Focaccia alla Tomasi

Some of the best food I have ever eaten -- and I say this as someone who has lived in gastronomically excellent Italy for 8 years, has traveled lots and sampled all sorts of cuisines, and who comes from a family of cooks -- has, hands down, come from the kitchen of Carla Tomasi. I've mentioned Carla a few times on the blog before, and with good reason; she has been behind some of the best recipes I've come across this past year and a half, not to mention a goldmine of knowledge, advice, and guidance both culinary and otherwise -- she's an overall wise lady -- and if my cooking/baking has stepped up its game in 2019, she's played a big part in it. Carla has been described as many things by those who know her -- "All-Knowing," "national treasure," "vegetable whisperer" -- but for me, she is simply One of the Best Cooks I Know, responsible for such marvels including, but not limited to: impossibly light and fluffy maritozzi, filled with clouds of whipped cream, a dream of a breakfast; spicy twisted cinnamon rolls, fragrant with cardamom; surprisingly luxurious vignarola, made with nothing more than olive oil and artichokes from her own garden; ravioli made from pasta dough rolled impossibly thin and then stuffed with spinach and nutmeg-tinged ricotta; thin slices of zucchine preserved in olive oil with onions and oregano that elevate the humble veg into something positively crave-able; an eggplant wrapped rigatoni timballo, a true stunner of a dish; tiny carciofini sott'olio, to keep us artichoke lovers content long after the season is over; a coffee-brushed, buttery sponge dome filled with ricotta and chocolate and orange zest, otherwise known as zuccotto; the most purely strawberry of all strawberry jams that I will forever dream about.

Need I go on?!

Today's focaccia is a recipe I learned from Carla, a stand-by in her (excellent) cooking classes she teaches at Latteria Studio in Trastevere. While the menus in Carla's classes vary greatly from season to season and group to group, the focacce are a fixture, something to savour once out of the oven while you busily prepare the other dishes that will comprise your menu. As you can imagine, the focacce made by Carla also fall gracefully in to my "BEST THINGS I'VE EVER EATEN" category -- I mean, just look at how beautiful they are even before they hit the oven:
Once out of the oven, they're fluffy and soft and light as air, with an excellent crumb, olive oil-y and a little salty, sprinkled with a generous dose of earthy rosemary if you're going the classic route or topped with whatever ingredients your carbohydrate-loving heart desires, preferably seasonal ones. I was delighted to bring focaccia alla Tomasi in to my own kitchen, and from blogger to reader, can confirm the following: this recipe makes focacce that are addictive, and delicious, and if you're smart, you'll make more than you think you need, because you'll soon discover that you can never have enough of this focaccia (you've been warned). If you're iffy about bread making, rest assured! Like most Tomasi classics, the recipe is low maintenance (just a few stretches and turns of the dough and a little waiting, probably the most difficult part, if you, like me, are always eager to get fresh bread in your sights) and the result is spectacular. Running to your kitchens yet?! Thought so.

A couple of notes from Carla: There are endless recipes for focaccia out there in the wild so mine is not the definitive article, but this makes me happy and ticks all the right boxes. Light/airy/bouncy/soft crumb/keeps and freezes well. On a hot day use up to 280 grams water for your dough, and as low as 240-250 grams water on a cold and damp day (when the air is full of moisture). Maybe on a very cold day the water temperature ought to be on the warm side of tepid and never mix your dough in a metal bowl, the dough will chill and stop working. I would strongly advise against baking the focaccia with any herb strewn on the surface, especially rosemary because the essential oil within the herb will turn bitter due to the strong heat. For a real taste sensation chop some rosemary needles finely and shower the focaccia as soon as it is out of the oven. Boom! Focaccia freezes really well (so make two) and wedges can be reheated in the toaster quickly because of the porous crumb structure.

Looking for other homemade bread recipes? I've also got this pizza bianca, this piadina, these tigelle, this challah bread, these bagels, and this schiacciata con l'uva. Hoping to take a class with Carla? Thought so! Click here for more information.

Recipe from Carla Tomasi.
Makes one large focaccia or four little ones (which bake in 10-12 minutes, about).

1 1/2 cups (200 grams) soft wheat flour
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) strong bread flour
1 teaspoon of fast action dry yeast
1 teaspoon of fine salt
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 cup plus a few tablespoons (240-280 grams) of tepid water -- see notes.

