Ada Boni’s Lemon Ricotta Cake, and the Meaning Behind It

Listening to: Mon Coeur s’Ouvre a ta Voix (Samson et Dalila) ~ Camille Saint-Saens

When I was in New York, there was a place I always went to for fresh ricotta about once a week.  I reached for that plastic tub, and I did for several reasons. Sure, I did because I knew that ricotta was locally made with organic milk, and I also did because pasta with basil, ricotta and peas has always been one of my staples (care for the recipe?).
But the main reason was another.
Whenever I reached for that tub, I could not help but think of what those snow-white curds meant for me. I did because, as I grabbed it and held it in my hand, which inevitably turned numb with the cold, clouds of images started forming in my head.
I snapped a mental photograph of my post-school afternoons, when for merenda my mom would spread a thick layer of fresh ricotta on a slice of white bread – the kind of fluffy, classic Italian baker’s bread I never liked but never had the courage to tell her, and sprinkle it with honey or sugar. I thought of the pool of the many things I never had the courage to tell her, as, though she never admitted it, she has the same tendency to snap at remarks as me: I never  told her how I never liked the shoes she picked for me, or how I once hid a door key that we both never found again in an attempt of vengeance for what I thought was an undeserved punishment.
But, even on that bread I did not like, ricotta and honey were a crown on a poor man’s head. It was my favorite merenda, and one of those many things that just tend to fade with adulthood, without a specific reason. It is like Bianca Pitzorno says in her book La Voce Segreta (The Secret Voice), in which Cora, the little girl protagonist, can talk to objects and small children with a secret voice that everyone said would disappear as she grew older.

Then my mind proceeded to paint the picture of my mom, sitting at her table as a kid, in those little dresses I always saw her wear in her black-and-white photos. She told me how, when they could have merenda, it was always that white bread from the baker downstairs, topped with the freshest ricotta from the countryside, where her grandmother still resided. A sprinkling of sugar topped it, and that was it. A merenda that bore the milky taste of her countryside heritage, mixed with the store-bought bread which so well represented their attempt to embrace the ever gentrifying town lifestyle. In their countryside home, the outdoors wood-fired oven built into the wall had been bricked up.
She took her slice and went and hid in the attic, where she hid a pile of books that the family preferred she did not read. She, too, had many things she did not have the courage to tell her mother.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

I thought of all the other things I could have used that ricotta for. I could have made pane e ricotta again, and sprinkled a touch of cinnamon on top, which I so learned to love after spending a fall in the States. Or I could have made a spiced sugar with rose petals and sweet spices, or maybe a honey bomb, to top it. I could have made a cake, or a filling for crespelle. Or maybe I could have eaten it as is, with honey and walnuts.
This whole, Orient Express-like train of thought lasted no more than a few seconds. It vanished as I put the ricotta in the basket, like when you wave smoke away with your hands.
Pasta with ricotta and peas it would be.

As I grabbed that tub again to pass it to the cashier register, I thought of what that same tub of ricotta could mean to other people. I wondered if there was something people thought as they grabbed that very same tub. And I though about what stations those trains of thoughts could stop at today, and where they could go in the future.

This meaning behind food is way too important to me, and the reason why I try my hardest at keeping this blog going in spite of the work overload I accepted for the year. I am just back from the event Cibo a Regola d’Arte organized by Corriere della Sera and Angela Frenda, where I was a finalist for their #CucinaBlogAward. I was so happy I had the chance to meet and listen to some of the most inspiring people ever, including the winners and other finalists (full list at the end of the post!). In particular, I loved a speech given by Andrea Berton and Antonio Santini about how their work as (Michelin starred) chefs is tied to their roots (more on this in another post, coming soon), and I was happy to meet Amanda Hesser, and hear her talk about her experience as a writer and entrepreneur.
I was most happy to exchange a word with Francesco Zonin – a man who stood out both for his stance and his quiet composure – head of a very large company of winemakers, which sponsored both these awards and the Saveur Awards. I asked him what he loved most about his job.
‘As wine dealers we always have to keep our feet both forward and back,’ he said. ‘We have to explore new trends for sure, but we can never forget who we were and what our ancestors did. The moment we lose track of our past, we’re lost.’
And we – writers, bloggers, photographers, and ultimately cooks – can all relate to that.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

{Thanks Signe Bay for the lovely portrait of me!}

Now mom makes her own whole wheat bread; she does because I taught her how to make it, and yet I never tried ricotta and honey on it. I like it better on its own. Maybe a properly dressed gentleman needs no extra accessory other than what he is already wearing perfectly.
or maybe I like the memory of the food more than the food itself. Maybe we all do, and maybe that is the point of a good part of food writing. Who can say.
But for sure, as long as we get those long trains of feelings going back and forth, we’re all good.

