Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

Summer may be on its way out, but autumn weather brings a new promise of leaves to be peeped, apples to be picked and trips to the country in cooler weather. Whether you take to the road in your car, on your bike or on a train, a well-stocked picnic basket or knapsack is an ideal complement to the day.

With less worry about the summer heat and insects ruining your moveable feast, the thought of a cool-weather picnic is made more appealing thanks to the wide variety of single-serve wines built for portability and proportioned serving.

Single-serve wines are not a new phenomenon, per se. Certainly, small bottles, as one might find in a hotel minibar or an airplane, have been around a long time, but those tend to be glass, making them less ideal for on-the-go enjoyment, and they also require bringing along stemware for imbibing.

Novel packaging part of the single-serve wine game

Newer versions of single-serve wines have come to market in a variety of clever forms, leveraging unbreakable packaging materials like plastic and tin in portion sizes of one or two drinks. Often, the uniqueness of the packaging can be the biggest draw, because, with a few exceptions, the wines are mainly serviceable rather than spectacular — and at a price many will find too high given that, as with most mini or single-serve food and drink items, the cost per glass often outstrips the cost of an entire bottle.

Yet among these offerings there are those that don’t sacrifice taste or quality regardless of the sexy packaging. The versions detailed below represent a variety to choose from, many of them quite good of their own accord.

But first, a tip for buying and storing single serve wines: Non-glass packaging is not conducive to long storage times, as with traditional glass bottles. Tin and plastic can alter the taste of the wines if held long enough, particularly in fluctuating temperatures.

If you prefer to go with a total bottle experience, a variety of portable wine stoppers, such as the multicolored Rabbit Flipper/Pourer, are inexpensive enough to have on hand to re-cork that better bottle. And when you’re done, handy Wine Wipes purport to ensure your pearly whites stay that way, even after a couple of glasses of red (about $8 for a pack of 12).

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Bottles of FlyWine. Credit: FlyWine

Sofia Blanc de Blanc Mini: Dry but slightly sweet with good effervescence, each wee scarlet can comes complete with its own matching straw. While convenient to consume like a grown-up soda, the taste is better when decanted into a champagne flute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces. $18 to $20 per four-pack of single-serve cans).

Baby Voga Italia Sparkling: The chic bottle may call to mind a fancy hand-soap dispenser or bottle of perfume, but the single-serve sparkling wine has a solid, respectable flavor. Great to have on hand for those special occasions that may call for a toast but just a sip will do. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $6 to $7)

FlyWine: This line of Sonoma Valley, California, reds and whites under the monikers “The Kitchen Sink” “Fly Your Way” and “The Party Starter” respectively are packaged in glass bottles with a TSA-approved volume of liquid so that it can be purchased for in-flight travel. The wines are solid table wines without fanfare and though pricier than most in-flight options, they’re tastier too. (100ml, 3.3 ounces, $10 to $13)

Stack: So named because its Reidl-esque plastic glasses stack on top of one another, these wines come in Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet and Merlot. The white wines were quite sharp with the taste of alcohol, but the reds were somewhat better. While the glasses are adorable, the foil seal is very close to the top of the liquid so even when removed, there is little chance for the wine to breathe. It’s also a bit difficult to drink toward the bottom of the glass because of the narrowness of the mouth. There are better options at the price point, but those little glasses are cute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $15 per four-pack)

Steelhead Vineyards Wine for One: Available in Merlot and Chardonnay, Steelhead’s single-serve offering is easily the most elegant self-contained wine. The plastic wine glass fits over the plastic bottle, forming a seal that is twisted off, and then the glass is ready to use. Like other offerings, the wines are solid and not harsh — good enough for simple picnic or barbecue fare. (12 pack, 187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $49)

Union Wine Co. Underwood: Equal to two glasses, this slick canned wine is a delightful surprise. Easy to transport and easy to enjoy, this wine is not bubbly but simple, still wine. It must be said that the taste of the can is subtly present in the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and while the can is pretty cool, the price might be too much to pay for novelty when for not too much more you can get a pretty good bottle of wine packaged the old-fashioned way. (375ml, 12.6 ounces, 2 servings, $6)

