Panna cotta all’arancia e pistacchio di Bronte

Panna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di BronteSome days, I tell Stefano that I might just drop everything and become a pastry chef.  Specifically, an Italian pastry chef.  A pasticciere.

There’s truly nothing more spectacular, in our humble opinion, than Italian pastries and desserts.  Delicate, nuanced flavors; simple, natural ingredients; satisfying, but not decadent or overdone.

In Rome, pasticcerie (pastry shops or bakeries) are filled with cream filled pastarelle , or their smaller counterpart, the mignon.  Around breakfast time, you’ll find the classic Roman maritozzi alla panna.  In addition to cream-filled pastries, there is also a lovely assortment of fragrant and delicate choices in the pasticceria secca, like these.  However, on recent trips back to Italy, in Rome and across the country we noted a resurgence of dolci al cucchiaio in the pasticcerie that we visited.  Dolci al cucchiaio are that category of desserts that includes custards, puddings, mousse and so forth, which are enjoyed with a spoon, or cucchiaio.

Panna cotta is an Italian classic that belongs to this category.  It’s as simple as its name suggests: panna means cream, and cotta means cooked.  Cooked cream, a little sugar, a vanilla bean for flavor, and a bit of gelatin to hold it together.  Panna cotta originates from the Piedmont region of Italy, where rich cream is a staple.  It is traditionally served with a caramel, chocolate or mixed berry sauce.  However, many creative variations exist.  We were enticed by this version with an orange sauce and Sicilian Bronte pistachios, as the flavors evoked our recent trip to Sicily.

Makes 6 individual servings

For the Panna Cotta
500 grams (half a liter, 1 pint, or 16 oz) of heavy cream
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
1 vanilla bean
Zest of one orange
10 grams of gelatin sheets, like these.  For us, 10 grams was two sheets.  But, it’s best to weigh them to be sure.

For the Orange Sauce
Juice of one orange
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
1 Tablespoon water

For Decoration
A sprinkling of ground pistachios, ideally Sicilian Bronte pistachios

You will need panna cotta molds of some sort.  We improvised with a silicone brioche mold, which we cut into individual molds.  However, any small dish or cup will work.

Panna cotta all'arancia con pistacchi di Bronte

Submerge the gelatin sheets in a pan of cold water, and let sit.  Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and add it, along with the cream and sugar, to a small pan.  Zest your orange and add the zest to the cream mixture.  Gently bring it to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  When it boils, remove from heat.  Remove the gelatin sheets from water one by one, wring the excess water off of them, and add each sheet to the cream.  Stir until the gelatin dissolves completely into the cream mixture.

Carefully pour the cooked cream into your molds, and then refrigerate for at least two hours, or longer.

While the cooked cream is cooling in the refrigerator, prepare the orange sauce.  Place the sugar into a small saucepan, and then add water.  Without stirring, place over low heat.  While the sugar heats and dissolves into the water, juice your two oranges, ensuring that pulp and seeds are filtered out.  Once the sugar has completely dissolved, add the orange juice.  The addition of the orange juice will cause the sugar to crystallize.  Turn the heat to its lowest setting and stir until the sugar again dissolves.  Remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature.

When the panna cotta is ready, carefully turn it out of its mold onto a small serving plate.  This is the hardest part, as sometimes it doesn’t cooperate.  Some advise to run the bottom of the mold quickly under hot water, or to apply a hot, damp cloth to help it come out.  Ours came out of the silicon molds with little trouble, but if you run into difficulty turning out the panna cotta, you may wish to just serve it in its container.

A properly cooked panna cotta will jiggle a bit on its plate.  Drizzle the orange sauce over the top of each panna cotta, and finish with a dusting of pistachio.  If you wish, garnish with a thin orange slice.

Panna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di BrontePanna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di Bronte




Crostata alla Nutella

Today’s recipe is an tribute to Nutella, that delicious, chocolate-hazelnut spread meant for kids but secretly loved by adults, too.

Crostata alla Nutella

Nutella was originally a solid chocolate and hazelnut creation, and later a spread named Supercrema, created in the 1940s by Pietro Ferrero, founder of the Italian chocolate company Ferrero.  At that time, cocoa was difficult to obtain due to rationing during World War II.  Hazelnuts, however, were abundant in his hometown of Alba in the Langhe region of Italy, and in a case of necessity driving ingenuity Ferrero stretched his chocolate recipe by incorporating them.  Nutella as we know it was created in the 1964s by Ferrero’s son, Michele, who envisioned a product that could be sold worldwide.

Crostata alla NutellaIn the 1970s when Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora were growing up, Nutella was a special treat.  Their mother, Maria, bought it every once in a while and spread a paper-thin layer onto fette biscottate or even better yet a piece of crusty bread as an after school snack, and when she wasn’t looking, they would sneak spoonfuls of Nutella straight from the jar.  At that time, Nutella was sold in glass containers with cartoon characters screen-printed onto them.  Once the Nutella was gone, the container could be washed and used as a drinking glass.  As children, Stefano, Marco and Debora each had their own designated Nutella glass in the cupboard.

Crostata alla Nutella

Over time, hundreds of desserts featuring Nutella have been created.  One of the most simple, and a favorite in our household, is crostata alla nutella.  This is a variation of the classic Italian jam crostata, or crostata alla frutta, and it uses the same short-bread style crust as torta della nonna.  We often make it as a children’s dessert to accompany a more sophisticated dessert for adults, and it never fails that the grown ups grab a slice, too.

Crostata alla Nutella

Torta alla Nutella
for a 9″-11″ tart pan

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
One small jar of Nutella (13 oz. or 400 g)

Prepare the pasta frolla short-bread crust by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface, or into a large bowl.  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.

Crostata alla Nutella

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C), and butter and flour a 9-11 inch or 26-28 cm. fluted-edge tart pan.  If you cannot find a tart pan, a round spring-form pan or a pie plate, will also work, although it is helpful to have a pan with a removable bottom.

Take 1/3 of the dough and set it aside.  You will use this later for the lattice on top.  Roll out the remaining 2/3 of the pasta frolla and lay it into the tart pan, pressing the bottom and sides tightly against the edges.  Spread the Nutella smoothly onto the crust.

Crostata alla Nutella

Roll out the remaining dough, and cut strips that are about 1/2″ or 1 cm. wide.  You can use a fluted pastry cutter to make pretty edges if you have one.  I was cooking in my mom’s kitchen and did not have mine with me, and as you can see straight edges work just fine, too.  Arrange the strips of dough on top of the crostata in a lattice pattern, and pinch the edges together.

Bake for approximately 30-35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.  Take care to not burn the Nutella.  Let cool, and enjoy.

Crostata alla NutellaCrostata alla NutellaCrostata alla Nutella

Caffè Corretto, Gelato Affogato

These are the dog days of winter.  Here in the northernmost tier of North America, as as we slog through the snow and measure the temperature by windchill factor, the simple pleasures are what carry us forward as we patiently await spring’s arrival.

Caffè correttoBefore leaving the house in the morning, consider ‘correcting’ your coffee.  Spiking it, that is, with a shot of liquor that will warm you up and give you the kick you need to brace the cold outdoors.  Caffè corretto is an Italian coffee tradition.  Any time of day, but most commonly in the morning, Italian gentlemen will ask their barista to ‘correct’ their espresso with their liquor of preference  – Grappa, Cognac, Sambuca, or bitters such as Fernet or Cynar.

It is a tradition that may have originated in Naples, among the working class, who were looking to begin the workday with just a bit of extra forza.  Like all good ideas, the practice spread and is now common in all parts of the Italian peninsula.

Caffè correttoSo, the next time you are in Italy and wish to try an espresso with some fortitude, stop in a bar and ask for a caffè corretto alla grappa, or a caffè corretto al cognac.  Don’t sugar it, either.  That will throw off the ‘correction.’

Here in the States, unfortunately we cannot go into our local coffee shop and and ask for a a little brandy in our single shot espresso.  You could ask for one at the end of your meal in a good Italian restaurant, however.  In fact, that would be an excellent measure of authenticity – ask for a caffè corretto, and if they know exactly what you mean, then you’re at a true Italian restaurant.

Some correct their coffee by putting a shot of liquor in the espresso cup and then adding the caffè.  Others drink the two side by side.  Either way, it will add a warm boost to the start of your day.

Caffè corretto al CognacCaffè corretto alla grappa

Since we are on the topic,  we should mention another Italian merging of flavors involving both coffee and liquor.  Gelato affogato, which means ‘drowned’ gelato is a simple and brilliant ice-cream dessert.  A bit of bitter espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream – gelato affogato al caffè – adds complexity of flavor and sophistication to an otherwise plain dessert.

Gelato affogato al caffè

Or, for an adult twist, try gelato affogato al Borsci, also a bitter, or gelato affogato al whiskey.  In Italy, you would use gelato alla crema, a plain, cream-based gelato.  If you are not so lucky to be able to find that, a nice natural vanilla ice cream will substitute just fine.

Gelato affogato al whiskey

So, until the sun shines hot again, stay home and stay warm!

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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

Torta della Nonna

The holidays were over a month ago, and since then we’ve dutifully refrained from sweets in favor of healthy meals and modest portions.  But 5 weeks is enough, right?

When we saw the recipe for Torta della Nonna in this week’s newsletter from La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, we were drawn in.  It’s the perfect weekend to turn on the oven and warm up kitchen, to fill the house with the fragrant, lemony-sweet aroma of pasta frolla baking, and to bring our Sunday evening to a close over a delicious and delicate homemade torta.

Torta is a tricky word to translate.  Sometimes it means cake, and when it does, it is pretty straight-forward.  Other times, however, a torta is closer to a tart or a pie.  Torta della Nonna falls into this latter category.  Prepared in a tart pan, it has a base of pasta frolla,  followed by a creamy filling, and topped with pine nuts.

But let’s take things one step at a time.  Pasta frolla is common crust or base for many Italian baked goods.  La Cucina Italiana calls it “short crust pastry” in English, but it is also commonly called shortbread.  It’s not quite the same as shortbread, but the comparison is understandable.  A good pasta frolla will be golden, soft and just slightly crisp, and it will have a delicate, not-too-sweet flavor.

There are different versions of the filling for Torta della Nonna.  Traditionally, the recipe calls for crema pasticcera, or Italian pastry cream, with a second layer of pasta frolla on top.  However, an alternative version calls for a ricotta-based filling.  This is how the recipe from La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese was written, and being amanti of ricotta-based baked goods, this the option that we chose.

In all cases, Torta della Nonna is adorned with a layer of pine nuts before baking, and then a sprinkling of powdered sugar upon exiting the oven.

As we’ve said before, Italian pastries and baked goods are lighter, more delicate and less sweet than desserts in many other countries of the world.  In Italy, homemade baked goods are also characterized by simple, high quality ingredients.  Torta della Nonna, which mean’s Grandmother’s Tart or Grandmother’s Pie, is a perfect example of this.  For our Torta della Nonna we used organic, cage-free eggs, King Arthur Italian type-00 flour, extra-fine sugar, and fresh, whole milk ricotta.

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
250 g (1 cup, firmly packed) fresh whole milk ricotta
2 eggs
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
25 g (2 Tbsp) corn starch
Zest of 1 lemon

For the topping
40 g (1/4 cup) pine nuts
Powdered sugar

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.

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C) and prepare the filling by mixing the ricotta, eggs, sugar, corn starch and lemon zest together with a wire whisk until smooth.

Butter and flour a 9-11 inch or 26-28 cm. fluted-edge tart pan.  If you cannot find a tart pan, a round spring-form pan or a pie plate, will also work, although it is helpful to have a pan with a removable bottom.

Roll out the pasta frolla and lay it into the tart pan, pressing the bottom and sides tightly against the edges.  Pour the filling into the shell, and sprinkle the pine nuts over the top.

Bake at 350° F (180° C) for 30-35 minutes, just until the center is firm and does not wiggle when you gently shake the pan.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes, and use a tea strainer to sprinkle a layer of powdered sugar on top.

Download a pdf of the recipe Torta della Nonna

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.

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

La granita di caffè e la granita di ciliegie

Have you ever entirely forgotten about a food, for years even, until suddenly something reminds you of it and you just have to have it?  A recent LA Times food article on granita had us craving that icy treat for a days.

Granita is the most humble Italian frozen dessertUnlike gelato, it is made with no cream.  Different from sorbetto, which is smooth and soft, granita has a rustic, granular texture as a result of larger, coarser ice crystals.  It is an unpretentious dessert that originates in Sicily, where locals have it for breakfast on hot summer days.  Outside of Italy, granita is often called “Italian ice,” although the products bearing that name neither resemble nor do justice to an authentic granita.

