Tuesday, January 25, 2011

ingredient: VIN SANTO

Given the hold that Tuscany has on the hearts of Americans, I’m surprised that we don’t drink more Vin Santo. It is even more surprising when you consider the hold that sugar has on the palates of Americans because Vin Santo is a dessert wine and typically sweet. But I guess if you’re downing Coca-cola at dinner, a dessert wine wouldn’t really end your meal on a special note.

Vin Santo translates to “holy wine.” Because it’s Italian, there are clearly numerous competing stories about how this golden liquid got its name. In fact if you ever visit Tuscany and you’re offered Vin Santo-as is apt to happen as a sign of hospitality- I’d encourage you to ask about its origins. The resulting tirade and doubtless arguing will last for at least twenty minutes, allowing you to continue to surreptitiously refill your glass. Besides, they'll love it. It’s what Italians play instead of Taboo.

Can't afford to go to Italy? Ok, here’s the run-down. One camp believes that in the fourteenth century a monk from Siena saved the wine leftover from mass and gave it to the sick, who called it Vin Santo. But if you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales or any other work of medieval literature, you know that the monk was clearly drinking the leftovers himself or created a little wine trading business on the side.

Another group will argue that the name came about when John Bessarion, a patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, served this wine at a mass in Florence and his confused disciples thought that when he said Vin Xantho (Xantho means yellow in Greek) he said Vin Santo. I’d believe in that confusion (“What’d he say? Santo?” “Who knows! It’s all Greek to me!”) but it does seem more likely that the moniker "holy" was simply given to wines made during Easter Week, or even to any of the sweet wine which was used during the Mass.

Despite its ecclesiastical origins, Vin Santo is now made and drunk by laymen. (Often with biscotti for a nice post-dinner treat!) The wine is a D.O.C product which means that anyone who wants to make Vin Santo has to follow certain protocol. First, you have to use a blend of white grapes, specificially Trebbiano, Toscano, and Malvasia varietals. Vin Santo is usually a deep amber color, but occasionally you’ll find a red version made with Sangiovese grapes which is called Occhio di Pernice or Eye of the Patridge (you’ll have to do your own name-origin research on that one).

Once the Vin Santo grapes are harvested, they are allowed to dry out on straw mats in the sun until they get all sweet and shriveled. (Sigh. What I wouldn’t give to do that right now.) As a result, wet weather can ruin a vintage. Vin Santo also ferments in special small barrels, with a particular yeast, and needs at least three years to vinify. In other words, it’s a complicated process. And that’s how we get to the real reason that Americans may not be buying up huge quantities of this delicious drink: it’s expensive. A 375 ml bottle will set you back anywhere from $30 to $150. Oh well, it’s cheaper than a trip to Italy. Non?

Almond and Raisin Cake with Vin Santo
Adapted from Dolce Italiano

Another boozy post? Yes, this is the third this month here at Less is Morbier. But the weather has been brutal, and one has to keep the spirits up. Plus did I mention I’m a little short of funds? I can’t let my unused alcohol go to waste, so I’ve found ways to cook with it. Or maybe I choose to cook with alcohol so that I can have some leftover to drink. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but who cares when the result is this delicious cake.

Let me also say: I don’t love super sweet wine, but a good Vin Santo has enough alcohol (16-18%) that it has a nice bite and an almond finish. The real trick is that Italians serve it with a less sweet snack, like traditional Tuscan biscotti. This pairing is what got me hooked on Vin Santo this summer, when I was living in San Francisco. The best part of my neighborhood (North Beach) was not the back-breaking hills but a small trattoria-pizzeria called Baonecci.

Baonecci is run by an Italian family who recently moved to SF from the outskirts of Lucca. The wife/mother is an ex-tattoo artist and absolute angel named Stefania who also happens to be a culinary genius. She makes thin crust pizzas with the most delicious, chewy yet crisp, slightly burnt and flavorful dough. My favorite kind was the MonteBianco: a pizza triumph made from Stefania's amazing crust and a homemade tomato sauce covered by ribbons of real prosciutto de parma, oozing fior di latte mozzarella- all topped by a big glob of mascarpone cheese that melts over the hot pizza just as you’re cutting your first slice. But I digress.

