madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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classic white pasta bake with peas and ham

Baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is to Italy what macaroni and cheese is to the rest of the world. In the good, homemade, festive way, not – heaven forbid – in the Kraft dinner way. I was amazed to discover that the recipe was originally  imported to the US by no less than President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He even had Parmesan and pasta imported from Italy as he was not satisfied with locally produced ingredients. Note: pasta and Parmesan, no Cheddar. Sadly the upper class appeal of pasta baked with cheese and butter disappeared already in the middle 1880s. My  guess is that it kept in a free fall until today’s microwavable abominations.

If you live in North America, you probably know all the above. As for myself, I can’t wrap my brain around the idea of a neon-orange dry cheese-flavored sauce in a prepackaged pasta mixture. The only idea gives me brain fog.

Hopefully you are here because you want to know how to make an authentic baked pasta, one that you will find in many Italian houses, particularly when in need to feed a crowd, from a summery garden-party to Christmas or other holidays.

  1. use good quality pasta, possibly bronze drawn and cook it in plenty salted boiling water for half of the time indicated on the package to avoid overcooking. For example, if the pasta package indicates 10 min, cook it for 5 min. If it’s gluten-free pasta you might need to cook it  one minute less than half time.
  2. instead of peas, use seasonal vegetables, saute with garlic, roasted or lightly steamed so they keep crunch and color.
  3. use only one or two types of vegetable in a recipe. This gives a more refined and decisive taste. If I combine two vegetables I tend to use them of approx. the same color, e.g. asparagus and zucchini, mushrooms and squash.
  4. Don’t overload it with condiments. You want to attain a balance of texture and flavor not a gloppy blob of fat. Less is more.

It’s a great recipe because you can change it with the seasons and you can prepare it in advance which is always a bonus when you have guests. It actually improves if you bake it until warmed through, cool off and refrigerate. Just finish it the next day before serving.

As you see from the recipe I use a modest amount of meat as a flavor enhancer. Pork can be substituted with stewed game or a slow cooked beef ragu with no tomato.  You can also easily make it vegetarian by using some smoked or blue cheese or a little black truffle.

Recipe

  • 500 gr (16 oz) short pasta like ziti, fusilli or penne
  • 2 and 1/2 cups Béchamel sauce made with 1/2 lt ( 2 cups) milk, 30 gr (2 tablespoon) corn starch and 30 gr (2 oz) butter.
  • 500 gr (16 oz) petite green peas
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 150 gr (5 oz) cooked ham, chopped finely
  • 200 gr (7 oz) mild cheese such as caciotta or mozzarella, sliced thinly
  • 100 gr (3 oz) grated Parmesan or Pecorino
  • white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

Over low heat and covered, saute onion in a large pan until slightly golden. Increase the heat, uncover and deglaze with a few tablespoon of white wine.

Add peas and 1/2 cup water and boil quickly until they are cooked through but still bright green. Remove from heat and add the chopped ham.

Make a fairly thin Béchamel using my quick microwave method, see here.

Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water until half of the cooking time. Drain and toss with half of the Béchamel, 2/3 of the grated cheese and all the peas and ham.

Line a ovenproof pan with oiled parchment paper. This pasta tends to stick even in non-stick pans. Make layers of the pasta mixture and the mild cheese ending with a layer of pasta, a layer of Béchamel and a generous sprinkle of grated cheese.

Bake at 200 °C ( 390 °F) until slightly golden on top.

Serves 6

A most festive dish, beloved by everyone

A most festive dish which will bring smiles all around the table


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a gluten-free pasta dough which makes me happy

thin and strong, home-made gluten free fettuccine

thin and strong, homemade gluten-free fettuccine

Pasta is my favorite food in the world.

Pasta is sublime and comforting in its many forms, colors and textures. For an Italian cook, making pasta represents the very essence of cooking. It’s not only a habit, a tradition, a requirement. It’s deeper than that. It’s art. It’s in our genes.

Changing from a cornucopia of variety and flavors to gluten-free foods has lead me on a path of many twists and turns. Especially so for pasta.

Store bought GF pasta has finally improved but lots of what I have tasted has gone into the bin. And it does not help that I live in rural Umbria where strange and “fashionable” products are slow to appear on the shelves.

Ever since I discovered being wheat/gluten intolerant, I have sorely missed homemade fresh pasta.

For quite a while, I have researched, I have made experiments, I have discarded failures until today’s noodles. They are the real thing. As real as gluten-free pasta can get.

