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~ When in Rome, start with: Bucatini all'Amatriciana ~

IMG_9574Amatrice is a town in the mountainous northeastern panhandle of Lazio, near Abruzzo (central Italy).  "All' Amatriciana" means "made in the style of Amatrice and sugo Amatriciana is one of the oldest Italian sauces.  It's a humble, rustic pasta dish commonly found on the restaurant menus of Rome.  This immortal sauce is bold-flavored, and, like many Italian classics, it is easily prepared with a short list of ingredients, but, the list is specific and the dish is only as good as the quality of said ingredients.  Recipes vary, so there is some room for improvisation, but this is seriously not the time to let your creative self stray too far from the traditions of home Rome, and:

IMG_9438This dish is all about the pork fat - not that there's anything wrong w/that!

IMG_9566That said, I have no first-hand knowledge of this dish or romantic tale to tell about eating it in a restaurant in Rome or getting an old and authentic family recipe from a friend.  I learned about it on TV, more specifically from Mario Batali, and, I was fascinated by what he had to say and what I learned that morning.  It was years ago, back in the days prior to The Food Network transitioning to silly, cheap reality game-show cooking programs -- the star of those shows actually cooked and knew their own recipes -- their job required personality + intelligence.

Amatrice.8A bit about all' Amatriciana (ah-ma-tree-she-ana):  The ancient version of the dish was created centuries ago by the shepherds from the coastal plains near Rome who would drive their flocks to the high pastures near Amatrice for the Summer months.  Throughout the "transumanza" ("migration") they prepared "pasta alla gricia" for themselves (Grisciano was a hamlet near Amatrice).  Gricia, a lesser-known dish that is still served today, is the original "white" version of present day all'Amatriciana.  

Gricia is/was a simple dish of pork, pecorino, peperoncino and pasta -- it contained no tomatoes, because at that time, tomatoes did not exist in Italy.  Then, in the latter 1700's, when tomatoes became a culinary ingredient in Italy, the Italians were happy to add them, and, the name was affectionately changed to "Amatriciana", in honor of the town which made it famous!

Amatriciana:  Five Basic Ingredients = One Iconic Italian Dish.

When 'Much Ado About Nothing' = Ado About Everthing! 

IMG_9314A bit about the ingredients for all' Amatriciana:  cured unsmoked pork, Roma tomatoes, red pepper flakes, grated cheese, pasta.  It sounds easy enough, and it is, but to get it right, read on:

IMG_9369Cured unsmoked pork (guanciale, pronounced gwahn-CHAY-lay, or pancetta):  Every traditional and authentic version of Amatriciana is made with guanciale (pig jowl).  It is saltier, fattier, slightly sweeter and bolder in flavor than pancetta -- it also gets buttery and translucent after cooking.  Guanciale is also hard to find (I need to special order it from a chef friend), so, if you do not have a source for it, pancetta has become, and is, the accepted substitute.  That said, some people prefer the taste of one over the other, so, let your taste break that tie. I love guanciale and keep a piece in my freezer at all times. Because American bacon is smoked, please do not do that!

IMG_9333Roma tomatoes (canned or fresh): Surprisingly, in the case of this dish, canned tomatoes are preferred, and, the best  fresh tomatoes in Italy are San Marzano. Why canned tomatoes and not fresh tomatoes?  As it was explained to me, the rugged mountains of Lazio, where Amatrice is located, was not prime territory for growing tomatoes, meaning:  they could be grown, but the growing season was so short, it was normal and common for them to prepare this dish using home-canned San Marzano tomatoes when they had no fresh tomatoes to make tomato sauce with.  So, yes, high-quality canned tomatoes in the off-season -- by all means!

IMG_9347Pepper (red peperoncino or black):  In the case of this dish, peperoncino (red pepper flakes) are authentic and always used. Black pepper is typically not.  It is, however, worth noting that black pepper is typically used in the curing process of both guanciale and pancetta, so, it does make an unnofficial appearence in this dish. Many Americans don't realize that Italians use red pepper flakes much like we use black pepper -- crushed or powdered it gets added to simmering liquids or sprinkled on top of finished dishes.  Many kinds of capsicums are grown in Italy, and Calabria grows some of the finest red chile peppers in the world!

6a0120a8551282970b0168e9a4231d970cGrated cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano):  It is grated Pecorino Romano all the way baby.  Pecorino is a hard, salty, sharp grating cheese made from sheep's milk ("pecora") -- it's perfect for bold-flavored dishes and Locatelli is considered Pecorino Romano royalty.  It was a staple in the diet for the legionaries of ancient Rome and is still made exclusively from the milk of sheep raised on the plains of Lazio and Sardinia according to the original, time-honored methods.  Logic alone should tell you if this dish was invented by the shepherds around Rome, they were not preparing it using cow's milk Parmigiano-Reggiano, and neither should you!

