Sooo… I did something a little risky the other day.
I bought high-waisted jean shorts that are slightly cheek exposing. This means one of two things– one, I’ve become a girl who can rock cheeky shorts.. Or two, I’ve become THAT girl who wears cheeky shorts and really should not be.
I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, okay, a lot of the time, I judge a book by its cover. It’s not a good quality, I know, but it’s the truth and admitting it is the first step, right?
I judge a girl when she’s wearing too cheeky of shorts and shouldn’t be, I discriminate against Pavlova, I choose desserts based on chocolate quality, I decide which restaurants to go to depending on the atmosphere, select coffee shops because of the sweet foam art, and choose books to read because of one quote I liked, etc.
So, how are Pavlova, cheeky shorts, and judgmental thoughts interlinked?? In brief, I didn’t want to be the second girl who wears too cheeky of shorts and shouldn’t be and my desserts-only diet doesn’t help me avoid that. Except for you, Pavlova, you sexy little thing.
In the case of Pavlova or really any meringue-based dessert, I’ve always been less than amused. Not because I have tried it and I didn’t like it, but because at first look, it’s just not my kind of chocolate/ice cream/decadent dessert. I decided to make Pavlova after I fell in love with the Chocolate and Hazelnut Meringue Cake and because it is relatively healthy in the grand scheme of desserts… which should help me with my cheeky shorts dilemma. And also, because I really really wanted to make a naked cake. No, I’m not talking about a cake you bring to a bachelorette/bachelor party, but a simple cake with fresh fruit, minimal frosting, and layers.
For my first naked cake to celebrate Spring, Pavlova seemed like the obvious choice. Now, I know it’s debatable if Pavlova is actually considered a cake since it’s kind of just a large meringue… But one bite into it and I promise you will not be bothering yourself with a cake debate.
But alas, as you can see by the title of this post I did not succeed in making a pretty naked Pavlova cake. I did, however, succeed in convincing Tony that Pavlova was “totaaaally healthy” as we quickly demolished the entire thing in a swift ten minutes and then proceeded to go on a run. But case in point, this is a healthy dessert because had it been a Chocolate Cake, we would most definitely have felt too sick to go on a run after eating it!
So since my first naked Pavlova cake was slightly unappealing in a strictly aesthetics sense, I created Eton Mess. Also known as, smashed up meringues with whipped cream and fresh fruit, which also happens to be the best solution for ugly Pavlova.
Eton Mess calls for meringues, but I LOVED the texture of the Pavlova and I didn’t want to search for another recipe. Besides, I figured meringues and Pavlova are pretty much the same thing, except for the fact that meringues do not call for cornstarch and are cooked all the way through, whereas Pavlova has a delicately crisp exterior and a soft and fluffy marshmallow inside. Whether you make Eton Mess with an ugly leftover Pavlova or meringues, it is a simple dessert with minimal ingredients, light as air, and is then topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit… The perfect way to celebrate Spring!
Stawberry Eton Mess adapted from Ina Garten:
4 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ pound strawberries, hulled and quartered
¼ cup granulated sugar
Juice from half a lemon
Sweetened Whipped Cream:
1 cup cold whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- For the Pavlova, preheat the oven to 180 degrees F. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a sheet pan. Draw six 4-inch circle on the paper, using a 4-inch pint glass as a guide, then turn the paper over so the circle is on the reverse side. (This way you won’t get a pencil mark on the meringue.)
- Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites on high speed until firm, about 1 minute. With the mixer still on high, slowly add the sugar and beat until it makes firm, shiny peaks, about 2 minutes.
- Remove the bowl from the mixer, sift the cornstarch onto the beaten egg whites, add the vinegar and vanilla, and fold in lightly with a rubber spatula. Pile the meringue into the middle of the circles on the parchment paper and smooth it within the circles, making a rough disk. Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Turn off the oven, keep the door closed, and allow the meringue to cool completely in the oven, about 1 hour. It will be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
- For the strawberry sauce, combine strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 4 minutes. Pour the cooked strawberry mixture into a food processor and pulse a 2-3 times until strawberries are roughly chopped. Place in the refrigerator to chill.
- For the sweetened whipped cream, whip the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. When it starts to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until firm.
- To assemble, roughly crumble the pavlova nests in a large bowl and fold in sweetened whipped cream and strawberry sauce. Arrange in 4 serving glasses and top with strawberries. Alternatively, you can layer the pavlova, sweetened whipped cream, and strawberry sauce in 4 serving glasses.
