Grandma Mihalik’s Butter Cookies

December 11, 2017

When I was young, cookie season started in mid-December and continued until early January. Friends and family all had platters and trays of cookies on their tables, often of the multi-tiered variety. Each was carefully wrapped in plastic ready to be unwrapped when guests arrived. The platters were replenished after each group of guests left.

In my circle of family and friends, cookies usually fell into one of two categories, Italian-American or Slovak-American.

To be sure, there was some crossover.


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Nut rolls and poppy seed rolls are Slovak (well, OK, they’re really pretty much pan-Eastern European but since I grew up in a half-Slovak family we considered them to be Slovak even though we knew they were also made by the Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other Eastern Europeans in town) but they were made by the Italian side of my family as much as by the Slovak side.

There were also nut horns, butterballs, and thumbprints which defied ethnic baking boundaries.

However, flat, rolled cookies, like these butter cookies, were not usually made by Italian-Americans.  The totos that I wrote about last December and the colored cookies that are coming up later this week were not usually made by Slovak-Americans.


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This recipe came to me by way of Aunt Ann who was married to my father’s brother, Jano. She said it was Grandma’s recipe.

I remember eating these cookies and seeing them piled on my grandmother’s table over the holidays.

These cookies are similar to the sand tarts that are common in the central part of Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Dutch, of German extraction, historically lived. The big difference, though, is that the dough for these butter cookies is prepared more like a pie crust while the dough for sand tarts is prepared more like cake batter. That is, for these cookies, flour and sugar are cut into butter with a pastry blender whereas for sand tarts the butter and sugar are first creamed together.

There also are sand tarts that I think of as more Southern.  These are usually rolled into balls or formed into shapes and baked but not rolled thin like Pennsylvania Dutch sand tarts and my grandmother’s butter cookies.


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Grandma Mihalik's Butter Cookies
The cookies should just be pale golden brown on the bottom. The color and weight of the cookie sheet significantly influence cooking. I find that shiny aluminum cookie sheets of medium weight work best. Dark metal will cause the bottom of the cookies to brown too much. Allow the cookies to rest for about 30 seconds before removing them from the cookie sheets. If you wait too long the cookies will lose their flexibility and are likely to break.
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Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
  2. Grind the walnuts and reserve.
  3. Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
  4. Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
  5. Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
  6. Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
  7. Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  8. Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
  9. Cut into shapes.
  10. Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
  11. If the dough starts to warm too much it will be difficult to get the cookies off the waxed paper. If this happens, put the rolled out dough, still between the waxed paper, in the refrigerator for a few of minutes.
  12. Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
  13. Sprinkle with ground walnuts
  14. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
  15. Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
  16. Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Pizzelle (Italian Anise-Flavored Wafer Cookies)

December 6, 2017

Pizzelle punctuated my childhood.

Pizzelle were present at every holiday, birthday, wedding, and festive event as well as at random times throughout the year.

They usually came from Aunt Margie, though other folks made pizzelle, too.

My mother never did. Though she liked to bake, and made some wonderful pastries, pizzelle were not part of her repertoire.

The classic flavor is anise, though vanilla, and to a lesser extent lemon and orange, are common as well.

Aunt Margie would use pizzelle to make ice cream sandwiches. She would roll them around a tube to make faux cannoli. She would even roll them into ice cream cones. Of all the permutations, though, my favorite is just the classic, flat, crispy anise-flavored cookie.


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I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use an electric pizzelle iron these days but originally Aunt Margie used one of cast iron that was heated on the stove. It came from Berarducci Brothers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and is most definitely iron, not aluminum. I have the pizzelle maker in its original box.

Aunt Margie’s original cast iron pizzelle maker

The original box for the pizzelle maker

Unfortunately Berarducci Brothers is no longer around. Not only did they manufacture stove-top and electric pizzelle irons, they made ravioli molds, crank-handle vegetable strainers, and an array of other culinary tools.

A modern pizzelle maker

In my experience, anise oil is essential. Anise extract simply does not pack enough flavor to give pizzelle the punch they need.

When I was young, anise oil came from the pharmacy. It was not uncommon in those days for pharmacies to routinely compound medications to a physician’s specific instructions. Compounding is now limited to a few specialty pharmacies but not so back then. Anise oil was commonly used to flavor what might otherwise be a noxious medication.

