28 January 2008

Carnevale Window Peeping

Friday, I had a chance to go into Torino for the afternoon and like a kid I found myself drawn to the window displays, in particular, the pastry shops. I don't know if its because the window displays here in Europe are so classy and elaborate and because I was and still am a small town kid that big city window displays still hold a huge fascination for me. Anyway, I enjoyed wandering around Torino, taking them all in, with the pastry shops putting on their best Carnevale face. I hope to make some carnival pastries later this week, but until then. Have a look at the local fare in the big city window displays of Torino.

Marzipan hats and masks

Sweets masquerading as savory foods.

Festive cakes from Pinerolo

Little indulgent dreams

24 January 2008

Minestrone Soup Remixed (Hot M entry)

When you think soup and healthy, minestrone comes immediately to my mind. It's always a versatile comforting standby for all of it's endless possibilities. In the summer you can use all the booty of your garden and winter it can be an almost completely different soup. Actually, I guess it is every time you make it. My mother in law and I were discussing soup one time and she always says she's making minestra, and I asked about minestrone, and she said that the main difference is that minestra, means small diced ingredients or smooth or broth type soup, where as minestrone meant larger, chunky style of soup. Hummm that is interesting.
I thought that this is a good reminder of small changes one can make in old favorites to increase healthfulness by subtle changes, small steps repeated consistently. I need to remind myself as well. So I offer this post for this months Heart of the Matter, Eating for Life, soup event, co-hosted by Joanna of Joanna's Food, a delightfully helpful ongoing blog about life enhancing cuisine and other aspects of living, and Ilva of Lucullian Delights, whose photography and imaginative cooking is always an indulgent delight.

One doesn't need much direction for making Minestrone Soup
other than a couple of essentials and maybe one secret ingredient.
Can you spot it in the photo?
Round up the usual suspects,
gusti: onion, carrot, celery( the holy trinity),
Add garlic and saute in a dash of olive oil
Add seasonal variables, zucchinis, potatoes, green and wax beans and some type of leafy greens, like beet root
*Winter variation add regular or roman cauliflower, sunchoke (jerusalem), pictured below, or turnips, in place of the beans and zukes
and some favorite herbs, bay leaf and mixed Italian herbs, (oregano, basil, sage, marjoram, thyme, rosemary).
Add some fresh or tinned tomatoes and enough water or low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Normally minestrone has a few beans and pasta tubes.
To keep with a healthier version, you might consider adding some of the gluten free varieties of pasta which are made without eggs in the pasta. I find the rice penne holds up nicely in the soup and makes a tasty change.
I added fresh borlotti beans that I had stashed in the freezer from the autumn.
So now for the secret ingredient, which may of course be deemed optional...
A small piece of a parmigiana heel (or some type of hard cheese, our local variety is Grana Padano) added to the soup for that little intangible additional complexity of flavor.
Those of us lucky enough to be able to purchase fresh chunks out of the wheel usually have part of the dried outer crust left after grating as closely as you dare and end up with a super dry heel. Added to the soup when cooking it is sometimes referred to as the cooks reward.
So if you can allow yourself a little treat it's a delicious surprise at the bottom of your bowl or can be discarded or not used at all depending on your preference, especially if you're avoiding dairy altogether. Anyway you try it Minestrone is a welcome offering.

22 January 2008

Fritelle di Mele for Festa di Sant'Antonio

Yesterday was Festa di Sant'Antonio. For Fabrizio it meant childhood memories of going to mass where the local priest gave his homily on blessing the beasts of burden. It seems to have now evolved into a general day of bleesing of all of the family animals or pets as well. At the end of this annual mass there was always a slice of some sort of sweet bread for everyone. That was and still is Fabrizio's favorite part of the mass. His parents went over to Grandubbione, which is the hamlet at the end of our road, for this special mass in our charming little church. They stayed afterwards and enjoyed their annual leisurely luncheon at our friends "baita". When they arrived back home late in the afternoon, Egle arrived with a chunk of the blessed sweet bread that she had tucked away for us, as she does every year.

Looking around the web, I found all sorts of Sant"Antonio festivals with a variety of customs and variations. It seems with many ancient feast and holy days there tends to be a blending and bending of the original festival. There seemed to be a fair amount of mixing it up with carnival as well, so I thought a finale of apple fritters would make a fitting dessert for the day. Fabrizio found that was his favorite part of the day too, the Fritelle di Mele.

The traditional local recipe for this treat is simple and tasty, if perhaps on the plain side, so I tried Mario Batali's recipe.
I found it traditional, light and not greasy when cooked. My batter only covered 4 apples. I did a little tweaking as I wanted just a bit more zip than how they are made here. I reccomend adding vanilla or orange or lemon zest to make the flavors pop out more.
Fritelle di Mele

6 green apples, peeled and cored
oil for frying

2 large eggs
4 tablespoons milk
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons sugar
Orange or Lemon zest from 1/2-1 whole fruit.
2- 4 tablespoons orange liqeuer, amaretto, vanilla or a combination
Powdered sugar to dust


Slice apples into slightly less than 1/2-inch thick rounds and set aside.
Heat oil to 375 F. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Slowly
add flour to the mixture, 3 tablespoons at a time, until all is incorporated. Stir
in sugar and kirsch. Allow to stand 10 minutes. Dip each slice into batter and
toss into hot oil, 3 or 4 at a time. Cook until golden brown, remove to plate
lined with paper towels and drain. Continue until all are done.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar if you like and serve warm.
Here they are eaten plain, but they would go well with ice cream or a drizzle of maple syrup

18 January 2008

Italian Alps, a fabulous choice this winter

Bella Baita's View

If you haven't already made all of your winter getaway plans, let me suggest the beautiful Italian alps, or more specifically our Cottian Alps. Where, you may ask, is that? Why, where I live, of course, off the beaten path in the Chisone valley. You might think this is a post for drumming up business for our B&B, but you would only be partially right. Frankly, winter is our off season. We live just far enough away from the slopes that most folks want to be right there at the base of the area and not worry about driving. I don't blame them. Plus when Fabrizio's family ran the restaurant, this was their down time as well, so it's hard to buck a long established pattern. So we have some solutions coming up with the remodel that Fabrizio is so hard at work on, ripping and shredding his parents previous hard work, but that's for another day or two's post.

The conditions in the Italian alps this winter are excellent and would make for a nice break for those of you inclined to ski or snowboard in Europe or even just a winter holiday with a bit of snow shoeing or tobogganing. We found that we had a white Christmas at our house this year. SestrierÄ— our sentinel ski resort at the top of our valley is snow sure and this year has not been an exception. World famous as a world cup and the site of the down hill competition for the 2006, Winter Olympic games, it is also one of 7 interconnected ski resorts, making up the "Via Lattea" or "Milky Way" ski area, boasting to be the largest in Europe. Sauze d'Oulx, another of the resorts connected in, is just up and over the way where a fair amount of British holiday makers find their way every year. It's big alright and plenty of terrain to keep you entertained.

I particularly enjoy the Borgata side of Sestriere which has the long Olympic down hill run that will make your legs burn burn burn! Sestriere has a nice selection of mountain oasis to stop in for food and libations scattered on top of both peaks, mid mountain and at the base. If you fancy a special stay on the mountain and I highly recommend it, La Tana della Volpe (The Fox Den)is the ticket. A Pragelato local skier took over the building after it was scraped in 1984 from being the main cable car for the area and breathed new life into this huge on mountain building that still houses the bull wheel from the cable car. He and his family have done extensive renovations over the years and created 9 modern rooms for the hotel part where one can enjoy one of the most breath taking alpine panoramas of the confluence of the French and Italian borders. Have a look at their gallery of views or web camera here.

But can you keep a secret?
If you looking for an area far from the maddening crowds, with spectacular views and decent skiing to boot, then the place for you is "Nova 13 Laghi" (The New 13 Lakes) ski area. Fondly called Prali ski area by those of us from here, it has been taken over by again a local organization who are trying to put it back on the map after languishing up in one of the most beautiful and unspoiled valleys known as one of the Valdasian valleys, or Val Germansca. It's the ridge line view of the Germansca valley that we look out to every day that gives us our Bella Baita View. Tredieci Laghi (13 Lakes) is tucked up around to the left of our view and not only is it one of my favorite ski areas, it also is a wonderful summertime hiking area as well. Prali keeps the lifts open in the summer (€8 round trip tickets), making it an easy way to get up to the top and do some high level walking with the 13 lakes an easy destination. I really can't say enough nice adjectives about what a fun and reasonably priced ski area it is. They replaced their one person chair lift at the base, 2 years ago, thanks to the Olympics, with a high speed 3 person lift and it makes a big difference. The run from top to bottom is another thigh burner and more enticing with this lift to wish you back to the top. Weekend tickets are modestly priced at €20 and €14 during the week. You really can't go wrong especially if you stop in the mountain house and partake of something warming with a view like this now can you.

Monte Bianco visible in the distance

16 January 2008

Cappuccino Break at Cafe Stazione

I just can't seem to get the post that I've been working on done, so I'll just settle for a nice cappuccino break. We enjoyed this charming cup at Cafe Stazione in Pinerolo. This historical cafe greets you when you step out of the Pinerolo train station and walk across the street. We stopped in yesterday after shopping in the market for a warming break in a friendly atmosphere. I purchased some Alessandro's fresh roasted Ethiopian coffee for enjoying at home. I'm going to do a full on review of his little cafe one of these days when the civic park surrounding him is green again, as his place is well worth dropping in.

10 January 2008

Comfort me with Polenta (an Apples & Thyme Entry)

This time of the year after the extravaganza of sugar and spice and everything nice, and then some, I find myself craving simple hearty fare. Piemontese cuisine doesn't disappoint. The market is quiet and slim pickings these days. Many of the usual vendors have hunkered down beside a small fire in a brazier and erected all manner of odd tents of sorts to protect themselves and their wares from the winter winds. Others have finished what they have to offer till spring when the foraging begins for all sorts of interesting and unusual greenage which offers itself up in the woods and abandoned refuges of overgrown and neglected places around town. Until then it's mostly a round up of the usual suspects of fennel, artichokes, chard, radicchio variations, apples, pears, oranges and lovely little clementines to tempt and treat. Gone are all the holiday indulgences of pomegranates, dates, oysters and lobster from our favorite stands. I did find a stash of fresh lychees for a decent price yesterday, which makes a nice light refreshing fruit for dessert after a very filling plate of polenta.
This post is really a celebration of my husbands family's long love affair of polenta. I decided to add this post into Vanielje Kitchen and Passionate Palate's monthly event Apples and Thyme a celebration of Mothers and Grandmothers and time spent with them in the kitchen. Fabrizio will be delighted to know he's being included with the women in th kitchen this month. Piemonte is famous for it's polenta, but it's the mountain dwellers, like ourselves, that have a particular soft spot for the creamy, hearty concoction. I have loved polenta ever since the first time I had it as a young adult. It is a welcome change from the fairly flat tasting grits, that I had not been raised on but took to once introduced to them at my older brother and his southern belle's wedding. It was an even bigger revelation, many years later, when introduced to Piemonte's heirloom maize varieties of "Ottofile" and "Pignolette". One being called the King's polenta, as it was served often to one of the kings of Savoy and the other being a cultivar from the introduction of high Andean mountain popcorn varieties to the local Italian varieties that were introduced back in Columbus's day.
I've always sought out the hard to find coarse ground polenta, as I don't really mind that it takes an hour to cook properly, the extra flavor and texture is so worth it. However I did find that my mountain man, Fabrizio, raised on his mama's and Nonna's polenta, knew a trick or two about making delicious polenta. Every baita, refugio, and traditional Piemontese restaurant, will normally have polenta on the menu alsong with one or several traditional meat stews, mushrooms or soft cheese. "La Baita", Fabrizio's family restaurant was no exception. Fabrizio's father always was a big hunter and helped keep the supply of wild goat, boar, and deer, topped up on the winter menu, helped out by other local hunters as well when the restaurant was in it's hey day. Fabrizio makes a mean pot of polenta especially when we use the organic stone ground heirloom varieties from our friends from "Il Frutto Permesso"
It was a staple of "La Baita" all those many years in business and now carried on at home. For us when we have guests at our inn, that want a local specialty and it's the right time of year, we like to comfort and fill them up with this mountain specialty. Occasionally we get a request to make it in one of our cooking seminars, but most people have little experience with truly old style polenta and the traditon of serving it family style on the wooden platter makes for a few oohs and ahs. I like to make plenty and with the overflow if we don't use the platter presentation then I press the extra polenta into a small loaf pan or bowl so that when it sets up I'm ready the next day for grilled or sauted wedges just begging to be topped with sauted wild musrhooms and a slice of some good Toma and a grating of Grana Padana, hard style cheese. It's one of my favorite "encore performance" (code for leftover) meals. Sometimes you find it in a market stall sliced thin and deep fried for a tempting fast food treat.

Polenta for a crowd
"Nonna Parise style"
For the Polenta
  • Needed 1 heavy 5 qt pot if you have it for a large batch. I used my cast iron pot, (that now has a new life making no knead bread,) for many years, before my investment in heavy duty 3 types of metal layered pots that I have never regretted breaking the bank to purchase.
  • I like a stone or coarse ground polenta, but you can use what ever you like and have time to make.
  • Fabrizio says 2 1/2 liter of boiling water for 1 kilo of polenta serves 6-8 people, you can adjust your proportions accordingly.
  • Bring your water to a boil, lightly salt your water with maybe a tsp of salt. (you can adjust salt at the end) Add 1 Tb. or so of olive oil.
  • When your water is at a full rolling boil, whisk in the the measured polentain a steady stream whisking the entire time to avoid lumps.
  • Whisk for a few minutes to insure all is smooth. Then lower the heat so that it just barely simmers.
  • Cover with lid and let it slowly cook, stirring every few minutes to make sure it isn't sticking too much or burning. It will stick to the bottom, don't worry too much as long as it isn't burning. With a decent pan, the entire layer can often be peeled off much to the delight of certain family members. Other wise, left to soak over night it cleans up easily even if it doesn't seem like it at first glance.
  • Usually takes 50 minutes or a bit more depending on your type of polenta or altitude.

Sausage Green Pea Sauce
  • Saute 1 small chopped onion with 1-2 cloves of garlic in a sauce pan with a bit of olive oil.
  • Add 2-3 inch sausage links to the sauce pan with the onion and continue cooking.
  • Season with a bay leaf or two, some mixed dried herbs your choice, a sprinkle of fennel seeds if you like.
  • Once the sausages start to lightly brown or are cooked on all sides add fresh chopped tomatos, usually one person. Or use a can of diced tomatos and a splash of stock or water to keep it all saucey as it reduces down a bit.
  • Simmer until it has reduced and the sauce doesn't look raw, about 20 minutes.
  • Just before serving add some frozen peas ( the smaller ones here are so tasty)and simmer till they are just done. Adjust seasonings and serve over your cooked polenta.

06 January 2008

"La Befana" came and went

La Befana arrived last night and although she didn't leave coal or chocolate for us, she did leave a nice coating of snow for us to enjoy. We're very glad to have a normal winter this year with variable temperatures and snow to make it feel like winter. I'm about to get out the nordic skis and have a go in the neighbor hood with out fear of scraping the bottoms off. The past couple of days there has been lots of La Befana sightings and impersonators, which they say is the sincerest form of flattery. Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita did a fine impersonation of the generous old soul. You should check out her photos at her site. There were plenty of men dressed up like the popular old lady but I particularly liked the posse of snowboarding Befanas sliding down the slippery slopes. My favorite daytime TV show is an Italian version of the English show "Ready, Steady, Cook" , which I tune into when ever I can, usually while I am doing my own version of lunch preparation. Yesterdays chefs had a variety of imaginative takes on the theme, with one making fish encrusted in black pepper to look like lumps of coal and then put inside of a filo dough shaped stocking. the other chef made Cappellacci or La Befana's hats, pasta, which appealed to me. It just so happened that I had some pasta and filling left over from a pasta class we taught a couple of days previous and needed to use up, so to welcome and honor her, I made La Befana Cappellacci with pasta colored with cooked beet root, filled with tomini/grana padano cheese mix and finished off in a fresh leek and mushroom sauce. It was tasty and we got left some fluffy white snow and sunshine to enjoy it today. What more can you ask for?

05 January 2008

Rich Ricotta Torta, just one more sweet treat

Well, I shall attempt yet again to post this recipe one more time!
They say that the third time is the charm, we shall see. It's looking like the 4th time is the charm today. Thank goodness, "La Befana" arrives tonight, so I still have time to squeeze in another holiday treat.
I wanted to add this recipe as it has been such a hit lately, disappearing before I was able to get a picture of it in it's entirety. A good sign that I'm not the only one that likes it, indeed.
It has been one of my favorite Italian cakes even though I am not a huge cake fan having made so many over the years, that I am a bit weary of cakes and this time of year I'm about overdosed on sugar also, but it is a festive cake and not so sweet that it can be versatile enough for breakfast or dinner. That is one quality of Italians, and there are many others, that warms a pastry chef's heart, and that quality is that Italians will eat almost anything sweet in the morning. Be it last nights thick and gooey chocolate cake, brioche, cookies or cheese cake, all are fair game for breakfast, at least according to my husband and mother in law. It's nice to know that anything that was good enough for last night's dessert is good enough for this mornings breakfast. She said that even Fabrizio's father ate all of it the other morning. This is a very traditional man that is very clear about his taste in cuisine, traditional Piemontese or niente(nothing)! Well, maybe not that cut and dried, but purt near!
Try to use the best quality of ricotta as you find. The fresh ricotta still weeping water from the forms they use here when they display them in in the market attests to their freshness. Fresh ricotta is an incredible treat of silky smoothness and subtle flavor.
I make my own candied orange peel, as it is simple to do and usually I don't have any when I want to make this cake. I usually just peel the skin off in 4 quarter pieces after I cut a line around the skin and boil the peels, 20-30 minutes(longer if you really want them more candied) in a simple syrup of 2 parts sugar to one water, just to cover. I let them set in their own syrup and store in the refrigerator. They will last longer, the longer you candy them, by cooking the syrup down. I use them up fairly quickly as a garnish some times and the syrup as a light cake or fruit glaze and a splash in fresh fruit salad to perk things up.
Torta Ricci di Ricotta

50 g butter, softened
200 g sugar
2 eggs
250-300 g ricotta, highest quality you can find

50 g candied orange peel, chopped into small cubes
50-100 g dark chocolate, chopped into smallish pieces
I actually use about 100 g as I love a bit more chocolate
50 g sultana or raisins, soaked for at least 20-30 minutes in
shot of Brandy, or enough to cover the dried fruit,
if you're in a hurry, heat the brandy to warm not boil,
add the fruit, it will absorb faster or let them set overnight
2 tsp vanilla, optional, I usually make it without as I think it masks the brandy

200 g pastry flour
1 TB baking powder or one bustina of baking powder that we find here in Italy

pinch salt

I mix the whole recipe by hand as I don't think the cake benefits from using a mixer.
Cream your butter with the sugar with a flat whisk till fluffy.
Add the ricotta and mix well.
Continue mixing, add the eggs.
Then add the chocolate, orange peel and raisins with the brandy and mix thoroughly.
Add the flour and baking soda.
Blend gingerly till just incorporated and no flour clumps are lurking.
Pour into a well greased pan and bake in a 325* oven, till it just springs back, 30 -45 minutes depending on your oven type.
I often use a 10' removable bottom pan and recently used a bundt pan with excellent results, especially for presentation.
Garnish with fresh orange or clementine slices shined up with a dab of simple syrup, maybe even a shake or two of powdered sugar.
Serve warm and see how fast it disappears or room temperature. Best served that day, but will keep over night as well.

01 January 2008

Happy New Year 2008!

Buon Anno from our house to yours

We had a wonderful evening with guests last night. Some are still sleeping and others are out enjoying the sun and the snow. We're still tidying up and divying up the leftovers with Fabrizio's parents like they do after one of their big dinners. I have included some pictures of our "disco" that is going thru a bit of a transformation this year. Fabrizio is embarking on a big remodeling job this winter as I stay busy with all of my usual big ideas and limited skills, but then that's art of the challenge to show myself I can do this too, even when I don't have a clue. My web site and blog are living proof, this old dog is learning some new tricks still and many more to keep working on in the new year.

This past year has been a wonderful experience laden endeavor. We went to Colorado for part of the winter last year, teaching cooking classes in private homes and through the continuing ed department that I use to teach through oh so many years ago. We renewed old friendships and made a lot of new ones along the way. I challenged myself last year to a few culinary challenges that I think 3 of them are rolling over to the new year to accomplish this year, Sardinian ravioli, scary flat fish, and carnival cookies. I don't think I need to add too many new things to that challenge, but I do have a few ideas of things I want to try this year, especially when I browse around what's cooking on other people's sites.
We had so many interesting visitors this year. I've come in contact with so many creative and talented people through the blogosphere. I have been inspired by the imaginative and creative people that share so generously over the internet. I have also found great support and friendship by the many kind and wonderful comments on my posts. I am really grateful for those comments, as I am a bit off the beaten path and the internet has not only brought people physically to our doorstep, but also through our cable. What a wonderful way to discover the world, that use to be reserved to books and travel when one could afford it. Now the entire wide world is a few mouse clicks away.
Through our guests requests and interests we have met so many fascinating people, working on their piece of the patchwork that we call Italian culture and gastronomy here in Piemonte. I love all the twists and turns our business keeps taking, and all the different people that our paths cross with. I am truly grateful and inspired to keep the spirit of discovery alive and well. Thanks for joining the journey and being a part of the inspiration.

Tanti Auguri!!!

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