Monday, December 10, 2012

Befanini (La Befana's cookies)

In Italy, the holiday and gift giving season doesn't end with the New Year but with the Epiphany on Jan 6th. On the night of the 5th, Italian kids set out stocks by the fireplace and wait for an old woman named La Befana, a female Santa Claus-like character, to come and fill them with presents or sweets (if the child was good) or charcoal (if the child was bad). In the legend she has white hair and wears old clothes and she flies on an old broom to deliver presents to kids.
Nowadays, Babo Natale (Italian Santa Claus) also delivers presents to Italian kids on Christmas Eve but this is a new tradition that has been adopted from other cultures. In fact, my mom only recalls presents being brought on Epiphany, when they would hang up their calze (stockings) for the Befana to fill during the night.
In this issue I wanted to share with you a recipe for befanini, a cookie that symbolizes the legend of La Befana.  I also wanted to share with you what I know about this legend.
I recall an Italian children song that my mom used to sing to us and it describes the old lady as:
"La Befana vien di note
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!"

The English translation is:

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all torn
She comes dressed in Roman style
Long live the Befana!

According to the legend of la Befana, the Three Kings stopped at her house on their way to Bethlehem to visit the newborn Christ child and invite her to join them. She refused because she was too busy with her housework. Not long after, a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child. Again she refused, and when night fell she saw a great light in the skies.
La Befana thought perhaps she should have gone with the Three Kings, so she gathered some toys and roll them up in a cloth which she tied to the end of her broom, and then she ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But la Befana never found them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. Since she cannot find him, she leaves gifts for the good children of Italy and leaves pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks like coal) for the bad ones.

Befanini (La Befana's cookies)
  • 3 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour 
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder 
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cups (3 sticks, 12 ounces) unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar 
  • 5 yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 1 tablespoon rum
  • 1 large egg yolk 
  • 3 tablespoons milk 
  • Multicolored sprinkles
  • Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

To make the cookies: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until creamy and light, about 2 minutes. 
Beat in the yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition, followed by the vanilla extract, rum and zest. Add the dry ingredients on low speed to form a stiff dough. 
Remove the dough from the bowl, wrap it in plastic and chill until it is firm enough to roll.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with with parchment paper.

Roll the dough 1/8 of an inch thick. I like to roll it between to pieces of parchment paper. Using a floured, star shaped cookie cutter, cut the dough into star shapes (or any other holiday shape). Place the cookies ½ an inch apart on the baking sheets. Gather the scraps together and repeat rolling and cutting until you have used all the scraps.
To make the glaze: Lightly whisk the egg yolk with the milk. Using a small pastry brush, lightly brush the surface of the cookies with a bit of glaze and decorate them with the sprinkles.

Bake the cookies until they are lightly golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool slightly on the baking sheets, then gently remove them with a spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat the process with the remaining dough until all the cookies are baked.
The cookies may be stored in an airtight container, layered between sheets of parchment paper, for up to 4 days.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ossi di Morti (Bones of the Dead)

Although Italy doesn't have a Halloween tradition per se, there is Giorno dei Morti, All Souls Day, on November 2nd. During that day people go to the cemetery to visit their loved ones and bring flowers and candles to their graves. It is a common tradition to go to mass and pray for the deceased. Fairs are set up in towns all over Italy. In Sicily, where All Soul’s Day has the same importance as Christmas, people leave food out the night before for spirits and children would awake on the next morning to find small gifts from their deceased ancestors. I know it sounds freaky! But it is a cheerful holiday rather than the sad one you may expect. As in many other Italian celebrations, special breads and sweets are made for the occasion and even an empty place is left at the dinner table for the ones that are missed.
One of my favorite treats for the occasion is Ossi di Morti or Bones of the Death. There are many different recipes for bones of the death but all of them have a crunchy texture and a shape that resemble bones. Last year I brought them to a Halloween party and was a real hit. I wanted to share with you a recipe a friend of mine brought to my class two years ago and I adapted for people with dairy and nut allergy (several kids from my son class have bad food allergies).  The original recipe is from King Arthur Flour and you can find it here:

