24 February 2011

Perfect Day on the Via Lattea

Nothing does away the midwinter blahs for me like a day out skiing. After having lived and worked in the heart of ski country and the ski industry of Colorado for many years, I have not lost my passion for crisp blue skies, pristine snowfall, the crunch of boots on the snow and the wind in your face while hurtling down the slopes. Even though I don't get to go as regularly as I once did, my passion is undimmed. Perhaps that has sharpened my appreciation and made it all so much more enchanting when I  find myself  on the slopes skiing with someone I love, reveling in spring like conditions in February.
I'm more of a "don't let the weather stop you" kind of a skier, who can enjoy the various conditions for what they are, from many years of living and skiing in them. Fabrizio, however, prefers the sun on his face, a mere headband if he must and no clouds in the sky, when we satisfy our need for speed on the slopes. I can't say I mind either. Recently we enjoyed one of those  completely perfect days. We had just the right balance of crunch to the snow and yet soft enough to carve a turn like pulling your knife through butter at that just right spreading consistency. So it was, when we made our way up to the Via Lattea or Milky Way and skied the day away.
Fabrizio on top of the World Cup Down hill run
The Via Lattea (MIlky Way) is made up of 8 individual ski resorts comprising the largest inter connected ski area in Europe. The Montgenevre area is in France, so you can start in one country and end up in another for lunch. We, however, were not quite that ambitious that day. Our day began in Sestriere which crowns both tops of our Chisone and parallel Susa valley.  Even though Sestriere was in the shadow in the early morning, it was mild enough to be quite pleasant ski conditions. 
First light coming over to Sestriere
Ater a few runs, we decided to head for where the sun was already warming the slopes and to keep our faces to the sun otherwise it might just get a bit too warm making the snow slushy as it does in the spring. Luckily it maintained those perfect conditions all day, sun, warmth and slick snow. We decided to make a large loop including Sansicario and Sauze D'Oulx before beating a path back to Sestriere for a late lunch.  We made our way across the road and up and over to Sansicario on the gondola where we were greeted with quite the cluster of people on the top where 2 gondolas meet.
Cable car up and over to Sansicario from Sestriere
It didn't take long to lose the crowd on the wide open slopes that would be very encouraging for the more timid skiers and those with the whole family along. Fabrizio told me that Sansicario was built in the 1970's as a family resort with an eye towards the Fiat factories and it's workers and their families. It was very pleasant and warm, so much that we began to peel off layers. 
Wide open ski pistes in Sansicario
 I love all the cool cabins and mountain huts there are to stop in, although once we get going skiing, it's hard to want to stop too much.
Lunch stop in Sansicario
We were skiing like we had been skiing every day this season, but my legs eventually told me other wise, so we opted to take our lunch break at La Tana della Volpe. We made a small foray into Sauze d"Oulx before heading back over to the top of what was the Men's 2006 Olympic and Sestriere's annual World Cup downhill run and having some lunch and catching up with our friend Massimo, a local Pragelato man who has gone to great efforts and personal expense to transform and maaintain this former cable car house into a warm and welcoming hotel high in the alps. 
La Tana della Volpe
What a great stop this is, always. The view is spectacular, the interior charming and cozy, the welcome warm and the food delicious. Typical Italian mountain hut fare at its best. 
Cozy interior of La Tana della Volpe lunch stop

We opted for the oh so traditional polenta, sausage and cheese fonduta. Not only was it filling it was wonderful. To have good quality ingredients in a mountain hut that isn't so easy to get the products up to it is a feat and commitment to excellence that I heartily applaud. They make their food from scratch daily as well as their foccacia that they turn into hearty sandwiches. Of course you can find a selection of excellent traditional meats and cheeses, and naturally, pasta dishes to boot. If you want to continue the fun after hours, it is a hotel as well that will blow you away when you awaken in the morning to the stunning panoramic views this alpine hotel affords the lucky few who discover this treasure. I can't say enough about what a special place La Tana delle Volpe (the fox's lair) would be to stay at for a few days. Do note that you do have to be able to ski to stay there. 

There are many reasons to stay and play in the Via Lattea, €34 all day ticket to 6 of the 8 ski areas would be one reason of many. There are other deals on multiple and half days too.  I do enjoy telling you about them, my dear reader, and most of all,  I love the adventure of discovering them too. So thank you for reading along and spurring me on. You might consider visiting our part of the Italian alps. Make your ski or summer hiking holiday part of  a variety of stays. If you don't want to ski everyday, come and stay with us at Bella Baita B&B, and we'll take you to the market in Pinerolo and show you around and teach you how to make something with what we find or point you in the direction of self guided day trips to a small castle or imposing monastery for example. There is something here for just about everyone. We'll do our best to make sure you make the most of your time and won't be disappointed. 

17 February 2011

Viva La Liberazione! Valdesian (Waldensen) Liberation Day

Today is a special day in our valley. Val Chisone, Val Germansca and Val Pellice are collectively called the Valdesian (Waldensen) valleys. We are part of the province of Torino, but over the years we have been part of the last defense of the Savoy family for keeping the French at bay and as a refuge for the people  called Valdesian (Waldensian), an ancient  religion that broke with the Roman Catholic church and paid dearly for their beliefs. They were persecuted until on this date, February 17, 1948, the Savoy ruler,  King Charles Albert of Sardinia, granted them their freedom. You can read about them on Wikipedia, which has some interesting historical Waldensian reading. I did find there are some mispelled local towns and differences of the history as told here locally, but it really is a wealth of information on this ancient religion that is alive and well here.

Traditional Valdesian Costume
Liberation day is commemorated every year on the evening of the 16 February with bonfires up and down the valleys and a march in traditional costume to join in fellowship including worshiping and eating together, no matter the weather. You can read my previous posts with photos on the celebration here and here. You can find a traditional recipe or"Lâ Calhëtta dë Prâl", a Valdesian Soup in my recipe list and on the live link on the name of the recipe.
Valdesian symbols that you will decorating furniture and doors
 Come and discover the many charms and secrets our valleys have to offer. 
We'll help.

Post Script
I forgot to mention that this is also the start to the celebration of this being the 150th year of Italy being a united country. March 17th, 2011 will be the day we all celebrate together, "l'Unita' d'Italia". Viva l'Italia. 

14 February 2011

Panna Cotta al Nocino

Happy Valentines Day!  
If you are looking for a simple but utterly divine dessert to make for your Valentine tonight, do make this   early enough today to serve tonight. It only takes a few minutes to pull together once you have some high quality cream and sheet gelatin. It doesn't need the hazenut liqueur as this traditional Piemontese delight is all about showcasing the ultra smooth creaminess of this sensuous delight. I have been asked for this dessert a number of times, so here you go. Just make sure you use the absolute highest quality of cream you can find, for dreamy dessert that literally melts in your mouth. I have found that oftentimes this dessert is made with far too much gelatin and it really doesn't do this dessert justice. It will be a wobbly quivering mass when you unmold it onto your plate, but be fearless. Don't let a little wobble scare you. I usually unmold it into my hand briefly on its way to the plate as it sometimes can be slightly stubborn releasing from its mold. It's well worth a moment or two of anxiety for the pleasure of this sumptuous silken grand finale that ensues.
Enjoy this with soft candlelight, music, Moscato wine and someone that you love!

Panna Cotta al Nocino

8 generous portions 
You can make these smaller portions as well
The recipe can be halved or even quartered with good results

850 g heavy cream, here we like to use Elena, a thick local brand
250 g milk
150 g sugar
7-8 g (2 ½ long sheets) sheet gelatin (fish gelatin/colla di pesce)
60 g Nocino, walnut liqueur, or hazelnut or chocolate

MethodSoften the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water.
Meanwhile heat the cream, milk and sugar to just under the boiling point.
Use the highest quality of cream that you can find, as it is the main ingredient and inferior quality will make for a disappointing result. The higher the butter fat content the richer and creamier the panna cotta.
Remove the cream mixture from heat.
Drain the gelatin and squeeze excess water from the gelatin which will now be a jiggly mass.
Add the gelatin to the cream and stir until dissolved. If you have allowed the cream to cool too much, just put it on the heat again and stir till the gelatin dissolves.
You do not want it to boil at this point, just to insure the gelatin dissolves.
Add your walnut or desired flavoring to the mixture and stir to distribute.
Pour into metal panna cotta cups/cyclinders (ungreased, no preparation to the cups other than being clean) to cool to room temperature before putting them in the refrigerator to set up.
To serve, run a thin knife around the edges and turn onto your plate.
Garnish, or not, and enjoy every dreamy bite as you are  transported to a higher place.

Cooks notes*
I must confess, that I haven’t found or bought proper panna cotta cups, as they are either too tall, too large a serving or whatever, so my little secret is I use a heavy plastic reused container, like individual yogurt cups. We use to use small plastic drinking glasses when we use to do large catering functions and needed hundreds of cups. They work great.
The panna cotta needs to chill for a good while. It will vary with the temperature of your refrigerator and the thickness of your cream, etc. It can be 4 hours or over night and will hold for several days in the refrigerator to serve as needed.
When serving, make sure to unmold just before serving because it is a bit wobbly and you don’t want it to melt. The wobble is a good thing.
Also, if you use any sauce, even though it really doesn’t need anything,  as it is quite rich and creamy dreamy melt in your mouth. You don’t want to detract from the simplicity and subtle flavor of this dessert, but if you do add a sauce  for a lovely presentation or contrast in flavor, make sure you do not pour it over the top of the desert, as it will split the cream in two.