It was common practice among the Italian families in my hometown to go to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of anise oil. One upside, besides the easy availability of the stuff, is that it was pharmaceutical grade and, therefore, very pure.


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I tried that in Santa Fe after my mother-in-law kept failing to get enough anise flavor out of anise extract. We even have actual compounding pharmacies in Santa Fe as well as pharmacies that specialize in herbal and homeopathic medications that also make up their own medications. No dice. Not one of them carried anise oil.

Amazon to the rescue. There are other on-line sources, too, like the King Arthur Flour people. So, if you want to try your hand at pizzelle, get anise oil, not anise extract.  If you don’t like anise you could give vanilla, lemon, or orange a try.  If you do, I suggest the lemon and orange oils from Boyajian rather than extract.

The brand of Anise oil I have been using lately

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Pizzelle
Anise extract does not work well. Anise oil is an absolute requirement for the authentic taste. As with many "old Italian recipes" in my collection, this one provided a range of amounts of flour. 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour worked well and was pretty much right in the middle of the range. The batter will be quite stiff until the melted butter is stirred in.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Combine flour, salt, and baking powder.
  2. Mix well. Reserve.
  3. Combine eggs and sugar.
  4. Mix until well combined.
  5. Stir in vanilla and anise oil.
  6. Stir dry ingredients into egg-sugar mixture.
  7. Stir in melted butter.
  8. Lightly grease the pizzelle maker (with lard, preferably) before the first ones are baked. After the first, additional greasing is not needed.
  9. Add a rounded tablespoon of batter to the center of each shape, depending on the size of your iron.
  10. Cover and cook until light golden but not really brown. The length of time will vary based on the specifics of your pizzelle iron. With mine, it took 30-45 seconds per batch.
  11. Cool the pizzelle on racks.
  12. You can dust with powdered sugar if you'd like but I rarely do unless it's a really festive occasion.
Recipe Notes

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Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake

October 25, 2017

“Aloha Mr. Van Sant.”

So began a 2003 email from Simon Rusconi, the Hotel Manager of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Resort on Oahu.

Mr. Van Sant, Jim to the rest of us, had complimented the resort on its guava cake and Mr. Rusconi was writing to share the recipe.

Jim printed out the email and affixed it to an index card and put it in his recipe box. Late in 2016, the subject of the guava cake came up somehow at a dinner party at Jim and Bill’s house. Jim offered to share the recipe with me if I was interested.

I was, and I said that I’d make it for him. Shortly thereafter, the original recipe arrived in the mail still affixed to the index card. Not wanting to keep his original, I scanned it into my recipe database and returned the hardcopy.

Since Jim and Bill rent a home in Palm Springs just steps from our house, and since baking cakes at nearly 8000 feet where I live in New Mexico is an iffy proposition, at best, I said I’d bake the cake in Palm Springs. Every winter they rent the Oscar Mayer House. Yes, that Oscar Mayer!

We had a delightful luncheon at tables set up around their pool with guava cake for dessert.

The back of the Oscar Mayer house in Palm Springs, California
Inside the Oscar Mayer House
The front of the Oscar Mayer House

But that’s jumping ahead.

Receiving the recipe from Jim was merely the beginning. I became fascinated by guava cake without having even made one. Almost any recipe with the degree of cultural significance that guava cake seemed to garner grabs my attention. I did internet searches and combed through my Hawaiian cookbooks (of which I have a goodly number).

It appears that there are basically three variations of guava cake in Hawaii: Guava Chiffon Cake, Guava Spice Cake, and (plain old) Guava Cake. Recipes for the last often start with a box of cake mix and use Cool Whip in the cream cheese frosting.

From what my research has revealed, the original was a Guava Chiffon Cake invented by Herbert Matsuba, owner of the Dee Lite Bakery, in the early 1960s.

The popularity of the cake no doubt led to multiple copycat recipes, including those using a box of cake mix and Cool Whip aimed at the home cook.

The recipe from the Moana Surfrider was a Guava Spice Cake. I followed the recipe closely the first time except that I needed to find a substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar which I was unable to find after scouring 10 grocery stores in Palm Springs and nearby desert towns.

