Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I was taking these pictures to post on my fiber blog, but they turned out so cute that I had to post them here as well.  In this set, the small people pose with their hat/mitten sets that I knit (mostly) on the way to Italy:

Here is Lavella in a sweater that I just finished up a few days ago (in case you are the kind of person who cares about such things: I spun the yarn myself before knitting it.)

I think she looks like a character in a Richard Scary book, or maybe Dr, Seuss.  (Action shots, since there was no chance of her sitting still, even with scotch tape on her fingers to distract her as in the first of the set.)

Lavella has 6 teeth now, and yesterday stood on her own for the first time.  She still thinks it's a pretty bad idea, but can stand without wobbling if she decides to.  She has started walking while holding onto my fingers.  The boys thought that she should walk holding their fingers too, but this ended with her shouting at them.

And just because this is a cute picture, here's one from today:

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Italy Part 11: Olive Oil

As the culmination of our Italy series, we thought it fitting to end on the one thing most influential and essential to all of Italian cuisine…Olio di Oliva.  We had decided, months before even departing for Italy, that if we brought only one thing back, it would most definitely be a collection of olive oils.  We certainly did our homework prior to leaving, so as to be fully informed on this most fundamental gastronomic accessory.

The most important thing to remember about olive oil is how different one oil can be from another, depending on its region of origin.  Almost all Italian dishes, including some desserts, call for olive oil; therefore Italian-produced oil hugely influences the recipes from a given region.  The Food Lover’s Guide to Florence, mentions that Italians even occasionally use olive oil to cure a baby’s diaper rash!

When Italians speak of olive oil, they are always referring to extra virgin.  I don’t even think we saw anything else offered.  And Tuscany alone produces approximately 20 percent of Italy’s oil.

One indicator to look for, especially if you’re in the market for fine, estate-produced oil, is the stamp, ‘prodotto e imbottiglioto nel…’ which translates to, ‘bottled product in/from’, with the region listed after.

So after much comparison-shopping and contemplation we chose four olive oils to bring back home, and here is our list:

Il Latini House Oil

Il Latini’s house oil was our first choice.  Every table at the restaurant had a bottle for dipping bread or whatever.  The flavor is faintly bitter with a slight fruity edge and a slight spicy aftertaste.  Also, the color is a bit murky, unlike most of the oil that reaches American shores.  We liked it so much; I asked our waiter if they’d sell us some.  We walked out with four bottles for a mere 10 Euro each!  Il Latini’s oil comes from Barberino Val d’Elsa, Italy, approximately 25 miles south of Florence.

Giovanni and Barbara Andreini Oil

The next oil we acquired was from a local stand at the Piazza Santo Spirito flea market.  A husband and wife, Giovanni and Barbara Andreini, produce it at their home estate in Lucca, Italy, 44 miles west of Florence.  The flavor is a round, clean taste; a bit milder than the others we bought in Florence, but still stronger and better tasting than anything you’d find in American grocery stores.  I think we paid about 10 Euro for a one liter bottle.

We procured the last two oils from Conti’s, a quaint, family-run gourmet food shop located inside the Mercato Centrale (Central Market).  The man who helped us, a member of the Conti family, was very informative and seemed genuinely interested in sharing two of his favorites with us.  Conti also very conveniently ships some of their products, such as oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta and spices around the world through their website,

The first one they sold us was Azienda Agraria Sole (or simply ‘Sole’), which translates to ‘Agrarian Company Sun’.  The oil is excellent for dipping, as it has a relishable piquant tang, but without any additional ingredients other than the pure, organic olives of Trequanda, Italy. Definitely an essence unlike any oil we’d ever tasted before. 

