My New Year’s Eve . . . Friends, Lentils, Cotechino, Tombola and “Something” red!

Festa di San Silvestro, named after Pope Sylvester I, is how in Italy we refer to New Year’s Eve.

Did you know that were the ancient Romans that in 153 B.C. moved the start of the year from the Spring equinox to January 1?

In Italy, traditionally the Veglione di Capodanno (New Year’s Party) lasts all night and typically starts with the Cenone (big supper) which is then followed by a big party with music, dancing and games.

When I was a child, after the Cenone friends would often come over for desserts and to wait for the Mezzanotte (Midnight). The table was cleared to make room to play Tombola (Italian version of Bingo), Mercante in Fiera (“Merchant at the Fair”, a traditional family game played with 2 identical decks of illustrated cards which are auctioned for final prize) and Sette e mezzo (“Seven and a half”, a game played with Neapolitan cards and that is similar to blackjack).


A Mezzanotte (at Midnight) the bottles of champagne were popped open for the brindisi (toast) while everyone was cheering on the new year with the “Buon Anno!” wishes.  We would then run by the windows to watch the display of fireworks, firecrackers and flares.

The best botti di Capodanno (New Year’s fireworks and firecrackers) I have witnessed were on the water of the Amalfi Coast, from the terrace of the Hotel Saraceno where I spent a beautiful night with my husband and my brother and sister-in-law; It was December 31, 1987.

Whether at the fanciest venue or at home with friends and family, no New Year’s Eve celebration in Italy would be complete without the lenticchie e cotechino (lentils and cotechino – a type of cooked sausage).

Because of their resemblance to coins the lentils are a symbol of prosperity and to ensure the good fortune they must be eaten within one hour of Midnight.

The  most valuable Italian lentils are grown in the high plane of Castelluccio di Norcia, in the region of Umbria, at 4,500 ft above sea level. The climate and soil contribute to the high quality of the legume. In 1997 the lenticchie di Castelluccio have received the IPG (Protected Geographic Indication) recognition.

The lentils are typically served with pork, symbol of the richness in life, therefore Cotechino and/or Zampone are the perfect complements to the lentils.

The cotechino, is a big sausage  made with a mixture of ground pork, pork rinds, and spices.
An alternative to the cotechino is the zampone where the same mixture is stuffed into a boned pig’s foreleg.

Both products are typical of Modena, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. The zampone originated around the 1500 thanks to the ingenuity of the Modenesi who, being under siege, had to find a way to preserve what it was available.

Tonight, I am celebrating the New Year’s Eve with a potluck dinner with some Italian amici (friends). I am preparing the lenticchie and cotechino, we will play Tombola and Mercante in Fiera and we will toast the New Year with My favorite Italian Spumante (sparkling wine), “Ferrari“!

Cotechino is not easy to find in my area. However, I was able to buy a pre-cooked one at an Italian grocery store in Wheaton, MD. The advantage of buying a pre-cooked cotechino is that it only requires to simmer in warm water for 20-25 minutes. This will ensure  the melting of the fat which will give this special sausage a very earthy flavor. You need to keep the cotechino warm until you are ready to eat.


I was in NYC two weeks ago at the Italian market EATALY, where I did find the lenticchie di Castelluccio. However, even if I love chefs Batali and Lidia, I was not going to drop $15 for 1/2 pound of lentils. That would have defied the purpose of the lentils . . . to bring you fortune and prosperity! My organic green lentils would do just fine!

RICETTA (Recipe)

MY LENTICCHIE STUFATE E COTECHINO (braised lentils and cotechino)

1 pound dry green lentils
1/2 onion thinly sliced
1 large carrot chopped into large pieces
1 celery stalk
4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
1 slice of pancetta 1/2 inch tick finely minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Before you start sort and rinse the lentils.

In a large pot warm the oil and sautéed the onion, the carrot, the celery and the pancetta.

Add the tomato paste and a little bit of warm water and stir to dissolve the tomato paste.

After 3-4 minutes add the lentils and let them coat with the condiment for 4-5 minutes.

Add enough water to cover the lentils, add salt, cover with a lid and cook on medium heat for 1-1/2 hours.

Check frequently to make sure that the water doesn’t dry out completely. Add warm water if necessary.

When the lentils are just about done, remove the carrots and celery.