I ultimately was able to source pure guava puree at a market catering to Hispanic shoppers. It had no sweeteners so I thought I might need to add sugar to the batter in a subsequent trial but for the first round I used the guava puree as a direct substitute for concentrated guava nectar.

Frozen Guava Puree, a much easier to find substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar

The cake was good but everyone who tasted it failed to taste any guava. It really just tasted like a spice cake. Certainly it was not worth hours of searching for guava concentrate only to have the flavor masked by spices.

Other than guava chiffon cake, which was definitely not the same genre as the cake that Jim had at the Moana Surfrider, I could not find a recipe for plain guava cake that did not start with a box of cake mix. I decided to make the original recipe without the spices.

That did it! The guava flavor came through but something told me that Herbert, a professional baker, might have used something to amp up the guava flavor.

That started me on a search for natural guava extract. I found a wonderful extract made by Amoretti.

You can do without the Amoretti Guava Extract but not the red food coloring.

The next time I made the cake, I added a tiny bit of guava extract to the batter. I believe it enhanced the flavor but if one is not going to make a lot of guava cakes I would consider omitting the guava extract as it is expensive and very concentrated so a little bottle will last a long, long time.

For an everyday cake, I suggest baking it in a 9” x 13” x 2” rectangular pan. For a more special presentation, make a layer cake by dividing the batter between two 9” round pans. If you are doing the latter, make a double batch of cream cheese frosting. You’ll have a little left over but a single batch will not be enough. You could always whip up half a batch of batter and make guava cupcakes to use the extra frosting!

In honor of Oscar Mayer, in whose house we all came together over Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake, I recommend the following tribute. Who knew there were so many variations on the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme?


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Jim's Hawaiian Guava Cake
Because frozen, concentrated guava nectar is not readily available except in Hawaii, I standardized this recipe using frozen guava pulp which should be easy to find in large supermarkets or in markets catering to customers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is important that the cream cheese frosting be level so that the guava gel forms an even layer. If you are making a rectangular cake this means there will be a bit more frosting at the edges than in the middle. If you are making a round two-layer cake, I suggest cutting off the tops of the cakes to achieve a perfectly level appearance. Put the cakes cut side down to avoid having lots of crumbs working their way into the cream cheese frosting. Guava nectar can be purchased in cans or refrigerated. Guava pulp is frozen.
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Prep Time 2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 3 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Guava Gel
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
Prep Time 2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 3 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Guava Gel
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
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Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 x 2 inch metal cake pan or two 9 inch round cake pans.
  2. Combine flour and baking soda. Reserve.
  3. Combine guava puree, guava nectar, guava extract and red food coloring. Reserve.
  4. Cream butter until light. Add sugar and cream until light and fluffy.
  5. Beat in eggs, one at a time, creaming well after each addition.
  6. On low, add dry ingredients alternating with wet ingredients, starting and ending with dry ingredients.
  7. For the rectangular pan: pour the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top. Rap the pan on the counter to release any air bubbles.
  8. Bake 350°F 40-45 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
  9. Cool the cake in the pan then refrigerate.
  10. Frost with cream cheese frosting being careful to make the top of the frosting level. Refrigerate several hours to firm up the frosting.
  11. Top with guava gel and smooth out to the edges. Refrigerate several hours to set the frosting and gel.
  12. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
  13. For the round pans: Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops. Rap the pans on the counter to release any air bubbles.
  14. Bake 350°F 30-35 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
  15. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove and cool completely on a wire rack.
  16. Wrap the cakes and refrigerate until cold, or up to one day.
  17. Slice the rounded tops of the cakes off to make them level.
  18. x
  19. Put one layer, cut-side-down on a platter.
  20. Put a layer of cream cheese frosting on the top of this layer.
  21. Pipe a rim of frosting around the edge to hold the guava gel. This does not need to be fancy as it will be smoothed out.
  22. Put just under ½ of the guava gel on top of the frosted bottom layer.
  23. Smooth the gel out to the piped edge.
  24. Top with the remaining cake, cut side down.
  25. Generously frost sides and top of the cake with cream cheese frosting.
  26. Pipe a decorative border around the edge of the top layer.
  27. Pour the remaining guava gel on top and smooth out to the edges.
  28. Refrigerate several hours to set the frosting and gel.
  29. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Guava Gel
  1. Put the cornstarch in a small heavy-bottomed sauce pan.
  2. Stir in the guava nectar, a little at a time, to dissolve the cornstarch without forming lumps.
  3. When dissolved, add the remaining guava nectar and sugar.
  4. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a full boil.
  5. Remove from heat and stir in red food coloring.
  6. Put a cloth on top of pan before putting cover back on to keep moisture from dripping back into the gel.
  7. After the gel reaches room temperature, refrigerate until cold.
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
  1. Chill the bowl and beaters for the whipped cream.
  2. Cream the cream cheese until light.
  3. Sprinkle in 1/3 cup of sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
  4. Mix in vanilla.
  5. In chilled bowl, beat the whipping cream until thick.
  6. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and beat until the cream forms stiff peaks.
  7. Fold 1/3 of the whipped cream into the cream cheese to lighten it.
  8. Carefully, but thoroughly fold in the remainder of the whipped cream.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Julie’s Impossible Pecan Pie

