Friday, April 26, 2013

Raw Artichoke Salad

Raw artichokes? Yes, raw artichokes. Cast aside those thoughts of chewing through cardboard. That might be the case if you used regular artichokes. But this salad is made with baby artichokes - the ones that measure only about three inches long and are in markets right now. 

Even so, you can't just bite right into these artichokes. They do look a bit foreboding with those prickly leaves, don't they? There's a bit of prep work to do first, including stripping off all of those pesky outer leaves. For those of you who might be thinking what a waste that is, you can recycle the leaves by cooking them in water and making vegetable broth to use in risotto, soups or stews. Once you've stripped off enough leaves to get down to the very tender interior, trim the stem all the way around.

Then slice off the top section of the artichoke to get rid of the prickly part.

Cut the artichoke in half. At this point, if you were trimming regular size artichokes, you'd have to scoop out the center choke. But in these baby artichokes, it's still quite tender, so leave it in.

Cut into very thin slices.

Have ready a bowl of acidulated water (water with lemon juice or vinegar), or the dressing you're going to use for the salad, and immediately drop the slices into that. Otherwise, the artichoke will oxidize and turn brown very quickly.

Then prepare the other ingredients: wash the arugula, slice the mushrooms and shave some strips from a piece of parmesan cheese (I use a vegetable peeler to do this). Toss everything with the dressing and I promise you, cardboard will be the last thing on your mind.

For a tutorial on trimming large, globe artichokes and a recipe for artichoke risotto, click here.

Raw Artichoke Salad

It's hardly a recipe, just a list of ingredients mixed with a vinaigrette.


baby artichokes

parmesan cheese

white button mushrooms

extra virgin olive oil

lemon juice

salt, pepper

Prepare the dressing by mixing 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts extra virgin olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Wash the arugula and mushrooms. Slice the mushrooms. Trim the artichokes and slice thinly. Toss the artichokes, the mushrooms and arugula with the dressing and mix with shavings of parmesan cheese.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Cheesecake Chronicles

The perfect hairdresser and the perfect cheesecake recipe are two things that I can never seem to find. I keep trying one after the other, and while I have found some good ones, something's always missing. So I keep searching - and trying. Naturally, when I saw a cheesecake recipe at the end of a post from one of my favorite bloggers - Mozzarella Mamma - a American journalist who works in Rome - I had to give it a go. She calls it "FOOLPROOF, FRAZZLED MAMMA CHEESECAKE" because frazzled pretty much describes her life lately. The foolproof part? Well, not so much.

During the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of Pope Francis, you could say she was the poster child for all working mothers pulled in umpteen directions by home and work obligations.  I was always amazed that she found time to blog about the historic events happening at the Vatican after putting in long hours of work at Associated Press (AP) in Rome, a competitor to the company I worked for in New York.  I secretly envied her being able to report on a piece of history as it unfolded, but at the same time, I didn't miss the minute to minute deadlines of working for a wire service.

So back to the cheesecake and Mozzarella Mamma (MM), otherwise known as Trisha. She writes a terrifically engaging and interesting blog, which hints at what a great reporter she must be for the AP too. But at writing recipes.... well, let's just say, "Trisha, don't quit your day job."

The photo above is not Trisha's cheesecake recipe. The photo below is. It looks pretty good, right? Well, as the saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover. Keep reading.

Trisha's recipe calls for 12 ounces of chocolate chips, which I used. But they all sank to the bottom of the cheesecake. I served it to my Italian chit-chat group anyway, and they all thought it was great. But to me, it was like eating a hard candy bar on the bottom and cheesecake on the top -- and a rather sweet cheesecake at that. So I emailed Trisha and asked about the snafu, who wrote back saying "Oh I forgot to say you have to melt the chocolate chips." 


So I made it again, melting the chips. I wish I had a photo to show you of the second cheesecake, but let me just say that the melted chips formed a solid chocolate mass at the bottom of the cheesecake. Again, I served it to a group of friends at a monthly "food salon" I'm part of. They all ate it with gusto, but I was sure it still wasn't what Trisha had served her family. No fail cheesecake? I don't think so.

 I didn't bother emailing Trisha again for more explicit directions, but I had the feeling the chocolate was supposed to get mixed with the rest of the batter, creating a chocolate cheesecake, not one flecked with chocolate bits. However the directions were vague and I didn't want to take any more chances. 

On the other side of the country, fellow blogger Adri of Adri Barr, was having the same experience as I with the cheesecake recipe. But she continued to fiddle with MM's recipe at least two more times, while I gave up and looked elsewhere for a different recipe - partly because I prefer the "tang" of sour cream in a cheesecake, rather than the sweetened condensed milk MM's called for.

I found just what I was looking for amid the dozens of cookbooks on my shelf -- in an old plastic spiral bound cookbook from Hershey's. The chocolate didn't sink to the bottom. Instead, it blended beautifully as I swirled it with the vanilla portion. 

The recipe doesn't call for it, but I decided to envelop the bottom of the springform pan in aluminum foil and bake the cheesecake in a hot water bath, also known as a bain marie. It helps bake the cake at a more even temperature, avoiding a ridge along the outer edge that can occur if you don't use a hot water bath. I say this from experience, having made a fourth cheesecake without the hot water bath for Easter dessert. As you can see, it didn't bake nearly as evenly as the one made with it. The graham cracker base was a little burned too, something that didn't happen with the hot water bath cheesecake. OK, confession here - so maybe I left it at a high temperature too long before lowering it to 250 degrees.

We scarfed it down nonetheless, but the one baked earlier, in a hot water bath, was just about as perfect as you can get - in both taste and appearance. I think my cheesecake search is finally over.

But that hairdresser? I'm still looking.

Hershey's Marble Cheesecake

printable recipe here

  •  Chocolate crumb crust (recipe follows) - or use a graham cracker crust if you prefer

  • 3 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese , softened

  • 1 cup sugar , divided

  • 1/2 cup dairy sour cream

  • 2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract , divided

  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  •  eggs

  • 1/4 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • Directions

    1 Prepare chocolate crumb crust. Increase oven temperature to 450°F.

    2 Beat cream cheese, 3/4 cup sugar, sour cream and 2 teaspoons vanilla in large bowl on medium speed of mixer
    until smooth. Gradually add flour, beating just until blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each

    3 Combine cocoa and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in medium bowl. Add oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1-1/2
    cups of cream cheese mixture; stir well. Spoon plain and chocolate batters alternately over prepared crust, ending
    with spoonfuls of chocolate on top; gently swirl with knife for marbled effect.

    (At this point, I wrapped the pan in aluminum foil and baked it in a hot water bath.)

    4 Bake 10 minutes. Without opening oven door, reduce oven temperature to 250°F; continue baking 30 minutes.

     Turn off oven; without opening oven door, leave cheesecake in oven 30 minutes. 

    5 Remove from oven. Immediately loosen cheesecake from side of pan with knife; cool to room temperature.
    Refrigerate several hours or overnight; remove side of pan. Cover; refrigerate leftover cheesecake. 10 to 12

    Chocolate crumb crust: Heat oven to 350°F. Combine 1-1/4 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (about 40 wafers,
    crushed), 1/3 cup powdered sugar and 1/3 cup Hershey's cocoa; stir in 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter or
    margarine. Press mixture onto bottom and 1/2 inch up side of 9-inch springform pan. Bake 8 minutes; cool

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Quick and Easy Manicotti/Cannelloni

I'm a big fan of manicotti, including the ones that use a crepe batter as the wrapper, like the ones I posted years ago here. But my favorite are the ones made of pasta, like the ones in the photo above.

Now, those of you who have eaten cannelloni may be wondering what's the difference between manicotti and cannelloni, two very similar dishes. Well, you'd be hard pressed to find manicotti on a menu in Italy. It's cannelloni you'll see there, and they are fresh pasta tubes or sheets of pasta rolled into tubes (canna means reed in Italian) usually stuffed with either meat or cheese and topped with a béchamel sauce. Manicotti are frequently made with a crèpe dough and called crespelle in Italy. In the U.S., manicotti are typically made with ridged pasta tubes (manicotto means "muff" in Italian) that are sold dry in packages. They're usually stuffed with ricotta and topped with tomato sauce. Whether you call them manicotti or cannelloni, the word police aren't going to come after you, so long as the food tastes delicious -- and this certainly does.

