Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta

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Fresh pasta is one of the easiest dish to prepare in the kitchen, yet too often dismissed as elaborate, time consuming, and messy. In reality, all you need is flour, eggs, and the will to prepare it. Fresh pasta opens really many options for food. You can prepare traditional basic dishes such as lasagne or tagliatelle, or you can venture out into more creative stuffed pasta types, such as ravioli, tortellini, caramelle (pasta candies), or baskets. I chose cannelloni for today’s meal because I had some aubergine to use and because I felt a bit nostalgic.

Cannelloni to me means tradition, home, simplicity. Close your eyes and think of a wooden table lightly covered by flour. Now, feel that coarse, grainy surface and look outside to see a warm, late morning. You are in my auntie’s kitchen, in Bologna; it is a small flat in the city, but the little garden in front of the building is enough to relieve you from any wish to be in the quiet countryside. She walks in, holding a bag of flour and a few eggs, makes a little white mound with a well in the middle–we call it fontana, fountain–and cracks two or three eggs in it. Then it’s like finger finesse: you see one hand first mixing the ingredients slowly and in no time both hands are working together with the mix ready to be kneaded.

Every time I sit there and watch, I start asking her silly questions, like a little kid wondering about the secret of a magic trick, but it’s all there in front of me. “Just work the dough for a ten minutes and then set it aside for half hour, well covered”, she says. The next step will be the rolling pin. In the meantime, you can choose what you want to eat and make the stuffing or the sauce ready.

Cannelloni are one of the simplest, yet most refined uses of fresh pasta. I genuinely love them. It is not my favourite meal, but I have a huge crush on them and there is nothing I can do about it, but eating them. If regularly, even better.

A similar addiction struck the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was indeed a modern gourmand ante litteram. In his energetic and passionate life made of military stiffness and hedonistic pliability, living his duality of aesthetics in a rigor of opulence, he literally depended on the caring attention of his home chef Albina Becevello, possibly the only woman he did not objectify in his life. And in his many written messages to Albina with specific culinary requests of all sorts, at any time of day and night, one can find a true praise for her cannelloni. No wonder. The dualistc pleasure of a fresh pasta roll and its filling, poor ingredients and rich finish, can conquer any human heart and stomach.

Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta (serves 3)

For the pasta
200 g ’00’ flour
2 eggs

For the filling
3 aubergines
250 g ricotta
100 g Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tbsp olive oil

For the Béchamel/white sauce
100 g butter
100 g flour
1 l milk
1 pinch of grated nutmeg
1 pinch of salt

For the finish
20 g Parmigiano-Reggiano

Start with the pasta mix: prepare the flour fontana, crack the eggs in it, slowly break the eggs into the flour well, and stat amalgamate the whole into a doughy ball. Knead it for at least ten minutes till it becomes smooth, cover in cling film, and let rest for at least 30-40 minutes.

Chop the aubergines, place them in a sieve and cover them with a weight to let them lose their water (you can salt them in the meantime, if you prefer); when drained, sauté them till golden in a frying pan with the oil. When almost entirely cooked, let them cool down, and then mix them with the ricotta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The Béchamel is ready in a few minutes as well. To help the preparation, leave the milk out of the fridge for a little while, to reach room temperature. Start from the roux, melting the butter and adding the flour–sift it if you can, it will make the sauce smoother. After a couple of minutes with the flour, the roux should turn light gold: slowly add the milk with the fire still on and whisk the mix. When it thickens, sprinkle with grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt.

Work the pasta dough with the rolling pin, till you can make rectangles about 15 x 10 cm, roughly 2 mm thick (I made 14 squares). If you want to make your life easier and the pasta a little bit better, dust the table with some flour and some semolina, but never the rolling pin! Boil the squares–ideally one or two at a time–and prepare the filling in a piping bag. Take one square, fill it with the aubergine and cheese mix, and roll into one cannellone. Prepare the oven tray with a base of Béchamel sauce and start lining the cannelloni while you make them.

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Once prepared the tray, cover the cannelloni with more Béchamel sauce and dust with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in hot oven at 200ºC/180ºC fan/mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes, plus an additional 5 minutes to grill.

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by Max

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