Hortus’ 2016 Gift Guide

This year, I decided to put together a little list of Italian-inspired gifts, paired with some of my American favorites.
This idea was born from my days roaming the shelves of New York stores, full of excellent products that I wished like crazy someone could just drop before my door.
There is a little known fact, and one I am almost intimidated to say out loud to my fellow countrymen: many of the most excellent Italian products I know, I discovered in New York. Wether it was at Whole Foods, in specialty stores like Di Palo’s, or even at a supermarket like Fairways, Italian artisanal products were everywhere to be found.

Fast forward to 2016, when I started to work with Italian food&wine export, and I discovered that most of our best products get shipped out to the US, China or the Arab Emirates. Of which, I must say, I am quite glad: I am glad that the rest of the world have access to some incredible food produced in this generous country, and I am glad that the world seems to appreciate it so much.

I have never stressed much over gifts – mostly because I’ve only ever made gifts to people I am extremely close to, but I understand that they can be a struggle for many. 

When in doubt, I resort to food.

It is usually a gift that can be made on a budget, and one for which you can really care about quality. After all, the best pasta you can possibly buy will hardly ever sell for over 6 ~ 8$.It is useful and hardly ever wasteful. And, if your edible gifts are carefully selected, they will make for an even more heartfelt gift. 

So, reminiscent of my experience in the States, when I discovered that brands such as Pasta Mancini and Italian truffles were to be found through Amazon if not at a physical store, I was inspired to put together a little list of Italian-inspired gift for the foodie who’s dreaming of Europe, ranging from totally affordable to slightly pricier but of very high value. This list aims to be a marriage of American and Italian finesse that would make every food aficionado, I am sure, very very happy. At least, I know for sure they would make me happy to say the least.

Furthermore, you can find some link love for further inspiration at the bottom of this post!

What are your favorite Italian products that you can find in your country? And what are some of your favorite homemade gifts to make? Leave a comment below!

Food, Wine & Books

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural Cooking

{ The Pantry }

1. /Bitterman Salt Co. Cervia salt
I was surprised to see, amongst Bittmann’s array of salts, one coming from Cervia. Cervia, a town in Romagna, not far from where I live, is famous for its high quality, hand-harvested salt. It will make a perfect finishing salt – as would most wonderful salts of the same brand.

2. /Pasta
I am fond of Pasta Mancini Pastificio, which I discovered for the first time in NY. They make small batch pasta with the wheat they grow themselves around their factory near Fermo, Marche. Their pasta has great texture, thickness and quality.
Other brands I like are Monograno Felicetti and Alta Valle Scrivia. If looking for a nice US-made pasta, have a look at Sfoglini.

3. /Aceto Balsamico (Modena Balsamic Vinegar)
Aceto Tradizionale di Modena, the real, aged balsamic vinegar which can only be made in the province of Modena according to Italian Law, comes in small bottles and kind of big prices, but it is well worth the money. It comes in silver label (aged 12 years) and gold labels (aged 24 years) and can be drizzled over meats, ice cream, fresh fruits, cheeses (especially Parmigiano!) and roast pumpkin. It is one of the Italian ingredients I love the most and one I think is really worth the money.

 { Teatime }

4. /Torrone
Torrone, the Italian nougat made of egg whites, honey and nuts, is one of the most traditional Christmas eats. Ones by brands like Sorelle Nurzia and Barbero come in several different coatings and flavors and in some very pretty packaging to boot. You can find these at Eataly or at a specialty Italian shop. 

5. /Chocolate
I love Venchi’s chocolate – both for the flavor and for the vintage wrappings, reminiscent of Piedmont’s old glory. My favorite has got to be their Chocolate Caviar and Gianduja, the Italian chocolate and hazelnut mix from Piedmont.

6. /Smith Teas
I am a mad tea lover, and have tried several brands throughout my life. None has struck me as much as Smith Teas did. The boxes are also very elegant, making them perfect for gifting.}

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Bitterman Salt Co | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural Cooking


7. / Wines from Northern Italy

My favorite wines in the world are those from Friuli and from Veneto, in northern Italy. If you love scented, fresh, intense still whites, then wines from these regions are for you. Eataly Vino has a nice selection that can be found pretty much all around the US, and so does wine.com. The unmissable bottles are Ribolla Gialla, Friulano (ex Tocai), Soave, Moscato, and Malvasia (NOT sparkling), my favorite. These wines are one of our best kept secrets, even though Bastianich is doing a good job at spreading the word.
Moving south to Tuscany to pick some Reds, one of the best cellars sold in the US is Félsina. You could pick just about any wine and be sure it will be a hit (just look at the ratings).
Two of my other favorite cellars which make killer whites, and some of my favorite wines, are Aloïs Lageder and Stag’s Leap.

