Tuscan Thursday

This time a year ago I was flying to Florence to get ready for a Tour of Tuscany, an adventure in taste and travel with a group from Erie (you can learn more about  Life Can be a Trip here). We were starting in Florence, and then, with our guide, Raffaele, heading to a 10-bedroom villa in Greve for the week. We would use the villa as our base (and cooking headquarters) to head off to Sienna, San Gimignano, Modena, and more.

Lunch at Il Casale

We spent most of the day at a winery, with half the group learning to make and mix wine and the other half making lunch. We shared both the wine and the fruits of the cooking class at a late lunch. We also spent a day at an organic farm, Il Casale, where the family makes cheese and teaches cooking classes (and you can stay overnight there as well). We learned to make pizza there, by hand, and then cook it in an outdoor wood-fired oven.

We traveled to a small house outside Bologna, in Modena, where the famous balsamic vinegar is made in the attic so that it ages and reduces into a sweeter, syrupy self that can be poured over ice cream in addition to drizzling on cheese or salads.

Tasting balsamic vinegar in Modena.

We went to a saffron farm, where unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so we couldn’t go out into the fields. Yet we had a divine lunch that included a saffron-flavored ice cream.

We cooked at home two nights with a delightful family that taught us to make ravioli, pumpkin soup (see the green gourd, that’s the pumpkin), torta di nonna, and more.

The pumpkin for our cooking lesson at the villa.

On our final night, we make the famous Florentine beef, a thick-cut porterhouse (2 inches) cooked over a wood fire in the villa. Our guide for the week took on the task of chef for the night. We had stopped at several markets along the way and put together a last meal to celebrate.

What’s it like to travel with 20 people for the first time? And live together in one house? It takes a certain type of traveler to adventure forth, and a travel coordinator who is extraordinary. Denise Padden, of Life Can Be a Trip, creates such an atmosphere that this group could come together. Some of us had never traveled outside the country. Others had a passport filled with experience.

It helps to have a fabulous guide, Raffaele Pitteri, and gorgeous villa, and such passionate and welcoming people who wanted to share their love for wine, food, and their country.

We moved at our own pace. I was up most mornings early with one or a group who would hike downhill into Greve each morning for beauty and exercise. Of course, this meant we had to hike uphill home, where breakfast was waiting. A charming couple baked pastries and make Italian coffee each morning for use to start our day. I can still remember the pear tart – made with pears from their tree.

View from the villa.

You could stay at the villa for the day, or you could join the excursion into the various towns and taste adventures. A year later, I am finishing the bottle of wine the group made and shipped back to the United States as a memento of our trip in a meal of braised shortribs my daughter and I will have tonight. It was an exceptional year for olive oil, and I have just one bottle left of the case we had shipped home.

But I have lots of memories. And quite a few recipes. I look forward to returning some day.

Until then, mangiamo!



Print Recipe
Il Casale Pizza Dough
This is adapted for smaller portions.
Course Main Dish
Course Main Dish
  1. Combine water, yeast, sugar/honey, and olive oil in a large bowl to proof.
  2. In another bowl, mix together flour and salt. Create a well in the center of your flour mixture.
  3. Pour water into the well. Gradually, using your fingers, stir the water/yeast mixture to pull the flour into the center. Once it becomes sort of shaggy, begin kneading the whole mess together into a ball. You can turn it out on the the counter to do this.
  4. You will want to knead by folding the dough over onto itself, pushing away, and pulling back, until the ball is soft and when you push your finger against it, it springs back. This will take about 15 minutes. Don't shortchange this process.
  5. Divide the ball in half and shape into two balls. At this point, put them on a baking sheet covered with a damp cloth in a room at least 70 degrees and allow to double in size. This can take from 1 to 4 hours depending on the room temperature.
  6. Or you can cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. If you refrigerate overnight (8 hours), remove from refrigerator about 30 to 45 minutes before you want to begin shaping. It needs to be at room temperature or it will continue to shrink back as you try to stretch it.
  7. In the meantime, heat your oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone in it. This will take the 45 minutes that your dough is resting.
  8. Shape and top pizza.
  9. Place pizza on a pizza peel or baking sheet without a rim that is covered with cornmeal. When oven is hot enough, transfer pizza from peel or baking sheet to pizza stone. Bake until cheese bubbles and dough is has some brown to it - this can be just a couple of minutes to 7 or 8 minutes depending on the number of toppings.
  10. Use your pizza peel or baking sheet to remove pizza from oven. Cut and serve. I like to drizzle more olive on on top before eating.
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Taste-Testing Weekend for Sweetie Pie

One thing has always been a constant in my life through high school, college, new job in a different city, marriage, motherhood, illness, divorce, and the sale of the family-owned business – my passion for baking. No matter how crazy, hectic, bad, good, or in between, I have found peace in the kitchen with flour, water, yeast, sugar, and butter. Sometimes, it was just flour, water, and yeast. Oftentimes, it was more ingredients, such aimg_0029-1s fresh or dried fruits, cinnamon, and nuts.

