Thursday, August 25, 2011

Home Made Breads and Home Made Pizza ! Pure Comfort Food....

As far as history has been recorded, bread has been a basic part of the world’s eating habits and a traditional companion with meals. There are various assortments of breads which include different textures and flavors but the most popular types are white, wheat, and whole-grains. In some recipes fruits and vegetables are used in bread making, but the most common ingredients include flour, sugar, yeast, eggs, nuts, spices and milk.
My Grandmother "Nanni"

In Italy, bread is taken quite seriously. Italians have rigid standards when it comes to what a loaf of bread should be. The basic standard Italian bread consists of yeast-leavened, unsweetened and baked in a loaf shape with tapered ends. A typical Italian loaf is thick and has a thin crust. The inside of an Italian bread loaf is moist and porous, which is perfect for absorbing toppings of tomatoes, olive oil, and cheeses. In the United States Italian bread arrived in the 18th century. Italian bread became quite popular very quickly. Today it is frequently used for sandwiches, as a side for soup, for dunking with olive oil and as a side for many Italian pasta dishes accompanied with a glass of wine.

In the baking world, there are many different types of bread flours on the market that make the difference to a successful loaf of bread. The most common of the baking flours used in households today is called all purpose flour. There is cake flour which is very good for baking cookies and cakes. Sourdough and pumpernickel breads use rye flour. Bleached flour has been treated with agents that make it whiter than other flours. (I personally use un-bleached flour) Self Rising flour is used regularly when baking, which is a combination of all purpose flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. There is flour that is labeled as bread flour and is used for baking breads and rolls. Soy flour is especially made for those who have gluten allergies as it does not contain gluten.

Back row: Nanni, her sister Frances
Front row: Grace, Nanni's mother,
Anna, Nanni's other sister  
As we continue in the baking world there are many types of breads that can be made with other ingredients such as: Bananas, Zucchini, Pumpkin, Corn, Carrot, French bread, Quick bread, Italian bread and Sour Dough bread. Additional items can also be added to your bread recipe such as nuts, raisins, spices and cranberries.

Whatever role bread plays in a meal, the delightful aromas fills a home and it stirs all the senses. I remember when my grandmother (who we called Nanni) would come over for a visit; she would make us a pizza with onions, tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. She also used the best fresh herbs she could find. Instead of a round pizza pan, she would make the pizza in a baking pan. Her crust was always soft and thick something like a Sicilian pizza would be. It was always fun making pizza with her as she would always tell a few stories about her Italian roots as we were eating it. This recipe is very similar to my grandmothers. It is from MaryAnn Esposito “Cio Italia.” I hope that you enjoy your pizza and make some bread, it really makes the house fragrant. It is what I would call, “real comfort food.”


1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 ½ cups of warm water (110° -115° F)
3 ½ to 3 ¾ cups unbleached All Purpose Flour
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm water. Allow the yeast to proof until it is foamy, about 10 minutes. Add 3 cups of flour, salt and sugar. Mix the dough with your hands or use a mixer with a dough hook. Add the remaining flour as needed to make dough that holds together. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes. Grease a bowl with the olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Turn the dough a few times in the bowl so the oil coats the dough. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let it rise for 2 hours in a warm place. Then punch down the dough and knead it for a few minutes on a lightly floured surface. Use the dough to make one large pizza or divide it in half to make 2 small ones.

Now that your dough is made you can make your pizza with any ingredients you wish. Just make sure the ingredients are fresh and you will have a mouth watering pizza that you can’t wait to eat. If you need a marinara sauce for your pizza, please check out my last post for my “Mama’s Marinara Tomato Sauce” recipe. Mangia!

Till Next Time….

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Mama's Marinara Tomato Sauce" Spices and Herbs

As I walk down the aisle of my local grocery store, I can remember what my mom and grandmothers used to say to me which was, “The spices and herbs that you use, will enhance the flavor, the color and add fragrance to your favorite recipes. Use the freshest and best you can find.” They were right, of course. I have taken their advice and as I make my own recipes, I always use the best ingredients I can find.

Since the beginning of civilization we are certain that spices played an important part in man’s daily life and death. Many discovered spices were found in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BC. Spices and herbs were also used to heal ailments. One other way spices have been used is based on their strong scent. Spices provided a way to perfume a room.

