The Best Way to Sauce Pasta
One of the primary philosophies of GVI is passing along ways to live a more Italian life (even if you're not in Italy), often shedding and evolving away from the often corrupted and devolved Italian-American traditions and methods of language, culture, and of course cooking. One of my biggest changes in recent years is to my old Italian-American method of cooking pasta--simply topping with sauce. I learned from my mother. She would boil and drain the pasta, then pour sauce over the top of each individual plate of pasta, leaving it up to us whether or not to toss with the pasta or not.
The authentic, Italian method of cooking pasta is under-cooking the pasta, then finishing in the saute pan where you have prepared the sauce while the pasta is boiling. The next step is adding the under-cooked pasta to the saute pan, then adding a few ladles of starchy pasta water. Cooking further and tossing the pasta, the starch in the water allows the sauce to thicken and cling to the pasta. The pasta water both cooks the pasta and thickens the sauce, until the sauce becomes creamy and coats the pasta in a shimmering way.
This method impregnates the sauce INTO the pasta and imparts enormous flavor.
In Nostra Cucina, gone are the days of putting drained pasta on the plate and simply topping with sauce.
Since my son Lucas was small, we have obviously dedicated early Christmas morning to opening gifts. This early morning sharing of love for each other has often stretched past noon, depending on the number of gifts to open. Admittedly, "We Three" (as we call our little famiglia) spoil each other, with multiple gifts and overstuffed stockings hanging on the mantle--some gifts even celebrate Italian cuisine. (This year, my favorite was a 5 pound caciocavallo cheese from Puglia!).
This can be a long ordeal (when Lucas was little, it might take all day), so one tradition we've tried to keep is making my recipe for cinnamon-raisin and walnut buns the day before so we can easily heat them up and ice them for our Christmas breakfast. There's nothing better than one of these buns with a hot chocolate on Christmas morning. It's also a quick, simple breakfast to make that won't delay the opening of gifts. Here is the recipe, which can make enough to enjoy throughout the entire Natale season...
Babbo Finzi's Raisin-Cinnamon-Walnut Buns
This recipe makes about 18 buns, about 5" across
4 Large Eggs
1 cup warm water (105-110 F)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup mild honey (Acacia honey is best)
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
7-1/2 - 8 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons fine sea salt (I use Baleine brand)
2-3 tablespoons ground cinnamon (to taste)
1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (cut into pieces)
For the Filling
1-1/2 cups light brown sugar
2 cups chopped walnuts (ground in a spice grider)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup ground cinnamon
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted, unsalted butter
1-1/4 cups raisins (soaked in an orange liquor for 15 minutes, then drained)
For the Frosting
4 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia flavoring
pinch of salt
2-3 tablespoons orange juice, or orange liquor.
1/4 cup milk (I use skim)
grated zest of 1-3 oranges (depending on how many are being served) for sprinkling over the top... I forgot this Christmas)
Directions for Dough
1. Place the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until foamy.
2. Add the warm water and honey to the eggs and mix well to dissolve. Sprinkle the yeast into the egg mixture, stirring well, then let sit to "proof" until foamy (about 10-15 minutes).
3. After the yeast has proofed, add the 1/2 cup of orange juice and stir well.
4. Sift together the 7-1/2 cups of flour, 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon salt into the bowl of a stand mixer.
5. Start mixing on a low speed while adding the pieces of room temperature butter until it gets to a rough crumb stage.
6. Make a well in the center and pour in the proofed egg/yeast mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough clears the sides of the bowl.
7. Place the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until it becomes smooth and springs back a bit when a finger is pushed into it. This dough should become smooth and not sticky.
8. Cover with a cotton towel or plastic wrap for 10-15 minutes to relax.
Make the Filling
9. In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, chopped walnuts, salt and cinnamon. I grind the walnuts into a crumb using a spice grinder, but if you them chunkier, leave them chopped (from a package) or use a chef's knife to chop to a size you like.
Filling and Rolling the Dough
10. Prepare two half sheet pans by lining them with parchment paper.
11. Roughly shape the dough ball into a rectangular block to make rolling out into a rectangle easier. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle that is no more than 12" and no less than 1/4" thick. The rectangle should be about half as wide as it is long. Try to create 90 degree, angled corners.
12. Using a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the dough with the melted butter, coming to within 1/4" of all sides.
13. Spread the walnut filling evenly across the dough.
14. Drain the raisins well and spread evenly across the dough.
15. Roll up the dough, starting from the side furthest from you, jellyroll fashion. As you roll toward you, lift occasionally to tighten the roll as you go. When you get to the end, pull and then pinch the last side along its length, pinching the dough so it sticks to itself.
16. Roll the pinched edge so it's underneath your roll. (This helps to hold it in place while cutting.) Using your flat hand or a bench scraper, make sure the ends are pressed in flat.
17. Using a large, serrated bread knife, start cutting 1/2 - 3/4" thick slices, placing each one on your parchment lined sheet pans. You can either allow 1-2" of space between each so they sell into nice round buns (photo below), or more tightly next to each other to create more of a pull-apart bun experience. (See the photo above).
18. Cover the pans loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature, away from drafts, for about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk. This dough really puffs up!
19. About 30 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 350 F.
20. Place trays on center rack(s) and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. You can bake each pan separately, or if your oven can accommodate two pans at once, bake them at the same time, perhaps swapping racks and rotating pans once halfway through baking to ensure even baking.
21. Try not to over-bake these buns--they can dry out easily if over-baked. You want them warm and soft when served. They freeze well (on a tray in the freezer, then placed into zip-lock bags when rock-hard). They will microwave perfectly (30 seconds or so) the next day (after refrigerated), or heated in an oven from frozen for 10-15 minutes at 350 F. They can be iced right before serving.
Making the Icing
22. While the buns are baking you can make the icing. Place the sifted confectioner's sugar and salt into a large bowl, and using a small whisk, combine. Whisk in the vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia and the orange juice (or orange liquor). Now, slowly start adding the milk, little by little, until the icing becomes very smooth and can make a ribbon when drizzled from the end of the whisk. You might not need all the milk, or you might need a tablespoon or two more (it depends on the humidity). This recipe can also be made swapping out the milk for water if you are lactose intolerant. You want the icing to be able to drizzle ribbons onto your buns, yet be sticky enough to cling well.
23. When finished baking, remove the pans from the oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes right in the pan. If you ice them while hot, the icing might soften and become too thin.
24. Select the buns you want to eat right away and either use your whisk or a small spoon to drizzle lines of icing across the tops. If you like lots of icing, use a small offset spatula and spread a coating of icing across the entire surface.
25. Distribute some orange zest on top.
26. For eating the next day, you can place some buns on a tray (without icing) and cover with plastic wrap. The next day you can reheat the icing for 15 seconds in your microwave, then reheat the buns in the microwave for 30 seconds (using a microwave cover) or in a 325 F oven, lightly covered with foil, for 15 minutes.
27. These buns freeze very well, without icing, by first freezing solid, uncovered, in your freezer until rock hard. Store the frozen buns individually in zip-loc bags. To defrost and reheat, place on a pan covered lightly with foil in a 350 F oven for 15 minutes, then ice afterwards. You can also defrost them using your microwave using the defrost setting, but don't forget to use a cover to prevent drying out.
Our buns lasted our family of three from Christmas morning until the Epiphany on January 6th!
I hope you enjoy them as much as we do...
Copyright 2023 by J.Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com
...you throw away your counter-space hogging coffee machine, and now only make your brew in your little silver Moka pot.
Latte Art - Beauty and the Beans
Italians have either invented, discovered or perfected many things that have spread worldwide: pasta, pizza, tomatoes, motor scooters and of course, coffee. In this case, although latte art became widespread in American coffee shops in the 1980s, it was the Italians who first created either artistic imagery or custom writing using micro-foamed milk on top of their brews. There are now latte artist-baristi all over the world, from Italy to America to Scandanavia and even in the Orient. Some of the best compete in world competitions. Here are a few examples.
If you'd like to try your hand at this fun craft, check out these Youtube videos...
To have a little fun making caprese, take some mozzarella bocconcini and cap them off with heirloom cherry tomatoes to make little mushrooms. The tomatoes I used were Olivette Juane (yellow, egg shaped), Fuzzy Peach (a pale yellow tomato that actually has peach fuzz) and a Burgundy Roma.
Slice a bit off the bottom of the bocconcini to help them stand up. Then sliced tomatoes in half (or a bit less) and cut out the middle membrane so they sit on top of the bocconcini. Carefully place them on fresh basil leaves from the garden and made a little stream of aged balsamic running through the middle. (Our bottle was brought back from Pienza,Tuscany). A sprinkle of oregano and some course sea salt sprinkled over the top of the tomatoes made them look a bit spotted.
My favorite way to eat these is simply dig into the whole mushroom then mop up some of the balsamic... then pop the whole thing right in my mouth.....
When tasting something exceptional, my father used to pinch his fingers together, hold them up to the corner of his mouth, and while twisting his fingers let out a little kiss--Molto bouno!
Boun appetito! .
Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
When I was a boy, we always had bread in our home. My Dad worked as a Deli man most of his life and would bring home beautiful Italian breads that he used to make cold cut and meatball sandwiches. In typical 1950s style, my Mom would keep loaves of white bread in what she called her "All-American house".
When we had pasta with "gravy", we'd tear off some bread to use at the end of the meal to clean up the plate. Even when we had meat, like a roast beef, the bread would come out and we'd soak up "the blood" (the drippings) that oozed out of the meat in the bottom of the serving platter. If we had soup or a stew, the bread would work its way to the end of a meal to clean our plates. And if my Mom was making Sunday Gravy, we'd get out the bread, even if all we had was sliced Wonder Bread (ugh), and smear a ladleful of sauce on a slice for a pre-meal snack.
Why scarpetta (little shoe)?
Wouldn't it be better to call it scopa (mop)?
Little did I know what we were doing was carrying on an Italian tradition in dining--fare la scarpetta (making the slipper/shoe). Scarpetta means shoe in Italian. And to fare la scarpetta a tavola, means tearing off a piece of bread at the table to mop up the sauce or juices left on your plate, help in getting your food onto the fork or spoon. In my father's poor childhood--growing up in a Hoboken tenement with a large family--there weren't enough forks or spoons to go around, so using bread as a scarpetta was a necessity to lift bites of food out of the large communal bowl my grandmother would place in the middle of their table.
Nothing goes to waste in Italy, and especially in the impoverished South where my parents came from, one would never leave anything on their plate. Food was life itself. After all, not wasting food is being furbo. And in the South, they don't shy way from having bread with pasta, like they do in the North. What is the preferred type of bread for use as a scarpetta? Curiously, it is ciabatta, which literally means slipper, but any crusty bread will do.
Some say that the expression scarpetta comes from the fact that a torn piece of bread looks like a little shoe. I prefer to think that it really refers to wiping your feet... as wiping the bottom of the plate. Because of the extreme poverty suffered by many of our Southern Italian ancestors, others think scarpetta refers to being so hungry that one would eat the soles of their shoes. Sadly, there is historic evidence of desperate people doing just that, so perhaps there is some truth here.
However, the tradition of using bread to clean up plates goes back to the time of the Romans. I remember reading in my Latin study book how Romans would use bread after a meal to clean their hands--soaking up the juices and olive oil on their hands--and also cleaning the bowls and the table. They would then pop the soppy bread into their mouths. Again, furbo... nothing is wasted. Fare la scarpetta is an ancient tradition indeed.
Perhaps because of its links to Southern culture and Cucina Povera, some areas of Italy consider using a scarpetta bad taste, even though its taste is actually pretty good. Most do it at home or in more casual trattoria and less in more chic ristoranti. But they all do it. And if someone tells you that they don't do it in Tuscany... nonsense. In fact, it's one of the only ways to add flavor to their saltless Tuscan bread. (That stuff is so dry on your palette without salt!) You'd be well served to consider Tuscan bread more of an eating tool, like a spoon or fork, than a bread for eating by itself.
You can also do what many Italians do and consider the philosophical meaning of the phrase, fare la scarpetta:
Live life fully.
Never leave crumbs behind.
Soak up everything that life puts in front of you.
Recipe: Ratatouille and Risotto
My son, Lucas loves the animated film Ratatouille, and so do Lisa and I. It's a wonderful jaunt through a vintage Parisian kitchen through the eyes of "Little Chef", a rodent who loves to cook. After seeing the film, Lucas wanted to make ratatouille, so we set out to do a rustic, delicious version and have made it many times since.
But ever since re-discovering our Italian roots during our Grand Voyage of Italy, we have been concentrating more on Italian recipes. Well, this time we though we'd combine the best of both worlds--French country cuisine with the height of Italian culinary skills--in the making of a great risotto. I think we succeeded with our Ratatouille & Risotto. It's perfect for autumn or winter--a stick to your ribs supper. But this dish has two distinct personalities... the obvious simplicity of making the ratatouille--basically a vegetarian peasant stew--and the technically demanding risotto.
For the Ratatouille
Ratatouille is a very basic vegetable stew made in Provence and around Nice in southern France. It uses several basic ingredients: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onion and pepper. There are many variations on the recipe, but the one I use is fairly rustic and traditional.
1 large Vidalia (sweet) onion - diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 medium sized eggplant-skinned, cut into 3/4 -1" cubes,
(the larger the eggplant, the more seeds and more bitterness)
5-6 whole garlic cloves
3-4 young, slim zucchini - skin on, sliced once lengthwise, then into 3/4" half moon slices,
(smaller & younger are more sweet and less seedy)
1-16 ounce can of diced tomatoes (I use Del Monte, oregano & basil spiced, in summer use fresh heirloom paste tomatoes)
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
1/4 cup port wine
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon rubbed sage
3 bay leaves (remove after cooking!)
40 cracks of fresh pepper (from a pepper mill, fine grind)
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Olive oil for sauteing
For the Risotto
We mainly use Arborio rice when we make risotto, but even better is if you can find Canaroli rice--it makes an even creamier risotto and is a bit more forgiving. The trick with making risotto is patience. It can take the better part of an hour or more--constantly adding broth and stirring--until the starchy exterior of the rice breaks down enough to make a creamy risotto, while still keeping a pasta-like "tooth" in the cooked rice. You don't want any crunch, there shouldn't be any mushy rice, and the texture when finished should be loose, glistening and creamy. While there are some tricks for making risotto faster, but there's no substitute for a strong arm and standing at the stove top for up to an hour...
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1 medium sweet onion (or half a large Vidalia)-diced finely
1 cup dry white wine (Frascati or Pinot Grigio, or one of your choice)
6 cups of chick or vegetable broth, heated in a saucepan (for ladling into the rice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1-1/4 cups of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (plus additional for topping off the dish)
Toward the end, you will notice the starch in the rice being released to make a creamy consistency. Occasionally, taste the rice to make sure it is cooked through while still having a little bit of "tooth". You do not want it mushy, but you don't want crunch on individual grains. You will also know when the rice is nearing completion when you experience a sort of "wave" when you stir the rice, making a circular motion with the flat edge of your spoon around the bottom of the pan. Italian chef's call this the all'onda (wavy) effect. When your spoons passes and the rice behind it slides back in a slow motion like a silky wave, the risotto is at the right texture.
Some recipes say that this will take only 30-35 minutes, but I have found it takes me 45-65 minutes until the rice is cooked and getting creamy. Risotto should be served immediately when completed, so timing is key. But in the event you have to let your risotto sit for a bit, just leave covered, unheated... then before serving, revitalize it by heating it with a little bit more hot water on a medium low flame until the water is incorporated and it has reached the "wave" stage once again.
To service, place a portion of the risotto on your plates and add some ratatouille on top, toward one side (let the creamy risotto show itself off too). You decide to have a hearty Italian Chianti or a nice French Bordeaux with the dish... after all, it does have a split-personality.
I'd also like to add that the risotto recipes used in this dish is a basic risotto recipe. Once you learn how to make this, you can experience with adding all sorts of other things into the risotto... mushrooms, saffron, peas, shrimp, etc. And the ratatouille recipe is great topping a pizza, with pasta or even as a filling for a stuffed baked potato!
Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
Buon Natale e Felice Pizza!
Ricotta forte is a traditional Apulian cheese, typically made at home under the kitchen sink or in a dark cantina (cellar), although can be found in supermarkets in Italy. Found in both Puglia and Basilicata, it might also be called Ricotta scanta, 'scante, scanta, ascuante, or "ashquant" in local dialects. Initially, it is made in the same way as ricotta, but using a strong flavored milk such as goat or sheep. The texture is similar to cream cheese, usually with an off-white color. It's definitely a cheese that spreads easily. The aroma coming from this cheese is not for the faint-at-heart, as we can attest to when confronted with ricotta forte one morning at a trullo bed & breakfast near Alberobello.
One sniff snapped our heads back, but we spread it on our toast anyway, our host drizzling some honey on top, then we tasted... To be honest, it reminded me of when I was a kid and out bread developed mold, but that was bland compared to this stuff. The flavor is sharp as a Neapolitan criminal's stiletto, pungent, sour, bitter, with an intensity that burns your nostrils. This cheese is a total assault on your palette. Our eyes snapped open and then teared up. I got some on a sweet pastry sitting on my plate and later on when I bit into it, the whole sweet taste was ruined. It took literally an hour or two for our taste buds to relax back to normal.
Many Pugliese still make this cheese today, a remnant from the days when shepherds came up with this devilish bastardization of the ricotta we all know and love. They placed the freshly made ricotta into small ceramic or glass jars, sprinkled with sea salt, then placed it under their sink or other dark place. A few times each week the lid is removed and stirred in a process that lasts for 3 months. As it matures it grows a fungus which gives this a flavor with more kick than any blue cheese you've ever tasted.
It's a regional specialty that locals enjoy spreading on warm crostini, either plain or drizzled with honey or balsamic. In my opinion, it contrasts too much with sweet things like figs or grapes, but tomatoes and other savory items like anchovies are a better match.
Watch the following video to learn how Ricotta Forte is made. It's in Italian with Italian text, but if you remember the words giorno (day) and mesi (months) you'll figure out how to make it and the time period intervals involved.
In case you'd like to try it yourself, here is one place you can buy a jar.
Focaccia is one of the world's oldest flatbreads with roots in ancient Greece and with the Etruscans, even before the Roman Empire reared its head. The Romans called it panis focacius (bread of the hearth) in Latin. In its basic form, it is a leavened bread, very similar to pizza but without all that cheese. There have been versions of focaccia all through the Mediterranean coastline in Europe and northern Africa. In ancient Roman days, it looked like a very simple, flat round of pull-apart bread. It was a meal to be carried by shepherds and fishermen and meant to be eaten later. In regions of neighboring France it's called fougasse. In Argentina and Brazil--both with large Italian immigrant populations--its name is fugazza and they can be either topped with stringy cheese or even double-crusted and stuffed.
The common modern form of focaccia is dimpled with fingertips to make little wells that can hold savory items like olives, cherry tomatoes, peppers, red onion, sliced potatoes, garlic or even sweet things like figs, pear slices, blueberries, walnuts, dates, honey, anise seeds, bulbing fennel (finnocchio), orange zest or grapes. The top is usually brushed or drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, pepper or other spices. Of course, you can sprinkle a bit of cheese (usually grated), but go to far and you've crossed the line between focaccia and pizza. The variations are endless.
In Italy, most pasticceria (pastry shops), panetteria (bread bakery) and even bars will have slices of focaccia often sliced and priced by weight. (Note: A "bar" in Italy is a family friendly place to get cappuccino and pastry in the morning and panini for lunch.)
Focaccia is usually baked in 1" deep, dark steel pans. The texture is usually bready and for that reason a high protein "strong" flour (bread flour here in the U.S.) is used. The thickness also has the benefit of being used to make panini, slicing through the middle and stuffing with provolone, mozzarella, prosciutto or thing slices of salami.
1-3/4 cups warm water (110-115F)
1-1/5 tablespoons fast acting yeast
1 tablespoon honey
For the dough:
1 cup King Arthur all-purpose flour
2-3 cups King Arthur bread flour (plus extra bench flour)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil for the pan
Extra virgin olive oil (for brushing)
1/4 cup grated cheese (using 1/4 holes/box grater), provolone, asiago, or caciocavallo
(cheese is optional)
Dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, fresh ground pepper, sea salt
Preheat oven to 435F with a pizza stone or steel on the center shelf.
You can reheat in a microwave by wrapping with a damp paper towel, then heating for 30 seconds (time depends on the power of your unit). To kick it up a notch, try a fresh drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (we really recommend unfiltered) or an aged balsamic. For a quick lunch, top with a draping of prosciutto. You can also slice focaccia in half and use to make a panino (sandwich) filled with thin sliced colt cuts and cheese or even cooked ingredients like grilled eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella or roasted vegetables.
Now that you know the basics of making focaccia, consider getting creative, as these examples illustrate. Look for color contrasts, textures and interesting shapes with your choice of toppings. Consider unusual things like asparagus, cauliflower, beets, basil, cilantro, kale, mushrooms, berries, capers, chives, colored course sea salt, and various seeds. Depending on your ingredients, you might have to partially bake your focaccia first with ingredients that can cook during the entire bake time and need to be pressed into the dough. For other things that might burn, like seeds or tender leaves like basil, position on top during later stages of baking.
Be creative and make a masterpiece for a special occasion, or simply make simple focaccia for every day snacks and meals...
You might also be interested in...
Forni Italiani: 21 Regional Breads from Italy
The Secret Life of Ciabatta
Scarpetta: Bread Wipes the Italian Plate Clean
Italian Easter Bread: Pane di Pasqua Recipe
Pane Coccoi: The Amazing Sardinian Art of Decorated Breads
Forno Antico Santa Chiara: More than Just a Bread Bakery