One of my friends made this cake and it is called a Rich Almond and Ricotta Cake.

The recipe was a photocopy from a magazine of a couple of years ago. She has made the cake a few times and it has always been successful.

The cake is nice eaten on its own but just to remind us that it is winter, we enjoyed eating it like a dessert with warm stewed quinces and cream. With a cup of tea for morning or afternoon it is just as nice.

Because she decorated her cake with lavender from her garden we discussed how a lavender custard would also be an excellent accompaniment for this cake. I have included a recipe for this as well.

250g ricotta cheese
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp almond extract
175g caster sugar
250g almond meal
finely grated rind of 1 lime
1/4 cup flaked almonds
Icing sugar to dust
Preheat the oven to 150C
Beat together the ricotta, egg yolks, almond extract and sugar in an electric mixer until smooth. Stir in the almond meal and lime zest.
Whisk the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl until soft peaks. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the ricotta mixture to loosen, then fold in the remaining. Spread into the tin and bake for 35 minutes. Sprinkle with the almonds and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool slightly, then turn on to a wire rack. Cool completely then dust with icing sugar to serve.

Lavender custard

2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
6 fresh lavender flowers, without stems
Beat the egg yolks and sugar until creamy. Heat the milk until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan ( well before boiling point).
Pour a little of the egg mixture into the hot milk in the saucepan and whisk steadily. Keep on adding dribbles of the egg mixture slowly into the saucepan, and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens.
Remove from the heat and add the lavender flowers. Pour the custard into a jug; place a piece of baking paper directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to steep in the fridge overnight. Remove the flowers before serving.

 

On the same weekend another friend gave me a present. She crocheted this extraordinary tea cosy for me. If only I had this fabulous creation when we ate our cake!

The Rich Almond and Ricotta Cake recipe reminded me of a different almond cake I used to make  – one of those flourless moist cakes that Claudia Roden made very popular and that has Sicilian flavours and ingredients. The almonds are toasted beforehand and then half of them are ground to a meal and the other half are coarsely ground before they are added to the cake mixture. This adds crunch as well as a more pronounced taste of almonds throughout the cake rather than just on top.

I am not saying that one cake is better than the other. They are both a variation on a theme. In Sicily the ricotta would be made from sheep’s milk – more delicate and sweeter.

Torta di Mandorle e Ricotta

Although it is called a torta (cake) it doubles up as being one of those moist desserts that I prefer to eat warm accompanied by some stewed winter or summer fruit or fresh strawberries. A dollop of cream does not go astray but this is not a common Italian custom.

250 grams of almonds
250 g ricotta, drained (the one sold in the tub is usually too moist and not suitable)
100 grams of sugar
4 eggs
finely grated rind of 1 lemon or orange

Blanch the almonds and then toast in the oven (160 degrees) till golden. Beat the ricotta and sugar, add  rind, the eggs one at a time then mix in the almonds. Mix everything well. Pour into a cake pan lined with baking paper and bake at 160 C  for 45 minutes. Serve it warm.

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I met some very interesting people while I was in Italy. One such person is Sergio Manbrini and he has a restaurant called Cartoccia in Mantova (Mantua).

Sergio founded and directed the first Legambiente of Mantua, a group dealing with issues aimed at investigating the relationship between health, nutrition, agriculture and the environment. He is now an author as well as an activist on environmental issues and a restauranteur.

His first book is Fango Nero and as you would expect it has a political message. Sergio began his working life in a factory and like the character in his book, he began to question the social, industrial and economic events that were happening in the 70’s and the consequential changes to the society and the environment he lived in. He decided to radically change his way of life and motivate others to do the same.

It is therefore of no surprise that the restaurant only uses organic, dio – dynamic, raw ingredients. All good!!

Of prime importance when I travel is to eat the local food and traditional dishes of that particular town and region (yes, to this degree – the variations and specialities of dishes exist in the short proximities). I could not go wrong when my partner and I ordered from his menu.

Cartoccia+tortollini+full+plate

Tortelli di zucca conditi con burro e salvia.  being a purist, I selected the classic traditional version dressed with butter and sage. These are large tortellini stuffed with yellow pumpkin and  certainly a classic dish from this area (photo above). On the menu he also had the tortelli dressed with, sugo di pomodoro e salsiccia mantovana (dressed with a tomato sauce with pork sausage from Mantova).