You can make your own pasta or go the easy route, as I did, and buy some packaged fresh lasagna sheets at the grocery store. For the stuffing, I would normally use a mixture of chopped spinach and ricotta. But it's the season of wild mustard greens and I've been busy, as you can see from the sinkful I foraged last week. For more information on what to look for before the season vanishes and how to prepare them, click here. After blanching, most of them went into the freezer, but a bit of them were destined right away for these manicotti.

I cut the lasagna sheets in half and filled them with some of the ricotta and greens mixture. The dough is already really pliable so just a short soaking for a couple of minutes in hot water was all the softening it  needed.

 They'll cook more once you cover them with sauce and bake in the oven.  

Sprinkle with more mozzarella cheese, or parmesan if you prefer. They're so easy to make and such a hit with everyone, the only problem is making sure you have enough.

Quick and Easy Manicotti/Cannelloni

printable recipe here

makes about 12

1 cup chopped and cooked wild greens or spinach

1/4 cup chopped onions

2 cloves minced garlic

2 T. olive oil

a handful minced parsley (about 1/4 cup)

3 cups ricotta cheese (about 1 1/2 pounds)

2 eggs

1/2 cup parmesan cheese

1 1/2 cups mozzarella

1 package of fresh lasagna pasta (The brand I bought weighed 8.8 ounces)

about 1 - 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce

Sautè the onions and garlic in the olive oil until wilted, and add the greens or spinach and the parsley. Let it cool, then put in a bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients, reserving about 1/4 cup of the mozzarella. Cut the lasagna sheets in half and fill with the ricotta mixture and roll up. Spread a little tomato sauce on the bottom of the casserole; place the manicotti in the casserole and spread more tomato sauce over the manicotti. Sprinkle the reserved mozzarella on top and bake for about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes at 350 degrees until cooked and heated through.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Torta Della Nonna

Torta della nonna is one of those iconic desserts that every Italian grandmother has in her repertoire. After all, it consists of not much more than two layers of pasta frolla with pastry cream in the middle and pine nuts on top. But put those simple ingredients together in a tart and suddenly it feels like Spring. Ok, so maybe the sounds of birds chirping outside my window has cheered me too. 
Pasta frolla is the basic pastry crust that's used in a crostata, and includes egg, which changes it from the basic pie crust made in the U.S. But the torta della nonna I see in Italy seem to have some additional leavening also, so I added a little baking powder to give me the results I wanted. It becomes a dough that's just a little bit puffy, but still firm too.

Make this in a tart pan with a removable bottom and serve with fresh fruit. If you really want to gild the lily, serve with freshly whipped cream -- or be even more decadent and whip up a zabaglione.

P.S. This freezes well after it's made, in the highly unlikely case you have any leftover.

Torta Della Nonna

printable recipe here

Pastry - pasta frolla

2 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1 1/2 t. baking powder

1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1 t. vanilla extract

grated zest of 1 lemon

2 or 3 T. ice water, if needed

Place the dry ingredients in a bowl or food processor, add the butter and mix until it looks like coarse sand. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the water) and mix only until it holds together. If it's too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of cold water until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix or your dough will be tough. Bring together into a ball.

Pastry Cream

2 cups whole milk

zest of one lemon (if you prefer not to use lemon, scrape the seeds from one vanilla bean into the milk or add 1/4 t. almond extract)

4 large egg yolks

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup all purpose flour

Put the lemon zest and the milk into a large, heavy saucepan and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl or mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add the flour and whisk until well combined.

