Quarantine Kitchen – Iconic Italy and France

I’m back this week with another recap of Quarantine Kitchen after having “traveled” to Northern Italy and then Paris, in the space between our refrigerator and the kitchen sink. I guess they say that travel is a state of mind, so in my mind I was eating tiramisù at a lakeside trattoria under a warm sun in Como earlier last week. I was then enjoying a savory coq au vin stew at a table in front of a tiny café on a quiet, cobblestone street in Paris. Two iconic meals made possible thanks to the internet that can bring us closer to the places and people we miss, and a sous chef who is willing to venture with me.

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Team work makes the dream work

In need of a confidence booster after my failed attempts at Valencian bunyols de vent and Hungarian somlói galuska, I fell back on a classic baked good that I’ve mastered, but this time with a spin – Limoncello muffins. Limoncello is made from Sorrento lemons found on the Amalfi coast of Italy, but this liqueur is popular across Italy (and around the world) so I figured it was still an appropriate addition to our Northern Italian menu. The finished product affirmed my love of this tart but sweet liqueur and I will most certainly be adding these muffins into my repertoire of satisfying sweets!

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Muffins al limoncello and this silly kitchen towel that I propose is updated to say “When life hands you lemons, grab the limoncello and make muffins!”

Muffins mastered and confidence boosted, the real test arrived when it was time for us to try our hand at making pasta on our own. We had last made tagliatelle pasta under Paola’s watchful eye during our cooking class in Como last May, but this time we wouldn’t be using a pasta machine and I had actually never heard of the dish I had selected. I decided on Casoncelli pasta while browsing through Paola’s collection of recipes because according to Paola, this is a typical first course in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. I recently featured her on a Get to Know a Local post. I appreciate that her recipes are easy to follow with hints/notes and often provide context on their origin in the culture. All recipes we used in our Northern Italian menu are hers and are linked in this post in case you decide you’re up for a pasta adventure or want an easy to follow tiramisù!

Casoncelli is a stuffed pasta, shaped like a wrapped candy. The filling varies based on where you are and the family tradition, but Paola’s recipe had breadcrumbs, Parmesan, meat, amaretti cookies (we actually used the lady finger cookies that the tiramisù also called for) and raisins – savory and sweet. Topping this hearty pasta is butter, sage, Parmesan and, if you want, bacon (we added the bacon).

Making the filling and topping are the easy parts, it’s the pasta dough that’s tricky. We somehow survived a near fatal disaster when the eggs erupted over the side of the flour volcano, but with our four hands working together, we managed to salvage the dough.

This process was a total team effort because as it turns out, making pasta by hand without a machine does amount to more work than bringing a pot of water to boil and inserting noodles until cooked al dente. While Dan muscled his way through kneading and rolling the dough, I worked fast to fill and sculpt the pasta, heeding Paola’s advice to work quickly so as not to let the dry out the dough. Having never eaten Casoncelli before, I did reference a Youtube video in which Giusy showed me how to create the shape of the pasta. Where this Italian grandmother was efficient and assured, I was clumsy and less than proficient. The end result was that ours didn’t look quite as put together as hers or Paola’s, but I doubt that’s the fault of the instructors. Regardless, the Casoncelli was DELICIOUS and especially satisfying knowing that we had successfully navigated homemade pasta together.

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A delicious finish!

Fortunately for me, Dan has truly become the master of tiramisù, so I was able to sit back while he went to work on assembling what turned out to be perhaps his best result yet. We didn’t have rum on hand thanks to a thirsty Hungarian somlói galuska sponge cake, so he prepared ours with limoncello. Arguably the most popular Italian dessert, the name literally translates to “pick me up”.

Dan oftentimes puts his own Belgian spin on this classic by incorporating speculoos cookies and spread, but he stuck to Paola’s original recipe this time. While the traditional tiramisù recipe calls for raw eggs, hers excludes it – the result is a slightly lighter, but no less flavorful creamy treat. I was able to play the role of official taste tester and assured him that adding a little more limoncello to the mascarpone cheese wouldn’t do any harm. His masterpiece was pleasing to the eye and palate!