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Wine from Friuli | Hortus Natural Cooking

Tools & Table

8. /Fog Linen Works home goods.
Perfect for the design lover: these scissors are beautiful and affordable, and so are these linen napkinsAn alternative for all your friend who love gardening or foraging are these Japanese shears (I love my scissors dearly).

9. /Fog Linen aprons
When Betty got me and Zaira one, I couldn’t believe my eyes. If any foodie you might gift it to is half as happy as we were, you’ll know you’ve found the gift of the year.

10. /Freaky Raku bowls
My friends Zaira and Francesco handcraft their beautiful dishware in their makeshift lab in the countryside right outside of Venice. Get one of their bowls before they become crazy famous and you will have to wait a year before they can make one for you – which is happening soon as they have a rather long request list already.

11. /‘Il Coccio’ Terracotta cooking vessels
These have been the discovery of the year. Use them to cook stews, vegetables, soups and even meat like you’ve never done before. They are healthy, sustainable, quite cheap, and allow for cooking with very little fat. I Have two, and plan to invest some money in more shapes and sizes. This, this and this are some of my favorites. I saw them on sale at Chelsea Market and in pretty much all major cities I’ve been to. 


12. /Happy Socks
They have some rather whimsical underwear designs, sure to make any boyfriend with a sense of humor rather happy!

13. /Klasse14 Watches
These watches are made by a company in Hong Kong, but are entirely designed and produced in Italy. I’ve been loving the rose gold color of mine and I’ve been wearing it religiously.

14. /Scented Candles
Both Le Labo and L’Objet sent me their candles to try out, and I fell in love with all of them. I actually started the habit of lighting a candle in the evening to unwind after learning about theirs. Le Labo’s fragrances are unique and somewhat whimsical, in an extraordinarily pleasing way, and seem especially focused on musky, earthy, almost masculine, intense scents. L’Objet candles are more on the traditional side, though the selection is small and well curated, with scents ranging from flowery to woodsy.

15. /Aesop Oils
I immediately fell for these as soon as Christiann made me try them. They will add a whole different mood to your home and life.

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Le Labo Candles | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Wrapping | Hortus Natural Cooking

{ Books }

15. / There are many great Italian cooking books on sale. My favorites are: Frankie’s Spuntino for super simple Italian fare for beginners and  fuss-free cooks (and quite veggie friendly too); Emiko Davies’ Florentine, about the author’s experience in Tuscany with local recipes; Tasting Rome, the work by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill on Roman cuisine; and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the real bible for mastering all the best recipes of Italian cuisine. Of course, another Italian bible cookbook would be The Silver Spoon (2000 recipes anyone?).
Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine is a lovely book, as well: it has a thorough guide to all Italian ingredients, kitchen tools, perfectly cooking pasta and vegetables, and plethora of nice, everyday recipes. It is one of those fuss-free cookbooks with no photos but tons of good tips and cute illustrations!

Finally, the book from which I got my choice of cookies for this year: Alanna Taylor-Tobin’s Alternative Baker, which I am loving like I hardly ever did a baking book and from which I made Chestnut Chocolate & Cherry cookies to share on the blog (recipe soon)!

Stunning gift guides, Wrapping, & Edible gifts ideas

{Gifts Guides & Wrapping}

~ Local Milk’s 20142015 & 2016 gift guides

~ Eva Kosmas Flores’ 2015 & 2016 gift guides

~ I Am A Food Blog’s cute + design-y 2016 Gift Guide

~ Beth [Local Milk]’s Floral Gift Toppers & 2016 Gift Wrapping

{Homemade Gifts Inspiration}

~ Linda Lomelino’s DIY Edible Gifts in Jars & Swedish Butterscotch Gingerbread Cookies

~ Again, Linda Lomelino’s Homemade Flavored Sugars

~ My Flavored Infused Honeys (the lemon one is to die for!)

~ And my Infused Oils and Ointments (I LOVE the vanilla + lemon one for blemishes)

~ Valentina has these beautiful blends for herbal teas to soothe sore throats, painful periods, and aid digestion. They’d look so pretty in a jar!

~ These Ginger Viennese Swirl Cookies by Jenny would look quite classy in a nice box.

~ Sophie has a *swoon* giftable Chocolate Gingerbread Granola + cute gift tags!

{Christmas + Lifestyle}

~ Christiann Koepke published a guide with the most beautiful photos about setting some Christmas mood in small spaces <3 

My personal cookie choice this year fell with Alanna’s cookies, of which – as mentioned above – I will be sharing the recipe soon. They are hands down some of the best cookies I’ve ever had and the world needs to know about them.

Happy gifting & wrapping!

A Guide for Cutting Tagliatelle and Tagliolini, and Herb Tagliolini with Lemon & Pecorino

Thanks to Valdiverdura for the bright, sweet, and wonderfully scented lemons from southern Italy! They are a dream.

When she was young, Assunta took the train from the Riviera to Bologna every day during the weeks they called her to work.

The commute took a total of 4 hours, and brought her to the large area of Bologna’s fair, where she worked as a sfoglina, a pasta maker, along with other women from the same region, Emilia-Romagna. They rolled out pasta, using /-foot long rolling pins, swiftly and quickly, serving hundreds of people in a day. Whether it was tagliatelle, tortellini, ravioli, or any other kind of pasta, they could quickly roll out amounts of dough that could go up to 1,3 kg of flour and 13 eggs. 

Over the years Assunta, my grandma, became a real pro. 

I would never let her knowledge go to waste. Therefore, I want to make a little series of posts on fresh pasta on this blog (properly hashtagged #Hortuspastaproject), and then group this knowledge along with some recipes in an ebook. 

I make my pasta with the rolling pin method, which is a little more difficult than using a pasta machine, but so much more satisfying: The wood of the pin against the wood of the pasta table produces a rough pasta that lusciously absorbs all condiments. As I prepare a video to show you how it’s done, I hope you will find this guide on making and cutting pasta useful! 

How tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural CookingHow tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural CookingHow tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural Cooking


To make this pasta, I like to use:

50 g semolina flour
100 g organic, stone-milled flour
150 g organic, stone-milled whole wheat flour
3 large eggs
(optional) 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil)

To make the dough, follow the instructions in this post.

Because not all flours are the same, they might need more or less moisture. If using regular store-bought flour, the eggs should be more than enough to hold it together. If the pasta still feels a little tough after vigorously kneading for 5 minutes, dampen your hands and knead again. 

Wrap the dough in clingfilm and let it rest for at least an hour. If you leave it longer, refrigerate it. 


For these quantities, you can add:

~ 2 pinches powdered saffron, to make it yellow

~ A generous handful dried porcini, ground to a fine powder, to make mushroom dough

~ A small handful cooked, tightly squeezed and puréed spinach to make it green

~ 3 tablespoons chopped herbs of choice to add flavor

~ 1 tablespoon tomato paste to make it red

Get creative!


Rolling out the dough with a rolling pin cannot be explained in a blog post with pictures – it requires a video. So while I make that video (it’s in the works!!!), have a look at these:

If using a rolling pin, Peaceful Cuisine has a video in which he rolls out dough for soba, which is quite similar (except with soba you roll out the dough to 1 mm thickness, while pasta should be finer)

If using a pasta machine, Roll the dough out not too finely, so that the pasta has some bite.

I do love it to keep it on the thicker side, especially for thinner cuts like tagliolini. Roll your pasta out so that you can see through the dough, but retains a little stiffness. 1/2 mm should do.

Once you rolled out the dough, it is important to let it dry for about 30 minutes, or until it does not feel as soft to the tough anymore, but it is still easy to fold.

How tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural CookingHow tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural CookingHow tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural CookingHow tu Cut Tagliatelle, Tagliolini & Pappardelle | Hortus Natural Cooking


Prepare a tray with floured wax paper where you’ll let the pasta rest. 

Heavily flour all of the slightly dried sfoglia and start rolling the right or left edge inwards, alternating left and right, flouring after every couple of rolls. Do not roll it tightly – it should be rather loose. Once the two edges meet in the middle, the sfoglia should look like rolled-up parchment. Generously flour the surface.

The only challenge for hand-cutting your long pasta is getting every cut of roughly the same size – but does it really matter? Irregular pasta shows that it is definitely homemade. Still, for best cutting results, use a flat, long knife, and hold it fast where the handle meets the blade. Slightly slide it on the board to cut even strands of pasta, starting crosswise from one of the rolled-up ends. 

FOR TAGLIOLINI: cut 1/8 inch wide strips, and count up to 25. This makes a serving for one person. grab the cut pasta in the middle, and gently shake it to unfold it. Make a nest and move it on the tray. Repeat until you run out of dough. 

