Dessert for Two

In college, I briefly adored an Italian man named Lorenzo. Several years my senior, he was an attractive journalist from Milano with a muscular build and slightly bow-legged walk. I used to think that were it not for his handsome, boyish face he’d slightly resemble a bulldog. I met him at a bar one night when I was out with friends and can still remember feeling his eyes on me that entire night. I don't recall exactly how, but we somehow ended up sitting near each other, his hand on my fishnet-covered thigh as he leaned in close to tell me about the wines his family made.

On our second date I invited him over to my apartment for dinner. I'd prepared chicken cooked in a spicy, smoky tomato sauce served over slices of salty boiled plantains. It was the first time I'd ever cooked for a man who was not a friend or family, and I remember not being able to sit still as I waited for him to arrive. I paced the kitchen anxiously; polishing and re-polishing the counter tops, setting out plates, swallowing huge gulps from the bottle of wine I'd used to cook.

He arrived, finally, and attacked me within seconds of entering my door, leaving the chicken I'd made to stew a bit longer. When we finally emerged from the bedroom, disheveled and ravenous, the sauce had thickened and darkened, and the chicken had become a shredded mass of perfection. We ate wrapped in a bed sheet, swallowing gulps of Chianti like it was water. In the morning, I woke to find him standing naked in my kitchen, pulling pieces of chicken cold from the refrigerator.

"I want to watch you cook next time," he told me seriously when I asked him what he was doing. He looked at me then, without removing his hand from the pan. "I think you must cook the way that you kiss."

He was still a stranger at that moment, but he knew something about me that I didn't yet understand. A meal can be as intimate and revealing as a kiss. At the time, I wasn't really sure what he meant, but I suspected it had something to do with passion.

I have a tendency towards excess when cooking. I'll use two vanilla beans in recipes that call for one, heavy cream instead of milk, and regularly toss in an extra ¼ cup (to make up for what gets stuck to the bowl, I say). I zest an entire fruit and call it a teaspoon. I add almond extract to just about everything. I marinate things for days.

I believe in generosity of flavor. I believe in richness, in decadence. I believe in butter. I don't want to make food that merely satisfies; I want to make food that consumes and leaves you a little bit dizzy. The kinds of flavors you dream about, crave, and ask for again and again. I want to spoil you.

I think I cook the way I like to be kissed…

There are a few flavors that I find completely irresistible. Warm, sensual flavors that swoop up and grab me, heating me through and through with their intensity. Bitter almond is the first and favorite of these, followed closely by black cherries, raspberries, passion fruit, and guava. I love these flavors in my food, and often choose perfumes and lotions that allow me to soak them into my skin. (Another college boyfriend used to joke that every beauty product I owned was edible. “You always smell like food!” he told me as he led me through the perfume aisle at Sephora in search of a slightly less esculent scent.)

I've been playing around with these tastes, combining and recreating them in ways that I haven't before. The latest of these dalliances resulted in a decadent guava flan, which (as I mentioned yesterday) begs to be shared with a hungry lover by the light of the refrigerator door. A few of the slightly naughty looking guava shells heaped on top are what give this flan its sensual look, but the secret is really in the musky, tropical flavor of the fruit-infused cream.

Candied Guava Shells in Syrup (casquitos de guayaba)
These will keep refrigerated in the syrup for a few weeks. Serve with "queso blanco," or slightly salty cream cheese as dessert or use in savory recipes. Goes especially well with pork.

4 fresh guava fruit
8 cups of cold water
8 cups of granulated sugar
1 tablespoon of red food coloring
1 tablespoon of almond or vanilla extract

1. Wash and trim the ends of the guava fruit, then peel as thinly as possible. Cut in half and scoop out the seedy pulp. Reserve the pulp and peels for later (you will use these to make the flan).
2. Combine the sugar and water in a large heavy saucepot and place over high heat.
3. When the mixture starts to boil, add the extract and food coloring and stir thoroughly.
4. Add the guava shells and allow to boil for 10 to 15 minutes on each side. They will start to soften and collapse into themselves. Test by pressing gently with a spoon. If they fold easily, then they are ready.
5. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a glass bowl. Top with the remaining syrup and allow to cool completely at room temperature.

To store, transfer to an air-tight container and cover with syrup. These will keep at room temp for a few days and in the fridge even longer. They can also be canned following proper procedure.

Midnight Guava Flan

Pulp & rind of four fresh guava fruit
2 or 3 candied guava shells (recipe above or can be purchased canned)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 cups heavy cream
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped or two tablespoons of Mexican vanilla extract
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
A pinch of salt

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and set a pot of water (for the bain marie) on the stove to boil.

1. To make the caramel: have ready a round flan mold or deep dish pie plate. Place 1 cup of sugar in Combine 1 cup of the sugar in the center of a skillet and add the water on top. Do NOT stir. Place over medium high heat and let cook until the sugar begins to melt and turn slightly amber colored. (about 5 minutes). Swirl the pan (Do NOT stir) to combine the bits of uncooked sugar. Once completely melted, remove from heat and add lemon juice. Swirl again (No stirring) and then immediately poor into your mold. Swirl the dish so that the caramel completely covers the bottom.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, guava pulp and rinds, and vanilla beans over a medium-low flame. Let the cream simmer, stirring occasionally to blend the pulp in and all the while taking care to not let it come to a full boil (it’ll boil over and make a terrible mess. Even worse, you’ll lose lots of delicious cream!) Strain the mixture completely to remove the seeds, peel, and vanilla beans. Note that it will be a little bit thick from the natural fruit pectins. If too thick, feel free to add a bit of cream to thin. It should be just thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.
3. In a large bowl, cream together the eggs and yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and the pinch of salt, until the mixture is pale yellow and thick.
4. Temper the egg mixture by gradually whisking in the hot cream mixture. Take care to not add it all in quickly or your eggs will scramble. Pass the mixture through a strainer a second time to keep the consistency as smooth as possible.
5. Pour the custard into the caramel-coated mold and let sit for 20 minutes to an hour to let the foam and bubbles settle (the longer it sits, the fewer bubbles).
6. To prepare the bain marie (water bath): Open your oven and pull out the middle rack. Set a large roasting pan large enough to contain the flan mold in the center of the rack (I actually use a cake pan inside a large cast iron skillet). Place your mold in the center and then fill the water so that it comes up about halfway up the side of the mold (watch that none spills into the custard). Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the custard is just set (it will jiggle a little). Remove from the oven and let cool in the water bath. Once cool, cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (or overnight!).
7. When you are ready to serve, run a wet butter knife around the inside of the mold to loosen from the sides. Place a dessert plate on top of the flan mold and with one hand firmly on each side, flip quickly. The flan should slide out easily and the caramel will melt over the sides.
8. Top with two or three candied guava shells and drizzle a circle of guava syrup around the outside of the dessert.

Enjoy (preferably not alone...)

Dinner at Eight: A Birthday Dinner Party

"We need to talk about the party," Moe reminded me for the fifteenth time.

We've been celebrating our joint birthday every year for the past six, but for some reason I'd been dawdling this year.

"I know," I replied, promptly changing the subject. Truth was that I didn't know what I wanted to do. Having recently hosted a fairly large Christmas party, I was reluctant to throw another big bash, but I didn't want to go to a bar or dinner. I wanted to host.

Perhaps it's something best discussed with my shrink, but I enjoy parties significantly more when I'm hosting, cooking, or--at the very least--contributing a large platter of stuffed mushrooms. Maybe it's a control thing. Maybe I just like the praise. It’s probably a bit of both. The only thing I am certain of is that few things match the rush I get when watching new and old friends enjoying food that I've prepared for them. There is power in knowing ones way around a kitchen; a power that I’m often eager to display.

And yet, I was hesitant to make the commitment.

Our birthday fell on a tough week this year: Moe was going out of town for work and I had Fashion Week parties, visiting editors, and way too many deadlines to meet. 3 AM had become my new bedtime as I juggled my full-time editorial position with the demands of my increasing load of freelance assignments. I longed for a bit of leisure and wasn't sure that I could successfully take on party planning and hosting duties. So I vacillated. I delayed. I hemmed and hawed, and avoided making any final decisions until the absolute last possible second.

But then I remembered the pork.

"Moe!" I typed in an IM box. "Let's do it! The party. A cozy dinner party at my place. Just 10 or 12 people, followed by drinks and jazz somewhere nearby. Send me emails--I'm writing the invitation now!"

"You're sure?" She asked, likely shocked by my sudden burst of enthusiasm after so many days of noncommittal replies.

"Oh yes," I wrote. "And get this. I'm making pork! Pork shoulder, to be exact, stuffed with fruit and thick slabs of bacon. I'll marinate it for a couple days and cover with brown sugar before roasting. And I'll make smoky black beans. And mofongo. Oh oh oh...and flan! Creamy, caramel flan. It's going to be the most amazing meal ever. Just you wait!!"

And that's how it began.

The Menu

Fried Chorizo on Dominican “Pan de Manteca.”


Fried Plantain Mofongo

Avocado and Corn on Romaine with Blood Orange Dressing

Main Course
Citrus Marinated Roast Pork Shoulder
stuffed with candied guava shells, dried plums, ham, and bacon served with Caramelized Yuca and Smoky Black Beans and Saffron Rice

Vanilla Caramel Flan

I'd seen the original recipe on a Food Network special some time ago. It was the usual Food TV fare: Bobby Flay bringing his cocky NY shtick to a beach in Miami and getting (quite rightly) schooled by the Cuban masters of pork. Even he conceded defeat in that episode, and I filed away the featured Cuban chef's brilliant idea of stuffing pork with one of my all-time favorite treats: candied guava shells (casquitos de guayaba).

Blame it on the guava.
Usually purchased canned (look for them in the Goya aisle), the fragrant scent of the fresh fruit at the market made me wonder if perhaps I could give it a go from scratch. I'd never actually handled a fresh guava before, but the process proved fairly simple. I peeled and seeded the fruit, reserving the citrusy peels and fragrant pulp in a bowl. I then quartered the fruit and boiled in a 1:1 sugar syrup for about an hour. I added a bit of Mexican vanilla extract just because.

The fruit softened and collapsed into itself like pairs of very naughty-looking lips. Since I used white guava (you can use white or the more common red), a few drops of red food coloring in the syrup gave them that fiery red glow I loved as a girl. I stored them in a jar, where they bobbed and floated, suspended in the translucent red syrup like pornographic maraschino cherries.

I used the reserved pulp and peel to make a creamy guava flan, which, when topped with two or three of the syrupy shells, gives off a slightly decadent appeal—just perfect for sharing with a hungry lover by the light of the refrigerator door. (More about this tomorrow...)

A Twist on the traditional
In Cuba and Puerto Rico (where my family is from), sour orange juice is often used to marinate pork and other meats. These oranges, also known as Seville Oranges, are like the ugly aunt to the perky fruit bowl navel. A thick, bitter, and bruised peel protects the lip-puckering juices that taste much closer to lemon juice than the stuff you drink with breakfast. This intense acidity makes it an ideal base for marinades and dressings, adding an additional layer of flavor not found in lemon juice alone.

While these oranges are readily available in my Manhattan neighborhood, I opted to recreate their flavor using slightly less traditional ingredients. I settled on a blend of my two winter favorites: blood oranges and Meyer lemons, which I juiced by hand, rolling the room temperature fruit on the counter first to release the juices.

The preparation of this marinade is a full-blown sensory experience. The colors of the citrus juices melded beautifully in the bowl. To this I added a few fresh bay leaves, slightly crushed garlic cloves, and a handful of course salt (I have very small hands, mind you). I poured a couple tablespoons of whole peppercorns into the traditional wooden pilon (mortar) my mother bought me the last time we visited the island, and crushed them by hand with the matching hand-carved pestle. It’s not necessary, of course, and would certainly be much quicker and easier in a food processor, but I’m convinced it makes a difference to get that involved in the process. I find something soothing about the methodic grinds and bursts of fragrance from the peppercorns as the crack and split under the pressure. It’s aromatherapy for the epicurean.

A generous blessing of extra virgin olive oil finishes off this incredibly beautiful marinade, which is then poured and massaged into the flattened and de-boned pork shoulder (I had my butcher remove the bone for me, and then made sure he included it in the package so that I could use to cook the beans.). I scored the fat and tucked the crushed garlic cloves into the little crevices, then covered the whole thing and let marinate for nearly 30 hours.

The finished dish is a thing of beauty. Just before roasting, I drained the excess marinade and layered the inside with the candied guava, dried plums, thick slabs of country bacon, and slices of slow-cooked ham. I rolled this up and tied securely with twine, then rubbed completely with handfuls of soft muscovado sugar. I poured half a bottle of Malta over the entire thing and roasted at 350 degrees. About three hours into the cooking, I poured on the rest of the Malta and surrounded the pork with raw pieces of peeled and split yuca that roasted and caramelized in the flavorful pan drippings. To keep the starchy vegetable from drying out, I finished them off in a pan with a sour orange mojo sauced thinned with chicken broth.

I served the pork sliced over golden saffron rice and surrounded by the caramelized yuca, and accompanied this with a pot of smoky black beans cooked slow and low with the bone from the pork shoulder and a generous amount of smoked Spanish paprika, garlic, and cilantro.

My guests clearly enjoyed the meal, moaning with pleasure as they heaped their plates and then came back for seconds. Everything was served family style in large bowls and platters. I think latin food is best served this way because I like the feeling of comfort it creates: everyone gathered around the table, laughing and leaning over each other, grabbing more of a favorite or taking just a bit of everything. Another wonderful this about this meal is that while it required quite a bit of planning and forethought, nearly all of it is completed ahead of time and only requires the tiniest bit of preparation throughout the dinner. This meant that I was able to sit and enjoy the food and conversation (and copious drinks) right along with everyone else.

The main course was followed by a round of fresh mint mojitos and slices of blood oranges, which served as a refreshing palate cleanser before the creamy vanilla caramel flan was served. The flan disappeared in a matter of moments. No sooner had I served a piece than the plate was passed back to me for seconds. It was sweet and creamy, with rich hints of mexican vanilla contrasted by the slightly bitter caramel.

The entire meal lasted around four hours, after which we piled into cabs and made our way to a nearby lounge for more drinks, including a round of sweet, fiery shots for the birthday girls (that would be Moe and me). It was well past three when we made it back to my apartment, boozy, happy, and singing off-key as we loaded dishes haphazardly into the dishwasher and picked at the leftovers that seemed to taste even better cold. With the kitchen (somewhat) clean, Monica and I finally collapsed into a sleepy, satisfied heap on my bed, where we remained until well past three the next afternoon.

It was, quite possibly, a perfect evening.

I still have to write up all the recipes for the evening, but I will post them soon... (Soon being a relative term, of course.) If you're absolutely *dying* to have one or all of the recipes now, shoot me an e-mail (nanditablogs[at]gmail) and I just might oblige...

I should note that most of the incredible photos in this post were taken by my co-birthday girl Moe, who is many things, but not the least bit mediocre. (And yes, she is available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, or even if you just want a cute girl to take killer pictures of your pork.)

Rainbow Italiano

The sight of this cake rips my heart with joy. It's something I've been meaning to make for a while now. I based it on the Italian Rainbow cookie (sometimes also called the Venetian or the Tri-Color), which to me has always been the queen of the bakery store cookie assortment. Perched among the crumbly butter cookies like regal peacocks, these cookies put those pastel petit fours to shame with their bright colors and intense flavor.

It's an Italian American thing--a moist little cookie made from tiny dense layers of almond sponge sandwiched together with raspberry and apricot jams before being coated with a final layer of bittersweet chocolate. Growing up in North Jersey, these cookies were present at every single family or community function, from PTA meetings to birthday parties. I used to load up on them, grabbing them three and four at a time and tucking them into an open napkin when nobody was looking. Later, I'd find a quiet corner where I could devour them slowly and methodically, one sweet almond layer at a time.

There is something about the combination of bitter almonds and raspberry that has always delighted me. It's the taste of decadence: rich with intensity, and yet just a hint of something illicit. Bitter almonds are poisonous, after all... The flavor in this cake comes from a combination of almond extract (which in actuality is extracted not from almonds, but from that flavorful little nut hidden inside peach pits) and almond paste. Note that almond paste should not be confused with marzipan, which is different, but still makes an appearance in this cake (read on...).

This cake is a gigantic version of that childhood favorite. I was never satisfied with those tiny little cakes, and was always left wanting more. This cake is basically my way of saying, "you can have as much as you want!"

It was a fairly simple conversion to make. I only had to slightly modify the origianl recipe (which I've been making for a year now), by lightening and leavening the cake. I alternated these moist, fluffy layers, with jam and--for an extra bit of almond flavor--a thinned out layer of marzipan (I told you it would make an appearance). I knew the hard, bittersweet chocolate coating would be too harsh on a cake of this size, so I made a silky semi-sweet chocolate ganache using thick farmer's market cream and just a hint of almond extract. The colors come from food coloring, and are the traditional red and green layers of the original cookie (just one of the hundreds of edible Italian flag homages--Italians, it seems, like to eat their flag), with the marzipan serving as the "white."

I baked it in 9 inch rectangular pans and then cut and stacked to form an almost terrine-like brick. Over this carefully constructed structure, I poured the silky ganache (and how I wish I could have poured and photographed at the same time as there few things more beautiful than watching chocolate ooze over the sides of a pile of almond cakes). I left to cool on the countertop overnight, and then cut in half in the morning. I brought one half into work, where my coworkers devoured it with their morning coffee. I saved the second half for my dad, who stopped by after work tonight to pick it up. The station he work at is just over the bridge, about 10 minutes from my apartment, so when he finishes the evening newscast he regularly pops over to partake of that day's baking. (You didn't really think that I ate all of this stuff by myself, did you?)

I'll be posting the recipe for this shortly and would love to know what you think.

Oh! And if the pictures and description aren't enough to entice you to bake this, perhaps the knowledge that your apartment will smell like sweet almonds for the next several days will do the trick! I promise's incredible!

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake

1 cup butter (2 sticks) softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
8 oz almond paste. (1 can, please note that this is different than marzipan)
1 tube marzipan (Which is different than almond paste...)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups of sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
red and green food coloring
1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
1/4 cup apricot preserves
1 cup heavy cream
12 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped (or you can use chips in a pinch)

2 13×9x2 inch pans, buttered and floured

1. In electric mixer, blend almond paste, butter, sugar, yolks and extract until fluffy.

2. Sift together flour and baking powder, then slowly add to almond paste mix.

3. In another bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold meringue into paste mixture until fully combined (the mix will be a bit sticky).

4. Separate the mixture evenly into two bowls and dye each batch a different color.

5. Spread mixture evenly into the pans and bake each separately at 350 degrees for approximately 15 to 20 minutes. You’ll know they are ready once the edges start to brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

6. While cooling, divide the marzipan in half and roll out two rectangle-shaped sheets on parchment or wax paper, approximately 8x6 inches each.

Assembling the cake:
1. Cut each sheet in half, so you have four evenly-sized cakes. (You can trim at the end so don’t worry if it’s not absolutely perfect.)

2. Start with a green cake and spread completely with raspberry jam. Feel free to spread as thinly or thickly as you like (I'm all in favor of thick!). Spread raspberry on green cake. Top with a layer of marzipan followed by a red cake. Top red cake with a layer of apricot followed by the second green cake. Top the green with another layer of raspberry and the second sheet of marzipan. Top with the final red cake.

3. Use a serrated knife to trim the edges of the entire cake and even out into a perfect rectangle. Brush off crumbs. (These extra bits are fantastic toasted with a bit of butter on a skillet or tossed into a bread pudding recipe. Or you can just eat them while watching television, like I did...)

4. Prepare the ganache by heating 1 cup of heavy cream in a small saucepan. Take care to not let it boil. Add the chocolate and stir continuously until melted completely. Remove from flame and mix in a dab of butter for a bit of extra shine. Continue stirring in concentric movements to cool. It will be ready when the chocolate is just slightly warmer than your lip. (Dab a bit on the inside of your lip—if it’s just slightly warmer then you’re good to go. If it burns, then I’m sorry... ;)

5.Pour this over the entire cake and let cool.

It's My Birthday!

And what do I want more than anything? Well, what every girl wants: sparkly things, vanilla beans, bubbly champagne, and for you to VOTE for me in the Culinate Death by Chocolate contest.
One of my awesome readers entered my deceptively light flourless chocolate hazelnut torte in the contest and now I'm determined to see it rise to the top (pun absolutely intended!). The ten top winners will be selected by the reader votes, so if the more of you who vote, the more chances I have to win! If I win, the magical people at Culinate will fly me to Napa to attend the (delicious) annual Death by Chocolate festival where I'll learn lots of fantastic things to come back and share with you.
Even BETTER: One of you could win too!!! Simply by voting, you're entered to win the contest, which will be awarding not only one blogger, but also one reader (because they totally get that we bloggers are nothing but crazy people shouting into the void without you readers.)

So if you've ever enjoyed anything that you've read on this sweet little blog, won't you make me a happy birthday girl and drop me a little vote?

Vote for Alejandra!!

The contest nitty gritty:

The Culinate Death by Chocolate Contest sends one reader, and one food blogger, on a trip for two to Napa Valley to attend the Copia Center’s annual Death by Chocolate Festival on Feburary 23, 2008, featuring a day of chocolate and wine tasting, demonstrations by pastry chefs, and other sessions with chocolate aficionados and experts.

The contest will include daily drawings for cookbooks, additional festival tickets, and Valentine chocolates.

The winner among readers will be chosen at random from all entries. Readers will vote for their favorite blog posts, and the winning food blogger will be selected by a panel of judges from the top 10 reader favorites.


Grape Crush

While bumming around the Internet on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I came across David Leibovitz's blog. I admit that I've never been a regular reader, but do occasionally stop by to see if he's posted anything interesting. I'm certainly glad that I stopped by today! On his page, I came across a post featuring a video of a conversation between David and a charming young French sommelier named Olivier Magny. They were trying out various wine and chocolate pairings, and chatting about the way the flavors complemented each other.

I was smitten! With the wine, the chocolate, the conversation, and (of course) Olivier, the cute French sommelier.

It turns out that he has his own video blog, which is tied in with his wine tasting company that he runs out of his own loft in Paris. The videos are fun to watch--educational and entertaining (they all feature a cheesy, albeit amusing little intro dance segment that Olivier explains in his "FAQ" section). Olivier himself has a great screen personality, a cute accent, and that floppy-haired boyish enthusiasm that I find oh-so completely endearing in the likes of Tyler Florence, Jamie Oliver, and OK, just about every single man that I have ever dated.

I think of all the videos on his site (I saw a few of them today), my favorite is the one in which he discusses pairing foie gras with wine. As an open and ardent fan of politically incorrect meat, I particularly enjoyed his opening sentences, during which he gives a cheerful (and very French) dismissal to the annoying PETA types and cheerfully explains that studies show the geese "are actually very happy being force-fed" since they usually go back for more food afterwards made me laugh so much. You had me at happy force-fed geese, Olivier!

I also really loved his comparison of the taste of foie gras to "a big orgasm." He encourages serving foie gras at the end of the meal between the cheese and dessert course, explaining that to do so before the meal as an appetizer is akin to having an orgasm first and then leaving the dating and foreplay for later... Although I admit that in my experience, I've yet to come across a European man (let alone a French one) with that kind of restraint... I definitely applaud his suggestions, however, and am eager to incorporate them into my next dinner party!

You can view this and other videos on Olivier's blog: Wine Rendez-Vous.
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