Strawberry Cake with Rose Almond Custard – Mother’s Day & Virtual Flower Potluck!

There has always been this thing about the cakes my mom made: They were never too pretty or evenly-shaped, yet all those who had any one of my mom’s cakes could not revert to any other cake, even if they were from the best pastry/cake  shop. My mom always said that cakes must first and foremost taste good and always despised all the sugar coatings and butter glazings (I am not a fan myself). Yet, she could do wonders with whipped cream decorations: she could pipe out of her sac-á-poche ribbons, flowers and bows of every kind. So her cakes always looked gorgeous, even if they had a tendency to fall apart when sliced.

This is a very simple cake and one of the first she taught me to make. We experimented with this almond custard and not only it is delicious, but it is not too much on the unhealthy side. Though this cake does not exactly belong to the healthy realm, it is much better than many others nutritionally speaking: the only fat there is is in the eggs in the custard, and there are plenty of fresh strawberries to serve as topping. The sponge cake is made moist by a concoction made out of orange juice, rose water and berries. You can make this much prettier than mine and make it multi-layer of course. I’ll get better at making cakes look pretty, promise.
But for now, let me dedicate all this rosy goodness to the best woman I know, the woman who taught me everything I know and that there is never enough to learn. I am so proud and lucky to be a daughter of such an amazing human who makes such delicious cakes (even if they’re not the prettiest).

This cake was also meant to be a part of the Virtual Edible Flower Potluck hosted by Renée on her great blog – go check the full list! There are some truly gorgeous posts. I couldn’t make it in time, as I couldn’t be too active because of some life happenings. My dad was at the hospital but he’s fine! Still, we were all a little busier than usual. I also have not only one, but TWO great news to share on my next posts! So stay tuned!

Strawberry Rose Cake with Almond Custard | Hortus Natural Cooking

I am not giving the recipe for the sponge cake now – use your favorite recipe! Mine does not contain any fat.
In my family, we very seldom eat sweets or desserts. We have like, what – 3 or 4 cakes per year perhaps? And, though my mom is great at making desserts, she’ll hardly make one more often than once every month, or even less. This is why we never worried too much about making super-healthy desserts. We satisfy our weekly (or bi-weekly) sweet tooth at a local gelato shop that makes ice cream with the freshest milk and fruits and whole, organic sugar. So, since it’s only every once in a while, this cake is, well…just cake. We like moderation.
Use a Genoise base or a ‘Pan di spagna’ base (the japanese Castella works well too!) or use your favorite pie crust, tart crust, or whatever. The custard + strawberries is gonna work like a charm in any case!

Aaaaand…so happy to be back! I have been a bit MIA, I know. This post was meant to be ready a week ago, but I was on vacation for a couple of days, then my dad was at the hospital and we have been all a little busy with other things. He’s perfectly fine now! So I can get back to focus on blog things.
We have this stunning place very close to home. First you’re deep in the woods, and then you emerge to these beautiful paths leading to the promontory. Welcome to le Marche, people.

Parco Monte San Bartolo, Le Marche | Hortus Natural CookingStrawberry Rose Cake with Almond Custard | Hortus Natural CookingParco Monte San Bartolo, Le Marche | Hortus Natural Cooking

Strawberry Cake with Rose Almond Custard
 
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
For the custard:
  • 2 cups/500ml Almond milk (freshly made is best)
  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 tbsp Potato Starch
  • 1 tbsp Flour
  • 3 tbsp Whole brown sugar or honey
  • Half a vanilla bean, seeds scraped
  • The peel from half a large lemon (or one small)
  • 2 tbsp rosewater
For the syrup:
  • 3 heaped tbsp of honey
  • ¼ cup of freshly pressed orange juice
  • ¼ heaping cup frozen mixed berries
  • The vanilla scrap from the custard
For the assembly:
  • A --inch sponge cake (or -- if making double layer)
  • 1.5 pounds fresh strawberries
Instructions
  1. To make the custard, add the eggs to a pot and whisk them with the starch and flour. Turn on the heat to low, and whisk vigorously while adding the milk a little at a time, trying to avoid lumps. Add the whole vanilla bean and the scraped seeds, and the lemon peel. Keep whisking, but at this stage there is no need to whisk vigorously and you can take a break. As soon as the custard will start to smoke slightly, start whisking again. At this point it will start to thicken, and you will need to whisk with a little more energy. As soon as it thickens fully, turn off the burner and keep whisking very vigorously for another minute, then add the rose water. This process should grant you a smooth, lump-free custard. Once it's cooled, fish out the peel and vanilla bean. If you want an even stronger rose scent, add the rosewater once the custard is completely cool.
  2. While the custard cools, make the syrup: add to a small pot the honey, the freshly pressed orange juice, and the frozen mixed berries (though you can certainly make it with your favorite fresh berry). You can also add the vanilla scrap from the custard - just wash it well. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, until reduced.
  3. Assemble the cake: distribute the syrup on the sponge cake base. You might not need all of it, just stop when you see that the whole area of the cake is lightly, evenly moist. Distribute a nice, thick layer of custard on top (again, you might not need all of it). Wash, dry and cut the strawberries in half. Arrange them in a pretty pattern on top of the custard, chill the cake for an hour before serving!
  4. If you want to make a double layer cake, moisten both sides of the cake on one side with the syrup (make a double batch just to be sure). Cut up some more strawberries to add in between layers, and mix them with half the cream. Add the rest on top and arrange the strawberries as indicated. You could decorate the sides with whipped cream or whipped coconut cream.
  5. NOTE: You can add some crumbled candied almonds to the custard! It will create the most pleasant texture!

Strawberry Rose Cake with Almond Custard | Hortus Natural Cooking

April: What’s in Season + A Green Spring Frittata & Two Recipes with Spring Produce

NOTE: The dishware for this post is kindly offered by Dishes Only! Thanks!
The pan is the one I was last year at the Saveur Blog Awards. Voting is open! Don’t forget to support your favorite bloggers! :)

April is a wonderful, wonderful month for produce. We are finally out of the March transition and the most incredible green vegetables are sprouting all around the countryside. Peas, fava beans, green beans, spinach, asparagus, artichokes and all sorts of herbs and flowers are sprouting all over the place, ready to be turned into light soups, salads and casseroles. All the gardens are speckled with pea plants, which climb up on their canes, and all their blooming white-and-purple flowers dot the plants like jewels.
As I biked along the fields and stopped to take a photo, I met a woman called Maria.
Maria is something like 85. She still tends her vegetable garden, and she does the cleaning for a lady in town. She wears torn, dirty clothes, a ragged foulard to hold back her grey hair, and she only has two teeth left in the lower arch of her mouth. When I leave for work in the morning she’s there, tending her garden, and when come home she’s still there with her back bent over the ground. She’s a bit of a character and all the neighborhood knows that she is one, obviously.
“I am so happy you consider my garden worthy of a picture,” she said, when she caught me with the camera in my hands.
“I love working the ground,” she said, when I asked her if she still did all the work herself. “I know that I will never starve, or be hungry. One must put great effort into tending a garden, but the earth can give you all you need if you treat it well. I am so sad to know that people are not grateful for the ground they walk on at all.”
She looked at her flowering fava beans.
“There’s hardly the need for more than this.”

April: what's in season + 3 Recipes with Peas & Spring ProduceVeggie-loaded Spring Frittata | Hortus Natural CookingApril: what's in season + 3 Recipes with Peas & Spring Produce

When I first went vegetarian, this was exactly the first reason that popped up in my head.
There was no need for more. April, with its wonderful produce, offers so much variety of colors, textures and nutrients. It would be such a waste to not take advantage of it fully!
There really is no need to eat something that essentially died to feed me. I am lucky to live in a place where produce is abundant and the quality of the food tends to be very high, and I really feel like using it as I would use a treasure.
April is a great time for harvest, but it is a great time for seedlings to grow as well. And, because I am too fascinated by the gardening process, I thought it would be the right time to buy some seeds! I bought purple tomatoes, rhubarb, kabocha squash, cress, and parsnips, and more veggies that can be harvested in the summer. I’ll start a little at a time, and, with the help of a farmer friend of mine, I’ll document the process through this blog and videos. I can’t wait to start and I hope you’ll be happy to be a part of this little farming journal!

Tending after something, nurturing its growth and caring about its well being is an act of love towards the world, towards what we cherish, and towards ourselves. In this sense, this is what a plant-based diet is to me: it is an act of love.
I realize I am lucky to have the chance to grow my own food and be in a place where doing so is natural, and organic foods are easy to find all over the place. I also realize that this might not be the case for everyone. I am really curious to know what the situation is where the readers of this blog are. Is it easy to find organic foods, local farmers, and such where you live? I’d love to know! When I was in the US, finding this kind of food was quite easy and the farmers around NY had the most delicious foods.

I recently wrote two recipes for Corriere Cucina, and, together with this recipe I am sharing, they all contain peas!
I’ve always thought of peas as vegetables, but they’re actually a legume. They are super packed with protein and fiber, and, if using fresh peas, you can use the skins to make soups (more on this soon!).
For this post, I decided to make frittata, because our hens are laying so many eggs what we literally have no idea what to do with them all. After that one, I also linked the ones I developed for Corriere. Eggs are commonly cooked with all sorts of greens here in Italy, given the abundance of both during the spring.

