December 30, 2014

25 years of remembrance

On November 9, 2014 the world celebrated 25 years since the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall.  Romania, though, had to wait for another month and a half to properly rejoice in the prospects of a future filled with freedom and democracy.  The Romanian Revolution of December ’89 occurred 25 years ago, yet I remember it as if it was yesterday.  I was only four years old; but the memories of those bloody events and gory week in late Dec. ‘89 are some of the most vivid memories of my life and I truly believe they will accompany me forever.  It’s funny how a child’s brain works – just like a sponge – it absorbs anything and everything whether it’s a foreign language or graphic, gruesome events and images.  Sometimes, I feel that my memory came to life during that week.  I don’t have any specific recollections before Dec. ‘89; everything was a mere blur, but after that things and life came into focus. 




My hometown, Arad, was one of the pivotal cities of the revolution.  Situated only thirty miles north of Timișoara, the birth city of the Romanian Revolution, it didn’t take long for my hometown to join the manifestations against the communist regime.  Unfortunately, the many victims were a bitter aftermath. For me, the days back then all blended together in a cacophony of rich memories.  As it turns out, what I remember the most were events that actually transpired during the bloodiest night my hometown experienced during the revolution.  




It was the night of Saturday, Dec. 23 through Sunday, Dec. 24.  I was at my nanny’s place across the street from my grandparents’ house.  Her grandson, Alex, was there too.  I recall it was a fairly mild winter; there was no snow on the ground just yet.  That specific evening, strange, repetitive firearm sounds came from outside, which prompted our curiosity to rush to the window and investigate.  The sounds were coming from the river bank.  So, Alex and I, two four-year olds, perched on the window, craned our necks and were met by a blazing spectacle of red and green colors displayed above the river.  They were fairly loud and colorful but they were not fireworks.  I was smiling in awe until my nanny stormed through the bedroom door and yanked us down from the window before securely closing it.  My grandpa showed up a few minutes later to take me home.  




While crossing the thirty yards from my nanny’s house to my grandparents’, I glanced over my shoulder to steal another peek of the back and forth display of colorful lights clearly visible above the river as my grandpa was purposefully dragging me home.  That night, I slept on the floor of my room with my grandparents.  My parents were not with us and it was only later that I discovered where they spent that dreadful night.   The next day, on a very sunny and clear Christmas Eve, I wasn’t looking for Christmas gifts from Santa under the tree; I was scavenging for bullets on the street outside the house.  Luckily, my grandparents’ house was untouched, but we still found a handful of bullets on the street.  Not to mention the bullet surprise in my very own bedroom at my parents’ apartment. 




The night before Christmas Eve, while I was at my grandparents’, my dad was at home in our flat on the sixth floor of a ten story apartment building located on one of the most assaulted streets during that frightening night.  Our neighbors from across the hallway found refuge in our bathroom, the only room in the apartment with no windows, since their apartment was shattered to pieces.  That same night, a bullet was shot through my bedroom window.  The bullet went through the balcony window, the bedroom window and the curtains before hitting the wall above my bed, recoiling back underneath the window and eventually melting on the hardwood floor.  




Fortunately, I was not sleeping in my bed that night, but my dad was lounging on the couch in the next room over. After a few hours in the bathroom, he decided that he would not spend the entire night hiding there and grabbed a bottle of wine and sprawled on the couch in the living room.  In his own words, ‘if I were to die tonight, at least I would do it with my stomach full.’  A few years ago, my mom finally replaced the old curtains that bared the black rimmed hole of the bullet and held intact the memories of that horrific night, yet the melted mark of the bullet still mars the hardwood floor of my bedroom to this day.     




While my dad was in our apartment my mom was stuck at work and couldn’t come home due to the slaughter throughout town.  She only returned home in the awfully sunny morning covering the five long miles from the factory to the apartment on foot through the blinding layers of freshly laid snow that was barely coating the bloody and bullet scattered grounds.




The horrendous events of those days escalated with the speedy trial and execution of our former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day.  I was sitting in my own little chair next to my family gaping at the incredible events unfolding on TV.  It was like watching live reality TV but with people being shot with real bullets, laying in puddles of blood and never getting up again.  And yes, I witnessed it all.




My parents were exactly the age I am right now when the revolution took place.  Would I be as brave as they were, gathering during tumultuous times in the town hall square and protesting against an oppressing regime while handing out holiday candy to the armed soldiers?  I don’t know… I don’t believe so… But they did and so did many other Romanians who experienced the revolution and lived to tell about it. 




Aside from my personal story and because we’re still in the midst of cookie season, I also want to share with you my grandma’s recipe for one of my family’s favorite holiday cookies: Sugar Snails.  These adorable concoctions are always present on our Christmas table.  It’s rather easy to guess why – you get a heap of servings, they’re great with coffee or tea, cute, a little crunchy, a lot nutty and good, really good.  And as my mom likes to say – ‘anything with walnuts is a winner.’  I absolutely agree with that.  Enjoy this sweet treat and Happy New Year everyone!    




Sugar Snails
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 55+ servings

Ingredients:

For the Dough:

·         250 grams (1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
·         300 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more to roll out the dough
·         1 teaspoon fast rise dry yeast
·         2 Tablespoons sour cream
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         Up to ¼ cup milk, if necessary

For the Sauce:

·         280 grams (10 oz) walnuts, ground
·         280 grams (2 ¼ cups) Confectioners’ sugar
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         Lemon zest from 1 lemon




Instructions for the Dough:

Separate the egg whites and egg yolks.  Set the egg whites aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, yeast, salt, sour cream and egg yolks until the dough gathers into a ball.  If the dough is too dry, add a bit of milk to the mixture (a couple of Tablespoons).  The dough should be neither too dry nor too soft.  Gather into a ball and divide in four pieces.  Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and put it in the fridge for 1 hour.




Instructions for the Sauce:

In a medium bowl, combine the ground walnuts with the confectioners’ sugar and lemon zest.  Set aside.  Using an electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the vanilla extract until firm peaks form.  Using a spatula, gently mix in the walnuts and sugar mixture.  




Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Transfer the dough to a working surface.  Flour the rolling pin and working surface and roll out the dough into a ¼-inch thick rectangular sheet (work with one ball of dough at a time).  Spread a fourth of the walnut sauce all over the rolled out dough leaving a 1-inch margin.  Gently roll up the sheet into a log and cut (flour the knife so that the dough does not stick to the knife) as many 1-inch pieces as possible placing them on one of the baking sheets.  Bake the snails for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.  Repeat with the rest of the dough.  




Once out of the oven, allow the snails to cool on a cooling rack before dusting them with more confectioners’ sugar.      
  



Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

November 30, 2014

Pumpkin Tiramisu

I was born in Arad, a fairly large city for Romanian standards located on the Hungarian border in the western part of Transylvania.  As I mentioned before in this blog, the German, Austrian and Hungarian influences are strikingly visible everywhere in my city from the grand architecture to the rich and flavorful food.  But recently, a thick tide of Italian interests, businesses and investors added a new dimension to the food scene of my humble hometown with Italian restaurants springing up like mushrooms after rain.  In no time, Romanians happily embraced the new cuisine with many local owners striving to keep it as authentic as possible with just the right amount of Romanian touch.  My parents were no exception and for several years, they owned the most popular Italian restaurant in town, Il Padrino




Il Padrino, a very suitable name for the two story restaurant, was a place that screamed Italian flair from the dark green linens and deep brown wooden chairs to the intrinsic movie-based artwork displayed all over the white walls, and the faithful, real Italian patrons that would mob to the restaurant every time they came to town.  The locale had an extensive menu that incorporated homemade pasta dishes, thin crust wood oven pizza, mouthwatering meat plates and antipasti, fresh salads, and delicious Romanian offerings interjected through the menu to satisfy the demanding local palette.  But what would please any palette, Romanian and Italian alike, would be the ever-present tiramisu.  This iconic coffee-flavored Italian dessert would always do the trick.    





Leafing through this month’s Food & Wine issue, I came across a very intriguing tiramisu recipe that brilliantly incorporates the season’s most valued ingredient.  Curiosity won out and I had to try it.  So glad I did!  The Pumpkin Tiramisu is everything a classic tiramisu should be plus the added bonus of the pumpkin.  The layers of coffee-soaked ladyfingers and smooth pumpkin-spiced mousse topped with sweet whipped cream, a dust of cocoa powder, shaved chocolate and peppery candied ginger meld in a beautiful carnival of autumn flavors.  Although this Pumpkin Tiramisu is intended to be a fancy trifle dessert, if you’re like me and don’t own a proper trifle dish and don’t entertain the thought of buying one, I can fully attest that the end result looks beautiful and is just as wonderfully tasty in a plain cake pan.  I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving!      




