buon natale!

Merry Christmas from Rome! Last night, on the way to midnight mass at the Vatican, I snapped a bunch of pictures of Rome in all its Christmas finery. Enjoy, and have a wonderful holiday!

Nativity and tree on Piazza Venezia (in front of Il Vittoriano)

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Italian flag lights on the via del Corso

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View of Piazza Venezia from via del Corso

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Lights on via dei Due Macelli (leading up to Piazza Spagna)

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Under normal circumstances, the only time the Spanish Steps are this empty is at around 4am. Normally this place is packed with people, both locals and tourists, and is one of the most popular (and, as a result, most inconvenient) meeting places in Rome.

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Beautiful lights on Via dei Condotti, perhaps the most expensive street in Rome. The street, which connects to via del Corso on one end, and the Piazza Spagna on the other end, is named for the conduits that once carried water to the Baths of Agrippa. Modern Italians with addresses on this street include Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Ferragamo, Armani, Fendi and Dolce & Gabanna. I’m pretty sure I get a little poorer just window shopping on this street.

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The via del Corso ends in the Piazza del Popolo

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Christmas tree above Piazza del Popolo

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Here we are! Christmas tree in Piazza San Pietro

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Nativity scene at St. Peter’s (sans Baby Jesus, because it was not yet midnight). I had to do some impressive elbowing and some moderate foot-stomping to make my way to the front to get this picture. Do as the Romans do, right?

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We did not have enough Papal pull to attend the actual mass inside the basilica, so we stood in the square with the masses and watched the whole thing on one of several screens stationed throughout the square. Please notice Santa Claus fleeing the scene!

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St Peter’s nativity scene post-midnight, now with Baby Jesus. It’s officially Christmas!

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View of Castel St. Angelo on my way home – not Christmassy, but still kind of spectacular

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Last, but not least, the tree in the Campo di Fiori

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Buon Natale!

p.s. Tomorrow I am leaving for Spain at the ungodly hour of 6:45 am, and I won’t be back until New Year’s, so my next post won’t be until 2012! Happy holidays!

stracciatella banoffee pie

Banoffee pie. One of the few culinary successes from our friends across the pond, banoffee pie is a British dessert composed of bananas and toffee atop a graham cracker crust. The name is a portmanteau: BANana + tOFFEE = banoffee. Unlike the accents of the people who created it, banoffee pie is not what I would call a “sexy” dessert. It lacks the sleekness of ganache, or the rustic beauty of a lattice crust, or the precision of perfectly piped frosting. The toffee might run. The bananas may slide all over the place. A perfectly intact slice of this pie may never make it onto a plate, but you’ll have to make your peace with that because this pie is, as the Brits would say, bloody brilliant. America, get on board.

Did I mention how easy this is to make? The toffee filling is made by letting an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk sit in boiling water for 2.5-3 hours. It’s important to make sure that the can is covered with water at all times, otherwise it can explode. This was a very stressful 2.5 hours for me, because the biggest pot I had was just deep enough to cover the can with water, so I kept going back and adding more water, all the while being fully prepared to dodge molten caramel in the event of an explosion. This stress can be avoided by using a deeper pot, like a pasta pot, and leaving several inches of water above the can.

Once the toffee is made and cooled, the only thing left to do is pour it over a pre-baked graham cracker crust, slice a few bananas over it, top it with whipped cream and sprinkle some chocolate chips/cocoa powder over the whole thing. Then let it chill in the fridge for at least a couple hours (or even overnight) in order to let everything set. Easy as pie!

Now for the stracciatella part. Traditional banoffee pie calls for chocolate of some form being sprinkled on top, but I don’t believe in putting things on the invitation that aren’t actually going to be at the party. I wasn’t about to just not put the chocolate on top though, so I decided to put it in the pie too! I poured the toffee filling onto the crust while it was still a little warm, and then poured some chocolate chips on top and swirled them around in the toffee. The remaining heat from the toffee partially melted the chips, and then I put the whole thing in the fridge to cool completely before adding the bananas and whipped cream. During the cooling process, the semi-melted chocolate chip swirls re-solidified, and the result was…crunchy chocolate swirls. Just like my favorite flavor of gelato!