IMG_9377Pasta (bucatini or spaghetti):  It depends on who's dinner table you are sitting at.  There are two factions, the fanatical left and the fanatical right, and trust me, you do not want to disagree with either. Personally, I say it's the one-of-a-kind super-long stranded, thick, hollow-centered bucatini that gives this dish its real-deal slurpy character and sloppy charm, and, it has nothing to do with arrogantly thinking spaghetti is too ordinary.  It comes  from making Amatriciana both ways. Bucatini's thickness gives it the surface area during and after saucing to produce the ideal result:  a balanced dish consisting of pasta lightly enrobed in, not drenched or hidden by, a bold-flavored, slightly cheesy-tasting sauce studded with crispy pork!

Parting shots before preparing my version for Sunday dinner:    

IMG_9389What the food police say about garlic, onion, herbs, wine & EVOO:  We Americans tend to associate Italian food with garlic and tend to put garlic in anything and everything we associate with Italian cuisine.  Italians ridicule us for this.  This dish needs no garlic -- even if you love garlic in general, restrain yourself.  That said, adding diced onion to the guanciale fat and sauteing it until translucent adds pleasant sweetness to the tomato sauce -- even the purists agree there is no crime in that.  As for herbs, since San Marzano tomatoes have a few basil leaves packed in the can, if you feel the need to include an herb or garnish with an herb, use fresh basil.  As for a splash of splendid wine or a drizzle of fruity EVOO to finish off this modestly seasoned, hearty dish -- what happens in an Italian kitchen stays in an Italian kitchen!

IMG_9400For the pasta:

16-18 ounces bucatini*

5 quarts water

1  tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water

*Note:  The average length of a strand of real-deal Italian-made bucatini is 40 inches (that's over 3 feet).  I'm sure it would be amusing to cook them "as is" some day, but, to make them user-friendly, I break the long strands in half "at the bend", then break the lengths in half again!

IMG_9415For the Amatriciana sauce:

8  ounces guanciale, 8 ounces after removing any visible rind

1  28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed

1 1/2  teaspoons peperoncino

3/4  teaspoon sea salt, to taste, do not oversalt*

6  ounces finely-grated Locatelli cheese, about 3 cups

*Note:  If this doesn't seem like enough salt to you, the guanciale is going to add additional salt to the sauce, and to the finished dish.  The grated Locatelli cheese is going to do the same.    

IMG_9408 IMG_9401~ Step 1.   Using a chef's knife, slice and discard any visible rind from top of guanciale.  Slice, like you would bacon, into thin, slightly less than 1/4"-thick slices, then cut the slices into short 1/4" chards.  Slicing it this way results in it being crispy on the outside w/a slightly-chewy center.

IMG_9419 IMG_9426~ Step 2.  Place the guanciale in a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan over medium-high heat.  Using a slotted spatula or spoon, stirring almost constantly, saute until it is golden brown and puffy, about 8 minutes (more or less).  To know exactly when it is done, look at these photos:

IMG_9421 IMG_9429When the guanciale starts to heat up, the fat will turn translucent (Jello-like looking).  As it sautes, translucent will turn to opaque.  When opaque turns to golden, the guanciale is cooked perfectly. Overcooking it will dry it out -- don't do that.

IMG_9432 IMG_9438~ Step 3. Turn the heat off.  

Using a slotted spatula or spoon, transfer the guanciale to a paper-towel lined plate and set aside to drain.

There will be a lot of flavorful, fatty drippings in the bottom of the pan. This is exactly want you want.

IMG_9450 IMG_9447~ Step 4. Add the tomatoes to the pan drippings, then, add the peperoncino and salt. Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer, partially cover the pan and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Sauce will be reduced a bit, thickened and emulsified (fat will be incorporated):

IMG_9459 IMG_9455Cover pan completely, remove from heat and set aside while cooking the bucatini as  directed below:

~ Step 5.  In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat.  Add the salt. Add the bucatini and cook until al dente.  This timing will vary IMG_9489slightly, depending on the manufacturer -- the bucatini I used today took 11 minutes.  Drain into colander.

IMG_9493Note: You're thinking this thick pasta should take longer?  The center hole allows water to flow through, so, it cooks about the same as others!