Now, that you have learned a little bit of history, come with me and lets explore the difference between a spice and an herb. A whole dried spice has the longest shelf life, generally two years. The shelf life of a ground spice is almost six months. Now, herbs consist of fresh leaves and stems crumbled or powdered. Dried herbs should be purchased by only the amount you need as it must be used within two or three days. Usually, 1 teaspoon of dried herbs equals 1 tablespoon of fresh. Another bit of information is that salt is a mineral not a spice.

Herbs are an important addition in Italian cooking. Herbs can be grown easily in pots or in the garden. They should be stored in the freezer or hung up to dry in a cool place away from the heat. Once dry, they should be placed in air tight containers. The list of spices and herbs that Italian’s mostly use with their recipes are too many to mention, so I am going to give you a few of the important ones that my family uses. Basil, Garlic, Oregano, Bay Leaves, Mint, Parsley, Black Pepper, Red Pepper Flakes, and Fennel.

My mom grew some of her own herbs in her garden which included mint, basil and parsley to just name a few. I especially loved to pick the mint leaves for her as it would leave my fingers with a cool mint scent. Parsley was another herb that was picked. I would wash the sprigs and then lay them out on a cookie sheet that had a dish towel on top of it. I would place each piece neatly in a line so they would dry out. This took a day or so to completely dry, then came the fun part. I would pull off the leaves from the stems on the parsley and with a cooking scissor I would cut the leaves into small little pieces. After they were cut up I placed the parsley pieces in an air tight container and stored in the freezer. This was a way my mom would be able to have fresh parsley that was dried at any given moment to create one of her special dishes. 
My parents wedding (1951)

I hope that you enjoy cooking with spices and herbs. A pinch of this, or a handful of that, will make all of your recipes very special for your family. My recipe this week is “Mama’s Marinara Tomato Sauce” (no meat). No store bought pasta or spaghetti sauce can compare with the taste of a sauce that you make from scratch. This recipe was passed down from my grandmother to my mother and now I am sharing it with you. Hope that you enjoy!

Mama’s Marinara Tomato Sauce

2 cans of 28 oz. crushed tomatoes (Tuttorosso or Sclafani)
2 cans of tomato paste
Olive Oil or Wesson Canola Oil
5 large whole garlic cloves
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon of Oregano (flakes) *
1 tablespoon of Parsley (flakes) *
1 tablespoon of Basil (flakes) *
2 dried Bay Leaves

On medium heat sauté olive oil and garlic together. When garlic becomes pale gold and fragrant (do not burn) then add the crushed tomatoes and paste. Use the paste can and add ½ can of water. Stir, till well blended and now add salt, parsley, basil and oregano to taste, plus the 2 bay leaves. Stir well to combine and bring sauce to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer for 1 hour. You can add a small amount of sugar (optional) if desired, to cut some of the acid in the tomato. Cover on or slightly off to thicken sauce. Stir occasionally until sauce is thickened. When you lift the cover off of the pot, the aroma of your sauce will be so mouthwatering that you will not be able to wait to devour it.

This recipe makes enough for about 8 people, but you can freeze the leftover sauce, if there is any left.

*Note: If you are using fresh herbs, then you have to use more than a tablespoon or teaspoon. Just break off the leaves and use a rough chop on your herbs.

Till Next Time….

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Peppers and Eggs" for Ferragosto !

Ferragosto is a national holiday celebrated in Italy. It is held usually on August 15th. Initially, it was related to festivities that took place in the middle of the summer to mark the end of manual labor in the fields. Ferragosto, in Italy means many things: it is time off from work, time to relax in the sun and a great time to spend with your family and friends enjoying a delicious meal. If you happen to be in the city of any region of Italy on or around August 15th, be prepared to witness the quiet atmosphere. As you will see mostly all the stores and tourist attractions are closed. But if you happen to go along the coast you will see millions of people at the beach, having fun and relaxing. Some may be preparing cook outs for an incredible evenings feast, and others are camping out under the stars, waiting for the fireworks to begin.

Aunt Sophie & Grandmother Julia
 The rest of the Italian people are either sleeping in or most likely in Church due to the fact that Roman Catholics implemented this day of August 15th as a “Holy Day of Obligation” to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This means they celebrate and honor the rise of Mary up to Heaven to join her son Jesus, taking her place by his side to look after those of us remaining here on Earth. Many people have celebrations in the streets by parading a statue of Mary and praying to her for guidance. In some coastal areas, the seas are also blessed on Ferragosto, especially in fishing communities. Catholic prayers are said and the sea is sprinkled with Holy Water with the sign of the cross over it. It is believed that to swim in the waters blessed on this day is a way of healing and medicinal.

The way my family and many other Italian families honor any festival, activity or event celebrating a special occasion is through the glorification of food. Typical Ferragosto food revolves around fresh vegetables, cold fruit, cold salads, cold pastas and of course cold beverages. Italian people look for cold foods to combat the heat of a hot August day. Many roadside stands sell watermelon and chilled fruit. So, no matter how you celebrate Ferragosto, the main thing to know is that it’s a way of gathering family and friends together for a memorable meal which equals love.

I would be remised if I didn’t mention that Julia Childs’ Birthday (August 15, 1912) and the anniversary of her death (August 13, 2004) were also this weekend. She was an American cooking authority, cookbook author, TV Cooking show host, etc. Julia Child shared the passions, philosophies, and products of her kitchen for many years. Now she is sharing the kitchen itself with millions, having donated it to the National Museum of American History in 2001. I, for one am a huge fan. I will continue to learn, whether it is through her cookbooks or old re-runs of her TV show. Thanks Julia…. 
My recipe this week is my mothers‘ “Peppers and Eggs Sandwich.” I remember when I was a kid, my mom used to make this sandwich for us when we would go to the beach or have picnics. It really is a one meal sandwich. You have your peppers, eggs, onions and it was all encased in a crispy Italian bread or roll. This is a great sandwich to take with you as you can eat it hot or cold. What makes this sandwich irresistible is that when you take a bite of the peppers with onions it gives a sweet taste to the eggs. It’s also very juicy, which the Italian bread or roll soaks up some of the juices but if I were you, I would make sure you have a napkin and a fork to pick up every last piece. Also, I thought that you would need a refreshing drink to add to your beach party. So, this one hits the spot! It is called “Tiziano” This drink will cool you down and is courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis of the Food Network. You can mix this together and take this with you, and don‘t forget a few glasses.

Peppers and Eggs Sandwich

4 green peppers, washed, seeded and sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 eggs, beaten in a bowl
¼ cup of olive oil (enough to coat bottom of pan)
salt and pepper to taste
1 loaf of Italian or French bread (rolls or ciabatta can be used as well)

Heat a large skillet over medium heat then, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of pan. Now, add peppers and onions, stirring while regulating the heat so the onions will not burn. Sauté until the peppers have softened and the onions are caramelized. Then add the beaten eggs and continue stirring until the eggs are cooked and set. Next, salt and pepper to taste. Make sure all are combined. (just like scrambled eggs) Now slice the bread or rolls lengthwise without cutting all the way through. Next, fill the rolls or bread with the cooked mixture. You can wrap a cooled sandwich in wax paper and put it in your picnic basket.

Optional: You can sprinkle some grated Pecorino Romano Cheese on top of mixture or even put a slice of American or Provolone cheese in the sandwich. (if you eat it while it is hot, the cheese melts) You can also use red or yellow peppers if you prefer.    Serves: 4


1 bottle of Prosecco (sparkling white wine) chilled
1 ½ cups of grape juice, chilled
Ice optional
1 lemon, sliced into thin rounds
Chopped fresh Mint leaves, for garnish

Combine the Prosecco and the grape juice in a pitcher. Pour into glasses, over ice if desired. Garnish with lemon slices and mint leaves.


Ciao! Till next time……
Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Welcome to "The Tuscan Sun Festival"

Welcome, to The Tuscan Sun Festival, which is celebrating it’s 9th anniversary this year in Cortona, Italy. It is the region’s premiere arts festival and lifestyle event. From July 30- August 7, this music and arts festival takes place within the medieval town of Cortona, in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany. This festival includes not only world class concerts, but events that consist of fine arts, lectures on wellness, cooking demonstrations plus the local culture of wines and its history.

Speaking of history, let me share with you some information about The Tuscan Sun Festival. The festival was founded in 2003 by Barrett Wissman, cellist Nina Kotova and writer Frances Mayes. Do you remember hearing the name Frances Mayes before? Her book “Under The Tuscan Sun” was made into that beautifully romantic movie in the hills of Cortona, Italy, now a popular tourist attraction. The Tuscan Sun Festival includes international soloists, conductors, chamber orchestras and classical opera singers who perform in the intimate setting of the town’s 400-seat theatre. Besides the musical events there are cooking demonstrations by celebrated chefs, many beautiful art exhibitions plus discussions and readings with literary figures as well as walking tours of Cortona. The Tuscan Sun Festival’s wellness demonstrations include regular tai chi classes and yoga classes. Many of the Hollywood and movie industry also take part in this festival, by presenting plays with famous actors and actresses. The Tuscan Sun Festival’s wine events consists of lectures and wine tasting with honored Italian experts. This event is usually followed by a spectacular gala dinner and is the success of the Festival.
My Great Grandmother
Madeline (Russo) Fiore

Now that you know a little about The Tuscan Sun Festival, what about the Tuscan region? Come with me and let us explore Tuscany together. Italian Toscana is a region in central Italy, which is often regarded as among the most beautiful parts of Italy. It is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and its artistic heritage. Many tourist destinations in Tuscany include Florence, Siena, and Pisa. St. Frances of Assisi spent part of his monastic life at Le Celle Monastery in Cortona. He preached in 1211, and his small room had a stone bed with a wood pillow. Walkers enjoy the mountain paths, cyclists enjoy the rolling hills, and visitors enjoy the sea coast and its islands. Many students come to learn the beautiful Italian language and its culture. 

Among many other aspects of Tuscany, many people from all over the globe have fallen in love with the cuisine of Tuscany. It goes back to when the Italian‘s used to work in the fields and there were limited ingredients to create a meal. Most Tuscan dishes have become known as peasant cuisine because of its simple and hearty ingredients, but are still extremely flavorful. The cuisine consists of many hearty soups with beans and pasta, to strong red meats, pork, game, fish, honey, sweet fruits, mushrooms and many vegetables, that spans over 1,000 years of history. With many dishes to choose from, making your own Tuscan recipe is easy and a worthwhile experience. No matter what you create the most important part of this cuisine are the fresh and healthy ingredients. My recommendation for a wonderful wine is a Pinot Noir. It is a medium bodied red wine.
My recipe this week is one that my mother created, which she called, “Zucchini with Beans and Pasta Soup“ She made this recipe as a one dish meal. It contains everything that you need in a good nourishing meal. This dish includes your vegetables, pasta (starch) and beans (protein). This warm tasty recipe represents what a Tuscan hearty soup would be like. Between the zucchini, beans and the pasta it is a thicker soup that you can taste all the flavors throughout the dish. So, let’s travel back in time to a Tuscan home surrounded by all the incredible ingredients and the country side that encompasses a simple lifestyle.

“Zucchini with Beans and Pasta Soup”

5- thin green Zucchini squash-washed and cut into ½” thick wheels
Canola or Vegetable oil-to coat with a thin layer on bottom of Dutch Oven (5 qt) pot
2- medium thinly sliced onions
3- stalks and bottom leaves of washed celery cut up about ¾” thick
1- 8 oz can of tomato sauce
1- 29 oz can of cannellini beans drained and rinsed (white Italian kidney beans)
1/3 lb of cooked “al dente” small soup pasta ex: Ditali or whatever you prefer
Salt & pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese


Pour oil in pan on medium heat. Place sliced onions in oil and sauté. Add celery plus leaves and stir together until softened. Then add tomato sauce and 2 cups of water. (as a substitute for water you can add chicken or vegetable stock) Stir well before adding squash, salt, pepper and some oregano. Make sure there is enough water to cover squash. Let cook for about 20 minutes. Then add beans and simmer until the squash is fork tender. Now add pasta and heat, adjusting the amount of liquid as you prefer. Serve, in bowls and sprinkle grated Pecorino Romano cheese on top.

Yields: 6-7 soup bowls
You can add to your meal a tossed green salad and slices of crisp toasted Italian bread.

You can substitute Cannellini beans for Great Northern or White Navy Beans.

Till next time…..

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved