Thursday, September 29, 2011

October is National Pretzel Month!

Who doesn’t love pretzels? Can you believe that October is National Pretzel Month? Pretzels come in so many varieties, sticks, loops, long, short, braids, hard, soft, thin and thick. Hard pretzels originated in the United States in 1850 at the Sturgis Bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania. In Europe, snack pretzels are sprinkled with salt, sesame and poppy seeds, or with cheese. In the U.S., they come in a variety of flavors and with different coatings, such as yogurt, chocolate, strawberry, cheese, mustard, nuts, sugar glazes and many others. Pretzels can be crumbled and used as a topping for ice cream, which eventually led to the development of an ice cream cone tasting like a pretzel.

Italian Taralli

A pretzel is known by different names in other countries. In Germany, pretzels are called Brezel, in Polish it is known as Precel, the Norwegian and the Danish people call it Kringle, and the French, Spanish, and the Italians call it Pretzel, Bretzel, or Brezel. In Italy, the Taralli is an Italian snack food that is similar in texture to a pretzel. Taralli can either be sweet or savory. Sometimes they are glazed with sugar, may be flavored with onion, garlic, seeds, pepper, fennel, or just salt. The sweet and plain Taralli are often dunked in wine. The Taralli shape are classically formed into small rings or ovals. They are boiled then baked, or deep fried.

 Most people agree that the pretzels were invented by monks and have a Christian background. According to history, in 610 AD, an Italian monk invented pretzels as a reward to children who learned their prayers. He called the strips of baked dough, folded to resemble arms crossing the chest, ’pretiola’. (little rewards) However, there is no source cited to back up these details. Another source locates the invention in a monastery in southern France. In Germany there are stories that pretzels were the invention of their bakers. In Greece, a ringed bread, derived from communion bread used in monasteries a thousand years ago, may also be related to the invention of the looped pretzel.

Within the Catholic church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape. Pretzels made with a simple recipe using only flour and water could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products such as milk and butter. As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter.

In the 19th century, southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced the pretzel to North America. These immigrants became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Many handmade pretzel bakeries populated the central Pennsylvania countryside, and the pretzel‘s popularity spread. In the 20th century, soft pretzels became extremely popular in other regions of the United States. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, became famous for their soft pretzels. With increased popularity due to mass production, pretzels were distributed at schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, sports stadiums, arenas, and street vendors selling pretzels on street corners in wooden glass enclosed cases.

From left: my aunt Sophie, my Mom, my son Paul,
myself, & my brother Chris, in N.Y.C. 

As a young child, I remember when I would go to N.Y.C. with my family, the hot soft pretzels were always a treat. We would be walking along 5th Ave, near all the famous department stores, like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, and low and behold we would see one, a vendor selling hot soft pretzels on the corner. You could smell the baked dough and the mustard as you were getting closer to the stand that sold them. It was wrapped in waxed paper and placed in a brown paper bag. To me, the best time to eat them was in the winter when the weather was cold outside. The hot bag filled with pretzels would warm your hands. Then as we continued walking, I would pull apart a piece of the hot pretzel and leave the rest in the bag to keep warm. All the salt would be the first thing that I would lick off. The hot soft dough would just melt in your mouth and it always seemed to warm up your stomach. At that time you could get 3 pretzels for $1.00, and what would be left, was an empty bag with some salt crystals left at the bottom. What a delicious memory to have with my family.

NYC Pretzel Vendor

Today, Pennsylvania is the center of the American pretzel production for the hard crispy and the soft bread types of pretzels. Pennsylvania with its large German background produces 80% of the nation’s pretzels. In 1963 the largest pretzel of it’s time weighing 40 pounds and measuring 5 feet across was baked by Joseph Nacchio of the Federal Pretzel Baking Company. In 1993 the Pretzel Museum opened in Philadelphia, operated by the Nacchio family.

My recipe this week is called “Home Made Soft Pretzels” I have made these before and I usually have my family knocking on my door, for more. The soft dough, is so light and the honey butter mix melted on the top of each pretzel reminds me that I’m back on the corner of 5th Ave, reliving my childhood all over again. Memories never tasted so good. So enjoy, whether you like the sticks, chocolate covered or the big soft ones with mustard on top, celebrate pretzels with a bag today.

Home Made Soft Pretzels

Total Time: 1 hr 55 minutes
Prep: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons yeast
2 cups of warm water
6 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 tablespoon of salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 /4 cup of honey
3 eggs beaten
Honey Butter Mix ( recipe follows)
Kosher salt, for sprinkling

“Honey Butter Mix”
1 /2 cup of melted butter
1/ 4 cup of honey
In a small bowl combine melted butter and honey

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water, allow to sit for 5 minutes till somewhat foamy. Add the flour, salt, sugar, honey and eggs. Mix thoroughly for about 10 minutes. Let the dough rise about 10 to 15 minutes. Divide the dough into 4-ounce portions and roll out each piece into a long rope shape. Now shape the pretzel dough and pinch the 2 (arms) to maintain them from coming apart. Place on greased cookie sheet or you can use parchment paper and let rise for 1 hour. Brush with Honey Butter Mix and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake for 20 minutes till light brown. Remove to cool for 5 minutes prior to eating.

Till Next Time…..

Copyright © 2011 “Family Plus Food Equals Love” All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Time for Apple Pie! There is a chill in the air...

Can it be, I feel a chill in the air! The leaves are starting to fall, and the kiddies are back in school. This means only one thing, the first day of autumn is coming. Yes, I just looked at my calendar and September 23rd is the Autumnal Equinox. It is so hard to believe that the summer went by so fast and here we are in the fall season.

When it gets cooler, I love to open the windows and just be able to breathe the crisp air that comes this time of year. To me this is a magical season. Pumpkins, Apples, Indian corn and Gourds plus the colors of the leaves, with its gold, red, and green hues that are so brilliant. The hustle and bustle of the approaching holidays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and my favorite of all, Christmas. The chill in the air means sweaters, jackets, and rosy cheeks on children’s faces from playing outside in the leaves. As you look inside the windows of the houses, you can see families cooking, fireplaces lit and you get the feeling of a warm cozy home. Cooking hearty meals, such as stews, soups, baked bread and apple pies are all aromas that enhance your senses and give you the feeling of fall. As you take a brisk walk in the nippy air you can see pumpkins and fall wreaths decorating the houses. To me fall is also a time to be thankful for your family and your friends. So, now that you know what autumn means to me, come along and let us explore what autumn is really all about.

Before the 16th century, “harvest” was the term used to refer to the season. However, as more people gradually moved from working the land, to living in towns, the word “harvest” lost its reference to the time of the year. The word autumn was used to replace harvest, and referred to the season. According to myth, it is believed that the September Equinox is a time of balance when “day and night are equal,” and that by some mystical force one can balance eggs on their end on these days. Some believe that one can only balance an egg within a few hours before or after the exact time of the equinox.

Apples are one of the few fruits you can find fresh any time of the year, especially September through November. However, to me the apple is the one fruit that I associate with fall more than any other. Apples are America’s favorite fruit. The state of Washington grows the most apples followed by New York, and then Michigan. This is a perfect time of the year to head on out to an apple orchard and pick your own apples for a pie, applesauce, or even baked apples. But to me the best way is to pick one off of the tree and try it. There is nothing like the crisp, cool, crunch you hear as you take a bite of this juicy, sweet piece of fruit. Today we have numerous varieties of apples to choose from. Some are best to eat while others are best for cooking and baking. You must have heard the old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” This saying comes from an old English adage, “To eat an apple before going to bed, will make the doctor beg for his bread.”

Paul, my son at Maskers Orchard
I remember when I was about 11 or so, my parents would take the family and drive to Maskers Apple Orchard, in upstate NY for a fun afternoon of apple picking. We would run and find a spot so we could pick the apples from the trees and put them in a big bushel. My mom would make us lunch and we were allowed to picnic on the grounds in-between the apple trees. It was wonderful, especially on a crisp day. The orchard had a Country Store that my family and I would visit at the end of the day. As we entered the store the aromas that would encircle our heads was like a bit of heaven. The shelves held home made jams, jellies, honey and candy apples. They also sold baked goods, like home made breads, cakes, and pies. As we would drive back home with the car filled with apples and goodies, I always thought that this was one of my favorite memories with my family. When I had my son, many years later, I continued the tradition of going apple picking at Maskers Orchards and now my son will have memories like I did.

So, in honor of the first day of Fall, I am sharing with you my “Apple Pie” recipe. This pie is a favorite among my family and friends. After years of making this scrumptious pie, I have perfected its fruity richness and I’m sure it will be very pleasing to your taste buds.

Dottie’s “Apple Pie”

8-10 apples (Macintosh and 2 Granny Smith)
1 cup of granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon of salt
2 ½ tablespoons of flour
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
1 recipe of plain pie pastry (for crust)
(you can make your own crust, but this is a time saver)
Secret ingredient is a dash of fresh Nutmeg
Pare and slice apples very, very thin. Sift dry ingredients together and mix with apples. Line pie pan (9 inch glass is what I use) with the pastry crust. Fill with apple mixture, dot with butter before putting on top of crust. Then put top crust on the pie. Crimp edges, cut three slits in top of pie or use a pie stencil. Brush pie with milk or cream. Then sprinkle the pie top with some granulated sugar before baking.
Bake in a very HOT oven 450 ° for the first 15 minutes. Then reduce temperature to 350 ° for the next 45 minutes or longer till golden brown. Put pie on lined cookie pan, (foil or parchment paper) so if any drippings come out from the pie, it will be easier for clean up.
Till Next Time………..
Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Mama's Italian Meatballs" & National Play-Doh Day

When I was a little child, my favorite toy to play with was Play-Doh. I loved the cool feel and the soft texture of the Play-Doh in my hands. Play-Doh came in 4 colors, White, (this was the first color) Yellow, Red, and Blue. (these were added later on) It had such a whimsical scent that today if I smell a Play-Doh can it brings back so many memories of my childhood. I remember creating many different shapes. Then, I experimented with the colors by mixing them together which would get my imagination to run wild. I also had so much fun trying to emulate my mom as she was cooking dinner by creating food items. When I was young they did not have computers and all the digital technical items we have today, so we had to use our minds and thoughts with play to keep us occupied. The reason why I am writing about Play-Doh is that believe it or not, National Play-Doh Day is September 18th. To date, over seven hundred million pounds of Play-Doh have been sold. Did you know that? I had no idea, but it has brought back fond memories that I had as a child.

What is Play-Doh and where did it come from you may ask? Play-Doh is a nontoxic modeling compound. It is easy to use and easy to clean up. It was manufactured in 1930 by Noah McVicker in Cincinnati, Ohio and was used for a wallpaper cleaner. When a classroom of children began using the wallpaper cleaner as a modeling compound the product was reworked and in 1956 it was launched in the toy market at an educational convention. Then, history was made! In 1958, Play-Doh’s sales reached nearly $3 million. In 1964, Play-Doh was exported to England, France and Italy. In the 1980’s the cardboard can was discontinued for a more cost effective plastic container. The colors Gold and Silver were added to Play-Doh’s palette in 1996 to celebrate Play-Doh’s 40th anniversary. Since it's conception, Hasbro (current owners) has created many accessories to go along with Play-Doh, which includes the Play-Doh Fun Factory and The Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber & Beauty Shop just to name a few. More than 2 billion cans of Play-Doh were sold between 1955 and 2005, plus Play-Doh is being sold in 75 countries around the world at 95 million cans a year. In 2003, the Toy Industry Association placed Play-Doh into its “Century of Toys List”, of the 100 most memorable and most creative toys of the Twentieth Century.

