Pie, Actually

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The first time I had heard the words “Banoffee Pie” were when Keira Knightley’s character, Juliet muttered them in the 2003 film, Love Actually. 

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“Banoffee pie?” she asked.

“No, thanks.” said Mark.

“Thank god. You would’ve broken my heart,” she sighed.

Such irony in that scene, as he was so secretly in love with her.

After watching the movie for the first time in 2004, I immediately investigated this “banoffee pie.” Ban (banana) offee (toffee). What I discovered, a British treat with a crisp, buttery crust, tender bites of banana and dulce de leche, and a soft, pillowy whipped cream topping. The combination is all too irresistible.

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Banoffee Pie
Recipe slightly adapted from Jamie Oliver
Serves 4-8

INGREDIENTS
4.1 ounces butter, melted
8.1 ounces Speculoos cookies (or digestive cookies), crushed into fine crumbs
1 can (10.5 ounces) condensed milk
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 large bananas, sliced 1 1/2 inches thick, on a bias
pinch salt
1 small bar of dark chocolate, finely chopped

METHOD
Make the dulce de leche. First, remove the label on the can. Take the upopened can and place into deep pot and completely immerse the can in water. The can must be completely submerged in the water or it will explode.

Turn the heat on the stove to medium-high. Cover the pot and once the water begins to boil, turn down to a gentle simmer. Set a timer for 1.5 hours, checking frequently to make sure the can is completely covered in water, and pouring in more water if needed.

After 1.5 hours, using a long pair of tongs, carefully flip the can upside-down and return back to the simmering water. Add more water to the pot if needed. Set another timer for 45 minutes. When done, carefully remove the can from the water and allow to cool in room temperature for about 30 minutes before opening. Set aside.

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Mix the melted butter with the cookie crumbs in a bowl. Place the mixture into a pie tin, pressing down to ensure the crust is evenly distributed. Place into the refrigerator for 1 hour.

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While the crust sets, whip the cream in a mixing bowl with a whisk till soft peaks form. Don’t over-mix. Set aside.

After the crust has set for 1 hour, spread the dulce de leche over the base of the crust evenly.

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Layer on the sliced bananas. Add a pinch of salt to the bananas.

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Then frost the top with the whipped cream.

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Sprinkle the top of the pie with the chopped chocolate. Place into the refrigerator to set for at least an hour. Serve.

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots in this story are property of Universal Pictures.)

DINING IN…

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A pet peeve of mine: When stores begin selling their holiday decorations months before the holiday has even come close. (Can we just celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving first, please?) It’s annoying, really. I don’t even want to think about Christmas in October when I’m trying desperately to put together my last-minute Halloween costume. Let’s keep them separated, people.

Another pet peeve of mine: Playing Christmas music in October. Or November.

Just stop.

I appreciate the wanting to get into the holiday spirit deal, but I just can’t justify listening to Bing Crosby singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” 100 times before Christmas. I just can’t. And as much as I love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, I don’t want to hear it every single day leading up to Christmas.

I can’t.

I like to wait a good four to three weeks before the holiday to get everything done. That includes shopping, getting the tree, decorating, and watching all of my usual holiday favorites (The Holiday, Love Actually, Home Alone, Hook, Bad Santa, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and While You Were Sleeping).

And The Family Stone. With an all-star cast–Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, and Craig T. Nelson, to name a few, The Family Stone circles around the Stone clan during Christmastime.

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The story starts off with the Stone’s prodigal son, Everett, (Mulroney) who brings his uptight, conservative girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Parker), with him to his family’s New England home for the holidays. Everett intends (albeit a bit skeptical) on proposing to her with his mom Sybil’s ring (Keaton), but is met with a bit of resistance from Sybil, who also has a terminal illness, and disapproves of her eldest son’s choice for a wife. None of the family approves of Everett’s girlfriend, either, and gives her a hard time at every opportunity they can. (Except Ben, played by Wilson, who shares a connection to Meredith.)

When Meredith sends an emergency SOS to her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come stay at the Stones’ home with her for support, things get interesting when Julie arrives, and her growing mutual attraction to Everett cannot be denied. These star-cr0ssed siblings endure a few fights, misunderstandings and an engagement ring stuck on someone’s finger. Uh-oh.

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One of the more pivotal scenes in the movie is when Meredith plans to make her family’s traditional “Morton Strata”, a savory bread pudding, on Christmas Day for the Stone’s. But things quickly turn upside-down, quite literally.

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Without further giving away anymore spoilers, I encourage you to watch this heartwarming movie.

