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Tuesday
Feb082011

It's Hip to be Square (A review of the pizza at L and B Spumoni Gardens)



Elana, remember when we tried to cram Pizza, in all of its forms, into one "Pizza Month"...? Heck, not since  Apollo Creed's choreographed entrance in Rocky 4 can I recall such an overestimation of one's own capabilities.  And we all know how that ended.

But in fairness to us, we never really thought the idea was possible.  We just figured that it would be a cool idea to devote one month towards Pizza.  But since shifting our efforts into maintaining an Italian focused blog, there are now no limits as to the frequency for how often Pizza will be discussed.

And, in light of this, what better Pizza to feature than the legendary square-cut, cheese-beneath-sauce, Sicilian pie found at L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn; the first pan made pizza to be featured on the blog.  Never mind the fact that a dispute between myself and a fellow Italian over a parking spot distracted us a bit, we were dialed in.



From the look of it, the slice merely looks like focaccia bread with some "gravy" splattered on top, yet there is more than meets the eye to this little guy.  Underneath L & B's thick tomato sauce is mozzarella cheese. Yes, cheese under sauce.  Combined with the pan cooked bread, each bite has a pillowy soft, inviting nature to it.  The pizza, ingredients wise, is not particularly mind blowing if one were to dissect the main players: the sauce packs a mediocre, pasty tang and the cheese does not taste much different than Polly-O.



Nonetheless, there is indeed a magic to it all.  Elana and I comment on its superior "mouthfeel" - you know, that hard-to-explain quality of certain foods and drink that seem to set it apart from the rest, like a Reeses peanut butter cup?  Well, this pie has it.  Anchored by it's thick, yet slightly moist, pound cake-like crust, the L & B slice becomes more addictive with each bite.  And feel free to order seconds or thirds; despite the pie's threatening look, it's actually quite light and easy to take down.  Elana's ordering a second slice without hesitation.  We are both significantly hooked.

Those expecting a charming ambiance: don't.  The inside is nothing flashy.  Tables may endure a cycle of about 3-4 lunches before getting a wash down.  But it's nothing offensive; and if you came here for the scene, you're not in the right frame of mind.  L and B's pizza is famous for a reason, and you're missing out if you have yet to make it out there.

Movie equivalent - Top Gun

Monday
Feb072011

Make Breakfast for Your Valentine: Beginner and Advanced Instructions



Hello again. Your weekly Valentine's Day reminder, here. Today we are going to focus on a homemade treat: breakfast.

This Valentine's Day, instead of dashing out the door, hair half-brushed, pants mostly on, with half a Pop Tart clamped between your incisors, sit down at the table. On chairs. And eat. With utensils.

And let's eat French Toast!  For those of you who approach cooking with a fear and anxiety equal to Hunter S. Thompson on a Death Valley escape from Las Vegas, I have also provided a beginner-level option. Make no mistake: BOTH versions involve actually heating something up. Let's start with the beginners:



Heart Shaped Toast with Honey Butter for Beginners

What You Need:
4 thickly cut pieces of a nice fluffy bread. Brioche works nicely. I got mine from Balthazar Bakery
1/2 a stick of salted butter, left out on the counter for a while to get soft (but NOT melted)
2 tablespoons + extra drizzle of your favorite brand and flavor of honey
A toaster or broiler (which is in your oven - it's that drawer at the bottom)
A pinch of sea salt
A large heart-shaped cookie cutter

What To Do:
Once your butter is suitably soft (you should be able to easily mix it with a spoon), place it in a bowl and using a regular spoon, drizzle the 2 Tbsp. honey over it. Mix the honey and butter together so it's all incorporated. Sprinkle a little sea salt over the top. I really like the punch of a sweet-salty flavor mix (like salted caramels). But if you don't, you can skip that part.

Cut thick slices from your Brioche bread loaf (like maybe about 1.5" thick) and toast them up to your desired level of toastiness. I like a nice golden brown, but you're not making this for me, are you? Are you??

Once your toasts are toasted, place them on some nice plates (yes, you do need to use plates) and spread some honey butter on top. Serve with extra honey butter on the side.

If you are more advanced, or feeling adventurous, you can move on to: French Toast Sandwiches with Nutella Mascarpone Filling. Oh yeah.



What You Need:
For the French Toast:
4 thickly cut pieces of a Brioche bread (1.5" thick)
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
Cinnamon (a dash or two)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of butter to grease the frying pan

For the Filling:
4 ounces of mascarpone cheese
4 ounces of Nutella spread

Confectioner's sugar for dusting

Tools:
A large heart-shaped cookie cutter
A frying pan
A spatula

What To Do:
First make the filling. In a small mixing bowl, combine the mascarpone cheese and the Nutella. Mix until well integrated. Give it a taste and see if you would like to add either more Nutella or more cheese.

