lasagna bolognese/nini turns 90

In our house, lasagna is birthday food. All throughout high school, my birthdays were celebrated with a heavily streamer-ed house, a handful of very best friends, bags of Swedish fish and cherry sours and Cheeto puffs, and a pan of my mom's lasagna. They made me happy; they make me happy remembering them now.

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The lasagna achieved somewhat of a legend status in some circles (read: our circle). Just look at us in the above photo! We were stoked! In my opinion, it remains the best way to celebrate a birthday. That being said, my grandmother turned 90 last week. It was time to up the ante.

Smitten Kitchen's Lasagna Bolognese recipe had haunted me ever since I first saw the post. Layers of the thinnest handmade noodles, slow-simmered bolognese sauce, and a lovingly-made bechamel sauce. Layered until infinity. When it comes to big family dinner parties, my mom and I are the ladies to turn to, and we thought there would be no better occasion to bust out this lasagna than a ninetieth birthday party. We borrowed a pasta machine from her best friend and it was time to go.

I've made some hard dishes in my lifetime, dishes that have made me sweat and want to scream. I think this was the hardest dish I've ever made. Not because of skill, not because of technique, just because of time. This is a true labor of love-- and however cheesy it sounds, you can taste the love when you take a bite. My mom and I crafted this majestic lasagna over two days. We cranked out thin noodles and simmered rich ragout on the stovetop. One of us frantically whisked bechamel into glossy submission while the other boiled the noodles in the tiniest batches and then dunked them in ice water. We built it up, the developed, gorgeous layers the peak representation of lasagna AS A CONCEPT. One cheese only-- parmesan. That felt groundbreaking in itself. You don't need a million cheeses or baked ricotta, you just need a million hours and knee replacement surgery from the pain in your joints caused from standing for so long!

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Listen...I love cooking, I LOVE COOKING, but this was rough near the ends. I was physically feeling the pull of my DVR holding the finale of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3. While there was still one more vegetarian lasagna to be made, I needed nothing more than to collapse in a chair and watch Shangela get robbed. It was TOUGH. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't totally worth it. There's nothing better than serving a dish of love to a table of people you love. And then them complimenting you endlessly!!!!! Including the day after via text!!!

If I ever dare to make this behemoth of a dish again, it will be for someone I love intensely. It will be on an occasion where I want to work hard in the most satisfying way. It will be when I want to experience, in droves, all the sensations that make cooking such a delight.

Happy 90th, Nini.

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- Sophie

 

prosciutto and mozzarella focaccia

For me, Call Me By Your Name was a devastating glimpse into what my summer COULD have been. Like Elio and Oliver, I spent a summer in a creaky old Northern Italian house that seemed to sweat. I chugged thick apricot juice at the pool and cracked soft-boiled eggs. Unlike Elio and Oliver, I did NOT find a great love. Except, of course, my great love of focaccia. 

I wasn't prepared for this love. I thought focaccia was just a type of bread, and I was perplexed when I saw it as a street food everywhere I went. A few weeks in, I approached a focaccia stand in Piazza Castello and ordered a prosciutto and mozzarella focaccia in embarrassing Italian. The woman cut a slab of focaccia from a huge sheet pan, wrapped it in parchment paper, and handed me the steaming sandwich. The second I took a bite, I understood. Melty mozzarella and salty ham and the fluffiest dimpled bread, all married as one. I could eat ten. I wanted to recreate them at home, but had no idea how. I was thrilled to see the roasted tomato picnic sandwiches in Smitten Kitchen Every Day, which mimicked the focaccia slab sandwich situation. Deb just made a simple pizza dough, spread one half of the dough on a sheet pan, filled it with roasted tomatoes, cheese, and olives, and topped it with the other half of the dough. I made these picnic sandwiches and was thrilled with how they turned out, and enjoyed a week of focaccia-ish lunches. This week, though, I wanted to try the fillings that I first fell in love with.

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I used good mozzarella-- i.e. wet mozzarella. I anticipated this problem, but didn't know how to remedy this. My pizza dough was a little overworked, a little thin, and I definitely shouldn't have topped this salt bomb with more Maldon, but I felt familiarity when I ate one of these focaccias. I felt the satisfaction of a hot cheesy sandwich and an ice-cold lemon tea on a 90 degree summer day in the middle of a piazza. Italy may not have gifted me a boyfriend that makes me cry for seven minutes in front of a fireplace, but it did give me the gift of a complicated bread recipe to perfect. Which is a lot like a tender makeout from Armie Hammer and/or Timothée Chalamet. 

- Sophie

 

baked pasta with artichokes, greens, and too much cheese

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows my love for pasta. My pantry consistently overflows with spaghetti and orecchiette and bucatini and rigatoni. My best friend made me a beaded bracelet declaring my love for it. Last summer, I ate pasta at least once a day for two months and still wanted to eat it when I returned home. 

And yet, I'm particular about what goes into it. I'm certainly a creature of habit. Cacio e pepe, aglio e olio, carbonara, butter-roasted tomato sauce. These are my main players, and I rarely stray from them. I don't need fennel fronds or cannellini beans or wilted Swiss chard in my pasta. The basic dishes that require technique, the techniques I have perfected after lots of imperfect pasta— those are the most delicious to me. Those dishes are the reason I love pasta so much.

But here's the thing. I really like artichokes. I was intrigued by this dish in Dining In (I was certainly drawn in by the intoxicating phrase "too much cheese") and spent yesterday afternoon putting it together while watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace (you gotta watch!). Alison Roman describes this as basically a spinach-artichoke dip in pasta form, and it does not disappoint. These photos are before it was baked, but you can see the components. I used only kale instead of spinach and kale because I need to slowly ease into the pasta and greens life. If/when I make this again, I'll probably want to prepare a little more of each component so i can make a layered lasagna dish. This only ended up being two layers— but it's still very satisfying. Before assembly, I was eating the Parmesan ricotta mixture with a spoon like an animal. It's really a yummy dish, introducing me to what can be possible when you expand your pasta horizons!

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- Sophie

breakfast salad

My relationship with breakfast has historically been one of the better ones in my life. It's consistent, it's loving, it's devoted. My relationship with salad has been slightly less passionate. Like most people, I don't hate salad—I'd just rather have most anything else for lunch (don't even get me started on Only Salad For Dinner). I had a bad habit of buying a bag of arugula with the best of intentions— a salad with every lunch and dinner that week. The salad doesn't have to be big, I told myself! It doesn't even have to be half of your plate! Just eat some green leaves! Inevitably after two weeks, I'd be throwing away another bag of wet green slime that I fully chose to ignore in the vegetable crisper. 

I had seen the concept of a breakfast salad before and naturally rolled my eyes. There was already enough pressure for me to be eating salad for my two other meals! Why did I have to bring it in before 9 AM? Alison Roman sings the praises of a breakfast salad in Dining In. But she also said chocolate chip cookies were "deeply flawed," so why should we trust her?! I jest. I would trust her with my life; her anti-chocolate chip cookies have been the best part of my January.

So there I was, another bag of unopened arugula in my fridge. I thought of Alison's book. I thought of how much I love soft-boiled eggs. I opened the arugula and set a pot of water on to boil. I made a six-and-a-half minute egg, dressed my arugula lightly in olive oil and apple cider vinegar, sprinkled some Maldon and pepper across the salad, spread some toast with butter, and dug in.

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To my surprise, I was INTO IT. I love breakfast, but I often feel like I have exhausted my realistic and quick weekday breakfast options. There's only so many ways I can combine eggs and bread, only so many bowls of oatmeal I can eat without collapsing into bored moans. While there's a million different lunch and dinner options I want to try instead of salad, salad for breakfast was intriguing, new, and fun. It took no time at all to prepare and I had completed my self-imposed greens quota before I'd even finished my first cup of coffee. Also, buttered toast goes beautifully with salad.

Today was my third day as a passenger on the Breakfast Salad Train, and I'm not getting off any time soon. In fact, I may even finish a bag of arugula. 

-Sophie

salted butter & chocolate chunk shortbread

In my house, chocolate chip cookies are a love language. When my sister and I were sad, when we were happy, when we were furious, when there was no dominant emotion and no reason at all— my mom would mix up a bowl of cookie dough. She uses the recipe on the Nestle chocolate chip bag, but she never actually has to look at the recipe. My sister would get called in before my mom mixed in the chocolate chips because Sadie likes chip-less dough. My mom would put it in the fridge to let it firm up and I would sneak spoonfuls before they went in the oven. More often than not, she brings a batch when she visits us at college. There's a few straggler cookies from months ago still in my freezer. They taste like childhood and adolescence and young adulthood all at once. I think chocolate chip cookies may have this particular taste-memory power over most Americans more than any other food. 

It's been a few months since Alison Roman's Dining In came out. I discovered Alison in 2015 when I first got into cooking and she immediately became my career path DREAM GIRL. I adore her approach to food and I was so thrilled to get my hands on her book. If you are at all involved in food communities on Instagram, you've seen what I'm about to show. These are none other than Alison's Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread. 

Now, unlike Alison (but like the rest of the nation), I love a chocolate chip cookie. But these cookies are something extraordinary. These taste familiar but so unlike the chocolate chip cookie you are expecting. They are deeply textured, brown sugar-bombed delights with just enough chocolate, Demerara sugar-crisped edges, and flaky salt in each bite. 

While eating three of them in my bed last night watching Steel Magnolias, I tried to recall what about them tasted so familiar, since they certainly weren't tasting like my mom's Nestle classics. I flipped madly through the chocolate chip cookie Rolodex in my brain. I've eaten so many. 

Flipping, I stopped at "Cookies of 2006-2007." After school, student council opened up the "Snack Shack" in the gym for both athletes after sports practice and kids whose parents did not pick them up on time and were really losing it not having eaten for the three hours since lunch. I think my parents were generally prompt, but I would bolt over to the gym with my friends for one thing: Otis Spunkmeyer cookie dough cooked in a toaster oven. The Snack Shack, of course, had no oven. That was perfect for us. The toaster oven barely cooked these morsels of dough, and that was how we liked it. We would eat this scorching-hot processed dough off a napkin with a fork, since it could not hold a shape and we would absolutely not wait for them to cool. Having been spoiled with homemade cookies my entire life, I was taken with the certainly-not-homemade flavor. It's a different flavor than homemade... AND IT'S DELICIOUS. Alison's cookies taste like an gorgeous, elevated, writes-recipes-for-the-New-York-Times version of those grocery store slice-n-bake log cookies that you sometimes crisp up a little too much. FYI that is an enormous compliment, if you somehow don't love grocery store slice-n-bake logs. 

I'm fully obsessed with these cookies now, just like every other person on Instagram. I had to stop myself for eating one after BREAKFAST today. Like a monster.

-Sophie

yolk mornings

Here we are, the end of November. Italy seems farther and farther away. I get voice messages over Whatsapp from my girls and Snapchats from Giulia from her new high school, jittery and rapid Italian shrieked between boys and girls who have just become teenagers. I think about it when I'm at work at an American public high school, turning pallid under bright lights and staring at the cement-block building outside the window, while I scroll through pictures of the freshest mozzarella and foccacia that I ate a few months ago. Olive oil poured in a thin stream over tomatoes, over soft-boiled eggs, over a plate of agnolotti. The shine of it, the glistening drizzle, is lush. 