October 16, 2017

Julie Paradise is the Queen of Impossible Pies.

Julie Paradise

I ate Impossible Pies back in the 1970s.   Savory Impossible Pies were a favorite of Auntie Helen. Auntie Helen was actually the aunt of Gene d’Aquili, my College Advisor. Ultimately, years later, I went into psychiatric practice with him. I spent lots of time with Gene and his family, including Auntie Helen, and her sister, Auntie Louise, from the early 1970s until the late 1980s when I left Philadelphia and moved to Tucson for a year before settling in Chicago. In a previous blog post, I talked about Auntie Helen and Auntie Louise.

Auntie Helen was especially fond of Impossible Tuna Pie. I have “her” recipe which exactly matches one I found on the internet a few months ago. I’m going to guess it was the one put out by the makers of Bisquick® way back in the day!

I’ve only ever had sweet impossible pies from Julie, but she says she makes savory ones too. Her take: “Green bean is delicious. Broccoli is fantastic and pretty. Zucchini is good.”

Julie is one of those folks who doesn’t like pie crust…and there are plenty of them. For her, Impossible Pies are the perfect solution.

On our recent visit to Julie and Gay’s home on Fire Island Julie made three Impossible Pies during a six-day stay. We ate every last crumb!

Deer near Gay and Julie’s deck eating geraniums out of my hand

Impossible Pies appear at the end of most every dinner that Gay and Julie host in Santa Fe and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

You’ve read my rants about the adverse health effects of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. That’s what baking mix (OK, let’s call it what it is, we’re really talking about Bisquick®) used to contain. I’m here to say: NO LONGER!

In prepping for making Julie’s Impossible Pecan Pie, I researched “baking mix” substitutes. There are many recipes available, all of which are very similar (flour, some sort of oil or fat, a bit of sugar, and baking powder). My plan was to make up a substitute rather than use the real thing because of my zero tolerance policy for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats.

On a stroll through the supermarket, I saw the baking mix section and decided to take a look. That’s when I discovered that the good folks at Betty Crocker had changed the formula and replaced the partially hydrogenated fat with vegetable oil. I actually bought a box, intending to make all those things I had as a kid that were based on Bisquick and Auntie Helen’s Impossible Tuna Pie after making Julie’s Impossible Pecan Pie.

I looked at several other brands of baking mix and discovered that not all manufacturers are as enlightened as Betty. Partially hydrogenated fat was still a common ingredient in many of them. (There are also some specialty Bisquick products that contain—or may contain—based on the label, partially hydrogenated fats. It’s best to stick with what is labeled as the “Original” (which, of course it really isn’t) or the HeartSmart.

A funny thing happened with all this thinking about baking mix and baking mix substitutes. I realized that for all practical purposes, an Impossible Pie is like a Clafoutis! The only real difference is that the baking mix contains baking powder and the standard recipe for clafoutis does not. Given the variability of recipes from cook to cook, I guess it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call this a Pecan Clafoutis! And, as Julie says, a Clafoutis is best right out of the oven while an Impossible Pie is just fine at room temperature.

