Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cleveland: A Real Foodie Destination

During my book talks, I always brag -- and rightfully so! -- that Cleveland has indeed evolved into a hot foodie tourist destination. Out-of-towners are either traveling specifically to our city for a culinary adventure or stopping here purposely on their way to someplace else in order to experience our gastro delights.

East 4th Street

These travelers are the same people who have read about our top-rated restaurants in national magazines or newspapers or blogs...seen one of our high-profile chefs on TV...or heard about our rising food scene on the radio.

However, after one of my book talks a few weeks ago, a person in the audience asked me to support this claim. So...here you go, folks!

In no particular order, the following is where you'll find the opinions of some highly qualified people who have verified this very phenomenon, if you want to call it that. I just call it something we've always deserved. (For more details, just click on the links provided.)
  1. The Brooklyn Nomad - Blogger and world traveler, Andrew Hickey, includes Cleveland on his selective list of "Best U.S. Foodie Destinations."
  2. Chicago Tribune - Reporter Monica Eng sings the praises of Cleveland's dining scene after a weekend with Michael Ruhlman.
  3. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Reporter Gretchen McKay boasts about Cleveland being a "growing foodie destination" -- much more so than Pittsburgh.
  4. Rah Cha Chow - Blogger, food writer, and cooking contester from Rochester, Tracy Schuhmacher, extols the virtues of a day spent in this foodie city.
  5. The Vacation Gals - Three professional travel writers tout Cleveland as THE place to visit for a great dining experience.
  6. Travel+Leisure - This respected magazine lists Cleveland as #4 on their "Best Farmers' Markets" list. They also listed Pier W as one of the "America's Most Romantic Restaurants" and Sokolowski's University Inn as one of the "Best Places to Eat Like a Local." Many more listings would require a lot more space.
  7. Esquire - Revered food critic, John Mariani, placed L'Albatros on this magazine's list of the "Best New Restaurants." Other kudos are also included.
  8. NPR - One of Ideastream's shows, "The Sound of Ideas," focused entirely on Northeast Ohio as a true dining destination.
  9. Food & Wine - This epicurean tome showcases the best Cleveland has to offer the nation.
  10. AOL Travel - These experts know their stuff, and they're more than happy to highlight the culinary gems travelers will find in our great city.
If you know of any other mentions you'd like to add, please leave a comment below!

Until next time,

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tom's Cassata Valentino

My husband and I have been volunteering pretty regularly on a monthly basis for the past eight years at a fabulous little cooking school tucked away in Vermilion called Laurel Run Cooking School.

We work with a remarkably dedicated cadre of volunteers, all of whom are accomplished cooks themselves. One of them is Tom Cizmar.
Tom Cizmar

Tom is quite an avid cook, bread baker, and organic gardener.  
“I always remember being in the kitchen or garden. My Italian mother taught me how to cook greens and make sauce, and my Slovak father how to grow tomatoes and garlic.”
In his travels to over 55 countries, Tom has cooked in a B&B in London, toiled in a kosher kitchen in Jerusalem, and attended cooking classes in Florence, Italy. He earned a Grande Diplome from Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson, Ohio. And he recently returned from a professional bread workshop at The King Arthur Baking Education Center in Vermont. Tom also teaches classes at Laurel Run. 

At the last class Joe and I volunteered at, Tom brought in a cake he was "experimenting" with. Yeah, right. One bite and I knew this was no experiment! This was the stuff professional bakers showcased front and center as their signature dessert. Tom called it his "Cassata Valentino."

I hesitated to ask him for the recipe. But when I did, Tom shot back quickly with a smile, "Of course!" Knowing what a generous guy he is, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

Actually, Tom's version is a take on the traditional cassata cake, typically made of sponge cake, strawberries, custard, and whipped cream. He wanted to amp it up a bit and used sweet cherries, ricotta, amaretto simple syrup, and espresso chocolate ganache instead. 

After one bite, I was smitten. This is truly something you would want to serve your finest guests. And it doesn't hurt that it's visually beautiful too, inside and out.

Just one warning: The recipe is actually a series of recipes and may look complicated at first glace, but don't be fooled. The recipes are very detailed...totally manageable...and oh so worth it.