Remove the lemon zest from the saucepan and slowly add the hot milk into the egg mixture, a tiny bit at a time. If you add them too quickly, you'll scramble the eggs. Then return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low to medium heat, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens and starts to boil. If it gets lumpy, use a whisk, or even a hand-held stick blender to smooth it out.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, against the surface of the pastry cream, so it doesn't develop a "skin."Cool in refrigerator
Other ingredients
1/2 cup pine nuts (I use only those grown in the Mediterranean. DO NOT buy pine nuts from Asia or you risk getting pine nut syndrome.)
To assemble: Cut the dough in half and roll out one half into a disk shape. Fit it into a tart pan with a removable bottom. Place the pastry cream over the dough. Roll the second half of the dough into a disk and cover the pastry cream. Brush with a beaten egg that's been mixed with a tablespoon of water. Sprinkle pine nuts on top and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 35 to 40 minutes until browned on top. 

Note: You will have extra dough after trimming the tart. Don't throw it out. Gather it into a ball and freeze for another use. I like to roll out the leftover dough into a small disk and freeze it that way. Then when I feel like making a one-shell tart quickly, I take it from the freezer, let it thaw, and add some jam, or ricotta mixed with sugar and chocolate chips, bake it and you have a quick dessert.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rana Pastificio


When I lived in Italy, I never made homemade pasta because I had Giovanni Rana -- the eponymous fresh pasta brand, that is. After eating a primo piatto of brodo with exquisitely delicious tortellini at my friend Clo's home near Rome, I was dumbfounded to learn that the pasta came from the supermarket. They were the next best thing to homemade and became a staple in my Trastevere kitchen. 

After I returned to the U.S., I had to leave my beloved Rana pasta behind, but to my delight, a couple of years ago, I found packages of it being sold at a local ShopRite supermarket. 

What is now a $500 million operation all started 50 years ago with Giovanni Rana, who was born in 1937 near Verona, Italy. To Italians, he is the kindly avuncular figure that everyone wishes she had in her family.  In 1959, he began making pasta and selling it from his motor scooter to families who didn't have time to make their own. Pastificio Rana opened a few years later, and soon began to expand, with the help of family and friends.

Now it's the number one fresh pasta brand in Europe, and is expanding its sales across the U.S. Its biggest competitors are Italian mothers and grandmothers, according to founder and president Giovanni Rana.  It opened its U.S. factory in Bartlett, Illinois last year. The company also owns and operates 30 restaurants in Italy and Europe. The New York City restaurant, where I was invited to participate in a pasta making class last week, has been open since November.

The Rana family includes son Gian Luca and daughter-in-law Antonella. "I would like that my company in the USA will become bigger than in Europe," Gian Luca said. "But I think that  my mission is not only to produce business, but also to create new jobs and conditions so people can feel realized inside my company.  For me that’s my best satisfaction." 

He and his wife, who is director of their worldwide restaurants, are charged with ensuring that the pastificio and restaurant in New York City's Chelsea Market are up to the standards of founder Giovanni, who is still the international "face" of the company. His father is a man of "grande passione," Gian Luca said. 

Judging from the tables filled with diners:

and bins of beautiful fresh pasta (and this is only a small portion of what's for sale), his father has no need to worry.

The small shop inside the restaurant tempts buyers with beautiful copperware: 

And naturally, lots of pasta making tools:

The hospitality started the moment I entered, with an offer of an Aperol spritz:

And a plate of delicious and crispy fried ravioli stuffed with artichokes:

But we were there to make pasta, so our group got to work, with Antonella as our guide:

We made two types of ravioli -- one stuffed with crushed fava beans, ricotta, mascarpone and pecorino.

Making pasta by hand was not new to me, but even the first-timers caught on quickly:

And we got to eat a wonderful bowl of pasta prepared by the chefs in the kitchen -- with a sauce of snow peas, fava beans and shaved radishes.

I had never made nor eaten chocolate ravioli, so I was happy when Antonella said we'd give that a try.

Again, the chefs were preparing a dish for us with similar ravioli, and this time, they were fried. I don't have a good photograph of the finished dish unfortunately, but let me say that it was divine - served with a mixture of whipped cream, meringue bits, berries and pomegranate seeds.

The pasta we made in class was placed in bags for us to take home, and if there's one thing that could be improved, it's that the ravioli made in class would have survived the trip home better if they had been packaged in a box, with waxed paper between the layers, rather than in a bag, where they all got stuck together. They were almost unusable. I say almost, because I got to thinking I could salvage them by kneading the mass together with some flour, which I did.