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When her two sisters were away, one at summer camp and one at the sea with the grandparents, Francesca and I had a week together alone in the big house in Rivarossa. She was excited to cook with me and I was excited too. She went to day camp in the morning, and I would make her breakfast. Two cups of tea, one for each of us, a spread of chocolate biscuits and muesli. Maybe an egg if she wanted it. One day, I told her I was going to make her one of my favorite breakfasts. 

My dad didn't cook much when I was little, but when he did, he cooked breakfast. During Passover, he made a matzo brei that consistently knocked my little socks off. Aunt Jemima syrup and scrambled eggs and matzo that was soggy in the best way, because it was soggy with syrup. That was the only dish that made me look forward to Passover (I have been passionate about gluten my entire life). He once made scrambled eggs for my sister and I. They tasted different than normal- soft. They tasted like the scrambled eggs I had at Cindi's, a New York Jewish deli that we would go to as kids. I was amazed at how my dad had managed to recreate the exact taste of Cindi's scrambled eggs (the incredible secret: cooking them for slightly less time!!! WHAT?) Henceforth, I asked for "Cindi's eggs" when my dad made breakfast. That, or toad in a hole. My dad blew our minds when he threw a toad-in-the-hole in the mix. A simple piece of sandwich bread, an egg, some butter. I always put grape jelly on mine as a kid. This meal reminds me of being a kid, and it's still one of my favorite breakfasts.

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I'm never, ever stingy with the butter. Butter is what takes the most humble ingredients possibly in America and makes them into a breakfast that truly feels decadent. Butter foaming on cast iron wakes me up more than coffee. I never let Francesca see how much butter I used. First, I knew that even at nine, she would berate me for it. Most people berate me for it. Second, I knew she would urge me to use olive oil instead. But I was a wise American and I needed her to trust me. I crisped the bread perfectly before even cracking the egg in. You have to make the bread itself something otherworldly before you introduce the MVP. It takes some patience. Crisp it, make it golden, make it perfect. More butter in the cut-out circle. Crack the egg, let it sizzle. I sprinkle it with pepper and pyramids of flaky salt. I butter the skillet again and flip it. Salt and pepper, a few sizzling seconds, and it's time to eat. I served it up with Francesca's cup of tea. 

Outside, we ate breakfast in the garden on a rickety little green table. They set the table for every meal, even breakfast. I liked the formality of that. Francesca took a bite and seemed to ascend. We drank our tea in the garden and sopped up egg yolk with buttery toasted bread. Her dad walked through the garden on his way to work. Francesca showed off her toad-in-a-hole to him with pride, and he took a curious bite. I ended up making him his own-- he scarfed it down happily and left for work, driving like a Fast and Furious maniac like all Italians did. There is something quietly comforting about sharing breakfast with another person. I shared a taste of my own childhood, egg yolk and humble white bread, with a child from another generation. She was olive oil; I was butter. 

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pasta alle vongole

One night this summer, I had the kind of late European evening where you are convinced you may never be fed dinner. 9:30 pm had came and went and my stomach was a bottomless black hole with nothing inside of it. "This can't be how people live," I muttered to myself, pacing around my bedroom.

And then, after what seemed like weeks, the calling from downstairs came. It was nearing my fifth grade bedtime but dammit, I was going to have dinner. I rushed downstairs with the speed and anticipation of my chihuahua when she hears a cheese wrapper crackling open. I nearly wept when I saw what was on the table- a big glass bowl filled to the brim with linguine and mussels. Briny, brothy, beautiful pasta and mussels. 

Mussels were the first seafood I ever tried and loved. Some of that may have had to do with my eating them at a restaurant in France in a beautiful big red stockpot that had "les moules" written on it in white cursive, piled full of mussels and garlicky white wine broth laced with cream. I scooped the mussels out of their shells and dunked piece after piece of bread in broth and I thought nothing else could be as scrumptious. 

Living in Texas doesn't make eating mussels all the time the easiest task. I have exactly one place I can order them in Austin and exactly zero places I can order them in Dallas. So you can imagine my glee when I saw this bowl of pasta- these were two of my favorite foods that I had never deigned to put together myself. My host mom explained that she was supposed to make pasta alle vongole (clam pasta) but the market was out of clams. She settled for mussels instead, and she hoped it was still good.  

I loved it so much. It tasted like the sea, and Francesca next to me gushed over how much she loved it too. She told me they would always eat it when they went to the sea in Puglia. At eleven, her food memories were clear. I knew she would keep those food memories for a long time. This sort of pasta in broth was something I had had very rarely, if at all. It felt so earthy, so natural. Like most Italians, my host mom would never use recipes, and this dish tasted like the most natural thing in the world, like the concentrated product of what happens when good ingredients meet good instincts meet love. 

When it came time for my farewell dinner, my host mom asked me what I wanted for dinner- something special. I told her the truth, which was that anything I would normally request for a special dinner was what we had been having for dinner for months (i.e. an endless bowl of pasta, maybe accompanied with some cheese and meat). But I told her I loved the pasta with mussels. She thought it was too simple, and she wanted me to pick something extravagant. But it was a special dish to me. 

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So, at the end of July, we set the table outside and brought out the big glass bowl. My host mom served me a massive tangle of pasta and a generous scattering of clams- small but still so dramatic-looking, ladled a splash of briny juices over the top, and finished it with chopped parsley and olive oil that they siphoned into a bottle from a huge jug in the kitchen. I was, dare I say, happy as a clam.

