Category Archives: Strictly Tuscan

Pan di Ramerino: Rosemary & Raisin Buns for Holy Thursday

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

While walking through Florence this morning, I happened to catch a snippet of conversation in front of a local bakery: ‘Yes, actually, the priest was here this morning to bless the bread’. Pausing, I noticed the tray of soft, round buns flecked with zibbibo raisins and rosemary sprigs, and remembered—today is Holy Thursday. And in the Florentine tradition, come the morning of giovedì santo, parish priests visit area bakeries to bless the just-baked rosemary bread known as pan di ramerino (ramerino is rosemary in the Tuscan dialect).

More or less the Italian version of the hot cross bun, pan di ramerino is around throughout much of the year, yet remains highly associated with Holy Thursday in particular. While contemporary pan di ramerino has surely evolved from its medieval prototype—consider the addition of sugar, for instance—the ingredients used traditionally to make pan di ramerino continue to account for its symbolic appearance at this point in the liturgical cycle. Beyond the obvious cross design, the rosemary and rosemary oil recall the aromatic oils applied to the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, much like the traditional Roman focaccia with fennel seeds, also prepared this time of year. Then, the simple addition of milk and eggs to pan di ramerino renders the buns soft and light, transforming the bread from one that would otherwise have been ‘lean’ to one fitting the close of the Lenten fast and the transition to the festal Easter period.

'Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns'

‘Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns’

Pumpkin & Camembert Pici

on the plate

resistance is futile

This season is all about the pumpkin. You might not agree with the phenomenon, but you certainly cannot fight it. So here’s a recipe for pici pasta with pumpkin and Camembert to celebrate your submission to the pumpkin forces of fall. Enjoy!

Ingredients for 4-5 servings

400 grams pici pasta
300 grams circa fresh pumpkin
1/2 (or more) of a traditional round of Camembert cheese
1 small fresh red chili pepper
fresh thyme
olive oil
salt & pepper

Instructions

You have a couple options on how to prep the pumpkin. Option 1: Roast the pumpkin for about 25 minutes at 180° C /355° F. Let cool, peel, roughly chop, and set aside. Option 2: Peel the pumpkin, chop into large cubes and boil for about 10 minutes or until soft. Scoop from the water and drain but do not turn off the heat. Add salt to the water and use to cook the pici al dente.

Process the cooked pumpkin until fairly smooth (slightly chunky is fine), keeping in mind that the roasted pumpkin will be dry so you might add a bit of olive oil. The boiled pumpkin should not need any additional liquid. Mince the chili pepper and cook for a minute in a pan with olive oil. Transfer the processed pumpkin to the pan. Break the cheese into pieces and add to the pumpkin, stirring occasionally over low heat so it melts. Salt and pepper to taste. Then transfer the cooked pici to the pan and combine well. Serve with fresh thyme and ground black pepper (optional).

Porcini Mushroom Pizza

yum!

epiphany pizza

I’ve been experimenting with pizza dough for a few years now, but only recently did I hit on what I consider a sure-thing recipe. Or method, I should say. Turns out you really must make your dough the night before, or at least 6 to 8 hours prior to forming your pizzas. That, and let it rise in the fridge! In honor of this epiphanic moment, I decided to top my finally perfect pizza dough with something worthy. Porcini mushrooms are common enough around here come September, but this year in particular their abundance and size are breaking records and turning heads (other species as well) after an atypically rainy summer. So I picked up a few lovelies at the town market and made this, if I may say so, masterpiece of a pie.

Ingredients

for the pizza dough (makes enough for four 10-inch pizzas)
3 & 1/2 to 4 cups flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 & 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt

for the topping (2 pizzas)
4 or 5 large porcini mushrooms
1 handful fresh parsley
olive oil
salt
1 cup circa grated fresh mozzarella
3 or 4 Tablespoons grated parmigiano (optional)
2 teaspoons minced fresh red chili pepper (optional)

Instructions

Make the pizza dough the night before. You will have enough dough to make two 10-inch pizzas per this recipe (or four pizzas if you increase the toppings amounts above accordingly).

Sprinkle the yeast over 1/2 cup of the warm water in a bowl. Wait a minute then stir briskly with a fork and stir in 1/2 cup of the flour until combined. Set aside at room temp for 30 minutes to let the mixture double in size.

Combine the yeast mixture, 3 cups of flour, and 1 cup of warm water in the mixer and mix on low with the dough hook until a dough forms and the mixer starts to struggle. Add the salt and mix a minute more. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until very smooth and elastic. Form a ball and place in a flour-dusted large bowl. Leave in the fridge overnight.

