A recipe from Piemonte: Brasato al Barolo . . . A Perfect Holiday dish!

Holiday Dinner

I haven’t been very active on my blog lately and apologize for that. Many things have kept me occupied, however, I could not let the Holidays go by without thanking all of you for your support through my first year of blogging.

I shall also thank two very special bloggers, Meg at Meg Travels and Letizia at Dutch goes Italian for awarding me with the Blog of the Year 2012 Award. I am humbled and honored to be in such a great company . . . GRAZIE, GRAZIE, GRAZIE!!!

To celebrate my 1 year Anniversary, my Award, and the Holiday Season I want to share a recipe that I think you will love: Brasato al Barolo. A dish typical of the Piemonte region and perfect for a special occasion such as Christmas.

The beef is marinated in Italian Barolo wine for almost 24 hours then slow cooked in the same marinade for 3 more hours, the result is a rich dish full of flavor, elegant and earthy, comforting and intense all at the same time.

Barolo is a full-bodied Italian wine from the Nebbiolo grapes. It is quite expensive (especially in the US) so I often substitute Barolo with Nebbiolo, You will still have to pay around $20 for a bottle of Nebbiolo, however, for a special occasion, it is wort the expense.

You can read about my visit to the Marchesi di Barolo ‘s winery in the town of Barolo clicking on this link: A day in Barolo

I prepared Brasato al Barolo last week for a Holiday dinner with some dear friends, but the first time I cooked Brasato al Barolo was in 1982 when I invited my boyfriend to meet my parents. Although it was not my intention to – as they say in Italy –  “prendere l’uomo per la gola” (literally: take a man through his throat; meaning: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach), that man is today my husband of 26 years . . . I think he was impressed!

The Brasato al Barolo is typically served with a side of polenta, mashed potatoes or stewed pearl onions. For my Holiday dinner I served my Brasato with my mom’s version of mashed potatoes (simply boiled and mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a lot of extra-virgin olive oil), sautéed broccoli rapini and cipolline all’aceto balsamico (pearl onions stewed in balsamic vinegar). My Holiday dinner turned into a two days cooking affair as I also served a primo piatto (first course) of rondelle (fresh pasta roll ups) spinach and ricotta with bechamel sauce. I also prepared pears cooked in red wine served with Sabayon sauce as dessert. And since I LOVE desserts, I made mini Panettone cakes covered in chocolate ganache and lastly chocolate-chestnut truffles!

Rondelle spinach and ricottaPere cotte al vinoTruffles and mini cakes

I promised that I will share all these recipes soon.

I would like to encourage you to read my previous posts on Italian Christmas’s  culture and traditions. You can learn about the fascinating Neapolitan Presepe (Crèche), the truth about the Feast of Seven Fish, and New Year’s Eve Italian traditions.  You can also add some traditional Neapolitan desserts to your table with my recipe for struffoli and mostaccioli.

Lastly, I would like to nominate three bloggers that I have being enjoying following, for the Blog of the Year 2012 Award:

Two Black Dogs

Our Italian Table

Writingfeemail’s Blog

Congratulations and thank you for such enjoyable blogs!

Please read the rules of the award at the bottom of this post.

Happy Holidays to all and don’t forget to keep the little angels of Sandy Hook Elementary School in your hearts throughout this Holiday Season.

Ricetta

Brasato al Barolo

Cosa serve (What you need)

2 pounds beef (shoulder, chuck or boneless short ribs)

1 bottle of Barolo or Nebbiolo

1  onion quartered

1 large carrot chopped

1 celery stalk chopped

1 bay leaf

4 tablespoon of unsalted butter

3 cloves

1 small cinnamon stick

8-10 peppercorns

4-5 juniper berries

1 sprig rosemary, 1 small bunch of sage, 1 small bunch thyme – tied together

1/2 cup cognac – optional

2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1 oz. prosciutto fat – minced

Cosa fare (What to do)

Pat dry the meat and place it in an earthenware pot. Add the chopped  vegetable, the herbs, and all the spices.

Prepping the BrasatoHerbsSpices

Sprinkle with salt and then pour the wine.

Barolo wineBarolo marinade

Cover with the pot and let marinade in the refrigerator for at  least 12 hours (24 hours would be ideal). Turn the meat over few times during the marinade period.

When ready to cook, remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Also remove the vegetables and herbs. Strain the marinade and discard any remaining solids, including the spices (I did not remove the spices which resulted in a too intense flavor).

In the same pot, heat the oil and butter. Add the vegetables and let them browned.  Also add the bunch of herbs.

Browning vegetables

Add the meat and brown on all sides. At this point if you decide to use the optional cognac, you should splash the liquor over the meat and light it and let the flames go out. I am still not comfortable with this step so I simply splashed the meat with cognac, raise the heat to high and let evaporate.

Season the meat with salt, pour the wine from the marinade over it.

Slow cooking the Brasato

Cover and cook on very low heat for 2 hours.

Spoon out the vegetables and remove the bunch of herbs. Discard the herbs and puree the vegetables in a food processor.

Add the puree to the pot and continue cooking for 30 minutes. At this point the meat should be cooked. Remove it from the pot and keep it warm.

If the sauce appears too liquid, add 1 teaspoon of potato starch, bring to boil and let thicken.

Slice the meat, pour the sauce over and serve with the side dish of your choice.

Buon Appetito!!!

Brasato al Barolo

What are you serving at your Holiday dinner?

BUON NATALE!!!!

Rules for the Blog of the Year 2012 Award

  • Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award
  • Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.
  • Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award – http://thethoughtpalette.co.uk/our-awards/blog-of-the-year-2012-award/   and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)
  • Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them
  • As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

The Epiphany. . . La Befana

January 6 is a National holiday in Italy. It is the Epifania (Epiphany), a Christian holiday celebrated precisely on January 6, 12 days after Christmas.

The word Epifania derives from the Greek word epifanèia, which means “the manifestation or the appearance”.

The Epiphany celebrates the first manifestation of Jesus to the world through the visit of the Re Magi (three wise men) coming from the East, led by a comet to adore the Baby Jesus and to offer their gifts of gold (symbol of royalty), frankincense (symbol of divinity) and myrrh (symbol of the future redemptive suffering).

The celebration of the Epiphany is also accompanied by traditions of very ancient lineage (solar cults) and in particular the visit of la Befana on the eve of January 6. The tradition of La Befana may actually predates Christianity, as it is believed to have derived from a pagan goddess or oracle that Romans sought for guidance and gifts at the start of each new year.

“la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte il cappello alla romana, viva viva la Befana!!!”

(The Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a roman hat, hurrah hurrah for the Befana!!!)

With this rhyme the Italian children every year celebrate the arrival of the old, good witch.

La Befana is a typical Italian tradition.

According to the modern legend, the Re Magi (The three Wise men), on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Baby Jesus, stopped for directions at an old woman’s house.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

Despite their insistence in following them, the old woman did not go, as she was busy sweeping the floors.

Later, the old woman repented, prepared a basket of sweets and left the house hoping to find the three Wise Men. She stopped at every house and gave candies to the children, in the hope that one of them was Baby Jesus. Poor Befana never found her way to Bethlehem. But, every year at Christmastime, she takes her broom and flies all over the Italian sky, leaving gifts and candies to every children.

La Befana is typically depicted as an old beneficent woman, with the hump nose and pointed chin, dressed in rags and covered with soot, because she enters into the houses through the chimney, which represents the connection between sky and earth. She carries on her shoulder a bag full of gifts, and is said to sweep the kitchen with her broom when she leaves her gifts in the children‘s socks.

The festivity of the Befana is particularly felt in Rome, where many families each year gather in Piazza Navona to meet the Befana and enjoy her confectionary.

The Befana traditionally rewards the well-behaved children with gifts and candies, while she punishes the ones who have misbehaved, with pieces of coal as a reminder of their misdeeds.

But. . . nobody is perfect, so you will find in the “calza” (sock – stocking) a nice chunk of coal and then, digging deeper, among some walnut and mandarins you will always find candies and chocolates.

The eve of the Befana is a night of expectation for all the children who, before going to sleep, write the letterina (short letter). The letterina to the Befana is a must. You write how good you have been or how sorry you are for your misbehaving and then you ask for gifts for yourself and for your loved ones.

One more thing before going to sleep must be done, setting up a tray with the Befana’s meal. I know. . . you are thinking cookies and milk just like Santa Claus! Well, you could not be more wrong. . . cheese, tangerines and a glass of red wine! In true Italian style!

I have many memories of the night of the Befana but, two in particular that I would like to share. When I was a child, my family didn’t have a fireplace to hang the stockings so my mom would set up a drying rack. One year I remember hanging long wool tights on each string of the rack. That was a lot of stuffing to do for poor Befana! I remember waking up the following morning and finding the drying rack set on top of the dining room table, all the tights were filled and a beautiful electric train was assembled at the foot of the drying rack all along the edge of the table. Oh, I was so happy!

My second memory brings a little sadness. I was six years old when my grandmother passed away just two days before the Epiphany. I was sent to stay with some close friends. That year, in a home that was not mine, I had not written my letterina (short letter), or left a meal for the Befana and not even hung my calza (stocking). Despite all, I woke up to find my calza (stocking) filled as usual, and the gift I had wished for. My Befana knew, and even in a time of grief she remembered that I was only a little kid.

My mother has filled my brothers’ stockings and mine until we moved out. Often with the candies, walnuts and tangerines, we would also find a scarf or hat that she had hand knitted.

Today, I still fill my two, now adult, son’s stockings and I will keep doing it until they go on their own. I fill their calze (stockings) with Italian candies and chocolates, tangerines, walnuts and a stuffed animal, a tradition I started on their first Befana.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

With la Befana the Italian Christmas Season is officially over, as the saying goes “L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via!” – “The Epiphany all holidays takes away”.

It is time to take the Christmas tree down, to store the presepe (Nativity scene) in its box, the wreaths and garlands in the storage room and to turn all the shining lights off.

Anyway, if there was not the Epiphany to take all the holidays away, we would still have the Home Owner Association to remind us that we only have this weekend to make sure that no signs of Christmas would be in sight!

How many of you celebrate the Epiphany?

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.

December the 8th and the Christmas Tree

Read the word!

This month of December my blog will be dedicated to the Italian traditions of the Christmas Season.

There is a first time for everything. This year, for the first time and against the Italian tradition I have trimmed (addobbato) my Christmas tree (albero di Natale) prior to December the 8th. To be precise my tree was trimmed and lit on November the 30th, shame on me!

You may ask “what about December the 8th?”

December the 8th in the Catholic world, is the festivity of the Immaculate Conception. Already celebrated in the XI century, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed by Pope Pio IX on December 8, 1845.

Every city in Italy, big and small, celebrate this festivity in their own unique way. In Rome, in Piazza di Spagna, the Pope adorns the statue of Mary with a garland of flower. Because the statue sits on top of a column, the firemen (pompieri) on ladder, place the garland on the statue.

In the Year of the Catholic Church liturgy, this holiday marks the last of the Marian Feasts (Feste Mariane) dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Madonna).

This national holiday is also enjoyed as a long weekend. It is common for the Italians to take il ponte (the bridge), this means that if a holiday falls on a Thursday or a Tuesday, they bridge the holidays taking off from work and school the extra day in between. Aren’t we smart!

Traditionally, this holiday also marks the beginning of the Christmas Holiday Season (Feste Natalizie) and therefore the trimming of the Christmas tree.

After going through several changes over the years (all red, all silver, silver and red and so on) my Christmas tree has finally found its identity. For start it is a real tree, it has a modern flair, it has a collection of the ornaments that my boys present to me every year, it has an Italian touch and, it is lit with clear lights.

Babbo Natale speeding on his Vespa

To satisfy my longing for something different, few years ago I also bought a small silver tinsel tree, I love it…it’s an eye sore to my boys! Well, they were lucky I didn’t bring home the other tree I came around, a green bottle brush tree. I am not talking about the botanical specie but true brushes to clean bottles. Let me be clear, I do like it. May be I will surprise them next year!

Tinsel Tree

One thing for sure, Christmas tree in Italy don’t have a skirt!

Can you read what the letters spell on my Christmas tree?

Do you have a real or artificial tree? How do you decorate your tree? Clear lights or multicolor? Do you have a theme?

I would love to know!