Vini: Cleverly packaged as giant vials bundled together in packs of four to equal one bottle, Vini comes in red and white blended table wine. Single varietals are in the works. As with Fly Wine, this product benefits from being packaged in glass, which doesn’t compromise the wine taste. Certainly drinkable, the real appeal of this product is in the tactile nature of the container, which fits pleasantly in the hand. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $9 to $10 per vial)

Zipz: Shaped like a traditional stemmed wine glass, these plastic goblets are available in vintage year Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. The packs can be purchased as single varietals or mixed. Overall the wines were a bit harsh and did not hold up as well as the other single-serve options, but they were the most useful to transport and easy to drink. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $40 per 12 pack)

Main photo: Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food —  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.

Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.

This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.

The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.

The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.

Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.

The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Thirty seven years ago, I met a man on an island off Cape Cod, Mass., and we had a summer romance. We made fish stew and grilled local striped bass. We baked bread, picked wild island grapes and took long beach walks. And when the summer was over, I figured I’d go back to my life and he would return to his.

But it didn’t happen that way. The relationship turned out to be the real deal. Thirty years ago this month, we were married, and now we are back on this island celebrating those three decades together.

This island is a place that never disappoints. Every time we come here, I worry movie stars and politicians will have ruined the place. And although there is much hype and McMansions are now littered along some of the shoreline, this is still a place of pristine beauty.

So here we are again, cooking local seafood and taking long beach walks and early morning swims in the almost too cold ocean waters. This year there’s been a bit of a drought on the island, and that has translated to dry fields and spotty lawns. But it has also produced a bumper crop of beach plums.

Each year when we come here in late summer/early fall, I hunt the dirt roads and beach paths for the elusive beach plums. They look like a cross between an oversize blueberry and a black-purple grape. Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries and peaches. They flower in late spring and bear fruit in the early fall, depending on the weather.

They grow along sandy paths near salt water. They are often planted for erosion control and feed off of salty sprays and sandy soil. They are very sour and sometimes bitter, full of a crisp, distinctively fruity, almost earthy taste. They make terrific jelly.

The day we arrived, I walked to the beach and was shocked to find bushes bursting with fruit — thousands of beach plums. I ran back home and got a huge bucket and started picking. It didn’t take long to fill that bucket and then another.

Beach plum jelly a balance of bitter and sweet

Making beach plum jelly is a lot like making wild grape jelly. (In fact, the recipe below works well for both.) If it were a perfect world, I would add a lot less sweetener to the jelly, but the sourness needs balance, and I’ve found a mixture of white sugar and maple syrup works well.

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Beach plums. Credit: Kathy Gunst

This recipe involves several steps, but it is actually quite simple. The gorgeous deep purple-pink color and sweet, tart flavors are at home on the day’s first buttered toast or used to glaze a duck, spread on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich or serve as a condiment with grilled leg of lamb.

The jelly makes a wonderful anniversary gift. Like a long marriage, it is a great balance of sweet and bitter.

Beach Plum Jelly

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 jars

Use beach plums, Concord grapes or a combination to make the jelly. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed Mason jar for well more than a month or can be canned and kept in a cool, dark spot for up to a year. More prep time will be needed for picking, and cook time includes time to drain the cooked plums.

Ingredients

  • About 20 cups beach plums
  • 4 cups water
  • About 3 cups sugar
  • About 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 to 2 ounces liquid pectin

Directions

  1. Prepping the beach plums is crucial to good jelly. Remove all stems, rotten or moldy plums, or under-ripe beach plums (which will be hard and pale pink or red like a cranberry). Wash thoroughly and then measure the fruit.
  2. Place the clean beach plums into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Lower the heat and, stirring frequently, cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fruit is softened.
  4. Place a colander or sieve over a large bowl or pot and pour the fruit through it. Let it strain by gently pushing down on the fruit with a wooden spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. I let my plums strain all day, covered with a piece of clean cheesecloth to avoid fruit flies. It can sit for hours.
  5. When you think all the juice has been extracted, measure how much you have. Add about 1/2 cup sweetener for each cup of beach plum juice. (A half-cup will give you sweet-tart jelly, while 1 cup will obviously give you a sweeter jelly). I like to add a combination of sugar and maple syrup.
  6. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
  7. Reduce heat to moderate and let simmer about 10 minutes.
  8. Add the pectin and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 minutes to allow the jelly to thicken.
  9. Taste for sweetness and adjust accordingly. To test for doneness, add a spoonful to a small plate and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. It should be quite thick.
  10. Put the jelly into sterilized jars and refrigerate or process for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

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Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch and mix until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat.

Pasta lovers, save room for dessert. Pasta can be enjoyed not just as a first course, but for dessert too! Pasta as a sweets course may sound trendy, but Italians have been making all sorts of desserts with it for centuries. From cutting-edge modern creations to traditional almond-pasta pie from Emilia, there are hundreds of sweets made with every shape of pasta, from angel hair to ziti. Plus, dozens of dessert ravioli.

Modern pasta desserts

Want a change from the same old, same old? Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa is one of my favorites from the many modern pasta desserts in Italy today. Luca  De Luca and the team at the Garofalo pasta company near Naples taught me this recipe while I was in Italy researching my book “Pasta Modern.” “Pasta shells can be filled with almost anything: vanilla custard, chocolate pudding, panna cotta, semifreddo, sorbet, granita, whipped cream and fresh berries, yogurt and honey — there are endless possibilities,” Luca said.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” is a popular line from “The Godfather,” showing just how popular the Italian dessert is. As anyone who’s ever tried knows, making cannoli shells is a huge challenge. It’s hard even for the most experienced home cooks. But now there’s a fun solution: cannoli made with pasta instead! Mezzi maniche, “half sleeves,” or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. They are a perfect pop-in-your-mouth, one-bite size. The fried mezzi maniche pasta are even good plain! Toss them in sugar and serve them with melted chocolate or with ice cream.

Spaghetti Sundae, a really fun, whimsical, kid pleaser, is spaghetti tossed in melted chocolate and served just like a sundae, deliciously cold-topped with your favorite sundae fixings.

It’s so simple you don’t even need a recipe. Just melt chocolate with a little olive oil and toss it with cooked pasta. Then top with any of the usual toppings: whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles. Olive oil helps make the chocolate easier to melt, even in the microwave, and creates a super silky sheen. Olive oil also keeps the pasta from sticking together once it cools.

Fried pasta desserts

In Italy they have a saying, Fritti sono buoni anche gli zampi delle sedie — “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Pasta is certainly at the top of the list of delicious fried treats.

There are fried pasta desserts in almost every region of Italy. In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. It’s like a pasta cookie, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the center. In Tuscany and central Italy, they make a variation by frying thicker tagliatelle noodles nests, called nidi di tagliatelle per Carnevale. To make them, a few strands of fresh egg noodles are clumped into a little nest and fried. Since the noodles aren’t boiled first, only fresh egg pasta, not dried pasta, is used because it is softer. In Tuscany, the treat is created using chocolate noodles, made by incorporating cocoa powder into the pasta dough. The fried nests are drizzled with brandy-infused warm honey and topped with toasted almonds. In Emilia-Romagna, the nests are simply topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert ravioli

Almost every region has its own sweet dessert ravioli, tortelli or mini-calzone recipes, with variations in fillings and shapes. Too difficult for me to recreate, but delicious for you to try if you are ever in Italy, are the chocolate ravioli filled with chocolate ricotta mousse and served in fresh strawberry puree from Osteria Pastella in Florence.

Ravioli filled with pureed chestnuts, chocolate, espresso, rum and ground nuts, caggiunitte, are an Abruzzo specialty. Lombardy’s specialty pasta dessert is fried tortelli filled with either jam or chocolate. I especially like the earthy combination of pureed chickpeas and jam filling in panzarotti con ceci of Puglia and Basilicata. Usually, ravioli can be tricky to make, because you have to get the dough very thin and seal them carefully since they’re going to be dashed about in rapidly boiling water like tiny ships in a storm. But because these ravioli are baked rather than boiled, you can make them thicker and don’t have to worry about them opening. It’s an easy way to work with dough.

Torta Riccolina

Torta Ricciolina, or angel hair pasta pie. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Angel Hair Pasta Pie (Torta Ricciolina)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Baking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Angel hair pasta, seasoned with chocolate and almonds, bakes into one of the most unusual, delicious pies I’ve ever tasted.

To make this classic Bolognese dessert, you absolutely must use fresh, not dried, egg pasta. If making your own pasta seems daunting, buy ready-made fresh instead. Most supermarkets sell ready-made fresh.

This is a great make-ahead dessert, as it’s much better the day after, once all the flavors have melded.

Ingredients

8 ounces, about 1 1/2 cups, whole blanched almonds

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

2 ounces, about 1/3 cup, finely chopped candied citron or candied orange peel

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 pie crust, store bought or homemade

8 ounces fresh thin egg-pasta, such as tagliatelline or angel hair, store-bought or homemade

6 tablespoons butter, thinly sliced

1/3 cup rum

Directions

1. Grind the almonds and sugar in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Pulse in the zest, candied citron or orange peel, and cocoa powder until well combined. Divide into 3 parts.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 9- or 10-inch pie pan with the pie crust. Pot lots of holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork.

3. Divide the pasta into three parts, with one part being slightly larger than the other two.

4. Line the pie pan with the larger portion of pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the almond mixture. Lift the pasta with the tip of a knife so it is loose and free form. Do not press the pasta down. Dot the pasta with thin slices of the butter.

5. Top with another layer of pasta sprinkled with a third of the almond mixture and more butter. Repeat for a third and final layer.

6. Loosely cover with aluminum foil, bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking uncovered for another 20-25 minutes until the top is golden and the center set.

7. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the top of the pie with the rum. It will hiss and absorb quickly, with most of the alcohol evaporating, leaving just a lovely aroma and flavor.

8. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve, preferably after it’s rested overnight or for 24 hours, topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert pasta shells

Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

Chocolate Stuffed Shells (Conchiglioni dolci al cacao)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 24 large shells, serves 4 to 6

Use just cocoa powder for unsweetened shells that become a gorgeous reddish-brown color, or sweeten the cocoa powder with confectioners’ sugar for a lovely dark-colored sweet shell. Using a teaspoon, fill the shells with anything you like. Pictured here is milk chocolate and dark chocolate pudding.

Other fun options:

Ice cream, slice of banana, dollop fudge sauce and chopped nuts for a mini sundae

Ricotta, sugar, mini chocolate chips for a soft cannoli

Mascarpone cheese, sugar and drop of coffee for an instant tiramisu

Cream cheese, fruit jam and fresh fruit for Italian-style cheesecake

Ingredients

24 jumbo shells

Salt

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Fillings and garnishes: about 2 cups total of gelato, custard, whipped cream, fruit, yogurt, etc.

Directions

1. Cook the shells in lightly salted boiling water until al dente and drain.

2. For sweeter shells, put the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar, to taste, into a sturdy plastic food storage bag. Toss the shells, a few at a time, into the bag until fully coated with cocoa powder. For less-sweet shells, toss them in just cocoa powder. Fill with anything you like.

cannoli pasta bites

Mezzi maniche, or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Cannoli Pasta Bites (Mezzi Maniche Dolci)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Try this recipe once and, like me, I bet it will become one of your go-to desserts.

There are lots of ways to vary it. One of my favorite variations is to fill the fried pasta with mascarpone cheese sweetened with sugar and then dust with instant coffee granules and cocoa powder, for a riff on tiramisu.

Ingredients

1 cup ricotta

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped dark chocolate or mini chocolate chips

1 tablespoon minced candied orange peel

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1/4 pound mezzi maniche

Salt

Vegetable oil

Optional garnishes: chopped pistachios, chopped candied cherry or orange peel, cocoa powder or chopped chocolate

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a fork, mix the ricotta, sugar, chocolate, candied peel and cinnamon until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until very tender, about 1 minute longer than al dente. Drain the pasta well. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a very small saucepan until hot, but not smoking. Add half of the pasta and fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining pasta.

3. When room temperature, roll the fried pasta in granulated sugar, then fill each with the ricotta mixture, either using an espresso spoon or by piping it in with a pastry bag. Garnish, if you like, with chopped pistachios, candied orange peel, grated chocolate or other toppings.

 

Sicilian Pasta Chips

In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. Credit: “Pasta Modern,” by Francine Segan

 

Sicilian Pasta Crisps (Pasta Fritta alla Siciliana)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Twirled forkfuls of honey-sweetened spaghetti, crunchy on the edges and soft in the center — scrumptious and a snap to prepare.

Ingredients

1/3 pound angel hair pasta

Salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil

1/4 cup honey

Zest of 1/2 orange, or 2 tablespoons finely minced candied orange peel, 2 teaspoons orange blossom water

Pistachios, finely crushed

Ground cinnamon

Directions

1. Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the honey, orange zest or candied orange peel, orange blossom water and 2 tablespoons of boiling water.

3. Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a small frying pan and heat until hot, but not smoking. Twirl small forkfuls of the pasta, drop them into the hot oil, and cook until golden and crisp at the edges. Turn, and cook on the other side for just a few seconds. Drain the pasta crisps on a plate lined with paper towels.

Arrange the pasta crisps on serving plate. Serve warm, drizzled with the honey mixture and topped with a sprinkle of pistachios and a pinch of cinnamon.

Sweet Chickpea Ravioli (Panzarotti con Ceci)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 dozen

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (canned, or 4 ounces dry, soaked overnight and boiled until tender)

1 cup best-quality cherry jam

2 to 4 tablespoons sweet liqueur such as Amaretto, limoncello, mandarino, or a combination

Zest of 1/2 lemon

Honey or sugar, to taste

Ground cinnamon, to taste

1 egg

For the dough:

16 ounces, about 3 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons olive oil

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. For the filling: Process the chickpeas through a food mill until you get a nice thick, smooth paste. Then mix in the jam and liqueur to taste. Stir in the zest and cinnamon to taste, and then add sugar or honey, if you like. Once you have tasted it and are happy with the flavor, then mix in the egg. You can make the filling several days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. For the dough: Sift the flour, sugar and salt onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center. Heat the wine in a saucepan or in the microwave. Pour the oil and 1/4 cup of the wine into the well and incorporate the flour, a little at a time, until dough forms. Add warm water, a little at a time, if the dough feels tough. Knead the dough until smooth. Put into a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap.

3. To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Spread out a large clean cotton cloth onto a work surface for assembling and cutting the ravioli.

5. Leaving the rest covered, take a small section, about an 1/8 of the of dough, and either pass it through a pasta maker (#3 hole size, not thinner) or use a rolling pin to create a 3 to 4-inch wide strip of dough. Make just 2 strips at a time, so you can fill and cut the ravioli without having the waiting dough get dry.

6. Lay a sheet of dough onto the cloth and drop a tablespoonful of the filling on the sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Top with another layer of dough. Using your fingers, press the top layer of dough around the filling and using a ravioli cutter, cut out square-shaped ravioli. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough and filling.

7. Put the ravioli onto the baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes until golden.

8. Eat warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar or cold dipped in honey or mosto cotto or vin cotto.

Main photo: Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat. Credit: Osteria Pastella

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Cafe French riffs on Gout and Goutte: Bad Taste or a Bad Case of Gout. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: As a sensitive and hungry boy, I learned valuable life lessons from the classic series of children’s books by Howard R. Garis featuring Uncle Wiggily Longears, an elderly, kind and wise rabbit. In each illustrated story, Uncle Wiggily takes on the vagaries of life in his forest habitat and solves a social or personal problem within his community of furry critters.

I can recall one episode with gastronomic implications. As best as I remember it, a young squirrel or possum with a taste for candy gets a terrible tummy ache that Uncle Wiggily helps to cure. At the end Uncle Wiggily concludes, “Too much of anything is not too good!”

Mark Twain’s taste for whiskey

Uncle Wiggily’s lesson in hunger management is like a Hallmark card version of Mark Twain’s earlier drollery: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Truth be told, Twain’s version, despite wise Wiggily’s input into my early childhood development, comes much closer to the true “gastronomical me”: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good food is barely enough.”

Which brings me circuitously to our next Café French™ lesson: the curious linguistic connection between biological and aesthetic taste (goût in French, pronounced goo), and the ailment, gout (goutte in French, pronounced goot), caused by too much taste for rich food and alcohol.

It’s all Greek, Latin, Old French and Anglo-Saxon to me

The use in English and French of the same words — taste and goût — for both aesthetic appreciation and perception of flavor — is deeply embedded in our two languages. As Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker, explained in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), the English language  “… is a copy of ours in almost all the words which are not Saxon …”

The convoluted etymological links between French goût and English taste, and between French goutte and English gout, are no mere accident and took millennia to develop. Here is a cursory Café French glossary:

Goût (FR): From the Latin gustus, Old French goust = Taste. “Gustatory” in English and “gustative” in French come from the same sources. By the 18th century, goût was associated with aesthetic taste in France.

Goutte (FR): From the Latin gutta, Old French gote = Gout and Drop. It was thought as far back as the ninth century that this inflammatory ailment was caused by little drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints causing painful swelling — a theory close to the modern explanation.

Gout (ENG): Derives from the Old French gote (see goutte). Again, note Voltaire’s comment above about the origins of many English words.

Taste (ENG): From the Vulgar Latin tastāre and the Old French tast = Touch. The Old English smaecken — to taste — derives from the German schmecken, which translates as “to taste, try, smell, perceive.”

Paris taste and gout. Credit: L. John Harris

But why the same words in English, French and most other Romance languages for both aesthetic and physical taste? The complex etymology is well-documented, but I have not found an acceptable answer why our sense of taste — the human faculty least associated with art with a capital “A” (the fine arts) — is used as the metaphor for discerning, as Voltaire put it, “the feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts.”

Our other senses are, in fact, used in some contexts to describe aesthetic taste: You can have an eye for design and an ear for music. But you can’t have an eye for music or an ear for sculpture. Why then does “taste” apply so universally?

Is it because when we taste something, we bring the object of that sense (food and beverage) into the body itself, which, I would argue, renders taste unique among the human senses in being more sensitive? This is a simple explanation I can live with. After all, bad food can kill you. Bad paintings just make you sick.

Uncle Wiggily meets Voltaire in Paris

Voltaire’s ideas about taste emerged at a time when Paris had become Europe’s capital of le bon goût — in art, style, fashion and gastronomy — during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Ralph Lauren of French monarchs. The cafe had arrived as the chic nexus of good taste (both kinds) and the go-to spot for that new, exotic beverage — coffee. But cafes mainly catered to a small Parisian elite in Voltaire’s day. “Taste,” he noted, ” … like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls.”

Today, the cafe serves good taste to a much broader swath of souls; less privileged perhaps, but still human. So, imagine for a moment that Uncle Wiggily had ventured out from his forest to travel to Paris with a group of young furry souls — chipmunks, possums, bunnies and bear cubs. They are seated at Voltaire’s favorite cafe, Café Procope (established in 1686 and still going strong), happily nibbling on wedges of quiche and sipping cups of chocolat chaud. The elderly, kind and wise Uncle Wiggily Longears would, of course, be admonishing his charges in his best rabbit French, “Trop de quoi que ce soit n’est pas trop bon!” Too much of anything is not too good …

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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