29 May 2010


For the past week and a half, ever since I saw that the loquats on my tree were ripe and ready for harvesting, I have been meaning to make Schlupfkuchen.  Which I finally got around to doing today!

This cake is one of the classic German recipes I got from my grandfather, Gerhard Sommermann, with a California twist.  I just love sinking my teeth into this soft and fluffy, tender and moist kuchen studded with pieces of fruit all over the top.  In Germany, you'd eat this with a dollop of whipped cream for afternoon Kaffeetrinken, and, since it isn't cloying, I think it makes for a great breakfast treat too.

My Opa--a professional baker in northern Bavaria--was one of the hardest workers I've ever known.  Even on his vacations with us in Santa Barbara, he'd always want to get into the kitchen and bake us cakes and things.  One of the cakes he made for us was this schlupfkuchen, and it was so good I made a point of getting the recipe from him.

Now, if you know your botany, you might be wondering what loquats are doing in a German schlupfkuchen!  Indigenous to southeastern China, the loquat now grows in many other regions that enjoy subtropical to mild temperate climates, but certainly not in the continental climes of the Bavarian Frankenwald!  But on a visit to us in Santa Barbara many years ago, Opa, with his inventiveness and German thriftiness, saw our tree laden with ripe loquats and decided to use them instead of the traditional apple or apricot.  And the fruit matches the cake so well that I now infinitely prefer my schlupfkuchen with loquats than with any other fruit.


In texture, these distant relatives to the apple resemble the soft, succulent texture of a pear.  In flavor, they are delicately sweet and sour.  I think they're perfect for this cake, not overly acidic like fresh apricots can be, and retaining a juiciness which apple slices sometimes lose when baked in this fashion.  But whatever fruit you choose to use, be sure to use a generous amount and place the pieces snugly together in a layer over the top of the batter; as the cake bakes, the fruit will shrink slightly and "schlupf," or "slip," down into the batter, while the cake rises up in pillowy mounds between and around the fruit.

Now, I've got a tree full of loquats, and as much as I love this recipe, I can't eat a tree's worth of cake.  Can you help me out here?  What are your favorite ways of eating loquats?

from Gerhard Sommermann/Bäckerei Sommermann

200 g (14 Tbs.) butter, room temperature
200 g (1 cup minus 1 tsp.) sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
400 g (3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
650 g (5 cups) whole loquats (about 3 cups pitted, peeled, and halved; toss with 1/2 cup water plus 1 Tbs. lemon juice after peeling to help prevent browning) (other traditional fruits include rhubarb, cherries, apricots, apples)

Cream the sugar and butter.  Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until creamed mixture is light and fluffy.  Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add half of the flour and the milk and gently incorporate.  Then add the remaining flour mixture, mixing just until combined.

Spread dough in a round 12-inch pan or a 9 x 13-inch pan, and place the fruit, cut side down, very close together on the surface.  The dough will rise and spread the fruit apart.  Bake at 390 F for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350 F and bake another 30-35 minutes.  If using a metal pan, check that the bottom does not become too dark.

Let cool before cutting.  Enjoy as it is or with some freshly-whipped cream!

25 May 2010

A Chianti Cacciatore

After enjoying "Hunter's Chicken Stew" at the house of some friends months ago, I went and hunted up the recipe they used (by Jamie Oliver) to make it at home.  If you love wine, you'll love this version of pollo alla cacciatore; half a bottle of chianti goes into the stew!  The red tomato sauce gets a subtle extra dimension of flavor from anchovies and the scents of fresh rosemary, and the chicken becomes entrancingly fragile after hours of slow-cooking.

I essentially followed Jamie's recipe, but used boneless chicken breast cut in pieces (rather than bone-in chicken pieces) and completed the entire cooking process on the stovetop (rather than in the oven, as his recipe directs).  Healthy food, easy to make.  And amazingly fall-apart-under-your-fork-tender chicken.

Enjoy with some pane toscano and a nice glass of wine!

19 May 2010

My inspiration: Panzanella

So here it is!  My inspiration, my muse, my motivation to bake bread that has no salt in it.  Panzanella, or "bread salad," is a down-home Tuscan dish of humble origins that had me enchanted from the first bite.  Originally an inventive way to use up leftover bread (and any vegetables you might have lying around), this dish is so delicious you'll want to bake a loaf of pane toscano especially for it!  I could barely wait for the bread to cool from the oven before I started tearing into it to make the panzanella.  My version here is a beautiful profusion colors, flavors, and textures--with crisp vegetables, caramelized onions and peppers, fresh basil, and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano--and stars hunks of pane toscano soaked in the most luscious dressing ever.

I first had panzanella while visiting Florence, and it made such an impression on me that I have longed ever since to recreate and enjoy those flavors once again.  It was at the Mercato Centrale, a vast warehouse-like structure of farmers' stands, deli counters, confectioners' shops that has been in use since 1874.  On that day, the dimly-lit, cool, cavernous space was a welcome relief from the hot, glaring summer sun, and we gratefully took the opportunity to rest our weary feet over a late lunch there.  Though we had arrived at the end of the lunch hour, we were lucky enough to still get a couple of dishes at the food counter.  One was an intensely-flavored savory stew, and the other was panzanella, the traditional Tuscan "bread salad."

For the life of me, I cannot remember the exact ingredients that first panzanella contained, but I believe I have finally hit upon a recipe that evokes nearly the same level of supreme enjoyment that I experienced years ago.  I think the secret is the dressing (which I found at the King Arthur Flour website, of all places); the pieces of saltless pane toscano soaked in olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mashed garlic, capers, and anchovies will make you groan with delight, will make you jump up and down, will make you run back to the serving bowl for more.  Just saying, from personal experience, you know!

Panzanella (Tuscan Bread Salad)
Makes 4 main course or 6 first course servings

1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 Tbs. capers, minced
6 anchovy fillets, finely minced
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste


1 Tbs. olive oil
3 (3/4-inch) thick slices of red onion (about 3/4 lb.)
1 1/2 cups yellow or orange bell pepper, seeded, and diced
1 medium clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 cups tomatoes, seeded and diced
 4 large romaine lettuce leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup fresh basil, torn
6 cups cubed Tuscan Bread (or other Italian or French bread), lightly toasted
1/4 cup (loosely packed) shaved curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Finely mince garlic clove, capers, and anchovies (a garlic press works well for both the garlic and the capers) essentially to a paste, and whisk all dressing ingredients together.  Set dressing aside to let the flavors meld.

Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, tilting pan to coat cooking surface evenly with oil.  Carefully place the onion slices onto the skillet, keeping rings intact, and cook, turning once, until slightly softened and beginning to caramelize on each side.  Remove slices to a plate and cool completely, then dice, keeping layers together as possible.  Add bell pepper and minced garlic clove to skillet and saute until pepper is slightly softened and beginning to caramelize.  Remove sauteed peppers and let cool completely.

In a large bowl, mix together the onion, bell pepper, cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce, basil, half of the Parmigiano, and cubed bread.  Drizzle dressing over and toss to combine, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.  Let sit 15-30 minutes.  Garnish salad with remaining curls of Parmigiano and serve.

17 May 2010

Pane Toscano

Ah, the bread-eaters of Tuscany!

As the descendant of southern Italians, I'd always considered pasta as an indispensable part of the Italian cuisine.  But during a road trip through Italy years ago, I learned that the traditional starch in the Tuscan diet is actually bread, not pasta.  Pane Toscano (Tuscan bread) is a white bread usually baked as a large, round loaf, with a soft interior and a golden crusty exterior.  And, there is no salt in it.

My family and I discovered this lack of salt over supper one night.  We'd been traipsing all over Florence that day, and had picked up some of the sharpest provolone cheese I've ever tasted at the Mercato Centrale (just a few blocks away from the Duomo).  I'd mustered up my college Italian to do a little marketing at the Mercato, and I started by ordering some provolone cheese.  Oh, was the friendly cheesemonger ever amused.  He chuckled, jumped, and exclaimed "oops!" making a cutting motion over his fingers.  I had bungled up my first grocery order in Italian with a request for "tagli" rather than for "fette."  Of course, I didn't want cuts as in "I cut my fingers," but rather slices of cheese, as he explained to me in Italian.  Thanks to that huomo simpatico, I'll remember the difference!  But anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, bread...

Driving back to our lodgings (a fantastic agriturismo located in a castle outside of Siena), we picked up the makings for a simple supper of bread, cured meats, olives, tomatoes, some fresh fruit, and of course we had our provolone.  Sitting at the massive wooden table in the middle of the cavernous guest kitchen, we dug into our picnic supper with relish.  Each component was so flavorful and pure, but the bread...ah the bread just didn't taste right!  Or... was it really something brilliant?

Over this meal, we learned how bread is eaten the Tuscan way; as I think back on that moment, I realize even more what a paradigm shift in my thinking and eating it was.  The saltless bread of Tuscany is not necessarily a focal point of the meal, but rather a clever backdrop to the intense flavors of the local salty olives, cured meats, and sharp cheeses, or a vehicle for sopping up the regional savory stews.  And even when it becomes stale, it retains glorious potential, giving rise to new flavor and texture when cooked in soups or tossed into a fresh panzanella salad.  Perhaps this ancient bread recipe, which has been revered by the Tuscans for centuries, gives rise to such a multitude of delicious possibilities precisely because of what it does not have: salt.  It's counter to all I'd learned about salt.  But I'd eaten pane toscano in ways that revealed its beauty, and that is what got me into making saltless bread at home.

Thankfully, real artisan-style pane toscano can be made right in your very own kitchen!  This recipe yields a lovely round loaf of traditional Tuscan bread, with a fluffy internal crumb and a crunchy, golden crust.  I was thrilled with the professional results I got!  To get the good crust, you'll want to simulate the conditions of a professional bread oven by baking the loaf on a pizza stone and periodically misting the loaf with water (to create some steam) early in the baking period.  And fresh out of the oven, I think you'll love eating hunks of this bread just on its own, salt or no!

But let me confess here: the real reason I wanted to make pane toscano was so that I could make me some panzanella.  Oh sweet heaven, is it ever worth it...  So get into the kitchen and make this bread!  You'll want to have it on hand when we get to the panzanella next time!

Pane Toscano (Traditional Tuscan Bread)
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 1 large loaf of bread

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup lukewarm (110°F) water
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1 cup room-temperature water
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour + 1 cup more for kneading in

Olive oil, for greasing the bowl
Make the sponge the night before you want to make bread. Pour the 2/3 cup warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the 1/4 teaspoon yeast over. Let soften for about 10 minutes, then add the 1 1/3 cups flour and mix well. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

The next day, stir the 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the 1/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add this mixture along with the 1 cup room-temperature water to the sponge and mix well. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the 3 3/4 cups flour; switch to the dough hook attachment and continue to run the electric mixer, adding remaining cup of flour a little at a time until dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is developed, about 5-10 minutes on low.  Form the dough into a ball and place the dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat all sides with olive oil.  Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or handling it roughly. Gently form it into a large, round loaf by pulling all the edges underneath, gathering them and squeezing them together, leaving the top smooth. If you have a baking stone, place the loaf on a sheet of parchment paper; if you're using a pan, sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the pan, and place loaf on it. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slash the top of the bread in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you're using a baking stone, use a peel to transfer the loaf, parchment paper and all, to the stone in the oven. Otherwise, put the pan of bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, misting bread with water from a spray bottle three times during the 15 minutes. (If you don't have a spray bottle, an alternative which I used with great success is to flick a pastry brush dipped in water over the bread and the sides of the oven.)  Reduce heat to 400°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer, tenting with foil if bread browns too quickly.

09 May 2010

Uova al Purgatorio (Eggs in Purgatory)

For many people, holidays are a day for eating out and celebrating at a restaurant with a fine meal.  In my family, though, we've always marked special occasions with home-cooked meals, from elegant spreads to simple dishes that were cooked with more love than with skill.  And Mother's Day has been no exception to this tradition.

Back when my siblings and I were still pretty young, we'd serve Mom breakfast in bed.  To us, the idea of breakfast in bed seemed exotically luxurious, and we wanted to indulge our mother with the best of the best, of course!  I remember my brother making French toast one year, and there were a number of years when I made heart-shaped cranberry scones for this ritual meal.  But in reality, I think it was always awkward for our energetic Mom to be confined to bed nibbling breakfast from a tray while the rest of us sat ranged about her on the bed.  These days, much to everyone's benefit, we enjoy a more civilized meal around the table.

This year I decided to serve an Italian brunch in honor of my Italian mother, with Uova al Purgatorio, or Eggs in Purgatory, as the star.  Oven-poached eggs over a rich and spicy sauce of tomatoes, artichoke hearts, salty capers, and hearty Yukon Gold potatoes, this was a perfect dish for our Sunday brunch!  I also think the name is deliciously ironic given the joys and--ahem--challenges of motherhood.

A funny name, a delicious dish.  The softly-cooked eggs, poached in little wells made in the sauce, are an amazing counterpoint of creamy flavor and texture against the backdrop of the chunky, savory sauce.  With a little sprinkle of sea salt on top (and a little Parmigiano if you're feeling cheesy), this is a Mediterranean brunch you will absolutely love!  It's flavorful and satisfying, and it won't weigh on you after the meal is over.  (Can the same be said of Eggs Benedict?)

What makes me even more excited about Uova al Purgatorio is that most of the preparation work can be finished ahead of time.  You can make the entire sauce the day before (in fact, I think it actually develops a richer flavor if it's made in advance and then reheated), which means this is an easy meal to serve when you're entertaining or if you simply want a relaxing brunch on your own!

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While the original recipe (from Bon Appetit) suggests serving the dish family-style, I had a lot of fun plating the servings up individually and garnishing each plate with bunches of fresh thyme from my garden, which I totally recommend for a little extra wow-factor.  You'll also want to serve this with plenty of ciabatta bread (or other rustic loaf) to sop up the delicious juices that run out from the sauce!

Uova al Purgatorio (Eggs in Purgatory)
Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
Sea salt, to taste
10 oz. frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, drained
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup tomato puree
8 oz. Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons drained capers
8 large eggs

Freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
Ciabatta bread or other crusty bread
Sprigs of fresh thyme, optional

Heat olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion, chopped thyme, and crushed red pepper; sprinkle lightly with coarse kosher salt and sauté until onion is tender and golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Add artichokes, garlic, diced tomatoes with juice, and tomato puree and gently stir to combine.  Bring to boil, then reduce heat; cover skillet and simmer 15 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Meanwhile, cook potatoes in small saucepan of boiling salted water just until tender.  Drain. Add potatoes and capers to tomato-artichoke sauce; cover and simmer 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Tomato-artichoke sauce can be made ahead.  Cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Rewarm sauce before continuing.)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Pour tomato-artichoke sauce into a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking dish. Using back of spoon, make 8 evenly-spaced indentations in sauce for holding eggs. Crack 1 egg into each indentation in sauce (some of eggs may run together slightly in spots). Bake until egg whites and yolks are softly set, 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the starting temperature of the eggs.

Serve with a sprinkling of grated Parmigiano and plenty of ciabatta bread.  If plating individual portions, garnish with sprigs of fresh thyme.

03 May 2010


My sister has been wanting me to try this recipe for Greek-style baked beans for the longest time.

I am so glad I did!  It's amazing.  It's gorgeous.  It smells heavenly.  Luscious soft beans and succulent chunks of tomatoes scented with fresh dill and savory garlic bits, topped by a layer of crispy golden bean skins and tangy speckles of crumbled feta cheese.  So now, I am wanting you to try this recipe!  In my sister's words, "you have to try this recipe, it's sooo good!"

Traditionally, this dish is made with Greek gigantes (γίγαντες), but dried giant Lima beans are a whole lot easier to find.  The giant beans are so fun to eat!  And the whole thing is really easy to put together (just make sure you plan ahead in soaking the beans overnight).  Served with some crusty bread and a green salad, this is all you need for a simple, tasty, and healthy supper loaded with fiber, protein, and iron!  Or, you can scale down the recipe and serve this along with other meze as an appetizer course.

In all fairness to the olive oil devotees out there, I think I should add the disclaimer that the original recipe my sister gave me called for one whole cup of olive oil. (yikes!)  Even though she says it does wonders to the dish, I could not bring myself to add so much oil.  Of course, you are most welcome to add that amount, if you feel moved to do so, but I think you'll enjoy my own flavor-packed and figure-friendly version of the recipe that I'm sharing here today.

Greek Baked Lima Beans
Makes 8 servings

1 (16 oz.) package dried giant lima beans
1 (32 oz.) can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. concentrated drippings from a roast chicken (or reduced sodium savory broth concentrate)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
sea salt, to taste (about 1 tsp., if using unsalted chicken drippings)
3 Tbs. chopped fresh dill
2 oz. low-fat feta cheese, crumbled

Place lima beans in a large pot and cover with water (at least three times the volume of the beans).  Soak beans overnight.

The next day, bring beans to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes.  Drain.  Add tomatoes (with juice), olive oil, chicken drippings, garlic, sea salt, and 1 tablespoon fresh dill.  Stir gently to combine ingredients and then pour into a 9 x 13 - inch casserole dish.

Bake at 375 F for 1 1/2 hours, pouring more water over as necessary if beans appear dry.  Sprinkle the remaining fresh dill and crumbled feta cheese over and serve!