The Green Love – Lasagne agli Asparagi e Ricotta

There is one love that I believe to share with millions of others: fresh asparagus. I think this love is not only about the gorgeous flavour of the vegetable itself but also about the time of the year when it is in season. After months and months of cold and gloomy weather and winter tomatoes tasting like cardboard, the sun finally comes out and fresh European asparagus hits our local supermarkets. What else can you really ask for? Well, maybe apart from Benedict Cumberbatch (another love that I believe to share with millions of others) joining you to share this deliziose asparagus lasagne, that is.

As today is Easter Monday, I browsed the internet for some Italian Easter food. A lasagne with asparagus was one of the commonly proposed dishes. This version is a bit lighter than some others as there is no bechamel sauce included. I substituted the proposed prosciutto with some slices of smoked turkey and a few knobs of butter since I expected the turkey to be a bit drier than cured ham. Some of these lasagne recipes included smoked salmon instead of ham, and I am quite sure that this lasagne would work well with that too.

A proper Italian nonna would obviously also make the pasta by herself but since I am not one and was recovering from a bout of cold, I used these ready albeit quite nice lasagne sheets.

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This package also contained advice on a neat trick though which I hadn’t seen before: you can precook the sheets in boiling water for 8-10 minutes which reduces their required baking time in the oven. I did this and the dry sheets actually started to resemble fresh pasta. However, I didn’t quite yet master the art of keeping the sheets apart. Hence, the precooked sheets (stuck together and torn apart) did really resemble something that I would have made myself giving my lasagne a very authentic home-made look..!

Light Asparagus and Ricotta Lasagne

Serves 4-6

2 bunches of fresh asparagus

lasagne sheets (fresh or dried (~1 package))

500 g fresh ricotta cheese

grated cheese (e.g. parmesan)

prosciutto, cut into cubes

olive oil

nutmeg, salt, pepper

Clean the asparagus, remove their chalks and cook them in salted, boiling water until ready (~ 5 minutes). Put the cooked asparagus in a blender together with the ricotta cheese, mix well and season with olive oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.

Take a buttered lasagne dish and place the first layer of lasagne sheets in it. Add a layer of the asparagus followed by a layer of the prosciutto cubes. Repeat these steps several times (I made four layers). On top of your lasagne, add one more layer of the sheets and the grated cheese. Bake in the oven at 180C for 20-30 minutes if you are using dry but precooked lasagne sheets (30-40 minutes without precooking) or for 15 minutes if you are using fresh pasta.

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Cheesy Sale – Patate Taleggio e Rosmarino

A couple of months ago, I tried making a risotto that included a cheese that I was not familiar with: Taleggio. As this cheese isn’t really included in your grocery staples in Finland, I couldn’t find it in my local corner store either and used Swiss Gruyere as a substitute (well, not exactly a grocery staple in Finland either…). However, last week I managed to get my very first chunk of Taleggio and to top my happiness, it was even on sale.

The flavour of Taleggio is a bit different from any other cheese that I have tried before. I would describe it as something between brie and mozzarella. It definitely has that flavour typical of a mold cheese but it is milder and its texture is not quite as soft as brie’s. It certainly worked so well with the risotto that I went back to the great Taleggio sale and bought another piece. This time I tested it with potatoes and rosemary as suggested by this recipe. Rosemary is one of my favourite herbs which in cooperation with my new friend Tal makes this recipe quite a nice side dish to accompany chicken or red meat!

Taleggio and rosemary potatoes

800 g potatoes

250 g Taleggio

4 tbsp milk

30 g butter

1 sprig of rosemary

salt, pepper

Cook the potatoes in boiling, unsalted water for only 10 minutes. Peel them and cut them into thin slices (~0.5 cm thick). Place the potato slices in a buttered gratin dish. Add the milk and season the potatoes with salt, pepper and chopped rosemary. Bake in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes.

Slice the Taleggio and remove its crust. Cover the potatoes with the cheese and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Allow the ready dish to cool for a few minutes before serving.

The Great Pizza Hunt – Part 2

When looking for the perfect pizza recipe online, it is hard to find a more convincing sounding address than www.pizza.it. And the recipe I discovered there certainly lives up to the site’s name!

The site contains a section on how to make pizza of restaurant quality at home. It seems that the recipe that I originally used has been replaced by an even more professional looking one. Maybe I will give that one a try as well but in the meantime, I’m sharing my original discovery of the site.

As I mentioned in my previous post about pizza, there are several tips and tricks that take you closer to that pizza perfection. In my experience, the most important one is pazienza – both to knead the dough properly as well as to let it rest and rise for hours. In this recipe the kneading part is even more important (and a lot more time-consuming) than in my earlier pizza recipe. If you have an electric mixer at your disposal, I am sure you can speed up at the process. However, with my limited baking skills without the modern technology, it takes me almost an hour to knead this dough sufficiently. It also seems that the dough certainly improves when you store it in a fridge overnight.

Another critical component of your pizza success is cooking. This recipe contains a couple of tricks on how to imitate the impact of a proper pizza oven in case you do not have one at home (as is the case for the most of us I presume…). I have also noticed that sometimes the difference between a nice pizza and a fantastic one is about one minute in cooking time.

Thus, even if a pizza may be a simple enough thing to make, perfecting it is a very different matter! Let the great pizza hunt continue…

The Perfect Pizza – Candidate # 2

Serves 4

420 g (~6 dl) flour (preferably of type “00”, or alternatively of durum wheat)

2 dl warm water

4 g fresh yeast

10 g salt

Divide the flour into two equally sized portions. Mix the yeast in 1 dl of water. Combine the yeast water with one half of the flour. Knead thoroughly until you have obtained a smooth dough with some elasticity (at the beginning this may seem like an impossible task with the smallish amount of water but miraculously you will get there after some persistent kneading!). Mix the salt in 1 dl of water and combine it with the other half of the flour. Knead again thoroughly to obtain another dough of similar consistency to the one with yeast. Finally, combine these two doughs and knead even more (at this point, you may consider never making this pizza again, but trust me, you will change your mind after having the first bite of the end result!). The ready dough should be smooth, slightly moist, soft and elastic.

Store the dough in a fridge overnight (you may skip this step if you have lost your pazienza already at the kneading phase but this does improve the quality of your dough). On the following day, take the dough back to the room temperature (+23 C) and let it rise for 3 hours.

Place an oven tray into the oven and preheat the oven to its maximum temperature (I have used 250C). Roll out the dough into four large and thin rounds, using a rolling pin. Top the pizza bases with the tomato sauce. Place a pizza base on a parchment paper and move it to the hot oven tray. Bake it in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Take the pizza base briefly out of the oven and add the mozzarella di bufala and potential other toppings of your choice and drizzle it with some olive oil. Continue cooking the pizza for another 4-7 minutes.

Piegones – Torta della Nonna

Sometimes I never cease to amaze myself. I had one of those moments last weekend.

In the field of baking, my success rate is about 50 percent when I try new recipes. In addition, although I tend to be fairly optimistic by nature, I have learned in life that if you hand Mr. Murphy a chance on a silver platter (or should I say a baking tray), he will usually grab it. So, I really don’t know what I was thinking when I offered to make this pie called torta della nonna to my Dad for his birthday. Obviously I had never tried it before. And obviously I still have no confidence issues in baking although some firemen might beg to differ.

It all started quite beautifully. I was even quite proud of the smooth pastry I managed to make. Then something got lost in translation or possibly in the recipe. What I or my recipe (from “Oggi Cucino Io 4”) missed was the mention of the custard properly thickening before pouring it onto the pastry.

At this point, I called my parents to start considering alternative sources for birthday treats this year:

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Yet, being that optimist (or maybe in this case stubborn), I still refused to give up, cleaned up the mess and transferred what was left of the pie into the oven. What came out wasn’t an entire disaster. It had very little to do with torta della nonna, so maybe I will name this one torta di Anna instead. Torta di Anna had two layers of crust each followed by a layer of the custard. As there was no top crust available to add almonds on (as advised in my recipe), I roasted some afterwards and placed them on the ready pie. My mother told me that with the added help of some strawberry preservative, it was even nicer.

I am quite sure though that if I had managed to follow the nonna‘s advice as intended, this would have been a bigger success. Have a try yourself and let me know how it goes! Finally here is one example what it was supposed to look like…

Torta della Nonna

Serves 8-10

For the pastry:

300 g flour

100 g sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

150 g butter

1 egg yolk

1 egg

salt

For the custard:

5 eggs

120 g sugar

75 g flour

5 dl milk

1 vanilla pod

1 slice of lemon peel

salt

To decorate

almonds

icing sugar

Prepare the pastry for the crust: Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix it with the sugar, salt and baking powder. Add the cold butter (sliced into small chunks) and rub it into the dry ingredients until you have obtained a granular even mixture. Add the egg yolk and the eggs and continue working on the pastry for a few more minutes. Divide the ready pastry into two different-sized parts (one slightly larger than the other). Roll each out to circles about 3 mm thick and place them on two sheets of parchment paper. Move the parchment papers with the pastry into a fridge.

Prepare the custard: Whisk 2 egg yolks (keep the egg whites for later use) and 3 entire eggs with the sugar and a pinch of salt until smooth. Add the flour and stir well. In a kettle, bring the milk to a boil with the vanilla pod and lemon peel. Take the kettle of the heat and pour the milk into the egg and sugar mixture continuously stirring. Move the mixture back to the hot stove and cook for one minute still continuously mixing (as mentioned, at this point the sauce should (hopefully) thicken but yet please be careful not to exceed the time any more than necessary as you may also end up with scrambled eggs instead of a lovely custard…). Remove your custard from the stove and let it cool down stirring occasionally.

Move the larger part of the pastry together with its parchment paper into a pie dish to line its base and sides. Pour the custard onto first part of the pastry. Slightly fold the sides of the pastry to cover the custard, and brush the sides with the egg whites (mixed with a small quantity of water). Add the top layer of the pastry to the pie and fold its sides behind the bottom layer of the pastry. Decorate with the almonds. Bake in the oven at 180C for 45 minutes whilst ensuring that the pie won’t burn on top. Cool down for at least 15 minutes and dust the pie with some icing sugar before serving.

 

 

Mussel Training – Crema di Cavolfiore, Cozze e Panissa

Italian recipes often include a grading of their difficulty. This is something that is slightly distracting to my somewhat competitive nature. As a result, I have already been toying with the idea of testing a cake with the grade “for experts”. With my limited baking skills, it is a terrible idea – especially considering my latest kitchen disaster last weekend (I may tell you all about it later…).

However, as most of the recipes on this blog to-date have been graded “easy”, I thought it would anyway be time to raise the bar, and go for a medium level dish. It is a soup from the “La Cucina Italiana” magazine that I bought some weeks ago.

I still ended up taking a few shortcuts as I made this soup on an ordinary Tuesday evening: According to the recipe, you are also supposed to cook your chickpea flour in boiling water for 40 minutes. My mixture obtained the desired porridge like consistency within about 40 seconds. There was also no mention on the package of chickpea flour being lethal if you cook it for less than 40 minutes (I hadn’t used chickpea flour before). Hence I presumed that 40 minutes was in fact a typo for 4 minutes.

In addition, I didn’t use fresh or even frozen mussels but smoked ones from a can. The smoky flavour worked ok although I’m sure the soup would have been even more delicious with the fresh mussels as instructed. I haven’t prepared fresh mussels before myself so that could be the next project in my personal kitchen training (certainly much rather than that cake per esperti…). However, I do know that you have to be careful when cooking fresh mussels, so please bear in mind that: “Mussels should be alive when you cook them. Consuming mussels that have perished before cooking can cause food poisoning.”

Even with the few shortcuts, the result was quite nice and certainly worth the little extra effort. I particularly liked the nice touch of the fried chickpea flour which also gives a bit extra protein for your muscles in addition to those mussels!

Cauliflower soup with mussels and fried chickpea cubes

Serves 4

800 g cauliflower

500 g fresh mussels or canned/ frozen mussels

250 g spring onions

170 g potatoes

50 g chickpea flour

1 garlic clove

1 chilli

2-3 sprigs of fresh parsley

1 fennel

olive oil

salt, white pepper

Bring 200 g of lightly salted water to a boil. Remove the kettle from the heat and stir in the chickpea flour. Return the kettle to the stove and cook for a few minutes continuously stirring until you have a “porridge” type of mixture. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover it and place it into a fridge.

Peel the potatoes and slice them. Clean the cauliflower and cut it into small chunks.

Clean the onions and peel them. Put the onion peels into a kettle with 2 litres of lightly salted boiling water and cook for some minutes. This way you will obtain a light broth for your soup.

Chop the onions and gently fry them in a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil but do not let them brown. Add the cauliflower and potatoes, salt and white pepper and let them gain flavour for 3-4 minutes. Pour the vegetable mix into the kettle with the broth and let them cook for 25-30 minutes.

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The shortcut:

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the crushed garlic clove, the chopped chilli, the sliced fennels and the chopped parsley and fry them for a few minutes. Stir the smoked or frozen mussels into the mixture and heat them.

The recipe with fresh mussels:

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the crushed garlic clove, the chilli (entire or chopped) and the parsley. Add the well-cleaned and –washed mussels (here is another BBC clip on how to do that). Cover the pan with a lid and cook for 3 minutes until the mussels have opened. Again – please discard the mussels that haven’t opened!

Let the open mussels cool. Take the mussel meat from the shells and filter the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid into the pan and cook it for 3 minutes with a little bit of olive oil and sliced fennel. Add the shelled mussels and reheat them.

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Pour some of the cooking liquid of the vegetables into a bowl. Blend the soup. Add some of the cooking liquid if needed to achieve the right consistency for the soup.

Remove the chickpea flour “porridge” from the fridge and cut it into small cubes. Fry the cubes in olive oil and drain them on a kitchen towel.

Serve the soup with the mussels and their sauce and the fried chickpea flour cubes.