Magic mushrooms and minor miracles: Part I

Flashback: August 31, 2007, 11:45pm

There was much debate as to whether it would blaspheme that transcendent dish of trofie if we were to indulge in a final dessert course at Maccheroni - which would have been about our 7th. I was completely sated and would have been perfectly happy to slip into a food coma back at the hotel, but Jen was positively spellbound...

Seduced by the black magic, my little Butter Cookie was determined not to end the evening until we found another kind of tartufo: that which could only be found in the Piazza Navona at Tre Scalini.

Named for its resemblance to a black truffle, there are dozens of other restaurants with their own versions of this fabled dessert, but after having served what is dubbed as "the original black truffle" for the past 65 years, Tre Scalini has apparently mastered a legendary secret formula for these delectable balls of deliciousness.

How could I argue with that?

Despite the fact that it was only 400 meters away, the famed piazza somehow managed to elude us for an hour. But much like the truffle-hunting pigs of Provence, Jen would absolutely not give up until she'd found her prize. Unfortunately, unlike the farmers who accompany the pigs, I was hardly dressed appropriately in my 4-inch YSL stilettos.

Still, I managed to survive and when I finally hobbled through the right alleyway, we were rewarded by a gorgeous panorama of the piazza.

I swear I heard a choir of angels singing.

Even more rewarding was scoring a corner table at Tre Scalini where we promptly ordered the tartufo: chocolate-covered ice-cream bombs with whipped cream and a cherry center.  Almost as promptly, two Roman guys descended like vultures, eyeing us in much the same way that we were eyeing our tartufi. We could decipher very little of what they were saying, save the requisite bella, principessa, and Madonna Mia! that all Italian men are trained from birth to bestow on gullible American tourists. But after a sleepless night followed by a 9-hour flight and nearly 17 hours of walking, I wasn't feeling terribly sociable and I just wanted to enjoy my tartufo in peace.

Enter yet another Italian guy. This one, in an attempt to be chivalrous, asked if the others were bothering us and said something in Italian that dispersed them rather quickly. Probably something about us expecting them to pay for their own coffees.

I wasn't immediately convinced that our hero was any more sincere than the others, but since his English was actually comprehensible, Jen invited him to join us. Apparently his linguistic prowess came from living and working in Holland for the past 10 years which, whilst good for his converational skills, I found terribly odd. I mean really, what kind of Italian voluntary leaves Italy to live in Holland of all places? Surely he must be some kind of deranged pot-smoking deviant in disguise. Or at the very least, have a severely warped sense of judgement.

As the bar began to close, we stood to part ways and he asked for our contact details - which, again, I found odd since he was only in town for a wedding that weekend. Still, I was more than happy to give him Jen's information so we could just go home.

But alas, there is no rest for the wicked. The bar owner, who had been sporadically chatting with us all evening, invited us to join him at an outdoor club along the river. I was dying to go to sleep, but it was Jen's first time in Rome and I just couldn't say no to the girl who always said, "Yes!" to life.

And so, we continued our adventure...but only after scooping up every last bite of that amazing tartufo.

If ever you find yourself in Rome, put it on your list of absofreakinlutely-must-do's.

Tartufo alla Tre Scalini
serves 8

Admittedly this is a total shot in the dark as the authentic Tre Scalini recipe is, indeed, a closely guarded secret. But after compiling the elements of various recipes based on my recollection of flavors that have haunted me for the past 5 years, I'm happy to say that this one is pretty damn close.

Of course, it's pretty hard to go wrong with ice-cream, chocolate and cherries...

3 cups chocolate ice cream, slightly softened
8 brandied cherries
1 pkg. semisweet chocolate chips, 12 oz.
1/2 cup butter, 1 stick
1-1/2 cups chocolate shavings
Freshly whipped cream, for serving

With a larger ice cream scoop, carve out 8 "strips" of chocolate ice cream and round them into snowballs, working a cherry into the center of each. Set them on a baking tray covered with wax paper and leave in the freezer for at least 30-60 minutes.

In the meantime, use the top of a double-boiler to melt the chocolate and butter together over hot (not boiling) water, stirring until blended. Allow to cool for 20 minutes.

Spread the chocolate shavings on a piece of wax paper. Then retrieve your ice-cream balls from the freezer, making sure they are firmly frozen. If they aren't, stick 'em back in until they are or you'll have a molten mess on your hands.

Spearing each ice-cream ball with a fork, quickly dip and roll it into the melted chocolate before rolling it in (or sprinkling it with) the chocolate shavings. Put it back on the wax paper and return to the freezer immediately.

After they are once again frozen firm, cover each of them securely with plastic wrap. These can be prepared 2 to 3 days earlier and stored in freezer. Remove from freezer 5 minutes before serving.

Serve with freshly whipped cream and a striped chocolate wafer stick.

Obviously there's no culinary chemistry here that will miraculously alter the flavors much from their original state so try to use the best quality ingredients you can find. Whatever you do, I beg of you: do NOT use those horrific maraschino cherries that they sell in jars at liquor stores. Their day-glo hue comes from artificial coloring only after they've been soaked in lye to remove all of their original cherry color and flavor. Ick.

Luckily, you can make delicious, homemade cocktail cherries in about 20 minutes.

Brandied Cherries
recipe courtesy of Sloshed

1-1/2 pounds dark, sweet cherries, pitted
scant 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1 small cinnamon stick
1/4 cup + 1/2 oz brandy

Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the cherries and simmer on medium-low for five minutes. Remove from heat, toss the cinnamon stick, and stir in the brandy. Allow to cool completely before placing in a jar.

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