Saturday, 27 September 2014

Italian Dolce

Italian food is so popular the world that most people will be able to rattle off the classic dish names like Bruschetta, Pizza, Pasta, Risotto, Insalata Caprese, Spaghetti Bolognaise and the like. However, when quizzed about Italy’s desserts, most people only know of Tiramisu. Which is a shame because Italian cuisine boasts of some truly delightful desserts And the best part about these dolce, as the Italians call their sweet treats, is that most of them can be easily re-created at home.

A simple yet widely preferred dessert is the affogato; in which freshly brewed espresso is poured over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. The heat and cold together create an elegant dish that can be topped up with softly whipped cream, crushed amaretti or nuts. Stock up on one of our real vanilla ice creams to put this together any time a sweet craving hits.

Then there is the Zuppa Inglese. Made from one of the main ingredients in a Tiramisu, the Savoiardi biscuits, the Zuppa Inglese is also a layered pudding. A rich dessert with similarities to the English Trifle, in which the biscuits or cake fingers are soaked in rum, layered alternately with chocolate-cinnamon and vanilla-orange custard and then, finally garnished with chocolate shavings.

Also another cake based dessert is the Zuccotto; a chilled, dome-shaped sweet dish believed to have originated in Florence, inspired by the shape of the Duomo Cathedral. Variations abound, but it is essentially made with sponge cake soaked in a liqueur or brandy, assembled in a dome shaped mould and then filled with whipped cream, toasted nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and covered with chocolate ganache.  Try out this classy, impressive dessert at your next family get-together and watch the compliments flow in.   

The Panna cotta is often termed the perfect dessert; its global popularity is proof of this claim. The name translates to ‘cooked cream” and it is a creamy, velvety smooth pudding, made from milk, cream, sugar and gelatine. The Panna Cotta acts like a canvas against which a whole range of flavours can be explored from the traditional vanilla, chocolate, mango, raspberry to more  unusual ones like honey-lavender, rosewater-pistachio or  orange-star anise to name a few.

However, why stop at the traditional dolci? Get creative with Italian ingredients to create your own sweet treats. Use the tiramisu as a template to play around with flavours. Try using berries instead of coffee or spike the dessert with limoncello and lemon zest for a light, fresh spin on this Italian classic. Another play on tiramisu is to swap out the Savoiardi biscuits for amaretti cookies which will give it a unique new taste and texture. For an unusual Italian dessert that will stand out on any dinner table, serve up a dessert ravioli. Try stuffing the pasta with ricotta and dark chocolate chunks and serve with a light lemon glaze. Or add cocoa powder to the pasta itself and serve it with a passion fruit sauce for a pretty and sweet end to a meal. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Mastering the Risotto (With Some Flavour Variations)

When made properly Risotto, the world famous Italian classic rice preparation can be a real work of art. A freshly cooked plate of slightly al dente yet deliciously creamy rice flavoured with a savoury stock and finished with softly melting Parmesan cheese is a culinary delight. While many shrink back from cooking risotto at home because of its intimidating reputation, the truth is that risotto can be easily mastered by bearing a few tips in mind.  

The first crucial pointer is that for a good risotto you must have everything ready before you step up to the stove. That includes the rice, the wine, your add-ins and the bowls to serve it in. Risotto waits for no one and is perfect the second it's done.

Use only Italian short-grain rice varieties such as Aroborio or Carnaroli. Short-grain rice has high starch content and tends to absorb less liquid, resulting in a stickier, more compact risotto.
Cooking the rice in hot butter or cooking oil before adding liquid helps the rice absorb the liquids slowly without becoming soggy. This is called ‘toasting the rice’.

All the flavors that the cooking liquid starts out with become more concentrated and intense as it evaporates. Bearing that in mind be sure to use a vegetable or meat based stock (preferably home-made) or create a broth with stock cubes. It is important to add hot stock, not cold, to the rice during the cooking process. Adding cold broth to hot rice results in a hard, uncooked kernel in the centre of the grain.
Except for the onions or garlic, you should add already cooked vegetables into your risotto after the rice is finished cooking. This is especially important for tender greens like spinach, delicate herbs like chives, and veggies like asparagus. 

Save ingredients like butter, mascarpone cheese or Parmesan for the end of the cooking process. Fat will break under heat and ruin the dish.

After a few attempts at cooking a basic risotto you will understand the dynamics of cooking this dish and can then begin to use it as a background for a multitude of interesting flavour combinations. Here we have listed some classic pairings and a few with an unusual twist that you can try out at home.

A common spin on risotto includes mushrooms. The earthy, swarmy taste of porcini, portobello or button mushrooms adds a complex depth of flavour that transforms a rice dish into an impressive, gourmet meal. To make this version of risotto, re-hydrate dried porcini mushrooms with wine or stock. Sauté garlic, onions and button mushrooms with fresh rosemary in melted butter and olive oil till they dry up and cook. Pour the rice and toast with the sautéed veggies. Add the soaked porcini and use the soaking liquid in place of the stock and continue to cook as usual. Once it’s ready, plate up and serve garnished with a generous topping of caramelized onions.

During the cold seasons try out a rich, satisfying spin on risotto using roasted pumpkin and sage. The mellow sweetness of the squash is set off against the intense pungency of a fresh herb like sage. Roast pumpkins and then whiz with some cream into a smooth sauce. Prepare the risotto base as usual but include fresh sage while cooking. Once ready, stir in the pumpkin sauce and heat till warmed. Serve immediately.

Play up the Italian background of the dish by using fresh seafood like mussels and shrimp with the clean, aniseedy flavour of fennel. Sauté garlic and fennel till aromatic. Add the rice and toast well. Deglaze with wine and cook in stock till the rice has turned creamy.  Add shrimp and cook in the leftover liquid before stirring in the cooked mussels. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve hot for an elegant, classy dinner.