Crostata di ricotta e cioccolato

You know the drill: we're almost at the end of the month, meaning it's time for another round of Cucina Conversations! This month our theme is Pasqua, or Easter, which is already this Sunday (!!!) If you're like me, you've not yet 100% decided on your menu, in which case we're here to help. A few Easter-appropriate Italian recipes below, courtesy of my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers:

Daniela of La Dani Gourmet will be sharing her recipe for torta di riso massese, a classic Italian Easter sweet;

Carmen of The Heirloom Chronicles will be making cassatelle, a Sicilian sweet made with ricotta and lemon;

Lisa aka Italian Kiwi will be making torta pasqualina, a savory pie made with spinach, ricotta, and eggs;


Flavia of Flavia's Flavors will be making crescia al formaggio, a savory, cheese-y bread from the region of Le Marche;


Marialuisa of Marmellata di Cipolle will be making abbacchio alla scottadito e erbe amare, or roast lamb with bitter greens;

Last but not least, Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma will be preparing salame del papa, or chocolate "salami" made with lots of chocolate and crushed biscuits.


So! When it comes to typical Easter desserts in Italy, you've got more than a few to choose from; there's colomba, for starters, or a dove-shaped sweet bread studded with almonds and sugar; there's pastiera from Naples, or a super rich pie made with cinnamon-y ricotta and grains, plus the elaborate, over-the-top cassata from Sicily. In my own Italo-American family, my paternal (Calabrian) grandmother has always made cuzzupe around Easter, pastries that consist of a lemon-tinged crumbly dough wrapped and twisted, wreath-like, around a hard boiled egg, then baked. On my mother's side of the family, the traditional Easter dessert has always been my maternal grandmother's torta di ricotta, a ricotta pie studded with chocolate chips and maraschino cherries. 

Now -- I know how important family traditions are, especially when it comes to food, but as a kid, for the most part, Easter was never a very exciting holiday for me, dessert-wise. There was nothing wrong with the sweets from both sides of the family, of course, but they just weren't my thing; while torta di ricotta is a dessert I can now appreciate a more as an adult, I hated ricotta when I was younger, and maraschino cherries seemed to be more suited for ice cream sundaes than pies (the full story here). While my paternal grandmother, and excellent cook and baker, prepared beautiful cuzzupe, they were never my favorite, either; I tended to end up eating a bit of the pastry and leaving the egg intact (after all these years, I'm actually still not sure if you're supposed to actually eat the egg?! and in any case, hard-boiled eggs remain among those foods I Never Learned to Like). As far as Easter desserts were concerned, I always preferred to stick to Cadbury Mini Eggs and/or Creme Eggs, thank you very much. 

I'm happy to report that now that I'm a little older I'm also a little wiser (at least when it comes to food) and my more mature taste buds paired with my penchant for baking means that my ideal Italian-Easter dessert is no longer a bag of milk chocolate eggs. While I still highly respect the culinary traditions of my grandmothers, I've branched out a little on my own, done some recipe developing and testing, and have found my own perfect Easter sweet in the form of this crostata di ricotta e cioccolato, or a ricotta and chocolate chip pie, which I like to describe as cheesecake, but cheesecake that has studied abroad in Italy. It strays from my grandmother's version, teaming up ricotta with mascarpone, which makes the filling super flavorful, not to mention super rich and smooth (a few egg yolks don't hurt the richness-factor here, either). Cheeses aside, the filling is sweet but not overwhelmingly so, vanilla-scented, and best of all, packed to the brim with bittersweet chocolate, the whole thing wrapped up and crisscrossed with crisp, golden brown pasta frolla (pastry crust). Not to pat myself on the back or anything here, but this was superb, and my friend-colleagues who were so kind as to taste-test seemed to agree -- I got a text message with the words "WHATTA CAKE!" and another "Buonissima!!!" after delivering pieces to their respective offices. And then, there was what wasn't said -- another friend ate two pieces, one after the other, in happy, content near silence, which was broken after only the last crumbs had disappeared. Bottom line: I'll be making this on Sunday and then next Easter and the one after that, and the one after that, and I think I just might have just found my own traditional Pasqua dessert.

