December 22, 2011

A stuffed Christmas

I could easily say that Christmas is my favorite holiday.  We get together with the family, we decorate the tree, we give and receive gifts, and most importantly, we eat a lot!  And let me tell you – Romanians love to enjoy a “big feast” especially during such an important holiday.  In addition, since most Romanians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, we prepare special dishes on religious holidays.  And when it’s Christmas time, the main ingredient on our table is pork.

Shortly before Christmas, we take part in an old traditional ceremony, which starts with the slaughter of a pig.  We roast the pig, and then we prepare special dishes from all parts of the animal, including sausages, black pudding, ham, smoked bacon, and pig’s trotters.  And we shall not forget the crispy pig ears and pig’s tail, which I always loved as a kid.  Although, it doesn’t sound too appetizing, I was always thrilled to take part in this ceremony! 

Besides pork dishes, stuffed cabbage is always present on the Christmas table.  Sarmale (stuffed cabbage) are an essential component of the Christmas feast.  While they are a special treat for Christmas dinner, Romanians make sarmale all the time because they are delicious, hearty, and fully-satisfying.  It may seem intimidating, but stuffed cabbage is not difficult to prepare.  However, it can be time-consuming.  That’s why I like to make a big pot of sarmale during the weekend when I’m not rushed.  This way, we have a lot of food for the entire week, and the sarmale taste even better reheated.  So, the time spent preparing them over the weekend is well worth it!        

Sarmale – Stuffed Cabbage
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: About 30 rolls of stuffed cabbage


·         2 heads of green cabbage (about 2 pounds each)
·         2 pounds ground pork (or 1 pound ground pork and 1 pound ground beef)
·         2 medium yellow onions, chopped
·         2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         1 heaped teaspoon paprika
·         1 cup (250 grams) long grain rice
·         1 teaspoon fresh dill, plus a whole bunch
·         1 teaspoon dried thyme
·         ½ teaspoon dried oregano
·         2 teaspoons black pepper
·         1 Tablespoon salt
·         1 egg
·         2 bay leaves
·         2 (15 ounce) cans of tomato sauce
·         2 ¼ cups (500 ml) water
·         Sour cream (optional)


Using a sharp knife, cut out the hard core of each cabbage.  Wash the cabbage well.    

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.  Add 2 teaspoons of salt to the water.  When the water is boiling blanch the head of cabbage to soften the leaves.  Blanch the head of cabbage in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes or until you can remove each leaf.  Do the same with the second head of cabbage.

Peel off the leaves from the heads of cabbage.  Use only the larger leaves and not the small ones closer to the core of the cabbage.  Take each leaf and blanch it in boiling water for a few seconds until each leaf is soft enough to handle easily.  Trim the nervures – the one down the center of each leaf – so that you can roll the leaf without the leaf breaking.  Set aside as many cabbage leaves as you want.  Each leaf will be a cabbage roll.  Do not throw away the extra leaves, which were not used for cabbage rolls.   

In a small saucepan, heat 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat and cook the onions with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the paprika and stir.  Set aside to cool. 

Put the ground meat in a large bowl.  Add the rice, fresh dill, dried thyme, dried oregano, salt, pepper, egg, and the cooled onions and paprika mixture.  Combine everything together very well with clean hands until you have a sticky mixture.

Take one cabbage leaf in your palm with the base of the leaf at your wrist.  With your other hand, center about 1 Tablespoon (or less depending on the size of the leaf) of the meat mixture on the leaf near the base of the leaf.  Cover with one side of the leaf, roll the leaf around the meat, and tuck the other side in so as to seal the cabbage roll.  Continue with the other leaves.  Make sure that the rolls are tight enough so that they do not fall apart.

Slice the extra cabbage leaves and place them to cover the bottom of a large pot.  Arrange the cabbage rolls in a circle in the pan over the shredded cabbage.  Cover the entire bottom of the pot with cabbage rolls. Add a bay leaf and fresh dill leaves.  Continue with the next layer of cabbage rolls.  Add another bay leaf and dill.  When the pot is almost full – or you are out of cabbage rolls, cover the top layer of cabbage rolls with shredded cabbage. 

