La Colomba – Buona Pasqua a Tutti

It’s Easter morning, and our social media is filled with pictures that our Italian family and friends have posted of their Pasqua spread: the sweet and savory Easter breakfast that Stefano’s mother makes, the delicious Neapolitan ricotta and cooked grain cake called la pastiera, lasagne, lamb, and egg-based savory dishes like torta pasqualina which is often served as picnic food on Easter Monday.

This year, we’ve added to our repertoire of Easter baking with the classic colomba, which means dove in Italian.  This fragrant, yeasty cake is like the panettone and pandoro served at Christmas, but is baked in the form of a dove.  With candied orange peel inside and a sweet, almond-sugar glaze on top, la colomba is a delicate Easter dessert.

La colombaThere are varying versions of recipes for la colomba.  Some follow the traditional method of multiple kneading and risings over a 24 hour window.  Others have found ways to expedite the process.  After a bit of research, we settled on this version from the Italian website Misya.  It takes an entire day from morning til evening, but the down time over the course of four cycles of kneading and rising allows plenty of time to prepare the rest of your Easter offerings.

Paper dove-shaped baking molds are used to achieve the traditional shape of la colomba.  Plan ahead, as these can be a bit tricky to find.  This recipe is enough for a 1 kilogram mold, or two molds of 500 grams each.  We found ours at Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop.

La Colomba

Ingredients
For the dough
500 g (4 cups) flour  *If you can find Italian 00 flour, use it.
100 ml water
20 g (approx. 7 tsp) active dry yeast
200 g (14 Tbsp) unsalted butter
170 g (3/4 cups) sugar
5 egg yolks
30 ml (approx. 2 Tbsp) whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
The zest of one lemon
The zest of one orange
A pinch of salt
50 g (1/3 cup) candied orange peel (to make your own, see here)

For the glaze
2 egg whites
50 g (1/3 cup) sugar
Pearl sugar or decorators’ sugar
Raw almonds

La ColombaDirections
Stage One
Dissolve the yeast in 100 ml warm water. Stir until it becomes a thick paste.  Add 150 g (1 and 1/2 cups) of the flour, and stir together until the flour is absorbed.  Use your hands to shape the dough into a smooth ball. Place the dough into a bowl of warm water, cover, and let rest for 30 minutes.  Upon return, the dough will double in size and be floating.

Stage Two
While the dough is bathing in water, prepare for the second stage.  In a large bowl, mix together the remaining 350 g (3 and 1/2 cups) of flour, the sugar, egg yolks, 100 g (7 Tbsp) of the butter, salt, vanilla, and the lemon and orange zest.  Slowly add up to 30 ml (2 Tbsp) milk to bring the mixture together.  Take the ball of dough out of the tub of water, shake the excess water off, and add it to the mixture.  Mix the doughs together.  Turn the new dough over onto a floured work surface, and knead it gently until smooth.  The dough will be a bit sticky.  Return to a bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

Stage Three
Uncover the dough and add 50 g (3 and 1/2 Tbsp) soft butter.  Place the dough into a mixing bowl and mix on low speed with a dough attachment for 10 minutes.  Or, knead by hand.  Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for 4 hours.

Stage Four
Uncover the dough, which will have doubled in size.  Add the remaining 50 g (3 and 1/2 Tbsp) of soft butter and the candied orange peel.  Mix for 15 minutes on low speed with the dough attachment, or knead by hand. Turn the dough out into the dove mold(s), using your hands to spread it to the borders of the mold.  Leave the dough in a warm place to rise for 2 to 3 hours more, until it reaches the top edges of the mold.

Stage Five
Preheat the oven to 190o C (375oF). Prepare the glaze by beating the egg whites with the regular sugar until it becomes a frothy mixture. Brush the glaze abundantly over the surface of the dough. Arrange almonds over the entire surface area, and finish with a generous sprinkling of pearl sugar.  Bake at 190o C (375oF) for 10 minutes.  Then, turn the oven down to 100o C (350oF) and bake for 30 more minutes.

Let cool, and enjoy.

Dolci di Carnevale; le castagnole e le frappe

It’s Carnevale!  This period of indulgence and carousal is one of the most festive and loved of Italian holidays.

The start and end of Carnevale varies from nation to nation, but in Italy, the birthplace of Carnevale, festivities begin in early February and culminate during the week between Martedì grasso (Mardi Gras in French, Fat Tuesday in English) and the Christian holiday of Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent.  Grasso, gras, Fat: all refer to the rich and plenteous foods eaten during those days leading up to Lent, when the gluttony and revelry of Carnevale must be replaced by penance and austerity.

In Italy, Carnevale is celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties.  Mischief and pranks are all part of the fun. As a child, Stefano remembers having great fun with sneezing powder, itching powder, and stink bombs, giving life to the saying A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale.  Children dress up in costumes and make the rounds to parties and the homes of friends and relatives, collecting sweets at each stop.

Our nephew, dressed up for Carnevale

Our nephew, dressed up for Carnevale

Carnevale is not just for children, though.  Celebrations are held across Italy, the most famous held in the Tuscan sea-side town of Viareggio with its promenade of paper-mache floats known as the Passeggiata a mare; in Ivrea, home to the annual battaglia delle arance (Battle of the Oranges); and of course, Venezia, where over three million visitors per year wander the city’s waterways, many sporting elegant and mysterious leather, glass and porcelain masks.

Venezia - Carnevale 2012In households across Italy, people indulge in frappe, castagnole, and other homemade treats unique to Carnevale.  Made of a simple dough, fried to a golden color in hot oil, and sprinkled with powdered sugar, these fritters are the epitome of Carnevale.

Castagnole
Castagnola means “chestnut,” and  in fact, castagnole bear resemblance to chestnuts, before the shed their shell.  They are also similar to what in American culture are known as donut holes.  They are usually dusted with powdered sugar, or alternatively with regular sugar, or covered in a sugar glaze.

CastagnoleIngredients
200 g (2 and 1/2 cups) flour
16g (1 Tbs.)  Pane degli Angeli, or use baking powder instead
50 g (1/4 cup) sugar
pinch of salt
3 eggs
40g (1 and 1/2 Tbs.) butter
1 tsp. vanilla
zest of one lemon
Frying oil (peanut, canola, etc.)

Directions
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixture.  Add the eggs one at a time, and mix well.  Stir in the lemon zest.  In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, Pane degli Angeli (or baking powder) and salt.  Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar/mixture.  Mix until the dough comes together into a soft, sticky ball.  If you need to add more flour, do so, but take care to not overdo.

Sprinke flour onto a large cutting board or other smooth work surface.  Take a small section of dough and use your hands to roll it into a long cylindrical tube about 2 cm (just under an inch) thick.  Cut small nibs of dough and use your hands to roll them into small balls.  Repeat with the rest of the dough.  castagnole Heat the oil in a deep pan.  Test that it is hot enough by tossing a small piece of scrap dough into it.  The oil should sizzle and small bubbles should form around the edges of the dough.

Place as many balls of dough as fit into the hot oil.  They will float to the top, so once the underside is golden brown, use a utensil to turn them over.  When both sides are cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them to cool onto paper towels.

castagnoleOnce all of the castagnole are cooked, arrange them onto a serving plate and using a metal strainer to achieve an even coating, dust with powdered sugar.  They are best enjoyed warm, but castagnole will keep for a day or two in an airtight container.

Frappe
Frappe are light, thin strips of deep-fried dough.  Sometimes the dough is tied in a knot before frying, in which case they are called chiacchere.  In all cases, the fritters are enjoyed sprinkled with powdered sugar.

frappeIngredients
250 g (2 and 3/4 cups) flour
3 g (3/4 tsp.)  Pane degli Angeli, or use baking powder instead
35 g (1/8 cup, heaping) sugar
a pinch of salt
2 eggs
15 g (1 and 1/2 Tbs.) butter
1 tsp. vanilla
12 ml (1 Tbs.) Grappa or other liquor such as brandy or rum
Frying oil (peanut, canola, etc.)

