Experience the True Culture and Cuisine of Italy – Stay in Italian Farm Hotels

Experience the True Culture and Cuisine of Italy – Stay in Italian Farm Hotels

I have a few friends visiting Italy this spring and wanted to share some of my insight. I was lucky enough to spend close to two years living in Northern Italy back in the early 2000s. I loved it. How could you not?!?!

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Travelers flock to Italy every year to enjoy the beauty, the art, the history, and the food and wine. Unfortunately, most tourists focus on the large cities like Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, missing the opportunity to immerse themselves in the daily life and culture of this wonderful country.

Food is a central aspect of Italian culture and it differs from region to region and even town to town. One way to get a taste of both the food and daily life throughout Italy is to avoid hotels inside city boundaries and book reservations at an agriturismo or two. These visitor-friendly working farms are located in the countryside. They range in cost and amenities. Most include breakfast and some book dinner reservations as well.

Dining at an agriturismo is a culinary delight. The menu features seasonal local ingredients, including a few raised right there on the farm. Visitors will experience the cuisine of that particular region.

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If staying in the Piedmont, truffles may find their way onto the menu along with a hearty barolo wine if you are lucky! The stunning Cascina Barac is one such farm hotel, set in the vineyard. Visitors can book reservations for a gourmet meal, taste their wines, and even tour the family-owned winery. I still make the shaved carrot recipe I was served there. The owner wrote it down for me on the back side of a business card which holds a place of honor in my recipe box to this day!

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Is Florence on your list? I stayed at the Macinello in Montegiridolfi to visit the region. Make sure you get over to Greve for some Chianti! There is also an American cemetery nearby well worth a visit.

Venice is located north of the province of Emilia-Romagna of the famed pasta bolognese, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and lambrusco and sangiovese wines. Why not book reservations at a local agriturismo and use it as your base to visit Venice, Ravenna, Modena and other beautiful cities?

Umbria is another region in Italy often overlooked by American tourists, but honestly it was one of my favorites. Perugia (yes, the chocolate is named after this old city), Spoleto, Assisi, and many other beautiful hillside towns dot the countryside.

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I stayed at the La Quercia Gentile in Valfabbrica as my base. The owners were so nice that upon leaving they gave me a big bottle of their own olive oil to try! The region is known for its Pecorino cheese and egg pasta. Sangrantino and Orvieto are the regions most popular wines.

To really experience Italy, get out into the countryside. Book a room or suite at a farm hotel. Chat with the owners over a meal. Investigate the little villages and sip a cappuccino from the local bar. Hike. Meander. And eat where the locals dine. This way you will experience the true Italy.

Visit the website Agriturismo website to investigate properties and book your reservations.

Diet Detox – Cinnamon Rolls and Cupcakes

Diet Detox – Cinnamon Rolls and Cupcakes

I’ve had to dial back my love of home cooking for a couple of months. I need to take off about 10 pounds and so am avoiding time in the kitchen until mission accomplished. I’m trying to cook and eat healthy options, but so far am uninspired to share anything of note. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for some great looking and tasting dinners and hope to be back to my culinary roots soon!

But, as you can see by the title, I took a vacay from dieting yesterday to celebrate a friend’s birthday and thought I would share some pics and tips. After all, if you are going to fall of the dieter’s wagon, you may as well fall hard!

The morning started out with some cinnamon rolls. I confess I kind of cheated. They were a last minute idea and I used what I had in the freezer, frozen bread dough, which had been tucked away as forbidden food for the past few weeks.

I thawed two loaves overnight in the refrigerator, then got to work in the morning. No recipe is required. This is one of those “wing it” recipes!

Ingredients
2 loaves frozen bread dough
4 ish tablespoons softened butter
Cinnamon
Brown sugar

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Directions

Roll out softened bread dough into two rectangles. Spread with softened butter, leaving about 1/2-1/4″ border all around edges. Spring liberally with brown sugar and cinnamon while retaining the same clean border. Roll and seal the ends. Slice and place in a buttered baking dish.

Cover with a clean dish towel and set in a warm place to rise for 30 minute. Please in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until done. (I use the “touch with finger for doneness” test).