I made pasta alle vongole myself a few weeks ago and thought of my Italian family every step of the way. It will always, always remind me of them. Mine was kind of too garlicky even for me and certainly not as deliciously brothy (blame that on my dependence on RECIPES!), but I scarfed it down and thought about how special and powerful food can be.

(recipe was a combination of Bon Appetit's and Samin Nostrat's from her book Salt Fat Acid Heat)

- Sophie 

 

a glamorous fried egg sandwich

One of my favorite ways to spend a slow-moving morning in Austin is with a breakfast sandwich, cup of coffee, and an outdoor table at a breakfast trailer called Paperboy. The menu is small but everything on it is fabulous, and it's a relaxing alternative to the chaotic breakfast/brunch lines of every other place in the city. I always get the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, which is served on a brioche bun with pimiento cheese and a bundle of greens. It's simple and completely mouthwatering because of the quality of the ingredients.

This egg sandwich I made reminded me of my favorite one from Paperboy. It is composed of my favorite crispy egg, gorgonzola, pancetta, and arugula tossed in the rendered fat from the pancetta. A good egg sandwich is really one of life's great simple pleasures. 

-Sophie

 

 

raspberry jam buns

Pillsbury cinnamon rolls (the ones stuffed mercilessly into a cardboard tube) were one of my favorite treats as a kid. We got to buy them so rarely that it felt like the heavens had opened when that weird little tube was in our fridge. That tiny sugary cup of icing was an exercise in restraint and rationing. Like most children, my sister and I would want to eat all of the icing before the rolls even came out of the oven. 

These raspberry jam buns from Julia Turshen's Small Victories are a major upgrade. I have grown to love making yeasted dough, for both the relaxation and the science of it. It's a cool process, and y'all know I love taking on slightly complicated recipes (just slightly).

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I made these buns a few months ago and they did not disappoint. The unbaked pictures were much prettier, but the taste was fabulous. Raspberry jam is literally one of my number one favorite foods, so these buns were right up my alley. They are topped with a glaze made primarily of creme fraiche, and the slightly-sour tang is perfect with such a sweet breakfast bun. Julia also has a chocolate cake in this book whose frosting is sour cream-based. A tangy frosting literally makes all the difference for people who don't love an aggressive sweet on sweet combo, which I often don't. 

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You must buy Small Victories if you haven't already-- it has become an absolute favorite cookbook of mine over the last few months. Perfect for beginner, intermediate, or advanced home cooks. 

- Sophie

routines

About a month into my time in Italy, my host family moved to their house in the country, where they live in the summer with the grandparents. The house was huge, very old, and seemed quite haunted at night. This was, for some reason, the ceiling of my bedroom. It was a tiny little bedroom–white walls and a green carpet that looked like a golf course–and this ornate ceiling. I don’t know who painted it or why it was this elaborate. I tried to ask and got no answers.

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Anyway, this was obviously a way of living I was unaccustomed to. I was in a tiny little town, living in a huge house (see, it’s usually large city, tiny house) and NO WIFI! But there were two things that I was accustomed to that translated beautifully– coffee and pasta.

Every morning, I walked Cristina and Francesca to their summer camp whose name just translated to Kid’s Summer. It was close to the town center, as much of a center as the town had. We had to walk down a long, long hill from our house, and near the end of it, it got the kind of steep where the backs of your ankles just ache from the pressure. We would chat and chat. My favorite kind of chat was asking the girls “do you have _____ in Italy?” This could be concepts, TV shows, foods, literally anything that I had not yet noticed in my time. I’m sure they got irritated with it. We would sing our favorite songs. I was (still am) particularly obsessed with Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu,” and the girls got me into an Italian combo rap/ballad song called “Piccole cose” by J-Ax and Fedez and they would also sing Zara Larsson’s “Symphony” but didn’t know any lyrics except “I just wanna be part of your symphony.” I heard that song today and my heart panged for them. Anyway. The walks were tough but we had fun. We always had fun!

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When I got back to the house, sweating from the uphill walk which was 9 times worse than the downhill one, I wanted to just chill for hours. AND CHILL I DID. This was where the second part of the morning routine happened. Stovetop espresso, babaaaay. I was taught to make espresso by Cristina. Who is 8. It was one of the first moments I had with her when I got to Turin. It was breakfast time and I asked how to use the espresso maker. Cristina was absolutely thrilled to show me, climbing up on a footstool to grab her materials. If an eight year old could do it, I figured I could as well. So began my routine. I would get back to the house, start my espresso, and put some milk on the stove to heat up. This method of making coffee became ritualistic in the most satisfying way. It didn’t feel as comforting to put ground coffee into my Krups coffee maker at home. I liked hearing it sputter on the stove, watching the liquid pour over the little spout. I loved the smell.

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I would froth the milk then. They had a little contraption that you could heat the milk in on the stove and then stick an attachment in that would froth it. This is another thing that I’m sure I could find in America but it just seemed so clever and continental that I could barely stand it. I could make near-perfect cappuccino foam in seconds, foam that I could never manage whenever I had to make espresso drinks at a past job. So I would take it out to the garden, a place that became the embodiment of peace for me. It was perhaps the most singularly peaceful place I’ve ever been. I would park myself on a foldable lawn chair with my handmade cappuccino, my journal, my headphones.

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I had no wifi for Spotify so I would listen to music from high school that I had downloaded from my laptop. I would listen to my music and drown in my nostalgia as I am wont to do. I would journal and stare at the sky and land across from me. To me, it was my perfect place. The breeze could get me, it was shady and blue and green in equal amounts. There was endless sky and endless trees and land. It made me feel balanced and completely content. This right above was what I stared at for hours.

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Al fresco dinners were another routine. When it wasn’t raining, we would eat dinner outside in the garden, in my peaceful place. I would set the table with their tablecloth and their beautiful china, and we would eat. Me, my host family, and their grandparents. I was around the Badinis’ grandparents for over a month and I just wished I could speak Italian or they could speak English, neither of which were true.

Let’s have a quick aside about the grandparents: Nonna was the kind of old lady queen I aspire to be in fifty years or so. She made things happen, she was in charge, and she was confident. Nonna secured her iconic position in my head when she straight-up wore a crop top at the age of probably 88. AND SHE WAS WORKING IT. OBVIOUSLY. She ruled and made an incredible risotto. Nonno…well, I’ve never wanted anyone else to be my grandfather more than Nonno. I have one wonderful grandfather, but I also have a list of “dream grandpas” on my phone that include Junior Soprano, Joe Biden, Richard Gilmore, and Bernie Sanders. But Nonno TAKES THE CAKE. I knew maybe four words that he ever spoke but I KNEW he was the sweetest man I’d ever met. He had joy radiating around him. Every time I was around him I just wanted to hug him and really wished it wouldn’t have been weird if I had. One day I realized I had no idea what Nonna‘s real name was. Evidently I was not alone. While Francesca and I were setting the table one evening, I asked:

Me: “Francesca, what is your grandmother’s real name?”

Francesca: “Um…….I don’t know.”

I asked Giulia the same question when she arrived at the table, and she notified me that her name was Giuseppina, but everyone called her Giusetta. I thought those were both so beautiful.

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I will not lie to you in an appearance to seem perfect: THESE DINNERS WERE STRESSFUL. Every person at the table (eight of them!!!) was speaking rapid Italian and it makes you feel incredibly isolated. I would try and speak to the little girls to try and hear some familiar words. They would speak to me in English for a bit and then revert back to Italian, which I, of course, understand. But at a certain point, I just succumbed to it. I would recognize certain words and try and figure out what everyone was saying. I would try to make it a game with myself. And sometimes I would just eat my dinner and look out at the mountains and continue to be incredulous. My dad says to start every day with a sense of wonder. That was never a problem this summer.

-Sophie

not actually pronounced "sank tear"

I think the most magical thing I saw in all of my time in Italy were the five towns of Cinque Terre. This was planned about as last-minute as possible, but I’m so happy it all worked out. Cinque Terre is the place where my mind goes when I start to reminisce sappy and happy about the whole summer. It was two days and it was absolutely magic. That’s the only word. Magic.

We woke up early on a Saturday morning and took the train to Monterosso, which is the town with the main stretch of beach. Pink flowered trees against pink buildings, colorful lines of umbrellas, the prettiest clear blue water the color of seaglass, big dramatic cliffs and rocks in the sea, the enveloping smell of fried seafood served with lemons in paper cones. It all smelled like the sea. Not the ocean. Every time I said “the ocean” while recapping my trip, my host mom and the little girls I was au pairing always said “the sea! it’s the SEA!” Having not grown up anywhere near an ocean OR a sea, I seemed to think they were somewhat interchangeable. Not the case. From the second I walked out of the train station in Monterosso, I was charmed and amazed. We ate lunch in this magical little tucked-away garden area, where we were surrounded by all kinds of flowers but we could still see the sea right in front of us. I had pesto pizza and Prosecco. Pesto is the specialty of the Ligurian region, so I had it a lot that weekend. I used to be addicted to pesto, so much so that I made myself unable to consume it for years. Ligurian pesto is something entirely different. So smooth, so pungent, so garlicky! It was so fabulous, and I’m committed to making pesto that would make a Ligurian proud. It’s all about the ingredients, the component parts. I’ll try my best, but my basil is not grown in that special Italian soil. Afterwards, it was gelato time. After a month, I had settled on my perfect combination–stracciatella (what is basically a milk-flavored gelato with chocolate shavings) and raspberry. It was one combination I found where the fruit flavor didn’t taste strange with a non-fruit flavor. It was enough chocolate to satiate me but not enough to make the fruit flavor taste weird. I later found out it was my host daughter/sister’s favorite combination as well. 

 

After lunch, we went to the beach. It had been forever since I had been on a beach, and I was so happy. It was cloudy basically all weekend, which turned out to be good because it cut down on the number of people everywhere and it wasn’t so miserably hot. I laid on the expensive linen souvenir blanket I bought because I forgot to pack a towel in my tiny backpack, listened to the waves crash, and got incredibly depressed and upset reading the classic light beach read of A Little Life. Had to put that down because it was distressing me so much. The sun came out for a bit and I fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on getting in the water since I’m not the biggest fan of swimming in open waters, but there came a point where I was just so sweaty and it looked so inviting. So I swam and I’m glad I did. It felt amazing and it was so salty and it felt so free just trying to float, trying to wade myself backwards. I was so happy in that moment. None of it felt real. That feeling came over me so many times during this summer—this stuff doesn’t happen to me, I don’t get to climb over the Adriatic Sea and look at pastel clusters of Italian houses. That’s other people. That has never gotten to be me. I felt very lucky and very disbelieving.

 

That night, we took the train to Manarola and walked up the side of this cliff to a beautiful bar we had heard lots about. The views were unreal. Not real at all. There were no words but magic magic magic. We got to the top and the bar was closed but we mooched off their view and said we would go the next day. We sat on a bench on the side of the cliff and took it in for a while.

 

Corniglia was my favorite town of the whole bunch. We took a rickety little bus up to the top of the cliff to get to the center of the town and I was so nervous. The town was so adorable—little colorful alleys with tiny precious shops, baskets of lemons, trattorias, rainbow paper lanterns. I was smitten. I was obsessed. We had lemon basil gelato at 10:30 in the morning. After a thorough exploration of Corniglia, we took the train back to Manarola to go to Nessun Dorma, the bar/restaurant on the cliff. We were first in line but some boneheads cut us. I had pesto bruschetta and a lemoncino spritz overlooking…everything. Have I ever felt more famous?! The answer is no. Of course I haven’t. We did make it to every town but Corniglia, Monterosso, and Manarola were the highlights.

 

My only souvenirs from the weekend (the only souvenirs I need) were trofie pasta and a jar of Genovese pesto, which is the base for one of the region’s signature dishes, trofie al pesto. It’s composed of trofie pasta (a shape of which I had never heard!), pesto, baby potatoes, and green beans. I made it (minus the vegetables—sorry we didn’t have them in the house!!) and had it for lunch for several days. I would eat outside, on the table overlooking the mountains in my favorite garden, and I felt grateful for beauty and for life and for pasta and for everything that led me to the space I occupied in that very second.

 

-Sophie

 

a moment in the sun

At 5:30 pm, I was sitting on my windowsill, which seems like something I’ve always wanted to do, even if I hadn’t ever explicitly thought that. I threw my right leg out the window, let it soak up sun and swing. It is summertime in a big, ancient house in northern Italy and I am in the rare mood in an non-ventilated European summer where I want to sweat, where sweating would seem so luxurious and free. I finished my book of Anne Sexton poetry, reading the nicest words and looking over occasionally to watch the handfuls of Italians stroll our quiet street. I could smell espresso brewed on the stovetop from my perch. The sky seemed so blue and the angles of roofs were so satisfactorily sharp against it. I peeled pointy skin from my heel and it is smooth now. Cristina arrived back from the sea with her grandparents, her tininess tanned and wearing nautical blue and white. She jumps into my arms and I sway her back and forth.

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ricotta & egg raviolo with brown butter and crispy sage

I went into the experience of living in Italy for a little over two months almost entirely blind. I was going to live with a family, but I didn't really know that much about them. I was going to live in some city in the North, but I'd barely heard of it and didn't look it up too much. I had a shockingly tiny number of questions about this whole thing. I was just planning on going with the flow. I did have one question and that was "AM I EVER GOING TO GET SICK OF PASTA?"

The answer to that was kind of, but only nearing the very end of my time. That is, two months of at least one dish of pasta a day. That isn't to say that that's so strange for my culinary routines at home. But it's different in Italy.

From Italy, I spent four days in Paris and after those four days, I was already craving a bowl of noodles. I arrived back in Texas, had my obligatory margarita and enchiladas for dinner, then had pasta again the next day. Doesn't take long for this girl to come back to her problematic fave.

Which brings me to this beautiful pasta. The entire time I was in Italy, I was dreaming of Nancy Silverton's Mozza cookbook, which was waiting for me at home, having been gifted to me for graduation in May. I had only gotten to make one batch of fresh pasta from Nancy's book before leaving, and I was craving to read it cover to cover and cook some of the hundred incredible dishes. The one dish that I could remember seeing and dying over was this one: the ricotta and egg raviolo. One enormous, singular raviolo filled with a disc of seasoned ricotta and a beautifully bright egg yolk. Cutting into this brown-butter soaked square to a gushing yellow yolk is something Nancy Silverton herself can only describe as "sexy." She ain't LYING! I couldn't wait to take on this quite ambitious dish.

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This was so worth the effort. Completely restaurant-quality, sumptuous at-home dining. Unapologetically rich. Totally perfect. I ate three. I very rarely have to take a nap after a dinner at home, but you bet I did with this one. I loved this process--I especially love kneading fresh pasta dough, where therapy meets exercise meets your favorite food.

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I've only cooked four recipes from it so far, but the Mozza cookbook is my favorite cookbook as of late. Each time I flip through it, I find something new, exciting, and scrumptious that I want to add to my to-cook list.

I hope to write a little bit about my summer in Italy on the blog to direct to anyone who may be curious. It's quite hard to fit two months into a reply when someone asks how it was. As a result, I have been reverting to "it was wonderful!" and they generally leave it. But I'd love to share, so I'm writing this segment as an incentive to myself to actually write some things!

-Sophie

it was a very good year

I've always had a strong desire to be Italian-American. Italians and Jews are sort of cut from the same cloth, but there is something about the concept of "Sunday dinner" and calling red sauce gravy that really works for me. Eating baked ziti and Italian deli meats all the time doesn't hurt either. That being said, I am fully obsessed with The Sopranos after my sister forced me to watch it this past fall.

I remember growing up on the outskirts of The Sopranos--mainly, I remember the VHS box sets that rested beneath our television and I remember being barricaded out of my parents' room each Sunday night to protect my sister and I's untarnished eyes from curb stomps, gunshots to the head, and mafioso sex with women who aren't the men's mafia wives.

I love any television show that can build such a rich, lush culture and world. It does such a marvelous job at creating this north Jersey Italian-American world, and I, for one, find it intoxicating. This 21 year old girl sometimes dreams of being a 48 year old male mafia leader, my stomach spilling over my pants as I smoke an expensive cigar at the strip club and nurse a neat scotch. It is just as fun, though, to act as the Carmela Soprano and bake a beautiful baked ziti for your family. Ever the world-builder, I constructed a playlist of Italian opera music, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra to float around our dining room as we ate.

I used Smitten Kitchen's ziti recipe, even though I went so far as to buy The Sopranos Family Cookbook for a single penny on Amazon. I'm just not sure it's classy enough for me to actually cook from--I am very elitist when it comes to my cookbooks and I kinda bought it for the novelty of it all. We'll see if I ever crack it open to cook from--or even to use some of fake-Carmela Soprano's entertaining tips.