You can also make a low-fat version of this by using fat-free sweetened condensed milk, but I’ve never tried making toffee with that. From what I’ve read, it works, but may not taste as rich as the full-fat stuff. Shocking.

Stracciatella Banoffee Pie recipe

For the crust:

  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (or digestive biscuit crumbs, which is actually what I used)
  • 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Combine the melted butter and vanilla extract. Toss mixture together with graham cracker crumbs until fully combined.

Press crumbs evenly into 9″ pie plate. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Cool to room temperature.

 

For the toffee filling:

  • 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

Remove labels from can and place in a deep pot (a pasta pot would work well) and cover completely with water (there should be at least a couple inches of water above the top of the can). Place pot on stove over low-medium heat, and boil for 3 hours. Check the pot every so often to make sure the water level is well above the top of the can. After 3 hours, carefully remove can from water and allow it to cool (this itself can take an hour or so). Once cooled, open can and stir to make sure the toffee is smooth.

 

Assembling the pie:

  • 1 pre-baked graham cracker crust
  • 14 oz. toffee filling
  • 2-3 bananas, sliced
  • handful of chocolate chips (plus more for sprinkling on top of whipped cream)
  • lightly sweetened whipped cream (the amount is up to you, depending on how thick a layer of whipped cream you want!)

Once the toffee is nearly cooled, pour over pre-baked crust. Sprinkle on a handful of chocolate chips, and swirl into the filling (be careful not to break the crust when doing this!). Place the crust+filling into the fridge for 15-20 minutes to allow the toffee to finish cooling completely.

Remove pie from fridge and add sliced bananas on top of toffee filling. You can try to incorporate them into the filling a little if you want, or just leave them laying on top. Then top with whipped cream, sprinkle with a few chocolate chips, and put back in the fridge for an hour, or until ready to serve! The longer this pie chills, the better it sets, and the easier it will be to slice!

i solemnly swear that the food was so good

19 hours and 38 minutes. That is how much Harry Potter I watched this weekend, along with a few wonderful accomplices. Two days, no blue jeans (strictly stretchy pants), LOTS of yummy snacks, and four sets of parents probably wondering what the hell was wrong with their offspring.

We made it through the first four movies on Saturday (we might have fallen asleep before the end of Goblet of Fire, but there is no excuse for the haircuts sported by Harry and Ron in that movie anyways), and the last four on Sunday, wrapping the whole thing up by around 9pm. By the time the epilogue started, we all felt very old and more than a little nostalgic, having reminisced about all the midnight book releases and midnight movie screenings we had been so excited for in the past.

Prior to the start of our marathon, we had excitedly planned the snacks. I was supposed to make Pumpkin Pasties, Jordan was going to make Cauldron Cakes, Allyson volunteered to bring popcorn (not technically Potterish, but it’s like crack to her), and Becca said she would bring yummy pumpkin bars.

My Pumpkin Pasties did not get made, due to a can of pumpkin that, when opened, turned out to be very questionable in both looks and odor. Becca, however, totally came through and brought some seriously delicious pumpkin bars, thus fulfilling the Harry Potter Pumpkin Quota. The bars themselves had the consistency of bread pudding (I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it was amazing), and were topped with a sweet and tangy cream cheese glaze. As irresistible as these bars were when we first ate them, we found that after chilling for a while in the fridge, they become positively magical.

Jordan also had kitchen woes, and due to a non-functioning oven, she wasn’t able to bake Cauldron Cakes. She did some interesting improvising though, and showed up with a chocolate panettone (Italian Christmas bread), a can of whipped cream, and some licorice. After demanding that we all leave her to her own devices for 5 minutes, she turned around and presented us with the most impressive (and most delicious) store-bought Cauldron Cake this side of Hogwarts. The licorice was only there for visual effect, and was immediately banished to one side while we tore into the “cauldron”.

