The tenacity of Winter & a Recipe…

Winter seems determined to hang onto the northern hemisphere this year!  Venice was the recipient of a surprise snowstorm yesterday.  San Marco (above) always looks lovely, but I’m sorry I missed it before the footprints marred the pristine white surface.  Two weeks ago, San Marco was thronged with Carnevale revelers!  Now it’s a deserted landscape, which is the way I like it, to be honest.

My workplace, the Hospital SS Giovanni e Paolo (below) is arguably the most beautiful hospital in the world, having originally been built as a guildhall and art academy.

But it has been a mess.  These are regions that rarely see snow and temperatures this low.  There are nationwide disruptions to rail services as a lack of defrosting equipment on the tracks meant workers having to clear snow and ice by hand.  A few hardy gondoliers were clearing snow off their vessels this morning, but I doubt they will have too much business until it warms up.

The storm has been dubbed the Beast of the East as it plowed across Europe from Siberia.  Ten deaths have been attributed to the weather in the UK, nine in Poland, two in Spain, one in Italy, with a total of 24 across Europe so far.  Temperatures fell as low as -24C in parts of Germany and -29C in Estonia.  There was some hilarious video of priests in Naples having a snowball fight.

My friend TC in Tuscany also got snow, both at her home in Montecatini and her son’s home in nearby Firenze.  It won’t last, of course, but the concern is any damage the cold might inflict on the nascent grape and olive buds.  Another friend, KS, was in London, and got stranded there for an extra day due to the flight delays from the snow.

The chill was a good excuse for some comfort food, so I used half of a large loaf of bread and some lovely mushrooms to make a savory bread pudding.  Loaded with herbs, Grana Padano cheese, leeks and garlic, it was hearty enough as a main dish when paired with a salad.  It’s a very simple recipe:

3 cups heaped with 1/2-inch bread cubes (about 250 grams or 6 ounces)
1-2 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 teaspoon butter, plus more for the baking dish
1 large chopped leek (or white or yellow onion)
1-3 medium garlic clove, minced
250 grams/8 ounces mushrooms, cut into pieces about the same size as the bread cubes
1 splash white vermouth, about 30 ml/2 tablespoons
2 healthy pinches of chopped fresh marjoram leaves or other herbs
2 large eggs
175 ml (3/4 cup) heavy cream or half-and-half
125 ml (1/2 cup) chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade
100 gr. (3/4 cup) shredded Grana Padano or other cheese, divided
Freshly ground black pepper

*Get creative with this dish.  You can add cooked cubed turkey, ham or chicken, use different cheeses, herbs, etc.

If bread is very soft and moist, place the cubed bread on a sheet pan and toast in a 350° F oven until somewhat dried, but not brown. (Alternately, you can leave the bread out to dry overnight. It will lose some of its volume, but that’s okay.)  If the loaf is a few days old, just cube it and set aside.

Set a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter to the pan. When the butter has melted add the chopped leek/onion and a good pinch of salt. Cook until the leek/onion begins to soften and brown a little at the edges.

Add the minced garlic and stir until it is fragrant, then add the chopped mushrooms. Cook and stir until the mushrooms brown and give off some liquid.

Add the vermouth and cook until the liquid reduces to a glaze. Stir in the marjoram or other herbs and check the mixture for seasoning, adding more salt (if necessary) and some pepper.

Remove from the heat and set aside.

Butter a 1 1/2-quart casserole or gratin dish.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs together with the cream and chicken stock. Add 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Taste the custard mixture and adjust the seasoning to your liking with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Fold the dried bread cubes and the mushroom mixture into the custard, pressing the bread down into the liquid. Let stand while you preheat the oven.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven. When the oven is heated, transfer the bread and vegetable mixture to the prepared baking dish. Press the bread down into the custard and smooth the top surface a little; sprinkle on the remaining shredded cheese.

Place in the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the top is handsomely golden brown and the custard is set. The baking time will depend on the depth of the baking dish you have chosen. Serve hot and make sure every diner gets a portion of the crusty top. Leftovers can be refrigerated, tightly covered for 2 to 3 days. (Great for breakfast the next day with a poached egg on top!)

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March 1, 2018

Oh, how gorgeous is this! Please write often. I love to read of life in Venice.