Monday, November 11, 2013

Who gives a fig for brownies?

                                       Figs ripening in Rome, September 8, 2013.

For me, the first snow in Anchorage either means crawling under the covers and spending the afternoon in deep denial, or looking for an antidote, usually involving decadently rich chocolate concoctions. Caramel-cherry-fig brownies captured my attention with this weekend's snowfall, and proved worthy of every delicious moment of anticipation during the making and baking. No dried cherries? Use all figs. The only thing I’d do differently is try to remember the vinegar, which would have added just a lingering note of brightness.

                                             Anchorage snow, November 11, 2013.

                                        Ingredients for fig-caramel brownies.

Fig/caramel sauce

  • 8 ounces dried black mission figs, chopped
  • 3/4 - 7/8 cup prepared caramel sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Mix together, set aside.

Brownies ingredients

  • 8 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (Guittard wafers work well)
  • 9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon)  butter
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar, and 1/4 cup white sugar (or use all white sugar)
  • 3 large eggs
  • Two teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (Ghiradelli makes good chips)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 13x9x2 inch metal baking pan (I lined the pan with parchment paper).

         Chocolate mixture

Stir 8 ounces chocolate wafers (or coarsely chopped chocolate), butter, and cream in medium saucepan over medium heat until melted and smooth. Cool to lukewarm, about 15 minutes.

         Sugar, eggs, vanilla

Whisk sugars, eggs, and vanilla in large bowl until well blended, about 1 minute.

       Combining brownie ingredients

 ∙ Whisk chocolate mixture into sugar, vanilla and egg mixture.
 ∙ Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt over, then stir to blend.
 ∙ Mix in chocolate chips.
 ∙ Spread batter evenly in the pan.

        Adding fig caramel

Drop the fig/caramel mixture onto batter by tablespoonfuls. Use the tip of small knife to swirl the fig/caramel mix slightly into batter.

Baking and cooling

Bake brownies until the caramel on the top bubbles, the top of the batter is dry, and a toothpick inserted near center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 30 - 35 minutes. Cool brownies in pan on rack.


Cut into one-inch squares. Eat as is, or top with whipped cream, ice cream, or rum sauce -- anything suitably over the top.  They might be good with a lemon or raspberry sauce or sorbet too.

                                  Brownies, glazed with buttery caramel and rich with figs.

Adapted from a recipe for brownie with caramel, fig and dried cherries jam.   Source: Lulu Petite in San Francisco

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thanksgiving dinner, 2013. Oy vey!

                                A Smithsonian Magazine picture of the first Thanksgiving.

Dear Miss Advice:
    Thanksgiving this year was the first day of Hanukkah. We had to light the candles and play dreidl before we could eat dinner. Betty’s kid cheated and won all the rounds in dreidl, so the other kids were in tears. Me too.

    Then it was time for dinner. Twenty-five relatives came, and every single one was on a different diet. Uncle Ira Tating was gluten-free, so we had to make no-bread stuffing just for him. His brother Agi Tating brought brownies made with his medical marijuana, and he expected us all to have them before dinner. It wasn’t OK, because his dealer gets really bad stuff.

    Ally said Thursday was her day for kale-rutabaga-mango juice and that was all she was going to eat. Well, drink. Then she sat around looking mournful and saying, “Oh my god, how can you eat those things? Don’t you know how bad they are for you?”

    My wife’s brother Ander Thal went paleo with all meat and fat and no grains. He wanted the turkey rare, no carbs. His wife Tiffany was paleo vegan. Do you have any idea how hard it is to feed a paleo vegan? Or what rare turkey tastes like?

    Tom was only eating raw vegetables and wanted uncooked sweet potatoes, with just a touch of grated ginger. It would be easier to feed people slices of the moon.

    Joyce discovered a cabbage cores diet from the 1950s, so she brought a dish of them to serve with the turkey. Lucky for her, she got to eat the whole thing. Harry and Betty were re-enacting Plimouth Rock, and showed up in costume with facts about everything – “the Pilgrims didn’t have those, the Indians fixed it this way . . .” Every time someone questioned them on it, they whipped out their iPhones and started looking up answers. Darned if they weren’t always right.

  Plimouth Rock
    It was bad from the start. Sven had gotten into molecular cooking and showed up with cranberries frozen in liquid nitrogen. They burst open and blew red powder all over everything, so when the cops showed up wondering what the fire in the back yard was all about, everyone was covered in red and they thought it was blood. But the fire was just the turkey exploding when the deep fat fryer went up in flames. Uncle Agi offered the police some brownies, but fortunately they got distracted when Cousin Josh showed up yelling about his crispy cockroaches in sriracha sauce.

    My wife said that the exploding turkey counted for the Hanukkah menorah for the rest of the week because Hanukkah is all about oil. Did we have to pray over it to make that work? Is God going to get me for making jokes about holy oil?

    She forgot and cooked all of the sweet potatoes, so Tom didn’t have any, and had to sweet-talk Ally out of some of her kale juice. I hate sweet potatoes, but I had to eat them for the next week.  

     Cousin Sam came too. All he did was tell me how to put stamps into my stamp albums, for the first hour, and after that he snored through the whole football game. Grandpa’s team lost the game, and he blamed it on the aliens who invaded last week and were living in the garage.

The Alien in the Garage and Other Stories


                Forget the turkey, I’m hoping the kitchen will explode next year

Dear Exploding:

    Have you considered calling in sick for Thanksgiving? How hard can it be to arrange for the aliens to abduct someone – the relatives, if possible, or just you if that’s the only choice?

    Your strategy for next year is to play the relatives off against each other. Put Cousin Sam in the kitchen with your wife and those sweet potatoes. He’ll distract her, the sweet potatoes will burn, and voila – none to eat.

    Put Sven to work on the cabbage cores with his liquid nitrogen. It will improve them immensely. Whatever you do, keep him away from the deep-fat fryer.

Liquid Nitrogen coming to Tang

    Make sure that Cousin Josh brings those cockroaches again, or maybe mealworms in curry sauce. The rare turkey will taste a lot better by comparison.

My Cat Won't Kill a Cockroach
Cat watching cockroach. 

    It won’t be Hanukkah, but start a new tradition and play dreidl anyway. Lace the chocolate gold coins with Xanax, and play several rounds before dinner. Make sure that everyone wins some and eats them. You might have to send Betty's kid to the back yard to watch the turkey.

320px-Chocolate-Gold-Coins.jpg (320×164)

    Find your Uncle Agi a new dealer, and save a few of those brownies for grandpa in case his team loses again.
    The exploding turkey does not substitute for lighting the menorah, despite the quantities of oil involved, and there are no prayers that you can say over it that will fix that. And don’t forget that the first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving don’t coincide for another 77,000 years. You shouldn't have to worry about this again, but if you’re still around then I don’t want to meet you in the dark.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Pizza for dinner -- just not mine

                                              All of the toppings, ready for the pizza.

May 25, 2013: Not a thing wrong with Bear Tooth pizza -- it's our favorite. But that wasn't the plan for the evening. We were going to have sourdough pizza crust, topped with homemade marinara sauce, fresh shaved Parmesan cheese,  and other delicious things. This time, I was going to pay attention, watch over the rising dough hour by hour, making it my top priority all day long. This time, it would work just right.

                                         Pizza dough, rising.

Except that it didn't. I followed Tartine instructions for basic bread to get three small balls of dough, about 8 ounces each. Then I used instructions for Italian pan pizza for making two of the balls into pizza crusts, and made the third into a small foccacia. So far, so good.

The pizza crusts, like everything else I've tried recently, didn't rise after shaping. I'm perplexed. Up until I shape the dough for its final rise, it's been airy, bubbly, sweet-smelling, with a smooth skin and great form. Until I shape it into crust, or foccacia, or a ciabbata loaf. Then it just sits. After an hour or two, I put it in the oven because it's gotten to be midnight, or company is arriving soon. It didn't rise outside the oven, and didn't have any oven spring either. The bread  that comes out is nicely browned and tastes fine (when I remember the salt), but you would have to say that it's "chewy," as in sea cucumber chewy, or badly-cooked squid. This was the third or fourth try at foccacias, flatbreads, and ciabbatas, and the results have been pretty consistent.

[The foccacia part of this batch of dough had some rise, but I forgot the salt. Bread needs very little salt, but its absence is as noticeable as a wrong note in a violin solo. It lasts longer though -- every bite reminds you that yes, you forgot the salt. Again.]

                                          Foccacia, not for dinner.

Foccacia wasn't for dinner in any case. The guests were invited for pizza, and the pizza dough didn't work at all. Luckily, we had guacamole as an appetizer and that, with a bottle of wine, kept the party going while Jim and one of the guys ran to Bear Tooth for take-out pizza.

Here's my guacamole recipe. No sourdough recipes for a while to come.

Teri's guacamole

The amount of lime juice, salt and salsa that you use will depend on personal taste, and the size of the avocados, which can vary a lot from season to season.

Five ripe avocadoes in large pieces (halves or quarters), skin and pits discarded
Two to four tablespoons Nellie Joe's key lime juice
One tablespoon salt
One eighth to one quarter cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Eight ounces medium spicy salsa from a jar (Fresh salsa tends to be too watery, and the flavors aren't blended as well as salsa from a jar)

Combine in a large bowl, and chop.  The real secret -- the final guacamole should  be a bit chunky. I use a Foley nut chopper (you can find them on eBay and the like), you could also mash with a large fork, or  anything that will leave you with some pureed avocado and lots of pieces of different sizes. Think coarsely chopped nuts, or Grape Nuts. Because the textures are varied, the individual tastes comes through, with an underlying smooth base of flavor. Serve with your favorite chips.

Followup note, November 7, 2013: An experienced baker told me recently that the key to a light sourdough crust or bread is to provide a really moist environment -- not just in the oven, but during the final rise. I haven't tried that yet, but will rejoice and post the results if it works.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sicilian wheat, a smattering of tastes

The Sicilian flag shows Medusa's head, with ears of wheat alternating with the three legs that some say represent the three corners of Sicily. One source says that the Gorgons (Medusa was one of three) represented the destructive aspect of Athena. Perseus cut off her head and presented it to Athena who wore it on her shield. Thus the presence of Medusa on the Sicilian flag shows Athena's protection of  the island.

The three legs show up in symbolism elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world, so  they may represent other qualities as well. In 1082, the Normans who invaded Sicily took the three legged-symbol back to the Isle of Man, which then used it (just the legs) for its own symbol. Another interpretation of the three legs is that they represent the Greek name for Sicily, trinakrias, Sicily adopted the flag in 1282; its red represents Palermo, and  the yellow stands for Corleone, the two major cities of the time on the island.

Wheat has been one of the glories of Sicily since its Greek days, and possibly before. A couple of years ago, a friend guest-blogged here about Gold from Sicily. Since that  time, I've had the good fortune to visit Sicily and see a bit of that history and present day myself. Although we went in September and missed seeing the wheat fields in their glory, we had ample chance to sample Sicilian cuisine. From pastas to pizzas, from elaborate cakes, to memorials of martyrs, to daily breads, we saw and tasted wheat in many forms. Here are a few.

Pastry shop in Catania, with elaborate cakes.

Cannoli, with pistachio and strawberry jam decor.

Baker in small shop near the waterfront, Catania.

Breads for sale at the Catania market, September 18, 2013.

Pizza for lunch in Ortygia (Siracusa), from Cafe Professore, eaten outdoors on a square (September 18).

Cafe Professore -- everything you could want in an Italian cafe on a hot day -- a shady spot on the square, good pizza, cold drinks, gelato, and air conditioning inside for a brief respite from the sun's heat.

Ruins of the temple to Apollo, just down the street from the Cafe Professore.

Sfinciuni, the Sicilian version of pizza (recipe and more detail here). Alice at the Hotel Trieste sent us to a bakery nearby to get this. This one is stuffed with broccoli, and a bit of onion and mushroom.

The wrapping paper for the sfinciuni.

Bread for dinner in Catania, September 18.

Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and basil, Catania, September 18.

The house wine, at Vineria i Picasso.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hotel Trieste, Catania, Sicily

View from our balcony at the Hotel Trieste, looking west, about 5:00 p.m., Catania, Sicily.

I had never heard of Catania before deciding to visit Sicily with my husband, daughter, sister and her husband. We flew from Rome, mid-September, to this city of 400,000 people (center of an area of 800,000). Our home-town Anchorage, has about 325,000, and the whole state of Alaska has just over 700,000. And yet, we'd never heard of Catania, although the people there had certainly heard of Alaska.

Another difference -- Catania's been there since about 900 B.C.E., making it close to 3,000 years old. Although people are likely to have been living in the Anchorage area for that long, the first permanent settlement was in 1915, not even 100 years ago.

Plaque on a building across the street from the Hotel Trieste.  The Trieste building dates from the late 1700s.

View of the hotel from the street. Note the graffiti, ubiquitous in Catania, as it was in Greece and much of northern Spain. One awning says "Hotel Trieste," and the one above it says "Hotel Mele." The sign at street level has both names. That garage door will be rolled up at night, and tables and chairs for a bar will come out onto the street.

A view of the gates for the Trieste and the Mele. Every place we stayed in Italy had a set of iron gates at the entrance to the property, then a locked entrance to the hotel or apartment building, and then a locked door for the hotel room. It felt secure, but a  little odd.

The quiet street comes alive at dusk, with "American bars" up and down its length. By day, when you walk down the street, you see some shop windows, doors to houses, and roll-down metal garage doors, graffitied or plain. At night the doors roll up, the bar owners carry out tables, chairs, movie screens/monster TVs, and sofas. Italian bars are usually open all day, selling coffee, liquor, beer, and food. American bars exist for the sole purpose of drinking, watching sports (or maybe Simpsons, while waiting for soccer), and socializing; they never open until dusk.

 The street in front of Hotel Trieste at 10:30 p.m. [This was a night with no soccer game, so no TV out front.]

The "hotel," like a number of places we've stayed in Spain and Italy, is just seven rooms on one floor of a building. At least one other hotel, the Mele, shares the building, as do a number of apartments. The owners, Alice Bianchi and Guiseppe Koenraadt, would like to expand soon.

They found us a guide for Mt. Aetna, recommended bakeries, served us a local liqueur on our last evening, and took care of us in every way. One could not ask for more gracious hosts, better English, or more knowledgeable guides.

The local liqueur, Amaro dell' Etna [], that Guiseppe and Alice served us on our last evening at the Trieste. Wikipedia describes amaros (amaro is Italian for "bitter") as liqueurs made with herbs, bark, roots, flowers, and other ingredients. We can tell you that it was sweet, powerful, and delicious.

Hotel Trieste owners, Alice Bianchi, Guiseppe Koenraadt, and the twins (nearly 4).

On the ground floor of the hotel, inside the tall iron gate, is a paved area or parking. This is one of the cats that made their home there, under or atop the cars.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Sicilian impressions -- Catania market

The morning crowd at the Catania Fish Market. The group in the lower right is buying herring (or mackerel?) from a fisherman who has just brought them in from his boat. He's pulling out handfuls, weighing them, and taking money from the buyers. Luckily for the people of the city, the market is on two levels, allowing easy viewing of the action in the center.

Catania, in Southeast Sicily has survived earthquakes, frequent eruptions of Mt. Aetna, and the rule of Greeks, French, Spanish, Romans, and more. It's a city that's rough around the edges and alive with fishermen, tourists, and all the wealth of the fields, vineyards and olive groves that surround it. The fish and produce market is particularly noted for its vigor.

                                             Mackerel for sale.

                                              Seaweed with lime.

                                            Swordfish, whole and sliced into steaks.

People at the markets all over Italy seem to specialize. This man is carrying lemons and limes, and has a basket of parsley strapped to his front -- garnishes for the seafood that others are selling.

The market sold fish of almost every description (not so many octopi and squid as we would see in Siracusa), poultry, meats (including rabbits and horse meat), and fruits and vegetables.

                               Prickly pear cactus fruits, which grow around the area.

                                                          Local olives.

                                           An array of fruits and vegetables.

Not all of the animals were for sale. This pigeon hopped into the box beneath the table in the photo above.

A few stalls sold breads, but perhaps there were so many bakeries that were easy to get to that people didn't expect as many choices at the market.

          Leaving the market, on our way to Siracusa for the day.