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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
I first wrote about cassata in Dec 2009. I have revisited the post and added new photos. I keep on making cassata for special occasions and in cooking classes and this recipe is successful every time.
It is perfect for Christmas.
Many believe that a cassata is an ice cream cake made out of assembled layers of ice cream. But no Sicilian believes this. The Sicilian cassata is made with ricotta.
In the early 19th century, the ice cream makers of Naples were famous for making moulded, opulent, ice cream layered cakes and these were called cassate.
Cassata was once more popular at Easter (when the ricotta is at its best – the cows are feeding on lush green pastures in spring), but cassata is now eaten at any festive occasion in Sicily including Christmas.
Some people differentiate between the two cassate by referring to the one made with ice cream as Neapolitancassata – this may be because it is very much like Neapolitan ice cream composed of three different layers of contrasting colours and flavours: one of chocolate, a pink which sometimes can taste like strawberry and a vanilla one that is usually mixed with glace fruit (usually red and green glace cherries).
In Australia there is a particular ice confectionery called a cassata that is sold in individual portions. It has a pink layer in the centre that is made of cake soaked and flavoured with a pink cordial like essence (Alchermes essence).
The Sicilian cassata, has much older roots than the ice cream cakes popular with the Neapolitans.
The Sicilian cassata is a round, moulded cake shaped in a bowl lined with layers of sponge cake, the chief ingredients are sheep’s milk ricotta (it is sweeter and more delicate than ricotta made with cows milk), mixed with sugar, small bits of dark chocolate and candied citrus and zuccata (candied pumpkin). Within Sicily there are some variations which vary by location and family tradition, for example some recipes include an additional layer of sponge cake in the centre as well as the casing.
Some say that the word cassata may have come from the Roman name for cheese, caseus (the Sicilian word for cheese is casu or caseata).
Many believe that its origins are Arabic – the Arabs occupied Sicily for several hundred years – the invasion began in 827 AD and they conquered Sicily in 902 AD. They introduced the cultivation of sugar, very sweet desserts and the use of nuts and dried fruit in pastries. It is also likely that the name cassata may have come from Arab word qas’ah, a deep terra-cotta bowl; that may even have been used to shape the cake.
The sponge cake is called pan di spagna in Italian (bread from Spain) and may have been a Spanish addition – the Spanish ruled Sicily intermittently for may years (Angevins, Aragonese, Viceroys and Bourbons from 1282 until the end of the reign of Ferdinand the second in 1859).
Usually Sicilians order their cassata from a pasticceria – it is left to the experts to make, mainly because cassate are usually elaborately decorated by pasticceri. There are baked versions of Sicilian casssate and these are often made at home. The uncooked version of cassata can also be made at home successfully but will not look as elabarate. Some of the cassate in pasticcerie are often very baroque and white and green striped fondant is used. They are then decorated with ribbons of zuccata (candied pumpkins) and are often sprinkled with silver sugar balls.
Once the cassata is turned out of the mould it is left to set and it is spread with apricot jam. It can then be covered with a sugar fondant (this is often coloured pale green. Cassata is often covered with striped covering – green and white ). My preferred option is to cover it with marzipan and candied fruits and I have no trouble making the marzipan.
I first made cassata using Ada Boni’s recipe from Italian Regional Cooking – this is a very fine and old publication which has been out of print for some time. My cassata recipe, through the ages, has developed to the following and it always seems to taste good, even if it is not as professionally decorated as the imagesabove.
I always buy the solid ricotta, usually sold in large rounds – vendors slice it to the required weight. I never buy the ricotta sold in the tub – it is far too watery (and often tasteless). If this is the only ricotta that you can purchase, it is a good idea to drain it overnight.
fresh ricotta, 700g and a little bit of fresh cream to make beating easier
caster sugar, 120 g
dark chocolate, 60g
pistachio nuts, 100g chopped
candied citrus peel, 60g (of good quality and if possible lemon, orange and cedro – candied citron)
vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon (I use vanilla bean paste)
cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon
liqueur, 1/2- 3/4 cup to taste. I have used one of the orange (Cointreau or Grand Marnier) or mandarin flavoured ones.
marzipan to cover the cassata (see earlier post)
glace fruits for decoration
apricot jam, 1/2 cup
sponge cake, approx 250 g (if bought).
