Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tuscan Dreams

By Patricia Winton

Recipe from a Tuscan Dream
On my last visit to Florence, I sampled a sweet treat that I first encountered many years ago and hadn’t thought about in a long, long time: Budino di Riso. Available in pastry shops throughout Tuscany, this little treat is traditionally oval-shaped with a soft pastry filled with a creamy rice pudding baked in the oven. When I first encountered them in Livorno, they were called Torta di Riso.

I scoured high and low in Florence looking for a pan to bake them in and came up empty. When I returned to Rome, I surfed the ‘net looking for a recipe. I discovered in the search that, like many other Italian dishes, regional variations abound. I found rice pudding similar to the one I grew up eating in America and cakes with rice as a predominate ingredient—often filled with candied fruit. After lots of searching, I finally found a recipe that mirrors the Budino di Riso I ate in Florence.

The recipe is a bit labor-intensive, but if you make the crust the day before and store it in the fridge, it doesn’t seem like an impossible task. This recipe suggest baking the sweet in a mini muffin pan.

Budino di Riso

For the crust (called pasta frolla):
Pastry Shop Budino di Riso

2 cups flour
2/3 cup rice flour
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup butter
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg

This can be made in the food processor. Place all the dry ingredients in the processor bowl and pulse to combine. Cut the butter into little cubes and add to the dry mixture.

Pulse until the butter is incorporated and the mixture resembles crumbs. Add the egg and pulse again briefly to incorporate.

Remove to a board and knead briefly until the dough is smooth. Form into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least an hour or overnight.

For the filling:

3 cups milk
1 1/2 cup uncooked rice
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs, separated

Homemade Budino di Riso
Place the milk in a saucepan and add the lemon zest and vanilla. Scald the milk and add the rice, stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking and stirring until the rice has absorbed most of the milk. Add 1/3 cup of the sugar. Set aside to cool.

When the mixture has cooled, stir in the egg yolks, baking powder, and the other 1/3 cup of the sugar. Set aside while you prepare the pastry.

Roll out the dough and cut into circles that will fit the bottom and sides of the small cups of a mini muffin pan.

Beat the egg whites and fold into the rice mixture. Fill each muffin cup with the rice mixture, leaving room for the pudding to rise.

Place the muffin tin in a 325 F (170 C) oven and bake for 30 minutes. Test by inserting a toothpick into the center of one budino. It it is liquidy, cook a bit longer. Remove to wire rack and allow to cool for about 15 minutes before unmolding.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Flamenco Dancer, Silly String, and Sugar

A couple of days ago, I encountered a bull fighter and a flamenco dancer at the supermarket. They were about one meter (three feet) high—in other words, children. Decked out in their carnival finery, they and other children will wear their costumes for afternoon walks with their parents (including stops in the supermarket) and even to school until Martedì Grasso. The costumes can be quite elaborate—even for babies—and have price tags to match.

While they’re out, children toss confetti at passersby and at each other. And, unfortunately, they attack with Silly String, which, fortunately, doesn’t appear at any other time of year, including Halloween. I went into a couple of shops this morning and found: Silly String, confetti, streamers, noisemakers, blank masks for hand painting, giant bow ties, magic wands, and plastic swords. That was just one shop on a shelf opposite the leftover Valentine paraphernalia.

Parades with floats and costumed performers will grace many cities and towns—especially in Venice and Viareggio. But the real stars of the carnival season are the desserts that only appear at this time of year. Here’s a brief rundown.


These melt-in-your-mouth tidbits are similar to a rich pie crust made with eggs. They are rolled into rectangles and cut into fluted squares. Traditionally they were fried, but in this day of frowning-at-fat, they are sometimes baked. After the frappe come out of the oil or oven, they are generously dredged with confectioner’s sugar.

Castagnole di Carnevale

These little balls have similar ingredients to frappe, but sugar, vanilla, and grated lemon zest are added. The mixture makes a firm, but not rigid, dough that is formed into small balls. These are always fried and dusted with either confectioner’s or normal sugar.

Frittelle di Mele

Apple fritters, these, made by coring and slicing apples about one centimeter (1/4 inch) thick. A batter that includes the juice of a lemon and cinnamon coats the slices which are then fried. Really good served with vanilla ice cream.

Castagnole di Ricotta

Unlike the Castagnole di Carnevale and other sweets stuffed with ricotta, the cheese becomes a part of the dough. The ricotta is mixed with eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla, baking powder, and the grated zest of a lemon and an orange. After the dough rests in the fridge for about half an hour, it’s formed into small balls and fried like the other castagnole and sprinkled with regular sugar.


A medium-firm dough made with flour, yeast, eggs, milk, and butter makes the basis for this popular carnival treat. Once the dough has risen, it is rolled into a thin rectangle and sprinkled with sugar and lemon zest. The dough is then folded over itself several times, forming a roll. The roll is cut into short pieces which are then fried. The hot oil carmelizes the sugar and the layers open something like a fan. It’s a gooey, concoction, sometimes covered in colored sprinkles.

Ravioli Fritti

Sweet fried ravioli comes from a dough laced with the ever-present lemon zest and a couple of spoonfuls of white wine. When the dough is rolled out into a thin rectangle, it is cut into fluted circles. Half the circles are filled with a spoonful of either ricotta, marmalade, or Nutella. The remaining circles top the filling and each ravioli is sealed then fried and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

Many Variations

Many variations to these sweets exist throughout the country, usually with regional twists. In some places, for example, the chiacchiere resemble frappe. 

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sweet Nothings

By Patricia Winton

I’ve taken a hiatus from writing the blog, but I’m back now and will be posting again every Wednesday. I’ve missed you. Thanks to those who contacted me to let me know you missed me, too.

The driver stretched out in the cab of his truck. He’d been hauling this load for several hours, starting in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. He’d just winded his way through Rome’s traffic nightmare and wanted to catch 40 winks before heading south. He was certainly asleep when disaster struck. Was he dreaming of a wife he might have left in the north? Or of a mistress he might see in the south? Or perhaps just of the sweet cargo resting in the trailer behind him.
Whatever his dream, three men waked him and unceremoniously pulled him from the truck, breaking his nose in the scuffle. They left him lying on the pavement and drove his rig back onto the highway. An alert witness called the state police who arrived in short order. After a high speed chase—and that truck was no match for those police cars—the police pulled over the truck, filled with jars of Nutella worth about 200 thousand euros (270,200 USD). The thieves went to jail and the driver, who was suffering from shock in addition to the broken nose, went to the hospital.

This robbery, mirrored by one last spring in Germany netting 5 1/2 tons of the stuff, underscores Nutella’s popularity. Glass jars filled with a gooey chocolate spread seems like a delicate target for thieves, but as the Italian press gleefully noted, they obviously had a sweet tooth.

This year, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of this fine Italian treat. The idea of combining hazelnuts with chocolate originated in Turin in 1852 with the chocolate confectioner Cafferel. The confection, called granduja after a carnival character popular in the Piedmont region, remains popular today.

Confectioner Piero Ferrero adopted this combination in the 1940s when chocolate was in short supply. By 1946, he had perfected the chocolate-hazelnut cream, originally known as Granduja Paste. He later changed the name to “Nutella” by combining the English word “nut” with a common Italian suffix “ella” meaning “little.”

By the time I first arrived in Italy 23 years later, Nutella was readily available in shops. I loved to eat it back then spread on a thick slice of Tuscan (unsalted) bread. I never ate it any other way in those days. When I returned to the US in 1971, I went into Nutella withdrawal because my lovely spread hadn’t yet traveled across the Atlantic. I had to wait another 12 years before being able to indulge when Ferrero began exporting it to America in 1983.

It’s popularity in Italy continues to soar. Now you can find all kinds of desserts filled or spread with Nutella—from crepes to pizza—but it remains a fixture at the breakfast table. I had to laugh a couple of years ago when a California court ruled against Ferrero for advertising Nutella as a breakfast food. Not a healthy breakfast food, mind you, just a breakfast food. I’d argue that neither Cocoa Puffs nor Pop Tarts make a better breakfast. But I digress.

Today is unofficial World Nutella Day, a celebration created by product fan Sara Rosso, who blogs about food and Italy. Nutella’s lawyers contacted her last May to “cease and desist” using the product name and logo on her site. But they’ve worked it out. Ferrero is pleased to have such loyal fans, and Ms. Rosso is no longer using the Nutella logo on her site.

I hope you’ll spread a bit of Nutella on your toast today.

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