The moral of the story is that I love a good themed dinner. It was a very good dinner. My playlist is here if you're interested!

my 10 kitchen mainstays

I am always interested to see what other people always keep in their kitchen.

  1. Full-fat ricotta cheese

This has been a more recent mainstay, but I just love ricotta. I have plenty of recipes that I love that feature ricotta (Smitten Kitchen’s baked ziti, the turkey and ricotta meatballs from Small Victories, etc.) so I love when I can buy a tub for a recipe and have leftovers. One of my favorite quick uses for ricotta is stirring it into a jarred marinara sauce to make a luxurious pink sauce for pasta. It totally transforms a bland store-bought sauce and makes it something special. It’s also the base of all delicious fancy toasts. Lately, I’ve loved toast spread with ricotta, topped with a smashed soft-boiled egg, and drizzled with honey and salt.

2. Dijon mustard

Obviously. As an emulsifier for salad dressings, a spread on sandwiches, or as part of a marinade, dijon is a real powerhouse. I love its flavor and go through jars constantly.

3. Brown sugar

I find myself using brown sugar all the time. I love it in my morning oatmeal and it’s also delicious on salmon when you mix it with the dijon mustard above!

4. Eggs

Another obviously. This is me.

5. Parmesan cheese

I have created a life in which, no matter how barren my pantry is, I can always–always–ALWAYS make an enormous bowl of cacio e pepe for myself.  Butter. Spaghetti. Parmesan. Pepper. I ALWAYS HAVE THESE THINGS. Trader Joe’s has great prices for their Parmesan because they keep the rinds on. This makes me feel better financially and if you keep the rinds, you can use them to flavor soups and pasta sauces.

6. Trader Joe’s frozen soup dumplings

I am so obsessed with these and I don’t even know if they’re actually that good. They keep me satiated when I am away from my one and only, Monkey King Noodle Company, whose soup dumplings I crave even when it’s 102 degrees.

7. Panko bread crumbs

Panko is a really easy way to make things a lot more delicious. I use panko the most in spaghetti pangrattato with crispy eggs and panko-crusted salmon, two dinner staples that are easy to make and pretty budget-friendly.

8. Salsa

My favorite salsa ever is Clint’s Texas Salsa, which, paired with crispy-thin, perfectly salted Xochitl tortilla chips…is close to a perfect meal. Salsa is essential for the easiest chicken tacos ever–boneless skinless chicken breasts, half a packet of taco seasoning, a jar of salsa, and a little bit of water in the crockpot on low all day. My mom introduced this “recipe” to me and it’s one of our favorites at home, one that I’ve just gotten to take with me to school after I got a combo rice cooker/slow cooker for Hanukkah. I also need salsa whenever I make breakfast tacos at home and it’s usually good on a rice bowl of some kind. Which brings me to…

9. Rice

Even more so now that I have my game-changing new rice cooker! I make a batch of rice that I keep in the fridge to reheat (and often make it crispy— seriously amazing). Easy, filling, endlessly adaptable in combination with so many of the other ingredients on this list.

10. Garlic

I am incurably obsessed with garlic. I literally don’t think anything could be too garlicky for my little taste buds. It is seemingly the base of every dish I make. I love garlic’s versatility: it can be made sweet and succulent by cooking it in olive oil, it can be rubbed on toast for an easy upgrade, and it can even be smashed into submission to make a salad dressing! I made spaghetti aglio e olio for the first time the other night and cooked it with 6 cloves of garlic (quadruple the suggested  THIS IS ME!). I will always always have it.

food is medicine

This post was due for November, and we’re now in the second week of the president that led me to write this post and make this chicken in the first place. 48% of the population would agree with me when I say that November 9th was just the worst. That was a confusing day, a foggy day, and I couldn’t even stomach eating anything until about 2 pm when I went to get some breakfast tacos to eat in my car before I picked up the girl I nanny from school.

She is the sweetest girl, and I was so happy and so sad to see her that day. We had talked about the election as much as you could talk about it with a seven year old, and she goes to a girl’s school like I did, and we love each other. She got in my car and I asked how she was doing. At first, she said my car smelled bad from the tacos. But then she paused and said how sad she was. I talked to her but every word out of my mouth turned to tears and I didn’t want to cry even more so I think I stayed quieter than usual.

When we got to her house, her mom had made a bowl of guacamole and set it out for us with tortilla chips and two glasses of Topo Chico. All of us sat and ate and talked about the day, tried to reconcile everything and tried to come to terms with being so confused and so sad. Lila wanted to stop talking about it then. So I played with her and her little sisters, for a long long time. We played a game where I was in jail in their parents’ closet, my cell constructed under suit jackets and jeans where I was shielded from everything and just steeping in my own silence and sadness with such beautiful, effervescent little girls around me. That was that day. I barely wanted to leave closet-jail that night.

That Friday, I wanted to–needed to–really cook. At the time, I hadn’t for a while, becoming too reliant on Trader Joe’s actually-pretty-delicious soup dumplings. I braved Central Market on a Friday evening, picked up a chicken, and invited Kobi and my sister over to eat with me. I made Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken from Cooking for Jeffrey, the first meal I had cooked out of it. She has become a meme of sorts in circles that don’t actually understand her, but the existence of Ina Garten and the food she makes is truly one of my greatest comforts in this world. Watching her show grounds me when I’m overwhelmed and cooking her food calms me, reminds me of the brief healing power of a good meal– especially a roast chicken.

When cooking with wine, she always says, “Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” I try my best to follow her every instruction (with the exception of homemade chicken stock only) but this one is simply unrealistic for me. This was perfectly delicious and beautifully comforting even with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck pinot grigio.

