La zuppa della strega e la festa della Befana

When Stefano was young, there were no packaged cookies, biscuits or other breakfast treats in his home.  His mamma, Maria, prepared everything homemade.  Breakfast was crostata, or rustic olive oil cake called pizza dolce, with a small glass of warmed whole milk darkened with a splash of caffè.

Some mornings, Maria would prepare la zuppa della strega for Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora. Crusty bread was soaked in warm milk, with a bit of espresso, sugar and sometimes cocoa to sweeten it a bit.  Frugality was behind this breakfast creation; it was a way to consume day-old bread.  But Maria made it fun by giving it a mysterious and peculiar name – zuppa della strega, witch’s soup.

Zuppa della Strega

Stefano has carried this tradition forth in the States.  On weekend mornings he’ll prepare a bowl of zuppa della strega for 8-year-old Luca, who devours it with the same delight that Stefano did when he was that same age.

Zuppa della Strega

January is the season of witches in Italy.  La Befana is a folklorish, witch-like old woman.  On the eve of January 6th, the holiday la festa della Befana, she rides on a broomstick from house to house and leaves treats inside stockings left out by Italian children   As the date suggests, this holiday has its origins in the Christian Epiphany, and it marks the end of the Christmas holiday.  Con l’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via.

La festa della Befana is even more eagerly anticipated than Christmas by young Italian children.  When Stefano was young, the Befana would leave him and his brother and sister home baked treats, clementines, sugar candy that resembled black coal, and sometimes a little bit of chocolate.  The Befana was a universal symbol for motherhood, and so after waking up and finding their treats in the stocking, Stefano and his siblings would give auguri to their mother, much like one would on mother’s day.  There was plenty of teasing about the Befana‘s homely appearance, too.

As has happened to so many holidays, la festa della Befana has become more commercial since Stefano was young.  Stores theme-based stockings stuffed with chocolates and toys have largely replaced the homemade treats of Stefano’s youth.

Unchanged, though, is the large open air market celebrating la festa della Befana in Rome’s Piazza Navona.  During the weeks between Christmas and la festa della Befana, the piazza is filled with stalls selling candy, toys, miniature Befana dolls and more.  There are amusement park rides, live street artists and more to delight young and old alike.  Whenever we are in Rome over the holidays we make sure to bring the kids for a day of fun.

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

Here, the Italian cousins enjoy ciambelle in front of Piazza Navona’s Fontana del Moro on la festa della Befana in 2010.

Piazza Navona Festa della Befana

Ingredients for zuppa della strega
Day old bread
Milk
Sugar
Cocoa (optional)
Espresso (optional)

Directions
Break the bread into small pieces, and place them into a small saucepan.  Cover then with milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat and transfer into a bowl.  Add sugar to taste, and espresso or cocoa, or both.  Stir, and enjoy warm.

Panpepato

We almost skipped our holiday baking this year.  Work and kids’ activities have filled our evenings, and we’ve kept so busy on weekends in December that there simply hasn’t been time.  We thought about just taking a year off – after all, there will be no shortage of sweets and desserts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when we are together with Cara’s family.  However, tradition prevailed, and this weekend we made small batches of our standby Italian Christmas baked goods: mostaccioli, tozzetti, salame al cioccolato, and panpepato.

Panpepato

We’re glad we did.  There is nothing better than once a year filling the house with the warm and delicious smells of Christmas in Italy.  Nuts, chocolate and dried fruit take center stage in recipes that have deep regional roots.  Our tozzetti, for example, are made in the traditional method of the Castelli Romani, with hazelnuts, almonds and brandy or Amaretto di Saronno.  As you move north towards Umbria, you may find fennel added, and as you approach Tuscany their name changes to cantucci.

Likewise, we make our panpepato the way Stefano’s mom does, with nuts, chocolate, candied orange peel, black pepper to give it some heat, and honey and flour to hold it all together.  This is how it is made in the region of Lazio, where Rome is located.  Interestingly, each of Stefano’s aunts prepares it slightly differently, perhaps because they all come from neighboring, but different, small towns in the Roman countryside. Some add rehydrated sultanas or raisins, others include other candied fruits, and some even add cinnamon.  They are all delicious, though.

Christmas would not be the same without the richness of nuts and chocolate, faint aroma of citrus from the orange peel, sweetness from the honey, and the surprising bite of black pepper in panpepato.

Panpepato

Ingredients
You will need a food scale

150 grams of hazelnuts
150 grams of sliced almonds
150 grams of walnuts
150 grams of pine nuts
150 grams of candied orange peel
150-200 grams (one bag) high quality dark chocolate chips
350 grams of honey
350 grams of flour
Black pepper to taste (we use about 1 dozen turns of freshly ground pepper)
Olive oil for handling

Directions
Grind the walnuts and hazelnuts roughly in a food processor.  Spread all of the nuts onto baking trays lined with parchment paper, and toast in the oven at 350° F (180° C) for about 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown.  They will smell delicious when they are ready, so let your sense of scent guide you.  Let them cool slightly.

