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
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.
Best Cannoli Tower Ever!
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!