I spent a semester of college in Florence and my bus stop was directly in front of a focacceria called Pugi. The focaccia at Pugi is transcendent. It’s golden brown and crispy on the outside, with a spongy soft center soaked with fruity olive oil. The variations are endless; thin slices of ham and cheese, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, olives, rosemary. They make stuffed and layered focaccias, individual pizzas, and dessert breads slathered with sweet seasonal fruit. It’s no surprise that there is constant line out the door.
It would be impossible to recreate Pugi’s focaccia, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Here’s a great recipe for a classic rosemary focaccia from The Tucci Cookbook. I served this as a first course at a dinner party, alongside my favorite creamy ricotta spread, salmami, prosciutto, and a spicy pear jelly.
1 package dry yeast
2 1/4 tsp sugar
1/2 cup warm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups bread flour
4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup milk
6 tblsp olive oil, plus more for oiling the bowl
leaves from one 5-inch sprig of fresh rosemary
1. In a measuring cup, stir the yeast, sugar, and warm water. Set aside for 5 minutes.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the all-purpose and bread flours with 2 teaspoons of the salt. Stir in the yeast mixture. Gradually stir in the milk and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Mix at low speed until the dough has come together and is smooth (about 5 minutes).
3. Lightly oil a large bowl with olive oil. Place the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and drape a dish towel over the bowl. Set aside in a warm place and allow to double in size, about 2 hours.
4. Lightly grease a large baking sheet (about 9 x 15-inch). Gently punch down the dough. Place on the baking sheet and roll it out evenly to fit on the sheet. Cover with a dish towel and allow the dough to rise for 20 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
6. Use your fingertips to make random indentations in the dough. Drizzle the top with the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and the rosemary leaves. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before slicing and serving warm.
* Variations: Before baking, top the focaccia with any combination of the following: 1/4-inch-thick slices ripe plum tomatoes; 24 pitted kalamata olives, 1/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion; 1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese; 1/4-inch-thick slices of peeled eggplant; 1/4-inch-thick slices bell pepper; 1/4-inch-thick slices zucchini; 1/3 cup pesto.
For a sweet variation, gently press 1 cup dried fruit, such as cherries, blueberries, raisins, or 1 cup chocolate chips into the rolled and risen focaccia. Brush with 3 tblsp melted butter and bake.
Who could forget Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as Italian brothers and chefs in Big Night. In preparation for his role as Secondo, Stanley Tucci worked with acclaimed chef Gianni Scappin, honing the skills he already had, as the son of “food-obsessed” Italian immigrants. In The Tucci Cookbook, he pulls together recipes from both of their families, compiling a collection of well-crafted traditional dishes, heartfelt personal histories, and gorgeous food photography. I want to cook this whole book.
I made this plum and polenta cake for a recent dinner party, and it was excellent. If you can’t find plums right now, substitute 6 quartered figs, or 1/2 cup of cherries. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Plum and Polenta Cake
1/2 cup plus 2 tblsp finely ground cornmeal or semolina flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
13 tblsp butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 plums, cut in half and pitted
2 tblsp packed light brown sugar
1. Preheat the oven 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour an 8 x 2-inch round cake pan or an 8-inch springform pan, tapping out any excess flour. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, toss the cornmeal (or semolina), all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar together with an electric mixer, until pale yellow and creamy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the whole eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Mix in the lemon zest and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and blend until just combined.
4. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Place the plum halves, skin side down, at even intervals on top of the batter (place them along the perimeter, not in the center). Sprinkle the brown sugar on top of the fruit and batter. Bake until the cake is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes (it took closer to an hour for me).
I’ve mentioned before that blueberries are an indelible part of my New England childhood. Just the smell of blueberry muffins baking can catapult me back into my mother’s kitchen. These little muffins are soft and moist, with a pleasant tang from the lemon zest, and a toothy crunch from the cornmeal. They are great for a potluck brunch or a picnic.
Blueberry Cornmeal Muffins
from Whole Living
makes 24 mini muffins, or 12 standard muffins
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 1/4 cups low-fat buttermilk, plus about 2 tablespoons for tops
2 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups blueberries (about 1/2 pound), picked over and rinsed
2 1/2 teaspoons coarse sanding sugar (optional)
Nonstick cooking spray
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, with rack in center. Lightly coat a mini muffin tin (or a standard muffin tin) with cooking spray. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and lemon zest.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg yolks, and butter. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just blended. In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites until just stiff. Gently fold whites and blueberries into the batter until just combined.
3. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tin, filling each cup three-quarters full. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven; gently brush tops with buttermilk, and sprinkle with sanding sugar, if desired. Continue baking until tops are golden and a cake tester inserted in a muffin center comes out clean, 6 to 8 minutes more. Let muffins cool slightly, about 10 minutes, before turning out of tin.
In baking, everything is in the details. That’s why I love to use recipes from Cook’s Illustrated. They explain the science behind their perfected techniques. Case in point; because egg yolks are great emulsifiers, adding extra yolks to a pound cake will “help the batter retain air making the cake light. Their fattiness contributes richness, tenderness and moistness.” And their deep yellow gives the cake a gorgeous golden hue.
After seeing a pistachio pound cake in Bon Appetit this Spring, I decided to make one for a baby shower. But I chose to use the Citrus Pound Cake recipe from The New Best Recipe, and then add the pistachios as a garnish on top of a lemony icing. The combination was a hit. Someone at the shower came up to me and shook my hand. ”You made the pound cake? ” he asked. ”You should be congratulated.”
Citrus Pound Cake with Lemon Icing and Pistachios
serves 8 to 10
from The New Best Recipe
16 tblsp (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, plus 3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp water
1/2 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
1 1/2 cups plain cake flour
for frosting and garnish
1 8-oz package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 tblsp lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat thte oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. Fit a sheet of parchment paper lengthwise in the bottom of the greased pan, pushing it into the corners and up the sides.
2. Beat the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 15 seconds. With the machine still on, sprinkle the sugar in slowly, taking about 30 seconds. Beat the mixture until light, fluffy, and almost white, 4 to 5 minutes, stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
3. Stir together the eggs, yolks, vanilla, and water in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. With the mixer running at medium-high speed, add the egg mixture to the butter and sugar in a very slow, thin stream. Finally, beat in the salt and two zests.
4. Place 1/2 cup of the flour in a sieve and sift it over the batter. Fold gently with a rubber spatula, scraping up from the bottom of the bowl, until the flour is incorporated. Repeat twice more, adding flour in 1/2-cup increments.
5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula or wooden spoon. Bake until a toothpick or thin skewer inserted into the crake running along the top comes out clean, 70 to 80 minutes. Let the cake rest in the pan for 5 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack. Place a second wire rack on the cake bottom, then turn the cake to-side up. Cool to room temperature. (if not serving immediately, wrap the cake in plastic, then in foil and store at room temperature)
6. For the icing: In an electric mixer on medium, beat the cream cheese until softened. Slowly add the zest, juice and sugar and beat until creamy, about 3 minutes.
7. Spread a thick layer of frosting on the cooled cake, and sprinkle with chopped pistachios.
I had some friends over for brunch last weekend and I tried to put together a menu that was seasonal, delicious, and easy to make for a crowd. The main dish was a crustless kale quiche with gruyere. I learned from my last quiche to always add cayenne, nutmeg, and pressed garlic to the custard… it will really elevate the flavor. Alongside, I made a colorful salad with arugula, radicchio, roasted butternut squash, and pomegranate seeds.
But really the whole menu was designed as an excuse to try out this recipe for pumpkin muffins from Martha Stewart. Low-fat yogurt really lightens up these cake-like muffins, and walnuts add some crunch and omega-3′s. Don’t skimp on the turbinado sugar topping. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!
from Martha Stewart
3/4 cup vegetable oil plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
2 tsp baking powder
1 tblsp pumpkin pie spice (homemade recipe)
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
3 large eggs
1 cup turbinado sugar, plus 2 tblsp more for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush 12 jumbo muffin tins (1-cup capacity) with oil; set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, pumpkin pie spice, and baking soda; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, whisk oil, pumpkin puree, yogurt, eggs, and 1 cup sugar to combine; add 1 cup walnuts and reserved dry ingredients. Mix just until moistened (do not overmix).
4. Divide evenly and spoon batter into muffin tins; sprinkle tops with remaining walnuts and sugar. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool 5 minutes in pan.