madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


baked cardoons

fresh cardoons, a typical winter vegetable in Central Italy


This is a recipe which smells intensely of Christmas to me. It reminds me of my mum, perennially standing in her tiny kitchen, creating complicated wonders. Oddly, she hardly made a sound while cooking for a large party, I could hear her breathing.

It reminds me of how my father and I would sneak into the kitchen to steal the fried stems, subtly aromatic, tender as butter. Those and the mellow leftovers we enjoyed the most, as the rest got confused in the abundance of the holiday banquet.

to clean cardoons, remove the outer fibers and inner membrane of the stem

Artichoke and leafy cardoon are two varieties of the same plant . The first is cultivated for its immature inflorescence – also called globe – and the second for its fleshy stems. The taste of cardoon is reminiscent of celery and artichoke with a hint of bitter which is eliminated by blanching. When buying, make sure to pick those with white stems and without signs of rusty spots


  • 2 kg ( 4 lb) fresh cardoons, outer damaged leaves removed
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 gr (3 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 250 gr ( 1/2 lb) mild cows cheese like caciotta (use fresh Asiago if not available)
  • 1 recipe ragù
  • 1 recipe bechamel (white sauce)
  • 60 gr (2 oz) grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

This is a work intensive recipe, I suggest to prepare the cardoons, blanch them and fry them on the first day and make the tomato, bechamel sauce and assemble the parmigiana on the second day.

Day 1

To clean cardoons,  strip the fibres from the stems with a pairing knife, cut them into 5 cm (2 in.) pieces and  plunge them  in cool water that has been acidulated with the juice of half a lemon.

Add the other half of the lemon to a pan of water you will use to cook the stems. Bring the water to the boil, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.  Blanch until tender but still firm, 20 to 30 min. Meanwhile whisk the eggs in a large bowl.

Drain and rinse in cold water, pat dry and dredge in flour. Transfer the floured cardoons in the eggs and deep fry them in vegetable oil until lightly golden.

Make sure to work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

If you don’t like to fry, line the largest roasting tin you own with parchment paper. Place the cardoons well spaced on a single layer and bake until colored in a preheated oven at 250 °C (480 °F) , turning once.

Day 2

Make the tomato and bechamel sauce. Slice the caciotta. Prepare all ingredients on your work-top. Butter a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 in) gratin dish. You should have enough cardoons to make three layers.

Arrange the cardoons in a single layer at the bottom of the pan. Cover with one third of the sliced cheese and sprinkle one tablespoon of the grated cheese. Drizzle approx. 3 tablespoon of the tomato sauce and 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of the white sauce on the layer. Make sure to use modest amounts of sauce or you will end up with a gloppy soup!

Continue building up the layers ending with Bechamel which will form a lovely crust. Bake in preheated oven at 200° C (390° F) until golden and set, approx. 30 min.

The version  in the picture below is vegetarian and gluten-free. I substituted ragù with a simple tomato sauce and regular flour with rice flour. It’s every bit as delicious as the original one, just lighter.

Serves 6 as a main, 8 as a side

my mother's Christmas treat, I miss you mum.


chestnut and mascarpone cream

a chestnut truck in our village market

October is an incredibly generous month in Umbria. The weather is still mellow and sunny, the winds have cleared up the sky to porcelain blue, we’re counting the days to olive harvest.

This will be the first year we’ll have enough olive oil to sell because we have acquired 40 new olive trees with our new house . We are thrilled and also a bit worried by so many goals, guests, rebuilding, harvest….but sorry, I digress.

Chestnuts have finally made their irresistible appearance on the markets. 

This humble fruit has been a staple of the Mediterranean diet for millennia. Near Mount Etna in Sicily there’s a chestnut tree which is believed to be between 2000 and 4000 years old. Chestnut trees are magnificent creatures, the Sicilian one is said to have sheltered a medieval queen and her 100 knights during a storm.

Every year we buy the first chestnuts, roast them and devour  them in the evening accompanied by a glass of red wine. It’s a most convivial way to end a day and to celebrate the beginning of fall.

If you can’t buy them fresh, you can get your chestnut fix with this easy but sophisticated dessert. Look for chestnut spread, puree, paste or jam which is available from well know brands like e.g. Bonne Maman, Merchant gourmet or Faugier. The chestnut spread I use is very sweet, but you might need to add sugar if the product you buy is unsweetened. 


  • 250 gr. chestnut jam
  • 250 gr mascarpone
  • 125 gr fresh ricotta

To finish

  • 3 tablespoon toasted almonds or pine nuts
  • 3 tablespoon Cointreau or brandy

Stir the mascarpone into the ricotta and whisk until smooth. Swirl in the chestnut spread and distribute into 8 dessert cups or plates. Make sure to make small portions. It’s decadently rich, a tablespoon or so per person will go a long way.  Don’t be tempted by thick sauces or melted chocolate which will overpower the delicate yet intense flavor of the cream.

If the dessert needs to wait, cover with cling film and refrigerate. Just before serving, toast the nuts and sprinkle them while still warm on the cream. If you feel the portion is too little – I don’t –  serve with some additional decoration like ice cream wafers or other light biscuits.Drizzle with a little liqueur and serve.

chestnut decadence


the big kicks

the "cauciuni", Christmas sweets from Abruzzo


Did you know that ancient Romans  – if poor – were not allowed to cook? Such was the danger of fires that the plebeians were expected to eat in a tavern rather than cook on a rickety brazier.

Italian farmers had basic cooking facilities until relatively modern times. Most food was cooked in a clay or copper pot over an open fireplace which was also the only heating system of the house. That’s why the Italian tradition is rich in fried sweets. They can be cooked easily and in amounts suitable for large families.

This is  a fabulous recipe from my friend Luana. The “cauciuni”  are fried dumplings that are prepared in Abruzzo for Christmas. The name probably means small “calzoni”- of the pizza variety -, but to us Italians it sounds like “big kicks”.

The filling is a relatively extravagant concoction combining the peasant beans and nuts with the noble coffee and chocolate. Unlike real life, the combination of social strata works very well.



  • 350 gr (3 cups plus one tablespoon) all-purpose flour
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 25 gr (1/8 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup sweet wine, brandy or cognac


  • 200 gr (7 ounces) cooked garbanzo beans, mashed
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 100 gr (3 ounces) dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon coffee powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoon sweet wine
  • 100 gr ( 3 ounces) toasted almond
  • 2 egg yolks

Make the dough in a food processor as explained for fresh pasta. Alternatively mix ingredients by hand in a large bowl, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough on a table, and flatten it  with a rolling pin until it is about 3 mm cm (1/8 inch) thin. Cut it into 5 cm (2 inch) disks. Knead the leftover dough, roll it again and cut more disks until all dough is used.

Blend all filling ingredients and place a teaspoon of filling over each disk. Fold disks in half and seal pressing with your fingers along the round edge of each dumpling (see video below). Deep fry in hot vegetable oil until golden. Serve warm with a glass of Marsala or other sweet wine.

Serves 6-8


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