They have a neutral taste, they cook without falling apart even though they are almost as thin as wheat noodles. You can sauce them as you would do any pasta and you can roll them with a fork and pull them up from the plate in one single string, not in miserable bits.

If you have never made fresh pasta, please check carefully my tutorials and video (here and here) to learn how to make and roll the dough and how to cook and sauce the pasta.

Gluten-free pasta dough is more difficult to handle as it breaks easily and – being not as flexible – is not as forgiving as gluten pasta. If you cook for others who eat gluten, I advice you to try to make regular pasta a few times to get the hang of the method. Then make gluten-free pasta for yourself.

Recipe

  • 35 gr millet flour *
  • 170 gr potato starch
  • 170 gr corn starch
  • 6 gr (2 teaspoon) xanthan
  • 1 teaspoon psyllium husks
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

*you can also use rice, corn, buckwheat, basically any GF flour that you like to use to flavor the dough

Making the GF dough:

In a food processor blend all ingredients until the mixture begins to form thick crumbs. Meanwhile heat 1/2 cup water. Depending on the size of the eggs, you will need to add a variable amount of liquid in order to obtain a firm but pliable dough. With the blade running, add the hot water, one teaspoon at the time, until the dough forms a ball. You might need up to 3 tablespoon.

Getting the right consistency is crucial. Too wet and you will not be able to roll it through the pasta machine. Too dry and it will break making it impossible to shape it.

Now wrap the dough in clingfilm and let it rest at least 30 min. This resting period hydrates the dough and makes it easier to roll it.

Rolling the GF dough:

Set the smooth rollers of a pasta machine on widest setting. Cut the dough into golf-ball size pieces. Flatten one piece of dough into a rectangle with a rolling pin and feed it through the rollers.  To prevent sticking, dust with any fine gluten-free flour you have.

Roll the dough as thin as possible and as quickly as possible. Don’t fold it like you would do with wheat flour. Make sure to keep your pasta sheets relatively short, max 20 cm (8 inch) otherwise they will break in the middle. Minimal manipulation is key to success with this beast.

I  roll each piece of GF dough 3 times using the widest setting, an intermediate setting and one before the thinnest setting. The dough tends to shred if it’s too thin.

For example if the settings of your machine are numbered from 1 to 6, roll it at 1, 3 and 5 with 1 being the widest.

roll the pasta as thin as possible using only 3 settings of the pasta machine

roll the pasta as thin as possible using only 3 settings of the pasta machine

Place the pasta sheets on a wooden board or cotton towel to dry. Roll out the remaining dough in the same manner. The pasta should dry – at least 10 min. – before cutting so it will be more robust.  You should however prevent it from becoming brittle.

Feed the sheets through a fettuccine cutter and return your beautiful gluten-free noodles to the kitchen towels to dry until ready to cook.

Serves 4

my babies with a simple tomato sauce, a sprinkle of basil and a drizzle of newly pressed Alla Madonna del Piatto olive oil

my babies with a simple tomato sauce, a sprinkle of basil and
a drizzle of newly pressed Alla Madonna del Piatto olive oil

Notes:

  • This recipe is based on a variation of the GF flour mix used by Felix and Cappera and in turn derived from a recipe of Bette Hagman’s “More from the Gluten-Free Gourmet”.
  • If you are celiac make sure to use certified gluten-free ingredients to avoid gluten contamination
  • If you have allergies to some of the ingredients make sure to substitute by weight and type of ingredient (e.g. rice flour instead of millet flour, tapioca starch instead of potato starch)
  • xanthan and psyllium are used to substitute gluten, check online where to buy them as this is not the same in different countries
  • please check my recipe list for lots of suggestion of simple and seasonal pasta sauces


9 Comments

green ravioli with zucchini, ricotta, lemon-butter and honey

oh, joy!

oh, joy!

I fell in love with colored pasta this summer. May be because I have had so many adorable children taking part at our cooking classes. They love surprises.

I have had giggling babies who obviously did not cook but seeemed to enjoy every minute of the action. One slept peacefully in a sling on the back of his mum while she was rolling the pasta. I have had 6 years old London from Los Angeles who screamed in delight at the sight of fettuccini being born out of the pasta machine.

For the 3rd time in 3 years, I have had S. who is Belgian, speaks fluently English and Spanish and will teach you how to greet in Arabic. He’s 7 and makes ravioli like a pro.

I have had a bunch of youngsters who can chop and stir like TV stars. Like Ian who equals flavors to colors because he’s a painter. And wolfs down cave-aged pecorino like it was a Mars bar.

I am in love with every one of them. They are so gentle, so competent, so intense when they cook. And note, I don’t do children classes, they do grown ups food.

I really am fortunate for sharing so many happy moments in my kitchen. So many smiles of families who come and go and bring away  a little piece of my heart with them. I treasure all my little (and no so little) friends.

Green pasta dough:

  • 60 gr cooked (3 tablespoon) spinach
  • 320 gr (1 and 3/4 cup) 00 flour
  • 3 large eggs

Ravioli filling

  • 2 medium zucchini (approx 400 gr) diced
  • 120 gr (4 oz) ricotta
  • 3-4 tablespoon grated Parmesan
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2-3 leaves basil

Lemon butter sauce

  • 2 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoon heavy cream
  • a 2 inch-long strip lemon zest chopped very finely
  • 2 tablespoon  lemon juice
  • 2  tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley to garnish
  • 2 teaspoon honey to drizzle

For the ravioli filling:

Sautè zucchini in 1 tablespoon olive oil until just starting to become golden. Take off the heat, add one finely minced garlic clove and a few thorn basil leaves. Set aside to infuse. When at room temperature,  pulse chop in a food processor together with the ricotta and two tablespoons Parmesan until creamy.

For the pasta dough:

Steam or boil spinach, drain and make sure to remove all excess moisture from the leaves by squeezing really hard in your hands. Whisk  eggs in a bowl and reserve.

In a food processor blend the flour and spinach at high speed until you have a light green powder. Add eggs to the mixture until it forms a ball. You might not need all the eggs. In fact, depending on the size of the eggs and moisture of the spinach it might be necessary to regulate the amount of liquid in order to obtain a firm dough.

Alternatively purè the spinach first in a blender, then mix all ingredients on a lightly floured surface,  knead the dough, incorporating additional flour as necessary, until smooth and flexible, minimum 20 minutes. The dough can be used immediately but may be made in advance and covered with a cotton tea towel. A resting period relaxes the gluten in the dough and makes it easier to roll it.

Make the ravioli:

Roll the pasta dough into rectangular strips as explained here

fascinating, isn't it?

Put teaspoons of the zucchini and cheese filling about 5 cm (2 inches) apart on the sheet so that you can make a “parcel” by folding over the pasta sheet. Using a ravioli wheel cutter seal each parcel by cutting on three sides (the fourth is the fold).  Carefully place the ravioli on a dry cotton towel taking care that they do not overlap otherwise they will stick to each other.

green ravioli2

Cook and sauce:

Heat the butter, zest and juice in a saucepan pan over low heat until the butter is melted. Add cream and remove from heat.

Cook the ravioli in salted boiling water for 3 minutes. Strain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water and transfer in the saucepan on medium heat.

Briefly stir to absorb the sauce. Add the Parmesan and a 1/2 ladle  of the reserved pasta water and stir some more on high heat until the liquid is absorbed. See also my video to know to cook and sauce pasta the Italian way.

Plate, sprinkle with chopped flat leaf parsley, a drizzle of your good olive oil and few drops of raw artisan honey.

Serves 4.

beautifully green and light whith just a touch of lemony sauce

beautifully green and light whith just a touch of lemony sauce


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orecchiette pasta in a creamy zucchini and saffron sauce

orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

I find making fresh pasta an incredibly relaxing activity. I could fashionably say it’s therapeutic but I don’t feel the need to have therapy as often as having pasta. My latest passion in “pasta relaxation” is orecchiette, meaning little ears, a semolina pasta traditionally made in Puglia.

It’s the sort of thing that gives a good excuse for gathering friends around a table and while away an afternoon. Do watch the video at the end of this post to see what I mean. That woman must have made so many orecchiette that does not even need to look at what she’s doing. It’s magical.

I can’t produce them quite so fast, but it’s actually easier than it looks if you make sure to obtain a firm dough, use a round tipped knife and don’t get discouraged if the first batch of ten will look a little lopsided. As you get the hang of it you will wonder why you ever found it difficult.

Recipe

Dough

  • 200 gr ( 2 cup) semolina flour
  • 80 ml (2/3 cup) water
  • 2 teaspoon olive oil
  • a pinch of salt

I make all doughs in the food processor as explained here . You can also make the dough by mixing all ingredients by hand until smooth and elastic as shown in the video below. It’s most important that you allow the dough to rest at least 20 min and up to one hour. This way the gluten absorbs moisture and makes the dough pliable and easy to shape.

