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.
Copyright Grand Voyage Italy, 2018 - All Rights Reserved
Making gingerbread and gingerbread houses have deep roots in history. Honey cakes can be traced to ancient Rome and culinary historians verify that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since antiquity. It is believed that the gingerbread as it appears today was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century, when returning crusaders brought back the custom of spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty, but also had properties that helped preserve the bread something essential in the ancient world.
According to a medieval legend, there was originally a fourth Magi who was to bring yet another gift to the infant Jesus--ginger. Sometime during his journey he fell ill and never got to Bethlehem, but a local Rabbi nursed him back to health. The Rabbi taught him that the name for Bethlehem in Hebrew actually meant House of Bread, and further told him of how he tasked his young students to make houses of bread to eat in preparation of their hopes for the coming of their Messiah. The Magus gave his chest full of ginger roots to the Rabbi and suggested adding ground-up ginger to the bread for flavor and preservation. The gingerbread house was born!
Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. The spicy delight was also shaped into different forms by monks in Germany in the 13th century but quickly spread to other European countries. Medieval bakers used carved boards to create elaborate designs but in other places such as Calabria, Italy artisans hand shaped the spicy dough into elaborate designs, still popular today during holidays such as Easter and Christmas. Click HERE to read more about the art of Shaped Mostaccioli, the Calbrian Gingerbread.
As you can see in the photos above, our gingerbread projects were modest at first, mostly a chance to begin the tradition for our son Lucas when he was a little boy. But then our passion for constructing gingerbread grew more complex and we started entering gingerbread house competions...
Our 2018 Gingerbread Project:
Lucas' Concept to Recreate an historic A&P Grocery Store
For this year's project, I really wanted to do an Amalfi Coast hillside village complete with rugged mountain and multiple houses clinging to the cliffs, I was out-voted and we decided to build my son Lucas' concept for a 1930s vintage A&P grocery store--a timely choice since the A&P supermarket chain, the oldest in America, had recently closed all of its stores. Besides, to win, Lisa and Lucas both thought we should do a more "all-American" theme.
The trouble with completing our project was that time was not on our side. For example, to create our gingerbread Colosseum it took about 6 weeks, from planning through baking all the components to finished construction. I don't know how time slipped away from us, but we only had about 10 days to plan and complete our A&P store, which would be difficult to impossible due to all the new techniques we were going to employ for the first time: melted candy windows, poured clear gelatin window "glass", creating miniature products and produce, fondant checkerboard tile floor and fondant asphalt paving, edible printed signage and timed electrical lighting!
Well, somehow we did it! We delivered our project within 15 minutes of the delivery deadline!
In the end, we won First Place in the Authentic Reproduction of a Significant Building category. I think we won based on to Lucas' concept and especially his skill in creating the brick textures and miniature details (fruitcake, fruit, watermelons, pumpkins, baguettes, a cheese board and much more) and his graphic design for all the signage! Oh, and of course, as usual, my wife Lisa helped with the preparation of the gingerbread dough and fondant.
We Three make a great gingerbread team, don't you think?
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: