A Lesson Learnt (& Rhubarb Burnt) – Insalata Mista con Rabarbaro E Caprino

I have always felt a special affinity with Italy and Italians although I have no Italian roots myself. One of the reasons for this is probably that I possess traits stereotypically considered Italian. Such as impatience.

Sometimes impatience can actually be good as it enables you to constantly seek ways to do things more efficiently. And sometimes impatience can be very bad. For instance when you are trying a new recipe and reading it a bit haphazardly. Some dishes and cooking techniques are more forgiving for an occasional slip of attention whereas some are definitely not. Baking is certainly one of the most brutal kinds in this sense. You miss one little ingredient or step and suddenly you have a disaster instead of a lovely pie in your kitchen.

Yesterday I learnt that caramelization is another example of these less relaxed types. I missed one word of a recipe and managed to make something resembling charcoal for Barbie’s barbecue rather than a rhubarb topping for my salad. Fortunately this time – in addition to spare rhubarb – I had a more capable “sous chef” at my disposal who kindly and more patiently showed me what was supposed to be done. (Just in case you are wondering, Barbie’s charcoal is on the left below.)

Rhubarbs

A nice thing about this wonderful salad recipe is that it is quite easy and quick to prepare – as long as you follow the sous chef technique for caramelization instead of the charcoal one! Goat cheese and sweet flavours obviously work well together but walnuts also complement the nutty flavour of caramelization brilliantly, and the acidity of rhubarb balances the richness and sweetness of the other ingredients just superbly.

Goat Cheese And Rhubarb Salad

60 g butter

4 tbsp sugar

100 g rhubarb (leaf stalks)

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp sweet mustard

salt, pepper

200 g mixed lettuce leaves

50 g goat cheese (sliced or crumbled)

6 pc walnuts (slightly crumbled)

Clean and peel the rhubarb leaf stalks and cut them into smallish cubes.

In a pan melt the butter on a low/ medium heat. Add the sugar and once it starts to dissolve into the butter, add the rhubarb cubes. Cook (on that low/ medium heat) for about ten minutes until you have caramelized the rhubarb cubes and they are a bit soft. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rhubarb cool down for some minutes.

In a small glass, mix the ingredients of the salad dressing (olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, salt, pepper). Make the salad by first placing the lettuce leaves on at the bottom of the salad bowl, then pouring the dressing onto them, and finally adding the caramelized rhubarb, goat cheese and walnuts on top.

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Pretty Perfect in Pink – Farfalle Fucsia di Ugo Tognazzi

In general, I do my best to be an open-minded and tolerant person. Yet I have to admit one thing: despite quite a significant number of years of us trying to bear each other, me and the Finnish winter just don’t get along. I do enjoy a white Christmas as much as everyone else but six months of temperatures below +5C is simply criminal.

Fortunately spring is now just around the corner! And this time I found a perfect recipe to celebrate that. It is from a cook book called “Mettiamoci a cucinare” by Benedetta Parodi. The idea of this cook book is quite neat as it is organised in three different main sections: 1) “Today I have little time”, 2) “Today I make an effort”, and 3) “Today I want to impress”. This recipe is from the impressive part but it is still simple enough for you to prepare even on a regular weekday if you are feeling as festive about the upcoming season as I am! The ingredients are simple but they cooperate in a fabulous harmony (think opposite of my relationship with the Finnish winter). The sweetness and softness of the beetroot and onion is complemented by the cream and parmesan, and balanced by the acidity of lemon and white wine. In addition, the pink colour of the dish is quite lovely even though my iPhone snap doesn’t do it enough justice!

Fuchsia Farfalle of Ugo Tognazzi

Serves 4-6

400 g farfalle pasta

2 cooked beetroots

250 ml cream

1 onion

1 glass of white wine

3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese

juice of ½ lemon

basil

30 g butter

5 tbsp olive oil

salt, pepper

Chop the onion and fry it gently with the butter and olive oil in a pan. Add the wine and let it evaporate a bit. Cut the beetroots into cubes and add them to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and continue cooking the mixture for a few minutes. Pour the contents of the pan into a blender and mix them with the cream to obtain a lovely pink/ fuchsia and creamy texture. Cook the pasta. Return the beetroot cream to the pan with the lemon juice and shortly heat it. Remove the pan from the heat and add the pasta and parmesan. Serve with fresh basil.