Ossi di Morti (Bones of the Dead)
Makes 32 ccokies
  • 2 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 ¼ cups All-Purpose Flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons white wine 

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Beat in the wet ingredients to make a smooth, soft dough. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and divide it into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope about 1/2" to 3/4" in diameter, and 16" long. Cut each rope into 4" pieces. 
Working with one piece at a time, pinch the center, giving it a slender "waist" about 1/2" thick. Plump the ends into knobs so the whole thing resembles a bone. 
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Bake the cookies for 15 to 25 minutes. Bake less time for a cookie that's lightly crunchy on the outside and chewy within, and longer for a hard, crunchy cookie. Remove the cookies from the oven, cool, and roll the cookies in non-melting sugar. 
If you don't have non-melting sugar, coat in confectioners' sugar just before serving.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Focaccia ai Fichi con Vin Santo (Fig Focaccia and Vin Santo)

Although you may be less familiar with sweet focaccias, they are very popular in Italy during the summer. They taste fantastic when the fruit is ripe and in season. I got the inspiration for this version with figs and Vin Santo from the September issue of Sale e Pepe, my favorite Italian magazine. I adapted the recipe to American ingredients as follow: 

• 500 grams (4 cups; 17.64 oz) bread flour

• 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
• ¾ cup water
• 2 large eggs at room temperature
• 150 grams granulated sugar (2/3 cup; 5.3 oz)
• ¼ cup Vin Santo or other sweet white wine
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin extra virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoon for the pan
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 12 figs

Oil a 9-inches by 12-inches pan with olive oil.

To make the biga:

Sprinkle yeast over ½ cup of warm water (110°F) in a large stand mixer bowl; let stand until foamy (about 5 minutes). Add 50 grams of flour and mix until combined. Let it rest until it doubles it size (about 30 minutes).

To make the dough:

Add the rest of the flour, half of the sugar, eggs, sweet wine, olive oil and salt.
Mix in stand mixer until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and the dough is soft, shiny and elastic (7-10 minutes).

Let it rest, covered with plastic wrap, until it doubles in size (about 1 to 2 hours).

Scrape dough into the oiled baking pan.

With your fingers, even the dough to a uniform thickness.
Arrange figs on top of the dough and sprinkle with the rest of the sugar. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes more.

Bake for 30 – 35 minutes at 375° F.
Let it cool before serving it. Serve as a dessert or with cheese as an appetizer.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Parmeggiano Regiano Tartufi (Parmeggiano reggiano Truffles)

Welcome to my August newsletter, I want to dedicate this issue to Parmegiano Reggiano cheese and share a recipe Parmegiano Reggiano chocolate truffles.

The earthquake that struck northern Italy two months ago was devastating for the economy of the Emilia Romagna region. Some of the worst damage was to the casifici or dairies where Parmegiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are produced. According to Italian farmers' group Coldiretti, 10 percent of the production of Parmigiano Reggiano and two percent of Grana Padano was affected by the quake.  Around 300,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano and 100,000 of Grana Padano, each weighing about 40 kg (88 pounds), were damaged when they fell off shelves in warehouses where they were undergoing the 2 years maturation process.

Coldiretti  has estimated damage to agriculture in the area at more than 200 million euros.
These are some of the sad pictures of what happened to one of the warehouses: Cooperativa Cappeletta building in San Possidonio

There are many efforts being in place to help the damaged dairies. A campaign was launched to raise funds through the purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. More information about ways to help is available in the Parmeggiano Reggiano website

In any case, the easiest way to help is buying Parmegiano Reggiano. Be aware that not all parmesan sold in America is Parmegiano Reggiano. If a cheese is labeled as Parmesan, it is also a cheese that imitates the recipe for Parmigiano Reggiano, but is made without following the D.O.C. laws. To be called Parmegiano Reggiano, the cheese has to be made using a specific recipe and production method within the provinces of Parmegiano Reggiano, Modena, and specific areas in the provinces of Bologna and Mantua. After eating real parmigiano you will probably notice the difference.

