A friend who was going overseas gave me a packet of phyllo pastry (unopened) and not being a person who throws food away, I used it to encase a filling of a strucolo di pomi, an apple strudel as made in Trieste.
I have to say that I would much rather make my own pastry as I found the phyllo extremely annoying to use. It kept on breaking and although I covered it with a cloth it also dried out. There was no way that I could make a strudel of any size with it so I made a pie.
Walnuts roughly chopped and raisins (usually sultanas are used) soaked in Grappa.
Add cinnamon, apples, grated lemon rind and sugar.
Some chopped chocolate and lemon juice.
Toast some fresh breadcrumbs in some butter. Cool.
Line a baking pan with some baking paper, butter it. Place 5 sheets of phyllo pastry on top of the paper. Make sure that you brush each sheet of pastry with a mixture of some melted butter and oil (I use extra virgin olive oil as this is what is used to make the common pastry for the strucolo.
Place the filling into the baking tin lined with the pastry and cover with 5 sheets of phyllo, greased between each sheet as before.
Try to roll the edges as best you can. Phyllo is very brittle and I found this difficult to do. Brush with butter and oil mixture again.
I presented it warm with some home made mascarpone. This is not difficult to make, it is economical and you will end up with more than a 250g tub, the size for shop purchased mascarpone.
In the 90s I frequently used earthenware cooking pots of various sizes (also called clay and terracotta pots) mainly for baking. Some had lids and were perfect for braises. Some were glazed, partially glazed, or unglazed and most of them were Italian. Some were French.
There are various names in Italian for t earthenware pots depending on the shape and function – for example a tegame di terracotta only has one handle and is in the shape of a frypan, a legumieria is for cooking legumi (vegetables and pulses) and therefore has a lid and a wide middle, a teglia is shallow and for baking and comes in oval, round, square or rectangular shapes. The pignatta (or pignata) with a lid is for braises.
I used to use my French pottery for terrines, pâtés, French onion soup, gratin potatoes (or other vegetables), cassoulet, and the like and use my Italian earthenware pots for baked fennel, Italian braises like chicken or capretto (kid) and potatoes, veal shanks, hare.
There was no mixing of cultures in my kitchen – French recipes and Italian recipes were segregated to the correct pot.
But, cooking is also influenced by trends and fashion, and using earthenware became passé. I gave many of my earthenware pots away and over the years the ones I have kept are hidden in various cupboards in my apartment.
Many of them are out of reach and unfortunately, as often happens ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Recently I found my Römertopf and I have begun using it again and some of the other pots too. Some of you (the more mature people) may remember the Römertopf casseroles. The original casseroles are a German brand first introduced in 1967 and still being made. They are made of natural clay and are a terracotta colour, have a lid, are rectangular and unglazed. I saw some in Paris cook shops not very long ago and are probably making a comeback.
This is my second Römertopf. I ruined my first one by cooking a very strong flavoured, spicy pork dish with lentils and could not get the flavour or smell out – everything I cooked tasted the same. Earthenware, especially the unglazed or partly glazed ones are porous and therefore the clay will absorb the flavours and fats of whatever you cook in them. it is a good idea to use one pot for similar flavored dishes or to have several pots as I indicated at the beginning of this post.
When it comes to washing earthenware I only use hot water and a brush – no soaking or detergents as they too can be absorbed. Clay retains water so I also allow the pots to dry completely before I store them to prevent mold from forming on the surface.
Earthenware will break with sudden changes in temperature; moving a hot pot from the stove or oven and placing it directly onto a cold surface is not a good idea. Nor is putting hot liquid or ingredients into a cold pot or cold into a hot pot.
They can be used in the oven or microwave and some can be used on the stove especially when a heat diffuser / simmer mat is used to help distribute the heat and cook on a slow simmer. My modern tajine is made of clay and obviously has been especially treated so that I can use this in the oven as well as the stove.
I now use my re- discovered Römertopf just for baking chicken. Earthenware helps to ensure that food is cooked evenly and maintains heat for a long time; the pot seals in moisture and the flavors of a dish and nutrients are preserved. My oven remains clean, nothing burns, nothing overflows.
The procedure for using the Römertopf is simple: the room temperature/ cold ingredients are placed into the cold Römertopf that has been soaked in water. It is then placed into a cold oven …no monitoring until the food is cooked.
Many ancient cultures including ancient Romans cooked in earthenware pots with lids by placing them in the glowing ashes of an open fire and the Römertopf is said to have been based on these Roman principles of cooking. Many cultures over the centuries have used this method of cooking in the ashes or over the ashes in fireplaces and chimneys.
There are many types of earthenware pots and each differ by the kind of clay that is used, the way it’s made, the shape, how it’s fired. The pots also come under different names, depending on and country of origin. For example the most common are the Moroccan tajines, the Provençal daubieres, Spanish cazuelas and the Colombian La Chamba pots.
I bought my first La Chamba pots from Oxfam in Adelaide about 30 years ago. They are a deep black colour and have a lustrous appearance. Recently I have seen many La Chamba pots in different shapes and sized in Australia.
Most Asian countries have different techniques of cooking food in clay and some of them require soaking (like the Römertopf) before cooking. I always soak (submerge) all of my earthenware pots in water (from cold water tap) for at least 20 minutes.
CHICKEN COOKED IN THE RÖMERTOPF
Whole chicken – free range, preferably organic. Remove any obvious fat. Sometimes I may place into the cavity one of the following: a whole onion or lemon, 2-3 whole garlic cloves or some herbs.
Herbs – any of the following but not too many as the flavours intensify and will be absorbed into the clay: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, bay, parsley or sage. Preferably, I place the herbs under the skin of the chicken.
Salt and pepper, rub inside and outside of chicken.
Vegetables – sometimes I may place vegetables under the chicken: whole mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, celery.
Do not preheat oven.
Soak whole Römertopf (top and bottom) in cold water for 15-20 minutes or follow soaking directions provided with the clay pot.
Pat dry chicken and sprinkle salt and pepper inside and outside the cavity. Place chicken breast side up and fill cavity of chicken any of the ingredients I have mentioned above. You will notice that I do not use strong flavours.
Place a few vegetables on the bottom of the chicken. There is no need to use vegetables unless you wish, but if you do you will taste the natural flavours of the vegetables – nice.
Cover the Römertopf and place in a cold oven.
Turn oven to 220C and bake 90 minutes. The chicken will be golden but if you wish to brown it further, remove the top during the last 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and place it on a towel or mat – nothing cold to avoid cracking. Food can be served from the pot.
This type of cooking will not taste bland, but I always find a reason to accompany it with a sauce…. the last sauce was one made with the remaining nettles growing on my balcony, and walnuts, but at other times there have been other sauces.
Walnuts and nettles sauce
Softened nettles or use spinach (2 tablespoons), parsley (1 tablespoon), walnuts (2 tablespoons), garlic (1 clove), salt, pepper to taste.
A dash of each of the following: extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sufficient chicken stock (the juices from the chicken) to make the sauce smooth and creamy.
This spell of cold windy weather in Melbourne has encouraged me to make Castagnaccio, made with chestnut flour, raisins, grated lemon peel, fresh rosemary, extra virgin olive oil, a little sugar, pine nuts and walnuts, mixed with water and made into batter, then baked.
The recipe for making castagnaccio is on a blog post I wrote in May 2011 – as you can see I have been making it for a very long time.
I am now using Australian chestnut flour rather than the Italian imported variety.
You must admit the combination above sounds pretty good – the contrasts of flavours, differences in textures, the bitter taste with the sweet.
You probably have eaten grilled radicchio. I was mentioning to friends that my mother was cooking grilled radicchio back in the 80’s and was presenting it with a tomato salsa and polenta. And now in 2016, I have been seeing it and eating it once again, both in Australia and in Italy.
The photo below was taken in a restaurant in Rome in June. I ate it as a contorno (a vegetable side dish).
Instead of grilling the radicchio I pan fried it – easier and less smelly.
I wanted a variety of ingredients so I poached some Rosella pears in red wine, pepper corns, a dash or red vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar.
Next beetroot. I really enjoy the sweetness of beetroot with radicchio in a salad at any time, so why not ad it to a lightly sautéed radicchio.
I love Gorgonzola dolce. Cheese pairs well with walnuts and so I added these components as well.
It did not take long to prepare. I poached the pears early in the day so as to leave them steeping in the poaching liquid and the rest was prepared in about 30 minutes. I cooked the beetroot the day before and kept it in the fridge. My type of cooking these days….. especially if this was the entrée and I had three more courses to prepare.
For 4 people
Quantities for gorgonzola and walnuts to taste.
Cubed gorgonzola dolce – creamier, less sharp than straight Gorgonzola.
Walnuts, and make sure that they are not rancid.
Cooked beetroot…at least one per person.
2 pears – not soft – I ended up only using 1 – a quarter on each plate
2 cups dry red wine
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 heaped tablespoon of sugar
about 10 black pepper corns
1 pinch of salt
Combine the wine, vinegar and spices in a small saucepan which will hold the pears and almost- if not entirely- cover them. Cook pears cut into quarters in the liquid, lid on and poach on low heat. I still wanted some crunch and cooked them for about 30 min.
Leave pears in poaching liquid to cool and until you wish to use them.
1 large round head of radicchio, quartered, so that each quarter has a bit of the stem end holding it together. I also used satay skewer to ensure that it stayed together. If using the Treviso vaviety of radicchio ( long shape) you may need 2 heads and cut it in half.
¼ cup olive oil
salt and black pepper
Lightly sauté the radicchio in the oil over moderate heat uncovered. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn once. I did not want the radicchio cooked- I wanted a warm salad with radicchio that was softened on the outer.
Remove the radicchio. Distribute onto separate plates.
Drain/ strain the pears and use that wine/liquid to add to the pan. Discard the spices. Add the beetroot (to warm and to glaze). Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid to about half the quantity.
To serve distribute pears and beetroot . Dribble liquid on the radicchio. Scatter gorgonzola and walnuts on top.
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 panforteand 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 .
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.
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)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.