My fallback plan was much less creative than Jordan’s. I decided to forego cakes or pastries of any kind, and satisfy my craving for Stacy’s Cinnamon Sugar Pita Chips instead. They were low-fat, and pretty quick and easy, but decidedly un-Potterish. As was the unbaked version of my low-fat jalapeño dip, which I also made in an effort to balance the sugar-overload.

In order to make up for not making anything British (or Potter-related) for this weekend, next up I’ll be posting a recipe for Banoffee Pie. It’s completely brilliant (look at me, speaking British).

All in all, we ate too much, laughed too much, and had a blast.

Mischief managed.

Baked Cinnamon-Sugar Tortilla Chips recipe

  • 4 flour tortillas (use less if you want fewer chips)
  • ground cinnamon
  • granulated sugar
  • cooking/baking spray (or butter-flavored spray)

Using scissors or a pizza cutter, slice the tortillas into the desired size for your chips (you can see the size that I cut mine to in the picture above). Spray the cut tortillas with cooking spray on one side (or both, if desired)

I didn’t give measurements for the cinnamon and sugar, because I didn’t actually measure them when I was making the chips. Find a small bowl or container, and add enough cinnamon and sugar (in whatever ratio you want, but you probably want a little more sugar than cinnamon) to toss the sliced tortillas in, a few pieces at a time.

Place the tortilla chips on parchment paper and on a cookie sheet, and bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes, or until chips become darker brown and crispy. Remove, cool, and enjoy!

The recipe for Becca’s pumpkin bars is here!

two score and ten years ago

Exactly half a century ago, the world got a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little cooler. It got a little boy named My Dad. Today is his 50th birthday, and since I can’t be at home making him a birthday cake, I’m going to make you all listen while I tell you how awesome he is!

My dad is smarter than you. He just knows everything – a Renaissance Man, if you will. He reads (and owns) too many books and knows the answers to too many Jeopardy questions. He loves music (especially jazz), but he doesn’t discriminate – he listens to everything. I’m sad that I won’t be able to listen to The Puzzlemaster Presents with him tomorrow morning, but he’ll figure out the answer long before I do anyways.

If his cooking were artwork, it would be classified as “abstract”, with one exception. Eggs. The man makes omelettes like it’s his job, always sneaking in a little butter on the pan when my mom isn’t looking. I still can’t manage to make an omelette without the whole thing breaking in half, but his never do.

My dad is also the guy who couldn’t decide what flavor of boxed rice pilaf he wanted, so he made three different ones at the same time. I believe there is a word for that, and I believe that word is “genius”.

My dad also loves to travel, see new places and learn new things. Before any trip, he does tons of research to make sure that we don’t miss anything important, and don’t waste any time. Whenever I talk to him, he reminds me to make the most of my time here in Rome, and take full advantage of this amazing opportunity. When it’s noon on a Sunday and I have yet to get out of bed, it’s his voice in my head that talks me into getting up, going out, and exploring this amazing city. After 4 months of living here, my favorite restaurant is still the place he took us to 5 years ago, on our first visit to Rome.

If there is fun to be had or jokes to be made, he is there. If there is a dance floor, he’s always the first one on it and the last one off it.

Happy, happy birthday Dad! I’ll be eating Spaghetti alla Carbonara tonight and wishing you were here too!

a very belated thanksgiving round-up

Remember last week, when I said I would put up pictures of Thanksgiving dinners from home that my friends and family were kind enough to send to me? I believe I threw around words like “tomorrow”, which is a laughable promise for me to make. Here we are, one week post-Thanksgiving, and I’ve got so many pictures to share!

