Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

...That's all there is to say for today, I guess! 

I wish I could talk to you more, about Halloween and how much I love it even though it's not your traditional Catholic holiday - gee, you'd be tempted to say I love it for the very reason - but, guess what? The Efreet's on the road again! 
Or, as the case may be, on the railroad, as I am leaving for the Comics & Games convention in Lucca tomorrow, so right now I'm busy packing my luggage and baking quick but delicious Halloween-themed cupcakes to celebrate with my friends tonight. 

Here they are! 

The tiny chocolate pumpkins I bought in Perugia (they're all gone now, alas!) whereas the ghost picks I got at a dollar store somewhere. 

I had enough cupcakes to fill another tray; those got bat pics instead. 

The recipe for Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes I got from Jamie (of My Baking Addiction fame) - a fellow blogger I know I can trust, whatever the recipe. I mean, other foodies specialize in cookies, or cupcakes, or Bundt-style cakes or what have you. Not her. 
Everything she bakes turns out drool-worthy, and her simple, unassuming style is so refreshing. From the clean, uncluttered pics to the minimalist layout, down to her serenely cheerful tone, her whole blog radiates humility, kindness, and joy. Maybe it all boils down to her being a teacher? I doubt that somehow; I remember having my fair share of teachers that were anything but gentle and patient... 

These cupcakes are delicious, and surprisingly effective with practically zero effort - black paper liners, a few chocolate pumpkins (candies would have worked equally well in a pinch) and a handful of plastic picks are all it took!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Eurochocolate report - part 3

(Part 1 - Part 2)

Being the hometown of Perugina - arguably the best-known chocolate manufacturing company in Italy thanks to the ubiquitous Baci (the iconic Valentine's Day chocolates as far as we are concerned: hazelnut-filled pralines wrapped in a silver foil studded with tiny blue stars, with a romantic quote printed inside. They've been around for 90 years!) - Perugia is, alongside with Torino, a chocolate lover's paradise even in normal circumstances...

...but over the Eurochocolate's 10-days tour de force, it turns into something so totally over-the-top as to be impossible to describe. You might think of it as a chocoholic's wet dream come true. (Can you feel the mental image burning itself into your retina? Yes? You're wecome.) 

The town's main streets and central square are lined with stalls as far as the eye can see...

...selling both "novelty" items like the chocolate tools... 

...and more traditional treats in the shape of truffles, pralines, cremini, and Krispie chunks. 

Cremini are the proverbial feather in Italy's confectionary hat - little squares of milk and hazelnut chocolate, so incredibly smooth and creamy (this is what the name means, by the way!) as to literally melt in your mouth.
In its classical form, a cremino is teeny-tiny, but some vendors had huge ingot-like bars of it,  to be cut into big cubes of yummyness... 

...and a few had come up with the ChocoKebab idea: a tall truncated cone of cremino, mounted shish kebab-like on a vertical skewer contraption... be shaved into a sheet of sponge cake and topped ad libitum with caramel, chocolate or strawberry sauce. 
Of course I had to try it! And it was so delicious, I actually ate it twice during my stay in Perugia... 

...and I also got another favourite of mine, candy apples. The chocolate-covered ones are OK too, I guess, but the lacquered, bright red ones... 
Lovely. Just lovely

My sweetie, who isn't fond of either cremini or apples (yes, I know - ALIEN!), got chocolate-covered bananas instead, and a generous serving of this white chocolate with cranberries.

Neddless to say, both of us bought tons of stuff for our friends and colleagues as well, both of the chocolatey persuasion and otherwise. Because this part of Italy is renown for other delicacies too - such as black truffles, and awesome salami... 

...and sweets. Apart from all the chocolate, I mean. 
Such as the delicious panforte and buccellato (fruit cake-like confections, both of them)...

...or meringues as big as your head, if that's how you roll. 


Can you say I'm so sorry that I'm going back home tomorrow? 

Eurochocolate report - part 2

Yesterday I dropped on you a hint about this awesome chocolate-themed hotel in Perugia, the Etruscan Chocohotel. The photos on the official site do it a lot more justice than the ones I snapped, nevertheless I'll post a selection, so you can see for yourself how incredible this place is!

As soon as you drive into the parking outside, you are greeted by a mock radar trap...

...but as soon as you walk inside, chocolate is everywhere
The hall is strewn with chocolate sculptures - there is even an old-style ceramic bathing tub   filled with huge chunks of the heavenly stuff! - and accommodates a Chocostore where you can buy souvenirs and - you guessed it - chocolate!

