The Luxury of Chocolate

Chocolate ranks high among all the comfort foods in which one can indulge. It’s even better when it’s incorporated into a homemade recipe lovingly prepared by Grandma’s hands. And while chocolate in all its many forms is delicious, I do believe there isn’t anything that can’t be made better by eating homemade chocolate pudding.

Grandma Josephine Tedesco believes in love as the main ingredient in everything she makes for her grandkids. And even though Grandma’s mind isn’t always in the present, when it comes to cooking or baking, she’s as sharp as Gordon Ramsay’s knives. The following recipe for chocolate pudding is the one I had in mind when writing about pudding in my novel, The Tedescos. It’s absolutely decadent and just the sort of dessert Grandma Josephine would proudly serve. It’s simple, elegant, and a little bit of chocolate heaven.

Grandma Josephine’s Chocolate Pudding

2 ¼ c whole milk

½ cup sugar (I used raw sugar for a deep, rich flavor)

Pinch of sea salt

1/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder

2 T cornstarch

2 large egg yolks

1 large egg

5 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped or in chips

2 T unsalted butter

2 t vanilla

STEP ONE: Whisk the cornstarch, cocoa, and ¼ c of the sugar in a mixing bowl. Add ¼ c of milk, and whisk until it’s smooth. Set aside.

STEP TWO: In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk the whole egg with the two egg yolks. Set aside.

STEP THREE: Combine the remaining 2 cups of milk, ¼ c of sugar, and the sea salt in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture in the saucepan comes to a boil, reduce the heat and stir in the mixture from Step One. Once the two are thoroughly combined, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Do this for about two minutes or until the pudding is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

STEP FOUR: Reduce the heat to low under the pudding and gradually whisk about ½ c of the hot pudding into the egg mixture from Step Two until thoroughly combined. Pour the egg/pudding combination back into the saucepan taking care to scrape out the bowl. Cook the pudding over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a soft boil is achieved, about two minutes.

STEP FIVE:  Remove the pudding from the heat and add the semi-sweet chocolate, butter, and vanilla. Stir until the butter and chocolate are melted and the pudding is smooth. Pour the pudding into six dessert dishes or ramekins that hold about 6 ounces each. A piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the pudding will keep a skin from forming. Refrigerate the pudding until chilled.

Serve with whipped cream and/or chopped peanuts if desired.

Enjoy!

La Cucina Povera

In the chapter of my novel, The Tedescos, titled “Soul Food,” the family attends church on Mother’s Day with their good friends, The Robertses. After the service, the Tedesco Clan is invited to attend a meal in the church fellowship hall. The men and boys prepared the meal they will serve to the mothers to honor them. Much of the food the Tedescos encounter is familiar, but one dish in particular initiates a conversation between Joe Jr. and Tabitha and Tonya Roberts and results in the explanation of ‘la cucina povera.’

The Italian phrase literally means the poor kitchen, and it is a style of cooking familiar among the lower classes (think peasants) of a particular society. Often, peasants had to cook with whatever they had on hand whether it came from the kitchen or the farm. The ‘poor kitchen’ can be found in every society. The great thing about this concept is that some really delicious recipes emerged from the simple, high-quality ingredients that were available.

Attempting to cook in the style of ‘la cucina povera’ may earn you a laugh especially from an older person who lived through the war in Italy. They may refuse to acknowledge ‘the poor kitchen’ style and argue that it was simply the preparation of the food they had on hand. Americans, with all their varied food choices and easy access to said food, have a tendency to romanticize a style of cooking that was a part of basic survival. Still, I can think of several recipes in which my family indulges that found their way into my writing because of my love to feed people whether real or imagined. Many cookbooks featuring this style of food have been published, and I highly recommend you try one or two meals from them if you’ve never encountered peasant cooking.

Beans and cornbread, cabbage and noodles, and soup made from some combination of vegetables are the types of peasant food I grew up with. I never knew that what we ate was considered to be from ‘the poor kitchen’ because the adults who prepared it for me cooked with love and made everything taste wonderful. Delicious, simple food is usually the tastiest, and in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. What does your family enjoy from ‘la cucina povera?’

Evolution of the Hamburg Steak

The all-American classic hamburger has is origins in a dish called the Hamburg Steak. It arrived on our sunny shores in the hands of German immigrants in the nineteenth century. These facts are of no importance whatsoever to Joe Tedesco as he takes in the mounds of perfectly grilled hamburgers Charlie Rollins and Graham Silver serve during their all-guy, neighborhood party. Joe just wants to get his hands on a couple burgers before you can say, “Pass the ketchup.”

