Lemon Custard Sheet Cake

When I was growing up my mother often made sheet cake when she needed to feed a crowd. They were either yellow cakes with pudding, pineapple, and cream or else chocolate with pudding, cherries, and cream. This lemon sheet cake has just the right balance of lemon; it isn’t overpowering but the citrus flavor comes through. You can easily adapt this recipe by substituting orange or lime for lemon. I love the thin layer of lemon custard. The custard can also be used for a fruit tart, trifle, or a lemon custard pie or crostata. The recipe is inspired from one shared by our friend Jack.

Lemon Custard Sheet Cake
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon zest
3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1/4 cup strained fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon oil or lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine salt

Lemon Custard
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest
pinch of kosher salt
2 large whole eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup strained fresh lemon juice
1-2 drops vanilla extract

Whipped Cream
1-1/2 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a jelly roll pan and line with parchment. In a mixing bowl beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Add lemon zest and eggs one at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add yogurt and buttermilk. Mix. Add lemon juice, lemon oil, and vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet. Don’t over mix. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool on rack.

For the custard: In a 2-quart saucepan combine milk, cream, 1/2 cup of the sugar, lemon zest, and salt. Turn heat to medium low and bring to a simmer. In a separate bowl whisk together eggs, 1/4 cup sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice. Whisk about 3/4 cup hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. Whisk egg mixture back into hot milk and continue cooking, whisking constantly until custard thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour custard into a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on custard and chill until cold. 

Assembly: Spread cooled custard on lemon cake. Whip cream with confectioners sugar and vanilla until thick. Spread over custard. Serves 18.


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Bell Peppers with Fennel

This pepper and fennel dish is delicious alongside chicken, beef or pork. The vegetables are cooked slowly on low heat rendering them meltingly soft, tender and sweet. They can also be a nice topping for crostini or a sandwich filling.

Bell Peppers with Fennel
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 fennel bulb, cored and sliced from stem to core
3 large bell peppers, seeded and sliced (I used orange & yellow)
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a frying pan on medium heat. When oil is hot add onions and sauté 3-4 minutes until they begin to soften. Add fennel and sauté 5 minutes. Add peppers and cook 2-3 minutes. Add chicken or vegetable stock, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until vegetables are soft and very tender. Serves 4.


Posted in Appetizers, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Vegetables, Vegetarian | 2 Comments

Kuku Paka (Chicken in Coconut Sauce)

This past year I have been learning to cook new and interesting Indian dishes with some friends. Our lovely teacher, Farida, is a gifted and intuitive cook. She doesn’t use written recipes, but just knows how the food should look and taste. She is Gujarati, from a family that lived several generations in Kenya, before immigrating to the United States almost fifty years ago. This creamy coconut chicken curry which is popular in East Africa, is a fusion of Indian and African flavors. It is one of my favorite dishes we learned to make from Farida. You can eliminate the carrots and add corn on the cob and/or peas instead. We like to dip French bread in the delicious curry as well. As with many curries, this tastes best the day after you make it.

Kuku Paka (Chicken in Coconut Sauce)
10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into thirds
4 cups cold water
1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube
2 teaspoons fine salt plus extra for further seasoning
4 medium Anaheim peppers, stemmed, seeded, and sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed (optional)
4 cloves garlic, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons water
4-5 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
8 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 8 pieces
2 (17.5 oz.) cans Savoy brand coconut cream
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup flour
2 bunches cilantro or 2 cups
pinch of turmeric

In an 8-quart stock pot place chicken, 4 cups water, the bouillon cube, and 2 teaspoons fine salt. Turn heat to medium low, cover, and bring to a simmer. This takes about 7-10 minutes. While chicken is heating, in a blender make a pepper garlic paste by combining Anaheim peppers, jalapeño pepper (if using), garlic, 2 tablespoons of water, and 1 teaspoon salt. Blend to a paste, then add it to the almost simmering chicken. Cover and simmer 20 minutes until the chicken is half-way cooked, then add carrots and potatoes and cook 15-20 minutes until potatoes are fork tender but not mushy. While carrots and potatoes are cooking, combine in a blender 1 cup of the canned coconut cream, lemon juice, flour, cilantro, and turmeric. Blend until smooth. Once potatoes are cooked add the coconut cilantro mixture along with the rest of the canned coconut cream. Stir to mix and add 2-3 teaspoons salt. Cover and cook 10 minutes until the curry is the consistency of a light gravy. Adjust salt to taste. Serves 6-8 over basmati rice.