This frittata is frittata the way most home cooks always made it: straight in the oven. Frittata should be pan-fried for a couple of minutes first to set the bottom, and then finished in the oven for 10 more minutes. But this makes frittata for two (or for one hungry person) therefore there’s no need to be too fussy about it. You can double or triple the amounts of this recipe, but if you do, it is worth mentioning a few tricks:

TIPS FOR A GREAT FRITTATA

1. COOK THE INGREDIENTS BEFOREHAND – You can put pretty much anything you want into your frittata, and I really mean anything. It’s no surprise that they are considered the official italian fridge-cleaning recipe! And they are a great way to load up on those veggies that are depressingly wilting in the back of your fridge. You can even add grains or leftover pasta to turn it into a full meal. Just make sure you cook them before! I don’t like to bite into hard bits of veggies, and cooked ingredients will get you a much better, meltier texture. I like to always add some onion to my frittatas, but if you are making a tomato frittata, garlic is awesome too!

2. ADD FAT TO THE EGGS – For every 5-6 eggs, you should add 1/4 of dairy to them when you whisk them. It could be cream or milk. This gives the eggs an even creamier texture and helps avoiding gummy eggs. If you’re making a frittata with less than 4 eggs, just add a little splash, or don’t even bother. To keep things healthier and dairy free, substitute dairy with equal amounts of a fatty plant milk or coconut milk.

3. START IT ON THE STOVETOP – Ideally, you should pour the whisked eggs over the pan where you cooked the vegetables, mix things up and let them set for 2-3 minutes, then transfer everything in the preheated oven. cast-iron skillets or ceramic/clay vessels are best for this purpose. Because I am only using two eggs, in this recipe I just mix up the eggs with the veggies and pour everything into a greased pan, but definitely use the stovetop method for larger amounts.

4. DO NOT OVERBAKE – Overbaked frittatas tend to acquire a rather spongy texture. Truth be told, I’d say that 95% of Italian moms cook the life out of their frittata, but they are the loveliest when they are still trembling and just barely set. Then again – this is so full of veggies that eggs are barely a way to hold the whole thing together, so it’s ok if it gets a little spongy in my opinion. But if you make a large frittata with a little more room for eggs to shine, you’ll definitely want to make sure your frittata doesn’t get too brown on top. Check it after 10 minutes by piercing it with a knife, and, if the eggs are still runny, check again in 5 minutes.

April: what's in season + 3 Recipes with Peas & Spring ProduceVeggie-loaded Spring Frittata | Hortus Natural CookingVeggie-loaded Spring Frittata | Hortus Natural Cooking

Now, as you can see from the pictures, my frittata is quite green. Very green, in fact. It is more vegetables with frittata rather than frittata with vegetables. Well, that’s how we roll around here. You could use 4 eggs instead of 2 for the same amount of vegetables. You can take this to work, to a picnic, you can eat it hot, cold, warm, with salad, with soup, with whatever. It is super versatile and makes a lovely breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner. Happy frittata-ing!

Veggie-loaded Green Spring Frittata
 
Serves 1 or 2
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
  • ¼ (heaping) cup of chopped onion
  • 10 asparagus spears, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 2 artichoke hearts, finely sliced
  • ½ cup peas
  • A cup of chopped spinach
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1 tsp turmeric (or a pinch of saffron)
  • EXTRA: 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • EXTRA: a few mint leaves, finely chopped
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 390 F˚ / 200 C˚
  2. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the onion, and lightly stir fry for a couple of minutes. Add the artichokes, asparagus and peas, add a good pinch of salt and pepper, and let cook, half covered, for 15 minutes. If the vegetables start to stick to the bottom, add a splash of water. After this time, add the spinach, and cook for 5 more minutes.
  3. in a bowl, whisk the eggs in a bowl with another good pinch of salt and pepper. Add the turmeric and, if using, the nutritional yeast and mint. Whisk briefly to incorporate all the ingredients. Add the cooked vegetables to the eggs and whisk to incorporate.
  4. Grease a baking dish, and pour the frittata mixture in it. Bake until cooked and lightly brown on top, about 15 minutes. Check the top with your finger and, if it does not seem to collapse when pressed, it is ready. You can also check with a knife if there is still runny egg in the center. Try to not overcook it! If you are not 100% sure it is done, it is better to take it out of the oven 5 minutes early rather than late.
  5. Serve with a salad on the side (and, why not, some simply boiled whole grain)
  6. IDEA 1 = you can sprinkle the top with some grated Pecorino before putting it in the oven if you do not care about keeping it gluten-free
  7. IDEA 2 = You can add some cooked barley, spelt, amaranth, or whatever grain you prefer, along with the vegetables to make a whole-meal frittata!

And here are a couple more recipes to take advantage of the spring produce!

This Spring Pesto Soup is one of my favorite soups ever! Though this one uses traditional pesto, it is also great with a vegan version of it. Follow your favorite pesto recipe, and just substitute the cheese with a tablespoon of nutritional yeast or just skip it altogether. Basil, olive oil, and nuts make for a really tasty combo on their own (be generous with that extra virgin olive oil)!
RECIPE (scroll down for english) HERE

Green Spring Vegetable Soup with Ligurian Pesto | Hortus Natural Cooking

And these Spiced Pea Turmeric Ricotta Pancakes are another great example of how well the combo yellow spices + green spring veg works.
RECIPE (scroll down for english) HERE

Curry Pea Ricotta Pancakes | Hortus Natural Cooking

An Apple Cake for Afternoon Break, and Memories of March {with video!}

WATCH THE VIDEO RECIPE HERE!
The tiny dishes were gently provided by DishesOnly!

——

‘Come. I found a nice thing today.’
My grandpa headed into the woods, his hands in his pockets, as a 10-year-old me joyfully followed along. Amidst the fields, painted golden with the light of March at 5 PM, there were patches of woods, which we entered stepping on broken branches and crisp leaves. The rays of sun filtered through the trees, toned down by the damp air.
The path in the woods ended on yet another field.
‘Look there!’ said grandpa, pointing at a tree nearby. He approached and, as I followed along, he picked something off the tree.
As I got closer,  I was amazed to see what he had picked: the tree was loaded with the tiniest, crispest of red apples. They looked like baby versions of Fuji apples, all striped in various tones of red, but we knew they would not grow any bigger than that.
My grandpa just rubbed the apple on his shirt to remove the dirt – farmers did not really went around washing their fruit, and bit into it. So did I. It was the tastiest, juiciest piece of fruit I ever had in my life.
‘Here, let’s see how many we can bring home.’
I tried to fit as many apples as I could in my arms, and we brought them back home.
As we walked back, I looked at my grandpa: no matter wether he was working in the vegetable gardens, in the fruit patches, walking through the woods or through the dirt. He always had his hair perfectly combed and styled, and he always left a trail of aftershave where he passed. He was a fine gentleman dressed in dirty overalls. He can be a bit rough at times, but he is very gentle and appreciates a tight hug. Every time I looked at him, I thought that he was like nature: he did what he was meant for, and he behaved according to how he felt, but he always had respect for everything. He could be cruel, and he could be gentle, but his actions were never unjustified. He was generous and produced beautiful things with his hands. Secretly, even when i was 10, I wished to find men like him in my life.

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

My gandparents have always been an important presence in my childhood. When we were kids, we would finish school at noon and could not wait to be done with lunch to go and play at the park, ride our bikes and play games like soccer or volleyball. We were constantly running around, and, in the days when we had afternoon classes, our moms would take us straight to the closest garden to let us play until sundown. My grandparents lived quite close to a large park, so they spent a fair share of the time when their legs worked fine chasing after me. Often, we would also travel to the farmhouse where I live today, where there wa sof course more running around to do, fresh produce to pick, and hens to chase after.
No matter where any kid in Italy was, we all knew that sometime between 4 and 5 PM it was time for ‘merenda’, our afternoon snack.

Both my grandma and mom have been preparing this apple cake for ‘merenda’ and for breakfast. I loved how it was loaded with soft apples, and I loved how the flavor of the very slight zing of lemon contrasted with their sweetness. It was a fast, easy cake to make and put together, and a perfect way to avoid buying packaged snacks, which we really did not need.

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

Now that we are adults and we don’t really snack on cake anymore, that afternoon ritual has been replaced by tisanes or green tea. When we can, me and my mom take the dog for a walk in the fields, where I can wear my rubber boots and put my feet on the damp grass. The transition to spring smells crisp, and the 5 PM sun, which is not ready to set yet, diffuses its light into the thin layer of mist that roll out over the fields. The branches are loaded with new green gems ready to sprout, while some shy almond flowers brave the cold and open themselves to the world.
‘Mom, remember that apple tree that grandpa found in that field? Do you remember at all where it is?’
I have been asking that question for over 10 years. The answer is always the same.
‘I have no idea. It was somewhere through the woods, it would be impossible to find, unless you’re a hunter, I guess.’
Unfortunately, my grandpa doesn’t remember, either. It has been too long.
Remembering this episode, we got Fuji apples from a local farmer. They’re the last of the season, he said. Load up on them now that you can.
I smell them with a deep breath. they are sweet and fragrant. I look at the stunning colors around me and feel the blessing of this aura of change upon myself.
‘They really smell like those tiny apples we found in that field,’ says mom.
‘You know,’ I tell her. ‘Sometimes I look at nature and think that it is just like grandpa: it can be cruel, it can be gentle, but its actions are never unjustified. It is generous and produces such beautiful things. After all, when you get produce like this, you can only be thankful.’
‘Well said!’ she smiled.
‘Shall we have apple cake for merenda?’
‘Yes, let’s.’

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

—————–

This cake goes quite heavy on apples, and uses spelt and rice flour instead of standard all-purpose. It is a lovely treat to have in the afternoon with a cup of tea after a nice walk outside, or on a sunday morning with some coffee, maybe topped with a dollop of yogurt. If you want to serve this for dessert, serve a small slice straight out of the oven with a scoop of ice cream or some coconut cream.