Mix all of the ingredients together inside a large mixing bowl using a wooden spoon until the flour is absorbed and the mixture is sticky.  Apply a small amount of olive oil on your hands to help with handling the mixture. Using your hands, form 4 or 5 small panpepato mounds, and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

PanpepatoPanpepato

Bake at 350° F (180° C) for approximately 20-30 minutes, or until the outsides are toasted.  You may wish to lower the baking rack to prevent the tops from browning too quickly.  Allow to cool completely, before slicing and serving.  You can wrap a cooled, whole panpepato and store in the refrigerator or even freeze, if you wish.

Cannoli siciliani

“I can do it.   Just not yet.”

These words were uttered this week by a friend, in reference to the progress he is making in his tennis game.  What a fabulous concept!  Cara decided immediately that she is going to borrow that phrase, frequently.  “Of course I can do it…just not yet.”   Think of all the mileage one can get out of this statement!

Cooking and baking is sometimes like that. On occasion, we take on something difficult. We embark upon a new culinary endeavor, without knowing whether we will get it right. We accept failure and learn from our mistakes in order to acquire a new skill. Recently, we were unexpectedly put to the test in the kitchen. With perseverance and a bit of luck, the results were delicious.

It all started when a colleague said jokingly to Cara, “Come on…when are you going to make us some authentic cannoli?”   The discussion that ensued led to the revelation that years ago, it was because of cannoli that this colleague won the love of the woman who is now his wife.  It’s too long a story to tell here, but in short, he validated this woman’s desire to scour New York City in search of the best cannoli, while another man, his competitor for her heart, saw it as a complete hassle.

The challenge was on.  Could we make cannoli that would take him back in time to that day in Manhattan?  The first step was to find good quality ricotta.  Although sadly lamb’s milk ricotta, which would be preferable, is no longer available in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we are able to get some good quality cow’s milk ricotta.  the next challenge was to locate cannoli shells.  We were hoping to find small-sized shells in order to make petite cannoli, since a full-sized cannolo is quite abundant and rich.  However, we could not find any locally.  We did find Alessi brand regular sized cannoli shells, but they are a bit costly and we needed a lot of them.

“I wonder if we could make our own cannoli shells.”  In our collection of Italian cookbooks, there were several recipes.  It didn’t look too hard, and it really was our only option.  We would need cannoli forms, which we found.  On a Saturday evening we worked late into the night, Stefano rolling out the dough and cutting it into squares, and Cara wrapping the dough around the cannoli forms and frying the shells to perfection.  At first, the dough was too thick, and the shells came out thick and gummy.  Stefano rolled the dough thinner and thinner until they were perfect.  Taking only a few seconds to cook in the hot oil, they came out light and crisp.  By midnight, we’d made about 50 shells.

The next challenge we encountered was finding candied orange peel for the filling.
The woman at one of our favorite grocery stores told me that here in the midwest, it is available only during the holiday fruit-cake season.  Not to be discouraged, we decided that if we can make our own cannoli shells, we can certainly make our own candied orange peel!  Stefano took this task on, and it came out perfectly.  It’s a cinch – never again will we buy candied orange peel.

When all was done, we had 4 dozen of the most delicious cannoli, and we were quite proud of our accomplishment!  Stefano posted on Facebook that he must have married a Sicilian.

Ingredients for 2 dozen cannoli
For the Cannoli Shells
You can purchase ready made cannoli shells from Alessi, or make your own:
200 grams (just over 1 and 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
20 grams (about 1 and 1/2 tablespoon) butter
20 grams (about 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons) sugar
1/2 teaspoon bitter cocoa powder
2 shot glasses (1/2 cup) sweet Marsala
Sufficient peanut oil to fill a medium-sized saucepan 10 cem (4 inches) high.
2 eggs, beaten
Powdered sugar for dusting
You will also need a few wire cooling racks, abundant paper-towl, and cannoli forms.

For the Filling
Find the best fresh ricotta you can.  Lamb’s milk ricotta is ideal, but whole cow’s milk ricotta will work just fine.  Avoid the supermarket tubs and seek out a good cheese shop or Italian deli.
500 grams (slightly over one pound) whole milk ricotta
300 grams (approximately 1 and 1/2 cups) sugar
150 grams (approximately 1 cup) dark chocolate, grated or ground to a powder
The candied peel of 2 oranges (approx. 4 tablespoons), finely chopped – see recipe below  to make your own
15 grams (1/2 ounce or 1 tablespoon) pure orange extract

For Decoration
One jar of maraschino cherries, drained well and halved or quartered.
A few more tablespoons grated or ground dark chocolate

Directions
For the Cannoli Shells
Mix together the flour, butter, sugar, cocoa and Marsala until it forms a smooth dough.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  Pour the peanut oil into a medium sized saucepan, ensuring that the oil is about 10 cm or 4 inches deep, and heat the oil until sizzling, but do not let it reach a smoking point.

On a well floured work surface, roll out pieces of dough into long, rectangular strip about 2 mm or 1/16 inch thick.  Cut the dough into squares.  The diagonal of each square should be equal to the length of the cannolo form.  Wrap a square of dough diagonally around the cannolo form, so that two corners of dough meet at the top in the center of the form.  Dip your finger in beaten egg and seal the two corners together.  Using a set of kitchen prongs, carefully set the cannolo shell into the hot oil, turn quickly and remove it to a paper-towel coated drying rack once it achieves a medium brown color.

Once the shells are cool, roll them in a shallow plate full of powdered sugar, and brush the excess off.  Set aside to be filled.

Tips: We prepared four cannolo shells at a time and fried two shells at once, which worked well.  It only took a few seconds for them to cook.  Be careful to drain the hot oil out of the center of the cannolo form as you remove it from the oil.  Use paper towels to quickly slide the fried shells off of the forms.

To Make Your Own Candied Orange Peel
Choose two oranges with relatively thick peel.  Remove the peel and cut into thin slices.  Place the peel in a saucepan and cover with water.  Bring the water to a boil, and let boil for 2 minutes.  Leave the orange peel in the water and allow it all to cool.  Toss out the water, and repeat this process two more times in order to draw the bitter flavors out of the peel.

Remove the orange peel and weight it.  Add the same amount of water and the same amount of sugar to the saucepan.  For example, if your orange peel weighs 100 grams, then add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of sugar.  Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and it becomes a sugar syrup.  Add the orange peel and allow it to cook at a low boil until the syrup cooks away.  Be careful to not allow it to caramelize.

Dust a piece wax paper with an abundant amount of sugar (superfine baking sugar works very nicely) and place the candied orange peel on top to cool.

For the Filling

In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon to mix the ricotta, sugar, dark chocolate, candied orange peel and orange extract.  Use a pastry bag and a tip with a wide opening to fill the shells.  Fill the shell from the middle out one side, and then turn the shell and fill from the middle out the other side.  Dip each end of the cannoli in  shaved or ground dark chocolate and poke in a small piece of maraschino cherry.

Your cannoli shells will absorb moisture from the ricotta, so they are best eaten as soon after filling as possible.  They will keep several days in the refrigerator, but your shells will soften a bit.

Tiramisù al limoncello

The night before we flew back to the States, while we crammed things back into our suitcase hoping it would all fit, Stefano’s papà, Andrea, stopped by Nonna Pierina’s house and picked a crate full of lemons from the very prolific lemon tree that grew outside of her ground floor apartment.

Andrea sat at the little table in the kitchen and carefully peeled those lemons.  He wrapped the lemon peel in paper towels, packaged it carefully in zip lock plastic bags, and then added ice packs to keep it cold.  When we thought that nothing more could possibly fit into our suitcases, he came into the bedroom and presented us with these parcels of lemon peel.  “Ecco,” he said.  “Quando tornate in America potete fare il limoncello.”  When we got back to America we could make limoncello.  He held us to it, too.  He called us every day to ask if Stefano had bought the alcohol to soak the lemon peel in, until Stefano finally told him that he had.

We’ll be writing about how to make limoncello, the sweet, lemony liquor from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a little later this summer.  For today, we’re sharing with you a  variation of Italy’s most famous dessert, tiramisù.  We posted the original recipe, with espresso, brandy and cocoa, nearly a year ago.  This version, tiramisù al limoncello, is a rich and flavorful summertime adaptation of the classic recipe.

Take note – it is best when refrigerated overnight, so plan ahead.

This recipe is our contribution to Cooked in Translation, a new blog hop created by Sophie from the German Foodie and Pola from An Italian Cooking in the Midwest where readers from all over the world interpret a classic international dish through the lens of their own culinary tradition.

Ingredients
6 large eggs, with yolks and whites separated
200 grams (1 cup) + 1 pinch sugar
2 tubs (450 grams or 16 oz, total) mascarpone*
250 ml (1 cup) + 6 Tablespoons limoncello
250 ml (1 cup) warm milk
1 package Savoiardi (Lady Fingers)**
Pearl sugar, or other decorative sugar***

Combine the egg yolks, 6 Tablespoons of limoncello, and the sugar into large mixing bowl.  Beat with electric mixer 2-3 minutes.  Add the mascarpone and beat 3-5 more minutes until the consistency is smooth.  Set aside.

