April 27, 2012

French or Hungarian?

We’re talking about French food again.  After Julia Child’s Chicken with Cream, Mushrooms and Port, I came upon another French recipe.  The truth is that I had completely forgotten about this Chicken with Paprika (Poulet au Paprika) recipe, which ended up buried in my recipe collection, which I created over time.  I kept postponing trying this dish until it left my mind entirely.  Luckily, I rediscovered it not so long ago.  It was one of those nights when I just couldn’t decide what to make for dinner.  I knew I wanted something simple, but elegant (not to mention that I only had a few basic ingredients in my fridge and pantry that I kind of wanted to get rid of), but I couldn’t make up my mind.  I was frantically rushing through my ever-expanding recipe collection when I dug it up again.   

I was in Toronto when I first saw Laura Calder make this Chicken with Paprika (Poulet au Paprika) dish on Food Network Canada (the Canadian sister of Food Network).  And I was intrigued.  I’ll tell you why – because Hungarian paprika is one of the main ingredients of this dish.  I wondered if this was really a French recipe (Laura Calder’s show is called French Food at Home).  And then I saw the cream and wine…  I know that paprika is widely used in French cuisine, but it’s even more prevalent in Hungarian cooking.  So, I would say that this recipe is indeed French, but with a Hungarian twist.  

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the recipe is French or Hungarian.  What matters are the amazing flavors that will pop and dance in your mouth, and how fast you’ll go for seconds.  The paprika gives the vegetables a nice deep red tint, and half way through the recipe they are drowned in a crisp and light white wine, which elevates the flavors to a whole different level.  The sauce has depth and is just divine.  The cream makes it velvety and rich; the red pepper makes it sweet; the celery gives it a crunch, while the plump tomatoes make it tangy and copious.  Not to mention the full-bodied aroma the chicken absorbs while bathing in this decadent sauce and still remaining moist and juicy.  It’s unbelievable how simple ingredients can create a dish that is so gourmet and flavorsome.

Chicken with Paprika (Poulet au Paprika)
Adapted from Poulet au Paprika by Laura Calder

Serves: 4 servings


·         4 chicken drumsticks and 4 chicken thighs
·         Salt and black pepper
·         3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         1 red pepper, seeded and cut into roughly 2-inch / 5 cm julienne
·         1 medium yellow onion, sliced
·         2 celery stalks, sliced
·         1 Tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
·         1 clove garlic, minced
·         ½ cup / 125 ml white wine, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio
·         1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juices
·         1 teaspoon sugar
·         1 bay leaf
·         2 Tablespoons heavy cream


Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil over medium heat in a sauté pan and brown the chicken pieces on all sides.  Remove chicken to a platter.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onion, red pepper and celery.  Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Add the paprika.  Cook until soft, about 10-12 minutes, adding the garlic for the final minute.  Deglaze the pan with the wine.  Add the tomatoes, sugar and bay leaf.  Season with more salt and pepper to taste.  Put the chicken back in.  Cover the pan, and cook over medium-low heat, turning the chicken occasionally, until tender, about 40 minutes. 

Remove the chicken to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.  Turn up the heat under the sauce and boil down to sauce consistency, about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat, stir through the cream, check the seasonings (including the paprika, adding more if you like), then pour over the chicken, and serve.  

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)    

April 5, 2012

Happy Easter!

I’ve told you before how Romanians love to enjoy a big feast and how we prepare special dishes on important religious holidays.  If at Christmas the main ingredient on our table is pork, at Easter the main ingredient is lamb.  If at Christmas we sacrifice the pig, at Easter we sacrifice the lamb, and we use all parts of the animal to create a festive meal for Easter Sunday including a lamb soup, lamb haggis and a braised lamb main course.  Besides the lamb dishes, always present on the Easter table are the Easter eggs, hard-boiled, and either elaborately hand painted with various floral or national motives, or just tinted plain deep red.  Before eating the eggs everyone around the table knocks an egg with that of the next person, and the winner is the one whose egg doesn’t break after all the others are cracked.  

