Thursday, 29 August 2013

Flo and Elle's Tuscan Recipe 3: Nonna’s Tiramisu

Don’t worry I am not going to do a Nigella – the nonna in this case is not mine! 

Tiramisu, n.

An Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur and a filling of mascarpone cheese, topped with cocoa powder.
Etymology:  Italian, ‘pick me up’ < phrase tira mi su.

The name of this dessert is first cited in the early eighties and its origin hotly debated. Some believing its birthplace to be Treviso, near Venice, and others Siena. Nevertheless, the best Tiramisu I have ever had, has to be in the Tuscan Town of Volterra where Ombra della Sera have been making the owner’s grandmother’s recipe for several decades.

What is wonderful about this particular version is that it feels like you are eating clouds. It is light, almost frothy and nowhere near the heavy, over-chilled, stodgy versions you get all over the UK. 

The owner let me in on their technique of using zabaglione, whisked egg whites and mascarpone to get that delicious texture. This may not be the definitive traditional method, but I firmly believe it is the best, and in a dish that can only be around 40 years old, this method has its own venerable family tradition.

If you compare the recipe below to, for example, Nigella’s method from Nigella Express, you can instantly grasp the difference. Where Nigella (who I love with the exception of her Express book) uses 2 whisked egg yolks and 1 whisked egg white to 500 grams of mascarpone, I use 5 whisked yolks and 5 egg whites to 300g mascarpone. 

You can see how much more aerated my mix will be. Delia Smith too, has a less airy ratio. Moreover, because both the zabaglione and the Italian meringue mixes involve heat (the zabaglione is made over a Bain Marie and the Italian meringue mix uses hot sugar) they are more stable, meaning the air is much harder to punch out of them. 

So, here my recipe. It is worth noting, before you start, that it should be left around an hour before eating and that it shouldn’t be made any more than 5 hours in advance, since the savoiardi biscuits will begin to disintegrate.

Prep time: 45 mins – 1 hour
Resting time: 1 hour (up to 4 hours)
Serves 10


For the coffee liqueur mix
1 teacup of espresso coffee – I brewed mine using Lavazza and a percolator but any strong coffee will do
2/3 of a teacup of Vin Santo (or other)
These measurements don’t need to be precise since you won’t use all of it

For the zabaglione
5 egg yolks
5 tablespoons of sugar
5 tablespoons of Vin Santo (you can also use other liqueurs but I like the taste of Vin Santo)

For the Italian Meringue 
5 egg whites
80g sugar

For the rest
300g mascarpone
2 packs of savoiardi biscuits (around 20)
3 teaspoons of cocoa powder
2 squares of dark chocolate (optional)

Coffee Liqueur Mix
Brew your espresso and allow to cool
Mix in the Vin Santo


Put a saucepan of water on the boil
Put your egg yolks and 5 tablespoons of sugar into a glass bowl that fits over the saucepan
Measure out your 5 table spoons of liqueur into a glass
Turn the heat down so you have a gentle simmer and place the glass bowl over the top of it
Using an electric whisk at top speed, whisk until foamy 

Add the Vin Santo and continue whisking for 5-8 minutes, taking off the heat every now again so the eggs don’t cook and scramble! I also turn the heat off after a minute of whisking so that the water doesn’t get any hotter

You are aiming for a thick and foamy texture that will hold the shape of a swirl in it for around a second, like a thick hollandaise sauce. Just keep whisking until it reaches that consistency. It should have tripled in volume. 
Take off the heat and put aside until required

The Italian Meringue Mix
Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius electric or 180 degrees Celsius fan 
Line a baking sheet and pour in 80g sugar (or use an unlined pyrex dish). Make sure the sugar is in an even layer
Place in the oven for 10-12 minutes to heat up – make sure it doesn’t burn or liquidise – you will see from the edges if it starts to so take it out straight away of that happens
Put the egg whites in a large, clean mixing bowl. 
Using an electric mixer, start to whisk them vigorously. 
When they are foamy, add the sugar a little at a time until the mixture is stiff, fluffy and glossy like satin
Put aside until needed

Combining the Tiramisu Filling

Put the mascarpone in a bowl and whisk using an electric hand held whisk
Slowly incorporate the zabaglione whilst whisking 

Vigorously stir in 3 tablespoons of the Italian meringue mix

Fold in the rest of the Italian meringue with a metal spoon and a folding motion, dragging the marscapone-zabaglione mix over the egg whites until the whole mix is smooth and fully incorporated

Assembling the Tiramisu 

Slice your savoiardi biscuits lengthways so you have 2 long thin pieces. This creates a thinner, more delicate sponge layer
Arrange along the bottom of a squareish glass dish so that they cover as much of it as possible

Using a teaspoon, delicately spoon the coffee-liqueur mix over the biscuits so they are all uniformly brown. I do this rather painstaking technique to avoid soggy, wet sponge layers which really do ruin the overall effect. I used 2-3 small teaspoons per biscuit

Spoon over half the Tiramisu filling and flatten with a spoon

Arrange another layer of savoiardi biscuits and spoon over the coffee liqueur mix as before

Spoon over the rest of the Tiramisu filling
Flatten with a spoon
Put the cocoa powder in a very fine sieve or tea strainer and sprinkle over the top
Grate the chocolate on a fine setting and sprinkle that over too
Keep in the fridge but make sure you take it out 15 minutes before serving so it is not too cold

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Flo, Arthur and Elle's Tuscan Recipe 2: Courgette Flower Pasta

Twice a week at the crack of dawn Leopoldo, the local farmer) scales the hill up to Lotti and leaves us an offering from his garden. This will invariably involve a delicious supply of baby courgettes with their flowers still on, succulent,sun-ripened tomatoes and inedibly sour grapes!We (brother Arthur included here) are often looking for new ways to use these courgettes - we also grow them in Sussex - and this recipe is useful in using both flowers and vegetable. 

If you don’t grow them, they can be bought at farmers markets like the one at the end of our road in Parliament Hill. My only warning is that courgette flowers die pretty quickly after being plucked so use them the day you buy them or the day after and whatever you do, don’t refrigerate them – they just wilt – and don't eat the stamen, its a disgusting mouth full of pollen!

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Serves 4

Courgette Flower Fritters:
120g courgette flowers
A handful of basil
45g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated on a rough setting
1 white
45g flour
1tbspn extra virgin olive oil
15ml water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sunflower oil for deep-frying

400g pasta – penne or farfalle are good
80ml extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
30g red chillies, finely chopped
4 medium courgettes, coarsely grated
40g Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

To make 12-16 fritters 

First, remove the stamen from the flowers with scissors. Discard the stem

Next snip your courgette flowers into rough little strips into a bowl.
Snip your basil up roughly too and add to the bowl
Add the roughly grated parmesan and a good sprinkling of black pepper

Now make a batter by mixing the water slowly into the flower until it forms a paste
Whisk your egg white until it is white and foamy and fold into the flour paste
Add 5 tablespoons of batter to the mix, or enough that it will form balls without being too wet
Form 12-16 balls from the mix
Heat the oil in a deep pan so that it is at least 1 ½ inches high
Get it hot to the point where a small piece of bread will instantly start bubbling away and turn golden in 30 seconds
Gently drop the balls into the oil, wearing rubber gloves in case any oil spits
Cook for 2-3 minutes until they just begin to turn golden
Remove and drain on kitchen roll to remove any excess oil
To make the pasta and sauce:
400g pasta
In salted water, boil the pasta of your choice until it’s al dente, 10-15 minutes if using dried pasta, less for fresh or egg pasta. Drain.
In a pan, melt the butter and heat the garlic and chillies. Don’t let them colour as this makes the garlic turn bitter
Add the grated courgettes and fry for a minute or two. Add the cooked pasta and season with salt and pepper.
Serve with the fritters neatly dotted around and a sprinkle of parmesan

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Flo and Elle's Tuscany: Little house on Pignano

"Pignano" - I know, what a name. The name gives itself to the gorgeous collection of houses, farm houses and outbuildings which were once attached to my godmother's family's house Lotti (mentioned in our Tuscan taster post). This idyllic hamlet is now available to stay in as a hotel and is still under the radar of most travel sites so worth a visit very soon. 

Pignano itself has now been bought by an infamous pair of media moguls. Top secret of course, let's just say they made their fortune from something beginning with G and ending in *ahem*. It has now been turned into a luxury-hotel-come-commune on the hill and boasts an azure salt water swimming pool complete with a rock large enough to turn the manliest man into a manchild in a matter of minutes - try saying that quickly over and over. No? I can't either.

On occasion the boy and I wandered up to see what we could see (ahem... eat what we could eat) at the hotel rather than foraging for ourselves in our lowly farm building, eating Flo's crostini. To celebrate my birthday, we skipped up the hill to sample their lunch and drink their crisp white vernaccia. For lunch, borgo Pignano serve a selection of 'light' dishes made from the land. On that occasion, we had quinoa and mozarella stuffed courgettes, spinach and pine nut salad and bresaola with fresh baked bread.