A couple of notes: The pasta frolla (pie crust) can be made in advance (even up to 3 or so days before). Leave it at room temperature for a bit until it is soft enough to roll out. That being said, you can use a prepared pie crust in a pinch if you'd like, but the recipe for the one here is really nice. The variety of ricotta I used was a sheep's milk ricotta from my local cheese shop that was on the drier side. If you are using a variety of ricotta with a lot of moisture, I would recommend draining it (click here to learn how). I used mini chocolate chips here which I really liked -- they're more delicate than normal sized ones -- but feel free to use regular sized ones if you prefer. If you have time, try and leave your eggs and cheeses out for about an hour to bring them to room temperature (to ensure the smoothest filling). Finally, if you'd like, feel free to add some orange zest here if the chocolate/orange combination is your thing. 

CROSTATA DI RICOTTA E CIOCCOLATO

Ingredients for crust:
2 1/4 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 100 grams) cold butter, cut in to small pieces
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for filling:
1/2 pound (250 grams) mascarpone cheese
1/2 pound (250 grams) ricotta cheese
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
A heaping 1/8 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (160 grams) semi-sweet mini chocolate chips

An egg, for egg wash

Directions:
Start with the crust. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Scatter the butter pieces over the top of the flour and using your fingertips, incorporate them into the dry ingredients until the whole mixture looks like (buttery) sand. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and vanilla extract. Add the egg mixture to the butter/dry ingredient mixture, and stir together with a wooden spoon until a dough begins to form. Use your hands to squeeze the dough a couple of times to bring it all together. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead it a few times until smooth. Form a ball with the dough, flatten it into a disk, and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour.

In the meantime, making the filling. In a large bowl using electric beaters or in the bowl of a standing mixer, beat together all the filling ingredients except for the chocolate chips until fully incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl to get any excess batter, about 1 minute.
Last thing for the filling but obviously the most important -- stir in all those chocolate chips! Set the batter aside now and take the dough out from the fridge. 
Butter a 9-inch (23 cm) spring form pan, then line the outside with aluminum foil and set it aside. Place the disk of dough on a lightly floured work surface. Cut off about a quarter of the dough and set it aside. 
Roll the remaining dough disk out into a large (12 or so inch) circle. Transport the dough to your springform pan -- my trick is to roll the dough around my rolling pin and then unroll it over the springform pan, do as you'd like -- and then trim the excess dough using a sharp knife, leaving about 1-inch of dough. This is the dough that you will fold over the batter. Pour the batter for the filling into the pie crust, and then fold the remaining dough over to form a border.
Roll the remaining smaller piece of dough into a square, again on a lightly floured work surface. Using a sharp knife (or a pizza cutter, if you have one laying around) cut six equal strips out of the dough, long enough to reach the middle of the border of your dough (the dough will shrink a bit when it bakes so you want a little extra there). Place three strips over the pie horizontally, then another three vertically, criss crossing. Try to press the strips down in to the border of the dough a little if you can.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees celsius). Beat the egg for the egg wash in a small bowl and brush carefully over the strips of dough and the edges of the crust. 
Bake the crostata for 45-50 minutes, or until the filling is slightly puffed and set and the dough is golden brown. Let cool completely before eating, or let cool completely, refrigerate, and then eat. Serves 10ish.
































Savory Double Cheese Biscuits

The weather in Rome -- usually mild, sunny, agreeable -- hasn't been its usual self lately, experiencing an actual snowfall a couple of weeks ago and currently, a marathon of rain. Raindrops have made an appearance nearly every day the past few weeks, so much so that a glimpse of sunshine has become a noteworthy occasion. Gray clouds and the constant presence of anything from a steady drizzle to a heavy downpour is the norm lately, and as a result, I've done what anyone would do: I've taken to wearing my trusty rain boots, carrying around my half-broken but still functioning umbrella, and have embarked on a month-long comfort food kick. Yup -- March has so far consisted in not just one but two types of cookies, not to mention crispy cozy fried chicken, and now biscuits, perhaps the quintessential American comfort food, because if there's anything capable of brightening up your day when the sun has taken the day off, its biscuits

First things first! Biscuits, much like funfetti, is a distinctly American food, one that seems to cause confusion outside of its country of origin. The American biscuit is not to be confused with "biscuit" as Brits know it, which is what we Americans call "cookies." Rather the American biscuit is more akin to a scone, but flakier, and can be both sweet (with the addition of a little sugar and/or vanilla) or savory (no sugar and a little more salt). They're a specialty of the southern states in the U.S, and can be used as the base for your classic shortcake, eaten as is, slathered in butter, drizzled with honey, served with gravy (a Southern specialty) or eaten with soups and stews.