Directions
Mix together the flour, Pane degli Angeli (or baking powder, if you are using that instead), sugar and salt.  Cube the butter and add it to the dry ingredients, along with the two eggs and vanilla.  Mix by hand, or with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.  The dough will be dry and will require approximately 10 minutes of kneading to come together.  Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest in a cool place or in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

If you have a pasta machine, you can use it to press the dough into thin strips.  If not, you can roll the dough out.  If you are using a pasta machine, cut off a small section of the dough, flatten it out between your hands, and pass it though the widest opening possible.  Then, close the gap a notch or two, and pass the dough through again.  Repeat this process until you have passed the dough through the machine’s smallest opening.

frappeIf you roll the dough out with a rolling pin, do so with a section of dough at a time, rolling until the dough is just a few millimeters (just under 1/6th inch) thick.  The thinner the dough, the lighter and flakier the frappe will be.

If you have one, use a fluted pastry wheel to cut the pressed dough into uniform strips.  They can be of any length and width you like.  We made ours about 2.5 cm (1 inch) wide by 15 cm (6 inches) long.

Heat the oil in a deep pan.  Test that it is hot enough by tossing a small piece of scrap dough into it.  The oil should sizzle and small bubbles should form around the edges of the dough.

Place the strips of dough into the hot oil.  You can fry several at once, depending on the capacity of your pot.  Be ready to turn them over as soon as one side becomes brown, and remove them from the oil once the second side is done.  They cook very fast!  Remove from oil and place onto paper towels to cool.

Once all of the frappe are cooked, arrange them onto a serving plate and using a metal strainer to achieve an even coating, dust with powdered sugar.

We hope you enjoy castagnole and frappe as much as Luca does!

Caldarroste

Ridiculously cold temperatures, such as those that are descending upon Minneapolis in the coming days, call for foods that warm your bones and your soul.

It’s so cold that you can toss a glass of water outdoors and it will freeze before reaching the ground.

It is so cold that there is ice on the inside of some of our windows.

It is so cold that the governor ordered all public schools closed for the safety of the children.

Here’s what weather.com predicts for tonight:

Temperatures 1.5.14

The big bold number is the actual temperature, and the “feels like” number represents the windchill factor.  The poor Befana; she is going to freeze her wart-covered nose off tonight.

We, on the other hand, have stocked up on groceries, made a giant pot of minestrone, started the (gas) fireplace, and have no plans to leave the house for the next 36 hours or so.  After dinner, we’ll sit down in the living room and enjoy some piping hot caldarroste, roasted chestnuts, with a bottle of red wine.

Prized across the Mediterranean basin, caldarroste are cold-weather street food at its best.  During winter months, caldarroste stands line the major shopping streets of Italian cities, luring residents and tourists alike with the warm, toasty aroma of the roasting chestnuts.  For a few Euros, you can walk away with a piece of butcher paper fashioned into cone-shaped container of chestnuts to keep you warm as you finish your outdoor stroll.

Image from http://www.saporedicastagne.com/vendita-castagne-per-caldarrostai-e-grossisti

Image from http://www.saporedicastagne.com/vendita-castagne-per-caldarrostai-e-grossisti

It’s simple to make roasted chestnuts, which we also call castagne, at home, too.  In Italy, Stefano grew up going to the woods of Monte Scalambra to gather chestnuts with his family.  They would peel away the prickly, outside layer, which had split open by the time the chestnut had fallen to the ground, and toss the nut into a basket.  Ten or twenty kilos later, they would load up their harvest and drive back to Rome.  Traditionally, chestnuts are roasted over an open fire in a large pan with holes in the bottom of it.  However, they can also be roasted in the oven.

Cara remembers eating castagne at Stefano’s mother and father’s house in the winter months in Rome.  Much more skilled at peeling chestnuts, not to mention checking for the occasional unsavory larva, Stefano’s father, Andrea, used to peel one for her, and then one for himself, ensuring that she got her fair share.

We enjoyed our castagne with a bottle of Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto, a little brother to the powerful Sassicaia wine.  A blend of Cabernet Savignon and Merlot, this wine can be enjoyed in its early stage.

Caldarroste

Directions

Soak your chestnuts in water for 2-3 hours before preparing them.

Preheat the oven to 205°C/400°F.

Drain the chestnuts.  Using a sharp knife, make a horizontal cut through the outer shell, slicing from one side to another of the rounded side of the chestnut.  Cover a baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the chestnuts on top.  Roast in the oven until the chestnuts swell and open up, and the meat of the nut is golden brown and slightly charred.

Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.  Peel the outer shell off with your fingers, and enjoy with a glass of red wine.

Image from http://saporiericette.blogosfere.it/galleria/2012/09/caldarroste-al-forno-ecco-come-prepararle.html/1

Image from http://saporiericette.blogosfere.it/galleria/2012/09/caldarroste-al-forno-ecco-come-prepararle.html/1

Il torrone

We added a new item to our repertoire of Italian holiday treats and baked good this year.  No, it’s not panettone.  We’re just not sure that we can do justice to that tall, leavened Milanese Christmas cake in our home kitchen.

This year, in addition to panpepato, salame al cioccolato and tozzetti, we made torrone, the classic ivory colored, honey flavored, nut filled bar of nougat that graces the Christmas candy and cookie trays of every Italian household this time of year.

Torrone

They say that torrone was first brought to Italy and the Mediterranean by Arab traders, but there are two versions of how it acquired it’s name.  Some maintain that torrone derives from the Latin torrere, which means to toast, in reference to the toasted nuts the candy contains.  Others cite the 1441 marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza in the city of Cremona, Italy.  For that wedding, the city’s pastry chefs created a tower-like “torrone” to resemble Cremona’s bell tower.

In any case, today il torrone is synonymous to Christmas all across Italy.  It’s rarely made at home anymore, but artisanal torrone is still found in pastry shops and at holiday markets.  Torrone is also produced industrially by Italian companies like  Sperlari and Vergani,  both located in Cremona, home of the Festa di Torrone.  This year, the annual celebration of torrone drew 230,000 people to the town, where they purchased over 80 tons of torrone to bring home to their Christmas tables.

Festa-del-torrone

There are two varieties of torrone, morbido (soft) and friabile (hard).  We’re of two minds at the Due Spaghetti household; Stefano prefers crisp, hard-candy torrone, while Cara likes the soft type (who wants to loose a tooth, especially right at Christmas!).  The difference has to do with the amount of egg white you use and the temperature you to which you bring the sugar/water solution.  The recipe below is for torrone morbido.  We adapted it from a torrone recipe on one of our favorite Italian language bloggers, Anice & Cannella, who had in in her own right adapted it from a recipe in La Cucina Italiana.  That’s how recipes travel, right?

An few important notes before we begin:

  • Torrone requires edible wafer paper to keep the candy from sticking to everything it touches.  Wafer paper is not the same as sugar paper, which will not work for torrone.  Wafer paper can be found through online vendors, or at specialty cake-decorating stores.  For those of you following us locally, Lynn’s Cake and Candy Supplies in Fridley, MN carries it.
  • A candy thermometer is necessary.
  • A kitchen scale is useful, as it is the most precise way to measure ingredients.
  • You will need a double boiler (bain-marie) or two saucepans, one slightly larger than the other, which can improvise as one.

Ingredients
Nuts for Roasting
1 kg (2.2 lbs, about 7 cups) raw unsalted almonds
150 g (5 oz, just over 1 cup)  hazelnuts
150 g (5 oz, just over 1 cup) shelled pistachios*
*either raw unsalted or roasted, salted pistachios will work fine.

For the Sugar Syrup
100 g (3.5 oz or 5/12 cup) water
300 g (10.5 oz or 1 and 1/3 cup) sugar

For the Meringue
120 g (4 oz, or about 3 eggs’ worth) egg whites
300 g (10.5 oz or just over 3/4 cup) honey

Other
Zest of 3 oranges
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 sheets of wafer paper

Directions

Preheat your oven to 120° C, 250° F.  Line two baking trays with parchment paper, spread the nuts onto them, and toast for 15 minutes.  Allow the toasted nuts to cool.

il torrone

Measure the egg whites and honey, and set aside so that they are ready when you need them.  Prepare an electric hand-mixer so that it too is ready.

