Heaven on Toast: Venice’s Cicchetti

ciccetti venice

You know how at every party there’s that one person who scarfs down whole platefuls of hors d’oeuvres while everyone else nibbles politely? A person who eats so much when they first arrive that they barely have any room left for dinner?

Well, when I go to parties, that scarfer, is me! [Read more…]

Baked Pasta Trumps Hostess Anxiety

Baked Pasta

I’ve been working on conquering my hostess anxiety. Again. Because I’m tired of not being able to have people over to eat. My latest treatment tool is baked pasta.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that creamy, saucy, steamy hot pasta can cure pretty much everything. In retrospect, I should have figured that out a long time ago.

So here’s what happened. [Read more…]

Big Sugar, So Many Cupcakes

Big sugar yellow cupcake chocolate frosting

Greetings from Los Angeles.

I spent a couple of hours this morning at my friend Lisa’s bakery, Big Sugar. If you haven’t been to Big Sugar, you are missing out. Pretty much everything Lisa makes is better than anyone else’s. Cupcakes, cookies, and especially her Buckeyes—those creamy peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate that look like chocolate eyeballs and taste like heaven.

big sugar buckeye dipped

I went to Big Sugar at 6 a.m. this morning and watched Lisa and her crew bake. A team of three—including Lisa—work a seven hour shift every morning to make several hundred cupcakes per day. Even more than normal today, because it’s Saturday—which is a big day for cupcake consumption.

Many women I know fantasize about how much simpler and less stressful their life would be if they started some sort of food business.

Simpler and less stressful, I laugh. About two-hundred cupcakes plus dozens of other treats per day. Not to mention frantic and desperate parents calling to say, “Today is my daughter’s birthday and I need a cake right away.”

From what I see, simpler and less stressful is not a valid definition.Big sugar cupcake batter

 

At Big Sugar, the cupcake baking process is fast and streamlined. Batter gets scooped a tray that holds twenty-four cupcakes. The filled tray gets popped into the oven. One batch comes out, another goes in. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s as smoothly choreographed as a ballet.

Big sugar red velvet cupcake batter

Big sugar red velvet cupcakes baking

Cooled cupcakes get iced. Lisa creates a perfect frosting swirl on the top of every cupcake. Her process is to plop a healthy dollop of frosting into the middle of a cupcake, then softly pat it down about nine times with a short, wide spatula to get the frosting spread evenly. Then she pushes the top of the spatula lightly into the frosting puddle and quickly gives the cupcake one complete twirl. The twirling creates a small, circular indent in the frosting that looks sort of like a moat surrounding a hill.

Big sugar cupcake swirl

Lisa’s final step is to give the cupcake a quick twirl in the opposite direction while pulling the spatula toward the center.

Big sugar cupcake final swirl

Ta-da! A perfect icing swirl.

The trick is to complete the swirl process in seven seconds—or less—per cupcake. Lisa does it so fast you can barely see what she’s doing. That’s what you have to do to have two-hundred or more cupcakes ready at opening time.

I watch Lisa frost tray after tray. She is fast and precise. There are no mistakes. Not a single cupcake needs to be re-frosted.

Big sugar cupcakes on tray

Some of the finished cupcakes get placed in three straight lines on white rectangular trays. These will sit on display inside a glass case near the cash register. Some of the cupcakes go into bleach-white boxes with Big Sugar stickers precisely adhered to the bottom right corner of the lid.

Big Sugar box

Hundreds of cupcakes plus donut muffins and scones and buckeyes EVERY DAY. My head spins. “How do you do it?” I ask.

Big sugar mini-cupcakes

“You have to be a tiny bit ill—OCD—to really excel,” Lisa says.

I’m tempted to try the frosting twirling when I get home, but I’m going to try to resist the urge. I just don’t think I have it in me.

It’s probably better to leave the cupcake baking to the experts.

 

Madeira Espetada: Spectacle of Meat

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’ve been thinking about how when I was a kid, my favorite restaurant meals were the ones where they prepared or served the food with a flourish. Pizza dough tossed to the ceiling, the spinning salad at Lawry’s, Steak Diane flambeéd tableside at the Hotel Roanoke (which looked like this).

Based on my enthusiastic response to the Espetada we were served at Restaurante Santo António on the island of Madeira, this is one aspect of me that hasn’t changed. I can no longer do a cartwheel and it’s been years since I have responded to the call of “Do the hustle.” But bring out the food theatrics—and I’ll push my way to the front of the line.

I gaped and giggled as our waiter approached with a 4-foot long skewer of beef. It was a real man’s man sort of presentation worthy of people like King Henry the Eighth, Neandertahl man and Hagrid.

Really, it was a 4-foot long skewer. With almost 18″ inches of beef chunks. If you don’t believe me, just look at the photos.

When the waiter got to our table, he hung the giant skewer pendulum-like from a four-foot high iron hook that rose out of the middle of our table. With the restaurant’s high ceilings, minimal décor and bulky wood tables, the whole thing had sort of a dramatic, mead-hall feel.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

The only way it could have been better is if the meat had been served impaled on an actual medieval sword.

I almost wanted to stand up and salute.

Espetada is a traditional dish on the island of Madeira. Big nuggets of meltingly tender beef threaded with a little bit of bay leaf and grilled fast over an open fire. A small plate positioned under the beef catches the drops of au jus that slide down the skewer.

We went at lunchtime, so the place was filled with large, extended families—all happily jabbering away and enjoying their own Espetada.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’d like to thank Joel, a Madeira native I stalked on the message boards of Chowhound.com for leading me to Restaurante Santo António. The restaurant is in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, a mountain village 15-minutes from Funchal. Ron and I got there by cab.

They serve Espetada at some of the restaurants in Funchal, but I never saw in-town skewers more than 12” long. Espetada light, after you’ve seen the super-sized version.

Ron and I tried a chicken skewer too, which had a light yellow curry flavor. Side dishes are salad, Bolo do Caco (a traditional round and somewhat flat loaf served with garlic butter) and Milho Frito—cubes of deep-fried polenta. Everything was really good. If I went back, I’d have the same meal again—maybe with the addition of their French fries.

Whatever you do, don’t touch the skewers. We found out the hard way that they are very hot!

(Get Saveur magazine’s recipe for Espetada here.)

Count Down to Empty Nest

Sorry about my hiatus.

I’ve been juggling hard. Ron and I have been busy: working; trying to sell two Maine houses and the ice cream store prior to our move to Atlanta; trying to get rid of the 2/3 of our belongings that won’t fit in our new, smaller residence—and seeing Lindsey off for her freshman year at Elon University in North Carolina.

My blog is the ball that got dropped last week and won’t be making it back into the air again for at least another week.

But what I’ve lost in writing time, I’ve gained in hours spent hovering over-attentively over my soon-to-depart daughter.

Example—

Usual me: “Breakfast? No, I wasn’t planning to make breakfast.”

Pre-college departure me: “Breakfast? Would you prefer Carrot Cake Pancakes or Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes?” (She choose Blueberry Ricotta)

I hope Lindsey got the message that in this case—food does, to some extent—equal love. I’m really going to miss her.

 

Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes

Adapted slightly from a recipe by Bobby Flay on the Food Network Website.

Serves 4

  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2  tablespoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup ricotta cheese (I used part skim)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup milk (I used skim)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup blueberries (preferably wild Maine blueberries—the tiny little ones. Fresh or frozen are fine.)
  • melted butter for the griddle
  • maple syrup
  1. Preheat griddle or large frying pan over medium heat.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, nutmeg, salt and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk together the ricotta, eggs, milk, and lemon zest in a larger bowl. Add the dry mixture into the wet mixture and stir til just combined.
  3. Gently fold in the blueberries.
  4. Brush a tiny bit of melted butter onto the hot griddle.
  5. Pour about 1/4 cup of batter onto the griddle for each pancake. Cook until golden brown, then flip. Remove from grill when both sides are golden brown.
  6. Brush a little more butter onto the griddle between batches to prevent sticking.
  7. Pancakes can be stacked on a cookie sheet and kept in the oven at 250-degrees until all the batter is cooked.
  8. Serve hot with a drizzle of maple syrup and more blueberries on top.

Across the Threshold

Life is full of happy surprises. Here’s one: A couple of nights ago, I was desperately burned out so I thought that going to dinner might push me over the edge. Instead, it was just the thing I needed to transport me across the threshold from my typical state of stress into a vacation state of mind.

Aunt Matoo and I were on our way to catch the Port Clyde ferry to spend a week writing (me) and painting (her) on Monhegan Island. As we drove, I tried to ignore that I felt terrible. My head throbbed. My eyes hurt. I was used up as a soiled baby wipe.