Basmati Rice
5 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed

In a 4-quart pot with a lid combine water, butter, and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the water has boiled, add rice and stir. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook 10 minutes until some water has evaporated but still mostly covers the rice. Transfer to a 350-degree oven and cook 10-15 minutes until rice is tender and water has evaporated. Serves 6.


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Chickpea Minestra

In my Italian American family the term minestra was used to refer to soup or a soupy pasta dish.  This recipe for chickpea minestra is a soupy version of pasta with chickpeas and is my favorite of the pasta with beans recipes that I have posted. It is a great dish for a cold day. 

Chickpea Minestra
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, chopped
1/2 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and grated or sliced
2 cups fresh tomatoes (I did half red, half yellow)
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups chicken stock or more to taste
1 (15 oz.) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 lb. ditalini pasta

Heat oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Add onions and cook 5 minutes or until onions are beginning to soften. Add fennel and garlic. Cook 3 minutes. Add grated carrot. Sauté 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Cook 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and chickpeas. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes until the vegetables are tender. While the sauce is cooking, boil the ditalini. Add cooked pasta to the simmering sauce. It should be soupy. Serve with Parmesan cheese on the side. Serves 4.


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Ricotta Cake with Chocolate and Cherries

Years ago when we lived in Upstate New York I belonged to a monthly gourmet luncheon club. We rotated homes with the hostess chosing the food theme. It was potluck with each guest bringing a dish to share. One Christmas luncheon we gathered at a beautifully restored Victorian home, and the food theme was ‘Your Favorite Christmas Dish.’ Jane brought this ricotta cake, a recipe given to her years earlier by an Italian friend. Everyone who tasted it asked for the recipe and I’ve been making it for at least 25 years. Its roots are in Sicilian cassata, which is a sponge cake layered with sweetened ricotta cannoli cream and covered in marzipan.  This recipe is adapted by using items easily available from the grocery store. Bake your favorite yellow or white cake or cake mix in a 9×13 or jelly roll size pan (that is my personal preference), then layer cake with chocolate and cherry-flavored ricotta cheese. Instead of the traditional cassata marzipan topping it is covered with whipped cream, not authentically  Sicilian but quite delicious. Be sure to make this cake a day or two before you intend to serve it so the flavors have time to mature. It is a great cake to make for Easter or Christmas with its pretty pink layers.

Ricotta Cake with Chocolate and Cherries
1 yellow or white cake, from scratch or a mix
1/4 cup reserved maraschino cherry juice

1-1/2 lbs. or 3 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
1 (10 oz.) jar maraschino cherries, reserve juice then chop cherries
2 (3.5 oz.) bars Cadbury Dairy milk chocolate, finely chopped=1-1/4 cups, or other milk chocolate, finely chopped (do not grate the chocolate, you want a bit of texture)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup reserved maraschino cherry juice

Whipped Cream Frosting
2 cups whipping cream
confectioners sugar to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Begin by baking the cake in a greased and parchment paper-lined 9×13 or jelly roll pan. If using a jelly roll size pan bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Bake longer if using a 9×13 pan. Let cool on rack. Prepare the filling by combining in a bowl the ricotta cheese, chopped cherries, chocolate, sugar, and 1/4 cup reserved cherry juice. Mix well. Use a sloping bowl or other bowl of your choice to make the cake layers. Slice 2-3 (1-inch thick) strips of cooled cake and layer them in the bottom of the bowl. Take 1 cup of filling and spread it over the cake. For the second layer, take three strips of cake and place over ricotta filling. Brush cake with a bit of maraschino cherry juice and spread 1-1/2 cups filling over cake. For the third layer use 3 strips of cake, brush with maraschino cherry juice and spread the remaining ricotta filling over the cake. The fourth layer is 4 strips of cake brushed with the remaining maraschino cherry juice. Smash the cake down slightly. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight or several days. When ready to serve, run a knife around the cake to loosen it. Invert onto a cake plate. Whip the cream with confectioners sugar and vanilla to taste. Frost the cake with whipped cream. It is optional to sprinkle frosting with a bit of grated chocolate. Serves 12.