Parmeggiano Regiano Tartufi (Parmeggiano Reggiano Truffles)
Makes 2 dozen truffles

- 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
- 8 ounces Parmesan rinds
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Pinch of sea salt
- ¾ cup Parmiggiano Reggiano, grated for coating

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream and Parmesan rinds. 

Simmer over medium-low heat for 5 minutes to  infuse it with Parmesan flavor. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for at least 1 hour. Strain the cream and discard the rinds. In a double boiler over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter. Whisk the infused cream into the chocolate.

 Cover and refrigerate until the chocolate is set (for at least 3 hours or overnight). Using a melon baller, or a teaspoon, scoop out the chocolate mixture and roll between your palms into balls about 1½ inches in diameter. 

Place on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate again, until set and no longer tacky. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll each truffle in the grated parmesan. 

Slide the pan into the fridge and chill for at least 1 hour. Remove from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Torta di Carote (Carrot Cake)

This carrot cake from the Italian region of Veneto is absolutely delicious and moist. It doesn't have any butter or oil and it is packed with carrots and almonds. For this reason, it makes a nutritious dessert or snack. I like to serve it with mascarpone and candied orange. 
  • 8 ounces sliced almonds
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 pound carrots, finely grated 
  • 1  large orange zest
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 3 large egg whites
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom with a round of parchment paper.
In a shallow baking pan toast nuts in one layer in middle of oven until golden, about 10 minutes, and let them cool completly.
In a food processor finely grind almonds with 1/4 cup granulated sugar.
In a bowl with an electric mixer beat together yolks with granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add extracts, and zest and beat until combined well.
In another bowl stir together ground nuts, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and a pinch salt. Beat nut mixture into yolks mixture and beat in carrots.
In a clean bowl beat whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Stir about one third whites into batter to lighten and fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly until just combined.
Pour batter into cake pan and smooth top.
Bake cake in middle of oven until top is springy to the touch and cake pulls away from sides of pan, about 50 minutes.

Cool cake in pan on a rack. Run a sharp small knife around edge of pan to loosen and invert cake onto a plate. Peel off parchment and invert cake onto a platter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fiadoni di Pasqua (Easter Cheese Tart from Abruzzo)

Those savory cheese tarts were always present in our Easter celebration. My moms would make hundreds of them to share with friends and neighbors.

Pastry dough

• 1 cup flour

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/8 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

• 1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar

• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold butter

• ¼ cup water or more (as needed).


• 8 oz ricotta

• 4 oz parmesan cheese (or a combination of pecorino and parmesan)

• 1 egg

• pinch of nutmeg

To make the dough: In a bowl or on a cool surface, mix together the flour, salt and sugar. Cut the cold butter into 1/2-inch pieces aprox. Add the cubed butter to the dry ingredients and, using a bowl scraper, cut in the butter until the butter pieces are approximately the size of dried lentils (about 1/8 inch), working quickly to avoid melting the butter. Move the butter/flour mixture to a cool surface if you haven't already. Form a well in the mixture and pour some of the cold water into the well. Begin to combine the water into the flour/butter mixture. Be careful not to overwork the dough at this stage. Add more water as needed just until the dough comes together. Gather all the pieces of dough together, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or freeze for 20 minutes), up to overnight, to relax the gluten.

To make the filling: Mix all the filling ingredients with a wood spoon until totally blended.

To assemble the tarts: On a lightly floured surface, roll out a pastry round 1/8 inches thick. With a round pastry cutter of about 9 cm (3 ½”) in diameter, cut out 6 pastry circles. Place 3 tablespoon of the prepared mixture on each of the circles leaving ½ inch border. Fold the dough on the filling to form a tart. Brush the top with an egg wash. Cook the ‘fiadoni’ in the oven heated to 190° C/375° F until they are golden on top and cooked inside. Allow them to cool on a wire rack and then serve.