Potential toppings:
Rosemary, pear, gorgonzola
Zucchini flowers, gorgonzola, anchovies
Thinly sliced potatoes and Parmesan
Oil cured, pitted olives, oregano, cherry tomatoes
...whatever else your heart desires, really!

Place the flours, yeast and salt in a large mixing bowl and swirl around. Drizzle in the olive oil and then pour in the water. Plunge one hand in and use it as if it is the (kenwood) K beater. As you go around the bowl, gather flour from the side towards the center. Once all the flour has been incorporated, pat into a shaggy mass, cover with a cloth and leave to rest for at least 10-15 minutes. Do not worry if the dough feels sticky, it will be fine.
When resting time is over the dough will feel soft and pliable. Pour a little olive oil on the work surface and plop the dough on it. Flatten it out gently and then pull the dough from the edge towards the center and every time give it a quarter turn. Pull the dough 6 to 8  times and then roll it on itself to get a tight firm ball. Upturn the mixing bowl over the dough and again leave to rest for about 15 minutes. Repeat this process twice more.
Next, gather the dough into a ball and leave to prove (around 45 minutes or less on a hot day) in an oiled plastic bowl. When the dough is ready ease it gently out of the bowl and onto an oiled baking tray or a tin (for a focaccia not too thick, bake it in tin 34 cm across). Leave to rest until the dough has relaxed (approx.15 mins) For a good springy focaccia and a good crusty bottom, place the baking tin in the oven to get really hot and then transfer the risen focaccia on it, still on the parchment paper. Note that I used an aluminum tin here, which worked fine, but the bottom didn't get quite as crisp as I'd hoped; to avoid this, use a round pizza pan, which will conduct heat better!
Once the dough has been spread out leave to rise (preferably uncovered) well away from droughts or direct heat. If the day is really hot you may need to cover it. This last proof could take from 40 minutes to an hour. When the focaccia dough is well puffed up, gently dimple the surface with your fingers and brush lightly with oil. Top with the ingredients of your choice (unless you are using fresh herbs; see notes above).

Place the focaccia into a 190 degree Celsius (375 degrees Fahrenheit) oven and rotate the tin at least once. Depending on your oven, the focaccia will take anywhere between 15 and 25 minutes to bake; it is ready when it is golden brown.

Lemon Meringue Pie

I've mentioned more than once on this blog the first ever dessert I baked on my own, the one that peaked my interest in baking and put me on my current flour and sugar dusted path: this simple Brownie Pie, aka the pie that started it all, one of the first recipes to be shared on P&B, and the main character in my how I started cooking/baking! story. But what about my second ever dessert?! What was the dessert that came after the famous Brownie Pie, and before all other sweets to come out of my kitchen since?! Ehem: the encore to my initial dessert success came in the form of a Baked Alaska, its recipe from a very small, rather old cookbook in my mom's collection that I'd stumbled across. Baked Alaska -- a vintage dessert from the 1950s, essentially an ice cream sponge topped with meringue -- mystified my thirteen year old self. Was it a cake or an ice cream pie?! And in any case: this ice cream went in the oven?! Covered with what was essentially egg whites?!

Needless to say, I needed to make it.

The Baked Alaska was for my dad, my contribution to a Father's Day Barbecue. I followed the recipe carefully, reading and re-reading to make sure I'd understood all the steps: I baked the cake layer, topped it with the carefully selected ice cream flavor (strawberry) and attempted my first ever meringue, which amazed me most of all: I marveled at how a few humble egg whites -- the less interesting part of the egg, really -- morphed into a fluffy white cloud (!!!) with just some beating and a slow steady stream of sugar. And that wasn't all!: when the Baked Alaska emerged from the oven, not only was the the ice cream still frozen, but the meringue had transformed, too! It was swirled and toasted and marshmallow like, nothing like its formerly slimy egg white self, and I found this marvelous, delightful, and, upon tasting, rather delicious. From meringue-on-out, I was hooked. If the first dessert I ever made was what got my attention, it was the Baked Alaska that sealed the deal, made it official: baking and everything that came with it was fascinating, and I needed to learn more.

Seventeen years later, baking and I are still going strong, and the meringue-topped-pie hasn't yet lost its magic. Case in point: this Lemon Meringue Pie (herewith: L.M.P) a forkful of which is -- to use what is perhaps an over used term, but very accurate here -- the perfect bite. It's a heavenly mix of buttery, shortbread-like crust, tangy, intensely lemon-y custard and -- swoon! -- sweet, billowy meringue, golden brown and piled mile-high. When eaten all together it is a true thing of beauty, and when
 it emerged from the oven -- the meringue perhaps a bit more expertly swirled and sealed than 2002's Baked Alaska -- I felt the same sort of pride and satisfaction that I did all the way back when I was 13, with a little nostalgia mixed in. Some things never change, and that's a good thing, I think. 

Bonus: Make your own Spring! Spring here in Rome has been non-existent -- endless rain, November-like temperatures -- and this bright, sunny pie is about as close as any of us will probably get to sunshine all season!

A couple of notes: The filling in these pictures may seem a little runny; that's because I tried to photograph the pie before the sun went down (a constant struggle for me!) and so I had to cut it a bit sooner than I'd have liked. If you'd like to save time, a store-bought pie crust will work here (but the homemade one is a lot more buttery and flaky, so if you have time, it's worth giving a shot!) The pie crust recipe below makes two crusts; feel free to either halve the recipe or do as I do and freeze the second one/use it for another pie. As meringues can be notoriously weepy (i.e, they sort of get watery and flat after a while) the recipe here incorporates a water/cornstarch stabilizer that means the meringue holds up even in to the next day (hurray!) Finally, wait until the pie is completely cool before cutting, as the lemon filling will otherwise be too runny. To help firm up the base, after the pie has cooled down, you can place the pie on top of a cooling pack covered with a tea towel. 

Looking for other lemony recipes? I've got this Lemon, Almond, and Basil pesto, these Lemon Squares, this Perfect Lemon Tart, this Lemon Ricotta Cake, this Lemon Poppyseed Cake, pesto, this Limoncello Olive Oil Cake, and this Torta della Nonna.

From Serves 8.

Ingredients for the pie crust:
2 1/2 cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 cup (224 grams) unsalted butter, very-cold, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
6 to 8 tablespoons ice water

Ingredients for the filling:
5 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons (56 grams) cornstarch
1 1/3 cup (277 grams) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (356ml) water
1/2 cup (118ml) lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons (28 grams) butter

Ingredients for the meringue:
1 tablespoon (9 grams) cornstarch
1/3 cup (80ml) cold water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (can use vinegar instead of cream of tartar, see method instructions)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (124 grams) white granulated sugar
5 large egg whites (room temperature)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Make the crust! If you're use a store-bought crust, skip this. If you're not, follow these instructions here, using the ingredients above, so that you end up with a crust looking like this:
2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line the pie shell with aluminum foil so that the foil extends over the edges (will make convenient handles). Fill two-thirds of the way with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and the pie weights. Poke the bottom of the crust in several places with the tines of a fork. This will help prevent the bottom from bubbling up. Put the crust back in the oven and bake for 15 minutes more, or until the crust is lightly browned. Remove from oven and set aside.

3. Make the lemon filling! Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl and set aside.In a medium-sized saucepan, add 6 Tbsp cornstarch, 1 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 cups water, and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil on medium heat, whisking constantly. Let simmer for a minute or two until the mixture begins to thicken.

4. Once the cornstarch mixture has thickened up well remove from heat. Take a spoonful of the cornstarch mixture and whisk it into the beaten egg yolks to temper the yolks. Continue to whisk in spoonfuls of the cornstarch mixture until you've used about half of the cornstarch mixture. Then add the egg yolk mixture back to the pot with the cornstarch.

5. Return the mixture to a boil, on medium to medium high heat, stirring constantly. Cook 3 to 4 minutes. (The starch will keep the eggs from curdling.) Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest, and butter, and preheat oven to 325°F.
6. Prepare cornstarch mixture to help fortify the meringue: In a small saucepan, whisk together 1 Tbsp cornstarch and 1/3 cup of cold water until the cornstarch dissolves. Heat on medium heat and whisk until the mixture bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat and set aside. Whisk together the sugar and cream of tartar: Whisk together 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, set aside. (If you do not have cream of tartar, instead add a teaspoon of white vinegar to the egg whites with the vanilla in the next step.)

7. For the meringue: Place egg whites and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in the bowl of your mixer. Start beating the egg whites on low speed and gradually increase the speed to medium.Once the egg whites are frothy, slowly add in the sugar and cream of tartar, a spoonful at a time. Beat until the egg whites form soft peaks. Add the cornstarch water mixture (it should look like a gel) a spoonful at a time, as you continue to beat the egg whites. Increase the speed to high and continue to beat until the egg whites have formed stiff peaks.
8. Heat the lemon filling again, until it is bubbling hot. Scoop the steaming hot filling into the pre-baked pie shell, spreading it evenly. Working quickly, use a rubber spatula to spread the meringue mixture evenly around the edge of the pie. Make sure the mixture attaches to the crust with no gaps. The crust will help anchor the meringue and help keep it from shrinking. Fill in the center with more meringue mixture. Use the back of a spoon to create peaks all over the meringue.
9. Bake the pie for 20 minutes at 325°F, until the meringue is golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely to room temperature before slicing and eating. And now, a moment to admire a few photos of this marvelously meringue topped pie, if you don't mind:

(Very Nostalgic) Weekend in Bologna

I've made no secret of the fact that Bologna -- the capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna Region in Northern Italy -- is my very favorite place in all of my adopted country (see here and here and here and also here!) Not so long ago I was lucky enough to visit Bologna, a place where I last lived 10 years ago as a student. I traveled with my sister and friend Lavinia (you may remember her from this post) and we all met up with our friend Alice, who is lucky enough to be currently living in BO.  
Bologna has changed quite a bit since my last visit two or so years ago -- it's not quite the tranquil city I remembered it being, but rather one with well, lots of tourists. This, due to two factors: 1.) new, cheap Ryanair flights that fly directly to Bologna from many European cities and 2.) an article published in a Lonely Planet guide praising the city as a travel destination, which subsequently put it in on the map. For example: the entrance ticket to climb up the Torre Asinelli -- more on that later on -- now costs 5 euros and requires a booking at a shiny new tourism center, as opposed to its previous cost of 2 euros, no booking needed. To accommodate the new influx of tourists, there are now lots of flashy, red city tour buses; the prices of AirBnb and hotels have gone up, and getting a reservation at a restaurant for dinner has now become a bit difficult. While I admit I experienced a moment of shock -- "Bologna, what have they done to you?!" -- it was, in the end, still the same city it had always been, at least in the most important ways. Piazza Maggiore, Nettuno, and its fountain were still there; the portici gave their usual combination of practicality (shelter from the rain!) and beauty (who knew that a few arches could be such stunners?!) The city offered its usual feast of tortellini, tagliatelle, and piadina, and overall, returning to Bologna was as comforting as slipping on your favorite sweater, or a mug of hot tea on a cold day, and the theme of the trip was, no doubt, nostalgia (a big thanks to Lavinia for putting up with me and my sister as we repeatedly squealed with delight at the sight of everything from the sight of the train station to a random piazza to a street corner -- "so nostalgic!!!") With no further ado, here's what we got up to!

First stop on the nostalgia tour: dinner at Osteria dell'Orsa, a restaurant that I frequented often as a student and one that I make sure to visit every time I make it back to the city. Osteria was, thankfully, just as I remembered: no reservations allowed meant a line of hungry people waiting outside, but superb efficiency from the staff meant a bearable wait time, and most importantly, bolognese cuisine at its very best, which makes sort of wait or hassle worth it. We opted for the most traditional bolognese dish of them all -- tagliatelle al ragu' hand-rolled noodles and all -- plus tortelli, mortadella with crescentine (a sort of fried bread), an impressive display of crostini, and whipped mascarpone with chocolate to finish the meal. All of the food was delicious on its own, yes, but was even more appreciated given the chilly, rainy weather we experienced upon arrival. Off to a good start!

Climbing the Asinelli Tower is a quintessential Bologna experience -- you cannot leave Bologna without having done this, I think. It is, along with the smaller Garisenda tower, that stands next to it, a symbol of Bologna, and both have marked the entrance to the heart of the city for nine centuries (together the Asinelli and the Garisenda are known as le Due Torri or the two towers). They are nearly synonymous with Bologna, and have withstood everything from earthquakes to fires; during World War II, the Asinelli tower served as a lookout tower of sorts, and between 1943 and 1945, volunteers would position themselves on the top of the towers to direct rescue operations to areas struck by bombing. The Asinelli Tower is 97.2 meters high, making it the city’s tallest tower; there are 498 steps on a steep wooden staircase to reach the top of the tower, but never fear! There are platforms every few floors where you can stop to take a breather. The long climb is certainly worth it -- once you get to the top of the Tower, the views of Bologna are truly gorgeous. BONUS: A short walk from the towers you'll find Pizzeria Due Torri, an excellent pizza-by-the-slice place.

I know, I know -- why eat Greek food in Bologna, right?! While I usually am all for experiencing the local food of the place I'm visiting, I make an exception for To Steki, because even in a sea of fabulous bolognese food, it stands out. Surprise surprise, it was another one of my favorite restaurants as a student (I did mention this was a nostalgic weekend, right?) and the restaurant was packed, as always (reservations recommended!) After some deliberation, we ordered a superbly hearty moussaka, pork souvlaki, imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant, originally a Turkish dish that the Greeks adopted and added feta to) and lots and lots of pita, tzatziki sauce, and fries, plus Greek yogurt and honey with strawberries, to ehm, keep things healthy. We all left happy and full, all thoughts of ragu' cleared from our minds, at least for an afternoon. 

Ahhh, Il Banco del Pane -- this little bakery/bread shop holds a lot of good memories for me, as it was where my sister, our (first Italian friend!) Gloria, and I would go routinely after class at the University of Bologna to get a slice of their famous tenerina, a deeply fudge-y, intensely chocolate-y cake, one that I have tried to recreate at home as well (see post here!). The cake -- brownie-like, dusted with powdered sugar -- was as good as I remembered it to be, the owners were lovely as they always had been, and bonus: due to a new Redhead promotion in the bakery, they even gave ginger Alice some free treats, too. Photos below!


My first ever meal in my favorite city was at Trattoria Belle Arti; it was September 2009, we had arrived in Bologna from Boston just a few hours before, and I was tired, confused, and a little scared, to be honest. After all, I was far from home and meant to live in the city for a whole year, and wasn't sure what to expect, or how I'd do. I remember a few things about our meal at the Trattoria: I was struck by the sizes of the individual pizzas, meant for one person (something that doesn't at all phase me now -- I can easily finish an entire pizza on my own!); I remember opting for orecchiette con broccoli, one of the few non-bolognese dishes on the menu, and something I'd never order now, older and wiser foodie that I am; I recall leaving the restaurant feeling more secure and settled once I'd had a good meal, and maybe even a little excited about what was in store. Ten years later, another visit to the same restaurant gave me an opportunity to reflect on all that had happened between that first meal at Trattoria Belle Arti and my latest one; I've maintained many of the wonderful friendships I made in BolognaI now speak fluent Italian, and I have made a very good life for myself in Rome. Sentiments and trip down memory lane aside, we had a wonderful meal at Trattoria, with bolognesi standbys like the ever-so-cozy tortellini in brodo, it's slightly richer cousin, tortellini con panna (tortellini served in cream) the usual and always delicious tagliatellealragu', and BONUS: an adorable bulldog named RAGU' -- a fitting name for a bolognese bulldog -- who was hanging outside the restaurant, hoping for a tortellino or two (!!!!)

For our last stop on the nostalgia tour, my sister and I made sure to go back and visit Pasticceria Santo Stefano for their Nutella tart, a favorite treat during our student days -- crumbly cookie crust! nutella filling! chocolate glaze! All these years later living in Italy, I have to say that the tart was, well, typical Italian bar fare -- not nearly as exciting as it seemed 10 years ago -- but at the time it truly was the best sweet in the city for us, something we had not seen in the U.S and that seemed just as magical and special as the city we were residing in. We ordered one to split and enjoyed every (memory-packed) bite of it. Not long after our snack, we stopped to visit our Italian language school, Cultura Italiana, a place where we spent countless hours during our year in Bologna, and the one most responsible for giving us both a solid base in Italian on the way to fluency. Good times!

In summary: if you haven't visited this city yet -- please do go! If you're an expat like me it's a quick trip up north on the train and perfect for a weekend; if you're coming to Italy on vacation and doing the usual Rome/Florence/Venice route, stop for a day or so on your way up to Florence (they're about 45 minutes apart by train). I think you'll find the city as marvelous as I do -- and if this post hasn't been sufficient, I have a strong suspicion that the photos below will nudge you in the right direction.