Around dinnertime, we hit the proverbial fork in the road. Port Clyde, our B&B, and sleep were to the right. Primo, chef Melissa Kelly’s heralded mid-coast Maine restaurant, lay straight ahead. My body begged: turn right. But I knew Matoo wanted to eat at Primo “It’s my friend Barbara’s favorite restaurant in the world,” Matoo had said.

I continued straight.

Ten minutes later we arrived at Primo’s steep gravel driveway. As the rental car climbed upward, my head tilted back to face somewhat skyward. It felt like I was on a roller coaster, climbing the first big hill—looking up and wondering just how scary that first big drop was going to be.

But the big drop never came.

Instead, at the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a panorama. The restaurant, housed in a scrupulously maintained Victorian, stood to our left. To our right, ahead of us and everywhere else sat a lush chartreuse oval of farm—outlined by a curtain of forest and dotted with flower heads of red, blue and gold.

Matoo and I stepped out of the car. The air smelled of earth and meadow. The late afternoon sun painted golden halos around the trees and flowers.

 

We walked to the chicken pen. I eyed a little red hen through the wired fence. She eyed me back. Then she whipped her head to one side and gave me the stink eye. The way teenage girls do when they see you shopping in American Eagle or one of the stores that they consider their domain.

I grinned at her arrogance. The nerve–especially considering someday soon, she was going to be someone’s dinner. Obviously she hadn’t fully grasped the concept of farm-to-table.

In that moment, everything changed. My headache vanished. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to capture what it felt like to be here. The serenity, the beauty, the chicken-with-an-attitude. I sprinted back to the car, grabbed my camera and started snapping away.

For the next twenty minutes, Aunt Matoo and I roamed the farm. We admired the seedlings.

 

We ogled the chicks as they basked under their heat lamp.

 

We envied the tomato plants.

 

We laughed at the pigs.

 

We wondered if the brown and white birds stalking through the lettuce patch were pheasant or partridge or wild turkeys or something else. (I have to say that whatever they were, they were not cooperative. They wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to get a decent photo.) My friend Deb says they are Guinea Hens.

 

After our farm walk, we ate upstairs, in the less-formal portion of the restaurant. Exposed filament light bulbs emit a candle-like glow. The gently vaulted ceiling added warmth and intimacy.

We sat the far end of the copper-clad bar. I took in every detail and scent and taste.

Matoo passed a vase containing the longest, most delicate cheese straws I’d ever seen. I crunched my way from one end to the other, sunk into my stool and took a deep breath.

 

I giggled in delight at our amuse: a fresh cucumber slice topped with smoked trout and radish—waving a tiny fennel-frond flag.

 

I salivated at a waft of the fresh-fried batter encasing our ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms. Like all things fresh-picked—the squash flower tasted like a concentrated version of itself. Likewise, the arugula beneath was eye-openingly peppery.

 

Our salumi arrived, paper-thin slices stacked on a wooden plank: Coppa—a smoky, cured pork product made from the neck portion of the animal. Speck, smoked and cured pork leg. And mortadella with pistachios—finely ground cured pork sausage polka-dotted with small squares of lardo (thinly sliced pork fat).

I remembered the mortadella in the deli at Shop-Rite when I was a child. My little brother and I cringed at the little squares of fat embedded in the meat. Gross. But now, pork belly and lardo are in vogue—so mortadella has been able to climb its way to a much higher rung on the cold cut social ladder.

Smoked swordfish fettuccine in puttanesca sauce arrived in a gloriously sculpted bowl. It was bright white formed into sort of a rounded diamond shape, somewhat like an eye—only less oblong. I ran my finger around the rim, cradled the cool ceramic in my hands.  (Villeroy & Boch)

I took photos of the exposed filament bulbs, the cheese straws sticks, our amuse, the unusually shaped pasta bowl. I saw—and felt—the considerable thought behind every detail in the room. Some one—probably several people—had cared intensely about the experience their customers would have.

On our way back to our bed and breakfast, I thought how very happy I was that we’d chosen Primo over bed. If I’d listened to my body, I would have missed out on so much. It’s not supposed to work that way. But this time it did.

Life can be so random.

 

Made My Week

Pie follows. Please bear with me…

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s blogs lately. It’s amazing what you can learn about writing/blogging by reading other people’s work. A few posts stood out, so I thought I’d share:

The Everywhereist on rainbow sprinkles. As someone who eats ice cream daily, I identified strongly with Geraldine’s post. Even if I do prefer chocolate sprinkles myself.

