Home for the holidays and two simple Christmas menu ideas

Home. Where exactly is home for me now? It certainly was a question I struggled to answer as I was ordering savoury pies, vanilla slices and coffees for myself and my family in the Tasmanian town of Ross the other day. I told the curious and friendly lady serving me something characteristically incoherent about being born and raised in Sydney, living in Europe for the greater part of my adult life and now finding myself celebrating Christmas in a house I’ve never actually lived in, situated on the northwest coast of the isle beneath mainland Australia.

Despite the novelty of the Tasmanian riverfront house my parents purchased five years ago, there’s  something comfortingly familiar about the abode and the sleepy coastal town TP, TT and I are currently nesting in. Something that brings back memories of what life was like before I became an ‘expat’. The carefree, barefoot-running ways of the children playing cricket outside. The scent of tea tree and eucalyptus. The whiff of date scones and meat pies being reheated in local cafes and bakeries. And, dare I say it – after years of setting aside entire mornings to attend to bureaucratic tasks in my adopted country – the ease of getting things done quickly at the bank and post office.

Growing up, I’d always dreamed of making my way elsewhere in the world. In fact, I studied European languages and obtained an Italian passport to do just that. I’m very much committed to living in Italy in the long term. Needless to say though, I’m enjoying this rediscovery of my home country. After over three years of dissecting many an Italian recipe, I suddenly want to master beer-battered fish, puff pastry for pies and those date scones I love so much. So, do expect something new on this platform in 2018,  in the form of an Australian-inspired recipe or two…

Today though, the subject is Christmas and an Italian one at that, as part of the Cucina Conversations roundtable. As part of this festive edition, Marialuisa, Carmen, Flavia and Daniela will be bringing you sweets traditionally prepared for Christmas such as stuffed dried figsciascuni, struffoli and torrone. Lisa and I have opted for Christmas menu ideas and Francesca is preparing us the ultimate comforting drink for the cold and snowy turn the weather has taken recently in Italy, hot chocolate.

The premise for my two menu ideas is simplicity. Christmas is very much a time when multi-course meals are the norm. I feel these often gargantuan feasts are best pulled off with uncomplicated, easy-to-prepare dishes. My suggested starter, spätzle, dumplings typical of the Alto Adige, Val Camonica and Valtellina in northern Italy, are a rare case of a fresh pasta that can be prepared in less than ten minutes. Piedmontese panna cotta, my spoon dessert that sits much more lightly on the stomach than panettone or Christmas pudding after all that eating, can be whipped up quickly and well in advance. Any extra time on the big day can be used to attend to other tasks, like checking your turkey is cooked through and, most important of all, making your guests feel at home.

Both dishes are also very versatile and can be adapted to whatever season you happen to be celebrating Christmas in. I’ve indicated more winter-inspired condiments, such as butter, leek and speck for the spätzle and a gelée made from freshly-extracted pomegranate juice for the panna cotta. For those of you in the southern hemisphere, however, I can see the spätzle working well with fresh cherry tomatoes (as suggested on Italian cooking website, Giallo Zafferano) and the gelée being made with juice extracted from summer berry fruits too.

Spätzle with butter, speck and leek

Spätzle are common to many German-speaking areas of Europe, including Italy’s Südtirol (South Tyrol) or Alto Adige region. The name for these flour and egg-based dumplings is thought to derive from the Swabian word spätzen,  meaning ‘little sparrows’. Before utensils like spätzle boards and presses were invented, spätzle were almost exclusively shaped by hand or a spoon. The results were said to resemble these tiny birds.

Made by combining flour, eggs and water (or milk) into a thick, runny batter, spätzle are quick and easy to make, provided you have a spätzle maker of some kind on hand. Look out for a wooden spätzle board and scraper or, my personal favourite, the spätzlehobel. This is a stainless steel press resembling a cheesegrater with large holes and a slideable hopper attached. Simply fill the  hopper with batter and then slide it back and forth over the holes to create the dumplings. Otherwise, a simple potato ricer or a pasta colander with large holes can be placed on top of your saucepan instead.

In the following recipe, I’ve opted for a simple condiment made by melting butter and sauteeing fine strips of seasonal leek and speck, a dry-cured, lightly-smoked ham typical of the Alto Adige region. Do remember to ask for a thicker slice at your local delicatessen, if you’re able to get your hands on this aromatic and flavourful prosciutto. This way, you’ll be able to achieve an attractive lardon-like shape. If, however, you aren’t able to source speck, salty pancetta also works well. As for the flour used, I’ve had excellent results with stonemilled wheat, spelt and the more traditional buckwheat. I’ve therefore suggested all three as possibilities in the recipe below. And, for those desirous of even richer dumplings, milk can substitute the water indicated as well.

Ingredients (serves 4 as an starter)

•        3 eggs

•        100 mL water (or milk)

•        250 g stonemilled flour (wheat, buckwheat and spelt all work nicely)

•        sea salt, to taste

•        a generous knob of butter

•        a medium-sized leek, cut into fine strips about 3 cm in length

•        100 g speck, cut into fine strips about 3 cm in length

Method

In a large bowl, beat eggs and water. Add flour and a pinch of fine sea salt in a slow steady stream to avoid forming lumps. Whisk until batter is smooth, cover and set aside.

In a wide skillet or saute pan, melt a large knob of butter on low to medium heat. Add finely cut strips of leek and allow to cook until soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add strips of speck and leave to simmer until their fat has rendered, about 5 – 7 minutes.

In the meantime, place spätzle maker on top of a saucepan containing boiling salted water. Pour a large spooonful of batter into the spätzle maker’s hopper and slide it back and forth over the holes until drops of batter fall into the gently boiling water. Those droplets of batter will quickly firm up and float to the surface quite quickly. Using a slotted spoon, drain and transfer the spätzle to the sauteeing leek and speck.  Repeat until all you have used all the spätzle batter.

Toss spätzle, leek and speck gently over low to medium heat. Taste for salt (speck is quite salty so best to skimp on this), remove from heat and serve immediately in warmed pasta plates.

Panna cotta topped with pomegranate gelée (makes 6 ramekins with a 125 mL capacity)

This is the dessert I often conclude my four course Market-to-Table cooking lessons with. I just love showing participants how easy it is to pull off this spoon dessert, not to mention its versatility. My favourite gelée so far has been made with the juice extracted from pomegranates but I’ve also liked the results I’ve had with citrus fruits such as lemon, orange and grapefruit. So, do feel free to replace the pomegranate indicated below with whatever seasonal fruit you have on hand.

Experienced panna cotta makers will also notice that I’ve detailed a quicker, freezer-based method to set the panna cotta and gelée on top. Since this variety of panna cotta  requires more than one component, I felt it was more appropriate to proceed this way. If you’re preparing a day in advance though, feel free to use the refrigerator for setting your dolce al cucchiaio instead. In that case, do allow for a setting time of at least 5-6 hours for each layer.

Ingredients

for the panna cotta

•        500 mL cream

•        85 g sugar

•        8 g gelatin leaves

for the pomegranate gelée

•        130 mL pomegranate juice

•        65 g sugar

•        2 g gelatin leaves

To make the panna cotta, soften 8 g of gelatin in cold water.  Put 500 mL cream and 85 g sugar in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Allow to simmer on low-medium heat, stirring to ensure sugar dissolves. Turn off heat well before boiling point. Remove gelatin leaves from bowl and squeeze until all excess water comes out. Add gelatin leaves to cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Distribute mixture carefully and evenly into 6 ramekins. Place ramekins in freezer until set (half an hour to an hour).

In the meantime, prepare the pomegranate gelée. Quarter 1-2 juicy pomegranates and remove seeds, discarding the white segment that surrounds them. Pass seeds through a food mill in small batches to extract their juice. Line a sieve placed over a bowl with cheesecloth and filter juice. Weigh filtered juice. You’ll need about 130 mL. Transfer juice to a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add sugar. Simmer on low-medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reached boiling point. Remove from heat and soak another 2 g of gelatin leaves in cold water. When the pomegranate juice is no longer hot, remove gelatin leaves from bowl and squeeze until all excess water comes out. Add to pomegranate juice and whisk till smooth. Remove ramekins filled with the set panna cotta from the refrigerator. Top each ramekin with the pomegranate gelée mixture, ensuring you distribute the mixture evenly. Place ramekins in freezer and leave until the gelée on top has set (about half an hour to 45 minutes). Remove from freezer, cover and transfer to refrigerator.

In the meantime, I’d just like to thank all of you for reading and following my culinary adventures this year. Your comments and feedback mean the world to me. A grazie to all of you who voted for me in the Best Food and Wine Blog category in the 2017 edition of the Italy Magazine Blogger Awards. In the end, I didn’t win but I was very happy to find myself shortlisted among some excellent food bloggers such as Casa Mia Food and Wine Tours and the winner, Judy Witts-Francini of Divina Cucina. Anyway, will be back with more culinary adventures to share in 2018. Vi auguro buon natale e felice anno nuovo! 

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2 comments

    So glad to hear that you are rediscovering those Australian childhood memories Rosemarie. And Tasmania is such a beautiful place to do so in. Enjoy your Aussie Christmas and look forward to hearing all about it. Merry Christmas! xx

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