Rigatoni with Sicilian Summer Squash, Tomatoes, & Basil

I wish I had thought to take a photo of the Sicilian summer squash I found at the farmer’s market before I got inspired to cook it! Long, slender, with a crooked neck and pale, smooth skin, cucuzze (as these light green squash are known in Italy) are a summer delicacy in Sicily and Calabria. They have a more compact texture than most varieties of squash and a sweet, delicate flavor. Many Sicilian-Americans grow these squash in their home gardens, and if you are lucky, so might one of the farmers at the green market you frequent.

In the summer, Sicilians slow-cook the squash with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions, making a delectable minestrone of sorts, finishing it with broken spaghetti to thicken up the broth in the last few minutes of cooking. But pastas made with cucuzze abound; some feature the tender green squash leaves (known as tenerumi); others, like mine below, are flavored simply with tomatoes, onions, and basil. If you can get your hands on Caciocavallo cheese, a sharp, melting cheese akin to Provolone, use it instead of the Pecorino for a more authentically Sicilian flavor. And of course, if you can’t find cucuzze, simply use taut, small green zucchini instead in this recipe; it will still be delicious!

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

For the rigatoni:

  • 3 and 1/2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 and 1/2 ounces semolina flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 large eggs

For the sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1/4 cup water, plus extra as needed
  • 1/2 pound Sicilian summer squash (cucuzza), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

To cook and serve:

  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 ounces (1/2 cup) freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • 12 basil leaves, torn

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Make the rigatoni: Combine the all-purpose flour, semolina flour, and salt on a counter. Make a well in the center and add the eggs to the well. Using a fork at first, draw the flour into the eggs. When all of the flour has been incorporated, begin kneading the dough by hand; knead until it is smooth and firm, about 10 minutes.

If the dough is dry, add a touch of water; if it is moist, add a touch of flour. Shape into a ball, dust with flour, and place under an inverted bowl on the counter; let rest 30 minutes to relax the gluten.

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Using a pasta machine, shape the dough into rigatoni. We used a pasta extruder for this purpose. If you don’t have a pasta extruder, but you have a regular pasta machine, or a rolling pin, or a bottle, roll out into thin sheets and cut into tagliatelle, pappardelle, or whatever shape you prefer.

Set the cut pasta aside on several sheets of parchment paper, spread out and dusted with semolina flour so it does not stick, while you prepare the sauce. (You can also substitute 1/2 pound of dried pasta if time is short or you don’t feel like making fresh pasta.)

Make the sauce: Place the olive oil, garlic, chili, and onion in a deep, wide skillet large enough to accommodate the pasta later. Cook over medium heat until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the water and stir. Cover and cook 5 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the onion is soft.

Uncover, add the squash, and saute 5 minutes, or until the squash is just starting to soften. Add the tomatoes, season with the salt, and cook, covered, 10 minutes, or until the squash is soft and the tomatoes have broken down into a rich sauce, adding water as needed if the sauce dries out. There should always be about 1/4 cup of liquid in the skillet.

To cook the pasta: Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the rigatoni. Cook until shy of al dente. Drain, reserving at least 2 cups of the pasta cooking water.

Add the pasta and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water to the simmering sauce. Raise the heat to medium-high and saute until the pasta is al dente, adding more reserved pasta cooking water as needed to thin out the sauce and allow the pasta to cook through. Depending on how far from al dente the pasta was when you drained it, the sauteing step may take anywhere from 1 minute to as long as 5 minutes.

To serve: Stir in the olive oil, pepper, Pecorino, and basil, and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or even at room temperature; this pasta is delicious even after it cools off!

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Spicy Beef-Stuffed Potato Pancakes with Minty Yogurt

Pugliese cooks make delicious “pizze” using boiled potatoes and flour for the crust; similar to gnocchi dough, the potato dough is moist and supple and lends itself beautifully to various toppings, most commonly tomatoes, Mozzarella, and herbs.

A few weeks ago, I found myself with some leftover boiled potatoes and raw beef chuck, so I decided to try the Pugliese potato dough to encase a spicy beef filling. I shaped the mixture into small pancakes, and after a brief bake in a hot oven, the pancakes were golden and lightly crisp on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside. At first glance, my husband thought the pancakes looked like chocolate chip cookies, so he was quite surprised when they appeared on his plate for lunch!

