Category Archives: Ricotta

PASTA ALLA NORMA and a variation (Pasta with tomato salsa and fried eggplants… and currants, anchovies and bottarga)

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I recently made Pasta alla norma and although this post was first posted on May 4, 2012 and I am posting it again on 25th April 2018. Ripe tomatoes and eggplants continue into autumn and although the basil may have finished, fresh mint leaves add an interesting fresh taste to the dish. 

Pasta alla Norma is one of those dishes Sicilians are extremely fond of especially in late summer when the tomatoes are ripe, the basil is abundant and the eggplants are at their best. 

There are some summer pasta dishes which call for uncooked, ripe tomatoes and when possible I try not to substitute tinned tomatoes for Pasta alla Norma.

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All it is = a  salsa of fresh tomatoes, short pasta (caserecce are good) and fried eggplants – usually cubed and added to the pasta once it has been dressed with the tomato salsa. Ricotta salata tops it all off.  Easy stuff. Failing ricotta salata, use a strong pecorino cheese… both these cheeses are preferred by Sicilians; parmigiano is the preferred cheese in Northern Italy.

The dish originates from Catania, the city that my mother’s family comes from. Many presume that the dish is named after the opera, La Norma, by the composer Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania (1801-1835), but there are others who think that the expression ‘a norma’ (in Sicilian) was commonly used in the early 1900s to describe food that was cooked true to form (i.e. as normal, as it should be) and according to all the rules and regulations specified in the recipe.

I ate a version of Pasta alla Norma in a seafood restaurant in San Leone (on the coast, near Agrigento). The tagliatelle were presented on top of half an eggplant, (that had been cut in half and then fried). The sauce also contained a few currants and a few anchovies, thin slices of bottarga (dry, salted tuna roe) and cubes of ricotta salata on top. It does look very spectacular, but if you intend to do this, and are using a large round eggplant, cut the eggplant horizontally and remove a slice from the centre of it to make it thinner – the eggplant will cook more evenly. Follow the recipe below and to the salsa, add a tablespoon of currants and a couple of chopped anchovies. In Sicily bottarga is salted, cured fish tuna roe rather than bottarga made with grey mullet as common in Sardegna (Sardinia).

INGREDIENTS
I have used casarecce, 500g

eggplants, 500g or more
extra virgin olive oil, 1 ½ cups ( ½ cup for the tomato salsa,1 cup to fry the eggplant) 
garlic, 3 cloves
ripe tomatoes, 1k, peeled and chopped
salt (a little) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
basil, fresh leaves (10-15) some for the salsa and some for decoration
PROCESSES
Remove the stem end of eggplant and without peeling and slice or cut into cubes. I do not usually salt my eggplant; sometimes I briefly soak it in salted water so that the eggplant does not absorb as much oil. Pat-dry the eggplant and fry in 1 cup of olive oil until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Make the tomato salsa: place the tomatoes in the pan with garlic, oil, salt and some basil leaves: cook uncovered on medium heat till it is thick.
Cook pasta and drain.
Mix the pasta with the tomato sauce, place in a large serving bowl and top with the eggplants and the remaining basil (or mint).
Present with grated cheese, preferably ricotta salata.
 

RICOTTA, TOMATOES and Basil. A perfect summer dish.

One of the things I like about eating out is that I come home full of ideas for reproducing my version of something I have eaten at a restaurant. Looking at the way that food is presented also gives me ideas.

This was a very simple thing. I was in Brisbane recently and went to Gauge restaurant and one of the dishes my friends and I shared was the Cow’s ricotta, sancho pepper, heirloom tomatoes, olive. 

IMG_0134In the restaurant the chefs used an Asian herb but really, there are many herbs that would compliment this dish and each would impart a different taste – I could see myself using common herbs like thyme, oregano or sweet marjoram, tarragon, dill or any of the different types of basil that are now easily available.

Summer to me means eating tomatoes almost every day. Ricotta is also a favourite.

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I arrived home from Brisbane and the next evening I had friends here for dinner and ricotta, tomatoes and the prolific amounts of basil that I am growing on my balcony seemed just right. It was the presentation of this dish that was as important as the taste. My photos do not do it justice, but it was such a a simple dish, full of natural flavours and it looked stunning at the same time. As a summer starter with good bread or crakers it was perfect.

This was the motivation: Cow’s ricotta, sancho pepper, heirloom tomatoes, olive.

Ricotta, heirloom tomatoes – easy stuff and easy to get.

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Sansho Pepper is also known as Japanese Pepper and it is unripe Sichuan pepper. It adds a lemon myrtle-like freshness to dishes. This too is easily available from Asian shops, however maybe not in your pantry, but there are alternatives. I have a variety of pepper corns and just recently I bought a range of dried Mexican chillies that I grind up and use like pepper –  some are particularly spicy, slightly tart with an earthy flavour, others are smoky and aromatic and some are very hot.  On this occasion I chose pink pepper corns – it looks good and tastes different.

There were no real olives in this presentation in the restaurant and the black olive favour was achieved with black olive salt. I was at another restaurant today where they used dehydrated olives – fantastic intense flavour and texture. In my version I could have used whole olives especially the shrivelled black, dried olives  but I thought that they would look too big so I used tiny capers and some of my Greek basil with the tiny leaves.

A little spring onion sliced finely also added flavour. Next time I may add a stalk of finely sliced celery – one of those pale green stalks from the inside of the celery. After all, the tomato salads that I learned to make in my family home always had both onion and celery…. this is how Sicilians make tomato salads.

I used cow’s ricotta that I whipped up to a cream with a little salt and pink pepper corns.

I made a basil oil by blending good- quality, extra virgin olive oil with and a little salt and basil picked from my balcony.

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I bought good tomatoes from a reliable stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (as I always buy quality produce).

As a summer starter with good bread or crackers it was perfect. Good wine helps too.

 

 

 

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Coeur a la Crème made with Labneh

Sometimes, when I do not have much time to make a dessert I prepare something very simple…below, savoiardi with rose liqueur and whipped ricotta (ricotta , honey, vanilla  and cream).

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for example something layered and made with savoiardi soaked in liqueur and crème anglaise or whipped ricotta (the real thing or a take on Zuppa Inglese and Cassata, like the deconstructed cassata below).

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Most times, I like something wet, like  poached fruit (nearly always poached with some sort alcohol) and present it with homemade mascarpone.( Stuffed peaches with amaretti with homemade mascarpone).

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These may be easy desserts but they are always enjoyed. (See links below for  some recipes)

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Another easy dessert is Coeur a la Crème (French for heart of cream) either made with cream cheese or with Labneh, an ingredient which over time has become a staple in my fridge. Labneh is a fresh cheese with the consistency of a cream cheese popular in the Middle East made by straining yoghurt.

Ten years ago I would have said that Italians would not have known about Labneh, but food culture evolves and some Italians are familiar with it. However, the Italian recipes that I have seen primarily suggest using Labneh as a savory dish dressed with extra virgin olive oil and herbs or spices such as fennel seeds, parsley, mint or paprika. In Australia because of our multi-cultural population we are more familiar with Labneh and with the spices we use.

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To make Labneh I use Greek yoghurt and the tubs of yoghurt I buy are sold in 1k containers.
I always buy what I consider to be good quality yoghurt without flavouring or added sugar and with descriptors such as: pot set, no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, live and active cultures, biodynamic, organic…. the more of these the better the yoghurt.

1 tub full-fat Greek-style yoghurt and a colander with one layer of muslin.

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Line a colander with one layer of muslin and place the colander on top of a bowl so that the whey of the yogurt can drain. Empty the carton of yogurt into the lined colander and leave to drain 6-8 hours or longer. I usually place mine (covered) to drain in the fridge. You can use the drained yoghurt then or you can store the yoghurt in the muslin in a container in the fridge – it will keep for about 1 week and you may be surprised that wrapped in the muslin it will keep on draining.

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Different types of yoghurt will drain more liquid than others depending on their water content.  I weighed my last batch of Labneh and 1 kilo was reduced to 820g.

