Pappardelle con Zucca e Funghi Porcini

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but it would seem that we're already at the end of Fall, meaning that that Halloween is just around the corner, Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and, most importantly, we're on to round 2 of Cucina Conversations, passing from the theme of la vendemmia (my post and the links to the others here) to the theme of Ognissanti.

Before I move on to October's topic and the recipe I'm contributing, a little update on Cucina Conversations: monthly posts aside, the little community we've created has been a great source of information and support, a place where we can all go to ask questions like, "Has anyone cooked with purple carrots before?" or "Has anyone ever seen this type of butternut squash? *photo here*" or "Has anyone ever cooked with fejoias or tamarillos? What about medlars?" (I had never heard of any of those fruits before either, don't worry). I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I'm so happy to have found such great bloggers to connect with (and discuss weird fruits and vegetables with!) and am proud to share their excellent recipes every month.

While Halloween (October 31st) has become a more popular holiday in Italy -- you'll see the occasional trick-or-treater, my local bakery sells ghost and skeleton shaped cookies -- Ognissanti got here long before, dating all the way back to the 8th century. Called "All Saints Day" in English, Ognissanti -- which, as you might have guessed, has its roots in Catholicism -- is celebrated on November 1st, and is an official holiday in Italy. It is a day in which families honor and remember their deceased loved ones, traditionally celebrated by attending mass and then enjoying a big family meal, and is followed by Il Giorno dei Morti ("All Souls Day") on November 2.

I'll be honest: I didn't exactly stick to theme as I perhaps should have this month -- Rosemarie's castagnaccio and Lisa's fave dei morti for example are far more traditional choices, both sweets that are baked and eaten specifically for Ognissanti. The thing that you have to understand, however -- and I've already touched on this here, so you've been warned! -- is that my brain did what it always does in the Fall, and jumped immediately to Pumpkin (can't stop, won't stop). Before properly researching recipes with a deeper cultural significance, I immediately informed my fellow bloggers that I'd be making Pappardelle con Zucca e Funghi Porcini, a quick decision based more on seasonal ingredients than actual compatibility with the theme. In hindsight, it can work for this month's topic -- after all, Ognissanti is celebrated during pumpkin and porcini season, with a big meal that could very well include a primo like this one -- but I'll try and do my recipe research homework a it more carefully. Anyways, I don't think you're all that disappointed with today's recipe, are you? Just look at those photos!

I ordered a pasta with pumpkin and porcini mushrooms at a vegetarian restaurant in my neighborhood not long ago, expectations and hopes high (sweet seasonal pumpkin! luxurious porcini!) Long story short: the resulting dish was, well, just fine. I felt like it had a lot of potential but needed more flavor, a little punch of something extra, and that I could do it better myself. After a few recipe testing sessions in my own kitchen -- and without patting myself on the back too much here -- I think I have. I used more butternut squash instead, which has the same flavor as pumpkin but is it a bit easier to cook with at home (no deseeding or cleaning necessary). I roasted said squash instead of boiling it or steaming it in the pan; I added in some onions, that were slowly cooked instead of just sauteed; and I added a good dose of sage and freshly grated cheese. The result was fantastic, earthy rich porcini mushrooms, sweet caramel-like onions, intensely, well, squash-y squash (thanks, roasting!), salty Parmesan, and cozy sage, all helped along with a dash of white wine and a few whole garlic cloves. The  perfectly coats the pasta and is a bright beautiful orange, making it super festive and autumnal, perfect for Ognissanti or Halloween or even as a vegetarian option for Thanksgiving. This is Fall that can be twirled around your fork and eaten with a sprinkling of of Parmesan cheese, people.

Here are the links to the other recipes for this month's Cucina Conversations:

-Carmen's Savoiardi in honor of her grandfather over at The Heirloom Chronicles;

-Fave dei Morti -- Italian almond cookies made to celebrate Ognissanti in Italy -- made by Lisa at Italian Kiwi;

-'Nzulli -- or biscuits made by Marialuisa's Nonna Mena -- over at Marmellata di Cipolle 

-Necci con la Ricotta -- Tuscan chestnut pancakes -- courtesy of Daniela at La Dani Gourmet;

-Apple Sbrisolona, or rather the Italian version of Apple Crumble, made by Flavia aka Flavia's Flavors, to be posted soon as well;

-Castagnaccio -- a dessert made with chestnut flour and typical of Ognissanti -- prepared by Rosemarie aka TurinMamma, to be posted shortly;

A couple of notes on this recipe: Like I said, I used butternut because it's easier to prepare than pumpkin but feel free to use pumpkin if you'd like (also: in Italian the word for squash and pumpkin is the same -- zucca -- so I feel they're fairly interchangeable here!) You can use any cut of pasta you want here, but I happen to like a longer one. If you don't have dried porcini or think they're too pricey, I've also made this with sliced white button mushrooms. The flavor is a bit different of course, but they work in a pinch. Just make sure you saute them longer with the onions as they'll require a bit more cooking and release water that will need to evaporate. That being said, you can also make this with fresh porcini, if they're in your price range. I mashed up the squash with a potato masher, but if you want a smoother sauce, feel free to blend it with an immersion blender or give it a whirl or two in the food processor. Finally, don't pay too much attention to the onions in the photos below -- I photographed the step-by-step part on my first try recreating this recipe, where I sauteed chopped onions instead of caramelizing. Go for the slow cooking of the half-moon shaped ones, it's worth it!

If you like savory pumpkin dishes, you might also like this risotto with pancetta and butternut squash. For any sweet pumpkin dishes, you can find everything you could ever dream of here. For more mushrooms, check out this polenta I made. 

PAPPARDELLE ZUCCA E PORCINI

Ingredients:
About 1 1/2 lbs (I used 770 grams) butternut squash, cubed
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
2 ounces (50 grams) dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 cup (112 grams) white wine
3/4 cup-1 cup freshly (110 grams) grated Parmesan cheese, plus a little more for serving
2-3 tablespoons sage, depending on how sage-y you want your pasta
3/4 pound (340 grams) pappardelle pasta

Directions:
First things first, reconstitute those mushrooms! Place the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl and add just enough tepid water to cover them. Set aside for at least half an hour.
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss your butternut squash in a roasting pan -- line it with aluminum foil, this makes clean up much easier -- with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Roast the squash for about 40-45 minutes, or until it is tender and easily pierced with a fork.
While the squash is cooking and the mushrooms are rehydrating, slow cook your onions. Slice the onion into thin half moons. Cook them, along with the garlic cloves, in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over very low heat, about 30 minutes. Remove the porcini from their liquid, pat them dry, and cut any big pieces in half. Add them to the frying pan with the garlic and onions and allow them to cook and blend nicely with the other ingredients. Stir in the sage. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper.
Next, add the wine to the pan and let it cook down and evaporate, about 7 or so minutes. Your kitchen will smell great at this point. Check your butternut squash. If it is done roasting, take it out of the oven and use a spoon to move it to another bowl.
Mash up the squash with a potato masher, or use an immersion blender or food processor if you have either of those (the immersion blender and food processor will make a smoother butternut puree). Add the squash to the pan with the mushrooms, onions, and sage, and stir everything together. Taste the sauce and check for seasonings -- add salt and pepper as needed.
Last steps -- make your pasta according to the package directions of whatever cut you have chosen. When the pasta is done and al dente, scoop out about 1 cup of pasta water from the pot before draining the pasta. Add a little pasta water to the sauce. Toss the pasta with the squash and porcini sauce, adding a little more pasta water (a tablespoons at a time) and the cheese -- start with 1/2 cup and add a little more if you want, up to 1 cup, depending on how Parmesan-y you want this dish-- until the pasta has a nice consistency and the sauce easily coats the pasta. Serve immediately with extra cheese. Serves 6.



Torta della Nonna

While there is something undeniably rewarding about a finished dish -- the part where pat yourself on the back and admire that cake/lasagne/roast you've made with your own two hands -- I find that the small steps that lead to the end result are usually far more satisfying. There's something marvelous for example about transforming a puddle of barely-there egg whites into a fluffy white cloud to be folded into a souffle with just a little whisking, seeing a pan of batter miraculously rise and puff into a cake in the oven, witnessing a bunch of strong-smelling, tear inducing onions become soft and caramel-y in a pan with some slow cooking, or turning a bowl of butter, powdered sugar, and milk into a smooth, delicious buttercream with just a few whirs of an electric mixer. Indeed, the list goes on and on, but at the very top of it, occupying the #1 spot on my Magical-Kitchen-Moments List, is Making a Pastry Crust. The same magic unfolds every time, and never ceases to delight me. You start by mixing your flour with tiny pieces of cold butter, thinking that the mixture looks impossibly dry -- double check the butter quantity in the recipe here -- until slowly but surely, the bits of butter blend harmoniously into the flour, taking on the appearance of deliciously buttery sand. The water or eggs or even sour cream  -- whatever your wet ingredients are -- join the party with just a few turns of a wooden mixing spoon, making the flour and butter become something resembling a dough (!!!) And then it's up to you, the cook, to add some more flour or more liquid to the resulting mixture - your call, judging by how the ingredients are getting along - and to knead the dough the right amount to achieve that perfect pie crust consistency, pliable and smooth, not too sticky and easy to work with. You pat the dough into a little mound -- proudly, I might add -- then leave your masterpiece in the fridge to rest before its big debut.


It's the little things, I suppose. 

Torta della Nonna is a classic Italian dessert which requires not one, but two magical, glorious, homemade pastry crusts (hurray!!!) In terms of fame it is just behind the better known but no more delicious tiramisรน and panna cotta, and its name, translated from Italian to English, would be "Grandmother's Cake." My own Italian grandmother has never made us this dessert -- she's more of a pan di spagna kind of gal -- but I wouldn't mind in the least if she did. Here we have a smooth custard filling bursting with bright lemon and sweet vanilla, sandwiched between buttery, citrus-y crusts, bejeweled with toasty pine nuts and finished off with a veil of snowy powdered sugar. It doesn't look like much -- no mile high layers, no frosting, no chunks of chocolate -- but it is a lovely, home-y dessert that exemplifies the expression "less is more," as most Italian desserts do, good with your afternoon tea or as an understated end to a meal. While it's true this has a few more steps than your average every day cake, you'll find that none of them are difficult, and I think you'll feel distinctly savvy as you whisk together your own custard and roll out your homemade crust, not so unlike an authentic, expert Italian grandmother. 

A couple of notes: I found that I had a whole lot of dough leftover after fitting it to the tart pan -- so, if you end up with more dough don't worry! I was suspicious of the amount of cornstarch in the recipe -- 1/4 cup seemed like a lot -- but never fear, it works fine. When zesting the lemon for the crust and removing the peel for the filling, do your best to leave out the bitter white part (the pith). If you're not sure how to transfer your rolled out circle of pie dough to the tart pan, I usually roll it up over a floured rolling pin, then unroll it over the tart pan. Works like a charm. 

Some other things with homemade pie crust, if you're weird like me: Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette, Pear and Chocolate Custard Tart with a Shortbread Crust, Strawberry Crostata, Blackberry Cheesecake Galette, Blueberry Pie, Berry Crostate, Berry Tartlets, and Pumpkin Pie Pop Tarts (I'll stop here). Looking for other classic Italian desserts? I've got Tiramisu and Torta di Ricotta, plus chocolate gelato

TORTA DELLA NONNA

Ingredients for the crust:
3 ¼ cups (450 grams) flour
14 tablespoons (200 grams) butter, cold, cut into small pieces
2 eggs
3/4 cup (160 grams) sugar
Zest of 1 lemon

Ingredients for the filling:
3 cups + 1 tablespoon (750 grams) whole milk
Peel of 1 lemon, cut into large pieces
1 cup (225 grams) sugar
3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) cornstarch
3.5 tablespoons (30 grams) flour
3 tablespoons (25 grams) pine nuts
Powdered sugar

Directions:

Start with the crust. In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the pieces of cold butter. Place the mixture in a food processor and pulse a few times until the butter and flour is well incorporated and looks like sand. Don’t have a food processor? You can also do this by hand, by breaking up the pieces of butter and flour with your hands until you get the same sand-like texture (it takes a bit longer but works just as well).
Set aside the flour-butter mixture. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the lemon zest, sugar, and eggs. Pour wet ingredients into the flour-butter mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir until a dough begins to come together. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, knead it a few times to make a ball of dough, then wrap the dough in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and place it in the fridge.
On to the filling! In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolk, sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla. Next, add the cornstarch and flour whisk again until everything is well combined. In a large pot over low heat, mix together the milk and the lemon peel. Bring the milk mixture to a bubble over low heat. Remove the lemon peel.
 
Slowly whisk the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture a little at a time to temper it, i.e don’t add all the milk at once otherwise you will end up with scrambled eggs. I usually take the pot off the stove and use a ladle to ladle the mixture in a little at a time, but if you have a sous chef or someone to help they can pour the milk into the egg mixture slowly for you as you do the whisking.

Once the milk is fully incorporated, pour the whole thing back into the pot on the stove. Cook the mixture until it turns into a custard, whisking often, about 10-15 minutes. The mixture will become thicker and creamier and will make your whole kitchen smell like lemons.
Pour the custard into a baking dish and cover it immediately with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature.
Last steps – preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grab the dough that you put in the fridge. Divide it into two pieces, with one slightly larger than the other. Roll out the smaller piece of dough into a large circle and place it carefully into the bottom of a 9-inch diameter tart pan with a removable bottom. Cut off any extra dough so that it fits the pan, and then prick the dough with a fork.
Next, spoon the cooled custard into the bottom of the crust and smooth out with a spoon. Roll out the larger piece of dough into a circle, and place it over the top of the custard. Trim the dough again – like I said above, you will have lots of extra dough – and seal it together with the bottom crust, so that no custard escapes. Cut a few small vents into the top of the crust so that the steam can escape while baking (I remembered this step only when the torta was in the oven, meaning I had to go in and cut some emergency steam-releasing vents halfway into the baking -- don't be like me!)
 
Top the Torta with your pine nuts, pressing them down lightly so that they adhere to the crust.
Bake for 50 minutes, or until the crust is light golden brown. If the Torta starts to brown too quickly, cover it with some aluminum foil. Let it cool completely before serving. Serves 10.



Recipe from www.giallozafferano.com.