Home-made Ladyfingers

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light as a feather, home-made ladyfingers

The real Italian heart beats in the peasants. Somewhat our royals have been always underwhelming.

Take our former Savoy kings, for example. It is said that ladyfingers – savoiardi in Italian – have been created at the court of Amadeus VI duke of Savoy in honor of Charles V king of France. As the story goes, the head baker of Savoy was asked to invent something memorable to impress the king during a very rare visit to the Duchy.

Imagine: the medieval king is used to lavish banquets where he is served dishes like the tourte parmerienne, a pastry dish made to look like a castle with chicken-drumstick turrets coated with gold leaf. His head chef, Guillaume Tirel is  considered one of the first truly “professional” master chefs in European history.

Then he goes to visit his brother-in-law in Savoy and he is offered sponge cookies. Wow.

I am not sure the story it’s true, but we should have gotten read of them a few hundred years earlier. I mean, the would-be-kings Dukes.

Luckily we kept the cookies and used them to invent tiramisu. They are also lovely with gelato, warm custard, ricotta or simply dunked in good sweet wine like a Vinsanto o Moscato. And very, very easy to make.

Recipe

  • 75 gr (2/3 cup) 00 or pastry flour
  • 75 gr (2/3 cup)  sugar
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 teasp vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 scant tablespoon yogurt or milk
  • 2 tablespoon powder sugar plus 2 tablespoon regular sugar, mixed in a small bowl

Preheat oven at 150 °C (300 ° F). Line a large baking sheet with buttered parchment paper. If you don’t butter the parchment paper you will have to eat it as it’s hardly possible to remove it from the cookies after baking.

Whisk egg whites until firm. Cream the sugar and egg yolks, add lemon zest, vanilla extract, flour and milk or yogurt and keep whisking to obtain a very thick batter. Fold in egg whites using a metal spoon. Make sure to incorporate them lightly, with circular upward movements so to obtain an airy mixture that will not deflate while cooking.

At this point, using a pastry bag, you should pipe the batter into 10 cm (4 inch) long strips on the baking sheet.

I hate pastry bags, so I use a soup spoon making sure to keep the strips at least 3 cm (1 inch) apart. One spoon of batter is enough for one ladyfinger.

Now sprinkle half of the sugar mixture onto the strips and wait for 5 mins before sprinkling the rest. This makes that pretty craquelè coating.

Bake for 20 min or until golden around the sides.

Makes about 2 dozens.

spaghetti with salmon and brandy

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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

Grazia’s chantilly cream

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Italian style Chantilly aka crema diplomatica

I must be the only woman on the Western hemisphere who is not on a diet after the holidays. It can’t be healthy to be on a diet in the dead of the winter. Besides – with all my food intolerances – I live in such a modesty I can afford some culinary cuddling. Don’t you also need a bit of consolation?

This recipe is from my friend and wonderful cook Grazia of Ristorante Nanà in Perugia. I will be forever grateful to her for wisely revealing that custard can be made with whole eggs. It’s disarmingly easy and not wasteful. In addition, it magically produces  a large amount of a delightful dessert with a small amount of fairly ordinary ingredients.

Recipe

for the custard:

  • 250 ml ( 1 cup) milk
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 scant tablespoon maizena (corn starch)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon jam or the zest of 1/2 organic lemon

to finish:

  • 250 ml ( 1 cup) whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoon organic brown sugar or  6 tablespoon caramel
  • light cookies or – much better – crumbled puff pastry

Please note that true Chantilly cream is sweetened whipped cream. In Italy however, this concoction of egg custard and whipped cream is called Chantilly and sometimes crema diplomatica.

Make the custard using my microwave method and let it cool completely. Please note that this recipe is slightly different from my classic custard as it has more sugar  and a whole egg. Whip the cream until firm and add to the custard. Refrigerate until needed.

Just before serving distribute the cream into pretty serving bowls, crumble the puff pastry over it and sprinkle with brown sugar or drizzle with caramel.

Beware, you will be asked for more.

Serves  6

chestnut and mascarpone cream

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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. 

Recipe

  • 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

spinach and pasta soup

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emerald goodness

This is a healthy, refreshing and quite good-looking soup. It’s one of my desperation recipes, meaning that I make it when desperately needing a nutritious and light meal in hardly any time. I often keep a bag of pre-washed spinach in the fridge, but I would not snob some good quality frozen ones, possibly organic.

I often use fresh pasta leftovers which I dry on a towel for a day or two and then roughly crush them with my hands to give it a rustic look. Bought fresh egg-noodles of any shape you like will do just fine, no crushing needed.

What makes the dish is that drizzle of olive oil at the end. The fruity creaminess of the oil brings out the herby intensity of the spinach.

This is a perfect occasion to open that bottle of olive oil you bought during your last holidays in Umbria.

Please don’t be tempted to cook the pasta in the soup, it will be chewy, you want it silky. Fresh noodles cook in no time so it’s not an effort.

If you are gluten free, this is a good recipe to use boiled rice leftovers too. As a further alternative,  you could substitute the pasta with two tablespoon cooked cannellini beans per person. Just warmed them first in a pan with a little garlic and olive oil before gently float them on the soup.

Recipe

  • 1/2 kg (1 lb) spinach
  • 1 onion
  • 1 lt ( 1 quart) boiling water or stock
  • 1 teaspoon flour or corn starch
  • 60 gr (2 ounces) fresh pasta noodles per person
  • 2 teaspoon freshly grated Parmesan per person
  • a good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Dice the onion and soften it in two tablespoon olive oil in a  saucepan which must be large enough to hold the soup. Add the cleaned spinach leaves, cover and simmer slowly until the greens are wilted. Add flour or starch and stir. Add the boiling water or stock, simmer 3-4 more minutes, season and puree until smooth. Cover to keep warm.

In a separate pan cook the noodles in plenty salted boiling  water until al dente. Fresh tagliolini will take no more than one minute.  Drain and toss with one tablespoon of olive oil. Now quickly ladle the spinach puree into bowls, add the pasta, a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, drizzle with good EVO oil and serve immediately.

Serves 4

here, with your sprinkle of cheese