So without further ado, here is the recipe for the cake of a lifetime!

Courtesy of Tom Cizmar

-          One 9 x 5 or 8 ½ by 4 ½ pound cake (recipe follows)
-          Approx. 1 cup of simple syrup flavored with amaretto (recipe follows)
-          3 cups of espresso chocolate ganache (recipe follows) (If planning to pour a smooth coat of ganache over the cake, then use 1/3 of recipe for interior layer. Reserve the remaining 2/3 of ingredients until the cake has been assembled.)
-          1 (15-ounce) can of pitted dark sweet cherries
-          15 to 16 ounces of whole milk ricotta cheese
-          2 tablespoons sugar
-          Approx. 4 to 5 ounces of sliced almonds – sliced for interior, chopped for exterior

-          A piece of cardboard to place under the cake. Cut a 10-inch cake round to size.
-          Sheet pan with rack to fit over the top
-          Long serrated knife
-          Pastry brush
-          Offset spatula

Process Steps:

  1.  Drain cherries and cut in half or lightly chop.
  2. Prepare ricotta filling. Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar with ricotta cheese. Mix thoroughly.
  3. Using a serrated knife, level off the top of the pound cake by cutting off the domed portion. Set this piece aside for another use.
  4. Beginning at the top of the cake, cut the remaining pound cake horizontally into five equally thick layers. Stack the layers in front of you in reverse order, top on the bottom and so on.
  5. Place a wire rack over a sheet pan. Place the cake cardboard on top of the wire rack to form the base for the cake. 
  6. Place the bottom slice of cake onto the cardboard and begin assembly. Brush the bottom layer with simple syrup. Use approx. 1/5 of the mixture per layer. Evenly spread about ½ of the ricotta cheese mixture over this layer.   
  7. Place the next layer on top of the ricotta cheese. Brush this layer with simple syrup. Cover this layer with even rows of drained, cut cherries. Place the cherries cut side up. Place a thin layer of sliced almonds over the cherries.
  8. Place the third layer on top of the cherry almond layer. Brush with syrup. Spread approx. 1/3 of the ganache evenly over this layer.
  9. Place the fourth layer over the ganache. Brush with syrup and evenly spread remaining ricotta cheese mixture over this layer. 
  10. Place the last layer over the ricotta. Brush with remaining syrup. 
  11. If using a smooth glazed chocolate top for the cake, make the ganache using the remaining 2/3 of the ingredients.
  12. If any ingredients have fallen into the sheet pan, remove them so that the pan is clean. Return the rack and cake to the top of the sheet pan.
  13. Pour the warm ganache over the top of the cake. Cover the top entirely and allow the ganache to run down the sides. The excess ganache will collect in the sheet pan and will be reused to finish the sides of the cake. 
  14. Allow the remaining ganache to set so that it can be spread. Using an offset spatula, frost the sides of the cake with ganache. 
  15. Finish the cake by pushing chopped almonds onto the ganache of the sides of the cake. Additional almonds can be added to decorate the top if desired. 
  16. Set the cake aside and allow to set for at least four hours or overnight before serving.  

Pound Cake
-         Recipe from Baking from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (2006)

-          2 cups all-purpose flour or 2¼ cups cake flour
-          1 teaspoon baking powder
-          ¼ teaspoon salt
-          2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
-          1 cup sugar
-          4 large eggs, at room temperature
-          1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


  1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees. 
  2.  Prepare a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan or an 8 ½ x 4 ½ inch loaf pan.
  3. To prepare pan, butter bottom and sides, line bottom with parchment or wax paper, butter the paper, dust all sides and bottom of pan with flour. 
  4.  Place the prepared loaf pan on an insulated baking sheet or on two stacked sheet pans.
  5. The pound cake requires an extended baking time, 70 to 75 minutes for a 9 x 5 and 85 to 90 minutes for an 8 ½ x 4 ½ pan. An 8 ½ x 4 ½ pan may also require insulation on the sides. Either wrap with foil or use Magic Cake strips to insulate the pan.
Process Steps:

  1. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. 
  2. Using a stand mixer, beat together butter and sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy. Beat for a full 5 minutes to incorporate air. 
  3. Scrape down the bowl, reduce speed to medium and begin adding eggs one at a time. Beat for 1 to 2 minutes after each egg is added.  Scrape down bowl in between adding each egg. 
  4.  Mix in vanilla. 
  5.  Remove the bowl from the mixer and begin folding in the flour mixture from step 1. Fold in the flour in 3 separate additions. Do not over mix. Stop when the last of the flour is incorporated.
  6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top and place the batter filled pan on the insulated baking sheets and place in a preheated 325 degree oven. 
  7.  After 40 to 45 minutes, cover the cake loosely with a foil tent to prevent the top from burning. 
  8. The cake is finished baking when a skewer inserted in the top comes out clean, 70 to 75 minutes for a 9 x 5 and 80 to 90 minutes for an 8 ½ x 4 ½. 
  9. Remove the cake from the oven when finished and transfer to a rack. Do not remove the cake immediately from its baking pan. Let the cake rest on the rack in its baking pan for 30 minutes. 
  10.  After resting, run a blunt knife around the sides of the pan, turn out the cake and place it right side up on the rack. Allow to completely cool to room temperature.
Cook’s Notes:
-          If using an 8 ½ by 4 ½ loaf pan for this recipe, the cake will rise far above the pan creating a high dome. If the dome is undesirable, either remove some batter or use a 9 x 5 pan.

-          If baking this pound cake to use as the cake for the cassata recipe, all-purpose flour is recommended. A pound cake baked with cake flour will fall slightly and have less height after baking. This will make it difficult to slice into five layers.   cake baked with cake flour is also more fragile.       

Espresso Ganache
Recipe from Food & Wine magazine online contributed by Rose Levy Beranbaum from Great Cakes (September 1998)

-          3 cups, enough for one cassata cake recipe

-          18 ounces bittersweet chocolate broken into ¾ inch pieces
-          1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
-          1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder
-          1 ½ tablespoons Kahlúa or other coffee flavored liquor

Process Steps:

  1. Put the chocolate in a heat proof bowl. 
  2. In a small sauce pan, heat the cream until bubbles appear around the edge. 
  3. Remove from heat. 
  4. Add espresso powder and stir to dissolve.
  5. Pour hot cream over the chocolate and let stand for approx. 1 minute.
  6. Stir chocolate until melted and smooth. 
  7. Stir in Kahlúa. 
  8. Let ganache stand at room temperature until firm enough to spread.

Simple Syrup
Recipe from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum (1988)

-          Approx. 1 cup

-          6 tablespoons sugar
-          2/3 cup water
-          3 tablespoons liquor of your choice

Process Steps:

  1. In a sauce pan with a tight fitting lid, combine the sugar and water and bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. 
  2. Remove from heat, cover immediately, and cool completely. 
  3. Transfer to a measuring cup and stir in liquor.
  4. If the syrup has evaporated slightly, add enough water to equal one cup.
Cook’s Notes:
-          Syrup can be stored in refrigerator for up to one month.
-          The ratio of sugar to water in simple syrups varies. A standard level of sweetness for cake layers is 1/3 cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Favorite Serbian Recipe: Koljivo

There were a hundred ideas swirling through my head as to what to post this week. But since I had just highlighted Serbian soul food last week and since so many of you wrote to ask for a sample Serbian recipe, I thought this would be the perfect time to share a personal favorite with you.

It's a simple dish called koljivo (or also žito, which literally means wheat). Koljivo is a sweet boiled wheat dish used liturgically in the Orthodox tradition.

I have such fond memories of this dish as a little girl. It would be served every Christmas Eve after Orthodox Mass. It was also served after every parastos (a memorial service held 40 days after someone's passing), usually with a cross made of nuts decorated on top (see variations below).



Church ladies would serve it in little cups...and I loved it so much, I was known to go back and sneak another cup...after cup...after cup! (Yes, that's my little secret. And now that I've made it public, I'm quite embarrassed!)

Then, about eight years ago, my husband and I were in Serbia visiting my relatives. We spent one day in its capital city, Belgrade, to visit an old Serbian friend of mine. At the time, he was living there as an Orthodox priest. (He's now a bishop in Australia.) But when we were teenagers, he was the president of our youth group and I was the vice president. In fact, he was my very first date. Imagine that! Anyway, back to my story.

