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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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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potato gateau

crispy potato gateau

SAVORY POTATO PIE a.k.a. GATO’ DI PATATE.

There are moments I so miss my mother  presenting one of her meals with that special look in her eyes. She had it when she knew she had made something really delicious. She would never compliment herself though, she was too modest for it.

She would simply mention offhandedly “è molto condito” meaning “it’s rich”. Then we knew she liked it.

And even if rich, her food was balanced. Always cooked to perfection with no ingredient dominating the others, a marriage of quality and skills.

In my life I have had the opportunity to travel the world and taste all sorts of delicacies. Nevertheless, she is still my absolute measure. I don’t need to make sophisticated dishes. If I can make a simple home recipe like she did, then I have achieved something. Her gateau was the best.

The gateau is a potato savory pie of Neapolitan and Sicilian tradition. Just like sartu, the potato gateau is a dish developed in the XVII century by French cooks employed at the Bourbons court in Naples .

For me it’s family food through and through. It has a smell of togetherness which brings me back to childhood and happy summer dinners . You only need a salad with it and a handful of cherries as a dessert.

A perfect Italian meal.

Recipe

  • 1.5 kg (3 lb) potatoes, preferably new.
  • 60 gr ( 2 oz) grated Parmesan
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste
  • 250 gr (9 oz) mild cheese (e.g. caciotta), sliced
  • 120 gr (4 oz) cooked ham
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoon butter
  • 2 tablespoon bread crumbs or gluten-free equivalent

Place potatoes  in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and cook until tender. Drain, then mash the potatoes. Use preferably a mouli or potato ricer to obtain a soft and airy mash. Mix with the eggs, grated Parmesan, salt and pepper and a couple of tablespoon olive oil.

Preheat oven at 180 °C / 350 °F.

Butter generously a 10 inch wide ovenproof dish and dust it with breadcrumbs. Line the dish with a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick layer of potato mash. You need to make sure that the potato layer is compact enough on the sides so that it will hold the filling. Layer half of the cheese and ham on the bottom of the potato shell. Add an additional 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick layer potato mash over it. Add the rest of ham and cheese and top with the rest of the potato. Dust the top with breadcrumbs, a good sprinkle of grated Parmesan and a few curls of butter.

Bake for 30 min until slightly golden. Allow to rest for at least 10 min before serving.

Serves 6 as a meal, 8 as an appetizer.

PS. You can make the potato pie easily vegetarian by substituting the ham with chopped blanched spinach which you have quickly saute in olive oil and garlic to dry them and infuse with extra flavor.

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