Friday, December 31, 2010

Castagnaccio, Tuscan Chestnut Cake

Today is the last day of 2010. In Rome, it's a gray day, and leaving the house is not the least bit tempting, so I'm glad to be staying home, baking and getting ready for a feast for two tonight. For our last meal of the year, we will eat lentils (because it's tradition in Italy), slow cooked with herbs and wild mushrooms, and lamb chops, prepared simply with garlic, olive oil and rosemary, and we'll make a toast to making it another time around the sun.

Naturally on New Year's Eve there's some form of quiet reflection on experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, of the last 365 days, as well as a bit of excitement, sometimes fear or anticipation of what's to come in 2011. While we are far away from friends and family, I like to think that these treats that I cook are being shared somehow, wishing I was close enough to pop over and share one over a cup of tea and a chat, to watch ballet performances, see new pairs of glasses, and hold the hand of my dearest friend who is having a rough time. For consolation, in the absence of these things, I bake.

Castagnaccio, as it's known in Tuscany, is a cake made of chestnut flour, and was once known as poor man's food. This winter, I became interested in chestnuts, I roasted some and made a soup and delighted with the result, started paying attention to other things made with chestnuts. I drizzled chestnut honey over a salad, and used crema di marroni, (a type of chestnut cream) and marrons glacés to make a Mont Blanc dessert for Christmas dinner. When the chestnut flour caught my eye at my organic store, I was curious to taste it. I did some research and found this interesting cake. It's vegan, with no eggs or milk, naturally sweet from the chestnuts, fragrant with notes of rosemary, orange zest, and hearty; the type of snack you would want after a hike, cozying up by the fire with a glass of vin santo, or simply refueling after a morning chasing someone like this around.

Makes 1 large or 12 small cakes

Although this is usually baked in a large, round pan, I decided to make 12 individual cakes, baby cake-style so I could début a birthday gift from P. last week- silicone baking molds (3 different shapes!) This dense cake has the consistency of a thick pudding. To make it gluten free, you could easily omit the small amount of flour I added without a problem. It's a guilt free dessert, more of a snack, really. You can read about how healthy chestnuts are here, and then enjoy these treats.

14 ounces chestnut flour (this is about 3 1/2 cups)
2 ounces all purpose flour (optional)
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons sugar
grated zest of one orange
2 cups of water
5 tablespoons raisins (soaked and squeezed)
3 tablespoons pine nuts
10 walnuts, chopped
one sprig of fresh rosemary
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl (it's quite a moist flour) and add if using, the all purpose flour, a pinch of salt and sugar. Add the orange zest. Using a wooden spoon to stir, pour the water in a thin stream while mixing and trying to avoid big lumps from forming. Stir in the raisins (squeeze out the moisture first from the soaking liquid, and reserve about 2 tablespoons for the top of the cake), half the pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary leaves, again reserving some leaves for the top of the cake. You will want to grease a pan, unless you have silicone molds and pour the cake batter in. Decorate the top with the reserved raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Drizzle the top with olive oil. Bake 1 hour for a large cake or about 25 minutes for small cakes, until the top is cracked. Cool slightly in the pan before un-molding.

Buon Anno a tutti. Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Brutti ma buoni

After living in a foreign country for a while, once the honeymoon phase is over, one starts to see things and people through a different, sometimes critical eye. Years ago, the first time I stepped foot in Italy, I thought everything and everyone was gorgeous and I romanticized that image for years in my head. It was summertime, and strolling through historic Rome in the light of dusk, the women were all so beautiful with their sun dresses, and their flowing hair, and the men were all groomed and dashing. When we returned to actually live here, I discovered that Italians come in all shapes and sizes just like anywhere else! Reality had just set in.

It's no secret, Italians are image conscious, and they do spend a lot of time and money on their appearances. Some have a different style than I am entirely comfortable with (what my husband and I call "peacocking") but it certainly makes for some interesting people watching.

So, perhaps it's fitting for this country to have a cookie known as by the descriptive name "ugly, but good." When I first discovered these cookies I was delighted and intrigued, because the linguist in me loves the obvious names Italians sometimes give to food. Ever heard of maltagliati? "Badly-cut pasta." I finally set out to make them based on their name alone. They are a gem of a cookie. No butter, a negligible amount of flour, essentially they are meringues. Mine turned out soft and chewy, a little crunch from the addition of chopped hazelnuts and mini-chocolate chips baked right in there- they are light tasting, wonderful little creatures. I'm not sure how these earned the name ugly, but I guess different cultures perceive beauty in different ways.

Brutti Ma Buoni
Makes 24 cookies.

These are simple and fast to make, and have a refreshingly short ingredient list. They can be made with or without chocolate, with hazelnuts or with a combination of hazelnuts and almonds. I cannot say that my recipe is very authentic, not having eaten the originals. I researched around the internet and concocted a batch based on the basic quantities of 4 egg whites, 1 cup of sugar. Some recipes used the lemon rind and a bit of cinnamon, others added amaretto liqueur. There were some without any flour and some with up to 3 tablespoons. Here's what I ended up using:

4 egg whites
1 cup sugar (I would decrease this next time to 3/4 cup.)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup toasted hazelnuts
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

Beat the egg whites with a hand-held mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until incorporated, about two minutes. Beat in the flour and the vanilla. Chop the hazelnuts and add to the egg whites, folding them in gently along with the chocolate chips if using. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat (if you have neither just butter the baking sheets.) Using a tablespoon or soup spoon, drop the cookie batter onto the sheets, smoothing each slightly with the back of the spoon (or leave a few peaks so you can call them ugly.) Bake in a 300 degree oven for 25-30 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes before carefully removing with a spatula to continue cooling on racks.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


It's nice to be able to stay home and bake where it's safe and warm, especially when the city is burning with protests and confidence votes. These are strange times, and it seems smarter to stay out of the mess by just being domestic.

I got a lot of strange looks around town when I proudly announced I was planning on making my own panettone. I can understand in part why people find it strange. In Italy, there is more panettone than people could possibly consume this season. According to the press, the price went up 19% on this and other Christmas food items compared to last year! I thought it would be nice to master it this year, so that next year, when I'm living in the States again, I know I can have fresh panettone without the price tag.

There is something about buying bread that comes in a box that doesn't exactly scream freshness to me. There are so many variations on the original panettone now- some with limoncello, or piped full of chocolate, ranging in price and quality, some come decorated like christmas trees and I've even seen some sold in fancy handbags! But to smell the orange and lemon notes coming from your own kitchen, that is something that cannot be bought.

My first attempt was a complete flop a few weekends ago, so much so that I almost gave up. I was using Italian 00 flour which is much finer than American all-purpose flour and I did not adjust the quantities. I was convinced that I must have omitted a cup of flour since I was distracted by Roman. But when I made it the second time, counting out loud as I added the flour, I got the same result. It looked like cake batter instead of bread dough. But this time, I decided to trust my instinct and kept adding flour, just enough so that I could knead it by hand. The result was still light and airy enough to bear the name panettone.

The recipe is originally from Martha Stewart and I came across it here, recommended by an Italian, which for me lends more credibility to a Martha recipe. I made a few changes, like using only raisins instead of candied fruit, and I also omitted the egg and cream wash for the tops. I'm looking forward to using my leftovers for french toast. It is also wonderful for breakfast, lightly toasted and spread with butter or some fig jam.

Adapted from Martha Stewart and from Z Tasty Life
Makes 3 medium loaves

I used standard size paper lunch bags to make this recipe. If you have deserving friends and/or neighbors, this makes a wonderful gift. I must admit, I am selfishly keeping all three loaves for myself this year. I'm not ashamed to say I don't always feel like sharing a good thing!

For the sponge:
1/3 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

For the dough:
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
2/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups mixed dried and candied fruit (I used exclusively raisins, since that is my preference)
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange

To make the sponge, warm a small bowl by rinsing it with hot water. Pour in warm water, and sprinkle one package yeast on it. Let stand until dissolved. Stir in 1/2 cup flour, cover with plastic wrap and let stand about thirty minutes, until doubled. Sprinkle remaining package yeast over warm milk. Let stand until dissolved. Beat together sugar, eggs, egg yolks and vanilla. Mix in yeast-milk mixture. Add sponge and stir until well incorporated.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (I do not have an electric stand mixer, so I used my hand held mixer), combine butter and remaining 3 1/2 cups flour until crumbly. Slowly pour in egg mixture and beat on high speed for 3 - 4 minutes, until dough is elastic looking and long strands form. Beat in fruit and zests. Turn the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 2 to 3 hours. Fold down the tops of your paper bags to form a 3 inch cuff.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead gently a few times to deflate. Divide the dough in three. Roll each piece into a ball, and drop into the prepared bags. Place the bags on a baking sheet about 4 inches apart and cover with plastic wrap (greased with a bit of canola oil if it looks like you're dough will rise and touch the plastic wrap.) Leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Carefully but decisively slash the top of each loaf in a cross pattern with scissors or a serrated knife. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 375. Bake for an additional 20-30 minutes (you may have to cover them with aluminum foil to prevent them from over browning.) Loaves are done when a wooden skewer inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuscan Wild Boar Ragu

Last Sunday, our feast of epic proportions started with a decadent soup and as a main course, we feasted on Wild Boar Ragù served over fresh tagliatelle.

But first, a short rant: There's "ragu" (pronounced "ragooooo") and then there's ragù. One comes in a jar with a gaudy label and calls itself "America's favorite pasta sauce." How can that be?? Am I that out of touch!? The label even has the accent facing the wrong way, which matters the least but I think bothers me the most! Jarred tomato sauce with sugar versus a luscious meat-based, slow-simmer sauce. I'm sure you can guess which one I'm about to tell you about.

This recipe is from a lovely cookbook called Olives and Oranges, Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. It was a gift in September from my uncle and I've been pouring over the recipes wanting to make everything.

This is slow food at it's best. I shopped for the meat on Thursday, marinated it for 24 hours, simmered it for three hours on Friday, let all the flavors deepen on their own on Saturday and then served it on Sunday. If you can't find wild boar (honestly, here in Rome my butcher said it's very hard to find and we're only 2 hours from Tuscany), ask for pork shoulder. Make sure you order in advance and ask them to cut it into 1 inch pieces (bone-in) because they have the tools required to do this.

During every step of the preparation, I got more and more excited about the sauce. This ragù is a dish that makes you feel like you're sitting in front of a fireplace in a stone house in the Tuscan hills and it's snowing outside, with a pot simmering on the stove full of all the flavors of the countryside.

Tuscan Wild Boar Ragù
From Olives and Oranges
Makes about 6 servings.

It was nice to be able to make this ahead. This was the first meal I think I've ever served where every course was done ahead of time, and there was no stress the day of. If you marinate overnight, count about 4 hours to make the sauce from start to finish. Serve it over the highest quality tagliatelle or pappardelle you can find (or make yourself if you're really ambitious).

Marinade Ingredients:
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
3 garlic cloves
1 shallot, quartered
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
8 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 1/2 cups dry red wine (that's good enough to drink...)
2-2 1/2 pounds bone-in boar shoulder (or pork shoulder) cut into 1 inch pieces (have your butcher do this!)

Combine the above ingredients in a large bowl and add the boar. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, or overnight.

Ragù Ingredients:
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
1 garlic clove
1 fresh sprig of rosemary (leaves only)
Fine sea salt and coarsely ground pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups water
1 tablespoon tomato paste (double-concentrate if you can find it)
1 28-ounce can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, with their juices

For the ragù:
In a food processor, pulse the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and rosemary until finely minced.
Drain the meat, pat dry and discard marinade. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot, over medium-high heat. Add boar, slowly feeding it into the pot to keep pan temperature from dropping too much, and cook until you have a good sear on one side (about 10 minutes, **this went faster for me). Move browned pieces to side of pot and continue until all meat is seared. Transfer meat to a plate.

Add vegetable mixture and 1 teaspoon salt to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables start to brown, about 7 minutes. Return meat to pot, add water and tomato paste, stirring to dissolve paste. Cover and simmer gently for about 2 hours.

Add tomatoes and their juices and simmer for another hour, until the meat is very tender, gently breaking meat into chunks with a wooden spoon as it becomes tender. Remove from heat and let cool.

Remove meat from the pot and shred with your fingers (this gives a county style ragù that will coat your pasta in the appropriate way). Return meat to the pot and reheat gently before serving, or let cool and refrigerate for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chestnut and Porcini Soup with Rosemary Walnut Biscotti

You know when homemade food tastes like love? Do you ever say it? I do, and I don't know if it's just one of my idiosyncracies, or if people actually say this. In order to say it, you have to feel it- be pretty darn passionate about food I guess.

Today we had another Sunday lunch with friends. An "epic" Sunday lunch that I spent my whole week planning, shopping for, marinating, stewing, simmering, whipping, well, you get the picture. Oh, and by shopping, I should elaborate. I push a 20 pound stroller with a 26 pound baby and 15 pounds worth of groceries uphill over ridiculously bad sidewalks, all the crosswalks blocked by illegally parked cars, and every second sidewalk blocked for some sort of construction work. I think I earned the right to eat heavily on Sundays. Go triceps.

I've sort of been on a roll of cooking with ingredients that I've never used before. This week I chose chestnuts. In Paris in early November, my friend served me a chestnut and porcini soup, that I kept thinking about. It had a richness to it, and a sweetness at the same time, and I finally decided to make my own to serve for today's starter. It's the perfect late fall, early winter soup because it's thick, velvety, hearty, comforting...the kind of soup that makes me say, "this tastes like love."

Roasted Chestnut and Porcini Soup

Adapted from Sara's Secrets on the Food Network

I was pretty intimidated by roasting the chestnuts. Now that I've done it, it's not so bad at all, it was just slightly painful to peel hot chestnuts but I suppose I could have let them cool more. The work was worth it, as this is a luxurious tasting soup, slightly sweet from the chestnuts and the parsnip, while the porcini add a whole other layer of complexity and richness.

1 1/4 lbs roasted chestnuts, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms

2 cups water

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium carrot

1 stalk of celery

1 parsnip

2 shallots

1 sprig of fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

3 cups chicken stock (I used my recently made turkey stock.)

2 tablespoons dried sherry (I used white wine)

Creme fraiche for garnish

To roast the chestnuts, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place each chestnut flat side down on a clean dishtowel and with a medium size, very sharp knife, make an x in the shell of each chestnut before roasting (or they may explode in the oven.) Roast them for about 20-25 minutes until the skins have peeled back where you made the incision and they are golden in color.

When they are cool enough to touch, peel them, removing both the hard shell and inner skin. (don't leave them too long, or peeling will be difficult). Then coarsely chop and get on with the rest of the soup.

Place the porcini in a bowl and cover with two cups of boiling water. Let steep for 20 minutes.

Dice the carrot, celery, parsnip and shallots. In a sauce pan, melt the butter and saute the vegetables until tender. Add the thyme, bay leaf and the stock. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the porcini mushrooms to the sauce pan. Then transfer the porcini soaking liquid to the sauce pan, making sure to drain out any gritty sediment before adding. Add your chestnuts, bring to a boil and then cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Working in batches, puree the soup until velvety and return to the saucepan. Add sherry or white wine. Bring to a simmer and add salt and pepper to suit your taste buds. Before serving, add a dollop of creme fraiche, that your guests can then swirl into the soup and swoon over. Can be made one day in advance.

Rosemary Walnut Biscotti

After last week's biscotti, I wanted to make some savory biscotti accompany this soup. I started with a savory biscotti recipe by Giada di Laurentis and added rosemary and walnuts. They were not as crunchy as my regular biscotti, they were softer and I really enjoyed having something to nibble alongside the soup.

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons chopped Rosemary leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese, at room temperature

3 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs, beaten, at room temperature

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, rosemary, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and goat cheese together until smooth. Beat in the sugar and eggs. In batches, add the flour mixture and beat until just combined, then incorporate the walnuts. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet. With damp hands, form the dough into a 13 inch-long, 3 1/2 inch-wide loaf. Bake until light golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 300. Transfer the loaf to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut the log on the diagonal into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange the biscotti, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake until pale golden, about 15 minutes, then flip the biscotti and bake for another 15 minutes on the opposite side. Transfer the biscotti to a wire rack and cool completely, about 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Local Flavor

We all know Italy is famous for food, but today on the street, I found flavor of a different kind. This is just a sampling of the little morsels of local flavor, sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, that I encounter on a daily basis. Enjoy.

Stop one: While waiting at the butcher shop today, the old woman in front of me asked for "macinato," ground beef. "Fresh," she said to the butcher, "like you." "I was born nice," he retorted, "but as I grew I got fresh, it happens..."

Stop two: As I approached my salumeria where I buy my cheeses, salami, fresh pasta, odds and ends, I could see Danilo the owner leaning over his counter, his face pursed into a serious scowl, his arms gesticulating madly, screaming at a small old lady who barely moved. I stopped the stroller outside of the store, hesitated before going in. He saw me, stopped for a moment and then continued his tirade. I waited patiently outside the door until he got it all out (he ended it with "Okaaayyy? Ciao") at which point I thought the little lady would be leaving, but she stayed put. I entered, pushing Roman and timidly asked for porcini mushrooms for a soup and cantucci to serve with my vin santo. He turns to speak to the woman, "Mamma," he says, "this lady is American but she speaks French to her son." Internal voice: "Oh my gosh, that's his mother he was screaming at! And she just stood there and took it??" Later he tells me they stole his motorcycle outside his house, and you know, "the motorcycle is more important than a wife," he tells me trying to justify his behavior and rage.

Stop three: Fruit stand. "Do you know where I can find fresh bay leaf?" "Bay leaf? Do you know what it is? It's growing everywhere. Just go and pick it behind the church."

Stop four: Caffè and cornetto (like a croissant) at our usual stop. This time Roman wants half my cornetto, and I oblige. In walks a grandma pushing her 11 month old grandson in a stroller. "How old?" she asks me, "14 months," I say. She proceeds to sit and spoon feed him a jar of bland, tasteless vegetables. "I don't let him have cornetto and bread, all these schifezze" (nasty things) she says. Internal voice: "You should see Roman eating his broccoli stalks and thai chicken curry cooked in coconut milk with sweet potato. Schifezze, my son?! Never. Just real food."
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