In another bowl, add a pinch of sugar to the egg whites.  Beat until the mixture forms stiff peaks.  Gently fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.  Set aside.

Pour the rest of the limoncello and the warm milk into a different bowl.  Submerge the lady fingers into the limoncello and milk one by one, and layer on bottom of a glass baking pan.  Soak the lady fingers just enough so that they are not crunchy, but not so much that they break.

Spread 1/2 of mascarpone mixture on top of the lady fingers.  Sprinkle pearl sugar over the mascarpone mixture.  Add a second layer of lady fingers, and top with another layer of mascarpone mixture and pearl sugar.

Refrigerate overnight before serving.

* We use Bel Gioioso Mascarpone, which is sold in 8 oz. tubs.
**We use Alessi brand Savoiardi.
***Powdered sugar or any other decorative sugar can be used instead of pearl sugar, or you can skip it altogether.

La pastiera napoletana, an Italian Easter Tart

In his classic cookbook Made In Italy: Food and Stories, renowned Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli writes of the pastiera napoletana:

The combination of ingredients may seem strange, but they are associated with ancient Roman celebrations of the rite of spring: flowers, eggs for new life, ricotta from the sheep, wheat and flour from the land…One of the many legends associated with the dish involves a mermaid called Partenope. She lived in the Gulf of Napoli and to celebrate the arrival of spring each year she would come and sing to the inhabitants.  One year, to say thank you for her songs, they offered her local gifts: ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. She was so delighted she took them to her kingdom under the sea, where the gods mixed them together into a cake.  
 

More recent legend, according to Locatelli and others, attributes the origins of the pastiera to a Neapolitan nun who wanted to make a pie that symbolized the resurrection.  She added cooked wheat to fresh sheep’s milk, added eggs as a symbol of new life, and water aromatized with the fragrant orange blossoms from the trees growing in the convent’s gardens.

It’s said of the pastiera, “Non puo mancare sulla tavola di Pasqua” (It cannot be absent from Easter table), and all true Napoletani know to make it a few days in ahead of time so that the flavors develop and harmonize.  We prepared ours on Good Friday and let it rest until Easter Sunday.

Napoli
Naples, (Napoli in Italian or Napule in local dialect) is a city known, among other things, for its rich and decadent pastries.  Eggs, ricotta and candied citrus peel are frequently found in the pasticceria napoletana, but cream-filled and liquor-laced pastries are equally common.  One of our favorite bloggers, Kathy from A Food Lover’s Odyssey, captured all of the delicious details in a post called Journey through the Pastries of Naples.

Napoli is also known, of course, for its pizza.  An authentic pizza is made with  San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, both from the Campania region of Italy where Naples is located.  The crust is a  made from a high protein flour and baked for 60 to 90 seconds at extremely high heat (485 °C, 905 °F) in a wood-burning stone fire.  The classic Pizza Margherita, with its red sauce, white mozzarella and green basil was made in Naples in 1890 as a tribute to the visiting Queen Margarita – the pizza’s colors inspired by the green, white and red of the Italian flag.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

Naples, without doubt, has an underbelly.  The city’s challenges with organized crime have been well-publicized in recent years: from the garbage crisis, to olive oil and mozzarella fraudulently labeled ‘Made in Italy, to its thriving black market.  Traffic is chaotic, some northern European and western visitors find the city dirty, and unsuspecting tourists are easy targets for pick-pockets and swindlers.

Despite all of this, Napoli exudes an undeniable charm and is well-worth a visit.  Its location, with Mount Vesuvius to its back, looking out over the Gulf of Naples, it is one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent cities.  With a population of over 4 million inhabitants in the broad Naples metropolitan area, it is the third largest city in Italy and one of its most historical.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

It’s narrow streets are vibrant with activity and energy.  Storefronts line ground floors of Renaissance and Baroque buildings, the vendors’ goods spilling out onto crates and stands lining the palazzo walls.  Drying laundry drape across clotheslines strung from  balcony to balcony, creating a colorful, pagent-like display.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

The cities residents seem to all be out on the streets at any given time, talking, laughing, and playfully arguing in the distinctive and sometimes undecipherable Neapolitan dialect.  Those who aren’t outdoors are just as likely to join in the cacophony on the street from their windows above.

Image from http://doveviaggi.corriere.it/dove-rcs/home/weekend/arte-e-cultura/2011/agosto/napoli-teatro.html

La pastiera napoletana
Our recipe was inspired by Giorgio Locatelli’s pastiera recipe in his cookbook Made in Italy: Food and Stories, as well as by a few other versions.  The pasteria begins with a crust of pasta frolla, which is found in several other Italian cakes and tarts, such as crostata and crostatine di frutta, and torta della nonna.

