#fresh

La Sportellina – a Tuscan traditional Easter cake

The season of Lent in the old days, was by precept a time of fasting and repentance, so people would resort to homemade products only. It was a common and very heartfelt religious tradition, especially in the countryside. Most of the peasant families’ meals consisted of soups, polenta, lots of vegetables form their own farm or just some homemade bread and freshly picked herbs. Adding a pilchard in oil every now and then was a real delicacy that not all could afford. So no wonder on Easter, people would indulge on abundant dishes and plenty of meat, generously soaked by a glass or two of good wine!

The food preparations usually began during the Holy Week before Easter, because everything had to be produced in great quantities, to be shared with families and neighbors as a symbol of gratitude and celebration.

As a child, I remember a great buzz around here, of people going up and down the town’s alleys from early morning until sunset. I could tell Easter was coming just by raising the nose and sniffing the air: suddenly I was engulfed with the sweetest smell of aniseed and freshly baked cake, that used to come from the town’s wood-fired oven. Yes, because at that time, there were no household appliances and not everyone could afford to have their own oven. So during the Easter rush, when women used to prepare lots of oven-baked goods, they had to run up and down the main street with their kneaded doughs to reach the town’s oven when their turn came. Imagine that oven working day and night to bake hundreds of pans of traditional delicacies, which they would take back home once baked. Of course the smell that filled the air back then, was astonishing!

I bet now you’re pretty curious about what actually did they bake, right?! Well, here in Tuscany, we have a special sweet tradition, called “la Sportellina” or “schiacciata di Pasqua” (literally the Easter squashed bread). It’s quite a funny name for a cake that looks anything but squashed, I know! But actually the name comes from the great amount of eggs that need to be cracked (squashed) into the batter.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake

You see, the connection between ancient traditions and nature is always amazing, because once again nothing is random: at the beginning of the spring season, hens used to lay more eggs than usual, and they had to be consumed pretty fast, since there were no special storing procedures like nowadays. So this Easter cake – like most of this season’s cakes and dishes – was just the perfect way to consume quite a few eggs.

As I said, our mothers and grandmas used to prepare this traditional cake in large quantities, during the Holy Week. It would take a lot of work and patience to make this recipe, due to the rising and baking times, which were very long. Imagine they had to knead and allow the dough to rise, again and again for no less than 5 times, before baking it! That’s another one of the reasons why these cakes were being made in large quantities. Some pieces were then being wrapped and given to the family’s guests and neighbors, others were being offered to the church, to be served on the way out, after the Holy Mass on Easter day, and a few were being left for breakfast in the days after.

In our days, when everything seems so rushed and we’re always in a hurry, it’s hard to think of dealing with such a long and delicate preparation and of course we all know you can easily find it at the supermarket. What you don’t know is the feeling you get when you dip your hands into that dough and start kneading. You take that moment just for yourself, to clear your mind and let your thoughts run free, while the sweet smell of aniseed and mint liqueur fill your nostrils enough to take you back to your childhood days. It doesn’t matter how long it will take, it’ll all be worth it when you see that precious little piece of dough come up and become brown, making you feel proud for once again having kept the tradition alive.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake-buona-pasqua

The Sportellina Recipe:

1,5 kg 00 flour

50 gr. brewer’s yeast

150 ml milk

7 eggs (plus 1 to brush the surface)

450 gr. sugar

110 gr. extravirgin olive oil

50 gr. butter

50 gr. mint liqueur

50 gr. maraschino

15 gr. aniseed

1 orange (zest and juice)

First of all dissolve the brewer’s yeast into the warm milk, then gradually add in some flour (about 300-400 grams) and start mixing until well incorporated. Knead it into a ball and put it in a bowl to rest for about 2 hours.

After two hours, mix in 3 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr. of olive oil and another 400 grams of flour. Then let it rest again, in a warm place until it doubles the volume (this time will take about three hours).

For the third step, add in 2 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr of olive oil, 25 gr of mint liqueur, 25 gr. of maraschino and again 400 gr. of flour. Knead it again until all ingredients are well combined and leave it to rest for another 3 hours.

