Italian Cooking in 400 Pages – and over 200 Recipes March 1, 2010

Shame, shame on a foodie blog that does not do the occasional book review.  Man doesn’t live by bread alone.  As my mother used to say, “develop a voracious appetite for reading.”

I’m still trying to finish David Vise’s book about Google, but client work has kept me away from that goal.  I will finish it soon, not because I want to learn Google’s algorithms for determining page rank and Adsense mumbo-jumbo, but because it is inspiring to read about businesses that start in a garage with hardly any venture capital and yet end up giants who take over some aspects of how we communicate with each other.  Don’t tell me you’ve never once used “google” as a verb?

I don’t want to mislead you. This post is not about the Google book I’m reading.  It’s about the OTHER book I found in my local library by accident – The River Cafe Classic Italian Cook Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

It isn’t unusual to find books with two gourmet authors sharing the credits.  What’s unusual is how Gray and Rogers combed the entire country – Italy – to taste every possible dish whipped up by the regions’ culinary enthusiasts.  Their travels took them to Sicily, Tuscany, Puglia, Maremma and to all those places we can only dream about. 

Their story, however, does not begin in Italy.  It starts in the banks of the Thames River in London.  That’s where they opened the River Café in 1987.  Although perhaps not as well-known as Rachel Ray or Nigella Lawson, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have just about turned the gourmet world upside down!

  • After they opened the River Café, they travelled all over Italia.  The book says “they cooked with friends, chefs and wine makers who shared their traditional recipes…”  From that experience, this book was born.  Mind you, this dynamic duo has 10 cookbooks to their credit!
  • They earned a Michelin star in 1997.  They also appeared in the show Top 50 Restaurants in the World and did a TV series (in 12 parts) on The Italian Kitchen for England’s Channel 4.

book review 1

They have learned much from the Italians.  Call it close encounters of the best kind.  They say, “It is our friendships with those who grow the grapes, tend the olive trees, make the wine and olive oil we use, the cheesemakers and salami producers that have taught and inspired us.”

The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook is a book that not only delivers recipes you’ll want to try, but also narrates the simple joys of discovering ingredients, observing habits and methods, imagining aromas and textures, and inhaling herbs from the hills and valleys that stimulate man’s ravenous nature.

There is something in this book for everyone; it offers generous sections that cover:  soups, pasta & gnocchi, risotto and polenta, breads and pizza, fish, meat, poultry & game, vegetables & salads, sorbets and ice creams, cakes, sauces & stocks.  On the last pages of the book, they share a list of their favorite places.

The photographs are stunning. Not all of the recipes come with a photograph but the clear and engaging way that Rogers and Gray describe the recipe steps will help you imagine what the finished dish should look like.  The book is rich with photographs of landscapes,  stalls and corners,  unpretentious countryside, open markets, and the elegant dining rooms of the country’s fine restaurants – the kind where starched linens, gorgeous waiters and dark mahogany walls tell you what you’re about to savour!

The book’s ISBN is:  978-0-718-15349-6.  Famous chef Jamie Oliver put his words on the back cover of the book:  “They have changed the way British people eat – here’s to them both!”


What’s your most precious cookbook – the one you WOULDN’T lend to even your best friend?


Does Your Baking Stone Resemble a Pre-Historic Map? February 17, 2010


Nothing to worry about!  Mine looks like this:


baking stone 1


It’s been used about five times and already it’s looking like an artifact that’s been freshly dug out of deep dirt and grime.  It may look disgusting, but think of it this way:  when a woman has more wrinkles, that means she’s got more character.  When a baking stone has marks and stubborn stains, it could probably give your baked goods that extra flavor.  And character.  You may not believe this, but once I scraped off a piece of hardened pizza crust and put it in my mouth.  It tasted like the world’s best potato chip!  No hyperbole there…


In my haste to use my baking stone for the Norwich sourdough I made last month, I read the instructions too quickly.  What stayed in my mind were two things:  when using it the first time, bake the baking stone for a good hour inside a hot oven.  This will make it sturdier.  I managed to do that.  Second, never expose the stone to cold water.


