Just in time for the holidays... Autumn Beet Tart!
(Easier to say than Torta d'Autunno con Barbabietola, wouldn't you agree?)
For the Crust:
1 cup of all purpose flour
3/4 cup almond flour
3 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons of cane sugar
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel seeds
1 pinch of salt
1 beaten egg
For the Filling:
2 large beet roots, steamed
1/2 brown sugar
Celebrate International Women's Day like they do in Italy, or as they call it,
Festa delle Donne... with a cake, namely Torta di Mimosa.
Easter is called Pasqua in Italy, and is a time for celebration and breaking the Lenten fast. In Italy, spring comes early, the weather is wonderful and the scent of flowers blossoming are everywhere. Pasqua is a time for feasting with la famiglia. The Monday after Easter Sunday is a national holiday called Pasquetta (Little Easter), when most businesses close and workers spend the day at home with their family.
There are many types of celebration sweet pane (breads) and savory torte (cakes or tarts) in Italy, many of which made from family recipes handed down from generation to generation--often hundreds of years old. Some are known all over Italy while others are regional or local traditional recipes. One has to keep in mind, however, that even within each region there are variations in these recipes--often changing from town to town or family to family. Just keep in mind, it's all about the feast.
Here are some of the more popular treats with links to their traditional Italian recipes. If you need translations you can always cut and paste the text of each recipe into Google Translate (or better yet, install a translation plug-in into your browser to do it automatically).
Enjoy... and Buona Pasqua!
During the Christmas Holidays--even in the States--panettone and pandoro are both in plentiful supply, even in large supermarket chains. In fact, I bought several imported pandoro and panettone (they store and freeze well) two days after Christmas for under $5 each!
Pandoro literally means golden bread, and lends itself to making a tree shape because of its fluted sides. To make a tree shape, simply cut 3/4 - 1" thick slices, ensuring that each slice is cut as flat as possible to prevent your "tree" from leaning when re-assembling later. A very sharp chef's knife is better than a serrated bread knife which would create too many crumbs.
You will be filling each layer and re-assembling by alternating the position of each layer to position its points in between the points of the layers below them. Keep track of the orientation of the layers and re-assemble to keep your "tree" from leaning--flipping them upside and to the side after cutting each helps keep them in order.
To make ours, I brushed each layer with a coating of heated and softened seedless red raspberry jam, then willed each layer with some vanilla custard, the same recipe I use when I make pasticiotti. You can also fill them with zabaglione, butter cream, or a store-bought vanilla, or other flavored pudding mix.
I held back a bit of the custard and placed it into a piping bag with a fluted tip, then piped rosettes around the tiers of the assembled panettone tree, placing a blackberry on each. You can use fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or pitted cherries. Top the cake with more piped custard and berries, or place a star-shaped Christmas cookie standing up. Powdered sugar adds a dusting of "snow" to make it look really festive.
Traditionally, you make tall sliced wedges for each serving and lay them on their side in a dessert plate.
Vanilla Custard Recipe
While French style egg custards can be difficult to master, this is a very easy custard due to the fact that the cornstarch is the thickening agent. This recipe can be used for many pastry treats that utilize a custard as a bed for berries.
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1 - 1/2 cup whole milk or Half & Half
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon butter
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar.
Whisk in the milk and egg yolks.
Place the saucepan on medium heat, stirring with either whisk or spatula until the custard starts to thicken.
Add the vanilla extract and butter and stir until creamy, thick and smooth.
Transfer to a bowl to cool, covering the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming.
Spread melted seedless on each layer of your pandoro and then spread on a layer of custard. Do this for each payer as you re-assemble your "tree". Pipe rosettes as described above and place your berries. Dust with powdered sugar.
When autumn comes to Tuscany, you will be able to enjoy Castagnaccio, a torta rustica made with chestnut flour and olive oil that has ancient origins. In the 1500s it was well known in Tuscany as cucina povera, a dish prepared by poor, peasant farmers and shepherds. Chestnuts were plentiful in the hills of the Apennines and easy to harvest, not only for its nutritious flesh but also for chestnut flour. Chestnuts (castagne) are rich in protein, calcium and vitamin A.
This torta can also be called baldino, ghirighio, toppone or pattona, depending on where you are in Italy. Local variations may include other ingredients, such as rosemary, orange peel and fennel seeds. There is even one romantic legend that says when its perfumed with rosemary, Castagnaccio is a powerful love potion--making and serving it the object of your affections will make them fall in love with you, and ask for your hand in marriage. Perhaps this is more than just a dish served during Natale, but also appropriate for Valentine's Day!
In its earliest conception, it was an easy way to make a portable food (like an energy bar) that stored well for long periods, helping sustain poor contadini during long, harsh winters. According to Ortensio Landi (1553) in his “Commentario delle più notabili et mostruose cose d’Italia e di altri luoghi“ ("Commentary on the most notable and monstrous things of Italy and of other places"), he traced its origins to a man called Pilade from Lucca.
By the nineteenth century however, the addition of pignoli and dried fruits morphed this spiced cake into a dessert deserving of the Christmas season and its popularity spread to Liguria, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna and even on the nearby French island of Corsica. Today you will find castagnaccio just about everywhere in Italy during Natale festivities. Keeping with Tuscan tastes, typically, no sugar is added because of the inherent sweetness in the chestnuts themselves and the addition of dried fruit and raisins. Castagnaccio is often served with ricotta, honey or sweet wines such as Vin Santo.
Optional: You can soak the raisins in rum, Amaretto or orange liquor instead of water for a more adult version.
Serve with a glass of Vin Santo, and a dollop of fresh ricotta on the side, and drizzle both with a Tuscan honey of your choice.
For further reading:
Chestnuts: The Italian Love Affair with Castagne
Foto del Giorno: Chestnut Vendor
Harvest Festivals in Italy: From Grapes to Wine, and More
When you bite into a Tuscan cookie like Cavallucci Sienese, you'll be tasting traces of a medieval or Renaissance past... layered spices, honey, nuts, figs and canditi (mixed dried fruits), but not the typical dried fruit used in modern Italian holiday breads, but luscious candied fruit. Keep in mind, these are not pretty biscotti, they are both rustic and a bit boring looking on the outside, but soft, sweet, fragrant and flavorful inside, where it counts.
A Bite of History
You can find these historic cookies in shops all over Tuscany, but especially in it's hometown of Siena. When you bite into one you will be transported back to fifteenth century Siena...
The name can be attributed to the fact that they used be embossed with either an image of a horse (cavallo means horse) or a horse's hoof--in fact, many today are shaped like a horses hoof. Some claim the cookies can be traced back to the reign of Jonah the Magnificent (1449–1492), when they were called biriquocoli. Others say that cavallucci were served to travelers and couriers on horseback (think "Renaissance Pony Express") as a source of nourishment for long trips (something like a Medieval power bar). Some Sienese claim that these dolci were the snacks for servants who worked in horse stables of rich Italian aristocrats in the various contradi (neighborhood districts), of obvious fame for the annual Palio horse race each year.
During the Christmas holiday season, they are served with wines such as Vin Santo, Marsala, Passito di Pantelleria, Asti Spumante or Moscato--dunking is perfectly acceptable and some would say, required.
Serve with a sweet Italian wine, Amaretto or Sambuca.
For further reading:
We've all grown up with it... That red white and green, Italian flag colored delight sold as little cookie squares in just about every Italian (and non-Italian) across the United States and Canada. Called a Rainbow Cookie, often called Tricolore because of its resemblance to the Italian flag, and sometimes called Seven Layer Cookies (3 cake, 2 chocolate and 2 jam). Although some say they don't exist in Italy, they do appear in Italian pasticcerie, usually around Christmastime--their red and green colors accenting the holiday cheer. They are also referred to as Venetians, a nod toward the fact they are more pastry than cookie.
They look like a throwback to the psychedelic, tie-dyed days of the 1960s. Topped (and bottomed) with a layer of chocolate, each colored layer flavored with almond paste, with thin coats of apricot or raspberry jam in between, who can resist buying a string-tied, neat little white box of these little dolci? For a couple of decades now, even supermarkets, delis and big box stores like BJs and Costco are offering factory-baked versions of them... it's become one of the more popular, year-round cookies in America, but it's especially popular at Christmas because of the holiday colors.
I recently spoke to Robert Zerilli of Veniero's Pastry shop on the lower east side of Manhattan, an historic Italian bakery famous for many types of pastries. Robert is the great, great nephew of their founder, Antonio Veniero who started the bakery by making biscotti in a former pool hall in 1894.
Commenting on the history of the rainbow cookie, "As for the history of the rainbow cookie I believe it’s representative of the Italian Flag and the United Kingdom of Italy as a country instead of independent Provinces. My father would give me a rainbow cookie when I visited as a child in the mid 60’s and all of our family enjoyed eating them as well."
Veniero's makes about 300 lbs of these colored morsels each month, with about 15 cookies in each pound. That number increases around the holidays, Zerilli claims proudly, "So each year, we produce about 3000-3500 lbs!". Veniero’s "Authentic Rainbow Cookie" definitely stands out as one of the best that's enjoyed by folks all over the world.
Italian? Rainbow? Cookie?
First of all, it's not really a cookie. It's more of a triple-layer sponge cake, although some bakeries put so much almond paste into their sponge that they really aren't "cake" any more! They are baked in large sheet pans and meticulously cut into those little squares that we all love. I shouldn't say "all" love them, because I have met people who just don't go for almond/marzipan flavors, even if they are presented with a neon, edible rainbow.
That's another thing... it's not really a rainbow, which have seven colors. This delightful pastry creation has only three. And while a rainbow comes from white light being broken up by a prism into colors, this cookie has one white layer to start with.
Finally, most claim this recipe is not Italian. They say that it is an Italian-American creation, created to honor the Italian flag by Italian-American bakers. I doubted this, so I did some research... In fact, you can find version called Pasticcini arcobaleno (little rainbow pastries) in Italy during the Christmas season. Besides, nearly every "Italian-American" recipe owes its existence to a recipe from mainland Italy. Perhaps the recipe has changed a bit, its core is Italian. I really can't imagine such a complex pastry preparation coming out of American bakeries alone without any historic link to the traditional recipes of the past.
Click HERE for a very traditional recipe which uses the technique of a heavy weight and chilling to duplicate an authentic result. And unlike some recipes, both sides are coated with chocolate.
I've never been a big fan of cannoli, but I have to admit, THIS Cannoli tower takes the cake! Great idea for a wedding instead of a typical wedding cake.
Summer is in full swing, and with Italy currently in the midst of a full blown heatwave, here is an idea from southern Italy that will help you beat the heat...
Brioche Gelato Burgers!
More and more popular in Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, the trend is catching on. In the last several years, the sweet, glossy brioche bun has gained popularity in the States, used as the go-to bun for burgers and sliders. But the sweet, soft crumb of the classic brioche also pairs well with gelato (OK, and ice cream, too). Grilling the sliced brioche helps raise the flavor a notch. Toppings or spreads can include, crushed pistachios or sliced almonds, Nutella, Pirouettes crackers, almond biscotti crumbs, whipped cream or zabaglione, or a smear of almond paste. How about a trio of gelato sliders? To add crunch, tuck a pizzelle inside!