In a small saucepan, mix the tomato sauce, water and half a teaspoon of salt.  Stir and bring the mixture to a boil. When the mixture starts to boil, pour it over the stuffed cabbage.    

Bring the stuffed cabbage to a boil over medium-high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for about 1 ½ - 2 hours.  After 90 minutes take out a cabbage roll and taste it to see if the rice, meat and cabbage are cooked through.  Serve the stuffed cabbage hot with a dollop of sour cream on top.  

When I was young, I loved watching Grandma Vicki prepare sarmale.  Until not long ago, I was afraid to make this traditional Romanian dish on my own.  Now, I make a big pot of sarmale once a month.  They are so flavorful that sometimes I find myself eating four or five at a time.  Once you’ve tried one, it’ll be difficult to stop.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)      

P.S.:  Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 19, 2011

Macarons or Macaroons?

Actually, both forms are correct, but they define two different sweet treats.  A macaron  is a traditional French cookie.  It is small, round, crackly on the outside, smooth, light and soft inside, and usually sandwiched with a sweet filling, such as buttercream, ganache, curd or preserve.  This hip, two-bite meringue dazzles with trendy sophistication and flamboyant flavors.  The aromas (and colors) of macarons vary because French pastry chefs love to create and re-create these cookies from classic chocolate, vanilla, coffee and strawberry to exotic rose, mango, pistachio, caramel, praliné or licorice.  Although, the flavors differ, the classic French treat is made with ground almonds, whipped egg whites and sugar, but no flour.     

One of the most famous macarons stores in the world is Ladurée pâtisserie in Paris.  Ladurée is known for inventing the sandwiched macaron that we enjoy today.  The store offers an impressive selection of amazing macarons, all of which are delicate, airy, sweet, and will instantly put a smile on your face.  Adrian and I were in Paris for a week a couple of years ago, and we went to Ladurée every single day for a sweet treat.  Fortunately, Ladurée opened a store in New York recently, so you don’t have to fly all the way to Paris for these elegant French gems.  So, when you’re in New York, don’t forget to check out their store.  You won’t regret it!  Also, if you ever find yourself flying through Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, look for the Ladurée kiosk and try some macarons.  It’ll be a memorable layover!  That’s what I’ll do (again) when I fly home for the holidays, soon.  Apparently the French are on strike, so I’ll have plenty of time to savor my Ladurée macarons!      

However, if you are daring enough, you can even make your own macarons at home.  I was so thrilled to see the many macarons recipes in the Better Homes and Gardens Special Fall Baking edition, and I couldn’t wait to try them.  My almond macarons with cannoli cream were not Ladurée macarons, but they were pretty darn good!  They were crisp and shiny on the outside, chewy on the inside, while the velvety cream with specks of chocolate made them even more special.    

Almond Macarons with Cannoli Cream
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Special Fall Baking (Fall 2011)

Serves: 24-30 macarons


·         1 cup finely ground almonds
·         ½ cup finely ground toasted almonds
·         1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar
·         3 egg whites at room temperature
·         ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
·         Dash of salt
·         ¼ cup granulated sugar
·         1 recipe Cannoli Cream


Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.  Trace 1 ½ - inch circles onto parchment paper 1 inch apart.  Use a cookie cutter or biscuit cutter as a guide.  Flip paper over before piping.  Set aside. 

In a food processor, combine the raw and toasted almonds, and pulse to finely ground.  In a medium bowl stir together almonds and confectioners’ sugar; set aside.

In a large bowl combine egg whites, vanilla extract, and salt.  Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until frothy.  Gradually add granulated sugar, about 1 Tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed just until soft peaks form (tips curl).  Stir in nut mixture. 

Spoon mixture into a large decorating bag fitted with a large (about ½ - inch) round tip.  Pipe 1 ½ - inch circles, 1 inch apart, onto the prepared cookie sheets, filling the circles completely.  Let stand for 30 minutes before baking.  Don’t rush this step; it is key to developing the correct texture. 

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325°F.  Bake in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until set.  Cool on cookie sheets on wire racks.  Carefully peel cookies off parchment paper. 