To make sure Joe’s dining experience is memorable, Charlie and Graham season the ground chuck before grilling. I let the fellas borrow my own special blend of spices for the above-mentioned scene. It’s what I call my ‘burger masala.’ Read here (What I Like About Being an American) to discover how the seasoning recipe came to be, and then you’ll understand why an exact recipe doesn’t exist.

To feed my family and parents, I used the quantities below, but again, it’s alterable based on how many you need to serve. The variety of cheese and whether or not you use seeded buns is also up to you.

Classic Grilled Hamburgers

2 lbs. 80/20 ground chuck

6 bakery fresh hamburger buns

Butter

6 slices of cheese

Worcestershire sauce

Sea salt

Black pepper (I used ground quad-colored peppercorns)

Garlic powder

Hot Hungarian paprika

Raw sugar

Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, onions, lettuce or any desired topping

I started with two one-pound portions of ground chuck. I like the 80/20 blend that gives flavor and juiciness. I find that ground chuck has a ‘grain pattern’ to it much like a whole steak. Cutting across this pattern ensures that the ground chuck stays together when pattying.

Cut the 2 lbs. ground chuck across the ‘grain pattern’ into six equal portions. Place the cut side down on a cutting board and gently press down from the center with the flat of your hand. While pressing the ground chuck into a thinner dimension, shape it into a round patty with the fingers of your other hand. I prefer 4 ½ inch hamburger patties. Remember, starting with a patty larger than your bun will guarantee you end up with a hamburger that covers the bun after cooking.

Place the hamburger patties on a platter and liberally douse with Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle them with a hearty pinch of raw sugar. Season the hamburgers to your taste preference with the garlic powder, salt, pepper, and paprika. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Give the hamburgers enough time to reach room temperature before grilling.

Heat a grill to high heat and cook the hamburgers to preferred doneness, flipping once to keep them from burning. Don’t press the hamburgers with a spatula while cooking. You want the juices to stay in your meat. Add slices of cheese to the hamburgers and allow it to melt. Remove the hamburgers to a platter, place them in an oven on warm, and allow them to rest.

Slice your hamburger buns if necessary. Spread each side with butter and toast them in a skillet or on a griddle until golden brown. Place the cheesy hamburgers on the toasted buns, add your favorite toppings, and enjoy!

Devilishly Delicious

No wimpy hors d’oeuvres are the order of the day where Joe Tedesco is concerned. He’s an Italian/American version of a meat-and-potatoes man if you traded pasta and sauce for meat and potatoes. When Joe receives an invitation to the new neighbors’ all-guy bash, he assumes he’ll be served something subpar. To make sure this doesn’t happen, and to guarantee he has something he likes to eat, Joe brings a tray of Shirley’s famous deviled eggs.

The following recipe for deviled eggs is the one I had in mind when writing the above-mentioned scene. While there are a lot of great recipes out there for deviled eggs, and some of them are quite flamboyant with unexpected ingredients, I find this recipe satisfies on both the taste scale and elegance factor.

Shirley Tedesco’s Famous Deviled Eggs

12 large eggs

¼ c mayonnaise

1 T unsalted butter, left at room temperature to soften

2 t yellow mustard

2 t Dijon mustard

3 T finely diced bread and butter pickle chips ***(see below)

2 T juice from bread and butter pickle chips

¼ t sea salt

¼ t black pepper (I used table grind)

3 – 4 hearty dashes of Tabasco sauce

2 T fresh dill, destemmed and chopped

Paprika for sprinkling

Fresh dill for garnish

Most recipes for deviled eggs will tell you not to use fresh eggs (only a day or two since laying) because despite an ice water bath, the shells will stick to the cooked eggs. You’ll end up with ragged deviled eggs. While this is true, please don’t use store-bought eggs if you can help it. They are low in nutrition and have been sitting around for far too long even for ease of use in deviled eggs. I suggest eggs from a local farmer that you allow to sit in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Trust me, this won’t hurt them.

Place the eggs in a single layer in a large pot. Fill the pot with enough cold water to be at least one inch over the eggs. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to a soft rolling simmer. You don’t want the eggs banging around in the pot. Time the eggs for ten minutes. When they are done, drain the water from the pot and refill it with cold water until you are able to handle the eggs.

