Baking and Chocolate

Southern-Italian-DessertsWhen I was a little girl growing up in Italian-centric Rhode Island, I relished my Sunday morning tradition with my Dad. He and I would drive to our favorite old-school bakery in Providence, LaSalle Bakery, and buy my family’s favorite treats. Sticky pull-apart cinnamon raisin buns for my brother Chris, creamy éclairs for my brother Paul, cannoli for my Dad, and sfogliatelle for me. My mom mystifyingly always passed.

Of all the Italian pastries, the Campanian sfogliatelle, the clam-shaped flaky pastry with ricotta filling, has always been my favorite. I relished the crackle! emitted with every bite into the crisp shell and sighed with happiness when I reached the soft, creamy ricotta cheese center.

Years later as an adult I thought I’d learn to make sfogliatelle. That thought quickly passed when I realized how labor-intensive they were to make. Pastry dough must be run through a pasta machine twice to render it paper-thin. Then it must be carefully stretched, rolled, and molded by hand until a dizzying number of layers are formed. I didn’t have the constitution for it. Fortunately for me (and you), Rosetta Costantino does.

A self-taught baker who was raised in Verbicaro, Calabria, Costantino now resides in Oakland, California where she and her mother teach Americans how to make many of Italy’s most beloved desserts. In her latest book, Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily, she shares over 75 recipes for authentic regional Italian desserts that are virtually unknown in the United States making it a singular addition to anyone’s cookbook collection.

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xmascookies.jpgA great book for entertaining and gift giving ideas. The recipes are broken down into type of cookie (drop, rolled, slice and bake, no-bake) with easy instructions and everyday ingredients that make baking these wonderful classic holiday treats a snap for regular bakers and newbies alike. The storing and shipping instructions are helpful as well for those who want to send their efforts to others as gifts. A holiday cookbook that’s sure to please.

As recommended by Lisa Dinsmore

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puredessert.jpg I've said it before, but I'm in awe of Alice Medrich. She was an early chocolate evangelist in the Bay Area, who brought us luscious desserts and truffles, inspired by what she had tasted and learned in France. Over the past few years she has written several terrific and award-winning books on chocolate including Bittersweet, Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts, and Chocolate Holidays.

Her latest book is a bit of a departure, it's not just about chocolate, but an exploration into the world of high quality ingredients. The chapters in Pure Dessert are focused on the flavors of Milk, Grain, Nuts and Seeds, Fruit, Chocolate, Honey and Sugar, Herbs and Spices, Flowers and Herbs, and Wine, Beer and Spirits. Intriguing, don't you think?

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ImageBiscotti comes from the Latin word biscoctus meaning ‘twice cooked, or baked.’ Baking them twice makes them dry, so they’re easy to store for long periods of time. This was highly advantageous at one point in time. Twice-baked breads were useful during long journeys and wars, and were a staple food of the Roman legion. Now, it’s simply a lovely left-over result of the original recipe that we’re still enjoying today. From the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, ‘Biscotti’ is a very special cookbook, a small love letter to one of Italy’s most famous sweets.

The book is the first in a series of small hardcover cookbooks on single subjects to be published by the American Academy in Rome in conjunction with the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program devoted to providing organic, local and sustainable meals for the community of artists who work and study at the AAR. Author, Mona Talbott is the American born, Chez Panisse-trained Executive Chef who oversees the kitchens of the Academy. Alice Waters is also part of the collaborative dining program advising on menus, and food choices. The program was first implemented in 2007 when the Academy remodeled and revamped the AAR kitchens. The Rome Sustainable Food Project facilitates the AAR’s move towards sustainable, and local cooking and eating.

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scandinavian-classic-baking-bookcover.jpgGrowing up with an Italian grandmother, desserts usually meant full-bodied, booze-spiked, often savory treats including tiramisu, Italian pizzelle cookies, pignoli cookies, and pepper biscuits. The only thing I knew about Scandinavian desserts was, well, nothing. Thumbprint cookies didn't count since I thought Mrs. Claus invented them.

Not anymore. Thanks to Pat Sinclair's lovely new cookbook Scandinavian Classic Baking, I now know how to make Swedish Pepparkakor (spicy gingerbread cookies), Sandbakkels (miniature butter cookies shaped into a cup and filled with jam or cream), and Spritz (classic Swedish butter cookies made with a cookie press).

Sinclair organizes her 42 recipes into five chapters: Coffee Breads, Cakes, Cookies, Tarts, Fruit Desserts & Pastries, and Traditional Favorites. Recipes are highly detailed, so even a novice baker can feel confident attempting a new recipe. You'll find sublimely simple recipes such as orange bundt cake next to more sophisticated ones such as Scandinavian apricot almond bars.

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