Pizza al forno di legno (Wood-fired pizza)

This summer, Stefano finished our outdoor kitchen, complete with a wood-burning pizza oven.  It was a long-awaited addition, because for years we’ve longed for a wood-burning oven.  Because try as we might, we simply haven’t found authentic Roman pizza anywhere here.  The obvious solution, therefore, was to make our own.

Pizza al forno a legno

Due Spaghetti's back yard pizza ovenIn Rome, there are pizzerie on every corner.  When Stefano was young, it was a special treat when his parents Andrea and Maria took him, his brother Marco and his sister Debora out for pizza.  They’d sometimes go to a pizzeria in the Centocelle neighborhood of Rome, with family friends Mario and Vincenzina.  Other times they stay closer to home and go to Pizzeria la Ruota, or “the Wagon Wheel.”  Andrea’s favorite pizza was the capricciosa, a classic pie with mozzarella, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, olives and a hard boiled egg in the middle.  Maria always ordered a pizza with funghi, a simple, light pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella and mushrooms.  The kids usually chose a traditional margherita, or perhaps a pizza with salciccia, or sausage.

Pizza MargaritaPizza MargaritaIn later years, when Stefano and I were first married, our regular spot was Pizza e Fichi, in the Giardinetti neighborhood of Rome.  We’d sit at a table on their patio, where our son Sean would fall asleep in his stroller and we’d enjoy our pizzas long into the evening.

We’ve been wanting to blog about our wood-fired pizzas all summer long, but It’s taken a few attempts to get the dough just right.  The much acclaimed pizza napoletana that has taken the world by storm sports a thicker, yeastier and chewier crust.  While admittedly delicious, it also makes for a heavier, more filling pizza.  Romans at heart, we prefer the lighter and thinner Roman-style pizza crust.

We’ve settled on a recipe given to us by our friend Luigi, a baker from the Puglia region of Italy.  We also roll out our pizza dough, strictly forbidden with a Neopolitan crust but standard practice in Rome.  It’s delicious.

L'impasto per la pizza

Impasto per la pizzaBe prepared to plan an entire day ahead – the dough needs to rise and rest for over 24 hours.  This recipe will make enough dough for about 10 individually-sized pizzas.  When we fire up the wood-burning oven, friends and neighbors always seem to make their way to our back yard, and we’ve never needed fewer than ten.  But, half the recipe if you want fewer pizzas.

Finally, we didn’t convert this recipe from grams to cups, as we usually do.  There’s simply too much room for error.  It’s worth investing in a food scale if you don’t already have one.

And speaking of flour, we found that a high gluten flour works best.  We bought a large bag from our local restaurant supply store.  Otherwise, King Arthur carries a version.

Fiori di zucca ed aliciFiori di zucca con alici

Ingredients
1 kilo of high gluten flour
21 grams of active dry yeast, such as this.
20 grams of salt
20 grams of olive oil
600 grams of water.

Directions
Add the yeast to 600 ml of warm water.  Stir to dissolve, and set aside.  Weigh out the flour into a mixing bowl, and add the salt.  Return to your yeast and water.  Stir again to ensure the yeast is completely dissolved.  Add 20 grams of olive oil to the yeast and water mixture.

If you have a kitchen mixer with a dough attachment, place the mixing bowl with flour and salt onto it. Lock the bowl in place, and turn the mixer on the lowest speed setting.  Gradually pour the water, yeast and oil into the flour and salt mixture.  Continue to mix on low speed for about 5 minutes, until the dough forms a smooth ball.

If you do not have a kitchen mixer with a dough attachment, follow the procedure above but use a wooden spoon to stir the water into the flour.  Once mixed, turn the dough out onto a smooth work-surface sprinkled with flour, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes until the dough comes together in a smooth ball.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for 20 minutes.  In the meanwhile, line two baking trays with parchment paper.

After 20 minutes,turn the dough out onto a large, floured cutting board.  Using your food scale, cut pieces of dough that weigh 150 to 200 grams each.  Take each piece of dough in your hands and work it into a ball, pulling the loose ends together at the bottom.  Place five balls of dough onto each baking tray.  Cover the trays with plastic wrap, or, slip your baking trays into these large 13 gallon kitchen food bags and wrap the ends of the bag under the trays to prevent air from getting in.

Let the dough rise for 3 hours at room temperature.  Then, place the covered baking trays in the refrigerator for about 20 hours.  The next day, pull them out of the refrigerator 3 to 4 hours before baking and let them return to room temperature.

If you are using a wood-fired oven, bring the oven up to temperature of about 900° Fahrenheit, or 480° Celsius.  If you are using your home oven, preheat it to it’s highest setting, with a pizza stone inside.

On a floured work surface, roll your dough to about 1/8 inch, or about 3 millimeters thick. Top your pizza with San Marzano tomatoes passed through a food mill, diced fresh mozzarella (after dicing, let your mozzarella sit in a strainer on top of a bowl, so that the extra water drains off), and the toppings of your choice.  A few of our favorites are below.  Slide it into the wood-fired oven, where in just 2 to 3 minutes it will be done.  Or, place the pizza on top of the hot pizza stone, and bake in the oven for 5-10 minutes, or until done.

Pizza Menu

 

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

Crostini con prosciutto e mozzarella

Crostini con prosciutto e mozzarella

Oooh, things have been busy!  We’re at full tilt with work, school, homework, kids’ activities, and now the holidays on top of it.  When life is moving this fast, it’s hard to find time, or energy for that matter, to cook.  Or to blog.

That’s not to say we’ve abandoned our kitchen altogether.  We’ve had a few amazing meals, such as polenta with spuntature di maiale e salsicce (red sauce with short ribs and sausage), served on two large slabs of wood placed right on the dining room table, when Cara’s cousins traveled from three different states for a weekend feast.  Many meals have been quick ones, however.

Back in Rome, when things got busy at Stefano’s house and a fast meal was needed, Maria would make crostini con prosciutto e mozzarella, toasted bread topped with prosciutto and melted mozzarella.  It’s still a favorite in our house when we’re in need of comfort food.

Prosciutto crudoMozzarella

Ingredients
1 baguette
Prosciutto crudo (cured) and/or cotto (cooked)
Fresh mozzarella

DSC_0039DSC_0040

Directions
Slice the bread, cutting at an angle to produce elongated pieces.  Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the bread on top of it.  Toast the bread on the top side only under a high broiler, and remove from the oven.

In the meanwhile, slice your mozzarella into thin slices, and prepare your ham.  Place a slice of ham, folded over so that it just covers the bread, and mozzarella on top of each slice of bread.  Place the baking tray of crostini back into the over under a high broiler until the cheese melts and turns slightly golden brown.  Enjoy the crostini hot.

Crostini con prosciutto e mozzarellaCrostini con prosciutto e mozzarella

Torta salata con pomodori, olive e ricotta salata

Cooking in summer is more fun than in any other season.  The flavors are explosive and intense, the days are longer so dinners are later, and everything is more relaxed.

This weekend at the lake we cooked in our swimsuit coverups and we ate outdoors on the patio while watching the Azzurri cheerfully knock England out of the Euro 2012 soccer quarterfinals to advance to the semifinals against Germany.  It was reminiscent of warm Sunday afternoons at Stefano’s parent’s house near the sea, when we’d all sit around the table under the portico of the house with la partita  (the soccer match) playing on a little black and white television that sat upon a table at the far end.
Our cooking inspiration came from a recipe in the most recent edition of Italia, a British magazine about Italian culture, cuisine, and property.  It’s a a rustic tart, but a lighter, summertime version of the one we wrote about this past spring.  Easy-to-use puff pastry makes up the base, which is topped with a colorful mélange of red, yellow and orange cherry tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and black olives.  The flavors are as bright and intense as the colors, and ricotta salata adds to the rustic simplicity of this tart.

Ingredients
for two tarts

2 sheets of puff pastry
250 grams (approx. 1 pint) of red, orange and yellow cherry tomatoes
125 grams (4.5 ounces) pitted black olives*
100 grams (3.5 ounces) sun-dried tomatoes**
50 grams (1.75 ounces) ricotta salata shavings***
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

*Choose a high quality Italian or French black olive, or Greek Kalamate olives.

**You can use dried tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes in oil.  If use use dried tomatoes, rehydrate them before use according to the directions on the package.

***Ricotta salata is a dried, hard cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano or Feta will also work, for variation or if you cannot find ricotta salata.

Directions
Preheat your oven to 220° C, (425° F), with a baking sheet inside.  If frozen, allow your puff pastry to thaw according to the directions on the package.

Slice the cherry tomatoes in half and place them in a bowl.  Drain any liquid off of the olives, and add them to the bowl,  Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into halves or thirds, and add them to the mixture as well.  Pour the olive oil over the tomatoes and olives, and salt and pepper generously to taste.  Stir together.

When the oven is preheated, remove the baking sheet and carefully place the puff pastry on top of it.  Use a fork to prick holes over the surface.  With a slotted spoon, arrange half of the tomatoes and olives over the tart’s surface, spreading them out into a single layer and avoiding the juices that have developed so that the tart does not become soggy.

Bake for approximately 12 minutes, or until the puff pastry is golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool, while you repeat the process for your second tart.  This torta salata can be enjoyed warm or cold.

Torta Rustica (Rustic Farmhouse Pie)

I’m not sure what made us crave a torta rustica this weekend.  Perhaps it was the dark and stormy week we’ve had that gave appeal to the scent of a savory pie baking in a warm oven.  Or, maybe the farmhouses and chalets situated among the rolling foothills of the Dolomites that we saw this morning while researching our summer trip to Trentino-Alto Adige and other northern Italian wine regions put us in the mood.

We don’t have a proprietary torta rustica recipe; neither Stefano’s mom nor his grandmother made it frequently.  Our sister-in-law Valentina makes one, the recipe almost certainly passed down to her from her mamma, Marinella.  Without Valentina and Marinella’s recipe at hand, though, we perused our copy of the The Silver Spoon for the perfect pie for this Sunday afternoon.

There are many different types of torte rustiche.  Many call for leafy greens, like the arugula e taleggio version that we almost made, or like .  Some are heavier on cream and cheese, like the classic torta pasqualina, or Easter Pie, recently made by fellow blogger Pola at an Italian Cooking in the Midwest.  Although many call for spring vegetables like leeks and artichokes, the woodsy mushroom pie with walnut cream inspired us to fold the corner over and make note for fall.

We settled on a rustic farmhouse pie that is a nice balance of vegetables and and cheeses, with pretty colors and complex flavors.  We put our own touch on The Silver Spoon’s original recipe, and loved the results.

Ingredients
385 grams (2 and 3/4 cup) flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 packages frozen, chopped spinach
30 grams (2 Tablespoons) butter, plus extra for greasing
125 ml. (1/2 cup) heavy cream
35 grams (1/4 cup) grated Parmigiano
1 bunch thyme
2 red bell peppers
2 yellow bell peppers
6-8 slices of thinly sliced cooked ham (deli ham)
200 grams (7 ounces) fontina cheese, thinly sliced
1 egg yolk
Salt and pepper

Directions
Add a pinch of salt to the flour, and form a mound on a clean smooth surface.  Make a well in the center of the mound, and pour the wine and oil into it.  Using your fingers, gradually work the flour into the liquid, working from the center outward and gradually incorporating the flour into the dough.  Knead the dough lightly until if forms a smooth ball.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

In the meanwhile, add the spinach to boiling water and cook until tender, approximately 5 minutes.  Drain well, squeezing out as much of the water as you can.  Melt the butter in a skillet.  Return the spinach to the skillet, and add the cream and Parmigiano.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring frequently.    Remove from heat and set aside.

Halve the bell peppers, removing stems and seeds.  Place the pepper halves onto a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, and place in oven under a high broiler until the skins are deeply charred and blistered.  Remove the peppers from the oven and place them into a paper bag.  Close the bag tightly and let sit until they are cool enough to handle.  Peel off the skins, and then slice the peppers thinly, keeping the strips of red pepper separate from the yellow ones.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180° C/350° F, and butter a pie plate or a tart pan with tall sides.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into two pieces, one piece slightly larger than the other.  Roll out the larger of the two pieces of dough on a flour-dusted smooth surface, until it is just larger than the diameter of the pie plate or tart pan.  Place the dough carefully into the the pan, allowing it to fold over the edges.