My family, in order to make up for the zero dinners that I was attending, went to two Thanksgiving dinners. This meant twice the normal amount of mashed potatoes for my sister, but also twice the amount of vegetable-dodging. Green things are not welcome on her plate. Both dinners were at the homes of close family friends who also happen to be amaaazing cooks.

Here we have A Very Husseini Thanksgiving, which, I’m sure, was full of delicious food, lots of laughs, and probably a few too many urology jokes. (It’s not as weird as it sounds, my dad and Dr. Husseini are urologists. That being said, it’s still not ok when I’m trying to eat, capiche?) As you can see, no turkeys were pardoned around here. The food is always wonderful, as is the company…

…all the company.

The second part of my family’s Thanksgiving took place at the home of Benny and Giuliana Campagnolo. Benny and Giuliana moved here from Italy when they were young – I think Benny is originally from Fondi, and Giuliana hails from Monte San Biagio. Ironically, my parents had a more Italian thanksgiving than I did! Giuliana’s cooking has served to ruin every other lasagna, potato pizza, or bowl of pasta e fagioli for me forever. Even here, in Italy, nothing is as delicious as what comes out of her kitchen.

In the picture above you can see the tiramisu that my mom made! It’s the best. Again, I wrote that from Italy, so don’t question it.

But what would Thanksgiving be without the people we spend it with? A lonely, sad food coma. There is a time and place for solitary food comas, but it’s not the last Thursday in November. I’m sad that I missed spending Thanksgiving with all of these people that I love,  but thank you all for tolerating my mother’s incessant photo-snapping at my request!

Even though Thanksgiving is generally a holiday spent with family, I still needed to know what my friends were eating. Especially this year, I had to live vicariously through everyone. In exchange for sending me photos of their dinners, I promised them the fame and status that comes from being featured on MY blog (check it, over 11 readers every day).

Li Guo. A nice boy. The boy who watches endless amounts of Food Network and Whose Line Is It Anyways with me, and (sometimes) washes all the dishes when I cook him dinner. The Guo Thanksgiving featured the traditional turkey, as well as some vegetables, and SHRIMP. This is a major plus point, especially for people like me who don’t like turkey. I am way more thankful for shrimp than turkey. Li’s mom is another amazing cook – she makes the best dumplings on the planet, and, yes, I know that me writing that from Italy means nothing, but take my word for it anyways. At Chinese New Year dinner, she hides coins in some of the dumplings, and if you find a coin, it is supposed to be lucky. This is the only occasion where I am sad to accidentally find money, because then I can’t eat that dumpling.

Jumping over to the west coast, we have Thanksgiving with the Family Lawless. Sean was my best study-buddy in college, probably due to the fact that we always ended up in literally all of the same classes. I guess he was as sick of me as I was of him, because the minute college ended, I headed to Italy and he made a beeline for California! With regards to his Thanksgiving meal, the turkey was cooked with brown sugar, brine, orange and spices and stuffed with rosemary, and was “un-freaking-believable”. The pies are apple and pumpkin and they look gooood.

Last, but not least, we have Thanksgiving the Abowd way. As you can see, my friend Danny took my request for “a few pictures of your dinner” and ran with it, and I didn’t even have room for all the photos he sent me! Included here are all the usual suspects; sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, stuffing, The Bird (sans dignity), the pies (after Danny took his slices) and the booze. By his own admission, Danny did not contribute much to the cooking process, leaving that task to his parents, sisters and brother-in-law. I forgive him, because when the world tires of discussing Harry Potter with me, Danny never does. And if the pictures are any indication, the meal was a roaring success anyways!

Thank you so much to everyone who sent me photos, I love you and miss you all!

p.s. Next weekend my friends and I are doing Harry Potter Weekend. All 8 movies. Lots of rewinding and re-watching the Harry-Hermione dance scene. And, of course, some yummy things to eat. It will be the exact opposite of our Thanksgiving dinner, in that it will actually happen. So excited!