Caramelized Pear Upside-Down Cake

This week at Villa Via Sacra (Mount Tabor Centre for Art and Spirituality), we’ve been hosting Gabriel V Brass Ensemble as they participate in a-two week musical exchange with the world renowned Gomalan Brass Quintet. It’s always a great privilege and joy to “be in the background” serving these groups as they work hard to perfect their art, learning and discussing the music and seeking to bring it alive through both their personal and corporate vision. Music is a wonderful communicator — even though these groups speak two totally different languages, communicating has not been a problem at all. If you are in Tuscany, following the week of study with Gomalan Gabriel V will present a free concert at the Duomo di San Cristoforo in Barga, Italy on Oct. 6 at 21,00. We hope to see you there!

Benedictine hospitality is at the heart of our mission, and we enjoy “spoiling” the artists with great food as they work tirelessly at their art day after day. Pears are in abundance now in Italy, so I made this wonderful cake for lunch yesterday. It’s quick and easy to throw together, and the moistness of the pears doubled with the homemade caramel just begs to be eaten with a big dollop of whipped cream sprinkled with nutmeg.

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Caramelized Pear Upside-Down Cake
SERVINGS
8people
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
people
COOK TIME
45 minutes
PREP TIME
20 minutes
READY IN
1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter the sides of a 9-inch round pan with removable sides (like a cheesecake pan).
  2. Combine the butter, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small saucepan and heat to boiling, then remove from heat. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Arrange the pears over the butter mixture and press down.
  3. Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until creamy, about 1 minute. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until very smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle in the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt, and beat 10 seconds. Pour in the milk and beat just until the batter is evenly moistened, about 1 minute. Pour the batter over the pears, then carefully lift the pan and bang back down on the counter once or twice to release any air bubbles.
  5. Bake approximately 45 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean. Run a knife along the outer edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Place a plate over the cake, then flip it over to invert the cake onto the pan. Let the cake cool completely before serving.
  6. Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream sprinkled with nutmeg. Thank you to "Living Well Spending Less" for this wonderful recipe!

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Crepes filled with Zucchini Puree and Topped with Squash Blossoms​

I’ve had the great joy of working side-by-side with an Italian chef over these last few weeks. The other Sisters who have lived and worked at Via Sacra have also had the tremendous privilege of learning from her. Chef Laura has been so generous with her time and energy as we try to absorb all that we can about Italian cooking. Below is one of her recipes that she taught me this past week and I went home and made it for the villa. These crepes are so delicious and light! Chef Laura serves this as a first course at her restaurant, but we enjoyed it as a light supper served with a fruit salad and a tossed green salad on the side.

All Chef Laura’s recipes are in her head, so I tried to reproduce it here by just observing her. If the quantities seem a little off, just adjust them to your liking! We can still get squash blossoms in the market this time of year in Italy. If you have any zucchini plants in your garden, just pluck the blossoms off and you are all set!

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Crepes filled with Zucchini Puree and Topped with Squash Blossoms​
SERVINGS
4people
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
people
COOK TIME
5min
PREP TIME
1hour
READY IN
1hour

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. ​Make the filling: ​​​O​ver low heat, melt your butter in a saucepan and add the zucchini and red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally​,​ until both vegetables are very soft. Continue cooking ​until most​ ​all ​of the moisture is removed​ (the zucchini will let off a lot of water while it cooks).​ While the​ zucchini mixture is cooking, prepare the crepes.
  2. Make the crepes: ​In a blender, combine all the crepe ingredients​ above​ and blend until smooth. Let rest about 5 min.
  3. Heat a lightly oiled ​Teflon frying pan ​(omelet size pan) ​over medium heat. Pour or ​ladle​ the batter ​into the pan, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.​ Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side​ for 1 minute. Remove to a plate, put a square of wax paper on top and repeat until all the batter is used up. This recipe should make 8 crepes.
  4. Remove the filling from the heat and mash with a potato masher. Let cool slightly and add the cream cheese and stir until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. This mixture should be the consistency of pesto or a little thicker.
  5. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. (or broiler)
  6. To assemble, in one quadrant of your crepe place a heaping tablespoon of the filling and spread to fill that quadrant. Fold the crepe into quarters and place into oblong serving ramekins (2 per person) or a casserole dish. Repeat, until all the crepes are filled.
  7. Dot each crepe with butter and lay the squash blossoms over them to cover the crepes. Again, dot butter over the squash blossoms and sprinkle the grated cheese over the entire crepe.
  8. Place the crepes in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden, about 5 min. If you prefer, you can also broil them at this step.
  9. Remove from the oven and serve. Andiamo mangiare!​

