Friday, 29 October 2010

Pears baked with marsala, vanilla and cinnamon with chantilly cream

This dessert has exactly the right ratio of investment and outcome. Preparation is minimal, cooking requires little attention, and yet the result is lovely. If you’re making a complicated meal – as Cormac and I were doing the other day – when the main course (lasagne) entails a lot of work and the first course (leek custards) is tricky, then this is perfect. The only problem is that they were so good, we forgot to take a photo.


5 pears (an additional in case of accidents)

100g caster sugar

500ml marsala

1 vanilla pod

1 cinnamon stick

300g double or whipping cream

75g caster sugar


1. Peel the pears, leaving the stalk if there is one.

2. In a small casserole with a lid, melt the sugar with the marsala and add the vanilla pod and the cinnamon stick.

3. Place the pears in the casserole, on their side and spoon the sauce over them.

4. Place the casserole in the bottom of a medium oven and leave it for an hour.

5. After an hour, remove the casserole, turn the pears over and again spoon the sauce over them.

6. Give the pears another hour in the oven.

7. Meanwhile make the chantilly cream. Beat the cream, adding the seeds scraped from the vanilla pod and the caster sugar, until it is light and fluffy and holds its shape.

8. Check that the pears are tender. If not leave them for a while longer. Otherwise remove from the casserole. Also remove and discard the vanilla pod and the cinnamon stick.

9. In a cup mix a tablespoon of arrowroot with a few tablespoons of the sauce, add the mixture into the sauce, and heat gently, constantly stirring with a wooden spoon until it thickens. Pur the sauce over the pears and leave to cool.

10. Place a pear upright on each plate and spoon over it some of the sauce. Pass a bowl of chantilly cream (or yoghurt if you prefer).

Sformato di porri, salsa di peperoni - Leek and red pepper custards

This is an antipasto dish in the Bolognese tradition, invented in England. The sfomato, essentially a baked custard, is a very versatile way of preparing almost anything. Accompanied by a red pepper sauce, it looks and tastes delicious. When I cooked this at Locanda dell’ Castello, Sasso Marconi, Marcello dall’Aglio suggested that a few grilled prawns would make a fine accompaniment. But I’ve left them out of this version of the recipe.

To make it easier to unmould the custards, try placing a small piece of waxed paper in the bottom of the moulds before you pour in the mixture. Jam making kits have just the object.


3 large red peppers

2 large leeks thinly sliced

50g butter

2 egg yolks medium

1 egg medium

300g double cream

50g grated parmesan

salt and pepper

1 clove garlic finely chopped

1 piece

1cm long ginger, finely chopped

4 shallots finely chopped

15ml olive oil


1. Put the pepper to roast in a medium oven for 45 minutes

2. Sauté the leeks gently in butter until soft.

3. Place leeks, eggs, cheese and cream in a bowl or jug and use a hand held processor to create a smooth puree. Season to taste.

4. Spoon the mixture into four buttered moulds or ramekins, place in a bain marie, cover with foil and bake in a medium oven until just set.

5. Leave to cool then chill in the fridge.

6. Remove the peppers from the oven and place in a plastic bag to make it easier to remove the skin.

7. Fry the shallots until soft in the olive oil.

8. Make the sauce by removing the skin from the peppers when they are cool enough to handle and processing them with the garlic, ginger and shallots.

9. Run a warm knife around the moulds and unmould the custards, spoon some sauce alongside.

Lasagne verdi al forno

It is the ragù above all that marks this dish out as Bolognese. That plus the sheets of spinach-flavoured egg pasta that provide the platform for the meat sauce and the béchamel.

Lasagne stands on its own. It doesn’t need garlic bread and boring side salads even if these are regarded as essentials in Pizza Hut. Italians might follow it with a simple salad, but not always. Marcella Puppini – more about her next week – fondly remembers Sunday lunch at her nonna’s when lasagne was followed by roast chicken.

Cooking tips: Balance is crucial; ragù, béchamel and pasta have equal billing. So you don’t want to end up with a sloppy mix. And don’t believe those who tell you that the pasta does not need pre-cooking. Since it takes time to make the three separate components you may as well make a job lot and have some in the freezer for another day. I used a baking dish 28cm x 25cm x 5, which contained enough for 4 (massive) -6 (reasonable) portions, and there was still enough left over to make another smaller dish for the freezer.

Preparation and cooking time: set aside 2 ½ hours if you intend to make your own pasta. In fact, set aside 2 ½ hours whatever you do because the ragù needs to cook for two hours, and you’ll need time at the beginning to prepare it and time at the end to assemble the lasagne. Add 30-40 minutes for baking. So call it three hours.


For the ragù

75g butter

50ml olive oil

450g beef coarsely minced

150g unsmoked bacon or pancetta chopped

1 large onion finely chopped

2 carrots finely chopped

3 celery stalks finely chopped

2 cloves garlic

150ml red wine

150ml milk

1 can chopped tomatoes

salt and pepper to taste

For the bechamel

80g butter

80g flour

800ml milk

4 bay leaves

thimblefull nutmeg

75g grated parmesan

For the pasta

400g dried lasagna sheets

or (to make it at home)

400g OO pasta flour

150g Spinach, finely chopped

4 whole eggs


1. Make the ragù by frying the beef on a medium high heat in a third of the butter and a third of the olive oil until it begins to colour. It may be best to do this in two batches because if you crowd the pan, the temperature drops and the meat stews rather than browns.

2. Remove the meat using a straining spoon and then add and fry the bacon or pancetta.

3. Remove the bacon and add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic plus the remainder of the olive oil, put the lid on and gently cook until the vegetables are soft – about 15 minutes.

