Tuesday, August 20, 2013

BiCE's Schiacciatina with Truffle Cheese Spread

BiCE chefs Francesca Penoncelli and Mario Cassineri
Hallibut in brodetto di Vongole e Granchio, Cipollotti e Zafferano (Pan-seared halibut with Clam, Mussel, Wild Salmon, Shrimp, Chilean Sea Bass, and Jumbo Lump Crab in a Lobster and Saffron Broth).

Bistecchine di Vitello al Parmigiano servite con Porri Brasati al Timo e Granchio (Pounded Veal Medallions, Bread Crumb with Parmesan, Thyme Poached Leeks and Jump Lump Crab).

Bavette del Senatore al Caviale (Bavette del Senatore with domestic black hackleback caviar or Keluga caviar).

These dishes and more (like their extravagantly decadent cheese bar) I've enjoyed at BiCE. But when the opportunity arises for me to cook with Chef de Cuisine Francesca Penoncelli what do I ask her to show me how to make? Cheese spread and crackers.

Don't roll your eyes. These are both extraordinary--and all the more so because of their simplicity. Yes, I'd love to learn how to make many of their other dishes. But their Truffle Cheese Spread is exquisitely divine in its creamy richness and seductively funky truffle aroma--and the fact that it can be whipped up in minutes is compelling. The cracker, called schiacciatina in Italian (meaning pressed), is a warm  orange color thanks to the addition of paprika and curry powder, Audrey Hepburn thin and yet, even in its crackly slimness, full of herbaceous flavors. It's derived from the leftover focaccia dough made daily in-house, a simple dough that for the purposes of the cracker, doesn't even need yeast if you want to leave it out. My impulse would be to put it in, make some focaccia (or an ersatz pizza), and save some dough for the cracker.

Penoncelli, a 35-year-old native of Piedmont, studied culinary arts from the time she was in high school, interning at restaurants during summers. When she graduated, she hightailed it to Paris to work. Eventually the chef took a job with the BiCE group, which sent her around the world to open up restaurants. Four years ago she landed in San Diego with fellow chef Mario Cassineri. The two have been a longtime team with BiCE and when the restaurant chain wound up with financial issues and let go of the San Diego restaurant, they chose to go with the new San Diego majority owner. So, this BiCE is actually an independent local spot and reflects the tastes and culinary sensibilities of the two chefs. Sensibilities so good and so successful that they've been tapped to cook at the James Beard House in New York on Dec 19, coincidentally, Cassineri's 40th birthday.

While the outgoing executive chef Cassineri tends to be the face of BiCE, Penoncelli feels like the heart. Despite her reluctance to be out front kibbitzing with patrons, she works the kitchen well and, as I learned, is a terrific, good-humored, and patient teacher. Which is a good thing, since she and Cassineri have been holding a summer series of two-part cooking classes at BiCE. The final ones are  being held Aug. 24 and 25. They're interactive and relaxed, teaching basic techniques like pasta and sauce making in the first session, then recipes that incorporate them in the second, and each features four courses, including an appetizer, pasta, entree, and dessert, as well as a wine-and-cheese pairing demo by Penoncelli.

My little session wasn't nearly as comprehensive, but I got a sense of Penoncelli's teaching skills--and came away with some new skills of my own, along with a couple of great recipes. Which I share with you now.

The first is the Truffle Cheese spread. All it takes is blending about half a dozen ingredients in a mixer, chilling it, and serving.

Truffle Cheese Spread
from BiCE
(printable version)

2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
9 ounces ricotta
4 ounces marscapone
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon truffle oil--white or black is fine
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Blend together cream cheese and ricotta. Add marscapone, salt, truffle oil, and pepper. Mix until it has a fluffy texture.

Refrigerate half an hour. It will stiffen so you can use an ice cream scoop to serve. Place on a serving bowl and pour a little olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar around the scoop. Serve with schiacciatina or other crackers.

*Note, you can also add fresh chopped herbs, blue cheese, honey, or other complementary ingredients to customize the spread.

Below is the focaccia recipe, to which you add additional ingredients to make the schiacciatina dough--really just herbs and spices. While she bakes these, she says you can also take the same dough, pull it into pieces, stuff with cheese and then fry it. Penoncelli says that another way they use the focaccia dough is to make pencil-thin bread sticks. So, truly, this is a versatile dough.

from BiCE
(printable recipe)

Focaccia Dough

1 pound high-gluton flour
1/4 pound all-purpose flour
3/4 pound semolina
2.5 ounces yeast
2.5 ounces salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
4.5 fluid ounces extra virgin olive oil
25.6 ounces warm water

Mix the yeast and warm water in a small bowl. Let proof for 10 minutes (until bubbles begin to form).

In a large bowl, stir together the two flours, salt, and semolina. Add the yeast mixture and olive oil to the dry ingredients and combine. When dough has pulled together, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.

Let rest in a covered bowl for 45 minutes in a warm room. Then roll the dough and let it rest again for 20 to 40 minutes.

For Schiacciatina

Focaccia dough
0.4 ounces paprika
0.2 ounces fresh herbs (rosemary, sage, and thyme are good)
Fresh or dried oregano
0.4 ounces curry powder

All-purpose flour

Combine herbs and spices with focaccia dough in a mixer. The dough will be a little sticky. You can refrigerate it before using.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a sheet pan. Create a pile each of flour and semolina for sprinkling on the dough between rolling. Using a pasta machine or attachment, pull off pieces of dough and sprinkle liberally with both flour and semolina. Roll through the widest setting. Sprinkle again, reduce setting by one and roll again. Continue until it's so thin you can almost see through it. Place on sheet pan. When you have enough to bake. Brush lightly with oil. Bake about 5 to 6 minutes until crisp, but watch it to prevent burning.

Clockwise from top left: BiCE focaccia, focaccia dough, kneading the dough to incorporate the herbs and spices, focaccia dough with schiacciatina spices and herbs

Clockwise from left: Rolling the dough through pasta maker, the dough getting longer and longer, almost transparent

Schiacciatina rolled, oiled, and then baked

BiCE serves this duo daily, and it's one of their most popular offerings.

BiCE is located at 425 Island at 4th Ave. in downtown San Diego. Tickets for the two-day class series are $275 person; single classes are available for $150 per person. To sign up for the class, go to http://bicesandiego.com/events/cooking-classes-2013/ or call 619-239-2423.

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