World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: italy

Giro di Italia Stage 4 & 5: Piedmont Region

I am working on reconnecting with writing and finding a place where I can create and learn all at the same time. I have had this site for nearly five years. At times more productive than lately. I thought the discipline of an event such as the Giro would help to getting me closer to understanding what it is that, or why it is that I feel the need to keep this very site going. So there may be some fits and starts along with some bumps along the way as I get my rhythm back.

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Stage 4: Time Trial; 32.5 km | Savigliano to Cuneo
Stage 5: 168 km | Novara to Novi Ligure

Today marks the first of series of posts focused on Italian regional cuisine as measured by the progress of one of the epic cycling events of the year, the Giro d’Italia. Although there is no “Lance factor” with the Giro it is still a great challenge to watch and yes, it goes on for weeks–that’s the fun of it. The other two big races take place in France (July) and Spain (August).

Today and tomorrow find us at Stage 4 and 5 and through the Northwest corner of Italy through the region of Piedmont, an area surrounded on three sides by mountains.

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What many don’t know is that this region is home to grissini (gruh-SEE-nee). Not those bland, ubiquitous sticks found at standard bearer Italian restaurants. A true grissini is made by hand, pencil thin and crispy. At times it can be up to nearly a yard long (or one meter for those non American readers). Thought to have been created in 17th century Turin they can be found virtually everywhere in Italy (and around the world!) nowadays.

A great bit of folklore imparts that it was created in 17th century Turin to cure the digestive problems of a duke whose had a court baker who devised a recipe leading which healed the duke’s tummy woes so well that he went on to be king. Legend has it that today the ghost of the king haunts his old castle, with a grissino in hand. It is also said that Napoleon had a mad obsession for grissini or what he called “little sticks of Turin” and would have them shipments follow him where ever he marched.

Stirato (straight) grissini are crisp and light in taste and are no bigger than 3/8″ in diameter; Rubata are hand-rolled producing a thicker and more like an ordinary breadlike taste.

A former colleague of mine often made a lunch of grissini bought at the local bakery. He’d wrap anchovies and prosciutto around each and stare out his window. Maybe he was thinking of his next vacation. It did, however, keep people out of his office long after the meal was complete.

Often you will see breadsticks served alongside the region’s signature dish, Bagna Caoda, a hot bath made of olive oil, garlic (often at a ratio of 1 garlic head to a person), chopped into a fine paste, and milk or cream. The breadstick, along with raw vegetables and sometimes cooked potatoes are used as a vehicle making for quite a satisfying meal. Often when the bagna caoda is nearly gone, an egg is added to the persons “bath,” scrambled and eaten.

Tips:

Best if made and eaten on the same day as you want them crisp.

Quick light supper, wrap proscuitto around grissini, slices of Parmesan and nuts.

Piedmont References: World on a Plate

Gusto de Piedmont
Bicerin: coffee specialty
Cheese of Piedmont

Other recipes

Smitten Kitchen Cheese Straws
King Arthur Sesame Grissini
Cooking Light Parmesan & Cracked Pepper Grissini

The Baker’s Passport – Italy

                 Susamielli 

Around the world at the holidays there are many cookies shared only during Christmas time.  Naples is no exception as the number of holiday cookies is many.  Recipes in English are not easy to come by as in general they haven’t been codified widely due to the history of origin.  Between the middle ages and the end of the 18th century most pastries in Southern and Central Italy where produced by covenants and a few monasteries. The pastries were sold to the public and the money used for upkeep and charity. Most of these recipes were only made in a single convent and the recipe was kept among the women.  As the power of the church declined many religious institutions closed and many of the recipes for these traditional sweets were sold off with exclusivity to pastry makers. Among a few Neapolitan Christmas treats are La collana del prete , the priest’s necklace, chestnuts strung together; Divino Amore, Rococò, Mustacciuoli and the sesame-honey "S" shaped cookie Susamielli pictured above.

Susamielli

1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup sugar
1 lemon, zest grated
3 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring honey, sugar and lemon zest to a temperature of 175 degrees. Form a
well out of the flour and mix in cloves and cinnamon. Pour the warm honey mixture
into the well and bring dough together with a fork, similiar to making pasta. Knead
dough with hands 2 minutes until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes.

Cut the dough into 1 1/2" balls and roll each ball into 4-inch long rope form. Form
each rope into an "S" shape and place onto a greased cookie sheet. Place in oven
and bake 20 to 22 minutes until light golden brown; remove; cool on baking
rack.

