One of the beautiful things that I am learning about Italian cooking is that each ingredient is to be savored. So many times, we take wonderful ingredients and throw them all together and miss appreciating them as they were meant to be.
As I walk along the streets of Barga with the dogs in the morning or on my way to the Pannificio to get our bread for the day, I often take photographs of the menus hanging on the restaurant windows. When I return to the Villa and have a moment, I try to find a recipe and recreate them.
A featured item on the menu in the Garfagnana district, and much of Tuscany, is Pecorino pere e miele – Pecorino with pears and honey. Pecorino is a cheese made from sheep’s milk and each district or town here is very proud of their own version of the cheese. The taste of the cheese changes depending on what type of grass the sheep are fed and how the cheese is aged. Most popular and well known are those produced in Sardinia. A good Pecorino Stagionato is often the finish of a meal, served with pears and walnuts and drizzled with a strong chestnut honey or one of the lighter acacia honeys farmed locally. Their food is simple, but in this simplicity can be found tremendous beauty and taste. Savor the moment.
- 1 pears
- 4-5 oz. pecorino fresco, semi-stagionato or stagionato (fresco is a mild and soft form, semi-stationato is also soft but sharper and stagionato is the hardest and sharpest form)
- 1/4 cup honey
- walnuts either in the shell or toasted halves - as many as you prefer
- Slice the pear in quarters from top to bottom and remove the core carefully with a pairing knife. Then slice each quarter into three or four thin slices, depending on the thickness you prefer.
- Slice the cheese into small thin wedges.
- Fan the pears on the cutting board or serving plate with the cheese slices in between the pear.
- Set a dish of honey in the center of the board and place your walnuts around.
- Enjoy sharing this with your friends and family. Andiamo mangiare!
When I was a child, there was a peacock that used to strut through the back yard of my great-grandmother’s house. He would time his performance perfectly; as soon as all of us were gathered at the window, he would throw his head back, arch his feathers into a magnificent fan, and do a little pirouette as graceful as a king. It is like this with figs — they must be showcased.
I can’t pass up a fresh fig in a grocery store, especially when I’m doing holiday baking. Our local grocer had a nice selection of figs this past week, and I thought they would make a handsome and tasty dessert for a holiday luncheon we were preparing. Flamboyant as they are with their velvety exterior and intricate, seed-filled interior, they beg to be shown off.
The marriage of figs, mascarpone, and walnuts makes a fabulous winter dessert, and I would recommend this one for any dinner party. You can make the tart shells ahead and freeze them. When you are ready to use them, fill them while still frozen, and they will thaw in time for dessert. Since fresh figs are one of the most perishable fruits, they should be purchased only a day or two in advance of your meal. Look for figs that have a rich, deep color, and are plump and tender, but not mushy.
Fresh Fig, Walnut and Mascarpone Tart
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy for 3 minutes, using a stand mixer with paddle attachment, scraping down the sides and bottom occasionally. Add the flour and mix on low speed until fully incorporated, about one minute (don’t over mix). Add the egg yolk and continue to mix on low speed until the dough comes together, about 30 seconds.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour (or up to 4 days).
- Remove from refrigerator and let soften until pliable. Flour your work surface so dough does not stick, and sprinkle the top of dough with a little flour. Roll out dough, starting in middle and rolling outward, to a 1/4 inch thick disk or rectangle, depending on your tart pan.
- Don’t worry if dough tears or crumbles, it’s easily pressed together in the tart pan. Lift over the rolling pin and place in tart pan with removable bottom. Patch holes or tears by pressing dough with fingers. Press dough into sides, corners and bottom. Roll the rolling pin over the top of the tart pin for a clean even edge. Refrigerate 30 minutes -this is important.
- Bake at 350 for 30 -35 minutes, positioned in the center of the oven, until golden. Be sure to keep a careful eye so that it doesn’t over cook. If using individual tart pans, these will take about 12 min. to bake. Let cool before filling.
- While these are baking, spread your walnuts onto a sheet pan and toast in the oven – once you smell them, remove them, they will be done!
- Put the jam in a microwaveable bowl, and heat in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds until the jam is of a more spreadable consistency. Add the brandy, a tablespoon at a time until desired consistency. Spread this over the bottom of the tart shell (s) but not up the sides. Let cool.
- In a stand mixer with the beater attachment, whisk together the mascarpone, whipping cream, vanilla, powdered sugar and salt until soft peaks form. Be careful, especially if you are using an electric mixer, because the mixture will thicken very quickly.
- Spread this mixture over the fig jam leaving about 1/4 “ of space of the jam showing on the edges, so not completely covering the jam base.
- Decorate the top w/ some toasted walnuts mounded in the center, a couple of quartered figs and right before serving, drizzle with some light honey.
If making ahead, have your components ready but don’t assemble until close to serving time.
This Sunday after church the sisters, along with some invited guests, enjoyed a sumptuous southern breakfast, the perfect holiday treat especially for those who have southern roots.
The menu was extensive……..baked ham, grits, sausage, bacon, buttermilk biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, sticky buns and more than anyone could sample at one sitting. My favorite of all the dishes was a fabulous fruit platter consisting of a combination of roasted fresh and dried fruits and nuts that had been coated with a rich glaze of brown sugar, butter and Calvados.
This winter fruit and nut combination was “Out of this world”…and not only for a southern breakfast, but as a wonderful accompaniment to any number of other meals, especially at this time of year.
Fabulous Roasted Fruit Platter
- Cut fruit to desired size and shape. Spread out on sheet pan and brush with a little oil and cover with foil and roast about 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or until softened.
- Uncover and sprinkle with nuts and generously brush with glaze. Return to oven uncovered at 50 degrees higher and cook until nice and golden.
- Sprinkle with pecan and walnut halves and serve.
- To make glaze melt butter and brown sugar together until sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Add cider, cinnamon, nutmeg, and Calvados and simmer till thick enough to spread.
If dried fruit needs softening soak in warm cider to reconstitute before roasting.
We used firm pears and apples, and pineapple for fresh fruit, along
with dried figs and apricots. Craisins could also be an interesting addition.
As I write this, it is snowing again. Wow,what a winter it has been, and continues to be. I begin to wonder if spring is truly going to come. But like any issue of faith, one just has to believe. Spring has always come, with its promise of new beginnings and life, and it will be all the more special this year when it does.
Usually I would be starting to think of things like asparagus and lemon, lamb and baby beets–but it’s just a little too chilly still for the spring forerunners. I’m still thinking about hot stews and soups, lovely warm desserts like apple crisp in little ramekins with ice cream melting on it. So, to keep us warm through these last chilly days of winter, here is a recipe for orange-tinged mini apple crisps.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Butter 6 ramekins.
- In a medium bowl mix together flour, walnuts, 2 Tablespoons sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a pinch of salt.
- Pour butter over and mix together with a fork. Set aside.
- In a separate bowl combine apples, remaining 2 Tablespoons sugar and orange juice, tossing to coat.
- Divide among ramekins, top with flour mixture.
- Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake until fruit is tender and topping is golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream if desired.
Well, here it is . . . Apple Drop Time again. Early every morning you will find the young sisters out in the orchard gathering up all the apples that have dropped from the trees since the morning before. The point is to get to them before the mowers or any of the live little outdoor creatures do. We want to be good stewards and make use of every bit of fruit, regardless of how perfect or imperfect it may be.
Warm, spicy apple butter can camouflage lots of imperfections and is so wonderful on hot, buttered toast at breakfast. Apples and pork just naturally seem to compliment each other. A slowly simmered sauce adds so much home-cooked goodness to a succulent pork roast. A simple plain grilled pork chop can be elevated from ordinary “comfort food” to a first-class entrée, by dressing it up with a few apple and onion slices that have been caramelized in a little butter and brown sugar. Right now while the gardens are producing an overabundance of fresh, crispy heads of cabbage – and it’s so tender and sweet – we are enjoying it shredded into slaw. I like to add a little grated apple to give it a tangy touch. We never seem to have any trouble using up our daily collection of these hardy little drops. However, when more than just a few accumulate on the kitchen counter, we know it’s time for something we just never get enough of: good old-fashioned Apple Crisp. So easy to make – so scrumptious to eat.
- Mix together the following ingredients and place in a greased 2-quart casserole dish:
- 3 cups apple(s) peeled and sliced
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- ¾ tsp. cinnamon
- In a separate bowl, mix together the following ingredients until crumbly:
- 1 cup oatmeal (uncooked)
- ½ cup butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ cup flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ½ cup walnuts chopped, if desired. Or
- ½ cup pecans chopped, if desired
- Spread the topping mixture over the apples.
- Bake uncovered at 350º F until apples are tender and topping is crisp and browned (approximately 50 minutes)
- Serve warm.
- For another dimension of flavor, add the zest and juice of one orange to the filling.