After I used it, I would wait for it to completely cool, and then use a potato cleaning brush to scrape off excess crumbs after which I put it back into the oven.  Yes, you can leave it there almost permanently.  For baked goods not requiring a baking stone like cookies and cakes, you can just set the baking sheet on top of it.  But be careful about putting heavier pans or pots on top of it.


This morning my brother asked me, "are you sure we can’t wash that baking stone?"  Typical of someone who knows that a quick reading of instructions has its pitfalls, I took out the box and re-read the instructions.  I also read people’s comments online about how they cared for theirs.


So everyone, this is the consensus:

  • you can wash your baking stone but only with hot water (I wouldn’t wash it after every use; I’d wash it only occasionally or when it’s beginning to look like a war zone instead of a stone)
  • never use soap.  Why?  Most baking stones are porous and soap will penetrate the stone, giving your baked goods a soapy taste (once in awhile I enjoy soaps but not in my food)
  • take off any crusts or leftover "stickies" with a good metal spatula
  • wipe your baking stone with a damp cloth

I read that someone put her stone in the dishwasher.  She said it came out fine.  I’ll pass on that one!


I bought my baking stone from Keilen Ltd, a division of Indiana-based Columbian Home Products LLC.  I’d like to reproduce – verbatim – what their care instructions are:



The traditional way to clean your pizza stone is to brush or scrape it clean and wipe it with a dry cloth to remove any crumbs.  If you prefer to wash your stone, never use soap, as the residue will accumulate in the unglazed stone itself.  Use hot water only, after the stone has been allowed to cool.  Your stone will darken with use.  This is normal and does not affect the baking performance in any way.



Hope that eases your fears.  And did I say you could leave it inside the oven?  Yes, do leave it there, unless you absolutely need to take it out.  Frequent handling may cause an accident (of the worst kind). 


In a previous post, I said that my pizza tasted great when I baked it on the stone, but I’ll say it one more time:  homemade pizzas taste so much better with this clever invention!



baking stone2


Shapeless Pizza, but a Choc-Full of Taste! January 30, 2010



I know what you’re thinking.  Your reaction to this picture is, "that’s a bizarre shape for a pizza!" 

I admit.  I struggled with the dough.  It behaved atrociously, and no matter what I did, it rebelled.  No amount of coaxing or cajoling could turn it round or rectangular.  It wouldn’t budge.  I think it was a miracle I managed to make it stay open so I could quickly shove in the toppings before it went berserk on me again.  This pizza dough – made from scratch – was wet, sticky and unwieldy.  I was tempted to chuck it.

Then someone whispered in my ear that people were starving elsewhere so decided against it.  With all the patience I could harness, I caressed it with pizza sauce, sprinkled it generously with thinly sliced green peppers, mushrooms, salami/prosciutto, dressed it up with mozzarella and then dribbled a few drops of hot pepper sauce.

What happened after that?  This pizza was a true, certified gourmet delight.  Mouth watering – and I’m not exaggerating!

When it came out of the oven, I set it on the table while I prepared a green salad.  When I sank my teeth into it, my taste buds were suddenly energized.  It was oozing with taste, I forgot that infamous struggle earlier.  Think of a pizza baked in a makeshift brick or stone oven at the back of a country home in an old Italian countryside.  Yes, it tasted that way.  To use an oft-repeated phrase – it was to die for!

Home, home on the range.  What an accidentally delicious pizza that landed on my plate!

I can think of at least three good reasons why this pizza came out a winner:

  • I added some sourdough starter.  They say using a small amount of sourdough starter injects it with extra flavor.  It is certainly much, much better than store-bought pizzas.  You know how some commercial pizzas taste like cardboard?
  • The dough recipe was a combination of semolina, rye and all-purpose flour.
  • The baking stone and the high heat

While this pizza deserved flying colors for taste and flavor, I suspect that the sourdough starter may have contributed to the dough being unmanageable.  Was high hydration the culprit (my starter is 100% hydration)?  Should I reduce the amount of water when using a starter?