09 February 2011

My Mama's Lasagna

In no way was my mother Italian, nor my father. Mom's side was pure Irish and Dad's side, I have always referred to "Heinz 57", as in 57 varieties of ethnicity. Yes, that would be all American, and yes that would include my Dad's grandmother being 1/2 Cherokee indian, so I guess that nails the all American thing.  I am, however, Italian by marriage and spirit, and live in the heart of Piedmont Italy, so if you think this recipe isn't the real Italian deal, then think again. I've mentioned before in other posts that we grew up on my mom's delicious country farm food, like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and milk gravy, my father's absolute all time favorite meal, but I still remember distinctly the day we had spaghetti for the first time in our family. It was a revelation.  When this  lasagna recipe came into my mother's repertoire, suffice to say, it was much loved and oft requested for those special occasions, like birthday meals, graduations, etc. when Mom asked what we wanted her to make. 
Thanks to my dear sister in law Beverly, I now have the recipe to share with you. 
We visited with my brother Gerry and Bev, a couple of years ago and Beverly jumped up after a long working day and whipped this up in nothing flat. So many memories came flooding back from the days spent round the dinner table of my parents. Food does that doesn't it? It can transport you back to very specific places in time.  I have always aspired to making memorable meals and memorable times, thanks to my mother's tireless efforts. She had that pretty much covered. We always had a table set for our family of six, but there was always room for more and we always seemed to have someone either staying with us or coming over for a meal most of the time. I have often referred to my mother as running a boarding house with out the benefit of help or compensation. She did have a lot of admirers as she was a wonderful cook. We spent a lot of time around the dining room table discussing a vast array of subjects  with a vast array of people, lingering over pie and coffee with a bottomless cup. 
I have also, always admired Beverly since she came into our family. She is such an amazing woman, so accomplished at many things, her career, style, marriage and children, while being a gracious and elegant hostess as well. I stayed with Bev and my brother when they were first married and I was a teenager. I traveled, by myself, up from southern Illinois to Chicago on a cross country brother visit, while my parents were in the holy lands. It was quite a revelation in my transition from kid to adulthood in the dawning of the era through the teenaged wonder years of struggling to grow up and figure it all out. Not that you ever figure it all out, ever.  Anyway, Beverly, arrived home from work or school to pull out a cook book and whip together what seemed to me, a very sophisticated adults meal. I think it featured pineapple and chicken, with a touch of Galliano, if I remember correctly. It was such a far cry from my mothers simple and delicious style and just seemed so "ooo, la, la", that I felt inspired and thrilled to be entering the world of the adults on my own two feet. Over the years, I have always enjoyed and admired Beverly's personal style, her academic accomplishments and her fearless approach to cooking, trying something new and serving it up with casual elegance. That is pretty much how I view Beverly as well, a casually elegant, soft spoken southern belle that can deliver the goods on so many different levels.  She has and always will be, an inspiration to me and I am eternally grateful to have this recipe from my mother. Thanks Beverly and Happy Birthday too! 
I have also mentioned before when sharing my sister in law, Nancy, grandmother's ravioli recipe, that it rang true to authentic Piemontese.  Nancy's grandmother, Victoria Parola Denzio came from Turin, originally, before landing in southern Illinois. My Piemontese husband and in laws heartily approve of this lasagna when I make it. This recipe comes from the same era in time, from my childhood, if not from the same town of Herrin, Illinois, which looking back on now, I realize the large Italian community in our small town (roughly 10,000 people) were mostly northern Italians. Ooooh the salameats sausages!  I still hanker after their garlicky wonderfulness. My brother Gerry, reminded me of the Roncaglia's that lived in town and that he went to school with, but I had never made the connection, as Fabrizio's surname is the same, but the pronunciation is so different, that I never quite worked out that it was indeed the same. Ron-cag-lee-a, versus, Ron-call-ya. The evolution of names and traditional dishes due to immigration. This recipe is very typical of this area, although you would never find someone use a whole can of tomato paste, because, for one, they have a lighter hand with "conserva" or tomato paste and two, there are no cans of tomato paste. It comes in a handy tube like tooth paste and works really well for using a touch here and there when needed. They might go with a tablespoon of tomato paste and some passata, which is tomatoes that have been run through a food mill and not much else done to it. 
Do try this lasagna and make your own memorable meal. I think you will find it will be requested again and again. Try it for your own special Valentine's day celebration, especially if you're celebrating with friends. This makes a generous pan to share or savor over a few days. I think you'll find it disappears much quicker than you would think! 

Dora Ada's Lasagna
Yields 1- 9x13 pan / 8-12 servings


Meat sauce
1# (450g) ground beef
1 (150g) lg onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 sprigs parsley, chopped
1/4c oil
3 1/2c tomatoes, chopped, fresh or canned
1 small can tomato paste
1/2 c water
2 bay leaves
1tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Cheese sauce
4T butter
1 small onion, chopped fine
3T flour, plain
3/4c parmesan, grated
2c milk, skim or lower fat
2 egg yolks

1# (500g) lasagne noodles

Meat sauce
Saute the ground beef in a heavy sauce pan and drain off grease.  Remove the meat and set aside.  Add the oil to the pan and when it is hot, add the onion, and begin to saute the onion till it softens. Add the garlic and parsley saute until the onion is onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaves, salt and pepper, meat and water.
Simmer for 30 -45 minutes stirring occasionally.
Cheese sauce
Melt the butter and add the finely chopped onion till the onion softens and becomes translucent.
Add the flour and mix thoroughly.
Add the parmesan.
Gradually add the milk, whisking as you add the milk.
Continue cooking until the sauce thickens and is as thick as cream.
Beat the egg yolks lightly in a small bowl.
Add a small amount of hot sauce to warm, but not curdle the yolks.
Add the yolk and sauce back to the larger amount of sauce and cook over very low heat another ten minutes. If you have pans that hold the heat, you may not need to cook it that much longer. Seems like I remember my mom putting the sauce in a double bolier to insure that it didn't curdle. You just need to pay close attention to the sauce.

Cook the lasagne noodles 1/2 way in lightly salted water with a table spoon or 2 of oil to keep the noodles from sticking together.
Plunge the noodles into cold water as soon as you remove them. Remove them as you need them.
Heat your oven to 350*F
Grease your pan and add a small amount of red sauce to keep the first layer of noodle from sticking.
Layer noodles, meat sauce, cheese sauce for at least 3 layers of noodles, finishing with the cheese sauce.
Bake till bubbly and heated through, about 20 minutes.
Let rest for a few minutes before cutting into wedges and serve to an adoring crowd.

05 February 2011

Nutella Crumb Crostata, for any day including World Nutella Day 2011

At our house we normally don't do much to Nutella other than slather it on a slice of my home made bread. For my husband Fabrizio, Nutella, has always been part of the morning repertoire since he can remember, as we are in the heart of the homeland of Nutella. I, of course, am a relative late comer, only discovering it on a European holiday and then waiting a number of years before finding it on the shelves of our grocery stores in the high country of Colorado, with a price tag befitting the high altitude. Now I find that living where hazelnuts are king and Nutella is relatively cheap, it's fun to experiment with different ways of using it when World Nutella Day arrives. Naturally Everyone is happy to share in the tasting and our guests are happy when they find it making its way onto our breakfast table at the B&B.
To learn more about World Nutella Day and the round up of all the posts and recipes from this event head over to the World Nutella Day site. Make sure to check out the  dynamic duo who pull this event together every year, Sara Rosso and Michelle Fabio and their blogs at  Ms Adventures in Italy and Bleeding Espresso.

This crostata was inspired by a chocolate slice I had in a brand spanking new bar in Pinerolo, l'Oragiusta, that serves it up with Illy coffee for the ultimate in favorite pairings. I will be reviewing that bar shortly as it is a wonderful addition to the choices in bar hopping in Pinerolo and is right on the market square.
Anyway, they made a luscious slice that I have come pretty close to replicating with the hazelnut difference. Naturally, I learned a few things along the way, like the long pan I used was just a tad to small. Making it in two identical pans would have lost the thick crust that is almost like a soft butterscotch texture which is a delightful vessel fot the subtle Nutella filling. I think this sized pan with a small tartlet pan would have been the ideal combination, but I wanted this recipe to fit this pan. I sacrificed the edges to be on the overly brown side to insure it being done. The recipe works great, I just need to get the size of the pan in line.  I think if you use an 8" square, you would find it to work out in one go.
Fabrizio really likes that is isn't overly sweet and I think an addition of orange or hazelnut liqueur would set the filling off just right, so I am going to add it into the recipe, even though I didn't add it this time. I see a bright future for this recipe starring on our Bella Baita ever evolving repertoire. I hope it finds its way onto to your dessert or tea time table for a whisper of Italian coffee bar culture.

Nutellla Crumb Crostata
Yields one overly full 33cm x10cm 13”x4” long pan with extras
or 8” square or one long tart pan and a small tartlette pan to use up all the ingredients

Pasta Frolla Crust
300g / 2+3/8 c / 7oz,  flour, plain, all purpose (scoop and sweep for cups)
150g / 3/4c / 5.3oz, sugar, I like organic raw cane sugar, which is a kind of white brown sugar
200g / 7/8c /  7oz, butter, not too warm, but not right out of the refrigerator
1 egg
5g / 1 tsp,  vanilla extract
extra flour for rolling

Method for the crostata
Mix your flour and sugar in a medium large bowl.
Cut in the butter into small pieces into the flour sugar mixture.
I rub the mixture together  with my fingers to achieve a crumbly texture. You can use a pastry cutter or fork, but I find my fingers work the best.
Set aside 112g / 3/4c of this mixture to become the crumb topping later.
Make a well in the middle of the remaining crumbs
Add 1 egg and vanilla extract
With a fork beat your egg and extract to homogenize the egg.
Gradually pick up the crumbs until you have a dough that holds together.
You may need to dust some extra flour around the bowl to get the dough to come away from the sides of the bowl and form a solid mass.
Gently and gingerly make the dough smooth with a small amount of kneading.
I manage this in the bowl, but you might find it easier to achieve in the table if your bowl is a bit small. make sure to dust the table and your hands generously with flour to keep it all from sticking. The dough will be somewhat wet. I flatten the dough and either cover in the bowl or with some plastic wrap and chill for 15 minutes or so until it is chilled and easier to roll or pat out.

Once the dough is firm roll between two sheet of plastic wrap  to get a shape to fit your pan or pans. Be generous with your flour, but work quickly so your dough doesn’t get too warm and start sticking. You don’t want or need to incorporate too much flour.
Grease and flour your pan. I like pans with removable bottoms, or I like to use parchment paper to insure it easily comes out of the pan.

While your dough is chiling finish your crumb topping and Nutella filling.

Line your pan with the dough pressing it into the corners and patting the dough evenly into place.
Dock your dough by pricking the bottom with a fork so it doesn’t rise too much while baking.
Blind bake your dough almost ¾ of the way done, by first covering the dough with a sheet of aluminum foil and weighting it down with beans or pie weights. I had some small heavy round tart pans that weighted it down nicely.
Depending on your oven bake at 190* / 350* for about 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven.  I I have a convection oven which bakes very quickly.  
Remove the foil and check the color. Bake until light golden brown, but the bottom isn’t fully cooked, about ¾ of the way cooked. It will still have some give to it.
Add your Nutella filling evenly over the center of your pan.
There should be a depression to fill. If not, press the center of the dough down.
Fill with Nutella mixture and continue to bake  until the filling begins to set.
Add your crumb topping now. You can add it at the same time as your filling also. The crumbs will stay softer and whiter if you add them part way through the cooking process.
Bake until the filling is solid and has lost its shininess. You want to cook it through, but not completely solid. It took about 45 minutes to bake the dough and filling from beginning till done.
The baking times will vary depending on the thickness of the dough and your ovens’ personality.
Cool some before removing from your pan. I think the flavors come out when it cools completely.
The crostata holds very well for a few days if well covered.

Crumb topping
Ingredients and method
112g (¾ c)  sugar, flour and butter mix
Add 2T sugar, raw cane sugar
1T flour

Combine your crumb mixture that you  set aside and add the additional sugar and flour and clump it together between your fingers to  make clumps of various sized crumbs.

Nutella Filling
Ingredients and method

200ml / 8 oz heavy cream
8g / 1T cornstarch, don’t substitute flour as it will overwhelm the delicate flavor of the Nutella
24g / 2T Sugar, raw cane sugar
1 egg
300g / 1c Nutella
30g / 2 T orange liqueur, hazelnut or chocolate to kick up the flavor

In a small heavy bottomed sauce pan being your cream just to a boil being careful not to boil it and remove from heat, but keep it warm.
Mix your cornstarch and sugar together for easier addition without lumping.
In a small bowl, whisk the one egg till smooth.
Add the sugar and corn starch and whisk till all is incorporated.
Slowly drizzle the hot cream a little at a time into the egg mixture so not to cook the egg mixture.
Once you have added all the cream to the egg, pour the mixture back into the sauce pan. Make sure the bottom of the pan is clean.
Return the mixture to low heat and whisk the mixture occasionally till the mix thickens and cooks through. Remove from heat if necessary and add the Nutella and whisk till blended and melted into a thick pudding like consistency. Return to heat if necessary to melt and thicken. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes. Add the liqueur flavoring if desired. Remove from heat but keep it warm till you have the crust ready to fill.  Refer to the directions above to finish the crostata.
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