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.

Ingredients
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

Also
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

Directions
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

 

 

 

La Sicilia! A Photo-Essay

The fall colors are at their peak, and local newspaper headlines warn, Some Minnesotans Could Wake Up Saturday to a Blanket of Snow. Our Sicilian vacation is a distant memory.  With the fire place radiating warmth and and a glass of Nero d’Avola unearthing memories, we capture the sights and the flavors of our July 2014 tour of the western coast of Sicily.

Our tour of Western SicilyThe Sicilian countryside

Bed & Breakfast Mammaliturchi
Cico and Lola’s B&B Mammaliturchi on the southern Sicilian coast was so spectacular, so perfect, that it merited its own blog post.  A short walk up the beach to the dazzling white  Scala dei Turchi and a 15 minute drive to Agrigento and the magnificent Valley of the Temples, B&B Mammaliturchi is nothing short of paradise.

Scala dei Turchi

Sciacca
Sciacca is a small, medieval fisherman’s village built steeply into the rock that descends down to the sea.  At sea level, fishing boats dot the waterfront and fisheries line the streets.  Climb a steep set of stone steps, some which take you right past the doorways of local residents, and you will reach the heart of the town of Sciacca.  Souvenir shops line the main street which leads to a piazza that looks dramatically out over the Mediterranean.  Stop by the local pastry shop and try out some of the local bitter almond and ricotta-based treats.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

 

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca's main piazza.

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca’s main piazza.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca's city steps.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca’s city steps.

Mazara del Vallo
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, Mazara del Vallo was ruled by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines among others, before finally coming under Arab control in 827 AD.   During the Arab period Mazara del Vallo was an important commercial harbour and the main gateway between Sicily and Northern Africa.  The historical center of Mazara del Vallo is  known as the Kasbah, and it boasts distinct Arab architectural influences.  It is also the best place in Italy to eat cous cous, a Northern African dish that Sicilians have adopted as their own.

Mazara del Vallo

Arab-influenced architecture in the Kasbah neighborhood of Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

The Kasbah, Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

We had delicious cous cous at Trattoria alla Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo.  (Luca is in his “cross-eyed photo-bomber” stage.)

Trapani and Erice
Trapani is known for its salt marshes, and picturesque windmills used to drain the water during the long process of drawing salt out.  It’s also where you can catch a ferry to the heralded Egadi islands, which we didn’t have time for on this trip but fully intend to return to do.  We made a quick stop to see the salt flats, gave in to curiosity and tasted it (yes, it really was salty), and then continued up, and up, and up and winding mountain to the town of Erice.

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Erice is a medieval village that sits at the peak of a mountain, 750 metres (2,460 ft) above sea level.  On a clear day, you can see Tunisia and Africa’s Northern coast.  The day we visited it was anything but clear.  It felt like we’d  stepped right into a scene from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  In foggy, damp, cold weather we diligently trekked up the main street to Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, which we’d read on the internet had the most amazing pastries.  It is a humble pasticceria, as far as Italian pasticceria’s go, but their cannoli, genovesi and cassate were truly amazing.

San Vito lo Capo
When you live in place as cold as ours, some beach time is a must.  San Vito lo Capo is among the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy.  Located on the northwestern tip of Sicily, the winding drive through the mountains offers spectacular views of the sea below.

San Vito lo Capo

A spectacular view from above on the road to San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo’s beach is a long stretch of soft sand that leads to a mountain in the distance.  The bright aquamarine sea is calm, warm and amazingly clear.  You could lose your wedding ring in waist deep water, look down and see it sparkling on the sea floor below.  The bright beach umbrella made for a splendid scene.

San Vito lo Capo

The beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

The clear, calm water at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Bright umbrella dot the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Sun, sand and sea at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Drammatic views at San Vito lo Capo.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

Palermo
While the charm and slower pace of Sicily’s small towns offer the greatest appeal, a stop in the chaotic, complicated Palermo is worth it.  The tour of the historical city is quick, and worth the cost of one of the open-air tour buses.  A walk through the markets and the old Arab quarters is overwhelms by sight, sound and smell.  We were most drawn by Palermo’s unique foods: panelle (fritters made of chickpeas and flour), sandwiches with milza (gall bladder), and breakfast with granita al caffè and large gelato-filled brioche.

Milza

Milza – a Palermitano delicacy.

brioche con gelato

Breakfast in style in Palermo – brioche con gelato.

