December 31, 2012

Hot Mulled Wine & Happy New Year!

I have a confession to make: I’m not a connoisseur when it comes to wine; which is odd considering that my grandfather used to make homemade wine every fall, and now my parents are taking a stab at his recipe and they’re getting closer and closer to perfecting it.  So, wine is something I’ve always been familiar with, but unfortunately never grown to really appreciate it.  If I’m in the mood for a drink when dining out I’ll most likely opt for a cocktail.  Occasionally, I may fall for a Riesling… or anything sweeter than that.  I rarely drink red wine except from when it’s hot and infused with winter spices. Hence, confession number two: I have a soft spot for Hot Mulled Wine.

Once the cold days arrive and the holidays are approaching, everyone in Romania (and most of Europe) from the fanciest restaurant to the neighborhood tavern serves hot mulled wine – vin fiert.  And I’m just like a kid in a candy store, barely containing my excitement until I get to order a glass of aromatic hot mulled wine.  

There’s something warm and comforting about mulled wine.  It warms you up on frigid winter days; it’s perfect to enjoy while out with your friends, while taking a break from the ski slopes or opening gifts by the Christmas tree. But more often than not I love sipping it while snuggling by the fireplace or lounging on the couch on a cold and snowy night.

Mulled wine is generally made with red wine; and even the cheapest red wine will work wonders.  I toss a variety of spices in my mulled wine just like my grandma taught me, but instead of using plain sugar to sweeten it up I prefer the delicate agave nectar or honey.  I also like just a stick of cinnamon in there because it gives the wine a nice and soothing nuance without being overpowering; the cardamom adds a tart lemony rush, the black peppercorns bring a… well… peppery kick while the cloves and star anise enhance the warmth and aromas.  And, for a fruity and citrusy accent, orange slices are an inspired addition.  Hot mulled wine is not your super-luxe holiday drink; instead, it’s a relaxed, fun and festive way to celebrate the winter holidays.  Cheers and Happy New Year everyone! 

Hot Mulled Wine

Serves: 4 servings


·         1 liter (4 cups) red wine
·         Heaped 1/3 cup light agave nectar (or honey)
·         1 cinnamon stick
·         1 star anise
·         3 cardamom pods
·         5 whole cloves
·         10 black peppercorns
·         Orange slices for serving


Pour the wine in a saucepan over medium-low heat.  Add the agave nectar, cinnamon stick, star anise, cardamom pods, cloves and peppercorns.  Whisk until the agave nectar dissolves.  When the wine gets to the boiling point turn the heat off.  Let it stand for 10-15 minutes.  Pour the mulled wine into glasses (strain the spices out); add orange slices and enjoy responsibly!

Note:  I really like this combination of spices in my mulled wine, but you can spice it up as you fancy; toss in or toss out whichever spices you like.  Also, you can opt for apple or lemon slices instead of oranges.  The options are endless.   

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)       

December 20, 2012

Homemade Pretzels for Christmas

We have a famous saying in Romania: The best bird is the pig.  And that’s particularly true around Christmas when our pork consumption goes through the roof.  Yes; at Christmas whether rich or poor, we all gather around an abundant holiday table full of elaborate traditional pork dishes.  But before we dive into those popular pork concoctions we like to nibble on Homemade Pretzels to open up our appetite while we enjoy a glass of wine, mulled wine or our famous ţuică. 

Sometimes, I feel that we, Romanians, could live on bread and pretzels and nothing else year round.  If in the U.S. there’s a Starbucks on every corner, in Romania there’s a bread and pretzel shop on every corner.       

My grandmother spoils us every Christmas with an incredibly generous array of more than three hundred homemade sesame, caraway and cheese pretzels and miniature soft cheese croissants.  I’m instantly salivating just writing these words.  Since this year we won’t be home in Romania to partake in the Christmas baking spree and enjoy all that savory and sweet deliciousness that the holidays bring, I absolutely had to bake some pretzels.  I decided to skip the miniature soft cheese croissants since there’s some serious work involved but I couldn’t skip the sesame and Parmesan pretzels.

As you can imagine, I used Grandma Vicki’s recipe because it’s the one that I’m accustomed to and the one that always delivers foolproof results, which fill us with joy and keep our tummies content every Christmas.  And to my utter delight the results were indeed wonderful.  The pretzels came out of the oven perfectly golden, nicely seasoned, and spotted with sesame seeds and crunchy salt bits, and thin cheesy crust.  They were plump, crisp, crumbly, and they filled the house with that homey, warming and comforting freshly baked bread smell.  The best part, though, they were just like the pretzels my grandma baked last Christmas.  And the fact that I made them while Skypeing with my mom, who was guiding me and approving every step, made them so much more special; as if I were home baking with my mom and grandma.      

The recipe looks a bit lengthy but don’t let that intimidate you.  At the end of the day, it all simmers down to some patience and a bit of muscle for kneading the dough.  The rest will unfold on its own.  You’ll have plenty of pretzels to devour on your own for the holidays and even to give away as homemade gifts if you’d like.  Just don’t forget to dress them up.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas everyone!

Homemade Pretzels

Makes: 150 + pretzels
Special equipment: fluted pastry wheel and a pastry brush


·         1 kg all-purpose flour (2 pounds 3 oz), plus more while kneading the dough
·         2 teaspoons dry instant yeast
·         400 g (3 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1 large egg, at room temperature
·         2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
·         About 300-350 ml (1 1/3 cups) whole milk, at room temperature
·         Sesame seeds and Parmesan cheese for sprinkling


Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Separate the egg yolk and egg whites.  Keep both close at hand.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the dry yeast.  Whisk for 30 seconds.  Add the butter and, using clean hands, gently combine it with the flour and yeast mixture until the butter absorbs the flour.  Add the egg yolk and salt and mix.  Gradually, add the milk (about 3 Tablespoons at a time), and mix well. 

Transfer the dough to a working surface.  Start kneading the dough adding a little bit of flour and milk as necessary until the dough becomes soft, elastic and pliable, and sticks together.  Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes.  Then, divide the dough into four balls and allow them to rest on the work surface for 10-15 minutes.

In the meantime, line four baking sheets with parchment paper.  Beat the egg whites and keep close at hand. 

Roll out the dough into a ¼-inch thick sheet (work with one ball of dough at a time).  The dough should be easy to work with and to roll out and should not stick to the working surface, but if you feel that it gets stuck, flour the rolling pin and working surface with some flour. 

Transfer the dough to one of the prepared baking sheets.  Using a fluted pastry wheel cut the sides of the dough to perfectly fit onto the baking sheet.  Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the dough with the egg whites.  Then, lightly sprinkle the dough with sesame seeds and salt; or with grated Parmesan cheese.  Using the fluted pastry wheel cut the dough into about 4-inch (10 cm) long and finger wide pretzel sticks.  Bake them for about 30 minutes.  Repeat with the remaining dough.

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)        

December 13, 2012

Brazilian Chocolate Truffles

Well, I obviously couldn’t stay away from chocolate for too long.  And that’s because I stumbled upon chocolate truffles, Brazilian Chocolate Truffles that is.  As you may notice, I said Brazilian.  These are not your regular chocolate truffles sprung up from the plain melted chocolate and cream mixture known as ganache.  Although I do go gaga over those ones too, these Brazilian truffles bring something more to the table; they bring that sweet something, which makes them gooey and pleasantly sweet.  There’s condensed milk involved in the process instead of cream.  So, with the cookie season upon us and since I’ve been a dessert junkie lately, these Brazilian Chocolate Truffles deserve my undivided attention and take center stage among chocolate concoctions.


Truffles come dressed to impress every time, and these are nothing short of that. Known in Brazil as Brigadeiro, these chocolate truffles are traditionally rolled in chocolate sprinkles.  To make them extra special, I coated them in walnut-cinnamon for a spicy and nutty crunch, and coconut flakes for a snowflakes look.  Needless to say, I felt like making homemade Ferrero Rocher and Raffaello chocolates except for the thin wafer shell encased hazelnut.  But who needs that hazelnut in there when you can have pure decadent chocolate awesomeness?  These candies are totally rich and chocolatey, dense and fudgy, and sort of chewy and caramel-like in parts.  They are pretty, festive and so addictive; and did I mention homemade.  Totally homemade!              

One final note: I made the classic Brazilian chocolate truffles first, and boozed the next batch with Amaretto liquor for a responsible grown-up version.  We finished them in one sitting. Nothing responsible there.  Enjoy… responsibly!

Brazilian Chocolate Truffles
Adapted from Food & Wine (December 2012)

Serves:  About 30 truffles


·         1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
·         3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         1 teaspoon unsalted butter, plus more for rubbing
·         1/8 teaspoon salt
·         Optional: 1-2 Tablespoons Amaretto liquor
·         Chocolate sprinkles, for rolling
·         1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped, for rolling (I pulsed the walnuts a couple of times in the food processor)
·         1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
·         1 cup flaked sweetened coconut, for rolling


In a nonstick saucepan, combine the condensed milk with the chocolate, vanilla, 1 teaspoon of butter, salt and Amaretto liquor (if using).  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until shiny and very thick and starts to pull away from the pan, about 15 minutes.  Spread the mixture in a shallow dish and let cool for 15 minutes, then refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour and 30 minutes. 

Arrange 30 paper candy cups on a baking sheet.  Pour the sprinkles into a shallow bowl.  Rub your hands with butter.  Using a 1 ¼-inch ice cream scoop, spoon the candy mixture and roll them into balls.  Roll the candy in the sprinkles and set them in a paper cup.  Repeat to form the remaining candies.  Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature. 

Walnut-Cinnamon and Coconut Variations:

In place of the sprinkles, in a shallow bowl, blend the toasted and chopped walnuts with cinnamon and use to coat the candies.  Or coat them in coconut flakes.   

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)     

December 7, 2012

Maple Sweet Potato Cake

I love sweet potatoes, but generally I only love them for Thanksgiving or similar occasions.  They’re hardly ever on my weekly menu.  Naturally, I made sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving; I just couldn’t neglect them.  But here’s the catch; when you go Thanksgiving shopping you always tend to buy way more than you actually need for that special turkey meal.  I was no exception.  The sweet potato recipe I used this year called for 5 pounds of sweet potatoes.  I only used half that amount but the damage had already been done; the shopping was over and the pantry was still overflowing with potatoes.  So, what do you do with those extra sweet potatoes staring at you?  You make Maple Sweet Potato Cake.  Best decision ever! 

I was flicking trough the November issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray when I stumbled upon this gorgeous cake.  At first, it didn’t jump off the page to greet me and it didn’t really speak to me either.  But I desperately wanted to use those extra sweet potatoes, so this recipe looked like the perfect candidate.  I didn’t expect the final result to be so utterly sublime.  It was probably because of all those drunken golden raisins.

The color of this cake is simply stunning.  That vibrant orangey hue reminds me of summer; but the sweet potato flavor, the smokiness and warmth of the amber maple syrup, and the dust of white sugar on top make it so festive, elegant and wintery.  I love how dense and moist this cake is with small chunks of sweet potatoes spread throughout.  It’s also sweet, though not overly sugary that you can’t stop gulping gallons of water after just one bite.  

And then there’s that faint booziness from, well, all those rum infused golden raisins.  I’m a fan of any recipe that requires soaking dried fruit in alcohol because it brings them back to life.  That’s why I doused a decent amount of golden raisins in a pool of rum and they thanked me for it.  They became plump, full of life and full of – wait for it – rum.  I urge you to try it, too; you’ll thank me later.  Simply put, this cake is bold, beautiful and bursting with seasonal spices and flavors and, of course, rum.  Enjoy!       

Maple Sweet Potato Cake
Adapted from Every Day with Rachael Ray (November 2012)

Makes: 10 to 12 servings


·         2 lbs. sweet potatoes (about 2 medium potatoes)
·         ½ cup golden raisins
·         ¾ cup rum
·         2 cups flour
·         2 teaspoons baking powder
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         ¾ cup (packed) light brown sugar
·         ¾ cup pure maple syrup
·         1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
·         3 large eggs, at room temperature
·         Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting


Generously grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.  In a small bowl, add the raisins and rum; let sit.

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Pierce each sweet potato several times with a fork and place on a baking sheet.  Bake until very tender when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let rest until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes.  Cut the sweet potatoes in half and scoop out the flesh until you have 1 cup.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt.  In a separate bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until smooth.  On low speed, mix in the maple syrup and vanilla extract.  Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl.  Mix in the sweet potatoes, then the flour mixture ½ cup at a time until incorporated.  Drain the raisins; add them to the batter using a spatula.  Pour into the pan, smoothing the top. 

Bake the cake until springy in the center and a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Transfer to a rack; let cool for 30 minutes.  Remove the sides of the pan, transfer the cake to a plate and dust with confectioners’ sugar.   

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)