The photos from this post were shot when Signe Bay came and visited me in Gradara, all the way from Denmark. I also shot some of these photos when Monika came for a workshop with me all the way from Hong Kong. And this is the part of blogging that is most incredible to me: the power of people coming together, (almost) never as rivals but as the newfound companions we always wished we met, who understand us and can relate to our lives, fears, and joys. I met the most important people of my life through blogging and I know there are many more to come.
I feel like I can never be thankful enough.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

For this recipe, I went back – way back – and decided to tackle an old recipe from Ada Boni’s book, Il Talismano della Felicitá, and brought it forth with a few twists. It has that flavor from ancient recipes, so familiar to my Italian palate: it is not very sweet, and almost of a flan-like consistency, spiked with candied citrus, which was so common in the olden days. I added a little more flour, as I found it a little too flan-like, and used a sugar I made out of brown sugar, cinnamon, and dried rose petals that Saghar gifted me from Iran, as well as tons of lemon.
I baked it in a crown-shaped mold, though I suggest you bake it in a springform pan, as it really tends to stick and is quite soft, plus it tends to fall. It is an absolutely delicious cake, and if you like the kind of dense baked goods, then this cake is totally for you.
Could you not expect deliciousness from a book that is called The Talisman of Happiness, after all?

And what about you? What is it that comes to mind when you grab a tub of ricotta?

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake
 
makes a 10-inch / 26cm round cake
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
FOR THE CINNAMON ROSE SUGAR
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cinnamon
  • about ¼ cup dried rose buds, crumbled
FOR THE CAKE
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons Cinnamon Rose Sugar
  • 2 to 4 heaping tablespoons runny honey
  • 500g creamy ricotta
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
  • The grated zest from 2 organic lemons
  • 2 tablespoons liquor like rum or limoncello (I used pistachio liquor)
  • Extra: lemon or orange blossom essence
  • 30g potato or corn starch
  • 50g whole wheat flour (or brown rice flour for a gluten-free version)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • A large handful candied lemon peel, chopped and lightly floured
  • A large handful candied orange peel, chopped, or soaked raisins, squeezed and lightly floured
  • Finely chopped toasted pistachios, for serving
Instructions
MAKE THE CINNAMON ROSE SUGAR
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a powerful blender or a spice grinder, and process for a few seconds at maximum speed, until you obtain a fine powder. I did this with my Vitamix.
  2. Store in an airtight container or jar.
MAKE THE CAKE
  1. If your ricotta is a little watery, set it in a strainer lined with a paper napkin and leave in the fridge to drip for a few hours, or overnight. If it seems to not release any water, it is good to go. Choose high quality, organic, full-fat ricotta.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 C˚ / 355 F˚, and grease and flour well the springform pan or silicone mold where you will be baking the cake.
  3. Separate the egg whites and yolks into two large bowls, and set the egg whites aside.
  4. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and honey until pale and frothy.
  5. Add the ricotta, pushing it through a sieve with a wooden spoon or with a spatula. Beat it in until fully blended, along with the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, the lemon zest and the liquor (and the lemon or orange blossom essence if using). Cut the empty vanilla bean in half crosswise and add it to the jar/container with the cinnamon sugar, and just leave it there so it will infuse the sugar with its scent.
  6. Sift in the flour, starch, baking soda and salt, and mix them well. Add the candied lemon and orange peels and stir them in until well distributed.
  7. Beat the egg whites until stiff, and fold them delicately into the ricotta mixture with a circular downward and upward motion, until fully incorporated.
  8. Pour the batter into the mold, scraping it with a spatula and leveling the surface.
  9. Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven. The surface of the cake will turn quite brown and the inside will remain moist but, when pierced with a toothpick, the toothpick should still come out clean.
  10. Let cool completely before unmolding.
  11. When cool and unmolded, dust generously with extra rose cinnamon sugar and chopped pistachios. The cake is not very sweet, so feel free to dust extra sugar and pistachios on individual slices as well.
  12. The cake keeps very well outside the fridge, or refrigerated is the temperature is very warm, for several days. It also makes a nice breakfast, snack or light dessert served with yogurt or cream and berries, or extra pistachios and honey.

 

By the way, Cora from The Secret Voice ended up never losing it. And, according to the author, she never did because she kept telling stories and believing everything was possible all her life. Which is kind of what every writer should do. Can you write stories you do not believe in?
I think not.
This is ours, and here are all the people who keep writing it:

BEST PASTRY
Fotogrammi di zucchero (WINNER)
L’ultima fetta
My name is Yeh

BEST WINE & SPIRITS
Two for the bar (WINNER)
Punch
Do Bianchi

BEST PHOTOGRAPHY & INSTAGRAM
What should I eat for breakfast today (WINNER)
Betty Liu
Il gambero russo

BEST WRITING
Con le mani in pasta (WINNER)
Miss Foodwise
Jul’s Kitchen

BEST SOCIAL
Gnambox (WINNER)
Valdirose
Lab Noon

BEST HEALTHY
Naturalmente buono (WINNER)
Kraut Kopf
Hortus (myself!)

And finally MISS FOOD WISE / Regula Ysewin won BEST BLOG! So well deserved!

 

Winter Vegetables Smoky, Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside

Listening: Antonin Dvorak, Romance for Piano and Violin Op. 11

After 26 winters, I am finally starting to see how charming the light is in January and February.
Here in the countryside, sunny winters are blessed with a warm light that is pink and beautiful, and the ice glistening on the grass against that light gleams and glitters like the wings of a faery. Every sunset looks like descending divinity amongst the bare branches of the trees, on which, if you look close, you can see the new buds, and I see spring in them as if I were dreaming a dream the moment before waking.
How could I fail to see winter’s beauty up until now?
Now, my personal hour of freedom away from the craziness of work and news are walks in the countryside, bathed in the beautiful pink light of winter. No music, no phone: it is just me, here and now. It is the closest I could ever get to meditation.
And I think ok those who walked these lands before me.
My great grandfather, who was an illiterate man but lived in sync with all natural phenomena, lived in sync with the light – be it of the sun or the moon: They knew that garlic, carrots and roots should be planted during the new moon, while lettuces and greens shall grow better on a crescent moon. I am more and more drawn towards this sync with the Earth, and recognize how blessed I am. 

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
I realized that, as I walk, I remember this knowledge that was passed down to me – along with pasta making and many other things – and take mental note of where all the edible herbs and greens are, so I’ll be able to come back and forage them when the time is ripe. Each kind leaves hints around them: burnt stems, or browned leaves, or even flowers. Without even thinking, I learned to recognize each root, leaf, petal and seed.
Many of the various edible herbs and greens – I could name at least 20 I could harvest during my walks – are, incredibly, all flowering right now. According to the rhythms of nature, no green should be eaten while flowering – always before. The pretty white flowers you see in the photos belong to a plant called sheperd’s purse, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. many of their names I just managed to figure out by research, as I learned to know them following my mom’s wise eyes. But I can now identify those tasty greens: Barbarea Vulgaris, Malva Sylvestris, Chichorium Inthybus, Papaver Rhoea, Picris Echoides, Portulaca Oleracea, Sonchus Asper, Taraxacum Officinale, Urtica Dioica, Calamintha Nepeta, Mentha Suaveolens, and many more. I find myself calling out their beautiful names as I see them, remembering their name in dialect, never sure what their name in Italian is, save for some. Their names express their properties: when a plant is called officinalis, it means it was used in medicine. Suaveolens means it is sweet-smelling. On the contrary, graveolens means strong-smelling. I love to let my imagination revel in those names and think of all the possible recipes that could come out of them.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This pretty flower here is a wild green that is called Sheperd’s bag, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. It is a delicious wild greens I usually forage to cook with other greens to use as a filling for piadina or ravioli. But, as it is flowering, I will need to wait until the spring to forage it.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
Those greens are in sync with the light, too. And I am learning to be, as well, almost without thinking. The light, here in Romagna, is the color of our produce: the fruits like peaches, strawberries, plums, and the abundance of greens are all the result of our light, which hits us first from the East. How different is the light in other parts of Italy!
All farmers and winemakers say it: the secret is in the light

Still, it is no time for those wild greens now. For those, I will come back after the rains, and I will remember where they flowered and collect their new spawn. The light now – or lack thereof – tells me it is time for all those vegetables that grow under the earth, and it is time for the darkest of leaves – kale in all of its forms: purple, curly, lacinato. Grandmas in Tuscany, where kale is one of the most common vegetables, say that it is at its best after the frost. I love the meaty, licorice-y, intense, soft cooked winter vegetables, probably more than I love summer vegetables. I embrace all the foul smell of cruciferous vegetables as they cook, and I delight in the pale, almost timid hues of greens, whites and purples of beets, romanescos and apples. I love the warmth of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and pungent flavors smoke and cheese molds: all additions that smell like a fireplace, and are equally warm and cozy.
This recipe was born from the love of those flavors, and from the inspiration that light bestowed upon me and after my daily walk of meditation.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This breakfast bake is quick, easy to make, and a really good way to wake up in the morning. I started making it when I realized how much better my body works if I stick to savory breakfasts, and it has become a staple for me – even without cheese. Sometimes I sub pumpkin for celeriac, following exactly the same process. In this case, I do not use cardoons and add more pumpkin (just substitute the 3.5 oz cardoons with the same weight in pumpkin). Because it is something I like to have for breakfast, I want there to be fat and protein, but I do not want to overdo it with the fat – hence the egg whites and the relatively small amount of cheese. Adjust the cheese to taste – 1/4 cup is really very little cheese, so go ahead and use at least 1/2 cup if you want more of a full bodied dish.

VARIATIONS
My favorite version of this casserole always has something smoky, and I always make it differently: Last time I made this, I did not use the cardoons and cheese, but added some smoky diced speck to the initial stir-fry (so it ended up being speck, celeriac and kale). Another time I made it with Pumpkin, chestnut flour and smoked scamorza. You could use blue cheese instead of the scamorza, or any cheese you can easily find. You could use sweet potatoes or boiled romanesco or boiled broccoli instead of the celeriac. Or whatever you fancy. I know it will be delicious anyways!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole
 