Don’t be put off by the long ingredient list; the recipe comes together easily and quickly, and the pancakes can be shaped up to 12 hours ahead and refrigerated until ready to pop in the oven.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer


For the potato dough:

  • 3/4 pound Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed
  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely ground

For the beef filling:

  • 1/4 pound ground beef chuck (80% lean)
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
  • 1 small yellow onion, grated on the coarse side of a box grater
  • 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

For the yogurt sauce:

  • 1/2 cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

To cook:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Make the potato dough: Place the potatoes in a 4-quart pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, peel, pass through a ricer onto a counter, and cool to room temperature. Add the flour, salt, pepper, and fennel seeds, and gather the ingredients until they come together into a dough. Do not overwork the dough or it will get sticky and require additional flour. Shape into a ball, roll into a log, and cut into 16 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball. Set on a lightly floured counter, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. (The dough will start to stick it is left on the counter too long, so it is essential that you flour the counter under the balls of dough.)

Make the beef filling: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Mash well with your hands to combine; cook a tiny bit of filling to check for seasoning, and adjust as needed. Divide the filling into 16 equal mounds on a plate.

Make the yogurt sauce: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl; refrigerate until needed.

To cook: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Oil the parchment with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

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Take one ball of dough and cup it in one hand. Place a mound of beef filling in the middle of the dough. Press down with your free hand and then gather the dough up and over the filling to enclose. Flatten gently between the palms of your hands and place on the oiled parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Brush the tops of the pancakes with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees (preferably set on convection bake). Bake the pancakes 12 minutes; remove from the oven and flip them over. Return them to the oven and bake another 12 minutes, or until golden on top and just starting to get a bit crisp. Serve hot, with the yogurt sauce.

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Fontina & Sage Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

Zucchini blossoms seem to me the embodiment of summer. Their time is short, their flavor delicate, their essence as ephemeral as summer itself. And while I love deep fried zucchini blossoms (I dredge them in a batter of sparkling cold water and flour, barely beaten so there are still a few lumps left), baked zucchini blossoms are an everyday indulgence I feel far more virtuous bringing to the table. When it comes to zucchini blossoms, less is more: less stuffing, less salt, less cooking allows their gentle flavor to shine through. So even though it may seem like the cheese stuffing is skimpy, it’s not; it’s just enough to give a luscious melting quality without overwhelming the floral flavor of the blossoms.

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Serves 2

  • 16 zucchini blossoms
  • 1 ounce Fontina from Val d’Aosta, rind removed, cut into 16 very thin slices
  • 16 small sage leaves, stems removed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

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Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Trim each zucchini blossom carefully by first removing the small dark green leaves at the base of each blossom and then trim away the long stem so there is only about 1/4-inch left. With a paring knife, make a small vertical incision at the base of the each blossom and with your fingers pull out the stamen or pistil. It tastes bitter so it must be removed.

Gently rinse the blossoms under running water (there are often little insects lurking inside) and place on a layer of paper towels to dry off. The blossoms need to be dry before they are baked or they will steam rather than turn golden and crisp at the edges.

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Stuff each blossom with a slice of Fontina and a sage leaf.

Oil the parchment paper lining the tray and place the stuffed zucchini blossoms on it, with the opening facing up. Using a pastry brush, brush with olive oil. Season very lightly with salt and pepper.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the Fontina melts and the blossoms are golden. Serve hot.

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Two-Layer Blueberry-Pistachio Semifreddo

Don’t be daunted by the long ingredient list and multiple steps in the recipe below. This is quite an easy semifreddo to put together and requires no special tools or ice cream machines. It looks striking, with two distinct layers, one intensely blueberry-colored and flavored, the other creamier and richer in dairy notes. It tastes like summer on a plate, and the surprise element is definitely the pistachios, which have a real affinity for blueberries. I used Sicilian pistachios from Bronte, which are deeply green and very aromatic; but any unsalted pistachios will do. Store any leftover pistachios (or all nuts for that matter) in the freezer to stave off rancidity; the high fat content of nuts makes them turn faster than you’d like.