So, while I don’t often make Julia Child’s recipe for Clafoutis I think there are lots of Impossible Pies in my future.


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Julie's Impossible Pecan Pie
Although I used a mixer, as you’ll see in the pictures, a blender is easier and produces a smoother batter. Also, the original pie pan I chose was too small. You’ll see that I started putting everything into the 9-inch pan. I had to switch to a 10-inch deep dish pan! Although not part of Julie's original recipe, I've successfully added 1/4 teaspoon of almond essence to this pie. It's not enough to give the pie an almond flavor but it does amplify the nuttiness!
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Prepare all the ingredients.
  2. Pecans
  3. Brown sugar
  4. Milk
  5. Corn syrup
  6. Eggs
  7. Baking mix
  8. Butter a 10-inch deep-dish pie pan.
  9. Add the pecans to the buttered pie pan and set aside.
  10. Put all remaining ingredients into a blender jar or mixing bowl and blend until thoroughly combined and no lumps remain. This will take approximately 15-20 seconds in a blender and at least one minute by electric mixer.
  11. Pour the batter over the pecans.
  12. Bake at 350°F for 50-55 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
  13. Cool at least five minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.
Recipe Notes

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Bertha’s Flan

October 11, 2017

Bertha Kravicas left Lithuania in 1927 with her family. They were hoping to get to America but when the quota was full they went to the closest place they could.

They thought their sojourn in Cuba would be brief but as the months turned into years, Bertha made a trip back to the Old Country where she met Victor Ashman in Latvia.

They married and returned to live in Cuba in 1931. Over the years, they became Cubans in the way that immigrants to the United States become Americans no matter their background.

Bertha in Matanzas, Cuba in the 1940s

Victor even decided to run for public office. Because his name was not Cuban enough he officially changed it to Victor A. Larriga, in honor of his birthplace, Riga, Latvia.

One of the ways that Bertha adapted to her new country was through cooking.

Flan is made throughout the Spanish-speaking world but is especially popular in Cuba where it is the most common dessert. Flan is a source of family pride with each family believing that its flan is the best. (This sounds very familiar to me coming from a Southern Italian background where the same belief attaches to tomato sauce).

Flan recipes are passed down from generation to generation and fall into two general categories, those that contain canned milk and those that do not. Cubans smile approvingly when hearing that flan contains canned milk. After all, that’s how it should be!

Bertha’s flan is made entirely from canned milk; two kinds actually. That, and the generous amount of egg, makes a substantial flan.

After the Cuban Revolution Bertha and Victor took advantage of President Eisenhower’s offer for Cubans to immigrate to the United States. They arrived in late 1960 along with their son, Stuart.

Bertha and Victor on their Harley in the 1940s

Stuart is now the Executive Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. It was at a CCA event earlier this summer that I tasted this remarkable flan made by Stuart’s wife Peggy Gaustad. Peggy is now the flan maker in the family, having taken over from Stuart. For the CCA event, Peggy made flan for 100 people but she recalls once making it for 150!

Stuart remembers that as a child, when his mother would make flan, he would be given the empty can of condensed milk and a chopped up banana to sop up the last bit of sweetness!

This recipe is actually double Bertha’s original. It’s the way Peggy makes it because there never seems to be enough from the original.