It calls for cooked wheat, an Italian specialty product. We happily found that it can be ordered online from Marchese Italian Market; purchase the product called Valgri’ Grano Cotto Pastiera Napoletana.  It also calls for candied citron, orange and/or lemon peel, which we found online through Barry Farms.  You will also need a tart pan with a 10-13 inch diameter and sides at least 2 inches high.  We found a lovely but inexpensive white porcelain one at Sur la Table.  A round cake pan or spring form pan will work, too.

Ingredients
for a 10-13 inch tart

For the pasta frolla
200 g (1 and 1/2 cup) flour
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
80 g (5 and 1/2 Tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 pouch of Pane Angeli lievito per i dolci, or 2 tsp. baking powder*
1 egg
Zest of 1 lemon

For the filling
300 grams (1 and 1/2 cup) grano cotto, or cooked wheat**
250 grams (1 cup) whole milk
250 grams fresh ricotta***
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated.  Preserve 2 of the 3 whites.
115 grams (1/2 cup) super-fine sugar
60 grams (1/3 cup) candied citron, lemon and orange peel****
Zest of one lemon
4 tsp. orange extract
Pinch of salt

*You can substitute pane degli angeli with 2 tsp. baking powder.  So many Italian baked goods call for pane degli angeli, however, that we do encourage you to pick up a package of it.

**You can prepare your own grano cotto by cooking wheat berries and then letting them cool in their own water.  You can also substitute pearl barley, cooked according to instructions.

*** Sheep’s milk ricotta is preferred.  Sadly, we are no longer able to find it locally, and we substituted with cow’s milk ricotta, which works just fine.  Make the effort to find fresh ricotta, not the supermarket tubs of ricotta.

****Candied citron, lemon and/or orange peel will work fine.  It can be left out if needed, but it is worth the effort to find it.  If you want to make your own, see fellow blogger Paola’s recipe here.

Directions
Prepare the pasta frolla by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface.  Add the sugar and pane angeli or baking powder, and mix.  Gather the dry ingredients into a mound and form a well in the middle.  Add the egg, cubes of butter and lemon zest, and working quickly with your fingers, work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture.  Mix by hand until the dough forms a homogenous, smooth ball.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Place the grano cotto, milk and 15 grams (1 Tbsp) of the sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-low heat.  Set aside to cool.  In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks (set aside 2 of the 3 whites), the rest of the sugar, candied peel, lemon zest, orange extract and a pinch of salt.  When the grano cotto mixture is cool, stir it into the ricotta mixture.  Beat 2 of the 3 egg whites until stiff.  Fold the egg white mixture into the rest of the filling, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180° C, 355° F.  Brush your tart pan with melted butter.

Remove the pasta frolla from the refrigerator, and separate it into two pieces – one piece made up of about 2/3 of the dough, and the second piece made up of the remaining 1/3.  Sprinkle flour onto a smooth surface and roll out the larger piece of dough until it is big enough to fill the base and sides of your tart pan.  Line the tart pan with the rolled out dough, pressing it in so that it is equal thickness on the bottom and on the sides.  Trim any excess dough around the rim of the pan.  Roll out the second piece of dough and cut 6-8 strips for the tart’s lattice, using a pastry cutter to make a pretty fluted edge if you have one.

Pour the filling into the shell, and arrange the strips of dough in a lattice pattern across the top of the tart, taking care to seal the edges of the lattice with the crust.

Bake for 1 hour, and then turn the oven down to 120° C, 250° F and let it bake for 20 more minutes.  Turn the oven off, open the oven door a crack, and let the pastiera rest in the oven until cool.

Happy Easter!

Download a pdf of La pastiera napoletana

La pizza dolce (Rustic Olive Oil Cake)

“Olive oil,” Stefano’s dad Andrea used to tell us, “is good for you.”  He didn’t qualify his claim, or finish his proclamation with …in moderation.  It was simply, unconditionally, good for us.

This was a lucky thing, since we never wanted for olive oil.  The olive trees on the family’s two different plots of land were prolific producers of olives, and in turn, the nuts of that fruit yielded enough oil for Andrea and Maria’s household, our household, and Stefano’s brother Marco’s household, with more left over for the friends and relatives that had helped with the olive harvest.

I don’t think I ever saw Stefano’s mom, Maria, cook with any oil other than olive oil.  Her salads and vegetables glistened in it, her sauces simmered in it, and her meats nearly bathed in it.  She sometimes fried in it.  She even baked with it.

