Tag Archives: Italian

Gluten-Free Italian Easter Pie, Pizza Chiena/Pizza Rustica

pizza chiena, pizza rustica

Gluten-Free Pizza Chiena or Pizza Rustica, or Savory Italian Easter Pie

Pizza chiena or pizza rustica is a savory Neapolitan pie served at Easter time.  My family is from the area surrounding Naples and they called it pizza chiena, pronounced like pizzagaina, or pizzagain, as they pronounce the hard ch sound as a hard g in Neapolitan dialect and the last vowel is often left off.

pizza chiena, pizza rustica

Gluten-Free Pizza Chiena

For the crust:

5 cups gluten-free flour, not sifted

5 teaspoons xantham gum

3/4 cup shortening

4 eggs

warm water

olive oil

Put your flour on your work surface.  Dot with shortening and incorporate until it becomes somewhat crumbly (won’t be as crumbly as gluten flour would be).

Make a well and add eggs, incorporating them.  Add enough warm water until you have a workable dough.  Knead for about 5 minutes.  Put a little olive oil in a bowl.  Add the dough ball.

Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest for about a half hour.

For the filling:

People use different ingredients in the filling.  It usually always has ricotta, eggs, grated cheese and salami.  From there, it varies.  You can also use gluten-free soppressata, capocollo, mortadella, or Italian sausage.  We only used soppressata, capocollo and salami.  One of my grandmas used provolone.  Also, some provolone can be sharp and you don’t want it to be too dominant a flavor.  Some people lump all the ingredients in there, some people chunk it, some people dice it very small, some people layer it.  It’s all your preference. 

1 lb. ricotta (Use a good brand with no added gums or thickeners.)

1 lb. basket cheese (If you can’t get this where you are, you can just use another pound of ricotta.  Or you can let one pound of ricotta sit in a colander or in cheesecloth the night before to drain out water.)

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1 cup gluten-free salami, diced or not (You can use any of the above listed meats, as long as they are gluten-free.)

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1 cup gluten-free prosciutto, diced or not

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8 eggs

1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced

black pepper to taste

egg yolk for egg wash

In a bowl, mix all ingredients.  Just stir it all together.  No mixer needed.

Grease and gluten-free flour a 10-inch springform pan or a 13×9 rectangular pan or a large cake pan or pie dish (depends on how much filling you have).

Cut off 2/3 of dough.  Roll it out into a circle and line springform pan.

Fill with filling.

Roll out remaining dough into a circle.  Top pie with it.  I used an Italy-shaped cookie cutter to decorate the top.  You can use any shape you like or no shape at all.  Brush with egg wash.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1/2 hour.  Lower heat to 350 for 1 more hour.  Let cool for a few hours.  Refrigerate.  We eat this at room temperature or cold from the refrigerator.

Senza Gluten, Senza Worry

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In Italian, the word “senza” means without. Senza Gluten is an Italian restaurant in the Village that is completely gluten free. This restaurant is a great concept because Italian food, with its myriad of pasta dishes, is often hard to find gluten free.  It is nice for people with celiac disease and those with gluten sensitivity or intolerance to have a night out senza worry.

For starters, we had cauliflower parmesan, cauliflower breaded with cheese and tomato sauce. A nice way to eat cauliflower.

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My friend ordered a Cesare, or Caesar salad.

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My entree was a vegetable lasagna, so the restaurant is vegetarian friendly as well.

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My friend got the risotto ai funghi, risotto with mushroom, parmesan and truffle oil.

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Finally, one is lucky to find a gluten-free entree at the average restaurant, let alone a dessert. Here, there are a number to choose from of Italian classics like tiramisu and panna cotta as well as a chocolate torte and biscotti.

One good thing to keep in mind while dining here is that Senza Gluten is cash and American Express only, so come prepared.