My earliest memory is of making pies, although I’m sure I learned to make cookies first. My neighbor in Warren, Mrs. Levinson, was my teacher. I’ve carried her lessons through today: measure first, but rely on touch, and be patient. You can’t hurry dough. If you try, it doesn’t taste very good. Now you have wasted both money and time on a poor outcome.

In college, I baked bread, pies, and lasagna for co-workers at the student newspaper. When roommates took me home for the Jewish holidays, I learned to bake challah and make kugel. Later, baking cakes for the birthdays of co-workers was one of my ways to give back to a new work family I had in Illinois for five years. I think I enjoyed the joy the cakes brought as much as the recipient. As I traveled in the U.S. and Canada, I used restaurants as inspiration for new dishes. If I didn’t like a dish, I’d try to figure out how to make it better. It’s how I learned the importance of seasoning meats before cooking them, why not to skimp on the quality of goat cheese or feta for a salad (or any ingredient that will be the star of a dish), the importance of real butter in baking. There’s plenty more, but I’ll save those for another time.

I’ve baked my way through breakups, bosses, therapists, and rehab. The boyfriends, bosses, therapists and booze are long gone. My baking pans – dented, blackened, and otherwise loved – are still with me.

I’ve been looking for signs to tell me what to do now that I’m not in the newspaper business anymore. It took conversations with Tammy Lyn Fox (Taste of Zion), Lisa Heidelberg (Dinner is Served by Lisa), Anthony Perino (formerly of Frankie & May), and Heidi Lutz (Juice Jar), to help me to open the door to what my future might be.

Conversations led me to the Erie County Department of Health to sign up for the food safety food management certification. Classes start next week.

By Saturday morning, I had a name: Sweetie Pie, a food truck business to open in 2017. The specialties? Pies, homemade granola parfaits, and cheesecakes served in half-pint mason jars. Also on the menu? Sticky buns, scones, cookies, coffee, and teas. At least that’s the current thought, because next up was to begin an outline of a business plan. A guiding principle will be a focus on local ingredients and a minimal impact on the planet, so compostable cups, napkins, serving ware and, of course, the reusable mason jars.

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Three hours later, I needed a creative break. I opened the cupboards and pulled out the baking pans. Then I pulled my favorite recipes out of the folders (both online and paper).

This  will be a long, and sweet, journey.

Happy baking.





Print Recipe
Sticky Buns
Course breakfast
Cuisine American
sticky buns
Course breakfast
Cuisine American
sticky buns
  1. You will need 3 (three) 9-inch square pans or 4 round cake pans for this recipe, which makes about 3 dozen rolls.
  2. Dough: Sprinkle yeast over water and whisk to blend. Let sit until yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in beaten eggs.
  3. Heat milk and butter in a saucepan over medium heat on the stove or in a glass bowl in the microwave until butter is melted. Remove from heat.
  4. Combine remaining sugar, flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add milk mixture and incorporate. With mixer running, add proofed yeast. Keep mixer running on medium-high speed, kneading until dough is soft and silky, about 5 minutes.
  5. Grease a medium bowl with some butter (from the wrapper); place dough in bowl. Brush top of dough with melted butter; cover with plastic wrap. If you don't have time to make sticky buns, you can refrigerate the dough overnight and then remove from the refrigerator and continue.
  6. Let dough rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours (or 2 to 2 1/2 hours if dough has been refrigerated).
  7. In the meantime, make the filling and topping.
  8. Filling: In an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and kosher salt until light and fluffy. Set filling aside.
  9. Topping: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread out nuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast until fragrant, 10-12 minutes. Let cool completely.
  10. Melt butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar, honey, corn syrup, salt, and orange zest, if using. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until glaze is golden brown and glossy, 3-4 minutes. Pour into bottoms of prepared pans. Divide nuts evenly among the pans.
  11. When dough has doubled, punch it down and divide into two. Place on floured work surface. Lightly dust top with flour.
  12. Roll out one dough ball on a lightly floured surface into a 10-by-12-inch rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Place dough so one long side faces you. Spread 1/2 of the cinnamon-sugar mixture over dough, leaving a 1-inch plain border on the side farthest from you.
  13. Beginning with the long edge closest to you, roll dough into a log, tightening as you roll, and patting in ends if they begin to taper. Pinch together the seam where the long side meets the roll to seal. Arrange the log seam side down on the work surface.
  14. Using a large knife, cut the log crosswise into 12 to 15 equal pieces. Lightly flour the knife between slices if the dough is too sticky. Turn the buns cut side up and gently pat the top to flatten slightly. If needed, reshape to form round edges by cupping lightly floured hands around each bun and gently pushing and turning them in a circular motion. Place the buns in prepared pans; space them evenly apart (buns should not touch each other).
  15. Repeat with second ball of dough and filling.
  16. Loosely cover pan with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel.
  17. Let buns rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  18. Arrange a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 350 degrees.
  19. Bake, rotating pan halfway through and tenting with foil if browning too quickly, until buns are golden brown, filling is bubbling, and an instant-read thermometer inserted into center of buns registers 185 degrees, about 50 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack.
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