Also, at this time, remove the cotechino from the warm water and place on an oval serving dish.

Slice the cotechino into 1/4 inch thick slices. The juice from the cotechino will accumulate in the bottom of the dish and will serve as additional condiment for the lentils.

Spoon the lentils around the cotechino and serve immediately after Midnight!

I almost forgot about the “something” red!

Typically Italian is the tradition, on New Year’s Eve, to wear something rosso (red), particularly lingerie.

It appears that already in ancient Rome, under Octavian Augustus, during the Roman New Year, women and men used to wear something red because this color represented power, love, health and fertility.

So, don’t waste any time, cook your lentils, get yourself something red and party your night away into the New Year!

FELICE ANNO NUOVO! 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

La ricetta della Calamarata . . . Calamarata recipe

I am back after a few days of break. I am sure you all had a delightful Holiday weekend just like mine.

My fall (off the only ONE step outside my front door!) on Friday evening, the failure of the garbage disposal and dishwasher on Saturday and the delay of the gift my husband had bought me, which by the way was worth the wait, could not ruin our plan for a wonderful Holiday!

I have spent many hours in my kitchen, the house smelled great, the food was delicious. My husband and I and our two wonderful sons – oh . . . I shouldn’t forget our two lovely dogs – spent a joyous Christmas Eve at the dinner table. The various courses were intercalated by the unwrapping of our gifts and, let me tell you, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) has been once again generous, thoughtful and tasteful with everyone.

Even Vera and Luna were happy with their new bed, toys and giant cookies!

Vera

Luna

After dinner we played board games and just had a good time.

The rest of the weekend was enlightened by more great food and the company of some dear friends, which is always special during the Holidays.

Before I move on to the the Notte di San Silvestro (St. Sylvester’s night – New Years Eve), it is time to keep my promise, so here there are some pics from the Cenone della Vigilia and the recipe of My Calamarata ai frutti di mare (Sea food Calamarata).

 

Calamarata is a type of pasta typical of the region of Campania. It is a wide tubular pasta that takes its name form the calamari (squids) to which once cut into rings, is very similar in shape. The pasta that I used is from Gragnano (a small town in the Neapolitan area, which is considered the kingdom of pasta making. I will tell you about it in another blog), it is made exclusively with durum wheat semolina and it is extruded through bronze dies. This makes the surface slightly rough, making it more suitable to hold sauces and condiments.

Calamarata Pasta

Because of its resemblance to the rings of squid, the typical recipe requires only the use of calamari (squid) so that the pasta and the squids become indistinguishable. In my recipe however, I use different mollusks, and crustaceans.

MY CALAMARATA AI FRUTTI DI MARE

Ingredients for 6

1 pound Calamarata Pasta ( you can substitute with Paccheri)

1/2 pound cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 pound calamari (squid)

3/4 pound large gamberi (shrimp)

2 pound cozze (mussels)

2 pound vongole (clams)

1 steamed lobster tail (optional)

2 garlic cloves crushed and peeled

salt to taste

crushed red pepper to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup hand chopped parsley 

Directions:

In a large pot bring salted water to boil.

Keep in mind that if you use good quality pasta it might take up to 20-25 minutes to cook. This means you can prepare your sauce while the pasta in cooking. Also remember to cook the pasta one minute less than directed on the package.

If your seafood is not already clean start with these steps

Choose the clams and mussels discarding the cracked ones.

Brush the mussels under running water and remove the beard.

Rinse the clams several times in running water. (Tip: to remove any sand present in the clams, add a bit of flour to water and leave to soak the clams for a few minutes. Then proceed with the rinsing process).

Rinse the squids several times, then skin, eviscerate and wash them inside and out and cut into rings slightly larger than the size of the pasta.

Shell the shrimps, devein, rinse and pat dry (if you buy shrimps with head on, remove the heads and keep 6 on the side).

Shell the lobster tail and cut into 1 inch pieces

Now all your seafood is ready.

Put the clams and the mussels in two separate pots over high heat. Let the clams and mussels open, to facilitate the process cover the pots with a lid. Remove from the heat, shell the clams and mussels (keep some in the shell for decoration) and strain the juice through a sieve and set aside. Keep the clams and mussels warm (pour a little juice over the clams and mussels to prevent drying out).

In a pan large enough to hold the seafood and the pasta, heat the oil, add the crushed garlic, the crushed red pepper and a little salt. Fry until the garlic is slightly gold. You can remove the garlic now.

Add the cherry tomatoes and the squids and cook for 10 minutes. After the first 5 minutes, to keep the sauce moist, add a little of the juice that you had reserved.

After 10 minutes add the lobster tail and the shrimp and cook 3 minutes. Keep adding juice as necessary.

Meanwhile your pasta has been cooking in salted boiling water.

It is time now to add the mussels, clams, hand chopped parsley and a little more juice. Stir together and cook 2 minutes.

At this point your pasta should be al dente, drain well and add it to the pan.

Lastly add the unshelled clams and mussels, more juice and freshly ground black pepper and  fate saltare ( make the pasta jump – slightly fry) the pasta for a minute shaking the pan. When all the condiment has completely coated the pasta, remove from heat and sprinkle with fresh hand chopped parsley.

Buon Appetito!

I would love to hear about your Holiday weekend and your plans for New Year ‘s Eve, what’s your tradition?

Feast of the Seven Fish? Not quite . . .

Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!

It is time to break the news: there is not such thing as the “Feast of the seven fish” in Italy!

When I moved from Italy to Frederick, MD in 1991, I could not find espresso, cappuccino, fresh mozzarella or prosciutto. However, I could buy “Italian” garlic bread and “Italian” salsa Alfredo, both of which are NOT Italians. Then at Christmastime the fateful question would always come up: “Do you celebrate with the feast of the seven fish?”. The first time I almost felt embarrassed having to explain that I didn’t know about this “Italian” tradition. I just was not ready yet to break the news.

The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve certainly comes from the Catholic religion, which forbids eating meat on the Vigilia (the word comes from the Latin verb vigilare “to watch or “to stay awake”) as a sign of respect and contemplation of the great event that is about to be celebrated.

There is indeed a tradition to celebrate the Vigilia (Christmas Eve) with the Cenone (big dinner) during which only fish dishes are served. Still, the tradition doesn’t dictate neither the number or the type of fish.

Most importantly, this tradition is very much eradicated in the Southern regions of Italy but not in the North where the pranzo di Natale (Christmas lunch) takes center stage and it is mostly based on meat preparations.

Well . . . I am from the Southern region of Campania and on My Vigilia‘s table there will be fish!

One of my most vivid memories of Christmas Eve at my parent’s home is the capitone (adult female eels) swimming in our bathtub. No, I am not kidding!

Eels should not be killed until shortly before cooking, so they were bought alive, kept in the bathtub until my father on Christmas Eve morning would chop them in pieces. And let me tell you, what a strange fish these eels are, they keep moving even with their heads chopped off!

Years after my dad had passed away, I went in Italy to spend Christmas with my brother who wanted to keep the tradition alive. So, bravely, he bought the capitone and then asked my husband to help with the task at hand. All I can say is that the scene would have made the show “America funniest video”.

I remember the day of the Vigilia as a day of waiting and expectations. My mother started her day early, she would plate the struffoli first, then prepare the pasta cresciuta (dough) to be fried around lunch time. We would eat these pizzelle (fried dough) throughout the day waiting for the cenone. This was the only day of the year when my brothers and I were not required to be home for lunch. The zampognari, shepherds from the mountains of Abruzzi, often came to play Christmas music on their bagpipes.

Late in the afternoon the festive table was set and it was finally time to start the feast. The menu included: seafood salad, fried baccalà, spaghetti with clams and spaghetti with anchovies and walnuts, capitone, fried shrimp and calamari, a baked fish, insalata di rinforzo (a marinated vegetable and cauliflower salad) and then dry figs, dates, nuts, nuggets, mostaccioli and roccocó, Panettone and struffoli.

After Midnight Mass, back at home, we would start the traditional procession open by my mom carrying a candle and followed by me (the youngest of the family) carring the statue of baby Jesus while the rest of the family was singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle” ( You come down from the stars). The procession ended with the arrival at the presepe (nativity scene) and the kissing of the Baby who was finally positioned over the crib of the nativity.

Some of these traditions are still part of My Vigilia.

Enough with the memories and back to My menu. Over the years I have substituted some dishes and I usually change my pasta dish from one year to the next. Also, since my two sons have lately shown a clear preference for a variety of small dishes (almost like tapas) and they love pasta, I have designed a menu with many antipasti (appetizers), and one main pasta dish.

I will post pictures and some recipes after the Holidays, for now here it is My 2011 Menu della Vigilia.  Buon Natale a tutti ! Merry Christmas everyone!

Antipasti (Appetizers)

Pizzelle – fried dough

Gamberoni in guazzetto – large shrimps in a spicy tomatoes-cream sauce

Insalata di mare  – seafood salad with calamari, octopus, shrimps, clams and mussels seasoned with a lemon parsley vinagrette

Seaweed fritters

Insalata di Baccalà – salted cod fish salad served warm with a yougurt-mayonnese- dressing

Seared scallops with radicchio and pancetta

Frittura di pesce  – fried shrimp, calamari, smelts

Oysters

Primo Piatto (First course)

Calamarata ai frutti di mare – calamarata is a cut of pasta in the shape of calamari rings, it is traditionally served with only calamari but I use a variety of seafood

Contorno ( Side dish)

Scarole di Natale – sautéed frise and escarole with anchovies, raisins and pine nuts

Frutta e dolci (Fruit and desserts)

Frutta secca – (Dry fruit – figs and dates),  nocciole tostate (toasted hazelnut), assorted torrone italiano (Italian nuggets), My struffoli, My mustaccioli and Panettone.

Of course wines from My hometown will fill our glasses, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, both white wines. And My Limoncello will complement the erray of desserts.

What’s on your Holiday table?

Struffoli and Mostaccioli My favorite Christmas desserts

Yesterday was December 21, the shortest day of the year. That means brighter days are ahead and Christmas is only 4 days away.

Time to start My holiday desserts and to share two of My favorite Christmas recipes .

You probably all know about the Panettone from Milano and the Pandoro from Verona, both delicious holiday cakes and today easily available in many gourmet grocery stores.

But, how many of you know about two delicious specialties of the Neapolitan region, the Struffoli and the Mostaccioli?

The Struffoli and the Mostaccioli are nowhere to be found in the States (or at least around my area) so I had no choice that to make My own.

The Struffoli are a true Neapolitan dolce (dessert). It appears that the Greeks brought this specialty to Naples. From there it has widespread throughout Central and Southern Italy; however, with some variations from region to region.

The Struffoli are little balls of dough fried and then coated in honey. Their flavor improves after a couple of days. That’s why it is important to prepare them a few days before the event.  I use a traditional recipe without baking powder because I like My Struffoli a little crunchy. If you prefer a softer consistency add 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder and let the dough rest for 60 minutes. Also, the original recipe includes the Italian liqueur Strega or Anisette but, since just few weeks ago I bottled My Limoncello (you should know this if you have been following My blog!), I am using that in my recipe.

The Mostaccioli, also called Mustaccioli are sort of large biscotti (cookies) shaped like a diamond and covered with a chocolate glaze or ganache. The name Mostaccioli comes from the peasant’s habit to use the wine must in order to develop a more  intense and sweet flavor. 

The list of traditional Christmas desserts from the Neapolitan area also include other delicacies like the Susamielli, honey based biscotti shaped like the letter S. The Roccoco`, very hard biscotti, shaped like donuts with an intense flavor of almond and citrus. The Divinoamore, prepared for the first time by the nuns of the convent Divino Amore. The almonds and lemons along with the light pink glaze give these small bites a unique Mediterranean flavor.

I have yet to experiment with these recipes, may be next Christmas I will but for now, I hope you will enjoy My Struffloli and Mostaccioli.

My Mostaccioli

Ingredients

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nut meg

2 finely crushed cloves

the zest from 1 orange and 1 tangerine

juice from 1 orange and 1 tangerine

2 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon Grand Marnier (optional)

1 pinch of salt

Warm water as necessary

For the glaze

1/4 pound semisweet chocolate chips

1/3 cup heavy cram

Directions

In a bowl of a food processor sift together the flower, the salt, the baking powder, the baking soda and the cocoa powder. Add the sugar and combine the ingredients at slow speed.

Add the orange and tangerine zest and the spices and process until combined.

In a measuring cup pour the required amount of  honey , add the orange juice and tangerine juice and then add to the dry ingredients (do not rinse the cup, add  ¼ cup of warm water and keep it aside).  Mix the dough at medium speed allowing all the ingredients to come together.

Add the Grand Marnier and keep processing the dough. Add the warm water as necessary to obtain a compact dough.

Mix the dough until it detaches from the side of the bowl. It should be smooth with no lumps.

Damp the dough on a surface slightly dusted with flour and shape into a ball.

Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven at 360 degree F.

Remove the dough form the refrigerator and on a surface well dusted with flour roll out the dough to a ½ inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath to make sure it is not sticking.

Cut the dough into diamond shape, large and/or small and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Bake for 15 minutes, remove from oven and let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes and then transfer on wire rack to completely cool.

Prepare the chocolate ganache.

In a pan combine chocolate chips and the heavy cram in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until the chocolate melts.

With a brush cover the bottom of the Mostaccioli with a thin layer of chocolate and let them dry completely. Once they are dry, flip the Mostaccioli and pour the chocolate over the top. Work on a wire rack with a pan underneath because you will have to allow the chocolate to drizzle down the sides. The Mostaccioli need several hours to dry completely.

My Struffoli

Ingredients

4 – ¾ cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoon granulated sugar

4 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk

5- 2/3 tablespoon unsalted butter

zest from ½ lemon

1 pinch of salt

2 tablespoon of Limoncello (options are Strega liqueur or Anisette or Rum)

Vegetable oil for frying (I use Peanut oil)

1 cup of honey

Multicolor nonpareils

Mixed candied fruit chopped into small pieces.

Directions

In a bowl of a food processor sift the flower, add the salt, the sugar, the lemon zest and the butter and combine the ingredients at slow speed.

Slowly add the eggs and lastly the liqueur and process the dough until it detaches from the side of the bowl (add a little bit of cold water if necessary).

The dough should be smooth.

Damp the dough on a surface slightly dusted with flour and shape into a ball.

Wrap the dough in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.

On a surface well dusted with flour knead the dough for few minutes and then divide into small balls, the size of oranges.

Working with one ball of dough at the time, roll the dough into ½ inch diameter dowels and cut dowels into ½ inch long pieces. As you cut the pieces placed them on a surface dusted with flour.

Right before frying transfer  the pieces of dough (one batch at the time) into a sieve and shake to remove excess flour.

In a deep frying pan, heat the oil to 175 degree and fry the pieces of dough in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan.

As soon as they became light gold, remove from the oil, drain and transfer into a plate lined with absorbent kitchen paper.

Place a large pan on top of a pot with simmering water. Pour the honey in the pan and let melt. Remove from heat and add the fried Struffoli, add the candied fruit and stir until all the Struffoli are completely coated with honey.

To plate the Struffoli, place a glass or a round jar in the center of a serving plate and then place the Struffoli all around to form a ring. Sprinkle with nonpareils and let sit few hours before removing the glass/jar.

You still have time to make these two wonderful desserts, follow the recipes and remember I will be around if you have questions.

Don’t forget to check My blog tomorrow for My Christmas Eve Menu`!

Il Presepe Napoletano – The Neapolitan Crèche

I Presepi di San Gregorio Armeno, Napoli

The word presepe comes from Latin “praesaepe” and means mangiatoia (manger).

The Italian tradition of the presepe originates with St. Francis of Assisi, who  in 1223, in Greggio (Umbria), for the first time represented the Nativity with a live scene.

The  first sculptural representation of the Italian Nativity scene is from the late ‘200, when it only included eight figures, Madonna, Giuseppe, Bambino Gesu`, asino, bue e Re Magi (Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the donkey, the ox and the Wise Men). With time the presepe evolved to include the angels and the shepherds with their flock.

It was in the late ‘600 that the Presepe  Napoletano took a more theatrical aspect with its mix of sacred and profane and finally, in the  1700, the making of the presepe in Napoli became a true art.

It was then, in fact, that the presepe began to adorn the houses of the aristocracy and then finally became a widespread tradition. It was then that the Neapolitan artists gave the Sacred scene a more realistic setting with the introduction of elements from their everyday life.

In Napoli there is a street, Via San Gregorio Armeno, which is also known as “Via dei Presepi” (Presepi Street).

Via San Gregorio Armeno

The street is known worldwide for its botteghe artigianali (artisan workshop) where the artists of the presepe, throughout the year are busy producing i pastori. The word pastori literally means shepherds; however, in this case it refers to all the figures that make up the Nativity scene.

On the same street, the Chiesa (church) of San Gregorio Armeno was built in 930 on the foundations of a classic temple dedicated to Ceres.  The church was dedicated to San Gregorio Armeno in 1208. Although the art of the Neapolitan presepe is more recent, it was to Ceres that the population originally used to offer small votive clay figures made by the local artisans.

In Napoli the tradition of “fare il presepe” (to build the Nativity scene) includes an annual passeggiata (stroll) to the “Via dei Presepi”.

You can visit the workshops of San Gregorio Armeno year around and while during the rest of the year you might be able to better admire the pastori and observe the artisans at work, nothing compares to a visit during the Holiday Season. Hundreds of people walk through the narrow street looking for the perfect addition to their presepe or just looking for that unique piece to take home as a memento. In the evening the atmosphere is especially surreal with all the colorful lights blinking through the myriads of  Nativity scenes.

There you will find everything you need to build your own presepe from the houses made of cork or cardboard to pastori of all different sizes. The pastori are generally made in terra-cotta and they are either painted by hand and sometime also dressed  in tailored fabrics. Some of the pastori are original reproductions of the classic pastori of the ‘700 and you can expect to pay thousands of dollars for them.

Some of the figures also feature robotic mechanisms to reproduce the movement of the specific figure such the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) baking the pizza, or the laundress washing the linen.

Along with the basic elements there are some staples of the Neapolitan Presepe:

Benino (the sleeping shepherd), the wine maker, the fishmonger, the two godfathers, the monk, the gypsy, Stefania ( the young virgin who gave birth to St. Stephan), the prostitute, the zampognari (pipers), the comet, Il mercato (the open market) with the butcher, the fruit-stand, the melons-stand, the poulterer and so on and then the baker with his wood-burning oven, the church, the tavern, the river and the well.

If you are fortunate to be in Napoli during the Holiday Season make sure to take a stroll to San Gregorio Armeno. However be prepared to the jostling and “ammuina” (Neapolitan term for confusione – confusion). And if afterward you feel hungry, head to the Antica Pizzeria da Michele for one of my favorite pizza in the world, but . . . that is another blog!

I cannot omit to mention that in the last decades the masters of the presepe have also specialized in the reproduction of characters estranged to the tradition but that represent the characters from politics, sports, culture and entertainment. Examples are Berlusconi, Maradona, Totò, Pulcinella, Obama, Pavarotti and surely this year, Steve Jobs.

The presepe of My childhood included most of the traditional figures. The structure was made of cork and it represented a three level mountainous landscape with a winding path that from the top was leading to the village where the Holy Family was set in a grotto. There was also a secondary cave that was housing the tavern with the wine maker and its barrels. The church was sitting at an intermediate level and a beggar was standing nearby. At the same level there was the shepherd with his flock. Benino was sleeping under a tree while the zampognari were at the entrance of the grotto. There was a well in the peasant’s courtyard where the chickens and geese were scratching. The river was made with aluminum foil and many little houses were set into the scenery. The Re Magi (Wise Men) riding their camels were located up on the mountain far away from the village. There were a laundress and many more little figures around the village. The comet was shining on the grotto and a blue drape dotted with golden stars was the backdrop to the all scene.

During the Holiday Season the presepe was My doll house, every day I would move the Wise Men along the path (they had to reach the grotto on January 6), I would take the geese to the river or move the sheep around.

Today My Presepe is not as elaborated but I do have a small, delicate Nativity scene from San Gregorio Armeno.

My Presepe di San Gregorio Armeno

From San Gregorio Armeno I also treasure a single piece, a Zampognaro with his ragged clothes and his swollen red cheeks.

Lo Zampognaro

In the last few years I have also started to collect Nativity scenes of different style. My collection includes:

A Miniature presepe set into a light bulb which is the work of artist Annalisa Bonfanti of Naples.

Presepe in miniatura

A traditional Italian presepe in resin.

Classic Italian Presepe

A Holy Family from the Willow Tree collection.

Willow Tree Holly Family

A white Capodimonte Porcellain Nativity scene.

Presepe di Capodimonte

And a  German made, contemporary  Nativity set which I love for its simplicity.

Do you have a presepe in your home? Tell me about it.

My Limoncello Biscotti . . . Perfect for tea!

Perfect for tea!

As promised, here it  is the  follow up on my previous post on Limoncello.

Last Saturday, during the bottling step of the Limoncello making, I kept thinking that I could surely find a good use for this flavorful liqueur infused lemon’s zest. So, rather than discarding it, I decided to save it in a Tupperware. Once my client was gone, I proceeded in decking up my bottles and then it finally hit me . . . ” I was going to make Limoncello Biscotti (cookies)!”

I used an old cookie’s recipe to which I added my wonderful zest and of course some Limoncello. Two hours later My Limoncello biscotti were already cooling on the wire racks! My son would not wait for them to completely cool and kept stealing them every time I would turn my eyes away. My husband after tasting few of them said they were buonissimi (very very good), my neighbor and  friend Lori, who later in the day was pet sitting my two dogs, said they were delicious. However, she was cornered by Luna and Vera (my 10 years old Golden Retriever and my 15 months old Golden Doodle) that didn’t agree with her eating our cookies!

What did I think about the cookies? I thought they were good, yet, I wanted the flavor to be a little more pronounced so I quickly jot down a note on my recipe jurnal to add more zest and Limoncello next time. Ok . . . they were not perfect this first time around, still, they were a perfect companion to my afternoon tea.

I am sure Santa would enjoy these cookies too!

Twenty four hours later my biscotti are gone . . . good thing I had frozen some of my precious zest!

I thought of other ways to use the Limoncello infused lemon’s zest and, although I have not experimented yet, I bet that a Limoncello Pound Cake with bits of zest would be just wonderful! So would be a Limoncello Sorbet or a Limoncello Custard to serve warm with sugar cookies . . . che delizia! (how deliciuos!)

Can you think of other ways to use the zest? Let me know.

Without further ado I give you My recipe.

My Limoncello Biscotti

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 – 1/4 cup granulated sugar

7 oz cold unsalted butter (My preference is European butter)

1 large whole egg

2 egg yolks

1/4 teaspoon of salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup of Limoncello infused lemon’s zest

1/4 cup of Limoncello

Before you start, in a bowl sift together the flour, the salt and the baking powder.  Also, cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and keep it chill.

In a bowl of a food processor combine the sugar and the lemon zest, pulse until the zest is reduced into tiny bits.

Add the butter, the whole egg and the yolks and process until all the ingredients are combined.

Slowly add the Limoncello then the sifted flour.

Mix on low speed until the dough starts coming together.

Damp the dough on a surface dusted with flour and shape into  two balls.

Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degree F.

You now have two options to shape your  cookies. Work with one ball of dough at the time, keeping the other refrigerated.

Option 1:

Pinch off the dough to form 1 inch balls. Slightly flatten the balls between your hands and placed them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicone baking mat. Use your floured index finger to create a slight depression in the center of each cookie.

Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. Remove from oven and let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes then, transfer on wire rack to cool completely. Now that I think about it, once the cookies are cool, you could  fill the little depression with a small dollop of Nutella!

Option 2:

On a surface well dusted with flour roll out the dough to a 1/4 inch thick (make sure your rolling pin is also dusted with flour). Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking. Also, work fast so the dough doesn’t get warm.  Cut into desired shape, place on baking sheet lined with parchment, or silicone baking mat.

Refrigerate the cookies for 10 minutes before baking.

Remove from refrigerator and bake for 9 to 10 minutes or until they are just beginning to turn brown around the edges (I accidentally cooked mine few extra minutes. Make sure you use a timer!). Remove from oven and let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes and then transfer on wire rack until completely cool.

Enjoy your biscotti with tea, or coffee.

Related Post: Limoncello 

Limoncello

Today I will diverge from my Holiday theme because I was able to taste my homemade Limoncello.

Il Limoncello di Capri

It is still up for debate where this lemon liqueur originated between Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri. The liqueur first appeared in 1900, but only in 1988 Massimo Canale registered the first trademark “Limoncello”.  Still, at that time only a few restaurateurs on the Amalfi coast, Sorrento and Capri were producing it. However, it was often only reserved for special guests (ospiti).

The first time I tried the lemon liqueur was in 1986. I was with my recently married husband in a little family owned osteria in Tramonti, a small town in the Amalfi coast area sitting at the foot of the Lattari Mountains. At the end of what I recall as a delicious lunch (pranzo), the host, feeling cheerful  in the presence of this happily newlywed couple, offered a taste of his precious homemade lemon liqueur. Oh . . . it was special! The aroma of the lemon alone was exhilarating!

A few years went by before I saw this liqueur Limoncello, on the shelves of restaurants and markets. Today the Limoncello is everywhere in Italy and abroad. Does it all taste good? I don’t believe so. At first, the recipes were passed on from mother to daughter, but now they are all over the internet. There are many variations, such as the use of grain alcohol or Vodka, how long the peels have to steep in the liquid, and so on.

I personally only trust my Zia (aunt) Anna’s recipe. She makes the best homemade Limoncello! However, there is a catch! She tells me ”the only lemons you can use are the ones handpicked from Sorrento” It’s easy for her to say, she lives ten minutes from Sorrento!

Well . . . I live on the other side of the Ocean. So I had to give up the idea of making my own Limoncello and, I did. Until two months ago, when one of my clients from my cooking classes asked me if I would teach her how to make Limoncello. I couldn’t say no.

Four weeks ago Mary Anne and I met to start the long process of making Limoncello.     Earlier that morning I had been to the local organic market in search of the perfect lemons (limoni). And, lucky me! I found these beautiful lemons, medium size and with still a tiny hint of green, just what I needed! Most of all  they had a wonderful aroma, I was all set!

Mary Anne and I peeled the lemons to perfection with no trace of the bitter pith on the rinds.

We transferred the rinds into two glass jugs, added the alcohol, sealed the jugs and wrapped them in kitchen towels.

For four weeks the jugs  sat in my kitchen (cucina) cabinet. Finally, yesterday I added the water-sugar solution and let it rest overnight. This morning Mary Anne and I finally strained and bottled the liqueur. 

The bottled Limoncello should have rested in the refrigerator for at least four hours before the first taste, needless to say . . . we couldn’t wait!

Here it was, the moment of truth! And then Mary Anne said “Oh my . . . it smells so good! and . . . it is yummy!”

This Limoncello surely will be under someone’s Christmas Tree!

Dear Zia Anna, thank you for the recipe. The lemons are not from Sorrento, but I think you would be proud. Cin cin!

And you . . . have you ever had Limoncello? Do you like it? Where did you have the best one? Do you make your own?  Tell me!

I know what you are thinking . . . and here it is, Zia Anna’s Limoncello recipe (ricetta).

Limoncello di Zia Anna

 Ingredients:

10 medium organic lemons

5 cups granulated sugar

1 qt filtered water

1 qt Everclear (190-prof) grain alcohol

Make sure you use organic lemons. DO NOT WASH THE LEMONS,  just rub them with a clean damp kitchen towel.

If you cannot find organic lemons, wash them in warm water and brush them, then dry them completely.

Using a vegetable peeler (Y peeler works best), remove the peel from the lemons in long strips.

My suggestion: reserve the lemons for another use such as scaloppine al limone or tagliolini al limone.

Using a small sharp knife, trim away any residual white pith from the lemon peels; discard the pith.

Place the lemon rind in a glass jar (3-qt jar with wide opening and with lid).

Pour the alcohol over the rind and seal the jar.

Cover the jar with a large kitchen towel and let the lemon rind steep, in a dark place for one month.

After one month, stir the water and sugar in a large saucepan over low heat until the sugar completely dissolves, about 10 minutes.

Cool completely. Pour the syrup over the alcohol/ rind mixture.

Seal the jar and allow to rest overnight.

The next day, strain the limoncello into a large pouring bowl,  by lining a strainer with heavy-duty cheesecloth  to make sure that no rinds or residuals get into the limoncello. You might have to do this in batches.

My suggestion: save the rinds in a Tupperware in the refrigerator and wait for my next blog!

You are now ready to bottle. Use sterilized bottles. Line a funnel with cheesecloth and fill the bottles, seal and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours.

Transfer the bottles in the freezer.

Alway serve ice-cold. Enjoy!