Second, I’m not exactly sure that setting the oven temperature at 475 degrees (F) is a good idea.  Some experts say that the baking stone combined with high heat will yield the ideal crust.  I have my doubts.  I’d much rather set the oven at 350 degrees and bake it for an additional 7-10 minutes – for a total baking time of 20 minutes.  Broiling the pizza for two minutes on high is also a good idea.  Most of the recipes I’ve come across recommend 475 degrees for 8-10 minutes, depending on the crust’s thickness.  Next time I’ll pre-heat the oven at that temperature and then reduce the heat to 350 as soon as the pizza goes in.

The first pizza dough had rye, semolina and all-purpose unbleached flours.  The second one had organic bread flour and all-purpose unbleached.  I used my starter in both cases.  The first pizza with the three flours was a lot more flavorful.  The semolina gives the crust a nutty taste with excellent crunchiness.

Now that I’ve learned to make pizza dough from scratch, it’s going to be hard for me to buy commercial pizza again.  As soon as I find the right blend to make the dough more pliable, I’ll make batches and freeze them (they will hold well in the freezer for up to two weeks).

Here’s a tip from the experts:  less is more.  This means don’t smother your pizza with pizza sauce and use more than 3-4 toppings (cheese and sauce excluded).  They say there must be a good balance of the sauce, cheese and toppings.  Let the cheese and toppings come out in their full flavor, without one encroaching on the other.

Other possible combinations:  chopped spinach with goat cheese, basil leaves and spicy sausage, grilled eggplant, asparagus and palm hearts.

How about just cheese?  Whatever your heart desires.  But be a convert to "pizza from scratch."


Big Story Behind These Thin Crisps: Toronto’s ACE Bakery January 14, 2010


Resembling miniature slices of sourdough bread, these crisps are baked by Toronto’s ACE Bakery on Hafis Street.  This bakery prides itself in using only organic and natural ingredients for their breads – all 36 of them.

And here I thought Montreal enjoyed the monopoly of the best breads in all of Canada!  Not that I’m narrow-minded or parochial, but Montreal has always been known for its corner boulangeries and cafés.  So once in awhile I need to remind myself that good Canadian bread can be found in places other than Montreal.

I had never heard of ACE Bakery before and that’s probably because I don’t subscribe to the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star.  I’m sure these dailies have covered them, considering that the owners, Martin Connell and Lynda Haynes, are active in promoting social causes not only in their community but also in underprivileged countries.

How did I get to know about ACE even without a subscription to Toronto’s major newspapers?  Loblaws!

I was going to Loblaws to pick up a bag of organic rye flour by La Milanaise of Quebec.  As I passed the fried chicken and fries section, a fragile-looking metal stand with slim and fat white boxes caught my eye. I looked more closely.  I mulled over the word "Artisan"  printed on the boxes.  The simple and unpretentious packaging of the product finally convinced me that I ought to try their potato chives crisps.  Also on display were their grains which I was also tempted to buy, but I remembered that I still had cereals and grains in my cupboard.  "Another time," I muttered.

I was not only eager to taste the crisps but I was also intrigued by the company and made a note to google them when I got home.


The ACE web site was an eye-opener.  The company has an impressive list of signature breads and the owners have interesting profiles.  Martin Connell and Lynda Haynes have received awards and honours from the Canadian government for their humanitarian work and contributions to Toronto society.  Ms Haynes has written two books.  In 2003, ACE was named Toronto’s best bakery by the Toronto Star’s Eaters’ Choice Awards and the best supplier to hotels and restaurants (Pinnacle Awards).

And get this – Philip Shaw, formerly of LaBrea Bakery of Los Angeles – became ACE’s CEO in 2006 (LaBrea I knew of, having watched some of Nancy Silverton’s videos on sourdough starters).

In many ways, the story of ACE Bakery has inspired me.  I was moved by the owners’ efforts in helping fund food and nutrition programs for low-income earners and how they donate their pre-tax profits to an organization called Calmeadow.  It was founded by Martin Connell to offer credit and financing to micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries.

These days when we think of how entrepreneurial talent is transformed into community service, ACE would probably stand out as a shining example.  I’ve read so many wonderful success stories but the example of Connell and Haynes reminds me that bread possesses a sort of goodness and wholesomeness that transcend taste.

