowl of hot water, to ease their blending into the butter-almond paste mixture.   The cake pan is waiting on the table, thoroughly greased so the temperamental batter will not cling fiercely to the metal, but will slide out as a beautiful, solid cake. Yes, I’ve recreated the Maddalene cookies of my childhood, fueled by the exhilarating onslaught of memories, worked it into a ring-shaped cake that smells just like my car rides back home, the packet of warm pastries on my lap.

Twist the painful ones into the tender, uncomplicated ones. The memories.

When the summer twilight of long ago becomes too agonizing to evoke, paint it over, and make a cake. My kitchen is yellow, tranquil, maternal. A cocoon in the midst of the anguish that a restless brain produces.   A brain that continues to return to a time when the heart was light with hope and anticipation. Pathetic wishes of the young. Just sitting ducks for the violent blows of reality.

Basta.

Back to my cake, almost ready to emerge from the oven. Another batter is sitting in a green glass bowl, a fragrant Banana Bread to be dunked in hot coffee on Sunday morning. The Kitchen Aid mixer is my friend, a stable presence on the counter, shiny white and enticing. It knows when I need to slay my demons; the huge, rounded metal bowl will accept flour, sugar, cinnamon and my crushed dreams, mix them all up, and a pastry masterpiece will materialize.

Pain gives birth to writers and bakers.

The sizzling warmth on my shoulders was real, then, but I didn’t understand.   Now I do. Even though a lifetime has tried to erase it. Not possible, o cruel time, not possible.

The bananas are ripe to perfection, I mash them with a fork, then pour on some brandy and vanilla. Let this passion for baking take flight. The elegant, slim, French loaf pan will enclose it all, and bring it to life in the oven, in all its old-fashioned glory.

No, don’t cry, don’t think. Bake a cake.

Making Tortelli on a Winter Day: A Food Memoir

It was always on a wintry day.  A Neapolitan winter, of course, cold, maybe picturedamp, somewhat gray, though not always.  Not talking about the arctic zone that we are experiencing here in New York.

Anyway, she was always running around, stressed, multi-tasking, my mother, dashing from one chore to the next, between school and home and daily food shopping at the fresh market.

But then, we had Saturday afternoon, work set aside for the weekend, and the kitchen clamoring for activity.  I would pass by the kitchen door, perhaps on my way out to hang with friends and/or boyfriend du jour, and notice that the Formica kitchen table had been fully covered by the great tagliere, the thick wooden board that my mother would take out when making tortellini, usually at Christmas or Easter time.

But on this anonymous winter afternoon, she was just putting together a fragrant sweet dough for her famous Tortelli.  A specialty of her beloved hometown of Modena, delectable Tortelli are little pastries encasing a dollop of thick jam, preferably amarena, sour cherry preserves that is very popular in the Emilia-Romagna region, where these tart, brownish-red cherries grow abundantly though briefly.  They have a unique flavor that marries flawlessly with pastry.  Think Crostata di amarene, a culinary dream.

I already had my pocketbook slung over my shoulder and my high-heeled leather boots on, but I paused and peeked in.  Quietly, not to unsettle her, since she didn’t take well to distractions (or, usually, demands) from family, when she was concentrating on a task that wasn’t routine.

The yellow, buttery dough smelled of lemon and egg yolks, and she was methodically cutting circles with a glass, making neat little rounds.

Sometimes, I would stop by the table and just steal a scrap of the raw dough, which tasted like happiness, sunshine and spring.  She would mumble something, but continue to prepare her little tortelli shapes.  A jar of dense, intensely-flavored jam was waiting on the counter, and soon she would start to carefully and minimally fill the center of the dough rounds.  Then she would deftly fold the pasta frolla over the jam, and seal the edges securely.  Beautifully plump and smooth, the tortelli waited, enticingly lined up, for the oil to heat in a large frying pan.  Oh, the aroma of the first perfectly golden pastries draining on absorbent paper on a plate!  I was going out, damn, why did she have to do this now? 

I remained frozen by the kitchen door, considering my next step: wait for these delights to be cool enough to taste, or just hasten out, and enjoy them upon my return?  But, would there be any left?  Seriously, the greediness of my siblings was acute, and once they pounced on them, nothing at all might remain…A dilemma, for sure.  Boyfriend or a fewtortelli?  You might not believe this, but usually I just ran out, period.  Yes, I did have my priorities and food was not one of them.  So I would shout at my brother and sister (already on stand-by), Lasciatemi dei tortelli o vi ammazzo!, Leave me some pastries or I’ll kill you, or something along those lines, and quickly leave.  Did I find any, a few hours later?  Yes, I did, my mother always made sure, because I know that the two of them wouldn’t even think of it, my dramatic threat notwithstanding.

Here I am, today, in this glacial February morning, gathering my ingredients and channeling my mother of those many years ago (yes, I’m always hassled and anxious myself, genetics, I guess), and looking forward to surprise my children with this delicious sweet of my childhood memories.

I’m working on the translation and the adjusting of the measurements for this recipe.  Also, I’m perfecting it, especially since I baked thetortelli instead of frying them, which is the current way of cooking them.  This is sure to be added to my upcoming cookbook!

Apple Cake Forever

picture

Hide in the kitchen when the world growls.

Turn on the oven, anticipate the warmth and the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla and brown sugar.

Be in awe of the flawless beauty of rosy-cheeked golden delicious apples fresh from the orchards of a local farm, weigh them carefully in a low-tech European scale that is over thirty years old and still works like clockwork.  Stir the flour and sugar, measure out the spices, butter the jadeite baking pan, sift the powdered sugar for the icing.

Fall is still gentle, outside.  The afternoon sun smiles on the trees, the green leaves commingling with the reds and the yellows.

Autumn in New York, the kind season.

The winds of evil and desperation rage in a circle around our lives, slap our faces, and sometimes the blow is dizzying.

But the kitchen is a cocoon, the music is inspiring – Michael Cavanaugh, Bobby Barzini, young Indie artists who pour velvet on your senses, sexy, slow voices, acoustic sound, the only one and true.  Thus we let go of all that hurts and infuriates us – the unraveling of the world, the irrational fears and the picturefalse friends.

Make your tender apple cake (recipe); think Sunday morning, espresso, sleeping late.

And just breathe.