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This week’s post is dedicated to Meredith’s Christmas Strata, which includes mushrooms (even though Everett is allergic to them…oops!). Perfect for Christmas morning, make this recipe a day-ahead, as it’s important for the bread to absorb all of that custardy goodness.

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Meredith’s Christmas Strata with Swiss Chard, Mushrooms and Gruyère

Recipe slightly adapted from NYT Cooking
Serves 6

INGREDIENTS
½ pound stale bread, sliced about 3/4 to 1-inch thick cubes
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pats
2 1/2 cups milk
1 ¾ cup mushrooms, quartered
1 cup cooking greens stemmed and cleaned (Swiss chard, kale or spinach)
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup Mozzarella cheese, grated
½ cup Gruyère cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons fresh thyme, picked and chopped
 3 Tablespoons Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon red pepper flake
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon salt

METHOD
Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish.

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In a large pan, toast the bread cubes lightly in 2 Tablespoons of the butter. Place in a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.

Sauté the mushrooms in 2 Tablespoons of the butter, then add in the thyme. Remove from the pan and into the bowl with the bread and milk.

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Using the same pan, heat another 2 Tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat, and add the cooking greens.

Stir for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic. Cover the pan, and allow the steam to cook the greens till it has completely collapsed, about three minutes. Uncover and stir, season with salt and red pepper flake.

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Remove from the pan, roughly chop and transfer to the bowl with the bread and mushrooms. Add the cheeses, and mix to incorporate. Arrange in the buttered baking dish.

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Beat together the eggs in a separate bowl, add in the remaining milk. Then pour over the bread mixture. Press the bread down into the custard mixture. Cover with foil and place into the refrigerator overnight.

On the next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place in the oven, and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Remove from the oven, and serve hot.

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots in this story are property of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Dining In…

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One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1996 film, Big Night. But it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I was introduced to this foodie classic by a roommate who told me about it after I had made a dinner of risotto and chicken. (We then watched the movie together later that evening.)

The film centers around two brothers, Primo and Secondo, immigrants from Italy, who own “Paradise” a restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. The restaurant is in danger of closing as its competing restaurant, another Italian-owned restaurant, “Pascal’s” is taking all of its business. As popular as their competitor’s restaurant may be with locals (think Bucca di Beppo-style decor) the restaurant does not have the heart and soul of the true Italian cuisine that the brothers’ restaurant embodies.

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The chef, Primo (beautifully played by Monk star, Tony Shalhoub) is the soul of the restaurant–preparing special dishes he brought from Italy to the States. While Secondo (played by Stanley Tucci, doing triple duty as actor, writer and director of the film) is the businessman of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant has to close, but a chat with Pascal leads Secondo to believe that he has set up a final dinner, a “Big Night”, where famous Italian-American singer, Louis Prima is supposedly invited to dine at their “Paradise.” The dinner is meant to be something special, a final goodbye to the restaurant and its roots. Cooking for a big-time star like Louis Prima not only excites Secondo, it pushes him to encourage  his brother to create a special, final meal.

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And the meal, well, it’s definitely something memorable. With about 6 courses, the Big Night meal is a culinary adventure that shoots to inspire any foodie, chef, student, and home cook alike. I often dreamt of recreating my own Big Night meal, and I thought that my (belated) housewarming dinner with a few friends would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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Instead of 6 courses, I opted for 4. The dinner centers around pivotal scenes and dishes in the film. I tried to be as ambitious yet realistic as possible. I had a day and a half to create this meal by myself, so I definitely had my work cut out for me. After pulling an all-nighter and waking up early the following morning to get this meal prepared before my guests arrived, I am incredibly happy with how well the dinner went. By the time my guests arrived, I already had the timpano in the oven, the sorbetto in the freezer, and I was able to cook the stracciatella and the risotto a la minute, right in front of my guests. The reveal of the timpano and slicing it at the table, and then pouring the Prosecco over the sorbetto was another visual treat my guests enjoyed. It appears, we, too, had our own Big Night.

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Big Night-Inspired Menu

zuppa: stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)

primo: risotto con capesante (Seared Scallop Risotto)

secondo: timpano (Baked Pasta Pie)

dolce: sorbetto alla fragola con prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

A Delicious Start

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In the Big Night dinner, the meal starts off with the zuppa (soup), although the film didn’t specify what type of soup was served, I opted for lighter fare. A light, clean-tasting soup felt like the best way to begin a four-course meal.

