There are no boardwalks at the beaches on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. But many restaurants and pubs, with owners who hope to quench the hunger and thirst of beach goers, line the sand. Many of them look like the stands and shacks that are typical of an American boardwalk. While I indulge in frankfurters, fries, fried oreos, or homemade ice cream back home at the Jersey Shore, I will find almost none of that on these here shores. In Ischia, even the beach stands feature home cooking – the kind your mamma would be making for you. The other day, when my husband, teenage niece, nearly 2-year-old son, and I pulled up to the Bagno Corrado stand at San Pietro Beach, we had bruschetta – toasted Italian bread with tomato salad on top of it – for antipasto and the surprising pasta dish in the photo above. The sauce featured fresh tomatoes, chunks of swordfish, and the flower of the zucchini plant. Of course, since it is a fish dish, there was plenty of fresh parsley to boot. It was sweet and savory. And the swordfish melted in your mouth. It is hardly the kind of thing I’d order down the shore, but it was perfect for a beach day in Italy. Still, my niece dug into a Nutellotta, which is a cookie bowl dressed in Nutella and filled with three scoops of vanilla gelato that are covered in more Nutella and whipped cream with a few more cookies sticking out of it. She loved every bite. Who can blame her?
Gooey, chewy chocolate chip cookies, paired with an ice cold glass of milk, are almost as comforting as mamma’s warm embrace. When you’re jonesing for one on a small island off the coast of Naples, Italy and your mamma is nowhere to be found, you end up agreeing to a hug from some large-breasted zia – who is really your neighbor and not a blood relative at all – and in whose chest your nose ends up getting stuck. Instead of feeling warm and fuzzy, you usually just feel violated. And you still want that dang chocolate chip cookie. Alas, Chips Ahoy are hard to come by here. Let’s face it, nothing beats a fresh-from-the-oven, homemade cookie anyway.
You think, “I have an oven, two hands, and my recipe on this Godforsaken island, so why not make the cookies myself?” Well, it’s the ingredients that get you. Classic chocolate chip cookies require brown sugar. When you ask people on Ischia for brown sugar, they hand you raw cane sugar. It’s brown, but it’s not brown sugar. Next, you begin dreaming up ways to make your own brown sugar. But that requires molasses. The reaction from the natives when you ask for sweet, sweet molasses is, “Molahhhsss, che?” It basically translates to, “Mole ass, what?”
So, I never realized how American chocolate chip cookies were until I spent even more significant time with Italians. Bet you didn’t think that was possible, right? After all, I grew up with a father who grew up in Ischia and a mom, whose father grew up in Ischia. Still, I never knew that my deprived ancestors – on top of having to climb out of poverty, go to school only until the third or fifth grade, and pee and poop in an outhouse – only learned of the sacred chocolate chip cookie when they moved to the States. I took the cookie for granted. The islanders had no idea what they had been missing.
When my husband and I got married nearly five years ago and his family came to the United States for our vow renewal ceremony (shortly after we married in Italy), my mother would serve up Nestle chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven after dinner every night. My in-laws had never seen or eaten a chocolate chip cookie. But it was love at first bite. Now, they wanted me to make the cookies when I was in Italy. But I didn’t know what to do without brown sugar. A few of them attempted to make them with white sugar and failed miserably.
For the first time last week (as a Mother’s Day gift to my sisters-in-law, who craved the chocolate chip so), I made the chocolate chip cookie successfully without brown sugar. I can not take any of the credit for it was another blogger, who came up with the recipe that saved us from our cookie-free life on this isolated isola. If you want one of the best chocolate chip cookies ever, make the recipe at How to Simplify. We Italian islanders are forever in your debt, Jen Tilley.
When I spent three weeks in Florida over the winter, I went to Romano’s Macaroni Grill for the second time in my life – and this time I was a little impressed. I know it’s a chain restaurant, but my husband and I are picky, especially about Italian food. We, after all, have been eating our mamma’s Italian cooking since we were born. And the Italian chain has a “tapas” menu, which is a little silly because “tapas” is Spanish. Antipasto is Italian. Still, these cocktail foods were smaller portions of deliciousness. Upon his first bite of “Chianti Sausage and Crispy Potatoes,” my husband – the native Italian – told me I had to find a way to replicate this dish.
Back at home in New Jersey, I practiced, and I think I finally managed to copy the recipe just before we left for Italy. So, I thought I’d share. Many an Italian American I know uses red wine in their sausage, peppers, and onions, and this recipe is an homage to that one, I think. I didn’t have Chianti, so I used my father’s homemade red wine.
What I did to start was smash two to three cloves of garlic (depends how much garlic you like and how much sausage you are making. I was making enough sausage for my husband and me, so I just used two cloves). Add them to the pan. You could also add onions to the pan at this point (if you’d like to make a more traditional sausage and peppers dish). Add olive oil and heat it on medium high to infuse the oil with the garlic. Then, add the peppers. Use some sweet and some jalapeno or hot peppers. You could even use crushed red pepper instead of the spicy peppers and let them wilt again in the oil and garlic. You might have to adjust the heat to keep the garlic from burning. Then, add the sausage. Just before the sausage is going to completely brown, add the red wine. Now, you want to reduce the wine a bit, so you burn off the alcohol. But you still want there to be enough, so that there is a sauce for dipping crusty bread in after you’ve finished eating the sausage and peppers. In fact, that’s my husband’s favorite part of the dish, in fact. I actually should have used more wine and reduced it less, so that hubby could have had more sauce. I’ll keep that in mind for next time.
The potatoes are even easier to make. You can peel the potato or scrub the skin and keep it on, whatever your preference. Slice the potatoes about one and half inches thick. Stir them in olive oil and salt and place them in one layer on a baking sheet with parchment paper on it. Bake them at about 400 degrees F for 15 minutes. Then, keep checking until they get browned and crispy. At Macaroni Grill, the potatoes are standing up on a pick. I used my fondue fork to give a similar effect. While the potatoes are still hot, I load them onto the fondue fork, add a little more sea salt, and then I grate Parmigiano cheese on top. Go easy on the salt, though, because the cheese is salty, too. That’s the recipe. Buon appetito!
My mom and I have been making this princess cake for the little girls – and some of the big girls – in the family for a while. The one above is my mom’s latest version, which she made earlier this week for her granddaughter’s third birthday. We cheated a bit because we bought a kit that included the doll’s head and body on a pick that slides easily into the center of the cake, and a round cake mold to create the dress. Then, we just dress up the cake however we like. The kit nicely includes one blond and one brunette doll pick. Despite my mother and I having dark hair, we’ve only made the blonde. All the girls we’ve made it for are fairer than we are.
You can make this cake without the kit. First, you need a boxed cake mix (or your favorite made-from-scratch cake recipe). If you choose your own recipe, I wouldn’t get too creative because you need a cake that will stand up firmly and won’t fall apart. Here are the rest of the supplies in which you should invest –
One metallic bowl that is oven safe
One Barbie doll (or other similar doll)
Icing or fondant and decorations for the cake
Butter and flour the bowl well. Then, prepare the batter and put it into the bowl and bake it at 350 degrees. Keep an eye on it because your oven and the size of the bowl will influence when it’s done. Just make sure it springs back and that a wooden skewer can go into the center and come out clean, both good indications that your cake is good and cooked all the way through. Then, let the cake cool. Put two pieces of overlapping wax paper on top of the plate or stand on which you’d like the cake to stand. We took the photo above before we traveled by car with the cake, so you still see the wax paper. My mom kept the wax paper, which we use to catch any falling icing or messiness that occurs during decoration, until we arrived at the birthday party, and she kept the cake on her lap – and begged my father to drive slowly. Then, you must carefully turn the bowl with the cake upside down on the stand. You might have to use a soft, flexible plastic spatula to loosen the sides first. Remove the bowl. Your cake should be in one piece on the stand. If the cake is a little crumby, don’t worry. You can cover it with decoration.
Now, this is the fun part. If you have a full-bodied doll, as opposed to the pick from the kit, you will either have to remove the legs or find a way to make a hole large enough in the cake to allow her to stand. I would remove the legs, unless you made a bundt cake, in which case you have to use a lot of icing or some other trick to keep her standing at the center and then you’ll have to cover the area around her legs too. My mom and I often use ribbon to create a shirt for the doll’s breasts. Or you could use doll shirts if you have them or make them yourself. Of course, you could use fondant, too.We are not fans of eating fondant, but in the photo below, you can see a bride cake I made for my sister-in-law’s shower back in 2007, for which I did use fondant. That cake was used as a table centerpiece and no one actually ate it.
You can frost the cake or use fondant to decorate the gown. In the photo above my mom dyed purchased white icing with red food coloring to create the pink color. She also added a cupcake liner to form a decorative “ruffle” at the waist. As I mentioned earlier, I used fondant for the bridal gown below. Others get rather fancy with icing decorations on the gowns. You could also use edible glitter or pearl sprinkles. The various edible spray paints out there might also come in handy. Use your imagination and try to come up with ways to fit the theme of the occasion.
If you plan on making this cake more than once, then keep the non-edible decorations for years to come. For the cake above, my mom reused the veil I made for my sister-in-law’s cake (for which I used a sheer favor circle folded in half and silk flower used to decorate favors) and a bouquet of tiny silk flowers and ribbon that I bought at a craft store. She and I both used similar silk flowers to hide any errors at the “hem of our gowns.” (To see more scoop on the bridal shower for my sister-in-law, you can visit “How to Throw a Tea-Themed Bridal Shower I” and “How to Throw a Tea-Themed Bridal Shower II” on the now defunct Bride Board.) Really, the decoration is limited only by your imagination.
Don’t feel badly about digging into the cake either. Just make sure to take lots of pictures of your work beforehand. My mom’s granddaughter (my niece) said the princess tasted delicious, after all.
My husband and I love ourselves a good ol’ American breakfast. Pancakes have always brought us – and our friends and family – together, even in the darkest of times. So, when it’s time to celebrate or throw a pity party (take your pick), I usually surprise my loved ones with these sweet treats. When I travel to Italy, I’m often found slaving by the stove making American pancakes for Italian friends and family. They can’t get enough of them. Besides, I have learned – from my mom – that you feed the ones you love. Of course, you want to feed them something yummy to boot.
Easter isn’t here yet, and I’ve already eaten my weight in jelly beans. My father knows I like the colorful bits of sweet heaven, so he bought me a big bag from Stew Leonard’s. As I toiled at my desk, writing one story after another for my various clients, I ripped through that bag until the seven black ones remained. I tried to tie up the bag and hide it in my file cabinet, but I knew it was there. It would call my name. Francescaaaaa… Francescaaaaa… The next thing I would know I would have a film across my keyboard, from fingers sticky with sugar. And I’d have no recollection of the 50 beans I just stuffed into my mouth.
Then, I’d just start lying to myself. I would say that I was showing restraint by not eating the black ones. But I just don’t really like the taste of licorice. I feel shame. But it won’t stop me from eating another big bag all by myself next Easter. Please, dear Easter Bunny, save me from myself. Keep me away from the sweet, sweet beans.
We recently attended a birthday party for a four-year-old boy at Outragehisss…Pets in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., which is close to the New Jersey border. Outragehisss…Pets offers birthday parties, live animal shows, and educational programs. What’s great about this birthday is that the kids actually learned something and got to have a close encounter with all sorts of interesting animals, all in the name of celebrating. Before you enter the room for the show, you can visit with the animals who are behind glass cages. The arctic foxes were curled up and sleeping, and Baby Boy enjoyed yelling to get the attention of the armadillos.
During the show, which lasts about an hour, my son got so excited to see some of the animals that I had to take him out of the room. At 18 months old, he does not really know about his inside voice. But the older kids behaved beautifully, and they pretty much got to pet each animal that the presenter put on display. Baby Boy, with the help of mamma guiding his hand, was able to pet a couple of the animals, too. The finale featured all the kids in the room holding up an enormous snake. Baby Boy was roaming the halls at that point, but I hear it was an amazing photo op for the guests, and the birthday boy was grinning from ear to ear.
After the show, guests were escorted to another room for refreshments and birthday cake. The birthday boy’s mom put out adorable signs around the food stations that said, “Don’t feed the animals.” She also dressed up the sandwiches (see below) to look like snakes. I offer kudos to the parents for providing cake and cookies but also lots of healthy options, such as fruit. With animals as your theme, there are lots of ways to get creative with the food. You can serve fruit in a watermelon carved to look like a shark or put eyes and tails on oranges, for example. I love the look of all these dessert and candy tables I’ve been seeing at kids’ parties lately, but if my son or niece eat anymore icing, they might turn into sugar. Once it’s in front of them, it’s hard to get it away from them. So, if you have healthy options that match your theme, all the better.
The kids played a couple of games, picked up their party favors, which included a wooden snake that has become one of Baby Boy’s favorite toys, and animal crackers, and we headed home. At two hours, it was the perfect amount of time for a kid’s party. It ended just before they all started to lose their minds. Baby Boy napped on the way there and on the way home, which was a gift for mamma and papa’. In conclusion, when the food is good and the party is educational and fun, then it’s a happy birthday for everyone.
Lately, my husband and I have been making an effort to go out on dates without our son. I decided it was a good idea since this is what I advise readers of the About.com Newlyweds site to do with their spouses and because my husband insisted we have more romance in our life or else. Or else what? I’m not sure. Still, I don’t really want to find out. So, we’re going on dates.
For the first one, we headed out to dinner at Fontana di Trevi in Leonia, a BYOB restaurant that is a big hit with my family. But we were back by 6, so my parents, brother, and sister-in-law, who were all about to sit down to eat with my son, kicked us out of our own house and told us to do something else. Yes, they kicked us out of our house and had dinner there without us.
In any event, my brother suggested we go to Cafe Archetypus in Edgewater. I had not been there since 1996, when it was Cafe Enigma. Back then, there was only one River Road (the address is now Old River Road and the new River Road runs practically parallel to it and features a slew of new condos and strip malls). Newly minted drivers, we’d coast along River Road in our parents’ cars. All clad in flannel, my high school pals and I would sit in a cave, order dessert and coffee (a new-found friend for most high schoolers), and listen to the grunge guitarist of the night whining about the injustices of the world.
This time around I was in cotton and there was no guitarist, not even a poet, lounging around the joint. But the caves were just as I remembered them, replete with women’s body parts jutting out of the wall. Notice the boobies above. My husband had never been to Cafe Archetypus, so he was not transported to his high school years, nor did he know what I was talking about when I started jabbering about Pearl Jam, existentialism, or baggy jeans (they never did make it to his native Europe, which has stuck with far-too skinny jeans for an eternity).
Still, we ordered a strawberry dessert, dug into it with our two spoons, and enjoyed a peaceful moment together sans Baby Boy. Hubby loved the caves, found them incredibly romantic. It doesn’t hurt that candlelight is the only light that enters the place, so you really do feel like you’re in a cave – and your face looks spectacular no matter what it looks like in real life. That alone is enough for me to declare that Cafe Archetypus is cozy and warm and the dessert is pretty tasty, not to mention fun to share with your beloved. Bottom line: It’s one stop on memory lane to which I don’t mind returning.
If it was up to my son, we’d eat 24-7, and our main food group would be bread. I know. I know. He couldn’t be any more Italian. All our nonni had us toddling around with a hunk of Italian bread in our hands – sometimes dipped in Sunday’s sauce or extra-virgin olive oil, sometimes plain. And we all turned out just fine. Still, Baby Boy’s attraction to bread – I mean my mother and sister-in-law carry a loaf in their purse whenever they take him out on the town while I’m working – makes me feel like a bad American mom. I’m always trying to get him to eat veggies and fruit and other healthier, more nutritious options. Once in a while, I succeed. Once in a while, I fail…miserably.
Finally, my former boss, Charity Curley Mathews, is offering mom’s a big hand in this department. She founded and maintains the Foodlets blog with all sorts of good ideas on how to get your kids to eat the good stuff. She recently shared a secret about adding spinach to rice and another mom’s super duper rainbow spa-themed birthday party for little girls. Mathews’ article, “How to eat dinner with a toddler (or small children of any kind) without losing your mind” on Huffington Post, provides suggestions on how to make family dinner a reality in your home. What I really liked about the article is that it offers real advice that you could actually try, even if you’re a working mom like I am and don’t have that much time on your hands. It’s a good read, and it might even make your family life a little better.
Grilled cheese sandwiches always make me feel better. Lately, I have been fighting one cold after another, and I’ve been so blue (both from sadness and the frigid temperatures) that I needed a little comfort. That’s why I have found myself literally kissing the March 2013 issue of Food Network Magazine, which is dedicated to all things cheese. I simply couldn’t wait to try the Camembert-apple grilled cheese sandwich with salted caramel.
Of course, I made a few tweaks to the recipe, basically because I didn’t have all the ingredients suggested in the magazine. I used semolina bread, Brie cheese (instead of Camembert), Granny Smith apples, dried thyme (instead of fresh), and caramel sauce. I took a slice of the bread, then piled a couple of thin slices of apple (sans skin) between chunks of brie cheese. I melted butter in a pan and grilled the sandwich. I added a little more butter when I flipped the sandwich to make sure both sides were crunchy and browned. For the sauce, I eyeballed about one-quarter of a cup of purchased caramel sauce (the kind I use on top of my homemade ice cream), added 2 tbsp of water, and some dried thyme (a little goes a long way). Then I nuked it in the microwave for one minute. I stirred it to make it creamier and added sea salt on top. In the future, I will add a little more salt. I think it could have used it. All in all, however, I was delighted with the results. For a moment, while I was eating that grilled cheese sandwich, which I had dipped in the dreamy sweet and salty sauce, I had a rare smile on my face. Gooey cheese really can lift the spirit.