In Italy, pizza toppings are not exactly limited, but there are a few rules. For example, only meats made with pork are acceptable on an authentic Italian pizza. Salami, prosciutto, ham, sausage – all are pork. Chicken and beef are not used. Beef is rarely seen on top of pizza. Even bresaola, a thin sliced (sliced paper thin, like proscuitto) is hard to find on a pizza.
As far as vegetables and cheeses go, there seemingly is no limit to what Italians might find appetizing on top of their pizzas.
Common Meats - Sausages and Salumi
In Palermo there is a type of pizza that is similar to the thick, bready crust of focaccia, but unlike focaccia, it has tomato sauce on the top. Ingredients are usually put on in a reverse fashion--the mozzarella or caciocavallo cheese placed on the dough first with the sauce goes on top. What makes this pizza stand apart from others is the final topping: a healthy dusting of breadcrumbs, which turns this into a classic, Sicilian sfincione.
There are derivatives of sfincione, like the tomato pies made around the Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey region. This cousin of sfincione is thick and bready, but has a solitary topping of thick tomato sauce with perhaps a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese (if any) and is always served room temperature. Personally, the tomato pies I've had have been a bit too intense on tomato flavor.
For my version of sfincione, I topped it with julienned slices of caciocavallo cheese and Italian style breadcrumbs. Of course, you can also put some stale ciabatta in a food processor and make a rough textured breadcrumb for the topping. I didn't overload my sfincione with breadcrumbs, but keep in mine, in Palermo they might put a fairly thick (1/4") topping of lightly toasted breadcrumbs on top. I made this during the late summer when I had an abundance of my Olivette Jaune heirloom tomatoes, so onto the top they went...
1-13x17" half sheet pan (dark colored to create a well baked crust)
thin, cotton kitchen towel
baking stone (better yet, a baking steel)
Proofing the yeast
1 tablespoon active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 - 1/2 cups water at 115F
For the dough:
2-3 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I recommend Tuttorosso brand)
4 small anchovies in oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons dry basil (or 8 large, fresh basil leaves, julienned)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Thin slices of caciocavallo cheese (alternate, sharp provolone)
1-2 cups Italian style breadcrumbs (or 3 cups, rough chopped fresh breadcrumbs)
2 tablespoons Oregano (for mixing with bread crumbs)
Yellow olive shaped tomatoes, halved
Extra virgin olive oil
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano or similar cheese
caramelized onions, prosciutto, olives, pimentos, anchovies, fresh basil or oregano leaves.
Making the Dough
To make the sauce:
Putting together the Sfincione:
Slice your sfincione into squares or rectangles for serving with a simple salad and a glass of red Sicilian wine, such as Corvo Rosso. And don't forget, sfincione is traditionally served at Natale (Christmas) and the Italian father's day, la Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19th.
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How to Make a Great Pizza Crust
Making the Best Pizza Sauce
Our Double-Crust Pizza Rustica!
My New Pizza Steel
Our Deep Dish Pizza!
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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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Pasta
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Canederli: The Italian Matzo Ball
Does Adding Water to a Pasta Sauce Make a Difference?
Making Fresh Pasta: A Family Tradition
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Spaghetti the Grows on Trees?
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!
Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was "meat sauce". Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I'd even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I've grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I'll show you how to make a grown-up version of "meat sauce"--Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our Voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù... a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo ("Scalo" designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, an historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished--needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3 hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps... we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we order a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn't believe how delicious it was.
By the way... Pici is a sort of thick, hand rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that "spaghetti Bolognese" doesn't exist in Italy--but it does. The sauce will just be called "Ragù" instead of "Bolognese", as in "Spaghetti al Ragù", and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle--"Tagliatelle al Ragù".
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw "Spaghetti alla Bolognese" listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat)
1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4" thick), 1/4" dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto)
1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions)
1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions)
4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing)
3 carrots, 1/4" dice
3 celery stalks, 1/4" dice
4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced
5 bay leaves (remove after cooking)
1-1/2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1-tablespoon dried basil
1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.)
1-28 ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes
1-6 ounce can tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
If you would like to make fresh tagliatelle to go with your Bolognese sauce, read Making Fresh Pasta at Home: Not a Necessity, but a Tradition.
Or, try making our Torta Rigatoni Piede Bolognese al Forno - Baked Standing Rigatoni Pie with Bolognese. Or, try Baked Standing Rigatoni in a Mug. It's also wonderful spread on a bruschetta for a small lunch or snack.
First of all, I realize that Anisette is the French version of a liquor made from anise seeds, but for some reason my mother always gave us a little Anisette when we had a bad cold, not Sambuca. Perhaps the reason is because unlike Anisette and other Mediterranean anise spirits (Greece, Ouzo; Bulgaria, Mastika; Albania and Turkey, Arak; and Cristal in Algeria), Sambuca is really made from elder-flowers with star anise and licorice flavoring added. Anisette is distilled using only anise (fennel) seeds.
The benefits of anise itself are well-known: aiding with breathing problems, as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Even as an adult, I still use my Mother's remedy rather than those toxic blends of cold medicines. Anisette works surprisingly well to sooth any sore throat and helps to clear stuffiness. In fact, this past week I suffered from a sort of laryngitis and the Anisette made it easier for me to swallow and talk.
Just a Little Goes a Long Way
Pour a little into a small glass, place your nose into the glass and breath in the fumes to clear your nose. Mom would pour it into tiny, shot-sized mini beer mugs that she would use for family gatherings to serve Sambuca or Amaretto. I prefer a deeper glass because it contains the fumes better. Take small sips as needed for sore throat and as you begin to swallow, and hold in your throat for a second or two before swallowing. This numbs the soreness and helps clear phlegm. A bonus: a few sips helps you sleep. Anisette never fails to make colds easier to get through. But don't over-do it. This stuff is 50% alcohol!
And a warning... although my Mother gave us just a sip of Anisette when we were sick, she didn't let us drink it! A very small sniff and sip and that was it, until we needed it again. Personally, I would not recommend this remedy for the bambini in your family.
Mettiti in sesto presto, amici. (literally: Put yourself together soon, friends)
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 friends come to visit during the holidays, it doesn't always mean making a formal meal. How about making a Christmas Tree Pizza?
It's easy to make your own fantastic pizza crust and pizza sauce... the toppings are easy: cherry tomatoes or olives for the ornaments and strips of mozzarella, provolone cheese or even sweet peppers. Rough out the pyramidal shape with your dough, then trim the sides with a pizza cutter or chef's scissors.
The star is made from trimmings cut when making the tree shape and topped with provolone. Buon Natale!
One of our favorite soups during the Christmas season or anytime during winter is Roasted Butternut Squash Soup. Although you can make this simply by cutting up the squash into cubes, additional depth of flavor is gained by roasting halved Butternut squash in the oven before adding to the soup. This can also be made using smaller Acorn squash which has a similar level of sweetness.
2 butternut squash, halved with seeds scooped out and discarded.
3-4 large carrots, diced (they add texture and sweetness).
1 large sweet onion, diced (Vidalia is best)
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
40 cracks of freshly ground pepper (or 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
32 ounces chicken broth
Plus, additional water or cream as needed to adjust creaminess
For the Garnish
2 cups fresh cranberries (You can also use canned, whole cranberries as your garnish)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 pint of heavy cream (for whipping)
Serve with some crusty, heated bread and a glass of Prosecco.
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