If you can’t find Play-Doh in your area, I have a simple recipe for Play-Dough to be made at home with your children. I used this recipe with my nieces and nephews one Sunday afternoon and they loved the fact of making the Play-Dough but also being able to use it to create Christmas ornaments.  
¼ cup of salt
1 cup of flour
¼ cup of water

Have your child mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, then add your water. Knead and squeeze the dough to make a clay consistency. You may need to add a little more water a few drops at a time. You can also add food coloring to part of the dough. This can be kept in an airtight container for a few days.

My mom Madeline and myself
Children love to imitate their parents. I know, I did years ago with my Play-Doh. My mom was making spaghetti with meatballs, one night for dinner and I tried to copy her with my Play-Doh. I rolled it out just like she did with the meatball mixture and then I tried to create the spaghetti in long thin strips. (you can use the accessory that extrudes the Play-Doh, which really looks like spaghetti) So as I end this blog post for this week, I thought it would be a fun project for you and your children to make memories. Let them create their version of Spaghetti and Meatballs with Play-Doh and you can make the real thing! The recipe this week is “Mama’s Italian Meatballs” one of my mom’s favorite recipes which I would love to share with you. Her meatballs are very flavorsome to your taste buds. They are mouthwatering and the aroma of them frying is just like being home again. My dad loves to sneak a few after they are fried. Just before they go into the sauce, he says, “I want to make sure they are cooked right. “ We know, dad, you just can’t wait to gobble them up, with the flavors of spices and cheese all rolled into one delicious meatball. So, treasure Play-Doh with your children and enjoy “Mama’s Italian Meatballs.”

Mama’s Italian Meatballs”

Yields: 30 meatballs-(10 meatballs per pound)
2 cups of bread crumbs (if too stiff add a sprinkle of water)
3 lbs of beef chuck chopped meat (80% lean, but not too lean, you need a little fat for moisture)
1 ½ teaspoons of minced garlic
¾ cup of fresh Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
6 eggs
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
3 fistfuls of fresh parsley-chopped
Vegetable oil or Canola oil 
Place oil about ¼ to ½ inches in frying pan. Heat oil before placing the meatballs in pan.
Put the beef chuck in a med-sized bowl and add all ingredients except the oil. Gently combine the meat using your hands until evenly mixed. The mixture should be slightly wet and workable, not too sticky. Using your hands, gently shape meat into balls. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly round, but try to make them all uniform for even cooking. Don’t roll them over and over, be gentle.

Add the meatballs to the pan and fry them until they are brown on one side then turn. Keep turning with tongs until they are completely and evenly browned. Transfer the cooked meatballs to a paper towel to drain. Now it is time to place your meatballs into your sauce to cook for a while and then serve with pasta of your choice. If you need a very tasty and easy marinara sauce, check out my post on Aug 18th for my mom’s recipe.
In place of bread crumbs, take chunks of stale Italian bread and soak in a bowl with water. As it softens remove crust and squeeze water out of bread chunks. Separate into small pieces and add to chopped meat mixture.    Abbondanza!

Till Next Time……
Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Italian Stuffed Mushrooms" September is National Mushroom Month

Join with me and let’s celebrate “National Mushroom Month.” which is observed every September. Since I can remember, growing up in my Italian American family, my mom would always use mushrooms in her recipes. There are many varieties of mushrooms, such as the white button, crimini, portabella, shiitake and oyster to name a few. The button mushroom is the most widely used. My mom would use a number of varieties for different dishes, but she preferred to use the white button mushrooms more than the others.

To have a better understanding about where mushrooms originated from and some interesting facts, we have to travel back to ancient folklore. Egyptians believed that mushrooms were the plant of immortality. The flavors captivated the Pharaohs so much that mushrooms were decreed food for the royalty. Common people were not allowed to even touch them. According to some people Louis XIV was the first mushroom grower in France. Mushrooms were grown in caves near Paris. France showed England how simple a crop of mushrooms were to cultivate, so England began to produce them as well. The first American to cultivate mushrooms here in the United States was Louis F. Lambert from Minnesota. Many people found that mushrooms were easy to grow and cheap to buy. 