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This stracciatella (Italian for “to tear”, or “to shred”, the term is used to describe other foods, including stracciatella ice cream with its shreds of chocolate.) is so easy to make and requires only 5 ingredients–so convenient when you’re preparing a four-course meal for four people all by yourself! But remember: don’t stir the mixture in too much–the clumps cooking in the hot stock will create lovely little semolina dumplings once set.

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Stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)
Serves 2-4
Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes

INGREDIENTS
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups spinach leaves, stems removed and chiffonade cut (kale, chard and arugula also work well)
1 Tablespoon semolina flour
3 Tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (use a Microplane if you have one)
1 large egg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

METHOD
Heat the chicken stock in a stock pot and bring to a boil.

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While your stock is heating up, in a medium-sized bowl whisk together the egg, Pecorino Romano and semolina flour.

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Stir in the chiffonade-cut greens into the boiling stock. Lower the heat to a simmer. Slowly pour in the cheese/egg/flour mixture into the stock. Do not stir the mixture, allow it to sit in the simmering stock for about 2 minutes.

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Once the batter looks set (it will cook rather quickly) give the mixture a gently stir to incorporate all of the ingredients. The clumps of batter have now turned into mini dumplings. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

She Likes Starch!

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In one of my favorite (and famous) scenes in the movie, Big Night, a customer at Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo’s (Stanley Tucci) Italian restaurant is upset because the Seafood Risotto she ordered appeared to have “nothing that looks like a shrimp or a scallop (anywhere).” The customer then asked for a side of spaghetti and meatballs. Upset, Secondo then goes into the kitchen to tell his brother, the chef, Primo, that he needs to make an order of spaghetti and meatballs. Primo is not happy with this request, as he believes in the integrity of the food. The two argue about the customer liking too much starch. Primo then barks back with, “Maybe I should make her a mashed potato on the other side!” The scene is pure comedy and sets the tone of the movie.

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For the Primo (first) course of the meal, I wanted to recreate the Seafood Risotto to my own liking. I wanted the caramelization of the seared scallops to shine, so opted out on not adding any other seafood to the mix. The brightness of the spinach greens and basil work well with the creamy risotto, allowing the scallops to take center stage. Adding a splash of fresh lemon juice finishes the dish perfectly.

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Risotto con Capesante (Seared Scallop Risotto)
Serves 2-4
Recipe slightly adapted from Barbells and Bellinis 

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE RISOTTO
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups arborio
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
1/2 cup shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups of fresh spinach or other leafy green (chard and kale work well, too)
1/2 cup basil, chiffonade cut

FOR THE SCALLOPS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound of scallops (I used diver)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

METHOD
In saucepan, bring chicken broth to a boil.  Reduce to medium-low to keep warm.

In a large shallow skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat. Sauté the shallots till translucent. Turn down the heat to medium and add in the garlic and stir till aromatic–don’t burn the garlic!

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Add in the rice, stir to coat with the butter and cook for about 3-5 minutes.  Deglaze the pan by adding the wine and cook till the liquid is evaporated, stirring constantly.  Start adding your hot chicken broth in 1 cup-intervals and cook until mostly absorbed, stirring constantly. Continue to add the broth 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly until broth is almost completely absorbed (this should take 20-30 minutes).

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Stir in the spinach and basil after the final 1 cup of broth has been added.  Remove risotto from heat and add the Pecorino Romano. Cover and allow to stand for about three to five minutes (or until scallops are finished).  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To cook the scallops, heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat.  Add in the olive oil and allow oil to heat for a minute till hazy. Just before adding the scallops, pat them try with a paper towel; any excess water will create a splattery mess. Add the scallops to the pan, giving each scallop enough room to cook evenly without crowding the pan. Let the scallops sear without disturbing them for about 3-5 minutes. Once you’ve got a good dark, caramelization on one side, flip it over to cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the cooked scallop and top with the risotto.

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Save this one for Louis Prima

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“This is so fucking good, I should kill you!” screams rival restauranteur, Pascal (Ian Holm), as he takes his first bite of the grand, drum-shaped Timpano. 

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In what is truly a labor of love, the Timpano is a very special Italian dish–best explained by Primo to have, “a special crust, that is shaped like a drum, and inside…all of the most important things…in the world.”

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There are several components to the dish. First, the pasta crust. Then the meatballs. Then the marinara sauce, and everything else in between. Unfortunately, because of time restraints, I wasn’t able to make the pasta by hand, so I decided to cheat a little bit (just one cheat!) and topped the Timpano with lasagna sheets. The result is not as good as its original, but boy, the inside of the pasta pie well then makes up for it!

