February 25, 2012

And the Oscar goes to…

I’m an avid movie buff!  I love movies, theater, acting, pretty much anything artistic.  I even dreamed of becoming an actress at some point in high school when I was so sucked into the performing world that it felt like I was living in a different reality for a while.  I think it was a phase… I got over it, though, but the love for the movies has lingered on. 

Loving the movies, I obviously love any award ceremony dedicated to the seventh art, including the Oscars.  Every year before the big event I watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture.  This Sunday will be an Oscar Sunday again.  I was about 12 years old when I watched my first Oscars ceremony.  After that, I watched it every single year with no exceptions.  While at home in Romania, I would wake up at 3 AM to watch the Oscars live, and then rush to school to be in class by 8 AM.  They were interesting times, but I guess that any child is fascinated by celebrities and dreams of becoming a movie star.  I know I did – I wanted to become Julia Roberts.  It hasn’t happened yet…

Anyway…leaving behind my unfulfilled dreams, this Sunday is going to be all about the Oscars!  So, I won’t be cooking much.  What a crime, right?  I’ll be making only finger food.  Did you know that celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck feeds more than 1,500 Hollywood big shots at the Governor’s Ball, every year?  He’s been doing it for 18 years.  Apparently, chef Puck is not a movie aficionado, but got the gig cooking for the Governor’s Ball because celebrities had been heading to his restaurant, Spago, instead of the Academy’s official party.  Don’t worry; he doesn’t cook for 1,500 people alone.  He has a team of 300 cooks preparing the meal.  Regardless of the menu, the classics – mini kobe burgers, smoked salmon and the famous gold-covered chocolate Oscars – are always on the menu.  Just like Wolfgang Puck, I will definitely have these three dishes on my Oscar menu on Sunday:  Vegetarian BruschettaWalnut and Chocolate Cake and Prosecco with Berry Ice Cubes.         

Vegetarian Bruschetta
Adapted from Click Magazine (December 2011)

Serves: 15+ servings


·         1 baguette, sliced
·         5 carrots, finely grated
·         4 celery stalks, finely chopped
·         3 apples, grated
·         Mayonnaise
·         Salt
·         Black pepper
·         Chives, chopped
·         Lemon triangles


In a large bowl, combine the carrots, celery and apples together.  Mix well.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add as much mayonnaise as you want to make the mixture nice and creamy. Spread the mixture on the bread slices and sprinkle with a few chives on top.  Add a lemon triangle to each bread slice.  

This simple but ingenious little sandwich incorporates the perfect combination of sweet and savory.  The celery gives it a nice crunchy texture, while the lemon adds a touch of acidity, which wakes up your taste buds!

Walnut and Chocolate Cake
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 30+ servings

Ingredients for the Cake:
·         8 eggs
·         420 grams (1 ¾ cups) sugar
·         210 grams (1 ¼ cups) flour
·         250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
·         100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, toasted and chopped
·         1 ½ Tablespoons cocoa
·         8 grams (1 teaspoon) baking powder
·         A pinch of salt

Ingredients for the Ganache:

·         300 grams (10 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips (recommended: Nestle morsels)
·         200 ml (¾ cup) heavy cream
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions for the Cake:

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

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and walnuts.  In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar and heavy cream with a hand mixer until light and fluffy.  Add the dry ingredients and mix with a rubber spatula until incorporated.  In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt on medium speed until they hold medium-firm peaks.  Carefully, fold the egg whites into the egg yolks, sugar, flour, cocoa and walnut mixture. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes until a tester comes out clean.  Cool 10 minutes in the pan on a rack, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.

Instructions for the Ganache:

Place the chocolate chips in a small bowl.  Combine the heavy cream and vanilla extract in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Cook until small bubbles appear on the outside edge of the cream.  Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate chips.  Using a fork, gently stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

When the cake has cooled completely, spread the chocolate ganache evenly on top.

This cake is pure chocolate heaven – it’s light and fluffy, the walnuts add another level of texture, and the rich chocolate ganache seals it in. 

To end this special night and to toast to the winners and nominees, you must try this colorful, fancy, and very easy to make Prosecco with Berry Ice Cubes drink! 

Prosecco with Berry Ice Cubes
Adapted from Food Network Magazine (June 2011)


·         1 bottle of Prosecco (Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine)
·         Raspberries
·         Blueberries
·         Ice Cube Tray


Put a couple of raspberries and blueberries in an ice cube tray.  Fill with water and freeze until firm.  Drop the berry ice cubes into champagne glasses and fill with prosecco.   

While the celebrities will enjoy a hip Moët & Chandon cocktail, Adrian and I will be sipping on this bubbly, fruity and fun prosecco drink.  The berries float around sinking in the end to the bottom of the glass like rocks to the bottom of the sea, getting soaked in alcohol and perfuming the drink with lovely sweet, fruity aromas…  It’s just what you need on an extravagant Oscar night.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) and may the best actors and movies prevail! 

February 16, 2012

Inspired by Julie & Julia

One of my all-time favorite movies is Julie & Julia.  I think I’ve watched it fifty times already, and I know almost every single line by heart… I could even play in this movie by now.  Or maybe not… Anyway…  At first, I loved the film because of Meryl Streep who stars as Julia Child.  Then, the food prepared in the movie looks so appetizing that you just have to pick up the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and start creating French delicacies with, what else, tons of butter.  Still, “is there anything better than butter?”  If there is, I haven’t found it yet.  After all, no butter, no fat, no happiness.  And then, it was the blog idea.  Even if, for some peculiar reason, I find it hard to admit, this movie planted the seed, which inspired me to start my own food blog! 

I loved the movie so much that Adrian bought me Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for my 25th birthday.  Some women might feel offended to receive a cookbook on such an important milestone, but I was ecstatic!  I couldn’t wait to start cooking from it.  And the first recipe that I tried from this book was Chicken with Cream, Mushrooms and Port, which was also one of the first recipes that Julie Powell tried when she started her insane one year Julie/Julia project.  For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, Julie’s project was to cook her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, completing 524 recipes in 365 days while writing a blog about it.  A totally deranged assignment if you are to ask me, but kudos to Julie Powell.

This recipe was not only easy to make, but it was also “total bliss”.  You have butter, cream, a splash of port…yes…that’s pretty much all you need to make a “delicious beyond imagining” dish.  I’ve recently revisited this classic and it was just as I remembered – spectacular!     

Chicken with Cream, Mushrooms and Port
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

Serves: 4 servings


·         4 chicken breasts – flatten the chicken breasts with the side of a heavy knife
·         Lemon juice
·         Salt and black pepper
·         5 Tablespoons butter
·         1 Tablespoon minced shallot
·         ¼ pound sliced fresh mushrooms
·         ¼ cup chicken broth
·         ¼ cup port
·         1 cup heavy cream
·         2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley


Rub the chicken with drops of lemon juice and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.  In a large pan, heat the butter over medium heat until foaming.  Stir in the minced shallot and sauté a moment without browning.  Then stir in the mushrooms, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and sauté lightly for 2-3 minutes without browning.

Add the chicken and cook it in the mushrooms and butter for several minutes on each side.  When the meat is springy to the touch it is done.  Remove the meat when done, leaving the mushrooms in the pan.  Pour the chicken broth and port wine over the mushrooms and boil down quickly until liquid is syrupy.  Stir in the cream and boil down again until the cream has thickened slightly.  Taste carefully for seasoning, and add drops of lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.  Put the chicken back into the pan with the sauce for about 2 more minutes.  Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once.    

You’re probably thinking, by now, that perhaps I’m a bit obsessed with Julie & Julia especially since I’ve used a myriad of quotes from this movie throughout the post.  But that’s OK.  I’ll talk more about my movie encyclopedia later on because the Oscars are fast approaching.  Until then, Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

February 11, 2012

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”

You’re probably thinking that I always love to cook food and write about it.  Right?  Wrong! Sometimes, I just don’t want to see food that needs to be chopped and then cooked and wait around babysitting it until it’s done.  Sometimes, I just need a break from cooking.  And that’s when we dine out.  Every time we go to a restaurant we try to turn it into a memorable experience with great food selection and lovely atmosphere.  After all, if you are to spend money, you’d better make it worthwhile!  

Adrian and I moved to Pittsburgh a couple of years ago.  We knew the area, but we weren’t very familiar with the restaurants and dining options.  So, we definitely had some exploring to do.  And, we weren’t disappointed with what we found in the Steel City.  On the contrary – we were extremely pleased.  

