Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Levain Bakery

It has been a while since I’ve posted on this sad and neglected site and what better way to resume than with the best darn cookies in Manhattan! Heck, let’s just go for the gold and call them the best darn cookies I’ve ever tasted (sorry, Mom)!

And speaking of the best, I have a hard time labeling anything “the best.” Unequivocally once something is branded the best, a host of “the better” crop up. I should know. I’m a hard-core judgmental eater: never fully satisfied and always on the prowl for the Holy Grail of eating.

Without a doubt, however, I have never ever tasted a more perfect cookie than those made by Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I stand by my bold statement (and feel free to play devil’s advocate). My cookie monster husband and I both agree- Levain makes the most bang-up cookie in town.

Each cookie weighs a whooping six ounces. Though their choices of chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate peanut butter chip and dark chocolate chocolate chip seem limited, once you take a bite out of any one of them, you will crave anything but diversity. My Achilles heel is the dark chocolate peanut butter chip but all varieties leave their competition in the dust. Each are perfectly chunky mini-mountains of dough, slightly crispy yet tender on the outside and if warm, gooey (read: almost raw) and soft in the middle.

A Levain cookie costs $4 and worth every cent, ample enough to satiate even the most consummate sweet tooth.

The bakery itself is a petite and uber-French-looking subterranean hole-in-the-wall on 74th and Amsterdam. The sweet aroma of chocolate morsels, decadently fresh baked bread, baked jelly doughnuts, scones, and cinnamon brioche wafts onto the street level, making it difficult for anyone, even exclusive salt lovers, to resist.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tony Danza’s Sunday Sauce with Meatballs

Last year I became a very fortunate fan-girl when I was asked to interview Tony Danza, one of my favorite childhood television stars, for a holiday-centric profile that was never published. Since we spoke, I have made his Sunday sauce with meatballs countless times.

With his son Marc, he wrote the adorable, pint-sized cookbook Don't Fill Up on the Antipasto: Tony Danza's Father-Son Cookbook (Scribner, 2008) jam-packed with his beloved Italian-American family recipes. And I have to admit, Mr. Danza is one hell of a cook!

“Food was what we did in my family,” reminisced Danza. “We met over food, and not just during the holidays. It was always about food: what we were having, who was making what. I had a real Italian upbringing: my grandfather made wine, my grandmother made homemade olives. And you never know what would appear in the Sunday sauce. I’m sure a pigeon or two made it in!”

The Christmas meal was particularly significant for Danza’s family, especially his grandparents. It signified their journey to the United States, their struggles, their successes and, most of all, their desire to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. “They tried to assimilate into the country and wanted to do better for their kids,” he says. “Christmas became a sign that they made it.”

Danza told me that their Christmases consisted of Italian-American dishes such as his family’s beloved lasagna, manicotti, an array of antipasti and very American roast turkey. He also gave me the recipe for his meatballs and sauce, which includes two ingredients his family used to make their holiday lasagna: meatballs and Sunday sauce.

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I tried the recipe. I guess you could say I was skeptical. I mean, isn’t this the man known for the catch phrase “ay oh- oh ay?” The sauce is cooked in the true Italian mode: low and slow. And with pork ribs and meatballs simmering in the red sauce for hours, the taste is deep, rich and complex. In fact, it may be the most layered, full-bodied red sauces I have ever tasted.

Sunday Sauce with Meatballs

2 cans (35 ounces each) plum tomatoes with basil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

Meatballs and Ribs:
1 pound ground sirloin or lean ground beef, pork, turkey, veal, chicken, or any combination
2 eggs
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pound pork spareribs, trimmed
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

1. Strain the tomatoes in a colander to extract the juice, breaking the tomatoes apart with your hands. Discard the pulp. (This eliminates the bitter part of the tomato.)

2. Now make the meatballs. Put the ground meat in a mixing bowl. Beat the eggs and add them to the meat along with 6 cloves garlic, the bread crumbs, salt, pepper, Parmesan, and milk. Mix this all together with your hands. Wet your hands with water and continue to wet them as you pinch meat from the bowl and roll into 2-inch balls. Roll the balls in the flour.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add 3 cloves chopped garlic and sauté until golden brown. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the meatballs and sauté over medium-high heat, turning them, until they are brown all over. As soon as you can pick them up with a fork, they are ready. You don’t want them to be well done. (If the meatball slides off the fork when you pick it up, it needs to cook a little longer.)

4. Cut the ribs apart. Sauté them in the hot oil until very brown and remove. Return the garlic to the oil and add the tomato paste to the pan. Cook, stirring, over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

5. Back to the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 4 cloves garlic, the onion, red and black pepper and sauté until the onion is soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the juiced tomatoes, red wine, Parmesan, and salt. Add the tomato paste and the water and stir together over medium heat. Add the meatballs and spareribs. Bring to an easy boil, then simmer over low heat for 2 hours.

6. Add the basil and simmer for 15 minutes more. The spareribs should be very tender, falling off the bone, and the meatballs should float in the sauce.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6.

Friday, January 1, 2010

French Lemon Tart

I used to cower away from baking desserts. With cooking, a misstep can unfold into a surprising success. Accidents in baking, on the other hand, yield unwanted trash weights. Searingly salty cookies and sunken soufflés weigh down garbage cans all over the world.

That’s why I always bypassed pastry-making. I was unable to handle the precision, an ironic turn for a type-A cook like myself. However, as of late, I have become increasingly drawn to baking. Blame it on my newly anointed sweet tooth, but sugar has wormed its way into my salt-encrusted heart.

So, when life gives you lemons, make French lemon tarts! This recipe, which I gleaned from, is as indelible and it is delectable.

The almond crust tastes earthy and buttery, which contrasts and balances the sweet and mouth-puckeringly tart lemon curd. Olive oil acts as a secret ingredient, giving the crust a complex flavor and crumbly texture and deepening the richness of the lemon curd. I recommend topping individual pieces with slightly sweetened homemade whipped cream. C'est bon!

French Lemon Tart
Updated from

For tart shell:
2 tablespoons almonds with skins, toasted and cooled
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg yolk
3 1/2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

For lemon curd:
3 large lemons
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 whole large eggs plus 2 large yolks
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

a 9-inch round tart pan with removable side; a small offset spatula

Make tart shell:
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees with rack in middle.

2. Pulse almonds with flour, sugar, and sea salt to a fine powder in a food processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) butter lumps.

3. Add yolk and oil and pulse until just incorporated and a very soft dough has formed.

4. Spread dough evenly over bottom and up side of pan with offset spatula. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

5. Bake shell until golden brown all over, about 13 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Make curd:
1. Grate enough zest from lemons to measure 1 tablespoon, then squeeze 3/4 cup juice from lemons.

2. Whisk together lemon zest and juice, sugar, cornstarch, whole eggs, and yolks in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil, whisking, 2 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove lemon zest and other lumps. Whisk in butter and oil until smooth.

Assemble tart:
Pour lemon curd into cooled shell and chill until set, at least 2 hours. Serve with homemade whipped cream.