Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day 11: Florence, Italy....A Day of Gorgeous Museums!

Ciao! Day 11 was another fabulous day in the gorgeous city of Florence, Italy. It was kicked off with a scrumptious breakfast at the hotel - prosciutto, salami, croissants, boiled eggs, peaches, and coffee...yum! After breakfast, we grabbed our Florence map and headed towards the Uffizi Gallery to see some amazing artwork. The concierge at the hotel was nice enough to make us a reservation. So, once we walked to the gallery we could spend our extra time taking photos of the square instead of standing in line. The gallery was very pretty. I was most excited about seeing Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera", as well as Titian's "Venus of Urbino" and several works by Da Vinci. I love Botticelli's work. He's known for his beautiful faces, and I can certainly see why. His paintings were even larger than I had expected.

Uffizi Gallery! They didn't allow any photography in the Florence museums...I wish we could have taken some photos...then I would have more to share with you!

After walking through the entire gallery, we were pretty hungry so we started looking for a place to eat. After browsing several restaurant menus, we decided to try a place called "Gusto Leo." Brad and I both ordered pizza with prosciutto, mushrooms, artichokes and olives. You hear about the great pizza in Italy, and all the rumors are true....real Italian pizza is unbelievable!!! The main difference is probably the fact that they don't pile on the sauce and other toppings. Plus, the ingredients always taste fresh and the dough is perfectly thin. When you have great, fresh ingredients, maybe less is more! I washed mine down with some "Coca Cola Light," of course.
Pizza "4 Stagioni"...our FAVORITE! I can't wait to share my recipe for this in the next post!
Once we were finished with lunch, we explored the city a little while longer and then made a pit stop at the hotel so Brad could leave his camera gear in the room...that stuff gets heavy after a while! Once we did that, we made our way over to the Academy Gallery to meet Michelangelo's "David" for the first time. Wow...he is A LOT taller than I expected! I guess I thought he would be more life-size, but he is huge! It was really cool! It blows my mind that artists could take a ginormous piece of marble and carve it into something so beautiful and life-like. Michelangelo's "Slaves" were also really neat to see.

Back in the hotel courtyard...

Next, we walked the streets of Florence some more. We loved simply roaming the streets - it was one of our favorite things to do in Europe if we had time. In Florence, there weren't quite as many things to see and do (say, compared with Paris), so it was a little more relaxing. We knew we'd need that extra energy for our next stop - ROME!
I love these cars!
This cute little dog was wandering the streets with a cone on his head...poor little guy!
This was on the side of a building...pretty funny!
A gorgeous wedding window display...

That night, we had dinner at a great little cafe right on a piazza called "Caffe Concerto." It's the oldest cafe in Italy. It was built on what used to be the Roman Forum...pretty neat, huh? The food was fabulous! I had the Gnocchi with mozarella and basil. Brad had the tagliatelle pasta - Bolognese style. Of course, we shared a bottle of red wine to complete the meal. There was a carousel in the middle of the piazza, so it was fun to watch that and all the people going by while we ate.
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
(Tagliatelle bolognese style)
Gnocchi di Patate alla Sorrentina Salsa di Pomodoro, Mozzarella, Basilico
(Potato dumplings with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil)

Next, we explored the streets yet again and got some gelato and some lattes/expresso for dessert. The gelato was divine...every single time we got some. We had a scoop of chocolate, coffee and tiramisu - perfect!

After dessert, it had gotten really cold outside (and late!), so we headed back to the hotel...we needed to get an early start the next day. Rome, here we come!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Daring Bakers Conquer Cheesecake!

***The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Before this month's Daring Bakers Challenge, I had only made cheesecake a few times. There's something about cheesecake that makes you think it's complicated. However, it really isn't hard at all. The trick comes in getting the cheesecake to be the perfect consistently, while keeping it from cracking. If it's over-cooked, it's sure to crack...be careful!

This recipe truly is delicious! It is smooth, creamy, and simply scrumptious! You can get as creative as you want with it. I topped my cheesecake with a simple blueberry pie filling, and freshly sliced lemon was the perfect finishing touch. I loved the color contrast of the blue and yellow on the top of the cake.

If you're a cheesecake fan, you've got to try this recipe!***
Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake:
CRUST:
2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
CHEESECAKE:
3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake

DIRECTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.

Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil "casserole" shaped pans from the grocery store. They're 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.

Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

EASY Spinach & Ricotta Tortelloni with Meat Sauce



Alrighty friends...this dish was inspired by my lunch at "I Ghibellini" in Florence, Italy on Day 10 of our European trip. I wrote about it in the post below this one.