Serves 8

For the cooked blueberries:

  • 3 cups blueberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in tablespoon cool water

For the dark mousse:

  • ½ cup shelled unsalted pistachios
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¼ pound cream cheese, softened
  • ½ cup heavy cream, chilled

For the swirled mousse:

  • 3 ounces sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 ounces milk
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 shelled unsalted pistachios, finely chopped

Make the cooked blueberries: In a 1-quart saucepan, combine the blueberries with the sugar and bring to a light boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until jammy, about 10 minutes. Return to a vigorous boil, stir in the cornstarch slurry while whisking, and cook 30 seconds, or until glossy and the juices are thick. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Make the dark mousse: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pistachios out on a tray and roast in the preheated oven 8 minutes, or until toasty. Cool and coarsely chop. Set aside.

Place the sour cream and cream cheese in a food processor and add ½ cup of the cooked blueberries. Puree until smooth and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the heavy cream to soft peaks. Fold in the blueberry-cream cheese mixture until blended, without deflating the cream. Stir in the chopped pistachios and 1 cup of the cooked blueberries.

Line a loaf pan or terrine mold with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over the sides. Spoon the dark mousse into the mold and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Meanwhile, make the swirled mousse: Combine the condensed milk, milk, and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat; cook 3 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves and the mixture bubbles. Place the cream cheese in a medium bowl; gradually add the hot milk mixture, whisking until smooth.

Stir in the yogurt and vanilla. Cool completely. Stir in the remaining cooked blueberries until the mixture looks swirly; don’t overmix, as you want to keep the mousse looking marbled. Pour over the frozen dark mousse in the mold and sprinkle with the finely chopped pistachios.

Freeze until firm, then wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and keep frozen until ready to serve (up to 1 week).

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Spaghetti al Cartoccio with Arugula, Tomatoes, & Garlic

Cooking ‘al cartoccio’ in Italian usually refers to baking in parchment or foil packets, but grilling al cartoccio is a great technique, as long as you use foil and not parchment. It opens up so many possibilities for outdoor cooking, including pasta on the grill.

Grilling pasta in aluminum foil packets allows you to forgo last-minute boiling and saucing of pasta; this is a great advantage when entertaining, since you can boil and sauce the pasta, and prepare the packets up to 3 hours ahead, then just pop them onto a hot grill (or in the cooler months, into a hot oven) a few minutes before you are ready to serve. It’s also a fabulous way to enjoy outdoor cooking when the craving for pasta strikes.

Since the pasta will cook further once it is on the grill, remember to cook it slightly under al dente so it is not overcooked by the time you pull the packets off the grill. And be sure to allow guests to open their own steaming packets at the table: the aroma exuded upon opening the packets will enthrall even the most jaded guest.

Serves 4

For the sauce:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 2 pints grape tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 bunches arugula, leaves only, washed, dried, and cut into fine, thin strips
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Pecorino Romano

For the pasta:

  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 pound spaghetti

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Make the sauce: Place the olive oil, garlic, and chili in a large pan. Set over medium heat and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, season with the salt and pepper, and cook 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes start to break down and release their juices. Stir in the arugula until wilted and transfer to a large bowl; stir in the Pecorino and set aside.

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Make the pasta: Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the spaghetti, and cook until the spaghetti are almost, but not quite, al dente, about 7 minutes (if using fresh spaghetti, cook less long, just until barely tender). Drain, reserving ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.

Toss the spaghetti with the sauce in the bowl and adjust the seasoning if needed. Stir in the 1/2 cup of reserved pasta cooking water; the spaghetti will dry quite a bit as it cooks later.

Cut heavy-duty aluminum foil into four large squares. Place the aluminum foil on the counter, shiny side up. Mound the spaghetti, along with its sauce and any liquid that has collected in the bowl, on one side of each piece of aluminum foil (if you don’t include the liquid in the packets, the spaghetti will come out dry after cooking).

Fold the short sides of the aluminum foil over first, then seal the long side of the aluminum foil tightly as well, rolling the foil over itself a few times so that the cooking juices cannot run out once the packets are placed on the grill. (The recipe can be made up to this point 3 hours ahead; do not refrigerate or the spaghetti will become tough in the refrigerator.)

Heat a grill on high for 10 minutes (or preheat the oven to 400 degrees).

Arrange the packages seam side up on the grill and grill for 5 minutes (or if baking, place the packets on a baking sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for 8 minutes), or until the spaghetti inside feels hot to the touch.

Place each aluminum foil packet on a dinner plate and serve immediately, letting guests open the packets at the table.

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Reginette with Pine Nut & Marjoram Pesto

One of our favorite summer dishes is fresh pasta (either round corzetti or the long, curly ribbons known as reginette, pictured here) tossed with a highly fragrant pine nut pesto. We look forward to this Ligurian specialty in the cold of winter, when fresh marjoram is not an option, and make it almost weekly when the marjoram on our deck starts to grow in. For a lighter (but no less delicious) version of the sauce, you can omit the heavy cream and double the milk, as we often do at home.

This recipe is adapted from my latest cookbook, The Best Pasta Sauces.

Serves 2

For the pesto:

  • 3 tablespoons marjoram leaves
  • 1 plump garlic clove, peeled
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup whole milk, plus extra as needed
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup (1 ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

For the reginette:

  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup semolina flour, plus extra for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs

To cook:

  • 2 tablespoons salt

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Make the pesto: Combine all the ingredients except the Parmigiano in a food processor and process until smooth. Place in a bowl large enough to accommodate the pasta later, and stir in the Parmigiano. If the sauce seems too thick, dilute with additional milk; the pesto should have the texture of heavy cream, but it won’t be perfectly smooth due to the nuts.

(The pesto keeps in the refrigerator up to 1 week as long as it is topped with a thin layer of olive oil; it can also be frozen for up to 1 month if the Parmigiano has not been stirred in.)

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Make the reginette: Mix the flour, semolina flour, and salt on a counter and shape into a mound. Make a well in the center and add the eggs to the well. Using your fingertips, work the flour into the eggs, then gather into a dough and knead by hand; add a little water if the dough is too dry or a little flour if it is too moist. Knead for 10 minutes, or until smooth, then shape into a ball, wrap in plastic, and let rest 30 minutes.

Cut the pasta dough into 4 pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time and keeping the others covered, roll out each piece using a pasta machine into a thin sheet. Sprinkle each sheet generously with semolina flour and roll up loosely jelly roll-style. Cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips with curly edges using a reginette attachment. Toss with semolina flour to prevent sticking. Spread out in a single layer on a few semolina-dusted trays. (If you don’t have a reginette attachment, you can order one from Fantes or simply cut into tagliatelle or pappardelle, or whatever shape you fancy.)

To cook: Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the reginette and cook until al dente; drain, reserving 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water.

Stir 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water into the pesto in the serving bowl. Add the drained pasta, and stir to coat. Adjust the salt if necessary and stir in additional reserved pasta cooking water if the sauce seems too thick to properly coat the pasta. Serve hot.

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Spinach & Parmigiano Torta

We can’t get enough of leafy greens. Spinach, broccoli raab, escarole, beet greens, Swiss chard, kale, cabbage… at least one vegetable green and leafy finds its way to our table at every meal. And while I adore these vegetables simply steamed and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, or sauteed with garlic and chili flakes, I love incorporating them in more “dressed up” dishes like the torta below.

Essentially a souffle, this torta is baked in a pretty oven-to-table pan so it can be served all puffed up and golden straight from its cooking vessel. Denser and less airy than a classic French souffle, it is a lovely main course accompanied by green salad and crusty bread. Try using different greens as they appear at the farmers’ markets this spring; spinach, always available, is an excellent jumping off point.

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Serves 2 as a main course

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 pound fresh spinach, leaves only, washed thoroughly
  • 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup 2% or whole milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, separated

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (preferably set on convection bake). Lightly butter an 8-inch x 4-inch oven-to-table pan (or any ovenproof pan with a 4-cup capacity). Dust the bottom with 1 tablespoon of the Parmigiano.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt and drop in the spinach. Cook 3 minutes, or until soft and silky. Drain, rinse under cool water to stop the cooking, and squeeze dry. Chop finely and set aside.

In a small but heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly with a wire whisk, until the flour loses its raw smell, about 2 minutes. Do not allow the flour and butter mixture to take on any color, so monitor the heat carefully and whisk constantly.

