Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Lemon Verbena Panna Cotta, a Piemontese Treat

What a funny summer we have had here in the Alps. I don't know about you, but I am just a tad disappointed in the lack of hot glistening days so far this summer. However, there is one Italian dessert that I am certain will lift your spirits or top off a perfect hot summer day and that would be the crown mewl of Piemontese desserts that is panna cotta. This simple ending to a meal is perfection on a plate. It's light and yet indulgent. The name "panna cotta" literally translates as "cooked cream". Piedmont, one of Italy's northern regions in which I live, and that borders France, is famous for it's dairy rich cuisine and oftentimes overlap of  French culinary influence. Piedmont was once the kingdom of Savoy, whose royal house spawned many a tradition both culinary and culturally that have passed down through the ages and households of its loyal subjects.  This dessert will win your heart with its simplicity, versatility and easy preparation.  

Poued into cups before they have been refrigerated
The most traditional way of eating this dessert is just plain relying on the goodness and quality of the cream, however it certainly lends itself to many variations of sauces to accompany it or various liqueurs, or herbal infusions that if done with a light hand, adds layers of intrigue. 
I love this version of infusing the cream with a small amount of fresh lemon verbena leaves for the summer as a lighter version from my winter version that utilizes my homemade walnut liqueur called nocino. Both are winners and only a steeping off point to vary this lucious creamy dessert that you can whip up in the morning and enjoy for dinner that evening or the next. I have noticed that a few restaurants are starting to serve their panna cotta in a clear glass jar that insures that they don't have to worry about the dessert setting up on time or being anxious that the delightful little wiggle that a well made panna cotta has when turned out onto your plate and carried to the table, that insures a few oohs and aahs from your adoring dinner guests.  
I have added a subtle amount of lemon verbena and so you made find you want to add more or less, it could depend on how large your leaves are or whether or not they are fresh or dried. When infusing the cream, just make sure to taste your cream a while after it has sat in order to insure you have as much flavor as you want. If not strong enough, add more crushed leaves and reheat if it has cooled took much. It's up to you.
Colle di pesce geletin and lemon verbena leaves

Lemon Verbena Panna Cotta

with a Blueberry Compote

5 servings
  • 2 long gelatin sheets, long sheets or 4 short sheets (place in bowl of cold water)
  • 400 g of heavy cream (2 cups)
  • 120 g whole milk (½ cup)
  • 70 g sugar (6 T vanilla sugar is nice)
  • 8 or so lemon verbena leaves, fresh (approximately 2 T  or so)

  1. In a saucepan add heavy cream and milk along with the lemon verbena leaves
  2. Heat till it is hot to the touch and turn off heat and let the milk cream mixture infuse with the lemon verbena for about 1/2 hour. Test the mixture after about 10 minutes to see how the flavor is coming along and perhaps adjust by adding a few leaves if needed. 
  3. Place your gelatin sheets in cold water to soften while your cream mix infuses. 
  4. Strain out the leaves once your cream is flavored to a good strength but not too strong. Remove leaves earlier if you think it is getting to strong for your taste. I prefer a more subtle flavor but still to be strong enough to know it is there. 
  5. Once the mixture has cooled some and flavor has developed, I usually strain the leaves out into a bowl and clean out the bottom of the pan to make sure it won't stick when warming up the cream and sugar.
  6. Sprinkle the sugar over the bottom of the pan and pour the infused milk and cream mixture back into the pan.
  7. Gently squeeze the sheets of gelatin dry and add sheets to the cream mixture.

  8. Stir until sheet of gelatin has dissolved, reheating if necessary to dissolve the gelatin if the cream has cooled too much..Pour into cups and let set at room temperature until cool to touch. Refrigerate  or several hours until gelain has set and ready to serve.  (at least a couple of hours or overnight is good)
Suggestions: Any liquor or flavoring(vanilla, amend extract, Amaretto, Frangelico, Gran Marnier, Nocino, you get the idea) may be substituted for variety or taste preference.

Blueberry or other berry Compote

2 c.  fresh blueberries (200g)
4-5 T sugar (50 - 70 g) (can a bit more or less depending how sweet you want it to be)

Combine berries and sugar in a sauce pan and cook gently till the berries pop and make a soft creamy  compote for the panna cotta.