Baonecci was my favorite place to eat and I was there a lot. The whole family immediately took me and my boyfriend into their fold and they treated us like family for no other reason than the fact that they are awesome and we were so excited about their food. (It also probably helped that we’d get up at 7 am on Saturdays to watch the Italian World Cup games live with them). As a post-pizza treat, they’d sometimes offer us a small glass of Vin Santo and a plate of Stefania’s heavenly biscotti. I loved this. When you dunk the hard biscotti into the Vin Santo, it absorbs the wine and becomes soft. It's an almond-anise marriage made in heaven.

I made the following cake with some leftover Vin Santo. And though the words “leftover Vin Santo” might not occur much in your home, it is almost definitely worth the splurge. This cake tastes like Italy. It’s fluffy and moist from the Vin Santo and studded with Vin Santo soaked raisins. It’s got a haunting almond flavor from a triple hit of almond flour, almond extract, and almond paste. Italians call Vin Santo a vino da meditazione, or a wine to contemplate by. So take a slice, pour a glass, and meditate on how good it all tastes.

makes one 9 inch round cake


2 cups flour
3/4 cup Vin Santo
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup almond flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3 ounces almond paste
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 cup milk
confectioner's sugar for dusting


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

Lightly butter a 9x2 inch cake pan and then dust with flour (try to shake out any excess).

In a small saucepan, combine the Vin Santo and the raisins. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Take the pan off the heat and let the raisins plump up, about 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl mix together the flour, almond flour, baking powder, and salt. If you have an electric mixer, get it out, if not, a large bowl and a hand mixer will do. Beat together the butter and sugar until it's fluffy, about two minutes. Add in the almond paste and beat until the lumps are gone. Beat in the eggs and then the vanilla and the almond extract. While beating at a low speed, mix in one half of the dry ingredients. Add the milk, beat to incorporate, then beat in the rest of the flour mixture. Finally, beat in the Vin Santo and the raisins.

Pour the batter into your cake pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then turn it out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. Dust the top of the cake with confectioners sugar and serve with a small glass of Vin Santo.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

ingredient: CAMPARI

This might rock your world, but the first drink that James Bond ever orders in an Ian Flemming novel is not his signature martini; it’s an Americano. I guess I can understand why the super spy switched over to gin, vodka and a splash of Lillet- it’s probably a lot easier to see if your drink's been poisoned- but for me there is nothing quite like a cocktail made from one of my favorite liquors: Campari.

This liquor was first made in 1860 in Novara, Italy by a man named Gaspare Campari. He made his eponymous drink by soaking a still-secret combination of herbs in water and alcohol. I was a little disturbed to discover that to give Campari its trademark ruby hue, Gaspare dyed the alcohol with carmine dye, which is derived from crushed cochineal insects.

Waiter, there is a beetle in my cocktail.

I suppose that a little bug juice is better than Coca-Cola’s infamous cocaine infusions, but honestly, were there no standards back in the day? Even more shocking is that it wasn't until 2006 that the Campari group replaced the bug dye with an artificial coloring agent (which is probably worse for you but a lot easier to swallow.)

As is apt for its bittersweet, citrusy taste, Campari belongs to the category of drinks known as bitters. I’ve found that bitters are the type of thing that you either love or you hate. Personally, I love these liquors with their slightly viscous texture and palate cleansing sharpness. But Campari is my all time favorite. I love the grapefruit flavor and how my mouth is constantly left wondering: Sweet? Bitter? Bitter? Sweet?

Italians believe that the herbs in Campari give it medicinal qualities and stimulate the appetite. Accordingly, it’s served as an aperitif, or a little palate perker before your meal. It's usually drunk on the rocks or with soda water. In fact Campari and soda is so popular that you can buy little premixed, glass soda sized bottles in stores! I’d take that over a Four Loko any day.

My favorite incarnation of Campari is the negroni cocktail. The negroni is made from equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth. I love the balanced flavors of the drink; it’s equal parts sweet, tart, and strong. Of course I also love what I think the negroni represents, namely sexy American expats hanging out in Italy in the 1920s.

