Surprise Holiday Chest

Surprise Holiday Chest

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From Chanukkah to Christmas and of course birthdays, most of you will have to admit that part of the fun about giving and receiving presents lies in the packaging and wrap, which add an element of mystery and surprise to any gift. They conceal the object’s shape and any writings on the box, and increase our excitement and anticipation. For the aesthetes among us, the packaging can outshine the gift (or it can be used to hide a more metaphysical content – for more on this, you can read one of my favorite children’s books, “The Gift of Nothing”).

This rule of course applies to food, which is why chocolates seem to taste so much better when they come in a gorgeous box. The Japanese take this to the next level, cutting their vegetables into beautiful shapes and serving their kids’ school meals in lacquered bento boxes.  This probably sounds like too much work and most of us would not be willing to do it everyday, but when it comes to holiday desserts, I know that we are all willing to go the extra mile.

So here is a special edible gift that your family will love! The mascarpone mousse, which will remind you of Tiramisu, is hidden in a treasure chest made of “Croccante” (Italian almond brittle). This type of candy, popular throughout Italy around the holidays and at fun fairs, is a mixture of caramelized sugar and almonds, easy to make, and easy to eat: you can break it into pieces and serve it with coffee, give it to kids in lieu of candy, or grind it up and sprinkle it over gelato. The only problem is that once you taste it, it will be hard to stop.

Happy Holidays!

SURPRISE HOLIDAY CHEST (Scrigno di Croccante)

(For the chest)

  • 2 and 1/3 cups blanched almonds
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ cup sugar

(for the filling)

  • 2/3 pounds Mascarpone
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped or coarsely grated.
  • ½ cup sugar

Grind the almonds very coarsely in your food processor, or chop them with a knife. In a saucepan, melt the sugar on medium heat with the filtered juice of half the lemon. Yum, caramel!

Add the almonds and keep cooking until the sugar has completely melted and has turned dark golden brown. Double-Yuml!!!

Cut a circle from parchment, about 9 ½” in diameter. Place it on top of a larger sheet of paper or foil. Now pour the caramel on top of the circle and spread it all over, it should be between 1/3” and ½” thick.

Carefully lift the circle and trasfer it onto a round 8 “ baking pan, lifting the sides and pressing them against the sides of the pan with a tablespoon dipped in lemon juice, until the caramel has molded to the shape of the pan. On a smaller disc of parchment, make a second disc of caramel (slightly less than 8″ in diameter), which will become the “lid’.

Whip the cream with an electric whisk, and combine it with the sugar, mascarpone, and amost ¾ of the chocolate. Pour into the caramel container, and top with the lid. Decorate with the rest of the chocolate, melted in a bain-marie, poured on top of parchment and cut into stars – or simply grated.  Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

Panna Cotta alla Melagrana – Pomegranate Cream Custard

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Panna cotta (cooked cream in Italian) is a traditional dessert from Northern Italy, prepared by simmering milk, sugar and cream and mixing them with gelatin. It literally takes minutes to make, but never fails to “wow” the guests. For a holiday version, I spiced it up with ponegranate seeds – a symbol of prosperity and good luck in many different traditions, not to mention a perfect contrast of color and flavor with the cream. Serve it for Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, or a romantic anniversary dinner!

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup whole milk,
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, cut into 2
  • 1 package powdered gelatin
  • 2 cups pomegranate juice
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

Soften about 2/3 of the gelatin in a few spoonfuls the cold milk. Heat the rest of the milk with the sugar and the cut vanilla bean. Once it’s hot, stir in the gelatin mixture and mix until smooth. Allow to cool, discard the vanilla bean, and stir in the heavy cream. Pour about 3/4″ of this mixture into 4 glass cups and transfer into the freezer for a few minutes until the mixture thickens.

Soften the remaining gelatin in about 2 or 3 tbsp of the pomegranate juice. Heat the rest of the pomegranate juice, stir in the softened gelatin, mix well and allow to cool. Once the first layer of cream mixture has thickened, pour in a layer of pomegranate mixture, mixed with a few pomegranate seeds, and put the cups back into the freezer. Repeat with one more layer of cream and one of gelatin and pomegranate seeds. Top with a few more pomegranate seeds right before serving.

Cassola, the Ecumenical Pancake

Cassola by DinnerInvenice

Cassola by DinnerInvenice

I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. I had been frying for a couple of weeks already and all my Hanukkah posts were already up. Yet something just felt wrong.

OPS. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t posted anything special for all my readers and friends who are not Jewish and celebrate Christmas. I felt so awful, that I toyed with the idea of attempting a Panettone, the famous Italian Christmas Cake!

However, Panettone is really difficult to make, requiring several phases of exceptionally long rising, and the use of special Italian bread flours that are hard to find. Here is something much quicker, and just as decadent: it’s an ancient Jewish Roman dessert, kind of a cheese pancake, shockingly simple to make, which the Roman Catholic community somehow adopted as the dessert of choice to end their Christmas dinner with (maybe after one too many panettone flops)? ;-) .

The Jews of Rome still make it for Shavuot, but of course it would also work for Hanukkah (after all, according to several food historians, the original Hanukkah pancakes were made with cheese). In spite of its minimalism, Cassola is so tasty that Claudia Roden, in her Book of Jewish Food, tells that she enchanted a whole dinner party of food writers with it, at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery. Cassola is sweet, creamy, and delicate (and naturally low-fat! but you could never tell). May your holiday season be just as delicious!

Cassola, the Ecumenical Pancake (not just Dairy, Very Dairy)

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ricotta cheese (made from whole milk, without emulsifiers)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 to 1 ½ cup sugar? (depending on desired sweetness)
  • a pinch of salt
  • zest of one large organic lemon (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon? or vanilla (optional)
  • about 2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil, or butter

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400º F. With a whisk or a hand mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until creamy.

Add the ricotta, salt, lemon zest and cinnamon (or vanilla).

Grease a baking pan (about 9 ½” and springform is easier) with butter or olive oil, dust with flour, pour the mixture in, and transfer into your pre-heated oven.

Bake at 400 F for the first 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 Fand bake for another 25 minutes.

Turn the oven off and allow the cassola to set inside, with the door open, for another 10 or 15 minutes.

It should be firmer and golden brown on the outside and very soft and moist inside, like a pudding. Serve warm.

You can also cook it in a greased non-stick or cast iron pan like a frittata, on the stovetop, flipping it once (this was probably the original version), or cook the bottom on the stovetop and the top in the oven under the broiler.

Serves- 4-6

http://dinnerinvenice.com/2011/12/18/cassola-the-ecumenical-pancake-not-just-dairy-very-dairy/