Having given you that little introduction, I'll keep the rest of this post brief, as these Savory Double Cheese biscuits are quite self-explanatory -- an extensive commentary as to why you should make them would be unnecessary. After all, they're the pinnacle of all things delicious, unrivaled and undisputed in their goodness (you would, in short, be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't like biscuits) and in the case of this recipe, the place where two of the best ingredients in the world -- butter and cheese  -- meet and join forces. These biscuits are biscuits 2.0, or biscuits living their best life, super tall and stately and glorious (baking powder + baking soda + leaving the dough fairly thick will do that) and perfectly golden, extra flaky, a little salty from the Parmesan, a little spicy from the black pepper, and a little tangy from the goat cheese. To say they're downright magnificent is not an exaggeration, and period of never-ending rain or not, you'll want to make these. 

A couple of notes: You can use whatever cheeses you want here; Pecorino, Gruyere, and grated mozzarella would also be nice here. You could probably experiment with adding dried herbs to them to take them in another flavor direction. These are best eaten the day that they're made. Like last week's recipe, today's also comes from the talented Posie Harwood over at www.600acres.com.

Looking for other biscuit recipes? I've also got these Cacio e pepe Biscuits, plus these Chocolate Strawberry Shortcakes (made with chocolate biscuits, these Tomato Basil Shortcakes, and these Raspberry-Blueberry Shortcakes

SAVORY DOUBLE CHEESE BISCUITS

Ingredients:
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (100 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese 
6 tablespoons (84 grams) very cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup (56 grams) crumbled goat cheese
3/4 cup (177 ml) milk

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 450ยบ F (230 degrees Celsius). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and pepper. Stir in the grated Parmesan. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients using a fork or pastry cutter until it's in mostly pea-sized chunks -- some chunks can be slightly larger and some smaller, but don't overwork it. Add the goat cheese and stir to combine. 
Add the milk, stir the dough with a fork until it is somewhat evenly moistened, then knead it a few times in the bowl so it mostly comes together in a ball but don't overwork it at all. It should not be cohesive and there should be chunks of drier areas and some wetter areas.
Turn the dough out onto the parchment-lined sheet, and fold it over onto itself until there aren't any dry spots remaining. Don't think of this as kneading: You want to handle it gently and as you fold, the wet/dry areas will disappear. Fold about 10 times, then gently press the dough down to a rectangle about 2 inches high. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 2" squares and separate them slightly on the baking sheet.
Bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool slightly, then eat! Makes 6-7 biscuits (I got about 7).











































Funfetti Cookies

Not since that time I made chewy, marshmallow-y Brown Butter Rice Krispy Treats has a dessert I've served to my non-American friends caused more confusion than this recent batch of Funfetti Cookies. The responses to the enthusiastic message I sent out about these ("Made Funfetti cookies yesterday!!! in my office if you want one!") were nearly all along the lines of "I like cookies but what is funfetti?" and "Don't know what that first part means but I'm on my way" This surprised me -- who doesn't know what funfetti is?! -- but led me to realize than that if you're not American (or a baker) the name of this recipe probably confuses you, too. Before I go any further then, let me answer the question at hand: What exactly is funfetti? 

A little Funfetti 101: Funfetti refers to multi-colored sprinkles reminiscent of confetti -- fun + confetti=funfetti -- and is a (genius) concept first created by Pillsbury, who rolled out a white layer cake mix dotted with rainbow sprinkles back in 1989 (also the year I was born -- good things were happening). Funfetti cake subsequently became all the rage, so much so that it wasn't a kid's birthday party in the 90s without the presence of a tall, festive funfetti layer cake, swirls of vanilla frosting and all. Flash forward to 2015ish, when funfetti didn't make a comeback -- rainbow sprinkles never go out of style, right?  -- but was reborn in a big way, suddenly America's newest dessert trend. The sprinkles usually limited to a box of cake mix began to show up in everything from shortbread to scones, cupcakes to cookies, pancakes to waffles, in bakeries and on blogs across the country. In fact, the Funfetti trend became so popular that it caught the attention of the New York Times itself (click here). It just so happened that the addition of brightly colored sprinkles made any dessert more fun, charming, and eye-catching, not to mention added a dose of nostalgia for all of us who grew up eating Funfetti cake.

So how did these go over with my friends who were not yet educated in the ways of funfetti? The answer is incredibly well, not only with a bunch of Italians but also two Germans, a friend from France, a friend from Switzerland, another one from India, and still another few from the UK. "BUONISSIMI!" ("very very good") was the feedback of one Italian who went on to eat several, and another two friends commented that these had something special and distinctly American about them, and hat they stood out from your usual European biscuit in terms of flavor and texture. 