Tantalizing chocolate dribbles are stenciled inside the elevator... 

The three floors, by the way, are marked as fondente ("dark"), al latte ("milk"), and gianduia ("hazelnut"). 

The door frames look like chocolate bars, and each room is marked by a plaque with a chocolate wrapper in it. They're all different, too! 

My sweetie and me were on the milk floor, and we got Cadbury's. Yummy!

The room itself was like... I dunno, a bit of fairyland dropped in this boring world. 
Just look at it, will you?

The writing on the bedspread, in case you're wondering, says "chocolate" in lots of different languages. 
Needless to say - big language nerd that I am - I immediately set to identifying as many as I could!

There is a cute little table filled with neatly lined-up hot chocolate cups...

...and a stepper in the far corner, just so that no one can possibly accuse the hotel of irresponsibly boosting weight gain. 
It is all shiny and, as far as I can tell, brand new. 

Because, come on - what kind of people would pick a place like this to exercise?  Not us for sure!
We will, of course, remember the immoderate calorie intake later on, as we'll go back to our dreary routines, and there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth... 

...but for the time being, we're quite happy with gorging ourselves on this heavenly chocolatey buffet!

See? Even the fearsome gryphon forswore his stoic countenance to have a go at it!

There's no point in trying to resist, really. 

Thus away we scurry to one of the tables, each of them topped with a cocoa bean... 

...and we enjoy our breakfast. Cheers!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eurochocolate report - part 1

Quoting Wikipedia
Perugia (Italian pronunciation: [peˈruːdʒa] ( listen); (LatinPerusia) is the capital city of the region of Umbria in central Italy, near the River Tiber, and the capital of the province of Perugia. The city is located about 164 kilometres (102 mi) north of Rome. It covers a high hilltop and part of the valleys around the area.
A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words...

The distance between Milano (where I live) and Perugia is about 450 Km

...See? Right here, where the giant red pin is! 

The history of Perugia goes back to the Etruscan period. The city is also known as a university town, with the University of Perugia (about 34,000 students), the University for Foreigners (5,000 students), and some smaller colleges, also. There are annual festivals and events: the Eurochocolate Festival (October), the Umbria Jazz Festival, and the International Journalism Festival (in April).
Now guess which one  I came here to attend! (Hint: look at the date...)

Indeed, Perugia is a beautiful town with a very strong Medieval feel. It has ancient buildings...

...picturesque squares...

...evocatively narrow alleyways... 

...unapproachable fountains... 

...and gryphons. Lots of gryphons.

(For real. They're everywhere!)

Don't you feel the uncanny silence on my part over the last few days is pretty justifiable?

It has also an hotel unlike any other in Europe, entirely devoted to chocolate - but I'll tell you more about it in an upcoming installment, otherwise I'm bound to end up with an unbearably picture-heavy post!

Monday, October 15, 2012

[Cupcake Portraits] Discworld Personalities: Esme Weatherwax

"Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things. Well-known fact."

- Esme Weatherwax (in Wyrd Sisters)

First in what will hopefully become a long series of Discworld Personalities, I hereby present you Esme Weatherwax - doyenne of witches, Hag O' Hags, She-Who-Must-Be-Avoided...

Granny Esme Weatherwax Discworld Terry Pratchett PTerry recipe cupcake
Image belongs to Paul Kidby @

...Not the Maid. Not the Mother. The Other One. 

Granny Esme Weatherwax Discworld Terry Pratchett PTerry recipe cupcake
Image belongs to Daniel Abbott @

The first time I read Equal Rites, a few years ago, I took an immediate dislike to her.
Nowadays... I don't know. My first impression is usually the one I stick to, whether it is real people we're talking about or characters in a book. 
I mean, I know deep down she's a good-hearted, caring old woman. But, she's also a stubborn, bossy, insular-minded, proudly ignorant old bwitch. And her dislike of fiction, and - gosh!- books in general, is a trait I really can't brush aside.

Still... Esme's down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude strongly reminds me of my own grandmother, who practically raised me, and who is terminally ill at the time I am writing. Born to a poor family, she was orphaned as a little child, was adopted by an aunt who didn't care at all about her, and was forced to give up school and go to work at a very early age. 
She worked in a factory for most of her life, and her surviving colleagues - both male and female - fondly remember the way she kept them all in line. 
She elbowed her way through WWII (despite a very Jewish-sounding family name) and its aftermath, and amid all of this, she married and had a child - my father. 
And when, once again, her husband passed away early and she was left to fend for herself and her son, she managed to feed them both, end even to let him continue his education long enogh to become an accountant. 
And after all of this, in her late years, she still had energies left for the two little brats that were my brother and myself. 
I guess for some women, stubbornness and an unflinching self-assurance are survival traits.