Apple Afternoon Cake
 
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert, Snack
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
  • For the apples:
  • 5 medium apples (a bit less than 1 pound weighted whole)
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • The juice of a lemon
  • A splash of rum (optional but delicious)
  • -----------
  • 1 + ⅓ cup {5.3oz - 150g} spelt flour
  • ⅓ cup {1.7oz - 50g} brown rice flour
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup {4oz - 110g} brown organic sugar
  • ¼ cup + 1tsp {2.8oz - 80g} melted coconut oil, or any light-flavored cold-pressed vegetable oil
  • The zest of a lemon
  • Almond milk or your favorite kind of milk
  • 2 + ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • A pinch of salt
Instructions
  1. First, wash and peel your apples.*
  2. cut them into not-too-thick slices (about ¼ inch) and toss them in a pan with the honey, rum if using and lemon juice. Cook them briefly, until the honey and lemon turn syrupy and the apples get slightly tender. If you have time, it is a good idea to let the apples soak into this sweet marinade for a few hours before cooking. Set aside and let cool.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ - 180 C˚.
  4. Prepare the batter: separate the yolks from the whites, and whip the yolks with the sugar until they turn pale and very thick. The sugar will not dissolve completely. At this point, add the lemon zest, vanilla and melted coconut oil.
  5. drain the apples and measure out the liquid they produced, and add enough milk to get ¾ cup's worth of liquid. Add it to the batter and mix well, then sift together the spelt flour, rice flour and baking powder, and mix well until you get a uniform batter.
  6. Whip the egg whites until firm, and, moving the spoon or spatula in a circular motion from the bottom and upward, add them to the batter, mixing delicately until well incorporated.
  7. Line the bottom of a -" ring pan with parchment paper, and cover the bottom with a pattern of apple slices. Cut the leftover slices into smaller pieces, and add them to the batter. If you can't be bothered to create a pattern, you can cut the apples into smaller pieces and just incorporate them to the batter as a last step.
  8. Pour the batter on top of the apples, and bake for about 50 minutes. Check the cake with a toothpick: if it comes out dry, the cake is done. This cake remains quite moist, so you know it will be done when the toothpick has no raw batter sticking to it.
  9. Let cool and, if you used a springform pan like I did, you can serve it warm with a dusting of icing sugar. If you want to reverse it to display the pretty apple pattern, you will have to wait for it to cool down completely.
  10. Serve this with a dollop of yogurt or coconut cream for a weekend breakfast, or with coffee or tea for an afternoon snack after a long walk.

Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake Apple Snack/Breakfast Italian Cake

Edible gifts: Vegan Spiced Cookies & Hortus Christmas Menu!

Note: Again, the super pretty dishes you see in this post are courtesy of DishesOnly! They ship worldwide, in case you need some Christmas gift ideas!

Christmas Is all about cookies and cookie swaps, cute cookie cutters, and kids smothering icing all over your house. Isn’t it lovely, Unfortunately, I have never been a cookie person. Ever. Or, at least, I have never been the kind of decorated, shortbread kind of cookie person. As a kid, I have fond memories of helping my mom (i.e: eating broken pieces of almonds) making Cantucci (biscotti), of which she would make hundreds of pieces. I remember, every christmas, the smell of biscotti permeating the entire house, as they would be offered at the end of the family Christmas meal, which would include over 15 people, along with coffee and limoncello. My house has always been a powerhouse producing strozzapreti, cappelletti, gnocchi and ravioli, with us kids hiding under the table and stealing pieces of dough (germs never had a prayer, we ate raw eggs on the friggin’ floor) and occasionally help arranging the pieces of pasta on the large trays.
Even my mom, who has worked as a cook all her life, was never enthusiastic about cookies. I always found that the cookies we tried to make were only decent, so at some point we just gave up. We preferred ciambella (or ciambellone) anyway.

Fast-forward years later, I kept thinking about these ‘meh’ cookies we kept producing, and the idea kept pestering me. But cookies are just an extra sweet thing that is completely unnecessary, considering the incredible amount of sweets there is going to be in this period, and overall just a cluster of flour and sugar that needs tons of butter to stay together and taste good, so definitely not my cup of tea. Since I’m in this new roll of healthy eating and stuff, why not try making vegan cookies? They make pretty gifts and they would be the perfect chance to make up for the time we lost years ago in our baking effort.

