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'Nonstop parade' taught Alexandra how to cook

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 8:41 p.m.
Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli
Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli
“Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook” (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $30)
“Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook” (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $30)
Leeks Vinaigrette
Jonathan Squire Fox
Leeks Vinaigrette
Baked Clams with Bacon
Jonathan Squire Fox
Baked Clams with Bacon
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top
Jonathan Squire Fox
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top

Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli is in her comfort zone when she's preparing recipes that stir memories of a family that loved good food.

The executive chef of two New York City restaurants — Butter and The Darby — and host of “Alex's Day Off” and “The Cooking Loft” on Food Network and Cooking Channel grew up in Manhattan with parents who enjoyed cooking. Her mother, a well-known cookbook editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, was constantly testing new recipes, and her father, John Guarnaschelli, a university professor, was a cooking enthusiast with a flair for Chinese food.

“I would say that it was the nonstop parade of cooking, eating and dialogue about food that led me inevitably toward cooking,” Alexandra Guarnaschelli says. “It was destiny with only one path to take. I'd have to say the day my mom made a cheese soufflé was pretty dramatic. I couldn't believe food could taste so good.”

While her mother's culinary creations varied according to her cookbook projects at the time — classic Indian cooking one year, Italian the next — her dad preferred making simple meals.

“Once, he made me steamed rice with tomato sauce. That was so comforting and simple,” she says. “He made salads a lot with fennel and mushrooms. He broiled steak expertly. I think he became an expert in cooking simple dinners quickly because we were always so hungry.”

Guarnaschelli shares her fond memories of her family and the food preparation she observed and learned as a child in her first cookbook, “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook” (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $30). She will discuss her new book and give cooking demos at two Pittsburgh area Giant Eagle Market District stores May 18.

In “Old-School Comfort Food,” Alex writes about the origins of some of her family's recipes, including Tomato Slices on an English Muffin with Cheddar, which her great-aunt Aggie introduced to her when she visited each summer in Newton, Mass., and they picked tomatoes together.

Her Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top is actually a Dobos Torte, a layer cake with a crunchy caramel topping that was her favorite childhood birthday cake. It's now the favorite of her 5-year-old daughter, Ava.

Ava has already taken an interest in helping her in the kitchen.

“She likes to chop carrots and mushrooms the most,” Guarnaschelli says. “She doesn't seem to care too much about what becomes of them. She just likes cutting them up. She also really loves to fry eggs. I am working on cultivating a love of food in her in a low pressure way.”

The food rituals of Guarnaschelli's parents — from her mother's homemade pâté, barbecue sauce and seasonal tins of assorted Christmas cookies to her father's homemade tomato sauce and spare ribs flavored with dark soy sauce, Dijon mustard and rice vinegar — were a major influence on her culinary career path.

After graduating from Barnard College in 1991, she worked with American chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione before moving to France to study at La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy. She later moved to Paris and worked as a chef at two Guy Savoy restaurants before relocating back to New York, where she eventually became executive chef at Butter and The Darby.

Besides hosting her own Food Network cooking shows, Alex is a recurring judge on “Chopped,” she appeared on “Iron Chef America” as a challenger and judge and competed on Season 4 of “The Next Iron Chef.” In 2012, she defeated nine other chefs to win “The Next Iron Chef: Redemption.”

With summer just around the corner, Alex offers a few tips for quick and easy meal preparation. She recommends the vegetable section of her cookbook, which offers simple recipes that are easy to make — from roasted Brussels sprouts to beer-braised carrots and mashed and oven-dried sweet potatoes.

She suggests setting aside a day or two each week “where you cook a lot and then cruise with the leftovers on days when you have less time or don't feel like cooking.”

At her two restaurants, where seasonal vegetables are a mainstay on the menus, she says “we're excited about spring and all the produce it brings.”

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Meida.

Alex's Lemonade Stand

Among several charitable causes that Chef Alex Guarnaschelli supports is one of her favorites, Alex's Lemonade Stand and its National Lemonade Days initiative June 7 to 9 for childhood cancer research.

As part of the effort, Guarnaschelli and fellow Food Network chef Melissa D'Arabian will provide kid-friendly recipes to volunteers who sign up to host a lemonade stand during the three days in June. Guarnaschelli's recipes are for Lemon Lime Lemonade paired with Ginger Cookies.

National Lemonade Days began in 2004 when Foundation creator Alexandra “Alex” Scott (1996-2004) set a goal of raising $1 million for childhood cancer research. Alex, who was fighting childhood cancer herself, invited volunteers across the country to host lemonade stands to help her reach the goal. Each June, the weekend before Father's Day, Alex's mission continues through National Lemonade Days.

“I think every child should have the right to grow up and become an adult. Alex's Lemonade Stand is an incredible charity. The story and its cause really touch my heart,” says Guarnaschelli. “As a mother, I can only imagine what it is like to watch a child suffer. This charity aims to end childhood cancer.”

To receive a Lemonade Days fundraising kit, registration required by May 31. Details:

Recipes are reprinted with permission from “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook” ” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.; $30) by Alex Guarnaschelli. Recipe photos by Jonathan Squire Fox.

Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top

The classic name of this dramatic cake is Dobos Torte, which is like a Hungarian little drum cake. At the end, after the towering cake is assembled, you pour warm caramel over the whole thing. It will dry and harden into a crunchy caramel topping, turning this drum-shaped cake into something that crackles when you tap the top. This recipe makes a layer cake into something reminiscent of a crunchy candy bar.

Don't be afraid of the caramel. Just cook the sugar over low heat until it is a dark amber color and pour it over the cake. The cake will melt a little when the hot sugar hits the frosting — that makes the cake slightly imperfect and messy, but it only adds to the charm.

For the Cake:

2 cups flour

2 14 teaspoons baking powder

34 teaspoon kosher salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans

2 cups sugar

6 large eggs

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

For the Frosting:

14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped (about 2 34 cups)

1 14 cups sugar

12 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

12 tablespoons (1 12 sticks) lightly salted butter, cut into thin slices

For the Caramel top:

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons light corn syrup

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans with butter.

Prepare the cake batter: In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until smooth, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture becomes fluffy, for 5 to 8 minutes.

Add the eggs, one by one, taking care that each one is thoroughly integrated before adding the next. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice, and then the flour mixture and mix until fully blended. Do not over mix.

Bake the cake: Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until the centers are firm and the tip of a small knife emerges clean when it pierces the center of each cake, for 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven, unmold the cakes, and allow it to cool thoroughly on a rack.

Make the frosting: In a medium-size bowl, combine the chocolate, sugar and salt. In a medium-size saucepan, bring the cream and vanilla to a simmer, for about 5 minutes. Pour it over the chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate has melted. Gently whisk in the butter slices. Set aside to cool.

Frost the cake: When the frosting is cool, whip it in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment to lighten it, for 1 to 2 minutes. Split each cake in half horizontally so there are 4 equal layers. Put the first cake layer on a rack set over a baking sheet, cut side up. Frost the layer and the remaining ones, stacking them neatly and uniformly on top of each other. Frost the entire outside of the cake as well. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so it gets cold.

Make the caramel: In a large-size skillet, heat the sugar and corn syrup over low heat until the sugar melts and turns a caramel color. Swirl the sugar gently in the pan as it cooks so it browns evenly. Take the skillet and pour the caramel over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides and onto the pan below. It is normal that the hot caramel will melt the frosting slightly. Try to pour it in as even and as thin a layer as you can over the cake. Have fun with it.

If the caramel cools before pouring, warm it gently over low heat to loosen it again. Allow the caramel topping to cool and harden on top of the cake, for at least 5 to 10 minutes before serving, or up to 1 hour. Do not refrigerate. Sprinkle with a pinch of Maldon salt.

Cut the cake: This is not a “neat” cake. When ready to slice, use the heel of a knife to crack the caramel top before cutting slices. The caramel can be a little uneven but people like it so much, it shouldn't matter. This cake is best served at room temperature.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Baked Clams with Bacon

“I am a big fan of recipes that require a little cooking in advance, so I can take off my apron and enjoy time with friends and family,” Alexandra Guarnaschelli says. “This recipe lets me do just that: The clams get prepped ahead of time and then baked at the last minute. Try it with mussels as well, for something a little different.”

