madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


how to make pickled squash and other holiday edible gifts

pickled butternut squash

pickled butternut squash

I know it might seem a bit odd to publish a pickle recipe at a time of the year when everyone else is busy with cookies and panettone. But – thanks to generous friends – I have been so pumpkin and squash-rich recently, that I had to develop new ideas.

After making squash soup, pumpkin lasagna and sweet and sour pumpkin, I was still left with a half butternut squash which was so beautiful I had no heart to blend it into another sauce. Besides, it’s time to start making some holiday gifts and this one is not only a little different, but deliciously aromatic and as pretty as a pickle can be thanks to its sunny looks.

  • 1 kg (2 lb) butternut squash, diced into 1 cm (1/2 inch) cubes
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 10 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom pods
  • 1.5 cm (2/3 inch) fresh ginger sliced thinly
  • 250 ml (1 cup) white wine vinegar
  • 450 g (2 cups) sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon

For this recipe you need a firm fleshed, unblemished squash or pumpkin. Soft squashes will fall apart while cooking making the pickle quite unpresentable. In a shallow large pan bring to the boil all ingredients except squash and lemon juice. Once the sugar is dissolved, lower heat, add cubed squash and simmer for 40 min or until squash is tender but still firm. The squash should gently float in the liquid, if it gets too low add some water.

When ready, add the lemon juice, and pack the squash cubes into sterilized jam jars, cover withe the hot syrup and seal. Wait at least for 4 weeks before using.

Makes 5-6 250 ml lt (1/2 pint)  jars. The pickle pairs beautifully with aged cheese, sausages and anything smoked.

PS: I find that preserves make excellent food gifts as they can be enjoyed after the holidays when the party is finished. By then, we all want a little comfort to get through the harsh part of the winter. Here are a few more ideas:

And if you can’t live without cookies the wine and olive oil ciambelline will add an Italian touch to the festivities.

Enjoy! Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and above all peace and love to all of you, your family and friends.

happy holidays from Umbria!

happy holidays from Umbria!


chunky Italian-style sweet orange marmalade

a beautiful display of oranges at Bastia Umbra Friday market, near Assisi

a beautiful display of citrus at Bastia Umbra Friday market, near Assisi

I have made a scientific study of making marmalade with sweet oranges. Bid deal – you will say – the whole world makes marmalade!

Indeed, but the “famous” British-style marmalade is made with bitter oranges.

However, there are no bitter oranges in rural Umbria. We grow no oranges at all actually, it’s too cold.

Try to ask an Umbrian greengrocer for bitter Seville oranges. He’ll think you are crazy. Then, with a bewildered look, he will proceed to offer you some fantastic Sicilian sweet oranges.

I also have a problem with marmalade making. It’s fussy. I make massive amounts of jams mostly based on the principle of chopping the fruit, adding sugar and pectin, boiling and voilà, all ready. This is a no go with oranges. The variation in  marmalade making methods is head spinning. Why?

The problem, my friends, is in the rind. Citrus rind is bitter, but it’s full of essential oils. The rind of lemons and of bitter oranges is particularly rich of lemonene, an oil which smells like oranges. That’s why it makes magic when added to food and marmalade.

Extract those oils in your marmalade and you will have captured the stupendous orange-yness of a perfect marmalade.

After much research and experiments I have adopted this is old recipe from Artusi’s The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well published in 1891. It’s still popular in Italy as it’s simple to make and the results are wonderful.

As a plus is based on my favorite chopping-everything-and-voilà-method. Almost :) .

I have slightly modified the proportion of ingredients and included explanations of the important steps.


  • 10 large sweet oranges (I used about 2.5 kg /5.5 lb, organic, unwaxed Washington Navels)
  • 3 organic unwaxed lemons
  • sugar: same weight as oranges after soaking
  • water: 1/2 of the weight of oranges after soaking


1. Pierce oranges all around with the prongs of a fork. Alternatively score them lightly with a very sharp knife. Don’t pierce or score through the flesh or you will loose flavor.