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Bertha's Flan
Before caramelizing the sugar in the pan you’re going to use for the flan, put the empty pan inside of the larger one that you’re going to use for the water bath then add water to the large pan to come at least one inch up the side of the pan that will hold the flan. Remove the pan that you’ll use for the flan.
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Cuisine Cuban
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cuisine Cuban
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. For the flan, choose a 12-inch diameter pan with straight sides that can be heated on the stove and put in the oven.
  2. Put enough water into a pan large enough to hold the pan with the flan so that the water comes one-inch up the sides of the pan with the flan.
  3. Put the sugar into the pan selected for the flan.
  4. Heat the pan with the sugar on medium heat until the sugar melts and turns dark brown. (A series of pictures follows showing the progression of the caramelization.)
  5. Do not stir the sugar or caramel. Simply swirl the pan from time to time to mix the caramel. Rotate the pan on the heat occasionally to reduce hot-spots.
  6. If the pan has a very heavy bottom, the retained heat will continue to brown the sugar off the heat. Stop caramelizing the sugar a little before you think it’s done otherwise it might burn. If it turns out that the caramel is not quite dark enough, you can heat the pan again briefly.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool during which time the caramelized sugar will harden on the bottom.
  8. While the caramel is cooling, bring the water in the water bath to a simmer on the stovetop then put the pan into a 350°F oven.
  9. Meanwhile, combine the condensed milk, evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla extract, and salt. Mix well.
  10. When the caramel is hardened, pour the milk-egg mixture on top.
  11. Cover the pan tightly, either with foil or with a lid.
  12. Put the pan into the water bath in the 350°F oven.
  13. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes at 350°F.
  14. A knife inserted in the center of the flan should come out clean. If not, cook a few minutes longer.
  15. Remove the flan from the oven and cool to room temperature.
  16. Refrigerate at least 8 hours. Overnight is best.
  17. When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the flan.
  18. Put a large platter upside down on top of the pan with the flan. Quickly flip the entire set-up over. The flan should come out of the pan in one piece. Pour any remaining caramel syrup onto the flan.
  19. Serve very cold.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake

August 25, 2017

Mike Abramson says his carrot cake is the best ever.

Janet Carlson doesn’t necessarily agree.

For now, the controversy will need to simmer as I only have Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake recipe, though I have suggested to Janet that she and Mike have a carrot cake bake-off.

Mike makes no apologies for having stolen the recipe from Tom Grier, originally of Grier, Georgia.

The story goes something like this…

In the 1970’s a group of four friends from San Francisco bought a weekend house, they named Aros, near Sebastopol, California. The four owners rotated use of the house, each getting it for a week at a time but also sometimes showing up there together to host parties as in the photo below.

Mike Abramson, second row far right

Over the years, ownership of the house shifted as some individuals sold their interest and others bought in.

At one point, Tom Grier was the youngest owner.

The group met on a quarterly basis in San Francisco to discuss maintenance issues related to the house. As with use of the house, these meetings were held in rotation at the owners’ homes in San Francisco.

Whenever Tom hosted the meeting, he served carrot cake, which Mike believes originated as a Grier family recipe. Tom shared the recipe with Mike and the rest is history. Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake was born.

But for Janet’s assertion that Mike’s might not be the best carrot cake in the world, well, we’ll just have to wait for the bake-off.

From left to right: Janet Carlson, Richard Valantasis, and Gino Barcone

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Mike's (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake
This is almost a cross between a spice cake and a carrot cake. The frosting is generous and could easily be reduced by one-third. This recipe is for sea level. If there is interest in adjustments for high altitude, let me know and I’ll post them.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
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Rating: 0
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Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9” x 13” baking pan.
  2. Grate the carrots on the tear-drop holes of a box grater.
  3. Coarsely chop the nuts.
  4. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle.
  5. Add the oil and eggs to the flour mixture. Blend until combined.
  6. Add the carrots and crushed pineapple with the juice. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Add the walnuts and raisins. Stir to combine.
  8. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes or until the center springs back when lightly touched.
  9. Cool completely in the pan before frosting.
Frosting
  1. Beat cream cheese and butter until light using the paddle of a stand mixer.
  2. Beat in all other ingredients.
  3. Frost cake when cool.
Recipe Notes

For recipes that call for solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, I use coconut oil is due to concerns about the negative health effects of hydrogenated fats.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Aunt Ann’s Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie

June 30, 2017

I grew up at a time, and in a town, where people just dropped in, unannounced, to visit family and friends.

Some evenings we’d stay home.  Some evenings we’d go to town.  This was pretty much every Monday and Thursday when the stores were open until 9:00 PM.  And, mind you, we dressed to go to town!  Other evenings we’d visit family and friends.

Around the age of 5 or 6, when we went to Aunt Ann’s, I’d play with food.  Really.  And not at the table.  I don’t honestly know how this got started but Aunt Ann would spread out a vinyl tablecloth on the beige wall-to-wall carpet in her living room.  (Remember, this was around 1960!)  I would pull pots and pans and mixing bowls and other equipment (like box graters and spoons) out of her kitchen cabinets and haul my stash to the living room.

