Thursday, 28 May 2009

Vanilla Ricotta Gelato with Strawberries

Its only May and already its far too hot. Following my recent visit to Bologna, the capital of Gelati, and Sicily, the capital of sugar it was time to experiment with the frozen crystals. My way. 

A dusty old ice cream machine that was laying around in the kitchen must have been left by a previous student. It was either too heavy or broken. Too lazy to figure out which it is, I let Chris test it. He took it home and nursed it as if it was a kitten off the street. He gave it a good scrub, plugged it in and made a test batch.

After it received the all clear I came in the picture. First we tracked down the right recipe. We wanted a gelati made without the use of eggs or cream that we could use as a base for any flavor we chose.

On Saturday morning we headed to Parma’s organic market to check the local, seasonal produce. We bought fresh sheep's- milk ricotta and strawberries, I had a vanilla pod and we stopped by the raw milk machine for a top up of the white stuff (raw unpasteurized milk).

We ended up making a ricotta vanilla gelato served with strawberries and chocolate shavings. It was surprisingly easy to make, so much so that we were both left quite shocked from the whole experience. It almost qualifies as a life changing food experience.

The recipe is based on a David Leibowitz’s recipe for a Sicilian style gelato, using cornstarch to enrich the base and NO EGGS. I take a minimalist approach to a recipe and this one has only the bare essentials; ricotta, milk, vanilla, sugar and (the secret ingredient) corn starch, resulting in a lighter ice cream, with an intense flavor. It almost seems unnecessary to have eggs and cream in the ice cream after making this way…

Vanilla Ricotta Gelato with Strawberries

Adapted from David Leibowitz’s recipe. Makes about 3 cups (3/4 liter).

2 cups (½ liter) whole milk

1/2 cup (65 gr) sugar

2 tablespoons (16 gr) cornstarch (also known as corn flour)

1 vanilla bean

1 cup organic sheep’s milk ricotta

fresh strawberries, sliced

1. Mix the 1/4 cup of the milk with the cornstarch until the starch is dissolved and the mixture is smooth.

2. Heat the rest of the milk in a medium-sized saucepan with the sugar.

Split in half the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape the seeds into the liquid then add the pod.

3. When it almost starts to boil, stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook at gentle simmer for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

4. Remove from heat, scrape into a bowl through a siv, and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

5. Once chilled, whisk in the ricotta until smooth.

6. Freeze the gelato in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

7. Serve with sliced fresh strawberries and chocolate shavings.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Sicily, a sensory analysis


A crash course to Sicily, I have returned from 6 days on the Eastern side of the Island, consuming all that it has to offer; the sun, the food, and the passion to all things sweet.

We landed in Catania heading straight to La Pescheria, Catania’s (amazing) fish market. A whirlwind event consisting of local fishermen promoting their catch while gutting it; shiny fish so fresh a new word need inventing just for them. The Mediterranean’s best in show, it was a truly a spectacular display of sea creatures, colors, textures and tastes, with one local vendor slicing thin pieces of tuna, sword fish, raw shrimps and tiny fish for us to sample.

The next morning (or middle of the night as loud, drunk bar goers at next door to our B&B seemed to think), we hopped on a boat and sailed with the local fishermen in search of anchovies. An added bonus was the sun rise, always a spiritual experience, let alone when one is on a boat, among fishermen, at the feet of an active volcano…

Lunch that day was at Ambasciata del Mare, a restaurant in the fish market. It would not be an exaggeration to say this was probably one of the best meals I’d had in Italy, from the Technicolor sea based anti pasti bowls of goodness, to a pasta con frutti di mare, a spectacle of sea fruits gathered from the Med, and picked from the adjacent fish market hours before, finished of with a plate of sheep’s milk ricotta cannoli and tarts. The place, the service, the company and the food all came together and formed a perfect whole.

Remaining on the fish theme, there were two visits to fish farms as well as an anchovies packing factory, where we enjoyed a lunch that consisted of processed crackers topped with a wide selection of anchovies, be it salted, as paste, a pate or grilled. It was nice. It also made me very thirsty.

A new food related word: Rigor Mortis. Say that a few times.  It rolls on your tongue leaving your mouth wanting more.  It’s actually the stiffening of limbs that occurs after death. In Latin. The fish are packed in polystyrene trays arched so that once the rigor mortis kicks in they are laying in the same position. The kind of thing that we learn standing in a fish farm packing room…


I knew prior to my arrival in Sicily that I was in the right place for dolci. With a heavy influence from the Arab ruling in the area, added with the high quality local produce of citrus groves, almonds, pistachios among many others, and a highly active local sweet tooth, it is a haven for sweet lovers. Looking at locals in cafes, morning to evening, children and elders as one were all enjoying a Granita (flavored crushed ice), topped with whipped cream, accompanied by a breast shaped giant brioche (symbolic of the local St Agatha whose breast was lopped of because of her Christian beliefs).

Then there was what must be quite a popular dish we were served for dessert in several places: Goo. Red orange, bitter lemon, almond and pistachio Goo’s to be precise. Flavored fish Gelatin.

We visited a chocolateria in Modica, specializing in Modica chocolate. Prepared based on a traditional recipe dating back to the Aztec ancient civilization and handed down by the Spaniards, it is an aromatic chocolate. Characterized by a typical sandy texture, the sensation is similar to that of biting into a chocolate bar that fell on the beach. This is due to its production method of mixing the ingredients over a low heat, resulting in the presence of sugar granules in the chocolate. Its good chocolate with a texture that may require getting used to.

A trip to the small town of Lentini was scheduled to introduce us to the local bread ‘Pane di Lentini’. Made from natural ingredients, and baked in a wood burning oven to burning almonds shells, olive and citrus, this bread left us speechless, our mouths full as we devoured the warm slices seasoned with olive oil, salt and chilli flakes. A highlight.

Let me ask you a serious question. If you were a pastry, which would it be? What form of dough baked with a sweet filling would express and stand for everything that is you?

I’ll go first. A Cannolo. Don’t ask me why. Its something that you feel, not a rational decision. So I was on a mission in Sicily. And Cannoli was it. Finding the best cannoli in town Wherever we arrived was a ritual. Small and large, lined with chocolate, sprinkled with pistachio, freshly made in a bakery, served as dessert in a restaurant, where there was Cannoli, there was me. 


By medieval standards regarding food and diet Sicilys’ is a ‘poor man’s diet, with its kitchen based around local fruit, vegetables, cereals and legumes. Eggplants, fava bean, ricotta, lemons, pistachios, almonds, oranges and sweet sweet tomatoes, It was all that I’d imagined Italian cuisine to be, and had finally  experienced.


A visit to Rosario Floridia, the only remaining Modicana cow breeding farm and cheese producer we saw the grass-reared  bronze colored cows. they yield a low amount of milk which is used to produce the local Raguzano cheese. A lactic tasting lunch consisted of dense bread chunks soaked in whey and topped with warm ricotta, followed by cubes of young and mature Raguzano cheese.  Ricotta, let alone warm ricotta makes the world a better place.

The final visit on the last day was to a donkey-breeding farm. All the donkeys I have ever encountered were always badly treated, boney, sad creatures.

So a breeding farm? Donkey milk?

Then I met the donkeys. 160 of them, they were the happy healthy version of any donkey I had encountered. Friendly, affectionate creatures at ease around their owner that referred to them as his family. 

We had cookies and panna cotta, as the low fat content means it cannot be used for cheese making. Then I downed a plastic cup of the white stuff.  The milk is closest in composition to human milk, with none of the aftertaste that comes when drinking cow’s milk. I am now a convert. This calls for a revolution. 

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Una Pausa: Sugared puffs

Just returned from a wonderful trip to Sicilia. I am putting it all down, so in the mean time I leave you with these puffs.

Light, fluffy and airy dough clouds coated in sugar and lots of cinnamon, you’re likely to have all the ingredients in your kitchen. These are a cross between inflatable pancakes and choux pastry, the batter is a thick runny liquid that is poured to a 12 muffin tin and rises up in the oven to tall, proud puffs, despite the unlikely-ness of it...

Sugared puffs

Based on David Leibowitz’s recipe published in the NYTimes.

Makes 9 puffs

For the puffs:

Softened unsalted butter, for greasing the pan

2 Tbs butter, melted

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup whole milk

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp sugar

1 cup flour

For the sugar coating:

2/3 cup sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

4 Tbs  butter, melted.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Liberally grease a muffin pan with 1/2-cup indentations with softened butter.

For the puffs, put the 2 tablespoons melted butter, eggs, milk, salt and sugar in a blender and whiz for a few seconds.

Add the flour and whiz for 5 to 8 seconds, just until smooth.

Divide the batter among 9 greased molds, filling each 1/2 to 2/3 full.

Bake for 35 minutes, until the puffs are deep brown(Do not, under any circumstance open the oven door during the first 10 minutes of baking). Turn off the oven, open the door just a crack, and leave the puffs in for another 5 minutes to prevent a temperature shock, which would cause them to deflate.

Remove from the oven, wait a few minutes until cool enough to handle, then remove the puffs from the pans (You may need a small knife to help pry them out).

Mix the sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Thoroughly brush each puff all over with melted butter, then dredge in sugar and cinnamon mixture to coat completely. Let cool on a baking rack. 

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Bologna and the art of Artisanal Junk Food

The official reason for my trip to Bologna was the Slow Food on Film festival, but the truth is I came to fall in love with the city.  The sight of a snow blizzard in May is surreal as feathery dandelions are swept up in the air staging spring’s version of a silent snowstorm.

A major junction point, Bologna is a hybrid between Rome and Parma, sharing Rome’s bustling, noisy, hectic- ness and Parma’s small town mentality. Unchanged for centuries it has a medieval air, composed of narrow streets, arched walkways, and small piazzas.

Known as ‘the fat and the red’ for its good food and political siding I quickly learnt that Bologna is a heaven for ice cream lovers, i.e. me. On every street corner, sometimes even more, stands a glistening gelateria drawing me closer for a sneak peep that ends with a cone in hand.

During the three days I spent in the city I had visited 3 gelaterias, ordered 4 servings and tried 8 different flavors (Dulce de lece with caramelized almonds, banana, coffee, pistachio, Bacio, Mediterraneo, ricotta with dried figs and honey, pine nuts and caramelized walnuts, if you must). Each scoop in its turn crowned as my new favorite; Baci with a rich chocolate ice cream specked with huge whole hazelnuts, Mediterraneo with almonds pistachios and pine nuts combined into a harmonious one, a cream of ricotta intervened by swirls of dried figs and drenched in a dark sweet syrup, and a cream of pine nuts scattered with crunchy caramelized walnuts. My taste buds were happy.

One of the benefits in learning about food and our relationship with it, is the emancipation from the perceived conventions and norms surrounding eating habits. Who decided and why that ice cream should be had at the end of a meal? Or that it cant be the meal itself? More importantly, why do we take these conventions for granted? So I had ice cream at the end of a meal, in place of a meal, or as a meal and the world did not come to an end. How liberating.

When I wasn’t chasing gelati there was film on food; features, documentaries, and shorts exploring our complex relationship with food, with concepts of death and devouring gripping my attention. A mouthful encapsulates both nutrition and life counterbalanced with death and devouring…Food for thought.

Monday, 4 May 2009


If a window frame requires these many columns to support it, 
perhaps it means return to the drawing board...?