4. Add the wine and cook on a high heat without the lid for five minutes.

5. Return the meats to the pan and reheat.

6. Add the milk and cook until it has been absorbed.

7. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper.

8. Make the béchamel by melting one third of the butter in a saucepan and then adding the flour gradually to form a smooth paste.

9. Heat the milk in the microwave or in another pan and gradually add it to the flour to form a smooth emulsion. Use a wooden spoon to work any bits of flour into the sauce. Add the bay leaves.

10. Cook the sauce on a gentle heat for 10 minutes, taking care to stir it constantly.

11. When it is ready grate in the nutmeg and season to taste.

12. If you are using bought dried or fresh pasta, cook in plenty of boiling water for the time specified by the manufacturer.

13. If you decide to make your own pasta, begin by cooking the spinach in nearly all the remaining butter until it is reduced to a dry mass. Squeeze any moisture out of the spinach and food process so that it is a smooth puree.

14. Mix 4 whole eggs with 400g of OO pasta flour plus a pinch of salt. Add the spinach to the dough and thoroughly amalgamate. Knead the dough until it is smooth and springy. Cover in cling film and set aside somewhere cool for half an hour then roll it out into transparent sheets. Cut these into rectangles 8cm x 12cm. and cook in plenty of gently boiling water for 3-4 minutes. Strain and lay flat on a teacloth.

15. Butter an oven dish and arrange sheets of pasta so that they cover the bottom and hang over the sides (these overhanging bits will eventually form a crusty top of the lasagne).

16. Cover with a thin layer of ragù and béchamel and sprinkle on some parmesan.

17. Repeat with another layer of pasta – without the overhangs – and the two sauces and the cheese.

18. Finally, fold over the overhangs and cover with a layer of béchamel and the rest of the cheese.

19. Bake in an oven at 170 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes with the lasagne covered with a piece of foil for the first 20 minutes. The lasagne should be brown and bubbling.

20. Serve by itself. Nothing else is needed.

Lasagne verdi al forno

This is no ordinary lasagne verdi.

What you see is Cormac’s first lasagne, one of the highlights of his recent cookery course. Cormac, who flew in from Dublin, was determined to show his beloved Lotte that he could shine in the kitchen. So Lotte’s mum bought him a cookery course for his birthday, and asked me to deliver it.

We had two three hour sessions, an afternoon leading to dinner and the next morning leading to lunch. Lasagne was the star of lunch, preceded by leek custards – sformati – with red pepper sauce and followed by pears baked with marsala, vanilla and cinnamon. Dinner was a pea, spring onion and bacon risotto, followed by chicken involtini – you saw the recipe for this here last week – with a stunning dessert: panna cotta with raspberry sauce.

Recipes and more photos follow.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Involtini di pollo - Stuffed chicken breasts

Involtini – or saltimbocca (jump into the mouth) – are a quick and delicious answer to the question: what else can I do with chicken breasts? Besides chicken, involtini can be made with other meats such as veal and pork or with a white fish such as plaice or even red mullet. You will also need some slices of prosciutto and perhaps another filling such as mushrooms.

The big question is, do you wrap the chicken in the prosciutto or the other way around? My answer is the prosciutto is wrapped in the chicken because this way you can add flavour by browning the chicken. I recognise that this is a minority view but it produces superior results.

What to serve the involtini with is almost as big a question. Tiny roast potatoes are one solution. In the photo you can see I’ve gone for another: the involtini rests on a mound of chard and alongside are a couple of slices of grilled polenta.

Ingredients (enough for 4)

150g mushrooms (you choose the type), finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

olive oil for frying

salt and pepper

a small bunch of thyme

4 chicken breasts

8 slices of prosciutto

4 tablespoons plain flour

125mls white wine

100mls chicken stock (you can use half a stock cube dissolved in boiling water or part of a tub of stock)

75mls of double cream or crème fraiche

250gm polenta

400gm chard (or spinach if you prefer)

50gr butter


1. First make the mushroom filling by frying together finely chopped mushroom, onion and garlic until they are soft.

2. Slice each chicken breast lengthways to produce 8 pieces.

3. Wrap each one in cling film and using a rolling pin or a mallet beat them out until they are very thin, perhaps ½ cm. thick.

4. Place each piece on a chopping board and place on top a slice of prosciutto.

5. Place a level tablespoon of the mushroom filling on the prosciutto plus some thyme, season and carefully roll up the involtini so that the filling is not extruded. Roll each involtini in flour.

6. Now heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a casserole dish large enough to hold the involtini and then carefully insert the involtini so that the join is on the bottom out of sight.

7. Fry the involtini until you can see that the bottom join has sealed and that the bottom is beginning to brown, then turn them so that they brown slightly on every side.

8. Add the wine to the casserole and turn up the heat to burn off the alcohol.

9. Add the stock and the cream, put the lid on and place in a medium oven for 30 minutes.

10. Make the polenta by stirring the powder into a pan of simmering water and following the maker’s instructions. Once it has cooked through – this will take about five minutes depending on the fineness of the polenta – empty the polenta into a greased shallow metal dish and let it cool.

11. Wash the chard and chop it finely, then fry in a pan with butter until it becomes a soft mass. Just before serving turn up the heat to drive off any surplus liquid and season.

12. When the polenta is cold and solid, slice it into 8 10cm lengths by 4 cms wide.

13. Five minutes before serving, heat a griddle or heavy frying pan, lightly coat it in olive oil. Griddle the polenta gently so that it does not burn.

14. Meanwhile, remove the involtini from the casserole and place it on top of the stove on a fairly high flame so that the sauce is reduced if it is too liquid.

15. Place a flat mound of chard on each plate and then two involtini on top. Pour around some of the sauce, then place two slices of polenta alongside.