February 22, 2008

Neapolitan Pizza Dough

You can have pizza everywhere in the world, and everywhere in Italy. But Italian cuisine is very regional, and Naples is the city where the modern pizza was born and developed. So, it's in Naples and its wonderful bay where you can get the real Italian pizza experience. Flour, water, natural yeast and salt are the only ingredients needed to make a real Neapolitan pizza dough. Actually, people in Naples can get really serious about their simple and beloved specialty. Two rising processes of up to 8 hours, sea salt, local fresh ingredients, a quick baking process in a stone oven with a wood fire (about 1.5 minutes at 900F) - they all are an important part of the pizza napoletana and its traditional nature.

What you get is a wonderful baked product, elastic, tender and fragrant... all about the crust. The center is soft and really thin (0.1 inches), but around the edges you simply have to get the cornicione, a thick, crispy, nice and golden brown border (0.4 - 0.8 inches). I hate when pizzas are thin all around without the crispy cornicione.

Here is my homemade version of a Neapolitan pizza. This is the closest you can get with everyday ingredients and appliances. You'll notice that with only water and yeast mixed with the flour you get a very elastic and puffy dough.

Ingredients (2 15" pizzas)
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar

Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water. Add the sugar and put the mixture in a warm place for about 1 minute. Check if the yeast is really active: make sure that after 1 minute the mixture has risen a bit and see if there are some bubbles forming over the water. If the yeast is active, let the mixture rise until it doubles in volume. Meanwhile, prepare la fontana with the flour (you know, a hole in the flour where you'll pour the wet ingredients in). Add the active yeast and 1 more cup of warm water. Stir with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour. When everything is incorporated, add the salt and begin to work the dough with your hands. We don't add the salt before because it stops the rising process of the yeast. While working the dough with your hands you'll notice that it gets elastic and tender faster than when using my previous recipes. In fact, this dough is easier to work if the yeast has correctly risen, and this rising process requires a bit of practice. The kitchen has to be warm enough, the water at the right temperature (not too cold, not too hot), and the yeast has to be active and not dead. In my previous recipes, using ingredients like olive oil, milk and eggs you assure that you won't have a brick instead of a pizza even if the yeast hasn't done its work well.

When the pizza dough is smooth, elastic and everything is well incorporated, you have to let the yeast continue its work. Place the pizza dough in a covered bowl and let it rest at least 45 minutes and up to 2 hours. If you prefer to bake the dough later you can put it in the fridge and continue the day after.

When the dough has doubled in volume, work the dough with your hands again for a bit, and then form 2 balls (for 2 pizzas). Take one ball, sprinkle it with some flour and press it with your hands forming a thick pizza shape. You can use a rolling pin, but that's absolutely forbidden in Naples. If you're brave enough you can do a little trick that works well without all the skills of a real pizzaiolo (a pizza expert). Raise one of your hands as if you want to hit someone. Put the center of the dough in that hand, and with the other hand stretch the border of the dough as far from the center as you can while moving the arm away from you, without creating holes in the dough. Repeat this process, slightly rotating the dough in order to stretch the pizza all the way around. You have to stop when the dough is really thin at the center and you have a pizza that has reached a diameter of about 14"-15".

Preheat the oven as hot as possible and bake with your favorite topping for about 25 minutes at 450
°F until nice and golden brown. Note that the Neapolitan tradition accepts only two kinds of toppings. Yes, no kidding. One of them is the pizza margherita (mozzarella, tomatoes, basil) and the pizza marinara (tomatoes and garlic). Yep, no seafood in the marinara pizza... only tomatoes and garlic because that's what the sailors could afford. So don't be surprised if you go to a traditional pizzeria in Naples and all you get is these two choices. But they are so simple and yet so delicious that you won't regret it!

Posted by Daziano at 11:33 AM | 2 comments  
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February 17, 2008

Pasta alla Norma - 'na vera Norma

What I like about Sicily is all the history you can actually taste there. Yes, because of the Greeks who settled there during the 7th century BC, the Romans during imperial times, the Arabs by the first millennium, Europeans from everywhere during the crusades, the Spanish during Renaissance times, and a large etcetera - they all influenced one of the richest Mediterranean cuisines, which is what we can find in Sicily nowadays. You can have pasta, as everywhere in Italy, but you can also have rice which is almost a monopoly of the North, and this unique combination tells you a lot about the wide range of flavors and influence of Sicilian cuisine. If I add that you can also have a dish of typical Sicilian couscous, now you can be sure you can get it all down there. Add perfect weather, nice beaches, even nicer islands, and you get the full package.

As the ultimate Mediterranean agro-producer, Sicily produces the best oranges I've ever tasted, nice lemons, olives (and great olive oil), capers, tomatoes, persimmons, grapes (and great wines), almonds, pistachios... even mangoes, kiwis and bananas! Eggplants too, which are intensively used... from caponata to pasta alla Norma (pasta in the style of Norma).

Pasta alla Norma is a typical dish from the city of Catania, on the east coast of the island. Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted with this dish that he compared it with the splendor of the opera Norma, written by catanese composer Vincenzo Bellini. Well, opera would have to be part of this super Italian story!

1 lb mezze penne
1 large eggplant
1.2 lbs ripe tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
3.5 oz ricotta salata
1 bunch of basil
olive oil
salt and pepper

Wash the tomatoes with hot water and peel. Take out the seeds and chop. In a saucepan heat 4 Tbsp of olive oil and add the three entire garlic cloves. Sauté until the garlic turns golden. Take the garlic out of the saucepan and add the tomatoes and some roughly chopped basil leaves. Add salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

Cut the eggplant into thin slices. Then cut each slice into quarters. If you are using a Japanese eggplant you could leave the slices just like that. In Italy they use a lot of oil and they deep fry the slices of eggplant until nice and golden. You can do that, but prepare some paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Then season with salt and pepper. Or, you can make a lighter version by brushing some olive oil on each side of each eggplant slice, and then sauté them for a couple of minutes until golden.

Boil the pasta following the label instructions. Once the pasta is al dente, drain and toss over the tomato sauce. Give a quick stir and pour in a serving plate. Put the eggplant slices and grated ricotta salata cheese on top. Enjoy!


Catania is the port of entry to eastern Sicily. You can get there by plane from Rome or Milan, and then you have easy access to wonderful places like Taormina.

Ricotta salata is a very typical Sicilian cheese, which is an aged version of the traditional fresh ricotta. It's salty, crumbly, dry but soft, and by texture and flavor it's more like an Italian feta than really related to its fresh counterpart used for filling yummy cannoli.

Mezze penne pasta or pennette is a shorter version of classic penne pasta. To make pasta alla Norma just use any shape of dried short pasta.

If you are in a hurry or you can't find any good ripe tomatoes, use about 600 ml of passata di pomodoro, which is an uncooked and lightly seasoned Italian tomato purée.
Posted by Daziano at 10:58 AM | 0 comments  
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February 16, 2008

Shrimp and mushroom frittata

Frittatas are the Italian version of the French omelette or the Spanish tortilla (the Spanish one, not the Mexican tortilla). The main ingredients are eggs, scrambled with all imaginable ingredients before cooking, and in Italy frittatas are a perfect appetizer or hors d'oeuvre, but in America they are perfect for brunch.

Ingredients (serves 4)
8 eggs
1 cup cremini mushrooms
1 1/2 cup shrimp, cleaned
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
1 handful baby spinach, finely chopped

In a skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms for about 5 minutes until nice and golden. Add the shrimp and sauté them for a couple of minutes, until they begin to develop a subtle pink color on the surface. Take off of the heat and let it cool. In a bowl, scramble the eggs, add salt and pepper, the baby spinach and the sautéed mushrooms and shrimps. Preheat the oven at 350°F. Add the olive oil to the bottom of the skillet and pour the egg mixture in. Cook in the oven for about 30 minutes. When the eggs are fully cooked, broil for a couple of minutes. Frittatas can be served hot, warm or cold. If you serve them cold, you can add a bit of lemon juice just before serving.
Posted by Daziano at 6:21 PM | 0 comments  
February 14, 2008

Another simple pizza dough

If you've tried my perfect pizza dough you will already be familiar with how to prepare a simple dough that allows you to make a luscious gourmet pizza. But, a real Italian pizza dough doesn't in fact have eggs as one of the ingredients. So, let's move on and try a more Italian recipe.

Ingredients (2 15" pizzas)
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup warm water
3/4 cup warm milk
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar

Now, you can follow the same instructions as before. Basically, dissolve the yeast in sugared warm water and let it double its volume. Make a kind of hole in the flour (la fontana) and pour the active yeast in. Add the olive oil, the warm milk and stir using a fork, gradually incorporating the flour. Add the salt and begin to work the dough with your hands. When the dough is smooth and elastic, cover the bowl and let the dough rest at least 45 minutes. When it has doubled its volume, make two dough balls. Roll each ball, shaping the dough into a real pizza. Preheat the oven as hot as possible and cook with your favorite topping. At 450°F it should take about 25 minutes to be nice and golden brown.
Posted by Daziano at 3:10 PM | 0 comments  
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February 12, 2008

Baked Rigatoni

Baking your pasta is a great way to enjoy the pleasures of Italian flavors. The most famous baked pasta in Italy and abroad is lasagna, but as you know you can bake every type of pasta, from Mac&Cheese to my baked rigatoni. Usually when you bake pasta you use more cheese and other ingredients that make the dish richer. That's why Italians often consider a baked pasta dish as a piatto unico or main dish, and not only as a primo or starter, which is the usual Italian way of eating pasta.

1 pound rigatoni
2 summer squash, sliced
1 cup portobello mushrooms, chopped
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 1/2 cup bocconcini cheese
1 small bunch basil
2 tsp peperoncino
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper

Heat the olive oil and the butter in a large skillet over medium temperature until the butter is melted. Make a soffritto with the garlic and peperoncino, then add the chopped mushrooms and the sliced summer squash. Cook your pasta reducing in 2 minutes the total cooking time you read on the package, drain and toss over the skillet. Add the tomatoes, the bocconcini, chopped basil leaves, a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper and stir. Cover with fresh grated parmesan cheese and put the skillet in a 450°F preheated oven and broil for about 10 minutes until golden brown.

Tip: bocconcini are tiny little balls of fresh mozzarella.
Posted by Daziano at 2:47 PM | 0 comments  
February 11, 2008

Thick hot chocolate

Mangia tanto cioccolato! (Have lots of chocolate) said one of my best friends to me when she knew I was moving to Canada and its freezing winters. And I can't think of anything better than hot chocolate to warm up your spirit during an extremely cold winter day. I love when the hot chocolate is creamy, thick and rich. Almost as thick as chocolate fondue, like the ones you can have in Spain, or the hot chocolate I used to drink every morning during a stay in the wonderful mountains of Valle d'Aosta in Northern Italy. Finally, adding mini marshmallows to this thick hot chocolate is the perfect American twist.

Ingredients (serves 2 big cups)
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 3/4 cups semi sweet chocolate chips
1 Tbsp good quality cocoa powder
1 tsp orange blossom water
mini marshmallows

Mix the milk, the cream and the orange blossom water. Pour this mixture in a saucepan and heat it over medium heat. When the milk is warm, pour in the cocoa powder and the chocolate chips and whisk until the chocolate is melted. Serve with a handful of mini marshmallows.

Posted by Daziano at 10:10 PM | 0 comments  
February 10, 2008

Prosciutto and Asiago cheese panini

You don't have to use a panini maker in order to make an Italian panini. In fact, you don't even have to grill it because in Italy panino is just the word you use to say sandwich. Actually, I first saw the idea of grilled panini in France, and usually what you really get in Italy is a wonderful local bread roll with cheese and prosciutto or salami. Simple and delicious. As simple and tasteful as my prosciutto and asiago cheese panini, a mixture of Italian flavors with a wonderful crispy cheese focaccia from Liguria, some Asiago cheese from Veneto and, of course, paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma from Emilia-Romagna.

1 thin focaccia bread (8")
5 ounces prosciutto
3 diced Roma tomatoes
4 ounces Asiago cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Just cut the focaccia and layer the prosciutto, the cheese and the diced tomatoes. For the tomatoes, remove the seeds first. Add some olive oil, a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. You can eat it just like that, but you can also heat it in the oven at medium high temperature for a couple of minutes until the cheese is melted. Fresh Asiago cheese, also known as Asiago pressato, is made with whole milk so it is really buttery and creamy, and since it is not aged more than 40 days it has a delicate sweet flavor which complements the salty prosciutto and it melts just like heaven!

Posted by Daziano at 2:46 PM | 0 comments  
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