      
Pumpkin Tiramisu
Adapted from Food & Wine (November 2014)

Makes:  12 servings

Ingredients:

·         1 15-oz. can pumpkin puree
·         ½ cup light brown sugar
·         ¾ teaspoon ground ginger
·         ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
·         Pinch of ground nutmeg
·         ¾ cup granulated sugar
·         1 ½ cups mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
·         2 ½ cups heavy cream
·         2 cups brewed coffee, cooled
·         2 7-oz. packages dry ladyfingers
·         Cocoa powder, chocolate shavings and candied ginger, for garnish





Instructions:

In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin puree with the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and ½ cup of the granulated sugar.  Add the mascarpone cheese and 1 ½ cups of the heavy cream.  Using an electric mixer, beat the pumpkin mixture at medium speed until soft peaks form; do not overbeat.  




In a medium bowl, whisk the brewed coffee with 2 Tablespoons of the granulated sugar until it’s dissolved.  Dip both sides of the ladyfingers in the coffee and arrange them flat, one by one, in a single layer in the bottom of a 14 by 10-inch baking pan.  Spread half of the pumpkin mousse on top.  Layer the remaining ladyfingers over the pumpkin mousse.  Spread the remaining pumpkin mousse on top.  Cover and refrigerate the tiramisu overnight. 




In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the remaining 1 cup of cream with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of granulated sugar until soft peaks form.  Spread the whipped cream over the tiramisu, dust with cocoa powder, garnish with shaved chocolate and candied ginger and serve.




Note:  If you have a trifle dish and intend to use it, this is how you adjust the recipe.  Follow the instructions up to dissolving the 2 Tablespoons of sugar in the brewed coffee.  Then, dip both sides of 6 ladyfingers in the coffee and arrange them in a single layer in a 4-quart trifle dish.  Spread 1 cup of the pumpkin mousse on top.  Repeat the layering 5 more times, ending with a layer of the pumpkin mousse.  Cover and refrigerate the tiramisu overnight.  Once you’ve prepared the whipped cream, dollop the whipped cream over the tiramisu, dust with cocoa powder and garnish with shaved chocolate and candied ginger and serve.  I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving!      




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

October 31, 2014

Apple Sharlotka

With all the culinary influences that Romania has been blessed with, you would surely think that we would be well acquainted with the popular Russian Apple Sharlotka cake.  Well, not so much, or at least my family isn’t.  Granted, my grandmother has her own arsenal of apple pies and apple tortes to keep our greedy tummies satisfied.  So, until stumbling across this recipe for Apple Sharlotka in the November issue of Food & Wine, I had never heard of this kind of sweet delight.  But I can’t tell you how happy I am to have finally discovered it. 




The Apple Sharlotka is a traditional Russian apple cake-torte-pie-all-in-one kind of dessert.  In fact, I personally find it to be vaguely similar to the Vanilla Pudding Apple Torte that my grandmother spoils us with especially during the apple season; just as few if not fewer ingredients and no need for the glossy vanilla pudding draped all over the cake.  The top is delectably flaky, crusty and thoroughly dusted with powdered sugar, while beneath it the cake is light and fluffy, not too sweet and spiced with just the right amount of cinnamon, nutmeg and almond extract to create a heady, appetizing spectacle of flavors.  And at the bottom, you are greeted by a healthy layer of tart juicy and soft apples.  It’ll be hard devouring only one slice and most likely, you’ll end up making this treat again and again. 





Beside the fact that this cake is ridiculously easy to whip up, it’s very likely that you already have all the ingredients in your pantry and you don’t have to hastily scramble to the supermarket to fill up the basket.  On top of that, the sharlotka goes perfectly with tea or coffee, and makes for a quick and glorious breakfast or afternoon guilt-free snack.  I know that we’re in the midst of pumpkin frenzy and I should probably switch my attention to this autumn staple fairly soon, but right now I just prefer to indulge in the apple season and this apple sharlotka a tad longer.  Happy Halloween everyone!  





Apple Sharlotka
Adapted from Food & Wine (November 2014)

Makes: one 9-inch tart

Ingredients:

·         4 Granny Smith or any firm, tart apples; I used Honey Crisp apples – peeled, cored, quartered and thinly sliced
·         1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice, from half a lemon
·         1 cup sugar
·         ¾ cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
·         ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         Pinch of kosher salt
·         3 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ½ teaspoon pure almond extract (or pure vanilla extract)
·         Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting





Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Grease the bottom and side of an 8 or 9-inch springform pan.

In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice and 2 Tablespoons of the sugar and let stand for 15 minutes. 





Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the flour with the cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.  In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the almond extract and the remaining ¾ cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar at medium-high speed until thick and pale yellow and a ribbon forms when the beaters are lifted, about 8 to 10 minutes.  In two batches, gently fold in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.  





Spread the apples in the prepared pan in an even layer, then pour the batter evenly over them.  Let stand for 5 minutes to allow the batter to sink in a little.





Bake the sharlotka for about 55 to 60 minutes, until it is golden and crisp on top and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Transfer to a rack and let rest for 15 minutes.  Unmold and transfer to a serving platter.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm.  





Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

September 30, 2014

Meringue Plum Cake for the third anniversary!

On September 19, my little blog turned three!  Another year filled with recipes and stories that wouldn’t be the same without all of you, my dear readers.  YOU, whom I all consider my friends by now, make this experience exciting, inspiring and so, so much fun.  And I can’t thank you enough for being here and for all your kindness and support! 



 
It seems to be a recurring theme to celebrate my blog birthday with some sort of delicious plum concoction.  This year is no exception.  But there’s no better way to let go of summer and celebrate the third anniversary than with a classic recipe from my grandmother.  This is another stellar summer dessert and one of my grandma’s favorite sweets to whip up during the sizzling summer heat. 





What I love about this cake, besides its luscious flavors and stunning colors, is its versatility and easy transition to richer tastes and ingredients.  Although I like to honor the last plums of the hot season by making this beautiful dessert, you can also try this cake with peaches, apricots or sour cherries, and I encourage you to swap the stone fruits for ricotta cheese when cooler weather rolls around.  You’ll be in for a special treat!     
   



This Meringue Plum Cake is humble in appearance but huge in flavor.  The tartness and juiciness of the plums pair beautifully with the intense sweetness and relaxed stickiness of the meringue.  In the end, the two complement each other to create a well-balanced sweet treat. 




You first bite into the crackly, foamy meringue top and then sink your teeth into the meaty and zesty plums only to finish with the soft, subtle, dough.  And while my grandma usually fancies a light, fluffy dough in her summery cakes, this time around, the base is more subdued allowing the succulent plums and frothy meringue to shine through.  I made a full tray of this gorgeous cake for my husband to indulge while I was away for a couple of days; upon my return, all I found was an empty tray filled with crumbs and traces of (what was) a wonderful cake.  I guess he loved it!




Meringue Plum Cake
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 18 squares

Ingredients:

·         200 grams (14 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
·         200 grams (scant 1 cup) sugar, plus more for dusting
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 Tablespoon sour cream
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         350 grams (2 ½ cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
·         2 teaspoons baking powder
·         1 kilogram (2 pounds) plums, about 5 large ones, pitted and quartered or sliced as desired
·         200 grams (1 ½ cups) confectioners’ sugar         




Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Coat the bottom and sides of a 14 by 10-inch baking pan with butter and flour.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.  Set aside.  



Separate the egg yolks and egg whites and keep close at hand.  In a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer on medium-low speed beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg yolks one at a time and beat until incorporated.  Add the sour cream and vanilla extract and beat until well incorporated.  In batches, add the flour and baking powder mixture and beat until incorporated; the batter will be neither soft nor hard.  Using clean hands, gather the dough into a ball and place it into the prepared pan.  Spread the dough into an even layer with your hands or a spatula.  



Arrange the plums on top and sprinkle about ½ teaspoon of granulated sugar over each slice of plum.  Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the cake is golden and about 85-90% ready.

In the meantime, in a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer on medium-high speed beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.  In batches, add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until the mixture is glossy and holds firm peaks, about 7-10 minutes. 




Take the cake out of the oven.  Dollop the meringue topping over the cake and spread it carefully all over with a spatula.

Place the cake back in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until the meringue browns gently.  Check constantly as the browning can happen faster.



Take the cake out of the oven and cool for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack.  Slice the cake into squares and carefully take the squares out of the pan and arrange them on a serving platter. 




Variations: If you prefer to try this cake with ricotta cheese instead of stone fruits, mix 500 grams (1 pound) whole milk ricotta cheese with 2 large eggs, zest from half a lemon, and 2-3 Tablespoons sugar to taste.  Place it over the dough base and follow the rest of the instructions.    




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)