Tagliatelle con castagne, ricotta e radicchio con speck (Tagliatelle made with chestnut flour and wheat,  dressed with ricotta and radicchio and speck).

Luccio in salsa con peperoni capperi, acciughe on polenta (Pike, a fresh water fish with peppers, capers, anchovies on polenta).

Verdura grigliata (we ate this as an appetiser – seasonal vegetables including Cavolo Nero).

Torta sbrisolona (a local specialty).

During lunch I had many interesting conversations about global and local issues.  We discussed the food we were eating and my interest in sustainable fish and in the environment and I was told how pike swam in the lakes of Mantua when the water was not polluted. Pike is now bred and fished nearby in very clean waters, as the lake is so polluted that no swimming is permitted. We discussed the pros and cons of aquaculture and the importance of maintaining our interest and commitment to such an important issue.

This is not Sergio’s recipe for Tortelli di Zucca. I used to have an aunt who was Piedmontese and lived in Genova, she was an excellent cook and she used to make them. In her recipes she always included Mostarda di frutta di Cremona, an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard flavoured syrup. In my home we ate Mostarda with Bollito misto (boiled meats) and This is all I have left of the jar of Mostarda in my fridge. Cremona is not far from Mantova or Genova and the tortelli being a classical dish from these parts of Italy, it would contain Mostarda di Frutta as well as amaretti. It is an interesting taste and quite sweet.

You may consider making them into ravioli. Tortelloni are big tortellini and there is no way that I can describe adequately how you can fold them in writing… Basically they are squares of pasta, small amount of filling, pasta square is folded in half, one point of triangle folded down, other two points joined together. I am sure that if you are interested there would be something on the internet about this.

I have described how to make ravioli in an earlier post. See: Ravioli di Ricotta :

The filling is sufficient for a pasta made with 250g of white hard wheat flour and 3-4 eggs. There are plenty of recipes on how to make home made fresh pasta and I will not bore you with that.

A non-watery type of pumpkin is best. If boiled, the pumpkin must be well drained (butternut, Japanese, in Australia)

INGREDIENTS

Fresh pasta in sheets.

Filling:

1.5kg pumpkin peeled and seeded and cooked (baked or boiled in little water)
1 tablespoon butter melted
50g Amaretti biscuits, crumbed
2 tablespoons of chopped fruit from Mostarda di Frutta (pear and apricot are good)
100g Parmigiano grated
 ½ tsp ground nutmeg
Salt, pepper to taste

Sauce:

Melt 1 cup of unsalted on gentle heat. When the butter begins to bubble add 7 leaves of fresh sage and continue the heat for 1 to 2 minutes. The butter will be a caramel colour.
Make the sauce last of all.

PROCESS

Make pasta.
Mash the (cold or warm), cooked pumpkin and add all of the other ingredients. The filling should have the consistency of a paste (not runny). If it does not, you may need to add some fresh breadcrumbs from good quality bread (no crusts).
Fill and shape into ravioli.
Cook ravioli in salted boiling water for 4-5 minutes, they will float to the top.
Dress with sage butter, add some freshly ground pepper, Parmesan
(optional), and serve.

 

I enjoyed my lunch very much and I wish Sergio well…. he persists when it is so easy to give up.

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This photo above is a photo of one of the courses I very much enjoyed in a Sardinian Restaurant in Bologna called Taverna Mascarella. It was listed on their the menu as Cicoretta con salsiccia (fresh pork sausage)

Cicoretta is either young chicory or it can also mean wild chicory. The large featured photo is of a man collecting wild greens in Agrigento (by the entrance to the temples) and the one below is a photo of wild chicory sold in the Catania market in Sicily.

I have written about chicory on this blog before and it is one of my favourite green leafy vegetables. You could also make it with other greens: Cime di rape or Cavolo Nero (also called Tuscan cabbage) or Kale or even spinach.

See:
CICORIA
CAVOLO NERO
KALE

This is how to make Cicoretta con salsiccia:

INGREDIENTS
1 bunch of Chicory.
2 Italian fresh pork sausages (with or without fennel or chilli)
 
PROCESSES
Clean and wilt the greens. Drain them.
Cut sausage or remove the mince from the skins and separate it into small pieces. Saute the sausage in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the greens, salt and pepper (to your liking) and toss them around in the hot pan with the sausage meat until the greens are well coated and flavoured.
 
Cheese wafers
The crusty wedges you can see in the photo are made with grated Pecorino sardo (Sardinian pecorino).  If you add grated cheese to a heated non stick frypan and keep on cooking it it will stick together and form a wafer. You could do this on a stove or in an oven.
Try making small ones at first, just add a spoonful of grated cheese to a non stick frypan and watch it melt. Cool in the pan and the cheese will solidify and you will be able to lift it out with a spatula.

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I was in Tunis recently and very much enjoyed one particular meal at a restaurant that was by locals and cooked traditional food. The restaurant was very hard to find and our map reading skills were not the best, but we were very happy with the range of food we ate there. Harissa seemed to be in most of the food we ate including some mixed in some oil, which was served as a dip as a starter. It had slices of cucumber and black olives in it.

The other was a carrot dip also with Harissa.We dipped our bread into both of them.

I have been making and eating harissa for many years.

Harissa is a hot chilli condiment and ingredient and is the favoured national spice of Tunisia, but it is also popular in Algeria and Libya. It is very common to have harissa with couscous and I first tasted it in Sicily many years ago, which is very close to Tunis.

There are now many books about Middle Eastern cuisine (and North African) with recipes and variations for making it, but this version is very simple. I like to use whole caraway or cumin seeds rather than the powder and I do not usually weigh the chilli flakes, but the following ratio works well. In Tunisia they use a dry, very dark whole chilli, which produces Harissa with an intense colour. The chillies could also be smoked (hence their dark colour).

150g dried chilli flakes
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
hot water to soften the chilli
1 tbsp whole caraway or cumin seeds
salt, 1 tablespoon
extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup for the mixture and a little extra to seal
Pour hot water on to the chilli flakes, (just enough to cover them) and soak for about 30 minutes. If using caraway sees rather than powder, add these to soak as well. (The water will be absorbed and the flakes should swell).
Blend the ingredients in a small food processor.
Add the garlic, salt and some the extra virgin olive oil. You may need to add a little water – it should resemble a soft paste.
Pack into small glass jars and top with oil to seal. Replace the oil covering each time you use it.

 

To make the Harrisa flavoured oil simply mix 2-3 teaspoons of Harissa in about 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil.

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Wild asparagus is strongly associated with spring and as an Italian I am continuing  with my appreciation and fascination of wild asparagus and seasonal produce.

I bought these wild asparagus in Varese, close to Milan and once again they are totally different in appearance, taste and texture. These are from the woods, i.e. “bosco”. Their stems are slightly furry and they do not taste as bitter as the other two varieties I ate in Sicily or the wild asparagus I ate in Tunis. See Wild Asparagus in Tunis

In this region of Italy butter features strongly in cooking so I sautéed them in butter and added salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. We ate them as a contorno (side dish).

 

I sautéed the second bunch in butter and oil and then added eggs, some grated Parmigiano, salt and pepper and made a frittatatina (small frittata) – this is a very common way to eat wild asparagus in Italy; in Sicily it is one of the favoured foods on Easter Monday (called La Pasquetta).

FRITTATINA DI ASPARAGI ( Small Frittata….substitute with thin variety of asparagus)
Wash the asparagus well, break off any hard ends and break the asparagus into smaller pieces.
Sauté the asparagus in some extra virgin olive oil, add a little salt and pepper. ( Most Italians pre-soften them by boiling them first).
Mix 6 eggs that have been beaten with a fork, add a little salt and about 1 tablespoon of grated cheese.Pour the egg mixture on top of the asparagus, cook the frittata on one side, slide the frittata onto a plate, flip the uncooked side on to the pan and cook.

 

After Italy I went to Spain (Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona). I saw wild asparagus plants growing Toledo and in the Gaudi Gardens In Barcelona (including wild fennel and even bushes of thyme in Montserrat). I did not see them on menus or for sale in the markets in Spain but I suspect that the wild asparagus season is well and truly over – Spain was much warmer than Italy.

 

The quality of the vegetables in the markets in Spain is very good, but I was surprised not to see anything out of the ordinary. There were artichokes and broad beans (both in season) but nowhere near the range of salad or cooking greens I saw in Italy.

What I appreciated in Spain and especially in Barcelona were the artichokes. They are almost totally stripped of all their leaves, sliced very thinly, dipped in a little flour and deep fried. Like the Italians, the Spaniards also eat them as a frittatina (tortilla). The cleaned artichokes are sliced thinly and cooked in the same way as the wild asparagus.

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