It was perhaps Maria’s olive oil cake that Stefano missed the most when we moved to the U.S.  There simply weren’t other breakfast options here that worked for him.  Yes, olive oil cake is a breakfast food.  It’s not only a breakfast food – it works very well with afternoon coffee – but it is very special as a breakfast food.  So, after a few weeks of trying out boxed cereals, muffins and other pastries, we called Maria and asked her to give us the recipe for la pizza dolce, or sweet pizza, as it is called in Italy.

There are hundreds of variations of la pizza dolce, which is sometimes also called la pizza dolce di Pasqua or la pizza di Pasqua, reflecting its association with Easter.  This recipe is simple and pure.  Flour, sugar, eggs, and olive oil.  Something to help it rise.  Stir it all together by hand, gently.  Before you know it, the kitchen is filled with the sweet, earthy aroma of this golden-hued, humble cake.

Maria used to serve it in the morning before school to Stefano and his siblings, together with latte and just a splash of caffè.  On Easter morning, as a special treat, they enjoyed it with uova sode (hard-boiled eggs) and salame corallina.

Epilogue: As we write this, our oldest son, Sean, comes in from outdoors.  Seeing the pizza dolce cooling on the cupboard, he says, “Hey mom, can we have that for breakfast tomorrow?” 

Ingredients
3 eggs, the best you can find.
300 g (approx. 2 and 1/2 cup) flour
300 g (1 and 1/2 cup) sugar
250 ml (1 cup) milk
100 ml (approx. 1/3 cup) olive oil*
1 pouch of Pane degli Angeli, or substitute with 1 Tbsp. baking powder

*you can reduce the oil to 1/4 cup for a lighter version of this cake.

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C) and butter and flour a 9 in. (20-25 cm) round cake pan.  Crack the eggs into a medium mixing bowl and beat by hand.  Add the milk and the olive oil, and whisk together until well mixed.

Add the sugar, and stir well.  If you are using Pane degli Angeli, pass it first through a small hand strainer to remove any lumps, and add it to the flour.  If you are using baking soda, add it directly to the flour.  Mix the flour into the batter, stirring gently with a wire whisk.

Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan, and bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges have pulled away from the sides of the pan.  Be careful, because if you take it out too early it will sink in the center.  Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

Cioccolata calda

There’s hot chocolate, and then there’s Italian hot chocolate.

The first time you taste an Italian hot chocolate, or cioccolata calda, you will be amazed by its dense, creamy texture and its deep, rich chocolate flavor.  Far from the watery, pale hot chocolate of many parts of the world, the Italian version is rich, velvety and creamy.  It’s the Maserati to our Chevrolet.  The Ferragamo to our Eddie Bauer.  The Caffe Illy to our Folgers.

It all starts with high quality ingredients – real dark chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, whole milk.  A touch of cornstarch renders it thick and creamy.  The version below is intentionally light on sugar, to let the deep chocolate flavors resonate.  With a dollop of whipped cream, we think it is perfect.   But if you prefer it more sweet, add up to double the sugar.  You can also add a dash or two of cinnamon, or red hot chili powder for heat.  For an adult version of cioccolata calda, try it with a shot of dark rum.

It’s a perfect treat to make for your loved ones, on Valentine’s Day or any other day.

Ingredients
for two mugs

50 g (approx. 2 oz or 4 Tbsp) dark chocolate*
25 g (approx. 1 oz or 2 Tbsp) unsweetened cocoa powder
25 g (approx. 1 oz or 2 Tbsp) sugar**
10 g (approx. 1/3 oz or 2 1/4 tsp) cornstarch
500g (2 cups) whole milk

*We used Ghirardelli Intense Dark Midnight Reverie, with 86% Cacao.  Any dark chocolate of your choice will work, however.

**Add up to 50 g (2 oz. or 4 Tbsp) of sugar for a sweeter beverage.

Directions
Unwrap the dark chocolate and place it into a food processor.  Pulse the chocolate repeatedly until it is finely ground.  Set aside.

Add all of the dry ingredients to a small mixing bowl and stir together.  Warm half of the milk in the microwave.  Add the warm milk one tablespoon at a time to the cocoa-sugar-cornstarch mixture, stirring well so as to prevent lumps from forming.  Slowly incorporate all of the warmed milk into the dry ingredients.

Pour the remaining milk into a saucepan and place it on the stove over medium heat.  Add the milk and cocoa mixture, and then the ground dark chocolate.  Stir continuously with a wire whisk until it thickens and boils.  Let it boil for 1 minute, and then remove from heat.

Serve hot with a dollop of whipped cream.

Download a pdf copy of Cioccolata calda

Tozzetti

It’s December, and weekends are dedicated to holiday baking.  We keep things simple – just the 3 or 4 special Italian holiday treats from Stefano’s childhood that now have become part of our family traditions.  There are precisely the right number of weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas to get everything in: salame di cioccolatopanpepato, mostaccioli, and tozzetti.  This year, before Luigi returns to Italy for good, we may try to add panettone to our repertoire.

Tozzetti

This weekend it’s tozzetti, which are sometimes called cantucci in Italy, and are incorrectly called biscotti here in the States.  As recipients of the Cannolo Award for Authentic Italian Food, we have the responsibility to educate our audience and correct misconceptions, so let’s take a moment to talk about biscotti.

This discussion is very similar to a previous post about bruschette and crostini.  The word biscotto (singular) can be broken into two parts: bis, the Latin suffix indicating two; and cotto, which means cooked.  Biscotto, therefore, means “twice cooked.”  This is actually an accurate description of tozzetti, which we are writing about today, because they are baked twice.  However, in Italian biscotto is a broad term, corresponding to “cookie” in American English or “biscuit” in British English.  There are lots of different types of biscotti (plural), just like there are many types of cookies.

The biscotti sold in coffee shops in America would not be called biscotti in Italy.  They’d be called tozzetti or cantucci.  However, in Italy they are smaller and more delicately flavored.  Like so many things in America, our biscotti have become over-sized and over-elaborated.  There is no-such thing as “chocolate-dipped biscotti” or “caramel macchiato biscotti” in Italy; those are Starbucks inventions.  And, that “o” in the second syllable is pronounced “oh” not “ah,” like this.The difference between tozzetti and cantucci is a bit more elusive, and like so many Italian recipes it is mostly a regional difference.  Cantucci, also called cantuccini or biscotti del Prato, are typical of Tuscany.  They are usually made with almonds, and are often paired with Vin Santo, an amber-colored Tuscan dessert wine.  Tozzetti are more common to the Umbria and Lazio regions of central Italy.  They are sometimes made with almonds, but more commonly contain hazelnuts, pine nuts or bits of chocolate.

Tozzetti

Stefano’s mom, Maria, makes tozzetti with hazelnuts in very traditional fashion.  Over the years, we’ve experimented with different flavors and ingredients, but we eventually returned to a recipe much like Maria’s, typical of the Castelli Romani, the hilltowns outside of Rome.  We call them tozzetti. Another may call them differently. Regardless of what they are called, they are delicious.

Ingredients
for 4-5 dozen tozzetti

3 eggs
225 grams (1 cup) sugar
500 grams (4 cups) flour
50 grams (3 & 1/2 Tbsp) butter
300 grams (approx. 3 cups) crushed hazelnuts or sliced almonds
1 pouch of lievito Pane degli Angeli
1 shot glass of amaretto or brandy

Directions
Spread the nuts onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper.  Toast them in an oven preheated to 350°F (180°C) for around 10 minutes or until they have taken a golden brown color and a nutty smell, and set them aside.

Cream the butter and sugar.  Beat in the eggs and the liqueur.  Add the flour and lievito Pane degli Angeli, and mix gently until the dry ingredients are absorbed.  Mix in the nuts.

Using your hands, divide the dough in quarters.  Work work each section of dough into a long, uniform log and place two logs onto a baking sheet.  Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F (180°C).  Remove from oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes.  Leave the oven on.

Tozzetti

Tozzetti

Carefully transfer the baked logs to a cutting board.  Using a sharp serrated knife, cut 1/2 inch wide tozzetti.  They will be crumbly, so take care to not break them.  Return the tozzetti to the baking sheet, lay them on their sides, and place them back into the oven for 10 more minutes without turning them.  Let them cool completely (if you can resist).

Tozzetti

Tozzetti

Enjoy your tozzetti with coffee, milk or tea at breakfast, or with a dessert wine such as Vin Santo or Passito after dinner.

Readers, did you grow up eating tozzetti or cantucci during the Christmas holidays?  What is your understanding of the difference between the two?

Salame al cioccolato

What a week it has been!  Last Saturday evening our house caught fire.  The fire began in a second floor bathroom, spread up above the ceilings of the upstairs bedrooms, and through the roof.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.  Our house, however, sustained significant damage from the fire, smoke and water, and requires much repair.

We’ve had tremendous support and kindness from neighbors, friends and family, and our insurance company is taking care of all of our needs.  We are in a hotel for the short term, and have already found a house to rent in the neighborhood while ours is being rebuilt.

Among the other logistics we’ve had to sort out this week is how to keep Due Spaghetti current.  Our hotel suite has two little ceramic glass burners that we haven’t tried out yet, and our soot-infiltrated camera has been taken away for cleaning.

Simona from the wonderful blog Briciole reminded us that focusing on cooking can help regain balance and perspective.  She’s exactly right – it really does.

We didn’t want to miss a post this week, but we also haven’t really settled into our tiny hotel kitchen yet.  Over the past few weeks we’ve fun across a few holiday cookie contests in newspapers and on websites, we decided that we’d get an early start on one of our favorite Christmas treats, salame al cioccolato, or Chocolate Salame.

Made to resemble a real salame, this rum-infused chocolate log is an easy but delicious no-bake winter treat.  Our kids love it, and adults ask for the recipe every time we serve it.

Going shopping this morning for the ingredients, clearing counter space in our mini-kitchen to work, and most importantly experiencing the satisfaction of making something tasty from scratch was a good first step in putting the fire behind us and returning to the regular rhythm of out lives.

The key ingredient to salame al cioccolato are biscotti secchi, which are a light, dry biscuit or cookie with no filling of frosting and a low fat content.  In Italia, we use biscotti made by Oro Saiwa.  In the U.S. we have found a Mexican biscuit called Marias by Gamesa which is a good substitute.  Otherwise, use any simple, light biscuit or cookie.

Ingredients for 6 salami
600 grams (4 & 1/3 packs) biscuits, plus extra for dusting.
300 grams (1 & 1/3 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
300 grams (1 & 1/2 cups) sugar
50 grams (slightly less than 1/2 cup) unsweetened baking cocoa
2 eggs
1 shot glass of rum

You will also need plastic wrap.

Directions
Place the biscuits into a shallow bowl and crush them into small pieces using the flat bottom of a glass or bottle.  Set aside.

Beat the eggs, and add the butter.  Add the sugar, cocoa and rum, and beat by hand until well mixed.  Stir in the biscuits.

Crush the rest of the biscuits in the partially used package in a food processor, and place into a shallow baking dish.  Use your hands to form the mixture into logs.  Roll each log in the biscuit crumbs to resemble salame, and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.  Place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.

Serve sliced, or place on a cutting board with a knife and let your guests do the cutting, just as you might a real salame.

Salame al Cioccolato

Torta di mele

Autumn is unquestionably here.  The air is crisp, the leaves are turning.  The tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and berries that crowded the farmers market stands all summer long have given way to squash, potatoes, carrots and onions.  And there are apples – bushels and bushels of apples.  With the cool weather comes the instinct to fire up the oven again, awakening it after its summer hibernation, and bake.  This Wall Street Journal food article about a Tuscan apple cake reminded us of Italy and inspired us to make our own version of torta di mele.

Torta di mele is a classic Italian homemade treat.  As is so often true, recipes vary.  Stefano’s mom uses more flour and fewer apples, resulting in a delicate, springy cake. Our sister-in-law Valentina and her mom Marinella use less flour and more apples, which makes a more dense, almost pudding-like cake.  Our recipe is somewhere in between.

Despite these variations, a few things are true of all authentic torta di mela recipes.  While our apple crisps, pies and cobblers are heavily seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom, no spices are used in the torta di mele. Only freshly squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest give the cake a light, delicate taste, and not-too-much sugar lets the natural sweetness of the apples come through.

Use Golden Delicious apples; their flavor, consistency and moisture level are perfect for this cake.

Ingredients
700g Golden Delicious apples, peeled and sliced thinly.
Juice of one lemon
Zest of one lemon
3 eggs
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup whole milk
200 g sugar (1 cup)
250 g flour (1 and 3/4 cup)
1 pouch Pane degli Angeli* (or substitute 1 teaspoon baking soda)

*Pane degli Angeli is an Italian leavening agent lightly sweetened with vanilla.  It is a common ingredient in many Italian baked goods.  If you decide to buy some, search Amazon or another online gourmet foods vendor for “Lievito Pane degli Angeli.”

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter and flour a 9″ or 10″ round cake pan, preferably a springform pan.  Set aside.

Core, peel and thinly slice the apples, and place them into a bowl.  Squeeze the juice of one lemon over the apples.  Stir and let rest.

Beat the eggs and sugar with a mixer on high speed for 5 minutes, until the mixture is light and airy.  Warm the butter until it is very soft but not melted and add it to the eggs and sugar, along with the milk and the zest of one lemon.  Stir in the butter, milk and lemon zest.

If you use Pane degli Angeli, pass it through a small strainer, such as a tea strainer, to eliminate any small clumps, and add it to the batter.  If you use baking soda, add it now.  Add the flour, and fold the dry ingredients gently into into the batter, taking care not to over-stir.  Add the apples and mix carefully until coated.

Pour the batter into your buttered and floured pan.  Arrange slices of apple around the top surface of the cake, and bake at 350° for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If you wish, turn on the broiler for a few minutes at the end of cooking in order to give the top a golden brown color.

Serve warm or at room temperature for dessert, with afternoon coffee,  or even for breakfast.