Syrian Pita Bread

Years ago before pita pockets, as we now know them, had become so common and readily available commercially, they were a regular everyday staple in our home. We called these Syrian bread, because we had an authentic Syrian neighbor who baked it regularly for her household and taught my mother how to make it. I have many happy memories of helping my mother shape the dough into the round loaves. I loved watching these magically puff up into inflated discs in the oven as they baked; and then settle back down into their original shapes after they came out of the oven and cooled.

Always we would roll some of the bread up into towels while still warm; when it cooled this way it had a much chewier texture which I especially liked just with plain butter. However there are so many ways to enjoy it. Sisters particularly love it stuffed with fried or roasted eggplant and fresh sliced tomatoes, roasted onions, peppers, and zucchini or yellow squash slices, with a sprig of fresh basil.

Another favorite way we eat it is split in half, brushed with oil, herbs of choice, onion salt and grated Parmesan. Then baked in 400 degree oven for 5-10 minutes until brown and crisp. It is a fun bread to bake and a fun bread to eat in whatever way you like.

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Syrian Pita Bread
SERVINGS
6-8pitas
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
pitas
COOK TIME
5-7mins.
PREP TIME
1 1/2hrs.
READY IN

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl dissolve the yeast and the sugar in the water and allow to get bubbly.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the flour with the salt.
  3. With the machine on, pour in the yeast mixture and then the oil and process until the dough forms a ball.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it a few times.
  5. Form the dough into a ball.
  6. Lightly oil a bowl with olive oil.
  7. Transfer the dough to the bowl and turn to coat
  8. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  9. Take the dough and divide it up into 6-8 sections.
  10. On a floured surface, shape the dough into little flat circles.
  11. Heat your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.
  12. Baking the breads 2-3 at a time bake them for 5-7 minutes. Just till they turn a nice golden brown.
  13. Take them out the oven, let them cool and then ENJOY!

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Simple French Bread

This week took me back to serving at Villa Via Sacra, the home of the Mount Tabor Center for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy. What a blessing to be back in this verdant and beautiful area of Tuscany. This is the peak of Tuscany’s summer season when tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peaches and nectarines are all in abundance. After a busy summer of offering hospitality to various groups, the villa household has quieted down for a wee bit. August 15th is a national holiday for the Feast of the Assumption. We felt it was only right to celebrate this special day in true Italian style, which means pack a picnic and head for the cooler air of the mountains! We did just that: a simple meal of homemade bread, cheese (pecorino stagione, ricotta and parmigiano), meats (mortadella, sopressata and prosciutto cotto), some garden vegetables of cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, a bottle of red wine and a fresh fruit salad.

We enjoyed this fresh French bread with our picnic. Delightful to eat with cheese and meats or just a little olive oil, it requires little rising time, so it’s a wonderful go-to bread recipe that you can make and bake within an hour.

Andiamo mangiare!

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Simple French Bread
SERVINGS
2loaves
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
loaves
COOK TIME
25-30 minutes
PREP TIME
10 minutes
READY IN
1hr

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Activate your yeast by sprinkling it over the hot water in a bowl and whisk with a fork until dissolved and add 1 Tbsp of the sugar - let sit until foamy - about 5 min.
  3. Add the remaining sugar (3 Tbsp) and then the flour a cup at a time, mixing in as you go (you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for this step, if you'd like). Add the salt at some point along the way. Stop adding the flour if your dough is no longer sticky.
  4. When the dough no longer sticks to the side of the bowl, turn the dough out onto your counter and divide into two balls.
  5. Using the palm of your hand to kneed out any air bubbles, roll the dough into two long loaves.
  6. Let rise slightly (about 10 min.) and brush with the egg-wash.
  7. Bake for 25-30 min, or until golden or reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees.
  8. This recipe can also be used to make nice breadsticks.

Hummingbird Cake

I was recently introduced to this classic southern cake through one of my friends from the Deep South. I was intrigued by the name as my mom keeps a dish of grape jelly on her porch to attract hummingbirds and has regular visitors. The Hummingbird Cake is a very unusual one; it’s made with oil rather than butter, and contains more fruit than flour. The mix doesn’t need beating, is wonderful with a cream cheese frosting, and is flavored with interesting spices and pecans. Contrary to the name, there are no birds in this particular recipe! The giveaway to the Hummingbird Cake’s birthplace, however, is in the key ingredients – bananas and pineapple. It’s thought to have been invented in Jamaica, probably in the late ‘60s, and introduced to society through Southern Living magazine by a Mrs. L.H. Wiggin in 1978.

Since it’s a dessert made for ladies, we thought it would be a crowd pleasing addition to our weekly Harborside Teas. We always offer two choices of dessert, and it was fun to have a whole new recipe and an unusual one at that. It was so popular that we thought it warranted giving away the recipe. A thin slice will do you – this cake is rich!  And oh, so good…

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Hummingbird Cake
SERVINGS
12people
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
people
COOK TIME
25 minutes
PREP TIME
15 minutes
READY IN
1 1/2 hrs (with cooling time)

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Prepare three 9-inch cake pans by spraying with baking spray or buttering and lightly flouring.
  2. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and ground cinnamon in a large bowl. Set aside.
  3. Cream together the eggs, oil, vanilla extract, pineapple, mashed bananas, and finely chopped pecans in another large bowl.
  4. Stir the egg mixture into the flour mixture until just combined. Evenly divide the batter between the three prepared pans and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
  5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Turn cakes onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before frosting with cream cheese frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
  1. Cream the cream cheese with an electric mixer.
  2. Add in butter and cream together with cream cheese until light and fluffy.
  3. Add confectioners’ sugar, ½ cup at a time. After each cup has been incorporated, turn the mixer onto the highest speed setting and for about 10 seconds to lighten the frosting.
  4. Add in vanilla and cream until well-blended, light and fluffy.

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Raspberry Peach Upside-down Cake

Every year after school is out, our young community teenage girls have a 3-week “summer camp” with several of our Sisters. This year they went to New Hampshire for the event.
They were very excited and eagerly looking forward to the many activities ahead of them: lots of time out of doors, hiking, swimming, boating and gardening. I knew that nature crafts would be a part of their learning experiences, and also that there would be indoor activities such as housekeeping and of course, some cooking. I made them promise me that they would surprise me by making something new and different from any of their old standbys. They did not let me down, but kept their promise and came up with this scrumptious, raspberry peach upside down cake, inspired by a raspberry picking event that none of us knew would be happening before they went to camp. I could not have been more pleased!
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Raspberry Peach Upside-down Cake
SERVINGS
10-12people
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
people
COOK TIME
50-55minutes
PREP TIME
30 minutes
READY IN
80-85 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Slice peaches. Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  3. Place 6 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat until melted then add brown sugar and cook until both are combined and melted, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Approximately 8-10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  4. Arrange peach slices in a circular pattern (overlapping if needed) in skillet on top of sugar. Add raspberries in areas not covered with peaches. Set aside.
  5. Cream together vanilla, 6 tablespoons butter and 1 cup sugar until creamy. Add eggs and beat until the yellow disappears. Add sour cream and blend.
  6. On low speed, add flour mixture and beat just until combined stopping to scrape the sides a few times. Pour batter onto peaches and smooth out to the edges.
  7. Bake 40-45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
  8. Run a knife around the edges to release and invert onto a cake plate allowing the cake to cool another 10 minutes. Serve with fresh whipped cream.

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