Vegan Spiced Christmas Cookies | Hortus Natural Cooking

Vegan Spiced Christmas Cookies | Hortus Natural Cooking

As we already said, cookies are clusters of flour (or flour-like) stuff kept together by sweetener and fat. I kept Gena Hamshaw’s gingerbread cookie recipe on hand for inspiration, and adapted things from there. well, the results were surprising! This woman is amazing. I barely ever made recipes from other people following them to the tee, but I made several of hers and loved them all like crazy. In this case, I subbed and added several things, so hers are probably better than mine, but mine came out pretty well.
I love the fact that you can add whatever you want to the dough, as most things would go well with the spices: chocolate chips, chopped nuts, superfoods like dried goji or mulberries, you can coat them in chocolate (and, why not, sprinkle some more chopped nuts on top)…whatever strikes your fancy!
Also, this recipe is super easy. It’s pretty much one of those throw-everything-in-a-bowl kind of thing, and the spices, coconut oil and tahini totally make up for the lack of butter. Even my mom loved these, and that’s ’nuff said. My only recommendation is to store them well sealed in a cookie tin, a glass jar or in a bag, as they tend to turn very limp if left out in the air.
As for wrapping, I recommend putting these in a glass jar and fancying things up with pretty ribbons. It is super easy, and looks a million bucks. Add a handmade label, and anything you made with your own hands will be the most appreciated gift you could think of.

Before the recipe, I wanted to share some more inspiration for your holidays! I am sorry not all the recipes linked here can be considered healthy or clean (lol, cookies) but for once a year we can use a little indulgence in moderation, no?

Brazil Nuts | Hortus Natural Cooking

These Brazil nuts, covered in 70% dark chocolate melted with a bit of coconut oil, would also make an awesome gift in a jar!

Vegan Spiced Christmas Cookies | Hortus Natural Cooking

These cookies are so pretty delivered in a glass jar to keep them fresh!

 

First, a list of dishes that would be terrific for an Italian-style, vegetarian christmas table straight from the archives of my blog. Many recipes are vegan or vegan-izable. If you are planning to host a vegetarian party, whether it be for Christmas or New Year’s, I hope these ideas can help inspire you and have an amazing, healthy time with your dear ones.

 

HORTUS CUISINE CHRISTMAS MENU

Antipasto
Mixed Bruschetta Spread with Walnut Chestnut Bread

Primo
(If you want to try your hand at making your own pasta and pasta filling, see: how to make fresh pasta – the basics and the dough, and this Classic Vegetarian Filling)
Vegan Truffle Mushroom Pasta Bake
Tuscan Mushroom & Kale Farrotto
Pumpkin, Mushroom & Cheese Creamy Ravioli

Secondo
Chickpea & Rapini Pizza Roulade
(Note: this can also be stuffed like regular pizza, with pizza tomato sauce and mozzarella!)
Mediterranean Ricotta Stuffed vegetables, or Stuffed Onions
(Try the Mediterranean stuffing with portabellas or acorn squash, too!)

Sides
Braised Fennel & Mushrooms with Shallots & Herbs
Roasted Beets with Balsamic Cipollini Vinaigrette
Carrot & celeriac Slaw
Roasted crumbed Carrot Salad with Almonds

Dolci
Cantucci (Biscotti), to serve with sweet wine
Pear & Chocolate Ricotta Cheesecake

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…And, here is a list of edible gift ideas and COOKIES FROM MY FRIENDS AROUND THE WEB!!!

Flavored salt, flavored gin (!) and clementine curd from Lab Noon
Bohemian Dream Gift Granola (Vegan & gluten-free!) by Will Frolic For Food
Decadent Chocolate Mix by Smitten Kitchen is TOTALLY the gift I’d love to receive. (for a healthier twist, I’d skip the sugar so you can add the sweetener you want when you make it)
Rose Pistachio Shortbread by My Blue & White Kitchen
Rosemary Salted Caramel Linzer Cookies by Two Red Bowls
These Vegan Sweet Sesame Cookies by the ever-amazing Gena Hamshaw are on my to-do list!
Swedish Chocolate & Mocha Biscuits by Green Kitchen Stories
Molly made amazing Halva Rugelachs, healthy Hemp Coconut Macaroons and Gingerbread houses that I’m sure are great even without turning them into a farm
Chewy Walnut Biscuits, an adaptation of the classic Brutti ma Buoni cookies, by From my Dining Table
Stephanie Le of I Am a Food Blog has a giftables roundup on her blog too, and it involves sweets with cat faces
…and the very classic Panettone by Emiko Davies!!

And here’s my version of Vegan Spiced Cookies, adapted from Gena Hamshaw’s Choosing Raw, and her Food52 post!