This is a personal opinion, but as a baker and blogger, there is nothing worse than a failed recipe. I know every failure is a lesson and blah, blah, blah– but I learned nothing from this failure because I repeated the same mistake two more times. Oh wait, I did learn that I shouldn’t allow myself to eat my feelings…
I wasn’t even going to post this recipe because it caused me so much grief. Every time I attempted to make this cake or the meringue something went wrong. By the third time around, I was literally eating my feelings… I was so upset that I took out a pint of ice cream, scooped it on top of my failed cake, and ate it. ‘Cause when you have a whole lot of ice cream over something, even a sub-par cake, it still tastes pretty good… Not as good as it is supposed to taste (which made me even more upset), but enough to eat it while standing over the sink and trying to force myself to stop eating it by running water over it… Now I have a tummy full of cake and not even a recipe to show for it.
Flash forward to the following day, when I FINALLY got it right. This isn’t a difficult recipe, I have made the different components of this recipe multiple times, but for some reason my skills were off or the oven wasn’t working correctly… Must have been the oven. But I felt COMPELLED to complete this cake because I knew its potential.
Every morning on my way to and from the Mercato Centrale I pass by the cutest little bakery called, Il Vecchio Forno, and every morning I make a mental note that I MUST stop in and try a pastry or two on a special occasion… Especially before the owner starts to think I’m a creep for walking into her bakery every other day and admiring all the delicious baked goods without ever buying anything.
It wasn’t a special occasion, just a random Thursday morning with Tony’s mom that we finally decided to indulge– much to the astonishment of the owner, as she repeatedly asked us “É questó un regalo?”… No, it’s not a gift… And we continued to order more brioches, biscotti, breads, and cookies. Our excitement must have been infectious because she gave us a free taste tester of some of her most popular treats, which were all delightful.
We climbed the 83 steps to our apartment and we justified our excessive purchases while doing so. The first thing we tried was the brioche. I told myself I was only going to eat half of the brioche that day, but Judith quickly exclaimed that we shouldn’t waste half of a freshly baked brioche because it would most definitely not taste as good the next day and one bite into it I knew I didn’t stand a chance.
The Nutella Brioche was everything you could want in a perfect brioche; light, buttery, flaky, and delicious. But the real stand-out of the loot was the Scopeti. They were displayed right in the middle of all the different varieties of cantucci, including chocolate and orange, fig and walnut, and almond. I was too excited about everything else I was ordering that I didn’t realize they weren’t biscotti, but a delicious and light chocolate and hazelnut meringue cookie-bar.
That night we presented all of our goodies to Tony and tried the Scopeti for the first time. It was a mistake. As soon as we bit into one, we ate every last piece. They were chewy, light, nutty, and chocolatey– the perfect treat to end your night. The next day I knew I needed more of these Chocolate and Hazelnut Meringue Bars in my life, but out of self-respect, I restrained myself from going back the following morning. So what’s a girl to do? Why, bake my own, of course!
I had a general idea of how to recreate these delicious treats, but for recipe comparison purposes I did a quick search on the Internet and found THIS… Which, I fell in love with immediately… I used my staple Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe for the cake part and a variation of a Washington Post recipe for “‘Ugly But Good’ Chunky Chocolate-Hazelnut Meringues.” The result was a moist, dense, and fudgey cake with a crisp, crunchy, and chocolate meringue topping. It was perfection and exactly what I was aiming for.
The worst part of this recipe is waiting to eat it. You will want to eat it straight out of the oven, but like many great things, you must wait. Wait until it is completely cooled and the longer you can wait, the better.. and maybe eat it with some ice cream or sweetened whipped cream. You will not be disappointed! Also, I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t tell you that I ate half of the cake that night. It was worth the failed attempts.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for pan
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
6 large eggs, separated
½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 to 2 egg whites
- For the cake, preheat the oven to 275 degrees with the rack in the center. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Set aside.
- Place butter and chocolate in a large heatproof bowl and microwave in 30-second increments, stirring each time, until completely melted. Let cool slightly. Whisk in egg yolks.
- In a large bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add granulated sugar, and continue beating until glossy stiff peaks form. Whisk 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture; then gently fold in remaining egg whites.
- Pour batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top with a rubber spatula, and bake for 25 minutes. While the cake is baking, prepare meringue.
- To make the meringue, increase oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Use an electric beater to beat the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl until firm peaks form. In another bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa and cinnamon in a mixing bowl until combined then add chopped hazelnuts. Use a wooden spoon to gently fold in half of the egg whites until the mixture is evenly moistened; it should be thick and hard to stir. If there’s not enough moisture to make the mixture hold together, add some of the remaining egg white, a teaspoon at a time, until the mixture just holds together but is not runny.
- Using a spoon, gently spoon meringue on top of the cake as to not to deflate the meringue, and return to oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until meringue is lightly browned and firm.
- Cool completely on a wire rack; remove sides of pan. Serve at room temperature, dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Several weeks ago Tony’s mom, Judith, gave me the cookbook, “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I cannot express how much I adore this cookbook and according to just about every other foodie, cookbook hoarder, and critic who’s known about it for the last year, it’s a hit among everyone! Every time I open the book I can spend hours flipping through the pages and pages of gorgeous photography and I always discover a new recipe that I MUST try. Every recipe uses slightly familiar ingredients, but adds a new technique or exotic spice that I cannot wait to explore.
I’ve had my eye on several recipes since receiving the book and when Judith flew out to visit us in Florence I knew we had to recreate some of the recipes. (She also brought copious amounts of brown sugar and baking powder so I could still make my American baked goods!) The first night she was here we treated ourselves to a lovely cappuccino and assortment of chocolates at Caffe Giacosa and walked aimlessly around the streets of Florence. We stumbled across a small grocer who had an abundance of fresh produce outside, including a variety of the most beautiful tomatoes I’ve ever seen, and in that moment I knew I had to make Braised Eggs with Lamb, Tahini, Sumac, and Charred Tomatoes. Now, I know what you’re thinking– Another egg dish in a cast iron skillet?? But bear with me because this dish is too pretty and too tasty to overlook.
Cooking this dish was an adventure as it always seems to be the case in Italy. We first made our way to the Mercato Centrale to pick up freshly ground lamb, herbs, and produce. Unfortunately, we only gave ourselves an hour before closing to get all of our ingredients so it felt slightly like a scavenger hunt. Finding a butcher within the Mercato Centrale that is willing to grind lamb is a challenge in itself, but if you can, ask your butcher to mix two-thirds lamb shoulder and one-third lamb belly for the best flavor. In Italy, the lambs tend to be smaller, so we had to do a mix of lamb and mutton, which is just a sheep older than a year, but it was still very good.
Next on our list was to find a Middle Eastern market in the city center. After many Internet searches and random store visits, we were able to find harissa, tahini, and cilantro at a small international market near San Lorenzo Square, Vivi Market, that carries quite a range of things… Including throwback Betty Crocker baking mixes, fish powder, various Indian spices, “Mexican Beans,” canned peanut butter, and ramen noodles.
I personally loved this recipe because there were so many different flavors, textures, and colors involved. The book provides alternative ingredients to incorporate in the dish, which is nice since finding a lot of the ingredients proved to be difficult in Florence. The first time I made this recipe I didn’t have sumac on hand, which gives a tart, lemon flavor so I simply added more lemon zest. The second time I made this recipe I used my favorite Tzatziki recipe instead of the Tahini Yogurt Sauce suggested and I loved the addition of mint, dill, parsley, and cucumber. Overall, it is a great recipe for a crowd, especially a crowd who likes meat, and can easily be prepared in advance! I will definitely be trying out other recipes within this cookbook as I get my hands on all of the necessary ingredients!
Braised Eggs with Lamb, Tahini, Sumac, and Charred Tomatoes from Jerusalem: A Cookbook:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (1¼ cups/200 grams total)
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
10 ounces/300 grams ground lamb (ask your butcher for two-thirds shoulder and one-third belly)
2 teaspoons sumac, plus extra to garnish
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Scant ½ cup/50 grams toasted, unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped
7 tablespoons/50 grams toasted pine nuts
2 teaspoons harissa paste
1 tablespoon finely chopped preserved lemon peel
1 1/3 cups/200 grams cherry tomatoes
½ cup/120 milliliters chicken stock
4 large free-range eggs
¼ cup/5 grams cilantro leaves or 1 tablespoon Zhoug
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Scant ½ cup/100 grams Greek yogurt
1 ½ tablespoons/25 grams tahini paste
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
- Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium, heavy-bottomed frying pan for which you have a tight-fitting lid. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 6 minutes to soften and color a bit. Raise the heat to high, add the lamb, and brown well, 5 to 6 minutes. Season with the sumac, cumin, ¾ teaspoon salt, and some black pepper and cook for another minute. Turn off the heat, stir in the nuts, harissa, and preserved lemon and set aside.