The other olive oil, sold to us at Conti’s, was the multiple award-winning Franci, Villa Magra oil, produced by the Franci family since the 1950s, in the Tuscan hill town of Montenero d’Orcia, near Grosseto, Italy.  This oil definitely lives up to its reputation and I can’t think of a more appropriate description than the one from Conti’s website:  “Intense fruit, fresh, grassy, pungent, complex; decisively bitter and peppery, harmonious, elegant and well structured, with a fresh rich finish of spicy grass.”  At 23 Euro per 0.750 liter bottle, it had better be good – and it undeniably is.

Thus concludes the highlights of our magnificent trip to Italy.  There is so much more we could have expounded upon, but I guess at this point, over a month after returning, there are many other things happening in our lives to share with you all.  Italy was unquestionably the best vacation we’ve ever taken.  As Faith mentioned in one of the earlier posts, this was actually our first real family vacation and it will definitely be very hard to top the experiences we had there.  We’d like to publicly thank the Bellettini family for their wonderful hospitality at the Hotel Bellettini, including the fabulous breakfasts prepared by their son at the hotel bistro.  Because our stay was so long (13 nights), we got a significant discount on the price of our room, which was by far the cheapest place we found anywhere in the city.

Florence is stunning, Italy is exquisite, and we can’t wait to return and explore other remarkable cities.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Curry Powder

A few years ago, my sister Hannah gave me this book for my birthday:

It is an unassuming, square volume, entirely black and white on the inside with no pictures. The gem of this book is in the text. Not only does it contain good, solid recipes, but it also gives you the tools to experiment and create your own curry dishes.

Although the author assures the reader that using store-bought curry powders and paste will be fine in any of the dishes, she includes several curry powder recipes, as well as curry pastes and Garam Masala.

I've been wanting to try out the curry powder recipe for a while now. Two weeks ago I ran out of my store-bought McCormicks blend, so after a quick run to the Asian food store, I was ready.

All of this only cost me about 10 Euro -- I don't know why anyone would buy their spices anywhere else!

One benefit of making your own is that you can tailor it perfectly to your own taste -- and even if you follow the recipe exactly, there's nothing like the freshness of a newly ground spice blend.

Here are the toasted whole and untoasted ground spices all together in a bowl:

Curry Powder
(from The Curry Book by Nancie McDermott)
You can vary any of these proportions, omit a few, or add any of the following: fennel seeds, start anise, ground nutmeg, mace, dried curry leaves, brown or black mustard seeds. You can substitute ground spices, but keep in mind that they burn quickly and need to be toasted separately from any whole ones you may be using (which will take longer to darken)

1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 T cumin seeds
1 T white or black peppercorns
2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 cinnamon sticks, approx 3 inches long each
1 T ground turmeric
2 tsp whole cardamom (about 3 or 4 pods) or ground
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 dried red chili pepper, stemmed a broken in pieces (or 2 tsp crushed red pepper, or 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper)

Preheat oven to 300 deg F.

In pie tin (I used a large jelly-roll pan), combine coriander, cumin, peppercorns and fenugreek. Wrap cinnamon sticks in a kitchen towel (preferably a smooth one rather than one with a nap, like terrycloth) and bash them with a rolling pin or the side of an unopened can. Add crushed cinnamon to pan of spices and put in oven.

Toast spices for 15 minutes, stirring once, until they darken a little and release their flavors. Remove from the oven and spread out on a plate to cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, combine turmeric, cardamom, cloves, ginger and chili pepper or cayenne. When the toasted spices have cooled, combine with untoasted spices and grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder (I have a coffee grinder that I use only for spices), or a mortar and pestle. Pour all into an airtight jar (I taped a piece of paper into a funnel), and store away from heat and light. For maximum freshness and flavor, use within 3 months.

Fragrant, fresh curry powder, all ground up and ready to use.

Have a great Easter, everyone!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Italy Part 10: Gelato

Sitting in front of Caffe' delle Carrozze with nothing but a thin railing between us and the busy street

Vivoli's superb Gelato

So I have officially been ruined.  Approximately six years ago, my journey to find the world's best ice cream began.  Much money was spent, countless bad ice creams relegated to the trash, until I finally found what I considered then to be The World's Best vanilla ice cream.  The clear winner was Edy's "Dreamery" Vanilla, with Ben & Jerry's "Vanilla For A Change" coming in at a close second.

