Most Italian-Americans have heard of basket cheese, that light, soft, fresh cheese (similar to ricotta) sold in Italian specialty stores every Easter which is used to make the traditional pizzagaina or pastiera di grano (wheat grain pie) recipes. In the U.S. it is rarely seen year-round and is mostly used as an ingredient. In Italy, basket cheese is is called formaggio fresca (fresh cheese) and is readily available all year long for use as both recipe ingredient and as a table cheese, just as ricotta is eaten, but with a less salty and milder flavor.
Basket Cheese Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (or, if you can find some, use goat's milk)
1/4 teaspoon rennet
1/4 teaspoon salt (basket cheese is less salty than ricotta)
You will need:
You can now use your basket cheese fresh as an ingredient in recipes, such as the traditional Easter pizzagaina. If you want to eat it fresh (the same day is best) you can turn the baskets upside down onto a serving plate and remove the basket. This is a mild cheese, but if you like you can sprinkle with a little sea salt or fresh ground pepper. You can also spread it on bread or crostata and drizzle with honey or balsamic and serve with with figs or fresh berries. Although it should be eaten the day it's made, you can keep it for several days by keeping the basket in a plastic container along with with an inch of milk.
Making Ricotta from the Leftover, Fresh Whey
Although my wife Lisa's ricotta recipe is great, technically, it's not a true ricotta made from whey. Making true ricotta (re-cooked, or cooked twice) is incredibly simple once you have whey leftover from cheese-making using rennet. The whey has to be fresh from the cheese-making process above.
Making Ricotta Salata
Ricotta salata is basically a firm, saltier version of ricotta cheese that is very similar to feta. While feta is made with rennet, ricotta salata is made from the whey leftover from cheese-making, just as normal ricotta is made. Ricotta salata needs more salt than normal ricotta and is pressed it to release any extra moisture. You need a fine mesh cheesecloth or butter muslin.
Ricotta salata is beautifully paired with sliced apples, pears, fresh figs or crumbled on pizza, pasta or salads.
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This year we decided to make our Pizzagaina recipe once again. We loaded up my Kindle with our recipe on GrandVoyageItaly.com and got started getting the ingredients together. As usual, my son Lucas helped with the mise en place. He is a great sous chef but nowadays is also cooking a lot of his own dishes.
With the coronavirus limitations of shopping, and certain things in our fridge missing, we decided to use up some smoked gruyere in place of the mozzarella but still used ricotta and fontina (I love its creaminess). That's the way of the Italian cucina--not letting anything go to waste. Otherwise, our recipe was the same. And each time I make this treat, I'm amazed that I got the ingredients perfectly proportioned--a difficult thing to do when writing up a recipe for other people to duplicate. This crust is just wonderful to work with and fits the spring pan perfectly, with even a little left over after making the lattice strips.
In the end, we made the pizzagaina a couple of days after Easter since we had a huge ham that we baked for Easter dinner, along with roasted potatoes, carrots and onions and garlic, along with home made apple and cranberry sauce. There was plenty of leftover ham for soup, sandwiches and the pizzagaina.
Try this recipe if you get a chance. If you prefer a more solid filling, add two more eggs when making the filling.
March 19 is a very special saint day in Italy... La Festa di San Giuseppe. This is the day that Catholics celebrate not only Saint Joseph, but all fathers. Consider this day as the Italian Father's Day...
A special tradition is making and serving Pane di San Giuseppe, a shaped bread formed into a variety of designs for loaves that will adorn La Tavola di San Giuseppe. You'd be surprised at the amazing and luscious spreads on Italian's tables for their Cena di San Giuseppe, both in private homes and for community and church groups. Traditional forms for breads are crowns, crosses, crabs, donkeys, staffs, wheat, images of St. Joseph, and braids representing the Blessed Mother. This bread has a rich texture and a slightly sweet taste. To pay homage to St. Joseph being a carpenter, breadcrumbs and sesame seeds signify sawdust fallen from his saw.
Here is a basic recipe for making Pane di San Giuseppe in a braid form...
Fat Tuesday is called Mardi Gras in French but in Italy it's known as Martedì Grasso. Ash Wednesday--the beginning of Lent and fasting until Pasqua--happens the day before Martedì Grasso, which gives Italians a reason to feast and party. During Lent, Catholics are expected to give up something they love as penance. When I was a boy, the rules were very loose--giving up something you didn't like anyway was a way around the rules. But Italy is a Catholic state and many still observe full sacrifice. While some might replace meat only on Fridays with fish, others give up meat entirely during Lent. (More modern twists are giving up texting, Facebook or TV).
Broken down from the Latin, Canem Levare (meat lift), the festive celebration of Carnevale can literally be thought of as a time when meat is lifted away from meals--as a sacrifice. Carnevale in Italy starts on Giovedí Grasso, the Thursday before Fat Tuesday. During this time Italy celebrates Carnevale in towns like Venice, Viareggio and the Emilia-Romagna town of Cento. But Carnevale is widespread in Italy, just as Lent is... so just before giving up meat, they feast on it...
In Southern Italy, especially around Naples, the end of Carnevale is celebrated by eating Lasagne di Carnevale, a rich lasagna layered with a choice of meats, typically polpette (meatballs), sausage or a meat ragu. If you know how to make a lasagna (here's our Eggplant Lasagna recipe), then you know the basics of making a Lasagna Carnevale. Just layer in small meatballs or cut up large ones in small pieces or slices. You can also include slices of sweet or spicy sausage or a thick meat sauce (like our Bolognese recipe).
Guess what we are eating tonight?
One of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) Christmas traditions in Italy is Polenta alla Spianatora (polenta on the board), a rustic meal of polenta served as a dinner during the cold nights between la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) and Capodanno (New Year's Day). What makes this meal so unusual is the manner in which it is served. In the old days, hot polenta was poured and spread out directly on the family's wooden table. A slow-cooked sugo (thick, meaty tomato sauce), peas and possibly sausages or pieces of braised pork were arranged in concentric circles. The bits of meat were a real treat for children in the poor, farming communities. Young and old alike were given forks and everyone would make their own trails in the hot mess of deliciousness, each staking out their own section. But as I've been told, in some homes there were rules: you weren't allowed to eat the meat until you ate a path to the center, with some slow eating children not having such luck!
This manner of eating is a celebration of nature from the 15th century when corn was introduced to Italy from the New World. This dish is a celebration of the recent harvest... the circular shape of the polenta represented the sun, and it's corn having come from Mother Earth herself. All the ingredients topping this sun would have also been nurtured by the sun during the growing season: lentils, chickpeas, pork, chicken.
This is an ancient meal that also celebrates life--and family. So everyone was at the table digging in. This is a big meal... with a large amount of polenta traditionally prepared in a copper pot resembling a modern wok.
Nowadays, people tend to use a Spianatora (or spianatoia)--a modern day wooden cutting or pastry board--to pour the polenta onto. There are even some restaurants in southern/central Italy that will service this during the holiday season.
To make this warming meal for your famiglia, first you need to make a Sugo. Here's a link to my own family's Sugo Recipe.
For the Polenta
Top this beautiful, hot mess with Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano and invite your amici and famiglia to start scraping.
Buon appetito, Buon Natale and Felice Anno Nuovo!
When I was a child, my mother would make meatloaf... plain, American style, ketchup covered, meatloaf. Filling, yes, but usually a bit dry and boring. After learning of the various types of polpettone (Italian meatloaves) they make in Italy, I wanted sometime more tasty with a little bit of a spicy kick. Here's my Polpettone con Salsa di Mele...
For the Polpettone
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (honey wheat), cubed
1 cup cinnamon applesauce (of course, you can make your own)
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef, extra lean
1 pound ground pork
For the Glaze
1 cup cinnamon applesauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey Dijon mustard
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce (apple maple)
20 “cracks” of freshly ground black pepper
Serve with some of the glaze on top of each slice, with a side of either potato croquettes or homemade spätzle (like they make in the Alto Aldige region of Northern Italy).
Of course, best served with a bottle of Italian sparkling cider.
Recipe copyright 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
Pungitopo (also known as Butcher's Broom) might be a popular plant for use in natural healing remedies, but it is often found while hiking in the mountains of Italy for use in local, traditional Italian recipes. Pungitopo tends to grow wild as an evergreen bush (looking like a short, bushy holly) with asparagus-like sprouts in fall. It is gathered in bunches about 12" tall and used in la cucina in the same was as asparagus. Tied with string and steamed until tender, it's often eaten as a side dish or wrapped in prosciutto, The sprouts, called ruscli (rusculins in English) are the tenderest part.
Pungitopo is actually a member of the lily family closely related to asparagus botanically speaking. It and was once used in Europe make small brooms to clean butchers' chopping blocks. It's scent had the ability deter rodents from taking an interest in meats hanging to cure. The plant is well known throughout Italy, Europe and to the British Isles. Other common names are jew’s myrtle, sweet broom, kneeholy, pettigree, knee holly, kneeholm. In Italy, they will also be known as asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus) or portafortuna natalizio (Christmas Luck), referring to the time of year it is usually enjoyed in the Italian kitchen.
It is mostly harvested nowadays for its thick, brown rhizome, which is harvested in the fall when the plant stores most of its energy for winter. It's herbal use is to make healing teas.
There use can be as simple as boiling or steaming and served with butter or olive oil, the was asparagus are served. The softer buds are used in fritatta, frittella (fritters), risotto or in pasta dishes. Their taste is bitter but the buds alone are a bit sweeter. Here are a few ideas...
In the small Sardinian town of Nuoro, there are a very few women (you might count them on one hand) who still know how to make what many say is the rarest type of pasta in Sardinia Italy and perhaps the whole world...
Su filindeu (in Sardinian dialect), and in Italian, Fili di Dio, can be translated as either Wires, Yarns or Threads of God. You might think of this pasta as the elevated and rarer version of angel hair pasta.
Filindeu is tied to a religious ritual celebrated in the region of Nuoro in the town of Lula. La Festa di San Francesco is held on May 1st at the Chiesa della Solitudine di Nuoro.
Oddly, this celebration is tied to a murder in the year 800 AD. Accused of murder and being hunted down for his crime, a young man claimed innocence and took refuge in a cave about 15 miles from Nuoro. He was discovered, brought to trial and miraculously (to him) declared innocent. He had prayed to Saint Francis during his time of refuge in the cave and thus built a shrine in the cave in honor of his patron saint. In autumn on October 4th, there is a second procession to the cave and shrine followed by a celebratory feast of filindeu.
The dough to make this special pasta is durum semolina, water and a bit of salt, without leavening. It is then kneaded for a very long time to stretch the gluten, making it very soft with amazing elasticity--the key to making the long strands. The dough is rolled by hand into 8 long, thin snakes, which are folded, halved and pulled, only to be folded and stretched again--32 times in total--resulting in 256 thread-like thin bundles of parallel groups of pasta.
These threads are then stretched across a large, flat tray called a fundu, traditionally woven from leaves of the local asphodel plant (a member of the lily family), often used in basket-making. To aide in the stretching, the dough is occasionally dipped in salt water--the timing of this sensed only by the experience of the artisan making the pasta.
This process is repeated until a single layer of "threads" cover the entire fundu. the basket is then rotated by about 60° with another layers of pasta "threads" laid down. This is repeated a third time creating three crisscrossed layers of "threads". The tray is placed in the sun to dry causing the three layers to stick together while creating a stiff fabric of pasta looking very much like a course textured cheesecloth.
For the feast, the filindeu is broken into pieces and put in boiling mutton broth. Grated pecorino (sheep) cheese is added to complete the soup. I don't know about you, but I've always loved my soup loaded with noodles--perfect for when the cold weather hits.
If you're ever in Sardinia, look for packages of filindeu shards. Some have realized that this is a real Sardinian treasure and are trying to expand the availability of this pasta.
Sadly, this unique pasta technique is in danger of becoming extinct. For example, Only one of Paula Abraini’s two daughters knows basic technique but seem uninterested in continuing the tradition. Abraini also has no granddaughters to pass he skills along to. The two other women in Abraini’s family who still carry on the tradition are both in their 50s and also have no successors to this tradition.
Paula Abriani was so concerned about the techniques of making su filindeu disappearing, that she went to the local government to see if there was some money to open a school. There wasn't. Then she tried to teach young locals to make it in her home--they got discouraged with its complexity and gave up. Luckily, she was invited to Rome by the gourmet magazine Gambero Rosso so they could film her techniques for posterity. She has also started making filindeu for several restaurants who serve her amazing pasta to clients from around the world. The preservation of her tradition is looking a bit brighter!
If you're traveling to Nuoro, search out the women who still make this pasta for a lesson on how it's done. They have learned the skill from their mothers who learned it from their mothers and so on, going back three hundred years. Ask, plead or beg for a lesson from either Paola Abraini, Salvatora Pisano or Grazia Selis. If you're lucky enough to get a little lesson from them, don't forget to say "thank you" in Sarda, the Sardinian dialect... grazie meda! And give them a solemn promise that you will pass along their skills.
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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.