Ricotta is for me strongly associated with Easter and Spring cooking in general: it plays a crucial roles in beloved seasonal dishes, from Ligurian Torta Pasqualina (when the original, more appropriate Ligurian cheese prescinseua cannot be found outside Liguria – that is always!), to Neapolitan ricotta and wheat tart, called pastiera, spinach or nettle ravioli and the endless sweet or savoury cakes and pies that can be found all over Italy at this time of the year, pizza rustica, fiadone abruzzese, pizza di ricotta.
Artisanal ricotta is one of the ingredients I miss most from Italy. I have never tasted here in the UK a ricotta, either made here or imported, that is as good as the one I can have almost anywhere in Italy. It makes sense: fresh ricotta (that has not undergone any pasteurization) is a fragile beauty and it does not travel well. As a consequence what we get here is generally the long-life stuff; local cheesemakers simply do not have the knowledge or the inclination to learn.
So, for me, homemade ricotta it has to be. Well… almost! Continue reading
Sfincione is the pizza of Sicily: contrary to its Neapolitan counterpart, which is generally round, sold in individual portions, with a thick cornicione, a thin centre and not too much topping, sfincione is generally baked in large trays and sold cut up in hefty portions (even if there are also small, individual sfincioni, called sfincionelli, approximately 300 g each); it is quite thick all over, with a soft and pillowy dough (sometimes a little lard is added to the dough, which I greatly approve of) and it is laden with toppings. It is another thing altogether and something I urge you to explore – sfincione lends itself to domestic home baking much better than Neapolitan pizza. Continue reading
Erbazzone is a chard tart with an impeccable pedigree. It comes from Reggio Emilia, a charming town in Emilia Romagna, the land of Parmigiano, balsamic vinegar, tortellini, mortadella, prosciutto di Parma, i.e. one of Italy’s culinary heavens. It used to be a typical spring dish (when young, tender chards were available), now it can be prepared almost all year round, because leafy greens seem to be always available (and rather “local” too). I have made erbazzone with spring chards, with older, winter chards, with chards only, with chards and spinach and also with cabbage: it never fails. Continue reading
Italians have a soft spot for torte salate (savoury tarts/pies), particularly now a primavera, at spring time. Torte salate are not extravagant with cream and eggs in the way French quiches are, they tend to be simpler, lighter, casual dishes that lend themselves to endless improvisations and impromptu suppers: some cooked vegetables, a little ricotta and/or a couple of eggs, a generous fistful of parmigiano or pecorino to jazz things up, all enclosed in a thin, crisp, lean pastry, called pasta matta, which literally means “crazy dough”, probably on account of the very little fat that is used to make.
Pasta matta is the poor relative of richer brisè and puff pastry, but I find it more useful in every-day cooking and often better in fact Continue reading
Timballo is an extravagant, towering pasta pie from Southern Italy: crumbly semi-sweet short pastry enclosing a voluptuous filling of pasta, meat sauce, béchamel sauce, peas, cheese, eggs, ham, mushrooms, giblets etc – the sky is the limit. Timballo is also called timpano and “both words mean the same thing – a drum, as in the timpani of a symphony orchestra” , as Arthur Schwartz says in his splendid book Naples at Table. Timballo has its roots in the kitchens of mid 18th century Southern Italy aristocrats and it has many variations, all of which proudly reject that old adage that “less is more”: the whole point of a timballo is that “more, more, more and even more is better”.
Timballi are festive, celebratory, splendid dishes that only the really wealthy could afford – it was food to impress. In the famous 1958 Italian novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), set in mid 19th century Sicily there is this memorable description of the timballo offered by the grand Prince Salina to his guests at his ball:
“When three lackeys in green, gold and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at table avoided showing pleased surprise….Good manners apart, though, the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of the sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.” (The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translation by Archibald Colquhoun).