FOR TAGLIATELLE: cut 1/4 inch wide strips, and count up to 20. Make each serving into a nest.

FOR PAPPARDELLE: cut 1/2 inch wide strips, and count up to 15. Make each serving into a nest.

You can do the same with other cuts of pasta: If making angel hair, cut them half the size of tagliolini, or even finer if your dough is very pliable, and count up to 30. To make lasagnette, which are thicker than tagliatelle, cut 1-inch strips of pasta and count to 8.


If you rolled you dough with a pasta machine, you will end up with long strips of dough. Cut it into manageable lengths (about – cm), and roll it up and cut it as described above. 

GET THE RECIPE: Once you’ve made your own pasta and patted yourself on the back for such a satisfying result, check out this post on Mushroom and Truffle Tagliatelle and do your work some serious justice.

Herb Tagliolini with Lemon & Pecorino Sauce | Hortus Natural Cooking

Herb Tagliolini with Lemon & Pecorino Sauce

This recipe is a real Italian classic, but one that I have never had or made. Tagliolini is the chosen cut for this simple, delicate lemon dressing, where the acidity of the lemon is balanced out by the round flavor of the butter and exalted by the cheese. Other herbs that go wonderfully with this pasta aside parsley are basil and a hint of fresh marjoram. It literally comes together in minutes if you have the pasta ready, and it has become one of my favorite way to enjoy fresh pasta. Just try it – it’s Italian food at its finest. 

Herb Tagliolini with Lemon & Pecorino Sauce | Hortus Natural Cooking

Herb Tagliolini with Lemon and Pecorino Sauce
Serves 4 - 5
Cuisine: Italian
For the dough:
  • 50 g semolina flour
  • 100 g stone-milled flour
  • 150 g whole wheat flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsps finely chopped parsley
  • 2 tsps dried marjoram
  • 2 tsps dried thyme
  • 2 sage leaves
For the sauce:
  • 3 tbsps olive oil
  • 3 tbsps butter
  • 5 shallots, finely chopped
  • Zest from 1½ small organic lemons
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • ¼ cup milk
  • salt
  • Plenty of chopped parsley and grated pecorino or grana, to serve
  1. To make the dough, add the flours and herbs to a large bowl or a wooden board and make a well in the center. Add the eggs and oil, and knead as per recipe above.
  2. Let the dough rest for at least an hour before rolling out, then roll it out as per instructions above, and let dry. Cut out tagliolini shape and make nests.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, and add a tablespoon of salt.
  4. While the water comes to a boil, make the sauce.
  5. Add the oil, butter and shallot to a pan and stir-fry on medium-low until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon zest and juice, the milk, and salt, and cook for 5 more minutes.
  6. Boil the tagliolini for about 3 minutes. When ready, they should float to the surface. Drain them straight into the pan, turn on the burner on medium-high and toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a couple tablespoons of pasta water to make the sauce creamy.
  7. Add fresh chopped parsley and grated cheese to taste, toss well, and serve.

How do you prefer your pasta? Fine or thicker? And what cut do you prefer? What would you like to see next?

Herb Tagliolini with Lemon & Pecorino Sauce | Hortus Natural Cooking

Vegan Sourdough Lemony Cinnamon Pancakes: A Modern ‘Dolce Vita’ Breakfast

For Art is Life, on another rhythm.
-Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

About a month ago, the music I was used to listening suddenly started to feel boring.
It happened almost point-blank. Not that I had developed any dislike for the XXs, or for the High Highs, who kept me company during my lonesome summer bike rides. Nor had I changed my opinion on Madeon, whose work I very much respect.  

Quite simply, I did not feel like listening anymore.

One day, I heard something I had not stopped to enjoy for quite a long time:
It was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Introduzione e Rondó Capriccioso.
As I sat, entranced by Perlman’s violin, I felt like a part of myself I had not been in touch with for a long time came and greeted me, shaking my hand. Like a friend returning from abroad, I held my old self tight.

I started to think about the necessity to stop and listen, in a live in which we are constantly on edge. How – I thought to myself, could I forget something that moved me so? Why is it so difficult to listen to something that actually demands your full attention to be completely understood – like classical music, relationships and people? I knew that all these things demand full attention. Yet, I felt like I failed in this regard.  Vegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural CookingI realized that that music was written by men who lived life on a different rhythm.

And it was a deeply thoughtful, meditative rhythm. It was a rhythm that did not need an immediate payback: it needed the time to get in touch with one’s soul. It was a rhythm that demanded one’s full attention, as it could not accept to be a background. It was meant to be an absolute protagonist, because the alternative to being protagonists is to be music that you only acknowledge once it stops playing.
Every form of art and every form of life follows its own rhythm. And, without the willingness to understand each rhythm, the only thing we can live with is ourselves (if, even).

I grew to live too fast. The world has grown to live too fast. A life that fast-forwards everything misses details, and details make the difference in everything.

Today’s rhythm is frantic and does not stop to think. Everything is designed to make us think less. The pace is fast and answers immediate. Everything in this time and place makes sense, because it is tailored on the contemporary human being.
This is why classical arts are considered an elite thing: they speak words so deep that you are forced to stop and listen. They force you to open your heart and soul a little more so they can sneak in, along with feelings we might not recognize or fully accept, like cats through a half-open door.

You know what the famous Italian term, Dolce Vita, means? It is exactly what I described above: it is living life at a pace that lets you enjoy its every hue, scent and feeling. It is taking the time for things that warm our hearts. Family, good food, ease. It is the enjoyment of the Art of Life, and the Art of Life sometimes demands that you stop and gaze at it with enchanted eyes, and remember to take the time in the process.

Now, I don’t know if food photography can be considered art, but, if art is anything that opens your heart and soul, then let us not fear of calling it art.
Sure enough, it can be called Dolce Vita.

For this new year I wish that your lives are filled with beauty and with the feeling of Dolce Vita. I wish you all find time to indulge in good and healthy food, books, music, or whatever pleases you the most. I need to thank Camille Saint-Saëns for reminding me to slow down a little, and I need to thank Riccardo for this recipe.
This recipe I am sharing today is, in fact, for some simple, tasty sourdough pancakes from Riccardo Astolfi‘s Pasta Madre. And what demands to take your time to enjoy the best results more than sourdough starter? And sourdough pancakes, on top of that.

Vegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural CookingVegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural Cooking

I wanted to make a grand, spectacular recipe for the end of the year, but, right after shooting these pancakes, I fell ill with a high fever, and, as I write, I am still sick – something that has not happened for well over 2 years. So, if last year I posted a recipe for the classic stewed lentils that are traditionally eaten for New Year’s, I decided to post this breakfast recipe to enjoy the day after, or the day after January 1st. Because I love beginnings, and all beginnings should be celebrated with the utmost confidence that we are going to make the best out of them.

But grand, Dolce Vita recipes are on their way: I have many beautiful, traditional Italian recipes for January, including guides (and videos) for homemade pasta.
This recipe is the first disclosure to a little project I have been working on: a breakfast e-book, that will be ready towards the end of the month and that I titled ’30 Days of Breakfast’. It will feature healthy, vegan, gluten-free recipes to celebrate each morning with joy and peace. All the weekends of these 30 days, though, will focus on not-always-vegan, more festive recipes that some wonderful bloggers who decided to collaborate developed.

Vegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural CookingVegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural Cooking

Vegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural Cooking

Illustration I’m doing for my upcoming e-book!

Riccardo is a very influent Italian author who owns a wonderful organic, vegan bakery in Reggio Emilia, and a dear friend of mine. The slight tang from sourdough, combined with the spicy sweetness of the cinnamon and lemon honey, is a meeting between two divine flavors. This is what Riccardo’s Dolce Vita feels like…

‘I developed a ‘fermented’ version of a recipe that is traditionally made with baking powder, and it is a recipe that represents me in many ways: these pancakes represent me because they are made with whole, stone-milled flour, and they represent me because they also represents the fascination of cooking for others; of taking the time for a slow breakfast between friends…’

Sourdough Vegan Cinnamon Pancakes with Lemon Topping
Makes 8 small pancakes
  • 50 g / 1.7 oz sourdough starter, freshly fed
  • 100 g / 3.5 oz organic whole wheat flour
  • ¾ cup / 170 ml water (I needed less water)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (or maple syrup if vegan)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 scant teaspoon salt
  • Extra flavorings: pinch vanilla, grated zest of half a small lemon
  • Fat, your favorite, for cooking
  • (vegetable or coconut oil, or ghee)
  • Lemon jam, maple syrup
  • Lemon Honey (see above for link)
  1. Dissolve the sourdough starter in a bowl with half the water, then add in all the other ingredients for the batter. Mix thoroughly, and add enough water until you get a smooth batter (I needed less than the water indicated in the recipe, you might need to adjust depending on the kind of flour you use).
  2. Cover the batter with clingfilm and pierce a hole in it to let some air in. Let the batter rest at room temperature for 8-10 hours, or overnight.
  3. When ready, heat a lightly greased nonstick pan on medium heat and add about ¼ cup (3 tablespoons) batter per pancake. Cook for a couple minutes, or until bubbles have formed on the surface. Flip, and cook until golden. Repeat until your run out of batter, greasing the pan after each batch.
  4. Serve straight off the pan with your favorite toppings. I topped it with Lemon Honey: http://hortuscuisine.com/blog/2015/12/08/edible-gifts-flavored-honey/
  5. (you can make honey maple syrup for a fully vegan option)
  6. If available, lemon jam is also delicious.

Take a bite, and you’ll see how La Dolce Vita is well worth the wait.

Vegan Sourdough Cinnamon Lemon Pancakes | Hortus Natural Cooking

Edible Gifts: Infused Honey (Walnut Cinnamon, Lemon Vanilla, Gianduja)

This post is made in collaboration with MCM Emballages who provided the super pretty Weck Jars, and www.valdiverdura.com who provided the most delicious citrus fruits.

Italy loves its honey. When I first came to the US, I was surprised at how uncommon honey was in supermarket shelves, or about how there was only one variety to be found.

In the spring and summer, our fields are livened up by the constant buzzing of hundreds and hundreds of bees dancing through the flowers. I could list at list 10 local, organic honey small producers in the radius of 10 miles – one set his bee hives in a free patch amongst our olive trees and gifted us 10 large jars of delicious honey. Italian varieties are countless: acacia, millefiori, sulla, orange, eucalyptus, bosco, and the most precious melata are just a few I can remember off the top of my head, but the list goes on.

Edible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural Cooking

There is a small producer who has a few hives amongst our olive trees, and who produced the most delicious, fresh millefiori honey this year. This is how we found ourselves with something like 8 large jars of honey in the pantry.
Lucky availability aside, flavored honey (or other liquid sweetener, if you prefer) is an easy, quick and versatile gift idea. Make sure you source organic, local honey, and avoid cheap mass-produced honey if you can. In Italy, fresh honey from small producers have the advantage of being almost always raw and unpasturized, which has the added benefit of being home to many active bacteria which are extremely beneficial for the intestine. But, for the purpose of these homemade gifts (or favors, or place holders, why not) just pick a good quality runny honey.


How to use flavored honeys?

Add them to yogurts. Spread them on toast. Use them to sweeten tea or coffee. Use them to make glazes. Drizzle over pancakes or granola. Drizzle over cheese or roasted potatoes. Or use them just like you would any sweetener. In a week’s time, the flavors will be intense and concentrated and wonderful over so many things.


Making flavored honeys

It’s super easy. Here is how:

~ Use dried ingredients (herbs, spices…) add them up to a little over 1/3 of the jar, then pour the honey on top. Warming it ever so slightly makes for a runner honey that is easier to manage, and the heat will infuse the flavors a lot quicker. Store your flavored honeys at room temperature, and they will keep for quite a while.

~ If using ingredients that have some water content (fresh fruit, fresh spices…) keep the flavored honey in the fridge, and strain it after about one week (but you can start using it the day after). The honey will pull out the essential oils and water from the add-ins, and will get a  lot runnier. Consume it within 3-4 weeks, and make sure it does not ferment or go moldy.

~ Whatever you add to the honey will float on top. No problem: just push it back down and give it a stir before using it.

~ If using nuts, which are delicious combined with honey, roast them and get rid of the skins first.

Try out your favorite flavors and experiment. You will very likely love any outcome.
These recipes are my 3 favorite flavors combinations. If you have a favorite combo, let me know in the comments!

Edible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural Cooking


The perfect topper for plain yogurt  or vanilla ice cream – add a couple honey-drenched walnuts and some more cinnamon to taste.

(makes one 8 fl.oz /220 ml jar)

6 large walnuts, shelled and broken in half
A 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 cup runny honey, or enough to cover

Roast the walnuts in a 390F˚/ 200 C˚ oven for just a few minutes, until they smell fragrant and start turning slightly golden. Take them out, reverse them in a clean kitchen towel and let cool. Once cooled, rub them very delicately with the towel to remove nay skins that come off. Do not bother with those that stay stuck.
Slightly warm the honey over a bain-marie or in the microwave. It should not get hot, just a little looser, so do not get it beyond lukewarm.
Add the walnuts to the jar with the cinnamon stick, and pour over the honey, making sure the cinnamon stick stays submerged.
Close the lid and let the honey sit for several hours. The walnuts will likely float to the surface. If necessary, add a little more honey to fully cover everything.
This honey has a long shelf life. If the cinnamon gets a little overpowering, remove the stick after a few days.
If you have some dried orange peel or some candied oranges on hand, they make a wonderful addition.