Cefalù
Cefalù is a charming, small town on the northern coast of Sicily.  Full of tourists in the summer months, it is delightful nonetheless with a convenient beach and lots of modern shops, Italian bars and eateries, many with lovely sea views.  We dined at Il Covo del Pirata, and loved it.  It’s location was amazing, with tables that looked right out over the water, yet it had a casual, family feel.  We ate seafood to our heart’s content.  Stop by early in the day and reserve a table with a view for dinner.

Cefalù

The town of Cefalù, seen from the beach.

DSC_0080

Cefalù

Il Covo del Pirata

The view from the restaurant Il Covo del Pirata, in Cefalù.

Bed and Breakfast Mammaliturchi

the-terrace-at-b-b-mammaliturc

Minneapolis to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to Rome. A loud and crazy birthday party in Rome for three splendid 5-year-olds, and then off the next morning to Catania.

With Etna in the distance rising above the hilly landscape, we drove through the Sicilian inland to the Southern coast. Finally, after two or three laps around impossibly narrow roads in the tiny town of Realmonte, we arrived at our destination: Bed and Breakfast Mammaliturchi. Within 5 minutes of our arrival we knew that it was worth every minute and every mile of that long journey.

Francesco met us as the gate, showed us our parking spot, and led us around to the vast terrace on the beach-side of the home, where the view of the sparkling blue sea is breathtaking.  The sound of the waves crashing against the shore washed our tiredness and tension away.  It only got better when Francesco and his wife Loredana (affectionately known as Cico and Lola) showed us our rooms – large and breezy with a wall of windows that overlook the Mediterranean.

In a matter of minutes we shed our travel attire, donned our beachwear, and descended the stairs back to that marvelous terrace and the broad and quiet beach below to begin our vacation.

The Trip Advisor reviews of B&B Mammaliturchi were good and the photos alluring.  One never knows for sure, though, if a place rented over the internet will truly be what it claims to be.  B&B Mammalituchi did not disappoint.  In fact, it exceeded our every expectation.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

The Home

Cico and Lola’s dazzling white stucco seaside home is trimmed in brilliant blue, a color scheme that mirrors the sand, sea and sky and that is reflected in the tasteful, modern and playful decor throughout.  Every convenience is available – parking, laundry, wi-fi, and even air conditioning, although despite visiting in July, we never needed it due to the comfortable sea breeze that gently blew through the windows at night.  The home offers direct, private access to the beach, a shower to rinse off in, and breakfast, lunch and dinner are served on the beautiful patio.

B&B MammaliturchiThe Trip Advisor reviews of B&B Mammaliturchi were good and the photos alluring. One never knows for sure, though, if a place rented over the internet will truly be what it claims to be. B&B Mammalituchi did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded our every expectation.

The Location

B&B Mammaliturchi is located on a quiet stretch of the Southern Sicilian coast.  It is a 5 minute walk along the beach to Scala dei Turchi, a fascinating geological formation of chalky white limestone cliffs, shaped in like a staircase.  Scala dei Turchi translates in English to Staircase of the Turks, and it is from here that B&B Mammaliturchi gets it’s name.  Legend has it that during the 16th century when the Ottomans expanded westward into Europe, the Turks arrived in their ships, and found it convenient to anchor up against these cliff, which served as a “staircase” for them as they debarked their ships.  When the locals saw the Turks arrive, they exclaimed in fear, Mamma li Turchi (Oh Mother, the Turks are here!)

B&B MammaliturchiB&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

B&B Mammaliturchi

 

The bed and breakfast is also located a mere 15 minutes by car from the city of Agrigento and the archeological site Valle dei Templi, one of the most outstanding examples of Greek architecture anywhere in the world, and one of Sicily’s main attractions.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

Finally, it you can bear to pull yourself away from the slice of paradise that B&B Mammaliturchi offers, the charming towns of Sciacca, Mazara del Vallo, Marsala, Trapani, and Erice are a short drive away.

The Hospitality

Without question, the amazing amenities and location of B&B Mammaliturchi are matched and even surpassed by Cico and Lola’s warm and generous hospitality.  Exacting yet friendly, they offer an exceptional level of service while making guests feel like old friends.  They gave us tips and recommendations on local attractions and sites (like La Sosta, home of the most amazing pistacchio gelato ever), and they attended to our every need.

Each morning we awoke to an Italian breakfast of cappuccino, espresso, juice, toast, jam, Nutella and fresh-fron-the oven croissants are served on the terrace, where we watched the morning joggers and early beach-goers in the cool, sea-side breeze. Guests are free to explore off-site restaurants and bars for lunch and dinner, but quite frankly there is no reason to.  Cico and Lola’s generous, authentic Sicilian meals served open air on the terrace were a high point of our stay.  Featuring seafood that Lola bought fresh off of the fisherman’s boats each day, these were genuinely among the most memorable meals we’ve ever enjoyed.

B&B Mammaliturchi

A better Sicilian vacation we could not have found.  Cico and Lola are the perfect hosts in an absolutely spectacular destination.  As one Trip Advisor commentor wrote, everyone should treat themselves at least once to a B&B Mammaliturchi vacation.  We’re already contemplating when we can return.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

 

 

 

Pasta alla norma

We’ve been trip planning. This July we will return to Italy, stopping in Rome to visit family and then proceeding on to Sicily.

SiciliaSicilia

The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been at the crossroads of Western civilization for over 2,500 years, due to its strategic location in the middle of Mediterranean trade routes.

Ruled at different times in history by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish, and finally Italians, Sicily boats a spectacular cultural heritage evident today in its architecture, music, and of course, its cuisine.

Image from http://www.corriere.it/cronache/foto/08-2013/spiagge-piu-belle/legambiente/perle-mare-ecco-spiagge-piu-belle-d-italia_5f768a10-ff74-11e2-a99f-83b0f6990348.shtml#8

Image from http://www.corriere.it/cronache/foto/08-2013/spiagge-piu-belle/legambiente/perle-mare-ecco-spiagge-piu-belle-d-italia_5f768a10-ff74-11e2-a99f-83b0f6990348.shtml#8

Sicily has a stunning variety of landscapes to match its cultural richness: inland mountain ranges, desert-like expanses reminiscent of the Middle East, the lava-spewing volcano Mount Etna, and pristine white sand beaches with merging with the sparkling green-blue sea.

EtnaFrom Catania to Palemo, and the cities and villages in between: Syracusa, Ragusa, Agrigento, Sciacca, Marsala, Trapani, San Vito lo Capo.  We’ll soak in the sun on some of the world’s most amazing beaches, visit stunning ancient ruins such as the Valle dei Templi and the Tempio di Segesta, and (of course) sample Sicilia’s unique culinary splendors.

http://www.inognidove.it/sicilia/travel/sicilia_valle_dei_templi_tempio_della_concordia3.shtml

http://www.inognidove.it/sicilia/travel/sicilia_valle_dei_templi_tempio_della_concordia3.shtml

Among the delicacies on our list are arancini, panelle, cous cous, insalata d’arance, caponata, ‘mpanata, pasta con le sarde, granite, paste di mandorle, cannoli, and cassata.  And obviously, seafood.  Tons and tons of it.

We capped off our afternoon of vacation planning with a Sicilian classic, pasta alla norma.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla Norma

Ingredients
Two medium eggplant
1 large (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons diced onion
Dry white wine
Ricotta salata (approx 200g)
Olive oil
Flour
Salt

Directions
Slice the eggplant about 3 to 4 mm, or  1/8th inch thick.  Place them in a strainer one layer at a time, sprinkling a dusting of salt over each layer.  Place a dinner plate on top or something similar that adds weight to help press the bitter liquids.  Let them degorge for about an hour.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla NormaPasta alla Norma

While the eggplant is resting, prepare the sauce.  Dice the onion and garlic, and sauté it in olive oil.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill to render them smooth.  If you do not have a food mill, you can blend the tomatoes.  Let simmer for 45 minutes, salting to taste.  After about 30 minutes, add a dash of dry white wine.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla Norma

Return to the eggplant.  Rinse and pat the slices dry.  Dust them with flour, and then gently fry them in hot olive oil, just until golden brown.  Let them cool on paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla NormaPasta alla Norma

Cut the eggplant into thin strips about 1 to 2 cm, or  1/2 to 3/4 inch thick.  Set aside a handful of eggplant, and add the rest to the sauce, along with a about 1/4 cup of grated ricotta salata.  Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally.

Pasta alla Norma

 

Pasta alla Norma

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Toss your short pasta of choice – penne or rigatoni perhaps – into the water, along with a generous handful of salt.  Cook until al dente.  Transfer the pasta to a large pan.  Add the sauce (saving just little), and grate a little more ricotta salata over it all.  Stir over medium heat until the cheese melts.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla NormaPasta alla NormaServe in pasta bowls adorned with a few strips of eggplant, another grating of ricotta salata, and a dollop of sauce.

Pasta alla NormaPasta alla Norma

Pasta alla Norma