I came across Barilla's Spinach & Ricotta Tortelloni in the grocery store the other day. It reminded me of my wonderful lunch in Italy, so I bought what I needed to re-create the dish. Although it was tortelloni instead of ravioli, it was still stuffed with ricotta and spinach...just like my yummy dish in Italy. This one was incredibly easy to cook...it was finished in a flash! The taste was wonderful. The main criteria was a meaty sauce that wasn't too thick. I think I achieved that with this dish.

If you need a quick, satisfying weekday meal...try this one! You'll love it!!!

Ingredients:
1/2 lb. ground beef
1 small onion
1 tbsp. parsley, minced
1 package Barilla Spinach & Ricotta Tortelloni
1 can Hunt's Tomato Sauce
Garlic Powder, to taste

Directions:
Brown ground beef in a skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion, garlic powder, and parsley to the meat mixture. Stir and continue cooking until beef is cooked through. Once beef is well done, add tomato sauce until desired thickness is reached.

Cook pasta according to the package directions.
Drain pasta. With a ladle, add meat sauce to pasta and mix together well, coating the pasta.
***You may end up with extra meat sauce. Save the left-overs...it goes great on homemade pizza or pasta the following day!***

Servings - 3

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Day 10: Florence, Italy!


Wow...Florence is beautiful! Our train arrived right on time and we caught a taxi to our hotel - Hotel Monna Lisa. It was only about 5 minutes from the station. This hotel was probably my favorite...it is SO gorgeous. As you walk in, there are tons of different "Mona Lisa" paintings. Each one is different from the last and some of them are very funny. We stayed in Room #43...it was beautiful! It had red fabric on the walls instead of wallpaper (very classy!), pretty furniture, a red/white tiled bathroom and a balcony that overlooked the gorgeous courtyard. The courtyard smelled divine as we walked through...even though it was cold outside.
On the train...Florence, here we come!
Our room at Hotel Monna Lisa...we loved this hotel!!!
The view from our balcony...
After we got settled in our room, we went down and asked the hotel staff where we could grab a great bite to eat for lunch. They suggested a place called "I Ghibellini." Wow...our meal there was incredible!!! I had a ravioli dish and Brad had the spaghetti. We were tempted to eat there a second time...it was that good!
"Bruschetta al Pomodoro" (toasted bread with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil)
"Ravioli al Sugo fiorentino con la ricetta della nonna Giulia" (ricotta cheese spinach ravioli with meat sauce made in florentine style)

"Pici de Fiaccheraio" (Homemade "fat spaghetti" prepared according to Siena tradition in a gorgeous sauce with onion, bacon and tomatoes)
Once we were finished eating, we went to the Duomo. There, we got a MAJOR workout. We climbed a total of 877 stairs! Yes, you read that correctly...haha. The first 414 stairs were at the Campanile, which is a beautiful tower that overlooks the entire city of Florence. The climb up the tower was actually a lot of fun, and the view was breath-taking...definitely worth all those stairs. At the same time, we were so relieved when we reached the bottom...the last thing on our minds was climbing more stairs. However, we went straight over to the line that we THOUGHT was for the cathedral. Boy, were we wrong! We bought tickets, got through the door and were greeted by a sign that announced we were about to climb 463 more stairs to the top of the Duomo dome. Oh.my.goodness!!! It was actually pretty hilarious. We had already bought our tickets by that point, so we sucked it up and started climbing. Brad said the look on my face was priceless when I realized what we'd done...haha. I'm SO glad we did it, though. During the climb, you get to walk around the inside circumfrence of the dome...for a close-up look at the dramatic fresco on the dome ceiling. It was awesome! The view from the top of the dome was even higher than the Campanile!
The Duomo...
The Campanile tower...

Climbing to the top of the dome...almost there!
The beautiful frescoes on the dome ceiling...
Inside the cathedral...

After all those steps, we were pretty tired. We looked around the cathedral and then headed towards a large market that we had spotted from the top. It was a great market - very big! I picked up a few more gorgeous scarves. The market stalls were filled with beautiful Italian leather goods - jackets, wallets, belts...It's all so nice!
Next, we strolled the streets of Florence a little longer and tried some gelato...YUM! That stuff is divinely creamy. It was topped off with 1/4 of one of the best waffles I've ever eaten...what a delicious combination. I had a scoop of chocolate, while Brad had the coffee and pistachio flavors.

When we finished up our gelato, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a few minutes and grab our coats. However, that plan changed a little...we fell asleep and didn't even wake up until 11pm! Can you believe that? We had done A LOT of walking and climbing that day! We slept right through dinner. We ended up grabbing a snack out of the mini-fridge (not the big Italian dinner we had in mind), but hey...it was still fun!
A pretty reflection...
Back in the courtyard that night...

We had another full day in Florence just hours away! :)