30 December 2011

Turin Lights and a Bicherin to Ring in the New Year

Today is one of those blustery kind of days, where all you want to do is burrow in a cozy spot with a good read. I find that a special coffee drink can do wonders to elevate the mood. These short days of winter can leave you longing for  a bit of color and merriment and it seems like this long holiday period this time of year is  in fact a time of lights and merriment and feasting on all of the wonderful foods that have been put away for this very time of the year. The harvest and  hard chores are done for now and so, why not a bit of holiday cheer? One of my favorite ways to dispel the mood and bring a bit of occasion to an ordinary gray winter day is to make a Bicerin(Bee-chair-reen). What in the world is that, you are probably asking, unless you have visited this part of the world and have partaken of one of Turin's specialties.  
Il Bicerin ...photo by Regione Piemonte
Turin or Torino has a long standing love affair with chocolate and coffee. They have a choclate festival for a month in late winter and if you wander around the core part of Turin, you will find many pastry shops and cafes with chocolate as a main feature. Gianduja chocolate or chocolate hazelnut milk chocolate shaped into a gianduiotto shape, dates back to 1865 and has been said that it came about due to Napoleon's blockade and the need to make the chocolate stretch a little farther and this taste sensation was born.  Lavazza coffee hails from Torino  as well as many other local roasters not so widely known outside of Italy. Caffe Al Bicerin was established in 1763, but it's famous coffee concoction didn't really come together for a few more years down the road after a bit of experimenting. The Bicerin as it came to be known consisted of layers of coffee, chocolate and milk and syrup. The original cafe guards it's recipe protectively, but anywhere you go in Torino you will find a myriad of variations. Oddly enough there is a bottled chocolate hazelnut liqueur call the Bicerin, which the original recipe never calls for hazelnut, but the liqueur is delicious and goes together very well in this drink. I made mine today with the bicerin liqueur in the bottom of the glass, a layer of espresso next and topped off with some slightly whipped heavy cream. Oh yes, it lifted my spirits, not only because it tasted so good, but because it looks delightful as well. It's easy enough to make at home and who cares if it is slavishly authentic to the original, experiment around with chocolate or chocolate hazelnut, espresso and whipped cream and you will find these winter afternoons aren't so desolate after all. In fact it's a great special drink to make when you have someone to share with as well. I'm giving you a recipe for two with a chocolate milk base, to vary as you like. You could very easily drop a hazelnut chocolate in the milk too for the Bicerin liqueur effect.
My home style version of Il Bicerin
Il Bicerin
Serves 2

Warm together
  • 1/2 c (150ml) half and half or whole milk, with a bit of heavy cream for rich version
  • 3 oz (90g) semi sweet chocolate, chopped fine, do use a high quality brand
As I don't have a double boiler, I usually put the chocolate and milk/cream together in a small metal bowl and set it over a smaller metal bowl with hot water and melt it together this way. Whisk together when hot and melted. Remove from heat and let stand over the hot water to keep it warm, but not boiling.
**I just used my Bicerin, chocolate hazelnut liqueur today instead of the chocolate mix as an easy alternative.**
  • Brew 2 cup pot of espresso or make two shots of espresso
  • Whip some heavy cream (1/2c/ 100g) to thicken but not to full peak for your top layer. You can sweeten the cream it if you like, although I didn't as the liqueur was plenty sweet.
To assemble
Heat your clear glass cups or glasses with hot water to keep your drink warm and not break it when adding hot liquids.
Pour the water out.
Divide the chocolate mixture between the 2 glasses for your bottom layer.
Slowly pour half the espresso over the back of a spoon to get the layer effect into each glass.
Add your cream to the top and serve with some of those cookies you have hanging around the house for a appealing pick me up from old world Europe. Now imagine you're in a cozy cafe and the spell will be complete. 
Turin Advent calendar and Nativity scene
Buon Anno and Happy New Year to you my dear readers. My wish for everyone is a brighter 2012!

25 December 2011

Merry Christmas from Bella Baita

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21 December 2011

Crespelle with Chicken, Mushrooms and Mixed Greens

Buckwheat crespelle tucked into an individual dish

Crespelle or pancakes, in this part of the world, means thin, light as a feather disks that can be filled with a meager amount of marmalade or Nutella and served sweet, or laden with all sorts of savory fillings and smothered in a light white sauce with a whisper of parmesan or maybe gorgonzola, that is meant to entice one to the table. You probably won't have to ask twice. This is a post I started last month and then lost a good portion of it and have finally recreated it in time for the auspicious occasion of the Christmas/ New Year holiday marathon. It's a worthy contender and a dish you will find on many Piemontese holiday menus quite regularly like an old friend giving pasta and risotto a much needed rest.
I didn't grow up with this sort of exotic treat until we went to Europe when I was a kid and then later my sister-in-law Nancy introduced me to the jam filled ones after she married into our family. She use to make them for her families birthdays. I discovered that I really enjoyed this lighter touch when it came to pancakes for an occasional treat, as it seems to be a bit of a production making the crepes themselves. A non sick pan really helps and you will soon find that the benefits of making these treats far out weigh the effort. When I arrived in Europe in 1998, to work as a representative for a British tour company in Slovenia, I was more than a little happy to discover "palačinke" were a regular fixture on Slovenian menus. My colleague Emma and I were walking guides and she had a standing arrangement as a regular surprise ending  to our Italian lake walk, that  "palačinke" would be the highlight with tea or coffee to be the surprise ending. It never failed to delight.
 Over the years I've made crepes as I am use to calling them for home and for work when the joy of crepe making can be quickly strained from the effort of cooking for the masses. Making crespelle, as they are called by Italians, is still a treat and one that I embrace more readily now, as the numbers are much more manageable. Crespelle are usually a primo piatto, that is part of a long and grander meal, but is just as easily a grand meal in and of itself.  Most crespelle I have enjoyed here have usually been filled with some sort of poultry, mushroom and greens combination. That is my mother in laws favorite combination and I love it too. I tend to vary the greens and make combinations to suit the season and mood. It's also a way to use any bits and bobs of leftovers if you like for what I like to call "encore performances". Would have come in handy for those turkey leftovers last month. 
The filling is added to one quarter of the disc, folded in half and then half again, so that you have a nice triangular portion. They are lined up in rows in an oven pan and covered with a light besciamella or white sauce and lightly browned off in the oven before serving. This makes a great light lunch or dinner with a salad and a glass of our local Le Marie's Blanc de Lissart.  Sounds good about now....or a glass of our Carema nebbiolo is deligtful. Naturally any of your favorite lighter wines like maybe a pinot noir or grigio would be an excellent choice. I might just have to trundle off in search of a glass of wine with all these references to the various wines...Whatever you do, consider making crespelle over the holidays for some special meal, even if it isn't your main holiday's menu. Serving crespelle will elevate your meal to a degree of delightfulness, that I think you will discover, you'll be glad you didn't miss. You might even find it becomes a new family tradition.  Any extra unfilled crespelle on hand can be slathered with Nutella or jam, folded up and warmed up in a bit of melted butter, lemon juice and sugar or maybe Gran Marnier, maple syrup, or a drizzle of chocolate liqueur and anything else that strikes your fancy. I'm convinced you'll be glad you made the effort.

Crespelle with a sprinkle of paprika

Chicken, Mushroom and Spinach filled Crespelle
8 Servings

Crespelle batter Yields:  20- 8" crespelle, approximately **see cooks notes**
Filling is for 8 large crespelle
Besciamella sauce will generously cover 8 and a few more
You can either double the filling or use the extra for dessert or freeze for a later use.
One 9 x 13 pan of 8 large crespelle


Crespelle/Crepe batter
4 eggs
1.7oz/3.5 T (50g) melted butter
2 c (½liter?550ml) milk
1-1/2c. / 200g flour plain (half buckwheat and half white flour is a wonderful combination)
pinch salt
I use an immersion wand to blend it all together, but a simple which will work just fine too.

Once you have it all blended together, let sit in fridge  for 20 minutes. 
You can also make it a day ahead and the batter will hold for a few days just fine.
This recipe makes about 8- 20 discs depending on the size of your pan and how thick or thin you make your disks.
If you find your batter too thick, thin out with a small amount of milk.
Butter for greasing the skillet.

Filling for 8 crespelle

1 small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves , minced
2 T Olive oil
2-3 turkey or chicken breast slices, or a whole chicken breast, chopped into small pieces
The size of your whole breast or slices will vary your filling amount.
1 c (100g) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced, porcino if you have them, optional, but tasty
1# (500g) spinach, fresh, cleaned
½# (250g) borage leaves, cleaned, chopped into thin slivers across the leaves 
(borage, optional you can just add more spinach or any other green that you like, swiss chard, kale, arugula, dandelion)
1 tsp fresh thyme or ½ tsp or so dry thyme  and/ or your favorite Italian herb blend
Salt and Pepper
pinch hot pepper

Besciamella/ Bechamel/ White Sauce
2 T butter
3 T flour, plain
½ lt /2 cups milk, worm milk or at least room temperature
¼ tsp nutmeg, fresh grated
100g Parmigiano, fresh grated, and a bit more for sprinkling over the top
2.5 oz (75g) gorgonzola, optional or or more depending on your taste

Fixings for crespelle making


I usually make my crepes first and set them aside to cool. You can make any of the three components in any order that you prefer, including making some things one day and some the next and assembling everything later.
Heat your 8' 0r 10" skillet till it is quite hot over a medium high burner. I find a non stick pan works best and uses less oil, but a regular pan can be used, but make sure it is very hot and be very generous buttering your pan before adding batter each time.
I use a 3 oz (85g) ladle to pour my batter into the pan. I don't use it completely full but it tends to make the crespelle size be more consistent. If you don't have that use a ladle use a pitcher or measuring cup with a spout to aid the even pouring of the batter.
Once your skillet is hot, run a stick or pice of butter over the pan to cover. Working quickly so your butter doesn't burn, swirl pan to evenly distribute the butter and then pour your batter in the center and swirl the pan with your other hand to distribute the bater evenly, moving the batter around to fill in any gaps, but try to pour in a steady stream to keep the batter even. You want a thin coating on the pan. 
Replace on the heat. You will now know if your pan is too hot or not depending on how quickly the pancake cooks. When the edges of the batter starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and looks to be set up and picking up color then loosen the disk and turn over and cook till lightly colored and pliable. 
Remove to a plate or cookie sheet to cool. 
Adjust your heat up or down, but usually after the first one the pan cools off and you have to be vigilant to keep it hot. It takes a bit of adjusting to keep the temperature even and hot. If you think your batter is too thick then add a few drops of milk to the batter and stir. Heat your pan back up, butter if needed and continue on cooking your way through the batch. I may prepare some of my other ingredients, but I don't get too far away from the pan so I can keep a close eye on the crespelle. Generally even if you go a little too far with cooking them they will soften up a bit after they cool and should be pliable. If not try cooking them less. I also stack them without anything between them as they have usually cooled enough to not stick together. If I freeze them, I will put paper between each one.

Start with sautéing the onion and garlic with a small amount of olive oil. As the onion softens, add your poultry pieces, thyme or other favored herbs. Add mushrooms, a bit more oil or a tiny knob of butter if you like. I tink the butter is always a great flavor enhancer for mushrooms.  Season with some salt and pepper and a pinch of hot pepper. Cook till the chicken is about halfway done. Add spinach and borage, if you have some. Cook until the greens are wilted and cooked a little past al dente. Remove from heat, set and allow to cool. Once cool, taste and adjust your seasonings.
Filling Buckwheat crespelle
Besciamella/Bechamel/White cheese sauce
In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter. Whisk the flour into the melted butter. Allow to bubble and cook a few minutes till it starts to look golden, whisking occasionally. Whisk the warmed milk in a steady stream int to the butter flour mixture. Allow to come back to boil and cook a few minutes till it thickens. Whisk or stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking. Grate the nutmeg in and allow to cook for a few minutes, being careful not to let it stick to the bottom and burn. Remove from heat and add the two cheeses, stirring to melt. Taste, adjust the salt, pepper, nutmeg and amount of cheese to get it to a tasty topping.