Music to Tastebuds – Rosette con Pane alla Menta e Limone

One of the disadvantages of living in a city apartment is that there is a fairly limited amount of space available for your pots, kitchen utensils and gadgets. At least if you prioritise things like a dining table and living room sofa over them. I still possess items such as a wok pan that I don’t really use since due to its enormous size, you can only wash it in a bathtub. Yet in general, I try to limit my kitchenware to mainly essentials.

That being said, I have now identified a new must-have: a mandolin. Obviously I mean the slicer, not the instrument although nice music to accompany your cooking can sometimes be quite essential too! This fabulous zucchini dish alone – from the July edition of La Cucina Italiana – justifies the investment of money and space in this utensil (even if I have to ditch the wok giant, which may not be such a bad idea anyway…).

The process of this recipe is quite simple: you slice the zucchini with your mandolin, shortly precook the slices to make them soft enough for rolling, wrap and bake them with a superbly flavoursome filling and finally accompany with the perfect match of parmesan mayonnaise. The end result will be music to your tastebuds!

I came up with a neat trick for the breadcrumbs since I do not often have old white bread at home and the right kind of breadcrumbs are as essential for the success of this recipe as the mandolin: I bought one wheat roll, halved it, grilled the halves in the oven to dry them and finally blended them into crumbs.

Zucchini Rolls with Bread, Mint and Lemon

Serves 4

400 g zucchini

100 g breadcrumbs/ 1 wheat roll dried and crumbled

100 g mayonnaise

parmesan, grated

1 tbsp (strong) mint, chopped

zest of ½ lemon, grated

olive oil

salt

To make the filling, mix the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, mint, a pinch of salt and 60 g olive oil in a bowl.

For the accompanying sauce: In a separate bowl, combine the mayonnaise with 40 g of the parmesan and 10 g hot water.

Cut the zucchini lengthways into thin slices (by using the mandolin if possible). Cook them in boiling water for 1 minute, drain them and put them in cold water. After that drain and dry the slices.

Take two zucchini slices at a time and place them in an adjoining “line” (one on top of the other for a few centimeters) to obtain a “slice” of double length. Add the breadcrumb filling on top of the zucchini slices and gently wrap the zucchini slices to form a roll. Repeat until you have used all your zucchini.

Take an oven tray and cover it with a parchment paper. Place the zucchini rolls on it and sprinkle them with some grated parmesan and a trickle of olive oil. Bake in the oven at 180C for 5-8 minutes. Serve immediately with the parmesan mayonnaise.

The Peach Party – Pesche Noci Grigliate

Summer has arrived in Helsinki! Each year it surprises me how fast the weather changes from the freezing stupid winter to the beautiful full bloom of the fabulous May and it is fantastic to see my fellow often grumpy citizens of Helsinki to actually raise a spontaneous smile. Yes, I am not exactly a fan of all four seasons (another motive for my Italian studies in addition to the fantastic cooking) so this time of the year makes me almost lyrical. However, as my talents for writing poems are at least as well hidden as my baking skills, I’d better focus on today’s recipe now and channel my inner Yeats at another time.

Right. In addition to the changes in weather, another thing that surprises me each year is re-discovering how much more fun cooking gets when you suddenly have a lot broader and tastier range of fresh fruit, berries and veggies at your disposal. It also makes cooking easier since you do not need to resort to all sorts of gimmicks (and sometimes even desperate pleas) to bring out the flavour of your ingredients. Today’s recipe is one example of that simplicity. It is from an Italian food blog. I discovered this dish when I was looking for a dessert and noticed that fresh peaches had arrived in my supermarket. I am not a very big dessert person but this one certainly hit the spot! Rosemary and vanilla were two perfect companions to complement the flavour of the peaches and mascarpone gave the dish a creamy finishing touch. I didn’t manage to halve the peaches as instructed in the blog (apparently mine were mostly too ripe) but since this wasn’t a baking assignment, I didn’t panic but sliced them into a tin foil instead. The end result may in fact have been even nicer since this way the sugars and the juice of the peaches formed a tasty sauce during grilling.

Grilled Peaches

Serves 4

4 peaches

250 g mascarpone

Granulated sugar flavoured with vanilla (or cane sugar/ granulated sugar and vanilla sugar)

Fresh rosemary

A knob of butter

Maple syrup

Rinse the peaches and dry them well. Halve them and remove their pits (in case you fail, like I did, you can also just slice them but obviously still remove the pits; after this, move them onto a tin foil). Add the sugar into the holes of the peach halves previously occupied by the pits (or sprinkle it onto the slices). Press a sprig of rosemary into the central part of the peach halves (or the slices).

In a bowl, mix the mascarpone with the maple syrup to your taste and store the mixture in a fridge.

Heat a grill and melt the butter gently on its surface/ grill pan (obviously no need for this step if you are using the tin foil). Put the peach halves onto the grill with their sugary side facing the grill and press them gently for a few minutes (in case of slices, wrap the tin foil and move it to the grill). The peaches are ready when the sugar has been caramelised (in case of slices, grill for some minutes; the end result will be peaches with a sauce rather than caramelised peaches). Serve immediately with the flavoured mascarpone.

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.

The Great Pizza Hunt – Part 1

As mentioned in my introduction of this blog, there is one thing that I’m slighty obsessed with in the Italian kitchen: the perfect pizza. It seems that I am not alone. At least in Italy. My most recent experiment is from the website of Corriere della Sera. The recipe proudly promises to unveil the secret of the perfect pizza – a claim which has certainly sparked quite an intensive debate in the comments section of the recipe.

As also mentioned in my blog intro, I am not exactly skilled in the field of baking. I have some less fortunate incidents in my past, such as burning some parchment paper (and the pastries on it) in the oven. Or heating the oven to 250 degrees as instructed in a Martha Stewart recipe, only to discover later – after having an end result resembling coal – Martha, being an American, obviously meant 250 degrees Fahrenheit (~100 Centigrades). But when there’s a will (which there certainly is to bring this missing piece of Italy to my little kitchen in Helsinki!), there’s a way. And if I can do this, so can you!

The first challenge of following an Italian pizza recipe is conversion. The good news is that there are no fire hazards similar to the M. Stewart incident. However, it seems that an Italian always makes a pizza recipe with the intention of feeding an entire famiglia. In a Finnish city environment, this would probably be an equivalent to a couple of staircases of an apartment building. I wanted to make this pizza for two people but 1.8 kg flour sounded somewhat excessive for us and the recipe doesn’t give any indication on the amount of servings. In the comments section of the Corriere article, someone (sounding sufficiently street credible) instructed to use slightly less flour than in the recipe if you don’t have a proper pizza oven at your disposal. I followed his advice and decreased the amount of flour to 1.6 kg. After that I divided all the ingredients by four and miraculously ended up with a serving just right for hungry two. And yes, this recipe certainly is at least a strong candidate for the perfect Italian pizza!

There are a few more tips that I have learned so far during my hunt for the pizza greatness:

Preparing a proper Italian pizza takes time. You should take your time to properly knead the dough and reserve hours (at least 8-10 in this case) for the dough to rise. Many recommend that you first store the dough in a fridge over night. After that you still need to let the dough rise for those 8-10 hours.

The flour you use makes a difference. Italians and I use a finely ground type “00”. If not available, it is often proposed that you substitute it with durum wheat flour.

The amount of yeast used in real Italian pizza is miniscule compared to many “less authentic” recipes. I suppose the Italian pizza has been modified by the less patient Finnish, American etc. bakers by substituting the long rising time with yeast. You should also always use fresh baker’s yeast for the Italian recipes.

– When it comes to cheese, there is no real substitute for mozzarella di bufala. And obviously the perfect tomato sauce is yet a completely different matter. In fact, so different that I will dedicate a separate posting for it!

Pizzakuva ennen

The Perfect Pizza – Candidate # 1

Serves 2-3

2.5 dl water

14 g salt (~2-3 teaspoons)

6.2 dl flour (type “00”)

1 g fresh yeast

+ the toppings

Pour the water into a bowl. Add the salt and stir with your hand until the salt has dissolved into the water. Drizzle 10% of the flour into the salt water and continue stirring for a few seconds. Add the yeast and mix carefully. Continue adding the remainder of the flour by drizzling it and mixing it with rotational movement. Once all the flour is included in the dough, place it on a table. Continuously knead and fold the dough. Continue until the dough is  smooth and not sticky (this should take at least 10 minutes). Cover the dough with a damp towel and leave to rest for two hours. After two hours, divide the dough into two blocks (about 200 g each). Cover both blocks with a dry towel and let rise for at least 6 hours. Roll out the dough into large rounds, using a rolling pin or your hands. Add the tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala and other toppings to your taste. Remember that less is really more when it comes to pizza toppings! Sprinkle some olive oil on top. Bake in the oven at 200 Centigrades for about 15 minutes.