Aunt Ann circa 1965 at Grandma and Grandpa’s house

Then I’d raid the refrigerator for things like carrots, celery, and so forth.

I’d sit in the living room, on the tablecloth, grating vegetables and mixing things in the various pots and bowls.

My love of cooking has deep roots.

My love of peanut butter not so much.

For some reason, I despised peanut butter at that age.  (I know, that’s almost un-American!)  But just to keep things from being too quiet, Uncle Jano would sometimes walk towards me holding a jar of peanut butter and I would run like a vampire running from a wooden stake.

I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I had to escape from the peanut butter.

The ordeal usually ended with me face down on the sofa until Uncle Jano retreated…sometimes only to start again after I pulled my face out of the pillow.

Aunt Ann and Uncle Jano were great fun.  But they were only Aunt Ann and Uncle Jano if you were related to them through Uncle Jano.  If you were related to them through Aunt Ann, they were Aunt Honey and Uncle John.

From left to right: Uncle Jano, my Grandfather, Uncle “Booty” and my Dad, circa 1965 on a Sunday at my Grandparent’s house

Aunt Ann was a great cook.  She was ethnically Russian and made lots of Russian and Eastern European food like mushroom soup, potato soup, kielbasa, chicken paprikash, pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and so forth.

She also made Italian food, which she learned from the wife of the local Mafia Boss who lived down the street.  (I had a colorful childhood.  What can I say?)

There were the occasional American dishes, like Rum Balls and Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie, too.

Years after those episodes of “cooking” on Aunt Ann’s living room floor, when I was in my teens and twenties, I was always on the lookout for pineapple cream cheese pie when we went to visit.

In an attempt to keep this manageable, I am not posting a recipe for pie crust just yet, but I will at a future date.  If you have a favorite pie crust recipe, by all means, make your own.  If not, buy prepared pie crust from the grocery store.  But whatever you do, give this recipe a try if it appeals to you.  It’s always a hit!

This one is just for fun: Aunt Ann (far left), Aunt Margie (in the back), my mom (far right), my sister and my cousin “Rocky” circa 1950

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Aunt Ann's Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie
If you don’t have a favorite pie crust recipe, or if you aren’t comfortable making pie crust, buy prepared pie crust. Be sure to purchase NINE INCH DEEP DISH pie crust, however. If you are making your own pie crust, you can use a standard nine inch pie pan, deep dish is not necessary. The cream cheese filling is easier to make in a food processor though an electric mixer works, too. If you are using a mixer, the cream cheese will be much easier to mix if it is at room temperature. This is not critical if you are using a food processor.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
pies
Ingredients
Cuisine American
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
pies
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. Chop the nuts and reserve.
  2. If making your own crust, prepare and line two nine-inch pie pans. Refrigerate the crust-lined pans until the fillings are prepared.
  3. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the crushed pineapple, cornstarch, and 1/2 cup of sugar.
  4. Stir until the lumps are gone. The mixture will become cloudy from the cornstarch but will become clear once cooked.
  5. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
  6. Boil for approximately one minute, until thickened.
  7. Take the pan off the heat and allow the pineapple mixture to cool slightly.
  8. In a food processor or electric mixer, beat the cream cheese well.
  9. Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, milk, eggs and vanilla. Mix until the cream cheese is thoroughly combined, all the sugar is dissolved, and there are no lumps.
  10. Divide the pineapple filling between the two pie-crust-lined pie pans.
  11. Top each pie with half the cream cheese mixture.
  12. Scatter the chopped nuts on the pies.
  13. Bake at 350°F for approximately 60 to 65 minutes until the tops of the pies are just beginning to turn golden and the filling is set.
  14. Cool to room temperature before serving. The pies will sink somewhat as they cool.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)

December 21, 2016

Homemade cookies and pastries were staples of my childhood.  Trays of cookies showed up for holidays, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

My mother along with relatives and friends set up a cookie-making operation that went on every night for weeks leading up to my sister’s wedding.  The overseer was Annie Castagnola, a family friend.  She had a thin spiral-bound 3-inch-by-5-inch notebook of cookie recipes.  The notebook was the kind we used in grade school to write down our homework assignments.  Annie’s recipes were a curated collection gathered from a host of “old Italian women,” my grandmother included.