And there is some truth to my fantasy. Imagine Florence. 1919. A group of well dressed men with too much money and too much time are sitting at Caffè Casoni, smoking cigarettes and discussing nothing important. Count Camillo Negroni asks the bartender to turn up the volume of his favorite cocktail, the Americano, which is traditionally composed of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water. I mean, why have soda water when you can have more booze, right? The bartender obliges by exchanging the soda water for gin. The Negroni was born.

A Classic Negroni

By the time cocktail hour rolls around, there’s nothing I’d rather do than sip on a negroni and picture myself in Italy. It’s incredibly easy to make and requires no exact measuring (just an eyeball of ‘equal parts’). In other words, it requires just as much brain power as you’re likely to have left after a long day of work.

If I’m mixing these for a cocktail party, I'll serve them with some candied grapefruit peel. It’s a sweet-tart garnish that perfectly matches the flavors of the drink itself. And it looks pretty. Today I went all out and made the garnish myself because it’s my birthday and, well, why not?

So as Orson Wells said, "The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other." Right. Well. That’s my kind of fiction. Chin chin!

serves 1


for the cocktail:
one ounce Campari
one ounce gin
one ounce sweet vermouth

for candied grapefruit:
1 grapefruit
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
3/4 cup water


In a mixing glass or a cocktail shaker, combine the Campari, gin, and vermouth. Fill with ice. Shake well and strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with candied grapefruit peel.

to make the garnish:

Use a peeler or small knife to cut off long (about 4-5 inches if possible) strips of grapefruit zest.

Put the zest in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and let cook for one minute. Drain and run the zest under cold water. Put the zest back in the saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Let it cook for one minute. Drain, cool, and repeat one more time. (The idea is that you blanch the zest three times to take out some of the bitterness.)

After you drain the peel the last time, set aside. In the empty saucepan, add 1/3 cup sugar and 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.

Put the peel back in the saucepan and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let the peel soak in the syrup for one hour. Take the peel out and roll it in sugar (I used demerara sugar because it has bigger flakes).

Let the peel dry for at least an hour.

BONUS: And guess what? That syrup that's left over in the saucepan? Well you've just made yourself some delicious grapefruit simple syrup! I save mine and use it in other cocktails or even to sweeten some ice tea. Yum!

Monday, January 17, 2011

ingredient: NAVEL ORANGES

Navel oranges: they’re named after your belly button! How cute! Right? Wrong.

The truth sounds like something out of a horror movie. Or my My Big Fat Greek Wedding. When you eat a navel orange, you are actually eating both the orange and its conjoined twin. That’s right. Those funny little sections that are hiding inside the regular slices of the navel orange are in fact an aborted second fruit. Yikes.

How did this freaky fruit become a supermarket staple? It started circa 1810 when a monk in Bahia, Brazil came upon this mutated fruit and instead of asking what the devil had happened, he rejoiced over a gift from God. His happiness stems from the fact that early oranges were sour, not sweet. These were also the days before genetically modified foods, so every orange segment contained a pack of seeds which made it annoying to eat. This mutated fruit, however, was both seedless and sweet. In other words, it was quite the find.

The problem with a seedless fruit is that it doesn’t reproduce, at least not without a little help from some botanically gifted human friends. So the monk turned to a man named William Saunders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Saunders helped him reproduce the trees by grafting sprouted buds onto the roots of other mature trees. Grafting is in a sense a form of cloning; because it doesn’t allow for normal genetic mutations, the navel oranges that we eat today are identical to the one that the monk first pulled off the tree in Brazil over two hundred years ago.

I know! I used to think navel oranges were boring too! But who needs pomelos and tangerines and expensive blood oranges when it turns out that navel oranges are so freaking cool? I’m giving these guys a second chance, even if they are named after human kind’s least attractive body part.

And if for some reason you’re still not convinced, I’d like to remind you that just one orange contains over one hundred percent of your daily requirement of vitamin C, which does more than just fend off winter colds, it fights free radicals. (Quick recap about why free-radicals are the worst: they get into your cells and damage its DNA, which can lead to cancer. Places in your body which have rapid cell turn-over, such as your digestive system or lungs, are especially prone to free radical damage.)