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Eat while warm. That’s it!

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

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There is no hidden secret to these delicious cupcakes. I just wanted to share a couple of photos. I used a boxed chocolate cake mix and Ina Garten’s peanut butter frosting. Her frosting recipe is one of my favorites. It is so creamy and delicious and always gets loads of  compliments.

All 24 cupcakes were eaten in a flash. Thank goodness, because today I am back on the bandwagon.

Bon appetito!

Celebrate New Year’s Eve on the Cheap

Celebrate New Year’s Eve on the Cheap

Everyone loves a good New Year’s Eve celebration. But playing host on New Year’s can put a real dent in your wallet.

I recently spoke with Leanne Italie and shared a tip or two on how to keep your budget in check on New Year’s. She shared my tip along with those of a few other folks. You can read the article here.

Hope you find few ideas you can apply to your own celebration!

New Year's Eve decorations

Create your own decorations. As you can see here, I collected some empty wine bottles and spray painted them for center pieces. I added some tree branches from my back yard and ornaments from The Dollar Store.

Skip the champagne. Use ginger ale! You can enjoy a festive glass of sparkling ginger ale at the stroke of midnight. That way everyone can drive home safely. As long as small children are not present, add a small handful of fresh cranberries to each glass before adding the beverage for some holiday color.

Make it a potluck. There’s no reason why the host must do all the cooking. Ask everyone to bring a dish to pass. And if you don’t want to end up with 20 crockpots filled with meatballs, assign people to food categories. That way they can make what they want within the category.

I only mention meatballs because the first time I hosted a New Year’s Eve party many years ago, as a joke, everyone brought meatballs. At least we did not go hungry!

Have fun planning all of your holiday get togethers! If you have any creative ideas for planning a low budget celebration, share your thoughts below!

 

If You Amore S’mores – Try Peanut Butter S’more Bar Cookies

If You Amore S’mores – Try Peanut Butter S’more Bar Cookies

Sorry for the horrible twist on words in this title. I couldn’t help myself! But seriously, these cookies are outrageous. You may not want to tell your dentist or dietician you’ve eaten Peanut Butter S’more Bars because the sugar content is off the charts. Just sayin’!

I want to give credit to the bloggers who led me to these wonderful cookies.

I follow Six Sisters’ Stuff. Their roundup posts on baked goods always include some keepers. I’ve struck gold many times and last week was no exception. They linked to a recipe by Melanie who writes The Sweet Life. Her recipe is wonderful just as it and I encourage you to visit her site and try the original recipe. I made a few small tweaks to Melanie’s recipe and this was my end result.

Buon appetito!

Peanut Butter S’more Bars

Ingredients
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers (about 1 1/2 packs)
2 large bars Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup bars
1 small jar marshmallow fluff

Directions

s'more cookie dough

Using paddle attachment, beat butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla and egg and continue beating until incorporated. Add salt, baking powder, flour, and graham crackers crumbs. Mix until incorporated.

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Press 1/2 of dough into the bottom of a buttered 8×8 baking dish. Lay individual squares, evenly placed in four rows on top of dough. Press in slightly to keep them from shifting.

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Spread a layer of marshmallow fluff over the peanut butter squares.

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Scoop remaining dough onto the top of the fluff layer and carefully spread out to cover entire layer. Tip: An offset knife works great for spreading!

Bake for 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees or until the center of the top layer is cooked. Cool and cut into squares.

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I have no clue on the calorie content for these bad boys. Make sure you have a glass of milk handy! If these are too sweet for your liking, try my Chocolate Pillows which use a spritz dough and are not quite as sweet!

Chocolate Pillows – The Best Cookies You Will Ever Eat

Chocolate Pillows – The Best Cookies You Will Ever Eat

It is not Christmas if there is not a batch of Chocolate Pillows on the cookie plate in my family. It has been a family favorite since my grandmother tore the recipe out of her Pillsbury’s 15th Bake-Off in 1964. Second Grand Prize Winner Gemma Jane of Olympia, wherever you are – God Bless You!

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The Chocolate Pillow is brilliant in its simplicity. It is never the prettiest cookie on the platter, but is always the first one gone. It was my father’s favorite, my favorite, and now the favorite of countless friends who put in their orders every year!

You will need a cookie press to make these. Buy one today.

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Chocolate Pillows

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
6 full size Hershey bars, broken into sections

Directions

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Cream softened butter with sugar. Add egg and vanilla. Beat well. Add dry ingredients and mix until dough comes together.

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Using cookie press with sawtooth disk, lay long, straight strips of dough (ridge side facing up) onto cookie sheet. Place chocolate sections end to end along each strip of dough. Press a second strip of dough over each row, covering the chocolate pieces.

Using your finger to find the space between each chocolate bar, make a slice with a sharp floured knife.

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Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until some of the edges start to brown. Cool slightly before breaking apart. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

I would love to hear whether any other families out there have been baking these cookies since the ’60s! Buon appetito!

Roasted Squash and Pancetta Risotto Perfect Combination of Sweet and Salty

Roasted Squash and Pancetta Risotto Perfect Combination of Sweet and Salty

I’ve shared my method for making risotto in an earlier post. I love that risotto is a blank canvas for whatever flavors you want to add. All you need is time, patience, and arborio rice!

This time I decided to pair two of my favorite flavors, squash and pancetta. Butternut, acorn, delicata, or whatever variety you prefer will work just fine in risotto. I chose butternut this time.

Ingredients
1 butternut squash
Nutmeg
1 package diced pancetta
Fresh sage, chopped
Butter
Olive oil
Arborio rice
White wine
Chicken stock
Chicken boullion
Onion or shallot, finely chopped
Heavy cream
Parmesan cheese

Directions

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Peel and cube squash into bite-sized pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a hint of fresh grated nutmeg on a baking sheet. Roast in 400 degree oven until golden, or to desired doneness. This takes about 20-30 minutes.

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While squash is roasting, render out the diced pancetta on the stovetop until crispy. I tossed in a small handful of fresh chopped sage too. Drain off fat and save for later.

Pour stock into pan and warm it up.

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In a separate pan sauté diced shallot or onion in some olive oil and butter. Add rice and toast slightly.

Slowly add stock one ladle at a time, stirring often and allowing each ladle to absorb before adding the next.

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After the rice starts to puff up and look creamy, taste a few kernels for doneness. It should have a slight bite in the center. If it is still too raw, keep adding stock until it reaches desired doneness. Do not overcook it, unless of course you prefer mushy risotto!

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Once the rice is done, fold in the roasted squash, pancetta, a splash of heavy cream (this is optional), and a tablespoon of butter (also optional). Season with freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

Grate some parmesan cheese over the top and serve immediately.

The Simplest Most Delicious Cherry Cheesecake Recipe I’ve Ever Made

The Simplest Most Delicious Cherry Cheesecake Recipe I’ve Ever Made

I briefly touched upon this cheery cheesecake recipe in an earlier post highlighting my favorite Thanksgiving desserts, but thought if was worthy of its own mention since I recently made one for a friend. This no-bake version is my aunt’s recipe and it is always devoured. Friends cannot believe how easy it is to make considering how delicious it is. It is perfect for dinner parties since you quite literally whip it up the night before.

No-Bake Cherry Cheesecake

Ingredients
24 graham cracker squares
1/3 cup butter, melted
3 T sugar

8 ounces softened cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 pint heavy cream (also called whipping cream)
1 can cherry pie filling, chilled

Directions

graham cracker crust
Graham cracker crust (Combine 1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers, 1/3 cup melted butter, 3 T sugar and press into pie plate. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool.)

whipped cheesecake filling

Beat softened cream cheese until smooth.
Add sugar and vanilla and beat some more.
Slowly pour in heavy heavy cream and beat until the mixture is thick and fluffy.

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Pour/scrape into cooled pie crust.

Chill 24 hours.

Brad Nierenberg's Cheesecake

Top with canned cherries.

This is a regular request for birthdays and special occasions. I know you are thinking that it can’t possibly be that good if it is so simple to make…but it is!

Buon appetito!
Brad