Sunday, October 31, 2010

Banana Creme Brulee French Toast

First Sunday brunch as Mrs.

(Well, technically, it is the second as we had a lovely goodbye brunch with all of our guests last week after the wedding.    I'm not really counting it though as the first as it didn't require any work on my part and truth be told, I was physically exhausted.)

First Sundays call for something special.   I also have this philosophy that if you are good the vast majority of the time, every once in awhile you can take a little time out to indulge in something decadent.

John and I spent our first married Saturday Date Night on the couch eating a very healthy dinner of roasted sweet potatoes and broiled chicken thighs while watching the NCIS spook-a-thon (It is the one show we can fully agree upon, and luckily, it is always on).    It has been a long week.  

Time for a treat.  (Not of the Halloween Trick or Treat variety... that was last night too.  I should know better than to buy candy too far in advance.)

French toast is always a good Sunday option.    I wanted to make it a little more special than usual this time.

 John loves Creme Brulee.

 I love Bananas Foster.   (Check out this recipe for Bananas Foster Gelato that I must also make someday!)  

How about a little dessert for breakfast in the form of a modified  Creme Brulee French Toast recipe I adapted from Epicurious?

I am hereby calling this new creation Banana Creme Brulee French Toast.    It is definitely not your everyday french toast, but I'd serve it again in a heartbeat for a special occasion or when you just need a little something indulgent to end (or start) your weekend.    Super easy to prepare and to my credit, I did try and lighten it up a bit by substituting the skim milk and adding some fruit and nuts.

I made it in the morning and therefore did not let it soak the originally required eight plus hours, but it turned out perfect anyway.    Light, sweet, custardy and filled with banana almondy custardy brown sugary goodness.    No need for syrup with this recipe!    Rated "most excellent" by the taster.

Banana Creme Brulee French Toast

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 banana, sliced
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup of brown sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 cup of skim milk
6 thick slices of sourdough bread
1 teaspoon Cointreau
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 large eggs
sprinkle of cinnamon

1.   Toast almonds lightly in pan on stove.   They are done when you smell the nutty aroma, but before they start burning.
2.  Sprinkle almonds into 9 x 13 pan and set aside.
3.  Melt butter in pan on stove.   Add brown sugar.   Mix until combined and smooth.   When smooth, add in sliced bananas and stir another minute until coated.    Remove from heat and pour over almonds in the pan.   You will likely need to smooth it out a bit until the sugar mixture reaches all corners.
4.   Squeeze together slices of bread into pan.   You can remove the crusts, but I left on for extra texture. Set pan aside.
5.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6.  In a medium size bowl, add eggs and milk and whisk together until combined.   Whisk in vanilla and cointreau until combined.
7.   Pour egg mixture over the bread slices in your pan, covering equally.   Shake pan until mixture reaches all sides. 8.   Set aside pan for 30 minutes to allow egg mixture to soak in.   Dust with cinnamon.
9.   Place uncovered pan in preheated oven and bake for 30 - 40 minutes until puffy and golden brown.

Bon Appetit!    Wishing you a fabulous Sunday!  

Oh, and how could I forget, Happy Halloween!

(PS - If someone can educate me on how to add in the many accent marks I am missing on my recipe title, I'd be forever appreciative.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cloud Nine

I'm back.   And I'm married.   And it was absolutely the best day of my life.

I am still floating around on Cloud Nine.  

I really can't wait to tell you all about it.    I have so much to share and so much love to pass on for all of the wonderful people who made it all possible.     Sigh... I couldn't be happier.     And did I mention...  I'm married to my best friend?    Can't beat that.

I am so excited to share all of the fun details with you, but we have a few other things to cover first.     I do not want to keep you completely in the dark, so for now, I will just share one of my favorite sneak peak images from our truly amazing photographers, the husband and wife team of James and Jenny at Visio Photography.  

Wishing everyone a fabulous weekend!  

I am going to return to my cloud now.  

Monday, October 18, 2010

Italian Wedding Cookies

My little wedding ticker thing says I'll be getting married in 5 days.   Yikes.

I mean that in an "I am so very excited to finally do this" kind of way.    I am not good at waiting.   This last minute stuff is killing me.   I saved up a bunch of mini projects just to take my mind off of the anticipation.   I am very grateful that we have had a short engagement period.  

To say I have a case of anxiety right now is a major understatement.     Anxiety mixed with a sense of calm.   Up and down.  I'm even driving myself crazy!   Ugh... Saturday, just get here already.

When I get this way I need to do things to keep busy.     Lately I've been filling my time with some pretty intense 'last chance' workouts.   Ever since I brought The Dress home last week and it is hanging on my door I have been feeling it taunting me.   Come on... one more work out... you can do it...

Well, these crazy workouts are resulting in an injured knee, unexplainable lower back pain and now a weird throbbing pain in my left hip.    I have to cut back a bit and find another diversion to keep me occupied or I risk finding myself limping down the aisle.      Luckily, I love to cook and moving myself back into the kitchen is a welcome reprieve (although I realize counterproductive in terms of The Dress, but that's besides the point).

I vowed that October would be the launch of wedding month here on Vita Nostra.   Then I realized I probably should not write too much about it or I'll give all the good stuff away in advance of the wedding.   So I will be keeping it a little intentionally vague for now, filling this space with little hints of what is to come.

Today I give you Italian Wedding Cookies.    We had these every Christmas when I was growing up.    Batches stacked up in containers kept cool in the frigid garage (winter in New Hampshire = lots of free refrigeration in unexpected spots) throughout the month of December.    

Powdery simple sweetness in a buttery shortbready (not too sweet) way.  (Warning: Addictive)

I tried to get my dad to find my mother's recipe, but no luck.   This one, on was perfect in a pinch.   The only thing I changed was a slight reduction in salt.  I will definitely be using this recipe again.   As far as baking goes, this is really simple and they are fun to make.   You could easily go a little haywire with the powdered sugar though, so be careful or you'll be finding it in some very unexpected locations around your kitchen.   Not that this happened to me or anything ...

Italian Wedding Cookies

1 and a 1/2 cups unsalted butter
3/4 cup powered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups finely ground almonds
4 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all purpose flour
Lots of extra powdered sugar for rolling

1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.  Add butter and powdered sugar to large bowl.   Cream together.   Add salt.   Beat everything with a hand mixer (if available) until light and fluffy.    
3.  Add almonds and vanilla extract.   Mix.   (Note - if you are not able to purchase ground almonds, just do it yourself.    Buy the slivered ones and run them through your blender for a minute or two.)

4.  Gradually blend in flour until well mixed.
5.  Use one teaspoon of dough for each cookie.    Shape with your hand into a round ball, crescent, or any other shape that you find appealing.   Place on ungreased cookie sheet.   You can place these fairly close together as they do not spread.

6.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.    Remove before browning.   The color of the cookie should remain light, but should be firm to the touch.    I did mine for 16 minutes per batch.
7.  Remove from sheet and let cool for 2 to 3 minutes.    Roll each cookie in powdered sugar until fully coated.   Set aside for further cooling.


And that's my little hint for today of things to come...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How I Decided Where to Get Married

I never really had big visions of my wedding as a little girl (or a not so little girl for that matter).    So when it came time to actually having to think about it and quickly move into decision mode (due to my amazing success at procrastination), I had a lot of catching up to do.  

I am also not what I would call a traditional bride, so holding a large wedding in my hometown or anything like that is not me and was not going to happen.   I do not expect anyone to understand that, just to trust that there are certain things in life that are important to me and this is not one of them.

My rapidly changing visions had me walking down the aisle somewhere a little more my style.

Put it this way, when I was in Italy, I had picked out venues in Rome, Tuscany and along the coast.   I spent my mornings drinking coffee and dreaming of my grand, and yet intimate, Italian wedding.   It would be very me, a little modern, a little traditional, very italian (ok, so I'm not actually italian), a little regal and a lot small.  If I had one inkling of a vision when I was younger, it would have to be this.   I even picked out my italian designer dress (which truth be told looks nothing like what I eventually picked, but I was SO in love with it at the time).

And then I went to Paris.   Where I spent my afternoons drinking tea with lots of milk and cute little brown sugar cubes, dreaming of a romantic Parisian wedding, filled with lace and gold and lots of pink.   My little French Fairy Tale.

And then, well,  I came home and reality sort of sunk in.   Visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head were replaced with the stark reality that I had only a couple of months to plan this little fairy tale of mine, and realistically, running away to Europe probably wasn't in the cards.   Sigh.  Sigh again.    It was a sad time.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into internet research.    We had a permanent date for quite some time.    Over the course of several weeks, we traveled to California, Maine, Nantucket, South Carolina, Arizona finally ending up with a swing through the North Carolina coast.   I could do that.   Water is good.   Close to home, but not too close.   Done.   For about a week we were getting married at the coast.    Beach houses were scrutinized, finalists prepared for site visits.  I envisioned our families bonding on the sand under large umbrellas, taking naps in the afternoon and grilling fun beach food in the evenings.     I even considered (briefly) going barefoot.

Another reality check when I really started thinking about everyone staying together under one roof for a week.   Good in theory.   Not so sure it would be great in practice, especially given my stress level during situations like that.    Back to the drawing board.

That's when it hit me.   Fall Wedding.   Why not the mountains?   Asheville?    The Biltmore?   Where John and I had our very first weekend getaway.   Perfect.

From this point on, it was actually quite easy.   We were visiting the Biltmore the following weekend, touring the various sites.   We saw the Butterfly Garden and Conservatory and looked at each other and knew we were done.    It was like the vision I never quite had.    

(Here's a few teasers...)

And that is "How I Decided Where to Get Married".    It took me awhile, but I think we ended up at the right spot, for us.     And now... the real fun begins...

I would love to hear your stories!   How did you pick your wedding location?   Was it like love at first site or something a little more practical?  

Saturday, October 9, 2010


This has been one amazing year.

I do not want to jinx it or anything.  I do realize we're not quite through.

A year ago at this time, I would never have imagined I would be where I am today.    If I am being very honest, I can say that there were moments in the last several years where I wasn't sure I would ever be truly this happy again.  Life is funny that way.

I left my job at the end of last year, got engaged on a surprise trip to Rome in March, packed my bags for a two month solo trip through Europe in April and am now in the midst of putting the final touches on my upcoming wedding at the end of October.    If I reflect back to a year ago at this time, I would never have imagined that life would take the turns that it has.

I am in somewhat of a reflective mode given the upcoming changes that are taking place.    This entire year has really been about reflection and the emerging theme of transformation.    Prior to this year, I always thought of transformation in a pure business context, never focusing applying the same principles to my own life.    My wake up call was three years ago this past September when I lost my mother to breast cancer.   Without drowning in backstory detail, I'll say that this experience was a defining moment in my life.

Everyone who has dealt with losing a loved one and going through the subsequent grief process will understand this journey.    Looking back, it was like someone threw my entire life up in the air, slammed it back down to the ground, shattering it into a million pieces and then walked away.    There was really no instruction book on how to put it back together.  

I do not want today's post to delve into the grief process, but rather to shed a little light on my journey forward.     I remember clearly one morning several years ago, my boyfriend, now fiance, sent me an email while I was on a business trip and very clearly articulated that I now had two choices, two paths I could take.  I could move forward or I could move backwards.   He gave me the gift of hope.   He also reminded me that life is about choices.

Truthfully, it was too early in the process for me to make any real decisions and I floundered for quite awhile.   There is temporary comfort in sameness.  There came a point in time, however, when I realized that something in my life was no longer right.

My mother used to always remind me to "Do what makes you happy."    I was increasingly feeling that I had strayed from this path and it was time, and I was ready, to make some choices to realign myself.    These choices are never easy.  In fact, they are extremely difficult.    Leaving my job was one of the hardest things I have ever done.    Leaving something behind that defined your identity for so long is very uncomfortable.

It was like a blank slate with no where to go but forward.    No risk, no reward.   I do believe in this.

Moving forward, making active decisions to change, to transform, is very empowering.

My trip to Europe earlier this year was a significant event in my life, for many reasons, but primarily because it served to create a bridge between where I was and where I am going.    Traveling alone gave me time to reflect, heal, and think about my future.    I'd be very untruthful if I said I had it all worked out when I returned home, in fact I had none of it worked out, but it did give me time to think and begin to move forward again.

I had serious plans to delve into my next big ideas when I got back, but for good reasons, this has been put on a temporary hold.   Conversations after my return home in June went something like this.

"When's the big day?"
"Show me pictures of your dress."
"You must be so excited."

Yes, I was certainly "so excited", but no, I had not completed an inkling of real planning while I was overseas.   So, just like that, my path in life took another turn.    The past several months have been spent planning our wedding, the details of which I'll be sharing with you over the next several weeks.   I am just going with the flow at this point.   I know now that everything happens for a reason and when the timing is right I will move on to whatever is meant to be next.

It truly has been an amazing year.   I want to thank each of you who have been with me on this journey thus far for sticking around as I explore all of these new paths.   Your support has been amazing and I hope that in return I can inspire you just a little bit to think about what makes you happy and remind you that you have your own choices in life when and if you find you have strayed a little from your path.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Homemade Pasta

And here we are.

Just like that.    October.  

All right.   So my question for you today is, have you tried your hand at homemade pasta?  

The mixing of flour and eggs and kneading and rolling and cutting by hand type all while making a glorious mess in your kitchen kind of homemade pasta?  

I'd so love to hear how it turned out for you.   But first, my story.

I grew up with my mom making fresh pasta at our kitchen table.   It was one of those weekend event things, usually in preparation for a dinner party with similarly Italian loving friends.    Or sometimes it was just for her family, when she wanted to give us a little extra special love.     It was always appreciated and I have fond memories of her having fun doing it, looking forward to the process and results.    I know this love for making pasta was amplified by many return visits to Italy, where, of course, they've got this down.

So by now you know that while I was in Rome, I spent a day in a chef's kitchen learning some tricks of the trade.   The highlight, for me, was making the pasta from scratch.   Despite having watched my mom do it, I never attempted it.    Fear, I suppose.   I know, dumb reason.

Our results from that class were so fabulous.   You could just taste the love mixed up in our dishes, made all the more better by getting to share them with new friends.  

With this as background, I decided to try and recreate my experience at home.    I have to tell you, I had built it up in my head for a couple months and I was pretty excited.  I had visions of delicately tossing the pasta by hand, perfect strands of pale gold, ready to jump into that boiling water and turn into something fabulous.  I had high hopes.  

First, I'll share the recipe.  Seriously, two ingredients.   Sounds simple, right?  

Fresh Pasta

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 cups all purpose flour, sifted first
4 eggs


On a cooking sheet, silpat type object or some other surface that is clean and can get a little dirty in the process, dump your flour into a small pile in the center.    Turn your pile of flour into a small volcano type object by making a deep hole in the center.   Be careful to leave a layer of flour at the bottom.

My Sad Looking Volcano

Crack eggs into the well in the flour.    With a fork, very gradually whisk those eggs into the flour.    Be patient with this process.   It is really meant to go slow with a very gradual taking of flour from the sides of your 'volcano' into the egg mixture.    Eventually you will get to a point where it the flour is incorporated and dough like mixture begins to form.     Keep going until you have everything incorporated.  I used my hands at the end to get everything in there.   It is also not an exact science, so you'll have to use a little personal judgment as to when to stop.   Don't let things become too dry (this is where practice and experience helps).

So now you have dough.

Dust a little more flour on your working surface and on a rolling pin and start rolling out the dough.    You can also do this in a pasta machine if you have one.   After you roll it out, fold it over and start rolling again.    Keep repeating this process until you achieve the right level of pliability (you will get a feel for this as you go).   When 'ready', begin rolling out your dough until very thin, almost transparent.   I found this almost impossible, so my advice is just to keep going and get it as thin as you can without tearing it.  

Do as I say, not as I do.   I wouldn't exactly call this transparent.  

When ready, you can begin cutting your dough into thin pasta resembling shapes.   I prepared for this by dusting my work surface with a little cornmeal and the top of the pasta sheet with a little cornmeal.   This will help prevent things from sticking.   Roll your dough very gently until you have something that looks like a jelly roll.    From here, you can begin slicing the ends off, each slice producing a new strand of pasta.    Cut as thin as you possibly can.   Once you have all of your slices, gently open them up and toss them lightly with cornmeal again and lay them out on a surface to rest.   Let them 'dry' for a couple of hours in the open air if you can.  

Comparing this to our version from class up above makes me giggle. 

Now you are ready to make the pasta.     Get some water boiling in a large pot.    Add your pasta to the boiling water.    Stir in a tablespoon of salt.   Stir often to prevent from sticking.   Taste your pasta after 3 or 4 minutes to see if it is done (it should be!)    Drain your pasta and use as you see fit!

Okay, having made this, I am now truly convinced that pasta making is an art that requires skill, practice and lots of love to perfect.  I now also understand why my mom got so into it.   She too wanted to reach that level of culinary achievement.  

She also had a pasta maker which I truly believe is necessary for my novice self.  I just do not possess the arm strength to roll out the dough to the perfect thinness.   I really did try.   And tried.   And tried.   It just didn't happen.   Our pasta was 'thick' and 'chewy' (not in a good al dente way).  

It wasn't perfect, but it was made with lots of love and determination, and this found its way into the end product.    Kind of like life, I think.    You get out of it what you put into it.  

And guess who's getting a pasta maker as a wedding gift?   Yup, so next time I'm here pontificating about homemade pasta, we may have a slightly different story.   Practice makes perfect, but I think strong arms, or a little machinery, will help.     I am very much looking forward to my next trial.

I'd love to hear your stories.   Successful attempts?   Not so successful?   The real question is... did you have fun with the process?