Ricotta Respect – Penne Ricotta e Melanzane

I have been writing this blog for almost a year now. However, today I feel that I may be experiencing some kind of a writer’s block for the first time. On the other hand, it may not be such a bad sign if a recipe is so fabulous that it practically leaves you speechless (or writingless, but that’s not really a word, is it?)?

I am also in silent awe of the versatility of the ricotta cheese. It is amazing how well its very subtle flavour works in various dishes ranging from this pasta sauce to pastries and salads. And in this case the sauteed shallots and ricotta form the perfect union to base the rest of the dish on.

Finally, I suppose I do need to break my written muteness at least to share the source of this recipe. The name of the site translates as “Granny’s recipes”. So after all, even if my verbal skills are sometimes unreliable, you can at least always trust an Italian nonna!

Penne Pasta with Ricotta Cheese and Eggplant

Serves 4

320 g penne pasta

1 eggplant

1 tomato

1 shallot

200 g ricotta cheese

parsley

olive oil

salt, pepper

Thinly slice the shallot and saute it on a gentle heat in a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper. Cut the eggplant into thin slices. Take another pan and heat it (without any oil) and cook the eggplant slices until it is crisp. Season with salt and remove from the heat.

Combine the ricotta with the sauteed shallot and let the mixture cook for 5 minutes on a low heat.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water and drain. Add the pasta to the pan with the shallot – ricotta sauce. Cut 3/4 of the fried eggplant into smaller slices and combine them with the pasta and sauce. Remove the pan from the heat and add one tablespoon of fresh parsley (chopped) and the tomato (sliced into small cubes). Serve warm and garnish the plates with the remaining eggplant slices.

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The Pumpkin Challenge – Zucca al Forno con Caprino

Pumpkins are not really traditionally part of the Finnish kitchen whereas they play an important role in the Italian diet – especially during autumn and winter time. Fortunately for a Finnish wanna-be nonna such as myself, pumpkins are widely available in today’s Helsinki.

Yet that does not solve another traditional challenge with pumpkins. Also this time when making this recipe (another one of my friend Giorgione), I started to consider investing in a chainsaw or possibly a pet beaver at this point:

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I am also quite happy that I chose those Italian grannies as my culinary role models rather than American ones (I don’t think I would survive any Halloween with my carving skills…). This time, I did finally manage to halve the pumpkin with my kitchen knife after some considerable effort. And once having two halves to slice instead of the entire vegetable, things got a lot easier as I could really lean onto the knife without worrying about losing a finger or two in the process.

Apart from the initial pumpkin challenge, this dish is quite easy to prepare – and certainly worth the sweat in the beginning! As Giorgione also writes, the acidity of the goat cheese and sweetness of the pumpkin pair superbly. I also quite liked the extra twist that the Pecorino Romano cheese brought to the combination. Unfortunately I couldn’t get Italian caprini freschi in the supermarkets but a French chevre did an excellent job as a substitute. However, I am now planning to do a little trip to the Helsinki market halls to investigate if they could offer a bit broader range of Italian cheeses!

Oven-baked Pumpkin with Goat Cheese

400 g pumpkin

400 g caprini freschi or other goat cheese

Pecorino Romano

olive oil

salt, pepper

Break/ cut the goat cheese into small pieces. Add some grated Pecorino Romano, black pepper and a little bit of olive oil. Leave to rest while preparing the pumpkin.

Halve the pumpkin (with a kitchen knife, pet beaver or another power tool of your choice) and remove the seeds. You can keep the seeds and toast them for another use. Cut the pumpkin into some chunks, place them on an oven tray with parchment paper and bake them in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes. After cooking, peel the pumpkin chunks carefully and slice them into smaller pieces. Season with salt and pepper and combine with the goat cheese mixture. Serve warm or cold as an antipasto or secondo.

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.