20 medium littleneck clams, thoroughly scrubbed or all sand and grit

14 cup dry white wine

4 slices bacon, cut into thin slices crosswise

4 tablespoons ( 12 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 green onions (green and white parts), thinly sliced

2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

12 cup plain dried bread crumbs

1 small bunch curly parsley, leaves finely chopped (1 heaping tablespoon)

Prepare the clams: Heat a large-size skillet over high heat and add the clams in a single layer. Add the wine and cook until the clams open, for 5 to 8 minutes. Use kitchen tongs to remove the clams from the skillet as they open. Gather them in a large bowl. Allow them to cool for a few minutes and then twist off the top shell, leaving the clam in its bottom shell. Slide a paring knife under each clam to dislodge it from the shell but leave it inside the shell. Refrigerate until ready to cook.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the bacon: Rinse and dry the large skillet and cook the bacon in it over medium heat until crisp, for 5 to 8 minutes. Drain on a paper towel and reserve the bacon fat in the pan.

Make the bread crumb topping: Put the butter in a food processor and add the green onions, garlic, lemon zest and half of the lemon juice. Pulse to blend. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and season with salt and white pepper. Add the reserved bacon fat and the bread crumbs and stir to blend. Spoon a little of the bread-crumb mixture on a baking sheet and cook in the oven until golden brown and bubbling, for 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed.

Bake the clams: Remove the clams from the refrigerator and loosely mold some of the bread crumb mixture into each of the shells so the clam body is somewhat covered. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until the tip of a small-size knife inserted into a clam comes out warm to the touch, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and heat the broiler. Broil the clams until well browned, about a minute, watching them constantly so they don't burn. Remove them from the oven. Squeeze a little lemon juice over each clam. Top each clam with some bacon and parsley. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Leeks Vinaigrette

“I did eat this dish in a Parisian bistro. What a cliche, I know,” Alexandra Guarnaschelli says. “What remains the strongest part of this particular food memory was the unique texture of the leek with the richness of the chopped egg, the zing of mustard, and the crunch of bread crumbs.

“Leeks are under-loved, often used as a supporting cast member to give soups body and flavor. But they come to life in this dish, a celebration of their many inner layers, which are enhanced by a tasty vinaigrette falling into all those wonderful crevices.

“Cook the leeks ahead — they can hang in the dressing for a while in the fridge — and top with the egg and bread crumbs at the last minute.”

For the Vinaigrette:

14 cup Dijon mustard

Juice of 12 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon capers, roughly chopped, plus 1 teaspoon of their brine

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 tablespoon, plus 23 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small bunch fresh tarragon, leaves finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

4 large eggs

8 to 10 leeks (4 to 4 12 pounds)

2 slices sourdough bread

10 to 15 yellow celery heart leaves and 2 to 3 very yellow inner ribs, thinly sliced

Make the vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice and vinegar. Add the capers, caper brine and a pinch each of salt and white pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and then stir in the tarragon. Taste for seasoning.

Hard-boil the eggs: Put the eggs in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a single layer and cover them with cold water by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 8 minutes. Drain the water from the eggs and cover them with cold water to stop them from cooking. Swirl the pan around a few times so the eggs knock against the sides of the pan, lightly cracking the shells. It will make them easier to peel. Before serving, peel and finely chop the eggs.

Prepare the leeks: Trim the root end and slice off the dark green from each leek. Peel off one or two of the tough outer layers. Split the leeks in half lengthwise but not all the way to the end; the leeks should remain in one piece. Wash the insides of each leek thoroughly under running cold water, separating the layers. Leeks are very dirty and the slightest bit of dirt in the leek results in a mouthful of grit when eating this dish. After each leek is washed, do your best to close them up as if they hadn't been cut.

Cook the leeks: Bring a large-size skillet of water to a boil. Season it amply with salt and taste: It should taste like seawater. Plunge the leeks in the boiling water and simmer until a knife can easily be inserted and removed from a leek, for 6 to 8 minutes. The leeks should be tender but still retain their shape and not feel mushy. Use tongs to remove the leeks from the water and transfer them to a cutting board. Dry them thoroughly with a kitchen towel, cut them in half, and put them, cut side down, in a single layer on a kitchen towel. This drains any excess liquid. This is the most important step because water in the leeks will dull the flavor of the dressing and leeks. Refrigerate until cold, or overnight.

Make the bread crumbs: Stack the slices of bread on top of one another and use a serrated knife to cut them into small random pieces each about the size of a pea. Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and toast, stirring, until browned, for 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt.

Serve the leeks: Put 2 to 3 leek halves on a plate and spread their layers gently apart. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the leeks, taking care that the dressing oozes into the crevices. Sprinkle with some of the celery ribs and leaves, some of the egg, and some of the bread crumbs. Season with salt and white pepper, if needed.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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