"Mirko" (as I've always known him) treated Joe and me to a very chic, upscale restaurant in downtown Belgrade (see below).

We had a fabulous meal and lots of laughs over old memories. For dessert, he ordered us all koljivo, which was served in a modern martini glass topped with fresh whipped cream. I hadn't thought of it in years, and suddenly, I was in heaven again! (Sometimes, the little girl in you never leaves.)

When I told Mirko how much I loved this dish, he told me it's actually very simple to make. I quickly jotted down his instructions on a napkin and made it as soon as I got back to the States. I still make his version to this very day -- and it's just as delicious as I always remembered it.

The main ingredient in this delicacy is wheatberry, which is the entire wheat kernel (except for the hull), composed of the bran, germ, and endosperm. You can find it at ethnic import stores, the West Side Market, health food stores, and finer grocery stores. Even Red Mill makes it. If you have a choice, buy the skinless kind.

Even though it does take some time to soak these babies (you can do it the long way overnight, or the short way as described below), it is entirely worth it. Trust me.

Anyway, here is Mirko's recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. (FYI: This recipe makes quite a lot. If you simply want to make a little bit the first time, I would just make a quarter of the recipe.)

1 lb. wheatberries, preferably skinless
1 lb. sugar
1 lb. ground walnuts
1 T. vanilla
Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1. Boil the wheatberries in a pot of water for 1-1 1/2 hours.

 2. Drain and rinse well.

3. Mix together cooked wheat berries, sugar, and ground walnuts in a bowl. Stir in vanilla and nutmeg.

4. If you prefer a finer texture, place in a food processor (with the chopping blade) and pulse until desired texture is achieved.

5. If not serving immediately, refrigerate until ready to serve.

6. Add a dollop of sweetened whipped cream to each serving if desired.

7. As you can see from the photos below, you can also incorporate optional ingredients at the very end, such as freshly ground cinnamon, cooked apple chunks, dried cranberries, raisins, etc.

If there's a favorite ethnic recipe of your own that you've enjoyed over the years, I'd love to hear about it!

Until next time, happy eating!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Serbian Soul Food

If you know me personally or if you've attended one of my talks, you know I'm half Serbian. (My dad was born in Serbia.)

You also know I'm very proud of that half.

I had an extremely happy childhood growing up on delicious Serbian food...and it's still my all-time favorite comfort food. In fact, I'll take roasted pig, ćevapčići, sarma, kačamak, popara, kajmak, kiselo mleko, gibanica, and krofne over pasta any day. Not kidding. At all.

It's really sad, though, that very few people know anything about Serbian cuisine. Can't say that I blame them. But I'd like to change that if I could.

My brother sent me a link to the following video. It's beautifully done and is a moving testament to real, authentic Serbian food. Whether you're truly interested or just plain curious, I invite you to watch (by clicking on the arrow in the center of the photo below) -- and enjoy your armchair journey through Serbia and all the wonderful delicacies this special country has to offer!


Monday, March 4, 2013

In the Kitchen With...

Charlene Lyon -- my very first guest blogger!

Please allow me to introduce her to you.

Premiere guest blogger, Charlene Lyon
Charlene was, by her own admission, a late bloomer when it came to cooking. It was only recently that she discovered this passion. Granted, she always enjoyed cooking...but only as a hobby. Truth be told, she never had to do it.

While growing up and living at home, she got to reap the rewards of her mother's and grandmother's Hungarian cooking. "Wonderful comfort food," she calls it. Plus, she got to try all her brother's inventive culinary creations after his stays in Chicago and San Francisco. And when she was finally living on her own as a single woman who worked in sales for Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, she much preferred dining out with friends at her client's restaurants.

It was only when she fell in love that she felt two sparks at once! For the guy and for cooking. In fact, she started to enjoy -- really enjoy! -- cooking for this guy who would eventually become her fiancé and then husband...especially after they moved to their home (and larger kitchen) in Ravenna in 2009.

Charlene holds a BA degree in journalism from Ashland University and used to write for Sun Newspapers, Cleveland Magazine, Northern Ohio Live, and the Plain Dealer's Sunday Magazine before embarking on a career in advertising sales. She is now a certified Open Water SCUBA Diver and enjoys cycling, hiking, and listening to many music genres.