Il pizzaiolo means the pizza maker, in Italian.  Well, let me tell you that our pizza maker (Il Pizzaiolo restaurant founded in 1996) in downtown Mt. Lebanon has some pretty extraordinary food selections and spectacular brick-oven pizza.  The rustic atmosphere and the intimate summer patio complement the restaurant, while the chic wine bar gives it a modern edge.  Soon, it became our go-to restaurant and before I got into real cooking it was our every other day go-to restaurant. 

We frequented this restaurant so often that the entire staff knew us.  And, we also got to know them.  Let me tell you that we were fascinated by their commitment to always serve excellent authentic Italian food.  They are so devoted that they fly their mozzarella di bufala straight from Napoli, Italy, every week and they also make their own mozzarella in-house.  They hand-make their own sweet fennel sausage, meatballs, pasta and antipasto vegetables, too.  As you can imagine, we’ve had almost everything on the menu.   

Here are some of our favorite items:

I’ll start with the Antipasto Napoli, a delicious mixture of roasted vegetables from eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and carrots, to cauliflower, artichokes, rapini, green beans and red peppers.  This appetizer has now become a must, every time we go to Il Pizzaiolo.  The veggies are roasted to perfection and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.  What you get is a happy marriage of great contrasting colors and textures, sweetness, spiciness, light bitterness, and a touch of acidity… A simple, rustic and yet terrific dish. 

Next, I have to mention our two favorite pizzas: Pizza Capricciosa and Pizza Prosciutto e Arugula

Pizza Capricciosa offers impactful flavors and an abundance of ingredients.  The crust is thin and light and you could eat it all day long.  The San Marzano tomato sauce adds richness while the smooth fresh mozzarella brings that now famous gooeyness.  This pizza is elevated by the bold meat element of prosciutto cotto, the tangy artichokes, briny gaeta olives, while the fresh basil gives this dish fragrance and depth.  It is definitely a keeper!

Pizza Prosciutto e Arugula is certainly lighter.  One of my favorite leafy greens, the peppery arugula, gives this pizza a lovely earthiness, while the salty prosciutto brings in another level of texture.  And let’s not forget about the freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, which chef Mario Batali calls “the indisputable king of cheese”; I tend to agree.  These flavors just work together beautifully. 

The pasta dishes…oh…the pasta… now, they bring out the heavyweight contenders.  What should I start with?  I’ll start with, perhaps our favorite dish, Pappardelle con Salsiccia.  There are a lot of great flavors in this dish.  You have the hand-made fresh pappardelle, which are cooked to perfection.  Then, you have the hand-made sweet fennel sausage, the crunchy onions, which give a nice bite and extra sweetness, and a hint of wine.  All of which are drowned in a tasty marinara sauce.  You’ll definitely feel satisfied after this pasta dish.  

Next, I’d like to tell you about, what I call the drunken pasta, Penne alla Vodka.  A good bunch of al dente penne pasta is covered in a rich, buttery, vodka, tomato and cream sauce.  The freshly ground pepper gives it a kick and the Prosciutto di Parma adds a bit of saltiness to balance out the dish.    

Paglia e Fieno is another successful and colorful pasta dish.  The bi-colored hand-made fresh spinach and egg tagliatelle swim in a smooth cream sauce while the peas and prosciutto brighten the dish and boost the flavors.  

Let’s not forget about the meat, and especially about the Vitello alla Milanese.  The meat is crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside.  And it’s hidden under a green mountain of lemony arugula, tomato, red onions and Parmigiano-Reggiano salad.  Perfection…

If you happen to go in for lunch, don’t miss out on the fabulous Panini, and most importantly the Garibaldi Sandwich.  Unfortunately, this sandwich is not listed on the menu, any longer.  I really don’t know why.  It’s my favorite panino on their menu.  However, they will always make it for you if you order it.  What you get is a perfect blend of crunchy toasted bread, meaty prosciutto, cheesy mozzarella, and roasted red peppers; and a light salad on the side.  This is a delicious and fully-satisfying lunch.  

Also, not be overlooked are the Antipasto Misto, Pizza Margherita (DOC), Rigatoni alla Siciliana, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, Linguine alle Vongole, Parmigiana di Melanzane and the Manganaro Sandwich.

And, to top it off, order a nice, bubbly and fruity Bellini cocktail.  

Whether you’re looking for lunch, a quiet dinner or a night out with friends, Il Pizzaiolo has it all.  So, try this Italian treasure and you’ll be transported to Italy in an instant…  Salute!

Restaurant Information:
Il Pizzaiolo
703 Washington Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15228
Phone: 412-344-4123
Il Pizzaiolo on Urbanspoon

February 4, 2012

My trip to Transylvania: Part 3

I’m starting this post by telling you that last week was awful.  Adrian came down with a cold and then, when we thought he was getting better, he threw out his back.  For three days, Adrian walked tilted to the left.  He was in pain.  But that’s not all.  After Adrian’s back problem, I came down with a terrible cold.  It was so bad that last Thursday all I could do was lay on the couch covered with a wool blanket up to my nose and build up a pile of Kleenex next to me.  My eyelids could barely make it above half-mast and I felt that I needed a pair of toothpicks to hold them up to watch yet another Federer – Nadal classic, this time in the semi-final of the Australian Open.  We were a house under siege…

But, all’s well that ends well, right?  Fortunately, this week’s been better.  And it started really well when Djokovic defeated Nadal in the final of the Australian Open.  Anyway…  I don’t want to complain too much or bore you with my tennis obsessions, especially since I’d like to tell you more about my trip to Transylvania.  

After that food coma between Christmas and New Year’s, we all took a short break from anything food related.  Even the weather got better and it was a true pleasure going for a stroll on the riverbank.  That’s what I did and decided to take some pictures to show you the beautiful scenery.  You can pretty much traverse the entire city walking on the riverbank.

Our break from food didn’t last too long.  It only lasted until January 7th, when we celebrate St. John and evidently everyone named John or Joan or any other derivative.  Being a very important religious holiday in the Orthodox calendar, we had to prepare some fine dishes.  You’re probably asking: what else could we possibly eat?  We didn’t go over the top this time, but I did manage to introduce my family to an American classic: Banana Bread.  And guess what, they loved it!  

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical since my parents are not used to the American cuisine, but, to my surprise and excitement, they all loved my Banana Bread.  The only difference from the traditional banana bread was its shape.  That’s because I baked it in a bunt cake pan, and it was worth it; it was a stunning visual.  The whole kitchen was overwhelmed with bananas and toasted nuts aromas.  And then I took it out of the oven… 

When the banana bread was ready I felt just like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Do you remember the scene when Ian’s parents come to Toula’s house to meet her family, and they bring a bunt cake?  Toula’s mother doesn’t understand what it is and after a couple of confusing moments she says that’s a cake!  I made the banana bread in a bunt cake pan and it looked exactly the same.  I told my family it was banana bread, and they reacted exactly like Toula’s mother, and said, no, it’s not bread, it’s a cake!  Most importantly, they loved it.  The cake was rich, dense and moist, and oozed banana and walnut flavor.  I ended up making it several times before I left.  

Banana Bread
Adapted from Food Network Magazine (May 2011)

Serves: 10+ servings


·         Butter for the pan
·         1 cup banana, mashed (about 2 large bananas)
·         1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
·         Optional: ½ cup raisins
·         1 ¼ cups flour
·         1 cup sugar
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         1 teaspoon salt
·         ½ teaspoon baking soda
·         1 teaspoon cinnamon
·         ½ teaspoon nutmeg
·         2 eggs, at room temperature
·         ½ cup vegetable oil
·         ½ cup plain yogurt or sour cream
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         1 teaspoon lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Lightly butter one 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts (and raisins if using).  In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, vegetable oil, yogurt, vanilla extract and lemon zest.  Stir the mashed bananas into the egg mixture.  In batches, fold in the dry ingredients until just combined. 

Spread the batter in the prepared pan.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes.  Cool 15-20 minutes in the pan on a rack, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.  When cool, dust powdered sugar on top.

Note: Instead of bananas you can also try this recipe using pears (shredded and squeezed dry), apples (shredded and squeezed dry), carrots (shredded) or zucchini (shredded and squeezed dry).

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)