Every time I think about a good Italian meal, my mind drives me to the perfume and flavour of a good slice of bread.
I remember when I was younger, my dad used to collect me from school and while driving back home he stopped in front of the bakery shop (aka panificio), dropping me off to get some bread for lunch. There was no other good choice than “Ciabatta” for him. “Rosette”, “spighe”, “tartarughe” (which are all names for other kinds of Italian bread) could not compare with the crunchy crust Ciabatta had and with its light inner texture (‘holes’ in its crumb are a natural sign of this characteristic).

Therefore, feeling a little homesick, few days ago I decided to make this marvellous bread at home. I followed a recipe I found in the great book called “Breads” by Paul Hollywood. Needless to say it worked out just perfect! It could take a bit to make, but the result is the taste and the perfume of a real Italian Ciabatta….the same I used to get at the bakery shop when I was a kid and that works just as a warm remembrance, whenever I need to feel a little closer to home  🙂

Ciabatta Bread Top

Ingredients
– 500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
– 10g salt
– 10g instant yeast
– 40ml olive oil
– 400 ml lukewarm water

Directions
1.Lightly oil a 2-3 litre square plastic container. (It’s important to use a square tub as it helps shape the dough).

2. Put the flour, salt and yeast into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook (don’t put the salt directly on top of the yeast). Add the olive oil and three-quarters of the water and begin mixing on a slow speed. As the dough starts to come together, slowly add the remaining water. Then mix for a further 5-8 minutes on a medium speed until the dough is smooth and stretchy.

3. Tip the dough into the prepared tub, cover with a tea towel and leave until at least doubled, even trebled in size – 1-2 hours or longer.

4. Heat your oven to 220°C and line 2 baking trays with baking parchment or silicone paper.

5. Dust your work surface heavily with flour – add some semolina too, if you have some. Carefully tip out the dough (it will be very wet) onto the work surface, trying to retain a rough square shape. Rather than knocking it back, handle it gently so you can keep as much air in the dough as possible. Coat the top of the dough with more flour and/or semolina. Cut the dough in half lengthways and divide each half lengthways into 2 strips. You should now have 4 pieces of dough. Stretch each piece of dough lengthways a little and place on prepared baking trays.

6. Leave the ciabatta dough to rest for a further 10 minutes, then bake for 25 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack.

Ciabatta Bread

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Cocotte Pear Choco

We all have a recipe – even more than one, actually – that we keep on baking over and over again. To experiment is good, but when you have short time and people demanding a cake for breakfast, you want to go for something that won’t fail.

That is the exact situation I was experiencing few days ago, when I was at my mom’s home and the whole family (dogs included) was claming for some cake for breakfast. I had many things to do, as I came back just for few days, but I still wanted to satisfy their sweet tooth. Therefore I started thinking about something quick, breakfast-friendly (aka not too heavy) and…reliable! But I was dithering: to bake exactly the same cake without changing a thing is like going on a trip to see always the same place. You might get bored! That’s why I thought to make a “variation on the theme” of a trusted cake I already had posted months and months ago (Apple, Cranberry and Pine Nut Loaf, find recipe here).

I thought it would have been nice to have a kind of mono-portion, but bigger than a regular muffin tin (when my family has breakfast, they take it seriously and a regular slice of cake is usually a king size one!). Thearfore I thought about baking some mini cakes into few some cast-iron casseroles or cocottes, à la francais! I used three of them and made two with apples, following exactly my previous recipe and for the last one I used pears and chocolate chips.

 It was a success and the pear and choco version was really much appreciated! But more important, no one thought it was ‘the same old recipe’…it is true then: we do eat with our eyes! 🙂

 

Cocotte Apple Raisin

 

 

This is a last minute – super easy- salty cake, with an unexpected twist: beet greens! All began yesterday around lunchtime when, looking into my fridge I discovered a shortcrust pastry package, which would have expired in few days. Thereupon I started thinking about what to do with it and I thought about a classic spinach and ricotta salty cake. I opened the freezer and took out the package of what I thought it was frozen spinach, but…with my big surprise at the supermarket I got Beet Greens by mistake! I had a blurry memory they had a really bitter taste and I was not sure of the result. But I had already opened the shortcrust pastry package and now I had to cook it! To tone down the taste I thought to add a consistent amount of sweet onion which, mixed with ricotta cheese and some sunflower seeds, made the miracle 🙂 The taste was still a bit bitter, but surprisingly pleasant. If you like it sweeter, you could always add a handful of raisins. It is a quick and nice idea and it is also perfect for a lunch box, as it can be eaten either hot or cold. Enjoy!

