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

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche

When I was in New York, I met many unbelievably interesting people, but one in particular has struck me. His name is Sam, and one (or several) particular thing he said, paired with the fact that we share a somewhat similar backstory, triggered these thoughts that I eventually funneled into these scribbles, which I offer here as they are – very random and unabridged.
So this was born as a letter to Sam, but it might very well be a letter to myself. I’ll just read this again whenever I feel like stuff is about to hit the fan – it always helps.

(Also it is the last day to nominate for the Saveur awards! if you like my work, nominate me in the Photography category here.)

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung

Have you ever fallen in love with yourself?
Sometimes, I feel like I’m elbowing and shouldering my way through the process – like getting into a metro train at peak hour, when only those who shove people with fierce decisiveness will eventually get in.
Getting into our own hearts – getting us to go on a serious date with ourselves, is like getting into the 1-2-3 trains on a New York Monday at 6 PM.
When this happens, I feel like I could be a salmon, stubbornly swimming upstream against the currents. Such is the path of those who learn to love themselves before they can love anyone else again: a strenuous, yet refreshing upward race that brings you further from the sea, but ever closer to the source.

Yet, how tempted we are to give up courting ourselves, and be carried away by the currents.
When I feel that the source is beyond a horizon we keep running to, its end impossible to perceive, like in those dreams when you run and never seem to go anywhere, I raise my eyes to the stars.
And I feel like we are bundled up universes of our own; our frustrations being born from the fact that we can only implode and be sucked into our own negativity like dying stars – hardly can we ever explode and express ourselves. And we all know what a struggle it is when the patchwork of the pieces of life that we so craftily tried to stitch together starts to come loose, its seams ripping, when two pieces that do not match will not stick together, and the loves that we stubbornly tried to stitch to our soul will not stick for the life of us and we dig out nails into our hearts, in the effort to hold those water-like feelings in our cupped hands. Because love moves like tidal waves, under the influence of a force that is beyond our control. But happiness cannot be as fickle, and creates folds and crannies into our own distorted universes, which we can tear asunder and ripple and sew back together as we please, in the light-heartedness of knowing that the shapes we will craft it into do not depend on the horoscope or the alignment of planets.
Depending on how we decide to sew together our lives, we realize that solitude can be a blessing rather than a torture. 

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche

Do not unload your complaints on the world. Complaint is easy. Complaint is modern-day slavery. Complaint is discharging on the world around you the responsibility to make you happy, and isn’t that slavery? And, when you feel like what you are trying to grasp is like water between your fingers, gently rest your arms and let it fall at your feet.
Let me tell you: do not mourn anyone who walked away. What belongs to you is yours forever. And whatever does not is like that water that you try to grasp, and will wash away over you, spilling over your shoes, and it does not matter the time – be it that you held it for one, two, or ten years: what is not meant for you will eventually slip away. What is meant to be a part of your life will always stick. Do not cry over what you think you lost, or over your loose stitches, as there was nothing to lose to begin with: what is no longer yours was never yours from the beginning, and was never yours for a single moment, as much as it hurts to admit it.
Let all that is not yours wash away from yourself, and make the best of what sticks with you, or of what stays with you while you can hold it.

You are not your past, and you are not the future you do not want for yourself. But right now, you are. You are the chance of being a beautiful speckle of life for every second of your existence. Much like whenI travel, and I realize that I can make do with bringing so little of my belongings, including a heart that, often leaden and hard to drag along, finds its own pocket in my chest and somehow resumes its beating again, as if by the hands of a heavenly surgeon.

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche

You know, there are times when, even though I recognize that every single drop that rained on me filled the bucket of my experience, I stop and think that maybe I could have covered up a little better.
Still, as disastrous as our previous (or current) present might have seemed, I realize that the silver lining of the future we were and we were *not* choosing was always there, shining brightly upon us. Horizon are so difficult to put into focus, for people like us, who are smart enough to see the challenge but sometimes not brave enough to accept it. We are ever-becoming horizons ourselves, ever lit by the light of some kind of star.

So I wish for you to chase the light, for the sheer pleasure of bathing in it, and not necessarily to reach a goal. And I wish for you to muster up the bravery to swim against the currents towards the peace of getting to know yourself, stubbornly upstream: like salmons that get further from the sea, but closer to the source.

And when you craft your CV and it feels like putting on a perfect face of makeup to whore yourself, and when you wrap your tie around your neck and it feels like someone is holding you hostage as if by a leash, I wish for you to see how it is up to you to make each day, though repetitively mundane, a repetitively mundane miracle. Make each day a little miracle, in its own glorious, spectacular normalcy, that you can craft with your own hands. And I wish for you to realize that each second being both miraculous and perfectly normal is what makes us find solace even in the unknown. Like with recipes, where it is all a matter of chemistry, and of heat, and of perfect science and gut instinct, and of licking the bowl and your fingers at the end.

I wish for you to see how perfect everything is after all – the good and the bad, the way it is going as well as the way it went. Suffering, bitter, ignorant hearts shed a veil upon the soul. But, shall you be able to lift that veil, in retrospect you will understand everything.
And all the pieces of our jigsaw will fall into place.
Be thankful, breathe, fall in love with yourself time and time again, and have faith.

And, in wishing you all of the above, I am making this tart for you.
You said your favorite was strawberry and rhubarb. I must make it with something else, as we do not have rhubarb in Italy (I know, right?).
And even though this might not be the same, I learned that a creative mind can make do with whatever it has on hand, and maybe – just maybe, drop all expectations and come up with something that is possibly even better in its own right.
But if I make it back where you are, and if you’d like me to, I’ll make proper, greasy, unhealthy rhubarb pie for you – one that you can cry your heart out over, then wipe your eyes and mouth, and move on.

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme FraicheBlackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche

This tart is loosely adapted by a traditional recipe in my home, a ‘crostata’, which is similar to a tart but has the peculiarity of having baking soda in the dough, which makes it puffy, pillowy and slightly crumbly and delicious. It was mostly inspired by some of the wonderful ingredients I got in Portland – some Hygge coffee from the #secretsupperpdx, and somey Bitterman Salt Co. I got from The Meadow (<3). I saw marion berries all over the place there, but here I am using these plump, incredible blackberries from my own garden. Feel free to swap one for the other.

If I had access to it, I would use Vermont Creamery‘s insanely good vanilla creme fraiche, but because there’s hardly any creme fraiche to be found around here I decided to make my own an steep it with coffee. The combination of flavors might seem weird here, but I can assure you that it is really, really good – dark chocolate is great with coffee, and berries are great with chocolate. Chocolate acts as a pacifier to make everything and everyone coexist, as it always does.
And this is why you should get the best you can find: choose at least 75% chocolate, and up to 85% if it’s not too much for you. If you can, get coffee-flavored dark chocolate – Lindt makes a wonderful one.
The sprinkling of salt at the end makes it extra fancy. Skip it if it’s too fancy, but if you like salts, it is worth the try.

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche
 
For a 10-inch tart pan
Ingredients
FOR THE CREME FRAICHE
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon roughly ground coffee beans
  • Half a vanilla bean, split in half and seeds scraped
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
FOR THE CRUST
  • 200 g whole wheat or spelt flour
  • 50 g coconut flour
  • 80 ml coconut oil
  • 1 egg + one egg white (reserve the yolk for brushing)
  • 100g sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • Splash of milk
  • Vanilla
FOR THE FILLING
  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 cup blackberry or mixed berry jam
  • 70 g (about 2/4 of a tablet) dark chocolate, or, even better, coffee flavored dark chocolate (see suggestions above), shaved
TOPPINGS
  • Extra shaved chocolate
  • Vanilla salt
Instructions
FOR THE CREME FRAICHE
  1. Start this a couple days in advance.
  2. Lightly crush the coffee beans, add them to a tea filter, and steep them in the cream together with the seeds and whole vanilla bean for 24 hours. Then, take out the coffee beans and the vanilla, squeezing them well.
  3. When ready, combine the cream and buttermilk, and leave them to sit on the counter for 24 hours. After that time, they should have curdled into thick cream. Add the maple syrup and mix well. Store in the fridge.
FOR THE CRUST
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl until a dough comes together. Add more or less milk as needed for the dough to completely come together, and not feel too dry. It should be soft but not too sticky. Wrap it in clingfilm and store in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
FOR THE FILLING & ASSEMBLY
  1. Combine the blackberries, lemon juice, sugar and starch, and toss to coat well. Set aside.
  2. Grease and flour a tart tin/mold with a detachable bottom.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚.
  4. Take the dough out of the fridge, and cut ¼ of it off to make the decorative strips. Press the rest of the dough into the mold, distributing evenly in the pan. Cover the bottom with half the shaved chocolate, spread on the berry jam, and top with the remaining chocolate. Finally, pour over the blackberries, distributing them evenly.
  5. Make some strips or other decoration with the remaining dough, and brush the crust with the leftover beaten egg yolk.
  6. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Let it cool before slicing.
  7. Serve with the creme fraiche, some extra dark chocolate, and a tiny sprinkling of vanilla salt to make things a little fancier.

Trivial disclaimer: you know when you find yourself in front of someone that has a sort of poised, austere aura, and you feel like you can’t get your sh*t together because you feel like you’re not sure if they’re gonna think you’re stupid, and you eventually panic and say something very stupid regardless? There. I just want to say in my defense that I’m not as stupid as I sounded when I asked how the elevator worked. Thanks.

Blackberry Chocolate Italian Tart with Coffee-infused Creme Fraiche