The Times did a nice write up on this gem of a dessert, with recipes and photos for a variety of granite, from traditional cherry to more unusual flavors like green tea and cucumber (Yes, cucumber.  People, please. Cucumbers are good in salads, not in your dessert.)  They didn’t mention what may be Italy’s most famous granita, though, granita di caffè.  We couldn’t keep our minds off of it.

A little online research later – honestly, what did we do before the internet? – and we found this expert post on granita di caffé, on a delightful blog called Memorie di Angelina.  Here, we read about making sugar syrup, an essential to a properly prepared granita, and we borrowed the tip about freezing the granita in a bread pan.

We made granita di caffè for the adults, and granita di ciliegie, or cherry granita, for the kids, topping each one with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.  It made for a delightful weekend!

Ingredients for sugar syrup
Sugar and water, in equal parts.

Ingredients for granita di caffè
2 cups strong, dense espresso
Sugar syrup to taste

Ingredients for granita di ciliegie
1 lb. fresh, pitted cherries
Sugar syrup to taste
Optional: 2 tsp. almond extract
Optional: 2 Tbsp. orange-flavored liquor, such as Cointreau

For the sugar syrup
Mix equal parts sugar and water in a sauce pan.  We made the syrup with 2 cups sugar and 2 cups of water, and had more than we needed for both of the granite.  Cook the liquid over medium high heat until it comes to a boil.  Reduce heat, simmer for 5 minutes, and then remove from heat and allow it to cool completely.

For the granita di caffè
Prepare 2 cups of strong, dense espresso and pour it into a pan that can go into the freezer.  As we mentioned above, we used a bread pan.  Add sugar syrup gradually until your mixture reaches the sweetness you prefer.

For the granita di ciliegie
Wash the cherries, and remove their pits and stems.  Chop the cherries finely in a food processor, and place them into a pan.  Mix sugar syrup into the cherries to taste.  If you’d like, you can add a few teaspoons of almond extract, or a few tablespoons liquor such as Cointreau, or both.

Freezing granita
Place the pans of granita into the freezer uncovered.  Check on your granita every half-hour or hour, depending on the depth of the pan you used.  As it freezes, ice crystals will form around the edges of the pan.  Each time you check on the granita, stir the mixture, breaking up the icy edges.  Gradually, your granita will become thicker and slushier.  When it reaches a soft, solid consistency, it is ready.  This may take a few hours, again depending on the depth of your pan.

As long as you have been stirring periodically, you can allow the mixture to freeze solid.   Before serving, allow it to thaw for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time until the granita reaches the correct consistency.  You may lose some of the icy, crystalline texture, but if you are entertaining this is a more reliable method from a timing standpoint.

Serve with whipped cream and dessert spoons.

Pesche al vino bianco

The peaches this summer have been spectacular!

The abundance and superior flavor of this season’s harvest means that we will be enjoying peaches in white wine, or pesche al vino bianco, as August comes to an end.

Peaches in wine is a quintessential summertime Italian dessert, a rite of summer in many households.  As often is the case, there are variations on the theme of pesche al vino. Red wine is frequently used.  Sometimes cloves or cinnamon is added.  Some people sweeten the dessert with a little sugar, as Stefano’s mother did for his brother Marco, sister Debora and him when they were children (yes, children).  Others add a dollop of whipping cream or serve the peaches and wine with a scoop of ice-cream.

We prefer to keep it simple: good peaches, and a nice, dry white wine.

White peaches are ideal for pesche al vino bianco.  The flesh of the white peach absorbs more wine than its yellow-fleshed cousin, and releases more of its delicate sweetness back into the wine.  Furthermore, the firm, smooth texture of the white peach maintains its consistency while marinating overnight in the wine.  Look for peaches that are ripe, but not overly mature.

We bathed the peaches in Falanghina, a southern Italian wine made from ancient vines in the Campania region, and one of our favorite whites.

Go ahead and make your cobblers, tarts and pies.  Pack peaches into your lunch boxes, and eat them any other way you can.  Just don’t let August come to an end without enjoying the elegant, classic Italian dessert, pesche al vino.

White peaches (one per person)
Dry white wine

Peel the peaches and slice them thinly into a bowl.  Add just enough wine to cover the peaches.  Let rest at room temperature for 2-3 hours.  Cover refrigerate overnight.  Serve chilled.