Moving from one iconic menu to another, I intentionally coordinated our “evening in Paris” with the publication of my Get to Know a Local post highlighting Martin. He is the owner of the tour company Paris by Martin & Friends, which I became acquainted with a couple of years ago when we partook in a tour.  I recently reconnected with him to see if he would share some insight into this beloved but oftentimes overwhelming city. My video call with Martin had me craving food and drink you would find at a Seine-side café or bistro and so it was that our Parisian themed dining experience was conceived. Our menu included a French 75 aperitif cocktail, coq au vin and crème brûlée.

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A classic French dish – Coq au vin

I had never heard of or tried a French 75 cocktail, but this effortless concoction quickly made its way to the top of my list. Simple syrup was easy enough to make, and we already had champagne, lemon and Cognac on hand. Apparently, the original called for gin, but Cognac has been deemed acceptable and arguably even more appealing to the taste buds.  In true Quarantine Kitchen fashion, the preparation required an adaptation here or there – Dan gave the drink a good shake using my salad shaker that has sat idle for a few months now (see video evidence below). Don’t worry, there’s enough liquor in that drink that we would not have noticed any remnants of salad dressing should they have lingered. The cocktail does after all get its name from its strong “kick” that feels akin to being shelled with the powerful French 75mm field gun.

We sipped on our aperitif while the chicken braised slowly in red wine and a little cognac. A classic French recipe, coq au vin, calls for a whole, cut-up bird and three cups of a “hearty red wine, preferably from Burgundy”.  A full-bodied red wine I could embrace, but I wasn’t quite prepared to linger at the meat counter and use broken French to request a whole, cut-up chicken, or worse yet, track down the various components of a chicken in a picked-over display case, so I settled on using thighs. This turned out to be a good decision, even after I removed the thighs from their overnight submergence in red wine and my sister, who I was talking to on Facetime, called them sangria chicken.

Coq (rooster) au vin is actually a dish traditional to the Burgundy region (east central France), but because I know it’s found on menus in Paris and Julia Child said I could handle it, I really wanted to give it a try. There was some slicing, dicing, and sautéing involved, but on the whole, this was a straight forward process and a satisfying stew to serve. I love a recipe that allows for some imprecision and is generally forgiving should you add a few more vegetables or cognac than what it calls for. A close second favorite behind taking my first bite of this phenomenal, savory stew was lighting the brandy on fire in the cast iron skillet.

What is a menu du jour without dessert! Urged by Dan to make one of his favorite desserts and having depleted my flour reserves, crème brûlée was the obvious choice. Five simple ingredients – cream, vanilla, salt, eggs and sugar – were all I needed to assemble the custard base. Maybe you’re thinking “But Kaitlan, do you really have a butane torch on hand in order to caramelize the sugar and create that iconic crackly top?”. No, I do not own said torch, but as it turns out, an over broiler works just fine!

I also learned that while the earliest known recipe for crème brûlée appeared in a French cookbook in 1691, its origins may also be traced to England and Spain. In Spain the dessert is called crema catalana and uses cinnamon and lemon to flavor the milk, rather than vanilla and cream in the French version. In either case, it seems the key to avoiding a soupy custard is to let the custard set for several hours in the refrigerator before brûléeing the top the heat. Mission accomplished!

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A delicious finish for the crème brûlée

Aside from cooking, I enjoyed another week of unbelievably beautiful weather. Without a drop of rain in site, there was ample opportunity for outdoor exercise, including a bike ride back to the Hallerbos forest. I was hoping to time my arrival with the annual bluebell blooms that carpet the forest floors. I was in luck and did get to see the flowers emerge between giant Sequoia trees as I walked my bike through the empty trails. The weekly walks also continue, with a trip to the Bois de la Cambre and wishful thinking for better days ahead when we can enjoy Chalet Robinson.

I felt accomplished having successfully orchestrated two menus last week but have come to appreciate how helpful it is to have a second set of hands in the kitchen. Just like with any travel, it’s often nice to share in the experience with someone else – new friend or old, family or acquaintance. While we won’t be traveling too far in the near future, I’m glad that we’ve been able to sample new cuisine and relive our favorite dishes with largely successful results. It’s fun to enjoy the fruits of our labor together, even if the meal takes longer to prepare than expected and we don’t sit down to eat until after the 8 PM nightly clapping has long ceased. I like to think we’re embracing the local custom of a late dinner in the places we’re “visiting”!

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