Peel the eggs and gently blot excess moisture and bits of shell with a paper towel. Set them on a plate until all are peeled. Chilling the eggs will firm them up even more and make them easier to handle, but you can proceed with deviling if necessary. Slice the eggs in half and carefully remove each half of yolk from the white. Set the whites on an egg tray or the dish on which you wish to serve them.

Place the yolks, mayo, butter, two mustards, diced pickles, pickle juice, salt, pepper, Tabasco, and dill in a glass mixing bowl. Mash the yolks with a fork, stirring them into the other ingredients until smooth, and then continue with a whisk. The mixture will have a chunky texture from the diced pickles. If you desire a smoother filling, you may transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until completely smooth.

Use a rubber spatula to scrape the egg yolk filling into a pastry bag with a star or round tip big enough to allow the bits of pickle to pass. (You can also substitute a plastic storage bag with the corner cut or create a piping bag out of parchment paper.)

Sprinkle the whites of the egg with paprika. Pipe the egg filling in a spiral into the empty whites. Garnish each egg with a piece of fresh dill tucked into the egg where the filling meets the white. Chill in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

***When choosing sweetened pickled vegetables, there are many choices on the market. Unfortunately, most have high fructose corn syrup in them. Try a farmer’s market that sells products with recipes closer to home-canned goods. I’ve had great success in such stores.

Nice to Meat You

Joe Tedesco likes his neighbors… as long as they keep the grass mowed and don’t throw loud parties. These standards, to which Joe himself conforms, are most definitely kept by the new neighbors, and yet they still cannot win over Joe to liking them. In a last ditch effort to secure the head of the Tedesco Clan’s friendship, they invite Joe and all the men from the neighborhood over for a party.

The new neighbors are clever and know the way to Joe’s heart is through is stomach. The menu they plan is spectacular and includes the following recipe for classic Reuben sandwiches. These babies are mammoth and worth every savory, saucy bite, so don’t skimp on the corned beef.

Classic Reuben Sandwich

2 lbs. quality corned beef, thick sliced

1 pound Swiss cheese

12 slices Jewish Rye

16 oz. jar of sauerkraut

1 McIntosh apple, peeled and diced

1 – 2 T brown sugar

¾ c apple juice

Salt and Pepper to taste

Unsalted butter, softened

 

Russian Dressing

½ c mayonnaise

2 T ketchup

3 T finely diced bread and butter pickle chips ***(see below)

2 t finely diced red onion

1 clove finely minced garlic

¼ t sea salt

3 – 4 hearty dashes Tabasco sauce

Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl, cover, and chill in the refrigerator. The dressing lasts for three days stored in this fashion. I recommend making the dressing at least one day in advance to give the flavors time to meld.

 

To prepare the sauerkraut:

Empty the jar of sauerkraut into a colander and press out any remaining juice. Place the drained sauerkraut in a saucepan with the apple, brown sugar, apple juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer until the apple is tender. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave on the stove until needed for sandwich assembly.

 

Preheat the oven to 350° F. I opt for thick slices of corned beef because I find it keeps the sandwiches from sliding around on the bread.

Create a foil packet and place the corned beef inside. Place the packet on a cookie sheet with edges. Add 3 T of water to the packet and seal the meat inside. Put the baking sheet with the foil packet on it in the oven and bake for 8 – 10 minutes.

While the meat bakes, spread one side of each slice of bread with softened butter and toast the buttered side in a cast iron skillet. Transfer the toasted pieces to a baking sheet with the buttered side down. Spread the Russian dressing on the untoasted sides facing up. On six of the bread slices, layer pieces of corned beef, making sure to drain any moisture, until the meat is evenly divided. You may need to fold your corned beef slices in half to make them fit. Place a hefty portion of well-drained sauerkraut on top of the corned beef. Top off with a slice of Swiss cheese. On the remaining six slices of bread, place another piece of Swiss cheese.

Pop the sandwiches into the oven and toast for three minutes or until the Swiss cheese melts.  Remove from the oven and match up the corned beef, Swiss, and sauerkraut side with its Swiss cheese only mate. Give a gentle press to hold it all together. You may wish to cut it in half. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

***When choosing sweetened pickled vegetables, there are many choices on the market. Unfortunately, most have high fructose corn syrup in them. Try a farmer’s market that sells products with recipes closer to home-canned goods. I’ve had great success in such stores.

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