Arrange a layer of ham on the bottom of the pie. Add a layer of spinach, using half of the spinach, Parmigiano and cream mixture.  Follow with a layer of all of the red peppers.  Top with a layer of fontina, using half of the cheese slices.  Repeat the process with another layer of ham, the rest of the spinach mixture, and then the yellow peppers.  Add another layer of ham on top of the peppers, and finally the last layer of fontina.

Roll out the second ball of dough, and cover the pie.  Roll the edges of the bottom layer of dough up over the top layer, and pinch together with your fingers.  You may wish to wet your fingers to help seal the crust together.  Beat the egg yolk and add a small amount of water to it.  Prick the top of the pie with a fork, and brush with the egg yolk.

Bake for 1 to 1.5 hours, until the top is golden brown.  Let sit 30 minutes before cutting.  Serve hot or cold.

Pizza con le patate (Rosemary Potato Pizza)

A stop by our local panificio, where bread is made and sold, nearly always ended in a piece or two of pizza al taglio along with our loaf of bread.

Rome is famous for its pizza al taglio, and there are pizza shops that sell literally dozens of varieties.  Panifici, however, typically sell just a few types – perhaps pizza bianca with no toppings at all except olive oil and sea salt, pizza rossa with just crust and tomato sauce, pizza con le zucchine with grated zucchini and mozzarella, and one of our favorites – pizza con le patate, or rosemary potato pizza.

We’ve recreated that pizza at home, and love to make it on a lazy weekend, for family gatherings or for parties.  It is delicious right out of the oven, but it tastes great at room temperature too, so it can be made ahead of time.

In our version,  paper thin slices of potato and grated fresh mozzarella cheese are layered on top of a thin pizza crust, and the whole thing is adorned with fresh rosemary leaves, sea salt and ground black pepper.  A drizzle of olive oil is the final touch.

The potatoes cook along with the crust, the mozzarella melts and turns golden brown on top, and the rosemary releases its fragrant aroma.  Gotta run – ours looks and smells done!

Ingredients
for one 9×13 in pan

Pizza crust
320 grams (2 and 1/2 cups) flour*, plus extra.
8 grams (1 and 1/2 tsp.) salt
20 grams (5 tsp) active dry yeast
250 ml (1 cup) warm water
olive oil

Potato Pizza Topping
1 and a half medium potatoes
1 tub of fresh mozzarella (226 grams, 8 ounces)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1-2 cloves of finely minced garlic (optional)
salt
ground black pepper
olive oil

* If possible, use Italian type 00 flour, found in specialty stores and online vendors.  We use King Arthur Italian Style flour.

Directions
Mix the flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl.  In a separate container, add the yeast to the warm water.  Stir until the yeast is fully dissolved.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Slowly pour the water and yeast in, and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is well mixed.  The dough will probably be sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a smooth, well-floured work surface.  Mix the dough by hand, incorporating more flour as needed to keep it from sticking.  Knead by hand for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and stretchy.

Clean the bowl you mixed the dough in and drizzle olive oil inside it.  Gather the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl, rotating it so that it becomes coated with oil on all sides.  Cover with plastic wrap, and set in a warm location to rise for one hour.

While the dough rises, prepare your toppings.  Drain the mozzarella and grate it through the largest holes of a grater.  Wash the rosemary and pull the leaves off of the stems.  Peel the potatoes and slice them very thinly.  We use a vegetable slicer at 1/16th inch to help achieve thin, regular slices. Rub a thin layer of olive oil on the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan.  Preheat the oven to 350° F, 180° C.

When the dough is ready, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Punch it down and stretch it into a rectangular shape.  Place it on the baking tray, and using your fingers and the heel of your hand, press it evenly into the baking pan, working it towards the edges and corners while maintaining a consistent thickness.

Layer the potato slices over the entire surface of the pizza, overlapping the slices only slightly at the edges.  Sprinkle the mozzarella over the top of the pizza. If you choose to use garlic, add it now.  Salt and pepper liberally, and then toss the rosemary leaves on top. Complete your pizza with a thin drizzle of olive oil on top.

Bake at 350° F, 180° C for approximately 20-25 minutes, until the mozzarella browns and the crust turns golden brown.

Download a pdf of the recipe Pizza con le patate

Pane Casareccio

On Saturdays in late fall at the end of a long day in the family’s olive groves, we brought our sacks of olives to the frantoio, where the oil was cold-pressed from the fruit’s  pit.  With dirt under our fingernails, we toasted slices of rustic bread on the frantoio’s open fire and drizzled the freshly pressed virgin oil on top.  The warm toasted bread with fragrant new oil on top was a worthy end to the hard work of harvesting olives.

Good, rustic bread can be found locally in several places.  One of the best is Cossetta’s, where Italian baker and pastry chef Luigi Vitali has been consulting and developing recipes for the much proclaimed bakery expansion.  The other Italian delis also have quality bread, as do a number of renowned local bakeries like Patisserie 46, Rustica,  and Salty Tart.  Even Trader Joe’s and Kowalski’s sell pretty good French and Italian-style bread.

While we love being able to find a nice, crusty pagnotta or a freshly baked ciabatta at our local bakery or supermarket, the cost of one burns a hole in our pockets.  Over $4 for a loaf of bread?  It’s made with only flour, yeast and water, after all.  And is it just us, or have the loaves been getting smaller?

Spending that much on bread really wasn’t an option for us, but going without or substituting soft American bread wasn’t either.  So, we decided to make our own.  It took several months of experimenting with ingredients and methods to get it right.  The most difficult part was figuring out how to produce bread with a crunchy, rustic crust.  A standard bread machine didn’t work, and neither did baking loaves right on a baking sheet.  In both cases, the flavor was good, but the bread was too dense and its crust too soft.

Finally, after a great deal of research and experimentation, we came upon this article that shed light on the problem.    The key, we learned, is using a sticky, wet dough and baking it inside a cast iron dutch oven at very high heat.  High humidity coupled with high heat produces bread with crusty golden-brown exterior, and a spongy, chewy interior.  It is so good that even our Italian friends and relatives are impressed.

We’ve been making this bread for several years, and have adjusted the ingredient quantities and procedures over time.  The recipe below is what we have settled on, and we’ve literally made hundreds of loaves.  The consistency of the dough changes slightly according to the brand of flour you use, the seasons, and the level of humidity in the air.  However, it always turns out.

There are a few things to know before you begin:

  • You will need a cast-iron dutch oven.  Do not purchase an enameled one; they are not heat resistant at the high temperature required to bake this bread.  We use a 5-qt. dutch oven made by Lodge.
  • Baking bread is a two day process.  You do not need to knead this dough, but you do need to let it sit overnight.  We mix the dough on Saturday afternoon, and bake it on Sunday.
  • Use standard, unbleached bread flour.
  • Use bread machine yeast that comes in a glass jar, and store your yeast in the refrigerator.
  • Weigh your flour, don’t measure it.
  • Acquire plastic chopping mats, pastry mats or even plastic place mats to let your loaves rise on.
  • Consider making a few loaves at a time.  Whatever you do not eat that same day you can slice and freeze, and pull out as needed throughout the week.  Freezing is a better solution to storing in paper bags.  Never store this bread in plastic bags.

Ingredients
1 and 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon yeast
450 grams flour
1 and 1/2 cups warm water

Directions
Place the salt and the yeast into a medium-sized glass or ceramic bowl.  Add the warm water, and stir until the yeast and the salt are dissolved and the water is cloudy.  Measure the flour and add it to the water.  With a wooden spoon, stir the flour into the water until just mixed.  The dough will come together and form a ball.  Don’t over-stir – the consistency will be unequal with some parts more dense and other parts stickier.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, creating a tight, airproof seal.  Let sit overnight for 12-18 hours.  When you return to your dough the next day, you will see that it has risen and become a light, wet, sticky dough with air bubbles covering its surface.

The next phase of the process involves shaping your dough into loaves, and letting them rise  Lay a plastic chopping mat or pastry mat down on a work surface in a part of the kitchen where the temperature is even – not too close to the oven, and away from drafts.  Sprinkle flour over the surface of the mat.  Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl of dough, and set aside to be used again later.  Using your fingers, pull the dough out of the bowl and onto the mat.  Let it rest there for 15 minutes.

Using the extra flour on the mat to keep the dough from sticking to your hands, lift the dough and carefully work it into a round loaf shape by pulling the ends around and working them together on the underneath side.  Move quickly and efficiently so as not to overwork the dough.  With the dough in one hand, remove the excess flour from the mat using the other hand, and then gently set the loaf back down onto the mat.  Retrieve the plastic wrap that previously covered the bowl, and place loosely over the dough, dry-side down.  Let the dough rise for 2-3 more hours.

30 minutes before baking the bread, place the dutch oven into your oven, and preheat it to 475° F.  You want your dutch oven to be scorching hot when you place your dough into it.

When your dough is ready and your oven has reached 475° F, remove the dutch oven, and take its lid off.  Working quickly so that your dutch oven and your oven do not cool down too much, lift the entire plastic mat with the dough on it, and carefully turn the dough over into the dutch oven.  Replace the lid and using pot holders, give the dutch oven a shake or two while on your countertop in so that the dough inside settles into the center of the dutch oven.

Return the dutch oven to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, remove the lid of the dutch oven and check the color of the bread.  If it is still pale yellow, return the dutch oven to the oven uncovered for up to 5 more minutes, until the crust achieves a deep golden-brown color.

Remove the dutch oven from the oven, and turn the bread out onto the counter top immediately.  Let cool on a baking rack so that the heat can escape from underneath.  When no longer piping hot, slice and enjoy.

View a pdf of the recipe Pane Casareccio

Pizzette rustiche, the perfect party food

It’s the season of parties – graduation parties, children’s parties, block parties, and, as Stefano reminds me, his upcoming birthday party.  It’s not until September, but we are already planning for it since he is turning 40 and, he says, he wants it to be memorable.

When we threw parties in Italy, we would place an order at our favorite neighborhood pasticceria.  We’d choose an array of cream filled pasticcini mignon, delicate triangle-shaped sandwiches made from white bread with the crusts removed called tramezzini, and an assortment savory rustici salati.  Included in the rustici salati were pizzette, or bite-sized little pizzas with a variety of simple toppings.  Upon arriving home, we could never resist sneaking a few of the pizzette before the party began.

While nothing compares to the pizzette from an Italian pasticceria, very good pizzette can be made, really quite simply, right at home.

Before we jump into the how-to, however, there is a confession to be had.  Not everything in this recipe is made from scratch.  These pizzette are made from puff pastry, which one could try to make, if one really wanted to.  But who really wants to?  One recipe we saw warns that it is a three-day process.  While that sounds like a fun adventure some time, it’s not particularly practical, and we opted instead for the puff pastry that Pepperidge Farm sells in convenient frozen sheets and that work just perfectly for pizzette.

As much as we love to cook and bake, and as much as we appreciate home cooking with fresh natural ingredients, we are also adults with day jobs and other responsibilities.  If you are like us, once in a while it’s okay to accept some help, this time in the form of ready-made puff pastry.

The Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, puts it best in her book entitled Parties!:

“I can’t say enough about assembling food rather than cooking.  I keep telling myself that my friends won’t have any more fun if I spend two days making a daquoise for dessert than if I find a delicious pound cake at a bakery and serve it with store-bought lemon curd and fresh raspberries.   In fact, they’ll have more fun, because I’m relaxed and having fun, too.”

We brought pizzette to our block party tonight, and they were devoured within minutes.  We’ll make them again for Stefano’s 40th birthday party, and undoubtedly the same thing will happen.  We will use store-bought puff pastry each time, knowing that they will turn out great, and that we’ll enjoy each party to its fullest, just as Ina says.

Ingredients
1 box (2 sheets) of frozen puff pastry
1 small can or tube of tomato paste
Olive oil
Salt
Oregano
Optional: fresh mozzarella, anchovies

Allow puff pastry to thaw.  Unfold the pastry sheets onto work surface, and with a small, round cookie cutter with a 2″-3″ diameter, cut out little pizza shapes and set them onto a baking tray.  If you do not have a round cookie cutter, a small glass or a mason jar lid will work fine.

Place a small dab of tomato paste in the center of each pizzette, and with your finger or the back of a small spoon, spread the paste around the center without reaching the edges.  You only require about 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. of paste for each pizzetta, depending on their size.  Too much paste will weigh down the pizzette and not allow the puff pastry to rise while cooking.

Using a cooking brush, spread a light layer of olive oil over each pizzetta, again using caution to not overdo with too much oil.  Next, toss a light layer of salt over the pizzette, and consider how you wish to complete the toppings.

For classic pizzette, sprinkle dried oregano on top.  Alternatively, you may add a small piece of anchovy to the top of the pizzette and then the oregano.  Or, some people prefer to omit the oregano and add a few small pieces of fresh mozzarella on top.  If you opt for the mozzarella, it’s best to use a denser, less liquid cheese, and very small pieces on top of the pizzette, again so that the puff pastry can still rise in the oven.

Bake at 400° F for approximately 8 minutes, or until the pizzette have risen and are golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes; the pizzette will fall slightly.  Use a spatula to carefully remove them from the baking tray.

Makes approximately 20-24 pizzette

Pizza e Fichi

Figs!  I was at the grocery store roaming through the produce section when I came upon them, sitting nonchalantly on a shelf.  I picked up a case triumphantly, taking care to not bruise their tender flesh.

Upon returning home, I showed the figs gleefully to Stefano, and then started in on a batch of dough for pizza bianca, thrilled to begin preparations for our once-a-year treat of Pizza e Fichi.  The dough needs to sit all night, so in the meanwhile we will tell you about our passion for this fruit steeped in history and tradition.

The fig was considered a sacred fruit in Ancient Rome.  The twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were said to have rested under a fig tree, the Greco-Roman deity Bacchus was worshiped for introducing the fig to humankind, and the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) once said, “Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly in better health and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.”  Figs are similarly regarded in other ancient cultures. (sounce: California Fig Association)

There is a beautiful, old fig tree at the start of Stefano’s family’s olive groves in the hill towns outside of Rome.  In summer, a trip to tend to the olives also involves bringing a newspaper-lined crate to gather the ripe fruits.

The last time we were there, Stefano took our two sons right under the tree.  With their faces pointed to to the sky and the branches of this this expansive tree extending out and over them in all directions, they looked up at the pretty purple-green figs and listened to their papà tell them stories about eating figs from this tree when he was a boy.

On cue, an especially ripe fig chose that moment to detach from its branch, and fell right onto 5-year-old Luca’s forehead.  To this day, whenever figs make their annual appearance at the market and we return home with a case of them to make Pizza e Fichi, we have a good laugh about the time the fig from Papi’s tree in the olive groves fell on Luca’s head.

Pizza e Fichi

Ingredients
Whole ripe figs
450 g (approx. 3 1/2 C) flour, plus extra for dusting
1/4 tsp. baker’s yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 C warm water

The night prior, add the yeast and salt to a large glass or ceramic bowl.  Add the water and stir until both the yeast and the flour are dissolved.  Fold in the flour, stirring just until the dough has formed a round, lumpy ball.  Cover the rim of the bowl with a layer of plastic wrap, sealing the dough from the outside air.  Let sit overnight at room temperature.

The next day, when the dough has risen for 12 hours and is wet and porous, remove the plastic wrap and turn the dough out onto a smooth plastic or stone surface liberally dusted with flour.  Let sit for 15 minutes.

Using additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, work the dough into a loaf shape, and place it back onto the flour-dusted surface.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and allow it to raise for 2 hours.

Punch the dough down, and divide it in half.  Again using flour as needed to keep it from sticking, work each half of dough into an oblong, loaf form.  Cover again and allow to rise for an additional 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 475° Fahrenheit, and sprinkle flour onto two large baking sheets.  After 30 minutes has passed, place each loaf onto a baking sheet.  Work the dough with your fingers into a long, rectangular shape approximately 1/2 inch high.  Lightly brush olive oil and sprinkle salt over the surface of the pizza.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove from the baking tray and allow to cool.

Once cool, cut the pizza into uniform pieces.  If the height of the pizza bianca permits, slice it in half, horizontal to the counter, so that it can be filled just like a panino.  If your pizza cannot be sliced in half, simply use two pieces.

Use your fingers to peel the figs, and spread the inner fruit onto the surface of one piece of the pizza bianca.  Top with the other piece of pizza bianca, and enjoy your Pizza e Fichi.