The moral of the story? It would seem then that soft, chewy and extra vanilla-y cookies packed with vibrant sprinkles is something that most everyone likes, appreciates, and has in common, no matter where they come from. Another friend called these "happy cookies, cheer-spreading cookies" and theorized that they were probably capable of cheering up anyone on a bad day, because how can you not smile at the sight of an overly festive, over-the-top cookie?! I'd conclude then that these funfetti cookies -- apart from being charming and delicious -- are also cross-cultural, universally appealing, and mood-lifting, which are all pretty powerful properties for a dessert, don't you think?! 

Last thing -- I baked these on February 26th, or the day that it snowed in Rome. You have to know that snow is incredibly rare in the Eternal City -- the last time it had snowed in Rome was all the way back in 2012 -- and these therefore will forever be Snow Day Cookies for me. Pictures below of Rome in the snow and a few hours after the snow had melted, all sun and blue skies.
A couple of notes: This recipe comes from one of my favorite new blogs, www.600acres.com, belonging to the very talented Posie Harwood (who also writes for Food52, another great site). If you don't have sprinkles on hand no problem -- Posie says you can make excellent soft and chewy sugar cookies without the sprinkles, and that you could also add chocolate chips to the batter if you wanted to take these in another direction. Be sure to use the longer artificially colored sprinkles and not naturally colored ones or nonpareils, as the color will bleed in to the cake.

Looking for other cookie recipes? A few more favorites: these Brutti ma buoni, these White Chocolate, Almond, and Apricot Biscotti, these Brownie Cookies, these Brown Butter and Chocolate Chunk Cookies, these Gingerbread Cookies, these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, these Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroons, these Magical 4 Ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies, and these Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies.

FUNFETTI COOKIES
(recipe from Posie Harwood at my new favorite site, 600acres.com)

Ingredients:
1/2 cup (1 stick or 112 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (195 grams) flour
1 tablespoon (9 grams) cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (about 160 grams) rainbow sprinkles


Directions:
In a large mixing bowl using electric beaters or in the bowl of a standing mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add the egg and vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes, at least. The mixture should look very pale in color. Add the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt and mix until just combined (be careful to not overmix). Fold in the sprinkles with a spatula. 
Using a large cookie scoop (an ice cream scoop works well), scoop balls of dough (about 2" wide each) onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Leave a few inches between each as they will spread.
Freeze the sheets of dough balls for at least 20 minutes, or refrigerate them for a least 1 hour. Don't skip this step!
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the cookies for about 10-12 minutes. They should be barely golden brown around the edges and will look and feel underbaked -- this is okay, as it will ensure that the cookies are soft and chewy. You can bake them a bit longer if you'd like a crisper cookie. Move the cookies to a wire rack to cool and enjoy asap. Makes 15-20 cookies.


























Pollo fritto alla toscana

With a few rare exceptions, this blog shares recipes from two kinds of cuisines, both near and dear to my heart: Italian cuisine, which reflects where I live and what recipes I've learned here in my adopted country, and American cuisine, which is linked to my home country and the dishes I miss/can only enjoy here if I make them myself. These are two very distinct styles of cooking, of course; Italian cuisine is one of simplicity and straightforwardness, each recipe relying on a handful of good quality, straightforward ingredients (look no further than crazy-simple cacio e pepe or saltimbocca alla romana) while American cuisine is a bit more relaxed and forgiving with less rules, at times more excessive (cheeseburgers; sweet potato casserole; frosted, multi-layered cakes). The recipes from Italy and the U.S co-exist on this blog in culinary harmony -- you're just as likely to find tiramisu' as you are chocolate chip cookies, bagels as you are bucatini all'amatriciana -- but still stand firmly in their cuisine camps, with no overlap, all recipes delicious, but very different. 

And yet.

I'd had it in my head for a while to attempt to make fried chicken; I had, after all, conquered my fear of frying some time back, and apart from being delicious, fried chicken stood out to me as one of those quintessentially American recipes a blog that focuses on American cuisine should have (see also: Fudge Brownies; Avocado Cheddar Burgers; Apple Pie). I dove in to intense Fried Chicken recipe-research to prepare, when, low and behold, I came across one recipe labeled "Tuscan Fried Chicken," from one of my very favorite sites, Serious Eats. I was intrigued; was this simply fried chicken with some sort of Italian herb (oregano or basil can make any dish "Italian") or was there actually a story here? With a bit of digging (okay, google searches) I found recipes called pollo fritto alla toscana, or pollo fritto per Chanuka', and discovered that actually -- you may want to sit down for this -- fried chicken is a thing in Italy. With a bit of reading, I learned that pollo fritto is actually a Tuscan-Jewish dish traditionally eaten for and around Hanukkah, where the chicken is simply marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and spices, then battered in egg and flour before deep-frying. It would seem then that I was wrong, then -- here we have a recipe where my two cuisines cross paths, intersect, find common ground; fried chicken, the most American of all American dishes, is, apparently, also legitimately Italian, too. Who knew?!

But this chicken! It’s an experience, you guys: It's deeply golden brown and beyond crunchy 
 there is an audible CRUNCH when you bite in to it – and just when you’ve begun to wrap your mind around how crispy the exterior is, there’s the incredibly tender, juicy, chicken within, and just when you’ve processed how good all this is, there are all the flavors. There's a hint of tangy lemon and a bit of sharp garlic which temper the the richness of the frying, and then, lastly, a subtle kick (a nudge?) of spicy cinnamon and nutmeg. Now: while you may think cinnamon and nutmeg seem better suited for carrot cake or oatmeal cookies, trust me on this -- they give the chicken a toasty, warming flavor, leaving you wondering just exactly the secret ingredient was at the end of each bite. The finishing touch, extra salt sprinkled over the cooked chicken, is not to be underestimated, either -- it makes the whole thing even more addictive, in the way that only salt paired with fried food can. It tasted American, and yet the recipe was 100% Italian, and it was pretty cool to know that there is a place where my two cuisines meet, if only for a moment. Bottom line: do yourself a favor and make this, asap.

A couple of notes: If you don't have a meat thermometer or a kitchen thermometer to measure the oil temperature, I recommend you buy them -- they're very handy here and guarantee spot-on, perfectly cooked chicken. I used drumsticks only because that's what I like, but feel free to use whatever pieces you want. I fried my chicken two pieces at a time (I was cautious about the oil temperature dropping too much) which worked well, but meant about 45 minutes of frying; I think three pieces at a time would be alright, as long as you keep an eye on the temperature and maintain it at a good 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius). If you'd like to make this in advance, you can allow the chicken to cool to room temperature, then re-fry in hot oil just before serving, very briefly. I used a neutral vegetable oil for frying, but you could also use olive oil here; just be aware that anything fried in olive oil then tastes very much of olive oil, which isn't a bad thing, but if you want the flavors of the chicken to shine here, a neutral oil is preferable.

Looking for other chicken recipes? I've got this pollo ai peperoni, this lemon roasted chicken, this pollo alla cacciatora in bianco, and these cotolette di pollo. Looking for other recipes for things that are fried? I've got these polpette di melanzane, these zeppole sarde, these castagnole, this parmigiana di melanzane, these pumpkin doughnuts, and these carciofi alla giudia

POLLO FRITTO ALLA TOSCANA/TUSCAN FRIED CHICKEN
(Recipe from Serious Eats)

Ingredients:
8 pieces (about 4 pounds, or 1.8 kilos total) of chicken (drumsticks thighs, breast halves, wings)
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 3-4 lemons)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
4 eggs, beaten

Vegetable, peanut, canola, or olive oil, for frying 
Lemon wedges, for serving

Directions:
In a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag, combine chicken, lemon juice, garlic, salt, a generous grating of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Seal and shake to combine thoroughly. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Do not marinate the chicken for longer than this, otherwise the acid will start to "cook" the chicken and make it tough after frying.
Remove the chicken from the bag and place on a baking sheet. Fill a wide bowl with flour and another with egg. Dredge each piece of chicken in flour, shaking off excess, then dip in egg to coat. 
When ready to fry the chicken, fill a wok, Dutch oven, or large cast iron skillet with about 1 1/2 inches of oil and heat oil until it registers 375°F (190 degrees Celsius for the rest of you) on an instant-read thermometer. This will take a few minutes, so be patient -- keep checking the oil temperature with your thermometer. When the oil is ready, add each piece of chicken to the pot, carefully; note that the oil temperature will drop. Fry chicken, turning occasionally and maintaining an oil temperature between 325 and 350°F (about 160-170 degrees Celsius) until the chicken is golden brown outside and on a meat thermometer registers an internal temperature of 145°F for breasts and 155°F for drumsticks and thighs, about 15-17 minutes.

Transfer the fried chicken to a paper towel lined plate or baking sheet to drain off the excess oil, then transfer them to a wire rack set over a baking sheet (this will keep the chicken nice and crispy). Sprinkle the chicken with salt and allow the chicken to rest for a full 3 minutes. Serve right away with lemon wedges. Serves 4.