Now that you get an idea of the savory dishes at Easter, let me tell you about the sweet ending of our Easter meal.  The traditional dessert at Easter is called Pască, which is mainly the Romanian Panetone with Cheese.  It’s a must on every Romanian Easter table and this year I made it too.  I have to say that I was a little apprehensive of the way it would turn out especially because I had to make a substitution.  I didn’t have any farmers cheese on hand, so I used ricotta cheese instead.  I had seen my Grandma make this cake before but that it was a long time ago.  Since Pască is made only at Easter, I haven’t seen Grandma Vicki make it in years, so I had to refresh my memory with the steps I had to take and the way it was supposed to turn out. 

To be honest, I was pretty much trying a brand new recipe.  My recollection of my Grandma’s creation was nebulous to say the least, only bits and pieces, and all I had was her recipe and her encouragement that it will come out great.  Easy to say when you’ve done it a hundred times, Grandma!  But I was equipped with a winning recipe, strong will, and confidence, and I was determined to succeed and make my very own Pască.  And I was poised… until I saw the really runny custard.  For a split second that terrifying lousy, mediocre baker feeling came back to haunt me.  How would that liquid custard ever cook through?  Truth be told, I had no idea.  I just threw it in the oven and hoped for the best. 

The best, in fact, the extraordinary came out of the oven over an hour later.  The top was glossy and golden brown, and the filling was fully cooked through.  The outside fragile dough that surrounds the cheesy custard like a fortress, turned into a sweet, crunchy and flaky crust.  The inside was moist, velvety with a subtle gritty consistency from the ricotta cheese, and the vanilla infused raisins added a delicate chewiness and a lovely perfume.  This is not one of those fancy, complicated and richly decorated Pască that Romanians are known to create for Easter.  It’s an easier cake to make but one that still incorporates fantastic flavors, which simply shine through.
Pască (Romanian Panetone with Cheese)
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 10 servings
Special Equipment: 9-inch round springform pan

Ingredients for the crust:

·         100 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more to coat the pan
·         100 grams granulated sugar
·         1 egg, at room temperature
·         1 heaped Tablespoon sour cream
·         300 grams all-purpose flour
·         ½ teaspoon baking powder
·         1/8 teaspoon salt

Ingredients for the custard:

·         500 grams ricotta cheese, at room temperature
·         3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
·         200 grams granulated sugar
·         2 teaspoons vanilla extract
·         100 grams raisins
·         Lemon zest from 1 lemon

Instructions for the crust:

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Coat the bottom and sides of the springform pan with butter. 

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

In a large bowl, beat the butter with the sugar using an electric hand mixer, for 2-3 minutes.  Add the egg and beat on medium speed for 1 minute.  Beat in the sour cream.  In batches, beat in the flour, baking powder and salt mixture until well combined.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the ricotta cheese, eggs and egg yolk (mixing well after each egg addition), sugar, vanilla extract and lemon zest.  At the end, fold in the raisins.  Set aside. 

Roll out the dough into a ¼-inch-thick round.  Place the dough in the springform pan making sure that it also covers the sides of the pan.  Pour the custard over the dough. Bake the Pască for 80-90 minutes or until the custard is cooked through and golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean (check the cake after 60 minutes).  Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly for 10 minutes.  Remove cake from the springform and let it cool completely.       

We’ll be going home for Easter, tomorrow.  I can’t wait.  I can’t wait to be in the kitchen with my Grandma, cook with her, and savor all those mesmerizing Easter aromas.  I can’t wait to watch my Grandma make Pască again.  I can’t wait to take part in all those beautiful Easter traditions.  I’ve missed all of this and now it’s time to experience it again.  But, I’ll be back soon and I’ll tell you all about it.

Until then, Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) and Happy Easter!