Place oranges in a large bowl and cover with water. Place a plate on top of the oranges to keep them completely under water. Soak for 3 days changing the water twice a day. This will tenderize the oranges and dissolve the bitter taste of the zest as well as preserve  the essential oils which are insoluble in water.

Soak oranges in a large pot or bowl

Soaking the scored oranges in water. The plate has been removed for the picture.

2. on the 4th day, drain the oranges, quarter them and cut into chunks. This is a quite messy operations particularly if you like small chunks. I quartered the oranges and pulse-chopped 2 at a time in the food processor to obtain smaller pieces. Then I quickly transferred them into a bowl to avoid loosing precious orange juice all over the kitchen.

If you don’t mind bigger chunks just quarter the oranges and slice them 1 cm / half-inch thick. Try to collect all the juice dripping off the slices.

3. weigh the chopped fruit and juice – I will call this pulp –  transfer it in a tall pan and add water. For every kg/lb orange pulp you want to add half kg/lb water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 min.

Always use a tall pan to make jam to protect yourself from hot splatter. Use low heat and a heavy bottomed pan so you won’t need to stir too often to prevent burning.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of water. In fact, adding water increases the cooking time so the zest will be tender at the same time the marmalade is ready.

4. After 10 min add sugar. For every kg/lb orange pulp you want to add 1 kg/lb sugar. Bring to the boil again, then lower the heat and simmer very slowly stirring occasionally.

5. After 1 hour start working on the lemons. Making marmalade with chunks of rind involves caramelizing the rind before the jam gets too thick. You can’t really use pectin to make this jam as it will set too fast without cooking the rind.

Adding lemons will relatively increase the speed of setting because they contain pectin. In addition it brings out the flavor of the oranges and preserves the color of the marmalade.

Zest the lemons.  I grate the zest directly into the marmalade pan using a microplane. Remove the white part of the rind, then chop the flesh roughly and transfer it in the marmalade pan. Simmer for approximately another hour.

6. Cooking time of this marmalade will vary depending on size of oranges, level of heat and thickness of the pan.

To test if the marmalade is at setting point use the classic frozen dish method. When the mixture has thickened, place a small plate in the freezer for 5 minutes or until chilled. Drop 1/4 of a teaspoon marmalade on the frozen plate, the jam will cool instantly. Turn the plate sideways at 45°. If the jam is thick enough to set it will wrinkle up in little folds. If it is not yet thick enough then the jam will spread without having the top of the jam wrinkle. The thicker the wrinkles, the harder the jam will set.

If you are unsure, switch off the heat, cover and wait until the next day so it will cool off completely. If the marmalade looks good at room temperature  bring it back to the boil for at least 5 min. It will become liquid again. Pour into sterilize jars, top, and place upside down on a worktop until cool.

Let it rest for at least a month before using. It is gorgeous on toast but it’s so intense you can use it to flavor puddings, make a crostata or a sauce for pannacotta by mixing it with a little brandy and a sprinkle of dark chocolate curls.

Makes ten 0.5 kg/ 1 lb jars.

Chunky, aromatic, utterly orange-y Italian style marmamalde

Chunky, aromatic, utterly orange-y Italian style marmalade


Elderberry jelly

the beautiful little berries

My father will not touch my elderberry jelly. Despite my assurance that I have been eating it for years and even his beloved granddaughter has had it with no ill consequences, he is still convinced that it’s dangerous.

Not even when I tell him that you can buy it in most supermarkets in Switzerland and Germany. What do these Nordics know anyway?

Indeed it is true that bark, leaves, seeds and the raw or unripe elder fruit contain a cyanogenic glycoside, which is potentially toxic. On the other hand, the elder plant has been used as a medicine, to fight influenza and inflamation for hundreds of years. It is also supposed to ward off evil influence and protect from witches. Even Harry Potter has an elder wand.

However, I must say, it does take some wizardry to make elderberry jelly. The berries are tiny. Picking, cutting off the stems, pre-cooking and sieving to remove seeds it’s time and work intensive, and results in only a few precious jars.

Luckily, thanks to the suggestion my friend and preserving wizard Giulia I have recently acquired a steam juice extractor. See in the video below how fabulously easy is to juice the berries, it’s better than a witch cauldron!