Serves 4
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter (or coconut oil, or more olive oil)
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 200 g kale (7 oz - a small bunch) (lacinato or curly), chopped
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) cardoons, trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 300 g (10.5 oz - about half a small one) Celeriac, peeled and cubed
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons chickpea or buckwheat or regular flour
  • ¼ cup to ½ cup smoked scamorza (or other smoked cheese), grated
  • Parmigiano to top
Instructions
  1. Add the fats to a large pan, and add the onion. Stir-fry until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the cardoons and sauté for a couple minutes, then add the kale and cook until wilted, about 2 more minutes. Finally, add the cubed celeriac along with a scant ½ cup water. Add salt (about a scant teaspoon), a pinch of pepper, and the nutmeg. Cover, and let cook until the celeriac easily gives in to the pressure about 25 minutes, adding water if the vegetables stick. When done, uncover and let all the water evaporate. Turn off the heat and keep covered.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 200 C˚
  4. Separate the egg white from the yolk, and add the egg white to a large bowl along with the other whites. Add the yolk into a large bowl that will eventually contain all the ingredients, and mix it with the flour. Add the cooked vegetables and the cheese, and stir to coat (there will be a large amount of vegetables compared to the yolk and flour). Whip the whites until nice and stiff, adding a pinch of salt, and fold them into the vegetables.
  5. Line a baking dish with baking paper and pour the mix into it. Cover with a nice grating of parmigiano and, if you fancy, add slivered almonds or breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil. Bake until the top is golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. It is best served hot, but it is also delicious cold. It reheats wonderfully in the oven. You can also portion it and freeze it, then reheat it straight in the oven in the morning.

NOTE: If you’re interested in adhering to #immigrantfoodstories, an initiative to share recipes from countries tortured by war, or from any kind of American immigrant, the date to publish seems to be February 7th. Wether you post sooner or later (or at all), It will be a nice collection of recipes!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom ‘Lenticchiotto’

I have always lived right on this border between Marche and Romagna, twi places so different you could barely believe they are neighbors. As a result, Gradara is a cultural limbo which dialect and lifestyle is clearly romagnolo, but with an accent that has a slightly different edge. It is far from the Marche Apennines, and far from the Padan plain that from Romagna fades into Emilia. Our culture, near yet far from everything, seems to reside within us like sheep within a fence.

But how far are we from the heart of Marche, really?

Sometimes, I think it is a matter of seasons.

Romagna is the halcyon of carefree summers; the shores of its beaches filling up with tourists who hold cones of piadina stuffed with grilled seafood, line up at trattorie to eat passatelli and rustída, and assemble tables outdoors to celebrate the good weather with Sangiovese wine.

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingMarche, Italy by Paolo Vecchiotti

(Photo by Paolo Vecchiotti)

Marche shines during the fall, when its lush forests and tall mountains turn every shade of red, from burgundy to orange-ish, and its ground is scoured by hunting dogs at the search for truffles and porcini mushrooms. It is a majestic, melancholic scenery – a much less festive, more meditative one than that of Romagna. It is a scenery that sits beautifully in its own silence, like a hermit atop his mountain.  

Marche were so different from Romagna and its festive noise. Marche are the kid sitting at the far end of the classroom, the one with thick glasses, considered by few but who is the smartest of the group. Marche are the beautiful, shy girl sitting at the edge of the dance floor, confident she does not really need a knight – a confidence that scares away all the boys but makes them all the more attractive.

In their dim silence, Marche disclose the wildest beauty for those who open their eyes and see through them. The grandness of its mountains is difficult to capture with a camera: the only way to really experience it is be in the midst of them.

I loved repeating the romantic names of their medieval towns to myself: Amandola. Cupra Montana. Castelsantangelo sul Nera. Arquata del Tronto. Names that are long and subtly elegant, as if they belonged to royalty. 

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural Cooking

I have always felt like a welcome visitor in this land, with my strong Romagna accent that always immediately gave away my alien origin. The years I spent as a student in Urbino, where my mom’s family came from – when on the other hand, funnily enough, my father came from Cesena, the heart of Romagna –  made it feel like a second  home. Its proximity made it a frequent protagonist of my many Sunday trips.

In the dancing ruckus that are Romagna and its people, I turn my eyes to Marche when my spirit needs some quietness. 

The Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingThe Trembling Heart of Marche, and a Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto' | Hortus Natural CookingMarche, Italy by Paolo Vecchiotti

(Photo by Paolo Vecchiotti)

This post was born as a collaboration with Amío Pulses. I am grateful of how I was reminded of the importance of the humblest of foods – foods that have been called ‘the poor man’s meat’ for their nutritional content and that never failed to satisfy a single man or woman throughout this country’s history.  The ingredients in these recipes are all deeply rooted in the gastronomy of Marche: porcini, lentils and truffle are the halberd of the region’s fall cooking. 

We might not know where we belong, or not feel fully Marchigiani. We might speak Romagna dialect and eat ciambellone instead of ciambelle al mosto. We might be on or beyond the borders.

But give us a bowl of legumes, and we will know we are never quite too far from the heart of Marche. 