Because of this (albeit tenuous) resemblance, I can't bring myself to truly despise Granny Weatherwax. 

Let it just be said that I roll my eyes at her a lot. She's one of those characters I really love to hate - in a good way!
Aaand... is her cupcake portrait. 

Herbal Liqueur-Flavoured Honey Cupcakes with Goat Cheese Frosting

Now how's this for a peace offering, Esme dear?

Herbal Liqueur-Flavoured Honey Cupcakes

* 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 tsp baking powder
* 1 tsp baking soda
* 2 tsp ground ginger
* 2 tsp ground cinnamon
* 1/2 tsp ground cloves
* 1/2 tsp salt
* 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp.
* 1 cup packed light brown sugar
* 2 eggs
* 1 cup chestnut honey
* 1/2 cup herbal liqueur of your choice
* 3/4 cup hot water
(be sure to scroll down for the syrup and frosting ingredients!) 

1.  Pre-heat oven to 350° F.

2.  Sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices) into a bowl.

3.  Cream the butter and sugar (a stand mixer is a godsend for this!)

4.  Mix in the eggs, one at a time, then the honey and finally the herbal liqueur.
Be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl if you're using a mixer!

5.  Gradually add the dry ingredients, stirring until combined. Don't overmix!

6.  Finally, stir in the hot (not boiling!) water...

7.  ...and pour the batter into a cupcakes mold, lined with paper wrappers (black, of course!)
I got exactly 12 cupcakes out of the doses I gave you!

8.  Carefully place a water-filled silicon cup on the oven's bottom. It will slowly evaporate and the humidiy will make your cupcakes wonderfully soft and moist.
This is a neat trick that you can use every time you bake cupcakes!

9.  Bake until done (mine took a full 20 minutes but then again, my oven always takes longer than most to get there. I'd say you should start checking for doneness after 12-15 minutes.)

10. Glare at them until they're cowed, then... eat them!

These cupcakes are soft and delicious, and will stay so for 2-3 days (in your fridge and carefully covered); plus they bake flat - which is handy for decorating purposes - and can be frozen for later consumption (unfrosted, of course!)

This recipe is not exactly swiped, as I tweaked it slightly to get lighter, cupcake-friendlier consistency, but credit must be given where it's due: it   is heavily inspired by Lucy Baker's Jägermeister and Honey Bundt Cake, from her book The Boozy Baker: 75 Recipes for Spirited Sweets (gorgeous book btw!)

That cake was, in turn, based on the cocktail called Honey Bear. So if you're planning a funny sabbath with your fellow witches, mix up a few shots - just be sure to replace the Frangelico with the same liquor you put in your cupcakes - and you're granted to end up with a very tipsy, very giggly coven! (Not that Granny Weatherwax would approve of it at all, but still...)

Honey & Herbal Liqueur Syrup

* 12 Tbsp chestnut honey
* 6 Tbsp herbal liqueur

Pour the honey and liqueur in a small saucepan. Heat on low fire, stirring constantly. Turn it off as soon as the mixture starts boiling.

Let it cool off slightly, then spoon some syrup onto each cupcake. 

It is perfectly fine to call them done at this point!

Or, if you're lucky enough (as I am!) to know a beekeeper who will provide you with whole honey combs... can cut off a little piece, and place it atop your cuppies!

If, on the other hand, you happen to be a gung-ho "cupcakes must be iced" kind of person...

Goat Cheese Icing

* 8 ounces goat cheese (the fresher, the better!)
* 1/8 cup + 1 Tbsp light brown sugar
* 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
* 1/2 cup heavy cream
* 1/8 confectioner's sugar

1.  Cream the goat cheese, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. 

2.  Whip the heavy cream with the confectioner's sugar. (Make sure to refrigerate both the bowl and the cream itself beforehand; it will be much easier this way!)

3.  Gently fold the whipped cream into the cheese mixture with a rubber spatula. 

Spoon a dollop of icing on top of each cupcake. No fancy swirl-piping for Esme!

Cover your cupcakes and put them in the fridge (ditto for any leftover syrup and icing.)