Very unfortunately, it seems that both ice creams are no longer available.  However, I have now found a frozen delight created in the way that God must have intended.

To say that Gelato tastes good is grievous understatement.

Before departing for our trip to Florence, we had read of two places purported to serve the world's best ice cream, so it was with great anticipation that we set out to find these establishments.  But first, to paint a small picture: gelato stands in Florence are as common as pizza parlors in New York City, and similarly, often a-dime-a-dozen.  But to really experience the best the city has to offer, I would argue that there are two places where one should experience this wonderfulness.

The first is Vivoli, set on a small side street, three blocks down from the bustling piazza surrounding the Santa Croce cathedral.  The second is Carrozze's, located on the South side of the Ponte Vecchio bridge.  Each establishment served similar menus of carefully crafted flavors; Vivoli's pulled slightly ahead with flavors such as Riso (rice) and Chestnut, but Carazza's fruit flavors were pure and true (no milk in the fruit recipes, making them especially intense).

The Italian's substitution for American "plain vanilla" is something they call "Crema", which in all actuality , as far as we could taste, contained no vanilla at all, choosing instead to focus on the richness of the cream flavor.  This has now become my all time favorite -- one might describe it as a heart-stopping combination of heavy cream and eggs, with a taste sensation instantly calling to mind legions of angels trumpeting Hallelujah Chorus medleys... swooping vistas... ancient meadows... well, you get the picture.

Another flavor (already mentioned above), is Riso, which I can best compare to the richest, sweetest rice pudding I've ever had, complete with grains of rice throughout.  Definitely one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth.  Period.

Then, came the fruit flavors.  Let's just say, a few days after returning from Italy, I had a spoonful of Hagen Das Strawberry, a respectable flavor in itself, and I almost literally gagged when it hit my tongue.  The fruit flavors in Italy tasted just like the fruit they represented, perfectly ripe and bursting with natural sweetness.  Favorites were Strawberry and Kiwi.

A few other flavors worth mentioning, although not personal favorites, were Roca, Burnt Caramel Pear, Pistacchio, Nocciola (Hazelnut), Mirtillo (Blueberry), and Blood Orange.

A salute to Strawberry!

Both gelaterias also served lunch menus, making them a perfect place to spend an afternoon, although we usually began with the ice cream.

Inside Vivoli's

I've told this to Faith, and I'm dead serious: I would literally buy a plane ticket just to fly to Florence, have a dish of ice cream, then fly back.  It is that good.

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Red Velvet Cupcakes

About a month ago I came across a recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes on one of my favorite cooking blogs, Culinary In The Country.  The recipe calls for buttermilk, and a different take on buttercream frosting, so I had to try it.

I made them the first time at last month's Spinning Friday at my house, and they were a hit with everyone.  Unfortunately though, I didn't have quite enough red food coloring in the pantry so they were a tiny bit dull, and I left the frosting in the refrigerator overnight, making it almost impossible to pipe out gracefully.  When I let it soften out in the counter for a little while, it went grainy on me, although the flavor was still good.

I brought the left-overs to one of my German neighbors afterwards, and they loved it so much that they requested it for the one daughter's 14th birthday, which was this Sunday.

I am terrible at decorating cakes, but this time I gave myself a leg up on the whole affair by making the frosting the day of the event so that it would be as smooth and soft as possible.

My two assistants help taste test the batter before the addition of the food coloring.

(Nope, it's not sanitary, but we're baking with kids here.  They have no such concerns.)

All went off without a hitch.  This time I had enough food coloring.

Yes, it takes two entire 1oz bottles.  These aren't playing around with the "Red" aspect -- it actually turns your tongue that color too when you eat it.

Cake just about to go into the oven.

While the finished cake looked just a bit boring, it wasn't all messy and overdone like my decorating skills usually dictate.

Personally I liked the texture of the cupcakes a bit better, but the difference was slight, and it seemed that the guests at the party liked all of it equally.

Andrew carefully sprinkled each cupcake with sugar, and I was very proud of his steady little hand.  He's clocked a lot of time in the kitchen in his 4 years, and he always tells me how much he loves cooking.  Look at how concentrated his face is here.

His is very proud to show you his completed cupcakes:

The crumb of the cupcake is moist (thanks to buttermilk), and light (cake flour), with a mild chocolate/vanilla flavor.  The frosting is buttercream, but instead of being sickly sweet like most (buttercreams usually depend on powdered sugar to thicken them), these are pleasantly sweet with notes of vanilla, and is thickened with a cooked milk and flour mixture.  I know, it sounds like a total bomb, but the paste gives it a silky mouthfeel -- just be sure to press saran wrap onto the surface of it as it cools, just like you would with pudding, so that a skin doesn't form. 

I like these a lot, although in my opinion, as far as frosting goes, nothing can ever top a good cream cheese recipe.

(Recipe from Culinary In The Country)

For the cupcakes

2 1/2 cups cake flour
3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
2 ounces liquid red food coloring
3 tablespoons lukewarm water
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 recipe Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)

To make the cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350

In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Beat in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Mix in vanilla, red coloring and water until well combined. Add flour mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour - mixing just until combined.

In a small bowl, combine vinegar and baking soda. Quickly pour into the batter and stir just until combined. Evenly divide the batter between the wells of 24 muffin tin lined with paper cups.

Bake until the center springs back when lightly pressed in the center, about 18 to 25 minutes. Remove and let cool 5 minutes before carefully turning the cupcakes out to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

Makes 24 cupcakes.  (For me it made 24 cupcakes plus a loaf pan, or one large 11x13" pyrex dish and 12 cupcakes -- I fill my muffin tins about 1/2 full to give them room to rise.)

Buttercream Frosting

1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) salted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

In a medium saucepan, add milk, flour and salt - whisk until flour has dissolved. Place over medium heat, whisking, and cook until thickened and beginning to bubble. Reduce heat and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and scoop into a bowl - cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until it has cooled down.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides of the bowl - add the cooled milk mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, beating on low until smooth.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Updates on the little people

With all of the posting on our trip, I haven't given updates in a while on the new stuff our little guys are doing.

In breif:
Elijah is potty trained. Both boys still wear pull-ups to bed, but other than that, Lavella's the only one that I need to change during the day.

It happened sort of suddenly -- he was showing an interest in going to the bathroom "like a big guy" and then when we were in Italy, everything just sort of came together. Not an ideal moment for potty training, but we grabbed the moment when it presented itself!

Lavella is moving towards being weaned. She had her first bottle a few days ago and loves it. She still deeply enjoys nursing too though, so we'll continue to do that for a while, I think. (She also eats pretty much anything that the boys are eating by this point.)

Lavella loves playing with her big brothers. If she's awake during their nap/quiet time (sometimes she wakes up before Elijah does), she then tries to crawl through the house yelling for them, and I have to catch her.

She's got 6 teeth now, with more on the way coming in on the bottom. She can say "Dada", "Ammm" (Mommy), Andrew and Elijah (both indistinguishable unless you know what she's trying to say),"Hi-yo" (Hello), waves goodbye, and shakes her head yes and no (especially no, of course).

Lavella cruises around all of the furniture, and can push her walking toy across the house, steering around corners and turning around when she hits the wall, but refuses to even just stand by herself.

Andrew keeps a good eye on Elijah and Lavella for the most part. In the picture above, he had just been pushing them around in the laundry basket while they read books. So cute!

I will post soon about making Red Velvet cupcakes (along with recipe of course), which Andrew and Elijah both decorated by themselves (mostly)! Also I recently made my own curry powder, which I'll share as well.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Italy Part 9: Venice

On the last day of our Italy trip, we spent the day in Venice.

The city is built on 110 little islands in a salt water lagoon. Travel is restricted entirely to boating or walking -- no cars are allowed in the city at all. Venice is known as the largest urban car free area in Europe.

We parked near the dock, and took the traghetti (waterbus) in.

Once inside the city, the water is full of Gondolas giving high-priced rides to tourists, as well as Venitians boating about doing their every day errands. (For example, if you dig a hole, you then have to boat the dirt out somewhere. So strange.)

We, of course, had to eat seafood while we were there. I ate my favorite food -- raw oysters. Everything we had, unfortunately, was incredibly overpriced, because we were not able to get beyond the very touristy area during our short visit. (Although the seafood was very fresh and good. The vegetables Not so much.)

The bread of Venice, as well as the olive oil, is remarkably bad (the bread pale and spongy and the oil smelling...well, just not good), and was especially a let down after what we had become accustomed to in Florence. From what I hear, their Jewish bread (from the Jewish ghetto or district) is delicious, but it always sells out at the bakeries by lunch-time, so at dinner there's almost no chance of it. Oh well.

The architecture was very beautiful, and we definitely want to go back to explore more. The top two pictures below are of San Marco square.

Unfortunately, the whole place is over run by pigeons, and this is totally played up, complete with little stands selling cones of pigeon food to feed to the hoards of birds (we contributed to the problem with two dropped ice cream cones).

The shopping is extensive, strongly featuring beautiful, artistically handmade Murano glass in countless shop windows.

The entire city feels magical. It was a lot of fun just to walk around and take in the sites. It did get pretty cold as night fell, and we did not manage to get beyond the touristy bits, but we took with us some lovely memories.

One funny fact: as we were looking around for a place to eat dinner, I noticed a heart and cupid on one of the menus in a restaurant window. I turned to Greg: "Hey, what day is today?"
"Ummm...February 14th."
(joking) "Wow! So you took me to Venice for Valentine's day!"
"That's today?!"
Neither of us had any idea until that moment. Whoops! What hopeless romantics we are. :)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Italy Part 8: Parma, Maranello, Bologna

Towards the end of our stay in Italy, we went on a bit of a road trip, hitting three cities in one day.

The first was Parma, where we took a whole bunch of pictures of things that we know nothing about.

We had essentially stopped there to taste Parmesan cheese at it's source, so we got down to the business of lunch straight away.

Lunch did not disappoint, and besides the buttery Parma Prosciutto ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano (which go so well together because the pigs eat the whey by-product of the cheese making), we also had the best tortelloni that we have ever put in our mouths. It was sweet, salty and savory -- each a different kind, each equally pleasing. We wish that we could remember more about what they were actually stuffed with, but we failed to carefully read the menu.

Our next stop was Maranello, home to the Ferrari factory.

The gallery wasn't enormous, but it was cool, because there are no barriers around the displays, letting you get as close as you want -- although heaven help you if you touch any of it! The staff is friendly, but very watchful (and who could blame them?)

Our third and final stop of the day was in Bologna.

Oh, Bologna, we wish we could have had more of a chance to explore you. We also wish that the food we ate there wasn't crap.

Really, it was kind of our fault that we had a terrible dinner here. It was late by the time we got there -- the children were hungry, it was cold outside, and by the time we'd walked around a little, they were more than ready for dinner. We had to stop at the nearest place...on this particular occasion that decision did not serve us well.

However, we did discover two leaning towers we'd never heard of. I found these a good deal more impressive than the much more famous one in Pisa, as the one of them was taller, with more of a lean. I wish that we could have seen them in the daylight.

Bologna is a college town, and seemed full of art, music and life. We hear that there is excellent food on the opposite side of town from the one that we were one. Next time.

Click on any of the above mosaics for more info on the pictures within.

Next post: Venice