Formaggio de Piedmont*

          Castelmag2

Central to the story, and production of cheese in this region is the town of Bra, in the province of Cuneo.  The area’s culture is built upon the history of the nomadic herdsmen who came across the valleys with their animals to the plains with their herds.  As a result there are many dairy farms and cheese makers in the area. Piedmont also claims eight DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) cheeses so production is highly controlled, designated to a specific region that guarantees adherence to traditional methods.

One of those eight is Gorgonzola a fairly well known blue cheese here in the States. Another veined blue popular with Italians is Castelmagno, a nutty-tasting cow’s milk cheese from the region. It’s named after Saint Magnus and dates back to the 12th century.  So prized and valued it was used as currency to pay rent to the Marquis of  Saluzza for use of his pastures. Production is limited to 6,000 wheels a year with only 200 of this yield exported to the States.

The city of Bra, birthplace of the Slow Food movement, also carries it’s name on a few DOP cheeses include Bra Tenero a young, semi-soft cheese; Bra Duro which is age 3 months or longer, and has a bigger taste and firmer texture than it’s younger version.  Today Bra is the site for the Slow Food Cheese Festival.

Robiola di Roccaverano, is the only Italian goat’s milk cheese to possess the DOP label.  The goats are raised on the slopes surrounding Roccaverano.  Local lore on name origin is that the cheese was called rubeloe (ruddy) for it’s pinkish rind color.  It’s a traditional fresh farmhouse cheese.  Around Piedmont you’ll find it dressed with bagnet vert (green sauce) made from chopped parsley, garlic, bread crumbs, pureed tomato and a few anchovies.

Unique from this region is "Broos"  a strong and heat sinking stinking cheese made with a base of Toma della Langa or Robiola cheese with the addition of black pepper, chili pepper, grappa and dry white wine.  There’s a saying that farmers repeat to first time tasters that translates as ‘love is stronger than Bross.’ Certainly not for the shy cheese eater or those with timid tummies as many say "it has a hell of a kick" in taste and odor.  It is said to be the color of earth and is usually spread on bread like jam.

Tomino is a hard cheese made from partially skimmed cow’s milk that carries a sweet taste. Typically it is sold fresh, wrapped in paper. It can also be found marinated in oil with hot pepper or with aromatic herbs. A great melting cheese–think grilled Tomino cheese on toasted bread with nuts or fig spread.  Or how about a variation on Tomino alla piasata an elegant and rich open-faced sandwich of creamy cheese, oven baked mushrooms with rosemary on a bruschetta with a bit of truffle oil. 

So pick yourself up and go to the cheese shop or visit Artisanal Cheese where they are featuring a three cheese Piemonte selection for $49.  Or pop over to IGourmet where the selection is wide.  It just might be time to try out the Piemont version of Swiss fondue called fonduta made with melted cheese, milk, eggs, and of course white truffles.  Say cheese, please!

Image credit: Stock photo

Gusto de Piemonte

Table

Around the world attention is focused on snowboarding, ice dancing, alpine skiers, speed skaters and yes curling as all the Olympics continue in Torino (Turin) Italy . The Piemonte region, of which Tornio is the capital, is also a great spot for those with just dreams of Olympian style eating.

Cuisine of this region is a dynamic blend of Italian mountain specialties and strong Gallic flavors due to its nearness to France.  It’s no surprise then that in 1986 the Slow Food movement was born here. Piedmont has all the ingredients of a gastronomic feast–corn and rice grow in the fertile plains along the Po River; apricots, peaches, figs and kiwi in Cuneo and Langhe for the region’s prize, hazelnuts. The regional cuisine is a hybrid of Italian and fFrench translating to rich and hearty foods. In the south it is common to see trifola d’Alba (white truffles) accompanying some of Italy ’s best and greatest wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Polenta is found in many a pot and it is celebrated annually at Il Polentone.

A traditional Piedmontese dining tavola boasts a huge amount of food traditionally six course beginning with antipasti. No less than four types and often up to 10 different starters including bagna cauda, a type of vegetable fondue. You also find meals accompany by grissini (breadsticks) which were created here all in the effort to aid the digestion of Prince Vittorio Amadeo II the duke of Savoy. Risotti are also very popular given that the area is the biggest rice producer in Europe.