To Serve:
Unmold the pannacotta by running a small blunt knife around the edge of the cup.  Place a plate over the panna cotta and flip over. Tap gently on the bottom of the cups. (I have used plastic yogurt cups before and they have a little give when you are tapping that helps) The panna cotta should come right out. If not you can let gravity help you or place your plans over as the heat of your hands will help encourage the panna cotta to come out. Spoon your room temperature berries on the plate by the panna cotta.
Panna cotta with fresh cherry compote

Friday, July 04, 2014

Hazelnut and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

Here's an easy condiment that you can whip up in minutes when you have all of the ingredients on hand and will be such a welcome addition or finishing touch to so many dishes, you might just want to have a jar of it in the refrigerator at all times for adding that little pizzazz that lifts your dish from ordinary to extraordinary. Really!
Red, White and Blue Crostini
I came across the recipe as an addition to a grilled cheese over at "Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet" blog  and it was love at first bite. Since I live in the land of hazelnuts here Piemonte, and they just happen to be my all time favorite nut, it didn't take me long to whip this pesto up.  I am able to get soft and salty sun dried tomatoes at our Pinerolo market, straight from the producers in southern Italy. They are a delightful treat that I find more versatile than the ones in the oil. Naturally if you don't have access to hazelnuts almonds or walnuts can step in with a different twist but tasty no less. If using the tomatoes in the oil, I would drain the oil and measure it for the oil that you would be using in the recipe and maybe use a bit less. 
Chunky version hazelnut tomato pesto
The first time I made this I blended the tomatoes with the oil and everything else but the nuts first to a rough stage before adding the hazelnuts so that I had larger pieces of nuts, which I found to be an unexpected crunch that I really appreciated. This last time  when I made it I chucked everything into the small hand blender's food processor attachment and blended it all up making a very smooth paste. Not sure which I prefer. It's a bit like smooth or crunchy peanut butter. Sometimes one is preferable and other times you just want the other. 
Ricotta and Hazelnut Tomato Pesto Farinata 
I have used it on top of a celery stick filled with a bit of mascarpone cheese, farinata (which is a chickpea pancake Ligurian specialty) that has had ricotta smeared on top and the pesto on top of that, crostini, with ricotta or other soft spreadable cheeses and as a great substitute n your favorite burger, meat or veggie. The list is endless. I have yet use it on pasta cause I am usually too busy dunking my grissini in it. It is a perfect picnic addition as we found out one afternoon.
Picinic fare
When the weather isn't cooperating, all you need is to make a batch of this pesto and it'll feel like the sun is shining on your palate and what could be better than that?
The smooth pesto version 
I've slightly adapted the recipe and you should too to what ever you have on hand, but if you can find hazelnuts, or filberts, the domesticated American variety of hazelnuts, you will find them worth seeking out. Now get in the kitchen and mix up a batch!

Hazelnut and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

3/4 cup raw, whole hazelnuts, shelled
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, cut up
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Optional: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavors slightly, being carrel not to add too much so that it covers the subtle hazelnut flavor

Preheat a small skillet over medium-high heat. 
Add the hazelnuts.
Toast the nuts in the dry heavy skillet, tossing occasionally, until they start to pick up color and are fragrant, approximately 7 minutes. 
Remove from heat, allow to cool without picking up too much color and set aside.
Combine all the other ingredients in a food processor and process until relatively smooth. Add the reserved hazelnuts and process further until the hazelnuts are chopped, but the "pesto" maintains a chunky texture.
Cover and refrigerate for a few hours before use to give the oil time to rehydrate the tomatoes. 
Stir before use. 
Will keep, refrigerated, for well more than a week. 
Chunky style

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fragrant Days

"Romeo" Iris,  Elderberry in flower,  Mock orange jasmine, and petunias surefine - All fragrant
The sweetness of mock orange blossoms and elderflowers waft through my open windows these days, making my heart go pitter patter. As the first color of spring has deepened into a full on explosion of green, accentuated with every type of flowering bud, bulb and tree, it is impossible to ignore the colors and fragrances of life happening all around me these days. It perhaps happened earlier where you live and perhaps you are already wilting from the  heat of summer, but here at a bit of altitude, we are just getting fully under way with color, berries, birdsong and intoxicating floral scents of every variety. Today, the Linden trees in the market were just starting to bloom and the sweetness made me stop and look up to behold these massive trees' alluring essence. We just had a small cloudburst and now the air is fresh and full of the wet fecund earth and cut grass aroma wafting up through the open windows. Perhaps I have just have had a bit of time recently to enjoy all this bountiful green growth and natural perfume that is so abundant this time of the year. My indulgent time to savor the season is in no small part to the help of our volunteer workers that have helped get our garden in, weed, watered and be generally well looked after, thereby giving me a bit of breathing space. Many thanks to all of them for that bit of respite indeed.
Woofers and Workawayers this season so far
This seasonal switch has been more hectic then usual for me this year, with plenty going on here at Bella Baita. We've been painting, patching, planting, and tidying up after all of that. I'm sure you know what I mean. You probably have had the same going on at your house.
Fabrizio painting our big room in anticipation of the season
I did a quick trip to the states to tidy up some of my affairs in the high country of Colorado, before enjoying a little family reunion at my brothers in Broomfield. We have a few significant birthdays this year amongst the siblings, nephews and nieces, so it was a great excuse to get together for a few days to enjoy each others company as we enjoyed the Colorado Rockies.
Part of the Gulley clan at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park
You may not have realized, but I kind of have a thing for mountains. I'm drawn to them, marvel at them and love living in them in all their glory. This blog has been a celebration of my life here in my husbands family slice of Piemonte's Alpi Cozie (or Cottian Alps in English). I'm happy to be a part of the fabric of our little community, able to savor all the large and small personal and sensory pleasures that mountain living has on offer.
My little rock garden outside my window
Although I haven't been able to write much lately, I do have a few recipes that I will be sharing soon.
I had friends here at the end of May and got out and about up the Chisone valley to play tourist in my neighborhood that I don't always get to do when we are busy.

Marla's creations (that would be me)
It was wonderful as always to marvel with my friends, at the Fenestrelle Fortress, sometimes called the Great Wall of Piedmont, and wander through the small hamlets of Usseaux, Balboutet, and land over at Lago Laux, for wine with a delightful slice of Marienella's "torts del giorno". Although there is more that one can do than the few things I have mentioned.

I think that will dip your toes into our Chisone valley stream and have you wishing for more. We'll be waiting for your visit and in the meantime I'll be savoring these fleeting and fabulously fragrant days.
Bella Baita, our Home Sweet Home

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Spring is sprung, well sort of....

It's been an interesting winter and spring. We've had such a variety of varying conditions that I find it difficult to say what "normal" is anymore. It is probably the same in your part of the world too.  When I first arrived here in Val Chisone, our winters have been quite mild with never enough snow for me to feel like it was a proper winter. Then about 6 years ago we had a record amount of snow and consistently snowy winters that made me believe that we were back in a normal pattern. Well then we had a few late cold springs and on and on until this winter.  What do you know, we had a fair amount of snow, but pleasantly, it was a rather mild winter over all.  March however, came in like a semi liony lamb and departed pretty much the same as such. In between  we managed to have summery days and mild spring conditions that brought out the flowers and pushed the trees to bloom quite early.

Fabrizio working in the family garden
Wouldn't you know it, but here it is now getting on towards the last part of April and just to make sure you remember that Mother nature is still in charge, we have  enough snow coming down to be concerned for our garden's early coming forth. We were convinced that peas were about the only thing that was safe enough to put in early, but the raspberry, currant and blueberry plants were sadly fooled. We shall see how it shakes out in the end.
Our patio yesterday

Lulled by the seductive spring green and flowers and leaves popping out everywhere, you would think I would be immune to wintery surprises after all these years living in the mountains. 
But no, it always comes as a sobering surprise. 
Poor wild cherry trees

Our side yard this morning. It's already melting out now.
We are both good. This year has seen its various ups and downs with one family member getting well and coming back from a scary illness and another losing their battle with a disease, ALS, that no one should have to suffer through. So it goes in life, ups and downs and sometimes it is hard to find the chatter to carry on with. It has found me somewhat unable to just carry on with subjects of food and recipes, or what we have done that might be of interest to anyone. It's not that I don't have anything to say, but it does seem quite trivial at times when loved ones have such struggles, and losses. But as time passes and grief wanes I wonder back to let you know a little of what has gone on in our lives. Time flies and we carry on with our daily challenges and triumphs, enjoying the process and the subtle joys that lift the day and reminds us of the sweetness of life in all of its tiniest manifestations. On so my life goes. I am grateful for all that I have and all that is shared. You are part of the sharing and I thank you for stopping by and being interested. 
Fabrizio and I continue on with our various on-going myriad of projects, that for me, sometimes seems difficult to see progress on. Fabrizio with his ever growing piles of wood for our heating grow and impress, and his fresh coats of paint to the various parts of the building are noticeable and welcome. I however am tasked with making improvements to our web site in hope of attracting more guests that would love to find us if they only knew about us, and that my friends is is harder to see the progress on. I also keep the troops fed and experimented on with new dishes to add to my repertoire and keeps me absorbed with learning and amused to boot. 

Here's Tom and Fabrizio mugging it up just before Tom goes back home to the U.K. after his Workaway boot camp with Fabrizio.  Thanks for all the hard work blind up the winter wood heating  supply.
Bye Bye to Tom, our first volunteer helper of the season
So, I think it is now time for me to get back to my latest project and that oil be shortening the new curtains for our  little "baita" salon. We moved in downstairs last June, but still have much to do to make it have a more finished feel to it and ready for this coming  season. 

Bella Baita dining room in the original "Baita" (which means rustico in the mountains)
If you have never been to visit with us or haven't been since we moved into the downstairs "baita" part of the building, you need to put that on your "to do" list, pronto.  We, of course, still have much to do, but it keeps us out of trouble naturally and on our toes. We look forward to your visit, new or returning, sometime soon.  In the mean time, we hope you have a blessed Easter weekend with friends and family and a wonderful welcoming of spring with the return of the natures quickening life force and graces. With love from Bella Baita, we wish all of you peace. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ravioli Gnudi- A Spring Time Delight

Ravioli gnudi
The signs of spring are everywhere, in the lengthening of the day, the snow piles slowly but surely shrinking in spite of the best efforts of mother nature to keep them topped up. I have spoken before about how we only have to go two turns down our mountain road and we find a dramatic change in the advancement of spring. We're still up there in the snow zone, but we are on the teetering edge od full on winter and full on spring. It's an interesting place to live. The primula are starting to finally poke their heads up wherever the snow has begun to retreat in earnest. The market is full of spinach and dandelion greens and soon there will be all manner of various greens gathered and foraged to perk up the taste buds from our sturdy cabbage and potato winter fare. 
Springtime beginning to arrive in Val Chisone
I had elaborate plans to share a couple of pizza recipes, but have failed to get the recipes down on paper so I will share the next best thing that I have recently made. That would be the ravioli gnudi, or nude ravioli. A peculiar name for most of us, but what it is referring to is that the spinach ricotta mixture is oftentimes what you find in many a filled pasta and this time there is no pasta. There is flour used in the mix and then later rolled in the flour to help hold it all together, but there is no firm pasta covering. The emperor has no clothes! Ok not exactly, but I think you get the drift. 
Ravioli gnudi is the name given to them by the Tuscans, from whence I think they originated, or at least became most well known from. Up here in the north, we are fond of our gnocchi and so these are really just a variation on a gnocchi for us. What ever you want to call them, we just mainly call them delicious, and please don't call me late for dinner.

These really are easy enough, but my main tip would be to make sure that you have a dough ball that will stay together. My first attempt a few years ago almost made me give up on them as I was gingerly handling them as I wanted to make sure they would be tender and fluffy. Well, what I got was a pot full of spinach ricotta water. They disintegrated in the boiling process. I salvaged them best I could, but was sorely disappointed. Next time I sacrificed light and fluffy for sturdy and durable and eventually came upon a nice middle of the road, light and sturdy dough ball that didn't mind simmering and then being sloshed around in a pan with a bit of sage butter and a light coating of marinara sauce upon occasion. The spinach is plentiful right now, so it's a great time to give these a go and let me know what you think. I have a feeling they may be something you will enjoy again and again once you get the hang of them. 

Ravioli Gnudi
about 6 servings (depending if you serve more courses)


350 g (12 oz) fresh spinach, cooked in minimum of water
350g (12 oz or about 1 1/2 c) ricotta

4 T parmesan cheese, grated (or more if you like)
¼ tsp fresh ground nutmeg

3 eggs, medium, if large I would use 2 whole and 1 yolk

125 g (about 1 ¼ c) flour all purpose,
(divide into 5 T to add to the dough and the rest to roll the balls in

pinch or two salt after adding the Parmesan if needed


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil while you prepare the dumplings/gnocchi/ravioli.

Once you have cooked the spinach and allowed it too cool.
Squeeze very dry and chopped medium fine.
Mix the spinach well with the ricotta.
Add the parmesan and nutmeg and a pinch of salt
Add eggs and mix well.
Sprinkle the 5 Tb of flour in, mixing lightly. Add a bit more flour if it doesn;t seem to be holding together.
It will be a soft sticky mix.
Pour the flour into a flat pan
Flour your hands
Drop teaspoons of dough int the flour, roll around and then lightly make the balls coating so they hold together when you simmer them. I tried for thumbnail sized but they were a bit bigger than that.
You don't want them too large so they cook easily.

Once you have all the balls prepared drop them into, a couple at a time, the rolling boil. You may need to do two batches depending on the size of your pot. They will sink like gnocchi and the boil will stop. Gently stir them and bring them back toa boil, but lower the heat as soon they they start to boil, so they simmer gently and don't boil so hard that they fall apart. It should take about 5-6 minutes, depending on the size of the balls.

Once done I put them in a large pan with a little melted butter and fresh sage and gently shook the pan, to coat. Sprinkled parmesan on top and served them with a side of marinara sauce.
I made 2/3  of the batch as I was a fraud we would eat them all in one sitting. We did!
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