I then rolled it through my pasta machine and the little flecks of fava were visible.

I cut some of it into fettuccine:

And some maltagliatti too. Thank you Giovanni Rana for coming to New York and spreading your product across the U.S. 

Right now the brand is available only in the Northeast U.S., but the list of places where you can buy the pasta in the U.S. is constantly expanding. "In a short time we hope to cover all the United States," Gian Luca said. Click here to see all the different varieties of pasta and sauces available and here to find out where to buy them. I derive no income from promoting the brand. I just think it's excellent and I want you to know about them too.

If you have a few minutes, check out this charming video where Giovanni Rana talks about how he got his start making pasta. He'll take you on a short ride through Verona to Lago di Garda, accompanied by the beautiful music of Giuseppe Verdi.

Tortelli di Ricotta e Fave, Shaved Red Radish and Pecorino

500 grams fresh pasta dough

200 gr. fresh ricotta

200 gr. mascarpone cheese

140 gr. fresh pecorino romano

100 gr. chopped fava beans (precooked in boiling salted water)

3 red radishes

40 gr. fresh fava beans and/or snow peas

30 gr. grated pecorino

40 gr. butter

100 gr. vegetable broth

salt, pepper

  • In a mixing bowl, blend the ricotta, mascarpone and grated pecorino romano cheese.

  • Add the chopped fava beans, salt and pepper and set aside in the refrigerator.

  • Roll the pasta with a rolling pin until you have a thin sheet.

  • Place a spoonful of the filling on the pasta, along the entire length.

  • Brush the dough with some water, or a little beaten egg around the filling to help seal it.

  • Cover with a second pasta sheet, press around the filling to eliminate any air pockets, and cut with a pastry wheel or specialized ravioli cutter.

To finish:

  • Place the butter and broth in a saucepan.

  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling water for three minutes

  • Strain the pasta then add to the broth and butter base.

  • Add the fava beans and/or snow peas to the broth.

  • Cook the vegetables in the liquid and let the sauce reduce until it becomes dense.

  • Dress the pasta on each pasta bowl with the sauce, then add pecorino on top.

  • Finish with shaved red radish.

Chocolate Ricotta Ravioli

for the dough:

5 oz. all purpose four

2 eggs

3 oz. cocoa powder

1 oz. grated orange peel

a pinch of salt

  • Put the flour in a large bowl with the grated orange peel, salt and cocoa powder.

  • Add the eggs, one at a time and mix well.

  • Put the dough on a table.

  • Knead well with both hands until dough is smooth and elastic.

  • Let the dough rest before rolling it out and cutting as needed. 

for the filling:

1.7 oz. melted chocolate

5 oz. chocolate chips

1.8 oz. ricotta cheese

1.8 oz. mascarpone

5 oz. chopped hazelnuts

14 cl. heavy cream

  • Put the ricotta cheese in a large bowl with mascarpone, chocolate chips and hazelnuts

  • Mix everything with a spatula

  • Pour the melted chocolate and heavy cream into the cheese mixture and blend well with a spatula or whisk.

  • Refrigerate until ready to use.

To assemble:

frying oil

10 oz. chocolate dough

7 oz. chocolate ricotta filling

3.5 oz. heavy cream

1.8 oz. meringue

1 pomegranate, deseeded or mixed berries

2 t. confectioner's sugar

  • Roll out the pasta dough into two thin sheets

  • Using a spoon, space the filling along the entire length of the pasta, leaving space in between.

  • Gently lay the second sheet over the first layer and squeeze the dough over the filling, making sure there is no air in between.

  • Cut with a pastry wheel or use a specialized ravioli cutter. Refrigerate until ready to use.

  • Fry the ravioli in the hot oil and drain.

  • Beat the heavy cream with the confectioners sugar until thick. Break until the meringue into small pieces and mix with the heavy cream and pomegranate seeds and/or mixed berries.

  • Place the cream mixture on a plate and arrange the fried chocolate ravioli around the mixture, scattering more berries around the plate.

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