Coeur a la crème

Labneh 700g
250 gm cream cheese or ricotta or 200 ml double cream.
100 gm pure icing sugar or honey (to taste)
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped or pure vanilla essence or concentrate
grated lemon rind from 1lemon

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Coeur a la crème is made in a heart shaped special mold with a perforated bottom that allows the mixture to drain and compact properly.

A heart shaped baking tin lined with muslin will also keep draining but you will need to remove the liquid more often.

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Place all of the above ingredients in a bowl, incorporate the ingredients by hand before using an electric mixer to blend it till smooth (it will not take long). Taste it to see if you prefer it sweeter and adjust accordingly.
Line heart shaped mold with muslin and spoon the creamy mixture into the mold.  Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and place the mold into a container – it will drain some more. I usually place my mold in a large container with a lid so that I do not need to use plastic wrap.
Chill at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.
Unwrap mold, invert onto a serving plate.
Surround it fruit of your choice and serve (fresh and macerated with a liqueur or poached fruit).
On this occasion I presented it with blood oranges (they have been in season)

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4 blood oranges
3 tbs honey
2- 4 tbs orange liqueur (I used Cointreau)
Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish (optional)
Work over a bowl to reserve any juice,  use a sharp knife to remove peel and as much pith as possible. Cut the top and bottom of the orange, slide your knife between the membrane and the segment, and then cut the segment out. Repeat with each segment and each orange.
In a saucepan, combine honey with 1tbsp of water and boil it vigorously till it looks caramelized.
Add oranges and reserved juice and cook (low heat for about 4-5 minutes). Add orange liqueur, and cool/ chill.

Garnish with mint sprigs (optional).

Other recipes:

CASSATA DECONSTRUCTED

ZUPPA INGLESE, a Famous Italian dessert

LABNEH and Watermelon salad

HOME MADE MASCARPONE

Sicilian Cheese and more cheese

I was in Sicily in May and spent days in Ragusa  where my father’s family still live.

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While I was there, my aunt invited the extended family to go to a masseria – a farm where they make local cheese.

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We ate warm ricotta, sampled some of their other cheeses…

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…..and ate scacce with a variety of fillings – too many.

Recipes: See – SCACCE (focaccia-like stuffed bread)

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Ragusani ( people from Ragusa) are very fond of local cheeses and over my many visits to Ragusa I have eaten large quantities of cheese.

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I found an early post about Cheese and a visit to a masseria. Habits  do not change very much in Ragusa.

See: SICILIAN CHEESE MAKING. A VISIT TO A MASSARO (farmer-cheese maker) IN RAGUSA. and with a recipe for pan fried cheese with oregano, garlic, a bit of sugar and vinegar. Formaggio all’argentiera.

Ragusa steps to Ibla_

In Melbourne we have La Latteria….worth a visit if you wish to eat cheese made by a  Sicilian.

See: La Latteria

 

Sicily Culture and Conquest at The British Musem

I am in London and I will be in Sicily next week.

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I have been to see  the exhibition Sicily Culture and Conquest at The British Musem.

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The exhibition was excellent.

The  British Museum also offered a Sicilian Inspired menu to experience the flavours of the island.

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Here is some of the food.

Stuffed squid: Calamari Ripieni ( was the antipasto). Bread crumbs are usually  used for stuffing but this was stuffed with Freekeh,  a modern  touch as this ingredient does not feature in Sicilian cooking.  

Stuffed squid detail

In my recipe ** Calamari Ripieni the squid is stuffed with fresh cheese ( Formaggio Fresco).

Stuffed squid capers & arugula

Rigatoni **alla Norma: (** link to my blog)

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Grilled fish and **Caponata and **Salmoriglio: (**links to my blog)
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A QUICK PASTA DISH for Spring: asparagus, artichokes, peas

The pictures tell the story.

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I use good quality pasta and sometimes interesting shapes. Croxetti (also called corzetti or curzetti) is a traditional type of pasta from Liguria; they are in the shape of flat medallions and usually stamped with a decorative design.

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Use this  sauce made with Spring vegetables as a dressing for the cooked pasta.

 

Artichokes:strip them of their outer, tough leaves and cut vertically straight down the middle and into thin slices; each half of the artichoke can be cut into eight pieces or more. Rub the artichoke slices with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discolouring.

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Strip the fibrous covering off the artichoke stalks and slice  the remaining centre of the stalk into thin slices. To do this, cut off the very end of the stem and then strip the  covering or use a paring knife to cut off the covering – expect the covering to be thick.

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Asparagus are prolific in Spring. Once the tough bottom end of each asparagus is snapped off and discarded, slice the remaining stalks thinly as they will need more cooking than the top end of the asparagus.

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Sauté the sliced artichokes and stalks in extra virgin olive oil. Add 1/2 cup of white wine and a little stock and seasoning.  Cover with a lid and braise until softened. Remove from the pan and set aside.

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Spring onions are always handy to add flavour and a few peas or broadbeans are excellent in Spring.

Sauté  the spring onions (sliced) in some extra virgin olive oil, add the asparagus and peas (or broadbeans) and a little salt and pepper. I also add  about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Toss them around in the hot pan until softened (I like to keep the vegetables a little firm). You may wish to sauté these vegetables in two stages – overcrowding the pan is not a good idea.
Return the artichokes to the pan and heat through. Add a dollop of butter, a little grated nutmeg, some chopped parsley or some basil leaves .

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Dress the cooked pasta with the vegetable sauce. If you wish,cut off the very end of the stem, and peel the tough outside layer of the stem with a vegetable peeler. present it with a dollop of ricotta or grated Parmisan cheese.

As a variation,  and if fennel is still in season,I sometimes add  sauteed  thinly sliced fennel to this dish.

Artichokes are called Carciofi in Italian and there are several recipes on my blog  Key in “carciofi” in search button.

ALMOND AND RICOTTA CAKE (Torta di mandorle e ricotta)

One of my friends made this cake and it is called a Rich Almond and Ricotta Cake.

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The recipe was a photocopy from a magazine of a couple of years ago. She has made the cake a few times and it has always been successful.

The cake is nice eaten on its own but just to remind us that it is winter, we enjoyed eating it like a dessert with warm stewed quinces and cream. With a cup of tea for morning or afternoon it is just as nice.

Because she decorated her cake with lavender from her garden we discussed how a lavender custard would also be an excellent accompaniment for this cake. I have included a recipe for this as well.

250g ricotta cheese
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp almond extract
175g caster sugar
250g almond meal
finely grated rind of 1 lime
1/4 cup flaked almonds
Icing sugar to dust
Preheat the oven to 150C
Beat together the ricotta, egg yolks, almond extract and sugar in an electric mixer until smooth. Stir in the almond meal and lime zest.
Whisk the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl until soft peaks. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the ricotta mixture to loosen, then fold in the remaining. Spread into the tin and bake for 35 minutes. Sprinkle with the almonds and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool slightly, then turn on to a wire rack. Cool completely then dust with icing sugar to serve.

Lavender custard

2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
6 fresh lavender flowers, without stems
Beat the egg yolks and sugar until creamy. Heat the milk until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan ( well before boiling point).
Pour a little of the egg mixture into the hot milk in the saucepan and whisk steadily. Keep on adding dribbles of the egg mixture slowly into the saucepan, and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens.
Remove from the heat and add the lavender flowers. Pour the custard into a jug; place a piece of baking paper directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to steep in the fridge overnight. Remove the flowers before serving.

 

On the same weekend another friend gave me a present. She crocheted this extraordinary tea cosy for me. If only I had this fabulous creation when we ate our cake!

The Rich Almond and Ricotta Cake recipe reminded me of a different almond cake I used to make  – one of those flourless moist cakes that Claudia Roden made very popular and that has Sicilian flavours and ingredients. The almonds are toasted beforehand and then half of them are ground to a meal and the other half are coarsely ground before they are added to the cake mixture. This adds crunch as well as a more pronounced taste of almonds throughout the cake rather than just on top.

I am not saying that one cake is better than the other. They are both a variation on a theme. In Sicily the ricotta would be made from sheep’s milk – more delicate and sweeter.

Torta di Mandorle e Ricotta

Although it is called a torta (cake) it doubles up as being one of those moist desserts that I prefer to eat warm accompanied by some stewed winter or summer fruit or fresh strawberries. A dollop of cream does not go astray but this is not a common Italian custom.

250 grams of almonds
250 g ricotta, drained (the one sold in the tub is usually too moist and not suitable)
100 grams of sugar
4 eggs
finely grated rind of 1 lemon or orange

Blanch the almonds and then toast in the oven (160 degrees) till golden. Beat the ricotta and sugar, add  rind, the eggs one at a time then mix in the almonds. Mix everything well. Pour into a cake pan lined with baking paper and bake at 160 C  for 45 minutes. Serve it warm.

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RAVIOLI DI RICOTTA e MULINO DI CEREALI A PIETRA (Ricotta ravioli and stone ground flour in Chiaramonte)

This is Franco the miller who mills cereali a pietra – in other words he produces stone-ground flour from high quality wheat.  He and his partner have an old water mill and they are experimenting with reviving old strains of wheat – so far so good! And there are farmers who are growing the old grains and buyers who are supporting it. Many of them are restaurateurs who are making pasta and bread in their restaurants.

 

The area of Sicily where this is happening is Chiaramonte Gulfi– I am so impressed and interested in what is happening in this south-eastern part of Sicily (see post about Massimiliano the Butcher).

 

The grain smelt wonderful and watching the stones grinding and the sifting process was an amazing experience. The flour needs to be kept in cool conditions or used quickly as it does not have any additives or bleaches, the germ of the wheat is maintained in the milling – flour that is good for us in other words.

 

Franco does not waste the by-products.  The bran is sold as animal fodder and he has customers and supporters who are interested in using the finer bran in baking. We sampled some bran biscuits produced by one of his followers.

 

There was another reason why I was interested in this mill and that is that my grandparents in Ragusa used to have an old water mill down by the river at the bottom of Ragusa Ibla. It no longer functioned as a mill and they used it as their get-away from the city, especially in the summer months, and grew their herbs and vegetables there. Being a regular visitor to Ragusa as a child I loved the mill (we travelled from Trieste and visited my grandparents each summer for two months each year).

I bought some of Franco’s flour home to my aunt, Zia Niluzza, who lives in Ragusa and still makes pasta by hand on special occasions. My visit this time was the special occasion and she produced her exceptionally good, traditional ricotta ravioli that are a specialty of this area of Sicily.

 

The ravioli di ricotta from Ragusa are usually served with a strong sugo (meat and a tomato-based sauce), which here is made with pork meat and pork sausages and tomato pasta. In Ragusa they add a little sugar (1 teaspoon per cup of ricotta; other local variations include a little orange peel or finely cut marjoram.

 

My aunt also made her special gnochetti. Rather than eating one kind of pasta at a time, we piled both ravioli and pasta into the one plate and helped ourselves to more sugo – but I noticed that she now uses less pork and I did not detect any pork rind in it. This is also a common additive in this part of Sicily. We are all health conscious these days.

 

For the ravioli you will need fresh pasta sheets and strong sugo made with meat tomatoes and tomato paste.

For the filling:

Drain the ricotta
Place it in a colander lined with cheesecloth and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Mix the ricotta with a little salt and some sugar (1 cup of ricotta- 1 teaspoon of sugar).

Make the ravioli:
The most authentic and quickest way to cut the ravioli is by hand. There is no
prescribed size – they can be either round or square (about 7cm/3in across)
or half-moon shaped (a 9cm/4in circle folded over).
To make individual ravioli, cut pasta into circles or squares. Place heaped
teaspoons of stuffing in the centre of each, continuing until all the stuffing
is used. For half-moon shapes fold the pasta over the filling. For others, lay
another circle or square on top, then moisten the edges with a little water and
press together carefully to seal properly (press hard on the edges and spread
the pasta to a single thickness, so they cook evenly).
Set the finished ravioli on a lightly floured cloth. They can rest in a cool
place for up two hours.

To make more than one raviolo at a time:
Cut the pasta into long rectangular strips about 9cm wide. Place heaped
teaspoons of stuffing about 5 cm apart (beginning about 2cm/.in from the
margin of the sheet). Cover with another strip of pasta of the same size.
Cut each raviolo free with a knife or serrated pasta wheel. Repeat the
process, until all the pasta and the stuffing is used up.

Cooking:
Cook ravioli as you would any pasta. Lower them into the water a few at a
time and scoop each out when it floats to the surface.
Dress them carefully with the sauce so as not to break.

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SICILIAN CASSATA and MARZIPAN AT EASTER (Food and Culture in Sicily, La Trobe University)

I usually coat my cassata with marzipan and every time I do this people tell me how much they have enjoyed eating the marzipan and how it compliments the flavours of the cassata.

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The last time I made cassata with marzipan was Saturday 23 March at Food And Culture In Sicily: Easter Cookery Workshop offered by La Trobe University and once again the people who attended the session liked the marzipan and said that they had never enjoyed eating it in the past.

The session began with a very interesting lecture on the history of food and feasting in Sicily, Italy and the Mediterranean.  Dr Gillian Shepherd is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Director of the A.D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University. During her lecture she focused on the literary and archaeological evidence for food production and consumption in the ancient world.

The lecture was followed with a food workshop and cooking demonstration that reflected the ways Sicilian cuisine has been influenced by the dominant cultures of the Mediterranean from ancient times to the modern day, which includes Greek, Roman, Arabic, French and Spanish cultures.

The cassata was very appropriate for this session, not just because of its derivation, but also because it was essentially and still is an Easter dessert. In time it has also become popular for Christmas.

Sicily produces large quantities of almonds and almond meal is used extensively for making traditional almond sweets and pastries. Marzipan fruit originate from Sicily and Sicilian pastry cooks are esteemed and employed all over Italy.

Marzipan when made in the traditional method is made by cooking a strong syrup of sugar and water and then adding freshly ground almonds. The mixture is kneaded till smooth (like bread dough) and then shaped.

The modern and easiest way is to make it with almond meal, icing sugar and water. It is still kneaded and rolled with a rolling pin. Unless you can buy fresh almond meal it is best to blanch the almonds and grind them yourself.

Over the years I have been making marzipan and adapting a recipe from Bitter Almonds, Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian girlhood. Maria Grammatico has a very famous pastry shop in Erice in Sicily and her recipes have been recorded by Mary Taylor Simeti.

This is the original recipe:
2 cups (300 g) whole blanched almonds
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar *
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
In a food processor, grind the almonds with about 2 tablespoons of the sugar until very fine, almost powdery.
In a food processor or in an electric mixer, combine the nuts, the rest of the sugar, the water, vanilla, and the almond extract.
Process or mix until the paste is very smooth. Remove to a marble slab or other cold work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead briefly by hand.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. Marzipan will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.

****This is what I do: I use 2 cups of ground almonds and 1 and ½ cups of pure icing sugar combined with ½ cup of caster sugar – this adds the crunchy texture that compliments the ground almonds.

I really like the taste of natural almonds and if I am using fresh almonds I see no necessity to use vanilla or almond extract.

I usually mix the sugars and almond meal with my fingers and add the water slowly. I am cautious with water because if the mixture is too wet I may need to add more almonds and sugar. I knead it as if I am making bread and if it needs more water I add it to make the mixture pliable.

This is not the first time that I have written about Cassata or Easter or Marzipan and there are many other posts about these three topics on this blog.

This post has the recipe for making cassata:

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STUFFED FRESH FIGS, with cheese and mint

Made in 10 minutes – dead easy. Not a bad antipasto…or after dinner as it is a mixture of fresh fruit and cheese.

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Looks good, tastes good.

Compliments…. Plenty.

INGREDIENTS:
Fresh, good quality figs

Stuffing: feta cheese, or drained ricotta,  bocconcini or pecorino fresco.
Optional- walnut pieces.

Decoration and for fresh taste: Fresh mint leaves

PROCESSES
See the photo above.