Place the sugar into a medium-sized saucepan.  Add the water without stirring, position the candy thermometer in the liquid, and place the saucepan on a burner over low heat.  Allow the sugar syrup to heat to 140° C, 285° F, still not stirring.

il torronePrepare the double boiler.  Add the egg whites and honey.  Place over medium  heat, and whip with the electric mixer until the mixture pulls away from the sides and forms a stiff meringue.  This will take approximately 30-35 minutes.  As you are whipping the egg whites, monitor the temperature of the sugar syrup.  It should reach temperature about about the same time that the egg whites firm up.  Don’t rush the sugar water by turning up the heat, and don’t let it rise above 140° C, 285° F.  Pull it off of the heat if you need to.

il torroneWhen each are ready, pour the sugar syrup to the meringue.  Add the vanilla, orange zest and roasted nuts, and mix together well with a wooden spoon to form a nougat.

il torrone

Cover a baking tray with wax paper or parchment paper, and place one sheet of wafer onto it.  Use a rubber spatula to scrape the nougat onto the center of the wafer paper.  Spread the nougat evenly over the wafer paper, not quite reaching the edges.  Using your hands, pack the nougat together to create a smooth surface on the top and edges.  Clean and dry your hands.  Place the second sheet of wafer paper on top and carefully press down, taking care not to tear it.

Freeze the sheet of torrone for 30 minutes or longer so that it can more easily be cut into bars.  Using a very sharp, serrated knife, first cut away the edges all along the perimeter to create 4 smooth edges, and then cut into bars as long as wide as you desire.  We cut our sheet in half lengthwise, and then turned each half and again cut lengthwise into 5 cm.(2 inch) wide bars.

Keep your torrone refrigerated (we keep them in sealed freezer bags) until you are ready to serve.  Cut each bar into bite-sized pieces and enjoy.

Buon Natale!

il torrone

Torta Pasqualina

Pasqua con i tuoi, Pasquetta con chi vuoi.

Torta Pasqualina

Easter, the saying goes, should be spent with family.  Traditions abound at Easter time in Italy, and of course many of them revolve around food.  Easter breakfast at Stefano’s house is always pizza dolce with hard-boiled eggs and salami.  Abbacchio, young suckling lamb, is a Roman classic that is never missing at Easter lunch, and someone will likely bring a homemade Neopolitan Easter tart, pastiera.  The meal ends with a slice of dove-shaped Easter cake called a Colomba  and a few pieces of Uova di Pasqua, a giant chocolate Easter egg.

Torta Pasqualina

Easter Monday though, according to the saying, can be spent with friends.  It is a public holiday, and tradition calls for a picnic in the countryside.  In many parts of Italy, torte salate are common picnic fare, and torta pasqualina has become a quintessential Easter time shepherd’s pie.  Originally from Liguria, torta pasqualina is now made all over Italy.  It is characterized by its multiple layers of crust, swiss chard or spinach and ricotta filling, and by the eggs which are cooked whole inside the pie.  Recipes vary, and some traditionalists mourn the loss of authenticity that the dish’s popularity has brought.

It was our first time trying torta pasqualina, and it will definitely make a return to our Easter Monday picnic basket.

Torta Pasqualina

Ingredients
For the crust
600 grams (4 and 3/4 cups) all purpose flour
350 ml (1 and 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
35 g (1/4 cup) olive oil

For the filling
1 kilo (2 and 1/4 pounds) fresh spinach or swiss chard
500 grams (one 16 oz. tub will suffice) whole milk ricotta
150 grams (2 cups) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
12 eggs
Salt
Pepper
Nutmeg
Olive oil

You will bake your tart in a 25-30 cm, or 10-12 in. tart pan, such as this one.

Directions
Prepare the dough
Measure the flour and place it into a bowl.  Dissolve the salt into the water, and add it to the flour.  Add the olive oil, and stir with a wooden spoon until it the dough unites into a rough ball.  Turn the dough onto a smooth, lightly floured surface and knead it for 5-7 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic.  Cut the dough into four pieces – two of them approximately 300 grams (10 and 1/2 oz.) each, and two of them approximately 180 grams (6 and 1/2 oz) each.  Cover them with a cloth and set aside.

Torta Pasqualina

Prepare the filling
Wilt the spinach or swiss chard in a few tablespoons olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Only fill the pan with as much spinach or swiss chard as fits.  When that is wilted, remove to a separate bowl and place more fresh spinach or swiss chard to the pan, adding more olive oil if needed.  Set the wilted greens aside to cool.

Torta Pasqualina

In a separate bowl, mix the ricotta, 1/3 of the Pecorino Romano, 3 eggs, and a generous pinch of salt, a dash of pepper and another of nutmeg. Mix well and set aside.

Return to the greens, which by now should be cool.  Place them in a strainer and press all of the liquid out of them.  Turn them over onto a cutting board, and chop them coarsely.  Return them to the bowl and add half of the remaining Pecorino Romano, 2 eggs, salt and pepper to taste.   Set aside.

Torta Pasqualina

Preheat the oven to 180° C, 350° F, and return to your dough.  Take one of the two larger pieces, and roll it out so that it is quite thin and larger than the tart pan.  Brush the bottom and sides of the tart dish with olive oil, and place the dough in it, pressing it tight to the edges of the tart dish.  You want the dough to wrap over the sides of the dish.  Brush this layer of dough with olive oil.  Roll out the second large piece of dough, and place it on top of the first piece.

Torta PasqualinaTorta Pasqualina

Return to the spinach or swiss chard.  If it has released more liquid, drain that off and then spoon the spinach into the tart dish, pressing it down and toward the edges.  Add the ricotta mixture on top of the greens.

Torta PasqualinaTorta Pasqualina

Using a soup spoon, make 7 deep indentations into the filling – one in the center, and three on each side to form a circle.   Crack each of the remaining 7 eggs, one at a time, separating the whites from the yolk.  Preserve the whites, and carefully drop each yolk into an indentation in the filling.  Carefully spoon some of the egg whites on top of the ricotta mixture.

Roll out each of the remaining small pieces of dough and place them one after another on top of the tart, brushing the first piece of dough with olive oil before adding the second.  Carefully lift the excess bottom dough up around the top of the tart, pressing the bottom and top pieces together.  Brush the remaining egg yolk over the dough, with particular attention to sealing the edges.

Torta Pasqualina

Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.  Allow to cool to room temperature before cutting into it.

Torta PasqualinaTorta Pasqualina

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.

Fave e Pecorino

We’ve been nostalgic for Rome lately.  Perhaps its recent birthday has gotten us thinking about it.  Or, maybe it’s been on our minds because we’re planning a visit this July and are eager to see friends and family, and to return to some of our favorite places, like this one, or these.

When we miss Rome, we find ourselves returning to some of its best food.  Last week it was the classic Roman pasta dish, cacio e pepe.  Today it was saltimbocca alla romana, which we will write about on Due Spaghetti as soon as we can find veal scallopini that make the grade.  (Who knew that good veal would be so hard to come by?)

With May 1st right around the corner, we couldn’t help venturing out in search of another Roman springtime classic, fresh fava beans, to eat alongside Pecorino Romano cheese on May 1st.

In Italy, like in much of the rest of the world, May 1st is a holiday – International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day as it is called Stateside and elsewhere.  In Rome, tradition calls for a May 1st scampagnata (a picnic in the countryside) with friends, and fave e pecorino romano, with a glass of good wine, are always part of the day.

In many towns just outside of Rome, they celebrate the Sagra delle Fave e Pecorino.  A sagra is a town festival, often dedicated to a food that is native to the region, so it is fitting that several towns near Rome hold a sagra for fava beans and Pecorino.

It is the simplest of meals – just fresh fava beans, authentic Pecorino Romano cheese, and a glass of your favorite wine.  Many traditionalists call for red wine, but in our family it’s always been white.  Pop open the pod by running your finger along the seam that runs lengthwise up the bean, or break the pod and scoop the bean out from inside.  There’s no need to peel the bean – just pop it in your mouth, follow with a bite of Pecorino, and conclude with a sip of wine.  Buon primo maggio!

 

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.

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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