If you make a sponge cake:
Use 5 eggs, 120 g of sugar, 100 g of sifted flour, grated lemon peel and/or vanilla (I use vanilla bean paste or flavour my sugar with vanilla pods) and butter to grease the cake tin.
Process: Beat egg yolks with sugar until creamy. Fold in beaten egg whites (until very firm). Slowly fold in the flour, then add vanilla. Bake sponge cake in moderate oven for approx. 40 minutes.
Line a deep round mould with layers of foil or plastic wrap or baking paper.
Cut the sponge into thin layers. Use them to line the sides of the mould. Leave enough sponge to cover the top of the cassata.
Sprinkle the sponge with liqueur to moisten.
Blend the ricotta with the sugar (some use a syrup made with sugar dissolved over heat in a little water, allow the syrup to cool before using.) You may need to add some cream to make blending easier. Slowly stir in the vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of liqueur.
Fold in the nuts, small pieces of chocolate and candied peel.
Press the ricotta mixture into the lined mould, smooth the top and cover with a layer of sponge cake. Sprinkle with more liqueur. I usually refrigerate the cassata overnight (to set) and cover it with marzipan about 2-3 hours before I serve it.
Make the marzipan and roll it out into a thin round shape.
Turn the cassata out of the mould (when it is ready to cover) and spread the outer with a thin layer of apricot jam.
Cover with the marzipan and decorate it with the fruit.
Spring in Sicily is welcomed ‘big time’ and spring produce is embraced.
Sicilians make a fuss about the preparation and eating of seasonal spring produce: asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, fennel and ricotta. It is the time when the island comes alive – flowers bloom, vines sprout and vegetables ripen.
The menu at Waratah Hills Vineyard was a celebration of Spring, and all who attended the class enjoyed all of that produce and the occasion in such a beautiful vineyard.
We ate local garfish rolled around a Sicilian stuffing (commonly used for sardines called Beccafico), stuffed artichokes and a pasta with a dressing made from sautéed spring vegetables, moistened with wine and stock and topped with nutmeg and creamy ricotta.
We drank excellent, matching wines with each course and used local, extra virgin olive oil made by Judy and Neil’s (proprietors of Waratah Hills Vineyard and organizers of this event) neighbours .
Cassata of course was the final culinary jewel; I coated it with not-too-sweet marzipan…..and I have my tongue out in anticipation…(I do not know what I was saying!)
A few dressed Sicilian Green olives at the start did not go astray (garlic, orange rind, chilli flakes, wild fennel fronds, bay leaves, extra virgin olive oil) and a fennel and orange salad as a palate cleanser eaten after the fish was a good choice .
Thank you to all those eager and friendly people who made the event a success.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When my children were young they used to refer to me as the food police; everything had to be just right and particularly when we went to a restaurant I often seemed to find fault.
I cannot always be a purist. Sometimes I take shortcuts and this shortcut did not look or taste too bad.
I used sponge fingers, dipped in Cointreau. These formed the casing of the sweet – the bottom and top layers. In between I used a sweet ricotta filling, in fact it a similar ricotta filling that I use when making a cassata. I then covered the top layer of sponge fingers with a whipped cream with a little ricotta, topped it with summer strawberries and leaves made from marzipan. The result is very much like a summer cassata and very suitable for the Christmas season.
The flavours and process of dipping sponge fingers or sponge cake in liqueur and layering with a cream filling are very much Italian. After all, I have been making cassata, zuppa inglese and tiramisu for years.
I have maintained the Italian colours.The only problem is what do I call this dessert?
The marzipan can be made days beforehand, wrapped in cling wrap and left in the fridge. The leaves can also be made beforehand and placed in a sealed container with baking paper in between each leaf.
This dessert fed 6-8 people – the strawberries were huge and because of their large size they give a wrong sense of scale.
500 g fresh ricotta,
100 g caster sugar,
1 cup Cointreau or to taste
50g of chopped blanched almonds
some orange and citron peel previously soaked in Cointreau for at least 1 hour
small pieces of dark chocolate
cream to cover the dessert, add as much as you like
Arrange sponge biscuits in a square container lined with cling wrap. Sprinkle them with orange flavoured liqueur.
Beat 450g ricotta with a dash of cream, sugar and vanilla. The mixture should be creamy but stiff.
Fold in nuts, chocolate, and drained peel. Reserve the Cointreau.
Place this on the layer of sponge fingers and finish off with a top layer which you have sprinkled with more Cointreau – I used what I drained off the peel.
Leave it for at least 5 hours.
Close to serving, (I did this an hour before my guests arrived) decorate it with the whipped cream (mixed with a little vanilla, 50g of whipped ricotta and a little caster sugar to taste).
Place strawberries on top and decorate with leaves.
100g blanched almond meal
100g g icing sugar
1 egg white
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 drop green food dye
Mix contents together and use your fingers to knead the mixture; add more sugar of meal if the mixture is too wet.
Place the marzipan in between two sheets of baking paper and roll it out thinly. Cut it into shapes of leaves.
One of the cassate (plural of cassata )I have made covered with green marzipan.
Her name is Naomi and she is very skilled at what she does. But Naomi wishes to expand her expertise and she is travelling to Europe in the near future.
She is a champion butter maker at The Butter Factory at Myrtleford, a restored historic building. She sources the cream locally and the butter is hand-made. And I admire her even more because she did it the hard way, first by helping her mother to set the place up, developing her trade and by finding the abandoned, rusty machinery in various old sheds and paddocks and having it reconditioned – she has a cooling, a heating and a separating machine and all three work a treat.
Naomi also makes pure buttermilk and has been making small quantities of ricotta with buttermilk. She sells her produce locally from The Butter Factory and at Victorian farmers markets – driving from Myrtleford to markets in Melbourne on weekends after a hard week takes some determination. She intends to pursue her ricotta making skills and wishes to try smoking some of her ricotta soon.
Her Mother Bronwyn Ingleton cooks on the same premises – I sampled some of her cooking recently in the cafe and judging from the number of customers eating her food, I am not the only one to enjoy it.
When I first discovered Naomi’s produce, I discussed in a previous post eating the slightly sour tasting ricotta with poached figs. This time I presented the ricotta as an antipasto with fried red peppers, the long, banana shaped variety which Italians fry (I bought these from a grower in Myrtleford). The red coloured peppers are sweeter, but when you buy them ask if they are hot – they often are, and in this case could overshadow the delicate taste of the ricotta.
red, banana peppers (I used just over 1 kilo)
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup or more
wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon
sugar, ¾ tablespoon
salt to taste
PROCESSES Cut the peppers lengthwise in half, remove the seeds and ribs and cut into strips.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan (don’t crowd them or they will stew), add the peppers and fry on high heat. Toss them about often to prevent burning. Add salt and once softened and when they begin to brown, add vinegar and let evaporate. Add a pinch of sugar and stir gently for about 1 minute.
The peppers are presented at room temperature with the ricotta.
Next time I visit my sister-in-law in Adelaide (South Australia) I am to cook for her, what my mother called Omelet di spinaci. Apparently these made a big impression on my Australian sister-in-law, and it was one of the first things that my mother cooked for her when she was first invited to Sunday lunch.
Omlet (corruption of omlette (French) are really just crepes filled with ricotta and spinach (sautéed in butter) and similar to the stuffing used for canelloni. The crepes are also called crispelle in other parts of Italy.
Sunday lunch was always a big event in my parents’ house – this was the time guests were invited to eat with us and my mother went out of her way to make something special.