Vegan Spiced Christmas Cookies | Hortus Natural Cooking

Vegan Spiced Cookies
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Makes about 30 cookies of various dimensions
Author:
Recipe type: Cookie
Serves: 30
Ingredients
  • 1 cup spelt flour (plus extra for rolling)
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ⅔ cups almond flour
  • 1½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp Pain d'Epices mix (if you have it)
  • 1½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Grated zest of half a lemon or orange
  • ½ cup maple syrup (or honey if not vegan)
  • ¼ cup melted coconut oil
  • ¼ cup tahini, or almond butter
  • ½ cup demerara, muscovado or coconut sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 172 cup chopped chocolate, pistachios or other nuts
Instructions
  1. Melt together the coconut oil, sugar, maple, vanilla, tahini or almond butter and water. I did so by briefly heating everything in the microwave and whisking well.
  2. Add the dry ingredients (flours, spices, baking powders, salt, zest) to a bowl and slowly add the liquid mixture, taking care to avoid making clumps. You can also do this in a food processor. Add the chopped chocolate, nuts or whatever you decided to add. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for at least an hour, but overnight is even better.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 Fº.
  4. Prepare two large pieces of parchment paper, and sandwich the dough between the sheets. Roll it out ¼ inch thick, then cut out your favorite shapes.
  5. Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, until the edges are just browning. They might seem very soft fresh out of the oven, but just let them cool before eating and they'll firm up!

Vegan Spiced Christmas Cookies | Hortus Natural Cooking

A Walnut, Rosemary Chestnut bread from Lunigiana, Tuscany

When God created Tuscany, he must have been in a particularly good mood.
It is a region I always loved with a passion, and going back to visit is always a pleasure. Along the eastern border of Tuscany, which is connected to both my regions – Le Marche and Emilia Romagna, run the Appennines hill chain, and during the fall this land is especially generous, beautiful, and enjoyable (yes, even more than it usually is).
Today, I want to talk about chestnuts, and specifically chestnut flour, which is such a huge tradition of this region.
The flour I am using for today’s recipe comes from a very special place: A part of Tuscany called Lunigiana, which is famous for its Chestnut flour.
Malgrate castle. Image credit goes to http://www.turismoinlunigiana.it/

Malgrate castle. Image credit goes to http://www.turismoinlunigiana.it/

Lunigiana Chestnut Flour has obtained the DOP seal (Protected Designation of Origin). All products that are labeled DOP must be produced and packaged in their specific land of origin, and nowhere else. This ensures that these Italian products are kept wholesome, genuine and authentic all around the world. To make an example using a much more popular product, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can only be produced in the province of Modena to be labeled DOP. This chestnut flour is stone-ground to a powdery-like consistency after an ancient process of drying the chestnuts by burning chestnut wood for 40 days. It has a nutty, sweet, smoky flavor that  is absolutely unique. It can be used for sweet or savory preparations alike, in pastas and for crepes and fritters, and in all sorts of baked goods like breads, cakes, and the like. Fresh batches are usually put up for sale after november 15th, and each part of Tuscany puts it to good use in their own local recipes.
Lunigiana, the area in which it is produced, is the northernmost part of Tuscany which sits in between Liguria (where chestnut flour is also widely used), the Ligurian sea and the Appennini hills of Emilia-Romagna. This land’s activities are at their peak during the fall: chestnuts, olives, mushrooms and truffles abound here (like in Le Marche!) and every week there is a fair or some sort of event to celebrate all the wonderful products of this land. Fall is definitely the time to be here!
Tuscan Chestnut, Rosemary  & Walnut Bread | Hortus Natural Cooking
Lunigiana Chestnut Flour | Farina di Castagne della Lunigiana
This post is sponsored by Regione Toscana – yes, Tuscany itself, and Vetrina Toscana, a website that promotes products, tourism and activities throughout Tuscany. I am super proud to have been picked along with 5 other bloggers to celebrate this region. Each of us has been given a local product to cook with, and I have been chosen to represent chestnut flour. This batch of flour was kindly sent to me by Montagna Verde – Borgo Antico, a stunning place deep in the lush green of Lunigiana which has a tradition for producing special, local foods with chestnuts. They also sent me the most fragrant chestnut honey ever, which is beyond wonderful drizzled on the bread I made with the flour. All their products are organic and local. This place is a real Italian-style place where you can take some time off and spend the night, have a wholesome meal assembled with local products, and is basically a little dream come true (as many places throughout Italy are).
Last year, I used chestnut flour to make these Italian Vin Santo Cookies, which I encourage you all to try for a totally unique cookie experience. But this time, as I said, I made bread. There are few things I find as comforting as baking a loaf of bread while outside the weather is getting chillier and chillier, and the leaves crispier and crispier.
I have not baked bread in a while, and as soon as I pulled this out of the oven I remembered why. It is so rich, nice and tasty! And when bread is this good, we all know how easy it is to overeat, and we know it’s quite calorific, and then my mom’s on a constant diet and I am always wary of bread and my dad complains he’ll get fat and all the jazz, until my brother will come around when nobody sees him and the day after everyone’s wondering whatever happened to that half loaf that was sitting around. Story of our life.
I never even made chestnut bread before, and I had to exert some serious willpower to stop eating this with homemade chocolate nut spread.
This recipe will make a dense, wonderfully flavorful loaf that will make your whole kitchen smell like fall in Tuscany, with hints of rosemary and smoky undertones. The walnuts complete this loaf perfectly. This bread may not pair with everything, but it is so wholesome and tasty that you will have no problem eating it on its own. It uses the same process I used in my basic guide to bread making, which I encourage you all to check out for better understanding of how baking bread works. Still, because this bread is made heavy by the chestnut flour, which contains no gluten, and the whole grain flours, there is no point in letting it raise too long, so it is slightly quicker to make. In fact, I find this so pleasurable to eat because of its denser consistency!
Chestnut flour is kind of sweet, and this bread has a subtle sweetness that makes it great for breakfast, too. It would also make a great addition to your Thanksgiving table, as it pairs wonderfully with most fall foods! I can picture it dipped in some gravy (vegan, maybe?) or some mushroom pasta sauce. Try it with:
– Some ricotta and chestnut honey
– A homemade chocolate nut butter, or any chocolate sauce (rosemary pairs SO well with chocolate!)
– In a bruschetta spread with seasoned cheeses and fruit compotes or fresh fruit
– Toasted, and dipped in soup (try it with this Pumpkin creamy soup or My beloved Mushroom Soup)
– As a PB+J toast
– On its own, dipped in warm milk or plant milk!
Tuscan Chestnut, Rosemary  & Walnut Bread | Hortus Natural Cooking
Lunigiana Chestnut Flour | Farina di Castagne della Lunigiana