Pennsylvania is the lead in mushroom production. In 2006/2007, 827 million lbs. of mushrooms have been produced and sold. Speaking of Pennsylvania, if you are a fan of all things mushroom or just want to enjoy a fun (gi) time, go to Kennett Square in PA and join in the Mushroom Capital of the World for the 26th annual Mushroom Festival which takes place this weekend. Edible mushrooms are known as the meat of the vegetable world. Most mushrooms are sold in supermarkets which have been grown in mushroom farms and are used in cooking many different cuisines of the world. Here are some tips as to selecting and cleaning mushrooms.

1. Purchase mushrooms that are firm with a fresh, smooth appearance
2. Surfaces should be dry, but not dried out and appear plump
3. Equivalents: 1 pound fresh mushrooms = 6 cups sliced fresh mushrooms = 3 ounces
Dried mushrooms
4. Some mushrooms may keep for up to one week in the refrigerator
5. Fresh mushrooms should never be frozen, but frozen sautéed mushrooms will keep for up to one month  
1. Brush off any dirt with your fingers or a damp paper towel, or rinse the mushrooms briefly under running water and pat dry with a paper towel
2. Do not soak mushrooms in water as they easily absorb moisture
3. If the stem is tough, trim it before using. For Shiitakes, stems should be removed before use

My mom at 2 yrs old
4. Dried mushrooms are often excellent substitutes for fresh. You can reconstitute dried mushrooms by soaking or simmering them. Don’t throw away the soaking liquid, as it can add flavor to your sauce. You can also pulverize dried mushrooms with a food processor or blender, and then use the mushroom powder to flavor sauces and stews.

Now that you know all about mushrooms, you can try my mom’s recipe called “Italian Stuffed Mushrooms.” This dish has been in my family for years and everyone loves it. My mom used to make this flavorful recipe mainly for holidays, until it was requested by family members for her to prepare this dish for non-holidays as well. You can use this as a side dish or even as an appetizer. As you enter a mushroom into your mouth, you can taste the savory flavor of the spices and cheese in the breadcrumb stuffing mix, which will enhance the richness of the mushroom. Absolutely “yummy” and I’m sure it will be a favorite in your family as it is in mine.

Photo: Courtesy from Food Network
Italian Stuffed Mushrooms

48 oz large white button mushrooms
2 cups of plain dried bread crumbs
1/3 cup of Pecorino Romano grated cheese
3 teaspoons of minced garlic fresh or jar
2 tablespoons of fresh chopped Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup of olive or vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 F. Clean mushrooms and take the stem off. Mix the bread crumbs with the parsley, garlic, Pecorino Romano, salt and peeper in a small bowl. Now add some oil (about 2 tablespoons) and mix with hands. If you need more oil put in small amount each time until you are mixing the right consistency. When it feels like a sandy consistency then you are ready to stuff the mushroom caps and place on a large cookie/pan sheet. Now, drizzle a small amount of the remaining oil over the top of each mushroom. (This is so they do not dry out, but do not soak) Bake until mushrooms are browned and tender about 25-30 minutes.

This weekend is the 10th Anniversary of  9/11, a day most Americans and the world will never forget. An attack on America took place that day, and thousands of people lost their lives. The entire country was impacted by this tragic day’s events. I would like to say that my heart and prayers go out to the families that have lost loved ones in the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Plus, my prayers also go to the First Responders, because of their bravery; many have also lost their lives. May our country and the world be safe and God Bless America.

Till Next Time……
Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Irene and Coffee Nut Raisin Cookies

The day was Friday, August 26th and it was a picture perfect day on Long Island. The sky was blue with a slight breeze. People would say, “The calm before the storm.” One would never know the damage that hurricane Irene would bring the next day and throughout the following week. As you may know, Hurricane Irene plowed through the East Coast this past weekend. So, I heeded the warnings from the news to get prepared. I searched for my candles, flashlights, extra water, charged my cell phone, found non-perishable can foods, batteries, and my radio. Now, I felt I was ready for Irene. Saturday afternoon the rain began and the wind picked up. As I was watching the weather channel, there was a huge bang. It was now early Sunday morning about 2:15 AM. Then, “ALL WENT BLACK. “ I guess Irene’s wrath had finally hit Long Island. As I clicked on my flashlight and went to light some candles, I could hear the wind howling through the windows of the house. I tried looking out of my window, to see what the huge bang was but all I could see was blowing trees and rain in-between the blackness. Later, I found out that the bang was a transformer that had blown.

As my sleepless night continued I kept hearing all kinds of sounds, the rain hitting the windows with a major force was awfully scary. Then finally, daylight came through the windows and I could see it was still raining with the winds blowing, but you could see that Irene was on her way out. Still no electric power and no cell phone connection either. I felt like I was disconnected from the world. No way to even make some coffee or something hot. Then I heard a knock on the door, it was my sister-in-law with my nephew and niece. They had been driving around to see the damage. The stories they told me about trees falling, poles, and branches as well as traffic lights that were not working, it sounded like a disaster movie description. They also were without power. They mentioned that the diner was opened. They must have had a generator. So I ventured out and had a hot meal, and then back home to the darkness.

By Monday afternoon I had gained cell phone power as well as my electric. Wahoo! Lights, phones and the internet. I was very lucky; other people are still without power and have floods in their basements. Many major roads are still flooded, trees are down, branches and debris is everywhere. As Irene traveled up the east coast, there was devastation through out all the states, but we were lucky. Dealing with a little inconvenience compared to the real devastation that Katrina did in 2005 was not a problem. So, as I post this to my blog, my hope is that everyone is OK, has power, phone connections and I say, “Goodnight Irene!”

My great-grandparents Sofia & Giovanni (sitting) 1918
My grandmother Julia second from the right
Now, as the cleanup continues, my thoughts go to what it must have been like years back in my great-grandmothers day. During the storm, my mind was wondering how spoiled we are with all of our modern equipment. Back in the day, they used gas lamps for light and there wasn't any refrigeration, they had to have the ice man deliver ice to keep their food cold. No modern conveniences like we have today. But yet they raised a family, worked, went to church and it all seemed to work out well. We take these things for granted and we panic when the power goes out. I am just like everyone else out there that can’t understand how to deal without power of any kind. During Irene, when I would go into a room with my candle, automatically I would turn on my light switch. Then I would remember that there aren’t any lights. Can you imagine how ridiculous that is? See what I mean, we’ve become so used to our way of modern life that these things become a habit. Yes, our modern medicine has come a long way, but we should not be so dependant with our modern day world and all of our automated systems. This was also a way to bring the family together to talk, read, play games and learn from our families with a closeness that I think has lost its power. So, as I end this post, I for one will never take for granted electric, phones and try to live a simpler life.

Labor Day is this weekend. It is an American National holiday and it is sometimes called the “unofficial end to summer.” Labor Day’s true meaning is to honor the everyday working people. These people have built and maintained the heart of this country. My recipe this week is one that was passed down from my great-grandmother, Sofia. If you are celebrating for Labor Day weekend, this cookie is very easy to take with you on a picnic or a BB-Q. As you eat these sweet, remarkable cookies, you can taste the texture between the nuts and raisins. I hope that you enjoy them and your holiday weekend.

Coffee, Nut and Raisin Cookies


1 cup of light brown sugar
1 cup of white granulated sugar
2 full tablespoons of Crisco
2 eggs
4 cups of unbleached all purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 cup of raisins and chopped nuts (mixed together)
1 cup of regular brewed coffee
1 pinch of salt


Mix sugar and Crisco. Then mix in 1 egg at a time, beating separately. Then mix flour alternately with coffee, baking powder, salt, and mixture of raisins/nuts. Once combined together, drop by tablespoons on to a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes till browned.
Till Next Time…………

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved