Apple strudel

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One of the thing I love most of Italian food is how a recipe can be focused on only one ingredient and yet can make the most out of that simplicity.

Apple strudel is an example of such a recipe. This is not a Tuscan recipe since it belongs to the Trentino Alto Adige/Sud-Tirol region, where there is an important production of apples.  But it landed in my family with my mother who loves to prepare it during winter, I suspect because is extremely easy and can be made by without having to measure the ingredients.

Lots of apple are wrapped in a lovely golden pastry.  The recipe can be veganized by using “pasta matta” dough (which literally means ‘crazy dough’).

Cooking is my way to wander through not only ingredients but also my past and present life.  Sometimes I feel the urge to explore new ingredients and use them to change up traditional recipes.  At other times, like for this Strudel, sticking with tradition feels like the wiser choice.

Ingredients :

For the dough :

1 cup of flour

2 table spoon water

1 egg

1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used canola)

pinch of salt

For the filling :

3/4 breadcrumbs

2 table spoon butter (or vegetable oil)

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/3 cup raisin (+ optional rum)

1/2 cup sugar

1 table spoon cinnamon

zest of 1 lemon

Method : 

First make your dough. Mix the flour, egg, oil, water, salt in a bowl. Whisk with a fork and then knead with your hand until you have a nice and smooth dough. Wrap in plastic and let it rest for 1 hour at room temperature.

Toast the breadcrumbs in a pan with the butter for a couple of minutes or until golden. Leave it aside. In a glass soak the raisins with water or rum if you prefer. Peel the apple and chop them finely. In a bowl with the apples add the sugar, cinnamon, pine nuts, lemon zest. Drain the raisin and add it to the bowl.

Place on a working surface a clean kitchen cloth. Sprinkle some flour on top to prevent the dough from sticking and with a rolling pin roll your dough in a rectangular shape until it gets so fine that you can almost see through. Brush the dough with some melted butter from the centre to 1 inch from each edge. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and then add the apple filling.

Helped by the cloth fold the lateral strips and then using the cloth (like to make sushi) fold the dough. Gently transfer in an oven tray lined with parchment paper. Brush some melted butter on top of the strudel and cook in a preheated oven at 390F for 35 minutes. Sprinkle some confectioner’s sugar on top and serve warm.

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Pasta and ceci, pasta with chickpeas

I’ve snubbed this dish for many years, but now that I’ve cooked it again, I find it delicious.  I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but mushy pasta has always been in the category of “never!”  This is such a firm rule for me that I’ve never ordered a pasta dish in a restaurant outside of Italy, because I’m too afraid that I’ll get overcooked pasta.  I’d rather eat something else than find myself staring in disappointment at a dish I can’t eat.

Because the texture of overcooked pasta scares me so much, I have many memories of make undercooked pasta, that despite the complaint of people around the table, I found quite good. My husband has gotten used to what he calls my ‘crunchy’ pasta.  It took a while but now I’ve converted him too, and when he cooks pasta for himself it’s very ‘al dente’.

The problem with pasta and ceci (chickpeas) or pasta and fagioli (beans) is that it is a dish somewhere between a soup, and a pasta dish with a lot of sauce. In my personal opinion -I know that other Italians might disagree since we all have strong opinion around food and how it should be prepared- pasta and ceci should have the consistency of a thick soup. Not as watery as a Minestrone or vegetable soup for example.

I can eat leftover soup, but I can’t eat leftover soup with pasta in it, because at that point the pasta will be way more then mushy. So what I need to do is to make just the right amount of pasta, eat it all and avoid any leftovers!

This dish is so comforting that I could eat it almost every day, especially during fall and winter.

Pasta and ceci in Italy could be the equivalent of rice and beans in South America.

You can play around with herbs, but chickpea and rosemary is a combination that stands out from the crowd.

I’d discourage you from using canned chickpeas. This is a simple dish and you want to use the best quality ingredients you can get to maximize the flavor. Try to buy dried chickpeas, soak them overnight and boil it for an hour or more until tender. This way the dish will have a great flavor and you can use the chickpea water to dilute the soup.

Usually the shape of pasta most commonly used is ditalini but you can adapt it with any short pasta you have at home. I used whole wheat shells.

Serves 2-4

Ingredients :

1 carrot

1 celery stalk

1 small onion

5 -6 table spoons extra virgin olive oil + a little bit more for drizzling at the end

4-5 rosemary sprigs

2 table spoons tomato paste

2 cups cooked chickpeas

2 cups vegetable broth/chickpea water/water

salt and pepper to taste

2 cup of dried pasta (ditalini, shells or any kind of short pasta you have in the pantry)

Method :

First make your soffritto which is a must in this kind of dishes. Finely chop carrot, celery and onion and cook them in a casserole with olive oil on medium heat until translucent and soft. Toss them from time to time and avoid letting them caramelize, you want to keep them pale. Then add chopped rosemary, tomato paste, stir well and add one cup of cooked chickpeas. Add two cups of vegetable broth, or if you don’t have, the chickpea water will work too, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add some salt and pepper to taste.

In a blender puree the mixture until smooth and creamy and then add another cup of chickpeas to have some texture.  Put it back in the pot.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water and drain it 2-3 minutes before the cooking time on the package. Toss the pasta in the chickpea soup, add a little bit more chickpea liquid if it’s not runny enough and let it rest with a lid on for a couple of minutes so the pasta will soak all the flavor.

Serve in a bowl with a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you have in the pantry and some freshly grated black pepper.

Ricotta and spinach dumplings with olive oil, sage and rosemary

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These creamy, pillowy dumplings are a typical dish from Florence called Gnudi that in Florentine dialect means naked. Naked because they are made of the ravioli filling without the pasta dough covering.

The recipe is very simple and use common ingredients that are often found in Florentine households : ricotta, spinach or chard, eggs and parmesan. You can easily make this recipe without even measuring ingredients once you have some practice.

You can serve them also with a butter and sage sauce or with a simply tomato sauce. If you choose the last one you can place 4-5 tablespoon of sauce at the bottom of a plate and then add  6-7 gnudi on top (it depends on the size of your dumplings) and of course some grated parmesan as you wish. I’ll avoid to sauté the gnudi in a pan with the tomato sauce because they might break.

In Italy gnudi is consider a main dish. It’s hearty and filling and you can serve it with a salad or other vegetables.

This dish was my winter comfort food as a child. On the wooden counter in the kitchen my mother used to roll these dumplings and after they were cooked she used to place them in a glass square with butter, cheese and sage on top of the radiator covered with a kitchen towel while setting the table for dinner.   Nobody had a microwave, and the cast iron radiator was always in charge of keeping the food warm.

Serves 2-3 people

Ingredients for the dumplings : makes 36 gnudi

16 oz of fresh spinach (using chard or tuscan kale  or both is another possible variation. If you use Tuscan kale I advise to boil it in salted water for 5 minutes)

10 oz of cow’s-milk ricotta cheese (I use the Bel Gioioso brand)

4 tbsp of freshly-grated Parmesan + extra to grate on top before serve

1 organic free range egg

1 tsp ground nutmeg

a good pinch of salt and pepper

from 1 to 2 tbsps of plain flour + more flour for rolling the dumplings.

Ingredients for the sauce :

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or butter if you prefer)

a few leaves of mixed fresh herbs (I used sage, rosemary and thyme)

Method :

Ricotta in the USA can have a lot a whey compared to ones you can find in Italy so I recommend to wrap your ricotta with a  cloth and let in rest in a bowl in the fridge for 1 hour or so. This will make your ricotta firmer.

Cook the spinach in a big frying pan (without any oil), on medium heat, for a few minutes, until it wilts down. If you don’t have a big frying pan you might want to cook the spinach a little at the time. Let it cool down and then in a colander squeeze them with your hands until no water comes outside. Chop them finely and place it in a bowl with the ricotta cheese, a good pinch of salt and pepper, nutmeg and parmesan cheese. Taste and decide if it needs more salt. Add the egg and If it’s runny add one tablespoon at the time of flour. You want to have a soft dough, still a little bit sticky but not runny.

To make the sauce add the olive oil or butter to the frying pan with the herbs and gently fry for a few minutes.

Turn off the heat and make the dumplings.

Spread some flour on a wooden board (this will prevent the dumplings from sticking). Scoop a tablespoon of batter and give it a rounded shape by using your hands (you want to flour your hands too to make it easier). Repeat until all your dumplings are done. Place them on the wooden board leaving some space between each other to avoid to stick to each other. Cook them in boiling salted water for a few minutes. When they float it means they are ready. Once cooked they should be soft inside and have a thin film all around. Using a skimmer transfer them in the frying pan and gently mix them with a spoon. They are very delicate so be kind! Add some freshly grated parmesan on top and serve hot .

(once you have your dumplings ready you want to cook them quickly and not let them set. They could stick to the wooden board otherwise)

Tiramisù with strawberries from my garden

 

A few years ago I read an interview with Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement. He said, ‘ to grow your own edible garden is a revolutionary act, ’ and that idea has stuck in my head ever since.

It takes time to grow your own food. It’s tiring and frustrating but also hugely satisfying. To go out your door, and then wander around the garden picking vegetables, herbs and fruit is amazing. It’s about being active in your choices, to create what you love instead of just buying it.

My garden has always taught me lessons about life. It taught me that in every seed there is powerful potential, but only care allows it to grow into a strong plant. I learned that rhubarb isn’t gone when the stalks and leaves die away when fall arrives; it proves its resilience when it sprouts again in the spring. A harder lesson that I’m still learning is that success comes slowly, with trust and perseverance, and careful tending along the way.

For this recipe I used fresh strawberries from my garden, but you can substitute raspberries or any other berries that you have available. What matters is taking what you have, and creating simple, everyday magic.

 

Ingredients for 6 single servings :

3 very fresh eggs
5 ounces of sugar
17 ounces Mascarpone (I like the BelGioioso brand, which is made in Wisconsin!)
24 lady fingers
2 cups of fresh strawberries or other berries
half a lemon

Method :

To make the mascarpone cream, first separate the yolks and the whites into two medium bowls.
Then whip the sugar with the egg yolks until you have a pale and creamy mixture. Add the mascarpone and gently mix it all with a wooden spoon. Whisk the egg whites until firm (to check, you can turn the bowl upside down , and if the egg white mixture holds its shape then they’ve reached the perfect consistency).

Gently fold 1/3 of the whites into the mascarpone cream until it’s smooth. Then add the remainder of the whites and mix again until smooth. .

Prepare 6 glasses or a serving plate if you like a cake shape instead of single servings.

Cut the strawberries in halves and cook them gently for two minutes in a saucepan with two tablespoons of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, until there’s a nice sauce and the strawberries are soft. Leave a few of the cooked strawberries on the side for decorating and blend the rest in a blender until smooth, then put it in a bowl to cool down.

In your glasses pour two tablespoons of mascarpone cream and then dip the the ladyfingers one at the time in the strawberry blend until are all coated with the juice. Put the ladyfingers on top of the cream and then cover them with another thick layer of cream.
Repeat layering the ladyfingers and the cream again. I usually make two layers, but if you prefer you can make more. Finishing with a layer of mascarpone cream and then put one table spoon of strawberry juice on top and if you like the crunch crumble one lady finger on top . Finish by adding some of the cooked strawberries that you left on the side earlier.

Leave in the fridge for 4 hours (if you can resist). Enjoy!

Note: Tiramisù is made with raw eggs and mascarpone cheese, which are both very delicate and easily perishable. Once you make the Tiramisù you should keep it in the fridge and eat it in one day or two. In my house Tiramisù doesn’t last more than a couple of hours 🙂

An Introvert-friendly guide to downtown Florence

Every time I meet someone new, they always tell me how lucky I am to have lived in such a beautiful town. I know that I’m lucky, but living in one of the most touristed places in the world can be challenging too. I love walking, getting lost in fields and streets — it’s the easiest way to recharge my internal batteries.   But walking downtown Florence can often be more overwhelming than relaxing.

I have always had the feeling that Florence is not for Florentines, but for tourists.

My beautiful friend Mary introduced me for the first time to this hidden path 2 weeks ago during my stay in Florence and I enjoyed it so much that I did it again, alone this time.

Porta Romana is a noisy place, full of cars, buses and people. but as soon as you enter the park of the Art School (Liceo Artistico Statale) you forget where you were two minutes ago and start enjoying the view of kids playing in the playground, old people walking dogs, art students struggling with a new art work, young couples kissing on the bench.

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You’re silently enter a space where people are living their ordinary life, like they would do in a small village or in a town that doesn’t have to deal every day with so much history and art like Florence.

At the end of the Viale dei Cipressi I enter Via Madonna della Pace and I notice things that I could never see if I wandered in the most trafficked part of Florence : there are kids bikes parked outside the houses, in Via del Bobolino an old man is walking his dog and a lady on the street is complaining to another lady who’s looking out the window of a house about her son and his bad grades in school. I keep going, smiling at this moment of ordinary life where the street become an intimate place where people can talk loudly feeling safe that nobody is listening.

While walking in via del Bobolino I’m surprised by the silence of the road. How is that possible in a city like Florence, always crowded, always full of noise? In this part of the town you can only smell the jasmine and the silence.

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Then I turn in Via Giovanni Schiapparelli and I’m hit by the deep pink of the houses and walls that run along the street. I end up in a tiny stone street and I wonder, am I still downtown?

Because behind the wall I can see so many olives trees, and I tiptoe to see what else is behind the wall but it stays hidden. The wall is tall enough to prevent you from seeing what’s behind but short enough that you can see some details of the life behind it.

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Walking down the street a house window is open and I can hear the sounds of pots and pans on the stove and smell something delicious. I’d forgotten — it’s lunchtime, and I guess that a parent is preparing lunch for the kids coming back from school, or a grandma is cooking for her husband.

Via San Leonardo has so little traffic, I can walk in the middle of the street, I don’t pass anyone, except a few cars that force me to move to a sidewalk that is not as as wide as my shoes.

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I soak in this calm atmosphere and I want to be quiet even if it’s a public street. No commercial shops, no museums, no peddlers. Just beautiful, colorful villas, inhabited all year around by ordinary people.

The street is so narrow at some point that I have to lean against the wall and let a car pass. At that moment my sight shifts in another direction and I notice a sign carved into the stone wall, slightly hidden by the olive tree’s branches : ‘rebuilt in the year 1879’.

I keep walking, along the wall, stopping to admire the decorations carved into the wall, the caper plants that grow out of the wall, with some leafy olive branch or grape vine above the wall, proving that behind the wall there is something beautiful and hidden.

Beyond the curve I see the bell tower of the San Leonardo in Arcetri Church and I wonder how such beauty can go completely unnoticed. There is no line of people waiting outside. It has the feeling of a village church where people gather on Sunday mornings.

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Once I arrive at Forte Belvedere I cross Porta San Giorgio and I start the descent that runs along the Bardini Garden.

I find myself in front of one of the houses where Galileo Galilei lived and I picture him building his telescope and watching the sky during clear nights at the beginning of the 17 century.

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Before turning into Via del Canneto I stop to enjoy a glimpse of the Dome and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio. I’m still far from the crowds. In via del Canneto time seems to have stopped. I walk under the arches through one of the less beaten streets of Oltrarno.

Once I approach the end of the slope of Costa San Giorgio I feel I’m entering a different world, the Florence of the tourists, with the sudden noise of a mass of tourists heading to the Old Bridge. It’s like Florence had two different dimensions that never cross each other. One for the tourists and one for the Florentines.