If you’re ready to wow your guests (and impress yourself, for that matter!) roll up your sleeves, and prepare to make this very special, timely dish.

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Italian-Style Meatballs
Yields 14-18 meatballs, depending on size
Recipe via A Streetcar Named Devour

INGREDIENTS
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1 small onion, finely minced
1 shallot, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 egg
1/4 cup Parmesan, grated
1/2 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup basil, finely chopped
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flake
olive oil

METHOD
In a medium-sized skillet, heat the oil till hazy. Add in the onion and shallot, saute till translucent. Add in the garlic, stirring for one minute. Remove from the pan and allow to cool.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the ground beef and pork, egg and cheese. Once the onion mixture is fully cooled down, add it into the mixture. Finish with the rest of the ingredients, mixing till just incorporated.

Roll the meatball mixture into 2 1/2 Tablespoonfuls-sized balls. Set aside.

Heat the same skillet over medium-high heat, adding just enough oil to reach about 1 1/2 inches of the skillet.

Load the skillet with the meatballs, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Cook all sides of the meatballs for 3 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and place onto a baking sheet.

Once all of the meatballs have been cooked, place into a 350-degree oven and cook for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until the center of the meatballs are cooked through.

(This can be done a day ahead.)

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Italian-Style Marinara Sauce
Yields 3 1/2 quarts
Recipe via A Streetcar Named Devour

INGREDIENTS
24 ounces of canned whole tomatoes
3 Tablespoons dried oregano leaves
1/2 cup basil, torn
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons Kosher salt

METHOD
Place all ingredients into a food processor or blender. Puree till all ingredients are completely blended together. Set aside.

(This can be done a day ahead.)

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Timpano (Baked Pasta Pie)
Serves 4-6 people
Recipe slightly adapted from LA Mag

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE ASSEMBLY
1 1/2 cups Genoa salami pieces
1 1/2 cup sharp provolone cheese chunks
6 hard-cooked eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
2 cups small meatballs* (Recipe above)
3 1/2 cups marinara sauce* (Recipe above)
1/2 pounds ziti, cooked al dente (about half the time recommended on the package) and drained, tossed in olive oil
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
3 eggs, beaten
8-10 sheets of lasagna, cooked al dente, drained, tossed in olive oil

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METHOD
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Make sure salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and marinara sauce are out at room temperature. Toss the ziti with 2 cups of the marinara sauce. Place 4 cups of ziti onto the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of a 1/2 cup salami, 1/2 cup provolone, 1 1/2 eggs, 1/2 cup meatballs and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese after that. Pour another 1/2 cup of sauce over the ingredients, repeat this step, adding layers of ingredients until the filling comes to about 1 inch of the top of your timpano pan. The last of the marinara sauce should be the top layer. Then pour eggs over the filling. Fold the lasagna sheet layers over the filling to seal it completely.

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Cover with aluminum foil and bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue to bake the timpano till it’s cooked through and is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees), an additional 30-45 minutes. Once done, remove from oven and allow the timpano to rest for another 30 minutes to allow it to cool and contract before attempting to remove it from the pan. Failing to do so, will result in a broken pasta pie. Once it’s fully cooled down, the baked timpano should not adhere to the pan.

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Place a baking sheet or a large, thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert the timpano. Remove the pan and allow timpano to cool for 10 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, gently slice the timpano like slicing a pie into individual portions. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Un Dolce Finale

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To complete a rather heavy (yet balanced!) Italian feast, inspired by the glorious meal shown in the classic film, Big Night, I wanted to incorporate a light and fruit-forward dessert. When planning the final course for this special meal, I consulted with my good friend, Brett, who is the pastry chef assistant at a superb Italian restaurant in Oakland that I used to work with him at. He immediately suggested a strawberry sorbet topped with some Cava or Prosecco. It was pure genius. This recipe of my Strawberry Sorbet from a few years’ back is my go-to. Just make the sorbet a day-ahead and pour a bit of Prosecco tableside and just see how delighted your guests will be!

Sorbetto alla Fragola con Prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
1 quart strawberry sorbet (recipe HERE)
1 bottle Italian Prosecco

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METHOD
Make the sorbet at least 1 day before serving.

When ready to serve, leave the sorbet out in room temperature for about 20 minutes to soften a bit. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop 2-3 scoops of sorbet into each bowl. Pour enough Prosecco over sorbet to just cover. Repeat for all bowls. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)