Still reaching for those super cute clementines instead? That’s fine, but remember that just one navel orange is as big as a softball and contains no seeds, which means it's super easy to cook with and much easier to eat than any posh pomegranate.

Spinach Salad with Oranges, Black Olives,
Mint, Feta and Red Onion
in a citrus dressing

I hate how stores start to display their spring clothes in January. Here in New York, spring is at least three months away. And as I’m not in a financial position to winter in Cabo, I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I’d like to take one of those pretty new string bikinis and wrap it around the neck of anyone who is. Why don’t we sell clothes that are appropriate to the same time that we wear them? Why can’t the fashion world just hold their freaking Polo horses?

Oh. Maybe it's for the same reason that by January I start to buy the occasional pint of berries even though I know that they won’t be ripe. Maybe it’s for the same reason that I start sneaking tomatoes into my salad, even though I know that they’ll be tasteless mush. I’m desperate for the change of seasons. I’ve had enough roasted potatoes and hearty winter stews to last me a lifetime. Or at least another nine months.

The smart thing to do when I can’t resist eating summer-tasting food in winter is to turn to citrus fruits. Which is what I did last night, while cranking up the heat and listening to some Buena Vista Social Club. I made this salad, which is one of my favorites to make at home because it’s not boring but it’s not confused (i.e every outcome of those damn mix-your-own-salad places). The sweetness of the orange plays against the saltiness of the feta and the olives. The mint gives a little freshness, as does the citrus dressing. In fact if you have any dressing left over or want to double the recipe, it’s nice over any old salad or steamed veggies. In short, it’s a burst of summer in the middle of winter: refreshing and delicious and light.

So if right now you're also feeling the winter blues, then follow my lead. The clanking of the radiator could almost be steel drums…

Serves four


For the salad:
10 ounces of baby spinach*
½ large red onion, chopped
1 navel orange, peeled, segmented, and each segment roughly cut in third, or to ½ pieces
1 cup black olives (You know. The ones from the can)
½ cup or so chopped feta
1 bunch mint (if you don’t feel like spending money on this, it’s not the end of the world)

For the citrus dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice (i.e. buy 2 oranges)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 teaspoons white-wine vinegar
A few shakes of salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

*in the pictures I actually used baby lettuces, as it was what I had in my fridge. I like this salad better with baby spinach, but it’s certainly not bad either way.


In a large bowl, put the baby spinach, the red onion, the black olives, and the feta.

To make the dressing:

Put all the ingredients except for the olive oil in a small bowl. Add the olive oil in a stream while whisking to emulsify.

Assemble: Pour the dressing over the salad and toss lightly. Tear a handful of mint leaves off and rip them over the salad. When serving, try to make sure you get all the ingredients on each plate. (The heavier items like the orange tend to fall to the bottom.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

ingredient: RED WINE

Modern motorists can thank the ancient Romans for creating the highway. But as I neither own nor can drive a car, I’m more grateful that they planted vineyards. In fact the Romans were both so aggressively practical and so aggressively hedonistic that they planted a vineyard at every garrison town in order to reduce the cost of shipping the wine that they loved. (Proving that there is no such thing as a sober toga party.) As a result, many of the best modern wine growing regions—such as Bordeaux and the Rhineland— got their start growing the grapes which intoxicated Roman soldiers.

I love wine. Love it. And while I’ll happily accept a nice glass of crisp white wine (Sancerre perhaps?), in recent years I’ve become partial to the deep, complex, earthy flavors of many red wine varietals. The truth is that all grapes look the same without their clothes on; what makes red wine red is that the winemakers let the juice come into contact with the skins. The exact shade of the wine will depend on the original color of the grape and how long the juice and skins hung out together in the tank. Grape skins also give red wine their tannins, which you'll recognize as that slight puckering mouth feel you get after a sip of many red wines, and cheap red wines in particular. I’ve found that tannins are an acquired taste, and generally young drinkers will down Rieslings like soda and more experienced drinkers will opt for a nice, aged Barolo. But to the credit of pretentious teens everywhere, this is at least a biologically natural progression. Grape skins, and thus red wine, have phenolic compounds which prevent heart disease and fight free radicals, all things which us old fogies need.

That's right. Studies have (finally) proved the health benefits of moderate drinking. Hooray! The problem is the “moderate” part. There are so many great red wines to choose from. Pinot Noirs and Grenaches from France. Malbecs from Argentina. Tempranillos from Spain. Nebbiolos from Italy. Cabernet Sauvignons from California. And that’s not getting into whatever I’ll drink simply because it costs three dollars at Trader Joes.

One way to justify increasing your red wine consumption is to get amazing friends who love wine as much as you do.

exhibit A

Another is to use it in cooking. I hate to break this to you, but you should really never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink on its own. (Unfortunately for New Yorkers, this means you have to make an extra trip to the liquor store and forgo any “wine product” that you can buy in a regular supermarket.) But since I love cooking and drinking even more than I like cooking on its own, having a little extra to sip on really works out for the best. So get a pot of ragù or some beef bourguignon going on the stove and crack open a bottle. It's good for your heart.

Red Wine Risotto
Adapted from Giada’s Family Dinners

I first made this dish for a small dinner party which I threw for some friends. I was, as usual, nervous as hell about what to cook. I, as usual, wanted something impressive and amazing and thematically linked to whatever else I was serving. So far the menu was the two bottles of red wine which were sitting in my home-built Ikea wine rack.

The next question was what to make with the wine. I had seen the ever lovely Giada cooking a red wine risotto on her cooking show. I know it’s T.V., but everyone always looks like they’re enjoying her, um, parties. Plus risotto is one of those dishes that people love. I think it’s because it’s a dish that people rarely make at home (because you have to want to stand at a pot stirring almost constantly for 30 minutes) and it’s a dish that easily looks elegant. Risotto screams restaurant.

I actually have a mixed history with this dish. I don’t know if I should admit this publicly, but I wrote my college essay about risotto. Yes, you heard me correctly. Risotto. More specifically I described my triumph over this time consuming and (in my opinion) rarely worth it dish. Yes, yes, I know. Rice. I was essentially writing about rice. But it was so much more!

At least I stood out.

Anyway, this risotto fits the bill perfectly if you’re looking for an easily multipliable dish that looks beautiful and tastes refined. The red wine tints the rice a pretty, almost purplely color which looks lovely flecked with the green parsley. I don’t go crazy for risottos and I think they’re often gummy or bland, but this one has a smooth, rich flavor. You can really taste the butter and the Parmesan cheese and even the wine. When in Rome…


3 1/2 cups canned or boxed low-salt chicken broth (zapped in the microwave for 2 minutes)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup arborio rice, or medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus additional for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Put a large saucepan or pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Put in the onions and sautee them until they are translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the garlic and sautee for 30 seconds, not letting it brown too much. Stir in the rice and let it cook for 2 minutes (this toasts the rice and adds nice flavor to the risotto).

Pour in the wine, stirring until it for one minute, when it will be mostly absorbed.

Pour in 3/4 cup of the broth. Stir the rice frequently until most of the broth is absorbed. This will take five minutes or so. When it’s looking dry, add another half cup or so of broth. Continue to stir frequently, adding the broth when it’s looking dry.

You want the risotto to get to a point where it is gooey and kind of sticky looking. This will take around 30 minutes. When you’ve used all the broth (or almost all the broth and it looks like it’s the right consistency) then stir in the parmesan cheese and the parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with an extra sprinkle of parsley and cheese.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

ingredient: CARDAMOM

Cardamom is rumored to stimulate your appetite, and I’m not just talking about food. Ancient Greeks and Romans used these peppery pods as an aphrodisiac. The word must have spread east because the love potion described in many of the tales in One Hundred and One Arabian Nights is simply tea brewed with cardamom. My modern love potion is called vodka-tonic, but I do regularly drink tea with cardamom in its other incarnation, chai.

Perhaps they were on to something?

Wondering if you've ever tried cardamaom? If you’ve ever eaten Indian food, you almost definitely have. Cardamom, a plant in the ginger family, is native to India and is a staple of its cuisine. Its pungent, spicy yet sweet flavor is part of the spice mix garam masala, which is used to flavor a wide variety of dishes from chicken vindaloo to saag paneer. Traditional Ayurveda medicine believes cardamom aids digestion and helps to detox the body. I'll buy it because a nice plate of curried vegetables sounds much better than some chili-lemon-water. Maybe my New Years resolutions can stick after all.

Cardamom is definitely a world traveler. Despite being nowhere near warm enough to grow their own cardamom, Scandinavian countries have adopted this spice as their own. You can find cardamom in everything from Danish cookies to Swedish meatballs. Particularly ubiquitous are cardamom buns. This is because the Swedes have made Fika, or the coffee break, a social institution. It makes sense; if for a few months out of the year I was living in near constant darkness, I would definitely need a whole lot of coffee and some sweets to keep me from crawling into bed and sleeping until June. It seems like it'd be hard to turn down that other Swedish coffee break staple, the cinnamon bun, but maybe cardamom has a little something special after all.

Swedish Cardamom Buns
Adapted from the Scandinavian Cookbook

Some kids collect stamps or trading cards or stickers. Some kids are obsessed with video games or ponies or comic books. I was obsessed with Scandinavia. Hear me out.

When I was growing up, my father did a lot of work in Finland. He would bring back gifts and magical stories of reindeer and saunas. I wore Finlandia Vodka sweatshirts to kindergarten (until the teacher asked me to stop) and ate Daim chocolates like you could buy them at the deli. My favorite cartoon wasn’t Mickey Mouse, it was this guy:
(meet Moomin Troll)

I simply loved everything Scandinavian. Ikea was like Disney World. (How do they get those pancakes so thin?) So you can bet it was like a dream come true when we spent spring break in Finland. That’s right. Finland in March was my ten year old dream. My parents thought I was a bit strange. What can I say? At least I wasn’t obsessed with Guam.

Although the Finnish flags may have disappeared from my bedroom walls, my soft spot for all things Scandinavian remains. Which is why yesterday, while the snow fell softly outside my window, I opened the Scandinavian Cookbook and found something to bake that would remind me of being tucked inside a cozy cafe on the Pohjoisesplanadi in Helsinki. The recipe I chose was for cardamom buns, which are essentially fragrant but not too sweet yeasted rolls. These are perfect as a light mid-afternoon snack with some jam and some coffee.

NOTE: Cardamom is at its best when it's freshly ground and it tends to lose its flavor in the jar. You can definitely buy pre-ground cardamom, just be aware of how fragrant it smells and adjust the amount in the buns accordingly.

Makes 12 buns


1 ounces fresh yeast
1 1/2 cups warm milk
2 tbsp butter, melted
4 cups flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom (if you are grinding your own pods, you can use more like ½ tsp)
1 egg, beaten

Put the yeast in a small bowl and cover with the warm milk. Let it sit for 10 minutes or until dissolved.

Add the melted butter. Mix in the sugar, salt, and cardamom. Add the flour and stir until a dough has formed (it will pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball).

Put the dough on a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes.

Put the dough in the bowl and cover with a towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 hour, by which time it should have about doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Knead the dough again for 5 minutes. Shape the dough into 12 round balls and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Cover the sheet with a towel and let it rise for 20 minutes.

Brush each bun with the egg wash. Bake the buns for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Friday, January 7, 2011

ingredient: DULCE DE LECHE

For a language prone to exaggerations and long, romantic descriptions, dulce de leche is actually exactly what is translates to: “sweet of the milk.” This thick, caramely sauce is made by simmering sweetened condensed milk on the stove, and often in a can, for up to four hours. When the milk has caramelized and reduced to one fourth of its original volume, it turns a deep tan color and gets a luscious, viscous texture perfect for spooning over ice cream or drizzling on fruit. Although it’s incredibly easy to make, you can also buy ready-made dulce de leche in stores, which is particularly useful if, like me, you’re turned off by recipe disclaimers such as “Please note that there's a small possibility of explosion when you cook a can.”

Dulce de leche is an extremely popular treat in Latin America. From Uruguay to Mexico to Chile to Panama, you’ll find dulce de leche spread on toast, stuffed in pastries, and poured over cakes. I’m a fan, but I should inform you that this stuff is tooth-achingly sweet. Things get pretty real when you shove a spoonful in your mouth. And if you try to wash it down with a Jarritos you might actually go into diabetic shock. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The origin of dulce de leche is unknown, though legend has it that a housewife forgot about her milk cooking on the stove and when she came back it had turned into dulce de leche. (I’d really like something similar to happen the next time I forget to take a cake out of the oven.) That’s not to say that attempts haven’t been made to claim this sugary spread. You see, Argentines seem to be crazy about three things: meat, soccer, and dulce de leche. So in 2003 Argentina lobbied UNESCO to have dulce de leche classified as one of their traditional products. Uruguay immediately retaliated by asking for it to be classified as one of their traditional products. In the end, dulce de leche remained a free agent. I just hope that cooks in the US start to put it on their roster.

Dulce de Leche Brownies
adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris

One major bonus of being known as a glutton is receiving edible gifts from friends who’ve been on vacation. Lately I’ve been quite the beneficiary of my friend’s jet-setting ways; getting everything from salt cod from Brazil to chocolates from London. But my boyfriend really upped the ante when he came back from Argentina with an assortment of goods which all feature the star of Argentinean dessert, dulce de leche.

Sadly, my tin of dulce de leche filled chocolates is empty and the box of alfajores (mind blowingly delicious cookies that are filled with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate; kind of like mallomars with d.d.l instead of marshmallow) is running low. But I won’t despair because still sitting on my counter is a shockingly large container of pure dulce de leche which I have been informed is the best kind in Argentina and which required several grocery store visits to obtain.

My first experience with real, delicious South American dulce de leche was when my muy maravillosa college roommate brought me back a jar from Uruguay. That jar lasted about a month. I would mostly just take a spoonful here and there or pour it over apples that I stole from the dining hall. Now, thanks to my boyfriend’s generosity (and apparent disregard of luggage weight fees), I have more than enough dulce de leche to both eat it plain when the mood strikes and play around with some recipes. I considered making the traditional Tres Leches Cake and pairing it with a dulce de leche sauce, but I’m not actually a fan of all that cream. I considered making more d.d.l filled cookies, but I have just enough alfajores left that it seemed redundant.

Then I came across this brownie recipe from David Lebovitz. It was perfect. I've wanted to try a recipe from his book The Sweet Life in Paris before I went ahead and bought it. I've also been craving dark chocolate (probably due to iron/blood loss during thumb surgery.) These brownies were amazing. They were intensely dark chocolaty and so moist, just like the best brownies should be. Against the dark dampness of the brownie, the threads of dulce de leche were like light bursts of toffee flavor. In short, dulce de leche and chocolate are a match made in heaven, tu sabes?

Makes 12 brownies

8 tablespoons (one stick) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
6 ounces dark chocolate (preferably in the 60-80 percent range), finely chopped
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 cup Dulce de Leche

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Line an 8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and grease with butter.

Putthe butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat. Turn the temperature down to low and add the chocolate. Stir constantly until the chocolate has all melted.

Turn off the heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until there are no lumps.

Add the eggs (one at a time) then the sugar and the vanilla.

Stir in the flour until smooth.

Pour half of the batter into the baking pan. Drop about one-third of the dulce de leche over the brownie batter. Use a knife to swirl the dulce de leche.

Pour the rest of the brownie batter into the pan and spread evenly. Add the remaining dulce de leche in blobs. Use a knife to swirl the blobs of dulce de leche. This is fun, and don't worry how it looks (in fact in some places I definitely spread more than swirled, but in the end it all worked out!)

Bake the brownies for 35 to 45 minutes. Mine took 35 minutes. You want the center to be soft-firm not hard-firm when you take them out, so that they stay moist and a bit gooey. Let them cool (I know it's hard) and then enjoy!