If you could use a bit of inspiration, please read the ACE story.  Go to

No, I don’t know the owners, have never met them and I have not been asked to endorse their bakery in any way.  Why would they need endorsements?  They’re made!  And if you want to tease your palate in addition to the inspiration, head straight for their list of breads.

Just thinking – I’d give anything to get a culinary scholarship and work in their kitchen if the time was right. 

Torontonians, you ought to be proud of your award-winning bakery.  Canada, the US and the Bahamas are enjoying what comes out of its wood ovens already.


Not Another Macaroni Salad, You Say! January 10, 2010

Now that I’ve been blogging about food for nearly seven months, it comes more naturally.  The inspiration hasn’t diminished and I’m an eager beaver when it comes to sharing recipes.  But this is one post where I hesitated because an inner voice kept taunting me, “oh c’mon, you’re not going to blog about macaroni salad – who’s going to spend five minutes reading about macaroni salad, of all things?”

But I like macaroni salad! 

macaroni retouched

Just for fun, I did some research:

On Google, I typed “macaroni salad” and I got 849,000 results.

On Yahoo, I typed the same search words and got 7,070,000; on Live Search, I got 767,000.  Why Yahoo had 7 million is bewildering, but okay, I admit, macaroni salad is as common as a citizen with no blue blood.

Still, let me say this.  There are recipes you try and your reaction can be…

  • it’s good, I’ll probably make it again.
  • it’s very good, I’ll definitely make it again.
  • it’s excellent, wow, I’ll invite friends over and impress them!
  • ah…er… it’s so-so; nothing to write home about.

How does my macaroni salad rate?  I’d give it the second one – “it’s very good, I’ll definitely make it again.”

You have macaroni salads made with chicken, celery, carrots, mayo or sour cream, and we say, alright, that’s a typical recipe.  You have macaroni salad made with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, peas and carrots, and again we say, yes, that’s a typical recipe.

But if you dare leave the beaten path and throw in special ingredients, you come up with an exquisite macaroni salad with:

  • bite size chicken pieces
  • purple onion
  • carrots and celery
  • sour cream
  • mayonnaise
  • parmesan cheese
  • parsley

and this special oil!

oilo al basilicoolio2          

My good friend Margaret and her hubby Al from Toronto dropped by during the holidays and they gave me this delicately delicious oil which I hid at the back of my cupboard – just to keep my brother’s hands away from it.  He likes tinkering about my kitchen and looking for unopened tins and bottles and then persuading me to let him do a taste test.  I’ve decided this oil will be used only for extra-special recipes. 

I’ll accept the fact that macaroni salad is ordinary enough, but when I put a few drops of this Cazzetta oil (it’s been around since 1899 – don’t know if you can read the date on the picture at the right), my macaroni salad gets elevated to a 5-star rating! 

Try to flex your taste buds and imagine the combined flavors of sour cream and mayo, finely chopped purple onions, parmesan cheese and this olio al basilico.

Magnifico, no?  I won’t post the recipe because there are 849,000 recipes on Google – but if you’re convinced that it’s worth a try, e-mail me at and I’ll gladly share the recipe…that is, before Rachel Ray or the White House chef tells me NOT to share it.

Kidding aside, I liked this oil and I believe it’s made with the best basil herbs of Italy.  I have to ask Margaret where she bought it.  I hope that when I run out, I can buy another bottle here in Montreal so I’ll have a steady supply.

macaroni with salad

My brother and I devoured the macaroni salad yesterday, Saturday.  I served it with green salad.  For dessert, we had mouth-watering slices of chocolate cake with extra helpings of leftover Betty Crocker icing.  Tsk…tsk…

A thought just flashed.  You can make this macaroni salad without the sour cream and mayo if you’re more into the Mediterranean type of pasta salads – that is, with generous drizzles of wonderful olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar.


My Sourdough Journey…Just Started! January 7, 2010

Filed under: Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:22 pm
Tags: , ,

In the last days of December,  I nervously took the plunge into making a starter for sourdough bread.  My eyes must have gone ballistic because I crawled into many bread blogs and discussion forums looking for information on how to make a healthy starter.  You see, I have never made sourdough bread before.  It’s a different universe to the one I’ve grown accustomed to; that is, baking sweet rolls, loaves and yeast breads. 

Luck was on my side.  I finally got around to making my starter – by the 24th of December it was bubbly, frothy, alive and kicking!

starter ready

As soon as I saw those bubbles and that frothy-smoothie appearance, I was ecstatic.  For my first attempt, it wasn’t bad.  I had read people’s comments about their starter dying.

Just for the record:  I am not a sourdough expert.  I have not made a single sourdough loaf…yet.  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep hammering away at the art and technique of sourdoughs because I know it’s going to be an arduous, steep climb.  And since I’m not an expert with no sourdough “portfolio”, I can’t advice you on how to make a sourdough starter. 

But this much I can do.  I’ll share what I’ve learned so far.  When I started out, I was in the TFL (The Fresh Loaf) sourdough forums like an overstaying visitor.  The problem with forums is that everyone has an opinion, so the more I read the posts, the more I was confused.  Then I hopped from one blog to the next, taking down notes and comparing the techniques.

I came to a saturation point.  I told myself, “if I continue at this pace and search and search, I’ll never start a starter.”  The fear that an important bit of knowledge is missing can hold you back.  If you feel compelled to read more than necessary, you’ll never get started.  Remember that saying about how over-analysis leads to paralysis?

I finally had to apply the brakes on my sourdough research.  “That’s enough”, I said to myself.  “Just do it.  Have a back-up plan, just in case.”

First, I decided that I would follow the tutorial posted by a member – Gaarp – on the Fresh Loaf.  Here is that tutorial:

Second, if Gaarp’s tutorial took me nowhere, my back-up plan was Peter Reinhart’s pineapple juice solution (pages 227-230 of Bread Baker’s Apprentice).

If Reinhart’s method fails, I was going to use the grape method by Nancy Silverton, and then again if that didn’t work, I would introduce a pinch of commercial yeast to help jump start the culture.  Read in between the lines:  there are as many ways to make a starter as there are sourdough loaves in the planet!  There was even one advice that said put the starter on the window sill so it catches the wild yeast.  I think I’ll pass on that one.  I read that the yeast is actually in the flour, not in the air.  But I could be wrong.

Guess what folks?  No back-up plan was needed.  Gaarp’s tutorial was very good.  The only thing he did not mention – and which he should have – is that the starter has to be stirred twice or thrice a day.  This allows the yeast to be aerated and to spread the oxygen around.

Like I said, I’m not an expert on sourdough, but here are a few pointers:

  • use organic rye flour (the experts say there’s more wild yeast in rye flour) and natural spring water.  Lately though I’ve been feeding it with water from the tap and it’s fine and dandy.  Some say that if you can drink your tap water, so can yeast.  I started with 1/4 cup rye flour and 1/4 cup spring water.
  • leave your starter on the counter covered lightly with plastic or with cheese cloth.  Stir it 2-3x a day.
  • feed your starter twice a day up to the point when it begins to double in volume.  You can decrease the number of times you feed it to once daily or every 48 hours.
  • on subsequent feedings, you can use bread flour, wheat flour or unbleached all purpose flour (rye flour is used only when you’re starting a starter).
  • you can’t ever kill a starter, as long as you don’t douse it with kerosene or expose it to high heat.
  • the way to revive a starter is to feed it regularly.  Consider it like a newborn.
  • when your starter has become bubbly and frothy, this means it’s ready.  If you’re not planning on using it, cover it and leave it in the fridge.  Feed it once a week.

There’s so much advice on the Net.  Go with your instincts.  Don’t be afraid if your starter looks dead.  Don’t be afraid if it looks like the moon’s crater – that is, with a brown crust, a “knock-em-dead” smell and some hooch.  Hooch is a liquid that resembles old stale beer.  This was what my starter looked like on day 3 and I almost gave up:

 starting starter

Again, don’t worry.  When feeding time comes, discard half the mixture, and feed it with 1/4 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup water.  I know it seems wasteful, but the reason for throwing half the mixture away is so that the starter does not escape from the container and flood your kitchen.  I read one post saying that if you don’t do that, you’ll have a starter the size of your swimming pool in a few days!

Elements like temperature, container, flour and water will determine how difficult the starter process can be.  The idea is not to despair.  It will take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks for your starter to look like mine above.  Aim for a bubbly and frothy mixture.  Oh, don’t forget, it should also rise and double, even triple in volume.

Last advice:  instead of taking my word for it, why don’t you drop by this web site Play the video.  He  explains and demonstrates the steps effectively, bearing in mind the KIS principle (keep it simple).

As soon as I get around to making my first sourdough loaf, I’ll post it!


Earning Brownie Points November 27, 2009

Filed under: Desserts,Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:31 pm
Tags: , ,

You ever get those days when you don’t feel like having a fancy store-bought dessert (which these days cost an arm and a leg anyway) and instead choose to have a homemade dessert, minus the labor-intensive effort?  You think hard about it, leaf through your recipe collection and then…the idea hits you.  Why not brownies?  They can be made in a jiffy, they don’t require that many ingredients, and they go great with coffee!  And after you make them, you don’t end up slumped on the chair out of sheer exhaustion.  They’re virtually error-free and can be innovated upon a hundred ways.  My innovation – not exactly an original one – is to top it with slivered roasted almonds.

Brownies – they’re like an old lover you always go back to.  Or they’re like outdated, comfy shoes.  No splash, no pizazzz, but the ideal comfort food when it’s grey outside or you’re running out of positive thoughts.  Brownies are also the classic initiation rites for a pre-teen who’s itching to impress mom and the siblings.

One day my neighbor rang and she sounded excited.  Turns out the guy she’s madly in love with agreed to come to her house for dinner.  I asked what dessert she was going to surprise him with.  I was expecting her to say a mango flambé or a Chocolate Charlotte or something impressive.  When she said, “brownies!” I had to control myself from giggling.  But like I said, brownies are like an old lover that you run to each time you find yourself in a desperate bind.

Everyone knows how to make brownies, even four year-olds.  So I won’t post my recipe.  I bet you’ve got excellent brownie recipes of your own.  But I’d like to share a tip about using butter.  Two things I watch out for:

  • the butter must be completely melted.  That means if you’re going to nuke it, it’s got to be all liquid, no lumps, no humps;
  • the butter must be set aside to cool.  And I mean really cool.

I usually don’t have a problem with the first, but sometimes when I’m in a rush, I throw the butter in while it’s still lukewarm.  What this does is it produces lumps in my batter.  No matter how much I “smash” them with my wooden spoon, they come back right up when I stop mixing (it will probably be different if you’re using an electric mixer).  Then when the brownies bake, the chocolate all come together in one thick slab.  Result?  The brownies are heavy, the chocolate unevenly spread.

But the texture of brownies is really a personal choice.  Some like it chewy, some like it fudgy and yet others like them cake-like.  Someone wrote that when you want your brownies fudgy, use a minimum of flour with no leavening.  Also, you obtain that fudgy – dense – effect when you melt the butter instead of creaming it with the sugar.  Cake-like brownies have more flour and less butter with some baking powder.  This helps them rise, producing a lighter texture.  Adding milk will also make brownies softer.  I like to add milk – evaporated or 1% milk – because I don’t like the chocolate to have a concentrated taste.  Milk also “loosens” up my batter, making it easier to mix manually.

I like middle-of-the-road type of brownies.  Chewy and light, and not too fudgy. I don’t like to feel that I’m biting into a slab of fudge.  I probably would never use icing (I don’t know of anyone who does), but I like to throw in walnuts or almonds.

A few have shared their “brownie” secrets.  One baker says to add corn syrup.  She says it makes brownies more moist.  Another says he adds 1/3 cup of cooked black beans which, he says, cuts down the fat because they replace some of the butter.  I wonder what he calls his brownies – fibrous brownies or beany chocolate squares?