Spread Cannoli Cream onto bottoms of half of the cookies.  Top with the remaining cookies, bottom sides down. 

Cannoli Cream:

In a medium bowl combine 4 ounces cream cheese, softened, and ¼ cup granulated sugar; beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined.  Add ½ cup ricotta cheese; beat until combined.  Stir in ¼ cup miniature semisweet chocolate pieces.  Makes 1 ¼ cups. 

A macaroon, or better said, a coconut macaroon, is a sweet confection made with shredded coconut instead of ground almonds and served without a filling. There’s often a linguistic misunderstanding in regards to macaroons and macarons.  Sometimes, the French word macaron is translated into English as macaroon.  But the recipe might indeed refer to the French macarons, unless it’s a recipe for coconut macaroons like Barefoot Contessa’s Coconut Macaroons recipe below.  If you love coconut (I’m a coconut lover for sure), this should be your easy go-to dessert.  These coconut macaroons are sticky, chewy, sweet, dense and so scrumptious!  You’ll be making them again!

Coconut Macaroons
Adapted slightly from Coconut Macaroons by Barefoot Contessa

Serves: 11-12 large macaroons or 20-22 smaller macaroons


·         14 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
·         14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
·         1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         2 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
·         ¼ teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Combine the coconut, condensed milk, and vanilla in a large bowl.  Using an electric hand mixer, whip the egg whites and salt on high speed in a bowl until they make medium-firm peaks.  Carefully fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.  

Drop the batter onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper using either a 2 ½ - inch diameter ice cream scoop (for large macaroons), or 1 ¾ - inch diameter ice cream scoop or 2 teaspoons (for small macaroons).  Bake for 45 minutes (for large macaroons), or 25-30 minutes (for small macaroons), until golden-brown.  Cool and serve.   

Whether you like macarons or coconut macaroons (or both), these cookies will be a great addition to your holiday table.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

December 16, 2011

The bread pudding throwdown

Since Christmas is fast approaching, I thought that it would be a good idea to share with you more exciting recipes to add a twist to the holiday table.  Have you heard of the show Throwdown with Bobby Flay?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Anyway… this is a hit show on Food Network where acclaimed chef Bobby Flay challenges absolute masters in different kinds of cooking – award-winning BBQers, bakers, pizza makers and more.  In each episode, one of these cooks thinks Food Network is shooting their profile for a show.  What they don’t know is that Bobby is going to drop in for a surprise visit and challenge them to an unexpected cook-off.  Well, this is a bread pudding throwdown.  

The first recipe is Giada De Laurentiis’ Berry Strata, a classic Italian dessert.  Originally, a strata (which means layers in Italian) consisted of a layer of custard, a layer of bread, a layer of custard, a layer of bread, and then you would bake it off.  This recipe, however, mixes all the ingredients together making the strata similar to a bread pudding, which is very easy to create.  This berry strata is so versatile because you can make it for breakfast or for dessert.  When you bake the strata, the outside turns golden-brown, while the inside stays moist and sweet. This modern version of a strata is just like bread pudding but creamier, silkier and fluffier.  The chunky berries make it colorful and the citrus flavor from the orange juice brightens everything up!     

Berry Strata
Adapted slightly from Berry Strata by Giada De Laurentiis

Serves: 4 servings


·         2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
·         3 Tablespoons honey
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ½ cup ricotta cheese
·         3 Tablespoons sugar
·         1 cup whole milk
·         ¼ cup orange or lemon juice
·         4 slices of bread, such as white or sourdough bread, torn into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
·         1 (12-ounce) bag frozen mixed berries, thawed and drained


Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat.  Turn off the heat, add the honey, and stir to combine.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl beat the eggs with a fork.  Add the ricotta cheese and sugar and mix to combine.  Add the milk, orange or lemon juice, butter and honey mixture, and bread.  Stir to combine.  Gently fold in the berries.

Place the ingredients in a 10x8x2 inch baking dish.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Bake the strata until golden on top and baked through, about 40-45 minutes.  Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.  Spoon into dishes and serve.  

The second recipe is based on a dessert that chef Anita Lo serves at her New York restaurant, Annisa.  Anita Lo’s inventive recipes are inspired by her travels and multicultural upbringing, and they also reflect her classic French training.  Although, she likes to bring Asian ingredients to the holiday table, this recipe is more of a spin on the classic bread pudding.  This baked goodness is sweet, custardy, crunchy on top, and shot through with poppy seeds for a stunning visual and textural effect.  The pecans bring nuttiness, while the warn Amaretto sauce is just like velvety caramel bringing more sweetness and moisture to this superb dessert!       

Pecan and Amaretto Bread Pudding
Adapted from Pecan, Bourbon, and Butterscotch Bread Pudding (Bon Appétit, November 2011)

Serves: 10 servings

Ingredients for the Amaretto Sauce:

·         1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
·         ½ cup agave syrup
·         3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
·         1 ½ teaspoons salt
·         ½ cup heavy cream
·         1 Tablespoon Amaretto liquor (optional)

Ingredients for the Pudding:

·         1 pound day-old rustic white or sourdough bread, crusts removed, cut into ½ inch cubes (about 12 cups)
·         ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
·         2 Tablespoons, plus 1 ½ cups sugar
·         5 large eggs, at room temperature
·         4 cups heavy cream
·         1 ½ Tablespoons poppy seeds
·         Pinch of salt
·         3 Tablespoons Amaretto liquor
·         ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
·         2 cups pecan pieces

Instructions for the Amaretto Sauce:

Bring the brown sugar, agave syrup, butter, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking to dissolve sugar.  Boil until mixture is syrupy and measures 1 1/3 cups, about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat; add cream and Amaretto, if desired, and stir until smooth.  Let cool.  Do Ahead:  Can be made 3 days ahead.  Let cool completely, cover, and chill.  Rewarm before serving.  

Instructions for Pudding:

Toss bread, melted butter, and 2 Tablespoons sugar in a large bowl and set aside.  Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and remaining 1 ½ cups sugar in another large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add cream, poppy seeds, and salt; beat to blend.  Place Amaretto in a small bowl; scrape in seeds from vanilla bean (reserve bean for another use).  Whisk to distribute seeds, then add to egg mixture, whisking to blend well.  Pour egg mixture over bread mixture in bowl.  Add pecans and toss to coat well.  Transfer mixture to a 13x9x2 inch glass or ceramic backing dish, spreading out in an even layer.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight. 

Preheat oven to 325°F.  Remove plastic wrap and bake until top is browned in spots and a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 1 ¼ - 1 ½ hours.  Serve bread pudding with Amaretto sauce.  

These two different takes on the traditional bread pudding are tasty and easy to make.  However, at the end of the day, you’re the judge and you get to pick the winner of this bread pudding throwdown.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

December 6, 2011

Back to brunch

Saturday is our day to sleep in.  We don’t answer the phone or the door, and we don’t get out of bed before 10 AM.  And then we still take it easy and enjoy a nice homemade brunch, which usually consists of an omelette.  But I don’t make your traditional omelette – my omelette is something between scrambled eggs and open-faced omelette, and I love it.  Romanians don’t like to throw anything out especially vegetables.  So, on Saturday I go through the fridge and any vegetables that are on their last legs end up into my omelette.  In fact, any vegetables, mushrooms, salami, ham or chorizo get thrown into the omelette.  My favorite, though, is the vegetable based omelette.   

Vegetable Omelette
By Simply Romanesco inspired by Frittata Di Verdura: “Clean Out the Fridge” Frittata by David Rocco

Serves: 2-3 servings


·         4 large eggs
·         Salt and black pepper
·         ¼ cup whole milk or heavy cream
·         ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, or Cheddar cheese, or Pecorino Romano, or any other cheese you like or you have on hand
·         4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         1 potato, washed, peeled and thinly sliced (I don’t peel the potato if I’m using a Red or Yukon Gold potato)
·         1 bell pepper, chopped
·         1 medium yellow onion, sliced
·         Optional: paprika


Heat the oil in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat.  Add the onion, the pepper and the potato.  Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of paprika (if using), and cook for 5-7 minutes or until the vegetables are fork tender.  At first, cook the vegetables over medium heat.  After 2-3 minutes, turn the heat down to medium-low. 

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the milk and the cheese.  Season with salt and pepper.  

Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the vegetables.  Turn the heat to medium and cook for about 5-7 minutes, stirring everything together.  When the omelette is cooked sprinkle more cheese on top, if desired.  

I love this kind of omelette.  It fills you up, it’s tasty, and you don’t have to throw away any wilted vegetables.  This past weekend, I found a sweet potato in my pantry from Thanksgiving, and I used it in this week’s brunch.  It was delicious, colorful and sweet.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

December 1, 2011

Back to breakfast

I hope that you all had a satisfying Thanksgiving!  I know I had!  And now, I’m recovering…  Although, every year I try to avoid overeating at Thanksgiving, I always end up doing just the opposite…yes, overeat.  So, after an entire weekend of overeating, I’m trying to manage my eating habits a tiny bit (I’m already wondering how long that will last).  And for me that starts with the basic breakfast. 

I’m not a devoted breakfast eater, unfortunately.  Most of the time, one or two cups of coffee in the morning will do the trick and fill up my tummy for a couple of hours.  I know what you’re thinking… not a healthy breakfast!  I agree.  And the funny thing is that I do feel much better if I eat something in the morning, but what can I do?  I think it’s called laziness…  So, as I said, after a long weekend of indulgence, I’m trying to follow a healthier eating pattern especially since I have the perfect morning treat – ricotta parfait

I love parfaits!  They are creamy, crunchy, sweet, and, most importantly, they fill you up.  Not to mention that they look very pretty with those layers of colors and abundance of flavors.  For me, a parfait represents the perfect boost of energy to get my morning started.  Of course… coffee, too.  What I also like about this particular Ricotta Parfait recipe is that one of the main ingredients is jam; and I love jam.  I don’t like to make it myself, although I probably should, and I’m convinced it would taste so much better, but I do love Sarabeth’s preserves.  Adrian might even say that I’m obsessed with Sarabeth’s.  He’s probably right, but I can’t help it.  

These jams are phenomenal!  From strawberry-raspberry and strawberry-rhubarb, to pineapple-mango and peach-apricot, they are all superb.  I buy my Sarabeth’s preserves from Marshalls, TJ Maxx or HomeGoods stores.  In fact, every time I walk into one of these stores, I look for a Sarabeth’s jar.  The scary thing is that I feel just like Mel Gibson in the movie The Conspiracy Theory – whenever he sees a copy of The Catcher in the Rye book, he has to buy it.  I feel the same with the Sarabeth’s jams – whenever I see one, I have to buy it.  The problem with me, as opposed to Mel Gibson’s character, is that I don’t stop with one jar of jam; I buy them all (the good thing is that they don’t get too many jars).  So, you can easily imagine that I have enough jam to last me for at least six months.  Anyway…I think you get the picture!

Ricotta Parfait
Adapted from Ricotta Parfait by Giada De Laurentiis

Serves:  4 servings
Special equipment:  4 parfait or sundae glasses


·         1 cup ricotta cheese
·         ½ cup plain yogurt
·         ½ cup jam, divided (recommended: Sarabeth’s Strawberry-Raspberry)
·         2 cups granola, divided
·         ¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted


To toast the sliced almonds, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 6 to 8 minutes until lightly golden.  Cool completely before using.    

In a small bowl, whisk the ricotta cheese and yogurt together until smooth.  In each parfait glass, layer 2 Tablespoons of the ricotta mixture, 1 Tablespoon jam (please use any kind of jam you like; I found that a tart berry preserve works well with the creaminess of the ricotta and yogurt mixture) and ¼ cup of granola.  Repeat the layers.  Spread the remaining ricotta mixture on top and garnish with toasted almonds before serving.

What I sometimes like to do is to substitute the layers of granola with layers of toasted almonds.  The parfait gets a nutty aroma from the toasted almonds, which I love.  And, by the way, almonds are very good for you, too.  Also, having a layer of granola, one of almonds, and finishing with more toasted almonds, is another good option.  In the end, whichever combination you choose, it will work beautifully.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

P.S.:  Happy National Day, Romania!