Regional second course dishes mirror the French influence, such as brasato al Barolo (braised beef with Barolo wine) after marinating in Barolo wine it is cooked in a beef stock and served with a sauce along with polenta. There’s also bollito misto, (boiled meat dinner) served with the mostarda, a preserved fruit in a sweet-heat syrup infused with powdered mustard seed or oil.  It is a bit like a chutney and is one of the standard condiments served with boiled meats in northern Italy.  Origins trails all the way back to the condiment bars of the Roman Empire.

Angol

Pastas are many including taiarin (or tajarin) a narrow tagliatelle made with eggs from corn-fed chickens that produce near orange yolks which creates a visual feast when sprinkled with white truffles. Another is agnolotti (pronounced (ahn-yo-LOHT-ee), made with eggs stuffed beef, pork, or rabbit, and seasoned flavored with a bit of sausage, parmesan cheese and herbs. The name loosely translated as priest’s hats, are small half-mooned shaped ravioli.  There are many ways to prepare this dish either by poaching , browning with butter or with a creamy local cheese sauce such as Gorgonzola.  It can also be dressed up when made by hand, pulled together into little sacks called plin or agnolotti al plin referring to the tool used to seal the pasta sack. And don’t let this confuse you…a single agnolotti is called a quadratri.  Raising the question, “Is it possible to eat just one?’

And then there’s the cheeses and sweets…

Menu della Cena – Piedmonte

The Hunt for White October (Americans on a truffle hunt)

Image: Residenza del Sole , Italy (links to recipe for Brasato al Barolo)

Bicerin – Gusto de Torino

        Bicerin_a

I wrote this post over a week ago as it is related the Olympics. The longer I waited to post the more irrelevant it seem to become as others had the same idea.  But you know what, not so much.  Every post I came across had a different voice and angle.  So without further hesitation here is my version of the story. 

A renowned Torino specialty drink, not to mention a passionate favorite of many is the bicerin (bee-ched-REEN) . To simply call it new-fangled mocha would be wrong.  The drink is going through a bit of a rebirth on the Piazza della Consolata. According to a recent NY Times article the drink "returned in fashion about 10 years ago, with the recuperation of traditional and authentic foods."  Thank you Slow Food.

The elixir was created at the café of the same name and evolved from an 18th century drink made there called the “bavareisa.” It was a favorite of writer Alexander Dumas and many other writers of the city including Giuseppe Culicchia. The Italian contemporary writer once said that this drink is “served with such finesse here, that many customers would come risking the barrage of machine-gun fire in order to procure a chalice.” 

The name bicerin comes from the Italian word for glass, bicchiere, but in its diminutive form means "little glass". There are three ways to order this beverage:

  • pur e fiôr – coffee and milk/cream

  • pur e barba– coffee and chocolate

  • un pô ‘d tut– coffee, chocolate and milk/cream

The concoction is made of 3 equal layers of heaven, a bottom layer of espresso, topped with sweet Florentine hot chocolate prepared with water, intensifying the chocolate taste and topped with whipped cream.

It’s a heavily kept secret recipe in fact café employees’ lips are sealed by contract.  In 2001 the drink was elevated to the “traditional Piedmontese drink by the publication Bollettino Ufficiale della Regione Piemonte. Today it is often served in espresso cups personally I think it’s best served up in a glass in order to enjoy the mélange of dark liquid mixing together as you drink it.

Other relateed sites worth a look:

Cafés of Turin (via Exploring the Globe)

David Lebovitz post (such a tease with all this talk of chocolate!)

Faith Willinger’s Version of Bicerin

IMBB 8 -Torta di Limoncello

Limon_2

After the stress of switching over to a non-blog URL I thought I’d reward all who were patient with the process with a recipe that is by far one of my most popular, statistically speaking, around the world.  Originally published back in September this cake is best made a day ahead.  Enjoy.

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Here we are again, this time it’s IMBB #8 but only #2 for me. This go round is hosted by Donna via her blog, There’s A Chef in My Kitchen The challenge, "Lift Your Spirits High" is cooking or in my case, baking with a wine or spirit.

I choose to prepare a Limoncello Cake. I dug out a recipe that I had filed away in the "Cakes To Be Made" category that came from a 2003 issue of Italian Cooking and Living magazine. This bimonthly publication is all about Italy and Italian cooking. It’s a part of Italian Culinary Institute and is also affiliated with the Italian Culinary Center in New York City.

Limoncello reminds me of the Amalfi coast Italy where I first tasted it. According to resources, the spirit accounts for 35% of total liqueur consumption in Italy. It’s defined as a liqueur made by infusing grain spirits with the juice and peel of lemons from Italy’s sunny southern Amalfi coast. I choose to use Caravella Limoncello.

There are many spirited desserts out there that I could have chosen: the Caribbean Tortuga Rum Cake, bananas foster, Crepes Suzette, amaretto cheesecake, bread pudding with hard sauce (brandy), there’s also a Jack Daniels Tipsy Carrot Cake, or The Cheesecake Factory’s Kahlua Almond Cheesecake.

However I wanted something special. And this cake is just that–a light 3-layered sponge cake wrapped with a fresh whipped cream frosting. Delicate as a cloud and not overly sweet. However, alcohol-based cakes aren’t to everyone’s liking. Last night I learned that when my friend S. stated, "This cake is ‘boozy’.

This cake is not for the impatient or novice. It involves a lot of time and bowls. There’s the separating of eggs, whipping of whites for the cake; the whipping of cream for the filling and frosting. And there’s the assembly and the frosting of the cake. My kitchen is still a wreck. But as you can see it is pretty has a pleasing taste. The simpler idea would be to brush limoncello over the outside of a lemon or plain pound cake before slicing. But of course I didn’t go that way and discovered an unexpected cake for a special occasion.

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SHF #4- Nuts for Pistachios

Xmas04_2 After a holiday feast the child in all of us yearns for something a bit sweet. This past Christmas after a lavish and dramatic (due to the fire in the oven) meal I set out a platter filled with pistachio chocolate chip biscotti, orange butter cream Florentines and homemade almond chocolate toffee. There was also a towering six-layer white cake with cranberry filling all dressed in coconut. But that’s another culinary adventure.

Nuts are a central ingredient for cooking and baking throughout the world. Dates stuffed with walnuts and almonds were one of the earliest prepared desserts. Sweet almonds are the central ingredient of marzipan for enclosing and decorating a cake. Pralines, burnt almonds cooked in sugar until caramelized remind me of the New Orleans French Quarter and pecan pie is as American as apple pie. Pale-green pistachios are luxurious and a bit exotic. As a child in the 70’s I would watch my mother’s hands turn red from the dye applied to the shell to hide blemishes. Today, due to more advanced harvesting and processing methods this market problem isn’t such a big worry so the nuts are kept natural. My mother would carefully parse out the pistachios over a period of time due to the high cost. As a child I didn’t appreciate the subtle but distinctive taste. Today that’s all changed.

In the Middle East pistachio nuts and cashews are often eaten as a mezze. In the Middle East, I’m told that at times they are sold flavored with rose water or lemon juice. Good-quality halvah, Turkish delight, baklava and nougat all contain pistachio nuts. In Italy, an ice cream called cassata combines three colors—usually brown, white and green. The most common flavors are chocolate, vanilla and pistachio ice creams. In many cultures the pistachio is said to have aphrodisiac qualities. In fact the Queen of Sheba ordered a harvest of the best trees grown in Assyria to be used for herself and royal guests.

Grown in California, Iran, Turkey, Italy and Australia, the nut belongs to the to the Anacardiaceae or cashew family. Other members of this nutty family include cashew, mango, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. The resin of the pistachio tree is collected and used in the making of turpentine. The bright green coloring of the pistachio is completely natural and comes from chlorophyll. In the marketplace the deeper green colored nut is an indicator of the highest quality and yields the best prices. Pistachios are typically sold roasted and salted.

According to growers, the nut is ripe when the shell usually gapes open at one end to expose the kernel. In Iran, according to Oxford Companion to Food, this state is termed khandan or laughing.

According to a recent Iranian Cultural Heritage News report, the pistachio crop represents the second most important non-oil export product in Iran after carpets. Comprising about 55% of pistachio production and over 60% of its export.

Biscotti, as if we didn’t know already, translates from the Italian as ‘twice baked.’ This particular recipe, and I’ve baked a lot of biscotti recipes, is, without question, remarkable. Call me a non-traditionalist but biscotti that breaks your front tooth is not what I’m seeking. Biscotti should be strong enough to dunk in coffee and still have a crunch. Based on the response after Christmas dinner and the many gift bags to friends this was a success.

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