Fatto a mano…

Now that we are in March, spring feels close enough to taste!  A few warm days last week had me hightailing it to my spot in the parking area with Cinder.  I replenished my vitamin D with some sunshine on my face as I dutifully read my sommelier course homework, while Cinder paced around, sniffing all the new intriguing odors that had accumulated over the winter.  I wish I had her nose for my course.  The reward for wading through 100 page chapters each week on viticoltura and enologia is that we get to taste four wines at the end of class and are learning how to correctly describe them.  My nose definitely needs more training because while I can usually identify red fruit or sometimes a rose, I am not one of the star pupils who eagerly calls out “plums,” “liquorice,” “sour cherries”, or my personal favorite “a hint of violet.”  WTF?  Are these people messing with me?  Only after the instructor tells us what we should be smelling, can I sometimes catch a whiff.

The good news is that soon I will be back at work at Poliziano and able to show off all my fancy new wine knowledge to loads of unsuspecting tourists.  In the meantime, I am writing, teaching English, and learning some Tuscan recipes.  Those of you who have been following my adventures know that my neighbor Marinella has been like a mom to me here.  Not only does she take care of Cinder when I am working, she is quick to chastise me if I go out with my hair wet, but then will later stop by with some of her homemade pasta and ragù.  She happily recites recipes for me when I need one, but what I really wanted was to see her in action in the kitchen.  Because so many people have been writing to tell me how much they enjoyed At Least You’re in Tuscany and wanting to know when the next installment is coming, I decided that I really wanted the next chapter of my life here to be about my “becoming Italian.”  And a big part of that includes cooking the local foods.  Marinella, who seemed quite pleased with her part in the first book, has eagerly embraced her role as teacher.  We started with ribollita which is my favorite Tuscan bean soup and then this week we moved on to pasta.  We spent an afternoon making pici and tagliatellea mano.  By Hand.  Or as my colleague Fabio at Poliziano continues to say even after I’ve corrected him twenty times, “by hands.”  As he reasonably pointed out, it’s better if you use two!

I made this tagliatelle recipe with Marinella on the weekend, and then this morning I did it on my own so I could  “fare practica” as Marinella said.  To practice.

Marinella’s Tagliatelle:

4 eggs (basically 1 egg per person is the rule) so this feeds 4

Salt, a little bit of olive oil

Flour (she used 00 and I did too) (she does it by sight, but it’s roughly about a cup of flour for every egg)

Mix eggs, salt, and oil in a bowl.  Add flour.  (If you are fancy and want to do the flour well and put your eggs inside and mix that way, feel free.  Marinella said she doesn’t enjoy the stress of the eggs escaping the flour so she does it in the bowl.)

Basically continue to add flour until it comes together to form a ball.  She does it by sight and I did too. When it is together, knead on floured board until it is pliable and no longer sticky.  Let rest 5 minutes.

Roll out the dough thinly on a large lightly floured surface.  The pastry board they use to roll out the pasta is called a spianatoia  and the rolling pin a matterello.  The rolling pin is really really long and allows you to drape the dough over the pin, while you are rolling it out.  This part of the process takes a a bit of time to get the dough really thin.  The dough is quite elastic and so is easy to move around as you work.  After you get it very thin, you need to let it dry.  I yelled to Marinella out my window to come over and check on my work and she was quite pleased and said it was the perfect thickness.  I could tell she was proud because she even gave me a hug and a kiss, which she doesn’t often do.  Usually you leave the sheet of pasta to dry for about a half an hour, but because it’s really humid today, I left it an hour.  (Make sure while it’s drying that if you have an inquisitive aging weimaraner you keep it out of their reach.)

The last step is to fold it and cut it.  I folded it in on itself twice and then doubled it over.  There are many ways to do this and you can watch online if you want to see some variations.  Then you cut it.  When Marinella cut it she cut the strips rather wide because that’s how her husband likes them and I followed her lead.  But really the wider variation is called pappardelle, not tagliatelle.  Same yumminess, different width!

So after you cut your pasta and unfold each piece, you can put them in a bit of flour to keep them from sticking.  Best to eat the same day (with a tasty ragù) or make into nests and pop in the freezer.  If you leave it in the fridge, it will become a clumpy mess as I discovered with the pici.

Cook in Boiling water for about 6 minutes.  Doesn’t take long and if you cut them thinner they will take even less time. I called my friend Valerio to be my guinea pig and he obligingly took some home to try.  I await the verdict, but I had it for lunch and it was pretty darn good.  I froze the rest.

Buon appetito!

This is my homemade vanilla that I started in December... basically the recipe is vodka with vanilla beans.  I made A LOT because I cannot find vanilla here! I just used it for the first time and it's great.

Since we’re talking about fatto a mano, this is my homemade vanilla that I started in December… basically the recipe is vodka with vanilla beans. I made A LOT because I cannot find vanilla extract here! It needs a bit more time but I  just used it and it’s great.

Marinella rolling out the dough for tagliatelle

Marinella rolling out the dough for tagliatelle


It gets really big!

Cutting the pasta into strips...

Cutting the pasta into strips…



My attempt today on my own…

Preparing my "tools" -- My pastry board needed to be bleached first because of the mold in my kitchen.  The authentic Tuscan matterello was a gift from Marinella and is now one of my treasured possessions.

Preparing my “tools” — My pastry board needed to be cleaned with bleach due to a mold issue from where it had been stored in my kitchen. The authentic Tuscan matterello was a gift from Marinella and is now one of my treasured possessions.

So far so good...

So far so good…

Marinella taught me that if you wrap the dough around the pin and drag it toward you, it helps roll it out.  And is just looks cool!

Marinella taught me that if you wrap the dough around the pin and drag and press it toward you, it helps roll it out. And it also just looks cool!

Letting it dry after achieving desired thinness.

Letting it dry after achieving desired thinness.

My strips couldn't decide if they wanted to be tagliatelle or pappardelle.

My strips couldn’t decide if they wanted to be tagliatelle or pappardelle.

Looks good to me!!!

Looks good to me!!!

My friend Valerio who owns our local pet store agrees to give my pasta a try....No pressure!

My friend Valerio who owns our local pet store agrees to give my pasta a try….No pressure!

Tagliatelle with Marinella's ragù di capriolo and my friend Marco's wine.

Tagliatelle with Marinella’s ragù di capriolo and my friend Marco Barbi’s wine. Delish!!

Franca’s Pizza

I love making pizza.  Well, I love making all types of breads that involve yeast and working the dough.  It’s very satisfying.  I’ve been to my friend Franca’s house many times for pizza and each time I eat it, I keep thinking it’s a recipe very similar to mine.  So I asked for her recipe and as it turns out the ingredients are identical.  My dough has a little bit more water and I do two risings instead of one, which I think makes it a little less dense, but essentially it’s the same.  For those of you who are scared to work with yeast, don’t fear, this recipe is practically fool proof.  There is no heating water or adding sugar.

In fact there are only four ingredients:

25 gr yeast cake (this is the fresh yeast you find in the refrigerator section not the dry packet)

250 grams water ( I use about two cups but we measured it exactly at Franca’s and she uses about 1 1/2 c.) The water should be room temperature, or tepid.   I use a 16 oz bottle of spring water.

500 grams flour  (About 4 or 5 cups — you’ll be able to tell when to stop when the dough starts coming together.  Franca and I both use OO flour which is a high gluten flour.  You can use a bread flour if you can’t find the OO but I regularly found it in the states.

Salt – This is crucial for taste.  Use at least a good tablespoon full.  It seems like a lot but it’s really not.

The method:

Franca makes her dough in her kitchen aid mixer.  She is the only Italian I know who has one and I long for mine every time I am at her house.  They are just way to expensive here to buy so I make mine the old fashioned way.  By hand.

Put your water in a bowl and dissolve the salt and the yeast cake.  Start adding the flour a little at a time until the dough starts to form.  Really, it’s that simple.  If you are doing this in your mixer it’s the same idea, use your dough hook and when the mixture starts to pull away from the sides, scrape it out of the bowl.  Move the dough to a floured board and continue adding your flour until you have a pliable, workable and elastic dough.  It will take a few minutes of kneading.  You don’t want the dough too dry so resist the urge to add too much flour.

The next step is to let it rise.  Put it in a clean bowl, you can oil it with a little good quality olive oil if you want.  Cover with plastic wrap, and then let it rise in a warm draft free place.   Franca does this slowly over the course of the day.  My recipe calls for two risings so I let mine rise for two hours, deflate the dough, separate into two pizzas and let the dough balls rise again.  This recipe will make one big pizza if you have a big pan like Franca does.  Or you can do my method and separate into two medium size pizzas.  This recipe is easily doubled.  When I had dinner with Franca the other night, she had doubled this recipe and made one big pizza and one big focaccia, which is basically the pizza dough baked with olive oil and salt.  She serves it as a second course with prosciutto.  Squisito!

When your dough is ready, you just have to roll it out.  Franca uses a rolling pin to do this, but I like to do it by hand and just spread the dough out.  I think the rolling pin method makes the dough a little tough.  If you do it by hand spread it out on a floured surface and then wait a few minutes to let it relax.  It becomes much easier to work with than if you try to force it into submission all at once.  You can then plop it right on a cookie sheet or put a piece of parchment under it.  Add your toppings.

Bake in a very hot oven.  250 c. (almost 500 degrees Fahrenheit or as hot as your oven will go!) for about 20 minutes.  Put it on the lowest rack.

That’s it.  It’s really very simple to do and it’s something you can put together in five minutes in the morning and leave all day and then bake when you are ready.  Toppings are up to your own creativity.  Franca puts a tomato passata, sprinkles salt and oregano and then mozzarella.  For the focaccia, she dimples the dough, rubs it with olive oil and then sprinkles salt.

So you would have some idea of the steps, I made pizza yesterday and it was delicious.  I used some tomato passata, salt, oregano, mozzarella and I had some leftover sausage so I crumbled that on top too.

Prova! And let me know how you like the recipe.


Franca assembling her pizza

Franca's focaccia develops a gigantic air bubble which she deflates.

The delicious focaccia which we ate with thinly sliced prosciuto

Franca's husband Paolo and daughter Christina

Ingredients to make your pizza

When the dough is ready it will be elastic and spring back when you poke it

What it looks like doubled in volume

My assembled creation

The finished sausage pizza hot out of the oven. YUMMY!

Tania’s Pappa al Pomodoro Recipe

One of the great things about having dinner at Poliziano after my lessons with the kids is that I get to try fabulous Tuscan dishes.  The woman who cooks for the family is Tania.  She’s a lovely person and a sensational cook.  And she’s always willing to answer my cooking questions and share recipes.  (The other night I sampled “spleen” for the first time, “milza,” which is served on crostini.  It was tasty, but I’ll admit I was enjoying it a bit more before Anna whipped out the vocabulario so I could see what milza was.  My stomach rebelled for a minute but recovered admirably. )

But the dish Tania made as a starter two weeks ago was a delicious tomato bread soup that has it’s roots in Tuscany and was usually made because it was simple and economical.  These are two of my favorite words at the moment when it comes to cooking.  And if you love tomato soup as I do, it’s the perfect dish for a cold winter’s day.  I compared Tania’s recipe with Antonella’s, then attempted it on my own.

Here it is.  It’s pretty delicious for a soup that has only a few ingredients.  I made it for a friend and it got rave reviews.

Pappa al Pomodoro (serves four – at least)

  • onion 1
  • butter and/or olive oil
  • tomato passato or canned plum tomatoes (I used one large can of whole plum tomatoes)
  • garlic 2 (optional)  Tania doesn’t use this but Antonella does
  • Broth – a few cups.  (you can use water and cubed brodo if you want)
  • Stale crusty Tuscan-style bread (they key here is two days old)
  • Parmigiano
  • salt and pepper

Dice onions and saute in butter or olive oil (Tania uses butter, Antonella olive oil so I did half and half).  Add diced garlic.  Cook until softened, about ten minutes.  Add tomatoes.  I crush with my hands as I add to the pan.  Cook for another ten to fifteen minutes, breaking up tomatoes as you stir.  Use immersion blender to make consistency that of a puree.  (You can skip this step if you use tomato puree and chop the onions tiny.)

Add broth to cover tomatoes.  I used about four or five cups.  Slice the stale bread and tear into big chunks stir into soup.  I did this a little at a time because Antonella gave me what she thought was the right amount for the size of canned tomatoes I bought, but it seemed like way too much.  As it turned out she was exactly right.  Stir the bread into the soup until it thickens and the bread kind of dissolves.  The consistency is quite thick, but you can always add a little more broth if you feel the need.  Add grated parmigiano.  Let rest for a half hour.  Heat again before serving.  Serve with best quality olive oil.  YUM!

This is after the tomatoes have cooked down for a bit

Terrible photo but I wanted you to get an idea of how much bread I used...

This is the consistency after the immersion blender

Here's what it looks like at the end after the bread is added! It's quite thick and quite delicious.

Antonella’s Spaghetti Carbonara Recipe

I was having a chat with Antonella yesterday at her grocery store and she mentioned she was making Spaghetti Carbonara for pranzo.  We regularly talk about cooking and share recipes, so when she asked if I knew how to make a carbonara, I admitted I’d never attempted it.  In the past the reason for this was a slight squeamishness about the egg at the end.  But since I’m on quite the austerity plan at the moment, a recipe with only a few ingredients sounded just about right and I decided to try it.  And it was so delicious, that now I have to share it!

Forget what you know about Carbonara with cream, or wine, or even onions.  This recipe has pancetta, egg, a little parmesan cheese and black pepper.  BASTA!

Carbonara for two

  • one beaten egg
  • generous cracked pepper
  • parmesan or pecorino, grated
  • Two thick slices of pancetta, cubed
  • spaghetti (I just grab a handful and if it’s too much, Cinder eats the rest plain)

Cook pasta.   In separate pan, saute the cubed pancetta over medium heat until crispy.  Beat one egg and to this add some shredded parmesan and abundant black pepper.  Some recipes do this at the end, but mixing it before adding it to the pasta worked well.  You can also hold the egg mixture over the boiling water while cooking your spaghetti.  Supposedly it makes it a little creamier.  For me, it made me feel better to get the egg a little warmed.

Add the cooked spaghetti to the pancetta and toss together.  I added a little cooking water too.  Then add the egg mixture.  Remove from heat and toss in pan until fully incorporated.  You can add more cheese or pepper at this point if you want.

And then, MANGIA.

Here’s a picture of the end result.  It was delizioso!  I didn’t take pictures of the cooking part, but honestly it doesn’t get much simpler than this.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Marinella’s Frittata Recipe

Admittedly, a frittata is one of the simplest recipes you can make, but the way the Italians do it is a little different from our American version.  Like our version, you can use any ingredients you’d like and are only limited by your creativity.  Because zucchini and asparagus are abundant now, I’ve been using both in mine.  The difference comes in the way the eggs are cooked.  Instead of starting it on the stove and finishing it in the oven, it’s all done on the stove, involving a fancy flip onto a plate and then back into the pan.  This last part is something that I’ve done twice now and even with my questionable coordination I managed to flip it successfully.  The frittata is normally eaten for dinner here as the Italians don’t do eggs for breakfast.   I like to pair it with a nice glass of Prosecco and a salad.

Marinella’s Frittata


  • Zucchini (one large or two small)/ You can also use asparagus which I did in the one where I remembered to take pictures.
  • 4 eggs (beaten)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • parmesan reggiano (optional)  (I use pecorino because it’s what I usually have)

Wash, then chop zucchini into cubes and, over medium flame, saute in olive oil (best quality) until tender.  I don’t measure the oil, but use enough so that when you add the eggs, they won’t stick to the pan.  (Don’t use too much as I did in the asparagus frittata pictured below.  I was so concerned about making a nice presentation for the photos that it came out a bit on the oily side.  Not that I believe that you can ever have too much olive oil! )  Season the zucchini to taste.  Add the eggs.  I turn the heat down to medium low at this point as the eggs are cooking.  Grate some cheese over the eggs.  Cook until the sides begin to pull away from the pan a bit.  It’s important that it not be “wet” when you flip it onto the plate, so just cook it until you think it’s ready.  (Sorry these may be the worst directions ever!)  When ready to finish it, flip it onto a plate and then slide it back into the pan on its opposite side.   If you do this with success, you will impress yourself and your friends.  Cook for another minute or two and then you are done!  Buon appetito!

Asparagus from the mercato for my second attempt at a frittata

Asparagus from the mercato for my second attempt at a frittata

Sauteeing asparagus for a frittata

Sauteeing asparagus for a frittata

I love the bright orange of the Italian eggs

I love the bright orange of the Italian eggs

Adding the eggs to the asparagus

Adding the eggs to the asparagus

Adding some shredded pecorino as the eggs are setting

Adding some shredded pecorino as the eggs are setting

Flipped frittata goes from plate back into pan to cook other side

Flipped frittata goes from plate back into pan to cook other side

The delicious result...

The delicious result...