We took the cast-iron skillet into my bedroom since my roommates were congregating in the living room, set it on the floor, and carved the chicken as best we could. I sat with people I loved, mopped up pan juices from a skillet with a hunk of bread, and ate a roast chicken after what was probably the hardest week of my young life.

Food is all of these things: it is caring for people, it is nourishment, it is community, it is pouring yourself into something special. Eating a roast chicken on the floor didn’t fix the country that night, but it put a little more love in our hearts.

 

-Sophie

toasted coconut marshmallows

We’ve all seen the Stanford delayed gratification marshmallow experiment videos in Psychology 101– a child gets to eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes alone with the marshmallow without eating it…and get 2 marshmallows. Had the researchers been using these, might I say phenomenal homemade marshmallows, I think there would be far more children failing the test.

I got super into marshmallow making during the holidays. I first made them (using Ina Garten’s recipe) for the box I made for my Food 52 holiday swap-ee. I packed her box full of goodies then sneakily ate what was left of the marshmallows I made for her. And I’m telling you..homemade marshmallows are otherworldly. Decadent but light as a feather, completely melting in your mouth, the most beautiful sweetness! I was hooked on making them and couldn’t wait to try Ina’s toasted coconut version, pictured below.

The addition of toasted coconut (one of my favorite ingredients…ever) makes these almost like a real dessert. Couldn’t you imagine it at a trendy restaurant with a tiny espresso cup full of the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had? I’m kind of loving that idea just for a dinner party of my own. A pack of these make wonderful hostess gifts or a sweet homemade gift during the holidays, and they are so easy to make.

-Sophie

chicken soup for the (flu-ridden) soul

“I want soup,” I said to my mother, thrusting Small Victories in front of her, open to the page featuring Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup. In January, I was feeling absolutely dreadful with what I would later learn was the flu. It was about 2 pm–not a perfect time to begin making homemade chicken stock. My mom implored me to find a different recipe that I wanted to eat, one that didn’t take upwards of 5 hours, but I didn’t want anything else. Throwing caution and a fully-fleshed out chicken stock to the wind, I sent my dad to the store with a grocery list and patiently waited.

My mom said she would make the soup for me, but I ended up doing most of it myself–she was doing other work, I was lurking in the kitchen sticking my nose in the stockpot, impatiently stirring, and waiting for the scents of onion, dill, and chicken to bloom.

Homemade chicken soup requires patience and time, neither of which I had an abundance of that day. While the stock simmered and developed on the stovetop, I made biscuits for the first time, using a quick recipe from Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook. Biscuits are one of those foods that seem so…ancestral. The paternal, Jewish Egyptian side of my family was likely not making any, but my mother’s old Texan side surely made their fair share. I wanted to use schmaltz in place of lard (thus bringing my two lineages to a beautiful collision) but our only container was frozen solid so I used shortening. I would love to thaw that schmaltz and try it out with these biscuits, though. They ended up pretty good, but what isn’t when slathered in apple butter?

We ended up taking off the soup an hour before the suggested time because my father was impatient and hungry and old and it was 7:30 pm. It was a sublime soup. I don’t know what it is about chicken soup that does what it does to you. I was certainly not healed (you need Tamiflu for that) but man, it makes you feel like you’re being hugged.

Did I mention I made all this WHILE HAVING THE FLU? One of the more impressive moments of my culinary life. I have loved Small Victories so much lately, and Julia Turshen’s beautifully simple, rustic, delicious approach to cooking. You must pick it up if you haven’t already.

-Sophie

linguine with italian sausage and pomodoro sauce

I CAN’T STOP MAKING PASTA!

I make so much pasta at home, and my sister makes me feel like a Michelin starred pasta chef with how much she praises me for each pasta dish I make. For this quick dinner, I used my favorite Bon Appetit pomodoro sauce recipe and added, of course, Italian sausage. This is a simple and yummy meal that always makes everyone happy.

 

-Sophie

impromptu dinner party

My parents were going to be out to dinner and my mom suggested I have a dinner party. This was the night before, so I had less than 24 hours to throw this thing together. It was okay because only one of our friends was in town…so it worked out and I only had to cook for three.

For being a relatively cosmopolitan and epicurean city, it sure is wildly difficult to find a tub of truffle butter in Dallas. It took me trips to FOUR different stores to find it and several calls, but I trekked through dangerous neighborhoods and spanned dozens of miles in every direction of the city and found it.

I had wanted to make Ina Garten’s Tagliatelle With Truffle Butter ever since I saw her make it for Barbara and Bobby Liberman while visiting their Berkshires cabin in her latest holiday special. It just seemed so luxurious–and it is, mothasuckas! Tagliatelle is a delicious new pasta I’ve tried! Light and eggy and such a delicate nice shape. Light pasta but not a light sauce- it is a whole jar of truffle butter and cream. Whatever, we’re young.

We had a basic arugula salad that I always make (not too worthy of a photograph) and then for dessert, I made something I’ve wanted to make forever- Eton mess. It incorporates raspberries, one of the few fruits I like, and whipped cream and meringues, two things I also really like. Also, why are MERINGUES the most difficult thing to find? Even harder than truffle butter! I literally couldn’t find these anywhere and had to make them myself! It wasn’t hard but like, damn! The point of this dessert was that it is very little cooking and mostly assembling! 

Anyway. It was delicious and summery. You cook down the raspberries with sugar and lemon juice and framboise and just layer them all together. It’s really cute and rustic and still really elegant. I loved it even though my sister didn’t. She prefers cake.

A picture of the homemade meringues, just for fun. They were cute.

-Sophie