Doing the Happy Dance for Bruschetta

I realized today that, what with end-of-school chaos and a variety of other distractions, I’ve fallen a little behind in getting our weekly columns from The Forum posted here on the blog. So, this week I’ll be posting the last few for your enjoyment. Please let us know if you try any of our recipes, and the results you experience. We love to hear from our readers! :)

Featured in The Forum on May 13, 2014
There are few appetizers that make us happier than the ever-versatile bruschetta. Like, giddy in the heart, do a little dance, kind of happy. We love everything about this traditional Italian antipasto, whether we’re eating it or preparing it.

Bruschetta has been a mainstay in Italian cuisine since the times of ancient Rome, and its name derives from a Roman dialect verb bruscare, meaning “to roast over coals,” which refers to the grilled bread, or bruschetta. While many Americans associate the word with the common tomato relish typically served with bruschetta, the mainstay of this appetizer is the grilled bread, which can be topped with an endless variety of foods.

Recently we attended a party hosted by our friends, Jon and Nikki Anderson of Fargo. Nikki’s food theme for the evening was a “bruschetta bar,” which consisted of several different types of breads and crackers and an equally generous variety of toppings.

There was something so delightful about this idea – as guests we loved working our way around the table, sampling the different combinations and trying to choose a favorite. This was no easy task as Nikki is an artist skilled in several mediums, food included, and her bruschetta bar featured about six different toppings. But the one that edged out all the others for us was her olive tapenade, a Provencal dish consisting of finely chopped olives, olive oil, capers, and anchovies.

What made Nikki’s tapenade so memorable was her creative use of orange juice and orange zest in the mix, which brightened up the entire dish with color and a punch of flavor. We’ve added this to our own tapenade recipe, and it just made everything about it better.

Making traditional bruschetta (properly pronounced “broo-SKET-ta” but also called “bru-SHET-ta” in America) is easy. Start with a loaf of good, crusty French bread or other artisan loaf, and cut it into half-inch slices. Brush a thin coating of extra virgin olive oil over each piece and grill on each side for one to two minutes, until the grill marks are visible on each slice. Rub the grilled bread lightly with a clove of garlic and top with nearly anything you desire.

Grilling the bread is the traditional way to make bruschetta, and it definitely brings more flavor to the final dish, but you can also bake the bread in a 350 degree oven for about 5 to 8 minutes until it is a light golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside.

Inspired by Nikki, we’re sharing two delicious recipes to feature at your own bruschetta bar this summer. In addition to Tony’s olive tapenade, our second recipe is a variation of a recipe from my aunt and uncle, Jean and John Sherman, of Colorado Springs, CO, whose tomato bruschetta was a major hit at our family’s biennial Schmeckfest reunion last year.

Both recipes feature anchovies, which makes Tony very happy because they are also a staple in Sicilian cuisine. Anchovies are a terrific flavor-builder as they enhance the main ingredient with a wonderful layer of saltiness and tang, and used in small amounts you shouldn’t detect any fishy flavor.

The summer party season is about to kick off over the next few weekends with graduation parties and barbecues, and we think a bruschetta bar is a great way to engage your guests and bring them into the party. They might even reward you with their own happy dance.

Grilled Bruschetta

1 loaf of French bread or baguette, cut into half-inch slices
½ cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled

Use a bread knife to cut the bread into half-inch slices. Brush both sides of each slice with a light, even coating of extra virgin olive oil. Place on a hot grill (direct, high heat) for approximately one minute per side, until golden brown, with some char marks on the edges and center.

Remove from the grill and lightly rub the clove of garlic over one side of each slice.

Tony’s Green Olive Tapenade
Tomato Anchovy Bruschetta Topping

GooGoo’s Baked Ham & Other Easter Menu Ideas

This week we’re excited to conclude our three-part Easter menu series with a recipe for baked ham from my great-grandmother, Florence Murphy, aka GooGoo.

GooGoo died before I was born, but her ham recipe has been a holiday staple in our family since I can remember, first at my grandmother’s Easter table, and then at my mother’s.

The torch has been passed this year, and I will be making the Easter ham for our family’s celebration on Sunday. I was grateful to be able to test out GooGoo’s recipe in advance for our photo shoot, and am happy to report that the process was one-hundred percent pain-free.

Aside from tradition and the general ease of preparing this ham for baking, there are several things I like about GooGoo’s recipe. Just minutes after I placed the ham in the oven, my kitchen smelled heavenly. Tony came home about fifteen minutes after the ham went in and practically swooned with delight. Seriously, he was almost weak in the knees – reason enough to make this ham again. And again, and again.

But my favorite discovery was that this is the perfect recipe to make with kids. From studding the ham with cloves, to preparing the paste and basting it as it bakes, watching the water level in the pan, and even whisking the gravy, kids can be a part of the entire process. If you’re a parent or grandparent, I hope you’ll consider inviting the little ones in your life to help out – I guarantee they’ll never forget it, and will probably even volunteer to help next year.

When buying the ham, I was confronted with the choice between a shank half or a butt half. (Yes, I know I just said butt. You can too – it will give the kids a good laugh.) Both were close in price and looked essentially the same to me, so I asked the friendly butcher at Hornbacher’s which one would be better. He explained that there are more bones in the butt half, and that the shank half, which was the slightly more expensive option, had just one bone and better flavor. I took the shank half.

Ham comes already cooked, so you could just eat it straight from the wrapping if you like. But GooGoo had a better vision, as baking the ham intensifies its flavor. GooGoo’s recipe is delicious, straightforward, easy to follow and practically foolproof. The one key to remember is to add a little water to the pan once the ham is in, which will help prevent the sugar from burning. I had to add a tablespoon or two of water several times as it baked, so be sure to check the pan often. This will be a great job for Gio.

We’re including GooGoo’s recipe for ham gravy today, so this step is important to ensure that the drippings can be used; however, if you don’t intend to make gravy it’s not such a big deal.

GooGoo’s ham is excellent served either hot or at room temperature, which means you can prepare it in advance for an Easter brunch if desired. But, if you do plan to make the ham gravy it is best to when made and served right after the ham is removed from the oven.

We hope you enjoy GooGoo’s baked ham at your family’s Easter feast, but it will brighten up your table even on a plain old Monday. I know it did for GooGoo. Happy Easter!

CLICK HERE for GooGoo’s Baked Ham RECIPE

Other recipes you might enjoy for your Easter feast:
Easter Egg Strata (eggbake)
Apple Sausage Breakfast Ring
Raspberry Friands
Honey Gorgonzola Hearts Salad
Apple Spinach Salad
Marilyn’s Easy Potato Salad
Easy Fresh Fruit Salad
Perfect Whipped Potatoes
Green Beans Nasello
Marianna’s Roasted Red Peppers
Prosciutto e Melone
Tuscan Bean Salad
Honey Mustard Crusted Rack of Lamb
Grilled Top Sirloin Roast
Coconut Macaroons
Flourless Chocolate Torte
Angel Food Cake

A Year of Food…In Review

It’s finally time to say goodbye to 2013, and although it’s been a generally good year we are nonetheless perfectly happy to see it come to an end. As former sailors (albeit on luxury cruise vessels), Tony and I could never really get comfortable with the idea of spending an entire year mired in the number “13.”

You see, every vessel we sailed on, with the exception of one, was free and clear of this number. Cabin numbers would skip from 112 to 114, crew and passenger manifests would do the same, as would dining room table numbers, muster assignments, etc. The one ship that didn’t follow this mariner’s tradition was plagued with a series of unfortunate events, and we were relieved that our contracts that season were on the shorter side.

However, many good things did happen this year, and we’d be remiss to send 2013 off without at least a little fanfare. So, here are a few of our favorite 2013 moments at Home with The Lost Italian:

1) Blogging is a fluid process, and over the past twelve months we have come to know our readers better. We know that you love chocolate desserts, as proven by the number of visits to the post “Classic (and Amazing) Flourless Chocolate Torte.” which is the #1 most-visited post on our site. This dessert is decadence at its most refined, and it’s also gluten-free which means virtually everyone can enjoy this chocolate cake. Cut it into slices for an elegant after-dinner dessert served with a lovely Tawny Port. Or, cut into small bars topped with a dollop of Real Whipped Cream and fresh berries, served with a glass of cold milk.

2) While you enjoy decadence, you’re also health-conscious, as evidenced by the #2 post on the site, “Tony’s Tuscan Bean Salad.” But don’t be fooled by the super-healthy nature of this side dish: with the right ingredients receiving an extra kick from balsamic vinegar, this salad is big on flavor and pairs well with seafood, poultry, pasta and even beef. It’s the perfect way to kick off your healthy-eating ambitions for the New Year.

3) Our #3 post for the year was for such a simple dish, but one that Tony predicted would become popular after enjoying it himself: Our “One-Pan Fried Egg Sandwich” was a post that surprised us with its following, but who can resist a recipe with good toasting bread, Canadian Bacon, aged Cheddar Cheese, sauteed Spinach, and of course, a Fried Egg? Not us, and apparently, not you either.

4) In the fall of 2013, Tony joined the team at KVLY-TV’s new lifestyle morning show, North Dakota Today, as a featured guest each Monday morning. This new experience is the perfect complement for his talents, and Tony loves bringing new recipes and food ideas to Andrea and Chris each week. What a fun new adventure this has been for our family!

5) Our #4 post in 2013 was “Thanksgiving 101: Turkey Day Tips & Guidelines” where we shared Tony’s Top Ten Turkey Tips, Thanksgiving Wine Pairings, Turkey Thawing Guidelines and a whole host of recipes perfect for this harvest holiday. We received a terrific amount of questions over this holiday, with many of them focused on our recipe for Sarello’s Perfect Whipped Potatoes, which prompted us to create another popular post called, “Whipped Potatoes Q&A…”

Congratulations to Jean Eppler and her Cranberries Gone Wild Dip!

6) We hosted our first recipe contest last fall, “In Search of the Perfect Party Dip,” and with the traffic that has been generated by Jean Eppler’s (now-famous) Cranberries Gone Wild Dip, we’d say that the public definitely chose the right winner. We bumped into Jean’s dip at nearly every holiday party we attended this season, and we even enjoyed it on Christmas Day, with lime chips and a lime margarita, just as Jean recommends. Jean’s recipe has been posted on our blog for less than three months, but in that time it has catapulted itself into the #5 most-viewed page on the blog, for the entire year. Now THAT’S a winner!

7) Our year ended with our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest, our second big recipe event, and we were thilled to have three amazing recipes and heritage stories in the finals. Neither Tony, Gio, nor I were able to agree on one favorite among these three, and we were happy to turn the decision over to the public, who chose Astrid Axtman’s Great-Grandmother’s Swedish Spritz Cookies as the winner, making 12-year-old Astrid the happy new owner of a brand-new Kitchen Aid Mixer sponsored by Sarello’s. We are predicting that kids will emerge as a big trend on the culinary scene in 2014, and Astrid’s win definitely supports this theory.

8) Our theory on the Kids’ Culinary Invasion may be somewhat homespun, as our nine-year-old son, Giovanni, has really begun to come into his own in the kitchen this year. Last winter Gio and I decided to create our own recipe for meatballs, which we promptly named “Gio’s Meatballs.” We shared this recipe with our newspaper readers, and here on the blog, and Tony and Gio had a blast making the DEMONSTRATION VIDEO together.

9) Tony and Gio created another one of my favorite food moments from 2013 when they demonstrated how to make our family’s favorite holiday treat - Peppermint Bark - on North Dakota Today. You’d think the pressure of LIVE TV  might have gotten the best of Giovanni, but, as the saying goes, the olive doesn’t fall far from the Sicilian. Or something like that. :) It makes my heart sing to watch the two of them cooking together, and you can watch the video RIGHT HERE.

.At the start of 2013 this blog was just one month old, and our goal for the year was to double our monthly traffic numbers by the end of the year. The results are far beyond our expectations, as we have seen our web traffic increase more than ten times over from the first month to the twelfth, and we are delighted that many of you have chosen to interact with us either by entering one of our contests, leaving your comments for us, or emailing us with questions about our recipes.

We absolutely love having this opportunity to connect with our readers through our shared passions for food, fun and the good life, and we are so glad you have found us here at Home with The Lost Italian. We can’t wait to share our vision, and recipes, for 2014 with you, and wish you a very happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year! Bring on 2014!

Tony, Sarah and Giovanni, in the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

We have a WINNER in our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest!

Merry Christmas! We can’t believe we’re here already, about to announce the winner of our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest. Over the past month we have received 39 entries from 15 states and two Canadian provinces, and narrowing down our contestants to just three finalists was a difficult task.

Tony, Gio and I spent an entire weekend poring over each recipe and its heritage story to determine our top five favorites. We then made those five confections for a round of tasting by a panel of volunteer judges, who tightened up the race by determining which three entries would advance to the final round, where the public would vote online for the winner. We were relieved at this stage, as the three of us could not have reached a consensus on our own.

Giovanni was a fan of the Swedish Spritz cookies and was championing the only entry from a fellow kid in the entire contest…until he tried the chocolate-coated Joy to the World Balls, a recipe submitted by Donna Kelly of Provo, Utah. Donna’s heritage story pulled our heartstrings with images of faraway family members being comforted at the holidays by the familiarity of tradition. After savoring this sweet, coconut confection, Gio followed his taste buds and declared this decadent treat the (symbolic) victor.

My favorite entry was the Belgian Lukken Cookies, a family recipe submitted by Suzanne LaPalm of Oakdale, MN. I enjoyed reading her heritage story nearly as much as the wonderful photos she included. And then there are the cookies themselves, made with a special lukken or pizzelle press which we ended up buying so that we could make Suzanne’s cookies for the semifinals. It was worth every penny because these cookies are to-die-for. To me, Suzanne’s entry embodies the very essence of this contest, and her story and photos are evidence that this sweet treat will remain a holiday tradition for generations to come.

But, in the end, after four hundred and two votes were cast over two days of online voting, only one finalist could emerge the winner, and that honor goes to twelve-year-old Astrid Axtman of Fargo, ND, with her Great-Grandma Elsa’s recipe for Swedish Spritz cookies.

Of course, Tony claims bragging rights, too, as the voters  agreed with his top pick, but who can blame him? Astrid was the only youth to enter our contest, and she was competing against some seasoned competitors, as well as two food bloggers in the finals.

Before tasting the cookies, Tony was rooting for Astrid because he is a tender-hearted dad who loves to cook with his son. Spritz are an old-world favorite for many of us with Scandinavian heritage, but they were new to Tony, who kept poking fun at their name. But after Gio and I made our first batch with our brand-new cookie press, Tony knew he’d picked the winner. He loves a sweet treat that isn’t too sweet, and these Spritz cookies are right up his alley. Besides, who can resist a story with names like Elsa, Elvie and Astrid? Not many, especially in our region.

You can find all of the contest recipes on our blog right HERE. We wish to thank everyone who participated, either by sharing your heritage recipe with us, or by voting. Congratulations, Astrid, and Merry Christmas! We wish you a happy new year filled with wonderful goodies made in your new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer.

Astrid Axtman’s (Great-Grandmother’s) Swedish Spritz Cookies

My Great-Grandma Elsa immigrated to the United States (from Sweden) in 1920. She taught herself English by reading the back of sugar sacks and comic books.  I’m fortunate that one ten-pound sack of sugar has made an impact on the following generations. With that sack of sugar, my Great Grandma Elsa started a tradition of making spritz cookies, dying wreathed shaped cookies green, and garnishing them with red icing, or sometimes even sugar dyed red!

My Grandma Elvie remembers how these cookies were a staple around the holidays. As my grandmother shares, this was passed down and by the time she started making them, sprinkles had become popular thus the icing was replaced. My mother says they go back as far as she can remember; sometimes her mother would even shape them as trees.

Grandma continues to make them for us grandchildren, and that’s where I come into the picture. Even though I’m only 12, I have enjoyed learning family baking from my Grandmother. I would really enjoy making many batches of cookies with the KitchenAid mixer and passing on this tradition!

Astrid Axtman’s (Grandma’s) Spritz Cookie Recipe

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted flour (all-purpose)
green food coloring
red sprinkles

In a stand mixer or large bowl; cream butter. Gradually add sugar; cream well. Add egg, salt, almond extract, and vanilla. Beat. Gradually add food coloring until it turns a nice green color. Blend in flour. Once it forms a dough, put the dough through a cookie press.

Bake to a delicate brown at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Makes 6 to 7 dozen.