Image

Ingredients

  • 1 Shortcrust Pastry package
  • 450g/20oz frozen beet greens (or spinach leaves in alternative)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 Tbs sunflower seeds
  • 2 eggs
  • 125g/3/4cup parmigiano cheese, grated
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • Pepper
  • Salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a pie plate with parchment paper and lay down the pastry. In a large skillet, put the oil and the chopped onion and let it cook for 3 minutes. Then add the beet greens, add some salt and pepper and let them cook for 15 minutes and anyway until tender (no water should remain on the bottom of the skillet).
  2. Remove the skillet from the stove. Take a large bowl and toss beet greens into it, then add ricotta cheese, sunflower seeds, eggs, parmigiano (save 3 tbs) and some more pepper. Stir all together until well combined and -just in case- adjust with some more salt. Spoon into prepared crust and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
  3. Bake 30 minutes or until the crust is well baked (slightly brown). Let stand 10 minutes before cutting. Yield: 8 servings.

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Here we go, new year new recipe! I will not go through any ‘good intention list’ as we are already 9 days after new year’s eve and probably I am already late 😉 I have an aim for this 2014, though: to enjoy every day of it, without over analyzing, regretting or brooding over anything. 2013 taught me it ain’t worth it 🙂

So, back to my kitchen experiments, this time I tried to make an Italian traditional treat: Croccante. This word means ‘crunchy/crispy’ and self explains the main characteristic of this sweet! It is quite easy to make, but you have to pay attention while making the caramel…if it accidentally turns too brown (read burns!) the taste of your Croccante will be bitter. You can use almonds, hazelnuts or any other kind of nut you have. Either way, this crispy, sticky, crunchy sweetness will be the perfect treat when you don’t have time for a whole piece of cake!

Croccante - Crunchy bars Croccante - Crunchy bars2

Ingredients_

– 2 cups hazelnuts (roasted)
– 1,5 cup almonds (roasted)
– 4,5 tbs honey
– 2/3 cup caster sugar
– lemon (optional)

Directions_

  1. Pour sugar and honey into a saucepan and let melt over low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
  2. Sugar will melt completely up to become a beautiful blonde color: be careful it does not become dark. Meanwhile, coarsely chop almonds and hazelnuts.
  3. When sugar is ready, turn off the heat, and toss nuts into the saucepan, stirring continuously till they are well mixed .
  4. Immediately pour the mixture onto an oiled marble slab, or on a sheet of parchment paper placed on a baking sheet.
  5. Level the mixture well to give the desired thickness (I usually make it very thin, like no more than 0,25 inches) using a greased spatula or knife. If you life the aroma, you can press it down with a lemon cut in a half so that will unleash all its flavor.
  6. Let cool a few minutes and before it solidifies completely cut it into strips or bars with a large knife. Serve it after few hours or when it is completely cold

This is a recipe I got to bake few days ago, but I did not have the time to post it till today 🙂 My life has been hectic lately (well, hectic is not the right word maybe…let’s say I had a lot in my mind to wonder about. This 2013 is going to end in an unexpected way, much better than what I thought it was possibile…so I guess that I have to celebrate this with one of my favourite Italian treats: bignè (pronounced Bee/nyeh – nothing to do with Beignets, which come from France and are deep fried). Those little round puffs filled with pastry or chantilly cream are a masterpiece in every pasticceria (pastry shop) all over Italy. It is easy to make them, as long as you follow few tips during their making of! They are the perfect dessert for one of those incoming Christmas dinners and if you say they are home made you are sure none of them will be left on the tray!

Italian-Bigne-Tray

Ingredients_

For the dough:
2 cups cake flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup water
6 large eggs

For the pastry cream:
4 cups milk
3/4 cup + other 3/4 cup caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 lemon zest (not grated but peeled off)
1 vanilla bean
8 egg yolks
1 cup cake flour

Directions_

  1. Make the pastry cream: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until they turn a pale gold colour. Whisk in the flour and set aside.
  2. Place the milk, vanilla bean (previously cut alongside) and lemon zest in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Remove lemon zest and let cool for 30 seconds.
  3. Slowly pour half of the hot milk onto the egg mixture, whisking all the time, then return the mixture to the remaining milk in the pan. It is important to slowly pour the hot milk onto the cold eggs before you return the mixture to the pan to prevent the eggs from scrambling.
  4. Bring the mixture back to the boil and simmer for one minute, whisking continuously, or until smooth.
  5. Pour the cream into a clean bowl and dust with icing sugar to prevent a skin forming. Cool as quickly as possible, by sitting the bowl of pastry cream in another larger bowl of ice water. When cooled, refrigerate until needed.
  6. Make the dough: Put the butter, salt and water in a saucepan. Heat gently until the butter has melted, then bring to the boil.
  7. As soon as the water boils, remove the pan from the heat and quickly tip in the flour all at once. Beat with a wooden spoon until the ingredients bind together into a dough.
  8. Return the pan to a low heat and continue to beat until the dough is a smooth, dry ball in the centre of the pan.
  9. Allow to cool for 2–3 minutes, then gradually beat in the eggs to make a smooth, shiny paste. Beat vigourously.
  10. Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare a baking tray with parchment papaer. Spoon 25-30 teaspoonsful of the mixture onto tray, about 1,5 inches apart. Alternatively, use a pastry bag fitted with a plain piping nozzle to pipe the bignè onto the baking tray. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the bignè are puffed and golden.
  11. Turn the oven off and pull the try slighlty out of it, but try not to completely remove it form there. Using a skewer or a small knife, pierce the base (or top) of each bingè to release the steam. Leave them in the oven for 15 minutes to dry out and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
  12. Assembling: Use a pastry bag fitted with a plain piping nozzle and fill it with the pastry cream.
  13. Make a tiny cut on the side of each bignè using a sharp knife or scissors and then put the nozzle in it and pipe the pastry cream.
  14. To guarnish you can use melted chocolate or some sugar powder mixed with few drops of water (you will get a quite liquid spread that will solidify in few minutes).

Italian-Bigne-Cream

I got to read once that baking is a stress reliever. Maybe this is not an absolute truth, but sure it works for me. First of all because my mind just clears up when it is up to start baking: I focus on what I am doing and nothing else matter. Secondly, the fact I am going to share my treats makes me feel good. That said, today I really felt like I needed to bake a tray of wonderful muffins to make my peace with the world. So when I woke up (very early this morning, even if I didn’t set an alarm ugh!) instead of making me some orange juice I decided to bake some super quick muffins with orange and almond! Yeah well…ok being super healthy and all…but I added also some choco chips cause I thought they would have helped me being a bit more cheerful (I could have used rum for this purpose, but it was definitely too early in the morning lol). Muffins turned out great and by the time I was done morning sadness was just a vague memory…to the delight of my parents who got to eat them for breakfast! 🙂

Orange Choco Almond Muffins

Ingredients_

– 1 cup baking flour
– 2/3 cup brown sugar
– 1 cup whole wheat flour
– 1 1/2 cup sliced almonds
– 2 tsp baking powder
– 2 eggs
– 1 cup cream cheese
– 2 little oranges (juice and zest)
– 1/2 cup choco chips

Directions_

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350° F. Line standard muffin/cupcake tin with paper or foil liners.

2. Whisk together flours, sugar, almonds (previously crumbled) and baking powder in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add the eggs slightly beaten and orange juice and zest; beat at medium speed for 1 minutes then add cream cheese and mix until smooth and satiny. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula and mix by hand until smooth. Toss in chocolate chips and stir them with a spoon just until combined.

3. Divide batter among cups of prepared tin, leaving half to 3/4 of them empty. Bake until muffin tops are pale gold and toothpick or skewer inserted into batter comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let set muffins in their tin for another 20 min and transfer to wire rack.

Orange Choco Almond Muffins1

I was raised thinking that if one eats just a little of everything that’s the best way to have an healthy life (my grandad is 97 and he’s the living proof of this theory!). There’s to say though that it depends on what you choose to eat and back in the day it wasn’t as easy to bump into GMO, trans fats and so on. I got to read bread can be one of the worst products under this aspect cause it can be added with hydrogenated fats, alcohol (as a preservative), sugar, shoddy quality flour, etc. That’s why I decided to bake my super healthy bread loaf 🙂 I used whole wheat flour, which is healtier than AP flour (higher content of protein, so more nutrient) and walnuts, that are considered a ‘superfood’ (if you are new to this topic start reading this article here It takes a while to make it but the result is totally worth it…and the smell won’t leave your kitchen for hours, just like if you were in an old-time bakery.
Walnut Whole Wheat Bread1
Ingredients_
– 9 oz strong flour
– 9 oz whole wheat flour
– 1 1/2 tsp salt
– 1 tbsp instant yeast
– 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
– 2 tbsp maple syrup
– 3/4 cup water*
– 2 cups walnut kernel
Directions_
  1. Add the olive oil, maple syrup and 3/4 water and start mixing with a dough hook, at low speed. Slowly add the remaining water and keep on mixing for 4 minutes, then increase speed to medium for 5 minutes. Add walnuts and mix at low speed for 1 more minute.
  2. Cover the bowl and leave to rise until the dough has doubled in size (at least 1 hour, but 2 or 3 would work even better).
  3. Cover a tin with parchment and set aside. Sprinkle your countertop with some flour, take the dough and knock the air out of it by folding inwards repeatedly. Knead the dough into a rectangle, roll it into a log, then knead and roll it again into a tighter log. Place your dough in the prepared tin, making sure the join is underneath.
  4. Place the tin inside a plastic bag and leave to prove for about one hour, or until the dough is doubled in size and springs back quickly if you prod it with your finger. Preheat the oven to 410 F.
  5. Dust the risen dough with flour and slash the top with a sharp serrared knife, designing a grid pattern. Bake for 35 minutes or until the loaf is cooked through. Check by tipping the loaf out of the tin and tapping the base – it should sound hollow. Remove your loaf from the oven and cool out of the tin on a wire rack.

* The amount of water depends on several conditions. It can occur you need a bit less than 3/4 cup. Add water slowly when indicated and stop pouring it when dough consistency looks good (elastic).

Walnut Whole Wheat Bread4

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