Baked Mushroom 'Lenticchiotto'
 
Serves 4
Author:
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
  • 10g dried porcini
  • 4 tbsps olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
  • 1 small shallot, finely chopped
  • ½ small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 lb / 450g mixed 'western' mushrooms (button, cremini, porcini), cleaned
  • Salt & pepper
  • 100g lentils
  • 100g risotto rice (brown or white)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Vegetable stock
  • 50 to 80 g grated Parmigiano or Grana or Pecorino cheese
  • A handful roasted chestnuts, optional
  • 1 to 3 Teaspoons truffle paste, optional
Instructions
  1. Soak the dried porcini in boiling hot water for 5 to 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the shallot and onion. Let the onion turn gold, about 10 minutes.
  3. Dice the mushrooms and add to the onion. Squeeze the porcini from their water, mince them, and add them to the pot - keep their water. Sauté for 5 minutes, and a good sprinkling of add salt and pepper. Stir and add the filtered porcini water along with some veggie stock, so that you have ½ cup liquid. Let the lentils cook until you cover the difference with the rice cooking time (lentils should take 30 minutes, rice should take 20). Once ready, stir in the rice, making sure there is not too much liquid in the pot when you do. Stir for a minute.
  4. Add the bay leaf, and add enough stock to cover everything. Cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Uncover and simmer until most of the stick has been absorbed, 10 more minutes. Stir every now and then. If the lenticchiotto dries up too much, add more liquid.
  5. It will be ready when both the rice and the lentils will be soft and will have turned creamy.
  6. Stir in half the cheese, and the truffle paste if using. Check for salt and pepper. Add the remaining cheese evenly on top, and broil until gold and bubbly.
  7. Garnish with roasted chestnuts if you like.

Read Zaira’s post with Amío pulses (Corona Beans Cupcakes)
Read Giulia’s post with Amío pulses (Chickpea Butternut Soup)
AMIO lentils | Hortus Natural Cooking

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears ‘Belle Hélene’, and an Australia Workshop Announcement!

THIS POST IS TO ANNOUNCE OUR AUSTRALIA WORKSHOP – April 28th ~ April 30th!
See Zaira’s Post

See Anisa’s Post

For all info, visit Anisa’s link above and / or scroll down to the bottom! of this post!

————————————————————————————————–

An Italian, an Australian and a French walk into a bar.
Then they start throwing their favorite national desserts at each other and the whole thing pretty much turns into a joke.
This intro is only needed to explain how I recycled a kitchen fail into something somewhat pretty and definitely delicious (even though way too sugary for one’s own sake). The goal was to make an Australian recipe to announce our Australia workshop (!!!) but things did not exactly pan out for me.

I am not unfamiliar with making a mess in the kitchen, but my ability to adapt and pull situations from the clutches of disaster has made me a pro at saving culinary fails and turn them into something edible.

Are you at all familiar with the concept of ‘Kintsugi‘?
Kintsugi is a Japanese technique used in pottery. Back in the olden days, when previous pottery from master artisans were transported from one place to another, despite all the care they put in wrapping and packaging them, they would inevitably end their journey in broken pieces. Those pieces were worth a fortune, and not only for the value of the materials: Though nothing more than a mix of clay, water and enamels, each art is the outpour of an artist’s soul, and breakage meant a piece of that soul gone to pieces.
So, instead of tossing the broken parts, they would put them back together with something that would make them endlessly more precious: a ‘glue’ of pure molten gold.
The end result is not only a beautiful piece of art, but a beautiful piece of philosophy as well: being broken makes items and people alike more beautiful when we find a way to put ourselves back together with the right ‘glue’.

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!

This philosophy was absolutely life changing for me, to the point that no matter what goes wrong in my life, I tell myself the importance of finding ways to seeking purpose in everything independently of the way it unfolds. But because I’m a pro at failing in the kitchen and especially at breaking glasses and bowls (sorry Weck, I literally broke half the stuff you sent me), I love to apply this very idea of Kintsugi to the kitchen as well.
In this case, I think that the best ‘glue’ to put together kitchen disasters is just plain ol’ good enthusiasm. Why waste a single moment being upset at what did not turn out the way you wanted it to, when you can use your time and energy trying to make it good in some other way?
And this is how this dessert came to be.

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!

The challenge with myself was to make merengue for pavlova, as multiple people told me how difficult it was to make. Because I am usually eager to accept challenges that involve strict culinary rules (Like the time I stubbornly wanted to make perfect soufflés and eventually managed) I couldn’t say no to this. The truth is that I HATE merengue. I HATE sugar, so merengue is definitely not in my idea of good things. Actually, I don’t eat most of the sweets you see on this blog, but I love making and photographing them.
Because I wanted to do something Australian to celebrate our workshop announcement with Zaira and Anisa, how could I not take the chance to combine Pavlova, one of Australia’s most famous desserts, with a challenge I wanted to take for the longest time? I already pictured in my head the image of this beautiful, tall, fluffy merengue cake with pointy peaks and caramelized edges.

Lol, NOPE.

For starters, it took me three tries and almost a pound of sugar to figure out that store bought egg whites just wouldn’t do the trick. Even though I have the luxury of having my own eggs here in the countryside, I did not want to have their spare yolks, as I wasn’t sure what to do with it and did not want to toss them. Big mistake. The merengue just wouldn’t set and stayed the consistency of soft marshmallow instead of forming peaks. Then I finally decided to try it out with two eggs from my hens, and meringue magically happened. But two eggs were not enough to make pavlova, so I just heaped it in two mounds and baked them that way. Result: perfect, but not pretty.
I decided to bake the ‘bad’ merengue as well, which turned out perfectly crispy and dry, even though it looked like random splotches on the baking sheet.

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!

 

But this is the story of how a challenge to myself turned awry and was promptly salvaged via some proper Italian ingenuity, so I remembered Nigella Lawson making Eton Mess and salivating over it and I decided to turn my ugly meringues into that. Because both Zaira and Anisa used mascarpone and chocolate in their awesome posts, I wanted to keep following their thread and found a way to work it into the recipe.

Even though Spring has not been generous with its produce this year, the impending fall / late summer weather has blessed us with more figs and heirloom pears that we can handle. The pears from our three tiny trees are the most plump, crisp and delicious I have ever tasted, so I decided to poach them and make them ‘Belle Heléne’ style, a simple French recipe that involves pears poached in syrup, drizzled with chocolate, and served with cream, sabayon or ice cream.

And, while you savor the recipe in your mind, seep in some of the fairytale-ish light that my Italian countryside is bestowing upon us these days.
With a landscape like this, what matters if some merengues do not turn out as they should?
If all fails, we’ll just sit outside with a glass of wine.

And speaking of, read after the recipe the full program for our workshop!!

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene'
 
Serves 4
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Ingredients
FOR THE MERENGUE
  • 2 very fresh egg whites
  • 100 to 130 g granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon corn or potato starch
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice
FOR THE PEARS
  • 4 small pears
  • 50 g brown Muscovado sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
  • Half a vanilla pod, split
  • A 1-inch piece of cinnamon
  • Extra spices: 2 star anise, 3 crushed green cardamom pods
  • 2 cups / 500 ml water
FOR THE CHOCOLATE SAUCE
  • 5-6 squares quality extra dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons leftover pear poaching syrup
FOR THE ASSEMBLY & FINISH
  • 1 cup / 250 ml heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup Mascarpone cheese
  • The 2 yolks leftover from the merengue
  • Crushed pistachios
  • Cocoa powder
Instructions
MAKE THE MERENGUE
  1. Preheat the oven to 120 C˚ / 250 F˚.
  2. To make the merengue, make sure you have all the ingredients ready and that your egg whites are at room temperature.
  3. Start beating the whites for a minute, or until they turn frothy. From there, add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Continue until the merengue forms stiff peaks - you might not need all the sugar, but the more you add, the more stable it will be.
  4. Add tablespoonfuls of merengue to a baking sheet lined with baking paper, and bake until fully dry, about an hour to one hour and a half. Let them cool completely in the oven.
  5. I found that they crisped up perfectly after I let them rest for a whole day.
MAKE THE PEARS
  1. Peel the pears, cut them in half, and core them. Keep four halves whole and slice the rest.
  2. In a pot, bring the water to a boil and add the sugar and spices. Let the sugar dissolve, and add the pears. Poach for 3 to 5 minutes, then remove. Keep the liquid boiling until reduced by at least half.
MAKE THE CHOCOLATE SAUCE
  1. Add all the ingredients to a small pot and melt, or melt in the microwave by heating for 5-10 seconds and stirring, and repeating if necessary.
ASSEMBLE & SERVE
  1. While you can prepare all of the above a day in advance, assemble everything last minute.
  2. In a bowl, whip the egg yolks with the mascarpone until fluffy, about 2 minutes. In another bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Fold the cream into the mascarpone.
  3. *If you do not want to use the raw egg yolks, just forgo them and whip the mascarpone before adding i the whipped cream.*
  4. Prepare 4 glasses and crumble some of the merengue on each, and some in the mascarpone cream, folding it in delicately. Layer some pear slices in each glass. Divide the mascarpone cream among the glasses, top each with half a poached pear, dust with cocoa powder and drizzle with chocolate sauce. You can chill this for an hour, or serve straight away.

Overview
A 2 and a half day chiaroscuro food photography, styling and cooking retreat held in Berry, NSW. Please go to this link for more information and to purchase tickets.

Retreat Teachers
Zaira Zarotti
Valentina Solfrini
Host: Anisa Sabet

Location
The retreat is set at Bundarra Farm, a beautiful homestead nestled into the delightful village of Berry. The homestead is a beautiful large house with a communal kitchen and dining area where most of our classes will be held. The grounds are beautiful and we will have lots of opportunities (weather permitting) for outdoor dining. Berry is located approx. 2 hours from Sydney and Canberra.

Who Can Attend
This workshop is for beginner – intermediate photographers. If you’ve never picked up a camera, we will be going through camera settings and photography basics.
This retreat is perfect for those interested in food photography and who want to meet like-minded creatives. There are only 12 places available.

Date
April 28 – 30 2017

Accommodation
Accommodation included is for April 28 and 29 2017, is on site, and is single beds or bunks in shared rooms. Accommodation is nice, immaculately clean but basic.

About
Join us for an intimate chiaroscuro food photography, styling and cooking retreat set in the picturesque and rustic Australian bush. We will cook, we will feast, we will laugh and learn.
Workshop sessions will be taught by photography creatives, Zaira Zarotti of A Freaky Table and Valentina Hortus of Hortus Cuisine. Both have mastered the beautiful art of story telling and moody photography.

Retreat highlights include

Photography basics | We will go through basic camera settings, how to approach lighting, colours, compositions, angles and lenses.
Styling process | Together, we will learn how to create beautifully styled food stories. Zaira and Valentina will demonstrate how to create a scene by going through the thought process, set up, examining natural light, crafting an environment, choosing props, managing time, and choosing angles.
Chiaroscuro | We will learn how to create this dark and moody type of photography with ingredients and using florals to make beautiful still scenes.
Cake making class | We will bake a special cake together, which we will then decorate, style and photograph.
Forage walk | We will (weather permitting) lead a participatory guided foraging walk around the grounds to show you how to find various plants and florals that would be suitable for use in photography styling.
Lightroom demonstration & preset building | We will sit down to a collective lightroom editing session, where we’ll talk about post-processing and how to develop your own preset to get the look you want consistently.
Business and Marketing | We will talk about the business side of blogging which is as important as the creative side. We will discuss blogging, sponsorship, marketing, social media and how to develop a consistent brand.
Special barnyard dinner | You will be treated to a special barnyard dinner under the stars. We will share a meal, sample local wine and share stories.
Autumn cocktail class | In a special masterclass, you will learn about autumn cocktails, which alcohols work best and which fruits and flavours to pair with them.
Feasting | The best part of the retreat – the feasting! Together we will cook and eat local produce, sample regional delicacies and get to know one another.

Program

Friday 28 April

Welcome and housekeeping
Autumn cocktail class
Session 1 – Photography Basics
Session 2 – Styling and photography – cocktails and fruit
Long table dinner

Saturday 29 April

Breakfast
Session 3 – Cake making, styling and photography – ingredients
Picnic lunch and foraging walk
Session 4 – Chiaroscuro styling and photography – cake and florals
Afternoon tea
Session 5 – Editing and preset building
Barnyard dinner

 Sunday 30 April

Breakfast
Session 6 – Business, marketing and social media
Farewell morning tea

(*Note this programme is subject to change.)

Attendees

There are only 12 tickets for this workshop available. Be sure to get in quick to avoid missing out on this once in a lifetime retreat.

Inclusions

Two nights shared accommodation on site
Beautiful cottage farmhouse location for the retreat period
All lessons and discussions
Welcome snacks and drinks
Two cooking sessions (cake making and fresh egg pasta)
Two Dinners
One picnic lunch
Two breakfasts
Two morning teas
One afternoon tea
Carefully curated set of gifts
Snacks during the retreat
Some wine/cocktails with meals

Not included

Transport to and from Berry
Extra alcohol

Schedule
The workshop commences 12pm Friday 28 April and finishes 12pm Sunday 30 April. Please contactanisa@themacadames.com for more details.

 Cost
The all-inclusive cost for the retreat is AUD $1500. This includes 2-nights shared-room accommodation in Berry for April 28 and 29 2017| AUD$500 deposit will be required on booking to hold your place, the balance will be invoiced two months before the workshop.  Please go to this link for more information and to purchase tickets.

Pavlova Mess with Mascarpone & Pears 'Belle Hélene', and an Australia Workshop Announcement!

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to the other with no loss of enthusiasm.”
~ Winston Churchill


When I was in art school, I used to be amongst those regarded as the most gifted. But I was 
always scared of getting my drawings wrong, never daring to fill in that extra shadow, thinking constantly ‘what if I ruin it?’
So, in spite of being amongst the first, I ended up lagging behind the rest of those who knew that done was better than perfect. I was an eternal Leonardo Da vinci, always stepping back to admire my unfinished work, lest a sign more on the paper could ruin it.
On graduation day, my teacher looked at me with longing eyes and said:
“Valentina, you were a great student. But you only gave me 15 percent of what you could have.”
That was my wake up call.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

These days, Christiann Koepke and I are hosting our very first online workshop. Those who sign up all have their own struggles – truth is, no matter the level, we all do, but it always baffles me how keen every one of the attendees is to underline their challenges and difficulties, how bad and ashamed they are of the very fact that they are beginners – as to justify the lack of an ability that they can barely see in a distant horizon, but that they feel they should possess already.
But, when we become so scared to face their difficulties to the point of almost giving up, I see my art-school-time self again. I see the artist stepping back to admire their own work without going further. 

So why, why do we not improve?
Because we are afraid to fail.

As kids, we are not scared of running around and falling. And we are not because we’re not aware of the risk. Our goals shine too bright, blinding our perception of struggle.

So if you know the fall isn’t going kill us, what do we have to lose? What do we fear? What if we fail?
In the creative process, failure is needed for improvement. Failure is paramount for improvement. Failure teaches you something. In fact, every time you complain your time was wasted over pictures that did not turn outright, well, that is actually time invested. It is time invested for your own improvement, to make you understand where you went wrong and where you can do better the next time.

In the creative process, the biggest waste of time is time you used for fearing you’ll do something wrong, as doing nothing gives you nothing in return for your future – whereas failure does.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

Only now I realize how necessary those fears and failures were for my improvement. And the fact that I’ve been chosen as a teacher gives me the responsibility to teach exactly what my teacher taught me back then: that there is only so much I can teach. 90% of what we learn we learn on your own, through trial and error.

Ultimately, we can decide to give up. But deciding to give up is our responsibility, as is our responsibility to decide to push through and see where our real limits are. It is our responsibility to accept that we are not perfect, but constantly changing and constantly responsible for our own improvement.

So do go out there. Do your thing, fail and inspire the world. Be that kid who scratches his knees because it does not recognize the pain of the fall. Be that kid and play with your challenges, replacing fear with excitement.
There is a genius within you waiting to be unleashed. Let it out, and don’t be scared.
The best things you’ll learn, you’ll learn by tinkering with your failures. 

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

When I decided that it was time to stop fearing that I might not be good enough, that chances were that a whole afternoon of work could go down the drain, and another one after that, and another; and when i decided to just embrace all the frustration and see failure as an investment for my improvement, this blog was born. And it was the best decision ever.
I still remember my first photos, with my 550D and a 50mm 1.8 bought at B&H. I still remember the name tag on the vest of the short, chubby guy who wrapped that lens I was so excited about, which read ‘Salomon’. I remember how, in a moment when I thought that my photos were a little too fancy or dark for blogging, I won the Saveur award for best new voice in 2014. And now we are at it again.
I am a finalist for this year’s Saveur awards in the photography category!
So if you like my work, and are curious to see how it will develop and want to support me, head over to the Saveur site and cast a vote here (and head over to Betty’s blog to read about some pasta we made together, and how we got the email for the nominations at the same time!)

SO of course, some cake baking was in order.
This is my very first cake, so, just to remain on topic, there was a lot of failure involved. First, I trie to make it vegan and gluten-free. Didn’t work. Then I tried to see if I could keep it vegan. Didn’t work (even though Gena Hamshaw’s recipe for chocolate vegan cake is an absolute killer and so so good), so I just decided to do he classic thing the old fashioned way. It’s cake, after all. Some things are just meant to stay they way they are. At least, until I improve enough at this vegan/GF baking thing.

The frosting is made with merengue, because I hate buttercream with a passion and whipped cream would not have held its shape long enough to withstand the shooting. But, if you do not want to use just plain meringue, I suggest using whipped cream or whipped coconut cream.
Figs are in season and so, so pretty, and the jam is so good with chocolate cake.
A special shoutout goes to Style Sweet Ca. and Historias del Ciervos (a fellow finalist!), who definitely provided tons of inspiration and are crazy good at cakes.
And a big shoutout to Zaira, who is the best photographer I know even though she’s not in the list. Hopefully the next cake will be even better!

Thank you all for believing in me so far. I would have never done it with your support – every single one of you who stumbled on my photographs has been an absolute blessing.
Onward!

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There
 
Makes a 2 layer 18 cm / 7" cake
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Ingredients
FOR THE CAKE
  • 5 eggs
  • 150g sugar
  • 80g butter, softened and cut into pieces
  • 150g cake flour
  • 70g potato starch
  • 30g cocoa powder (I used Dutch-processed)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons rum (or milk)
  • 50g dark chocolate, melted
FOR THE MERINGUE
  • 4 organic, pasteurized egg whites
  • 200g powdered sugar
  • (NOTE: if you do not want to use meringue, use 1 cup whipped cream instead)
FOR THE FILLING & ASSEMBLY
  • 250g mascarpone cheese
  • 1 cup fig jam
  • 7-8 fresh figs
Instructions
MAKE THE CAKE
  1. To make the cake base, start by separating the yolks from the whites. Add the whites to a glass or steel bowl and set aside, and add the yolks to a large bowl. Add the sugar, and start beating them until pale and frothy. Beat in the butter until creamy.
  2. Sift in the flour, starch, and cocoa powder, folding them in with a spatula. Add the baking powder and rum or milk, along with the melted chocolate. mix everything well.
  3. Lastly, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, and fold them into the batter with a downward-upward circling motion.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 180 C˚.
  5. Grease and flour two 7 inch springform pans, and divide the batter among them evenly. Bake for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to 340 F˚ / 170 C˚. Bake for further 40 - 45 minutes, depending on your oven. Check the cake with a skewer to make sure it is cooked through. Let cool completely, then very carefully cut each cake in half.
  6. The cakes will probably dome. In that case, cut the dome off.
MAKE THE MERINGUE
  1. Beat the egg whites until fluffy, then start adding the sugar a heaping tablespoonful at a time, until the merengue turns glossy and forms stiff peaks that fold onto themselves.
FILLING & ASSEMBLY
  1. Tip the mascarpone into a bowl, add half the merengue, and beat them together with a whisk until creamy. Set the rest of the meringue in the fridge for frosting later. Slice 4 of the figs lengthwise.
  2. Position the bottom cut half of the cake on a plate, and spread two heaping tablespoonfuls of jam to cover the bottom, leaving about ¼ inch from the edge. Add ⅓ of the mascarpone cream and spread it the same way, then add some fig slices. Top with the top half, and repeat until you finish all the layers.
  3. Ice the cake with the remaining merengue, using a spatula (I decided to keep it rustic). Decorate the cake with the remaining figs and some pretty flowers.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking