Wholewheat penne with saffron

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When I feel like having a healthy, tasty bite, and quick to prepare, I have two ‘superfoods’ that save my day: wholewheat pasta and saffron. They offer great combinations with many other ingredients, such as vegetables, cheese, fish, and meat. Today I added toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels, a few porcini mushrooms, and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Wholewheat pasta is a blessing for a carbs-lover like me. In Italy we eat pasta almost every day (well, forget that ‘almost’) and it is common to have either durum wheat, wholewheat, or egg pasta. Wholewheat is rich in fibre, protein, and vitamins, but we actually have it when we want to add a crunchier and nuttier flavour to our pasta dish. Metabolism does the rest.

Today’s special guest, though, is saffron.

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Saffron offers you a palette of warm autumn colours: it is yellow on your food and it comes from the red styles of a precious purple flower. The plant itself grows slowly out of the summer into its autumnal ripeness. The little bulbs are planted in August and not watered, because they have to wait for early September rains. Then, the first leaves jut out of the soil and the flowers can be only hand-picked during the second half of October, before they open at dawn. Six purple petals hide three yellow, male anthers and the three red, female stigmas which are then toasted on almond and oak embers. Only the stigmas give flavour, but it is not uncommon to find also bits of anthers left in saffron bags, which will add more colour to the final product. You need up to 200,000 flowers for 1 kg of saffron. Luckily, you need only less than a gram for your cooking.

Its flavour alone is quite enigmatic, almost bitter and sharp, but yet so smooth and almost sweet when you let it dissolve in your food. It tastes like its ancient Greek myth, where the flower was the tragic end of Crocus, a young lover of nymph Smilax, favourite of god Hermes. And this bitter-sweetness is reflected in your food. I would recommend using Italian saffron from l’Aquila (PDO), but there are also other ones available on the market, particularly from Iran and Spain.

Wholewheat penne with saffron (serves 4)

400 g wholewheat pasta (penne/fusilli/any short shape)
1 bag of saffron (stigmas or powder)

Optional:
2 tsp sunflower seeds
2 tsp pine kernels

While you get the water for your pasta boiling, place in hot oven (180°/fan 160°/mark 4) a tin containing the sunflower seeds and pine kernels with a pinch of salt an a drop of olive oil. They will toast for about ten minutes while your pasta is cooking.

Add the pasta to salted, boiling water and let cook as indicated on package–usually, it is 11 minutes for short pasta. Do not cook too much al dente when you use wholewheat, because this type of pasta retains its crunchiness a bit longer than the durum wheat one.

To prepare the saffron, you can either leave the stigmas in a bit of warm water (the time depends on how long they have been toasted, it is usually specified on the pouch) and add them and their water to the pasta pot a couple of minutes before the pasta is ready to be drained. If you are using saffron powder, then keep some of the cooking water when you drain your pasta. Place the pasta in a pot, dust the pasta with the saffron powder, and add the little cooking water directly onto the saffron. Mix well.

If you are going for the optional extra of today’s recipe, add the toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels before serving and don’t forget a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano! Enjoy!

by Max

Sweet Treats: raspberry and chocolate cake

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Birthday cakes are very special kind of cakes. They can be excessively extravagant, decorated, and shaped to anything you wish them to be. I like cakes to be simple but, at the same time, I want them to stand out and let the candles brighten up everyone’s face. Keep that in mind if you are struggling to find a perfect birthday present…

Chocolate and raspberries taste sublime together and bring a wonderful colour contrast. It is always easier if you try to arrange the raspberries on the side rather than straight onto the cake, to allow a regular pattern and to ensure you won’t run out of them before finishing the cake.

Raspberry and chocolate birthday cake (serves 10-12 people)

175 g salted butter, plus 10 g for greasing
75 g dark chocolate
300 g plain flour
375 g golden caster sugar
25 g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 medium eggs
200 g buttermilk
100 ml boiling water
4 tbsp raspberry jam
250 g fresh raspberries

For the chocolate ganache
170 g dark chocolate
120 ml of double cream

Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/mark 4. Grease with butter and line two 8-inch cake tins. Boil the kettle with water. Put chocolate, broken in small pieces, and butter into a small pan, then heat gently and continuously stir until melted. Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, and soda bicarbonate together with a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk the eggs and buttermilk until lighter in colour then add to the flour mixture together with melted chocolate. Add 100 ml of boiling water and whisk preferably with electrical whisk, until the mixture is lump free.

Divide the cake mixture into two tins and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Remember to swap tins halfway through the bake if place on different shelves in the oven. Also rotate tins if you put both tins next to each other to allow even rise and bake. Check with a skewer every now and then. Cake is ready once the skewer comes out clean. Take the cake out of the oven and allow to cool down before decorating.

For the chocolate ganache, pour the double cream into a heavy based pot and bring slowly to boil. Then pour over broken chocolate and leave it to melt the chocolate for a few moments. Be careful when stirring the ganache, if you stir it too soon, not all the chocolate will melt. If you have a few lumps of chocolate left, then place the bowl in warm water to allow the heat to melt the rest of the chocolate.

Squash a few raspberries with a fork and mix with raspberry jam. Spread the jam over the first sponge and place the second sponge on the top. Spread another but thinner layer of jam on the top sponge. You can also spread some of the chocolate ganache over the first sponge if you wish to make this cake a bit richer. Pour the chocolate ganache over the cake and cover all the sides. Leave the cake on the side for about 10-15 minutes to allow the chocolate to set.

Wash all the remaining raspberries and dry. Then place them on the top of the cake. Dust with icing sugar if you wish.

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by Maria

Parmesan cheese lollipops

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This is an easy, fast recipe for a tasty snack. All you need is the king of cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Dealing with royals is simple: there is no obligatory code of behaviour, they say, but it is much better to stick to tradition. And this is all Parmigiano-Reggiano is about. In their way, producers respect the Consorzio’s etiquette: they honour the oldest tradition of food production standards–even older than Champagne or Bavarian beers, and actually stricter than those. To make it, you are allowed to use only cow’s milk, salt, and rennet (a natural enzyme). Nothing else. The milk has to be milked on the same day, it has to come from the local healthy cows, who have eaten only local grass. That’s it. Strictly local, strictly natural, pure breed.

You need 14 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese, which adds up to about 550 litres for each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That is 15% of all Italian milk. But most of the final product remains at home, only 1/3 leaves Italy. Minimum aging is 12 months, reaching 30 months at max.

Now that you know what making the king of cheese is like, picture yourself there. Imagine a green lowland dotted of yellows and browns, with a few soft hill towards the southwest, warm, quiet. Everything moves with its own time, not too fast, not too slow. You’ve got to wait for at least twelve months, anyway. And that’s only when the first official control comes. This is the coolest job: the analytical protocol examiner smells the cheese, looks at each wheel’s colour, roundness, and internal structure, and gets to gently ‘play’ it like a drum with a cool little rubber mallet. It can only sound right, there is no falsetto, out of tune, or wrong note. Otherwise, it is not royal. So, when you cook with Parmigiano-Reggiano, you become part of something special, ancestral, essentially flawless: enjoy it!

Pamigiano-Reggiano lollipops (4 of them)

60 g Parmigiano-Reggiano (I usually prefer 24 or 30-month-old)
4 skewers

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Preheat the oven at 220°/200° fan/mark 7. Meanwhile, line an oven tray with some parchment paper and a little bit of butter. Grate the cheese and place it on the oven tray in small discs, less than half a centimetre high. Place the skewers on top of the cheese discs and cover with a little more grated cheese. You can mix the grated cheese with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, tyme leaves, or other herbs–see the picture on the right.

Lower the oven at 180°/160°/mark 4 and place the tray in the middle of the oven. Leave for 5 to 10 minutes, according to the thickness of your lollipops.
Take out of the oven when the cheese is golden and starting to make bubbles. Let the lollipops cool down completely(!) and only then remove from the parchment paper.
by Max

 

Risotto with porcini mushrooms and Castelmagno cheese

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Cooking a nice risotto is one of the simplest actions in the world. It needs practice, of course, as anything else in the kitchen. But all it takes is a combination of basic ingredients and a few passages. You start with an onion soffritto, you quickly toast the rice, splash it with wine to be steamed off on high fire, stir in the broth, add your other ingredients (porcini and cheese, here), and repeat broth stirring till the job is done. Take it off the fire when cooked, add a cube of butter, and mix gently. In this foodamazers’ version, Max has decorated our risotto with two porcini crisps which were panfried in butter. We accompanied it with one glass of Verdicchio di Matelica (DOC)–perhaps two.

Today, we had the luxury of two amazing Italian ingredients for our risotto: porcini mushrooms from Borgotaro (PGI) and Castelmagno cheese (PDO). Borgotaro is a village of seven thousand souls in Emilia, famous for its porcini and chestnuts, and is one of the Parmigiano Reggiano production centres. Castelmagno sits on top of the mountains west of Cuneo, in Piedmont, and counts less than one hundred inhabitants. The people from these villages are used to great, natural flavours, and the richness of the ingredients we used today reflects the authenticity of those lands, made of smells, colours, and taste.

Risotto with Borgotaro porcini mushrooms and Castelmagno cheese (serves 4)

360 g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
400 g (fresh) or 50 g (dried) porcini mushrooms
70 g Castelmagno cheese (20 g for cooking, 50 g for grating)
20 g butter
1 l broth
1 glass of wine (for cooking, possibly white)
2 tbsp oil
1 onion/shallot
1 pinch of salt

Sauté the onion/shallot in a pan where you have heated up the oil. When the onion turns lightly golden, add the rice and raise the heat to toast it uniformly.

After a couple of minutes, add the wine, which will evaporate in about one minute, and sprinkle the pinch of salt. When the wine is drying out, lower the heat to medium and stir in a couple of broth ladles to cover the rice.

Let the rice simmer in broth and slowly replenish the pan during cooking. Ten minutes before the end, add the mushrooms and a few minutes later add small cubes of Castelmagno (about 20 g).

When the rice is cooked, the broth should have evaporated, leaving a creamy coating to the grains. Remove the pan from heat, add the butter (at room temperature), and gently mix together. Dish the rice onto flat plates or pasta bowls, as you prefer, and finish with grated Castelmagno.

Buon appetito!

by Max