Sep 11, 2017

School meals in Italy

One out of three Italian children under 12 years is overweight. While these rates are far behind those of the United States and the UK, Italy is working hard to reverse the trend.

Back to school season in Italy also means celebrating the "Mediterranean diet" in the school cafeteria.


Here's how Italians have joined the global fight against the rise of child obesity.

Continue Reading → School lunches in Italy: setting a healthy pattern for adult life as appeared on Gambero Rosso.

Sep 4, 2017

Casatiello

I'm long overdue sharing this recipe. I have been enjoying casatiello for many years, but only got around to actually making it from scratch last spring in Irpinia, during an episode shoot of ABCheese, my TV show.

Casatiello is an Easter dish from the region of Campania, of which Naples is the capital. Casatiello and Tortano are two rustic Neapolitan savory pies that differ only in how the eggs are placed. In casatiello the eggs are placed whole, in their shell, embedded in the top part of the bread dough, secured by criss-crossed strips of dough. In tortano the eggs are part of the filling. 

Casatiello is a pagan symbol of rebirth and celebration, but also represents a Catholic metaphor for the circular element of the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross. 

Casatiello is in fact normally eaten during the Easter festivities, served with fava beans, salumi and salted ricotta. Whatever is left over is usually packed in the Pasquetta (little Easter/Monday) picnic hamper.


The ingredient list of this rustic and savory bread includes rich and fatty chopped salami, cheese, pork cracklings, eggs and lard. Yes, lard.


The dough which will be the shell of the casatiello needs to be light and flaky, this is where lard comes into play.
This forgotten and now demonized ingredient (living a recent revival, however) is what our grandmothers used as fat in virtually every baked preparation. Inexpensive and stable lard is by no means "healthy" but it does have less cholesterol and saturated fat than butter, and unlike most vegetable shortening, it does not contain any trans fats. Moderation, obviously, is the key word here.
 
Because of its relatively large fat particles, strutto or sugna (rendered lard) is extremely effective as a shortening in baking. Pie crusts made with lard tend to be flakier than those made with butter or olive oil.
Lard, and shortening in general, work by coating flour particles and gluten strands in doughs (virtually "shortening" the strands, hence the term), and preventing them from forming a strong bond. The stronger the bond, the tougher the crust, and vice versa. Lard also has a higher melting point than butter.The picture above shows homemade rendered lard made from the kidney fat of healthy, free range pigs.


Here is the recipe for this sensational southern Italian Easter recipe.

Ingredients
600 g strong, bread flour*
300 ml lukewarm water
25 g brewer's yeast, melted in a small amount of water - or natural sourdough starter
225 g rendered lard
100 g pecorino cheese
150-200 g Italian salami
100 g pork cracklings
150 g sharp provolone cheese
Salt and pepper
4 or 6 eggs, depending on size, plus 1 yolk 

*Strong flour and bread flour generally mean the same thing: plenty of gluten which allows the dough to stretch and incorporate lots of air bubbles. The strenth of a flour is given by its "W" value. Bread flour varies between W160 and W310. This value is usually clearly stated on the packaging.

Start by preparing the bread dough. You're aiming for a wet, elastic dough.
Build a flour volcano. Add the yeast mix in the 'crater' along with 50 g of lard, then pour in the water a little at a time, stirring with a fork or your fingers. Keep adding the flour from the sides of the volcano. Only add a good pinch of salt at the very end (salt nullifies the yeast action). Knead to obtain a soft and elastic ball of dough. Add a little water if it feels too dry. It really all depends on what flour you're using.

Let the ball of dough proof in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap. The mass should double if not triple in volume. I usually place my dough to rise in the oven (turned off) with only the light on. This takes no less than 2 hours.

Move the dough to a flat work surface lightly dusted with flour. Deflate and roll it out to form a 1/2 inch thick rectangle. You could use a rolling pin, but the dough is fluffy enough to do this with your hands. Save a small amount of dough for garnish.

Now the fun part: adding the filling. Slather a third of the dough rectangle with 1 Tbsp lard (use your fingers or a spatula), sprinkle evenly with black pepper, scatter a third of the chopped salami and cracklings, and a third of the grated cheeses. Fold over the "dressed" part and repeat until you run out of filling. I folded over three times.
Roll up the whole thing, burrito-style.

Grease a ring mold with lard and place the rolled up casatiello in it, making sure to clasp the ends together to form a donut. Cover the casatiello and let it proof for additional 2-3 hours (time may vary depending on how warm your kitchen is, and how powerful the yeast is).

Wash the eggs under running water, pat dry and press them on the casatiello, pointy tips facing inwards. Roll the leftover dough into slender ropes. Secure the eggs by criss-crossing the dough ropes on each. Brush the surface of your casatiello with egg yolk. 

Heat the oven to 180°C (375°F) and bake for approximately 1 hour. Check doneness with a toothpick or a raw spaghetti noodle. Crank up the heat at the very end if the surface isn't browning enough.

Serve at room temperature. Who's uncorking the chilled Falanghina?

If properly wrapped in plastic wrap, it will last 3-4 days in the fridge. Mine hardly ever makes it past the day I make it.
 

My casatiello mentor, Patrizia.

Aug 28, 2017

48 hours in Cilento

My friends in Positano report that this summer the town is so crowded that it's barely possible to move around. Hotels are fully booked, ferries and hydrofoils pour out hundreds of people several times a day. Restaurants cannot fill tables fast enough. The recent earthquake that hit Ischia has forced many to leave the island and flock to Positano, only adding to the chaos.

If you want to enjoy the beauty and unique character of that enchanted coastline, but have a hard time with crowds and noise, you may want to read further, to learn about one of Italy's best kept travel secrets.


The Cilento coast is a portion of the region that extends from the bottom of the Gulf of Salerno to the border of Basilicata. If you're the kind of traveler who is OK with total absence of designer boutiques and yacht slips, you'll find yourself in a part of southern Italy that has retained its authentic charm through low profile, yet is replete with historical and archeological destinations, wildly untamed nature and gorgeous beaches.

Ready for a dream weekend discovering the untamed beauty of Cilento?
Continue Reading → Weekend Escape to Cilento as appeared on Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine

Aug 21, 2017

Food writer on a diet

Working as a food professional, whether be it a home cook, food guide, journalist or food show host – coincidentally, my job description – poses nutrition challenges. 

The anatomy of a food writer is always put up against a grumbling stomach. The occupational hazard has to do with constantly testing recipes, cooking many dishes and visiting restaurants (for research!), plates upon plates that need to be described, photographed and ultimately eaten. All this concurs to an ever-expanding waistline.

Personally, the weight was always an issue. Even before I worked in the food world. Even before pregnancy. I was overweight before I stopped smoking, imagine after. 
I blame the quantity of gelato I downed to overcome broken hearts. 
I blame having been educated to clean my plate. 
I blame my slow metabolism. 
I now can blame pre-menopause.

What I never did was take responsibility and blame myself. My sublime ability to procrastinate was never the problem, it was something else.

Continue Reading → Food writer on a diet as appeared on The American Magazine in Italia.

Apr 28, 2017

Naples and Amalfi Coast travel tips

The urban sprawl of Naples can feel tattered, anarchic and forsaken. But look beyond the grime and graffiti and you’ll see a city of breathtaking beauty, chock with dramatic skies, panoramas and art. You’ll discover its elegance, engage in spontaneous conversations with locals and be surprised at the city’s profound humanity.


The Amalfi Coast and Sorrento Peninsula is one of Italy's most sought-after destinations. Famous writers have long waxed poetic about the curvy coastline that runs from Sorrento to Salerno. Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe built a villa on Capri. Henrik Ibsen moved from Norway to Sorrento, where he wrote his renowned play Ghosts. Italy-lover Goethe called this sliver of southern Italy the "magic land of endless sun where lemons bloom." In the early Fifties American novelist John Steinbeck fell in love with Positano and begged people to keep the secret.


We've singled out our best advice and travel tips for traveling to Naples and the Amalfi Coast in 2017.

Continue reading our top 12 travel tips for 2017 ➔

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