- While the onion is cooking, heat a separate small cast-iron or other heavy pan over high heat. Once piping hot, add the cherry tomatoes and char for 4 to 6 minutes, tossing them in the pan occasionally, until slightly blackened on the outside. Set aside.
- Prepare the yogurt sauce by whisking together all the ingredients with a pinch of salt. It needs to be thick and rich, but you may need to add a splash of water if it is stiff.
- You can leave the meat, tomatoes, and sauce at this stage for up to an hour. When you are ready to serve, reheat the meat, add the chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Make 4 small wells in the mix and break an egg into each well. Cover the pan and cook the eggs over low heat for 3 minutes. Place the tomatoes on top, avoiding the yolks, cover again, and cook for 5 minutes, until the egg whites are cooked but the yolks are still runny.
- Remove from the heat and dot with dollops of the yogurt sauce, sprinkle with sumac, and finish with the cilantro. Serve at once.
We have the lovely pleasure of hosting Tony’s mom for several weeks in Florence. While Tony is at work, the two of us have been taking advantage of the Mercato Centrale and exploring new recipes every day, which I will eventually get around to posting soon! Get excited.
Last Sunday, Tony’s mom had the wonderful idea of taking a break from cooking and heading south towards the heart of Chianti to enjoy a traditional Tuscan style lunch at La Cantinetta di Rignana. It was PERFECTION, to say the very least.
The weather was perfect, a clear and sunny 60 degrees F, the drive was definitely off the beaten path, about an hour outside of Florence, through narrow and windy gravel roads to a quaint and romantic restaurant with beautiful panoramic views of the rolling Tuscan hills and wineries… And the food was OUTSTANDING… Traditional, simple, Tuscan-style dishes cooked over an open flame and presented beautifully. Between the drive, the view, the ambiance, the wine, the food, the company… It was most definitely the top five meals of my life and my favorite memory/adventure in Florence so far.
Now, Italians do not mess around with their Sunday lunch– a tradition I can easily get on board with. Over the span of 3+ hours you are served 4-5 courses and in between courses you take a walk around, enjoy the view, or a cigarette break. It is an afternoon of pure bliss, I tell you, and is not to be rushed.
We started our meal with a bottle of Prosecco while we reviewed the Italian-only menu. Thankfully, between all of our grocery shopping excursions and Tony’s Italian we could decipher most of the menu! Luckily, we also have access to Google Translate when all else fails. We started our lunch with an assortment of antipasti; pâté, crostini misti, pecorino, parmesan, various types of salami, prosciutto, lardo (think bacon, but ONLY the fat of the bacon) and other cured meats, marinated olives, shallots, artichokes, garlic, pears, and honey.
After finishing our second bottle of Prosecco, we were served our primi piatti, pappardelle with wild boar and ravioli with potatoes, pesto, and pine nuts. Simple, quality ingredients with a spectacular taste. I think my favorite was the ravioli. We were then served our wine, which was one of the most buttery wines I’ve ever tasted. Also, since I don’t know a thing about wine, I have no idea what we ordered, but it was something from the region. After our pasta and BEFORE our main dish, we were served a baked tomino cheese with freshly shaved black truffles, since we clearly couldn’t get enough cheese during our antipasto course!
Once we inhaled our second serving of cheese, they brought out a perfectly cooked Bistecca Fiorentina with mixed radicchio, roasted potatoes, and the typical fagioli all’olio, which is just white beans and olive oil. For the record, everything is medium-rare/rare here, so don’t ever expect a meat to come out “well done!” Also, please note that this is the Bistecca after we devoured it… We were too excited to take a picture when they first served it to us.
To finish off the meal we shared not one, not two, but THREE desserts. A decadent chocolate and pear torte, tiramisu, panna cotta, and espresso. Also, did I mention Tony can eat more than anyone I’ve ever met?!
If you ever find yourself in Florence, you MUST spend a Sunday in Chianti. It was absolute perfection. Buuuut, if you’re up to the challenge you can always make a Tuscan-style spread yourself this Sunday for friends and family! I hope you all have a wonderful weekend and I will be sure to get new recipes up soon, but for now iPhone photos of our meal will have to do. ;)