Italian Hot Chocolate – Cioccolata Calda

A mug of Italian hot chocolate with freshly whipped cream

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Yes,  I know, it’s been ages since you’ve heard from me, but I have a legitimate reason for the silence and, no, my “reason” isn’t that I’ve been lazy.  If you are reading this post for illumination on where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing these past three months,  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m saving that story for another day.  Stay tuned.

Today,  you’ll find me sitting at a dining room table, swaddled in a bright orange down comforter in a chilly, yet cozy cabin just off the main road in Angels Camp, CA.  Outside my window, sun-spattered rolling golden hills dotted with majestic live oaks belie the chilly temperatures outside my door.  Yesterday, an unexpected “bomb cyclone” made for a grey, cold and wet day  – and fevered conversations about hot chocolate steaming away on the camp stove.

Let’s face it,  American hot chocolate is insipid at best – lackluster, brown-colored Swiss Miss® water at its worst.  We are not celebrated for our chocolate beverage prowess in the States.  The Spanish, with their thick chocolate and churros, are world-renowned for their rich, dark, dippable rather than drinkable, chocolate and they stand proudly at the apex of the hot chocolate pyramid of deliciousness.  Not far behind them are the French and their “chocolat chaud,” The rich beverage available for sipping on chilly Parisian streets.  Christmas mornings, my sister combines copious quantities of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate cocoa powder,  a smidge of sugar, and an equal ratio of whole milk to heavy whipping cream in an effort to recall her memories of the decadent beverage sipped in the City of Lights. Her final result?  Satisfying, but not quite mind-blowing.  I must admit, however, until last night,  I was entirely in the dark when it came to Cioccolata Calda, Italy’s version of the drink.  I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy and, during my travels, study, as well as indulge in, its cuisine.  Accordingly,  I’m familiar with Italian espresso, various wines and their regions, amaro, limoncello, nocino, grappa, and the early evening Aperol spritz, leaving nary any room for something as seemingly innocuous as hot chocolate.  Oh, what have I been missing?!

Last night, with my first (scalding) sip,  my hot chocolate world expanded. I could use poetic words like “decadent,” “rich,” “silky,” and “fudgy” to describe this ganache in a mug,  but today I’ve decided to be straightforward – the Italians can call their hot chocolate what they like, but it is, in essence, a mug of warm chocolate pudding before it has been allowed to set – milk, cream, cornstarch and dark chocolate…the makings of a most excellent creamy dessert – and damn indulgent hot chocolate.  It would be made only more satisfying with crisp biscotti for dunking.  This Christmas,  I’ll be taking the reins on the morning beverage; step aside, Sis.

TODAY’S RECIPE:
Forgive the less than professional photo – and the inartfully dolloped cream.  As mentioned above,  my inaugural recipe was created over a camp stove; the cream “whipped” in a vigorously shaken plastic container.  Nevertheless,  the results did not disappoint, possibly even made more delicious by our rustic surroundings. The Spanish may have Chocolate and Churros; we had Patagonia and Cioccolata Calda.

Tip:  You don’t want the hot chocolate to boil (212° F), but you need to heat it to a temperature of 203° F for the cornstarch’s thickening properties to activate.  Don’t rush the process by turning up the heat – be patient, heat it slowly, and stir often.


Italian Hot Chocolate

This ultra-thick, rich and not overly sweet elixir will change the way you think about hot chocolate. This recipe should make two servings, but I find it so decadent (even for me!) that it can easily stretch to 4 servings. With the addition of coffee, this belly warmer also makes a five-star mocha.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 ½ oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • Tiny pinch salt (optional)
  • Lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together ¾ cup whole milk, heavy whipping cream and sugar until small bubbles begin to form around the edges (don’t boil).
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the remaining ¼ cup milk and cornstarch. Set aside.
  3. Once the milk is heated, add the cornstarch mixture and whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add dark chocolate and salt and continue whisking for about 7 minutes until the chocolate has fully melted and the mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon (similar to a thin chocolate sauce). Pour into 2 coffee mugs (or 4 demitasse cups if you want to show restraint). Top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. Careful – since this hot chocolate is so thick, it holds heat better than your regular brew; sip carefully.

Triple Coconut Tart with Berries

A coconut tart covered in fresh berries

Today’s Musings:
July 4th in my city – there’s nothing safe nor sane about it. It starts weeks prior with the random M80 explosion rocking the neighborhood, usually at 4:00 a.m., as well as the testing of mortar rockets at 7:30 a.m. before the culprits head off to work.   By the time dawn breaks on the 4th,  an alarm clock isn’t needed to wake me from my slumber.  Fire crackers, Piccalo Petes, and cherry bombs ensure I’m out of bed by 9:00 a.m.  The cacophony increases throughout the day to a crescendo of illegal sky rockets and mortars with skyward explosions akin to a war zone, overshadowing any display from my neighbor,  Disneyland. The night is punctuated by the howl of fire engines – and we wonder, “Has someone blown off a finger?  Has a wayward rocket caused a fire?” By 10 p.m., a sulfuric haze has blanketed the city and I’m thankful my roof is still intact. The next morning, a tour of my backyard reveals a smattering of detritus from the festivities – charred end caps from the mortars and thin red sticks from the sky rockets.

My dog-owning neighbors hate this time of year. I, on the other hand, delight in this reminder of my childhood and consider myself lucky to be owned by two unruffled felines, no matter how loud the blasts. This one night, my city is alive and decidedly lawless. The neighborhood celebrates with a backyard party each year – more anarchistic that patriotic, except for my choice of dessert.

Today’s Recipe:


Triple Coconut Tart with Berries

  • Servings: One 9” Tart
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Coconut in the crust, along with coconut milk and shredded coconut in the pastry crème ensures coconut lovers won’t be disappointed.


Ingredients

    Coconut Pastry Crème
  • 3 Tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup canned coconut milk
  • 2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Graham Cracker Crust
  • 2 cups Graham cracker crumbs (about 15 sheets)
  • 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • Topping
  • Assorted fresh berries
  • ¼ cup apricot jam
  • Sweetened whipped cream
  • Toasted coconut

Directions

  1. Make coconut pastry crème: In a medium sauce pan, whisk together flour, corn starch, salt, and sugar. Whisk in eggs, milk, coconut milk, and shredded coconut. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until custard is very thick, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat, and whisk in butter and vanilla extract. Scrape into bowl, press plastic wrap against the surface of the custard, and chill in refrigerator for several hours until cool.
  2. Make graham cracker crust: Preheat oven to 350° F. In a food processor, pulse graham crackers, coconut and salt until ground into crumbs. Add melted butter and pulse until combined and beginning to clump together. Press in the bottom and up sides of a 9” tart pan. Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned. Cool.
  3. To assemble: Pour pastry crème into crust and smooth. Cover with fresh berries. Heat apricot jam for 1 minute in microwave and strain. Brush berries with jam, decorate with whipped cream and toasted coconut. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Steakhouse Potato Salad

Today’s Musings:
Recently,  two different friends have reproached me for “living in the past.”  No kidding;  That’s what happens when you naively decide to write a memoir, isn’t it? You are faced with excavating your history, your shards of broken dreams, your faulty memories and stories, surrounding yourself  with these unearthed remnants of your past.  Spade in hand,  the memoir process requires you to crouch on your personal plot of land and begin digging, uncertain of what’s hidden underneath the smooth topsoil.   Prodding the hard-packed earth,  you uncover remembrances buried long ago.  Layer by layer, bit by bit, you scrape away time.  The work is often painful; you are spent by day’s end. As you reveal each recollection, you resist placing a value on it straightaway.  You unearth,  record, set it aside for later examination, and  move on to the next trinket to be exhumed.  Some memories you uncover whole,  the ground gives them back easily.  They appear, to you, almost untouched by time.  Others are mere shards that require painstaking reconstruction and restoration.  You unbury still other recollections only to realize they are not, in truth, as you remember them.  Each piece, intact memories and shards alike, is changed, if only a little;  sharp edges smoothed by the years buried and concealed from sight.  You gently extract them from the ground,  brush them off and carefully spread this array in front of you for a discerning evaluation – what to keep, what to discard,  what is valuable, what no longer serves you.  Some remembrances you delight in unearthing while others you wish you had never found. You continue with your work until each treasure, every fragment, has been exposed.  Only then can you truly recognize where you’ve been.  Only then can you decide where you’re headed next, but do these memories fail us as guides?   

 

Misunderstanding

Make a notation dear
of this word and that
which ones hurt most
which ones feel good about our hearts

which ones we moor our tenderness upon
When in the midst of course terms
I would rather expose docile replies
It is strange how fear binds adults

Would you still admire me if
I spoke in concert again with your aspirations
with eyes of open glass
You would be captive in their sentience of you

Or if I were mute
which of my voices would you understand
The voice of my joy in you is brave and sweet
It resonates from the most inward enclosures

I’m quite guilty
I relied on poetic vision
to show me what exists
and what doesn’t

I sought knowledge of you through your body
at times making false assumptions
wrong turns
sincerely at times admit to being lost
crying, where is the felicity in this?

In small favors not on desert plateaus
In errors only
I tried to placate your worlds
with perfect skies
the contour of your body and mind

I ask you please to renounce your hardness
A favor for love

To be unpossessive of happiness
maybe in not striving for ends
just in the purpose of temporary joy
Ti
me only falsely unmakes their sum
a
lso fragmenting us

Before you
and after you
a region slept in me
Trees replaced you
and temples replaced you
and then nothing replaces you

Now that your absence is exposed like the desert we stood in
I search failingly for your depth in the shallow nightfall
I search for your affinities in quiet spaces

I had hoped the slow paces of enlightenment
would rescue our disappointments
not allow a trail of misunderstanding
to mislead the procession of tenderness
which once flowed in weightless rivers

What darkness cares to separate us
Existential questions preclude emotional ones
Perplexities aren’t supposed to stop Love

Once the chastities have eloped
I hoped to undertake true intimacies
Outside of mysteries

Is your body made for me
to place unutterable reasons within
to shelter your surfaces with gestures now obsolete

A lovely future dares to be here now
Don’t allow the unknown to dispel it
Don’t use doubt as a veil of shyness

I thought I had vanquished the desire to perfect
It robbed me of the ability to love what is most human
to admire the task not quite finished the way I had envisioned it
to subtract nothing
for Love

We must embrace the accomplishment
of one who gives their soul
Where doest right and wrong appear in love
just a state we know to be vulnerable

Our eyes began east harmonies
A procession of epiphanies, maybe,
but not all meetings are breathless

I saw in the mistral of your eyes
Love adrift
and sought to still your inquietudes
I failed more than once
with words
and with wordlessness

At times I thought I deserved to be loved less
At times much more
All the time wanting something else

 Don’t begrudge our pasts
There are many of them
At once remote and still intimate
I consider them like our childhood
unruly and fantastical
but our memories always fail as guides

Full of not knowing
and yet instilled with clairvoyance
We distill a thousand kinds of courage
necessary for anything of worth

Who can see the way out of adult dilemmas?
Certainly not adults
We expected so much brilliance
for such a difficult task

Tall flowers do not grow in close shelter
to survive our folly
our hearts must go separate ways for a vanity forever precluding Love

 – Jason, 1998

Today’s Recipe:


Steakhouse Potato Salad

What do you like on your baked potato? Sour cream? Blue cheese? Bacon? They’re in here!


Ingredients

  • 1 ½ lbs. small, red skinned potatoes
  • 1 Tablespoon Champagne vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup crumbled blue cheese
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 4 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled

Directions

  1. In a large saucepan, cover potatoes with salted water by 1”. Bring to simmer and cook, uncovered, until tender 15-20 minutes. Drain well.
  2. Whisk together vinegar, olive oil, mustard, salt and black pepper. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, quarter them and toss the still-warm potatoes with the vinaigrette. Add blue cheese, sour cream, red onion and parsley and toss gently. Let stand 1 hour to allow flavors to develop. Sprinkle with bacon and serve.

Mom’s Easy No-Bake Strawberry Pie

Strawberry pie with recipe and old poloroids

Today’s Musings:
I left my mother in her home town of LaPorte, IN, safely nestled at the foot of her parents’ graves.  Yes, my heart still aches with loss, but it is tempered by the feeling of “rightness” in our actions of bringing her home, participating in a ceremony of honoring, and closing out her life’s final chapter.

Perhaps this is what is meant by “closure.”

In the airport, waiting for my flight home, I began thinking about ritual and why it’s an important vehicle to help transport us through life.  How can the simple process of taking someone’s ashes to another location, placing them in the ground and saying a few words (or, in this case, singing a song) make the world appear to realign itself?  It felt like I sent forth a giant mantra of “let all be well” to my mom and the earth and all the mysteries of life.

Still, I’m left asking, “why does it work; why is it important?”  Donna Henes says, “Ritual practice is as old as humanity, developing from people’s compelling need to understand and connect with the infinite, archetypal, unexplainable mysteries of life. Rituals offered our ancestors a glimpse of the divine order as well as a sense of belonging to something bigger. It’s a ceremony of sorts which begins with thought, purpose and an identified aim. Also, it’s not passive, but participatory. There is no way to benefit from a ritual by just watching it, or by reading or hearing about it. It must be experienced to be affective, or effective, for that matter.”

Maybe that’s why it works.  It allows us to take a bit of control. We are no longer solely being buffeted by the uncontrollable events around us; we are able to take this small ceremony and manage it, focus our attention to it, set an intention and participate towards its fruition.  I cannot control life and death, but I can control this.

The other ceremony that comes to my mind is one I participated in 25 years ago.  Up to that point, I had struggled with the repercussions of an abusive childhood. I had read books about forgiveness, I had journaled my anger and bitterness in hopes of releasing them, I had made excuses for the abusive behavior and I tried repressing the memories as well.  Nothing seemed to alleviate my pain until I found myself, during a vacation in Sedona, participating in a medicine wheel ceremony.  During that ceremony, I was given the gift of allowing myself to leave one large piece of “baggage” behind within the wheel.  At that spot, in the middle of Boyton Canyon, on the hot dusty ground, I set down my bag of anger, hurt, bitterness and grief  – and I never looked back.  I left my baggage in Sedona, the best luggage I could have ever lost on vacation.  Could I have done it without the medicine wheel, without the burning sage, without the ritual, without the intention? I hadn’t been able to before.

Rituals and ceremonies with honest, sincere intention seem to somehow place our personal, spinning world back on its axis. They are a bit of control in the uncontrollable world.

Today’s Recipe:
In general,  I’m known for multi-step, slightly complicated desserts.  Today, I’m sharing an easy one with you.  For each family-member’s birthday, another ritual, mom would make us our favorite dessert. When I was young,  I always requested this pie.  I remember “Happy Birthday” spelled out in slivered strawberries across the top.  Lucky for me,  my birthday falls around the beginning of strawberry season, ensuring peak flavor.


Mom’s Easy No-Bake Strawberry Pie

  • Servings: One 9” Pie
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This is an easy, no-bake pie to make in Spring and Summer when strawberries are at their peak of flavor.


Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 10 graham crackers)
  • 7 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 8 oz. mini marshmallows
  • ¼ cup whole or 2% milk
  • 4 cups (about 1 ½ lbs.) cleaned, hulled, and thickly sliced strawberries
  • 2 cups (1 pint) heavy whipping cream

Directions

  1. Combine graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Press along bottom and sides of a 9” pie plate. Set aside.
  2. In a large microwave-safe bowl, melt mini marshmallows and milk in the microwave for approximately 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until marshmallows are completely melted.
  3. While marshmallow mixture cools slightly, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form.
  4. Stir sliced strawberries into marshmallow mixture. Fold in whipped cream in four additions. Spoon filling into crust until pie is generously filled. Chill for at least 4 hours before enjoying.

Swedish Apple Pie

Swedish Apple Pie on a blue background with pie cutter

Today’s Musings:
I first visited Mt. St. Helens in 2000, 20 years after the devastating blast in May, 1980.  The landscape didn’t appear substantially changed from the stark images I saw in Life Magazine immediately after the eruption.  Except for the blue sky,  it was as if we had driven into a black and white photo; shades of ash and smoke surrounding us.  Waves of fallen monochromatic grey tree trunks remained scattered across the somber mountainside, reminding me of images I’d seen of the civil war dead.   The area appeared decimated, lifeless.  But once we parked at the visitor’s center and started to stroll along the paths,  signs of life became apparent – dun-colored grasses,  knee-high alder saplings, purple lupine, fuchsia fireweed flowers, all punctuated by a few scurrying squirrels.   Slowly, life was reemerging from the destruction. 

My mother died, her adult children around her, in late August 2010; my former Love, and man who still possesses a chunk of my heart, ended his own life two days later.  Two people torn from my life in the span of 48 hours.  In the weeks and months following these losses,  I numbly went about my routine, elbowing waves of grief into the periphery, feeling as obliterated as St. Helens’ landscape.  I met Jake two and a half months later.  Opening myself up to a new relationship was like the first violet lupines popping their heads above my ash-covered earth.  I was tentatively taking the first steps towards reawakening, acknowledging I’d likely be hurt in the end, but possessing an optimistic soupçon of impetus to try.   

When I arrived at the wine bar for our first date,  the afternoon sun shone directly through the front windows, blinding me and obscuring Jake in shadow.  As I turned around to finally see him, my back to the window,  I felt like the bachelorette on The Dating Game when bachelor #3 rounds the corner and she can’t wipe the tinge of disappointment from her face.  He was shorter than I imagined – about 5’ 9”– and his teeth were in a terrible state, with a prominent chip in the front.  I later learned that was a result of an unfortunate run-in with a fork.  His eyes were a pale sky blue; his complexion ruddy. I noted and approved of his style – Vans, Levi’s and a rockabilly plaid shirt.  I glimpsed a tattoo on his wrist, a sneak peek of the ones I’d discover later. I’m a sucker for a tattoo.  His hair reminded me of Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20.  In fact,  he resembled Rob Thomas – after a bender.  I didn’t fall for him until our second date; I remember pulling up to the Oaxacan restaurant, finding him waiting for me outside and thinking, “Yeah, he’s cute.”  I almost didn’t agree to that second date.  By our third, I was enamored with that adorable, weathered, chipped-tooth face and found myself, sated and lying naked in his arms, tracing the tattoos on his chest with the tip of my finger.

Time heals,  we survive, and eventually poke our heads above life’s greyness, renewed.

Today’s Recipe:
How did I not know about Swedish Apple Pie?  Thank you to my friend, Joan, for turning me on to the easy-to-throw-together “pie.”  Of course,  true to form, I zhuzhed up the recipe a bit. If you over-fill the pie plate, be prepared for a butter pool in the bottom of your oven. 


Swedish Apple Pie

  • Servings: One 9” Pie
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Apple pie on the bottom, giant cookie crust on top. A winning combination.


Ingredients

  • 3 – 3 ½ large tart apples, peeled, cored, cut in half, and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup butter, melted
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Freshly whipped cream (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter a 9” pie plate. Combine apples, zest, 2 Tablespoons sugar, and cinnamon. Arrange in pie plate.
  2. Stir together flour, sugars, and salt. Combine melted butter, egg and vanilla and stir into flour mixture just until combined. Spread batter over the apples.
  3. Bake at 350° F. for 50 minutes until top is fully cooked and crisp. Serve warm or room temperature with freshly whipped cream (optional).