The little notebook was coveted by more than a few cooks.  Annie, however, did not share her recipes, even when those recipes came from relatives of the very people who were asking for them.  I know, my mother was one of those people who wanted some of her mother’s recipes.  Annie wouldn’t budge.  The situation got resolved, however, during the cookie-baking marathon for my sister’s wedding.  One night, Annie left her little notebook at our house overnight.  Nobody’s confessing, but there are a few cookie recipes in my mother’s recipe box (sitting on my bookcase) written in my twelve-year-old hand.

Annie died a while back.  Her little notebook is most likely gone forever and along with it the baking secrets of a whole group of “old Italian women.”

Of all the cookies that showed up throughout the year, my favorites were the various kinds of cakey cookies, my mom’s Genets, Aunt Margie’s aptly named “Colored Cookies,” and my cousin Angie Catanese’s Sesame Seed Cookies, to name a few.  These cakey cookies, which were not very sweet by American standards, were usually little balls but not always.  Genets are lemon flavored knots.  Colored Cookies are vanilla flavored balls, each made with four or five pinches of dough of different colors rolled together.  Sesame cookies are little logs, perfect for dunking into some Vin Santo.  For me, though, the best of these cakey cookies are Totos, little chocolate spice balls.

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)
These little chocolate balls are intended to have a good kick from an array of spices. Lard is the traditional shortening to use. I render my own. If you need these to be vegetarian, or you just don't want to use lard, you can use solid vegetable shortening. Heck, you can even use clarified butter but that is way off the traditional scale!
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
Cookies
  1. In a small saucepan, melt the lard over low heat. When just melted, remove the lard from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg together. Reserve.
  3. Make the icing and reserve.
  4. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled but still liquid lard and mix well until thoroughly combined. The mixture will be gritty. I recommend doing this by hand with a mixing spoon but you could use a portable electric mixer.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time to the sugar and lard mixture, mixing well after each addition. The sugar should dissolve as the eggs are added.
  6. Add the milk, honey, vanilla extract and lemon extract to the egg mixture. Mix until well combined.
  7. Add the reserved dry ingredients. At this point there really is no better option than to reach into the mixture with your hand and get everything well combined. The dough will be somewhat sticky. Be certain that all the dry bits are scraped off the bottom and sides of the bowl and combined into the dough.
  8. Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls. If you want to weigh the first few to get the size correct, they should be between 21 and 22 grams.
  9. Space the cookies several inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are very slightly browned on the bottom but still soft when touched. They have a tendency to crack as they bake. This is normal. You can bake two trays at a time, one in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third. Be sure to switch the top and bottom cookie sheets after five minutes and also turn them front to back.
  10. As soon as you remove the cookies from the oven, carefully put them on cooling racks.
  11. Ice them immediately by holding a cookie with one hand and using the tip of your finger to spread a dollop of icing on the top half of each cookie. The icing should be a glaze, not a thick coating. Put the iced cookies on cooling racks to cool completely.
  12. Well wrapped, the cookies can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.
Icing
  1. Melt the butter. Add the sugar, vanilla (or lemon) extract and 2 tablespoons of milk. Mix well. Add more milk, a teaspoon at a time, if needed, to make a thick icing that will hold its shape and spread well.
  2. It may be necessary to add a bit of milk from time to time if the icing stiffens up over the course of icing each batch of cookies as they come out of the oven.
Recipe Notes

Check out my method for rendering lard.

I prefer to grind my own spices using a small electric coffee grinder, except for the nutmeg, of course, for which I use a small grater. It is best to pass the ground spices through a small strainer to get out any small bits. If you don’t grind your own spices be sure to buy really fresh ground ones so the flavor is vibrant.

This recipe doesn’t involve any strenuous beating so the first few steps can easily be completed by hand with a sturdy mixing spoon rather than with a mixer. Similarly, after adding the dry ingredients, the dough only needs to be mixed enough to come together. This is easily (and traditionally) done with your hand though I suppose a dough hook would work, too.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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