Quickly pour in the milk, still whisking all the while to prevent lumps. Bring to a boil and cook over medium hear 3 minutes, or until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Whisk in the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, the pepper, the nutmeg, and 1/4 cup of the remaining Parmigiano. Now whisk in the egg yolks, beating thoroughly to avoid scrambling them in the hot milk mixture. Beat in the spinach and set aside.

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In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then gently fold into the spinach mixture.

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Pour into the buttered oven-to-table pan and dust the top with the remaining tablespoon of Parmigiano. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until golden, set, and puffed. Serve hot.

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Crispy Polenta & Olive Fougasse

Fougasse is a ladder-shaped bread from Provence, similar in many ways to focaccia (even the name hints at shared roots). You can make fougasse with any type of yeasted dough; pizza dough or a simple bread dough enriched with olive oil work very well. It’s all about the shaping: several slits are cut into the dough after the second rising, so the bread bakes up crispier than usual thanks to the additional exposed edges.

My favorite fougasse includes fresh herbs such as thyme or rosemary. Lately I have been adding polenta to the dough, a nod to the cornmeal doughs made in Calabria and Abruzzo, which are typically baked until quite crisp and served floating in thick vegetable soups or passed alongside savory cheeses and salumi. Adding minced black olives to the dough gives it an addictively salty bite; you can omit the olives for a sweeter, more neutral taste and lighter color.

The bulk of this dough is polenta, with just a little wheat flour to provide gluten and lift, so the fougasse bakes up crispy outside and a bit dense and cakey on the inside. It tastes like an old-fashioned bread should: hearty, rustic, and full of character.

Makes one 12-inch fougasse (serves 2 hungry people or 4 more reserved eaters)

For the dough:

  • ¾ cup stone-ground coarse polenta
  • ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed
  • ¾ teaspoon instant yeast
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ cup pitted black olives, such as Kalamata or Gaeta, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the bowl
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon warm (100°F) water, plus extra as needed

To bake:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • ½ teaspoon coarse sea salt

To serve:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Make the dough: Place the cornmeal, flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Add the olives and olive oil, and mix again. Pour in the water, adding enough to make a soft dough that gathers around the spoon.

Add a little more water if the dough is dry or a touch of all-purpose flour if it is sticky. Turn out onto a lightly floured counter and knead for 10 minutes, or until smooth and silky and elastic. It is fine if the dough sticks a little bit to the counter; the faster you knead it, the less it will stick; and the less it sticks, the less flour you will add, resulting in a lighter fougasse once baked.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl. Shape into a rough ball, and turn to coat with the oil. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until almost doubled, about 1 hour. At this point, refrigerate the dough overnight so the dough develops a deep, sweet, complex flavor. (You can skip this step if you are in a rush, but the fougasse will taste more flat.)

A few hours before you are ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator, place it on a very lightly floured counter, and knead it a few times. Return it to the bowl and cover again with the plastic wrap.

One hour before baking, preheat the oven with a baking stone in it to 425°F (preferably set on convection bake).

Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured counter and stretch it into a 12-inch long by 6-inch wide rectangle. Transfer to a piece of parchment paper. Place the parchment paper on an upturned baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest 30 minutes, or until starting to puff a bit.

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Using scissors, cut decorative slits into the dough, creating a ladder shape. Stretch each aperture created by each slit with your fingers so there is more crust exposed.

To bake: In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil and water. Brush over the fougasse. Sprinkle with the coarse salt.

Slip the fougasse (still on the parchment paper) onto the hot baking stone, using the upturned baking sheet like a pizza paddle to push off the parchment paper. Immediately close the oven door.

Bake on the baking stone in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown all over and crispy around the edges, spraying the oven floor with ¼ cup of water 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking.

To serve: Cool on a rack 10 minutes, brush with the olive oil, and cut into wedges before serving.

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Cream of Fennel Soup with Basil & Parmigiano

This soup is one of my favorite ways to enjoy fennel: creamy in texture, gentle in flavor, and delicately colored, it owes its surprising depth to the enriching action of the Parmigiano rind that simmers along with the fennel. If you don’t have a Parmigiano rind on hand, add a splash of heavy cream after pureeing the soup.

Serves 2

  • 1 large head fennel
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup whole or 2% milk
  • 1 Parmigiano rind
  • 6 basil leaves, cut into fine strips

Trim the fennel. Cut the fennel into 4 wedges, discard the tough core from each wedge, and slice very thinly. Reserve about 1 tablespoon of the leafy, wispy fronds for the garnish.

Place the olive oil in a heavy saucepan and add the shallot, garlic, and fennel seeds. Set over medium-low heat; cover. Cook until the shallot is lightly caramelized, about 5 minutes, stirring once in a while. Add the thinly sliced fennel, season with the salt and pepper, and cover again.

Cook 15 minutes, or until the fennel is soft, stirring once in a while. Add the water and milk, and drop in the Parmigiano rind, making sure the rind is fully submerged in the liquid. Bring to a gentle boil and lower the heat to a simmer; cook, covered, 30 minutes, or until the flavors have melded and the fennel is very tender. Watch that the soup does not boil, or the milk will curdle. Discard the rind.

Transfer carefully to a food processor and puree until perfectly smooth. Return to the pot and warm to just below a boil. Cook, uncovered, until thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon; if the soup is too thick, add a little more milk or water as needed. Adjust the seasoning and serve hot, garnished with the basil and the fennel fronds.

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Sicilian Almond Cookies

There is no kitchen on earth, I think, that treats almonds better than Sicily’s. Trapani’s pesto calls for almonds and parsley, and cooks on the Aeolian Islands sauce their pasta with a thick tomato and almond sauce; almonds are also ground and added to a veal and chocolate stuffing for savory pies, stirred into chicken stews, and scattered over salads.

As far as sweets go, almond paste is so important in Sicily that it goes by the name of pasta reale (royal paste). Sicilians are skilled at making marzipan pastries shaped like fruit painted in bold colors (a specialty of the nuns of the Martorana convent) and an abundance of almond cookies, macaroons, and cakes. The best time to enjoy all of these sweets is February, when almond trees are in bloom and islanders are busy celebrating spring with almond festivals that hark back to pagan days.

The cookies here are chewy, dense, and sweet, the sort of almond cookies every Sicilian bakery offers. They can be studded with pine nuts or enriched with chopped nuts. For best results, I suggest that you weigh the almonds and sugar rather than measuring by volume, as the amounts will be consistent every time. And when making this dough, remember not to add all of the egg whites; add only as much as needed for the dough to come together. If you add too much egg white, the dough will be too liquid, and the cookies will flatten and spread while baking; while they will still be delicious, they will be crisp rather than chewy. Since the cookies harden as they cool, don’t overbake them; once they are set and blistered (they will still be pale), they are done.

Makes 2 dozen cookies

  • 8 ounces blanched almonds
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 and ½ teaspoons almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 large egg whites, beaten to blend
  • ½ cup confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (preferably set on convection bake).

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the almonds in a food processor. Add the sugar and salt, and process to a very fine powder, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine the honey and almond extract.

Place the ground almond mixture in a bowl. Stir in the honey mixture with a fork. Add just enough egg white to make a mixture that holds together when compressed firmly between your fingers. Do not add too much egg white or the cookies will flatten and lose their shape as they bake (even a teaspoon too much egg white will yield flat cookies, so be careful at this step).

Turn the dough out on a counter and knead for 1 to 2 minutes, forming a cohesive dough. Dust the counter with the confectioner’s sugar.

Working on top of the confectioner’s sugar, roll into a 2-inch-wide log. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces, roll each piece into a ball, and place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Pinch the top of each cookie twice between your thumb and index finger, creating four small indentations.

(If making pine nut cookies, at this point you shjuld insert about 6 pine nuts into each cookie, pointy side down. Press gently to imbed the nuts into the cookies.)

Bake the cookies for 7 minutes, or until set and blistery and still white. Do not overbake: these cookies should be moist and chewy, not dry, and should not take on any color. (It is best to err on the side of underbaking; the cookies will dry as they cool.)

Cool on a rack. Store in airtight tins up to 2 weeks.

sicilianalmondcookies1200

Micol Negrin's kitchen