Lay your pancakes out flat if you have room to do several at a time. It helps getting your filling even. Don't fill the pancakes one on top of each other as the liquid may seep through the pile. Divide up your filling as evenly as you able and drain off most excess liquid. Be as generous as you like and filling allows. Place the filling in one quarter of the circle. Fold the disk over to make a half semi circle. Fold the empty half of the semi circle over the filled quarter to end up with a triangular filled crespelle. If I am using a metal pan I usually line it with baking paper for ease of serving and clean up. If I am serving them at the table, I use a more decorative baking dish and grease the pan with some olive oil. I line the filled crespelle up overlapping each other, four to a side of the pan with the points down and open curve up to keep the filling from falling out when serving. If you have a roomier pan you can lay them flatter and they will get a bit more sauce. I lay the empty layer side down with the filled side up, so they are easier to serve. If your filling is juicy they won't disintegrate so easily either. Cover your crespelle with warmed sauce. If you feel it is too thick to cover easily, thin out with more milk so it is easily poured. Sprinkle some grated parmesan over the top and pop into a preheated oven. If you make everything all at the ame time and everything is warm as you are putting it together it usually only takes about 20 -25 minutes to warm then thoroughly and brown the top. A little longer if your ingredients are very cold. 
Serve while hot with a wide off set spatula to remove them easily.

**Cooks notes** The crespelle recipe is easily halved, to make the filling come out even. I like to make the full batch and either use the extra for dessert in the next few days or freeze the disks between sheets of wax paper so they don't stick together in the stack. Make sure to cover them well in the refrigerator or freezer so they don't dry out. They will last in the refrigerator unfilled for 4 days, in the freezer a few months.
Pan of crespelle

10 December 2011

Terra Madre Day

Today, December 10, 2011, marks the third of  "Terra Madre Day", celebrating eating locally. What, you ask, is this all about? and what does it have to do with us here in the alps and for you, wherever you might be? Well, whatever you want it to be or nothing at all. Terra Madre is an off shoot organization of the "Slow Food" movement that was born in 1986, in the Langhe, which is a little over an hour away from us here in Val Chisone, in the neighboring province of Cuneo. "Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is part of a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members in over 150 countries, which links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment."  Terre Madre's vision is " working to create an alternative model of food production and consumption, in line with Slow Food's philosophy of good, clean and fair: good for our palate, clean for humans, animals and the environment, and fair for producers and consumers.   New to all of this? You don't need to "join" anything, just think about your food choices and try to bring them and your life in a lignment with what is not only best for you and your family, and the people who raise and process your food, but for the planet as well.
Why is all of this important to me? I have been intimately involved in the myriad of faces of food for most of my life, which included a college degree in horticulture and teaching and free lancing  my way through said college catering with vegetarian d and natural foods with a collective of like minded women. Cooking and baking my way through most stages of my life, food has and remains to me a fundamental passion not only what I eat and where I source it, but also how it is produced, it's impact on the environment and availability to everyone. Food, is an intimate and daily experience that can gather us round the table to share our daily bread, banter about the latest trivia, recent world events or the more profound subjects of our lives or it can be a solitary ritual to keep the body going. Food has so many faces and roles that it plays in our daily life and in the economics of our world. It is truly amazing how one whiff  of a particular aroma can  bring memories crashing forward that were seemingly  languishing in the quiet recesses of our minds. 
So today, why not celebrate your local food and it's producers in whatever way you think best. Most market days you'll find us celebrating what our local growers have raised and  brought from their fields that will eventually make it to our table. 

We had to the good fortune to listen to Carlo Petrini speak last week in Torino at an intimate gathering at Torino's IED, school of design. Carlo is one of the founders of Slow Food and has become the most recognizable face and voice of the organization. I find him to be quite personable and entertaining as a speaker, as I have heard him speak on various occasions in the area. This time he challenged the young people and the rest of us to be innovative and use all the resources that are available to us to in new ways to bring change and to connect us to one another through our food and food systems. He spoke about how Slow Food is a continually evolving organization as more people bring more issues to the able as well as more resources. He spoke about the Pollenzo school of Gastronomical Sciences , whom we have been involved with, changing their focus to begin add actual food skills as part of the degrees, like cheese making and baking to preserve traditions from being lost. These are two programs close to my heart and very happy to hear this indeed.  The other program he introduced was their project to bring "A Thousand Gardens in Africa" to 25 countries in Africa. A practical hands on experience starting in the schools giving critically insufficient acces to land and developing skills and experience to help grow food that is so vital in developing countries especially. It was a great talk and an interesting  evening out in Turin. 
So when you sit down to your next meal, why not think about where your food arrived from and who benefits from your choice of food. It might bring about some interesting dining room conversations and push you to think globally and act locally. Shop local and support the small businesses. They little businesses will really feel the difference and I think you will too. 

05 December 2011

Potatoes and Celery Root Gratin to die for....

Ok, I promise there is no dying involved. I had another recipe and post on turkey filled crespelle or crepes, as they are more widely known to most of us recently and due to a computer glitch I ended up with the equivalent of  "the dog ate my homework". That post and recipe has now been shelved temporarily until I can recreate it to satisfaction, harumph!   
However, I stumbled across this variation of what we called scalloped potatoes when I was growing up and knew it was destined to be a hit. Made it last night and it was. The recipe is a hardy amount so we have plenty for a few encore performances, and luckily they are that good, that you won't hear any complaining from either of us. I think they would make a great addition to a holiday meal as the recipe is an ample amount. I would call these exactly Italian, but a couple of adjustments I made like the addition of rosemary to the dish gave it an Italian flavor. Here in the northern realms of Italy we cook a lot of dishes in milk, butter and cream, so it is not that much of a stretch to add it to your repertoire. The original recipe came from Whole Foods, and you can find it here, but naturally I made a few adjustments based on our tastes and necessary substitutions. I suggest you do the same if you like. For me most recipes are a starting point that I may follow slavishly and maybe only be inspired by. I imagine some of you are quite the same. Any way you like it, make this dish and enjoy the comfort of potatoes done proud.

Homely shot of my version of Celery root and potato gratin


adapted from a Whole Foods recipe

Serves 8-12


1/2 T butter (15g)
2 pounds celery root, peeled and thinly sliced
1 3/4 pounds potatoes, floury variety, unpeeled, if they are organic and thinly sliced

2 c milk, low fat (1/2 L)
2 T flour (6g), optional if your potatoes are floury
2 tsp garlic, chopped
2 c yogurt, plain, full fat,(200-250g) my preference, as I make it at home

3/4 c grated cheese, (100g) I used a rich young Toma, you can use a swiss type
1 1/2 c crushed crackers, saltine type or panko-style bread crumbs 
1-2 T fresh rosemary, chopped fine, less if dry
Salt and pepper to taste 

1 T flat-leaf parsley, chopped


Preheat oven to 350°F. 
Butter a 13-x9-inch casserole dish with your 1/2 T butter and set aside. If you ave extra, add it to the mix when assembling.
Whisk together milk, flour, garlic, and season with some salt and pepper in a large pot over medium heat. I used my large tall sided saute pan.
Gently stir in celery root and potatoes, if you are using waxy potatoes and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring frequently and gently, until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
Add the yogurt at this time and gently stir to mix it all together. Taste and adjust your salt and pepper.
Transfer the potato mixture to your prepared dish and spread out evenly.
Scatter the grated swiss cheese over the top.
Mix your bread crumbs, rosemary and grated parmesan together and scatter over the top to cover.
Bake until tender, bubbly and golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes.
Set aside to let rest for a few minutes minutes.
Garnish with your chopped parsley and serve.

**Cooks notes and suggestions**

There are quite a few recipes on the internet with a variety of suggestions to try.
I like the idea of adding bacon or pancetta for a complete one pan meal with a salad or green vegetable to go with it.
I don't think I will bother with adding the flour next time as our garden variety of potatoes break down and thicken up the dish quite nicely. If you are using waxy potatoes you probably will need the flour.
Since I used the yogurt in place of the cream, I didn't cook it with the vegetables on top of the stove and I didn't have enough liquid to cover the potatoes. I think next time I might just cook the celeriac in the milk and then mix it all up and add the potatoes and yogurt just before adding it all to the baking pan. If you have a larger pan than the one I used, I think you will have more servings and less time in the oven.
I covered mine for the first 20-30 minutes as I have a convection oven that dries everything quickly. I removed it towards the end to brown up the top.
Could easily be assembled a day ahead and baked off the next day.

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