Crack the two eggs into a wide bottomed bowl. Add the 1/2 cup of milk and a dash or two of cinnamon and the vanilla extract. Using a fork, mix everything up so that you now have a light yellow mixture with swirls of cinnamon.

Using the heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out hearts from your bread slices.

Heat up a frying pan on medium-low heat and melt the tablespoon of butter in the pan.



Dredge both sides of the heart shaped bread slices in the egg and milk mixture, and then add them to the heated frying pan, cooking about a minute on each side. Place the cooked French Toast slices on plates (here we go again with the plates).

Using a knife, spread the Nutella and mascarpone filling on top of one of the French Toast Hearts. Top with another French Toast Heart to make a sandwich. Repeat with the other two slices.

Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and watch the sparks fly!

Up until now, I have been giving you good-smelling Valentine's gift options like flowers. Instead, you may want to choose something that smells equally good (or better) and that you can drink: COFFEE! If your honey likes his/her breakfast caffeinated, these options are the cream of the coffee crop in my opinion:

Intelligentsia Coffee (You can only find this in Chicago and Los Angeles, but you can click here to find locations)

Irving Farm Coffee (I recently visited their West Village coffee shop and with thrilled with my smooth latte)

Stumptown Coffee

San'Eustachio

Oh yeah, DON'T throw away the extra bread pieces left over from the heart cut-outs. I've got something you can do with them. Something tasty. More details later in the week...

Friday
Feb042011

Food Photography at ICP

Even before starting this blog, I have been an admirer of good food photography. Sometimes I even get confused as to whether I like the food or the food photography better. Don't worry, it's the food. BUT! I love a beautiful image, I am a designer after all. So when John and I started this blog, I used it as an excuse to start learning how to make my food photos look better.

Originally, I was just using the camera on my iPhone. Laugh if you will, but it's actually a pretty good camera. These were taken with my phone:



What I don't have in photography skills, I have been making up for in Photoshop skills. I'm pretty good in Photoshop. However, I wanted my photos to be good, not doctored to be good. And anyway, you can only fix a photo so much. Photoshop is not always the solution.

So I signed up for some classes. The first class I took was Food Styling and Photography at ICE. They had two professional photographers and a food stylist on hand to help out. The photographers snapped the actual pictures and we cooked, styled and messed with the lighting. Here is my favorite photo from that class:



I cooked those pancakes! We had someone SLOWLY pour the syrup over the pancakes as we took pictures.

The next step was to get a camera. You just can't take photos like the above with an iPhone. You need a good lens that creates some depth of field. I bought my first REAL camera, a Canon Rebel T1i with a Sigma 50mm 1:2.8 DG macro lens. I took it to Italy with me when Marmo and I went back in October and was pretty astounded by the difference it made:



But I really didn't understand anything about lighting techniques, I wanted to improve my styling and...just. get. better.

I study food blogs daily for their photography, and I've even compiled a binder of images that I like and refer to when I'm trying to think of photo setups. Here are some that I read often:

La Tartine Gourmande

Tartelette

What Katie Ate

Cannelle et Vanille

101 Cookbooks

I also check out Foodgawker and Tastespotting, as they both feature excellent food photography.

I realized I could only get so far on my own, so I thought I would take another class. I registered for a food photography class at ICP taught by Susie Cushner who is a professional food photographer. I liked her style: natural, well-lit, and simply styled.

Class spanned four days. For two days we were in a shooting kitchen. We had a chef and food stylist preparing food for us, and we worked in groups to style a shot, arrange the lighting and take the photos. This time, I actually took the photos. We used white and black foam core to bounce light (white reflects it creating highlights, while black absorbs it creating shadows). We used natural light coming in through the windows, and supplemented it with strobe lighting when needed. We also used diffusers to soften the light (tracing paper or sheer curtains work for this in a pinch).

Artichokes!





Bruschetta!





Taters!





We photographed all real food. We didn't use anything inedible to coat, laquer or otherwise beautify the food. In fact, sometimes we ate it after we shot it (a potato and tomato pizza comes to mind...). Many stylists do use things like white glue (for milk) or glycerin (for liquid beading on a glass), but this happens most often in commercial styling. Editorial has experienced a shift toward more "natural" styling.  That's what we focused on here.

Please keep in mind that I am just a beginner at this food photography thing. I'm still learning. And it's quite a challenge. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have with my limited knowledge, and if you have anything to share, please feel free!

Here are a few pics of me, concentrating really, really hard:





Above photos of me by Tom Mendes. You can check out Tom's photography here.
Thursday
Feb032011

Italian Meatball Sliders for the Super Bowl



A colleague of mine told me a joke yesterday:

"How many Jets does it take to get to the Super Bowl?"

"How many?" I said.

"Two. One for the Packers and one for the Steelers!"  He roared with laughter.

"Funny," I dryly responded.  In appreciation for the joke, I proceeded to fix him a cup of coffee.  Who's smiling now, buddy?

Yes, I'm still bitter from the Pittsburgh loss.  Why were the Jets asleep at the wheel during the first half of an AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME?  Why did they have to lose to a group of degenerates who notoriously rack up fines and suspensions like Charlie Sheen trashes hotel rooms?  Why do I continue to support a franchise which, without fail, leaves me curled up in the fetal position on the morning after each season ending loss with a brutal hangover and an empty Kleenex box, surrounded by a litter of candy bar wrappers and uncapped magic markers?

Well, it's hope I suppose.  Because regardless of how painful your team's season ending loss was, there is always next year. And even sooner to the rescue, is the Super Bowl: an event so commercialized and familiar that even the most left out of football (or non-football) fans feel welcome to participate in. For many, it grants us one more opportunity to watch some quality football.  For everyone, it provides quality entertainment and food.  And what better idea for a Super Sunday snack than a mixture of American and Italian greatness?  Enter, the meatball slider - the perfect handful of a mouthful which teases your brain into thinking that three of these suckers is considerably less damaging than an entire meatball sub.  Well, actually, it is... provided you subscribe to the below mentioned, from-scratch recipe:

What You Need:
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork of veal
3/4 cup breadcrumbs (seasoned)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup ground pine nuts
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped taragon
3/4 teaspoon salt
a couple shakes of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fresh basil (about 12 large leaves)
Mini Parker Rolls (or Brioche rolls)

Tomato Sauce: You can use your own recipe, or the one I describe here.

What To Do:
Place your ground (defrosted if it was frozen) meat In a large mixing bowl and mix to combine well.

Add in your breadcrumbs, ground pine nuts (you can grind them in a food processor) and everything else. Mix very well to combine. You really can't over-mix.

Make sure the "meat-dough" is holding together. To do this, grab some with your hands (come on, you can do it!) and form it into balls. Pretend you're making snow balls. With meat. If it's holding together, continue making balls and setting them aside on a platter. If it's not holding together, you can add another egg.

Once you have formed all your meatballs, heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Place your raw meatballs in the pan and fry 'em up!

You will need to rotate them a bit, so they brown evenly on all sides. Don't do this with your bare hands. Use some tongs or a spatula at least. I'm begging you. Also the fat from the meat will combine with the oil of the pan and become VERY, VERY HOT. It may just splatter. Yet another use for those safety goggles I like so much.

This whole cooking process should take about 10 minutes. If you made giant meatballs, 15.

Open up your mini rolls like buns and place one meatball inside. Top with 1 large basil leaf. You can hold this whole contraption together with a toothpick if you like. Serve the tomato sauce on the side.

Note: You don't have to use the pine nuts if you can't find them or are allergic to nuts. They did give the meatballs a nice, nutty and slightly sweet flavor, which I liked very much.

Also - is this still not enough to feed your team?  Keep in mind our previous football related posts seen here, here and here.

Wednesday
Feb022011

Pizz-aly! Pizza at Eataly



Recently, I was lunching at Eataly with a group of colleagues. Actually, I just wanted to use "lunching" and "colleagues" in the same sentence.

I was hungrily devouring a pizza with the other members of a food photography class that I was taking. We had come to Eataly to do some on-site food photography. Come for the pictures, stay for the food – that kind of thing.

Readers of this blog know of the obsession John and I have for pizza, so I used this opportunity to sample Eataly's version.

Eataly's pizza menu offered the Neopolitan-style, wood fired, personal sized pizza characterized by a thin crust with a floppy center and a charred yet moist and chewy outer crust (or cornicione).

A member of our group suggested sharing a pizza. But I needed to research! For the blog! For our readers! For science! Also, I was hungry. So I politely responded, "I'll be taking one down all by myself. But thanks for the offer!"

Besides, when I share food, I'm always mentally tallying the number of pieces that I have in relation to everyone else in an effort to be polite. It's too much mental energy when I'm trying to eat. Plus, it usually leaves me hungry.

I selected the Verduretta, a traditional Margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) topped with roasted eggplant and red peppers.

The portion size was generous. I did not, in fact, end up taking the whole thing down by myself. Leopard-like black char spots graced the outer crust which sloped downwards to a very thin and flexible inner pizza. The tomato sauce was tangy and the strips of roasted eggplant provided a smokey and woodsy quality that had me wishing these veggies had been more generously applied.

While the eggplant scored high marks, the roasted peppers seemed just decorative accents as they were a more generic, from-the-can variety and didn't add much flavor.

As for the mozzarella – the marshmallow-like dollops were an excellent consistency: they retained a good meltiness even upon cooling, and were never plastic-y or dry.

John would call this a "solid" pie, and I would agree. Technically and traditionally sound in crust and cooking method, yet lacking a bit in depth of flavor from its veggie accoutrements.

Overall Pizza-Eating Experience: Top Gun, The Well Working Formula

Bonus Section! I've you've read this far, you can see a few photo highlights from the Eataly tour: