Tag Archives: Florentine

VESPERS and a celebration of chickpeas in BACCALÀ CON CECI alla fiorentina (Salt Cod with Chickpeas as cooked in Florence)

Both my grandmothers always added baking soda (bicarbonato) to the soaking water when cooking chickpeas (ceci in Italian). Mind you, they also dissolved bicarbonato in water to help their digestion.

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Old habits die hard: just because her mother had done this, my mother also did this, but by the time I was old enough to cook chickpeas these unnecessary habits stopped.

Evidence found in archaeological sites all around the Mediterranean indicate that chickpeas have been around for a very long time – since Neolithic times and in the early Bronze Age. These legumes were important food sources in countries like in Cyprus, Iraq, India Turkey, Egypt, Crete and Southern Italy – they were grown in Pompeii to feed the Roman empire.

Chickpeas are mentioned in the Iliad by Homer and by Pliny, and continued to be a popular food source in all of these countries.

In more recent times ceci  have a prominent place in Sicilian history. On Easter Monday, March 30, 1282 in Palermo, Sicilians were waiting to attend Vespers (church service). Here occurred the beginning of a rebellion which had been brewing for a long time – Sicilians were against the rule of Charles I of Anjou, ruler of Sicily and they took the opportunity to use a trivial event to massacre the Frenchmen who were identified by their inability to pronounce the word for chickpeas without their inevitable lisp.

Below, the Arno River. Featured image, the Arno in the snow.

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On the anniversary of this Sicilian Vespers event it is time to celebrate another recipe for chickpeas, this time not with a Sicilian recipe, but one from Florence – baccalà e ceci.

This dish of course of is also be suitable for Good Friday – a day of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church.

And why a recipe from Florence? This came about because my brother and sister in law visited Spain last year; we recently discussed how they particularly had enjoyed eating bacalao in Spain with chickpeas and how many of the Spanish recipes seem very similar to the Italian ones.

I was in Florence a couple of years ago and ate baccalà in a small trattoria; it was not the usual baccalà alla fiorentina which is made with tomatoes, parsley and garlic and of which different variations exist and with different names, all over Italy and not just in Tuscany.

There are a number of particularly similar Catalan and Florentine recipes of salt cod and chickpeas; the following recipe is from Florence and although there are many variations in the cooking of baccalà con ceci, the following has the flavours that work for me. It is also a complete course and pretty balanced.

 

Thick pieces of salt cod (cut from the centre) are best. Leave the skin, but cut away fins and obvious bones. Cut into pieces (7- 10cm). Rinse well in running water before soaking for 36-48 hours (over soaking will not spoil the fish, especially if the pieces of baccalà are thick). Keep it covered in a bowl in the fridge. Change the water at least 4-5 times.

Baccala while soaking

1 k of baccalà serves 4-6 people.
Soak the chickpeas in water overnight for 8 – 12 hours. Cover the chickpeas with fresh water, cover and bring them to the boil, Cook until tender.

INGREDIENTS
baccalà ,1k  pre-soaked
chickpeas, 500g, cooked
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
freshly ground, black pepper and maybe a little salt
leeks, 3, sliced into rings
sage, rosemary,  (use fresh if possible), a few sprigs
chillies 1-2, chopped
garlic, 2 cloves
white wine, 1 cup
red tomatoes, 400 g, peeled and chopped
silver beet (chard) or spinach, 500g, pre-cooked
PROCESSES
Drain the cod and squeeze out excess water. Skin the fish and pat dry. Cut it into serving pieces (5cm each).
Add some oil to the pan and lightly fry the cod on both sides. Remove from the pan and discard the oil.
Soften the leeks and the herbs in the rest of the oil – use a thick bottom pan that will hold all of the ingredients.
Add the tomatoes, chillies, garlic, and wine and stir these ingredients to incorporate the flavours.
Add the cod and pepper and cook slowly for about 20 mins.
Add chickpeas, taste for salt and add it if necessary.  Cook slowly for another 20mins. At this stage the cod should be cooked and the sauce and chickpeas should have a creamy consistency. Cook for longer and add more liquid if necessary.
Add cooked and drained silver beet (chard) or spinach or serve the baccalà and chickpeas with a separate contorno of spinach (first blanched and then tossed in some hot oil and garlic or hot oil, toasted pine nuts and a few pre-soaked sultanas).
 

See also:
Sicilian Vespers and Minestra di ceci (chickpea soup)

Panelle (chickpea fritters)

Chickpeas soup with wild fennel


 
 

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CASTAGNACCIO (A Tuscan sweetened bread made with chestnut flour)

Castagnaccio is made with chestnut flour – an ingredient that is easily obtained from stores that sell a large range of Italian produce.

There are other versions made with fresh chestnuts, but they have to be boiled first, removed from their shells, mashed and then combined with the ingredients in the recipe – I cannot see how it can taste the same.

 

Castagnaccio is a rustic Tuscan dish – it is neither bread not cake and it is eaten as a snack at any time of day. I first ate castagnaccio many years ago when I ventured out of my base in Florence to nearby Pisa, Gubbio and Assissi.  It was a particularly cold and wet time of year and in bars I visited in the three locations I consumed slices of panforte  and castagnaccio – my excuse was that I was interested to compare how different these tasted in each bar.  I remember that I accompanied these Tuscan specialities with cups of thick, hot chocolate and took the opportunity to sample the local amari (liquers- digestives) at the same time.

Chestnut flour is not uncommon; it has been/is still used to make bread and pasta in various parts of Italy, and in fact I ate some excellent bread made with chestnut flour last time I visited Calabria. In Adelaide and in Melbourne I have purchased chestnut flour that has been packed by different Italian companies – most have a recipe for castagnaccio on the packet and as we all know there can be many variations for the same recipe in all Italian cuisine .

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The recipe is easy and is like making a pancake mixture – it should be as smooth and be as thick (raw mixture above).  I do not always add sugar because the raisins and the flour provide some sweetness. Rather than soaking the raisins or good quality sultanas in water I soak them in marsala or port.

INGREDIENTS
chestnut flour, 250 g
water, 2 cups and perhaps a little more
sugar, 1-2  tbsp
pine nuts,100 g
raisins,100 g (pre-softened in a little water)
walnuts, 50 g
rosemary, fresh, sprigs
extra virgin olive oil, 2 tbs for the mixture and an extra tablespoon to sprinkle on top at the end of cooking on top
salt, a pinch
lemon peel, 2 tablespoons grated (optional)
cinnamon, 1 teaspoon (optional)
PROCESSES
Mix the chestnut flour with a little water. Add the salt and sugar and more water. Do this gradually to form a smooth paste (I begin with a spoon and continue with a whisk and a spoon).
Add 2 tbs olive oil. Mix until smooth.
Add to it the lemon peel, cinnamon and raisins and half of the pine nuts and walnuts.
Pour mixture into a large oven pan into which you have poured about 2 tbs of olive oil (the mixture should not be more than 2cm high). Spread it evenly.
Sprinkle with the rest of the pine nuts and walnuts and the rosemary leaves.
Sprinkle onto the top about 1 tablespoons of olive oil.
Place into a pre- warmed oven (180C). Cook until a thin crust forms on top and there are cracks throughout the surface (about 30-40 minutes). The inside should be soft and moist. 

When I take the castagnaccio out of the oven, I like to sprinkle a few drops of sweet wine (late picked, dessert wine) on top – the crust will soften slightly , but the aroma and flavours will be worth it.

Eat warm. A bit of whipped cream on top does turn it into a very pleasant dessert.

July 2012

Just recently I bought some chestnut flour made from 100% Australian chestnuts.

The local flour is a little darker, seems to absorb much more liquid and tastes sweeter than the imported flour.

It comes in 250gm packets, is  freeze dried  but is more than twice the price. The 500g packets of Italian imported flour does not contain information about how the flour is made.

Whatever flour you purchase, make a smooth and thick batter and you should be able to pour it into the baking tin.

2017

I am still making castagnaccio  as I like to introduce different regional specialties to friends.  I also have a friend who is gluten intolerant – perfect.

Mercato in Campbelltown South Australia and Enoteca Sileno sell Cheznuts Australian Chestnut flour.

This flour is made from Australian grown organic chestnuts which have been dried in the traditional Italian way using very low heat over many days. Drying nuts in-shell imparts a nutty roasted chestnut flavour and makes the nuts sweet and delicious. The dried nuts are then peeled and milled to produce a fine flour that is full of flavour. Chestnut flour is gluten free.

Niki Mihas from Mercato has provided some information about the processes used to make Chestnut flour.

 

CHESTNUT FLOUR

Chestnut flour is used in Europe, and especially in Italy for many beautiful cakes and sweets.  The traditional method of drying chestnuts is in a small hut with a slat floor.  The fresh nuts are placed in the top section on top of the slatted floor and a fire is lit in the lower level to create heat to dry the nuts.  Once the chestnuts are dried they are peeled and milled into flour.

Often the Italian chestnut flour will taste slightly smokey due to this process and the flour will be light brown colour which reflects the presence of the inner skin that could not be fully removed prior to milling.

The Australian chestnut flour is tastier because they freeze dry their peeled chestnuts.  They take these freeze dried nuts and mill them into chestnut flour.  This flour has an intense pure fresh chestnut flavour.  As it’s made using peeled chestnuts, there is no contamination form the inner skin of the chestnut & not smokey taste.

Chestnut flour is gluten free!  It’s high in Vitamin C as the chestnut isn’t compromised as there is not heat involved during the drying process.

At Mercato we have the Cheznuts Australian Chestnut Flour available in 250g packs.

 

ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

I use Alchermes (or Alkermes) to make the famous Italian dessert zuppa inglese (literally translated as English soup). 

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian version of the English trifle generally made with sponge cake, moistened with fruit syrup or/and sweet sherry, layered with cream/and or custard, jam, and most times red coloured jelly made with jelly crystals.

Trifle is still being made in UK and countries like Australia (that initially inherited much of the British cuisine). Over time there have been some little variations to the recipe, for example I have often eaten trifle in Australian homes that included preserved fruit – particularly canned peaches. Recently fresh fruit has become a popular edition, particularly strawberries, that in Australia can be purchased cheaply and all year round.

There are many stories about how this English dessert came to be part of Italian cuisine. Some say that perhaps Italian diplomats tasted trifle on a visit to London and this may have been their interpretation of this dessert. Others say that it probably eventuated in the kitchens of the well-off English; there were many living in Florence in the late 1800’s till the lead up of the Second World War.  Most of them employed Italian staff; perhaps some signori inglesi missed some of their cooking from home and this was what their Italian kitchen maids prepared as trifle. They had to use Italian ingredients – savoiardi (sponge fingers – mostly used in layered Italian desserts) and Alchermes the ancient Florentine, red liqueur commonly used to moisten and flavour cakes. Fresh cream was (and is) rarely used in cakes in Italy, but pastry cream called crema pasticcera (also crema inglesecrème anglaise) is very common. And it is easy to see how this sloppy mess could be calledsoup”(zuppa).

I have seen modern Italian versions of recipes for zuppa inglese, which include red fruit (like berries) and many include chocolate. My mother’s version sometimes included grated dark chocolate on the top; I think that this was partly for decoration, but chocolate was never part of the dessert. Other modern versions may have a sprinkling of coffee beans and I wonder if the makers are getting confused with tiramisu, which because it contains coffee is often decorated with coffee beans.

I often make zuppa inglese especially when I am stuck for ideas, or have little time to prepare a dessert; it is so easy to prepare and never fails to impress.

I still use the traditional way to make it. I always assemble it in layers: sponge fingers moistened with Alchermes (either homemade or purchased at a good wine shop), cover these with crema pasticcera, repeat x 2-3 layers finishing with a layer of sponge fingers.

I use a large glass bowl to assemble the layers of ingredients (it is a pretty dessert) and keep the zuppa inglese, in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight before I intend to present it – it gives the dessert time to settle and the flavours to develop.  I finally cover it with a layer or tuffs of panna montata (literally meaning cream made into mountains – isn’t the Italian language marvellous!). it is also known as Chantilly cream, whipped cream with a little caster sugar flavoured with vanilla bean –Italians would never think about using plain cream in cakes.

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In the Zuppa Inglese above I have placed a sprinkling of crushed pistacchio nuts and chioccolate on top .

At some stage during my research about Alchermes I found out that the name is likely to have been derived from the Arabic “al” (a) and “qirmiz” (worm). This is because it contains cochineal, which gives the liqueur its red colour. Cochineal used to be made with a particular insect which was crushed and dried, this produced a rich, red dye.

In the photo I have included a bottle of purchased Alchermes (32% volume). I also make my own and there is a recipe on a previous post. I usually purchase the savoiardi but in the photo are savoiardi courtesy of a friend’s neighbour (her version as the shop bought variety are not usually ribbed) .The only recipe for this dessert is for the crema pasticcera:

INGREDIENTS

3 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons caster sugar infused with a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt 3 tablespoons of cornflour, 1 litre of milk, rind of 1 lemon, and a cinnamon stick.

 

PROCESSES

In a saucepan, mix the egg yolks with the sugar and slowly add the flour, salt and a little milk to make a smooth paste – a whisk could be useful. If you do not have sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean, use a little vanilla (not artificial).
Add the rest of the milk and incorporate to dilute the mixture evenly.
Using a vegetable peeler remove the rind in one piece from ½ lemon. Add this to the milk mixture. Add the cinnamon stick.
Use low – medium heat, stir it constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon and slowly bring it to the boil- the custard should have thickened. Cool before using. To prevent a skin from forming, I place a piece of baking paper or butter paper on its surface.
SEE: How to make Alchermes Alkermes the liqueur to make Zuppa Inglese