madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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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. 

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


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asparagus 101

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spring on the plate: soft scrambled eggs with fragrant wild asparagus

With all the running around, worries and excitement about the new house I forgot to post my April article in The American in Italia magazine featuring another of my favorite recipes, Parmesan and asparagus eggs.

Please remember that if you don’t have wild asparagus or the season is over, you need to choose fairly thin green asparagus and use them as soon as possible so they stay fresh and crunchy. Remove the woody part of the stem, toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil per 1/2 pound asparagus and broil them for 15-20 min until just cooked through and slightly charred.Remove from under the grill, add some crushed garlic, cover and let them infuse for at least 10 min.

I use this method of preparation as a lovely side dish and for most of my asparagus recipes like risotto, spaghetti, and beef. I also chop them, mix them with equal weight of fresh ricotta and a couple of tablespoon grated Parmesan to use as a filling for ravioli or as a spread on crostini.

The picture below has nothing to do with the recipe. Its an Apsara, a heavenly dancer I got to know about during our winter trip in Cambodia. It’s just that I have this crazy name association between their name and my favorite vegetable. It’s becoming an obsession, but I promise, no more asparagus until next year!

An Apsara, a heavenly dancer of Hindu Mithology


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gluten free ravioli

they look like the real thing, don't they?

they look like the real thing, don’t they?

There is so much good food to discover and enjoy.  A lifetime is not enough to fulfill this scope. Even though I have food intolerance, I love to make food for others. I make all sorts of foods, even those I can’t eat and I do it with joy.

In fact – probably more than others – people with intolerances know that having good, fresh, healthy food is a privilege, something to treasure and respect every day.

When I first wrote this article, over 3 years ago, I had lots of digestive issues but I did not know I was wheat intolerant. I made these for someone who wanted to attend to one of my cooking classes and watch others making ravioli without being able to eat them. “No my dear – I said – you also must eat”.

Years later and after a lot of pondering, mistakes and experiments, I have come to accept that I’m among the many that can’t eat wheat anymore. It’s OK really, there’s lots of wonderful food to be had.

Now that I start to know a new way of cooking – gluten-free cooking – I can have as much pasta as I want, just like before. And make it for others. None can stop me, not even the gluten.

Recipe

for ravioli

  • 200 gr (7 oz) gluten-free cake mix
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (6 gr) psyllium husks
  • 1 teaspoon (4 gr) xanthan powder

for the filling

  • 120 gr. (4 oz) spinach or swiss chard
  • 60 gr (2 oz) ricotta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan or pecorino

For the filling, blanch spinach or other leaf vegetables in boiling water for 3 min. Drain. Cool under cold water and squeeze very dry. Chop greens finely and transfer to a bowl. Mix in ricotta and grated cheese.

For the dough, you can also use a commercial GF flour. Note that each flour mix absorbs a different amount of liquid, so adjust accordingly. If you use a commercial GF flour mix, omit the xanthan and psyllium as most likely there is already a binding agent in the mix.

You can make gluten-free pasta using approximately the same method of fresh regular pasta (please see pictures here and a video here).  The main difference is that the dough is soft, tears easily and dries very fast so you need to speed up the whole process.

Not only do you need to roll the dough quickly, you must keep the sheets a little thicker than those made with regular wheat dough. If the pasta sheet is too thin it will  tear. When the sheets are ready, make the ravioli as soon as possible. If they dry you will not be able to fold and to seal them.

In a food processor blend the flour, oil and egg until the mixture just begins to form a ball. Depending on the size of the egg, it might be necessary to add a little hot water in order to obtain a soft but not sticky dough. Transfer the dough onto a worktop but keep it covered under a plastic bowl.

Set the rollers of a pasta machine on the widest setting. Cut a golf-ball size piece of dough and  flatten it quickly into a square with a rolling pin.  Feed it through the rollers. Fold the square in half and feed it through the rollers again to give it a regular shape.

Each time you fold it, dust with rice flour to prevent sticking. Don’t overwork it or it will start breaking apart.

Turn dial down to an intermediate (narrower) setting, dust with rice flour and feed the dough through rollers without folding. See details on how to do with the machine settings in the pasta dough article.

Turn the dial one last time, reducing the space between the rollers until the second to the last of the narrowest settings. Roll one last time.

Cover the sheets with a cotton tea-towel to prevent drying. Arrange a sheet of pasta on a large wooden board. Place teaspoons of the filling about 5 cm (2 inches) apart on the sheet so that you can make a “parcel” by folding it over.

spoon filling on the pasta sheets, make sure to leave enough space to seal

Using a pasta cutter seal each parcel by cutting on three sides (the fourth is the fold). Dust a large tray or your worktop with flour and carefully place the ravioli on it taking care that they do not overlap.

a zig-zag cutter is essential to seal the ravioli

Cook in salted, boiling water until al dente, 1 min. Taste them and cook max. one additional minute if necessary. GF pasta dough overcooks easily so you must be careful. Drain and toss ravioli with butter and lemon or a tomato sauce. Distribute onto 2 plates, top with grated Parmesan (or pecorino) if desired and drizzle with a fruity extra virgin olive oil.

Serves 2-3

delicious ravioli made with gluten free flour

delicious ravioli made with gluten free flour


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chocolate and ricotta crostata with homemade candied orange

Umbria meets Sicily: a pastry tart with chocolate, orange and ricotta

CROSTATA AL CIOCCOLATO.  I can proudly say that this is a family recipe. My family is half Umbrian, half Sicilian. Both regions have great food but when it comes to sweets there is no contest.  Sicilians are blessed by the best sweets ever  invented, cassata, cannoli, panzerotti, martorana, granita, pignolata….oh my.

Enter any humble bakery in Sicily and you will feel like in sugar heaven.   Sicilians  rarely make sweets at home because they can buy the best stuff in the world. And by the way, most of their sweets take days to make, so why bother.

We Umbrian peasants really can’t compete but we have one good thing, our crostata. We like it so much we eat it all the time. In addition it’s really easy and quick to make.

I don’t know who had this brilliant idea, but sometime when I was a kid, one of my Sicilian aunties living in Umbria came up with the idea of using the cannoli filling for a crostata. It was an instant success and adopted for all picnics and garden parties. Home-style fusion food, I just love it.

Recipe

  • 1 recipe crostata dough
  • 250 gr / 8 ounces ricotta
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 100 gr. / 2 and 1/2  ounces 70% dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon minced candied orange or citron peel
  • orange blossom water (optional)

Chop chocolate in small cubes and stir into the ricotta, add all other ingredients  and if desired 1/4 teaspoon of orange blossom water. Make sure to use good quality, flavorful candied peel which will contribute a characteristic citrus taste to the mixture. In the winter I make candied orange peel, it’s fantastic.

Prepare the tart as explained in the main crostata recipe using the ricotta filling instead of jam. Bake the crostata at 180° C/ 350° F for  45 minutes, or until the lattice is golden. Cool the crostata in the pan on a rack and serve.

Because of the soft cheese filling, you need to make this tart the same day you serve it otherwise the crust will soften.

Serves 8


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cassata siciliana

homemade Sicilian cassata

homemade  Sicilian  cassata

SICILIAN CASSATA. Nothing is simple in Sicily. So much has happened for innumerable centuries. Every population around the Mediterranean has had a kingdom there, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normands, Spanish, Bourbons. Each left memories, traditions,  ingredients. The Arabs brought in almonds and citrus.  Marzipan was developed under the Normands. The Spanish introduced chocolate, candied fruits and sponge cake. The cassata is a sophisticated cheese cake enclosed in a  marzipan shell and decorated with candied fruits. It’s exquisite when fresh and made with good quality ingredients. This is another recipe of my friend Luana. She is such a perfectionist, she even makes the marzipan from scratch.

Recipe

For the sponge cake shell:

  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 200 gr sugar (7/8 cup)
  • 150 gr (1 and 1/4 cup)00 or  pastry flour
  • 100 gr  (7/8 cup) rice or potato  starch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 5 tablespoon hot water
  • 250 gr. (9 ounces) marzipan
  • 1/2 cup Marsala or other sweet wine

Preheat oven at 170°. Whip egg whites to firm peaks with 75 gr. sugar. Whisk egg yolks, hot water and 125 gr. sugar.

Add the baking powder to the flour and slowly fold it  into the beaten yolks. Finally, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the mixture.
Bake for 20 min. or until a wooden skewer comes out clean.

For the filling:

  • 700 gr ricotta cheese
  • 150 gr (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
  • 200 gr (7  ounces) dark chocolate finely chopped
  • 200 g  (7  ounces )  mixed candied fruit finely diced plus additional larger pieces for decoration
  • 200 g (7  ounces) toasted peeled almonds finely chopped

Whisk the ricotta with the granulated sugar until smooth and then add chocolate, almonds and diced candied fruits. Line a 25 cm (10 inch) diameter pudding mold  with plastic wrap. Roll the marzipan 1/2 cm (1/4 of an inch) thick and as wide as the mold. The marzipan used in Sicily is traditionally colored green using food pigments. Line the mold with marzipan. Slice the sponge cake in 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick slices and use the slices to line the marzipan inside the mold. Sprinkle with Marsala wine and add the ricotta mixture. Cover with more sponge cake slices, press down gently and sprinkle again with Marsala.

Cover and refrigerate the cassata for several hours. When firm, turn the cassata over onto the serving dish and remove mold and plastic wrap. Decorate with sugar frosting and strips of candied fruit and chill for a few more hours before serving.

Serves 8

In Assisi you can find good Marsala at Il Baccanale wine shop: via del Comune Vecchio 2, near Piazza Matteotti, Assisi, Umbria, Italy.

hevanly sweet

heavenly  sweet


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mousse di ricotta

a mousse of fresh ricotta served with marinated fruits

a mousse of fresh ricotta served with marinated fruits

HONEYED RICOTTA MOUSSE. I adore strawberries but this light and easy dessert can be served throughout the year with any ripe fresh fruits in season. Use  artisanal raw honey with a flowery aroma such as orange blossom. Figs, peaches, melon and mango are splendid alternatives to berries.

Recipe

For the mousse:

  • 500 gr/ 1 pound ricotta cheese
  • 3 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • 100 ml/ ½ cup whipping cream or 2 tablespoon mascarpone
  • 4-6  teaspoon good quality honey

For the marinated fruits:

  • 1 basket strawberries or two peaches or mixed berries, cleaned and thinly sliced or cubed (do not cut up berries if they are small)
  • 1/2 cup white vermouth, Amaretto or other sweet liqueur
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • juice of half lemon

Toss fruit, liqueur, sugar, and lemon juice in large bowl to combine. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 h. For children, use only lemon juice and sugar.

If using cream, whip until firm. Whisk the sugar into the ricotta and add carefully the cream or mascarpone. Cover and  keep in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Just before serving, spoon the ricotta mousse on a plate or bowl, add the fruit and drizzle with honey.

Serves 4-6


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pear and pecorino ravioli

homemade ravioli with a pear filling and aged balsamic dressing

homemade ravioli with a pear filling and aged balsamic dressing

RAVIOLI CON PERE E PECORINO. I love homemade ravioli, these little pockets of delight. Pear and cheese is a classic combination, but it’s not traditionally used on pasta. This recipe is a good example of Italian modern cuisine. For me this is defined by a few traditional ingredients of excellent quality  used in a novel way and brief cooking to preserve flavors. The result is light, balanced and utterly delicious.

To obtain the right texture you need pears with firm smooth flesh, not the grainy and soft ones. Then you need seriously aged balsamic vinegar, I use 15 years old .

Recipe

For the ravioli:

  • 250 gr./8 ounces fresh  ricotta
  • 1 pear
  • 60 gr (2 ounces) grated Parmesan
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 recipe basic pasta dough

For the sauce:

  • 60 gr (2 ounces) butter
  • 30 gr (1 ounce) thin shavings of Parmesan or aged pecorino
  • 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar/person or raw honey

Peel, slice and cut the pear in very small pieces, saute briefly in 1 teaspoon butter and cool. Add to the ricotta cheese, lemon zest and grated Parmesan.

Divide the pasta into balls of the size of a large egg. Using a pasta machine roll them out into long thin strips.
Put teaspoons of the pear 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 pasta cutter seal each parcel by cutting on three sides (the fourth is the fold). Dust a large tray or your worktop with flour and carefully place the ravioli on it taking care that they do not overlap.

Cook in salted boiling water until al dente, about 3 and 1/2 min. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the pasta and on how dry the ravioli are. Drain and toss ravioli with the remaining butter. Distribute onto 4 plates, top with Parmesan (or pecorino) shavings and drizzle with balsamic vinegar or honey.

To make vegetable ravioli, substitute pear with 500 gr./1 pound spinach leaves, blanched in boiling water, squeezed as dry as possible and very finely chopped. Another delicious alternative is to dice 3 medium zucchini and sautè in olive oil until just golden. Add one finely minced garlic clove and a few thorn basil leaves. Pulse chop in a food processor together with the ricotta and two tablespoons Parmesan until creamy.

Makes about 50 ravioli, serves 4.

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