Omelet di spinaci were in vogue when we left Trieste (northern Italy) and for a while they were just about all my mother made for any guests in Australia. Most of the time the crepes were dressed with a strong sugo made of good quality minced veal and beef. Often she teamed the omlet with a vitello arrosto (roast veal) – except that this was never baked in the oven, but was braised slowly in a saucepan on the stove top and the brown jus was used as the condiment for the stuffed crepes. The meat was always eaten as the secondo.
When we first come to Australia, we were not able to buy what is now known as “English” spinach – this became available commercially much later in time. Most of the time what was called spinach were beets (blede in Italian) and these were usually found at quality greengrocers.
Silverbeet was more common and found in Australian people’s gardens, but to be able to use the green for the stuffing, the leaf had to be stripped entirely from the white stalk, which seemed to be such a waste of a good vegetable (right).
Sometimes we cooked the stalks separately and covered them with a béchamel sauce and parmesan cheese. We baked these in the oven and pretended they were cardi (cardoons, related to the artichoke). Many people refer to all three varieties as ‘spinach’, hence the photos.
And, of course, during the years when I was growing up in my family home, it was my job to help in the kitchen which is why I have been asked by my sister-in-law to reproduce this dish next time I visit her in Adelaide. Omelet di spinaci are eaten in northern Italy.
INGREDIENTS AND PROCESSES
3 eggs, slightly beaten, 3/4 cup plain flour, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 cups milk.
Mix the batter and leave to rest for at least 1 hour.
Fry crepes in a little butter. Make them thin/add more milk if necessary.
The crepes can be left for about 2 hours, and filled later if necessary.
English spinach, (I use 2 bunches for 6 people), 500g ricotta (drained),
50 g grated parmesan, ½tsp. nutmeg, salt. Some people put 1 egg in the
filling. Could be useful if you think that the mixture may be too sloppy.
Place the spinach in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook, covered, squeeze out any excess moisture from the spinach. Coarsely chop and sauté the spinach in butter. Add nutmeg, and over medium heat stir occasionally for a few minutes until the spinach is flavoured. Transfer to a bowl and let cool for about 10mins. Add the drained ricotta and parmesan and combine (egg is optional). Season with salt and pepper.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
400g beef mince or cut into small chunks (fat trimmed)
400gveal mince or cut into small chunks (fat trimmed)
1 onion, sliced finely
700g passata or crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper
Heat oil in a large saucepan and soften the onion. Cook the meat until lightly browned.
Add passata/tomatoes, herbs and salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring now and again for about an hour medium-low heat. Remove the lid half way through cooking and evaporate some of the liquid.
Preheat oven to 180°C.
Place 1 crepe on a clean work surface.
Fill with spinach mixture down the centre of the crepe. Roll up firmly to enclose filling.
Place the crepes side by side in a large ovenproof baking dish.
Spoon the sugo over the crepes and sprinkle with more grated parmesan.
Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese melts and crepes are heated through.
I was discussing travelling in Italy and regional food (frequent topics of conversation) with an acquaintance, who told me that she and her daughter had really enjoyed travelling in Tuscany and had eaten a wonderful pasta dish with walnuts. She had no idea what it was; she had tried to work this out from recipe books but to no avail. She said that the sauce was very fragrant.
I think it must have been pesto di noci, very common in Liguria, home of pesto alla genovese (the one with pine nuts and basil).
I first ate this in Genova. My cousin Rosadele prepared this for me when I first visited her many years ago (to meet our respective, then husbands). Being autumn, she made this sauce to accompany agnolotti (pasta shaped like half moons/ hers were stuffed with ricotta and stracchino). She is a wonderful cook. Her mother, from Piedmont was also a very skilled cook, and between the two of them, there was always alchemy in their kitchens.
Although I promised this recipe to my acquaintance, I have been a little reluctant to post it in winter – it is made with fresh marjoram, and those of you who grow it and live in the colder states, will know that marjoram is dormant at this time of year. It hates hard winters and frost. However, if you have planted marjoram somewhere sheltered from the cold, and in a sunny location or even kept it indoors in a sunny spot, you may still have this herb. Taking one’s plant indoors is quite a common practice for people in England. My plant of marjoram, which was doing quite well on my balcony till about a month ago, now looks dead. I did check at The Queen Victoria Market this week to see if there were bunches of marjoram available, and there were.
Traditionally because it is a pesto, it is made with a mortar and pestle (see my recipe for Sicilian pesto), but I admit that with these ingredients a blender has worked well for me ( unlike basil which is likely to taste grassy if blended).
marjoram and parsley, 4 tablespoons of each, chopped
ricotta, 250 g
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
garlic, 1-2 cloves
water, 1 tablespoon
salt, to taste
butter or thick cream, 2 tablespoons
grated nutmeg, a little
pasta, 400-500g (trofie – Ligurian, traditional shape)
Blend walnuts, oil and garlic – add chopped herbs, salt and blend some more.
Add water and butter/ cream and pulse blender to the desired consistency.
Stir in the ricotta and nutmeg in the sauce.
Drain the pasta but reserve approx ½ cup of hot pasta water to stir into sauce just before serving (to warm the sauce).
Combine sauce with pasta and serve.
Grated parmigiano can be added – I prefer it without.
Do not get confused with oregano and marjoram (many do). The genus name for both is origanum. Marjoram (origanum majorana) is also called sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram. It has a softer leaf and stem, it is paler in colour, the flavour is milder, sweeter and it is very aromatic. Marjoram leaves are best when fresh.
Oregano is a very common herb in Sicily, but not marjoram – this herb is generally used only in the northern part of Italy.
I love baked ricotta, but not the bastardized versions blended with eggs and herbs I have seen for sale. I do not know where these originated – not in Italy and definitely not Sicily!
I like to make the authentic, baked ricotta – unadulterated, white and fresh tasting in the centre, with a golden-brown crust. I particularly like it as a first course accompanied by a tomato salad and presented as a light meal.
Purchase the solid ricotta, in Australia usually sold by weight from four kilo shapes . The creamy variety sold in plastic tubs is not suitable.
In Sicily the ricotta is drained (on a rack overnight in the fridge) and just rubbed with salt and baked slowly uncovered until it becomes a dark golden colour. Sometimes, olive oil is rubbed over the ricotta before the salt is added, but not always. I also like to add a few herbs for flavour at the bottom of the ricotta while it is cooking and sometimes pepper (or red chili flakes) but this is not strictly traditional.
ricotta, fresh and a solid piece
extra virgin olive oil, to coat the ricotta
herbs:¼-½ cup dried oregano, enough to sprinkle as a covering and on the bottom
fresh rosemary and/or bay leaves (optional) placed under the ricotta
black pepper, ¼-½ cup or dried red chili flakes, 1 teaspoon (optional)
salt (flakes or coarse), to sprinkle on top.
The following cooking time is for a piece of ricotta weighing about 1 kilo.
Pre heat your oven to 180 C.
Oil the bottom of a baking tray, place a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and oregano (also the bay leaves and/or rosemary if you wish to include these).
Place the lump of ricotta (or wheel) on top of the flavourings.
Oil, the ricotta lightly – use your hands to coat it.
Sprinkle with the salt (I use flakes) and oregano – use your hands to ensure that it is well seasoned.
Cover with foil and bake in a 180 C for 15 minutes .Remove the foil and bake uncovered until the it has just begun to turn golden brown – it may take about 40 minutes or more, depending on the size.
Allow to cool before eating.
Cover with foil – this dish will keep well in the fridge for 3 days. A perfect dish to prepare well ahead of time.
In a restaurant in Syracuse I was presented with warm baked ricotta sprinkled with a coating of toasted pistachio nuts.
To make this version, rub the ricotta with olive oil and a little salt. Add the nuts in the last 20 minutes of cooking.
It can also double up as a dessert if dribbled with honey.