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"It's so beautifully arranged on the the plate – you know someone's fingers have been all over it." – Julia Child

The end-of-day drink is a fairly common affair, whether it’s a swig from the small bottle hiding in an office desk drawer or a few beers with colleagues on the way home. There’s a perfunctory air to some of these evening proceedings, and sometimes, as in the case of happy hours run amok, a debauched one. But in Italy, the pre-dinner cocktail is a much more refined and stylish event. It’s not that the settings are snobbish or expensive, it’s more a matter of the activity being a respected ritual.

An aperitivo is an Italian cocktail designed to tease the appetite in preparation for supper. The alcohol content of the ingredients used to mix the drinks is fairly low, as the point is not to send anyone home completely sauced. You’re probably familiar with vermouth, Campari, and Aperol, so you’re already off to a good start in the art of aperitivo. Following are a few simple drinks and recipes — because aside from sophisticated sipping, small bites are an indispensable part of the custom.

And, if you’re feeling inspired be sure to pick up our friend Marisa Huff’s beautiful book Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy for more recipes and tips on how to eat and drink like an Italian. Cin cin!

 

CAMPARI SPRITZ

The lush tomato-red color of Campari makes is enough to imagine Sophia Loren speeding in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Campari is a bitter liqueur made from an infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic herbs, alcohol, and water—the exact recipe is of course, a secret.

To make a spritz, combine in a wine glass:

3 parts dry white wine, still or sparkling
2 parts Campari
1 part club soda

– Add ice and garnish with an orange wedge and/or a green olive.

– If you prefer a sweeter and less dry spritz, substitute the Campari with Aperol.

MASCARPONE AND HAZELNUT TRAMEZZINI
From Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy by Marisa Huff

Tea sandwiches are not just the thing of picnics and proper tea tables. In Italy, the crust-less white bread sandwiches (tramezzini) are the ideal sidekick to a cocktail.

*If you can’t find truffle paste, Marisa recommends replacing half the mascarpone with gorgonzola dolce or gorgonzola piccante.

Makes 6 half sandwiches

2 cups mascarpone (from an 8-ounce/250-gram container)
1 teaspoon white truffle paste*
6 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped

– In a medium bowl, using a fork, mix together the mascarpone and white truffle paste until smooth. Arrange three slices of bread on a cutting board or other flat surface. Spread the cheese mixture across each slices, dividing it evenly. Close with the remaining bread slices and press down gently so that the cheese reaches the edges of the bread. Cut in half to make six sandwiches. (We spread a bit of cheese on the edges of the sandwiches, too).

– To finish, dip all four sides of each sandwich in the chopped hazelnuts, which will stick to the cheese.

THE EASIEST SNACKS

We are frequently asked for easy entertaining ideas, and in general, our approach is to either prep in advance or go to the no-fail crudités-and-dip or cheese and charcuterie boards. You can simplify even further and serve olives, nuts, and Italian meats and cheeses if you decide to try an aperitivo gathering at home. Of course, shop for good ingredients or risk having your cocktail hour spread resemble an airplane snack box.

PERFECT EGG SALAD

Please forget the crusty egg salad you see piled up in the deli case before you continue reading! This version has absolutely nothing to do with that. It is a velvety luxury that goes well on toast, on a bagel under layers of smoked salmon, and in this case, on crusty Italian bread alongside a crisp aperitivo. Oh. And you can use it as a dip for potato chips, too.

4 large eggs
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Mayonnaise
4 pieces cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 shallot, minced
1 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained (optional)
½ cup watercress, chopped, plus additional for sprinkling
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Extra-virgin olive oil

– The richness of this egg salad comes not only from mayonnaise, but from the natural goo of a runny egg yolk. Usually, when we hard-boil our eggs, we start them in cold water. However, since what we want is a firm white and a fluid yolk, we’ll start with boiling water. So:

– Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Gently lower the eggs into the water and boil them for 6 minutes exactly. Drain the eggs, run them under cold water for a minute or two, and return them to the saucepan. Shake the eggs until the shells are cracked all over, then peel them under gently running water. You’ll see how easy it is.

– Smash the eggs in a medium bowl with a fork and season them with salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons mayonnaise and the remaining ingredients. Stir everything together and adjust the salad with more anchovy, capers, mayo, etc. to taste.

– Spoon the egg salad on bread, drizzle it with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with chopped watercress.

Dessert

Peaches and other produce are available year round at many of our grocery stores. Sure, they may be in season in other parts of the world and shipped here so we can have asparagus even in the dead of winter, but as much as possible, we should buy produce that’s ripe and ready to eat in our own latitude and longitude. Better yet, if you can skip the impersonal chill of the supermarket and opt for a leisurely stroll through a local fruit farm, do it and take in the colors and smells of summer produce. The peaches featured here are from Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, one of Tara’s frequent pit stops in the North Fork of Long Island.

Fresh fruit is one of our favorite ingredients to start summer desserts because it requires very little preparation and needs only minimal coaxing to release its juices. For these peach shortcakes, slices of ripe yellow peaches are sprinkled with coarse sugar and lemon juice. This combination macerates the fruit, creating a light, natural syrup with a balancing tartness.

You can pile the peaches onto shortcakes and slather them with vanilla-flavored whipped cream or add a generous spoonful of homemade bourbon and ginger peach jam. The recipe for the jam follows—one of Tara’s go to-s every summer when farmer’s market and fruit stand purchases are delicious freshly picked and promise to be just as good months down the road.

About the shortcakes: I’m obsessed with biscuits and scones and have been baking them since I was little. I have my preferences for how to fold in butter and how to arrange them on the baking sheet, and by now I think they’re easy to make. But, I know that even these quick breads can be daunting for non-bakers, and also, that they can be made even quicker! This recipe cheats with self-raising  flour and instead of carefully cut up chilled butter, whipped cream. Sugar and (optional) orange zest are also in the mix, and just like that, dessert is ready.

EASIER THAN EVER BISCUITS

Makes 6

*If you don’t have self-raising flour, substitute it with 2 cups all-purpose flour + 1 tablespoon baking powder + 1 teaspoon salt

2 cups self-raising flour*, plus additional for work surface
2 tablespoons coarse granulated sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup heavy cream, chilled

– Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

– In a medium mixing bowl combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and orange zest. In a second bowl (chilled if possible), whisk the cream until it holds soft peaks. With a rubber spatula, stir the cream into the flour mixture.

– Lightly dust a clean and dry work surface with flour and turn the dough out. Gather the dough together and knead it just until it comes together, 3 to 5 times. Press the dough into a ¾-inch thick disk and punch out the biscuits with a 2.4-inch cutter (you can use a glass of similar size). You may have to shape the last biscuit from the leftover scraps of dough.

– Arrange the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with additional sugar. Bake until golden brown on top, about 15 minutes. Transfer tray to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature.

 

FOR THE WHIPPED CREAM

Makes about 2 cups

1 cup heavy cream, chilled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch salt

–  Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl (chilled if possible – it helps in holding the peaks) until soft peaks form. Refrigerate until needed, up to 6 hours. If it wilts a bit, re-whisk before serving.

 

FOR THE PEACHES

6 to 8 ripe peaches, sliced
Coarse granulated sugar to taste
Lemon juice

– Toss the peach slices with 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons lemon juice in a medium bowl. Taste and add more sugar and lemon juice until you like it.

 

FOR THE BOURBON AND GINGER PEACH JAM

Recipe adapted from The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss

Makes about 4 half pint jars

3 pounds peeled and cored peaches
2 – 3 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼-½ teaspoon dry ginger
1-2 tablespoons Bourbon

– Toss the fruit and 2 cups of sugar in a large bowl. Cover and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

– Add the fruit and all of the juices to a large nonreactive pan. Bring the jam to simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When the fruit has softened, add the lemon juice and ginger.

– You can break the fruit down more at this point with a potato masher if you prefer a smoother texture for your jam. This is also a great time to taste the jam. You can add more sugar if you feel it’s needed, up to 1 cup.

– Continue cooking, stirring frequently until the jam is glossy, a bit darker, and thickened. When it reaches 220°F (at sea level) it’s done. It should sheet off the spoon.

– Reduce the heat to low and add 1 tablespoon of bourbon. Stir well and taste. Add additional bourbon if desired.

– Ladle the jam into sterilized hot jars leaving ¼ headspace. Remove any air bubbles and wipe the jar rims down. You can use a chopstick to help remove the bubbles by running it along the inside of the jar. Place the lids on the jars according to the manufacturer’s directions.

– Process the jam in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. (Use the water bath canning method, processing for 10 minutes. This is a great resource http://www.nwedible.com)

– Once the jars have cooled fully, check to make sure they have sealed. If any have not sealed, put them in the refrigerator and use within a month.

– Sealed jars should be labeled and stored in a cool dark place. They’ll be good for about a year.

*A great link for a complete how to on hot water bath canning: http://foodinjars.com/2013/07/new-to-canning-start-here-boiling-water-bath-canning/

Our friend was having a bake sale at her daughter’s school during the primaries, and asked me to make something. I decided since Maria is Nicaragua visiting family, I’d go ahead and post my bake sale contribution. My friend and I were going back and forth on what to bake – Should I make cupcakes? Scones? Cookies? Or coffee cake? – These amazing bars got all the votes!

Heavenly Cookie Bars are perfect for a low maintenance dessert, and are a guaranteed crowd pleaser. They’re one of my favorite go to cookie recipes because they are quick and delicious.

In the end, the bars SOLD OUT and were a big hit!

 

HEAVENLY COOKIE BARS – (AKA MAGIC COOKIE BARS)

Makes about 2 dozen bars

  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 2 TBL flax meal
  • 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 cups semi sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/3 cup coconut flakes
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (pecan, or walnuts are great)
  • 2 TBL chia seed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

13 x 9 inch baking pan

Pour the melted butter into the pan. In a medium sized bowl, mix the graham cracker crumbs with the flax meal. Once combined, sprinkle evenly over the melted butter.

Pour the sweetened condensed milk evenly over the graham cracker crumbs.

Layer the remaining ingredients as follows: chips, nuts, chia, and top with coconut flakes.

Press down firmly with your hands, or a fork.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the top is a nice golden brown.

Let cool, and then cut into small squares.