Once your dough has rested, transfer it onto a work-top. A grainy wooden cutting board or pasta dough helps grip the dough.

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

Divide the dough into fist-size portions, and cover them with a cotton kitchen towel. Roll 1 portion of dough into a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick rope.

Use a knife to cut and drag a 1/3-inch piece of dough from end of rope facing you.

Holding the knife at a 45-degree angle to the work surface, press and roll dough around the tip of the knife toward you. You will obtain something similar to gnocchi but empty in the middle.
Now turn out each piece of dough over your thumb in the opposite direction to form a concave shape, and transfer onto the pasta board or a tea towel. Repeat with remaining dough. Orecchiette can be stored at room temperature in a single layer overnight.

While the orecchiette dry, start boiling your pasta water and prepare this quick sauce in a saucepan which must be large enough to hold all the pasta once is cooked .

Zucchini and saffron sauce

  • 2 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • a pinch of saffron to taste
  • 2 tablespoon heavy cream or ricotta
  • 2 tablespoon grated Parmesan

Saute zucchini and onion in one tablespoon olive oil until just starting to become golden. Add cream (or ricotta) and saffron and simmer briefly until just warmed through. Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water, drain, transfer in the sauce pan and toss with the sauce over high heat as explained here. Finish with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of  good extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Any extra unccoked orecchiette can be frozen. First, freeze them in a single layer on a plastic tray, then transfer them to a resealable plastic bag and return them to the freezer. Boil directly from the freezer.


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spinach and ricotta crespelle: savoury crêpes Italian style

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

I have had friends who wouldn’t invite me for dinner because they thought I was a better cook then they are. Actually, I really adore it when someone cooks for me. I don’t care if it’s perfect. Cooking for someone is an act of love and I love to be pampered. Don’t we all do? Make me a fried egg, please, I’ll love you for anything you cook for me.

There’s another fact.  I hate to be a pain in the neck when someone invites me for a meal. However, I have all sorts of food intolerances. They even change with the time which is quite confusing for hosts who think they know my problems. I’ve been dairy free for 10 years. Now I can have dairy in moderate amounts but I can’t have wheat.

Conversely, and because I do cooking classes, I have found myself in the position having no idea what to give to someone as because of their health or their choices they just can’t be “normal” (like me :) )

This recipe is a life saver for modern stomachs and desperate cooks. Not only it can be prepared in advance. It can also be made vegetarian by skipping the ham and gluten-free by substituting the flour. For the gluten-free version I use my GF cake-flour mix which works fantastic. In fact you don’t even know there’s no wheat.

Recipe

for the crêpes:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) milk
  • 125 gr (3/4 cup) regular flour or gluten free equivalent ( I use my basic cake mix flour)
  • 30 gr melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg
  • two tablespoon grated Parmesan

for the filling:

  • 300 gr (2/3 lb) blanched spinach, excess moisture removed by squeezing.
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) whole milk ricotta
  • 120 gr (4 oz) cooked ham, diced
  • 4 tablespoon Parmesan
  • for the topping
  • 1 and 1/2 cup quick Béchamel
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

For the crêpes, mix the liquid butter, eggs and milk  in a bowl. Add flour, salt, nutmeg and whisk.  Brush a 15 cm/6 inch , non-stick frying pan with melted butter and set over medium heat. Pour a small ladleful of the  batter (about 3 tablespoon) in the pan and swirl to make  the thinnest possible pancake. Cook for 1-2 minutes each side then remove and set aside. Repeat, to make 14-15 pancakes. I only butter the pan once at the beginning.

In a separate pan, heat the garlic briefly in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, add the cooked spinach, salt lightly and warm through to infuse with the garlicky oil. Transfer in a food processor together with  ricotta, the ham and two tablespoons Parmesan. Process briefly until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350 °F and lightly  grease a 22 x 30 cm baking dish with butter or olive oil

Distribute the spinach mixture in the centre of each pancake. Spread filling all over the pancake then roll like cannelloni. Place in the baking dish. Spread crepes with Bechamel and  sprinkle with two more tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve hot.

Serves 5-6 as a main dish

spinach pancakes

rolled and ready to be smothered with white sauce and then baked to soft gloriousness


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spaghetti with salmon and brandy

spaghetti in a light cream and tomato sauce with a dash of brandy

I am born in a time – early 60s if you are curious – when food was not too fashionable.

I still remember the arrival of cream in my life. My mum did not use cream, she was Sicilian. By her law, a sauce is red and must be made with tomato and olive oil. A stick of butter lasted easily a couple of months in our fridge as she had no use for it. Cake was for winter and gelato -4 or 5 flavors, not 30 like now – was for summer. A simple life.

Then the 70’s and ’80s exploded with all sorts of sophistication. Tortellini with cream and ham, crepes rolled with Bechamel and champignons, tiramisu, pannacotta. White was the new red and it was everywhere.

This recipes is oh so ’70 that is almost forbidden. Modern pasta is often naked, no tomato, no cream, a few extravagant ingredients scattered on top of some mysterious watery juice. Alchemic, interesting, but rarely suitable to real life.

This one is good for any day, my husband loves it. Please note the quality of the ingredients and the modest amounts of condiments which are necessary to achieve balance.

Recipe

  • 250 gr  good quality spaghetti (possibly bronze drawn)
  • 1 small onion, diced very finely
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil plus extra for finishing.
  •  300 gr (10 oz) canned diced tomato (about 2/3 of a can)
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2-3 tablespoon brandy
  • 100 gr (3 oz) smoked wild salmon, diced
  • 1 fresh red chili pepper, sliced (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley

Using a shallow pan – a frying pan with high sides is ideal – saute the garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil over very low heat. If the onion starts browning deglaze with a little white wine. Add the diced tomato, cover and simmer until a little thicker, about 5 min. Add salmon and cream, bring back to simmering temperature and switch off, you don’t want to cook the flavor of the salmon away. The whole preparation should take no more than 7-8 min.

Meanwhile cook the spaghetti according to package instructions until al dente. When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the sauce pan to high. Drain the pasta and transfer into the sauce pan.  Add chili pepper now, if using.

Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Add a generous dash of brandy  and stir again to incorporate. Sprinkle with parsley . Serve on warm plates with a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil.

Serves 2-3

voilà, one my favorite summer pasta


16 Comments

cappelletti pasta with kamut

cappelletti, winter delight of every Umbrian home

I have been keeping this post for one of those rare days when I have enough time in my hands. I wanted quiet and concentration to explain in sufficient detail what might be one of the best pasta recipes in the world. To tell you that cappelletti, the Umbrian diminuitive version of tortellini, is pasta Nirvana.

Well. We are snowed in. We have no car because it has seriously broken down just before the storm. Most of Italy is under the snow so the replacement parts will not be arriving for a while. The rare phone call is of friends wanting to know if we are all right. The next shop is 8 km downhill on a windy road presently covered by ice and almost a foot of snow. We are not going anywhere.

The term cappelletti, means little hats. In Umbria they are generally made for Christmas. I know families who make a few thousands of them and keep them in the freezer to enjoy during the winter months. They are better served in a chicken or capon stock. However, I am not opposed to a dressing of truffle shavings in olive oil or a good porcini sauce.

In my quest of wheat free alternatives, I have made these cappelletti  with organic kamut flour also named khorasan. The recipe works as well, if not a little easier, with regular flour. To choose the right type of flour, please make sure to read my flour tips here.

To freeze, place them individually on floured plastic trays until hard, then transfer into sealed bags or tupperwares so you can scoop as many as you need. Boil in plenty stock or salted water for 3 min. slightly less if fresh.

Recipe

For the filling

  • 120 gr / 4 oz. each of ground turkey breast, lean beef and pork
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 60 gr / 2 oz. each charcuterie boiled ham, mortadella, grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • a pinch nutmeg, salt, black pepper

Heat a shallow heavy-bottomed pan, add  two tablespoon olive oil and saute the ground meats on medium-high heat until just starting to brown. If you cook the meat too slowly it will release liquid, loose flavor and feel like sawdust.

Increase heat to maximum, deglaze with white wine, season with salt, nutmeg, a pinch of black pepper and set aside to cool.

In a food processor, pulse the cooked meat, ham, mortadella and grated Parmesan until finely ground.

For the pasta dough:

  • 3 eggs
  • 300 gr kamut flour (khorasan)
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil

Using the ingredients above, make my food processor pasta dough and roll it into thin sheets using a pasta machine. Cover the sheets with a cotton tea towel. Kamut pasta sheets dry quickly and tend to break, so you need to work faster than when using regular flour.

Now follow the instructions in the photo captions below. Click on one of the picture to start the slideshow.

This recipe makes 350 cappelletti. You will need about 25 per person, so you either have a feast or freeze 3 heavenly family dinners for 4 and 1 tete a tete.

kamut cappelletti on the left, wheat cappelletti on the right

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