Ricotta Filling   
Layers of cake and filling  
Light brushing of maraschino cherry juice over cake  
Ricotta Cake 


Finished Cake  

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Artichokes Stuffed with Mushrooms and Shallots

We always have stuffed artichokes and grilled artichokes to accompany the lamb for our Easter celebration. This recipe is a nice variation on the stuffed artichoke theme using roasted mushrooms and shallots along with breadcrumbs for the stuffing. It is very good. A friend recently mentioned that in her family the artichokes are placed under the broiler to crisp them up a bit after they have steamed. I am going to try that soon.

Artichokes Stuffed with Mushrooms and Shallots
1 (24 oz.) pkg. baby portobello mushrooms
1 large shallot, peeled and chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
sprinkle of onion powder and garlic powder (optional)
6-8 cup cold water
1 lemon, quartered
4 artichokes (save the stems) rinsed and trimmed
4 artichoke stems, peeled
3/4-1 cup Progresso Italian-style breadcrumbs
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2-3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse mushrooms and pat dry with paper towels. Remove stems, then cut into pieces. Place cut mushrooms on baking sheet along with chopped shallots. Drizzle with olive oil then season with salt and pepper. It is optional to add a bit of onion powder and garlic powder. Roast for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are tender and the liquid has mostly evaporated. Let cool on rack. Place 6-8 cups cold water in a large bowl and squeeze the juice from the lemon quarters into the water. Add quarters into it, too. Rinse artichokes, then cut off stems, peeling and adding stems to lemon water. Cut off the top half-inch or so of each artichoke. Use scissors to cut off the prickly tips of the leaves (1/4 inch). Remove fuzzy choke with a spoon (this takes some work spreading open the artichoke). Place trimmed artichokes in the lemon water and let sit while you make the breadcrumb mixture. Chop finely the roasted mushroom and shallot mixture. Place in a large bowl. Chop up the artichoke stems and add to the mushrooms. Add to the mushrooms the breadcrumbs, garlic, cheese, parsley and a little salt and pepper. Mix well. Remove an artichoke from the water, drain a bit, then spread open the artichoke leaves slightly and sprinkle with some salt. Begin filling the leaves with the mushroom stuffing using a spoon. Use about 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs per artichoke. Drizzle artichoke with olive oil to moisten stuffing. Repeat with remaining artichokes. Fill a deep frying pan with one inch of water. Add artichokes. Cover and steam for 45 minutes to one hour (add more water if necessary) until tender when pierced with a fork. Serves 4 if leaving whole, or 8 if artichokes are halved.


Posted in Appetizers, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Vegetables, Vegetarian | 1 Comment

Hungarian Babka

Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. When I’ve talked with my oldest Italian cousins about Easter traditions during their childhood, when my grandparents were still alive, several mentioned that on Easter morning there was fresh baked yeast bread studded with raisins and toasted for their Easter breakfast. It was a special treat they only had once a year and they loved it. No one ever wrote down the recipe, but my cousin Connie recalls that this  Hungarian babka recipe, given to her by a Hungarian co-worker more than 70 years ago, comes very close to the Easter raisin bread of their childhood. I’ve adapted the recipe by adding some dried cherries along with golden raisins. The key to a moist babka is not using too much flour. The dough should be very sticky. Note: This is not a rolled and filled babka, but more like a simple coffee cake studded with dried fruit.

Hungarian Babka
1 cup whole milk, scalded and cooled
1 tablespoon instant yeast
pinch of sugar
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
4 large eggs
zest of 1 medium orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
3-3/4 cups flour (you may need two more tablespoons)
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried cherries

Egg Wash
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon water
pinch of salt

In a small bowl whisk together warm milk, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Set aside for five minutes until foamy. In a mixing bowl combine 2/3 cup sugar with melted butter, eggs, orange zest, vanilla, and salt. Mix well. Add yeast mixture. Add flour 1 cup at a time. If the dough is excessively sticky add 2 more tablespoons flour. It will still be sticky, just beyond a batter. Mix in raisins and dried cherries. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for 2 hours until doubled. Grease 3 bread pans. Divide risen dough equally between the pans. Cover with a clean tea towel and let bread rise 45 minutes to 1 hour. Beat together the egg wash and brush over the tops of each babka. Bake at 350 degrees 20-25 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until the top is golden and an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Makes 3 loaves.


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Sfingi (Ricotta Fritters)

Sfingi are ricotta fritters typically served in Italy and Sicily for St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th. They are sometimes called zeppole. I have several family recipes for them, but the one I like best is adapted from my aunt Marge. I like to use Trader Joe’s whole milk ricotta for this recipe because it is creamy, moist and light. I find it is best to fry the fritters in two inches of hot oil on medium low heat. If the oil is too hot, the fritters get very dark on the outside but are still raw on the inside. You want them golden with a light cake-like interior. I also turn them just once so they don’t absorb too much oil. Actually, if the batter is the right consistency the fritters turn over by themselves in the hot oil. They are light and delicious. 

Sfingi (Ricotta Fritters)
canola or vegetable oil for frying
1 lb. fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
confectioners sugar for sprinkling

Begin by pouring enough canola oil in 2-quart saucepan so that it is roughly two inches deep for frying the sfingi. Turn the heat to medium low. While the oil is heating, in a medium bowl whisk together ricotta and granulated sugar. Add eggs and beat until smooth. Add orange and lemon zest. Mix. Add vanilla and mix again. In a separate bowl sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk flour into the ricotta mixture and beat until smooth. Test to see if the oil is hot enough by spooning just a little batter into the oil. If it is hot enough the batter will quickly rise to the surface and begin to turn golden. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of batter into the hot oil. You can fry 6-7 sfingi at a time. The sfingi will float to the top and begin to turn golden. At this point they may turn over on their own. If not, turn the sfingi. Cook until golden on both sides. It should take 2-3 minutes. Don’t keep turning the sfingi. Only turn once to keep them from getting greasy. Remove sfingi with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel-lined plate. Let cool for 2 minutes then sprinkle them with confectioners sugar. Serve warm. Makes 40 sfingi.


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Italian-Style Chicken with Potatoes and Sausage

This dish is one of my favorite Italian-American one-pot meals. My mother and grandmother each made a version of it and we had it often when I was growing up. Be sure to use good quality Italian sausage with fennel seeds. Leftovers are excellent the next day.

Italian-Style Chicken with Potatoes and Sausage
12 bone-in chicken thighs with skin
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
12 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 roasted red bell pepper in oil, cut into strips
1/2 red or white onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tablespoon onion powder
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
1 Tablespoon dried Greek oregano
2 teaspoons kosher salt or more to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lb. Italian sausage with fennel, out of casing
1/2-1 teaspoon lemon zest
juice of half a large lemon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle 1/4 cup of the olive oil into a roasting pan to keep the chicken from sticking. Place chicken thighs in pan and season them with a generous sprinkle of onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Drizzle chicken with a little olive oil. In a large bowl combine sliced potatoes, roasted pepper slices plus a little of the roasted pepper oil, onion, and garlic. Mix. Sprinkle potatoes with 1 Tablespoon onion powder, 1 Tablespoon garlic powder, 1 Tablespoon Greek oregano, 2 teaspoons salt, and pepper to taste. Use hands to mix well. Add 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Mix. Break Italian sausage into smaller pieces and add to the potatoes. Mix. Add lemon zest and juice to taste. Mix well. Pour the potato and sausage mixture over the chicken and spread it evenly around the pan. Cover pan tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and let continue roasting for about 30 minutes longer or until the chicken has browned and the juices run clear when pierced with a fork. Check to make sure potatoes are fork tender. Serves 6-8.


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Carrot and Kohlrabi Salad

If you are getting tired of roasted or boiled vegetables with dinner, try this light and refreshing winter salad. I love raw kohlrabi; it is a nice complement to the carrots and parsley. You can also add some fresh dill or mint.

Carrot and Kohlrabi Salad
10 medium carrots (or 8 orange and 2 purple), peeled
1 medium bulb kohlrabi, trimmed and peeled
juice of 1 large orange
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley  (1 large bunch)

Grate carrots and kohlrabi in a food processor.  Transfer to a large bowl. Add orange juice, oil, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Add parsley and mix again. Chill 30 minutes before serving. Serves 6-8.


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