IMG_9500 IMG_9501 IMG_9514 IMG_9524





Steps 6, 7, 8 & 9.  Add the steaming hot, drained pasta to the sauce.  Using two forks or two spoons, toss as you would a salad, until pasta is evenly and lightly coated.  Toss in two cups of the Locatelli cheese.  Toss in the crispy guanciale pieces.  Cover and rest about 5 minutes.

Toss in the last 1 cup of finely-grated Locatelli and toss again: 

IMG_9546ASAP garnished w/more Locatelli & peperoncino: 

IMG_9576When in Rome, start with:  Bucatini all'Amatriciana:  Recipe yields 4 servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; microplane grater; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid, preferably nonstick; slotted spatula or spoon; 8-quart stockpot; colander; salad servers or two forks or two spoons

6a0120a8551282970b01a73dd57389970d-800wiCook's Note:  For another Roman specialty, one that I do have first hand experience with, click into Categories 3, 11, 12, 14, 21 or 22, to get my recipe for ~ Melanie's Bolognese Sauce & Bolognese Lasagna:  Veal & Rosemary-Tomato Creame Sauce & Lasagna ~.  Pictured here tossed with the traditional pappardelle pasta, this long-simmered ragu is perhaps my favorite of all Italian sauces!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


~ Baking Basic: Evaporated Milk & Condensed Milk ~

Evaporated Milk & Condensed Milk #1I was just asked a question from a KE reader who said, "I ruined my mother's pumpkin pie recipe at Thanksgiving because I substituted condensed milk for evaporated milk.  I'm about to bake some Christmas cookies from one of her recipes, and, while I won't make that mistake twice, I still don't understand what the difference is between the two.  Can you quickly explain it to me?"

It only takes a taste of each to know they are very different...

1380405_881838341849337_4484291976577709115_nNo kidding around, I thought everyone knew the difference between these two commonly used ingredients -- I remember learning about them back in 7th grade Home Economics (thank-you Mrs. Richards).  I don't know if they even offer Home Ec any more.  I'm certain this info is available in almost every baking book printed in the USA today, and, I know it can be found elsewhere on the internet as well.  That said, when asked I answer, and, the question prompted me to write a quick Q&A post ASAP today so folks can learn about it here on Kitchen Encounters too.  Let me start with the most important information first: these two products cannot, under any circumstances, ever be used interchangeably. 

... and cannot be used interchangeably!

IMG_9301Evaporated milk is a canned cow's milk product that has about 60% of the water removed from fresh milk.  Sweetened condensed milk (also referred to as condensed milk), like evaporated milk, has the water removed from it, but has quite a bit of sugar added to it as well.  They cannot be used interchangeably. But, if you find yourself without either one and no means of getting to a grocery store, there are emergency substitutions:  

Substitutions for evaporated milk are:  an equal measure of light cream, half & half or cream.  I have read that buttermilk can be substituted too -- I have never tried it, but, I think the tangy taste of buttermilk may not bode well in some culinary applications.  If you keep dry (powdered) milk in your pantry, you can mix it with 40% of the water the package directions require and use it too.

Substitutions for condensed milk are:  if you do a quick internet search they are there, but they all require messy, time-consuming machinations that don't consistently result in an admirable result.  My recommendation on this:  get in your car and go buy the condensed milk.  If you are still intent on trying it, in a blender combine until smooth: 1 cup dry (powdered) milk, 1/3 cup hot water, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon melted butter.  Refrigerate.

A little bit of interesting background and history:

Both products have a unique flavor, creamy texture (with condensed milk being much thicker) and on the shelf, physically take up half the space of milk.  Evaporated milk was invented by dairy farmers over 100 years ago, because fresh milk, without refrigeration, had a very short shelf life and could not be shipped very far.  In the 1920's and 1930's evaporated milk gained favor as a baby formula.  Evaporated milk is still widely used in many countries were no refrigeration is available.  Sweetened condensed milk was invented in France by Nicolas Appert in 1820.  In 1853, Gail Borden, Jr., was the first to market condensed milk in the USA.  The US Government ordered huge quantities of it during the American Civil War and handed out its 14-ounce/1,300 calorie cans as field rations to the soldiers.  By the 1860's the soldiers had spread the word and condensed milk became a major product in the American marketplace... sweet!

Pay Attention to that Expiration Date!

Once the cans are open, both must be refrigerated, or, like fresh milk products, they will spoil.  Even though both products have a long shelf life, with condensed milk lasting longer than evaporated milk, you still need to check the date on the can before using either of them.