Finally, mix in the rest of the ingredients and knead it for a while, then give it a final 3 hours rest again.

Divide the batter into 3 equal parts and put them into the baking moulds (we use the same ones as for Panettone). Put the moulds in a warm place covered, and let them rise for 4-5 hours, or until the double their volume.

Brush the top of the cakes with the beaten egg and then bake in a preheated oven at 180° C for about 50 minutes, or until the surface becomes brown. Leave them in the oven to rest for 10 more minutes and then let them cool completely before serving.

You can keep the cakes in a plastic bag, in a cool dry place for up to one week, so you can actually bake more pieces and offer them to family and friends as an Easter gift, or you can just have a wonderful breakfast everyday for a whole week! Enjoy!

Baby it’s cold outside!

Tis’ the season to get cozy around a warm fireplace and dive into a delicious hot bowl of soup, while watching the bright yellow leaves being blown by the wind outside. It’s everything you need, to warm up a chilly winter day!

Ok, I know it might sound dramatic a little bit, but seriously, with the cold windy and rainy days we’ve had lately, the temperatures went down even here, in the ever-sunny Tuscany. We’ve even had a couple of snowflakes, mostly over the hilly areas. But hey, it’s December! So while Nature is making its way into the long winter slumber, the rhythms slow down and we can enjoy our home and family gatherings a little bit more. It’s one of our favorite things about the cold season.

fireplace-wood-bread-soup

In older times, a chilly winter day in the countryside was often warmed up by a pot of hot vegetables soup, the ‘ribollita’ or ‘minestra di pane’ (bread soup). A typical peasant dish made from scratch, that deepens its roots in the Middle-ages. Farmers used to prepare a big batch of this hearty vegetable and beans soup, usually on a Friday so they would eat it over the weekend. That’s because not only did they had to make it last for as much as possible to feed the entire family, but it turned out to be even better the day after. So initially they ate the soup with a lot of white Tuscan bread chunks dipped into it (‘minestra di pane’- bread soup) and then re-boiled the leftovers the day after (‘la ribollita’ – the re-boiled bread soup).

bread-soup-dish-ribollita

To this day, the Tuscan bread soup still remains the best way to keep us warm during the cold season and load up on our daily helping of vegetables, because of its perfect combination of carbs, legumes and veggies.

The main ingredient, the one that and gives the whole character to this dish, is the Tuscan kale (or lancinato kale). It’s mandatory for an authentic taste, because you can’t name it ‘ribollita’ if you don’t have the black-leaf kale. We call it ‘cavolo nero’ (translated black cabbage), and it’s a leafy, dark-green type of cabbage, packed with more than 50% of the RDA of vitamins A, C and K, and rich in antioxidants and other essential nutrients, not to mention it’s very low in calories. You can find this super ingredient in every Tuscan farmer’s orchard, from November through spring and it’s best eaten freshly picked, during the cold season.

tuscan-black-leaf-kale

So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the best recipe of ‘Tuscan bread soup’ you’ll ever have. This has been passed down through generations and it’s part of our family’s comfort food cookbook. It’s so simple you can’t go wrong, and so delicious that it’ll fill your house with that special dinner smell that’ll make your tummy rumble.

You’ll need:

a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil freshly cold-pressed

300gr of dry borlotti beans

400gr of Tuscan kale

3 carrots

3 potatoes

1 red onion

1 celery stalk

1 twig of thyme

2 cloves of garlic

2 thick slices of Tuscan prosciutto pork ham

bread-soup-recipe-ingredients-ribollita

In a large pot over a livery fire, pour a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil and add the prosciutto, the carrots, the celery and the onion well chopped. Cover with its lid and stir-fry for about 5 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables cut into pieces, the thyme and the beans. Make sure you keep the pieces quite small, the soup should be thick but not chunky. Now pour in at least 1 liter of hot water and 3 four-fingered pinches of salt. Lower the flame, and cook for at least 90 minutes, covered with a lid. Serve this soup piping hot, with a grinding of fresh pepper and chunks of Tuscan white bread dipped into it, stingily rubbed with garlic and generously sprinkled with Tuscan extravirgin ‘olio novo’.

bread-soup-cold-ribollita-dish

A night in the fridge will encourage all the flavors to blend together beautifully and all you’ll need to do the next day is bring the whole pot to a boil again, and enjoy a hot bowl of wonderful ribollita.