Remove the dough from the fridge and let rest at room temp an hour before you plan to cook the pizza. ‘Punch’ it down and cut the dough into four equal pieces. Put two back in the fridge if you don’t intend to make four pizzas at this time. Form the other two pieces into balls and set them aside on a flour-dusted surface to rest again. In the meantime, prepare the porcini for topping.

Clean the porcini if needed by gently brushing or wiping with a paper towel. Dampen the towel if needed but only slightly. Slice the caps and stems into thickish pieces (no more than 4 slices per cap) and cook them in about 2 tablepoons olive oil for about 3 or 4 minutes on each side. Turn the pieces carefully rather than stirring them all together. After turning them, add 3/4 of the chopped parsely and lightly salt and gently combine. As they brown a small amount of juice will form. Turn off the heat and leave the mixture in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 260° C / 500° F (probably as high as your oven will go). Prep the cheeses and set aside.

Flour a work surface and make your pizza rounds. You can use the hand method or a rolling pin. The hand method which involves flattening out the ball into a thick disk and, while rotating the disk continuing to flatten the dough using your fingertips, working from the center outwards. Pick up the disk and let gravity help by hanging it from the edge and turning (or try tossing it in the air if you’re brave!). Then place on your pizza stone or baking sheet and shape as needed. This method results in a more rustic-looking pizza. Or use a rolling pin if you prefer, arguably simpler, which results in a uniform look and consistency.

Cover your two pizzas with the grated mozzarella, then divide and arrange the porcini on each. A lot of flavor will be in the oil/juice in the pan, so drizzle that on top, too. Dust with finely grated parmesan cheese, and for a kick and some color, a teaspoon or so of minced fresh red chili (optional).

Bake for about 6 to 8 minutes, keeping an eye on them. The pizzas are ready when the edges are brownish or even slighly blackened in places, the bottom is golden and the cheese is bubbly. Garnish with the remaining parsley (optional).

Coccoli Fritti with Prosciutto & Stracchino

fried dough

plateful of genius

Coccoli are dollops of deep-fried bread dough. When folks speak of Tuscan genius, I am pretty sure they are thinking of coccoli, and not, rather, anything related to art, science, or philosophy. Coccoli are typically served as an antipasto but can certainly pass as a full meal in themselves.

Ingredients

200 grams (about 1 & 3/4 cups) flour
15 grams (1 & 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
150 ml water (about 2/3 of cup) warm water
salt
olive oil
oil for frying

Instructions

Dissolve the yeast in about half of the water in a mixing bowl and let it sit for a few minutes. Add the flour a little at time, stirring and gradually adding the rest of the water. Add a pinch of salt and about 1 teaspoon of olive oil and keep blending until you have a uniform dough (it will be sticky). Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for at least 1 hour. The dough will about double.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your fingers and begin making balls about the size of a walnut. This recipe makes about 10 to 12 of this size. Fill a heavy, medium-sized saucepan about 3 inches deep with oil and heat. Test the oil by dropping in a small piece of dough. When the oil is ready, carefully ladle in about half of the coccoli. They will puff up after a few seconds. Fry them for about 5 minutes or until they are a light golden color. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels. Lightly salt the coccoli and serve them warm with stracchino and prosciutto (break the coccoli open and spoon in a bit of the cheese then wrap with the prosciutto).

Pasta Recipes: Tagliatelle with Finferli (aka Chanterelle) Mushrooms

galletti

finferli, or galletti, or golden chanterelles…

‘Finferli’ are very common, funny-looking mushrooms known by several names. In English they are chanterelles or golden chanterelles, and Italians call them about a dozen different ways: besides finferli, in Italy they are also called galletti or gallinacci.

According to the Mycological Society of San Francisco—a dangerously enticing site, especially the cookbook section—these mushrooms vary in size from continent to continent, the European varieties being smaller and reportedly tastier. MSSF offers the following pointers when choosing chanterelles at the market (of which I observed precisely none when making my road-side mushroom purchase) :

  • They should have a fragrant odor.
  • The color should be golden or apricot.
  • They should not be slimy or have dark, decaying parts.
  • The gills should not be granular, fragmenting off the fleshy portion of the mushrooms.
Ingredients for 3-4 people

350-400 grams of tagliatelle pasta
325 grams (about 1 & 1/4 cup) of finferli mushroom (pieces)
2 Tbls olive oil
1 Tbls butter
1 garlic clove
salt and pepper, about 1/2 tsp of each
2 Tbls dry white wine
1 Tbls chopped fresh parsley

Instructions

Boil water for the pasta. Carefully rinse the the mushrooms then chop them into roughly uniform pieces. Heat the olive and butter together on low heat in large saucepan. Add the garlic and cook, swirling it around, for about 2 minutes. Don’t let the clove turn dark. Remove the garlic and add the mushroom pieces. Gently toss the mushrooms in the fragrant butter/oil for 3 to 4 minutes, add the wine, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. The total cooking time shouldn’t be more than about 8 minutes, and the mushrooms are ready when they are tender and slightly browned. Add the salt, pepper, and parsley and toss thoroughly. Cover to keep warm.

Cook the pasta al dente (so just a few minutes if your tagliatelle are fresh) then transfer to the sauce pan. Stir all very well, correct for salt, and serve. A wee sprinkle of quality grated parmigiano is good on this.

Fettunta: Garlic Bread the Tuscan Way

ingredients for the 'oily slice'

ingredients for the ‘oily slice’

Fettunta is a contraction of the Italian words fetta and unta, often (awkwardly) translated as ‘oily slice’ in English. Una fetta is indeed a slice of something—cake, bread, cheese, meat—and unta does in fact mean ‘oily.’ But I think we can do better.

Fetta is related to the Italian verb affettare: to cut or to slice (a deli-style meat slicer is called un’affettatrice; to cut oneself is affettarsi). Then, unto/a is the past participle of the verb ungere, which means to oil, grease, or anoint. The English words unguent and unction have the same Latin root (yet are rarely used in food-related contexts, one hopes).

Back to fettunta. Slice a thick fetta of Tuscan bread and grill it on both sides. Rub down both sides with a peeled clove of garlic. Drizzle both sides with a really good new olive oil—this is the unta part—and dust with salt. Use your fingers to rub the oil and salt all over the bread. Put lots of napkins out. Buona fettunta!

Polenta with Pancetta & Red Wine Vinegar Sauce: A Rediscovered Recipe

poor man’s polenta

Born in 1943 in Borgo San Lorenzo, Tebaldo Lorini is a writer and folklorist who researches gastronomic traditions of the Mugello. His cookbooks and the recipes therein are the fruit of his conversations with locals throughout our region, and as such represent an invaluable record of living memory.

Last year Lorini published Ricette Proibite: Rane, Asini, Rondinotti, Gatti e Tartarughe nella Tradizione Alimentare, or ‘Prohibited Recipes: Frogs, Donkeys, Swallows, Cats, and Turtles in Food Tradition.’ Not surprisingly, controversy soon followed, in particular from animal rights activists, but not only. With its recipes for oven-baked stork, crow ragù, cat stew, swan with orange sauce, grilled fox and more, Ricette Proibite stirred debate and roused emotions among a broad array of folks. To the accusations of sharing ‘unthinkable’ and ‘disgusting’ recipes, Lorini said: ‘Who said certain animals can be eaten and others not? Laws are different from country to country, as are all customs, histories and traditions. Tastes change over time. Today some recipes are the classic Sunday lunch, while others cannot even be named.’ In Lorini’s defense, some noted that many of these ‘unthinkable’ recipes were born out of the extreme hunger experienced during the war years, a time when other ‘acceptable’ forms of meat were scarce.

Leaving that thorny debate aside, today I am making a far less controversial recipe of Lorini’s, from his 1985 book Mugello in Cucina: Storie, Prodotti, Tradizioni, Ricette. In this work, Lorini explores the eating habits of ancient peoples up through the 20th century and reveals some local recipes of the recent past that few today would recognize, let alone serve.  According to Lorini, a sauce made from finely minced pancetta cooked in fresh garlic and red vinegar, la pancetta all’aceto, was used primarily by the charcoal makers of the Apennine Mountains (formerly one of the principle industries of my town, Grezzano) to flavor polenta. A distant cousin of sauces like carbonara and bagna cauda, pancetta all’aceto sauce should be served very hot. You can serve this as pictured above with creamy polenta or as below, with slices of crunchy grilled polenta.

Ingredients

750 ml (3 cups) water, or 1 liter (4 cups) if you want a creamier, much less dense polenta
185 grams (1 & ½ cups) polenta
100 grams (½ cup circa) of cubed pancetta
2 large garlic cloves
4 Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls olive oil
1 Tbls butter
salt & pepper

Instructions

You need a large-ish sauce pan for the polenta and a medium-sized shallow pan for the sauce. The polenta and the sauce should be prepared simultanously.

Set the water to boil.

If you are working with a whole piece of pancetta, slice it into ¼-inch-thick slices then into small cubes until you have about ½ cup. Lorini’s recipe says to mince the pancetta, which is a challenge, so I settled for small cubes. Peel and mince the garlic and set aside. If you prefer a more delicate garlic taste, leave the peeled cloves whole.

When the water is boiling, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Now slowly pour in the polenta, whisking continuously. Lower the heat and cook for approximately 10-12 minutes, or until the polenta is really smooth. Turn the heat off, add the butter, stir well and cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil on high in the other pan and add the pancetta and garlic. Lower the heat and stir occasionally. After 2 or 3 minutes add a pinch of salt and pepper and add the vinegar. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the pancetta is rosy in color and a sauce has formed in the pan.

Transfer the polenta to a serving dish and make a small well in the middle. Pour the pancetta and every last drop of the juice over the polenta. This is a cucina povera dish, after all. Do not even think of counting calories or fat grams or any such nonsense. Serve very hot.

pancetta2

poor man’s polenta (grilled)

Clematis Vitalba: A Tasty Edible Weed, Only Slightly Poisonous

vitalba's tender spring shoots are edible, while their stems are woody and tough

vitalba’s tender spring shoots are edible, while their stems are woody and tough

This time of year, take a walk down any rural road in these parts and you’re likely to come across locals foraging for Clematis vitalba (just ‘vitalba’ to Italians). From solitary peasants in dirty overalls to gaggles of gloved, uniformly-dressed matrons, these are the same folks you’ll sometimes see toting grocery bags exploding with fresh porcini mushrooms or chestnuts in fall, baskets brimming with blackberries in late summer and wild strawberries in May. They know their landscape, its every hill and rivulet. They know how to best exploit the spontaneous wild treats offered up here in the Mugello, and they’re not above rising with the sun to poke about in damp, redolent earth. They’re sly, too, and reticent, jealous of their lucky foraging spots and not exactly given to sharing secrets.

Fortunately for me, my mother-in-law, Teresa, is as in-the-know as any Tuscan peasant woman, and very much the type to share a good thing. From her I’ve learned how to spot vitalba and how to turn the delicate shoots into a meal. The most common recipe for vitalba is a simple frittata. The key step though, necessary to—get this—remove toxins, is to boil the greens first. Vitalba contains alkaloids and saponins, and is a skin irritant to boot. Nothing a few well-beaten eggs and handful of grated Parmigiano can’t fix.

This obstinate, invasive climber has a long history of uses and attendant anecdotes. In homeopathy it’s a Bach flower—for ‘dreamers and artists’ (whatever that means). Vitalba is an analgesic, used to alleviate a variety of aches and pains, from contusions to arthritis. The dried leaves are diuretic and depurative. I read that medieval beggars and mendicant friars would enlist vitalba’s venomous qualities to bring about sores on the skin, to achieve a more pitiable appearance before those potentially charitable souls whom they passed on the road. In English, Clematis vitalba has earned the quaint nickname ‘Old Man’s Beard’ on account of its white, pilose flower. And it really is edible, just don’t forget to boil vitalba for a few minutes before adding it to your frittata. Seriously.

Tuscan Recipes: Sage Pesto

ricotta-stuffed tortelli with sage pesto

ricotta-stuffed tortelli with sage pesto

I learned of sage pesto from Judy Witts Francini, and I have to say, it was a revelation. Sage, being a hardy perennial, naturally produces far more leaves to work with than your annual basil plants. And where I live, sage plants thrive, growing to absurdly large sizes. This recipe is an excellent way to make use of that abundance, as you can prepare as much as you want in advance. Once sealed under a layer of olive oil, your jarred sage pesto can keep in the fridge for up to ten days. Be sure to let your refrigerated jars warm to room temperature, and stir in a spoonful or two of hot pasta water before serving. This amalgamates all the yumminess.

sage pesto's cast of ingredients

sage pesto’s cast of ingredients

Ingredients

1 large bunch of sage leaves
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 cup walnuts, ground
1/2 cup grated parmigiano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Witts Francini advises to chop the sage by hand (and thank goodness for her expertise, as I certainly would have been tempted to toss the leaves in the food processor). It helps to slice the leaves width wise and then begin your fine dicing. The walnuts can go in a blender or food processor though, no problem. I use a coffee grinder. Mince the garlic. Mix all the ingredients except the oil together first, then add the oil and blend very well. You want a paste-like consistency similar to basil pesto. Sample now while it’s fresh and salt to taste. Use immediately or start filling up your jars to store!

sage pesto ready for gifting

sage pesto ready for gifting