Evaporated Milk & Condensed Milk #2Condensed milk should be thick, yet drizzly and pale cream-colored.  Past the expiration date, it tends to seize up or crystallize and darken to a caramel-color, which does not necessarily mean it is spoiled, but:

If in doubt throw it out!  

I managed to track down a can well past the expiration date.  While it tasted just fine, I probably wouldn't use it because the change in color and consistency would most likely affect the cookie recipe I am planning to bake next.

In the case of evaporated milk, if it does not pour smooth and isn't a uniform, light creamy white color, or, if it has any has any lumps in it, throw it out immediately.  A few parting words:

When using either of these two products for any purpose, be it in cooking or baking (which relies upon weights, measures and precise ingredients), PLEASE remember to read your labels and check your expiration dates before even getting started!

6a0120a8551282970b01a5116ae038970c-800wi"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010) 


~ Mel's Happy Valley Meyer Dairy Eggnog Cookies ~

IMG_9233Eggnog -- the traditional and official drink of Christmas and New Years.  There is nothing quite like sipping slowly from a punch-cup full of this creamy-rich liquor-laced libation.  In many families, making eggnog from scratch is an event.  The recipe is often times a well-guarded secret, being passed down from generation to generation.  The only egg nog I got to drink as a child were the sips I could sneak out of a jovial adult's punch cup at more than a few neighborhood cocktail parties.  Our nextdoor neighbor, Mrs. Rimm, she made great eggnog!

IMG_9263A bit about eggnog:  References to eggnog date back to the 1800's, when, even back then it was served during the Winter holiday season. Known as "egg milk punch", it was and still is a sweetened dairy-based beverage made with milk, sugar, raw egg yolks, whipped egg whites and a splash of rum and/or vanilla extract. Nowadays cream is always included in place of some or all of the milk, because today's milk has a much lower fat content than milk in the 1800's, which had cream on top.

Brandy, rum and/or bourbon are almost always added.  The plain truth:  Eggnog just tastes better with some alcohol in it.  Each smallish finished serving is poured into a punch cup, then it's topped off with a dollop of freshly-whipped cream and a sprinkling of freshly-ground nutmeg.

IMG_9277Eggnog literally means "eggs in a small cup", and it is used on both sides of the Atlantic to toast to ones health.  "Nog" is an old English term for a small wooden cup.  As an English creation, it descended from a hot British drink called posset, made from eggs beaten with milk, sugar and some type of spirit. During that time period, alcoholic drinks were commonly served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because it was cooked, posset traveled and adapted well to local tastes wherever it landed.  One such place was our American colonies.  America was full of farms, which were full of chickens, cows and plenty of cheap rum -- which is our signature ingredient. 

Fast forward to present day.  Over the holidays, pasteurized eggnog is sold in milk-like cartons in almost every grocery store in America.  Here is where I stick my two cents in.  All store-bought eggnog is not created equal.  Most mass-produced name brands are cloyingly sweet, leaving an almost bubblegum-like aftertaste.  Most purists agree that those who don't like this Yultide beverage have simply never had the opportunity to taste real-deal eggnog.

The best place to buy pasteurized eggnog is at your local dairy!

P1000052Meet Meyer Dairy.  Founded in 1970 by two  brothers and located just four short miles from my kitchen door, I have been buying milk and ice cream from these folks since the day I moved to Happy Valley in 1974.  Joseph Meyer, the owner explains, "We're farmers, so we produce our own milk.  We put in a drop tank to bring it up from the farm to process and bottle it in our shop."  Over the years they added many varieties of ice-cream, and the flavors change daily. Besides one of their generous cones of the creamy-dreamy stuff, there's plenty of room to sit down and enjoy a hot dog or a hamburger too.  They sell lots of other local and PA based products too:  grilled stickies from The College Diner, apple butter from the Lions Club and Middleswarth potato chips!

Yes, Meyer's sells their milk in returnable glass bottles:

IMG_9129'Tis the season for Meyer Dairy to roll out their eggnog and eggnog ice cream, and, my holiday season wouldn't be the same without either one.  I adore that ice cream flavor but when I stopped in the shop this AM, the charming gal behind the counter told me they won't start making it for another week yet.  One sip of their eggnog is all anyone needs to know this is not your run-of-the-mill store-bought milkgrog.  It is rich, just the right thickness, pleasantly spiced and not overly sweet.  The only thing left in the back of your throat is the taste of real-deal farm-fresh cream.  Meyer's eggnog is beyond compare, and:

IMG_9125To bake the best:  Mel's Happy Valley Meyer Dairy Eggnog Cookies -- I insist upon the best locally-made pasteurized eggnog money can buy!

IMG_9087For the dry ingredients:

2  cups + 6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2  teaspoons baking powder

3/4  teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2  teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

~ Step 1.  In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, ground cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.  Set aside.

IMG_9092For the wet ingredients:

3/4  cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, very soft

1/2  cup firmly-packed light-brown sugar

1/2  cup sugar

2  extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

2  teaspoons butter-rum extract

1  teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2  cup Meyer Dairy pasteurized eggnog, or the best quality pasteurized eggnog money can buy (Note: Scratch-made homemade eggnog does not work well for making eggnog cookies.)

IMG_9095 IMG_9098~ Step 2. Place the softened butter and sugars in a large mixing bowl.  Separate the egg yolks from the whites (refrigerate whites for use in in another recipe -- I use them to make macaroons).  Stir the rum and vanilla extract into the eggnog. Starting on low speed of hand-held electric mixer (to blend), then increasing speed to high, whip the mixture until smooth, 3 full minutes, IMG_9105scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula the entire time.  Turn mixer off.

IMG_9111~ Step 3. Add all of the eggnog mixture to the bowl. Starting on low speed of mixer (to blend),  then increasing speed to high, whip the mixture until smooth, 1 full minute, once again, using the IMG_9113rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl frequently.  Turn the mixer off.

IMG_9117~ Step 4. Begin adding the flour, in three parts (1/3, 1/3, 1/3), no need to measure exactly.  Again, starting on low speed and ending up on high after each addition, while scraping down sides of bowl.  Total time to IMG_9132incorporate flour:  about 3 minutes.

~ Step 5.  Cover bowl of cookie dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Thirty minutes is not enough and 1 1/2 hours is too much.  While cookie dough is chilling line 2, 17 1/2" x 12 3/4" IMG_9136baking pans with parchment paper.

IMG_9145~ Step 6. Remove dough from refrigerator. Using a 1 3/4" ice-cream scoop, place lightly-packed scoopfuls of dough, well-apart, 12 on each pan.

~ Step 7.  Place pans of cookies in refrigerator to chill for about 20-30 minutes prior to baking.

IMG_9146~ Step 8.  One at a time, place chilled pan of cookies on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven and bake for 12-13 minutes. Cookies will be just beginning to brown and will still be slightly-soft. Do not overbake my cookies!  

Remove pan from oven and cool cookies, on pan, for 3 minutes, prior to transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely, about 2 hours or overnight (overnight is best).

IMG_9171Cookies can be eaten just they are, trust me, they smell and taste just like a cup of well-made eggnog, or, frosted with: ~ Mel's Happy Valley Meyer Dairy Eggnog Frosting ~, as follows:

IMG_9197For the eggnog frosting:

2  cups confectioners' sugar

4  tablespoons Meyer Dairy pasteurized eggnog, or the best quality pasteurized eggnog money can buy (Note:  Scratch-made homemade eggnog does not work well for making frosting either.)

1  tablespoon butter-rum extract

ground nutmeg, for sprinkling on frosted cookies

IMG_9216 IMG_9202                                            ~ Step 1. In a small mixing bowl combine all ingredients together until smooth. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for about 5 minutes. Stir again.  Mixture will be thick, smooth and ribbonlike.

~ Step 2.  Using a small cheese- IMG_9218type spreader, frost the tops of each cookie, then, very lightly sprinkle nutmeg over the frosted tops of all. Allow cookies to remain on cooling rack until the frosting dries and hardens, about 3-4 hours or overnight.  Store cookies in an airtight container, separating the layers with wax paper, in a cool dry place for up to 2 weeks.  Once the frosting hardens, the tops will stay firm and pretty as long as they are stored in a cool place.

Be sure to make a big batch -- they disappear fast!

IMG_9291Trust me -- these taste just like eggnog...

IMG_9239... and taste even better with eggnog!!!

IMG_9268Mel's Happy Valley Meyer Dairy Eggnog Cookies:  Recipe yields 2 dozen cookies (in reality it yields 2 dozen + 2, for a total of 26 cookies in each batch).

Special Equipment List: whisk; 1-cup measuring container; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 3/4" baking pans; parchment paper; 1 3/4" ice-cream scoop; cooling rack; tablespoon; small cheese-type spreader

6a0120a8551282970b0162fe3acbf4970dCook's Note:  Over the holidays, besides making eggnog from scratch, another one of my favorite beverages to serve is real-deal hot chocolate, and, I like to make a big batch of it ahead of time.  My recipe for ~ A Make-Ahead Christmas Morning Hot Chocolate ~ can be found in Categories 9, 11 or 16!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary & Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)