Edible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural Cooking


Makes a killer sore-throat remedy and a most wonderful addition to teas and milks. 

(makes one 8 fl.oz /220 ml jar)

1 medium flavorful organic lemon (you might actually need 3/4)
Half a vanilla bean
1/2 cup runny honey, or enough to cover

Slice the lemon crosswise quite thinly, about 1/4 inch. Split half a vanilla bean in half. Warm the honey just like for the cinnamon walnut honey. Add a little honey to the bottom, Layer the lemon slices until you get to about halfway, add the vanilla bean and cover with more honey. Add more slices, pushing them down with the back of a spoon, until you get to 3/4. Cover the slices with honey.
Keep the jars in a cool place where you’ll remember to check them (best of all is out the window, on the window sill), as you will have to push the lemons down under the honey every day for a week. The honey will get more runny and liquid as it sits.
Gift it with the slices still in for the prettiest (and most practical) result. After a few more days, the honey will need to be strained into a clean jar. Store the honey in the fridge, or it will go bad easily.
Do not toss the discarded slices! They can be boiled with ginger to make a great anti-flu tea, chopped finely and added to custards or as a dessert topping, or even added to salads. Get creative!


I made this one specifically for MCM Emballages’s new year calendar, so I will have to share it later (probably on Steller). But it’s super easy: roast some hazelnuts and add them to a jar, add some hazelnut chocolate spread and top with honey. Give it a good stir before using. It’s my new obsession. Seriously.

If you’d like to keep your gifts vegan, try other liquid sweeteners instead of honey. I’m sure they would work all the same.


What will you be gifting this year?


Edible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural CookingEdible Gifts: How to Make Infused Honey | Hortus Natural Cooking

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts), with a Chocolate Variation

Around this time of the year, there is a lot of asking ourselves about what we are grateful for in our life.
I think it is a question worth asking ourselves more often. Possibly everyday. 

I know I have a lot to be thankful for.

If you follow me on social media, you will probably know that I recently handed in my very first cookbook. It was the most exciting, difficult and wonderful thing I have ever done, and it’s not over yet. I feel like I’m in a love story where you have the feeling cannot ever possibly end. 

This book was a great way to challenge the status quo of my recipes. Going out the lines meant getting many of them wrong, sometimes failing brutally, sometimes getting them even better after a try or two. I probably spent more time on the few recipes I tried to change than on the many recipes that I just got from my family.

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural CookingPear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural Cooking

And the thing about family recipes is: they’re safe. And a recipe that has been handed down from mother to daughter for over a century, cannot be anything other than foolproof. I am the first in the line of successors to mess with the recipe and try and bring it out of its status quo.

But, if you want to be the innovator, if you want to get something out of its comfort zone, you always must account the time you will need for failure. This is one thing I always had clear and eventually got pretty good at failing smartly (so to speak).

And what is art without failure, which leads to growth, which leads to change? 

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural CookingPear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural Cooking

And big changes are approaching: as I am writing, noises of drills and hammers are coming from my soon-to-be new apartment, where I will move to in about a month. We are rebuilding the floors, my own kitchen, painted the walls…there is big change coming. That place is not only going to be my home, but my office as well. And that means I will be able to bring my work to a higher level. 

But now that all the house is full of people, dust and dirt, and I only have this tiny nook where I can take photos, I had to play it safe at least for photography this once. 

But, while I played it safe with photographs, I still decided to tweak one of our traditional recipes to make it vegan.

And ‘crostata’ is pretty much as traditional as it gets.

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural CookingPear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural Cooking

‘Crostata’ is the Italian version of a French tart. The difference lies in the texture of the dough: while pate sucrée is not supposed to grow in the oven, the larger amount of baking powder in crostata makes it rise to a sort of pillowy, slightly crumbly cookie that holds a treasure of fruit, jam, and more often than not a pretty lattice topping. The most common fillings are jams of all sorts, but more elaborate / sunday versions include stewed fruit or Nutella (which is a terrible idea: the b***ch hardens like crazy in the oven and creates a horrible texture, imho). 

It is probably the first recipe you will learn if you have an Italian nonna, and one of those things you will always see at parties. 

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural CookingPear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural Cooking

Now that they are in season, I was able to find some incredible, emerald-green fresh bergamots from Puglia and I had to pick one up. The flavors go so well here: the perfumed, almost flowery scent of bergamots tone down the rich sweetness of the cinnamon and pears a bit and absolutely feel like a rifle of fresh air. ‘Crostatine’, ‘small crostatas’, were childhood staple for our merenda, and I loved the idea of baking several one-portion ones.

I was able to skip the eggs and butter that traditionally go in the dough and I am proud to present a delicious version made with…cacao butter! I am madly in love with it. I know it can be a bit of an investment, but a little goes a long way (only 10 grams here) and keeps well. I was so happy to try it and taste how good this was! I have so many more recipes up my sleeve now that I developed this recipe. Christmas is about to get a lot more interesting.

NOTE -IF YOU CANNOT FIND BERGAMOT: make a chocolate version (described in recipe below) or use yuzu. Yes would go so well with this!

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts), with a Chocolate Variation
Makes about 8 crostatine
Cuisine: Italian
For the pastry dough:
  • ⅓ cup / 2.1 oz / 60 g almonds
  • 2.1 oz / 60 g whole dark brown sugar
  • 3.5 oz / 100 g whole wheat flour
  • 1.7 oz / 50 g white organic flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.3 / 10 g cacao butter
  • 1 oz / 30 g neutral vegetable oil, preferably rice oil or sunflower oil
  • 2- 4 tablespoons cold water, depending on the flour
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the pears:
  • 2 medium-large Williams pears, not too ripe
  • 3 tablespoons whole brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Grated zest of half a bergamot
  • 2 tablespoons bergamot juice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon Rum or Maraschino (sub more citrus juice if you do not want to use alcohol)
For a chocolate variation:
  • 3.5 to 1.7 oz (30 to 50 g) extra dark chocolate, plus some unprocessed cocoa powder
  1. First, prepare the pears: cut in half, core them, then slice one of them into very fine slices, about ⅛ thick. Cut the other one in small cubes.
  2. Add to a bowl and very gently toss with the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, zest and liquid, and let it soak for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than one hour. Fish out the slices and set aside in a plate. Add the cubes along with the liquid left in the bowl to a pan, and cook on low heat until the pears are soft, about 15 minutes. Add a splash of water if they caramelize too quickly. When they are cooked, there should be no liquid left in the pan and should give in very easily to pressure. Mash them with a fork.
  3. To make the crust, combine the almonds and sugar in a blender, and grind them as finely as possible. Ideally, you should end up with a fine flour.
  4. In a bowl, mix the flours, sugar and almonds, and baking powder.
  5. In another bowl, melt the cacao butter and vegetable oil over a bain-marie, and add the vanilla extract.
  6. Add the melted fat into the flour mix, and mix it with a fork until you get oat-sized clumps of flours. Add the flour one tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together. If you end up adding a little too much water, dust the dough with flour. Form into a ball (the dough should not be sticky) and wrap in clingfilm if not using straight away.
  7. Grease 8 mini tart molds and divide the dough evenly among them. Don't be like me - don't use molds that are not nonstick: silicone or regular nonstick tins will work fine.
  8. Press the dough into the molds into an even layer, making sure to cover the sides as well. Divide the mashed pear among the crostatine in a ¼ inch layer.
  9. to make the rose shape on top, arrange the slices so that they sightly overlap, starting from the outside of the pan. Or, check out this link for an equally effective method: http://www.fmitk.com/2014/07/mini-apple-rose-pies/
  10. Pop the crostatine in the fridge for about 30 more minutes for best results.
  11. Preheat the oven to 340 F˚ / 170 C˚. Take the crostatine out of the fridge, dust with a little powdered sugar and extra cinnamon, and stick them in the oven until golden and slightly browned on top, about 35 to 40 minutes. They will be quite soft when you take them out of the oven, so let them cool completely before unmolding them.
  12. Enjoy alone or with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of yogurt.
  1. Skip the bergamot and, before adding the pears, grate a generous amount of dark chocolate into the pastry shells and dust with cocoa powder, then add the pear compote and sliced pears as per recipe.


PS: I am preparing a couple edible Christmas gifts post, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with all of the US from afar with lots of broccoli and shallots. I will be forever grateful. To all the people involved in making this dream come true, to my testers, my mom, my Enrico, and all the chances I’ve been given. 

And if you fail, just try again. 

Pear, Cinnamon & Bergamot Vegan Crostatine (mini tarts) | Hortus Natural Cooking