Taralli, an Italian Snack

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Taralli are a Southern Italian snack food.  If you’ve visited Italian-American bakeries or grocery stores, you may have seen the ring-shaped snack food sold in different varieties, such as fennel-flavored.  These crunchy snacks originate in Southern Italy.  Like much of Italian food, taralli are different in different regions.

In Naples, they are traditionally made with lard, pepper and almonds.  They were first made from scraps of leftover bread dough.  To this dough was added lard and pepper.  In the Neapolitan language, lard is “nzogna,” so you will see these as nzogna and pepe.  In Naples today, you will see this variety also has almonds.  Almonds were added in the 1800s, but the older version of these did not have almonds.  This older version is what my mother remembers at bakeries of her youth, bakeries that carried on Southern Italian traditions from the late 1800s here in the United States.  In fact, there were other crunchy breads that also had lard and pepper added to them.

In times past, the taralli vendor would sell the snack from a cart.  In Napoli today, miniature depictions of taralli vendors are sold on Via San Gregorio Armeno where you can find the famous presepio, or Nativity figures.

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In Puglia, taralli, or tarallini, are usually smaller, more crunchy and smoother with no almonds.  They are not made with lard but with olive oil and are often flavored with fennel or chili.  These are the ones most often found in Italian-American bakeries and stores.  They can also be made sweet instead of savory, which is popular in Basilicata.

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The origin of the word “taralli” is unknown, but it is thought to derive from the Greek word toros, meaning toroidal or round.  Or the Greek word daratos for a kind of bread.  It could also be from torrere, Latin for toast, or for a French type of bread.

Taralli are served year round but also during Carnevale.  They are made by either baking or by boiling then baking, similar to bagels.

They are plentiful at bakeries in Naples.  I like the nzogna e pepe from Leopoldo Infante.

Sessanta, Southern Italian in Soho

I was walking through Soho and decided to stop in for some pasta at Sessanta.  Sessanta is another restaurant in the trend of regional Italian cuisine.  Its focus is on Southern Italy, particularly the Neapolitan area.  The menu has items that are similar to other regional Italian restaurants like burrata, fritto misto, meatball, malloreddus, branzino.  Other dishes are standard Italian and Neapolitan like eggplant parmesan, spaghetti with tomato sauce and linguine with garlic and olive oil.   My friend and I were walk-ins on a Saturday night, and it was crowded but not overwhelmingly so.  Not too hungry, we didn’t order a full meal.  Even though we ordered only entrees, we thought we would get bread with the meal, but we didn’t.

I got the malloreddus with sweet sausage ragu, whipped ricotta and pecorino sardo.  It was good.

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My friend got the busiate with Spanish octopus, cherry tomatoes, capers and oregano and thought it was good but not great.

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Song e Napule, a Neapolitan Eatery in New York

Formerly Pizza Mezzaluna, Song e Napule is a little hole-in-the-wall eatery on the North side of Houston Street in Noho serving up cuisine from the city of Napoli, Italy, and the Italian region of Campania.  Classic Neapolitan items on the menu include burrata, calamari, insalata caprese, eggplant parmigiana, meatballs in tomato sauce, and of course, pizza.

During our recent visit, we got grilled calamari to start.  I love squid, and grilled squid is one of my favorites.

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They even serve a Neapolitan dish, paccheri genovese, which is with a veal and onion ragu.  This is a dish my family has made for generations (with a different pasta), and it was interesting to see it on a menu.  However, it was somewhat different from the way we make it and a bit more peppery.  Ours is more oniony.  My dish came with parmesan already sprinkled on it.  I don’t usually like that when I go to a restaurant because I’m not sure what quality of cheese they are using.  However, it was probably OK here.

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My friend got the linguine with tomato sauce, arugula, shaved parmesan and pepper flakes.  It was good, but there was a bit too much arugula on top.

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It was a nice gesture to give us a small panna cotta to share.  I think that’s because it took a long time for our entrees to arrive.

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6 Italian Christmas Foods & Traditions

(Scroll down for list.)

Christmas is a special time of year in an Italian household. The holidays bring many traditions, but Italian traditions differ based on region. Italy is divided into 20 regions, but these regions came into existence only after Italy was unified in the 1860s. Prior to that, the peninsula and surrounding islands and areas were part of various kingdoms and under different rulers through the centuries. There are many influences from other countries, and some traditions that date back to the earliest inhabitants. So the things I’m going to mention on this list may not be celebrated by all Italians. Keep in mind that the majority of Italian Americans are descended from people from Naples and Sicily and other areas of Southern Italy, so the traditions of Italian Americans are primarily Southern Italian traditions. For example, while we may buy a panettone, it was not something Southern Italians made. Cookies like struffoli, bows, pizzelles and anginettes are classic Christmas cookies of Southern Italians.

I have fond memories of Christmas. We always had bowls of mixed nuts around the house. The Saturday before Christmas we’d bring my grandma to the fish market so she could pick out what we needed for dinner, which always included a live eel and lobster. At the market, they would cut off the eel’s head and skin and chop it. As a family, we would make the bows and struffoli cookies. I liked using the pastry cutter to cut the bows. I watched as my grandmother cut a hole in the middle and pulled one end through to make the bow. Or else she would just tie the piece of dough in a knot like tying a shoelace. She’d fry them and shake powdered sugar on them. They kept through the holidays. The trick to our struffoli is cutting the pieces small because that’s how we like them. We also like honey syrup, pine nuts and sprinkles on top.

For Christmas Eve, my grandmother made a tomato-based sauce with some shrimp, calamari, scungilli, lobster, mussels and clams to serve over linguine. Traditionally, my family also had octopus salad, baccala salad, fried baccala, fried eel, fried smelts, lobster tails and baked clams. Sometimes we’d go to Midnight Mass.

For Christmas, we had antipasto consisting of Italian meats like Genoa salami, prosciutto, soppressata, capocollo and dried sausages; cheeses like provolone imported from Italy and fresh mozzarella; olive salad; pepper salad; some kind of pasta dish like lasagna or ravioli served with a tomato gravy cooked with pork, beef, beef and pork neck bones and meatballs; a green salad; and pastries from an Italian bakery or an Italian cheesecake my grandmother would make.

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

My grandma always put out plates of finocchio, celery and olives as palate cleanser between courses. With dessert, the adults might have some liqueur such as anisette or Galliano.

La Befana

La Befana

La Befana is also a holiday tradition in Italy. La Befana is known as a good witch, but is really just an old Italian lady who was busy cleaning her house when three visitors arrived. They were the Three Wise Men, and they wanted her to come along to see the Infant Jesus. She had too much cleaning to do and didn’t want to go. (Sounds like an Italian lady.) However, she later regretted that decision and set off with her broom to find the Christ Child and bring him a gift. She is still searching, so that is why she gives gifts to children on Epiphany, January 6. Historians say La Befana may have her origins in a pagan goddess called Strina, or Befana may be the pronunciation of the Greek word for Epiphany, epifania. We were aware of the tradition of La Befana, a tradition my grandparents grew up with but didn’t continue with their children. My grandmother would put her shoes out for La Befana, who would fill them with oranges, nuts and candy. Children would get coal if they were bad–a tradition my grandmother did continue, as she gave one of my aunts coal when she was bad. La Befana still visits children in Italy on Epiphany, and my cousins get candy and gifts in stockings.

panettone

panettone

  1. Panettone and Christmas breads–Panettone is probably the most recognizable Italian Christmas food and was declared the national Christmas cake in 1931 in the Gastronomic Guide to Italy. It comes from Milan in Northern Italy. A number of Christmas breads come from Northern Italy like pane al doge from Venice,  
    pane al doge

    pane al doge

    pandoro (pan d’oro or golden cake) of Verona,

    pandoro

    pandoro

    pandolce of Genoa (more buttery than panettone) or pan dolce from Friuli. There are a number of legends as to the origins of panettone, one being it was pan di Toni (bread of Tony or Tony’s bread) named after a baker named Toni. (A more modern dessert is the zuccotto di panettone, a Christmas pudding made with a panettone.)

    zuccotto

    zuccotto di panettone

  2. Chestnuts and nuts–Chestnuts have a long tradition in Italy.
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    chestnuts

    They were once a staple of the poor and then a popular export. They are roasted and eaten plain or candied or used in other dishes.

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    roasting chestnuts

    Filberts/hazelnuts are also eaten at this time of year. Both chestnuts and hazelnuts were eaten by the Etruscans.

    hazelnuts

    hazelnuts

    As I said earlier, we always had bowls of mixed nuts, including chestnuts, around during the holidays with old-fashioned nutcrackers. Almonds have been cultivated in Puglia for 7,000 years.  Along with hazelnuts, they are used in the confections in #3.

  3. Confections and candyPanforte of Siena is a confection using spices, nuts, dried fruits and syrup to create a cake.
    panforte

    panforte

    It is similar to the pangiallo of Rome. Panforte dates back to the 12th century and derived from a honey and pepper bread named panpepato. Torrone is a nougat from Cremona with dried fruit and nuts.

    torrone

    torrone

    Italians love candied fruit like orange rind and sugared nuts as well.

    Candied citron

    Candied citron

    Candied citron is very popular in Italian desserts–not just at Christmas time but also at other times of the year. For example, citron is included in the Easter wheat pie, pastiera.

  4. Christmas cookies–Cookies are everyone’s favorite holiday food. And Italians take their baking very seriously. Both sides of my family always made strufoli/struffoli (also known as pignoccati) and fried bows. Struffoli are a Neapolitan treat–fried dough balls in honey syrup decorated with pine nuts, sprinkles or dried fruits like the picture below. These are a favorite of mine.
    strufoli, struffoli

    strufoli, struffoli

    Bows are another fried dough treat that cross many cultures. In Italy, they are made in many regions and have many names like chiacchiere, cenci, cartellate, galani, bugie, frappe, donzelli, crostoli, farfellate or “wandi,” which I think is guanti or gloves in Italian. Thinking about this more, I think it may be “vanti” because in Neapolitan dialect, we pronounce “v” like “w” and “t” sounds a bit like “d.” Vanti are boasts and since these cookies are also called “bugie,” or “lies,” I think they could be called boasts as well. These are a family favorite. They can be sprinkled with powdered sugar or honey syrup.

    bows

    bows

    In Puglia, there’s a variation called cartellate in a circular shape drizzled with a honey syrup or vincotto (cooked wine syrup). Anginetti cookies, also known as knot cookies, are a popular Italian cookie. My Aunt Angie made the best ones I’ve ever had. Anise cookies are made with anise flavor. Similar in taste to licorice, anise is a flavor that appears often in Italian foods.  Mostaccioli are diamond-shaped Neapolitan chocolate spice cookies. Tri-colored rainbow cookies are a favorite as well.  Sesame cookies are finger-shaped cookies coated with sesame seeds.

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    sesame cookies

    Cucidati/cuccidati are fig cookies from Sicily. These cookies, when made by hand, are labor intensive but great fun for the family.

    cuccidati

    cuccidati

    Pizzelles are originally from the Abruzzo region of Italy and most likely predate the Roman empire. Years ago, families had irons to create this waffled cookie, and the iron included a family crest or design.

    pizzelle

    pizzelle

    Pignoli cookies are popular Italian cookies made with pine nuts. I’ve also seen wine biscuits although my family didn’t make them. Many of these cookies like struffoli, bows, sesame cookies and pizzelles have their origins in ancient times.

  5. Liqueurs–Anisette is an anise-flavored liqueur that can be used as a digestive, by itself in a small glass or in coffee along with a dessert. Galliano is an herbal digestive (an acquired taste–not a favorite of mine).
  6. Feast of the Seven Fishes–As I’ve written on my blog before, we always had fish on Christmas Eve but never called it by this name. And there was no requirement of seven fishes. I think this may be from a different region of Italy from my family. The tradition of fish is a religious one, stemming from the Roman Catholic Church and abstaining from meat on certain holy days, Christmas Eve being one. The most popular fishes to eat include baccala (cod),
    baccala

    baccala

    calamari,

    calamari

    calamari

    and octopus.

    octopus

    octopus

    My grandfather made fried smelts, and my grandmother made eel. We also had baked clams.

    baked clams

    baked clams

     

Easter Lamb Cake

Easter Lamb Cake

Easter lamb cake, lamb cake

I always thought the Easter lamb cake, or cake shaped liked a lamb, was just a Polish and Eastern European Easter tradition.  Until I saw them in Sicilian bakeries in Brooklyn.  Then I thought they were also a Sicilian tradition.  In my twenties, I spent one Easter weekend with my friend Stephanie and her family in Brooklyn.  We colored eggs and her mom made delicious stuffed artichokes.  Her aunt made a lamb cake.  An Easter lamb cake was not a tradition on either side of my family.  However, recently, an older relative of mine told me that lamb cakes are a tradition in the Benevento area of Italy and that people in my family did make them.  So I tackled one this year.  I used this Renalde lamb cake from Midcentury Menu for the cake part, although I used regular flour and more baking powder.  For an Italian twist, you can add almond extract, or lemon or orange zest.  This recipe made enough for one lamb cake and a dozen cupcakes.  For the frosting, I used a marshmallow fluff frosting, but you can use any kind.  This is a really delicious cake and frosting!

Easter Lamb Cake

For the cake:

a cake pan shaped like a lamb (mine is Nordic Ware spring lamb 3-D cake mold)

kitchen string

toothpicks

1 cup butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, separated

1 cup milk

3 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla

almond extract (optional), lemon zest (optional) or orange zest (optional)

shortening

For the frosting:

2 cups confectioners’ sugar

2 cups butter

14 oz. marshmallow fluff

2 teaspoons vanilla

For decorating:

currants or raisins

pink jellybean

coconut

green food coloring

ribbon

Cream butter and sugar.  Add egg yolks one at a time, beating each time.  Add vanilla and almond extract or one of the zests.  Sift dry ingredients.  Add dry ingredients and milk, alternately.  With a mixer, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Fold egg whites into batter.

Grease both halves of the cake pan generously with shortening.  You want it to be greased well so the cake slips out easily.  Flour the pans.

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Fill the face side of the pan.  Put toothpicks in a T shape across the ears and down the middle of the neck for stability.  Push them down so they are in the batter.

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Put the other cake pan on top (the vent should be on top).  Place on a cookie sheet.  Using kitchen string, tie the mold in place.

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Bake in a 450 degree oven for 15 minutes.  Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for a half hour more.  Let it cool on a rack before trying to open it.

When it’s cool, take the top pan off.

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Use a butter knife and just lightly go around the edges to loosen it.  It should pop right out.  Use some of the frosting to create a base on your serving plate.

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Sit the lamb on top of it.  If there’s a little extra cake at the bottom seam, just slice it off so the bottom is even.

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To make the frosting, just mix everything in a mixer.  Frost the cake.  I used a piping bag.  When it comes to the neck, head and ears, I would frost gingerly here.  The weight of the frosting may make the neck/head tip over a bit.  Use currants or raisins for eyes and cut a pink jellybean in half for the nose.

In a bowl, mix coconut and green food coloring until it looks like grass.  Spread it around the lamb.  Tie a ribbon around the neck.  (This helps to stabilize it too.)

You can cook the cupcakes separately about 20-22 minutes in a 350 degree oven and frost.