Flo and I went horse riding a couple of times on the site of Borgo Pignano, where they have a small stables of beautifully kept horses and ponies - more on this in other posts. They also have two beautiful hound, dalmation crosses which I fell instantly in love with.

Having had such a nice time during the days, we brought the entire family back for their barbecue night which happens on Thursdays. Arthur did us proud in the swimming pool.

The pre-dinner Aperol spritz hour was spent pool side before retiring to the terrace for all you could eat.
It turns out we could eat rather a lot, though getting back home again afterwards was a bit of a struggle. 

This summer one of Pignano's resident chefs is Texan, so she had whipped up a texan Barbecue: ribs in smokey apricot sauce and all. Being towards the end of our week, this guilty pleasure was a welcome change from all the incredible Italian food we had been eating, though obviously a little bit blasphemous. Just don't tell the locals.
The outdoor wood oven which usually is put to far more authentic use, but in this instance was used to heat a charcoal grill - naughty

Incredible oven baked bread from the Pignano kitchen

Naughty texan barbecue. Some light foodie escapism if you will... 

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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Flo & Elle's Tuscan Recipe 1: Crostini

Crostini Misti

This has become something of a lunchtime staple while on holiday in Tuscany with a selection of beautifully simple salads. They also work wonderfully as a starter or as part of a selection of canapés. They key is to assemble just before serving so the bread doesn’t go soggy. I have written down the recipes, if you can even call them recipes, for 3 of my favourite combinations – beautifully ripe tomato and basil, deliciously earthy mushroom and thyme, and the unusual fennel salami, finocchiona with rocket and parmesan. You can get finocchiona from Asda (which I haven’t yet tried) as well as specialist delicatessens such as Salvino, our favourite Italian shop on Brecknock Road near Kentish Town

As I understand it, the difference between bruschetta and crostini is that crostini tend to be made with finer textured bread, like a baguette, and to be smaller in portion size. I only had a white loaf to use so perhaps what I made would technically be called bruschetta but there doesn’t seem to be such

For the bread

24 small pieces of good quality bread – around the size of a slice of a small baguette and around 7.5mm thick (just under a centimetre)
4 cloves of garlic, sliced into thin pieces
Extra virgin olive oil

Cover a baking dish with a thin layer of oil and rub the garlic around in it. Rub each side of the bread pieces around so they get a nice golden covering.

Heat up a griddle pan if you have one and toast the bread on each side so you get those attractive, and delicious, dark brown griddle lines across them

Otherwise grill each side in the oven, watching carefully so that they don’t burn

Put aside until needed

Tomato Crostini, 8 pieces

4 large plum tomatoes
½ clove of garlic, crushed
20 leaves of basil, torn up or sliced roughly
1 dessertspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice

With such a simple dish it is important to get delicious, ripe tomatoes of any variety. You can use my quantities as a guideline and apply them to different tomato sizes

Slice your tomatoes lengthways and scoop the seeds out using your fingers. Discard the seeds

Dice your tomatoes into small pieces around 7.5mm by 7.5mm

Squeeze out any remaining liquid and place in a bowl with the crushed garlic, basil, salt, pepper, oil and lemon

Leave until ready to assemble

Mushroom Crostini, 8 pieces

1 pack of mushrooms, 300g
1 clove of garlic
8 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked (otherwise sage is delicious, or parsley)
Olive oil
A small teacup full of wine (no need to be very precise)

Choose a mushroom variety you like, or a mix. Even those basic white mushrooms are delicious in this (also, remember that they shrink a lot when cooked)

Clean your mushrooms but try not to get them wet since this can wash away flavour

Dice them into small pieces of around 1cm by 1cm

Dice your garlic into small pieces

Heat up oil in a pan and add the garlic for a minute but don’t let it colour – take it off the heat for a bit if need be.

Add the mushrooms and thyme and stir around for a couple of minutes

Add the seasoning and wine and stir until all the liquid has evaporated

Taste to see if they are the right texture for you and if not, cook for a little longer

When ready, take off the heat and put aside until needed

Finocchiona, Pecorino and Rocket Crostini, 8 pieces

8 pieces of very finely sliced finocchiona
16 large pecorino shavings, shaved of a piece of mature, dry parmesan with a knife
A couple of handfuls of rocket
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Black Pepper

All you do is neatly arrange the finochiona on the bread, with rocket and a parmesan shaving on top and a final light drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of pepper. Simple!