To make the jelly I use same amounts (weight) of sugar and elderberry juice, powdered pectin according to package instruction and the juice of 1 lemon/ lt ( 4 cups) juice.

Magical. With cheese.

the elderberry jelly


Giulia’s elderflower jelly

elderflowers soaking in a lemony sugar syrup

elderflowers soaking in a lemony sugar syrup


Making a jelly from flowers has an alchemic feeling to it. It ‘s not the same as making a jam from fruit. It’s more like making a perfume, except you can eat it.

Flowers are ephemeral creatures and so is their scent.

The scent we so love is not made for our own pleasure. Actually, it ‘s designed to vaporize into the warm spring air in order to attract pollinators. When its function is accomplished it will disappear together with the flowers.

A flower jelly is a way to capture this evanescent pleasure inside a sugar syrup. To collect the scent you need to follow your senses more than a measuring cup. Here is what you need to know:

  • Pick flowers that are fully opened with petals still firmly attached to the stem. Full bloom will assure maximum emission of scent.
  • Choose flowers away from roads and dust and keep them in a large container so they are not crushed. Washing and mechanical damage will remove most of the scent.
  • Be gentle with heat when extracting, otherwise the scent will boil away. Dip flowers in hand-warm sugar syrup and cover to prevent evaporation.
  • Don’t over-extract. After more than a couple of days the flower-syrup mixture will start fermenting and you will have to discard it as it has a foul taste.

I have been given this rare and wonderful recipe of elderflower jelly by my pal Giulia of Locanda della Valle Nuova.

Here is her original recipe. She uses dry flowers while I use fresh ones. Either way I can assure you this is a spectacular jelly, with a flowery fragrance similar to honey. It’s lovely on toast, on my  ricotta mousse  but also with some aged pecorino. Or just out of the jar, if you must.


For the syrup:
1/2 liter ( 2 cups) water
200 gr (1 cup and 3/4)  sugar
15 elder flowers
1 organic unwaxed lemon

For the jelly
800 ml (3 and 1/2 cup) elderflower syrup
800 gr (3 and 1/2 cup) sugar
liquid or dry pectin according to package instructions

Using a large shallow pan bring the syrup-water and sugar to near boiling point to dissolve the sugar, then cool until warm but not scalding. Add the flowers head down, the juice of the lemon and the two squeezed halves as shown in the picture above.  Cover and let them soak for 24 hours.
Filter the syrup into a tall pan making sure to squeeze off any liquid from the soaked flowers and lemon. You can use some warm water ( 100 ml/ half cup) to remove additional syrup from the flowers.

Follow package instructions to make a jelly using pectin, the syrup and the additional sugar. Transfer into clean jars and seal.
Use after at least one month.

Makes approx. 2 and one half  1 pint jars.

a fragrant elderflower


spiced persimmon and orange jam

tiny organic persimmons from our trees

PERSIMMONS. I better hurry up and pick them before the frost makes them burst.
Every autumn it’s the same story. We first have a brief spell of leaf glory, when the proverbial Umbrian green turns to golden and red. Then rain comes, more rain than we want. Everything becomes gray except the persimmons. You see them whimsically dotting orchards and gardens with their naked orangeness.
The Umbrian fall is too cold to ripen them on the tree. We pick them and put them in plastic bags together with an apple or two. Apples release ethylene, a ripening plant-hormone. After a few days they are soft and can be eaten fresh or preserved.
It’s a very delicate fruit whose flavor boils easily away. This recipe is the result of several experiments, it’s Christmassy, aromatic and comforting. It even pleases people who don’t like persimmons, like my friend Rebecca. She has admitted to have polished a whole jar before her kids returned from school so to avoid competition.


  • 3 oranges
  • approx 1.8 kg (4 lb) ripe persimmon
  • 1.6 kg (3.5 lb) sugar
  • powdered or liquid citrus pectin (in Italy use 2 pouches of Fruttapec 1:1)
  • 1 teaspoon China 5-spices

Pectin  products vary from place to place.  Buy your favorite pectin and use it according to package instructions. You can also make the jam without pectin, by boiling it slowly until thick. In this case but  make sure to add the spices and orange juice at the end to preserve their flavor.
Halve and juice the oranges. Reserve the juice. Put peels in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. Drain. Return peels to pot, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, cook 3 minutes, and drain. Repeat once more if you have thick skinned oranges. Strain and leave them in a colander until cool enough to handle, 20 minutes.
Using a soup spoon, scrape out the membranes and discard. Cut the peels into thin strips.
Clean, peel and chop persimmons. Make sure to peel them completely because the peel becomes like hard leather once cooked.
Add the orange juice, spices and chopped peel to the cleaned and chopped persimmons.
Add pectin and sugar following package instructions. Boil and transfer into sterilized jars. Seal.

a persimmon tree against the backdrop of an olive orchard in Assisi


spiced grape jelly

magnificent fall colors in Umbria

I love October in Umbria. Soon the winter sadness will descend on us, but right now colors are working full-time. Everywhere is golden and red. Everything seems to taste sweet, chestnuts, pears, grapes. There’s wonderful grapes everywhere.

We are the lucky owners of a 1/2 century old vine-arbor. We don’t make wine with the fruits, too much of a fuss. We just leave the bunches there to capture the last bits of sun. During one of those mellow afternoons, I go outside to harvest them and enjoy the technicolor.

a gorgeous sunset from our terrace

I pick the best bunches, put them in a large bucket, sit comfortably with (dog) Google at my feet and remove all the stems.

Then I pour the cleaned grapes in a cauldron and heat it until the grapes start bursting. I subsequently proceed to sieve the grapes through a mouli to remove skins and seeds.

Next, I transfer the filtered grape juice back into the cauldron where I bring it to slow boil and let it simmer until is reduced by half. Finally I can make the jelly.

For that, I use same amounts of sugar and reduced grape juice (weight), powdered pectin according to package instruction, the zest of 1/2 lemon, 2 cloves and 1 inch cinnamon stick per liter/quart grape juice.

The whole process takes several hours. A small mountain of tiny wine grapes only yields a few precious jars. Every year I think I am crazy. Every year I hope I have captured some of the last sun in the jar.

grape jelly made with green and red wine grapes


pickled watermelon rind

sometimes even the un-eatable becomes delicious.

I am always grateful for a new good recipe. Each new recipe is a true slice of happiness for me. It becomes part of my life, I will make over and over again, I will warmly recommend it to others.

Immodestly – and despite all my experiments –  I have to confess that rarely I find something that is so memorable, simple and intense that I fall in love with.

This recipe is a splendid gift of John S. whom I will thank forever. It is exotically American but it pairs beautifully with our Prosciutto di Norcia or a nice aged pecorino. This is my type of fusion food.


I use the rind of one watermelon. When we have a good watermelon, every day I remove the rind from the slices we’ll eat after our meal. I keep the rinds in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until the watermelon is finished, generally 3-4 days. This way I don’t have to clean a whole watermelon if I don’t need to.

  • 1 water melon
  • salt
  • 2 kg (9 cups) sugar
  • 1lt. (4 cups) vinegar
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 2 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp of allspice or ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom pods

Cut the rind into strips and remove the green outer skin. Dice into cubes about 1 cm (1/2 inch) long. Don’t make the cubes too small or they will become mushy when cooked.

Place the cubes in a large bowl and cover with water adding 2 tbsp. salt per liter (quart) of water. Place a weight over the rind and let it soak overnight.

Drain and rinse in fresh water. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the rind until just tender, approx. 1/2 hr. Drain and cool down in ice water.

In a separate pan prepare a spiced syrup using  4 cups of water,  the  sugar,  vinegar and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil and cook for 5 minutes. Add rinds and boil for 1/2 hr.

Pack the rind cubes into sterilized jam jars and cover withe the hot syrup, seal. Wait at least for 4 weeks before using.

One whole water melon yields about 2. 5 kg. (5 lbs) rind and makes five 1/2 lt (1 pint)  jars

letizia mattiacci on Foodista


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,325 other followers