Image on the left: Credit to terredilunigiana.blogspot.it

Walnut Rosemary & Chestnut country bread
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
(Makes a loaf weighing about 800 grams)
Author:
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
  • For the Poolish
  • 150g Strong bread or Manitoba flour
  • 130 to 150ml Water
  • ¼ tsp Active Dry yeast, or 2 grams of fresh yeast
  • For the Bread
  • The Poolish
  • 150g Spelt or whole wheat flour
  • 100g Strong bread flour
  • 100g Chestnut flour
  • 130 to 150ml Water
  • ¼ tsp of Active Dry Yeast
  • 1 very generous tbsp Barley malt, or chestnut honey (or brown sugar)
  • 1 abundant teaspoon of salt
  • ½ cup to 1 cup walnuts, very roughly chopped
  • A couple rosemary sprigs, needles finely chopped
Instructions
  1. Assemble the poolish the evening before the day you want to bake your bread. Dissolve the yeast in the water and stir all the ingredients in a bowl. If 130ml of water make your poolish somewhat loose and wobbly, perfect. If it looks too much like a kneadable piece of dough, add more water. Cover well with plastic wrap, and let it sit for at least 10 hours and up to 18, in a place with a room temperature anywhere from 20C˚ to 28C˚. When ready, the poolish should look bubbly and quite sticky.
  2. Once you are ready o assemble the bread, combine the flours and salt in a bowl, and stir. Again, dissolve the yeast in the water, along with the sweetener of choice. Pour the liquid mixture into the poolish and stir well to combine, then pour this mixture into the bowl with the flours. Add the walnuts and rosemary and mix well - get your hands dirty! The dough does not need to be kneaded for long, but make sure all the ingredients are well combined. You should obtain a smooth ball of dough that does not feel dry but is not really sticky. The water absorption of flours change a lot, so start with less water and add more if you see that you need it. Cover the bowl with the dough with plastic wrap and let it raise for 1 hour. After this time, you will need to perform the first stretch & fold: grab one edge of the dough, stretch it, and fold it on itself. Repeat this several times, for a couple minutes. For more specific instructions, refer to my post on bread making (see above the recipe).
  3. Let it raise for another hour.
  4. Preheat the oven to 480 F / 250 C. Put some water in an ovenproof bowl and place it in the bottom of the oven when you turn it on.
  5. If you have a baking stone, make sure it gets nice and hot. If using a regular tray, oil it slightly to get a better bottom crust, and heat it in the oven when you turn it on.
  6. When the oven is hot, turn the bread carefully and very delicately on your tray or stone, and bake for 5 minutes, before turning down the oven to 450 F / 230 C. After 10 more minutes of baking, remove the bowl of water from the oven - be careful not to burn yourself!
  7. Let the bread bake for another 10 minutes, but check it after 7 minutes or so. The bread is ready when the crust is nice and deep brown, and, if you knock on it, it sounds slightly hollow.
  8. As soon as you pull it out of the oven, cover it with a clean cloth and let it cool. This way, the crust will stay crispy.
Do you have any special use for chestnut flour? Is there something you would like to see using it? I am thinking fritters or pancakes…or both. Do tell!
Thanks a bunch to Tuscany and to all those who got me involved in this post! Thanks, guys!
Tuscan Chestnut, Rosemary  & Walnut Bread | Hortus Natural Cooking
Tuscan Chestnut, Rosemary  & Walnut Bread | Hortus Natural Cooking
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