All Fooked Up on people who second guess other people’s actions. I admit that I do this myself sometimes. And I really hate that I do. The last thing people who have experienced tragedy need is to have other people tell them that it’s their own fault that the awful thing that happened .

Bakerella’s quick and easy mini pies.  Although Bakerella made her own crust, it occurred to me that these would be really easy to make with store-bought pie crust. So I unrolled the Pillsbury, used some sort of scalloped-edge thing to cut wedges, piled on the berries and baked. (I used tiny-little wild Maine blueberries and raspberries from my back yard.) So good and so easy!

 

 

Ode To My Egg

As part of my ongoing effort to slow down a little and stop stressing out over EVERYTHING, I’m trying to enjoy the simple things in life. Lucky for me, both simplicity and happiness can be found by the carton-full right here in my refrigerator.

Let me just come right out and say it: I love eggs.

LOVE eggs.

And being a food snob, the eggs I like best are fresh farm eggs. The kind with a huge fiery-yolk that stares back at you like a full moon in the middle of the plate.

When farm eggs are available, I eat one every day for breakfast. Almost always sunny-side up or over easy.

Grocery store eggs, I eat lots of ways. Scrambled, hardboiled, poured into an omelet and filled with cheese. But farm eggs I leave intact. Preserving the yolk’s integrity is my way of celebrating its gloriousness.

I eat my morning egg with a half-slice of toast, torn not cut, no butter or jam or anything else to distract from the yolk. And only half a slice of toast because that’s the optimal amount to slop up the yolk of a single egg. A whole slice would give the toast too much weight. This is not about the toast.

Farm eggs taste like goodness and open fields. Rainbows and ducklings. Like the infinity of the cosmos.

Ok, maybe not. But they do taste, well, eggy. Very. Eggy. Like the best possible version of themselves. It’s just like the way fresh farm tomatoes taste in comparison to those bland orangey grocery store tomatoes that never really get fully ripe. Both are tomatoes, but if you compare them, the mass-market tomato tastes like a watered down version of the farm tomato. I prefer both my eggs and my tomatoes at full flavor.

The color of the yolk is the result of what the chicken has been fed. Factory chickens are usually fed wheat—which produces a light-colored yolk. Chickens that lay dark yellow yolks are usually corn fed. (I’m not sure what a chicken factory looks like, but I assume the worst: a chicken tenement house with dim lighting, cages stacked 30-feet high, narrow aisles, chickens gasping for breath in the stale air)

For me, the right answer here is to give the chicken a diet closest to what it would have eaten in the wild. And when I think about pre-domesticated chickens roaming around and what they would have stumbled upon to eat—I think seeds, acorns, some bugs, the remnants of a few wild fruits and vegetables. Corn wins for me because it seems closer to this natural diet. Wheat would only be available to those chickens habituating wild in, say, Kansas.

(This reminds me of Chef Dan Barber’s TED talk about sustainable fish farming—and how he found out that one supposedly sustainable fish farm feeds its fish chicken meal. “After that conversation, the fish tasted like chicken,” Barber says.  I now consider wheat-fed chickens to be the Wonder Bread of eggs.)

Each morning I sprint to the kitchen and fry my egg in my favorite pan. I add the tiniest bit of butter so it won’t stick, but not enough to taste the butter.

When the white is just cooked and the yolk is still runny, I slide the egg onto my plate and tear my toast half in half again. With a toast piece in each hand I confront my egg. I feel a tiny shiver of excitement as a corner of toast punctures the yolk.

I submerge the toast bit in my right hand deep into the golden liquid—and use the toast bit in my left hand as a pusher. I eat some of the yolk first, then the white—and then the remaining yolk. I only pick up a fork after the toast is gone. When no one is with me—or when I forget that people are with me—I make satisfied uummmm sounds.

Many Peaks Island families have their own chickens. We don’t have chickens because I can barely keep up with work and life—and chickens to feed in the winter would probably push me over the edge. But thanks to the Weiser family, who sell eggs at their cottage on the island from their mainland farm, I have a farm egg source that I can walk to all summer long.

The Weisers place cartons of eggs that come from their farm into a mini-fridge that sits next to their cottage porch.

 

You can walk up any time you like, take a carton of eggs and deposit three dollars into the mailbox. It’s a fast and painless transaction (No account or a password that you will never remember required.)

 

The Weiser’s egg cartons are a miss-matched collection. They are all reused cartons obtained from various grocery stores. I feel good when I return my own empty egg cartons to the Weisers for refill. It’s the circle of life…(cue Lion King music).

The best thing about the Weiser’s eggs is that none of them match. Because different types of chickens lay different types of eggs. The eggs in my carton are a mix, brown, white and every tone in between. Sometimes, but not today, there are light green eggs that look like they’ve been dyed for Easter. The eggs come in lots of different sizes and shapes too. Short and squat. Long and narrow. Sometimes the shell is bumpy at one end.

In comparison to farm eggs, grocery store eggs look like they came off of an assembly line. I guess that’s why they call it factory farming. Now that I think about it, the homogeny of every egg being so close in color, size and shape, it creeps me out a little.

Thank goodness for the Weiser family. And for all the little niceties of life.

So how do you like your eggs? Share the egg love with a comment below…

Spread the Cheese Love

Mini post–

Help spread the cheese love by reading my July Flavor of the Month contribution for NortheastFlavor.com. It’s full of lots of semi-useful cheese trivia. If you’ve been clamoring for more cheese reading you will not be disappointed.

I’m especially proud that they used one of my photos. This one was taken during my cheese tour at Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery in Websterville, Vermont.

PeaksFest—Eat Your Pie and Wear It Too

Chocolate pie eaten without utensils. That’s right—No. Hands. Allowed. A chance to eat and wear pie. Small wonder that practically every kid on Peaks Island was crowded around the table.

I squeezed my way under the tent erected on the lawn at St. Christopher’s church and pulled out my camera.

The Peaks Island Pie Eating Contest is part of the annual PeaksFest celebration. PeaksFest includes concerts, a small fair, and an art walk. But based on attendance, the Pie Eating Contest is by far the most popular event. “Hi,” I said to M and S and P and other friends and neighbors who’d shown up to cheer the kids on.

“How are you?” they reply with big smiles. Because today everyone has big smiles.

I was pleased that this year there were four age groups plus adults. Finally: everyone could play.

The pie isn’t fancy. Technically, it’s not even pie. It’s Jello instant chocolate pudding, plopped over a chocolate wafer cookie and topped with Reddi-whip. But it is served in an aluminum pie pan—which, it seems, is enough to qualify it to be called pie.

No matter, this contest is about quantity, not quality. To win, you have to gulp down everything in your pie pan—including the chocolate cookie. And as I mentioned before: No Hands Allowed.

Contestants took their places around the table. They donned Hefty bag full-body bibs and waited for the judges to say, “go.”

E charmed me with her pie eating gusto last year, so I butted my way through the crowd and grabbed a spot where I could observe her up close. Her philosophy is that if you want to win, you have to commit full-face. We are talking deep pudding submersion.  Her commitment and all-in attitude earned her second consecutive win in her age category. I suspect it will take her far in life as well.

The youngest kids received tiny servings presented in cupcake papers—which their older siblings held in place. In return, the preschoolers cheered on their siblings. “Put your whole face in the bowl,” R directed her brother.

Some competitors focused strictly on the bowl in front of them. Others managed to peek up and keep tabs on the rest of the field.

R emerged from her pie with pudding stuck to her forehead and whipped cream stuck to her hair. For her, getting messy is at least half the fun. Maybe more.

Little M won her age category and her father competed in the adult category. Two Halloweens ago, my husband, Ron, upset Little M’s mother. Seems she overheard Ron hand Little M a giant purple Pixi Stix and say, “Put these in with your Cheerios in the morning. They make the milk turn pretty colors.”

M’s response at the time was a threat. “Watch it or I’m going to teach your daughter to smoke cigarettes,” she said. (She was just kidding. I think…)

Now that I’ve seen M’s husband attack a pie—he went at it so aggressively that the entire plate lifted off of the table and stuck to his face—I’m going to have a talk with her. I have to say that it’s not Ron’s influence on her kids eating habits that she should be worried about.

I think it’s worth noting that all of first place winners, across every age group—were girls. I’m not sure what this means.

As the competitors slurped and gulped and guzzled and breathed pie, I fell into a photo snapping frenzy. So many chocolate cheeks and whipped cream noses to capture over a few short minutes. And oh, the kids’ smiles.

I think that’s what I like best about the pie eating contest. So many happy faces. Win or loose, everyone has fun.

And really, there are no losers. Everyone gets to eat pie.

And wear it.