Time to prepare the decoration! 

I wanted to keep it simple, so I merely rolled some black fondant, cut out some hats (cutter's from Silikomart's Halloween Set), and picked out the buckle detail with edible golden gel...

...but you could surely go fancier than this! E.g. you could model a 3-D version of Granny's hat out of black fondant, or you could make a stylised portrait of hers into a topper. Why not making a few objects associated with the character, such as hat pins, an owl, or the infamous "ATEN'T DEAD" sign? 
Also, I guess you could tint the icing black and call it a day. I actually considered doing so, but decided against it in the end - I think a natural look suits Granny Weatherwax better. And frankly, if ever I'll go to the trouble of attempting an all-black look, it will be for, ah... someone who looks far sexier in it than some old witch. Just saying. 

Just remember: if you're making your toppers out of fondant, prepare them at least the day before, so they'll have time to dry. And don't put them on the actual cupcakes until the last moment, otherwise they'll melt out of shape, and leave nasty black smudges on your icing. Ewww!

Hey, guess what? You're done!

If you have some syrup and goat cheese cream left, serve them alongside the cupcakes, so your guest will be able to plop some more on them if they like their dessert well-soaked!

When making up this particular cupcake recipe for Esme, I was merely thinking of something she could conceivably bake herself in her cottage amid the mountains of Lancre. Granny gathers herbs in the thicket, raises goats, and keeps hives - thus I went, "Hell yeah, triple check!"

But later on, while taste-testing the resulting cuppies (hey, it's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it!), it struck me that they reminded me of her in another, subtler way - the first impression you're going to get of them is bound to be the tangy, slightly gamy taste of the goat cheese. If you don't let yourself be put off by it, though, the underlying sweetness will emerge, alongside with a slight bitterness from the herbal liqueur... all of them merging into a more complex, delicious flavour. 

Thus, in the end, I think I got a thing that looks more like the thing than I had intended. Which is, like, totally appropriate for Granny Weatherwax, wouldn't you agree?

PS - Should you still have leftover frosting, throw a handful of your favourite nuts in it and dip sliced Granny Smith apples in the creamy goaty goodness. Or else, spread it on your favourite bread and top with fresh figs and/or grapes. In both instances, feel free to use up any remaining syrup too! (And to double the batch next time, so as to get more leftover...)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

[T&T] Lady's Choice Delicious Wholesome Filipino-Style Liver Spread

First of all, allow me to set matters straight: I am not targeting Filipino products in particular.
It's just that this awesome Asian grocery opened right near where I live, so I've been wandering among the aisles in a happy daze over the past few days - and while I am familiar with many of the Chinese and Japanese products they carry, the Filipino stuff is a whole new world for me to explore.

Today I'm going to sample Lady's Choice Delicious Wholesome Filipino-Style Liver Spread - I picked it up because I love liver, plus at a whopping 1.30 € for 165 g (approx. 5.8 ounces) it was a steal!

The tin was undamaged and easy to open.

Here's what the content looks like...

...and a spoonful of it for you to look at.

Basically what I want you to appreciate is how evenly creamy the texture is, which is a big winner for me.
I ate a spread once in which some bits of meat were still recognizable, and I happened to spot a small tubular thingie that looked suspiciously like a vein segment.
Now, I know there are offal in this spread as well - swine heart, lung, and head, according to the label - but they're all minced up nicely so that I don't have to see any icky bits.

The flavour is... well, pretty liver-y. So much so, in fact, that I suspected it might be artificial, as the actual liver content of this spread is about 21%, and not even in foie gras - which is pretty much 100% of the real stuff - does the taste come through so intensely.
Still, the listed ingredients include the usual thickening and colouring additives, but no artificial flavourings - and since it is imported through a U.K.-based company and British standards are usually very stict, I don't doubt the contents are as declared.
I guess the different meats were mixed in some smart way so that the liver's the real star.

The spread by itself was good enough for me to eat a couple spoonfuls right off the tin, but IMHO it needs something to balance the strong liver flavour - in short, it's quintessential sandwich material!

I sloshed some of it on half a loaf of French bread with sliced cheese, pickled hot chilies, and a little mayo. The other half got the same, except I was out of chilies, so I put in a boiled egg instead.

Both variations were delicious, and even more so after a few hours; I will surely buy more tins for those times when I need to whip up a quick snack to wrap up and take to work.
I think it might be good that the label gives no nutritional values though...