The season is just right to taste this Tuscan basic recipe, so why not give it a try and amaze your family with a new delicious and super-nutrient dish that will delight your senses and warmup your winter holidays!

Oh, and remember: when in Italy during the summer months, please don’t ask us for a pot of ribollita, it’s definitely off season! Have a holly jolly winter everyone!

L’Olio Novo

The Tuscan Green Gold, from the farm to the fork!

Autumn isn’t only about roasting chestnuts and sipping red wine by the fireplace. There’s pretty little time to just sit around, when living in the Tuscan countryside. So between the golden autumn leaves and the first winter chill, as soon as we’re done with the vine harvest, we must get our strength back and be ready for a new adventure: the olive harvest.

Pretty much like every other year, we start picking olives in our farm, around the mid of October, and just before the first chills of November. Anciently it was used to wait for the olives to be fully mature before harvesting. But the weather wasn’t always merciful with crops in late autumn, so to protect them from the early frosts, over the years people have traditionally developed the custom that we all know today, to harvest olives earlier: before they are fully ripe.

olio-novo-tuscan-olive-harvest

This tradition, has become an essential part of our territory’s reputation worldwide, for it has given us a unique product of excellence: “l’olio novo” toscano (the freshly pressed Tuscan extravirgin olive oil). Unique because the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the PDO extravirgin olive oil are mostly related to the climate of the growth area, which influences directly the quality of the phenols, the bitterness and sharpness of the taste.

So harvesting olives before they are ripe, means the level of polyphenol they contain is still high. And although, unfortunately for us, that implies a lower quantity of product, it’s actually just what it needs to obtain the perfect contrast of that intense bitter and peppery taste, so typical of the Tuscan extravirgin olive oil. However, the final result for each batch of oil, also depends on many other elements, so much that it’s almost impossible to have two different productions with the same taste, even within the same area.

olive-tree-harvest

As we always do in our farm, harvesting olives turns into a family fun activity. Being a farmer is a rather tough physical effort and any extra hand is always welcome; so traditionally during the olive harvest, close relatives and friends or neighbors from the nearby farms gather to offer their help and spend some lighthearted days together in the open air, enjoying the breathtaking view over the Tuscan hills. Everyone takes part in the process and being able to follow the product from the olive grove to the fork, is really exciting for all.

tuscan-olive-harvest-family-fun

The day starts very early in the morning, when armed with rubber boots, comfy clothes and tools of the trade, we reach our small olive grove and start collecting the greenish-purple little gems. What we love the most about it, is that our family still preserves the tradition from generations, and a day of hard work in the farm, easily turns into a celebration. We love to recreate the old fashioned charm of living in the countryside, just like our grandparents used to: understanding the importance of this moment, giving thanks for nature’s richness and sharing the sweat, the laughter, the food and the wine, until the work is done! My grandfathers used to tell me about their harvest gatherings, describing those moments as the most important in the life of a farmer, for socializing and opening up with others on everyday life, by sharing the labor and the table.

tuscan-olive-harvest-view

Our busy day harvesting olives comes to an end only after sunset, always following nature’s course. Depending on the size of the olive grove, it may take from one day to an entire week to finish, so we store the harvested pods in plastic boxes, or on the floor of a cool and well ventilated room, until we can take them to the mill for the pressing, but usually no longer than 48 hours.

olives-tuscan-extravirgin-oil

The mills in this area are quite a few and larger farms even have their own. We take our harvest to a very old mill nearby, that uses the traditional “cold pressing” process, to obtain the best expression of the extravirgin olive oil. First, olives are washed in cold water, removing as much leaves as possible. All that’s left is being then crushed together by a giant milestone and stored in stainless steel tins.

olive-harvest-fresh-extravirgin-olive-oil

Now this is what we actually call l’olio novo” (the new oil) here in Tuscany! It’s the freshly squeezed, unstrained and unprocessed extravirgin olive oil, that we all go crazy about. It’s the base ingredient for all our traditional cuisine dishes, and worldwide recommended for its well-known promoting nutrients and overall health benefits. We use it in our kitchens everyday: fresh drizzled over a salad, cooked in most dishes, sometimes as a healthy substitute for butter in cakes and even in the pan, for a healthier frying. But when it comes to the fruity, peppery pungent freshly squeezed olive oil, the first thing that comes to mind is “la fettunta” (the greasy slice): the Tuscan traditional, healthiest and most simple dish ever, and the best way to enjoy to the fullest, the amazing flavor of “the new oil”.

tuscan-extravirgin-olive-oil-fresh

As soon as we bring the “green gold” back home, we just can’t help but drizzle it on a piece of Tuscan toasted white bread (unsalted); just like that, nothing else added, no other confounding ingredients, just our own special extravirgin olive oil… and this is when we realize that once again, all the sweat and the hard working was all worth it!

P – for Pasta: fresh, handmade & delicious

Raise your hand if you’re a homemade pasta lover!

One thing I have noticed throughout the years, is that usually making fresh pasta is the favorite part of my cooking classes for our guests. I mean, let’s admit it, everybody loves the italian-style fresh pasta, and if you’re visiting Italy, pasta is one of the reasons why you’re here! So delicious, savory and somewhat chewy, fresh pasta can be complemented with almost everything from cheese to vegetables, meat, fish and even chocolate! Plus, if cleverly accompanied by the right wine, it makes the perfect Italian meal.

It’s been decreed one of the healthiest and most nourishing dishes worldwide, as part of the mediterranean diet, so why be limited to just eating pasta at the restaurant every once in a while, when you can make it from scratch at home, whenever you wish.

Now, I know from my experience that cooking a dish of fresh pasta could sound rather intimidating for those who’ve never tried before, or have only seen it on TV. But I have some good news for you all, and according to my experience again, I can guarantee you that even a ten-year-old can do this, and you’ll never go back to buying fresh pasta again.

fresh-pasta-handmade-ravioli

There’s something magic about making pasta at home the old way, that no one has yet managed to figure out. I myself have been doing it for years now, and every time I still have fun just like the old days.

It could be the marvel of feeling the dough coming together between your hands, or maybe the relaxing process of kneading and shaping, but as soon as you get your hands on and start doing it, you’d never want to stop. Then as you go, your fantasy gets lighten up and you begin experimenting all different kind of shapes and fillings for your dough, and before you know it, you find yourself inviting your friends over for a meal and getting all the compliments and “aaaw”s and “oooh”s for your fresh Italian-style dishes.

It can get really fun and become a social activity to share with your kids too; and don’t worry about the flour dust, streaked aprons and flaky bits of dough crusted on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t have to be a demanding work, so don’t loose heart if you don’t get it the first time. Just go for it and then keep trying. All you need is “an open heart and a positive attitude”, as my son Luca always says to our guests.

pasta-fresh-handmade-flour

If you google fresh pasta you’ll find loads of recipes and every one will be different from the others, because every family has its own tradition when it comes to making pasta. So my intention isn’t just to give you one more fresh pasta recipe, but rather some helpful tips that I always share during my cooking classes.

My guests always appreciate the little tricks and tips I reveal and become more confident as they go, letting loose and having so much fun, which in the end, is the main purpose of this experience, don’t you agree?

So what’s really important is to have the right type of flour. My fail-proof recipe is based on the high-protein, finely milled “00” wheat flour, but if you have issues finding it, you can just go with the plain flour, or mix 2 parts of it with 1 part of semolina flour: this will add that slightly rougher texture that’ll help seasonings stick better to your pasta.

On a wooden or marble counter, start building a so-called “fountain” and break the eggs right in the middle, making sure they are well contained by the flour around them. Then add just a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of extravirgin olive oil. Use a fork to break the eggs and start mixing them reaaally slow, keeping everything inside the flour fountain, until everything is fully incorporated and you get a smooth uniform texture.

fresh-pasta-egg-flour

Now here comes the fun part! I know in modern times you may be used to getting things done quickly and with an extra help from your stand mixer, but kneading by hand is another story. It really makes you feel the dough coming together and it somehow connects you to the whole process. All you have to do is press and push with your wrist, then fold the dough over and again press and push. Just go ahead and knead it like this until it’s smooth and firm, it’ll take no more than 10-12 minutes.

kneading-fresh-pasta-handmade

Using hands gives you the chance to check when your pasta dough is ready – if you feel it’s still sticky, just dust the counter with more flour and keep kneading until firm and dry.

Another important step in making pasta, is to give your dough the necessary time to relax and loose elasticity; that’ll keep it from shrinking or pull back as you stretch it, making it easier for you to roll it flat and shape it. Let’s say about 10 minutes at room temperature, covered by a cotton cloth, should be enough. This’ll also give you the time to reorder the kitchen counter and prepare the pasta machine for shaping, or get the filling ready if you’re into making filled-pasta.

pasta-machine-handmade-fresh

Common forms of fresh pasta have long shapes, such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine or our specialty Tuscan pici, flat shapes such as maltagliati, or sheets for lasagna, short shapes like orecchiette, cavatelli, farfalle, trofie and filled or stuffed shapes such as cannelloni or ravioli, cappelletti and tortellini.

Of course Italy has a very deep-rooted tradition for pasta dishes, and that is why every region has its own traditional pasta shapes and names, that can be totally different from the common ones you are used to. I always suggest to search for and taste the local and regional specialties while visiting any part of Italy, because you’ll never find the same dish cooked alike from one place to another.

pasta-shapes-long-short-flat

Cutting the pasta in the desired shape is also an important part of the process, as you have to pay attention to spread it as thinly as possible and always keep some flour handy, so you won’t get a sticky bundle instead of your tagliatelle nest… I always say to my guests, we want them to be fluffy, fluffy, fluffy, it makes them laugh a lot, but in the end is the one thing they remember the most. So to get that, you need to sprinkle some flour over the shaped pasta and then jiggle it with your hands.

pasta-fresh-handmade

When making filled pasta like ravioli, the most important trick is to press the edges well with your fingertips or a fork to seal the dough, so they won’t open while boiling. And of course, flour again to prevent them from sticking together when cooked.

If you’re not cooking pasta immediately, just let it dry on a baking sheet for a few minutes, sprinkled with flour, then fold it gently to form the nests. You can let it dry some more and then wrap it up and store in the fridge for no more than 2 days. However, I do advise you to taste it fresh, as you make it.

fresh-pasta-nests

Cooking pasta is another important step of the process, as you need to pay attention to the time: it will only take 5-7 minutes to cook fresh pasta, unlike the dried one, which needs considerably more boiling. Dip your shaped pasta into a pot of plentiful salted boiling water and add just a touch of olive oil, so the strands won’t stick together. For fresh filled pasta, always use a gentle flame and keep the water simmering instead of boiling, so your ravioli won’t break.

fresh-pasta-ravioli-cooking

One more thing that I always recommend, is to taste everything you cook; so to make sure it has reached the perfect cooking poin and has a good balance with the salt, just pick a piece of boiling pasta with a fork or some tongs, and give it a bite. Careful though, don’t get burned!

Needless to say that pasta is at its best when cooked “al dente”, so as soon as you feel it’s tender but still firm when bitten, just drain it. At this point, you should keep the sauce or chosen condiment on hand, because pasta needs to be seasoned and stir-fry immediately.

Now all you need is your family and friends gathered around the table and a good glass of wine to go with your wonderful fresh homemade pasta. Enjoy!