Now, without further ado, here is Charlene's guest blog post -- in her own words and pictures:

Sergio Abramof's Shrimp Santos
by Charlene Lyon

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way as a teen on my first vacation to the Atlantic seashore that I'm allergic to shellfish. It was unfortunate, indeed, as I had always loved every bite of shrimp, crab, lobster, and scallops. But my husband loves shellfish, especially shrimp and lobster.

It's Lent right now, and although I'm a non-active Catholic, I still adhere to the Lenten tradition regarding no meat on Friday. My husband, who is Episcopalian and a certified carnivore, has graciously accepted this tradition. And although I've never cooked shellfish before this recipe for Sergio's Shrimp Santos, this appetizer seemed attractive and ended up being a huge hit for my husband. In fact, his first reaction was, "It's right up there on the hit parade of life." He also said that it was "restaurant quality" and practically licked the sauce off his plate!

For someone like myself who has never made a seafood dish before, I can only thank our dearly departed Sergio Abramof for giving non-pro cooks like me such a delicious and easy recipe.

Seriously, this recipe is so simple to make, even for someone who has never cooked shellfish like me. You only need peeled, uncooked shrimp, garlic, flour, parsley, oil (I used canola instead of vegetable), salt, and pepper (see below).

Don't skip his recommendation to dry the shrimp with paper towels (see below).  

There will still be enough moisture for the flour to stick (but not clump), and it will brown better, even in a non-stick pan (see below).

I got such a joy turning over my shrimp for the first time when it looked as golden brown as Sergio said it should (see below).

I loved the aromatics when I added the garlic, butter, and parsley. Since Sergio warned us not to burn the chopped garlic, I did turn down the stove from 7.5 to 5. I guessed the oil was still hot enough, and it was. The garlic and other side of the shrimp still browned nicely, too (see below).

Since I only intended one person to enjoy this dish (i.e., my husband), I only bought a dozen shrimp instead of the recipe's suggested 20 to serve four. My husband inhaled the 10, and I reserved two for our two cats, who were more than happy with their special treat. (See my husband's dish below.) 

I decided to make the sauce exactly as described for four servings, as I thought it couldn't be bad to have extra. It wasn't. I quickly boiled a serving or two of angel hair pasta for two and a half minutes and added it straight from the pot with a pasta spoon (in order to incorporate some of the pasta water). I then tossed it a bit in the warm sauce and topped it with a bit of grated Parmesan cheese. This is now an anticipated lunch for my husband (see below).

Thank you, Sergio! And thank you, Maria, for sharing his background in Brazil, his later youth in Cleveland Heights, and how he got to be one of our most beloved chefs.

As a side note, in Sergio's honor, I listened to Brazilian Bossa Nova music on iTunes radio's "Bossa Nova Hits" as I created this. It was a truly lovely experience.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Seeking Guest Bloggers

I have a brilliant-beyond-brilliant idea!

Seriously, folks, I think it's a really fabulous idea. And if you're wondering what it is...

My idea is...(pretend you hear a drum roll here!)...to invite all my readers to contribute a guest blog post!

For instance:
  1. If you really like a particular meal you prepared from my book, write about it and take some pictures. Nothing fancy. Just the basics in your own words. Think of it as a cooking journey. Then share it with the rest of us. 
  2. If you're going on an autograph hunt with my book, let me know how you're doing and some of the fun adventures/stories along the way.
  3. If you've had a chance to speak with one of my chefs, what have you found out? Would you like to set up a personal interview with one of them? Get in touch with me.
These are just some of the ways you can contribute. Why? Because I think it would be great fun (and interesting, too) to have you -- my readers -- featured on this blog from time to time.

And now, for the best part. I already have one loyal reader who has stepped up to the plate (pun intended)!

She's a great fan. She's contagiously enthusiastic. And she's super excited to share her thoughts and reviews with you. Her name is Charlene Lyon, and I'll be sending you her first guest post in the next day or two. Be sure to look for it.

In the meantime, if you have something you'd like to share as well, don't be shy. I'd really, really love to hear from you!

My best,